Friday, January 31, 2014

Seasonal Haikus





Untouched whipped cream peaks
bury chairs, top round table.
Snow blanket: warmth fail.













Plane window captures
winter solstice sun setting.
Seat belt light alarms.















Chairlift riding joy
anticipates a ski run.
Sudden halt then sway.















Buddha head beckons
visitors to pause, reflect.
Jet ski whir breaks peace.














Hot cocoa delight --
cold day heavenly reward.
Stop! Sipping fast burns.







Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Happy Place

Do you have a Happy Place? A place where you can fully relax, be yourself, and recharge? A place of comfort not stress?

If you're lucky, it is your home. You spend the most time there, so wouldn't it be wonderful to feel utterly at peace in that comfy environment surrounded by friendly, helpful folk? Perhaps it is your parents' residence, your sister's place, or your best friend's apartment. You seek refuge with these loved ones on holidays, vacations, or weekends. They give you strength and remind you who you are when times are tough.

But maybe you don't have that kind of neighborhood, and maybe you don't have a loving memory-filled childhood home still in the family. Maybe you don't have siblings, and maybe your best lifelong friends don't live nearby. That is my situation, unfortunately.

It would be fabulous to be able to escape once in a while to a rustic lake house or ski mountain A-frame. A few lucky souls can do that, but most of us including me can't. We need to find our Happy Place. Create our Happy Place.

For the past decade, mine -- make that ours -- has been Club Med at Sandpiper Bay in Florida. It's not the most beautiful Club Mediterranee in the world by a long shot. It's not situated in an exotic locale. Heck, it's not even on the ocean! Yet it is the only Club Med now in existence in the United States. It is fairly easy to reach from our home. It is family-friendly. And it offers plenty of activities to keep my two sons and myself contentedly busy, if that's what we choose.

I first visited this Club Med in 2004 when my first son, Christopher, was nine months old. I was an exhausted full-time single mother of almost forty-three. It took everything out of me to get my baby down to Florida by plane and to the club by shuttle van. But once there, I was able to kick back because the club has a terrific child-care program. Christopher, who had recently started part-time day care in Brighton, MA, near our Cambridge apartment, slipped easily into the program.

Boy, was I grateful!

I met many parents whose babies or kids even had a hard time adjusting to being in the care of strangers in a strange environment. Mom and Dad would have to pick the children up early, or they couldn't go to the program at all. The parents would then be annoyed because they felt that they weren't getting their vacation.

Not me.

Christopher, bless his tiny soul, was a champ! He must have known how much I needed the break that the six-day-a-week care provided me. I can't remember too many specifics from that very first visit due to the sleep-deprived fog I lived in for years. But I do recall that the highlight of my week was seeing my son on stage in a baby show. He was sitting in a turquoise-colored foam tub and dressed and made up as a clown. His incredible cuteness brought me to tears. Little did I know at the time that this sweet first performance would usher in a decade of many more.

If you are a single mother who has no one to pass your child or children off to, such as an ex-husband or parent of your own, then you have very few choices when it comes to vacations. And who needs a vacation more than a single mother?!

If you have more money to spend on airfare and possibly the club itself, you might choose a Club Med in a foreign locale. Not every club accepts young children. However, the ones in Punta Cana (Dominican Republic) and Cancun and Ixtapa (Mexico) do, for example. I've been to the Cancun resort pre-children, and Ixtapa is pretty far away (read: unaffordable airfare). Thus, Punta Cana is very appealing to me. Unfortunately, getting there requires passports for the three of us -- mine is expired, and I haven't obtained any for the boys -- but, mostly, the added costs for the flights makes that destination prohibitive to us.

Someday. . . .

Beaches doesn't have any U.S. locations, and I don't know a single soul who has been to South Seas Island Resort on Captiva Island in Florida. If you bring a nanny along with you, or do some sort of group share involving nannies and other families, your horizons can open further.

However, my kids do well in a structured program with a lot of others their own age, so the Club Med experience is a sure thing because it is very familiar to me. Since the age of twenty-five when I visited the Copper Mountain ski site, I have stayed at a total of six Club Med locations -- half of them now gone the way of the dodo bird.

Indeed, Club Med is like an old friend. I know what I'm going to get. The relationship takes no effort. And I walk away happy.

Please don't mistake me for someone who resists hard travel. I've zipped around Western Europe and Great Britain alone and spent nearly two years total on two separate trips backpacking Lonely Planet-style through Asia and the South Pacific. Many of the countries I hit are in the Third World, and roughly half the time I was away I traveled alone. But that was long before I became a mother. That kind of exploring is possible with one child -- though I'm sure it's very difficult -- but certainly not with my rambunctious two. Not on your life. Not at their young ages. I'd rather walk across a lava field.

No, what the full-time single mother needs on a vacation is whatever is COMFORTABLE and EASY.

So I've made a point of going back (and back and back and back) to Club Med Sandpiper Bay, which is situated on the St. Lucie River in the City of Port St. Lucie. The club has recently completed a $28 million renovation. It looks very different than I remember it. I certainly didn't mind it before and never found fault with the amenities or accommodations. Yet now it is significantly upgraded with a new spa, picturesque adult pool and hot tub at the river's edge, impressive exercise room complete with triathlete personal trainers, renovated sleeping quarters, and so much more. Suffice it to say, the takeaway for this Sandpiper Bay veteran is that this is almost a brand-new club.


But not completely.

The three of us, as always, have a great time when we visit. The boys love the kids' program. They spend their days in circus school; on the flying trapeze; playing soccer, basketball, and tennis; swimming; sailing a catamaran; creating art; preparing for the evening shows; and more. They transition into a new social setting seemlessly, making fast friends among the other kids and the wonderful staff. And for my part, I swim; skipper my own catamaran; play tennis, beach volleyball, and ping pong; do water aerobics and yoga; dance; etc.

Each time we've gone to Club Med our vacation has looked different, and that has kept it interesting. For the boys, that has meant more activities as they've gotten older. Charlie, age 7 3/4, was able to sail for the first time this visit. Since he is not yet a strong swimmer, I went along with his group in the catamaran. Though he wore a life vest, I was pretty stressed out sitting beside him when the wind picked up, and the boat began to keel. Another time during the week Christopher, age ten, took a turn at the tiller while both Charlie and I were aboard. It was my older son's first time ever sailing a boat himself -- not just getting a ride -- so it was extra special that his brother and mother got to witness the milestone.


Proud mama.

For me, every trip to Florida has been unique. The first few times at Club Med I was a complete wreck from exhaustion. Some days I took naps in the room. I participated in few sports because I simply couldn't muster the energy. Somehow, though, I managed to pull it together enough to not only enter the weekly ladies singles tennis tournament but also win it.

As the years passed, I grew more rested. I played more sports at Club Med, but one thing was a constant: that tennis tournament, which I always won. I always took home at least one medal. One year I treated myself to a rental jet ski on Mother's Day. Another year we explored the estuary via airboat. A third year my vegan boyfriend at the time joined us for half the trip. Club Med definitely wasn't his scene, yet he had fun and was very helpful when it came to the travel day -- assisting me in getting our rental car back to the agency, carrying bags and pushing a stroller through airports, and hailing a taxi back to my then-apartment in Cambridge.


One time I capsized during the weekly regatta. The sailing staff had to come out in a motor boat to give me instructions on righting the craft, but I sailed it to shore myself without any physical help. I remember a year when a murder-mystery play was offered during dinner. I recall watching stand-up comedy in a small club-within-the-club behind the golf shop. Waterskiing was very popular in our early years. I loved slaloming on the river, though I was a bit nervous about the alligators.

Eek!

Christopher saw a manatee near the beach. A rare sighting, indeed. Charlie and I have only glimpsed snakes and many geckos. However, we've all watched a brazen squirrel eat bacon right off Christopher's breakfast plate! My oldest son lost a tooth eating an ice cream cone in the dining room one year. Regretfully, I was so distracted by the largest bowl of chocolate mousse I'd ever seen that I forgot to take it with us when we left the meal. I returned soon after and searched high and low with no luck.


Our most recent trip, which began with a Winter Solstice flight into the glorious sunset, overlapped Christmas. We celebrated the holiday by taking photos with Santa and a Benjamin Button-like Mrs. Claus, participating in or watching a parade, and opening one small wrapped present each set under an orange lamp in our room!

Most years I have elected not to rent a car. The club offers a shuttle service to and from the airport, so we have availed ourselves of that. Even this amenity has changed over the years. We've ridden in a small bus-like vehicle; a minivan; an SUV; and, this time, a white stretch party limo complete with a colorful starry-light sky!

A couple of times I have driven an Enterprise compact in order to visit cousins in nearby Vero Beach and Palm Beach. Those get-togethers mean a lot to all of us because we rarely see any of our cousins. A different year a third family of cousins picked us up at the club and took us to a hamburger joint and their home where we listened to the two school-age sons play their musical instruments.

However, the lion's share of our time visiting Club Med Sandpiper Bay is spent within the resort's confines. Enough is offered to keep us occupied and then some. The food is plentiful and beyond delicious, and the presentation is first class. It's difficult to leave lunch or dinner without grabbing a piece of white chocolate bread on your way out.

For the first time in nine visits, I was injured -- more like semi-injured -- during our stay last month. I had plantar fasciitis in my right foot. As a result, I did not play tennis (or win any medals), volleyball, soccer, or basketball. I also kept away from the exercise rooms and classes for fear of putting too much weight on my painful foot.

However, I was able to swim, do water aerobics, sail, and play ping pong. It may not sound like much, but it was plenty because my primary goal was to relax and recharge my batteries. To that end, I happily lounged in the (scarce) sun, cooled off with a dip, reread The Catcher in the Rye, and soaked in a hot tub with other visitors.

Mission accomplished . . . and, one month later, my plantar fasciitis is much improved! I've since gone downhill and cross-country skiing several times each without issue. I am not ready to go for a run, yet my week at our Happy Place did me more good than I imagined it would.

If, like me, you don't have a built-in Happy Place then go out and get one -- because everyone needs a Happy Place.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

New Year Mood Modification

I thought about doing a typical New Year's resolution blog post, but honestly I wasn't too motivated. I've done them before (1/16/13 and 1/13/12), and everyone is doing one (or, probably, has already done one). Only 8 percent of people actually keep their resolutions, according to Forbes.com. That's a rather depressingly low statistic.

I aim to give you the unexpected. As the details of my day-to-day are frequently unexpected, I don't have to try very hard, frankly. Drama just seems to come to me. Still, I never thought I'd be titling a post "The Year of Living Dangerously" (1/1/14) or have a series called "When Things Get Dicey" (2/15/13 and 2/25/13), for example.

So instead of offering up yet another piece on resolving to lose weight, exercise more, or keep the house in better order -- blah, blah, blah -- I would like to put out something different. While it is certainly true that I intend to work on the aforementioned four and many other goals (professional and social, in particular, don't even get me started!) in 2014, what I really plan to focus on this year is something intangible: mood.

This shouldn't come as a surprise if you read my last post -- the one mentioned above and named after a movie starring Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver -- about starting off last year on the wrong foot, which made me feel out of control and then some. Tell me: who can be in a good mood while feeling that way? No one I know.

As a 24/7 single mother, things are often out of my control or, at least, not in as much control as I would like. Sometimes that can be changed; sometimes, not. The challenge becomes: how do I reach and maintain equilibrium throughout the year?

First, get off to an enjoyable -- if not all-out propitious -- start. Ring in the new year in a way that genuinely makes you happy. If you are limited in your ability to celebrate because of young children at home and no babysitter then make do as best you can. Raise a glass. Watch Anderson and Kathy. (This year the bold Ms. Griffin handcuffed herself to the silver-haired CNN anchor, which provided an unexpected level of amusement.) Have a small party with your kids or a big one with other families. The important thing is to make New Year's Eve an occasion of sorts. By doing so, you give the new year -- like a good friend -- a proper welcome. You've set the stage for positivity to come.


The new year is only eleven days old, but so far so good is what I say. I've been able to maintain a happy demeanor, though everything hasn't transpired perfectly. I'm speaking about two calls from the school this week (same day) regarding a nauseous child who needed to come home and a frustrated child who needed to visit the guidance counselor.

With my new outlook, I was able to take the calls in stride instead of feeling annoyed by the loss of "my" time and rattled by the latest upset-son scenario. I carried on with my day in an even-keeled manner and even managed to gain back some time by sending the boys to the after-school program the following day.

Also, as part of my strategy to protect my time, I turned down an invitation to do something that would have eaten up almost my whole afternoon before school pickup. Accepting the invite would have made me feel resentful -- I knew from past experience -- because I needed that block of time to work on this very blog post.

In retrospect, I'm pleased I was able to compartmentalize my emotions when staff at the school phoned. I'm grateful I thought of extended care for my boys. And I'm proud of saying no when my gut told me the invitation didn't serve my needs the best. Under the circumstances, I was good to myself -- a lesson I hope to carry with me throughout the year.

The next day my somewhat sick child returned to school feeling well while my agitated child experienced a calm day of classes. A win-win

What's more, I didn't even have to sacrifice something else I very much wanted to do. Since I rarely get to a movie that isn't animated, I had planned to see a matinee of a live-action film. My choices had been narrowed down to three due to my time restriction of making school pickup.

However, with the unexpected company of my child -- he had a sore throat but wasn't coughing, a slightly nauseous feeling with no vomiting, and felt a tad warm though had no temperature to speak of -- the R-rated picture would have to wait. My son is ten years old but has the maturity and size of a thirteen year old. Thus, I didn't consider it too much of a stretch to take him to PG 13-rated Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. Hey, I know some fourth-grade classmates who have seen Ted! Besides, who wouldn't want to watch Will Ferrell and Steve Carell acting as nitwits to make themselves feel better?!

Goofy movie? Yes. Great for one's health. (Though hold the popcorn.) Evening basketball clinic? No. My son was afraid the running around would cause him to lose his cookies all over the elementary school gym floor. Staying home was the right decision.

Talk about a model at handling unexpected circumstances! Now if I can bring a similar psychological control, problem-solving attitude, and just-say-no-ness to each and every challenge I experience this year then I will surely be in good stead.

One situation. One day. One week. One month. At. A. Time.

Difficulties don't have to defeat us mentally if we can approach them with ingenuity. Keeping our mood uplifted will translate to having a great, good or, at least, a better year. I intend to have the first of these.





Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Year of Living Dangerously

With a title like that, you'd think I'd taken up skydiving or robbing banks last year. Well, hahaha. Far from it!

As a single mother by choice, i.e. a full-time sole caregiver, my life is rather restricted by the school calendar, the home front, and the need to keep myself healthy and uninjured for my two school-age boys. Angelina Jolie may have flown planes when she was the single mother of Maddox, but she has Brad Pitt now as her backup. I do not. I can only dream about such eye-candy assistance!

No, I must keep myself intact and in working order every single day because I am my own Plan B. In other words, consciously living dangerously cannot be a choice I make . . . at least not now while my children are still young. But the thing is: being an SMC is living dangerously.

After a decade, I have gotten used to weathering daily challenges, though they have changed over the years. What is constant is the drama. Oh, the drama! And last year, the year that was supposed to be my lucky year -- as in, good lucky -- the drama was over the top. It reached a crazy level I couldn't have imagined or written about even with my creative writing graduate degree!

Plain and simple, 2013 was a doozy.

When we have such years, it is easy to think: What a horrendous twelve months! What just happened? Good riddance! We want to turn the page. Get a new calendar. Shake off the old and put on the new. But before we do that, we should take a serious look at what transpired and see if we can learn something from it. That is what I've chosen to do, and I'm much better off now for it.

From the get-go, I felt off balance. That's because the year began with a failed New Year's Weekend trip. I had only the best of intentions when I registered for a three-night Appalachian Mountain Club adventure in northern New Hampshire. We would stay at a quaint, rustic lodge near Franconia Notch and play in the snow by day with fellow outdoor enthusiasts. However, if you read my blog post about The Trip From Hell ("Vacation Box of Chocolates: Part I (Franconia Fiasco Edition)," 1/6/13), then you will remember how a big snowstorm followed late the next day by the threat of black ice and after that continuing freezing temperatures caused our plans to deteriorate. Cut to the chase: we never reached our destination.

Maddening!

Starting off the new year on the right foot is very important because it sets the stage for the twelve months ahead. Beginning on a negative note feels inauspicious. The figurative ship needs to be righted immediately, before even leaving port. It can be certainly, but that will take extra effort. For me last year, it never happened.

The disastrous trip put me $385 (reduced to $295 after the outdoor organization reimbursed me a pathetic $90) in the hole, which grew much deeper when I learned shortly thereafter that I needed $2,701.66 worth of car work. (See "Lucky 13?", 1/26/13.) Sheesh. But January was hardly over! One morning I made a very poor choice while attempting to drive to an appointment twenty-five minutes away. Instead of swinging by a gas station in my town before hitting the highway, I decided to tempt fate with my fuel tank. Oh, crap. Didn't I wind up out of gas on the side of Route 128! Yes, in the middle of winter. (See "When Things Get Dicey: Part II (Risk-Taking Gone Awry), 2/25/13.)

Unthinking!

As the snow piled up, so did my troubles. In early February, Nemo the Blizzard knocked out power and heat to my home for one weekend-plus. (See "When Things Get Dicey: Part I (The Wrath of Nemo), 2/15/13.) The latter problem would have been rectified one day earlier if I hadn't elected to take the boys skiing in the fresh powder instead of wait at home for the heating guy.

Prioritizing!

In April, the day a Boston federal courthouse was in lockdown following the Marathon bombings two days earlier, my younger son had a minor freak accident one mile away during an expensive photo session. The incident, followed by my seven year old's inevitable reaction, disrupted the shoot and affected the final product. I then spent three solid weeks stewing over what would come of Charlie's brand-new modeling contract. (See "Back-to-School Conundrum," 8/24/13.)

Frustrating!

Worn out from stress-induced exhaustion, in early May I hit a deer on the road leading from my town to another. The accident was unavoidable, and the deer appeared unhurt. Still. A precious deer! I interpreted the event as a clear sign that I needed to slow my life down. (See "Hitting the Deer," 5/6/13.)

Upsetting!

By the time summer arrived, I was a certifiable wreck. Instead of agonizing over how much work I could -- or more accurately -- couldn't get done during the exactly two-month-long school break, I made an instinctive executive decision to focus my time almost entirely on my family. The boys were engaged in frequent power struggles, and I was having great difficulty dealing with my younger son whose impulsive and often aggressive behavior toward his brother had all but hijacked the family. As much as I could, I took them away camping or set up the tent in the backyard as I've discovered that a change of scenery and/or sleeping outside in snuggly close proximity to one another has a beneficial effect on our bond. We are all at our happiest at such times, and that reflects well on our dynamic.

Coping!

Life picks up at a rapid clip once school resumes. It feels like a train, an Acela Express, pulling out of the station then gaining speed steadily as it heads to its eventual destination -- the last day of classes at the end of June. Both of my boys do well in school, yet on occasion last fall I received calls from the school nurse or guidance counselor about something involving Charlie. An accident in gym. A classroom situation that upset my second grader. The mother of a competitive, risk-taking child comes to fear the phone ringing during the school day.

Worrying!

You don't have to be a mother very long to learn how much you are judged by other people. But in order to do your job right, you have to be able to block out prying eyes and be willing to do what you need to do to raise your children with an awareness of safety, health, ethics, etc. When they are not behaving properly in public, you need to discipline them at that moment. Does a mother want to raise her voice to make herself heard above the child's laughter when he or she is acting in an unsafe manner? Of course not! It draws attention. Negative attention. Not many people want that. I certainly don't! Does a mother want to reason with her child till she's blue in the face when he or she just keeps saying no to something that must be done for his or her own good? Hell, no! Does anyone put herself in the mother's shoes and come to her defense in the heat of the moment to help her handle the errant child? Don't count on it! A person whose situation is diametrically opposite yours, who doesn't know anything (or very little) about your life and nothing about what you go through on a daily basis or what you've experienced in the past or that day will step forward to judge you. Oh, yes! He or she has no qualms about punishing you via any available method. And if you are a single mother -- particularly a full-time one via an alternative conception method of which they may not approve -- well, GOD . . . HELP . . . YOU. You feel defenseless like a wounded bird. It's shameful. Really shameful, that's what I have to say, because that clueless yet ballsy person doesn't have the CHOPS to come after the single mother. (See "Thanksgiving: When No Plans Are the Best Plans," 12/2/13.)

Crushing!

Caution: don't ever underestimate the single mother! She may feel demoralized for a period of time. However, you'd better watch out. She is processing and gaining strength. In righting the wrong done to her, she can bring you to tears and have you begging for forgiveness as she confronts you and explains how out of line your unfair attack has been. Moreover, if you have dared to strike her where it hurts the most, the universe will make sure you don't get away with it. Her supporters will go to bat for her and demonstrate the cruelty and outrageousness of your actions because they know her much better than you do.

The Year of Living Dangerously (by choice or circumstance, as both applied at variously times) brought to me a level of stress and insanity the likes of which I had never before experienced. As a result of what I went through, I am now a changed person. I learned so much about other people, myself, and how to take care of myself. (See "Self Care: A Mother's Salve," 10/23/13.) I do not regret any of my actions and would probably handle things in exactly the same way if I had them to do over again. But I have witnessed firsthand how others can misinterpret a situation through their own lack of knowledge and then brazenly take it upon themselves to slam you because they think they know better. They know nothing! Forces tried to beat me down last year, yet they didn't succeed. They just empowered me.

By mid-fall -- recognizing the depths I'd been brought to (and they went much lower later) -- I made a decision guaranteed to lift up myself and my family. I booked us Christmas week at our Happy Place: Club Med at Sandpiper Bay in Florida. As always, our ninth (yes, nine!) visit did exactly what I needed it to do. It provided me with rest; relaxation; warmth; good food; interesting company; and, despite my four-and-a-half-month-old painful plantar fasciitis, plenty of opportunities for exercise.

I ended last year completely rejuvenated. Starting off the new year in a very positive way, I have a much better chance of experiencing a great year.

Bring on 2014!