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.”

Vacation

Last week, I asked my daughter her favorite places to visit. Other than New Jersey, where my husband’s parents are, and the Bay Area, where my mom is (grandparents’ homes seem to be universally wonderful, magical places for kids), she chose Montreal, New York City, Hershey Park, the Jersey Shore, Colonial Williamsburg, and…Baltimore. “Really?” I asked her, thinking, I should finally see what all the fuss over The Wire is about. “Baltimore? We didn’t even spend the night there.” “I don’t know why,” she replied. “I just liked it.” After this past weekend, she’s added Crystal Cave and Lancaster to the list. Central Pennsylvania and Baltimore are both nice places to visit, with friendly locals and enough sights to keep us busy for maybe a day, two max. We learned about the Amish and ate fried chicken in Lancaster and visited a fantastic aquarium in Baltimore. But Central Pennsylvania and anywhere in Maryland are not exactly the destinations I’d put on the list of places I hope to visit before I die. They are too small time for our giant world map. For my ten-year-old, however, these small trips held the same rank as our travels to New York, where we saw Annie and Matilda on Broadway, walked all over Central Park, ate the best pizza we’ve ever had, checked out not only the American Girl Doll store, but also Nintendo World and FAO Schwartz, rode the subway, and looked out on the entire city from the top of the Empire State Building. And of course we’ll be returning to New York, hungry for more exhausting, cultural/gastronomical/consumerist-stuffed days.
My husband and I have been feeling a little guilty that we can’t take our daughter to all the big-ticket destinations more of the time. We haven’t been to Disney World. Or the Outer Banks. She hasn’t visited London or Paris or Rome, or hiked the Appalachian Trail. This year, because of our work schedules, we won’t be going anywhere for more than just a few days at a time. And we’re still lucky—at least we can go away for a couple days here and there. But like any parent, I want to show her the world, and that takes more than 48 hours at a time.
I remembered what vacations were like when I was growing up. My siblings and I would pile into our wood-paneled station wagon and drive all over the country. We’d sometimes visit big destinations like Washington D.C. or the San Diego Zoo. Usually, though, the trip was discovering the country on the road and through small towns. For me, the best times were when we’d be holed up in some campground, eating canned raviolis and listening to audiobooks on tape. I could forget about what a hormonal dork I was for a whole week. My dad could let go of his monumental responsibilities at his job and just enjoy the moment with his family. My mom, well, my mom had a hard time letting much of anything go, and she was pretty much business as usual, even on vacation. And now, as a parent, I get to spend a couple of days not micromanaging. That’s a win for everyone. My husband can let go of his endless job search for a bit, and focus on keeping our car in the correct lane and finding a decent place for lunch. The best part for me is seeing Virginia at her funniest and chattiest. She’s relaxed and fun, not feeling as self-conscious, though I haven’t suggested karaoke or old-timey photos (yet). We can suspend depressing thoughts about Gaza and Ukraine, and put our rage about the unspeakable gap between the rich and poor on hold for a bit, at least until I polish off this ice-cream cone or finish a round of mini-golf. And that’s what “getting away from it all” is all about for me whether it’s in Rome or Baltimore. Two weeks or two days, we had a vacation.

Cryin’

My heart must be made of cold, black steel, because I am not moved by dance. I know many people are, but not me. During the summer, one our favorite shows our family watches together is So You Think You Can Dance. I’m a total fan. The three of us marvel at the physical feats the dancers are capable of. I love all of the styles—modern, jazz, tap, ballet, hip-hop, ballroom. And I admire the grit it takes for each one of those talented, determined dancers to pursue an art form that almost guarantees a life of poverty and anonymity. It’s a lifestyle very likely to throw in career-ending injuries and maybe an eating disorder to boot. Dancers are tough, and they have to be. But, it doesn’t make me cry, ever. Is dance entertaining? Are Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly amazing? Yes, of course they are. So I find it oddly amusing when I see judge Mary Murphy dabbing at the corner of her eyes after a performance and fanning her face with her hands. When she offers her comments to the dancers on their performance, her voice is often thick with emotion, and she looks like she’s about to lose it there on national television. Really? You’re crying? The choreographers sitting in the audience appear to take it all just as seriously, offering their thanks for the honor by touching the tips of their fingers in prayer. Sometimes they’re moved to tears, too. Producer and judge Nigel Lythgoe has the audacity to declare particular performances so moving, they’re “Emmy worthy.”

Oy vey.

OK, before I get too caught up here as the arbiter of what should make people cry or not, let me just say that I can get teary and emotional over really stupid things, too. It’s just not dance. Most movies make me cry, and not just the ones of the Terms of Endearment variety. Frozen made me cry. So did the latest Star Trek movie. And forget it if it’s a beloved movie from my childhood that I get to watch with my kid. Every time I watch Annie with my daughter, I can’t get through “Maybe,” the first song of the first act, without getting completely choked up. Dumb TV can make me lose it too. Like when Zack and Kelly broke up. Yep, I admit that was me reaching for the Kleenex. None of this makes me proud of myself. But for some reason, it seems to be more acceptable to be moved to tears through a reality competition dance-off than a ridiculous sitcom from the early 1990s. One is considered higher art and the other, definitely low. I say they’re the same. No one should be defining for us what’s supposed to be moving and what’s supposed to be trash, though I’m clearly doing that right now. By the way, Two and a Half Men? Crap. Grown Ups? Crap. Grown Ups 2? You get the picture. It’s really all just entertainment meant to help us decompress at the end of the day.

I love Mary Murphy. Sincerely. I think she belongs on the Hot Tamale Train. Dance is amazing entertainment, and I would never be capable of anything like what those dancers do every day. But I’m not going to cry over it.

Show and Tell

A few weeks ago on Father’s Day, my husband, daughter, and I went out to Sabrina’s for breakfast. While we were waiting for our food, Josh and Virginia flipped over the kids menu, drew a line down the center of the page, and started a drawing contest with him working on one side, and she the other. I took a quick photo of the two hunched over the menu with my iPhone and posted the happy Father’s Day picture onto Facebook with the caption, “Drawing contest while waiting for breakfast. Happy Father’s Day, Josh!” Sweet, right? I thought, Isn’t this what Facebook is for? It’s the home of the subtle (or not-so-subtle) brag. See, look at my happy family, celebrating Father’s Day with a drawing contest and a much-too-big breakfast. And sure enough, almost 40 friends and family “Liked” the photo. My mom wished him a “Happy Father’s Day, Josh.” And when a high school buddy asked, “Who won?” I responded smugly, “VA handily won the drawing contest. Josh won the Awesome Dad award.” Yes, very pleased with myself here and our successful Father’s Day Facebook post!

So I was surprised when a few nights ago, while Josh and I were watching cooking shows on the couch after our daughter had gone to bed, he turned to me and said, “You know that ‘Awesome Dad’ comment from Facebook a couple weeks ago? It didn’t sound like you.” I paused, blinking at him, and set down my iPad. “What do you mean?” I asked him. “I mean, you don’t say stuff like that on Facebook. Don’t get me wrong, it was a nice comment. But that wasn’t you.”

I shrugged and laughed it off, but when I thought about it the next day, I realized he was right. He caught me. I don’t say stuff like that. And it’s not that I think he shouldn’t win the Awesome Dad award, I just wouldn’t necessarily broadcast it. We laugh at the “Awesome Dad awards” Facebook posts and #bestdadever hashtags. I’d rather take him out for breakfast instead. Or on a hike in the Wissahickon. I might give his hand a hard squeeze and flash him a teary smile as we watch Virginia receive her 4th grade, move-up day certificate. But I wouldn’t articulate to him that he wins the Awesome Dad award on social media. Not in so many words. That’s not my style, and he knows it. I think the comment wasn’t really meant for him. It was meant for a larger audience, a lot of people I don’t even know all that well, which kind of makes me cringe. It was preening and showing off instead of pure sentiment for the intended person.

OK, lesson learned. And you know what? I won’t be wishing him a happy anniversary on Facebook either.

My Motto

Most of us, consciously or not, have some version of a life philosophy or motto, a piece of wisdom or advice that we hold close to us and dust off periodically to use at certain crossroads. Some mottos are borrowed, such as the Golden Rule: treat others as you would treat yourself or live each day as though it were your last. Don’t take no for an answer. Some are quite practical. My mother-in-law’s motto: “Why cook a chicken, when you can buy a cooked chicken?” My mom’s motto this week is “Don’t break your femur,” because…she just broke her femur. And she’s right. It’s a really inconvenient bone to break even if you don’t have a summer of trips planned and you’re not pushing 70.

My motto? Don’t be an asshole. The language is a bit glib and the idea not original, but I wholly believe in it. It reminds me to think before I say something stupid or act carelessly, whether I’m standing in line at the grocery store, enduring one more committee meeting, or driving in Center City. When a friend is talking through an issue she’s having with her husband and really just needs for me to sit quiet and listen to her instead of interrupting the second she pauses with unasked-for advice, “don’t be an asshole” reminds me that maybe advice isn’t what’s helpful right now. In fact, what’s most helpful is to go with what I know is right: to shut up and listen to my friend. “Don’t be an asshole” reminds me to try harder to treat people with respect and kindness, even if I’m not in the mood or haven’t had enough coffee yet. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we just checked ourselves once in a while and try to not be assholes to one another? I admit it, don’t always succeed at heeding the motto and sometimes slip up. It can take a lot of physical and mental control to keep my middle finger to myself when drivers fail to merge correctly on I-95, but I choose to believe that it’s worth it.

Futbol Obsession

I’ve been watching a lot of World Cup soccer lately. A lot. Maybe too much. I plan my work days around the World Cup game schedule. Anything that needs 100% of my focus better get done before noon, because that’s when I fire up the modest flat screen TV in my office and eat leftovers in front of the first match of the day. If the game isn’t too close, I can press “mute” on the remote and write or grade papers, looking up every now and then to see if Spain has made any gains against Australia or if Croatia continues to trounce Cameroon. More often than not, however, the games are real nail-biters, and there’s no way I’m going to be able to tear myself away from the game long enough to read through one more essay on Of Plymouth Plantation. And if my home team, team USA, is on board, I’m all in, sweating and shouting at my 30-inch television as striker Clint Dempsey, Jermaine Jones in midfield, goalkeeper Tim Howard, along with the entire US squad, battle it out on the field in Brazil.

One might ask, why would a mild-mannered wife and mom, community college professor and writer, have such an obsession with the World Cup? That’s an excellent question. Sure, I’ve played soccer myself from elementary school through, well, now. At forty-two, every now and then I still strap on my shin guards and lace up my cleats, and spend two 45-minute halves running around like a maniac on the grass in the fresh air, just hoping to cross the ball perfectly from the outside left into our opponent’s penalty box, or to make a clean pass in the midfield, or even a decent touch on the ball on a throw-in. I’m certainly slower and older these days, but I still get the same rush when a play goes right, as I did playing for my club team in high school. And I get a rush when I watch the World Cup, too. These players show us how to fight for it, scrapping for every touch on the ball, down to the final seconds of stoppage time. And for that, I thank every one of them. I can always catch up on work tomorrow.