Sunday, October 23, 2011

Oak Creek Camping

Ever since they moved to the southwest, we've wanted to reconnect with Jason's brother Justin and his wife Brianna. We held off for a time, however, since Phoenix is even less hospitable than St. George in the heat of summer. Last weekend we finally met in the middle at Oak Creek Canyon, near Sedona, Arizona. Justin and Brianna were really kind and indulged my craving for camping--a huge sacrifice when you consider Brianna's understandable distaste for outhouses.

Here are the kids smiling en route in Paige, Arizona. They were thrilled to get out of the car for some breakfast at Denny's. Thanks for the adorable Halloween outfits, NomiAnn!

We were fortunate to get one of the last sites in our preferred campground. Talia immediately set to work setting up the tent.

For Eli, unpacking the cooler was the highest priority.

Jason in his camping hunker.

Looks good!

It was dark by the time Justin and Brianna arrived, but we still managed to enjoy some dutch oven spider cake and smores around the campfire before slipping off to bed. While we didn't actually battle any spiders, we were shocked to discover that skunks freely roam the campground. Apparently they're quite friendly and usually only spray the dogs. Our stinky visitor walked through the site nearly a dozen times over the next couple days, habitually checking out our trash bag. While I may be in the habit of chasing off raccoons, I wasn't about to pick a fight with this invader.

In the morning Uncle Justin had a surprise for us:

Pancakes that spelled O-H-I-O! Apparently his Buckeye loyalty paid off since Ohio State beat the Fighting Illini later that day, 17-7. Sigh.

Talia may have a messy face...

...but those clean hands are ready to eat!

I'm thinking Eli liked the food.

Brooklyn smiles in satisfaction.

Energized by the grub, we were ready to venture out to search for vortexes in Sedona. Justin and Brianna led us on a fantastic hike up Cathedral rock. The slick-rock trail was quite steep, but the girls loved scaling up it like a giant jungle gym.

Winding our way through the cairns. Brooklyn said that Uncle Justin should go first because, well, he's a doctor.

Shortly after this ascent, I decided to pass Eli off to Jason.

Time to refuel!

We get a lot of mileage out of red vines--literally.

Talia, looking cute in her hat. On the way back down she decided she'd had enough of her head gear so Jason ended up wearing it for her.

Brooklyn and the cacti. She learned through hard experience that it's best to keep your distance...

Closing in on the cathedral spires.

Justin and Brianna pause for a cute couple shot.

And at last, we arrive at the summit (or at least the saddle).

Savoring the magnificent view. Adding to the special Sedona aura was a man playing Native American melodies on a wooden flute.

And, a few attempts at a family photo on the way back down. I promise that I really wasn't pinching Talia.

Oh, and that's not a tree going out of the back of my head. It's my hair.

The whole clan.

So how come Justin and Brianna join the picture and the kids suddenly pose beautifully? They must be naturals.

Of course, Justin does have lots of experience modeling...

...not to mention cool shades.

J&B, adorable as the day they met. Did I mention that it's Tio Queso's birthday today? HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

After our hike, we headed for pizza and ordered the "Dieter's Downfall." Totally worth it! Tummies full, we took a drive out to the ghost town of Jerome. This abandoned mining town was once labeled by the New York Sun as the "Wickedest Town" anywhere. Its few inhabitants now make a living off tourists by marketing the town's shady past and haunted reputation, particularly during Halloween. This saloon was one of nearly two dozen in the early 1900s.

Visiting the old copper mine was fascinating. Can you imagine riding in this cage nearly twice as far below ground than the Empire State reaches above?

Brianna and Talia seem nervous about the idea.
Perhaps it would be safer to climb in this hopper...

In the end, we swapped the ghosts of Jerome for Uncle Justin's ghost stories around the campfire. The Wheeler men share some seriously amazing story-telling skills. Fortunately, most slept well in spite of spooks (Eli being the notable exception), and we awoke to this glorious First Vision.

Yes, much to our delight, Brianna and Justin spoiled us with a magnificent breakfast yet again.

Brianna, the camping pro.

All in all, I'd have to call this campout a great success. The weather was perfect, no one got sprayed by a skunk, we managed to break camp and still make it to church nearly on time, and most miraculously of all, no one was impaled by Talia's flaming stick.

Eli's smile sums it up: let's do it again soon!

Thanks for the memories, Justin and Brianna--and happy birthday!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Spanglish Setbacks

It's easy to write about successes; admitting failure is much less comfortable. Still, since I really appreciate candor when reading others' blogs, I'll peel off the rose-colored glasses and let you glimpse the whole picture for a moment.

Despite its promising start, the Spanglish class is really floundering. I canceled class for a week when we took off for the East coast, and when I came back attendance had dropped off by at least half. Since then, it's petered even more. At this point, I think I'll be lucky to keep the class going through Thanksgiving. My new goal is to cobble along until then before breaking for the Holidays. With the new year I might try restructuring the whole thing as a weekly Spanish/English conversation hour.

I suppose I ought to feel relieved. After all, organizing and teaching this class has swallowed up a lot of time and caused quite a bit of stress, particularly in arranging childcare.

In reality, though, I feel disappointed. I feel responsible. It's hard to silence those subversive voices that whisper how the outcome could have been better if I were more organized or a stronger teacher. Admittedly, I'm mourning the loss of a dream. When the parents all came together for a few brief weeks, I saw the beginning of something beautiful with everyone interacting and learning together. It's hard to see this vision fade.

On the surface, this class was simply a volunteer teaching gig. Not a big deal. On a deeper level, however, I'd really embraced it and started to incorporate it into my sense of identity. This class gave me something to talk about when people asked about what I "do." Not that motherhood isn't more meaningful--it's just difficult to talk about with those uninterested in diapers and first grade spelling tests.

In teaching this class, I valued the opportunity to apply my education and grow professionally. Throughout college, I was enormously blessed by the generosity of others who funded my scholarships. Teaching this Spanglish class allowed me to give back in small measure.

All in all, I feel confused. In starting this class, I really felt the sparks of divine inspiration. From my limited perspective, it's difficult to see the greater purpose at the moment. What has this class really accomplished? What was it supposed to accomplish? At what point can I throw in the towel in good conscience? And if I do call it quits, what meaningful thing should fill that void?

Should I feel tempted to label this class a failure, perhaps I ought to remember these words of Oprah Winfrey:
"I don't believe in failure. It is not failure if you enjoyed the process."

And should I feel tempted to give up completely, may I remember this wisdom from Winston Churchill:
"Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm."

While the class may end, until our school, our neighborhood, our country and our world are truly unified, the work is never done.

Friday, October 07, 2011

The Dangers of Running

Early this morning I set out for a short run in the dim, pre-dawn light. Feeling pretty smug about my dedication in getting out the door early (this is a rare occurrence), I was savoring the pink and orange hues of dawn breaking over the mountains when PAF!, I smacked down hard on all fours. Having misjudged the height of a curb, I ended up tearing a hole in my pants, bloodying my leg, skinning my palms, and even gouged my finger on my wedding ring.

Embarrassed by this ungraceful belly flop into the dirt, I turned over to nurse my wounds, only to bounce up with a yelp the moment I sat down. Apparently I'd landed in a pile of burrs. As I proceeded to pick the prickles from my popo, I decided once and for all that running is indeed a dangerous game.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Our East Coast Travel Epic

Ahh, it was lovely.

An entire week without dishes, without diaper bags, and best of all, with my hubby. I felt young again! (Heck, the flight attendant even asked if I was old enough to sit in the exit row...)

While rejuvenating and refreshing, you could hardly call our vacation back East relaxing. With so many friends and family to visit, we stayed in a different place every night. I flew into Long Island to visit aunts, uncles, and cousins while Jason was still in Boston. Despite the hassle of my darn kitty allergies, I was so grateful for this chance to reconnect. I remember my cousins primarily as little kids, so it was remarkable to discover the marvelous (pre)teens they have become. Polite, intelligent, creative, and thoughtful, my cousins are helping me look forward to the teenage parenting years with enthusiasm instead of dread.

An added bonus, of course, was the chance to see Jay and Janet's "little" remodeling project. With 180 degree views out onto the harbor, this renovation is positively stunning. The Master bedroom is roomy enough that they might never notice if I stow away permanently in a cozy nook with a good book. :)

All too soon it was time to bid farewell and hop a commuter train to the Big Apple. I met up with Christy in Manhattan, where she treated me to a fabulous food tour of the borough. We ate Vietnamese bánh mì sandwiches, Chinese sticky buns, and decadent black sesame ice cream. While I don't know if I could handle it permanently, I loved the chance to absorb myself in the bustle of New York City. We walked for miles around NYU, savoring not only the food, but a feast of grown-up conversation.

In the late afternoon we parted ways so that I could meet up with Jason at last. My birthday wish was fulfilled with a sweet hug and a kiss before we walked across the Brooklyn bridge together. In the evening, I had the chance to attend the final banquet for the graduating Rose Fellows with Jason. Not only did I enjoy the presentations highlighting the fellows' work, whether rebuilding Biloxi after Katrina or housing the formerly homeless, but I really appreciated the chance to glimpse the "big picture" of what Jason is doing. As we groggily left for the evening, I was stuffed not only with chocolate cake, but with gratitude for the amazing blessing and opportunity of this fellowship.

A bit of a walk and a few subway stops later found us in Brooklyn, gathered in Christy and Ben's kitchen, enjoying yet more yummy birthday cake. We slept soundly in their cozy quarters, then roused ourselves in the morning for a run around Prospect Park. What a lusciously verdant escape from the concrete slabs of the city! Definitely an ideal location.

For lunch we discovered the Malay Noodle Fest. I think the pictures best describe the yummy goodness. Mmmm!

Our final foray across the brilliant High Line was sadly rushed because we needed to catch our Greyhound. There's only one choice: we'll have to come back.

So, I'm not exactly sure what we did to get so lucky, but Jason and I found Greyhound Express bus tickets from NYC to Philadelphia and Philadelphia to Washington DC, all for $1 each. Having never traveled on Greyhound before, I was a little nervous that we might get what we paid for. In the end, however, our bus experiences were great. Punctual, clean, safe--even free Wifi! Plus, navigating big cities without a vehicle is so much less stressful than traffic jams, tolls, and non-existent parking.

In no time at all, we found ourselves winding our way to the National Constitution Center on Philadelphia's Independence Mall. While we can't speak to the grittier outskirts of the city, downtown Philly was clean; the people friendly. They even allowed us to leave our luggage in the coat check so that our hands would be free to hug Ben Franklin. We only had time to experience a smidgin of the museum, but it was intriguing enough that I hope to return someday with our children.

As exciting as Philadelphia was, we really didn't travel to Pennsylvania to see the Liberty Bell. Our top three reasons were all waiting an hour outside the city in beautiful Lansdale.

A trip to the East coast would be incomplete with seeing our close friends Bruce and Brittney, especially since adorable baby Eliza has recently graced their family. What a cutie!

While our visit was brief once again, we managed to squeeze in the essentials--a late night game of Cities and Knights, yummy treats, with running and wrestling in the morning. It's almost as if time stood still since our Illinois days. You can tell these two "comps" wish they'd never been "transferred" to opposite sides of the country.

Next stop: Washington DC. We spent the evening with Jason's brother Lance, strolling through his amazing Arlington neighborhood, eating delicious Thai curry, and visiting the Iwo Jima memorial. The only thing we forgot was to take pictures! At least I snagged one in the morning of the "Tramp House"--affectionately named thus because the spacious living room with vaulted ceilings used to sport an actual trampoline.

And, this picture of Jason on his cell phone reminds me of Lance trying to order mango sticky rice. The conversation was seriously the most hilarious I've ever heard--think Saturday Night Live sketch transplanted into DC. Best of all, once we finally communicated our order, Lance got a phone call back letting us know that they couldn't fill it anyway because the mangoes weren't ripe! (Second time we'd been foiled by green mangoes that evening, by the way. Fortunately, the third time was a charm.)

And so, after the briefest visit of all, we made our way back into DC. At first glimpse, the sights seemed ordinarily familiar.

A closer look at the Washington Monument, however, revealed something far from typical. A rappelling inspection was taking place, following damage from the earthquake in late August.

I must confess, I'm kind of jealous of that job. :)

After winding our way past several more memorials, we found ourselves in West Potomac Park, home of the Solar Decathlon. It was fantastic. For those who may not know, Solar Decathlon is a competition hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy where university students from around the world design and build innovative solar-powered homes. In honor of our New Zealand Kiwis, Callie and Adam, we started off our expedition with a tour of the University of Wellington's holiday home, the "Kiwi bach."

This cozy little beach house was quite possibly our very favorite, perhaps because it was designed to accomodate an extra four guests if necessary. Invite me, please!

All in all, it was really neat to imagine Callie and Adam stumbling across this very same home all the way on the other side of the globe. Even though our tours may have been separated by five months, I felt connected just imagining my little sis' fingering the very same cedar planks.

Here's looking at you, Eggnog!

Team New Jersey's house was quite unique in being entirely built from concrete. Definitely easy to see the influence of Le Corbusier's Ronchamp.

Weighing over 500,000 pounds, it took 16 trucks to transport this house from Jersey. Good thing it didn't have to travel that far!

While I'm not sure I could make all the concrete cozy enough to feel like home, it was still a very innovative alternative energy solution.

And now for the best surprise: Bruce, Brittney, and Eliza made the long (and rainy) trip to DC just to join us for our final few hours on the East coast. It was a big sacrifice for them to travel, especially with a new baby, so we felt particularly loved.

Nodding in style.

So sleepy!

Solar Decathlon obviously left quite an impression on Eliza.

Team Canada's TRTL (turtle) house worked hard to be culturally-sensitive, incorporating elements from their tribal communities, such as the tipi.

Team China brought together pre-fabricated shipping containers for their "Y Container" with moveable walls to adapt the interior spaces as necessary.

Team Belgium designed a Do-it-Yourself home that they built entirely on site.

And of course, we couldn't forget our Alma Mater, the University of Illinois, who designed their home as an immediate and sustainable rapid response for disaster situations. Here are Bruce and Brittney reconnecting with Illinois.

Kara checks out the living room space.

The biggest chuckle came from entering Illinois' bedroom and discovering these posters of Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon adorning the walls. Feels like we've walked this path before!

Taking first place, however, was Team Maryland with their concept house, WaterShed. Their home was constructed over a miniature estuary that filtered their recycled gray water sufficiently for use in watering their plants.

Given the amount of insulation in the walls, it's not surprising that their house scored well.

My favorite gem, however, was this desk that transforms into a bed when needed. I think all architectural studios should be thus equipped.

Most memorable of all, however, was SCI-Arc/Cal-Tech's home featuring "outsulation."

Inspired by the space suits worn by astronauts, this home boasted pillow-like insulation on the exterior. Deferring from taking themselves too seriously, they likened their home to both a chocolate-covered raisin and the Michelin man. Hideous? Perhaps. But you've gotta admit--it's definitely thinking outside the box.

And thus, all too soon it was over. Despite having visited only a fraction of the homes, we said a rushed goodbye to Bruce, Brittney, and Eliza before frantically racing to catch our plane home.

In truth, the only "relaxing" moment we had on our vacation was the morning we spent in our Salt Lake City hotel before meeting up with the Wheeler grandparents and the kids. While life has raced double-speed since, Jason and I still feel so grateful for this time to reconnect not only with family and friends, but with each other.

Susie and Charles, we hope that you likewise found a bit of enjoyment in this bonding time with the grandchildren, challenging as it was with ear infections. I know that the kids had a marvelous time. Thank you both so much for making this magical week happen. It was truly lovely.