The College Campus Search, What I’ve Learned, And Tips for Newbies

I miss going on college tours. Now that my kids are either on the graduated side of college or close to it, sadly, those opportunities to explore the different higher educational systems are few. There are the nieces and nephews and friends’ kids, and that has been great fun, but it’s a hobby that really requires a dedicated child who wants to explore.

You can do some great people-watching on these tours. And if you visit enough colleges, you begin to figure out that the campus administrators who write the speeches that the students give as they walk backwards through the campus, itself an amazing feat, especially when the speaker is wearing flip-flops, must all take the same speech-writing seminar. They are virtually all the same.

Of course, once in a while a student speaker will actually walk normally, not backwards, to the next stop on the campus tour and then wait for the gathering crowd to catch up before giving the spiel. These college reps do a good job explaining some history of their learning institution, and telling you about the different “colleges,” such as engineering, or fine arts, or science. They’ll talk about the residential living styles (think “dorms”). You have your “suite” style, dorm, with a cluster of a few different rooms, all with their own locking doors, that share a common kitchen or lounge area, and a shared bath. There may be separate facilities for males and females, but not always. Or there’s what I call the “traditional” style, which is the one long hallway with rooms on either side, and the baths are down the hall. Usually, these days, the floors are mixed, meaning “men” and “women” live on them. As we are talking about our kids, perhaps we should say it this way: boys will reside in one room or two, and then girls may have the next room, all down the hallway. And while the girls’ rooms may have more fru fru, it doesn’t mean that these rooms will be kept cleaner than the guys’. I can almost guarantee that there will be separate boys and girls bathrooms on these traditional, long hallway floors, unless the building is quite old and has not been renovated since the days of single-sex dorms. In that case, either the guys and girls will share the same facility, or one floor’s restroom will be for guys, and another floor’s restroom will be for women. But wait, there’s more! Some campuses have deliberately created unisex bathrooms. In some schools, traditional-style dorms floors are staggered, so women live on one floor, and men live on the next floor, and then women, and then men. Another style of dorms is called “residential learning communities.” Students choose a particular themed residence hall, for example, one with an ecological focus, or an historical, or a leadership focus, and all students living in that hall participate in activities and classes pertaining to that focal area.

While taking these tours, we have been invited to peek into students’ dorm rooms about 75% of the time. Sometimes tours do not have access to rooms because students are on break and the buildings are closed, or the entire dorm is being renovated. It’s a nice opportunity for kids to glimpse college life.

There are some differences, to be sure, from campus to campus. There are the large and small and urban and suburban schools. But even two urban schools within a couple of miles from each other can be very, very different. One elite private institution almost didn’t let us into the administrator’s talk session because we were scheduled for a different time that morning. It didn’t matter that this session was just beginning, and our entrance would not disturb the speaker or guests, or that the audience was very small, leaving row after row of vacant chairs. Our flights had arrived ridiculously late in the middle of the night, and so our plans had to change. We knew going in that this institution has a reputation for courting the elite. Still, it offered the courses and majors of interest to my daughter, and so it was worth checking out. We can tell ourselves now, after the experience, that it is just as important, or even more so, to know what you don’t like in a school than what you do like. After finally being allowed into the administrator’s talk, and I felt like we had to do a bit of groveling to get in, we heard the speaker begin every single sentence with, “Here at _____ University, ….” Their PowerPoint presentation offered countless photos of kids wearing business suits. Never was there a jeans-clad student to be seen. The name-dropping was relentless. “This President” and “That President” and “This CEO” matriculated here. They offered a gorgeous campus and stellar classes, but it was not for us, so we politely declined the tour. Well, that’s not exactly accurate. We didn’t just decline the tour. We rushed out of there as fast as one could move in that heat and then walked two or three miles in the blazing sun just to escape!

Whenever we visited campuses, my children and I wrote notes, questions and comments to each other in a small notebook we carried just for these tours. The same day that we started this tour of schools in one city, when we were sleep-deprived and jet-lagged, the second university on our agenda offered ice cream cones to the visiting families; temperatures were sizzling. This was the perfect way to begin our next tour. Nobody in that school seemed concerned that little kids accompanying parents, and big kids, were walking around dripping ice cream.  And once again, we had to inform the people at the check-in table that we were scheduled for a different time. “No problem,” they said, smiling. “Glad you could make it”! They also turned to my son and asked him about his plans for college in a few years, and would he like the university to count him as a prospective student and send him mailings? I breathed a sigh of relief.

We toured the university and then attended the informational session. When the speaker entertained questions, one mom stood up and in a jam-packed auditorium, asked if she could write her son’s letter of recommendation because the teachers and her son didn’t always get along. The woman’s poor kid just slunk in his chair. (The answer was a firm, “No.”) My daughter grabbed the notebook and wrote “!!!” I concurred. Other kids slinking were the ones whose parents stood up and said things like, “My kid took the following AP (Advanced Placement) classes,” and then began to list them, and provide the top-notch grade achieved for each exam taken. The mother went on, “So, does she need to take “X” or “Y” courses as a freshman”? Now my kid is writing furiously in the little pad. “The web site GIVES the answer!” She’s beginning to slink in sympathy for these kids. So am I.

In one session, another mother and daughter team were sending each other notes in their little notepad, too, but they were having a fight. “Scribble, Scribble, Scribble! Underline three or four times!” The girl shoves the pad to her mother. The mother reads it and with a flourish of the pen, retorts, “Scribble, Scribble, SCRIBBLE! Then, “Exclamation points!!!” She shoves the pad back into her daughter’s hands. “SCRIBBLE.” Shove. “More Scribble and underlining.” Shove.  We actually couldn’t see what they were writing, as they were sitting a few rows in front of us and to the side, and that would have been eavesdropping, but we could tell through their exaggerated arm movements that this was one serious fume session. And not one word was spoken. We could only speculate about the miserable drive home; either they would be letting out their vocal rage, or it would be a drive of strained silence. Either way, I was grateful this was not us and was glad when that session finished.

There will be things you will want to ask the student guide, privately, not within ear shot of the crowd, because the “company line” is not what you’re looking for here. From what I gather, colleges under-report sexual crimes, rapes. They will also downplay the incidence of drugs and alcohol on campus. What parent holding the purse strings of a prospective student will want to hear that drugs are easily attainable, and that every weekend the ambulance is called several times for binge drinkers? Ask about it. We were told in one very small rural school and in another larger, more urban school, that alcohol and drugs were not an issue and that the students were serious about learning there. That’s a nice line, and I know these smart kids work hard, but if you put them in the middle of nowhere with no public bus access and very little to do, you’re still going to tell me that they don’t drink and smoke? And if kids move to an area replete with public transportation that is near large urban centers, they are not going to partake? It’s not realistic. How many times do ambulances get called? What is the college doing to cut down on some of this behavior? How do the Residence Advisors handle it? The tour guides will tell everybody about the campus “blue lights” emergency call boxes, and you’ll see them. These are emergency phones that can be used at any time, and they are important. And they will tell you that they have a wonderful walking escort service for students to use late at night to return to the dorm from the library. But be sure to ask, again, privately, how many kids use the system? The guide isn’t going to want to tell the entire group that only a few kids each week partake of this great service.

All college tour guides will tell you this: “We have many clubs and activities on campus, but if you don’t see the one you that interests you the most, then you can start your own club!” Truth be told, there are a lot of activities on most campuses, and it’s hard to even think of a club that doesn’t exist, but it happens. These days, you’ll find quidditch teams, and fine teas clubs, role-playing gaming groups, and ballroom dance teams, plus all the usual sports teams. There are always political groups, ecology clubs and religious and spiritual organizations. In one university in our Nation’s Capital, free tickets to hear political speakers are more coveted than tickets to rock concerts.

Even though you may begin to joke that all college tours sound alike after a while, each school will highlight some individual aspects of campus life that will help your son or daughter with his or her choice. Some tour guides will explain things like this: “When your laundry is done, either in the washer or dryer, you will automatically get a text message telling you so.” Or, “With so many events held on campus, we frequently have “cake alerts” that go out in text messages or emails to students, notifying them of leftovers.” What college student doesn’t want free food? Or, “Our dining hall is so beautiful it looks like Hogwarts.” Or, “When you get married, you can request that the school ring the bells in the tower in honor of this event.” Or, “You can use your ‘Campus Bucks’ at local establishments, including restaurants, book stores, hair salons, and movie theaters, so you don’t have to use cash to pay for these things.” It’s brilliant! Mom and Dad just put money on the account, and then haggle with their student to take more meals in the dining hall and not go to so many restaurants. Kids learn pretty quickly that sodas and iced teas add a lot to a bill, so they’ll ask for water nine times out of ten.

Campuses all have their special atmospheres about them. Some, in the California coastal redwoods, make you think of summer camp. You see deer as you walk the paths, and the light coming through the tall trees hits the ground making sun stripes. Urban schools can be near subway stations, but still have areas that are peaceful and calming. Colleges out in wooded areas are gorgeous year-round, but administrators warn students not to take walks in the woods during hunting season, even if kids are wearing bright orange! One college situated in an area known for its acreage of crops and herds of livestock provides beautiful dorms that are down-wind from these lands, offering students a unique, earthy aroma. On one sprawling, suburban, flat campus, all the students ride bicycles. Sophomores through seniors amusingly point out the new students because they have the “freshman stripe.” It’s the line of rain water on a bicycle rider’s back that gets kicked up by the back tire because there is no rear fender. (Parents will also note that not one of these super-intelligent, high-scoring SAT students on the campus is smart enough to wear a helmet, but that’s another discussion.) There are schools on or near the ocean; I’ve seen kids reading chemistry books while sunbathing on the beach.

Yes, college-shopping is stressful. Figuring out where to go can be most difficult. Just applying to college isn’t cheap, and at no time does anyone ever forget about the fees and tuition and room and board and travel costs and books and outfitting the dorm room. But the search can be a lot of fun if you remember to bring your sense of humor with you. Read the web sites first so you don’t embarrass your kid, and save the arguments, even if they are on pen and paper, for later. Enjoy the journey and the time you are spending with your child. Remember, if you don’t like something, fabulous! My daughter, son and I enjoyed the schools that were not concerned with a Who’s Who list. We crossed-off an option, and that was most helpful. Do grab a bite to eat in the dining hall, or at least have a coffee at the student union, and relax. Are there students milling around? Is it a comfortable campus? Does your kid look interested? Bored? Chat with some students. You can find out about where kids go to hear good music for cheap, or which dorm’s dining hall offers the tastiest options. Take the campus shuttle or bus somewhere and even talk with the student driver before you board. Remember, there is no one perfect choice – and what’s the worst thing that can happen? It doesn’t work out, and so your child tries again. By this time, you know everything there is to know about the search process, so the second time’s a charm.

The Chase Is On (Part II, following “Ready, Set, Launch!”)

Even when the kids are all grown up, a mother can’t help being a mom. I insisted on sharing my warmest clothing with my daughter, who was going to wake up in the middle of the night to attend the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta with me. She was jet-lagged and sleep-deprived, and a very good sport, but at least I could help her stay warm. The locals called the temperature the previous morning “chilly,” my California senses found it “freezing,” and my daughter, an East Coaster, might handle it well now, but I’m an unapologetic mom.

We grabbed a coffee and breakfast at one of the many booths set up next to the field. So early, and all these people are working, making and selling food, inviting the public into their spaces, offering jewelry, native Indian art, handmade clothing, furniture, trading pins, all things balloon-related, and tchotchkes. High school band kids walking through the crowds sell balloon Fiesta calendars as a fund-raiser. The temporary lighting in this area is good even though the sky is star-filled. And in the adjacent dark giant field, balloonists, the pilots and the crews, are also hard at work.

After the warm breakfast, we are ready to hit the field. Balloons are carefully being spread out and inflated on the cold, wet grass. We look at all the different types of balloons and marvel at them, the colors popping, even against the dark sky and unlit field, the styles, artistic swirls, timeless patterns and whimsical themes, and the woven baskets, those Old World vessels of beauty in a high tech world. We talk to team members. Some people have accompanied a single balloonist for years, using their hard-earned vacation time each year “to crew.” Others volunteer at this event and assist many different pilots, with a love for the sport and a hope of being asked to ride in the gondola during a mass ascension.

The public can pay to ride. There is a tent set up with long lines of people waiting to secure a spot in one of the larger gondolas that hold a dozen people or more. On my plane flight to Albuquerque, I spoke to a person who had arranged for his entire book club, on board that flight, to ride in a gondola that weekend. Their sense of excitement was contagious.

And as my daughter and I wandered through the field, photographing, pointing, smiling the whole time, talking to people, and trying to stay warm, we began to feel a connection with this place, with the energy of this crowd, with something so foreign to us and yet so comfortable. We connected with these people, these balloons, and the passion for something requiring hard work, practice, knowledge, experience, a love of beauty, and a desire to explore, to test oneself, and to do it the way it has been done for generations.

One pilot was unrolling his balloon alone. I stopped and asked him if he needed a hand but he looked up at me and said, “No.” He preferred to do it alone. Everybody else had other people helping; perhaps he had a crew coming? I didn’t know the first thing about this process except for what I had witnessed that morning, and the day before. So my daughter and I wandered on through the field and talked and enjoyed our time together; how I loved sharing this incredible event with her.

Over the years, my family has been quick to point out to me that I am always talking to people, “To Strangers!” they would exclaim. I thank my Dad’s Italian heritage for that – he and his siblings, and our relatives in Italy are not reserved individuals. We love to talk to people, to listen to others tell their stories and to add our own to the mix. It’s cultural. It’s who I am. And it’s a good way to connect with others. It’s not something I set out to do, it’s just what happens, and this day was no exception.

So we started to talk to a gentleman with this one beautiful balloon. He and a couple of other people were preparing it, opening it on the ground, and I just asked again, “Could you use any help?” “Yes!” I had to ask if he meant this. Maybe he didn’t understand. “Yes” again. My daughter looked at me with this huge smile on her face. We had seen the balloons being prepared and filled, tilting as the heated air turns them skyward, and ascending, but now we were going to be a part of it!

It turns out that the pilot, a Mr. David “Lopper” Lopushinsky from the Province of Quebec, Canada sewed this remarkable balloon himself. This one piece of information is unfathomable to me. I am no sewer, and have trouble seeing things “spatially.” And this gorgeous, multi-colored spiral step balloon was created by hand? On a sewing machine in his living room? It’s striking and it’s perfect, pure and simple. The pilot’s wife, Ms. Leslie Manion, is the Crew Chief. They were very sweet to us and told us that they were a little short-staffed that morning and welcomed the help. My daughter and I think they were magnanimous and could have taken care of business just fine without a couple of neophytes in tow, but we will remain forever grateful.

As we held the strong rope lines of the balloon, the pilot turned on a powerful fan that rapidly inflated it while crew members continued to spread out the uninflated sections. I had stashed my camera near the towing vehicle, and a passer-by used it at my request to take a few snapshots of “the Mother and Daughter” team doing something we were fairly certain would not be believed without the shot. My daughter playfully said, “Only my mother would get us on a crew!” I laughed. Well within the time allotted to us by The Zebras, the folks sporting the black and white referee-style shirts who manage the order of balloon ascension, Pilot Lopper told us to continue holding onto those lines, but to turn our heads away. Oh man! Out came the flames! The heat! The noise! The thrill! And the energy it took us to keep “Wicked,” the name of this beautiful baby, in one place really surprised me. We were holding our lines with everything we had as the propane burner did its job. I’m not too weak of an individual, and my daughter is an athlete. But this was work! And we loved it. And soon, Wicked tilted, and then you could see her colors spiraling upwards, and there she was. Vertical. Stunning.

The pilot jumped into the gondola and we were invited to put our weight on the sides of the basket, Quickly! We were holding onto Wicked right before ascension. Amazing! There were two men in the gondola now, and the next thing I knew, we were told to let go and off she went. (I really have no idea if balloons are given female status, much like sea vessels, but it seems right to me.) I grabbed my camera to photograph this sight being directly underneath her. Wicked was now gaining altitude along with dozens of balloons. I thought we could pick out this balloon from all the others, but then I realized that many of the balloons were spirals, and so in less than a minute’s time, I started to doubt that my eyes were following the correct balloon.

Knowing that the ground team was about to take off for the chase, I asked if someone could please just let us know when the balloon landed; the mother in me that always demands a safe-arrival call, text message or email from visiting family and guests, wanted to make sure that Wicked descended safely and that her team was well. Minutes before, we had been told that the winds were Easterly. The pilot said that when winds go toward the East, he looks to put the balloon down quickly. There are too many hazards to contend with when the balloonists don’t have the “Albuquerque box.”

“The Albuquerque box?” We learned about wind conditions next. This is when the lowest winds move in one direction and the higher winds move in the opposite direction, and pilots take advantage of these winds to steer. So the way I understand it is that pilots take off, fly, and land in the same spot, and the ground gazers never have to move to witness the whole thing. Pilots ascend to the lower area where winds push the balloon from the north to the south.  After a time going south, they ascend a bit by turning on the burner, and the winds carry the balloon back to where they started. Then they can descend again, and catch the lower wind and once again drift towards the south, and re-ascend to catch the north-bound winds. Pilots do this for quite a long time, keeping an eye on their fuel gauge, descending, ascending, and the winds will bring the balloon back each time.

But today, there is no Albuquerque box, and Wicked’s pilot, and all the other pilots, need to avoid the high tension wires and the mountains in the not too distant East, and find a landing site. Now the mother in me is getting even more anxious about the crew’s safety, even though they have been doing this for years. But they just looked at me strangely when I asked them to keep me posted on their flight. “Aren’t you coming with us?”

Again, my daughter and I exchanged meaningful and puzzled looks, and I asked them to repeat, please. “Aren’t you coming with us?” “You want us to come and be on the chase team with you?” They didn’t seem to think this was out of the ordinary. My daughter and I smiled at each other and at our good fortune and at our most wonderful hosts, and jumped in the chase vehicle. What a rush!

Leslie communicated with her husband, and we were off. Our Crew Chief handed us cards with the photo of Wicked so we could identify their balloon among all the balloons in the sky. From the air, it must be tough to keep an eye on which exact streets you are crossing, and my daughter and I activated our own phones’ GPS systems which were different from the Crew Chief’s system, and after a short drive through town, the team found the street where Lopper told us he was descending. We didn’t know it but there are two parks on that residential street, and we took a right on the street because we could see a large park, instead of a left. It took us several long minutes to turn around and reach the second, much smaller park, where “we” found “our” balloon, because the entire street was jammed with chase vehicles. Balloon after balloon had descended in that large park.

By the time we reached Wicked, a dad and his young son and some other people had helped Lopper land. The story is that as the pilot targeted this area, making his descent over the homes in this residential neighborhood, a family about to sit down to breakfast saw Wicked passing over their house. They realized the balloon was headed straight for their little park. So dad and his son took off, running down the street, following it. Dad had “crewed” before! Lopper fixed his spot on the grass next to another balloon, still fully inflated, and with no room to spare, came down softly without a hop. The kind neighbors grabbed hold of the gondola to secure it, and even helped prepare the balloon to be re-packed.

My daughter and I also helped squeeze the air out of that colorful fabric. According to the autographed cards we were given, Wicked, a 77,000 cubic feet balloon, weighs 180 pounds! It takes a fair amount of strength to work the balloon, tie it up in sections, fold it, and pack it back up. Leslie handed out a little keepsake pin to the father and son team who had been so helpful. When done, the crew playfully “stuffed” the little boy in the basket much to his delight and our cheers.

On the ride back to the field, my daughter and I were so happy. Everyone was safe. The balloon was in perfect shape. We had learned so much. The team was wonderful. We had experienced something we could only have dreamed about. And then, we were asked if we would like to relax with everyone and share a beverage upon return to the field? These people were amazing!

I don’t know how many times we said, “thank you” to our hosts, but it never seemed like enough. Their “Yes” reply to my silly little question asking if we could help was a life-changer for me and my daughter. We have the photos, the treasured pins and cards they gave us, and our memories. Also, we have the experience of what happens when you ask a simple question without giving thought to exactly what that question and request means for the people answering it, and they still respond in the affirmative. We have glimpsed a world of old-fashioned beauty, of industrious, creative, tenacious, smart, thoughtful people with a great sense of humor who seek adventure and drive thousands of miles to practice their craft. We have witnessed humanity at its best, most giving and open-hearted, sharing in the magic they make without reservation. And it was magic.

The Balloonist’s Prayer

May the winds welcome you with softness.

May the sun bless you with its warm hands.

May you fly so high and so well that God

joins you in laughter and sets you gently

back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.

For more information on the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, and this prayer, please go to

Ready, Set, Launch!

It’s early October and the sun is nowhere near “up,” and the hotel has a stash of really tasty freshly-brewed coffee with cream and sweetener, or sugar, if you like, and to-go cups with lids. Good. Now we don’t have to stop on the way. There is this one local radio station that is doing live interviews at this ridiculous hour in the morning, and broadcasting the weather forecast every few minutes. Wind. What’s the wind speed, and will it hold steady?

How I lucked out! The night before my sister had given me a beautiful, toasty, gray winter wool coat she didn’t want anymore. I left my California-weight coat in my hotel room. I had gloves, scarf, hat, and wore many layers. I carried a water bottle, and for future use, sunscreen, in my purse, and I also carried an extra shoulder bag complete with camera and a freshly-charged battery, and an extra SD card. I was ready.

I thought I was ready. I had heard about the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta for years. I have seen the hundreds of amazing pictures my sister’s husband has taken with his camera and that zoom lens the size of Cleveland. How I have stared at the close-ups, and the large full-sky images where there are so many balloons it’s hard to imagine how the pilots manage to keep their balloons from ramming all the others as they drift. Anyway, I thought I was ready.

Try to remember where we parked the car; I made a mental note to myself. It’s still night. And it’s freezing. Literally freezing. The grass is crunchy-icy in spots and cold dew-covered in others. My tennis shoes are becoming damp and after a while my toes start tingling. No matter. Find the paved road to stand on and keep the camera hoisted. We aren’t going to be sitting in bleachers, I am told. We walk on the field, the very same field where pilots are stretching out the bright synthetic balloons and then setting up fans. Inflating begins. As some balloons are being inflated, others are ready to be tilted upwards, so in different areas of the field the propane burners roar. The contrast of the red flames against the darkened sky is a beautiful spectacle, and the warmth generated, welcoming. We are standing right there!

Someone on a loud speaker starts a countdown. Ten. Nine. Eight. . . . One. Zero. And there is this ROAR as inflated balloons in a row all turn on their burners at the same time, and the sight is nothing less than magnificent. Gone is the thought of cold, of trying to work a camera wearing gloves, of marching in place to keep the toes thawed. The gloves go to the teeth – pull them off as fast as possible and shove them in a pocket or drop them – it doesn’t matter now. Go. Go. Go. Photograph like crazy. This is “Balloon Glow.” The colors shine as bright as day and the background sky is that lovely, deep, deep, night-blue. Stars are visible. The crowd cheers. The balloons stay tethered and they continue their glow. I’ve seen pictures of it. My sister and her family have told me about it. But I wasn’t ready for it.

“The Zebras” become really active now. Most likely there are zebra-shaped balloons, but The Zebras are the black and white-shirted volunteers walking up and down the rows, authorizing pilots to open balloons, and later, to ascend.

The sky is turning bluer, less dark, and photographing is easier, and the balloons are on their way. As soon as one ascends, another is being opened and spread out, and a fan is inflating it. This Mass Ascension, as it is called, goes on for about two hours. And all the while, visitors are looking up and remarking and pointing and photographing, and clapping and yelling to each other to come and see, and making their way across the field that could hold more than fifty football fields.

My sister finds me, as I had lingered in one area to continue photographing, and she hurries me to another part of the field where, in this one row, a huge balloon is being inflated. The woman in charge recognizes my sister as they had just spoken, and she lifts a side of her balloon while the large fan is quickly doing its work, and we run through a “tunnel” she makes for us in the not-fully-inflated section. In less than a minute, we would have had to walk around, the long-way, to reach the area where the rest of the family was watching and waiting.

There are the round balloons and oval ones and the ones colored in spirals. The blues, pinks, greens, reds, and every color are displayed against a sky that is first dark, then less so, then bluer, and finally sun-filled blue. Folks point out the polka-dotted balloons, some of these with a bold color dot scheme and others more subtly-toned. The paisleys are pretty; some balloons are color-washed and color-splashed. There are the giant cartoon-character balloons shaped like Garfield and Snoopy. The crew of the impressive black Darth Vader balloon sports Star Wars costumes, complete with Lightsabers and blasters. The Elvis balloon ascended to cheers and appropriate hip-shaking amplified music, and equally impressive was Noah’s ark, complete with a l-o-n-g giraffe’s neck and an entire menagerie peering out of the ark. The alien spaceships, starships, and Space Shuttle replica soared skyward. Pink and red “heart-shapes” were sweet, and the crowd roared approval for the twin balloons, “Salt” and “Pepper,” and also, “The Bees,” holding “hands” as they ascended. Everybody enjoyed the mother duck and ducklings; the larger and smaller yellow duck-shapes were launched in order, mama first. And what’s a day without Super Heroes? They all loomed high above us that morning. Animals of every kind flew, as did the “edibles,” including cupcakes and strawberries. Even the corporate sponsors’ logos-covered balloons soared impressively. In all, somewhere between 500 and 600 balloons ascended in that one field that morning.

As soon as The Zebras systematically authorize one full row, one balloon after another, they move on to the next row, timing each pilot’s ascension for maximum safety. It’s possible for eager fans to gauge how much time they need to be close to a favorite balloon and watch its ascent, and then move to the next one of interest. And the whole time while covering that large field, the camera is perched against the face, with the shutter-finger in continual motion. Every time I thought I had seen the most beautiful or the most whimsical or the most comical balloon, another would take over as superlative.

I took hundreds of photographs. Hundreds! The winds stayed calm, the sun eventually thawed my fingers and toes, and I made sure my face was plastered in sunscreen per my sister’s instructions, as Albuquerque is a high elevation city and precautions like hat, sunscreen and water are critical no matter what the temperature.

There were moments of silence; we could hear pilots radioing their ground crews and talking to other airborne pilots. Then, there would be the blasts of the propane tanks to maintain height or to rise in elevation; these blasts only lasted a few seconds for each balloon. You hear the blasts on the ground and the blasts in the air. One here, another over there, then silence, then some above your head. Then more silence. All morning.

The lasting impression is that there is no one enduring memory. It was a morning of contrasts, of darkness and intense color, of freezing temps and the heat from the flames, of peaceful serenity and noisy blasts, of worrying if we would “make it” in time because the line of cars was so long in the middle of the night, and then later smiling so much that it was impossible to find anything wrong with the world. We strolled with friends and family, and with total strangers. People spoke to each other and to the crews in all possible accents in English, and many other languages. The sky scene changed continually, and each view was as impressive as the one before. All the adjectives work: Beautiful, Stunning, Classic, Picturesque, Superb, Magnificent, Creative, Exquisite.

And so I set my alarm and dressed for winter and did it all again the next day, with the water and the sunscreen and the sunglasses and the camera, and the middle of the night driving and walking in a freezing wet field. Everything. I knew what to expect, where to stand, what to see, how to photograph. This time, I was ready!

But what happened the next day is something I could never have anticipated. I wasn’t ready.

More next time

Word Problems

Word problems. Remember them?

James has to ride his scooter uphill to school during a snowstorm one July.  The school is 4.5 miles away, but first he has to stop at the shop to put snow tires on his scooter.  To beat the cold, James holds two boiled eggs he just cooked for his lunch. The scooter tire shop is on the way, but opens two hours after school begins, and the radio announcer hasn’t said that the school is closed, so James has stalled long enough but now must leave. What color is his scooter? How does James manage to keep his hands warm on the ride back home later that afternoon since he will have consumed his hard boiled eggs for lunch, and why hasn’t the school superintendent called a “snow day” because of the bad road conditions?

Four of us sat around the table one night, working on the Super Quiz, a syndicated daily piece found in our local paper. Science, geography, literature, movie trivia, pop culture and music are usual topics, but this one night, it was word problems, requiring knowledge of basic arithmetic and algebra, and a bit of common sense.

The answer may be simple, but the question is ambiguous. It is not so much about solving the problem, but of secondary observation. Here’s the question:  “Three pens cost $15.00. How much do five pens cost?” Are pens individually priced? Do they come in packages of three? One has to wonder if there is a discount when buying multiples, or if the pen manufacturer’s marketing department offers a “break” when a customer purchases the package that contains extra pens, even though two of these are in garish colors and the ink is purple. Maybe there’s a coupon somewhere, but if it’s online and a personal account has to be created, does the customer need to print out the coupon? This costs money to be sure. Printer ink comes in these ridiculously small packages and is quite expensive. Or perhaps the customer can electronically choose this item to be “moved” to their new online password protected account, and so the checkout scanner “reads” the lower, adjusted price and charges only that.

But wait, there’s more! Perhaps there is a discount if the customer uses cash instead of credit, because the banks charge a fee for each credit or debit transaction which then must, of course, be charged back to customers. And what if a large corporation buys pens? Do people use them anymore? Certainly there is the expectation that a handsome percentage will be deducted, and this is for a shipment that will be delivered and charged by invoice with payment due at the end of the billing cycle. Are pens more costly on certain days of the week, like airline prices? Who can answer this word problem until all these variables have been filled-in? And is the discussion for ball point, or click pens, and for gel cartridges, or traditional ink? Are there caps on these pens?

And forget the pens. What if the word problem offers a scenario where a boss needs to know how many more employee-hours are needed to complete a task in six fewer days than the projected four week timetable with 135 people already on the payroll working eight hour days? Sure, this can be calculated, but where does this scenario exist? People at a bank in January stuffing tax statements into envelopes work at different rates, right? More experienced envelope-stuffers can heap up a huge pile of the finished product long before most new-hires, unless the conversation is particularly good around the table and then nobody will finish in time. Or if there’s a paper cut, and then one has to factor in time to apply a bandage.

The problem assumes that each and every person works at the same speed and level of efficiency, and that each employee’s work has no bearing on the other employees’ work.  What’s the point of doing the math if the obvious correct answer doesn’t correspond to reality?

Think about a construction site. There are only so many pieces of machinery that can be used at one time. Crane operators rely on workers to secure the item to be lifted. Other workers must untie the item once it has been hoisted to the correct position on the skyscraper being built. What manager will hire new people to tie and untie more bundles to get the building completed sooner when the site can only accommodate two cranes? What is wrong with these people?

Perhaps the manager of the building site needs to buy some pens (and paper, but that’s another word problem) to figure this stuff out. Or perhaps the manager needs to go back to managerial school because who would hire this lost soul? Or better yet, the manager should just hire James. After all, this kid had the wherewithal to get himself ready for school, make his own lunch, provide his own transportation and not rely on a school bus or parent to drive him, listen to the radio to determine the day’s schedule, take weather into account, and even figure out how to ride his scooter while holding onto eggs, one in each hand! Who wouldn’t want an employee like this?

And now I know why my dreaded teacher gave the entire second grade class a “D” for word problems. She must have known from the start that all these years later, we still can’t do them!

Music to Wake Up By

First, she would call up the stairs multiple times in that musical, sing-songy voice that was loud but not unpleasant, the one that changed a one syllable name into two. She began, as most do, with the higher tone and ended with a lower one, probably three to five pitches down on a scale. Then, after no response, my mom would grab a spoon or fork from the drawer in the kitchen and rap on the water pipes on the wall near the sink with a quick staccato burst. The plumbing went straight up to my big brother’s bedroom, and this rapid metallic tap, tap, tap oftentimes would be jarring enough to break through my teenaged brother’s deep, deep sleep. Other times, she would just stand there and bang the pipe with the fork or spoon at a steady but slower beat that would make any percussionist proud – donk,   donk,   donk,   donk,   donk  for a minute or two minutes or maybe longer until you’d hear a harsh, loud, and anything but melodious “I’M  AWAKE” roared from the second story.

But when it didn’t work, Plan C called for a run upstairs to yell my brother’s name and shake his shoulder to get him up. We kids performed this task and usually, after two or three tries, it was enough to elicit a mumbled response about “getting up now.” If my brother, tired from playing a guitar gig late at the supper club in a band with three other talented young men, and tired just because teens are supposed to be tired, only rolled over and continued his slumber, my mother would have to resort to the ultimate maneuver.

Enter my sister. Another talented young musician, she could play any song at all on the piano, in any key. She studied piano and music theory, and also played the fife in a marching band and had taken up drumming. She could sight read music, sing the lead, sing harmony, play classical, play modern, play boogie-woogie, play anything, and even arrange music. Ask her to play a song, and with no music, no practice, no hesitation, she’d play it perfectly. Expertly. With my brother on the guitar and my sister on the piano, there were plenty of impromptu jam sessions in our living room. Now I don’t recall my sister playing Elvis on the piano like my brother did on the guitar; he would entertain my younger brother and me with a great “Jailhouse Rock.” But she would play everything else.

So, when all else failed, my mother would request that my sister play the piano. Could it be that the shared love of music between two talented siblings created such a bond that my brother could not resist the opportunity to play guitar, to make music, even in a semi-wakeful state?

This is a teenager we’re talking about. My sister would sit down at the old upright piano that belonged to my mother’s grandfather, and start banging out “Downtown,” a fun, catchy tune sung by Petula Clark that was getting a lot of airplay. But was it enough to wake up my big brother?

No. We are talking about my sister’s foolproof strategy. She played the right hand, the melody, in one key, and the left hand accompaniment in another key. Sometimes she would sing, maybe in a third key, “When you’re alone and life is making you lonely, You can always go… Down-town.” The whole experience was jarring. It was gut-wrenching. It was agonizing.

And after a brief musical introduction and only a line of the song, my brother would come barreling down the stairs, running and yelling, “Stop it.”Stop it!”

And my mother would just smile.

Living History

The media is full of history stories leading up to our nation’s July 4 birthday celebrations. Francis Scott Key’s inspiration for writing The Star-Spangled Banner during the Battle for Baltimore in the War of 1812, and how this piece was chosen to be our National Anthem, is perhaps my favorite story this year. Listening to my local NPR station, I heard Steve Vogel, author of Through the Perilous Fight – Six Weeks that Saved the Nation, talk about the lawyer, Mr. Key, and his experience during this night of bombs and rockets. It’s beautiful – the telling of a story that is perhaps just another page of retold facts in kids’ history books. Aboard that British ship, the constant blasts must have been deafening, and lack of knowledge of their consequence, frightening, wondering how the troops in Baltimore could withstand this barrage. Read for yourself…

 “During the night, he can’t see anything at the fort, but he sees and hears this tremendous bombardment that actually picks up during the night with amazing intensity after midnight, as the British launched hundreds of bombs at the fort plus hundreds of rockets. Then a little bit before dawn, everything goes silent. You know, while the bombs were going off, Key was at least reassured that, well, the fort hasn’t surrendered. And it wasn’t until the sun came up, and it was a very misty morning, that they were able to see some flag hanging limply over the ramparts at the fort, and they couldn’t make out whether it was British or American. And finally, a little breeze kicked up and they were able to see the stars and stripes. For Key, it was a very emotional moment. …

Now this is living history. Author Vogel is our eyes and ears to the experience. And this piece, the history, is all the more poignant knowing that the man who penned the poem that we proudly recite in song before civic meetings, sporting events, at parades, the Olympics, and in schools, was against the war! There is the sense of urgency in Vogel’s retelling – Key didn’t know if Baltimore would be British or American after that deadly bombardment, and whatever his politics, Key felt that his citizenship was on the line. Vogel recaptures the immediacy, and the passion.

The words that Vogel chooses inspire the connection between the past and the present. He makes us understand the historical players in terms that are meaningful to us today. We can just imagine the blasts of the bombs, the smell of the smoke-filled air, the anxiety of not knowing what might happen. The times when we experience such a deep and profound association with the past are ones that are indelibly marked in our psyches; they are life-changing.

It is a great gift that Vogel gives us – the ability to link us with the past. He does it with his knowledge of the times and his choice of words. But we can create our own connections, our own deep associations that bridge the past to the present in ways that create the same life-transforming instances of powerful memory and connection.

Last week, my husband’s family in Wisconsin hosted the Sixth Anderson Family Reunion, and Wisconsin is where it all started. My father-in-law and his siblings grew up in Merrill, a community that was originally inhabited by the Chippewa Indians, and later was a logging town on the Wisconsin River. This bit of history is just a recitation of names. But when our relatives chartered a motor coach, one of those beautiful large and splendid buses that’s pure white with no advertisement on the outside and comfy on the inside, and we embarked on a road trip from Fond du Lac to Merrill, the story took a life of its own. We spent maybe an hour and a half on the road, but I’m not sure because I spent the time enjoying the green grass and gorgeous farms while chatting with family members and listening to stories recounted by relatives who are from the area, as those of us in the back of the bus encouraged the use of the microphone. We didn’t want to miss a word!

I’ve known since joining the Anderson clan 28 years ago that photography runs in the genes; my husband’s grandfather owned a highly-respected photography studio in Merrill, my father-in-law was a gifted amateur photographer, and my brother-in-law is an equally gifted and skilled professional photographer. On the bus, my brother-in-law took the microphone and talked about what photography was like years ago when his grandpa photographed clients in his own studio with a glass wall to provide a light source – how the cellulose nitrate film was flammable and how his dad held the plate of virtual “gunpowder” to produce a flash that would further illuminate the subject, hoping that the spark from the flash would not ignite the flammable film and start a fire. “Photography was dangerous,” my brother-in-law said. There were three fires at that studio. And he told us how his grandpa continued to photograph during the Great Depression, when he could not afford film, and how he made his own glass photographic plates, and bartered a studio session and portrait for a side of pork to put meat on the table when times were so difficult. Suddenly, learning about cellulose nitrate film wasn’t just a piece of random trivia; it was an historical fact that impacted our lives today. Nobody spoke during my brother-in-law’s impromptu speech. The impact of an explosive photographic mistake could have been deadly and far-reaching. Again, history came alive for us as I imagined my father-in-law as a young kid helping his father out in such a dangerous job!

We arrived at the newly-acquired building for the Merrill History and Culture Center at 100 East 3rd Street, and it’s loaded with family history. Docents had prepared well for a busload of Andersons. They had gathered and displayed photographs from the Anderson studio that Grandpa had taken. They had photocopied pages from high school yearbooks listing some of the children.  And the site itself provided a treasure trove for us; as the former Bethlehem Lutheran Church, one cousin walked to a covered window (they are doing some upgrades on the property) and asked for the dust covering to be removed. The docents obliged, and revealed the stained glass window that the Anderson Family dedicated to the church years ago. Now it was the docents who were surprised! And the docents opened the Baptismal Register for us and we turned the pages and read in lines of beautiful handwriting of the baptisms of all the kids, with my brother-in-law photographing and documenting each and every page. The docents even created post cards of the photography studio building as souvenirs for us.

In that beautiful coach, we toured the town, and cousins told stories of where the family lived, and showed us where the cottage on the lake once stood. As we drove around the streets, we could see a few people opening curtains and glancing at this big unmarked bus. Little did they know we were looking at them and their well-maintained edifices through the dark, tinted coach windows, and imagining the children of the photographer and his wife, running down the steps and heading off to school, or to the river to fish, or off to play. On the ride back, our Uncle told stories, speaking into the microphone that his daughter extended to him, recounting life on the farm and incidents during World War II. Again, every person listened intently.

Roots grew thicker, stronger, and deeper that day. We linked our lives to a set of parents and their seven children growing up in a small Wisconsin town. Two of those siblings stayed in Wisconsin and raised families there, others settled in four other states, and representatives from all those families in those states and now other states shared in this piece of living history. It may not have been an event that changed the course of our nation, or that one will recall via a poem that future generations will sing. But it brought to life the deep connections between our Merrill elders to every individual there. There are several traits that can be found in the Merrill family of then, and the cousins of today. For one, that “Can-Do” spirit of the photographer and his wife and their children has been passed down through the generations like a genetic trait. This is a family of hard work and energy and faith in humanity.  One cousin worked all night every night for a week to finish work on a large, beautiful structure that he built for his own business and his wife’s studio/business, just so it would be ready for the reunion. It is a family that cares about its own and others. There is the shared value of the importance of family and of making time to continue these wonderful reunions, where cousins greet each other warmly and pick up on conversations that they had engaged in several years before and where kids grow up before our eyes.

While the original seven siblings have all passed now, we are thankful that several spouses, our aunts and uncles remain, and through them we continue to explore the stories and memories of the Anderson Seven and life in the extended family. And the sense of humor is evident, too; folks unable to attend this reunion might just have to plan the next one! Everyone agreed that we will engage the youngest family members; our future and theirs as members of this wonderful extended family is linked with the past. And so in three years, we will gather again, place to be determined, and make more memories, learn some more about the past, bring each other up to date, eat more great local food, laugh a lot, sit for the family portraits (one portrait for each family descended from each of the Anderson siblings, and still another portrait of everyone together), and stand united in memory and family and living history. But as for this past trip to Wisconsin, we are so grateful for this experience; it will never be forgotten.