Breaking news from the National Christmas Center

Unlike The Pond’s Institute, The National Christmas Center is a real place. You don’t need a fancy undergraduate degree in skin rejuvenation to get in, though you do have to pay $12.50. Trust me when I say it’s well worth it, especially since The National Christmas Center will close its doors forever on January 7.

When I heard it was closing, I knew we had to go one last time. I wondered if it would feel anticlimactic or disappointing. Was it as magical as I’d remembered? I am happy or sad to report I feel new levels of anticipatory grief, which is maybe not surprising since Christmas is built around anticipation and nostalgia.

I had to describe nostalgia to my nine-year old daughter because she didn’t understand what it was. My teenaged daughter understands it and has for some time, so maybe it first occurs naturally between the ages of 9-13. It becomes a sweet, sad burden we alternate between trying to ditch at every turn and cuddling to sleep at night.

I viewed a lot of our final visit to The National Christmas Center through the screen of my phone. I know this is sad, but I wanted to preserve every last wax curmudgeon and animatronic weasel. One day I will hopefully have grandchildren and we will hover around a screen so I can show them pictures of their mother making a non-camera ready face around the Belsnickel exhibit.

(Unlike Santa Claus and Krampus, Belsnickel can go either way depending on whether the child was good or bad. He carries cakes and candies in his pockets, but also birch switches. I’ve been thinking about him lately when I look at my childrens’ wish lists.)

One thing about nostalgia is no two people wear it the same. It also fits us differently over time. I used to be more nostalgic for things I never experienced. This is why a place like The National Christmas Center appealed in the first place.

One room is set up to look like a Woolworth’s from the 1950s, two decades before I was born. I never owned a wind-up monkey or menacing marionette. For awhile I used to buy toys from my own childhood on eBay to feed nostalgia. Then I realized I could go to antique malls and take pictures on my phone and it would bring as much satisfaction and require less storage. This is around the time I started becoming nostalgic for people and places.

Photo credit: Joe

In my late 30s, I began having terrible pangs of loss for grandparents and other family members who were long gone. Still, the nostalgia wasn’t always personal. I missed spinning the lazy susan on my grandparent’s kitchen table and how it was always sticky from spilled sugar and King’s syrup. I missed the big rock in their front yard that I used to sit on for what felt like hours for no other reason than it was there. Did I miss the rock or my grandparents? How well did I know them anyway?

The next phase of nostalgia involved scanning a box of slides from my dad’s side of the family. My husband’s family had another box of slides, so we combined them for a bulk rate and to confuse whomever scanned them.

My family’s slides captured the wholesome ’50s with Gee Whiz smiles and party dresses. Joe’s family slides were early ’70s in every sense and included what looked like ragtag pirates but were actually hippies on a sailboat. His parents were hippies. I swear I never realized until I saw those slides. I’d be more jealous but my grandparents once hosted a luau in their Baltimore row home, as well as a series of odd costume parties. I have the baffling photos to prove it.

Hippies on a shipA couple of dumbbells

I am entering a new phase of nostalgia in my 40s. The pain is unfamiliar so a bit exquisite. I am nostalgic for the things I haven’t done or that I did do but would probably still do or not do again. It is not the same as regret, but more aligned with that than anything else. I’m nostalgic for the way my teenager and I used to get along just last year, even though I know she had to grow up and often that means apart. I am sad to know the same thing will happen with my still-cuddly nine-year old. I miss the days before my husband and I had kids because I remember more time and less weight, both literal and figurative. If I could go back in time, would it feel that way? As Joe said long ago, nostalgia is a liar. This is what I remember, anyway.

The National Christmas Center will close its doors, probably forever, on January 7, 2018. They are looking for a buyer, but I can’t imagine the price. The collectible value of its contents alone must be over a million dollars, plus it brings in literally busloads of patrons in Christmas sweaters year round. Each room will be probably be divvied up and sold at auction or else a reclusive billionaire will buy it to know what it feels like to live inside Christmas’ belly. I wish I was a reclusive billionaire.

One thing I enjoy about life is how you constantly get to reinvent yourself. The older I get, the less anyone seems to care how or why I do this. Time lends a gentle cloak of invisibility, which leads to its own kind of freedom in how we remember and honor the past. I don’t mean we should make shit up or distort the facts, but why not write a short story about a billionaire recluse who sleeps in a fiberglass burrow formerly occupied by a rabbit in a striped nightshirt? A useful byproduct of nostalgia is creativity.

Some of us feel compelled to preserve and even mold the past to make some sort of sense out of it. I like to think this will help future generations do the same. They may one day pour over photos and screens or memory scans and wonder who were those hippie pirates and who took all the pictures of wax figures inside The National Christmas Center. And what does it all mean?


If you can’t make it to The National Christmas Center before it closes and aren’t a billionaire, here’s a 360 google tour. God bless the internet, every one.

Advertisements

The case of the missing retainer UPDATE: Case Closed

As a good detective, your first job is to secure the scene. This involves shuffling to the curb in pajamas at dawn to drag the garbage can back to the side of the house.  The aroma of litterbox looms heavily in the humid air. You are filled with hope and disgust.

You interrogate each potential witness separately. Your husband texts “I don’t have it!” The exclamation mark might normally arouse suspicion, but his alibi is airtight: he’s out of town. You get to the perpetrator/victim’s younger sibling before she’s even out of bed. No, she hasn’t seen it either. The cats both look guilty but they always look like that. Actually, the one cat looks guilty while the other probably looks hungry. You release them and they slink off to stalk the fish tank and eat a little kibble.

Your key witness is pretty sure she last wore the retainer the night before last. She isn’t sure where she was when she took it out. The hot pink case you couldn’t miss if you were blind sits on the bathroom counter ominously empty, like a missing child’s shoe found by the side of the road.

Your witness isn’t sure when and where she last saw her retainer. It might have been on her bedside table. It might have been on a placemat. You’ve been at this game long enough to know grabbing them by the collar while crying why in god’s name don’t you remember? Why?? won’t get any answers, though it might make you feel better.

When you re-read the victim’s statement, you keep going back to the part where she said I hope I didn’t throw it away in the bathroom. You didn’t get this far ignoring hunches. You can no longer ignore the garbage like the snakes in Pee-Wee Herman’s heroic pet store rescue scene. You must go in.

The garbage does not disappoint. You don’t find the retainer, but it is even more disgusting than anticipated. What even is that one thing and where did it come from? You check under the bed, in drawers the victim clearly hasn’t opened since 2011, the top of the refrigerator, the mailbox. You frisk the cats but they misinterpret and purr.

When you get to work, you fight the urge to check the garbage can beneath your desk because the only way it would be there is by teleportation or if you were in on it the whole time.

You clear the schedule for the weekend. You plan in your head how you will sift through each bag of garbage, plus the recycling bin, wearing purple kitchen gloves and a turtleneck over your nose to stifle the stench. You make a mental note to do this somewhere private so the neighbors don’t send someone by with a giant butterfly net.

You scribble notes in your steno pad: check the lego bin; strip the victim’s sheets and wash them, killing two birds with one stone; look over by the fireplace, which is where you saw a cat batting something around the other day and you assumed it was a bug but now you are not at all sure.

You are a very good detective and you will find it. A retainer doesn’t just vanish into thin air. Well, maybe that one time in 1988 when you put your own retainer on a plate for safekeeping while eating a sandwich on the back deck and then, for reasons unknown to anyone, shook the plate over the bushes and stones below. As one does.

You never got over that, obviously, but it helped make you the great detective you are today. You’ve told this cautionary tale to your daughter many times, assuming only those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. You do not recall your parents looking for it as obsessively as you did then and now, those maddeningly translucent white whales.

————————————————————

Important Update: at approximately 5:12pm, you will apprehend the retainer inside a tan fleece blanket located on the victim’s bed. You will give the blanket a good shake and hear the sweetest ‘thunk’ on the carpet that you ever did hear. Knowing that you will not have to spend your Saturday sifting through garbage, you will order a celebratory pizza and cry out TGIF, MF! 

Further cause for celebration: the vexing and completely useless ability to make a retainer vanish into thin air was not passed down after all. You do, however, have another kid due to get her first retainer in less than a month, so let’s not get cocky.

Go to the show

I recently attended my first rock concert at the tender age of 43. There had been a handful of concerts in my teens and twenties, but alternative or pop and I’d missed Pink Floyd when they toured in the late eighties. I remember talking about getting tickets with my best friend, but we had no real plan or money and it’s just as well because I would have been the kid who never made it out of the parking lot. Besides, late eighties Pink Floyd got everyone but Roger Waters in the divorce, and he was the parent I’d aligned myself with.

When we heard Roger was touring again, Joe and I decided we had to go. My finger hovered over refresh in the moments leading up to presale. It was like Black Friday at Walmart, I guess, not that I’d know but I do know to get what you want and get to checkout. I had no idea what ticket prices would be, but was pretty sure $14 couldn’t be right even though that was what the ticket site listed for our section.  $14 was like 1967 prices, but with the clock ticking I either thought this is our lucky day or I’m not missing out again like in 1987 and clicked and paid $28 for two tickets. Naturally this came to nearly $100 after the usual fees, but still. Cheap.

Shortly afterwards, the concert venue sent out a smartly worded, slightly apologetic email that basically said sorry guys, those tickets were really supposed to be $146 and you must have known deep down $14 wasn’t right because we charge more than that for a soda. So anyway, we’re charging the difference to your credit cards. But here’s a voucher for free parking (a $25 value!). p.s. The person who made that very costly typo is hanging by his middle toes as we speak. 

I barely had time to tell if I was disappointed or relieved when I got another email that basically said sorry guys, remember how we said we were going to charge the difference to your credit cards? Our legal team told us we couldn’t but we weren’t going to anyway. It was a joke, haha! You can keep the free parking though because we’re laid back cool like that. 

Months passed and I occasionally peeked in at our super-cheap tickets to make sure they hadn’t vanished or been hallucinated. I have never been more excited to attend a rock concert, which would have been true even if I’d attended dozens or any before. Joe and I brushed up on our late 70s to early 80s Pink Floyd – which, totally not necessary, as I’d burned those songs deep in the brain (along with a fair amount of pot) during my formative years – and gave Waters’ new album a spin and really liked it. Spoiler alert: he has a hard on of hate for Trump. No matter where his fans fall on the political spectrum, no one seemed to take it personally at the concert.

So picture this bit of karmic comeuppance: Picture two seats on an aisle. Great! No ‘scuse me’s on your way out to visit the mens or ladies room precipitated by, based on what I observed of fellow concert goers, pretty much continuous trips up and down the stairs to purchase large beverages to drink and/or spill on my head. Now picture those aisle seats, which are angled towards the stage but front row to the aisle. To see the stage, you have to crane past all the bobbing heads traveling up and down stairs with drinks. They are still good seats though. They are reasonably close to the stage and being front row to the aisle, we get to watch a blissed out dude stop and stare up at the ceiling for a full minute. I don’t do drugs anymore, but his joy was infectious. We could see all the cool floats, art and levitating platforms Roger Waters and his team worked so hard on, plus Roger himself looking beautifully angry on the jumbotron. He’s almost 74 years old, some sort of god I think.

When Pink Floyd did their last tour as a still-together band, they erected a giant wall, brick by brick, between them and audience and then tore it down as part of the show. 1980 Roger Waters wanted to keep the wall up and play the rest of the show that way – with a physical barrier between him and his fans – and I think 2017 Roger would have done it if he’d still felt that way. The years have not softened his political views, but he’s made a kind of peace with fame and fans. He just seemed happy to be up there putting on a show. We all just ate it up.

The show closed with Comfortably Numb, which is everybody’s favorite, I know, but it’s really mine. I’m pretty sure everyone in the audience sang along except for the lady in front of us who’d turned around before the show started to ask my six-foot-five husband to stop bumping the back of her chair with his knees because it was making her nauseous, but that was only because she’d already slipped out. Comfortably Numb would have brought us together, I’m sure. You can dance to Pink Floyd. I didn’t know that before but I saw it for myself and now I’m a believer.

I wonder if I will ever go to another rock concert again. Maybe if Judas Priest comes to town, and then I won’t feel bad if I never make it past the parking lot. It’s fun making childhood dreams comes true, even when we’re a little too old to enjoy them in the same way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How we pass time

My grandmother leaves a brief and mildly worrisome voicemail asking me to call her because she doesn’t feel well and wants some advice. She ends her message with “I don’t want you to get in a panic.” I am sitting at my desk when I listen, trying not to count how many times the young mechanic across the street slips behind a dumpster to vape or the minutes to lunch and now returning this phone call.

By the time I call back, my grandmother is not really sick. Whatever the problem was, it already resolved with prune juice and something stronger if mysterious due to a language barrier I’ve long given up on trying to deconstruct. Now she craves milk and also eggs but is too weak to drive to the store. I tell her to call her saintly next door neighbor, Lois, but my grandmother is, as usual, three steps ahead. She will call when she knows Lois’ granddaughter is down for a nap.

My grandmother says “If I had died from this, no one would have had any idea what killed me.” Maybe this is why she called, not for advice or reassurance but to pass along information that might prove useful post-mortem. This is what it must be like to outlive all your friends, your spouse, your child. My grandmother has become dramatically stoic while still engaged and interested in the day-to-day. She grills the middle-aged man who cuts her lawn on why he still lives with his parents. She has a much younger friend who takes her to buy a rotisserie chicken every Wednesday. She even has a cat on loan from another neighbor.

The cat thing bothered me for awhile because she was borrowing it surreptitiously. One day it showed up on her back porch and she opened the door and let it in. I guess it was like having a good friend over and not having any cake to offer because she went to the store afterwards and has been buying cat food ever since. I worried the cat’s real owner would notice and accuse my grandmother of catnapping, but as usual none of my worries play out and it turns out this cat is one of eight and hogs all the other cats’ food so I guess everyone (and cat) benefits from the arrangement.

My grandmother insists on calling the cat a she even though it is stocky and male. When you go to pet his head, he stands on hind legs to meet your hand faster. My grandmother and I both agree it is dangerous to invite a cat into a house without a litter box and to let it nap on your couch, possibly teeming with fleas, while you watch Fox News through equally droopy eyelids. But a part-time pet brings great pleasure and at regular intervals my grandmother shuffles to open the door and let the cat that is not hers outside.


Recently my grandmother told me she saw a strange creature in her backyard. At first she thought it was a cat, but its tail was striped with bold black and white rings and so long it dragged on the ground like a monkey’s. A week or so later, she saw another creature with a similarly droopy tail, only this one was cream colored and the size of “a very large squirrel”.  She said the striped tail creature looked just like an animal she saw on the news the other day, but she could not remember what it was called. I know what you’re thinking and she knew too because she told me Lois saw the creature lounging on the driveway and snapped a picture with her phone. 

When I visited my grandmother, I asked if she’d seen either creature again and she said no and added “Lois isn’t home right now, but next time I’ll have her show you the picture.” There were three cars in Lois’ driveway and I wondered how my grandmother was so sure about that.

 

The Cult of Andy

The last time I tried meditating, I gave up after the cat tried to swing trapeze-style from a chandelier above my head. I assume that’s what happened anyway because I heard a loud clatter and opened my eyes in time to find the chandelier swinging wildly and the cat on the floor beside me, licking one paw. 

I didn’t feel very good at meditating, and thought perhaps it was not for someone who has nosy cats and is already pinched for alone time. Besides, lots of things can be meditative, like running or walking and reading and definitely writing. Being outdoors with nothing to do besides take in the sights, sounds and smells reliably takes me to a peaceful place.

Eventually the call to meditation came again, this time for my nine-year old daughter, Audrey. We’d come back from a week at the beach and too-close sleeping quarters, and being the youngest and no doubt a bit spoiled, she had a hard time being alone in her own room and bed. One night we heard her crying and went in to her room to find her near inconsolable. Her fears were vague but horrifying, like losing her favorite people to illness, accidents, etc. These thoughts were sudden, unwelcome visitors that snuck in and grew so big and scary they took up her mind. 

At first we tried practical things, like reading something fun before bed or remembering positive things from the day. We tried a sleep mask and then a night light and then the sleep mask and night light combined. Some nights we’d hear her crying and go in to soothe and other times find tissues tucked under her pillow the next morning and know she’d quietly cried herself to sleep. One morning I woke to the idea that meditating before bedtime might help.

Not being an expert in meditation, I downloaded an app with a free 10-day program narrated by a man with a perfectly placid British accent. He introduced himself as Andy and I pictured him round and doughy with downy hair and wire-rimmed glasses. The app doesn’t show what he looks like, though does feature blissful looking cartoon monsters wearing headphones. One blue monster looked especially engaging so we decided that was Andy. A week or so later, Audrey and I googled Andy to find he’s quite buff, completely bald and a former monk turned multi-millionaire. Oh, and he’s human.

Now, in full disclosure, Audrey and I meditate a bit differently than you’re supposed to. We don’t sit upright in a chair or on the floor, but lay down on my bed with pillows under our heads and, sometimes, Audrey prefers to be under her favorite fleece blanket. I know what you’re thinking, but I have only fallen asleep twice. Usually I follow Andy’s instructions to breathe slowly through the nose, filling the chest, and then exhaling gently through the mouth. Andy tells us to count each inhale and exhale until we reach ten and then start over, and this turns out to be the most helpfully concrete instruction I’ve heard on how to meditate. Andy makes meditation not only easier but something we both start looking forward to.

One evening I’m on the couch with Joe watching Season 3 of Bloodlines, which is the antithesis of meditation, but I digress, when Audrey appears and tells me she wants to meditate. I look at the TV and the clock and wrinkle my nose and say “How about tomorrow night?” She leans her face in real close, a little wild-eyed, and says “I need Andy tonight” and it sends a chill up my spine. We go upstairs to meditate and chandelier-swinging cat watches through narrowed eyes from the foot of the bed.

Soon we go on vacation again, this time sleeping in more rooms, though Audrey shares one with her older sister and so is not alone at night. Between that and sun-soaked days of swimming for so long Joe jokes we should wring her out like a washcloth before coming home, she sleeps like a baby every night. We all do. But like all good stories, this vacation too must come to an end.

Once home, Audrey asks to meditate to Andy again and we do. This time our timing is poor and we start around the same time Joe gets home from work. He enters the bedroom to change and finds us laying flat atop the bedcovers, my arms folded across my chest like someone laid out in a casket and Audrey’s loose at her side, our eyes closed tight like children pretending to sleep. The cat watches judgmentally from the floor this time. There’s an awkward moment between when I stop counting breaths and start explaining what we’re doing. Joe nods in understanding and I close my eyes and try not to wait for the jingle of his belt being hung up in the closet and then the soft clop-clunk of the door closing.

Andy tells us it’s okay to notice sounds going on around us. Sometimes he gives us permission to let our minds think about whatever it wants to think about, but in these moments I can’t think of anything and feel disappointed at my lack of imagination.

One night I ask Audrey if she wants to meditate and she says she does not. She says the bedtime worries are just as bad as before and she doesn’t think meditation is working. I ask her if she wants to talk instead and she does, but her face kind of crumbles and she needs a hug more than anything.

We talk about readjusting to spacious sleeping quarters and how the double-grandpa bed from Willy Wonka might seem cozy but probably none of them were sideways sleepers or blanket hogs like in our family. We talk about how when we try to not think about something, that’s pretty much the only thing we seem to be able to think about. We talk about habits and phases and how it feels like something bad will keep happening forever, but that rarely proves to be the case.

I remember Andy pointedly telling us that meditation isn’t about controlling our thoughts but learning to simply notice them and then going back to the breath. I tell Audrey she won’t still be having these thoughts every night by the time she graduates college because anything beyond is probably too far off to imagine. It’s a phase, triggered somehow by the fun closeness of a family trip and sleeping on a lumpy, unsupportive mattress I wouldn’t wish on anyone past 40.

She doesn’t know yet that all but the most supportive mattresses will turn on you one day and that the people you love most will die, but somehow it’s all okay, even when it’s not. She may have thoughts she doesn’t have much control over but that won’t make them come true and they don’t even necessarily mean anything except that she has an active imagination. Worry is the yin to imagination’s yang.

She can still remind herself where she is and that she’s safe. She can focus on the soft weight of her heels against cool summer sheets and count her breath by tens and maybe come to believe that.

***

Audrey asks me if I can start putting notes in her lunch bag for camp. I used to do it during the school year, eventually creating a series of illustrated notes we were both proud of, including one about a rotten pumpkin who entered a beauty contest (I want to write children’s books so bad). It’s collaborative because Audrey gives me ideas of things to write about or draw when we both get bored with the “hey, hope you’re having a great day” notes. This time I ask for ideas and she suggests creating a series around blue monster Andy (as opposed to buff human one).

I sit at the kitchen island and crank out a couple, losing myself in an almost meditative state. I’m no artist but it still feels good to channel frustration and pain into something I can share with her. I’m including one below, meant to be read in a gentle british accent.

The VIPs

At camp, the kids build a miniature city out of sticks and grass in the dirt. Audrey explains there are houses and buildings and trees and military bases and two lakes. She pauses for a moment and corrects herself, “No, three lakes”. She tells me this once we’re already in the car and now the business-like manner in which I saw her speak with another girl by the picnic tables after I’d signed her out makes sense. They were probably going over construction plans for the following day. 

She says all the kids involved in the city project have titles like President, Vice President, VIP (which makes me chuckle until I stop myself), and Major Major Major Major. Before I can ask why all the Majors she says everyone starts at Minor Minor Minor Minor, like this explains everything. I ask her what her title is and she says VIP and then corrects herself and says “I mean VP. That stands for Vice President. Next summer we’ll hold another election.” I get the feeling she’s already campaigning.

We’re riding in the car with her older sister at the wheel and it occurs to me that the kids might run out of suitable sticks near camp base and want to rummage in the woods for more. “Stay out of the woods,” I say. “There’s poison ivy.” 

“There isn’t,” she tells me. “Anyway, I know what it looks like. It’s light green.”

“No it’s not,” her older sister says. “It’s bright green this time of year.”

“It can also be shiny,” I add, knowing I couldn’t pick poison ivy out of a line-up even after suffering repeated, crippling cases of it throughout childhood. One summer when I was about Audrey’s age, I went to camp and came home with poison ivy and head lice. To be fair, we weren’t sure where I picked up the poison ivy.

I used to have a soft spot for those brown and cream striped caterpillars that are suddenly everywhere mid-summer. I’d line a cardboard box with shiny, soft green leaves picked from the woods across the street from our house. Then I’d lean sticks against the box walls like a series of intersecting catwalks and pluck dozens of caterpillars from trees and drop them into the box. I kept them as outdoor pets for a day or two or until they figured out they had always been free to climb out of the box. I took them out of the box and let them crawl across my hands and arms and even my face. I can’t tell this story now without wincing.

A week later I found myself at the doctor’s office with a case of poison ivy so bad I needed steroid injections. My mother cut up old pillow cases and wrapped them around my hands at night so I wouldn’t scratch in my sleep. She applied wet oatmeal and witch hazel and calamine compresses at all hours, but nothing stopped the itching. 

We had already planned an overnight trip to New York City and I wore blocky dark sunglasses to disguise my swollen, misshapen face. The subway attendant took tokens for my parents and brother but frowned when he saw me and said “She can ride free.” We joked afterwards that maybe he thought I was blind or had Elephant Man’s disease, and I fought the urge to run back and explain I was just a normal kid. The only blindness I had was an inability to distinguish poison ivy from other leafy green plants.

I never played with caterpillars again after that summer. They were still everywhere – chugging along at a maddening but determined pace across sidewalks and dangling helplessly from low branches – but they became invisible until just a few years ago. I had been jogging along a paved path when I noticed a few crawling across and thought “Oh!” in delight and then “Oh” in a more guarded way.

***

“Just watch out for plants with leaves of three,” I tell both daughters in the car, satisfied this is the best advice I am qualified to give. I still don’t know how I got the job of teaching our older daughter how to drive. Years ago I struck a deal with my husband that he would teach Vanessa and I would teach Audrey. I may have planned on seven more years to prepare, but life happens and his work schedule doesn’t align with hers. Weeks slip by with no driving practice while her expectations about getting a license and buying a car with the money she’s been saving are still there. I start taking her to drive tentative circles around empty parking lots. 

The first time I take her out on a real road, I grip the passenger side armrest until my knuckles ache. I bark things like “Slow down!” or “STOP!” as if a child has just wandered out between two parked cars, when really it’s nothing more than a pair of red taillights up ahead, not even that close. Part of the dread I feel towards these driving lessons comes from my own poor reactions. 

Vanessa doesn’t quite get up to the speed limit and a white SUV tails too close behind. I think to myself Vanessa is driving too close to the right shoulder but keep quiet (miraculously!) until she brushes against an overgrown hedge by the elementary school. I say “Pull Over” in what I mean to be a calm tone but couldn’t be. She remembers her turn signal at the last minute and sheepishly pulls into the school lot while the hovering white SUV blares its horn and speeds past.

I consider cutting her lesson short and putting myself back in control. I don’t remember going out to drive much with my own parents when I had a learners permit. I do remember the time I borrowed their car and swiped a parked car and then lied about it, poorly. My parents figured it out the same day and I wasn’t allowed to drive for weeks, which felt more like a gift than punishment.

I take a deep breath and tell my daughter to get back on the road and try to drive closer to the yellow line, though not too close, obviously. I try to give shorter instructions and watch my pitch and volume. Once we are safely home, I feel shaky and weak but not relieved. It feels like the time I got chased by a dog through a neighborhood I shouldn’t have been walking through late at night in the first place and managed to hurl myself over a fence just in time.

I go online and browse car magnets that say STUDENT DRIVER in bold black atop a bright yellow background. I see some that also include Please Be Patient! underneath but already the regular ones remind me of those Baby On Board signs that were popular in the 80s. Even as a child I wondered why the safety of a stranger’s baby was more important than my own infant sister hurtling through peril in our unmarked car.

I usually take the time to read a few customer reviews and questions before buying anything. This is where I might learn, for instance, that the 3-pack of Student Driver magnets I am considering don’t actually stick or maybe they are only 3-inches wide. My eye draws to a question someone posted: “Do you think three of these will be enough? I’m tempted to cover my car in them. I don’t want anyone honking at my precious angel.” I laugh out loud and add the magnets to my cart and only then feel something like relief.  

What a difference 2,192 days makes

FullSizeRender (40)

 

52,608 little hours. 3,156,480 minutes. 189,388,800 seconds. Did I spend them all well? Certainly not. But I spent them all sober, and that has made all the difference.

I never thought I’d get to 6 years sober and think boy, that went fast. A good part of me wasn’t convinced I’d get to 6 years at all. I’d heard the cautionary tales of relapse and how vigilant one needed to remain at all times and that made it seem harder than I was capable of.  A future without summer beers or celebratory cocktails wasn’t one I could easily imagine, nor did I want to. But I stuck to each day which turned into months and then somehow six years. Time is funny how it slips past and takes care of everything, including us.

Somewhere between years 3 and 5, I noticed a shift from feeling like I’d made a real sacrifice in giving up alcohol, which invokes all sorts of fearful, complicated responses in sobers and drinkers alike, and realizing I never needed it in the first place.

Alcohol was a filter I used to mindlessly slip on when I wanted to feel more of something or less or occasionally nothing at all. I rarely wanted to feel what I was already feeling, which now strikes me as odd and sad. Once I removed the filter and kept it off awhile, I saw everything more clearly. It was a blessing and curse because the view was raw and sharp, not unlike getting glasses for the first time and taking a good long look in the mirror. Every imperfection was there for examination. Sunsets and kittens were equally clear, so it wasn’t all bad, not at all.

The other thing about removing the filter was I got to feel again which, as you know, is a mixed bag. Sometimes I love my family so much I’m sure my heart will explode into confetti. Sometimes I care about people or issues I am in no way obligated to care about, which is both reassuring and baffling.

Anxiety doesn’t go away. I wish I could say it did, but I’m 99% sure that’s why I took so well to drinking in the first place. Why would it leave when I’ve fed it my whole life? These days I notice it and think “I feel anxious” or else lonely or bored or weary. I put a name to it and realize it often has nothing to do with current circumstances but triggered by an old memory or not eating or sleeping well or mysterious moon cycles. I don’t own a mood any more than I own the weather. This too shall pass, they say, and goddamn it they’re right.

I can still go out to dinner and make small talk at a party and fall asleep and have sex (not in that order) and go on vacation and get through a stressful day or the holidays. I can handle being happy or excited or bored or worried or angry or sad. None of these things make me think of a drink anymore. (But oh, they used to.) Sober is mostly easy and second nature and sometimes fantastic and finally okay when it’s not. 

There are still a number of ways to numb out, and I’m intimately aware of most. A cupcake may not be a keg, but I can’t really seem to be able to handle myself around either. This disappoints me. I figured by 5 years sober I would have shown my sweet tooth (precious, adorable) to the door with a chuck of the chin and knowing smile. Same with the perpetual two-minute smartphone circuit, which my dexterous fingertips train hard for even though it never awards much. This year I’ve experimented with letting things go and I can tell you it feels different than the fifteen dozen times I’ve done it before.

Sober isn’t a cure all but I think it’s better than that. We are not meant to numb our spirit to the point of dysfunction, and there is deep and meaningful reward once we stop doing this to ourselves. We get to feel alive again, which is something drinking used to do before it stopped working. This time it’s real.

Fool’s Gold

One of the reasons I’m convinced we become parents is to relive the parts of our childhood that don’t lay right. This is why I don’t make my kids clean their plates and have never once forced lima beans and potato pancakes on anyone after the whole vomit-gag incident of ’76 (never forget). 


Yesterday my daughters and I visited a favorite haunt from my childhood, Frontier Town, where we panned for gold and made small talk with two cowboys while in line to buy soft pretzels. Cowboys favor Pepsi, as it was a very hot day and they were dressed in woolen pants and shirts with vests and the requisite hats. They were mighty friendly and one even volunteered that he loved his job. He broke the fourth wall and made our wait less awkward.


The first time I visited Frontier Town, I was about eight years old. I was still young enough to appreciate a mock western town where you could ride a stage coach and pan for gold, but old enough that self consciousness had settled in. The one memory that really stands out is not wanting to dance with Indian chief Red Bird at the ceremonial show. I stood there like a sore lump while the other idiots jumped around and waved their hands in the air and took complimentary paper headdresses at the end. My dad would not let me take one because I had brought shame and dishonor to my family in my fear of dance.

I do not like dancing to this day, except to look silly on purpose. You can imagine my horror when my daughters and I attended the Indian show and they again invited us up to dance and my nine-year old asked me to join her.


I wish this was the part where I could write about how I looked her square in the eye and said “Of Course!” and then we skipped to the ring and made Red Bird’s spirit proud. Instead I spent two minutes trying to get my teenager to take her sister up and another minute asking the younger one if she was sure she really wanted to go and by that time the circle of very brave parents and children closed and it was too late. 

Instead I distracted them with a “Hey look, a teepee! Do you think we can go inside?” though it was as empty as my rhythmless soul. I doubt we’ll head back again so I figure I have one more chance, and that’s assuming I get grandchildren (which I clearly don’t deserve) and that Frontier Town is still around then. 

Look at how much fun we’re having

I know I should have just gotten up to dance, yesterday and in 1980. I did spend a good half hour panning for Fool’s Gold so both my kids could fill their ample plastic tubes, which Gold Rush miners would have loved to better admire their hard work. We also played putt putt golf and rode water slides and the lazy river at least a dozen times, which didn’t exist during the Gold Rush or the early ’80s, but our world is better for it now.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑