Welcome to Woodbury

My grandma E used to decorate the interior of her house for Christmas. Among her many decorations were Christmas villages and dolls that ice skated on mirrors. She had the foamy white padding to simulate snow. Every available surface of her living room contained some sort of scene.

When I was a kid, I just enjoyed staring at the little tiny lit houses, imagining what it would be like to walk amidst that village and go into the little houses and shops. I used to play with the ice skaters, moving them around the mirror, until my grandma caught me. (How could a child resist?)

A Christmas village is a bit too much fun for someone with an imagination. Even as an adult, I could make up the whole story of a miniature little Christmas village as I spend time staring at it. So I was really thrilled when Crow decided to start building a little Christmas village of our own. Of course, I said. That’s exactly what I’d like!

Last year, Crow’s mom paint us two little ceramic buildings for our village: a church and a house. On our second annual trip to Frankenmuth on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, we bought a set of lamp posts, a set of trees with blinky blue and white lights, a figurine of carolers, and a figurine of a lady feeding two cats from a large bucket. (The town must have cats, after all!)

We could have bought more, but our wedding, honeymoon, and the tandem bicycle we ordered put us on a tight budget this year. We decided we would slowly build our village. Afterall, Crow had already hinted to his mom that she should help us expand our village by painting us another set of buildings as a Christmas present.

We did pick up some “snow” and some sparky stuff to add to the “snow” to make it look more like real snow.

The picture below shows our small little village at the start of Christmas 2013.

Woodbury's humble beginnings.

Woodbury’s humble beginnings.

On Christmas Day when we opened gifts, I was delighted that Crow’s mom did paint us three more buildings: a bakery, a diner, and barn! We were so thrilled! The level of detail she did on the painting was magnificent (the roof of one of the buildings had alternating colors for shingles).

But that wasn’t the end! Oh, no, his mother had yet another surprise for us. She gave us her Christmas village! We were both so surprised and happy for this generous gift. So yesterday we went through the box of Christmas village she gave us to see what she had… and we got 9 more buildings (a school, another church, a mill, two more houses, a toy store, a train station, and two barns) plus more people, cats, dogs, and farm animals for our little village.

It’s still the Christmas season until New Year’s. We don’t take down any of our decorations until after New Year’s. So we decided to set everything out, arranging the buildings into a logical order and positioning the people. And that’s when I decided that we should all the town Woodbury (Woodville was already taken–it’s a city in Northeast Ohio) after our last name.

Downtown Woodbury, now complete with commerce, carolers, shoppers, and Santa.

Downtown Woodbury, now complete with commerce, carolers, shoppers, and Santa.

Downtown Woodbury now features a diner, a bakery, a toy store, and the Westbury Lutheran Church. I decided it was a Lutheran church since Crow was raised mostly in the Lutheran church and he needed to be represented. Besides, what Midwestern town doesn’t include a Lutheran church? Even Lake Wobagon has one and Garrison Keillor is always going on about those Lutherans. I guess in a way it’s an ode to grandma E since she too was Lutheran.

Instead of feeding the poor, however, the lady out in front of the church is feeding the cats. (You might note that she was also in the same position originally from the earlier picture.) I added a black cat from Crow’s mom’s village set next to the church, looking on, unsure about whether or not he wants to approach the woman to also get some food. I figured he’s a shy cat like the many barn kitties at Crow’s mom’s house.

Woodbury Northside: home to the mayor and wealthier residents.

Woodbury Northside: home to the mayor and wealthier residents.

The Woodbury Northside is the home of the elite residents of the town. We decided that the white fancy house is home to the mayor. Crow said that the other house with the side porch is our home in Woodbury, but that house seems maybe a bit too fancy for my tastes, although it does have a very cool front porch along the side of the door. The barn would be ours as well. The mayor doesn’t have time to take care of farm animals. The train station is probably a little out of place in this section of town but we stuck it there for now. I guess the sound of train traffic doesn’t bother us any since there are no tracks. A lady is sitting outside, however, waiting for the train that will never come. I see an opportunity for improvement in Woodbury’s future.

Woodbury Midtown: The school, the mill, and the UU Church of Woodbury.

Woodbury Midtown: The school, the mill, and the UU Church of Woodbury.

I decided the second church–which contains no visible symbols of a faith–was the UU Church of Woodbury. Crow pointed out that this building could be a town hall, but I decided that it needed to be a UU church. I want Woodbury to be somewhat progressive. The school, I decided, is also a Montessori school. I’m a huge fan of Montessori education and really wish I’d had a chance to experience it myself.

The mill, yeah, needs some water. It seems kind of useless without a nearby source so perhaps in the future we will have to find a mirror to represent water.

I love the children building the snowman.

Woodbury Southside: A work in progress.

Woodbury Southside: A work in progress.

Woodbury Southside contains the house from our original set of structures and the new barn we received this year. Farm animals from Crow’s mom’s set makes the scene complete. I especially love the figurine of the dog and dog house.

Crow and I plan to buy some bridges and some walkways and such on our annual visit to Frankenmuth next year. It’s exciting to design a build this village. Each year, we can add more things to it and build it up. We plan to put lights underneath each building as well so that the buildings look more lively. I can stare at this little town and dream away, as I already have, imagining the lives of these people like I did when I was younger. I will definitely have to find a pair of ice skaters and make a mirror-pond for them to skate on as well.

It’s exciting that both Crow and I find enjoyment out of creating a little miniature town like this. Also, we have a general love of decorating for the holidays, especially Christmas. Like last year, we have a tree in every room of the house (though I never did get around to setting up the one in the bedroom, shame on me). We have our live tree in our living room–a Douglas fir this year–and our pop culture tree in the library.

2013 Wood Christmas Tree. (Note the plane flying just below the star.)

2013 Wood Christmas Tree. (Note the plane flying just below the star.)

2013 Wood Christmas Tree at another angle.

2013 Wood Christmas Tree at another angle.

And our pop culture tree with all the fun ornaments.

And our pop culture tree with all the fun ornaments.

It was a nice Christmas in Woodbury, our first year celebrating the holiday as a married couple. Right before Christmas, we gave ourselves the best Christmas present a couple like us could get: we ordered our tandem bicycle! We look forward to many future adventures riding it, especially on some self-contained bike tours. It was a big investment but one we will appreciate for years to come.

New ornaments we purchased in Frankenmuth. The Like to Bike ornament was a gift from Crow's mom.

New ornaments we purchased in Frankenmuth. The Like to Bike ornament was a gift from Crow’s mom.

I got some incredibly cute gifts from Crow including a teddy bear (I named him Allen) and a Marvin The Martian winter hat. Who says you can’t have fun at 38? (One of my favorite gifts from Crow last year was a cat blanket that has a cat face on the hood and two places for you to put your hands to move the paws. Yeah, it’s made for kids but it’s warm and cuddly and I use it around the house all the time. Plus, it is black and white–the colors of my cat Nicki.)

Gifts no Martian can do without.

Gifts no Martian can do without.

The hat is already a hit. I wore it yesterday when we hiked with our bike club in the morning and I got a ton of compliments on it. I wore it while we ran errands and people commented on it as much the Santa purse I carry around during this time of year (which I got on our 2012 visit to Frankenmuth). We signed up at a new gym and the lady at the front desk even insisted I keep it on for my ID photo. I’m so glad that people appreciate my out-of-the-box style… It often reminds me how fun it is to be an adult–where people appreciate individuality–as opposed to high school where everyone is forced to fit in. I love that I can be myself these days and receive complements rather than insults.

Anyway, this Christmas season seemed to fly by. I think it had to do with Thanksgiving being so late in the month. But I had fun and we accomplished everything we set out to do. We 10 different kinds of cookies this year and I’m proud to say that I finally got press cookies to work. I also used the rolling pin I got last year to make springerle cookies–they came out great and both tasted and looked good! We had a week of 6 parties in a row and I attended all but one because I had a 24-hour flu (or something) that made me feel miserable for a bit.

We’ve had a great year and I’m looking forward to what 2014 brings…

Blast from the Past

On November 17, Crow and I (and a number of our friends in various locations throughout the theater) saw The Monkees in concert at Lakewood Civic Auditorium. I must preface this entire entry by explaining that before U2, I was a huge fan of The Monkees. The show was in reruns when I was 12 and I was immediately drawn into the silly humor and, of course, the great music.

So I was obsessed with a band formed and over before I was born that was new when my parents were teens. People older than me love to point that out to me when I talk about my love of The Monkees. I’ve gained perspective in my U2 fandom because I’ve met many teenage U2 fans–kids who weren’t even alive when the band formed in 1976 (okay, technically I was 1 years old when U2 formed, but they were really big when when I was a teen and into my high school years when I really started to love them, so technically they are the music of my generation). U2 has been together over 30 years. The Monkees first reunion was at 20 years in 1986. There’s very little difference to me (except that The Monkees actually broke up for a period of time). I will also note that my love of The Monkees also led me to appreciate The Beatles and lots of bands from the 1960s.

I also met some of the most important people in my life because of our mutual love of The Monkees. First of all, I met my best friend Melissa in 6th grade when, during recess, I heard her talking about her love of The Monkees. We spent the rest of recess on the monkey bars (coincidence? I think not) talking about our love of the band. She was new to our school and we both had a lot of issues with bullies so our friendship gave us a united front as well as a social outlet.

I read a lot of teen magazines back then like Tiger Beat (I loved to post the pictures of stars, especially the members of The Monkees, on my walls). There was a section for pen pals and I responded to one of the girls looking for a pen pal who shared a mutual love of The Monkees. One pen pal led to another because they would pass around these little books into which you would write your name, address, and list your interests, decorate your page, and then mail it to another pen pal. If you found someone in this book who sounded interesting, you could write them directly. This lead to a huge obsession with pen palling. At one point, I had over 20 pen pals and I was getting mail every day! And, yes, I responded to each and every one of those letters on a regular basis.

Eventually, I had to pair down (the pen palling was taking over my life!). But there was one person with whom I’d always related, whose letters I looked forward to the most, and she and I remained pen pals throughout high school, college, and adulthood: Sarah. I picked Sarah’s name from one of those little books that got passed around because she had written she was 13 (my age at the time) and her favorite Beatle was John (her favorite Monkee was Peter and at the time I was a huge Davy fan, but I was willing to overlook that). Most of my pen pals were older than me so I was thrilled to find someone so close to my age. I think probably that’s why we’ve remained friends so long–we were going through the same phases of life at the same time for a very long period of time.

What start of a love of The Monkees (and other bands) turned into two very close friendships that I maintain today. Sarah and I have visited each other multiple times so we’ve been more than just pen pals (and we still actually write real letters, too!). She went through a divorce around the same time I lost my husband. We’ve shared our joys and sorrows and we’ve always been there for each other even across the distance. Because of the very unguarded nature of writing, I think Sarah probably knows more about me than anyone else I know. The sort of stuff I wrote to her was like what one would write in a diary…

The first concert I ever attended, at the age of 13, was The Monkees 1987 reunion tour with Melissa. Since then, we have seen The Monkees together a few other times, most notably our notorious trip to see them in Wilkes-Barre, PA (where we got helplessly lost for hours) in 1996. We saw Peter Tork with his band Shoe Suade Blues in both Cleveland and Columbus in 2001. We also saw Davy Jones at a county fair somewhere (I can’t remember where) around 1997-98. I shared some awesome musical moments with Melissa (and could have shared some more had I not had some life interruptions), none of which would have been possible because I was too timid back then to go to concerts alone.

So when you consider the deep friendships and the history I have with the band, you can imagine the type of emotion that I felt in seeing The Monkees one more time. Especially since Mike Nesmith — whom I’d never seen on a tour — was there. I thought I’d feel a big gaping hole where Davy should have been in the show, but they handled several memorial sequences with such care that I think I almost cried in a few spots.

It was such a good show! I got goosebumps just hearing those tunes again live. These were the songs of my youth and with each one carried a memory of a gawky teenage girl trying to find her place in the world and feeling like she already knew everything and had it planned out. I was thoroughly impressed that Micky’s voice sounds as crisp as ever and he continues to be the absolute showman. Mike sounded great and Peter was totally in his element as I remembered him from all the shows in which I’ve seen him perform.

My favorite moment of the show was when they played “Daily Nightly.” Mike and Micky had this little spiel about trying to get a Moog synthesizer for the song — which is apparently the keyboard and set of knobs and switch boxes featured in the video — and Micky exclaimed that he had to print out the words because they were crazy word scramble. Mike informed the audience that he couldn’t get a hold of a Moog, but that he would fill in all the funky noises vocally. For fans like me who know that song intimately, Mike’s noises, aptly placed, was absolutely hilarious. I captured some of the song on video.

They also played quite a few songs from the Head soundtrack which was a real treat. On the screen behind the stage, they played the part in the movie where Davy performs “Daddy’s Song” while the band followed along with an brassy version of the melody. I have to note here that that particular scene in the movie is why I have always had an obsession with men in white tuxes with tails and, admittedly, the reason I was inspired to request of my first husband to wear one for our wedding. Yes, I’m shameless! Davy Jones was one of my first crushes and I especially liked that scene. I guess I envisioned my future husband as someone as energetic with great dance moves or something. (I later developed an obsession for Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing, so there must be a dancing theme in there.)

For the song “Randy Scouse Git,” Micky donned his old “rug” poncho and beat the hell out of the big drum just like the video from the TV show. I remember that me and Melissa really lusted after that poncho. And just about all the clothes from that video (Davy wore a shirt with a similarly loud pattern). Despite growing up in the 1980s, we thought the 1960s fashions were oh so cool.

It was really a great show. And sharing those moments with Crow was even better. We danced a little together in the isle in front of our seats (though not Davy Jones style). He really enjoyed himself as well though he only knew The Monkees through their show (and not as intimately as me). When we got home from the concert, we popped in some episodes from Season 2 (Crow bought me both seasons on DVD for my birthday) and I realized, with a chuckle, the reason Crow likes the show is because it has the same silly sense of humor as he does! It is like he wrote the script or something! So I guess in a way I have found my own Monkee to marry.

…Now, to get him in a white tux with tails, and work on that “Daddy’s Song” routine…

Letting Go

I’m not a person who likes to hang on to a bunch of things. So far in my life, I’ve confined my personal mementos to three huge Rubbermaid tubs.

The first one contains all of the items from childhood I wished to keep. Girl Scout badges, the sash from my Junior uniform, a Heidi doll my grandma E had and my dad gave me after she died, my high school lettermen jacket (I had an academic letter, proudly earned), the National Honors Society tassel from my high school graduation, the mortar board from my college graduation, the year tassels from both my high school and college graduations. Those are only the things I can think of off-hand… I haven’t looked in there in awhile so I’m not sure what’s there. In one of my moves–before the tub–I lost the folder that contained all of my academic awards, my high school transcript, and various college report cards. I’m still mad about that loss. I ache for it sometimes because I used to call it my “brag folder” and I’d look at it whenever I felt that I was stupid (which is often).

The second tub contains everything of Mike of which I couldn’t part. Again, I haven’t looked in there for awhile but off-hand, I know that it contains the polo shirt he wore the day I met him at a party called Woodchuck in the spring of 1998, a purple silk shirt he used to wear that I loved him in, his boy scout badges, a tie of the Tasmanian Devil (the Warner Brother’s cartoon creature) ripping up computers that I bought him. The guest book from his wake. Some condolence cards, the program from special appreciation service the organ donation place held months later (I donated his eyes and muscle tissue, which were the only parts that could be salvaged at his death).

The third tub contains nicknacks of my first wedding. I know for sure that it contains the card box with all the opened cards within it from our wedding, my bridal bouquet (silk flowers and huge), some framed pictures that people gave us as gifts with meaningful sayings on them that we used to have hanging on our wall because we were romantic that way, a blanket with our names and wedding date embroidered on it that we used to keep on our couch, the guest book (which a lot of people did not sign because it was in a corner of the reception hall no one ventured to) and it corresponding pen. Probably the champagne glasses from our toast (they may be broken by now, I don’t know). There’s probably a few surprises in there as well.

Outside of the Rubbermaid tubs, I also have several shoe boxes full of letters between me and my pen pal, Sarah, with whom I’ve corresponded since we were both 13. In a manic cleaning phase inspired by mom, I threw out the first of those letters back in high school, and I regret it to this day, because now all I have is our correspondence from college on. It would be interesting to go back and read what we wrote about our lives, hopes, and dreams when we were in middle and high school but I no longer have that.

I also have other shoe boxes full of letters between me and my 10th grade English teacher–a man who feels closer to me than family at times–with whom I’ve corresponded since I’ve graduated high school. I’ve never thrown any of those letters out. I learned my lesson.

I’ve kept cards people have sent me for birthdays, Christmas, and other such occasions. I have a teddy bear that my mom got from my grandma H at her baby shower. It’s old and ragged and has been sewn together many, many times, but I can’t let go of it. It comforts me when when I am sad. It has a little music box in its chest that still plays and when I am really, really upset, the music soothes me. Sometimes the music makes me melancholy too. For a past and a life I can’t remember or understand or make sense of.

I have binders full of everything I’ve ever written–grade school assignments, high school papers, college papers, the various novels I wrote in high school (yes, I wrote novels),  little booklets I wrote in grade school, the diaries I kept from second grade through my widowhood. Yes, I was always writing. And the narcissistic artist in me has kept everything with a religious self-importance. I do look at those occasionally for a boost, often impressed with the level of writing I had in even high school. Sometimes I wonder if my fears of rejection have caused my writing to regress. There was an uninhibited quality to my early writing that I lack now. I’m much more restrained. It’s refreshing to be able to look back and see what I was able to create at such a young age. But sad that I let go of all that potential.

I still have my engagement ring and wedding band in my jewelry box. I kick myself because I lost Mike’s ring while playing soccer in Colorado. I wore it for several years because it comforted me but it was too big and slid off my finger a lot. When I lost it, I felt like I’d lost Mike a second time. I wish I’d just kept it in my jewelry box with my rings.

My wedding dress still hangs in my closet, shuffled from various homes and across the country twice.  I keep thinking I’m going to sell it, but then I never get around to putting it up on Craigslist or eBay. Part of me thinks I should sell it, or give it away, and the other part of me wants to have it boxed to keep. But I feel guilty for wanting to keep a dress that I only wore once. Someone out there may want a slightly used dress and it could bring her good luck. Soon enough I’ll have a second wedding dress to add… and I’ll want to keep that too…

I feel guilty for hanging onto so much stuff, though. What use is this stuff if you don’t look at it or use it at all? I have not looked in the wedding or Mike tubs in a long time because sometimes it just makes me sad to root through them. I rarely look at the tub filled with my childhood stuff, either. Yet, I think I take comfort in knowing those things are there.

Still, lately, in preparing for my move to the dream house with Crow, I’ve started to consider going through those tubs and weeding out the less important items–those things that I feel less attached to. Maybe I can combine the wedding and the Mike tubs into one. Do I really need some of those things? I know, for example, that I cannot part with the polo shirt that Mike wore the day I met him. The boy scout badges, however, I may be willing to part with… And I have someone in mind to ask if he wants them… There may be other things I feel less attached to now that time has passed. And I’m impressed that I’m even considering it. Had anyone suggested I get rid of these things years ago, I would have screamed in protest. How can you make me let go of my past, I’d have cried.

The thing is, I’m slowly coming to realize that the most important pieces of my past are actually always with me: my memories of the past. Barring I don’t develop some horrible mind-debilitating disease, no one can take my memories from me. When I write down my memories, as I have done in the past with diaries, I keep them even more alive. With time, memories get bent and skewed a little; writing can keep memories more true to their original form. I used to keep journals for myself mostly… with a slight narcissistic thought that someone would read them after I die and think I’m brilliant. Ha.

It’s not that I feel like Crow has replaced Mike in any sense of the word. But it’s really strange–and I know a fresh widow will hate me for saying this–that part of me wants to really let go of Mike a little more. I mean, you know, Mike will always have a piece of my heart. And there’s nothing wrong or dysfunctional in acknowledging that. I still miss him sometimes. But I say without feeling any societal pressure that it somehow suddenly seems healthy to let go of some of those physical things that represent him… The amazing thing about all of this is that I came to this conclusion on my own. It’s a surprising contrast to the way I felt right after Mike died, or even five or six years ago. I’d get upset if I read other widows talking as I am now or if a family member would even suggest it. But feelings change slowly. I think the most important thing a person can do is wait until they are ready to let go. It can’t be forced or premature.

I feel guilty for hanging on to too much physical stuff that I’m not using. I think that if I look through the tubs, I can find things that just don’t mean as much to me as they once did. Things I can live without. There are other things I know I can’t live without. So somewhere in the middle is a compromise. I’m ready to make that compromise.

Sermon on Podcast

In case you’d like to hear me read my sermon, the podcast from the service is now available. I haven’t listened to it; I’m afraid. I don’t like the sound of my voice on recording. But maybe to you I sound on recording the same as you hear me (God, I hope not!). And if you don’t know me personally, and have never heard my voice for real, you won’t notice a difference. Anyway, enjoy!

Graduation Day

Top of Expo Lift

My friend Jennifer taught me to ski when I was 15 or 16 (I was in 10th grade). Her family had a condo at Holimont in New York and she invited me up so that she could have a friend to ski with. Skiing was not something I’d ever aspired to do, not even an option on the radar. I’m think back then I only vaguely thought of skiing. Maybe I figured it was just something Olympians did. It never occurred to me that it was something I could or would do. Like figure skating, it seemed an unattainable goal to contemplate. So when Jennifer asked me one morning while we walked the halls of the high school before home room, “Have you ever thought of learning to ski?” I responded honestly that no, I hadn’t.

It’s kind of ironic, looking back, that an activity a friend off-handedly suggest I try has become one of my favorite activities. Especially since I was never formally taught how to ski. At my own insistence, I was pretty much shown how to do a snow plow and sent on my merry way down an intermediate hill with my friend coaching me through my wedged turns. I would have been kindly taught on a bunny hill but as soon as the words “bunny hill” came out of Jennifer’s mouth, I pictured kids and scared adults gathered together on some lame tiny hill and I would have nothing of it. Jennifer was never one for coddling; when I refused the bunny hill, she pretty much shrugged her shoulders and said, “Well, okay.”

But I was a teenager and teenagers are damned determined. And stubborn. I’m still that way, so I’m sure I was doubly so as a teenager. Also, teenagers are not too old that they still feel that invincibility of youth. At that point in my life, I hadn’t had any serious injuries to remind me of what pain feels like, nor did I have to pay my own medical bills. I was free as a bird, you might say. We didn’t even ski with helmets back then. I was not fully aware of how dangerous an activity skiing might be. (I guess I never read the back of my lift ticket.)

Exhibition - My first run. Ever.

My first run, as I remember it, was Exhibition. This is a long, steady blue down the front of Holimont by main lodge. I know I fell a dozen times on the way down and in my memory it seems that I took an hour to get down that run. I don’t remember if it really took an hour, but I’m betting that even as slow as those lifts go at Holimont, someone could have skied up and down that slope five times before I got to the bottom. I remember at one point, as I stood up after my umpteeth fall, I panicked at awareness that my entire world was tilted steadily downward. I knew the only way off that slope was to ski down. I was scared out of my mind at points. But ever determined.

When I finally did make it down, instead of changing my mind and heading for that bunny hill, I shouted, “Again!” And up we went. Never once did I set ski on a bunny hill throughout my beginning days as a skier. I eventually did make it to some beginner runs, but none of them were the real learning hill. I know my ski instructor friends cringe at this story. Despite the fact that I took a long time to learn how to actually ski correctly, and I still have some pretty bad habits I’m working to break, I’m proud of humble beginnings as a skier. I can say that by the end of my first weekend skiing with Jennifer, I could mostly stay on my feet. I was what they used to call “snow-plowing” and everyone could see I was a beginner, but I was having fun. And that’s what skiing is all about.

We used to buy the junior tickets, even though we were above the age for junior tickets, which were $15 back then. At that age, before I started working, it was sure a chore to save and then spend $30 for two days of lift tickets. But I did it every time I had the opportunity. It was always worth every penny.

Exhibition: The word that changed my life.

I don’t know what it is about attaching two waxed boards to your feet and sliding yourself down increasingly difficult hills covered with snow, but I’ve loved it from the moment I first started doing it. It’s like a more complicated form of sled riding. Adult play, I call it nowadays, even though there are often more young people skiing on a given day than people my age. It is an activity that makes me feel like a kid again. I’m exhilarated by the cold air in my lungs, the wind in my face as I move, the sound of the skis swooshing in the snow, the world speeding by before my eyes, the slope getting smaller and smaller as I finish the run. I love the fact that just when I’ve mastered one skill, there’s always another challenge to attempt–steeper hills, moguls, different kinds of snow. There’s always harder resorts and different beauty to behold. Skiing has made me welcome winter with open arms.

Over the last two years, I’ve experienced noticeable improvement with my skiing. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve become a regular skier. As a result, my skill level has kicked up a notch. I’ve also had to admit my failings and take a few lessons to help make it possible for my improvement to continue. During these times, I’ve momentarily felt myself sliding backwards a little as I struggled to commit to muscle memory a new set of movements. But it’s all been for the good because things people have been trying to tell me to do for years are suddenly starting to make sense. I’m feeling more stable and more confident on my skis. I’m starting to enjoy skiing even more now as I push myself to ski slopes I previously feared. I never thought I would ever reach the point where I could comfortably do black diamond runs. But last year I started attacking them. And now I’m conquering many of them here in the east–sometimes fearfully. I’m actually starting to like steep. Even when it’s a little scary…

It’s only fitting that now at the crux of my metamorphosis to the level of an advanced skier that I returned to ski Holimont yesterday. It’s not the first time I’ve been back; I have skied there twice in the last five years. But I only ever skied one black diamond run there–Wild Turkey when I was there last year and I did it somewhat fearfully. When I signed up for this mid-week trip with the Fagowees back in January, I knew that this time I was ready to take on the black diamond runs.

Coincidentally, when I got on the bus for trip, I recognized one of the trip leaders. I didn’t realize at first why I knew him. The name sounded vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place it. Then pieces started to fall into place. Someone on the bus remarked that this person’s family had (or once had) a condo at Holimont. I did a double-take at the name on the information sheet for the trip. Then it hit me–this man was Jennifer’s uncle. I wrote her a quick message on Facebook with my BlackBerry to confirm because I was too cowardly to ask the guy if he was her uncle. I felt kind of stupid… so much time had passed… what if I was wrong? It wasn’t until three beers on the bus ride home that I worked up the bravery to reintroduce myself. About an hour later, Jennifer wrote me back on Facebook. Too late for me to introduce myself without sounding stupid, but oh well. Probably if she had told me, I wouldn’t have said anything. The suspense was killing me and I had to find out.

Anyway, I was on a mission yesterday. Despite having gone on a bus trip with Fagowees specifically to meet like-minded skiers, I decided to head off on my own for the day because I didn’t want to be peer-pressured into doing a run I wasn’t feeling secure about. Not that this happens to me often, but I will admit that I feel like I eat a lot of humble pie when I trek back off the top of a slope because I’m too afraid to go down it. I didn’t want anyone to see me have any emotional breakdowns, like I’m wont to have if I find myself on ice or in the middle of a slope that scares the crap out of me. Needless to say, not knowing what was ahead of me because I’d never even been in the black diamond area before, I wanted to go off on my own so that I could have my panic attacks in private. So after getting suited up quickly, I waited in line with a few other early birds, and was on the very first chair when the Expo lift opened.

To be honest, only the anticipation of the unknown caused my heart to flutter most of the day. My first run (where I made the very first tracks in the groomed snow) was down Meadow, a blue run that I remember as being more difficult, often icy, and pretty much the last stop before all the black diamond runs. I like to start my day on a blue run to remind my legs how to move like a skier. The conditions were much better than expected–grooming packed snow that cut like better when the edges of my skis pushed against it. It wasn’t the softest stuff. In fact, the bumpy groomed surface made a kind of weird noise as my skis cut across it. But it wasn’t ice. My confidence increased.

Meadow Lift (I think)

On my next run, I cut eastward, sweeping by the familiar condos on the aptly-named Condo Line run, and caught the Cascade lift to begin my black diamond experience. Part of me thought I should do another run on Meadow, but I heard my friend Janet’s voice in the back of my head, “You should do the black diamond runs early while your legs are fresh.” True that. No use prolonging the inevitable.

My first run was down Irish Whiskey. It was generally narrow but it went through the woods so I liked it. Again, no ice, and it was steepest at the end where I didn’t even hesitate to follow through with the finish. I then proceeded further left, tackling Wild Turkey, Sunrise, and Twisty Christy. (I skipped Cascade at first because I generally don’t like to do runs that go beneath the lifts, especially when out of my element, because not only do they tend to be icy, but you have people sitting overhead with nothing better to do than watch you and make commentary if you screw up.) Of these, I really enjoyed Sunrise and Twisty Christy.

My run down Twisty Christy brought me to a path where I could either head to the Grear lift or continue back to the Cascade lift to try basically the same runs I’d just done. But my mark was–nervously–Greer because it seemed it would be the steepest of all the runs in this area, if not the whole resort (though I found out later Punch Bowl is actually harder). I knew if I could handle Greer, a world of confidence and possibility would unfold for me for the rest of the day.

Thankfully, Greer doesn’t have a lift running over it, so I knew I could afford to take my time if need be. At the top, I was awed by the sweeping view of Ellicottville below. Sometimes getting perspective on how high I am can undermine my confidence. I tried not to take it in too much on that first run. A man I’d spoken to on the first lift up from the lodge that morning, to whom I’d revealed my intention to do all these black diamonds for my first time ever, came by just as I was standing over the edge of the run.

“Have you tried this one yet?” he asked chipperly. I told him no. “Well, this is one of the steepest,” he confirmed. With a smile, he added, “You’ll like it.”

I started down tentatively as I always do on a run I’ve never done before–one where I haven’t sent a braver friend down to report to me on the conditions first. My eyes seemed to assess that it was certainly steeper than the runs I’d done before it, but as I started making my concentrated turns, all the while repeating to myself the techniques I’d learned from a ski lesson last week, I started to realize that the hill wasn’t anything more than I could handle, that I’d done something that steep before, and I found my comfort zone. I skied the rest of the way down carefully but comfortably. Whew!

And then, of course, I took it again. Two times is what makes the run count as conquered to me–it cements the fact that I did the run. Because I’m usually a lot less fearful on the second run, I can enjoy it more and appreciate every moment. This time, I stopped to snap a picture of the view.

Top of Greer revealing Ellicottville.

Sometimes skiers, when having a good time, shout, “Whoo-hoo!” to express the glee they feel. I had several whoo-hoo moments yesterday. The bad part about not skiing with someone else was that I couldn’t share the moment anyone. I could shout “whoo-hoo”–and I did–to acknowledge the absolute exhilaration of accomplishment with other strangers, who I’m sure understood my excitement, but the moment was absent of the friend who had taught me to ski all those years ago. If only she could see me now… (and she can’t at the moment since she lives in North Carolina). All too late I learned to ski the kinds of runs she could do when she was much younger than me. Oh the fun we would have had!

I stayed in the Greer-Cascade area, eventually doing all the runs, even Early Bird and Cascade which both go under lifts. Early Bird was like many runs beneath lifts–too narrow for comfort so I only did it once. The wider Cascade was interesting, but somehow not as much fun as Twisty Christy and Sunset.

The only thing I had left to do was the dreaded Punch Bowl, known to locals as Headwall. (Jennifer and everyone else I knew back then called it Headwall; in fact, I overhead someone yesterday call it that as they headed over to ski it.) Really, it’s a short, steep but wide hill that goes beneath the Plum Creek lift. The Plum Creek lift appears to only run on weekends for I’ve never seen it run on the week days when non-members are allowed to ski. Since Plum Creek is actually the lift we could take when skiing right from the condo, as a teen, I witness the steepness from an aerial view from the above many times before. Not to mention, I quaked at the story Jennifer used to tell me of riding on her uncle’s shoulders as he skied down it to get to her ski which had fallen off on the lift. I always thought there was no way, no how I was riding on anyone’s shoulders as they skied down any hill, let alone what looked to me then as a gaping wall true to its name.

With my advanced skier eyes, though, Punch Bowl seemed a lot less intimidating than it once did. From the bottom of the slope looking up as I passed the area on my way back from the Cascade lift, I thought with a new found brashness, “Yeah, I can totally do that.”

Nothing from the bottom every looks as steep as it does from the top. As I stood right before the top, I had a few moments of panic where I thought for sure I was going to side-step back up to the safety of the path that cuts over the top back to some easy trails down. I took a breath and I repeated, “You can do it.” I was thankful no one was around to see me quake.

I started down. I don’t know if I what I was feeling was left over from the beginner skier in me who could only snow-plow down a hill, but it definitely seemed steeper than Greer. I stopped once in the middle of the slope to get my bearings. This is usually a bad move because pausing mid-slope tends to freak you out more because you have time to notice just how steep the thing you’re descending is. A young guy came swooshing down across the other side of the slope and I started right back up again, telling myself that it was only a few more turns before I too was done with the slope. When I made it to the bottom, I let out a triumphant cheer. Ha! Conquered. So, true to form, I of course took another run down it to make it really count.

The rest of the day was less stressful and more fun. I found that I also enjoyed a few other black diamond runs that were interspersed amidst the blue runs: Razerback, Downspout and Fall Line. I did all of these multiple times as they were much easier than any of the other blacks and therefore felt like a relief. I also did manage to go down some old familiars: Snowbird and the ever so beloved Exhibition. I am sorry to say that I never went further than Exhibition, for I felt that I’d probably feel disappointed by Sunset, the long green I used to love. At the end of the day, it seemed like too much work to get myself over to a green run that I’d probably only want to do once before returning to the intermediate blue runs. The only black by Sunset is the terrain park, which is far more interesting to snowboarders than to me. I’m not at the half pipe or high jump stage of my skiing career yet. (And, yes, I said yet because part of me thinks jumping might be kind of fun…)

Downspout: A fun black among blues

It was a fun, full day, despite my anti-social mood. I feel as though going to Holimont and conquering all those black diamond runs in my old haunt has really brought me full circle with my skiing past. I’ve finally graduated. It’s only taken me 18 years. The diploma is in my hands and it’s now on to the higher education of advanced skiing. Whoo-hoo, indeed!

And to celebrate, I give you this new ski-ku as my commencement speech:

Skis etch lines in snow
Trailing small “s”‘s behind
Proof that I skied here.

And, by the way, I think I will be joining the Fagowees Ski Club. They hooked up speakers in bus, playing music off someone’s iPod, and people were dancing in the aisles of the bus the whole way home. I sat in the back of the bus with the “bad” folks. Them’s my kind of people!

Also. They promised me a spot on the shot ski at the next meeting. (The shot ski contains five shot glasses and five people line up next to it and simultaneously take a shot off the ski.) Graduation has not matured me enough to give up the partying…

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Once upon a James Blvd.

I just finished watching The Man with One Red Shoe, a movie my brother bought me for Christmas. He selected it off the whole batch of 1980s movies I had listed on my Amazon.com wish list, but most importantly, he picked it because he had many memories of me “forcing him to watch” the movie over and over when we were kids. Looking at the back cover of the DVD case, I realized the movie was made in 1985; I was 10.

Ah, the memories for myself, as I watched that movie, reveling in the theme music I remember so well. There was a warm feeling of familiarity–nostalgia–that overtook me as I watched it. For just about an hour and a half, I felt like I was 10 again. I can’t explain it. It’s hard to watch movies you loved from your youth without remembering what it felt to love the movie when you were a kid. I guess that’s why my wish list included movies such as The Never Ending Story, War Games, Tron, The Flight of the Navigator, The Last Star Fighter, and Enemy Mine. I already own Goonies, which I bought several years ago when I first got a DVD player. I can relive my childhood every day week if I eventually got all of these DVDs. I could relive my childhood whenever I want!

It’s ironic that I should be jolted into this nostalgia by the a favorite movie of the past when earlier today–before present opening, before my brother arrived at my parents’ house–I was thinking about my old buddy who lived down the street, Scott Timko. I always wondered what happened to him. We spent many of our childhood days playing Voltron, riding our bikes up and down the street to form Volton (I was always Princess Alura; he, Keith). He used to do a great impression of Prince Lotar. We would make fake radio shows with our tape records sometimes, interviewing our Voltron characters like a talk show. We wrote stories. He loved The Chronicles of Naria and told me all about them so I never really had to read them (and still haven’t until this day, but I know how it all turns out because he told me).

We stopped talking in high school. I guess I just was no longer cool enough for him. Previously, he’d attended St. Ambrose–the Catholic primary school in my home town–so the fact that I was grossly unpopular at public school did nothing to interfere with our relationship until we both attended public high school together. By then, though, all the sci-fi fantasies of our youth had faded, probably some time in middle school because simply hanging out as a boy and girl implied so much more than friends. We never went there and so I think we had to part when that became the fact of life.

In my memory of Scott, I always think of this picture I have of him in one of my photo albums somewhere. He’s posed in front of his blue bike like a model, his elbow resting on the seat and his head resting against his hand. He has a big smile on his face. I remember his plastic rimmed glasses and his black curly hair. He is frozen forever in that pose in my head. And whenever I think of my life in the 1980s, I think of him and that photo. He was probably my first best friend.

Today I was remembering how he told me his mother had died when he was very young, so young he didn’t even remember her. His brother, Rob, two years older always told me he had some memory of his mother, but they were vague. Scott and Rob where the first people in my life that I’d ever met who were missing a key member of their family. I probably knew their sad situation before I even knew of divorce. I didn’t think of it much back then, except thinking it was sad when Scott brought the topic up. I’m not sure what I thought of death back then. I just remember Scott and Rob saying that their dad had loved their mother very much. I can’t at this time even remember if she had a name.

So I was thinking today, as an adult, what it must have been like to be Mr. Timko–two young boys and a widower. It was a weird thing to contemplate and not something I’ve thought about at all for myself when remembering Scott. All these years, I have sympathized in my memory from the side of the child who was growing up without a mother. Now, I was looking back on this memory and thinking, all too knowingly, about Mr. Timko and wondering how he felt. It was like suddenly an adult in my head–Mr. Timko will always be an adult in my head because that’s what he was when I was a child–became more human. And I understood some level, sans children of course, what he might have gone through. It was a true eureka moment for me. I don’t even know why I was thinking about it at all. I guess Christmas just makes you think about things from your past.

Anyway, Mr. Timko died several years ago, back when my parents still lived on the same street. I think maybe I was in college when it happened. While that chapter of my life is closed, the details within my childhood memory are still quite clear. I often miss Scott. I’ve googled him and looked for him on Facebook, to no avail. I don’t think I’d email him or anything… what would I say? He probably wouldn’t even care to hear from me. I’m sure he’s much more important in my history than I am to him.

Nostalgic meanderings aside, I think I had a pretty nice Christmas. Nothing outrageous. I feel full and fat, so I’ve feasted enough. I got some pretty swank gifts–Battlestar Galactica (season 1); Roswell (season 3) to complete the series; a cool Louville Slugger souvenir bat with my name on it; U2 by U2, a huge book written by the band members about the band; some nice clothes; a bottle of Zin from Dry Creek Valley in California that I can’t open for a few years until it reaches its peak; a bunch of Theo chocolate bars (thanks, Sarah); and a bunch of nice smaller nick-knacks and candy. I know, it’s a miracle, nothing bike related!

I look forward to sleeping in tomorrow. Getting some exercise in. Unfortunately, we’re experiencing a warming trend in the weather and I’m afraid that my planned trip to NY might be ruined. So, again, I’m still hoping for that huge snow storm in upstate NY next week so that I might ski in a winter wonderland. If it doesn’t happen, I might have to cancel my much-awaited trip and make other last minute plans. I don’t really want to do this, but I don’t want to ski in slush either. Meanwhile, I believe Colorado’s mountains continue to get dumped on… *sigh*

Hope you all had a merry Christmas too… Let me know if you would like to see The Man with One Red Shoe since most of you out there have never seem to have heard of this movie. It’s still great to me after viewing as an adult. In ways, even better.

Ghosts of Christmases Past

Grandma H (blue) and Grandma E (pink) with me
and Mike on our wedding day — August 28, 1999

This will be the first Christmas without my grandma H, who passed away this past March. In fact, it will be the first Christmas for me without any one to represent the prior generation of my family–my grandma E died in February 2001 (a few months before my husband), my grandpa E, in February 1996, and my grandpa H, in December 1993. I’m not complaining; I know I was lucky to have only started losing grandparents at the age of 18 and that most of my grandparents lived to see a good part of my adult life. I have many wonderful memories of childhood camping trips with the E’s and both my grandmas attended my college graduation and my wedding. I was really lucky to have them know me as an adult.

But something this year is gone forever. Both of my grandmas were an integral part of my holiday traditions growing up, particularly Christmas. For most of my life, the family tradition was to attend the big bash on Christmas Eve at my grandma H’s house and the smaller gathering in the more cramped but intimate living space of my grandma E on Christmas day. Now, as we try to fill in the empty spaces left by the passing of those who made our traditions before us, I feel a bit sad inside. Nothing will ever be the same again. I’ve never been too good with change.

It was almost befitting of the season with the order in which the two parties occurred. First, the Christmas Eve event which included most of my grandma H’s eight children (with one or two being out of state and only making appearances every once in awhile) and their ever-growing–or so it seemed for awhile–families. (I’m the second oldest grandchild and the oldest granddaughter.) This party, as you might expect, was always loud and lively. I always had kids to play with–or herd, as one might have said in my earlier years when I seemed to love the company of the younger kids. It was a great beginning to the anticipation of Christmas day, especially back in the time when I still believed that Santa Claus was going to pass my house up if I wasn’t in bed by the time he came through my neighborhood. I remember actually being fearful as we drove home at around midnight, afraid that I might see Santa’s sleigh in the sky and know that he’d missed my house because I wasn’t there.

Christmas morning, my parents and little bro and I would spend opening our presents in our PJs. I always tried, like every kid, to wake my parents up a few times too early in the morning before they would finally get up. It always seemed like it was me up first, not my brother. I’m not too calm under the pressure of anticipation, either.

After present-opening, my mom would make breakfast and drink coffee and we kids would spend the morning trying to figure out our new toys. Eventally in the afternoon, we would take off for grandma E’s house for a more relaxed Christmas holiday spent with my dad’s sister Jean, Uncle Jack, and their three kids, Jacqui, Jennifer, and Jimmy (all older than me); my uncle Les (10 years younger than my dad); and, of course, my grandparents. My grandma’s living room was kind of small, so we all squashed together with our TV trays on folding chairs and the couches, feasting on the culinary delights cooked proudly by my grandma. She was such a great cook! She always made sure you ate until your stomach exploded, and then she would ask you if you wanted more. Of course, you went home with leftovers.

Grandma E was a bargain shopper and she loved giving us more gifts than we could carry to the car in one trip. We’d get sweaters and socks and slippers and useful mini-tool sets; battery-operated games and knick-knacks; and, of course, ceramics. Grandma E loved making ceramics. You would get one or two or four for every holiday and usually your favorite color–which she always remembered–was somehow incorporated on the little figurine she gave you. I had tons of figurines of pretty girls with my hair color dressed in purple and cats with purple bows and coffee mugs painted with purple designs.

Christmases just werent the same after Grandma E died. The family sort of disbanded after her death. We no longer spend Christmas day together. The last time I saw Uncle Jack, Aunt Jean, or my cousins Jimmy and Jennifer was at my brother’s wedding in 2006. I don’t remember Jacqui being there. It’s almost as though these people are passing acquaintances in my life without so much significance. Yet, Jimmy at one point was an extension of my immediate family in that he would stay over night at my house like a friend and he accompanied us on many of our camping trips. I used to play with these cousins and now I don’t even know who they are.

My grandmas were almost polar opposites of each other: while Grandma E loved to cook and cooked well, Grandma H found cooking–much like her eldest granddaughter–a troublesome required chore. You didn’t have carefully labored delicacies at Grandma H’s house. Instead, you feasted on spaghetti with big meatballs (my favorite thing to make with her) or pizza ordered out or soup from a can or McDonald’s chicken nuggets. Whenever you went to Grandma E’s house, food was ready for you to eat–no matter what time of day–or prepared when you arrived. At Grandma H’s house, she would welcome you in with a hug and say, “Oh, you’re hungry? I don’t really have much around.”

Grandma E was more traditional while Grandma H was more of what I’d describe as the “modern woman.” This is not to undercut Grandma E at all, for I admired her all the same. Grandma E was a huge reader, knew tons of stuff about everything from reading, and was great to talk to about anything. She was a thinker. A devout Lutheran, her religion did not come to her without careful thought. I always respected that in her.

Grandma H’s natural, happy smile. (Also at my wedding.)

When Grandpa H was diagnosed with MS at the age of 35, Grandma H went back to school and became a teacher. She also wanted to teach because of a determination that she felt she could do a better job than some of the teachers who had taught her children. She had a passion for teaching that made you want to be a teacher too (and a few of her grandchildren have, in fact, become teachers). Because she was a teacher, Grandma H’s house was always full of art supplies and games. She also used to keep her classroom’s Apple IIe at her house over the summer and it was on this computer that she taught me to program in Basic. I always love to tell people that I got my first technical knowledge of computers from my grandma–that always throws them off because people picture grandmas as “old” and “out-of-touch.” Grandma H was never out-of-touch with what was going on in the world. Maybe teaching kept her young. I think it was her love of learning that never died.

Grandma E was a sweetheart. I always have fond memories of sitting with her around campfires at the campgrounds where my family and the E’s would spend weekends in our trailers. She always listened to yacky young Mars Girl and would reply with an, “Oh, ah-ha.” Maybe she wasn’t listening to me but she always made me feel like she was. We shared book titles together when I was a little older (I read On the Beach on her recommendation). She filled my world with presents on Christmas and great handmade chocolate treats on Easter. She continued to give me an Easter basket well into adulthood. It was a constant I’d learned to expect.

When I think of Christmas, it’s not so much recent memories that come to mind but those of the past that have shaped what Christmas means to me. To me, Christmas is visiting those you love, giving them a little token expression of your love, and taking a moment out of your busy to be together. With those people I love so much gone from my life, Christmas seems a little less vivid. Sure, we go through the motions–there’s still a Christmas Eve gathering with the H’s and I go to my parents’ house on Christmas day. But it just doesn’t feel to me what it did back then anymore. I try to make new memories and revel in them, but something special is lost. I’m feeling this more now that Grandma H is physically gone (though she was mentally gone for the last several years with her Alzheimer’s).

I’d refound my childhood spirit of Christmas on those three Christmases Mike and I had together. It was fun buying him gifts, knowing things he would like without him having to tell me. We filled the space beneath our mini-tree with big ticket items and small items. It was almost like being a kid again for a moment in time. I knew I was making new traditions and I was sharing the holiday in a meaningful way with someone I truly loved. The year he died, I did everything I could to not celebrate Christmas. It was too hard.

Unfortunately, the holidays have started to become for me a reminder of those who are missing from them. Perhaps that’s not as negative as it initially sounds because the holidays, while bringing us together with loved ones, put us in the best spirit to remember those who are not with us (whether it be because they have died or they are simply somewhere in the world, unable to get home). It’s a good time to reflect on those near as well as far away or no longer with us here in the physical life.

Tragedies of childhood (school bullies part 2)

The thing that floored me the most about my friend’s revelation concerning her daughter’s plight is that just a week prior, I found myself admiring this child for her maturity and confidence. She’d sat next to me at church and, during the time when we’d been invited to greet our neighbors, she turned around and began introducing herself to the adults around her. We just started bringing the children into our services for the first fifteen minutes or so as an initiative to expose them to our rituals and practices. Previously, we were just sending them to Sunday school and teaching them about our open faith without showing them how our faith manifests on Sunday mornings. I had been a little nervous about sitting next to my friend’s daughter—I’m not very comfortable around kids these days for reasons I’m trying to figure out. I have to admit that I was unsure about the whole idea of having the kids participate in our services.

However, as I sat next to this girl, I had a remarkable moment of clarity. Here was a self-confident, interesting child who actually spoke to me without reservation as though I were her age and at her level. Something about her clear, chipper voice as she introduced herself to the neighboring adults caught me at that moment. Wow, I thought, what a neat girl. I suddenly felt a certain pride for my friend to be raising a child who , in that moment, I thought would grow up to be someone worth knowing. I can’t say exactly what made me think this. Perhaps you can pick up a little of someone’s aura from just being around them. I don’t know. I just had a good feeling about her.

When my friend revealed to me that this girl was having trouble with bullying girls in school, I felt something shift in me. It’s one of those moments where you realize that roles have reversed—you’ve been placed in the opposite position you were in at an earlier point of your history. It’s like a reverse de ja vu. I was now one of those many adults who told me I was a fun, interesting kid; who saw something in me that my own peers could not see; who tried to encourage my potential; who tried to tell me my present state was temporary. Wow. What a weird, weird moment.

It certainly is different to see childhood from the perspective of an adult. To realize with complete understanding all those things those adults tried to tell you about life when you couldn’t understand because your world was a small two-dimension circle out of which you saw no doors leading elsewhere. If there was one thing I could tell every kid and teenager suffering the pains of unpopularity, it would be: Hang in there. This state is temporary. Some day you’ll find a place where you’ll be exactly what you want to be and those who criticize won’t hurt you. For every one person who dislikes you as an adult, five others love the person they see.

It’s a sad tragedy to me that kids can’t see the world the way I can see it now with my adult eyes. Many kids make the mistakes I almost felt myself take, turning to depression, suicide, and—as has become popular of the late—lashing out by fatally killing their oppressors. Whenever I hear the news of another school shooting, I think, “That could have been me.”

To say that I never had a bad thought about the kids who were hurting me would be a lie. I have journal entries filled with hateful words towards these bullies, wishing them ill or dead. I even get a certain satisfaction at the end of the movie Carrie when the character of the same name kills all her cruel classmates. Would I have ever gone so far as to pick up a gun and shoot those bullying me? Thankfully, not. But I wasn’t growing up in a world of realistic video games and my parents didn’t let me watch violent movies. I wasn’t babysat 24/7 by a constant flow of media that supported my thoughts of ill will or an internet that allowed me to communicate my ill intentions to others. I understood the finality of death. I wasn’t desensitized to it.

I don’t know if desensitization is what causes these kids to jump off the ledge in the manner they have in choosing to inflict physical pain or take a classmate’s life. But I feel for them because I know beneath every child shooter’s exterior beats the heart of a seething child trapped in a world full of social road blocks. Having become so beaten down by inhumane treatment from their peers (and I don’t say that lightly—kids are brutal to each other), the only recourse they could find is vengeance. It’s a horrible solution and unforgiveable solution to combat their anger and pain, and it’s a fatal choice that ruins their lives forever. To me, that’s tragic. Whether you consider the shooter or the children he/she killed or wounded, it’s tragic.

It’s tragic that other kids turn their despair inward and choose to take their own lives. If I had killed myself in ninth grade, it would have been a tragic waste of a life. I know this as an adult because looking back at my thoughts at that moment in my life, I realize how trivial my reasoning was. So what that no boy had asked me to the homecoming dance? As an adult, I’ve had little trouble finding men who appreciate me enough to ask me out. But as a kid, homecoming was all I had; it was the event that separated the accepted from the social outcast. That moment was the epitome of my existence thus far: there I was, home alone, on the biggest night of the year. None of my so-called friends had even invited me to the game. I was totally alone in that moment.

I wish I could fill a school with misfit kids and teach them all to embrace their individuality. It’s their uniqueness that will bring them relationships as adults. I wish I could meet all these children and learn how they think. I would embrace their diversity in all the ways their peers should have. I wish I could fill them all with the confident “I don’t care what anyone else thinks” attitude of an adult and have it work for them the way it does in life beyond childhood. Most of all, I wish I could take them all in a time machine to the future where they can see that as adults, the wider world generally works much differently (there are a few exceptions).

As a child, adults tried to tell me the same things I’m saying here. As I recall, I never believed them. It seemed impossible to have such hopes. There’s really just no way to make anyone believe what you know to be true. Except, perhaps, to lead by example. You can give children the respect they deserve and hope that it gives them enough emotional armor to deflect the worst of their peer’s arrows. As a mother, this would be my goal. As an adult observing a child not my own, I can only repeat what was said to me: This time of difficulty will pass.

School bullies

A friend of mine told me recently that her daughter is starting to have problems with girls picking on her in school. My empathy immediately went out to this young girl because I too was the subject of many-a-bully’s brutal aggression growing up. It started in about third grade and pretty much never let up until I was lucky enough to graduate and get the hell out of the city in which I was raised. In fact, the bullying got worse from middle through high school to the point where I was seeking shelter in the guidance office in lieu of one of my classes because the girls would shove my books off my desk and threaten me with bodily harm the entire time I was in the class. The teacher, beaten by the system into a state of dull despondence, would occasionally look up and say, “Stop it” before he continued his lecture that no one was listening to.

Fortunately, I had good grades and the guidance counselor took pity on me, allowing me refuge in his office so long as I kept up with my homework and tests. This was my junior year in high school and I really don’t know how I got through it. The guidance counselor also offered me a solution for my senior year that saved my life as well: post-secondary option which allowed me to leave school after third period to take one class at Baldwin-Wallace College per quarter. Being exposed to a college class gave me hope for a future in which I would be seen as an equal and left alone by those who didn’t like me. Plus, it gave me a head start on college!

My mom said that she thought I would popular in school. I was a talkative and outgoing child–not very shy at all. On my first day of kindergarten, I didn’t cry or complain when my mom dropped me off; I simply sat down and started talking to another little girl named Mary. My mom thought for sure the road ahead of me in school would be fine. Tuns out, I was the leader that no one followed, as my mom always says.

I majored in Elementary Ed in college with the sole mission of being the teacher to remove all bullying from the school system. My grandmother, a teacher, always implemented a golden rule in her classroom: No put-downs. She refused to let students cut each other down in her classroom. I wanted to be like her. Unfortunately, years of being picked on in school had damaged my self-esteem and, at that time in my life, it was very hard to assert myself as an authority figure. When it came time for my field experiences, I crumpled under the pressure of controlling the classroom and constantly worrying about the students liking me. To top it off, I had the world’s bitchiest control-freak lady as my monitoring teacher. I crumpled under the ridicule of her chastising words, “Your professor says you are one of the best students in your class. I don’t see that here.”

It wasn’t just this bitchy teacher from my field experience that brought me down; it was also the sudden understanding that I couldn’t–no matter how hard I tried–stop all the kids from getting picked on all the time. Some things were just beyond my control. I couldn’t be everywhere at once, witnessing everything to intercede as I wanted to. The fact that there was evidence of kids being hurt emotionally and physically by other kids just made a pin cushion of my heart. I was too close emotionally to the problem. I was not the right person to be fighting it because the very knowledge of its existence hurt me too much.

This is what I fear with my own kids. I’ve gone over it and over it in my head and I’ve tried to figure ways to help them avoid having to go through what I went through. I’ve thought of home-schooling and private schools. I have this running theory that if I instill enough confidence in my child, mere bullying won’t knock them down the way it did with me. If they could do what I couldn’t–just let these remarks roll off–then I could create a child impervious to the emotional bruising inflicted by other children.

I know I’m fooling myself with this theory. When you’re a kid, your whole world is confined to your neighborhood and your school. If you have no or few friends within this sphere, you’re lost because there’s nowhere else to go. Your status amongst your age mates is far more important than it is as an adult. As an adult, your sphere is bigger and you know that for every one person who doesn’t like you, there are five who do. Someone not liking you is less detrimental to your ego. When you’re a kid, the eighteen years until adulthood–until you can leave your limited sphere–is a long, long time to wait to find your place. I know this because I counted the days until I was out of high school and could begin my own life.

The whole personal religion of my younger years was focused on getting the hell out of my home town and starting my life anew. I put so much energy in tomorrow that I focused little on the moment. I used to tell myself that now was the moment of suffering; once I got through the suffering, I would be rewarded with a much better life as an adult. A part of me longed for vengeance, to come back to my home town one day, handsome man on my arm and an impressive career, just so that I could tell everyone how much better my life was than theirs. The universe owed me this much, I thought.

Many people who were of the nerdier ilk do not lament the things they missed in high school because they didn’t find them interesting. The thing is, I wanted to be popular the whole time I was not. I wanted to have lots of friends and get invited to dances and go to parties. I remember one horrible time in ninth grade where I was so upset that no guy had asked me to the homecoming dance that I seriously contemplated suicide. It’s embarrassing to admit that to myself now because it sounds so trivial–and it was. That moment in my life was the absolute epitome of what I’d become: a completely unpopular girl, outside of the social structure of the school, completely alone. I didn’t want to kill myself because I’d not been asked to the dance–that event alone was merely another stone cast against me in the social circles of high school. I wanted to die because at that moment I could think of no other way out of the constant despair I felt each day of my life by that point.

I sometimes feel that I have a responsibility not to have kids so that I won’t bring into the world another being who has to suffer the way I felt I suffered in those early years. There’s no promise that I’d have a popular kid and there’s no promise that I’d spawn another nerd. The only thing I can promise by not having kids is that I won’t have to know the outcome either way. The truth is, I could not stand to watch my child suffer, or anyone I love for that matter. And if my child suffered the way I suffered in school, I’d feel somehow responsible. As it was when I attempted to become a teacher, I’d be powerless to do anything about that suffering for my kid, just as my mom could do nothing to stop the taunts or my pained reaction to it. If someone else’s kid being bullied brings me discomfort, I know that my own kid’s suffering would be just as bad as when I endured it myself.

At the same time, I know that what I went through in my primary years shaped me into the empathetic adult I am today. To this day, I find myself siding with the underdog, trying to help a person out when they are down and out. I know that most things in life come with a fight, perseverance, and a lot of hard work. Maybe that is where I got my survivor mentality–that part of me that pushes hard past exhaustion until I am numb because I know it’s the only way I’ll get my due. I think people who had things handed to them easily, who never had to work for what they got, whose life was without the bumps do not know how to handle themselves when the going gets tough. Or sometimes people learn the lessons later that I learned young. Either way, the individual that came out of that social fight has a sincere soul who values friends as a precious commodity.

Even knowing how my younger years shaped me, I still have the urge to want to shelter my children from what I went through. I would like to find some way to teach them to be good people without walking through the fires I had to walk through. I suppose that’s a wish all parents have for their children and because of that wish, they needlessly shelter–consciously or unconsciously–their children. Which is the complete opposite of what I’d want to do. Whenever my mom tried to prevent me from doing things she knew to be unsafe, I wanted to do it all the more. I always thought that I needed to try it for myself to know why I shouldn’t do it.

A parent always wants to provide a child with better opportunities than he or she had. In doing this, do we automatically swing the pendulum the complete opposite direction, thus counterbalancing parenthood in a different way? It’s so confusing. I think most parents mean well; they’re just trying to get it right.

I don’t like working with problems that don’t have a right or wrong answers. Parenthood scares the crap out of me. My friend’s revelation about her daughter reminded me all too well of the emotional hardships of being a parent at just the time when I’ve been starting to look at children with a mind more open than it’s ever been. My biggest fears are confirmed. Being a unique individual, I can’t help but feel as though I’d create unique individuals. And then what? The pain of watching them walk through the fire. I think the first day of school for my child would send my anxiety soaring. It would be the first time I’d let my kid go into the world, praying he/she would make it better than I did. Sink or swim. Or simply floating.

The build-a-bear experience

Not many people are aware of the fact that I can, in fact, sew. I don’t do it very often, for I don’t have the time, patience, or passion normally. I have several clothing patterns selected for clothes I’d love to make myself, but I still haven’t gotten around to it. Once, I tried to make my ex-boyfriend a kilt, but we broke up before I finished it. I did start and complete two huge (like 2 feet long) pillow dog stuffed animals for my godson and his brother several years ago. That was a great project–the kids slept with those things for a long time. But I never really got that ambitious again.

With all these baby showers on the horizon, I’ve intended over and over again to make these small stuffed animals for which I have a pattern. I’ve always had a soft spot for stuffed animals; I still have a teddy bear my Grandma H gave my mom at the baby shower when she was pregnant with me. I still sleep with that teddy bear, occasionally, when I’m lonely. Even if I don’t sleep with it, it’s usually by my bedside, on the nightstand or in my bed. I’ve taken it on trips with me so that I wouldn’t get homesick. I know it sounds stupid for a 33 year old woman to find comfort in a tattered old teddy bear from her youth, but I can’t help it–I really do find comfort in that old thing. It has a music box that plays a lullaby. Whenever I’m feel especially down, there’s something comforting in that tune rolling from the tummy of my teddy bear. It reminds me of being a kid, of feeling lonely and confused, and finding solace in something as simple as a lifeless stuffed animal bear. To me, though, the teddy bear is not lifeless–he has a soul of his own that speaks in a language only I can hear. It’s going to be all right, Mars Girl, he says, Do not fear.

For this reason, it always seems to me that I have this urge to give new babies a teddy bear protector. I can never find the right stuffed animal in stores. There’s no stuffed animal quite like my teddy bear. None of them feel right when I hug them. I have wanted to sew my own for these future children, but, again, I just don’t have the time to sit around sewing. Plus, I am still a novice and I need my mom’s help to start these projects. We’re both busy.

So yesterday, I did the next best thing: I went to the Build-A-Bear Workshop. There’s one at the Summit Mall, and I’ve always wanted to walk into one. Mostly, I’ve wanted to make a bear for myself. There’s so many beautiful options–all different kinds of animals and clothing and sounds to add to it. I’ve had to restrain myself from going in. You don’t need any more stuffed animals, I try to tell myself.

Well, now with two baby showers this weekend, I had the perfect excuse. I went in and carefully selected the bears I wanted to give Arianna (my friend Debbie’s daughter-to-be) and Grayson (my cousin Angy’s son-to-be). For Grayson, I tried to selected this beautiful fuzzy black bear because it looked like a “boy’s bear” to me. For Arianna, I selected a less fuzzy, but soft and matted brown bear. It just seemed right.

Before stuffing the bears, the Build-A-Bear specialist has you select a heart for the bear from a basket of sewn fabric hearts. She then proceeds to lead you through this ritual in which you rub the heart on various areas of your body to give the bear certain attributes, such as your tummy so the bear never goes hungry. The ritual ends with closing your eyes and making a wish on the heart, and then kissing the heart to seal the creation with love. I wished for happiness and long life–something every kid needs and something I always wish on people anyway.

The heart is then placed inside the bear. You then step on the lever to initiate the stuffing from the big “stuffing blowing” machine and the Build-A-Bear specialist fluffs the bear out in all the right places to make a lovable, hugable bear. I was really touched by the gesture of the heart inside the bear–what a sweet touch and something I would never have thought of doing for my own homemade stuffed animals.

I also had a music box that plays a lullaby (not the same one as my teddy bear plays) put inside of the bears. I don’t think these music boxes are as sturdy as the one in my teddy bear. I think the one in mine is one of those real ones that have the rolling metal tubes with the music indented on them that, when hit by a little metal tab, plays the tune. There’s a knob on the back of my teddy bear that you have to wind so that the music plays. The ones used in the bears I made were electronic–you simply press a button on them. I don’t expect the music box to last 33 years, as mine has, which is actually the only thing I’m disappointed about in this experience. I’m not sure if “real” music boxes are still anywhere anymore.

After the bear is stuffed and sewn shut, you can select clothes for the bear. I just selected simple “It’s a Boy!” and “It’s a Girl!” t-shirts. Kids lose the clothing anyway. My teddy bear came with a bow that I lost decades ago and replaced with a red bandanna sometime during the teenage years because the bear’s neck had an awkward indentation from years of having the bow.

The real pressure in this experience came with the birth certificates that you get to create for the bears. I hadn’t realized that I would have to come up with a name for the bears and the pressure–as a writer who feels names are very significant–was crushing. So, without much thought, I used the names that came to me first (perhaps it was the bears themselves telling me what their names were, like the characters to my stories often do)–Joey for Grayson’s bear and Lila for Arianna’s bear. In retrospect, I realized that I should have given each kid’s middle name for the name of their respective bears–Martin and Marjorie–but I suppose the names I gave them will work out just fine. The kids will probably rename them anyway. Though, I could have used a prompt for my bear–he never had a name, I just called him Teddy my whole life. Most of the time, I just refer to him as “my teddy bear.” And he’s always seemed to me a boy bear.

The last step to this entire process, for me, was to hug each of the bears when I got them home. I couldn’t resist as I looked at them. They were exactly the right fit–soft, plushy, and filled with enough stuffing to make them “feel” right when you held them. Finally, I’d found a stuffed animal that suited my high standards for lovability to a child.

I know it’s kind of a commercial cop-out for me to have used Build-A-Bear instead of my own homemade stuffed animals. Still, I think the fact that I personally picked out the stuffed animal and placed a little heart that I kissed within them gives me “it’s the thought that counts” points. After all, the real reason I’m giving the gift is because my bear has given me years of happiness. I don’t expect these kids to hang onto their bears as long. Maybe it won’t even be their favorite toy. But, hey, if they get even a little pleasure out of the bear for a little while in their lives, then the gift has served its purpose. I have no delusions of grandeur here–Aunt Mars Girl is not the one to bring a child The Gift that is out-loved by all others. I just thought that I could connect with my friends by giving them something that is symbolic of my own warmer feelings of childhood. It’s more thoughtful than buying something off the registry, which I absolutely hate doing for friends. I want to give them something more meaningful than the items they specifically asked for. Call me an old crank, but I just think the spirit of gift-giving–in any situation–is finding that one thing the person needs or desires without ever having to ask for it. The Gift of the Magi has always been one of my favorite stories as it symbolizes a true understanding between two people and their desire to give their loved one the best gift, even if it means sacrificing something important to them. I usually don’t go that far in my gift-giving efforts, but I still strive to provide something special.

I got an $8 off coupon for Build-A-Bear in August with my purchase yesterday. I’ve got my eye on this limited edition purple bear they have there (I want to call her Vivian for some reason). I think I want to go back and make another bear for myself. Not, of course, to replace my beloved Teddy. No, maybe it’s time to give Teddy a friend. My stuffed animal harbor seal, Sandy, which I got at Sea Lion’s Cove in Oregon when my husband I were there on vacation in 2000, sits on my living room couch watching TV. So he’s not much company at all.

Yeah, I know. I’m very silly. But, you know, at this age, if you can hang onto anything that reminds you of your youth, you should go for it. Like I said, I still have a soft spot for stuffed animals. I don’t have a ton of them, but the ones I do keep around are special to me. The good thing about stuffed animals is they never die.