The Eternal Tourist

My parents weren’t hippies exactly, but I always thought that the social upheaval of the sixties was at least part of the wanderlust that infects both of them to this day. Intensely curious about cultures and socially conscious, my parents began roaming the world almost as soon as they said, “I do.” My dad finished his medical studies in Montreal. Later, the army would move them south to Texas, and while my dad served out his tour there, they became frequent visitors to Mexico and the surrounding states. Their curiosity took them on shoestring holidays to Europe and research-based stints as expats to Peru, and neither of them seemed to think parenthood was a good reason to slow down.

Riding in baby-backpacks and cars that would be condemned by modern child services agencies, we traveled across the country and out of it. We drove from the Eastern Seaboard to Central America. As we got older we started to fly to visit family in Europe. When we moved from the East Coast to the Midwest, my parents explored the heartland in earnest.

With all of that traveling and moving, it was inevitable that my sister and I would become infected with that same wanderlust that still takes my parents to the other side of the globe. I have fed the infection with multiple moves and travels of my own. And, while I am always eternally grateful to my parents for this affliction (I hope to pass it on to my kids someday) and these experiences, I think there was an unintended side effect.

When we moved to Peru, we knew we were visitors. Even when we learned the language, we spoke as foreigners and we were tourists as often as my Dad’s work schedule permitted. When we came home to the states the second time, though, I still felt a little like a visitor. We moved to the Midwest, and I felt even more like a visitor. We continued to travel, and I found I was happy visiting and observing and absorbing.

With one or two exceptions, I have loved most of the places we and I have visited and lived in, but looking back I realize I have spent most of my life feeling like a visitor. Even now, comfortably ensconced in the mountains of Vermont, I still wonder if we’ll be here for the long haul. I wonder what it would be like to live in Vancouver or Iceland or Italy – and if we will find out. There is always a sense of not completely belonging. For a long time, I lived as a witness, and that sense used to make me wonder if writers (as I wanted to be even then) or artists were supposed to be witnesses rather than full participants.

This question bothered me for years. After all, some of the greatest writers have been intense participants in the game of life.  One of my favorite exchanges in any movie was between Private Epstein and Jerome in Neil Simon’s Biloxi blues touches on this, and I think Simon was speaking to all artists when Private Epstein tells Jerome, “You have to take sides. You have to fight the good fight… Any fight. Until you do, you’ll never be a writer.”  It was a commentary that nagged at me for a while.

That was before the Big Guy came into my life.  His presence fed and nourished my wanderlust along with my heart, but I knew that, deep-down, I was still just a visitor in the places we lived. I was still an observer.

Then Thing1 came into our life, etching our family circle in stone. Thing1 was born on the road (we were living in Germany at the time), and at the time the Big Guy and I were long-term visitors together. But, thrown together on the endless adventure of parenthood, neither of us could remain casual observers – whether or not we would have wanted to be.

With the Big Guy’s help, Thing1 (and later Thing2) yanked me off the sidelines of life. I still wonder if I’ll ever belong to a place, but now I belong to a group of our own making.  Over the years it’s pull has grown stronger than any sense of place I’ve had, and because of it, I’m finding that Private Epstein was right. Fighting the good fight of growing our family – regardless of the theatre – has opened the door to becoming a real writer.


Pup Up with the Joneses

Most mornings when I drag myself out of bed for my 5AM display of writing discipline, I head to our study and shut the door.

Now that winter has finally arrived, however, something in me craves the company of the wood stove (it’s a want, not a need – our earth-sheltered house keeps the temps pretty steady), and I’ve been making my way out to my kitchen-study.  On these mornings, a soft jingle greets me as Katy, the wonder dog surreptitiously hops off the big green recliner in the family room, and I start the morning with a chuckle, amazed she still engages in the charade, if only once a day.

When I was a kid, my parents had a big black Lab named Rurik (my mom was studying Russian history then).  Their house was decidedly neater than ours – the neatness gene went to my sister – and there was never a question of whether dogs should be allowed on furniture.  Rurik was not.  Still, while he never openly challenged this rule or appeared to disobey at night, my mom would sometimes find a mass black fur on the burnt-umber sofa cushions after a day out.

We had this same pattern of rules and quiet, civil disobedience with our first dog after we moved to Vermont.  We acquired Josie, a Spoffordshire Terrier mix, from the local shelter while we were still under the influence of the German suburban sensibilities we had absorbed a couple years earlier while living just north of Frankfurt.  While our international experience hadn’t pumped up my cleaning mojo much, we did come back with certain ideas about how dogs should behave, and reserving furniture for humans was one of them.  Like Rurik, Josie had her ideas too, and she obeyed when we were there and left the telltale black-and-white fur on the sofa while we weren’t.

But the longer we lived in Vermont, the more suburban sensibilities we shed.  After the second year, we both abandoned any interest in restoring the front door of our then 200 year-old farmhouse and creating a formal entrance – the default entrance in Vermont is through the mudroom.  We both enthusiastically embraced the Vermont version of business casual (wearing your good jeans or newer Carhardts to work), and as we visited homes and got to know more of our neighbors, I unconsciously noticed that many people let dogs on furniture.

When we got Katy, we still stuck to our old ways – more out of habit than conviction now, but after a  year I found the evidence that she had taken up the dogs-on-furniture banner.  We caught her once or twice and shooed her off, but I clearly did not express my position well enough.  I wasn’t sure what my position was now.

She must have sensed a possible change in doggie fortunes in our house because soon after I brought home the green recliner from a tag sale, she staked it out as her spot.  The Big Guy shooed her off multiple times.  I did it a few times.  But each time she would return, soon not even waiting for us to leave before she slid one paw and then another onto the seat and then her body the rest of the way onto the chair.

I’ve chosen my big battles at this point.  The only ones I wage seriously now are to be sure Thing1 finishes seventh-grade English with as few psychological scars as necessarily and that Thing2 takes off the rainbow wig before school.  It might be because the Wonder Dog looks relatively cute sitting on that chair, but now, when I go over to give her a little petting, I realize that I’m getting almost too good at letting go of little battles.  Some people might call that laziness, and maybe I am lazy.  We’re not just not keeping’ up with the Joneses, we’ve given up on the whole race.  And while that may be a sign of our sloth, it does give us a chance to look around and enjoy the journey.


Cursing the Disco

A few sleepless mornings ago, my gloom was closing in on me so tightly that if I had started lighting candles to keep from cursing my darkness, I could have burned down our house – no small achievement when you consider it’s mostly concrete.

We’d come home late from a sad trip the night before.  I knew the upcoming work day would likely go long, to be capped off with an evening session of  ‘Are You Smarter than a Seventh Grader’ with Thing1 (complete with commentary by Thing2).  I was exhausted before I even got the kids up for school.

But the insomnia that was the door prize that came with my depression turned out to be a blessing (or a curse if you ask Thing1).  As I tossed and turned counting the minutes of sleep I wasn’t getting I suddenly remembered that there was a pile of new, unplayed songs on my iPod.  As I  had mapped out our trip a few nights before, I’d clicked back-and-forth between iTunes and the map site, absentmindedly clicking the ‘Download’ button here and there.

The thing I love and hate about iTunes is that it’s so dang easy to engage in a little retail therapy without wondering where to hide the bags or if I want a song badly enough to be willing to dust it later.  That’s how I ended up with 30 new songs in the time it took to print my maps and reserve a hotel (I think that’ll hold up in court).

So with an hour to myself before I needed to get the kids up, I hopped out of bed and pulled my purchases into a new playlist, hoping the songs would be safer than using fire to fight off my funk.

I find that when I’m in a bad mood, I tend to get a little nostalgic about my music choices, and my indulgence in retail therapy a few nights before was not a sign of a good mood.  And, when I saw that bunch of Earth, Wind & Fire tunes for $2.99, I clicked on it.  I love those songs because they evoke memories of my dad’s mix tapes painstakingly recorded on reel-to-reel, as well as images of the god-awful clothes of that era that are still preserved in photographs for eternity and future blackmail.  But, as anyone who’s heard the songs knows, they’re also killer dance tunes as Thing1, my twelve-year-old (much to his horror) was about to discover shortly.

I got my playlist loaded and synced just in time to push the kids out the door.  Most mornings Thing1 is the arbiter of musical taste in the car.  He’s currently in a two-year Beatles and Stones phase, and when Boogie Wonderland came on, his hand automatically moved to the forward button.  But I was ready for this and intercepted him.

“Leave it,”I ordered with the mock seriousness it takes to command his obedience.

“Okay, Mom,” he laughed, pretending to be in awe of my display of authority.  My mood brightened as we jokingly argued about my musical choices.  I turned up the volume, and, in the rearview mirror, I could see six-year-old Thing2 in his carseat bopping his head happily to the beat.  It was infectious, and I started dancing a little too.  I knew I might have lit one too many candles at that point.

Real fear crept into Thing1’s eyes, and I knew what was going through his mind.  Would the song end before we hit the school parking lot?  Would Mom hit the rewind button?  Would Mom still be drive-seat-dancing when we arrived?

We got closer to town and the song switched, but to Thing1’s chagrin, there were no Beatles tunes in the on-deck circle.  Thing2 and I continued to dance, though I restrained myself a bit as we got closer to town and the traffic got thicker.

“Mom.”  Thing1 murmured as we turned onto the school street.  “Mom.” He grew insistent as we got closer.  A stalled line of cars came into view ahead of us as we approached the school, and my own dancing ceased.  Thing1’s confirmed belief is that his authority over my behavior is in direct proportion to his proximity to middle school, but in reality, I just remember how much middle school sucked, and the threat of my dancing or singing in public is an empty one.  Today, though, it would have been fun to keep that fire burning a little longer.

I drove him up to the door and wished him a good day.  I told him I loved him, and as he climbed out of the car, shaking his head, he muttered what so many young people climbing out of Pintos and Pontiacs shaking under the weights of dancing middle-aged moms with too many choices on the eight track or cassette must have muttered before him: “I hate Disco.”