To My 20-yr-old Self

To My Dear 20-yr-old Jenni,

Darling, right now is a confusing time. You are both grown and yet so young, with so many questions about the world and yourself. In fact, you are literally exploring the great wide world this fall as you travel through Africa for three months – an experience that will forever touch your heart and shape your worldview. But I know there are inward-facing questions about your heart, too, and coming to you exactly 20 years later, at double the life you have currently lived, I am happy to say I have some insight.

1) The one you are with now is not The One. It’s a fine love but it’s not the life or the person for you; even though you can’t imagine starting over with someone else (you’ll say these exact words to someone else during the early days of your semester abroad), that’s exactly what you need to do when the time comes. You’ve learned this lesson before, at the end of high school, but it bears repeating: it’s OK to strike out on your own, to follow your own next right steps, not those dictated to you by your relationship/partner. The right person is out there who will be a true partner and friend, in addition to loving you to no end.

2) Binaries are not the way. You don’t have language for this yet, which isn’t to say it doesn’t exist (it does), you just don’t realize yet that people don’t have to pick a lane when it comes to sexual orientation/attraction. Or rather, you don’t yet know that there are more than two lanes, but guess what – there are and it’s OK to fall into one of those other ones because that’s what lies at the center of your heart. You see people as people and are attracted to people, not just one kind or gender of people. That might sound scary and overwhelming and it is going to take years for all of this to bubble out of you, but just know that at the center of you is love and love is never wrong. Plus, that right person who is out there for you? He gets it, won’t shame or run away from it, and just wants you to feel safe in expressing your whole self, to him and to the world.

3) Sweetheart, you have anxiety. I know it’s not fun to hear that something may be “wrong” with you, but that’s society’s mental health shaming bullshit making you think that, not an inherent badness in you. Anxiety is something that can be managed with therapy (spoiler alert: you will love therapy and be eternally grateful for it) and coping skills. Sometimes it requires medication. And it’s just something that is. You don’t have to call anxiety your BFF and be super pumped to have it be part of your life, but you can find your way forward, and your skills + medication can serve you very well in navigating this life as an Anxious Bunny.

4) Friendship is fluid. Even though it’s going to seem super hard, you’re going to have to try not to take it personally when friendships fall apart or fade away. Your life and your world are going to shift so much over time, so of course it makes sense that your friendships would, too; but this is one of those tough lessons to learn, in part because it never really stops happening and it can sometimes feel crushing when it does. Please don’t internalize this. Don’t let it make you think you are bad or unworthy of such relationships in this world. Your heart and mind crave authentic connection and you will find these qualities in others and your friendships with them. Keep seeking and keep trying; it’s worth the bumps and bruises along the way.

5) You’re going to go through some Hard Shit. If I could change this, I would. In fact, if I could erase this from all of humanity, I would. Strong as I am (and trust me, that strength has always been there; the Hard Shit does not come your way because you are or ever were weak), I’m not that powerful. Talk to people. Get help. Go to therapy. The Hard Shit does not define or dictate your life – you do. You’ve got your words and your writing but you also need people, which, I know – see above – can be a hard thing to trust, but the people who will hold you up, support you, and love you for all of you are out there. Let them in when they come.

Young One, as you continue your travels, both of the great, wide world and your own inner landscape, remain forever open to learning…about others, about the world, about yourself. You have so much beauty and blessing on the road in front of you; stay open to receive it and grow, knowing that you’ve got this because you’ve got yourself and that’s a damn miraculous gift.

JW, Age 40yrs.

*Post 27/52

RBG + Me

I can’t tell you for sure when the RBG obsession began, but it’s possible that it picked up in earnest after the 2015 publication of the Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsberg book by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik (I still can’t read that title without singing it to the rapper’s name it’s inspired by; listen to the opening of “Notorious B.I.G. featuring Lil’ Kim & Puff Daddy” by The Notorious B.I.G. if you want to know the tune). I listened to the book via one of our library apps and loved it, enough so to ask for a copy of it for my 40th birthday book extravaganza. More so, I adored Ginsberg, her life story, and her career; from there, the fangirl status was solidified. 

Thanks to the power and beauty (it does exist) of social media, others picked up on my feelings for/hero worship of the legendary Supreme Court Justice. People started tagging me in posts related to RBG or sending me links for gear like shirts and jewelry to show off my love for Ginsberg’s spirit and tenacity. I didn’t always jump at the opportunity for RBG retail therapy, but I also didn’t always pass on it, either. This seemed fitting since Ginsberg herself used her own wardrobe to express her positions when SCOTUS decisions were announced, most famously with her jabots/collars that came in so many styles, colors, and meanings. Her Dissent Collar quickly became a symbol, to me and the multitudes, of standing up for what you believe in, even in the face of oppression and confining court rulings. 

Over the years I collected, on my own and from others, the following: a WWRBGD sweatshirt (a riff on the 90’s WWJD bracelets); multiple t-shirts; a face mask; a “leopard” print blouse that is actually little RBG faces; a small, metal Dissent replica necklace; earrings of the same design that I had to give away because my holes closed years ago, but I appreciated the gesture; an actual, full-sized Dissent Collar replica from Banana Republic; an RBG superhero figurine; a “Supreme” coaster; an artist rendition drawing (cartoon style) of her; multiple books both kid- and adult-geared; and, most recently, an RBG pendant of which 100% of the proceeds went to Planned Parenthood which is in desperate need of support given our country’s current backslide on body autonomy rights concerning Roe, something we feared might happen via the Court after losing her in 2020. 

Several of my purchases from this list have gone to organizations/causes like this which, again, seems appropriate. Not only do I get to use my own clothing and accessories to highlight my ideas and opinions as she did on the Supreme Court, they sometimes directly fund and support the same causes she believed in concerning freedom and equity for all. Plus my “armor” naturally showcases my love for my hero who has been gone for two years now.

Learning about RBG’s death is one of those moments that remains seared in my brain and probably always will. I was in our kitchen, cleaning up after supper, when my mom called to tell me RBG had passed. While this wasn’t shocking given Ginsberg’s many health scares in the last years of her life, it still caught me off guard because she had always pulled through in the past. It also felt like such a turbulent time in our country given the impending 2020 election, but that’s my hero worship failing me; of course she was human and deserved to be in a place of peace, not physical suffering from illness, and of course she didn’t owe any of us a darn thing to hold on any longer just because the political climate was difficult with the potential to become more so after her death. 

While my tears didn’t come right away, I later settled in at the computer to read the news and scan social media for posts about her passing and that’s when the gravity and loss of my hero being earth side first hit. She broke the mold in so many ways and did at times seem beyond the limits of other humans, so how could she really be gone? 

In the days that followed, I learned that Jewish tradition, which was RBG’s faith, does not say, “Rest in peace” after passing. Instead, tradition states, “May her memory be for blessing,” which essentially means it is up to us to keep the goodness of a person alive in our own lives, through our words and our actions that embody those we have lost. Fortunately I have a wealth of her words and lessons to continue learning from and will spend the rest of my life following in my hero’s footsteps. Not in law or the court, but in teaching my children to stand up for what is right, and in supporting causes, organizations, and people who are forever working to move the needle toward justice, just like my favorite SCOTUS Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

*Post 26/52 – Halfway!!

Five Little Presidents

When I was quite (quite) pregnant with the baby that turned out to be Wilson, our family was interviewed on the local news about our unique Presidential naming scheme. To be fair, it wasn’t so much that we were special as it was that we had a connection to the news station through a friend, but for our kids, it certainly felt special at the time. And five years later (and with our fifth little POTUS in tow), one of the most received comments/compliments we still get is that people love our kids’ names.

Raegan was the name I picked first because it allowed me to incorporate my middle name into my child’s name, but of course we didn’t find out genders before births, so we went in with two names each time. It just so happened that I had heard the name Harrison shortly before we first got pregnant and quickly became obsessed. This meant that before a baby arrived, a theme was born – totally by accident – and it stuck.

After Harrison claimed the opening spot, the dominos continued to fall with Raegan and Lincoln being our next two name choices and then our next two babies. It was after Lincoln’s birth (on the 4th of July, no less) that people outside our families and closer circles started to say, “Ohhhhhhh, I see what you’re doing there!” which was pretty funny because we’d never kept it a secret, but yes – once you have a Raegan and a Lincoln, people take notice (and also probably assume you’re a Republican which is quite (quite) wrong). 

I honestly don’t remember what girl name we had on deck for Lincoln or Truman, so perhaps it was good that we didn’t need to use whatever it was because clearly I was not sold on it. I know Roosevelt was kind of in the running, but I thought a someday-teenager named Roosevelt might disown me for being so theme-adherent, so that was probably a bluff all along. Since people had by then picked up on our narrow POTUS list, they started chiming in with ideas, two of which were the most popular girl names in the overall category – Madison and Kennedy. While I didn’t explain this to most people at the time, both were out because one of those is a family name and the other was the last name of not one but two of my ex-boyfriends, so nope – was never going to happen! 

Truman was a fun one to pick because it landed me – finally – with a Democrat on the docket. Of course we never actually named any of our children after these specific men; it has always been theme over person. That said, it was still nice to bring a little balance to the scales; however, oddly enough, we then landed with another accidental theme that became extra problematic when I got pregnant with Baby No.5 – alllll of our children’s names end in “n” which was by no means intentional and ended up making an already tight list super short.

My aunt had some funny ideas for Baby No.5 and pushed Buchannan for a boy (she said, “Call the baby “Buck” for short”) and Nixon for a girl (“Call her Nicki”). While I chuckled at both of those, neither one seemed right and we ended up going with Clinton and Wilson, although we definitely did not tell anyone that because we never did. After hearing horror stories of relatives weighing in on people’s baby name selections, there was no way I was going to let anyone other than Ben and I have a say in that, so we were 100% tight lipped the entire time for each pregnancy. I wouldn’t even tell my family what our opposite sex name choices were that didn’t get used, because what if we used them next time?! (which, see above – we totally did!). 

The other happy accident in baby naming is that several of the kids’ initials, which I refer to each of them by constantly in my writing and life in general, flow directly from one to the next: HD, RL, LT, TJ, WA. And I call HD & WA our bookends, which they do for that list, too; it is just so perfect. 

Those middle initials are all family names, by the way. So even though our POTUS picks don’t have a lick of personal attachment to them, our kids are anchored deeply in family connection and names. 

Did I let my English Major nerd side show by picking a theme and sticking with it for five babies over the course of eight years? Yes, yes I did. But I love our little presidents so much. And even though I don’t want to be on the news again, I agree with all the comments that they are such a cool grouping.

*Post 25/52

What Makes a Saturday?

You would think after all the staying home we had to do during COVID shutdowns and beyond, I would want to be anywhere else, but my favorite place to be on a Saturday is still at home with no plans. Perhaps I crave this because of the season of life we’re in with kids coming and going and doing at all hours of the day, each day of the week; this naturally makes me long for quite Saturdays where no one has to be anywhere at a certain time and instead we can just be. 

Or, maybe I’m just an introvert.

But seriously, I love me a good Saturday that involves the wide open possibility of just about anything that might also turn into a whole lot of nothing. Give me no reason to put on mascara or bra unless I want to, the option for a walk or jog, and my best zero-gravity lawn chair (or couch) where I can park my butt and read a book while I drink various fake-coffee and non-soda or non-alcoholic beverages, and I’ll be just fine for the entire day. (40, I tell ya – it’s a wild time!)

As it is, our Saturdays are mostly scheduled out by whatever current sport season we happen to be experiencing. Spring means baseball and occasionally soccer or flag football (but I detest the weather for spring Y sports, so often we rebel and just skip signing up for those, at least for the youngest kids). Summer also means travel ball in June and then all the going and doing that comes with July and early August, trying to squeeze in family fun and trips before the next school year begins. Fall means soccer and flag football (and now swim team, too!). And then in Winter we actually do slow the heck down and, so far anyway, avoid organized sports so we can have more time to cozy up after we all navigate our long weeks of school and teaching. 

Special events pop up on a Saturday here and there such as birthdays or book club gatherings or volunteer opportunities at our church. Once in a blue moon, we’ll go out for a meal, but all of that has been extra slow to return for us post-COVID, so really, I get my way a lot and we just stay home. That looks like a lot of home-cooked suppers, watching something together as a full family on Disney+, and then, after the kids are in bed, maybe doing some yoga or taking an Epsom salt bath before crawling into bed to read some more before finally shutting off the light for the night.

See? Introvert to the max!

And then sometimes an open weekend leads to the height of productivity when we actually have a moment to catch our breath and tackle something that’s been sitting around the house, waiting for us to deal with it. In 2022 that’s looked like a giant cleaning out of our basement store room (finally!), selling baby and toddler/kid clothes, building me a cloffice, and on Labor Day Weekend, fixing our busted-from-hail-damage fence and doing a massive cleaning of our garage that was probably a solid year overdue. Part of said cleanup resulted in saying goodbye to our first-ever baby stroller that every single one of our babes used (well and lot; the thing was shot!), well beyond their baby years, too. But the kids took it all in stride and were such good helpers getting all the junk, dust, and debris out of there. We also learned that Lincoln is a big fan of power tools (and likes them so much that he was willing to give up the extra screen time that his sibs got while we were working in the yard), and that Raegan doesn’t like it when her mama makes up her own rules for crossing streets during a mid-afternoon walk downtown to run errands and grab a quick dish of sherbet. 

I had no idea we were going to take on such tasks on this particular weekend, but that’s the beauty of an unscheduled Saturday (and a Sunday that feels like a Saturday) when you can just get after it. Although I did not make much (read: any) progress in my book, it was fabulous to get some big projects done while dreaming up plans for what might be next all in the midst of low-key, just roll with it Family Time. 

I think that’s exactly what makes the magic of a good Saturday. 

*Post 24/52.

Small Spaces

Small spaces have always been my jam. When I was little, I would empty the toy chest that we had and then turn it into my own personal cave. It was perfect for doing so because it was as tall as a small bookshelf and deep enough to hold a small person, but it also had the best feature ever, a.k.a, an angled door/lid combo that would slide close. This was a win for my parents because, if we actually put our toys away, you could shut the slide-behind top and not see the chaos it contained. Those same magic doors had chalkboard tops so we could draw and practice handwriting on them which was super cool, but again, the really beauty was that I could then crawl inside this masterpiece along with some blankets, pillows, and stuffed animals to make my own little contained nest by sliding the doors shut from the inside.

As I got older and too big for the toy chest, I turned the floor of my closet into my go-to small space and would do the same thing, just on a slightly larger scale (but not much; I grew up in a beautiful old farm house, but one in which it sort of seemed like closets were an after-thought, not a main feature of the bedrooms which were big and airy (yay!) but without a whole lot of built-in storage (bummer)). I would again pilfer pillows and blankets from my bed, grab my latest library book or book order acquirement and settle in to read as long as I could. In hindsight, I have no idea if this bothered my parents or if there were ever concerned about where I was when I was holed up in these small spaces, but I’m guessing they probably knew I had my nose stuck in a book and weren’t too worried about my choice of reading locale. Also, there was no light in my closet, so….how did I do this exactly?! 

Since early childhood, I haven’t had a reading nook or nest. Eventually I stopped shutting myself in the closet and chose to read just in my room or the car or wherever we were/I wanted. As I added more activities and homework in middle school and high school, there wasn’t really the time or need for such a space. Same for college and early adulthood; even though I may have wished very much to have a space of my own (I had some great roommates in college and grad school, but also, communal living was never easy for me), that wasn’t really something I could create in a dorm. Even living in a shared apartment with my own room still didn’t give me a little hideaway like I had as a kid.

Then, after motherhood began, my time and space really shifted from being my own to being constantly shared entities. I spent nine years growing and nursing babies, with a combined total of about five months off from both of those things entirely mixed in there, which meant next to no time for curating my own space. That or I was just too tired to do so, which is also understandable given all the growing, feeding, and raising of children happening during that time!

As we grew our family (and then, after Wilson was born, shifted focus only to raising our crew), we played around with space in our house a lot. In the nearly 11 years (at the time of writing) we’ve been in this house, we have moved bedrooms and furniture more times than I can count as we are always trying to make the space work just a little bit better for us than it had previously.  As a result, I’ve had many spaces in our home that have been useful to me that I have also loved, but it was just this summer that I accidentally came full circle and finally created my own small space (in part because it was the only place left in the house in which to do so!) in a closet. 

The driving need? A work space where I could organize and lay out my adjunct/teaching materials, but also organize PTO and personal files and papers, too. For several years I’d had a standing desk in our living room but that corner always bugged me because it meant I could always see my work. The sunporch was also a sort-of office space for me, but again, without a door to keep my stuff safe from the kids plus the lack of consistent temperature control, it never worked as a long-term solution. 

Enter: The Cloffice. A.K.A. Closet + Office which is an idea I totally stole from the internet and one my favorite writers/moms, Glennon Doyle, who started her writing career from her very own cloffice back in the day.

Because our current home is like the one I grew up in (i.e. old but with lots of character that we love), closets are again kinda hard to come by and not very big when you do. That left me all of one space left to create the cloffice of my dreams – our front entryway coat closet. Naturally, it also required giving the boot to a bunch of winter coats, lunch bags, canvas totes, and random shoes and sports gear (not the boot as in getting rid of, but rather, had to relocate which was tricky but possible). Then all that was left to do was paint, put up some pretty peel-and-stick wallpaper (spoiler alert: that stuff doesn’t work with old lath and plaster walls so we had to buy some adhesive less than 48 hours later to make the stuff actually stay on the wall), install a little countertop remnant turned into desk top, and hang some shelves/filing devices/pretty things, and Ta Da! It’s a Cloffice!!! Thankfully it also comes with an overhead light run by a light switch, the bonus of a window for true natural light, and adorable pocket doors that I can just about close completely (minus where the extension cord needs to squeak through since the one thing the cloffice lacks is an actual electrical outlet). 

And just like that, I’ve turned back into a small child, finding great joy in small things and in particular, small spaces that are just mine. I may not have pillows and blankets in my cloffice just yet, but I love that this little nook is a space just for me where I can work and write and think, which I now do, even when I have the rare moment that no one else is home and I technically have the run of the whole house. Turns out it’s the cozy little spots from childhood that I’ve missed the most and still like the best. 

*Post 23/52.

Adjunct Life

Sixteen years ago this fall, I started my first teaching job at CCC-Hastings. I was a newlywed and a fresh-out-the-grad-school-gate baby teacher, 24 years old and ready to take on the world. Just kidding; I was not exactly terrified, but was pretty darn green having only taught two whopping classes ever at UNL prior to taking on a full teaching load with not just “typical” undergrads but also a heavy dose of non-traditional students, too. It was a lot, but I had some excellent mentors who guided me with pedagogy and developing who and how I was/wanted to be in the classroom as a college teacher. 

During my first two years of full-time teaching, I started another degree program, this time through UNK, to get my Nebraska Teaching Certificate. I had no idea before grad school and the subsequent job application process that college instructors need to have at least a Masters in their subject matter but aren’t required to have a teaching degree as well. That explained a few things about my own undergrad experience (in which the instructors were SO smart but lacked a wee bit in classroom presentation/people skills); I knew I wanted to know more about how to teach than just what I was teaching.

As you may well know, to complete a teaching degree, you must student teach. Same applied to me, even though I was already teaching college full time by then, so I made a big change during my third professional year and moved from the college to a small public school north of Grand Island in Palmer, NE through UNK’s program called Transition to Teaching. Because Palmer needed a classroom teacher and I needed a place to student teach, I was fortunate enough to get paid to “student” teach there. I did not do the traditional work under a classroom teacher but instead had my own classroom there for the entire school year. And because the town and school were tiny, I was one of two English teachers in the whole 7-12 district. I was also the head librarian at the school and the Yearbook Advisor, because, why not, right?! 

During that year I again learned a ton. I also learned that I was pregnant for the first time (a challenge when you have to drive over 50 minutes just to get to work in the morning and have some lovely morning sickness happening for month after month). So while I finished my year at Palmer and earned my secondary teaching certificate, I did not put it or any other degrees to use for a while after that. Instead, I learned how to be a mom to Harrison who arrived in July, 2009. 

By fall 2010, I was ready to venture back to the classroom but once again in a new capacity – as an adjunct in the CCC-Hastings English Department. I loved being a stay-at-home-mom but in addition to needing some extra income to supplement Ben’s own teaching salary, I also wanted to get out and be in the world a bit, and teaching college classes at nights (and during the summer when Ben was home) provided the perfect outlet for me. 

The on-again/off-again life of an adjunct (they only call when they have enough enrollment that they need you) worked really well for many years to follow as I continued to get pregnant with Baby Number Two, Three, Four, and Five. Some semesters I took off entirely. Others, they didn’t need me. Some I just couldn’t do because of when a due date was set to land. But overall, teaching part-time was exactly the answer for how to have the best of both working and stay-at-home worlds.

After Wilson was born in 2017, I met a friend who later was thrilled to find out that I was an English adjunct because her job literally involves finding adjuncts to cover a wide variety of classes at Bellevue University in Omaha, NE, including for their ever-growing English Department. Funny how the world works that way sometimes. 

This fall, 2022, I am starting my fifth year with BU. However, the difference with them to my prior adjuncting is two-fold: 1) they run on a quarter system which means four terms during the year instead of two semesters and some summer sessions, and 2) everything I teach for them is online. This meant when the world ground to a halt in March, 2020, I was already up and running with online, asynchronous teaching and didn’t have to make any adjustments to my platform or teaching delivery as so many others did during the pandemic.

The transition to online teaching has worked well for me in that it allows me to work with my students and their assignments/discussion boards/essays on my own time, not at a set time each week. As my kids have gotten older and have more going on at night, I’m grateful to still be teaching but not in a way that keeps me from attending their activities, concerts, etc. that are forever popping up on our calendar. 

In a slight twist, I’m entering Fall 2022 with a new hat (literally; see picture/figuratively; keep reading): I am teaching online for BOTH CCC and BU for the first time. I’ve never taught online for CCC at all but again, am glad to offer another class on my schedule and in a way that I can work around my family and our family time. 

I know some people may think that adjuncts don’t take their teaching as seriously as full-time faculty, but I promise you, there are those of us who very much do; folks like me want to see our students succeed and feel great compassion for them as they juggle all the things like taking classes, working full-time jobs, and raising their families. In many ways, I’m doing the exact same circus act so I really understand the effort it takes to make education a priority in the midst of all other facets of life. And while my career has taken a rather meandering and yet circular path to land me at this particular moment of dual institution teaching, I’m grateful for it in all forms.

*Post 22/52

A PBS Childhood

Growing up when and where I did (rural SoDak in the 80s and 90s) meant we didn’t have many options for television stations. Eventually, in high school, we got a satellite dish which changed things for us, but up until then we literally had 3-5 stations, including the local NBC/CBS/ABC and, my most beloved, PBS.
Although we watched network stations on Saturday mornings for cartoons (because that was really the only time those stations ran such things back in the day), our go-to after school was the children’s programming on PBS, also known to me as South Dakota Public Broadcasting. And it was the best. 

Over the years I remember watching Letter PeopleGhost WriterBill Nye the Science Guy3-2-1 ContactLambchop’s Playhouse, Once Upon a Time, and Sesame Street (obviously not in that order because who knows exactly at what age I viewed each of those).  My absolute, long-standing favorites, though, were Square One TV and Reading Rainbow. I adored both of those shows and couldn’t wait to fly off the school bus each afternoon so I could run into the house in time to catch both 30-minute programs before doing homework and having supper. 

Square One TV was made up of little sketches (think SNL), songs, and a regular mini-series at the end of each episode called “Math Net” that I suppose was a spoof of Drag Net but I have no idea what that even means, beyond it being a crime solving duo which in this case, used the power of math to restore order (pun intended) to the world. Thirty+ years later and I can still remember songs about Archimedes and “The Mathematics of Love” that taught kids to read Roman numerals, and a “Math Net” case that involved the Fibonacci Sequence, so yeah, I’d say it was highly effective programming. 

Reading Rainbow took the cake, though, for making a lasting impression on this reading-obsessed kid. LeVar Burton is the epitome of childhood + TV associations for me because it’s possible I saw every single episode of the show in which he would meet people, share lessons, inspire imaginations, and, of course, introduce us to fantastic children’s books.  I can still sing the entire theme song and I get a swell of nostalgia whenever I see a title I remember from the show like A Chair for My Mother or Angel Child, Dragon Child, and Abiyoyo. A few years ago they did a KickStarter campaign to reboot the show on Netflix and of course I contributed, earning me a shirt that I’ve worn so many times since, my own children will probably associate with their childhoods someday. 

As a mom, I’ve tried to steer my kids on a similar PBS path but their world is quite different than mine and they have what often feels like overwhelming, limitless choices for what they might watch. Of course, most of it isn’t nearly the quality that PBS (still) provides, so I’m always thankful when one of them latches on to any show from NET (Nebraska Educational Telecommunications, now called NPM, Nebraska Public Media). Over the years, those loves have included HD and Dinosaur Train (which is how my blog, The Modern Maiasaura, got it’s name) and WA with Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood (ironic because I also love DTN but was never a huge Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood fan when I was kid), and allll of them with Curious George which got me through many a cat-nap on the couch during my various pregnancies when I also had toddlers who needed to be entertained while I snoozed. I even called them PBS Naps! 

So even though my own kids will remember quite different and more varied shows when they look back on this same question of favorite Saturday cartoons someday, I’m confident that there will be an intergenerational love for PBS that holds for them just as it does for me. 

*Post 21/52.

Tree Hugger

I don’t know if everyone can say they have a favorite tree, but mine happens to be one that bridges the river-wide gap between my home state and the one I’ve lived in my entire adult life. Ironically, my favorite tree sounds just like rushing water when the wind blows through its leaves. I don’t know how this can even be possible, but the swirling air combined with their jaggedly-edged, triangle shape somehow transforms the giant boughed limbs of my beloved cottonwoods into a natural symphony worthy of any sound machine’s playlist, a sound I wish very much that I could have near me each night as I drift off to sleep.

Sadly I have no cottonwoods in my own yard to help me do so and I remember no cottonwoods on my parent’s farm growing up either. I do, however, recall an enormous one at my grandparent’s place, just eight country miles southeast of us. It got hit by lightning or wind, as they so often do, and was split down the middle, but I still remember the sound of those musical leaves and the large rough bark of its massive-to-me trunk during my futile, youth-driven attempts to climb it.

Our family farms were just north a ways from the Missouri River, which is where I remember the most concentrated collection of cottonwoods being, spaced throughout the state parks that line the South Dakota side of the Muddy Mo, shedding their floating fuzz each spring and summer, making a mess of the playgrounds and beaches (and probably the boats, too, but we were never on one of those). Our favorite place to get ice cream after a long day in the sun (and play mini golf) was even called The Cottonwood Corral, so clearly I’m not the only Yankton-ite to take note of their abundance in the area.

Those same trees in those same state parks watched over me as a teenage runner when our cross country team hosted our meets beneath their shade. I can’t say I paid as much attention to them then, but now any time I am in their company, I smile and think of those many hours spent near them in my childhood. Several line the park not too from my current home, but they, too, have been hit hard in recent years by storms which makes my heart ache every time one is partially damaged or, worse, lost.

In an ideal world, I’d have an acreage where I could both see the sky far better than I can currently from town and where I could plant all the trees I desire. I realize this would someday erase my lovely sky view, but if I was surrounded by my water-burbling cottonwoods, I might just call that a fair trade.

Post 20/52.

Live on, Live Music

Me picking a favorite band or musician feels like me picking a favorite book or author – impossible! But I have always loved live music and I’ve been fortunate enough to see some really awesome artists live and in person around the Midwest. This includes my very first concert which included seeing my beloved N*SYNC at the SoDak State Fair (how?!) in the late 90’s, but my tastes and shows have gotten a lot less pop-y since then.

In college I got a little more jam-band minded and managed to check Dave Matthews Band off my list during grad school. Some girlfriends and I drove to Kansas City to see them perform, which had been my dream for years at that point, and the show was super fun even if it made for an awfully long week of classes to follow all that there-and-back travel over the weekend. There was also a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert in there somewhere, a trip to see Spoon at First Ave. in Minneapolis, MN, and a free Five for Fighting show at a friend’s college in Omaha, too. 

Since then I’ve let my musical tastes wander where they’d like, and while I still have a lot of bucket list artists, just like DMB was, my list of “Already Seen”s is pretty fantastic.  

It’s a toss up between Guster and Nahko on who I’ve seen more times live, but Guster has definitely been my longest love that’s gone the distance of both time and miles traveled to see. I saw them first in my early 20s both in Minne where they opened for John Mayer (meh; I was there for Guster, all the way) and somewhere in NE or IA shortly before we got married in 2006. Then it was seeing them with both the Omaha Symphony and then the Denver Symphony (in each respective city) with Ben, which happened to be his first concert experience and then his first Red Rocks trip, and with both shows being absolutely stellar. Guster never disappoints! 

In more recent years, yoga brought me many a live music interest, including MC Yogi, Xavier Rudd, Trevor Hall (multiple shows), and eventually, for my first post-COVID concert, Rising Appalachia with LVDY as the opener in Denver. I probably would have cried anyway just to be at a live show again, but wow, both groups were incredible and I was so grateful to be in those open air spaces with such gorgeous music all around me. 

Of course I don’t always have to travel very far to see my favorite musicians – sometimes they come right to me in good old Hastings, via The Listening Room at The Lark or the Flatwater Musical Festival at Prairie Loft. And of course I’m talking about The Talbott Brothers who are much loved by much of Hastings and thankfully they love us back by coming quite often to perform at both venues. While I love the outdoor vibe at Flatwater, there’s something really amazing about being at The Lark where you’re just right there next to the stage and everyone’s literally listening and being quiet while the music envelops the whole space and night. Plus Nick and Tyler are fun humans and good sports with their fans, including posing for pictures and also taking birthday requests which Ben did for me in March 2020 right as we were starting out with COVID lockdowns. The Talbott Brothers did an online show and he got them to sing “Happy Birthday” to me, “Jenni from Hastings” in the middle of it and I tell you what, even though a lot of life was hard at that time, that did not suck. 

In writing this, I realize I’ve been to a lot of concerts and it excites me to think about just who I might see next; there are so many incredible choices out there! 

* Post 19/52.

Big Spending

Being teachers with one and a quarter incomes between us, not to mention five young kids, pretty much means everything in life feels expensive while actual expensive purchases “just for us” are totally out of the question. While I sometimes daydream of what it would be like to be not skating by month to month, I’m equally grateful for the life and home we have and the fact that I’ve been able to stay home with our babies all these years. This is Wilson’s last year before starting Kindergarten and while I don’t know what life with five kids in full-time school holds for me and my work, I do wonder if some shifts are on the horizon for me that might ease some of that financial strain. 

All that said, we’ve still dropped some pretty pennies in this lifetime, one chunk on an experience via overseas travel and another chunk on an investment in our home via the form of a good old-fashioned, gray-hair-inducing, renovation project.

2008 was our first big spender moment when we decided to postpone a house project in our first home (redoing the front porch and steps which we eventually did before selling it a few years later) to spend three weeks traveling with fellow Doane alumni in Africa instead. I was lucky enough to get an entire semester doing that in college and the experience profoundly shaped my life. Being able to then share two of those same locations, Kenya and Tanzania, with Ben, and experience a new one, Rwanda, together profoundly shaped our marriage and was an excellent adventure to take prior to starting our family in 2009. 

While we did multiple safari drives and nature walks throughout our 2008 trip, the most costly ($500.00 per person) but also the most amazing was hiking up into Volcanoes National Park to seek (and, lucky us, find!) mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. The awe of observing and following them for a brief bit of time stays with me. It takes no effort to recall the gorgeous male silverback we saw snacking away on rainforest foliage or the mama with a baby clinging to her (foreshadowing much?!) as she ambled about the trees and sloped terrain. I remain forever grateful that we took that trip and spent our money on the travel and activities that helped open our eyes to new places and people while also learning more about each other and how to travel/work together as a team early on in our marriage. 

We needed that team mindset 10 years later when we embarked on a home remodel in 2018 after discovering that we couldn’t find any houses locally that were big/nice/affordable enough for our large family; this left us in the “stay-and-make-it-work-for-us” position of hiring contractors, busting down walls, and riding the roller coaster of all that comes with renovating an old house over the next 18+ months (COVID life did not help our wrapping up of the whole process but instead slowed us down even more as we tried to navigate pandemic life + having people in our house to finish projects). 

Turns out, a stay-at-home adventure can be much, much more expensive than one that takes you over an ocean, as we found out when extra “To do”s popped up along the way, like needing to tear out an extra shower/replace subflooring and then, oh yeah, ripping out and replacing our entire Hastings-classic (i.e. extra long) driveway and pouring all new concrete to protect our newly remodeled basement from water seepage. Concrete, it just so happens, is not cheap. Nor is putting in a bunch of new wiring and all new plumbing which we also did, but once you start, you can’t just stop unless you want to keep living out of your living room with no kitchen for the rest of your life instead just 9 awful weeks (with five little Littles) like we did. 

But now our house is gorgeous and functional and our driveway is so smooth, the kids can all ride bikes and scooters on it all the live-long day (which they do; Mama, too!). And even though we’ll be paying for it for many days (years) to come, this investment also feels worth it because our big family can really use darn near every square inch of our house now for living and being a family together which is of course the best adventure of all. 

*Post 18/52.