Monday, March 28, 2011

In Which I Capsize in a Lake Full of Hippos, and Run with the Wildebeests

A few weeks ago a good friend of mine posted on Facebook that she was surprised to learn that hippos were dangerous. I won't tell you where she learned this, but it was The Bachelor  not the Nature Channel.  I commented that hadn't I told her about the time I was afraid for my life having capsized a sailboat in a lake full of hippos? Actually, the hippo part was not the most frightening aspect of my misadventure, which involved Brian, a friend visiting from London. But anyway. No, I hadn't told my friend that story, nor the other friends commenting on The Bachelor hippos, and I've been meaning to tell this tale of adventure from my time in Africa, so here is a transcribed entry from my Kenya journal, June 1997:

...we arrived at Lake Naivasha around 4:00 and set up tents near the surprisingly nice Naivasha Yacht Club "lodge" on a grassy knoll overlooking the notch of the lake where the yachties sail their Lasers. Suzanne and I went on a short run near some water buck down by the road. Later, we had a pizza appetizer by the fire, a spaghetti dinner, and an early to bed, as we were all exhausted.

We got up early the next morning to scrub my friends' neglected Laser 2. We shoddily rigged it and Randy and I went for a virgin sail. I sat ashore while he sailed with Suzanne; then he came in and "handed me the helm" to take Brian out, which I did, skeptically, as my most recent sailing experience was years prior--a season on my college sailing team, as crew, never skipper. Jokes were made about Brian losing his money (which--foreshadowing alert--was in his wallet in his pocket, but also LUCKILY attached to his belt).

We had a nice sail, but I was a bit nervous and too harried to effectively tell Brian how to assist. I became REALLY nervous when I realized a boat race was starting and we were poised to be in the middle of it. In a moment of gusty wind near the shore, too much attention to the helm and not to the sail, or vice versa, I capsized the boat. I saw it coming, failed to warn my friend, and sort of stepped out onto the sail and then into the water. Without a life jacket.

I think I started laughing then. Poor Brian. He had a hat, sunglasses, Tevas, and poor swimming skills to contend with, along with the shock of being dumped into the water.

The boat turtled soon thereafter. I was momentarily clueless about what to do, and then a passenger in the first boat which passed us reminded me to stand on the centerboard to right it. I stood on the edge of the boat and pulled on that centerboard with all my strength. Brian helped. The boat finally came over, and then came all the way over again, in a scary tumble of sail and mast and finally boat coming right at us. I believe this sequence of events happened twice, as Brian struggled to keep his sandals on. But the thought of hippos below us, nipping at our heels, encouraged our efforts to get ourselves back on the boat.

The following time I attempted to right the boat, I relaxed myself, and realized I was trembling all over from fear, adrenaline, and exhaustion, and that I had swallowed a whole lot of (hippo pee) lake water. I also realized how capable people drown in these circumstances, and why people wear life jackets. Pulling that centerboard had done a number on my arms and quadriceps. Finally, a passing sailor asked if we wanted the rescue boat and Brian and I, lacking any remaining pride, adamantly affirmed we did.

The rescue boat appeared with Suzanne and Randy in it, as well as Brian's and my cameras. They circled us like shark photographers, and we couldn't help laughing as we begged for assistance. With proper coaching, Brian and I successfully righted the boat. By that time I was not only tired, but feeling embarrassed and sorry that I had overturned my friends' vessel. I knew I did not want to sail it to the dock. Randy took over and I joined the rescue boat and "recovered."

Back on shore, I ate the remaining cold spaghetti and took a hot shower. We made a short trip to town to Elementaita Weavers, where I bought a handwoven blanket and pillow, and returned to the Yacht Club veranda with apples and our books for a lazy afternoon.

Just after I had stretched and expressed the desire to Go Take a Nap, an interesting young man I had met earlier--Mark, a Peace Corps volunteer--came up and asked, "You can sail, right?" I looked sidelong at Suzanne and laughed. I thought he was joking.

"My crew is leaving before the next race. Do you want to sail with me?"

I told him he might really regret his choice (although I was vindicated by seven other sailors who capsized that morning), but Mark seemed determined.

I was put in a harness, a new experience for me, and we practiced flying the spinnaker once; the next thing I knew we were racing. I will admit that I had no idea where we were on the lake or the race course the entire time we sailed. I was simply concentrating on doing the right thing at the right moment. And hiking out, along with tacking and trimming the jib, required more strength, grace, and agility than I appeared to have remaining.

Nevertheless, Mark was great to sail with, and an odd skipper: he didn't give orders, nor get frantic and shout, and was just as interested in talking to me as he was in sailing. I was enjoying myself. Then we capsized. But before I could panic or become hippo fare, we were back in the boat.

Next, "we" somehow screwed up the spinnaker, and as I was attempting to fetch it out of the water, I fell out of the boat so that I was dangling  backside down by the rubber band attached to my harness, laughing and yelling, "I'm gone...I'm out...I'm Not In The Boat!"  To which my calm skipper replied, "Yet strangely still with us," as I was dragged alongside the racing boat. He made a deft turn which boomeranged me back aboard, and Mark admitted to me it was the first time he'd lost his crew without capsizing.

Being outside the boat over the water in a harness (the right way), virtually flying, was exhilarating and probably the best of any sailing experience I'd had. When I thought my thighs could take no more, the races were over.

Just in time for confirmation that the crowd on shore had witnessed my sidecar excursion, and for a promised run with Suzanne.  We headed over to Crescent Island, taking off our running shoes to wade across the gully. We ran down the airstrip with an amazing view of Mount Longonot. It was not long before we saw herds of zebra, water buck, Thompson's gazelles and finally, wildebeest, in the fields ahead. We had to negotiate where to run without unwittingly causing a stampede.

The run was spectacular: fever trees along the lake, a gorgeous sunset, zillions of pelicans set to flight by our thoughtless feet, and plovers dive-bombing us as we headed out, perceived threats to their nests. We ran for over an hour, I on the fumes of adrenaline from earlier adventures, and returned to camp for lentils and drinks with Randy, Brian, and Mark.

I slept soundly that night with bruised legs, beers in my belly, and a deep sense of self satisfaction and relief that it wouldn't be death by drowning, or by hippo, today in Kenya. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

List: Nine Years

Husband and I have been married nine years today!

Nine of the amazing memories we've amassed:

1. Lying in the sand outside our hut on our honeymoon in Belize, watching the stars and talking.

2. Taking Big Sis to dear friends' wedding in Guatemala over Thanksgiving when she was just over one year old. We felt adventurous and had a magical time.

3. The Lilith Fair concert last summer, dancing and singing with our daughters.

4. Overnight at a hotel in La Jolla a few years ago...a luxurious gift from my brother and sister-in-law, who watched our kids, too.

5. Weekend snugglenests with the girls, curled up on the floor or crowded on the bed or couch, watching movies.

6. Camping trips to Palomar Mountain: fishing, hiking, sleeping in a tent.

7. Husband sleeping on the floor next to my hospital bed, where I lay awake and cuddling newborn Little Sis.

8. First time skiing together, Mammoth, California.

9. Our wedding: fish tacos, Sade, dancing like mad, family, friends, a little bit of rain, sailing into our next chapter together.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Talkin' 'bout the Generations

I love our block in the neighborhood because it seems a little slice of our nation's culture: we are single people, divorcees, married folks and gay couples; big families and small; hoarders and horticulturists, teenagers and toddlers; renters, heirs, and homeowners; bi-racial families, adoptees, and immigrants; young people, middle-agers, retireds, and senior citizens.

Our children have grown up with their neighbors and relationships with them have shaped our daughters' understanding of the world and of life.

Two doors down from us lives J, an elderly woman, whip smart and witty. She's the kind of resident who tracks the comings and goings of her neighbors, alerts us to suspicious occurrences, and bends the ear of frequent passers-by. She'll treat you to a finger-wagging if your parking, driving, dog-walking, or general manners defy her sensibilities.

For years she held weekly yard sales, which was how we came to know J so well; she was often outside in the Southern California sunshine, surrounded by the treasures with which she was willing to part--but not for a steal. On more than one occasion I've found myself bemused, wondering if I'd been had, walking home from J's with an item I didn't know I needed for a questionably reasonable price. But she was also known for slipping Big Sis a toy for free now and then, like the stuffed Santa which remains a favorite of our holiday decorations.

Since she could walk, Big Sis has loved to dash down the block to knock on J's door and chat her up. And while the habits of her neighbors have sometimes raised her brows, J has infinite patience for our daughters, delighting in hearing their news and admiring their outfits or haircuts. In turn, they write her notes and paint her sidewalk with flowers and hearts.  It's a case of mutual adoration and affection.

When J was hospitalized two years ago, my husband took the girls to visit her with gifts of drawings and flowers. She is finally home again now after an extended convalescence across the country with her family, and we're watching J regain strength as we get to know her daughter and son-in-law. She has a chair and side table set up in her front yard where she assumes her post as neighborhood watch and greeter. Her daughter snapped this photo of J and Little Sis the other day, and shared it with me as we talked about the importance of their relationship with each other.

Our children benefit greatly from the wisdom, interest, and care of grandparents and their surrogate grannies too. All children should have these opportunities; in other cultures' family structures sharing the home with elder relatives is the norm. 

My mother-in-law shared that she had a neighbor named Mamie to whom she'd escape when she "ran away" from home. When Mamie found her little protege on the front doorstep, she'd silently pull down the tea set from the top shelf and set about listening until my mother-in-law's father came to fetch her.

My honorary granny was Elise. She was the mother of my father's college roommate, and when I was a child living in Connecticut we were invited to Captain Jack and Elise's house (with barn and horses) for weekend afternoons and dinner. Their "Mini Manor" was old and grand, with a basement full of international artifacts and funky treasures, including a mink stole which alternately fascinated and horrified me. Elise was the daughter of a diplomat; she had grown up traveling the world and regaled me with tales of horseback rides across the Arabian desert and proposals from princes. Elegant and lively, Elise was a genteel Navy Captain's wife with a mischievous glint in her eye. My relationship with her spanned decades; when I was in college and working on the East Coast and she was widowed and retired to Annapolis, I'd visit her on weekends, often bringing friends who were equally charmed by her and tempted to take her out dancing with us. I dearly loved and admired her and we gave Big Sis's middle name after the woman with qualities I hoped a daughter of mine might have too.

Watching our daughters with J, and with their middle school babysitters and younger cousins, reminds me how important our relationships are with generations ahead of and behind ours. I remember the women older than I who, when I gave birth to Big Sis, looked me in the eye and honestly confided, "This may be the most wonderful thing that's ever happened to you, but it can also make you feel more miserable than you've ever felt. Reach out; we're here." As a teacher and administrator I relish that my role includes advising teenagers and younger professionals, validating their feelings and reassuring them that this, too, will pass. My husband's nickname at the local yacht club growing up was "Barnacle," because he'd stick himself to any boat with older sailors willing to teach and mentor him. Now he nurtures another generation of barnacles. 

I find hope and inspiration in my older friends' accounts of their retirement, renewal, recovery, and rediscovery of abandoned passions.  My daughters' visits with neighbors up and down the block emphasize the significance we have in one another's daily lives.  And there's a lovely symbiosis in the patient audience our elders and youngsters provide for one another...a mutual sense of belonging, a sense of context, a sense of infinity.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

This I Believe: The Fun Party Shirt

I believe in the Fun Party Shirt.

It's customary on our high school campus for athletic--and academic--teammates to wear matching tee shirts, sweatshirts, or uniforms to school on competition days. In a slight twist on tradition, last week the members of the boys' lacrosse team all donned Hawaiian shirts. None of them matching, the shirts were a panoply of color, cheer, individuality, and team camaraderie.

Hawaiian shirts as a genre have evolved beyond simple floral or tropical themes; some of them almost tell the story of an experience or place. Many are outlandish in color and detail.  The lacrosse boys' outfits reminded me of the power of the Fun Party Shirt. I can't remember when it was--high school, maybe, or college--when I bought the embellished or bright or ruffled shirt I dubbed the original Fun Party Shirt. My family soon came to recognize and anticipate me and the Fun Party Shirt in attendance at social events. 

The Fun Party Shirt is an item of clothing you don't think you need. Sometimes trendy, often outdated; found on sale, in a thrift store, or inspiring a splurge, the Fun Party Shirt is always fancy. It's a departure from one's usual style, an attention getter.  It's the textile version of a huge grin. 

Cultures with their own versions of the Fun Party Shirt include the Philippines, with the barong, and Latin America and the Caribbean, with the guayabera, which appear to be influencing American men's fashion:  lately I see men wearing embroidered long-sleeved Fun Party Shirts (with varying levels of comfort and often at the suggestion of their significant others). 

To me, part of the beauty of the Fun Party Shirt is that it involves taking risks with both one's personal wardrobe and social conventions.  I think it's a worthy alternative to wearing--or buying--a dress or tie to a semi-formal occasion.  And then there's the beauty of the Fun Party Shirt itself, because by definition, it exudes joie de vivre, dabbles in iconoclasm, and boasts some form of bedazzlement, embroidery, or ruffles. It distracts from pimples and bad hair days.

It's a beautiful thing to see someone rocking a Fun Party Shirt, someone feeling good and therefore looking good. Someone planning on a good time.  I want to high-five my friends in Fun Party Shirts.

But there's a line, of course, between Fun Party Shirt and Outrageous Fashion Disaster (cue Seinfeld's Puffy Shirt, which was more fun for everyone else).  One should generally choose one's own Fun Party Shirt, with encouragement, not bullying, from a friend.  And then step lightly into the arena in which one's fashion calls attention to oneself.  I recommend an occasion for the Fun Party Shirt where the shirt itself is in attendance to honor the occasion or host.  This is how the Fun Party Shirt makes friends and spreads good cheer.  I believe sporting a Fun Party Shirt to dinner or a friend's birthday imparts special meaning to the event. Casual Friday at the workplace?  The Fun Party Shirt with jeans shouts "TGIF."  An unexpected Fun Party Shirt suggests that any day is going to be a good day.

And I believe in wearing a Fun Party Shirt to memorial services, though I'm not always brave enough to slip one on.  Memorials leave me inspired with better ways to live, communicate, and acknowledge the people around me.  Loved ones who've passed have lessons to impart, and that's cause for celebration for the rest of us; we live better for their having lived.  I wear my gratitude with optimism and resolve to appreciate all that I have.  The Fun Party Shirt declares I'm alive

But if the Fun Party Shirt doesn't feel right, isn't an extension of you, consider Fun Party Jewelry, or the Fun Party Tie.  Try Fun Party Shoes, too.  When in doubt, though, the Fun Party Smile suffices, because ultimately,  "it's what you wear from ear to ear, and not from head to toe, that matters."

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Scarlet Pimple

Big Sis has a pimple on her nose. It's notable, right smack dab in the middle of her allergy-induced nasal crease.

She had a pimple last month, too, on her cheek. So when I saw this one, I groaned inwardly. Really? Already?

My dismay comes in part because I am forty, still with pimples and now with wrinkles, wondering why I couldn't trade one phase for the other inevitable one. I wish for my daughters the clean-palette skin of a fresh-faced Noxzema model, the complexion I never felt I had, despite the mildness of my acne for most of my life. My pimples were enough of an issue in my teen years to garner the attention of dermatologists and the then-new technologies of Retin-A and topical antibiotics, but nothing worked better than letting my skin just be: washing it, drying it, and then liberating it from my nervous, probing fingers. My daily routine of wearing makeup now is a function of my lack of confidence in the beauty of my own bare skin. I shudder that I might project "skinsecurities" on my daughters.

I don't want to make a mountain out of a whitehead. But I found myself cringing at the possibility that little boil atop Big Sis's nose represented the frontier between worlds of innocence and confidence and of peer ridicule and self-consciousness.

Lo and behold, she came home from school yesterday reporting that two boys pointed out her pimple in class. She promptly but unemotionally tattled on them, and they were scolded by their teacher.

No one, my daughter observed, makes fun of the boy in her class with a birth mark, though, or the girl in class with a skin condition. I would hope not, I told her. We often can't help how our bodies are--tall or short, slight or ample, clear-complected or blotchy, including all parts or missing some.

My second grader, who wears unmatching socks and prints, patterns and florals, with hair loose and unkempt or in wacky braids or pigtails and who has a refreshing sense of her own style, is too young for pimples. She is too young to worry about her appearance and to wonder what others might think or say.

And in not so many words, she reassures me she is too young to worry about pimples. Because she isn't worrying. As tempting as it was for me to squeeze both the pus and potential insecurities (most of them mine) out of that zit, we taught her to clean it with soap and leave it alone. She has. She's even, I daresay, forgotten about it.

Because other things are more important to her, like Pajama Day at school tomorrow, and what we're having for dinner. A fourth wiggly tooth. Her latest drawing and her little sister's kindergarten shots.

Pimples, she convinces me: easy come, easy go.