Columns

Twin grandsons make heart grow two sizes

2,142 miles. That’s the driving distance between Spokane and Columbus, Ohio. Even if you fly, that’s a heck of a long way, especially now.

But our recent pre-pandemic-planned trip was worth every mile and occasional discomfort, to celebrate our youngest son’s graduation, and to see our twin grandsons.

Sam recently earned his BA in English with a focus on Literary Studies from Eastern Washington University. He’s 20, graduated cum laude, debt-free, and is already enrolled in the Masters program at the university.

We wanted to celebrate his amazing accomplishment in a meaningful way – and for him nothing could be more meaningful than seeing his brother, Alex, and meeting his identical twin nephews.

Sam hasn’t seen Alex in five years, and Derek’s 76-year-old mom has been longing to meet her first great-grandchildren. So even when the airline changed our flights to include a five-hour layover at SeaTac on the way over and a four-hour layover on the way back, we were just relieved our flights weren’t canceled.

Apparently, air travel is picking up. SeaTac seemed busier than ever and everyone – and I do mean everyone – wore masks and endeavored to maintain social distancing. Even better, Alaska Airlines is continuing to limit seating. Every middle seat was empty on our flights to and from Columbus.

We arrived in Ohio, with just enough light to find our Airbnb house a few blocks away from our son’s place. However, it was dark by the time Derek and I finished our grocery store run, and we got hopelessly lost on our way back. Our GPS was no help. Thankfully, Alex and Brooke are night owls and were able to talk us in by phone.

And then? Four blissful, baby-filled days with The World’s Most Beautiful Boys. At just shy of seven-months, Adam and Nick had already changed so much since our last visit.

Of course, great-grandma Nita and Uncle Sam promptly fell in love with the perpetually grinning, good-natured boys.

“You know, I wasn’t sure if I wanted kids,” Sam said. “But I love those babies. I want some of my own.”

Sam and twins

Sam meets Nick and Adam

That right there was worth the price of the trip, though I did ask him to wait a few years, and maybe not move any place as far away as Ohio.

He and Alex spent hours together, making up for lost time, making new memories, making every minute together count.

They went to the Book Loft in the German Village in Columbus, one of the nation’s largest independent bookstores. It’s so big; they lost Grandma Nita in the two- story maze of book-filled nooks and crannies.

And then while the guys lunched at the Thurman Cafe, featured on the television shows “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” and “Man vs. Food,” we girls bonded over babies.

And oh, those babies! I was filming great-grandma tickling Adam’s bare feet, when he turned and saw me. Recognition, excitement and love beamed from his face as he reached for me.

I thought when I became a mother I couldn’t love anything more fiercely than my sons. And then my grandsons arrived, and my heart grew at least two sizes that day.

Sam, Adam, Nana, Nick

Spending Father’s Day watching my son dote on his sons, filled me with indescribable joy. I never doubted Alex would be a wonderful dad; after all, he had the best role model.

Speaking of Derek, true to tradition, every time a twin nodded off in his arms, Papa fell asleep, too.

“I can’t help it,” he said. “Babies make me sleepy.”

But when Adam or Nick fell asleep in my arms, I didn’t want to miss a thing.

In fact, if I could freeze one moment in time it would be this: the feel of my grandson’s head heavy on my shoulder, the rise and fall of his chest against mine.

If I could bottle one scent it would be this: the sweet smell of his head tucked beneath my chin.

If I could capture one sound to listen to repeatedly it would be this: his sleepy sighs, soft against my ear.

After 2,142 miles, and more time at SeaTac than anyone would ever want to spend, we’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Twins

Adam and Nick

Columns

Walk softly; the stories are etched in stone

It’s the storyteller in me.

Lots of people visit cemeteries on Memorial Day, but I visit cemeteries often, especially when passing through an unfamiliar place.

I wander through rows of markers reading history etched on tombstones. Each grave offers a thread of a story, and that thread weaves through time and place, connecting me to strangers. What’s not to love about that?

In March while visiting our son and his family in Grove City, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus, our Airbnb sat directly across the street from the Grove City Cemetery and the adjoining St. John’s Lutheran Cemetery.

Our time in Ohio was filled with making the most out of every delightful moment with our twin grandsons, yet the graveyard beckoned every time I looked out the window. Balloons, ribbons, flowers and Christmas decorations dotted the graves, though the holidays were long past.

On our last morning before heading to the airport, we walked across the street and traveled back in time.

The photos caught my eye.

The newer Grove City Cemetery (established in 1906) had many gravesites that featured photos etched into the markers. They offered a surprisingly intimate glimpse of those buried there.

Like, Lisa, “loving daughter and sister,” who died at 19. Her beautiful smile beamed at us from beneath her blonde upswept hair. Fresh roses bloomed in urns. A ceramic horse had toppled from her marker, so I gently replaced it.

Other mementos brought smiles. A bottle of Blue Moon beer perched beside the grave of Georgia, “Loving Mother, Grandmother and Nana.”

Speaking of grandmothers, one gal’s family called her “Grammer.” I loved that. In fact, if my grandkids tire of calling me Nana, I’ll take Grammar (note spelling change) in a heartbeat.

Some gravestones featured beautiful colorized etchings of the person’s favorite place or activity. A covered bridge over a swirling stream marked the Ogg’s family plot, while the Thomas family monument highlighted a stable on one side and beautiful horses on the other. A bowling ball at the top and a pair of golf clubs at the bottom, showed how Robert and Rose Davis spent their time.

Sadly, many of the graves at the next-door St. John’s Lutheran Cemetery (1860) had grown too old and moss-covered to read. Indeed, some of the stones had fallen over, while towering obelisks some topped with angels or crosses stood sentry.

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I caught my breath at one simple plaque, embedded in the ground. “Daddy,” was all it said.

As a mother, I’m always drawn to graves adorned with lambs and angels – children’s graves where the briefest of lives are marked.

A tiny red tinsel Christmas tree fluttered in the March breeze. It marked Darren’s grave. He was born and died Oct. 26, but I couldn’t read the year through my tears.

I hadn’t anticipated the wellspring of grief that the graves of stillborn babies would trigger since we lost our grandson Ian Lucas in 2018.

“Our little angel,” Stephanie Lynn was stillborn April 26, my son’s birthday.

A photo of beautiful Maggie Jean, March 7, 2015-March 8, 2015, brought me to my knees, and since I was there anyway, I prayed for Maggie’s family.

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Some housekeeping seemed in order. I righted toppled ceramic angels and Santas, and brushed leaves and dirt from markers, knowing I’d want someone to do the same for my family.

Suddenly, I couldn’t wait to get to my son’s house to hold The World’s Most Beautiful Boys one more time.

But I’ll never forget Maggie Jean, Darren, or Chelsea whose gravestone reads, “Walk softly an angel sleeps here.”

Indeed, it might be wise for all of us to walk a bit more softly wherever we tread in these troubled days. The thread of our stories can be ephemeral, but that connection is what we crave.

A stroll through any cemetery reminds us that our time here is just the merest whisper. How much sweeter our echoes would be if we choose to walk softly and be kind.

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Columns

Grateful for Trip Before Pandemic Havoc

Earlier this month when we left for Ohio to visit our twin grandsons, there were just two cases of COVID-19 in Spokane – the remaining cruise ship passengers that had been sent to Sacred Heart Medical Center to recuperate. There were no reported cases in Ohio.

By the time we returned home, Ohio’s governor had closed schools, libraries and restaurants, as had Washington’s governor, and coronavirus cases in both states had skyrocketed.

A lot can change in a week.

But the change that happened to me over the course of the week had nothing to do with viruses and everything to do with love.

How to describe the feeling of holding your son’s son in your arms for the first time? The joy of discovering your child’s blue eyes peering at you from a new face or, in our case, faces.

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Adam and Nicholas are identical twins and, in my completely unbiased opinion, worthy of #TheWorldsMostBeautifulBoys hashtag I created for them.

Born 7 1/2 weeks early on Nov. 23, they had a lengthy stay in the neonatal intensive care unit before coming home in January. Thankfully, they are healthy, and did I mention beautiful?

Derek and I rented a small Airbnb house near our son’s home, so we could watch the twins and their big sister, Farrah, 6, as often as Alex and Brooke were willing to part with them.

To our delight, we got to have them every day. We timed our arrival with Brooke’s birthday, and Alex surprised her by taking time off from work so he could ferry the boys back and forth for her.

We wanted her to be able to rest and enjoy some much needed self-care time. I remember well the exhausting days and endless nights of caring for infants who seemed to rarely sleep – and I only had one baby at a time.

After our first stint of babysitting, Derek and I sprawled on the sofa, exhausted.

“How does she do it?” he asked. “How does she do this every day? I mean, she’s by herself when Alex is at work. Look how worn out we are and there’s TWO of us!”

Two of us, whose only agenda was cuddling, feeding, burping and changing our adorable grandsons. Our only other objective was to be able to tell them apart by the time we left. More on that later.

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When the boys napped I cooked meals for the family – another reason I’m so glad we chose an Airbnb over a hotel. But I didn’t have to clean, or tackle laundry, or do any of the myriad things Brooke has to do on a daily basis. We are simply in awe of her.

On our first full day in Ohio, we bundled up the boys and took them on their first walkabout in their double stroller.

It was a new adventure for them, and Adam was not a fan. Nick, however, took in the sights, sounds and smells with equanimity and wonder.

We slowly began to get a sense of their personalities. Alex and Brooke weren’t kidding when they told us their boys are very opinionated and not shy about making their preferences known. We thought it was mighty kind of Adam and Nick to let Nana and Papa know how they like to be held and fed, but the first time they both cried at the same time, we looked at each other, stricken.

Nick hollers, but Adam’s cry is more dramatic and heartbreaking. It quickly became clear my job was to calm any tears, and Derek’s job was to fall asleep with a baby in his arms.

Not much has changed in the 20 years since we had our last baby.

Initially, Brooke dressed them differently, so we knew who was who, but when Alex dropped them off wearing identical outfits, I panicked.

“Which one is which?” I asked.

“Hmm, I’m not sure,” he said.

Then he showed me his dad trick. He swiped his thumb across their foreheads.

“This is Nick,” he said. “He has drier skin.”

That was helpful, but Nana’s no dummy. I quickly popped their labeled pacifiers in their car seats.

The boys have their dad’s beautiful lips and when they smile, it’s like cuddling Alex all over again. They love to “talk,” and enjoy lying next to each other and kicking their legs like crazy.

Of course, I took oodles of photos and videos. Leaving them to come home was incredibly difficult because I know how much they’ll change before we see them again.

And we will see them again.

Coronavirus restrictions and protocols won’t last forever. We’ve already scheduled our next visit for the end of June. Grandparents are optimistic to a fault.

I understand our world has been forever altered by this pandemic, but not all change is bad. For instance, I’ve discovered my heart really can be in two places at once.

Me and my boys

Columns

What ketchup,The Doobie Brothers, breakfast in bed, and my grandsons have in common

In the late 1970s a classic ketchup commercial captured the attention of television viewers.

Two boys grabbed the condiment to put on their burgers.

“Boy, is your ketchup slow,” says the first boy.

Shocked, the second boy replies, “You mean your mom doesn’t buy you Heinz? Wait till you taste it!”

And wait they do, as the camera zooms in on the thick, tomato-red sauce slowly spilling from bottle to burger while the song “Anticipation” plays.

“The taste that’s worth the wait,” a voice intones at the end of the spot.

Anticipation is a feeling of excitement about something pleasant that you know is going to happen, and it’s just about my favorite feeling in the world.

In a time where much of what we want is instantaneously available with the click of button, or swipe of a finger, waiting for something good is a delicious discipline.

This time of year many folks are anticipating tax returns and thinking about how to spend them. Others are dreaming of summer, reserving campsites or booking hotel rooms. It’s how we get through the gloomy, gray days of February.

But anticipating even small pleasures makes life more enjoyable.

Every morning I groggily open my eyes, fumble for my bathrobe and feed my frantic cats. Then I pour a cup of coffee and take it back to bed.

I look forward to that first sip of hot java. The rich flavor warms me and perks me up enough to pick up my phone and scroll through my calendar.

As I review my daily and weekly tasks, Walter jumps into bed with me, lays his head on my pillow and scoots close for his morning cuddle. At nine months, this kitten is growing fast, so I welcome his furry affection while it lasts.

Dread is the opposite of anticipation. It’s what happened last week when I saw I’d booked a dental appointment and an eye exam the same week. Thankfully, I’d sandwiched Happy Hour with a friend squarely between those two not-fun activities.

Anticipation is all about planning. If I didn’t schedule time to spend with friends, it simply wouldn’t happen.

Derek and I look forward to our weekly date nights. It rarely happens on the same day, but that’s the fun of it. And the dates don’t have to be pricey.

When I’m covering an evening or weekend event, he often comes along and I take him to dinner afterward. We keep a running list of things we’d like to do or see. It can be trekking to an unfamiliar city park, trying a new restaurant or taking in a discount movie.

I also look forward to Saturdays, because Derek almost always brings me breakfast in bed. It wouldn’t be such a treat if it happened every morning, (though I wouldn’t object if it did).

A few times a year, we schedule big events like a concert or getaway. It’s fun to look at our calendars and see the Doobie Brothers concert coming up, or even more exciting – trips to Ohio to visit our twin grandsons.

Since our third son moved out, I’ve added a weekly family dinner to my rotation of anticipation. While I’ve always enjoyed cooking, when my house was full it often felt like one more chore at the end of a busy day. Now, I look forward to setting the table for five and to feeding my boys their favorite dishes.

Carly Simon sang, “Anticipation, anticipation … it’s keeping me waiting.”

And that’s not a bad thing. More than just the taste of good ketchup – the best things in life are worth the wait.

Columns

What happens in Vegas…

Whoever said what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, is obviously not a newspaper columnist.

My husband and a buddy usually hit Vegas via Laughlin, Nevada, for an annual guys getaway. This year his friend jetted to Maui, so Derek asked me if I’d like to go.

The folks at Don Laughlin’s Riverside Resort Hotel and Casino sweetened the deal by offering us a buy-one, get-one-free deal for airline travel and resort stay. On Thursday we drove to Lewiston to catch a chartered flight aboard Laughlin’s Sun Country Airlines.

A couple of hours later, we landed in Bullhead City, Arizona, where a resort bus met us and drove us across the Colorado River to Laughlin.

Crossing three states, two time zones, and one river makes you hungry. After checking in, we stretched our legs along the Riverwalk in pursuit of dinner.

“Look! A cat!” Derek said, pointing toward a nearby garbage can.

As the varmint dashed across the sidewalk in front of us, we saw it wasn’t a kitty, it was a raccoon. He joined his wife and kid under the palm trees and agreeably posed for photos.

A different kind of wildlife awaited us in Vegas the following day. We rented a car and made the 90-minute drive to spend the day on Fremont Street.

Located in the original town site of Las Vegas, Fremont Street is the historic center of the city featuring a five-block stretch of enclosed casinos, shops, bars and restaurants.

Derek prepped me for the visit.

“There’s all kinds of street performers and vendors,” he explained. “Whatever you do, don’t make eye contact, or they’ll try to sell you something or hustle you for tips.”

Of course, I immediately forgot his words when we entered the glittery, bustling avenue. A friendly lady greeted us and asked if we were celebrating our anniversary.

Derek tugged at my hand and kept walking, but I didn’t want to be rude. That’s how I got suckered into a long sales pitch for tickets to a show we didn’t want to see.

“I told you,” he said. “Just keep walking.”

Lesson learned. When a well-muscled shirtless man wearing snug-fitting camo pants asked if I wanted a hug, I only paused for a second.

“He said it’s OK,” the fellow assured, pointing to Derek.

“I get all the hugs I need,” I replied, without breaking my stride. Much.

A visit to the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, aka the Mob Museum, was next on our list.

It proved a fascinating, albeit gruesome jaunt through gangster history. We learned about the Kefauver hearings in the historic courtroom where one was actually held. The hearings led by Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver confirmed the existence of a national crime syndicate and revealed lax enforcement.

Other museum highlights included cocktails in an underground speakeasy, and an opportunity to “electrocute” my husband in a replica electric chair.

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Then it was on to dinner at the Heart Attack Grill, a restaurant that celebrates gluttony by offering unlimited free burgers to anyone weighing over 350 lbs.

Waitresses dressed as nurses deliver wine via IV poles and tubing, and if you don’t clean your plate they deliver spankings with a paddle. Seriously.

Derek warned me about that. But what he didn’t tell me is that you have to wear a hospital gown to eat, and there’s a ginormous public weigh-in spot that broadcasts your weight for all visitors along Fremont Street to see.

Within minutes, we witnessed five spankings. Those nurses pack a wallop. I ordered the smallest burger possible and ate every bite. I haven’t been so focused on cleaning my plate since I was a kid and threatened with an early bedtime if I left any peas on my plate.

As night fell, we enjoyed free live music and the Viva Vision light show. The light show video screen is 1,500 feet long, 90 feet wide and suspended 90 feet above Fremont Street’s pedestrian mall.

It was amazing! But all that glitz and glitter made me pine for some natural beauty. A morning boat cruise along the Colorado River was just the ticket.

The cruise aboard the USS Riverside took us along Laughlin’s Riverwalk all the way to Davis Dam and offered great historical perspective about this portion of Nevada.

Did I mention it was 84 degrees in Laughlin on Saturday? That called for some serious sunbathing at the resort’s adult-only pool. We alternated from poolside lounges to comfy river-view couches, soaking up the sun we knew would be in short supply in Spokane.

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And of course we played the slots, but we’re hardly high rollers. We set aside a certain amount of cash for entertainment and don’t spend any more than what we bring.

Derek led me to a machine he knew I’d love – the OMG! Kittens. I quickly found out the OMG! stands for the $40 I quickly dropped just to see adorable kittens speed past me and meow.

Luck wasn’t a lady that night, and it was a little disconcerting to see people my mother’s age still going strong at midnight when, exhausted, we headed for our room.

It was a lovely getaway, but by Sunday we were ready to return. After all, we already hit the jackpot with our own OMG! Kittens and they were waiting for us at home.

Columns

Beware Banana-Toting Bandits

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When our train pulled into the tiny whistle-stop station at Dalkena, Washington, I spotted some unsavory types milling around the tracks.

A pint-size pirate, wearing a bandana over her face, clutched her grandpa’s hand and boarded the car in front of us.

Then the door to our carriage slid open, and a mean-looking hombre swaggered down the aisle. Her black cowboy hat was a dead giveaway. Everyone knows only outlaws wear them. Sure enough, within minutes the desperado barked, “All right, hand it over – gimme yer money!”

She flourished her weapon wildly at men, women and even small children.

I’d never been “robbed” at banana-point before, but I hastily stuffed some cash into her bag, and tried not to make eye contact.

Thankfully, we’d been warned in advance that train robberies frequently occur on the Scenic Pend Oreille River Train. Even better, the cash collected goes to support the many community projects of the Newport/Priest River Rotary Club, which operates the ride.

The little girl in front of us wasn’t feeling quite as generous.

When she realized the robbery wasn’t real, she turned to her mom.

“I want my money back!”

But when the whistle blew and the train lurched forward, she pressed her nose to the window, captivated like the rest of us by the autumn beauty that shone brightly despite the rain.

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“I’m so glad we did this,” my husband said, as we settled back into our seats, watching the deep green of the forest, give way to golden fields surrounded by russet maples and amber birches.

We’d been so disappointed when in 2016, the North Pend Oreille Valley Lions Club had to end the excursion train ride between Ione and Metaline Falls that they’d operated for 35 years. The ride was an item on our bucket list that we’d never got around to.

In 2017, the Newport/Priest River Rotary Club partnered with the Pend Oreille Valley Railroad to operate a new excursion ride. This time we weren’t going to miss out.

Starting in Newport, Washington, the 9-mile, 90-minute ride, follows the Pend Oreille River to Dalkena (where train “robberies” occur) and back to Newport.

The train features three classic railroad coaches and three open-air cars. The excursion operates rain or shine, and there was plenty of rain Saturday. The drizzle didn’t daunt the 300-some hearty travelers who waited to board the 1 p.m. ride.

Seating is first come, first served, so Derek and I were glad we snagged seats in “The Logger,” an enclosed coach on loan from the Spokane Railroad Historical Society.

Many came prepared with blankets and quilts, and chose the chilly seats because they offer better views than peering at the scenery through rain-streaked windows.

But no matter where you sit, the views are still spectacular.

The train runs on a historic railroad that’s one of the last short lines still operating. The track was built between 1907 and 1910 by Frederick Blackwell to transport people, logs, lumber and cement.

As we chugged along the Pend Oreille River, we saw hundreds of pilings from the long-defunct Dalkena Mill sprouting from the water. The pilings once held acres of logs. Now they provide perches for ospreys and eagles.

We traveled away from the river and across Highway 20 through forests and pastures. Sharp eyes can spot a variety of wildlife including coyotes, moose, bears, deer and turkeys.

The beautiful scenery and fresh air made us hungry, so after the ride we drove to Priest River, Idaho, and enjoyed a delicious meal at The Settlement Kitchen and Craft Tavern.

Who knew I’d have to travel to Idaho to sample my first watermelon radish? The colorful and tasty veggie was part of an appetizer featuring pumpkin hummus.

There’s still time for you to catch the train. The Scenic Pend Oreille River Train’s final excursions of the season are this weekend.

Bundle up and enjoy the ride, but beware of black-hatted, banana-toting bandits.

For more information about SPORT (Scenic Pend Oreille River Train Rides), visit sporttrainrides.com, or call (877) 525-5226.

Columns

Sometimes parenting isn’t so thankless after all

 

IMG_20190623_204219_730.jpgLet’s face it. Parenting can be a thankless job.

But as I sat next to our two youngest sons in the Moore Theatre in Seattle on June 23, I only felt thankful.

Our hardworking, youngest son, Sam, 19, had bought me, Derek and Zach tickets to the Josh Ritter concert.

One of his professors at EWU had played a cover of a Ritter song during a class. Sam was intrigued enough to do some research, and discovered the album “So Runs the World Away,” and he was hooked.

He began buying every recording he could find, and when he heard Ritter’s “Fever Breaks” tour was coming to the Northwest, he was thrilled.

“Want to go to the Seattle show with me?” he asked. “I’m buying.”

When your kid is passionate enough about something that he wants to share it, what parent could say no?

Derek offered to spring for a hotel room, Zach actually scheduled a day off from work, and we wrote the date on our family calendar.

Of course, the week after Sam bought the tickets, Ritter added a show in Spokane.

“Never mind,” I told him. “We’re due for a family road trip.”

In the weeks leading up to the concert, Sam shared Ritter’s albums with us. Zach, a musician himself, was already on board with the artist.

And no wonder. Zach loves folk music, and Ritter is known for his Americana style and narrative lyrics. In 2006, Ritter was named one of the “100 Greatest Living Songwriters” by Paste magazine.

A native of Moscow, Idaho, the prolific songwriter’s vocal stylings sound a bit Bob Dylan-esque with a dose of Tom Waits.

We got more excited about seeing him in person as the date grew closer. And then disaster struck.

Vocal issues prompted a string of canceled dates including shows in Boise, Vancouver and Spokane.

“Boy, I’m glad I didn’t buy tickets for his Spokane show!” Sam said.

He anxiously followed Ritter’s social media feed.

“Don’t worry,” I told him. “If the concert is canceled, we’ll just spend a day on the waterfront.”

But the show went on and it was Ritter’s first performance after his doctor-ordered vocal rest.

He didn’t disappoint.

From the upbeat “Getting Ready to Get Down” to the plaintive “Wings,” which features references to Coeur d’Alene, Harrison and Wallace, Idaho, each song was a wonderful blend of lyrical narrative and masterful musicianship.

Take the lyrics to “Old Black Magic,” for example:

“True love to true love

And rust to rust

I let the others cast stones

While I drew in the dust

I tried to be a good man.”

Even the opening act, Penny & Sparrow proved delightful.

“We know,” intoned Andy Baxter, half of the Texas duo. “We’re all that stands between you and Josh Ritter.”

While the duo was enjoyable enough for me to purchase their CD at the break, Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band owned the show.

Ritter’s aching acoustic rendition of “All Some Kind of Dream” proved a fitting finale.

“I saw my brother in a stranger’s face

I saw my sister in a smile

My mother’s laughter in a far off place

My father’s footsteps in each mile

I thought I knew who my neighbor was

We didn’t need to be redeemed

Oh, what could I have been thinking of?

Was it all some kind of dream?”

If and when he reschedules his Spokane appearance, you won’t be disappointed if you go.

“Thanks for a magical evening,” Ritter said as he left the stage.

And it really was.

Thanks in large part to a son with a generous heart who wanted to share something he loves with his family.

Columns

Mystery, Murder and Mayhem on the Columbia

We’d barely finished our appetizers when Jimmy “the Gyp” got bashed in the back of the head. I clutched my champagne glass as Crusher, the Don’s bodyguard, rushed past our table.

Turns out that was just the first fatality of many aboard ship.

“I told you business trips are more exciting when you bring me,” I said to my husband.

He tipped his fedora.

“Everything is more exciting when you’re along,” Derek replied.

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Last month he mentioned he had to go to Yakima and Tri-Cities to see some customers, and was considering spending a day in Walla Walla if I would join him.

What I heard was, “Want to go on an epic adventure with me? I’ll be traveling to the Palm Springs of Washington and then to the site of a decommissioned nuclear production facility. We could add an overnight in wine country, if you want.”

So, of course, I agreed.

Thanks to WiFi I can work from anywhere, and if anywhere includes a chaise lounge beside a pool, so much the better.

Our overnight in Yakima was quick, but we knew we’d be spending a couple days in the Tri-Cities. That’s when I remembered some friends had texted us about the fun they had aboard a murder mystery cruise on the Columbia River.

We found the Water2Wine website and booked a pair of tickets. Our purchase included a 2 1/2-hour cruise on the Columbia, complimentary glasses of champagne, a four-course dinner, and a murder mystery presented by the Desert Dahlias theater group.

On a sparkling summer evening, we boarded the 96-foot Chrysalis luxury yacht. Programs listing the cast of characters for “Mafia Murders” waited at our table. We were instructed to interact with the cast, ask questions and perhaps even solve the mystery. Many of the guests wore vintage 1920s-style clothing, which added to the fun.

As plots go, this one was as thin as the paper the program was printed on. A “Babyface” Don, a jealous older brother, a hijacked liquor shipment, a moll, a troubled sister, a violent bodyguard, a mafia accountant and his twin brother, and a long-suffering Italian auntie.

Oh yeah, and lots of murder and mayhem.

Deft servers delivered food and drink while the melodrama evolved around us. The mighty Columbia provided a beautiful backdrop.

Between courses, we spent some time on deck, enjoying the warm evening on the water.

A commotion broke out behind us as we returned to our table. Crusher, the bodyguard, collapsed, his throat slit.

Surprisingly, nothing whets the appetite like a dead body on the floor behind you. However, as Derek sliced into his perfectly prepared steak, the Sneak approached him.

“You there. Youse look like a big guy. We need a bodyguard, see. Crusher, he got whacked, and we can’t leave the Don unprotected.”

Derek, obliging, flexed his biceps.

“Yeah, not bad. Stand up. What would you do if I had a gun in this hand, here?”

My husband’s 24-year military career did include some hand-to-hand combat instruction, so he rather expertly “disarmed” the Sneak, all the while grinning at me.

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While he could strip an imaginary gun from the hand of an assailant, he couldn’t prevent what happened next.

As dessert was served, Babyface drank a poisoned cocktail and collapsed at our feet. Before Derek could be berated, or beheaded for his lapse in duty, shots were fired and the Sneak fell in a crumpled heap.

“No offense, honey, but I think it’s best if you stay in the industrial tooling business,” I said, patting Derek’s arm.

He grinned and dug into his strawberry-topped cake.

As to whodunit? I’m not one to spoil a mystery. You’ll have to book your own cruise to find the answer.

The sun set as the Chrysalis sailed toward the dock.

“I think I should take you on all my business trips,” Derek said, putting his arm around me.

And who am I to argue with a former mafia bodyguard?

Columns

Sunrise and the San Francisco Writers Conference

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The rooster’s hoarse crows were sounding desperate and none of us knew what to do.

There are a lot of things you expect to hear when packed into an airplane, but a rooster crowing isn’t one of them.

On Valentine’s Day I boarded a flight to San Francisco to attend the San Francisco Writer’s Conference, a three-day event filled with classes, workshops, literary agents, publishers and hundreds of authors.

I was seated next to a young mother and her adorable 2 1/2-year-old son.

“Did you hear that?” she asked, as we settled in, awaiting takeoff. “It’s a rooster!”

Barely awake, I put down my book and listened. Sure enough a faint cock-a-doodle-do echoed throughout the cabin.

“It must be someone’s phone,” I replied.

But the crowing continued and grew more frantic as the minutes passed.

“I hope they’re not serving chicken sandwiches,” said a lady across the aisle. “That’s taking farm-to-table a little too far!”

We tittered but the crowing continued as the engines revved.

“It’s probably someone’s emotional support rooster,” announced the gentleman behind me.

Alas, we’ll never know, because once we fastened our seat belts and were airborne, the crowing ceased.

“If he’s in the cargo hold, his nuggets are frozen solid,” I said.

“Nuggets? Want nuggets!” the toddler next to me demanded.

Thankfully, he was satisfied with the Goldfish crackers his mother gave him.

It was my first visit to the Bay area, and I was delighted to leave Spokane’s frigid February and arrive in a city with temperatures in the balmy 50s.

Due to flight delays, I had to hit the ground running to make it to my first workshop. I checked into my hotel in the Embarcadero, directly across from the iconic Ferry building, and gathered my credentials.

“Hi Cindy, Happy Valentine’s Day,” said a stranger in the lobby.

“Er. Thank you,” I replied.

“Hey, Cindy! How are you today?” another gentleman asked, moments later.

These people are so friendly, I thought, but how do they know me?

Then I looked down at the credentials hanging from a lanyard around my neck, my first name written in super-sized font. Apparently, my fame had not preceded me.

I wasn’t the only one. I’d noticed the attendees had white nametags, and the volunteers had orange ones. In the elevator I asked a fellow sporting an orange nametag if he was helping at the conference.

“I’m presenting,” he said.

Turns out it was Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, the leading distributor of indie ebooks.

Moving on.

After several classes, I had just enough time to dash across the street to pick up a sandwich for dinner.

“Ma’am where’s your jacket? It’s freezing!” the concerned doorman asked, as I scouted nearby restaurants.

“It’s 53 degrees!” I replied. “When I left Spokane it was 17! This is tropical!”

He shook his head, huddled in his heavy overcoat.

“At least take an umbrella,” he said, offering one from the hotel’s stash.

The umbrella was necessary that night, but I never used one again – not even during a sunrise photography walk, sponsored by the Writer’s Workshop.

That’s right. I may be notoriously anti-morning, but I saw the sun rise from a pier near the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. I wasn’t about to pass up a chance to explore the area with a professional photographer as a guide.

51920729_2191659600872655_2118461617678057472_n[1]However, the morning got off to a rocky start when I discovered my hotel room had only decaf coffee. Thankfully, by the time I’d returned the front desk had sent up a stash of the real thing.

But the coffee didn’t prevent my next elevator faux pas.

“Are you here for the writer’s conference?” I asked a fellow, as we descended to the meeting rooms.

“No, I’m here for a conference on thinking,” he replied.

“Writers think, too,” I said. And then I silently vowed to stop speaking to strangers on elevators.

Speaking of mornings, I took comfort in the words of keynote speaker Jane Friedman. “With a little self-awareness you can compete with morning people,” she said.

I knew she was one of my tribe even before that because she shared a photo of a kitty she frequently cat-sits. I quickly got out my phone and shared a photo of Thor with my tablemate, which prompted the other writers at the table to share pictures of their own cats.

It must be hard to be taken seriously as an author if you don’t have a cat.

Sunday morning I watched the sun rise over the bay and listened to the clang of the cable car as it rounded the corner in front of the hotel. I drank in the view of palm trees and the waterfront. It was time to fly home to the land of snow and ice.

I was tired and I missed my family, but Tony Bennett and I now have something in common. I. too, left my heart in San Francisco.

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Columns

A Matter of Perspective

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Derek and Cindy Hval at the beach in Crescent City, California

When your youngest child who recently graduated from high school with honors utters such a simple wish, well, what parent wouldn’t want to fulfill it?

Sam is 18, and the window for family road trips is rapidly closing. His desire to see the redwood forest quickly became the focus of our family vacation.

Derek looked at maps and I booked hotels, and last week we returned from a trip that included the ocean, Shakespeare, waterfalls, the Columbia River Gorge and of course, ancient trees.

First I’d like to know what happened to all the Volkswagen Beetles? Every road trip from my childhood resulted in sore shoulders as my siblings and I played “Slugbug” or, as we called it, “Bugslug.” Our kids played it on family trips, too. But we traveled hundreds of miles and didn’t see a single Beetle till we returned to Spokane.

It’s probably just as well, because Sam was the only kid on this trip and you really shouldn’t punch your parents. Or your kids.

We picked Ashland, Oregon, as our central destination, making the grueling drive in one day. Smoke shrouded the landscape across Washington and into Oregon.

Speaking of Oregon, we thought the recently-passed gas law meant we could pump our own gas. Nope. Apparently, it varies by city or county. Derek opted to try at every fill-up, but was rarely successful.

Ashland is home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Derek and I had enjoyed a trip there several years ago, and had been anxious to return. We wanted Sam to see a play and mulled the options. The outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre is iconic and offers a fabulous experience, so we bought tickets for “The Book of Will,” which was slated for that theater during our stay.

The smoke-filled skies had me worried. The theater had canceled several performances due to poor air quality. Our hotel clerk said in the event of bad air, they move the play to the high school auditorium. Not at all what we were hoping for.

But first the redwoods. The Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park is just a two-hour drive from Ashland, so we crossed our fingers as we set off from the smoky city in the morning.

As we crossed the border into California the skies cleared. Who knew we’d have to drive to California to breathe fresh air?

We wound our way through the primeval forest, carefully avoiding gawkers who pulled over on the side of the narrow road to take pictures. Stopping at the Hiouchi Visitor Center 9 miles east of Crescent City, California, we picked up a map and directions to Stout Grove, a half-mile loop walking trail.

The stillness of the redwood forest is surreal. The immensity of the towering trees, the soft sunlight filtering through ancient branches, adds a unique hush, making the grove seem more like a church than a forest.

Indeed, a short time later while exploring a side trail, I happened upon a partially hidden makeshift memorial – a small cross made of sticks and a photo of a bearded man. I imagine this must have been his favorite place.

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Sam and I did get the giggles counting how many times Derek said the word “huge.”

Crescent City is a short drive from Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. We cruised into the sleepy town looking for a lunch spot with an ocean view.

“Why don’t you drive that way?” I suggested to Derek, pointing at the ocean in the distance.

Amazingly, the street ended at small parking lot with steps leading down to the beach. Even more amazing, we had the whole beach to ourselves! From old growth forest to tide pools, sand, waves and driftwood in 20 minutes.

After beachcombing, we found a harbor-side restaurant, and a chorus of barking seals serenaded us while we ate.

The smoke was clearing in Ashland the next morning, so we spent the day shopping and walking through Lithia Park. I hesitantly made reservations at an outdoor dining spot, but I needn’t have worried. We sat down to dinner under brilliant blue skies and later, stars twinkled above us as we watched the play in the outdoor theater.

In fact, the only rain we encountered was a light drizzle at Multnomah Falls on the way to Hood River the following day.

The rain didn’t dim the beauty of the falls, but it did close the path to the highest point.

We spent the last day of our trip exploring downtown Hood River, and then relaxing in the sun and the wind on the beach, marveling at the windsurfers, riding the waves.

Like most busy families, we’d started vacation tired and stressed. Each of us wrestling with worries both big and small.

But something happened.

Was it when we sat on a piece of driftwood, staring out at the vast blueness of the Pacific Ocean while the waves lapped the shore at our feet?

Was it when we walked through the silence of the ancient redwoods while the sun filtered through the foliage of God’s cathedral?

All I know is the cares and concerns that once loomed so large seemed to shrink, to lighten, to dissipate into the wonder and beauty of nature.

It’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it?

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Cindy and Derek walk through the redwoods