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Two Sundays

The alarm clock began to buzz noisily on the nightstand. I opened my eyes, surprised to see it was already light. Sunday. It dawned on me that it must be Sunday. As much as I would like to get to work early, it wouldn’t make much sense because my store doesn’t open until noon. Asking my crew to come in at ten o’clock in the morning was still pushing it, but I would have loved to have shifts start at six o’clock on Sunday the way they do every other day of the week. Imagine how much could be accomplished in six hours without customer interruptions!

I rolled out of bed, and, as my feet hit the floor, my wife came around the corner from the hallway holding the camera.

“Here, take a picture of me,” requested begrudgingly holding the camera out at arm’s length. “I have done a terrible job of recording my pregnancy, and I look presentable today.”

It was true. It was thirty-four weeks into the pregnancy, and we probably had more pictures of the baby growing inside of her—from all the ultrasounds required of a high-risk pregnancy—than we did of her.

I flipped on the little point-and-shoot, and it whirred to life, its auto-zoom lens extending and retracting before settling into place. “Smile,” I said, as I shifted to frame her in the bedroom doorway. She smiled, resting one hand on her belly, her other on her hip in her signature pose. The camera flashed and clicked, capturing the moment for posterity as it transferred the image into its internal digital storage banks.

“How are you feeling this morning?” I asked as I pressed the power button on the top of the camera and slid it onto the nightstand without looking to make sure it had powered down, trusting that it would.

“Sore,” she replied, holding her back. “She won’t let me sleep.”

“A little less than three weeks to go,” I said, consulting the calendar on the wall with the words ‘C-Section’ scribbled across October 31st. One of the few advantages of a high-risk pregnancy is that you get to pick your baby’s birthday. It makes planning the time off much easier. Plus, we were going to have a Halloween baby! I couldn’t think of anything cooler than that.

“Ugh,” she groaned, rubbing the small of her back. “You carry her for the next three weeks then.”

I leaned over and kissed her as I headed for the bathroom. “I would if I could.”

She snorted at me before changing the subject. “When are you done at work today?”

I shrugged my shoulders and responded through a mouthful of toothpaste. “Dunno,” I said. “I guess I can be done whenever you are.” I spit into the sink and thoroughly washed out the basin making sure there was no trace of the blue paste. “I just have the typical Sunday stuff, markdowns and returns.” I glanced at the red digital readout of the clock on the nightstand before continuing. “It is half-past eight, so if I take you to work now and head straight in, I could be done around sixish?”

She gave me a look, “My shift ends at four o’clock.”

“Four o’clock it is then! Just walk over when you are done and I will wrap up whatever I am working on, and we can come home and put in a movie.”

She smiled, then winced, as she touched her swollen belly.

“Everything okay?”

“Yes, I just keep getting weird pains. She is running out of room in there.”

“Three more weeks,” I said as I pulled a shirt on over my head and grabbed my car keys.

——————————–

It wasn’t three more weeks; she didn’t even wait until four. At two o’clock I was in the middle of my Sunday markdowns when I heard a page over the intercom. I made my way to the front counter and was surprised to see my wife there.

“We need to go to the hospital. I think I’m in labor.”

“Are you sure? I am right in the middle of markdowns,” I stammered. It was a stupid thing to say, but I was terrified and my brain wasn’t processing the information very well.

“Go. We will take care of it,” the gentle but firm voice of my assistant manager assured me. She handed me my coat and steered me towards the exit.

———————————

She was admitted immediately when we arrived, her regular doctor was out of town, but they would try to get in touch with her. They were going to try to stop the labor. Thirty minutes later we were told that they couldn’t stop the contractions. That they were prepping a room for the C-section. The on-call doctor was not comfortable with our situation, so they had called our regular doctor. They let us know that she was on her way, but it would be a couple hours. Wind played through the branches of the tree outside the room. The leaves were frozen in that half-changed state where they are still more green than orange. I memorized the colors while my heartbeat ticked away the seconds as we waited for the doctor.

An eternity later, our doctor arrived saying, “Put on some scrubs, you’re coming in.” It wasn’t a question—it had never been a question—where my wife went, I went.

“Our pre-surgery meeting is tomorrow,” I muttered while trying to figure out how the scrubs worked.

The nurse helping to untangle me from the knot of paper clothing laughed. “Well, you probably won’t need to keep that appointment,” she said.

I walked into the room to the top half of my wife; everything below her ribcage was concealed behind a great blue sheet suspended from the ceiling. I took her hand, and she looked into my eyes. She was scared. I was scared, but I smiled. “Here she comes.”

The doctor’s disembodied voice reached us from somewhere beyond the blue fabric wall. “You are going to feel a tug.” That was it. Then I saw a nurse leave the concealed space, carrying something to the clean white table under a bright light. My wife looked at me anxiously and let go of my hand. Uncertainly, I walked the four paces that placed me in directly behind the nurse at the table. I looked down and saw her for the first time. Our daughter. My daughter.

Tiny, wrinkled, and pink. Her little arms and legs limp with no support. Her tiny head lolling to the side when the nurse placed her on the table. “She is cold!” my brain screamed, but the nurse was doing something, so I stood back, silent. Then came the cry. The cry that meant she was here. The cry that meant she wasn’t too early, that she was ready for the world.

“Look at this!” It was the doctor’s voice, so I turned around. She was holding something in her hands. Her face was covered by a surgical mask, but her eyes were filled with the mad light of discovery. I looked at what she was holding. It was pink and glistening under the surgical lights. It looked like the three-dimensional rendering of the Valentine’s heart a preschooler would draw. The kind where it is much too small on one side, and much too big on the other.

“This is your wife’s uterus.”

I had no idea how to respond to that.

“Cool?” I hazarded, but something in my reaction must have let the doctor know she had lost her audience because she was already turning away to put it back wherever it was that she had produced it from. As I turned back to the nurse and my baby girl, I was suddenly incredibly grateful for the blue sheet that separated the lower half of my wife from the upper. If my brain had been able to make the connection that I had just been shown one of my wife’s internal organs, I am pretty sure I would have required my own hospital room.

Our baby had to go to straight to the nursery so her oxygen levels and heart-rate could be monitored, but my wife had to go to recovery. I was torn. They both needed me. My wife made it perfectly clear to me that the decision was not mine. I had to go with our baby. She couldn’t be there, so I needed to be.

Over the next two hours, I never left my little girl’s side. I put on her first diaper, I gave her her first bottle. I watched the chart on the wall where they tracked her oxygen and had my first parental panic attack when they had to put her on oxygen blow by.

It had happened so suddenly, but suddenly, this little tiny person meant more to me than anything else in the world. I was enraptured by her. She wasn’t doing anything, but I could not take my eyes off her.

—————————————————

The alarm clock began to buzz noisily on the nightstand. I opened my eyes, surprised to see it was already light. Sunday. It dawned on me that it must be Sunday. Nestled against me was a tiny figure. I rolled out of bed, scooping her up as I turned over, careful not to disturb her mama who was sleeping soundly on the other side of the bed. I pulled the sliding glass to the side, and the dogs bolted past me out the open door. I couldn’t remember the last time they had gone out. Sliding the door shut, I stretched and headed for the kitchen. If I was lucky, I could get a bottle ready to go before she opened her eyes. I began preparing the formula, but her eyes fluttered open before I had a chance to finish. She required a quick stop at the changing table—the only time the kid had spent in her own room was at the changing table—for a fresh diaper, and then we were back to the kitchen for breakfast. As I paced, trying to convince the tiny person in my arms that she needed to eat, the calendar caught my eye.

“Two weeks. You are not even supposed to be here for another two weeks.”

She grunted at me around the nipple of the tiny bottle I was using to feed her.

I scrunched up my nose as I looked down into her impossibly dark eyes, “It was very inconsiderate of you to be so early. We don’t even have clothes that fit you.”

I caught sight of a fuzzy orange blob on a chair in the corner.

“Let’s take your picture again and see if you have grown,” I said. I placed her next to the cat who was acknowledging me with his one open eye. “Smile,” I said as I framed them both in the bowl of the chair.

I scooped her up and headed back to the bedroom.

My wife was just opening her eyes, and she smiled at us.

“How are you feeling this morning?” I asked.

“Sore, but better,” she yawned. “How did she sleep? I hope she didn’t keep you up all night.”

“We were up a couple of times, but it was not too bad.”

She propped herself up, grimacing, “When are you done at work today?”

“I am not going in,” I said, sliding back into bed.

“Don’t you have your ‘Sunday stuff’, markdowns and returns?”

“They can handle it,” I replied, looking down at the two faces next to me, so similar that one could have been made as a miniature model of the other. “I have more important things to do today.” I settled into the softness of the comforter and propped a pillow under my arm. I reached for the book on my nightstand and cracked it open.

“This is Harold, and this is his purple crayon,” I began.

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How I Met Your Mother

One of my favorite sitcoms of all time is a little show that shares its title with the title of this blog. If you are unfamiliar, go log onto your Netflix account and watch an episode. I will wait.

Now that you are back, I want to discuss just how fascinating it is to me that it takes eight seasons to even introduce us to the mother character, and that she doesn’t even get a name until the final episode. There are twists and turns through the episodes as the point of view character recounts his numerous romantic exploits to his children through a more or less chronological retelling of his mid-twenties to early thirties. His revolving door approach to love and relationships is baffling, as it is made clear repeatedly to the audience that the woman that he is supposed to end up with is the one he met in the first episode. Maybe this is only mind boggling to me because I didn’t have to go through anything nearly this trying in my search for true love.

My own story, if I were to tell it, would be much different, would have way fewer one episode casting opportunities, and would probably not make it out of pilot season. I met the love of my life in preschool. Jack-and-Jill preschool in Idaho Falls to be exact. I don’t remember it, but I am told we were great friends, and that must be true because there are pictures of the cute little girl who would grow up to be my wife eating cake at my fifth birthday party. I recognize most of the other kids in the picture as the children of my parents’ friends, and, as my future spouse’s parents had no relationship to my parents, I must assume that this young lady was there because I wanted her there, not because my parents needed an excuse to get together with their friends.

It all seems very cute, very cut and dried; we met in preschool, grew up as close friends, dated in high school and got married after graduation. Fate, however, went a different way. Soon after that birthday, my parents moved across town, effectively ensuring that, after preschool, I would be attending not only a different elementary school than my future wife, but also a different junior high and high school. As I pointed out before, my parents and hers were only passing acquaintances, so it would be eleven years before our paths crossed again.

I was in my early teens when my parents got divorced, and the summer between junior high and high school, my mom remarried. Her new husband lived on the other side of town, so I had to leave my friends behind and attend a high school where I knew nobody. It was hard. I was a giant nerd, and it was hard for me to make friends. I didn’t play sports; I wasn’t particularly academic; and I didn’t apply myself to any activity aside from reading fantasy novels and playing D&D. I think my mom was worried when, after a full year at my new high school, I had made exactly zero friends, so, when fall rolled around again, she signed me up for cross country.

I wasn’t any more committed to cross country than I was to anything else having to do with school, but it forced me to interact with a new group of people who, much to my surprise, I kind of liked. One of those people invited me to join him and a bunch of other friends playing ultimate Frisbee one Saturday in the park. Since it didn’t interfere with my standing Friday night D&D game, I told him I would try to stop by. After that first game of ultimate Frisbee, I knew I had found my people. I quit eating my lunch in the library (pouring over D&D manuals and planning quests) and started eating my lunch in the seminary building with my new crew and working on Frisbee skills in the field next door. I still hosted a weekly D&D game on Friday nights, but I started dragging those guys out after too little sleep and too much mountain dew to play ultimate Frisbee with me every Saturday.

It was after I had found my new calling that I first laid eyes on the teenage girl that would grow up to be the woman that I married. I was in a US history class, and the teacher told us we were going to have a special presentation. We shuffled our desks around so there was a larger space at the front of the room, and I managed to snag a seat next to one of my new friends. I remember seeing her, remember vividly the curl of her hair, her smile and her laugh. I have no idea why we were there, I have no idea what we talked about, but I remember her.

After that, I started to see her around with more and more frequency. I would catch a glimpse of her in the hall between classes, or after school while I waited for the bus. Then one day I saw her with one of my buddies. We were playing Frisbee in the field and then she was there, on the bridge that led to the seminary building. My buddy wandered over and started talking to her, holding hands and laughing. She started coming to the seminary building and having lunch with us. I learned that her name was Beth, and I would bring extra jerky with my lunch to share with her. She started coming to our Frisbee games and she played as hard as any of the guys. As high school came to a close, she asked me if I would take one of her friends to prom. How could I say no?

I had never been to a high school dance before, let alone a prom. I had no job, and thus no money, but my parents were so excited that I was participating in something that resembled dating that they footed the bill for the evening. Tux rented and corsage purchased, I proceeded to prom with a girl that I had never actually met before. She was pleasant enough, but I was not a good date. I am awkward and quiet more than half the time around people I know; I am positive I was even worse on this date. The only two things I remember about the evening was the dance I shared with my future bride, and the fact that my date fell asleep on the car ride home.

I think it was after that that my mom figured out that Beth and I had gone to preschool together. As soon as she figured it out, she went straight to the photo albums and found a picture of her at my fifth birthday. My mom knew I had a crush on her before I had even figured it out and pestered me relentlessly about asking her out. I couldn’t, of course, because she was going out with my friend, but she was never far from my thoughts.

After graduation, she broke up with my friend and went off for the summer to wrangle horses. I wrote her a letter, I don’t remember what it said, but something about being glad that we had become such good friends in high school and that I was sad that it had to end. I didn’t think anything of it, and spent my summer planning for college in the fall.

Ten days before I was supposed to leave for college, I woke up and went to my car to find a note from Beth stuck to the windshield. Again, the specifics are lost to time, but the gist of it was that she was thinking about me, and that she had gone out of her way to drive by my house and leave me a note. I then did what any creepy, awkward teenager would do, I called up my best friend, and we staked out her house.

When we got there, it was dark, and we could tell by the cars out front that she had a couple of friends over. When one of the friends left, we were afraid we were going to be spotted lurking in the parked car across the street. We were just getting ready to leave when Beth and her friend came out of the house and got into her friend’s car. We figured we had nothing to lose, so we followed them to the gas station where we just happened to run into them. We struck up a conversation, she introduced us to her friend, and then we consolidated to one vehicle and took off for the foothills of Idaho Falls.

I will spare the details of the rest of that first date, but after that first night I knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with Beth. My journey was short. I didn’t have to go on dozens of anecdote‑inducing first dates. We didn’t have to date, break up, and date again to know what we had found with each other. I met the love of my life when I was in preschool. We got engaged when we were eighteen. We got married when we were twenty-one. Almost sixteen years into our marriage, I still wake up every morning with a smile on my face, eternally grateful and constantly amazed that I got so lucky.

by: Tim Kiester with extensive grammatical edits provided by Laura Nelson (check out her blog; she is hilarious).

The Flow

When I sit down to write, I very rarely know what I am going to say. There are just words bubbling beneath the surface that need to come out, but they need a focus. So, before I start typing, I pull out my phone and scroll through my pictures. Some days I take a lot of pictures; some days I don’t take any. When I am writing my blogs, the picture almost always comes first, which is why I lead with a picture on every post.

Today, I was flipping through the pictures on my phone, trying to find my focus, when I came across this picture of a stream. This particular stream is Angelica Creek as it is entering Angelica Park in Reading, PA, but, in my mind, it could be any stream, anywhere. I don’t mean to imply that I believe all streams are interchangeable, far from it; every stream is unique with its own characteristics brought on by complex variables, such as the terrain that they pass over, the climate of the area, the elevation, and any number of other things.

I say it can be any stream because when I look at it, I am not looking at Angelica Creek; I am looking at every stream I have ever seen. The magic of moving water is that it can take you anywhere. All water is connected. It has come from somewhere else, and its existence in this place is fleeting; blink your eyes and you are looking at new water with new experiences, a new history.

When I look at a stream, I see Palisades Creek, cold and crisp, boiling down the rough rocky mountain canyon to pool at the base of a giant boulder, swirling and churning. The stream where a boy caught his first “sixteen-incher,” an arbitrary classification of where a fish goes from just another catch to one worthy of its own story.

I see Big Elk Creek, meandering through the low meadows before it spills into the reservoir; its steep dirt banks where a young man paddled a canoe with fast friends during summer camp. I see Pass Creek, where he played with his siblings on fallen logs, creating a world and a mythos that existed only in their minds for a single afternoon.

I see Burnt Creek where it flows through copper basin with its fallen logs and abandoned cabins, with its unfulfilled promises of young love. I see Fall Creek’s pluming waterfalls cascading into the Snake River where two young hearts dared to imagine a future where they were never apart. I see Teton Creek where they soaked their feet after a grueling honeymoon hike. I see Clamatis Creek feeding the steaming waters of Mammoth Hot Springs on their first anniversary.

I see the Uncompahgre River, a generous name for a trickle of water winding through the desert of western Colorado, creating a green strip of park where someone placed a disc golf course. I see the Gunnison River’s marshy alpine banks where they picnicked together while escaping the cruel summer heat of the desert far below.

I see Buckhorn’s calm waters where he grieved for his grandfather in solitude.

I hear the babbling of Summit Creek as it tumbles over the rocks of Mack Park, echoing the laughter of a little girl with fire for hair. I see the raging torrent of the unnamed creek as it tries to keep up with men on mountain bikes as they tear down Green Canyon. I see the intermittent flow of High Creek, where bears traveled in herds and memories were made. I see the peaceful flow of Tulpehocken Creek as it lazily winds through the hills of Pennsylvania while a happy couple walk, hand in hand, and a young woman with fire for hair laughs beside them.

I see these streams and so many more when I look at this picture. This stream is not those streams; those streams exist only in my memory. Tomorrow, I can go to the same spot, stand in the same place and take another picture, but it will be a completely different stream. The water does not wait for us; it continues its cycle. A second after I took this picture, every drop of water had changed.

Words are the same. I can sit down tomorrow and look at the same picture and completely different words will come to me. I love to write, but the words, like the stream, depend on the environment where they are formed. Some days they flow fast with purpose and direction. Some days they pool and swirl with depth and meaning. Some days they babble and chuckle with humor. Some days they flow through light meadows; others through dark canyons. Today, I wrote this, and tomorrow? Well, tomorrow’s stream is a mystery yet to be revealed.

by: Tim Kiester with extensive grammatical edits provided by Laura Nelson (check out her blog; she is hilarious).

Eranthis hyemalis

Spring! It announces itself in so many different ways. Elements such as earlier sunrises and later sunsets are universal and scientific; they are just the factual representation that our trip around the sun continues and our polar location is once again gaining favorable positioning with regards to our exposure to the sun’s radiation. Other, more unpredictable variables, like the warming weather patterns that lead to more rain and less snow, can lull us into a false sense of “springtime” only to blindside us with one final push of winter that crushes our spirits so that we can never trust again. Weather is a bad indicator: it is far too subjective to be a true gauge of seasonal transition. My favorite barometer of springiness is nature. When the flowers start to bloom and the trees start to bud out, you know it is really and truly Spring.
That is, unless you live in Pennsylvania.
Let me explain. We have a lovely non-native plant that is gradually spreading its lies across our beautiful state. It huddles along pathways in our mossy deciduous forests, poking its treacherous green sprouts through the decomposing leaf litter at the earliest signs that winter is waning. With February barely half spent, it begins to open its deceitful yellow petals, announcing a false Spring to all who are foolish enough to believe its untruths. Eranthis hyemalis or “winter aconite” is a member of the buttercup family of flowers, but, unlike its honest, straight-dealing, spring-blooming cousins, it insists on blooming in the middle of winter.
Growing up in Idaho, I didn’t have to deal with this crap. We have honest flowers out west. Flowers like tulips and daffodils. You never see an allium or field violet before it is sure winter is done. You can be damn sure if you are hiking through a meadow full of phlox that the snows are behind you. This bastard offshoot of an honest family, winter aconite has no such regard for the decorum of its fellow flowers. This horticultural abomination gives us the proverbial finger by defying the frost and the ice with its perfect springtime appearance in what is clearly a month that belongs to old man winter.
Walking my favorite trails, I am jarred by its appearance. Where did it come from? Why is it here? It is not a native plant, having been brought over by wistful Mediterranean immigrants (no doubt longing for the more temperate climate of home). It is notoriously hard to get started (based on my perusal of numerous gardening blogs), giving even the greenest of thumbs fits, but here it is, spreading like the weed it is, invading the forest floor, prematurely replacing the browns of winter with the green of spring. It can’t be the wind spreading the seeds; it favors dense groves of trees where the wind cannot easily reach it. The fact that it grows no more than six inches high protects it even further from the breezes that might carry its seeds, allowing it to drop its seeds in the soil right next to it, so that it appears in clumps along the trails. You can’t even blame animals for its spread, as it is notoriously poisonous; any animal that tried to eat it would become violently ill.
So, if you are out walking in February in Pennsylvania, trust the calendar and the angle of the sun. Don’t trust the deceitful bright sunny flowers of Eranthis hyemalis and the 60-degree weather. It is still winter, so keep your hat and coat handy; you are still going to need them.

by: Tim Kiester with extensive grammatical edits provided by Laura Nelson (check out her blog; she is hilarious).

Lap Dogs

At some point, one would assume, a dog achieves a magnitude that makes it impossible for it to be considered a lap dog. I have never met a dog that believes it has reached that point, and I have known some BIG dogs. When I was growing up, my aunt had a Rottweiler named Nathan, and whenever we would visit, Nathan would have to sit right on you. I know what you are saying, “have to” is not the right phrase, but you never met this dog. I think it was a compulsion. If there was someone at the proper height to be sat upon, he had no choice: he HAD to sit on you.

With smaller dogs, this is a cute thing; no one complains about the cute Yorkie, fresh from the groomer, coming up on your lap for a cuddle. No one thinks twice about pulling the pathetic, shivering Chihuahua up from the cold, cruel floor onto their nice cozy belly in the middle of a movie. Even the snorting, mouth-breathing Pug is a welcome lap decoration in most households. But when you are cuddling on the sofa with an 80-pound Lab or sharing your easy-chair with a 65-pound brindle Pittie, people start to judge.

I think there are probably a number of factors that make dogs enamored of lap sitting, not the least of which is us. When we see someone with a puppy, regardless of the breed, or its future size potential, our first instinct is to pick that cute bastard up and cuddle with it. If we have the opportunity to sit down, we will hold the little guy on our laps and just hang out for hours. We continue to do this all through puppyhood, and before we know it, that cute ball of fluff is now a 120-pound St. Bernard that does not understand why it is not welcome on grandma’s rocker anymore.

Dogs are incredibly social animals: they travel in packs in the wild and create “packs” out of their adopted families. They have evolved over millennia to be able to identify who is a member of their pack and who is an outsider by using their keen sense of smell. Special scent glands and the tendency to sleep in proverbial “dogpiles” creates a shared scent among the pack. When we become a part of that pack, it is no small wonder that they want to share their scent with us (and, due to our insistence on regular bathing, it is a scent that has to be constantly renewed).

Sometimes (like in my house in the winter months), it is just about staying warm. Many of the dogs that we choose to bring into our homes are actually indigenous to much warmer climates, so when we insist on keeping our house at 55 degrees in the winter time, they just need someplace to curl up to keep their teeth from chattering.

The dogs you have to watch out for are the ones that insist on sitting on you to prove that they are the boss—I believe this was the case with the previously mentioned dog, Nathan). As pack animals, dogs need there to be an order to things: someone is the leader, and, to varying degrees, everyone else is a follower. No one likes to be low man on the totem pole, so dogs are constantly trying to maneuver into a more prominent position in the pecking order. Don’t let these dogs sit on you, it won’t end well.

I believe in most cases dogs want to sit on us for the same reason we invite them to do so: affection. Closeness of body as closeness of spirit. They sit on us because it makes them happy. We invite them up because it makes us happy. It is a very agreeable social contract that we have with our pets, but dogs are more than just pets to most of us; they are family, and, as family, they deserve to be happy and comfortable and to feel loved. Besides, it is still winter, and why pay for more heat in the house when you have an organic heating blanket right there at your feet.

by: Tim Kiester with extensive grammatical edits provided by Laura Nelson (check out her blog; she is hilarious).

Paulownia tomentosa

When considering the amount of time I spend walking during a typical day, I should really invest in walking shoes. More often than not though, I forget a change of shoes altogether and walk the gravel trails along the Schuylkill River in my work shoes. My work shoes are probably more comfortable for walking than most people’s tennis shoes (Eccos; don’t settle for anything else if you are a person who loves their feet), but with their flat soles, they are not really designed for walking on rocks.

As I tread along, I can feel every pointy stone and rough branch that lies along the path. The worst part of this fact is that it pulls my focus from looking forward toward my destination; it makes me look at the immediate trail before me. I am able to cast the occasional glance up and around me, but my primary focus has to be on what is directly in front of me.

I was tramping along yesterday, eyes fixed firmly on the trail in front of me, silently cursing myself for once again forgetting that I have a pair of retired running shoes in the drawer by my desk (placed there just so I would have them to wear while I walk), when I noticed a spent seed pod. A soft brown, almost orange color, with its shell cracked open, inertly lying there amongst the leaves and detritus on the trail in front of me. I bent to examine the pod more closely, pulling out my phone to take a quick picture as the wind cut through my wool coat, numbing my hands the moment they were exposed to its cruel bite. A quick google search revealed that the Princess Tree (paulownia tomentosa) was the source of the seed pod. It is a beautiful tree, flowering in the spring prior to producing leaves. The flowers are enormous and range from a light pink to white in color. It is not a native species to North America; rather an immigrant brought over both intentionally by botanists and gardeners for its beauty, as well as accidently in shipping crates bearing porcelain for the gentry of the early 19th century.

The parent of my seed (or more likely great grandparent as Princess Trees have a similar life expectancy to humans at about 70 years) was likely one of the unintended settlers of the area. The trail I was walking along runs along the curve of the river, about 40 feet below an old railroad grade. Because the seeds of the Princess Tree are incredibly lightweight, and each tree produces so many of them, they were used as packing material for shipping porcelain from China prior to the advent of polystyrene in the 19th century. The rails of Pennsylvania were not easy on the crates, so many burst open during transport, leaking their packing material and leaving a swath of beautiful immigrants along the rail lines of the Eastern US. Of course, the rail line above me has long been decommissioned, but, thanks to the suitable climate of the Schuylkill River Basin, the seeds of the Princess Tree continue to appear every fall.

The human brain is subject to fits of pareidolia, and mine, in this moment, anthropomorphized that seed for me. The curving line of the open pod became a smile, the shell having completed its purpose of protecting its progeny until it was ready to be deposited into the rich soil where it will unfurl when the earth warms and grow upward, someday to produce its own smiling pods.

The smile of contentment that my brain put on the face of that spent seed pod as I trudged through the cold wind in turn changed my whole disposition. It was like the laugh of a child at the end of a hard day. Like the wag of an old dog’s tail when you say the word “walk.” All of a sudden, it didn’t matter that it was 30 degrees and windy; it didn’t matter that I had the wrong shoes on; it didn’t even matter that it was only noon on a Wednesday. I was happy, recharged, and ready. The thought of a seed contentedly at rest after accomplishing its life’s purpose brought joy to my heart and a bounce to my step. It is wonderful the effect that little things can have on us when we just open our minds and let them.

by: Tim Kiester with extensive grammatical and composition edits provided by Laura Nelson (check out her blog; she is hilarious).

Chionophile

I walk on my lunch break. I have not always done this, I used to do sensible things like read, catch up on sitcoms, watch YouTube videos, or play Minecraft. Then, I got a fitness tracker (you know those little fashion accessories that also remind you to get up off the sofa once per hour, and make you feel like you let them down when you don’t reach your step goal for the day). For those who do not have one of these little devices, be warned, it will change your life. I know that is a very general statement, so let me specify: if you are remotely competitive, susceptible to peer pressure, have friends with the same tracker you do, are willing to join weekly challenges with people more competitive than you but with approximately equal physical activity levels, it will change your life.

It seems silly, but it is true. I find myself making excuses to walk. I used to be quite content to sit at my desk all day. I brought a giant water bottle to work so I wouldn’t have to get up more than once per day to fill it up. I now drink out of a coffee mug. A big-ass coffee mug, but still much smaller than the water bottle I used to bring to work. This means that I have to get up much more frequently to take the requisite fifty-step roundtrip to the water cooler to fill my mug twice as frequently. The fact that I down the remaining liquid in the mug every hour at ten ‘til when my watch tells me I should move means that I have to take about twice as many bathroom breaks as I did before I had an electronic fitness coach. This results in another 75-step roundtrip with the added bonus of having a flight of stairs thrown in there (I could use the restroom in my office and save myself going downstairs, but, even before I was looking to add extra steps to my day, my paruresis wouldn’t let me do that).

So what does this have to do with chionophiles? Well, if you have not googled it already (or if you don’t remember from my beer blog), a chionophile is an organism that thrives in cold conditions. I fear that my lunchtime walks are very cold-weather dependent as, (as I mentioned in my sock blog) I wear a shirt and tie to work. Walking a couple miles at lunch while it is chilly outside is very different from trying to do the same thing in sweltering heat. If I go for a brisk ramble in 80-degree heat, I will end up heading back to work with pit-stains that would make a linebacker on cardio day proud. On all but the warmest days, I should be able to get away with my pre-work constitutional without having to sop up with a sponge, but by noon under full sun, I am done for.

Now don’t get me wrong, I hate the cold as much as the next guy; it is my lunch-walk that is a chionophile. Me, I am a delicate flower. I wilt at the idea of subzero temperatures, and you know how they say that it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity? Well, the opposite is true as well. I will take a dry, Idaho cold any day, but you add some moisture to those cold temperatures, and, I swear to all that is holy, gloves make it worse. Well, probably not good winter gloves that don’t let the wind through, but those cool gloves that let you continue to play Pokemon GO while not having any exposed skin? On a damp day, you are better off with nothing at all, my friend. But I have to have that walk. It lets me refocus on heading into the downhill section of my day; it wakes me up in the afternoon since my body refuses to tolerate caffeine; and, well, without that walk, how am I supposed to crush my friends at virtual step competitions?

So, while I know most everyone is out there hoping for a nice warming trend to the weather, I will be hanging out, praying to Boreas for the strong north winds to continue to bring the chill of Canada down and keep the perspiration at bay.

by: Tim Kiester with extensive grammatical edits provided by Laura Nelson (check out her blog; she is hilarious).