Sunday, September 29, 2013

Training Week 2

Tuesday: 3 miles
Wednesday: 3 miles
Friday: 3 miles
Saturday: 7 miles
Sunday: cross-training (walk, 1 mile)
Best time: 9:56 avg. pace (3-mile run)
Theme: cautiously optimistic
Favorite Song: "Child" by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros

Tuesday, September 24, 2013


        Nothing about my summers in Califon, New Jersey, reminded me of home. Home, in South Florida, the sun felt raw, the mosquitoes were relentless, and the skylines were dulled by thousands of street lamps and high-rises stretched between Fort Lauderdale and Miami. In Califon, however, the sunlight streamed through mature pines. Windows could be left open, the curtains lifting on a whisper of crisp air. In the evenings, I could chase fireflies and watch bats dart through the purpling sky. 
After a two-hour drive from Newark airport, I would know we’d reached my grandparents’ house when I saw the rust-red barn at the bottom of the hill. The barn was built in the 1700s and was held together by pegs hewn from tree trunks. Below the barn were two stalls for steer, and in the belly of the barn, my grandfather kept his tractors: a small riding lawnmower that I was allowed to drive and a large tractor for hauling and plowing that I was not. Every morning, when I accompanied him there to feed the steer and check on his supply of feed and fuel, I’d breathe in the scent of the barn, a sweet blend of sawdust and freshly turned soil.
I’d spend the two weeks in Califon each summer swimming in my grandparents’ above-ground pool, hosting tea parties for my grandmother’s doll collection with her china and silver serving tray. I’d snack on molasses cookies and butterscotch candies during the day, and ask for an extra helping of chocolate cake after every dinner. I’d fish in my grandparents’ pond with a rod I’d made out of a tree branch and string from my grandmother’s sewing room. Every day, if I wanted, I could wear the cornflower-blue dress with the white pinafore that my mother had made for me and lie in the grass, trying to blow all the dandelion seeds from a limp stem in one breath. 
Once I was safely tucked away in Califon, a bucolic enclave with one grocery store and one post office, a place so small that most people from New Jersey haven’t even heard of it, I could live out all of my Laura Ingalls Wilder fantasies. The summer I was twelve, impatience threatening to be my permanent default setting, I’d visited all of my grandmother’s dolls, rode the tractor, and went for a swim, all in one afternoon. I’d asked my grandparents, “What now?” My grandfather smiled and lifted his eyebrows the way he would when he was teasing me, and said, “Well, looks like you about covered it.” We laughed then, and I remembered where I was, a place without expectation, a place that seemed to dangle in the ether between one summer and the next, waiting for me to come and snatch it up.
Only, of course, it didn’t. Eventually, my grandfather sold the steer for the last time, and the pond filled with mud. When I was in my twenties, I’d heard he was using a golf cart to make it down the sloping drive to the barn. And by the time I turned thirty, his grandsons, who lived nearby, had taken over mowing the lawn, and his sons had disabled all of his power tools. My grandmother stopped sewing, too, and all of the quilts and clothes she’d made were given to the grandchildren as keepsakes or else stored in boxes in her attic. Once I had children of my own, I’d only see them when they came to Florida, to the trailer-park retirement community in Lake Wales that they’d traveled to each winter to escape the cold. 
Two years ago, when my grandparents were placed in a nursing home in South Florida, near my father, their trailer was sold. And last year, after my grandfather died, the house in New Jersey sold, too.
Every day there are certain things that I do: I clean the kitchen, wiping down the high chair and countertops, sweeping up the crumbs from the floor. I fold laundry while I watch TV. I shower, brush my teeth, work in front of the computer for eight hours. If you asked me what I had for breakfast on any given morning, I’d be hard pressed to tell you. What goes on during these routines of mine gets swept away and forgotten with a startling efficiency. 
But those summers that I spent in New Jersey as a child still resonate. I can close my eyes even now and smell the barn and taste the grass and hear my grandparents’ gentle laughter. If I picture their neat little house on the hill, my body relaxes and the light that washes against my closed eyelids is that dappled sunlight I’d appreciated as we drove from the airport to their house. 
We are all vulnerable to change, to growing up, and to growing old. With my grandfather gone and my grandmother in a nursing home, a victim of dementia, I feel that very acutely now. I know, too, that I have to find a way to give to my children the gift that they gave me: the freedom to relax, daydream, and play, for hours on end. I want my girls to have a childhood that makes its way somewhere deep inside of them, an experience that cannot be dislodged with age. 
Today, my three-year-old is pretending to be “blondie-kitty-little-kid-girl.” She asks me over and over, “Who am I? Who am I?” and I have to tell her, to confirm that I recognize her as her imagined self. She licks at her paws and asks for milk. She meows. She needs help, she says, getting down from the tree, because, Mommy, she is “just a small kitty.” I’m grateful when she breaks from her pretend play so that we can get on with mealtimes and story time and bedtime. But I am also grateful that she has such a vivid imagination, something that I hope, at the very least, is a start to a childhood that she won’t want to forget.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Training Week 1

Wednesday: 3 miles
Thursday: 3 miles
Friday: 3 miles
Saturday: 6 miles
Sunday: cross-training (walk: 1 mile)
Best time: 10:30 avg. pace (6-mile run)
Favorite place to run: a new park
Theme: suffering
Favorite song: "Silver Springs" by Lykke Li (Fleetwood Mac cover)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

What's Your Story?

    This past Monday night, my husband and I went to dinner to celebrate my thirty-fifth birthday. He asked me, "What would you say about your thirties?" I knew what was coming next. "Since they're almost over." Despite the joke, it was a good question, and something I've considered, if not actively pursued an answer to. When I look back on my teens and twenties, I see that I've had some powerful narratives informing my decisions and influencing how I carried myself in the world. In my teens, I thought I was just trouble. In my teenage mind, I wanted to believe that it was a good thing, but, for the most part, I knew it was not. In my twenties, I thought I was a partier, which was really only an extension of my past self image, just without a parent to ground me. In any case, adult society doesn't count these types among its most valued members, and even in the midst of playing these parts, I sensed it.
    I could have cast myself in these roles thanks to any of a hundred possible combinations of reasons, and it likely wouldn't take too many therapy sessions to sort some of them out. As a parent of two young girls, I've sharpened my senses enough to recognize that we all, women especially, get bombarded every day with reasons to degrade ourselves---the covers of magazines, commercials and television shows, the way men speak about women, and the way women speak about each other. We can try our best to shield our kids from these factors by keeping the TV off and not leaving trashy magazines lying around the house for our kids to stumble upon, but the toughest thing to control can often be the one thing that we should have complete control over: our own personal narratives. 
    While no one can avoid occasional adversity, big or small, it’s important to realize that we do choose the role we play in our own stories, and that little eyes and ears are witness to it all. We can make ourselves the damsel in distress, needing rescue at every turn, or the independent heroine, able to handle the pitfalls of everyday life. We can be aggressors, overly critical of each other's flaws, or we can choose to be self-deprecating doormats. Personally, when I look back on my thirties, the wonderful decade in which I became a mom, I’d like to see myself as a loving woman who is characterized by compassion and confidence. If I can do that, I know there’s a good chance that my daughters can, too.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Great Expectations

      I spent the entire summer I was thirteen berating myself for having missed my chance at a first kiss. Jason and I met on a July morning when he was out walking his aunt’s dog, an unfriendly schnauzer named Bruce. He was visiting from Chicago, staying with his aunt and uncle, who lived a block from my house. Because there weren’t many of us in the neighborhood who were similar in age, and because I’d developed a crush on him instantaneously, the way only an adolescent girl can, we’d become friends. I’d shown him my favorite tree, a mature oak near the community mailboxes that I’d climb and spy on my neighbors from. We were in that tree, after a rain, tucked beneath a canopy of branches arching under their own sodden weight, when his hairless leg brushed against mine and our eyes met. In my memory, even though he looked afraid, he leaned toward me. Impulsively, I leaned forward, too, but at the last second my mind caught up to my body, my heart began to race, my back stiffened, and, just like that, the moment slipped away.

      When I thought about what I’d lost beneath the tree that day, it was the romantic chin tilt, a la Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink. It was the edge that it would give me over the other girls when I started my freshman year at an international-studies high school. More than anything, though, that kiss would’ve disproven what Chuck Kaminski had so authoritatively declared: that I was “the ugliest girl in eighth grade.” That kiss would’ve meant that I was irrefutably desirable.

      So determined was I to prove my attractiveness that when I had my actual first kiss, with a boy named Pell, in the hallway outside of my fifth-period Russian class, I skipped the niceties and opened my mouth, waved my tongue around, a white flag’s desperate surrender. When I landed my first boyfriend later that year, a popular, lanky fifteen-year-old with soft brown eyes, an open face, and a near-perfect ‘90s Seattle grunge affect, despite his professed love for me, despite the fact that he called me mein m├Ądchen (German for “my girl”), I still had my moments of self-conscious paralysis when he kissed me or affectionately reached for my hand or touched my hair, even if I was getting more practiced at snapping myself out of it with an invented need to scratch my arm or laugh at something inexplicable that had, at that very moment, struck me as funny.

      I found the notes that we passed to each other in the hallway in between classes, “Can you come to my house after school?” too utilitarian, our dates at the movie theater too uninspired, our backseat explorations of one another’s body too nervous and sloppy to be romantic. When we broke up my junior year, I felt panicked, and I developed an intense resolve to find another relationship. Chuck Kaminski was replaced by my own ruthless comparisons to my girlfriends and other girls I went to school with. I wasn’t thin enough, funny enough, smart enough, nice enough. A yearning for an idealistic love and a need to be accepted were inextricably linked, setting me on an ill-fated pursuit that resulted in one disappointing relationship after another.

      By the time my husband, Ryan, and I met, I’d had enough messy relationships to know that there was no chin tilt. In my 20s, as a result of my academic achievements and growing independence, I began to experience a gradual shift from a dependence on others for validation to a gratifying self-reliance. We married in a courtyard in St. Augustine, beneath stately oaks with generous strands of Spanish moss. Our guests, many of whom flew in from New Jersey (my side of the family) and Missouri (his), braved a torrential downpour the night before the ceremony, which left them glancing furtively at the overcast sky as we made our tearful vows to one another. Our wedding favors were bookmarks with an excerpt from a Pablo Neruda poem, “I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, between the shadow and the soul.” The whole affair, from my Renaissance-inspired wedding gown to our honeymoon in Paris and London, was romantic. We started our first real jobs as high school English teachers. We bought our first house, our first car. Eventually, we went to graduate school and changed careers, had children.

      But it wasn’t always that way. At times, we have been distant, angry. We are sometimes that couple that everyone is so afraid of turning into: the couple out to dinner who has absolutely nothing to say to one another.

      Yet a life where the stakes are high—a mortgage, a corporate job, a family—has given rise to an appreciation for my own capacity to build something of value. Being a mother has taught me unconditional love. Being a wife has taught me devotion. And all of these gifts, for that’s what they are, were completely unexpected. They came once I gave up on fairytales and gave in to reality. They came with a healthy dose of maturity. I can’t say I regret any of my flights of fancy, though. If those mistakes are what eventually got me here, I would make them all over again—a thousand times—without a moment’s hesitation.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Beautiful Ruins

    Summers in Florida are so swampy and vicious that I can hardly muster the strength to think. So I felt especially lucky to have, on a whim, bought Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter. The novel begins in 1962, and Pasqual Tursi, the young proprietor of the “Hotel Adequate View,” the only business in the seaside village of Porto Vergona, Italy, dreams of turning his hotel into a posh resort with an American clientele. It appears the tide may indeed have turned in his favor when he spots a statuesque, blonde apparition being rowed to shore by his good friend Orenzio. Dee Moray has just come from the set of the famously overbudget Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor, and she, as Pasqual soon learns, is dying. 
    The second chapter is set in present-day Hollywood and introduces Claire Silver, an academic—now jaded—script reader who works for has-been producer Michael Deane and is looking for a way out. It was Walter’s description of Claire, whose “curly red hair [is] splayed out on the pillow like a suicide,” which I can appreciate from a pure writer’s perspective, that won me over entirely. 
    There is a whole cast of characters with equally compelling narratives in the following chapters, and somehow, as the novel weaves in and out across time, they, and the plot, satisfyingly come together. It’s an achievement that, as Walter reveals in the “about the book” section of the novel, was fifteen years in the making. And it’s all of his hard work that allowed me to enjoy this book on pure emotion alone, not a worry or a care, just a couple weeks of my summer spent in balmy daydreams.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Blonde Ambition

    In some way or another, I’ve always wanted to be a blonde. When I was little, every doll I received as a gift had red hair. I’m sure the adults thought I’d like a doll that in one small way resembled me, but all I really wanted was a doll with long, cornsilk hair. And I had to stick it out until I was almost thirteen to get it.

    Now that I’ve had no choice but to reconcile with my red hair once and for all, it’s something else I’m after. I want to be the California girl of parenting. I want the easy laugh and carefree attitude, not the stubbornness and intensity I’m stuck with. I want the spontaneity, the flexibility, the openness—not the quick temper and overanalysis. What I want, in short, is to model myself after a true California girl: Janet Lansbury, the former model and actress turned parenting guru. That would be next to impossible to accomplish on my own, so I decided to give her a call.

    Janet and I spoke for one glorious hour, and I was able to get some of my burning parenting questions answered, which I am happy to pass on to you.

    First, I wanted to know how to handle it when my two daughters were in conflict, specifically, when they were fighting over a toy. I confessed to Janet that I was frequently getting involved, telling my older daughter, Violet, to share with her sister, Harper, or if she took the toy from Harper, I’d make her give it back. Janet told me the best thing to do was to sportscast, or just report what was going on, and trust the girls to form their own relationship. I needed to let go of the idea that Harper was in any kind of real distress and just try to say something casually, like, “Oh, Violet has the toy Harper was playing with. Harper is upset." Just enough commentary to acknowledge their feelings without casting them into the villain or victim role, which can be hard to break once it’s established. As she said, “When you remove the parent, you remove the rivalry.”

     Next, I wanted advice on how to handle dinner out when it’s gotten completely out of control. When we are with other couples who have children, it can turn into a bona fide free-for-all. I mean the kids are crawling underneath the table, throwing food, making faces, spilling, getting in and out of chairs, yelling—all in one mind-bending loop. Although we don’t have issues at home or at restaurants if it’s just us, my daughter has certain friends who really get her excited, and she kind of loses her mind when she gets a chance to play with them. Janet said exactly what I’d hoped she would: don’t go in the first place. Arrange private get-togethers either at someone’s home or at a park, where it doesn’t matter how they behave. Our agenda is not their agenda, and it doesn’t need to be. 

    My last question was about VPK (voluntary prekindergarten). Everyone under the sun where I live sends their kid to VPK, and when I would say that I didn’t think I’d be sending Violet to VPK, I’d either get a lecture or a look like you’d better hope you know what you’re doing, lady, because your kid is going to be screeewwwed up. I’m sorry, but I just fail to see why this program that tries to prepare its four-year-old students with structured academics so that they can succeed in kindergarten is necessary for all kids, for my kid. Did these parents go to VPK when they were kids? Why does she need math and reading before she can tie her shoes? Can’t she just enjoy playing right now? A four-year-old is still a baby in my book. Violet has a healthy love of all things that are new and interesting, including books and numbers, so why do I need to subject her to that kind of directed learning so early? Fortunately, Janet had my back. At that age, they learn plenty, such as language skills and problem solving, not only through how we converse and handle our challenges as adults but also through what they discover when we give them the autonomy to work through their own difficulties. She said we needed to trust them to develop their own interests without interruption, that when we give them space and quiet and time, they can think and focus and discover, which is about the best you could ask for in a student.
    In a nutshell: trust. And as I wade through more dolls and stuffed toys than I can handle, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. There are a lot of parenting styles out there, and I'm sure a lot of them work just fine, but there’s only one for me. Even if I am a mean little redhead, I have to put Janet’s advice to practice and trust that I will get to my blonde-ideal parenting style. And I know, for my kids at least, that’s worth waiting for.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

When Push Comes to Shove

     My sweet little three-year-old pushed another little girl down at an indoor play gym today. And the other girl, if she hadn't had her wits about her as she fell from a five-foot foam tower mat thing, could've been hurt. It all happened so fast: the push, the fall, the tears, the apologies over my shoulder as I swept my daughters and their cousin out the door. Thankfully, no one got hurt, and everyone, except my three-year-old, maintained their smiles.
     I've seen my daughter on the other end of this kind of playground drama. I've heard other kids tell her that they don't want to play with her. I had hoped that she wouldn't be the one doing the pushing or hitting, or whatever it may be, but she was, and, really, I shouldn't be surprised. She was too impatient to wait her turn to jump off of said mat thing, which the girls had all been doing in rotation, so she pushed the girl. Just that simple.
     For once, though, I felt surefooted. I knew exactly what to do: we checked on the other girl, we removed my daughter from the situation, waited until she calmed down, I apologized, my daughter apologized, and we were out. Activity done. There was no hesitation, no "maybe I should let them play some more," no embarrassment on my part, no shaming lecture for my daughter. Just an efficient resolution. 
     And it's a good feeling that, should I ever be on this side of things again, and I no doubt will, that I know just how to handle it.

Marathon Part Deux

     There's no turning back now. After five months of not running at all, I've officially registered for the 15th Annual Clearwater Running Festival on January 19, 2014. My first time running this race, last year, didn't go so well. After a relatively easy training and after slowly working my way up to a training pace that I was happy with (avg. pace 9:40, over 20 miles), I had an IT band injury on the course, at the halfway point, that sent me hobbling across the finish line, blood, sweat, and tears (mostly tears), more than five hours after the race began. Now it's time take my revenge and to do it not only better on race day but all throughout my training as well. Cortisone shot for old injury: check. Next up: a new pair of kicks. At least my daughters (one was in a stroller, napping) and my "third daughter," my niece, Annie, were all there to greet me last time. Hopefully, on the next race day, I'll be able to outrun them.