Something to avoid after watching a scary movie: Sleeping in a cave

Film still from Blair Witch, found at

Film still from Blair Witch, found at

Before having kids, I enjoyed scary movies.  Not gory ones, just suspenseful, edge-of-your-seat thrillers.

Now the small people in my house terrify me for real on a regular basis. Kids must be genetically wired to reenact every scene from the worst-case scenario handbook. Every action is a dare, a question, like hey, what happens if I–

  • dodge into traffic without looking?
  • swallow that?
  • do a flip on the concrete?
  • run downhill with my hands in my pockets?
  • lean over the gas flame with my long hair?
  • stick my arm through the glass window?

Despite the fact that the majority of those questions have been resolved without a trip to ER, I no longer crave any sort of contrived thrill. If I have a moment to unwind, I just want a glass of wine and a mindless comedy.

But…once upon a time, I was fired up to see the Blair Witch Project.

My venti latte-drinking friends needed to sit close to the aisle, so I plowed ahead into a crowded row of seats, leaning over to say to the unknown guy next to me, “I should apologize in advance; I’m kind of a screamer.” He stared at me and said–rather tersely, I thought– “Whatever you do, don’t grab me.” I shrugged and settled in to watch 81 minutes filled with twenty-year-olds freaking out, lost in the woods.

I didn’t scream at all. Frankly, I was disappointed after all of the hype. Blair Witch was  unsettling maybe, but it certainly wasn’t TERRIFYING.

Now…around the same time, I was frequently traveling to New Mexico for work. I spent my days in lunchrooms and libraries, teaching elementary school teachers about best practices and school-wide reform. In an effort to spice up endless stints at rural Best Westerns, I tried to squeeze a little sightseeing and Southwestern adventure into my downtime. So one night, in between two all-day presentations, I decided to sleep in a cave. Wouldn’t that be cool?

Wouldn’t it?

I read all about it in my guidebook. This cave was luxe. It had a generator. A hot tub. A comfy bed. A VCR. A space heater. And–with the door open–a view from the cliffs of northern New Mexico into the Four Corners, a glorious panorama. But…it was a cave. 

Also, I was alone. This should have given me pause.

The proprietor lady was ridiculously overbearing and motherly on the phone. “It’s complicated to follow directions to the place. Just meet me in town for the keys and I’ll escort you there.” I rolled my eyes while agreeing politely. Why wouldn’t she just give me written directions–you know, with street names and such? I figured it was because I was young and female and flying solo.

“I recommend bringing your dinner along, too, so you don’t have to go out after dark,” she advised. This was ridiculous. I pretended to agree. Whatever.

Thankfully, she was less patronizing in person; perhaps my posture and suit had inspired a little confidence. I lied and said I had food in my car, and she smiled and handed me the key and a walkie-talkie. Not the toy type–the awesome hard-core grown up kind.  “I want to describe the terrain so you can find your way to and from the place,” she said. I saw her glancing at my rental car, sizing it up.

Wait. What? For the first time, a fleeting doubt crossed my mind.

I followed her giant yellow Jeep forever, which is well past city limits. I didn’t see anything around but a bunch of trees. Where was this place anyway?

We turned off the road.

There was no road.

The walkie talkie suddenly crackled to life, making me swerve a little. “Do you see that tree?” the proprietor asked, as I resumed breathing once again. “The one with two branches that sort of lean to the right?” Sure, sure. “That’s how you know where to make the first turn,” she informed me.

No problem, I thought. I can still see the road from here.

We continued into the thick of it, though, past a multitude of her “landmarks:” a stump, a slim tree that pointed up, three trees sort of clumped together. Each time, we took a little turn this way or that, once or twice veering sharply. The road was long gone.

Still, I was excited to see the place, and I focused on that.

When she finally stopped, I noticed that the trees appeared to end abruptly, and once through them, I could see for miles.

I could also see straight down.

We set out on foot down the side of the cliff until we arrived at some kind of door-ish thing with a padlock. My palms got a little sweaty as I wrestled with the key and the Proprietor coached me through the funky maneuver necessary to open the thing.

I had known it was going to be a cave, obviously; that’s what attracted me to the place. But I hadn’t reckoned it would be so cave-like. I ducked my head and let my eyes adjust as I headed inside.

Mrs. Proprietor never stopped chatting amiably; she pointed out the generator, and a long list of other things that I could no longer absorb in the midst of my growing unease. I realized I needed her to shut up so I could make a mad dash back to town and get some food. I would never find my way back to this place after dark.

It wasn’t hard to negotiate out of the woods for dinner, but service at the pub was painfully slow. I checked my watch about a hundred times, nursing my beer and gazing toward the kitchen. And though I shoveled my dinner at an alarming rate, twilight had descended by the time I was heading back to my hole in the ground.

Leadfooting it to the highway, I tried to distract myself by roaming fruitlessly through the radio dial.

I turned off the road, relieved to see the tree with two branches pointing left. No problem. But where was the stump? The clump of three? Do I turn left or right at the tree pointing up? Don’t all trees point up? Where the hell was my cave?

The woods swallowed my rental car whole. Maybe I should wend my way back to the road, and start again. Where was that tree? All the trees looked the same.

I no longer knew if I was headed toward the road. Was that break in the trees the highway? Or was that the edge of the cliff? Would they find me in a day or two, miles below, squashed and bloody amongst binders of overhead slides and informational pamphlets? Am I alone out here? I wondered–which was scary enough–or, much worse, do I have company?

Though it was a cold, clear February night, I was sweating, sweating, sweating, and realizing that I didn’t have much gas left. Maybe I should just stop and try to sleep in the car. No way in hell was I going to hop out and wander around on foot. If I lost the cave AND the car, I would really be screwed.

The whole, horrid debacle probably only last half an hour, but it was the longest 30 minutes I had ever endured. If that sounds improbably, remember that it occurred before I’d given birth.

When I finally found the small dirt patch to park the car, I cursed myself for neglecting to carry in my belongings earlier. I couldn’t very well drag my behemoth of a suitcase down the cliff in the dark, so I stuck it in the car and used the dome light to find my toothbrush, underwear, pajamas, and a fresh outfit for the morning.

Now a nice dip in a jacuzzi might soothe one’s nerves under ordinary circumstances, but I hadn’t turned on the heat earlier, and it was going to take about two hours for the water to heat. I would have to be up and showered by 6 am in order to pick up a few things for breakfast and lunch, drive 50 miles to the next school, and set up for the 8:30 am workshop.

Horribly shaken, I was also exhausted, so I crumpled into bed and willed myself to sleep. Surprisingly, I dozed off, only to wake and FREAK OUT that I was in a cave. The space heater buzzed and glowered red at me, and flickering ominously on the ceiling. Being a cave, that was only a few feet from my face. Claustrophobic and scared out of my mind, I wondered what had possessed me to do this. Didn’t Farmington have a Howard Johnson’s or something? What had I been thinking?

As a special bonus winter surprise, it was still dark when I had to leave the next day. Remember my trip in the previous night? It was just as hard to get out in the morning. I stopped and let my head drop onto the steering wheel, gasping and sweating through my crisp white shirt and well into my suit jacket. What to do? How to get out? Very little gas. No cell service. No map of the terrain. No food. No idea how to get out.

I did get out, though, and made it to the school two minutes before I was supposed to begin. Folks were already seated in the library, and the Principal raised an eyebrow. “We were concerned. We’ve been here since seven so you could bring in your materials and get set up.”


I couldn’t even begin to explain.

“I’m so sorry,” I squeaked at last, eyes welling.

I have no idea what came out of my mouth that day, no idea what questions were asked, or whether I covered the appropriate material in a coherent sequence. All I remember is a constant awareness of my continued, feverish sweating, and a single moment during the lunch break.

I sat at a long, sticky table in the lunchroom, staring mutely at gelatinous mound of mac n’ cheese with little chunks of hot dog. School lunch couldn’t scare me. I was the sort of person who slept in a cave.

But I was never, ever going to do it again.

Nothing says love like ceramic walruses and fake poop.


Not the original, but pretty much exactly how I remember the walrus. From:

Long, long ago, I lived in a great flophouse of friends. It was a shabby, mouse-infested flat, poorly heated by one tiny gas unit in the living room. To keep warm, we often huddled on our “found” couch and watched whatever non-cable subscribers were offered: Melrose Place, Models, Inc., and the like–the kind of shows that go better with an adult beverage and lots of heckling. I was deliriously happy there.

For reasons I will leave unexplored, one person brought a ceramic walrus to the equation, and a game sprouted organically around it. One person would hide it in someone’s bed…all sneaky-like. The recipient would pass it along the next night. The walrus game occasionally got out of hand, escalating until someone had, say, a couple of chairs “hidden” under their comforter. I can vividly recall the joyous surge of anticipation before yanking the covers back each night, and then, twenty-four hours later, the pregnant, gleeful pause when someone else headed to bed.

The game occasionally went awry. Once I found the plunger nestled in my clean sheets. Not appreciated. The plunger was followed shortly thereafter by a plastic egg full of m&ms which I did not find until the next morning, by which time there were quite a few chocolate skid marks to permanently remind me of the occasion. Such a plethora of brown stains is a conversation stopper at laundromats–as well as during a variety of other unfortunate moments which I will leave to your imagination.

I did so love the walrus game, however, and I recently told my two kids about it. These days, they don’t give much indication that they have heard or appreciated anything, so I was pleasantly surprised to find the following items hiding in my bed over the past 9 days:

Tiny, glow-in-the-dark alien.

Tiny, glow-in-the-dark alien.

Weird, waving cat.

Weird but friendly pinhead cat.



Tragic faux Barbie.

Tragic faux Barbie.

Small bear.

Small bear.

Monster finger puppet.

Monster finger puppet.

Fake poop. Surprisingly lifelike.

Fake poop. Surprisingly lifelike.

It is a little hard to explain why this makes me feel loved. It just does. Even the fake poop. I pull back the covers and think, “they love me.”

But there was one last item, lodged firmly under my mattress pad–something we affectionately call the Norwegian Briefcase. The problem: the briefcase had mysteriously disappeared before I got to return the favor, which makes me nervous. Here’s hoping it doesn’t get tucked into my teaching bag. That could be hard to explain to the photo students of America.


From: Since I couldn’t photograph the original, I have included this found photo of an approximation. You get the idea.


Original flame photo by Timothy Rose

A few years ago, I had to take a class that was supposed to be about graphic design, but instead focused on the moral superiority of mindful of food preparation.

Ah. Art school.

Fifteen minutes into the first six-hour class, I had heard more yammering about the meditative benefit of chopping each herb leaf thoughtfully than any parent of two should be required to endure.

Almost reflexively, I heard myself joining the conversation, “That sounds lovely, but if my microwave broke, I would cry.”


Everyone stared as I shifted uncomfortably in my folding chair.

I wasn’t kidding, though. That was the year of chicken nuggets–the only protein my pre-school kids would consume at the time. Who has time to thaw and bake those suckers for 30 minutes when the kids are already melting down? If I could stop the crying in four minutes flat, I was going to do so. Much as I love food, sometimes life dictates that meals be reduced to emergency fuel injections.

Art school + childrearing = nugget photographs.

Art school + childrearing = nugget photographs. Note: Despite evidence to the contrary, the nugget of choice was Trader Joe’s drummette-shaped breaded chicken patties.

I can guarantee that the people who coined the phrase “slow food movement,” never stopped by my house in the late afternoon. It’s not only my kids who melt down, either. Just ask the college friend who traveled with me for seven weeks one summer. After a few days with me, she started shoveling snacks my way every 40 minutes–no doubt for her own self-preservation. Let’s face it, at 5:30 pm, the only coherent thought I’m capable of forming is: GOOD GOD, LET’S GET SOME FOOD ON THE TABLE, PEOPLE.

Somehow, all of my antagonistic feelings about hippy-dippy, artisanal, homegrown, hand-ground, infinitesimally slow food items have been channeled toward Mollie Katzen and her cavalcade of Moosewood cookbooks.

I blame this on the Enchanted Broccoli Forest, a recipe I tackled once fifteen years ago. Imagine a vegetarian version of Midwestern hot dish with broccoli stems poked in like trees. Bland. Floppy. Nothing forest-y about that hot mess, and no tater tots or Durkee fried onions to offset the disappointment.

I suppose there are many reasons why I should love the Moosewood cookbook, I just can’t think of any at the moment. I do know what I don’t like, however:

There is an ungodly amount of cheese in there. All kinds. Especially cottage cheese, which is foul.

There are no photos, and I know why. Hippie food is ugly.

Stupid, stupid 63 ingredients in every dish. I blame Mollie for the jar of asafetida that sits in my spice cupboard. Does everything need to be so darn complicated? Each recipe takes a million years. Maybe y’all plan your meals a year in advance. Not me. News flash: at 5:30, I will not be soaking anything overnight, nor will I be driving from co-op to co-op looking for dried mint and a half an ounce of tree ears.

What the *()$%! is Noodle Kugel, besides grounds for divorce? Who puts noodles in dessert?

And what about Scheherazade Casserole? Is the cook slain after serving it, or is she saved by reading aloud the long-winded recipes?

Which reminds me, it is exceedingly wordy.

For example, here's how to make fruit salad.

For example, here’s how to make fruit salad.

We played a little game the other night. Whoever was “it” would choose a particularly odd recipe, and everyone else would try to guess the ingredients. FYI: when all else fails, try “cheese” or “seeds” or “more cheese” or “raw bulgur.”

Here’s the main problem, though. It looks like a cookbook for nice people.

Little swirly things nestled between sections, sketchy drawings of seraphim and urns and trellises and lots of leaves that prefer to be carefully, thoughtfully, individually chopped.

And there is that cloying, lovingly handmade font. Given the date of publication, maybe the whole thing was hand-lettered, and I should probably be impressed. But to me, it is the visual equivalent of bad potpourri. A culinary bed and breakfast with stiff, frilly pillowcases…plus an annoying hausfrau who will not stop nattering on.

I’m sure there is lots of useful information and some tasty recipes buried in there somewhere. When my kids go off to college, I’ll take that thing down and read it cover to cover. In the meantime, though…I hear there is a website entitled: WTF should I make for dinner? Now that might fit better with our current lifestyle.

p.s. Sorry, mom. I will admit the shepherd’s pie was fairly tasty.

My Father’s Compass

newspaper2010 sm

A few priorities: the newspaper, a snack, and a view of the lake.

When my father would visit, he had a knack for hunkering in with the MacNeil News Hour while my kids fussed and cried. I was usually busy burning something on the stove, entertaining telemarketers, arranging carpools, or hunting for very important lost items. I didn’t have a lot of time to chat. After wrestling the girls into bed, I would slump down the stairs, and Dad would glance up from his mountain of New York Times. “Say, have you read this editorial about inner city schools?”

I never had.

How I wish I had been able to stay awake then, to engage in conversation about something other than logistics and rashes. Later, when he couldn’t talk much at all, I felt such a tremendous loss. What I would have given–then, and now–to hear his thoughtful analysis, his historical anecdotes, even a little about the book he was reading. I have so many questions that remain, so many gaps which I long to fill with stories from his rich life.

But one cannot render a portrait of a man or a relationship with a macro lens, focusing on a single moment, of which there were two and a half trillion in his 84 years. Examining just one of these does neither of us justice.

Thankfully, there are other moments to cling to–moments that are easier to carry: the theologian on all fours, mooing, while my small girls shrieked and giggled. The tiny, illegible notes my father squeezed into the margins of mom’s chatty letters–notes full of the gratitude and humility with which he approached life. The time I called him on Fathers’ Day a couple of years ago. After a discussion of his day, the weather, Sunday dinner, he paused and I awaited his goodbye. He said, instead, “I wanted you to know: you are a blessing.”

I have been surprised and relieved to discover that my relationship with my father endures–grows, even–as I hear stories from friends, family, and strangers. They share glimpses I couldn’t see from my age or perspective. I am reminded that though his body has betrayed him, he has not been diminished by mortality. Instead, these stories add flesh to the bones I have known over the years.

Still, I will not pretend that I can see him in full. Who could? Yet here is what I know for sure. My father asked a single question repeatedly during his sojourn on earth: How then shall we live?

This was the question that guided his thoughts, his decisions, his direction. He believed we should take a look at what we believe to be good, right, or best, and use that as we go gently forth into the world. He forged a compass from his heart and faith, and as I try to follow in his footsteps, I find he is walking with me. He is alive in my struggles, my questions, and my actions. He is here, helping me as I choose what I think is best; helping me to set my own compass.

Beyond Bertie Bott’s: Jelly Beans That Will Never Be

Yep. That's what they call them in Oregon. Bad idea for a jelly bean flavor!

Yep. That’s what they call ‘em in Oregon. Great name; bad idea for a jelly bean. From

Thanks to J.K. Rowling…vomit, booger, sausage, and earwax-flavored jelly beans already exist. Having recently reread the Harry Potter books and visited the Jelly Belly Factory, I started wondering if there were flavors that could never be made into jelly beans. I know the box says “Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans,” but surely there are lines which cannot be crossed. Continue reading

Today’s Plan: Free-falling into my Box of Grief

Forty-five days ago my father died.

Shortly thereafter, the following advice magically appeared in my inbox: “Free-fall into what’s happening.”

I didn’t want to do that.

I’ve been afraid to think or digest or write or talk or feel. Luckily, I haven’t had time to do so.

I could fill today, too–with my stupid, endless lists and obligations–but for once, I put wallow on the list.

I’ve tucked my box of grief into a corner and left it to fester, to rot, to multiply and mutate. it’s time to bring it out in the daylight and examine its contents.

My plan:

  • Write.
  • Drink lots of decaf and eat something lovely and chocolate.
  • Listen to beautiful, sad music.
  • Make something I like.
  • Go for a walk. Sit in a tree.
  • Watch a Very Sad Movie. Bring lots of tissues.
  • See what happens.

But first, let me move the car. Parking tickets are not therapeutic.

Slumber-less Party

I have a handy little alarm mechanism: if I find myself desperately searching for a bathroom in my dreams, I can promptly rouse myself to take appropriate action. I am exceedingly grateful for this–as is the Spouse, undoubtedly.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for a variety of embarrassing sleep behaviors, this afternoon serving as a case in point.

I lurched into consciousness, suddenly aware that my jaw was stretched into a silent scream and a large bubble of spit ballooned from my gaping crevasse. Since the cup and napkin had magically disappeared from my tray table, there was no doubt that my Munch face had been witnessed.

The original Munch face, the day Sotheby's sold it for $120 million. Flight attendants got mine for free! Getty image from

The original Munch face, the day Sotheby’s sold it for $120 million. Flight attendants got mine for free! Getty image from

The circumstances of this last-minute flight to my childhood home are too recent and too raw to probe at the moment. Instead, I will tell you why I was so dang tired. I will divulge the wisdom I found at 3:28 last Sunday morning:

I am done hosting slumber parties.

The only caveat which might possibly allow for a future overnight posse of midgets would be a signed affidavit from the parent or guardian of each participant, asserting that the potential attendee would not, under any circumstances:

  • Yell or whine for prolonged periods of time as if the Disney Channel had come to life.
  • Pour copious amounts of the host’s toiletries into dozens of Kleenexes and toss the soggy blobs into the shower.
  • Dump three quarters of the contents of her plate onto the floor, survey the carnage, and proceed to stroll through it in her tights.
  • Break off a sofa leg.
  • Say things like, “you’re terrible at this game,” and “there’s no room for you in here,” to the birthday girl until she cries.
  • Interpret the words “no” and “stop” as encouragement to continue on course.
  • Have a complete meltdown over music selection and then hide in the attic.
  • Have three subsequent crying jags clothed only in underpants, making all the other guests fight to sleep in another room.
  • Yell “I JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND!” in host’s face as she attempts to soothe you.
  • Sneak downstairs and retrieve forbidden technology after bedtime, then keep a few guests awake all night with inappropriate garbage from the internet.
  • Lock herself in the bathroom in the middle of the night and proceed to pound relentlessly on the door while the host hunts frantically for a screwdriver.
  • Offer culinary critique such as, “I like waffles, but not when they taste like this.”

In the case of a breach of contract, the parent or guardian of the offending party would be fined an amount commensurate with an overnight sitter, lodging for two at a nearby resort, plus a couple of therapy sessions. Better yet, let’s collect the fee up front as a security deposit. Who knows, we might even return it if your child comports herself appropriately.