S-P-E-L-L-I-N-G

Today the seventh grader (and two other Northfielders) represented her school at the regional spelling bee in Rochester. 


Though nervous, Julia did very well, getting through five rounds on humble, grotto, benefactor, isobar, and mantilla

I was amazed at the attrition: 12 kids – a third of the field – went out in round 1 and then a third of the remaining complement went out in round 2. Going into round six, only seven kids remained – a magic number since the top six would go on to the regional final bee, with the seventh becoming the alternate. 

High tension! Julia missed Samaritan, which I blame on her parents, who never exposed her to Bible stories. Another girl (one of the several Indian-American kids repping Rochester schools) also missed in that round, which set up a head-to-head tiebreaker to determine who’d be the alternate and who’d finish sixth. Julia got asterisk but then missed teriyaki – a word she later said she knew – and wound up in seventh as the alternate. 

Such is spelling bee life! We were very proud of her, regardless: her hard work preparing for the local and regional bees paid off very well. After all our practice, she’ll never forget how to spell Huguenot!

And as a lifelong nerd, I loved seeing these smart kids not only recognized for their smarts but challenged to use them. Being able to shoot a three-pointer is nice now, but I like to think that the skills embedded in being able to spell synopsis will probably get you further in life.

Women’s Day

Today, women all over the country – and the world – marched to demonstrate their resolve against our country’s new, reactionary president, a man whose claims to be a leader of all people are as loud as they are hollow. (Just read his inaugural speech for proof.)

Though I didn’t march with my scores of female (and male) friends today, I was heartened by them, and inspired to fight. I’ll be calling my new Republican U.S. representative on Monday to voice my opposition to proposed cuts to federal arts and culture funding and to moves to give federal lands to the states. 

As the father of two wonderful girls and the husband of a wonderful woman, I thought that the protest marches coincided neatly with some other notable occurrences.

First, today both girls played their guts out at basketball tournaments, pushing their bodies as far as they could. Though I didn’t get to see any of Julia’s games, I was lucky to watch Vivi in three games, solid team efforts that garnered her squad its first two-win tournament and a nice third-place medal. (I’ll get to see Julia play on Sunday.) Here she is pushing upcourt after one of her approximately ten million steals. 

Second, Thursday night, I saw Julia demonstrate her brainpower by taking second place in her middle-school spelling bee – a long step up from her tenth place finish last year. As someone who (inordinately) values linguistic skills, I thought this was great. She did too!

Third, Friday night at the high school boys’ basketball game, I had a good conversation with Julia about certain irksome disparities between the ways the girls’ basketball teams and the boys’ are celebrated. I’m thinking about taking that up with her coaches, but I was impressed that she noted those disparities and that they rankled her! Inequality sucks. 

Finally, I was thrilled earlier this week when Julia wore her new “FEMINIST” t-shirt to school. (The shirt was a specially-requested Christmas gift from me to her.) Doing so took some guts, and her mom’s encouragement. And yes, she had a ready and reasonable definition ready in case anyone asked about the shirt! (No one did.)

All in all tonight, I am far more hopeful about the next month, year, and four years than I was on Friday. Thank god for the next generation!

Sunday Balling

Today the girls both played in a massive basketball tournament hosted at, apparently, every public-school facility in Lakeville. With each girl playing three games at three different sites, we had to rent a car to ensure parental coverage of all the games. Since I’d missed a tournament while out west, I was selected to go watch Julia’s three games, while Shannon stayed with Genevieve.

I’ve been surprised at how much  watching the girls’ games wracks my nerves. Something about the team sport and the gyms (and the other parents) agitates me much more than either watching the girls at tae kwon do or riding bikes with them. And but so, I was thrilled to see that Julia – and her “C” level team of mostly novices – have improved by leaps and bounds in the last couple months. #5 played actively on both offense and defense and, to my happiness, mixed it up quite a bit – going after loose balls, grabbing the ball to force jump balls, even fouling an opponent. 

And! Owing to some missing players and to the need to make sure the “B” team was competitive in its games, Julia’s team had just seven players for their first game, five for their second, and six for their third. This meant that Julia got tons of playing time, including all 28 minutes of both the second and third games. The third, “friendship” game was a tight one in which the girls – visibly exhausted from the previous two games – first overcame a four-point deficit and then held a four-point lead all the way to the horn. The exhausted girls were elated to eke out the much-deserved win.

Happy Birthday, Carleton!

Carleton College was founded on October 12, 1866 – exactly 150 years ago today. Actually, that’s not quite accurate: the institution was founded as “Northfield College” on 10/12/1866; five years later, its trustees renamed the college in honor of a key donor.

Anyhow, the college is celebrating the sesquicentennial of its founding – and its 150 years of history – in a typically low-key but fun way, with events such as a “Town-and-Gown Celebration” in downtown Northfield tomorrow, a convocation on Friday by Minnesota’s favorite humorist Garrison Keillor, a carnival and fair on Saturday, and a little birthday video featuring scores of students, faculty, and staff – including me and my cowlick. I’m talking trash to our bizarre, unofficial, worse-for-wear college symbol, a bust of the German Romantic poet Friedrich Schiller, who has also appeared with Bill Clinton and Stephen Colbert.

Schiller and Tassava
Schiller and Tassava

I’m glad I wore my sesquicentennial button that day!

Quirks like Schiller and birthday videos remind me of other ways that Carleton’s culture has bound me – and, I hope, others who love the institution – to the college. I couldn’t possibly list all the examples that have come up in the eleven years that I’ve worked at 1 North College Street (7.33% of the college’s lifetime!), but for me, the deal was sealed in summer 2006, when the college held a farewell party for a wonderful but falling-down piece of outdoor sculpture called Twigonometry. (Anyone interested in public art should check out the gallery of photos of the piece in its prime.) Twigonometry stood gorgeously and mysteriously at the north end of the Bald Spot, where kids like toddler Julia could wander through its chambers and arches, swirling in an organically alien way:

Julia and Twigonometry
Julia and Twigonometry

What kind of place holds a farewell party for a four-year-old sculpture made from branches and twigs? The kind of place that I hope lasts another 150 years.

Lazy Sunday

Today was a near perfect autumn day. Though I’d have liked to have done a hard ride on some local trails, instead I headed out with Julia on a big loop that included a little dirt in the Arboretum

before stopping at the Carleton library (where she checked out two Shakespeare plays – wha?) and then heading downtown to browse the art shop (cardstock for her new greeting-card project slash business) and bookstore ([this book on the famous Lewis chessmen](http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/23848067-ivory-vikings) looks great) and get a snack at the coffee shop. Small business Sunday! While doing all that, we chatted about everything: school, work, college, stores, food, biking, being a kid…

On our way home we rode through a street-construction project, which is always good for a little frisson of riding, harmlessly, where you supposedly shouldn’t. Six miles of east, fun, relaxing outdoors time.

Into the Woods

One aspect of cycling that surprises and pleases me is how a bike ride will sometimes – by accident or by subconscious arrangement – bring me to a place I didn’t know I needed to go. Fatbiking has done this figuratively and literally, creating or at least heightening a passion for being in the snow. Riding the Arrowhead literally changed my life.

But this happens often enough on regular old rides too. A mindless drift down a favorite road brings me at just the right moment to a view of a prairie landscape that shocks me with a feeling of being small but in just the right place.

Isaacson Corner
Isaacson Corner

A ride with the girls creates a sense – rare but welcomed – of being possibly okay at parenting.
Lebanon Hills
Lebanon Hills

Or yesterday: a careful plan for a pretty hard training ride delivered me to some wooded trails, just a few miles but a world away from home, that dripped with rain and a feeling of home – of my actual childhood homes in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and my ancestral homes in the woods of eastern Belgium and central Finland. Even barrages of mosquitoes couldn’t detract from my sweaty happiness at being deep in the trees and ferns and mud. 

Caron Park
Caron Park

Grandma Cat, RIP

Grief drove me to spend a couple hours tonight combing our digital photos for the best shots of Sabine, our wonderful grandma cat. I was surprised by how few there were, but the photos we do have are nicely representative of her beauty and calm. “Beaner” was quite a cat, even leaving aside the fact that she lived 21 wonderful years (nearly half my life!).

Sabine was a stray, adopted by Shannon and me with her “brother” Snowshoe (also a stray but not her actual littermate) from a shelter in Chicago. When Shannon and I – newly married – adopted the two cats, we were making a real home for ourselves. In the contract with signed with the shelter, we promised to always keep them both indoors and to never declaw them. We were silly kids, but we kept both of those promises! “Schoobie” died of cancer when he was only five, which felt until tonight like an impossibly painful event. “Beaner” lived another 16 years! I asked her, at the vet’s tonight, to make sure she told Schoobie that we missed him and that we did a good job with her.

The defining aspect of Beanie’s life was being the object of the girls’ inexhaustible love. She sought out their love, and paid them back richly. Genevieve, especially, enjoyed a special bond with Sabine, whom she called by a million names, including “Benobi.” How many hours did Sabine spend with Julia and Genevieve on the sofa, snuggling into a blanket or draped over their laps?

She was a surpassingly gentle cat. I can’t remember her ever being truly angry, except when I trimmed her claws. And even then, she relaxed when Vivi would help me by cooing to her and stroking her back. She loved peace and quiet and sunbeams. Like most cats, but more so.

In the last couple years, as life with not-little kids calmed down, Sabine made a point each morning to come over to where I was eating breakfast and paw at my leg, reminding me that she wanted some of the milk from my cereal. I’m sorry that I wasn’t always patient with her begging, but I always gave her my leftover milk, which she happily slurped up. She often then waited at the door to the garage to go and inspect the situation there – but not if it was too cold. She liked to lick the spokes on the girls’ bicycles, bizarrely. Back inside, especially in these last few years of her life, she would find a sunny spot in the living room and make herself comfortable as I was leaving for work.

Even more than those weekday mornings, Sabine and I enjoyed each other’s company every evening, after the rest of the household went to bed. She and I had a little routine. When I came downstairs after saying goodnight to the girls around 8:30, she’d expect me to top off her food bowl. Then she’d sit with me or maybe sleep behind the TV in her “nest.” If I had a snack, she’d come over to check it out, dipping her paw in my water glass, licking salty chips if I looked away, and enjoying the last shreds of cheese from my nachos. Around 10, she’d come back for her bedtime snack, which I’d give her in the utility room, where she’d sleep overnight. If I fell asleep on the sofa or simply forgot, she’d politely come over from wherever she was and tap me on the knee or chin with a reminder. God how I’ll miss all of our evenings together, but god how I’ll treasure the memory of them.

March Gladness

The girls love playing basketball, which is great, and that love of playing it has lately extended into loving to watch it too. We attended a bunch of Northfield high-school games this winter and even went to Minneapolis to see a Timberwolves game in February.

This week, they’ve been getting into the NCAA men’s tournament, which they both simply call “Marchmadness,” as if it were actually a different sport than basketball. We filled out tournament brackets, which was fun and a little bit educational, and have watched bits of a few first-round games, including both of the overtime periods that Little Rock needed to beat Purdue.

All day today, I looked forward to sitting on the sofa tonight with the girls and watching whatever game came on. In one of those all-too-rare cases of parenting where the reality matches the expectation, we did just that, taking in Stephen F. Austin’s upset of West Virginia. The game was full of hard defense, good shooting by SFA’s amazingly-bearded Thomas Walkup

Mar 18, 2016; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks forward Thomas Walkup (middle) drives to the basket against West Virginia Mountaineers players Elijah Macon (45) , Esa Ahmad (23) and Jonathan Holton (1) in the first half in the first round of the 2016 NCAA Tournament at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks forward Thomas Walkup. March 18, 2016; Brooklyn, NY, USA; mandatory credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

and enough steals by SFA to make WVU look like tourists who had wandered into a pickpockets’ convention. We also had an unnecessary bowl of popcorn, some fizzy drinks, and lots of crazy conversation. It was a blast.

Parenting by Bike

If there is one downside to my love of winter cycling – and there isn’t – it would be that my girls can’t join me out on the snowy trails. So as bummed as I am to see winter go (especially a short, mild winter like this one), I’m equally happy to go riding again with the girls, and even more so after we had so much fun last summer.

My spring cycling fever spiked on Friday when I learned that Northfield’s in-town mountain bike trails were scheduled to open for the season on Saturday.

But! When I told the girls this news, Julia said that she was too nervous to ride the trails again – and specifically that she was afraid of falling off the bridges at the trail. (This happened once last year, so it’s a semi-real fear.) I didn’t say much except that I hoped she’d change her mind, and went riding by myself on Saturday.

Sure enough, this morning she announced that she did indeed want to go riding – which made Genevieve upset because she couldn’t come along, being already committed to going to a party. Kids!

I calmed Vivi down by promising to take them next weekend to a nearby mountain bike park (what a burden!), and then Julia and I hit the trails.
Shooting the gap

She did great, riding the bridges without any problems and re-conquering several features that she’d learned last year. She even insisted on posing for a picture:
Semi-scenic overlook

Altogether we rode ten miles in about 90 minutes, which is a great first outing of the season. In addition to the planned trip to other trails next weekend, we decided at dinner to sign up for a short gravel race near Northfield in May, and are thisclose to convincing the non-cyclist in the family to let them do a MTB race in the fall. Yay bikes!

Whatever Floats Your State

Vivi’s fourth-grade social studies project was a “report” on one of the United States of America. Kids could choose among various forms for this report, and she chose to make a “float,” which is in principle and reality a pretty cool alternative to a poster or even a paper. For whatever reason, she selected Idaho as her topic, which was nice since – after two trips out there – I feel like I know a little bit about the Gem State. It’s called the Gem State, for instance.

Predictably, the effort of assembling this float was a bit overwhelming for my smart little perfectionist. Some tears were shed on the way to making the final product resemble the image in her head. I tried to avoid doing much to help her, and wound up mostly just scaling back some of her overly ambitious ideas. But the final product was pretty neat, displaying all the required info (capital, date of joining the Union, nickname, state bird, etc.) as well as some other cool stuff about Idaho and a very realistic paper potato.

Idaho Float
Idaho Float

The Pitchy Blackness

I’m finally reading *Danny the Champion of the World* by Roald Dahl, which both family and friends have said is great. It is, not least because the book includes paragraphs like this one, which stopped me as cold as an unrideable hill in the middle of a fatbike race.

The Pitchy Blackness
The Pitchy Blackness