Holding Tarantulas or Feeding Ponies?

It’s a tough choice really… Upon our arrival in Alamo, Flight’s parents had reminded me that it was tarantula season in nearby Mt. Diablo State Park. They suggested an outing to check out the enormous, hideously hairy, burrow dwellers that were out and about in droves. In the recesses of my can’t-unsee-but-would-prefer-to-banish memory bank I recall seeing pictures of my niece and nephews from years ago holding same tarantulas (even the male spiders live more than a decade) against the backdrop of the Mt. Diablo. A closet arachnophobe (maybe my 8-year old self was scarred by this scene from my favorite movie?), I have the heebee jeebees even now as I type this.

Were I to be asked about touching tarantulas on purpose, “No, thank you,” would confidently escape my lips before the question’s second syllable was uttered. However, since I didn’t want to come between my children and a cool formative experience with their grandparents, I remained silent in the discourse. I deferred to the three who would potentially be picking up the wee beasties and posing with them for photo ops because I certainly wasn’t going to do it.  Unfortunately (?), our kids were also less than enthusiastic about such an undertaking and I could not want to try to talk them into going.

Sorry, Grammy and Papa, I just couldn’t.

After our Stanford tailgate, football game, and overnight on the Farm, we had a small window of opportunity for some girl-bonding time following a late lunch. I had intended to enjoy a lovely outing with our girls during this time, but instead made a debacle of the remainder of the afternoon.

Instead of stalking tarantulas, the girls and I opted to ride our bikes down the local trail to feed carrots to some of the neighbors’ ponies. Okay, so they were actually horses, but nominally downgrading the cute factor associated with our chosen activity doesn’t really change the story. Flight’s parents live along a lovely paved hiking/biking trail that runs for miles, connecting several of the nearby towns. Our agreed upon destination was maybe 1/17 of a mile down the trail, literally less than 100 steps away from Davista’s door.

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After the horses gobbled up every last carrot the girls offered, I got an idea. An awful idea. I got a wonderful, awful idea. Encouraged by the girls’ enthusiasm to take their bikes out on the trail, I thought we could maybe ride a little farther down the path as I knew one of the houses along the trail boasted a menagerie of farm animal statues and would be a cool thing to see. Great plan, right? Unfortunately, I, um, neglected to get buy-in from either of my fellow riders before extending our excursion, which is what naval aviators would refer to as a “Below in headwork.”

That probably warrants some explanation…

While earning their wings of gold, naval aviators are graded on every aspect of a training flight, namely how well you: preflight the aircraft, can speak to the aircraft’s interconnected systems, brief the weather and its impact on choosing alternate airfields, complete your checklist items, execute any and all emergency procedures, and, of course, preflight, start, shut down, and post-flight the aircraft – and everything in between. Most critically assessed, however, is your ability to think things through while sitting in the hot seat. That overarching aspect of evaluation is called “headwork.”

When Flight and I were in our respective flight training pipelines back in the day, for each of these graded criteria you were awarded an “above (average),” an “average,” or a “below (average),” meaning you outperformed, were on par with, or deemed a total knucklehead when compared to your fellow aviators in training, respectively. Two “belows” on graded criteria in any one flight constituted an event failure or a “down,” which required a performance review board (or PRB = the opportunity for you to own your shortcomings before a host of flight instructors) and, if given the opportunity, an event refly. If you achieved two downed flights, you would be asked to find a new occupation instead of flying aircraft for the U.S. Navy. Ouch. If you chose a less than ideal alternate airfield, that wasn’t nearly as big a deal as not being able to effectively think things through, most especially in self-induced crises. Receiving a “below” in headwork was just plain bad juju.

And I earned mine today.

Selling the girls on biking over to feed the horses was one thing. Asking them to ride almost 34 times as far and uphill (both ways) appeared to go beyond the flexing capability of either sleep-deprived young lady, especially Firebolt since Flight had raised her seat higher than her confidence allowed and, lacking the proper tool, I had been unable to lower it. And I insisted she ride anyway. We’re only going to feed the horses, I had assured her.

Understandably (maybe?), upon being charged with riding further, Firebolt felt as though she had been hoodwinked and, far from tacitly accepting this change in plans, loudly complained with every pedal stroke that moved us farther down the trail and away from relaxing at Grammy and Papa’s. At one point she actually refused to cross the next road, even when I reassured her that the “farm” we were aiming for was most definitely on the next block. While I was starting to realize I had lost all street cred and thought I might never find said “farm”, I truly didn’t understand her misgivings about our quest – I mean who wouldn’t want to see Shawn the Sheep, right?

I finally managed to coax Firebolt across the street, at which point she subsequently flat out refused to move any further. Stubborn as they come, that one. No idea where she gets it… Fortuitously (?), Firebolt had dug in her heels steps away from one of the trail’s few water fountains. While Firebolt had been fighting against making any forward progress, WoodSprite’s accompanying whining harmony had been to the tune of being oh so very thirsty. I thus earned another “below” for today’s evolution, this one for failing to pre-flight and pack our provisions, which currently numbered zero. Not even sunscreen I noted with a glance to the cloudless sky. Crapitty crap, crap, crap.

WoodSprite dismounted and was helped to slake her thirst by none other than her exceptional big sister who held the bubbler valve for her while she gulped down some of the city’s best warm water. Frustrated with Firebolt’s recalcitrance (and my own inability to manage any “averages” on this event, let alone “aboves”) and well past my own tolerance for whining, I mumbled something to the effect of “I think it’s just up here, I’m going to check” and pushed forward on my bike to further investigate. I stopped only about 20 yards beyond the water fountain where the “farm” serenely awaited us, but that short separation was past the comfort level for the girls, neither of whom had heard my explanation for moving on, seemingly without them.

“At last – there it is!” I thought, much relieved, and gave thanks for having the target in sight. My gratitudes for having reached our destination were cut short, unexpectedly interrupted by caterwauling erupting from both girls as they each burst into tears. Firebolt’s angry tears were accompanied by an incredulous littany, “That’s IT?! THAT’s what we’ve come to see?! That’s not even a real farm. Those animals aren’t REAL! You didn’t say they weren’t REAL!” WoodSprite’s alarmed bawling, “Mommy, don’t leeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeave… Moooommmmeeeeeee!!!” was proclaimed in a panic, as she tried desperately to get back on her bike to catch me before my presumed escape.

Strong work, TACCO, strong work.

Disgusted at having been further bamboozled, Firebolt boycotted viewing the animal statues altogether. WoodSprite, after recovering from her perceived abandonment, did venture forth to check them out, but was similarly underwhelmed by our objective. She placidly communicated her disenchantment in one long, cool, assessing look that, with the candor of the very young, spoke volumes.

I heard her loud and clear, “Three Belows. Hey Momma – that’s a down.”

After a few painful moments taking in the “farm,” all of which I spent wondering just how I had gotten us here, we remounted our rides and unceremoniously cycled back to Grammy and Papa’s, hot, tear-stained, and eager to retreat to our own corners. Exceptional execution of intended girl-bonding evolution. I think, perhaps, holding tarantulas would have been less traumatic…

The Cardinal

I still don’t get it. I’ve been married to a Stanford grad for over 15 years now and I still don’t get the name of the Stanford team. Cardinal? Is it ever plural? And the what’s with the tree? These questions remain as unanswered today as they were when I first posed them years ago, yet, as with many such existential queries, the older I get the more at peace I have become with not knowing. Actually, let’s go back a few years to a less complicated time, shall we? Eleven years (to be exact), when Stanford and Navy had their last encounter on the football field.

We had flown down to the Bay Area from where we were living in Washington State to see the inaugural game in the new stadium.   Flight had dressed Keeper in Stanford gear and was similarly garbed. Flight’s parents joined us for the evolution, also wearing cardinal (see, it’s a color, that I get…), and I was proudly wearing my N-star letter sweater. It was a beautiful day (Flight had commented then (and now – see below) on how glorious the weather always seemed to be on football game days regardless of any monsoons in the days leading up to them). I looked around and saw that I was sitting amidst a sea of red, the hue of cardinal to be exact. Long story short, Stanford never showed up. Navy ran away with the game and the Midshipmen easily won 37-9. For Christmas that year, I framed the below pictures of Keeper for Flight to remind him of that glorious game.

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Flash forward more than a decade, we are back at the Stadium, this time sporting three children, all of whom are now outfitted in Stanford gear. As am I since they are playing Arizona State, the only allegiance to which I may have is from watching Raising Arizona.

After enjoying some great eats and an excellent Stanford mini-reunion as we tailgated in style (see Flight’s post below), we meandered into the game just as the National Anthem sounded. We made our way high up behind the end zone where we cooked in the sun for the first three quarters.

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Flight was generous in his summary of the kids’ perseverance in our collective incalescent state. WoodSprite, the fairest of our three, was huddled under my Navy fleece to keep the sun at bay and was sweltering in the added warmth. Flight made the first run to Davista to get some necessary (and forgotten) sunscreen. Flight and Firebolt then made the second run to get a lighter source of shade for WoodSprite and my bright red shell (really more crimson than cardinal) fit the bill nicely.

Early in the second quarter, our monkeys cried uncle and retreated beneath the redwoods guarding the area at the top of the stands. Flight and I alternated extracting ourselves from conversations to go check on our wayward three. At one point I came upon them, impressed by how kindly and respectfully they were sharing the frozen lemonade Firebolt had purchased after Flight had given her the funds to do so.

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At half time, Flight’s parents absconded to the cool shadow of the home team’s side. After exchanging a few texts that assured us there were plenty of open seats nearby, we bid our friends adieu and made our way to join them. Aside from the dirty looks from the octogenarian seated in front of us (our girls were occasionally free in flailing their legs, kicking the row of seats ahead of us – one of my own pet peeves about which I most certainly spoke with them), we enjoyed the final quarter in the refreshing shade.

Stanford’s victory in hand, we retreated to Davista to enjoy some gourmet burgers with Flight’s folks before rounding up our crew for a leisurely nighttime tour of the Farm. Classes were recently back in session, which became most obvious when one of the areas we came upon we found littered with loose rows of folding tables, each one labeled with a particular student interest group or extracurricular activity, and chalk instructions for how to try out or join any number of performance groups dotting the extensive patio beneath. Although it looked a little eerie by starlight (especially without any college students present), I felt my annual autumnal draw to go back to school (more on that in a future musing…). Flight and I observed that there seemed to be far more of these options than when we were in college (or perhaps we were equally oblivious to the opportunities on our respective campuses?).

Part of our tour took us through the Quad, which is comprised of the original structures defining the university.

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Although class year loyalty isn’t nearly the big deal it is at the Naval Academy, the Stanford graduating classes have each buried a time capsule in the Quad filled with items reflecting their college years.

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See, I couldn’t help myself…

When we first came upon the ’90 square, Flight let us know that particular one predated his undergraduate tenure by a century. !!!

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I have since learned the custom started in 1896 and the earlier classes buried their defining items retroactively. I don’t know when (or even if) they’ll be unearthing the subterranean museum documenting 125+ years of Stanford student life, but I think it’s a pretty cool tradition.

We returned to Davista basking in the joy of revisiting Flight’s old stomping grounds and made ready for his early departure for work the following morning. After much discussion about how to best skin that particular cat, we decided to do another dawn patrol back to his folks’ driveway.

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My voice may have been the loudest in said discussion as I had zero interest in my threading Davista through trimmed limbs, both those surrounding our tailgate spot and the ones narrowing the entrance to Flight’s parents’ house. As per norm, Flight managed it far better than I might have and, after a quick turn, he was out the door and dashing back to the airport for his next trip. I was back to fending for our family solo (no great hardship while still parked in my in-laws’ driveway) until his return two days hence.

There’s much to contemplate in the meantime… What to see locally in Flight’s absence, a date night to plan, lessons syllabi to enact (after finalizing them), sorting out where to eventually live and how to get there, fleshing out more specific plans for the likely event that our house in Maryland doesn’t sell (um, go back, yes, but how exactly and for how long?), figuring out how to felt a hat, and finishing a jigsaw puzzle just to name a few… Most importantly, I wanted to carve out some special time with the girls. Overwhelmed by needing to tend to these immense planning evolutions, each requiring my undivided attention, I resolved to do something spontaneous with Firebolt and WoodSprite for some much needed girl-bonding time just as soon as the opportunity presented itself.

Just wait until you see how well that manifested…