Friday, October 13, 2017

The Swear Jar

The first time I heard my mother swear I cried. I was probably 12 years old, too old to be crying over swear words spoken under duress and without malicious intent. But something was obviously very bad if Mom was uttering a four-letter-word.

We were driving in the family minivan, which was front-wheel drive, through Franconia Notch in a storm blending snow and sleet, with a slick sheen of black ice glossing the pavement for good measure. Dad asked how the driving was. Mom, clutching the wheel in the dark, answered with a variation of what my kids would call “the S word.”

Fast forward a generation to children who do not shed tears at the utterance of swear words. My kids are familiar with all the most oft used four-letter words, and a few others. Partly this is because they are at that age where swear words are fascinating in their sheer naughtiness. Partly it is that my older two children are on a reading tear that progresses through several books a week, which means they have moved on to more adult content, which includes, sometimes, minor league swear words. And partly – I’m not proud to admit – it’s because their mother has a potty mouth.

I do not drop swear words into everyday conversation, but I do sometimes slip up on the language front. To stem the tide of the bad words I utter, this summer I implemented a Swear Jar.

My children think this is great fun: Mom plops a quarter in the jar every time she commits a verbal violation. (So, rarely, does Dad, as well as other visiting grown-ups who are caught by my gleeful children in adult conversation using the occasional adult vocabulary.) They think the jar will be filled in no time, and they will subsequently be rich with shiny quarters. I’m just hoping it helps me clean up my language.

Why do I cuss? It’s certainly not a product of my own upbringing, during which nary an F-bomb was dropped. If my dad uttered something so harsh as “damn,” we knew one of us was in big trouble. That evening in the car when my mom swore, I thought the world might just be ending.

I don’t remember when swear words wiggled into my regular vocabulary. Maybe it was college, or the gradual increase of swearing in movies and T.V. shows and other forms of pop culture. Probably, though, it started during the five years of my relative youth when I lived in a ski town. Or in the several years after that when I spent (and still spend) a considerable amount of time hanging out with a bunch of other ski coaches, who can toss around the swear words nearly as ably as legendarily cuss-happy sailors. I used to coach all winter with a friend who is also a fisherman, which is close to a sailor, at least when it comes to language usage.

It was in between those two eras, however, during the six months I lived in Ireland, when I first experienced cussing as an art form. The Irish have earned a reputation for their friendly hospitality, but if you spend a bit of time with the locals, you’ll find those lilting Irish voices take swearing to a level far beyond any American ski coach or sailor. They pronounce some favorites a bit differently – replacing a U with an E in one and transforming a short-I sound into a long-I in another – but the gist is the same. And they use words even I can’t bear to utter, tossing them into conversation as if they’re harmless qualifiers.

Regardless of how my potty mouth has evolved, I have made a strong attempt to restrain it since my kids arrived on the scene. Like many parents, I’ve developed verbal alternates to actual cuss words. “Son of a motherless goat!” is great when I drop something on my toe or whack my head on the not-fully-opened back door of the minivan. “For Pete’s sake,” which I may have inherited from my dad, is a good all-purpose expression of frustration. I also enjoy, “For the love of Pete,” alternately, “For the love of all that is holy.”

I am trying to be creative in articulating my annoyances, and the very presence of the Swear Jar inspires me, usually, to take a deep breath before bleeping. It is being filled much more slowly than my kids thought it would be. We’ve decided that if the Swear Jar ever does get filled up (or if I just stop needing it), we will donate that money to some local charity.

Less swearing and a bit of cash for a good cause: that sounds like a win-win, no matter how you say it.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the October 13, 2017 issue of the Littleton Record.

Friday, September 22, 2017

What goes up must come down

Sunday afternoon, knees creaking with every step, I remembered ABC’s Wide World of Sports intro from many years ago and thought the wording could be changed to, “The thrill of summiting and the agony of descent.”

Coming down Cannon earlier this summer.
Hiking can be a punishing sort of pleasure, even more so with kids, and I was feeling the punishing part of it on the way down Mount Moosilauke.

There was a time when I preferred the downhill to the up. I remember running down trails as a kid, exhilarated by the speed and making daring leaps over obstacles. Not once did I consider my knees and their perfect cartilage.

Those days are long gone. Now, the descents are often, indeed, agonizing. My knees grind and click with every step. I lean heavily into my hiking poles to get through the steepest parts of the trail. Somehow, I still expect the down to take less time than the up, but that is rarely the case.

“When will we be at the bottom?” the youngest hikers in our group asked repeatedly during Sunday’s descent of the steep Beaver Brook Trail, when each landmark we remembered from the trek upward seemed impossibly far away from the last one we’d passed.

The tradeoff for the pain of going down, of course, is reaching the lofty tops of mountains after going up, looking over a small piece of the world from thousands of feet higher than when you started. On the upward journey, there is the promise of the summit, of views that stretch for miles across other peaks and into neighboring states.

Sunday’s hike up Moosilauke also included scrambling along pretty waterfalls and marveling at the wooden steps bolted into granite ledges for our climbing pleasure. The kids checked out a backpacking shelter just off the trail, the boys distracted themselves with some imaginary game they’d devised, and the younger girls happily plucked bright red bunchberries from the edge of the path.

There was mild consternation at the steepness and length of the climb, but this was easily assuaged by doling out chocolate and well-timed breaks. Less than a mile from the summit, a tweaked knee threatened to keep the 8-year-old tweakee and her mother (me) from the top, but with the goal tantalizingly close, she power-limped through.

And then – ahhh. What a summit! What a thrill! I’d be long content at the top of about any mountain I’ve climbed – at least on days like Sunday, which was sunny and bug-free and warm even at nearly 5,000 feet up. I could sit there and watch cloud shadows drift across the landscape for hours.

Alas, the world below always eventually calls.

With our summit aspirations met, lunches dug out of backpacks and hungrily consumed, and obligatory top-of-the-mountain photos taken, our merry crew of five kids, two dogs, and three creaky-kneed grownups headed down. The kids were raring to get back on the trail, unimpressed in their youth with contemplating life from on high. We adults, though, lamented the quickness with which we were back below treeline, away from the views and the openness of the summit.

On tired legs, we slowly made our way down the mountain. Back through the high-elevation fir forest, descending until we reached birches and mountain ash, following the trail back to the steep cascades of Beaver Brook, picking our way carefully down the wooden blocks and boulder steps. Once down, we piled, relieved and exhausted, into the car, where the dog promptly fell asleep with her head in the littlest’s lap.

“That was not my favorite hike,” said littlest told me when we reached home.

That’s an easy sentiment to hold immediately after a challenging climb and descent. But once we’re all showered and fed and have unloaded our packs, we remember most the fun – or funny – parts of each hike. The moon rising over Mt. Lafayette and that sense of awe in looking out across a wilderness nearly unmarred by human activity. The gray jays that ate puffed corn snacks off the kids’ heads on Mt. Jackson (incidentally, on the way down that not-as-steep trail). Our famished dog thieving a pizza lunch on Moosilauke (not funny at the moment, but something I bet we’ll all remember for a long time).

We tend to forget the hardest parts of each hike and hold tight to the special memories and the lofty places that make hearts sing. In the end, we are always happy to have gone up a mountain – even if it means we’ve also had to come down. 

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the September 22, 2017 issue of the Littleton Record.

Friday, September 8, 2017

A Tale of Two Seasons

On the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, rather than going for a hike or a bike ride or an end-of-summer trip to the beach, we settled into what felt like a fall day. That morning was one of a string of chilly mornings, and the day’s damp start turned into a steady rain by lunch time. I was tempted to nudge the thermostat up and kick the furnace into action for the first time since May, but it just seemed too early.

Some gifts of the changing seasons.
Instead, we lit a fire in the fireplace, letting the woodpecker-drilled logs of an old apple tree burn into fresh ashes on the hearth floor, swept clean months ago. We dug through the shorts and t-shirts of summer to find jeans and fleece tops and socks. And during the big weekly grocery shop, I put a roasting chicken into the cart rather than something to throw on the grill. For good measure, we added locally-grown apples to bake into a pie.

It’s a bittersweet transition, this shift from full summer to early fall. I lament the new darkness of early mornings and the relative freedom of summer days spent mostly with the kids, but I am also relieved to get back to a more predictable routine of work, school, soccer practice – busy as it is.

Probably it was that return to the school year schedule that meant the kids were happy enough to spend a rainy day inside Sunday. Although the hauling out and tidying up of bedrooms was met with a chorus of complaints, the rest of the day they were content to cozy up inside, read, play a few games. Not a bike was ridden, nor a ball kicked all day. There was no tree-climbing or swimming hole jumping or even digging in the sandbox.

It was a stay-at-home day unlike any we’ve had since the flip-flops came out – and are unlikely to see again until that brief window in November between the end of soccer season and the start of ski season.

That nestling in against the cool and gray of outside, the crackle of the fire and cinnamon-tinted scent of apples baking felt welcomingly cozy. Still, we were happy when Monday dawned suddenly summery again. Back we went to doors flung open to warmth and brightness, to running around barefoot in the grass, to savoring the waning light of summer. That night I pushed aside the extra blanket I’d added during the recent chilly nights and slept again with windows wide open, on sheets dried on the line and smelling of sunshine.

Despite the rainy week that has ensued, that brief return to summer amid autumnal weather was a reminder that we haven’t fully turned the corner into fall yet. We are on the transitionary cusp, with one foot loitering in summer, even as the other one is stepping toward fall.

Yes, the mornings and evenings are darker now, the leaves are making their undeniable transition from summer green to autumn red-orange-gold, and the vegetables remaining in the garden are of the hardier variety – beets and carrots and kale – but chances are we’ll have a few more days that feel like summer. Days where we can toss aside the sweaters and pull out the t-shirts again, turn faces to the sun, maybe dip still-tanned toes into the cool river. Days that seem like a gift from the passing season, even as we cozy up to the next one.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her blog, Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the September 8, 2017 issue of the Littleton Record.