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

Friday, April 25, 2014

If I were a carpenter

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“Um…”   Lizzy hesitates.  She looks at her toes.  “Um, I don’t really know.”
People ask kids this question all the time.  My kids.  Other kids.  Kids they’ve only just met.  Heck, I catch myself asking it, too – or sitting around with other adults, guessing about it.  See the way she focuses on the Legos?  She’s totally going to be an engineer.  Or an architect.  Something spatial and math-y.  I mean, just look at her – she’s got the focus, the precision, the awkward social skills…
Why I do this is a mystery to me, because the question makes my kids squirm – just as it made me squirm, when I was a kid.
Oh, I came up with answers.  (Grownups demand answers, or they get all testy.)  When I was six I said I was going to be an astronaut -- until I learned that half-blind kids can’t grow up to fly stuff.  So much for the Mars expedition.   When I was seven, the age the twins are now, I told everyone I was going to be an inventor.  This was handy, because it was both specific enough to satisfy the annoying adults, and vague enough to satisfy myself.  If anyone pressed, “What are you going to invent?” I could justifiably retort that I didn’t know, because I hadn’t invented it yet.  Moreover, invention covered a multitude of topics and interests.  I could invent new kinds of games or puzzles.  I could invent time-saving machines for household use.  I could invent astonishing modes of transportation, up to and including interstellar travel.  Inventing offered a lot of wiggle room.
It wasn’t enough that I was supposed to know my future career before I hit third grade.  Oh, no, I needed to be planning ahead by honing my studies to match my future goals!  Thus, along with the question about career choices came another frequent (and clearly related) zinger: “What’s your favorite subject at school”? 
Our society tells us that we need to look for the superlatives:  the fastest, the smartest, the favorite, the best.  You’d better know what you’re good at kid, so you can narrow down those choices!
What was my favorite subject at school?
Well, it wasn’t gym.  The one-eyed thing, coupled with the erudite-but-uncoordinated nature of my immediate family, made me an instant dud at everything from softball to soccer.  Besides, our elementary gym teachers approached their daily toil with all the enthusiasm of galley slaves chained below decks.  “Pushups.  Ready, begin”.  A blare on a whistle.  A bouncy red ball rebounding off the side of my head. 
No, gym wasn’t my favorite class.  Nonetheless, I loved moving my body, running fast, climbing, hiking, biking, and wrestling.  I wanted to be on top of mountains, at the bottom of the ocean, in the rainforests of the Amazon and at the North Pole.  I hadn’t ruled out “Explorer” as a viable career option.  I hadn’t decided against a physical, kinetic, future.
During my college summers, when many of my earnest, ambitious Harvard friends took internships in D.C. or New York, I worked on the Adirondack Trail Crew.  I whacked things with an axe.  I moved Very Large Rocks. 
And these days?  Yeah, I have a thing about running, biking, skiing, and all that.  You might have noticed.
What’s your favorite subject at school?
Music?  No, music wasn’t my favorite class, either.  Our music teacher, who was (really) named Mr. Rogers, was a grim and exhausted man, near retirement.  He stood up behind his piano, glaring over the top of it at his students, as if daring them to act up. Anyone who misbehaved had to write out the national anthem.  All the verses.  You’ve never heard anyone sing them, ever, but trust me -- there are a lot of verses. 
I was usually sickeningly well-behaved in school, a total brown-nosing nerd, but in music class I grew creatively devious, writing parody versions of the inane songs, and handing them out to just enough classmates to make Mr. Rogers twitch.  He was widely rumored to pick and eat his own earwax.  I was fascinated by this.  I mean, boogers, sure.  Those merely tasted slightly salty.  But the appalling taste of earwax made me almost admire Mr. Rogers.
I was certainly not a star in music class.  Still, I imagined myself someday writing comic parodies that would bring down the house.  I loved the emotional swell of music.  I played my parents’ records over and over – from Gilbert and Sullivan to Tom Lehrer to Pete Seeger to Beethoven.  When I got my first real job, it was in the Audiovisual department of the public library.  There were these new items in the collection called “compact discs”.
I’m no more musical as an adult than I was as a kid.  But when, having been cast as an extra in a local Shakespeare production some years ago, I was told that I’d be required to sing and dance, I forged ahead.  I sang.  I danced.  In public.  For people who had paid actual money.  So I guess I haven’t 100% given up on that path, either.
Art?  Well, I was never terribly artistic, but I liked it anyhow.  In sixth grade, when my classroom teacher turned out to be as useless and well-informed as a broken mop, I spent increasingly lengthy periods of time in the art room.  The art teacher, Mr. Wyatt, let me get away with this because he was indisputably awesome.  He was an enormous black man with a keen eye, a startling sense of humor, and a thumb that he’d famously almost cut off in the paper cutter.  He probably knew that I didn’t have real prospects with my flat, wishy-washy watercolors, but he liked the whimsy of my painting of a mouse pilfering from a teacup (using a tiny ladder and a tiny teacup of her own) well enough to frame it.  It hung in the school hallways for years.
These days, I get sucked into art projects by my kids.  Clay?  Oh, who can resist clay?  Finger paints?  Zentangles?  Yes, yes, bring it on.  Pictionary?  Sure. 
I lose at Pictionary, but who cares?  I can’t, somehow, quite let go of art.
Seventh grade broadened the art field to include wood shop.  Which was, of course, awesome.  I wanted to take more wood shop in high school.  I even put it on my schedule, but my guidance counselor told me no.  Girls who took all Advanced Placement courses simply did not take woodshop with a bunch on non-academic boys.  No more wood shop for me.
Screw you, High School Guidance Counselor.  Wanna see the house I built?  With, like power tools and stuff?  Ok, so the sheetrock is weirdly bumpy all across the ceiling and the cabinet doors don’t close; that’s okay.  Carpentry.  When I grow up, I’m gonna be a carpenter. 
But I’ll also be a seamstress and a cook, despite the limp and appalling attempts junior high made to educate me in those fields.  Stuffed animals sewed from kits and cocktail wieners wrapped in crescent rolls?  Really?  Really?  The only thing that’s positive about cocktail wieners in crescent rolls is getting to say “cocktail wieners”.  Snigger.  Snort. Cocktail wieners.  But, hey, I have a sewing machine, now.  I make, you know… clothes.  And food.  I make food, too.  Lots of food.  From scratch (um, mostly).  For unclear reasons, in my copious spare time, I seem to end up catering 100-person dinners for hungry ultra-racers (see “gym” above).  Luckily, hungry ultra-racers are anything but picky.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
History, geography, politics, and social studies were not my strong suits at school, either.  I abhorred memorization -- and history lessons seemed to be an endless drudgery of learning disconnected names and dates.  It was all about battles, state capitals, dead presidents, and yellowed documents.  History was my big sister’s province, not mine.
And yet… the stories my sister invented for me – usually when we were stewing together in a bathtub full of hot water, in which I don’t recall ever doing any meaningful washing – were cool.  I’m pretty sure they were blatant Little House on the Prairie rip-offs , because she seemed to be perpetually immersed in that series from age six to age ten, but perhaps I’m misremembering.  In any case, there was plenty of rambling detail about adventures enjoyed by brave and resourceful little girls, and that was good enough for me.  I preferred science fiction, for my own books, but maybe history was… okay.
It seems that, even now, I still haven’t quite given up on social studies, geography, and history.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  The older I get, the more I realize that everything is political – whether I want it to be or not.  I feel compelled to educate myself, in order to take part in important discourse regarding what country we’re currently attacking.  I want to vote wisely, of course -- but it’s more than that. 
Recently I realized – quite to my own shock – that the two books I read last month were NOT NOVELS.  Nor were they about science, or math, or language.  No.  One was political – a darkly funny work by the inimitable Molly Ivins.  The other was a rambling and fascinating social history books by the charming and amiable Bill Bryson.
This latter work, entitled “Home”, educated me on any number of peculiar historical facts, large and small.  Among other things, I learned that Jethro Tull was not only an 80’s rock band, of Thick as a Brick and Aqualung fame, but, originally (1674 – 1741), an English agricultural pioneer who invented a marvelous implement called a “seed drill”.  Somehow, that fact made totally my day.  Because (snicker) “seed drill.” (See also “cocktail wiener.”)
Yeah.  Okay.  When I grow up, I’ll be a historian.
If music, gym, art, sewing, woodworking, cooking, and social studies were never entirely cast aside, other school subjects were even nearer and dearer to my heart all along.  Math.  Physics.  Biology.  Earth Science.  Chemistry.  And (admittedly the odd duck in this geeky family of loves) English.  Words!  Numbers!  Logic!  Truth!  Facts!  Proof!  Experiments!   Oh, yes, yes, yes!  Bring it on! 
I adored every one of these subjects.  I loved them when they were taught brilliantly, as they were by a whole host of my teachers, starting with the guru of the second grade, to whom I’ve already devoted much of a previous blog post.  I loved them when they were taught idiosyncratically, as by the guy with the massive handlebar mustache, two fingers fewer than the regulation number, and a great story about a lawnmower (which explained the latter attribute).  I couldn’t help liking the teacher who was never seen without his lab coat, and who let us make peanut brittle over the Bunsen burners.  I admired my earnest Mathletes coach, and I both loved and hated the English teacher who asked me to explain to the rest of the class full of fourteen-year-olds -- every single one of whom had already hit puberty, except for me -- what Shakespeare meant by the term “maidenhead”.
So, yes.  When I grew up, I was going to be a mathematician, and a scientist, and a writer.  No problem, right?
But, honey, you have to choose a major.  You have to narrow things down.
College arrived.  I faced the “choose a major” dilemma with not a small amount of panic.  I wallowed my way from physics (I took classes in the wrong order; it turns out that multivariable calculus was needed BEFORE third-semester physics, and didn’t work too well concurrently) to geology (I suck at memorizing rocks) to biology.  I ended up in an odd hybrid major, biological anthropology, which was heavy on biology and other flavors of science, but also let me take some archaeology and a class on ape sex.
Obviously, I was completely equipped for the workforce.
My next move, of course, was to take a clearly career-advancing step by… joining the Peace Corps.  I planted trees with small children, ate my bodyweight in fresh fruit every week, apologized for the several hundred years of bad behavior by everyone with my skin color, and biked a lot.
Following this up with a Master’s degree in Forestry and Environmental Science seemed like just the thing.  Because… trees, and science, and being outdoors, and saving the world, all rolled into one!
Um…. Okay, how about a job at an environmental non-profit smack in the middle of Alaska?  A year or two there, and I’ll be ready to move on.  I’ll TOTALLY know what I want to be when I grow up.
Either that, or I’d find myself (along with my wonderful new Alaskan husband) building a cabin (carpentry).  And cooking dinner for a 13-person community (home ec).  And exploring the wilderness (phys ed).  And, unexpectedly, completing a PhD in a brand-new interdisciplinary program, and subsequently landing a professorship in the field of climate change modeling, interpretation, and adaption.
Um, what?   What kind of subject is that?
Well, climate change is a tricky issue, y’know.  It is, seemingly against its will, a political and economic problem.  It spans the wobbly terrain between biology, chemistry, physics, math, computer science, geography, and sociology.  Trying to interpret and explain the ramifications of climate change to wide audiences requires a handle on all of the above, plus clear writing, good communication skills, and some talented visuals.
I’ll come clean here: I’m not very good at being a climate change researcher.  In fact, sometimes I’m remarkably bad at it.  I spout math when I should be simplifying things.  I use acronyms when – well, ever, because no one needs those damn things.  I juggled too many balls, and I drop them like mad.  My Powerpoint presentations are about as artistic as a watercolor mouse in a teacup.  I’m not being humble.  One of my coworkers kindly offered me a book that might have been titled (although it wasn’t) “How to make your presentations less craptastic.”  I’m bad at this.
But I keep trying.  The learning curve hurts my brain, and I fall short a lot, but I’ve come to realize that I’d rather fall short than not reach.  Our society tells us to excel, to be the BEST, to be the TOP.  We’re told to narrow our view and focus on the stuff we’re good at.  But… I find so many joys in the races I have no hope of winning, the crooked woodwork I built myself, and the pot of lentil soup that is four stars short of gourmet.
I like having a chance to try – and maybe fail – at a whole lot of things at once.  Moreover, I like seeing subjects – math, art, gym, politics – as part of a complex and irrevocably linked whole, rather than as artificially separated bites to chew and digest separately.  I like the interconnectedness.  I like the confusion.  I like the challenge.  Sometimes, I like my own mediocrity.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“Um…”   Lizzy hesitates.  She looks at her toes.  “Um, I don’t really know.”
Hey, that’s okay, kid.  Rock on.  But if you want to get them off your back, tell them you’re going to be an artist, a scientist, a writer, AND an inventor.  That’s what I’m gonna be, too.  When I grow up.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Whole-grain friendship

“She doesn’t watch TV…” said Lizzy.  “She’s a really good reader… and she isn’t into stuff like pink and princesses all the time…  she likes riding bikes and being outside… “   She thought for a moment longer.  “One thing I like about her is she doesn’t eat just a white-bread sandwich.  She has a real lunch.”
Well, that clinches it: this isn’t just any old friendship -- it’s a liberal, outdoorsy, intellectual, WHOLE GRAIN friendship!
Is it possible for half of my brain to giggle gleefully while the other half cringes?
On one hand, what parent wouldn’t be pleased that her twins had managed to find an official Best Friend with delightful manners, precocious academic prowess, and a penchant for consuming fresh, locally grown organic produce?  On the other hand…  Oh my god.  I’ve totally brainwashed my kids. And on the third hand (yes, parenting requires growing a third hand) -- do I really have a better grip than my second-graders do on what true friendship actually entails? Should I be surprised, given my own selective proclivities, that they are choosing to hang out with bookish, intellectual, middle-class [knee-high] liberals?
From other conversations with Molly and Lizzy, it has become clear that the nascent social partitioning among the seven-year-old set is amusingly – and horrifyingly – advanced. The kids are figuring out the religious beliefs of their peers, their environmental commitment (or lack thereof), and their politics.  That’s right: although my children have trouble remembering whether Alaska is a town, a state, or a nation, they are attempting to parse the nuances of the political spectrum.  And, apparently, they are also bread snobs.
This social parsimony seems particularly startling, given that neither twin has ever been what you might call extroverted -- or, to be honest, socially skilled.  The two of them have played with each other since they were old enough to toddle, but they’ve always tended to hang around the edges of playgrounds.  One twin in particular received preschool reports full of kindly, euphemistic phrases such as, “Does not initiate play with others.”
Thus, I was thrilled when, back in kindergarten, Lizzy told me that maybe (just maybe) there was a girl in her class she liked.  What?  You’re actually interacting?  Hooray!  A birthday party invitation was issued.  Playing took place.  The little girl’s family seemed delightful.  In fact, they seemed like people I might have sought out as friends without the helpful aid of my small children.  That is… um… bookish, intellectual, middle-class liberals.  She has a real lunch.
The following year, the same child – I’ll call her “E” – was in Molly’s class, and the triumvirate Best Friendship was cemented. 
But what, exactly, does friendship entail in second grade?
Well, it seems that in addition to appropriate bread choices, literary discussion is important.  A few weeks ago, I swung by E’s house at the end of a playdate, and found that the kids had attempted to dress themselves as characters from The Mysterious Benedict Society.  Moreover, they had been busy with letter magnets belonging to E’s little brother.  They were spelling out the names of their favorite authors.
Well… close enough.  The little brother (given the spelling of his name) was not willing to budge on the issue of L-sharing.
I loaded all three girls in the car to head back to our place for the ensuing sleepover.  Our guest’s mother offered a fond farewell and a classic reminder to her daughter: “Don’t forget your manners.” 
As we pulled out of E’s driveway, there was silence from the back seat.  At last, Molly spoke up.  In cheerful, confident tones, she told E, “You know, at our house, you don’t actually have to have manners.”
Come on over, eat with your hands, and make fart jokes!  Yup.  Best Friendship, second-grade style. They’re a trio of solidarity, for sure.
 It might not have been this way, though.  It almost wasn’t.  At the beginning of second grade, E was missing.  Her family had moved to a bigger home.  The move placed her in a different local public school.  The twins missed her sorely.  Every day.
“You’ll make other friends!” I chirped.  “There are lots of nice kids in your classes!”  But Molly and Lizzy bemoaned her absence.
E attended that new school for about a week.  And then she came home with this poster:

Although the two schools were academically equal by all accounts, her parents shifted her back.  They committed themselves to driving her to and from school, every single day -- to be with her friends.
I was touched.  But, at first, I was also taken aback.  Really?  Someone is going to haul their second-grader across town?  Just to be with my kids?  Haven’t they noticed that my delightful little angels tell fart jokes?
I felt a little odd, and a little guilty about the whole thing.  Is it really worth it?  The three children – Molly, Lizzy, and E – ended up in three different classes, thus covering all of the second grade teachers in the school.  They only saw each other at recess and in reading group.  How important, and how permanent, I asked myself, is a friendship between kids whose biggest concerns in life include tooth fairy earnings and who can build the coolest Lego structure?  How meaningful is a friendship based on lunch choices, Beverly Cleary, and bikes?
Then again… books and bikes are kinda high on my list of friend-attributes, too.  I’ve got my very own set of outdoorsy, nerdy, non-princessy buddies (well, okay, maybe some are a little bit princessy).  I have WHOLE GRAIN friendships! 
I found myself squirming a little, mentally.  Yeah, my own choices are so adult, so diverse, so darned nuanced!  Just how thrillingly deep do I think I am, compared to my second-graders?  What is friendship supposed to be about?  And what, over my almost 42 years of existence, has friendship actually entailed?
I found a Best Friend when I was seven, too.  Like my kids’ Best Friend, mine was (and still is) a lot like me: bookish, intellectual, and middle-class-liberal.  Together, we created complicated treasure-hunts full of cryptic clues.  Together, we built obstacle courses in the back yard.  Together, we studied for Advanced Placement exams.  We went off to Ivy league schools.  We both eventually became professors. 
But in other ways, we weren’t so alike after all, my Best Friend and I.  I was the scabby, grubby, always-up-in-a-tree one.  She was cleaner, quieter, shyer, and definitely sweeter.  Her family put up a menorah when mine (somewhat arbitrarily) put up a Christmas tree.  As adults, she settled in suburban New York and became a swing-dancing expert, and I went to live in an unplumbed cabin in Alaska and took up odd hobbies such as hundred-mile wilderness racing on skis or snow-bike. 
We were alike.  We were different.  We stuck by each other through some horrible teenage crap that I’m no-way-in-heck going into in this blog post.  We grew up together.
In college, I found a Best Friend who was, again, bookish, intellectual, and middle-class liberal.  Together, we made a valiant – and inexplicable -- attempt to learn Esperanto; we sweated over multi-variable Calculus; we imprudently decided to climb down a fire escape and explore the steam tunnels; and we made loud jokes about phalli. 
Again, my Best Friend was so terribly, achingly like me – and yet not like me.  I spent summers wielding an axe and heaving rocks about, while he did research projects.  He was publically exuberant and affectionate, and I didn’t know what to do with a hug.  He reveled in geographic trivia; I barely knew my lats from my longs.  He faced the desperate struggle of a being teenage boy coming out as gay to friends and family, while I’d barely considered what life would have been like had I not been conveniently straight. 
We were alike.  We were different.  We stuck by each other.  We thought we were already grownups, but of course we weren’t – so we grew up together, too.
Of course, no one is ever all the way grown up –or, if they are, I’m crossing them off my list RIGHT NOW.  We still – and always – need people to keep on growing up with us.  To me, a true friend – a Best Friend, if you will -- is someone who does that growing in concert and in synergy with me, but also in a state of constant challenge – stretching me, pushing me, extending me.  A best friend is someone who can get me to ski a hundred miles or write a novel, not by goading or nagging me, but simply by believing I can.  He or she is the keeper of a lost piece of my brain – someone who makes the inside of my head a less lonely cavern, someone with whom to share not only thoughts and adventures, but also hidden shames and peculiar joys.  You feel that way too!? Holy crap, I thought no one else ever felt that way in the whole history of the universe.
That friend and I can run our brains sometimes in parallel and sometimes in series.  We can create a devil's-advocate spark, and set alight an intelligence, humor, and joy greater than the sum of its parts: friendship as emergent property.  We can go on a six-hour hike, talking non-stop, laughing about everything, from profound to profane.  We can share obscure, nerdy jokes predicated on Latin roots or imaginary numbers.  We can wax lyrical about physics, in the next breath quote Beowulf, and in the breath after that make some kind of pun so filthy that it would make a nun's hair fall out in an instant.  Or we can be silent together – comfortably, slowly, deeply silent.   
Maybe my connection with my own close friends isn’t any more cosmic than my little girls’ connection with theirs.  Life, after all, is mostly built of small moments, not Epic Events (although I manufacture a few of those, to keep myself feeling important). A true friend is the person who knows too much about me, and judges too little.  She’s the one who eats the other half of the box of Girl Scout cookies at midnight, helping me to drop crumbs into my textbooks.  He’s the one who swings by for a game of Scrabble even though I’m not very good at shuffling my tiles while nursing twins.  She’s the one who knows which book I’d like, and leaves it in my mailbox, and never asks for it back. He’s the one who drives to the airport in the middle of the night to whisk me – and my horribly jet-lagged kids – to a nearby Chinese restaurant, so we can catch up, and reminisce, and laugh together over our trumped-up fortunes.
True friendships last.  Nonetheless, old friends scatter, and are seen only rarely -- and new Best Friendship is harder to find, for middle-aged individuals such as the person that I have somehow unexpectedly become.  Sociologists note that development of true friendship requires frequent unplanned interactions and a relaxed setting.  In addition, although kids (and adults) should all learn to foster empathy, respect, and affability across even the most yawning gulfs of diversity, close friendship requires a sense of commonality – shared interests, shared beliefs, a shared quirky twist on this screwy thing we call life.  It also requires a significant and continued investment of time.
Proximity.  Commonality.  Time. 
One day a few weeks ago, I picked up the kids from school.  This is rare for me (Buses!  Public Transportation!  Yay!), but we had a dental appointment scheduled.  I loitered uncharacteristically by the neighboring doorways of Molly’s and Lizzy’s classes.  When they emerged amidst a welter of bouncy little bodies, I accompanied them down the hall toward the exit.  A few doors down, we passed E’s classroom.  It had already emptied out.  But one tall, dark-haired girl was standing there, waiting.  She fell into step beside her friends.  For the hectic two or three minutes that it took us all to reach the snowy curb, the three of them quickly caught each other up on Important Stuff.  We’re going to the dentist!  And I realized that, unseen by me, this happened every day.
Proximity.  Commonality.  Time.  She’s a really good reader…  She likes riding bikes and being outsideshe isn’t into stuff like pink and princesses all the time. E is not the same race/ethnicity as the twins.  She prefers scarier books than the ones they choose.  She plays hockey and soccer, while they eschew team sports. But… She doesn’t watch TV.  She has a real lunch. At that moment, I understood.  They are alike.  They are different.  They stick by each other.  Maybe they will grow up together, and maybe they won’t.  But they are in the same school again.  With our two families, they hiked over thirty miles together, and skied many more, this second-grade year.  They wait for one another, to catch those tiny moments in the hallway.  They are being given the chance.
In all likelihood, my kids don’t yet fully understand what a Best Friend really is.  Maybe their bonds and their memories won’t last.   Then again, maybe thirty years from now their childhood friend will be strong-armed into playing Monopoly with their own kids -- or editing their blog posts for them (um, thanks, Childhood Friend).  But, regardless of the outcome of this particular friendship, learning to make those individual, quirky, hard-won, joyful ties is as important as all the other skills they are learning and practicing in second grade (reading, subtraction, fart jokes).  No, it’s not just important – it’s crucial.  Even for the most independent or introverted among us, what would a life be like, without strong, meaningful human connections?  
I can only offer my kids the same thing that – I now realize – I owe to myself: time for friendships (carved out of the packed strata of life) and proximity to a wide range of potentially mind-meldingly, challengingly, hilariously, brilliantly, fabulous friends.  From there, it’s up to each of us to find the connection, the bond, the spark, the glorious commonality.  And if, for my seven-year-olds, that means a whole grain friendship… well… I can count myself lucky to have some of the same.