Thursday, September 24, 2009

Not-So Great Expectations

My mother has a saying that she’s been sharing with me at opportune moments for as long as I can remember: “Expectation is the mother of disappointment.” I have never liked this statement, mostly because I’ve always believed that setting no expectation invites laziness and apathy, two things I’m not well known for. I prefer to have expectations and then be cautiously optimistic that others and I will rise to meet them. Sometimes my hopeful wishes are fulfilled and, true to my mom’s saying, sometimes my expectations of greatness leave me quite disappointed.

Last Saturday night before bed, we decided to depart for an early morning ride to the mountains to view the fall colors. We’d heard the aspen trees up near Kenosha Pass were turning, so we planned to get out of the house by 7:15, make the obligatory stop at Starbucks, and head up Highway 285 early enough for my husband to be able to take some photos with the morning sun illuminating the quaking, golden leaves. It sounded like an easy enough plan.

Sunday morning, the alarm chimes at 6:45 and, being one of those annoying “morning people,” I pop out of bed and head for the shower while the rest of the family sleeps just a bit longer. At 7, we begin preparations for our excursion. All travel with children requires far more planning than ever was necessary before children; the sheer magnitude of supplies necessary to embark on even a four hour road trip is staggering. We start rounding up DVDs and Nintendo DS systems. I find my iPod, and hubby gathers all his camera equipment. Then, we debate what to do with the dogs; we normally leave them at home but we’ve been trying to convince Ruby, our darling Border Collie, that she actually enjoys car rides, so we decide to bring her too. By the time we head out the door with entertainment, jackets, headphones, shoes, cameras, wallets, keys, iPhones, one live puppy, and several stuffed animals, it is 7:45. Not stellar, but still respectable enough given our track record for late starts.

As we pull out of the driveway, hubby notices we’ll need to stop for gas. We head to the Starbucks drive-thru and then over to the gas station. While we’re at the Conoco, hubby decides he and the kids can use some food so we make another unscheduled stop at McDonalds. Back on the highway again at 8:10, hubby is starting to be a bit concerned about his prospects for good lighting. At the same time, Luke points out that while the adults are busy swilling Starbucks we’ve neglected to get drinks for him or Joe. Dang. We knew we were missing something. We pull back off the highway and proceed to 7-11 to remedy that issue. Ten minutes later we’re finally beginning our climb up Highway 285, and we realize that we’ve made four stops in 35 minutes and we’ve only advanced approximately 10 miles.

Still, we continue on, optimistic that we’re now finally on the right track. I laughingly joke to hubby about how long it’s going to take before someone needs to stop for a potty break. He rolls his eyes and we keep going. For a few minutes, we really are enjoying the drive, laughing about the chaos of doing even small things these days. I turn back and admire the boys, who are quietly watching a movie with their headphones on. I make a mental note that the puppy is drooling all over the back seat, but decide that it’s still a great day.

We’re not even to Conifer yet when Luke announces he needs a restroom. Ding. Ding. Ding. We have a winner! We’ll just pull over and you can pee in the woods, we tell him, hoping to save some time. This, I have realized, is the beauty of having boys instead of girls: I get to take advantage of the whole peeing-standing-up thing vicariously through them with quick stops on the side of highways and interstates. (And, don’t ask my boys how many times I’ve asked them to fill up empty water bottles while we’re stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-70 after a day in the mountains and I refuse to get out of the line of traffic to find them a restroom.)

Then, the plan for our Sunday morning of leaf peeping begins to implode.

“I don’t have to PEE.” Luke replies.

Ugh. Of course not. We tell him to hold on and we’ll find the next gas station. The next gas station is in Pine Junction, and it is actually a small, log-cabin type convenience store that also sells fishing licenses. Apparently, their idea of a public restroom is a porta-potty out in the parking lot.

Hubby tries to coax Luke into the outdoor toilet, but Luke is now and has always been fearful of pit toilets. I can’t say I blame him. A few of them have frightened me too. While hubby is working on Luke, I attempt some damage control and try to get our drooling dog out of the backseat and into the cargo area of the SUV. I open the back gate and she flies into the cargo area like a champ. Just as I am appreciating her agility and praising her for her good listening skills, I realize she has bounded right over the back of the seat and is once again drooling on the leather in between the boys’ car seats. So much for that brilliant plan.

I walk over to check on Luke and realize it’s a no go. He has decided he will wait until we get home. It is now nearly 10. Hubby sadly announces that since we are still roughly an hour away from Kenosha Pass and the sun is already too high for the kind of photos he was hoping for, he thinks we should just cut our losses and pack it in. My husband is an incredibly good sport. It’s one of the things I’ve always admired about him. He takes everything in stride while I’m bashing my head against walls. He’s smart enough to know when enough is enough, and after 16 years together I am smart enough to know that when he says it’s enough he’s probably right.

We tell the boys we’re heading home, start a new film for the descent back to Denver, and as we coast down 285 we hear the puppy offer up her telltale retching sound and then we smell the dog food. Joe squeals in disgust and curls up in a ball to avoid the mess. Luke starts gagging at the smell and opens his window. I turn around and see the rubber mats on the floor covered in dog puke. It’s one of those moments when you realize you have a choice: you can either laugh or you can pitch a fit. We choose to laugh. The day has been filled with so many signs that we were not meant to see the leaves. We talk about what we’d expected for our day, and I tell hubby about my mom’s saying.

“Well, what if you don’t have any big expectations and you’re still disappointed?” he asks, referring to our simple plan for a casual drive to look at turning aspen leaves.

I had no answer for him then but it’s starting to make sense to me now. Maybe disappointment merely exists as a litmus test, so we know what we’re made of? Although we missed our one chance this year to enjoy the fall colors before an early snow took them away from us, I am not disappointed. The day may not have gone according to my usual lofty expectations, but I’m finally learning to stop bashing my head against the wall of disappointment. Expectation may well be the mother of disappointment, but now I counter with my own cliche: “Attitude is everything.” I’m still going to have my hopeful expectations and, occasionally, my expectations may lead to disappointment; but, experience has taught me that I can handle it.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Walk 50 Miles in My Shoes

A few years back, as midlife began to sink its cruel claws into me, I made a promise to myself to get in shape and to do something every year to contribute to the world in a positive way. So, when a friend asked me to join her for a two-day Avon Walk for Breast Cancer that year, it seemed like a no brainer. Training to walk 40 miles put me in the best physical shape I’d ever been in and raising the $1800 required to participate in the walk made me feel as if I’d made a respectable contribution to the breast cancer cause. In fact, I enjoyed the effort so much that I repeated it with another friend two years later.

This year, my friend Celeste asked me if I was interested in doing another long walk. She suggested we do a three day, 50-mile walk for MS. I have to admit that I hesitated when she asked me to change causes. I was comfortable with my ability to talk about and raise funds for breast cancer care and research. Celeste then mentioned that the MS Challenge Walk required a $2500 fundraising effort, a pretty hefty sum in today’s sketchy economy. And, just as I was about ready to tell her that I wasn’t sure I was prepared to switch causes, she mentioned that we’d have to go to San Diego for three days to do it. Suddenly, my loyalty to the breast cancer cause was in question. After all, I love a good challenge and 50 miles was 10 miles further than I’d gone before. And how could I resist a late-summer walk in San Diego near the sand and surf I so rarely get to see by virtue of being a landlocked Coloradan? I mean, maybe it was time I started fundraising for a different charity? Was it really fair of me to put all my efforts towards one already well-celebrated cause? Shouldn’t I share my time amongst equally deserving charities? I decided that I had to go along with Celeste on this adventure.

So, when I finally locked in my $2500 fundraising requirement, I used my United miles to acquire a “free” airline ticket and on this past Thursday afternoon I boarded a flight for San Diego, walking gear in my carry-on bag and California dreams in my head. The flight touched down just before dinnertime in San Diego, and when I stepped out in the sunny, ocean-humid air, the whole weekend seemed full of joy and promise. I pushed the 50-miles of walking out of my head and focused instead on the idea of an ocean view, the fragrance of jasmine, and a glass or two of red wine by the pool.

Awesome glass of Napa cabernet aside, my dreams of a relaxing stroll by the ocean were quickly squashed on Friday morning when I realized with chagrin that I had apparently signed up to do the walk not with my fun-loving, game-for-anything pal, but instead with her alter ego...the competitive, wild-eyed, mule-driving overachiever. Less than one mile beyond the starting line, Celeste started bobbing and weaving through the walker crowd like George W. Bush dodging Iraqi shoes. She was a woman on a mission. I reiterated that this was not a race, but sensing that she was not to be trifled with I decided to shut up and run alongside her, off the curb, through the bike lane, around the crosswalks, until we’d safely garnered a substantial lead on most of the rest of the walkers who by then were looking at us as if we were insane. Ask me what I remember about that day and I will tell you two things: we finished in the top 10 and we made friends with a nice guy who spent his entire day getting ahead of us at rest stops only to get whooped by us as we raced past him again five minutes later.

As luck would have it, though, our substantial, kick-ass pace was greatly lessened the second day with the advent of several blisters that formed on Celeste’s heels. Our second 20-mile day found us still walking at a fairly good pace, steadily passing folks along the sizable hill up into Torrey Pines State Reserve (thank heavens for all our high-altitude training in Denver), and more gingerly strolling down the backside of said hill trying to keep from damaging our already sore toes any further. We accepted that we were not going to be breaking any land speed records that day and we enjoyed talking with other walkers and pausing occasionally to take in the beach sights: surfers waiting for the perfect wave, sea lions darting in and out of the surf, high school kids smoking pot, and hot California guys in wet suits wandering by. Celeste continued to play “slug bug,” pounding me on the arm every time she saw a VW Beetle, while I winced and whined about it all day. We finished about an hour later than we had the previous day and only after I had removed my shoes and socks and waded fully clothed into Mission Bay, thereby realizing the opportunity, however brief, to enjoy the sea.

As much fun as the two long days had been, I got a reality check on Saturday night. I’m not sure if it was the sheer exhaustion, the bottle of cab that Celeste and I shared, or the candle-lighting ceremony in the dark ballroom, but as I sat there with tears streaming down my face it hit me how much this cause meant to most of the people in that room. For me, the trip had been a selfish one, full of my desire to get exercise, get tan, and see the ocean. But, that night I realized that while I was having a great time and laughing it up with Celeste, many of these people were truly suffering: suffering with MS themselves, suffering with the thought of a friend or family member who was in pain, or suffering through the loss of someone dear to them to the disease. I hit a level of awareness I’d perhaps subconsciously been trying to avoid and, for the first time, I entered into the magnitude of the whole experience and the scales tipped.

Sunday’s last 10 miles were much more somber than the previous 40 had been. We were tired. Celeste’s feet, blisters literally built upon blisters, were killing her. My muscles were valiantly fighting the influence of the copious amounts of ibuprofen I’d taken that morning. As we reached mile 9 where we gathered to complete the last mile en masse, I wasn’t the competitive, race-happy person I had started out as on Friday. I was one of the lucky ones. A sea of orange shirts denoting those walkers with MS was a stark reminder of my random luck. MS is an arbitrary and completely mysterious disease and, as I looked at those brave individuals walking in those orange shirts, some who walked with arm braces or canes just to get through the 50 miles along with me, it was hard not to think about how ridiculously blessed I am.

My weekend trip to San Diego was amazing and certainly everything I hoped it would be. The sun, the sand, and the sea did not disappoint. The company was awesome, the food was plentiful, and the views were stunning. Celeste and I learned a bit more about each other (I have got to get better at that slug bug game) and a lot more about MS. But, the best thing about the weekend was finding a purpose to continue my now cherished, long-distance walks. If hubby is kind enough to acquiesce again next year and agree to tolerate yet another long season of training walks and the trip to San Diego, I promise to be a better fundraiser for MS and a better walker, one who is more grateful for what it means to be able to walk at all.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Confessions of a CrackBook Addict

I have a confession. I am an internet junkie. Seriously. I probably need a 12-step program. Unlike Al Gore, I do not believe I invented the internet, but I have had an internet problem for a long time now. I established my first email address through the ubiquitous America Online in 1995. I still recall a time when I knew only three other people with internet capability. We would email each other, feeling quite superior for being hooked into the World Wide Web before so many others. We reveled in sending each other photos and waiting the 15 to 20 minutes while they downloaded through our phone line, one pathetic color line at a time until the image was fully revealed. It was like Christmas every time one of those photos actually came through.

I made my first online friend in 1996 through an internet pen pal site. I matched up with another internet addict named Barb. I watched her son grow from a 6 year old to a college student, all online. We shared our daily lives via email and became friends. I did eventually meet her in person, as well. And yes, I am sure she is who she says she is and not an internet predator or a cross-dressing male (actual name: Bob) parading around cyberspace as a female. These days, Barb and I continue to keep in touch through the internet, where we still discuss music and the hazards of raising children.

In 1998, while in graduate school studying technical writing, I took a course called “Hypertext.” One assignment was to create an online identity by developing our first personal web site. I made the most ridiculously basic site that was graphics-heavy and took mind-boggling amounts of time to load. It even had some of those then hip, animated gifs on it. That web site taught me several valuable lessons, one of which was that sometimes messages we put on the web don’t come across as intended. My vapid identity web site caused a falling out between me and a college roommate, who was a bit sensitive about the photo I posted of her cat. She was upset enough that she stopped speaking to me. Lesson learned: not everyone likes seeing themselves (or their cats, apparently) online.

My obsession with the internet, my family can attest, has been an ongoing struggle. It has spawned many an argument. Unfortunately, it has only gotten worse since I kicked my PC habit and became an Apple user. I discovered there’s a reason they call you a “user”; after I discovered the MacBook which, at least in my case, would have been more aptly named the CrackBook due to its habit-forming properties, it was a short trip into an even more problematic addiction, the iPhone. Now my family and friends travel with me 24/7, provided that my AT&T coverage holds up. I will admit that I have taken my iPhone camping and been saddened that I did not have enough signal to check my tweets on Twitter. I’m all for roughing it, but roughing it gets a lot rougher for the folks around me if I have to go a couple days without 3G communication.

My husband, tired of trying to communicate with me through more traditional methods such as actual conversation, has occasionally sunk to my level just to get a point across. He has honestly been in his office, a mere twenty-five feet from where I normally perch with my laptop, and sent me an instant message to ask me a question. He texts me all day long. We have played Scrabble online together while in the same house too. I’m sure this all seems quite sad, but in many ways my twisted habit has been helpful. It’s a lot more difficult for hubby to fight with me if he has to express his bitterness via chat. You see, he’s not the world’s fastest keyboarder and, when he learned I could not only out argue him in person but could instant message quick circles around him as well, he simply gave up arguing with me. The lack of arguing combined with our mutual belief that “sexting” is a poor substitute for actual sex has left us with a reasonably happy marriage.

So, my internet infatuation continues. I have googled myself. I have accounts on Yahoo, MySpace, Twitter, and Facebook so I can keep up with friends. I currently have four separate email addresses. Every time I decide to stop spending so much time online, something draws me back in. I think it’s that the internet is a perfect place for an introvert like me. I feel safe when I converse in this virtual world. I’m invisible, but not.

My mom feels the internet is ruining interpersonal communication because we are so tied to our devices (or is that merely “vices”?) that we don’t interact with other humans anymore. But, I disagree. Because of the internet, I converse daily with friends I previously talked to only occasionally. I also have friends from around the country whom I never would have met otherwise. I’ve reconnected with people who knew me eons ago...before the internet even existed (gasp). And while my mom is correct that perhaps we don’t spend as much time actually speaking to one another as we used to, through my rose-colored glasses I choose see that we have merely spawned a new epistolary age. True. Some of our notes to each other are very short, but we’re still writing and reading and I find that encouraging. Either way, I’m continuing to enjoy the ride on the information superhighway just like a dog with its head out the car window on the open road. I just hope no one schedules an internet intervention for me anytime soon.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Woofy Down the Well

Last Saturday, our home nearly suffered the loss of a dear family member. His name is Woofy, and he is our youngest son’s favorite stuffed dog. Woofy is a chocolate lab with a soft, faux leather nose that is losing fluff from a previous wound and matted fur that proves he is dutiful, diligently, and deeply loved. Woofy travels with us. Woofy has been to school. Woofy visits grandma’s house. Woofy is well-liked and popular among all the other stuffed animals. Woofy is a model pet. In short, Woofy is indispensable.

It was early evening and the boys were upstairs playing. Hubby and I were downstairs starting dinner and enjoying the fact that the kids were laughing and not bickering...for once. Suddenly, the laughter was rudely interrupted by a disconsolate wail. Immediately, I froze, my Mother’s Sixth Sense instinctively trying to determine if it was a cry of physical pain, anger, indignation, or another of the myriad cries our children have perfected. I didn’t have to wonder for long as our youngest appeared at the top of the stairs, mouthing completely unintelligible words, tears already streaming down his face. I realized then that it was the worst of all possible cries...the cry of heartbreak. It didn’t even matter what had happened. My son was so tortured in that moment that my heart was right there with his. I felt sick to my stomach.

“Slow down and tell me what happened, sweetie.”

He barely managed a broken and pathetic, “W-OO-OO-OO-OOOOOOFY!” Then the impossible words formed on his lips: “Woofy is GONE!!!”

I don’t know exactly what took over my brain at that point, but I’m fairly sure that if temporary insanity exists I had it. Apparently a deep-seated post traumatic stress disorder memory from a stuffed animal mishap during my childhood took hold of me. I raced up the stairs on a mission with my sobbing little boy trailing behind.

“WHERE’D HE GO?” I screamed. My children just stared at me, clearly unsure what to make of their wild-eyed mother.

They pointed to the corner of the room and an air conditioning vent that was missing its cover. I ran to the corner, flew onto my son’s bed as if channeling Superman, and peered down into the dark vent hole. I could see nothing. Hubby soon arrived to see just my legs and feet as the rest of me tumbled off the bed so I could reach down the vent to determine if Woofy went straight down or, by some dumb luck, hit a curve in the vent and stayed close enough to grab.

Bad news. Woofy really was gone. I started shouting commands like an officer at a Marine boot camp.

“Get me a flashlight. I need a flashlight and a tape measure NOW!”

The three men in my life stumbled around dumbfounded, trying to locate flashlights that were long since appropriated for more fun endeavors like making scary faces while pretend camping in the basement. When they finally located a cheap, plastic, children’s flashlight and fresh batteries, I aimed the flashlight down the black hole. And, sure enough, Woofy was down there. WAY down there. Twelve deep, long, bleak feet down there, to be exact. The pain on my son’s face as he registered his loss was excruciating. Woofy was our Baby Jessica in the well. We had to rescue him, no matter what it took.

With hubby’s stomach growling, we reconvened in the kitchen to discuss our game plan. Hubby didn’t seem very concerned given the gravity of the situation. Of course, Attila the Hun might have appeared a bit of a milquetoast when compared to my frenzied hysterics.

“I’ll open the vent from the crawl space after dinner,” he said, far too calmly for my liking.

“It may not seem this way to you,” I said in my most-restrained, protective Mama Bear voice, “but THIS is an emergency!”

I stomped downstairs to the crawl space, fully intending to take care of the situation myself...until I got there and stared into the recesses of that cavernous space, the space that is filled with spiders, large wolf spiders known in our house only as “the creatures that must not be named.”

Realizing that I was not going to let this go until Woofy had been rescued, hubby caved. With flathead screwdriver in hand, he braved the depths of the crawl space and went to work taking the vent apart. The boys and I stayed near the crawl space, ready to help in any way possible as long as actually entering the crawl space did not come into play. In a few short minutes, I watched my husband become a hero as he pulled Woofy from the vent and gently handed him to his tearful owner.

In that moment it went from Threat Level Red to Threat Level Green in our house. We all took turns hugging Woofy and talking about how happy we were. Disaster averted. Crisis resolved. The nightmare was over. Or, so I thought.

Three nights later at dinner we were talking about the whole ordeal again when our little guy spoke up:

“Can we please stop talking about Woofy?” he said nearly in tears.

I knew then that this experience would change my son the way I was changed 30 years earlier when my beloved orange bean bag dog, Drooper, sustained a life-threatening loss of beans during a household tussle. Someday, I imagine that my son will have his own post traumatic stress moment when his child’s stuffed toy is in peril. I know he will react as I did. He will relive the entire emotional experience of fearing that the thing you love most has been lost forever and temporarily misplace his sanity. And, hopefully, in that moment his memory will erase the near loss of Woofy and in its place put a new memory, the memory of a wild-eyed father who would not rest until all was set right again.