Tuesday, October 28, 2014

10 years in York County: Pass that hog maw awhile

There was this really great moment in "Parenthood" last week

Crosby (Dax Shepherd) has just seen the father he idolizes (Zeek, played by Craig T. Nelson), almost collapse on a treadmill during physical therapy following a recent heart surgery.

The pair are sitting at a bar is reminiscing about a childhood camping trip when Crosby starts opening up about his struggles -- the business he runs with his brother isn't bringing in enough money, he feels as if he's stuck under his wife's thumb and suffocated by the constant demands of his young son. The expression on Zeek's wrinkled, weary face is one of total understanding. 

He implores his son to try to enjoy his family. To have fun. "It just goes by so fast."

And the camera holds on to them both, their eyes a bit glassy, as Crosby comes to terms with the mortality of his titan of a father and Zeek realizes the circle of his life seems to be closing before he's ready.

I thought about this scene today. 

As of October 18ish, I have lived in York, Pa. for 10 years (or as Brad likes to gleefully point out, "almost a third of your life!") Anniversaries like these seem both inconsequential and monumental all at once. On the one hand 10 years isn't all that long in the grand scheme of a life or a universe. But I think in this case, with all that has happened in these particular 10 years, it feels enormous. I wonder how I squeezed so much in to such a short span. And how it feels like both a lifetime and a minute ago.

Ten years ago, after a whirlwind summer that featured a post-graduation week in Paris, copy editing bootcamp in San Jose, Calif. and a summer internship in Duluth, Minn., I took a job as a news copy editor at the York Daily Record (no, that's not the New York Daily Record, as I've had to tell plenty of disappointed people over the years). 

As it turns out, York doesn't have a whole lot in common with New York. Except for the York thing. And the stint as the nation's capital thing (New York from 1785-1790 and York from 1775-1783 as the temporary capital of the Continental Congress. The Articles of Confederation were also drafted and adopted here. True story.). Oh and New York is called the Big Apple and York is home to plenty of apple orchards … so. That's something.

Where were we? What makes someone who grew up in the suburbs of the actual nation's capital move to a place that's biggest (though much debated) claim to fame is that 230 years ago some guys in wigs happened to be in York when they made the first-ever reference to the "United States of America"? 

Could it that, as mentioned during my job interview multiple times, York is also home to a Harley-Davidson manufacturing plant?

Or, that the band Live originated in York? 

Or that York is just an hour from Baltimore and two hours from Philly and D.C. and three hours from New York?

No, it's because when I came up for my interview I ended up knowing several people in the newsroom from working at my college paper. And then one of those people told me about this farm he lived on. This magical place up a tree-lined lane by a geese-filled pond. Rolling hills speckled with horses. A turkey and a little jack russell terrier named Peetee chasing us up the drive.

Naturally, I invited myself to move in. And then accepted the job offer.

It worked out that I really liked the job and the people I worked with. 

But back then, this move here was only supposed to be temporary. I figured, like every young journalist starting out at a smaller paper, that I'd move on to bigger and better things. Or, anyway, end up back down in Virginia closer to my family.

This plan was only re-enforced by things like the abysmal state of Pa. interstates and York Countians refusal to use "to be" (as in the dishes need washed) and their insistence on adding the word "awhile" unnecessarily (as in, "I'll get you your drinks, awhile.") For years I referred to my state (errr .. commonwealth) of residence as Crapsylvania (state slogan: "We put the 'PA' in crappy"). Yes. I was a snob. And not an especially creative one at that.

At one point, desperate to return to my sisters, I was close to moving back down to Virginia, though even then I wondered about how we would afford to live there. How long I'd be able to put up with the traffic. Anyway, I didn't get the job. And after I received word about that, well, York it was.

See, because what happens is, you stay in a place long enough and you start forming relationships. Memories. You sink your roots. And then it grows on you. And you grow in it.

You meet your future husband. You get engaged on that farm. You get married. Buy a house. Get a dog. You start a family. And you start to think it would be nice for your kids to have ties. To have a home base. A place they can go back to.

You have this romantic notion that they'll remember searching for chipmunks at that one park. 

They'll look forward to climbing through the hay bale castle at that one pumpkin patch…

… picking the perfect Christmas tree at that one tree farm 

… and finding the best spot to sit and watch the St. Patrick's Day Parade. 

You get over the fact that you don't have a Wegman's (and will probably never have a Wegman's) and stop questioning the locals obsession with Bricker's French fries (I mean, seriously though, they're just fries) and their habit of using major roads as cheap entertainment (I'm talking about you, Rt. 30 on street rod weekend). You accept that fact that while you will never, ever enjoy the anvil of lard-fried dough that are fastnachts, food traditions are pretty cool. You look forward to passing the rotating statue of a man in singlet on Rt. 83 and to hearing the weirdest version of "Silent Night" ever thanks to the midnight steam whistle concert on Christmas Eve (although you're not sure it warrants being mentioned under the "culture" entry on York's Wikipedia page).

(But for the record, you will never, ever become fond of the perpetual off-roading that is driving on Pennsylvania highways or the photos of sweet, smiling babies posed next recently "harvested" deer.)

You can't really remember what it was like being a Virginian. It doesn't seem to matter as much about where you grew up. 

You start out this lonely, pretentious 20-something trying to figure out where you fit in in the world with some vision about what your future will look like. And how it should involve these impressive feats and grand stories. And then you realize that your life is already happening and if you just start paying attention, well, that's something worth writing about, too. 

So you make it matter where you are. 

But you still miss your family. Every day. 

You fantasize about your reunions. And the day when hanging out at the dinner table and reminiscing about your childhood is the norm, rather than an exception reserved for holidays and special occasions. You make a mental note to make sure the girls see their cousins again soon. Why haven't they invented beaming technology? Where the hell is Scotty when you need him? 

You start writing in the second person and realize you need to return to first person.

Life is a whirlwind. And all the things won't ever get done.

I don't know if it's getting older or motherhood or or life experience or York, but lately I'm realizing there's not much sense in worrying about all the things anyway. 

It's kind of nice to be in a place that focuses more on the journey than the race. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

For the love of a good chapter book

"I cried while I was reading 'Charlotte's Web' to Lily today," I told Brad the other day.

"Seriously?" he said.

"Yeah. Lily kept asking me why my nose was red and offered to get me tissues. She was worried and confused."

"Your nose does get really red when you cry." 

To which I told him that it's always felt unfair that an emotional basket case such as myself should not at least be given the power to cry neatly and discretely like those stoic eye dabbers who seem to handle sadness with grace and cool.

Given the fact that the girls have been on a bit of a "Charlotte's Web" kick, watching the movie at least three times last week, Brad was surprised that I cried over the book. Shouldn't I be used to it by now?

But it's different when you're reading it, I told him. When your little one is snuggled up next to you and you get to the part at the end where Charlotte knows she's dying but doesn't tell Wilbur, because she knows how distraught the news will make him. 

And you read this passage where Wilbur asks Charlotte why she's been such a good friend and you're filled with the memories of childhood and the perpetual sentimentality of motherhood:
"Why did you do all of this for me?" he asked. "I don't deserve it. I've never done anything for you." 
"You have been my friend," replied Charlotte. "That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what's a life, anyway? We're born, we live a little while, we die. A spider's life can't help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone's life can stand a little of that." 
Even now, as I read it for the 100th time, tears.

Because it sums up how fleeting our time is, right? A minute ago I was 8 or 9 reading about Fern and Wilbur and Charlotte and the Geese and Henry Fussy and the ferris wheel. And now I'm grown and sharing it with Lily and Jovie. And in a second they'll read it themselves. And then a few more minutes, and they'll be the ones crying over the miracle of friendship and the brevity of our time here. 

More so than when I was little, I relate to Charlotte. How she recognizes her own faults in a messy world and wants to do even the smallest thing to make it better. To make it matter just a little more than it did before she arrived.

So that's why I cried. And if I'm the only one here, well, just tell me enough already and point me to the nearest bottle of Zoloft.

I'm on a bit of a middle grade kick recently. Especially where friendship is the central theme. 

I just finished reading my friend Beth's excellent debut, "Pack of Dorks."

The book shares the story of Lucy, who goes from being one of the most popular girls in fourth grade to a social outcast with just one kiss. To make matters worse, Lucy's parents are distracted by the birth of her little sister, born with Down Syndrome. So she's left to navigate her new-found status on her own until, until she joins forces with the classmates she'd previously looked down on.

Just as "Charlotte's Web" tells the story of an underdog (well, underpig) who learns to love himself because a friend believed he was worthy, "Pack of Dorks" illustrates the power of a smile and the importance of making room for everyone at the (lunch) table. 

The characters only become their best selves when they're able to look past their misconceptions of those around them. What a fantastic message to share with our children. And Beth writes the story with sassiness and humor both kids and adults will appreciate. Lucy is imperfect, but trying. Just like the rest of us.

Reading "Pack of Dorks" made me remember this day back when I was 11 or 12. I was walking home from school and these two boys from my class were following behind barking at me. For two blocks. I refused to turn back to acknowledge them or let them see the tears streaming down my face. I remember the boys' names to this day, but will refrain from outing them with the hopes that they're adolescent assholery was just a phase and that they're nicer people now. 

As a tween (that term didn't really exist when I was a tween) I felt somewhat adrift. I had a friend or two, but not that type you could really count on as an ally against howling boys. At that point, my sister Sarah would've been in middle school. I'm sure had she been walking with me that day, she would've stood up for me. She's never been real tolerant of jerks. 

I hope my girls won't have to deal with jerks. But life is as long as it is short, so I suppose it's inevitable. When the day comes that they're faced with someone trying to diminish them, that they have the right friends who can build them back up. 

For that matter, I hope my girls are never the jerks. 

It's funny to re-read the books of your childhood as an adult. I don't know that I ever had an appreciation for E.B. White's simple prose, even as he laid the foundation for my love of writing.

And farms. I love this passage from "Charlotte's Web":
"The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell -- as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world. It smelled of grain and of harness dressing and of axle grease and of rubber boots and of new rope. And whenever the cat was given a fish-head to eat, the barn would smell of fish. But mostly it smelled of hay, for there was always hay in the great loft up overhead. And there was alway hay being pitched down to the cows and the horses and the sheep."
Since reading it, I've uncovered some other E.B. White moments in life. Like this note my sister Laura posted to Facebook recently:
"Good news. Good news. The bulbs from White Flower Farm (courtesy of Mom and Dad) arrived today. The timing couldn't be more perfect. I will bring them on Saturday so that all takers may choose! These little beauties will provide sustenance for our souls throughout the winter as we daydream of the moment their tender shoots pierce the frozen tundra and their sunny faces greet us. Hope in a box."
And the other night when Lily ran through the house shouting: 
"Come on everybody, come quickly. I want to show you something amazing. The moon! The moon! The moon! Isn't it beautiful?"
I got teary then, too (surprise, surprise). But it was too dark for Lily to see my red nose.

Lily's moon.