Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The (Almost) Unbearable Littleness of Being

There is a girl in my son's fifth grade class who is, in his words, "going to doing something really amazing in the world someday."  She, let's call her G, is an independent organizer of charity drives and, for her birthday, asks that guests to her party make a donation to her most cherished cause.  This girl runs races and climbs trees and doesn't back down from anything. G is pretty. And she is diminutive, which makes her passion even more endearing.  Yet her size does not detract from what she gets done. 

I've always been little.  My mother said that when she brought me home, it was like carrying a solid little bag of sugar.  I had a fall birthday and, in the absence of preschools in rural Ontario in the early 1970s, went off to proper school at the age of four, where I was not only small for my age but also nearly a year younger than many of my classmates.  Like G, I had gumption, but not nearly so much as she, and often not enough. It certainly was better that I was a girl and cute enough to get by, but for a long time I felt like I was playing a game of catch up.  And no matter how hard I worked, it seemed I saw that aw, shucks, isn't that cute look every time I tried to prove myself.   It made me furious, and when I stomped my little foot things only got worse.

For someone my size, I did make a few inroads into athletics, mostly solo sports since I hated the idea that my littleness would (and usually did) slow down the rest of a team.  Distance running seemed to be about obstinate dedication, and until I ran a joint or two into the ground through over-training, I did rather well.  I managed to get through the time-trials needed to qualify as a lifeguard through the Canadian Red Cross, but it was close, and I'm still not sure the instructor didn't fudge it because, gosh darn it, I was just so cute and plucky.  My limitations were clear quite early: I would never really be an athlete. 

Nevertheless, I have stayed active through my adult life into middle age, save for a couple of years sacrificed to marital dissolution.  I can walk a fast six or seven miles with a 70-pound dog, but running is out of the question if I want to get out of bed in the morning and walk without pain.  But I've never given up on the idea of being seriously fit. A month ago I got a real bike and have been riding it regularly and am building my miles.  This weekend I went out, excited at the prospect of my first summer ride. 

The wind in North Texas, never tame, seems to get stronger the hotter it gets.  The trail ride at 90 degrees for seven miles to the southwest with 20 MPH gusts was a slog, though I kept reminding myself that I, too, get stronger each time I fight it.  Still, when I turned around and started the other way, it was like I was in labor and the epidural had finally kicked in.  The grimaces on the faces of riders meeting me now seemed rather comical, since the bastard was now pushing me along rather than taunting me relentlessly.  Buoyed, I decided to ride home via the prettiest street in Fort Worth, a winding road past a PGA course and perfectly manicured lawns. It's gorgeous and wasn't terribly busy at that time of day. It was giddy fun as I turned onto it, though I was thinking about that hill, easy to drive but now that I thought about it not the best idea on tired legs. 

I made it up the hill.  But at times the wind actually pushed the bike backwards as I ascended.  For all I know, this happens to every rider. But for me, it was as though Mother Nature was giving me a spanking for doing something regular guys do on lots of Saturday mornings. You're small, she said. I'm tough as hell and you won't beat me, said I.  As it was, she made me sit down for two or three minutes beside a professionally-tended flowerbed at the top of the hill, gulping water and air and wondering if it would be okay to lie down under the big live oak inside the gate.  Then I got up and rode home.

This is not really about health, of course.  I could keep up my walking regimen and my hour of core work a week and still be fitter than 90 percent of the US population.  I'm not on The Biggest Loser and trying to transform my life; it's already pretty healthy. 

Nope.  Like everyone in the grips of a midlife crisis (mine at least involves a Trek hybrid instead of a Harley) this is about reinvention.  Finally I want to be that girl who can keep up with the boys, the one who is in the Athleta catalog and knows how to snowboard and surf.  Not the one who woke up after her first day of skiing and thought she'd dislocated her hip.  Not the girl who spent hours, for weeks on end, in her driveway shooting baskets only to learn that to make the team she'd have to play against people who were normal-sized and even tall. 

It's trite to say trying new things keeps one young, yet also true, though more on the flip side. Ads that showcase such pursuits emphasize the fun part of feeling like a kid again, but the truth is that in trying again we remember all of our shortcomings as children and teenagers. That's why most people, other than the ones who grew up skiing and surfing and playing tennis with confidence, don't try novel stuff.  Taking on a new athletic pursuit has brought these feelings up again, and yet all I am really doing is the true work of growing up: acknowledging my limitations and having a fun and fulfilling life in spite of that knowledge.

We all want something, and I want to be taken seriously, perhaps more than anything else. And that's because, due to my size, I feel it's been denied me many times. And yet I don't worry about it much anymore, as experience and age mean that most of the time people look at me quite capable indeed. Also, I can be an overbearing know-it-all at times, so a lot of people who know me know would find this pretty funny. What I do know is that my self-consciousness and overcompensating behavior mostly go away when I am truly engaged. This is what I see in G, and I hope she keeps it.  At some point when doubters look at her and think she's not up to it, cute little thing, she'll go find lots and lots of other people to write checks and fund her cause. And then she'll change the world.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Envy is the Enemy of Contentment

There's an uncomfortable feeling I get from time to time.  It's often in carpool line, though it doesn't happen when I see the mom who is dropping off her kids and in a hurry to get to her minimum-wage shift at Sonic or to clean the house of a woman like me.  No, this feeling occurs most frequently when I'm in proximity to a particularly slender blonde who is wearing yoga pants and is driving a Range Rover or a Hummer (yes, in Texas people drive these without apology) and looks like she is in a hurry to get to Pilates. 

At this point in the day, I've awakened and looked at my Blackberry, answered a few of the messages that have arrived overnight from Asia and Europe, and am already worrying about what I haven't done.  Sometimes I've been on a 7 a.m. conference call already, occasionally juggling it with getting a child to school--the mute button may be the single greatest invention for working parents--and am looking at a commute and a day with multiple calls and a couple hundred emails. When there is a problem with the house, it's mine; there is no man to call when the garage door falls down. I do manage to squeeze in workouts, but like everything else in my life, they seem to be done at a sprint and, until I discovered the joy of the bike, without much fun involved. 

So yes, I am jealous of the blonde who appears to have landed in a cosseted life where all she needs to worry about is how her ass looks in yoga pants.  I know comparison is enemy of contentment and that I should work harder to compare myself to people who have less than me, and God knows I am way, way on the side of fortunate.  But this is not human nature.  People magazine is still in business for a reason. 

Then I ran across a message, not a new one but said in a way that resonated with me, on Communicatrix:

Here's what I've learned about envy and idle wishing: they come from a shallow place of not-knowing.They come from not knowing what the people you're envious of have gone through to get where they are, nor the full spectrum of what they live with to stay there: how many mountains of s*%t they've shoveled; how grueling the the maintenance of success can be...For some of us, envy and idle wishing also come from not knowing yourself, and what you're capable of, and even what the hell it is you want exactly. It's far easier to envy someone else their success than it is to figure out what yours might look like, much less go after it.

When I get to this place, it's because I'm buying into what looks like success, rather than my own version, which I've chosen quite freely. So then I start thinking about what I have. A great, if challenging and consuming, gig which affords me a chance to actually drop my kids off at school and make a living a far sight past minimum wage. My work sometimes makes me wonder if  I am sufficiently capable or intelligent to do it well, but this is where I actually like to be. Otherwise I get bored and more cranky than usual. 

I do find time to walk the dog and ride my bike and go out with The Boy on his training runs. Once I've unloaded the dishwasher and folded the laundry and gotten everyone fed, I sometimes enjoy my very comfortable house. I even do something properly social, once or twice a quarter.

I am making my own version of success, though sometimes I get sucked into the idea of being the blonde in the Range Rover.  It's just that when I'm reading my Blackberry during soccer games and arriving late for pick up at birthday parties and consistently telling my kids we've got to go because I've got to get back to whatever, I think I'd be a better mother if I'd just drawn the blonde's straw.  

Maybe, maybe not.  To hear it from my kids, I'm not much worse than any other mother, which I guess at adolescence is as good as it gets.  And I sure wouldn't be any happier if I lived like a real housewife of Rivercrest.  Because those women are only interesting once you learn about their past.  Sitting around the pool while waiting for my husband to finish the back nine would send me straight to a pitcher of martinis.  I am where I am because I've decided, consciously or not, to be here.  This is because I have opportunities to choose, unlike the mom who must work at Sonic or someplace more unpleasant or dangerous.  So I'll do my best to focus on that.  When I can't, I'll try to remember that the skinny blonde maybe has a big pile to shovel, every day.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

What Happily Married People Know

At a party last night, I saw a lot of happily married people. It was a very nice party, by a lake and appropriately casual with lights strung around the lawn and a taco truck for food and a bar staffed by nice young people who were being paid in tips.

Divorced people frequently find solace in our finely-attuned ability to see chinks in the armor of Tribe of the Perpetually Happy. Oh sure, we tell ourselves, they've been together for two decades and have a beautiful and talented family, a couple of enviable chunks of real estate, and impressive resumes.  But did you see the way she snapped at him when he ordered his third scotch?

Sometimes we're right and people bust up in spectacular and trainwreck fashion, but when they do it's rarely satisfying to those of us who've been there.  Like when we read about another famous and powerful man who's had a secret life for a decade at least, we wonder if anyone is immune.  Happily married people have the luxury of not thinking it will happen to them, at least not for more than a fleeting moment.  Sure, they understand that it might, but they've been spared the experience of having their lives implode and the brittle truth that nothing, absolutely nothing, is forever. 

Instead--and most important--these charmed and wise people are kind to one another, even in moments of stress.  A couple of years ago, my daughter told me a story about parents of one of her friends; this couple was among those I talked to at length last night. My daughter was in the car when the mom ran out of gas. She called the dad, who soon arrived with a full fuel can. Instead of the screaming match my children would have braced themselves for back when their parents were tethered to one another, these thoughtful people were, amazingly, apologetic to one another. "Sorry I had to call you." "It's okay, I drove your car yesterday and noticed your fuel light was on and should have filled it up then." Really? Not where my kids lived.  Hearing the story, I was seared me with shame at remembering my own impatience in the face of dropped balls.

These couples also talk to each other, a lot and about everything, from what I can tell. And, most amazingly, they sincerely like the people they've traveled with through young married life past babies and toddlers and into now the phase of raising middle and high schoolers.  That's it, in essence: they really do still like each other. There is shorthand in conversation and the way one just looks at the other when one is ready to leave the party and the other one knows. Many of these people even look like they're going home to get busy. It's not, who the hell are you and how did I get here?  Or, why do I feel like I'm living someone else's life?

As I looked around last night I realized I like all of them, nearly to a person. I suppose this tempers my burning envy of their happy unions, or at least I'd like to think so. Also, they still invite me to their lovely parties and never make me feel like a freak, my default self-perception.  No, they let me into their magic circle despite my clear failures, and so we get to talk about all we have in common, even beyond kids--many of them have interesting jobs, great reading lists, screechingly hard workouts (I think this might be the middle-aged version of talking about ailments, as my parents seem to do constantly with their friends, though they laugh about it) and where we'd like to live once our kids leave the nest--and I have a marvelous time. 

As my single life stretches into the second half of a decade, I am thrilled to still be included at such gatherings.  Although seeing all these people in truly satisfying marriages (once one has passed forty I think "happy" is rather a frivolous word) where they've had the corners knocked off them and go on with anticipation rather than dread, does make me consider once again what is so terribly wrong with me, it also gives me tremendous hope.  That my daughter and her brother have the chance to spend time around so many people who have made happy lives is proof to them that it can be done.  And maybe someday it will rub off on their mom.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Life in my college town follows an annual rhythm that, although predictable, can still catch one unawares. In May, it's the opposite of that first fall morning when you walk outside and know from now on you'll need a sweater: something is just off, and then you realize there is a distinct decline in traffic, specifically of tricked-out F350s and BMWs driven at inadvisable speed by blondes wearing Prada sunglasses with Nike shorts and t-shirts from sorority rush. 

The Hot Chicks in the pretty house at the end of the street have moved out.  I've harbored a middle-age grudge against them since I moved in a year ago.  They are nubile, with perfectly highlighted hair and clothes I am not ashamed to say I covet. Their handbags cost a mortgage payment.  Two of them have new X5s.  The third, poor thing, had to settle for her mom's five year-old Lexus SUV.  They have cleaning ladies and yard guys.  Did I mention they were, in the time they lived here, college students?  For a while I let the dog take care of major business on their lawn--proving one can be sophomoric at any age--until I realized they weren't the ones who had to pick it up.

And yet, when I saw the moving van, I realized they were graduating.  I know they are all heading off to New York or London or wherever that sort of young woman goes to find a hedge fund manager to marry, but it made me wistful, as did the general quiet in my part of the city.  Right now I don't have to wait in line at the Kroger behind obnoxious and entitled young men buying beer, and I can put gas in my car without being blinded by the glare of a Tiffany engagement ring on a senior filling up her own tank with her Platinum card.  But I feel sad that a whole class has moved on, and not just because they keep the local economy going. 

This is not unrelated to the fact that my own babies are moving on, too.  The Boy is leaving our darling elementary school for the trials of sixth grade, and his sister will be in high school next year.  How on earth this happened, I am not sure.  All I know is that I cry at the drop of a hat lately, especially during that Subaru ad with the little girl who is really the teenager and her dad is telling her to be careful driving. 

Because that's what it's like at this stage.  When they are toddlers, the days seem to go on forever and they want to be with you all the time.  Now I don't really remember the time in between and often feel relegated to the role of chauffeur and bank, and my presence is generally tolerated but not embraced.  Time has suddenly accelerated: I have four short years with my firstborn, shared every other week with her father and stepmom, before she heads out the door for college, God willing.  I'll have her brother for another three years, though I'll be sharing him not only with other parents, but with girls and cars and sports. 

Good parents do themselves out of a job.  As mothers in our circle go, I consider myself  laissez-faire, with full-time work and co-parenting serving as barriers to intense involvement. We still have plenty of teenage territory to cover, which from what I understand from other parents makes it much easier to let them go.  But not really, once the moment arrives. 

It will not surprise me if both of my kids wind up living in Fort Worth for the rest of their lives, but we've talked about how important it is for them to get away for few years.  Texas Christian University, fine institution though it is to attend and grow up beside, should not be on their list of schools, in their mother's opinion.  For one, we're not rich enough.  "But what if I get a scholarship?" the Boy asks.  We'd still have to get you a fifty-thousand dollar pick up truck, I reply.  Still a few more seasons before we get there, and  I've resolved to enjoy them while they last.

Monday, May 2, 2011

How to Fly When You're Over Forty

Showing up is eighty percent of anything, or so my yoga instructor paraphrased Woody Allen last week as she was getting into side crow pose.  This, for any of you not rolling out your sticky mat a few times a week, involves using your arms to support yourself while you throw a leg to the side, ever so nonchalantly. Hold it for twelve minutes or so. I am neither a nubile 25 year-old yoga instructor nor a cosseted matron whose ostensible age has been halted at exactly thirty-six by zealous maintenance including a lot of time on the mat. I kept falling down and trying not to swear. 

When I was young, it hurt to run, but in that good way that leaves one's lungs and legs burning for a couple of minutes. Now it hurts, not so good, in my knees and various tendon pulls that plague me as soon as I do more than powerwalk.  I know walking is good for me, but I might as well just start going to the mall at six in the morning. 

After fighting it hard, I decided to buy a bike. This is advice that's come to me for quite awhile, all from men.  Rich old white guys, to use my kids' expression. I see them all the time on the trail, while I am hauling my aching ass along at an twelve-minute pace and looking for a cool, flat surface to lie down on.  They ride aluminum steeds weighing less than a premature Labrador puppy and costing a couple of mortgage payments.  They bark insults at one another, jostling for the alpha position. I will never be that rich or that thin. 

Yet so many people tell me they have a great time riding, and say it's a social sport.  Most of my pursuits are solitary, and even work is more email and phone than face-to-face.  The kids are getting older and can certainly live without me for a couple of hours on a Saturday morning. 

I went to a bike shop, Bicycles, Inc., recommended by one of my ROWG friends after I told him I was wildly intimidated by the whole scene. "A bike's a bike," he said. Yeah right, and yours is worth five grand. When I got to the store, a youngish cute guy with a beard was helping another ROWG but took a second to go and find me some help in the form of a woman about my age.  She turned out to be the manager and helped me through from soup to nuts without ever making me feel bad. 

I thought I wanted an Ariel, based on the looks of it, but when I rode it in the parking lot it felt disappointingly slow.  Then my new friend brought out a little hybrid bike that weighs about 23 pounds.  Gingerly, I got on it--yes, you never forget how to ride a bike, but you never forget how much it hurts to fall off, either--and it was sweet.  Lighter, more fun.  And then came the real the temptation in the form of a sleek and brilliant white roadbike. Once in that saddle, I wanted to ride away and leave my car in the parking lot, especially after I'd flipped over the price tag.  It was so light and so fast, and on it my butt looked better before I'd even put a mile in.  But I wasn't worthy of it. Not yet.

I bought the hybrid in the end, a Trek 7.2 FX, and took it out for a ten-mile spin right after I got it home.  The shorts with the awkward padding were not cute, nor was the helmet. The gears were a little complicated, but after a bit I started to get how they worked, though this will take some time. It was almost ninety degrees, but there is a nice breeze on a bike, so different from running. Suddenly I felt ten years old again, remembering how to corner, how to slow down, how to race down a hill, the whistle of the wind in my ears. My heart pounded, my lungs and legs burned, but no groans came from my knees or tendons. The next morning only hurt a little, thanks in large part to the shorts. And I'd learned to fly again.