Prone to wandering

When I told my grandmother I took our youngest to the Science Center on New Year’s Eve and that I had fond memories of her taking me and my brother there many years ago, she said “Oh yeah, I remember that you both got lost and I thought you’d been kidnapped.”

I only remember two things from that visit:

  1. a metal ball that made your hair stick straight out when you touched it.
  2. a giant mechanical crab.

I do not remember being lost, and so I do not think my brother and I knew we were lost. My grandmother was always losing sight of us and fearing the worst. To her, we’d been thrown in the back of a kidnap van for 7 minutes of horrifying yet efficient torture, when really we’d just followed the ice cream truck over one block to see where all the lucky kids lived.

I do remember being lost at the beach once on her watch, and that truly was a terrible feeling. None of the buildings looked familiar and the beach was so thick with umbrellas that weren’t ours that I figured I’d die out there, sunburnt and alone.  This is not the beach disappearance my grandmother remembers, of course, and her version has me taking off to the store with a friend’s mom and not bothering to tell her. I don’t even think this happened but is maybe something she saw on a sitcom once.

I did not lose my daughter at the Science Center, though I could have. It was very crowded and rowdy and the carpet on every level was littered with confetti, adding to a sticky-jelly-hands post-apocalyptic atmosphere.  We crammed in as many exhibits as we could in an afternoon, but we never found the metal ball that makes your hair stand straight out when you touch it or the giant mechanical crab. The ball probably doesn’t exist anymore since delivering electrical currents to small children can be tricky, but I googled later and think I somehow missed the giant mechanical crab. Only I could miss this (also maybe my grandmother).

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via this

We had just enough time to catch a show in the planetarium on black holes. I thought it would answer all the questions I never thought to have about black holes, but instead it created more than I could have imagined. The show was like a black hole itself in that way. The narrator had a soothing voice and didn’t seem overly worried about any of it.

I had never heard the story of the waterbug who became a dragonfly, but the narrator told us and we listened. It seems there was once a colony of waterbugs who lived in a quiet pond. Once in awhile, one of the waterbugs would hang back from the colony and cling to the bottom of a lily pad and drift up to the surface only to vanish completely. The other waterbugs were curious but also worried, so one made the generous offer to come back and report what was on the other side if it happened to him. Sure enough it did happen to him, and when he got to the other side he was gobsmacked. It was a world unlike any he’d seen or could have imagined at the bottom of the pond. He was also now a dragonfly and realized he couldn’t keep his promise to go back and instead would have to wait for his waterbug friends to find their own way through.

My daughter said she nudged me to ask what happens if earth gets sucked into a black hole but saw that I had fallen asleep. Remember, the narrator had a soothing voice. So she asked later and I asked my husband and he said no one really knows what happens in a black hole, so I said I choose to believe it’s like coming out the other side of a pond.

Later my daughter opted to skip fireworks for putting pajamas on at 8pm because she is mine and I am hers. While my husband and older daughter went out in the cold and crowds at midnight, I woke to the gentle rumble of fireworks we could see clearly from our hotel room. I tried several times to wake my youngest, but she kind of snarled and drew deeper into the sheets. I watched them from my own bed and thought what a perfect year it was, really, how even all the shitty, scary moments seemed insignificant now that we had made it to the other side.

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Ghost of Christmas cats

We liked to say we saved Holly from the life of a junkyard cat. My mom answered an ad for “FREE KITTENS!” and scoped her out a few days before Christmas inside a brick duplex in a rundown part of town while I waited, ignorant, in the car. I had a perfect view of the junkyard across the street and found myself wondering what if I were the sort of kid who didn’t follow orders. What if I opened the door and took off? I imagined peering inside old wrecks, wandering the neat paths I could see from inside the car, palming small things I found on the ground. I didn’t even know about Holly at the time, but maybe we didn’t save her from a bad life at all.

Both parents managed to keep her a secret until Christmas morning. My brother and I had just finished opening presents when mom walked over with a big box and set it down with a weird smile. We knew something big was happening. My brother lifted the lid and then…nothing. It was an empty box. Weird. No wait! A very small head popped up and my brother reared back like he’d been bitten. That’s how we met Holly, the Christmas cat.

I gave her that name. No one else remembers it that way, just like they don’t remember that I’m the one who named our first boat TipOver I. There never was a TipOver II and TipOver I was kind of a dud, a glorified dinghy with a sail that went missing after bored neighborhood kids took her for a joy ride one summer night (though how joyful could it have been?). Maybe she tipped over that night in the river – fingers crossed – but after that she just hung upside down in the garage.

The thing I remember about Holly that first Christmas is my mom letting her lick runny egg yolk from a pie tin. We had to put her in the basement before we left for my grandparents’ house and the longest Christmas dinner in the history of Christmas dinners.

Every night at bedtime my parents made Holly go in the basement. She wasn’t happy about it and I wasn’t either, but my mom pointed out a nest she’d made in a corner of the basement from old rugs and a purple shawl someone spent a lot of time knitting and no one ever wore. My first instinct was to fluff up the shawl and make the nest neater, but my mom said cats preferred things a little messy.

Holly was allowed to go outside, but the garbage trucks scared her so bad she scratched a cat-size hole at the bottom of the screen to get back inside. My parents flipped the screen upside down and she made a new hole on the other end. She was a fastidious cat and bathed at least daily. She was white with grey striped spots and the face of a tabby. As she got older she got kind of fat, something I now realize happens more or less naturally to all of us.

Here’s where I want to say something hard that I’m not proud of. Once or twice I put a barrette on the end of Holly’s tail to see what she would do. It was one of those cheap, brightly colored plastic barrettes you might see if you happen to look down in a Walmart parking lot. I was old enough to know better and I didn’t dress her in doll clothes or anything like that. It wasn’t innocent on my part. Holly yelped and writhed as soon as I snapped it on and until I took it off.

All I can think of now is that I felt very small then. I used to play school with my stuffed animals and everything would be going swimmingly – Henry the Dog always acing lessons, clearly the teacher’s pet but well earned – and then something would come over me like a flipped switch. I’d tell Wile E. Coyote or Generic Fair Donkey he was an idiot or flatulent or a flatulent idiot. I’d feel cruelty flood my brain, an awful but irresistible release, followed by remorse and lingering fear about who I really was.

Mostly I was sweet to Holly and if she remembered the barrette incident(s?), she didn’t bring it up. By the time I was a teenager, she was well into adulthood and my parents had long since ditched the work of rounding her up every night for the basement. She was free to roam and spent a lot of time in my room. When I left the country for awhile after high school, my parents made a point to tell me she still went in my room every night looking for me, a sharp dagger to my heart.

One of the last times I remember seeing Holly was when I came back drunk from a wedding and sobbed on her fur because I missed her so much but mostly because I was drunk. When my dad called me at college to say Holly was sick and they were putting her to sleep, I had just gotten back from the gym and sobbed again.

I remember Holly’s personality better than a cat my husband and I had for many more years who was just as sweet and personable. It bothers me that I can’t remember more about this other cat. If I concentrate, I can clearly picture both of them, separately, walking towards me with the faint crunch crunch of paws against carpet like boots on freshly fallen snow.

Occasionally I used to pick up Holly and try to get her to look at herself in the mirror. I read once that cats are smart enough to know their reflection is not another cat, but they also show little recognition or interest in their own image. They do not appear to possess vanity or even curiosity in this regard. When I used to look at Holly’s reflection in the mirror, I noticed a dark patch around one of her eyes that I never saw any other time. I didn’t like this dark patch and thought it made her look kind of ugly, but every once in awhile I held her up and looked at it anyway.

Note: neither one of these cats is Holly, but in order to find a picture of her, I’d have to start rooting around the bedroom in the dark for old photo albums and my husband would look madder than these two. I moved on from barrettes to bow ties and Unicorn Horn for Cats but please note these were seasonal/one-time indulgences. 


This was a little freewrite exercise in response to Christy’s December writing challenge, which you can find HERE. Anyone can participate. Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays, everyone!

90 years young

That dream I had about tiny delicious sandwiches at my grandmother’s birthday party did not come true, though I did get many compliments on my kugelis. 

Kugelis is a dish that involves peeling and grating five pounds of potatoes with the nubbiest, most painful side of the grater. As such, each batch contains a little bit of human flesh as well as a pound of bacon with the fat undrained, a stick of butter, and several other, less horrifying ingredients. Once it bakes for about an hour, you serve it warm with a dollop of sour cream and are fortified to work the fields for many hours. That’s what my ancestors did anyway, so years ago I had my grandmother show me how to make kugelis, and even though I wrote each step down on a sheet of yellow lined paper and managed not to lose it, something got lost in translation and I had to go to the internet for my current recipe.

Throughout my grandmother’s 90th birthday party, she kept speaking to me in Lithuanian, a language I do not understand. She does this more and more lately, especially when she’s flustered, and it reminds me of her own mother, who lived to 94 and reverted to her native language steadily so that by the very end she never spoke English. When my great-grandmother used to speak to me in Lithuanian, I would smile and nod and usually this worked, although if my grandmother caught us she admonished with a “Mama, speak English!” Now that my grandmother speaks to me in a language I don’t understand, the smiles and nods don’t work as well and I have to say, as gently as possible, “In English?” I can see the corrections embarrass her.

My grandmother hit her party stride around the Happy Birthday Song, which the mixed crowd sang in English and Lithuanian. The Lithuanian version had a lot more verses, with long gaps in between, and at one point I made eye contact with my sister and felt laughter start to bubble up and decided it best not to look at her anymore. You may remember how I fussed over a music playlist last week, and that worked out fine and all, but the surprise hit was a guest who showed up with an accordion and tambourine. I dreamt about tiny delicious sandwiches that don’t even exist and then a living dream walked through the front door!

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The accordion player led the birthday songs and played some more while my grandmother sat and sang alongside him. The song was not in English, but it sounded sad or maybe just sincere. My grandmother sang beautifully in a high, confident voice and I remembered how much I love listening to her.

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There was plenty of music and too much food and as the last guests left, I said goodbye to my husband and felt loneliness like an itch I never seem to be able to scratch. But just like ten years ago and her 80th birthday party, the after-party was maybe the best part. My grandmother changed into pajamas and rejoined us while my daughters played some Lord of the Flies game with balloons and we listened to more music. My husband had put away most of the food and washed dishes and other relatives helped too, so cleanup was not too bad. 

The next morning, we reconvened and I put records on her old stereo console that still works, though I’ll admit reservations shoving the bent two-pronged plug in the wall and again when the speakers whimpered and crackled like a dying man’s cough.

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My grandmother handed me the official album for the 1984 Summer Olympics and told me to play it and my youngest rocked out to Loverboy because she is still in pajamas and buzzed on room temperature ginger ale. My grandmother said “How come you didn’t play music like this yesterday?” and I don’t know if she means music kids go nuts to or Loverboy or if she just wishes the party was still happening. She instructed us to leave the streamers up and the balloons get corralled in a corner, though they will shrink by the day.

My grandmother tells my girls that the next time we have a party at her house, she will not be there and my youngest asks where she’ll be. She tells them when my great-grandmother was very old, they had a party and she came downstairs and danced awhile and then retired to her room. My little sister went upstairs to find her and my great-grandmother told her the same thing about not being at the next party, and sure enough she died within the year. I remind my grandmother that she’s been planning her own funeral for the last 10 years and she laughs.

Before my girls and I leave, my grandmother pulls flowers from various bouquets and fastens them with a piece of ribbon and tells me to stop at the cemetery and leave them on my mother’s grave. I can hardly refuse this request, though before we pull out of her driveway she also tells me “Please do not vote for that Hillary.” So you don’t always get what you wish for, even at 90. Maybe we get very few wishes over a lifetime and foolishly use them up when we’re young. I know I love watching my youngest daughter’s face before she blows out candles or flips a coin in a fountain, her face earnest with concentration and belief. I can’t remember the last time I’ve blown out candles or thrown a coin in a fountain.

After we back out of my grandmother’s driveway and pull away, I honk and watch as she gets smaller and smaller in the rear view mirror. Once we round a corner, I look back and my daughters turn around even though we know she won’t be there.

Heading into the Eye of the Storm

Patsy Cline, Taylor Swift and Michael Jackson stand awkwardly in separate corners for the first 15 minutes of the party. Then the Alan Parsons Project and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass show up and there aren’t  enough corners so I guess you could say that’s when things got cooking. Oh, and Sam Cooke was there too, of course. 



When planning a party for a 90 year-old grandmother or anyone, really, music is key. I could fill a playlist with standards from the 40s, but I don’t remember her listening to what I think of as old people music. When my brother and I were kids, she took us to Montgomery Ward’s on a Friday night to help her pick out records. It had a music and electronics department upstairs with moody lighting and sonorous acoustics. We flipped through albums but generally picked whichever one was hottest and spent the rest of the weekend listening to it over and over again on her walnut record console, a swanky piece of furniture. 

My grandmother’s living room is where I first heard the Thriller album in its entirety. It’s where we pushed her glass covered coffee table to the side so we could dance to Eddie Rabbit’s I Love A Rainy Night and ABBA’s Super Trooper. (I’m a little embarrassed to admit these things but not really.) Maybe I wasn’t a fan of Kenny Rogers or Dolly Parton, but Islands in the Stream won me over. My brother played his new Fat Boys album for her and she kept an open mind, but she didn’t buy that one for herself. 

Actually, she wasn’t buying any music for herself. We binge-listened to an album over the course of a weekend and then she packed it carefully into a box, along with Levis jeans and whatever else worked as currency in the early 80s Eastern Bloc, and then shipped it off to distant relatives I never met and never will.

I finally sat down yesterday and combed through apple music playlists to cull a party mix worthy of my grandmother’s eclectic and open-minded musical tastes. And because a party isn’t just about the birthday girl, I included hits I know other family members will enjoy. She still comments appreciatively on some of my daughters’ favorite songs when we listen in the car. That’s where I’ve been testing out this party list in shuffle mode and find I love it all. 

This has been the surprise hit for me, a sweet little oasis in the angst of party planning, the calm before the storm. I could have listened to any of these songs at any time, but they had no context individually or even as part of another more generic playlist. Only in this more personal playlist do I feel each song so deeply I crank it up to feel it deeper. I catch myself thinking how much better music was in the 60s and 70s, how much more effort they put into each song, how rich and satisfying the sound. Sometimes it feels good to get good and old. 

The party isn’t for a few more days, and who knows if the ipad and wireless speaker setup will work as planned. It isn’t necessarily easier than the good old days of playing a record and flipping it over. My grandmother still has the record player console and a few albums that will work in a pinch. It’s not really about the music anyway but who we’re with when it plays. 

It’s going to be awkward when these guys show up because we’ll all basically be wearing the same outfit.

90 year old napkins

My grandmother turns 90 soon and to celebrate, we’re throwing a party that will send her to an early grave. Just kidding, 60 would have been an early grave. This party might send me to one, and that would be early but also deserved. 

When my grandmother turned 80, we threw her a big catered affair, attended by a great number of friends who are not invited this time because they are dead. It was quite a party, I’m telling you. 

A lot changes in a decade, especially once you make past 80. She said to me the other day on the phone while we were in an actual fight over this party “You don’t know what it’s like to be 90.” What could I say?

I forget sometimes that she’s not 80 anymore. She got all worked up before that party too. She’s a perfectionist and a worrier and a real force to be reckoned with. I remember spending a day driving around with her to shop for party supplies and how tiny the glass of wine seemed at dinner, how ordering another seemed pointless because that wasn’t going to do it either.

And then an hour before her party started, a kitchen cabinet fell off its hinge and smacked her in the head. She was okay – just a little shaken up – but another family member remarked later it had been like a Wizard of Oz moment. Before the head bonk, her party loomed like a terrorizing tornado. After the head bonk, the air felt oddly tranquil, my grandmother sedate in silver sequined slippers.

The fight her and I got in about this party, like most fights, wasn’t really about the party. It was about something that will be hard to remember 10 years from now. Already it seems silly and sad that I chose to get upset and react. Usually when I talk to her, I keep my emotions in a separate box, locked from the inside, and they understand well enough to lay low. This time Hurt Feelings heard me on the phone and said “I’m hungry.” Righteous Indignation heard and said “Yeah me too…let’s go ask for a snack.” 

Probably my lowest point in the argument with my 90 year old grandmother was when I told her we probably shouldn’t be planning this party in the first place. We should have just taken her somewhere nice for dinner instead. She never asked for a party in the first place, but it was already too late to call off and cruel of me to say, even though we both knew it was true. 

I had a dream about the party the other night. It was something about tiny, delicious sandwiches and I hadn’t ordered enough. Good lord, I am not a party planner. I don’t even like parties when all I have to do is show up. But I said to a friend a few weeks ago, before things got so crazy, that the difference between this party and her 80th is I’m sober now. Theoretically I have more energy and focus, though much less free time. I just wanted my gift to my grandmother to be a nice party. I am not giving up. 

Yesterday I called to go over some details with her. She told me she picked up napkins specifically for a 90th birthday party. I asked where on earth she found those and half-jokingly she said “I don’t even want to talk about it..this is all your fault.” She then talked about wanting to make this special cranberry cake she used to make all the time and last made for her 80th birthday party. I told her not to buy any more anything for the party and to skip the cake and put her feet up instead.

The difference between 80 years old and 90 years old seems to be less physical and mental stamina to do all the things you still think you should be able to do. I told her about my dream and the tiny, delicious sandwiches being just out of reach and she laughed and said “See, you worry too much too.”

Before we got off the phone, she got in a quick reminder that I shouldn’t vote for the candidate I’ve known I’d vote for since I was a little girl. Righteous Indignation paced behind the closed door but did not come out. (Hurt Feelings was stuffing her face with tiny, delicious sandwiches.)

My grandmother’s party is just before the election. Some moments I don’t know how we’re going to make it, how it’s possibly going to work out that either side will be happy with the outcome. The divide between perspectives is so vast it’s like we’re looking at two completely different landscapes.

If I think back to her 80th party and the days leading up to it, it felt the same then. And that party turned out wonderful overall. Because, my god, nothing is ever perfect, but we have to look at the big picture and remember it’s about the people at the party. When my grandmother complained about the state of her yard, I said no one is coming to this party for the view or the food or decorations. They’re coming to see and spend time with you, to offer congratulations and well wishes on turning 90 years old. 

It turns out Reading is a magical land

Lately I don’t look forward to the same family traditions like I used to. I didn’t used to be like this and find it’s a byproduct of sobriety. And so the thought of going to the same Oktoberfest that we’ve already been to 9 times in the last 10 years held as much appeal as a trip to the hardware store.

My family did not share the same epiphany that trying new things is more fun than sticking to what we already know we love. And so I met general resistance when we headed to the new-to-us Reading Liederkranz Oktoberfest celebration, which only grew when we had to park in a muddy field in the rain and catch a shuttle bus.

(Have you been on a school bus recently? And I mean one barreling down steep, wet hills or straining to climb them, always seemingly on the verge of losing control or tipping over? One of the many gifts of youth is we don’t appreciate the daily dangers we lived until much later.)

This “new” Oktoberfest turned out to be so much fun. 4 out of 4 family members said they would go back. And remember,  3 of us don’t drink so it was all about the food, music and people in lederhosen cracking whips on the dance floor. (We saw a slightly different version, but still, whips!)

On the way there, my husband noticed a sign for the Reading Pagoda, and we took a slight detour on the way home to check it out. Perched at the edge of Mt. Penn and lording 600 feet above the sprawl of Reading, Pennsylvania is a 7-story Japanese pagoda. Built in 1908 as a luxury resort, the original owner had to sell it when he ran out of money and the city denied him a liquor license. The next owner sold it to the city for $1, which is how much it costs now to climb 87 steps (verified by my kids) to the top for sweeping views of the city and closeups of Wawa and Chik-fil-a signs through the 25 cent tower viewer. That’s what my kids zeroed in on anyway.

At the top, we also found a Japanese bell cast in 1739 and inscribed with an end-of-time prophesy, as well as assorted memorabilia behind glass cases. It smelled old and familiar, like my grandparents’ basement before Sunday dinner. My husband said it smelled like “hot dog farts” which was probably more accurate since I did notice a woman eating a hot dog in the ground level cafe.

This is why I get tired of sticking to the same tried and true favorites. We’ve lived within an hour of Reading for the past decade and finally got there. We plan to head back soon, but next time we’ll try something new and that wasn’t even my idea.

 

A trio of treats before two

It wasn’t even 11am when we witnessed a grandfatherly type make a pass at a female clown. He asked what her name was and when she told him Sweet Heart he said “That’s a pretty name. Can you share some of that sweetness with me?”

“Right now I’m working,” she said, more resigned than annoyed, like it happens all the time, men hitting on her when she’s in mustard yellow ringlets, full clown makeup and shoes the size of Texas. Her words forced our attention to the agile flicks and twists of her hands as she pumped and threaded balloons into a skeleton before our eyes. We were well down the street of the festival before we noticed the skeleton only had one eye so we’ll never know why. Maybe he’s winking, I suggested.

The haircut place had its own fun.  I was buried in a garish children’s book about mummies and only put it back (sheepishly) once I realized my kid had been called minutes ago and I had no excuse to still be reading. Mummies are fascinating but eavesdropping is safer because you can pretend to be thinking about grown up things.

A guy in his 30s was in the chair closest to me with a young pink-haired stylist on one side and another woman, his girlfriend or wife, giving orders from behind. “Take a little more off the top, but not too flat” she instructed, while the man sat looking dim but content. I wondered if he was mute or foreign, but after the woman wandered off to talk to another stylist, he yelled across the room “Hon, how do I want my sideburns?”

I studied his haircut as surreptitiously as possible once the cape came off and he stood and fairly beamed. The cut suited him, if only because I’d  never seen anyone look as happy as I feel when I get a good haircut. He swaggered over to his lady and took a bite of the apple she’d been eating and they traded it back and forth for awhile. Once I saw a small child share an apple with a dog but that was kind of cute.

On the way home, we parked by a trail we hadn’t been to in ages and weren’t the only ones to neglect. Already narrow paths were eroding into the creek. I had to warn the kids not to fall in but they were busy jabbing each other with sticks. Several large trees had fallen across the trail at various points. I banged my shin hard climbing across one, not because the walk was cursed but because I was in jeans with a belly full of cheese curd from the festival.

We took the high trail by mistake and came out above the mysterious amphitheater and had to go the long way around a meadow of goldenrod and bees. We’ve always wondered about this amphitheater in the middle of the woods. Who dragged the lumber a mile from the trail head or maybe across a raging creek to build it? And why? Has it ever been used aside from mock pulpit lectures by power-hungry children on family hikes?

Sadly it’s in bad shape, and my shin too, though I managed a series of selfies.

 

The top photo is me not understanding how to work the timer. (My oldest daughter’s expression is my favorite part.) The middle picture is me not understanding mirror images and which side to sit on. Third time’s the charm!

 

Still running (after all these years)

i do it for the sunsets

I’ve been a runner for about 5 years. I still feel funny calling myself one, but read an article a few years ago that said if you accumulate piles of sweaty clothes on the floor, you get to call yourself a runner. And so I am a runner.

I started running when I was about 6 months sober. I’d gained about 10 pounds when I quit drinking. How could this have happened when I’d cut out easily 1,000 calories a day? Witchcraft possibly, though more likely dessert even if I still can’t get the math to come out right.

Most of us feel the octopus effect when we give up drinking, that sly tentacle reach for another substance once we manage to get one in check. For many it’s food because food is delicious and comforting and we need it to survive so there’s always plenty around.

Running became a way for me to lose that extra weight but it turned into its own reward. Here is why it continues to work for me.

It costs nothing to run. 

This of course is not strictly true. We must invest in a pair of good running shoes. I buy my $100 pair for half-price when our local running store holds a sidewalk sale on last year’s models. I get running clothes on the cheap because I’ve found all brands trap the stink. Race fees add up if you’re into that sort of thing. Most of my running is done on roads where I live, which costs me absolutely nothing.

Then a funny thing happens a couple times a year and takes me by surprise every time: daylight fucking savings. I go from the freedom of being able to run safely outside before work or after dinner to not at all. So I join Planet Fitness because it’s $10 a month and I can run on treadmills and occasionally get hit on by old men. One guy said “I want you for Christmas” only I had earbuds in and took them out because I thought he was trying to tell me something less disturbing. Christmas had just passed like a month ago.  Then he talked about his wife for a few minutes and continued making the rounds to the other ladies on his super early Christmas list. His wife was not going to have a good Christmas.

There are also too many TVs at the gym. Bad news and infomercials splayed like gutted fish. I take my glasses off at the gym so everything is fuzzy and leave my earbuds in. I do this because it’s only temporary and in order to be a runner I have to keep generating sweaty piles of clothes.

I get to do it by myself. 

This is notwithstanding awkward social encounters at the gym, i.e. see above or that time an attendant had to ask me to switch machines because mine was making a funny noise, me red-faced thinking I broke it with cloddish heft though maybe it was furious effort or the fact that a hundred people use it per day.

For some, running is a social activity. I see lots of women chat side-by-side on treadmills. My sister belongs to a running group that meets on Sundays to run 10 miles over hills on purpose. Somehow it still sounds fun, but I’m a solo runner. The first time I slipped out the front door in sneakers and earbuds, I looked back for the spotlight and prison guards. I was really getting away with something, a working mother of two with this delicious hour to myself with no questions or demands.

Running also gives me time to think. I’ve pre-written almost as many blog posts on a run as I have in the car, and I spend way more time there. I love being in my own head, listening to favorite songs. I love spending time in nature. One morning I saw 2 doe, 2 fawns (still with polka dots), a heron, a fox, a half-dozen squirrels and at least a dozen bunnies, plus a guy walking a dog. This was all in the span of a half hour.

I don’t have to be the best, which is really fortunate. 

I used to feel embarrassed by my pace. Others made the point that at least I was getting out there or that it wasn’t a race, though sometimes it literally was. In five years of running, I haven’t gotten a whole lot faster. The longest distance I’ve run is about 8 miles, which is a far cry from a marathon. But here’s the thing: I don’t want to run a marathon. I also don’t want to put the work in to get a lot faster. I stopped tracking pace and distance in spring so I literally don’t know how fast or far I’m running.  I do feel stronger and leaner the more I run. I get to eat 5 cookies and still fit into my pants. Those are the numbers I care about.

Running makes me feel good. 

Let me be clear that I do not feel good while running. Around the 15 minute mark I usually feel better than I did at the 5 minute mark, but it isn’t like getting a massage or taking a nap. Running, like any strenuous activity, is really hard. What feels great is being done with the run. I literally get an endorphin boost so that I feel a little high for about an hour afterwards. (There is no subsequent crash either.) Mostly I suspect it feels good because I know I got out there and did it.

I get to share it with others. 

This goes against what I said about it being a solo activity, but both of my daughters run too. I wonder sometimes if I’m like a pageant mom who strong armed them into it, but I don’t think so. Or maybe I made running look good, though I’ve seen myself in the mirror afterwards and don’t think that’s it.

My oldest is in her second year of high school cross country. Those girls are hard core. They got up at 6:30 am six days a week all summer long and ran 3-5 miles in some of the hottest, muggiest weather I can recall. My daughter did this despite the very real fear she would not make the team. In fact, she fell short in the timed trial, but the coach let her stay on and she’s well aware what it feels like to be the caboose. She’s the kid who crosses the finish line after some spectators move on because they assume the race is over. Each time she gets close to the finish line, I cheer loud and tear up because I know it’s fucking hard not only to run but to be the very last one. I’m beyond proud of her.

My youngest is about to start a running program at her elementary school. We got her new running shoes and gave a pep talk about how it takes time and practice to get better and stronger. She is not brand new to running so she knows this already. In December, her and I and maybe her sister too will run a 5K race to celebrate end of season. Three miles is almost a cake walk once you’ve done it a few dozen times, so I’m looking forward to being there for her.

Teenaged me, who couldn’t even run a mile in high school, would be in awe of both of them. Adult me knows running beats booze and boys. Every parent wants a better life for their kids and I hope mine will choose to channel stress into something positive and rewarding.

Running works right now for me, but it won’t forever and it isn’t the only way. There’s also walking or biking or maybe knitting, all of which are easier on joints. The key seems to be finding something that is equal parts torture, er, challenge and reward. Taking the healthier routes seems to naturally lead to the next right path.

Smorgasbord 

Yesterday was one of those rare September Saturdays when we had nothing to do, so of course we fixed that. The four of us loaded into the car and rolled past hills and horse drawn buggies into Amish country. When we stopped for gas, there was a young Amish man in a wide brimmed straw hat and suspenders pulling in on a bike with no pedals. He used a credit card at the pump to fill up one of those red plastic gas containers. The soft curve of his mouth and lack of forehead burrows suggested deep contentment, not unlike the usual expression of a dog or a non-Amish person napping at the beach.

Every time we head out this way, I remember the fantasy I have of running off to join an Amish farm. As with all fantasies, this one is not well thought out and I wonder where it came from. Are the peat farmers perched on gently swaying branches of my family tree to blame? Maybe it was just the smoldering Amish sponge bath scene (the first time the previous five words were strung together on purpose?) from Witness.

If you want to kill an Amish fantasy or any fantasy for that matter, take it to a PA Dutch smorgasbord. We line up like cattle to drink lukewarm pepsi from frosted plastic cups and leave half-eaten pieces of fried chicken for starving pigs. The best part of the buffet are these enormous diorama paintings in the lobby. Everything is over-sized at the smorgasbord, but these feel right.

On the drive home, we muscle through clouds of manure and a town where every resident had the same idea to haul their castoffs out to the lawn and see who will pay money to take it away. Soon the sun will set and they’ll have to pack it all back into boxes or bags and pretend they still love it.

Our kids beg us to have another yard sale, but really they just want to drink lemonade and eat brownies in the front yard while strangers appraise bad decisions with hands folded behind backs, heads cocked to feign interest before moving on to the next bad decision. I find it too embarrassing so instead we drag bigger household items to the curb the moment we’ve decided their joy-bringing days are over and later look out the window and they’re gone, vaporized or beamed to another planet for all I know. Clothing and shoes are tied up in garbage bags and delivered to donation bins within the week by a spouse who fights clutter like its crime.

Even though I’ve never read the book on the Japanese art of decluttering, I do the thing where I ask if each item brings joy and then get rid of it if it doesn’t. It may be unfair to expect that of a pair of boots in the first place, but I had three pair at the back of the closet that brought nothing but pain. Earlier this week I got rid of a pair of shoes because one made a sound not unlike a small squeak toy with each step. I threw them away on a whim at the carwash, placing them neatly at the top of a mound of life detritus and later hoped no one thought “oh look, a new pair of shoes!” It took the doc martens I bought in college over 20 years to start squeaking, and even though I can no longer wear them to work because the hallways are too quiet, I don’t throw them out because they still bring joy.

The cats, in their usual helpful way, take turns climbing into storage bins and on top of clothing piles I’m trying to work with. It gives me an idea for a series of books called Organizing With Cats. Organizing Your Kitchen With Cats, for example, would feature tips about the best way to clean and store cast iron pans alongside photographs of cats resting in stockpots or surveying progress from the top of the refrigerator (protip: assess cleanliness by checking the bottoms of paws) and would make the perfect addition to any yard sale.

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