Thursday, May 28, 2009

Not sparing myself the humiliation

Is it not normal that I love embarrassing moments? Regardless, I do. I love them especially if they happen to me. That’s not jinxing myself, I hope, because I don’t need a ton of them. What I’m saying is that I just really value the collection I have. I love having those memories because they make me laugh at myself. I think there is something wonderfully freeing about re-envisioning yourself doing something ridiculous. And I love laughing. Give me a good and funny story, and I will laugh about it for weeks.

Today my friend La Belette Rouge posted a hilarious account of a recent embarrassing moment, and so I’m taking her cue and posting an account of one of my own moments of humiliation. I have quite a few, but this one is near the top of my list. It happened in 1993, and it has been worth years of laughter for me:

A little background first. I did not grow up a sporty kid. I wasn’t completely a klutz, but I have never been on a team sport; I don’t have that natural grace of someone who is a practiced athlete. But I do love trying new things, so over the years I’ve enjoyed a few attempts at more or less adventurous activities like rock climbing, or kayaking, or skiing. It bears mentioning that I didn’t try any of these until I was into my 20s, when any hopes of being a “natural” had long dried up…

Anyway, I had an amazing opportunity to visit the Olympic sites in Norway in late 1993, just weeks before the opening ceremonies. My parents took us to Oslo with them, and then, in the interest of skiing, my brother and I made a trip to a town just north of Oslo, a place called Oyer, in Lillehammer, Norway.

In preparation for the trip, I had gotten an adorable little ski jacket and snowpants, great goggles, ski-cap, etc. I was prepared to be cute if not good at skiing. I danced around in my little size 4 outfit and dreamed big--who knew? Maybe I would be good at this sport!

We stayed in a strange little hotel that had giant keys for doorknobs and a stagnant pool that felt like the set to the horror film. I couldn’t help but conjure images of trolls with big hands turning those key-shaped handles and languishing in the scummy pool. But I digress.
Bizarreness aside, there was an air of magic to the whole trip, and I felt like I was about to discover something special on my first skiing experience. Yes, that’s right. My first skiing experience was to be on the same hill where there would soon be Olympians competing….what an honor! What a thrill!

The grand plan was for me to get a lesson from an expert Norwegian and learn the right way from the beginning. Ah, plans. The first problem was that we arrived an hour early for the lesson. I figured I would play around on the bunny hill, just getting used to the feeling of skis on my feet. My brother, of course, was an excellent skier already. He had been on the high school ski team for years, and he didn’t want to waste any time waiting for my lesson. So off he went.

I put on my skis in the warm little ski hut, shuffled outside, and found out that skis are HEAVY. Or these skis were. I had been expecting to “shhh” across the perfect snow, but I felt myself fighting just to move forward. I really needed some practice, so I headed over to the tow-rope that went up the bunny hill.

The bunny hill here was actually a bunny hill. It was small, and seemed accessible, and it was populated by at least 20 little kids who flew down the hill effortlessly. Some of them had to have been younger than 3 years old, and most of them had no poles at all. These were clearly the future ski instructors of the area. I was intimidated, but I pressed on to the tow-rope.

This tow-rope was a pretty simple contraption—a continuous rope that was punctuated by little buoy-shaped pieces that you were supposed to grab, slip between your knees, and rest on. The strong motor in the wheel-house did the rest.

The little skiers grabbed the rope as easily as they cruised down the hill. I watched them for a few minutes to see their technique, and then I made my first attempt.

I got in line, grabbed the rope, sat, and ….tipped over to the right. No go. Maybe I didn’t have that buoy-seat right. Try again. And again. Same thing.

By the fourth time, I was getting some good advice from a few of the kids. "Let your skis pull you.” “Keep hanging on.”

All good advice. No go for tries 5, 6, and 7. Now a little crowd gathered. The wheel house guy made a point to stop the rope completely when it was my turn now, and made it go very, very slowly. Still, I fell off. Great. My cheeks may have already been red from the 10 degree temperature, but I can assure you they were warm with my blushing by that time.

Mr. Wheelhouse stopped the rope, came over to me, and explained, in very slow and deliberate English, the method the kids had shown me a few attempts earlier. He went back to the wheelhouse, turned on the rope, et voila: I fell off.

At this point, a weird American guy I had met earlier at our hotel showed up and tried to rescue me. He had registered very high on my creep-o-meter when I’d spoken to him before, that feeling just increased as I saw him him charging up the hill with a here-I-come-to-save-the-day grin on his face. My stomach curdled a bit.

Creepyguy had taken off his skis to get to me all the faster, and he was running. Before I knew it, he was standing next to me in line. When the time came for me to try yet again to get on that cursed tow rope, Creepyguy stepped up behind me and, without even asking, sort of bent down, leaned into my back, and tried to push me up the hill. (If he had asked, what would that have sounded like anyway--I cringe just to think of it.) Despite his best efforts to shove me, I didn't budge one inch up the hill.

I had been laughing and smiling, and even waving a few times to the growing group of gawkers, in that sort of self-effacing “got it under control” kind of palm salute. But I swear, this time I was close to tears-- you know the kind, the ones that start as a laugh but end in big sobs. So, with Creepyguy still at my backside, and with the rope tugging mightily at my knees, I started the big laugh-cry. Then I lost control again, and tipped, but this time, I fell onto my back and into the center ditch between the up-rope and the down-rope.

I lay there like a overturned beetle, my arms and ski-heavy legs flailing above me. That was it, I decided. I think there was pointing, and I know there was laughing. I was going to be done with this and I planned to beat a hasty retreat to the spooky hotel.
The only upside was that at least Creepyguy had stepped to the side. So I lay there, planning my escape for what felt like a long time like a sad ski-beetle, laughing those big tears down my face until Mr. Wheelhouse came to help me up. As he reached to grab for my arm, he got a good look at the bottom of my skis, and he smiled a big smile that showed all those lovely Norwegian teeth.

“Miss, it is your skis! They are iced.”

I had no clue what that meant, but within a minute or two, I had a ski instructor at my side, removing the skis to show me that the bottoms were indeed coated with a good inch or two of clumpy ice. Instructor Arne (to be pronounced AR-Nuh), was to be my very own instructor, and he quickly fixed me up with a freshly waxed pair of skis that were not warm enough to gather an icy coating, and what do you know?

I got up the tow-rope.

I put my humiliation out of mind for my hour-long lesson. During my lesson, I managed to get down the hill several times, too, without injury or incident. Arne, poleless as the two-year-olds whizzing around, skied in front of me, going backwards at high speeds, and insisted I grab for him if I felt myself falling. Arne, wherever you are, you were nice, but that is just not a position I want to get into, ever. I think the thought of plummeting down the hill in his embrace was enough to keep me upright.

The lesson ended in time for the sun to set at 3:30 pm, and my brother met me at the ski house as I was returning my skis. “How was it?” he asked.

On the scale of embarrassing moments? I give it a 10. And worth 16 years of laughs, at least.

Now your turn: What is one of your best embarrassing moments?

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Monday, May 25, 2009

On Memorial Day

Memorial Day is a day of grilling and celebration, children eager for the end of school, pools and beaches newly reopened. It's a time to celebrate the beginning of a vibrant season.

Of course, we all also know the bigger significance of the holiday, but it's not the focus of the "celebrations," is it? Perhaps it's too much of a contrast with the liveliness of the world at this time of year. I find it hard to focus on the real meaning of Memorial Day, too. It's heartbreaking.

For those who have served and returned home bereft of friends who died in the field, the day must feel otherworldly. Their focus must frequently fall on remembering, not just today, but every day. And what is today like for those families who have lost someone? What must it be like to watch the little flags waving along a parade route, to see the fliers advertising Memorial Day sales on watermelon or hotdogs or lawn furniture? How little the normal world recognizes the bizarre contrast between picnic parties and remembering those who won't return home to share another family holiday.

Life certainly goes on, and celebrating summer is important, of course. But I'm making a point today to stop, with gratitude, and recognize that today is also about the people who willingly step into harm's way to serve in the military. Think what you will of the war in Iraq, or Afghanistan, those who serve there are made of something special to do what they do.

Last year, I received from a dear friend of mine a book that details the heroic service of just one of the many Marines who have served in Iraq. The book is called The Gift of Valor. In it, author Michael Phillips draws the vivid portrait of Marine Corporal Jason Dunham. Heartwrenching and illuminating, the story of this brave young man and those with whom he served stays in my mind. It is worth the time to read to get a feeling for the type of work that our military service members do every single day. While not all of them have to make the sacrifice that Jason did, they are cut from the same cloth: they will step up and give whatever they have because they have sworn to, because they have a sense of what it means to honor their commitment to each other.

These are huge thoughts that try to flee my mind because it's just too hard to hold onto them for too long. But I pull them back and back again today, and I'll say a prayer of thanksgiving to know the brave service members I do. I'll say another prayer of thanksgiving for the service of those like Corporal Dunham.

The vets will raise their flag in our small-town square this afternoon, and certainly their thoughts will honor their friends who didn't get to come back and mark the beginning of another summer. I will join them, with my hand on my heart.

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Saturday, May 23, 2009

Single shot on Saturday: tableau

My gardening husband came in with this bunch of hydrangeas this afternoon, and it begged for a fuchsia vase. Something about this unlikely pairing with the shells and the bowl of garlic is so pleasing for me. How I love little treasures put together in a corner of the house...

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Poem for a Wednesday

For today, I present you with a poem about juxtaposition by Fleur Adcock from her collection  Poems 1960-2000.

It's the sort of thought that I've been preoccupied with lately:  how can kindness and cruelty dwell so closely in the same spaces in our hearts?  What do we conceal of our baser natures to prove our goodness?  What does our "goodness" cost us?  How does one accept the ruder truths of self?    
I turn these age-old questions over and over in my mind like a well-worn stone.  

A snail is climbing up the window-sill
into your room, after a night of rain.
You call me in to see, and I explain
that it would be unkind to leave it there:
It might crawl to the floor; we must take care
that no one squashes it. You understand,
and carry it outside, with careful had,
to eat a daffodil.

I see, then, that a kind of faith prevails:
your gentleness is moulded still by words
from me, who have trapped mice and shot wild birds,
from me, who drowned your kittens, who betrayed
four closest relatives, and who purveyed
the harshest kind of truth to many another.
But that is how things are: I am your mother,
and we are kind to snails.
--Fleur Adcock

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Monday, May 18, 2009

Why I'm not "Just Sayin..".

I'm in a soapbox mood today, so indulge me.  

I am a big lover of so many things, as you probably know by now.   There isn't a day that I wake up to weather I don't love, there isn't a time of day that is less beautiful than any other to me.   I try to take everyone at face value, to appreciate the wholeness of a person, even the rougher spots that we all have, and sometimes show.

What really gets under my skin is people trying to "get under my skin."  I have, at certain times of my life, been a magnet for critics, would-be Henry Higgins, evangelists of all denominations.  Maybe I wear my heart on my sleeve so obviously that I look malleable, dewy-eyed and innocent, just waiting for the "right" idea to make me real.

Once, about a year ago, I was in the local mall with the girls when I was approached by a very aggressive salesman.  He waltzed over to me from his kiosk, gave me a sympathetic cluck and a tilt of the head, and said something to the effect of "poor mama, you look so old and tired."  Somehow, by putting me in this sad little category, he got me to slow down enough where he could step in front of me, and block my way.  The moment he got me to stop, he gave me the hard sell on hand cream.  $40 dollars later, I walked away with some lotion, a green vinyl bag, and a bruised ego.   The cream, by the way, was crap.  Which matched the way I felt.  I took a small comfort in knowing that at least he failed with his attempt to sell me eyecream "all those wrinkles, ma'am!" 

In each day, each of us is bound to cross paths with people going through trials, sometimes acting out aggressions or envy or need or disappointment.   It is taking me years to see it, but these actions don't really have much to do with me, other than the fact that when do I encounter them, I often take them too much to heart.   Could you guess that for days after that fleecing at the mall, I would stand in front of the bathroom mirror, trying to gauge the extent of my wrinkling?   Ugh. 

As I said, I have worked for years to accept the wholeness of people, the good and the bad, to look past faults and transgressions, sometimes to the detriment of myself.   I think I've done this in part because I long for that universal acceptance myself.    It's an unrealistic thing to expect from everyone you meet, but still.  It's a fantasy I'm working to let go of.  I remind myself that there will be no unicorn appearing in my backyard this afternoon, either.

The world is full of the need to project the mean, the critic, the unaccepting.   The worst is when these are couched in the guise of "friendship" or "help" (like the lotion salesman).   

Rhetorically, these attacks seek to throw the equilibrium of the listener.   Kindly delivered, they are like poisoned apples.  Seemingly harmless, but meant for injury.  Sometimes these friendly attacks come as "No offense, but...," which of course is just a warning of impending offense.  That "but" seeks to absolve the messenger of responsibility.   It's a gentle delivery, as the messenger hopes to injure but still remain in the "friend" category.   Nowadays we call those kinds of friends "frenemies."

The latest type of rhetorical poisoned apple is "I'm just sayin.."  Instead of prefacing an attack, it comes at the end, as a way of softening the blow.  Again, this sort of expression seeks to remove the messenger from responsibility for his or her own hurtful words.  In person, it might be accompanied with a sheepish shrug, or a little kick at the ground and an "aw shucks." It's an I-just-can't-help-what-I-feel sort of expression.   

To these expressions I say this:  Bullshit.  I think we should be responsible for our words, for the nastiness we throw out into the world. 

If a person has the chutzpah to let the words out of  her mouth, then she needs to own them, good or bad.  If you want to sell me some hand cream, don't make me feel ugly to do it.  Own it.  Sell the product, not a poor image of me to myself.  If you want to attack me, just do it.  Don't preface it with a request that I forget you said it.   Don't end it with the lie that you can't help your feelings.  That you're "just" saying.  Because, friend, if you're "just sayin," your words are poisoned.  And you put the poison there.

I'm asking too much to remove these time-honored means of attack and persuasion from language.  I'm probably asking too much of myself to disregard them entirely.  But I am promising that I won't ever use them.   And I'm promising that when I am sent these poison apples, I won't bite.   You shouldn't either.

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Monday, May 11, 2009

Things that Go "Thump" in the Night, and What I Might Learn About Myself

My Etsy shop is in the works, but delayed.  All the good things I've done to stay on track notwithstanding, sometimes someone puts a wrench in the works, and tosses your world upside down.  

Several Saturdays ago, I was exactly on schedule for my shop, with a planned opening on April 22.  The weekend up until then had been sunny and carefree.  Ada and I made beaded necklaces while Esme napped, and before we had dinner that night, I surprised them with a box of percussion instruments I've been collecting.  We danced and sang and ignored the carpet that needed vacuuming, and it felt wonderful.   
A few hours later, while I was watching tv, someone attempted to kick in our back door.  Which is in the television room.  Where I was sitting not 8 feet away.

Since then, I've been plagued.   The incident was not isolated to my home; there were several attempts at houses next door and across the street.  Our house is a fairly "hardened" target, and, as I keep reminding myself, this creep did not have any success here.  The cops were here in 3 minutes, and stayed guard around the neighborhood.    

However, I have been siderailed.  My plans to do my shop and work on the writing projects I have been on the backburner for a few weeks now.   In the meantime, all of my frenetic energies have gone into maintaining a normal family life with dinners, baths, playtimes, and homework.   
Anything left over has gone into fortifying our security here.   We are a good team, my husband and I, and I feel more successful with each effort, both the routine-keeping and the security-planning.   Our neighbors are amazing, each working through this themselves, and reaching out to the other to assist and reassure.  The police are sensitive and responsive, and all of this combines to give me renewed optimism.  

The incident was one moment.  I didn't even see it happen, rather, I heard it.  A single, sickening thud that could only be a man's foot on my door.   But it is a moment that lasts and lasts, and follows me with what-if's.

The few nights of sleeplessness have passed, but my sleep is now rich with dreams that are teaching more about myself and how I'm dealing with my own feelings of vulnerability and fear. I'm finding little insights hitting me throughout the day as I'm discovering the many layers of emotion I'm carrying:  I am stunned, outraged, mournful, angry, agitated, and determined.  I've surprised myself to find that of all of these, I am mostly determined and angry.  I am, day by day, forcing myself to return to my plans, to reclaim the thing that thug did almost get away with: my confidence.  

The past week brought me back to painting and making earrings, and this next week promises more painting and some fun sewing projects, and a writing workshop with a friend.   And I am loving all of it.  

In the middle of it all, I am pondering my reactions, especially the anger part.  I have always imagined that come across as a peaceful person, enthusiastic but generally harmless, mild as milk.  Perhaps there is more to me than I once guessed.   I have been gravitating toward this owl painting lately--there is a little more work to do on her, but she is vivid for me already, and she, too, seems to be more complicated than I had originally assumed.

The Etsy shop will be stocked soon, my writing will become a priority again within the week.  My caged-tiger self will someday stop seeing danger in every shadow, I am certain.    One moment won't control my perceptions of the world, but it might have awakened me to how I see myself.  I refuse to lose anything from this incident, but instead I am going to gain something from it...that's the biggest surprise of all.

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