Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Basketball in the dark

I grew up in Kentucky, and my high school boyfriend's best feature, in retrospect, was that his family had fourth-row seats to U.K. home basketball games, and he often took me with him. I haven't spoken to him in years and don't miss the experience, so I was surprised when I found myself nearly in tears with nostalgia last night at a local girls' high school basketball game.

My daughters, at ages 5 and 8, are too young for basketball, of course. However, the high school girls' team has been running a skills clinic for elementary school kids, and it seemed to me a good excuse for running around in winter. They've both improved their dribbling considerably, and Hazel, who previously hardly seemed to care for ball games of any sort, now has to be asked to stop dribbling at bedtime. Last night, the "Little Hoopers" gave a demonstration of their skills at halftime.

This amazing show of basketball skills combined with raw, unadulterated cuteness probably doubled the audience for the girls' game. Unfortunately, most of the audience left after halftime, because it was 8:15 by then - bedtime for the under-10 set on a Monday night. However, no question: the experience whetted my appetite for more. I would happily have stayed to watch the rest.

It wasn't U.K. basketball. Passes were sometimes wild, and even the best dribbling lacked that crisp, easy pacing of more experienced players. The shooting percentages weren't bad, though, and the players clearly cared immensely for the outcome. I don't know what my daughters enjoyed, because the kids were all sitting together. (Typically, I found myself a seat where I didn't feel I'd be interrupting any other conversations, and discovered later that I was sitting with the fans from the opposing team. I haven't quite figured out belonging here.) Emily reported later that in her section they were all cheering for Julie, who seemed to be playing center and made several good shots and some nicely aggressive plays on offense. It is the first basketball game the girls have watched, and I can't help but think of how different the world is from when I was little: I always thought of women's basketball as a secondary sport.

I do know what I enjoyed, and it almost scared me. I found myself wishing I played better myself, wishing I'd played in high school, wishing to be out there with them. Knowing this to be impossible, I found myself hoping that one of the girls plays basketball in high school so I can be a regular fan of the game again.

On the way back across the parking lot to our car, we could not seem to keep the girls from dribbling, and when we got home, they burst out of the car to the driveway. Last night half the driveway was still covered with an inch of snow, and the girls were in shorts beneath their winter jackets. Brian stayed downstairs with them for 20 minutes or so, playing with them. I listened to the dribbling, to Brian and Emily shooting, and to them all happily engaged in the play. I've never imagined basketball for them, because when I think of good running-around sports, I think of lacrosse and soccer and field hockey. I believe in outdoor sports, but last night, at basketball, I was once again in love.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Paved Paradise

All week I've been working later than usual, but finally, last night, I got home with a bit of energy and daylight to spare. We have a scant inch of snow on the ground here, melted in spots, but with a nice icy driveway and enough snow to sled.

I got on snowpants, boots, heavy mittens, hat, scarf, and down jacket. I was fine going to work with just coat, hat, and gloves, but when I'm outside for more than a dash to a building I need lots of layers to be comfortable. I didn't look fashionable. Emily was ahead of me getting out the door, and I helped Hazel into her boots and snowpants.

We have two sleds which live outside next to our shed. Emily was already outside, using sticks to make brakes for one. She was doing something more complicated as well, which took most of her attention for about 30-45 minutes, and it didn't make any sense to me and she didn't want Hazel or me to be part of the story. Hazel and I gleefully got on the sleds. I don't think of myself as a thrill seeker, but I love sledding. Speed isn't that important; I like a good long run, though I'll settle for almost anything. In Chicago, our sledding hill was a 3 block walk away and its total vertical drop was perhaps 10 feet. Here, our best sledding hill has at least a 60 foot drop over 1/10 mile distance. Either place, I love sledding, and sometimes when the girls are making snowforts or snow people in our yard I keep myself entertained by sledding in the driveway.

The girls are both really into sliding on ice. I remember when Emily was about 2 and we were walking in Chicago winter, I could coax her into walking farther (as opposed to me carrying her) by singing "Slip sliding away." We did this often, as some peculiarity of local liability meant that residents felt themselves less vulnerable to lawsuit if they did no sidewalk snow removal than if they did the job halfway.

Here, we have no sidewalks. It is a weakness of our neighborhood that didn't bother me at first, because I'd never lived completely without them. I grew up sledding down our street in winter on a sled with metal runners, my friends and I simply moving to the side when cars came. I have vowed that I will never again live in a neighborhood without sidewalks, unless I come someday to live on a farm. I'd never realized that healthy neighborhood culture requires walking together, and walking together requires sidewalks.

But we do have an amenity I'd never look for, an amenity I never imagined wanting. We live next to the parking lot for the community pool. All winter it is empty, at the end of its dead-end street, traffic only using it to turn around. The salt truck turns off its spray in this space, conserving material for places where people need it. In fall and spring, Hazel practices her skills on the a bicycle with training wheels while Emily zooms around doing tricks. In summer, we have to avoid cars, but at the same time, in summer our goal is the pool itself. At that time I think to myself daily how glad I am not to have to load children and towels into a hot car and get wet seats.

In winter, it is an unbroken swath of clean snow, with ice patches underneath and circles of tire tracks for the mail truck and salt trucks. It is flat, but yesterday I gave the girls sled rides by having them hold one end of an Ailanthus branch, while I ran and pulled and then swung them on ahead of me. I stood in one place and drug the branch around me, making concentric perfect circles in the snow. It was much more satisfying and less uncomfortable than snow angels. While I did this, the girls slid on the ice and licked the snow and crawled like animals on the snow and ice, undoubtedly shortening the life of their snow pants.

Eventually we got cold, of course. I didn't judge my limits well, and by the time we got inside I was practically snarling with impatience and chill, and the girls were bickering. I suppose this is the cost of having a good time outside in winter, and on good days we recover quickly and are snuggling, reading stories, and drinking hot chocolate soon after.

As a teacher of environmental studies, I can't help but think of what the parking lot could be. If it were a meadow or woodland, we couldn't bike, but we'd collect wildflowers there and play with sticks and maybe make tree forts. But it isn't, and more likely if the pool weren't there the area would just be more suburban houses like ours. If it were a permeable parking lot, it would at least have better drainage and not contribute to Pittsburgh's storm water problems. It could have landscaping islands at least, but I recognize that this would be an added expense for the pool. It is, though, a parking lot, and yesterday we had a great time on it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Cabin fever

Last Saturday we spent the day at a lovely place, full of plants from all over the world, without a single weed in sight. It was a Conservatory, and much as I know that the place is precisely manicured and pruned and controlled, parts of it give the most wonderful illusion of wildness. Outside it was cold and windy and snowless - the most useless kind of winter weather - and inside it was lush and comfortable and green. I'd like to critique the concept, but I find it irresistable. I can imagine no better cure for January which doesn't involve long-distance travel.

For some incomprehensible reason, afterward the girls were just itching to go to a playground outside. We stopped at one, and I got out with them for just a few minutes so they could run around until, I thought, they got too cold to continue. But even though they were in bare legs and fancy clothes they'd chosen for the Conservatory, while I was dressed relatively well for the weather, they outlasted me.

Since then, it got even colder. On Sunday I left the house for yoga class, and then again for the girls' basketball clinic, but I wanted to just curl up. Once I got home, I didn't face the outdoors again until I got out of my car at work this morning. Of course, after a whole weekend of bitter cold without a flake of snow, it snowed. By the time I got home it was dark and too melted again for sledding. I'm ready to go back to the Conservatory and live there, until spring.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

New beautiful hike, with weeds...

This weekend my husband steered us toward a new spot to hike, a little park which, on the map, had the long, skinny promising shape of a gorge trail. After a couple of wrong turns, we found the spot, which had an inauspicious trailhead, complete with a muddy turnaround and a basketball court, plus a number of hikers with dogs. Of course, at this time of year, without snow, most places don't look pretty. We ate our sandwiches and started up the trail.

It started flat, and windy. Old burdock plants next to the trail kept us on course where mud might have otherwise pushed us toward the edge. But of course, after a few minutes - yes, even in January - the kids were splashing through the stream. They each believed inside that they could do this without getting soaked. We like our kids to be intrepid. I was amused to watch my husband telling them not to get wet but simultaneously climbing all over the place with them, jumping rock to rock.

I'm no forester, and I don't know what most of the trees here were. My husband recognized a hop hornbeam; a lovely sumac was laying across the trail in one place, seemingly felled by the elements. The tree I couldn't miss was an Ailanthus, which had broken also across the trail (such is the nature of trails at the bottom of narrow, steep, sides - the trees always fall to the trail). Its branches, which I broke off to clear the trail a bit, gave off their characteristic rotten-peanut-butter odor. This in an invasive tree - the one featured in the old NYC novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn - and known for its ability to tolerate pollution, and its ability to spread and grow quickly into disturbed areas.

We lived for years in Ithaca, NY. This park reminded us more of Ithaca than any other we've found here: stream, cliffs, waterfall... but I have to wonder why Ailanthus seems more abundant in woodlands, like this one, where broken lawn chairs hang from the hillsides and the stream has a dead look to it, suggesting that urban runoff of various sorts has destroyed whatever might have lived there. This was a nature area, clearly saved for its beauty, but not *quite* well enough appreciated to be really first-rate. We'll go back, but each time, the girls will come home and take a bath. Not, of course, because of Ailanthus. But I have to wonder what the park, and the water, might have been like without Ailanthus, and lawn chairs, and trash, and broken concrete streambed interspersed with the lovely flaky, black shale.

And, even hiking in January, the girls needed a bath when we got home. Hazel first stepped in the stream with a misplaced foot, and bravely continued uphill after I wrung out her sock. But Emily's fall, taken as she followed Daddy in a rock-to-rock jump across a narrow part of the stream, soaked her from hip to toe. We were at the top, though not at the end of the trail, and it was a good place to quit. We hurried down. The way down took perhaps half the time as the way up, because we stopped dawdling and hopping around. We got in the car, turned on the heater, and hurried home to give the girls a hot bath.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Walking home

This year, with both kids finally in the same school, I've gained some conveniences. One is that I can now bike to work, because I don't have to take my younger child to daycare; one is that I can work at home, because before, if I did that, I'd still have to drive to work to drop the younger daughter off so I could get something done. Finally, because I'm not always driving to work, the school bus has become a lot more convenient.

The school bus stop is 0.2 miles down the street. In warmer and more predictable seasons, I was biking to work 2-3 days a week, and I'd walk kids and bike down the hill in the morning and wait at the bottom for them, and walk the last bit together, in the afternoon. On days I work at home, I walk them down and return home afterward. On Wednesdays, they have an afterschool program nearby, and I walk over to pick them up, also about 0.2 miles each way.

OK, I'm self-congratulating, so let me add: we live only 0.4 miles from their school. Mornings when we wait for the school bus, a neighbor I like and admire for many reasons walks her two children to school past our bus stop to school, and I always wish to join her. I don't though, because my daughters don't want to walk, and worse, I don't want to take the time to walk home afterward. I did it a few times, and found myself getting antsy and irritable about the lost work time. And in the afternoons, I have the girls ride the school bus because if they walk they arrive a full 15 minutes earlier, and then I lose even more work time. That's fine if I'm working at home that day, but when I have the commute to consider, I've already lost too much time.

Brian Fellows (http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/434/) wrote about the walking school bus in Orion, one of my new favorite environmental magazines. If I were a bit more activist, I'd suggest that my neighbor and I take turns walking the kids to school. I'd talk to other moms I know nearby and try to make it work. But I don't, figuring the stay at home moms don't need the help and the working parents aren't interested. My neighbor across the street drives down to the bus stop to wait for her son, and asks us with reasonable frequency, especially in bad weather, if we want to ride. She rolls down her window while we wait, and she and I talk, but never about the walking school bus. The neighbor who does walk doesn't need my help, I reason, so any arrangement would be for my own shameless convenience. So I remain silent, fuming about the lack of sidewalks and my own foolishness for not noticing this while we were looking at houses, feeling alone in my peculiar collection of ideals: ecology, exercise, expedience.

No one would call a 0.2 mile walk a workout, but oddly enough, I'm increasingly convinced that it adds up. Sometimes during that walk home the girls are distracted by a neighbor, and sometimes they decide to run, just for the joy of beating me to the door. They used to whine for a ride on my bike, until finally I started biking home and leaving the bike there, so I could meet them with no tempting wheels in hand. I meet them with a snack, sometimes healthy but usually not too much, and so I know that the trip is not a weight-loss exercise. All the same, my primary hope is to set in their minds that I enjoy walking. I hope it is infectious. I get excited by the idea of long hikes, and talk about trips I want to take, even when I know logistically they'd be ten times more difficult with kids.

I still hope to bike more often, to find other ways to reduce fuel use in winter, and to ultimately have the girls walking all the way to school and back. I hope to have neighbors join me in this, as soon as I can figure out how to start the conversations without sounding either self-righteous or like someone trying to take advantage of their time. And I hope to keep doing my job, teaching environmental issues to college women who may be in my position with parenting and work a decade from now, more or less. I don't know if I can have all this hopes come true or not, but for now, walking that 0.2 of a mile home is the first step.

Monday, January 7, 2008

January Thaw

This afternoon it was 65 degrees here in cloudy Pennsylvania. That's a perfectly wonderful temperature, though a bit suspicious in January. Still, I know that a January thaw is common enough, so I decided to relax and celebrate by urging the girls outside after school. I believe in global warming, but I also believe there is no sense in failing to enjoy its benefits when there are any.

I find I can't get the girls outside without friends unless I basically go outside and stubbornly stay there until they find a way to entertain themselves. I'm no supermom, and I have no interest in organizing an expedition or leading a game or frankly, even in playing with them. I love watching them play, but I hate when they involve me and then start telling me what character I am and what to say next. I figure I'm being good enough by getting outside; I don't need to get saintly here.

Being outside wasn't a tough sell, but self-entertainment was. We ended up taking scooters over to the nearest playground and tennis courts, and we played "Mommy throws old tennis balls at the children while they scooter." It would have been brutal if my aim were better. Instead, I got each of them maybe once, we all got a lot of exercise, and I got out some aggression built up from first-day-of-a-new-semester anxiety, without hurting anyone. Then Emily did a few passes on monkey bars because I dared her, and we headed home as the sun gave its last pink rays from below the horizon. Hazel stayed on the slides until it was clear we were walking ahead without her.

This weekend, when it was still seasonably January, we all went out sliding on the ice in a nearby empty parking lot, and the girls, with a friend, decided to build a snowfort and make snowball ammunition for use against me. As there was about a half-inch of snow and I could tell it might be years before they had a snowfort large enough even for a dog, I found a way to entertain myself. As I was, that day, already dressed in the armor of snow gear - gloves to snowpants - I figured I was ready to prune back the multiflora rosebush and get the empty bottles out of it. Only problem was, I didn't have clippers with me, and didn't want to go back to the garage to get them. So I snapped branches off with my gloved hands - only a couple of prickers got me through the seams - until I could get the trash out of the bush. The bush didn't really look any smaller when I was done, and I doubt I even got a full year's worth of growth off it, though I broke off quite a few branches.

Don't ask me why I'd rather attack a rosebush than play with my daughters. We can save that question for their psychiatrist later, who I hope will lead them to some charitable interpretation. But two hours later, it was time for lunch, and we were all hungry, and who knows where the time went. For some reason, without it being my weedy rosebush or anything, I felt better having those old bottles taken care of. I know the girls eventually turned their snow fort into a birthday party, complete with streamers from someone's leftover New Year's party decorations which were left as trash. I think we all came inside feeling festive.