I have a love-hate relationship with March. I love that it’s the month that heralds the slow transition into spring. Like the final slog up a really steep hill, we just have to get through it. And the climb through March’s ambivalent days isn’t all thankless toil. There’s robins and foolhardy crocuses and newborn lambs. Morning and evening commutes and drives to and from school can finally be completed in the daylight. The earth emerges bleary-eyed into the shocking brightness of it all, the dirty snow melts away, and we remember what our world looks like stripped bare. It’s all kind of exhilarating and hopeful, isn’t it?
But all that earthen nudity and shocking sunshine makes me a bit panicky as well.
From the purely practical standpoint, the seasonal shift adds countless items to the list of things to do. For example, after the recent snow melt the item “pick up random shovels, sleds and debris buried in drifts” was added to mine. Then there’s all the “get the yard ready for the next iteration of life in Wisconsin.” For six years we lived in Arizona, and it was sooooo easy. A change in seasons usually just meant bringing out or putting away one’s jacket. There was no complete turnover of the yard and equipment required to maintain it at that given calendar moment in time. I begin to panic over all of the “I’ll get these things done over the winter” tasks that I never got to. Repainting rooms. Sorting through paperwork. Completing that first novel. Taking up knitting. Reading Important Books. All of these tasks will, be inevitably left to wait until I’m forced indoors once again at the turn of fall into winter.
And spring begins so quickly–I always try and notice it happening but, like the passing of any of the seasons, I never capture it exactly. Being someone who mourns over the passage of time with real, visceral, gut-wrenching anxiety, the change of seasons can be difficult! The other day my youngest came to me during the night, worried about the fact that some day she would die and that she didn’t want her life to move so quickly. Girl, I feel you. Those are big worries for a little person. I should know, because I had them at that age too, coupled with a complicated concern for limbo and eternity born out of Catholic education. I wish I could tell her that these preoccupations get easier, but they don’t. They just get more manageable and predictable. Spring is tricky. Focus on the perennials.
But would I give it up? Absolutely not. Those years in Arizona slid together too quickly, without the bittersweet mile markers of seasons marching visibly onward. So bring on the tulips and the crocuses, bring on the spring rains that scour the salty crust from the Wisconsin landscape. I’ll only get so many springs in my lifetime, and I intend to do my best to wring the essence out of this one. And those piles of indoor projects will just have to wait patiently in the corners once again. The lion of March is prowling at the door.
Today is the first day of the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. I love the Olympics, specifically marathon Olympic viewing. I love immersing myself in sports that I don’t even think about during the intervening four years, briefly becoming a luge-obsessed freak. I love the familiar voices of the play-by-play announcers and color commentators. I loooove Bob Costas (what am I going to do without him this year? It was bad enough when he had that eye situation last time). I love the pre-packed bits of biographical information designed (uniformly successfully) to make me cry. I love that it only feels slightly slovenly to take to the couch for a one to two week period.
The first time I truly dedicated myself seriously to Olympic viewing was, I think, during the Seoul summer games of 1988. I would have been 12, and my younger sister Louise around eight or nine. Because it was summer, we had nothing to do except gorge on the Olympics, and gorge we did. We pulled out the sofa bed in the TV room and slept down there so that we could watch the official telecast from beginning to late-night end, well after everyone else had gone to bed. And we tried to wake up for any special during the night broadcasts. I remember the mental focus required to tune in for a 2 a.m. broadcast of Greco-Roman wrestling, but our goals were clear: complete knowledge of the Olympics as related to us by Bob Costas and the folks at NBC.
Our dedication to Olympic viewing continued through our childhoods, although I don’t recall another occasion when we were able to devote such single-minded focus to the games as that summer of ’88. Since then we haven’t always been able to watch the midday live telecasts of events, the more unedited, exciting broadcasts with announcers that have become friends (I’m talking about you, Tim Daggett). Despite this limitation, all primetime broadcasts were taken in, regardless of what usually-coveted sitcoms they came up against. Sorry, ALF, the Olympics are on.
My senior year of college, the winter Olympics occurred in Nagano. While other 21-22 year-olds were pursuing more age appropriate activities like dating and excessive drinking, I was holed up in my dorm room, devoted to the evening broadcasts as viewed on my tiny TV-VCR combo. Occasionally a friend would join as we sat across my dorm room bed and ignored our homework together. Oh, and at the same time I was working on a cross stitch for a soon-to-be-born cousin. Just to complete the completely ridiculous, pitiable picture.
Since then, professional-level Olympic viewing has become simultaneously easier and more overwhelming. Now that NBC broadcasts over several channels, one has to really stay on top of one’s game to make sure an early-round curling match doesn’t slip by unnoticed. Similarly, there will be moments where clutch decisions regarding a choice between channels must be made. And it’s hard to know when to stop one’s obsession–online supplementary content is essentially limitless, which is why I avoid it. Too many choices are a problem that I like to avoid. I tend to bookmark a few key sites including broadcast schedules and leave it at that. Just a little tip from a professional. It leaves my hands free for needle crafts.
Which raises the question: is it really the Olympics that I love, or the televised version of them delivered neatly packaged to my couch? And is the distinction even worth teasing out? If I ever have the chance to be at an Olympics live and in person, I will OF COURSE snap at the chance. But I know I’ll be missing something if I do, and my couch is so comfy, the afghan so soft… So my key channels are “favorited,” some websites bookmarked, Louise is on speed-dial, and a new cross stitch selected. I’m ready. Are you?
The other day, my 8 year old was having anxiety about who she would be if she’d never been born. She’s never been one to present me with easy “worries before bed” topics. One summer when she was around four, every night she worried about dynamite blowing up the house. I could only calm her down with the white lie that dynamite ONLY works on boulders, such as in train track construction. As she’s gotten older, things have become a bit more nuanced, but still quite challenging. So I wasn’t exactly surprised by the nature of this most recent concern. And strangely, I knew just how to relate–because as a kid, I had the exact same preoccupation: if I wasn’t me, then who would I be?
I wonder if there’s a name for this particular obsession? It gets to the heart of what it means to be human, what makes one unique in the cosmos, and the fleeting and illusory nature of consciousness. Big thoughts to be having as an 8 year old. While I remember having them at that age as well, for me the question didn’t exactly come out of the blue. Rather it came from a book by Dr. Seuss that my Grandma Bier had, a big, hard covered picture book about a magical land that you go to on your birthday.
The book is probably intended to make kids giddy with with wild fantastical nature of a land all for you, but it mostly stressed me out. I didn’t ever want to be whisked away from my bed by an odd, slightly bird looking yellow man only to go to a land of very circuitously constructed aqueducts. There was a line in the book something like “if you hadn’t been you, what would you be?…..You might be a bag of old dusty potatoes.” Now that shook me up. First, if I could be a bag of potatoes, that indicated that potatoes might be sentient, and I couldn’t even beginning to wrap my head around that. Also, the idea that me-ness might be transmutable? No thank you, Dr. Seuss.
When I was little, the potatoes were hung in one of those wire baskets in the laundry room, an unheated lean-to attached to the north side of the kitchen. The basket also served as an improvised hanging area for dad’s umpiring uniform shirts. Those potatoes led a fairly forlorn existence, and every time I caught sight of them, I thought of that stupid book. What if I were the potatoes?
So I knew we were in trouble when my daughter came to me with a particularly disturbing book to read last night: Sylvester and the Magic Pebble.
In this shockingly award winning book, a donkey named Sylvester discovers a pebble that grants his wishes, and he accidentally wishes to become a rock. Then he’s a sentient rock for OVER a YEAR until he luckily is turned back by a series of deus ex machina style plot twists. He’s a rock out being snowed on day in day out while his parents cry at home. GOOD LORD HOW WAS I READING THIS TO HER? I tried to focus a lot on the more ridiculous aspects of the book, so that she wouldn’t realize just how disturbing the notion that you (or in this case, a donkey) could just turn into a rock version of themselves. It just makes the whole potato proposition all the more probable.
There’s a couple of lessons to be learned here. One, children’s books can really freak people out, so let’s treat lightly, OK. Two, treat your potatoes well. And three, welcome to the world of lifelong existential angst, oh daughter of mine!
The first typewriter that I ever used was the heavy gray one that sat in Grandma and Grandpa Cousin’s dining room. It sat on Grandpa’s desk, which was squeezed in along a wall. There was just enough room between the table and the desk that Grandpa’s chair could be rotated between the table to the desk. You knew it was Grandpa’s chair because it had arms on it, and because it was the one next to Grandma’s. Grandma’s was easy to tell, because it was closest to the kitchen door.
The desk was always heaped with papers, these balanced carefully between the heavy gray beast of a typewriter and the two adding machines–electric and mechanical. We kids loved to use those machines, but Grandma didn’t like us using the electric 10 key calculator too much because we burned through all of the adding tape paper. So we’d take turns pounding out nonsense on the sheets of scrap paper that she kept around for our visits. We never really ever SAW Grandpa using the typewriter, but I know that he did. We occasionally received typed responses to school-related inquiries, and his sketches were often completed on the backs of the beginnings of typewritten letters that had gone hopelessly wrong. Also, his records of the 15,000+ record collection were completed on that typewriter. It had both a red and a black tape, and you really had to pound to get that thing going.
I read the book “Cheaper By the Dozen” as a kid. Not the dumb Disney version, but the actual biographical story of a family of 12 kids with parents who were interested in economy of movement and consulted for industrial operations to improve their efficiency. One chapter focused on the father’s teaching the kids to “touch type” and taking them around to show off to prospective clients. I figured that was OK, so I practiced at Grandpa’s and on mom’s machine whenever I got the chance. Mom’s machine was portable and kept high up on a shelf in a closet. She’d bring it out for us occasionally, and it released a wafting puff of “office” smell whenever it was opened. I loved typing so much that I would simply transcribe stories, for the sheer joy of hearing the clack and seeing the smooth, even result of a perfectly-typed page. She didn’t like us to type too often, though, because we burned through the correction tape.
When we got our first computer around about 8th grade, it came with a typing tutorial program that I took to like it was going out of style. In my opinion, the resulting dot-matrix printed results weren’t nearly so aesthetically pleasing as those done in unbroken inked-letters on the powder blue travel typewriter. My first research paper in 7th grade was done on that typewriter, footnotes and all, an exercise in frustration that was rivaled only by my senior thesis at Lawrence in 1998 in which my image drive was somehow corrupted. In the spring of 8th grade Joanna McCall showed up with her social studies paper printed out on a smooth, creamy sheet of paper with nary a dot matrix in sight. Her family had an early ink jet or laser printer. It looked like her work could have been part of the actual social studies textbook, so smooth and professional.
In high school my mother made me take typing, a class that I resisted due to the effect that it would have on my GPA. It is by far the class that I use most readily every day. Sure, it didn’t do anything in particular to launch my academic career, but I can carry on a conversation or stare out the window dreamily while I type, thanks to that class, the only class I ever took in the Business department of Milton High School.
Computer keyboards have come and gone, but I’ve never felt a true commitment–lots of passing flings, but no keyboard monogamy. I knew what I liked–clacky, a bit of oomph required, but my previous keyboard relationships were but mere infatuations once I met my new true love.
It arrived under the Christmas tree, a gift from my husband who knows me so well. It is a computer keyboard that looks like a typewriter. The keys are round and raised slightly up. They require a bit more effort to engage, and I suppose that this results in a bit more fatigue, but the sheer tactile joy of this thing makes up for it. The keys clack so satisfyingly that even responding to mundane emails has been rendered a joy. And the space bar–oh the space bar. Its tone is slightly more high pitched and more resonant than the other keys. I will simply never be able to give up two spaces after a period after this.
Every day I try to write at least 500 words, usually of sheer drivel. My 500 word habit has become an obsession thanks to the love of my typing life that took me back to the dining room on Elm Street, kneeling on a phone book, clacking away on the old grey beast while Grandma cooked in the kitchen.
Two days ago it snowed, a light fluffy, non sticky snow, the stuff of bitter cold weather and bright clear skies. Yesterday it blew, and the crisp edges of the driveway were blurred into little duney drifts. Around town, those stretches of road with no windbreaks were heaped up with snow. It was just the like snow on the stretch of County A starting just in front of my parents’ old house and heading east. It was a Bermuda Triangle-esque stretch of country road, where any bit of wind would sweep the snow off of the flat, plowed fields and send it racing across the prairie, to be caught and heaped up on the roadway. We kids always thought that those swirling eddies of snow across the two lane road looked like the action of hockey players, racing and jostling across the ice. Every winter, people heading east out of Janesville would be caught unawares by the treacherous stretch of windswept road just past the farmhouse, and they’d end up in the ditch. Ours was the nearest house, and the drivers would inevitably end up at our back door, asking to use the phone, back in the day when cell phones weren’t a thing. The kitchen phone was wall-mounted with a curly white cord that cold easily stretch into the unheated “back room” as we called it; I know because perched on the washing machine was the only place that anyone could have a private conversation in the house. If mom was home alone with us kids, she’d make any single men make the call from the back room, with the door shut firmly between us and them, the white coil of cord mashed in the door jamb. If there was a woman or kids however, a spot was generally cleared for them at the kitchen table. One time, dad even gave the mom and kids donuts. But that was a time that the mom was crying because she’d hit a farm dog in the road further up the way, not because of snow.
That swirly, windy, country snow would sometimes appear pink, as the debris from the silos filled with drying soybeans at the farm across the road would dust the top layers of it pink. One winter the snow heaped up dirty brown on the bottom, clean white next, and a pinkish layer on the top that looked for all the world like a cross section of the Neopolitan ice cream in the half-gallon box container in the freezer compartment of the house on County A.
By the end of the Christmas season, I’m itching to get back to normal. And by get back to normal, I mean put all of the crap away and revel in a few empty horizontal surfaces. You might not suspect this of me, given that I currently own 17 bins of Christmas decorations and put up 7–count ’em, 7–trees in my house. I LOVE decorating for Christmas! And I love putting it all away even more. And after flipping the calendar, it can’t happen soon enough.
My mother always lived by the rule that the Christmas season extends to Epiphany, a full 12 days after Christmas. To be fair, this is an excellent rule for teachers, which she was. They have so little time to prepare for things in the run up to the holidays. The shift of the celebratory block into January and away from the creep toward Thanksgiving makes perfect sense for that population. Mom took full advantage of this loophole for many years and sent Epiphany cards rather than Christmas cards. This bought her until January 7 in time and an easy theme to follow in that her cards, for many years, featured the three wise men. Clever, Sister Janice, clever.
I can’t slog through that long, though. There’s my own holiday excess to blame. Then there’s Jimmy’s
toy model train situation, which involves a span of two rooms and multiple villages. Realistically, our holiday displays reduce our usable living space by about half. So there’s that. Then there’s the fact that the decorations start to look a little off. The train tracks are separating. The ornaments are drooping. The one live tree has more needles on the ground than on. The batteries are expired on 50% of things. There’s glitter in places that it just shouldn’t be. I can make it through the new year, but once those kids are back in school, it’s time to get serious. This, thank you sweet Jesus, happened today. Save for Jimmy’s disassembled trains awaiting storage, it is DONE.
The other exciting thing? Putting away Christmas means it’s also time to Konmari the crap out of the house. What is this weird verb I mention, you ask? Have you heard of this quirky little book that was popular a couple years back, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up? It’s basically a book about how to get rid of stuff and put it away neatly. The book is interesting for a number of reasons. First, it’s like a little virtual homestay with an unmarried young woman living in Japan. There are all sorts of references that so clearly don’t apply to me, but are quite interesting. (e.g., how long good luck charms picked up at Shinto shrines are “good” for).
Second, her approach to tidying is quite useful. In a nutshell, she recommends sorting things by item rather than location–that is, don’t go through your coat closet and clothes closet separately. Instead, make a big pile of all your coats from wherever they reside and deal with them all at once. This forces you to be honest about what you really have (in most of our cases, too much). You think you don’t have too many pens? Pile ’em up on the kitchen table and then get back to me. The other interesting thing about her approach is that she has you decide what to keep rather than what to throw away. This sounds like no big difference, but it works. She wants you accomplish these decisions by holding every object and determining whether it brings you joy. This is corny, so instead I look at every object and decide whether, if it was the only one left in the drawer / shelf / closet I’d still use it. For example, the third string underwear. Does it really need to stay? When I get that deep in the bench, I’m doing laundry ASAP.
Third, she has some ways of folding things that have produced an inordinate amount of pleasure in my life.
Finally, the book has allowed me to reintroduce the word tidy into my daily vocabulary.
I won’t bore you by forcing you to participate in the daily rehashing of my Konmari extravaganza, but trust me when I report that my Konmari plan will be happening big time. The purge produces a thrilling amount of things that leave the house. When I’m on pace, there’s usually at least a bag that leaves per day. This almost balances out the daily deliveries e at our house thanks to Jimmy’s Amazon Prime addiction.
So, stay at school a bit longer, children, and don’t pay attention if I blame the dog when a few “precious” items go missing (decorative but useless erasers, those damn Shopkins, every Valentine you’ve ever received). Mama’s ready to wipe the slate clean. Christmas is put away, and mysterious shelf over the refrigerator? I’m coming for you . . .