Sunday, May 24, 2015

Magic miles

I was at the starting line.

I wasn't nervous. Not one bit.

Of course, I had been facing backward, but that's a mistake anyone could make.

“I'd trained for this,” I told myself and everyone who was in listening range. Two days a week whenever time allowed, and at six o'clock on Saturday mornings. I'd drag myself out of bed and lace up my sneakers, rain or shine. In just a few months time, I had accumulated an ever expanding weekly distance despite moving at a glacial pace.

Two hours and thirty minutes. That's when I expected to cross the finish line.

At some point during this middle-age experience filled with blisters and chafing and jogging uphill (both ways), covering 13.1 miles without using wheels had become not only thinkable but doable. It had also seemed like a two and a half-hour vacation at the end of each week.

I wasn't proud, exactly. I was amazed.

The kind of amazed I felt when I got married …. or when the kids were born … or when they started making their own lunches.

The kind of amazed one might feel when they get a hug from a child or a smile from a stranger.

Granted … it's not the kind of amazed one feels when seeing a George Lucas film for the first time. Or when a hypnotist at the county fair makes a whole bleacher-section bark like dogs. But that's beside the point.

This was real and somewhat elusive, albeit mundane. As I joined the ranks of the Spandex-clad huffing and puffing by the side of the road, somewhere inside my head I had to wonder:

Why do we put ourselves through this?

Shin splints, stress fractures, muscle tears and a laundry list of self-diagnoses ending in ITIS.

It has to be for something other than the subtraction of a few seconds from a stopwatch.

We all have our reasons: Testing limits; pushing boundaries; setting examples; strengthening our bodies; clearing our heads.

I used to think it was all just mind games, mostly.

But that's always how we all feel in the beginning.

When the gun goes off, and you start to run -- a slow jog that stops short a few times before the pack thins itself out – you realize how often we forget to hold ourselves back.

Starting out too fast is a common problem in all human races.

Eventually, I will pace myself. I will settle into a cadence I can sustain.

My body doesn't have much of a choice once my mind realizes it has to pitch in and help.

Miles one and two fly by as I keep up with the pack.

Eventually, I do begin to pace myself. Though my brain – the sad, tired, mathematically impaired thing that it is – can't seem to keep up. The mile marker has a number four on it. That can't be right.

What happened to mile three?

I kept rounding downward.

Mile nine seemed like mile seven. I had scaled the wall I usually hit full on.

I came up on Mile 12 with the feeling of invincibility.

So, of course, finally being the hare in this tortoise fable, I did want all hares historically do.

I started to walk, which startled the nice lady I'd passed at least five times already. She touched my elbow as she passed me again, this time saying the magic words: “We got this.”

We did have this.

I was going to finish.

I just wasn't sure my family would see me cross that line if I didn't slow down.

They'd never expect me to pull a rabbit out of my hat.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Cleans up well

I love that jacket,” my friend exclaimed. She gestured for me to spin clockwise and then counterclockwise so she could see all its angles.

Such is the standard greeting in most corners of kinship. But finding myself in unusual territory, I turned my head to gaze down at my outstretched arm, needing a reference to remind myself what I'd thrown on that morning.

It was my faaaaaaavorite jacket: A black, neoprene hoodie with vents and reflective tape striping its length, and fashionable thumb holes at the end of each sleeve.

I mumbled a meek thank-you, but in my mind, I twirled through an awkward humble-brag response: “Oh this old thing? I found it washed up on a beach. It's practically an endangered species.”

Blank. Stare.

So … I wasn't just thinking that, huh?

See, this is just my fashion sense. Dulled, apparently, by thrift and absurdity. Someone compliments me on my attire, and I explain how I bought it for pennies at a flea market or fished it out of the trash.

Give it a shake.

Hand wash.

Tumble dry.


Still, with the staring?

I'm going to need you to explain that one,” she ventured.

Well, one morning last summer I was walking on the beach, and I thought a dead seal had been brought in by the tide. So I went over … you know, to poke it … and it turned out to be this jacket. One swim in the wash, and it was good as new.”

So I guess you could say it is an endangered species.”

I don't know if you can tell, but I don't receive many compliments.

Not that I would expect them.

My wardrobe consists of roughly a dozen garments that orbit my person in a fairly consistent three-day rotation.

Today is Sunday, so I am likely wearing my Lucky jeans (Marshall's clearance) a cobalt blue sweatshirt (Goodwill) and a green Lands' End hoodie (overstuffed hand-me-downs bag meant for the kids). It is also likely I'll be wearing several of these pieces come Wednesday, as well.

Now, you probably think I have nothing to wear.

Go ahead, pretend you are a 15-year-old girl and imagine me saying “I have nothing to wear.”

Can't do it, can you? You can't because you KNOW such a notion is totally ridiculous.

My closet -- like every 15-year-old-girl's in the western world -- is cascading with frocks and fabrics that haven't seen the light of day since they were acquired. These things are arranged by color (or, in my case, varying shades of lack of color) and hung like great works of art in a Closet Museum.

A dresser contains another wing of this fiber repository. I don't even have to claw through its deep drawers to find my usual favorites. Fancy fibers sink to the bottom; everyday wear floats to the top like flotsam.

Oh, I love this headband. I found it in a mud puddle in the parking lot of the supermarket. Came through the wash like new.”

I know I shouldn't be proud of this. I have socially acceptable clothes that take up precious real estate in my wardrobe but rarely get worn.
Doesn't matter how much I paid, I keep them around because of sentiment. Each clothes hanger holds the place of a distant memory that I don't want to see evaporate because of rote generosity. Therefore, I flout my own rule of thumb: For every Good Deal goes two for Goodwill.

Which means every year, I just wedge a few more pieces between the already tightly packed hangers. Clothes that are waiting to take a spin.

I'm not a clothes horse; I'm a clothes hoarder.

… But I could use some new shoes. It is almost beach combing season.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sleep walking

It's been a long time since I've just gone for a walk.

A get out of bed, grab a sweater and go kind of walk.

A don't really care what shoes you wear kind of walk.

A meet up with a friend and gab kind of walk.

A stop on the way home for coffee and a bagel kind of walk.

Walks like these used to be a routine. Now they seem to be a rarity.

Even the dog looks at me with disdain and the plumpness of four extra pounds gained since the Fall.

There's enough blame to throw around: Long winter, short-hair dog. The lure of an extra half hour of sleep.

When the veterinarian mentioned the weight gain, I immediately blamed the new cat, her overflowing food bowl, and her dainty little appetite.

But the real blame has to be be placed firmly inside my own orthotics-inserted, blue and orange over-engineered kicks.

I'd rather run.

And not just run. … Obsessively run. Compulsively run.

Run the way a handheld computer tells me to run.

Four miles today, five tomorrow, eight to ten by the end of the week.

Easy. Slow. Fast. Race pace.

Run with all the gizmos that, as I cross my fingers and mouth a silent prayer, I hope will help me shave off a few measly seconds from my best time.

Which, let's face it, never seems fast or far enough. Not to mention that it doesn't allow the time my furry friend needs to sniff fire hydrants or chase squirrels.

Yes, It's all my fault. I would rather run, and the dog slows me down.

More and more, I'm coming to the realization that I'm not running for the health benefits as much as I'm running for the data.

Rafts and rafts of it, over various applications. I know how far, how fast, at what elevation; and, mile for mile, how it compares to other runs going back all the way to the beginning.

Even when I measure one run on one device, I enter the metrics into four others.

Because …

Well …

I'm insane.

Which reminds me ...

Now I have a new device.

A Pebble Watch, which is like the Apple watch, only not as Goliath.

It tells the time. And buzzes my arm when I receive text messages. And it shows the data from my running tracker without having to fish my phone out of its sleeve.

It also tracks my activity throughout the day, as well as the quality of my sleep. All of these numbers, however, have made me skeptical of their validity.

As if the chunk of plastic strapped to my wrist is a tiny Dr. Oz reminding me I've bought into the amazing properties of snake oil metrics while the price was at its height.

Of course, even snake oil works some degree.

For instance, the watch has determined that I sleep only six hours (two of them deeply) most nights, which can only be accounted for because I usually manage to walk 80 or 90 steps in my sleep.

However, the prospect of exercising in dreamland turned into a nightmare as the watch logged a meager 3,000 steps on days I don't run and barely reached the target 10,000 on the days I do.

Then my crazy suddenly blossomed. Standing at the bus stop my watch-side arm started to twitch. Then swing. And then, before I knew what was happening, any passerby would have thought I was snapping in time to some doo-wop band in my head.

At baseball practice more of the same. I was lurching forward and backward like I'd developed a palsy or some previously undetected tick.

All to log just a few more steps.

Metric compulsions from which my dog would soon benefit.

I got the leash -- and a big, goofy smile from the dog – and I set my tracker app to "Dog Walk."

“Wipe that smile off your long face,” I warned. “We're stepping it! No squirrels. No birds. And no sniffing fire hydrants. We're on the clock.”

Sunday, May 03, 2015

No appointment necessary

She was at the door when I arrived, a bundle of nerves rising on tiptoes and weaving back and forth. I hadn't even gotten into the house before she thrust a $50 bill at me and her teal-colored lifeline, its touch-screen glass all smashed to smithereens.

Tears were in her eyes and a chunk of her savings in her hands.

I dropped it in the driveway. It didn't even land on the face, but it shattered anyway. I didn't mean to … it was an accident. I looked it up, I think it will cost about $50 to repair.” The declaration seemed to come out of her mouth as one long, beseeching word.

And then she paused and said slowly:

Are you mad?”

See, that's what she was really afraid of. That I would be mad at her the way I am about homework and arguing with her brother, and all manner of other little incidents that neither she nor I can really control .. like the spilling milk … or cereal … or milk with cereal.

“Of course I'm not mad,” I say, reassuringly as if she'd have to be crazy to think that I'd be mad about something like that. As if all accidents were the result of carelessness and that all carelessness could be avoided with a modicum of forethought.

And as if all forethought wasn't somehow linked to me saying “I told you so,” in the harsh light of an inevitable outcome.

But the truth was, she'd gotten me on a good day. I didn't have anger or resentment or anxiety hanging over me, so I could handle news of a disappointing nature with an added amount of grace.

Which I immediately translated into guilt currency, and how much of it I owe.

I hadn't been so gracious with her brother the day before … you know … Crying over spilled milk?

Turns out, I'm not good with tears. The crying? The carrying on? The Whole World is Ending phenomenon because someone is using his scooter … or because she can't get her hair into a bun … or because we arrived at the party four minutes later than everyone else? The helplessness I feel at the meltdown that follows?

That. Makes. Me. Completely. Insane.

And it occurred to me, it's because I don't know how to fix it.

I know what to do about a broken computer screen. I know it will take time and money and a trip to the computer store's “Genius Bar.”

But a broken heart isn't as easily mended.

And at that very moment, as I was pondering all the things that I don't know how to do (and trying to get an appointment at the computer store) while simultaneously perusing Facebook, I clicked on a link to a Huffington Post story. It was a piece by Rachel Macy Stafford, an author and special education teacher, who put forward a simple answer in the form of a question:

“How can I help?”

As I reread the piece, it occurred to me that I don't have to have the answers. I don't even have to feel bad about NOT having the answers. I just have to be willing to support someone as they figure out what they need to do.

The next time emotion overtook my son, I took a deep breath and tried saying those four words, only this time without my usual sarcasm.

How can I help?”

Before I could begin listing ideas, he had stopped crying.

I know what to do,” he said, drying his eyes.

For a moment, I felt like I'd gotten the key to the universe.

And it didn't require fifty bucks and an appointment at the Genius Bar.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Apple, meet tree

It's 2:30 in the afternoon. I hear downshifting and the protest of brakes. I imagine a big yellow bus, lights flashing and stopping traffic, is spitting out my firstborn.

I don't rush to the window. I just wait. And listen.

Any second now. ...

The door opens. And closes. A heavy bag drops onto the floor with a thud. For a moment, there is silence.

I hear a cheerful, “Hi, mom” from the kitchen; a rummaging through the refrigerator; bouncing steps to the door; and a quick “I'm goin' outside!” before it opens again, and she's gone. The sound of a basketball slapping against the driveway and hitting the backboard ricochets through the living room. And with a random cadence, there is calm.

I take a new, deep breath, realizing I had been holding on to that last one for a while.

We always hope that girl gets off the bus. She is happy. She does her homework, feeds the cat, makes lists of all the things she's going to do before summer. She starts checking them off one by one, singing as she goes. She plays with her brother, she lends him books and doesn't even mind when he tries to annoy her. She might even tell us about what happened in school, skipping through to the good parts.

She makes it easy to feel like a successful parent.

As if we had anything to do with it. We recognize this girl since the day she was born, trying so hard to stand on her own. She was always THAT kid.

Another girl arrives home in her place more often these days. A sullen twin, who rarely smiles. She brushes her hair over her eye, and hangs her head at an uncomfortable angle. She doesn't want to talk about her day.

This girl complains that she has nothing to wear; we have nothing to eat; and that someone hid her basketball. She stomps upstairs and slams her door. She wants to be left alone in her hurricane of a room. She doesn't want to be reminded to do her homework or feed the cat or brush her teeth. She doesn't want to be questioned about anything.

She is painting adolescence on her face and trying on its clothes, becoming delighted with the fit and expressing it in a new language of disdain. “You couldn't possibly understand how it feels to be me.”

We have become uncomfortable furniture.

But this girl is familiar, too. My husband may not recognize her right away, but my parents might. This girl lived in their house during the late 80s, had raccoon eyes and listened to Pink Floyd albums in the darkness of her room. This girl worried them, too.

Apple, meet tree.

We love this girl, too, even though we feel better when she's not around.

“Well, you might like her but I don't,” says her brother. “She never lets me do anything anymore. … and she's made the basketball hoop too high.”

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Inside the bubble

I am a monster.

Or I'm a sheep ... which, I guess, could be a monster if it was all matted and rabid and charging at you in a wooly frenzy.

I am also firmly on the wrong side of history.

I'm not exactly sure if I can be all three. But that's how I feel – like I've hit the bad-parent trifecta -- each time I scroll through Facebook and see all the posts exclaiming the virtues bestowed upon those refusing the state's standardized testing.

The slogans are brief but powerful: “Strong parents.” “Strong kids.” “Refuse the test.”

Yet, while the history pioneers' kids are sitting around reading leisurely for the three hours my kid is using to color in bubbles with a Number 2 pencil, I'll be shrugging my shoulders and lamenting my position in the flock.

It's not that I don't care. Or that I think everything's fine. I know there are problems.

It's not that I think standardized tests are an important part of the evaluation process. I do not.

It's not that I don't value teachers or care about their plight. I do.

It's not that I think everyone should be learning at the same pace or the same level, or be carbon copies of each other. That's the plot of a novel, not real life.

Maybe it's that I just find it hard to believe that it matters all that much in the final outcome.

You know, in a "If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it," kind of way.

I remember the first time I sat down at a desk to fill in all those bubble circles. I'm not sure how old I was … they called it the Iowa Tests back then … but I remember it felt exciting to be doing something so totally different.

“These won't count for your grades,” said the teacher as she handed out papers and sharpened pencils. “But you must take them seriously.”

She made it plain as day that we weren't to be making pictures of dogs with droopy tongues or play tick-tac-toe with our answers no matter how we were tempted.

And how were we tempted.

I'm not sure what happened with the scores some computer must have spit back. My mother probably crumpled up the results and threw them away. Or perhaps she packed them in some box that is mouldering in the cellar. All I know is she never told me about such measures of intellect.

“You're not as smart as you think you are,” was all she'd ever say. “Remember that.”

Honestly … I don't know what happened to most of the information that came home in our backpacks, never mind what was supposed to be etched in my brain. It can't have gone missing.

But it was there. It just needed a little cosmic recycling and a few hand-outs brought home by the kids. Soon the bits and pieces loosened up and started to move around in my mind. All of it becoming more limber.

I sand off more of the rust with each passing page. How long has it been since I've diagrammed a sentence? Did I ever really understand the difference between commutative and associative properties?

Happily, I doodle alongside of her. Feeling accomplished as I ACE all of her fifth-grade problems.

... Or not, as the expression on my kid's face makes apparent when I finally look up.

“That's NOT how you do it,” says my daughter. “It's like this ...”

She snatches my pencil. Erases my existence on the scratch sheet. Starts again.


And I do see.

I see that my kid understands.

I see that when she doesn't understand, she seeks help from someone who knows how to explain it differently.

I see she can prove me wrong.

And I see that there's a whole lot of things I can't fix. … Things I maybe shouldn't try to fix.

That win or lose, good teacher or bad, developmentally ready or not …

Here she comes.

I know my kid has got this, I don't care what the test says.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The windup

This year is going to be different; I told myself this as I sat in the bustling cafeteria, sipping hot coffee and watching my son schlep a bag of gear bigger than himself toward the gymnasium.

For the first time, I am glad I am not allowed to watch.

He wasn't crying. He wasn't sporting the start of a shiner from when his father -- feeling guilty for going a whole year without throwing a ball around with his son – pitched him a fastball in the minutes prior to the big evaluation that the poor boy caught with his face.

That was last year.

This year IS going to be different.

This year, as in past years, my son has all the enthusiasm of a team full of kids.

He even has everything he needs unlike previous years. All the tools of the trade are now at his disposal: a mitt, a bat, a pair of batting gloves, a few baseballs and a helmet. Of course, this collection was the product of two years of birthday presents from people who understand the game as well as the fact that this kid's parents are clueless.

… Which would have been evident to anyone who noticed the bag he was dragging into the gym: a homemade duffel made out of striped sun-colored canvas.

It looked like he was going to the beach.

I shook my head. Who am I trying to kid? This year won't be so different. It's not as if any of us have changed.

My husband still loves soccer.

My son still says he loves the sport, but his attention is constantly being syphoned away by any number of distractions from passing butterflies to the epic battle (complete with sound effects) between the superheroes and the regular heroes that is always playing out in his mind.

And it's not as if I'd rather have a root canal than sit through another baseball game, but I still feel the same uneasy anticipation that I have always felt whenever my little player takes the field.

The big difference now seems to be the other players.

There are fewer of them like my son.

Increasingly, they are starting to focus on the ball. They connect with it on more and more occasions. And when they do, it doesn't just hit the ground and bounce harmlessly toward the pitching coach. It sails into the air on a direct path to the fence … where my son is usually playing air guitar.

Now, I don't care if the kid ever becomes a modern Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays but I'd like for him to live to see the third grade.

Getting beaned in the head by a ball he wasn't watching doesn't seem to be a likely way to meet that goal.

So we had THAT chat … the one where I try and talk him out of loving baseball. The one where I try to show him the player I see by straightening out the fun house mirror he's been gazing into. The one where I try to tell him, ever-so-lovingly, that I don't think baseball's his game.

Of course, I just wind up stepping all over his feelings and tripping over mine.

“No, no, no … that's not what I meant,” I plead when his eyes well up with tears. “I didn't mean any of that to say you are bad at baseball. All I meant was that you don't give it the same attention you pay to other things … like video games and imaginary creatures.”

It occurs to me that right this very second the only thing I can do is drink my lukewarm coffee and hope this is the year baseball will finally leave an impression.

And that the impression it leaves won't require a trip to the emergency room.