Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Midlife Climb


At my forty-first birthday dinner, over one too many delicious tequila-based cocktails, Mr. Black tells me he wants to climb Mount Rainier.

I wait for the smirk, or the air quotes, but neither are forthcoming. He’s serious. What can I say but “Why?”

“Well,” he chuckles a little self-consciously, “because it’s there.” And then it dawns on me.

“You’re having a mid-life crisis!”

He smiles and shrugs. “Yes, I guess that’s part of it.”

I panic a little. How can this be? He’s always so even-tempered and content; the Spock to my Joan-Cusack-in-Broadcast News. And now, after all these years, the male existential angst raises its head and he wants to do the hiking equivalent of buying a red Corvette?!

I take a long sip of my drink and blurt out “Couldn’t you just have an affair?”

“Do you want me to have an affair?”

“No. . . no, of course I don’t.” And it’s true. I really don’t. But somehow I think I could cope with the heartache of his infidelity better than I could cope with the heartache of his taking a bad step into an icy crevasse. So I try to explain myself.

“It’s just that, with an affair, you’re so much less likely to . . . well, die.”

Immediately we start trying to out-geek each other with amateur actuarial speculation on the likelihood of death due to an affair vs. climbing a mountain. You could get shot or stabbed by a jealous husband. You could have a car accident on the way to her place. You could contract a deadly STD. Ah, there’s that ironic detachment. The conversation moves on.

We agree that he’ll start by joining a local hiking group that helps midlife crisis guys prepare for their eventual feats of strength. None of this driving-to-a-trailhead-on-a-whim nonsense. And he acknowledges that he might decide not to climb the whole damn mountain in the end. But in the meantime it will be nice to kick his hiking up a few notches with some new challenges and maybe new friends. Nothing wrong with that.

But later that night, I can’t sleep. Suppose he really goes through with it?

Worst case scenarios flash through my mind. To calm myself, I lean against his sleeping back and just listen to him breathe for a while. He is here, I remind myself, not on a mountain, not lost to some rocky wilderness. I wrap one arm around him and bask in the simple presence of his body. And then I imagine that same body, just a body, striving and inconsequential against miles and miles of glacier and sky. I hold him tighter and try to just breathe.

I wasn’t always so fearful about the whole Man vs. Nature thing. I used to embrace it, in fact. Nature was – still is, in many ways – one of the deepest, most comforting, most spiritually fulfilling things in my life. I discovered hiking in graduate school, escaping with my friends to the Catskills whenever we could manage it. I loved the rush of pure strength in my legs as we pushed our way up those steep climbs, the air so clean it felt a little sharp going in. And I loved my boots like some people love their cars.

Even after I moved to Philadelphia I tried to keep the spirit alive, walking everywhere in any weather, setting off on hiking-related vacations – Colorado with a good friend, Maine with Mr. Black, the Adirondacks by myself one summer. Moving to the Pacific Northwest felt like a paradise of sorts, where we’re literally surrounded by snow-capped mountains and wild, rocky beaches; so many opportunities to lose oneself. Those early days were incredible, exploring the edge of the continent with the Man I Loved.

I imagined we’d be one of those many Northwest families who take their babies camping and hiking. We did manage to get some hiking in with The Boy in the early days, back when he was portable.


But now, with two rather anxiety-prone children ages six and three who have a hard time abandoning routine and creature comforts . . . well, let’s just say we’ve put the dream on hold.

We tried to do kid-friendly versions of our old trips, with moderate success. We’d stay in motels. We’d spend the rainy days exhausting limited indoor attractions – local cheese factory tours and museums featuring pioneer artifacts and taxidermy. But last year, on a relentlessly cloudy Oregon Coast vacation, I was going stir crazy. It was just a little cloudy – okay, it was a lot cloudy – but it wasn’t actually raining. Couldn’t we do something outdoorsy before heading home to the city?

Mr. Black suggested Oswald West State Park, remembering that their trails were family-of-tourists-friendly, with a nice beach for sandcastle building nestled between the rocky hillsides. I guess Mr. Black’s idea of “tourist friendly” is not my idea of “tourist friendly,” because I decided to bring Little Girl’s stroller along.

It seems ridiculous in retrospect, but you have to appreciate the whirlwind fog of traveling with small children. She was two at the time, too heavy to carry and too, well, two to walk along. It was a small umbrella stroller, light and pretty easy to navigate. We did fine for most of the trail. I even made it over a narrow, bumpy wooden bridge with some maneuvering. But when we hit the beach, there was the usual barrier of rocks and driftwood to climb over and down. Why hadn’t I thought this through?


Mr. Black carried the empty stroller while I inched my way over the rocks and driftwood carrying my impossibly heavy two-year-old, willing away back pain and silently praying for a safe descent. How the hell am I going to make it back over those rocks, I wondered, when Mr. Black pointed to a staircase built into the hillside on the other side of the beach. Stairs! We’re saved! We sat back and enjoyed our cloudy beach day.

But when it was time to head back, those stairs proved only slightly less challenging than the pile of rocks and driftwood. Her little two-year-old body got heavier with each slow, deliberate step. My neck and shoulders ached, and I was growing crankier by the minute.

At the top of the staircase I unloaded Little Girl back into her stroller and started crabbing at Mr. Black about something. I don’t remember what. It was one of those conversations where one person’s being deliberately vague while the other is deliberately obtuse. You know: “What? That. What!? That! What?! THAT!!!” One of those. We were about ready to start pummeling each other with the nearest sand shovels.

Suddenly, I realized how close to the edge of a cliff we were standing. And how the brakes of Little Girl’s stroller were not on.

Calmly, steadily, I pushed the stroller away from the edge and up the trail, still pissed about whatever minutia we’d been arguing about. But horrifying images teased at the edges of my mind. What if I hadn’t noticed in time? What if The Boy had accidentally bumped into the stroller and sent it rolling? What if my sweet little girl, in her diaper and mismatched Gymboree outfit, my sweet little girl with her adorable laugh and love of books, my sweet little girl who hated the damn beach and would have been so much happier staying home with her stuffed animals, had met a terrifying and dramatic end all because of my own selfish attachment to stupid cloudy Pacific Northwest goddamn wilderness? Screw you, Nature.

Yes, this was an overreaction of sorts. It wasn’t Nature’s fault, after all. A little common sense could have prevented tragedy. And we did avoid tragedy, didn’t we? Looking back on it, I can’t even trust the memory. How close to the edge of the cliff were we, really? How real was the threat of her falling?

But nothing can match that horrifying vision of “what if,” or the realization that I’d brought my little daughter into harm’s way through my own poor judgment and misguided love of being in a thrilling but dangerous spot where we had no business in the first place.

Seriously, why do we need to stand at the edge of rocky beach cliffs and mountaintops? These places aren’t here for us. Why do we keep trying to have them? Is there not enough to satisfy our bodies and our spirits in the homes we’ve created, in the cities we’ve built? Maybe the kids have the right idea after all, missing the comforts of home while we drag them down the trail of pristine natural beauty (that we paved and drove our cars to get to) in an attempt to reclaim something that never belonged to us in the first place.

And yet, I do still love to hike and immerse myself in breathtaking mountain scenery. What’s not to love? There’s a certain peacefulness and strength out there that just isn’t at the mall, or even at a city park. It’s in the soft air, the quiet, the motion of branches and waves. It’s the feeling in your legs when they just have to stretch and climb, literally elevating yourself one big step after the other.

I’m less compelled to drag the kids along now, at least until they’re older. As for Mr. Black and his midlife climbing aspirations . . . Well, I won’t stop him. I can insist that he proceed with safety and extreme attention to detail, but I can’t hold him back. As midlife crises go, this seems like a pretty benign one. Might as well let it unfold.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Go Back Up

These bike-path dudes all look the same. Hip and healthy, shaved heads under their slick helmets. If I weren’t so distracted, I’d be feeling comparatively dowdy in my old jeans still spattered with glue from a day-camp art project. But that’s kind of irrelevant right now.

Everyone who passes by does the same thing I did – pause in disbelief, start to briskly and righteously move away, and then . . . look up again and freeze, helplessly. Bystanders. Some people take pictures with their phones. I already feel tacky for standing here and watching this, so I take some small consolation in the fact that at least I’m not that tacky.

She’s right in the center of the Aurora bridge, on the other side of the railing, just standing there, facing the long drop to the water and police boats below. I can see a few police officers on the bridge with her. It looks like they’re talking. She gestures wildly at them from time to time.

Then she turns around, squats down and lowers one foot, as if she’s climbing down a ladder. But there’s nowhere for that foot to go. It just waves there, impossibly small against the vast expanse of bridge and air. One of the bike guys near me bellows “GO BACK UP!”

And she does. Not all the way, but she lifts her foot back up and steadies herself on the ledge again. Now she’s squatting, with her face in the railing and her back turned to the jump.

An Argosy sightseeing ship passes by, awkwardly, skirting as far away from the scene as possible.

I know I shouldn’t stay. I have no business here. None of us do. But I want to see her climb back over that railing to safety. I feel responsible for seeing this situation resolved, somehow. You can’t just walk past a suicide attempt and never give it a second thought, can you? After watching her lift that foot back up, I’m almost certain she won’t go through with the jump. But I want to know for sure.

I’m feeling rather stoic – until I actually talk to someone and feel my voice shaking and repeating my words. I can’t yell like the bike guy did. But I’m talking, actually saying the words out loud, in the same kind-but-firm tone I use when one of my kids is wildly upset and needs some redirection: “Go back up. You don’t want to do this. I know you don’t. Go back up.”

Which feels kind of lame. I overhear a woman talking to her friend, abstractly comparing herself to the person on the bridge, and saying she understands. I wish I understood. But I know that I don’t. I couldn’t possibly. The closest I can get to empathy is recalling my old embarrassingly frequent public displays of adolescent angst, and the accompanying adolescent outrage that the world, in all its shallowness, didn’t come to an empathetic halt to acknowledge my suffering.

Now I’m finding strange comfort in that very shallowness. I look around at all the people who aren’t attempting a suicide jump. The cops, the commuters, the bikers and joggers on the trail, that woman with her bag of groceries, that mom who leans in to quietly explain it to her son before gently urging him on. I look at the lights on all the houses in the surrounding hills. And past the bridge, I can see my son’s elementary school.

It’s getting dark. I had no business being here in the first place, and I definitely have no business staying this long. I have to believe that she won’t jump. I have to know she won’t. So, I “know” it as best I can and start walking home.

But when I get there – when I sit at my computer and learn that this bridge that’s walking distance from my house is the second deadliest “suicide bridge” in the United States; that at least two people have died jumping from the bridge just this summer – I still feel frozen in my tracks.

“Go back up,” the bike guy yelled. And she did. That’s what I keep thinking about. I didn’t have the presence of mind, or the courage, or the vocal chords to do that. But I’m so glad someone did.

Update: She's safe.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Art of Getting Lost

Back east, in an old friend’s kitchen, she finds an address book of hers that was a gift from high school. The cover is padded with a light blue Laura Ashley-like print and trimmed with lace (so touchingly not her style), and she reads me every address I’ve had since age 22. We talk about a mutual friend who was also my boyfriend for a short but serious while, and though I wish him only the best, I’m breathing a dozen sighs of relief that we went our separate ways.

Funny how those roads were all leading somewhere. I never gave it much thought in that wild, uncertain time full of intersecting souls and paths. Relationships – platonic and otherwise – were intense, meaningful, and routinely transitory as we moved on and beyond and through. This guy was a blaze of warmth and stability, older than me and more certain of his way. He would have married me. The lure of security was huge, but the fit was just . . . off somehow. I didn’t trust it. In the end I fought my way out, breaking his heart. It would be years before anyone would want me that much again. But those were good years. I was on a path, too.

It’s so maddeningly easy to get lost when I come back east for a visit. My sister reassures me this is just what it’s like here – tiny country roads dipping over hills, through forests and farms, appropriated and cobbled into one confusing-as-hell state road. I keep pulling over, poring frantically over the map, sure I must have missed the turn. No. The turn just hasn’t come up yet. Keep going. You’re fine.

I feel like I used to be so much better at this, but I wasn’t really. Yes, I did a lot more long-distance driving in my early 20’s than I do in my early 40’s. I was always taking off to see some friend or boyfriend in some other state. But I wasn’t much more adept at it than I am now. Wrong turns, dead ends, misread maps. I’ve been to the Jersey Shore by way of Delaware and I’ve taken more than one wrong/long way around a DC beltway. It didn’t bother me as much, though. Getting lost and confused was simply part of the process; part of the adventure. The destination wasn’t half as exciting as the journey.

There wasn’t much “home” to miss, either. Sure, I loved every one of my single-girl apartments, but I didn’t miss my stressful jobs and empty answering machines. The further away, the better. And, obviously, there were no kids in the backseat in those days, with their Bunny Grahams and Laurie Berkner CDs and adorable little need for routine and security. It’s amazing how “When are we going to be there? Are we ever going to be there?” can throw off the whole On the Road spirit.

I leave my friend’s house later than I’d intended, kids in their pajamas and an inadequate Google Maps print-out on the passenger seat. It’s dark, and I’ve made my first wrong turn before we’re even out of the neighborhood. I sniff out a new way back to the main road, turn onto it with a sigh of relief, only to zip right under the bridge for the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. Come on!

But there’s a gas station right there. The heat and humidity wraps around me like a blanket as I fill up the tank, planning my next move and watching my kids’ sweet, trusting little heads in the glow of their They Might Be Giants DVD. What an adventure this is for them, driving all night back to grandma’s house in Pennsylvania. There’s a small thread of my old spirit that can vicariously enjoy it with them, but mostly I’m a bundle of neurotic-mom nerves.

We make it back to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway easily enough, and the kids are asleep before long, but I can’t seem to settle into the drive. Did I miss my exit? Is this right? It’s so late and I’m so tired. Should we stop at a hotel? Is that lame? Will we have an accident if I don’t stop? Beltway, beltway, beltway. Let’s just wait until we get to 83. Where’s 83? Shouldn’t we have hit 83 by now?

And when we finally do hit 83, I still can’t decide. I see a sign for a Comfort Inn and exit, but the road is so dark and I don’t see it anywhere. And then the road closes for a passing train. Rattled, I turn around and get back on 83. A little further along, there’s a sign for a Hampton Inn, which looms majestically over some retail village. It takes me three tries to get on the right winding road to the top of that hill. When I finally reach the merry glow of the lobby, it’s swarming with high-school kids just as bright-eyed and giddy as my own kids at the prospect of travel. It’s adorable, really. Too bad they’re filling up the entire hotel and there’s not a single room left.

So, the hell with it. I put in a Sleater-Kinney CD, soft enough not to wake the kids but loud enough to keep me going, and soldier on to my parents’ place. 83, 30, 222, 183. And gradually, it starts to feel fun. It’s a summer night, I’ve got my music and a familiar stretch of roads in front of me, rolling past it all. In motion. In process.

I used to thrive on this – the constant movement, solitude, and sense of possibility. Even when I did decide to settle down, it was with a man who was moving to Seattle, and a whole new journey began. Now, instead of traveling to boyfriends, I travel to my sisters and parents and old friends. And now, for the first time on this crazy-busy east coast trip, I really miss my husband. If he were here, he’d have navigated me through all this with his trademark stoic reassurance. Yes, this is the right way. No, let’s not stop for the night. I can drive if you’re too tired. It’s nice to know I can still do this without him. But it’s so much better when he’s here.

At last, I make my way up the last stretch of country hill. Pulling into my parents’ driveway, I imagine I can hear the reassuring sound of a plane’s wheels first touching the ground after a long flight, bumping wildly but never breaking their stride. Home.
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