40 before 40: grow a pumpkin

I am sitting here with a blank screen that awaits the words that will form the story of my latest 40 before 40 adventure. It’s early on Saturday morning (early for me anyway… 7:30am) and the windows in my office are wide open. There is no breeze, just incredibly humid, sticky air that amplifies the screams of the cicadas —  a dull roar that is only interrupted by the occasional screech from a blue jay that has found the feeder on our porch. As I was making my cup of coffee a few minutes ago, I watched a mother deer and her still speckled fawn graze in our yard.

I feel so lucky to have landed here, in a church house, on a gorgeous plot of land surrounded by a state forest that so many call home.

It’s easy to take this all for granted. It’s so quiet and beautiful so much of the time. But then something like a baby pumpkin comes along, and I fall in love with our home all over again.

You see, for a decade, I’ve had a dream. That dream is to grow a pumpkin so massive that it takes an army of friends to transport it to the state fair so I can collect my grand prize ribbon.

This dream began in 2006, in California, where our apartment porch held several pots of pumpkin plants that we would cultivate through the year. Unfortunately, a team of raccoons ensured the little seedlings never made it beyond the top of the soil. (There is one story that we love to tell that involves Scott chasing a mama and her three babies away with a Swiffer at 3am.)

When we moved to the Finger Lakes four years later, our apartment had actual land. We built raised gardens and purchased expensive pumpkin starts and high-end fertilizers.  For five years, we cultivated the heck out of that little pumpkin patch.

And yet, we grew nothing.

Well, that’s not entirely true. We grew gorgeous pumpkin vines with incredible pumpkin flowers. But even despite my efforts to inseminate the flowers with a Q-tip, we could get no actual vegetables to grow. Including the locust I used to build the beds, I probably spent $300 on that garden. For nothing.

This year, in mid-May, I was standing in line at Home Depot when I saw a packet of pumpkin seeds on a rack. I chucked them in my basket, and then when I got home, I chucked them in the one garden bed I’d had time to prepare.

I forgot about the pumpkin seeds. The garden bed was soon overgrown with weeds. We have waaaaaaaay too much going on with the house to think about tending a garden.

And then July happened. Our life flipped upside down. My parents stayed with us for a couple weeks. We were running back and forth to the hospital daily. It was everything we could do to keep the front lawn mowed. I didn’t even visit the section of the yard with the garden.

Then, about a week ago, I was  beating back some weeds that were starting to encroach on the compost bin. I looked over at the garden. The pumpkin vines were so large that they had collapsed a portion of our fence. I looked more carefully and under a pile of plastic fencing, I saw a teeny tiny pumpkin baby.

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There were loud screechy noises coming from my face before I even realized what was happening.

Listen, I get it. It’s mid-August.  My chances of this becoming a state-fair award-winning pumpkin by Labor Day are perhaps a bit slim. But I don’t care. I have already won.

The church house has taught us a lot, and this is only its most recent lesson : let go. Let nature do its thing.  Even if a woodland creature comes along tomorrow and chomps it off its stem, this is progress. This is more than I’ve ever done before.

Magic is out there, and dreams can come true. As long as you modify those dreams sometimes.

Here’s the pumpkin as of two nights ago:

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And as I was snapping that photo, I noticed this:

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Thank you, church house. Thank you.

40 before 40: Boatin’ Women Swimmin’

I don’t quite understand normal life anymore. I thought I had a handle on it, but then there was my sister-in-law’s cancer diagnosis and the world began to feel unstable. And then some other really awful stuff happened to other people that I love: three other cancer diagnoses, a horrific car accident, an almost-fatal bike accident, and a miscarriage.

Regardless of what comes next, there’s going to be a “new normal” for a lot of us. But for me, I don’t really know what that means or how to live it — nothing has normalized in the “new normal.” I just know the “old normal” is no longer valid.

I don’t care if that paragraph made no sense to you. Life hasn’t made a lot of sense to me lately.

My “old normal” life included a happiness project of my own creation: the 40 before 40 list. A couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t imagine going back to it. But now, in the beginning of my “new normal,” I realize that I need to stay true to myself first. And 40 before 40 taps into so much of what I think makes me me.

I’m not quite emotionally ready to jump back into this project with some sort of crazy stunt, like the 45-foot freefall in the Adirondacks. But I did find a way to sort of ease back into it while helping out a very worthwhile organization in this area: Hospicare.

Every summer for 12 years, Hospicare has run an event called “Women Swimmin’.” It’s the premiere summer event in Ithaca… at least if you are a woman, enjoy swimming, or know someone whose life has been impacted by death.

So yeah, pretty much all of us.

The event itself is a 1.2 mile community swim, for women only, in Cayuga Lake. It attracts about 400 swimmers each year and when registration opens in the springtime — I’m not exaggerating — the swim spots fill in minutes. Like: registration opens at 6am, and it’s closed by 6:12am. I’ve tried to register a few times over the years, and have never gotten a spot.

But there’s another way to support the event — and that’s by volunteering as a kayaker to accompany one or two swimmers through the water.

Almost 200 boaters are needed to help, and we were all instructed to be in the water by about 6:15am yesterday morning. That made for a brutally early wake up time, but a gorgeous drive.unnamed

The sun was starting to peek up over the hills as I carried my boat down from the parking lot to the water (which was the hardest part of the day — despite the promises of volunteer sherpas, there was no one available to help me, so I carried my 14-foot, 50-pound kayak about 250 yards alone. I used taking this photo as an excuse to rest on the trek.)
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You look at these photos, and it’s hard to believe there were 200 boaters, 400 swimmers, and at least 500 spectators. It was so peaceful!  Granted, this was about an hour before the swim began, and caffeine hadn’t quite made it through most of our systems yet. So while people were generally nice to one another, they were also pretty quiet.

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Floating in the marina, waiting for my pod to be called.

Once the swim began, groups of 6-8 swimmers jumped off a dock and then were assigned kayakers. The event is strictly a community swim — not a race —  so a lot of swimmers did the doggie paddle and chatted and laughed with their friends. My only role was to make sure my assigned swimmers made it back to land safely — which was difficult for the first hour when the sun was directly in front of us and made it nearly impossible to tell the swimmers apart from one another.

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In the first wave, I was responsible for two swimmers marked by orange caps. You can see why this was a little stressful.

Later in the morning, it became a lot easier to spot people.

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One of the great parts of the event: there’s a fundraising minimum for participants — so the swimmers are clearly invested in the mission of Hospicare. Some had lost loved ones this year. Others work there. Many of the swimmers stopped along the course, treaded water and remembered out-loud a loved one who had passed away. As I paddled along, I got to hear a lot of inspiring — albeit heart-breaking – stories about the role Hospicare plays in this community.

At the end of the swim, participants (and boaters!) got to enjoy a huge breakfast, lots of laughter and fun, and local music. It was a great time, and I have a feeling this is just the first year of many that I will be a part of it.

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My friend Wendy and I volunteered together. We took this photo at the mandatory boater meeting the night before because we were so excited by our free hats. We were assigned to different pods, and I also somehow was assigned to be both a pod leader and a “super boater,” which meant I was responsible for two waves of swimmers. In the world of volunteering, does that mean I won or lost?!

When a nightmare is not a nightmare

I’ll always be able to recall the very moment I turned 39. I was at a stoplight in downtown Ithaca, following a hideous and frantic three and a half hour drive from Vermont (a drive that really should take 4 hours, but I got lucky with almost no traffic… or traffic cops). I glanced at the dashboard clock.

9:16pm.

A few minutes later, I parked my car at Cayuga Medical Center and ran into the Emergency Room, where a triage nurse pointed me in the right direction. I took an elevator to the third floor, got lost, and then finally stumbled into the correct wing.

My sister-in-law had just come out of emergency surgery and was sleeping in her room. Scott, my brother Steve, and two friends were pacing the hallway. I hugged Scott and then Steve — something I’d desperately needed since I picked up a phone call while dressing for my great aunt’s 80th birthday party and got the news.

I walked into Elizabeth’s room and gave her soft hug, careful not to hit any of the wires or tubes connected to her body. I kissed her on the cheek. She rolled her face towards me, opened her eyes a bit and whispered, “Happy Birthday. I ruined it. I am so sorry.”

I’ve thought about that moment thousands of times in the past 2 weeks, and still, my eyes fill with tears. My birthday didn’t matter. All I wanted was to make all of this go away for her. And yet, that’s the kind of person she is — minutes after coming out of surgery, still incredibly drugged on anesthesia and morphine, she put me and my feelings ahead of her own.

From that moment on, and for the next 12 days, things are fuzzy. Time stopped and the days and the nights ran together. I know I moved into my brother’s place for at least four nights, but I only remember waking up there one morning — the first — and that’s because I tried to do farm chores so he could sleep and nearly got taken out by 50 hangry (hungry + angry) ducks and the two overly protective geese. The other mornings are a blur of coffee and long cries. I know that a friend and I split up the long list of people to call when we finally got the diagnosis of cancer, but I can’t tell you what day that was or who I talked to.

It felt like we took a giant inhale that first day and could not start to let it out until 6 days later, when we finally got to bring Elizabeth home.

That chapter was a hard one, but even worse is that it’s not the end of the story. A port went in last week, chemo starts this week, and there are countless more pokes and scans and meds to come. This journey will be a long one.

But it’s not a nightmare. Other people call it that, and I just can’t.

I can’t call it a nightmare when I got to strengthen the bond I share with Elizabeth. It was already a bond that transcended the term “sister-in-law,” and now we definitely don’t need the extra qualifying words. She’s my sister.

I can’t call it a nightmare when I got to be there for Steve. I mean really be there, in the ways that are fundamental to my understanding of what it means to be a sister.

I can’t call it a nightmare when my faith in humanity was renewed. From gourmet food that appeared for our family, to genuine and heartfelt messages of support, to donors who gave to the GoFundMe campaign — so many people gave so much, and then asked if they could do more. It humbles me, and I have questioned whether I am as good of a person as the people who embrace us.

I can’t call it a nightmare when I got to experience my family at its best. We’re already incredibly tight-knit. But now, I feel a sense of closeness to Scott, my parents, and Steve and Elizabeth that I’m not sure I knew was possible.

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Elizabeth arranged to have an ice cream cake delivered to the hospital, celebrating my birthday and my parents’ anniversary.

I can’t call it a nightmare when I experienced such support from my community. Steve and Elizabeth’s friends and loved ones cared for us in ways that stunned us at times, but there were also people who reached out to care for me. Many of them barely know Steve or Elizabeth, or have never even met them. I received heartfelt emails, funny photos, and gifts that lifted my spirits. My work colleagues made it so I didn’t even have to think about my professional life for 10 days. My closest friends were there to listen, support and make me laugh — or kidnap me for an hour of raspberry picking.

I can’t call it a nightmare when so many moments like this ripped me from reality and reminded me of all the beauty there is in the world:

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I can’t call it a nightmare when there were so many belly-aching laughs. That’s one thing that my family does right — we can poke fun of ourselves, each other and the weirdness of life. Case in point: on discharge day, we weren’t sure we would be able to find a bed that Elizabeth would be able to use at home. A few hours later, we had four beds — including two hospital beds! — all of which had been assembled and set up and then disassembled and removed (well, except for one, obviously).

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The hospital bed delivery guys preparing to duke it out.

Not calling it a nightmare doesn’t diminish the tragedy of the situation, or how scary it all is. It doesn’t erase the fact that Elizabeth and Steve’s lives have changed forever in ways big and small. But there is so much good, so much love, so much support surrounding them and our family. And for that, I’m grateful.

Thank you.

We rock!

It’s rained a lot this summer, which is why I chuckled at this weekend’s forecast:

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We’ve been dealing with a lot of driveway flooding and mud, and this week had three tons of rock delivered to help with the problem.

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Spreading three tons of rock is a lot of work. But we got it done, just as the skies opened up and dropped more than an inch of new rain in an hour.

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The one good thing about the moisture is that the froggies in our pond are happy.

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And we have new mysterious flowers popping up. (These smell INCREDIBLY strongly of mint.)

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Happy weekend!

 

 

 

40 before 40: Spend a week in the ‘Dacks

As I mentioned before, my previous exposure to the Adirondacks included driving through it a few times and a long weekend spent on a lake in the very southern part of the park. I’m a little amazed by how much we crammed into the 8 days we were there, especially since it felt so relaxing. In all, we kayaked/fished 9 bodies of water and completed about 30 miles of hikes.

I’m trying to be better about getting photos printed into albums when we get back from trips (digital images are great, but I don’t always want to sit in front of a computer to relive a moment) so thought I’d share some of our pics:

40 before 40: Kayak to a hike

Growing up in the Finger Lakes and then spending much of my early adult life in New England, the Rocky Mountains and California, not to mention all the travel I’ve done to wild places near and far… well, I’ve done a lot of hiking. I can’t even begin to wager how many miles I’ve racked up on trails — certainly in the thousands.

But one thing I’d never done, until last week? Kayak to a hike.

Scott naturally wanted to spend most of our week in the Adirondacks on the water. I love to kayak, and I spent a number of days paddling lakes and inlets while he reeled in giant fishies. But I like to mix things up, too, so in the process of picking places to explore on vacation, I stumbled on a description of the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness Area and decided it was perfect: it’s an area within the Adirondack park that includes 39 lakes and ponds and 63 miles of hiking trails. We could spend a week just in this one spot and still not see it all.

Best of all? I found a description for Treadway Mountain — listed as one of the top day hikes in the region and with a trailhead accessible by kayak. (You can also hike on land to it, but that trail added something like 8 miles to the journey). Plus, I enjoy novelty and kayaking, instead of driving, to a trailhead definitely counts as novel.

We started our day at a DEC campground, where a lovely little boat launch and crystal clear waters greeted us. You know what didn’t greet us? Any other people! In fact, during the entire time we were in this area, I saw one other person — and it was on Treadway Mountain when I passed a fellow solo female hiker! Love that.

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The kayak to the trailhead was only about a mile away so I reached it easily in no time.

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I pulled my kayak out of the water and put together my hiking bag (one of the best parts of my kayak is all of the storage that it offers in the front and rear — meaning I can take my nice camera, hiking shoes, and lunch along and not risk anything getting wet).

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The first few miles of trail traversed dense woods with pretty waterfalls, and some… interesting…. sections of trail that, at times, forced me to wade through muck that was halfway to my knees. (I have a little PTSD from a similar hike I did in Australia when dozens of leeches attached themselves to me and didn’t let go for hours… so I can never hike in these conditions without spending a lot of time inspecting my legs for creepy things.)

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Eventually the trail opened up a bit and I was climbing on quartz and granite and other rock I should be able to identify but can’t.

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And then… after navigating an INCREDIBLY poorly marked section of trail that required finding cairns (little rock piles that mark the trail) that were so far apart from one another that it took me 5-10 minutes of wandering around to find each one… I popped out on the summit.

 

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That lake behind me is where I started.

The view was magnificent, and I had the entire mountain to myself.

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It was hard to leave the top, especially after resting for a few minutes and enjoying the feeling of not moving my arms or legs for a bit… but I had a fisherman waiting for me down below, and so after a while, I began the journey back to my kayak and to him.

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All in all, an absolutely perfect day. It doesn’t get much more peaceful in outdoor recreation than this.

And… no leeches!

40 before 40: Death jump in the ‘Dacks

For Scott’s birthday this year, I organized a week-long trip for us to the Adirondacks. Despite living just a few hours south of this amazing park, we’d only been there once before, for a long weekend with my family. It was enough of a taste of the wilderness to get us hooked (and Scott caught an enormous small-mouth bass, which was all he really needed). We talked about going back many times, but I knew unless we actually committed to it and organized it, it would always be one of those things “we should do someday.”

We planned to split the week in two, staying five days in Lake Placid and then traveling to the Lake George area for three nights. And as our week away got closer and closer, we began talking about the many places we wanted to go. Our plan was to spend 99% of the time in vast wilderness areas where not another soul could be found. It would be glorious.

But that other 1% of the time?  With 40 before 40 ever on my mind (it’s 12 months away now!), I looked for something I could add to the list.

One of the challenging things about being someone who is addicted to adventures is that I’ve racked up a lot in my life already. I’ve gone parasailing and windsurfing and skydiving and hot air ballooning and zip-lining. All of those would be fun to share with Scott and can be found all over the Adirondacks… but they wouldn’t qualify for the 40 before 40 list.

And then I stumbled on this: Screenshot 2015-06-30 19.13.35I mean, come on. That has idiot written all over it. I obviously needed to do it.

So basically, you jump off a 40′ platform into a giant pillow of air. Yes. Yes. Yes! I asked Scott if he wanted to do it with me. I sent him the website link. I talked about it for weeks. (This is an important detail for later in the story.) To be fair, he never said it sounded like fun. But he also never said “no.”

The airbag is open on spring weekends at Whiteface Mountain, which is near Lake Placid. Our trip had us in that area for one full weekend day, which also happened to be our very first full day. So this is how we would start our vacation.

We arrived. We couldn’t see the air bag as we made our way into the resort and to the ticket window. It was $10 for one jump, or $25 for three. I convinced Scott we should do it three times, under the assumption that we would be so freaked out by the first jump that we wouldn’t actually “experience” it, so jumps two and three would be the “fun” ones. He reluctantly agreed. Tickets in hand, we went outside and finally saw the thing in real life.

And oh my… it was big.

A man stood at the top of the platform. Multiple times, he peered over the edge, made a motion to jump, hesitated at the last second and then asked the operator to lower the platform a few feet. His wife, from the safety of the ground, viciously berated him for being a wuss. (I mean, this woman was BRUTAL for someone who wasn’t doing the jump herself… I know I mock Scott a lot, but I promise you it’s a two way street and we’re both laughing  — this woman took it to an uncomfortable level.) During her onslaught of horrible insults, we learned that the man spent 7 years as a paratrooper. I mention this because this guy is clearly badass, and he was having trouble. Scott and I looked at each other and grimaced. What had we gotten ourselves into?

The paratrooper finally jumped after about 5 minutes of hesitation. By that time, he had asked to have the platform lowered to a point that it was almost touching the top of the air bag.  He and his nasty wife slinked by us, and we could tell he was traumatized by the entire experience.

Then it was our turn.

This was my thing, so it only seemed fair that I go first.

I’m going to let the photos that Scott took tell the rest of this story:

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Yay! This will be fun! I’m choosing to be excited, not nervous!

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It’s just me and the 19-year-old lift operator. Everything is cool. We’re chatting about life. The view is awesome!

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Oh. Um. Wow. This is getting high.

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Holy $&%^*($# #()%#*%(#@)_%#. What the %&$#* are we doing this for?

 

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Is a caption really needed? My body language says it all.

At this point, the following conversation took place:

Lift operator: This is about as high as we go. Take a look and let me know if you want me to lower it.

I thought long and hard.

Me: No. If we lower it, I won’t hear the end of it from my husband. Also, I don’t want to give HIM the excuse to lower it when it’s his turn.

Lift operator: Ok then. Go for it!

(He later told us that almost no one jumps from the top height on their first attempt — he estimated maybe 5 people out of 100 do it. So we’re either amazing or stupid.)

A lot went through my mind in the few seconds I peered over the edge. First of all, it looks a LOT higher when you’re standing on that platform than it does from the ground, or in photos. I thought about the paratrooper and how we watched him get so far inside his own head that he froze. I considered how far I was outside of my comfort zone, and felt a twinge of pride because that’s one of the goals of 40 before 40.  I thought about how I should probably make a conscious decision to shut my brain off, not think about it, not consider the consequences, and just put one foot in front of the other and leap.

So I did.

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I’m not dead!

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No caption required!

I caught Scott’s first jump on video.

And here’s his midair shot:

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We did our next two jumps, and despite what I thought when we purchased our tickets, it did not get easier. In fact, the lift operator felt like he needed to give us a bigger thrill for the last jump, so he raised the platform to its maximum height. Which really wasn’t that much more than the original height… but it sure felt like it.

It took at least an hour for us to recover from the adrenaline rush, and to be able to fully process what we’d done. I’m not sure I can fully articulate it here — but I guess what I took away most was a new understanding for what it means to take a leap of faith.

Now, remember when I said that I had been talking about this activity for weeks before our trip, and had sent Scott the website? Well, he admitted to me in the car ride back to Lake Placid that he hadn’t actually looked at it, having assumed that when I said we would be “jumping into an air pillow,” I actually meant “we’ll be going to an adult-sized bouncy house.”

While I laughed hysterically at the misunderstanding, I have to give the man a lot of credit for going through with this insanity! If I thought I was going to a McDonald’s playground and instead found myself up on a 45′ platform, expected to jump into the unknown, I’m not sure I would have gone through with it. But as Scott said, “You wanted to do this, and it seemed important. So, when I finally saw what it was, I knew I had to do it.”

And that, friends, is how I know he’s my perfect match.

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