Winter on the Brain

School, the first concrete sign that fall approacheth, has started for me already, but it hasn’t yet for Virginia, and quite frankly, it’s still pretty summery around here. The weather’s warm and the leaves are green. The day after my in-service, I was back at the pool with Virginia and her pals, no sign that summer was in its last throes. Some of Virginia’s friends are still in day camp or on the tail end of vacation with their families.

But fall is around the corner—I can feel it. Pretty soon we’ll be in the thick of school and homework and after-school sports and music lessons. As the scents of sunscreen and grilled meats are replaced by apples and cinnamon, we’ll be scrambling to make/purchase Halloween costumes and bags of fun-sized candy. And once we start fretting about what we’re going to do for Thanksgiving, I will have finally given in and packed away any tank tops and shorts remaining in my bureau.

And then it’s the impending march toward the winter holidays. It’ll be mid-December when digging our car out of the snow and scraping the ice off the windows becomes our new normal. At least once, I’ll turn to Josh and say wistfully, “Doesn’t it seem like summer was just yesterday? I feel like I could have been sunning by the pool, like seconds ago.” It’s because summer is awesome and winter sucks. We miss summer. No one is wistful about winter. “Doesn’t it seem like yesterday we got caught in freezing rain?” Or, “It wasn’t too long ago that I missed my bus and had to walk home alone on a windy, frigid afternoon without gloves.” We endure winter. And now, at the end of August, I can already look ahead and dread winter. I dread winter when it’s perfect outside. When I’m still wearing skirts and sandals. When I can still buy a soft-serve vanilla cone from the ice-cream truck.

When we lived in L.A., Josh always complained that he missed the seasons. He hated that it was always summer in Southern California and said the lack of seasons made it hard for him to keep track of the passage of time. I think I’m exactly the opposite. I want summer all the time. I don’t find it boring. I also really don’t need the constant reminder that time is passing, especially if it comes in the form of snow and sleet. I grew up out west, and even with California’s more temperate weather, I never had trouble assembling my memories chronologically. But seasons is how it’s done in Philly, and I’ll be better off the sooner I can figure out how to roll with it. Otherwise, no matter the weather outside, in my head it’ll always be winter.

Hello Muddah

Last Sunday I dropped Virginia off at sleep-away camp. I think the most anxiety I felt about actually leaving my 10-year-old behind for a week was when I first signed her up, way back in January. Oh my god, I thought, I know Virginia’s ready for this experience, but am I? No. A week just seemed too long to go without summertime’s daily rituals. When I registered her for camp last winter and looked at my calendar, all I could see was that sad, lonely week in August—no hustle and bustle in the mornings, no lazing at the pool, no cozy reading, TV watching, crafting, or Connect Four. I realized I’d be perfectly happy if Virginia never left home, ever.

I consulted with friends who were parents of veteran sleep-away camp goers. “I’m already so sad about it,” I’d complain. “A week away without my girl—I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself.” Every single parent looked at me like I was Benedict Arnold. “Stop it. Quit your pouting. Think about it—it’s a week of freedom,” they’d say. “You can actually go see a movie. In the theatre.” “And dinner!” another parent would pipe in. “You can do both!” I had to admit, dinner and a movie did sound pretty good. And I probably wouldn’t mind a week off from packing a lunch box every day. All right, I decided. Nothing to worry about. Virginia’s going to have a fantastic adventure that week, and you’ll just have to suck it up and behave like a big girl. Don’t be surprised if you even enjoy a taste of freedom for a bit. She’ll be back before you know it. OK, got it.

I’d been so successful in putting the week of sleep-away camp out of my mind that it was only a few days before camp, when I realized it was almost here. Sleep-away camp had sneaked up on me. Before I knew it, Virginia and I were in the car on our way to Woodward, her duffel, sleeping bag, and heart pillow stowed in our trunk. And when I got home after dropping her off, I felt a little lost, a feeling I haven’t quite been able to shake all week. The house is so much emptier without Virginia. I’m getting a ton of work done—almost too much, really. I can sit and work at my computer for hours until Jazz finally has to sidle up to my leg, imploring me with his one eye, that this dog is not just going to walk himself. When I wander downstairs to start dinner, any urgency to cook evaporates. It’s like my single days when I was perfectly happy to make “dinner” out of chips and salsa and use my oven for extra storage. This week is not terrible, though, either. Since I’m not exactly cooking much, Josh and I have enjoyed eating out more. We get to watch Orange Is the New Black well before Virginia’s bed time. And we’re seeing a play in the middle of the week. We haven’t done that in more than a decade.

This strange, new freedom is coming to an end—Josh and I will pick Virginia up early on Saturday. I know that from stalking her camp counselor’s Facebook page that Virginia is having a great time during this week of independence. I can see her joy in her easy smile, photo after photo. And that joy is hers. I’m really happy for her. She’s probably learned a lot about herself, grown up a bit, too. I hope that I will get better at learning to let go, when Virginia wants to do this all over again next summer, but for two weeks instead of one.

Upping at the Ante

I’m revising my novel and am at the point in the story when my protagonist discovers her inner athlete for the first time, and I must say, it’s fun pretending to be in her shoes. Nora finally runs one lap in two minutes. I know, multiply it by four and that’s an eight-minute mile, which is not exactly an Olympic-qualifying time, but for her, it’s the fastest she’s ever run and quite an accomplishment. She felt like she was going to die and dry-heaved a few times as she crossed the finish line, but she did it. For me, it has been a long time since I’ve felt that swell of pride and accomplishment for physical feats, and I miss it. I think the last time I felt anything close was losing the baby weight after I had Virginia. And believe me, it’s quite a comeback going from being about as active as a slug for nine months to walking and jogging like a normal healthy person. It was also ten years ago.

I have middle-aged friends who take up running for the first time or give boxing a try or start to get into those at-the-crack-of-dawn boot camp programs, and I listen to them in the early stages as they complain—”I hate getting up at 5:30 every morning” or “my muscles are sore” or “ack, my knee!”—and know that this pain will be temporary. When they stick with it, I watch their new sport transform my formerly exercise-ambivalent friends into budding athletes. And as happy for them as I am for getting into bad-ass shape, I can’t say I’m not a little envious. They get to discover what it’s like to get strong and fast. And as they continue every week, they see improvement. After years with the sport, though, I know they’ll reach a plateau, just as I have. Running certainly still makes my body feel good and keeps my mind sane, but after 30 years of running and counting, I don’t have that high that some of my friends get from their early-morning boot camp sessions. I might get a bit of a buzz from a better-than-average race time, but I’m finding that the challenges with running evolve the more I do it. And if I’m really being honest with myself, the fact that I’m getting older probably isn’t helping either. Peter Sagel, the host of Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me on NPR and an avid distance runner wrote about this issue in an article in Runner’s World a couple of years ago. He was training for a personal best marathon time at the ripe old age of, gulp, forty-six. He poses similar questions about being an over-the-hill runner that I’ve been struggling with as well: “Were my best days behind me? Would the rest of my career on the roads be about different goals—like running my most cheerful marathon, one with the most high-fives from the curbside crowd?”

So I guess the question is, is the cure for beating the exercise plateau blues to increase the ante to achieve the high? Like, should I try for a personal best for a 5K? 10K? Pull a Peter Sagel and go for a marathon PR? Do I dare train for a Boston Marathon qualifying time? Even train for an ultra-marathon? I know I’ll never have the athletic potential I had in college and in my twenties, and I need to make peace with that. I don’t think I’m there yet.

My Vegetable Dilemma

I hate winter. And in the depths of the winter months, I look ahead to spring and summer with unwavering optimism. “I’m going to run 30 or more miles per week!” “I’m going to sort through the dozens of boxes and bins I haven’t touched since we moved two years ago!” “This year, I’m going to rise to the challenge of our vegetable share and figure out a way to prepare all of the items we receive each week for my family to consume.” This all sounded totally doable in February. Now that we’re well into August, I am failing the grand plans I made six months ago, and in no way more so than with our vegetable share. (Half share, actually. It’s truly pathetic.)

Each Tuesday, with a canvas bag slung over my shoulder, Jazzy, the one-eyed wonder dog, and I walk to pick it up, praying that the contents will be at least something I recognize. Tomatoes? Yes, I not only know what to do with those, all three of us like them. Sauces, soup, pizza, sandwiches, salads—we’re all on board with tomatoes. Same goes for red potatoes, though I do find it challenging for us to get through all the red potatoes when we’re given a sack of them three weeks in a row. Fortunately, potatoes keep well and don’t pose a rotten vegetable emergency if we can’t eat them within a week. Kale I recognize and know how to prepare, but Josh and Virginia have a tough time choking it down, even in chip form. Kale is a primary item that I stuff to the back of the vegetable drawer, where it quickly wilts and then rots. The worst is when we get something we don’t even know what to do with, or don’t even really recognize. I don’t want to do a lot of research on my food. I’m busy. I’m also lazy. I just don’t have time or the will to figure out what to do with gold cylindra beets. I know, I know, most of the time you can roast just about anything, but egads, roasted, again?

Right now, zucchini is the bane of my existence. I roast it, sauté it, bake it, shave it over pasta, blend it into pesto, bake it into bread…and I don’t even really like zucchini. But week after week, despite heroic efforts to use the squash, I end up throwing out more than we can consume. Tuesday, I got six more zucchini in my half-share box. It never ends. But the thing is, is it does end. Sooner than I’ll want it, the temperature will drop, the days will get shorter, and I’ll have to put all my shorts and tank tops away and bust out my long pants and sweaters. The challenge of the weekly vegetable share will come to an end just as fall hits its stride. And I’ll miss it. And come February, I’ll start to get excited about it all over again.

Pay to Pray

A woman stopped me on the street last week, when I was walking home from running errands in Center City. Hot and tired from the walk downtown on that humid day, I was just a couple of blocks from my house and looking forward to gulping down my first of at least three glasses of water. I regretted not wearing my hair in a ponytail, and a thick mass of unfettered hair stuck to the back of my neck and stray wisps clung to my cheek and chin. The woman looked as if she were in her late 60s, and she was well-dressed. She looked about as fresh and unbothered by the weather as I felt unfresh and completely bothered. “Excuse me,” she said. “I’ve started a new business.” “Oh?” I said, disarmed by her friendliness, but already looking for my exit line. “Yes. It’s a praying business,” the woman replied. “Do you pray?” Preying business is more like it, I thought. She extended both hands toward mine. “No,” I said, recoiling. “I don’t want to pray, but good luck.” I started to walk away. “You don’t believe?” she asked. I was caught off guard. Strangers don’t usually ask if you believe in god or what religion you are, and her brazenness flustered me. “No I don’t, er, we’re a Jewish home,” I blurted. It was my standard line for Jehovah’s Witnesses who make the rounds every week before closing the door in their face. “Good luck with your business,” I muttered, walking away quickly.

I knew that was the wrong answer almost immediately. When a stranger asks you if you believe in god, the answer is “None of your business.” But in my ingrained need to be a good girl, a nice girl, someone who obeys the rules and does as she’s told, I attempted to answer her outrageously personal question. If she had asked me how much money I made or at what age I lost my virginity, I’m pretty confident I would have looked at her like she was crazy and kept that information to myself. I’m a grownup. I don’t have to be liked by everyone. And I certainly don’t need to be liked by the woman who has a “praying business.”

And of course now I think, what would she be up to praying for, anyway? Is everything on the table? “I need to pray for someone,” I might ask. “Sure, we can pray for anyone,” she’d say taking my hands in hers. “Great,” I would reply. “I’d like to pray that the horrible principal who got my husband fired and almost, single-handedly ruined his teaching career gets hit by a car.” “Um, no,” she’d say, visibly uncomfortable. “I’m not sure that’s what prayer is for.” “Sure it is. I’ve prayed countless times for harm to come to this woman, but it’s not working—yet. I think I just need some help.” I’d wink at her conspiratorially. “The power of prayer, right?” The woman takes a beat and meets my eyes. “That’ll be twelve dollars.”