Welcome to Wheel Life

I once took an interior design class with a final project to design a 6’x12’ living space. Some people would view this a prison cell, but I threw myself into it, adding a loft bed, storage sofa, fold-down tables, even a garden window. My design never came to fruition, but by then I was hooked on tiny homes.   Some go small by necessity, others feel freedom in paring belongings down to what really matters; I guess I craved a vague togetherness and simple life. When we started a family, I sometimes fantasized about couples vacations, date nights now and then, even a lock on the bathroom door, but feared that our kids would someday drift away. Heck, more like scurry away with their cell phones whenever we entered a room. I wanted to always interact with them, even if it meant forcing them into a confined space with us on occasional weekends.

Our house at the time looked like BabysRUs and ToysRUs threw up all over it. Yes, I suppose we could have decluttered, just like we could have subsisted on my fantasy window garden or run a sub 3-hour marathon. I needed to live tiny, even part-time, so began considering RVs.  My Dear Husband, God bless him, is a cautious man. He keeps me on the straight and narrow, and usually reacts to my schemes with a weary “Uh-uh”. So I did the sensible thing, and didn’t tell him about my plan to start researching RVTrader.com (kind of like a Match.com for RV buyers) and visiting dealerships.  The field research was a lot of fun.  It was a bit strange entering small enclosures, lying on mattresses, flushing toilets, and standing in shower stalls in front of strangers, but as a parent of young children I had already lost my dignity.

It was a tough decision. First, (stereotyping here) I didn’t picture ourselves as typical RVers: Empty nesters whose chicks have long left the nest, following the sun in a giant rig, burning the competition at shuffleboard and square dancing, possibly wearing matching captains’ hats.  And then there was the thought of throwing away my life savings for a camper on steroids that we may or may not use. The research continued, and I feared DH was starting to suspect I was conducting an affair when I hurried off my laptop as he walked in, or told hopeful salesmen– who called at all hours– that it ‘wasn’t a good time to talk’.

Finally, I heard a late model, smallish Class C (cab over drivers seat, gas powered, truck chassis) calling to me from sunny Florida.  I broke the news to DH at our anniversary dinner, hoping that he was feeling love for me and confident that the venue was too public for an ugly scene.   He was intrigued, if for no other reason telling his friends and co-workers that he was driving a Ford F-450.   Soon, we were flying down to pick up our new tiny home on wheels. They say that you can gauge the health of your relationship by going on a long road trip with your beloved. Does the same hold true for a family and pets?

 

On Eyebrows and Epidurals

My eyebrows seem to have disappeared over time, so I decided to have them ‘microbladed’ this week.  Any term with the word ‘blade’ suggests pain, and although described as similar to playful kitten scratches, it felt more like a mauling. Part of it is my sissy-low pain threshold but I didn’t expect to be writhing like a landed fish while enduring threats from my aesthetician that the pain was in my head and my eyebrows would looks like a roadmap if I didn’t sit still.  She also noted that my face is ‘large’, (I hope that at least meant I have high cheekbones), and ‘expressive’, and demanded that I stop moving my entire big face while I was at it. Trying to add a some levity, get my mind off the torture, and make her like me a little more, I changed the subject to the fail-safe topic of kids.  I learned that she has two, just like me, but our paths to motherhood diverged greatly with our second children.

I was one of those women who thought carefully about natural childbirth– and the joys of going through that beautiful, meaningful process with nothing but a mantra, stress ball, ice chips, and hand-wringing partner– and then said nah, give me the damn epidural…NOW.  It worked splendidly, and child number two was delivered via emergency c-section, in which case there was no option but to bring on the anesthesia.  In sum, my babies were delivered with good care, minimal pain, and at a bargain price due to good insurance coverage.

My aesthetician, on the other hand– a small business owner and child of Vietnamese immigrants– lost her insurance after her first child was born, and had to max out her credit card to pay the $5,000 fee to deliver her second child.  The epidural was an expensive luxury that she could no longer afford, so she suffered through a prolonged labor and painful birth, coached on by a husband who helpfully shouted at her to ‘be quiet and calm down’.  The doctors hurried the delivery and put the baby at risk of a blood infection, so the child was sent to intensive care for two days, which added another $7,200 to the tab.  She thought about suing her doctors but gave up, knowing it would cost even more, with no clear result.  She told me that having her children made it all worthwhile, but I can’t imagine what she had to endure, and the crushing debt she took on.  Not to mention no paid leave or sick days.
Meeting someone like this makes me feel fortunate for what I have, and wish that everyone could have access to affordable insurance.  I realize Obamacare wasn’t perfect, but I’m not convinced its replacement is better.  We will have to see how the latest iteration of health care reform plays out, but it is starting to look more and more like the land of ‘haves’ and have nots’, especially for womens’ reproductive rights. I hope to follow the plight of this woman, and see if she manages to find decent insurance in this brave new world, if I have the courage to return.
My second, lesser point is to never, ever have a major new body procedure done before a big event.  Ideally, clear your schedule, jet off to a sunny place, and come back when you’re damn well ready. Most of us can’t afford such a luxury, so my only advice is to plan carefully.  I imagined efficiently attending our son’s concert, our daughter’s ballet, a baby shower, and entertaining family, all in the same week, with fierce new eyebrows.  But, instead of Karlie Kloss, I got Groucho Marx.  It will heal and supposedly look better in time, but I am spending this very hectic week skulking around in Jackie O sunglasses like a fool and wishing I had left well enough alone.

Age of Aquarist

We spent the afternoon at Fords Theatre, where the President’s Box still holds watch, as it has for 152 years since that fateful night when President Lincoln lost his life to…political hate.   fullsizerender-13The theatre is, coincidentally, a few blocks from the Trump International Hotel, where protestors massed today for yet another cause: the immigration ban.  Rebellion is suddenly the order of the day, and comes as a shock to many who don’t remember the era of large- scale protests in our country.  Many of us who believed in traditional institutions feel like we don’t know where to turn, what to do.  We have to make the difficult choice to stay connected to the world or hide out, although the latter seems impossible in the echo chambers of social media.  Still, there is good in this new reality.  We are being moved to action in ways big and small.  We realize that past squabbles pale in comparison to the feast of problems before us.  Maybe Republicans and Democrats will finally come together in a new coalition to do not what’s expedient, but what’s right.  And, we will always have the power to control our own little worlds and freely send  signals outside, hopeful that someone will listen.

On that final note,  I have begun fulfilling my dream of establishing a saltwater aquarium.  I’ve actually had it a while, stored in a box until our recent move.  Now, finally, it is up and running.  Sort of.  I lost my copy of Saltwater Aquariums for Dummies in the move, so went to the pet store for a refresher course with a very patient salesman named Tony.  (I see Tony and I establishing an intimate relationship over the years, not  a romantic sense, but through my constant visits, nagging questions, and large purchases.)

I was amused to see signs assuring customers that the fish were raised in captivity, in case we feel guilt from watching Finding Nemo.  Yes, these fish think the world is small and rectangular, just like the early explorers, and it is fine with them. Another customer, someone I probably would have never met, struck up a conversation on algae.  It felt oddly satisfying to connect with two strangers– not over work or politics– just common interest.

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Think twice before involving children in decorating.

aquarium

Fill ‘er up.

The bucket brigade and alchemy are complete, and we are now waiting for it to clear, or show some sign of settling down.  I know that an aquarium or other hobby isn’t the solution to the ills in our lives.  Yet, when the world

is spinning too fast, it can help keep us grounded and focused.  Here, I am mayor of my own peaceful little ecosystem that recalls good times spent scuba diving and snorkeling.   It is not a particularly good endeavor for an anxious personality, as I have already inventoried everything that can go wrong:  Will the living sand and rock, full of good bacteria like the stuff our parents let us play in when we were young, die?  Worse, will I not know it?  Will my heater explode because I didn’t submerge it far enough?  How do you maintain perfect salinity when your water is always evaporating?   Will the inhabitants get along or eat each other?  Most importantly, who can we bribe, I mean trust enough, to take care of it if we go on vacation?   I don’t know the answers, but so far, it is a great distraction from the larger questions nipping at my heels.

 

Lessons From a Red State

As womens’ marches filled the world’s streets on Inauguration weekend, my family and I took another form of protest: away from the unrest and gloom that had settled in over D.C. and into the woods of West Virginia, where the great forests once leveled in the westward expansion have once again filled out the stunning, rugged landscape.fullsizerender-10 If you look at a map, we were in the area just below the place where Maryland– the oddly gerrymandered and staunchly blue state– points down at its southern neighbor, a few hours from D.C. but seemingly much further away.  It felt good to breathe again, to not worry about offending or being offended, and think about other things besides politics.

The soaring vistas and towering trees belie a much bleaker picture of this majestic state: It has among the highest unemployment, disability, and opiate addiction rates in the country.  It also has one of the highest percentage of Trump voters.  Many people, especially in the coastal cities, express odd fascination and mock them as uneducated and uninformed.  They love yet hate West Virginia because they can’t understand it.  Yet, diving deep into one of the reddest states in the union– even for a couple of days– the mystery begins to unravel.

While my family skied, I headed out to rest my bones, enjoy a cup of coffee, and read awhile. I ended up in the northernmost of a string of small towns along the rushing Blackwater River, named after the British and Scottish settlers who put them on the map, and started walking around. The town hugs a cliff overlooking the river and the old railroad track, which has long since been converted into a trail. fullsizerender-7 fullsizerender-1I stopped to read a historical plaque that took me back a century and a half ago, when the railroad was the beating heart of this community, delivering goods and taking coal mined by a melting pot of nationalities who lived and worked side by side. In that place and time, people were too busy to hate. They worked, shopped, raised families, shared their cultures, and proudly contributed what they could. Immigrants were welcomed, not shunned; the only passport you needed was a willingness to work.  Many of their descendants still live there, bound by family and tradition.

Fast forward to today, and you get the sense that these towns suffocated along with the dwindling mountain coal industry. Yes, you can see revival in some places, but as something else entirely: Small shops, galleries, and restaurants drawing day trippers now dot the mostly vacant main street. Hopeful signs point to the economic revitalization on the way. But they may never again be the same downtowns, with grocery stores, butcher shops, hardware stores, and doctors offices.  These lifelines are gone, out to the anonymous highway, and often– like the nearest hospital– far away.  As you depart Main Street and drive this highway, there’s no avoiding the seemingly endless parade of giant wind turbines high atop the ridge line.  A coal mine is nestled in the narrow valley below.  The view is a stark contrast between the industries of then and now, and they couldn’t be more different: Coal mining, especially in the east, is difficult, dirty, backbreaking, dangerous work. It is increasingly costly and difficult to pull coal out of the ground here. fullsizerenderEnter the wind turbine–a clean and elegant engineering marvel that pretty much does the work itself, collecting an endless supply of wind and magically converting it into energy. One industry supported plentiful hard labor; its successor, educated engineers and machinists who design, build, and maintain the turbines.

In other words, an energy industry is still here, but it is no longer democratic or available for anyone who wants to work in it. This seems to be a common refrain as the world lurches into another age of e-commerce and globalization: jobs are increasingly specialized and require unique skills, yet many people without the ability or know-how to pursue them simply give up in despair.  Like the shift from the agricultural to the industrial age, the changes are bringing hope and fear to us all, but hit especially hafullsizerender-9rd in places like this.

Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by just watching.” I don’t pretend to know the answers or what other people feel, but I did leave this part of the world with more compassion than before, and a feeling that the answers lie beyond hate, border walls, tariffs, and isolationism.  I hope that we can find a way to heal our divisions, support honest hard work, and accept that a college education isn’t for everyone.  We all deserve alternatives that provide dignity, respect, recognition, and a real living wage– a truth that’s often forgotten as we charge toward the horizon.  A new highway now crisscrosses the state, easing commutes and making these mountain valleys more accessible.  Not a railroad of yesteryear, but a positive sign.

The Adventure Begins…

I am not, in most senses, an early adopter.  I am more like the Goldilocks of blog writing, testing the waters and drawing back my toe over and over.   Many years ago, inspired by the book Last Child in the Woods, I originally planned to be a nature writer specializing in getting kids out into nature.  I was fiercely determined that we wouldn’t be ‘that’ family locked away indoors, tapping on screens and interacting only enough for me to nag the kids to put down their devices, do their chores, and eat something that didn’t have a multi-year shelf life.  I envisioned weekly hikes, nature center trips, camping, etc., but there was one major problem.  The Outdoors is a big, often inconvenient and uncomfortable place that  doesn’t always capture the tykes’ attention as you would hope.  The relaxing beaches of my youth became landmines of sand in eyes and other places, jellyfish stings, and sunscreen slathered so heavily that the kids felt like greased piggies.  Hikes were a chorus of complaining and lack of facilities, punctuated by an epic ‘big kid’ underwear blowout in a National Park, miles from civilization or even toilet paper.  Backpacking?  Ha Ha!  Fuhgeddaboutit.   We kept trying, but I felt like a fraud, and collapsed from the logistical workload.    Heck, I didn’t even enjoy it some of the time.  The kids are now older (13 and 10) and not at as much risk of going overboard, disappearing under a wave, or melting down, so we are venturing out again; but time is limited.

I thought about writing on parenting but that ground is so well trod that I really had no new insights, and was afraid of the P.C. backlash from telling it like it really is, if only humorously (It goes back to the trauma of trying to set up a happy hour playdate where all of the moms refused a glass of wine, and a cookie exchange where they refused to bring cookies, lest they appear…humans who had fun and consumed a dubious calorie now and then.)  And, besides, Scary Mommy had cornered that market.

What, then?  I surprised my very kind and accepting husband by purchasing our long-awaited vacation home– actually a used RV– a couple of years ago and thought of writing about our RVing experiences.  Honestly, most RV blogs are deadly boring, so I thought there may be potential, especially in a venture so ripe for comedy, but feared I may never find my target audience of families (grandparents excluded)who RV.  (If you are out there, let’s get to know each other!)  So, I present this blog, a mishmash of random thoughts on all of the above and more.   Will you come along on the journey?