The Pump Track Challenge: Totally Fanged Up

21 July 2013 SUN VALLEY 034

Gbot, the Pump Track virgin. At the suggestion of the course maintainer, we took the bike baskets off before the race. Apparently, they are uncool.

Recently, Gbot was consulting a dinosaur encyclopedia in the back seat. Examining the page on saber toothed tigers, he exclaimed, “Saber tooth tigers had sharp fangs to protect them from predators, and they could totally fang up people.”

I thought of The Pump Track Challenge.

The Pump Track Challenge: the bots’ first-ever competitive athletic event, which they participated in while on vacation in Idaho in July. I thought of it because it totally fanged me up, as only a competitive athletic event for the five-and-under set could.

The Pump Track itself, as, say, a static sculpture in dirt, is pretty tame. About the size of a basketball court, it consisted of a series of whoop-dee-doos (dirt rollers: think a sine wave) and banked circles–imagine twelve-foot diameter, three-foot-deep dirt teacups. It’s kind of like a skate park, but for people on mountainbikes. This one was overseen by the Blaine County Recreation District, one of those model community entities that rarely makes a wrong move.

Even when it becomes a kinetic, interactive sculpture, with bots zooming around the upper inside edges of the teacups and pumping over the rollers, the Pump Track is only mildly nerve-wracking. We discovered it, on a tip from a friend, one hot afternoon when all the locals were at the Aquatic Center next door. We were giddy with excitement. Gbot strided like a pinball up, down, and around; Mbot attacked it gamely but spent as much time in the dust as he did in the saddle. This is a kid who never used training wheels. The Pump Track takes practice.

An old friend of mine, Eric, who happens to be in charge of maintaining the track, was pulling weeds for the upcoming Challenge,. He urged us to participate. He’s got a son of his own, aged three, who would be there. It wasn’t really a race, he said. One bot on the course at a time, he said. Just them against the clock, he said. And, at the end, trophies.

“Trophies?” asked Mbot.

“Trophies!” said Gbot.

Over the next several days, the conversations around our guest house sounded like this:

Me: “Gbot, take off your shoes and wash your hands.”

Gbot: “Is this the day of the Pump Track Challenge?”

Me: “No.”

And,

Me: “Who wants to watch ‘The Magic Schoolbus Gets Energized?!'”

Gbot: “I want a trophy!”

Belatedly, I began to sense danger.

Because, for all my trying and denying, the bots aren’t mountainbots. They’re burb-bots.  They’d rarely ridden on dirt; they’d never nudged their knobbies along the steep lips of earthen teacups. They were game, but green. They didn’t know it. I did.

I tried to explain to the bots that they might not get a trophy. That only the fastest kids get a trophy. Which will probably be the kids who live here in the Valley, the kids who get to ride the Pump Track EVERY  DAY! The kids who are older. The kids who are bigger. (The kids who are genetically programmed to kick your ass in any athletic event, not just now, but through your entire life, no matter how fast you pedal your own ass on the Pump Track, courtesy of the Andrews non-Olympian strain of DNA.)

This said (or, actually, I left that last part left unsaid), I do believe that persistence and passion can elevate anyone to the lofty heights of their potential. I know this personally, because I didn’t learn to ride a bike adequately until I was thirty, at which point my passion for cycling proved so strong that, in spite of the terror it inspired in me, I spent the next decade pushing my beloved Gary Fisher (it’s red! A red bike!) four thousand feet at a time up dirt trails narrower than a Republican’s mind and zooming down the same trails with a death grip on the handlebars–thus utilizing my body for activities it wasn’t originally designed for, kind of like finding one of those round plastic cones you put over a dog’s head to keep it from gnawing on some recent wound, and re-purposing it as a lampshade.

Even creatively done, it's still just a dog cone collar.

Even creatively done, it’s still just a dog cone collar.

If you love to ride, you love to ride. And even if your center of gravity is at breast level and your reflexes operate on a 12k bandwidth, that passion can push you through hundreds of hours of dedicated practice, which will eventually turn you into an adequate (albeit heavily scarred) mountain biker.

The bots love to ride. Especially Mbot. But this preoccupation with a TROPHY was unsettling. A TROPHY ATTAINABLE ONLY BY THREE PEOPLE. A trophy that is significant because it indicates its owner is a winner, but is more significant because it indicates that all others are LOSERS.

I explained to the bots that you don’t ride in a race just to get a trophy. ! I explained that you did it to have fun. ! I explained that, when you race over and over, you get better, and can see how much better you’re getting. ! I explained that everyone who participated was a winner. ! Just for doing it. ! I spoke with exclamation points, in case the tone of my voice was strained and unconvincing.

Because I am a competitionphobe. Everything about a race turns my insides to liquid and shoots me to the nearest bathroom. But I don’t want my sons to grow up to be like me (in this way). I want them to grow up to feel, if not what it seems many others seem to feel in the throes of athletic competition (ALIVE!!!! GRRRR!!! JUST COME AND TRY TO EAT THESE QUADS, SABER TOOTHED TIGER!!!), at least that competition is healthy and fun. ! That it strengthens you, physically and psychologically. ! That it is a great way to share your passion with like-minded beings. ! That it builds self-confidence in a pleasurable way. !)

Smilodon fatalis. (wikipedia)

Smilodon fatalis. (wikipedia) Waiting to poke holes in your bike shorts and your confidence.

What I did not try to explain is that if you enter a competition, it’s feels good to win. It’s a prize for working so hard as well as a public affirmation of your athletic superiority. On that day. In that discipline and age group. And that it usually kind of sucks to not win. At least, right away, and for a while afterward.*

Also, whether you are a winner or a nonwinner (we do not use the word LOSER. The only loser is the person who uses the word LOSER) seems to matter to lots of people. People will form opinions about you based on whether you win or do not win. Also on how you win or do not win. By entering a competition, you are subjecting yourself not only to the inarguable clock but to public scrutiny.

Good luck with that.

I realize it’s one of the marks of my socioeconomic class to overthink these things. In the future, I will try not to.

Good luck with that.

I offered up to the universe my Pump Track Prayer: Please,  let the bots participate in a Pump Track Challenge without having it fang them up for the rest of their lives.

When we arrived at the Challenge, at four o’clock Thursday afternoon, the Pump Track was no longer our private oasis of speed, fun, and possibility. It was crawling with others. It was foreign. It was threatening. Parents and bots and bikes and officials navigated one another to blaring music. Normally I would have liked the music, but now it was oppressive. My bots seemed unfazed by the crowd or the activity. They located the trophy table and fingered the shiny made-in-China cyclists sparkling in the sun atop flimsy plastic pedestals.

At the registration table, I found I knew the woman who handed me our papers, an athlete named Janelle. Years before, we’d waited tables and ridden bikes together. In my memory, she is very very small, and I’m seeing her from behind, because she is very very far ahead of me on the trail before she disappears altogether.

I filled out the forms and gave her my credit card to pay the five dollar registration fee. Knowing yet another Pump Track insider should have, I thought, made me feel like an insider, too. Like we Belonged. It didn’t. I didn’t know more than six adults and four children here (including my own). One of the adults was a friend, Amy; our bots had just had a playdate. But another, Eric’s wife, either wasn’t recognizing me or was recognizing but not acknowledging me. Probably not recognizing. My shirt was not quite as casual as those of the other parents. I felt like the bots and I were inside a balloon, an invisible balloon whose impermeable walls separated us from all these other people–these locals–these people whose lives were lived in this snug valley, lived on two wheels, lived within the friendly competitive communal embrace of one another.

I zip-tied the bots’ numbers onto their handlebars. #155 and #156. Suddenly astride their bikes, with their official numbers, the bots looked like they belonged. Just like that. I tried to imagine it all from their points of view. They knew only that they were gonna get to ride their bikes, with other kids, and that there were trophies. They’d gotten the $5 ride through the balloon walls. I was alone inside them now.

Gbot–steady, sturdy, strong on his Strider and 3 3/4 years old, fell nicely into the two-to-four age group. His course was marked with yellow plastic bowls turned upside down, and consisted of a brief out-and-back with a steeply banked circle around a tree at the far end.

Mbot–five years old for all of two weeks, fell uncomfortably into the five-to-seven age group. His course, marked with red upside-down plastic red bowls, consisted of a three-leaf-clover pattern of teacup rims, then a steep whoop-de-doo up to trail along a towering (well, four feet—a steep four feet) embankment—The Ledge—that gradually descended to circle the same tree as Gbot’s course, then back over Gbot’s course. I cursed myself for not fibbing at the registration desk and signing him up for the younger kids’ race. It’s not like he was a contender. I just wanted him to have a good time. I assumed that having a good time correlated directly to riding the course successfully and as it was meant to be ridden. I was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to do it. I was afraid he’d be upset that he wouldn’t be able to do it.

On a riverside ride, Mbot stops to consult his picture encyclopedia to pretend to identify a flower. Here's an idea: a bike-and-book biathlon!

On a riverside ride, Mbot stops to consult his picture encyclopedia to pretend to identify a flower. Here’s an idea: a bike-and-book biathlon!

Terrified, actually. Because I want to protect these children from everything, at the same time I want to affix to them a mosaic of positive life experiences like heat proof tiles, enough to absorb the blast of entry. Get back in my body, I want to say. Where I can keep you safe. Where the biggest competition is with my bladder, for real estate.

Gbot hit the dirt for practice runs with no concept of fear or of the direction of the course. Twice he was ushered off the big boy course, wailing, “I want to go on the red course!”

Mbot hung back at the start, where other kids pushed in front of him, until I encouraged him to take a few practice rides, too. When he finally headed out, it was at the direction of one of the adults in charge, and it was roughly ten seconds behind a kid—a bigger kid—and ten seconds before another, bigger, kid. The result was that there were three kids on the course at a time. Within seconds, deep in the third teacup, Mbot and his bike ended up under a bigger kid and his bigger bike.

Technically, it had been Mbot’s fault. He’d gone straight from the first teacup to the third. But he didn’t know the course. I wanted to shout at the guys in charge. He’s FOUR! Or would be, if he’d been born two weeks late. These are small children, for god’s sake, not bees who were born with their that-way-pollen-grows figure-eight dances spliced into their genes, like the girl Olympian figure-skaters excising their compulsories out of ice. I ran.

The bigger kid extricated himself and his bike and rode away, and then I as pulling Mbot upright, pulling his bike upright, telling him it wasn’t his fault, that hitting the ground is part of riding, is part of racing. That he’d fallen lots of times and bounced right up. That I’d fallen lots of times on my bike. He was in tears. He was talking nonstop, inconsolable. He was blaming himself for the crash.

We hobbled, like a four-legged, two-wheeled monster, a Pump Track version of the Elephant Man, to the far side of the course, where we could be alone. For the next seven minutes, tears flowed onto my not-casual-enough shirt. But every time I said, “It wasn’t your fault, Bug,” and, “You don’t have to race!” the answer was a teary wail: “No! I want to go! I want to race!” My stomach was churning. How would he remember this? Maybe he wouldn’t. Even if he didn’t, it would Change him. Shape him. A hundred thousand years from now, anthropologists would see the scar in his fossilized psyche like paleontologists today can identify tooth marks in the femurs of woolly mammoths. (Mothers think not only melodramatically, but in sweeping time frames.)

Leaning against the wood ranch-style fence, looking through ridiculously clear mountain air, right out of a pre-Raphaelite painting or HDTV, toward Carbonate Mountain, fifteen-hundred vertical feet of sagebrush at whose dusty brown foot I’d lived for ten years, whose flank I’d pushed up and careened down on my bike countless times in another life–my memories, not Mbot’s, never Mbot’s–we gathered ourselves. We wiped away tears. We circumnavigated the Track and pushed into the throngs that were now readying for the first race of the day.

It was Gbot’s race. The field was fifteen-strong. Eric’s son was hiding his face (which was already half-hidden beneath an enormous brave-animal helmet), in his mother’s neck. Others went, swooping down the six-foot ramp onto the course. An announcer provided not-quite-funny commentary over a loudspeaker. Someone worked the large digital clock, setting and resetting it, from beside the finish line. Finishing times: Forty seconds. Thirty seconds. Twenty-two seconds!

Brave-animal-helmet had still not been imbued by the characteristics of his totem. Gbot, under his red dinosaur helmet, was ready to roar. Finally he was at the starting line. His name of Basque origin was, as always, pronounced incorrectly: not phonetically, exactly as it is spelled, but in the only way people have heard things that look similar pronounced,  based on some person of German ancestry they once went to school or played ball with: Eckhardt. Mispronounced, he went.

He shot down the ramp and onto the first of the whoop-de-doos. His legs strode madly all the way out. His verve was admired over the loudspeaker. He rounded the tree in under ten seconds. And then…he sort of slowed down. As if perhaps he wasn’t sure of the course, or as if he’d forgotten what he’d come for. Or–and this is what it looked like to me–as if to savor the ride. He was out for a Sunday stride. He was taking it in. He was enjoying himself. He had no concept that churning toward the finish line, merely twenty feet away, would get him one of the coveted trophies. He meandered across the finish line well off the top three. I was thrilled he had made the finish line, and not headed back up to the starting line. Mostly, though, I was just thrilled it was over. I hugged him, told him great jobb. Gbot appeared unmoved by the whole thing.

The real knuckle-chewer was in the chute. Ten racers into his twenty-strong category, #155 was called to the start. Although Mbot was the youngest in his group, he was as tall as the seven-year-olds. Everyone thinks he’s older than he is, I thought. Everyone will judge this gangly kid, has already judged him, the one who cried in front of everyone. Mbot still had only a sketchy concept of the shape of the race course. “Eckhardt.” The clock started. Mispronounced, misunderstood, misjudged, he went.

He accelerated down the ramp, pedals whirling. Steered around the first teacup, skipped the second one (as he’d done in practice), hit the third  (kind of) then headed up the rise onto The Ledge. And there, lacking momentum, he rolled to a complete stop. His bike tipped over. And this is what he did: Having never watched a mountain bike race, having ridden almost completely on level grade concrete since birth, he untangled himself from the bike, hauled it upright, took it by the handlebars, and pushed it up the steep rise. He walked that mother right to the top, where he threw his leg over it again, pushed off–at the edge of The Ledge, no less–and navigated the rest of the course en velo.

Where did he learn to do that? I wondered. He didn’t have to learn. He just knew.

On the safe side of the finish line, where I pounced on him and smothered him with praise, he, like his younger brother, seemed unfazed.

It was obvious that the bots were experiencing a completely different event than the one I was suffering through. For them, it really was fun!  The wreck had happened to another boy, of another generation, in another universe, in front of another crowd, watching that other tall crybaby who can’t ride a bike—not only watching him but watching him as he’s crying, his narrow back to the crowd, his tear-streaked face to the mountains, watching and thinking, as even Eric had thought, “The kids taking a pee against the fence.”

At trophy-getting time, Amy’s son won the first-place trophy in Gbot’s category. (His progenitors include a grandfather whose hiked extensively in the Himalayas, with and without broken bones, and a mom who attended college on a swimming scholarship.)

Gbot did not get a trophy. Mbot did not get a trophy. What they did get was a green ribbon apiece for participation. A mother must have thought of that. Mbot was absolutely and unexpectedly thrilled with his. Gbot collapsed into a wailing heap that refused to go home without a trophy.

“I want a trophy! I want a trophy!” sobbed thirty-five-pound Gbot-the-root-vegetable, embedded in the soil beside the Pump Track, as I tugged gently but insistently, and then insistently and not gently,  at the soft, plump, upraised fist. I think I carried him away.  And then, blissfully, we fled.

Gbot was as though rooted in the substrate of the pump track.

Gbot was rooted in the substrate of the pump track.

I fled, at least. To the grass lawn outside the Track. Mbot posed for a photo with his green ribbon. I dialed up Husbot. “I was in a bike race,” Mbot grinned into the phone. “And I got a bow!”  Ribbon, bow. The word “ribbon” didn’t occupy a place in Mbot’s reward vocabulary, but he was willing to welcome it in. Gbot was not. He refused to hold his bow for a picture. He wanted nothing to do with it. The next day, it only served to remind him of what he did not get: a trophy.

The next day, Amy and I commiserated over how not fun The Pump Track Challenge had been. We both asked, with dread in our voices, the same question at the same time: “What happens next time, when Amy’s son doesn’t win?”

Then you’re on, Mom.

Three days later, the bots were no longer even talking about it anymore. Not the pump track. Not the trophy. They were still riding their bikes. The uncool baskets had been reattached. The bots had moved on.

But I couldn’t. I’d been disturbed at the strength of my Pump Track emotions. They included,

  1.  “Get the fang out of my child’s way,”
  2. “Don’t fanging judge my child,”
  3. “This fanging contrived situation to measure small children against each other sucks fanging ass.”
  4. “Calm down, Betsy, for fang’s sake. It’s only a race. And it’s not even your race.”

It took several more days before the good of it sank in: Without that clock, without the other kids around, without those hideous trophies waiting to be claimed, Mbot probably wouldn’t have jumped up so fast when his bike tipped over, and pushed through. And now he knew what it felt like, to try that hard in order to accomplish a goal he’d set himself.

Was it worth it? My hairdresser, the one who keeps trying to lowlight me, would say it was not, would say that since the Pump Track Challenge I am not quite so girlishly brunette. I’d say I suppose it was. Although it seemed much more of a challenge for the mothers of participants than for the actual participants.

I know that my children are not going to win sometimes. That’s life. I don’t care. But I don’t want it to hurt them. I want them to be able to be okay with it. But it’s a challenge to come to peace with the fact that my children are going to be judged. And that sometimes, they are going to end up at the bottom. I know that my children are going to enter into all kinds of situations that society has contrived to measure, distinguish, separate, label, and create desire and discontent. I want them to walk proudly away from those situations wearing their green bows.

I know that my children were born with a strength and resilience that I cannot know or measure.

It is a challenge to show some of that strength and resilience myself.

The face of triumph.

The face of triumph. Thanks, Pump Track Challenge.

*I know this only because I was a prepubescent athletic phenom in Auke Bay, Alaska. In strictly an Auke Bay School Field Day Champion context. Because I reached nearly my adult height and weight by the age of twelve, I kicked ass at the fifty yard dash (yes, there is one, for children), the hundred yard dash, the 400-meter relay (I was not anchor), the high jump, and the shot put. Then I turned thirteen and the destiny of my body–to sit in a chair while I typed–became manifest. But the ribbons (there were no trophies) rocked.

Dispatch from the River: Washed Clean (and Not Just the Angry Bird Underpants!)

21 July 2013 SUN VALLEY 043-003

Southcentral Idaho. Peace reigns between the bots. Being in a new place does for Mbot what it does for me: washes out the mind like the rainstorm we drove through just south of the Nevada state line, like the ocean arriving all at once on our windshield, wipers arcing furiously to not quite keep up, white spray from the few passing trucks to the left obliterating the view—I think of the blindness that might occur temporarily if one traveled at lightspeed, or that occurs when I board an airplane to sit encapsulated for an hour or two or nine until deposited in a different geographic location, often thousands of miles from the point of origin, during which time (if one is traveling without bots) one has spent reading a magazine on home style.

On the first day of travel, we debarked at the splash park in Henderson, Nevada the first scheduled stop on our two day, thousand mile venture north, fresh out of the rain storm. The botmobile shined like it was new, the silky navy of the paint gleaming as though you could walk through it into another world.

And so we have.

Here, between the mountains and the prairie, the winds wash down from Galena Summit, thirty miles north, like an invisible river though the valley every morning, cool air seeking low elevations, warming through the day, and then flowing back up into higher climes each evening, cleansing the air ‘til every object takes on a crystalline appearance, sharp edges, unfiltered greens—that never fail to bring back the memory of my first pair of glasses, set on the bridge of my nose at the age of eight. How my environment snapped into focus–I could almost count the serrated green alder leaves and suddenly the towering blue spruces became communities of individual needles, where before the trees had loomed, undifferentiated from one another. Synapses that had lay dormant for perhaps years, fired the news: Vision! Vision! Vision!

And so it is, here: vision.

For as long as I can remember–ever since my family drove away from our house on the hill in New Hampshire and set off across the country in a VW squareback toward Alaska–travel has been as much about marveling at the wonders of a world that isn’t mine as much as turning to marvel from a distance at the wonders of the world that is. And then marveling at the marveling.

I sense the same neural dynamic in Mbot, for whom every Magna-Tile has taken on a new attraction in this place–as though the Magna-Tiles, and not the place, were new. Marvelously, his brother, too, seems to have acquired a certain sparkle (in Mbot’s eyes) in this high mountain air, and the bickering has dwindled to token poking, pestering and name-calling.

Gbot benefits from the attentions of Pam.

Gbot benefits from the attentions of the wonderful and talented Pam.  You, too, could be this cute if you came to Idaho. Pam could help. Although if you come here, visit Pam, and find you are NOT this cute, do not blame Pam.

This mental re-setting is a real thing, and I know enough now to recognize that it will always be an important part of how Mbot interacts with his surroundings. He and I will have to get out of town on a regular basis, to recalibrate our focus on not only our external environments far and near, but our internal landscapes.

Husbot, who has stayed in Arizona to take care of pets and business, isn’t wired this way. Gbot, too, is less influenced by his environment than by the internal Contentment Bug he’s hosted since birth. He’s truly the captain of his own ship, never mind the water and wind, and I’d trust him to get from here to there in any weather. Mbot and I are at the helms of our ships, too, but we’re buffeted by both the water and the wind, and we’re very busy looking at the view and wondering if we might go there and if we do, what here will look like once we’re there. It will not be easy for anyone in our regatta. But the journey will wash us clean, outside and in.

Mbot steers the HMS  "Huggie Mommy." I did not name her.

Mbot steers the HMS “Huggie Mommy.” I did not name her.

Woman Encounters Obstacle While Following Rainbow to End

Really, I am in better shape than this. But sometimes it takes a glass of wine to realize it.

I just walked out the door holding two of Husbot’s shirts, folded. I am not on the way to the dry cleaner, nor does Husbot own shirts that require poisons to cleanse them; if they reach that state, they get thrown out.

I was headed to the coffee bar, which in addition to coffee, happens to serve a bracing New Zealand sauvignon blanc by the glass. Getting into the car with an armful of shirts by mistake just illustrates how dire my quest was: I am in a state that requires poison to cleanse me.

Yes, it is only 3:29. This is my first and will probably be my last drink of the day, if you’re not counting an oversized homemade iced decaf mocha and not enough water.

It hasn’t been a bad day. In fact, it’s been a good day. It just feels like it’s been about three days, since 6 a.m. Probably because I’m trying to steer us all to a successful Halloween.

I should have gone to bed earlier last night; instead, I sat up practicing face painting. Which I scheduled myself to do for two hours tomorrow morning at Mbot’s preschool. Not only did I offer to repeat last year’s effort, which was valiant if not entirely successful (read about it here!), but to paint a panel of sample designs so that the woman who will take over for me during the afternoon Spookfest will avoid the embarrassment of instantaneously forgetting what a frog looks like when called upon to conjure one onto a four-year-old’s cheek.

Facepainting is kind of like regular painting, except really fast on a moving target. So even Picasso might have messed it up. Of course, chances are, you wouldn’t be able to tell if he did.

I find, while I sit here with my glass of Infamous Goose, I need to list the day’s triumphs:

Harry Potter gown hemmed (with black duct tape) and ironed.

Harry Potter broom padded at the dangerous end with black fleece. Extra glue added between handle and bristles to preempt mid-trick-or-treat meltdown due to falling-apart broom.

Chipless Dale costume examined and sighed over. Projected chance that Gbot will actually wear it without a fuss: 60%.

Chances that I’ll mess up the face painting required to produce a smile and two buck teeth on Gbot’s lower face tomorrow: an even 50%.

Dinner made.

Garbage taken out.

Laundry done.

Car washed. (Really. Needed. To Be. Done.)

Doggie poop cleaned up off living room floor.

Gbot’s nose wiped (twenty times. Tail end of cold.)

Hands washed between doggie poop pick-up and nose-wiping.

A still-coldy Gbot cuddled extra and listened to while wailing over 1. missing his chance to count down for Mbot before he launched out the door to the playground. 2. missing his chance to strap himself into car because he was wailing about missing his chance to count down for Mbot.

Husbot pissed off at wife’s attitude when he came home from work at 2:45 to spell me ’til 5. Excuse wife for not breaking out her first date smile when he threatens to lull them to sleep at 4 pm, which means she’ll be up ’til 9 p.m. putting them to sleep again.

The good news: I am almost ready for Halloween! And my friends and relatives on the Eastern seaboard are safe.

Last but not least, about the photo: I took this two weeks ago in Idaho’s Wood River Valley. Every year, my parents’ neighbor, architect and spare-time-hilarious-actor-in-local-productions, Steve Pruitt, put this witch up at the corner. Steve passed last fall, having lost a long battle with a rare kind of cancer. I never actually met him in person, but many years ago, I saw him in Don Quixote, and I still remember how hard I laughed. Other neighbors have taken up the Halloween witch-in-trouble ritual. And one morning in mid-October, we found her at the end of the rainbow.

Not-So-Famous Drinks of Youth and Idaho

Children and fall: the prettiest reminders of change.

I am so consumed by the present that any glance back into the past is jarring–almost surreal. So much changed when I became a mother. Not just the usual big-then-saggy boobage, belly fat, hair-falling-out, sudden-fact-that-I-am-in-love-with-a-helpless-alien sort of things. I’d married Husbot just one year before; I’d met him nine months before that. I relocated from a place and community I’d lived in and loved for ten years to a foreign land. (Just because the same currency is used and the same language is spoken thirty minutes west of Phoenix, Arizona and the Wood River Valley, nearly two hundred miles east of Boise, Idaho, doesn’t mean the two locations are not as different as Amsterdam and New Amsterdam). At the same time, I lost a friendship–or at least, it changed, dramatically and irrevocably. I still grieve for it.

Things were different, and would never be the same.

The bots and I return to the Wood River Valley twice a year, and each time, I am confronted with the past. We usually stay with my parents, who retired here twenty years ago; I sleep under the same crewelwork image of a girl carrying a cat that was above my bed in Alaska as a child. There is news of the old boyfriend and his wife, who are friends of friends and family. Every visit to the grocery store in this small town offers chance meetings with former colleagues and acquaintances. Sometimes they recognize me but sometimes they don’t remember my name. I introduce myself. We catch up in that inane way that takes ninety seconds. And then we push our carts in opposite directions, the way our lives have gone.

And so it should not have been unexpected but was nonetheless very strange last night, while inspecting the contents of my parents’ liquor cabinet before dinner, to come across a drink recipe I’d written for my father about fifteen years ago. It was a remnant of still another life, when I was working in my twenties for a famous Denver restaurateur who foresaw trends sometimes a decade before they became trends. (He poured me my first Cosmopolitan in 1993, three years before Carrie Bradshaw first tipped one back in a move that would forever determine the cocktail of choice for women now between the ages of forty-five and fifty-five.)

This recipe was for the Caiperana, which never enjoyed quite the notoriety of its pink sister, but made a comeback ten years ago at wedding receptions and on creative cocktail menus across the country, and more recently has featured in one of Jo Nesbo’s bestselling thrillers, in which the hero, a Norwegian detective with a taste for anything fifty-proof and above, finds himself stuck somewhere in South America and glad that the only available drink is a local version of the caiperana, brewed from the fiery and wince-inducing native liquor, distilled apparently with little consideration for flavor from raw cane sugar.

Who knew you could find video instructions online? (cucabrazuca.com)

In a bow to the past, I’ll transcribe the recipe here as I wrote it back then. It made me laugh, which of course was a bittersweet kind of laughter, because I want it back. I mean, I want the parts of my past the made me laugh back. It’s a stupid thing to want–that’s what memory is for, that’s what stories are for. And soon enough–tomorrow, as it turns out–today will be the past that made me laugh.

Caiperana

For one drink:

1/2 lime

2 teaspoons brown sugar

3 oz. Pitu cachaca

dash simple syrup* (*double-strength hummingbird food)

rocks glass

little spoon (optional)** (**a swizzle stick will do)

First, learn to pronounce both the drink and the liquor. This will entail learning a foreign language, so be ready to practice. Practicing after having served your guests yields the best results as, while your linguistic skills may not improve greatly, your listeners, as they empty their glasses, will become much more accepting of the injustices you perpetrate against the Spanish language.

But practicing beforehand doesn’t hurt. While chanting ca-CHA-cha, ca-CHA-cha, slice the lime in a complicated manner. That is, cube it as if you were cubing a potato, if you ever cube potatoes, but don’t cut all the way through the peel at the tip. You will understand why momentarily.

Place the lime pointy-side down in the glass and pestle it soundly to squeeze out the juices. Meanwhile, repeat, ky-per-ANN-ya, ky-per-ANN-ya quietly to yourself so that your guests don’t know you’re getting a headstart on pronunciation.

Add the cachaca and simple syrup and fill the glass to the brim with crushed ice. Insert the little spoon.

Sip slowly and stir the drink constantly so that the ice dilutes the concoction and you remain scintillating for as long as possible before being reduced to a pleasant stupor. Keep prodding the lime with the little spoon to extract all the juices. If you have mastered them by this time, work the words caiperana and cachaca into the conversation at frequent intervals so that your guests will be duly impressed.

*   *   *

Skol! Salud! Here’s to the past. Here’s to change.

Mother Finds Something Resembling the “V” Word in South-Central Idaho

Take me home, country road.

We took the Strider bikes around the block our first evening here. The block in Idaho looks a little different than the one back home.

In the haste of coming off the conference and packing for an unfamiliar airline, which meant packing differently–only one big suitcase and three small carry-ons, I forgot my good camera. Which is a shame, because the bots are finally big and independent and trustworthy enough to give me small moments to fool around with stuff, both technical and non, without destroying the order of the universe.

“What’s the weather like up there, Cap’n Mbot?”

There is a pirate ship in the back yard.

“What else do birds like in their nests, Mom?”

There are ingredients to build birds’ nests. We came back from a walk down the dry creekbed with pockets stuffed with the wormlike tips of cottonwood branches, coin-sized river rocks smooth as gumballs, yellow-gold leaves, grasses, and even a few oriole feathers. After drawing directions for how to do it, Mbot carefully built a nest on the porch railing. He put a few pretzels in as bait. We check them periodically.

Bushwacking to the bewildered* garden (*a garden that’s nearly taken over by wilderness.)

The weather is perfect: frosty or close to it at night, mid-sixties at midday. Aspen leaves shiver in the chilly breeze and the light glows golden under the tall, tangled cottonwoods. We have practically lived out of doors since arriving. Out of doors in the Wood River Valley is my favorite place to be. It is apparently Mbot’s new favorite place, too. After our long creekbed excursion, while Nanny was preparing lunch, Mbot asked her, “Where will you move after this?”

“We won’t move,” replied Nanny. “We like it here.”

“But when you die you’ll move,” Mbot pointed out.

“That’s true,” said Nanny. “We’ll move to Heaven, I suppose.”

“Mom,” said Mbot, turning to me, “Can we move to this house after Nanny dies?”

I explained that we were lucky that Nanny wouldn’t die for a long, LONG time. And then we agreed it was much more fun being here while Nanny is alive.

And then we ate lunch, and went back outside to play–the bots chasing each other around the towering lilac bush, climbing the rigging of the yard swing pirate ship together, swinging in the hammock together, and discovering the bewildered garden together. It’s as though someone waved a cottonwood wand with a crisp tawny leaf at its tip and pronounced us the family of peaceful playing and quiet cooperation.

This has begun to acquire the feel of a vacation.

Idaho Vacation, Part 2: We’re Still HEEEErrrre

We are not inside the cute and cozy Hailey Coffee Company. We are in the parking lot, sleeping off our busy morning.

We had such good fortune on the trip here that I thought we had outrun the Greek Chorus. But it turns out they were rolling in on a weather front. Sun Valley Ski Resort has been waiting for this front since 2006. It arrived two days after we arrived, and nestled snuggly into the Wood River Valley. It has snowed, it has rained, it has sleeted, it has hailed. We have not seen blue sky–or even the surrounding mountains–for a week. Except for the fact that my parents are here and the fact that we have built a snowman, we could be vacationing in our closet.

My parents’ presence is key–Nanny is so wonderful and helpful with the Bots that it’s exhausting even to think of her energy expenditure. “I’ll sit down on Monday,” she kept saying, citing the day after our scheduled departure. But nobody counted on the weather.

Planes fly in this weather, even thirty-seat turbo-props, the kind that jump up from Salt Lake City, but they do not land in this weather, and they do not take off. Locals (of which I was one, for ten years) know that, between the months of November and April, you take your chances when you schedule a flight into or out of Hailey’s tiny airport. If you are flying Delta, one of the two airlines that service the airport, you may receive a call four hours before your flight is scheduled to leave. A friendly voice notifies you that you must be at the airport three hours ahead of flight time so that you can take a bus to Twin Falls, eighty miles east, and fly to Salt Lake City from there.

This is inconvenient but it gets you where you want to go, except if you have children. Because the bus, of course, is not equipped with car seats or the LATCH system.

Then you are at the mercy of kind relatives (or relatives who really want to see you go), who may taxi you an hour and a half through the fog and across the slushy prairie to the next airport. But planes sometimes leave late from Twin Falls, and we had just thirty minutes to catch the last flight of the day to Phoenix. A drive across the prairie, AND a night in Salt Lake City?

Everyone else thought it was wind in the trees, but I know I could hear the Greek Chorus chanting,

And she made reservations on the last flight,

And if she didn’t make it, she would have to spend the night,

A thirty-minute layover would not be enough,

Even if Husbot were helping, it still would have been tough.

It is hard to feel sorry for her stressing and her strife,

Has she never traveled in her life?

(Husbot, on whom the success of the thirty-minute layover kind of depended, had to return to work on Tuesday.)

Nanny suggested I call Delta and see if they would postpone our flights, due to the lack of LATCH on the bus. I was skeptical, but Nanny Knows.

The Delta representative, with her faint Bangalore accent, got us on a flight out Tuesday, the day the front is supposed to move on. She didn’t charge us the $150 per ticket change fee; in fact, Gbot and I got $10 back apiece.

And so we are still here. Because our timeshare was for a week, we’ve moved into Nanny and Poppy’s guest room. We are trying to be helpful and useful, but having us as visitors is like inviting Hurricane WeeBot into your home, even if we behave ourselves.

After lunch, I bundled everyone up to go to the store, just to get them out of the house. On the way, they fell asleep. I’m parked outside of Hailey Coffee Company, pirating the wifi.

I hope Nanny is at home, sitting down. Although I love it here, and the Bots love Nanny and Poppy, and Nanny and Poppy love the Bots, if the weather doesn’t clear by Tuesday, someone will probably volunteer to drive us to Twin Falls.