Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Waiting for This Moment to Be Free

I heard a coworker's pet had died. I told her I was sorry, and mentioned that we're feeling the mortality of our own aging pets.

"It was our bird," she shared. "I stepped on him."

Her confession conjured the guilt I've felt at our kids' sunburns; at my toddler's backward tumble, head on pavement, after propping her in a chair on a paved slope; at drops of blood and tears I induced trimming my daughters' infant fingernails.

But my friend wasn't clipping her parrot's wings. Charlie pooped in his cage but apparently lived everywhere else. He cruised from room to room; he perched in the trees above her and chattered with the wild birds as my friend gardened. The family's German Shepherd and he were fast friends, following each other around the house.

Charlie was hopping toward the living room, where my friend's son lay on the couch home sick from school, as she ran back into the house to grab something and caught him underfoot.

It was, ultimately, his freedom and his integration into the household which hastened his demise. Would she have had it any other way? I wondered out loud. No, she readily admitted, regretting the shoes she wore for her dash inside, shoes normally left at the door, shoes which added injury to the not-uncommon insult of accidentally "kicking" Charlie as he sprung about on the floor.

There's always that niggling detail, isn't there, which causes us to push the rewind button and mentally revisit the might-have-beens: the shoes which shouldn't have been on, the route which normally wouldn't be taken, the place we wouldn't normally be. These are the variables--the flapping wings of the butterfly--that sometimes seem to save our skins, too.

It hurts when we feel we've had a hand--or foot--in our loved ones' misfortune. "I brought you into this world, and I can take you out" isn't funny when you bought the stroller that strangled your infant. When you left your child in the car on a warm summer day. When your child drowns in the swimming pool. There's carelessness, and then there's chance, and there's bad confluence of events. There's "there but for fortune go I," because none of us is perfect, because none of us is the right kind of vigilant at the right time, all the time.

I have a fear of falling. It's a funky fear, related to a fear of heights, but based only on my potential to fall, and not how far: I avoid standing on stools, climbing fences, walking on wobbly surfaces, descending stairs. My falling phobia, thankfully, is met head-on by my determination to be tough. Nevertheless, my greatest challenge is not projecting my fear on my kids. I do my best to subdue cringeing, flinching, and gasps while I watch my daughters ride bikes, run headlong down the sidewalk, climb the monkey bars. I owe them that: to live. To be humans in our dangerous and unpredictable world.

I want to imbue them with common sense and self defense, but I know the freedoms we afford them may cause them harm, nonetheless: driving, traveling, dating. I admire the parents whose children require extra care--children with brittle bones, allergies, weak hearts--moms and dads who navigate the demilitarized zone between overprotecting and encouraging adventurous living.

Charlie was no caged bird. His little life was richer for it. And so is my friend's, with that parrot she let hop-fly in her midst, walking among the big people, living large.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Notes from the Clothing-Optional Hot Tubs

I spent the weekend on a writing retreat at Esalen, known for its alternative education programs, delectable food, and clothing-optional hot sulfur-spring baths on a bluff overlooking the Pacific.

I packed my bathing suit, aspiring to but unsure I possessed the body confidence to blithely fling a towel aside and dip, Godiva-esque, into a tub with other naked humans. I hadn't experienced communal coed nudity since college, since That Night in the Sauna. I was twenty years older now, twenty years less impetuous, twenty years less because-everybody-else-is-doing-it. Twenty years later, I was still, however, imbued with a healthy sense of Why The Hell Not.

One of my responsibilities as High School Vice Principal is enforcing the Dress Code. I blow the whistle on bra straps showing, necklines plunging, shorts shortening. I make daily judgments on the line between Acceptable and Distracting. Meanwhile, Hypocrisy's sniffing dog follows me everywhere I go, combing the alleyways of my public and private lives, peering into my glass and searching my closets for skeletons.

The Specter of Appropriateness asks me What if someone you know is in those tubs? What if you find out you're naked with the cousin of a student's mother's best friend?

I wonder.

And so my one-piece accompanies me to the baths, where a communal changing room opens to communal showers, nothing but air between us and the crashing waves. Nothing but air and water between the nude bathers passing in and out of the tubs, showers, and changing room.

A damp but fully clothed man exhorts me to consider laps in the pool up the hill before a soak in the baths. "It's the full experience!" he exclaims as I hang up my towel. The next step is for me to get undressed but I am unaccustomed to taking my clothes off mid-conversation with a strange man. He leaves, and I disrobe. Suddenly it seems a useless detour to squeeze myself into spandex.

Towel wrapped around me, I head out to the baths, a trio of hot tubs on tiers of a balcony like a shelf stuck in the side of the cliff. Fellow bathers nod and welcome me and this is how it goes: a glance up when someone new arrives, meaningful eye contact established, the occasional comment about the temperature of the water. Seating arrangements are adjusted; discourse resumes.

Torsos submerge and rise above the water line. It is hot; bodies perch on ledges and steps, feet dangling in the steaming pools.

I am naked. But my folds of flesh are normal, unremarkable, not the point.

Bathers laugh, debate, explain, introduce themselves, meditate, and swap stories. Near dinner time we disperse, agreeing to meet in the dining hall.

I return to the baths the next morning, straight from my bunk bed and down the muddy hill in my plaid flannel pajamas, not to be naked, but to talk with people as the sun rises over the mountains, as the surge sprays on the rocks, as intermittent rain leaves silvery droplets in our hair.

Sulfur stings the corners of my eyes and I see parts as eggplants, tomatoes, drumlins, gently-sloped volcanoes, pears suspended in nylon socks. Wrinkled figs, worn leather hacky sacks. Concentric circles of soft pink silver dollars, ruddy cork coasters, and deep-brown compact discs.

There are C-Section scars and acne scars, scratches and bruises and boils. There are bony legs and soft dimpled buttocks, hairy shoulders and foreskins.

But none of this is dirty. Our bodies, like words on this page, are bare, awaiting judgment, and there is none. Penis, vagina, and breast are all present, but I talk with my newfound friends as if they're wearing polo shirts, uniforms, khaki pants, caftans. What's always there and covered can speak for itself. Penis is an ordinary joe in the company of this man's eyes, one blue, one hazel, and his accounts of his wife's cancer. Breasts bob indifferently beneath this woman's auburn hair. Her voice is like a singer's.

At dinner I admire someone's scarf, covet a handbag, notice an unusual necklace. But no one is as beautiful as in the baths, where our bodies are stripped down to personalities, where what we say and how is most intriguing.

The rest of us is earth: salty spit, sweat, and tears immersed in steaming springs; blue eyes awash in grey skies; wrinkles and folds wobbling on ocean swells; soft parts draped on hard stone; hair sprouting like grass on the hillside; buff, pink, and brown skins soft as mud and sand.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Try Again

Developmental milestone! Big Sis has finally reached the age where she can tell us a funny story from her day at the dinner table and it's Actually Funny.

C'mon; you know what I mean. Her stories have been hilarious in the past, really they have. It's just that the comedic part for us has usually been our little narrator's telling of the tale, not so much the tale itself. On occasion, our inability to understand what could be so funny was funny, too.

But now? Now, we're in business. We can tell funny stories; she can tell funny stories; we can all chuckle, and Little Sis will catch up.

So last night, our daughter reported this scene from second grade:

There was some drama on the playground, someone got shoved, necessitating a class meeting on The Mat.

Students assembled on The Mat, while one classmate finished up a reading quiz on the computer nearby.

"Now, class, we need to be nice to one another," said the teacher.

"OOPS! WRONG ANSWER," chimed the robotic voice from the computerized reading program at just the right time.

(Second grade giggles)

"We really DO need to be nice to each other..."


(More titillation; teacher is losing her audience)

"Class, let's work on being NICE on the playground..."


Cheers all around, as teacher gets her point across AND student finally chooses a correct answer on her quiz!

Big Sis wiped tears from her eyes as she finished her story.

For the rest of the evening we found ourselves saying robotically to one another, "OOPS! WRONG ANSWER..." and then cracking up. Good times.

Monday, October 18, 2010

What's a Meta For?

Did I tell you I am treating myself to a writing retreat this weekend? I cannot wait. Actually, I can; I have some things I need to get done first, but come Friday morning I am flying away to be inspired. Just the anticipation of being inspired has me inspired.

Have I mentioned I am excited?

It's kind of an early fortieth birthday present to myself.

Poet Ellen Bass will be there leading workshops on writing poetry. I am particularly interested in the workshop on metaphors, as I have found apt analogies to be the seeds of most poems I've sprouted.

In honor of the fact that I have not written a poem in far too long, and in hopes that I will return from my weekend with words and ideas spilling from my well, I share an old poem.

I wrote it at a time when I recognized it was time to let go of a tired relationship.

Here's to metaphors!

Heels of Sand

Impotent waves fan over my feet
stretching and hovering across
unspoiled earth.
A pause—
pregnant with promise
awaiting the moment the sea grasps again
and firmament slips,
a dizzy inadvertent sliding
of all that’s solid.
I teeter on heels of sand,
stubbornly, and steadfast;
until I fall, and
you ebb

Monday, October 11, 2010

Fumbling Toward Forty: Onion Rings

On the eve of her seventh birthday, Big Sis mourned the passing of her years. "I really liked being six, Mom. I'm getting big. I'm going to miss the things I could do when I was little. There are already rides I'm not allowed to go on!"

This from our Small Fry who only recently hit the height requirement reached by her friends a year or more ago.

So I told her about the short story "Eleven" by Sandra Cisneros. Rachel, the protagonist, explains birthdays like this: "What they don’t understand...and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don’t. You open your eyes and everything’s just like yesterday, only it’s today. And you don’t feel eleven at all. You feel like you’re still ten. And you are—underneath the year that makes you eleven."

I reminded her that she could still do and like the things she enjoyed when she was younger (Heck, she's playing with the same dang Polly Pockets from two years ago).

Rachel explains how we carry all our years inside: "...some days you might say something stupid, and that’s the part of you that’s still might need to sit on your mama’s lap because you’re scared, and that’s the part of you that’s five. And maybe one day when you’re all grown up maybe you will need to cry like if you’re three, and that’s okay."

I thereby validated my daughter's inner two-year-old, the alter ego who staged a throw-down about snacks after Saturday's soccer game.

But it occurred to me that Big Sis only has a few layers to access, and I have, well...39. Oh so many ages and stages to call upon for every occasion as I contemplate turning 40!

"Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one..."

Last week my inner-six-year-old matched wits with my actual living seven-year-old. Those are the moments we both need a Time Out.

The rare days when I fuss with my hair (while wondering why it's inexplicably thinning) and try out the styles sported by my fifteen-year-old clientele, I know I am being twelve, minus the woven-ribbon hair clips with dangling silk flowers.

When I cry from sheer frustration or exhaustion or for lack of a more meaningful response, I am brought right back to nine. When my father would ask me why I was crying and the best response I could summon was a warbling "I don't knoooooooooooooooooowwwww..."

My cynical and serious self is 24. That was when I cut my hair military-short and placed a tiny but effective chip on my shoulder.

When I rock sassy shoes and funky outfits, I am 27.

When I am worried, anxious, and giving myself a hard time, I feel thirteen, the age I had a brief romance with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

My prankster, semi-inappropriate self is nineteen, the self who pulled an all-nighter in college to stack cans outside a sleeping friend's dorm room door and then await the aluminum avalanche. This is the self that agrees to dance in the Homecoming Pep Rally.

Most of the time, I embrace my inner 32.

But I have high hopes, based on my hip, happy, and healthy mentors in their forties and beyond, that the best may be yet to come.

And I'm bringing all the other years and their alter egos into the next decade with me.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Kartoffel Salat

My grandmother died today.

My mother's mother, our last living grandparent. She suffered a stroke over a year ago and never regained her independence. It was a painful year for my mother and aunts, knowing their dignified mother was enduring her worst-case scenario, unable to speak, to move, to do.

But she is at peace, now.

Though she only met her a few times, Big Sis felt connected to her Oma. I had prepared her for the inevitable news when my mother shared last week that Grandma wasn't doing well. We looked at old family photos. My daughters loved seeing pictures of my mom as a young mother and of me with my Grandma and Grandpa one summer when I got to fly up to Washington State all by myself to visit them for a week.

Tonight, we sat on the couch and I told a few stories about Grandma.

Whenever she went to the bank, Grandma would ask for a handful of $2 bills. In every birthday card and during each visit, even as recently as a few years ago, Grandma would slip me some of those "rare" notes. I saved every single one, never daring to spend them. I showed Big Sis my stash and told her I hoped I could pass them on to my own grandchildren.

Grandma's house was always a squirrel's nest of cubbies with papers and forgotten treasures; bowls of odds and ends; shelves of ceramic animals, figurines, and dolls; and books and magazines with photos, letters, and to-do lists slipped between the pages. When we'd visit her house I would search through drawers for cool stuff. As long as I didn't move or throw anything away, she didn't mind. And occasionally she'd part with something I'd shown interest in: a ceramic seal, a little book of jokes or inspiring quotes, a game or puzzle.

Holiday boxes from Grandma were a combination of quirky toys and wonderful finds, dog treats and stuffed animals, and then an assortment of items she was just moving along: old but little-used kitchen utensils or dish towels with the tags still attached.

Grandma's penchant for saving things (including cans and cans of food in the trunk of her Jetta) led to an inevitable inclination to misplace items. Early on, I learned she blamed The Borrowers, a fictitious family of diminutive people living undetected in the homes of "big" humans. I became a fan of The Borrowers series; descriptions of the tiny folks' near escapes from discovery and their furniture fashioned from thimbles, paperclips, and buttons captured my imagination.

Grandma loved to be the hostess and serve meals, under which circumstances we were all pests in the kitchen, shooed away from underfoot. Wherever she was, at home or on a sailboat, she set up camp and became mistress of her domain. Her meals had main courses and side dishes, but she would invariably raid the refrigerator just before serving time to add small plates and dishes of garnishes, condiments, and random leftovers to an already-crowded table: cornichons, black olives, a small serving of yesterday's vegetables and the day before yesterday's potatoes.

She made the best potato salad, and I would beg her to make it for any occasion. It was in the traditional German style, warm, with bacon and vinegar. Kartoffel salat. My favorite term in German. Say it ten times fast. It's soothing to me, like hugging Grandma.

Grandma was short, and soft, and fun to hug, though she was a relatively tough woman. The best times were when you caught her off guard and made her laugh; under those circumstances her eyes truly twinkled.

Summers spent with my grandparents (and their dogs Tinker and Belle) are among my sweetest memories: romping in the backyard with my siblings and cousins and playing in the creek, boating around the San Juan Islands, picking berries, swimming in the lake, walks to Whatcom Falls Park.

Grandma and Grandpa. They were what grandparents should be to their grandchildren, and I was lucky.

I love you, Grandma.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


On Friday afternoon I swung by the elementary school to pick up Big Sis and her two cousins and take them to the park in our neighborhood where the high school cross country team was running in a meet.

We arrived in plenty of time to position ourselves at the top of the big hill, where we joined a convergence of cones marking the course. There were a bunch of cones. Cones marking the course, and then about 40 more cones off to the side, arranged in a recognizable shape.

Before I could check myself, before I could put a cork in it, I exclaimed, "Well, looky there: a penis!"

This, my friends, is exactly the word you should use to get the immediate attention of three children between the ages of six and eight.

"Penis? PENIS? WHERE??"

I'm certain that my little cheering section would have been none the wiser had I not helpfully pointed out that the Rorschach of cones resembled a certain member. Artfully rendered, I might add, as it even included...ahem...

"Hey! Is this part over here the pee?" asked my nephew, noting a little "spray" of cones "shooting" from the "tip" of the cone "rocketship."

"Yes, the pee. That's right," I agreed, laughing and shaking my head and then enlisting their support in moving the carefully-placed cones, mostly to avoid the risk of my crew announcing to any and all passersby, including the runners, that here was a big old cone penis! Right along their path!

Nephew was particularly interested in this Freudian drama and its dismantling. "Do you think it was a boy or a girl who made this, Auntie?" he asked as he kicked over cones.

I had a 50% chance of getting that one right: heads or tails. Both sound suspicious.

What is it with the phallus, anyway? I alternate between annoyance, amusement, and puzzlement over the prevalence of penis pictures in public places and what appears to be the other gender's proclivity for producing them.

I've dealt with phallus artists in the vice principal's office. Students outline them in the sand on field trips to the beach, not-so-cleverly incorporate them into class project posters, draw them on bathroom walls, form them in duct tape on windows. They sculpt them from clay and carve them out of...well, wood. On Senior Prank Day, I've grown accustomed to looking for the penis depiction, often unrelated to the central theme, but inevitably rearing its...head.

What is it, exactly, that you are trying to say to us, oh male species?

I can tell you how I interpret those Nuts for Your Truck (by the way, after googling "car testicles," I learned that these are also variously known as "bumper nuts," "bulls balls," "truck balls," "car nuts," and "hitch balls"): when I notice that you have them on the back of your ride, you suggest to me that you, driving in your truck, are basically...a big dick.

Surprise me for once, will you? Hitch those nuts to a Smart Car.

It must be archetypal, this need to make the private part public. Perhaps it's a function of the Y chromosome that rather than doodling cubes or hearts or random squiggles, the hand just absentmindedly draws the penis.

I don't know.

But I know it's not a dying art, this penis portraiture.

By the way, penis made of cones, guys? Kind of redundant.