Rearrange the letters of the word pets and you get pest. Those who have provided a home for a domesticated animal can in one breath use a term of endearment for the adorable Whiskered Fluffernutter, but then one shredded couch later Fur Face becomes a Fury of Greek proportions. One hairball too many and “She” becomes “It”. The first urine stain on the new rug and man’s Best Friend needs relationship counseling. Steadfast adoration toward the animal you provide food and shelter to is rare. Our feline, canine, reptilian, aviary, and cutie-pie friends in cages can just as easily work their way into our hearts as get under our skin. Don’t get me wrong. I like animals. I just don’t like the drama that frequently presents itself in animal husbandry.
In my boys’ lifetime we have provided shelter and vittles for a cat, a five-day fish, a two-day turtle, two anole lizards, a panda hamster, a rabbit, a leopard gecko, and a ball python. Over the course of fifteen years we have purchased various volumes of “Care and Feeding of ___” (insert species of pet store animal). We have scoured garage sales for affordable habitats. We have made countless trips to PetCoSmartLand for food and habitat bling. We have gone to extremes in diagnosing and curing lapses in health. In an effort to be good custodians of our critters the definition of “pet” has, at times, been reclassified in the Curtis household.
After a particularly challenging episode of trying to contain Maxine-the-Houdini-Hamster in her cage I vowed that the real definition of “pet” should in the future only refer to animals that come when called. Would it be too much to ask that all my affection and goodwill be reciprocated by this cute little fur-face? If I have to create walls and lock cages just to keep the animal from running away, then it’s not a pet – it’s a wild beast. How can it be a pet if its main goal is to get away from me? Bitter? No, just frustrated after all my search and rescue missions for the escaped “pet”.
I remember the time I was shut in our bathroom holding onto the tail of Jack’s ball python as it tried to slither its way into a gap where the cupboard meets the floor. Rex had decided to go exploring the bathroom floor while Jack cleaned his cage. I was supposed to look after Rex, but I side with Indiana Jones – not fond of snakes. One minute he’s innocently crawling behind the toilet and the next minute all I see is the back half of his body poking out from beneath the cupboard. All I could think of was Rex crawling somewhere around the rafters, lost, and possibly reappearing in my bed, closet, or somewhere shocking. I had to hold onto that snake for dear life but not tear the beast by pulling too hard. Rex the ball python flexed his muscles, but I was more determined to contain him than he was in escaping. Eventually he relented and I was able to pull him out of the hole. I erased reptiles from the list of “Pets”, and categorized them as “Adversaries I Spend Money On”.
I haven’t consulted either Darwin or Aristotle in my own personal animal classification methods, but I’m sure they would be sympathetic when I show them the $100 treatment bill, the $25 cockroaches prescribed as new food source (ick), and the $120 speeding ticket I received in transporting the sick leopard gecko home after treatment. That absurd day, “Basilisk’s” cute factor did nothing to improve his taxonomy ranking. He hovered near the general Life category, without specification of Family, Genus or Species. A few months later I was able to forget the maddening circumstances that led to his temporary reclassification, and I ranked our leopard gecko amongst his fellow Eublepharis maculariuses.
“From Adversary I Spend Money On” to “Family Member”, these animals hop around between “pets” and “pest” on a daily basis. As much as they occasionally get under my skin, I appreciate the learning and loving journey all of our beasts have brought to the Curtis household. Albeit unappreciative little buggers, I will always prefer those that are classified as Animal Kingdom versus Battery-powered Kingdom.
Have you ever noticed how over-the-top we celebrate high school graduation? We roll out the red carpet for our 18-year olds in often-absurd proportions. We order announcements and elaborate portraits, we plan lavish parties; we dole out gifts, and get giddy over the graduates’ baccalaureate ceremonies, “casino nights” and other senior celebrations. I know you don’t like my Grumpy-Cattish tone, but hear me out. What I am getting to is the disproportionate lack of hoopla surrounding college graduation in comparison. If high school graduation is a roar, college graduation in comparison is a mere grunt. And the celebration of a Ph.D.? Let’s not even go there – a whisper, perhaps?
Consider this: High school attendance is mandated. You HAVE to get your bum out of bed and go to school otherwise a truant officer will haul your bum to the police station. It’s required. It’s free (more or less). It’s rife with opportunity. What’s the big deal over graduating? It’s against the LAW not to attend. Approximately 80% of students graduate high school. Of those who graduate, only 68% go on to college. Of those who go on to college only 58% receive their degree in the first six years. That means 30 out of 100 high school attendees earn a college degree within one decade. With those funneled down statistics I shake my head and grumble, “Hard-working and ambitious kids get a paper college diploma, but kids barely scratching their way through the institution get an Argosy cruise.” I had to get to the bottom of where all this hullabaloo was coming from.
Well, after talking to numerous Highlands residents I pulled a “180” on my skepticism over these magnified celebrations. I’ve come to the conclusion that our unbridled merrymaking over secondary school graduates is not necessarily about the academic accomplishment anymore, so much as marking a transitional turning point. Historically, graduating high school was an academic accomplishment. If you were born before 1950 your chances of going to college were slim for various reasons including financial limitations, lack of legacy of college-bound family members, and the ability to get a decent job without a college degree. Times have changed a bit. The community of Issaquah is seeing a high percentage of its 18-year-olds with ambition to reach for that next academic achievement, but we celebrate our grads with gusto anyway.
One of the largest motivating factors for the bountiful events surrounding commencement is the community involvement. Some families have known each other since their children were in kindergarten and have been side-by-side through band concerts, field trips, sporting events, school dances, PTSA meetings, and all the other supportive roles that get our kids through primary and secondary school. When we throw our kids a graduation party, we are throwing ourselves a party too. It is a community effort to provide our children the reinforcement during their formative years, be it helping to navigate the social ups and downs, facing the rigors of schoolwork, and learning the discipline of self-motivation. When the tassel is turned on the mortarboard hats, the parents and families can loudly declare, “We did it!”
In contrast, we parents have very little influence or presence during the college years. Our young adults may have moved out, gone off to college and never plan on moving back home again. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still party time when they receive their degree, but we parents won’t be caught saying, “We did it!” Other than writing tuition checks, our involvement in our kids’ academic pursuits is very minimal during the post-high school years. “Our community” of high school becomes “their community” at college.
When June rolls around and several of my neighbors are purchasing nice clothes and booking DJ’s for their teenagers’ Grad Night, you won’t catch me rolling my eyes. Whether or not my children give a hoot about the commencement commotion, I know when their time comes I will be cheering like a giddy teenager for them, for myself and for my community’s teens.
While growing up in my early teen years my mother used to frequently tell me, “Tami, you take things too seriously!” I’d offer my huffy response, “Well I AM serious!” Growing up was serious business – seriously. Nowadays I still hold onto a frank perspective on life, but I also really appreciate a daily dose of levity, especially when it comes to raising kids.
I like the funnies passed around Facebook that remind me to keep motherhood human — and myself humane in the process. What does it mean to keep motherhood human, you ask? Well, I can give you a long, serious answer, but I’d rather use one of those eCard quotes: “All those moms are on Pinterest making their own soap and reindeer-shaped treats, and I’m all like ‘I took a shower and kept the kids alive’.” So far, thank God, I’ve kept the kids alive, and I’ve also managed to avoid having to cook, bake or craft anything absurdly intricate to keep me in good standing amongst the Highlands Mother ‘hood. (Wait, maybe I’m not in good standing…)
To me, keeping motherhood human means not setting galactic-proportioned expectations for myself as a mother, nor for my children. It means keeping things in perspective. It means laughing at myself every day. That’s not actually easy when surrounded by Super Moms of the Highlands.
If I gave the Highlands parenting trends a cursory peek on Facebook I’d think that all our resident minors are vegan athletes who have gigs booked at Carnegie Hall following their televised neuroscience presentation on TED Talks. There are a lot of smart kids, talented kids, healthy kids and clever kids living in the Highlands. However, it is also common knowledge that what you see on Facebook is a polished and airbrushed version of reality. There’s no doubt that talent runs thick in the ‘hood, but this isn’t Stepford either, so I have to remind myself that not everything I see is perfection. The bumper sticker, “My Chihuahua is smarter than your Honor Student” helps me keep this whole job in perspective.
Do I have any advice about keeping up with the Mama Joneses in the Highlands? Just do your own thing. If you think for one minute that the tooth fairy has to deliver a fairy-dust sprinkled, hand-written in calligraphy note under your child’s pillow with $5 for their lost tooth, you’re losing perspective. If you refuse to build a leprechaun trap, you’re absolved of that inadequacy. If your child’s basketball game socks don’t match, chalk it up to a new fashion statement. On those days when you’re feeling less-than-exemplary as a mother it’s okay to get catty and mumble that eCard to yourself: “Your excessive status updates proclaiming how much you love your kids, has me wondering what you’re hiding.” Okay, let’s stow that sulkiness away and get back to keeping this motherhood train forward, not derailed in Grumpy Land.
If we don’t embrace the humorous side of our job as mothers, then we’re doing what my mother always accused me of: “taking things too seriously”. It is a funny job. There’s an eCard that says “Insanity is hereditary. You get it from your children.” Some of us went to college, had careers, then took a right turn and now dedicate ourselves to Project Management of the Homework Turn-in Process with meetings called to discuss timeliness and accuracy of content submitted to higher-ups (aka, “teachers”). We also head up the Department of Good Choices and Navigational Strategies on Social Interactions with Peers (aka, “How to keep your stuff off the internet”). As an adjunct we offer professional-level coaching on a class called “Asserting Oneself to Authority Figures While Remaining a Receptive Subordinate” (aka, “How to beg forgiveness from your teachers for turning in late assignments”).
In order to function in this seriously funny job of motherhood I feel we must balance our agenda of raising Carnegie-bound, scientific breakthrough-making, NFL qualifying Earth-a-tarians, with a not-so-serious attitude. Otherwise, we might get bogged down in insisting upon hand making historically accurate 1800’s Valentine vignettes for every student in the 5th grade class, and losing our minds and perspective in the process.
I saw a YouTube video the other day that made me fall off my chair in laughter and self-conscious surprise. The video is about me, about my friends, about my neighborhood. It is a rapid-fire five-minute episode of one man’s explosively misdirected but well-intended attempt to save the dwindling rainforest, but his admirable intentions fall flat and do more harm than good. In his own comfortable suburban realm this 30-something-year-old main character tries to “Do Good”. He drives a Prius, recycles, spends time with family, gives to charity, and tries to be a good docent of planet Earth. He’s a bit of everyone. He’s trying. Except this gentleman flies off the handle and stops doing good in a reaction to the rainforest decimation. He decides to singlehandedly go and try to save the rainforest. It is disastrously comical. In the attempt to save millions of acres of wilderness he quits his job, abandons his wife and child, and nearly kills himself trying to be the hero. Not Good. There’s a point to the story and there’s a brand awareness that’s being proffered. I’ll get to that later. Let’s talk about our everyday attempts to Do Good.
I like how some fast food places are taking us by the hand and offering us an easy way to Do Good. Chipotle and Costco display well-marked bins that describe exactly what items go in which bin. Plastic cups here, tortilla chip bag there. Easy. I just did a “Do Good”. Of course there’s that nagging guilt trip sign labeling the Scorn Bin called “Landfill”, like “Hey Planet Killer, this is where you dump your Bambi-Death-Uranium-half-life fork you used for 60 seconds while polishing off your veggie burrito, you slime ball.” Sometimes I just feel like singing “I Do Good, I Do Good” in the face of the “Landfill” sign, and file away my compost and recycling with zest.
Other places like Starbucks could stand to offer a waste sorting tutorial though, sanctimonious or not. There is no “Paper cups go in compost”, “Sugar packets in recycling”, “Lids go in the Planet-killer-Bambi-death bin”. I still hover over the waste bins at Starbucks with my wooden stir stick going “Bambi killer” or “Earth goddess food”? A picture would be nice, too. Yeah, I’m that simple – especially when I haven’t had my coffee yet.
Highlands resident Lacey Leigh is known to “Do Good”. She excels at it, as a matter of fact. Being one of over 13 million household drinkers of single-serve K-Cup® coffee, the Ashland Park Leighs have sorting the pod waste down to a science. It took some research to determine their sorting solution for those plastic cup/aluminum foil/paper filter combo pods, but the need was there, considering they went through at least 14 per week. Without being divided up, the coffee pods can only be thrown in the trash. In a simple six-step process (as seen in the illustration), this tuned-in family dissected a K-Cup® and discovered four separate entities that could be deposited into two bins. First comes the aluminum foil lid (recycling), then they spoon out the spent coffee grounds (compost), next they extract the paper filter (compost), and finally after rinsing the residue they chuck the plastic cup into recycling (we hope). Too much for so little? Well, if Costco is trying so should we, right? Or at least we should spend a minute here and there thinking about where our waste is going.
I’ve been guilty of throwing the pizza box into the recycling instead of compost, and I’ve been dinged brownie points for slipping a pasta box into recycling even though it has that clear plastic window still stuck to the face. I discovered at the CleanScapes store at Gilman Village that there actually are people standing at conveyor belts who will pick up my slack and peel off that stuck piece of cellophane for me down at the Materials Recovery Facility in Tacoma. With that little nugget of information I have enough guilt to buckle down and peel my own commercial products into their waste components. And while I’m at it, I can Do Good by purchasing items labeled “Rainforest Alliance Certified” encircling a picture of a frog, which was the point of the whole funny video. Support from suburbia where you can Do Good. Check it out for yourselves! http://youtu.be/3iIkOi3srLo
IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, OPEN IMMEDIATELY
I grew up in Earthquake Country, aka, California. I rode the subterranean roller coasters 6.9 Loma Prieta in 1989 and the 6.7 Northridge in 1994. Those devastating earthquakes left most residents with hair-trigger hypersensitivity. I developed an internal seismograph that would agitate itself into action by the slightest tremor or rumble. A cart being rolled down a hallway or a truck dumping open its gate would send me into a hyper-ballistic state of panic. I’d be positioned under a table or in a doorway long before discovering that the “earthquake” was only the cat jumping down off a tall cupboard.
Moving to Washington State I thought I’d left Earthquake Country behind. A few stable years went by in Redmond and my seismograph became less sensitive. I let the rumbling trucks roll by without even so much as a flinch away from window glass. And the cat? Hardly noticed his precipitous drops…until the Nisqually 6.8 quake in 2001. Within the first seconds of the shaking sensation my dusty internal seismograph sprang into action. After that earthquake I decided it might be a good idea to have a couple weeks of emergency supplies available in case our power and gas went out.
Thirteen years later we’ve got the back-up fuel, power and medical supplies all figured out and prepared, but I’m still struggling with food stores. I used to store my emergency food in a cardboard box in the garage. It didn’t take long before I realized I’d been feeding a small population of mice and ground squirrels with my special selection of emergency vittles. That cardboard box got swapped with a heavy duty plastic container and placed in a cupboard. It wasn’t long before another species of rodent raided the reinforced container. If you think we have an infestation of Rodents of Unusual Size in the Highlands, you’re right.
I had decided to stock Wheat Thins in our big plastic storage container, because who wouldn’t want comfort hors d’oeuvres during a crisis? Those crackers lasted in the garage for approximately three weeks. I remember coming home famished and walking straight from the car to the cupboard where I tore open the box. Bears? No. It was the giant rodent named Tami.
I didn’t replace the prematurely eaten stores of emergency appetizers, and I got to thinking about what I really want to eat during a two-week stretch of pseudo-camping at home. Protein is important, and so is food that doesn’t require a lot of fuel to cook properly. Dried beans would drain half a can of camping fuel in making them soft enough to eat. Canned beans would be gobbled in one meal and I’d need to purchase Costco proportions. But if I went the Costco route, would I really want the same baked beans every day? I’d have three dozen cans to eat, after all. On the flip side, if I stocked up on foods that were really attractive, the box of supplies would be paid a visit by “Ravenous Rodent Tami” again, and could be depleted before a real emergency kicked in.
So, I’ve determined that attractive crisis foods would never survive my impulsiveness and periodic raiding. For instance, I never replaced the spaghetti sauce from my lasagna night looting two years ago. Instead I opted for the tear-pouch of dried spaghetti sauce. However, unattractive foods would make the crisis even more miserable. There isn’t much comfort in the freeze-dried twigs and leaves they call camping food, and when Armageddon hits it would be nice to take solace in some appetizing sustenance, not survival grub. Eating astronaut food while backpacking is called “adventure”, but roughing it during a catastrophe shouldn’t have to be unpleasant.
With over half of my consumable provisions on the unattractive side I’ve forgotten to check in on them. One friend of mine neglected her food stores for ten years and discovered quite a few…err…”expired” items. Can you eat pasta that’s a decade old? If I’m hungry enough I’ll eat anything I suppose, as long as it’s not growing mold. When the next big earthquake hits, (causing me to jump under the dinner table like a groundhog that spots a coyote), I hope Rodent Tami has not eaten all our appetizing stores.
Let me whisk you off to metaphor land. It’s snowing outside and has been for days. It’s time to take a look at the snow accumulation on the roof, so I head outside and step under the eaves. I extend a broom handle above me and jam it into the thick foamy protrusion hanging over the lip of the roof. Within a second I am engulfed in a frozen avalanche; left gasping for air from surprise and cold shock. Now let’s take that little fictional episode and say that the snowfall represents Thanksgiving, and the Siberian-style landslide is the approach to Christmas. Despite the same routines and expectations every year, the family winter holidays always result in a surprise crushing blow that leaves me frazzled and shaking stuff out of my ears for weeks afterward.
Preparations for visitors and their inherent tumult of food, bedding and activities; Christmas card photos, composition, addressing and sending; musical engagements like the kids’ school concerts and my band’s Christmas shows; presents and food shopping; family outings to ice skating, drummers, “Straight No Chaser” show, and botanical garden lights; various company and social parties…even writing this list makes my blood pressure rise, and I haven’t even started my craft beading projects yet or going to church! I can hear the roar of the avalanche in the distance, but my feet are stuck in the snow.
Avert your eyes or skip ahead a couple paragraphs if you think I’m a generous and kind-hearted neighbor. I’d like you to preserve that positive impression you might have of me, and what I’m about to reveal will pulverize that illusion. Starting in early November I batten down the hatches on my social receptiveness and accordance. Over the years I’ve honed survival strategies intended to maximize my enjoyment of holiday sparkle and fun, but minimize my effort output. My first line of defense is to stop giving to as many places as possible. (Can you feel the Grinch squeezing his way in?) The holidays make me feel drained of energy, finances and creativity, so number one that gets flicked off my list is my Puget Sound Blood Center appointments. I literally feel drained, (of course) when I leave my pint of blood in the clinic’s plastic bags, so sorry car accident victims, you’re out of luck with regard to my B positive contribution from November through January. I don’t have much “being positive” to spare for 60 straight days, and I have to allocate it to other causes.
The next thing to go is excursions from the house with only a single intended stop. If I can’t pack in at least four errands in one trip, then I’m not using my iPhone apps wisely. And with all the new stores now open in the Highlands my shopping list of mascara, clogs, cranberries, candles and a screwdriver can get banged out in the blink of an eye. Sorry Santa, a visit to your lap gets lumped in with printer ink and an oil change.
You can now tune back in to hear how Big Giver Tami approaches the holidays meaningfully. Resources of time, talent and treasure are tapped more frequently in the last two months of the calendar year. I have to get creative with my treasure with all the gift shopping we do. Spreading out the financial squeeze, yet fully embracing the materialistic side of the season, I started my purchases in late September this year. As for talent, I just follow my skillful bandmates from one “Celtic Christmas” gig to the next, spreading cheer and sharing our joy of music with audiences across Seattle. (Shameless self-promotion here: be sure to pop by Blakely Hall Sunday, December 8 at 5:00pm to witness firsthand my bandmates’ genius on Irish instruments.) Finally, with regards to sharing time during the holidays, while there’s not much of it to spare, I try and keep everything meaningful and family focused. Being the Big Giver that I am, if I had to choose between doing the dinner dishes or lying under the Christmas tree looking up at the lights alongside one of my boys, I’m good with tackling caked-on food residue a few hours later. Let the avalanche spill all over me and shock me with chaos – it’s worth it!
Many months back the Connections ran a questionnaire asking readers to comment on the following prompt: “What does lifelong learning mean to you?” At first I thought, “Oh, I can bang out something clever in a jiffy.” Well, that jiffy turned into a day, then a week, then a missed deadline. I dropped a fishing line into my brain and caught nothing. I stirred that soup upstairs and no steam came out. I became immobilized in that dry desert called “Over Analysis Wasteland”. After the issue was published I finally put my finger on some of the reasons why “lifelong learning” was such a barren land for me.
Part of being stumped with “lifelong learning” was because I was looking at the question with a desired and expected answer. I wanted to be able to say “I want to accumulate facts and knowledge in abundance over the years.” I wanted the answer to that question to be something solid, and fortress-like. However, deep down I knew I couldn’t say anything conclusive or unambiguous about “lifelong learning”. Our memories are wiggly things. Very few of us are able to hold onto facts solidly over a lifetime. Facts become mushy and malleable over the years – just go to a family reunion with your cousins, aunts and uncles, and try to come to a mutual conclusion of why Grandma Loretta always wore a specific bracelet. You’ll get ten different perspectives. “Her birthstone was on that bracelet.” Countered by, “No, she always wore it because it was a gift from Grandpa when he retired.” And in opposition, “I always thought that bracelet reminded her of their trip to Australia.” The voice of youth and reason will chime in, “She just thought it was pretty.” Lifelong learning is not determining WHY Grandma wore that coveted bracelet, but that there will always be a multitude of perspectives that ebb and flow into one another about the fact that she always wore the bracelet.
That ebb and flow that sullies the facts is illustrated in the brontosaurus, starfish and Pluto. Growing up I knew for a fact that the brontosaurus was that long-necked vegetable eating dinosaur; the starfish was that craggy and slimy creature stuck to rocks with lots of arms; and Pluto was the last in a string of nine planets in our solar system. If anyone has children in the Issaquah School District, you’ll be reminded frequently that what you learned growing up is NOT what is being taught today…and for good reasons. With a little investigation, it was determined that 130 years ago two paleontologists were engaged in…shall we say “unprofessional behavior” which included sabotage, smear campaigns and lies, in order to assert their authority on the paleontological ladder of hierarchy. End result? No brontosaurus. It was really an Apatosaurus whose head was missing because it got bashed by a devious scientist. So, what happened to the star fish? Did it too suffer the wrath of two feisty marine biologists duking it out for reign supreme over the watery kingdom? Not quite, but the distinction between the two resides in a long explanation about classification and etymology. When you go to Alki Beach with your elementary school student, it will become clear that you’re WRONG when you call it a “star fish”, and will be told in no uncertain terms by a pack of 9-year-olds that the “sea star” is not a FISH. That pack of know-it-all 9-year-olds will be quick to beat you over the head with the fact that Pluto is not a real planet – it’s just a dwarf planet, whose status got revoked in 2006 because it lacked the qualities for membership amongst the eight other planets. Now how am I going to sing the preschool planet song that ends in, “Don’t forget about little Pluto way out there in space, space, space…”?
With many of my objectives for fact-based “lifelong learning” now kicked to the curb like Pluto, I’ve begun to embrace new goals. Aside from the nebulous abstract topics like love, acceptance, tolerance, etc., I hope that in my lifetime I will learn to accept that there will be many answers to a question and many perspectives to consider, and that lifelong learning is a journey that shouldn’t take me into a desert. However, if I do get stuck in the desert, I’ll be sure to bring my “starfish”.
This isn’t yo mama’s education
My relationship with fire could be characterized as skittishly awestruck. I grew up in a home with an electric stove, my parents didn’t smoke, my dad usually lit the fireplace, and my older sister trumped me when it came to lighting the holiday candles. The fire-starting opportunities presented to me were few and far between. Even while camping I preferred gathering wood and kindling over mastering the lighting of the camp stove. It seemed explosive and unpredictable to me. Was my tentative approach to fire due to my gender? Are boys naturally more compelled to look fire in the eye as equals? Since the Curtis house is 75% male I don’t have a balanced poll, but I’m inclined to rely on my observations and say that when it comes to fire, boys are like fishermen caught by a mermaid’s charm. I’m going to go out on a limb and make a general claim that the lure of flames is irresistible and wonderful in the eyes of men worldwide. My limb is flammable, though, and could be used as kindling to fuel a great debate.
I believe regardless of my gender I was to be raised with an attitude of extreme caution toward fire due to my mother’s horrific experiences, both in her childhood and again when I was a teenager. My mother was the third youngest of thirteen children, and the Wisconsin farmhouse she grew up in burned down, tragically killing her littlest sister who was five years old at the time. Decades later when I was a teen, a Southern California wildfire threatened our home, forcing my mother to face the nightmare all over again. While my sister and I were secured at a school shelter, my mother spent a vigilant and frightening night drenching every inch of our property with the garden hose. The firefighters were spread thin throughout the Ojai Valley, and even though they demanded the evacuation of all residents, they were not able to offer services to every neighborhood that bordered the foothills. Thankfully, history did not repeat itself, and our home (and mother) remained out of reach of the destructive flames. Let’s just say, however, that the powerfully destructive force of fire was burned into me from a young age.
While raising the boys it’s become obvious that we look upon the elemental force of fire with…um…different perspectives. When I have a match in hand ready to light the BBQ – dinner on my mind — the boys come running, their sixth-sense firing on all cylinders. “Light it!” they demand, obviously under the spell of Pele, Vulcan, and Hephaestus. When I open a bag of marshmallows, I see dessert. They see fire. When I set the table with candles for a special occasion, I see ambiance. The boys ask, their eyes ablaze, “Can we light them?” When the gas stove refuses to light despite the puffs of air I provide, the boys whip out the matches, ready to ignite the clicking gas. Let’s just say that if my family were suddenly thrown back into pioneer days equipped with a couple of lighters, we’d be quite warm and would not be eating raw meat. If I were thrown back in time by myself, however, the scene might resemble Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”. Bleak, desperate, cold.
The motivation that yanks me out of any fire-starting inadequacies is when I stumble upon those mind-numbing disclaimers on commercial products that warn the general public of various fire hazards. Some warning labels I understand, such as hairspray. I remember the high school tête-à-tête I orchestrated between my aerosol can and the fragrant bathroom candle. I had to buy mom a new hand towel after I discarded the charred remains of the hanging floral one. This week I rolled out of my chair in disbelief when Highlands resident Karl Leigh shared a photo of the warning label he took of the back of a fire-log he purchased – as in, the kind that ignites quickly without lighter fluid or kindling. On the log package, in bold red letters, the following sage advice was offered: “CAUTION – RISK OF FIRE”. Yeah, I would sure hope so!
With chin up and long matches in hand, I locate a HIGHLY FLAMMABLE fire-log, and march it out to the backyard fire pit where I confidently and adeptly light it on fire. Take that, gender roles and skittish fears! I can light fires too!
As a stay-at-home-mom summertime is when my parenting involvement get kicked up to Big Top proportions. My world becomes a three-ring circus with activity levels ranging from elephantine slow to dizzyingly fast. Some parents carry off these two months with Ringmaster panache; effortlessly directing sports camps, playdates, vacations, pleasure reading, pool swims, out-of-town-visitors, hikes and outdoorsy mental stimulation. I don’t qualify as Ringmaster, but rather reside in the category of Human Cannonball. On the third week of June I’m rocketed into the great unknown, since of course I didn’t plan any solid activities in advance. I start with lots of general aspirations about making the boys wash the windows, hike up Poo Poo, finish three novels, and log 100 miles on their bikes. I know that coming up with a plan for summer would be beneficial, but summer never goes quite as planned, so I no longer bother trying to schedule much. I know it’s better to just let summer happen. The cannon will go off, I’ll be jettisoned into the air, and lots of fun things will happen. I know summer will zoom past faster than we realize, and like the Human Cannonball, I will land at Labor Day looking back on a summer that lacked in big accomplishments but swelled in satisfying leisure.
The giant net which catches the Human Cannonball is called “Back to School”. Bouncing into that net fills me with conflicting emotions of joy and longing, relief and contempt. I imagine you can hop right into my shoes with the first three: joy, longing and relief, but the fourth? Why would the Human Cannonball feel contempt about Back to School? That’s just my knee-jerk reaction toward the marketing machine that dumps all the pencils, socks, binders, dresses, and calculators into the seasonal lawn furniture section…in July, of all months! When I see the school bus décor instead of chaise lounge cushion replacements I go from happy clown face to big sad frown. Where am I supposed to find an umbrella to go over my patio furniture? Oh, right, I was supposed to buy that back in February when there were plenty in stock, and it was foremost on my mind. What I really need in the middle of July and August is a 70-pack of Ticonderoga pencils instead. Right.
Enough dwelling upon advanced merchandising madness and let’s go back to those first three sentiments. My heart pitter pats with a little joy when I hear “Back to School” because my children can go back to benefitting from our great education system. Joy that they can re-immerse themselves in making great music with the school band, learn academic basics from someone besides myself, and experiment with new sports.
However, self-contradictorily, I yearn with longing for the luxury of going wherever the wind blows us during the summer. There’s no bus arriving at 7:00am, no homework that needs printing out, no grades that need to be checked, and no steady series of games, performances or practices to attend. During summer I am the Human Cannonball just sailing in a long arc. Come late September, once school is fully in swing, I’ll look back on the summer with longing for its unstructured randomness.
But Labor Day brings relief, because order and routine will be reestablished – two things I’m not so good at orchestrating on a daily basis. Relief because deep down inside I like to be alone for a good part of the day and all my writing jobs require that my head goes wandering off into distant creative thinking land. That’s hard when there are two boys in my world who frequently inquire “May I have some money to go to TCBY?” or “Do we have any replacement arrows? I shot all mine into the woods and I can’t find them,” or “What’s for lunch?” These are all valid and acceptable questions, which, 9 months out of the year would be positioned between 3:00pm-7:00pm, not 7:00am-7:00pm. By late August I find myself singing Soul II Soul’s “Back to life, back to reality” every day with zesty relish.
When Back to School ads start rhyming and chiming, this Human Cannonball knows her forward momentum will soon be brought to a halt at the Labor Day net, but that’s okay because she has her helmet on!