The kidlets and I just came back from a camping trip. A whole-family camping trip. And it was amazing.
Challenging. And amazing.
I’ve posted here before about camping and about camping survival. But not yet about camping as a family who live in two houses yet share a tent for a few days in the summer because they’re trying their best to be a good family regardless of logistics. And I’ll post later about the good, the bad, and the midnight vomit I covered with campfire ash so bears wouldn’t come attack my poor food-poisoned child.
But those stories come later. This week I am feeling a bit weak and small, so I’m writing my story of strength.
We camp in the same place each year, beneath the pine trees and clear skies of Lake Tahoe. And on the second or third day of our trip, we do our favorite hike: 7.5 miles with significant elevation change (I think it’s 1,300+ feet total) from our campsite along the remarkable blue of the lake.
We bring snacks and sandwiches, games and water shoes; and we climb the well-worn dirt path around granite boulders and past an amazing old lighthouse.
We wind up, after long breaks where we play in the water and build fallen-branch structures, pausing at an old residence that makes me nostalgic for the time when I had millions of dollars and could own part of a lake, an island, and build my own castle.
No? Oh well.
Anyway, after the castle-y thing we walk up a steep road and catch a trolley back to a road about 1.5 miles from our tent. The day we do the hike is usually the crowning glory of our eldest’s year, and both his grownups quite enjoy it, too. I genuinely have no idea if it makes any impression on the four-year-old, but he rides on my back and his dad’s shoulders for much of it, so I can’t see how this hike is any different for him than any other. But who knows. He’s an enigma.
This year, once we got to the trolley stop, the boys’ dad wanted to run back along the lake, the long way, while the boys and I took the motorized shortcut back. Sure. No problem. We have no cell service, but we do have tons of food and water and we know the trolley is coming soon so we’ll likely beat him back to camp. The boys begin plotting how they’ll surprise their dad when he gets back.
So the boys and I sit on rocky half-wall in the 80-degree-sun and wait. And wait. And wait. Thankfully, there was a local family with two young boys waiting, too, who reassured us that the trolley was indeed running and that it would eventually be there.
We all watched carefully every vehicle that came into view along the winding highway, cursing each red car for not being a red and gold trolley. The selfies with my boys grew more and more deflated looking.
An hour later, after my sweet, tired little monkeys had sunk into the “you have to be kidding posture” when I offered snacks, water, and a cuddle for the nine-hundredth time, the trolley came. And oh, we did rejoice. The selfies grew adorably cheerful, and Butterbean, my chirpy four-year-old, sang us a trolley song.
And about 3/4 of a mile later, the trolley turned around.
“Whoa, whoa, what’s going on?” I asked, genuinely wide-eyed.
“We’re making a U-turn to go back to town,” an otherwise delightful woman told me.
I’m guessing I lookd around at the other passengers in a terrified manner befitting either my situation or a worldwide chocolate shortage, because the driver asked where we were going.
“To the state park a few miles up the road,” I said.
“This trolley doesn’t go there,” he said.
“Um… yuh-huh, it does,” I thought. It has for the past three years.
The processing took me 1/1,000,000,000th of a second. Okay: we’ll ride the trolley back to the stop and wait for one that does go to our stop. If he’ll let us off at Vikingsholm, the pretentious rich people castle place. I mean lovely piece of history. I mean…
Actually, no, the next trolley won’t go back to camp, either. The driver got out a brochure and showed me the new map of the trolley’s range. None of the trolleys were headed to our stop. They all turned around 3/4 of a mile from Vikingsholm.
My math slowed down a bit. I have two tired kids. We’ve hiked 6 miles already, and Peanut, who is now 8 and quite proud that he hikes 8 miles in Tahoe every year, is complaining about a sore foot. We have no cell service. Their dad has his phone off for obvious reasons. The town toward which the trolley is heading is 14 miles away and we have no way, once we get there, of getting back. It’s two hours until dark. I have a backpack full of water and snacks to wear in front and an ergo full of 40 pounds of preschooler on my back. It’s 6,800 feet above sealevel and we got here 24 hours ago, so I’m not acclimated. I am also keenly aware that I ran 5 miles in the morning, before we started this lovely, invigorating, breathtaking, family favorite hike.
Please, please no comments about the stupidity of a 5 mile run on a hiking day.
And I have no idea how far it is back to the camp. It’s certainly farther than 3 miles total if we walk on the side of the highway, but likely shorter than going back down to the gorgeous trail and adding another 6 miles. Or driving into town. Or…nope. That’s the end of the options. Walk or…I guess sit down and cry. Those are your choices, lady.
Tired 8-year-old, heavy pacsk, altitude, and at least 3 more miles, some of which on a busy-ish highway. My job is to protect my children. My job is to get them back to camp before dark. My job is to…
“We’ll walk,” I tell the entire trolley, sounding quite reassuring on purpose. I need, desperately, for my eldest to go along with this plan.
And he does.
About 20 feet in, he looks panicked. “Mom, do we have water?”
Smart boy. “Yup. I just refilled all three bottles. I have, no joke, 96 ounces of water, buddy.”
He is pleased with this answer. I am, too, except that 96 ounces of water is really freaking heavy. Six pounds? More than the dried fruit and GORP and crackers, but less than his brother, thank goodness.
So we walk. And I try hard not to think about how far it might be. I make myself remember that we have food and water. That nobody is hurt. That if the shoulder gets too narrow (which it did, several times), we can bide our time and run across the highway when it’s safe.
That totally fits the whole “keep your children safe” requirement, right? Have them avoid walking along a narrow shoulder by running across a highway?
To quiet the railing inner critics who disdained my decision (but didn’t offer any helpful suggestions, I noted both then and now), we talked as we walked about how their Dad was likely making dinner. And that he’d notice how late we were (now 90 minutes past our ETA) and come get us, probably. (Both were true. But he tried to find us by walking, not driving, so by the time he used the car we were 1/2 mile from camp. It was a very nice 1/2 mile ride, though.)
About a mile into the unplanned walk, Peanut faltered a bit and started to cry. “I just want to go home,” he said, revealing the vulnerable, tender heart he rarely lets us see, except at storytime just before bed.
I nodded as I motioned to him to keep going. “Yep. Me, too, buddy. And that’s what we’re doing. I don’t want to walk and you don’t want to walk, but we have food and water and we’re safe and we’re healthy and we’re going home.”
I’m going to be honest: I wanted to cry, too. And if he had whimpered even a little after my motivational speech, I would have sat down and bawled a good, old-fashioned Holly-Hunter-in-Broadcast-News cry.
But he threw his shoulders back and kept walking.
Peanut is 8 years old, and he walked 10 miles that day. With his backpack and completely unassisted. I am 41, and I traveled 14 miles: five miles running, six miles hiking with a full backpack, and four miles with two packs, one of which contained my sweet little baboon four-year-old. At altitude.
We did it. We both did it. We enjoyed the beauty, we loved the highlights, and we freaking motored through the unexpected bumps.
I told my amazing son, as we devoured warm tortellini and lentils a bit later, that I’d learned something that day.
“Yeah,” he said. “Never do that hike again.”
I laughed. “Well, maybe, but I learned that we’re really strong. You remember I told you that brave is when you’re scared but you do something anyway, because it’s important?”
“Well, we are strong. And we are brave. We were scared and we did it anyway.”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “And also, never do that hike again.”
I laughed. No way. We’re doing that hike every year now. Because we can do it as an 11 mile loop now, without trolley and without steep road. And without even seeing that freaking highway.
Because we’re strong. And we’re brave.
Two nights ago, I wrote this about the insanity in Ferguson:
I have no idea what to do with the news of a shooting and civil unrest and police insanity in Ferguson. I just don’t. I have no idea what it’s like to live in fear that my boys will be shot, unarmed, just because of who they are. And I have no idea what to do with people who assume that grotesque uses of police force are ever justified. I simply don’t know what to do with police wearing camo who refuse to hear peaceful protesters, and instead aim assault rifles at them from tanks. (What are they camouflaged for? They’re in a town. On streets. There are no fatigues for that. Stop hiding as though you’re in the freaking jungle. Put on your blues and walk your beat like a proper, compassionate, protect-and-serve cop.)
So I’ve compartmentalized my “I don’t know” into a tight, painful pit in my chest, and carried it around for several days. And it’s nothing compared with what millions carry, including people in communities who know their town, state, and country don’t care about them. So I swallow hard and move on.
But I couldn’t bear to post those unfinished thoughts, especially when they then led, in my draft, to a long list of the things causing me serious existential pain right now.
It’s obscene, I think, to ramble on about the joys and the pain in my life while the very foundation on which our society is based falls apart. I have no right to blog when people are being brutalized.
So tonight’s shift, wherein social media regales the world with the monumental difference between fear and communication, between criminalizing speech versus hearing protestors, between waging war within cities and showing compassion within communities, has begun the process of healing.
Not healing entirely. But cleaning off the wounds enough that we can start looking, and really seeing, what is going on in our country.
Changing the leadership from assault to engagement has made Ferguson feel safer tonight.
What are we going to do to make the rest of the country safer? More engaged? More honest about tensions? More open to solutions?
We need to talk about assumptions. We need to talk about law, rights, and enforcement. We need to talk about race, poverty, representation, and listening.
Where do we go from here?
I love my old typewriter. I bought it decades ago and have moved it to a dozen houses. Yup. As in I’ve moved 12 times since I bought my old Royal.
And I realized a few months ago that it would be much more useful with a tuneup.
So the boys and I took it to the local typewriter repair shop (holla, Berkeley!) for a ribbon and an oiling.
And now, every night, I begin a letter to my children.
And then at breakfast I ask them to finish the letter.
Results are adorable, or worrisome, depending on your expectations for spelling and grammar.
Sometimes I forget, and eight-year-old Peanut does my job for me. Like dishes, but with random punctuation.
I’m keeping every page. If I were an organized person, I’d pretend I were going to make them into a book. But they will stay in the drawer, in order, and then get put in a box. And when the boys are in college I’ll do something creative with them. For now: drawer.
Especially for keepsakes like this one, where our four-year-old patience-tester unwound the whole ribbon, then made fingerprint art all over the floor and fridge.
I didn’t think too much of this daily ritual we’ve just begun until a friend sent me a link to this adorable video of children being bewildered by the existence of typewriters.
As delightful as that video is, I have to admit to being similarly baffled.
Where is the number one?
I’ve tried hitting the margin release, in case that’s a stealth 1 in disguise. Like a hidden passage in the library, but dumber.
And now I feel like the kids in the video. Did the past not have 1:00? OR 12:00? Or any of the many, many minutes in between?
What did people in the past do at 8:15? Skip straight to 8:20? Was there a lot of rounding up to the nearest anything-but-ten in history?
Were they always using the slash to designate a 1? Doubtful. Nothing says confusion like “Please print / copy.”
Did they substitute? Probably not, since typewriters use an old school font called…um, TYPEWRITER. Rather serif-y and prone to Roman Numerals. If you use a capital “i” to designate the number 1, you’re stuck using Vs and Xs for the rest of the…whatever you’re typing.
And why so wordy with the tabular key? Tab is too…’80s? Wait…I guess I mean 1880s? Except for the 1, which didn’t exist, so they went from the Dark Ages to 2000?
I’m so confused.
But I’m creating memories, dagnabbit. And that’s all that matters, 1 or no 1.
My sweet little Butterbean loves playing the game of trust. He stands about two feet away, makes his body rigid, and falls toward me. I catch him. He never doubts and he never falters. Neither do I.
This is the game we’re forced to play in team-building excursions, and most people can’t trust enough to just fall. We tend to take a step to catch ourselves, unwilling to trust someone else with our bodily safety.
But my son is willing. He trusts implicitly. And it’s thrilling for him, to know that I’ll get him, to know that it feels safe no matter what his brain tells him about gravity and danger.
And I realize, as we laugh and hug and play again and again, that this trust is the heartstopping part of parenting. He trusts me completely. And that feels intensely heavy, physically. That feels as though his little life and heart and future well-being follow me every minute of the day. Fragile. Important.
I’ve always taken parenting very, very seriously. We have fun, but I drive myself to distraction thinking of all the way to be right, to be ideal, to be precisely what the kids need. Because their trust is everything. It really is.
And my ridiculously lofty expectations mean that I fail. Every day.
“No matter. Fail again. Fail better.”
I try to not obsess with my constant failure. With my less-than-ness. I try to live in the moment and parent my best and do what feels right and true. Because that’s all I can do.
Last week, rushing to make Peanut’s lunch to get him to camp, I checked his backpack to find his missing lunchbox. It was there, mostly empty, festering in smooshing-proximity to a wet towel and wet swimsuit.
“Dude?” I said to him as I shook them all out and prepared to handle them. My job, when I’m home: handling. “It really helps when you take this out of your backpack after you get home. Hang it up, it dries. Leave it stuffed in a closed backpack, it stays cold and wet. And it likely feels better to put on dry rather than damp and clammy.”
He looked at me from across the living room, pausing in his enormously important task of the morning, something I couldn’t possibly understand because I’m mother and therefore flawed and ridiculous and wonderful but lame. He cocked his head.
“Look,” he said. “I’ll try. I hear you. But after a long day of playing, I’m just not sure I can remember. I’ll try, Mom. But I can’t promise anything.”
And I bifurcated. One half my mind thought, “well, for an eight year old that was ridiculously articulate, reasoned, and calm.” The other thought, “Geez, is that the way I talk to him? With weighty sighs at how ludicrous is this life and our expectations? Do I reason and articulate like that? Has the Beckett of ‘Fail again. Fail better’ so informing my demeanor that shrugging with impossibility has become the family motto?”
I don’t know. I know that split, the “wow you’re great humans,” and “wow, I’m ruining you” split applies to both of them. And the difference between them. The reasoned refusal to hang a wet towel and the joyful, trusting fall into my arms. The split mind happens whether I catch the trusting, falling child or whether I explain, rationally and dispassionately, why I dropped him.
When I checked in to read a friend’s post this morning, my blog told me I had registered six years ago today. It tried to tell me a few days ago, but I haven’t been listening to my blog lately. Because life.
Six years. Dang.
I began this blog because I was discombobulated by the daily realities of parenting a two-year-old far from home. The changes since then have been slow and deliberate, quick and unexpected, and everything in between.
As a journal of my thoughts, NaptimeWriting has been with me through a lot. Life and love and death and birth and books and clients and friends and five houses and a marriage that might or might not be over.
And I hope that I’m inspired to post more regularly, to record of my thoughts and experiences. Because that’s why I stated this process, and it’s what I love about online writing.
Happy birthday, little blog. You’re often overshadowed by the other parts of my life, but I’m awfully glad I began talking to you semi-regularly six years ago.
[Here's my one of my first posts, if you enjoy seeing raw, rookie efforts to filter the thousands of ideas generally flooding the brain of a new blogger.]
Many posts this week offer suggestions for managing social anxiety to make it through BlogHer’s premiere conference in San Jose next week. Breathe deeply, introverts are told, and trust that you’ll find remarkable connections and moments even when surrounded by 5,000 people.
Those posts are useful, by the way, and contain solid advice for managing social anxiety in large crowds.
But I haven’t noticed many suggestions on how to best harness your extroversion at BlogHer’14. I noticed because I wander back and forth across the extrovert/introvert line, getting energy by being alone but with public-performance itches about as theatrical as you can get. It is from this ambivalent place that I bring you my Introvert/Extrovert Guide to BlogHer’14.
Introverts: Though there are a lot of people at BlogHer, they don’t actually surround you at any point. You don’t have to face 5,000 people or touch 5,000 people. You will be in the same city as 5,000 people. That likely happens to you daily. There is space to be alone and close out the noises when you need to. And when it’s time to listen to the awesome content produced by the many lovely humans sharing their knowledge and passion at a BlogHer conference, you’ll be in a room with 20-100 people, all of whom are ignoring you to listen.
Extroverts: Sakes alive, there will be times for you to be near 5,000 people! This is only at eating occasions, of course, and nobody will pay any attention to you because they’re waiting for or eating food and trying to have conversations with the one or two people who’ve piqued their interest. But you can spend the lunch break walking past hundreds of tables, feeding off the buzz of engaged, excited bloggers. And if you sit down and make contact with the people at one table, you will have at least ten people with whom to talk, laugh, cry, and share. If that doesn’t work, get up and try another table. There are hundreds of opportunities for an audience.
Introverts: Rest assured, there are places to get away. Convention Centers are notoriously large, but that means there are hundreds of bathroom stalls into which you can be by yourself when necessary. Walk the opposite direction of any stream of lovely humans and sneak into the farthest bathroom you can find. At both the hotel and convention center last year I found bathrooms that were completely empty. And I mean take-your-pick-from-ten-stalls empty. Door closed, lock slid, deep breath taken, wall of voices dissipated, blood pressure calmed. [Side note: avoid the coffee lines at all costs if you're introverted. Caffeinated people who want more caffeine but have to wait for quite some time often get both chatty and agitated. I have PCLSD (post coffee line stress disorder) from last year.]
Extroverts: Prepare and pace yourself, there are many choices for places to see, be seen, chat, and engage. There are thousands of excited bloggers around you. My caution to you is this: the generally celebrated habit of approaching strangers with a warm smile and firm handshake does not always go over well at BlogHer. At social parties I try to approach those who look out of place or uncomfortable because I seek to place at ease the world’s discomfited. But at BlogHer, there are more than a handful of introverts just trying to get by, and my approach with a willingness to converse is their kryptonite. Set your anxiety-scanner to high and proceed with care before approaching a blogger who looks as though she could use a friend. If she runs in the opposite direction, it’s probably because she needs to go to the loo. The farthest one.
Introverts: Choose your panels in advance so you can schedule where to be and when. That way you know when your breaks are, you know where to go, and you can look confident moving toward something. You will find amazing moments if you schedule a bit of social time, too, not just the deeply informational sessions. Try the VOTY party for reasonably low-key, high-quality socializing with bloggers you might read. It’s the end of Friday’s activities which means if you’ve had too much DAY in your day, you can pop in, grab some food, and leave. Just know you don’t have to go to anything. You choose. Default to just the sessions and you’ll have a wonderful conference. Try a few of the parties or mixer sessions and you might be pleasantly surprised.
Extroverts: Choose your panels in advance so you can schedule where to be and when. If you tend to default to going wherever the herd is going, you will miss the sessions that might change your life. Stick to a plan of what your personal or professional needs are at BlogHer, and save the socializing for the many opportunities the schedule gives you for interaction. In my humble opinion, the VOTY party is your best bet for full-on extrovert time because the food and the company ROCK.
Introverts: Take advantage of the scheduled breaks. There is time between sessions and after meals during which you can decompress. Please, for the sake of all that’s holy, get away and get some quiet. BlogHer offers 15+ hours per day of programming. You will die a hard, exhausted death on the way back to the hotel if you don’t take every free minute as a hide-in-the-loo break.
Extroverts: You, too. Take breaks. You will supernova if you don’t pace yourself. It’s 5,000 people 15+ hours a day for three days. You won’t miss too much if you put your feet up for 15 minutes.
Introverts: You are among your people. Many, many bloggers are drained by social interaction, and you will likely find a group of other creative, lovely, inspired, passionate introverts with whom to bond. Take a deep breath and know that the BlogHer attendees know about introversion. We know you’re going to need time away. We’re cool with that, mostly because a lot of us are like you.
Extroverts: You’re among your people. Many BlogHer attendees thrive on social interaction and want both planned sessions and party time. You will likely find a group of other creative, lovely, inspired, passionate, extroverts with whom to bond. Brace yourself and get everything from this process as you can. They built [a nearby] City on rock and roll. And extroverts like you!
I’ve read many lovely odes to mothers online this week, and I particularly liked Alexandra Rosas’s discussion of what her mother taught her about living. The wonderful feeling of being nurtured and loved that permeates most Mother’s Day posts makes me happy.
But there’s another important function of Mom: keeping you safe and healthy.. My mom didn’t teach me about how to braise a turkey or follow my bliss. My mother’s advice was, at its best, logical—focused on ensuring we were never caught by circumstances in a position where we couldn’t take care of ourselves. My mom’s words of wisdom might not look great on a coffee mug and they might not help me make a delicious fried chicken, but they’ve kept me from making big mistakes in life. Here are my mom’s top ten lessons to me:
1. Never carry a balance on your credit card. If you can’t pay it off this month, don’t buy it. Seriously. The interest you pay means you could save your money and buy two of whatever it is. So wait until you could write a check and then use your card for the miles/points/bonus.
2. Write thank you notes. For gifts, for interviews, for any kindness. On paper.
3. Always maintain at least two accounts in your own name. No matter how much you love someone, you don’t want to be by yourself with no credit and no access to cash if something ever happens. My mom was divorced in the era where a woman couldn’t retain her credit after divorce, and after she and my dad separated she found herself with no bank account, no credit cards, and no credit history. So she got a department store card and started building her credit history by buying only what she could afford and paying off the balance every month. See advice #1.
4. Don’t put recreational chemicals in your body, if only because they compromise the best thing you have to offer the world: your brain. She taught this one by tailoring the message, rather than by lecturing: she said that she personally didn’t use substances because she hated feeling out of control. Loss of control?! My kryptonite! I’m never trying any of them.
5. Oral sex is still sex, and if he’s not willing to give before he gets, he doesn’t deserve any.
6. Never wait for the last minute. There is nothing good about rushing around as the world crashes down around your project. Take the deadline and calculate backwards. Start the day you know about a deadline and make early progress. Submit early. That way, if life throws obstacles in your way, you won’t freak out. Because you’ll be handling tasks like a boss.
7. If you do nothing else before you leave the house, put on lipstick. A little color makes everything better.
8. Okay, mascara, too. Because the two, together, takes 20 seconds.
9. Keep your eyes up and your ears open because it’s when you look like an easy target that you will be one.
10. Life’s not fair. Don’t hope that you’ll get what’s due you because that’s not how this life works. Good guys sometimes finish first and they sometimes finish last. Worry more about how you get there than what number you are at the end.
I may not follow 7 or 8 regularly (because, seriously, 20 seconds seems like a lot), but the rest shaped the fabric of who I am.
What smart, practical advice did your mom give you growing up?
My amazing big guy is now Eight. And my dear little man has turned Four.
We all made it alive, mostly, through Three, that year that lives as a specter on the psyche of every parent, that year emblazoned with red, dripping letters that cry, “Why does everyone say that Two is such a big deal? Three is the year that leaves no family unscathed!”
And just a few days into Four, I can say…it’s a tiny bit better. So far. Not holding my breath or anything. This isn’t my first time to the rodeo and I know phases last just long enough to get used to them, and then all techniques become invalid and parenting permit is up for renewal again, just a week after you finally passed the test for Extreme Tantrums, age Three Years and Fifty Weeks. Probably. If phases get too predictably unpredictable, then they stay for a while. Whatever it takes to maximize digiposture among human parental units.
The part I find most amusing about Four this time around is the bipolar self-awareness. Last week, he said to me, “Mommy, I’m a bad guy. No…I’m a good guy. That makes me a wild card, right?”
Oh good gawd, boy, it sure does. I laughed, which makes him giddy. He now tells me that lunch is a sandwich, no it’s yogurt, no it’s a wild card. And his travel backpack has trucks and ninja because…you guessed it…the backpack is a wild card.
Family game night is obviously having an effect on the lens through which he views the world. But little Wild Card is a big change for our family. We’re a group of persevering gamespeople. We open a game and we’re in it for the night. Butter, though, ceases all engagement after one round. No matter how long the endeavor takes, once a single full game finishes, he collects the pieces, drops them in the box, replaces the lid, and drags out something new. This has completely upended the whole way of life for our tenacious crew. Peanut, Spouse, and I could play 700 rounds of Yahtzee and not think it’s time to be done. We can get through an hour of Indigo, get some water, and start again. Done? What do you mean you’re done? There’ve only been ten games! Challenge the winner. Reject your current strategies and test some new tricks. Hope for better letters next time.
And while I’m not in my element with someone who feels he’s done after one round, he is a refreshing change from the sweet older guy whose attention span rivals a doctoral thesis advisor’s. Peanut can take a task and work on it for hours. Genuinely hours. Meticulous, careful work.
Such care and attention make hanging out with him quite enjoyable.
They’re both lovely fun and I enjoy them enormously.
Here’s the catch (for you know there is one…I’ve been blogging here for six years and you know darned well that fewer than a handful of posts exist without a catch): my children are amazing company with one-on-one. But that arrangement is rare. More often, they’re sharing physical space (poor stereotypical siblings: younger wants to do everything older does, and older wants younger really, really far away). Each boy is almost always seeking exactly the opposite of what his sibling offers. Peanut wants to do something intensely and for hours on end, and Butter is done after five minutes. He gets frustrated with Peanut for lingering, Peanut gets frustrated at Butter for ruining his concentration/picture/building/project/flow and loud, acrimonious, physical battles ensue.
And my job is to interrupt the fight, explain how they each need to talk about their needs and feelings, and how they each need to respect their differences. But they’re four and eight. They love fighting. Butter doesn’t want to articulate that he’s done and would like company on his next adventure. Peanut doesn’t want to explain, again, that he’d like to finish what he started.
And so games, art, reading, play, potion-making, and crafts are all punctuated by raucous, adrenaline-provoking frustrations. I intercede. They don’t want to hear me. I try to reason with them. I try emotion, I try logic. I either give up or separate them.
But not at the beach.
At the beach there is no end to the compromises they’re willing to make or the personality flaws they’re willing to overlook.
I think we’ll just move to the beach.
When a friend raved about her favorite cookbook, I hoped it would be the answer to my food rut. For a while I resisted buying it, since it’s not in paperback yet. Mama is cheap, even when it comes to books.
But I couldn’t stand the meal stagnation or the lack of inspiration, so I splurged.
I flipped through, drooling at the possibilities. I hopped to the table of contents, browsing for a direct path to dinner. I scanned the introduction, which is full of wonderful advice and ideas and…
The options so overwhelmed me I started to freak out. The pages on cooking tools reminded me that some of my measuring cups are missing, some of my spoons ought to be replaced, I have been lax in eliminating all plastic from my kitchen, and I’ve been misusing my pastry scraper for years…and I began to panic.
Deep breath. We’re just skimming. Next page.
The thoughtful section of having a well-stocked pantry had me thinking I should rearrange my cabinets, toss my spices, make lists for the next visit to the bulk bins. Of course I should! How have I not revisited the backbone of my pantry lately? I flushed with the tasks inherent in perfecting the cupboards. How exciting! Flawless cupboards! Goodness gravy, how daunting! This will take weeks! When the hell am I supposed to do all this? A five-second glance became, in my imagination, the beginning of a path up Everest, a thrilling but terrifyingly involved journey that I need to begin and complete rightthisveryminutebeforethekidsgethome.
Deep breath. I reminded myself that I didn’t have to read the whole book in one sitting, and this should be fun. The untapped potential of a new cook book. The possibilities, the excitement in preparing meals for an eager audience…and still I freaked out.
Which recipe first? If I just flip and find one I like but nobody eats, will I begin to resent the book? Will my enthusiasm for exposing my family to new flavors and creating family favorites wane, leaving only perma-quesadilla-mentality? Will all this money be wasted? Will my previous time be wasted trying to recreate someone’s art only to find that I am alone in my appreciation? Will we get to a point where we eat nothing but burritos every night because they’re easy and cheap?
Wait, a minute. What happens if they like what I make? If I look at each page and choose an ideal recipe based on more than twenty-four collective years cooking for my three guys, and I wow my family and re-inspire my culinary passions, will I set the bar so impractically high that I’m spending hours every day making meals that are increasingly awesome and insanely challenging? Will I become one of those people who doesn’t laugh at Martha Stewart’s recipes? Will I—things are getting really scary now—actually mix the dry ingredients then the wet ingredients and combine rather than refusing to dirty more than one bowl? If I spend more than 3 hours a day on food, that’s a whole day of every week just on these recipes. My family deserves a meal spark, not a freaking full-time chef.
I rode the waves of panic, excitement, fear, hope, indignation, and exhaustion until I closed the book and took another breath.
Geez. Seems I made skimming a new cookbook into a feat of terror, obligation, and insurmountable tasks.
Why am I not surprised?
It’s time for a boring and important post.
Would you please make sure you have an emergency bag packed and easily accessible by your front door? Backup glasses, credit card, cash, copies of important documents including prescriptions, thumb drive with your most treasured photos. Please. Now.
Would you please make sure that you have emergency supplies ready in your car? Water, snacks, flares, reflective blankets, signal mirror, matches, first aid including ice packs, bandages, and scissors. Please. Now.
Would you please make sure your legal documents are in order? Power of attorney, will, directives for what happens to your children in case of your sudden incapacitation or death. Copies of passwords, important phone numbers, list of companies to call so your executor has an easier time?
Would you please make sure you’ve signed up for your city’s emergency notification system? They’ll text you in an emergency, and you can forward to your distant relatives so if phones get overwhelmed in an emergency your family can let people know you’re okay.
Would you please make sure you tell your children and friends and family every day something you love about them? Some reason your life is better because they’re in it?
Emergency bag. Car emergency kit. Legal paperwork. Emergency notification. Love.
Today felt good. I think. I’m not sure. I either interacted with the world in a deeply engaged way or I’m developing nervous tics to handle stress. Or both.
Butter and I dropped Peanut at school and went for a walk in the rain. I felt sunshine through the thin, grey, stacked clouds that snotted on us all day. Butter clung to me in the backpack, randomly snuggly today in ways that Almost Four resists in its developmental Need to Be Independent and Competent and Separate.
I liked it.
We wandered through the throngs of difference in downtown Berkeley—old and young, punk and granola, homeless and wealthy, tidy and filthy. I bought my little guy a bagel and a homeless woman some orange juice. I helped my Butterbean understand when he pointed out a man’s brightly colored, patchwork pocketed pants that no, those weren’t dirty and old pants, those are art. The young man wearing those carefully-crafted and well-worn pants (and the shirt with the large hole and the many face piercings and the giant chip on his shoulder) smiled at me and thanked me. I explained quietly to Butter that we can always talk later about what we see, but that talking about how somebody looks isn’t polite because it might make them feel bad even if we’re just curious. Then the impeccably-groomed college student getting Butter his bagel asked if I was aware that I had a small child on my back and I made them both laugh by trying to look behind me, asking, “Where?! Where?!” with great concern.
I carried my little carbohydrate fiend past a police barricade because I never saw it, focused instead on humanity today, making eye contact and noticing how simultaneously disjointed and alive the city felt. A stocky man with a small face moved into my path and gently gestured, “stop, head back, cross, and go around” as he told me softly that the street was closed and he’d prefer that I please head back to an intersection and cross. I barely noticed his neon yellow vest and police uniform but I clearly saw his shiny apple cheeks and his wide brown eyes. I spun around and headed back, passing the barricade I’d missed. A few feet away from the barrier an unshaven man dressed all in black slumped into a corner and ran his hand through his unwashed grey hair as he said to me, “dead person.”
I looked at him and he looked at his fingernails.
And I thought about that choice of words. Not “body.” Person. I thought about that reality and the half a block of thick public concrete and red curbs and parking meters and tall, caged trees blocked off for private police use. I noticed that the homeless were clustered in groups of four on every corner for blocks in both directions. This might have been a suicide or a homicide but was likely the routine expiration of a homeless neighbor from exposure or malnutrition or unresolved medical issues.
And they were aware—the police and the acquaintances. And I was now vaguely aware, but not really. And my preschooler was not aware. That’s true of much of life, isn’t it, that there’s a spectrum of connection and awareness. The circle of those you know and the wider circle of those you know less well overlap the circles of awareness borne of age and experience. Exposed lives versus sheltered lives versus young lives? That’s not the right way to define awareness. Because we know a homeless family with two small children. Do their kids know all the things these homeless adults do? Probably not. Are they witness to the street version of life or the child version of life or something in between?
My friend’s impending death won’t attract yellow police tape or the private use of a public space or gawking passersby. But his friends are gathered, too, communing. Huddled in support, not on street corners and not out of curiosity.
Today was a process of going, not unlike other days. Movement, journey, development. The day progressed and everything with a heartbeat did, too, whether the breathing and blinking felt like progress or not. And for some reason my progress today involved connection. Looking into eyes, gently touching arms as I passed, smiling. And asking questions. I stopped to ask the work crew what their truck was called (never seen a drilling rig with a mud rotor and never knew soil samples were taken this way). I asked the Goodwill clerk why they don’t sell baby gates to keep kittens out of handi-accessible bathrooms and whether she had enough help keeping the store as nice as she does (liability, and no, but she’s glad I noticed how hard she works). I asked the security guard outside Bank of America if there was actually any threat to BofA or if they were still making a statement about the lengthy Occupy Wall Street protests (not allowed to talk about security issues but have a nice day). I asked my back-bound lump of Butter what he thought about the varied art we saw in store windows.
I talked to my son who was still patiently snuggling me and his bagel, four miles into the walk, about the typewriter store and the traffic patterns and the balloon animals we were going to make when we got home.
Maybe constant verbal patter is my shield. Maybe what keeps me from noticing the dead persons and dying persons is nervous chatter. Perhaps I’m particularly engaged today because I’m anxious.
But what’s there to be anxious about? Death and homelessness and illness and loneliness and the thin threads that keep us from becoming unrecognizable to ourselves?
Well, that’s just silly. Why should that make me nervous?
Allow me to leave you with today’s soothing balloon giraffes.
If those freakishly disproportionate bubble creatures don’t fix existential panic, I don’t know what will.
At the end of a long day, during which I went without stopping from 5am-10pm, thirteen hours of which involved preschoolers (plural) and four hours involved careful negotiations with people whom I’m convinced get twice as much sleep as me, I called Spouse.
Me: The meeting’s finally over and I’ll be home soon so will you please fill the kettle and turn it on? Fill it just to the spout line inside, and make sure the whistle is on or it’ll boil dry. I just want some tea before bed because my throat is sore from talking all day and my body is achy from chasing 30 preschoolers and my brain is achy from budget talks and early morning writing and I just want some tea. Okay?
Spouse: Who is this?
And between the full-belly laugh and the hot cup of tea waiting for me when I got home, I made it through another day I swore might kill me.
When I marked the new year in 2012, I was excited about having a whole year in which to contemplate turning forty. There is so much excitement and hope in that number, I thought. I planned for several months how I would celebrate and what intentional shift of priorities I could orchestrate to begin the second half of my life.
I remember my mom’s friends celebrating her fortieth with black balloons and over-the-hill nonsense. Baby Boomers are not known for either perspective or subtlety and over-the-hill parties were very chic. Also the life expectancy was much lower back then and people really thought that 40 was more than halfway to dead.
Now, we are told by dreadful checkout-line magazines and gerontologists alike: fifty is the new forty.
Well I happily anticipated forty, hoping with the milestone that I’d get my life together, get a few more adorable grey hairs, and finally think of myself as adult. I thought a midlife crisis was impossible for me, not just because of this delightfully plucky attitude, but because I have at least three midlife crises a year, and my brain must certainly have hit all the low points of existential crisis by now.
What I didn’t foresee about 40, what I didn’t appreciate about midlife until I got there, is this: the inescapable and rude reality is forty isn’t about goals and perspective and living your best life for the rest of your life.
Forty is about everyone around you slowly dying.
Parents. Friends. Colleagues. The people I care about are having surgeries and tumors and divorces and memorials, not babies and graduations and new jobs. The downward slide of forty isn’t about “oh, boo-hoo I’m not vital anymore.” That’s ridiculous. The reason behind many midlife crises, I’m now finding, is that forty seems tips life from waxing to waning.
We all know mortality as a fundamental truth of the human condition. But we don’t know it as intimately as we will. I remember when my grandparents were in their seventies. Three of four died. And their friends died. And to me, in my twenties, that was something that old people did.
And they do. Don’t get me wrong. Old people do, in fact, die.
But the shock of forty was that grandparents aren’t the reason we’re at funerals any more. Parents are dying. Contemporaries are dying. Forty is a slap in the face that says, “Guess what? There is very little distance any more between you, those you love, and death. We’re going to fall off this cliff together, and soon.”
Forty is about certainty and camaraderie falling away as one by one the people we know intimately, not the loved ones removed by several generations but the people we need and enjoy and talk to every day, get divorced and sick and sad and angry and, eventually, dead.
Forty means everyone gets dead? Certainly that’s not what I’m saying, and not just because it’s grammatically clunky. There are still graduations and births and marriages and joy and life left in life after forty.
But we’re not having those moments. We’re watching younger generations have those moments. We’re bystanders. We’re wise, knowing, grey, and wonderful. And we’re attending other people’s joys while engaging in our contemporaries’ decline.
It’s a long march, this life. And there’s a sharp turn at forty after which we must choose to constantly pivot one way to support those we love as they struggle and age and die, then the other to watch those we love grow and become adults and choose their own way and then age and die.
Being the sandwich generation makes it sound as though we’re smothered and gooey and limited on two sides. The reality is much more like standing at the top of the diving platform. To one side there are people climbing and progressing and anticipating. To the other there is an exhilarating plunge into darkness. Forty is standing on that high dive and looking right then left then right then left thenrightthenleftthenrightthenleft and knowing there is limited time to choose. There is no option of climbing back down. The only choices are to enjoy the leap or to clench everything and hit way too hard.
Please don’t tell me that there is plenty of life left after forty. I know that. I’m genuinely happy with the priority shifts I architected before my milestone birthday, the progress I’m making toward goals, the willingness with which I’m ditching expectations and emotional detritus from my life, and the care I’m showing friends and family who are sick or dying. Of course there’s time left for some of us. Lots, in fact.
Somehow I thought rounding that corner of forty would make me grownup.
It did. But not in the way I’d hoped for.
Now that I have glimpsed the reality of growing up, I am watching through tiny cracks between my fingers as we all slide, slowly at first and then more quickly, to the craggy rocks and alligators and piranha and icy waters below.