Scraping the barrel

The boys and I, we’re scraping the bottom of the proverbial barrel. Or, to change the metaphor, we’re in the warm flat sea of the last week of summer vacation, sort of like Lucy, Edmund, Eustace, and Reepicheep in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader — when they’ve reached the end of the ocean and they float through a sea of lilies until they come to a wall of water and Reepicheep paddles up it into Aslan’s Country. We’re there, except without the hope of heavedkcr-barreln.

Summer 2013 is coming to an end. Camps have been attended, sparklers lit, barbecued meat products consumed. Grandparents have been visited, Seattle has been toured, the U.S.S. Hornet has been explored and the Sierras backpacked. Soccer tournaments have come and gone, as have the Texas cousins. Great America has been conquered. There has been swimming and sweaty games of capture the flag. Hilarity has ensued.

But now we are in the doldrums, waiting for death. I mean, school.

And there is no more “keeping it together,” people. There are no more standards in this no-man’s land. Forget reading the classics, talking meaningfully to each other, practicing guitar, learning a foreign language, or finishing the math workbooks. Forget healthy snacks and reasonable amounts of exercise. Now we stay in our pajamas until well after noon, the blinds drawn against the outside world. The boys rattle around the house and I agree to everything. Can we play Minecraft until our eyes glaze over? Sure! Can we have ice cream for breakfast? Abso-fucking-lutely. Can we watch stupid YouTube videos for hours on end? You bet! Can we play soccer inside, slamming the dirty ball against the (relatively) freshly painted walls? As you wish, darlings. Can we have another donut/more candy/milkshakes/seven packs of gum? Yes! Yes! Yes!

The thing is, even though we’re all bored (the boys won’t admit it) and I’ve dropped any pretense of engaged parenting, these may be some of the days I’ll remember most — the three of us cocooned in a late-summer capsule, incubating until the start of another school year. But like it or not, there’s no denying it: the barrel’s empty, and It’s time for a refill.

An open letter to Mr. Smarty-Pants

shavingDear Mr. Smarty-Pants,

Today is a good a time as any, the last day of your seventh grade year, to get clear on a few things.

I’d like to let you know that I know that you know that as you get taller and your voice deepens in that freaky what-have-you-done-with-my-baby way and your feet stretch the limits of existing men’s shoe sizes, that at the same time, and in an almost magic inverse proportion, my intellect and my ability to complete even simple tasks without mortifying you appears to decrease. I know this.

I know that you can use the words “cocksucker” and “vajayjay” correctly in a sentence if necessary and that you and your friends swear like sailors. I know that you know about porn and wet dreams and masturbation and the growing transgender youth movement and how and where semen is made in the body and what exactly the prostate gland is. I know that the eighth grade girls consider you a person of interest and that even though they baffle you, with their weird shape-shifting from the frank, no-nonsense seven-year-olds you met all those years ago to these mysterious long-legged, glossy-haired sort-of-women, they mesmerize you, too, and that you really, really, really don’t want to discuss that with me.

I know that what you think of as my world, the World of Mom, is feeling more often cramped and stifling, while in contrast the World of Dad keeps getting more fascinating and expansive. I know that you crave your dad’s attention and delight in the apparently never-ending opportunities to watch some sort of sports event – soccer, golf, hockey, ping-pong, whatever — on the couch with him, making guttural noises when scoring is imminent. I know you observe your father carefully, studying who he is and what he says and how he acts and looks, taking notes in your head for later reference. I know that secretly you think you could kick his ass and that you’re wrong, but just barely.

Oh darling Smarty-Pants, I know you’re on FaceTime with your friends much more than you cop to and that you don’t always sign out of Netflix on your iPod when I ask. I know that you think I’m overprotective and that the pay-as-you-go Tracfone I bought you for emergencies is just wrong, in so many ways. I know you wish Dad would take you and your friends to screen Man of Steel next weekend instead of me, but that’s just too bad because I want to see it too, and besides, I’ll let you get candy and Dad won’t.

What I hope you don’t know is that I’m terrified of the task of parenting you through these next five years or so, that I’m convinced you’ll eventually cut yourself free of me completely and the closeness we’ve had up until now will be gone forever, that often I’m more scared of the grief and exhileration I feel as you grow and change and whatever illusion I’ve had that I can protect you is smashed to smithereens than I am of the dangers of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

You know a lot, kid. But do you know that sometimes I look into your face, still soft around the edges with childhood, and I think I’ll probably die on the spot because you’re so beautiful, so alive? Do you know that no matter how stupid or embarrassing you think I get with each passing year, that I love you fiercely, Mr. Smarty-Pants, and there’s nothing you can do to change that?

Spilling the ink

tattoo artistI have a confession to make: I’m not completely out of the closet about my tattoos, specifically the ones on each forearm. There are some friends and family members to whom I haven’t revealed them. Instead I wear bracelets and long sleeves and try not to complain if it’s a hot day.

My reluctance to come clean with certain people about my ink shows that I have more work to do on the adult integration project I’ve been attending to for decades now. I love the idea that what other people think of me is none of my business, but honestly? I can’t always manage to detach like that. My tattoos are altars to certain spiritual truths I want to remember, and I don’t feel ready to share these with everyone, much less field a discussion I imagine would go along the lines of “How could you do this to your body?”

‘Course, where I live, flashing ink is normal. There’s no shock value to it.  At least half the people I see on the street in my neighborhood have some body art: a dragon peeks out over a shirt collar, a lotus flower opens over a bicep, a tank top reveals a whole sleeve of delicate cranes. Walking up Telegraph Avenue I feel like I’m part of the tribe, the one whose members etch permanent designs on their skin. When I got my third tattoo, a written phrase on my left wrist, the guy next to me in the shop was getting a cobra on his neck. He looked gangsta, with his wife-beater and sagging jeans and old-school Pumas; I looked WASP, with my blouse and skirt from REI and my Birkenstocks. But we were both submitting to the same ancient physical ritual. (Tattoos go back at least 5,000 years, surely more: Otzi the Iceman, who lived in 3300 BC and whose body was discovered in 1991 in mountains bordering Austria and Italy, had 57.)

So with the tattoos I explore being different and belonging, from both the “tattoo tribe” and the “wife and mother” angles. I want to be able to push against the stereotype of white middle class soccer mom if I feel like it, but also to hide the tattoos when it’s appropriate. Does this position lack integrity? Does it keep me compartmentalized? Or is it more like tailoring a piece of writing to a particular audience? I haven’t decided.

The well-lubed poodle

ky jellyMy dog Stuart has low-grade bronchitis. Every so often he coughs in this croaking, old-man way, and he’s been doing it since we adopted him in 2007. He also has a slightly enlarged left heart ventricle, which could be the beginnings of heart disease, and if I elect to treat the bronchitis with steroids there’s a small risk he could go into heart failure. For which the vet would treat him with diuretics. He probably wouldn’t die, but once your tiny doggie heart has failed once, let’s face it: the future ain’t bright.

How do I know all this? Stu’s dog license was up for renewal, and he needed proof that his rabies shot was current, kind of like the canine version of a smog check. God knows we don’t want any rabid miniature poodles terrorizing our neighborhood, so I took him down to the local VCA Animal Hospital for a well-dog exam. A senior well-dog exam, since Stu is the ripe old age of nine.

The package included x-rays, and that’s how the veterinarian diagnosed the bronchitis and the left ventricular hypertrophy. (The good news from the workup? His trachea isn’t collapsed, which is a real danger for little dogs. And his poop was parasite free!) In the exam room the doctor and I discussed the options: I could take Stu to a cardiologist** who would assess, via ultrasound ($300 to $550), his heart function and advise on the pros and cons of a steroid treatment. The cardiology consult would also be a good idea, the vet said, because Stu should have a dental cleaning soon ($400 to $800, depending on extractions), which requires him to be intubated, and it wouldn’t be safe for him to be lying on his side for the procedure if his heart is compromised.

I thought for a minute. “He’s been coughing for years, and it doesn’t seem to bother him,” I said. “What would happen if we didn’t do anything right now?”

“You could certainly try that,” the vet said brightly. “Just track the coughing, and maybe step up with the brushing so you can delay the dental.” She patted Stu on the back. “Oh, I also noticed the tip of his penis is irritated. You can put K-Y on it — that’ll keep the irritation from getting worse.”

I scanned her face for signs of jive. None. So I tried to arrange my own features appropriately. I mean, wow. I love Stu — he’s the perfect dog, hypoallergenic and devoted to me beyond reason — but K-Y? (When I looked all this up later, I figured the vet might have been talking about something called balanoposthitis, or “inflammation of canine penis head and internal layer of foreskin.” Treatment includes antibiotics, daily irrigation with an antiseptic solution, and antibiotic ointment applied to sheath.)

It’s just odd, trying to figure out how much money and effort to spend on a dog’s health. My discomfort is underscored by the people I see in my neighborhood all the time who don’t have the physical resources they need (see “Comfort in Chaos“) — never mind the ongoing orthodontia projects in my household. Is the fact that, in my part of the world, I can take Stuart for acupuncture or naturopathic medicine or get him on antidepressants a sign of enlightenment, or a sign of something weird? Like, what’s up with a society where folks spend money on this kind of animal care but people go hungry?

It comes down to this: I want Stu to be happy and well-fed and comfy. It’s the least I can do for a creature who is dependent on me and who gives me so much delight. If he’s in pain, I will try to get him relief. I’ll even brush his teeth. But I’m not sure about the K-Y thing — I may just have to draw the line there.

** I respect veterinarians and the care they provide. But I do wonder what it’s like to be at a party, sipping some Chardonnay and fielding the typical “So, what do you do for a living?” question, and responding with “I’m a cardiologist. For dogs.”

Knitting for smarties. Or, some thoughts on meditation

368px-Knitting_PerfectionI’ve always disliked that “For Dummies” series, since it seems to require a hefty dose of self-deprecation right off the shelf. Of course, its creators don’t give a rat’s ass about what I think, seeing as they’re sitting around their cabin in Vail or their villa in Tuscany, drinking port and toasting the millions of dummies who have made them very, very rich. (I have similar distaste for the Chicken Soup people, but again, I am clearly in the minority.)

But I digress.

What I want to write about today is the joy of knitting and how it has afforded me a way to calm body and soul without actually having to meditate. I taught myself the basic stitch back in 2005, and I was hooked (needled?). Five thousand four hundred eighty-two scarves later I’d mastered the fundamentals and could begin to move on to more complex projects. At this point I’ve knit everything from cell phone covers (for some reason, I get lots of teasing for that one) to sweaters (kids’ sizes turn out better) to stuffed animals and lap blankets (excellent for trying new stitch patterns) and socks and countless felted purses and washcloths and tea cozies. It’s my (mostly) harmless addiction — God knows I’ve had plenty of harmful ones.

(Thought flash: Is there a Chicken Soup for the Knitter‘s Soul? Let me do a quick Google check. Hmmm, doesn’t look like it. That surprises me, actually.)

Back to meditation. For the longest time I couldn’t stand to sit still with myself, to let the monkey mind jump and spin until it tired itself out and perhaps I could experience a flash or two of detachment. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to sit and breathe, because I couldn’t stand myself. Meditating seemed like the equivalent of a long car trip with a crotchety great-aunt who was expert at finding flaws and picking at them until the wounds were raw and bleeding. Fun!

So I had to get to a nicer place, just to be able to recognize that harsh inner voice that piped up so often when I sat still — and to realize that I could disengage every time I noticed it. Pema Chodron talks about lightly touching and releasing our thoughts, as if they’re soap bubbles, and as I made friends with myself I got better at doing this. Ah, there she is, the harsh irrational perfectionist harpy. Hi, honey. Thanks for sharing, but I’m not interested right now. Buh-bye. 

But knitting. So it’s rhythmic, it’s productive, it’s tactile, it’s concrete. I watch the stitches stack into something lovely and while I knit I can either focus on it completely (now I am making a knit stitch, now I am making a purl stitch) in a way that brings me viscerally into the moment. Or I can let the knitting go on auto pilot and allow my thoughts to range freely, using that touch-and-release technique to practice not identifying with my mind (have you seen those bumper stickers that say “Don’t believe everything you think”? Word). And since I’m not compelled to knit — think of all those thick sweaters for the fishermen in Nova Scotia! All those socks for soldiers! — I can stop whenever I want.

In any case, knitting is not for dummies. It’s for smarties — or at least, knitting seems to make me a smarter and calmer person, less prone to impulsive decisions and foolish mistakes. If I’m not sure what’s next, if I’m agitated and ill-at-ease, I don’t need an insultingly-titled handbook to tell me what to do. All I need is a comfy chair, some needles, and a ball of yarn.

Tale of a seventh grade haircut hater

il_570xN.448416623_9a4nIt’s been a week or so since my awesome stylist relieved me of about three inches of hair, taking my ‘do from below shoulder-length to chin-length layers. I like it. The longer hair just…sat there. Sad and limp. This new cut brings my hair into the “sassy” category.

But my 13-year-old son seems almost personally affronted, and he needs to let me know. I’ve been catching him gazing at me thoughtfully, trying to synthesize this new development.

“What?” I ask.

“Your hair. It’s too short,” he says.


“Yeah. I like it long.”

A few days later, he’s playing FIFA 2013 on his Xbox in the living room, his back to me. I’m at the dining room table, reading a magazine.

“Mom.” He expertly maneuvers his player down the virtual field.

“Yeah, honey?” I’m distracted by a feature titled “Dating Deal Breakers: 8 Signs We All Overlook.”

“I think I’ve told you already, but I don’t like your haircut.”

I look up from the article and glare at the back of his head. “Dude. You’ve told me about 10 times.” I flip a few of the magazine’s pages so they snap. “I actually don’t care if you don’t like it, but telling me you don’t like it is getting irritating. Chill.”

Finally he turns around. “Oh,” he says. “Okay.”

My son may have that newly-minted teenager swag thing goin’ on – he’s perfectly capable of taking care of himself, thanks — but changes like my haircut make him act like he did when he was two, or four, or five, throwing a tantrum if his nap schedule was disrupted or whining if the chicken on his plate came into contact with the broccoli. I get it: he has a deep stake in me staying the same. His sense of security is based on the fact that I’m predictable, and he not only wants my behavior to be consistent so that he can feel safe, but also so he can figuratively push against me as he tries to find out who he is. If I’m a moving target, this is a lot harder.

‘Course, the updated hairstyle is the least of it. I’ve changed so much since he was born it’s ridiculous. Most of these changes have been internal (except maybe the gigantic tree tattoo I have on my forearm now) and I’ve tried to protect my son from my messy adult growth process. My inner workings aren’t his concern: my job is to give him as much consistency as I can, to smooth out my inevitable emotional kinks before I interact with him. That doesn’t mean I should be emotionally controlled all the time – that’s impossible — but it does mean that sometimes I have to detach from whatever is going on inside me so that I can take care of him.

It’s not easy, and I’ve had varying degrees of success. I can’t always muster the skill to set aside my jumbled emotions and deal calmly with my son. And that’s okay, too – this is not The Giving Tree, people. My son and I get to be in a real relationship, one that has lumps and bumps as well as calm stretches; he gets to know me as a real person: a woman who changes her look every once in a while, who yells sometimes and then has to apologize, who reacts defensively or with sarcasm but also who knows how to stand up for herself. Good old regular interpersonal unpredictability, set in the context of me showing up, every day, to be his mom. Whether he likes my hair or not.

Running the red

redlight-1024x817For a while in the late 90s I worked for a trade publisher in San Francisco, writing copy for a medical newsletter from my tiny cubicle on the fourth floor of an enormous blocky cement building. I was living in Oakland by then, so to get to work I had to cross the Bay every morning.

I took BART for a while, but it was always so crowded at that morning rush hour and I often had to stand, which made reading difficult, and the cars were hot and stinky with morning breath and I was always sweaty and uncomfortable by the time I got off at the Montgomery Street station. I ended up using the Transbay bus system most often — a plush coaches that delivered beautiful 360 degree views of the city, the Golden Gate, Sausalito, and the East Bay as we crossed the bridge.

But for a while in between BART and the bus solution I tried casual carpooling. It started in the Bay Area in the 1980s in response to gas and bus fare price hikes, evolving into a remarkably smooth-running system of locations where commuters line up for rides into the city; drivers pull up to the front of the line and, once the car is full, head over the bridge. I liked the idea of it, and the fact that I could get dropped off closer to my office, and that it was free and environmentally friendly. I also felt nervous, having deeply internalized the safety message that one should not get into cars with strangers (Holy crap, my first grade screening of the 1965 documentary “Red Light, Green Light” traumatized me for weeks, what with all the footage of leering, 70s-shaggy men leaning across the bench seat of a Buick and smiling into the camera. “Want some candy, kid?” No, NO, I most certainly DID NOT want any candy), but I reminded myself that hundreds of people used the system daily and they were okay. I’d be fine.

And mostly I was. For the time I used casual carpool, mostly I had perfectly fine commutes, riding smoothly into San Francisco in a quality car the likes of which I would never own, reading a book or a magazine and trying to ignore the stranger next to me while also projecting a pleasant, grateful aspect at the same time. There were a few occasions when I felt uncertain about a driver — once I felt uneasy enough to try to get in the second car in line, only to be told it was bad etiquette and sent back to the front — but usually I took those rides anyway and it was fine.

Until that One Ride.

I slid into the back of the Mercedes sedan early on a Tuesday morning. The driver was a sallow-skinned, dark-haired man in his 50s; his front seat passenger was a woman about 10 years older, with brassy red hair growing in dark at the roots. We exchanged greetings and he pulled away from the curb, which surprised me — usually drivers waited until there were four people in the car — but I let it go and settled into my magazine.

Except that I soon noticed that we weren’t taking the route to the freeway I expected. Everyone usually took one of two or three paths to get on the bridge, and even though I knew where we were, it didn’t seem to me we were driving toward the freeway. My palms started to sweat.

“Which route are you taking?” I asked, again as pleasantly as possible. “Isn’t the bridge in the other direction?”

That’s when things got weird. The driver made no response, but the woman snorted scornfully and rolled her eyes in my direction. “We’re going to San Francisco,” she snapped in a heavy Eastern European accent. “What, you think we’re going to drive you somewhere and rape you?”

I stared at her. Had she really just said what I thought she’d said?

The woman raised her voice, gestured wildly. “You think we’re going to kidnap you or something?” The man shook his head, murmured something to her I couldn’t catch.

I was speechless. Didn’t the fact that she was saying this crazy stuff mean that the chances were higher that she and this man were in fact bent on killing me and dumping my body in some San Francisco alley? At the very least, she had a sick sense of humor, and at most, she was a psychopath. I couldn’t decide what to do. Get out? At this point we were making a meandering way toward Emeryville and the freeway entrance. There were only a few intersections left where the car would slow down enough for me to escape.

But I didn’t. I sat there, fuming and frightened, all my muscles tense as the driver steered us onto the ramp. A heavy silence filled the car and I berated myself for not jumping when I’d had the chance.

It seemed to take forever, but finally we were across. The driver took the correct exit and pulled to the curb. He met my eyes in the rearview mirror and shrugged as if in apology, started to say something, but I threw myself out of the car and slammed the door as hard as I could. In the split second before they drove off I shoved the middle finger of my left hand up against the woman’s window as she glared out at me. Then I turned away and started walking furiously toward my office, blinking back tears of anger and shame (How dare she? And why didn’t I get out?). Whatever had just happened, I was done with casual carpool, that was for damn sure.

Kairos at the cold case

iStock_000013371056_timeMid-morning on a recent weekday and I’m in Safeway, cruising the aisles for milk, yogurt, tortillas and trying to get in and out as quickly as I can. I’m rattling my cart in the direction of the bread when I spot a woman I know from one of my 12-step meetings. She walks slowly, looking down at the glossy white linoleum. Curly dark hair frames her face; her brows are knit together, her mouth clamped in a tense line. I notice her outfit: Under a frilly black vintage dress and cropped leather jacket she’s wearing combat boots.

We’re not close or anything, just acquaintances really, and my first impulse is to dive down the closest aisle to avoid contact, especially because the last time I saw her she was having a pretty hard time. My palms start to sweat on the cart as I try to swing it left but it’s too late — we’re practically on top of each other. She looks up and catches my eye and I surrender to the fact that she and I are here at the back of the store, standing in front of the wall of cold cases stacked with butter and cheese and Sunny D. There’s just no getting around it.

“Hey, M,” I say, pasting a social smile on my face. “Haven’t seen you in a while.”

It takes her a second to place me but then she does. “Oh, hey, Kate.”

“How are you doing?”

I watch her consider how to answer my question, weighing her choices. She could tell me what’s really true for her right now, or she could tell me some parallel, packaged version, or she could just say hello and keep going. She takes a deep breath and goes for it.

“Actually, in four hours I’m going into residential treatment,” she says.


“I just need more help.”

Her honesty pops my social anxiety bubble and jolts me right into the moment with her. Instead of bracing for an awkward social interaction I melt into it, grateful that we’re bumping into each other right at this moment of heightened stress and tension for her and honored that she’s trusting me with it. We don’t know each other well, but we’re getting real in the middle of Safeway. I ask if I can hug her and she nods and we embrace and when we step back her eyes are full of tears.

“I’m freakin’ out right now,” she says.

“Of course you are.”

“But it’s the right thing to do.”

“You’re very brave.”

“That’s not how it feels,” she says, and we hug again. Then she says goodbye and walks away.

Soon after this encounter I’m in church and the pastor is talking about the two words for time the Greeks used: chronos and kairos. Chronos is chronological time, while kairos describes those moments “out of time” in which something special happens. She points out that chronos moves along in the horizontal plane: It’s where we all live most of the time, that human past-and-future place that connects us to each other but also offers many, many opportunities for regret and anxiety and fear and fantasy about stuff that hasn’t even happened yet. Kairos, on the other hand, is “vertical time” — the raw, unfiltered, infinite present where God lives. When I’m able to tap into kairos my sense of time expands and sometimes I can experience one of those flashes of joy that puts everything into perspective.

That morning in Safeway M was in pain and I’m sorry for that. But because she decided to be honest about it she gave both of us a gift: temporary release from chronological time and all its carefully crafted illusions of self-sufficiency, as well as a literal reminder that in kairos, we’re not alone in our struggles. In that “vertical space” where past and future don’t exist but God is in everything, our pain can be witnessed and held. Even in the most ordinary moments, standing by the cold cases at Safeway.

Psych and the art of motorcycle maintenance*

psych-060713We’re on a major Psych kick in my household. Yes, I understand that the show is seven seasons old, but we’ve just discovered it and are now watching to the point of obsession. It doesn’t help that all it takes is a few clicks and we can stream episodes on Netflix until our eyes glaze over.

The show comforts me. That same narrative arc, over and over, is just so soothing: Shawn and Gus stumble on a murder case, they bicker with each other and make stupid jokes (that whole veterinarian bit in “Forget Me Not” — hysterical) and Shawn uses his awesome observation skills to gather clues and formulate a theory and he and Gus and Lassie and Juliet always, always get the bad guys. At the end of the 40 minutes, order has been restored.

It’s a perfect example of why stories are so satisfying, why we tell each other stories again and again. They begin with some kind of disruption to the status quo, move to a dramatic peak, then coast down the other side to renewed equilibrium. It’s a pleasing structure, especially because we all expect it, and when a writer or filmmaker of musician messes with that arc it’s noticeable — and often uncomfortable. The happy ending is gratifying because in real life it’s not guaranteed. Real life is often murky and circular and repetitive and disappointing and violent and scary — hopefully punctuated with moments of ease and the kind of laughter that makes you spit your milk.

Speaking of murky, I’m currently in the midst of a long investigation into a bunch of baffling physical symptoms. The process has involved many, many healthcare professionals and every time it seems like things have gotten clearer, some other piece of information pops up that requires more research. (“You know that show Car Talk?” one of my doctors asked me recently. “Stump the Chumps? That’s what this case is like.” I appreciate his sense of humor.) I think the fact that I can’t figure out what’s going on and just get over it is a big reason I’m so into Psych right now. My fervor reminds me of when, after my first child was born and my husband and I were dealing with all the attendant chaos, we developed a serious Seinfeld habit that refused to die. Every evening we watched as Jerry, Kramer, Elaine, and George muddled their way through some dumb problem and it completely distracted us from the intensity of having a newborn. (And when we had two kids under five, it was Friends that scratched the itch.)

When I’m feeling unsure about something, I don’t want to add more uncertainty. And that’s why TV can be so relaxing. Opiate of the masses? Perhaps. It’s certainly possible that my Psych obsession could get in the way of my real life if I let it. But then again, maybe it’s a fairly harmless way to lighten up — to remember that anxiety about all that’s unresolved in my life doesn’t have to “get in the way” either.

So tell me: What shows are you hooked on these days, dear readers?

*This blog has actually nothing to do with Robert Pirsig‘s 1974 novel. I just thought adding his title made my title much better.

Free skate


I used to roller skate a bunch when I was in elementary school, fourth and fifth and sixth grade. It was the social thing to do, a Saturday afternoon session at the Aloha Roller Palace on Blossom Hill Road in San Jose — two hours of skating to Journey and Foreigner with my friend Diane.

The skates were heavy and they made a satisfying clunk when I put them on and tromped my way from the rental area to one of the openings onto the rink. I loved the lights that bathed the course in lurid color — blue, green, purple, red, and back again — the huge disco ball that scattered millions of tiny prisms across the floor, the din of all the wheels on the wood and the pounding bass of 80s rock.

Skating was better than school dances, because there was always something clear to do. I didn’t have the anxiety about how to dance or when at Aloha — I just skated around and around until I got tired or the music stopped. I used to like to pick up speed and take the corners in a semi-crouch, lifting my outside foot up and over the inside one to make the centrifugal force even more pronounced. Diane and I would fly through a bunch of songs and then take a break, steering ourselves toward the low barrier wall between the rink and one of the rest areas, stumbling a little at the transition from smooth wood to carpet and collapsing on one of the huge, round fake leather “benches” that actually looked like a demented toadstool out of Alice in Wonderland.

There was always that boy-girl heightened awareness energy going on, and sometimes I tuned into it, whispering with Diane about which boys were there and what they were doing, but mostly I was still a kid, skating at the rink with my friend, exhilarated by the air against my face as I took another spin.

I don’t remember when I stopped going to Aloha. By seventh grade for sure it wasn’t cool anymore. I do remember that I missed it, the speed and the rush, but not as acutely as I thought I would. Looking back it was a similar experience as the one I had with swimming as a kid: I loved it more than life itself and couldn’t imagine not swimming as much as possible until one day I didn’t.

What replaced skating, though? Probably Diane and Tammie and Brenda (the same Brenda of the Blue Coat) and I started to hang out at Oakridge Mall, trolling the stores for candy and trinkets and makeup. Or maybe dances started to get interesting. Either way, how I expressed myself with my friends became more subtle, less physical — until I sort of forgot about those roller skating afternoons, or maybe just packed them away in some part of my memory labeled “Stuff I Used to Do.”

Is that sad? I think so. That shift from the un-self-consciousness of childhood to self-consciousness of teenagedom can be painful. Maybe if we’re lucky, we can circle back around to that early freedom we had as kids when we’re adults. In fact, I am seriously thinking about driving down to San Jose, just to check out Aloha Roller Palace again — Thursdays are Retro Skate Night.