Barnstorming

August 20, 2013

Although I rode a few roller coasters when I was young — including Space Mountain, which at the time was considered a premiere thrill ride — it was never my thing, and even back then it never appealed to me to be jerked back and forth, or pinned to a wall by centrifugal force, or in a mock free-fall.

Thirty-something years later, this dislike has morphed into a rampant loathing. Some physiological change has occurred in me, I think, because these days I actually hurt on rides. It all just feels really, really wrong, like my insides are being shaken and my head is going to blow off. I can’t even watch other people on rides without getting all clammy and skittish. And if it is my own family member? Then I experience full-blown anxiety, as I project my own terror onto them. Basically, I just don’t want them (or you, actually, or me) to go on any more crazy rides! Okay?!

(Yes, I do realize there must be a psychological component to all of this, too. We can discuss that some other time.) (Maybe.) (We’ll see.)

To be honest, I don’t even like being on a swing at the park — or doing a cartwheel! It feels bad. Huh. I am sounding really insane.

So imagine my state of mind as I stood in line for The Barnstormer last winter at Disney World. My eight-year-old and I were on a short, “girls only” trip and, although I had made it clear before we left that I would not be going on any of the big coasters, I did not yet realize that there were new rides in the recently opened expansion of Fantasyland.

The Barnstormer was described by Disney as “a pint-size thrill ride,” “tame,” and “short.” There were little kids in line — lots of them. I figured if they could handle it, I could, too. But mostly I just really did not want to disappoint my daughter.

“Why is your face like that?” CJ asked, as we inched closer to the front of the line.

“I’m fine,” I said, fully panicking. I had one hand in my bag, feeling around to see if I had any special meds left over from my flight. I did not.

In addition to wanting CJ to have a blast, I also agreed to The Barnstormer as a test. A friend had recently told me that she use to hate roller coasters but now loved them. Her secret: screaming. She realized that trying to “hold it all in” on coasters was causing the extreme discomfort she felt. And while I didn’t plan to fully scream on the “pint-size” ride, I did decide to focus on my breathing.

It turns out this was good advice. As we climbed up, up, up in our little car, I inhaled and held my breath. But as we fell down, down, down, and were pulled around a corner, I made myself exhale. And inhale. And exhale again. Breathing, I believe it is called. I had to focus intently on doing this.

I realized for sure, that day on The Barnstormer, that I have been holding my breath on rides my whole life — and on airplanes during take-off and landing, and even in elevators — only gasping for air when I need it. The difference was immediately apparent — I suppose the difference between breathing and not breathing usually is quite apparent! And although I didn’t love the ride, and I was still not about to get on the “real” roller coasters, I was fine.

I thought of this all again last weekend as I went down a waterslide with my daughter — the kind that is a full tube, so it’s pitch black inside — we’re talking can’t-see-hand-in-front-of-face dark. I know, I know, this was not a big roller coaster and it lasted maybe ten to twelve seconds; still, I really did not want to go on it. But CJ wanted me to, so we got into the two-seat raft and, after a push from the attendant at the top, we sped quickly into the darkness, around corners and down drops we could not see or anticipate. I reminded myself to breathe the whole way.

I honestly hope to never ever go on a big coaster again in my entire life — fortunately, CJ has her dad for that, although I won’t be watching — but I actually liked that water slide, at least a tiny bit. A thrill seeker I clearly will never be, but when CJ asked if I would go down the waterslide again, I nodded, and she smiled, and we were both happy.

Here Is a Blog Post

August 16, 2013

David made me go for a bike ride today. Okay, maybe he didn’t make me. He suggested it, as a fun activity we could do while CJ was at camp and Hugh with a sitter (in other words, a very rare moment). When I said I thought a joint bike ride could maybe end badly since he is in great shape and I am not, he said, “No, no, no. It will be a short and leisurely ride.” To which I replied, “Is that something you are capable of?” (I’ve been in a snit recently. See below.) Then he said it would be romantic for us to go for a bike ride. Ha! Funny what constitutes romance after thirteen plus years of marriage. Or maybe it was a joke.

So David clipped his riding shoes into his nice road bike, and I put on running shoes and hopped on my mom’s old clunker of a hybrid, which has rust on the handlebars and makes a clicky sound with each turn of the pedal. And off we went. I haven’t been on a bike ride in…well, a while. Let’s leave it at that.

It was immediately clear that David was going really easy on me. He was doing a lot of coasting which, both literally and figuratively, is just not his thing — David does not coast. I know that he would really love for me to get into cycling. I know he has visions of us taking hours-long rides through the marshes and to the beaches. (I’m not sure where our children are in these visions, but we’ll let that go for now.)

It’s true that I have been a little lost in the exercise department since I ended my short-lived running career due to extreme knee pain. I believe the words of my awesome chiropractor/sports injury guy were, “You are too old to take up running. You should ride a bike.” Feeling the pressure from both of them, I decided to give it a try.

Biking immediately felt so different than running. Before the knee stuff happened I was planning to stick with running and train for a 10K but the truth is I always found running to be immensely challenging — even running a 5K was a huge hurdle for me. But I guess that was part of what made it so rewarding, too — that feeling of accomplishment that comes with doing something you truly did not think was possible.

Biking was not like that at all. Once we got past the trafficky part going through the downtown, where I was afraid that someone would open their car door on me, I quickly hit my stride. It was a leisurely stride for sure, and I won’t be calling you for any Pan Mass donations any time soon,  but it just felt so much more enjoyable than running! We rode past some farms and a man on a tractor waved to us and I waved back and smiled, unlike when I ran past people and tried to at least lessen my grimace. I was able to see the scenery in ways that I miss in my car, and I was just pedaling and taking it in. When we had to turn around due to time constraints, I was actually disappointed. I had forgotten my grouchiness.

About my snit: Actually, I’ve been somewhat “off” all summer, just unable to get in a groove with writing or exercising or anything else. I’ve always been an over-thinker and I obsess over how I spend my time and what I have to show for myself. Then it comes to a head and I become irritable about weird little stuff, like that we don’t go to the beach enough, or that all my earbuds suck, or that Orange is the New Black isn’t quite as good as I want it to be, or that CJ comes to find me an hour after bedtime to tell me she is sweaty.

And then I see a story in the news like the one about the family of Martin Richard, the eight-year-old who was killed in the Boston Marathon bombing. Martin’s younger sister, who survived the blast but was severely injured, has finally gone home from rehab (with a prosthetic leg), and I just think: Wow. I am so unbelievably lucky and fortunate. And even though I still believe that sometimes we are allowed to be grumpy about the stupid crap for a little bit, it is good to have a reality check. A little reminder to not waste too much time on that garbage.

And that’s how I felt on my little ride. It wasn’t perfect, but things do not need to be perfect. This blog post is not perfect (hey, I heard you snort) and I’m going to post it anyway. Actually, this blog post is a lot like my bike ride: fun, therapeutic…and over.

Memoir: Excerpt One

May 31, 2013

If I concentrate hard and focus my thoughts, I can see my mom and me clearly, sitting in her Volkswagen Beetle, which had crapped out under a small overpass on our quiet street in Hampton, New Hampshire. We were a year or two into the 1970s and my mom was 22 or 23 years old — a kid, really.

My mom wears her waitress uniform — we are probably on the way to Mahoney’s, the greasy spoon restaurant that my dad owned at Hampton Beach, a tourist destination on the small coast of New Hampshire. It was a warm day, a breeze blowing as we sat in the unmoving car and waited for…what? It was decades before cell phones, so I suppose we were waiting for someone to see us and stop. Were we too far from the house to just walk back? I don’t remember the resolution — just us sitting in the car with the breeze and the smell of my mom’s Wrigley’s Spearmint as she chewed and occasionally snapped her gum.

Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” is the soundtrack in my mind for this moment, despite the fact that a quick Internet search shows that it wasn’t released until years later. It could also have been the Carpenters, John Denver, or even Grand Funk Railroad doing “The Locomotion” — all songs from the soundtrack to my childhood.

I’m sure many of the details of my memories are mixed up — the interior of a house from my infancy may be mixed up with our next house, or car colors may all be wrong, but I know the memories themselves are true. Oddly — or is it? — the memories are neither happy nor unhappy; they just are.

Because my parents worked so much I spent a lot of time with babysitters and my great aunts, Helen and Mary McKeon, who lived together their entire lives, neither one ever marrying. Summer days were spent at North Beach in Hampton with Helen, searching through warm tide pools for the occasional crab or starfish. The actual ocean was ice cold, of course; even on the hottest days of the summer the beach was packed with people, but only a few brave kids swam in the Atlantic, while everyone else would just walk around in the shallow water to cool down.

Sometimes, when I was lucky, I got to visit my parents at the restaurant. A line cook named Kenny who was straight out of “Easy Rider” with his handlebar moustache, leather vest, and tattooed arms parked his motorcycle outside the back door of the restaurant, where I would sit on the dirty cement steps and wait for him to bring me a cheeseburger. He always left the top bun off and put the ketchup on in a smiley face for me.

In between the breakfast and lunch rushes, I snuck into the restaurant and spun around on the orange vinyl stools which followed the brighter orange counter around the restaurant in the 1970’s-style curve, which was echoed on the wall by a huge graphic swirl in orange, yellow, and brown. A take-out window ran almost the whole length of the front of the restaurant, the open window offering a view of the beach and ocean right across the street. The floor was dusted with sand from patrons’ flip-flops. With the back door propped open in the kitchen, an ocean breeze blew through Mahoney’s on almost any day.

Besides waitressing, my mom’s job was to call down to the restaurant in the early morning, where the main cook, Henry, would dictate the specials of the day — things like meatloaf with gravy, or an open-faced turkey sandwich.My mom typed these up on an old typewriter at our house and ran the sheet through a manual mimeograph machine, her arm pumping to turn the handle. Lastly, she cut them down to a 5×7 size on our paper cutter. With the pile of freshly mimeographed sheets, still smelling of ink, my mom would drive to the restaurant and attach one to the paperclip at the top of each menu. Later, when I encountered these same warm-feeling and inky-smelling sheets of paper in school, I would always inhale deeply and think of my mom.

*      *      *      *      *      *

When I was three, my brother, Rob, showed up on the scene. My mom continued to work at the restaurant — my dad now also owned an arcade a few doors down — and my brother and I spent days with a babysitter who sat in our living room and watched television for five to six hours a day. She started with “Wheel of Fortune,” then “The Price is Right.” After the game shows, her soaps came on. I don’t know which ones she watched — by that time Rob and I had gone outside to see what we could do to amuse ourselves.

We now lived in a middle class neighborhood with lots of kids who spent entire summer days outside, jumping rope, riding bikes and skateboards, running through the woods to the pond to find frogs, and trying to get invited to swim in one of the two pools in the neighborhood. I’m not sure what the babysitter got paid to do, other than open a can of Spaghettios for us when we came back starving.

On days when the sitter was, for some reason, unavailable for her TV-watching gig, my dad brought me to the beach to hang out in the arcade, which had a creaky old wooden floor and garage-style doors that my dad pulled up each morning so that the whole front of the building was open. Skee-ball was the main attraction, with pinball machines and air hockey right behind. I loved Skee-ball, and whoever was managing the arcade would give me free tokens to play over and over as my long train of prize tickets folded onto the floor.

Despite the fact that I played for free, I was also allowed to cash in my tickets for actual prizes, the best of which were the 45-records of hits like “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” and “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree.” I added them to my collection at home, which also included “The Morning After,” by Maureen McGovern, and “Drift Away,” by Dobie Gray, two songs which still give me the sting of pre-tears. I am unable to hear these songs without also hearing the sounds of the arcade and smelling the salt from the ocean across the street, mixed with coconut suntan oil and the fried dough and salt water taffy from a few doors down.