Month: May 2014

Walking the Tightrope

photo-1High school is a trying time.  I remember most of it well as one of discovery, individuation and staggering screw-ups;  of parental power struggles, duplicity and hormonal triumphalism.  It is a bubble where kids navigate life’s deepest paradox, to simultaneously conform and be unique, a tightrope walk that favors the stable.  For those of us prone to emotional swells and sensitivities it is the same walk but on a moving cable.

My parents are in an anti-nesting phase right now, shedding all relics of their children by loading their reminders into bins and depositing them with their triggers.  Last summer when they drove in for a visit, they left behind a carload of deposits, boxes and bins of random papers, photos, clothing, books.  From one, I unfolded an entire closet’s worth of formal dresses.  It was as though a giant reached in and pressed them together like an accordion and folded them neatly in half, hangers attached.

I unfolded the dresses onto a bar and flipped through them, one by one.  Out flooded the memories they carried, a few in particular.  The strapless black taffeta with the beads I wore to homecoming my junior year, and my new fake nails punched holes in my stockings shooting white runners down both my legs as I stepped out of the ladies room.  That was super.  The other black beaded one with the oversized bow on the hip reminded me of advice I had followed in a magazine about using masking tape in place of a bra, and left me with red stripes across my chest from the mild flaying I suffered when I removed it.  The faint water mark on the red one with the sash reminded me of my allergy to silk which caused profuse perspiration under one arm, so my right appendage stayed unnaturally plastered to my side for an entire evening of socializing and dancing.  The bright purple sequined stretchy one was beautiful.  It was the same shade as the Hubba Bubba Grape Bubble Gum that twisted itself into my hair when I was a little girl and when they cut it all off suddenly everyone thought I was a boy.  And then there was the rebellious one, my favorite, a ruffled, strapless, multicolored floral number that I wore to my last dance of high school.

The guidelines for senior prom attire have dramatically changed, but in 1988 your dress was expected to be white and to the floor.  Having had a difficult time in the conformity department, I gravitated to colorful and short, and I found exactly what I was looking for in a women’s clothing store in the West End that serviced primarily old preppy white ladies.  I don’t know what they were thinking when they ordered the one that I fell in love with, but I knew nobody else in our small world was going to buy it, but me.  With black pointy-toed pumps, a black clutch, and wrapped tightly in an extravaganza of giant tropical flowers, I waded into the sea of white with my date/friend at my side.

Fondly, admiringly, I removed the dress from it’s hanger and held it against my body in remembrance.  It doesn’t look so small, a voice said deceptively to the image in the mirror.  Let’s give it a try, it encouraged, and moments later I was changing my breathing patterns to accommodate an uncooperative zipper.  I hooked the clasp at the top and wriggled it around the back where it was supposed to be, and with great concentration I edged it further up with my arms twisted awkwardly behind me, and in a final exhalation I was in.  Eureka!  I spun around excitedly and in one quick breath the zipper popped open in the middle and released twenty-five years of gradual BMI accumulation.  It was getting tighter by the moment, the hook not budging, my fingers not nimble enough to navigate it, my body uncooperatively cementing itself to the fabric, becoming one.

Belly-breathing in yoga is when you fill your lungs deeply and instead of your chest expanding, it’s your belly that rises and falls.  It is also what to look for when your child has asthma and the stomach muscles engage in the quest for air.  I would like to tap into some pubescent deception and claim to have been yoga-breathing in a Zen trance of relaxation, but the reality was more that of an asthma attack.  I was trying not to panic as my obituary flashed in front of me:  Loving wife and mother of two, long sufferer of body dysmorphia, asphyxiated by vengeful attire.  I left messages and sent texts to family and friends to the tune of:  Help me, I am stuck in a dress and I cannot breathe.  

Sending out an SOS is one thing, and having nobody respond is another.  I sat on the floor as a range of emotions flooded through me, from embarrassment and helplessness to fear and anger, from desperation to hope.  The tightrope was flying.  I closed my eyes and adjusted to the pace, looking for balance, frustration subsiding.  As the adrenaline receded it became easier to inhale, and with the oxygen came sounder perspective: I was going to make the best of this imprisonment.  With a book that had been waiting patiently in the queue on my bedside table, and sitting unnaturally erect, I began to read.

Two hours is not a long time to spend in a book, unless you have a million other things you would rather be doing, in which case it is an eternity.  One hundred and twenty minutes hanging in the air.  Seven thousand and two hundred seconds mercilessly dragging their feet.  It’s what dogs feel when you walk to the end of the driveway to get the paper and they stare at the front door closed behind you wondering if you’re ever returning, and when you do, a moment later, they freak out.  It’s what children feel fifteen minutes into a road trip prompting them to inquire ceaselessly, Are we there, yet?  How much longer?  Are we there? Are we there?  Are we now?  Are we close?  I reread the same paragraph, every other word glancing over at my cell phone that sat silently beside me.

My sister-in-law, Marty, was the first responder to my predicament.  When I answered the phone, it became clear that I had not appropriately communicated the gravity of my situation.  She chuckled as I recounted my ordeal, how I cried and despaired, alone in my home, far from Whole Foods where I longed to be, combing produce aisles for organic purple potatoes and fennel bulbs.  She gently questioned me in the way you approach small children and fragile people, the way that tells you that you may be an idiot.  I had felt a lot of emotions up to that point, and I had approached ridiculous but in a wave of self-defense I batted it away and chose not to revisit it and settled on unfortunate, instead.  But my sister-in-law was determined.  After forcing me to declare several more times that, yes, I actually did need help, and that, no, I wasn’t joking, she agreed to stop by on her way home.

I waited for Marty, her two mile drive an endless road trip, Are you hear yet? Are you close? Are you now?  Finally, a car pulled into the driveway.  In slow motion, footsteps approached the front door behind which I was standing, peering, wagging my tail in insufferable anticipation.   Marty’s smile was twisted on one side in skepticism until I whipped around to reveal the zipper that betrayed me and the tenacious hook that vexed me.  Her head dropped.  Quiet at first, she surveyed the situation and I thought she felt my suffering as I heard what sounded like soft crying.  With a massive breath it found it’s voice and released into the air in a crescendo of contagious cackles.  With the ease of an adult, she set me free and air flooded into my lungs, and in gratitude and relief, and a bit of disbelief, our laughter flew out and glided across the tightrope together.

I thought of Marty as I contemplated what to wear to an 80’s party the other night and stared fondly at the same dress, calling to me like a toxic crush.  Before I could recall Einstein’s definition of insanity, I found myself squeezing back into it with gasps and jumps, my husband navigating the zipper to meet my nemesis, the bionic clasp.  There was no panic this time as my ribs and organs rearranged themselves familiarly to accommodate what I was inexplicably determined to wear.  But, I was not alone this time.  I had someone to laugh at me, with me, strengthening my resolve and lending me the feeling of security that I had no business feeling.  I stepped into my pointy-toed black heels, grabbed my black clutch, and threw a white jean jacket over my shoulders in case the zipper failed me and I needed cover, and because nothing says 80’s like a white jean jacket.

So much effort and hair spray, so many formerly-estranged hot rollers, only to discover it wasn’t an 80’s party after all.  It was a retirement party for a band who had a few songs from the 80’s in their repertoire, which was primarily 60’s beach music.  I’m not quite sure how I mixed up those details, but there I was, walking into a familiar sea in my brightly colored floral dress.  And with a breath as deep as I could muster, and my date/friend/husband at my side, we worked our way to the dance floor and danced all night without incident.  I wasn’t uncomfortable, not as much as I deserved to be, but having walked this line a very long time ago, I knew that it was something I could navigate and survive to tell the tale.

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Coloring Within the Lines

Although home improvement projects can be welcome distractions, they can prove equally as daunting.  I find great pleasure in ripping things out and knocking other things down, creating cataclysmic change that renders my husband speechless for a day, or so.  A dainty little chainsaw is right in my wheelhouse: oh, the projects that could be embarked upon with one of those!  I will have to contain my enthusiasm for this coveted instrument of destruction.

My next most favorite angel of change is paint.  Miracles can be performed with a gallon of color and a roller, and I haven’t been forbidden from using this medium, yet, so the continued potential is limitless.  When we moved into our house eight years ago, it was all about the paint.  The living and dining areas were romper-room yellow, the hallways were powder blue, and everything else was a suffocating flesh color.  The tile in our bathroom was teal, a popular shade in the fifties apparently, which made you feel like you were trapped inside a Tiffany box, distorting your reflection, a healthy pink tinged with a corpse-like cerulean.  A few coats of primer and a soothing wash of beige was all this little place needed to erase the geriatric carnival feel and replace it with a calm repose.

I turned my attention to the exterior, and the aged red brick ranch needed a face lift.  I bought brushes and rollers and paint trays, and a huge drum of high quality white paint, an exhilarating action because big purchases mean big change, and this was going to be great, I could feel it.  The first area I tackled was the stucco part around the front door and kitchen window, this was my warm up area.  I took down the shutters and there was an awful lot of dirt, dust and bugs and such that I did not have time to clean off, so I hurriedly painted over them before anyone had a chance to tell me I had to power wash or something crazy like that.

Things were shaping up nicely and this whole house painting thing was proving to be quite a breeze. Day two was as sunny and warm as day one, perfect conditions for a makeover.  The Sherwin Williams helper guy had advised me to roll at least two coats of primer before the actual layers of paint, which was about the silliest suggestion I had ever heard.  I laughed and patted his well-meaning shoulder, That’s not happening, I told him.  He persisted, telling me that if I didn’t prime the paint would peel and chip and all sorts of horrible things would happen, but I was familiar with this sales tactic and was not going to budge.  A woman whose credit card has her husband’s name on it is a notorious pushover for upgrades and non-essential purchases, warranties and add-ons, but I was not going to fall into that stereotype; this guy did not know who he was dealing with, apparently.

As I rolled the first few blotchy stripes of white onto the ruddy brick, the thrill of transformation nearly overwhelmed me.  Up and down and then at diagonals I worked the same four-foot square, throwing tiny drops of white in every direction as I rolled, splatters dotting everything, the porch, the sidewalk, my legs and arms, my hair, the shrubbery.  After an hour of labor intensive re-creation, my arms ached and the heavy, sodden roller slipped from my grasp, landing on the sidewalk with a soft squish.  It’s a good thing I had so many other things to clean up, I thought to myself, otherwise this little mishap would be upsetting.

I stepped back to examine my progress, and it was not impressive.  My eyes scanned the length of our little house and the thought of painting its entirety was suddenly overwhelming.  Brick is porous and drinks paint exhaustively, the divots and crevices, the mortar and irregular textures, all compounded the complexity of the project.  The longer I looked, the bigger it grew, the foundation and it’s redness stretching and expanding like an inflamed rash across the yard and into the sky.  Perhaps that sales guy at Sherwin Williams was onto something with the primer suggestion. I did what any defeated visionary would do: I abandoned the project until my inspiration returned.

Every day for weeks the pure white four-foot square by the front door challenged me, gloating in its triumph, until a tall, slight boy with a curly mop of dark hair and an innocent smile knocked on the door.   Justin Something, he introduced himself, and in naive upspeak he pitched himself as the leader of a crew of experienced young students painting houses for college cash.  For a deal too good to be true, he made an offer I couldn’t refuse, and one week later Justin and his smile and his workers appeared and started prepping. For two days they taped and tarped, but mostly walked around aimlessly, dragging ladders around and drop cloths, back and forth, back and forth, then rest, then lunch, then dragging stuff around again.  Not a brush or roller did I see for those two days.

By day three, the team was reduced by half and only three showed to amble around my back and front yard in a purposeless stupor.  The following day another neglected to show, and Justin was dispirited, betrayed, his poor boyish charm clouded by confusion, and under this cumulus the painting began.  They didn’t get very far, and they didn’t seem to know what they were doing; painting brick is like dancing in quicksand and these boys, understandably, were not enjoying themselves.  It was July and the insufferable heat and humidity was unforgiving in its grip on Saint Louis.  Day five saw Justin’s team reduced by another and my four-foot square started grinning at me, again. It was the end of the week and our little house’s transformation was supposed to have been completed, and from what I saw they had a good 99.5% to go.  The temperature sailed past one hundred degrees and the sun was determined to beat these two weary painters with soft private school palms and naive university minds into submission.

Justin gave his crew of one the weekend off and he started painting on his own in a comical attempt to make up lost time.  He climbed the ladder like it was made of string and suspended in the air over a sea of man eating sharks, white knuckling the sturdy metal rails with a terrified grimace.  It took him ten minutes to reach the top, about fifteen feet, and ten seconds to realize that he had left everything he needed on the ground below.  One by one, he brought each item to rest on the shelf at the top of the ladder: the tape, scissors, a paint brush, gallon of paint, paper towels.  By the time he had all that he felt he needed, it was time for a long, well-deserved lunch.  And this is how it went for Justin from eight in the morning until eight at night, all weekend.  I watched him in the way one would watch a city person try to light a fire with a flint stone, only to set themselves alight, and not the huge pile of wood in front of them, every time.  Monday rolled around and Justin had no helpers.

By the time our house was finished, I was weary of him.  He had painted everything:  the sidewalk, the deck, the windows, the gutters, the flashing, the front door, the driveway, my husband’s car; nothing was spared from Justin’s splashes and splatters, his fallen brushes and rollers, his spilled buckets and cups, his drips and drops.  The yard and the plants were covered in a fine film of white, our entire acre suffocating under the carelessness of one boy.  In his defense, Justin did offer to de-film the car if I would present a bottle of denatured alcohol, but somehow that seemed like a horrible idea.  He thanked us for our business and our patience, he flashed his sweet smile and bounced his curls around playfully, and I fought an intense desire to smack his pink cheeks with a rubber glove.

I had forgotten about Justin.  As the landscaping matured it had covered all of my reminders of him, until last weekend when my dad and I ripped it all up.  Revealed was the story of the epic painting mission of a boy from Texas, oozing with cuteness and hope, squashed by reality and incompetence.  As I surveyed the dots and slashes of white on black shutters and gutters, even the leftover strips of tape that nobody bothered to remove and that withstood several years of storms and temperatures, I started to laugh.  The four foot square that started the whole mess was staring at me, again, reminding me of my own painting adventures and inability to properly plan, organize, lead, and set realistic expectations.  Perhaps I hired that Justin seeing something familiar behind his smile and beyond his curls that we both had in common, and perhaps it was our shared inability to color within the lines.

Out of Bounds

A good player does not necessarily make a good coach, just as a good coach does not necessarily make a good referee.  I played lacrosse in high school and college and currently coach a JVC team for a lovely and civilized private school just down the road, and we have a great time.  We work on skills, we learn drills, we perfect plays, we grudgingly condition, we tease one another, we laugh a lot, and we are undefeated.

I have a tendency to overcommit, in ability, time, energy, interest, whatever.  Things I enjoy seem easier and closer, whereas things that I do not seem to be the opposite, and reality does not always follow these seems of mine.  In fact, oftentimes, I find myself in situations that I’d much rather not be in, doing things that I have no business doing.  Which leads me back to last week where I was asked to help officiate an eighth grade girls lacrosse game, and I happily agreed to be a second referee in a match that turned out to be unexpectedly competitive.

Being an enforcer of rules is not exactly a natural position for me, as I am a firm believer that generally there are just too many rules, most of which do nothing but hassle good people who normally make responsible decisions.  Rules encourage people to explore beyond them, to look for loopholes, they become benchmarks to work around, something to keep attorneys busy (I may or may not be projecting here).  Those who think we are under-ruled are the same who constantly propose new ones, and who insist on enforcing obsolete ones, and these are the most annoying people on the planet, and the world would be a much happier place if they would all go away and live on an island together where they could boss one another around endlessly.

I was determined to defy my rebellious and opinionated nature and to be the best referee that I could possibly be.  Who knows?  Maybe this could be the beginning of a lifelong career, traveling all over the world as a black and white striped portable judge and jury with a monogrammed silver whistle and a closet full of pressed identical track suits.  Maybe I could become so good that I could predict offenses a split second before they happened, and my razor sharp eye would pick up every infraction no matter how far away down the field.  I’d just sit in a chair reclined on the sidelines with one eye open, emitting a varying crescendo of chirrups and doling out yellow cards, free shots and turnovers.  But as I researched this science of field policing, I began to realize that I just may have over-committed myself.

I sensed my limitations closing in on me.  The rules are complicated and there are a lot of them, and they are accompanied by various sounds and gestures, an animated shorthand that enables you to communicate wordlessly, but as a talker I found this daunting.  All of this is designed to keep the girls safe, or so the enforcers say, but players still occasionally get hurt and it frequently has nothing to do with a rule infraction or ill intentions.  Feeling overwhelmed, I narrowed down the five most important, or most frequently called offenses, and wrote them out on an index card that I studied and repeated, and at the game I clutched it in my hand to reference, just in case.  I tried to remember other referees and their demeanors that I could perhaps channel.  I confessed to the main referee that I was out of my element, and offered her a preemptive apology.

The game began without incident, and as it rolled along I sprinted dutifully up and down the field, clutching my index card, never taking my eye off the ball.  I remembered the girls names, I studied their styles, I winced when they slashed and gasped when they crashed their sticks and the real referee, Shorty, was a busy bee; thankfully, she didn’t need my help.  I fought the urge to cheer when the draw was won, when a great shot was taken, and when the goalies made a save.  I clutched my whistle tightly as I ran, never missing a beat, watching every ball roll out of bounds and brought back in by the faster player, and if Shorty didn’t call it, who was I to argue?  I was the supportive referee, new-age with a Tony Robbins flair, encouraging players to be their best and congratulating them when they were, instead of focusing on the negatives.  I saw the three seconds, the shooting spaces, the face cradles, the empty cross checks, the cross in the sphere, the out of bounds, the restraining and holding, and the pushing, but it just never seemed right to blow the whistle and stop such marvelous action, that was Shorty’s job, and if she didn’t call it, well I certainly wasn’t going to second guess the pro.

The heckling occurred in the second half with three minutes left and the score tied, 11 – 11.  A dad in the bleachers yelled, Out of bounds, ref!, as if I didn’t know that.  Of course I knew, I was standing right there, I’m not blind.  A blind ref would make even less sense than one with anarchic tendencies and authority issues.  Why stop a perfectly good run for accidentally stepping six inches beyond an arbitrary white line?  It didn’t make sense to me.  Shorty smiled and laughed continuously and blew her whistle with precision, but mine was just ornamental.  She was the professional enforcer, and if I had been half as zealous, we would have been there for hours;  I had to counter balance.

Lacrosse is a marvelous sport that is fast and graceful, and is a joy to watch when well-played.  The game ended in overtime and half the parents were pissed, the other half were elated.  I thanked Shorty for her hard work and dedication, I thanked the coaches and the told all the girls what a wonderful job they did on the field, and then I ran up the hill to the parking lot as quickly as I could.  Parents do crazy things, I know, because I am one, and I wasn’t convinced that something wouldn’t be thrown at me.  I waved casually to the remaining spectators as I raced across the track in the opposite direction of the bleachers.  I got in the car and locked the door, then sank into the seat as a wave of nausea rolled through me from head to toe.  I unclenched my hand and peeled from my palm the worthless and soggy sheet of rules that I had so carefully crafted and threw it on the floor.  Then I made a mental note to cross officiant off the list of potential mid-life careers for me, not that I needed this experience to come to that conclusion, but sometimes the not-so-subtle reminders of our limitations help to redirect us to more gratifying pastures.