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

Friday, July 22, 2011

Jedi Dentistry

[Disclaimer:  This essay contains allusions that will be obtuse and irritating to members of the reading public who have not seen the original Star Wars, including Mom, Dad, and several residents of Tuvalu and Djibouti.]

“Have you been flossing their teeth?”
Dr. Pendegrast’s face was furrowed with kindly concern as she looked at the diminutive x-rays.
“Umm…” I felt parental guilt crashing around me like a tsunami. I help them brush, I mentally protested. Molly and Lizzy don’t eat Cocoa Puffs with Coke for breakfast and Gummy Bear sandwiches for lunch.  Ok, so there’s often blueberry cobbler or Heavenly Hash after dinner, but such items are an important part of the Sinful Food Group.  We brush right afterward.  But flossing?  I’m pretty sure I never flossed my own teeth until I was twenty. 
 “Well… um… no.”
I never got cavities in my baby teeth.  My kids, it seemed, were not so lucky. Dr. Pendergrast told me that not one, but BOTH twins need not one, but MORE than one filling.  My stomach knotted with worry.  Would the kids behave themselves?  Would they dread each visit?  Would they have nightmares about those huge robotic dental chairs? 
It all depended on whether my Jedi mind tricks were good enough to earn me a light saber. 
Even while I was wallowing in self-recrimination, I knew what I had to do.  I made the appointments, and I limbered up my acting muscles.  If I wanted to save my kids’ teeth from the Dark Side while maintaining sanity, harmony, and tranquility in our corner of the galaxy, I had one week to create a self-fulfilling prophesy of happy dentistry. 
As a novice parent, it took me a while to realize that small children resemble Imperial Storm Troopers – not just because they run around a lot, have extremely poor aim, and like silly costumes, but also because they may actually believe you when you tell them, “These are not the droids you’re looking for.”   It took me even longer to appreciate the full possibilities of approaching tricky situations with a combination of utter conviction and feigned disinterest. 
I don’t have the advantage of resembling Obi-Wan Kenobi – at least, not last time I checked.  (Mom and Dad, even my spell checker recognizes Obi-Wan).  Still, the utter conviction part is not too difficult when I actually am convinced.  This in known is non-parenting circles as “being truthful.”  I’m pretty sure this helped with a few useful traits the kids have picked up.  Like their parents, Molly and Lizzy enjoy hiking, running, biking, libraries, cool bugs, scruffy dogs, and weird scientific questions.  They are avid consumers of cucumbers, spinach, tofu, oat bran, and beets.
I’ve tried not to even imagine that my kids won’t love these things, because truthfulness alone is not enough.  Avoiding over-eagerness is important too.  Even toddlers are remarkably savvy to when they are being given a hard sell.  The “yummy, yummy, yummy” peas are likely to come flying back in Daddy or Mommy’s face, and the “awesome fabulous big-kid potty” may be shunned.  Thus, this can be tricky. Not thinking negative thoughts is like not looking at the elephant in the corner.  It’s like pretending you don’t notice that the AT-AT bearing down on you is four hundred times larger than you are.  I try to avoid saying things like “Come on, try this, it’s so fun/delicious/educational.”  Even if it is.
It’s even tougher when acting skills are required.  When it comes to the “cleaning up messes is fun” mind-trick, Jay and I have not made Yoda proud.  In fact, a few days ago I knew I’d failed dismally when a simple request to pick up a few toys caused Lizzy to start sobbing.  It was then that I noted that a) I hate cleaning up; b) I’m completely inconsistent about it and c) I present it to the kids as if it were a punishment akin to being locked out at night on the ice-planet Hoth.  Clearly I’m a moron, because at preschool, Lizzy happily dances around picking up toys and singing the cleanup song with all the other little people.
And now I was facing a new test.  This particular case seemed like a tall order for a novice Jedi knight.  Unfortunately, I do not associate dentistry with rainbows, sunsets, ocean breezes, and the wafting notes of dulcimers. But I didn’t have any choice about it.  The key to pulling off the mind trick, I reasoned, isn’t to hope for success, but to ASSUME it. “Do.  Or do not. There is no try.”  Ok, fine.  I don’t know if Yoda ever had a root canal, but if he did, I’m sure he approached it with muppetty stoicism. 
With one week to obsess over the subject, I realized that I needed to work on my conviction.  In order to do so, it would help to draw from the truth.  What’s comforting, fun, and charming about fillings?  Luckily, I had a lot to work with.  The dental office that our family visits is elegant, graceful, and welcoming, with lots of sunlight streaming through arched windows, state-of-the-art equipment, and such comfortable chairs that napping during a cleaning seems like a realistic possibility.  Dr. Pendergrast is about as gentle, competent, and grandmotherly as anyone could possibly wish.  Her hygienists are all cheerful, friendly, and solicitous. The receptionist treats me like a friend. And to top it off, there’s a box of toys at the end of the hall for pint-sized patients. But… it’s still a dentist’s office. 
Gathering the Force around me, I set out to convince Molly and Lizzy that dental hygienists are as charming as Elmo and Dora, that Novocain is an exciting adventure in numbness, and that Dr. Pendergrast’s box of plastic trinket-prizes is as exciting as Fort Knox – all without seeming to care too much. 
I stayed attuned for every sneaky opportunity. “You’re right, I think those are baby twins in that stroller!”  Molly and Lizzy are always on the lookout for other litters of siblings.  “Hey, you know who else has twins?  One of Dr. Pendergrast’s hygienists!  Her twins are big kids, almost seven.” To five-year-olds, kids aged six through eight are the gold standard of coolness.
“Alex told you the dentist gives shots?”  Uh-oh.  Beware of the peer group.  “He probably didn’t understand about Novocain.  I bet you’ll understand.”  The kids like the idea that they are scientists with Nobel Laureate potential. “See, feelings in your body are communicated by cells called nerves. Novocain blocks the nerves, so you can’t feel anything, kind of like when your foot falls asleep.  Can you imagine your tongue falling asleep?  It’s pretty funny.  It thort of makth you talk like thith for a while.” This last part was deemed so hilarious that I had to elaborate on it for five minutes, like an inebriated cartoon duck.
And speaking of ducks…“Hmmm…. I don’t think we have any more toys to float in the rain barrel, but did you see all those rubber duckies in the dentist’s prize box?  We could collect a whole family of them!”
“I think we’re all out of chapstick.  Darn.” Luckily, Molly and Lizzy don’t yet have any idea about the relative costs of items such as duckies, chapstick, and diamond tiaras.  Either that, or they are resigned to the fact that Mommy is too cheap to buy them anything. “Oh, but remember that little tube of special chapstick Daddy got last time he visited Dr. Pendergrast?”  Daddy’s chapstick is so flabbergastingly awesome it almost caused a riot a month or so ago.  “If we’re really lucky, she might have some for you, too.”
On the fateful day, thirty minutes before the Hour of Reckoning, Lizzy bounded up to me at the preschool gate. “We get to go to the dentist today!” she chirped.
The kids’ preschool teacher gave me a bemused look as I hustled Molly and Lizzy out the gate, each trailing the inevitable fragile-yet-sticky art projects behind her.  “I wish I were that enthusiastic about the dentist,” she murmured.
Given my kids’ excitement, I had obviously already passed the first hurdle.  Now I would find out whether the mind trick held, when tested. 
When we were called in from the waiting room, I perched on a stool between two partitioned-off cubes, while the twins were each dwarfed by a massive examining chair. I feigned cheery calm.  I feigned fascination as the shiny little dental tools were introduced.
The staff knew what they were doing.  They kept the giant needles out of the kids’ line of sight like conjurers. They maintained cheerful patter, and slathered on the praise.  They were, in short, as charming to small children as Elmo and Dora – and infinitely less irritating to adults.  Novocain was kind of cool – as all new sensations are, when you’re five.  The drill was never actually called a drill.  The chapstick materialized, in appealingly miniature tubes and exotic flavors.  And the prizes?  Well, who WOULDN’T be thrilled by a rubber duckie wearing a bowler hat? 
Slowly, very slowly, I released my pent-up breath.
The receptionist heaped congratulatory words on all three of us on our way out the door.  The kids, still slurring their words through numb lips, were excitedly discussing which prizes they’d choose on our next visit, the following week.  And although I was still harboring guilt about the inadequacy of my previous cavity-prevention techniques, I felt like I’d blown up an enemy battle station. 
I’d succeeded.  On the other hand, success in one venue makes me question everything else, and bemoan lost opportunities.  Why can’t I – using my newfound powers and my imaginary light-saber -- convince my kids to put away their stuffed animals, pipe cleaners, and special rocks?  Why can’t I cure myself of my addiction to chocolate?  Why doesn’t everyone rush to save the planet when I blather on about renewable energy, organic produce, and waste reduction?
And what about my future as a parent?  Sure, I can pull of a Jedi mind trick on a couple of five-year-olds, but I suspect the twins’ credulity will have diminished sharply a decade from now. Obviously I need a lot of work honing my skills – because the Empire always strikes back.

Friday, July 1, 2011

In the Spirit

Lizzy and Molly on the Granite Tors trail, 2009

1. an exciting or very unusual experience.
2. a bold, usually risky undertaking; hazardous action of uncertain outcome.

“This week, instead of writing down the titles of the books you’ve read, we want you to tell us about adventures you’ve had.”

The librarian in the Berry Room is smiling beatifically at Molly and Lizzy.  I look at them expectantly, too.  Adventure!  The connotations are irresistible.  I know I love adventure.  I know I seek it out.  And yet, dictionary definition notwithstanding, I’m not sure I know precisely what the word means.  What counts?  What qualifies?  I can’t help but wonder about the quantity of fractured, ungrammatical sagas this friendly lady is likely to hear between Monday and Friday from eager young participants in the “One World -- Many Stories” summer reading program. I also can’t help but wonder how many of these thousand recitations will truly fulfill the promise of “adventure”. 

Molly is half-clinging to my leg, but she’s enticed by both the appeal of the question and the charisma of the questioner.   She ventures an answer: “There was a big big storm and we had to hide under the picnic table roof thing.”

Heavy rain?  I mentally scoff that the thunderstorm last weekend at the Manley Hot Springs campground was not in any way a real adventure.  I have to work to restrain myself from editorializing.  However, the librarian gives every indication of genuine interest. Thankfully, given the nature of her job, she seems to like little kids – not just in a cute-at-a-safe-distance way, but in the sense of enjoying long circuitous conversations with people who start in the middle of a story and leave out 83% of the salient details.  Her enthusiasm encourages my shy children to wax loquacious, in a non-linear manner.

“We ran a real race,” Lizzy offers.  “The big kids winned.  They were almost teenagers.”

If the nice book lady wants to listen, Molly and Lizzy have lots more to relate.  While they do so, I ruminate.

“We went to Seattle.  Steve and Manish have a dog called Billy.”

Adventure.  A few years ago, pre-kids, I debated the nuances of this single word with Jay and my friends Tom and Justin for the entire course of a hike around the Granite Tors trail.  The route is a 15-mile loop with steep ascents, dramatic vistas, impressive rock formations, and sucking bogs, so we had plenty of time to talk.  Besides, for me it felt like the perfect locale to discuss the subject. 

“Daddy’s bike had two flat tires, but we didn’t mind because we played with the tickle grass.”

The trail and I already had a bit of history.  Jay lured me to the Tors as our first real date, telling me he knew a “nice afternoon hike”.  On that occasion, the loop took us from noon to six p.m., so he maintains that his description was precisely accurate.  I didn’t argue the point at the time.  I like long hikes, and I didn’t want to look like a wimp in front of this sweet blue-eyed boy I’d recently met.  As I sweated and squelched my way over rocks, tussocks, and logs, trying not to suck air as I chatted with my date, I savored the feeling of adventure.

“The long-ago miners were litterbugs!  They left cans.  And a stove, right up at the top!”

Several years later, strolling along with Jay, Tom, and Justin, with a well-practiced knowledge of the trail and nothing to prove, the hike didn’t feel particularly adventuresome.  But when I said this, Justin disagreed.  For one thing, he’d never been to the Tors before, and didn’t hike nearly as frequently as I did.  For another, he’d been brainwashed by his own propaganda.  That summer, he was earning extra cash by working for the Northern Alaska Tour Company.  Justin’s job entailed driving a bus full of vacationers up to the Arctic Circle, stopping at the few available snack stops and gift shops along the long gravel road that wends its way toward the oil fields of the North Slope.  He was expected to narrate local lore to keep his customers engaged and amused.  He was also expected to persuade his passengers that the trip was thrilling, and even a bit risky.  Every one of the pre-packaged trips offered by NATC was billed as an “adventure.” 

“On the way down the mountain, we were a mushing team, but only walking, because Anna didn’t want to run.”

Jay and Tom pooh-poohed Justin’s perspective.  Retired bankers from Cleveland, little old ladies from Wichita, and sock-and-sandal-wearing empty-nesters from Jersey City, each toting a camera and plunking down a credit card for a Coldfoot T-shirt, cannot claim to be having an adventure.  True adventure, they argued, requires novelty.  It implies a visceral thrill, a flutter of excitement, and a sense of risk.

“I liked Ireland.  There were snails.”

In the debate between Jay and Tom and Justin, I wavered.  I had to admit that being hauled up the Haul Road didn’t sound terribly stimulating or jeopardy-filled, but maybe for people who had never seen the Alaska pipeline, Arctic tundra, or the Yukon River, the trip qualified.  My friend the bus driver had a point about context mattering.  I knew the Tors could be an adventure.  I felt peeved when Tom and Jay mocked meager exploits, but I wasn’t sure what was making me so defensive, and I never entirely took Justin’s side in the argument, either. 

“We have our own sled.  Togiak and Polar are old, but Remus is bouncy.” 

If the Tors were novel and thrilling on my first visit because I’d found a date who shared my proclivity for muddy hiking boots, they were novel and thrilling on my second trip there for slightly different reasons.  In October of 1999, several months into our relationship, Jay and I hiked the trail again.  We were hit by an unexpected white-out, with snow heavy enough to obscure our tracks within minutes of our making them.  We tried to short-cut off the ridge by hugging the side of the hill slope.  We failed.  In the darkness of an early-winter afternoon, we peered at our compass and soggy map and realized we had dropped into a valley – the wrong valley.  We were a daunting distance from the car.  We weren’t lost, precisely, but the slog out through the rapidly piling white stuff was long.  Very long.  By the time we staggered back to the parking lot, dug out the vehicle, and inched our way back to town on snow-clogged roads, it was 5 a.m.  We scarfed down spaghetti for breakfast.  Despite my exhaustion and my shame at having made such a silly wrong turn, I was buoyed by the feeling of adventure.

“Daddy and I raced the butterflies.  One of them beated us.”

After that hike with Tom and Justin, Jay and I didn’t hike the Tors for four years.  During that time, our universe shifted.  When we hit the trail again in 2009, it took us not one afternoon, but two days to complete the 15 miles.  For about five of those miles, two three-year-olds hopped and meandered around our feet.  For the other ten miles, our packs were heavy.  It was our first attempt at real backpacking with the kids.  We were trying out our ultra-light gear, which under the circumstances didn’t feel all that light.  We had to be prepared to protect our precious progeny against voracious mosquitoes, hot sun, and wind-driven 40-degree rain.  We had to bring bedtime stories, stuffed animals, sippy cups, and footie pajamas.  We were trusting the kids not to whine, not to rebel, and not to wet their pants.  We were seeing the trail through their eyes, as they exclaimed over tree fungus and stopped to worship puddles, ladybugs, and cloudberries.  For them, life is still full of challenge, risk, and excitement. 

“The boat loop is six miles!”

Now, standing in the Berry Room, listening with embarrassed amusement to a breathless recitation of mundane events, I finally realize why I am so ungenerous in my willingness to grant the title of “adventure” to the kids’ latest bike ride, or a bus trip taken by tourists, or Justin’s ascent of the Tors.  It’s not that I can’t accept that these experiences should be judged subjectively.  It’s simply that I’m worried, and perversely jealous.  I’ve already seen lots of thunderstorms.  I didn’t wait until the age of sixty-seven to first glimpse a black bear, a caribou, or a photogenic “Arctic Circle” sign.  I love adventure – I thrive on adventure -- and I’m secretly afraid that a lot of my adventures have already been trumped by experience, and therefore “used up.” 

“We’re digging a big hole, for treasure, or maybe dinosaur bones.”

But of course, that’s completely ridiculous.  Merely identifying my own hang-up is a relief, because as soon as the thought forms, I can logically – laughingly, self-mockingly -- quash it.  Who do I think I am, anyhow?  Sacagawea? Sir Francis Drake?  I haven’t even used up all the easy-to-reach adventures, let alone the ones that require a bit more planning, expensive plane tickets, and new outfits.  I haven’t bicycled to the Arctic Ocean and taken a bracing dip amidst the sea ice.  I haven’t gone sea kayaking in Prince William Sound.  I haven’t ridden in a hot air balloon.  I haven’t even seen the Grand Canyon, for heaven’s sake. The world is a large and fabulously complex place, with billions of inhabitants, thousands of ecosystems, and entire continents I have yet to visit.  I can no more use up all the possible adventures than I can speak Yoruba.  Haven’t I been paying attention to the theme of the summer reading program?  One World – Many Stories.  Or many adventures, as the case may be. 

“We biked all the way to Pioneer Park.”

Mollified and cheered, I try to rescue the Berry Room librarian.  I smile at her apologetically as I redirect Molly and Lizzy toward the picture books.  “We go biking and hiking kind of a lot,” I say, in an attempt to excuse all the unnecessary detail still being over-shared.

“Mommy and Daddy don’t have to carry us any more.  Not like when we were little.”

The librarian still seems interested.  She tells me she’s been doing a bit of hiking recently, too.  Where are we planning on going this summer?

“We get to have juice when we go hiking.  And pudding every day!”

“Well, we want to see how far the kids can manage completely under their own steam this year,” I say. “We were thinking of doing Pinnell, and maybe Kesugi, but we’ll probably start with the Tors.”

The librarian looks surprised, but she’s all smiles.  “Wow…well, good luck!  I hiked the Granite Tors last weekend.  It’s a beautiful trail, but I’m still sore.”  She laughs.  “It was a real adventure.”

She’s right, of course.  I know that now.  Every story she hears this week – even if involves mini-golf or feeding ducks – will be a genuine adventure.  So was her two-day version of that “nice afternoon hike”.  And this time, I don’t begrudge her.  I’m pretty sure hiking the Tors with two five-year-olds will offer up some novelty, and some excitement.  But even if it doesn’t, it will still be fun – and we will still have plenty to look forward to.  There are, after all, an almost infinite number and flavor of adventures still beckoning.