Sunday, July 29, 2012

Rediscovering My Inner Swimmer

After the birth of a baby, a new mother finds herself so busy that she can't keep up with the activities she enjoyed as a childless woman. The gym visits, the trolling of Saturday morning yard sales, the book group -- they all fall by the wayside. It might be quite some time before she "gets her life back," or perhaps her husband, partner, mother, or sister pitch in with free child care so she can resume these activities that formerly made her happy.

But if you are like me -- a single mother by choice with no built-in support network (i.e. immediate family) to offer you help you don't have to pay for -- it will likely be much longer before you can feel like your old adult self again. Of course, if you have deep pockets then all bets are off. You can do what you want when you want to do it. But come on! Who among us can really afford that?

The reality is: whether you are married, partnered, or completely on your own, you probably have not been able to take back up most of your favorite hobbies . . . unless your children are old enough to be fairly independent and to not need you to help them with the basics, such as driving them places, making all their meals, picking out all their clothes at the store, etc. Even when your kids are older, however, your "me time" will be limited by needing to attend their sports competitions, dance recitals, and other events.

It is a juggling act, to be sure -- a matter of finding balance and a seemingly neverending battle to try to reclaim the aspects of your childless life that you've (hopefully, only temporarily) lost.

For me, getting back my life has been a very gradual process . . . and I am not nearly done. But I am thrilled to say that this summer, at age fifty, I have awoken a part of myself that has lain dormant for far too long: I have rediscovered my inner swimmer.

It came about in the most surprising way. My oldest son had an audition for "Grown Ups 2," the Adam Sandler comedy now filming, at a community center in a town nearby. Afterward I was given a three-day family pass to the center, which happens to house terrific sports facilities including a large outdoor pool with two lap lanes. Since I had canceled my membership at a very costly athletic club in my town several months earlier, I was excited to have the opportunity to use another facility's amenities without charge. So, following the audition, we walked straight over to the pool to check it out. As I expected to hit the beach later that day, I had brought along the boys's swim trunks. No surprise, they were eager to go in the pool immediately. I couldn't say no since I had just been handed the pass. But having forgotten my own suit, I was forced to sit and watch while they played in the water for HOURS.

I was psyched to have access to this pool (well, only three times) yet miserable not to be able to enjoy it that day myself. SO miserable, in fact, that I didn't think twice about driving another seventy-four minutes round trip the very next day . . . because I needed a swim in that pool so badly!

I haven't looked back since. After using up the pass, I finagled a tour of the whole community center with Christopher while Charlie attended a birthday party some twenty minutes away. Lo and behold, didn't I score another three-day family pass! With each subsequent visit, my desire to swim in that pool increased exponentially. It was like dating a new, exciting man: I was becoming very attached to that pool and wanted more and more of it.

I was fairly out of shape when I first slipped into the second lane, having only recently exercised by means of walking to and from the elementary school where the boys' day camp is located, hiking and mountain climbing only occasionally, and canoeing just once. Still, I swam 14 consecutive lengths that day. I felt winded but immensely gratified. (For the record, I am now up to doing thirty-four lengths at once at a pretty good clip. Watch out Missy Franklin!)

Swimming laps outdoors for free is a luxury I have not enjoyed consistently since I was a child growing up in Darien, Connecticut, at a beach and tennis club on Long Island Sound. As a member of the swim team (and tennis team), I wasn't crazy about practices. However, I loved to race and just be in the water -- particularly in the club's outdoor pool -- doing dolphin dives, handstands, and bobbing up and down pushing off the bottom.

Does that make me a pool snob? I suppose it does . . . because indoor lap pools just don't cut it for me, though I have tested out the community center's indoor pool and liked it quite a bit. (That's a promising sign for my post-Labor Day lap swimming.)

I raced all the way through high school and seriously considered joining the team in college but decided against it in the end because I went to school in Vermont and didn't care to be cold and wet all the time in those harsh winters. (Wimp, right?!) Instead, I became a lifeguard --occasionally at the college pool and regularly during my college summers at the outdoor pool of a ritzy Southampton, Long Island, beach club.

While traveling in 1990, I learned how to scuba dive and later became certified as an advanced diver -- racking up dives in Southeast Asia, Australia, islands in the South Pacific, Florida, Mexico, Cozumel, and the Caribbean. Being a good swimmer has made me feel confident in ponds, lakes, and the ocean (handy since I live in a seaside town); while sailboarding (I owned the original Windsurfer One Design); jet skiing; sailing, which I learned at the Darien Y as a child; slalom waterskiing and canoeing, picked up at sleepaway camp in Maine; and sea kayaking, taught to me by a dear, now-deceased friend when I lived in Seattle. (I presently own a small, flat-water kayak).

Indeed, swimming has served me extremely well over the years. And now, having joined the reasonably priced community center after my second three-day family pass got used up, I have returned to my roots: outdoor-pool lap swimming.

And I couldn't be happier about it.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Lake Visit, Interrupted

Just ten minutes here,
scarce time to settle into my chair
to find out how Paula Deen,
Butter Queen, had gotten so lean

when Charlie walks into deep water
in pursuit of his big brother
then jumps on Christopher's back
as though mimicking his hiking pack.

I call to Charlie: "Come in!"
He flashes me his devilish grin
then laughs his head off,
trying to irk us or just show off.

"Here's where YOU swim!
You stay in the shallows," I direct him.
I am wading in water below my waist
as he lets me know he is in no haste.

"But how come HE can go out there?"
he asks. "It's just not fair."
I explain, "He is a more experienced swimmer than you.
Older, taller, and can touch the bottom too.

Charlie doesn't like what I say
so he charges back out in great dismay.
Aware of the people packing the beach en masse,
I hope I don't sound like too much of an ass

when I raise my voice to make myself heard.
"You're done. Now!" I order, quite self-assured.
Charlie remains unwilling,
his defiance oh so thrilling.

However, I won't back down, won't back down.
I'm standing my ground
on this matter of safety, he must comprehend.
I am not giving in, not going to bend.

This former lifeguard has no desire
to resurrect old skills for a situation made dire
in the dark waters of Chebacco Lake,
the "Grown Ups" filming location, for Pete's sake.

My younger son emerges, unhappy
yet only momentarily
for he has not given up the fight.
Spinning on his heels, he heads back in, convinced he is right.

I manage to get him out once more
but then ensues a TUG OF WAR --
feet planted in the sand,
pulling and grasping arm over hand.

"Come on, Christopher," I yell,
wishing he would tell
his brother to LISTEN to me.
"We're leaving," I announce. "Hurry!"

But HE wants a Saturday afternoon at play
cooling off in the heat of the day
so he dawdles. Charlie is very strong
yet I maneuver behind him before long

to better position myself to coax
him away in front of these folks.
Lake visit over. Swimming privilege lost.
Being subjected to my safety lecture is his cost.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Gut Instinct

Without a spouse or partner, the single mother by choice is alone in safeguarding herself and her children in times of possible danger. This fact was made clear to me once again last week during a six-day camping trip in the Berkshires.

We are presently enjoying our fifth summer of camping as a family. The first year I pitched my sunflower yellow, four-person North Face expedition tent in the backyard. ("The kind they took to Everest!" I like to say about my twenty-plus-year-old outdoor accommodation.) Christopher was four and a half; Charlie, two. The next summer we ventured to Pawtuckaway State Park in New Hampshire for our first overnight, and we have stepped it up each year since -- spreading our wings to Cape Cod, Vermont, and Maine for multiple nights in a row. The boys love it, and I couldn't be happier. Chris asked me at the end of the season two years ago if we could do five consecutive nights. I said yes. Unfortunately, it didn't happen last year because I was too busy finishing my memoir, attending a writers' conference on the West Coast, and submitting my manuscript to agents I had met at said conference. Yet it did last week.

Friends from our town were going to attend the James Taylor (with surprise guest Taylor Swift) concert at Tanglewood on Monday. They were camping at a state forest nearby, but it was full of fellow concert-goers. We could have dinner with our friends at their site. However, I would need to find another place to pitch our tent. After a little searching, I succeeded.

Instead of driving across Massachusetts via monotonous I-90, I elected to take scenic Route 2. A roughly three-hour trip took much longer on the slower road, and it was made longer still by a forty-five-minute ice cream stop, a couple of bathroom breaks, and lunch at an Asian restaurant owned by an acquaintance. By the time we arrived at our campsite, five and a quarter hours had passed.

Immediately, I did not like the looks of our neighbors and their setup -- a large, odd, and rough-looking bunch with a popup tent and at least two other huge tents. (I could not see beyond the popup tent to determine if there were others.) One man kept staring at me and, lest I forget, two large mutts wouldn't stop barking. Wonderful, and all just feet away from us. This was BEAR COUNTRY -- my first camping experience as a mother with this particular challenge -- and a woman on the site told me a black bear had come nosing around their popup tent the previous time she went camping. Great! Maybe sloppy with their food as well.

As the evening unfolded, I watched a white van pull up and let out a couple more men. Next a rusted pickup truck backed up the road next to the two campsites, and a garbage bag full of something (drugs, guns?) was loaded into the back. There was little old me, meanwhile, struggling to get our fire lit. Up till then, I had only cooked with charcoal briquettes -- first using lighter fluid and later the kind already doused with it. But this year the boys began insisting on real wood, so this was my first attempt at making a campfire the authentic way . . . and it wasn't going too well.

Years ago I cooked via camp stove when I took a month-long National Outdoor Leadership School mountaineering course in Wyoming's Wind River Range. Ditto my backpacking days with friends, though I almost always was not the one firing up the WhisperLite. Needless to say, I didn't want my seedy campground neighbors noticing that I was having trouble with our fire or, God forbid, coming over to offer help! I felt vulnerable enough with my little boys in tow and no other adult by my side. Of course, I couldn't share any of these fears with my sons.

Eventually, I got the fire started and made our dinner of Mountain House freeze-dried chicken and rice (tastier than it sounds!) and s'mores. Always s'mores. We got ready for bed, and I brought extra supplies inside the tent: a small pot with lid to bang together if a bear showed up and threatened us (upon the advice of the forest ranger in the office), my iPhone to call the office (or 911) if I felt threatened, and the piece of paper on which I'd written the office phone number. I also had with me the pair of blue-handled scissors I regularly bring into the tent just in case I need to spring into action to defend my family against a human threat.

I have chosen scissors over a knife because it raises fewer questions from my sons. "You never know when you might need to cut something," I explain rather vaguely. They think about it then nod in agreement. After all, who does more cutting than young boys?

Why didn't we just up and leave the site that night? Good question. In fact, several people asked me that over the course of the next few days. The answer: I was too exhausted from the long drive to dismantle the tent I had just erected, move in the dark to a new site, and set up all over again -- this time by flashlight. That was an annoyance I was just not willing to bear (pun intended). I was focused on the fire and getting my hungry, stir-crazy boys fed. I thought long and hard about moving within the campground but resolved to wait until morning when I would have more energy and the decision would cause less drama with my kids.

I proceeded to suffer through an uneasy night, keeping one eye open to my hostile environment. During breakfast the next day, a woman and later her husband staying nearby stopped at my campsite to check on me. They had observed my ridiculously close proximity to the unsavory bunch and were concerned about our well being. How sweet is that?! I shared with them what I'd seen -- the loading up of the pickup truck -- and they suggested that something illicit might be going on. I agreed.

We packed up our things and headed to the state-forest office to check out and see about getting my money back. Perhaps we could simply change sites, the ranger wondered. After looking over the map of the place, we got back in the car to see one site. It was very visible, and we were very visible -- with our bright-colored tent and red SUV. A second available site was also too visible to our menacing neighbors, and a third was situated ATOP A MOUNTAIN two and a half miles away! Too remote. So we left.

Trying to recoup our vacation, we stayed instead at a lakeside campground some forty minutes away. All the state forests and parks between our original campground and our friends' campground appeared to be full because it was the Fourth of July weekend. Duh! So this was our first private campground. It was cushier and more expensive, but it was fabulous. We nabbed an amazingly quiet site next to the water and didn't budge for four whole nights. We climbed a mountain, hiked a trail in our friends' state forest, swam in the lake, canoed the lake, played bingo, and watched the July 4th fireworks at Tanglewood with the Taylor-squared crowd. Awesome.

When my gut told me something was off at the first campground, I listened. We got out of there before something bad happened and the whole trip was ruined. As a single mother by choice, I MUST listen to my gut and act on my instincts -- even if that brings added inconvenience or other hardship for me -- because I am the sole protector of Christopher and Charlie at that moment and at every other moment.
The truth is: I have never felt as uncomfortable and unsafe at a campsite in my life, even more so than a few years ago when we took our first weekend-long trip.

A leering man approached me slapping his axe in the palm of his hand while delivering the creepy line: "Wanna borrow an axe?" I thanked him but declined. "I'm good," I said, trying to act cool. Being a newbie at that state park, I had earlier asked him directions to our site, which turned out to be located just two away from his. Just my luck. Already on edge from being far away from home -- this was Maine -- and taking on a whole weekend as opposed to just one night, I did not need a strange man CARRYING AN AXE trying to pick me up! Misery and The Blair Witch Project flashed through my mind. Thankfully, he took the hint and avoided me the rest of the weekend like a spurned seventh-grade boy.

I am not about to give up camping, nor have my boys been deterred in any way. Sleeping in a tent makes me exceedingly happy, as do the myriad of outdoor activities we engage in while we are away. But the privilege comes with a healthy dose of caution . . . and a pair of trusty blue-handled scissors . . . when an issue of safety arises.