The Pump Track Challenge: Totally Fanged Up

21 July 2013 SUN VALLEY 034

Gbot, the Pump Track virgin. At the suggestion of the course maintainer, we took the bike baskets off before the race. Apparently, they are uncool.

Recently, Gbot was consulting a dinosaur encyclopedia in the back seat. Examining the page on saber toothed tigers, he exclaimed, “Saber tooth tigers had sharp fangs to protect them from predators, and they could totally fang up people.”

I thought of The Pump Track Challenge.

The Pump Track Challenge: the bots’ first-ever competitive athletic event, which they participated in while on vacation in Idaho in July. I thought of it because it totally fanged me up, as only a competitive athletic event for the five-and-under set could.

The Pump Track itself, as, say, a static sculpture in dirt, is pretty tame. About the size of a basketball court, it consisted of a series of whoop-dee-doos (dirt rollers: think a sine wave) and banked circles–imagine twelve-foot diameter, three-foot-deep dirt teacups. It’s kind of like a skate park, but for people on mountainbikes. This one was overseen by the Blaine County Recreation District, one of those model community entities that rarely makes a wrong move.

Even when it becomes a kinetic, interactive sculpture, with bots zooming around the upper inside edges of the teacups and pumping over the rollers, the Pump Track is only mildly nerve-wracking. We discovered it, on a tip from a friend, one hot afternoon when all the locals were at the Aquatic Center next door. We were giddy with excitement. Gbot strided like a pinball up, down, and around; Mbot attacked it gamely but spent as much time in the dust as he did in the saddle. This is a kid who never used training wheels. The Pump Track takes practice.

An old friend of mine, Eric, who happens to be in charge of maintaining the track, was pulling weeds for the upcoming Challenge,. He urged us to participate. He’s got a son of his own, aged three, who would be there. It wasn’t really a race, he said. One bot on the course at a time, he said. Just them against the clock, he said. And, at the end, trophies.

“Trophies?” asked Mbot.

“Trophies!” said Gbot.

Over the next several days, the conversations around our guest house sounded like this:

Me: “Gbot, take off your shoes and wash your hands.”

Gbot: “Is this the day of the Pump Track Challenge?”

Me: “No.”

And,

Me: “Who wants to watch ‘The Magic Schoolbus Gets Energized?!’”

Gbot: “I want a trophy!”

Belatedly, I began to sense danger.

Because, for all my trying and denying, the bots aren’t mountainbots. They’re burb-bots.  They’d rarely ridden on dirt; they’d never nudged their knobbies along the steep lips of earthen teacups. They were game, but green. They didn’t know it. I did.

I tried to explain to the bots that they might not get a trophy. That only the fastest kids get a trophy. Which will probably be the kids who live here in the Valley, the kids who get to ride the Pump Track EVERY  DAY! The kids who are older. The kids who are bigger. (The kids who are genetically programmed to kick your ass in any athletic event, not just now, but through your entire life, no matter how fast you pedal your own ass on the Pump Track, courtesy of the Andrews non-Olympian strain of DNA.)

This said (or, actually, I left that last part left unsaid), I do believe that persistence and passion can elevate anyone to the lofty heights of their potential. I know this personally, because I didn’t learn to ride a bike adequately until I was thirty, at which point my passion for cycling proved so strong that, in spite of the terror it inspired in me, I spent the next decade pushing my beloved Gary Fisher (it’s red! A red bike!) four thousand feet at a time up dirt trails narrower than a Republican’s mind and zooming down the same trails with a death grip on the handlebars–thus utilizing my body for activities it wasn’t originally designed for, kind of like finding one of those round plastic cones you put over a dog’s head to keep it from gnawing on some recent wound, and re-purposing it as a lampshade.

Even creatively done, it's still just a dog cone collar.

Even creatively done, it’s still just a dog cone collar.

If you love to ride, you love to ride. And even if your center of gravity is at breast level and your reflexes operate on a 12k bandwidth, that passion can push you through hundreds of hours of dedicated practice, which will eventually turn you into an adequate (albeit heavily scarred) mountain biker.

The bots love to ride. Especially Mbot. But this preoccupation with a TROPHY was unsettling. A TROPHY ATTAINABLE ONLY BY THREE PEOPLE. A trophy that is significant because it indicates its owner is a winner, but is more significant because it indicates that all others are LOSERS.

I explained to the bots that you don’t ride in a race just to get a trophy. ! I explained that you did it to have fun. ! I explained that, when you race over and over, you get better, and can see how much better you’re getting. ! I explained that everyone who participated was a winner. ! Just for doing it. ! I spoke with exclamation points, in case the tone of my voice was strained and unconvincing.

Because I am a competitionphobe. Everything about a race turns my insides to liquid and shoots me to the nearest bathroom. But I don’t want my sons to grow up to be like me (in this way). I want them to grow up to feel, if not what it seems many others seem to feel in the throes of athletic competition (ALIVE!!!! GRRRR!!! JUST COME AND TRY TO EAT THESE QUADS, SABER TOOTHED TIGER!!!), at least that competition is healthy and fun. ! That it strengthens you, physically and psychologically. ! That it is a great way to share your passion with like-minded beings. ! That it builds self-confidence in a pleasurable way. !)

Smilodon fatalis. (wikipedia)

Smilodon fatalis. (wikipedia) Waiting to poke holes in your bike shorts and your confidence.

What I did not try to explain is that if you enter a competition, it’s feels good to win. It’s a prize for working so hard as well as a public affirmation of your athletic superiority. On that day. In that discipline and age group. And that it usually kind of sucks to not win. At least, right away, and for a while afterward.*

Also, whether you are a winner or a nonwinner (we do not use the word LOSER. The only loser is the person who uses the word LOSER) seems to matter to lots of people. People will form opinions about you based on whether you win or do not win. Also on how you win or do not win. By entering a competition, you are subjecting yourself not only to the inarguable clock but to public scrutiny.

Good luck with that.

I realize it’s one of the marks of my socioeconomic class to overthink these things. In the future, I will try not to.

Good luck with that.

I offered up to the universe my Pump Track Prayer: Please,  let the bots participate in a Pump Track Challenge without having it fang them up for the rest of their lives.

When we arrived at the Challenge, at four o’clock Thursday afternoon, the Pump Track was no longer our private oasis of speed, fun, and possibility. It was crawling with others. It was foreign. It was threatening. Parents and bots and bikes and officials navigated one another to blaring music. Normally I would have liked the music, but now it was oppressive. My bots seemed unfazed by the crowd or the activity. They located the trophy table and fingered the shiny made-in-China cyclists sparkling in the sun atop flimsy plastic pedestals.

At the registration table, I found I knew the woman who handed me our papers, an athlete named Janelle. Years before, we’d waited tables and ridden bikes together. In my memory, she is very very small, and I’m seeing her from behind, because she is very very far ahead of me on the trail before she disappears altogether.

I filled out the forms and gave her my credit card to pay the five dollar registration fee. Knowing yet another Pump Track insider should have, I thought, made me feel like an insider, too. Like we Belonged. It didn’t. I didn’t know more than six adults and four children here (including my own). One of the adults was a friend, Amy; our bots had just had a playdate. But another, Eric’s wife, either wasn’t recognizing me or was recognizing but not acknowledging me. Probably not recognizing. My shirt was not quite as casual as those of the other parents. I felt like the bots and I were inside a balloon, an invisible balloon whose impermeable walls separated us from all these other people–these locals–these people whose lives were lived in this snug valley, lived on two wheels, lived within the friendly competitive communal embrace of one another.

I zip-tied the bots’ numbers onto their handlebars. #155 and #156. Suddenly astride their bikes, with their official numbers, the bots looked like they belonged. Just like that. I tried to imagine it all from their points of view. They knew only that they were gonna get to ride their bikes, with other kids, and that there were trophies. They’d gotten the $5 ride through the balloon walls. I was alone inside them now.

Gbot–steady, sturdy, strong on his Strider and 3 3/4 years old, fell nicely into the two-to-four age group. His course was marked with yellow plastic bowls turned upside down, and consisted of a brief out-and-back with a steeply banked circle around a tree at the far end.

Mbot–five years old for all of two weeks, fell uncomfortably into the five-to-seven age group. His course, marked with red upside-down plastic red bowls, consisted of a three-leaf-clover pattern of teacup rims, then a steep whoop-de-doo up to trail along a towering (well, four feet—a steep four feet) embankment—The Ledge—that gradually descended to circle the same tree as Gbot’s course, then back over Gbot’s course. I cursed myself for not fibbing at the registration desk and signing him up for the younger kids’ race. It’s not like he was a contender. I just wanted him to have a good time. I assumed that having a good time correlated directly to riding the course successfully and as it was meant to be ridden. I was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to do it. I was afraid he’d be upset that he wouldn’t be able to do it.

On a riverside ride, Mbot stops to consult his picture encyclopedia to pretend to identify a flower. Here's an idea: a bike-and-book biathlon!

On a riverside ride, Mbot stops to consult his picture encyclopedia to pretend to identify a flower. Here’s an idea: a bike-and-book biathlon!

Terrified, actually. Because I want to protect these children from everything, at the same time I want to affix to them a mosaic of positive life experiences like heat proof tiles, enough to absorb the blast of entry. Get back in my body, I want to say. Where I can keep you safe. Where the biggest competition is with my bladder, for real estate.

Gbot hit the dirt for practice runs with no concept of fear or of the direction of the course. Twice he was ushered off the big boy course, wailing, “I want to go on the red course!”

Mbot hung back at the start, where other kids pushed in front of him, until I encouraged him to take a few practice rides, too. When he finally headed out, it was at the direction of one of the adults in charge, and it was roughly ten seconds behind a kid—a bigger kid—and ten seconds before another, bigger, kid. The result was that there were three kids on the course at a time. Within seconds, deep in the third teacup, Mbot and his bike ended up under a bigger kid and his bigger bike.

Technically, it had been Mbot’s fault. He’d gone straight from the first teacup to the third. But he didn’t know the course. I wanted to shout at the guys in charge. He’s FOUR! Or would be, if he’d been born two weeks late. These are small children, for god’s sake, not bees who were born with their that-way-pollen-grows figure-eight dances spliced into their genes, like the girl Olympian figure-skaters excising their compulsories out of ice. I ran.

The bigger kid extricated himself and his bike and rode away, and then I as pulling Mbot upright, pulling his bike upright, telling him it wasn’t his fault, that hitting the ground is part of riding, is part of racing. That he’d fallen lots of times and bounced right up. That I’d fallen lots of times on my bike. He was in tears. He was talking nonstop, inconsolable. He was blaming himself for the crash.

We hobbled, like a four-legged, two-wheeled monster, a Pump Track version of the Elephant Man, to the far side of the course, where we could be alone. For the next seven minutes, tears flowed onto my not-casual-enough shirt. But every time I said, “It wasn’t your fault, Bug,” and, “You don’t have to race!” the answer was a teary wail: “No! I want to go! I want to race!” My stomach was churning. How would he remember this? Maybe he wouldn’t. Even if he didn’t, it would Change him. Shape him. A hundred thousand years from now, anthropologists would see the scar in his fossilized psyche like paleontologists today can identify tooth marks in the femurs of woolly mammoths. (Mothers think not only melodramatically, but in sweeping time frames.)

Leaning against the wood ranch-style fence, looking through ridiculously clear mountain air, right out of a pre-Raphaelite painting or HDTV, toward Carbonate Mountain, fifteen-hundred vertical feet of sagebrush at whose dusty brown foot I’d lived for ten years, whose flank I’d pushed up and careened down on my bike countless times in another life–my memories, not Mbot’s, never Mbot’s–we gathered ourselves. We wiped away tears. We circumnavigated the Track and pushed into the throngs that were now readying for the first race of the day.

It was Gbot’s race. The field was fifteen-strong. Eric’s son was hiding his face (which was already half-hidden beneath an enormous brave-animal helmet), in his mother’s neck. Others went, swooping down the six-foot ramp onto the course. An announcer provided not-quite-funny commentary over a loudspeaker. Someone worked the large digital clock, setting and resetting it, from beside the finish line. Finishing times: Forty seconds. Thirty seconds. Twenty-two seconds!

Brave-animal-helmet had still not been imbued by the characteristics of his totem. Gbot, under his red dinosaur helmet, was ready to roar. Finally he was at the starting line. His name of Basque origin was, as always, pronounced incorrectly: not phonetically, exactly as it is spelled, but in the only way people have heard things that look similar pronounced,  based on some person of German ancestry they once went to school or played ball with: Eckhardt. Mispronounced, he went.

He shot down the ramp and onto the first of the whoop-de-doos. His legs strode madly all the way out. His verve was admired over the loudspeaker. He rounded the tree in under ten seconds. And then…he sort of slowed down. As if perhaps he wasn’t sure of the course, or as if he’d forgotten what he’d come for. Or–and this is what it looked like to me–as if to savor the ride. He was out for a Sunday stride. He was taking it in. He was enjoying himself. He had no concept that churning toward the finish line, merely twenty feet away, would get him one of the coveted trophies. He meandered across the finish line well off the top three. I was thrilled he had made the finish line, and not headed back up to the starting line. Mostly, though, I was just thrilled it was over. I hugged him, told him great jobb. Gbot appeared unmoved by the whole thing.

The real knuckle-chewer was in the chute. Ten racers into his twenty-strong category, #155 was called to the start. Although Mbot was the youngest in his group, he was as tall as the seven-year-olds. Everyone thinks he’s older than he is, I thought. Everyone will judge this gangly kid, has already judged him, the one who cried in front of everyone. Mbot still had only a sketchy concept of the shape of the race course. “Eckhardt.” The clock started. Mispronounced, misunderstood, misjudged, he went.

He accelerated down the ramp, pedals whirling. Steered around the first teacup, skipped the second one (as he’d done in practice), hit the third  (kind of) then headed up the rise onto The Ledge. And there, lacking momentum, he rolled to a complete stop. His bike tipped over. And this is what he did: Having never watched a mountain bike race, having ridden almost completely on level grade concrete since birth, he untangled himself from the bike, hauled it upright, took it by the handlebars, and pushed it up the steep rise. He walked that mother right to the top, where he threw his leg over it again, pushed off–at the edge of The Ledge, no less–and navigated the rest of the course en velo.

Where did he learn to do that? I wondered. He didn’t have to learn. He just knew.

On the safe side of the finish line, where I pounced on him and smothered him with praise, he, like his younger brother, seemed unfazed.

It was obvious that the bots were experiencing a completely different event than the one I was suffering through. For them, it really was fun!  The wreck had happened to another boy, of another generation, in another universe, in front of another crowd, watching that other tall crybaby who can’t ride a bike—not only watching him but watching him as he’s crying, his narrow back to the crowd, his tear-streaked face to the mountains, watching and thinking, as even Eric had thought, “The kids taking a pee against the fence.”

At trophy-getting time, Amy’s son won the first-place trophy in Gbot’s category. (His progenitors include a grandfather whose hiked extensively in the Himalayas, with and without broken bones, and a mom who attended college on a swimming scholarship.)

Gbot did not get a trophy. Mbot did not get a trophy. What they did get was a green ribbon apiece for participation. A mother must have thought of that. Mbot was absolutely and unexpectedly thrilled with his. Gbot collapsed into a wailing heap that refused to go home without a trophy.

“I want a trophy! I want a trophy!” sobbed thirty-five-pound Gbot-the-root-vegetable, embedded in the soil beside the Pump Track, as I tugged gently but insistently, and then insistently and not gently,  at the soft, plump, upraised fist. I think I carried him away.  And then, blissfully, we fled.

Gbot was as though rooted in the substrate of the pump track.

Gbot was rooted in the substrate of the pump track.

I fled, at least. To the grass lawn outside the Track. Mbot posed for a photo with his green ribbon. I dialed up Husbot. “I was in a bike race,” Mbot grinned into the phone. “And I got a bow!”  Ribbon, bow. The word “ribbon” didn’t occupy a place in Mbot’s reward vocabulary, but he was willing to welcome it in. Gbot was not. He refused to hold his bow for a picture. He wanted nothing to do with it. The next day, it only served to remind him of what he did not get: a trophy.

The next day, Amy and I commiserated over how not fun The Pump Track Challenge had been. We both asked, with dread in our voices, the same question at the same time: “What happens next time, when Amy’s son doesn’t win?”

Then you’re on, Mom.

Three days later, the bots were no longer even talking about it anymore. Not the pump track. Not the trophy. They were still riding their bikes. The uncool baskets had been reattached. The bots had moved on.

But I couldn’t. I’d been disturbed at the strength of my Pump Track emotions. They included,

  1.  “Get the fang out of my child’s way,”
  2. “Don’t fanging judge my child,”
  3. “This fanging contrived situation to measure small children against each other sucks fanging ass.”
  4. “Calm down, Betsy, for fang’s sake. It’s only a race. And it’s not even your race.”

It took several more days before the good of it sank in: Without that clock, without the other kids around, without those hideous trophies waiting to be claimed, Mbot probably wouldn’t have jumped up so fast when his bike tipped over, and pushed through. And now he knew what it felt like, to try that hard in order to accomplish a goal he’d set himself.

Was it worth it? My hairdresser, the one who keeps trying to lowlight me, would say it was not, would say that since the Pump Track Challenge I am not quite so girlishly brunette. I’d say I suppose it was. Although it seemed much more of a challenge for the mothers of participants than for the actual participants.

I know that my children are not going to win sometimes. That’s life. I don’t care. But I don’t want it to hurt them. I want them to be able to be okay with it. But it’s a challenge to come to peace with the fact that my children are going to be judged. And that sometimes, they are going to end up at the bottom. I know that my children are going to enter into all kinds of situations that society has contrived to measure, distinguish, separate, label, and create desire and discontent. I want them to walk proudly away from those situations wearing their green bows.

I know that my children were born with a strength and resilience that I cannot know or measure.

It is a challenge to show some of that strength and resilience myself.

The face of triumph.

The face of triumph. Thanks, Pump Track Challenge.

*I know this only because I was a prepubescent athletic phenom in Auke Bay, Alaska. In strictly an Auke Bay School Field Day Champion context. Because I reached nearly my adult height and weight by the age of twelve, I kicked ass at the fifty yard dash (yes, there is one, for children), the hundred yard dash, the 400-meter relay (I was not anchor), the high jump, and the shot put. Then I turned thirteen and the destiny of my body–to sit in a chair while I typed–became manifest. But the ribbons (there were no trophies) rocked.

Proof of Life Via Bathroom Conversation

Why the bots haven't been heard from in so long: they're both in juvie. KIDDING. They thought playing in dog kennels was HILARIOUS.

Why the bots haven’t been heard from in so long: they’re both in juvie. KIDDING. They thought playing in dog kennels was HILARIOUS.

We are alive and well, and to prove it, I will transcribe a brief conversation I enjoyed with Gbot in the bathroom yesterday*

*For those not familiar with Spanish nomenclature for human anatomy, the word “pito” is Spanish–and our family word for–the little penises in the household. (Usage tip: Do not make the mistake of transferring the word to the larger, grownup version. Apparently, it is understood as insulting. Something to do with size.):

Gbot: “My potty thinks all life is evil!”

Me: (nothing)

Gbot: “My pito thinks all life is disGUSTing!”

Me: “It won’t always think that, Honey.”

Maybe for the next post, we’ll venture out of the bathroom. But there are never guarantees.

Dispatch from the River: Washed Clean (and Not Just the Angry Bird Underpants!)

21 July 2013 SUN VALLEY 043-003

Southcentral Idaho. Peace reigns between the bots. Being in a new place does for Mbot what it does for me: washes out the mind like the rainstorm we drove through just south of the Nevada state line, like the ocean arriving all at once on our windshield, wipers arcing furiously to not quite keep up, white spray from the few passing trucks to the left obliterating the view—I think of the blindness that might occur temporarily if one traveled at lightspeed, or that occurs when I board an airplane to sit encapsulated for an hour or two or nine until deposited in a different geographic location, often thousands of miles from the point of origin, during which time (if one is traveling without bots) one has spent reading a magazine on home style.

On the first day of travel, we debarked at the splash park in Henderson, Nevada the first scheduled stop on our two day, thousand mile venture north, fresh out of the rain storm. The botmobile shined like it was new, the silky navy of the paint gleaming as though you could walk through it into another world.

And so we have.

Here, between the mountains and the prairie, the winds wash down from Galena Summit, thirty miles north, like an invisible river though the valley every morning, cool air seeking low elevations, warming through the day, and then flowing back up into higher climes each evening, cleansing the air ‘til every object takes on a crystalline appearance, sharp edges, unfiltered greens—that never fail to bring back the memory of my first pair of glasses, set on the bridge of my nose at the age of eight. How my environment snapped into focus–I could almost count the serrated green alder leaves and suddenly the towering blue spruces became communities of individual needles, where before the trees had loomed, undifferentiated from one another. Synapses that had lay dormant for perhaps years, fired the news: Vision! Vision! Vision!

And so it is, here: vision.

For as long as I can remember–ever since my family drove away from our house on the hill in New Hampshire and set off across the country in a VW squareback toward Alaska–travel has been as much about marveling at the wonders of a world that isn’t mine as much as turning to marvel from a distance at the wonders of the world that is. And then marveling at the marveling.

I sense the same neural dynamic in Mbot, for whom every Magna-Tile has taken on a new attraction in this place–as though the Magna-Tiles, and not the place, were new. Marvelously, his brother, too, seems to have acquired a certain sparkle (in Mbot’s eyes) in this high mountain air, and the bickering has dwindled to token poking, pestering and name-calling.

Gbot benefits from the attentions of Pam.

Gbot benefits from the attentions of the wonderful and talented Pam.  You, too, could be this cute if you came to Idaho. Pam could help. Although if you come here, visit Pam, and find you are NOT this cute, do not blame Pam.

This mental re-setting is a real thing, and I know enough now to recognize that it will always be an important part of how Mbot interacts with his surroundings. He and I will have to get out of town on a regular basis, to recalibrate our focus on not only our external environments far and near, but our internal landscapes.

Husbot, who has stayed in Arizona to take care of pets and business, isn’t wired this way. Gbot, too, is less influenced by his environment than by the internal Contentment Bug he’s hosted since birth. He’s truly the captain of his own ship, never mind the water and wind, and I’d trust him to get from here to there in any weather. Mbot and I are at the helms of our ships, too, but we’re buffeted by both the water and the wind, and we’re very busy looking at the view and wondering if we might go there and if we do, what here will look like once we’re there. It will not be easy for anyone in our regatta. But the journey will wash us clean, outside and in.

Mbot steers the HMS  "Huggie Mommy." I did not name her.

Mbot steers the HMS “Huggie Mommy.” I did not name her.

The Circles of Life

(Artist: Mbot. Medium: Play-Doh.)

(Artist: Mbot. Medium: Play-Doh.)

The bike rack arrived, so we’re ready to load up for the drive to Idaho tomorrow.

After the second lumpectormy, my own rack has been given the all-clear, too. Vacation time! Radiation doesn’t start ’til mid-August, and I will cross that isodose when I come to it. In the festive mood that’s permeating the household, the bots have been conducting business as usual.

From the Bathroom:

Mbot, perched on the toilet, expresses concern about using too much toilet paper, because it is Bad For The Earth. “We don’t want another tree to die, Mom!” He calls out, bare butt hanging halfway down to the water in the bowl. I consider myself Earth-friendly, but considering what’s in the bowl, I’m more than willing to say sayonara to a giant sequoia if that’s what it takes.

“How do they get the giant tree into the office?”

Me: “Into where, Sweetie Piglet?”

Mbot: “How do they get the giant tree into the toilet paper making office?”

From the after-dinner popcorn party:

Gbot: “Can we plant these (kernels) and grow a popcorn tree?”

popcorn tree circle of life

It’s not exactly The Lion King, but it’s the circle of life nonetheless. It feels good to be rolling again.

What’s Underneath the Surface

Mbot: Blast off!

What’s underneath the surface?

One morning in May, I entered the bathroom to find both Gbot and Mbot standing together on the footstool. Gbot held a tube of some overexpensive, undereffective face cream and was nanoseconds away from squeezing. “Gbot,” I warned, “If you squirt that out, then I’ll look like an ugly old hag.”

Mbot looked up from the nail clippers he was attempting to use. “Why will you look like an ugly old hag?” he asked. “Because that’s what you really are?”

I think the babysitter had been reading them old-fashioned fairytales, in whose archetypal plots lurked witches disguised as beautiful maidens.

No, I told them. I’m gorgeous inside, but my skin is getting wrinkly, so the contents of the tube will keep me as lovely on the outside as I am on the inside.

That was at the end of May. The next week, I received a letter in the mail. I was being called back for a follow-up mammogram. “Heterogeneous tissue in the left breast,” read the letter. Do not be alarmed. Only four out of every thousand mammograms detect something bad. Two days later, I was staring at a black-and-white image of my left breast, magnified by four hundred percent, and Dr. Green, a radiologist, was pointing out a cluster of white specks that she called “calcifications.”

The next day, I was lying face-down on a biopsy table while twelve miniscule tissue samples were suctioned out for further study. Beyond the translucent shades of the corner room, the sun glanced off car roofs two stories down as they navigated the parking lot. Inside my own story, it was very quiet. I felt within those beige walls like part of an elaborate pop-up book, a parallel universe whose covers were these walls. Afterward, I smiled at the staff, because it was polite, but no one smiled back.

The next day, a woman’s brisk voice on the phone announced that she would put Dr. Green on the line to explain the biopsy results.

She used words I had never heard before, and other words I had heard before but not in the context of my life. “Ductal Carcinoma In Situ, Grade 3.” “Abnormal cells in the lining of the milk duct.” “Lumpectomy.” “Radiation.” “Hormone therapy.” “Tamoxifen.” And these, which I clung to: “Early detection.” “Not life-threatening.”

The rational part of my mind was not worried. I was grateful. During daylight hours, I packed lunches for summer day camp, swam with bots, made dinner, read Harry Potter, went to the Children’s Museum, oversaw time-outs.

The other parts of my mind were not so cooperative, especially at night. I began writing my dreams down in Haiku. Pressing the labyrinthine plots into the three brief lines of a poetic form I’d learned in childhood allowed me to, literally, synthesize my fears, understand them, and begin to assimilate them.

Dream #1

Hung over, wine glass

shards glinting, last night’s chicken

still out, breast sliced white.

Three days later, I celebrated my forty-sixth birthday by meeting with my OB/GYN. This sort of thing–early detection–probably noninvasive Stage 0 calcifications–is what gives breast cancer a good name, she told me. You’ll be fine. The chances of your dying from this are less than getting hit by a bus.

I drove home looking sideways at buses.

Quite unexpectedly, I found I had acquired a team: a breast surgeon, a medical oncologist, and a radiation oncologist. Every time I succeeded in forgetting about the disease I had, but could not see or feel, someone would call wanting me to make an appointment or register or preregister: for appointments. For a chest X-ray. For a radioactive seed localization implant. In spite of good medical insurance, everyone wants my credit card. I am earning air miles. I have a complimentary tote bag, heavy with literature and complimentary DVDs for cancer survivors. I have a new label.

Dream #2

I’ve promised to bring

the Angry Bird costumes but

they’ve all been rented.

Less than three weeks after the initial diagnosis, I was in surgery.

That was Wednesday.

The next day, we went to the circus. My mom’s in town–she’d planned the visit months ago, and bought the tickets in April as birthday presents for the bots. We’d planned to drive up to Idaho for the month of July. We will leave a week later than planned.

Dream #3

My son, three, standing,

neatly gutted. I wasn’t

there when it happened.

Both the lumpectomy incision and the incision close to my armpit, where two lymph nodes were removed for further study, are small, and in a few weeks will hardly be noticeable. Yesterday in the shower, I shaved my armpit and I might as well have been pulling the blade across the pork shoulder I’d cooked for dinner: nerves damaged during surgery had yet to repair themselves. Today, there is tingling.

Close Shave

We are not entitled

to feeling good. Or, to

feeling anything.

Results from the pathology lab will arrive Monday, and at this point the prognosis is very good. I’m lucky.

Dream #4

Gwyneth Paltrow is

having swimming lessons. What

an unflattering view.

I choose to interpret this last one like this: even though she doesn’t look great having swimming lessons, Gwyneth Paltrow is still the most beautiful woman in the world (according to People magazine). Ergo, although parts of me may look ugly as seen on a mammography film, I’m still not an ugly old hag.

Oh *I* See the Problem Now. There’s a Pig in My Shoe.

Last week, we were leaving Tae Kwon Do class, which looks like this:

Mr. Rice demonstrates a punch for Mbot. (Mbot: "Oh, I've punched my brother.")

Mr. Rice demonstrates a punch for Mbot. (Mbot, unimpressed: “Oh, I’ve punched my brother.”)

At the end of class, Mbot sat on the floor to put on his sandals. Kids were coming in and practicing for the next class, and after two full minutes of watching Mbot through the milling crowd, I saw that he was working very hard jamming into the toe of his sandal a keychain, which looks like this:

A gift my brother in Japan gave me long ago finds new admirers in the next generation. (on sale now for $1.50! at getgags.com)

A gift my brother in Japan gave me beellions and beellions of years ago ago finds new admirers in the next generation. (still on sale today, for $1.50! at getgags.com)

Having accomplished this task, he worked for another two minutes to stuff his foot far enough into the shoe to affix the heel strap. “Mbot,” I was urging, “If your shoe is not on by the time I count to three, we will leave without shoes.” The door to the dojo was standing open, desert air flowing inside at 102 degrees, and Gbot, who had just awoken bleary-eyed in my arms, was growing exponentially heavier as the seconds passed.

Finally, Mbot tottered happily out the door and across the grass with his heel hanging off the back of one sandal and the other sandal in his hand. I left him at the curb to climb into the car while I loaded up Sack-o’-Potatobot. Mbot, gaining his seat, crossed his foot over his other knee, considered it without expression, and then said as though totally surprised, “Oh I see the problem now. There’s a pig in my shoe!”

I take a few things away from the pooping pig in the shoe incident, and they look like this:

1. Don’t assume that your goals are the same as the person you are with.

2. When the world is not funny enough,

The world is not funny enough.

The world is not funny enough.

 make your own jokes.

Veni, Vidi, Virus

Customer Service Representatives are standing by ready to take your order.

Customer Service Representatives are standing by.

“Hello. You have reached the Center for Viruses of the Digestive System. If you would like to order a Virus for the Upper Gastrointestinal Tract,  please press or say ‘one.’ If you would like to order a Virus for the Lower Gastrintestinal Tract, please press or say ‘two.’ Your order will ship immediately upon the arrival at our main facility of another sample. The estimated arrival time will be less than” (pause) “one hour. Oh, look, here it is now. To hear this recording in Spanish, please go to a different, more multicultural blog. To hear a different, less gross message, please go to a blog where everyone is healthy. Thank you for calling. Have a nicer day than ours.”

Teacher Appreciation Week: Mums and Conundrums

Imagine yourself putting on this outfit and bicycling through a splashpark. Now you are in the right frame of mind to choose a flower to give the teacher...

Imagine yourself putting on this outfit and bicycling through a splashpark. Now you are in the right frame of mind to choose a flower to give the teacher…

It is Teacher Appreciation Week again.

I love our teachers. Mrs. Pursell and Mrs. Gonzales rock. They are firm, understanding, insightful, patient, and smart. But I do not like Teacher Appreciation Week.

Part of my dislike for it is founded in my own inability to sit the bots down to make cards for their teachers a week in advance. And yesteday, on the way to the varicose vein doctor, I forgot to ask the babysitter to oversee a card-making event.

And so this morning, while sipping strawberry-secret-spinach smoothies festooned with tropical umbrellas, we had a card-making extravaganza. For three-year-old Gbot, this meant going wild with the Elmer’s glue. For four-year-old Mbot, this meant attempting to cut out snowflakes and hearts from flowery paper. He is neither strong enough or well-coordinated enough to cut through four layers of paper at once with dull child-proof scissors, and got frustrated, but at last we ended up with four cards that were only slightly goopy still upon delivery.

Yesterday was “bring your teacher a flower” day. Last year I think we brought them each a sunflower from Safeway. This year, however, we have dwarfish mums growing on the patio, and Husbot helped the bots cut one apiece for their teachers. All the other kids brought in gorgeous tulips, luscious roses, sunflowers the size of dessert plates, frilly carnations, lilting lilies. Our raggedy offerings were on six-inch stems. Last time I checked, they had not made it into the glass vases overflowing with long-stemmed gorgeousness.

But Mbot and Gbot don’t know the difference. They clutched each measly mum as though it was a rare orchid for a prom date. (although I caught Gbot squeezing one blossom in the back seat). Among the preschool set, there is definitely a disconnect between aesthetics and intension.

And it begs the question: is Teacher Appreciation Week for the students to show their appreciation? Or for parents to show their appreciation? Maybe both, but it’s tought to balance the two. One thing it isn’t is a contest. But I have to consciously stop myself from comparing–from thinking with a sigh, “Wow, our flowers are totally lame.”  These talented women who are the bots’ teachers wouldn’t be preschool teachers if they didn’t see the beauty in a dwarfish, tightly-clutched mum that’s slightly worse for being fondled on the ten-minute trip to school.

We appreciate them.

 

Juniper at Jupiter: A Bear, His Boy, and a String Quartet

I apologize to readers for my absence–but we are back! I’ll make my excuses later. Today, I bring you volcano music.
Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the handsomest one of all?

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the handsomest one of all?

Attending the Jupiter String Quartet’s Phoenix performance with Mbot was my idea. Attending the concert with Mbot and Junepy was Mbot’s idea. So was the necktie, a strip of red felt fashioned into a bow, although in the end, Mbot wore a pair of fleecy dinosaur zip-up footie pajamas and a wide, pale blue polka-dot grosgrain ribbon tied in a Windsor knot, and Junepy wore the red felt bow. “But Junepy will be handsomer than me,” worried Mbot (unnecessarily, most would agree).

 

I’d been lucky, the week before while in Boston, to have a friend casually drop the fact that her daughter was singing that night in the Boston Baroque Ensemble at the New England Conservatory. It was serendipity–I am a huge fan of chamber music, and particularly of Baroque music, and I am a huge fan of the NEC, as it’s home to my ultrafave radio show, NPR’s Sunday evening staple, “From the Top,” which features amazing young musicians from across the nation. As far as music goes, I am one of those people perfectly designed to provide an audience, unburdened as I was at an early age (by my piano teacher, as it happens) of any illusion that I’ve got the rhythm in me. There is evidence to make me suspect that Mbot has inherited a seat beside me among the spectators.

 

So my first morning back home, Mbot climbed onto the bed and asked what I’d done in Boston. “I went to hear the most beautiful music ever,” I told him. I retrieved the netbook and pulled up the Boston Baroque Ensemble’s homepage. He pointed to a picture of a bright red, erupting volano. “I want to hear that one! The volcano music!” So I clicked it–the volcano was the image on the DVD cover of the BBE’s recording of Haydn’s Creation. I left the room to brush my teeth and see what havoc Gbot was creating, and Mbot listened to the volcano music, rapt, for twenty minutes.

 

So I bought us tickets to the next performance sponsored by the Phoenix Chamber Music Society. It would be a big evening. It wasn’t cheap, the concert venue was almost an hour’s drive away, the concert started at what was technically bedtime, and the concert would require sitting. For over an hour. And then for another thirty minutes. While Junepy excels at sitting, Mbot’s gifts lay elsewhere.

 

The night arrived. An hour before takeoff, an excited Mbot announced, “Junepy wants to come!” and disappeared into the bedroom. Five minutes passed. Ten minutes passed. Silence. In my experience, ten minutes of silence usually equates to a twenty minute cleanup effort afterward, and so I went to investigate. I found Mbot on the floor struggling the bear.

 

He’d managed to push Junepy’s large, obstinate head through the neckhole of a shirt, but the bear’s large, obstinate feet were proving too large and obstinate to go through pantlegs without motherly help.

 

“Junepy’s going to be the handsomest bear there!” announced Mbot proudly. Then he said with alarm, “But he needs a tie!”

 

At last, everyone dressed and ready, we headed into town. “The volcano music is so beautiful,” mused Mbot from the back seat.  “But why is it so beautiful? Why does it sound like swans singing?”

 

Why, indeed? I had no answer. But in my mind, the evening had already paid for itself.

 

When at last we pulled into the parking lot of the church where the preformance was being held, he studied the crowd. “Are we in the right place?” he asked. “I see lots of old people.”

 

“Then we KNOW it’s the right place,” I replied.

 

“No Mom,” he insisted. “It’s not the right place. This is the senior center.”

 

Indeed it did look a senior center. There was even a big white bus that had come from the senior center. Mbot was the youngest attendee by about forty years. There were a handful of twenty-somethings–literally, I could count them on my hands–and one teenage girl with her mom.

 

I thought the silver-haired crowd might express fear at our disruptive potential, but without exception they appeared delighted by the presence of the bot and his bear. Many observed his outfit with a sigh of envy. If only we could wear fleecy dinosaur one-piece zip-up pajamas!, everyone agreed.

 

We settled into a pew. The lights dimmed. The woman behind us sneezed. The musicians appeared. The concert began. “Mom, I’m dehydrated,” whispered Mbot. I found with horror that his sippy cup was empty. Thankfully, the M&Ms in my purse provided distraction. The woman behind us sneezed again. Beside me on the pew, which seemed to be designed by or for ascetics, squirming occurred. My blood pressure rose. In spite of the soothing and lovely tones of Mozart’s Quartet in D Major, K. 575, I sat rigid, hoping the squirming would be contained to our five board feet of bench.

 

It was.

 

There was considerably less squirming during the next piece, Bartok’s Quartet no. 1, due no doubt to its energetic and unpredictable progression, and so when Intermission finally arrived, with its promise of water, cookies, and an opportunity to run intervals at the back of the sanctuary, Mbot had actually earned many charmed smiles and compliments. “We need more young blood!” exclaimed one couple with delight. The woman behind us sneezed again.

 

“Allergies?” I asked with heartfelt sympathy, when she asked me for a tissue, which I provided.

 

“Do you have a cat?” she replied.

 

I admitted that we did, and she eyed Junepy suspiciously. “I’ll bet the fur is all over that.”

 

I bit back the urge to say, “Him. The fur is all over him.” but I did defend him. “Actually, he’s way cleaner than he looks.”

 

Still leveling a doleful gaze at Junepy, she replied, “I find that hard to believe.”

 

After intermission, Mbot lay on Junepy listening to the Schumann Piano Quintet until his lids slowly dropped, and he fell asleep. I finally relaxed.

 

Afterward, I carried Mbot through the warm night to the car. The sneezing woman kindly and bravely offered to carry Junepy.

 

In the following days, Mbot would claim that his favorite part of the concert were the orange M&Ms, and that he liked “to listen to beautiful music, not watch it.” But I consider the evening a triumph for chamber music, for children, and for cat-dander-carrying bears everywhere.

 

New Superhero, “Naked-Boy,” Sighted Near Phoenix,

it is rumored that Naked-Boy shares a tailor with the Emperor. (library.sc.edu)

It is rumored that Naked-Boy shares a tailor with the Emperor. (library.sc.edu)

….Experts are still debating exactly what his superpowers are, and whether they are helpful on Planet Earth. One eye-witness reports seeing him do the superpee, shooting, in a fit of defiance against larger powers, urine up to two feet onto the wall behind the toilet.

Another eye-witness, or possibly the same one, claimed she saw him break through a discipline deflector shield that was supposed to be protecting items on a very high counter, and obtain an entire bunch of bananas, simultaneous upsetting a stainless-steel decorative trivet which landed on Naked-Boy’s foot.

Still another eye-witness has produced proof that the newest and smallest superhero pranced across newspapers splattered with still-wet oil-based magnetic wall paint during his mother’s latest attempt at home improvement. The witness was charged with negligent looking-away-from Naked-Boy while being in charge of him. Naked-Boy does not appear to be magnetic. He does, however, appear to be naked.

He was first sighted several mornings ago, after his mother dressed him for school, or thought she did. Soon afterward, he pranced into the living room in his distinctive “costume”  and declared, “I’m NAKED-BOY! Meet NAKED-BOY! I’m SOOOOooOO NAKED!”

There are no photos available, in the interest of protecting the privacy of the private parts of the party.