A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Tray Tables Closed

“Do not inflate the life jacket before exiting the plane.”
Molly and Lizzy, properly strapped into their respective seats, were dutifully watching as the grouchy lady with the strangely immoveable hair mimed the act of blowing into the two red tubes on the life jacket’s shoulders, the ones to be used if the pull-cord thingy failed to deploy.  They might have preferred the story of Saturday at Blackberry Farm rather than the intoning of the location of emergency exits, but they weren’t complaining.  They’d just seen what happens when a grownup tries to read aloud juvenile literature during the Important Safety Talk: Mommy was chastised by the lady in the uniform.
Never mind that we’d heard it all before – four times already this week, in fact.  Never mind that our plane had already been sitting on the tarmac at Newark airport for an hour, waiting for takeoff in an invisible but apparently lengthy queue.  Never mind that the only chance for a water landing between New Jersey and Seattle would be in either Lake Huron or someone’s backyard Jacuzzi.
“The emergency light on the shoulder will illuminate in water.”
In my own defense, I’d been reading the picture book in a very quiet voice.  The two guys across the aisle were yammering away several decibel levels louder.  Nevertheless, the authority figure in Alaska Airlines polyester told me sternly, “It’s important that the children hear this.”
Given that the twins are only four years old, this seemed slightly preposterous.  I hate to underestimate my kids, but I wasn’t imagining them leading other passengers to safety across the blazing wings of a downed craft, all the while reminding everyone to remove their shoes on the inflatable evacuation slide. 
Then again, they probably knew the shtick better than those guys blathering about the weather.  After all, kids have amazing powers of memorization, when they are motivated.  In fact, watching the safety talk the first time around, on the red-eye out of Fairbanks, had given me flashbacks. 
When I was four and my sister Sarah was seven, our family flew to England.  I was mightily impressed by the idea of flying, and by the very fact of being on an airplane.  The folding armrests and tray tables were nifty.  The drink carts and tiny snacks were immensely appealing.  And the people in uniforms obviously knew everything. 
Thus, when the nice lady began explaining emergency procedures, I was riveted.  It hadn’t occurred to me that the plane might crash!  The idea was scary, but also exciting.  No one told me that the most probable outcome of a crash would be ignominious demise, so I assumed that all crashes resulted in complex rescue maneuvers.  I also assumed that a water landing was a relatively likely possibility.  Life jackets!  Slides!  Little lights and whistles! It sounded like fun.
I remember being a trace perturbed that my parents seemed to be only half-focused on the crucial information being dictated.  Luckily, Sarah and I were on top of things.  We took the shiny laminated cards from our seat pockets, and scrutinized the little pictures, arrows, and icons.  We craned our heads under the seats to find the life jackets, and peered at the ceiling for the oxygen-mask portals.  One phrase leapt out at both of us: “Secure your own oxygen mask before helping children and others who may need assistance.”
What?! Sarah and I looked at each other.  My God, we were on our own!  This turned the normal order of the world on its head.  I mentally vowed that I would not be categorized among the helpless.  I might be only four, but I would know how to put on my own oxygen mask, darn it.
Now I was traveling with twin four-year-olds of my own.  This fact alone gave me some empathy for the flight attendant.  Not that she had any clue about small kids; no one with children of their own would even think of interrupting the lyrical verbiage of Saturday at Blackberry Farm.  But as she put away her faded-looking props, she gave me a tired half-smile, and I suddenly felt a surge of fellow-feeling for her.  It struck me that the frustrations that had apparently turned her into a humorless harridan might not be all that different from the maddening stuff that sometimes made me recoil in horror from my own persona.  Her job, as it was supposed to be, was one of control, education, precision, safety, and responsibility.  Her job, as it played out day-to-day, consisted of doling out little cups of apple juice, wiping up unspeakable spills, patiently reasoning with whiners, and trying not to lose her temper when no one listened to her.  I could relate.  From now on, I vowed, I would keep my tray table folded and my seat back in the upright position.
Despite the passage of thirty years, vast technological advances, and all the added complexities of flying post 9-11, the safety talk seems to have changed remarkably little.  For me, this only underscored the futility of it all.  Why bother invest in modernized life jackets when the old ones will fail to save your life just as effectively?
On the first flight of this particular trip, the departure was at 1:20 a.m.  Thus, I was exhausted before we’d even removed -- and put back on -- three sets of footwear at Security (with accompanying insistent questions from the twins regarding what, exactly, might be dangerous about shoes).  By the time we boarded, I just wanted the blaring announcements to cease, so that I could coax both kids and my own flagging body into an approximation of sleep – albeit cramped and jouncing sleep.  Molly, however, had other ideas. 
I saw her brow furrow with concentration as she listened to the description of how the seatbelts worked.  She opened and closed her own several times, for practice.  When instructed to consult the card in the seat pocket in front of her, she had to undo the seatbelt again, in order to reach – it’s amazing how spacious Coach Class seats are when you are only three and a half feet tall.  I watched out of the corner of my eye as one small finger traced the hieroglyphic-like instructions. 
Now, three flights later, she was hearing it all over again, and listening more carefully than ever before:  seatbelts… exits… floatation devices… Finally, the disembodied voice got to the kicker.  “Secure your own oxygen mask before helping children and others who may need assistance.”
I caught Molly’s eye.  She gave me a look of great suspicion.  I knew that look.  I’d worn that look.
I shrugged and smiled.  Yeah, kid, you’re on your own.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Half Iron, Half Jello

Last summer I competed in a triathlon. I use the word “compete” in the sense of “finished the course without drowning or succumbing to heat stroke.”  When I signed up for it, it was unclear even to me why I would even consider doing such a thing, except that I knew the threat of public humiliation would help motivate me to get into some semblance of good shape.  This was no idle afternoon’s entertainment; the race included 1.2 miles of swimming, a 56-mile bike ride, and a 13.1 mile run. 
Why such peculiar distances?  Well, 13.1 miles is half of a marathon, and 56 miles is half of… 112 miles.  I have no rational explanation, other than the fact that a race twice this long is called an “Ironman” – a name that invariably makes me giggle.  Is an Iron Man one step up from the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz?  Does he have an accent like the Terminator?  Does he channel a British butler, like C3PO?  Or is he just a real whiz at getting dress shirts neatly pressed?
If “Ironman” sounds goofy, “half Ironman” sounds both goofy AND incomplete.  But, I thought, a semi-triathlon seemed appropriate for me, because I often feel like I do everything by halves.  I work 30 hours a week at a job that could easily suck up 60 hours.  I write emails while on teleconferences, I eat breakfast while creating spreadsheets, and I plan meetings while folding laundry.  This would be great if I did a stellar job with all this multi-tasking, but I don’t.  I have Cheerios in my keyboard and a whole bag of stray socks.  I try to bake 30-minute brownies in 15 minutes – but I fail.  I knew there was no way I could do a whole Ironman, but maybe – just maybe – I could fake my way through a half.
My potential triathlon prowess, I had to admit, fell squarely into the half-baked category. I run with a lumbering gait on my iffy Achilles tendons; my bike is designed for touring, not racing -- complete with shock absorbers and a rear rack; and I swim like a cat who has accidentally fallen into the bathtub. 
My training for the event mostly consisted of hauling the kids around – either biking them to and from preschool in their Chariot trailer, or trotting along with them in the jog stroller.  The fact that we often jogged to the playground next to Hotlicks Ice Cream may have negated some of the positive benefits of the exercise.  I did TRY to practice swimming – I really did.  I got a punch card for the gym.  I put on a Speedo, repeatedly.  I slogged up and down the pool, occasionally crashing into whatever poor soul got stuck sharing my lane.  I got bloodshot eyes from the chlorine leaking into my goggles, and I earned pitying glances from the 21-year-old lifeguards, but I didn’t get much faster.
On a sizzlingly hot Saturday in July, I showed up at the start of the race – a Steese Highway pull-off -- with my inappropriate bicycle, my exceedingly cheap wetsuit, my muddy running shoes, and my cheering squad, otherwise known as my family. The kids immediately found a large dirt pile that afforded excellent mountaineering practice.  Meanwhile, I staked out a spot for my stuff in the official transition zone.  I loaded my bike with water bottles and crammed Powerbars in the snack bag.  I applied sunscreen, and snuck glances at the other competitors.  Their buff physiques, slick logoed tri-suits, and shiny, high-tech paraphernalia made it abundantly clear that I was out of my league.  I think even my bicycle felt embarrassed. 
In line for the Port-a-Potty, a woman about my age asked me a logistical question.  “Oh, I have no idea what I’m doing,” I blurted. “Actually, I feel kind of ridiculous.”
It turned out it was her first half-Ironman, too.  “You look official enough,” she reassured me.  She was obviously either very kind or extremely near-sighted.  I was wearing nothing but a 15-year-old highly compressive sports bra and a thrift-store pair of Spandex shorts.  I’m relatively muscular, I suppose, but I’m not even vaguely lithe – and I’ve had twins.  When I was pregnant, my belly expanded to roughly the size of the Hindenburg.  Four years later, my skin is still a couple of sizes too large, and my belly button is irrevocably inside out.
As in almost all triathlons, the swimming portion came first, thus giving me the chance for maximum immediate mortification.  We were tasked with doing five laps around the perimeter of a gravel pit.  Imagine swimming in a shallow, murky, weed-infested pool of water (which, it later became clear, was infested with more than just weeds).  You are encased in a hot, restrictive wetsuit, and you are wearing blurry, leaky goggles.  Now imagine that there are fifty immensely strong people in black neoprene attempting to swim beside, around, over, and on top of you. After the first thirty seconds, I was pretty well convinced that I would not survive. 
Things got marginally better when all of my competitors had passed me and were surging around the other side of the pit, but pretty soon the leaders started catching up with me again.  The water was only about sixty degrees, but I was so hot I was hyperventilating.  I couldn’t see where I was going, and kept getting tangled in the orange flags, or beaching myself in shallow gravel.  After two miserable laps, I stopped and took off my wetsuit.
Taking off a skin-tight neoprene bodysuit is no easy maneuver at the best of times, and I was panting, discombobulated, and waist deep in water, but I managed to extricate myself, and hurl the offending item shoreward, where my long-suffering husband retrieved it.  This sort of move might have disqualified me from a race in the Lower 48, but up here, no one seemed unduly concerned about protocol.  Besides, it was already obvious I wasn’t going to win any prizes.
I wasn’t the last person out of the water – I was the second to last.  However, I didn’t have long for this amazing success to get to my head, because the slowest swimmer was a woman of legendary speed on land, and she passed me about ten seconds into the bike race.
I was last – dead last – and I felt like a wet noodle.  The sun was blazing down from an unrelenting sky, I had water in my lungs, and I was practically naked in public.  The bike portion of the race would send us back and forth on the Steese, two laps to the north, and two laps to the south.  I could see one of the lead racers approaching from the opposite direction, already almost done with the first leg of the bike ride. 
This was not exactly a morale-booster… until he gave me a cheer.  Not a fake cheer, or a patronizing one, but a genuine chunk of audible goodwill.  A few minutes later, the next guy did the same thing.  And the next guy.  I waved back, nonplussed.  Amazingly, those folks with the aero handlebars, solid racing wheels, and 3% body fat had the energy to root for slackers like me.  “Looking good!” they said, with absolute conviction.  “Keep it up!”
I really dislike the taste of Gatorade, especially with overtones of warm plastic bottle, but all of a sudden it tasted like the nectar of the gods.  I slurped half-melted Powerbars.  My legs got going.  The breeze of my own motion cooled me.  The miles flew by.  I did one lap, and then another – and, astonishingly, I caught up with someone.  And then someone else, and then three more someones.  “Looking good!” I said, because the goodwill was infectious, and because they WERE looking good.  They looked like triathletes!  “Keep it up!”
When I rolled back into the transition zone to drop my bike and collect my running shoes, I was feeling pretty good.  Only a half-marathon to go!  No problem!  My legs, however, had other ideas.  Someone seemed to have replaced them with a pair belonging to a rubber chicken.  I staggered uphill like a drunk, and when I left the shelter of the trees, the force of the sun thudded into my skin.   Fairbanks has a climate that is nothing if not ironic.  Don’t like fifty below zero?  Wait a few months!  The temperature was in the mid-eighties… and that was in the shade.  The road was not shaded, and there would be no more cooling breezes.
But the forces of support and camaraderie were doing valiant battle with the sun.  At every lap, my miniature fan club waved at me.  At every water station, stalwart volunteers handed out life-saving Dixie cups, and cheered the fortieth competitor just as much as they’d cheered the first.  One brilliant individual, to whom I will forever be grateful, reached into his cooler and gave me a cupful of ice.  Having lost any vestige of pride approximately seventy miles previously, I immediately dumped it directly into my sports bra.  It gave me peculiarly lumpy cleavage, but it felt like heaven.
Despite my slow dog-trot, I passed several people.  These were the flushed, salty, panting individuals who had been reduced to a limping walk.  By now, the winners had already won.  We were the melting residue on the roadside, and everyone was suffering from the heat.  I saw one guy, who looked about nineteen, leap the barricade and hurtle down a near-cliff to the river far below.  He passed me again twenty minutes later, soaked to the skin and much refreshed.  “Smart idea,” I told him, and he grinned and told me I was doing great.  I didn’t detect any sarcasm.  So what if I was twice his age and had a bra full of ice?  We were in this together.  “Keep it up,” I told him.
Ultimately, I finished the race in six hours and forty-two minutes, good for fourteenth out of twenty-three women.  I also beat six of the twenty-six men.  But the stats didn’t really seem to matter very much.  Everyone was happy to welcome and congratulate the finishers who straggled in at seven hours, and at seven and a half.  And everyone seemed more excited about the potluck barbecue than the scoresheet. 
I was so sweat-salted that I was shedding white flakes.  My mushroom-like belly had burned to a fiery scarlet.  By the next morning, I was walking like a wooden puppet, and my entire body had erupted with the hideous itchy pustules that characterize swimmer’s itch.  “I had a great time,” I insisted, as friends and coworkers eyed me with nervous, queasy sympathy.  They were obviously convinced that I was suffering the delusional after-effects of sunstroke. 
I had to admit that they had a point; if my goal had been to get into great shape, any positive benefits were clearly outweighed by the gimpiness and pox. I might be half Ironman, but the other half was pretty much unmentionable.  And yet… if I was deluded, I was certainly not the only one.  The race organizer warned us all that the popularity of the event had grown so much in recent years that he’d probably have to restrict the number of entrants in 2011. 
I sent in my registration form long before the hives crusted over and the last of the sunburn peeled.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Zen of Attention-Deficit Snowpants.

                I think there should be special branch of philosophy dedicated to the art of patiently waiting for twin preschoolers to get dressed to play outside… in Fairbanks Alaska… in January.  We could call it The Zen of Attention-Deficit Snowpants.
                I’m not usually the kind of mom who imagines disorders for my kids based on what’s trendy.  I figure there are more than enough parents suffering through the rigors of raising kids with disabilities.  If Molly and Lizzy are sometimes prone to asking a thousand questions before I’ve even managed to eat my bowl of Cheerios, I should just be grateful that they can talk. Sure, my kids sometimes bounce off the walls, but when I see other people’s children cannon-balling around the supermarket or escaping parental clutches in the middle of SEA-TAC airport security lines, I’m pleasantly reassured that my offspring are not, in fact hyperactive.  Sometimes, though, I do wonder if ADD can be diagnosed based solely on the inability to remember that after putting on the LEFT boot, it is almost always going to be necessary to also put on the RIGHT boot, too.
                There’s a genetic rationale for my suspicions.  At least one of the kids’ uncles, one aunt, and one cousin struggle with ADD, and the jury’s still out on the rest of us.  My husband Jay and I both have days when we forget what we’re doing somewhere between the living room and the kitchen…which are only two feet apart.  Jay sometimes has entire conversations with me that he denies recalling a day or two later.  He claims that I do the same, but he can’t be right about that, because I don’t remember any such thing. 
To be fair, though, I distinctly recall overhearing a conversation between my mother and father when I was about eight, in which they bemoaned my seeming inability to bring home from school things like permissions slips, assignments, lunch boxes, and potentially my own head.  Even then, I was dimly aware that this might be a problem, especially given that my mom, dad, and older sister Sarah never forgot anything, ever.  They were never late.  They were never unprepared.  They simply couldn’t fathom why my brain sometimes escaped from orbit and headed for Neptune. 
Faced with all this evidence, it becomes harder to cling to the notion that Jay and I – and by extension, our kids – are somewhere in the normal range when it comes to maintaining focus.  Focus.  I seem to be using that word a lot these days.  Ok, honey, you need to focus on finding your mitten right now… where do you think you left it?  I’m not sure why I bother to ask questions like this, because the answer is always the same: “I don’t know.”  This is all the more frustrating because I know I’m at least partly to blame.  The twins are four.  I’m thirty-eight.  If Mommy had been focusing, Mommy would know where the mitten was.  But I was busy focusing on the bag of snacks, the water bottles, the sack of overdue library books, the car keys, and my wallet, not to mention my own boots, hat, mittens, sweater, jacket, and neck warmer.
                To compound the problem, Molly and Lizzy like to take toys with them everywhere they go.  I started letting them do this because it seemed unfair to trap them in the car or in the bike trailer with nothing to do.  Young minds need stimulating!  But I now understand why my own mother disallowed this practice.  Just when I’m trying to get everyone gathered on the doormat, in the vain hope that being close to the boots and hats will foster a sense of urgency with regard to their proper usage, the kids are running around their room like feral cats, trying to choose what they want to take along.  “Can I bring Kanga, Mommy?” No, she’s too big.  Kanga is the size of a microwave.  “Can I bring Playmobil?” My god, no.  All Playmobil sets come with roughly eight bajillion small pieces, each of which becomes unutterably precious to a small child the moment she is unable to locate it. “Ok, well, then I’ll bring this tub of Legos.” Look, kiddo, I’ve changed my mind, how about you just bring Kanga?
                At long last, the kids make it to the doormat, and the dressing begins.  I stand by to dispense basic rules of physics (the snowpants have to go on BEFORE the jacket), and to help maintain focus.  Lizzy, can you please choose a hat?  Lizzy, please choose a hat.  Lizzy?  Hat?  HAT!  HAT! HAT!  Heaven help us if it’s a “real” winter day, because at minus forty, each kid needs a balaclava, a neck warmer, AND a hat.  That’s after we’ve already dealt with the two pairs of socks, the long underwear, and the extra sweater, and before we broach the snowpants, jacket, boots, two pairs of mittens, and head lamp.
We do, eventually, make it out the door.  We waddle down the path.  Just as we’re approaching the car, someone remembers: we left Kanga sitting on the mat.
This is the point in time at which I need to perfect the deep breathing techniques of the Zen of Attention Deficit Snowpants.  Hyperventilating inside a balaclava is a bad idea, and yelling has been proven, through repeated not-at-all-scientific trials, to be counterproductive.  But, perhaps even more importantly, I need to be calm so I can think this through, and I need to think this through so I can decide whether I should worry, laugh, or move to Barbados.
Are we suffering from collective ADD?  Are we the victims of a challenging climate?  Or is this level of discombobulation and dysfunction actually normal
“Normal” of course, is a matter of opinion.  On the assumption that part of my guilt and anxiety comes from growing up in a family with such excellent focus, I started looking for counter-examples, to comfort myself.
What about the friend of mine, a highly intelligent scientist, who sewed an elaborate Halloween costume for her son, but suffered a memory lapse on the crucial evening that resulted in her son being eight miles away from his ears, his paws, and his tail?  Then there’s the little girl at Molly and Lizzy’s preschool who always seems to be sitting on the bench in the coatroom with one boot on and one boot off, and a dreamy expression on her face.  I wouldn’t have though it would be possible for anyone to dress and undress more slowly than my kids, but this child has them beaten by a mile.
Yes, I tell myself, but the fact that other people are dysfunctional doesn’t mean that my family isn’t.  Shouldn’t I be looking for POSITIVE examples?  Shouldn’t I be comparing myself to people who have their proverbial ducks in a proverbial row?  Shouldn’t I be aiming for the level of focus demonstrated during my own childhood?
And then I remember.  Amidst all the perfectly-orchestrated birthday parties, on-time train rides, and well-equipped beach trips, one childhood memory shines forth in slovenly ADD glory.  Once – just once – when our family went on a vacation, my parents forgot to bring the (carefully packed) suitcase that contained clothes for myself and Sarah.  All our clothes.  We visited friends, family, restaurants, parks, and historic sites.  In every photo, my sister is wearing a rather lurid multi-colored dress.  In every photo, I, aged four, am dressed in the same pair of grubby corduroy pants, and the same suspiciously stained t-shirt. 
I am smiling a lot in those photos.  I was probably enjoying all the friends, family, restaurants, and parks.  I may even have been enjoying the historic sites, given that they included both cannons and cows.   I was easy to please, at age four.  Somewhat more surprisingly, my parents are smiling a lot in those pictures, too.  Despite the rapidly accumulating filth on their children, they seem to be having a fabulous vacation. 
Why?  Maybe they were putting on a brave face.  Maybe they were in denial.  Or maybe – just maybe – they’d realized what I am still figuring out now, three decades later.  Perhaps they were smiling because they’d discovered that there can joy amidst anarchy.  There can be contentment in the face of distraction.  There can be humor in that moment when you open the trunk of the car and realize that something is utterly, irrevocably missing. Even if you ‘re forced to explain to a whole host of distant relations exactly why it is that your kids smell funny, life is still pretty good.  And if that’s the case, then all of us can strive to attain the level of peace and harmony epitomized by The Zen of Attention Deficit Snowpants