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

Monday, December 24, 2012

Choose-Your-Own Holiday Letter

1)      It’s way back in January, 2012.  You live in Fairbanks Alaska, in a small cabin with no plumbing. As a research professor, you do a lot of professing – mostly about climate change, and how it is causing Alaska to catch fire, melt, and sink into the swamp – sometimes all at the same time. However, climate change notwithstanding, it's forty-six below zero here in Fairbanks.  The sun did not rise more than one degree above the horizon during its brief visit today.   What should you do? 

If you head out for a session of vigorous skiing with an athletic group of friends (or perhaps strangers -- it’s hard to tell under the balaclavas), go to 5. If you load yourself, your marvelous husband, and your knock-knock-joke-telling twins on a plane headed south, go to 8.

2)      Yes, sugar works wonders as a motivator.  Following in this precedent, lollipops and candy corn are major factors in powering the twins -- along with one of their little buddies -- through their first 10k race, the Midnight Sun Run. The three pipsqueaks breeze across the finish line, Cinderella-like, at the stroke of midnight.  

If you think that the logical next step would be sign up the same three six-year-olds sign for the Kids’ Equinox Marathon – and also take them  over ten miles of mountainous, wind-blown trail to Tolovana Hot Springs –try 3.  If you’d like this narrative to return to yourself, take an egotistical hop to 6.

3)      Sure, why not?  Kids love hiking!  Entertainment along the trail is varied, but includes a strong focus on out-of-key singing and name-carving on tree-fungus. 

If you decide that car-camping might have been a better idea, go to 4.  If you’d prefer to do something deeply startling and irresponsible, try 7.

4)      Excellent choice. The sun is shining, and given that it’s mid-May, the river ice has all but disappeared.  We’re in that brief ten minutes of calm before the mosquitoes appear in full force, so it’s the perfect time for some quality outdoor time with a veritable gaggle of friends.  Remember, socializing is important, now that you’ve reached those Middle Years.  It’s not like college, y’know, where you tripped over like-minded nerds in every lecture hall. 

If you want to broaden your social horizons by hanging out with the parents of other hip-high people, proceed to 9.  If you just want to regress and dig up all those old college friends again (and not only via Facebook), try 10.

5)      Excellent choice.  After all, you’re training for a couple of hundred-mile ski races – one in February and one in March – as well as a hundred-mile mountain bike race in June, a half-ironman triathlon in July, and a trail-marathon over a mountain in September.  You wouldn’t want to completely embarrass yourself at every single one of these events, would you?  Um, would you?

If you proceed with your exercise regimen by skiing amongst your friends' houses, stopping at each abode to eat cookies and/or peculiar European boxed fruitcake, go to 2.  If the rest of your training consists of bike-commuting three or four miles to work and hiking at a 1mph pace with your offspring, go to 3. 

6)      Ok…it’s your fortieth birthday!  Time to party! 

If you decide to celebrate your maturity by going camping with a horde of small children (what – you thought this was all about you?), go to 4. If you’d prefer to have an entertaining midlife crisis that leads to the sort of behavior that could not possibly be included in a holiday letter, try 7.

7)      Oh, for heaven’s sake, what did you expect to find here?  Go back to 4.

8)      Welcome to the southern realms! Arches National Park is, according to the rangers, inhospitably cold in January.  But given that it’s about 100 degrees warmer than Fairbanks, you’re not complaining.  After a fine start during which one of your kids pukes in your amazingly uncomplaining brother-in-law and sister-in-law’s kitchen, you drag along the twins -- plus their six cousins -- for some fantastic vistas, breathtaking rock formations, and desert hiking. 

When the four-year-old nephew proves uncertain that he likes hoofing it for mile after mile, and the older kids are leery of heights, should you (5) provide piggy-back rides, or (2) hand out more gummi-worms?

9)      Great! There are so many eminently entertaining, immensely time-consuming, and irredeemably messy things to do with kids and their doting caregivers.  You wallow in kettle corn at the fair.  You commit yourself to orchestrating a very crimson made-up holiday called Cranberry Festival.  You trudge the snowy streets with a herd of chubby-looking creatures on Halloween. You hob-nob at birthday parties – chilly pool parties, violent piƱata parties, and one at which you pretend to be Minerva McGonagall. 

As the year draws to a close, should you and a friend volunteer to co-lead a table at the University Park Elementary holiday craft fair?  If so, go to 11.  If you’d prefer to drag your parent-friends into a six-gingerbread-house baking fest, go to 12.

10)        Conveniently, a college friend is getting married, and he and his fantastic bride have invited a large percentage of your college friends to a gorgeous retreat in Monterey California.  Best of all, it turns out that everyone is just as much of a dork as they were back in 1994. Major themes include doing jigsaw puzzles, playing Apples to Apples, and flying kites.

 If you decide to leave the kids with a babysitter and join the friends playing mock-Jeopardy, proceed to 11.  If you take the kids whale-watching, go on to 11 anyhow.

11)        Mercifully, you have one child who does not end up either freaking out or vomiting at this event.  Too bad about the other one. 

If you still think you might be able to make something of this year -- and yourself -- through zealous use of humor, irrational optimism, and limited sleep, dive right into 12.  However, if you have entirely given up on the concepts of sustained accomplishment and personal dignity, go straight to 13. 

12)        Time flies, and it’s Solstice.  The good news is, you’ve almost made it to 2013!  The bad news is, it’s forty-six degrees below zero again, and the sun is once again only up for three and a half hours each day. 

If you decide, weather be darned, to attend two different outdoor Solstice parties, both of which involve regressive behavior and setting things on fire, go to 14.  If you choose to take part in a dawn-to-dusk race in which you hoof it up and down West Ridge for eighteen miles in temperatures known to congeal propane, go to 14 anyhow.  And if you decide to bake three pecan pies, roast chestnuts, and sew handmade gifts for everyone in your 13-person community all in the space of 48 hours… still go to 14.

13)        I kind of thought I’d find you here – either that, or hanging out at 7.
Ok, fine.  Go check on 7 again, then proceed to 14.

14)        Collapse on the window seat in a thermal sweatshirt with stains all down the front.  Gaze helplessly at the piles of laundry, odd mittens, and overdue library books. Eat a large hunk of baking chocolate and a handful of Zippy Zoo vitamins. Write a Holiday Letter.


Happy holidays everyone.  Best wishes for an exhilarating, hilarious, and fulfilling 2013.  And to all a good night. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Fraternally Yours

 “Are your kids pre-registered?”  The perky young woman was smiling at me from her perch in front of the racks of diminutive ice skates.  Out on the rink, the five-and-under crowd wobbled and crashed like plump little bowling pins.  In just a few minutes, it would be time for the Big Kids.
I gestured to my two first-graders.  “Well, Molly is signed up, but Lizzy says she doesn’t want to skate.  Will there still be room for her in the class if she changes her mind and wants to join in on Thursday?”
The instructor gave me a bemused look, but nodded.  “Yeah, we’re not full.”  She hesitated.  “She has to be six, though.”
“Oh, she is,” I assured her.  Never mind that Lizzy hasn’t yet hit forty pounds, and was wearing size four snowpants that were only a mite short on her -- while Molly’s size sevens were only a tiny bit too big.  Lizzy was six.  Just like her sister. “They’re twins,” I added, as Molly eagerly tied her own laces and Lizzy attempted to hide behind my leg.
The ice-rink woman looked from one girl to the other and back again. “Um –ok.”  Obviously, she thought I was gravely mistaken and possibly slightly deranged.  However, I probably wasn’t dangerous, and I’d just given her a check.  Besides, she had several other snub-nosed, pig-tailed athletes to contend with.  If I wanted to insist that my kids were twins – or clones, for that matter -- she wasn’t going to argue.
And I, for my part, saved any explanations for later.  I’ve discovered, over the past few years, that there are a lot of people out there who don’t know much about biology.  Ok, I take that back – I’ve know that for decades.  More specifically, I discovered that a lot of people don’t understand where babies come from… if those babies happen to be twins. Not that I can fault this ignorance.  Way back in 2005, I hadn’t given the phenomenon much thought, either. 
That fall, Jay and I were briefly under the impression that we were going to have a baby.  As in, precisely one baby.  That was before the ultrasound technician started giggling. 
Much as I enjoy mirth, it’s a bit humiliating to encounter it when half-undressed and smeared with viscous jelly in a room that smells like Medical Procedure.  “Um, what?”  I said.  Then the technician turned the screen towards me.  It was pretty darn obvious what she was showing me.  Sure, they looked like blobs, but there were two of them.  Two.  A pair.  TWIN blobs.  Oh, gods. 
Fraternal twinning is not so complicated, really.  In fact, the kids will happily explain it.  “We came from two eggs and two sperms!”  Yes, dear, thanks for sharing information about my over-exuberant ovaries with the grocery cashier.  You two are indeed dizygotic, and thus no more related than any other sibling. However, you both hogged my uterus at the same time, just as you are both now trying to hog the shopping cart.  
Identical twins, on the other hand occur when a fertilized egg splits.  They are monozygotic:  one egg, one wee little sperm.  Identical twins have matching DNA.  Molly and Lizzy… do not.
Laced into her clunky brown borrowed skates, Molly set herself upon the ice with determination.  Her eyes were on the teacher, but they were also on the kids around her.  I could practically hear her thoughts.  That boy in the helmet who looked at least eight?  She was faster than him.  The little guy in the hockey gear?  He’d fallen at least six times already.   Her big friend Jacq was fast, but not THAT fast.  She’d be fast, too.  Really fast.  The advanced class at the other end of the ice were twirling, hopping, zooming, and whacking a puck.  Even as Molly staggered and flopped and struggled to her feet again, they were in her sights.
Meanwhile, Lizzy sidled her bottom closer to mine on the bleachers.  She was watching her sister, and Jacq, and the other skaters, but her eyes were most often drawn to a little boy not much larger than herself.  He was fully geared up, but still standing on solid ground, holding onto the rail near the entrance to the rink, and refusing to take even one step onto the ice.  When gently cajoled by his mother or sweetly encouraged by a fresh-faced college boy whose infinite good humor and gentleness made me rethink my college-hockey-player stereotypes, the little guy didn’t yell or protest – merely tightening his grip and whispered, “No.  No, I don’t want to.”  Lizzy was riveted.
Seven years ago, when I first saw that fateful ultrasound, a lot of things flew through my mind.  Primary among them, given that I’d gone to the appointment alone, was How on earth am I going to break this to Jay?  Then there were the practical considerations.  How are we going to fit two kids in a small cabin?  How much will I resemble the Goodyear Blimp in another six or seven months?  Is it even physically possible to nurse twins, and does it involve some sort of tessellated stacking?  But fast on the heels of worries about time, money, and will-I-ever-be-able-to-get-more-than-20 minutes-of-sleep-at-a-stretch (answer: no) were the more existential questions.  What does a non-twin know about raising twins?  How is it different from “regular” parenting?  How can I raise two kids who – having shared everything from the womb onwards -- are nonetheless wholly individual? 
In truth, Jay took the news better than I did, and not just because he wasn’t the one who was going to be eating for three.  He simply is not prone to Chicken Little histrionics (neither am I, normally – but he’s even better). We’d build on a bigger extension to our cabin, he said.  Our finances were fine.  Everything was going to be ok.  As for the Deep Philosophy of twins – he wasn’t sweating it.
We didn’t know, then, whether the kids would be identical or fraternal.  Sometimes identicals share some of the hardware of pregnancy – amniotic sac, placenta – but if the split is early, they look just like fraternals on an ultrasound.  Of course, identical twins always have identical genders (notwithstanding the charmingly hetero-flexible twins in Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors), but even in later ultrasounds our little blobs were being coy.  We knew we had somebody who was most-probably an Elizabeth, and somebody who might have been a Molly -- but then again might have been an Isaac.  Neither of us cared a whit about the gender, but truth be told, I was hoping they’d be fraternal.  “I want them to be different from each other,” I told Jay. 
Next to me on the ice-rink bleachers, Lizzy wasn’t saying anything, but she was leaning forward, still hooked by the drama of Little Hesitant Child.  The beneficent college hockey player/instructor offered to hold his hand.  Then he offered to hold BOTH his hands.  My opinion of hockey players rose several more notches.  At last, still with obvious reluctance, the little boy let go of the wall, let go of his mommy, and allowed himself to be led (gently, gently) onto the ice.  Lizzy made no comment.  She didn’t look at me, although her warm little body was still pressed up next to mine.
Six years ago, Jay assured my pregnant self that the kids would be different -- even if they were identical.  He was being Mr. Reasonable.  Also, he didn’t have morning sickness. I knew he was right, because I have friends with identical siblings as well as friends with identical sons, but still I worried.  I’d never bothered to ask those friends exactly how they’d managed to forge their identities, and whether it had been a fraught process.  “What if we mix them up when they’re newborn?” I asked. 
“Well… maybe we can label them,” my husband suggested.  I’m not sure if he was thinking of string, or duct tape, or perhaps Sharpie.
And then our kids were born.
Admittedly, all the OTHER babies boxed up in the nursery looked kinda the same as one another.  Sure, the hospital went ahead and gleefully tagged our offspring with a veritable lost-luggage-department of scribbled plastic.  But to us two doting parents.  Baby A (henceforth Lizzy) and Baby B (definitely not Isaac) each had a face, a manner, and an awesome newborn style all her own.
And so it went.  They nursed simultaneously, but… differently.  Let’s just say that if I needed someone to unplug a blocked duct with the voraciousness of a vacuum hose, I knew which child to use.  One of them insisted on walking at ten months, using a Full Combat Crashing learning style.  The other waited until she could cruise bruise-free, three months later.  Watching them parse the zucchini, bamboo shoots, carrots, tofu, and onions in a single order of Thai vegetable stir fry is like hanging out with Jack Sprat and his wife.  And, of course, they don’t look the same. This is particularly confusing to the friendly waitstaff, because (interesting, like almost all of Asia) Thailand doesn’t produce a whole lot of multi-zygotic multiples.
A half-dozen years into the adventure, I’ve gotten over both the practical worries of twin parenting – and, for the most part, the esoteric ones, too.  We’ve entered an era of separate classrooms, separate play-dates and occasional singular parental attention.  And while there are some activities that are compulsory for any offspring of ours (yes, you have to learn to read… and you also have to learn to ski many miles into the wilderness) ice skating is not one of them.  Go ahead.  Be your own person, kid.
The smaller but nonetheless older twin – Baby A -- sat at my side for the rest of that first skating lesson.  Silent.  Watching.  Kids wobbled, staggered, and fell.  Jacq tried a turn.  Molly held her arms out like a sapling and waddled onward.  And a small boy in an over-large helmet held hands with a very big and very patient young man.
When the session ended, Little Shy Little Boy wobbled off the rink with the rest of his cohort, his face wreathed in a gentle smile.  Lizzy glanced briefly at her sister, who was exuding both exuberance at her efforts and frustration at not yet reaching Olympic caliber.  But I knew Lizzy wasn’t taking her cues from Molly when she told me, calmly, “That looks like fun.  I’ll try it next time.  But just once… to see if I like it.”
“Ok,” I told her.  “It’s up to you.”
Ultimately, we attended two entire skating sessions of eight lessons each, and Lizzy skated in every one of them – slowly, cautiously, calmly.  Before each session, I stopped at the little office next to the rink to borrow skates from the young instructor.  By the third week or so, she didn’t raise an eyebrow when I said, “One pair of tens, and one pair of thirteens… for the twins.”
She rummaged on the shelves and came back with the appropriate sizes – each just exactly right for one all-herself kid.  “Definitely not identical,” the skating teacher said.  And she grinned right back at me.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Red, blue, purple... rainbow

“Mamaaaa!  Molly isn’t sharing …”

Lizzy’s wail was interrupted by her twin.  “You know what Mommy’s going to say.  She’s going to tell us to work it out ourselves.  And listen.  And play fair.”  Her parody of middle-aged grouchy exasperation did a fair job of making a six-year-old’s voice sound… exactly like mine.

Well, not how mine always sounds – at least, I hope not.  But it was late afternoon on Election Day, for heaven’s sake.  Weeks of punditting had pushed me to the point of just leave Mommy in peace while she stuffs this apple into a lunchbox shaped like a cartoon owl, ok?

As I slathered garlic cream cheese onto potato bread, it occurred to me that it might be unreasonable to expect my first-graders to respect differences of opinion, initiate intelligent and logical discourse, and broker civil compromises. After all, I wasn’t sure that we grownups -- We The People, we the red-and-blue electorate of the not-so-United States – had been doing such a terribly good job at any of those things, lately. 

Based on most of my political leanings, I’m a deep-indigo-blue liberal – not the bleeding-heart kind so much as the dorky-scientist kind.  I wallow in reams of statistics about the effects of climate change, or the linkages between education, reproductive rights, and female autonomy.  I desperately want America, as the supposed leader of the free world, to exemplify the same kind of logic, generosity, level-headedness, and deep compassion that I want from my kids.  I want to be governed by teamwork, not divisiveness – but, of course, as a practically-socialist left-winger, I want those teams to understand that denying someone education, health care, civil rights, or basic personal freedoms can never lead to a rich society in any sense of the word.    Is that too much to ask, I wondered? 

As I doled out peanuts into baggies and listened to too-early-to-be-useful speculation on NPR, I felt my hopes falter.  Were we doomed to squabbles, tantrums, cookie-jar-grabbing, fingers jammed in ears (“I can’t HEAR you, nyah, nyah!”) and shrieking matches based on fabricated versions of reality?  Was that red and blue map nothing more than the grownup version of “I wish I never, ever had a twin sister!”

Well, but my kids didn’t always behave like that, I reminded myself. Indeed, the bickering in the other room had died down.  It often does, these days – but I still recall my amazement the first time a twin argument (twingument?) achieved peaceful resolution without parental intervention.

The kids were three at the time, still newbies at preschool, and still unsure, at home, whether they wanted to behave like locomotives on separate tracks, or actually interact with one another.  In this instance, they were attempting to play “house” or “families” or some other proto-game that required that their motley collection of stuffed beasts and humans stand in as offspring.  “I want to be the Mommy!” A pause.  A second voice, even more irritatingly pitched: “No, I want to be the Mommy!”  Obviously, as I can attest, being the Mommy is always the most awesomest job ever.  Just as the shrieking told me that I ought to arbitrate, for preservation of intact juvenile bodily organs if not my nerves… it stopped.  “Wait,” said Molly.  “Susie* has TWO Mommies!”

Lizzy absorbed this for a couple of seconds, as if the mental calculus were more than a little taxing.  Then, in tones of joyful, breathless wonder, she concluded, “We can BOTH be the Mommy!”

Yes, it’s a little-known fact that lesbian preschool-parents can do wonders for your children’s behavior.

Now, three years later, the kids have absorbed even more of the diversity in their little orbits.  They know single parents, international adoptees, multi-racial families, and stay-at-home dads.  The doctor, the dentist, and the school principal are female.  Mommy chops wood and Daddy mops the floor. The President is black. To them, none of this is “liberal” or freighted with any sort of symbolism.  It’s not a statement of redness or blueness.  It’s not remarkable.  It’s just… normal.

I put away the lunch boxes for the next day, and tried to calm my nerves during the kids’ ice skating lesson -- even as polls closed in the eastern time zones.  I was biting my nails by seven o’clock.  Our community dinner that evening was a cacophony of shouts and laughter alternating with hushed attention to the radio and to three different internet-connected devices.  And then the results started to come in.

The kids reveled in the camaraderie while the adults reveled in the champagne.  Molly, as it turned out, had political opinions about everything from tax policies (“rich people should pay more!”) to polling practices (“we did Kids’ Voting at school, and we used computers – why don’t you?”) She went on to explain that she had voted for Obama because she thought he was a good President, and because she remembered “how happy everyone was when we got rid of Bush.”  Floored, I pointed out that she had been two years old at the time.  “So? I remember everyone at dinner was really happy,” she insisted.   Lizzy claimed to know nothing of Congress or Presidents.  But when I explained that gay marriage was an issue on the ballot in four different states, both kids were equally confused.  Wasn’t it already ok?

And, as it turned out – it was.  For the first time in American history, gay marriage was approved not by legal challenges put forth by those with a direct stake in the issue, but by millions of voters without any stake at all, other than a sense of fairness, of sharing, of listening and playing fair.  And this happened not just in one state, but in four.  No, they weren’t landslide votes.  But they happened.

I recalled, then, the elderly woman who lived up the street from my family when I was very small.  My big sister, always a history buff, interviewed Mrs. Weaver for a class project.  Sarah was eager to ask questions about specific events that this woman born in 1884 might recall.  How did she feel, for example, when, at the semi-ancient age of 36, she was finally granted the right to vote?

I can still see the old woman half-shrugging, smiling her mostly-blind smile, and saying simply, “I went out and voted.”

Sometimes change feels like an epiphany.  Often it’s the culmination of years of struggle, and a victory over years of oppression.  For those at the front lines, there is agony and joy.  But at the same time, I realized on Election Day, change also happens in the background, so quietly that no naysayers or Tea Partiers can do anything about it. 

Most of the Americans who voted for Barack Obama were white.  A whole lot of male-type-folks in New Hampshire (with chest-hair! and testosterone!) decided that they wanted to be represented in D.C. by folks with nary a Y-chromosome among them.  And almost a hundred years ago, all of the people who chose to give women the vote – albeit after decades on hardship and unremitting work by the suffragettes – were men.  We no longer question five-day work weeks or the concept of “retirement.”  Last century’s Extremely Controversial Liberal Cause is this century’s yawn.

I thought about who, among all my Facebook friends, seems to post the most messages in favor of gay rights.  The two that sprang to mind are not the most irreligious of my clan, nor the most politically liberal. In fact, neither is either left- or right-affiliated.  Neither is gay.  But, at less than 25 years old, they are the youngest of the contingent.  To them, I suspect, gay rights are not red or blue or even rainbow-hued.  They are just… normal. 

Yeah, it may be a long wait, with lots of ups and downs.  Yeah, things may sometimes get ugly and divisive.  But, over the long haul, I think We The People are learning to share… and work it out ourselves… and listen… and play fair.

*not her real name, but you two mommies know who you are, and I never DID say thank you…

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

In a moment

Me, July 2006, in a stunning demonstration of how not to Live In the Moment

“When’s the show going to start, Mama?  Are they late?  Is there going to be a real dog?  Is the witch scary?  How scary?  Where’s my program?”

The balcony was a cacophony of hyped-up kids struggling out of too many jackets and bouncing on theater seats that left short legs dangling and necks craning. Molly and Jacq, a few seats away, were burbling with anticipation.  Lizzy, to my left, hogged my armrest, jiggled, and interrogated me. To my right, my friend Mark took out a thick sheaf of paperwork, a ballpoint, and a headlamp.

“Grading papers?” I asked.  

My gut reaction was amused admiration. Usually, I’m the one who is told I’m taking multi-tasking to extremes – an accusation against which I defend myself by pleading necessity and efficiency.  If I hadn’t been able to nurse two babies at once while finishing my dissertation, I wouldn’t have earned those fancy-pants letters to go with my name! However, I sometimes question my choices, and perhaps even my mental landscape.

“Actually, it’s a grant proposal I’m reviewing.”  Mark shrugged a half-grin at me.  “I’m running out of time to get it done, so…”  And, as the four-year-old behind him kicked his seat, he set to work.

I considered Mark’s diligence through the lens of recent articles I’d stumbled across (in between emails, of course), and I was pretty sure I ought to be tut-tutting. There seems to be a growing backlash against the sort of mental gymnastics required to – for example -- simultaneously learn about important geopolitical events, mentally design a bicycle shed, and bake brownies.  People like Mark – and like me -- warn The Experts, are scattered.  They are stressed. They are not Living In the Moment.  They are not Mindful.  As a result, they cannot possibly be happy.

Was Mark, alone with his astrophysics in his bubble of light, not alive in the moment? Granted, as the house lights dimmed to darkness, he put away his flashlight and appeared to concentrate on the impending twister in an artificial Kansas inhabited by a rather tall Dorothy, a treat-obsessed Toto, and a witchy-sultry Miss Gulch.  But if he was still half-thinking about the National Science Foundation, was he insufficiently mindful?  More to the point, was my own general lack of mindfulness a deep-rooted psychological flaw that (although currently leaving me quite cheerful, thanks) would one day render me – I don’t know, scarred?   

On the stage, a horde of achingly adorable munchkins declared themselves to be the Lullaby League and the Lollipop Guild.  One, sporting a truly fabulous hat, aced the solo lines sung by the Coroner, and I recalled savoring that pompously over-rhyming ditty as a child: “As coroner I can aver I’ve carefully examined her.  She is not merely nearly dead, she’s really quite sincerely dead.”  Goodbye, Wicked Witch of the East!  But… with a puff and a bang her evil sister appeared.  Horrors!  Lizzy hurtled into my lap, there to remain for the next two hours. 

My memory flew to being five or six myself, and convinced that my dad needed to protect me from the black-and-white TV version of the same dread hag.  Really, Lizzy wasn’t doing so badly.  Just a few months ago, she’d been more scared than this by a puppet version of Oz. Would her apprehensions fade as quickly with the years as mine did, I wondered?  Would she plunge with relish into Edgar Allan Poe in junior high?  How soon would I be able to read her through the terrors of Mordor?  Even as the Scarecrow bemoaned his lack of brain, my own brain happily meandered back a decade or so, to revisiting Middle Earth syllable by syllable with Jay.  Prydain, Pern, Hogwarts… I loved them all.  Including, of course, Oz – where I was right now.  Mostly.

As the Tin Man explained his macabre history of self-destruction by axe, I wondered whether I even capable of being mindful. Mindfulness isn’t some new-age fad. I’m pretty good at ignoring those.  No, it’s at the core of several Eastern religions – religions of which I have scant knowledge, but at least a modicum of respect.  Years ago, I read Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hahn, thus gaining just enough understanding of Buddhism to make an idiot of myself if asked to discuss the subject.  Still, I do remember being struck by a few cogent points in the book.  For example: you do not actually hate washing dishes; you just think you do.  Why not enjoy the warm sudsy feeling, the squish of the sponge and the squeak of the clean plate, rather than muttering imprecations into a real or metaphorical beard? At the time, this idea felt like a minor epiphany.  

The charmingly effete lion danced along towards the Emerald City, and I recalled seeing the movie version of Oz in college, with a rowdy-nostalgic group of friends.  It was sponsored by the gay students’ association, and we all cheered for the King of the Forest with the bow on his tail.  Would gay rights seem so hard-won to my kids, by the time they made it to college?  My mind danced from past to future and back again.  In contrast, my daughter, eyes locked on the action, was most definitely Living In the Moment.

Most of what I sort-of-know about mindfulness had been gleaned – not without a ladleful of irony – from the soul-sucking wrecker of twenty-first-century Zen, the internet.  I am deeply in love with this conduit of endless and instantaneous information.  So is Mark, as far as I can tell.  Another black mark against us both.  In any case, the gist seems to be that in order to be happier, saner, and less of a frantic parody of everything that is wrong with This Modern Age, I should practice unselfconsciousness, engagement, and deep breathing.  I should savor each moment, and accept rather than fight life’s negatives.  I should lose myself in the flow of time.  I should avoid agonizing over the past or dreading the future.  And, of course, I should stop trying to do ten things at once and just… BE.

Um… okay.  I’ll get around to just being when I’m done planning our family vacation, packing tomorrow’s lunches, helping the kids with their homework, and sewing a cow costume, ok?

In truth, as I readjusted Lizzy to prevent total loss of circulation to my knees, I felt like I did get the point.  Sort of.  Unselfconsciousness?  Heck, yes.  I like myself better when I stop caring too much about what other people think of my mismatched socks, my inability to hold a tune, or the mysterious smears on my kids’ faces.  Life is better when I’m not cruelly judging over my own shoulder and taking notes on my lack of productivity, my disorganization, and my inability to curb global climate change.  Of course, there was some circular reasoning here, in that trying to decide whether I’m properly mindful is a comically self-judging pursuit.  If I then go on to blog about it? I don’t actually need to explain the incongruity here, do I?

Still, I bought into some of what I’d read.  Deep breathing?  Engagement?  Not fighting the negatives?  Yes, yes, and yes.  I’m a lot less of a screeching harpy if I fully oxygenate my brain before commenting to my kids on the subject of the Cheerios crunching under my heels… and then get down to their level and absorb the joy of making necklaces out of breakfast cereal… and then pretend to be playing Quiddich while we all sweep the floor.  Hands-on engagement, edible jewelry, AND witchcraft!  I was In The Moment!

Unfortunately, it was the wrong moment.  I wasn’t supposed to be thinking all this through while the Winkies marched and the Jitterbugs did backflips in hot pink satin.  As for Mark… somewhere around If I Only Had a Brain I’d noticed that he was not in Kansas anymore.  Or in Oz, for that matter.  His head was nodding gently chestward.  If you dream during a story that takes place inside a dream, which moment are you inhabiting, exactly?

Moreover, I wondered, if I enjoy almost all of my moments, but am often in the wrong one, I am failing or cheating somehow?  I do enjoy washing dishes, but not because of the unique awesomeness of each suds-bubble.  I tune out the reality of the grime in favor of enjoying the time spent chatting with Trusten or laughing with Margaret as they dry plates or wipe counters.   If I listen to novels while running -- which is also my morning commute – am I failing to savor the experience of running? Of commuting?  Of snow, car headlights, and the shadows of hundreds of spruce trees?  I’m certainly not In the Moment if I am mentally planning a trip to the Grand Canyon while correcting first grade math homework, or if I write a grocery list during a dull meeting. 

The Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Lion, in their efforts to save the heroine, knocked over a large piece of scenery.  For the kids, this was clearly a high point.  And, yeah, it was for me, too – although Dorothy had a lovely alto, and the witch melted beautifully.  This was community theater to the core, but it was enthusiastic, sometimes-inspired, sometimes-brilliant, fun community theater.  Still the best part of the show for me didn’t really have anything to do with the choreography, the sets, or the pit orchestra.  It came when I accepted that I’m ok with my state of mindfulness, even if I’m often ballooning through a twister somewhere between Kansas and Oz.

Technically speaking, I admitted to myself, I’m terrible at living in the moment.  For one thing, I have no desire to savor the precise moment when the cat retches a hairball onto the rug or someone screams, “I’m telling Moooooooommy!”  For another, my mind is about as grounded as a fruit-bat.  But, on the other hand, I don’t endlessly engage in the behaviors that are supposedly so harmful to the non-mindful – agonizing over the past, stressing over the future, and failing to enjoy myself in the now.  

I enjoy the minutes and hours of my days, not despite my flitting brain, but because of it.  I thrive on new ideas…distracting ideas…crazy ideas.  I relish linking the past and the present to an imagined future.  I need daydreams. I even (sometimes) am energized by doing six things at once (so long as none of them involve politics or vomit).  And while not everything has a funny side, I solidly believe that most things do (which is what makes The Onion an excellent news source).  

On stage, the Wonderful Wizard was booming impressively through his microphone.  And then, just as impressively, he flubbed his lines.  He offered the confused Tin Man a brain.  After a long and awkward pause he added, “Or… was is a heart?”

Don’t fight the negatives, I wanted to tell him.  Embrace them!  As I laughed (kindly and cheerfully, I hope) along with the rest of the crowd, I realized that just as the Wizard is a creature of smoke and mirrors, so too is the idea of being mindful.  If I feel like I’m Zen enough to please myself, then (with my lap full of semi-anxious kid and my mind full of semi-formed notions) I’m plenty Zen.  

The roar of laughter from the audience woke up Mark.  I’m not sure if he got the joke, but he looked quite ready to laugh along.  Perhaps, for him, a nap was exactly what he needed.  Maybe his brain was at its most comfortable floating somewhere between NASA rocket science, the Yellow Brick Road, and deep delta-wave somnolence.  Sure, he wasn’t living in the same moment as anyone else in Hering Auditorium.  Perhaps that grant proposal was not fully reviewed, either. But the world was a happy place in his moment.  As it was in mine.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

And now for something completely different

“Whoops… sorry! ”

I backed away from a near-tragic collision with my coworker’s bowl of minestrone, and in the process almost did a backflip over the coffee-grounds-composting bucket.  The office kitchen is woefully small for the 30 or more people who use it on a daily basis, but in this case, that was only part of the problem.   The other part was me.

Although no one had ended up wearing hot tomato-y goodness, I felt like an explanation was in order – or maybe more of an excuse.  “Sorry -- I’m blind on that side,” I said with a smile.

“Oh!  Um…”  Now the poor hapless minestrone-eater looked embarrassed. “Um… oh.  I’m… um… sorry.”

Gosh, there’s nothing like a birth defect to inject awkwardness into friendly lunchtime banter!   Never mind that mine is a trivially minor birth defect that doesn’t hamper my existence in any way, other than rendering me worthless at softball and tragically unable to enjoy 3-D movies.  I don’t mourn my inability to solve Magic Eye puzzles, and I’ve long since accepted the fact that my large nose further eclipses my already sub-par field of view.  But in our society, discussion of imperfections is just… awkward.

As a parent, I’ve run across a few articles and blog posts that attempt to address the question of How To Talk About Differences.  One of the prime directives seems to be that they have to be called Differences, never handicaps, or problems, or disabilities, or “Hey, what’s the deal with your eye?”  As a corollary to this rule, we should never in any way suggest that it’s better two have two eyes than only one.  Cyclops rules!

I get the point, of course.  We don’t want our kids to stigmatize or bully other children, or try to pull rank on someone else by virtue of having cooler braces, a cast with more signatures, or a different number of limbs.  Since my own issue is so terribly minor, I don’t feel like I have any jurisdiction in this realm.  I don’t have any idea what it’s like to be genuinely-both-eyes-blind or to have a child with Down Syndrome, so I should probably just shut up.  Usually, I do.  To my soup-eating coworker, I merely said something cheery and bland, like “Oh, no biggie!”  I know the rules: Don’t Talk About It.  But as I popped day-old casserole into the microwave, my rebellious side goaded me into thinking that maybe our society is being so cautious that we’re actually being disingenuous to ourselves – or, at the very least, confusing to our kids.  

When I was in elementary school, it was easy to explain what the deal was with my eye, because other kids asked.  They asked with interest, and they listened with equal interest to my responses. My right eye doesn’t look like the left one; it’s smaller, darker brown, has a milky white pupil, and tends to wander when I’m tired, unfocused, or bored.  (Of course, if you observe its meanderings you should not assume that YOU are making me tired, unfocused or bored, unless you are leading some kind of meeting that has lasted longer than the capacity of everyone’s attention span and/or bladder.)   To be more specific, I have a congenital cataract; I was born with the lens of one eye clouded to the point of almost complete opacity.  Given that the surgical options at the time were rudimentary and risky, my parents made the decision to leave well enough alone.  This choice was irreversible, since by the time I was two, my left eye hogged up all the available neural connections.  I’d like to think this makes my left eye some kind of uber-eye that can see through walls and around corners, but my kids are doubtless glad that I have no such mega-Mommy-powers.  My long-ago peers wanted to know if what I saw out of my right eye was the same as what they saw if they closed their own: darkness.  No, I said.  What I saw out of my right eye was the same as what they saw out of their ears.  (Kids love this answer, trust me.)  Inevitably, the conversation led to my playmates making hilarious (read “inappropriate”) gestures just outside my field of view, to test whether I’d catch them at it.  It was funny.  Actually, it still kinda is.

But then everyone stopped asking.

The only other era of my life when people openly wondered what the heck was wrong with my eye was when I lived in a different culture.  In Jamaica, the social rules regarding personal comments are for the most part a lot… looser than they are in the US.  By the time I’d been there for a few months, I’d gotten used to being called “Whitey” by anyone who didn’t know my name.   I’d also made enough friends that I could engage in a conversation about why this would never, ever fly in my home country.  It wasn’t polite, at home, I explained, for a bus driver to say something like, “Hey, you, fat woman in the back!” or “One-legged guy, you take this seat!” My new friends found such rules amusing.  Doesn’t the fat lady know she’s fat?  Hasn’t the man with one leg, you know, noticed that the other one is missing?  Isn’t it pretty ridiculous, and actually kind of offensive, to pretend that such things are invisible?

Here in the U.S. we impose a deep, silent taboo around “differences.”   At the same time, we foster intense cognitive dissonance by trying to persuade our children that differences are something super-fabulous, even when it’s obvious to even the youngest child that some of them just… aren’t.  How is a first-grader supposed to parse these mixed messages?   

I’m not sure if I have a useful solution, but maybe we could begin by being a bit clearer in explaining what kind of  “difference” can be viewed as wholly positive, in the sense that differences render the polyglot of humanity that much richer and more complex.  I’ve talked to the kids about how we wouldn’t want everyone to be English-speaking, or white-skinned, or brown-haired, or five-foot-eight, or female – even if I’m perfectly happy to live with those characteristics myself.  It would be boring!  Difference is fun!  It’s ok to be the only kid in your class who loves zucchini!  I want my six-year-olds to wholly embrace the fabulousness of variety.  I want them to aspire to be different (especially when they reach the evilly homogenizing world of middle school when Conform Or Suffer often seems to be the social mantra).  Being a liberal-minded sort, I could happily espouse the variety engendered by classmates who wear nose rings or Islamic crescents or tutus or kilts or gay pride stickers.  But I don’t want my kids – or anyone else’s -- to differentiate themselves via monocularity... or worse.  Wanting to be different seems like a peculiar aspiration when “different” includes the profound autism of an unspeaking child on the playground, or their grandpa’s Parkinson’s Disease. 

Don’t get me wrong, I certainly want society to fully embrace everyone, and to celebrate whatever abilities and fantastic individual qualities that person may have.  But to six-year-olds, it seems confusing if Mommy uses the same language to talk about hair color, muteness, and wheelchairs.  I agree that it’s important that the kids know that the PERSON isn’t bad.  The person is wonderful.  The person has feelings, and commonalities, and great qualities such as a willingness to (wordlessly) spin the merry-go-round, or the patience to play (while seated) multiple rounds of Connect Four.  But the condition?  I’m not going to tell my children that autism is a fun form of human variability.  I refuse to say that Parkinson’s Disease is just a “difference” that adds to the exciting diversity of their world.  These are illnesses.  I want them cured.  Preferably now, this minute.  I also want everyone to become just a trace less anxious about talking about the “differences” that are less-than-desirable.  To children, anything that is hush-hush is likely to seem more scary and taboo, not less – and therefore more negative, and more stigmatized.  I also suspect – although again, I can’t be sure on this point – that our intense trepidation about imperfections can sometimes make it harder for the individual in question, not easier.

For me, of course, taboos about handicaps don’t make much difference, even if I do sometimes seem to be more bumbling than the average absent-minded professor.  When I think about my cataract at all, I feel lucky that I got off so lightly.  Congenital cataracts are often associated with other defects… such as mental retardation. Wait and see, my stressed-out parents were told, back in ’72.  Won’t that be fun?  There’s no telling how “different” your child may be! Sometimes my family tells me that the jury’s still out.

Ultimately, for all that I love diversity, I’m a pragmatist.  Given the chance, I would happily accept a functioning second eye.  At the same time, I am profoundly glad that I can see, and hear, and express myself (somewhat) coherently.  Yeah, call me crazy.  Or, if you prefer, call me “different.”  Then try making really rude gestures while standing to my right, and give yourself away by giggling.  Just keep in mind that if I accidentally sidestep into your minestrone, I’ll have a really good excuse.

Monday, September 17, 2012

All together now

"We are excited to share with you some early results from our survey! Thank you once again for participating. Your voice and your experience will contribute to research and policy efforts regarding cohousing in the U.S.”
My voice and experience!  How official-sounding.  But despite the chipper thanks of the team from the CohoUS Phase 3 Survey Team, when I filled out their survey several weeks ago, I was pretty sure I was no expert on community living.
When I first moved into a “cohousing” situation thirteen years ago, I didn’t even know the term, and even now that I’m a fully-vested shared-property-owner, I don’t actually explain my living situation that way.  Instead, I generally give a rambling description that starts off with, “Well, there are five homes on our property, plus a shared cabin…” I add, in random order, useful facts such as, “Only two of these kids are actually mine,” and “Sharing the washer and drier makes sense, but I do seem to end up with a lot of odd socks.” 
“The results presented here represent data from 502 cohousing residents.”
Well, I’m glad it wasn’t a mere 501.  Five hundred and TWO sounds so much more respectable.  Practically mainstream.  But, official surveys notwithstanding, I know that cohousing requires explanation.  Like biking at forty below zero, using a plywood privy, and thinking that science is super-duper-fun, it’s not exactly normal. 
Cohousing is rare enough that we don’t categorize easily.  Our little group had a lot of fun, I’ll admit, when the most recent census forms hit our (joint) mailbox.   How many bedrooms?  How is this person related to the head of household?  How many bathrooms?  Well, that’s easy – none.  Someone at the head office in D.C. was going to get twitchy and run out of space in the “other” column.  Likewise, when asked to give a brief description of our household on the twins’ kindergarten forms, I had to squinch my writing to fit the allotted space.  My kids are going to be earmarked as wacko Esterites before they even crack open the new Crayolas, I worried.
Of course, I could have just said that each child lives with her mommy, her daddy, her sister, three dogs and a cat.  It would have been perfectly true.  Our nuclear unit inhabits a boxy little house that looks remarkably like the iconic pictures taped to fridges all across the Apple Pie states (although there is not, last I checked, a rainbow hovering over us at all times).  But teachers get a year-long unedited window into kids’ lives.  That’s why they want to know about households in the first place.  If my child draws a picture of the dinner table and it includes thirteen people sharing the organic leek-kale-zucchini stir-fry, the teacher might start to wonder.  If one of the twins suffers from the dreaded Icky Tummy at school, and the person who comes to pick her up is a scruffy guy in his sixties with three layers of patches on his coveralls and no discernible relationship to me or Jay, will anyone believe he is actually supposed to be there – and has a nursing degree, besides?
“Eighty percent of the residents think of themselves as Democrats, 16% as Independents, and a little over one percent as Republicans.”
Several of my friends have gleefully labeled me as a communist.  My political leanings notwithstanding, I have to point out that my community-mates and I have not pooled our checking accounts or started referring to one another as “comrade.”  Eating dinner together five nights a week and pitching in for a Sam’s Club gallon jug of olive oil, a quart of chili powder, and toilet paper by the crate makes for some economies of scale, but does not really constitute nefariously liberal behavior.  Our dinner-table conversations, of course, are another matter.
“Sixty-six percent of the respondents hold a graduate degree and all respondents have at least some college experience.”
That’s right, at dinner we talk about not only how to subvert the dominant paradigm, but also the finer points of arctic vegetation composition and nutrient cycling, upper atmospheric auroral processes, and application of the Hosmer-Lemeshow test for binary logistic regression to other generalised linear models.  We’re a rocking crowd.
Recently, it has dawned on my six-year-olds that other kids don’t have dinner around a table that’s fifteen feet long.  The quarter-hour walk up out of our swamp-estate to the bus stop gives plenty of time for endless questions.  “Why doesn’t anyone else live in a community?” Molly wanted to know. 
On the theory that everything is a Learning Moment, even when Mommy has not yet had breakfast and is thinking about all the spreadsheets awaiting her at work, we talked about different kinds of neighborhoods, families, extended families, and communities.  Some people have nosy neighbors or reclusive neighbors or neighbors who hang up misspelled NO TRISPASIN signs on gun-shot plywood.  Some kids are adopted.  Some kids have step-parents or live with grandparents or have two mommies or two daddies.  Some have aunties and uncles who live nearby.  The most important thing, of course, is that (all together, now!) kids have a loving family that they can count on to take care of them.
The twins nodded along.  Parents, they seemed to be thinking, are really prone to stating the obvious.  “But, how come more people don’t live in communities?” Molly insisted.
I must have looked particularly stupid, because she elaborated.  Wouldn’t it be kind of boring, she posited, to have just Mommy or Daddy as the cook every night?  What a shocking lack of variety that would engender!  Having only one sibling to play with in the precious hour between dinner and bed would be sub-par, as compared to enjoying the fantastic activities of the resident nine-year-old, and even the occasional condescending attentions of the young lady of twelve.  Without a community, who would take care of Pippin, Polar, Remus, and Togiak when we went on vacation?  Without a community, there wouldn’t be someone who was best at fixing pretty much anything in the whole world, someone who can play the accordion, and someone who has an entire Solar System of planet beach-balls.  There would be no treehouse to share.
I realized then that Molly was asking the question not with a hidden agenda (why is our family weird, Mom?) but from her own personal biased perspective.  To the kids, our family – our community – is normal.  Why isn’t everyone else normal, too?
Sixty-nine percent of residents partake in community meals... About 80% of residents exchange services with other residents and about 90% exchange, share, or gift materials… About 17% are active in caring for elderly residents.
She was right.  What isn’t normal about sharing your easily shareable stuff (no one really uses their extension ladder, their shovels, or their Cuisinart 24/7 – do they?) and spending time with your friends and neighbors?  At what point did it become mainstream to go into our houses and shut our doors against the metaphorical (or real) village outside?
I gave Molly as clear an answer as I could muster, pre-coffee.  I told her that plenty of people – and possibly everyone – DOES have a community.  Community means different things to different people.  It can mean looking out for other people, or knowing who lives on your street, or dropping by when you’ve by-mistake-on-purpose baked too many pies and perhaps someone else would like one (oh, go ahead, twist my arm).  It means compromise and friendship and snuggling an extra cat to sleep when your community-mates are visiting Australia.
Communities like ours may be rare, I told the kids, simply because everyone else just hasn’t quite figured out yet how much fun it is, or hasn’t gotten past the initial hurdles.  I quickly outlined the complexities of buying land, and setting up guidelines, handling legal paperwork, and figuring out finances.  I recalled the day a decade ago when the horde of us piled into Yukon Title, ate all the free snacks, and signed off on our boggy kingdom.  I remembered the living-room meetings at which we invented “Bob” the mythical disruptive, disreputable community member for whom we were crafting careful rules of conduct.  I told the kids that in my opinion, it was totally worth it.
They agreed.
“Cohousers rate their physical health as better than others their age and their mental health as very good.”
It just might be true.  Or perhaps we are just remarkably and deludedly optimistic.  Either way, I’m good with it.
Maybe I AM a cohousing expert, after all.  Either that, or a communist.