Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Simplest. The Best. The Aqua Bicycle.

When you have kids, a vacation to the beach with extended family is many things.  It's for packing too much, and stopping for bathroom breaks, and bringing an enormous bag entirely devoted to beach towels and fitted sheets, and figuring out the sleeping arrangements, and applying sunscreen -- lots of sunscreen, and letting the kids have juice boxes and candy AND ice cream later at night.

It's for periodic melt downs, and Yahtzee or Checkers games, and crowded beaches where the sand scorches your feet and you stare at the teens who just lay there  -- oblivious to everything but their tan lines and phones -- and you can't remember ever experiencing the stage of life when you were responsible just for yourself.

It's for finding sand in the nooks and crevices of kids' bodies, and tossing beach toys in the back of the minivan, and taking an outing to the water park where you count heads, and making sure everyone stays hydrated, and, of course, reapplying sunscreen -- lots of sunscreen.

It's not for rest.

Still, I often begin a vacation with the idealistic notion that I'll have time for quite seaside reflection, and I'll emerge from a perfectly angled adirondack chair into my non-beach life with significant life epiphanies.  This doesn't happen, but let me tell you about what did happen this past week.

I saw this bike left in the garage of the house where we stayed. 

Maybe it was the soothing aqua color, or the fact that beach terrain, unlike my central Pennsylvania mountains, is always flat, or that a one-speed bicycle with back-pedal brakes reminded me of childhood, but I immediately fell in love with this bike.

We took a few rides throughout the week with our three girls and four nieces and nephews, creating a von-Trapp-like trail that prompted more than one passerbyer to ask, "Are they all yours?" as they nodded to the seven kids between filling the gap between my husband's station in the lead and my position as the rear guard.

But the final night, through some configuration of circumstances that involved the adults jostling rides and taking some kids to mini-golf, I found myself able to steal a solo bike ride.

I don't remember what I thought about that evening, really, or whether I actually thought at all.  I just pedaled, following any route I desired.  I felt the humid air on my skin and beach breeze in my hair.

And when I stopped, it was here on the bay.

Later as I rode back to the beach house while the sky darkened, I took the longest route possible, not quite wanting the ride to be over.  Even with the adirondack chairs, the evening produced no significant life epiphanies, except perhaps that sometimes the best part of a vacation could be as simple as an aqua bicycle.

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Saturday, July 9, 2016

Chronicles of an Indecisive Online Shopper

Once, while I was in the hospital, a nurse asked how severe my pain was on a scale of 1-10.  My brain nearly exploded.  I wasn't dying (at least, I didn't think I was), and I could probably tolerate more pain without dying (although I didn't want to), and I was coherent enough to understand what she was after (which indicates some presence of mind), but the question was enough to push me over the edge.

What if I answered too low and they offered to give me a measly Tylenol?  What if I answered too high and revealed a laughably low pain threshold?  What in the world did these numbers correlate with, anyway?  Was 4 even worthy of being in the hospital?  Would 10 indicate that I was actively being mauled by a bear?  Could I offer a fraction of a number, like 7 and 3/4 degrees of pain, because 7 just didn't seem to cut it, but ratings of 8 and above seemed like they should be reserved for childbirth or broken femurs?  Was it permissible to answer, "Stop pelting me with questions! Just help me!"

If, like me, your mind responds in this fashion when a nurse prompts you with a standard question, you're probably an over-thinker.  It's doubly troublesome if you're indecisive and waver in your response by answering the question with another question -- 6, no wait, maybe it's actually a 7?

I've noticed that the combination of over-thinking and indecision is particularly troubling when you're attempting to buy something, anything, online.  (Or when you're scrutinizing paint chips, but that's another story for another day.)  While recently shopping for an area rug to place in our newly-hardwooded computer room, I fell into paralysis at the sheer number of options, as if area rugs were grains of sand on a grossly expansive beach of Internet search results.

Even the available filters -- seemingly useful parameters like price, size, color, and shape -- didn't help as much as I thought they would, given that there still were thousands of choices available at my fingertips when they were applied.

Where was the filter titled "Things I Would Like, Versus Totally Not Like" that removed ugly options from the onset?  Where was the "Things That Would Look Good in My Specific Space and Compliment Things I Already Own" filter?  What about one that found "Products That Arrive At Your House Actually Looking Just Like They Look in This Picture" and ferreted out misleading results?

Our civilization has explored the depths of space, created new body parts with 3D printing, and produced marvels of engineering that defy human limitations, yet we can't fully help a girl out when she's buying an area rug.

With dozens of tabs open on my computer, I muddled through the task with great uncertainty.  I overextended my husband's patience with the number of times I uttered the words "area rugs" any given day.  I waffled.  I wavered.  I enlisted the help of a wonderful friend who probably didn't have time for any of this, but offered her thoughtful opinions regardless.

The day I narrowed my search to four solid choices, I walked away from the computer victoriously.  Later, I discovered that my oldest daughter accidentally closed those hard-earned tabs while playing a game.  (Cue me, silently screaming.)

Apparently, I find it much easier to shop at brick-and-mortar stores where I can look at items in person, buy them, take them home, and then incessantly deliberate about whether something works or not.  Clicking "add this too my cart" feels like I'm pulling a trigger; tactile indecision seems much friendlier than its digital counterpart.

In case you're wondering, I finally purchased a rug.  (And then, sadly, I shipped it back because it was entirely wrong.)  Even more skiddishly after this failed attempt, I initiated another online search and selected a different option.  Days later when it arrived from UPS, I unrolled it and then sighed a happy sigh of relief.

It worked.

It was the right size, the right color, and the right price.  It was a rug that I liked, versus one that I totally did not like.  It looked good in my specific space and complimented things I already owned.  It arrived at my house actually looking just like it did in the picture.  It deserved a small moment of silence.

I should probably conclude by telling you that years ago, when one of my daughters was very young and I was playing an opposite game with her, I offered the word "buy."  I thought that she'd supply the antonym "sell," but without a moment's hesitation, she smiled and offered a definitive response: "return."

I learned two things from this.  One, she's entirely pegged my shopping tendencies.  Two, based on her quick and firm answer, she doesn't have a hard time making a decision.

I should have her do my online shopping.

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Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Slow Lane of July

The month of July reminds me of a certain phenomenon that occurs when I drive on the highway for a long trip and finally exit onto residential roads again. At first, I struggle to monitor my speed.  I'm accustomed to moving faster, accelerating constantly.  I have to train myself to slow down and move at the reduced pace.

That's July for my life.  I downshift.  I've left behind the superhighway pace of the typical semester.  Late last week, once final grades were submitted, I turned off the high-traffic, bustling road of summer teaching.

In July, life doesn't propel me forward in the same way it does during other months.  I learn to navigate my daily roads more slowly, more deliberately.

Before I know it, the time will come to pick up the pace once more, but for now, I'll savor how July invites me to live life in the slow lane.

Image compliments of Josh Lowensohn.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

One Wrong Board Makes a Right

After living in our house for ten years, Joel and I decided to install hardwood floors in two downstairs rooms and our hallway.  We tested multiple samples in various lighting and finally decided on a wide-planked medium brown with gray undertones.

I knew they'd be gorgeous; I couldn't wait to have them installed.  Somewhere, deep in the idealistic recesses of my mind, I envisioned that the entire process would be rewarding -- as if there would be a great unveiling on the final day when Chip and Joanna Gaines would sit me down on a couch, gesture broadly toward the new floors, and say, "Welcome home!  We hope you guys live here happily every after."

But it wasn't quite like that.  I had been forewarned about the dust and the noise, and I had expected the feeling of displacement that comes when you shuffle your living quarters.  I hadn't anticipated that the workers would be loud and unprofessional, creating a tense atmosphere during the times when I was at home while they worked, or that they'd neglect to fill nail holes or caulk properly as they rushed to finish the job.  I certainly hadn't anticipated that they'd somehow manage to place the one board that didn't match any other boards directly in the center of our hallway.

This board -- so unfortunately and prominently placed, so unnecessarily short and stubby -- simply refused to blend in with any of its neighboring boards.  It was positioned in such a conspicuous location that I could spot it from every direction, and once it was seen, I couldn't unsee it.

I don't know how a singular hardwood plank could trigger a groundswell of memories, but that evening when the workers left, I had flashbacks to an earlier moment in life.  I was 22, on the cusp of my college graduation.  As a treat, I decided to get a haircut and, for the first (and only) time in my life, to splurge on highlights.  It cost more money than I would normally spend on myself.

The results were disastrous.  The haircut was shorter than anticipated; the highlights were stark, like my hair had been frosted instead of sunkissed.  I remember looking at myself in the mirror, shocked and disappointed, but unable to articulate those reactions.  I had paid and tipped the hairdresser, walked away from the salon, and then cried in the parking lot.

I never returned to express my disappointment.  I never asked the hairdresser to fix the mistakes.  I still cringe a little inwardly when I see pictures from graduation, partially because the haircut was so unflattering, but mostly because there was some unspoken shame that I didn't know how to advocate for myself to repair it.

Still thinking of that mishap from over a decade and a half ago, I sent a picture of my floors to my friend to ask if she could identify the misfit board.  Her response was swift, reassuring me that I wasn't making it up.  "That one right in the center?  Absolutely."

Throughout the next day I regarded the board warily, wishing it would stop bothering me the longer I looked at it, but it never did.  We had spent a lot of money on these floors, more than we'd normally spend on ourselves, but this time I came to a definitive, but different, conclusion: the board was wrong, and they'd need to fix it.

I contacted the flooring store and explained that we wouldn't be paying the remaining cost until the floor was finished properly.  Once his schedule cleared, the foreman of the job returned.  As I showed him the deviant plank and pointed out the unfinished caulking and nail holes, he shook his head.  "I see exactly what you mean, and I apologize," he began.  "We really should have done this right in the first place, but I'll make it right now."

And he did.

It wasn't quite like Chip Gaines wishing me happily-ever-after, but somehow that brief interaction brought immense closure -- on multiple levels.

It was wrong, but I advocated, and now it is right.

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Wednesday, June 1, 2016

If this thing is off, know that I'm on an adventure.

I, for one, was surprised and delighted when I turned the calendar page to reveal the month of June.  Surprised because I have precious little recollection of what transpired during May.  I mean, something had to happen, but what?  Then I opted to feel delighted because I love a clean slate, even if it's in the form of a month without hatch marks crossing out already-lived days.

Simple pleasures, friends.  Simple pleasures.

Before I turn the calendar page, though, I sometimes regard that messy past month and think, "That is my life.  Those days I crossed off?  Those were days I just lived."  So what did happen during May?

Well, in a flurry of grading, I finished the four college classes I taught during the spring semester, then I painted a room, then we rented our house for graduation weekend, then I ran a half-marathon, then we dismantled our downstairs living space to install new flooring, then we celebrated three family birthdays, then I started teaching my summer class, then my parents visited from out of town, then I succumbed to a strange head cold that teased me by letting me feel better for a day before dragging me down into a tailspin of congested haziness again, then I actually recovered, then we hosted multiple dinners at our house for students, then we had picnic lunches at each of my daughters' schools, then grading for my summer class began in earnest.

And then we flipped the calendar to June.

With all those day-to-day activities and moments, I rarely wrote here.  I've thought about this.  Sparse posting is bittersweet because my life makes most sense when I write.  (This month, in fact, marks the sixth full year that I've blogged.  I don't love that I've recently hovered in a season when there's a week or two-week-long gap between posts.)

Still, these intermittent blogging gaps remind me of a story that a student once told me as we discussed narrative, and I'll share with you here.  A family's dog had run away, so it seemed, and they were beside themselves with concern.  A friend encouraged them: "Don't think of it as running away; think that your dog is on a great adventure.  When he's ready to come home, he will."

The same goes for me.  If it ever seems like I've temporarily run away from writing, know that looks can be deceiving.  I'm simply on an adventure.  I'm dreaming up DIY house projects (I can't wait to share them!), or meeting with students (summer session is moving briskly), or dragging my children to garage sales (oh, the finds at the sales! oh, the groans from the children!), or teaching myself to twirl a baton (true story), or re-reading the Harry Potter series (just finished book three last night), or cozying up on the couch beside my husband (no explanation needed), or frenetically attempting to finish All. The. Things. on my to-do list before school releases my kids into the glories of summer vacation next week (wish me luck).

Life is meant for adventure and living.  And, for me, life is also meant for writing about those adventures and days lived -- those messy, crossed-off squares on the calendar that sometimes need to be crystallized in words so they're not entirely forgotten.

I'm so glad that you, dear reader, join me here as I write.  Even if there's a brief gap, I'll never be gone for long.  I'm just gathering stories, and I always return home.

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