Thursday, June 21, 2012

Small Town Life

“I’m from a small town, too,” one of my coworkers in Nashville once claimed. He then went on to describe his hometown, which, even though I was not from Tennessee, I had heard of.

                “What’s the population there?” I asked him.

“Not even twenty thousand,” he answered with shame, as if he had just admitted to French kissing his cousin.

“My hometown has a population of twenty-five hundred,” I told him, as if to say, I’m sorry that you kissed your cousin but I’ve made out with my dog, so who’s worse now?

“You mean twenty-five thousand?” He wasn’t just going to concede his hilly-billy small town-ness to this out-of-state girl, but I couldn’t lie.

“No. Two thousand five hundred.” And then I added as a concession to make him feel better, “Actually it was twin cities and each of them had about the same population, so closer to five thousand, I guess.” (A.K.A. “I’ll bet your cousin was at least a good kisser, so there’s that.”)

Growing up in a small community, bordered on all sides by farms and not other suburbs, definitely gives you some different experiences than what “city kids” may have had growing up. Although I was considered a city kid myself, living right in town by the middle school and high school, even though there were still fields of corn and strawberries directly across the street from my house.

But we did not have the city activities that others had, whether that was visiting museums or sidestepping gangs at the park. Except for an escaped elephant and a murderous police officer, not much really happened in our town.

Yet, what did pass for excitement there was just as interesting as gazing at any Rembrandt or Renoir. I’ve gotten to see what happens when a cow wanders through a hole in the fence and is struck by a car (it falls down with its feet in the air and its muscles shake involuntarily as it expires). I’ve seen chickens beheaded and then flop around for a time afterward. (Dancing dead chickens is not something farmers make a practice of creating, because it dirties the chicken and gets the blood all over, but if you’ve got a guest, you have to give her a good show.) I’ve even seen things that do not involve the deaths of farm animals. Such as taking freshly butchered meat down to the basement of the farm house and grinding your own hamburger patties. I also have stories about farms that don’t involve dead animals.

Once, when I was quite young, I was running up a gravel driveway to the pig barn where my great uncle said they had a pig that was about ready to have babies. I tripped on the gravel and fell and bloodied my knee. As I sat there weeping and waiting for one of the adults to catch up to me, I noticed that in the grass beside me was a tiny newborn pig. This is how I learned that piglets can walk immediately after they’re born. We found one more outside the barn with its umbilical cord still attached, but the rest were sliding and slipping around the mama pig, searching for an open teat.

I’m taking the kids back to my hometown this weekend and to the family farm I visited when I was a kid. A cat there recently had kittens and my kids are eager to search for the newborns in the barn. Some consider where we live now to be the “countryside,” but I like to take them into the real countryside, where there’s not a business for miles and no Wi-Fi either. They will have their own farm-animal stories to someday tell their kids. Or to strangers on a blog.

(P.S. I’ve never owned a dog. Just so we’re clear.)

 A view of the back field and pasture on the farm.

 One of the kitties from last year.

One of the kitties from many years ago.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Magical Thinking and Other Mental Disorders

I remember the first time I started playing games in my head. At the time I just thought I was being a good student. I was probably in the first grade. One of my parents would drop me off out in front of school in the morning and then instead of going in the front door, I would walk all the way down the sidewalk past the school to the door that let me in from the playground side. My classroom was down at that end and my friends would be out on the playground until the bell rang to signal the start of the school day.

As I walked down the sidewalk by myself I would play a game of my own. I would think of a word I had to spell and tell myself I had to finish spelling it in my head before I reached the end of the building. I still remember walking across the sidewalk, saying a letter in my head for each square of pavement I crossed, and ending the word A-P-P-L-E just before passing the edge of the building.

It wasn’t long before this game morphed into one resulting in ridiculous anxiety. It’s an issue that still occasionally plagues me today.  Sometimes it works a lot like it did decades ago when I played it outside school, but sometimes it’s much different. For example, if I hear the garage door go up and I am headed from the kitchen to my office, I tell myself that I have to get off the wood floor and reach the carpet before my husband walks into the house or something bad will happen.

Fortunately, this kind of “magical thinking” isn’t a constant in my life. I like to vary my mental diseases: one week it’s magical thinking and the next it’s obsessive thoughts and then generalized anxiety followed by depression. I prefer a smorgasbord to ordering one meal off the menu.

I don’t think these habits are as “crazy” as they sound. While I am not a “checker” (someone who has to check that the doors are locked and lights are off and they end up clicking them open and closed and on and off to be extra-double-triple sure), I do check to make sure I have my money before I walk into a store. I check to make sure I have my tickets before going to a concert and then check a couple times to make sure they’re still where I think they are. This doesn’t seem overly strange to me. It’s just that some people’s habits get out of control.

I think in some ways, people who suffer from these types of maladies are more gifted than those who don’t. Not in that suffering is a gift, but in that they are gifted with an imagination that can picture the worst happening if these activities are not undertaken. I can vividly imagine the worst happening to my children when they drive off in a car with someone else, and it fills me with great anxiety and makes me want to avoid such a situation. I can imagine, in great detail, a slew of other unreal situations, both good and bad, and it can get me into a lot of trouble. My imagination always seems to be either much worse or much better than reality. But then again, while I can tell myself that things are never going to be as bad as I dread or as great as I hope, my imagination whispers to me that actually it will be worse than I could have dreamed and then works to conjure up that image.

Completely unrelated picture of Mackinac Island.
Because why not?
The only thing I can do with my overactive imagination is try to channel it to my benefit. Focus on fictional characters who can be depressed, and on whom I can wring out all my sadness. Imagine the worst happening to characters and then imagine how they can be saved. Concentrate on people and situations that don’t, never have, and never will exist, and let them have my anxiety. This is much easier said than done, however. Imaginary events focused on my real life and real people continue to intrude my thoughts. I’d explain more, but I have to go change the laundry before the phone rings or a meteor will hit my house.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

For Karen

At this moment in a Catholic church in central Wisconsin, a family is holding a funeral for my best friend from first grade. To honor her memory, I’m devoting this week’s blog to her.

I remember Karen as a shy girl. She was quiet but friendly and kind. I remember the house she lived in before she moved away, and I remember playing with her every recess, as we pretended to be cats.

By second grade, she was gone. I had the address of where she moved to, but we never visited each other. We did, however, write each other letters. Her letters are still saved in a box somewhere in my parents’ house, along with class photos that she would send me each year. We wrote about what activities we were in and what classes we took, what our friends were like, and about the different adventures we got into. Having a friend who lived far away allowed me to open up to her and tell her things I had never told anyone else, such as the fact that I was still in love with a boyfriend who had broken up with me years ago. She was a safe outlet to vent to and I never had to worry that anyone would learn my secrets. I believe she found the same thing in me.

After we graduated high school, I went on to college and became busy with a multitude of new life experiences and had a hard time keeping up with friends I used to see every day. Karen and I didn’t write at all after high school. I never got to tell her that I found out that the boy I was still in love with was still in love with me, too. Today we have been married for 17 years and have two children.

I did find her a few years ago through Facebook. But as it is with people you haven’t seen for 30 years, you can peek in on each other’s lives but it’s hard to know what to say. We were quite different people now. From what I read on Facebook, she was a single, working woman who loved to talk sports and politics, and I am a stay-at-home mom whose two least favorite subjects are sports and politics. It wasn’t until I read her obituary that I found we still had a number of similarities, such as being cat people, enjoying trivia, and the fact that we both have angel collections.

Thank you, Karen, for being my friend. You helped make my passage through childhood a little bit easier. I hope I did the same for you. I wish you peace.