Wednesday, June 04, 2014

on a run in DC

On May 29, I had to drive the kids to school, across DC, from Prince George’s County, which is to the east of the District, to the far NW of it, in the damned rush hour traffic. (Their dad usually drives them because he works there.)  I decided I wanted, needed to cover 13.1 miles, my private half marathon, in downtown DC, for kicks. Actually, I was due for a long run, and the area is blessedly flat compared to my hilly suburb. I parked on Ohio Drive in West Potomac Park. The weather was cooler than usual for late May in this swampy region. I was grateful.

Over the course my two-hour run, the city offered sights and sounds that struck me and have stuck with me.

1. I was maybe a mere mile into the run, which had wrapped under the Memorial Bridge and climbed up to the Lincoln Memorial. I was on the wide shaded path between the Reflecting Pool and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. On my right, a bunch of adorable, heart-melting ducklings, maybe six or seven, waddled off the path, toward the pool. Their mother herded them. As I approached and passed, she hurried them, then turned on me, beak open, and lunged toward me. I knew I was faster and would escape unscathed. Really, how much damage could she do to my lower leg? I confess, however, that I was a bit scared of mama duck in protective-threatening mode.

2. (Preamble: When I was in eighth grader at Bank Street in New York City, the whole grade visited DC in May.) The month of May seems to be the “school visit to DC” month. Damn: Hoards of school groups covered the Mall area. They were in my way, with their matching T-shirts or caps (a modern paranoia of losing kids; my eighth grade didn’t wear matching neon tees). I noticed that one spot on the far side of the Capitol Reflecting Pool seems to be the preferred class photo stage. A group in white tees was arranged on the few steps there. At least two other groups waited for their chance. Who knew?
I made my way up Capitol Hill. At the top, I dodged school groups waiting in line for the underground Capitol Building Visitor Center. When I was 14, I wondered why DC was so interesting. Still do. I know, I know, American history, the federal government, blah, bah, blah. 

As I returned along the south side of the Mall on the gravel, one group of kids showed off by making fun of the local runners, me included. The boys tried to outpace me and each other, pointed, laughed, “There’s another one!”  Dude, you all are, like, 14, and I have already run at least seven miles. Are there no runners where you come from? Shut up, youngsters, no one is impressed. Yes, I know you are bored. Come up with something else.

3. Taking into account at least 24 hours of heavy rain the previous week combined with high tide on the tidal Potomac River, the cement walk around Haines Point was mostly flooded. Park benches were standing in at least a foot of water, the base of many cherry trees were engulfed as well. The asphalt of Ohio Drive was fine until I nearly reached the point. I now know the lowest point of the road around Haines Point. Even as tried to avoid the many inches of standing water by veering into the interior grass, my sneakers were soaked.

4. Realizing that I needed to run the 14th Street Bridge into Virginia to the Mount Vernon Trail to make my distance goal without having to drag myself past my parked car, which is demoralizing, I ran up the steps up at the end of the Haines Point portion of my run, and turned onto the bridge’s footpath. A cyclist passed in the opposite direction. He said either “congratulations” or “evacuations” to me. Hm. I was wearing a Marine Corps Marathon tee, and the Pentagon was in sight. No one has ever congratulated me when I wear a race tee. I remember cycling to the Mount Vernon trail on September 11, 2001, and seeing the smoke rising. Evacuations did and still do happen in this town. Damn. I didn’t bring my smart phone with me to check. Was he warning me? I looked for smoke, listened for sirens. Nothing. Perhaps he just said “salutations,” but that’s just silly. I have to assume “congratulations.” Thanks!

Friday, May 30, 2014

dialogue with my mother's journal

So often, I want to call my mother and commiserate about having a different, outlying kid. This is not just about Iz, but also a selfish desire to know my own history through her eyes. I remember being so unhappy in elementary and middle school. Those eight years helped shape who I am now and reveal things about me that are both interesting and uncomfortable. But I do not know how my mother saw my unhappiness (and she saw it, for sure) or how it affected her.

My Iz, now 10, is more social than I was, though he can be deeply both anxious and sad. He is as quirky, awkward and as much in his own head as I was (am?), but he attends the Lab School of Washington, which is for "bright students with ADHD, dyslexia, and other learning differences." He has friends of equal and ranging quirk. (I love it.)

But I cannot call my mother; I have not been able to for almost seven years. Again, I turn to her journals, those journals she wanted me to burn and never read. I find I need them. Her real, personal voice is still accessible, there to reassure.

Her journal pages from 1982 are typed on pages of lined, yellow legal paper. These pads were a staple in our house, in her office, by the phone, on the kitchen table. I turned 11 that May, near Iz’s age.

She does not write tons about me, which I respect because I cannot stand the thought of my own life revolving around my children, and I wouldn't want hers to have, though I know she loved me more than anything (no exaggeration). I do, however, pop up here and there. On May 2, she writes:

“Today is one of the most wonderful days of recent years. I feel alive again, as if I can indeed realize what it is my mind. It’s a funny, powerful feeling of utter satisfaction and possibility. So that this apartment, this life, which I see as never changing, sometimes confined and imprisoning, seem trembling with newness. First of all, it is well and truly spring. Lovely, lovely. Campus is beautiful, instead of being this dreary place along whose walk I carve a furrow with my footsteps. Classes will be over Wednesday, and I have practically four months to myself. There’s the MacDowell Colony, and I think I shall go to Ireland in August, if I finish The Woman Who Said Mouse. Caity has had a splendid school report, Lisa telling me Friday that she is particularly bright and has become one of the class, a person to whose birthday party children want to go. (Sometimes strikes me as a strange criterion for adjustment and success, but Caity is very happy.) Her summer arrangements seem good.”

My favorite phrase: “along whose walk I carve a furrow with my footsteps.” That woman could write, even when the words were to be private. I love that image of the furrow along the Columbia Campus walk; I close my eyes and can imagine a surreal image of the walk and a dark figure walking an actual furrow. I recall that real walk in an instant. I made my own furrows, walking to Bank Street every morning for five years, then to the 116th Street subway station when I went to high school in Brooklyn, to St. Ann’s, then again as a 20-something, returned to my city after college, for various jobs and grad school on that very campus.

But, oh, my poor young Caity self. (I will still answer to that name.) How I hated elementary and middle school. I do remember the year with Lisa (teachers went by their first names at Bank Street), and it was one of the better ones. But it sounds as if it took me a while to “become one of the class,” implies that I was an awkward outsider for at least the beginning of the year. I am not at all surprised. How my mother worried. I would have, too.

(Aside: my summer plans “good”? Was that the summer of that disastrous, hated first year of camp? I certainly was not “part of the cabin” that year. I pretended to be sick all the time to be in the nurse’s cabin. I begged my mother to take me home, but she was obviously booked. Was I also doing something with my father? I cannot exactly recall.)

On my 11th birthday, May 8, my mother’s mood was dampened by an uneasy last class (she taught fiction writing at Columbia) and the arrival of the author copies of Games of the Strong: “An ugly little book. Tiny print, out of proportion acknowledgements, and ugly red printing on that beautiful blue photograph. It looks crude, amateurish…So there is something of a letdown.” I did not know she disliked the cover and layout. Hm.

Maybe it wasn’t the class or the book, but rather her worries about me. She writes:

“And perhaps it is Caity’s birthday. Today. I am glad that Gordon is giving her her birthday picnic. I couldn’t have done it alone. But I am worried that the children won’t turn up, and that she won’t have friends there for the sleepover. At least Katarina and Christina are sleeping over. Sarah and Lola refused the invitation at the last minute. Lola said she had something else to do. Sarah said she had a friend coming over after all. Caity said that meant Lola was going to Sarah’s. She said Sarah hasn’t been all that nice to her recently. I asked her if her feelings were hurt, and she said they were. She really doesn’t talk about that kind of thing. And I can’t bear her to be hurt by other children. Am I uneasy because I have given her so many presents, and it isn’t the presents that make her happy? She loves the little unicorn and Pegasus best, and the $1.00 headband from Woolworths. The bike, well, the enthusiasm has waned, but that’s because I have frightened her about safety, about getting mugged.”

Where was I going to ride my bike nearby West 116th Street in Manhattan without at least some threat in those New York days? Anyway...

I do not remember Sarah or Lola fondly, so I now don’t care that they rejected me. They were run-of-the-mill mean girls. For example, the next school year, in a moment of wildly misplaced trust, I told Sarah I was “in love” with Adam, and she promptly told him, and he avoided me from then on. That sucked and further cemented my outsider status.

I marvel at how aware of the social dynamics I was. I was sensitive but not savvy enough to fit in or navigate. I have frequently used the same phrasing to describe Iz: “sensitive but not savvy.” He is a darling, but he has had some social issues over the years, been hurt or confused. He does not navigate easily in large groups. At least he does not face the constant social challenges at school that I did. I do, however, recall that something went on earlier this school year when his declared “best friend” was being cruel to him for a few weeks. Iz was so confused by the turn of events, but they are buddies again.

My mother was sensitive. I am the apple to her tree in that and other ways, and I can imagine my hard times, my quirkiness, my sadness, affected her deeply. Iz’s do me. Now I know a little more; I am not alone. I wouldn't have it any other way, though. I want to be tuned into my children, but the connectedness is also very hard sometimes. Like my mother, I also want to be caught up in my own life, have my own things going on, and not just be focused on my offspring. I do my best. Like my mother, I need my own space, and I do not write only about my children. That would be dull.

(For another time: I wonder about how being the only child of a single mother has shaped me, and how her caution affected me. My mother was always very aware of the possibilities, dangers, of New York City living in the 1970s and 1980s. Hell, the car battery was stolen from her Dodge Dart twice when she risked parking on Morningside Drive. She pulled the curtains of the street-facing windows in our fifth floor apartment at night, so no one could see in. But she didn’t hover; she was not a helicopter parent. I don’t find myself overly fearful, perhaps that is my reaction. I often don’t pull the curtains or drop the blinds, and I live in a house. Something to think about.)

Saturday, January 04, 2014

being bullied

I spent many years of my life being bullied. I have not recently dwelled upon it, but I have not forgotten. (I know I am not alone or special here.)

Listening to the TEDRadio Hour from January 3, 2014, I was caught up by the theme of “overcoming.” But I was especially struck by Shane Koyczan'stalk about being bullied as a child.

On any old day, I will remember that, yes, I was teased and criticized, felt pretty much a total outcast in elementary school. I don’t often use the word “bullied,” but, yes, I was. From 1st grade through 8th grade, I faced all sorts of bullying: having my baseball cap taken off my head and tossed around the school bus as the horde laughed in 1st grade; being called freckle faced and fat in 3rd grade by a boy who himself was freckled and actually chubby (I had not yet hit my chubby phase and was still lean); being challenged to a fight in 4th grade by a boy who thought I was not enough of a girl to be covered by the social prohibition against hitting girls; having my secret crush revealed to the boy by a popular girl I mistakenly trusted in 6th grade; being ridiculed by the “mean girls” in 8th grade for wearing a vintage 1950s pink satin ball gown with an Army surplus green pullover and grey slouchy boots. (“Did you make that dress?” *Sneer.*)

I was safe and even outgoing and social in nursery school and kindergarten. And I was fine and found my own way in high school. I was not always happy during these earlier and later phases, but I was not bullied. High school actually offered me relief, which is not true for many.

But eight years of all sorts of bullying left their mark. I, like Shane Koyczan, remember begging to stay home, crying about going to school, faking being sick to avoid school. Like him, I still always take the side of the underdog because I relate.

I have strengths and weaknesses influenced by my experiences: I embrace being myself, whether I fit in or not (which does not always mean I am confident, but I am myself); I am open minded and don’t tend to judge others (I have not been kind every moment of my life, but I have not bullied); I can react with unintended anger when teased by a loved one; I have some social anxiety and do better one on one or in small groups; I am sensitive to criticism.

I think being bullied has shaped me more that I have recognized. Yes, it seemed part of my past, but listening to this TED talk opened the memory gates up. I can see how I was shaped and damaged, but also how I recovered, for better and worse.

Bullying is clearly powerful and damaging. It is not "nothing," "only words" or "just how kids are."

PS: If you are interested in following Shane Koyczan on Twitter, here he is