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Monday, January 23, 2012

Making giant memories

There is something to be said for memorable vacations.  I’m not talking about the kind where everything goes as planned and you have perfect family photos in matching outfits on the beach and when people ask how your trip was you simply say, “it was very nice.”
I’m talking about the OTHER kind of memorable.  The kind where, if someone asks about your trip you bust a gut.  I’m talking about the kind where, years down the road when my kids tell their own kids about their vacation, they don’t remember the things that all went routinely but can recall, with detail, the quirky things that made those days away special.  
Because for me, that’s what vacation is.  It’s a step out of your normal life, into a pretend time where there’s a tiny coffee maker in your bathroom and someone gives you clean towels.  It’s a time where you roll your eyes at laundry and don’t do any cooking but think it’s perfectly fine to eat a can of Pringles for lunch.  It’s a time when you focus more on the living and less on the life.
And then, in your foggy bliss of junk food and pool chlorine, something so bizarre happens that it catches you off guard and makes that extraordinary day so astonishing, it’s forever engrained in your mind.
When I was eight years old, we visited Disneyland for the first (and only) time.  I can’t tell you about the roller coasters or Donald Duck, but I can tell you that I ate too much candy and then took antacids that had accidentally soaked up nail polish remover and got very sick in a very public restaurant.  I can also tell you that I was one person away from winning a camera while standing in line for the Monorail.  End of story.
If you ask my children about their first trip to Disneyworld, I’m sure they will tell you one thing:  Giant underwear.
Sadly, the most memorable thing from our entire recent trip was indeed giant undergarments.  And somewhere, there is a large lady thinking that our memory wasn’t so great and probably yelling at her husband for not packing them.  The story goes, after checking into our hotel, we scoured the room for extra blankets and pillows only to find instead a drawer containing someone’s pressed, folded, and neatly stacked panties.  Maybe we were slap happy from a day of the happiest place on earth, but we couldn’t have laughed harder if Mickey and Pluto jumped out of that drawer and did the hula dance on the bed wearing a toga made from bleach white hotel towels and then flew out the window singing She’s a Grand Ol’ Flag.
Naturally we had to confirm with photographic evidence the unexpected treasure and even though it was past our bedtimes, I still allowed the sporadic giggles I heard throughout the hotel room, mostly because a good portion of them were mine.
And as I was finally settled down enough to think about a day full of lines and rides and lost tickets and tired children, I was calm enough to be thankful for those giant undies and the impermeable memory they gave my family on what will probably go down in history as one of our best family vacations ever.
Charlie Chaplin once said, “A day without laughter is a day wasted.”  And Walt Disney said that “Laughter is America’s most important export.”  And somewhere, I’m guessing a sweet, kind lady is saying, “I don’t think it’s very funny that I left ALL of my underwear in Disneyworld.”
But I for one can truthfully say, “The happiest place on earth gets a little happier when you come home with laughs, smiles, and great, big memories.”

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The happiest place on earth, if you can get there

Years ago when our first daughter started in her princess phase, I put my glass-slippered foot down, right then and there.  I told my husband and anyone else who would listen, “I refuse to take our children to Disneyworld until they can walk the whole park because strollers irritate me up to here and I’m not parking it out in the middle of nowhere when we all have to go to the bathroom at the same time.”
And pretty much I started training them all since day one, forcing them to take long walks through the woods or around the block.  It wasn’t so much because I was yearning to take them to Disneyworld, but more because I knew that there would at some point be a window of magic and fantasy for all of them at the same time.  Before the oldest got too old, and when the youngest was not too young, we had to be ready and raring to go.
Not only that, but having talked to friends, I was just downright scared to try to book a Disney vacation.  “People write entire books on this stuff,” I said to my husband, who had ordered a set of DVD’s that would take longer to watch than actually going on vacation.  There are packages and plans and about a thousand different choices in every category, and, silly me, all I wanted to do was to fly to Florida, buy a ticket and get our picture taken with Mickey in front of Cinderella’s castle.
Anymore, that’s too much to ask for, I guess, and in frustration I threw up my hands and gave my husband the luxurious job of planning the trip.  For one, he’s a thousand times more organized than I am, and secondly there would be a good chance I’d slug Mickey when I saw him if I had to do the legwork.
Before I knew it, we had plane tickets and hotel reservations at “the most complicated place on earth” and began our at home preparations of packing and dreaming of sunshine and blue skies.
That first daughter who has been deprived of Space Mountain and Fantasyland for so many years made numerous lists for us, all of the items practical and thoughtful.  “We need good walking shoes,” she said, well-trained child that she is.  She has an autograph book and pen ready and waiting and overall she’s way more prepared than I could ever be.  
My son was concerned about one thing—his carry-on bag and how many things he could take on the airplane.  A Cub Scout and an outdoorsman in the making, we had to search all of his bags for the predictable pocketknife that he has stashed for preparedness in every pocket.  (I was not, however, surprised when at the airport he pulled out two plastic tanks to play with on the airplane.  Because everyone needs some tanks on the airplane, right?)
The youngest princess has not slept well in days and has asked us 47,839 times how many more sleeps until we get to Disneyworld.  She has had her princess dresses laid out and will tell anyone and everyone of our upcoming destination, no matter what they ask.  I have the slightest feeling that when she actually sees a real live princess she might very well faint.  Perhaps I should have packed smelling salts.
And so, not-well rested from late-night packing and throwing ourselves into this adventure full bore, we venture on our first family vacation to the happiest place on earth.  If we could survive the planning, surely we can survive the few days of wonderment that we’ve been training for all these years.  And I have a sneaking suspicion that even if I did do the arrangements myself, I would still give Mickey Mouse a hug rather than an uppercut.
And take a picture.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Resolving to remember potato chips

My mom has been hobbling around on her bum knee for years.  If the weather was colder or if she spent an exceptionally long day chasing after grandkids, it was pretty obvious in the cockeyed shuffle she perfected.  But enough had finally been enough, and she recently went in for knee replacement surgery.
The procedure itself went well.  Her recovery in the hospital was as it should be, long, painful physical therapy, and mediocre (at best) food.  None of this was new to her, because she had her other knee replaced just a few years ago so she knew exactly what she was getting herself into.
On her third day in the hospital, I went to visit her for the first time since the operation.  I walked in and when our eyes met, I immediately saw that quiver in her chin, that automatic response that somehow keeps our eyes from turning into water faucets.  No mother ever wants to break down in front of her children.  We instinctively want them to always see us as strong, unbreakable, and the care-givers, not the ones who need the care.  Having faced a number of heath hurdles myself in the past year, I know this feeling all too well.  But here I was, staring my mom in her watery eyes.
Because my family is better at making jokes than facing reality, my dad and I instantly went into humor mode.  “Karrie, come eat this soup.  It’s like a dead chicken ended up in a toilet and they heated it up and poured it through a dirty sock.” 
“Oh yum, I can’t wait!  Is there enough to share?” I answered, and this is how we got through the first few awkward moments.  To get through my mom’s physical therapy, she had me dig out the sweat pants that my dad bought for her to wear home—a size 3X.  My mom does well with a Medium, and so when I put both of my legs into one of her new pant legs and danced around the hospital room, we all couldn’t help but forget about the pain my mom was facing.
Before long, therapy was over and my mom was going to be released to go home.  My dad left early to prepare their house, and I was left alone with my mom who was fighting the pain and hadn’t eaten much all day.  She said she wasn’t hungry, but I knew it was more than the dirty sock toilet chicken soup, and even a daughter knows when her mom needs a little something something.
There was a small bag of potato chips left over from her lunch still sitting on her tray.  My mom can’t resist a salty snack, but when I offered them, she sadly passed. 
So I plopped down in the chair, threw my feet up on the side of her hospital bed, turned on a cooking show and tore into the tiny bag of chips.
Making conversation, I crunched on a chip and slyly handed her one to eat.  We chatted about how much we disliked the dish that was being prepared, and I handed her another chip.  The nurse came in to check on something, and when she left, I held out another chip to my mom.  By the time the next show came on, she had eaten pretty much the entire bag of chips without even knowing it, leaving me hungry, craving salt, and smirking at every chance I got.
I’m not sure she’ll remember eating the bag of chips for all of the pain medication she was on, but I will never forget it.  It was one of those tiny little moments of life that can slip by if we don’t take the chance to pause for a second and realize just how good we’ve got it. 
How ideal that this all happened to me as people everywhere are making ridiculous resolutions for the New Year.  Instead of trying to make drastic changes to my life, maybe I’ll make drastic changes to the way I appreciate little moments.  And, of course,  potato chips.

(Ten bucks says my mom cried when she read this, almost as much as I cried when I wrote it.)

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Four and twenty thousand blackbirds (giant flocks...what gives?)

It is said that there is power in numbers, but nothing can compare to the numbers of the massive swarms of birds that swirl around us when the weather starts to turn colder.  
If you’ve seen them, you’ve stopped and stared.  Chances are you may have even counted one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, etc to see how long the train of blackbirds lasted, and most definitely you’ve marveled at how fluid and graceful such a group could be.  (Until they land in your yard, that is.)

Such an impressive act of nature deserves a moment of your time, I think, and what makes it even better is to know a little bit about what you’re looking at.

As it turns out, they aren’t all blackbirds.  Well, they’re all black birds, but in fact a few species are usually involved in the dark streaks of night moving through the early winter sky.  Brown-headed cowbirds, common grackles, European starlings, and even red-winged blackbirds all join together while making their migratory journey towards warmer weather, exactly what we humans wish we were doing while we stand bundled up and watch them swim above us.
It is pretty easy to figure out why these birds all fly south for the winter.  The bugs die when it gets cold, and without a decent food source and no invitations to holiday parties, the birds throw their wings up in the air, look at each other, and decide to get out of here.  I don’t know that I could blame them.
What is most interesting about these giant flocks of birds are the birds that make them up.  Brown-headed cowbirds are generally not very nice birds and lay their eggs in other birds’ nests. Red-winged blackbirds are so territorial that I have watched them dive-bomb each other among the marshes near my home.  Starlings are known to be aggressive and if you’ve got a bird feeder in your yard, you’ve probably seen the common grackle claim his role as the hog of the seed, scaring other birds away and generally being a pig.
But then, when the food supply is suddenly low, they all become buddies and head south to the beautiful marshes.  It’s a bit of a mystery. 
Some say that they realize that there is indeed safety in numbers, that when you’re hanging out with hundreds of thousands of other birds, there’s a decent chance that if something’s coming to eat you, you can happily dodge it and leave the fate to another bird.  Others say that it has something to do with the history and the arrival of agriculture in North America.  Others chalk it up to a pattern of nature, that birds that share speeds and habits and that birds of a feather just happen to flock together.
No matter the reason, during this season of holiday and togetherness, there are a few lessons to be learned from these awesome assemblies of aviators. 
When the going gets tough, the tough fly south.   (Although we northerners insist that the tough stay here and brave the winter months, the road salt, the ice patches, and the constant shivering while we poke fun at everyone who migrates while secretly being jealous.)
Keep your friends close, your enemies closer --just in case someone wants to eat you, or because that enemy might know where the good grub is.  (This also applies to holiday parties.)  And yet, enjoying the company of others isn’t all bad, and when the weather gets chilly, time might be best spent with a few thousand acquaintances.
But mostly, when the world gives you a show as amazing as hundreds of thousands of blackbirds soaring and swooping in a waterfall across the sky, maybe it’s best to stop for a second or two, and just stare in wonderment.  Maybe the birds would get just as excited to see a swarm of humans of all types, standing still for a moment.

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