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.

No comments:

Post a Comment