An odd source of comfort

Well I’m on the Downeaster ‘Alexa,’
And I’m cruising through Block Island Sound,
I have charted a course to the Vineyard,
But tonight I am Nantucket bound.

– opening verse of Billy Joel’s “The Downeaster ‘Alexa’

My mind is pleased by songs with a strong tune and singable lyrics, especially if those lyrics tell a good story.  It’s the reason I’m drawn to country music, as well as to classic rock and pre-Auto-Tune pop.  Not all of Billy Joel‘s songs are sufficiently melodic for my taste, but those that are have stuck with me throughout my life.

Like many people who can tell you when they first heard a particular song, I have stories for most of my favorite Billy Joel tracks.  When I was a kid, my dad often put on “No Man’s Land” (which is a great piece of commentary on suburbia – “No major industry, just miles and miles of parking space”) while washing dishes after dinner.  I listened to “Shades of Grey” on an early iPod under an old green comforter at Girl Scout camp, and its message of the increasingly blurred lines between right and wrong was perfect for a teenager learning to navigate an imperfect world.

But if I had to pick one Billy Joel song that means the most to me, it’d be “The Downeaster ‘Alexa'”.  There is no good reason why I should feel a connection with this song.  Like the perhaps better-known “Allentown,” it’s a story about the plight of the American working class, in this case fishermen off the coast of New England.  It has literally nothing to do with my life, and it’s a pretty depressing theme when you think about it.  To me, though, it’s a source of calm and strength.

The first time I really paid attention to this song was the summer I was 19.  It was my first solo road trip, down highways with patchy radio reception and an actual rest area exit named Bad Route Road.  I’d brought along my new copy of the album Storm Front, hoping to finally be able to hear all the words to “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”  The resounding chords and generally epic feel of “The Downeaster ‘Alexa'” caught my ear and I began looking forward to it on each round through the CD.

Despite my mother’s fears, no dangerous strangers waylaid me on the road.  I didn’t run out of gas or break down or get lost.  I did, however, get hassled by a Canadian border guard.  Apparently deciding that there was something suspicious about being young and alone and female, he asked for my driver’s license (my passport, which I had ready, was not an acceptable substitute) and my college student ID.  (Note to Canadian officials: no American teenager is going to bother making a fake ID that says she’s 19.)  This was still insufficient evidence that I was safe to cross the international border, so he made me pull over and stand aside while they searched my car.

Eventually, I was allowed to go on, but the incident was tense and humiliating.  I burst into tears as I was driving away.  Of course I had no cell phone reception, so I couldn’t call anyone for reassurance.  Instead, I turned up the stereo to an ear-blasting level and started singing along to Billy Joel with as much force as I could manage.  It helped.

And that’s why my baby is sometimes offered comfort in the form of me wailing, “I know there’s fish out there, but where God only knows……”

Pirohi are too much work

One of the Writing 101 directives this week was to start with a memory of your favorite childhood meal and run with it.  There were also some instructions about writing in your own voice. My writing voice, so far as I can tell, tends toward mild sarcasm with excessive use of semicolons and parentheses.

And one-sentence paragraphs.

I don’t cook very often.  I can cook – although I lack the intuition of an experienced kitchen denizen, I can follow The Joy of Cooking to produce something decently edible – I just don’t.  In large part, this is because my husband both enjoys cooking and is good at it.  It’s also because I’m incredibly lazy when it comes to food.  Left to my own devices, I will happily eat Cheerios and peanut butter for dinner.  (Or popcorn and frozen yogurt.  True story.)

All this is to say that I haven’t yet made Christmas dinner.  Thanksgiving dinner, yes – my family came to visit when husband had to be away for work, and I learned that roasting a turkey is not nearly as hard as it’s hyped up to be.  Also, in my defense, my husband and I have spent 80% of our married Christmases at the homes of relatives who have been more than happy to feed us their own traditional dinners.

Christmas dinner (actually Christmas Eve dinner) is a big production in my family.  My mom must really love my father, because she took on his family’s Slovak tradition of making pirohi by hand.  You have to make the dough, make the fillings, roll out the dough, cut the dough into precise little squares, put a spoonful of filling on each square, pinch each square into a tightly-sealed dumpling, boil them all in batches, and finally, brown butter to go on top.  (They are delicious, in case you were wondering.)  All this is done while simultaneously making several other traditional components of the meal.

The production level goes up a few notches when the whole extended family is involved.  Everyone is required to help with the sealing and pinching.  My grandpa “supervises,” beer in hand.  Anyone else who’s old enough to drink grabs an adult beverage of their own and prays that my grandma will stop talking before she says anything truly cringe-worthy.  In other words, it’s your standard traditional family activity.

This past Christmas was my son’s first, but even though my family was in town, I didn’t make anything special for Christmas Eve.  Laziness won out, for sure.  Also lingering exhaustion and the tail end of postpartum depression.  My Little Boy had no idea what was going on, of course, but eventually he will, and it would be nice to establish some family traditions of our own.  So maybe I’ll find the energy next year.  After all, it would be a shame for him to miss out on the cheesy-potato-dumpling goodness of pirohi.

Readers, what does your family eat for Christmas?  How have you adapted your childhood traditions to your adult life?

My soul belongs to the mountains

Today’s Writing 101 assignment is about evoking a place.

When my husband and I vacationed in Hawai’i, on one of our last big trips before Little Boy came along, we took a break from the warm beaches to spend some time on Mauna Kea.  Many miles of winding roads led us to the visitor’s center, nine thousand feet up the side of the massive volcano.  The moment I stepped out of the car, the feel of the thin mountain air told me that I was welcomed, that this was where I ought to be.  As lovely as the ocean waves and swaying palm trees were, they were not my place.  The mountains are where I belong.

I have been on other mountains like Mauna Kea, rocky mountains with little vegetation, mountains that are beautiful in their isolation.  But the mountains to which I will always return are the Rocky Mountains, with their great pine forests and ice-cold lakes.  They are my home mountains, although they have rarely been home in the literal sense of the word.

My grandparents built a cabin in the Rockies in the 70s, and oh boy, does that cabin show its age.  Green carpet and orange countertops, with decor in strange shades of brown and yellow.  Spiders in the corners.  Mice in the basement.  A half-fallen treehouse in the woods outside.  It perches on the slope above an old mining town, hidden among cabins that are newer and fancier – but most of them up for sale.

At times, I have strongly disliked that cabin.  Somewhere around the age of 18, cold and grumpy and concerned about the quantity of cobwebs, I declared to my father that I never wanted to inherit the nasty old place.  It was too ugly.  Too much work.  Too full of odd and frightening memories.  The first time I remember visiting as a small child, we arrived to find that it had been broken into.  My preschool mind picked up on the adults’ concern that the invader might still be around, along with some mention that he had been injured in the break-in.  For the rest of the visit, I was terrified about what I might find inside each cupboard and behind each door.

But it is a place of comforting memories, too.  Of wet ski gear drying on the radiators.  Of watching M.A.S.H. tapes on an old rabbit-eared television.  Of building a wall of rocks that survived the elements for a remarkable number of years.  Of seeing hummingbirds up close for the first time.  And of launching hikes to hidden mountain lakes – of walking rock-strewn trails to the top of the world.

And so, every time I catch the scent of pine trees, I think of the Rocky Mountains and an old cabin and a deck fenced off with chicken wire.  And I am happy.

Saying no to Pinterest-perfect parenting

Pinterest and I are not friends.  I wouldn’t say we’re enemies either; it’s just not my thing.  I’ve never been the kind of person who compiles pictures of clothing ensembles (except for when I was planning my wedding), and I already have way more tasty-looking recipes torn out of Martha Stewart Living than anyone in my household will ever cook – we certainly don’t need to add to that collection.  There’s also the dubious legality of pinning copyrighted work, and my own concern with the quantity of images glorifying skinny bodies and over-healthy eating.

But I don’t mean to hate on Pinterest.  It’s just one facet of the “make everything magical” culture, a culture that is fueled in part (but only in part) by social media.  There’s nothing wrong with gathering ideas for inspiration, especially if you have the time and energy for that sort of thing.  But it can put an awful lot of pressure on the rest of us.

In the second half of my pregnancy, a number of family and friends started asking for pictures of Little-Boy-to-be’s nursery.  I had seen on Facebook many photos of friends’ nurseries, with their artfully-arranged matching furniture and baby-name-themed wall hangings.  And I really wanted Little Boy to have a nice, functional room, even if it included an IKEA crib and his mother’s childhood dresser rather than a fancy new furniture set.  However, this meant cleaning out a room that had endured only vague attempts at organization since we moved in.  My husband and I were already busy and depressed, and my high standards for sorting all of our stuff only made those conditions worse.  I don’t regret the organizing we did – it’s nice to have all my craft supplies in one place again and to be able to find the envelopes and stamps without conducting a house-wide search – but I do regret the intense anxiety that went along with it.

I was putting some of the pressure on myself, for sure.  My desire for perfection often gets in the way of just getting stuff done.  Other people’s photos of stylish nurseries fueled that internal pressure, and repeated “I want to see your nursery!” requests made it impossible to convince myself that it didn’t really matter.

We “finished” the essentials of the nursery about a week before Little Boy was born.  The final touch was a sampling of baby books purchased the night before we went to the hospital.  And do you know what?  Little Boy didn’t care that his space had only existed for a few days – it was ready for him when it was needed, and that was all that mattered.  (He probably still doesn’t care what it looks like, to be honest, but I do appreciate having a clean and pleasant space.)

The most recent push for a “magical moment” came from my mother-in-law, who persistently asked for pictures and video of Little Boy meeting his cousin for the first time.  The cousin is two years old.  Little Boy is one-quarter that.  We want them to interact a bit – hence the visit – but it wasn’t like they were going to lay eyes on each other and instantly become best friends for life.  Trying to force it would just stress out the adults.

A while back, I came across this post by Thea at Supermom?, who says,

When I was growing up I don’t remember my parents planning many things for us to do, or trying to make crafting fun for us. I just remember playing and having fun!

Her post in turn lead me to an older Huffington Post article titled, “I’m Done Making My Kid’s Childhood Magical.”  In it, Bunmi Laditan writes,

It is not our responsibility to manufacture contrived memories on a daily basis.

They’re right.  My childhood memories exist against a background of pleasant family togetherness: having dinner together, going on hikes, playing board games, and driving cross-country to Grandma’s.  My parents incorporated us into their regular activities, and it was wonderful.  We did fancy themed crafts at preschool; at home, my mother taught me how to cross-stitch and knit.  (I still can’t believe she entrusted a five-year-old with a needle!)

Some of my most beloved childhood activities, however, sprang solely from my (and my brother’s) imagination.  We created a tabletop city of Popsicle-stick people, complete with background stories and a full genealogy.  We spent a week building and defending a rock fort outside my grandparents’ cabin.  We dreamed up complete cultures – language, history, and all.

The real magic happens when children are left to their own devices to discover their world and create new ones.  Parents are responsible for ensuring that their children’s world is one of love and trust, but also freedom.  We build the backdrop for those special memories; we can’t construct the memories ourselves.

So I’m not going to stress out about planning perfect “learning activities” for my son.  We will simply read together and talk together and play together instead.  We won’t be inviting 50 people to a themed first birthday party, because what child remembers their first birthday anyway?  And no matter how many of my husband’s friends insist that we’ll change our mind, we won’t be buying an Elf on the Shelf for Christmas.

Oh, and that special first meeting between Little Boy and his cousin?  It will be remembered far longer than any staged photograph, because it went something like this:

Uncle, to Two-Year-Old Cousin: “Want to come meet your cousin?”

Two-Year-Old Cousin: “No.”

I was an imaginative child

“This song came out when I was in middle school, which was when I was still making up my own language, so I translated it.  I’ve forgotten almost all of it but there’s one line that I still remember really clearly every time.”

“You made up your own language?”

“Yeah.  I made up a whole country.  It was an island in the Pacific… an island inhabited by humanoid aliens who came to Earth because their star was about to explode.”


“I can still remember the whole national anthem – ”

“It had a national anthem?”

“Yes, and I can still remember it because it turned out to be the right tempo for running, so I would recite it in my head – all three verses and the chorus – while running up hills.”