The Child Inside

River WorksThere were no kids at the Water Works display in the Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. Absolutely none. And I stuck around for quite awhile just in case. In fact the whole time I was walking around the Water Works, the only person I saw was a member of the staff who came by to get something out of the nearby cupboards.

“You need some kids to play with,” she said with a smile. I agreed.

It makes sense. I was there in early September, a week into the regular school year. I was there on a Monday, and I was there in the morning. So I wouldn’t take the absence of children as an indication of Water Works’s popularity. Because without a doubt it should be very, very popular.

Start of River

Water Works is an area designed to teach children about the water cycle and the ways in which humans interact with rivers. There’s a station where a kid can pedal on a bicycle to make it rain into a nearby cloud/bucket. There’s a giant beaver dam to run around in, and a place where you can assemble your own tiny plastic boat out of a bunch of components. But the best part is the river.

In the center of the room is a large table, representing a river. On one end of the table is a crank the kids can turn to make it rain onto the plastic mountain and add more water to the river. Next there’s a dam, with movable pieces to allow kids to choose how freely they want their river to flow. There’s even a little barn you have to protect from the water coming in off the floodplain. A faucet off to the side starts up the tributary, which happens to pass by a little house with a water wheel before flowing into the main river. Next the river encounters a second dam, this time with an adjacent set of locks. Kids can push the lock doors open and closed to allow their newly created boats to pass safely down the hill. At the very end there’s a fish ladder, a larger water wheel, and my personal favorite: a fully functional Archimedes Screw.

TributaryI keep referring to the kids but, as previously mentioned, there were none. I had to start the rainfall and save the barn and make my boat and get it through the locks all by myself. While I enjoyed the benefit of being able to play with a bunch of kids’ toys without being accused of shoving any of the little tikes out of the way, it would have been nice to see a few kids playing with the Water Works. I used to create my own rivers just like it when I was little. I imagine most of us did. You find a six-inch wide stream of water in the playground and immediately begin clearing debris from of some areas to allow it to flow, then you start stacking up rocks in other spots to create dams. You make boats out of legos, using your imagination to declare which part is the sail and which part is the steering wheel. While it’s fun to use the natural world to fuel your imagination, it makes your playtime dependent on the average annual rainfall. But a huge kid-sized river? With constantly flowing water? And the taciturn permission to get very wet at a museum? What a dream.

I must have played with that damn river for 20 minutes. Perhaps it’s time I take a trip back to the Seattle Science Center.

The Dune Climb

Let’s face it: I don’t have anything insightful to say about sand. I considered skipping this post altogether, but my experience at Sleeping Bear Dunes was a lot of fun and it seemed a shame to say nothing. Perhaps this goes not into the category of “important life changing events” and more into the category of “fun things you ought to try one day.”

Dune ViewThe winds off of Lake Michigan have, over many years, created massive sand dunes on the shore. These dunes are so big they seem rather unimpressive at first glance. When you first step out of your car, it’s no different than looking out over any other bluff onto the lovely but expected Michigan scenery. It’s only after you really consider the ground beneath you that it becomes impressive. You are not standing on a cliff that is covered in sand. It’s sand all the way down.

The Steep ClimbI took a detour to the unfortunately named Inspiration Point before hopping on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. One of the final stops on the scenic drive is the Lake Michigan Bluff, which has an unobstructed sand slope from the top of the bluff all the way to the water. Despite the many stern and clearly posted warnings against it, many visitors felt the need to run all the way to the bottom. I opted not to do so, having paid a lot of attention to the people trying to climb back up. As a casual observer, I would estimate that the distance to the water is at least 200 meters, and the incline stays at a steady 45 degree angle the entire time. People weren’t hiking back up, they were crawling on all fours. Plenty were just sitting down, and I couldn’t tell if they’d wised up and stopped their trek to the bottom, or simply run out of steam on the climb back up. Perhaps I should have asked one of them if it was worth it, though I imagine for many such adventurers pride would have gotten in the way of the truth.

People on the DuneRegardless, there was another dune to climb. This one was park-approved and traveler recommended. I drove over to the creatively named Dune Climb and parked my car at the base. It didn’t seem like much. It was steep, but not unreasonable. It was sandy and hard to walk through, but I gathered that was sort of the point. It was also immediately clear that the whole point of climbing up was the amazingly fun run back down.

I dropped my shoes at the bottom (as was the custom), and started up the dune. It only took a few minutes to get to the top. Or rather, it only took a few minutes to get to the edge that I thought was the top, only to see another 20 minute climb ahead of me in order to get to the actual top. The second half of the dune leveled off for a bit, but there was a lot of distance between me and the small pair of benches at the peak. I carried on, watching the teenage boys race each other to the bottom and seeing the little kids chase after the tumbleweed. There was something a bit surreal and foreign about being surrounded by so much clean, soft sand, yet being no where near a beach.

Sand and TumbleweedsWhen I finally reached the top, I took a spot on the open bench. My feet dangled off the end. So much sand had eroded away since the bench was installed, I could barely get up onto the thing at all. I took a deep breath, admired the view, and then took off. There is only one way to get down off the Dune Climb, and that is running at full speed like a 3rd grader. I ran the first third of the way, then switched to a wide, hopping, side-to-side stride. Each step sunk deep into the sand and sent me further forward. My limbs were flailing in every direction and I would have felt self-conscious had it not been so ridiculously fun. It helped that I wasn’t even close to having the silliest stride on the dune.

When the sand leveled off in the middle I slowed back to a walk in order to catch my breath. There was one more run to go. It was the short but steep stretch I first saw before I realized how big the Dune Climb really was. I briefly considered flinging myself off the side and rolling all the way down on my belly. If I wasn’t so averse to having sand in my clothes, or if I knew I’d have quick access to a shower and changing room, I probably would have done it. Instead I opted for another full speed run, turning around just in time to see a dozen other people running along side me.

WarningIn conclusion, sand is fun. That is my big, insightful take away on this one. I went to a place with a lot of sand and I ran around and it was fun. I got to be a little kid for awhile, and I got to watch a bunch of other tourists do the same. I can see why the Dune Climb comes so highly recommended. It turns you into a child. Few and far between are the places you can arrive at by car and end up going back in time.

The Boy Next Door

Marc was almost exactly the boy next door. He lived just down the street from me growing up. We went to the same elementary school, we waited at the same bus stop. We used to host Bus Stop Olympics with the other kids, where we would perform various athletic feats while waiting to go to school. Most feats involved jumping over the ditch behind the stop.

At school he was one of my best friends, and the other kids would taunt us. Elementary school boys and girls both have cooties, so it was strange for a boy and a girl to be so close, and to joke so often. Marc and I never understood their accusations. We were just friends.

The line separating school districts ran right next to our houses, and we ended up going to different junior high and high schools. But Marc still lived just down the street, and he would come visit me after school and during the summer. His visits were always an unplanned surprise. My family poked fun at us, because it seemed strange to have a young boy just show up asking about their daughter. Marc has always been a great piano player and a fantastic musical improvisor, and he would play my parents’ piano when he came to visit. My grandparents came up to stay with us every summer, and grandma loved listening to Marc play. For years, whenever I’d talk to my grandmother she’d ask about Marc. She always wanted us to get married.

Sometimes Marc and I would play games in which he would be improvising on the piano and I would strike a key in the middle of the piece at random. He would immediately pick up on it and adjust the tune to incorporate my arbitrary note. Sometimes I would make up a story and he would compose a soundtrack. Sometimes My mom would shout out a composer and and Marc would improvise a piece in that composer’s style.

And sometimes we wouldn’t do anything at all. Marc would just hang out while I worked on the computer. Marc loved to draw, and he would create detailed doodles of architectural designs. Sometimes he would draw pictures of me. At Halloween Marc and our friend Peter would be the only kids in the neighborhood willing to walk to the far end of our driveway to go Trick-or-Treating. My sister was sure he was in love with me. In college when I wrote a play featuring a complicated romantic relationship between a boy and a girl who were long-time friends, my mom was sure I was talking about Marc. I wasn’t, but that’s a different story.

Marc and I went to the same college but lived in different dorms. He was on the other side of campus and it was the farthest we’d ever lived from each other. We stayed close for awhile, but after some time we developed our own interests and our own friend groups. We still saw each other, but not as often. College ended and I knew Marc had moved away, but I wasn’t sure where or when.

And then one day, some ten months after I had last spoken to Marc and even longer since I’d seen him, I received the following message in my Facebook inbox:

Subject: oh hay

 Hi Katrina,
I miss you and hope all is well. Also, I am gay.

muah,
-Marc

My boyfriend was in the room when I read the message. He had heard many stories about Marc. He asked me how I felt about it.

“I’m surprised,” I said. “…but not shocked.”

What had been more shocking were the photos I saw of Marc popping up on my newsfeed. He was buff. Very buff. Marc had always been a very skinny guy. Suddenly he looked like a bodybuilder. And he was living and working in Washington D.C. It would take me another three years and a trip across the country, but eventually I managed to visit him.

DogI parked my car about a block away from Marc’s D.C. apartment, and ran into him on the street while he was out walking his roommate’s dog. “Sorry,” he told me, “but he had to go poop.” Marc looked at the dog, then at a bag in his hand. “Let me throw away the poop and we can go inside.”

Taking a dog out to poop may seem like a strange detail to include in this story, but you have to understand that I have never met anyone else who talks the way Marc talks. There’s something gently musical about it that I can’t quite explain. Which means no one pronounces the word poop like Marc does. And I knew as soon as I heard him say it that despite the years we’d spent apart, his huge physical transformation, and his coming out of the closet, he had not changed one bit.

Inside Marc cooked up some pasta, explaining that there were really no good restaurants in Washington D.C. We talked about his life and his job, about my trip and my travels. We talked about segregation and how when you take the train from his apartment into the city you can watch the passenger load change from black to white with each stop. Eventually the conversation moved to the unavoidable topic of his life changes. He told me that when he came out, it was easy to tell the people he casually knew, and he dreaded telling the people closest to him. Peter and I were the last people he told. “I think I was afraid that it would change how people viewed me,” he said.

Coming out paralleled his physical change. He told me that after being skinny his whole life, he realized that he just wanted to be big. He was tired of being a scrawny guy. He’d always wished he was bigger. And he always pretended he didn’t care, because having lots of muscles seemed like it was a shallow desire. “I told myself I was above all that,” he said, “because I thought people would think less of me if I paid too much attention to something so superficial.”

Eventually he realized that this was something he really wanted, and it was stupid for him to be something he didn’t want to be. So he changed. He worked hard. He still works hard. He has to spend a lot of time at the gym and pay close attention to his diet, but he’s finally happy in his own skin. “I get a lot more attention now,” he said with a sly and embarrassed smile.

“From men?” I asked.

“From everyone,” he told me with a grin.

It’s good to see Marc so happy.

Ted's Bulletin EditedI spent the next day on the National Mall and came back in time to get dinner with Marc. He took me to one of the few restaurants he finds worthwhile, explaining that he mostly liked it because they had “adult milkshakes,” a menu item that makes him giggle. I told him I still didn’t like alcohol, but that I’d give it a try. He said he didn’t like alcohol much either, but he liked these. The shake was among the best alcoholic drinks I’ve ever had, but it still took me all of dinner to finish it. Marc suggested that he and I might both be “super tasters.” He asked how I felt about coffee, grapefruit, and carbonated water. I hate all three.

“It’s the bitterness,” he said. “I don’t like any of those things either.”

Over dinner we talked about writing, about music, about everything. Marc is still one of my best friends, despite our years apart. And we picked up right where we had left off, despite all the things that had happened in those years. He’s still just the boy that lives down the street and comes over in the middle of the day because he’s bored. He’s still strange and sweet, and he’s still my friend. I never thought Marc’s sexuality would change how I see him, but I worried the time and distance might. It didn’t. We are the same as we always were and I miss having him around.

Even so, it’s probably best that we don’t tell my grandmother. I think she’s still holding out hope.