The Week I Turned Fifty
Saturday: The Orientalist paintings of Ottoman artist Osman Hamdi Bey are my absolute favorites when it comes to puzzlin’. Each image conveys a snapshot of life from an era that now seems ancient but which, technically, only ended a hundred years ago — when my maternal grandfather was in his twenties. While some argue Osman Hamdi Bey’s paintings are revisionist, his perspective imperialist with regards to the outlying regions of Turkey, what matters to me is that his work is striking and captures very specific moments. I do love me a specific moment well captured. For the past few weeks, I’ve been working the edges and closing the gaps in my puzzle of Kahve Ocagi (loosely: coffee hearth), a puzzle I paid a nice man named Petr in the Czech Republic to send, thus putting temporarily to rest my anxiety about having completed all the Osman Hamdi Bey puzzles available for purchase in the United States. As the puzzle progresses, so does my obsession with its eleven shades of beige, its detailed tile work, its nuanced kilims. It’s good I don’t have a newborn, as that hungry babe would have to howl through the equivalent of “Bohemian Rhapsody” before I’d lift my head from this jigsaw.
Sunday: My absorption in the puzzle is causing back pain, and my feet hurt, too, since I alternate between standhunching and squishing my tush onto a step-stool. The same way a masseuse or a hair dresser needs to be aware of body mechanics if he wants his career to last, I am finding that I need to develop new puzzling postures if I hope to be connecting pieces into my 90s, and what the hell else am I going to do in my 90s if not work on jigsaw puzzles and take up drumming?
Fortunately, Paco’s fencing class in the afternoon pulls me away from the lure of the flowered tiles. The kid isn’t feeling well, but he decides — in a noble decision doweseehownobleheisbeing? that emerges from the mist of a days’-long dramatic health sulk — to attend class. Incubating whatever crap laid his sister low a few weeks ago, he lacks energy, his throat hurts, and he thinks he might be getting a fever. None of this is obvious as he thrusts, parries, and bouts, his attention to detail apparent even as his system swoons. Front toe leading, knees bent, he glides across the wooden floor, back, forth, quick stepping with his partner in the give and take of the sport. As he sweats under his mask, assuring he’ll have a home-from-school fever by morning, Byron and I run and walk on the track that circles the class. Sometimes we stop and lift weights or stress our abdominals. Mostly, I spend the hour with one eye on my kid and the other on the crazy quilt of humanity that shows up on Sunday afternoons to use the track. For sixty whole minutes, my puzzle obsession recedes, only to rear again once we get home. I have to make myself take breaks to grade student work, to feign conversation, to watch an episode of The Great Pottery Throw Down (think The Great British Baking Show but with ceramics). Fortunately, Kiln Boy Rich is particularly charming on today’s episode, and Judge Keith pleases me by having a quick cry when he sees a contestant’s exemplary final product, so I manage to turn my back to the puzzle table. Later, much later, once the week’s grading is wrapped and everyone in the house has gone to sleep, I find homes for another ten puzzle pieces before heading upstairs to my other current obsession: The Turner House by Angela Flournoy.
Monday: My phone has been broken for a month + a day, and the duo in charge of fixing it is proving so epically poor at communication and running a business that I’m happy to leave my Nexus 5x in their hands for as long as it takes for them to implode. In an alternate scenario, it could turn out that they hand the phone carcass back to me in a few more weeks along with a hefty bill and an apology that it’s still nonfunctional. Either way, these boys have me completely
Home sick, Paco enjoys the recounting of my latest conversation with the owner of the phone repair shop. Uncharacteristically, Owner Boy has reached out to give me an update on the status of my phone. His bowl of Fruity Pebbles must have been particularly satisfying this morning. What I enjoy most, as he details the new issues they’ve just unearthed with regards to the phone I zapped dead with boob sweat, is when he says, “And so we cleaned up the corrosion on the board. The whole process should have started with a moisture recovery.” Because I am the very soul of discretion, save for when I’m recounting stories to my family and on my blog, I do not tell Owner Boy that the day I dropped off my phone and explained the problem to Pony Tail Tech, he told me, “The first thing we’ll do is a moisture recovery.”
I do not tell this to Owner Boy because, a week ago, a few days after he’d hollered at me for calling the company to ask about my phone, he called to let me know he was tightening the screws on my replacement screen and that it could be picked up any time…except then he called me back again to ask if I could bring my charger cord when I came in since the phone was dead…except I had left my charger cord with them when I initially dropped off my phone…except Owner Boy couldn’t find it anywhere, but he was sure he had a cord at home that would work…except when I came the next day to pick up my repaired, charged phone, it wasn’t charged, and it was only when Pony Tail Tech came out to my car with me and plugged my phone into the cigarette lighter that he discovered it wasn’t fixed at all…and so that’s when they ordered another replacement screen…after which they discovered the screen wasn’t really the whole problem…because they should have started with a moisture recovery.
I do not tell Owner Boy he is the star of a narrative that opens and closes with the line “We should start with a moisture recovery.”
Tuesday: The day alternates between sitting and moving. Hell, they all do. But the shifts are dramatic, with Paco still home sick — a wan Victorian heroine on the chaise longue, his stays loosened, smelling salts on the feather-inlay hand-carved side table — contrasting with my commitment to a weekly long run. Glacially, I scratch out 11.36 miles (The .36 is important as it’s the part where I make deals with myself like “Just keep going until you get to the flag pole, girl, and then, if you really need to stop, you can”) before grabbing a shower and flinching at the red half-blisters left by my running bra, despite having applied a liberal swath of Vaseline along the underboob before heading out. Not incidentally, never, ever ask my phone about the traumas of Booblandia.
Legs tired, torso sore, I kick back during a global education committee meeting, particularly enjoying the part where I work in a three-minute summary of a novel I just read, The Association of Small Bombs, pushing it as pertinent to faculty who discuss terrorism with students. After the meeting, I dash to the optical store, pick up Allegra’s new glasses, stop at the grocery store for more of that delicious new Angie’s BOOMCHICKAPOP Real Butter Popcorn, and run into a friend in the parking lot. I know she’s a true friend, not mere acquaintance, because it takes no time before I’ve announced “women are exhausting” and she’s countered with “melatonin” and “moody.”
An hour later, during that rare window when we four in our family are all in the kitchen, hanging, debriefing, snacking, Allegra stands in front of me, as she sometimes does, angling for an extended hug. She will have to live another three decades before she has any inkling how much such embraces mean to me. After the release, we hook fingers and hold hands during a discussion about that evening’s band concert. She will be 17 next week — “You had me when you were 33, and now you’re almost 50, which means I’m almost 20, and none of that seems right!” — and already we know she will finish out her high school requirements next fall at the University of Minnesota-Duluth before graduating early. Already we know she will work and save money so that she can travel for a few months before college, wherever college ends up being. I am indeed almost 50, caught in the maternal half-held breath of “Every event feels like a ‘last’ at the same time everything feels possible.” Whenever I use the word “melancholy,” Allegra says, “At the end of our year in Turkey, when people asked how you felt about returning to the States, you always told them you were ‘melancholy.’ So even now, whenever I hear that word, I think of Turkey.” Whenever I hear the word “melancholy,” I think of my kids getting ready to fly.
At 7 p.m., the band concert starts. It is nearly one of her ‘last,’ yet I bend my head. Instead of staring at the far-away stage where my girl’s shining hair is barely discernible, I use a dim book light to read for an hour and a half, trying not to cackle out loud at Paul Beatty’s observational satire in The Sellout.
Wednesday: We drop Paco off at school a tidge late, confederates and compromisers in his desire to avoid riding the bus when he’s been oh-so-sick-hack-hack-cough-cough, and I have to clench fists to thighs to keep my arms from embracing the secretary in the school office who greets him with, “Oh, Paco, it’s so good to see you back. Are you feeling a little better, then?” There are 536 students who attend Paco’s school. PAY HER MORE.
Clicking our heels with kid-free abandon, Byron and I attend a boot camp class together, an hour that taxes and elevates in equal measure, an hour that rewards the peasant DNA which gifts me with the ability to hoist heavy things while being shouted at by an overlord, an hour where my husband and I literally yoke ourselves together with a strap and run a Spouse Yank around the track.
Yes, the Spouse Yank jokes are writing themselves, smutheads, and you’re very clever, aren’t you?
After boot camp, as we drive to the bike shop to drop off Byron’s new tires for “truing,” the hero of my Every Spouse Yank drops an anecdote that makes me question if we know each other at all. How can he claim to love me and yet have kept this story to himself?
One time, some half long time ago but maybe more like two years, Byron was in the locker room at the gym. And there was this guy. About 70 years old. Naked. Chatting.
As he held forth about, say, catching a particularly large walleye with his grandson, he casually lifted his foot onto a nearby stool, allowing his personal walleye a good dangle. It turns out he was propping his foot so as to improve air flow.
WHILE HE DRIED HIS PUBES WITH A GYM-ISSUE HAIR DRYER.
He fluffed. He chatted.
AND THEN HE MOVED THE DRYER AROUND AND DRIED HIS BEHEINIE CRACK, TOO.
I may be pushing the years, but still: I’m full of wonder.
Thursday: Mike Birbiglia is this season’s “token white male” on an episode of the Sooo Many White Guys podcast. As I listen to him talk with host Phoebe Robinson about Don’t Think Twice — his film in which an improv troupe cracks apart — I consider the implications of striving and failing in front of witnesses.
I am walking, stepping over cracks, up curbs, over puddles; the cadence of my feet propels thoughts about the control that “fear of making a public misstep” exerts over so many people’s lives. Living guardedly certainly assures a person never appears stupid. If one doesn’t put anything out there, one can never be wrong. Yet. There is power in the willingness to look a fool. To be vulnerable in front of others requires trust — that the audience will be kind. Often, they are not. But when they are, the payoff is incomparable. As I walk, still listening, I think back to the try-hard wrecks that some of my writings, classes, and comments have been over the years and decide I’m glad to continue making public mistakes — because at least it means I’m working from courage, exposing vulnerability, trusting strangers, learning where and with whom I am safe.
Friday: It’s a great week for logistics: Byron and I manage a second gym date, this one a “circuit” class of high-intensity activities that leave participants regretting that banana they ate an hour before. Himself is cramming the class into his lunch break, so I arrive early to set up our equipment and stay after to deconstruct our stations of risers, Bosus, weights, medicine balls, and mats. Dealing with props alone feels like plentiful workout to me, but I soldier through the actual class, as well, keeping my gaze carefully focused on the teacher, not my charming mate. Dude can run thirty miles and get stronger with each passing hour, but when he’s asked to raise his right knee to a steady beat, well,
he works from a place of courage, exposing vulnerability, trusting strangers, learning where and with whom he is safe.
He is safe with me.
Some hours later, I snatch Paco out of school a bit early so that he and I can get to Allegra’s first track meet of the season. She runs a relay early on and then the mile quite some time later, which means Paco and I stand at a balcony railing for a total of three hours, looking down on the track, shifting from foot to foot, chatting with a neighbor about the tough crop of sixth graders at his school this year. It is during Hour Two that Paco announces, woefully, “I can tell my medicine has worn off.” Despite his fatigue and low-level pain, he makes it to the end because “I want to see Leggy run.”
Saturday: I am standing downtown, waiting to cross the main street, when a blue car screeches up next to me. It’s a sometimes-colleague, the mother of one of Allegra’s classmates, a woman with whom I’ve sat at big, round tables during sports banquets. “Where are you going?” she asks after rolling down the window.
The answer is never easy. Where am I going? Well, in the next 25 minutes, I am going into that parking ramp down there, dropping my bag, grabbing my computer, walking to the library, doing a quick bit of work and saying hi to my staffing-the-checkout-counter husband, hoofing back to the car, jigging up to the gaming store where Paco has been playing Dungeons & Dragons with his friends, grabbing him, shopping for six things at the grocery store, getting a freebie birthday coffee drink, and driving home. “Where I’m going” is never brief.
In return, in a beautiful twist, she then asks me where she’s going.
That is, she doesn’t know where exactly to find the school where her daughter has been attending an ACT prep course, and do I know? For once, I actually know where something is, and when I give her directions, it becomes clear we’re both interested in covering the same 100 yards in the next two minutes. “Get in!” she commands. “I’ll drive you down a block.”
The second my rump hits the seat, I am glad to be there. Cruising the downtown streets, this friend has been in high snack mode; Wasabi almonds and dried mango cover the gear shifter, and a container of peanut butter pretzels is open on her lap. “Have some!” she exclaims, gesturing to the front-seat buffet. And I do.
Previous to this random encounter, to this impulsive moment, to this intersection of “Hey there, you,” I have often enjoyed Wasabi almonds and dried mango, but my experience with peanut butter pretzels has been limited, perhaps non-existent. Deep inside me, something protective has always whispered, “You have enough issues, girl. These things could be dangerous for you. Maybe don’t open this particular Pandora’s box of temptations, ‘k?”
It is my birthday, and I am 50 which feels like 26, and I am doing 12 things in the next half hour, yet suddenly I am in a car, engaged in rapid-fire exchanges with a lanky blonde, eating my first peanut butter pretzel —
it is my birthday, a day of reckoning with past voices, winking away protective whispers, walking within and outside my skin, laughing at a full and changeable agenda, giving over to quicksilver trust, collecting colorful stories, embracing fancies, puzzling my way from edge to center —
and every last bit of it couldn’t be more wonderful.