On the Beach

When you’re little, you think that every aspect of your life is normal because you don’t really have a grasp of what others may have, what they have encountered, or what they must endure.  Whatever it is that you’re experiencing as a child is what every child your age is experiencing, and your expectations of that normalcy remain until you grow up, move away, and realize that those experiences were special.  My life has been like that.  Looking back, I realize that my childhood was unique in so many ways both good and bad, but blissfully, I mostly remember the best.  Without a doubt, my brother and sister would agree with me that the most enduring experience we had in our youth was our daily summertime ritual of going to the beach.  Because, after all, didn’t everybody grow up with a beach?

This wasn’t exactly “our” beach, and we did not live within walking distance of it.  Nor was it a proper beach—it was neither an ocean nor a shore—but to us, in our naiveté, it was a paradise like no other.  Geographically, Pymatuning Lake (or as my dad called it, the “Swamp”) is a large reservoir straddling the Pennsylvania-Ohio border between the two Pennsylvania towns of Linesville and Jamestown on the east, and the Ohio burg of Andover on the west.  My father, 45 years my senior (more later about the advantages of having an elderly father), remembers that during the Great Depression, his father found work helping to dig out Pymatuning, created by damming the Shenango River to the south.  I could wax historic here about the rich history of the building of Pymatuning, the spooky myths involving entire farms being submerged under water, and the scary number of men who died whilst digging out the mud hole (no, no, my grandfather survived), but those facts are not germane to my epistle.  My fascination with the beach is.

The Saturday of Memorial Day weekend began each summer of beachiness.  The beach did not open properly until 11 am daily, so our mornings—from 7 am until 10:50 am–were spent getting ready for the beach.  This involved packing lunches—either peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or chip-chop ham sandwiches with mustard—a bag of Wise potato chips, and a large thermos full of Kool-Aid mixed with lemonade (such a creative mum!).  If we had them, a box of Ho-ho’s were thrown in.  We then retrieved from the clothesline our beach blanket and our crusty beach towels, which, I am almost but not quite ashamed to say, were, along with our bathing suits, our hair, and ourselves, never, ever washed during the summer, only hung on the line once we got home in the late afternoon.  Towels, blanket, and bathing suits, not us.

Becky and I were nearly apoplectic waiting for Mum to get herself ready so that we could leave; Jamie less so.  Those were the days of Little League baseball where, on a game day, coaches forbade their players from engaging in rigorous activities like swimming, and my brother, being the rule follower that he is, honored his coach’s demands.  After all, it’s common knowledge that Little League baseball requires an inordinate amount of vigor and stamina from the average eight year old boy.  Come to think of it, he probably should have taken a nap, too.

It seemed to take years for my Mum to get ready.  Her toilette involved both hair and makeup; my mother did not discriminate when it came to glamor.  Then she would wiggle into her bikini and preen in front of the full length mirror making sure that no stretch marks were visible.  Once satisfied with her little sassy self, she would slip on a matching cover-up and an equally sassy pair of sandals.  Yes, my Mum was a little hottie in a bikini back in the day—again, wasn’t everybody’s Mum? 

You may be wondering why she bothered to do her hair when she was going to be sitting on a beach and occasionally entering the water to cool off, but let me tell you, Susan’s hair did not get wet.  Ever.  Her weekly trips to Jean’s Beauty salon were the only opportunity for those tresses to be washed, set, and coiffed, and woe to the child daft enough to splash around Susan while she was taking a dip…up to her shoulders.  Like her daughter in later years, my mum had no problem yelling at other people’s kids.

Finally, finally, it was time to go!  We were always the first to arrive at the beach; only the lifeguards beat us to the punch.  My mum barely had time to put the car into park before my sister and I barreled out and ran barefooted (another shameful secret of my childhood:  we did not wear shoes all summer) full speed from the gravel parking lot into the water, leaving my mum and brother to haul all of our stuff to our spot.  My mum did not worry about me and my ability to handle myself in eight feet of muddy water.  I don’t remember learning how to swim, so I can only imagine that when I was a baby, Susan tossed me into the deep end and hoped for the best.  Lucky for me, I didn’t disappoint.  

We swam, we dove, we turned front somersaults and back somersaults.  We played tag, we poured mud from the silty bottom into our hair pretending we had beehive hairdos, and played endless games of Marco Polio—apparently we were more familiar with childhood diseases than with early explorers.  We engaged in all of these water activities without the added benefit of any manner of flotation device.  Flotation devices were listed as number three on the beach’s ‘strictly forbidden’ list, and to this day, I have no idea why.  This prohibition of anything floaty was such a mainstay of the rules of the beach that we seasoned swimmers often laid in wait to watch some poor unfortunate about to break the rules.  We cackled in delight whenever a child—most likely some wayward youngster from Pittsburgh, slathered head to toe in Coppertone lotion and unschooled in the rules of the beach–gleefully pounced into the water with his little animal-shaped floaty only to draw the shrill trill of the lifeguard’s whistle.  Oh, the shame he must have endured having to plod back to his parents’ blanket and surrender his little seahorse.  We delighted in our first taste of schadenfreude.

About every hour or so, the lifeguards would call a ‘safety break’, a time when all swimmers had to get out of the water so that the lifeguards could either take a swim and cool off or get out of the sun for a time.  Safety breaks lasted no longer than 15 minutes, and at about minute 13, we were at the shoreline poised like runners at the start awaiting the signal that the safety break was over.  Oh, some kids were still stuck on line at the concession stand, waiting for their giant pixie stix and their sno-cones, and some kids were stupid enough to have eaten their lunch during the safety break (and not before) and were forced by their mothers to wait a half hour before getting back into the water.  But man, once that whistle blew, we nearly killed one another to be the first one into the water, and to this day, there might still be a body or two lying at bottom of the swimming area. 

Five o’clock was our time to leave the beach.  The sun would begin to wane, and it would begin to get chilly.  Good mother that she was, though, nearly every trip home involved Susan making a detour to the Dairy Isle for ice cream, as if we hadn’t ingested enough sugary junk for the day.  Once we were finally home, bathing suits, bearing the fishiness of the lake mixed with the smell of gasoline from the boats anchored near the swimming area were returned to the clothesline along with our towels and the blanket.  My sister and I would attempt to comb out our fishy smelling hair, but eventually we gave up.  After all, we would be repeating the day’s adventure in a few short hours, and who cared about combed hair anyway? 

If you were to ask me today if I prefer to swim in a chlorinated pool or a in a lake, I would choose the latter.  And if you were to ask me to recall my favorite smell it would be—yep—that fishy-gasoline-y lake smell.  Go figure.  That mud hole of a lake has provided me with so many memories—too many to recall in one entry.  Prepare yourselves for more tales from Pymatuning.

 

We’re Five Again

I spent Saturday moving the twins back home from their esteemed university.  Babies’ daddy had to, just had to travel out of town for business that day, so it fell to me to schlep up to said university and pack it up and tear it down, ala Jackson Browne (“The Load-Out”, circa 1977).  The girls chose not to room together, mores the pity, and though they were in the same hole of a dorm, they were on different floors.  Husband’s last words to me that morning were, “It won’t be that bad.  The roommates have already moved out, and the girls told me they’ve thrown out a ton of stuff already.”  I would soon discover that somebody had been lying.  The liars (who shall remain nameless) later revealed to me that this was a lie told with love so that I might be spared the desolation of a depressing drive from Indy to West Lafayette.  Bless their little hearts.

Needless to say, I was dreading the redding (‘redding=Pittsburghese).

Don’t get me wrong, I was excited that the twins would be home for the summer, but I was not looking forward to the understandably unpleasant task at hand.  Regretfully, the twins did not inherit their parents’ genetic propensity for structure, order, or neatness.  It seems as if hoarding–as in TLC and A&E reality show hoarding– might be in their future, minus the cats.  The Old Man and I are neat freaks, plain and simple.  The twins?  Quite the opposite.

I arrive at the Purdue campus that afternoon and text Thing One to let her know that I’m within spitting distance. She tells me she’s at lunch, but her room is open so “Just go on in and get started.”  Started?  Started.  As in, “Begin to eliminate all detritus and pack up all belongings.”  Upon entering her dorm room, my fears (and the aforementioned lie) were confirmed.  She hadn’t done a damn thing.  Her room, even without her roommate and her load of crap, was a 19th century rookery.  Any minute I expected to see Oliver Twist emerge from under the bed with a possum and a nest of mice.  Remarking to daughter one later about her obvious lack of housekeeping prowess and her rather urgent need to acquire such skills before moving into her sorority house in the fall, she responded with, “We’ll have maids.”

Dear God.  Let her marry a man with a trust fund.

So while I’m shoveling equal amounts of crap into garbage bags and clothes into duffel bags, Thing Two, sleepy-eyed, bed headed, and, I suspect, hungover, shuffles into her sister’s room and says, “Wow.  At least I don’t have as much stuff.”  The best news I had heard so far, so it emboldened me somewhat.  I left Thing One’s room and followed sister up one floor to her room.  Unfortunately, her assessment on the crap-o-meter was quite distorted.  The crap was just packed in more tightly.

When will I learn?

Well, as long as I was there, I decided to fill up the garbage bag I was still holding from the first room with the trash from room two.  Once full and painfully knotted, I gave this bulging repository of crap to my daughter to take to the Dumpster, then proceeded to sort through clothes, shoes, clothes, books, clothes, pictures, clothes, notebooks, clothes, grooming products, clothes, makeup, and clothes.  Daughter two was taking her time getting back from the Dumpster, but about 30 minutes later she arrived back in her room holding an open can of Pringles under one arm and texting someone who must have been involved with national security because what else could have been more important than helping me get that room cleared out?

At this point, I was thinking that it was going to take an act of Congress to empty both rooms, squeeze the girls’ insane amount of clothes and all their other stuff into the car, and render both rooms hygienically adjusted well enough to pass the eagle eyes and noses of each of the girls’ Resident Assistants.  Daughter number one, with her glacier-like speed, was “sorting” clothes with one hand and texting with the other; daughter number two was texting with both hands and using the toes on her left foot to pick up panties and deposit them into a clothes basket.  Meanwhile, I’m sweating so much I can taste it, and my shirt and shorts are sticking to me in places I can’t talk about.  The dust and dirt involved in moving all of that stuff was killing my eyes, making me sneeze, and I was just in an altogether wretched state.

Alas, my little princesses looked as cool and beautiful as ever.

Finally, after daughter two and I successfully carried a broken futon out to the Dumpster (not ‘in’ the Dumpster, so we had to walk away rather quickly), pitched a microwave that probably should have been donated to the microbiology department,  and relieved daughter one from the arduous task of using a dustpan to retrieve her ID from under the dresser, we were ready to shove the last of the mess into the Towne and Country and start home.  And no one was leaving in a body bag.  I call that a successful day.

On the way back to Indy, both girls told me how much they were looking forward to coming home to live in a clean house, take showers that were always hot, and allow me to take care of them.  Ah, that kind of made the day’s experience all worth it, don’t you think?  It’s now day three, and I think I only have about ten more loads of laundry to do, but it is nice to be five of us again.

Mom and Pop Shop

Contrary to my DNA and my chromosomal structure, I absolutely hate to shop. The idea of spending even fifteen minutes of my life in a mall causes me to break out in hives, a cold sweat, a hot sweat; I’ll sneeze, I’ll cough, or I’ll even throw a tantrum if the aforementioned behaviors fail to foil the shopping trip. I like going to the grocery store, because I like to cook. And there’s nothing better than a trip to a hardware store, especially if it features a healthy garden supply department. But general “shopping”, as in, “Let’s all of us girls get together and go shopping! Then we can go to lunch!” is the most detestable of all activities. I would rather stick needles in my eyes. Or have a pap smear.

Now that I have made my point about how much I loathe shopping, let me tell you why. It may be because my mum (if you’re from western PA, you have a mum) would drag my sister and me shopping every single Saturday between September and May (summer Saturdays were spent at the beach, and that’s another blog altogether). Not only would we shop on Saturdays, we would shop on Monday nights, because apparently, that was Susan’s best time to find a bargain? Whatever she wanted on Saturday but ran out of money for was on sale Monday night? I don’t know. I do know that even if the merchandise shopped for were meant for Becky and me, I couldn’t have cared less. Most of the time it was Mum trying on clothes and Becky and me trying to amuse ourselves by hiding among the racks of Ship and Shore sportswear or over in lingerie trying on huge bras over our little bitty…bodies.

My mum’s favorite store “in town”—that town being Meadville—was Trask’s, which soon morphed into Carlisle’s. I believe I have correctly placed the apostrophes in the proper places, for each of these department stores were probably first owned by someone named Trask or Carlisle, who knows or cares. What I do know is that my mum spent more time and money in Trask’s/Carlisle’s in her short life as a wife and mum than she ever did in a grocery store or hardware store. Which is why the whole shopping gene must have skipped a generation.

My straight up hatred of shopping could stem, too, from the fact that I hate to part with money. I like having things, but the act of passing over a credit card, writing a check, or saying goodbye to the few dead presidents who might be lurking in my wallet has a rather unsettling effect upon me. I can’t help but think there might be something that I will really need and that I won’t be able to get because of a foolish decision to buy purple eye shadow or a new pair of sunglasses. So, yes, while I hate to shop, I am sometimes forced to.

Today, I needed a gift for a little friend who just made her First Communion. It was raining. I had a lot of work to do. And it was raining. The last thing I wanted to do was to go shopping (I think I’ve made that abundantly clear), and I knew that neither the grocery store nor the hardware store carried First Communion items, so I settled the matter by taking my business to a little boutique right in my neighborhood.

And here’s where my utter revulsion for the whole shopping experience left my very being like a rabid monkey stubbornly clinging to my back. I love this little boutique. Delaney’s–its namesake the proprietress’ daughter– has just about everything one could ever want in a repository of charm, and while that in itself is important (especially if you need something charming), it’s the atmosphere and the personnel that make the shopping excursion an altogether lovely experience. The best part of Shopping at Delaney’s is that there is always someone willing to find for me just what I need. Every time. It’s a bit pricey (well, for me, because, you know, I hate to part with cash), but the personal attention at Delaney’s goes well beyond what I have ever found anywhere else. And, no, I don’t mean Wal-Mart; I mean other boutique-y places where most of the time the personnel treat me like I’m Julia Roberts shopping on Rodeo Drive (did I mention that I often shop wearing the same clothes I wear while picking up dog poop in the yard?) except that I’m neither Julia Roberts, nor am I a prostitute.

No one paid me to write this. It’s just that when I can essentially walk from my house into this little neighborhood emporium of sweetness in under ten minutes, find the perfect gift and have it gift-bagged in just about the coolest little bag imaginable, well that, my friends, is noteworthy. And when a small business owner in your neighborhood brings a little bling into your life without your having to wash your hair, put on makeup, and schlep into “town”, that small business owner deserves a shout out. Love you, Delaney’s!

Inauguration Day

So, this is something I’ve wanted to do for quite awhile–blogging, that is.  I have always felt as if I have something to say but no one to whom I could say it! Does that sound sad?  At the very least, though, I thought that if I could begin airing my views on life, love, family, work, politics, religion (oh, yeah!), and culture, perhaps someone out there who needs a writer, an editor, or A Fresh Set of Eyes will contact me and let me help them create and craft their own messages. 

About me:  I am married to the hottest man on the planet (more about him later), I am mom to three amazing children and two demanding Labrador retrievers, I own a twenty year-old house that is a work in progress, I am blessed with a job that I love writing for a software company, and I’m now embarking on a quest to market myself as a professional writer.

Experience?  I served the state of Indiana for twenty-five years as a teacher, first in the Indianapolis Public Schools and later in a suburban Indianapolis school district.  This means that I have no problem yelling at your children in public if they misbehave, so get over it.  More importantly (and less likely to get me arrested), though, from teaching I’ve gained an appreciation for doing things the right way and for adhering to standards to which few writers today pay any attention.  Like that last sentence—see?  I didn’t end it in a preposition, did I?

Making mistakes?  I’ve made a mountain of them!  For instance, early in my career, when I thought I was going to change the world one little sixth grader at a time, I wrote and then stupidly sent a scathing letter to–oh, I don’t remember to whom (maybe I’m blocking it out)–that was so poorly written I am sure that the recipient tossed it after laughing at my certifiable incompetence.  I learned from that blunder that, like the adage, “Revenge is a dish best served cold”, one should never send or publish anything written in the throes of anger (or after drinking a considerable number of cocktails). 

So there you have it.  My first submission.  The first of many (she said, optimistically).  And I desperately hope that I won’t look back on this inaugural entry and wince with embarrassment at my shortcomings.  Bring on the words!

Old Dog

Two years ago to the day, I quit my job as a teacher.  I was so unhappy and so miserable that I couldn’t even wait until the end of the school year.  It wasn’t because of the children in my class; they were a daily delight.  I didn’t leave because of the people with whom I worked—they remain good friends of mine.  Money?  No, it wasn’t the money.  It takes years to get to a place in teaching where the money one earns is finally substantial enough to almost make it worthwhile, and I was already there.

I quit because I could no longer perform my job knowing that no matter what I did and no matter how hard I worked, I would never rise to meet the combined expectations of a district administration and a misguided state department of education.  I quit because I couldn’t swallow enough Kool-Aid necessary to change what I knew to be best for kids in order to satisfy the new vision of some grant coordinator in the central office who had gone to a workshop in San Diego the previous summer and discovered that the problem with teachers was their “white privilege”.  I quit because I certainly could not depend upon the collective standardized test results of 27 ten year olds to determine whether I could earn a raise or keep my job.  And I quit because I constantly felt as if I was being punished for doing something bad.

Did I have a back up plan?  No.  I knew I had skills, but those skills were limited to the education milieu.  I soon discovered that headhunters and recruiters saw teaching just as most of the uninitiated do:  Sure, she can put up a mean bulletin board, and I’ll bet she’s great at reading a story, but can she do anything else?  Imagine my shock when I interviewed for a sales position with a web-based education company and was told that I did not have enough experience to market their product—a product that I had been using with my students for six months.  I was equally flummoxed when I tried to enter the higher education arena but was met with crickets.  Apparently there are enough university professors in central Indiana’s schools of education—too bad most of them have little actual classroom experience.  I began to believe that whatever skills I had were not marketable.

Serendipity saved me when I reconnected with a high school friend who asked me to work for his software company.  Agreeing, though not really knowing how my skillset would jive with a software outfit, I interviewed with management (over the phone) and replied ‘yes’ to her questions about my technological prowess, reckoning that I had enough time and Googling skills to figure out what the hell she was talking about.  My friend had earlier assured me that there would be no math on this test, but my first assignment was to test algorithms.  So I Googled ‘algorithms’ and discovered to my horror that it was something that had to do with math.  I felt like opening a vein.  The actual task was not nearly as difficult as I had imagined, and though it took me like eleven hours to complete what should have taken me two, I finally did git-r-done.

My point is this:  I am 50 years old, and I never believed that I could learn anything new that would be of any benefit to me.  Moreover, I had no desire to learn anything new—after all, I had been in school for just about 45 of those 50 years.  For crying out loud, didn’t I already know everything?

I am responsible for knowing how to run manufacturing software and explain it in a users’ manual format, so consequently I learn something new every day.  Sometimes the process is frustrating, sometimes it’s maddening, and sometimes I feel like I am the most dim-witted, obtuse knuckle dragger out of a boat-load of geniuses and that my importance to the company ranks only higher than that of the lady who comes in to water the plants.  It’s bad enough that I’m considered elderly among all of these recent college graduates, but to feel like a dullard among kids who are young enough to be my former students is a rather humbling experience.  But I’ve learned from that, too.  I learned that when you ask a twenty-something kid to help with a complicated problem you had better bring cupcakes the next time you see him.  I also learned that these same twenty-somethings are a little wary of me, especially when they discover that I’ve been a teacher.  I’ve learned to admit when I don’t know something—which happens just about every day—but not to dwell on my shortcomings.  And I’ve learned that I can acquire new skills, and that makes me very happy.  It also makes me feel as if this old dog can learn other new tricks.  Unless they involve math.