Friday, July 31, 2015

Problem Solving

I'm an educator -- a math teacher of middle school students -- and I live in the world of kids giving up on a subject or problem.  There are a ridiculously large number of reasons why a student may back away from a problem and it is my job to coax and coach him through it, help him identify the resources and strategies at hand, and encourage him to try the next problem independently.  

Then there are the questions I refuse to answer in any helpful manner, ones that any amount of self-initiative would have taken care of independently.  My answer to all of these types of questions is the same: "I think you can problem solve this one on your own."  

Raina and Lola have heard that line from me more than a few times themselves, so I was delighted today to hear this exchange between my girls while they were in the kitchen.

Raina:  You'll need a bowl.
Lola (standing underneath the cabinet with the bowls):  Will you get me a bowl, Raina?  
Raina: (pointed look at Lola and then the cabinet)
Lola:  Oh!  I can problem solve this one myself!  

She then fetched the step stool, stood on tip-toe, reached far back, and grabbed her bowl.  I didn't expect to hear my words repeated back with meaning and understanding, instead of mockery or disdain.  Excellent!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Tooth #6

Lola lost four teeth this summer.  She looked like a vampire and now looks like a jack-o-lantern.  She's excited about the progress and bummed that she cannot eat corn on the cob.  Next summer, Lola.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Reclaiming Running, Reclaiming Myself

In theory, I like to exercise.  I know it is good for me and I’m proud of myself for getting out there and doing it.  In reality, I don’t exercise as much as I should.  I let work and meetings and time-of-day push exercise aside and it doesn’t take too much of those actions to make it a habit and then a way of life.  I used to exercise on average two hours a day but now I feel good if I average 30 minutes a week.  Something had to change.

So I committed some money and I signed up for a half-marathon.  Even better, I convinced Eric that he wanted to run it too.  I have not trained for a race in a long time and Eric never has, so we looked for a race that would get us some lead time for training and would also be weather suitable.  Eric has asthma, so he does not run outside when it’s cold.  He’s willing to run during Saint Louis summer afternoons with heat indices over 100 degrees.  Me, I’m not willing to do that.  Like, ever.  I will suit up and run in wind chills of 8 degrees, though.  We compromised and chose a half-marathon in October. 

Running 13.1 miles in one go isn’t easy but it’s not impossible.  I’d wager that many folks could walk a half-marathon without training – they’d hurt the next day and it would be unpleasant but they could do it.  The event is done in a day and you move on.  My point here is that the half-marathon itself is challenging but not overbearing.  The race is a means to an end; it’s a motivator to put in the real work of training.  Most training programs are 12 weeks long, at least, with the minimum expectation of running 3 – 6 miles twice a week and then an increasingly longer run once a week.  In theory, being this disciplined and running this often is something I could do without the end-goal of a race, but having the race certainly helps me push for longer distances than I would otherwise choose to do. 

Signing up for the race was my birthday present, so we registered in early May.  No one has a training schedule that’s five months long, so I devised one myself and then did something incredibly important.  I scheduled all the runs in my calendar.  Tuesday morning, recurring, 3 – 6 miles.  Thursday morning, recurring, 3 – 6 miles.  Sunday, recurring, increasingly longer runs.  My awesome Google Calendar scheduled my Tuesday and Thursday running events and, with the click of a button, I ensured that they continued indefinitely. 

I’m surprised by how convincing this one action is.  My calendar says it’s a running day, so I run.  Time-blocking for exercise is not something I really tried before, but it’s amazingly effective.  The regimen matters.  I plan for the run, lay out sports bra and shorts the night before, get up early, and get out there. 

And I’m really enjoying it.  I somewhat have a love-hate relationship with running – as many runners do – but I’ve reclaimed a small part of time for just me, a moment for movement and reflection and meditation.  Eric and I rarely run together so the mornings tend to be mine.  I’ve lucked into many long runs in the rain – I’m convinced there’s nothing better for a Saint Louis summer run – and I’m slogged through some heat and humidity that I never imagined enduring.  But I’m keeping at it, and that’s what matters.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Something's different!



Welcome to the multiple-years-agony that is braces, Raina!  She called it her bud (thing she was looking forward to) and her thorn (thing that was bad, bad, bad).  She accurately captured the experience.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Slides from our Mountain Vacation

Daniel Kahneman, renowned psychologist and author of Thinking Fast and Slow, is my most cited authority.  One of his findings is that mentally revisiting experiences -- by telling stories, looking at pictures, etc. -- locks in the emotional connection to the experience.  The remembering self is stronger than the experiencing self; how we remember the experience has more impact than the experience itself.

The Whomptons went into our Colorado vacation with that mindset: well, if it's terrible, at least we'll have some funny stories to tell once we're done!  Chances for those stories were high.  We five drove from STL, through Missouri and Kansas, to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.  We slept in the same tent for three nights, hiked lots, didn't shower for four days, and experimented with outdoor cooking.  We also jaunted over to Boulder and Denver and played tourist before driving Denver to STL in one day.  We had quite an adventure.  Would you like to hear the stories?  Read on ....


Eric purchased a minivan last month so that the family could take trips, like this one, in comfort and without much screaming.  The minivan totally delivered.  We jam packed it with gear, food, books, and people, and started our journey west.  Saint Louis to Colorado is a straight drive west on Interstate 70; beginning our drive with the morning sun at our backs, we excitedly anticipated adding new states to our list (no one had been to Kansas and Samantha, Raina, and Lola had never been to Colorado) and we planned an easy start to our drive by breaking it into two days.  Everyone told us that Kansas was totally and completely flat, which I'll point out is a lie.  Eastern Kansas is absolutely gorgeous with green rolling hills and interesting rock formations.  Then you get into the Kansas farm land, which is uniformly boring to look at, and where the flat descriptor comes to play.  It's not so much that Kansas is flat as it is huge plots of uninterrupted farmland.  Few houses, communities, or even trees break up the monotony of great plains farm views.  We arrived in Colby, Kansas, "the oasis on the plains," and happily checked into our hotel and pursued dinner.

As the mostly-vegan one in the group, finding a restaurant for me can be challenging.  We ate at Chipotle for lunch earlier in the day -- success! -- but finding a place in Colby was harder than expected.  We called all the restaurants in town, and selected the one that seemed the most promising. Upon arriving, we noticed their decor was of dead, mounted animals, which was distressing, but they balanced it out with historic images of Colby and the prairie.  Food is food, and we were grateful to be out of the car.

A brief stop at the Colby Wal-Mart prepared us for the next day's trip.  We went back, took our last showers for multiple days, and enjoyed sleep in a bed.


The Colby continental breakfast was awesome, and we were on our way to Colorado!  We crossed the border and stopped to check out the Colorado Visitors Center, but we were 20 minutes too early.  Alas.  Back in the car, then, and straight on to Boulder.

We stopped off in Boulder to get lunch -- BreadCo, woohoo! -- and to explore the Boulder REI.  I had a Rocky Mountain fold-out map, but I wanted books too, if possible.  The Saint Louis REI was remarkably under-equipped in comparison to the Boulder store and we enjoyed browsing the larger store.  With bear bells and books in hand, we drove to the park.

Estes Park is the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park from the east side.  It's a tourist trap from hell.  (Have you been to Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge, the gateways to the Smoky Mountains?  It was just the same.  Why come huge distances just so you can souvenir shop at the outskirts of pretty mountains!?  Ugh.)  Driving through Estes Park when folks were out-and-about was one of my least favorite parts of the trip.  We escaped Estes Park's clutches and headed into Rocky Mountain National Park.

Oh, my.  The Rockies are just stunningly, breathtakingly gorgeous.  We were thrilled to be in such beautiful country.  We set up camp in Moraine Park (nice view, cool climbing boulders, easy access to the restroom and water spigot) and the girls delighted in climbing all over and exploring our campsite.  Bouldering is so much more fun than sitting in a car!  :)

At this point, it was mid afternoon and time to begin our hiking adventures.  Eric and I had done this once before, and we effectively retraced our steps.  Moraine Park + hiking to Emerald Lake = win!  (Want pictures from that trip?  Head over here.)  So we drove to the Bear Lake shuttle stop, grabbed a shuttle up to the Bear Lake trailhead, and then hiked to Nymph, Dream, and Emerald Lakes.  (We did not have cameras with us until later in the week, so I stole images from the interwebs for this.)

Nymph Lake

Dream Lake 

 Emerald Lake

The Bear Lake trailhead trails are always super packed with people.  (RMNP runs shuttles every 3 - 5 minutes to the trailhead each day.  Wow.)  Even so, we saw elk and plenty of cutesy chipmunks in addition to beautiful views.  We experienced the typical afternoon thunderstorm but we were well supplied with waterproofs and happily made our way through the hike.  The distance was easy and the climb exceptionally minimal; all in all, it was an excellent acclimating hike for our first day.  Samantha and Krystal wandered to Bear Lake in the rain; everyone else ran to the potties and to the shuttle stop shelter.

We grabbed firewood on the drive back into Moraine, started our campfire with the candle kisses Lola made at home, and enjoyed our meals on sticks (hot dogs, veggie dogs, marshmallows, and s'mores).  Our night sky view was blocked by clouds and an almost-full moon so we turned in for our first night of five people in the tent.  


Tent sleeping the first night was not the greatest.  However, we had a great reward the next morning, as we watched mule deer graze in our campground.  Wild animals having breakfast next to our tent!  Awesome!  Eventually they traveled off, Samantha and Krystal began making breakfast while Eric, Raina, and Lola did a morning walk around Moraine.  They saw more mule deer and some elk.

Moraine Park, riparian area

After our tasty oatmeal breakfast, we cleaned up, packed up, sunscreened up, and readied ourselves for our morning hike.  We were headed to the Calypso Cascades in the Wild Basin.  We exited out through Estes Park, drove south for a while, and re-entered RMNP at Wild Basin.  Goodness, this was a significant change from Bear Lake Road!  Instead of a paved road that was so popular that shuttles are required, we bounced along a dirt road that barely seemed wide enough for the van and twisted at curves that made me curse.  I began hyperventilating as I imagined driving out of the park later and encountering a car going in the opposite direction.  Oh goodness.

We stopped at the Finch Lake trailhead (which had parking, which wasn't guaranteed at the next stop) and walked up to the Wild Basin trailhead and ranger station.  Now, it bears noting that potties are at a premium.  We had ample opportunity to practice peeing in the woods, so we quickly learned that if a potty is made available, one should take advantage of it.  No question.  In fact, I computed the price of our RMNP entrance ($20 for 7 days), divided that amongst the 5 people ($4 per person), and divided that by the number of days in the park, and determined we were each paying $1 per day for the park to provide us with potties and toilet paper.  It was money well spent.

We began our hike through Wild Basin.  We walked along streams and waterfalls made by the melting snows and glaciers.  I do not have an adequate vocabulary to describe the beauty and wonder of quickly running water as it pounds the rocks and flows downstream.  It certainly was captivating and we gawked appropriately at Copeland Falls and then at Calypso Cascades.

Each stop near the water had the same sign:  "Warning.  Icy water will incapacitate you.  The swift currents and boulders will kill you."  The sign had a helpful picture of someone slipping.  We stepped carefully!

Along the walk up to the Cascades, we stopped at a sunny overlook of the stream and ate an apple snack.  Raina and Lola sat on a freestanding boulder and gnawed on their apples.  (Lola particularly struggled at this, since she's missing her two top teeth.)  Pretty soon, a friendly chipmunk scampered our way.  I pointed it out to the girls, which turned out to be unnecessary, because the chipmunk climbed on their rock, stood up to look at the apple, and then climbed up on Raina to get it.  The girls squealed with surprise, the chipmunk ran down, and the girls sat down again.  Then our friendly chipmunk came back, climbed the rock, and climbed on Raina again!  (It's illegal to feed the wild animals in RMNP, but clearly folks do it.  If we had less restraint, we'd have been feeding that chipmunk all of our apple snack!)  The chipmunk ran off to explore a patch of space occupied by other hikers, discovered a piece of beef jerky, and packed it away.

At this point, we had hiked 1.8 miles up, which was a relatively okay endeavor.  We had a choice.  We could go back down and head out, or we could continue the loop back to the Finch Lake trailhead where we had parked.  We had packed sandwiches, snacks, and lots of water, so we voted to do the loop.

In the end, we signed up for more than we had bargained for, but we had an experience worth telling stories about!  (I'm looking at you, Kahneman.)  Partly, this was due to an extreme underestimation of the loop length and altitude climb.  Looking at the map now, it's clear that Calypso Cascades is about 1/3 of the distance we covered, but we thought that the distance was about half.  So the hike was longer than anticipated in distance.  It also was substantially higher up, because we climbed a ridge.  The girls literally climbed a mountain.  Everyone's legs complained about that.  In the end, though, these were minor issues.  The real problem would come later.

We knew that the Ouzel Falls trail had washed out due to flooding.  What we had not considered was that other areas would be affected by the flooding as well.  At a certain point in our climb the trail effectively vanished.  More accurately, it had been washed away by the flood.  We could slide/climb down a 12 foot dirt wall and try not to land into the rushing stream or we could turn back and retrace our steps.  (This was about 2/3 around the loop for distance purposes.)  The situation was rather terrifying.  Samantha voted to turn back and Lola hysterically cried when looking at it.  We all were nervous about scaling down the wall.

Eric went first.  I had him toss his pack down so that it wouldn't be a hindrance for him.  A water bottle bounced out of the pack and landed in a crook near to the drop-off.  This was not reassuring.  If a person landed badly, she too could end up in the water, injure herself seriously and/or cascade down the cliff.  Eric slid down and landed safely.  Next it was Lola's turn.  Lola's hysterical crying escalated -- there was no way she was letting go of the ridge.  In the end, I had to circle the narrow ridge around Raina, reach Lola, lift her off the ridge, convince her to let go of the rock and branches, and somewhat drop/push her down the side.  She went belly-to-the-wall which was smart.  She reached the bottom and cried some more.  I climbed down, then Raina, then Samantha.  Next we had to cross the water and climb up to the trail again.  Once all five Whomptons were safely back on the trail, we all whooped and hollered and high-fived each other in relief.

We then met a very nice couple who told us that all hard parts of the hike were over and we were headed to some gorgeous wildflowers.  We climbed a bit more along the ridge, enjoyed the views, and marveled at the wildflower variety.  We saw the rare calypso wild orchid and the Colorado columbine, which were cool and unexpected.  Lola easily found all the colors of the rainbow in the wildflowers.  And then, about six hours after we started, we reached the Finch Lake trailhead and our van.  Woohoo!

Another family was leaving at the same time, so I quickly pulled out behind them so that THEY could be the ones to encounter a car on the drive back.  We had a a near miss on a one-car wide bridge, but otherwise came out unscathed.  We drove back through Estes Park, scowled at the people, and rejoiced to be back at our campground in Moraine.  We were physically exhausted and ready for a break.  Then we realized just how flipping hot it was, and we immediately went looking for shade and shelter.  We ended up at the Moraine Park Discovery Center, which had really interesting information about the history of RMNP, the geology, and the animals that lived there.  Evening was pasta with beans, which no one really enjoyed, marshmallows and s'mores, which were much more delightful, and a small walk around Moraine.  We tried to stay up late to look at the stars, but we were all too exhausted to do much of it.  Everyone slept hard that night.


We had learned our lesson.  Waterfalls and streams are gorgeous, and we wanted more.  We also needed to have a better idea of what we were doing before we set out.  The next day, after our oatmeal breakfast, we drove to the shuttle pick-up and were deposited at Glacier Gorge trailhead in the Bear Lake area of the park.  We hiked from Glacier Gorge to Alberta Falls, then to Bear Lake, then to Bierstadt Lake, then back to the park-and-ride to reach the van.  This hike was mostly forested and moderately populated with people, with Bear Lake being insanely crowded.  The altitude change wasn't as much, and no one's legs complained anywhere as much.

We climbed all over the boulders at Alberta Falls to get closer to the water and the spray.  Glacier water is COLD and gorgeous and Raina and I could have stayed there all day and watched it.  Eventually we trekked over to Bear Lake.

Bear Lake at sunrise (not by us)

Bear Lake

While walking around Bear Lake, I encountered someone in a Centre College t-shirt.  I chatted with him a bit, only to discover that his mom was also from Owensboro, and that she had taught at Daviess County High School when I was there!  Mrs. Braswell-Leahey looked different from what I had remembered, but then again it has been 20 years.  I certainly look different!  We had a nice chat, marveled at serendipity, and headed out again.  Bierstadt Lake, we were coming for you!

In a nice shady spot along the way, we stopped to eat our peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.  Pretty soon thereafter we were greeted by a caravan of folks riding horseback and trying to control the horses and make it up the path.  The horses showed significant interest in our sandwiches and one horse tried to grab mine and then Raina's!

Bierstadt Lake was pretty but buggy and we did not linger.  The path from Bear Lake to Bierstadt was mostly downhill, which was nice, and we had views of communities and nature scenes both.  It was a very different hike than the two previous days'.  Lola was disappointed that we ended at the van, so she, Eric, and Raina grabbed the shuttle to Moraine and walked back to the campsite.

Once back at home, we prepared for another brutally hot afternoon.  Samantha and I strategically placed chairs in spots with shade and access to breezes, and all the girls enjoyed quiet time with books and snoozing.  Afterwards, we popped back in the van and drove to the Beaver Valley Visitors Center so we could write and mail postcards.  While there, we discovered the Junior Ranger program, watched a cool video, and got hike recommendations from the rangers.

The evening saw beans and couscous for dinner, rain and thunder, campfire and s'mores, rain, thunder, and lightning, and everyone cuddled up in the tent.  The wind during the storm was really blowing and we were happy to be inside and dry.


Wednesday was our last day in the park.  We spent the morning drying out the tent, packing up the van, and preparing for our last major hike.  The ranger had recommended we try Lumpy Ridge and Gem Lake, with the warning that it would be strenuous but rewarding and different from everything else we had done.  He was absolutely right.  The boulders were huge, the incline was steep, and the views were gorgeous.

We rewarded ourselves with granola bars at Gem Lake and were greeted by more friendly chipmunks.  Chipmunks are adorable.

We also watched teenagers climb up the lumpy ridge with Eric noting that the teens were idiots.  I decided that I too wanted to be an idiot, and I bouldered up to the top of the ridge.  I could see in all directions and I really wished that I had a camera because the mountains on one side of the ridge looked different from the other side.  Oh well.  I scrambled back down without injury, greeted even more chipmunks, and joined the family for the hike down to the van.

Driving along Trail Ridge Road was our final activity in RMNP.  We hoped to see elk and bighorn sheep but eagerly wished to see pika and marmots.  We did all the hikes in the arctic tundra -- including one in 46 degrees, wind, and sleet -- and we definitely heard pika chirping.  Samantha saw a creature scurrying across a glacier which we like to think was a pika but was probably a marmot based on size.  In the end, we all were disappointed not to see pika in the wild.  To console ourselves, we can rely on David Attenborough to show us pika whenever we want.  Bless you, Sir David.

We stopped off at the Hidden Valley Junior Ranger center and later at the Alpine Center.  Lola earned her Junior Ranger badge at the Alpine Center and she proudly displayed it for the next three days.  (Did you know that adults too can be Junior Rangers?!  I restrained myself from claiming Raina's Junior Ranger booklet as my own and stealing her badge.  But just barely.  If we ever go back, I'm getting my own badge.)  We drove along Trail Ridge Road, stared at beautiful mountain vistas, crossed the continental divide, made it to the West End of the park, and exited on the Grand Lake side.  Happy 100th anniversary, Rocky Mountain National Park!  Thanks for the memories!

We ate dinner in Grand Lake, and then began the long drive back to Boulder.  We desperately wanted to be clean again, and Boulder guaranteed us a shower.  Around 8 p.m. we reached the hotel, popped Lola in the shower, noted that the shower didn't exactly drain, tried to call the front desk, noted that the hotel phone didn't exactly have a dial tone, called the front desk with a cell phone, and then waited and waited and waited for someone to come fix the drain.  The service man arrived after 9:20 p.m., said nothing was really wrong with the drain, and left.  He was wrong, but we showered anyway.  We were mostly clean and in bed around 11.


What to do in Boulder?  Well, we enjoyed the hotel's continental breakfast and its automatic pancake maker, deplored the televisions and FoxNews that was blaring from them, and decided on another hike with the emphasis on non-strenuous.  We traversed from the hotel up to Chautauqua Park (which felt pretty strenuous) and the kids played on the playground as we awaited our friends Ben and Meredith to join us.  From there we hiked up on a path with steps at least as large as we found in Lumpy Ridge and we gave up before reaching the top Arches.

We excitedly had picked a hike and did not bring packs, which meant that we were hungry and under-prepared.  We found food in the park and ate at the Chautauqua Dining Hall, which was tasty, and then folks went to collect the van so we could make our next activity on time.  We were taking a tea tour!

Celestial Seasonings Tea Company has its factory in Boulder and they invite folks to come in, sample ridiculous amounts of tea, and then come out to the factory floor and see the tea being processed.  The tour was really interesting, the space smelled fantastic, and they provide cool hair nets!  We were lucky enough to stand in the Mint Room, literally a closed off room filled to the brim with spearmint and peppermint.  Oh my goodness, it smelled so good and I would have stayed there for hours.  The gift shop was cool too.  I cannot encourage folks enough to try the tour on their own.

Lola greets the Sleepytime Bear.

A Whompton family photo.  These are rare.

You get other rewards for taking the tour.  First, your ticket is a packet of four tea bags, which is creative and fun.  Second, the drive to-and-fro has fields filled with PRAIRIE DOGS IN THEIR NATURAL HABITAT!  If you haven't figured it out already, the Whomptons are fans of cutesy burrowing creatures, and we LOVE prairie dogs.  The van filled with giggles and belly laughs as we found more prairie dogs running around.  Oh man.  Prairie dogs are awesome.  We capped off the day with a delicious tapas dinner, walk along Pearl Street, terrifying experiences in a parking garage, showers, and bedtime.


Following another round of continental breakfast fun, we loaded up the van, drove to Ben and Meredith's home, transferred some gear to their truck, replaced it with a seat for Ben, walked along Boulder Creek, and then began our drive to Denver.  The Denver Museum of Nature and Science was on the agenda today.  Even better, Joanne, Brian, and their kids were joining us for the morning.  It was great to spend time with them, to reconnect, and to see how their kids are growing.  Joanne has always impressed me with her gentleness and wisdom, and she readily uses both when parenting.  Her boys are extraordinarily lucky.  Together, we explored space, gems and minerals, taxidermy animals, mythic creatures, and a health zone.  Dragons also attacked.

There was far more there for one day and it was ripe for exploring around.  After the kids and adults got antsy in the museum, we headed over to the Denver REI.  It seems a little weird to go shopping on vacation -- at least, it's not a typical Whompton thing to do -- but the REI really was a jaw-dropping place.  If I impulsively spent money, I could have dropped a sizable amount of credit card cash there.  We gawked appropriately at everything, and then headed over to The Ale House for dinner.  It was delicious.  

The Whomptons parted ways with the Pursers and drove out to our hotel in Aurora, the eastern-most suburb of Denver.  We inadvertently chose an extended stay hotel, mostly because it had larger rooms, but to call it a hotel is misleading.  They did not have a welcome desk to check-in, the long-term residents (of which there were many) were grumbling and dissatisfied with the service, and the manager walked in on us while we were all in bed.  We were lucky to be able to leave the space the next morning bright and early but the folks who live there are not.  It was incredibly disheartening to be there and to recognize that the worst part of our vacation was the way of life for others.  


After waking from nightmares of folks breaking into our room, I got us up and we got out.  We were on the road starting at 6 a.m. and we drove east, east, east, until Saint Louis.  We sang along to all the Disney musicals we could find, Les Miserables, and the Decemberists, while the kids read books and slept.

We made it back home in time for bed, which was wonderful.  There's nothing like sleeping in your own bed after a long trip!