Letting Jack Steer

I love December but it’s such a charged month. I have my birthday, it’s Christmas, New Year’s…so much of the “big wow,” so many lists to make.

This is one of those years where everything is late and I am A-OK with it.

I just can’t fit everything in with my job. It’s also been Jack’s first four months in middle school, a pretty big adjustment. With two weeks off school now, and days off coming up for me, it’s time to exhale.

We got our tree on Wednesday night. We went to Fred Meyer and the selection was super picked over because the prices are good there. You should’ve seen how determined Jack was. He picked out pretty much the first tree he saw, leaning there at the end of the aisle. He couldn’t be talked into checking out the rest of them. Nope. He wanted that tree.

So he grabs the enormous blue metal cart and pushes it over. We lay the tree on it (it’s pretty small) and the three of us head inside. We let Jack steer.

The cart is super unwieldy for him and it takes up the width of the aisles as we head to the check out. Most people smile a little and wait for Jack to thread this thing between the shelves of garden supplies and tables of fleece blankets. We get to the check out, and Jack’s having a hard time maneuvering the cart into the line. The tree branches keep getting stuck in racks of cheap sweaters. Jack backs up to get the wheels right, and this prevents anyone from getting around him.

People coming into the store have to stop for Jack, the cart and his tree. This one guy is put off immediately. I can see the impatience in his face.

People coming into the store have to stop for Jack, the cart and his tree. This one guy is put off immediately. I can see the impatience in his face. He’s probably trying to get in and out of the store in five minutes. But it’s a maze of bras on one side and jingle bell socks on the other, and he can’t get around. He glances at Jack and puffs out his disdain, realizing this kid ain’t gonna figure this out in one second.

I just observe this. I don’t run to help Jack and I don’t apologize to the many jerks who encounter my kid with their impatience and disdain. I’ve seen this movie before. My job is to let the kid steer.

Today is the 18th and I’m just putting the wreath on the door. And instead of my usual thinking of “the wreath should be on the door by (insert date here),” I took more joy in decorating it with Jack before it goes outside. We grabbed three of the silver bells that Mom used to buy us every year and wrapped them around with yarn. Then we took a big red ribbon and I tied a bow. I’d rather be happy going through the motions of Christmas than ramming everything through the “should” tunnel.

I’d rather be happy going through the motions of Christmas than ramming everything through the “should” tunnel.

I used to go this Advent Quiet Morning at St. Andrew’s. It’s just a circle of shy folks sitting in upholstered wing back chairs in a small book-lined room. Many, and me included, bring a composition book to journal in as we sip coffee and take a morning off. I loved it because it forced me to take time for reflection in the busiest season of the year.

Once on those shelves, I found a pocket-sized book about setting expectations with your kids around Christmas. I read it for probably a half hour. I remember it said that children need boundaries more than ever as Christmas approaches. The best way to prepare them is to tell them it will be happy, you will get nice things but we’re not going to overwhelm you with presents. The time together is the thing. I’ve been telling him that.

I also realize I need an Advent Quiet Morning at least every month of the year!

So many of us are striving for balance. For me, I get to the pool where I’m feeling stronger and stronger. It’s my peace. And it’s actually time for lap swim. Grabbing the Speedo now!

Welcome Home, Dancer

I took the dog for a long walk at Magnuson today. We did the loop first, past the beach and around the curve at the dog run. Then we looped again and headed to the wetlands. It’s all yellow heart-shaped leaves right now.

I just got home from a trip back east where I spent time with my family and three old friends. Fantastic to be with them. And, really important, we said bon voyage to my nephew who moved to London (luck-ee!!).

My trip started in Boston. From the airport, my friend and I drove to Cambridge which looked great on a Friday night. The Border Cafe was perfect — loud Mexican music, veggie fajitas and lots of catching up. I wore my Seahawks hat. Saturday night was a little jam session with a few guitars, harmonicas and mandolin. We flipped through the Beatles and Paul Simon songbooks and picked out tunes we all know (and that I could play). Everyone was much better than me but singing and playing together was a blast.

Then we turned on SNL and watched Kate McKinnon sing Hallelujah. Heartbreaking, the whole thing.

Then we turned on SNL and watched Kate McKinnon sing Hallelujah. Heartbreaking, the whole thing.

On Sunday I wore my Russell Wilson jersey and my hat into Gillette Stadium. Brave girl, I am. I got heckled: Hey Seattle! Welcome to New England! this guy jeered, sarcasm dripping from his voice.

Um, it’s not my first time here. I spent two years in Worcester, including…wintering over at 39 Birch Street in the back room without any heat. So I’m kinda familiar.

Nature spoke to me as I rode the train from Boston to Newark. This is the same line I’d ride to Providence, at 16, visiting my sister at Wheaton. I sat on the left side of the train, randomly, but was glad I chose it, because I had views of Long Island Sound as we wheeled south. The clouds that day were the high paintbrush kind, some curving left, others wisping right on a canvas of blue. Welcome home, Dancer, those brushstrokes in their arabesques seemed to say.

The clouds that day were the high paintbrush kind, some curving left, others wisping right on a canvas of blue. Welcome home, Dancer, those brushstrokes in their arabesques seemed to say.

Hanging out with my family in NJ filled me up. Needed that! Then I braved driving alone to northern NJ to visit an old friend and her family. Thank goodness for Maps because one road was completely closed and I really had no idea how to get to her small town. What’s that thing about traveling challenges you?

I was much more confident driving back to my brother’s. As I cruised through “The Oranges,” as the big sign says, I flipped on WFMU. I thought of the great DJs that, in my time with FMU, were: Vanilla Bean with his hilarious stories, Pat who played punk on Sunday nights, the lovable Irwin. Across the airwaves a singer sang about the “good of life” and then the DJ put on…Playing in the Band! It definitely appealed to my superstitious radio thing where I believe that messages you need to hear come through at the right times.

Great to be on the east coast where you can enjoy Dunkin Donuts, Italian food and reality.

Great to be on the east coast where you can enjoy Dunkin Donuts, Italian food and reality.

And now I’m back. In the hinterlands of Seatown. I’m super refreshed. Traveling rejuvenates you and urges you to recommit to your own life. Which I do, gladly.

wetlands3

Aquatic Disturbance in Lane 5

Cast of Characters
Girl in the Cobalt Cap
Must Do Breast Stroke (MDBS)
Beard Guy
Me

Notice the women have no issue sharing the lane. The Girl in the Cobalt Cap and I pass each other like stringbeans floating in the night. We keep an equal distance. No drama, no aggressive splashing, no smashing of hands in the air as you pass.

Not so for MDBS. Every time I pass him I wince and thread myself faster through my space because I might get smashed. His kick takes up 3/4 of the lane, and technically, each of us just has half of it.

Do you know Templeton the rat from Charlotte’s Web? The Paul Lynde version? When he says he doesn’t want to get kicked or biffed or scratched as they crowd into Wilbur’s crate? That’s how I feel with MDBS.

I do flip turns occasionally, especially at the beginning of my swim. But more often, I get to the wall, touch it, take a breath and kick off. Right before the wall, I sometimes roll onto my back like a river otter, for flair. At one point, my head’s out of the water and I’m taking my breath, and MDBS, with his face screwed up, asks me if I know what time it is. He tells me he doesn’t have his glasses.

What time is it? Time for me to not get cracked in the rib by your crappy breaststroke kick, that’s what time it is!

Just because I’m a girl, sorry, I’m not here to serve you. Bring your glasses if you need to know the time in the middle of lap swim. I’m not your time-keeper!

I look at the clock. “It’s about five to 6:00,” I say.

What time is it? Time for me to not get cracked in the rib by your crappy breaststroke kick, that’s what time it is!

Just because I’m a girl, sorry, I’m not here to serve you. Bring your glasses if you need to know the time in the middle of lap swim. I’m not your time-keeper!

I look at the clock. “It’s about five to 6:00,” I say.

MDBS also attempts butterfly. But his body is more vertical than horizontal and his arms flail as he tries it.

When I catch sight of this through my periphery — already blurred by my fogged-up goggles — I wonder: is this a drowning person? Do I have to pull out my rusty lifesaving skills because the lifeguards are probably distracted by noodles and water toys? I don’t think I want to grab this guy around the chest at the bottom of the pool…

So I set a good rhythm and stay away from MDBS. In the shallow end, I adjust my goggles and spy the other guy in our lane coming up. I move to the side. As he turns at the wall, his head comes up. It’s all goggles and beard. He pauses, looks at me and breathes straight on me. Dude! I don’t want your exhale in my face! Dag!

So I dodge MDBS’s heel and stay out of Beard Guy’s mad breathing scheme. Dag!

Let me share the lane with Cobalt Girl any day.

When Bobby D. Wins the Nobel Prize

I think of my parents. The Freewheelin’ album standing on the furniture bookcase, the black and white Baez album beside it. Newport Folk behind that. The needle sinking into the groove. The record rising and falling as it goes round and round. I won’t be able to reach the turntable for a long time.

I think of Lucas. Lying around his bedroom in 10th grade while Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts plays, loud on his fancy stereo. His dark hair long on his shoulders, his wizardry with a joint, his violin in the corner. His mom at the other end of the house, occupied with something else. Feeling saturated and swirling with the poetry and volume of it all.

I think of my brother. Cranking up Idiot Wind on Hard Rain, both of us singing louder as the verses surged and snarled. Dylan rhyming on daydreams, losing battles and destiny. Me in the mix of all that. I was 15 and couldn’t release a thing. But I had my brother and his band of friends who protected me.

I think of Yariv at Clark with the New York Times folded under his arm and his faded backpack weighted with Philo 200 books. His obsession with Dylan above all else. We all watched him pretend. But we laughed together, drove our miles and marched our marches.

So when Dylan wins the Nobel Prize, we’re not surprised. These are the lyrics that keep you turning the pages. I put on Idiot Wind and think of all the letters I wrote. To Grandma in Sarasota. To Hillary when her family left for California after her sister’s death. To Alice at Wheaton. To Lester-loo in Seattle during my 20s…list goes on. It’s cold and stormy out. The giant cypresses on the alley are twisting and thrashing. It’s actually the tail end of a typhoon.

Sandcastle Boy

Salt wind veers off a broken tower.
Peak tumbles to rippled sand
as tide switches under low clouds.

He scoops wet sand in a green pail
clump after clump, dripping
thick on a lifted shovel.

He flips the pail and towers emerge —
brief kingdom. The waves race, sand spills down
leaving the hull, a lump of gray

like his body, crumpled and buckling
limbs pulsing, fists beating thin air
eyelids in tremor, lips gone blue.

Grasses bend past the tide line.
Eagle hangs in north breeze over bluff
a pinned corpse against the sky.

Freeze Frame Girl

Steep wooden steps led down to the beach. Each was slatted and warped, curved up at the edges. Between the slats you saw a strip of green below. If you dragged your hand on the railing, you’d splinter your thumb. You’d leave the asphalt boundary of the club and descend. Shouts from the pool faded as trees engulfed you.

At the bottom of the steps, a wide-enough patch of grass curved down to sand. It was all in shade as a tree branch canopy rose along the slope. A naturally protected grassy cove. We’d plant ourselves behind the steps, against a rock wall in full shade and gaze at the moored boats bobbing in the harbor beyond the dock.

The property belonged to the people who lived at the top of the bluff. It was kind of their back yard, but we never saw them. So we claimed it as our own.

“Who’s got a match?” Angela asked, her brown eyes surveying our circle, mouth curved up in a slight smile as she tapped a cigarette out of the pack.

“I got ‘em,” I said, unzipping my ditty bag. I handed them to Angela as she passed a pack of Winstons around the circle.

She was the oldest in our group. She wore an orange tee shirt with a gigantic bee on it that read, “I caught the sailing bug.” She had just started lessons last year. The rest of us had started at 10, when you’re allowed to be a Novice.

I sat next to her. My tee shirt read “Breezin’. Junior Yacht Racing Association of Long Island Sound. 1974.” Blue letters on white, with a picture of a Blue Jay, the boat we all sailed. It was the one season our instructors had given us shirts the first week of class, so we wore it with some pride, and some confusion. Would we always get a JYRA shirt now?

The difference between my tee shirt and Angela’s was that her figure was in full force beneath it. It was kind of a sight to behold. She was going out with our friend Steve who had just gotten a Fireball. You didn’t know what they did but you knew it was something in the way they disappeared at the Fireman’s Fair and re-emerged clasping hands, distracted.

The difference between my tee shirt and Angela’s was that her figure was in full force beneath it. It was kind of a sight to behold. She was going out with our friend Steve who had just gotten a Fireball. You didn’t know what they did but you knew it was something in the way they disappeared at the Fireman’s Fair and re-emerged clasping hands, distracted.

Angela lit her cigarette and exhaled slowly, jutting out her lower jaw. Her teeth made a thin white line above her lower lip. Smoke circled up her nose in an opaque screen.

Next to me was my best friend Bridget. We took class together, ate lunch together and swam together. I had slept over her house. Her sister and brother took lessons too and her dad took us tubing on his boat near Sand City. The Cassidys were the family you equated with the club. Always there. Day and evening. On land, on water.

Natalie sat next to Bridget. She was the tallest, the most regal. She had blonde-brown hair that went all the way down to her waist. Natalie had a way of being there and not being there at all. In the clouds but still paying attention in a dream-state kind of way.

Leah was fifth around the circle. Leah was our problem-solver. The one that would pull out a tube of Coppertone before you started to burn and actually rub it across your shoulders. Big smile, easy laugh, black hair, a little wavy. The shortest. She blew out the match and bobbed her head in time with a tune in her head.

Leah was fifth around the circle. Leah was our problem-solver. The one that would pull out a tube of Coppertone before you started to burn and actually rub it across your shoulders. Big smile, easy laugh, black hair, a little wavy. The shortest. She blew out the match and bobbed her head in time with a tune in her head.

“So when do we leave? And what are we bringing, Bridgey?” she asked.

We were planning our sleep-over on the Cassidys’ boat.

“Oh yeah, right! We gotta plan. Well, bring pajamas and a pillow. You know, pjs and a p!” Bridget laughed. “The boat already has a lot of blankets. It’s gonna be tight but we can definitely fit five. My mom’s packing hot dogs and hamburgers and make your own ice cream sundae stuff. I’ll bring Clue and cards. And definitely George.”

George was Bridget’s big bulky music player. It had FM radio and a cassette deck. It was scuffed and decorated with stickers. A star-spangled hand flashing the peace sign. Snoopy lying on his doghouse. LOVE.

“Let’s meet after class on Friday. We’ll have to hang out at the pool and take like a 7:00 tender. My mom’s dropping the stuff off around then.”

“What about beer?” I asked, looking at Angela.

“I’ll ask Chris. How many sixes do we need?” she asked, exhaling smoke through her nose.

Chris was the Commodore’s son. He drove the tender, shuttling people and their day trip gear to their boats and picking them back up in the afternoon when they blew their horn three times. He drove standing, dipping when he turned the big silver wheel.

Chris was the Commodore’s son. He drove the tender, shuttling people and their day trip gear to their boats and picking them back up in the afternoon when they blew their horn three times. He drove standing, dipping when he turned the big silver wheel. The men stood next to him in wide stances and made small talk about tides or where they were going as he maneuvered through all shapes of boats. Women sat on cushioned seats next to their canvas bags and coolers.

His best friend Danny drove the second tender. They wore plain brown uniforms and boat shoes. They were in high school. Much older than us. One night me and Bridget had smoked and drank cans of Bud with them on the beach. As it got late, Bridget paired off with Chris and disappeared for a while, leaving me and Danny on the blanket. But he sensed I wasn’t ready for any of that so we just lay on our backs counting shooting stars.

Chris could easily get beer even though he wasn’t 18 yet. He had lots of friends in Northport. All Angela would have to do is give him the money and directions. People like Chris listened to her because she was matter-of-fact and beautiful so you just kind of took notice.

On Friday evening, Mr. Cassidy escorted us to the boat. It was a power boat, around 32 feet with fancy script writing on the transom: Shamrock II. He stood next to Danny on the tender, his stout body short in comparison, telling him how the girls were staying overnight and they’d be coming back about 10:00 in the morning.

Danny pulled alongside the Shamrock. We bobbed from side to side as Mr. Cassidy grabbed the railing and jumped aboard, holding onto the tender. Danny helped pass the gear and gave us each a hand as we stepped off. I was last off. When Danny took my hand, I stopped as I crossed, a freeze frame girl.

Danny pulled alongside the Shamrock. We bobbed from side to side as Mr. Cassidy grabbed the railing and jumped aboard, holding onto the tender. Danny helped pass the gear and gave us each a hand as we stepped off. I was last off. When Danny took my hand, I stopped as I crossed, a freeze frame girl. Danny was sweet and too old for me and maybe I’d see him later.

When they pulled away, it was just us five, alone among all the moored boats in Northport Harbor. A rare freedom from parents, and one I nearly didn’t earn because my mother usually said no to sleep-overs. It was only because Mr. Cassidy took her aside and in his jovial way assured her we’d be fine that she changed her mind.

We grilled hot dogs and hamburgers and made hot fudge sundaes. Chris brought the beer just before 9:00 and drove his tender in for the night. Where was Danny?

We drank and played rummy. Bridget played Band on the Run until she agreed to switch to the radio. We put on our bathing suits and dove in.

Little magical sparkles of light trailed your arms, sinking. Kick your feet and it was like sparklers on the Fourth of July. Dive like a porpoise and come twisting out to see little lights tracing the outline of your body.

The water sobered me up a little. We swam around a nearby L16, giggling and singing snippets of songs in hoarse voices. The bell clanged at the edge of the moorings. The four of them went back in.

I felt heavy pulling myself up the ladder. I wrapped myself in a towel, grabbed another beer and unplugged George from the outlet below deck. They were setting up a game of Life but the stars and fresh air lured me back out.

I took George to the front of the boat. The batteries weighed him down. I leaned back against the glass, drew in my knees and cradled the radio on my thighs. Below me, dark water lapped against the Shamrock. I drank my Bud, my head spinning a bit. Chris and Danny weren’t coming. As “Hooked on a Feeling” faded I realized I was starved so I stood up to go back below. As I turned, my ankle rolled. I reached for the railing and in that moment, I lost hold of George’s handle. He tumbled into the water and I watched him sink slowly, two silver speakers at a diagonal, going to black.

Bridget was a good sport about it even though I knew she was disappointed. I felt I had violated a sacred thing. She trusted me with her prized possession and I had watched it drown in the harbor. There was nothing I could do to replace it. I ached knowing I lost it so stupidly. I tried to hug her but she brushed me off. I was sad for everything then. Natalie and Leah helped me to bed.

Lane 5 Rumination, aka 11:30 Lap Swim

“I saw you in there, I knew it was you by the long arms,” says my lifeguard friend when I go gather up my kid after his lesson, both of us dripping wet.

I have Sunday mornings figured out. Lap swim starts at 11:30. Jack’s swim lesson is noon-12:30. I leave the house first, start my laps and my husband brings Jack to the pool. I swim for my hour and gather Jack up at 12:30. Super efficient and happy all around.

Swimming for me is my great equalizer. I’m not really sure what that means, but it’s what I need the most. I love the bubbles, the breathing, all the blue. The bottom of the pool is blue, the tiles are blue, the flags and lane lines are blue. My favorite is the underwater lights that come from purplish portholes glowing from the sides of the pool. You look at them underwater and everything is undulating, suspended, in blue and purple light. Everything’s muted and silent, just your own bubbles and a kicker approaching in lane 4.

I love the bubbles, the breathing, all the blue. The bottom of the pool is blue, the tiles are blue, the flags and lane lines are blue. My favorite is the underwater lights that come from purplish portholes glowing from the sides of the pool. You look at them underwater and everything is undulating, suspended, in blue and purple light

Swimming for me is a lot like dancing. I think swimmers’ movements, beyond ballet dancers’, are the most beautiful. I love the kicking, the swaying from side to side, the flipping.

Lucky for me, my mom taught us how to swim at West Meadow Beach. Which was unlikely because she couldn’t swim herself. She grew up in a small apartment in the Bronx. Catholic school, parish dinners and just my grandmother raising three girls because death came too soon for my mom’s father. It’s a pain I’ve always seen when his name comes up. Edward, he went by Ned.

My grandmother made mom, Betty and Claire play jacks on the bathroom tiles, so as not to disturb the downstairs neighbors by playing on wood. They’d take the subway to Orchard Beach occasionally, but she just didn’t have the access like we did. She taught all of us on instinct, standing knee-deep at West Meadow, telling us to put our face in the water and turn our heads, turn. She’d hold our small waists and tell us, kick your legs, kick. Windmill arms.

She taught us the crawl stroke, the sidestroke and how to float. My best stroke is crawl of course and I’m decent at breaststroke and backstroke. When I rest in sidestroke I hear, “Catch a cherry and put it in your pocket.” Totally works and it’s a sweet little way to get across the pool.

She taught all of us on instinct, standing knee-deep at West Meadow, telling us to put our face in the water and turn our heads, turn. She’d hold our small waists and tell us, kick your legs, kick. Windmill arms.

She taught us the crawl stroke, the sidestroke and how to float. My best stroke is crawl of course and I’m decent at breaststroke and backstroke. When I rest in sidestroke I hear, “Catch a cherry and put it in your pocket.”

The pool is such a microcosm. There are always babies and old people, and people with disabilities are welcomed at pools. There’s one woman I see. She moves from the locker room to the pool slowly, in silence. I say hi to her, but — actually, maybe she’s deaf. She doesn’t acknowledge me when I smile at her. She’s kind of a mystery. Very independent. I know the Access Bus picks her up. I’m glad she has somewhere to come in America where she’s safe and can float in the pool for 45 minutes and forget her everyday worries. Because you always feel better after you get out of the pool. Famished, yes, and just better. I hope it’s the same for her, I’m sure it is.

A few years ago, I had a debt to pay. A pool-related debt. In 10th grade, I took the lifeguarding class at the Huntington YMCA. I knew two kids in the class from school and we used to smoke cigarettes after class. This was in my anti-time. I was anti-a lot. Mad at a lot of things. My parents divorce wreaked a little havoc on me, school was a bore and all of us were getting high as much as possible. I had quit ballet and playing flute was becoming a joke. I just applied myself to nothing.

I didn’t pass the lifeguard test. Which was dumb because I had the skills. I just messed it up. It always bothered me I failed that test, so I became a lifeguard as an adult and taught swimming to young kids for a few years as a side job. I really loved it. Just the sights of the pool and the whiff of chlorine relaxes me. I guess water’s my natural element.

So it’s great for me to make it a habit and do laps for an hour. I just “keep going” as the Northport Yacht Club coach used to holler at my friends on swim team. I feel healthy and toned when I get out. And hungry.