writing

Falling

I never broke a bone until I turned 42. As a runner back then, I’d frequently suffer stress fractures in my feet. Each fracture would start at the base of my big toe and then take a sharp left or right in an “L” shape break   across the top of my foot. My right foot suffered twice from such a fracture, and as if saying “Your turn,” it happened in my left.

I began running when my diabetes levels began to rise. I’d been taking Step Aerobics classes, loving every minute, but my doc, whom I’ll call James to protect the innocent, said I had to sweat like a pig for my blood sugars to go down. So, I picked running, a sport for which you only needed a good pair of running shoes, and out the door you could go. I also had an 11 year old at home, and didn’t want to leave him for too long, so I had to be quick. Originally, I could run 3 miles in 30 minutes. I was hooked. I became an adrenalin seeker, searching for that utopia of “being in the zone.” And, yes, my blood sugars went down.

I’d been running 7 years when I took a really bad fall on a large hill near my home. This hill took 20 minutes to climb, but 10 minutes to soar down. There was a thunderstorm coming, and a few flashes of lightning, all behind me, but nonetheless I didn’t want to get caught in a lightning strike. Traffic was heavy all around, and I knew of a shortcut I could take through a few backyards to get home in ten minutes, if need be.

Have you ever noticed that after a paving job, cement trucks purge one final gust of rock and stone alongside gutters? I never did until that day. Almost at the end of that hill, I tripped over a permanent puddle of leftover cement, and skated downhill on my knees. The actual fall onto asphalt was extremely hard, jarring me enough that my jaw became dislocated, and then relocated on its own. The cement puddle was about four feet long, and at the end, somehow, I was able to rise to my feet and see the damage.

I suffered 3rd degree burns on both knees, and should have been hospitalized in a burn unit, on morphine, I was later told by Ben, a new internist, whose name has been changed to protect the innocent. Both my hands were cut too. I gushed blood. But…This “but” is what a lot of runners keep in reserve while running marathons. But, still on an adrenalin high, I took off for home as thunder grew close.  Yes, I used the shortcut, and dripped blood all the way into the den, where my son and Hubs’ eyes grew round when I said, “I had a little accident.” The skies lit up as I glanced out the window, my own fireworks display for surviving a long run, and a bad accident.

Exactly 7 years later, I had another fall while out running. I wasn’t alone that time, thank goodness, because, although I didn’t land on leftover cement, I did fall on asphalt.

A work friend of mine and I liked to run during our lunch hour, and that’s what we were doing when, in front of the tony Petit Louis Bistro at noon thirty, I didn’t notice that we’d stepped into a slight dip where concrete gave way to asphalt. I tripped into that dip, and out again, landing on an outstretched hand, and both knees. Since there was almost no skin on my knees from the fall 7 years before, I bled profusely. But I couldn’t jump up this time had my life depended on it. I tried, but couldn’t make sense of the pain that radiated up to my thighs and into my left hand. I had gone into shock. My friend tried to help me by taking hold of an elbow, but I nearly passed out. Leaning over me, urging to me get out of the way of cars pulling in to Petit Louis, I didn’t understand why no one stopped to help. I knew there was a fire station around the corner, and urged my friend Joyce, whose name will be changed to protect the innocent, to run and get a band aid, but in the end, I limped into the Roland Park Bakery under my own power. And bled all during lunch.

There was a summer camp in session at the school where I worked, and I figured, there’d be a nurse present to bandage my knees. They were on fire, just like 7 years before, only worse because I’d scratched bone too. And my wrist was surely sprained because I could not use it at all. But there was no nurse, and no bandages. I kept applying wet paper towels to my knees, but my blood wouldn’t clot. One hour before the end of that work day, a teacher walked into the office and asked why I was sitting funny. Peggy O, whose name has been changed to protect the innocent, took one look and ordered me to go to Patient First. (My boss wasn’t working that day.) This time, I actually did. I put my life into the hands of doctors and nurses, and hoped for the best.

They used saline solution to clean my wounds and x-rayed my wrist, handing me a splint for “your sprained wrist.” I was also given a tetanus shot, and Rx for antibiotics. The next day, while I could hardly walk, my wrist could not even stand the weight of the splint. I went to work. And the next day, when I was unable to use that hand to wash my hair, I went to work and called Mark, explained the situation, and then reached out to a hand, arm, and shoulder specialist. On the third day following the fall, I saw a very charismatic specialist who bet me lunch that I’d fractured my elbow. He was right, but too busy to stop for lunch.

Exactly 7 years later, I had another disastrous fall. Not while running roads, but while running during a tennis match. I reached down to catch a low ball, put an arm out to break my fall, broke the wrist, fell backwards on my bum, back, and head, then bounced forward on to my wrist. I shattered it, suffered two compound fractures of the ulna and radius, and dislocated my entire arm, for good measure. I also went in to shock. I could hear people asking me if I was all right but the pain was all consuming. My knees were uninjured, but it never occurred to me to worry about them. Off I went in an ambulance.  I was certain I would die, I could barely stand the pain. Once at the hospital, an ER nurse assessed my situation, and by phone, the ortho on call read my xray and ordered morphine to be given when the ER nurse relocated my entire arm. It was then that I called Hubs to come get me, at SJUMMC, because the doctors were finished with me. (That was the Morphine talking.) Instead, I spent 3 days in the hospital while plats and rods were inserted into my left arm. Therapy for 3 herniated disks began in January and ended in June.

Seven years from now, I’ll be 72. Will I be playing tennis when I fall, or God forbid, will I fall downstairs onto the tiles below, lying there while my dogs kiss me to death? Never say never, because I swear to God, it’ll always come true. But, I have said, bad things for each bone in my body only happen once, given the laws of nature. Unless Mother Nature herself gets in the way and rocks the boat.

 

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writing

An Architect of Sorts (Published, Jan ’17)

   An Architect of Sorts

 

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I’ve always been fascinated by other people’s houses. Ever since I was 4 I remember knocking on people’s doors claiming I needed to tinkle, my ruse to get inside their houses. I wasn’t a thief or gypsy, acting innocent, while silently begging. This was a time when people didn’t lock their doors or cover them with triple dead bolts. This was the 50’s and children were truly innocent, not yet jaded by their parent’s misfortune. It was 1956 and I was sweet, plump, and told fantastic stories, most of them figments of my imagination. I was on the cusp of learning between right and wrong, truth and lies, but because stories were so detailed, no one bothered to ask if they were indeed made up tales.

Born in Connecticut, I was merely six months old when we moved a state away to Binghamton, in New York, an ideal town for kids to grow up in. A river ran through the center of town. The bridges that helped cars move over the river were made of steel and car tires squealed so loud you had to cover your ears. There was a working carousel on every other street corner, all of them free to ride. I loved carousels, and my mother could place me on a horse and talk with her friends for hours, and still, I’d want more time on the endless circle to nowhere. Winter ran from October through May, with snow drifts piled way over my head. Sidewalks were bordered by walls of shoveled snow, and endless snowmen crowded each front lawn. Santa came to our house even though we didn’t have a chimney. There were no snow days from school in Binghamton. People would put chains on tires and just keep moving.

Every morning I’d rise with my father, and he’d tuck me into a chair in front of the TV with a blanket, bowl of shredded wheat covered with mounds of sugar, and a teeming glass of chocolate milk. I’d watch “Captain Kangaroo” and Mr. Green Jeans while my father dressed for work.

He and I were partners in crime. We loved sweets, especially chocolate. Cakes, brownies, ice cream, and candy. Every Saturday morning we’d walk to town to his favorite bakery and buy donuts.  Who’s to know our love for sweets would give us both adult onset diabetes? My father and I also loved dogs. We had a series of Shelties, each one named Jamie, which my father would spend countless hours training to heel, walk on command, and sit. He showed a succession of Jamie’s in competitions but each Jamie was never top dog. Shelties have minds of their own, but once you learn to tolerate the incessant barking, they are quite obedient and smart.

My curiosity about houses woke up with me one morning and has never gone away. Each entrance to a house offers a life different from mine. It was like opening a new book with many pages yet to read. The idea about needing to tinkle to allow me into other people’s house was quite creative; my mother told me years later, when, at age 14, I was horrified by what I’d done. I’d start at the top of Davis Street, and slowly make my way down one side and up the other. It was a long exercise that I never tired of.

The first house I entered was one made of stucco. The sides of it looked like shredded wheat covered in mounds of white sugar. Inside, lived an elderly woman who kept a collection of glass birds. She was considered rich because in a town of frame bungalows, hers was not a bungalow, nor was it frame. What looked like fancy green grass climbed up the outside and two large evergreens shaded the front walk. Sun, reflecting from her bay window, would wink at me as I made my way to her front door. In her dining room, she kept a collection of glass birds that I was just itching to hold. Blue ones, clear ones, yellow for finches, and pale pinks. I don’t remember much about her bathroom, which she insisted was a powder room, or her, except to one so young such as me, she seemed ancient with white hair and a whispery voice, but I loved those glass birds. She taught me how to cup each one in my hand and to “watch out, they’re fragile.” Today, I have glass birds, wooden birds that sing, and plastic birds that move their necks, but nothing as special as her collection.

The next door I knocked on belonged to a man who lived alone. His voice sounded like Jamie’s when he barked in defiance to heeling. Mr. Henry was his name. I’m not sure if that was his first or last name. I didn’t really have to use his bathroom, but instead I’d merely stop to chat while he was mowing his lawn.  He had a push mower that he used every day.  We had a push mower too, but once a week was how often my daddy used his.  My father made fun of him. He’d look at the very short grass on his lawn and say, “What would possess a man to mow his lawn every day? He must be lonely or bored.”  I’d often ask Mr. Henry to take me to the carousel.  His answer was always the same, “A little later in the day, Merry, okay?” Later in the day we were both on to something else.

Next to his house lived the Dells. They were Catholic.  By the time I was in my teens, I knew that being Catholic in the 50s was like being black any decade. Blacks by far were at the end of a totem pole of prejudice, but Catholics crowded lower rungs too. Irish Catholics, that is. Nowadays I know that once Protestants didn’t like Irish Catholics because they didn’t use birth control, but in 9th grade History, I’d learned the Irish were prejudiced against since immigrating to America in the 1850s. More Irish meant fewer jobs for their brethren already trying to accept their place in the world. In Ireland in the mid-1900s, they fought each other in a religious civil war, Protestants against Catholics. Kids as young as five threw rocks at kids as young as three. The British Army move in to try and make peace, but instead Irish blood ran putrid in the streets from the oppression of British presence in their country.  Italian Catholics owned the bakery my father and I frequented, and were respected more than Irish Catholics.  Non Catholic Whites of course, topped the totem pole and never faced prejudice anywhere.  Not that at age four I knew what prejudice was, or that people worldwide suffered from poverty.  All I knew is that I lived in a land of white people – at the park, the bakery, my sister’s school, and up and down our street.

There were two Catholic families on Davis Street. The Dells and the Cains. The Dells’ father went to work five days a week carrying a briefcase, but Mr. Cain went to work only sometimes. The Dells had four children, while the Cains fit seven into their tiny bungalow. Everyone shared a bedroom. Mr. Dell didn’t have a drinking problem like Mr. Cain, who sometimes on Friday nights would come home in the dark singing so loud he made dogs bark, and then he and Mrs. Cain would fight, and he’d push her into the bushes. But the Dells kissed in their front door when Mr. Dell arrived home from work. My parents kissed behind closed doors, without hugs and they didn’t laugh about it like the Dells. We were Protestants, after all.

Mary Magdalene Cain was my age, and already she was in charge of Charlie, the two year old, who’d flee the house every morning stark naked, no matter the weather. Mary’s job was to catch and dress him.  Sometimes it took all day, if I helped. I was fascinated by his little penis that bounced between his chubby legs. In my family, my sister and I lacked penises. Maybe being Catholic gave you more body parts than being Episcopal. Both the Dells and Mrs. Cain and her children went to church with handkerchiefs on their heads but my family hardly ever went to church, and even then, I got stuck in Sunday school.  The only good thing about that were graham crackers we earned as snacks.

When I turned 5, there were less days spent on carousels, and more days spent with the neighborhood hooligans. Being 5 meant I could hang out with 6 year olds after they got out of school. They did daring things, like climb trees, riding two wheeled bikes, and ringing people’s doorbells, then running away. Peer pressure taught me to graduate from a tricycle to a two wheeler. Another game we played at night was called Boo. I always had more boy friends then girls. Boys who got to stay up later than the little kids, would crouch under bedroom windows and shout a series of “Boo”, scaring the little ones half to death. There was a lot of daring going on. “Dare you to run across the street without looking!” Jimmy Cain would chant. It was silly, because no one ever came down the street except the mailman. But if you didn’t complete a dare from time to time, you were considered chicken. Chicken was the worst. I became an expert tree climber, sometimes daring myself if no one else did. But I never squeezed a kitten through a mail slot, or ate those strange looking plump flowers on the ground. “Mushrooms won’t kill you. It’s only toadstools that are dangerous” Timmy Cain goaded. Tommy or Mickey, or maybe it was Johnny who finally stepped forward and gulped the toadstool down in one fearless bite.  When he didn’t turn purple or barf on his shoes, we all scattered home for dinner. Not long after, though, Johnny began moaning in pain, and his mother, frustrated at what she thought was hijinks, found out through me that he’d eaten a toadstool. She didn’t know whether to believe me or not, given my sense of story-telling. But, when he got worse, she rushed him to the hospital, and had his stomach pumped just in time. Neighbors never doubted me again.

And then all of a sudden my idyllic childhood changed.  We moved! This time, through the mountains with falling rock signs and Jamie puking in my father’s suit pockets, to a large metropolitan city called Baltimore in a place called Maryland. There was no snow in May and sometimes no snow all year! To me, moving to Baltimore, Maryland was like moving to another country. I’d been to Canada where my father was born, but that was merely an 8 hour trip from Binghamton. It took us two whole days to follow the moving van to Maryland. It was May when we left, and June when we arrived in steaming hot weather.

We stopped just over the border of Pennsylvania to have lunch at Howard Johnson. To my delight, they had chocolate ice cream sundaes on the dessert menu! But instead, I had a hard lesson to swallow about Segregation. My father had already been living in Maryland for a year when our entire family made the move, so he was immune to it, but my mother was horrified.  A journalist, Mom had heard of segregation, but had not yet confronted it first-hand. And, my father, through all his reports about how friendly people were in Baltimore, and how lovely our house was, never once mentioned the travesty.  So when my mom emerged from our car and saw brown people lined up at the carryout entrance while only white people were seated inside, she nearly created a riot. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but she yanked my sisters and me from our table and headed outside. At the same time, our Sheltie greeted us at the entrance, wagging his tail, as if he too found segregation deplorable in 1957. My mother swore she would not set foot in Maryland if “things” were like this happened everywhere.  I remember my father’s exasperation about Jamie getting loose, but I was still trying to figure out what had gone wrong in Howard Johnson’s. Trying to make peace, my father settled Jamie in his lap, and we drove further down the road to a Gino’s, where everything was carry out. My questions about why some people were brown went unanswered as my parents quibbled in the front seat.

Once ensconced in Baltimore, I never checked out a bathroom again. There was much exploring to be done. I learned to roller skate in little circles called Garths, and make friends in alleys behind our house, there were fish in two large lakes at the bottom of our street. I made a lot of friends that summer that I’d see in school in my class in September.

School. I didn’t like it, even though I’d never been to kindergarten. We were always being told to keep quiet, or read aloud about Sally and Billy, each one of us in first grade taking turns. First grade was confusing. There was a lot of standing in lines, facing forward, hands to yourself. And very scary Air Raid drills, where we ducked under our desks and put our hands behind our necks. No one ever explained what Air Raid drills meant, except David, who’d say, “It’s the Commies. They’re going to make us fry!”  His heads were airplanes and Pshaw was the sound a bomb would make.

School lasted from 9 in the morning to 11:30, when first graders like me, were sent home for lunch and a nap, and returned to our sunny classroom by 1 for reading, writing and arithmetic. By spring, I’d learned how to ride public busses, and trolleys, accompanied by brown people who kept their eyes downcast, while other brown women wore gray uniforms and white aprons. Both my parents went to work. while my sister and dogs and I were cared for by a colored maid.

So much had changed in such a short while. I turned six during that summer, but despite my old age, was unsure how to act with this dark skinned woman in our house. I was warned that I would obey Sara just like I obeyed my parents, or else. I wondered if she didn’t take baths that made her skin look dirty, but I was too scared to ask. I mean, she saw me in my underwear, and gave me baths, and had two gold teeth. She was nice, and my father paid her transportation every day in cash.  She lived way far away in Baltimore City with her daughter and three children.  Her daughter was 20, and the children were ages 4, 3 and 2.

The first time I got Tonsillitis in our new town, Sara sat by my bed feeding me Jello and Ginger Ale. She’d give me sponge baths, which is when you stay in bed and get rubbed with a wet sponge. She said it would bring down the fever. It was then that I realized I loved her. The sponge bath did indeed bring down my fever. And when school ended, she’d sometimes bring over Peaches, her oldest grandchild. Peaches had 5 braids on her head, and they all stood up straight on her scalp. She would always say to me, “Yes, mam,” which I didn’t like, but otherwise we got along fine, sharing Good Humor ice cream together.  My sister and I had been cared for her for a year when Sara had a stroke on a trolley, and died instantly. A stroke is a very bad headache that made you die. I was so sad I hadn’t said goodbye, so my father took me to her funeral service. Sara’s relatives and friends stopped talking when my father and I arrived, him in a suit, and me in a plaid dress ironed by Sara. I placed a singled long stemmed red rose on her casket and then asked the man who patted me on the head if he scrubbed really hard, maybe he could be white too.

It was a while before I caught on about segregation. My school was all white, and so was my neighborhood. Everyone had maids, but not everyone treated them nicely. The Irish Catholics who lived next door would sic their Dobermans on maids when they left at night. They’d laugh really loud when the maids screamed.  The term maid comes from England, having to do with maids in waiting, young girls who waited on the Queen, serving her tea and helping her undress at night, but they were never colored. About a month after Sara died, Marie showed up and cared for my sister and I until we were in high school. Years later, Marie even attended my wedding.

My father treated Marie as well as he’d treated Sara. He opened a social security account for her and gave her a raise before she’d even started working. He bought her three uniforms too. Summertime, he’d allow her to occasionally bring her great granddaughter with her, and it turned out to be Peaches, again. I didn’t understand how Sara could have Peaches as a granddaughter, and Marie have Peaches as a great granddaughter when Marie was only 40.

School in second grade was even harder than first. In second grade, once I learned how to use a ruler, I began designing houses during Art. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t another Frank Lloyd Wright in the making. All I wanted was to grow up and have babies.  But I created elaborate mansions, pink bungalows, and high rise apartment buildings. Over a span of 10 years, I got better and better at it. I switched to colored pencils, and then ink pens.  I numbered and named each design, and filled binder after binder.  I had 100s of McCall paper dolls that I’d dress up and act out entire family scenarios, using the houses as their background design. I’d even ask family members what was their dream house and draw it to specification. A lot of my creations were imitations of our house in Maryland – complete with step down living rooms, French doors, a backyard Koi pond with a waterfall, wall to wall built in bookcases with a fireplace in the center, a whole other room under a staircase, too big for a closet and too small for a bedroom, a basement with slaves’ quarters where my sister and I roller-skated on rainy days. A front porch made of slate and a back terrace with steps leading into a massive garden. Windows made of wrought iron that opened out instead of up and down. A kitchen with not only stainless steel appliances, but also stainless steel countertops. A pantry my mother used as an office. There were built in corner cabinets in the dining room and ceiling molding in every room.

Everyone thought I was merely designing houses, but in reality, I was creating whole families to live in these mansions. There was the hotsy-totsy lady who religiously wore pink with her white fur neck scarf. She was Elizabeth Monroe. There were the Cains who came alive in my portfolio, fully dressed, standing as a family of 9 at the altar of a Catholic church. There was Johnny, who hired a maid to taste every dish before he dug in, just in case it was poisoned.

In Baltimore, I sometimes ached for the glass birds I’d once held in my tiny hands, or Mr. Henry, who push mowed his lawn every day, and of course, carousel rides. Some things you remember as easily as the freckle on your hand, and others you search the entire house for. I returned to Binghamton with my son in tow many years later, and drove up and down Davis Street where I’d once lived. Pointing left, pointing right, I could still recite the name of every person who lived in what house and exactly how their bathroom looked in 1956.

Why did I take up such a peculiar habit and not become an architect? My only answer is that there are many types of architects: industrial, commercial, residential, garden, and garage. I’m an architect of sorts but I don’t actually build buildings. To be more specific, I’m a story architect, superior mother to the characters in my tales. In my first two published novels, the families lived in townhouses. I once called them stitched together houses as if the families were sewn inside, nice and tight. In fact, my first home as an adult was a row house with a bay window and bright yellow kitchen.

I’ve been crafting a novel for five years. This fictional family of 8 has recently moved from their birth home to a smaller house in another city, three under one roof, 4 under another. In real life, people want to know your beginning more than they care about your end. Your beginning has a lot to do with how you turn out as a human being.  As the health of this fictional family improves, one by one, the curtains once tightly shut will begin to open, as the father, once a soldier and now a citizen, begins to shed one persona for another.  I, like an architect, created these characters, Ali, Bean, Matt and Merry for a certain specification, starting all the way back to when I was 4 years old and critiquing neighborhood bathrooms.

writing

Family Memories

Isn’t it amazing that I have memories of my childhood that my sister insists were different? How can that be? Just before we moved our mother into an assisted living facility, we had to clean out her home. We pulled out a meat grinder and instantly I remembered ham salad. Our mother made the best ever ham salad with mayo, mustard and dill pickle. My sister claimed “not so!” and we got into a heated discussion of the roast beef hash that came from the meat grinder.

Our mother always used to say that Hilary graduated high school when she was 15 and then college when she was 19. My sister again claims no. How could our own mother be wrong in the dates? Usually, it’s  customary for fathers to forget their children’s birth dates, or ages, but not mothers.  After all, fathers were at work, and mothers stayed home with their golden nuggets.

Our mother was a great story-teller but was prone to exaggeration. Being a writer, she called it poetic license. I too exaggerate and my son remembers the same story in a different light. Even without exaggeration.

And then there are the stories told children over and over from different sets of relatives. “You were a difficult baby. You wouldn’t eat. You looked like you were starved.” When I look at pictures of my sister, I think she’s beautiful. A towhead, in apparent disregard for our parent’s dark hair, she looks delicate and ethereal. Puberty set her free from her skinny self while I, the chubby one, became practically anorexic. Before that, though, our mother put a sign on me at the beach that said “Don’t feed!” because everyone wanted to give the adorable fatty an ice cream cone. I think I remember Big Baba, my great-grandmother, but I don’t really. I was only six months old when we moved away from Connecticut, where she lived. It’s just that I kept hearing stories about how she liked fresh fruit and would pull stems from our raspberry and blueberry bushes for my sister to eat. Maybe I ate some too, but one day, me, only six months old and seated in a high chair, picked up my soft-boiled egg and threw it at Big Baba. No way in hell. We have pictures of that screen porch where we ate the fruit, and pictures of me at six months propped in a high chair, but I don’t know of any six month old who can pick up a slithery egg and throw it across the room with dead on aim.

I do remember the time our mother was trying to tune our TV and was sitting on a fold up table that suddenly folded up with her stuck in it. My sister and I laughed hysterically much to our mother’s anger. And I remember the time my mother had a heart attack and ended up in the hospital for nearly a month. My sister valiantly tried to fix dinner but, honestly, cooking isn’t her forte. She remembers being furious that our father threw out the meal and fixed a sandwich. I only remember how scared I was that our mother would die.

I barely remember Grandmother Lillian, who lived with us for a time. She built an addition to our house with a new bedroom and living room. She died not longer after, and I inherited the bedroom while the living space became a den. We also inherited her violet plants which my mother kept alive until her own death. This grandmother favored me over my sister, but I don’t know why.

There is proof that everyone in my mother’s family died at the age of 62. Heart disease, undetected. The entire year my mother was 62, she told me she was waiting for death. She didn’t die, though, and lived to be 81, which coincidentally, is the year my son was born. I’m now 62, and I can’t help but wonder if this is the year I join her in Heaven.

I read a eulogy at my mother’s funeral and according to my sister, I got the years and orders wrong of when she bought her dogs. Not that it was important, but like older sisters do, they nail you for every little mistake you make, interrupting your conversations, exaggerations and memories with acute detail of their own.

If not for sisters, I guess, and our own children, our memories of the past and present would not be so jumbled, and we could swear on a stack of Bibles that we are correct, no exaggeration, just bad math skills.

writing

Green Bloomers or Late Bloomers?

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When I was in high school, we wore bloomers under our athletic pinafores. We felt so archaic. They were dark green with elastic waists, and the pants ballooned up underneath.  I mean, what was the purpose of the daily humiliation?  Where would it get me in life? I wanted marriage and children, not an ability to score goals. Wasn’t it enough that our daily uniforms looked similar to Peter Pan outfits? Green, green, green.  Apparently not. At least for gym, we traded in our brown oxfords for white Keds and short white socks. I hated gym so much that I once hid in a broom closet for an entire class, just me and the mop, face to bristle. I could have suffered suspension, but I was lucky, and was never missed. Many days by the time two o’clock rolled around, girls had their monthlies or were faking cramps, so it wasn’t uncommon for gym class to be half its size.  Athleticism wasn’t a family trait in my neck of the woods. The most athletic thing I had ever seen my father do was mow the lawn. My mother, in her childhood, had ridden horses, but gave that up for city life. My sister’s school did not require gym, lucky her. At my private school high on a hill in the middle of nowhere, gym classes were daily mandatory lessons of boring distaste.

We played one sport per season. Field hockey in the fall from 2-4 pm. My only good memory from back then was of crickets serenading our half assed effort. I was always Third Squad, the class for dummies. The instructor was rumored to be a dyke, but that was a lie. She was actually just a manly looking woman in a plaid kilt who thought everyone loved hockey. I didn’t care about sexual orientation back then. In fact, I had no idea what a dyke was.  My main concern was pinching at my bloomers to stop them from sliding down my legs, and very occasionally giving the ball a fruitless hard whack. Field Hockey. Back and forth across a lumpy field we ran, smacking at a hard wooden ball, often bloodying someone’s shins by mistake.

In winter, we went inside and played an equally dumb game of basketball, again chasing a ball up and down a court. I hated when I caught it. I’d see hands advancing on me, people calling me name so frantically that I’d about face, and run for my life towards the hoop. FOUL! I’d forgotten to dribble (bounce) the ball before shooting. I was always last to be picked for a team. I cared for my reputation, but not my skills. Or, lack thereof.  Now, Men’s basketball is fun to watch. Men are fun to watch. But women’s basketball? No, nope, no. My inability to run and bounce at the same time, my fear of catching a pass, and worse, pretending to be a guard when I could have cared less about the opponent winning, are my nightmares of Basketball.

If you’ve ever lived in Maryland, male or female, you were born with a miniature lacrosse stick in your hand. Bacharach Sport made ten inch long wooden sticks – while my hockey stick is in our basement, I don’t know where my lacrosse stick went. Our son’s is in his room and will be handed down to his offspring when that offspring is born. In spring, all private school girls and boys played lacrosse. Period. At some boys’ schools, they were forced to carry their sticks with them at all times, and that was before backpacks were invented. Nowadays, there are a myriad of sports to choose from, any season, in and out, but in the late 60’s this was how it was. I wasn’t on any squad in lacrosse. I didn’t even make Third Squad. On my report card, the name of the sport was Athletics in which I’d receive a “C”. But the best thing about lacrosse in my Athletics class was that on Varsity game day, there’d be boys showing up for emotional support, 6 cheerleaders jumping up and down in cute little green rompers, and occasionally a chance to witness an accidental scalping from the tip of a wooden lacrosse stick. All that drama! Blood, gauze, an ambulance, crying girls, guys moaning, “Hey, cool, man!” and a sympathetic “You win” from the opposing team. I wanted the glory, the coveted White Blazer handed out at Commencement, the sash to wear with the kilt, but I lacked the impetus to reach for any of it. High school glory was for that other girl.

Lacrosse, a game of skill, stamina, and shooting finesse, was invented by the Indians. They made their sticks out of wood and twigs laced horizontal for a pocket to catch the ball (rock). . Sticks, when I was in school, were made of wood too. But now, they come in graphite, made by Warrior, STX, Brine, Gait, and more. They’ve gotten so high tech they nearly power a kid down field like a Hovercraft! Not to forget the makers of lacrosse gear. That discludes bloomers, but includes UnderArmour dry wick clothing, Tribe 7Lax, MedicineMan, and LaxWorld, located in – no place more fitting – Maryland!

It turns out I’m an extremist. Adrenalin junkie, whose only way to true sports happiness is through hard ass workouts. I picked up exercise as a way to control my diabetes blood sugar, and it soon became a passion.  My doctor said I had to sweat. No meandering strolls around the corner, no using vacuuming as an excuse, no water aerobics. Running, dancing, hiking, or swimming laps.

At first I decided to try aerobics, but yuk, I just wasn’t a dancer. So I joined step aerobics which led to reuniting with a childhood friend, who had also just found out she had diabetes too. In time, she grew bored with step aerobics and began running. Just the thought of running anywhere intimidated me. Run? That was for other people, not little old me. And then, one day out of the blue, with half an hour to spare, I headed out the front door and ran a mile. Pretty soon I was running 7 days a week, eventually competing in racing, and was totally addicted. At one point I could run a 9 minute mile, which for a 42 year old, was a pretty good start. I kept diaries of mileage and what I’d seen while running. The most I ran each week was 35 miles, and the least I ran was 25, if sick or injured. Yes, I ran injured. Most true runners did.  I once saw a woman with a hard cast running up a hill. If she could do it, so could I. Running was such an easy sport to pick up, especially since all you needed was a good pair of shoes, a Walkman or other musical device, and about a half hour for a three mile run. Unlike my days in Field Hockey, basketball and lacrosse, I was on to victory in the running field. Who knew?

If it hadn’t been for the running, I never would have been able to take up boxing. I joined a gym for the sole purpose of getting my son into speed interval training for his upcoming lacrosse season, and on rainy days, I’d hit the treadmill. One day at the gym, I popped into the ladies room and heard very loud bass music, and a man’s voice shouting over the beats, “Jab, Punch, Jab, switch!” The noise intimidated me rather than intrigued me. He sounded like a drill sergeant.

Two days later, I heard the same voice shouting, “WTF? Start over! The rotations are all fucked up. Give me 500 mountain climbers, 300 Suicides, 3 one minute wall squats, and you others take your positions at the bag.” There was a lot of moaning.  I couldn’t resist. Very timidly, I followed the sound of explicit rap into a mirrored room where 15 people were learning how to box.  The instructor, a giant of a man, opened a cabinet and jacked up the sound, swigged at a bottle of water, and shouted, “Switch!”

Kurtis Schulz was a well-known Terps’ basketball player back in the 80s. He was the son of a well-known football player. He’d wanted to go pro, but instead joined the Marines.  He stands at an imposing 6’7″ and wears a size 17 shoe. His biceps and shoulders and thighs ripple with muscle. Every morning he shaves his head until it shines. He’s imposing, intimidating, and handsome. No tattoos, no body piercings, no gang affiliation, and no saying no to Kurtis. You either worked your ass off in his class or you were persona non grata. Like me, it took a while for him to find his athletic niche. The Marines were not a good fit for him, so he toyed with the idea of becoming a conditioning coach. Along the way, boxing became his introduction to stardom.  It was both an aerobics class, and an anaerobic class. Start slow with jumping jacks to get the heart rate up, then hammer it half to death with sprinting a half gym, beating an 80 lb. punching bag, and slow the heart rate down while doing wall squats.  A killer workout.  Boxing was a win-win for Kurtis and Brick Bodies, the gym where his private class took up two rooms. Over time, he brought in a few stars from his Terps’ days, and others followed. Ray Lewis with the Ravens, and Stan White, Jr., (a former Cincinnati Bengals player), Quint Kessenich, with ABC TV Sports, and lots of ordinary people like me. Kurtis, though for all his height and shouting,  was a puppy dog in a bear’s suit.

I truly believe that if I hadn’t been a runner first, I couldn’t have been a boxer second, and a Tennis nut third. From running to punching to hitting a bag or a ball you need stamina, devotion, dedication and focus. Proper form is crucial to keeping injury at bay. I know that if Kurtis ever returned to MD, I’d not quit tennis for boxing, but I’d certainly invite him to play a game or two. If only he’d been my gym teacher in Field Hockey or Basketball, I might have been a standout lacrosse player in my day. Or, not.

 

 

 

writing

My Head Derailed Today

(forgot to run spell check, and then changed some wording)

My head derailed today sometime between sleep and tennis. Don’t laugh. It’s quite serious especially since I have heads all over the house from previous times of ill proportionate forgetfulness. None of them fit any longer, as I’ve gained knowledge since then. My brain is like a computer, always on top of things until there’s a blip in the connection, and all hell breaks loose.  My heads are Smart heads made by Apple. I am currently at IOS 2.

Not a great student in grade school (since I didn’t attend nursery school or kindergarten, but went straight into first), I’ve kind of had to wing it through life.  In my case, add a sister who was a child prodigy.  She, who had the experience of kindergarten, skipped second grade, and 7th grade, thereby graduating high school when she was 15. Against my parent’s wishes, who were in agreement that she should take a year off for her friends to catch up with her, she went off to college anyway, thereby graduating at age 19, before she had a driver’s license, or the right to vote. College life for her was hard socially, as 18 year old guys wouldn’t talk to a 15 year old girl who was smarter than they, and let them know it. She hid behind her books and double majored in Philosophy and Music. I doubt she had much joy in the college experience, other than living away from home, and getting involved in an Episcopal Church choir near campus.

Imagine going to the same school as your sister, not knowing how to stand in line, or be quiet when you wanted to have the last say, and then being compared to her all the way through 6th grade.  That was me. In the public school system in the 50s and 60s, no one was held back for any learning issues. No one was ever diagnosed, to my knowledge, for problems like ADHD. The worst disease back then was Polio, and every class had a child in braces or walking with crutches.  Instead, if you had trouble in school, you were labeled a daydreamer, retarded or incorrigible.  I remember my 2nd grade teacher begging the school system to hold me back one year, but to no avail.  That also was the year a friend of mine was kidnapped, and my mother suffered her first heart attack. Trauma, trauma, trauma.

My 3rd grade teacher dressed all in black and told her students she was a witch, and if we didn’t behave, she’d cast a spell on us.  I believed her. I believed her so much I was afraid to participate in anything. I was labeled retarded and shy.

Fourth grade was okay. I hung out with guys, roller skating after school and climbing trees to prove that I was one with them.  They were all labeled troublemakers, and we sat in the back row in class, shooting spitballs at girls. Math was the only subject that gave me sincere and serious perplexy, but I’d been failing school since 1st grade, so I had already stopped trying. Working with tutors didn’t help much either.  What did it matter if a number was odd, or even? How would that get me through life? Surprisingly, much later, in my 20s, when I tried to take a real estate exam, I failed Math because I didn’t know how many gallons of paint to buy for a room measuring 8 feet by 12. Who cared? If I bought too much paint, I’d return it to the store. If I bought too little, I go back and buy more. F for the answer, and F for effort.

In fifth grade another trauma occurred. Mrs. Berman, the only Jewish teacher in our school, was diagnosed 1 month into the school year with brain cancer. We had a lot of subs that year, and the incontinuity actually helped me, allowing me to slip between the cracks. At home, my mother had another heart attack, and my father stepped off a curb and was hit by a taxi. Two broken arms. Triple trauma. Back then, there were no counselors to help students in need. Parents coped the best they could, raising their children on their own. School never interfered.

Sixth grade was the best year ever. We had a male teacher who was a bibliophile, and ended each day by reading from books for at least half an hour before we took off for home.  He took us on amazing field trips (Bethlehem Steel where we each got a nickel pressed in plastic, Pepsi-Cola, where we got free drinks, Stieff Jewelers, where we got pewter spoon pins, and Channel 2 TV station). We also studied science, and harvested eggs under an incubator until chickens were born. I took one home, named him Charley, rose with his cawing at dawn, and gave him away a few weeks later to the gardener, who ate him for dinner. Also, John F. Kennedy, President of the United States, was assassinated. This news was relayed to us through the school’s intercom system, and students were dismissed early, then school was closed on the day of his funeral.  Sixth grade ended a horrible six years of struggling to learn, and began a whole new chapter in my life.  The world of girls versus boys, white ankle socks versus panty hose, and a nice, all girls private school, just for “me” was introduced.

Regardless,  even though by the time I graduated high school at age 18, close to the bottom of my class, I was learning, and writing creatively, and able to somewhat greet the wide world of Life on the outside. After much dithering, I elected to attend a junior college and learn a skill (secretarial) versus studying a major. Or, in my slide by the seat of my pants vernacular, it was 2 year’s versus 4. I of course opted for 2. Other than high school, where I had many nurturing teachers and small classes for out of the box learners like me, I’d been able to survive anyway, enjoying only the social side of school, occasionally making my parents proud with my written accolades and good grades in English.

I shouldn’t be so sentimental about my heads, but I like to remind myself of where I started, and how far I’ve come. They’ve taken me many places I never expected to go, to  jobs I loved and excelled at, books I’ve published, contests I’ve won, and jobs I’ve hated, running from them as though my pants were on fire. The smarts for all those things came from one of my many derailed heads, and I don’t want to forget how I’ve arrived at where I’ve arrived.

They all still look exactly like me, perky, smiling, hair combed, and skin, wrinkle free. While it’s kind of disconcerting to see me looking back at me from an armchair, stair banister, trunk of my car, pillow on a bed, and shelf in the fridge, where I sometimes place my cell phone in a moment of clear insanity, I can no longer say “Thank God my head’s attached, otherwise, I’d be running around like a chicken with its head cut off.” No, unlike the rest of the world, I won’t pass the buck and blame someone else. It is I, a lifelong multi tasker, who is to blame. The longer I am unemployed, the faster I lose my sense of being. Jobs give people a sense of purpose, and it’s my belief that jobs are man’s given right to have one. Without, one feels ghostlike, biding time aimlessly, and, of course, quite broke.

I know exactly the date when my head first derailed. December 9, 2013 was the day I was relieved of my administrative assistant job at a local Jesuit university where I’d worked for 2.5 years.  Though I’d tried to make the job a good fit, nothing helped. Sleepless nights, extreme weight loss, extreme stress, and lots of balls being dropped spelled “termination.” I was, and I wasn’t prepared. I saw it coming, the great ax, but I refused to admit I couldn’t set things right. All 12 of my bosses told me different things, and my newest supervisor accused me of lawsuit worthy half-truths. Even though it wasn’t humanly possible for one person to do as much as I was required in a 40 hour work week, I was desperate to comply, and felt very alone in my failure. It was worse than failing in school. It was failing in life, which meant, to me, giving up on living.   Though I couldn’t see the writing on the wall, I did hear the chalk spelling out the words. My boss wanted me to quit.  My head began its derailment, listing left and wobbling to the right.The less sleep I got, the more I became not of sound mind or thought, and began to believe suicide was my only out.

At tennis, this week, I’ve played really well without a head. So far, 5 games in 3 days, while not atop my shoulders, no one noticed anything unusual except the fact that I wore pearls. The addition of jewelry worked, as per Oprah’s advice, because wearing a necklace focuses the eyes on just that, and keeps people from staring at other faults. A derailed head was blessedly not the main topic. In fact, during lunch, I was offered a job in the tennis café, which I accepted.

So what should I do about all my derailed heads?  I could donate them as Halloween costumes. I could get really creepy and litter my former office with them. Or, I could sell them on the Black Market, like kidneys and livers, and see if I make any money that way.

Nowadays I’ve begun a dog care provider business and am my own boss and supervisor.  I gave up the cafe job to focus full time on pet sitting.  Through the School of Hard Knocks, of which I’m a graduate and earned an A for everything, plus an A for effort, still, coming down here to write this Blog, I had to turn it into three trips. One, to grab a diet soda. Two, to find my iPad and turn on Pandora.  And three, to attach my newly upgraded IOS 8, minus the bugs, to my head, as I’d left the other one in the TV room for my dog to use as a pillow.