Sunday, January 14, 2007

On Becoming Callused

My husband let me open my Christmas present early. The gift was one of his most romantic ever; a beautiful guitar with a red cedar top, wild cherry back and sides, and a silver leaf maple neck. It’s strings sound almost bell-like when plucked. I quickly learned how to contort my fingers into the correct shapes for several chords and began strumming out halting versions of “Away in a Manger,” “Bring a Torch Janette Isabella,” “O Come, O Come Emanuel,” “Good King Wenceslaus,” and “The Little Drummer Boy.”

The first day I began with vigor and remarked over and over about how the instrument almost seemed to play itself. The action was low and the strings virtually melted beneath my fingers. Naturally, I picked up the guitar on the next morning expecting similar results. That time though, the tips of my fingers screamed in revolt. Apparently, the day before had been a breaking in period, but after that, they were rendered as tender as rare filet mignon. The arduous process of developing rubbery skin on the tips of each finger was only beginning. In terms of hurtles to becoming a guitarist, this was only the first. I knew from experience that higher and more challenging obstacles lay on the track ahead, but the process of acquiring calluses certainly qualified as the most intense.

In a way, the whole process strikes me as somewhat of a metaphor for motherhood. Just as guitarists proudly display their hard-earned calluses, even women whose children have long since flown the nest continue to recount horror stories about labor for no other purpose than to remind themselves of the inner stamina and strength they can summon in dire need. Get one started and the horrific tales can flow for hours on end making even the most stalwart expectant mother cringe. Twice I have endured the throws of childbirth. Unlike my aching fingertips on the steel strings, however, my contractions did not have the luxury of being postponed for a later practice session. After three solid hours of pushing to bring my daughter into the world, I was so exhausted I spoke only in whispers. I was told later that my bone structure is the perfect shape for a baby to make a side-ways entrance, however, since they don’t choose to come that way, coaxing one out of my body is extremely arduous. I was also told that had I opted for an epidural during labor, the exit would have been rendered impossible and a dangerous c-section would have become necessary. From all the stories of second-time mothers, I had high hopes that the birth of my son would be quick and easy. Granted, it was quicker. I only pushed for an hour and a half before he saw daylight. The intensity of sensations and agony, expectation and despair I felt during that hour and a half, though, is something I will remember to my dying day. During both labors, the logical side of my brain as well as my wonderful husband kept assuring me that this would not go on forever, that I would emerge on the other side in a relatively short amount of time. The defeatist portion of my brain was screaming out that one more contraction was more than I could take, that even three pushes more would amount to an eternity of agony. During the birth of Clara Grace, my logical side won out and I remained calm and demure. During the birth of Everett, my defeatist side won out and I’m sorry to say that at one point, I nearly kicked the poor midwife across the room. In either case, whether or not my dignity was in tact, the process of birth continued and each time, within twenty-four hours of labor I was happily snuggling a wriggling newborn. Needless to say, an indelible lesson about the prized fruits of painful labor was learned.

“You have to keep playing,” I told myself. “It’s bound to get better.” I’m sorry to say that I hadn’t merely transferred this bit of wisdom on calluses from my time on the birthing table. I had actually experienced the process of tender and hardening fingertips on several occasions. But calluses, as with many things in life, adhere to the time-honored mandate, “Use it or lose it.” How my throbbing fingertips were chastising me for the former calluses, which had once protected them and then been allowed to fade away with lack of practice.

There was the first time I owned a guitar way back in junior high. I’ll give you three guesses as to why I made that purchase. You got it. A boy in a garage band had slipped me a copy of their really pitiful album. He happened to be the lead singer, and I use the term singer loosely. Even back then when I was under the spell of infatuation, I had to admit that I couldn’t understand a word of his vocals and that any tune their was, was either very free or a bit strayed from on his part. But that was fine, he’d written the songs, and it was the eighty’s after all, an era when half the songs coming out of the radio sounded pretty much the same.

I knew nothing about instruments and really didn’t have the funds to act on the knowledge had I known that all guitars are not created equal. As a result, I wound up with a piece of junk from China baring the general shape of a guitar and a high gloss finish. The instrument needed to be put out of its misery, but if I was ever going to try to get music from the oversized, plywood cigar box, it was in an even more desperate need of a set up. I really did give it a valiant effort, but the strings were at least three quarters of an inch from the fingerboard, and no amount of calluses can compensate for that. So in the end, my devotion to learning the guitar faded away as did my interest in the semi-talented rocker. By the time my first calluses had vanished, the dust was already collecting on the faux-leather case in my closet.

Much later, I traded that guitar in to fund a part of my future husband’s, present. Have you ever tried to put wrapping paper around a banjo case? It’s not an easy feat, I assure you. Jeff loved the gift. Fortunately, he was still like myself in that oblivious state about the varying quality of instruments. Unlike the guitar which had gone to fund its purchase, his banjo was playable, but they did share similarities in the far from pleasant tones they could produce.

My next instrument purchase was at a yard sale and surprisingly; it was here that I got the luckiest. It was standard practice for me to ask if there were any musical instruments for sale. Most of the time, people just gave me the weary “if it isn’t out here…” look, but one time it paid off. “I think I still have that old violin in the attic my dad forced me to play in high school,” the woman manning the sale told me bitterly. “I’d love to get rid of that thing.” Like ninety-nine percent of all the dusty violins in attics, this one had a faded label that read “Stradivarius,” and like all those other violins it was definitely a copy. The instrument however was a relatively decent violin made a quarter century ago in Mittenwald Germany and what it lacked in projection, it made up for in a warm and sweet tone. I took lessons and actually progressed on the fiddle. Fortunately for me, a violin’s fine strings don’t require much in the way of calluses. It’s cousin the mandolin however, which I decided to tackle next was another story.

I settled on the mandolin because its fingering is the same as the fiddle’s. Why not be able to play two instruments for the price of one? By this time however, I had learned to do a little bit of research before purchasing an instrument. Good sound was of course a prerequisite, but to really interest me, an instrument had to be unique. The fiddle to which I had upgraded, for example, was number 103 handmade by Jean Ivy. Jeff and I had to travel past the point of all civilization to the very top of Sand Mountain, which is every bit as desolate as its name suggests, to try out the fiddles hanging in Mr. Ivey’s workshop, but the fiddle I brought home was well worth it. The mandolin I finally chose was a traditional, honey-gold A-style and sounded exquisite, but I soon found I’d need some perseverance if I wanted to enjoy its music. With its double steel strings, a mandolin feels something like a meet tenderizer on the tips of your fingers. Despite the grueling process, I’ve gone through several sets of calluses since my first painful weeks with the instrument.

I am playing guitar and mandolin now with a passion and am thoroughly enjoying every spare minute I can steal away to practice. My fingers are as tough as shoe leather now and can bend a steel string under one-hundred-fifty pounds of pressure without even causing me to flinch. I would be extremely na├»ve to hope though, that if I die at a ripe old age, these calluses will be the same, which accompany me to the grave. I know myself far too well and can already see other interests like beautiful ivy vines winding themselves into the few moments of free time my days afford and choking temporarily my regular practice time on the guitar. Probably though, that will be months down the road and I will have been afforded enough time to become at least a passable performer on the instrument. I’ve come to terms with this seeming flightiness to my disposition. I’ll never be a concert guitarist, that much I can say with certainty. I will however, certainly be able to play songs with my children, and even be asked to jam and perform with a host of interesting people; all completely enjoying the process of learning and growing, and good enough on their instrument to make other people happy when they listen. It is true that the world needs virtuosos, but I for one, am happy that my genetics spared me the single-mindedness and unswerving dedication that this lot in life requires. There’s no telling how many instruments I will try to conquer during my lifetime, and no telling how many will be eventually set aside in a closet for later discovery and how many will become a daily facet of my life as the fiddle has.

So now, I have my calluses, the rite of passage for all guitarists, and am plugging away at the far less exciting challenge of daily practice. Maybe someday they’ll come up with something like an epidural for the five days of breaking in fleshy fingertips. I’d be tempted, although, these newly acquired badges of endurance are definitely doing their part to keep me on the path of commitment. And the long hours of monotonous strumming aren’t completely without rewards either. Simple treasures can be gleaned during the drudgeries of practice just as during the long days of endless diaper changes, there are the brilliant moments of success; I played “Amazing Grace” smoothly with almost undetectable chord transitions, Clara Grace gripped my hand and told me earnestly, “Mama, want to hear, I love you again.” I discovered the melody notes hidden among the chords of “Down In The Valley”, Everett patted my arm while he was eating and was surely thinking “I love being here.” Birth, in itself, is a rite of passage, and unlike guitars, children cannot be put off for a day or come back to when one has more time. Being a truly wonderful mom is one occupation in which I do intend to be something of a virtuoso.

Friday, December 15, 2006

A New Pet Peeve

This morning, as I stirred squashed grapes, water, and flour together until they congealed into a gooey paste, I felt an eerie kinship to Dr. Frankenstein. After all, wasn’t I combining several organic elements in the attempt to create something even slightly more alive? Trust me, once you double check to make sure no metal utensils or bowls have been involved, place the concoction in a warm, well protected area, and check anxiously for signs of bubbles each morning, a sourdough starter really can become your “baby” so to speak. The only problem is, that at this time, I really don’t need any more babies. I really don’t even have time for a pet, not even the quiet, housebroken type like a sourdough starter. A starter still needs to be fed, and even played with. Of course, it certainly has cats beat in regards to the treats it gratefully delivers to its master. My last starter left pizza dough, bagels, and loads of bread before it met its demise. In short, I’m sorry to say that it died a slow death of starvation in my frigerator and then was dumped unceremoniously down the drain. Due to no fault of its own, its pungent, tangy odor of which I had once been so fond became absolutely abhorrent to me during the first few months of my second pregnancy.

“Don’t open the refrigerator door!” I remember warning my oblivious husband. It was too late, before I could stop him, he had unleashed the aroma into the entire house.

“I don’t smell anything,” he protested. Nevertheless, the kitchen was rendered useless for around forty-eight hours unless I cared to suffer extreme nausea. Still, after all that, I was reluctant to make a quick end to the little guy. For whatever reason, guilt, laziness, trepidation of actually opening the container and experiencing the full magnitude of the smell, I let the starter languish slowly away into a blob of goo, fermentation, and mold. Not a pretty sight I assure you.

Months have passed and the tiny baby that triggered such violent changes in my olfactory sense is actually over ten weeks old. My husband has been not so subtly hinting that I bring another batch to life. He stops forlornly at the bagel displays in the grocery store and comments, “Lender’s Bagels; I used to like those, but you’ve spoiled me for good.” Last week, he came home from an in-service where fresh bagels from Panera were offered and he told me pitifully, “I tried to eat one, but it just tasted like rubber.” A few months ago he asked if in honor of his birthday I might make a dozen bagels. That, he said, would be all the present he would need. Ha! All the present he needs, my foot. He knows good and well that once I get a starter going bagels will appear every few days, more bagels than we could ever possibly eat. Once a starter comes to life, it must be fed, and used, or, well, I’ve already gone into that.

Well, Jeff’s birthday is in less than twenty days and for better or worse, his present is burbling to life on my counter top now. What do you know? I’ve already had to resist the urge to check for bubbles and I know there couldn’t possibly be any for at least another twelve hours. Actually, there might not be any ever. Apparently, from all I’ve read, my fetal starter must harness the wild yeasts from the air in order to begin the fermentation process. Of course, I could have added dried yeast which is probably the way ninety-nine percent of sour dough bakers coax their starters to life. If I’m going to do something though, I usually end up doing it the most authentic way—or in other words, the hardest way possible. So if bubbles appear tomorrow letting me know a few of the wild yeasts which scientists aren’t even sure exist have been captured from the air of my kitchen, of course, I’ll feel a bit of motherly pride toward the fledgling batch of goo. I’ll probably also make all sorts of internal promises to insure this blob doesn’t suffer the same fate as its predecessor.

In the area of cultivating batches of starter, some people must have fortitude and commitment that far exceeds my own. These traits are quite possibly genetic since certain families can manage to keep a starter thriving for generations. When I was babying my first batch, I read longingly of mixtures, which had been kept alive lovingly since their journey across the prairie on the Oregon Trail. It is claimed that such starters have a flavor beyond compare—that the longer they live the more desirable baked goods they yield. I remember laying in bed night after night scheming on how I might become chummy with one of these honored sourdough owners and then after a bit offer to help them ensure the continued legacy of their starter by caring for a bit of it in my refrigerator. Luckily, for my sake and that of sour dough posterity, I never obtained any of this cherished sludge. Just imagine how guilt-striken I would be at actually dumping such an esteemed century old batch of goo down the drain since I was virtually crippled with guilt at parting with my mere run-of-the-mill glump. I can remember as my poor starter was gasping for it’s very last breaths in the fridge, eulogizing over how it had only reached a ripe old age of a month, but already matured in taste somewhat. Oh well, here I go again. Here’s to second chances.

Anyone want to guess at my New Year’s Resolution?

Thursday, December 14, 2006


Multitasking: isn’t that supposed to be a hallmark of a successful mother? I used to be pretty good at it, but now, I’m trying my hardest to break myself of the urge and forget how it’s done.

Ten weeks ago, I gave birth to my second child. I had attempted to prepare myself mentally for the added labor involved in caring for two children as opposed to one, but the magnitude of that transition is one that really has to be experienced first hand. My first day alone with a two year old and a newborn could be described as many things, but not rewarding. Labor had seriously thrown something in my back out of joint. I could move, but my movements resembled more closely those of a hunched arthritic senior than the spry thirty year old that I was. Most of that morning was a blur, but I do remember that there was a lot of crying. Everett cried, but I suppose that was understandable. Clara Grace cried and threw herself down on the floor in one of her two-year-old convulsive fits. I cried, and changed diapers, and diapers, and more diapers, and somehow made lunch for my daughter before blissfully tucking her in for an early nap. I knew I somehow had to prevent the next day from being even half as chaotic. After a twice-interrupted night’s sleep, I braced myself for the ordeal with a few cherished moments in my safe bed and then, with an already familiar whimper from the bassinette, my day began early.

It was during this second morning though, that the epiphany came. I was on my way to change Everett’s diaper when I stepped on a colorful, wooden block. Instinctively, I bent to retrieve the misplaced toy. “Want some yogurt.” Clara Grace called from her high chair. Block and Everett in hand, I detoured to the kitchen, only to realize it was very difficult to open a yogurt container one handed. On my way to the high chair, another toy lay directly in my path, and the impulse to grow an imaginary arm and pick it up was maddening. “I can’t do this,” I thought in a panic. No matter how much I do, three times that is undone even faster. Out of nowhere, that logical part of my brain for which I am extremely grateful overrode my pounding blood pressure and shallow breaths. I realized in a stark moment of clarity that getting more than one thing done at once was going to be impossibility. What I needed to do, was to do one thing and only one thing at a time, but to do that one thing to the best of my ability.

So now, when I’m feeding Everett, instead of making mental notes of every plaything Clara Grace is strewing across the living room in order to collect them the moment he unlatches, I’m remembering to trace his oversized baby ear and soft, ample cheek. When I set lunch down for Clara Grace, instead of using her captive moments in the high chair to throw crusty breakfast plates into the dishwasher, I’m enjoying a conversation with her over my own cheese sandwich and apple. And in the afternoon, when Everett is not willing to go down for a nap without me close by, instead of longing for all the masterpieces I could be writing with just a bit of free time, I’m relaxing in bed and breathing in the beautiful fragrance of fuzzy infant hair.

Of course, this theory of unitasking has its limitations. Priorities sometimes override the perfect system. For example, If I’m cooing back and forth to Everett while changing his poopy diaper, and suddenly hear a noisy thud that sounds uncannily like a two year old falling from the height of, oh, say the kitchen table, baby talk is put on hold. Or vice versa, if I’m enjoying a wonderfully creative play-doh session with Clara Grace and then notice an inordinate amount of warm barf suddenly running down my neck and sleeves, experimenting with bumpy shell imprints can wait.

I certainly haven’t become perfect at this new way of organizing my day. Unfortunately for all concerned, I often find myself relapsing into that frazzled, hypertensive drill sergeant. The strange thing is that when I find myself in that mode, the house doesn’t stay any cleaner, we don’t get out the door any sooner, and we never ever have much fun. Conversely, another funny thing is that ever since I resigned myself to letting certain things go, I find that everything I needed to get done eventually does get done. When I get a chance to clean or do the laundry, I make sure to make the most of that time and low and behold, our house is still standing.

So, excluding relapses and momentary snags, my days really have seen a vast improvement. Even despite the great results I’m finding though, eliminating the urge to be more productive than humanly possible still proves a constant battle. It’ll take about eighteen years or so to fully work the bugs out of the system I suppose. By the way, I haven’t asked a mother of three or more whether my discovery of unitasking still applies and I don’t think I’m brave enough at this point to test it out myself.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

High Time for a Vacation

I’ve been missing the ocean lately. Whenever I stand just on the border of land and water with cool white foam washing over my toes and eroding the warm sand right out from under my feet, I feel so much more myself. Thoughts wash over me by the ocean in waves of inspiration just as thrilling and deep as the water before me. And it’s always been that way, even since I was a little girl.

I remember when I was very, very young, looking out over the blue green expanse in sheer wonder. All around, there were other children knocking down sand castles, prodding dried up jelly fish or burying their parents in the sand, but I didn’t notice any of it. I was staring out over the sea trying to picture it as the very same waters in which at this very moment enormous whales were diving and breeching. It was the very same ocean over which ships captained by explorers had taken months to traverse. I was connected to all of it, the present, the past, and the enormity, right then just because those very same waters were washing back and forth over my toes.

Later that afternoon, exploration and marine life came together in a far less metaphysical manner. I commandeered a two-man rubber raft and squeezed in with my brother and cousin. When common sense personified by the two other passengers of the vessel begged me to turn back, I urged them to go just one bit farther. Secretly, I wondered how deep the rolling water had grown beneath us. I gazed at a distant shore with an unsurpassed thrill. Just then, a splash very near our boat made me turn once again to the horizon. My cousin had just seen an enormous tail slip back into the waves, but she was sure it had to be a shark. In sheer panic, I dove overboard and everyone else followed. Not logical, I know, but for some reason, it seemed the safest course of action at the time. Safely in our hotel room, my mom informed me that sharks don’t jump out of the water in that way. I had most likely encountered a dolphin as a visitor in the midst of its vast home.

My next trip to the ocean came sometime during adolescence. Once again, I stood in the gentle surf and gazed down the long stretch of foam. The beach was almost empty making the place feel almost magical. I truly felt as if anyone, even the most unexpected person, might suddenly appear on the horizon and walk along the tide line to meet me. When I pondered whom out of all people living or dead I most wanted to see, I discovered that it was my older self whom I desperately hoped would appear strolling along for a quiet seaside chat. There were, after all, so many questions I needed to ask her. Did she ever fall in love? Did she write any books? In what country did she live? How many languages could she speak? And most important of all, did she like me?

Years later, I did fall in love and marry. My husband and I spent our honeymoon beside the ocean. He’s more of a woods and lakes person, but he knew how much it would mean to me. On our first day, he encouraged me to swim with him out to a distant sandbar. Knowing he didn’t enjoy swimming like I did, and knowing he was probably thinking more of a swim in his Michigan lakes, I declined. He tried again believing this would be something I’d truly enjoy. “There might be sharks out there,” I told him matter-of-factly.

“There’s no sharks out there,” he teased.

“This is the ocean,” I told him and waved a hand over the churning water grandiosely. “Where do you think the sharks are?” This was my domain, and I reveled in sharing it with him; the mystery, danger, beauty, and excitement. Later that afternoon we met a coastguard pilot on the beach who mentioned a few six-foot sharks he’d spotted cruising along that very bar.

The next day we bought a few Styrofoam boogey boards and decided to stay close to shore. We were having a wonderful time until I announced that I felt something brush against my leg. “It was probably just seaweed,” Jeff told me trying his best to put on a show of enjoying the water for my sake.

“No, It was definitely fleshy,” I told him. It took two more of these encounters before Jeff actually felt one himself. When a patch of the reddish seaweed cleared, he saw for the first time that we were in the midst of a swarming school of stingrays. Needless to say, I forgot the time-honored wisdom of shuffling your feet in the sand on your exit.

Despite our close calls with nature, we both remember that week as the best in our lives. One night, over eight years later, when I felt completely overwhelmed and sleeping was impossible, Jeff ran his fingers through my hair and told me in a soothing whisper, “Whenever I start feeling too much stress, I just think about our week on the ocean. Try it.” I took his advice. I thought back on teaching him how to eat crab legs, our matching striped beach towels laid out on the sand, and floating in our rubber raft beneath the moonlight, and I was fast asleep in a matter of minutes.

Jeff says the lakes and forests are his favorite places in the world. He grew up right in the midst of Northern Michigan, which happens to be an ideal spot for both. The forest has always been my second love, but lakes never really appealed to me at all. That’s partially because I grew up in Tennessee and the only lakes I knew were little better than mud holes. When he first brought me to Lake Michigan I was amazed. There was sand, waves, and a watery horizon. This should be good enough, I told myself; this is just like the ocean. No matter how I tried to convince myself that I was standing by the sea though, my senses rebelled. The breeze was clean and fresh, but there was no nostalgic brine. The sand was smooth and warm, but it held no treasure trove of bumpy tiger claws, unbleached sand dollars, smashed conchs, or colorful butterfly shells that wriggled for cover after each wave. The water was safe and saltless, but it held no mystery, no danger, no thrill. Lake Michigan stretched as far as the eye could see, but something inside me reached out in hopes of feeling the boundless depths and broad expanse of an ocean and found land far too near.

Jeff has been undergoing a battery of personality tests during a year-long leadership program. There have been tests that categorize people by all sorts of details, but none that group them according to the places on earth that make them feel most alive. Why not? Doesn’t this seem one of the most telling aspects to a person’s nature? What if my ingrained longing for the sea is connected inextricably to the same inner passion for vastness, excitement, beauty, and connections to bigger things like whales and explorer’s ships? What if Jeff’s tranquility, contentment, and lack of a need to travel and grasp for things beyond boundaries is expressed in his love of lakes? What if both of us feel renewed in the forest because we enjoy shelter, quiet, the industry of creatures, and the music of birds? Are there people who think wistfully of a rolling plain or long for a high mountaintop?

Just two years ago, I stood in the surf and all the thoughts of all the years before rolled in and out of my mind. I pictured gigantic whales plumbing unfathomable depths and sails of ancient explorer’s ships billowing in the wind. I glanced down the strand and smiled wondering whether my younger self, the outgoing and awkward, confident and insecure adolescent would make an appearance. I wanted to introduce her to the wonderful husband who stood beside me and to the baby growing in my womb. What I would have given to glimpse for just a moment in that little girl, the energy, optimism and dreams which time had slowly mellowed in myself. I wanted to hug her and tell her how special she was and most of all, that yes, I did like her. Only, then I wondered, would she be happy with me? Would she want to know that she was just a Spanish teacher, a mediocre fiddle player, and an unpublished author? Would that idealistic and dream-filled little girl understand that she would someday be happy, very happy, even though she didn’t have a job in a foreign country or a talent that made her famous? Would she be all right with knowing even twenty years later, she would still be stretching and pushing her boundaries just like the constant ocean waves?