Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Jumping for Joy

This past spring, we went for a trampoline after a miserable pool attempt the year prior. I researched safety, took price into account, and we ended up with one of the best investments in our parenting years thus far! Our Skywalker Trampoline is large and sturdy, and has brought family and friends hours of fun -- watching trampoline routines, staring up at the clouds, or just bouncing like mad. 

Today we practiced jumping jacks (harder than it sounds!) and jumping high. Then we moved onto forward flips... I’ve had a bit of failure with the flip and I’ve had many failed attempts of late. The first time I tried it months ago, I did it. And, then thereafter I chickened out or somehow contorted my body sideways and would end up with, at best, a half-flip.

My kids are flipping machines - it’s so fun to watch! I asked them to help me this go-around and each time, they cheered for “Ms. Johnson” (we were playing school). There were lots of whoops and hollers and count downs. After a handful of tries, I got it -- and then it was like riding a bike. Soon after, I was trying to land on my feet to chants of “stick it, stick it, stick it.”  Again after a few tries, I got it. Without them I couldn’t get past my mental block, until the kids opened me up to their contagious enthusiasm.  It’s amazing what heartfelt cheer can do for the physical act as well as the spirit. Thank you, my little darlings for sharing your joy, determination, and sense of wonder. Ms. Johnson loves you muchos!  

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Everything Will Be Alright in the End

Some say as soon as you know your true purpose, it will hit you like a ton of bricks. And, cool, you can figure it out through a writing exercise. You just write until it hits... But what if nothing hits? The author of this particular exercise didn’t explain what to do in the event that this happens, so here I am feeling a bit “unpurposeful.”  

I recently applied for what seems like a dream job but so far, it appears they may not be interested. I can see that... the work is centered around educational equity in urban environments and since I live in the middle of the woods, it probably seems an odd application. Still... my heart is in the mission, with the children, with empowering teachers and communities, and with improving the profession and outcomes for society and individuals both. I’m in cover-writing mode as you can see, although trying to build myself up amidst doubt can prove a bit difficult. 

Communicating in writing can be a bit rough at times. Images or music may work better at times. Weezer recently came out with a new album “Everything Will Be Alright in the End.” When I was in my late teens, I found “Pinkerton” one of my favorite albums to this day, by this unknown (to me) band I stumbled across at a small concert venue. Since then I’ve become a fan and learned more about the band and their identity struggles. The focus is primarily on frontman Rivers Cuomo - who some say is a musical genius. He’s a Harvard English graduate, a strict follower of Vipassana meditation (two hours per day), and one that exiled himself from the scene for years following a series of "musical failures." The attacks on him and his music are so personal - of course, he’s a celebrity so we tag these acceptable. One critic wrote: “It's commonly argued that his [Rivers’] story during the 90s fits the mold of the misunderstood genius. But his story is far richer. It is the tale of an egomaniac with a rare gift for the micro-management needed to grease the wheels of his own self-prophesy... It's easy to believe that they [fans] will be willing to romanticize the smallest details in an attempt to reconstruct an unattainable past.” This is mean, when did we get so mean? 

Perhaps if the "true purpose" exercise doesn’t work at first -- it's best to just remain patient. Maybe, right now, it's as simple as spreading kindness. It doesn't provide instant gratification and obvious goal-reaching, but at a minimum it's a worthwhile venture at a time when my "calling" (if there is such a thing) feels uncertain.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Turning "Absolutely Almost" 6 (I mean 8)…

Somehow, this weekend, Cooper celebrated his eighth birthday. While I was shopping for him, I found myself instinctively looking for cards and candles for a six-year old. My mind, nor my heart for that matter, were ready for the fact that he was actually turning eight. The weekend parties went fabulously, with ten friends joining in for bowling on Saturday, and our closest friends and family for the Packer game on Sunday. We won't go into the results of the game, except to say that the blow was lessened by the fact that we were surrounded by kids being kids. Riding bikes in the sun, throwing footballs and beanbags, sitting and talking on the trampoline, coming up with the next cool game for the kids ages two to fourteen to play, all together.

In front of and behind the bday party weekend, I have had the opportunity to substitute teach middle school. It's a series of ups and downs, with small breakthroughs followed by tough classroom "management" followed by another smile or glimpse of confidence, followed by math class and just not getting it. I was reminded: teachers really do have to have the goods and patience. Something else I was reminded of: how important the skills of mentoring, modeling and reading are, as well as the nurturing of empathy and confidence. It makes me recall ever-so-slightly the feelings I had in middle-school. I know I wanted to fit in, fit in, fit in.. and often that meant excluding someone in a cruel way. 

I just finished the book Absolutely Almost with Albie as the lead (a "book about fitting in and standing out"). Albie didn't yet have the emotional maturity to know that "cool" wasn't always a good character trait, and that by ascribing to his classmate's brand of cool that he was hurting others. But he grew in the novel over a couple weeks time, to backtrack on cool and embrace kindness. He embraced his own kindness, not just because it was natural for him, but because he had a mentor, an influence or three, and a series of circumstances that allowed him to realize this was a gift he could give. The author did an amazing job of showing Albie's transformation in a subtle manner. Albie wasn't aware of a "transformation" - and those around him simply saw little glimpses of change which, to the reader, added up to a bit more. The book reminded me how easy it is to be led down a path that doesn't suit us -- and yet how easy it for others to help in redirecting our paths. We can get sucked in, whether it be because of our want to fit in, because we aren't emotionally ready, or for any number of other reasons.

I look at my kids and see in Greta an impressionable pleaser with a bit of spunk; and in Cooper a natural but shy leader with determination. In both, I see ways they can take a quick turn in the right direction as well as in the wrong direction. It takes teachers, peers, parents, and the community members we meet and engage with perhaps infrequently to help keep that path positive. To redirect, notice, embrace, and celebrate the unique and amazing traits we each possess. I believe each and every one of us, however brief or perhaps persistenly we come in contact, are a part of each others' journeys. So, thank you for the way(s) you've touched and directed mine, and I hope I have done a bit of the same in return for you.

Finally, the novel had one statement that rang true, especially now, as I search and start to define the next chapter in my life, the transformation I am perhaps subconsciously readying for and that those around me are supporting in small but significant ways: "I think the hard thing for you... is not going to be getting what you want in life, but figuring out what that is. Once you know what you want - really, truly - I know you'll get it." 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Hotdog Giggles

Last night, I got the giggles and couldn’t stop laughing at this article all about hotdogs. I hadn’t laughed that hard for way too long. My eyes were running, I could barely talk, and thankfully I had Cal to share it with. He found the hot dog stuff funny, not nearly so much as I, but it happened to hit at the absolute perfect moment. 

The moment came after a day of rainy, nasty weather. After a day spent on the dreaded taxes and all the while a big career decision loomed - should I take the job or not? My husband and I trudged along and got our taxes 90% done. The kids made it home and were greeted by a lack of power, encouraging them to get creative whereby they moved into a genius indoor activity -- piling pillows and blankets at the bottom of the stairs and jumping away, each time one stair higher. I purposefully avoided checking out this activity for quite some time because I knew it would freak me out. By the time I did check it out, they were ten or eleven steps up - check your stairs, that’s quite a distance to fly through the air! After I saw it I asked them to cut back a stair or two but let them continue - they were having so much fun. 

Power still out, we cozied up in sweaters, scarves, wool socks and sweatshirts, got in the car and headed to our favorite restaurant. The temperature read 42, the wind was whipping, and Presque Isle Lake looked like the gales of November. I silently wondered if it would snow -- way too early even for our crazy northern climate. The kids were fab-u-lous at dinner, sweet and polite to everyone including Cal and I. We enjoyed homemade tomato parmesan soup and hot rolls, and pared it with a couple glasses of body-warming wine. Charlie and Jim were at the bar watching the Brewers trying to hang on -- we got in a few laughs about their season and I said a silent prayer for a wild card spot for the Crew. We then headed home, knowing we were likely coming back to a heated house, and to a quick bedtime routine as the night had gotten away from us a bit. The kids conked out, we hit the bed reading and checking out Facebook, and that’s when I got a hold of the hotdog article. 

It was on The Week’s facebook page and given the fact that I occasionally still find myself referring to and wondering about the mysterious nature of the meat therein, I decided I couldn’t pass it up. The teaser said “No, hot dogs aren’t full of eyeballs, toenails, or any other stuff of Upton Sinclair’s nightmares. So eat up!” The article gave me a little chuckle - it was an ode to hotdogs and included ways to indulge in the “classy dog” and the “less-than-classy-dog”, and debunked some of the myths we grew up with and still subscribe to today. To me, it was a light-hearted read and a reminder to not get too serious about food. We Johnson’s are fairly healthly eaters but I will still on occasion order a good ole Chicago dog. The really funny stuff started when I began to read the comments from other readers. I won’t get into them too much but suffice it to say I felt like I was in the middle of a Seinfeld episode. There were angry animal rights activists commenting, with smart-ass meativores responding in jest. There was one nice lady, a self-proclaimed hotdog expert, who wrote about one of her projects: “the installation of the Bun-length Hot Dog line.” Also, someone from another country, commenting that she is “lucky enough to not even know what a hotdog thing is.. I have never eaten one and never will.. I heard this hotdog burger name a lot and I always thought hotdog is made of a dog which just freshly served ewwww!” 

So today I say thank you to the people that have a sense of humor about hotdogs, that choose to write about them, as well as those that choose to just eat ‘em, and I’m also thankful to those anti-hotdoggers out there because I know they were worked up due to true intentions. If you’re so inclined you can find the article here. To see the Facebook comments and to just maybe catch yourself with a case of the hotdog giggles, become a friend of "The Week" -- for me, the laughs were well worth it!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Interview Q: Describe Yourself in Five Words

I recently had a job interview. It was a nice position, fun, good people, challenging - but I quickly found I didn’t want to spend an hour and a half in the car, head to an office again everyday, and work a full-time salaried job. I want to be passionate about what comes next, and to have a greater degree of flexibility to help me create a positive work-life balance.

One of the interview questions was to state five words that describe me. I pulled out the ones I believed in at that moment, and that an employer would be looking for and ended with some mix of these: diligent, dedicated, level-headed, flexible, and trustworthy. After last week, it became apparent those five words are not accurate and then I wrote these: harsh, kind, unsure, private, and trustworthy. Ugh, when did I get to be harsh? But more importantly, how do I change into what I want to be and just might already be: loving, appreciative, flexible, fun, and driven.

I believe we feel what we feel and should listen to that, but I also believe we can easily fall into a pattern where we allow circumstances to control us. We can train ourselves unknowingly to react in certain ways and in my case, harsh reactions started to be “natural.” I felt myself thinking inward and feeling sorry for myself; I didn’t believe in others and how they could help and give. 

I fell into a pattern of acting and “feeling” with my head, but I know now that I can build and focus on listening more to the heart. I can be loving and appreciative, driven, flexible and fun. Some of these are coming out more and more... loving when I embrace my children; appreciative when Cal takes family and friends on fishing and boating excursions. Driven when I identify new goals and volunteer, flexible when I work through the feeling of frustration brought on by expectations, and fun when I meet two of my favorite friends for coffee and we laugh genuinely about ourselves and each other.

Monday, August 11, 2014

A Cautiously Reckless Sense of Abandon

Motherhood has brought about in me an almost incessant sense of worry. I worry ten years from now about my 16-year olds driving. I worry now about bike rides and running into trees. I worry about hurt feelings, kindness, meanness and shyness, healthy foods, chemicals, school and reading "later". Recently, however, I sat back a bit and watched my children with a little less worry. There were older cousins along, we were in a relatively contained environment, and I kept the occasional eye on them and the other on my book. 
It was an indoor water park, ideal for five to nine year olds. During one stint, I sat at the edge of a wave pool, lazy river, and swimming pool and observed Greta in her six-year old greatness, writing down a handful of notes as I watched her:  
Greta the Great at the water park, loving and living life!
First as she jumped in time and again amongst a pool of middle-school boys 
She quickly had her system down: “climb out, walk a few steps, pick a new random spot, plug nose with one hand and put the other up in the air, jump semi-canon ball style, land and swim around for a few seconds underwater. Repeat.” All the while with ten boys swimming around her and playing basketball, and I swear she didn’t even notice them.
Second as she experienced a wave pool 
Many enjoyed it the same way time and again, from a tube and letting the waves pulse you up and down. Relaxing but with a touch of adventure. Then I watched Greta and wrote: “She looks and works with different environments to get the most joy. Wave jumping, laying down face first and up, diving underwater into the waves, laying on her back. I am in awe of her.” And I am, the many ways she chooses to maximize life are an inspiration to me. She has a sense of cautious/reckless abandon, but pushes often to try anew and test herself.
Cooper and Callie fearlessly board The Viper.
I saw it too on roller coasters at Six Flags that next day. Little kids no more than four feet tall, 50 pounds, and five years old, jumping aboard the American Eagle, Viper, and even Goliath - a wooden roller coaster with the longest, steepest drop in the world! Surely those kids felt some anxiety, but they moved past it and enjoyed the moments immensely. I heard screams and saw fear on faces during the rides, but as soon as the slow tracks hit, smiles and laughter arose and excitable chatter followed. 
I’m taking a lesson from those kids, hundreds of them and from Greta today in particular. To live, create and initiate greater joy in my life. Joy is there but it takes work to grasp it, and to grasp it more fully. Since that trip, I’ve tried to do a flip (unsuccessfully) on the trampoline, I’ve made the effort to stop by and socialize with a few friends at Music in the Park (chatter and dialogue don't come easy to me), and I’m hosting a jewelry party for a group of women (my first since a book club date some six years ago). I am thankful to the signs in my life that are allowing me to recognize that I need to practice living with less worry and with more abandonment and happiness. As author Corrie ten Boom beautifully stated, “Worrying is carrying tomorrow's load with today's strength - carrying two days at once. Worrying doesn't empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.” 
Less worry and more strength to nurture myself and others. Yes please!

Monday, August 4, 2014

Proud to be a Presque-Islian

Yesterday was the Fireman's Picnic in Presque Isle - my home for the last ten years. Presque Isle is a village of 400 year-rounders that bumps up to a couple thousand in summer with second home owners and vacationers. Our official slogan is "Wisconsin's Last Wilderness" and many refer to it as "God's Country" or simply "Up North." Presque Isle means "almost an island" - and we're thankfully surrounded by water and trees albeit missing the coffee shops, theaters, and gathering spaces many of us have grown accustomed to. Our gathering spots are on the water, in the sand, at the bars, the fire pits and saunas at our homes.

When we vacationed in the area years ago, it was always "up north" to me but little did I know what that meant… thankfully this weekend I got a fresh reminder of what my new home has come to mean.

On Friday evening, hundreds gathered at the Retreat Bar in honor of Gary Wallace, aka Uncle Gary. Tears, laughs, and stories were told until sun up as Gary would have wanted. I'm certain Gary was one of the gentlest, most true "up north" persons out there. He's been sick for a while and was in the hospital a couple months ago. I heard the news while out with the kids and Cal, and I just started to cry. How could it be his time? The person who means so much to our little community and for me, is representative of why I love where I live. Gary was nonjudgmental, kind, a crazy-awesome sports fan, a dad, a friend, a hockey and baseball coach, a giver, a lover, a bar owner with a penchant for drinking and more, a fireman, a grandpa, an Uncle to many by blood and by nature, and more, always more. To Cooper, he was a remote-control phenom, and to my daughter Greta he was the best quarter-doler out there and like many of us, was someone she wasn't ready to see go. To me, he was huge-hearted Gary and I'll miss him so. On Saturday night, his wife flipped on the first set of outdoor lights at our soon to be named "Wallace Park" baseball field in town. And, they worked.

On Sunday, the Fireman's Picnic was back with everything pretty much the same as years prior, and that's a good thing.
Cooper and Greta tossing candy with EMT/Fireman Uncle Adam.
The greatest parade marshall I've seen in my lifetime!
Not much of an agenda really… lots of raffle tickets, cans of beer, sweet corn and brats, softball games, music by a local duo, and a goldfish game that annually leaves us with a new set of pets that last either two days or two years. Last year, the mold broke and our fish lived with Mr. Poppinkins (our turtle) for two months until he couldn't handle it anymore and ate them all on one crazy fall day with Greta screaming and the rest of the family cracking up. They are currently into the name game with our new batch: "Goldilocks" "Little Silver" "Billy Bob Jo" "Stephanie" "Tiki Zeke" and "George".

The day ends with a beautiful acapella by Bret, singing and inviting the audience to join in with a patriotic conglomerate of songs: Proud to Be An American, God Bless the USA, America the Beautiful. Within a minute all are standing and singing and by the time it ends, the women are wiping away our tears. We look at each other and laugh, remembering that for those that stick around to the end, this happens every year. I'm proud to be an American and am ever grateful to the civil servants and military. I'm also thankful and proud to be a Preque-Islian, where Gary (and the parade marshall) remind us we are free to be who we are and to love and give often. Gary's legacy leaves us with these thoughts and much more, and I know many of us will work hard to carry forward those pieces of him that should, and will never, go away.

Monday, July 28, 2014

My Greatest Fish Tale

What is it about fishing? For me, it's the memories that get a bit more amplified and drama-filled as time moves along. If you're my brother-in-law or my father, the amplification starts the minute the fish is released back into the water. If you're me and blessed/stressed with a short-term memory, the amplification isn't always intentional. It's a mixed bag of reality, fuzziness, and of the feelings surrounding that day or time in life. But on that rare occasion, the fuzz goes away and clarity reigns supreme.  

It so happens the biggest walleye I've ever landed, a hefty 28-incher, came through the ice the same day I learned I was pregnant with my first. After a few afternoon tests and an assured sense of the baby inside me, I headed out to the ice to visit with my husband and a couple of his friends. They had been fishing tip-ups all afternoon, waiting for the walleyes evening shift into the shallow bay. As soon as I joined, the guys said the next tip up would be mine (I think this might have had something to do with the restock of the cooler I did upon arrival!). I'm sure they also didn't expect the next fish to be the biggest walleye they had seen come out of the ice in a year or more.

Here I am 2 months prego, with a Presque Isle Lake Walleye in late January 2006.
For me, catching this fish was a sign of something much bigger, a sign I was moving onto a life chapter filled with responsibility and unconditional love. I held a secret in that moment - the gift of life. I happily posed for that photo, holding that powerful, beautiful secret in my hands and heart just a little bit tighter, for a little bit longer. Thanks to that fish, I treasure and remember with clarity that feeling and moment.

My late friend, fisherman and former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice William (Bill) Bablitch, had the opportunity to give a manifesto on fishing during his time as a seated justice. In a poetic opinion on trout pond fishing, he wrote:

"Fishing is many things, the least of which to many who indulge is the catching of fish… It is the snap of a twig across the lake on a dew filled mooring signaling the approach of a deer taking the first sip of the dawn;

It is the desolate cry of a loon signaling its mate in a most haunting communication indecipherable to mere humans;

It is the screech of the owl ten feet above the river bend warning the invader of its displeasure as we approach at dusk to witness the fleetingly hypnotic hatch of the mayfly, ironically renewing itself at the moment of its demise;

It is the swish swish swish of the giant wings of the heron as it rises reluctantly from its shallow water preserve, glaringly reminding us that this is its home, not ours.

It is all of this, and more, that brings us back again and again. This is fishing; the catching of a fish is merely ancillary."

Bill knew that it was much more than the fish - but he was also balanced enough (someone I would refer to as a "Libra liberal") to know that on certain occasions, it IS about the fish! At one time, Bill held a Vilas County record for a 38 3/4 pound musky. That record has been broken quite a few times since then and we're now at 51 pounds with Tom Gelb's 2006 catch holding strong. When Bill would recount the time he caught that fish, he didn't wax poetics about the heron and owls, but about the power of the elusive musky. And, dare I say he might have even let a little amplification make its way into his storytelling. After all when adrenaline hits, clarity is NOT paramount.  Kind of like the time I caught this Leach Lake strain musky in Duluth's St. Louis River, or the time my husband caught this 52" Canada monster…. Fuzzy memories maybe but hella fun! It might be a bit of a stretch to include these in this post, but another piece of advice I've heard and witnessed often in the Northwoods is to never pass up the chance to wax on a bit about a few of your greatest fishing memories.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Simplicity and Innocence of Being with Them

It’s been 3 years since I set up this blog and wrote my first and only entry. My blog was about finding balance and I’ve just made a decision that makes that possible. I found and tried over the years to balance responsibilities and a life that, for me, weren’t “balance-able.” I felt if I tried hard enough, controlled the circumstances, and willed myself to be balanced, then I would be and if I couldn’t it was a failure on my part. Over the past many months, I came to realize that leaving something that didn’t serve me the way my family and I needed was actually a brave decision and not a failure.

So, I left my job and am fortunate to have the summer “off”. I spent this week planting flowers, riding my bike, hanging with the kids, downloading new music, doing the digital ebook thing, eating ice cream, running errands, paying bills, trying new recipes, visiting with an old friend, sleeping in and all that great good stuff that somehow I couldn’t create space for.

The most memorable time this week was when I went grocery shopping with Coop and Greta. They had just experienced a full-out grocery shopping with Cal the day before and so their patience level was already a bit compromised. The behavior wasn’t great to start and was sliding as we went along.  At one point, I grabbed my daughter’s hand and held it tight, telling her through that firm squeeze that I know this was getting long, but that she is so good, sweet and gentle, and I know she can make it through this. She must have understood because she squeezed my hand back, wasn’t interested in letting go, and we focused on holding hands - which felt fabulous. I left the cart and started walking towards an aisle and at that moment, another little hand grabbed mine. At first I couldn’t think who would be doing this as 7-year old Cooper is pretty “hands off”. But it was Cooper, and as soon as I felt his hesitant grasp, I grabbed it tight with a different message. My message was “thank you for grabbing my hand, thank you for showing me love, thank you for loving me, thank you for being the cool, amazing kid you are.” I wandered around the aisles for a bit holding both their hands. I didn’t want to go back to that cart or pick up the next grocery - I didn’t want to let go. Not now, not now that I’m actually able to be with them, to feel what it’s like, and to make memories of the simplicity and innocence of being with them.