Friday, May 28, 2021

Our Ordinary Life

The secret to life is finding joy in ordinary things." -Ruth Reichl

In my younger days, I expected wedding anniversaries to be magical. 

I mean, weddings are magical, right? So I figured that if one is celebrating a day of magic, then something pretty darn good ought to be on tap for the festivities. Visions of second honeymoons and surprise parties danced through my head during the early years of marriage, though I figured I'd probably have to log a solid decade and get through the childbearing season of life before the glamour and glitz really kicked in.

I was expecting a diamond tennis bracelet somewhere around the two-decade mark, and certainly a Caribbean cruise by thirty.

But a funny thing happened along the way. 

Life became a celebration of the ordinary.

Simple pleasures mean more to me now than flashy, grandstanding gestures, and while I'm certainly not against trips and jewelry, I don't need those things to make my anniversary special.

You know what I do need?

A big bunch of white flowers, just like my wedding bouquet.
A nostalgic dinner, featuring favorite foods from our reception menu and our pre-kid life.
A nice glass of red wine.

And a bit of reminiscing about the day we said I do

Today we did a deep dive into the facts surrounding the bench-clearing Cubs versus Reds baseball brawl that erupted on TV on our wedding day while I was in my bedroom getting ready and sent my brothers into fits of hollering and catcalling as they watched from the living room.

My then-intended, safely ensconced in a hotel room across town with his soft-spoken family, missed the entire brouhaha. Thankfully, he has me to rehash the story for him every few years, because he always forgets these important details and I consider them a key component of our wedding day lore. 

Because that's what wedding anniversaries mean to me now.  Not a showy over-the-top spending spree, but a simple remembering of the delightfully ordinary life that two people have built together. 

And ordinary lives, I have learned, are the most magical kind of all. 

* * * * *

More anniversary-inspired stories

Thursday, May 27, 2021


For the past, oh, decade or so, of life at my house, daily dinnertime conversations during the months between May and September sound like this:

Me: Is it supposed to rain tonight?

Husband gets out his phone to check.

Me: What about tomorrow? Is it supposed to rain during the day?

Husband sighs and keeps checking.

He sighs because he knows what will happen next. 

If the answer is yes, or even maybe, then I immediately default into patio cushion protection mode. And my husband knows what that means. As soon as he rests his fork, I'll be chasing him around the yard to help me gather up the various cushions, pillows, and throws decoratively draped around our outdoor furniture and stash them in the garage, delicately balanced in a towering heap, until the rain has gone away and it's safe for them to come back outside.

Now let me be clear. The rain itself is not really the problem. My patio textiles can stand up to water, no problem. Sure, they'll get wet but in time, they will dry and life will go on.

However, damp fabrics create a whole new set of problems.
  • Little bits of grit and grime carried in the wind settle onto the wet fibers and, once dried, hold on for dear life.  
  • Prolonged damp leads to moldy, mildewy muck, even on the best water-resistant fabrics. 
  • Worst of all, horror of horrors, soggy cushions and pillows invite creepy crawly critters to burrow into their moist nooks and crannies, and settle in.
Trust me, there's nothing to kill a post-rainy day mood like flipping over an almost-dry patio pillow to find a half dozen slugs lazily napping underneath.

So over the past few summers, as a few of my older chairs have fallen into disrepair and I consider my options for buying something new, I've made a bold decision.

No more outdoor fabrics.

I know. So sad. Photos of gorgeously styled outdoor spaces layered with textiles galore dazzle me, and I feel my commitment to this draconian law weaken. But look, the people with these opulent outdoor spaces all live in LA or the Mojave Desert, and while I'm sure they have their own problems, soggy patio furniture is not one of them. They are playing by a different set of rules, and my Pacific Northwest slugs and I cannot compete.

My new rule, I sternly remind myself, is waterproof furniture only.

And so it was a happy surprise that during one of my recent midnight deep dives into weather-resistant outdoor furniture options, I stumbled across these Acapulco knockoffs. 

Stylishly on trend.
Comfortable and cool.
Completely waterproof.
And best of all, no place for the slugs to hide. 

These babies are bulletproof.

This afternoon, a cloudless blue sky began to cloud up a bit. By dinnertime, the temperature was dropping like a stone, and a row of heavy clouds rolled in on the western horizon.

But as we ate our dinner, I felt no need to inquire about the weather forecast.

I know it's going to rain soon.

And when it does, I am one hundred percent certain that my new bulletproof chairs are going to be just fine. 

Life Of A Math Teacher: Test Drives

Slide into your seat, and buckle up.

Examine the instrument panel and imagine how it's going to feel to get this baby on the road.

No, technically she doesn't belong to you, but this is your golden moment to 

give her a whirl, 

see how she performs, 

try her around some tight curves, and 

get a feel for how she handles. 

Now you're ready. 

Hit the ignition, put her in drive, pick up a pencil, and let's get this test drive started.

* * * * *

When it's time to serve up a midterm or final exam to my math students, I write my own.

Well, I'm not insane, so I don't make up my own problems. But I do sort through the textbook to find just the right combination of deliciously difficult but not unreasonable problems to test the concepts that I deem most important. 

Then I write them out in my own hand, make lots of lovely copies, and then collate them together into a test packet ready for my wonderful students to work.

But before I deliver the tests, I give them a careful run-through to make sure I haven't made any mistakes. Dropping a critical word, transposing a number, even dashing off a sloppy 5 that looks like an innocent S might be enough to derail an eager test taker, and the last thing I want to do is create needless confusion for these kids.

So, as the final stage in my preparation process, I take my tests for a test drive.


I clear away the flurry of books and papers required to compose the tests as well as several hours' worth of empty La Croix cans, take a deep, calming breath, and shift gears to a peaceful environment and headspace. Just as I remind my students to do.

Then I fold back the instruction page on the first test - I start with pre-algebra and work up from there - take one more deep breath, and begin to work the problems. 

I work carefully and deliberately, 

showing each step as I expect my students to show them, 

highlighting formulas, 

working out some multiplication and division calculations on the side margins (no calculators allowed in my classes), 

and indicating my solution with a neat box. 

 I double check my result against the Solutions Manual, just to be sure I got it right. 

And when I've finished all ten problems on the test, I flip back to the first page and in the upper right corner I write "Answer Key." 

That always feels good.

But as I continue working my way through the higher level tests, with the problems becoming more difficult as we proceed from negative exponents to completing the square to exponential functions, I find that my task has shifted from fact-checking to pure joy.

I love to work math problems. 

And taking this year's final exams for a test drive last night was the most fun I've had in quite some time. 

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Life Of A Math Teacher: Bringing Joy

Mathematics is the most beautiful and most powerful creation of the human spirit. 
-Stefan Banach, Polish mathematician

The beauty of mathematics only shows itself to more patient followers. 
-Maryam Mirzakhani, Iranian mathematician
^Teddy bears
^ My students' names

Let me guess.

You associate math with drudgery and boredom.

Your days as a math student filled you with confusion and dread, if not rampant stress and anxiety.

And if you're an adult, you see math now at best as a dry, dead process necessary for filling out tax returns, doubling recipes, and checking in on bank accounts that adds precious little to your vision of a creative, dynamic life. 

Hmm. Maybe those aren't your exact thoughts, but I bet I'm close.

And isn't that a shame?

Mathematics should bring us joy.

The language of nature.
The expression of our physical world. 
The very fingerprints of God's design.

To me, math is sunshine and teddy bears and the colorful expression of human life, and I've created these postcards for my students to prove it.  

I hope to bring my students joy. 

Monday, May 17, 2021

Use It Or Lose It: Pencil Post Bed

Back in the 1980s, when I had a passion for Shaker furniture but precious little disposable income, I fell in love with a pencil post bed.

Natural mid-tone wood.
Four square-sided posts at each corner.
And in perfect rectangular order, a crisply geometric canopy.

To me, this unbeatable combination of dreamy design and delicious detail would be the most perfect first thing to see when I peeped open my eyes every morning, and the last satisfying glimpse of the day to send me off to sleep every night.

For years on end, I wanted a pencil post bed real bad.

Sadly, I never got one.

Well, spoilers, but at least not back then. 

However, my mom did.

Yes, that's right. At some point in the 1990s, my mom marched herself off to Ethan Allen and bought THE exact bed I'd been dreaming of for years on end.

I wasn't mad.

Well. Maybe a tiny bit jealous.

But over the course of her life, my mom had patiently waited a long, long time for many good things to come her way, and if she scored her pencil post bed before I got mine, I could only be happy that her dreams were finally coming true.

And as I admired her bed - which was exactly the kind that I coveted - a tiny little voice whispered, Maybe someday this one will be yours.

I shushed it immediately.

Years passed. 

My mom moved this bed from my childhood home on the lake to her new condo in town, and it was a vision in the new bedroom with soaring ceilings.

More years passed.

My mom eventually moved the pencil post bed up to the loft bedroom, where I slept when I visited her. 

The pencil post bed and I bonded. And that tiny voice whispered some more in my ear about the possibility of a future together. 

I still shushed it, but I thought to myself, Maybe.

A few more years passed. In July 2017, after my mom passed away, my husband and I loaded the disassembled pencil post bed into a U-haul trailer and drove it across the country.

Was my dream finally coming true?

But alas, we were missing all the hardware, and had no way to put the bed together. 

So we stashed it in our storage unit and tried to figure out our next step.

Three more years passed. 

Last fall, I reached out to Ethan Allen to see if they could hook me up with the right hardware. Luckily, we'd pulled a bar code sticker from the frame so they could easily identify the item and give me a quick answer. No, they did not have any hardware available for this piece. But they could send a parts list. 

Yes, please. 

Which I dutifully forwarded to my husband's email, where it sat in one of his folders for another six months.

This spring, I informed him, it was do-or-die time. We were gonna buy the hardware, get that freaking bed out of storage, bring it home, put it together, and give it a whirl.

My husband knows when I mean business.

And we were making great progress. By late April, the bed was sturdily assembled and standing in the middle of my bedroom, and the last and final step in my almost-forty-year-mission to acquire a pencil post bed was five minutes away from completion. All that was left to do was heft our queen-size mattress into place.

As we settled our hands into the lifting straps and prepared to hoist, another little voice whispered in my brain. 

What if the frame is a full size instead of a queen?

I shushed that voice immediately too, but it was too late.

The damage was done.

And two seconds later, the truth was told.


Indeed, my mom had purchased my dream pencil post bed, but in the wrong size. She bought a size called full XL, which made perfect sense for her, but was an all-important five inches too narrow for our queen mattress.

Now at this point, a third little voice spoke up in my brain. And this voice whispered gently, with just a hint of derision, Don't you think it's about time you gave up on this silly dream? You are just not meant to sleep in a pencil post bed, and you should stop trying to force this.

I told that little voice to shut its mouth.

And I told my husband we were going to sleep on the queen mattress on the floor while I puzzled this out.

The next day, I asked him if it would be crazy for us to get rid of our queen and buy a new full XL mattress to fit the pencil post bed. His answer: I never liked that queen mattress anyway. So why not.


A week later, our new mattress arrived. 

I breathed a sigh of relief as we unwrapped the mattress and settled it into place in the pencil post frame. 

It fit perfectly

"Grab the fresh sheets," I directed my husband, "and let's make it up for tonight." 

"Uh, these instructions say that we need to let the mattress rest for 24 to 48 hours before sleeping on it."

Of course they do.

So we slept on the floor for two more nights. 

And then finally, finally, F I N A L L Y, on a Tuesday evening in May, 2021, I slept for the first time in my very own Shaker style pencil post bed. 

It was everything that I ever hoped it would be. 

* * * * *

P.S. Grace likes the pencil post bed too. And as I imagine my mom looking down from heaven and seeing this big red galoot sprawled out across her beautiful bed, I am 100% certain she is smiling. 

* * * * *

More stories about my Use It Or Lose It adventures:

Thursday, May 13, 2021

A Gift From My Mom

I know for certain that we never lose the people we love, even to death. 
They continue to participate in every act, thought, and decision we make.
-Leo Buscaglia

For Mother's Day this year, my mom bought me this plant.

Oh, I know. She's been gone almost five years now. 

Gone in a physical sense, that is.

But her voice inside of me is alive and well, thank you very much, and speaks out to me more clearly than ever.

Of course, it would be nice to communicate with her on human terms, but I'm not complaining. To be honest, I feel closer to my mom now that she's an eternal being, as if the static from a poorly tuned radio has finally been adjusted and the reception is crystal clear. 

And while I feel, in an indistinct, hazy, spiritual kind of way, that she and I are still very much connected and moving along together, there are times when I'd like to cement that sensation in a tangible, physical kind of way.

Now some people report that their dearly beloved ones leave them dimes or feathers, lead them to butterflies, or even appear as visions. And I believe that all those manifestations are real, though my mom has never chosen to communicate with me that way.

Instead, my mom buys me gifts.

Oh yes, she does.

It happened again this past week, just a few days before Mother's Day.

As my third and fourth daughters and I wandered around the indoor plant displays at Sky Nursery, I saw a hundred leafy lovelies and pretty planters that I wouldn't be mad about getting, but nothing really caught my eye. Shocked - and thankful to be getting out of there without spending a fortune for once -I sidelined myself into an alcove crammed with basic, boring terracotta pots to wait for my daughters to finish their shopping. I figured I was safe there from any further temptation. 

But what I didn't know was that tucked back behind the predictable rows of conventionally-shaped orangey-brown numbers was a vision waiting for me to happen upon it.

patterned with circles and ovals, 
dancing around a happy shape,

the most beautifully perfect pot I've seen in quite some time. 

Picking it up and turning it round in my hands, I read a satisfying seventies vibe, and caught a flash of those years of growing power and success in my mom's life. 

I felt my mom's presence.

Carrying the pot in my arms, I headed back toward my daughters, who were still browsing, and asked their opinion. 

"Yes," my fourth born confirmed. "It's very you."

Now my attention tuned to finding a plant that spoke to the pot. 

A plant that would also speak of my mom.

And again, my fourth-born readily tuned into my wavelength.

"What about this one?" she suggested, holding up a darling schefflera arboricola. I gasped. 

My daughter had no way of knowing that for many years, my mom grew a huge schefflera arboricola in our front entry way, one of the few spaces in our eccentric little lake house that gave her a genuine sense of pride. 

It was the perfect plant for the perfect pot, and when I set the two together to get a glimpse of the total effect, I fairly vibrated with certainty.

This was a gift from my mom.

And I love it, in so many ways. Thanks, Mom!

Monday, May 10, 2021

Reading | Earth + Space and In The Stream Of Stars

Earth + Space | Photographs From the Archives of NASA

If there's anything NASA has done well since the heady days of the manned flight programs, it's to take photos. Taken from space - beyond the interference of earth's atmosphere - by astronauts or space telescopes, including our old friend Hubble, the images are crisp, clear and mind-blowingly beautiful. Arranged from near to far, the images move out from earth to moon to solar system to star-birthing nebulas to galaxies, and leave me grasping for words to describe their majesty. Apparently, the person who wrote the captions had the same problem, because the texts presented are rather wooden and technical. But no matter, the pictures speak for themselves and they are pure poetry.

In the Stream of Stars | Edited by Harmann, Sokolov, Miller & Myagkov

We all know about the notorious Space Race, the Cold War competition between the Americans and the Commies to be the first to the moon. Well, during the late 1980s, in an attempt to wipe that old slate clean with a new focus on partnership and collaboration, Soviet and American space artists worked together to create this fascinating collection of art. Organized into themes - such as The History of Space Art, Visions of Flight, and An Artist on the Moon - each chapter opens with an essay penned by a different artist in this field, and their writings range from virtually incoherent to sublime. But the paintings, which burst off the pages and astound me with their variety and creative punch, are transcendent, each and every one. 

* * * * *

Daughter of a mathematician and a would-be chemist, I was schooled early in the holy trinity of math, science, and well, nothing else. No other areas of human endeavor compared. I'm not sure if they delivered their message in these exact words - though they may very well have - but my parents made it crystal clear to me that English was for runners-up and art for those with raw talent rather than intellect, but the chosen few, the truly smart people (as their daughter surely must be) should devote ourselves only to the brilliant twin stars of math and science. 

It never occurred to me in those days that my parents were dead wrong about that but, as I know now, the exact opposite is true. 

The authors of the Stars book build a compelling case for art as the driving force of scientific exploration, where the expression of our collective dreams and fantasies pushes us to seek the truth about our world around us and even more so, the universe beyond. The NASA photographers present an eye-popping visual record of our discoveries to date, as well compelling proof positive that if anything is true about the mysterious universe in which we float, it is beautiful beyond compare. 

And I am thankful for both of these books which help to grow me not into a math nerd or a science geek but a well-rounded and deeply inspired human being. 

Luna Pub

 "Look at everything as though you were seeing it for the first time or the last time. 

Then your time on earth will be filled with glory". -Betty Smith

As evening approaches, this is a good place to be. 

Luna Pub.

That's what I've been thinking about all day today, this Mother's Day.

Luna Pub serves up pizza, pasta, and other authentic Italian cuisine on the hot streets of Danang, Vietnam. Nestled into the old center of the city, this lovely oasis just a few blocks from my third-born's then-home was a frequent stop on our excursions whenever my other daughters and I were in town to visit. 

The name of the street outside Luna Pub is Tran Phu, which sounds like music to my ears. 

Pull up your motorbike right onto the sidewalk, as one does, and park it any old where. The bantam weight gentlemen who keep tabs on the customers' bikes will rearrange it as it suits them, but also present your exact bike (which looks like a dozen other bikes under their management) with a flourish when you are ready to leave.

Sit down at a sleek wooden cafe table in the soaring indoor/outdoor space, preferably within range of one of the giant fans that crank out the gale force wind required to cool patrons during the summertime tropical heat.

Anticipate a delicious meal. We leaned heavily into the pizza and dessert sections of the menu, and once on her birthday, my daughter-in-residence ordered a chocolate lava cake that was to die for. While you wait, feast upon the tiny slices of homemade bread meant for dipping in balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Why not make an entire meal out of that?

I'm not always the biggest chocolate person, but this little morsel of chocolate lava cake was insanely delicious. And so rich that there was more than enough to share.

But oh, better than the food, the high point of the entire trip to Luna was always the same for me: chilled white washcloths scented with lemongrass, presented promptly as you arrive at the table, and perfect for wiping away the heat and grime of the city, and preparing one for a lovely repose.

Balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and of course, fish sauce. 

This may be Italian cuisine but we are in Vietnam after all. 

I have so many memories of evenings spent at Luna Pub: sharing a small table and dishes of Bailey's gelato with my daughters, or gathering with a dozen of my third-born's local friends and getting to know the names and faces of these people who kept her company in this exotic place.

But the sharpest, clearest, most poignant moments I spent at Luna Pub came one night in May 2016, while sitting at a mash-up of three or four tables with one of those big groups of friends, when my phone rang. 

My mom was calling me.

Can we please have a table near one of the fans? 

Sorry, my Northern European body cannot handle this heat. 

These were the darkening days of my mother's battle with Lewy Body Dementia. Dutifully, and with a surprising ability to manage this level of detail, she checked in with me on a twice-daily schedule. Even as the disease had worsened and her cognitive skills slipped, my mom took this task very seriously, and rarely missed a call. 

Knowing that there was no way she could navigate international calls to me while I was on my trip, I'd arranged through my carrier for direct forwarding of my U.S. calls, so that for my mom, placing the call to me was exactly the same as usual. She had no idea I was sitting in Danang, Vietnam, at Luna Pub.

So when I saw her call light up my phone, I quickly slipped away from the table and stepped outside, hoping to find a quiet spot to talk with her. Locust trees lined the street near the broad steps leading up to the restaurant, and I settled for the sidewalk underneath them in the still-steamy evening breeze. 

I clicked into the call. 

Here, on the left side of this photo, near Tree Number 55, I took my mom's call. 

"Hi, Mom. How are you?"

I don't recall the details but she was upset. I listened to her describe the problem, pressing the phone to my right ear and covering my left ear with my hand as I desperately tried to block out the music streaming out of Luna and the unrelenting beepbeepbeep-ing horns of the motorbikes flowing past me on the busy street. I couldn't understand her well enough to offer any substantial conversation on the topic, but I murmured small words of acknowledgement and understanding as best I could. 

"Well, that's all I have to say," she abruptly changed course. 

"Alright," I said. "We can talk more about this next time you call, okay?"

"Sure, Goodbye."

I listened as my mom ended the call. 

Now, by all accounts, it was not a particularly memorable phone call.

But that was the last time my mom ever called me. 

During the remaining sixteen months of her life, we talked on the phone but only when someone else - my sister-in-law - was on hand to help Mom negotiate the call. And thankfully, my mom and I did have one last visit together in person.

But that phone call at Luna Pub, as I stood in the sweltering heat on the steps along Tran Phu, was the last of the hundreds - thousands - of times that my mom called me. 

The very last time.

And while this is in many ways a very sad story, and a heartbreaking chapter in the tragedy that is Lewy Body Dementia, the memory is very precious to me. 

We often know our firsts in life. 

First day of school.

First car.

First kiss.

But our lasts often slip by, unaware, unannounced, and we may have no way of knowing in the moment that something we've done hundreds - thousands - of times will never happen again. 

And while I didn't know in that exact moment that this phone call would be the last - I fully expected my mom to call me in another twelve hours, right on schedule - on this Mother's Day and every day, I am thankful with all my heart that this last call from my mother came in at such a special and memorable place. 

Luna Pub. 

* * * * *

All photos courtesy of Luna Pub Danang on Facebook. 

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Reading | At Home In Joshua Tree and Abandoned Detroit

At Home in Joshua Tree | Sara And Rich Combs

Meet Sara and Rich, a pair of plucky Millennials whose tech jobs in San Francisco were running them entirely ragged. So they broke free from their corporate shackles, moved to the Mojave Desert, and built up a nifty brand around their new self-actualized lifestyle. Which, you know, is great. This book full of beautiful photos is a testament to their centered and balanced daily rhythms, highlighting their commitment to watching the sun rise, savoring their morning joe, bouldering around Joshua Tree National Park or alternatively, lying back in the hammock to watch the wildlife strut by while pondering their considerable Zen, and entertaining their dear friends with picnics laid out on handwoven textiles and pricey throw pillows on the dusty desert floor of their back yard. Mojave-inspired recipes and DIYs abound, as well as sources galore so that you too can build an entirely privileged life in the desert.

Abandoned Detroit | Kyle Brooky

Don't know if you've gotten the memo on this one, but Detroit, Michigan has gone through some rough times. The glory days of Motown and the Big Three automakers peaked in the mid-1960s, and shortly thereafter, for several devastating reasons, the city promptly crumbled. Now photographers like Mr. Brooky explore the ruins of the inner city, still faintly echoing with sounds of life from decades gone by, and package this magnificent desolation in books such as this one. To be sure, the images are haunting - trees taking root in abandoned auto assembly plants, dust-covered bibles deserted in broken down churches, an empty and forgotten zoo - though the text reads as a series of matter-of-fact photo captions and does little to synthesize or explain the magnitude of this tragedy. Which leaves you, dear reader,to grapple with these scenes from a quiet Armageddon all on your own.

* * * * * 

When I talk about home, I don't mean a particular climate or a specific address or an architectural style. Home is - simply and profoundly - the place where I feel safe, where I let down my guard, where I keep my most beloved things, where I share life with my people. 

And while I am lucky enough to have a home that sits in a part of the world that I love - the wet and wild Pacific Northwest - I also know that if life demanded, I could build a home in other parts of the world, and be just as content. 

My joy in life comes from who I am, not where I live. 

And so the Joshua Tree book rankles me, suggesting as it does on page after page after page, that desert dwellers are ever so much closer to nature and grounded in wellness and focused on community and possessing of so many other noble and desirable traits than the rest of us because, well, the desert is such an entirely special place to call home. 

No, it's not.

The desert is one wonderful place in a world full of wonderful places to live, and you can see a sunset, plant a pretty garden, or find fun places to explore in every single one of them. All it takes is an open mind. 

It also takes an open mind to imagine that among the ashes of present-day Detroit twinkle the brilliant sparks of new life. She will not lie dormant forever, this city of ups and downs, this place where my ancestors built brave new lives and learned how to thrive. Already a new generation of my family is moving into Detroit, settling down, and making new homes there, and I wish that Mr. Brooky had added to his sad story an epilogue of hope. 

Monday, May 3, 2021

Running Wild

An hour after she ran wild in the streets of Mukilteo, my dog served as a flower girl in a wedding.

Last Friday afternoon, my dog and I went for a walk.

Strolling along in the sunshine, I admired Gracie's lovely off-leash behavior. It's been about a month now that I've been letting her stroll along on her own recognizance, snapping the leash on to cross busy streets or when we encounter other walkers along the way, but otherwise letting her roam free, and I'm shocked and delighted to say that she's been a model of good behavior. She comes rushing back to me whenever I call her, or obediently stands in place when I command her to "wait," and always, always stays on the sidewalk. This exercise in me learning to trust her - and her earning that trust with perfect manners - has been a huge success.

So as we strolled along a sidewalk back behind the high school, I felt comfortable allowing my pup to run along the opposite side of the small lane, sniffing through the shrubbery tucked here and there between the lane and the big parking lot on the far side of the plantings. Little birds often hop around under those bushes, and Gracie often directs her hunting instincts to carefully investigating those areas. And on this particular day, she found one that interested her quite a bit.

Here's what that looks like:

Dog freezes in place.

Ears up

Tail up at a slight angle, feathery fur waving in the soft breeze.

Eyes riveted on an invisible (to me) target. 

Slowly, ever so carefully, Gracie begins to inch deeper into the bushes, her posture indicating a growing passion for whatever she has spied inside.

Just kidding. There was no wedding. 

Now, as soon as I deduced that my dog was on to something big. I considered calling her back to the sidewalk. But I do love to see her in full-on hunting mode, so I decided to play this adventure out. I crossed the lane myself, and stood a few feet behind her, as a good hunter should, taking care to stay downwind of whatever it was she had found.

Long seconds ticked by. 

Gracie's body quietly quivered as she continued to set her prey.

And then, in an instant, all hell broke loose.

I heard a flutter.

At the same instant, Gracie crashed to the deepest part of the bushes

Out squawked a mother mallard who, once clear of the bushes, took to her wings and fluttered off.

To my horror, Gracie followed in hot pursuit.

Under no circumstances is a proper setter supposed to run after its prey. But apparently Gracie has not read that chapter of the manual just yet. 

I hollered to her, "Gracie! C'mon girl!"

My darling obedient dog didn't even blink at the sound of her name. Like a laser-focused lunatic, she continued her full-speed assault on the duck.

And I can't exactly blame her, because that lady duck knew just what she was doing. At first, I thought she must be injured because she wasn't gaining much altitude, and seemed to be limping along at a rather slow pace. But as I watched her flap down the lane toward the busy street, with Gracie in blind pursuit, I understood.

That clever mama was drifting along, intentionally positioning herself right in front of my dog's adrenaline-crazed eyeballs, staying close enough to keep teasing the big red beast along in the chase, and leading said intruder directly away from her nest and the fragile eggs undoubtedly laid inside.

In the same instant that I understood the power play that was unfolding before me, I recoiled in horror. Momma Mallard's master plan was lacking just one important ingredient: traffic safety. In her determined effort to keep my dog away from her nest, she was leading them both - bird and dog - directly into the busy street ahead. 

I watched in disbelief as the two crossed the last bit of lawn and launched out into four lanes of traffic, turned left up the center of the street, and disappeared from my sight. 

Good lord. What a nightmare.

What could I do? Certainly not catch them. I hustled up the sidewalk, craning my neck to see around the bulk of the high school building, keeping an ear turned toward any sounds of slamming brakes or screeching horns that would signal disaster. I was prepared for anything.

As I was almost clear of the building, calling my dog's name now and again, I noticed a pair of women and the most adorable St. Bernard puppy walking along the busy street, coming from the direction in which my dog had run. They looked back behind them, and then up at me, and I could see them putting two and two together in their brains.

"She's coming!" one of them called to me, and in the next second, I stepped out from behind the building and was finally afforded a sweeping view up the street. 

Easily a hundred meters away, I spied a red blur. 

Closer and closer she came, on a direct bee line to me, skimming across the high school lawn.

Her red coat gleamed in the late afternoon sun, her pink tongue lolled joyfully, and as she came closer, I saw her eyes riveted on me, never glancing away.

Gracie ran right up to me and slammed on the brakes. Precisely, she sat down in front of me, and accepted my praise.

Good girl, Gracie. You came back!

And then, with my faithful pup trotting safely at my side, I comforted myself. Maybe Gracie chased that duck along the sidewalk of the busy street, or even along the wide sweep of school lawn, rather than actually running in the street. I would never know for sure, but I decided to give my dog the benefit of the doubt and believe that she found at least that measure of self-control, even in the thrill of the chase.

Just a ton of pink petals on the ground and a good girl who is willing to let us pile them on her head and sprinkle them elegantly down her back, and then take eighty-five photos of the finished effect. 

Since that adventure, I've kept a close eye on my girl. Yes, I do still let her walk off leash, but I'm highly tuned in to any intense hunting vibes and ready to snap the leash on at a moment's notice. Until the spring nesting season has wrapped up and the next generation of baby ducks have safely taken to the air, I will be extra careful.

Today, for example, as we approached the aforementioned duck's lair, I noted that my dog was placidly strolling along the sidewalk on her very best behavior. But just as she pulled up even with the shrubbery of interest, she dashed across the lane and waded deep into the bushes. I was ready for this tricky maneuver: right on my dog's heels, I dashed across the lane, promptly hauled my darling out of the greenery, and snapped the leash on. Satisfied that she'd done her best, Gracie graciously heeled and happily marched alongside of me back to the sidewalk and down to the busy street. 

And there, in a wild instance of synchronicity and mind-blowing coincidence, in the exact place I'd seen them on Friday were once again the two women and the St. Bernard puppy.  

"No ducks today?" one of them playfully called to me.

"Well, no. But not for lack of trying," I countered. 

We all laughed. 

And then I thought to ask, "Say, the other day, was she running in the street or along the sidewalk and grass?"

"Oh, she ran across the street at least twice, with that duck right in front of her."

Shoot. My heart sank to hear this confirmation of my dog's out-of-control behavior.

"But wow," my newfound friend continued, "she was so beautiful. She was running so fast, so smooth, and her long hair was rippling like water. She was quite a sight to see." 

I smiled. I could just imagine that glorious sight.

My beautiful flower child. 

That vision led me back to the very conundrum I've faced for thirty-five years of living with setters in the suburbs. I do my very best to leash them and train them and pray that they obey, but there will always be moments when my Irish Setters' hunting instincts overwhelm their good senses and they simply run wild. 

And while that is dangerous in a hundred different ways, there's also a deep and powerful beauty unleashed when my darling dog runs wild.