The Quiet House

It happens every time.  The house feels waaaay too quiet.  I hear the ticking of the clock.  The hum of the washing machine oozes in from the laundry room.  My heart feels full yet empty.  I have just waved goodbye to the kids and grandkids.

Mya packed for DuluthThis time it was quite a blitz.  For starters, it was 5-year-old Mya’s turn for “Grammy Camp” and she spent four days with us in Duluth.  There is something very special about having grandchildren here on their own.  It invites getting to know them better.  It means they get my complete attention, without competition from siblings or parents.  It encourages doing fun activities together.  Mya’s visit was no exception.

Some things we repeated from big brother Ben’s visit.  A trip around the harbor on the Vista Star was a highlight, and Mya was especially taken with the whole cruise aspect.  “When will we go faster?” was her favorite question.  Mya and Rich on Vista StarMya and friends at the parkMya’s social side came out, and she quickly made friends wherever we went  Arriving in the driveway, she immediately asked to go play with the girls next door.  A trip to the playground quickly morphed into a game of hide and seek.  And a play date with my friend and her grandkids at Playfront Park was a big hit.

My favorite times were snuggling up to read, Mya pressed into my side eager to hear the same books night after night.  Kids all grow out of that stage eventually, but I never do.

Mya was joined by the rest of her family for an overnight stay at the end of the week.  The noise level increased more than three-fold with the addition of her two siblings, and the inevitable rivalries quickly resumed.  We packed in as much time outdoors as we could and even managed to see the steam train before they headed off to the cabin.

Molly and MarenIt was a quick changeover, then we welcomed Carl and Chelsea with baby Maren for the weekend.  In comparison to three active youngsters, Maren’s happy chirping and babbling were mere background sounds.  We easily slipped into the schedule of a 5-month-old which naturally afforded plenty of downtime – welcomed by her parents and this Grammy after my recent camp gig.  Playing with Maren on her quilt was plenty of entertainment.

Still very portable, we took Maren on several hikes and to the Park Point Art Fair.  As we crossed the Aerial Bridge, bells began clanging, the gate went down and we discovered we were the second to last car to get across.  Quickly ditching the car, we scurried to the canal to watch a classic ore boat come through the bridge – a first for not only Maren but Chelsea as well!  There is no Duluth experience better than being up close to a passing ore boat.Carl Chelsea and Maren at the bridge

By now, these are all memories.  The house is our own again.  It’s a grandparent’s prerogative to enjoy the young ones, spoil them, love them to bits then send them home with their parents.  But the echoes of laughter, squabbles, babble and imaginative play still linger in these rooms, leaving this house much too quiet.

Marathon Finish

It doesn’t seem quite fair to leave off with a post leading up to Grandma’s Marathon and then drop it.  While I doubt anyone is losing sleep over how I fared in the race, I somehow feel better at least finishing the tale I started.  So here it is.

Bottom line: My 10th Grandma’s Marathon is in the bag.  I legitimately claimed my Finisher’s t-shirt and the incredibly heavy medal they hung around my tired neck.  I spent the afternoon relishing that “good tired” feeling and the knowledge that I had done it – and I was done.Molly running Grandma's MarathonThe race played out much as I might have predicted.  It was a cloudy 63 degrees at the start, comfortable for running given a slight breeze to stir the air.  The normally welcome sight of the sun was not a good omen.  It quickly sent the temperature into the 70s adding heat to the challenge of the race.  But in comparison to last year’s black-flag conditions, it was very manageable.

I felt good for the first 18 miles.  My pace was in the low to mid 9 minute range, which I knew was well below what I should be doing.  But as long as I was comfortable I kept it up.  I can’t resist the urge to bank a minute or two per mile in the beginning.  I began to slow after that, and by mile 21 (coincidentally the max for my three longest training runs) it became a struggle.  It’s at that point in most marathons where I feel like I am moving in slow motion.  My body is barely moving forward.  My legs are like lead.  But I persist.

Molly and Erik Grandma's MarathonI had a great cheering section to spur me on.  Rich and son Erik were on bikes leapfrogging from point to point along the route.  Erik rode all the way to the end, catching me circling the DECC and riding along shouting encouragement as I turned the corner for the final stretch to the finish.  Rich was there at the end to video me crossing the finish line. Never discount the value of family support!

Molly Erik Rich after Grandma's MarathonI finished in 4:17:15.  I count it as a victory in many ways – I beat last year’s time, I averaged 9:50 minute miles, and it’s a Boston Qualifier (being old is a huge benefit).  But mainly because I felt good about doing it.  This makes 18 marathons overall.  Somehow I just know there are more in me.  I’m not finished yet.

The Marathon Taper

The hardest part of training for a marathon is refraining from running.  At least for me. After all, in my view doing a marathon is the perfect excuse for running copious numbers of miles. It’s all the justification I need to feed my exercise obsession. While I may not enjoy every step of my long training runs, I do love the feeling of building strength week after week and the sense of satisfaction completing those 21-milers.

I no longer use any particular training plan. By now, after 17 marathons I have figured out generally what works for me, and loosely follow that. I’ve made peace with my 60+ years and the inevitable slowdown in pace. Throwing bicycle touring into my repertoire has generated additional irregularity in my training. Since I can’t seem to kick the marathon habit, I’ve learned to adapt and become much more flexible in my approach and my expectations. As long as I’ve done enough preparation to feel I can run 26.2 without issues, I’m game.

So marathon week is a particular challenge. I know it’s time to cut back my miles. Intellectually I understand the need for rest days. My body deserves some downtime to prepare for the upcoming explosion of exertion it will take to get from Two Harbors from Duluth. But my mind resists. I’d so rather be out running.

Coffee time on the dockEnter the cabin. There’s no better place to chill and relax. I spend my final two days prior to Grandma’s Marathon with the lake in view. It’s a place I can allow myself to alternate between reading and snoozing outside on a sunny afternoon. My favorite morning routine is an early run, a brisk swim and a leisurely breakfast on the dock while perusing magazines. Today it’s barely more than a short jog, a brief dip in the lake and extended coffee time pouring over 8 year old issues of Runners’ World.

Tomorrow I can release all this pent up energy. I tell myself I will make up for all the missed miles when I toe the start line and head down the Scenic Highway. I will be grateful for the rest days when I begin to flag. I can feed my passion all I want in the days following the race. For now, I must gracefully concede to my marathon taper.

Yellowhead Cycling Tour Planning

Yellowhead Logo w nameThis trip has been planned for months.  But only in our heads.  Suddenly, with just over a month to go, the need to make firm reservations reached a critical level of urgency.  In a frenzy of keystrokes, battling it out on two computers and independent cell phones, we chipped away at the myriad transportation pieces required to make this journey possible.  Stymied time and again over clashing train and ferry schedules, long stretches of road with no services and sold-out lodgings, our itinerary morphed continuously.  Punctuated by wails of despair, sighs of relief and begrudging compromises we persisted.  Three ferry rides, one train trip and essential lodging bookings later, we had it.  The Yellowhead Tour is now viable and official.

The location is British Columbia, chosen to piggyback on a July family vacation on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state.  The general plan: cycle the Yellowhead Highway from Prince George to Prince Rupert, then ferry over to Haida Gwaii to ride the highway to its terminus on the northern tip of Graham Island.  A total of 620 miles on the bikes over 17 days.

But it’s a lot more complicated than that.  We start at the tip of Vancouver Island, with an 18 hour ferry ride through the inland passage on the coast of British Columbia.  That takes us within 15 miles of Alaska.  It’s a highly scenic route through the calm waters of the coastal islands on a ferry that approaches the comfort of a modest cruise ship.  A quick overnight in Prince Rupert, then we board Canada’s Via Rail for a full day’s journey to Prince George.  It promises an eyeful of wilderness viewing.  That rail segment is equipped with box car racks for our bicycles with roll-on, roll-off convenience – a cyclist’s delight.  The next morning, we will turn around and repeat that same route via bicycle on the Yellowhead Highway.  This time it will take us 12 days.

Our trip originally ended there.  But while scanning Google Maps, I happened to notice that oddly enough, the Yellowhead Highway continued west into the water.  Huh?  The dotted line took me to Haida Gwaii, a group of islands well off the coast formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands.  Its current name literally means “island of the people” and it has a vibrant First Nation culture.  It seemed an intriguing addition.  We will cycle the final stretch of the Yellowhead Highway to the northern coast, then return to Prince Rupert once again.

Traveling in peak tourist season is something we normally avoid.  But given this northerly route, it is the only reasonable timeframe.  So rather than winging it from day to day, we are nailing down each and every night’s accommodation.  Having already learned that services can be scarce, we will surrender our flexibility in favor of peace of mind.

This is actually one of our shorter trips in terms of cycling.  But to make it happen, we will cover 575 miles by ferry, 450 miles on the train and 4,200 miles in the car.

It’s a good thing it all worked out.  Our jerseys are already on order.  At least we planned ahead for those.

When the Sun Shines

The wind whips through the newly sprouted leaves on the trees, their shadows a fluttering dappled pattern on the deck.  Beyond, the sky is that classic deep blue with small cottony puffs floating here and there.  The sun is warm on my face as I type, drinking it all in.  When the sun shines, I have to be out in it.  I’ll endure the dim laptop screen in preference to my superior computer setup inside.  The sunshine is too precious to waste.

One of the greatest benefits of retirement is the loss of distinction between the days.  No longer do we have to confine our activities to weekends.  Nor do we have to take our holidays when the calendar schedules them.  So we took our own Memorial Day Weekend early, based on the weather forecast.  We chose the days when the sun would be shining.

Our first priority was to do some cycling.  Between Rich’s back injury this winter and alternate travels by car and plane this spring, we had yet to cover any significant miles.  Finding that lodging was difficult, even midweek, we chose two 55 mile out-and-back day trips using the cabin as our base.

Mississippi RiverThe first followed the Great River Road from Jacobson to Palisade.  The Mississippi River meandered back and forth in that stretch, greeting us roadside every now and then.  We had the route to ourselves, and reveled in some wildlife sightings.   A deer crossed in front of us, followed by a wolf.  He paused to give Rich at Palisade Cafeus a glance but resumed his original pursuit.  A skunk stopped me abruptly, blocking my path down the shoulder.  I felt it was not worth risking his wrath to pass.  Rich followed a porcupine into the woods, as the critter spread his back quills in a showy display as he fled.

We found lunch at the Palisade Cafe.  Your typical small town cafe with ceramic roosters and memorabilia  adorning the shelves, the waitress knew the locals’ orders before they uttered a word.  Sampling the local offerings, we recharged our batteries for the return trip.

The next day took us far north.  Driving to Littlefork we cycled from there to Lake  Kabetogama on the border.  The sun shone gloriously all day and like the day before we benefited from good pavement and lack of traffic.  We made our way to the Voyageurs National Park Visitor Center.  Although it was not yet open for the season, it did give us access to the lake and a view of its blue expanse.   This time it was breakfast that we ate at the Rocky Ledge. The area was heavily populated with resorts, and the staff was bracing for the onslaught of the holiday weekend.  That morning, however, we were the sole customers.Molly overlooking Lake KabetogamaVisitor Center on Lake KabetogamaIt felt good to be back in the saddle and doing multi-day rides  Naturally I became anxious to get out touring again. It also told us we were not quite ready.  We were grateful for a tailwind to push us home that day as we began to tire, and our sore bottoms were evidence that we needed more time in the saddle.  But it was a start.

Molly feet in boatNestled back in the cabin, we stayed on for two more days, while the sun shone.  The lake was still quiet, with few cabins occupied yet in advance of the weekend.  We had the place to ourselves.  It reminded me why I love being there so much, particularly when the weather is nice.  By the time it began to cloud up on Saturday, we were packing up to go home.

We missed spending Memorial Day at the cabin.  But we also avoided the rainy days.  We made our own holiday weekend, when the sun was shining.

A Student of Writing

Help!  Writing my way through chapters of my book, I just know there’s a lot more to this than I’m prepared to handle.  I find myself drawn to courses on improving my craft. I drool over every email offering classes with literary talent and fine institutions.  I yearn to learn.  But many come with a high price tag, and dates far in the future.  I’m anxious for more immediate tutoring.

Thanks to a posting on the Lake Superior Writers Facebook page, I found Kate St. Vincent Vogl’s class called “Making a Scene.”  It sounded wonderful – “how to set it up, how to bring out the line of action, and how to intensify the conflict along with the characters for a satisfying chapter end––all of which will keep your readers turning page after page.”  And the kicker?  Only $7 which included lunch.  Sponsored by the Crosby Library Friends Foundation it meant a 100-mile drive each way for the 3-hour workshop, but I was game.  Best of all, it was only a few weeks away.Kate teaching class

With a long history of teaching at the Loft Literary Center, Kate proved to be the seasoned professional I hoped to find.  Her knowledge was extensive, with the ability to call up examples and authors at will for illustrations and further study.  She conveyed her deep knowledge with ease and gracefully invited participation and comments from the 20 students in the library classroom.

It was all I could do to keep up with the rapid information coming my way, scribbling as fast as I could yet trying to absorb the wisdom at the same time.  Tying in a few writing exercises helped us all put it to use immediately, to reinforce her points.

Here are some nuggets from the class:

Think of CATS to remember the four basic components of a scene:

  • Characters – need multiple people interacting
    • Show how the characters are different through their actions, how they argue, things they treasure, family background
    • What attitudes do the characters bring?
  • Acting on a desire – establish what the main character wants
    • Don’t mistake motion for action.  What characters do must have consequences
    • Actions complicate the problem and must make the reader uneasy
  • Tension – a conflict or a problem
    • Set it up early, develop it, have a turning point
    • The problem must matter to the main character
  • Specific place and time
    • Where are they and why?
    • What things are in the room?  How does the lighting affect the mood?  What characters are present?

Other tidbits:

  • Think about how to make your story as tight as you can for the reader.  Don’t give them anything they will skip.
  • Be as specific as possible.  Get descriptions into your nouns and verbs instead of adjectives and adverbs.  “She slammed down her coffee.”
  • Using flashback or description – does it break up the flow?  You may need to get it in through dialog or imply what happened.
  • When ending a scene, you need to leave a character frustrated, his or her needs not met.  There needs to be something more that will pull the reader along.
  • Worry is your friend in writing.  Give readers a reason to read further.
  • Let yourself write badly.  It takes many drafts to get ready to submit to an agent or publisher.  In your first draft you are writing the story for yourself.  In the next draft, you can shape it and use the ideas you generated.  Refine it in subsequent drafts.
  • Read aloud to get the feel of your story.  It’s best to read to an audience; you can tell immediately where it needs tightening.

Making a Scene writing classKate made sure to connect with each of us personally.  She was happy to talk to me about my book, gave me some thoughts to consider before class started, and answered my more specific questions at the end.  The three hours went by quickly, and I left with new tools in my writing skills repertoire as well as renewed inspiration.

There is much to be gained from these short learning opportunities.  Each time I connect with a writer, I learn something.  I aim to take advantage of as many of these local offerings as I can.  And I can’t help but continue to dream about the in-depth classes.  I’m still very much the student.

Note: Kate St. Vincent Vogl is a fiscal year 2017 recipient of an Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. Grant recipients are asked to use their talent to benefit the community. In this case, local writers were the lucky beneficiaries!

Costa Rica’s Local Color

It was only two weeks. But in that time we witnessed a transformation. Arriving in the west coast town of Las Catalinas, the weather patterns still clung to the winter norm. Clear blue skies, hot baking sun, a calm bay and dry brown earth prevailed. We were in the “dry forest” and the midst of the winter-long absence of rain.

The climate was most apparent on the mountain bike trails. Even just looking up into the hills surrounding town, everything was brown. Following the dirt paths up into those hills, the ground was rock hard and vegetation was dormant. But all that soon changed, almost overnight.

Clouds moved in, and so did the rain. Evenings invariably brought flashing skies as lightning pulsed through the darkness. We had front row seats sitting out on out deck watching the sky. Most evenings thunderstorms followed. Rain was often intense and short. But it had the courtesy to come only at night, which we appreciated. The increased humidity, however, clogged the air. Stepping outside any time of day, we were immediately cloaked in hot heavy air. It was hot before, now it was cloyingly sticky. The wind picked up too. The timid waves lapping the shore turned into veritable crashing breakers.

On the trails, just a few days of rain worked magic. Buds popped out everywhere. Tiny clover-like plants poked up through the soil and began to carpet the trail. The brown landscape was instantaneously green. I was glad I had taken some early pictures as I might otherwise have thought I imagined the stark change.

Before and after rain

Flowering plants also flourished. Those already blooming increased one hundred fold. New colors and blossoms appeared. It was a feast for the eyes.  Some mornings, we would find the trails littered with brilliant flowers, brought down by the hard rain.

Costa Rica flowers

The gathering storms did scuttle a number of sunsets. By late in the day, clouds often hovered over the horizon, preventing the sun’s late rays from reaching the sky overhead with its red glow. That didn’t stop us from watching, however, ever hopeful for a display. Yes, glass of Chardonnay in hand. And on our final night, we were rewarded one last time. It was a fitting parting gift, this local color in Costa Rica.

Final Costa Rica sunset