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.