We Shared a Path

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Sorting through my desk this morning, I found the photograph taken at my 50thclass reunion. The photographer had to shoot it with a wide-angle lens to accommodate the increased girth of the  ninety-three classmates in attendance.

We’d made an effort to look our best for the occasion. “I bought a new outfit,” a friend told me, “I planned to get a manicure and pedicure as well, but buying the dress exhausted me; so I decided to replace the batteries in my hearing aids and call it good.”

Despite such efforts, the photograph shows grandparents in comfortable shoes and generously sized clothing with hair dyed, gray, sparse or gone. We squint with puffy eyes below wrinkled brows as we suck in rounded bellies and square slumping shoulders.

But as I studied the photograph, I didn’t dwell on our time-altered appearance; instead, I noticed arms thrown fondly around one another and happy smiles on every face. Despite our aging bodies, the class of ’61 enjoyed its evening, which surprised me.

The three earlier reunions I attended had quickly clotted into the cliques and gossip of high school. I assumed this one would do the same. But a song by our class crooner established a more appreciative mood.

Every time Larry performed for a high school assembly, he received a standing ovation due to the popularity of his signature song, “Scotch and Soda,” a daring choice in a predominately Mormon school. We assumed our ancient principal, with his perfect posture and habit of addressing us as ladies and gentlemen, had never heard of jiggers of gin.

As I listened to Larry sing the song we’d once cheered, I was again eighteen, sitting in an auditorium among friends, happy to be young and looking forward to life after high school. I think others at the reunion felt a similar tug of nostalgia because Larry’s song kicked off the best part of the evening: mingling, conversing and re-discovering our past.

As classmates approached, I quickly read their nametags so I could identify the smiling woman who remembered throwing up on me during band practice and the old man with hairy ears who hugged me as though he’d done it before.

“Janet, you haven’t changed a bit,” some said. Others studied my nametag and exclaimed, “I would never have recognized you.” I found these contradictory statements puzzling, until I realized vanity had caused many of us to leave our glasses home, which confused the issue.

We found time had polished our positive qualities: Blake, former class clown, possessed a generous wit that amused everybody without demeaning anyone. Kathy and Ruby Ann, once energetic cheerleaders, laughed and drew others into their fun. Edgar, whose quirks challenged the social standards of high school, asked insightful questions and expressed affection and admiration openly. He had a crowd around him the entire evening.

So we socialized: groups forming, dispersing, and re-forming as tired spouses hoped a lightning strike would force evacuation of the building.

The sorting criteria of teenagers — who was in, out, best, worst, most, least — had been scrubbed out of us by years tinged with heartbreaks, illnesses, and disappointments. Our common struggles allowed us to see friends rather than jocks, grinds, beauties, nerds, winners and losers.

Our edges were worn away. We bore witness for each other: We’re here. We made it. And, for part of the way, we walked together.

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Wasting Time

Because I was in love with Snooky Lanson, I watched “Your Hit Parade” every Saturday after doing the dinner dishes. But sometimes I dawdled and had to promise Mom I’d complete my chore when the program ended. One week, inspired by the show’s choreography, I forgot my promise and decided to practice my tap-dance moves instead, so I could become a Hit Parade dancer.

I convinced Barbara to sing “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” while I attempted various dance steps. I was working on a jaunty hoedown maneuver when Mom entered and silenced Barbara’s croaking with a look. She then said she’d never seen anyone waste time like I did and threatened me with no desert for a week, thus convincing me clean dishes would contribute more to my happiness than barn dancing in the living room.

It’s ironic that I tap danced rather than keeping a promise to my mother and could spend hours trying to peel the foil off a gum wrapper in one piece but became semi-hysterical when a sibling spent too much time reading the Sunday comics while I waited.

Waiting for others has always irritated me and made me wonder why their time is more valuable than mine. Though I fume inwardly at this who delay me, I say nothing; instead, I twitch with impatience, sigh with disgust, and moan in despair. When I vent in this manner in a shared waiting area, people move away from me.

My ugliness increases if I’m in a restaurant, hungry and waiting too long for my food — especially when no one explains. If the waitress would tell me my order was delayed because the busboy attacked the sous chef, I wouldn’t have to scowl and snarl until others avoid my table — even the mariachis.

Sitting forever in a dentist’s chair with my mouth numb makes me want to tear my hair. But I control myself. When the dentist finally appears, he might be put off by a patient with bloody bald spots, and I’d hate to be asked to reschedule. If I’m stopped by highway construction, I behave as though the multimillion-dollar operation was planned solely to make me wait. Too often, asphalt-splattered workers point and stare while I tie knots in the steering wheel.

But no horror can exceed waiting for twenty-eight minutes and thirty-two seconds in the skimpy gown required for unpleasant medical procedures in an exam room chilled to the point of goose bumps — with nothing to read but a chart illustrating the growth of cancer cells. I’m certain when medical professionals enter and observe my crazed demeanor, they consider calling security. If not, they should.

I’m ashamed of the inner monster I become when others waste my time because I fritter away my precious minutes as mindlessly as I did when young. Staring out the window with an open mouth and vacant mind, picking mindlessly at my cuticles or leafing through a Hanes underwear catalogue — while ten, twenty, thirty minutes slip by — doesn’t bother me at all.

And yet, if Joel should delay our departure for Denver by two minutes, I pace and mutter.

And I’m not proud of it.

Blame It On Birth Order

I felt mistreated when Mom assigned chores by age. Being too old for Barbara’s pretend work and too young for Carolyn’s skilled tasks, I drew the dull, dirty or distasteful jobs. I remember pushing our vacuum down the hall, trying to finish before the antiquated machine erupted. It needed to be emptied; I hoped to avoid doing so by stowing it away before Mom noticed the dust clouds oozing from its bloated pores.

I cut mean glances at Carolyn who ironed in the kitchen, popping nary a bead of sweat. She sneered back at me as she took a sip of lemonade, turned up the radio, and crooned along with Patti Page: “How much is that doggie in the window—arf! arf!” Seemed more like a party than work to me.

Pushing my belching machine into the living room, I aimed for Barbara, who sat on the floor pairing clean socks from the laundry. Concentrating on her task, she didn’t glance up, increasing my chances of inflicting serious injury. Unfortunately, I had to veer off when Mom appeared and gave Barbara towels to fold along with praise: “Look at the good job you’re doing; you’re getting to be a big help.”

What was I? An incompetent orphan on loan from the poor house?

No, I was a middle child.

Recently, in an article about the impact of birth order on the personalities of children, I read, “If you are a middle child, you probably have fewer photos in the family album.”

Bingo!

A stranger could skim our family albums and immediately identify me as the in-betweener. Baby pictures of the other six abound. My infant gallery consists of one fuzzy snapshot Mom said might be me.

Not that I’m complaining. For every disadvantage listed by experts for middle children, I experienced an advantage. Evidently, I should have felt unknown and unnoticed in the crowd. No problem. I liked doing anything I wanted during the chaos created by rebellious teenagers and needy babies.

Another accepted generalization: “Middle children may feel life is unfair since they enjoy neither the privileges of the older nor the attention given the younger.” But I, too, doted on the babies; and I knew those older did more chores and had to babysit the rest of us. Not my idea of a good time.

The positive middle-child descriptors — cooperative, flexible, independent — seemed a perfect fit for me; while the negative traits — secretive, avoids conflict, may exaggerate or lie to get attention — obviously didn’t apply.

My position in the middle also had advantages the researchers didn’t mention; for example, I received excellent parenting; Mom and Dad hit their stride with me. They’d learned from skirmishes with those older, but weren’t yet weary of the battle as with those younger.

I notice another blessing of my birth order at family reunions. Twenty-one years separate my oldest and youngest siblings. Lawrence was a Marine in Korea when Blaine was a toddler and JL was born. But I lived for several years with all my siblings; I know those older and those younger in alarming detail; and I love them all. I believe they feel the same about me.

“Feels unloved and left out,” one authority said of middle children.

Not in my family.

Too Soon Finished

Finally summer, when young parents push strollers through mellow evenings; laughter drifts from fenced backyards; and rainbows of green enhance our lives. Under a summer sun, I’m less obsessed by how well I sleep or household tasks that need my attention. I stand taller, breathe easier and open more readily to spontaneity and stray dogs.

Recently, I encountered a friend at the post office: a lovely lady who exceeds me in wisdom, grace and years. “Summer has arrived,” she said, “I love this time of year because it makes me feel young again.”

“How did you spend your summers when you were young?” I asked, responding to her happy smile.

“Helped with chores around our place, mostly, but when I had time, I explored: studied anthills, tried to catch butterflies, searched the night sky for falling stars. Nature fascinated me. I paid attention to even the smallest things in my world.”

Later, I thought about her words and recalled my excitement when the bus pulled away from the elementary school and my friends and I chanted: “No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks.” School and winter were vanquished; summer would never end; and the rituals of childhood could begin.

To test our stamina, my siblings and I tried to walk barefoot in the heat of the day down our dirt lane and along the gravel road it met without skittering or complaining. We timed one another to see who was fastest riding Bob’s bike to the mailbox and back. Pumping furiously, I sometimes misjudged a rut, crashed and then proudly displayed scraped elbows and knees.

We dove or belly-flopped into the chlorine-heavy water of Arrowhead Pool and swam as far underwater as we could, carefully marking one another’s progress. Sitting atop our horse, we took pride in not holding onto each other as the oldest guided it along country roads framed by crops.

On July 4th, we played with cap guns because we liked the smell of burned caps and ate lunch in Grandma Hall’s backyard, saving the heart of our slice of watermelon to eat last and ridiculing cousins who gnawed their final bite from the rind.

We held dandelions under one another’s chins to see who liked butter and split the bottom of their stems with our tongues, sucking them until they curled like a slinky. When my friends visited, we plucked petals from daisies to discover if he loved us or loved us not and made dolls from hollyhock blossoms that we threw at Bob when he wouldn’t leave us alone.

As one summer day of my childhood melted into another, I didn’t realize how quickly my freedom to experience and explore would be replaced by the jobs and responsibilities of adulthood.

I didn’t know that when I grew old, the months of June, July, and August would begin to spin by like carousel horses running wild. Now my summers race by so fast I worry I won’t have time to savor them — to store away the smell of roses, the feel of dancing breezes, the sight of goldfinches jostling on a bird feeder and the shouts of children riding their bicycles pell-mell to the pool.

Like my lovely friend, I find summer glorious. I only wish it could slow to the pace it kept when I was young.

First, Label Three Piles           

Spring, too long a rumor, has finally established itself in the Yampa Valley. Snow decorates only the highest peaks; birds reproduce willy-nilly; bare toes sally forth in sandals; and cleaning experts ruin our fun by telling us its time to de-clutter our homes.

The other day a professional organizer on TV offered the following helpful tips: We should get rid of junk mail the day it arrives, store extra toilet paper where it’s handy and throw away pens that no longer work. She also said clearing the clutter from our dinner tables would benefit us socially.

I suppose without her expert help we’d paste junk mail in scrapbooks, put toilet paper under the coffee table and use defunct pens to stir our coffee. And I don’t know about your entertaining habits, but I almost never seat dinner guests among piles of unfolded laundry and unpaid bills.

While I dread housecleaning — moving dirt and dust about on a weekly basis — I enjoy sorting and organizing. I feel virtuous as I recycle books, alphabetize spices and discard the plastic pitcher the hospital sent home as a souvenir of Joel’s shoulder surgery.

Most experts advocate sorting clutter into three piles: recycle, discard and keep. I recommend an additional group: give to loved ones. This category enlivens my family reunions; folks scatter, running like the ten-year-olds they once were, when I approach with my treasures: “Look, Barbara, my high school pompoms! Remember how I wouldn’t let you play with them? Well now you can.”

Professional organizers also tell us to make decisions without hesitation and to never second-guess ourselves. I disagree. I enjoy debating with myself while I sort: “This charred hot pad was my first 4-H project; I can’t abandon it. Maybe I could work it into a quilt.” “You never know; we might decide to eat fondue again. The pot stays.”

I also recommend a practice I adopted to prevent my clothes from bulging out of my closet like bread dough left to rise too long: when I buy a new article of clothing, I get rid of an old one. At first, I cheated: “Let’s see, I bought new jeans. Hmm. Well, I haven’t worn this mate-less sock in ages. Out it goes.”

So now I make myself choose something similar. Recently when I brought home a new fleece hoodie, I recycled the down jacket I made from an REI kit in 1977, burned a hole in ten years later while camping and haven’t worn since.

Another strategy I propose: don’t involve the man in your life. One look at his collection of ball caps should tell you why not. Too often, as soon as I discard something and it’s irretrievably gone, Joel needs it. When we combined our households in 1996, I threw away the multitude of coffee-stained styrofoam cups he had dragged home from every meeting he attended since 1990. Twenty-two years later, he still asks for them.

Sometimes I get discouraged. Recently, I worked hard to clean and organize my kitchen cupboards. A month later, I’d crammed everything into the handiest spaces again. Perhaps a niece of mine has the best method for de-cluttering: pursue a lucrative career and hire an expert to sort and organize for you. An added bonus: you’ll be certain your toilet paper is in a handy place.

For National Teachers’ Day, May 8

At forty-five, dumbfounded and dismayed, I thought, “This guy expects me to write in the first five minutes of a class designed to help me improve my students’ writing? He has to be kidding!”

The instructor, a six-foot man burdened with unreasonable expectations and a teddy-bear body, introduced himself as Neil then announced we had five minutes to write a description of a time we were unhappy with a parent. “After that, you’ll all share what you wrote,” he said and beamed at us as though we’d be thrilled by the opportunity.

As my classmates scribbled away as if they were hell-bent on winning a Pulitzer, I wasted three minutes feeling put-upon before squeezing out four sentences. “It was a hot day in August. My mother and I were working in the garden. She was tired and disappointed by my behavior; and I was being belligerent because I thought she was picking on me.”

Neil then told us to reread our writing and circle each verb of being we’d used. For those of us a bit fuzzy about the verbs in question, he turned to the board and wrote “is, be, am, are, was, were, been, being.”

I smiled smugly as I circled six of the verbs; then Neil said, “Now, I want you to rewrite your piece without using the verbs you circled. Keep your situation, but get rid of every verb of being you can. You’ll probably have to add details and think of livelier verbs. It’s an interesting task, like a puzzle. I think you’ll enjoy solving it and the results you’ll get.”

Oh.

The assignment intrigued me; so I willingly went to work and felt pleased with the result: “My mother and I pulled weeds in our vegetable garden under a hot August sun. Mom, tired from a new baby and canning peaches all day in a hot kitchen, looked at me with disappointment. But I continued to complain, “Why do I have to weed the garden? You expect me to work for free while Bob and Carolyn go earn money for themselves hoeing sugar beets. I hate doing their work.”

Next, Neil asked us to read both drafts to one another. In every case, the version written without verbs of being allowed our listeners to better visualize the characters, actions and emotions in our writing.

So, of course, that night when we did our homework assignment, a description of a childhood illness or accident, we over-reacted. Reading to one another the next day, we realized we’d written rambling sentences stuffed with excessive verbs and overblown details. Verbs of being couldn’t be found, but neither could simplicity, ease of reading or a clear story line.

The teacher we now trusted next led a three-pronged class discussion about the traditional belief of moderation in all things, the effective use of verbs of being and the understanding that any writing technique can became problematic when overdone.

During two fifty-minute classes, an extraordinary teacher had strengthened my writing and informed my teaching without assigning a worksheet or delivering a lecture.

Neil died recently. When I heard, I remembered telling him on the last day of class how his meaningful instruction had changed me as a writer and a teacher; and then I remembered the way  he beamed —  as though he had been thrilled by the opportunity.

What Runner’s High?

I used to run for exercise; though, toward the end, shuffling quickly would have been a better description of my movement. As a young adult, I read Dr. Kennet Cooper’s book, “Aerobics,” purchased running shoes, loaded up the dog and drove to the old railroad grade between Carson City and Virginia City, Nevada.

From Dr. Cooper’s research, I knew cardio conditioning requires continuous movement, so I decided I’d run for thirty minutes. Having no idea how to pace myself, I sprinted along the grade, then lurched along the grade, then vomited on the grade.

Miraculously, I didn’t give up, and though I added other cardio activities over the years, I always preferred running. I can’t brag about my speed or my distance, but I’m proud of my consistency: a minimum of thirty minutes, five days a week, year in and year out.

Like brushing my teeth, exercising is an engrained habit for me: I feel something’s amiss when I don’t do it. Dread keeps me moving as well. I’m afraid if I quit for any length of time, I could never make myself go through the agony of starting again.

Over the years, friends and family have teased me about my persistence. A brother told me he’d read an article about the impact of cardio exercise on longevity: consistent exercisers lived only a few months longer than non-exercisers. With ill-concealed glee, he said: “You drip sweat and jar your joints to  live eighty-five years and nine months instead of eighty-five years and seven months. Seems like a low return on your investment to me.”

Even my dad piled on, telling me he never saw runners with smiles on their faces and asking for my thoughts on why they look so grim. “Well, Dad, they’re concentrating on avoiding the old guy in the careening pickup who seems oblivious to traffic lanes and regulations.”

I love my family, but sometimes they try my patience.

I exercise not for longevity, but because I enjoy its day-to-day benefits  — increased energy, sound sleep, no dieting. But exercising has never been easy for me. Recently NPR aired a program on running. The panel discussed endorphins and the fabled runner’s high. I was cheered by a bit of research they shared: five to eight percent of runners experience no high —  other than a feeling of relief when they stop.

I identify.

One of my fondest memories of my dad involves running through an airport. Joel and I had flown with my eighty-eight-year-old father to Nashville to visit my brother. Our flight home had a close connection in Houston, where we arrived late.

While Joel ran ahead to try to hold our flight, I linked arms with Dad, and we scooted as quickly as possible, counting down gates. We were at twenty, on our way to twelve, when Dad reassured me, “Don’t worry, Janet; we’ll make it in plenty of time. I’m saving my kick for the finish.”

I remember our dash through the airport and Dad’s laughter at his own remark whenever I’m struggling through a fast, steep walk or a brisk workout. The memory helps me continue.

And some days, I need all the help I can get.