Wednesday, August 31, 2011

"Mom, sometimes I just think the world is a scary place..."

Since Martha has been out of school for the summer she has accompanied me on my daily walks with our dog, Carson. It’s not a very long walk and I have started giving her the option of staying home while I go out, knowing that I will only be gone for 10-15 minutes. I often take my cell phone with me so she can call and talk to me if she wants to – which she always does. When she comes with us, she rides her scooter and wheels ahead of me then waits at each intersection so we can cross the street together. Last week, however, she started scootering right next to me, slowly, which is problematic for our wandering dog who is not accustomed to limiting his sniffing to one side of the sidewalk. He needs his options. With Martha on her scooter at my elbow, Carson was frequently getting a paw run over and I spent a lot of time maneuvering him out of her way or constantly directing Martha to slow down, speed up, watch out. Suddenly the relaxing mid-day stroll seemed much less relaxing.

Then Martha abandoned the scooter altogether and decided she would just walk next to me and hold my hand because she was afraid of seeing any dead bugs or animals. Well, for goodness sake, I thought to myself, how irrational can this kid be? The sight of one or two dead cicadas on our driveway recently provoked a freakishly sudden and severe phobia of a world overridden with dead bugs and small dead animals. That’s preposterous. Or maybe not, because in one day we saw two dead cicadas and a dead mouse. For crying out loud. The next day we took a different route and I assured her that dead cicadas on the sidewalk are very rare. Or maybe not. Two more dead cicadas, plus a dead bee, which was equally terrifying to her. Maybe it’s something weird with my karma because I’m pretty sure the cicadas are dying in my path on purpose. It could be they are out to torment Martha but she seems too young to have prompted a karmic beef with a whole species already. So it must be me they are angry with. Tell me cicadas, what must I do to soothe you and your kind?

Martha’s acute anxiety has surfaced at a time when we are talking a lot about back to school, which causes tears because, she says, “it’s so much work.” We've also been working on some major behavioral changes here at home of late. I’m pretty sure this is no coincidence. I’m also pretty sure the fear of dead bugs will go away soon and that it would go away even without the convenient fact that the bugs’ life spans are limited here as autumn and cooler weather approach. In the meantime, however, I am still faced with the daily walk with a child who shrieks and freezes up every few feet when she spots a leaf, a twig, or any other manner of mysterious debris on the sidewalk. Just as my patience begins to break down (as happens almost instantaneously upon leaving the house) and I am ready to snap at her, oh look, another dead bug. Damn you, bugs.

And so it is for this reason that I have been thinking a lot lately about fear and anxiety. A brilliant, funny woman I know recently made reference to the above quote by Eleanor Roosevelt, which played in nicely with the topic already on my mind, and I’ve been thinking about the feasibility of confronting one's fears every single day.

If you are Martha, it is quite simple to do something that scares you every day. Just go for a walk. If you are a more rational, adult person, however, how do you confront your fears on a daily basis? I confess, I have a fear of full-service gas stations and drive-thru car washes. Something about the vagueness of my responsibilities in these situations while operating a motor vehicle, worrying I won’t understand what I’m being directed to do or I won’t hear the attendant clearly, or what if I accidentally and inexplicably slam my foot on the accelerator and kill someone… these are possible explanations of my fear. So what if I just go to through the car wash every day? Does this meet Mrs. Roosevelt’s  criteria for properly confronting my fears? I imagine over time that I would eventually desensitize myself and I’d be driving a very clean car. But maybe we’re talking deeper fears. In that case, every day seems awfully frequent to have to take on our deepest fears. Probably most people have a fear of getting hurt, primarily in the emotional realm, so do we get credit for just loving other people every day? This is a nice thought, actually.

My daughter has a lot of fears and anxieties and I don’t really bother making any kind of distinction between the two when it comes to her feelings. Some of her fears are totally irrational, like when she freaks out because she has called my name five times and I don’t answer and she’s convinced I have abandoned her forever but really I’m just in the backyard with the dog, just as I told her I would be, but in the five minutes that has elapsed since I told her that, she forgot and then when she called my name and I didn’t answer, voilá, instant panic. But some of her fears are totally normal, like her fear of the dark. I think I was 9 or 10 when The Amityville Horror was published and, as I recall, The Denver Post carried excerpts of the story for a week, which I read eagerly. There was a hall light on the second floor of our house with a switch downstairs that I always turned on so that I would not have to climb the stairs in relative darkness. After a few days of Amityville Horror stories, I was mid-way up the stairs when my sister decided I should really conquer this fear of the dark and she flipped the switch back off.  Despite the fact that the entire first floor was aglow with lights I stood on the stairs screaming and crying and waiting for a ghost or dead pig or something to come murder me until my mom, most likely utterly disgusted with both of us, finally rescued me from my terror. Let’s just say backbone was not one of my strong points as a kid. But still, if Martha wants all the lights on in the house, I’m not going to be the evil mentor who plunges her into darkness as a strategy for getting her over that fear of the dark.

I'm sure Eleanor Roosevelt was not referring to a 9-year old when she made her comments about fear. She also said you must do the thing which you think you cannot do, which I think is much more mellow directive for Martha and her fear of bugs and school and being separated from me. And fortunately, I don't really fear the car wash in this way, as in, seeing it as something I cannot do. I actually have been through the car wash enough times to know I just need to put the car in neutral and if I can't hear the car wash dude's instructions I am free to ask him to repeat them (but I still kind of fear it anyway). The hard part now is figuring out how to gently nudge Martha towards independence and competence, which, coincidentally, is what I fear I am not able to do or do well enough. Doesn't that just work out so handy? I wish this was just about a fear of heights because I would much rather jump off the high diving board.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

End of summer blues

This is a hard time of the year for me. Reasons for this are many and varied, some totally unnamable. I am bombarded with signs of summer drawing to a close and while I am eager to send my daughter back to school I am also really sad to see the brightest days of the year come to an end. Summer is like Christmas in that way; if the season was extended year-round then it would no longer feel special for the brief time it is here.

But there is more to my melancholy than just the end of summer. It is more about the passage of time and the many ways I am reminded that our lives just keep moving on, regardless of whether or not we are living them to their fullest. There are many ways to track time; seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years, being some of the most obvious. I find myself constantly noticing other, more creative ways to mark time. For instance, how about time lapsed between changing the vacuum cleaner bag? The other day I was vacuuming up cobwebs in the basement to help minimize Martha’s newly-developed anxiety over dead bugs and I realized that the last time I had put a new bag in the vacuum cleaner was when I was preparing to vacuum up Christmas tree needles after hauling said tree to the curb on January 1st. Nearly 8 months have passed since then? I have 8 months worth of dust balls, hair, crumbs, cobwebs and general household detritus in this receptacle? That’s gross; no wonder my vacuum cleaner has no suction. Where the hell has time gone? Yes, this is the rich narrative of my everyday life.

But if you ask me, the academic calendar has always seemed like the most powerful time marker. I haven’t actually attended school in over 10 years but I think most people would agree that after you spend your entire life from age 5 to 18 (approximately) attending school September through half of June (approximately) your internal perception of time functions permanently on this schedule.

The idea that December 31st is the final day of some period of our lives has always seemed a bit meaningless to me. Rarely do I feel a true sense of beginning anew on January 1st. The only thing new is the paper calendar hanging on my wall as we add another year to the chronological date. Not much changes in one’s life from December 31 to January 1. The transition from summer vacation to back-to-school that takes place every September, however, now that is some drastic change. The return to school heralds endless new adventures, both good and bad. New teachers, new classmates and potential companions and new subjects to learn are only the most superficial changes that take place from one school year to the next. School dictates almost every aspect of your life during those first 18 years and with it constantly changing every September, so too is the dynamic of life undeniably altered.

Now that my life revolves around my soon-to-be 3rd grade daughter, my life is once again structured around the academic calendar. Only time passes much more rapidly at my age than it did when I was 9 and I know that every new change that we experience in September will fly by and in no time it will be June and I’ll be wondering where the year went. It’s that feeling of disbelief over the speed of life that really gets to me, as if I have failed to participate adequately in my own life if I am constantly wondering where the time went. Not that participation necessarily equals doing stuff every minute of every day, because being busy often seems to just make time pass even more quickly. Where is the balance? And more importantly, is that why I don’t clean my house more often, so that when I do actually get around to doing my chores it’s yet another reminder of how much time has passed? Seems like a catch 22 in there somewhere. I surely do not want to end each year feeling a glow of satisfaction over having scrubbed my bathroom on a weekly basis. Sorry Martha Stewart, but it’s true. That’s no way to live.

So I’m waiting for my “new year” to begin. I am anticipating big changes, although I have no idea what they might be and I’m not even hoping for anything in particular. I hope I look back on this summer and think it was really fun. I hope my daughter’s paralyzing fear of dead bugs goes away soon. I hope she has a good year at school. Maybe I should hope she learns to do more cleaning around the house, so my sporadic bouts of housekeeping will stop reminding me of the passage of time. Ooh yes, that’s a good one.

Sunday, August 21, 2011


"So, what do you do?"
"I play the accordian
 and collect Pez dispensers."
So, what do you do? It appears to be such a simple question, a harmless inquiry motivated by mere curiosity. It’s a standard in the getting-to-know-you repertoire, popular at parties and other social gatherings. It’s often the only thing I can think to ask someone who I don’t know very well, even though I kind of loathe the way it sounds. And, of course, it’s often the  question we dread having to answer. Oh if only I had gone to medical school so that I would have a better response to this question, one that would make me seem intelligent and interesting and concerned about the well-being of my fellow human beings.

Oddly, while attending my high school reunion recently, it was not necessarily a question I expected to be asked and I discovered, much to my horror, it was not a question for which I had a well-thought-out and carefully-rehearsed answer. On more than one occasion, I listened as the words “Uh… I’m just a mom” issued from my mouth, all the while screaming inside my head, “No! No, no, no, don’t say that or at least don’t say it like that, choose a different word, a different intonation, oh for the love of god, at least smile when you say it instead of making that pained, slightly confused expression.” Ugh… Too late. Damnit.

Of course, there were many people I encountered who are my friends on Facebook and absolutely, under no circumstances, do they need to ask me what I do. They know. They are excruciatingly aware of the minutiae of my life as a result of my frequent and somewhat random status updates. Upon seeing them I was ready to fling my arms open and say how good it was to see them and what on earth have they been up to for the last 25 years. But as they inquired about the lives of other fellow alums, their eyes would alight on me and with a wave of their hand it was clear they were thinking “Oh, there’s Christen. We know all about her.” And that’s okay. I have this experience with my neighbors all the time. I run into them while walking the dog and my initial excitement about catching up with them turns to dismay as I realize I have already updated them relentlessly about the latest developments in my life, including, but not limited to, clever, funny things my daughter recently said and the latest ailment of my feet, knees, or gluteus region. Oh yes, my life is rich.

But one friend I saw in Denver was kind and genuine enough to clarify that she did not intend the question “What do you do?” as an inquiry into how I pay my bills. She literally meant, what do I do? As in, how do I spend my time, how do I occupy myself? Which, you have to admit, is really a good question. If you want to know what your old high school pals’ lives are really like, you have to know what do they do with themselves, in general (not necessarily on a minute-to-minute basis). Well, I am a mom and I am not currently engaged in paid employment. I volunteer at my daughter’s school, sometimes several days a week. I walk the dog every day, Monday through Friday. At the risk of sounding shallow and boring, I work out a lot, but primarily because it is beneficial to my mental health. I write. I work in my yard. I stare at the computer too much, but not as much as I used to. I drive my daughter to weekly violin and piano lessons. I manage her time. I keep track of all kinds of things. And I do other stuff, on a varied and/or regular basis. Do I have an abundance of free time? No. Am I constantly pressed for time? No. My life, I would argue, is not easy, but neither is it fraught with difficulty and stress. There are many other women who work a lot more hours than me. There are probably also those who work less (I don't have a cleaning service). But there is no value in comparisons, so I try to avoid that sort of activity.

Just think, 200 years ago, it was rare that adults to had a 9 to 5 job where they left home early in the morning and reported to an “office” and received a regular paycheck. Men were farmers or practiced a trade and women took care of families and no one judged their own self worth (or hopefully that of others) based on what they did to earn a living and care for themselves. So how is that a useful exercise now? What you do is just what you do. It should be neutral, not good or bad. Well, unless you are a serial killer or some manner of evil criminal. Then, you know, that’s bad; shame on you. But you see my point, which is just that the potential answers to the question “what do you do?” can be fairly meaningless.

On the other hand, you don’t necessarily want to go around asking your old high school chums a more specific question like “so, who are you anyway? I mean, who are you really? What do you like, what do you think about, what do you do with your time?” This could really freak a person out, even more so than the basic “what do you do?” question. When my dad and step-mother first met my future husband, my step-mom actually did ask him “So, what kind of person are you?” To which my then-boyfriend responded with an utterly blank expression and mouth agape, an obvious sign that what he was really thinking was “What the hell is wrong with you? Why are you asking me a question like that?” I mean, my step-mom is a good person, don’t get me wrong, she asked this question with the sincerest of intentions, but seriously, that is one difficult fucking question to answer on the spot. Especially without being totally sarcastic and snotty.

So what do you do? Here are a few things I don’t do: I don’t take naps. I don’t eat bon-bons. I don’t have 3 martini lunches, or really ever drink martinis at any meal, on any occasion. I am not part of a coffee klatch. I don’t go on shopping sprees. I don’t wash the windows. I don’t cook dinner every night. I don’t watch soap operas. And I don’t mop the kitchen floor in heels with curlers in my hair (I do occasionally clean the kitchen floor in a variety of ways such as sweeping, vacuuming, mopping, or even scrubbing on hands and knees but I absolutely do not put curlers in my hair). And here are a few things I wish I did: I wish I had become an auto mechanic. How sweet would that be to be able to fix your own car? I wish I had considered a career as a speech pathologist or physical therapist. I used to think being a plumber would also be a practical, money-making career but really, you have no idea what the hell kind of spooge is hanging out in the depths of those pipes… So, you know, ixnay on umbingplay.

What do you do? Whatever it is, I hope it is fulfilling and brings you at least a tiny bit of peace and/or happiness. And if you feel so inclined, let me know what you do. Maybe I want to do that, too.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Reflections on language and re-gatherings...

For the past few weeks I have been thinking a lot about my high school reunion, which occurred last weekend. First I had to spend a few weeks anticipating it, planning it, wondering what to wear. Who will be there? Will it be fun? Will it be awkward?  Will it be weird? How will I feel? Will I feel happy, sad, nervous, horrified that I ever thought it was a good idea to go back? How many people will look better than me? How many people will be totally unrecognizable? How many people will be obviously way more successful than I am? Will I feel so anxious that I unthinkingly drink myself into oblivion causing everyone to look at me pityingly and exchange whispers about how sad it is that I have not grown up at all? Will anyone else get falling-down drunk and provide me with an opportunity to prove just how mature I have become when I discreetly gloss over their humiliating behavior in the retelling of the weekend’s highlights? (Alas, the answer to that, unfortunately, is no.)

And now that the event has passed, I have spent the last several days thinking about the people I saw, about the passage of time, and relationships that formed 25+ years ago and how they endure or fizzle out or morph into something altogether new.

The reunion, quite literally, has also been cause for me to think a lot about semantics. The word “reunion” has really been bothering me. In and of itself, it is a fairly benign word and seems to appropriately convey the concept of a group of people coming back together again after a period of separation.  But it fails me when I start thinking about the verb form, which, correct me if I’m wrong, should be “to reunite.” Except that after 25 years or even after 5 years for that matter, there is no “reuniting” going on with any group of high school graduates, least of all my graduating class. We were not really very united to begin with, we just went to school together. There was very little unity even within the different cliques and groups of friends that formed over the years. We were united only in our mutual boredom with our education and our zealous pursuit of a ride to school that did not include a big, yellow bus. Thus, I find it irksome that although the “coming back together again” idea of the reunion holds true, the verb form, reuniting, is wholly inadequate to describe what exactly took place.

I keep thinking there should be a word “reune,” which would signify the act of sharing each other’s company again after a period of separation without necessarily imposing the specific requirement of unity within the group. The word should indicate a gathering of the graduates of Manual and East High Schools, an opportunity to be together, to share each other’s company and exchange stories and memories while simultaneously allowing us to be totally disparate. I spent much of my reunion weekend with a friend who I haven’t seen in 16 years, with whom I have kept in touch only sporadically, despite the fact that she was one of my closest friends 25 years ago. She now lives in a different country and she speaks a different language. We do not regularly spend time with any of the same people and we might have a hard time envisioning what each others’ lives really look like on a day-to-day basis. We are not terribly “united,” but at the same time, as soon as we sat down to talk to each other, our conversation seemed instantly familiar and comfortable in a way that most of my daily interactions do not these days. It was lovely.

I looked up the word “commune,” which Merriam-Webster defines as “to communicate intimately.” This seems much more appropriate, in my mind, to describe the experience of being together again with my fellow alums. It only seems to lack the concept of doing something again after a long period, the “re” of reunion. Let us say we re-communed with each other last weekend. Now that, to me, sounds about right.

While the word “intimately” may seem a little strong to describe our conversations last weekend, on some level, there does seem to be a strange intimacy despite the 25 year absence. I even saw several people I had known in elementary school, including three men who were in the same kindergarten class as me. We started kindergarten in 1973. I wasn’t terribly close to any of these fellows, I know only the most trivial things about them. But still, if I mentioned our kindergarten teacher to them and how old and scary and mean she was, I feel confident they would understand my meaning on a much more profound level than my husband does when I tell him the endless stories of how Mrs. Farquhar made me cry on a nearly daily basis. Perhaps that’s not intimacy, just understanding. But there is clearly a level of shared experience that most of us have with just about every other kid we went to school with for those first 18 years of our lives. It was actually really fun to recognize that and just be present with those random members of a long ago cohort. And that moment where one classmate recalled the common physical quirk of our thumbs of differing lengths, which I had sadly forgotten despite my uncanny ability to retain trivial memories of childhood incidents? That was beyond fun. That was sort of a mind-blowing experience for me. Thank you, D.F.

So yes, maybe our reunion was not as momentous as say, the Duran Duran reunion concert tour. None of us was inspired to return to our puffed up hair-dos or the extreme eye make-up styles of the late 80s, unlike the Duran Duran members. I’m pretty sure we’ve aged more gracefully than the average new wave icon. (And lest I sound like I am criticizing an old favorite, I should just come right out and admit that I still listen to the album Rio and the song Save a Prayer still gives me goosebumps. That song is deeply emotional; I love it, I am not too proud to say.) Still, it was a highly entertaining weekend.

I have many other thoughts about the weekend but just how those thoughts choose to exit my brain remains to be seen. On a parting note, I just want to say that in spite of what may have transpired between the years of 1982 and 1986, we did have a fun and funny little community in high school. It’s true that over the years since, I have wanted to disconnect from Denver as completely as possible but that was not due to anyone else’s actions but my own. It was nice to go back, it was nice to re-commune. And for those of you who I missed, I wish you only the best.