Friday, June 19, 2015

Pine Cone Syndrome

I get Pine Cone Syndrome on Saturday mornings.

Which is to say, I'm difficult on Saturday mornings.

I don't even like me on Saturday mornings.

To understand Pine Cone Syndrome, and me, we need to go back about forty years, to a red brick ranch house in a neighborhood called Skyland Park.  And it's summertime in Alabama, so think about being in a really steamy sauna. 

Now imagine the sauna stretches for hundreds of miles and you can't get out.  You could try to run away but the steamy air would soon grab you by the lungs and knock you to the ground so it's better to conserve your energy and stay where you are. 

It was in that red brick ranch house that my mother conscripted her four daughters into a housekeeping army every Saturday morning at 7:00.  Since our cleaning duties started so early, we girls arose before dawn so that we could watch at least a few minutes of cartoons before our shift began.  The first sister to wake would go into the den and turn on the TV, keeping the volume as low as possible so as not to wake our mother any sooner than necessary.  Controlling the volume wasn't easy since the volume button had fallen off and we had to adjust the volume stub with a metal pincer from the kitchen, which was originally meant to pull the tops off of strawberries.  Once you got the volume right, you wanted to leave it alone. 

The faint sound of the cartoons was enough to rouse the rest of us and one by one we would stumble in to the den and take our place in front of the Magnavox.  I was usually the last sister to join the cartoon audience and since there were only three spots on the sofa I laid down on the honey oak parquet floor in front of the TV and propped my feet on the fireplace, giving my sister Amanda instructions to warn me if a cockroach crawled out of the fireplace and came my direction. 

It was the early 70s, before the advent of the Cartoon Network and 24/7 access to animation.  Back in our day those moving colors were only on the screen on Saturday mornings.  For a few unsupervised hours General Mills and Kellogg's mesmerized kids with images of artificially-flavored cereals while their parents slept in.

Sadly, the best cartoons were aired after 7:00.  The pre-dawn cartoons were deeply unsatisfying.  The colors were as faded as a hand-me-down bathing suit, the animation was jerky and the plot lines were stupid.  The smurfs made their network debut in the U.S. in 1981 but I never actually saw the show because it was in the prime time slot at 8:00.  When my friends at school made references to Gargamel and Papa Smurf I laughed as if I understood, and hoped they would never discover how naive I actually was.

At 7:00 we had to turn off the TV and move to the kitchen for breakfast.  At the breakfast table my mother would write a list of chores for each of us for the day.  And you might think, "Great, I'll get my chores done and then I'm free!"  Right?  No.  When you finished your list of chores you had to report to the front yard for pine cone duty.   

Our ranch house in Skyland Park had scores of  tall pine trees in the front yard.  Pinus Palustris, the Alabama State Tree.  Each of these conifers dropped dozens of pine cones into the yard every day.  This continued throughout the week and by Saturday, there was a thick scratchy brown blanket of pine cones covering the yard.  The Parsons girls criss-crossed the front yard again and again, sweating in the hot Alabama sun, picking up the pine cones and putting them in Winn-Dixie bags.

Something was born in me on those Saturday mornings in Skyland Park.  It is the compelling sense of responsibility that pushes me hard from the inside.  You might call it a sense of duty, or a work ethic.  It's the reason I showed up to lead that training class in San Francisco even though I was throwing up in the shower that morning.  It's the reason I cross-checked my spreadsheet one more time while my husband waited for me at a candlelit restaurant across town.  It's the reason I worked my shift at the Great American Cookie Co. in the mall on Christmas Eve until 6:00pm, although it was just a part-time minimum wage job. 

Looking back, I realize those might not have been great choices.  At the time they seemed like the only options. 

But something else was born on those Saturdays as I smashed one pine cone after another into those kraft brown bags.  It was an eternal sense of longing.  My sisters and I knew that we could break our backs picking up the pine cones and yet the next Saturday, that awful barky layer would be back.  And we would have to go out there and pick the cones up again, and put them in brown grocery bags, and clear space so that new ones could fall. 

But the worst part is - we expended so much energy picking up the cones and when it was all done, something still

wasn't

quite

right.

The moment of satisfaction when we looked at our work and felt pleased - that moment never came.

Contentment was something that hung far beyond our reach, on the highest branches of those tall Alabama pines.  And it never dropped down. 

Even as I write this I feel tense.  I wonder if you do too?  Is your jaw tight?  Is your breathing a little bit more shallow?

Do you feel like crushing something sharp in the palm of your hand? 

That, my friends, is a tiny bit of Pine Cone Syndrome, that you have caught from reading this post.

And here is something that, logically, I think should help alleviate the symptoms of Pinecone Syndrome.  Meditate on this thought for a moment.


Your Creator made you special, and loves you just the way you are.  


It's a beautiful sentiment, I know.  Let me know if it works for you.

It never has for me.


5 comments:

Jennifer Belissent said...

I still have nightmares about raking pine needles. It never ends. No satisfaction of job completed. They slip out of the rake, and continue to fall. That is my definition of hell. And, yes, it was Mobile in the summer.

Melanie Gao said...

I'm happy to know maybe I wasn't alone, Jennifer! And look how awesome we grew up to be. :) XO!

Barbara Neuhoff said...

Mel, I just love this blog! I can totally relate to the feeling you describe, although I have never picked up any pine cones, and only endured the AL sauna for one year in Tuscaloosa. The Sisyphus chore to raise children, get them through puberty - that is my personal Pine Cone Syndrome....

I18n G.A.L. said...

I think depriving children of Saturday morning cartoons smacks of child abuse! Admittedly it's cooler to do chores in the early morning, but as a kid I didn't really figure that out since I was never up any earlier than I absolutely had to be. I'm a born night owl. So I expect I started watching cartoons closer to 8 - my favorite being The Jetsons (we have the video phones, I'm still waiting for the flying cars). Luckily our yard didn't have too many pine trees, and I was not assigned yard duty on a regular basis. Though at school we had a piney wood and we would make fort boundaries using piles of pine needles!

Melanie Gao said...

Barbara you're right, there are many forms of pine cone syndrome that we face throughout life.

And Andrea yes, it was borderline child abuse! :)