Thursday, May 28, 2009

Peace, Hope, Love, and Joy

When I first started this blog, I expected to write brilliant essays about the intellectual conundrums of motherhood and womanhood and other “issues” in my life…and in the lives of thousands (if not millions) of other women across this glorious green and blue planet of ours.

Today, however, I’m forced to admit that most of my essays are more in the tradition of Erma Bombeck than Jacques Derrida. Let’s lift our lighters to the memory of Erma. You all know who she was, and you know how much she totally rocked. She’s my inspiration, and not just because she wrote that piece about moms of disabled children.

Do any of you, my kind and tolerant readers, even know who Derrida was? Unless you’re weird like me and have studied literary theory, probably not. You’re not missing anything. Truly. Derrida sounded smart, but like Picasso in his later years, he was really just pulling everyone’s leg. He was a pretentious intellectual snot, and not just because I disagree with his literary theory.

Today, however, intellectual conundrums hold no interest for me at all…I’m ready for summer break, just like my boys. So this week, we’re taking a little trip down memory lane, thanks to YouTube, and will visit some of my favorite television shows from childhood.

Television today is remarkably void of intellectual content. A few exceptions nobly fight the current, like Public Television for adults and a few random children’s shows like Pinky Dinky Doo (how I WISH my children would watch this show!). Unfortunately, the River of Television flows into the Ocean of Insipid. Therein dwell such sea monsters as Bakugan and Pokemon and Ben 10, banes of my existence. If I hear “Bakugan, brawl!” or “Pikachu, I choose you!” or “Go, Wildmutt!” one more time, I’ll “Go crazy!”

Way back in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when I was a wee lass with long, long hair and a love of colorful embroidery, children’s programming was awesomely cool, without any of this Japanese anime weirdness. These were good, old-fashioned Anglo-Canadian-American shows that came out of hippy pot parties and colorful LSD trips full of peace, love, and long, long hair. Actually, Sid and Marty Krofft denied the involvement of LSD or other drugs in the birth of their shows. Sid once said, “We’re bizarre. That’s all.” No one really believed him.

Speaking of sea monsters, the first show that pops to mind is Sigmund the Sea Monster. I loved that friendly sea monster with the single pointy buck tooth, and I wanted to be Johnny so I could play with Sigmund all day long on the beach, hiding out in sea caves while wearing tight shorts.

Then there was the somewhat obscure Bugaloos. Flying high, indeed. Of all the main characters—I.Q., Joy, Harmony, and Courage, and Benita Bizarre—I most wanted to be Joy. Seeds sown in childhood bear fruit in middle age.

I’m not middle aged, am I?

The better-known H.R. Pufnstuf had those cool white go-go boots—a bit of gender-bending that prepared me for my first sighting of a cross-dresser when I worked in the Bridal Department at Belk’s years later. And Jimmy blowing the flute…let’s not go there. Sometimes a flute is just a flute. Or not.

Irrelevant aside: Doesn’t the opening scene of Jimmy in the mountains remind you of this fabulous flower child anthem? If that clip doesn’t give you hope for the future and make you want to go green, have a few drinks and watch it again. You’ll love the world. I promise.

I adored Land of the Lost. The adventures of Marshall, Will, and Holly were must-see TV. What incredible special effects! I mean, that T. Rex looks like real Play-Do, doesn’t it? The Sleestaks were scary, though, to a six-year-old.

I can’t wait to see Will Farrell’s new movie. Don’t tell Jacques Derrida this, but I loved Farrell in Blades of Glory (“As if figure skating wasn’t already gay enough.”) and Talladega Nights (“Thank you, Little Baby Jesus, for my smokin’ hot wife Carla.”). Land of the Lost spoofed by him has to be funny.

Or insipid.

Or maybe both.

There are so many more shows I could share, but if you’ve checked out these links, you should be ready to stop shaving your pits and legs; put on your peasant blouse and beaded headband and sandals; and join a bunch of international strangers on a mountainside to drink a Coke.

My job is done.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Unknown Dead

Memorial Day is America’s day to honor the memory those who served their country, who fought for more than themselves, and gave all that they had so others could know freedom.

My grandfather, David Lee Willis, served in WWII as a pilot. He flew the Hump (the route over the Himalayas in the China-Burma-India Theater) in a B-24-D painted with nose art which read “Dippy Dave and his 8 Dippy Diddlers.” He and his crew were forced to bail out on a mission in China. A secret memo dated May 5, 1943, reported his missing status (published in the book Chennault’s Forgotten Warriors). It states:

Ship No. 24143, 1st Lt. D. L. Willis, pilot, lost from returning formation in heavy overcast. Last reported at 1530 at coordinates 22° 50’ N-104° 45’ E at about 19,000 feet headed on 310°, believed probably bailed out or landed at WENSHAN about 50 miles NE of reported position.

The fuel transfer system failed and Dippy Dave and his Diddlers were forced to bail out near Amichow. One man’s chute failed to open, and he died. The remaining crew, including my grandfather, survived and returned to base. I do not know the name of the man who died, or if the following picture is of that particular crew (the plane isn’t the same). But I honor this unknown man’s memory.

Papa always said that he didn’t want to jump out of a plane because he never wanted to practice something he could only do wrong once. His experience in China adds a layer of bitter irony to his joke that I never appreciated as a child.

Papa later flew in the Berlin Airlift, dropping supplies to people who needed them. He was dedicated to his country and risked all he had in its service. He came home. Many, many others did not, including George’s great uncle George Paloranta, after whom George was named.

This Memorial Day, America honors the memory of the fallen, and those who stood by them. I thank them all for their sacrifice, because even those who come home from war sacrifice more than any civilian can ever understand.

Blessed are those who mourn; for they shall be comforted. (Matthew 5:4)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Like Father, Like Son

My husband, George, is a triathlete. Triathletes compete in three sports back-to-back: swim, bike, and run. George started small, doing shorter Olympic-distance races. Then he moved up to half-Ironman races but didn’t feel that was crazy enough. He made it his goal to go “all the way” by competing in official Ironman races consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile marathon. He has attempted four Ironman events, finished two of them, and is “tri-ing” again in September. This makes me his Ironmate.

Pardon me while I pause to shudder over the insanity of it all.

You can just imagine how unsettling it was to watch my firstborn son train to compete in his first triathlon. Nick has never been interested in team sports—a trait that came from my genes, not George’s. I despised P.E. in school and wormed my way out of the physical education requirement for graduation by doing odd jobs for the P.E. teachers…jobs like tacking notes on lockers, grading written tests, and cleaning out desk drawers. No sweat. Literally. I don’t like sweat. It’s too salty.

Five years ago, at the age of four, Nick realized that scoring goals in soccer required drill and hard work, so he quit. He refused to set foot on the field and preferred to horse around on the sidelines, pulling up grass and throwing it up in the air to watch the breeze blow it away. He took swim lessons next but hated having to do what the teacher said. He just wanted to play in the water. Then he took gymnastics but hated doing sit-ups and drills and whatever else the teacher told him to do. He just wanted to jump on the trampoline.

Play is important to children. So are discipline and drill. For discipline and drill to be worth it, however, a child must care about the goal. Soccer, swimming, and gymnastics simply didn't inspire Nick to work. But when George told him that our YMCA was hosting a youth triathlon along with an adult sprint-distance race, Nick found his inspiration. The course for the 7-11 age group included a 100-yard swim, 3-mile bike ride, and a 1-mile run. George asked Nick if he wanted to do the race, explaining that he would have to work hard training for it. Nick insisted he wanted to do it.

George took Nick to the pool a few times and quickly realized his best option for the swim was breast stroke, as Nick’s front crawl looked a lot like drowning. What impressed me during these training sessions was Nick’s focused determination. I’ve never seen that in him for any other athletic endeavor, and my heart practically burst with pride to see him motivating himself to do something hard.

On the morning of the race, George left early to compete in the sprint, and I followed later with the kids. Nick was excited, and in the car, he said, “I’m going to win this race!”

Whoa, Nelly. I said, “Nick, triathlon isn’t about winning. Your dad has never ‘won’ a race. Triathlon is about finishing. If you finish, you win, no matter where you place. Finishing gives you a goal for the next race.” I don’t think he heard me.

We met up with George, who had pulled a muscle on the run of his race but still finished with a respectable time. He wasn’t wearing his finisher medal, and when I asked why, he said, with mild scorn, “It was just a sprint.” I matched his scorn and replied, “You are such a tri-snob!” I suppose when you have finished two Ironman races, a little sprint race isn’t such a big deal. I told him I was surprised he wasn’t wearing his Ironman finisher t-shirt, and he admitted he’d thought about it.

George walked Nick through the registration and set-up, helping him check in, strap on the timing chip, and set up his bike and gear bag in the transition area. Nick, in his baggy, Hawaiian-print, jammers-style swim trunks, looked like a surfer dude, but his competition, in black lycra swim shorts, looked serious.

As Jack and I waited and watched from the sidelines, I kept tearing up behind my sunglasses. My son. Taking on a major athletic event. I was torn between nervousness and pride, and I sincerely prayed he would be able to finish.

Nothing is worse than not finishing.

Finally, the athletes were called to the pool. George, Jack, and I watched as Nick took position about two-thirds down the line. Swimmers would enter the pool at three-second intervals. Nick looked focused, serious, charged to go.

As the first athletes hit the pool, George and I realized Nick needed better training for the swim. Those kids had obviously paid attention during their swim lessons and were wicked fast. Nick got in the water and did well for someone doing the breast stroke against skilled swimmers doing the front crawl. He didn’t panic as people passed him and just kept swimming. Before he came out of the water, George headed out to the transition area to be ready to help him there, so Jack and I were left to watch Nick finish the swim.

Nick left the water dead last by over half a length. I was so worried that he would want to quit, want to give up, feel like a failure. Instead, I snapped this picture as he ran to the transition area.

That’s no quitter.

Jack and I, along with other bystanders, shouted encouragement as we followed him to the transition area. He hesitated when he realized he would be wet for the bike, and stopped to dry his feet and legs thoroughly and to pull on his shoes and socks. He snapped into his helmet and off he went, pedaling as fast as he could.

We couldn’t see him for most of the bike course, but when he came back to the transition area, he was no longer last. He had to walk part of the run course because of a side stitch, but as soon as he realized the finish line was in sight, he pushed hard and ran across the line.

Nick Raihala, you are a Triathlete!

We walked with Nick to the refreshment area, where he chose a donut and root beer for his post-race recharge. He graciously shared his donut with his brother and basked in the glow of a race well done. George asked about the hill on the bike course, and Nick replied, “It was heinous!”

But he did it. And he wants to do it again. In July, we’ll be down in Mason, Ohio, for another youth race. If you’re in the area, come and cheer the young athletes on. Nick will be in lycra swim shorts and sunglasses, just like the other athletes, because George is already teaching him that gear is good.

And so is working hard toward a goal, even if that goal is, well, sort of insane.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Ping Pong Balls in a Rubber Room with Some Dirty Parts

Do I have your attention? Oh, good. Life’s been crazy, and the inside of my head feels like a rubber room full of ping pong balls: lots of ideas bouncing around in random, pointless directions without rhyme or reason, purposeless, confusing and confused, rattling around without going anywhere, hollow, rambling….See what I mean? So after last week’s lengthy comedy of errors, I offer you a short story with some dirty parts. I hope you enjoy it.

Yesterday, I volunteered in Jack’s kindergarten class, which is celebrating Right to Read Week. His teacher asked parents to share their favorite book from childhood with the class.

Regular readers of Questioning know I don’t have favorite books. As far as I am concerned, the whole idea of “favorite books” is simply silly. The world of literature is rich and full and beautiful. Picking favorites is cruel, and I’ll not do it. Instead, I picked a random book off the shelf that I remember loving as a child—A Harry the Dirty Dog Treasury—and dashed off to kindergarten.

I bought this modern reprint a few years ago. Nick loved it, but Jack found its complete lack of Thomas the Tank Engine disappointing and never paid attention when I read it at home. I didn’t care. There were twenty-two other children in his class. Some of them were bound to appreciate the likeable white dog with black spots.

Sitting on a rocker in front of twenty-three children, I pointed out the title of the book and explained to the class that the book had three Harry stories in it, and that we were not reading the Dirty Dog story, but the story called No Roses for Harry.

The reading went well. Even Jack sat riveted by the wonderful illustrations and my dramatic reading. When I finished, Jack asked:

“Mommy, can you read the dirty parts.”

Laughing hysterically at your son in front of twenty-two of his friends is NEVER a good idea. I bit my lip and then asked, “Do you want me to read Harry the Dirty Dog, Jack?” He and the other children said yes.

I looked toward the teacher for permission. She smiled and said I could read another story. Then, in an aside to me, she added, “Just skip the dirty parts.”

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

All's Well That Ends Well

Author’s Note: As a literary critic, I truly appreciate tragedy. Hamlet, for instance, is a perfect play…complex, multi-layered, emotionally messy but carefully balanced, the epitome of tragic theater. As a reader, however, I prefer comedy, which really is much more fun because, while bad things often happen along the way, everything turns out fine in the end. Tragedies end with a funeral. Comedies usually end with a wedding. I know which type of play I’d rather end up in.

So when I recounted the following story to a friend last week, she caught my attention when she said, “Well, at least you got a great story out of the experience.” She’s right. What starts out with tragedy becomes comedy. Of course, the fact that this story makes me look like a total idiot is embarrassing, but that’s the price one pays for a good story.

We’ve all had days when every little thing that can go wrong does. For women, these days almost always take place when we have PMS because no-good, horrible, very bad days are as much about how we see what happens to us as what actually happens to us. When we have PMS, our brain chemistry forces us to see every single tiny bad thing that happens as part of an insidious conspiracy perpetrated by a Universe whose sole purpose for existing is to piss us off.

The Tuesday I drove back to Ohio after my grandmother’s funeral was a no-good, horrible, very bad day full of PMS and grief. Nick, Jack, and I expected to be on the road for about nine hours. As we pulled out of my mother’s driveway in Charlotte at 6:30 in the morning, the birds were singing, the azaleas were blooming, and the sun was rising. Nick immediately put a DVD into the player and got an error message. I stopped at a nearby McDonalds to buy a mocha and tried to fix the player. No joy. It was broken, and no amount of percussive maintenance would make it play.

Damn. No DVD player. Nick started to freak out but calmed when I said we would stop at a Target if we saw one and buy a new player. He had hope. We all need hope, don’t we?

I was grieving and tired, so I made a point of paying attention to my driving. I scanned my mirrors constantly, never changed lanes without checking my blind spot, kept a safe following distance, and paid attention to speed limit signs. The rain and wind started about an hour into the trip, which made me even more vigilant. I checked my map periodically and knew I needed to stay on I-77 to Charleston, West Virginia. Around Wytheville, Virginia, however, the wind and rain grew worse, and I focused all my attention on the heavy traffic around me and keeping us safe. There was no attention left over for things like directional signs or interstate exit ramps.

We kept driving and the weather improved a bit. All was well until I saw a mileage sign to Knoxville. This struck me as odd. We weren’t going west to Knoxville. We were going north to Charleston. Weren’t we?

As we passed the next highway marker, I saw we were inexplicably on I-81. Where did I-77 go? My boys really didn’t need to hear the choice words I screamed at the Universe (and myself) at that moment. How far had we come down the WRONG FREAKING HIGHWAY!??!?!

It seemed to take forever to reach the next exit where I could stop and check the atlas. FIFTY-TWO miles we’d come from Wytheville. I started to cry. Nick realized immediately that this meant longer in the car without a DVD player and started to cry, too. I couldn’t take it and did something I vowed never to do as a mother: I laid a guilt trip on my son. My beloved grandmother had died, I was sad, and how dare he add to my suffering with his whining about my lack of situational awareness that just added nearly two hours of misery to his life?

The guilt-trip worked, but I’ll never do it again. It just made me feel worse.

I saw a Kmart and decided to buy a new DVD player because I was the worst mother in the world for cussing in front of my children and guilt-tripping my firstborn son. Kmart was my beacon of hope, which just goes to show how far from good sense I had sunk. We found the electronics department and asked the employee behind the counter where the portable DVD players were. She pointed and said, “Down there. If we have any. I don’t think we do, though.”

She was right. Nick, Jack, and I stared at two completely empty shelves with nothing but labels for portable DVD players. To no one in particular, I loudly stated, “I hate Kmart.”

Aren’t you proud of me for not dropping the F-bomb? For the record, I didn’t drop that particular profanity the whole day. Way to go, me!

When we got back in the car, I started to cry. Hope had died in me while I stared at the empty shelves. My crying stopped Nick’s whining. I took a deep breath, got control of myself again, and headed back east from whence we came.

At Wytheville, or perhaps it was beyond—things got fuzzy for a while—we stopped in pouring rain at a McDonalds that advertised a play land. It turned out to be a pathetic little toddler play area. It figures. We ate lunch, the kids ran around this small, soft-shape space, making the best of the situation in a way I could not. When it was time to go, I ordered a mocha, bottled water, and two apple juice boxes. The employee put the cold drinks in a paper bag. I remember thinking this wasn’t a good idea. Pouring rain and condensation would wet the paper bag…clearly disaster lay ahead. But my brain couldn’t do more than register this inevitable chain of events. Perhaps, I thought, it will hold. It’s not far to the car.

The bag gave way in the middle of the parking lot. I think I swore again when my hot mocha slopped onto my hand. I know I cried. No one noticed because I was dripping wet after dropping the umbrella.

The boys, with full tummies and terminally bored, slept. I drove. I drove through wind and rain. I drove through freaking hail.

We made it through Charleston and eventually over the border into Ohio. It was around 3:30, and we needed gas. We exited, got gas, and tried to return to I-35 westbound. Turns out that exit has one of those weird setups where you have to drive all through town to get westbound again. I was looking for signs but never saw any directing me westbound. Instead, I got trapped in the lane for the eastbound on-ramp and had to drive five miles in the wrong direction to the next exit to turn around.

At this point, the ridiculousness of the day started to dawn on me. All I could think was that we were alive and unhurt. That was a blessing, right? It had also stopped raining. I was almost to the point of seeing how comedic the whole day had been, but not quite. Then the phone rang.

I don’t talk on the phone and drive at the same time, so I pulled to the side of the highway and returned my mother's call. It was now 4:00, past the time I’d told her we would be home, and we still had two hours to go. As I poured out some of the day’s tragic comedy into my mother’s sympathetic ear, a state patrol officer pulled up. My first thought, honestly, was “Someone cares!” I hung up the phone and smiled for the officer, who asked, “Is there a problem, ma’am?”

Don’t you love it when they call you “ma’am”?

I told him all was well, that I’d only stopped to make a call, and he thanked me for not driving and dialing. I felt so much better knowing this strong, competent uniformed officer hadn’t ignored my stopped car. He was watching over things on his beat, my angel with a badge. “I’m glad everything is okay…” he said, but was interrupted by a voice from the back seat.

“Excuse me. Excuse me. Excuse me.” It was Jack, my second angel of the day.

“What is it?” the officer replied, leaning down to look at the polite boy in the back seat.

“Please don’t take my mommy to jail. She’s not a bad guy. She’s a good guy.”

Oh. My. God. Comedy broke loose everywhere.

After the chuckling officer left, I started back on the road with a prayer: Lord, please let us get home safely. I’d said that prayer all day long, but somehow, I trusted now that it would be answered--that it had, in fact, been answered all day long while I was wallowing in a miserable comedy of errors.

Two hours later, we pulled into our garage. While I unloaded the car, a smiling cherub named Parker delivered a plate of brownies from my third angel of the day, Debra. I downed one morsel of chocolate deliciousness right away, finished unloading, and heated up the yummy meal George—my fourth angel—had left waiting for us. Nick and I plopped in front of the television with dinner and watched Pride and Prejudice. Nick was my fifth angel for letting me pick the only movie he watched all day. And he enjoyed it.

Thus our story ends with Jane Austin, chardonnay, grilled chicken, brownies, and at least two happy weddings.

Isn’t comedy so much better than tragedy?