March 20, 2015

The Winters of My Childhood

On the first day of spring, we're remembering our childhood winters.

The Sledding Hill

So many of my childhood memories blur together in my head. Summer is one long camping trip where we fished in a river in Montana in the morning and got chased by water moccasins in a Texas lake after lunch and visited the Trail of Tears museum before dinner. I have a hard time separating out what happened when or even where. I see it in my children too. It's the reason that Briton will occasionally start a sentence with, "When we lived in Paris...." We didn't live in Paris, we visited Paris when we lived in Dublin. But to Briton, at 3, a week in a tiny apartment in Paris with his beloved Thomas trains covering the carpet was not very different from every day life in a tiny apartment in Ireland where, again, his trains took up all the available floor surface. Paris, Rome, Missouri, Dublin, Portland... it all kind of blurs together for him, the wheres and the whens.

Like summer, my childhood winters blurs together into one, long, Beverly Cleary-eque day. I don't remember feeling cold or wet from the northern Idaho snow. I don't remember my mittens growing soggy with caked ice or the exhahusting task of keeping the sidewalk of our corner lot shoveled, although now that I've lived in snow country as an adult, I can imagine it. I don't even remember feeling stir crazy with too many days indoors, waiting for spring. No. Winter was all about sledding, and did I ever sled.

My friend Molly lived at the top of the best sledding hill in town and since I spent my afternoons at her house until my parents were done with work, I had the advantage over almost every other kid at school. Apart from Molly and her many brothers and sisters and Hannah, who lived across the street and therefore also had a full time sledding wonderland just out her front door, I got the most sledding hours per day of any kid I knew. We would rush home from school, toss our homework onto the table, gulp down a bowl of ramen noodles from the steaming pot that seemed ever present on the stove at Molly's house and be back out the door before the prime spots were taken by the other kids.

We became experts in reading the iciness of the street, too fresh of snow and the runner sleds, though faster and more controllable, were abandoned for the thin plastic sheet sleds or if we could find one, a smooth bottomed toboggan. Both were alright, but the runner sleds were best. With two or three kids packed on, the pilot holding firmly to the rope with her feet wedged onto the steering bar, the rear position rider would give a good push and then jump on, arms wrapped tightly around the waist in front of them if they were lucky, or sprawled out on the snow as the sled careened downhill away from them if they were not. The road dropped sharply downhill for a block, evened out as it crossed another street and then dipped again until it leveled out finally another block down. More often than not, a run would go awry and dump you into the snowbacks somewhere along the first block. A good run would carry you across the first cross street and you'd crash somewhere in the second block. A great run, only achieved if you started dead center in the road, if your runners were sharp, your passengers well balanced and your aim true, ended in an Olympic ski run finish, slowing to a perfect stop in the flat of the second cross street, arms in the air in triumph. Those were rare and wonderful moments, but they could be achieved. And then, no matter where you ended, the long slog up the hill to start again. A lesser run made acceptable by the fact that you only had a short distance to go to be back at the top, a great run made easy by the lingering triumph of making it to the bottom without a crash. Up to the top, and down again, over and over until the afternoon light faded into darkness and the street emptied until the next day. An eternal winter's afternoon.

                                                       - Gillian

A boy and his mountains

When I was a boy, white Christmas was distant concept. Yet it was always close at hand.

I grew up in at the very northern peak of California’s Central Valley. My hometown of Redding is known by travellers far and wide as “that unbelievably hot place where we stopped for gas before driving to Oregon.”
Mount Lassen from Redding

That position at the tip of the valley means that hot air (of which California has no shortage) rises up the valley floor on summer days until it is trapped by a ring of Cascade Mountains. And there it stays. Mercury above 100-degrees at midnight is common in August.

That same fluke of geography gives Redding a ringside seat to a winter it doesn’t have to put up with. “Hot” in Redding may be a term from hell, but “cold” in Redding is Missouri shirtsleeve weather. It snows once in a long while, but seldom enough for a kid to make money with a shovel.

But the snow was always there – on those mountains that a hug Redding like a protective mom. Each morning when I slogged out to catch the bus, I looked east to see what Mount Lassen was wearing. She was usually dressed in her winter whites, but I hoped against hope that this morning she would switch into the mantle of fiery lava made her the center of a volcanic national park.

Shasta Bally, to the west, was shorter and less likely to be snowbound, but loomed close as the guardian of the Trinity Alps. If I could see between the hell-I-ain’t-giving-up-no-leaves live oak trees out back, the eerie specter of Mount Shasta stood out all alone on the northern horizon.

I didn’t realize how much this snowy huddle of mountains meant to me until, as an adult, I moved to Dallas. In that part of Texas, people get nose bleeds at the peak of freeway overpasses. It was so flat that we bundled up the kids and drove to Oklahoma just to see some hills that pretend to be mountains.

Oklahoma, for God’s sake. You don’t admit that in Texas even if you are a foreigner.

We don’t have mountains here in mid Missouri, but the crinkle of tall hills in Columbia so disturbs your sight line that it is easy to pretend there are real peaks out there somewhere. And when the snow is measured by the foot, you don’t wish aloud for mountain roads.

Still, the Redding kid in me still wants to look east in morning to greet my craggy protector. I was never a mountain man, but I will forever be the boy under the mountain.


March 13, 2015

On Aging, and Acting Your Age

Wisdom comes with age, right?

Act your age

Each morning, I open my eyes, smile to myself and rejoice at being 18-years-old. Then I move.

My body has no shortage of devices to tell me that 18 was a long, long time ago. “In your dreams” is literally the last vestige of my physical youth. But my mental youth? That’s a more complicated story.

This week I turned 64, which is old enough to make me grateful that I actually made it to 64. I’m a card-carrying old man. Well, maybe not card-carrying, but my plastic SMTWTFS pill box is close enough.

The retort “It’s better than the alternative” takes the fun out of groaning that “I hate getting old” when my bones don’t want to leave an easy chair. Especially when I catch myself saying, “Oh, yea.”

But tucked inside my gray head is a handsome teenager with boundless energy to gambol though my dreams. I like that guy. And whenever I can, I invite him out into the daylight.

Act your age. The person who came up with that stupid phrase had to be a centenarian at birth. Why in the world would I want to act like a 64-year-old. I am a 64-year-old, for God’s sake. I don’t have to act to be one. Any day of the week, I can be a doddering old fool who can’t hear and who doesn’t get half the jokes of TV comics.

I’d prefer not, however. As a college professor, I swim in a fountain of youths every day. I watch gangly freshmen grow into strong men and beautiful women. I hear the current term for “good” (cool, bad, bomb, etc.) change each year. And I delight in using the newest technologies and stumping my students with references to pop culture (gleaned from the Web, of course).

I like being around young people. Sure, sometimes they seem as dumb as a post, but I’ve learned to forgive the lack of life experience as I collect more than I can use. Their smiles are still untainted by mortgages and bosses from hell. They shoot secret glances across the classroom like fishing lines of love. And they blush when they realize I saw them.

Most of all, they keep me young.

If I am young, but I am 64, then I have no appropriate age to act. So I don’t. I tell weird jokes that elicit more groans the guffaws. I listen to music from any era. I dance when there is no music at all.

And if it turn quickly, I catch glimpses of 18-year-old in the mirror. Acting the way he darned well pleases.

Now is Good

This summer, Will turns forty, which means, much to my surprise when I stop to think about it, that I'll be 38. I'm not really sure how that happened. I've spent so long being the young mom, hearing "oh, you're just a baby" at gatherings with other parents that I almost didn't realize that I have reached middle age.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not upset about it. I've never feared the next big birthday. I didn't worry about turnign 30 (gosh, that was a long time ago) and I don't feel like I will in two years when I turn forty. I don't mourn my youth, probably because I never was very good at being the 20-something wild child that some of my friends had perfected. I didn't like bars and parties and bare midriffs. I never went clubbing. Instead I stayed home and painted rooms or installed new faucets or worked on some craft. Or read. So I pretty much did then what I'm doing now. Although I will say that I could fit a whole lot more remodeling in back then. All that youthful energy that most people spent on partying instead went to pulling all-nighters with a grout trowel re-tiling bathrooms.

So I don't wish I was young again, but I'm surprised to find myself older. Some friends had dinner with us last weekend and brought their two toddlers, and I watched them walk around and around the yard after one or try to continue having a conversation while changing the diaper of the other and it seemed like so long ago that I was doing that. It WAS so long ago. My kids were happily entertaining themselves, one at a park four blocks away, playing basketball with his friends, and I could sit and sip a glass of wine and not worry about someone tripping on uneven concrete and dissolving into tears. I mean, that can still happen, but it's a whole different kettle of fish with a 12 year old than a 2 year old. There's no Thomas the Tank Engine band-aids involved, for example.  And again, I'm not sure when that happened. When we stopped having little kids and started having big kids. It happened so fast. What is it they say? The days are long but the years are short? I used to hate it when people said things like that. Things like "It goes so fast!" or "Enjoy it while you can!" because it made me feel like there was something I didn't know, some way that I didn't really understand parenting. But now I realize those people were like me now. Slightly stunned at the fact that that part of their life had long since passed and that it was only in those moments, seeing what you're not doing anymore, that you realize how long it's been.

I loved having little kids. But I love having big kids too. In fact, I think I love it more. Some crazy part of my younger self wanted to have all my kids before I was thirty, because I had this idea that being younger with older kids would be better for us. And thank goodness I did because that crazy part of myself was right. Maybe not right for other people. But for us, it was a good choice, even if a slightly insane one at the time. And I suppose having kids whenever would have been great for us too. I guess what I'm saying is, now is good. Right now it's good to be almost 40. It's good to have kids who can empty the dishwasher (with only a little poking and prodding) and go to the bathroom without help and watch movies with that don't involve creepy trains with faces. It's good to be getting older, even if I'm discovering that, like my dad, I can predict the weather by my aches and pains and I can't drink coffee after lunch time without spending a wakeful night staring up at the ceiling and counting the hours before I have to be up for work. Now is good. Flying by too fast, just as it always has and always will, but good. I'll enjoy it while I can and hope that the next "now" will be just a nice.


March 6, 2015

On Friends From Afar

Mums and Toddlers

I almost stayed home that day.

I am, as I've explained, a closet introvert. A shy person pretending to be an outgoing one. I enjoying socializing when I'm amongst friends, I can even be the life of the party if the mood strikes me, but jumping into new situation, meeting new people, that's not my thing. And so I almost stayed home that day. Except I didn't. And thank goodness.

We had picked up our lives and a toddling Briton only a few weeks before to move, almost on a whim, to Ireland. I realize that's not something people do every day, or even once in their lives. And it really wasn't on a whim, it had been long in the planning stages, but when it all happened at last, it happened fast. Jobs were interviewed for over Thanksgiving, visas were rushed to us before government offices closed for Christmas, and we had moved within a few days of the New Year. So it felt whim-ish, and exciting, and totally bonkers. And it was all those things.

Except the reality is that once you get past the oddities of being in a new place, life with a toddler is with a toddler. Just because we'd traded our charming-if-a-little-shabby bungalow for a 300 square foot apartment in a 350 year old town house didn't mean we stopped dealing with things like potty training and letter learning and nap tantrums. And as any mother of a toddler can tell you, the key to surviving those years of toddlerhood without going totally insane is finding friends with toddlers to commiserate with, laugh with, cry with, and sometimes beg for a little babysitting so you can go get a haircut from. And so, the fear of meeting new people was pushed aside for the greater need for adult interaction. Which is how I found myself standing outside a very medieval looking door (actually, I think it was medieval, not just medieval looking) with a cheerful sign on it reading "Mums and Toddlers" instead of staying home and sitting on the bright red couch looking at the bright purple cabinets in our furnished flat.

Luckily, the people behind the door weren't shy. In fact, they were the opposite of shy. I'm not sure I've ever seen a toddler as outgoing as the one that rushed toward my (outgoing, but not quite so) son and made him her instant friend while her mother took my coat, got me a cup of tea and some cookies and plopped me down into the group before I could really register where I was. And just like that, I had friends.

For the next 20 months,  until the very day we moved back to the states, these ladies were my people. And Englishwoman, three Northern Irish girls and me, the American. It almost sounds like the start of a bad joke, doesn't it? But it was wonderful. We ate cookies and drank tea and walked miles through parks and streets and neighborhoods with our babies. We welcomed a new baby and heard the news about two more one the way (one of them mine) and talked potty training and complained about picky eaters and did all the things you do when you meet the people you survived toddlerhood with.

There were, of course, hilarious moments.  Misunderstandings that happen when people from different countries come together. I'll never forget to call "pants" "trousers" in front of a Brit again, for example. Because that joke went on for weeks. (Pants = underwear, you can see how that could go terribly wrong) We had vastly different backgrounds, I grew up, after all, without any experience of boarding schools or London flats, IRA roadblocks or the Irish Education System, and they were not peanut butter addicts and had never seen an America toddler birthday party a la pre-jail Martha. But that mattered very little, if at all.

What always astonishes me when I think about that time, what astonishes me still when we visit a new place and meet new people is that no matter where you are, life is just life, friends are friends, toddlers are most definitely toddlers and a cup of tea is, well actually, all cups of tea are not created equal, that's a bad example, but moms are moms. Wading through life, dealing with diapers or nappies or whatever the word is for them where you currently are. Children's shows are equally mind numbing and at the same time memorizing, no matter if it's Barney or Postman Pat or Dora the Explorer in Gaelic (it's a real thing).

It sounds exotic to say I've got friends in Ireland. "Oh my friends in Ireland" I could say, and you might be impressed. But they are really just my friends. Ladies who I would sit down and shoot the shit with any day, even after all these years apart. All because I didn't stay home that day.


In praise of those unlike me

I had dinner in Slovenia Wednesday. Well, not really in Slovenia, but in the warmth of Slovenian friendship.

Bella and Julija, 2012
Over a big plate of čevapičiči (elongated Slovenian meatballs), I rekindled my friendship with Martin Jelovsek. Martin and his parents were our hosts when Cecile and I took a 40th anniversary trip to their spectacular little country in 2012. He is also the sister of my co-worker and friend Ursa Lenart, who suggested the trip in the first place.

All of the above is a long way of saying my heart is sometimes not at my home. I have a longtime fascination with the world beyond our borders and a deep, deep appreciation of the people I’ve met there.

I should probably have a passport from the United Nations. I was born in Germany, but my mother was English while my father hailed from Idaho – although his mother and step-siblings were Canadian. I married into a family of with roots in California, China, Korea and the Philippines. Our reunions are worthy of a Food Network special.
I’m proud to be an American, but my mind has wandered abroad my whole life.

I learned at a very early age that all people are just people, but that they spice up the world with unique words, thoughts and actions. It’s a spice that I crave. My university job has taken me from Mongolia to Italy and filled the spaces between with students and journalists from Nepal to Norway. And I’m ready to go out there for more.
Martin, American cousin Olive, Bella and me

Which brings me back that dinner at Ursa’s house. Martin brought with him his cute-as-a-kitten daughter, Bella. When we were in Slovenia, Bella and I became friends in the most wonderful way – without words. She couldn’t speak English and I was generally stumped by Slovene. But 5-year-olds don’t need language. Bella could pleasantly pester me just as I could gently tease her with the sound we all recognize – laughter.

Bella has grown up a few years and didn’t really remember me until I pulled up a photo of her and cousin Julija on my phone. And then we were back to teasing each other and sharing wordless laughs.

The Great Truth of Internationalism is that nobody does life right, but we all live life well. The sin against that truth is looking at the world through OK-I-can-check-that-one-off lens of a places-not-people tourist. Better to travel with your heart, even if it means just welcoming a new friend from a foreign land.

One day, perhaps, my international friends will so enlighten my spirit that I’ll achieve my dream of getting a new driver’s license.

Place of residence: Earth.