Sunday, September 29, 2013

No pain, no pain

The worst pain I can recall (prior to childbirth) I suffered when I was 17.

A half-dozen people (I can barely remember now) piled into a rickety old panel van and drove to a concert venue three hours away. Typical weekend in high school.

But don't worry, it wasn't tragic.

Actually, decades later, it seemed like comedy.

I don't remember what month it was, but it was definitely winter. And the chill in the air was compounded by a drafty old truck with a broken heater.
It felt like being seat-belted into a vegetable crate and shoved in a walk-in freezer.

By the time we got to my house in the wee hours of the morning, I slid out of the van and realized instantly that I couldn't stand up. As my friends pulled away, leaving me in a cloud of choking exhaust, I hobbled inside as if I were still sitting. I didn't know such a thing was possible, but evidently the fluid in my knees had frozen.

The actual pain happened a few hours later as I began to warm up under a pile of blankets that would have rivaled the stack of mattresses from “The Princess and Pea” story. Free-ranging ice crystals seemed to be clinking around, stabbing me in the hollows of my knees as I tried to sleep, and then alternated between kicking me in the shins and shackling my ankles.

Honestly, I thought I would die.

I had similar thoughts last weekend as I was finishing up the first mile of the 5K I shouldn't have been running because my ankle twinged with remaindered pain from a run a few days earlier.

But there I was, taking in the news of my fastest mile ever with the face-crinkling reality that the pain in my leg was no longer in receding.

I wanted to cry.

More precisely, I wanted to teleport home through a portal in the universe and pretend this lapse in judgement n-e-v-e-r happened. I just wanted to disappear into the nagging self-doubt that is my own personal prison.

But as luck would have it, the course – held on the inside of a local apple orchard within fifteen-foot fences – proved to be as restraining as an actual prison.

I imagined myself scaling the fence to get back to the road, hitchhiking the mile or so home, and feigning ignorance to anyone who might have seen me running. Who was I kidding? I might as well ask for fairy dust, or start searching for a cellphone app that would help me materialize an invisible flying scooter that would whisk me home.

I was humiliated enough. I did the crime, now I was going to have to do my time.

So I started to walk … or limp …. toward the finish.

Seventeen minutes later I was probably another 20 minutes away from being sprung when I realized another painful truth: It hurt more to walk than it did to run.

So I started to jog. Mind over matter, I told myself. Just put one foot in front of the other.

Fourteen minutes later it was over. Almost.

I still had an “urgent care” visit to muscle through, which, I can admit, I was anticipating like a cavity search.

“So … what happened?” asked the nurse.

“I broke the cardinal rule. … I ran on a painful ankle.”

“So … how long was your run?”

“Oh … It took me about 44 minutes,” I answered with disappointment.

“No,” she chuckled, “how many miles did you run on a hurt ankle?”

“Sometimes it seems like all of them.”

“Don't worry. It's not tragic. Next time, just stop running when it hurts.”

I wonder if there's an app for that?  

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Omens and omissions

My husband doesn't believe in signs. Even the posted ones – the ones that clearly translate important information such as speed limits and wait times and even the one's exclaiming “YOU ARE HERE!” with a big, red “X” – are met with some degree of skepticism.

He certainly doesn't believe in omens.

So it was somewhat of a surprise to me that, as we walked inside the entrance to the corn maze after having signed the official waiver of indemnity and responsibility for bodily harm, he instructed the kids to first notice a tiny sandpiper, which had lit in front of us, taking two or three hops before taking off again into the stalks, and then to follow it.

Of course, his instructions were only implied, as his actual words said “Look, that sandpiper is trying to show us the way,” but he should have known our kids would interpret the meaning thusly: “Follow that bird!”

I don't know how you feel about them, but I feel slightly off kilter and extremely thankful that I am not a single parent whenever faced with the proposition of visiting the agricultural destination mecca that corn mazes have wrought.

I BELIEVE in signs, especially the one I just read at the mouth of the maze that instructed us to keep our children within sight throughout the whole of the attraction. Yet, sprinting through weather heaved and stalk-riddled corn rows isn't within my abilities.

It only took one visit – an ill-fated 2009 solo sojourn to a big, destination farm in which I lost my oldest child in the corn rows for over an hour as I clasped her baby brother's hand in a too-tight grip as I screamed her name over and over in a panic – that convinced me “family togetherness” in such situations is the only thing that matters.

Well, that, and a working cell phone – which I am now crushing in my too-tight grip as my school-aged son takes off at a full-out gallop after the bird.

One turn at the head of the row and he's gone.

My husband realizes the error of his ways and tries to correct the mistake. He levels the only thing known to man (and boy) that has any chance of keeping the boy from flying off into the abyss … Ice cream.

We take turns yelling: “STOP RUNNING!” and “You won't get any ice cream if you get lost in the maze.” It feels like we're just hollering into the wind.

Each time, the boy returns. Though, he is silent as he stalks back under a dark cloud. “You are NO fun!” he accuses.

Still, we play the game.

There is trivia to learn and stations to tick off along the way as if collecting stamps on a passport. A sign that would prove “we were here.”

It took longer than he expected, even though the sign said to expect a two-hour walk.

But in the end he could agree, we got no help from the sandpiper, which, to the children's delight, seemed to lead us through the maze. Flitting this way and that, from one dead end to another, until we eventually found the exit.

I don't think birds really believe in signs, either.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Sins and sons

I see little boys everywhere.

Happy little boys who look like mine. Little boys who wear the same clothes day in and day out like a uniform.

Little boys who hug and say sweet, if not slightly inane, compliments because it's Sunday, and everyone needs something to get them steeled and ready for Monday's grind.

My little boy is like those little boys.

A splash of mud here, a magic marker slash there. Sometimes quiet. Sometimes loud. Sometimes rough and tumble, sometimes timid and shy.

He smiles. Talks to strangers. Tells them about his dog.

And how she died when she got too old.

They smile. Uncomfortably.

They try to change the subject.

He talks about the new dog. Who looks like the old dog. And you know what happened to her ...

Of course, when this one dies he wants to replace her with a Chihuahua.

I smile. Uncomfortably.

He's such a sweet kid.

He knows there are rules now. He makes his own from time to time. He tries to follow them all, but he also wants to see how far they will bend.

That seems natural.

He has moods, now, too. Anger slips into them on occasion. Sometimes arbitrarily.

I think that's natural, too. I just wonder. … Was he always this angry?

Or do I see him differently because he's a boy and I've never been a boy?

Or maybe it's because he's in school and the pressure to be liked by his teacher is overwhelming.

I know he saves his anger for me. A safe person. A person who loves him. No matter what mood he's in between dinner, homework and bed time.

Yet. … Every outburst. Every cross eye. Every ounce of resistance ...?

Do I have to worry?

Little boys who don't growl at their sisters, or argue with their best friends over imaginary rules they have no intention of heeding.

Do these saintly little cherubs tell their mothers they hate them?

Or chew their toast into the shapes of guns?

Do they paint the kitchen with yogurt splatters?

Or jab their best friend with a pencil in retribution for trying to sneak a peek at “a secret notebook” ... A volume that is almost certainly imaginary?

What happened to the first rule? 'Don't hurt anyone inside or out?',” I demand.

That's not the first rule. That's the fourth rule,” he argues.

Well, in this house it's Rule No. One.”

Do their mother's ever worry about getting a call from a teacher … or the police?
I shouldn't have read “We Need To Talk About Kevin.”

I shouldn't listen to the news, and its talk of increasingly disenfranchised boys.

Boys who don't go to college.

Who can't find jobs.

Who aren't getting married.

Who live with their mothers.

Forever. Or until they live inside barbed wire fences.

“My brother stabbed me in the back with a screwdriver when we were kids,” said a woman, trying to reassure me that her brother, now a respectable citizen, didn't mature into a sociopath. “He still feels terrible about giving me a scar.”

I feel better.

It has a familiar ring to it.

Or maybe something that is more of a “clunk.”

Like the sound of a wooden push toy hitting the head of a little girl who tried to take it away from me.

Afterward I felt terrible, too.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Gone around the bend

The man's expression was transparent. His half smile and head tilt were as clear as the words that formed through silent lips: "Hang in there. School is just around the corner."

I didn't even blink.

I know how I must have looked ...

A sullen, if slightly zombified, version of the Staples mom, who danced through the office supply store back in the late 1990s, knocking school supplies into her cart, as her children shuffled along behind looking as if someone had just run over their dog.

My kids, in contrast, race down the aisle, in different directions. All of us talking too loudly. They screech in jubilation: "School is starting!" Which means new clothes, backpacks, pencils, pens and all manner of stationary staples we already own but aren't fresh and new for a fresh, new school year. I scold in frustration: "Stop running. We don't need an electric pencil sharpener. NO! You can't have a walkie-talkie."

The sum of it all means spending more money than a week's worth of groceries and taking some teachers' names in vain, trying to find the exact size and brand of glue stick demanded on their supplies list.

The word for it is frazzled.

I suppose I am. Frazzled.

The bickering has gotten the better of me. And when the school bus stops and blinks its red lights waiting for my children to climb aboard, I will breathe a sigh of relief. I'll pour myself another coffee and actually get something done.

During the daylight.

But it's a bit of a cliché. I feel more like the kids in those old commercials than the parent.

There's a whole lot of schoolday things I'm not looking forward to. I know things will be added to my to-do list that are not always within my control.

Homework. Tests. Clashes of personalities.

The thing I've always disliked most about being a parent is that horrible, suffocating feeling that my failure is no longer my own.

Every flaw seemingly multiplied under a magnifying glass, burning pinholes into my soul.

At times, the whole thing just seems too big to manage; A new curriculum, new tests, more ways to fail. Consolidations have meant more students, fewer teachers, and the possibility that education could get so big it can't possibly do anything but fail.

Finally, I blinked.

The man is still there, holding a basket of real office supplies, not the pint-sized colorful ones I'm juggling as my kids find something else they are sure will help them get into the back-to-school spirit.

Portable music players with headphones … the kind that play CDs, and totally cover their ears.

They rejoice and carefully put their packages in the basket when I laugh and nod my head. After all, they have an hourlong bus ride to school each way, and in these impossible-to-open clamshell packages are a vintage of technology that I truly understand.

Thing is, school isn't 'just around the corner' anymore. Sometimes it seems like it's gone 'round the bend.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

I swear

I swear.

I do. Cross my heart.

Of course, I don't swear nearly as much as I used to back in high school, but I still lace my lexicon with a complicated pattern of curse words from time to time.

My foul mouth amuses my husband no end. He smiles and tells me I'm just like a truck driver, and tries to shush me when the words echo around the family room during morning cartoons.

He likes to think he can control the mouth his mother probably tried to wash out with soap here and there during his childhood. But he's no saint. If I swear when I wake up late, or stub my toe, or hear Matt Lauer's voice first-thing, before my morning coffee; he swears for no apparent reason whatsoever.

Though who am I to judge?

I swear when I'm happy. When I'm sad. When I'm excited. When words fail me.

Of course, I've tried to temper my tongue around the children (other people's children to be specific) and folks I don't know too well.

The idea that too much salty talk has a tendency to shrink the impact of other interwoven words – the way salt dehydrates a slug – was not entirely lost on me.

But I didn't cotton to the notion that words – in and of themselves – could be bad. Not entirely.

They are merely inappropriate for the time or company.

There are words we can't use in front of teachers or employers or grandparents.

Especially grandparents.

Keeping our mouths closed while chewing, and our elbows off the table are challenging enough. Peppering polite dinner conversation with impolite language might put regular breathing in peril.

Of course, there are words we NEVER say. Words that don't belong to us or that cause pain for no particular reason. There are phrases we should wean ourselves from because they can affect our thinking. …

I can't. ...

I'm bored. …

I am stupid. …

You are stupid ….

These are the things I try to impress upon my children.

That there are things we don't say, and things we try not to think, but we can't shut out every unpleasant thing.

So when an expletive slips out from the center of their cherubic cheeks, I don't suck in my breath and shrilly demand to know where they heard such things.

I know where they heard it. Everyone knows. They hear it over breakfast in the morning … on the way to the bus … while I'm cooking dinner … and when they're brushing their teeth. Anywhere accidents happen or dawdling occurs, four-letter words are always there to punctuate the response.

In some ways, I suppose, I think of these little stabs of the tongue as an inoculation of sorts. An immunization against the searing nature of harsh words.

Say it often enough … it will lose its meaning.

I toyed with the idea of giving them a swear word on their first double-digit birthday. A curse word they could use at home to their hearts' content.

Somehow, such a gift seemed hollow and overly contrived.

Cursing, I think, is all about taking, not about giving.

But that's not entirely true either.

Anyone who has ever used one knows that a well-placed curse word can be as satisfying (and relaxing) as a cup of tea and a mid-afternoon nap. It can also seem empowering:

Ittybit: “Mom … I know you told me NOT to wear my new school clothes, and I did … and I got ink on them … but you don't have to worry. I got the ink out.

Mom: “How did you get it out?”

Ittybit: Soap, hot water and curse words.

Mom: It really worked?

Ittybit: Totally! I swear!