Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Essence of Subtlety

          As an adult, it becomes clearer to me just how many years it takes to get used to the embarrassment caused by one's parents. I say this because maybe one forgets over time and isn't reminded until said parents actually start embarrassing others outside of the family.
          For me, this threshold for embarrassment was very high at a young age and needed to be maintained for survival. By the time junior high hit and everyone was just starting to identify their parents as freaks set out to destroy their social lives, my mother had already been humiliating me publicly for years. She was notoriously unfazed by the unwritten rules of a snooty Connecticut suburb. She is probably still the only person in Woodbridge with a clothesline in the backyard, for example. Throughout my entire childhood, my mother had no problem making her presence known- frequenting school and making odd donations and requests. Often, it seemed that she would materialize when least expected for the express purpose of my discomfort. In first grade I remember hearing the distinctive sound of my mother's giant wad of keys coming down the outside hall. I shrugged and figured it must have been the custodian when my mother appeared at the door. She obviously thought her unscheduled errand important enough to leave the restaurant and interrupt the classroom. There weren't too many other mothers dropping by in this way.

          She certainly did not dress like or own a car like other Woodbridge mothers either. Don't get me wrong, my mom can be quite style savvy. A particular image from childhood though, that comes to mind, was one of standing on the side of the road in six inches of snow while my mother changed a flat tire on her used Chevy Celebrity that she had bought from the Boy Scouts. She was wearing a fur coat, beret, knee socks and clogs. Let's say that with her, certain rules of etiquette, entertaining and housekeeping are paramount, but many other types of conformity are not a priority. The idea that it might not be smart to wear animal fur on the campus of Yale, for example, was never a concern for her. It was just her companions in New Haven who were in constant fear of red paint. (With a wave of her hand, she would say that the animal on her back had already been dead for decades).

          There were other instances when she would not even make an attempt at following established protocol. When my mother picked me up from band practice in the fourth grade, she embarrassed me weekly. Parents would drive by the school entrance via a rotary. It was a very simple process. There would be a line of sorts: parents would stop and kids would get into their respective cars. My mother, on the other hand, would drive past me every time. I would walk up to the car handle and the car would keep moving- every time! Then she would drive to the end of the rotary someplace and finally stop as I chased after her with my flute and giant back pack. Even after I asked her why she couldn't just pick me up at the front entrance like the other parents, she told me she didn't like stopping. She was certain that people weren't meant to stop like that and make all the other parents wait. This was especially ironic considering that she has always been very happy to let people wait when a traffic light turns green and she is still balancing her checkbook behind the wheel. "People are just so impatient!" she will say. It seems that at band practice, she was ok with me being singled out as the kid chasing after her mother's car week after week.

          In junior high, the string of humiliations continued. She made a habit of calling into school and torturing front office secretaries with her ideas about how the "pre-teens" should be able to sleep in more, because studies show that teenagers need the extra. When they explained to her that school started early to accommodate sports teams, she argued with them that her daughter shouldn't have to suffer on account of it. In fact, her daughter should be excused from gym class entirely because it was first period and interrupted her much needed sleep! Who cares that it was a state education requirement!

          Let me be clear and say that my parents were not the type to always assume that the school system was in the wrong- trust me. They were once teachers, so I got my fair share of probing before they came to any conclusion about my education. My mother just got attached to certain ideas, which no person with a rational thought pattern could willingly follow, and would have trouble letting go of them. So I was not only known throughout the front office, but my classmates knew that that woman in the beret and multiple scarves was my mother, marching in to make some more irrational requests.

          Even now, there are few members of Boston Opera Collaborative, a group with which I am involved, who do not know my mother. At one performance, she heard from a family friend that we did not have enough sparkling beverages and she drove up from Connecticut with a cooler full of donations. I mean, no one was complaining, but after she practically took over the concessions stand during a run of Carmen, they definitely subsequently remembered who she was. (Most also recall her brownies with Coca-Cola frosting, which are admittedly remarkable).

          I say that it takes time to get used to one's parents because I seem to have almost forgotten what an energetic force they, but especially my mother, can be in a public setting, such as a concert. This is particularly apparent when you are not the only one taking the brunt of their, shall we say, enthusiasm.

          Recently, they were coincidentally in town for one of my boyfriend's performances. What I should have done before the concert, was given the parents a pep-talk about how it wasn't really a big deal- just a recital in a church where he sings regularly. I should have told them to keep this enthusiasm in check, because we wouldn't want to shatter his image as a professional by implying that this was something he had invited his entire social circle to, because in actuality, he hadn't. Their attendance was a "lucky" coincidence. I suppose I was laboring under the delusion that it was possible for my mother not to draw attention to herself in a group of strangers.

          Before I had arrived at the concert, my mother and father apparently followed Brendan into the room where the singers were preparing and started conversation. Most people consider this time before a concert begins to be private meditation and preparation time for the performers. Apparently my parents live under a rock. Before long, my mother got out her camera and asked to take pictures of all five performers- not that she knew any of the others or anything. Well she didn't quite ask so much as say: "You all look so nice! Everybody get together and let me get a few shots of you!" (She does this all with her point and shoot camera, because she refuses to buy a digital. Hello 1999, it's nice to meet you.) And although I wasn't there, I am sure that she probably interrupted with this request in the middle of an ongoing conversation, as is her habit. So it seems that just when you are immune to their antics, they start embarrassing the poor unwitting souls whom you have invited into your life.

          Meanwhile, Brendan's parents hung back from the rest of the church community, as is appropriate in this case. My mother, on the other hand, flitted about while making friends with several parishioners and loudly extolling the virtues of the soprano soloist's well-behaved son. I think she may have even taken some pictures of the boy. My dad was too busy monopolizing Brendan with a conversation about skiing to even notice. I remember a show a few years ago when Brendan's parents came to see the performance and had barely even made their presence known. At the time I had said to him: "What, they didn't want to run in and cause a scene?! They didn't want to comment audibly on whether or not your costume is flattering?! They didn't follow you backstage to take your picture in the green room???"

          My coping mechanism in dealing with a constant stream of awkwardness in public has always been similar to what it is now I suppose. As a child, I churned out and handed in several creative writing pieces based on my mother's idiosyncrasies, (highlights include ruminations on how she will eat anything: my third grade "book" entitled Olives and Cheese and a sixth grade song The Woman with no Tastebuds). I am certainly not the first to write about an embarrassing mother. Carrie Fisher practically made a second career drawing upon the wonders of her mother's eccentricities onscreen in Postcards from the Edge. Putting a comedic spin on things has always put things in perspective for me- that ultimately I have a great mom even if she is a "character". I have learned, via many examples, how not to be concerned with peoples' perceptions of you. Laundry does smell best when dried on a clothesline after all.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Skiing combines outdoor fun with knocking down trees with your face. ~Dave Barry

          Despite my clumsy nature and near non-existent athleticism, I am a skier. My parents are skiers, which is how this happened. They used to ski all the time until they had kids and then a few years later, it seemed that they woke up one morning and said "Oh shit, we never taught the kids to ski!" So I was eleven when we headed up to Bromley in Vermont for our February vacation. This is fortunate, because given my track record in other sports, (and quite literally my track record), the chances that I would have independently thought it would be a good idea to impale myself down a steep incline on plastic boards would have been slim to none. If I had not started at that age, I would certainly not be the competent skier I am today. I am fairly secure on the mountain, skiing black diamond trails with relative elegance for someone who is only able to get away to ski about once a year. At the very least, I believe most of those embarrassing beginner's skiing accidents to be behind me at this age.

          I was recently proven wrong on this count.

          The boyfriend and I had cleared our schedules over a month in advance to get a ski weekend in with his family last weekend. Never having downhill skied before, Brendan promptly signed up for a lesson. A friend asked why I couldn't just teach him, but fortunately, B realized that that probably wouldn't have been good for our relationship. Besides, when I am lucky to get one ski trip in a year, I don't want to spend the whole day on the bunny slope.

          So, with the boyfriend in ski school, I was out on the slopes with his family. The weather wasn't so hot. At the top of the mountain, there was a lot of wind and fog and a light, but sharp sleet that was partially blinding. Seeing as I get to ski so infrequently, I decided not to give up for the day, but to be a trooper in spite of the less-than-ideal conditions. Getting off the gondola at the top, we were carrying our skis down a staircase to the trail. A cold and brutal wind suddenly picked up and threw off my balance. I must have overcompensated against the wind by leaning forward because the next thing I knew, I was falling face-first toward the seven or eight steps that still lay in front of me. After a few contortions and ricochets, I knew I had landed safely but just needed to register a few things.

          Like a baby who has just fallen and takes that critical moment to decide whether or not to cry, I was mentally assessing my possible injuries when I heard a woman say "That lady just fell down the stairs! Are you ok?" I was fortunately able to confirm that I was fine. My boyfriend's brother turned around to find me flat on my back at the bottom of the staircase with my legs splayed in a straddle across the steps. He assisted me back up and I was able to ski four more runs after that, including one with Brendan on his new ski legs. Of course later, my wrist was not terribly happy, I had a bruise on my thigh that could have been straight out of that scene in A League of Their Own, and my shin swelled up to be the size of my face.

          It seems that, like my mother, I don't do much falling while on the slopes, but rather, while doing something mundane like walking to the chairlift. My mom always whips past everyone with perfect form on the trail and then manages to slip at the bottom of the mountain while adjusting a mitten.

          I suppose this particular weekend could have been worse though. My dad did teach me how to fall properly at a young age. True story. When I was about eleven or twelve, I slipped and fell in the hallway of our house, (my battle with my coordination having been a lifelong one). When my dad saw it happen, he immediately launched into an enthusiastic lecture about how to fall properly- how to protect one's face and head etc. It lasted about twenty minutes, included demonstrations and trials, and ended with me agog. I thought, and still think that protecting one's face during a fall is probably instinctual, but then my father has rarely taken pleasure out of anything unless he is able to methodically analyze it. (See also; my skiing form, which he persists in criticizing, even though I view the sport as pure recreation in my adulthood). I suppose some people never lose the teacher in them, mid-life career changes or not.

          Not all of my dad's life skill lectures have been in vain in my profession however, (and you would be correct in inferring, Dear Reader, that there have been many similar lectures over the years). I recently performed as "The Cock", (no joke), in The Cunning Little Vixen, an opera by Czech composer Janáček. In staging the scene in which my character is killed off by a fox, the director asked if I knew how to fall properly. Fortunately, I was able to answer: "Yes".