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I Took a Shortcut in a Yellow Wood

And that has made all the difference.

Decades ago, in yonder century, I ran with a cross-country team in this very park where I now play with my daughter. In life, as in cross-country, there are shortcuts best not taken. You don't want to get disqualified during an actual race or trample through a hornet's nest or surprise someone trying to take a private poo. (I didn't have to learn all these lessons personally. That's what teammates are for!)

But sometimes a shortcut can save us way more than a few minutes of our time. For example, at some cross-country practices, sneaky little groups of us would veer off the training route so we could hide and eat pastries. I won't say these stunts were mindfully concocted. They arose out of desperate exhaustion and hunger after school. But they ended up creating some of our fondest memories and even (surprise!) being good for my overall health.

I'd had a good run (get it?) in ninth grade, when I made Junior Varsity and outran some of the boys. Then my bones grew all screwy (we didn't know then that intensive running could give adolescent girls hip dysplasia), and I had a bout of anemia, and suddenly I could barely drag one sneaker ahead of the other. But I hadn't yet mastered the life shortcut of quitting stuff while you're ahead. Eventually, I figured out that, in addition to permanent joint damage, being called "anorexic b****" while fainting from hypergymnasia was not for me. Cutting practice and finally quitting the sport saved me untold amounts of pain and long-term health consequences.

Meanwhile, I explored the art of the shortcut in the classroom as well. In math class, I absolutely loved solving algebra problems--turning piles of gibberish into tight little packages of information--and, on a higher level, figuring out faster methods of solving those problems than whatever was in the textbook. Sadly, I quit taking math classes as soon as possible in high school, because I noticed that the nerdbros in class got murderfaced whenever I outperformed them in class, and I didn't want a blowdart to the skull. So also went my brief love affair with philosophy. *Sigh.*

I found that I could use similar problem-solving abilities in English class (approved by the patriarchy as a subject in which a girl could excel), where more than once I made an honors class teacher LOL by rewriting a convoluted topic sentence into a terse line of few words. It was the convergence of math, poetry, and teenage snark. I don't know what has happened to my brain since then. I overwrite all these blog posts into rambling country minister sermons. But I digress.

As you may have gathered, I started high school at an institution that had some issues with sexism and misogyny. Yeah, yeah, what high school doesn't, but this one was extra garbage. So I cut off my enrollment halfway through sophomore year (snip snip!) and switched from private to public school, where I found more chaos, yes, but also more freedom. There, I could go ahead and be a smartass girl, both in my honors classes and, unexpectedly, in the detention room.

The school had developed a points system much like a real-life version of the Purgatory I had learned about at my previous Catholic school. A smartass could, for example, skip an entire class and make up for that transgression at the same time by spending the hour in the detention room. The public school nerdbros and I would regularly skip our less important lectures to use the detention room as independent study and get our homework done before the end of the day.

However, the detention room was mostly filled with kids who were actually in trouble and hadn't come there to do trigonometry. We were monitored by a rotating bunch of staff, not all teachers. One day, it was some guy who I think was a football coach. I was in the back of the room, doing homework next to a boy I will simply call Public School Nerdbro (who would never have blown a steel dart into my temple).

Coach was up front, giving some kind of pep talk to a cluster of the lost boys and girls or whatever. At some point, the conversation took an alarming turn that caught my attention. I flipped to a new notebook page and started taking notes on what Coach was saying.

He started out by bragging to one of the girls in class about how he had molested her sister behind the bleachers at a school game. Then he taunted a boy who protested, saying the kid was "not a man" because "real men are dogs." He went on to boast about the many times he had gotten away with cheating on his wife, justifying himself by insisting that all females are sl***y b****es and all males are also of the canine species. Cute, no?

I whispered some instructions to Nerdbro, telling him to pause and stay within sight of me for two minutes after the bell rang. I told him that I was going to have a word with Coach, and that I wanted him to witness it. (This was in the days before digital recording devices because I'm old.) Nerdbro smiled and nodded, but he took off like a rat as soon as the bell rang.

(Later he said he thought I was joking. F***ing nerdbros.)

As soon as the thoroughly humiliated detention kids had left, I let loose all of my pent-up female hysteria issues and literally backed Coach into a corner. There's nothing like seeing a grown man shrink into a trembling heap of whimpers and eyeballs before the wrath of an anemic teen girl, let me tell you. I demanded, in a voice clearly in need of an exorcism, that he explain to me how he came to be such a sack of sh** loser, which he could not answer because I think he was peeing his pants.

After I'd purged all of my demons in his face, I turned around to find that the useless Nerdbro had gone AWOL, and I took my chances reporting the incident to a trusted teacher. That teacher sent me directly to the principal, who began an investigation immediately, resulting in the removal of not only Coach but the entire Purgatory program, where the staff realized at-risk youth could be easily predated.

And you know what, I am going to call the above experience a fortuitous life shortcut, because I'm pretty sure I received the benefits of about 20 years of professional therapy in about two minutes.

Thank you, school administrators who took these accusations seriously way before it was cool to do so!

An ounce of prevention, blah blah.

Decades later, I got a refresher on the value of a mindful shortcut when I became a mother. Every parent knows what I am talking about. Begone, Pinterest boards and self-care "regimens" and French lessons for toddlers! Burn all the parenting books! Save the drama for YOUR mama!

Having a baby or experiencing another life-altering, all-encompassing focus of great meaning helps clarify which goals cannot be achieved by taking shortcuts (deepening a relationship, writing a good novel, transforming a culture) and which pathways to bull***t can be satisfyingly snipped.

You know that expansive, clean, peaceful feeling you get from seeing an entire room's floor without any Legos on it? Ahhhhh, just imagining such a thing helps me relax.

How about a whole kitchen table with no crayons, Pokemon cards, crumbs, or robotic dinosaurs on it? Can you even picture it? Ahhhh, all that space to set down a slice of breakfast pie, a cup of coffee, and a tawdry paperback.

Mommies, I know you feel me: It is so good to turn a Thing into Not-a-Thing, especially during this mad Winter-Is-Coming season of rampant consumerism, family dramas, and "self-improvement." Now, I like Christmas decorations and holly jolly chaos just as much as the next person. (OK, maybe more.) But in order to fully enjoy our personal vices and frivolities, it is essential to make cuts to all the BS that doesn't give us joy. (I didn't read Marie Kondo's book, but I saw lots of parodies of it, which is my favored way of receiving boring information.) So without further ado,

Here Are a Few of My Favorite Not-a-Things

  1. Gym Memberships: I don't even care if it's free. I won't arrange childcare, put gas into my car, and spend time driving on my butt so I can go into a building and run on a treadmill or whatever. There is usually one thing in my life that I can choose to do manually, which saves money, exposure to pollution, and my health all at the same time. Right now, that's walking my daughter to and from school each day. That brisk fifteen-minute walk outside, ten times per week, is a healthy amount of exercise, a meditative experience (hello, beautiful sunrises and golden hours!), quality time with my cutie pie, and a good deed like the cherry on top. That's one less vehicle in the car line twice each day or one less stop for the school bus. Lots of kids, not just my own, are exposed to fewer traffic dangers and pollutants. And my butt looks good in my pants.
  2. Tote Bags: So I'm supposed to buy reusable shopping bags so I can go shopping for trash bags. Uh, no. First of all, I do have a random assortment of tote bags, as does everyone with a closet. I've had the same grody old totes for decades. Buying new stuff is the worst. I cannot imagine buying a tote bag ever again in my life. And I don't take them to the grocery store with me. I simply use paper shopping bags, which I then use as trashcan liners. We are careful not to waste food, we recycle, we compost when we feel like it by dumping junk into a pile in the backyard, and so we never have a problem using a simple paper bag for all our garbage needs. Oh, you say I should use old newspapers to line my bin instead? Yeah, I don't have those lying around. I live in the 21st century.
  3. Shoptivism: 'Tis the season for reading all about how we can undermine capitalism by shopping at more ethical capitalist businesses. *Sigh.* Look, I know there are less ethical businesses out there. I do my best to avoid companies I know to be evil destroyers of worlds. And the easiest way is just to not purchase newly manufactured goods at all. I just minimize purchasing, period, because even recycling causes pollution, and woodland creatures are accidentally slaughtered by the tractors that harvest organic vegan crops. Just don't be a pig.
  4. Plenary Indulgences: 'Tis also the season of generosity to charities, which is a beautiful thing. I work for one of those. I can't donate a meaningful amount of money to anything, because I simply don't get paid much in the first place by the nonprofit I've chosen to work for. It's kind of like doing volunteer and humanitarian work without getting any receipts. Receipts contain BPA and pollute the Earth anyway. Bah humbug. Listen, from an insider who processes donations for many different causes, your money goes way further if you save it all up and give one fat lump to one organization. If you split it into a bunch of crumbs so you can show off how many charities you supported this year, a large portion of your dollars are burned up in unavoidable processing fees (like what financial institutions charge when you make a credit card payment, or staff time required to handle, count, transport, receipt, etc. your cash or check). Many nonprofits are truly great at maximizing the impact of your donations, but it helps to consolidate your gifts into fewer, larger amounts.
  5. Supplementary Self-Care: Whenever possible, I like to reduce stress by slicing out the root cause instead of setting aside time and resources to treat the symptoms. I know that not all stress or illness is avoidable. But that adage about prevention holds firm here. Especially when you are a parent, and it's more expensive and complicated and stressful than ever to carve out "me time." I've carefully designed my life around priorities such as having a safe and healthy place to live, a fulfilling job, and a moderately wholesome lifestyle. I'm not rich, famous, or powerful. But I'm also not a steaming wreck requiring a whole pit crew to keep me running behind the scenes, so in that sense I'm way ahead of many rich, famous, and powerful people. Neener neener.
  6. Endless Rants: So I'll just stop right here, because I have a thick, plot-heavy, detailed historical novel to write, and there are no shortcuts to be taken in that business. Happy NaNoEdMo!


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