Sunday, June 29, 2008

I learned how to ride a two-wheeler when I was 12 years old. My best friend, Adam, who was 10, taught me when no one else could. I'm over it now, but it was my greatest shame for most of my childhood. While my friends would effortlessly mount a moving bicycle, darting off down the street, I'd lumber to my Big Wheel, contort my too-long legs around the plastic steering column, an ever-present panicky feeling, desperate to catch up. I remember being so low to the ground, the asphalt whipping past my thighs.

I'm not sure why I couldn't learn. I remember giving up, time and time again, like an alcoholic who knew it was easier to keep drinking. And then, by way of methods I don't recall, Adam convinced me to let him teach me. I don't remember how long it took or how many times I tried to give up, but suddenly his voice wasn't behind me anymore, where he'd been holding the seat of my bicycle, and when I circled I saw him, across the dead end street, and realized I was on my own. He jumped excitedly, everything a blur around me, except his voice, high-pitched and boyish, urging me to keep going.

No one else had been able to fill me with such pride. Not the lady who lived across the street, all tough love and tight grey curls. One warm summer evening, the sky pink and relaxed, she hulked from her front stoop where she'd be watching me struggle and barked something about not stopping, just keep pedaling, as if I wasn't trying, flipping through a catalogue of tips and tricks to successfully riding a bicycle. Years went by, try try again, but it wasn't until Adam - some strange mix of sporting manliness I couldn't replicate, and soft, gentle friendship - did I ride.

* * *

I think I loved Danny.

My Dad played slow pitch softball when I was a kid. We spent many weekends watching tournaments, though all I remember, really, are sensory things, like the smell of the concession stand, shoelace licorice, the crack of a baseball bat. And Danny, in his red uniform.

He seemed, of course, to be an adult, much older than me, but he was likely in his mid 20s. He was tall, blonde and muscled in a way no one else I knew was. He was tanned and healthy and, though I don't remember him smoking, I'm sure he did. He seemed to me the picture of virility, and most people with those qualities didn't hang out with me, but, rather, the other guys on the team. He seemed to enjoy entertaining me while the game was going on. Afterwards there was always beer and food served in red plastic baskets. I sat drinking, inexplicably, from a Mason jar, watching Danny laugh with my parents, his girlfriend and a blur of other faces. I don't remember anything, really, I can't even conjure his face in my mind, but I remember feeling butterflies, total infatuation. I was eight.

* * *
I wasn't athletic, this much I've made clear. I was one of the smart kids, one of the kids teachers looked to for help creating the poster for the annual Christmas Bazaar. I'm two years younger than my sister, so I was often snatched up by teachers who had taught her previously; some sort of draft for brown nosers who could bring up the class average. Mr. Nediger was her grade eight teacher, and consequently, mine too. He was a large hairy man. But young and healthy, always arriving at school in bicycle shorts and changing into a standard ensemble of khaki pants and dark dress shirt. He was smart and I liked him. He must have liked me too, because he asked me if I'd like to be the scorekeeper for the senior boys' baseball team. I jumped at the chance and soon started riding in sporty convoys, touring the city with them.

I knew just marking down numbers wasn't enough for me. I needed more. I immediately tweaked my new position into that of a PR and Marketing Manager. While the guys stretched and swung bats in warmup, I'd strut across the diamond to the other team's scorekeeper, to hand her (usually a her, sometimes even someone's Mom) a pre-prepared list of my guys names, alphabetically. I'd let her know who to watch out for, which ones might pose a problem for her team. After each game I wrote a detailed commentary to be read during morning announcements. Like some kind of queer, low rent Bob Costas, I raved about the double scored by David in the third or the amazing homer smacked out by Don at the bottom of the ninth.

I loved it.

At the end of the season I made the guys a yearbook, full of photos I'd taken, season statistics, and each of my post-game-wrap-ups. It was the closest I ever came to being on a team of any sort.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Places I Won't Soon Forget

There are several reasons why this photo I took in Cuba makes me happy. This little street in Varadero makes me think of Mister Rogers' Neighbourhood, or perhaps more accurately, Señor Rogers' Vecindad. The best part of any episode (for a kid who loved model train sets, doll houses, or eating cereal with itsy bitsy collectors' spoons at his Grandma's house) was when he sat at the kitchen table and played with his miniature version of the Neighbourhood of Make Believe. Lady Elaine Fairchilde notwithstanding, that show brought me a lot of joy. (That red-faced pre-op was terrifying, no?)

(Top: Varadero, Cuba 2005 Bottom: Mister Rogers' Neighbourhood, 1960s)

Monday, June 23, 2008

We all have our little things. We hate our noses, or our hips or our gnarled third toe. Some things are niggling little bothers, while others keep us up at night, or worse, force us bolt-upright in bed as a pair of overactive man breasts smother us in a vivid nightmare.

Allow me to explain that.

When I was between ten and twelve I went through a phase. That prepubescent, doughy, round-featured experience where a No Shirts in the Pool policy could result in a pill-popping suicide attempt in the change room. As my bulky black shirt dragged me to the bottom of the pool, I was pacified by the anonymity it afforded my midsection. Adding insult to hypochondria, my sixth grade teacher told us about her son, who at 17 years old had begun developing breasts the way a young woman would. He would require full blown surgery to remove the tissue and stop the process. That or join the circus. As the words fell from her mouth, my heart sank. I was immediately convinced this was happening to me. I didn't sleep for months.

Luckily I didn't require a bra and experienced no significant or localized growth. This chubby phase only lasted a year or two, before I got much taller and downright rakish. But the residual effects remain; to this day I stand in front of the mirror testing different positions, different fabrics, determining the ways I can move that keep my breasts within the limits of decency. I'm being absolutely crazy, this I know, but it can't be helped. Childhood is cruel and ever-lasting.

I recently spat in the face of my fears and bought a clingy, heather-grey t-shirt. Anyone who has ever considered fabrics to the degree that I (or a Kathie-Lee Gifford sweatshop worker) have understands that this, next to white iridescent Lycra®, is the most dangerous in all the land. It wraps itself around your flaws and puts them on display as if lit under Oprah's studio grid. It leaves nothing to the imagination.

Needless to the say, after a couple of ballsy spins in public, the t-shirt was quickly relegated to the undershirt drawer, never again to be showcased solo. Perhaps I'll try again in a few years.

Friday, June 20, 2008

I Be Up At the Gym Bed Just Working on My Fitness Lazy

I might not be known for my sticktoitiveness. I'm a bit impatient when it comes to craft projects or child-rearing, so I shouldn't be surprised that I've fallen off the fitness wagon. At some point in May my regimen took a hit. I was doing so well, but then it got unseasonably cold and grey. Rain and single-digit-temperatures were very uninspiring. I couldn't seem to get it together, wrapped in the duvet until at least 11:00am each morning. When my bottle of multivitamins ran dry, I didn't replace them, and my newfound diet of carrots, yogurt and whole grains was promptly replaced with pizza and candy. Out of 31 possible times in May, I went to the gym six times. Half a dozen. Terrible.

This lapse made it all the more clear how effective exercise is - I felt like a million dollars in February, March and April; like I've never felt before - Vital, strong, awake. And now, as the end of June creeps up, I feel lazy and tired, a general malaise rests like meringue over my crusty mood. Muscle tone I swear was developing has receded, my girlish arms returning in all their glory, just in time for T-shirt season.

I need to get a grip, so I'm writing this down to hold myself accountable to the dozens of people who read this blog. I went this morning and it felt good to sweat and move my limbs. Three days a week is all I need to do, and I will. Mark my words.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Flying in Airplanes (and Other Acts Against God)

I don't particularly like flying. I don't like airports, I don't like security checks and I don't like packing cologne into my luggage. The whole thing makes me terribly anxious. While most people sit on an airplane wondering what kind of roasted nut they might like to enjoy, I sit pondering when my glass-bottled scent will explode all over my clothes. It's just how my brain works.

From a young age I've had an irrational fear of all things gravity-defying. I was always most comfortable not only on the ground, but on the ground. I spent a lot of time under my bed, or, ironically, hiding in my closet. Sliding my clothes to one end, I'd pretend I was a DJ and my closet a sound booth. I recorded mock-interviews into our little tape recorder and listened back all day long. I didn't climb trees or scale my friend's grape arbour onto his neighbour's roof. When my pals took to jumping into dirt pits where the new subdivision was being built, I hung back, worried I'd sprain my weak ankles from such great heights. Seriously.

To this day I have a recurring dream nightmare about riding in cars which hit giant speed bumps sending them catapulting into the air. Scary! Until more recently, the mere thought of riding a roller coaster was enough to send me over the edge. When I was 9 or 10 my parents took my sister and I to Cedar Point - one of Ohio's great amusement parks! We rode nothing. I watched my Dad's blood pressure climb, each ride we passed drawing an instant and dramatic "No!" from the both of us. I think we rode the carousel that day, much to his dissatisfaction. So, you can imagine, the thought of getting into an airplane was totally out of the question. I found the whole thing baffling; how in the world does this gigantic piece of metal get off the ground, let alone stay there for hours on end? And I saw far too many television shows called Mayday! or Reader's Digest covers featuring Disaster in the Sky! My memory is thorough and detailed - I can clearly visualize each moment of these stories, the harrowing scenes neatly catalogued in my brain.

The word fuselage sets my teeth on edge.

As years went by, I relaxed a little. For all of my irrationality and quirks, I'm a very logical thinker. All the "Do you know how many flights there are in a day?" pep talks burrowed their way in and I decided I could probably consider it an option. And 9/11 already happened, so what could go wrong?

The first time I flew was in 2005. Jeff and I went to Cuba for our first holiday together. I carefully wrapped my cologne in several layers of sock and wedged it between soft items. We made our way to the airport, my stomach twisted into knots. I realized this feeling wasn't new: crossing the border or renewing my health card made me feel the same way. Anxious at the utter seriousness of it all. The uniforms, the guns, the x-ray machines. My fear of flying coupled with my fear of false persecution ran rampant as I nervously tossed my shampoo in a box on the floor and apologized for my horrible crimes. When the petite black woman with the wand requested I undo my belt, I nearly died. Who does she think I am?! Do I resemble someone they're on the watch for?! All the while trying desperately to appear calm and affable, not at all the type who would storm a cockpit of any kind.

Of course, this had become standard and I had nothing at all to worry about. After all the pomp of check-in, security, and Juanita's wand, the whole experience became not unlike like the doctor's office waiting room. With hours until our departure, we sat in the lounge thumbing through the magazines we'd purchased for the plane and the beach. We wandered along the wide corridors, searching for more magazines, seeing what Duty Free had to offer. While all of this appeared eerily mundane, my mind was working overtime.

As Jeff dozed in the seat beside me, I watched an off-duty pilot hurry by, noting his uniform appeared a bit over-the-top, a bit costumey. Was he an imposter? I quickly committed his face to memory, special attention to his strangely synthetic moustache and jaunty cap. Hadn't I seen those badges at a joke shop when I was a kid?

I scanned the other passengers in our area: Gate B34. I watched their faces, wondering who might cauterize my various wounds or help me out of the ocean-soaked fuselage. I wondered what Seat 23F might wear to the 10th reunion of Flight 140 crash survivors. I figured a floral, based on the clumsy beach clothes she donned on this freezing February morning. A man in his mid-forties looked shifty, but was he just half-asleep? When a bouncy blonde joined him with two large double-doubles, his face lit up and he lost the frightening edge.

Every so often I'd shake my head and focus on the book in my lap, laughing at my own silliness. I tried to avoid looking out onto the tarmac, a world rife with possibility. I watched as young men in parkas tossed luggage into the belly of the plane we were soon to board. I wanted to make sure no one was clipping any wires or loosening any critical bolts. I could see the flight crew through the narrow windshield - Was that vodka he was drinking? No. Of course not. What is that piece of what hanging from the bit there? Nothing! It's nothing. Aircraft taxied all over, pulling up to the gates like your neighbour's station wagon cozying-up to the house next door. It's all so strange, these hulky minivans cruising around so casually.

And then we had to walk down that tunnel towards the plane. It reminded me of E.T., somehow, though that movie involved UFOs and aliens, which terrified me on several levels; I might not be recalling it clearly. I averted my eyes as we stepped between the gate and the airplane, sure not to notice that bit of rust on the edge of the door frame. A friendly face greeted us and sent us down the narrow aisle. Just pretend it's a bus.

I packed my things into the overhead compartment and settled into my seat. I hurried to racially profile my neighbour, wondering what his style of takeover might be. I quickly offered him my lumbar support pillow, noting he looked a bit stressed. Listening closely to announcements, searching for coded meanings or a hint of anxiety in the flight attendant's voice, I paid special attention to the safety instructions. Jeff could see it on my face, and I smiled nervously. When the pilot came over the speaker to welcome us, I wondered if there was a homemade shank digging into his ribs. I strained to hear panic or fear - Nothing. The man was shockingly relaxed. His voice deep and reassuring, I imagined the Marlborough Man sitting at the controls. As if he was pouring me a third glass of wine at dinner, his voice was soothing and I started to relax. I sat in my seat, eyes closed, my breathing carefully controlled, thoughts also. I worried that if I allowed images of wreckage or those scary yellow slides to enter my mind, we'd most certainly slide off the runway.

And while I have flown several times since, there's nothing as surreal to me as taking off. Every single time, there comes a moment when I think to myself, "We're not gonna make it. The engines aren't loud enough. Something's up." And then the horizon goes tilty and we're climbing. I don't take my head away from the headrest until the plane levels out and cheerful faces start offering nuts.

Whenever doing something new, I look to Jeff. I search his face for signs of concern or confusion, hints of what's to come. Is this a totally standard part of the process? I look at him. If he looks like himself - calm, confident, and, at times, disarmingly aloof - I relax a little. He gives me that cocky little glance that at once says "I love you deeply," and "Don't be such a pussy," and my brain gets quieter. However, after our trip to the Dominican Republic, I'm a bit more skeptical of this comfort-gauge I've relied upon. We experienced some rather bumpy turbulence somewhere over South Carolina and as the plane dipped and shook, I looked at him. He smiled and winked at me, utterly relaxed, mocking me gently. When the plane landed I caught him exhale deeply. "Was that the worst turbulence you've ever been through?" I asked. "Absolutely," he replied, laughing. And although I felt betrayed by this false sense of security, I was soon assuaged by the hot sun and complimentary beverages.