Animal House

Logic:

  • This weekend is Dad’s Weekend at Purdue University.
  • Tim is the dad of two Purdue University sorority girls.
  • Therefore, Tim is at Purdue with his daughters who plan to take him out to party at the fraternities tonight.

I don’t think he realizes what’s about to hit him.

All of this sorority and fraternity stuff is new to Tim.  He’s a graduate of Goshen College, where the most radical thing a student there could do is vote Republican.  I was in a sorority at the University of South Carolina for two years then I transferred to Penn State where I could barely afford three squares a day let alone sorority fees.  I was, however, a frequent flyer at the fraternities because I could barely afford three squares a day and, sorority or no sorority, the beer was free.

Last spring when I went to Mom’s Weekend at Purdue, I was one of the few moms who didn’t stay over and go out with her daughter(s) to the fraternities that night.  I really should have, though, if for no other reason than to provide Tim with some reconnaissance.  As a former party girl at a large university, it was incumbent upon me to have scouted things out for him, and now I feel bad, because if anyone could handle the rigor of a night out at a major university, it would have been me, not Tim.

About Tim:  When we met, Tim was a baby–well, not a baby-baby, but younger than me, and not cougar younger, but let’s just say if we had been in high school when we met it would have been weird.

I thought, of course, because I was older and had gone to a BIG girl school and had lived in a BIG girl city longer than he that I was more sophisticated, and for the most part I was right.  He was smarter than I was in stuff that mattered, though, like basic math, you know, stuff like calculating a mortgage and reconciling a checkbook, so, there’s that.

An example of this preciousness occurred the summer before we were married.  I had been asked to be a bridesmaid in a well-heeled friend’s wedding in Dayton, Ohio, and Tim went with me as my date.  Since Tim wasn’t in the wedding party but was with a member of the wedding party, there were some responsibilities he shared with me; others not, like pictures.  Once the wedding was over and we began the good-thing-I-put-Vaseline-on-my-teeth process of having about 13,456 pictures taken, it was time to get in the limo and go to the reception.  At the country club.

I, however, couldn’t find my boyfriend.  Finally, right before I was ready to hail a cab (okay, call a cab—one doesn’t hail a cab in Dayton, Ohio) he showed up back at the church.  Relieved, I hustled him inside our waiting limo.  “Where were you?”

“Well, I was hungry, so I walked over to that diner and got some supper.  Aren’t you hungry?”

I just looked at him.

“Oh,” he said.  “Cake, right? We’re going back to their house for cake.”

Bless his heart.  No, my sweet boy, we’re going to a country club for a five course dinner followed by an open-bar reception featuring a live band.  But true to his nature, he laughed at his own naïveté, fit right in, and we had a blast—and of course his absolute drop-dead-gorgeous-stunning good looks made up for just about any gaps in his urbanity rulebook.  Four months later, we danced at our own wedding—after the ceremony and in our hotel room—but it was a helluva dance.

Which brings me back to his weekend sojourn at Purdue.  I’m sure that our daughters believe that their über cool dad is going to rock every party they drag him into, watch him play a mean game of beer pong, do something utterly stupid that they’ll Snapchat to all of their friends, and throw up in some bushes somewhere before he passes out.  They may think that, but I’ve got news for them.  One, that’s not Tim, and he feels no need to make up for any chasms in his own collegiate party life, and two, he’s their daddy–he’s not their buddy.

I just hope he’s prepared to babysit some of his fellow Purdue padres who will, no doubt, party just like they did in 1984—you know, back when Tim was at Goshen College and voted for Ronald Reagan.

Ooh…such a badass…

Wing Men

Their work area looks as if a goat exploded inside their cubicle, they collect graphics and obscure references to zombies and tack them up on their walls, they’re obsessed with fantasy football, science fiction, and South Park, and they have the collective sense of humor of a classroom full of eighth grade boys.  Don’t leave an open bottle of water near your desk, because, more than likely, you’ll find something floating on the bottom of it, like a swollen gummy bear that’s been God only knows where before succumbing to its watery grave. 

Brent* and Joe* (not their real names) are two boys with whom I work in the QA department of a worldwide software conglomerate that may not be a household name to most readers, but leads the industry in designing manufacturing software.  Not only does this most profitable enterprise work the proverbial room that is the global marketplace with its state-of-the-art product and successfully markets it, it seeks to recruit only the most talented individuals who, behind the scenes, make the magic happen.

Which takes me back to Brent* and Joe* (not their real names).  Both survived matriculation at Kent State (surprisingly without any intervention from the Ohio National Guard) and now work with me at the software conglomerate; or rather, I work with them.  Or, rather, they put up with me and my inane and asinine questioning without any visible eye rolling or finger pointing (you know the finger), while I blithely return to my neat-as-a-pin work area and attempt to decipher their complicated solutions to my simple problems.  You have no idea how often Wikipedia has saved me from the abject anxiety that only the technologically-limited have experienced.

Here’s what we—Brent* and Joe* (not their real names) and I–do at the software conglomerate:  Brent* and Joe* (not their real names) test the software enhancements that are made by the über talented software developers at the global software conglomerate, then, once vetted, they pass along the enhancements to me to update or document in the software applications’ users manuals.  Sounds simple, right?

Simple for them maybe; not so simple for me.  I have many talents; following directions is not one of them.  But I’m getting better.

I won’t elaborate on the sad and sorry months when I wasn’t dead sure how to download and install a program onto my PC, how I had to look up the word ‘algorithm’, how I had to pretend that I knew how to take a screenshot, or how I had no idea of what a virtual PC was even though I worked on one every day.  Those were the darkest of my early days at the software conglomerate, the days when I’m sure Brent* and Joe* (not their real names) wondered just how I ever managed to part my hair in the morning.

But like I said, I’m getting better, and so, hopefully, the relationship between Brent* and Joe* (not their real names) and me is also evolving. 

Now that I work in the private sector for a worldwide software conglomerate, people ask me all the time if I miss teaching and the answer is “Hell, no!” except for one thing:

I miss sitting among my students and clandestinely listening in on their conversations.  I miss hearing the two boys in the back of the room trading Anchorman and Office Space lines and trying hard not to crack up or pee in my pants.  I miss the little jokes, the “joning”, and the playfulness that exists among folks who actually, deep down, like, respect, and cherish one another.

Brent* and Joe* (not their real names) are like those two boys trading Anchorman and Office Space lines, and they could very well have been my students when they—Brent* and Joe* (not their real names)– were eighth graders.  While they like to cut up and have a good time, these two men are also very committed to their work.  They take very seriously the task of testing—testing up, down, diagonally, sideways, around curves, and under any and all possible scenarios. 

The takeaway?  It is possible to develop good working relationships with your colleagues even if, seemingly, you have little if anything in common with them.  And it is most definitely possible to find good help these days—Brent* and Joe* (not their real names) are proof of that. There’s a certain level of respect that exists among the three of us—Brent* and Joe* (not their real names) respect me because they have to since I’m old enough to be their mom; in turn, I respect the two of them for their intelligence, their work ethic, and, lastly, their combined sense of humor.  And so this is my homage to them—to my wing men, who, without their patient instruction and tolerance of my dumber-than-a-box-of-rocks-ish-ness, I would still be trying to figure out how to access the VPN.

Kids these days…

The Marker, the Bedspread, and One Evil Sister

As evocative as this title appears, these three seemingly unrelated objects shaped a sizable chunk of my youth.  How?  Oh, I’ll tell you how.  And I’ll share with you the remnants of a tormented soul, a child who lived in fear nearly every single day of that anguished era—a time when a little girl’s conscience should be free to laugh, to play, to sing, to dance, and dream—but instead, was reminded every morning that this could be the very day when the truth about the mark on the bedspread would be revealed.

Remember those sweet years in elementary school when teachers would lovingly prepare their young charges for St. Valentine’s Day by asking them to construct a Valentine’s box—a repository of love promises, chalky hearts, and the occasional marriage proposal?  The year was 1972, and I had just turned nine years old.  I remember that I was nine because my mother, in an uncharacteristic burst of ‘Best Mum in the ‘Hood’-edness, had thrown me a birthday party, complete with guests, games, prizes, treat bags, and an amazingly luscious cake adorned with all eight characters from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.  Stop counting—she left the Evil Queen out of the tableau.  After all, my sister Becky was already in attendance.

But more about Becky later.  The cake with the figurines was truly my favorite part of the one and only birthday party my mother had ever thrown (in all fairness to the other two sibs, she never threw them even one birthday party), and I treasured those little plastic friends, even going so far as to bring them to school with me one day and stash them secretly in the back left corner of my desk.  When Miss Eaton wasn’t looking (or wasn’t chewing off some other poor child’s face—more about her later), I would take out Snow White and talk to her, tell her a little about my day, what we were having for lunch, and who had just let a really bad stinker over in the third row.  Remember, I am the one who, a few years earlier, spent most of my waking hours with my imaginary friend Robin, so don’t judge.

That afternoon, Miss Eaton described for us our task.  We were to construct, out of found items (nothing bought!), a Valentine’s box that—and this was the most important thing—was decorated to reflect something about ourselves.  We would then play a game and guess who had created each masterpiece before depositing our hand-written Valentine greetings into each others’ repository.  Oh, what fun!

If I do say so myself, I was quite the creative little artist when I was a child, and, fortunately, my mother, too, had an artistic flair, so our house was not going to lack for “found items”.  That night, I began planning my creation, my tour de force, my Snow White Valentine’s box. 

That you already knew that my box would be adorned (last time you’ll see me type those words—ever) with the Snow White characters (sans witch) means that you are an attentive reader.  That you’re wondering how the three items in my title created an everlasting hell during my formative years means that I’ve kept you in suspense.  Here’s what happened:

Becky and I shared a room.  My mother, ever the artist, had recently re-decorated said room for about the fourth or fifth time.  Part of the re-decorating budget was dedicated to the purchase of two matching bedspreads with accompanying pillow shams.  The bedspreads were red with yellow ruffles, each color adorned with a small flower print pattern.  These bedspreads had to be special-ordered from the JCPenney catalogue (light years before Bed, Bath, and Beyond, my blog-readin’ friends), and Susan had threatened us with a painful and embarrassing punishment if we so much as left an errant booger on any part of these newly purchased and quite beautiful bed linens. 

In fashioning my masterpiece of a Valentine’s box, I was fortunate to have in my possession an entire rainbow of magic markers—a birthday present from Ronnie C., I think—that I was going to use to fabricate some of the original artwork that would adorn the Valentine’s box.  The box had already been wrapped in sky blue—yes blue—tissue paper (daringly original?  I think so), and plans to glue Snow White and her little boyfriends on top of the box were already cranking away in my nine year-old brain. 

In my haste to release the vivid, vibrant, and permanent magic markers from their plastic prison, I tore open the package whilst sitting on my bed, resulting in a shower of markers exploding all over the place and landing upon that sacred bedspread. 

Panicked, I scurried to my feet and snatched up the markers, careful to not un-cap any of them.  Now that I had no home for them, I simply opened up my newly assembled Valentine’s day box and tossed them inside, quickly, as if that would erase the fact that they were ever on my bed in the first place.  I did not realize until it was too late that one single, stray, brown marker, sans cap, had nestled itself under my stuffed bunny rabbit. 

Since brown wasn’t a color I wished to feature on a beautifully crafted Valentine’s Day box, I didn’t miss my little nut-colored friend, not until I sat back down on my recently purchased JCPenney red and yellow ruffled bedspread with the accompanying pillow sham.  Blissfully unaware of how my life was about to change, I rolled atop Mr. Brown, causing him to leave a decidedly dark, bleeding, and permanent memory of himself right smack dab in the middle of the bedspread.

Remember, I shared a room with Becky; ergo, as luck would have it, Becky was present when I, in horror, gasped in disbelief at the recently minted and clearly visible brown splotch, searched in vain for the marker’s cap, and began sobbing uncontrollably at my astonishing misfortune.  What had so lovingly begun as an exercise in creativity would forever remain, indelible as that stain on my bed, as the fateful night that Becky took possession of my very soul.

How?  Simple sisterly blackmail.  I became, in present day patois, her bitch.  There wasn’t a thing that I could do about it or she would tell Mum about the mark on my bed.  In fact, as I write those words—the mark on my bed—I still get a sick feeling in my gut that my careless blunder might even today launch the planet into Armageddon so indelible were those words she uttered lo’ those forty-one years ago:  “I’ll tell Mum about the mark on the bed.”  For months, ‘the mark on the bed’ represented my tortured psyche—she owned me spot, cap, and marker.

Utterly brutalized by her daily reminder of my shame, after nearly a year, I caved.  Seeing no other possible way out of my servitude, I tearfully confessed my egregious sin to my mother, shakily handing her one of her Puma tennis shoes so that she could turn me over her knee and beat my ass with it (I thought that if I assisted her in my punishment that it wouldn’t be so painful).  Gulping, sobbing, with rivers of snot running out of my nose, I told her how sorry I was for ruining my new bedspread. 

Her response?  “Oh, honey, don’t worry, I know it was an accident.  Becky told me all about it months ago.  Why are you crying?”

Magnanimously, and because I have a loving and gentle heart, I managed to forgive my sister Becky for the mirthful ease with which she tortured me that year.  Doubtless, she was probably getting even for my being the only child in our family to have had a birthday party.  I get it.

Touché.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two Towns, Two Lakes, Not Too Long Ago

Even in the 60s and 70s, my hometown Linesville, Pennsylvania, for all of its perceived artlessness, was actually a small tourist town and remains so today, at least from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Each Saturday of Memorial Day weekend heralded the official start of summer, and the beaches and campgrounds of Pymatuning Lake unfurled themselves from the winter’s gloom and spring’s muddy wetness in time for another season of swimming, fishing, and camping. After Labor Day, Linesville and Pymatuning said goodbye to its summer explosion of visitors, exhaled, then folded inward onto itself, returning to attach to the high school as the epicenter for what passed as bustle and activity—much like most little towns of that era.

Summer in Linesville was unique if only because of the assortment of people who landed there from the working class steel cities south of Pymatuning—an array of out-of-towners who, whether it was for a week, a weekend, or for the entire season, straggled into the area towing their sleek campers and state-of-the-art fishing boats behind rusted out pickup trucks and patched station wagons. Along with the townies, these summer folks ate breakfast at the Driftwood Restaurant, played pinball and shopped for sundries at Coursen’s Cut Rate, bought Coleman lanterns and replacement propane tanks at Tabor’s Hardware, pawed through the musty assortment of tents and used camping supplies at Morrison’s Army Surplus, purchased Cokes and Saegertown Ginger Ale at Grant Woodard’s grocery store, stopped in to Isaly’s to stock up on chip-chop ham, wandered through the three cramped aisles of the Five and Ten for penny candy, plastic kiddie toys, and, of course, never failed to step next door to the bait and tackle shop to prepare for the day’s fishing. The summertime shower of out-of-towners were well aware that Linesville lacked the charm of more commercial tourist towns, towns like Put-in-Bay, in Ohio or Mackanaw Island, in Michigan; nonetheless, for a working class family from Pittsburgh or Youngstown or Kittanning, a camping excursion or a fishing trip to Pymatuning was a chance to break free from the grit of the city, breathe in some fresh air, drink Iron City beer, and roast wieners alongside other working class folks from Youngstown, Pittsburgh, or Kittanning.

If Linesville laid claim to Pymatuning Lake, its neighbor to the east, the Town of Conneaut Lake, boasted its pride and joy and its namesake–Conneaut Lake. Town-wise, there wasn’t a whole lot of difference between Linesville and the Town of Conneaut Lake, but an unspoken and solid reality existed: Conneaut Lake, and the Town of Conneaut Lake which sits right to its south, featured a captivating measure of vacation magic that made it much more alluring to tourists, especially those with more capital than Linesville’s summertime flotsam and jetsam. If Linesville was a bologna sandwich on white bread, Conneaut Lake was steak and lobster.

Though the lake itself was smaller, Conneaut Lake, unlike its bigger brother Pymatuning, was a clear, crisp, spring-fed glacier-made body of water that had existed long before the wooly mammoths and Iroquois Indians had inhabited the deciduous forest surrounding it. Its main attraction, its crowning glory, and, for many families, the pinnacle of their summer vacation was a magical day spent at Conneaut Lake Park, an historic turn-of-the-century amusement park featuring an exciting assortment of rides, its own charming boardwalk overlooking the entire lake, the popular nighttime hangout The Beach Club, the stately and prestigious Hotel Conneaut, an impressive and historic midway, and one of the country’s oldest and most thrilling wooden roller coasters, The Blue Streak. If one was looking for magic in this little corner of northwestern Pennsylvania, it certainly could be found at Conneaut Lake Park. The entire Park was gushing with enchantment, charm, and its own Fairyland Forest, a sweet addendum located across the road from the main Park, which showcased exotic creatures nested in a storybook setting—an added attraction for smaller children and animal lovers. That the establishment’s resident chimpanzee was notorious for flinging fresh feces at its gawkers and the bear was suffering from some type of mange did not detract from the number of delighted visitors flocking to Fairyland Forest for a calm respite following the bustle of The Park.

A mere ten miles to the west lay the vast and steady shores of Pymatuning, with its safely benign ten horsepower motor limit and profusion of fat pontoon boats teeming with life-jacketed retirees and flat-bottomed outboard fishing boats. Pymatuning was a “Fisherman’s Paradise”; its main attraction The Spillway, located about a mile south of town, an asphalt funnel about twenty feet in diameter where fish that were bred and hatched at the park’s upper lake fish hatchery would gather in such profusion (before being sucked through the funnel and ferried under the dividing causeway’s bridge to the lower lake) that it became a favorite stop for visitors who liked to throw bread over the rail and watch the fish devour it. Though a variety of fish were bred at the hatchery, The Spillway’s most frequent guests were carp,—big, bloated oversized goldfish that bullied themselves over to The Spillway because in some corner of their paraphyletic brains, they learned that food was being proffered. Then, once the area’s ducks discovered that human visitors were actually casting entire loaves of stale bread into the spillway to feed the bloated goldfish, these fowl were savvy enough to learn how to walk on the backs of those same fish in order to snatch the bread before it was consumed by the gaping, sucking mouths of the greedy carp. Thus, Linesville became known as the town “Where the Ducks Walk on the Fish”. Most first-time visitors to the area thought the moniker was a clever slogan made up by the Chamber of Commerce to entice hunters and fishermen to the area, but once initiated into the reality that is The Spillway, they soon discovered that the ducks do indeed walk on the fish in order to nick some bread—or empty beer cans, or the twist ties from the bread bags, or cigarette butts or any other manner of detritus cruelly heaved at fish and fowl.

Sadly, Conneaut Lake did not feature any manner of pedestrian attraction equal to the evolutionary marvel that The Spillway represented. On Conneaut Lake, though, visitors could delight at the panorama of slick Chris Crafts and Ski Nautiques pulling bikinied water skiers eagerly waving to the bathers on Fireman’s Beach or on the docks of the private Iroquois Club, or better yet, witness a ‘ski-by’ past The Park’s boardwalk. Those who vacationed on Conneaut Lake could choose among a variety of fun and exciting water activities—speed boating, water skiing, floating endlessly on plump, brightly colored rafts, and could enjoy swimming with inflatable toys, beach balls, and other accessories such as fins and masks, while Pymatuning’s water enthusiasts were left floating on Grandpa’s boat, fishing for walleye, or swimming at one of the State Park’s beaches notorious for their draconian rules (no inflatables!) that sucked all of the fun out of the swimming experience. This triggered envy among many of Pymatuning’s vacationers. If, in the course of their trip, they had been unfortunate enough to have peeked at the excitement that Conneaut Lake had to offer—perhaps after spending a dizzying day at The Park—these same folks might have longed for a more civilized holiday. Instead of a moldy tent or a musty pop up camper in which to sleep, they just might pine for the luxury of falling into deep Adirondack chairs perched on the back lawn of their lakeside cottage while watching the twinkling of boat lights on Conneaut Lake as their children enjoy a midnight swim off the dock. Pymatuning’s campers were the kids on the field trip to the ketchup factory; Conneaut Lake’s tourists were at Disney World. The younger the tourist, the more pleasure Conneaut Lake provided. It wasn’t unusual on a Saturday or Sunday to find ten to twenty boats lashed together on the sandbar in Conneaut Lake’s Huidekoper Bay, tethered coolers of beer floating between boats; the urine content of the bay most likely rendering the entire lake unsuitable for swimming. It was as if Conneaut Lake was the rich cousin with the expensive toys everyone wanted to play with and Pymatuning was the matron aunt with the comfortable lap and the stale breath that smelled like old people.

Curiously enough, this distinction often played out in the rivalry that existed between the townspeople of both Conneaut Lake and Linesville. Conneaut Lake was hip, it was fun, it was where everyone wanted to be in the summer; Pymatuning, and its accompanying village of Linesville, was like returning to something safe and quiet, earthy, and serene. Summertime cottages surrounded Conneaut Lake; Pymatuning’s shoreline was protected wildlife areas—the entire reservoir and its surrounding wetlands were all part of the state park.

Those summertime cottages that dotted Conneaut Lake’s shoreline were usually owned by wealthy folks from Pittsburgh; that is, they were wealthy by Linesville’s standards. Farther inland, the year round homes were either large family estates that had been broken up into smaller pieces of acreage and owned by locals, or were comprised of one or two acres upon which more modern mid-century ranch homes were built. Thus, not only did the summertime fun discrepancy between the two towns loom large, but the differences in lifestyles among each town’s inhabitants created an interesting dynamic when it came time to play each other in high school basketball.

Today, some parts of Linesville appear as if frozen in time, while others, like The Spillway—that steadfast attraction that remains thanks to the resolute nature of fish, ducks, and bread—have been updated and modernized. In contrast, Conneaut Lake, as the tragic result of The Park’s tumultuous management and mysterious demise, represents what happens when the stewardship of a veritable jewel falls into the hands of individuals with less than honorable motives. The Town and its surrounding area have sadly deteriorated.

Like many of life’s sparkling treasures, one doesn’t appreciate the gifts enjoyed in youth until they no longer exist.

Private Parts

Lest you think I’m about to launch into a tirade about things best mentioned in private, let me put your mind at ease and tell you that I’m about to launch into a tirade about not mentioning these things on television, the internet, and through social media. I once heard the actress Angela Landsbury state in an interview something to the effect that, even between husbands and wives, some “personal processes”, if you will, should remain, well, personal. I think she may have something there.

A little background for contextual purposes is needed here. In my family of origin, we were quite open. My parents were not prudish, nor did they keep from us any information that would help us understand our how our family of origin came into being, but, as educators, they knew the right time to mention the unmentionables and they kept the conversations factual. I didn’t know about babies being found in cabbage patches until I was an adult, and I thought that the stork was just the right type of animal from which to hang a baby hammock, not to actually deliver one’s child. In our family, though, body parts had funny names, but in the interest of our family’s privacy, I’ll not divulge them here. Suffice it to say that we knew the clinical terms for our particular accessories, but we much preferred the silly ones that my parents had made up.

That is not to say that there weren’t embarrassing times. For instance, the first time I saw a television commercial hawking feminine hygiene products, I was watching television with my dad, and to this day, I don’t think I’ve ever been so mortified. And how can anyone over the age of 45 forget the ad for Playtex Tampons, featuring the mildly successful stage and television actress Brenda Vaccaro? Brenda Vaccaro, with, what my dad used to call, a “whiskey-tenor” voice, would draw, after each delightful and descriptive sentence, yet another ragged, emphysema-ravaged breath as she illustrated the amazing absorbing properties of the product. Worst television ad ever.
Then there was the time that I was watching the movie The Summer of ’42, again, with my dad. I was old enough to have read the book, but when the protagonist went into the drug store to purchase “rubbers”, my once so progressive-thinking dad made me change the channel back to Happy Days. I did so both quickly and willingly.

Today, though, it seems as if anything goes. Childbirth, for some (not for me, but that is another entry altogether) a magical, sacred moment when a couple welcomes their child into the world, is now fodder for all types of photographic and video production and distribution. If a couple wishes to capture the moment, I applaud their efforts; for me, I informed my husband that he could take one picture of our child upon its entrance into the world. And, nauseous as he was, Tim managed to shakily snap a picture as my doctor lifted Christian out of my open and retracted belly and held him up past the sterile field. Proof that he is mine, I guess. Four years earlier when I delivered twins, I was unconscious, Tim was not permitted in the operating room, and I’ll have to take everyone’s word at Methodist Hospital that those two chicas belong to me.

It’s not the actual videotaping or photographing of the event that has me riled. It’s the distribution of the video or photographs—on television, especially. Take, for instance, the preeminent achievement and veritable cornerstone of The Learning Channel, a priceless gem called Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. On last week’s episode, a repeat, Honey Boo Boo’s teenaged sister goes into premature labor. She tells her mother, “She’s hurting my biscuit.” ‘She’ refers to the baby within; ‘biscuit’ refers to the young lady’s nether region. Now, thankfully, the young lady’s labor was arrested and she was sent home, but did we really have to suffer through the angst of an almost premature delivery and the knowledge that Mrs. Honey Boo Boo taught her daughters that their genitalia was named a ‘biscuit’? For that matter, why do we have to suffer through Here Comes Honey Boo Boo at all? Full disclosure: I watched this particular episode in a hotel room while searching for a less pedestrian offering, and I promise that I did not and will not buy any of the products advertised during the show.

Then there’s Oprah and her va-jay-jay. Precious. Once she roped Dr. Oz (a cardiac surgeon with a fascination for poop) into being her go-to medical guy, I knew it wouldn’t be long before she treated her all-female audience to several sessions with the dashing Oz. In his signature tell-it-like-it-is style, he often appeared on Oprah to expound upon not just poop but many other functions associated with things one does in private. I’m not sure I remember if that was the context in which Oprah introduced us to her va-jay-jay—or maybe I’m just trying to block that image out of my mind—but apparently Mrs. Oz is cool with her husband, the cardiac surgeon, discussing vaginas because now he does it all the time. Once he was gifted with his own spin off, he broke down all the barriers. I realize he is a doctor, but does he have to get all casual and cavalier about these portions of a woman’s anatomy? And have you noticed that very few of his shows focus on man parts?

I hesitate to include this next example of television’s casual treatment of body parts, but (and again, it’s when I’m flipping through channels) that train wreck of a family the Kardashians lack any sense of restraint when it comes to their activities, especially when it comes to anything having to do with the parts of their bodies typically covered by even the tiniest bathing suits. Personally, I’m not quite sure that E! could pay me enough money to wax poetic about some of the activities the Kardashians describe with so much passion and naughtiness, and I know for sure that my own sister and I, unreserved though we might appear, are much more private than these vapid and oh-so-tasteless sibs. We have been known though, on occasion, to talk about poop.

Whatever would have inspired me to issue a commentary on the subject of private parts? Apparently, as I write, the Duchess of Cambridge is in labor, about to give birth to a little girl or boy who will one day—God willing—become the queen or king of England. The fact that an heir to the throne is about to be born is newsworthy; details of the duchess’ labor and perceived status minute by minute is not. I listened to Dr. Nancy Snyderman on the Today show this morning talk about the duchess’ labor, conjecturing about cervical width, epidurals, and vaginal v. Caesarian delivery, and I thought to myself, “So glad that’s not me.” Having a baby, no matter who you are or how it comes out, is both a humbling and spiritual experience. For me, the entire process is definitely one that I would never wish to share with the world. Some things should remain sacred.

Even poop.

The Talented Mr. Abercrombie: Tales of the Boy Jamie

Oh, see, now you’re thinking that I’m going to write another clever treatise about my father, but no.  In honor of his 54th birthday, I am going to attempt to capture the spirit of the other James R. Abercrombie–the guy three boys call ‘Dad’, one baby girl calls ‘Papa’, and one hot babe of a wife calls ‘Jame’.  To those of you who think you know Jamie, let me tell you, you only know the adult version.  I’m here to shed some light on the youthful Jamie.  And I’ll try to spare him any embarrassment in the process.  Maybe.

My grandmother once remarked that my brother Jamie was born old.  This could not be more accurate.  Jamie is the oldest child in our family, which probably does not surprise many of you given his hardworking nature, his decisiveness, and his level of responsible behavior.  He exhibited those virtues as a child, also.  But what you don’t know about Jamie is that, as a child, he was ruled by his sister Becky, 16 months his junior.  She could talk Jamie into nearly anything, but she was careful to limit his conduct to things that would ultimately be to her future benefit. 

Take the first incident with the matches.  Long before I, Jamie’s youngest sister by four years, was cognizant of that special relationship between my two sibs, Becky proffered a rather dangerous dare to Jamie involving the lighting of matches.  Becky talked Jamie into lighting matches in the room that was, at that time, our dining area, but what later became known as the back porch.  The back porch was a little square room surrounded with windows, many windows adorned with fluttering, frilly curtains.  Matches were lit, curtains caught fire, and Jamie—though later to prove his über intelligence through his academic achievements—decided that the most resourceful way to suppress the fire was to spray the flaming curtains with Lysol. 

This story had a happy ending; I just don’t know what it was.  Obviously our house did not burn down, but the incident with the matches—and the second incident to follow involving Jamie lighting matches in the woods in front of our house—provided Becky with enough leverage to get just about anything she wanted.  How do I know this?  Because she blackmailed me on any number of occasions.  Masterful manipulator that she was (is?), she had Jamie and me right in the palm of her hand.  While most boys Jamie’s age sought out boys of similar age with whom to toss the football, play catch, shoot hoops, and conduct games of torture, Jamie had a built-in playmate in Becky.  As for me?  I was the pitiful recipient of their cruelty and subsequent source of amusement when it was too cold for them to go outside to play.

But in the end, one can only take so much Becky, so, as a respite from her antics, Jamie would often escape to the safety of his room.  One of my most indelible memories of Jamie as a boy involved those little green army men that boys in the 1960s played with.  Understand that this was the Vietnam era, and those of us who remember that time will recall that video footage of the war as it was happening was taped and later broadcast on the nightly news.  An historic first.  Parents at that time never felt the need to filter whatever was on TV for their wide-eyed children, so at least for me, I thought war was perpetual.  I think Jamie did, too.

As a result, Jamie learned to stage epic battles using those little green army men.  Meanwhile, Becky and I were in our room performing beauty pageants with our Barbie dolls—forgive me, with my Barbie dolls (hers remained upon the shelf with the protective wrap still around their heads—mine had the toes chewed off, had chopped off hair from when Becky played beauty shop, and were always naked).  In the safety of his room, Jamie would have carefully researched the most famous battles of World War II and would accurately re-enact these clashes on his bedroom floor.  We never actually witnessed these battles; instead, we heard them.  Jamie had a unique talent for making bombing noises—a sound that I could not hope to reproduce no matter how hard I tried.  Ask him today to make the war sounds.  You, too, will be impressed.

Decades before the sagas of Bella and Edward, Jamie harbored a fascination with vampires.  On any given Friday or Saturday night, after growing tired of his war games, he would painstakingly remain awake so that he could stay up and watch Weirdo—a late-night offering that showed old horror movies—in the hope that some Mystery Science Theater-ish Dracula movie would be featured.  His enchantment with the dark side was so real to him that he took to hanging garlic around his neck, sleeping with a crucifix, and asking my dad if we had any hawthorn branches that he could use to make a stake.  Apparently, the danger of a vampire attacking him in the middle of the night was imminent, and he wanted to be safe.  He was nothing if not well prepared.

In addition to his partiality to vampires, Jamie loved space.  Becoming an astronaut was just about every boy’s fantasy in the 1960s, and this boy was no different.  Perhaps it was the Tang he drank or those chocolate space food sticks he downed, but Jamie was NASA ready.  And when I say ‘ready’, I mean husky-sized Star Trek Captain Kirk pajamas and all. 

Vampires and Apollo 11 fell by the wayside when Jamie started playing Little League baseball.  I cannot remember Jamie ever having played any position other than catcher, but he undoubtedly could have been a more versatile player, given the right circumstances.  He was a ‘Cub’, and twice weekly, my parents kept vigil from the bleachers at the Linesville Little League while Becky and I wore a path back and forth to the concession stand.  Jamie’s goal–the goal of every Linesville Little Leaguer–was to shatter the front window of the Dairy Isle (a parking lot away from the outfield fence) with a game-winning homerun.  I don’t know if he ever reached his goal; I was too busy stuffing my pie hole with Jolly Ranchers.

Back at home, the obsession with baseball continued.  Adjacent to our property was a large field owned by our uncle.  This field was perfect for baseball, and throughout the summer, the neighborhood boys and my sister Becky would assemble on non-Little League nights for a marathon game.  With the exception of Becky, no other girls in the ‘hood were interested in baseball except for me, and because I lacked my sister’s substantial skill on the diamond, Jamie magnanimously made me the behind the plate umpire.  I really had no idea what an umpire was to do during a baseball game, not really paying attention to Sheena calling the game at the Little League field, but Jamie assured me that it was the most important job in a baseball game, more important than that of the pitcher.  All I had to do was stand behind the catcher for the entire game, or until I got tired of being bitten by mosquitos.

Jamie’s athleticism, combined with his inordinate ability to memorize just about anything, was impressive enough that my parents bought him a subscription to Sports Illustrated.  Jamie devoured the statistics, facts, minutiae, and trivia about every player in the major leagues.  While some men of his generation proudly show off their boyhood collection of Playboy magazines, Jamie would be proud to show off his rather impressive collection of Sports Illustrated.  I’m convinced his wife would be even more elated to toss the entire collection in the dumpster behind the Yarn Barn.

I experienced a couple of firsts with Jamie.  He took me to see Star Wars when it first came out (I think I fell asleep), and one night in 1975 we both stayed up to see the debut of Saturday Night Live—John Belushi played Captain Kirk in a Star Trek parody, and we both laughed so hard we nearly puked.  Also, for the very first time, we gave back to Becky all that she had given to us when she introduced us to her new boyfriend.  In a lovesick burst of heartfelt sincerity, she had foolishly revealed to both Jamie and me that the new guy in her life raised rabbits, as in bunny rabbits.  Upon meeting Randy for the first time, Jamie and I welcomed him by doing the bunny hop.  That was the last time she ever brought a new boyfriend home to meet us.

So you see, there is much about young Jamie that you never knew.  He’s certainly not one to talk much about himself, or brag about his accomplishments, unless they involve his wife or his sons.  Lucky for me I have all the crayons in my box to color a picture of this husky-then-not-so-husky-explosion-sound making, space loving, vampire fearing, Little League catching, Sports Illustrated memorizing guy!  Happy birthday, Jamie!  

Now don’t be hatin’ on me for telling all your secrets.

 

 

My Dad and Billy Graham: Some material may not be suitable for all family members. Reader discretion advised

Just as Christ turned the other cheek and forgave sinners, I’d like to think that when Billy Graham enters the gates of Heaven, he’ll look for my dad.

To say that my dad was a contrarian is like saying that the Pope is from Argentina.  The principal JRA, known as “Mr. A.” to the high school students he shepherded was an avuncular figure, a hand on a shoulder, an understanding adult in an otherwise tumultuous environment.  The real JRA, the one we called “Dad”, took sarcasm and cynicism to a whole new level.  And was kind of hilarious in the process.  Most of the time.

My dad was an equal opportunity critic.  I don’t apologize for this particular attribute of his—it was what it was.  Any man, woman, or child who happened to irritate him was fodder for his misanthropy.  He would find one particular aspect of a person—be it one’s countenance, social class, suspect parentage, or peculiarity—and run with it.  Usually he had names for people that somehow related to one or more of the aforementioned characteristics, like his college acquaintance Jim Balog.  Jim Balog, apparently, ate like a pig; ergo, the name ‘Jim Balog’ was synonymous with having bad table manners.  If, at the dinner table, we failed to hold our knife correctly or forgot to place our napkin on our lap properly, we were compared to the ill-mannered Jim Balog.  That was just the way my dad was with people for whom he had any degree of disdain.

Take my father’s relationship with Billy Graham.  Today when we think of Billy Graham, we place him in the same category as Mother Teresa.  Billy Graham represents the best of Christianity, and he is revered and honored, just as he should be. In the 1960s and 1970s, Billy Graham was often featured on television preaching to his enraptured followers in packed revivals, delivering the Gospel to stadiums full of Christians eager to hear his interpretation of the Word.  His popularity among believers was and remains steadfast.  Few would dispute his ability to incite a crowd of the faithful to rise to their feet in adoration.  Who among us could find fault with that?

Who indeed.

Before I describe my father’s rather merciless and prejudicial one sided affiliation with BG, understand that JRA was a devout Believer; however, his attendance at Sunday services—any Sunday services—were non-existent.  He blamed his failure to attend Church on his upbringing.  It seems as if his parents’ lives revolved around the Church, and, being a contrarian, little Raymond had to be dragged there each week under extreme duress.  Once he became an adult, he claimed that he attended Church while he was riding his tractor plowing a field to prepare it for a crop he would plant but never harvest.  Though he wasn’t technically a farmer, he loved driving his tractor, and he loved plowing, so if riding on his tractor plowing the crap out of a field was his Church, far be it for us to keep him from his worship.

Dad worked long hours as a high school principal, and he faithfully attended every basketball game, every baseball game, every band concert (such as they were), and chaperoned every dance and prom.  Since he so faithfully attended each school activity , maybe he felt the need to faithfully attend church simply more time spent away from his tractor, I don’t know.  I do know that when he finally came home each evening, he was tired, he wanted to relax, and he wanted to watch his programs.

It was a Thursday night after my dad had enjoyed a few pulls from a recently purchased fifth of Seagram’s 7 (only top shelf for the Old Boy), that the unspeakable occurred.  All week my dad looked forward to Thursday night so he could watch Ironside starring Raymond Burr. After a hard day of herding adolescents, Dad just wanted some Burr.

That night, though, Billy Graham’s ability to draw faithful viewers trumped Burr.

Upon hearing the words, “Tonight’s episode of Ironside will be pre-empted so that we may bring you this special program” followed by the text “The Billy Graham Crusade” crawling across the screen, my dad lost his shit.  He called Billy Graham names I’m not going to print here out of respect for my dad and for Mr. Graham. With a furious energy that belied his inebriated status, he began scrambling in the junk drawer, found the phone book, and surprisingly was able to locate the long distance number to Erie, Pennsylvania’s NBC affiliate WICU Channel 12.  Making long distant phone calls in those days was an expense usually reserved for Grandma in Florida, but Dad considered the station’s preemption of Ironside such an egregious breach of contract between him and Channel 12 it wouldn’t have mattered if the station had been located in Bangladesh, he was going to let them have it.  We could only hear his side of the conversation, of course, and it went something like this:

“Why is it that every g*d-damn time I want to sit down and watch a show you have to interrupt my program with that insufferable preacher?”

“Of course I believe in God!”

“Well just because I can’t stand his ingratiating preaching does not mean that I’m not a good Christian!”

“How dare you ask me if I go to church!  That’s none of your g*d-damn business!”

“No. I. Have. Not. Been. Drinking!”

“My name?”

I cannot recall just how many Billy Graham crusades I had to suffer through—not necessarily because I disliked altar calls or group hymns, but because we knew Dad would come unglued and it would be up to us to put Humpty back together again.  What we wouldn’t have given for cable TV, a DVD player, or even the Internet to placate him, but that technology was a few years down the road.

In later years, my dad’s relationship with Billy Graham softened somewhat, and a kind of one-sided rapprochement occurred. He actually began to enjoy the man’s quiet and dignified approach to the Gospel and revered his message once Mr. Graham’s esteem and popularity had evolved to such a degree that his telecasts never again encroached upon Dad’s nighttime television lineup.

Just as Christ turned the other cheek and forgave sinners, I’d like to think that when Billy Graham enters the gates of Heaven, he’ll look for my dad.  Hopefully he’ll be able to find him.

An Homage to the Snow Day

Typically, when snow is forecast for central Indiana (and maybe other places, I don’t know), the projection of accumulating inches far exceeds the reality.  How do I know this and why do I care?  It goes back to being a teacher—of course.  Doesn’t everything?

Teachers live for snow days!  Oh, some may say, “I don’t want a snow day because I don’t want to make it up in June” but the reality of that argument is that the day in June that is “made up” is more or less a day spent wrapping up loose ends.  Tests are already taken, grades are submitted, books are returned to their summer storage place, and the time is spent signing yearbooks, cleaning out lockers, and possibly taking the whole class outside for an impromptu field trip.  So in reality, that make up day is not nearly as painful as finally having to schlep your sorry and slippery self into school, fishtailing your way into the parking lot (while the parking lot of the district administration building next door remains empty well into the morning).

The next best thing to a snow day is the two-hour delay.  For the uninitiated, a two-hour delay just pushes the day back two hours, meaning two additional hours of sleep.  Über teachers I’ve worked with (there’s a couple in every school, apparently) would stoically brave the icy and snow covered roads so they could proclaim to the rest of us, two hours later, that they used that time to work in their classrooms.  Not me.  I considered the concept of the two-hour delay a slice of serendipity in an otherwise mundane week.

The drama that precedes the announcement of the snow day or two-hour delay is nearly as exciting as the announcement itself.  Will they or won’t they?  Who actually makes the call?  My dad, a man my readers will get to know on a whole new level real soon, was a high school principal in northwestern Pennsylvania from 1952 until 1973.  In the 1960s, it was his job to “make the call”.  That meant that at around three in the morning our phone would start ringing.  “Mr. A?  Are yinz havin’ school today?  I need to know if I should hitch up the plow so’s I can git the young’uns to the end of the driveway…” or “Mr. A?  Clyde wants to know if he should start milking now, ‘cause he’s guessing with all a this snow, the cows are going to be slow gettin’ into the barn, and he don’t want to miss the bus, but if yinz aint havin’ school, then he can sleep a extra hour…”  My dad would suit up, walk down to the end of our driveway with a flashlight, check the road, then traipse back up and “make the call”.  Making the call involved calling WICU TV in Erie to tell them that the Linesville schools would be closed that day.  He then gave them what I can only guess was a secret password, then our phone number so that they could call back to confirm that he really was James R. Abercrombie, principal of Linesville High School and the man charged with making the call.

Now that I’m no longer teaching and my kids are older, snow days and two-hour delays have lost their sparkle.  I do, however, rally in spirit for my teacher friends.  Even if they moan at the prospect of having to go to school past Memorial Day weekend, I know that deep down they’re secretly delighted at the prospect of having a day all to themselves.  To me, snow days and two hour delays were little gifts that allowed me to snuggle with my kids, make a big breakfast, and maybe take a long nap on a snowy afternoon. What’s not to love about that?

Mona and Robin

My mother Susan was far ahead of her time.  I was born in January, 1963 (yes, thank you for the half-century mark birthday wish, now can we go on?).  Though I’ve no one to ask, my guess is that as soon as she could walk properly again after delivering me tushie-first into this world and could manage to fit into her size six wool skirts, she returned to work as a physical education teacher (do not make the mistake of calling her a ‘gym’ teacher).  Obviously, I needed to be taken care of because, brilliant as I am, I doubt that at three, five, or even six weeks of age I was adept at mixing my own formula, changing my own diapers, or putting myself down for a nap.

Enter Mona.  No, not ‘Mona’ as in ‘Mona Lisa’, but ‘Mona’ as in M-short ‘o’-n-a.  Rhymes with ‘Donna’.  My parents hired Mona to care for me during the day.  Mona was about ninety thousand years old, widowed, and if I remember correctly, didn’t particularly care for children all that much.  She drank copious amounts of Red Rose tea, and each day opened a can of Campbell’s tomato soup for her lunch, feeding me the second half of the watered down mess along with a half of a can of Golden Dawn peaches–in heavy syrup.  She ate the other half.  Might explain my current love affair with food, I don’t know…

Since Mona subscribed to the belief that children should be seen and not heard, I had to make my own magic each day.  Watching Jeopardy! followed by her “stories” simply did not fulfill my toddler and preschool needs.  Jamie and Becky, siblings about whom my readers will learn in future entries (with nom de plumes, of course), were already in school, leaving me to my own devices.  Readers, you have to remember that this was a time when at the end of the day if you were still alive, the adult(s) charged with your care could consider themselves as having done their job and done it well.  So, because I was essentially alone all day, I had to make up my own special friend.

Enter Robin.  Robin was everything to me.  He was a boy, she was a girl, (and how clever was I to have chosen a special friend with a unisex name?  Brilliant?  I think so.), but more importantly, he/she was whatever I needed at the time.  Looking back, I believe that Robin was based on the boy wonder character from Batman that my more seasoned readers will remember as a television series from the (cough) 1960s.  A baby girl’s crush?  Perhaps.

Robin and I were inseparable.  We did everything and anything together, from picking dandelions to catching houseflies and storing them in mayonnaise jars with holes poked through the lid so they could breathe (done with a full-sized hammer and a six penny nail).  I talked about Robin as if he/she was right next to me, and yes, Robin had his/her own place at the lunch table.

Mona was not impressed.

When she said to me, “Why do you insist upon this ‘Robin’ character eating with you?  He’s not real.  You’re just making him up!”  I responded with, “You don’t know Robin.  You’re nussin but an old yady.”

Well, after that less than unacceptable remark, she made sure that she informed James R. Abercrombie of my abject impertinence.  Though I was not present at the time, I am certain that, as my dad drove her back to her daughter’s home that night in our 1966 Ford Falcon station wagon, he feigned shock and aversion at my reported indolence.  But later (1994) he informed me that my ‘old yady’ comment was about the funniest damn thing he had ever heard.

Since the time of my infatuation with Robin, I’ve learned that children who make up imaginary friends tend to be gifted.  Obviously, I am far from gifted—affected, but not gifted.  And here’s another dirty little secret:  Robin was the first person I ever slept with.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mona!

And now for something completely controversial…

The Supreme Court is hearing arguments this week that may transform the status of gay marriage in this country.  Not only is Proposition 8, California’s ban on gay marriage, being challenged, but so is the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which bars the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages even in states that allow them.  Let the games begin.

Let me be clear:  I am not in favor of gay marriage.  Marriage was designed and ordained by God as a union between a man and a woman for the purposes of creating more little men and women. I’m not stupid enough to argue with God.  For my part, I have proudly fulfilled God’s commandment times three (kids not marriages).

And now here’s the part where everyone is going to roll their eyes at my apparent wishy-washiness:  Though I do not believe in gay marriage, I feel even more strongly that the  government has no right to tell two men or two women that they cannot be joined in a union.  I wouldn’t call it a marriage, since you can’t have it both ways, and that would negate my previous assertion about marriage being between a chick and a dude.  But certainly, with all of the great minds in this country, we must be able to come up with a legal means that affords gay couples the opportunity to be officially joined.  Call it a union, call it a merger, an alliance, call it a knot-tying ceremony, a partnership, call it whatever you like, but I can’t for the life of me understand why the SCOTUS needs to hear these arguments because the two arguments in question should never have come about in the first place.

When the government gets involved in people’s private lives, I have a problem.  I have a problem when the government funds Planned Parenthood which performs the majority of abortions in this country (more about abortion later…no wishy-washiness there).  I have a problem when Planned Parenthood gives out free birth control to middle school girls.  I have a problem when the government tells restaurant and bar owners that their patrons can’t light up a stogie after dinner.  I have a problem when the government attempts to tell New Yorkers they can’t get their caffeine and sugar high by slurping down a Big Gulp.  And I have a problem when the government tells grown men and women who want to legitimize their relationship that they cannot.

“But Kelly,” you’re saying, “that’s just the thing!  The government has no right to tell a woman what she can do with her body!”  Oh, that’s where you’re clearly a victim of incorrect thinking.  ‘Her body’, when pregnant, holds within it a tiny baby who has no rights.  Women make the “choice”, for the most part, when they “choose” to get jiggity with a man (that’s how most pregnancies begin—let’s not get into the rape and incest arguments here).  That little baby that was created has to be protected somehow.  Grownups can generally take care of themselves.

But I digress.  Let’s get back to my gay and lesbian friends.  The ones I know in committed relationships, with or without children, demonstrate far more responsibility and right-mindedness than most of the idiots legally “married” to one another in Hollywood.  So Kim Kardashian’s short-lived, pathetic, E!xcuse of a marriage to Kris Humphries was “okay”, but Cam and Mitch tying the knot is wrong?

I must also say, though, that if you are a person who does not think that two men joined in unity or two women officially proclaiming their everlasting faithfulness and fidelity is the best thing for the greater good, your views and opinions should also be met with tolerance and understanding, as long as you’re not hating.  Once the hatin’ begins, you weaken your position.  That goes for both sides.

When I started this blog, I told you I was going to remark upon things that would make most people turn tail and run.  If you disagree with my position, fine!  If you agree with me, fine!  If you thought I took the coward’s way out and tried to have it both ways, fine!  But the right of people to live their lives in freedom and equality is an issue that I take quite seriously, and it would have been cowardly of me not to have stated my piece, especially in light of this week’s pending decisions. For what it’s worth, I think it’s going to be gay marriage for the win.