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

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Bore of the Roses

A couple of weeks ago, I pushed my shopping cart into Fred Meyer and immediately winced as the Seasonal Display assaulted me:  shiny plastic hearts, fake flowers, lacy ribbons, and fuchsia teddy bears.  Near the cash registers, the impulse-purchases on offer were those heart-shaped candies that are almost as tasty as Tums.  “Be Mine!”  “Luv U!” It was that time of year again.

Based in part on what a big Valentine’s Day Grinch I am, I spent years assuming I had some kind of allergy to romance -- and indeed to all things loving, tender, and touching.  What else could I think?  I routinely scowl at jewelry displays that exhort men to show their devotion by opening their wallets.  I mock movies in which the artfully-bloodied hero wins the artfully-disheveled-yet-still-eyelinered girl.  I am ruthlessly sarcastic about novels in which brooding, rugged ‘Chet’ and sassy-yet-innocent ‘Estella’ suffer inexplicable mutual magnetism despite their drastic and improbable misunderstandings, and subsequently fall out of their clothes.  Even things I normally appreciate – luscious assortments of creamy dark chocolates that require a map to navigate their multi-layered deliciousness – seem overwrought when wrapped in heart-shaped ribbon-adorned boxes.  All this stuff is aimed squarely at my demographic, and yet it has always left me cold.  Ergo, I long ago concluded, I must be utterly unsentimental.

When I was really little, the age my kids are now, I didn’t hate February 14th, but I didn’t really get it, either.  I ate the Tums-candy with the rest of the class, and exchanged the everybody-gets-one Valentines, as prescribed.  I remember thinking that it was oddly pointless to give the same card to the kid you liked and the one who destroyed your Lego-block towers, but at that age, a lot of grownup rules seemed pretty weird.

This year, now that my own kids are in kindergarten, I was sucked into the not-really-optional kiddie Valentines vortex.  Class lists came home from school.  I figured that we might as well make this exercise as creative (read: gluey) and educational (read: “we love penmanship!”) as possible.  Besides, as mentioned, I’m allergic to the Valentines section at Fred Meyer, so purchasing the pre-fab cards was anathema to me. 

I felt a twinge of déjà vu when one of my daughters, sounding out the names on her class list, said, “Do I have to give a Valentine to ‘Warthog’?” [all children’s names have been altered to protect the innocent, and also for my own amusement].

I told her that she did.  I got out the construction paper.  It wasn’t pink.  Green and blue Valentines are ok, right?  I got out the glue sticks, the scissors, and the markers, and I even unearthed a few sparkly things.  Then I looked at the lists of names, and sighed.  Fifty-six hand-lettered cards amounts to a Herculean effort for two small people who have only recently become semi-literate (“I do not like green eggs and ham… and I also do not like Valentines Day, Sam-I-Am.”)

As the twins worked away, making cards not only for Alligator, who invited them to his birthday party, but also for Albatross, who apparently spends work time staring at his pencil, and Lemur, who has Serious Behavior Problems, I wondered who was going to be left out later on, when everyone gets a little older and the rules change.  Because if making Valentines for everyone at age five seems like a rather pointless exercise in sweatshop labor, sending flowers only to the popular kids at age fifteen is far worse.

When I was in high school, Valentine’s Day was used as an excuse for a fundraiser/popularity-contest called Carnation Day.  Kids were encouraged to send color-coded dyed carnations to friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, and crushes.  By the end of the day, the popular girls had dense bouquets, rich in reds and pinks.  I had one or two crumpled yellow blossoms hanging out of my three-ring binder. 

It only got worse in college.  There were plenty of Valentines events, university-sanctioned and otherwise.  Such proceedings required (or presumed) an actual date.  I had plenty of terrific male friends, but they generally treated me like one of the guys -- unless they preferred guys as dates, in which case they treated me as one of the girls.

Sometimes, my friends asked me for advice about romance.  I protested that this was akin to asking me to translate Swahili, but they kept right on asking.  In the dramatic screen-play of college romance, I didn’t have a role – but I was the script prompter. 

In my senior year, my roommates and I held an Anti-Valentines party, complete with black torn hearts.  After that, I ignored the pseudo-holiday to the best of my ability.  Still, I was pretty much convinced that I just didn’t belong in the same universe as anything even vaguely romantic.

Roughly five years later, I met Jay.  I immediately thought he was pretty fabulous, of course – but that doesn’t mean that there were any hearts, or doilies, or icky sentiment – of course not!  We went hiking together, and talked about good books, and recounted past outdoor adventures, and discussed world events – you know, the sort of things one does with a guy who is not prone to brooding or improbable misunderstandings. 

One October day, about two months after we’d first met, as the first snowflakes of the season drifted down, Jay met me at the door with a gift.  “I thought of giving you flowers,” he said.  “But… you aren’t really a flowers sort of person… so I got you these.”  And he handed me a pair of back-country skis. 

I’d never owned my own pair before, although I’d skied quite a bit on borrowed ones.  When I protested at such a gift, he demurred that they’d been heavily discounted.  “Besides, I wanted you to have them… because… well, I want to spend a lot of time out skiing with you,” he explained simply.

I skied with him.  I married him.  We produced two children, and had yet more adventures. 

Twelve years later, there I was, watching the kids working away industriously at their Valentines.  When one of them proudly showed me the one she’d created for her bestest friend, ‘Pterodactyl’, I found myself grinning at her kindergarten spelling. 

“Happy Valitis Day” the card proclaimed.

Valitis!  So that’s what it was!  Back in my not-ill-spent-enough youth, I spent far too many years suffering from valitis.  But luckily, sometime just before the turn of the millennium, aided by a pair of skis in the hands of the right person, it became obvious to me that I can be plenty loving, and yes, even a true romantic, without subscribing to the maudlin, mawkish version of Valentine’s Day being served up to me in the aisles of Fred Meyers. 

This year, on the 14th, Jay bought us all fresh strawberries, melon, and pineapple in blessedly ordinary packaging.  The kids handed out their paper missives -- even to Warthog and Lemur.  They seemed to buy into my explanation that these examples of kindness and generosity – not to mention Very Best Handwriting – might help make the recipients nicer kids, in the long term.  I may have almost believed it myself.  And this past weekend, I skied a hundred miles through snowy forests and beneath dancing aurora, [but that’s the next blog post] while my fabulous husband took care of the twins and held down the fort. I had plenty of time to cogitate on what I think Valentines Day ought to be about.

I’m pretty sure I’ve figured out the variety of romance and the brand of sentimentalism that doesn’t give me hives.  I certainly know I’m lucky.  But I reserve the right to ridicule the February Seasonal Display – and I’m still not going to eat those chalky little hearts.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Holding the universe together

“Mommy… how do you spell ‘duct tape’?”

I was standing at the kitchen counter, grouchily attempting to make tea in an electric kettle with a jammed lid.  My daughter was kneeling on the floor, pen in hand, brow furrowed in concentration.  She was writing out another section of her science fair project report.  The text below each section header was short and to the point, in keeping with the attention spans of twin five-year-old scientists.  The handwriting wobbled precariously.  Hypothesis: The big parachute will be slower.  Methods: We dropped the dolls and timed how long it took.  Now she was up to Materials: Two dolls, stopwatch, trash bags, scissors, string…  duct tape.

This, I thought, was not going to be one of those shiny, polished, no-expense-spared projects that wow the judges.

Sometimes I feel like my whole world is patched, welded, crazy-glued, jury-rigged, re-strung, puttied-over, wired together, and – of course—duct taped.  My right heel is wrapped in the stuff.  So is my left thumb, my bicycle seat, and both my old ski poles.  For the most part, the repairs are perfectly functional.  The gray sticky stuff works better on winter-cracked skin than any salve or balm I’ve tried.  The bike is oddly comfy and fabulously theft-proof in its taped-up glory.  Still, shouldn’t my world look a little less slap-dash and a lot less redneck?  I can’t help thinking that I probably shouldn’t be living a lifestyle that includes rolls of duct tape in every color of the rainbow.

Back east, where I grew up, duct tape was neither a fashion accessory nor a structural housing component.  Thus, I didn’t start out as a duct tape addict – at least, not exactly – although I have to admit that the inclinations were there from an early age.  I didn’t have eleven rolls of the stuff when I was a kid.  In fact, I’d never even heard of it.  But I was a big fan of all the other kinds of tape I knew – scotch, masking, and the coveted electrical – and I also had a heavy hand with the household supplies of string, cardboard, and glue.  I took apart the broken vacuum cleaner, built elaborate doll furniture from Quaker Oats boxes, and hoarded magnets, binder clips, shoe boxes, popsicle sticks, and wire. I suspect that if I’d known of duct tape’s flexible strength, its wondrous stickiness, its almost-waterproof resiliency, and the satisfying noise it makes as it comes off the roll, I would have saved up my twenty-five-cents-a-week allowance for almost nothing else.

Back then, I hadn’t yet internalized the stigma of looking like a half-hearted hobo.  Aesthetics and propriety meant nothing to me, and I didn’t know the jokes about blue tarps.  But now I look at all my repairs and Rube-Goldberging with a more critical eye.  I COULD afford a new bike seat.  I don’t HAVE to wear a jacket with a zipper that has blue teeth on the left and black teeth on the right.  The extension cord hanging from the ceiling is not particularly attractive.  And do cardboard boxes really constitute a filing system?

I tell myself that I could give up my string, my cardboard, my glue, and even my tape habit – really I could – except that things keep breaking.  In twelfth-grade physics I learned about entropy:  no matter what we do, the overall orderliness of the universe is always going to decrease.  Potential energy turns to kinetic energy, the energy of motion.  Kinetic energy, under the influence of friction, is wasted as heat.  Heat dissipates.  Things fall apart.  And when they do, we all have to fight uphill against entropy by borrowing orderliness from some other corner of the universe.  Some people do this by buying NEW things.  Shiny things.  Smooth, glossy, matching, professionally painted things.  Nancy gets out the duct tape.

The hope that I’ll be cured of all my patching is stymied by my surroundings.  If duct tape has a hometown, it’s Fairbanks Alaska. I’ve seen people using it to hold together clothing, trucks, and heavy equipment.  I’ve heard it works pretty well short-term in lieu of stitches, if you happen to have any gaping wounds.  But for all its uses, popular wisdom nonetheless labels duct tape as tacky, slip-shod, and possibly even a sign of moral decay.

I banged the kettle on the countertop slightly too aggressively.

“What are you doing, Mommy?”  The young scientist was temporarily distracted from her writing exercise.

“Trying to fix this… problematic… kettle,” I growled.  I have to be selective in my use of adjectives in front of the kids.

“Can I help you?  Please, I can fix it!”  My wannabe-helper was already reaching for the large plastic bin on the lowest shelf – the one that holds the duct tape.

“This isn’t a duct tape problem,” I explained.  The lid on the electric kettle was stuck open.  This made the water boil more slowly.  More importantly, it prevented the kettle from turning off when it did boil.  For someone like me, with the attention span of a gnat, auto-shutoff is a must. So I took a good look at the lid.  There was a little poky plastic thingy on the inside of the hinge that needed to be pushed in, but I couldn’t do it with my fingers without jamming a hole in my thumb.

“Let me!  Please, can I try?”  This was my fix-it kid.  She knows the difference between Phillips and flat-head, between D-cell, C-cell, double-A, and triple-A.  She knows that Elmer’s All-Purpose only works on porous surfaces, that bike tubes should be gently abraded with sandpaper before application of the glue and patch, and that seam allowances are a must.  She wouldn’t be able to fix the kettle, I thought, but she’d nag me about it insatiably until I let her try.  Sometimes, as I supply both my kids’ cardboard, string, and paste habits, I have an eerie feeling that I’m being charged for my own crimes, with thirty years worth of back interest due.

 I handed her the ornery thing, and started packing school lunch boxes instead.

She examined the kettle carefully.  “The problem is this little poky part,” she said after a minute or two.  “But I can’t push it in, because it hurts my fingers.”

Well, yeah.

We puzzled it out together.   “I’d use a thimble,” I said, “but I don’t have one.  At least, I don’t think I do.  But how about this pen?  It has a small indentation on the lid, and it’s narrow enough to do the job.”

She nodded earnest agreement.

 Pop.  The little plastic gizmo slid back into place.  The kettle shut with a click.  I smiled at my accomplice, and she beamed back.  The lid was still crooked.  As far as I could discern, it would always be crooked.  But I was pleased – more than pleased.  I realized that I wasn’t just compromising and making do with a less-than-perfect hot-drink appliance.   I actually liked it better that way, crooked lid and all.  I’d shared a sense of victory with my young co-conspirator.  We’d overcome an obstacle.

Moreover, we’d kept one more chunk of stainless steel, copper, and plastic out of the Fairbanks landfill.   Recycling is the guilt-panacea of a throw-away society.  Not dumping stuff in the first place is recycling's old-fashioned predecessor.   So what if the kettle didn’t look perfect?  Fixing it made it more mine – more ours – than it had ever been before.

 My fix-it kid hastened back to her original task.  “Look,” she said, proud of herself.  “See, I’m all done with the ‘Materials’ part.”  She held up her work for my inspection.

As I carefully examined her efforts, I recalled the peculiar sight of the identical naked dolls hurtling off the cabin loft, each with her own trash-bag-and-string parachute.  The larger parachute was indeed slower.  And the duct tape harnesses held up beautifully.  I imagined these items artfully arranged on a table in front of the kids’ display board – which itself was re-used, with telltale rips from the previous scientific efforts of my neighbor’s kid. 

I thought of the emails that periodically circulate around the university, in which biologists, physicists, and chemists are asked to please please please offer up a few hours for such-and-such elementary school.  It dawned on me that the project would be graded by off-duty scientist-parents – people like me.  And, perhaps more to the point, the scientists would be fellow Fairbanksans.

D-U-C-T  T-A-P-E.  The words stared up at me in purple marker from the bottom of the page.

 “The judges,” I said, “are going to love it.”