Saturday, September 14, 2013

Hating Hemispheres

Today was gorgeous...clear, blue skies and cool breezes. Even though it may be the same temperature as a mid-spring day, everything feels like autumn. Just five months ago, the Light and Greenness seemed so much more assertive--triumphantly running through the house, throwing open windows and airing out the dark, dusty spaces. Now, they slip quietly from room to room, pulling down the sun-stained shades and covering the furniture with faded sheets.

I do not want fall to come this year.

Generally, by Labor Day, I am arguing with myself about whether it’s too early to hang my leaf and berry wreath. I enjoy carefully wrapping up my shell collection in crumpled pink Kleenex. Switching out my candles and tea towels for the new season makes me predictably, ridiculously happy. Normally, I embrace change wholeheartedly. Normally, I look forward to these tiny traditions.

This year is decidedly not normal.

I can’t seem to get excited about beef stews or pumpkin bread or Manhattans or college football. Granted, my team is in a “rebuilding phase” with a “quarterback controversy”. And, I still haven’t fallen out of love with the farmers’ market’s obscenely luscious tomatoes. (I remain perplexed as to why the thought of new cocktail selections hasn’t moved my soul in the least.)

But why has this full-fledged funk cometh during my absolute favorite time of the year? I expect it to arrive promptly in late winter in the guise of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). I most oftentimes want to “affectively” put my head in the oven around Spring Break when I realize just how pale and ashy my legs are after 60 straight days of grey skies. My “disorder” routinely surfaces as incoherent rage upon reading disappointing forecasts extending long into April.

This sadness is quite singular. I am not mad that summer keeps hanging on. I am simply sad that it didn’t hang on long enough.

I suppose the end of summer this year signaled the beginning of the end of a life’s season. We have started the countdown to the end of childhood for our oldest, gorgeous, smart and frustratingly independent-since-birth girl. We have nine more months together in our current relationship. During that time, she will be ecstatic thinking of everything she gets to change in her life; all the mundane, boring experiences she will get to pack away as well as the myriad of exciting, novel ones that she will fantasize about taking out for the first time. Ah, she will muse, that brand new freedom will look so amazing in that corner of my life.

At this point in time in my life, I am only "looking forward" to packing up beautiful things of which I have not grown tired. I selfishly want them to be lounging about in the same way, on the same charming sofa where they have always lain. For the first time in 18 years, I don’t look forward to opening a box of shiny objets d’art to perk up my daily existence for the next season. I have exactly two masterpieces in my most precious collection. Soon, only a moiety will remain. And, this impending absence makes me unspeakably sad.

She is my greatest work of art. She gives meaning to my daily existence, even when being a complete hormonal jerk. Even when rolling her eyes at my every word.

She is my Light and Greenness.

From her vantage point, spring is coming and the days are getting longer and sweeter smelling. Soon, summer will be upon her. Its day’s light will seem unending.There is such an abundance of green, it will sometimes overwhelm her. Lately, I have realized that I will only see glimpses of this growth…and only the parts she wants to reveal to me.

From my vista, the Light is travelling to other parts of the world, making my own bit of it much dimmer and markedly less verdant. I know that all of this is a normal cycle of life. I begrudge her nothing, for she deserves all the happiness and wonder of the world. I am lucky to have witnessed her birth into this world. I am now even luckier to witness her birth into her own life.

All of this I understand in my head. But right now, in my heart, I am inconsolable about life’s inevitable and predictable changes. For the very first time, I envy the other hemisphere’s good fortune.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Knees or Buns

This week, I guest-blogged for a friend of mine at The Kitchen Door.

I met Mrs. M when, as a complete stranger, she commented on Big Harmony. A few back and forths later, it was the beginning of a beautiful cyber-friendship. (We finally met a couple of years ago and she is as lovely in person as in print.) A few months ago, she kindly sent me a book called Bittersweet, a series of essays about a young wife and mother coming to terms with becoming a bona fide adult, spiritually. She asked me to choose a chapter and write about it.

At first, I was (ashamedly) quite dismissive of Bittersweet. The author, Shauna Niequist, is in her twenties and details the heartbreak of losing a job and a few pregnancies. Her subsequent realization that God is with us in the dark places, even in the winter of our discontent, would probably have spoken to me more directly 15 years ago. Although her pain and deliverance are astutely woven into her stories, my first inclination was to think, "Been there. Done that. Nothing to learn here." That is to say, I haughtily ignored her story.

I laid the book down for a few weeks and didn't think much about it. As the deadline for this guest-blogging spot came about, I reread the chapter I had chosen to write about, "Knees or Buns".

It finally struck me. What I had dismissed was not only the importance of Ms. Niequist's writing or experiences...but also mine, from the past and the present. The guest blog details what I humbly learned from a woman almost half my age.

I would like to thank the divine Mrs. M for thinking of me when she started this project. (She is also much younger than me. Lately, this seems to be happening more and more. Dang it.) Despite being quite jealous of her abundance of collagen, I am profoundly grateful for her friendship, wisdom and insistence that the story be written. I hope that you will browse through her blog. She has a enviable knack for getting to the heart of a tangled matter and unravelling it, gracefully and insightfully. Happy Reading!

(And, if you would like my copy of Bittersweet, I'll send it to the first person who comments and asks. For the runners-up, a fabulous consolation prize awaits you. No, really. It's amazing.)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Scientific Method of Raising Teens

Nullius in Verba.
On no man's word.

Motto of the Royal Society

The girls performed well in school this year. In the last semester, we finally found the switch that ignited self-motivation in the youngest to remember to:

a) do the homework
b) turn it in
c) turn it in, in the right box
d) turn it in on time

This news could be disheartening for many parents, but I feel compelled to share the hard-earned wisdom that no amount of friendly cajoling or demonic yelling actually penetrates the preteen mental defensive system protecting its hidden moral core. Imagine, if you will, a scientist logically explaining to the contents of a petri dish how it should progress, or, conversely, screaming at the experiment when it heads in the wrong direction. I have conclusively found that fighting intense frustration with further frustrating tactics leads one to certain insanity. I do not recommend it.

No, one must take into account every conceivable variable with the rigour and perspicacity of a mad scientist following the scientific method. (Because, let's face it, parents completely lose their ever-living minds in the three weeks following the birth of their little experiment. All parents are, sadly and irrevocably, mad.)

First, when implementing the scientific method for raising teens, the question must be formed. For example, "How does one motivate preteens/teens without daily floggings?"

Second, background research must be accomplished. This research includes delving into the immediate and extended family history. Does the subject behave like one of your sibling's spawn? If so, what methods seemed to work with it? Also, one must strive to create an exhaustive mental catalog of all past parenting failures, detailing what almost worked, what didn't work and what was an abysmal failure resulting in buying screw-top wine by the case and locking oneself in a closet after swallowing the key.

Third, construct a hypothesis. This is tricky. One should be extremely careful in the wording, as neither to create more burdens for the scientist nor to offend the subject and cause it to shriek shrilly and slam doors: i.e., "I hypothesize a sack of hammers in the sixth grade would be organized enough to turn its homework into the right box on the right day." (Although counter-intuitive, it is exceedingly difficult to prove that a sack of hammers is smarter than your subject.) Refrain from adding, "Jeesh" or "Good God" to the end of ANY hypothesis.

(A better hypothesis: If I dangle this particular carrot without having to use tedious sticks, this behavior will result.)

Fourth, test your hypothesis by doing an experiment. The experiment should account for as many variables as possible, such as age of subject, temperament, emotional volatility, size of laboratory, weather conditions, etc. (For example, do not start a restrictive experiment in a 900 square foot apartment with a premenstrual female during a blizzard.) Keep in mind that, although you may have one main experiment in mind, that many might be needed in the end. If the mad scientist isn't stubborn enough, this will lead to ultimate failure and, even worse, a condescending smirk on the subject's face. AVOID THE SMIRK by having a plethora of back-up experiments and an evolving knowledge of how to mix carrots and sticks.

Fifth, analyze your data and draw conclusions. This part is easy. Did the subject exhibit desired behavior with nary a word from the mad scientist? Victory! My hypothesis is true. Did the subject lose interest in the experiment and escape the lab? Partial Victory! My hypothesis is inconclusive. Did the subject lose interest and the unwanted behavior returned with a vengeance? Failure. My hypothesis sucked. (Repeat the fourth step ad nauseam until victory is attained OR they create their own little experiments outside of your petri dish. Mock them relentlessly from afar. Encourage your grand-experiments to defy the scientific method.)

Sixth, communicate your results:

Come to find out, the youngest is easily compelled to "excel" with the promise of a $20 ticket to the local amusement park with some BFFs. Cheap, easy and simple. Why had I not thought of this before? Grades came up by at least 10 points--all A's, and strong ones at that. I only had to say, "Hope your grades are good. You know the deal. No A's, No Amusement Park." (I will not list all the failures leading to this victory or I will again suffer the debilitating effects of PPTSD--Parental Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It could trigger the reader's, too.)

In communicating my results, I should also mention some unintended consequences for the scientist in charge: Partial blindness and temporary dumbfoundedness from all the fleshy, dimpled boobs, butts and bellies on view at the amusement/water park. Egad.

No experiment is without its dangers, afterall. It is also important to note that, in the case of parenting, results may not be able to be reproduced in a different lab under the same conditions. And, unfortunately, the same results cannot oftentimes even be reproduced in the same lab with the same subject. Alas, the emotional conditions rarely remain constant or predictable. Parenting a teen may therefore be considered an "art" rather than a "science".

In any case, take no man's word! Go forth, and experiment. Gird your loins. I wish you luck.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Saying So Long to Yes

I thank you God for this most amazing day, for the leaping greenly spirits of trees, and for the blue dream of sky and for everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes. ~e.e. cummings

This time, I’ll miss the mountains.

Every time we move, I mourn something. I missed my nutty family when we moved from Oklahoma. Leaving Rhode Island, I was bereft having to say goodbye to my beloved faith community. In Japan, I left behind a group of crazy, loyal friends and a beguiling culture.

We have been in Colorado for barely a year. I have made a few good friends but I will not miss the community…by no fault of its own. I just couldn't fully engage with it this time. The effort seemed too exhausting, too psychically precarious. Sometimes in this vagabond Navy life, I feel like the Greek figure of Sisyphus—struggling to roll the boulder up the mountain each day, finally reaching the summit at nightfall, only to then helplessly watch it tumble inexorably back down to the bottom, all the while sick with the knowledge of having to commence the task again in the morning…at the next duty station.

Of course, unlike Sisyphus, the business of rebuilding one’s life and friendships is not a punishment. I have something positive to show for my efforts in the end. In fact, the friendships I make on the way up the hill greatly alleviate my burden. I do not have to say goodbye to them. Facing the rock in the depressing glare of morning, I am content knowing that my friends are only a button click away in this modern day of Facebook, email, and cell phones. I still feel weary though—weary of lacking them in my daily life, weary of the “no” that seems to replace their physical presence. I miss them.

But, this time, I will mourn the mountains.

Our neighborhood lies on top of a small ridge, affording us a splendid view of the Front Range. In the winter, after dropping the girls at school, as I turn back west and crest the hill, the mountains suddenly appear across the entire horizon—starkly white, rigid and alert in the pale yellow light of morning. In the summer, as the long days come to an end, their outline gradually softens into a purple ombre, coolly contrasting with the fiery orange canvas behind their peaks.

The sight of the Rockies never ceases to amaze me. I oftentimes become cross when they are obscured by gray or hazy weather. I know they are right there but they seem suddenly unknowable, aloof. I can’t stand that.

This weekend, we drove into them for possibly the last visit for a long while. It has been a strange year, weather-wise. Rain turned to snow as we exited Eisenhower Tunnel--the first pass into the mountains from Denver. Most of the ski resorts are still up and running and are expected to be open until at least July 4th. The snow still remains in deep pockets around the trees just off the interstate near the passes. In the valleys, the rivers are swollen past their banks and raging into Class 5 rapids around their rocky bends. Red rafts full of courageous (perhaps, stupid) folk bob haphazardly down the currents like ducklings on crack. (I marvel at the rafters’ chutzpah—ain’t no way, no how I’m risking going head first into that arctic cement mixer.)

Up close, though, the mountains don’t seem the least bit dangerous or imposing as they sometimes do from a distance. Their slopes are decorated with dark swatches of Ponderosa pines, interspersed with patches of slender ivory trunks and the bright bamboo-green of the newly born Aspen leaves. It is still spring in the highlands but summer has finally arrived in the lower places. The valley floor has replaced its stained, stiff white carpet with a new soft grass and wildflower rug. From afar, the mountains communicate impassibility and strict privacy. But once inside, they invite you to put up your feet and get comfortable: Yes, you may stay. As long as you like.

Every time we drive up to Glenwood Springs, I fantasize about being a giant in a tall tale, taking a break in the summer sun, relaxing up against the range—my arm casually extended along the ridge, absent-mindedly brushing my hand across the bristly ridges, watching each tree spring back up. I oftentimes wonder if the sensation would be as pleasurable as when my dad used to slowly rub my small hand against his five-o-clock shadow. It tickled.

The mountains do that to you. Although they make you feel small, they inspire you to dream big.

At another crossroads in life, I guess that I am a little afraid of what may follow in the hustle and bustle of our new home in the big city. Without the view of the infinite from my back porch, will I get trapped by all of life’s finite duties? Will I get too busy and get tricked into living the “no”? Will I feel big but dream small?

Ultimately, I don’t know. Worrying about the boulder falling back down the mountainside probably doesn't make much sense. Perhaps, this view from the summit should just lead me to be thankful for this amazing day.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Semper Gumby

A friend of mine, a Navy wife stationed in Japan where my family lived for the past five years, described the last month as a roller coaster ride. This seems like an accurate analogy except most people have never been on one that doesn't provide a restraint system.

This is the United States military. You jump on and after 20 years of flying upside-down through dark caves, feet dangling in space…you are allowed to get off, i.e. retire. Most military folk and their families love the thrill of adventure and quickly become accustomed to the sharp drops and stomach lurches that accompany a deployment or stressful move across oceans.

When the ride gets scary, though, we Navy people tend to follow the Marine Corp's motto. No, not Semper Fidelis, or Always Faithful. Rather, Semper Gumby. Always Flexible. I met a couple in Japan who told me their story of moving from California to North Carolina. While stopped at a hotel in Mississippi overnight, they received a call that, oops, they were needed in Japan instead. Operation Semper Gumby thus commenced.

Flexibility is crucial for surviving military life. This trait has recently been heavily called upon to get people through the trio of disasters that have literally rocked Japan to its core. Military personnel stationed there have been very lucky. The earthquake only rattled nerves and broke a few dishes. Although heart-broken for the Japanese people, our family was overjoyed to hear that our close circle of Japanese and American friends remained safe.

Then, the ride took a turn into a completely different, not-so-amusing park. Concern started to mount about the extremely likely possibility of a nuclear melt-down. Although roughly 200 miles south of the Daichi reactors, the base could still be affected if the wind shifted. In less than a day, the schools shut down and Navy families were instructed to pack their lives into one bag each, leave all their household items and wait to be transported out of the country. With the active duty member deployed in the relief effort or just remaining behind to do work, this meant that most evacuees would be traveling alone with their children, unsure of where exactly they were going or when they would see their spouse again.

Rumors spread like wildfire, practically a fourth disaster. The base might close forever. People’s households, left behind, might get contaminated. Would they ever see their things again? Would they ever be able to return to Japan? Trying to get their affairs in order in under 24 hours, most people wept at the thought of having to leave without saying goodbye…to their friends, to the country they had come to love, to the life they had built. For many of their children, Japan was the only home they had ever known or remembered.

In the end, the evacuation was voluntary. Most families with children decided to return to family in the states until the nuclear risk had abated. Although military families always enjoy a trip back in the summer to see friends and family (and more importantly, to shop at Target and eat at Chik-Fil-A) this time the mood had changed. Life took on a quasi “refugee” status. Neither here nor there and hauling bags from relative to relative, many lived the vagabond life--with no knowledge of when they would be able to return to Japan, to normalcy.

As I write this at the end of April, the government has allowed family members to travel back to Japan. Many are jubilant. Some are confused. Without any substantive knowledge about how long their exile would last, many parents enrolled their kids in school in the states. Now they face the decision about whether to twist the children’s lives in a knot…again. At this point, no matter what happens, everyone just wants to get off this insane ride.

For those who have returned in the last few days, they have celebrated the best part of military life: the reunion. They are “home”, not just with their spouses but within a country unlike any other. Many Americans prefer to stay in Japan because their Japanese neighbors have been so kind to them. Random Japanese citizens have helped jumpstart our car at IKEA in Tokyo after valiantly searching for jumper cables for thirty minutes. As we have stood bewildered in a station, they have stopped to ask us if we needed help. They oftentimes discontinued their own travels to direct us to the correct train. In broken English, they have complimented my husband on his “nice women” while waiting patiently to take pictures with our girls.

These experiences are almost universal for those military personnel willing to venture beyond the base gates. We have been warmly welcomed into Japanese homes and fed deliciously bizarre foods. (Pickled octopus, anyone?) One friend of mine even gave my husband and me a two-day private tour of Kyoto. She wouldn’t allow us to help pay for the rental car or meals because she was “returning the favor” of Americans having been so kind to her family when her family had lived in the United States many years ago. Twenty years later, that kindness circumnavigated the world and manifested as one of the best weekends of my life. Americans are good folk, too.

In the end, it didn’t surprise me that our Japanese friends politely rejected our invitation to come visit us during this turbulent time. Predictably, they are managing just fine. Due to gas shortages, they don’t mind walking because it’s “healthier”. Lacking their beloved rice, they are “enjoying” pasta and potatoes. Even as their country endures a prolonged mourning, they write to tell me about how they are enjoying the cherry blossoms. In the end, each one thanked our family warmly for our offer but explained that they are content to follow their government and their “destiny”…and that is to make do with what they have, where they are, at this moment.

This attitude gives me hope for them, as their broken country heals…but also for the many American service people who continue to veer haphazardly through space and time, oftentimes with only thin strands of flexibility and commitment holding them fast to their seats. All in all, both situations remind me of a Japanese saying:

“Fall down seven times, rise up eight.”

Semper Gumby, indeed.