August 22, 2013
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A shadow hovered over the United States in the early '60s. Its darkness lurked in the background as I married and graduated from college; it fell across the school where I taught fourth-grade children the intricacies of long division, comprehension skills of reading, and correct fingering for their flute-o-phones. Busy with my life, I didn’t notice the shadow blacken, move closer, threaten. I didn’t know it would envelope me.
First, my older brothers brainwashed me, then the speed and athleticism of the players and the changing rhythms of the game hooked me. I became a college basketball fan. Football caught my attention when I attended Utah State shortly after the glory days of Merlin Olsen. A knowledgeable guide in the person of my college boyfriend cemented my enjoyment of a game played by strong, quick athletes who mix it up, emerge battered and dirty, and come back the next week to do it again.
Some time ago, I wrote a column candidly confessing my inability to solve life’s mysteries. I hoped you, my readers, would contact me with possible solutions so I could sleep. You didn’t. So I’ve decided to give you a second chance with the following perplexing situations.
I hate daylight savings time and the Uniform Time Act that created it. Due to legislative action taken in the 60s — an era not know for its level-headedness — twice a year I find myself scurrying around the house, fumbling with clock controls and trying to remember whether to spring forward or fall back. By the time I manage to reset all of our clocks, pinpoint accuracy no longer matters. If the timepieces and electronic displays are within fifteen minutes of each other, I declare victory, sit down, put my feet up and think bad thoughts.
I spot them as soon as they enter a restaurant: weary, shoes untied, crumbs littering their clothing. They remove their sunglasses, rub the bridges of their noses and order with little interest; then they smooth out a wrinkled map or peer at a digital version on their cell phones. Road trippers.
I collect antique valentines. My interest in collecting old valentines no doubt flows from my happy memories of school valentine parties.
My friend’s father railed against pedal pushers. My grandmother questioned the attire of Elvis Presley but seemed to enjoy his hips. A college dorm mother told me a true lady would never appear in public without hose, and my first principal sent a teacher home when she showed up at work in a pantsuit.
Now that Christmas is tucked away in my memory, where its bustle will fade and beauty improve, I find my only regret is paying little attention to the winter solstice on Dec. 21, the day nature turns.
Last year, during the interlude between Christmas and celebrating a new year, I sat in my living room by a Christmas tree, of diminished interest and numbered days, and watched as rays of afternoon sunlight slowly expanded the asphalt patches on the snow-packed street.
Home for Thanksgiving, I overheard a conversation coming from the kitchen where Mom was making cinnamon rolls and arguing with my youngest brother JL, “I don’t know that having two paper routes is a good idea in the kind of winter weather we have,” she insisted.
I recently heard that children who lick their iPads could develop mercury poisoning. Unable to validate the rumor, I decided to start another, verifiable from personal experience: old ladies in charge of passwords could develop hysteria.
When my birthday rolled around earlier this month, I had a list of things to wish for as I blew out the crowd of candles that topped my cake. Fortunately, oxygen-deprivation didn’t impact my mental acuity, and I remembered the entire list.
I did not glide into adolescence gracefully. Unlike my peers who seemed to frolic into their teens with nary a backward glance, I plodded forward reluctantly, unconvinced that being a rookie in junior high school was better than being royalty in elementary school. My uncertainty intensified as stores filled with costumes and candy, the mountains displayed swaths of color, and Oct. 31 approached.
I identify with philosophers, dreamers and academics who contemplate the mysteries of life, because I, too, ponder the unexplainable.
In junior high, I participated in a skit designed to extol the virtues of good grooming to adolescents. The five cast members each recited a verse written by our class poet and repeatedly chanted the refrain: “If you want to be healthy, wealthy, and wise, guys, clean up your act, Jack” — an exhortation indicative of both the quality of our act and its reception.
At my age, if I said I’m surprised by my gravity-altered body, I’d sound no brighter than a collie being amazed by ticks after a romp in the woods. Some things in life are as certain as a stalemate in Congress.
As usual, I began by wallowing in a quagmire of indecision. For months, I’d busily and happily written new material to combine with past columns for a book. Now I had a choice: attempt to publish my work or let it die an anonymous little death on my computer.
Last August, a niece who teaches high school posted on Facebook, “Oh, hello, teaching anxiety. There you are. I was wondering when you’d show up.” A week later, a friend in Alabama wrote, “I am going to start my 10th year of teaching next week. Can a person be full of excitement and dread at the same time?”
A few seconds in a rainforest, a sunrise shared with a stranger, a five-minute walk on a beach: all are moments that lingered and the reason I travel.
A week ago, when I planned to wash the windows or sit in the shade feeling guilty because I wasn’t doing so, for some nonsensical reason I decided to reorganize my filing cabinet instead. I flew into action, sorting and discarding with determination, until I came across a stack of old calendars.
If you saw me working in my yard in June, I apologize; I hope you had your children close their eyes as you drove by — no need for nightmares about crazed old ladies in pajamas wielding garden clippers and mumbling.
Last fall, my husband Joel and I examined our yard, deciding which perennial flowers and shrubs we would praise for their perfomance, transplant to a better spot, divide for increased vigor, discard without mourning or threaten before granting one more chance.
I started an occasional correspondence with my father after he retired in 1977 and increased it after Mom died. His responses usually began “Your letter arrived just in time; I needed something to do. You must hate it when I write back so soon. Well, anyway, here goes.”
I recently acquired a new wellness skill, one of many I’ve learned since my retirement: skills necessary if I want to keep my teeth, judge how much pepper I’ve sprinkled on my food, and rise from a chair without injuring anybody.
The '50s may have been a simpler time, but they weren’t all birthday cake and ice cream. I remember crouching under my desk, hearing my heart thump and my teacher’s hose rub as she patrolled the classroom during an atomic bomb drill. Then, the next day, she distributed iodine tablets that my classmates and I obediently took once each week to prevent goiters. As we swallowed, we imagined growing lumps hanging from our necks until people mistook us for turkeys.
I remember coming home from church on Mothers’ Day, looking forward to dinner and mom’s surprise when she opened her presents — a cookie sheet, a three-pack of Dentyne chewing gum and a boxed set of lace-trimmed handkerchiefs — gifts my siblings and I had purchased despite our mother’s repeated claim that all she wanted was an entire day when we didn’t fight, scream, cry or tattle.
When my husband and I entered our assigned room in the downtown Denver hotel, we saw an open suitcase on an easy chair, clothes strewn about, and a football game on TV. Joel about-faced, dragged a baffled me back into the corridor, and rushed off to the lobby.
In honor of Siblings Day on April 10, I am dedicating this column to my brothers and sisters. I hope they enjoy it. I think most of them might. Being the youngest, JL could have benefited from the six models of exemplary behavior that preceded him, but there were none. So, when still a toddler, he pinched his finger in a church pew during a silent moment and exclaimed, “Damn that hurts,” using his outdoor voice.
I did some tossing and turning the night Joel and I rented a cabin near Steamboat Lake with three other couples so we could cross-country ski. “Why, did I ever agree to this?” I wondered. “Sure, I can shuffle my skis around Craig’s golf course, looking ungainly — but not falling — on its bumps; but this lake has genuine hills, some of which go straight up and straighter down. I’ll die. I’ll surely die. But only after wallowing about and making a fool of myself.”
Last Monday morning, Presidents Day, I found myself thinking about the contentious muddle in which our nation currently is mired — I worried that we’ll never find our way out of it. This concern dampened the joy I usually find in breakfast, but I comforted myself by remembering that we survived the ‘60s.
Have you ever noticed that small concerns become major issues during sleepless nights? The occasional twinge in your molar is an abscess that will result in extraction and dentures. Your son doesn’t call because he thinks your genes have kept him from bowling a perfect game; when you remember there are no bagels for breakfast, it breaks your heart.
When I met the new teacher from Chicago everyone was buzzing about at the back-to-school reception for employees of the Carson City School District, I thought he looked like a pampered rich boy. Perfectly dressed, groomed, and tanned, he was tall and impossibly handsome with impeccable manners — and dimples.
Though I never buy a Powerball ticket, I fantasize about what I would do if I won. I dream, debate options and decide on only one immediate change: I would never again board an airplane and park my posterior in economy class.
My family followed established traditions on the day after Christmas just as we did on the day itself: Dad muttered about bills. Mom took a lengthy nap. The oldest children whined because we’d been left in charge of the youngest, and the youngest played with the empty boxes their toys had come in, chewed on ornaments from the tree and threw things.
During the busy buildup to Christmas, I’m going to remind myself to notice simple pleasures and open myself to them, to remember all that I have. I invite you to join me.
I’m grateful for the days of autumn splendor that blessed us this year. Although interrupted by colder periods laden with long-awaited moisture, days of generous sunshine filtered through crisp air arrived with gilt-edged invitations, requesting our presence outdoors, and we complied.
Once again, I will devote a November column to small personal pleasures most folks ignore when counting their blessings. For example, on Thanksgiving, how many of you will be giving thanks for size eleven shoes?
I amuse myself by assigning personalities to the seasons: Spring reminds me of youthful rebels optimistically battling the weary veterans of winter. Summer becomes a revered athlete incapable of delivering the 100 percent perfect performance fans expect every outing, and winter is a polar bear magnificent in its power and beauty. This fall, I decided that autumn is a temperamental adolescent.
I started using Facebook a few months ago. When I bragged about doing so to my teenage grandson, he replied: “Hey, nice. But now everybody’s on it, Facebook’s not so cool anymore. All my friends and I have moved on to texting or tweeting.” Well, la-di-da, Mr. Cutting Edge; I guess I’m not an early adapter.
After my July column that highlighted flaws with motels, I heard from two readers who confessed to odd habits they’ve adopted in order to feel safe when staying in motels. In addition, two others told me about unpleasant experiences they endured when road weary and longing for a good night’s sleep.
I sprouted to unusual heights at an early age. As a result, teachers, baby sitters and forgetful relatives often assumed I was older than my years. Often, when I tattled, cried, pouted or poked a classmate, an adult would say, “Shame on you, Janet, you’re big enough to know better. Act your age.”
Two years ago, I experienced nature’s magnificence as I walked along one of the many trails that twine behind the Sandrocks like tendrils of spaghetti clinging to a pot. An unexpected — but not uncommon — encounter, it lingers in my memory; and a glimpse of furtive movement, a September sun washing my face, or the spicy smell of sage can instantaneously pull it back into my consciousness.
School fashions have changed dramatically since I carried my nap rug into kindergarten wearing a ruffled, polka-dotted dress and lace-trimmed anklets. Every day of every grade of every year from kindergarten through high school graduation, my friends and I wore dresses or coordinated skirts and blouses to class — the majority of them homemade.