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Archive for February, 2013

What passes for relaxation

It always irks me when someone says “You can’t understand unless…” about anything. When I was a teenager, of course, this feeling was at its height. Like all teenagers, I was certain that I knew everything I needed to know, and I did not believe in the existence of wisdom, or the value of experience. By now, I believe in those two, and have just enough wisdom to know I don’t have much of it. When I rankle at someone telling me, “You’ll understand once you’ve…” I feel the indignant teenager toss her head within me again.

Because of this, I try never to say, “You can’t understand unless…” about anything. I think human empathy can get itself around most anything. It’s largely a matter of degree rather than flat ability. Without becoming a mother a person can grasp the nature of motherhood. It’s the intensity of it that comes as a surprise when it actually comes. So too for the boredom of motherhood. And the tedium, and the exhaustion, and the adjustment to a world where the rare free and quiet moment must be wrangled from something else, carefully orchestrated, and anything but spontaneous.

The zen of institutional ceiling tiles.

The zen of institutional ceiling tiles.

My adjusted expectations allow me to look longingly forward to my drive to work, teaching my night class. A cup of tea, NPR or an audiobook, and 35 minutes of mindless, quiet highway stretching before me is, very often, a highlight of my day. I am very rarely alone, and never doing absolutely nothing, so my Tuesday morning this week was a remarkable island of meditative calm: I had a thyroid ultrasound. Ultrasound rooms are dimly lit, and generally warm, and ultrasound machines do not make any clanking or whirring sounds, so it’s also quiet. I lay flat on my back while a very kind technician, Jennifer, swept the sound waves over my throat. I never remain still unless commanded to, or asleep. Having been commanded, I remained motionless, staring up at the patterns in the ceiling. I wanted to see the images of my thyroid, but it was not possible from my angle, so I resigned myself to stillness. The thought that I needed to pick up my kids soon was tramping around the edges of my consciousness, but I am experienced enough in the care and feeding of anxiety that I kept it penned outside. By the end of the exam, I was feeling absurdly relaxed. In my world, a rejuvenating stay in a warm, dimly lit room costs me not a massage therapist’s rate, but a co-pay to Harvard Pilgrim. And for now, I will take what I can get.

Oh, and as for my diagnosis? It appears to be simply that I am thin, and small, and all my normal anatomy–salivary glands, thyroid, lymph nodes–seem pathologically prominent to doctors who are, as Jennifer said, “used to flabby necks.” I am simultaneously pleased and saddened by this.

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Casual Friday in the Continental Army

Casual Friday in the Continental Army

I have been remiss. I have allowed two days to pass without mentioning George Washington’s birthday. Rest assured, the occasion did not go unmarked in the Courchesne household. On Friday, we used a cardboard box to make puppets. Once they were constructed, (Simon’s looking like a blob on a stick, but purportedly a monster, and Malcolm’s like a guy in jeans and a mullet, but purportedly George Washington) it was time to devise the theatrical performance.

Malcolm and Simon set up the puppets on the coffee table and Malcolm announced, “There will be several pit stops.” “Pit stops?” I asked. “Yes,” he answered, “like when people watching need to go to the bathroom.” “Ah, intermissions,” I told him. He then began the play. Thirty seconds in, he yelled, “Intuition!” “It’s intermission, Malcolm.” “Oh, ok. Intermission.” But there were two more “intuitions” yet to follow in the next two minutes alone.

The overall theme of the play seemed to be the Siege of Boston and subsequent end to the standoff upon Henry Knox’s delivery of cannon from Fort Ticonderoga. Script as Malcolm wrote it:

Washington: “Henry! You have brought the cannon! How many?”

Henry Knox: “All sir! We even saved every one from the icy waters when they went down.”

Washington: “We will rain cannon fire down on the heads of the British!”

What followed was a confusing battle scene that ended with Puppet George Washington leaping from the stage onto the couch and giving me what appeared to be a lap dance. The descent into absurdity was complete upon the arrival of the blob-on-a-stick monster, as I think you will see upon viewing their video.

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It’s a hard time of year in New England. It’s not the snow, but the gray. On blue sky afternoons, sun glittering through the woods onto a  heavy mat of snow traced over by wild tracks, I have no quarrel with winter. But February is not mostly like that. My biology students, required to go outside for 30 minutes a week and observe the world, are sulkily belligerent, pouting and telling me, “Nothing is alive out there. Everything’s dead. And cold.” Quite untrue of course, except the cold part.

Daylight is slowly advancing into both the morning and the evening though, which seems, sometimes, the only hopeful sign. Still, it’s too dark for me to run outside before work, and too dark after, so I am relegated to a basement treadmill most of the week. It’s boring, and I realized the other day that my late winter craving for color has gotten significantly out of hand. My outfits have grown progressively more outrageous:

Did I drop my wardrobe in a bucket of early 90s?

Did I drop my wardrobe in a bucket of early 90s?

This was clear to me as I plodded along on the treadmill, observing my reflection in its shiny display screen, and that of my iPhone, streaming podcasts to make me feel less imprisoned and lonely. I enjoy my reflection generally, taking a narcissistic joy in watching myself bound along. But over the last couple weeks, there has also been a new, subtle something there. A rounded shadow on my throat, not noticeable to anyone but me. I had registered its presence even before my dentist felt something under my jaw and sent me to an oral surgeon, who, with long, elegant fingers, pressed against it and said it was my thyroid. My butterfly shaped thyroid had grown too big, distorting its upper wings until they brushed up against the insides of my jawbone. The right kind of dark butterfly for this time of year anyway.

The doctor then began a vague, information free speech about thyroids that I mostly ignored as my brain rifled through the actual possibilities: usually benign, often subclinical, the approachable word “adenoma” rather than the malignant and blithely destructive carcinoma. The odds are heavily in my favor, so I am not terribly concerned. But I am now down low in the long trough between detection and diagnosis, waiting for an appointment with another doctor. I am not even middle aged, and this does not really even rise to the level of a “health scare,” but as I drove home bearing the news of something not quite right in me, I realized that there is a long chapter of my life ahead where I cannot any longer expect everything to be perfectly fine. That there is ever more likely to be news coming home from these appointments. If I needed any further reminder of why I doggedly adhere to my running schedule, I don’t anymore. Another afternoon, another treadmill run, to quiet my mind and remind my body what it means to stay alive.

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I suppose he just wanted to join the loons.

I suppose he just wanted to join the loons.

On Saturday we drove to Salisbury Beach State Reservation. We dropped off Christophe so he could commence his 17 mile run home, and the remaining three of us went out to walk the beach. We go outside a lot, in any weather, but our ventures to Salisbury are generally for the purpose of documenting dead birds for the SEANET program. This means a 1.5 mile round trip, and, when in the company of two young boys, about an hour and a half.

I was poking about in the piles of wrack and discarded plastic while the boys dug holes and inspected crab carapaces. Suddenly, I heard Simon howling. I turned around to see him nearly up to his knees in the water. His face was contorted with  shock and pain and he appeared paralyzed by the full force of the north Atlantic in winter. I hauled him up onto the sand and stared into his face asking, “Why? Simon, WHY did you do that?” I felt for the boy, of course, but my bewilderment was extreme. What had possessed him to blithely stride into 35 degree water? “Simon, you could die out here doing that!” I said. This was patently ridiculous, since the car was within sight, but I do try to instill general wilderness survival principles whenever I can. Malcolm offered his input: “It’s not the cold, Simon. It’s being wet.”

Pilfered socks and a snack.

Pilfered socks and a snack.

We still had most of our SEANET walk ahead of us, and I sat next to Simon deciding what to do. There was no wind, and it was pretty warm at 37 degrees. He just needed to have dry feet. “OK Simon. I’ll give you my socks.” Simon looked suddenly delighted. The boys are obsessed with my socks and they raid my sock drawer almost daily. I was beginning to think this ocean immersion was planned.

I took off my boots and stripped my thick wool socks off. On his reddened, clammy feet, they reached up to his knees. He was clearly relieved. But what to do about his sodden shoes, which would instantly soak through the socks? Yankee ingenuity. I had a couple grocery bags and I tore one into two pieces. These I placed over the socks and then put the water-logged sneakers over them.

Bag socks: an innovation

Bag socks: an innovation

We made it through the walk and even, at its southern terminus, found an extensively scavenged Canada Goose corpse. My own feet stayed quite warm in my serious winter boots, so it was no real sacrifice. After all, I would freeze to death myself if it would save him. But he doesn’t need to know that. Otherwise, my sock drawer will never be safe.

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Self portrait after tree-peeing.

Self portrait after tree-peeing.

The day after last weekend’s blizzard, I went out for my 15 mile run. Five miles in (and therefore with 10 yet to go) I realized that my need for a pee break was becoming urgent and undeniable. I am an outdoorsy sort, and do not flinch at the use of outdoor “facilities” in general, but as I scanned the roadsides in this sleepy New Hampshire town, I realized that I was facing an unusual problem: walls of snow up to eight feet high hemming in the road on both sides. There are no stores or gas stations along my routes here, and the public libraries are not open on Sundays. So it was either brave the snowbanks and risk a cold, damp run, or pee myself and, after the initial warmth dissipated, guarantee one. I located a moderately dense stand of hemlocks offering at least some cover and waded straight into a snowbank. After a successful step or two, I sank to my hips. I had to roll down the backside of the bank and up against a tree. Trying to stand, it became clear that the snow would not support me at all, and I was buried to my thighs in snow which was pressing in and beginning to melt in my shoes. I then did the only reasonable thing. I dropped my running tights, and reached up to grab a pair of branches on either side of the tree. Shimmying my feet up along the hemlock trunk, I hung there like some bare-bottomed macaque while my urine dropped away and excavated a 2 foot deep well in the snow beneath me.

Feeling much better, I composed myself again and attempted to climb back up the snowbank to the road. But I was in a culvert of some kind, and the bank rose more than 4 feet above my head. I wormed my way up on my belly and rolled over the crest, flopping unceremoniously onto the road, standing just as a car rounded the bend. I brushed all the snow off and set out for the remaining 10 miles, relieved in more ways than one. After all, no one had witnessed this spectacle, and no one need ever know it had occurred. Then I decided to blog about it. Why? I’m not sure. The only thing I know for certain is that hanging from a tree to publicly urinate is still nothing in comparison to a long parade of interns and residents who seem to want to recreationally fondle one’s cervix during labor. I guess what I’m saying is, motherhood changes you in more ways than you might expect.

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First, the usual disclaimer: while we keep a vegan diet (with the exception of honey), we do not live the “vegan lifestyle,” eschewing wool, leather, etc. Thus the categorization pseudo-vegan.

Ozark cavefish/The vegan in the popular imagination.

Ozark cavefish/The vegan in the popular imagination.

Before we adopted our diet about a year ago, I suppose I shared many of the conscious and subconscious biases against vegans. Weird, weak, anemic and self-righteous zealots they are, in the minds of your average omnivore, who may not have met many vegans. When we started eating this way, we got a moderate amount of apparently well meaning push back, mostly from people who feared we would slowly waste away, devolving into blind cave-fish with translucent skin and a wan, pinkish hue for lack of animal products. Turns out, that hasn’t happened! Here are a few things that have happened, and that no one warned me about.

1) Our fridge filled with bags of strange hippie foods like nutritional yeast, farro, bulgur, vital wheat gluten and chia seeds. I like chia seeds. But what no one tells you is that, after eating a nice helping, when you go off for a public speaking engagement, some of the tiny seeds will quietly migrate up along your gum line and lodge there, slowly hydrating in your saliva, expanding, lying along your teeth like tenacious leeches. Or flatworms.

2) Some vegan products meant to resemble animal based products will be surprisingly, worryingly convincing. Faux chicken nuggets and chicken fingers for instance. This will make you wonder about what was in all the breaded chicken products you ate all your life long. Others, like soy yogurt, will ooze out of the container in a gelatinous shudder and lie in your bowl, gray as old underwear. And no amount of chia seeds will cover it up.

3) The high fiber content of all this bounty of grains and vegetables will clean a person out like a brush-wielding Dickensian chimney sweep. This is great, unless your enthusiastically vegan, Kalamata olive loving, straight miso paste eating almost-four-year-old is not toilet trained yet. Then it is a horrifying thing.

I will probably think of some more tomorrow I meditatively shovel several feet of snow away from the cars and house and chicken coop. Or as I run 15 miles in preparation for my 20 mile race in March. How many Ozark cavefish do you know that can do that?

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Amazing how long they can play hide and seek in a sparsely furnished 9' x 16' room.

Amazing how long they can play hide and seek in a sparsely furnished 9′ x 16′ room.

We spent last night in the one room cabin known officially as The Innermost House. Th cabin is on the grounds of Massachusetts Audubon’s Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary and has no electricity and no bathroom. It has three beds, a table and two chairs, and a monstrous, hulking woodstove.

The last time we stayed, it was November and not cold enough yet to use the woodstove. This time, with temperatures in the twenties and promising upper teens overnight, we started the fire immediately upon arrival. Christophe, recovering from a 15 mile run that morning, and Simon, just being normally petulant, elected to tend the fire while Malcolm and I went out for a walk. We passed thirteen or so deer (there’s an overpopulation problem at the Sanctuary) and I apparently irked some earnest young woman by not being awed enough by the animals. I wonder where she’s from that deer are really that much of a novelty.

I probably needn't tell you that this is the nostril tree.

I probably needn’t tell you that this is the nostril tree.

We walked down the Drumlin Trail, and to the gazebo in the middle of the woods with the collapsing phoebe’s nest in the rafters, and past the nostril tree. The trails were emptied out by the time we came to the Stone Bridge, which looked a good place to deploy our birdseed. The chickadees and titmice here are accustomed to handouts and will perch on an outstretched palm for a seed. Malcolm was still enough to attract two visitors.IMG_3278

The light was fading as we headed back up to the cabin, and upon opening the door we were met by a wave of what seemed at first to be pleasant warmth, but which I soon realized was actually searing heat. The boys were gleefully stripped to their underwear by bedtime, and the upper bunk bed was uninhabitable due to a stifling blanket of hot air.

I was sleeping by the door and, half awake, continuously adjusted it so that waves of cold would flow in across the floorboards. The air was so dry, even though it must have been 95 degrees, only a little sweat collected at the nape of my neck and the backs of my knees. It was like inhabiting a food dehydrator.

By midnight, it had cooled enough to be comfortable, and by 4am it was cold. I started the fire again, with some trouble, and we woke at seven to a warm room and modest breakfast and the boys already asking when we could come back.

The cabin is available for rent ($30 a night) year-round to members of Mass Audubon. Though it has no bathroom, it’s only a short walk up the trail to the sanctuary’s restrooms. No showers though. I’ve never been to the cabin in summer, but I suspect it might be sweltering. If you go in winter, you should be careful not to allow your overzealous husband to superheat the tiny space. The woodstove is massively oversized for the room, to be fair, so it’s easy to do. But I think you should try it. It’s good to be a Mass Audubon member anyway, and if you’ve always been a bit intimidated by camping, think of this as your starter kit.

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