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, June 26, 2012

Just Kidding

“Hey, you’re a good climber!”  The speaker, a boy of about eight, is staring at me.  So is a little girl in a polka dotted sundress.  In fact, every kid on the playground is staring at me.  With equal avidity, every adult on the playground is NOT staring at me.  Because, you know, it’s not nice to notice the obvious lunatic.
I’m at the top of the twelve-foot-high poles of the swing set, with two feet hooked around the end supports, my belly stretched along the ridgeline, and one hand firmly anchoring me.  The other hand is untangling the swings. 
Up, over, down.  The chains rattle and crash, and the black rubber seats dance.  With a modicum of triumph, I realize that I can manage the tasks of pole-shimmying and swing-unwrapping just as well as I used to back when the playground aids tooted their whistles at me in consternation, exasperation, and possibly genuine fear. 
However, my exhilaration is tinged with misgivings.  Those other grownups are REALLY studiously ignoring me.  Forty-year-old moms just don’t do this stuff. I’m obviously getting it all wrong.  Again.
This isn’t the first time that I’ve been the parent who just doesn’t know how to act like a parent.  At Chena Lakes, it took me a good hour to realize that I was the only grownup who was leaping in and out of the frigid water right along with the hordes of squealing children with their inflatable orcas and sand-filled bathing suits.  The other mommies were wearing bikinis and gossiping under umbrellas.  The daddies were firing up barbecues, and perhaps wading in knee-deep in order to prevent toddlers from tumbling face-down into the water.  Meanwhile, sand was sticking to my wet hands and knees as I crawled around wielding a shovel.  “Should I dig a little deeper?” I asked.  My co-architects eagerly concurred, and trotted back and forth with buckets to ensure that the moat was properly filled.  They also wanted me to swing across the monkey bars, play tic-tac-toe on the giant playground-sized board, and allow them to bury my legs in sand.  And I did.  I like sandcastles.  I also like mud, and snail ponds, and kites, and snowball fights. Still, I worry about acting so childlike.  It is, as the Victorians would say, unseemly. 
Aren’t parents supposed to act responsible?  Grown up?  Dignified?  Parent-like?  Telling knock-knock jokes probably doesn’t fall into this category.  Neither does ordering my ice cream cone with sprinkles and getting a chocolate smear on my chin while I eat it.  Building with Lego, hiding in treehouses, licking ketchup off my fingers, constructing a snowman in front of my workplace, and skipping in public are all taboo.
My kids are starting to notice the dichotomous worlds of kid-stuff versus grownup-stuff.  “Poor Mama, you don’t get candy from the Easter Bunny,” Molly tells me, with obvious sympathy.  Santa doesn’t put a pomegranate in my stocking, let alone a remote-controlled car.  When I had to have dental surgery to remove a renegade leftover baby tooth, my daughters insisted that I put the nasty, sawed-in-half remains under my pillow, in a Ziploc.  The tooth fairy came through for me, and they beamed.  They are immersed in the joys of being kids – the sticky, illogical, fantastical gleefulness of every new discovery – and they don’t want me to miss out just because I’m so ancient.
On the flip side, they are well aware that increased age commands increased status, at least in those who are young enough to be impressed by the enormity of teenagers.  From my perch atop the swings, I can see that they are both wearing the T-shirts they earned the night before, when we walked, jogged, skipped, and hopped our way through Fairbanks’ annual Midnight Sun Run.  They were tremendously proud of covering all ten kilometers of this very-grown-up race on their own two feet.  They were thrilled by crossing the finish line at exactly midnight -- an adults-only hour if ever there was one. 
Being not-so-little anymore does have some rewards – so much so that Molly has started to be suspicious of anything that might be not grown-up enough.  “How come kids’ underwear has pictures on it?”  She squinted disapprovingly at a faded Dora the Explorer, and dug through the drawer until she found a plain blue pair.  “Just like yours,” she smiled.   She was right, except for them being about seventeen sizes smaller.  Climbing the swing poles, I had a lot more posterior to haul along than when I first tried this trick.
Like underwear sizes, some things do change with age, regardless of whether we want them to or not.  Santa just isn’t going to make an encore in my imagination, even if I have a free hand with the eggnog.  Unlike the child cowering on my lap, I was not terrified of the Wicked Witch of the West at last week’s puppet show at the library – although I grant that she was pretty scary, as far as foot-high marionettes go.  Tic-tac-toe lost its luster after I figured out the never-lose algorithm by playing dozens of games by myself in the dirt under a picnic table at the age of six (I was the shy kid at summer camp).  No one has told me recently that they won’t be my bestest friend unless I share my cookies.  And it’s been a few years since anyone has frightened me into proper behavior with the magical words, I’m telling!
So, yes, some things are different.  But some things aren’t.  As I cling to the sun-warmed metal of the swing crosspiece – where no self-respecting adult should ever, ever cling – I contemplate the more-than-semantic difference between being childlike and being childish.  Maybe the best part of being a grownup is getting to choose which of the kid-stuff to retain, and which to toss to the four winds.  Grape popsicles, running through sprinklers, tearing downhill on a sled, holding a ladybug gently in the palm of my hand?  Yeah, I’ll keep those.   Sniveling for a Bandaid for every semi-invisible scratch; hiding wide-eyed under my quilt after reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; whining “are we there yet?” seventeen thousand times on a twenty minute drive; and cowering before the taunting prowess of junior-high harpies?  Not so much. 
As I consider edging myself just a little farther along my perch in order to reach that pesky final swing, I hear a voice from below.  “Here, let me help.” 
I look down in surprise.  A guy about my age – one of the dads who seemed NOT to be looking at me – swings the chain into my grasp.  Quickly, I haul the swing up, over, up, over, and up and over once more.  The chains rattle down.  The seat bounces.  The job is done. 
I thank my helper, and he offers a small smile.  “You’re a lot braver than I am,” he says as I slither back down the poles.  He sidles away quickly, but I catch a glimpse in him of the little boy he used to be – and I realize he’s not so different from the eight-year-old who hollered a compliment across the playground. He thinks he’s commenting on my bravery with respect to heights, but I think he might mean something else, too. Maybe, I think, he really wants to order his ice cream with sprinkles, but has almost forgotten how.
The twins leap onto two of the newly freed swings, and pump their legs skyward.  They are still chattering about last night’s race.  “Do you remember the outhouse costume?”  They were impressed by the water guns, the raucously cheering barbecue-and-beer fueled fans on the sidelines, and most of all by the grownups who saw fit to cover more than six miles while dressed in wedding dresses, Oompa-loompa outfits, or cardboard boxes cut to resemble rock, paper, and scissors.
I consider their enthusiasm in a new light.  “Was it fun to see grownups acting so silly?” I ask.  “Acting like kids?”
“Yes,” they agree, their eyes shining at the memory.  And then they tell me, again, about the guy with the dinosaur made out of dozens of animal-twisty balloons.  The runner-turned artist (or was that artist-turned-runner?) seemed justifiably proud of his creation, and of the attention it garnered.  His grin beamed out a heady mix of mischief and joy.  Childlike.
I glance at the appreciative eight-year-old who is now barreling down the slide; the gaggle of mothers who are still studiously ignoring me; the polka dotted girl who snagged a swing as soon as it jangled down within reach; and the dad who helped me.  Adulthood, I think, is no time for diffidence, nostalgia, and regret. 
I hop on a swing, and take a turn.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Phone on mute, arms like Kali

“That was fast,” says my coworker Brook.  She is invisible behind our bilge-colored Dilbert-wall, but I can hear the laughter in her voice. 
It takes me a moment to figure out what she thinks is funny.  Then I realize she has just received an email from me in response to the one she sent five minutes earlier -- despite the fact that she has heard me yakking away on the phone for the past hour. 
Well, sure, I send emails while on teleconferences -- but isn’t that normal?  I protest -- my phone on mute -- that everyone does other stuff during long meetings.
They do, Brook admits.  “But not when they’re actually presenting. That’s beyond my level of multi-tasking.”
She has a point; I might be taking this a bit too far. In my world, multi-tasking is not just an occasional spurt of hyperactivity; it’s hard-wired.  The kids’ bike trailer is littered with Corn Bran and desiccated raisins, because breakfast, commuting, and comically inadequate bike-race-training are all simultaneous activities.  My laptop is full of cat hair and crumbs.  I listen to novels while skiing, and I have Serious Conversations -- phone wedged under my ear -- while assembling Lego dump trucks.  I can’t remember the last time I ate lunch while 1) sitting at a table and 2) not discussing downscaled climate change models.  I think it’s been six years since I shopped for groceries by myself, without small people on hand to assist (“The apple I dropped is only bruised on ONE side, Mommy”), philosophize (“Why do the bad-for-you cereals have the best pictures on the boxes?”), and editorialize (“Look, Mommy, that man has only one arm!”).  If I’m not doing two things at once, it’s because I’m doing three. 
The voices of my project collaborators are still burbling from my headset.  Every once in a while – even as I triage the rest of my inbox and chat with Brook -- I leap into the conversation to answer a question about permafrost thaw or biome shift.   I try to make sure that when I do so, my mouth is not too full of scrambled eggs and spinach.  Still, I feel guilty – and worried.
I’d like to think that all this activity is a mark a great efficiency and productivity, but I fear that it’s actually a mark of being a frenetic stereotype.  Sure, I’m doing three things at once, but what if I’m doing them all badly?  I wonder whether I’m a parody of myself, my gender, and my generation.  Haven’t there been articles recently about how everyone manages this a lot better in France?  Or maybe it was Sweden.  I’m not sure of the details, because I only read the first paragraph, and I was creating a spreadsheet and settling an argument about Scotch tape at the same time.
The folks at the other end of the phone line can’t see my dirty dishes, or anything that may be lodged between my front teeth.  In fact, none of them have ever met me.  For all they know, I could be a willowy bombshell who does not ever scrawl notes on the back of kindergarten worksheets while slapping together peanut-butter sandwiches. But Brook knows better. 
“Of course, I don’t have kids,” she adds, kindly offering me a ready-made excuse.  But I’m not sure I can use it.  My kids aren’t signed up for Tai Kwon Do, gymnastics, math tutoring, or basket weaving.  By the standards of the era, they are total slackers, hanging out making mudpies and chasing stink bugs all summer instead of learning about Mozart – or being Mozart, for that matter.  And they’re hopeless at doing more than one thing at once.
A few weeks ago, as the clock was creeping toward nine p.m., I was watching with mounting frustration as my children meandered through their getting-ready-for-bed process.  “Mommy, you know what I was wondering?” One of the twins was standing stock-still in the middle of their bedroom – which was so littered with toys and half-complete craft projects that I had to shovel a path to the bunk beds – and holding a sock in her hand.
“You can tell me about it WHILE you put your pajamas on,” I snapped.
Her face crumpled.  “But Mommy, I don’t LIKE multi-tasking,” she wailed.
In the game of name-that-emotion, I couldn’t decide if I was more perturbed by the fact that: a) this particular neologism was part of her kindergarten vocabulary; b) I was forcing my child into my own hyped-up mode; c) her mental capacities were such that simultaneously dressing and speaking were a challenge; or d) I was never ever going to get the kids to bed so that I could check emails, write novels, play online Scrabble, and munch chocolate (simultaneously, of course).
Back in the last millennium, I remember hearing my dad bemoan the fact that more and more reporters – his coworkers at Newsday – were eating lunch at their desks.  Couldn’t they take a few minutes to sit down in the lunchroom with a sandwich?  A few years later, he did an extensive piece of investigative journalism in which he brought to light just how many people were trying to make phone calls, drink coffee, wolf down breakfast burritos, and apply mascara all while piloting a vehicle at 70mph down a traffic-choked freeway.  The results were ugly – and I don’t just mean with regard to the mascara. 
Now everyone seems to be talking about it -- how we’re all kidding ourselves into thinking we have as many arms as an octopus, as many eyes as a spider, and the processing power of Google.  This modern era is destroying us!  We’re all going to Hades in a Multi-Purpose Canvas Messenger Bag with Leather Accents! 
There’s obviously some truth in this.  A while back, I almost got mowed down on a sidewalk by someone who was texting while biking.  But at the same time -- hasn’t This Modern Era always been destroying us?  Sure, our technology has changed so fast that I’m already bordering on being a techno-fossil.  But have we really changed all that much?  True, when I was little, our family didn’t eat in the car, the phone was firmly fastened to the wall, and a Blackberry was something that grew on prickly bushes at Heckscher Park.  But my mother did plenty of multi-tasking back in the days of wide lapels.  She sewed her own wardrobe, and mine as my sister’s as well, all on a hand-crank Singer from circa the Pleistocene.  She cooked dinner while listening to me read Frog and Toad are Friends from my perch on the kitchen stool.  She got her exercise by pushing a stroller, mowing the lawn, and hauling groceries.  She squeezed in her socializing from the vantage point of a playground bench, while being called upon to “Look at me!  Look at me!” every fifteen seconds.
Somewhere in the background of my teleconference, a dog barks.  I check that I’m still muted, although my dogs are safely at home.  I grin, imagining someone with papers scattered on a kitchen table, half eaten bagel balanced on a plate, and puppy trying grab a piece of attention from its on-the-phone owner.  Ok, so maybe that participant missed a few words of my cogent synopsis of projected shifts in growing-degree-days in the Northwest Territories.  But the tiny interruption makes my faceless collaborator human.  And I like humans.
The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that multi-tasking was not forced on me by my generation, my ovaries, my computer, or my shoe size.  To one degree or another, our species has always done more than one thing at once, and been more than one thing at once, simply because we can.  We have convoluted, bulky, non-linear brains.   And I like that, too.
The truth is… I enjoy multi-tasking.  I’m kind of bored if I don’t have way too many projects going on at once, and I feel pigeon-holed if I don’t have more than one identity.  I like being a scientist, a mom, a wanna-be-writer, a baker of gooey cakes, a do-it-yourself builder, and a back-of-the-pack athlete.  Maybe I don’t do any of this very well, but I don’t want to give any of it up.  Is this really so bad?
I don’t think multi-tasking can be pilloried if the tasks in question are walking the dogs through a nice squelchy swamp, searching for ladybugs and cranberry blossoms, collecting mosquito larvae in plastic cups, blowing soap bubbles, snacking on fresh peaches, and discussing the hydrologic cycle (can you say “evapotranspiration,” kids?)   On Tuesday, the twins pedaled behind me on our goofy-looking double-tag-along to the park, the library, the thrift store, and the grocery store.  While pedaling, we discussed gardening, the transit of Venus, and the local wildlife: “Do you see the ducks under the bridge – no, not there, on the left!” (We were also, apparently, learning to tell left from right.) 
I figure there’s a happy medium in there, somewhere between doing-it-all and Hang Up and Drive.  I was browsing an article on cognitive psychology (you know, just for fun, while sorting socks) and learned about the Goldilocks Principle.  Infants, it seems, will seek out the just-right level of stimulation to meet their learning abilities: not too simple, not to complex.  I like this idea, because it allows me the freedom to be my own Goldilocks.  I can send emails, talk to scientists in California, and eat eggs, all at once -- even if Brook thinks I’m nuts. 
There are only (in my mental rulebook, that is) three caveats regarding multi-tasking:
1.       People matter.  The lost lunch breaks that my dad mourned weren’t really about his coworkers doing more work; they were about his friends socializing less. 
2.       Be your own Goldilocks, not your kids’ Goldilocks.  If they want to stare at a leaf for half an hour, fine.  Unless it’s bedtime, in which case, brush your teeth already, will you?
3.       Don’t be an idiot.  You don’t need to put on that mascara right now.  Really.
My teleconference ends at last – just in time, because I need to hop on my bike.  I’ve got kids to pick up, and I think I promised to bake a pie for a charity barbecue.  It’s been a productive morning: I’ve led two presentations, answered a bunch of messages, picked the spinach from between my teeth, and started work on the next project – the one I promised to do for Brook, in that email I answered.  I told her I would lead a teleconference next month.  It should be a fun one – although I’m guessing she won’t let me answer emails at the same time.