Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Beginner's Mind

The goal of practice is to keep our beginner's mind....If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few....So the most difficult thing is always to keep your beginner's mind.
Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

I have a couple of 50-mile races coming up in the next few weeks. So far I've had no problem finishing all of the 50-milers I've started. I like that distance. It feels do-able to me: a single day of sustained effort, mostly in daylight. Unlike the Great Unknown of 100 Miles, 50 feels like an old friend.

And now, by the simple act of writing that paragraph, I have just jinxed myself!

So. Back to Beginner's Mind. My first 50 was the 2007 Stone Cat in Ipswich, MA. I had trained hard all summer and I was terrified. I remember the afternoon before the race sitting by the pool at the Y while my daughter finished her swim practice. I was telling everyone who would listen how nervous and uncertain I was. It was getting dark (November), it was raining (pouring), and my crew person (Dear Old Dad) was stuck at the airport in Norfolk, VA. I was quite literally freaking out.

This, I don't think, is the Beginner's Mind Mr. Suzuki is referring to.

True Beginner's Mind set in for me the moment the race started. With my body finally moving, my brain quieted down. I was properly awed by the distance. I had never run more than 50K, so I had no idea what to expect. Stone Cat is a loop course (4 12.5-mile loops), and I simply resolved to take it one loop at a time.

Finishing that race was wonderful. I fell into my father's arms and cried.

I have since run a couple more 50-milers. All of them were tough, no question. All of them made my stomach sick. Some had hills, some had mud, some nasty weather. But all three 50-milers were fun. I pushed myself, met great people, and (mostly) enjoyed my thoughts. Finishing is no longer such a big deal. (You never get that first hit back again). And that's okay. Indeed, that's as it should be. Nothing special. No big deal. Just a wonderful day on the trails.

It's so easy to get complacent: "I've done 50 miles before, so I'll have no problem doing it again." But this, it seems to me, is not a good place to be mentally. Cocky. Full of pride.

As much as possible, I want to try to keep my Beginner's Mind. I know a bit more about running 50 miles now than I did in November, 2007. I know how to train, how to taper, what to eat (actually, I'm still working on this), what to drink.

But these are not the most important things. I still have no idea what each race will bring: what will be asked of me. I have no crystal ball. I don't want a crystal ball. I want to stay open to every possibility. I want to stay awake. This is my challenge now: stay calm, keep moving, and breathe.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Simon's Dreamcatcher

I am giving my feet a bit of a rest. All that carrying during our hikes last week (Ben, water, lunch, etc) has them feeling a bit rough. So here's a non-running post for anyone out there who does not happen to read the New London Day. My column this month was about our middle child, Simon.

Simon is a mysterious kid. He does not inhabit his age. He’s just six, but sometimes he seems more like twenty, other times perhaps three or four.

He’s quick. He taught himself to read while still in diapers. When I sat him down to explain multiplication one rainy Wednesday afternoon, I found he had beaten me to it. And you should hear him on the piano: his teacher says he swallows songs whole.

But Simon is not and never has been much of a talker. Spoken language, outside of the immediate and concrete world, is a struggle. He has trouble verbalizing his thoughts. I imagine the richness of his inner life simply does not translate. He’d much prefer to show you than tell you.

His communication style can thus feel a bit non-sequitor-ish. He explodes with fully baked ideas seemingly out of nowhere. You have to know him well to follow him sometimes.

Which brings us to last night’s dinner. We were all sitting around the table chatting in the usual way, reporting on our respective days, when Simon chimed in, out of the clear blue sky: “I think a dream catcher could work!”

Following this thread, I quickly backtracked. Simon, I had just started to notice, no longer goes down to the basement by himself, and he wants me to stay in his room while he gets dressed in the mornings.

I was certainly never a solo basement traveler myself as a kid, so I know how this feels.

“Are you scared, Simon?”


“What’s scary?”

“Nothing. I don’t know.”

Of course this dream catcher request cast an obvious new light on the situation. Simon has never mentioned being bothered by his dreams, but clearly he is.

“Are you having bad dreams, Simon?”


“About what?”

“I don’t know. Can we make a dream catcher tomorrow?”

At this point Nell, ever the vigilant big sister, pops into the conversation.

“I have a dream catcher I’m not using. You can have it, Simon.”

She runs upstairs and comes back with a little package haphazardly wrapped in purple construction paper and tosses it to Simon. He unwraps the pink leather dream catcher and his face lights up.

“A dream catcher! Can we go hang it?”

“Yup, right after dinner,” I say. “What do you say to Nell?”

Simon turns to his sister with all the sincerity he can muster and says, “Thank you, Nell!”

It is difficult for Nell to absorb this much gratitude. She hides her head and smiles.

Simon holds the dream catcher by its cord so it spins in front of his face. “My dream catcher will catch the bad dreams and hold the good ones inside my head!”

Ah, yes. I hope with all my heart it’s that simple.

After dinner, Brian and the kids troop upstairs to hang the dream catcher on the wall above Simon’s bed. And all through that particular night, it works like a charm.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

3 hours, no tantrums

(Click on pictures to see them REALLY big)

What a lovely day it was! The first real day of spring. This is often a tough time of year for me (culminating in my annual June blues). I must have reverse Seasonal Affective Disorder. Very rare. I start coming alive in late October, peak somewhere in the middle of February, and then begin to descend with the advent of spring. I think it has to do with the light. I prefer dark.

But yesterday was lovely. No leaves yet. Sunlight still somewhat muted and kind to the eyes.

Susan and I ran trails at Haley Farm and Bluff Point for 3 hours early in the morning. I carried all my water on my back. My love affair with the Wink continues. Temperatures started in the mid 40's, but by the end of the run they had reached into the 60's. We were overdressed for the late morning sun. I made it through the run with just water and one Clif Blok. I need to start practicing eating more on the run. Next week.

After running, Brian and I piled the kids in the car to drive up to Mt. Monadnock in southern New Hampshire. Nell recently remembered how much she had enjoyed climbing Monadnock back in the September and she wanted to try it again.

The Big Question then became: Do We Bring Ben or Do We Farm Him Out to Grandma? We had hiked earlier in the week at Westwoods in Guilford, CT and Ben had a massive tantrum. I carried him for 90 minutes while he hooted and screamed in my ear. What else could I do? We were in the middle of the woods.

Against all good sense, we decided to bring Ben again.

And I'm glad we did, because he was delightful. You just never know.

As we drove across the Massachusetts border, the sky began to darken. There was rain in the forecast for late afternoon. We were slated to arrive at Monadnock around 12:30, which would put us at the summit right as the rain started.

Not good.

Brian did a bit of magic with the GPS and re-routed us to Mt Watchusett in North Central Mass. This is a lesser mountain: much quicker to ascend and descend in iffy weather. It turned out to be a great decision. We had lots of fun scrambling on the rocks. We hiked for 3 hours and reached to parking lot just as the first drops fell.

The most direct route from the parking lot to the summit was just over half a mile, but fairly steep for little legs. It took us 45 minutes to get to the top. The pace was just fine with me, as my legs were tired from the morning run and I had lunch, water and jackets for five people strapped to my back.

Brian and I took turns holding Ben's hand while Simon and Nell ran ahead. Back and forth, back and forth. They loved it.

There was a bit of snow under the chairlift at the summit. The lifts weren't running, so they made a nice little picnic spot.

We took the long way around and down. Simon the Monkey spent quite a bit of time in the trees.

In this last one, you can see the devastation. The ice storm last December snapped all the trees in this area. The mountain look like a wasteland.

Ben lasted about 2 hours under his own steam, and then succombed to the backpack. He is heavier than he looks. It's a good thing we skipped Monadnock!

I will definitely come back to Watchusett this summer. The steep and rocky terrain is just what I need for Grindstone. It's less than 2 hours from the house, quite do-able as a day trip. Drive up early, walk/run most of the day up and down, drive home. Can't wait!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Itching to Race

I am signed up to run the Lake Waramaug 100K next Sunday, but it looks like I won't be going. Excited as I am by the prospect of getting back out for a long day of running with a bunch of like-minded folks, I don't think this race is a good idea for me this year. It's a multi-lap race, which I love, but it is all on roads. 100K on the road will kill my poor feet. Good sense has prevailed.

I volunteered at this race last year. My training partner, Susan, and I worked the aid station at the start/finish to fulfill our volunteer requirement for the VT 100. This was my first time volunteering at a race and I was expecting a long, dreary day of passing out water, wishing I was running. But not so. We had a fabulous time cheering the runners, taking down numbers, taping iPods earbuds into ears, and milking the RD and other volunteers for information about VT.

I'd actually love to go back and volunteer this year, but this would entail a full day away from home. This is not my decade for racking up travel days. The logistics of juggling one car and five schedules is just too daunting.

So my next race will be May 9th at Wapack in southern New Hampshire: 50 miles of trails with lots of ups and downs. This is what I need to train for Grindstone. We are driving up that way with the kids today to climb Mt. Monadnock. First nice Saturday of the spring: it will be a zoo. Perfect conditions for the 4, 6 and 8-year olds. Might get a bit dicey for Brian and me.

Yesterday I decided to sign up for the Pittsfield Peaks 53 Miler on June 6th in Pittsfield, Vermont. The Race Website features a video of a bunch of muddy men (The Death Division) pushing logs and tools through what looks like a sewage pipe and then constructing a wheelbarrow designed to tote 2 cinder blocks, a tire and a 30 lb bucket of sand 8 miles uphill. Or something. It took a few emails back and forth with RD Andy Weinberg to ascertain that none of these Sissyphean tasks are required of the ultra-runners. (Evidently The Death Division is a separate 10-mile race.)

I haven't raced since last November at Stone Cat, and I miss it. I miss the long drives insanely early in the morning, the amazing, funny, and sometimes-just-plain-weird people I always meet out on the course, the aid stations, the comraderie at the finish, the jazzed drive home. It's like getting a week's vacation in a single day.

May 9th. It will all happen soon enough.

Friday, April 17, 2009


After a couple of years of dealing with the annoyance of waist packs, I finally broke down and ordered a backpack style hydration pack. This one is made by Ultimate Direction and it's called The Wink. I love it!

A couple of weeks ago I emailed the wonderful folks at Zombie Runner with my troubles. I have been using the Nathan 4-bottle waist pack ever since I started running really long. This looks like a space-age belt with front and back pockets and space for 4 10 oz bottles.

This belt works beautifully for the first couple hours of my runs. As long as at least two of the bottles are full, the whole thing stays down around my hips and does not bother me in the slightest. But as soon as those last two bottles begin to empty, the whole pack slides up my torso and eventually spins like a hula hoop around the narrowest part of my anatomy, which happens to be just below my boobs (evidently). I guess this is what happens when you hit your 40s. Body parts move south while extraneous items head north.

As soon as I start to feel the slippage I get just a teeny bit annoyed. Nothing terrible, just a bit distracting. But, by the time the thing starts doing its hula business, I am practically apoplectic. No amount of Zen practice can keep my from losing my cool. The waist pack is ruining my long runs.

Gillian from Zombie emailed me right back and told me exactly what I need. Enter The Wink. Granted I have only tried it once, and only for about 2 hours at that, but so far this thing is the answer to my hydration dreams.

All of the weight is on the shoulders. There is no waist strap (which for me is a big issue, given my history of stomach distress in long races). It clips in two places, just above and just below the boobs. Plenty of support right where the mid-life woman runner wants it. I don't have to wear anything else! Plenty of support, plenty of coverage.

The reservoir holds 2 litres of liquid. Having been a backpacker and child-carrier for years, I do not even notice the weight. I do not notice it in the slightest. I cannot emphasize this point enough. It's like the water is not even there. Like a miracle.

Each strap has 2 pockets, one zipper and one mesh, to hold stuff like gels, iPod, camera, etc. No problem accessing these on the run. And there is a more substantial zippered compartment in the back for a jacket, lunch, pine cones, whatever.

The water does make a bit of a sloshing sound. I know this bothers some people, but I kind of like it. Reminiscent of the womb. It's like hearing the fetal heartbeat at the monthly OB appointments of yore.

The only downside, common to all hydration packs in the Camelback style, is that there is know way to know how much water you have drunk at any given moment. The reservoir does have gradations of volume printed on the outside, but one must physically remove the pack and then the reservoir to access this information.

Downside aside, I am psyched about my Wink. I mean, who wouldn't be?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Great weekend runs

I can feel myself getting into long run shape. I remember this happening last year. It's a subtle shift that usually makes itself known during the second run of the day. I feel like I can now go out and run at any time of day, regardless of how much or how little I have already done that day, and still have a good run. My legs are on auto-pilot. No matter what I ask of them (within a certain amount of reason, of course) they will respond. Not quickly, not always strongly, but willingly. I guess that's the shift. The will to run is firmly set into the muscles of my legs.

Saturday morning Susan and I ran at Mt. Archer. This is a ten mile roller coaster road loop through a lovely, sparsely housed and wooded neighborhood. Lots of new growth forest, a couple of farms, a stream with lots of bird activity, and freaking amazing houses set far apart and usually well back from the road. Brigadoon.

It was great to run with Susan. We trained together for VT last year, and she plans to run it again this year. Neither one of us finished, though Susan got a few miles farther along than I did. She wants to get that monkey off her back and then be finished with ultras. (Or at least 100-mile ultras). She wants to concentrate on strength building and gym work. I, on the other hand, am in for the long haul. I intend to keep running ultras for as long as my body allows. I just love everything about them. The training, the people, the occasional travel, the challenge, the beauty of the courses, everything.

Sometimes I wish I lived in a more ultra-training friendly place. A place with other ultra runners and lots of mountainous trails. But I don't. And that's going to have to be okay.

Susan and I started running at 5:15 in the morning (which meant getting up at 3:45). We did one full Mt. Archer loop and one half loop, all of which took about 3 hours. We then spent an additional hour running up and down Mt. Archer itself (which is not a mountain at all, but a very steep hill). It took us about 8 minutes to walk up (repeated runs up this hill are out of the question at this stage in the game) and 2 minutes to run down. The downhill part is what I am most interested in. I need to fire those quads! Over and over.

I spent much of the rest of the day thrift shopping with the kids (it poured all day). This was a workout all by itself.

The kids and I let Brian sleep in Sunday morning until almost 8 (Happy Easter!). As soon as he got up Eddie the Coonhound and I headed out for a nice 1.5 hour trot around town. I listened to a poet/psychologist talk about our current economic crisis on the iPod. She chalks it all up to our unsustainable American culture of desire and greed. It's probably more complicated than that (just ask any economist!), but essentially I agree with her. Attainment kills desire. But it doesn't kill it all the way. Desire regrows as soon as the next desired object appears. And so it goes.

I wonder how one breaks this cycle? I wonder if it is even possible, society-wide, to break it. As with everything, start at home. Start with yourself. I just bought a new hydration pack from Zombie Runner. Do I really NEED a new hydration pack, or did I just WANT a new hydration pack. I don't know yet, because it hasn't arrived yet. Until it arrives it remains in my head the perfect ideal of a hydration pack. It will solve all my hydration needs! But that is exactly what I thought that about my last hydration pack (a waist belt that turned out to be pretty annoying -- this new one is more of a backpack). I wonder......

After a fun Easter lunch at Grandma and Grandpa's house, Brian and I did an hour run around Old Saybrook while the kids marinated in chocolate and sugar in front of the computer (those kids love going to Grandma's!). Brian and I used to run together all the time. Every day. Now it happens so rarely, it has become a treat. We talked about Zen and Catholicism and Thomas Merton and Hegel. The wind was fierce. We walked the last bit in order to have time to finish our talking. My legs felt great. All good.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Give us this day

My bread-and-butter run is the Early Morning 5-Miler with Eddie. Every weekday morning after sitting at my desk for an hour or two, usually between 5:30 and 6, Eddie and I trot down the driveway and out into the world for our daily constitutional.

Sometimes when I mention my morning runs to friends, they express astonishment or even (worse) admiration that Eddie and I are able to get ourselves out there every morning in every weather. I usually hem and haw over my response to this. I'll say something lame like, "It's fun!" or "We love mornings!"

But really, our morning run is nothing special. Certainly not deserving of admiration. I'm trying hard not to sound like a Nike ad here, but there's no better way to say it: we just do it. Every day. We don't think about it; we don't debate the merits of getting out versus staying in. We just walk down the driveway and start running. Folks seem to think it takes some sort of Herculean effort to get up and run. But it doesn't. It's our daily thing. Our practice. We cannot imagine life without it. Nothing could be easier.

Since it's fairly light now in the mornings, I brought the camera along with me to record our little trot through town. I had to take the photos quickly because Eddie doesn't like to stop. What we lack in the majestic mountain scenery of some of our blogging friends out west (hello, Alene) I think we somewhat make up for in quaintness. You take what you can get!

Here we are looking up and down the river east of the Drawbridge that cuts through the middle of town.

Looking back at the train bridge.

Looking straight across at the marina on the other side

Looking toward town, you can just make out the drawbridge in the distance. (If you click on these photos, you can see them a bit bigger)

Reflective bench outside the Art Center. No time to sit!

Coming into town and crossing Route 1, we see the famous drawbridge. It will soon start going up once an hour to let the boats through. This messes up the traffic in downtown Mystic all spring, summer and fall

A few shots of Gravel Street. You can imagine living here 150 years ago if you ignore the power lines. Sometimes the water rises and laps up onto the street. But not today.

This is the view from that house up there.

Ducks crossing Pearl Street. These ducks did not flinch when they saw Eddie.

Here is the Mystic Seaport at first light across the water. This will be teeming with folks all summer. But not yet.

The long stretch of River Road. This road goes on like this for about three more miles following the river as it twists and turns and eventually narrows into a small stream

A couple of Egrets in the nest. I don't know how long they've been there. This is the first time I've noticed them. Good luck with the family!

The River Spirit is out again this morning blessing all the runners. Another rare sighting!

As we turn away from the river, it's uphill almost all the way home. This is great. Love running uphill. Here we are looking back down

The first bit of color in early spring is yellow

Give us this day our daily hill. We're halfway up.

Looking up.

Looking down.

Home sweet home.

Good dog, Ed!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Reboot, return

First run since late last week. After a wobbly walk and a slow swim yesterday, I finally felt ready to run today. This bug is nasty! Five days off in a row is unheard-of for me. Gave my feet a nice break, though. All the bones and tendons down there feel knit and secure.

I was so happy to lace up my shoes and run out the door at 5:30 with Eddie. The poor dog had been wondering what happened to his morning runs. Why was his running person laying in bed day after day? What was wrong with the world?

The morning was perfect. Cold and leafless and bright. The long lost feel of feet hitting pavement was perfect, too. Slow feet, mind you, but still. I had Zen Mind Beginner's Mind playing softly in my ears as my legs eased back into the rhythm of right foot, left foot, over and over. Nothing special most days, but today it all felt so right.

A car passed on my own street and I knew I was coming from Bill's house. My neighbor, Bill, is slowly dying at home, and his family keeps a constant vigil at his bed. This is terrible for them. Bill is suffering. And he's the nicest man. He loves to garden, so this must be his favorite time of year. Renewal, rebirth, shoots popping up through the dirt.

It's weird to think that one person on the street is dying while another is out running with the dog. One family's life stops while just across the street another family's life goes on. It's heartbreaking, and it happens every day, everywhere. Bill's grandkids swim with Nell. Their other grandpa died at Christmastime.

It's too much. I saw Bill's daughter at the library getting books for her son yesterday. That's all I could say to her: It's too much.

But, as I said, life does flow onward. And so I run past Bill's house every morning and toss up a little prayer. To whom or to what I don't know, but it helps me feel like I'm doing something.

Running along the river at first light is my daily practice and this morning I needed it. The whole family has been sick. Everyone is a bit cranky, a bit off. And we have been cooped up in the house for five days as the bug makes its rounds. Running gave me the feeling of a new day. Something new is what was needed.

When I got home at 6:30 the Brian and the boys were buzzing about making a castle out of boxes. We read Henry and Mudge and the Long Weekend last evening (the family in the book spends a rainy weekend making a cardboard castle). Brian needed to leave for work. Poor guy wanted nothing more than to stay home and make the castle with Simon and Ben. But there was no way these boys would wait for him to get home. I told him I'd do my best (both of us knowing full well that box castles are much more Brian's thing than mine).

We spent the morning cutting and taping. We spent the afternoon painting (outside, please!). We love our castle. Even Brian was impressed!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Wrong kind of runs

Alas. It was a weekend totally devoid of running. I spent Saturday doubled over in bed and Sunday moving very slowly from A to B and back to A. The dreaded stomach flu. Awful, awful, awful.

But I thought about running quite a bit, because the way my stomach felt all weekend is much the way it feels at mile 65 of any race. I tried to practice dealing with it. Staying in the moment, so to speak. Not letting the misery get the best of me.

Counting my breaths helped. Sleeping helped. Listening to the kids padding and thumping through the house helped (poor Brian!).

Grindstone invaded my fever dreams. Obviously my subconscious is a bit worried. First I dreamed that I couldn't find the starting line. I was late beyond late, the race had started hours ago, and I was driving around in a little car making no progress out of the labyrinth of Virginia backroads. The stating line was nowhere to be found. Awful.

Second dream: I started the race, but the next thing I knew I was waking up in a tent. I had no memory of getting there. I remembered that I was supposed to be running, but I could not find anyone to tell me where the course was. I started running, thinking I would find it eventually, as long as I kept going. I woke up still running, still looking. Oh, dear. I made it to the bathroom (thank goodness) and it wasn't until I finished up in there (bleh) that I realized the whole thing had been a dream.

So much for the 5-hour run I had planned for the weekend (Sorry, Susan!). It was all I could do to get through Nell's birthday party Sunday in one piece.

Nell is 8! Happy Birthday, Nell! Dear, sweet girl.

Eek! It wasn't until I posted this photo that I noticed the momento mori in the background. Alas, poor Yorrick (or Coco or George or whoever the poor primate was....).

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Grindstone: what's not to love?

Registration opened yesterday, and I signed up for the 2nd Annual Grindstone 100. Dum da dum!

Just signing up feels momentous. Envisioning myself running along the mountain trails down in Virginia in October gives me a wing-nut thrill. Makes me want to get off my butt here and run!

Everything about this race feels right to me. I love the idea of a 6 p.m. start. For a relatively slow runner like me, who will take somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 hours to finish, the idea of doing the bulk of the nighttime running early in the race is comforting. I have not yet run on trails in the dark, and the idea of it scares me a little. Better to do it while I still have some semblance of my wits about me. Bob says he'll do some dark runs on the trails in North Stonington with me this summer. That will help, I'm sure.

I love the idea that the whole race is on trails. Part of my problem in VT last year (DNF'd at mile 70: I got pulled out because of grim stomach issues) was that I ran too fast on the roads. Running on trails forces you to go slow, to concentrate, to stay in the moment. And the gentle surface is exponentially easier on the old joints.

I love that the race is in Virginia. My family lives in Virginia: parents in Williamsburg, sister and her family in Richmond. So I will see familiar, loving faces along the trail. My parents came up to Vermont last year. Seeing them at the aid stations gave me a tremendous lift every time.

I love that the race is in October. My husband, Brian, is a teacher and takes his summers off. Bless him, he is incredibly understanding about my need/desire/will to run. So I will run big miles all summer and then taper off when everyone goes back to school (Brian to high school, kids and I to homeschool, such as it is) in September.

Weird as this sounds, I love that I am going into this race knowning that I tried and failed to run 100 miles once before. We live and learn. That's what this is all about. I have learned so much from last year's DNF: run slowly in the beginning, more slowly than you think humanly possible; take walk breaks, especially out of the aid stations; do not eat ANY fiber for the 2 days leading up to the race; drink water with ocassional shots of electrolytes; figure out a food that works (boiled potatoes are good) and stick with it. I am still working on this last point.

And finally, I love the idea of running in the mountains. I have always loved to run hills and this will give me plenty of excuses to get out and work them. Hill repeats here in Mystic. Family camping mini-vacations this summer to mountainous places to work on big climbs. And, more importantly for my teeny tiny quads, to practice the big descents.

So, every run I do for the next 6 months will have something to do with Grindstone. Every race, every 5-miler with Eddie early in the morning, every trail run, every hill. I love the training. The destination is trivial compared to the day-in-day-out practice of running, running, running. It will be amazing to finish, of course. But even more amazing is the journey to the starting line. It's all about being a good traveler. It's all about the journey.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

He just isn't magical

Today was Magic Day. A rare combination of cosmic forces (Harry Potter, Secrets of Droon, Charlie and Lola) beamed in and found a home in Nell's brain, giving her magical powers beyond all of Ben's and Simon's imagining.

She made the guinea pig disappear!

She told the boys to go upstairs and wait while she prepared her spells. She whisked Chizzle (the pig) out of his cage and into a Secret Hiding Place (see below), covered the cage with a blanket and called the boys back down.

Abracadabra ala-cazeer.
Chizzle is........disappeared!

And he was. He was absolutely gone. The boys were thunderstruck.

"My turn! My turn!" yelled Ben.

Nell and Simon retreated upstairs so Ben could have a moment to prepare his spells. From the kitchen I could hear his dress rehearsal. He covered the cage with the very same blanket Nell used and uttered the very same incantations over the cage.

Very quietly, he practiced:

Abracadabra ala-cazeer
Chizzle is......(whisking blanket away).......still here.

It didn't work!

He tried again. Still no luck.

He went upstairs to consult Nell, the Master Magician. She gave him a magic cloak (her old bathrobe) to try.

"It's still not working, Nell!"

He found his magic hat and gave it another whirl.

Poor Ben. Nothing seemed to work.

But here's the thing. He did not get frustrated. Did not throw a tantrum. Did not come whining to me. Our Ben is starting to get a hold of himself. Little by little, day by day, he is calming down. He took the whole thing in stride. Even took a turn toward the philosophical.

"I just not magical," he said in a resigned little voice. "Nell is magical, and I not."

Which, in itself, was a magical moment for me.