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Monday, September 29, 2014

What a ride!

Thirty years ago I rode in the MS City to Shore 150-Mile Bike Ride. It was 75 miles from Philadelphia to Ocean City, New Jersey and 75 miles back the following day. I rode in this charity event three times and have many fond memories. My soul- and blood-sisters, Mary Anne and Emily were with me all three years, as was my future spouse. Though at the time, he was just a nice guy willing to ride back over the bridge to Somers Point for a case of beer to quench our thirsts and win our hearts. We stayed overnight in slightly better than boarding houses and ate slightly worse than Momma’s homemade spaghetti dinners at the finish line. One year, Johnny Schaeffer wiped out on a gravely turn and broke both his wrists. Another year I rode in the pouring rain with bronchitis that, not surprisingly, turned into pneumonia. 

And though it was a charity ride, I know I  didn’t do it for the cause. I did it just because. I mean, why not? I was young and foolish and fit.

For thirty years I’ve been dreaming about doing it again.

But somehow things just kept coming up.

It started with three c-sections resulting in three kids and the time consumption and energy expulsion that followed. Halfway through child-rearing I had my left hip replaced which included a two-week rehab at Kessler and a bad bout of C-Diff (look it up, it wasn’t pretty). I had pancreatitis that warranted a three-day stint in ICU, the removal of my gall bladder, ten more days in the hospital and several weeks of recovery. A couple years later came the call for a hysterectomy (no complications there, God was just sealing the deal); breast cancer with two little surgeries and one big double mastectomy; then three separate orthopedists' recommendations to have not one, but two bone-on-bone knees replaced (didn’t do it). I have arthritis in my spine, a patella that tends to dislocate, a big bunion on my foot and an ankle that throbs after every workout. In thirty years I gained 80 pounds, lost 100 and continue to yo-yo, suspecting I will do so for the rest of my life.

Things could, and undoubtedly will, get a whole lot worse.

So, I pulled out my bicycle and took it down to The CosmicWheel where they spun out the cobwebs, changed up the tires and sent me off with a well-oiled machine, making me promise that they hadn’t done the work in vain.  

Despite my aching bones, not to mention buttocks, I rode miles and miles and miles. And then one day I googled the MS Bike Ride, saw there was now an option to ride "just" 80 miles and take a bus back home on Saturday night. It didn't take long to convince Emily and Mary Anne to sign up so we could relive our youth together.
Again. It wasn’t about the cause. It was just because.

After lots of wasted energy fretting (see Don’t Worry ‘Bout a Thing pre-ride blog post), Saturday was perfect, from start to finish. The skies were blue, our moods buoyant, pains Aleve-containable. The route, which starts at a commuter rail station in Cherry Hill and winds through the neighborhoods and beautiful back roads of a state that’s gotten a bad rap for massive amounts of malls and traffic, was surprisingly free of road-kill, road-rage and casualties.

Thanks to the generosity of friends on Facebook, I just slightly exceeded the mandatory amount of money required to ride the ride. I didn't knock myself out knocking on doors or begging from businesses. After all, this was my personal challenge, not my personal cause. And though I know a couple of wonderful people who have been stricken with MS, I am honest enough to admit I didn't think a lot about the disease aside from hoping that I never got it. 

 After riding 80 miles over the course of eight hours (which included stopping at four of the five rest stops and one or two pull-off-to-the-side for a quick stretch and a handful of almonds), the words I heard the most besides, “On your left!” and “Car back!” were “Thank You.”

At every intersection and turn on the route was a volunteer, police officer, or both. We thanked them and they thanked us. People parked in plastic chairs on their front lawns and held signs that read, “Thanks for riding!” And it seemed whoever we passed would belt out a warm and resounding "Thank You!" Every few miles a SAG wagon would ride by calling out encouragements and checking to make sure we didn't need a hand (or a ride). At every rest stop we were greeted not only with abundant amounts of food and drink but with friendly volunteers who made us forget how far we still had to go and instead focus on how far we had come. 
At about mile 76, we hit our first hill. And it was a biggie. Up and over the big bay bridge we pedaled, knowing there was no way, no matter how loud our thighs screamed, that our hearts would allow us to get off and walk. I used my old standby pain diffuser and counted to 100, then 100 again. And again. And again, until I reached the top. Winded and wistful, I looked out over the water and got a little teary-eyed, pumped my fist in the air and said, “I did it!”

A mile-and-a-half later, I got teary-eyed again, but for a different reason. Looming ahead was yet another big, bad bridge to cross. But that was the final hurdle.

In Ocean City we were met by hundreds of people lining the streets, all of them clapping, holding signs and cheering, “Thank you! Thank you for riding!” 

And now it's my turn to say "Thank you!" Thank you to all the riders, volunteers, donators, cheerer-on-ers, friends, families and companies who made the day a huge success. Thanks to all those who supported me financially and emotionally. But most of all, I thank the power of the pack. Because that's what made me realize that no matter how hard I tried to make it all about me, the pack just wouldn't let me.

I found I wasn't the oldest or the fattest, nor was I the fastest or the fittest. I wasn't the first rider to worry about Port-A-Potties and parking. And I won't be the last to ride for selfish reasons. I was just one individual pedaling my way down to the shore amongst thousands of others. 

But what happens is that individuals build on each other. As they work together toward a common goal sharing their strengths, their talents, their time and their energy, something pretty amazing happens. All of a sudden, even if you're doing it "just because," you get swept up in the cause without even trying, turning your personal challenge into something bigger and better than you ever imagined.

We kept running into a woman who has ridden for the past 31 years. We found her at the finish line and asked to take a picture with her. She doesn't go the whole distance, but she's an inspiration. She makes a difference. And that's what I plan to do. I'm going to keep on making a difference in my own little way, for as long as my limbs hold out.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Don't Worry 'bout a Thing

Don’t worry ‘bout a thing,
Cause every little thing gonna be all right.
Don’t worry ‘bout a thing,
Cause every little thing gonna be all right.
-Bob Marley

In my next life I want to be Bob Marley. I want to be world-famous, change people’s lives with my words and live a worry-free life.

But then again, if I were Bob Marley, I would have been dead at 36 and would never have met my third child. So, maybe a better choice would be Richard McKee.

I met Richard last summer when Penny (aka Patty) and I went on a cruise that stopped in Grand Cayman. I was in charge of choosing this land excursion after Penny's pick sent us zip-wiring through the Jamaican jungle the day before. (See Bucket List blog for an up-close and personal.) Knowing that I was doing an 80-mile charity bike ride in September, ever-practical me googled around until I found Richard of West BayLoop Bicycle Rentals. Richard is an avid cyclist, having biked through Europe and the Caribbean and bunches of places that aren’t even on a map. We only knew him for a little more than an hour as he transported us to and from our biking destination. The middle hours were spent exploring the beauty of the island on our own. But it didn't take long for Richard, with his Irish brogue, gift of gab and proclivity for both historical and trivial facts, to win us over with his free-wheeling spirit. After the best bike ride ever, he dropped us at a bar, leaving us with warm hugs goodbye. A week later, he e-mailed me a hello with a picture of himself costumed in Rastafarian dreds.
Bike riders are special people.

I’m a bike rider and I’m special. In my own special way.

On Saturday, my sister Emily, life-long friend Mary Anne and I are joining 6,997 other people in the Bike MS: City to Shore Ride. It’s billed as a 75-mile ride from Cherry Hill to Ocean City, New Jersey, but I discovered in the fine print that it’s actually 80 miles.

I love to travel. I love to meet new people. And I love to do strange and wonderful things. But only if I’m allowed to worry about the minutiae months in advance and create catastrophic scenarios in my mind. That way I can be pleasantly surprised when nothing goes according to plan.

Keeping in character, I have worried about the logistics of our upcoming ride since the day we signed up.

Check-in starts at 5:30 am and anyone who has known me for five minutes knows that I insist on eight hours of sleep. So, do I drive to Cherry Hill in the morning which would mean leaving by 4 am (and going to bed at 8)? Do I sleep at Emily’s house in the Philadelphia suburbs and worry about three bicycles on a bike rack (the last time we tried that, all three went flying off on the West Side Highway)? Or do I stay in a hotel (using my Holiday Inn points) and sleep until 5? After a ping pong tournament in my mind, that’s what won.

When I saw the five-day forecast I stopped worrying about rain (0 percent is pretty good odds) and started worrying about what I was going to wear. If it’s 57 degrees at 5:30 in the morning with a high of 80, is it better to freeze for two hours or broil for six?

I decide to suffer the short sleeve option and pack a sweatshirt for the breezy beach finish line. The MS volunteers will transport a bag for us, but that opens up a whole new worry. If I have to stop at the luggage tent it adds one more line to a long-lined morning. And speaking of lines, since the Port-a-Potty lines will be the longest of all, should I forgo my morning caffeine? But, assuming I will have tossed and turned all night worrying that I'm not going to get my full eight hours sleep, that may not be an option.

Which brings me to the water problem. If I drink too much water I’m going to have to go to the bathroom way too often. But if I don’t drink enough, I’ll get dehydrated and collide with other riders. And the same goes for eating. If I rely on the food at the rest stops, that means I’m going to have to eat granola bars instead of Snickers bars. But if I bring my own snacks, will they fit and / or melt in my bike pouch?

And so I start thinking about everything else I need to carry in my bike pouch. Lip balm. Money. Wipes? Kleenex? Hand sanitizer? Hand cream. Car keys! Spare tire tube. Extra water bottle, just in case? PHONE. And phone charger because my iPhone can’t hold a charge for longer than two hours.

I picture myself at a Wawa in May’s Landing, begging for an outlet so I can charge up and call Mary Anne, having lost them two rest stops back when I insisted they ride ahead while I waited for the bathroom for the fourth time in as many hours.

There’s a shuttle back to Cherry Hill after the fun and festivities in Ocean City. But what if we miss the last bus back? What if we can’t remember in which overflow parking lot we were forced to abandon our cars? What if I’m so tired that I don’t want to drive the 100 miles back home?

Then I worry about things that simply will not happen (I hope). What if I get a toothache? Diarrhea? Bronchitis? What if I get a flat tire? What if Johnson’s on the Boardwalk is out of caramel corn?

As much as I worry, I rarely worry about the big things in life. It’s the little things that bog me down. Lucky for my children, I never worried about them getting stolen or stabbed or swallowed by sharks. I worried that they’d forget their cleats or run out of gas or be late for class. When a crisis strikes, I don’t worry about the outcome, I worry about the details along the way. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, my biggest worry was how I was going to carry the laundry basket after my surgery.

I don't know why I have this insatiable need to worry. What I do know is that my worst-case scenarios are other people's bests. That I'm never, ever going to change. And that in the end, whether I worry or not, every little thing gonna be all right. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Back-to-School Night

“Do you want to meet me at Back-to-School Night or go together?” I asked my spouse.

He stopped to think, I know he did. After all, he has heard that question for 17 years, ten in which we had three kids in two different schools with two (but never three due to perfectly-planned parenthood) different Back-to-School Nights.

But alas, there are no more Back-to-School Nights for us to attend.

All-in-all, I’ve been to 39 Back-to-School Nights. That’s three kids, thirteen a piece from kindergarten through senior year. And I never missed a single one. Now, I did have to cut a class here and there because when you have two kids in one place, it’s logistically impossible to be in two places at one time.

And that’s when I’d make up the color-coded schedule and determine which parent would visit which class. I’d always take the less academic and more fun slots, leaving my erudite spouse to contend with the AP and Honors classes. I chose according to which teachers I liked best and pretended that I was giving my spouse the cream of the crop. But for his intents and purposes, I was.

My spouse and I attended Back-to-School Night for different reasons. He would go with pen and paper, jotting down homework assignments and class curriculums. He would take notes about teaching styles, grading policies and test schedules. He’d then come home and ask Max why he hadn’t studied for the Statistics test scheduled for the next morning, to which Max would always respond, “I did.”

I, on the other hand, saw Back-to-School Night primarily as a social event. I’d hang out at the PTSO table, after half-grudgingly writing the $15.00 check for membership dues. Shouldn’t people who give their time be exempt from giving money? I’d ask. Then I’d visit Barbara Ostroth at the League of Women Voters table, buy a T-shirt from the current class president and scurry from class-to-class, chatting with parents in the hallways before squishing into a too-small desk with an attached chair in the next classroom on my list.

My jaded friends have argued that Back-to-School Night is a waste of time. After all, you’re not supposed to talk specifically about your kid, and if you can’t talk about your own kid, why bother going?

But parents are masters at worming their way into teachers’ personal space. Seconds before the 15-minute bell rings and Principal Heck announces over the PA system that it’s time to move on to 3rd Period class, the sliest of parents start inching their way toward the front of the room, eyeing each other warily as they position themselves to pounce on the poor teacher who dreads this night second only to parent-teacher conferences.

“I’m Freddy’s mother!”

“Oh, Freddy,” the teacher deadpans in reply.

“How’s Freddy doing?”

“Well, maybe we should schedule a meeting,” the teacher says.

“Why? He’s doing all his homework. Freddy’s a good student…”

“Hi! I’m Lucy’s dad.”

Lucy’s dad extends an arm across the body of the devastated Freddy’s mother to shake the teacher’s hand.

“Lucy. You know Lucy, pretty girl. Long brown hair. Honors student…”

“So, has Jamal been coming to class?”

“Are you the teacher who gave my Tanya a D on her essay?”

I chuckle and head to my next class.

I like to talk about my kids as much as the next guy, but I’m a rule-follower and would hate someone writing a blog about my indiscretions. So, I just always stuck to throwing out randomly inappropriate comments during class that could pertain as much to Melissa as to Marcus as to my very own Molly.

Back-to-School Night seems to always land on either the rainiest or the hottest September day on record. And despite our clear calendars and best laid plans, babysitters would cancel, supplies would be needed for a last-minute science project or our cheerleader would need a ride home from practice. My spouse always, always got a late-breaking story he had to cover and I’d get a late-breaking car pool to drive. Inevitably, we’d arrive at Back-to-School Night frazzled and frantic and full of disdain.

Tonight is Back-to-School Night at Teaneck High School. When I saw the sign in front of the school I felt a little tug at my heart. Now don't get me wrong, I’m not unhappy about staying home and cleaning the bathroom for tomorrow night’s Book Club. But now that I have three kids in three different time zones, I must admit, I do kind of miss being able to visualize what my kids are doing and where they’re going to school. I’d love to be able to picture their classrooms and put a face to the names of their teachers. Or even know a name of a teacher. I’d like to walk through the same halls that they do, peek into their cafeterias and auditoriums and art rooms. And to hear first-hand how easy it is to get an A, and then wonder for the rest of the year, how it is my future collegiate-athlete son managed to work his way down to a B minus in gym class.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Phone Home

Five days after dropping Leo off at college, I still hadn’t heard from him. Now, this isn’t my first time at the rodeo, but still. He’s my youngest. He reads my blogs. He knows I’m dying to hear from him.

When it comes to my children I like to think that I’m not a worrier, but more of a wonderer.  

I wonder if Leo is having a good time. I wonder if he was able to find his classes on that massive Rutgers campus. I wonder if he remembered he stashed his extra towels under the bed. I wonder if his workout clothes smell mildewy yet and if he has found the laundry room. Which reminds me to wonder if he noticed the over-the-door-hooks I slipped over his door to hang aforementioned wet clothes and towels on to delay aforementioned mildew odors.  I wonder how he likes the guys on the baseball team. I wonder if he is getting along with his roommate. I wonder how he likes communal bathing. I wonder if the food in the dining hall is as good as it was on the first day or if that was just to impress the parents. I wonder if he has met his future best man. I wonder if he has met his future bride. I wonder if he got caught in the thunderstorm the other afternoon and if he did, if his shoes are still wet.  

Just wondering.  

My friend Kerri, who recently emptied her nest to the University of Oklahoma, sat on my front porch with me the other day. She told me about someone she knew who cut her son’s phone service off when he stopped answering her calls and texts.

Not for a milli-second did I consider this an option, knowing for certain how it would go. 

I’d receive a phone call from an unknown number.

“Leo!” I’d exclaim. “How’s school? How’s Calculus? How’s the dorm? How many friends do you have? Have you seen Shane? Do you miss me? Are you keeping your room clean? How's Jordan? Do you have enough socks? Whose number are you calling from?”

“Don’t worry about it, Mom. Uh, my phone won’t work.”

“But how’s it going?” I’d ask.

“Good.  Mom, what should I do about my phone?”

And so I’d sigh and call the phone company to reinstate his number. Simply knowing he was alive would allow me to cross one wonder off my list of wonders. But only one.

And so I wait.

Once upon a time I, too, went to college. After lugging dozens of liquor boxes (filled with my possessions, not liquor, because in those days, plastic containers had not yet taken over the world and liquor boxes were the strongest, next to stolen milk crates which were usually reserved for storing albums) up the stairs of Harley Hall, my parents said goodbye. They left me to unpack and make my own bed and rearrange my own furniture and tape my own Grateful Dead posters to the wall.  There was perhaps a constricted throat and maybe even a blinked back tear, but surely a hug along with a “See you at Thanksgiving!”

And that was that.

Some of my friends got weekly phone calls from their parents. There was a phone booth at the end of the hall and most people would ignore its insistent ringing because if you answered it, you had to go bang on Room 223 and scream, “Chris Kirk! Phone’s for you!” If she was there, your duty was done, but if she didn’t answer the knock on the door, you'd have to had go back down the hall to the phone and politely tell the parent on the other end of the line that their daughter was not home. Then you’d have to walk back to Room 223 and write a message on the erase board that hung on the dorm room door: “Chris, you mom called. 8 pm Sunday.” And because it had been hammered into your head how much each and every minute of a long distance call cost, you felt obligated to hurry up and down those dorm halls. No one wanted to do that, so you usually just ignored the ringing phone.

My freshman year of college I got two phone calls. One when my grandmother died in November and one on my birthday in February.

I’m sure my parents wondered how I was doing and were probably thrilled when they got letters from me. Especially the ones that said things like I decided not to play field hockey after all or I dropped Biology or college is so much fun that I’m out every single night.

I knew complaining about not being able to afford a midnight grinder at Pizza House (or a beer at The Fort) would fall on deaf ears. Three or four times in my college career, my father sent me a five-dollar bill. I worked in the summer, to earn my own spending money. When I ran out, I stopped spending.

These are different times. No one under the age of thirty writes letters anymore. Except for my favorite niece, Olivia, who has mastered the art of handwritten thank you notes, a lost and lovely gesture my own children have failed to embrace. But today there is texting and e-mailing, and I am as expert as any in both those mediums.

As a matter of fact, I can have an entire conversation by text. My friend Jean will send a full screen of commentary about people we know who perform unseemly acts or people we don’t know who perform on The Voice. And we can go back and forth for an hour. When we see each other in person, I often can’t remember if we had discussed an issue in person or through the tapping of fingers.

So, I would gladly accept a text from anyone at any time. Especially from a first-year college student who keeps me wondering (not worrying, mind you) how he is doing.

It is a silent alternative that takes mere seconds and can be done anywhere from the bedroom to the bathroom, from a classroom to a concert.

Five days and not even an emoji.

Which got me to thinking about my own mother, whom I rarely call. She lives 100 miles away and I do send her sporadic e-mails, but if I call her once a month, that’s a lot. She knows I love her. She knows I think about her. She knows I ask my sisters about her. But it never occurred to me to think that she would choose to spend her time hearing about my life, my kids and my problems. Besides, she has three other daughters who can talk her ear off in person and by phone. I thought I was being kind.

That is, until I didn’t hear from my own child.

So, I picked up the phone on a Wednesday afternoon and called my beloved mama for no reason at all. We had a great chat and had fun catching up on each other’s lives. She confirmed that yes, she would love to hear from me more often. But I also know, like me, she’s going to wait for the call, not make it.

I hung up my landline and looked at my cellphone.

And sure enough, there was a missed call from Leo.

My heart leapt and I called him back immediately, certain I had missed my window of opportunity. But, alas, he answered. He wanted to know about books. Who pays for them?  Me or him?

I rambled on and asked a lot of questions, but only half as many as I wanted to.

After all, I can’t imagine what life would be like if I had nothing left to worry wonder about.