Sunday, December 13, 2015

Slum and Gravy

It's hard for me to believe that Army's losing streak to Navy now extends to 14 years. As one of the greatest rivalries in college football, my disappointment as a die hard fan is amplified because of the national attention this one game of our entire season receives. The losses throughout the year to teams I think we should beat are hard, but being on a national stage and having to now hear ad nauseum about the squids' success over so many years has become too much to bear.

So I'm calling it now. Army wins in 2016.

Of course, Army/Navy isn't just about the game - it's much bigger than the 3.5 hours on the gridiron on Saturday. When you're a cadet, there are spirit missions, Go Army cake on the tables in the mess hall, and now, the Patriot Games on Friday before the game where Cadets take on Midshipmen in all kinds of feats of strength. I guess it's kind of like Festivus in uniform.

As an Old Grad, over the years, my Grey Hog-ness has grown. I've gone from simply making sure I was on the couch to watch the game to, this year, rocking the black and gold every day for the week leading up to the game. Whether at work, at the gym or out on my Saturday run, I was doing my part for the Army team right here in NW Arkansas.
My nails even got in on the action:
The best part of the week, though? I wasn't alone in my Old Grad shenanigans. On our private Facebook page, I and my fellow USMA '97 classmates pulled out our swag, our gear, old cadet uniforms, PMI cards from our cadet days, even our old cadet HP calculator (that an astonishing number of people still use on a daily basis more than 20 years later). Seeing pictures of my friends and being reminded of the immutable and unchangeable bond we have because of our four years together at the Academy was our collective spirit mission for the week.

I'm grateful we had the laughs during the week because almost 24 hours now since the game closed, I'm still mad. Not at the team, not even at the coaches. I am not saying it was a moral victory - THERE IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR VICTORY - but I love my Army team no matter the score. They played hard; they made me so very proud to be a Grad. I'm mad simply because I refuse to accept that we can't beat them.

So I won't accept the naysayers' gloom and doom. We WILL beat them. Next year. The streak will end.

On, Brave Old Army Team.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

An abundance of blessings and gratitude

Thanksgiving - the day we hopefully all stop and consider just how amazingly blessed we are. I know that I and my family have been given so much in this life, and the past year has been no exception. I could never adequately put into words all of the blessings in my life, so I will simply share images of the moments that filled my heart this year.

I am surrounded by love, in ways big and small, and for all of you who are a piece of my heart, thank you.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Putting down roots

Yesterday was a milestone of sorts for me - I had to get my driver's license renewed.

With my birthday approaching my license expiration date loomed, so I put time on my calendar to leave work just a few minutes and head to the Revenue Office to get it taken care of. I hoped that by waiting for the holiday week the line would be short, and to my delight I walked in the door to no line at all. In and out in less than ten minutes - that has to be a record.

The lack of a wait wasn't the milestone, though - it was the renewal that hit me as momentous. You see, I've never lived anywhere in my adult life long enough to have to actually return to the Revenue Office / DMV / RMV / whatever that particular state called it. I suppose I did renew my Texas license while I was in the Army, but the irony was, I didn't even live there. It was my home of record having grown up there, but not really my home of reality.

Justin and I left active duty in part because we knew we wanted to have a family, and we wanted our future-children to have a sense of permanence, a place they called their hometown. Little did we realize that a career in sales would require the same mobility as a career in uniform. If you combine my civilian career with my time in uniform, beginning with leaving home to go to West Point, my personal odyssey has been an extraordinary journey:
West Point, NY -- Ft. Eustis, VA -- Ft. Stewart, GA -- Ft. Lee, VA -- Ft. Leavenworth, KS -- back to Ft. Lee, VA -- Ft. Hood, TX -- Owings Mills, MD -- Adams, MA -- Liberty Township, OH -- Fayetteville, AR
I've said it before and I'll say it again - we love it here in Northwest Arkansas. I hope that we can make this a long term domicile, and give our children a place that helps them feel grounded no matter where they go in their own adult lives. I know you can never say never, and great opportunities may arise in the future that will necessitate moving boxes and changes in plans, but for now, I'm grateful for the little card in my wallet that says I belong here. At least until 2019.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Follow the Rainbow

Sunday breakfast at our house has turned into one of my favorite times of the week. Technically, it's Sunday brunch - we go to the 9am mass and don't eat until we get home, usually around noon. It isn't that the food is anything extraordinary; it's more that breakfast food is awesome, and whether it's scrambled eggs, omelettes, pancakes, waffles, pumpkin muffins, coffee cake, donuts, cinnamon rolls, or maybe several of the above, it's hard to get it wrong.

Throw in bacon or sausage (or on the rare occasion, both), hashbrown patties and a fruit salad, and it's become a multiplate plus sometimes-a-bowl kind of meal that has our breakfast table covered with deliciousness. Now that the weather is turning colder, the kids have been requesting hot chocolate to go with mom and dad's coffee, too. On the surface, it seems like a pretty simple thing to have Sunday brunch at our kitchen table each week, but it's one of the everyday moments that I treasure as a simple family tradition.

This past Sunday, we actually went a little bit on the lighter side. We are so very blessed to be able to afford fresh fruit year round, and Justin's always been great about making sure the kids have balance in their diet. Frankly, I lucked out, because I don't know that I was very good about eating my colors before I married him!

That whole "eat your colors" thing has always delighted me. First, it's an easy way to think about balancing my diet. Second, you truly do eat with your eyes, and a plate with more than white rice, mashed potatoes and chicken breasts is certainly more appealing than a monochrome meal. It's also an easy thing for kids to remember and a guideline they can easily follow.

When I put Sunday's breakfast on their plates and set them on the table last week, Caroline commented how we had the rainbow on our plates!
John's response: "and the cinnamon roll is the pot of gold!"

Nailed it!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Halloween 2015

Halloween this year was pretty different than in years past. We didn't have anyone come over to our house, and the kids didn't go together. It felt like a milestone that I didn't realize was coming; I guess that's how parenthood goes sometimes. You don't realize when the last time was the last time until it's gone.

As big as my kids are, though, they're still kids, and Halloween is still a fun time to dress up and get candy!! Falling on a Saturday made the pre-trick or treat chaos a lot more manageable this year. To complicate things, we decided to go to fall festival at the church on Friday night, bringing a couple of friends with us. May as well as much mileage out of the costumes as possible!
Caroline may have the record on getting mileage out of a Halloween costume; for the third year in a row, she was Harry Potter. Why mess with a classic, right? The robe is getting a bit short, but thanks to Aunt Susannah, there was a new accessory with the awesome Gryffindor scarf.

John didn't have a strong opinion about a costume, so several weeks before Halloween, I helped him brainstorm based on what he loves. Right now, what he loves is... video games. Specifically, Minecraft. It's a game made out of pixels - how hard could a costume be, right? Buy the head; order the diamond pick-axe from Amazon; cardboard box and Post It notes for the body. Voila - I give you Steve from Minecraft.
Halloween night was a little bit soggy, but that didn't dampen the enthusiasm for free candy. I dropped Caroline off at her friend's house so they could go together; Harry and Hermione ready to cast a Trick or Treat spell on the neighborhood! John and Thatcher waited for me to get back, since I was once again the chaperoning parent for the neighborhood walk. After a twenty mile run that morning, though, I wasn't quite as fleet footed as the boys. They were running like fools down the sidewalk, trying to catch up with the big kids who didn't want to be caught in the first place. With a few words I convinced the boys to give it up and actually start ringing doorbells to get candy, but was surprised when they called it a night before their bags were full.

It seems like this may have been the year we pivoted to big-kid trick or treating. I'm not sure what next year will bring; I would think we'll still be all about the candy, but maybe not so much about trick or treating with mom in tow. So I'll just savor this year for the moments it provided, my two kids and their friends doing what kids do. Trick or treat!

Sunday, November 15, 2015

For the love of the run

It's been almost three years since I was in the best running shape of my life; these days, I spend a lot of time thinking about how much work it is to drop weight and get faster rather than actually doing the work it takes to drop weight and get faster. I run because it's fun and a great way to spend time with friends rather than to qualify for Boston or set new PRs.

Despite the competitive fire being banked for the time being, I do still look for ways to do more; be more; achieve more. I continue to work toward my goal of running a marathon in all 50 states, but don't really have a specific plan for the next several months. The upside of no plan? Flexibility.

I got a text a few weeks ago from a childhood friend down in Houston asking if I could provide a recommendation on a hotel for the Tulsa marathon weekend. Not having run it before, I checked with a friend and responded. We went back and forth a few times, during which I made a couple of excuses for why I wasn't running it this year.

Excuses. Man. I seem to be full of them these days.

I start thinking. Tulsa - it's four weeks away at that point. I'm in reasonably good shape; I still do long runs on weekends, including a 14 miler not too long ago. Marathons are like those songs that get stuck in my head; I couldn't stop noodling on it. I don't have Oklahoma; this is a huge Maniac race; Tulsa is only a two hour drive away; how hard can it be to go for a just-finish?

Clearly, the thing to do is to run a 20 miler the next weekend. Clearly. Because if you can run 20, you run a marathon right?

My friends think I'm nuts. Maybe I am. Of course, that means they're as nuts as I am, because you know I didn't run that 20 alone the next weekend!! Off we went, starting at 5am on Halloween morning, knocking out Hobby Lobby loop and then the Stadium Loop to get all twenty miles in. With the take-it-easy and just-finish approach, I had one of the best 20 milers I'd had all year. Go figure.
So that was that - I was in. I went home and signed up for the Route 66 Tulsa Marathon, which is one week from today. I've been "tapering" in my training ever since - this might be the best idea I've had in marathon training. Run whatever you feel like for a few months, do one 20 miler, then taper! There has been one training challenge since I signed up; the weekend after the 20 miler I decided I should do 14, but Justin was out of town and I was home alone with the kids on my regular Saturday morning run time. What to do, what to do... well, duh. Obviously, the answer is to run laps in the neighborhood.
The elevation profile cracked me up!!
It's better than a treadmill...

I know running 15 laps in the neighborhood doesn't sound great, but as it turned out, it wasn't too bad. The mailbox was my water stop, and I went by the house every seven or eight minutes to check on whether the kids had any lights on yet. The guy around the corner having a garage sale probably thought I'd lost my mind by the fourth or fifth time I ran by, but hey - maybe he was on to something. Ha!

Here I am with the race one week from today, and I'm mostly looking forward to it. Like I said on our run yesterday morning, the problem with having run several marathons at this point is that I know exactly what I'm in for. I'm super excited to see Molly, coming up from Houston, and there are other friends going from NW Arkansas. It's a huge race for the Marathon Maniacs, so I'm sure the vibe will be great. And I'll get to mark Oklahoma off the list, a bonus for the year since I thought Vermont was to be my only new state!

I just have to remember - this isn't about the pace. This race is all about the love of the run.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Race Report: Hero Half Marathon - Oct 10, 2015

As it turns out, there are races of distances less than 26.2 miles. Who knew?

After training for long distances exclusively for the last three years, with very little down time in my regimen between events, I decided with Shauna's absence, I had the perfect opportunity to dial it back a little bit and moderate the number of miles I've been putting on my legs and feet each week. It was time to find the joy and the fun in running, not just the satisfaction that comes with completing another marathon and knowing I have the toughness and ability to slog through all of the training miles and then race day, too.

The problem with deciding not to train for a marathon, though, was the absence of a race of any kind on my mental calendar. While I'm generally a pretty motivated person, I do best when I have a goal I'm working toward, a deadline for achievement. Not wanting to spend the travel money usually associated with a race, I looked around and realized the local Fayetteville run scene has grown by leaps and bounds in the last year or two. There are so many options for runs of varying distances, supporting all kinds of different organizations and charities.

Based on good things I'd heard about the annual running in 2014 and in large part because of the new association with the 1LT Tom Martin Foundation, my good buddy Mike and I decided we'd sign up for the Hero Half Marathon right here in town. One of the big benefits of being a runner who is always halfway training for a marathon is the ability to sign up for a half just a couple of weeks before the race.

Looking forward to a distance that wouldn't break me down and a race that was mostly for fun, I met Mike on race morning at the shuttle point to get a ride to the start line of the point to point race. Unfortunately, this race report starts with two negatives: first, just like last year, start time is 10AM. Ten o'clock in the morning. I mean, who does that?! As a morning runner - and I'm talking done long before the sun even comes up, morning runner - I wasn't very excited about the idea of running in the sun and the warmth forecasted for that day. I know the upside is the chance to sleep in, but my concerns about the temperature by the midway point of the race far outweighed any enthusiasm for extra pillow time. Second problem: the 9am shuttle left a little early with a full crowd and rather than looping right back for a second run, apparently just disappeared. Hard to fault the race organizers, as it was a volunteer from another organization who wouldn't answer the phone when they tried to reach him, but it meant an awful lot of standing around and caused the race to start 20 minutes late.

The silver lining in the long wait? A chance to see Sarah and Jeff Hood, taking some great photos while sharing the story of #NeverQuit. I met some new friends, too, thanks to the built-in camaraderie of the wear blue: run to remember organization. Runners are special people, always friendly and easy to talk to, and meeting Melissa and her husband was an unexpected blessing as we waited for our ride.
Taking the good with the bad, the pre-race net result - problem #2 compounded problem #1. Not exactly an auspicious start, but hey, this was a fun run and it was only 13.1 miles, right? No big deal. I'm also a lot more likely to cut a race some slack when it's a small, local race where I feel like I have a personal connection and a vested interest in its success.

Local races are unique for the chance to see people I know at the start line. I ran into several people I've met through work, found my other two Saturday run group friends, and got to both give and receive a lot of good wishes and smiles. There was a nice ceremony honoring firefighters and promoting fire safety week, which would've been better if we weren't already late to the start line, but finally, it was time to go!

I planned on running with Mike and Louise - Fast Jeff was a contender for an overall place, so we just gave him a good luck - and we toed the line waiting for the signal to go. A very cool touch for this race - no air horn, no digital megaphone sound to send the runners on their way. In the tradition of the firehouse, they used a bell to signal step off. With the sun shining and hearts pumping, we headed down the trail for the loop around the lake, intending to take it a little bit easy and have a fun run. If we ran a sub-2:00, we'd be happy, but none of us put any pressure on ourselves for a specific time.

The race route was 100% on the Fayetteville trail system until you turned the last corner up to the firehouse (more to come on that!). Having pounded every inch of that pavement over the last 4+ years, I knew exactly what the twists and turns, elevation changes, bridges and tunnels would be. It also meant I had to suck it up and get over my mental block with running around the lake. No idea why I have such a hard time with that part of the trail, but I've come to loath that particular 5.5 mile stretch of pavement. Mike threw out an off hand "cut the corners" as we were stepping off, and for the first time since I ran the Houston Marathon, I made a deliberate, intentional effort to do just that.

It must have been the secret sauce - I don't know why I haven't done this every single time I run around Lake Fayetteville. It's a very winding path with lots of corners to cut, and it kept my mind focused on just getting to the next corner rather than thinking about the next hill or the interminable stretch on the back side of the lake. I managed to come out the other side and head down the hill in excellent time. My pace to this point was faster than intended, finishing the first five miles at an 8:13 average!

I had outpaced Mike and Louise a few miles in, so with feet pumping and arms swinging, I focused on the trail ahead, cutting the corners as close as possible, and just keeping the forward momentum going. As I headed south, I saw Jeff Hood again, camera in hand. I gave him a genuine smile when he encouraged me, saying I was on a sub-2:00 pace. I felt good, despite the sun rising higher in the sky and the temperature creeping up. I knew in detail what was in front of me, and was prepared to keep putting one foot in front of the other until I got to the end.
The race organizers did a fabulous job making sure there was plenty of support along the course. There were aid stations with water and Gatorade every mile or two, with enthusiastic volunteers yelling for all of the runners as they passed. There wasn't much crowd support, but even as a small race, I was never alone on the trail. I passed a few people, a few passed me, and I kept heading south as the trail slowly rose in front of me.

Around mile ten, it started getting hard. It was hard to try to keep the strong pace as the elevation slowly rose, and as the conditions got hotter. There are countless mantras runners use to motivate themselves through a run; I frequently repeat "constant forward progress" silently to myself. I also draw from my days in uniform, singing cadence to myself in my head, or occasionally hazing myself to stop being a big baby and suck it up. On this day, though, my thoughts were with Lisa Jaster, a West Point Woman who is a Class of 2000 graduate and was in the final phase of Ranger School, trying once again to graduate. She had been through six months of training, accepting recycles and restarts, and I had followed her progress with both pride and awe. When I hit the point where my legs said, "I just can't do it," my heart said "you most certainly can!" as I imagined Lisa humping her heavy ruck sack through swamps and mud and muck.

The reminder that this paled in comparison to other challenges put just enough spring in my step to keep me going. I managed to keep my pace at a run until I encountered the hill leading up to Maple; I took a deep breath, power walked up that bad boy, and then picked it back up as I coasted downhill to Dickson Street.

At this point, I knew I was close, but I was confused because my Garmin splits were off compared to the race mile markers on the course. In fact, by the time I got to the mile 12 marker, I was easily a half mile off. I thought maybe the course was short; maybe it wasn't certified; maybe it was a combination of variations in my Garmin combined with the course markers. Whatever it was, I knew the trail and the route, so I just had to keep going. So I did - until I turned left onto Center Street. Oh, the infamous last quarter mile of the race! It was an unbelievably steep hill - and just as we turned off of the trail, there was Sarah's family and the Never Quit motivation station, yelling and cheering for every one of us as we began our ascent.
Little by little, tiny step by tiny step, I made it up that hill. My pace plummeted until I wondered if I'd be better off walking, but I wasn't about to stop that with the finish line in sight.
I crossed the line, checked my watch, and did a double take at the results: 1:54:33 by my Garmin! Easy sub-2:00 on a day when I was simply out there to have fun. Given the very few official half marathons I've run, this was my new Personal Record for the distance, an exciting accomplishment in and of itself.

As I waited at the finish line for Mike and Louise to finish, I chatted with friends and even ran into a West Point classmate. I loved yelling for the runners digging deep to get up that hill and finish strong. It was a great finish line atmosphere with music and the announcer keeping the crowd updated on everyone who crossed that last timing mat. I eventually made it over to check the official results and delighted to find I'd managed to place first in my age group!

 In all, what a wonderful day for a race. It was certainly gratifying to have run a faster pace than expected and to have earned another age group win. The Hero Half is a very well-run race that exists to raise money for charitable organizations right here in my community, and I'm proud to have been a part of supporting that. One of the neat perks that I'd love to see at a lot more races - the professional photos were free and available the day after the race. It's a fairly difficult course, but in a way that makes you proud to have risen to the challenge.

As I've said countless times, I'm at a point in my journey where I'm simply grateful for the ability to run. To see my friends on a course, feel the sun on my face, and know that my body and spirit are strong enough to see me through to the finish line. Run on, my friends. See you at the next start line.
Louise, Mike, Me and Fast Jeff at the finish

Friday, October 16, 2015

Mama October

For a whole lot of sports fans, it's the most wonderful time of the year. The NFL season is in full swing; NCAA football has finally gotten into the conference schedules; the NHL dropped the puck on the beginning of the season; and, as with every fall in America for over 100 years, it's the Major League Baseball postseason. The hunt for the title is on.

Unlike most Octobers in my lifetime, this year, the Houston Astros were in the mix! After an electrifying season that defied the predictions of every expert who has a microphone, the Astros won the American League wild card game and advanced to the American League Divisional Series. The last time my 'Stros played this late into the year was the year Caroline was born - ten years ago, the fall of 2005. I spent many evenings in the last month of my maternity leave holding her, sitting in the recliner, and watching the Astros make a run all the way to the World Series.

Now, in October of 2015, the Astros were back! Ten years' worth of changes - I'm still sitting in the recliner, but it's two moves later in our living room in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Caroline is a 5th grader, and she has a little brother who is eight years old. The Astros have never been in the postseason in his lifetime; in fact, they've barely been relevant. The team moved from the National League to the American League in 2013 and over the last ten years, they have a combined record of 709-910, including three seasons where they lost over 100 games. I'm as super of a fan as you'll ever find, but even I had lost interest in the boys of summer. We'd make the annual trek to Minute Maid Park while home in Houston, but other than that, I didn't follow the Astros with any fervor or enthusiasm.

Then this year, the Astros somehow managed to lead the American League West division for almost the entire season. I figured out that even up here in NW Arkansas, I had a cable channel that carried all of the Astros games (thank you, Root Sports!). I began turning the games on in the evenings and turning the volume down low while I read on the couch. I got to know the players' names, and was enchanted by the enthusiasm and exuberance with which the team played. As I was drawn into the drama of an unfolding season, the wins kept piling up. The new playoff format of the one game Wild Card playoff meant the Astros made the postseason and went head to head with the New York Yankees, who they dispatched to earn their way into the ALDS! Next up, the Kansas City Royals!

Wait a minute - Kansas City. Like, just three and a half hours up the road, Kansas City. After the Astros won Game 1, I was keyed up for Game 2. I spent the day after the first game in the office a bit distracted, talking about the series with other baseball fans in the office. As the day went on, I kept thinking about the fact that KC was just up the road - straight up I-49, an easy drive that I'd made before. By early afternoon, I had checked Stub Hub, just to see if there were any tickets. Once I found there were plenty of tickets I thought, may as well see what they cost...

I called Justin. I thought about how much the tickets were, and tried to decide if it was worth it. I got more and more excited just thinking about the possibility of being at the game. There are no guarantees in life, and most certainly not in sports. Would it be another ten years? Would they ever play KC in the postseason again, the closest MLB park to our home? I checked with my boss to see if there would be a problem with my taking a last-minute day off on Friday. And then... I BOUGHT THE TICKETS.

I'm goin' to Kansas City... Kansas City, here I come!!! Not alone, but with my trusty little man by my side, of course - John and I are sports buddies of all kinds, and what an awesome way to spend a Friday in October!

We hopped in the car Friday morning, headed for Kauffman Stadium to yell for our Astros!
An easy drive later, we arrived at the stadium, grateful we'd grabbed pants and jackets! We got there well before the game started, heading into the stadium with our signs and garb shouting our H Town Pride.
The best part about getting to the game so early was the chance to go all the way down to the front row of the stadium where we could watch the Astros take batting practice. Another first for us! We watched as the players belted home runs, and others shagged balls from the outfield. We saw Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa hanging out and A.J. Hinch looking relaxed and confident. I even saw Craig Biggio, an Astro All-Star from my childhood who is also now a Hall of Famer! So cool to have a front row view, even if only for a few minutes.
We grabbed the classic ballpark hot dogs for lunch and settled into our seats - our AMAZING seats - right above third base, about twenty rows up. SWEET!! Soon we were surrounded by fans in Royals blue, but true to their reputation, they were gracious, friendly fans and the stadium was rocking as the umpire yelled, "Play Ball!"
Despite the number of MLB games I've been to in my life, I didn't realize how different a postseason experience would be. Every pitch, every play matters - it is heart pounding excitement from the start, and you don't want to miss any of the action! As batters made contact and balls were popped foul, no matter what direction it headed into the stands, I would put my hands up, look at John and joke, "I got it!" Then in the third inning, a foul ball of of the bat of Colby Rasmus headed for the third base side stands, and I joked again that "I got it!" as it dropped just two rows in front of us! It glanced off a man's arm and bounced into the hands of the fan right in front of us!!! I leaned over and asked if I could get a picture of the ball, and without thinking twice, the man turned around and tossed the ball to John. He gave the Astros foul ball to my son!! That, friends, is the magic of baseball.
Ironically, we were so absorbed in the foul ball we missed the next pitch - which turned out to be a home run!! With the Astros scoring in each of the first three innings, we began to think this could go our way. We were almost alone in our cheers and yelling for the boys in orange, but that didn't mitigate our excitement.
The Royals' comeback, unfortunately, certainly did put a damper on our enthusiasm. I know the Astros can't win every game, and in the postseason with a hostile crowd in an away stadium, it's a tall order to win two in a row. As the game wound down, and it became obvious the 'Stros would head home to Houston with a split, it got harder and harder to be excited in the face of the furious spate of runs scored by the Royals. Being surrounded by fans going crazy with every run scored was like salt in the wound, and as hard as it was for me as a grown up with pretty thick skin, that little eight year old boy had a harder time accepting that his team was going to lose. With the last out in the ninth, as fans around us gave each other high fives and began to file out of the stadium, my sweet little man turned his face to my side to hide his tears of disappointment as I put my arms around him.

It would've been nice to get a win; the series may have turned out differently if they'd kept the lead. Instead of Friday night movie night, we could've been watching the Astros play the Blue Jays in Game 1 of the ALCS. As with so many things, though, the joy for me last Friday wasn't in the game, per se. It was in each and every moment I spent with my son, seizing the moment and what may be a one time opportunity to see our team in a big game. As my dad said, the cost of the tickets was one thing, but this moment - this one day in 365 - was priceless.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Summer Fun - Floating the Buffalo River

Ask a native Arkansan what to do in Arkansas in the summer time and inevitably, one of the top answers will be "float the Buffalo!" The Buffalo River is the nation's first National River and a true outdoor treasure. According to the National Park Service, it is one of the few remaining undammed rivers in the lower 48 states, and lures locals and travelers alike to its shores.

Similar to hiking Mt. Kessler, floating the Buffalo has been something I've thought, "we should do that!" since the first time I heard about it. Unlike our local adventure, though, floating takes a bit of planning, and also felt like something that would be more fun when the kids were a little bit older.

With Shauna's departure for her year long adventure in the UK looming, we finally picked a date and decided to go do it! In preparation, I googled "floating the Buffalo River" six ways to Sunday. I found plenty of information on types of floats and outfitters. There were enough sites with water levels to get an idea of where we were in the season. Strangely, though, there wasn't a single place that spoke to a novice like me; a rookie who wanted to take kids down the river but didn't own a watercraft or have really any floating experience at all.

There are so many options - canoes, kayaks, inflatable boats, inner tubes. Two hour, half day, overnight trips. In and out, camping, cabins. I thought it was as simple as - go float! Given our inexperience, we chose to go with the shortish float via canoe, since the three adults at least had experience wielding a paddle. With no specific checklists, we figured we were all set with the reservations and the start time for our planned 3-4 hour float.

Irene, Caroline and John ready to float
That Saturday morning dawned sunny, hot and seemingly perfect for a day on the river. The six of us piled in the van and headed east toward the Buffalo River Outfitters. It's a beautiful drive, but it was a bit farther than expected, and by the time we got there we were cutting it close for the mid-distance float. As we hadn't eaten our lunch yet, we had to instead opt for the 2-3 hour float so that we could have our picnic lunch before heading out. Lunch done, kids' swimsuits on, all we had to do now was wait for the shuttle to get us down to the launch site!

Despite having hats and sunscreen, we were missing some of the more critical equipment. For those rookies like me who've never floated before and can't really find the easy answer, here's what I wish I'd known to bring when I was planning our first trip:
  • A cooler - not only will you want water (or other drinks) while you're out on the river with no shade, it provides a third seat for the non-paddler in the canoe.
  • Bungee cords - said cooler has to be securely tied to the watercraft.
  • Koozies - you can't have any drinks on the river that aren't in something that floats. I love knowing that we're doing everything we can to keep the river clean, and a koozie around a water bottle is a small price to pay to help do that.
At this point, we were blissfully ignorant and just happy to be at the water's edge. My big surprise when arriving at the launch point was how many people were on the river! I knew it was popular, but I'd not mentally connected the dots to realize it was a steady flow of people in canoes, kayaks, tubes, and sometimes just swimming by, enjoying the cool water on a hot summer day. We watched the other floaters, waited for our outfitters to get the canoes to the water's edge, and took a few pictures in the sun.
We managed to get into the canoes and launch into the river, and immediately, I realized - this isn't as easy as it looks!! Shauna and I were in a canoe together with John; Justin had Caroline and Irene with him. Despite having two-adult-power in our canoe, we managed to get turned entirely around, floating backwards right at the start. Good grief!! With a little bit of laughter and a good bit of upper body strength, we got turned around properly and began floating down the Buffalo. We were off - we were floating!
It didn't take long to realize it was much hotter on the water and in the sun than I had expected. I was very grateful for my hat and sunglasses, but without water to drink and in regular outdoor clothes with sneakers, I was stuck in the canoe without a lot of options for cooling off. Thankfully, we'd put the kids in their swimsuits, and we soon realized one of the best parts of floating is stopping along the way to cool off and swim in the river. After an hour or so of paddling, we parked the canoes on the shore and watched the kids dive into the cool, clear water of the river.
Seeing the kids cooling off in the water made me wish that I had worn a swimsuit, too. Back to those checklists - I had figured out what equipment we were missing; now I knew what the attire checklist should've been:
  • Swimsuit - getting into the water would've been amazing given how hot it was that day. I was pretty close to getting in fully dressed, but it would've been a long ride home in wet clothes.
  • Sandals (though the old sneakers did work, as long as you don't mind squishy shoes) - you definitely can't go barefoot. The bottom of the river is straight up river rock, not sand, and would be pretty painful to walk on without shoes.
  • Dry clothes to change into upon returning to the car for the drive home. Nobody wants to drive three hours in a swimsuit that's spent time in the river.
The kids had so much fun; they're still at the age that their laughter rings clear and true, no pretense or worry about what others think as they play and have fun. I so often say we're at the sweet spot with our kids - they're the age where they can do so much for themselves, and at times like this, they can go off a bit on their own without a parent having to be within arms' reach. Their budding independence is an affirmation that we're somehow navigating this parenting thing okay.
We were about an hour and a half into the float at this point, and I was desperately thirsty; I can't emphasize enough how big of a miss it was not to have brought a cooler and drinks. Lesson certainly learned. We herded the kids back into the canoes, and switched places so that Justin would have help with the paddling. That's when I realized how little help was going to come from the kids! I watched Justin and Shauna float farther and farther ahead as I worked to navigate under one and a half oar power!
There were places where the river ran faster than others, and I was glad that we hadn't come earlier in the season when the water was higher. We did run into a few places where the canoes scraped the bottom, but I think all in all, the water level was perfect for our first time on the river.

As I began to think we were going to be hard pressed to make it all the way to the end, there we were - the outfitters were on the banks waiting for us to pull our canoes up out of the water and head back in the shuttle. The float actually lasted just a bit under two hours; the lesson I learned this first time out is that the variability in the time for a float comes from how much time you spend out of the canoe, as well as how vigorously you paddle. If you know me, you know I'm not much one for passive outdoor activity; it wasn't a race, but I was still going to put some muscle into it! If you'd asked me at the beginning whether an under-two-hour float would be just right, I would've rolled my eyes and suggested the much longer one. Given our lack of preparation, though, it was a good thing we only spent that amount of time on the river.

With my first trip under my belt, here's what I'll know next time:
  • Consider an overnight trip - it's a far enough drive that out and back is a little bit taxing. Going the day before to get an early start on the river would help not just with the heat, but with the crowds, too.
  • Relax a little bit - it isn't a race down the river. The views are incredible, and the people watching is entertaining, too.
  • Figure out a way to waterproof a camera - it is a stunning landscape to which my pictures just can't do justice. Along the way we saw a bald eagle, too - it isn't just the bluffs and the trees overhanging the river that inspire.
  • The different types of watercraft all make for a different experience
    • The canoes were perfect for our family trip with kids our age. They're a way to make it a group activity, because it requires cooperation and teamwork to get going in the right direction.
    • The kayaks I saw were often loaded with camping equipment - so I think kayaking would be an amazing way to do a multiday camp/float trip. Those were the people I looked on as adventurers. A day trip on a kayak, too, seems to me like a more solitary, individual float, but perfect for a day of reflection and peace.
    • Inner tubes - now those are the people there for a party! What fun to bump along down the river, drifting in and out of a group of friends, hanging your toes in the water and swimming as much as you float.
    • While we didn't see any of the inflatable boats because the water level was too low, I think that would be a wonderful multi-family float option. I hope to try that together with Shauna, Andy and Irene someday to see if we can navigate the higher, faster water earlier in the spring or summer.
There definitely will be a next time - in fact, I hope there are next times. The Buffalo is a gift, as are the number of other beautiful rivers you can float here in Arkansas. It's the time together, though, that is truly priceless.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Hiking (practically) in our backyard

Arkansas, the Natural State - if you've never visited, that's a catchy slogan, but it's hard to conjure up just what it might mean. Once you live here, you realize that it's almost totally insufficient to describe just how stunning this state is. The natural beauty all around us here in Northwest Arkansas is something I never take for granted. In our four years here, I've really only scratched the surface of all of the amazing outdoor activities within a couple hours' drive.

A tremendous - and unexpected - benefit of starting this blog and then writing down my Life List has been the increased willingness to just go DO it. Whatever it is, more and more I'm inclined to take action; to make the trip; to go on that adventure. Forget the fatalistic never knowing if you'll have another tomorrow; it can be as simple as not knowing what the weather will be like once you do finally make time. I'm super comfortable with saying the laundry can wait; the dishes will get done; we'll go through the drive through or pick up a pizza.

Last Saturday was another one of those remarkably beautiful Saturdays here in Northwest Arkansas. Justin was in Little Rock for class, so it was me and the kids at home. I didn't have any pressing work to do; there were no scheduled activities after soccer and Lego League were done. The kids usually spend Saturdays playing with friends in the neighborhood, playing together in the playroom, or in Caroline's case, reading. I had the itch to get outside for some activity, though, and to spend time together.

Mt. Kessler is only fifteen minutes from our house (and that's if I hit the red lights), with easy hiking trails that anyone can manage. In the fall, it erupts in glorious colors as the trees change, and for a couple of years I've said that one of these days, I'm going to go hike it. October of this year rolled around, and I had not yet made good on my pronouncement. While the leaves hadn't started changing yet, the day was just beautiful - blue skies, warm sunshine, and a promise of a breeze combined to make it picture perfect. I texted my friend Mary for tips on the best way to reach Mt. Kessler's trails, she offered to meet us there, and our afternoon plans were set!

If you're local and have never hiked Mt. Kessler, put it on your list! It's a very easy trail for legs of all lengths and strides of all sizes. We headed for the south side to the new lot off of Cato Springs Road, where there was plenty of parking. The only downside was it is a bit of a walk from the parking lot to where the mountain trail actually begins, but the path is well maintained and easily traversed. While we were on foot, there were also plenty of mountain bikers up there with us. To Caroline's delight, the trail is also perfect for dogs!
Once up on the mountain, there are several scenic overlooks to take a break and look down on the Boston Mountains in the distance. I can only imagine how breathtaking it will be in a week or so when the leaves begin to show their fiery oranges, reds and yellows of an Ozark fall. We walked for about an hour and then turned around to head back to the car. We didn't make it over the mountain, but next time I think we'll bring some water with us and plan for a longer hike to try and at least get to the top. Given how easy it is to get there, I hope to go again when the reds, oranges and yellows begin their fall show.
There was nothing fancy about our plans that day, nothing expensive about the outing. It was simply a chance to spend time together with my kids and my friend, unplugged and active. Y'all come see me here in Arkansas - we can discover some more of the Natural State together.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

New School Year, New School!

It's a cliche, I know, but it's so oft repeated because it's so true: the older you get, the faster it goes. This year has gone by so incredibly quickly; before I knew it, another school year was upon us. Summer fun was done, school supplies were purchased, and lunch menu calendars were taped to the inside of the pantry.

Calendars, plural, because this year, Caroline entered middle school. Middle school!! My big girl is a fifth grader which, here in the Fayetteville Public School District, means middle school. She was so excited to have graduated from Holcomb Elementary; periodically throughout the summer, the subject of school would come up and it was always met with enthusiasm from my eldest child. The primary source of excitement? The locker. Good thing we're focused on what's important.

I remember, though, that it's all important at that age. You hit middle school, and the peer pressure accelerates. The desire to fit in is amplified and multiplied by six - as in, you now have six class periods with slightly different peer groups in each, and the need to adjust throughout the day a new skill to learn. Apparently, the locker decorating is part of the language of fifth grade girls, so we happily provided Caroline with the basics of a dry erase board, magnets and a mirror for her locker. Sorry, but I had to draw a line at the tiny faux chandelier. I'm cool, but I'm not THAT cool.

John, on the other hand, was back to Holcomb Elementary. Third grade is a big year - multiplication, division, cursive handwriting. We were delighted to learn that he has the same teacher Caroline had in third grade, so we know we're in for a great year. The biggest difference for John this year is that he's at school without his big sister. In fact, based on the way they divide the grades between elementary, middle, junior high, and high school, it will be six years before they're back on the same campus, and then as a freshman and junior in high school.

I can't think about that right now.

Instead, I'll focus on the fun they'll have as third and fifth graders, on the things they'll learn, the friends they'll make, and field trips they'll take. I'll try to ask the right questions at the dinner table so that I hear more about their day than it was "fine" and a recap of what was for lunch. So far, so good - two months in and we still look forward to going to school each morning!

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

A different way to go go go

Growing up in Houston, the car was how you got there. Didn't matter where there was; 100 miles, 10 miles, or a mile away, you were using vehicular motion to get there. Odds are, it wasn't even a car - it was just as likely a truck or a Suburban, truth be told. The sprawl that was - and still is, to a very, very large extent - Houston living almost requires a car to go to work, church, the gym, the grocery store, the library, almost anywhere. The exception was school and my friends' houses in the neighborhood - then, I had the freedom to get myself around, my first step toward independence and responsibility.

Here in Fayetteville, the town is much smaller. The traffic is lighter and the distances between here and there are shorter. It's a very bike-friendly community, with the recently-completed Razorback Greenway the crown jewel of a regional trail system. When considering how to get from here to there, it's a totally different calculation than in the big city. With the kids getting older and both of them now proficient bike riders, riding to school together seemed like a natural thing to add to our school week routine.

Of course, thinking something is a good idea and then actually going through with said good idea are two different things. When Justin and I talked about the actual mechanics of the kids riding to school, we realized that despite our best efforts, we did still have helicopterish tendencies. How would we know the kids would get to school without adult supervision? How would we know they would come straight home? How would we handle not having 100% positive control of those little people from door to door?

My job change presented the perfect opportunity to work this out. I took a month off when I changed jobs, and as it was the month of April, the spring weather gave us the perfect opportunity to do test rides with Mom in preparation for going it alone.

We found the best route that kept the kids off of the busy roads as much as possible; there were still two pretty big roads to cross (and without crossing guards at the school, which I just don't get), but we practiced stopping and looking before crossing. We talked about how to judge how fast a car might be going, and that it's always better to be safe than sorry. We walked our bikes across the streets the first couple of weeks, easing our way into the skill of a "cold start" on a bike.

The last week of my time off came and it was time to let the kids do a dry run. I knew they were responsible enough, and certainly adept riders, so I wasn't worried about crashes. Still, though, there's that moment as a mom when you realize this is it - my babies are going off on their own and I'm trusting them and THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD to take care of them. As they rode down the street and around the corner together, then passed out of sight, I caught my breath and said a little prayer that everything would be fine.

Of course, everything was fine. They got to school just like I had countless times when I was in elementary school, and they made it home together in the afternoon, no problem. No big deal, Mom, their body language said when they walked in the door that day. Why would you worry?

I know these days, most parents probably aren't comfortable letting their kids ride to school unsupervised. I have to say, I think that's a shame, for so many reasons. My kids have gained a little bit of independence and understand the responsibility that goes with it. They get some extra exercise to bookend their school days. I've come to appreciate, though, that the most important lesson I've learned from allowing my kids this freedom isn't for them, but for me. If I don't take these little steps along the way that allow them to get just a little bit farther from me, and to help me learn that they are capable and trustworthy, how will I ever let them take the car keys and drive away? How will I be ready for them to go to college?

Childhood isn't just about the kids growing and learning, it turns out. There are going to be plenty of times along the way where the lesson is just as important for Mom and Dad as it is for the kids. I'm not sure what else is in store for me with the passing years, but I hope that I will remember this first step and balance my fears with their need to grow up and grow independent.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Abbotts come to Arkansas

Haven't had a chance to write much lately as I've had a busy work week and last weekend we had company. Not just any company- the best kind, my sister and her family!

As much as I love my sister - and I love her fiercely - the big attraction here is my super adorable niece Claire. Toddlers are natural comedians, and at two and a half, she's officially entered the "interesting little person" phase.

It was a beautiful weekend as fall weekends in Arkansas tend to be, and we did our best to take advantage of the sunshine. Friday was an at-home day for everyone but me (work!) so it was mostly hanging out, swinging in the back yard, and the midday nap that is a standard part of every toddler's routine. Actually, that was a part of the routine I'd kind of forgotten about - along with the twenty-minutes-to-get-out-the-door part of the routine. Being a toddler parent is hard, y'all, but the good news is that just a few years out of this age, you apparently don't remember the hard parts very clearly!

Around here, Saturday mornings in the fall start with soccer, so we all trooped over to the Lewis Soccer Fields, chairs, blanket, diaper bag, snacks and water bottle in hand. In a quirk of timing, it happened to be A&M/Arkansas football weekend. Susannah is a legit Aggie, and I and my kids have adopted Old Army, and we showed up in our maroon and white despite being smack dab in the heart of Razorback Country. Bold choice!
As precious as Claire is, I think my own kids are pretty darn cute, too! Caroline at the soccer game:
And ohmygoodness, my little man is getting so big. And so handsome.
John has such a tender heart and loves his little cousin. She loves him right back; all weekend long, I heard a lot of "hey John! Hey John!" and "where's John?" from the tiny little toddler voice. He is so patient with her, playing together in the playroom and then out in the sandbox for a while, too.
Their visit last year was on a similarly beautiful weekend which meant enjoying the sunshine. I happened to snap a really great picture of Susannah with all of the kids out on the front lawn last year, one of those iPhone pictures that you look at and wonder how you got so lucky. We tried again, recreating the scene and capturing smiles across the board again this year.
The big event of the day was mini golf - I guess Susannah had mentioned going for a round to John and once you say something like that, you know you have to make it happen! You never know how things will go with a tiny little person, but it ended up being so much fun for everyone.
Pretty sure Claire is a natural!
I was a bit behind as we finished up the round; as I walked toward the 17th hole, I heard John whooping from down below me on the 18th green. Big man got a hole in one on the final hole!! I'm pretty sure it's a universal rule in putt putt - a hole in one on the last hole equals a free round. Kiddo was grinning ear to ear!
There wasn't any big-deal event or major effort to manufacture fun last weekend; the awesome thing about my sister is that when she comes to visit, she's cool with just hanging out. Seeing the kids spend time together, hanging out just talking is totally our kind of fun. Of course, fall weekends are also football weekends, so it didn't hurt that we got to yell for the Aggies from the comfort of the couch. If you were watching, then you know the game went into overtime, with us nearly hyperventilating until the guys in maroon and white finally put it away.

Like most visits, it went by too fast and ended too soon. Sunday afternoon came and Susannah, Justin and Claire headed back home to Houston. Life is super busy, and seems to accelerate with each passing day. Last weekend was a chance to capture those fleeting moments.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The only constant is change

I'm truly enjoying being back at writing, capturing some of the moments that have made up the last year. As I think through the last many months, it's pretty remarkable how much happens in any given year. A whole lot of little things which, when added up, turn out to be the big things in life. Along the way, though, there are also the big things. Those momentous events and life changes that even in the moment, you recognize as a big thing.

Not too long ago, you may remember that I made a pretty big professional life decision, leaving P&G to go to work for an agency called Shopper Events. It was a tremendous opportunity for me to accelerate my career from a leadership standpoint, and to expand my skills and broaden my experience by moving over from the manufacturer side of the Consumer Packaged Goods industry to the marketing agency side.

As it turns out, agency life really isn't for me. There were all kinds of challenges with the company itself, from leadership to clarity of purpose to unfathomably unrealistic business objectives. Even so, I learned a lot, and the year I spent there was invaluable. No, it wasn't the company issues that convinced me I'm not quite right for agencies; it was the fact that no matter how good an agency is, no matter how valuable to its clients, the work that we did only contributed to the success of a product or a brand. Even with the best possible plan, I didn't own the sales results of the product, and I didn't have ultimate accountability for sales success.

As it turns out, I love being in sales. Love it. I landed in a sales job when I left the Army way back in 2002 primarily because it would pay the bills and because it was in Baltimore, where we were headed for Justin to attend law school.While I didn't love medical devices, neurologists or operating rooms, I did love the selling. That held true through all of my years at P&G, and after six months at Shopper Events, I knew it was still true.

Now, I'm not one to advocate for job hopping. For years, I truly thought P&G would be where I would retire after a long, successful career selling household staples to America's retailers. Here in Northwest Arkansas, though, you see a surprising number of people who build successful, rewarding careers doing just that. With countless vendors selling to two of the world's largest retailers, there are frequently more jobs than there are qualified local candidates.

Knowing that, right around the first of this year I quietly began talking to friends to ascertain what opportunities might allow me to continue to grow right here in NW Arkansas, but back in the traditional manufacturer's side of the CPG industry. After four years here, I've made many wonderful friends, many of whom are in the industry, so I had the good fortune to be able to "job hunt" just by listening and asking a few questions.

After a few months of casual comments that turned to serious conversations that ultimately led to interviews, I was presented an offer to go to work for the Kraft Foods Group. Kraft, the company I always thought of as the P&G of food! Not only would I have the chance to work for a world-class food company, I would be working for someone I'd known socially for a couple of years, taking the guesswork out of whether or not I'd like my new boss. With visibility to leadership opportunities in the short term, I was excited to be back in a bag-carrying role, representing a company and brands that are in 98% of households in America.

I accepted the job and - no exaggeration - enjoyed the idea for exactly one day before rumors of a merger slash acquisition arose in the press. Heinz, owned by the private equity group 3G Capital, was apparently intent on bringing the two companies together, creating a new mega-company that had the potential for hundreds of millions in cost savings and sales growth through the leveraging of a global business model. Bleh, bleh, bleh... what everyone wants to know, ultimately, is what does that mean for me? As it turned out, it meant a promotion roughly 90 days after my start date. Kraft Mac & Cheese and Jell-O are my brands, and I have the honor of leading the fantastic Kraft Heinz Walmart Meals & Desserts team.

New company, new culture, and new opportunity lie in front of me. I look forward to going to work every day, back in the industry I enjoy and working with fantastic people, every day. I am incredibly grateful for my year at Shopper Events because more than anything, it clarified for me that the CPG industry is the right place for me. It might just be Mac & Cheese to you, but to me, it's exciting and, yes, even fun, to try and figure out each day how to grow this business. While this might sound a little bit like job hopping, I'm approaching this new gig with the same attitude I had at P&G. If everything works out, I may just someday be able to call myself a Kraft Heinz retiree.