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, September 20, 2011

Weather or not

 “I can’t wait for snow!” 
Jay’s comment, made a few weeks ago while we were stealing a day of partial August sunshine at Chena Lakes, was made with the greatest of goodwill and enthusiasm. 
My response, I am ashamed to say, was not.
After my initial outburst left my husband looking shell-shocked and rightfully annoyed, I stumbled to explain.  “Some of us,” I said, “mourn the end of summer.”
Every year, I fight a mental battle against the fading fireweed and yellowing leaves.  This doesn’t exactly qualify as a unique idiosyncrasy. Fairbanks in August is full of people desperately trying to insulate partially-built houses, persuade tomatoes to ripen before they freeze, and split eight gazillion cords of firewood.  Railing against the onset of fall is so common that it didn’t occur to me that I needed to justify it – until Jay challenged my view of reality.
Winter, my husband maintained – honestly perplexed in the face of my vehement melancholy -- has a lot to offer. There’s so much cross-country skiing and snow-biking to be done!  There are miles of perfect trails right outside our doors.  There are winter races, and trips to remote cabins! 
He’s right, of course.  I enjoy all these things too.  I cast my mind forward to sometime around Valentine’s Day, when rapidly returning sunshine glitters on the snow, the ice park offers small children exhilarating ways to injure themselves, and Jay and I entertain ourselves with hundred-mile ski races and other light frivolity. March in Fairbanks may be one of Alaska’s best kept secrets.  Don’t let anyone know how nice it is, or we’ll be mobbed by tourists.
Other seasons are pretty high on the awesomeness scale, too.  The fantastic March fun lasts well into April.  Hard on its heels, May is like a can of sweetened condensed spring: in the space of 31 days, we go from slush puddles and bare branches to a lush green wonderland liberally splashed with the red-pink of wild roses.  Little reindeer calves stagger about on wobbly legs.  Everyone finds all the possessions they lost under the snow seven months previously.  By the end of the month, it’s summer.
Summers are great here – hot enough for all the hallmarks of the warmest season – sand castles, drippy ice cream cones, free Vitamin D -- but almost never sweaty enough to make me long for air conditioning, ice packs, or a ticket to Antarctica.  Between June and August we get everything we should – shorts, bike rides, lakeshores, butterflies, berry picking – with a few mosquitoes thrown in to remind us that life isn’t perfect. 
So what’s my problem?  What DO I want, climate-wise?   Not, I hasten to add, for the good of the planet.  My official opinion there is that we should stop screwing with the system, pronto, before all the SUV-exhaust and cattle-flatulence turns Earth into Venus’s sorry step-child.  But in the fantasy world inside my own head, in which I have the power to crown myself Grand High Weather Deity (aka Earl), what would the weather look like?
“Look!  The leaves are falling!  That’s why it’s fall!”  The kids are thrilled not only by the fluttering leaves, which they spectacularly fail to catch, but also by their attempt at a pun. I don’t break it to them that this in fact why Americans call the season by that name in the first place.  Fall, autumn – whichever it is, it’s at the height of its splendor.  Yellow birch leaves adorn every hillside, and the willows have turned every Crayola shade between burnt umber, tangerine, and crimson.  The mornings are lightly frosted, but by nine a.m. the sun has burnt away the chill and is promising an afternoon of playgrounds and bike riding.  Perversely, this season whose coming I fought against last month is one of my favorites.  September in Fairbanks is beyond reproach. 
Autumnal grouchiness notwithstanding, I know I don’t really want perpetual July.  Plenty of people yearn for a climate in which halter tops are year-round garb, but I’ve never been one of them.  I spent more than two years living in sunny Jamaica, and I know from experience that unrelenting heat makes me wilt with sweat and boredom.  I missed the sensation of sleeping snuggled under a blanket.  I wanted to eat steaming bowls of soup and drink mugs of cocoa.  I wanted to welcome -- rather than resent -- having a cat curl up in my lap.  I was in a Grinchy mood when I hung baubles on palm trees.  I was perpetually damp and sticky, my skin burned right through the congealing layers of ultra-sunblock, and I longed for a vicious cold snap to kill every creeping, buzzing cockroach and mosquito. 
Cockroaches aren’t a problem in Fairbanks. Winter here starts in October, when the muddy trails freeze firm and the first flying flakes bring back memories of being a kid, Back then, at the first sign of dark gray winter clouds, I’d rush to tap the barometer and comb through the meteorological predictions.  “It’s snowing, it’s snowing!”  Radiators draped with sodden mittens were signs of great joy and contentment.  Even if the grownups felt otherwise, I hated the fact that in the greater New York area, snow turns to brown sludge and disappears within days.  
Fairbanks snow doesn’t disappear.  Here, November and December offer the sort of non-denominational picture-book holiday season that always seemed frustratingly elusive to me as a child.  Sleigh bells?  Sure, just hang some on the dog sled.  Jack Frost?   Yup.  Chestnuts roasting on an open fire?  Maybe a wood stove, but close enough.  White Yuletides are guaranteed.  The winter solstice is imbued with deep meaning to everyone, not just meteorologists and Wiccans.  Our property is almost entirely vegetated by Christmas trees.  My daily commute takes me past enough reindeer for Santa to field a full team, plus substitutes. 
Then the New Year arrives with a thud.  The holidays are over.  It is still woefully cold and dark, and the end is not in sight. In the depths of January, the weather is not just harsh, it’s downright mean.  There’s cold, and there’s nose-hair-crackling cold, and then there’s the sort of cold that makes any inch of exposed flesh try to turn itself inside out.  Last winter, a little boy at the twins’ preschool lost a substantial amount of tongue to the iron railing next to the playground steps.  I always thought this was something that occurred only in fiction, but a long-suffering preschool teacher assured me that in Fairbanks, this sort of thing passes for normal.  She’s thawed dozens of tongues.  Part of my brain, the not-very-nice part, was thinking, “At least it wasn’t my kid.”  Another part, the Eeyore part, was thinking, “See?  This place just isn’t fit for warm-blooded life-forms.”
The problem, I now realize, is not that I don’t appreciate fall, or that I don’t like winter.  The problem is that winter – cozy, snowy, enjoyable season that it is -- is interrupted by another season.  A season of blackness and numbness, of gelling fuel oil, cracking fingertips, and creeping torpor.  A season that steals away time from the other four fabulous quadrants of the year, leaving me with not quite enough beach time, too little photogenic foliage, inadequate bud-bursting springtime, and curtailed sledding.  What I’m dreading is a season called January. 
That day at the beach last month, I told Jay that I mourn the loss of summer because it’s too short, and winter is too long.  I claimed that although I like them both, I wish they were more evenly distributed around the calendar.  Under closer scrutiny, however, I have to admit that this argument is flawed. Winter is not too long.  It’s that other season.  Because, truth be told, January is much too long.  It’s at least thirty-one days too long – and generally more.  The groundhog doesn’t even bother to check for his shadow around here, because he leaves our entire ecosystem to his hardier marmot cousins.  Thus, belying math and logic, January is sometimes up to sixty days too long.
Knowing this doesn’t really change anything, of course, but it does perk me up enough to prevent me from further irritating my spouse. It solves half my problem in a single slice of logic. It’s not January now!  It’s only September, and I love September!  If I behave the way dogs and kids do, living in the moment, I can enjoy all the terrific seasons while they’re happening, without having to mope about what I’m losing or what comes next. 
And when January does arrive, I’m developing a multi-pronged strategy to deal with it, based on well-tested Fairbanks traditions.  The first option involves bundling up myself and my kids in so many clothes that we can be rolled around like beach balls, and pretending that we’re enjoying long jaunts by headlamp.  The second approach is creating an alternate reality in which we hang out in over-heated fluorescent-lit buildings wearing t-shirts and eating ice cream.  The third coping mechanism is boasting.  This involves posting weather reports to Facebook in order to prove that we are suffering more than anyone in Maine or Idaho or Saskatchewan, and are therefore superior, albeit in a fraternity-hazing-ritual kind of way.
I’ve also got a fourth strategy lined up for January.  Jay still doesn’t agree with my perspective, but he’s nice enough to play along.  This leaves me free to employ a tried-and-true method for dealing with at least one week of the unwanted month. That's right -- we’ve got plane tickets.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

All I Really Need to Know

Last week, I loaded up my twins with crayons, pencils, glue-sticks, and good-bye kisses, and sent them off to start thirteen or more years of formal education.  I tried, of course, to emphasize how much fun they were going to have: Songs!  Puzzles! Elmer’s Glue! But even as I elaborated on the joys of this brave new world, I had to edit my own childhood tales. 

For some reason, my memory (which is like Swiss cheese now) was remarkably good back when I still had all twenty baby teeth.  As a parent, being able to see things from a three-foot-tall perspective seems like it ought to be an advantage -- but I’m not always sure this is the case.  It sometimes messes with my sense of authority.  It often forces me to look at my grownup self as if in a warped fun-house mirror.  And although I do love being able to recall the magic and wonder of being a kid, remembering everything tends to rip the rose-colored glasses right off.

I was pretty sure I shouldn’t tell my kids about Tammy, the bully who bit anyone who tried to use the slide, and Colin, who spent the entire first day of kindergarten sobbing inconsolably.  (Names have been altered on the off-chance anyone actually reads this blog.)  It seemed best not to relate my weird paranoia about the over-large boy with sweaty hands who I never wanted to stand next to at circle time, or the child whose baby teeth were all black with rot.  I did mention Lily, who copied my every movement and threw a fit if she couldn’t hang her jacket next to mine, but I didn’t say anything about Jacob, who had accidents of the odoriferous variety.  I also did not mention Chester.

I was in eighth grade when I first realized that not everyone remembers everything they learned in kindergarten.  My friends and I were rushing through the crowded hallways between classes, but when I saw the flyer advertising candidates for student government, I stopped in my tracks and snorted with mirth. 

“Chester’s running?” I giggled. 

My friends stared at me blankly.

“You don’t remember?” I asked.  “Back when we were five?”

Chester was a five-year-old flasher.  For no remuneration or other obvious gain, this little boy was willing to show everything he’d got to anyone who would look, on the playground of Huntington Elementary School.  Given his age, the show was minimal.  Still, pretty much everyone seemed willing to ogle. 

No one remembered.

If I don’t know how much to tell my kids, I also don’t know how much to ask.  It’s hard not to quiz them as they emerge each afternoon, smiling, with the remnants of their lunches and their carefully crayoned worksheets with titles like Which Mice are Behaving Politely?  I wonder, but don’t inquire, whether they’ve met their own Tammy yet?  Their own Lily?  Their own Chester?  Occasionally, because parents like to worry, I wonder if they actually are any of these characters.

My memories also give me too clear an idea of what kinds of calamities may constitute real drama in the life of a kid. 

“This banana has a BRUISE on it!” The accusation is as vehement as if I’d handed my child fruit covered in mold, salmonella, and mad-cow prions. 

I want to snap back, “It’s fine, just eat it already!” except…

The year was circa 1977.  My mother, who doesn’t even like bananas, had committed the crime of giving me one with a brown squishy spot.  “Cut it off!” I moaned dramatically. “Ewww, cut it OFF!”

She rolled her eyes and snatched the fruit from my hands.  After performing the necessary butter-knife surgery, she remarked, “When you were a baby, you ate the squishiest bananas, all mashed up, and you loved them.”

I stared at her as if she were an alien from the planet Ogg.  I could not for the life of me fathom what this fact had to do with anything.  Babies eat gross stuff, sure, but I hadn’t been a baby for three years!  Grownups, I decided, just don’t make any sense.

Now I’m the grownup.  I don’t make sense.  My memory has stolen from me the satisfaction of being annoyed. I bite off the brown part myself, without a word. 

A surfeit of recollections makes it hard to be an impartial observer, judge, and mentor of little kids, because I feel as if part of me still is a little kid.   I’m adrift between worlds, unable to comply with the ludicrous childish desires that drive adults bonkers, and yet also unable to get righteously vexed over them.  I feel like an ogre when I lay down Necessary Grownup Laws, because I remember too clearly the tyranny of mandated bedtimes, the appeal of picking at scabs, and the tantalizing allure of Pixie Stix.  A few weeks ago, when the twins declared that they were going to start a beer cap collection, I had an immediate flashback to the blue bucket of bent, slightly smelly little treasures bearing mysterious emblems and logos – “Colt 45” sounded particularly interesting -- that my parents insisted I had to keep in the garage, not in my bedroom.  When one of my offspring has a huge meltdown because she can’t find a particular three-inch long plastic truck, I long to shout, “It doesn’t matter!” – except that I know that it does.

Sometimes it’s good to be needed – but sometimes it would be a relief to pretend that I’m not.  The problem is, I can’t pretend, because my reminiscences nag at me. I remember wanting my mother to watch me do a cool trick on the monkey bars -- not just once, but fifteen times in a row.  I remember the terror of the thudding footsteps that I heard in the dark of my own bedroom, which I didn’t recognize until years later were merely the sound of my own frantic heartbeat.  I remember the deep sadness of being told that at forty pounds I was too big to be picked up and lugged around.  Of course, my grown-up mommy-self is bored to catatonia by the monkey-bar trick, doesn’t possess infinite strength, and abhors being woken at miserable-o’clock-in-the-morning, but my memory betrays me, forcing me to at least try to be nice about it.

If I didn’t recall so much of my childhood, I also wouldn’t be forced to face the truth about how utterly dull I am these days.  When I was four, and everyone rattled on and on about the presidential election, I thought, “Hasn’t Ford been President forever?”  Why did anyone want a new one, and moreover, why did anyone care?  Back then, the idea that I would ever spend a birthday party sitting around on a playground bench talking about politics rather than getting nauseous on the merry-go-round would have been unthinkable.  Remembering this, I occasionally swing across the monkey bars, legs doubled up to accommodate my five feet eight inches. 

At this summer’s fair, I plunked my thirty-nine-year-old self onto half a dozen cheesy, creaking carnival rides.  As the Ferris wheel lit up in ten shades of neon, and as the kettle corn and ice cream were effectively swirled in my stomach by the motion of the Dragon Ship, the experience blended in my mind with happy pieces of the past: the sugar-rush thrill of cotton candy at the Bethpage Fair, the adrenaline of Six Flags Great Adventure, and the breathless awe of believing that the magician is for real.  I knew that without those flavors from my childhood, the ride just wouldn’t be the same.  But behind that thought I found a larger truth: without all my crazy, ecstatic, paranoid, tooth-fairy-believing, ant-loving, five-year-old-exhibitionist-viewing memories, my life would not be the same.

I decided that it doesn’t really matter whether or not my memories improve my parenting skills or detract from them, because either way, I wouldn’t give them up.  That 1970’s five-year-old is still part of who I am.  Sure, it’s a little humiliating to realize that Kindergarten Nancy was afraid of dogs, tree fungus, and miniature slide-hogging bullies, but I’m nonetheless deeply thankful that I didn’t lose her somewhere along the way.   

There are a few clear benefits of remembering kindergarten.  I know that nose-picking and Play-Doh-eating do not cause permanent damage. I can rest assured that questions such as, “Why does your eye look funny?” if asked with genuine interest, are not necessarily offensive to the kid with the funny eye (namely myself).  And if one of my kids turns out to be the Lily, the Tammy, the Colin, or even the Chester of the playground, I will know that I don’t really need to worry.  By the time high school rolled around, every one of those kids was more popular than I was. 

If I juggle my personae correctly, I think I can reap the benefits while avoiding the pitfalls.  I can be a properly boring grownup who pays bills, vacuums (occasionally), and worries about the financial crisis and the ramifications of global climate change.  But in the spare moments, the moments stolen from adulthood, I can pump the swing high enough that I almost believe it really can carry me full circle.