Somewhere in between the balance of this crazy hustle is a sweet, sweet spot.

My alarm on weekday mornings goes off at 6:40 a.m. — the latest I can sleep in and still have just a few minutes with Kelly, Julia, and Thomas before they hop in the van and go to school. They are often basking in a half-episode of screen time, often the only television they get during the school week, which gives Kel the chance to pack backpacks and find order before departure. Then: kisses and hugs and good wishes and goodbyes.

Annie is still asleep and hopefully will be for another hour. I pull on my sneakers and go downstairs to the elliptical. Someone I do not know figured out I was Mrs. Hogan’s husband recently, and when we bumped into each other downtown last week, told me that his elementary-school aged daughter saw me working out most mornings. (The elliptical is in front of a window in the back of the house, where East Elementary School Road car-rider traffic crawls by.) So I discovered I am the brief entertainment of hundreds of children through the week.

I watch the news while I work out for 25 minutes, then drink a glass of cold water, then feed the bigger dog and scratch her ears for a couple of minutes. Then, time for a shower and shave, time to get dressed (quick check of my calendar for the day to determine if I can get away with a polo shirt; Thursday I could not), time to wake up Annie, who was stirring anyway.

Breakfast is scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage. I fix breakfast for Annie and me, and I fix extra eggs to pack for Julia and Thomas to eat at school the next day. We eat. Annie is slower, so I finish my coffee and wash the dishes and get our things together. Shoes, backpacks, water bottles, and then we’re off to preschool, where I drop her right at 9:00 a.m.

My work schedule that day was full; add in an unanticipated appointment for Boys & Girls Club board duties that took up an hour, and before I knew it, I was the last person in the office. I hurried to finish things up and make it home in time to change clothes–back into sneakers–and hop in the car with Julia and Thomas to go to soccer. I opted to coach again this fall because I wanted the dedicated time to hang out with them twice a week. They’re both on the same team with five other kiddos, some who are really advanced and some who have never played the game before.

We practice until the sun goes down, and then we hop back in the car, sweaty and tired, and roll down the windows, and turn up the music. Van Halen, then Queen. Then Queen again. Julia surfs the air outside the car with her hand, and we feel the speed and the cooler air of evening, and I am reminded how important this is. We get home, the kids get cleaned up and into pajamas, and we read a chapter of a Hardy Boys book and I tuck them in.

Kel has picked up supper for me, and we eat together while watching an episode of a home renovation show that our DVR recorded sometime in April. Skipping commercials, we chat and watch, and 42 minutes later, I kiss her goodnight and go downstairs to get started on grad school work. I have a group project due next week, and my group has scheduled a conference call at 9:00 p.m., which I call into. Half an hour later, we’ve made our plans, but by that point it’s time for me to delve into reading for my other class, then composing 750 words in response. It’s more than I have to do, but I’m still in that naive stage of grad school in which I feel compelled to overachieve. Plus, it’s relatively easy for me to write. I’ll always be an English major.

I push through the other assignment and post it–technically it’s not due until Saturday, but Julia and I have plans to go to Cullowhee for the day for a football game, and I need to get it done. I make it to bed with the clock creeping up toward 1:00 a.m.

Even though I wince whenever I compulsively answer the question “How have you been” with “busy,” I have to acknowledge that I also compulsively run toward keeping occupied. Adding grad school into the mix has pushed me to full capacity. I’m a bit nervous, but I’m handling it.

Friday: in some ways, rinse and repeat. I skipped the morning workout because I knew I needed to mow the yard–which is growing quite well, thanks Hurricane Florence–after supper. It was dark by the time I finished cleaning up with the leaf blower. Shower. Time to relax on the couch. Kel and I catch up. We finally watched the episode of Carpool Karaoke with Paul McCartney. Soon it’s midnight.

Saturday we slept in–gloriously. Breakfast and coffee and time to do last Sunday’s crossword puzzle with Kel, a recent thing for us, and a fun thing to do together. We’re getting older, so we might as well act like it.

Julia and I take off to the mountains. The Dean of the Honors College invites us up to a game every year, and this time it’s Julia’s turn to come with me. We stopped for a light lunch after we crossed Black Mountain, and there was a map stand in the restaurant. She picked one up, and as we steamed ahead on I-40, she began tracing our route, and I found myself awed as her growing voice called out place names from my past: Lake Junaluska, Canton, Cullowhee.

We arrived to find campus chock full of people. I’d promised to buy Jules a new WCU t-shirt, but there weren’t any parking spaces at the bookstore, so we had to ditch the car in a loading area. These are the times I’m hopeful my vanity plate (an alumni tag reading CLWHE) earns a pass from campus parking authorities. We dash into the bookstore to find a hundred people grabbing their own game-day apparel, and Julia picks out a Snoopy “Joe Cool” shirt, which is admittedly very cool.

Julia was enamored with campus–“It’s huge!” she exclaimed–so we drove around to see a few sights–the library, the cafeteria, Reynolds Hall and Buchanan, where Kelly and I lived. I showed her to stone wall where I etched our initials into some wet concrete my freshman year. Nineteen years ago.

We join the Chancellor’s pregame tailgate just as they’re wrapping up and spot a few friends, pausing to watch the marching band play the Fight Song as the team ran onto the field. The stands are full–the whole place is just so full–and there’s a line wrapping out onto the sidewalk just to get in. I point out the simple, white church on the hill behind the stadium where I attended in college.

The Cullowhee valley is a beautiful place to watch a game, and we settle into our seats, and Julia is enamored with the snacks they bring her. She pays attention to the game, more so than I expected, which turns into an offensive shoot-out between Western and VMI. Soon it’s halftime, and the marching band is back out, and they wow us all with their brilliant, enormous sound. This was Julia’s favorite part.

The Cats won, the marching band took the field afterward for an encore, and to Jules’s delight, we, too, took the field as the band gathered to toast the night with the Alma Mater, the sun setting behind the mountains, the sky aglow, the stadium fading into darkness.

We walk the foot bridge across Cullowhee Creek to our car, the sound of rushing water lulling us, and decide to grab a bite to eat to celebrate the win. I found a Mexican place on the road that once was the old entrance to campus, and it’s almost empty, ready to close for the night when we pull in. Still, we get a warm greeting, and looking across the table, Julia seems so much older than her years. We talk over chips and salsa.

Then back into the car. Julia is asleep by the time we cross Balsam Mountain, and I am content to let Pandora play its jukebox of music the whole ride home, the car’s tires humming over the roadway, the headlights peering toward the dark curves ahead, illuminating stretches that are here before we know it, leaving to mere guesses what lies ahead.