Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Not Just a Game

Almost as soon as I volunteered to drive my father to South Dakota I regretted it.

It's not that I don't love my father (I do, almost to a you-need-a-session-of-therapy degree). I had a big work deadline, though, and the trip sounded grueling. With four sons and a husband, all of whom are better drivers than I am, I rarely take the wheel for more than a few miles, and the distance from my father's house in northern Kansas to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Googles out at just over six hours if you allow no flex for bathroom breaks or blood-clot-prevention walks.

But my father is an Olympic champion and the games were on.

Dad swam a few times a year when I was growing up, mostly when we were on vacation. In those days he was a full-time school administrator who also had a working farm, so his spare time was spent on the tractor or hauling feed for hogs. But then, as he neared retirement from his job as director of a vocational college, he got the harebrained idea that the college needed an indoor swimming pool. The itty-bitty town where I grew up was way, way too small to have that kind of facility so I'm sure there may have been some eyerolling behind his back about this idea.

However, when my father gets a really good idea, no matter how harebrained that idea, he is a hard-headed, stubborn, persistent snapping turtle of a man. He wrote grants and schmoozed politicians and talked local philanthropists into writing hefty checks, and soon people in that tiny town were swimming laps and doing aquacise year round.

Then, when they couldn't find lifeguards to cover all the hours the pool was open, he took a Red Cross course and certified as a lifeguard. He began swimming laps every day, and in his mid-70s discovered the world of Senior Olympics.

Now that Willard Scott is no longer on the air, Senior Olympics provide an excellent reward for people who reach age milestones. By the time he was in his mid-80s the competition had thinned out dramatically, and when he hit the 90-95 age category he had pretty much become the sole survivor.

"I don't outswim people, I just outlive 'em," he explains casually.

This assessment is not incorrect. Dad's swimming form is not the stuff of which YouTube tutorials are made, but the whippersnapper 52-year-olds flinging themselves off the starting blocks and doing flip turns at the end of each lap shake his hand in admiration of his persistence.

I had seen this before at previous competitions, so when my Older Younger Brother (who usually chauffeurs Dad to his meets) couldn't make this one, I volunteered.

Then I regretted and fretted until we got on the road early last Wednesday morning.

Dad is almost deaf now, so we didn't talk about trivialities in the car. No politics, no commentary on the news. We only talked about important things: Family. Bill Snyder. How beautiful that field on the edge of Iowa looks.

Every once in a while he would sigh deeply, happily, and say "You just don't know how much I enjoy this, to have one-on-one time with one of my kids."

He has acquired the habit of holding hands while he prays over food, so as he blessed our Dairy Queen chicken strips my fingers were enveloped in his still-calloused farmer hands. These prayers of grace were an extension of the typical all-day-long conversation he carries on with God, speaking to the Creator as to a good friend.

In spite of some pre-race jitters (mostly centered around whether the course would be the usual 25 yards or a more taxing 50 yards) Dad went into the pool five times and emerged as winner in all five races. Local athletic hero Frank Farrar was in China, but even he wouldn't have changed the results; Dad was once again the only competitor 90- to 95-year-old age group.

We started back for home as soon as the last race was finished, and the sun was setting. Dad was tired and quiet for many miles, and then I heard a voice from the passenger seat. He was talking to his friend again.

"You know how this morning at 4 a.m. You told me You'd be with me all day, no matter what happened?" Dad said. "Well, You weren't kidding, and I really appreciate that."

All of my worries, all of my fretting about whether I'd have the stamina to drive 800 miles in two days, all of the concerns about navigating through cities at rush hour were behind me.

You don't know how much I enjoyed it, one-on-one with my dad.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Roses Are Red....

I've talked before about my posse of high school friends who have continued to hang out through the decades until we've reached the point where we're looking at the "old" classes at our hometown reunion weekend and saying "Wait...what is our class doing in that group?"

All four of us are now either semi- or totally retired (and, as one of the semi- group, I might argue that the difference between these two states is approximately the difference between store brand semisweet chocolate chips and Ghiradelli 60% Dark Chocolate, but I digress) so we're thinking about how to keep our minds engaged and useful for the next three decades.

Okay, so everyone else is trying to keep their minds engaged. I'm just trying to get the Starz app to play on our Smart TV so I can see what Claire's wearing on Outlander, but I was intrigued when friend K. wrote this week that she's decided to start memorizing poetry again.

"One of my plans is to review some of my 'old' memorized poems and freshen up the memory. I've long thought that having a poem to recite (for others or in my head) is a nice diversion when having to wait in line, or pass an otherwise boring period of time."

You know how experts say you should hang around with people who are what you aspire to be? This is what I'm talking about. For decades, most poetry I've read with joy was written by Shel Silverstein, and the only poem I recited with any regularity was the one in today's GIF that was shrieked at the top of my lungs for two decades during Boy-rearing. (On a somewhat related note, we're starting our bathroom remodel this week.)

Inspired by my friend (who can still recite "The Highwayman,") I delved into my memory for poems that might be freshened up. Back in the day, grade school kids memorized a fair amount of poetry, and I could still holler out "'Shoot, if you must, this old gray head, but spare your country's flag,' she said!" Ah, Barbara Fritchie, how I loved your service in the Revolutionary War. I also heard drumbeats in the back of my mind as I intoned the first lines of "Hiawatha": "By the shores of Gitchee Gumee, by the shining Deep-Sea-Waters, stands the wigwam of Nokomis, Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis."

Oh, these would be perfect to refresh! But wait...

Google informed me that Barbara Fritchie was yelling at Stonewall Jackson, so clearly she was not old during the Revolutionary War. Also, Nokomis did not figure in the first stanza of Hiawatha.

Apparently my entire childhood was a lie, and I'm now trying to jog my mental picture of these two classic poems into reality.

The only poetic reality that still rings true is from my adulthood, and I can shriek it at the top of my lungs:


(I may have composed that last phrase myself.)

Thursday, August 24, 2017

My Latest Costume

Ten minutes after the final curtain
This is my blog, right? And I have the right to censor/Photoshop/improve any pictures I put on this blog, even especially the ones that are taken of me, all me, and only me? So why in the world would I lead today's entry with this selfie, which features a tired-looking elderly lady with unbelievable bags under her eyes and clear indication of a bad hair day?

Because it's my second costume! As I mentioned a few months ago, a plain black accompanist outfit becomes a costume when a hat is added, and the latest community theater offering was Hello, Dolly!

This time my hat connection decided I needed more pizzazz so the sparkly pillbox number of my first costume was replaced with a sparkly, feather-bedecked wagon wheel that bumped on my neck when I leaned back to give cues to the bass player. It was fabulous.

Community theater, I am discovering, is a ton of fun. That was not my reaction the first night of rehearsals, when I sat down at the piano to take my first look at the score and discovered there was no musical director. My inner sputterer went into full shout mode.

"But...but...but...but who sets the tempo? Who says 'one, two, three, go? Who cues the singers?? How many ways will I screw this up?"

The answers to these questions turned out to be "I do," "I do," "I do," and "More than I can even imagine."

I even cornered a friend, who has done community theater for years with my concerns.

"What you need to remember is that we're mostly not professionals, we're doing this for fun, so have fun with us," he told me.

So I went with the flow. I quit apologizing every time I screwed up, because that would have meant feeling remorse after every. single. song, and eventually I screwed up less. I began learning the names of the people in the cast I'd never met (how can I live in Small Town for 30 years and never have met them?) and appreciating the hundreds of hours of work they were investing in this project. This cast rehearsed four times a week, and showed up once more each week to work on tech. (I felt like a piker, limiting my own participation to two weekly rehearsals in a nod to the doctor's "take life easier" orders.)

To my utter amazement, I found myself looking forward to rehearsals. I loved reassuring the big-voiced soloist who was unsure of his entrance that he shouldn't worry--I'd find him, and we'd reach the final note together. I laughed every time Dolly pointed out that "This room is positively crawling with men!" and I gave myself a mental high-five when I finished the "Waiter's Gallop" at the same time as the galloping waiters.

It was fun.

The play has been over for a week now, and I find myself humming its songs less often. But I woke up this morning with the lyrics to "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" running through my head, reminding me to "put on my feathers, my patent leathers, my beads and buckles and bows," and I smiled.

Then I put on my hat.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Much-Needed Happiness

Please excuse the gap between the last post and this one--I've been busy being horrified at the national news. But today I'm turning off NPR and looking back at the recent trip to North Carolina and the birthplace of Andy Griffith.

I was SHOCKED (shocked, I tell you) that I had requests for pictures of Husband in Barney's sidecar. And because Husband is the best sport in the world, here he is, at the Andy Griffith museum in Mount Airy. What you don't see is that it had stormed the night before and the seat of the sidecar was covered with left-over rain so my dear one had to walk around for a couple of hours with water-cooled britches.

In practically all ways he embodied the original Barney's Sidecar episode:

Looking at the picture makes me happy.

Then when we got home from the East Coast we discovered that our tomato plants had finally decided to start producing with vigor. My annual (consistently-fruitless) quest to grow my own tomatoes was nearly derailed this year when my lungs tried to kill me right during tomato-planting season, but we still have three late-planted vines in containers in the only sunny space near the House on the Corner. (Okay, the three containers technically are on a corner of our neighbor's yard, but we were mowing that yard, so could we consider that rent?)

Anyway, just look at this:

We have been eating BLTs, and huevos con tomate, and all manner of dishes cooked with fresh tomatoes, and I grab a handful of the cherry variety to eat like candy every time I pass through the kitchen. I smile as I check my teeth for tomato seeds before I go out in public.

I'm looking hard for happiness moments these days, because I do not use the term lightly when I say the news is horrifying. This is not a one-run loss in the World Cup, or a pair of Hollywood stars deciding to divorce. The news of the last five days have been jaw-dropping, nightmare-producing.

Give yourself a break today. Turn off the news, and eat a tomato fresh off the vine while watching an Andy Griffith re-run.

Tomorrow, get back into the fray, and work to make us all better. But today, be happy.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Our Kind of People

Two and One with childhood friends

After the gigantic "whoosh" that was the sound of a collective release of held breath in the House on the Corner, Husband and I couldn't wait to jump in the car and travel to North Carolina so all of the Research Triangle could hear us yelling "Wahooooooo!" together. We stopped in Missouri to pick up Boy#1 to be co-pilot and for the next two days I Miss Daisy-ed in the backseat, reading and knitting while Husband and One picked out scenic side trips to break up the 1,300-mile trip. 

We were quite aware that this was probably our final trip to the Durham area, since Two already had his plane ticket toward the next (employed! Yay!) stage of his life, so we had to be selective in our activities there. What was the very most important thing we needed to do, in case we never make it back to North Carolina?

Why, Mount Airy, of course. 

What? You've never heard of Mount Airy, North Carolina?

Then obviously you are not a superfan of Andy Griffith, and you did not spend your childhood watching old black-and-white re-runs of a show that began with a whistle and ended with a laugh. Unlike you, one of our brilliant sons (*cough* Boy#1 *cough*) not only watched every episode TVLand had to offer, he can to this day quote verbatim passages and tell you which of the Darlings was the creepiest Darling. (That's a trick question. All the Darlings were creepy.)

Mount Airy is the home of Andy Griffith, also known as super-sheriff Andy Taylor, and even though "The Andy Griffith Show" filmed in California and there is precious little evidence Barney and Aunt Bee ever set foot in Mount Airy, a childhood buddy of the real Andy Griffith became the unofficial documentarian of all things Griffith. The result was (to our surprise) absolutely charming.

We expected a tiny, run-down town with a sad and dusty room holding old Griffith memorabilia, maybe a few shops filled with identical selections of t-shirts and mugs. Instead, Mount Airy has a perfectly-sized modern museum with items from Griffith's growing-up years, as well as mementos from the show (including Otis's vomit-stained coat--ick) and from Griffith's other projects (a Matlock suit, for example). I forced our Boys to pose with the Andy and Opie statue, of course, and Husband let me take his picture in Barney's sidecar outside the museum. (This shot available upon request.) 

Even the downtown was fun, with lots of individual shops that referenced the show but didn't go overboard. No one was running around yelling "Citizen's ar-RAY-ust!," which, to be absolutely honest, was kind of disappointing. 

Not disappointing was the moonshine pie shop. We had missed lunch hour at The Loaded Goat Bar and Grill so we had a mid-afternoon lunch at the pie shop, splitting pulled pork and rhubarb pies. We passed on the moonshine pie, but the Boys report the peanut butter pie was excellent. 

And then we went home and watched the full episode of The Loaded Goat,  

It was a good day, as Husband and I walked around with two of our grown sons remembering when they were little boys and we watched this show together. I think Andy would have approved.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Per Aspera

His last day of school was last week, 21 years later.

My mother told this story about Boy#2:

They were playing Yahtzee, and Two was keeping score. He would add up the dice throws in his head and enter the results on the scorecard, and Mom reminded him gently to write the numbers neatly.

"But Grandma," he told her, "they haven't taught us how to write numbers yet."

He was three, and sure enough, his preschool didn't work on numbers until they were four.

Numbers, though, were Two's second language. They spoke to him as clearly and expressively as words speak to the rest of us. He taught himself how to work percentages before he was in grade school, and by second grade his compassionate and creative teachers (we love you, Mrs. Helzer and Mrs. Taylor) were working to keep him challenged. He was taking high school math classes while in junior high, and finished two semesters of college calculus before he got his high school diploma.

I don't tell you this because I'm bragging about Two's math ability, I'm explaining that I understand why my friends didn't understand when I told them I was worried about him.

Two's graduate school experience was hard. He had earned an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, and loved the problem-solving nature of that combination of math and theory. But doctoral research is about expanding knowledge, exploring a topic rather than solving a problem. He struggled to get the kind of results his advisor expected, and for the first time in his life he didn't like school. He began to wonder if he was up to the demands of the program and considered walking away with his master's degree.

"Don't take yourself out of the game, even if your advisor isn't happy with you," we told him over and over. "Make him take you out--don't do it for him."

So when I asked my friends to put Two on their prayer lists when he was scheduled for milestone exams or defenses, they always thought about the kid who loved numbers.

"He'll be fine, there's no way he won't finish," they would say. We weren't sure. We had never seen Two in this position of insecurity; the numbers seemed to have stopped speaking to him.

But then last week, as Husband and I paced the floor half a continent away, Boy#2 went into a room with a committee of five brilliant academicians. For the next two hours he explained and defended his dissertation, and when those two hours were done, he had been approved to receive his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from one of the top universities in the nation.

I cried when I read the dissertation's dedication page.

"To my parents," it said, "for believing in me every step of the way, even when I didn't believe in myself."

And then Two added the phrase we Kansans know and love:

"Ad astra per aspera."

To the stars through difficulties.

The little boy who couldn't write his numbers had reached his goal, through difficulties, and he was right.

We believed in him every step of the way.

Friday, July 21, 2017

That. Was. Awesome.

I didn't look at the clock when I posted today's title on my Facebook page. I knew it was nearing midnight, I knew I was drenched in sweat, and I knew I kept breaking out in spontaneous laughter.

I knew I had just seen the best concert of my life.

I remember vividly that I was nine years old, sitting cross-legged on our classroom floor playing jacks with the other three girls in my class, when I first heard of the Beatles. "Did you see them last night? They were on Ed Sullivan," one of the girls asked. I don't remember her name; even our tiny, tiny school had transients, and the gypsies whose trailers were parked at the edge of town wouldn't be there more than a few months, but I remember that she had an oddly clumsy but efficient style in sweeping up the jacks, even on tensies.

Of course, I had not seen the Beatles. It would be another three years before my family got its first television, so I missed what would be the cultural touchstone of my generation. But I think we intuitively knew that for the next half century, the Beatles would provide the soundtracks of our lives. The girls wrote the names of their favorite Beatles on their notebooks, the boys grew their hair rebelliously long. We all crowed "she loves you, YEAH, YEAH, YEAH."

As the years went by I found that while I loved the Beatles' most popular songs (how could you not sing along to "Hard Day's Night"?) the songs I gravitated to were ballads, the melancholy lyrics of John and Paul. "Michelle." "Norwegian Wood." "Yesterday."
"One day, you'll look to see I'm gone, but tomorrow may rain so I'll follow the sun."
I didn't discover "I'll Follow the Sun" until 20 years after I first heard "She Loves You," but it became the theme song for my Peace Corps years.

I thought about those days when Husband read that Paul McCartney was going to do a concert in nearby Big-ish City.

"Want to go?" he asked, and I hesitated. Tickets were expensive, and even with top-of-the-line insurance the bills from my recent hospital stay were still coming in. And our car was dying, and we had made plans to remodel the bathroom ...probably shouldn't spend that money. But Husband had a way to get early reservations, so he found a couple of seats on the aisle six rows from the back of the arena, and Wednesday night we were there when the cute Beatle made his first appearance in the area.

The shaky, out-of-focus shot that leads today's post is from the first minutes of the concert. We were sitting so near the top of the arena's bowl that even standing seemed perilous--it was as if we were clinging to the back edge and could fall down into the bottom if we moved. But that's Paul McCartney on the screen. Paul, with his left-handed bass and sergeant's stripes on his coat sleeves.

Paul McCartney, the Beatle of my childhood, here and singing when I now mingle comfortably with the thousands around me in the new-knees-and-hips league.

He played for three hours, with no break for hydration on this 103-degree Kansas day. He played a grand piano and an upright piano, bass, ukulele, and acoustic guitar. He sang with his four back-up musicians and by himself. He told stories about the early days of the Beatles and pointed out his wife in the audience, and he kidded the iPhone-wielding audience about its preference for oldies.

"I can tell which songs you like by how many of you have your phones out," he said, sounding a little older than the Sullivan-era Paul but so, so familiar. "When we sing one of the old songs I look out and it's like a galaxy out there, but when we do something new, it's like looking into a black hole."

And then he summed up the Beatles entire career.

"But we don't care. We're going to do the new ones anyway."

He sang 39 songs. I knew all but three of them.

Take that in for a second--could you sing 39 songs in a row, even sitting down with the lyrics in front of you? I couldn't, and I'm a lot of years from 75.

It was the music of my life, and I found myself suddenly, inexplicably in tears when Husband held my hand during "And I Love Her," then laughing out loud when the camera focused on the tambourine player. (Woo, tambourine!) I jumped, as did everyone else, when the sole pyrotechnics of the evening accompanied "Live and Let Die." I sang with abandon--"Live goes on, BRAAAA!" on "Obladi, Oblada" and minutes and minutes worth of "Naaa, na na na-na-na-na-naaa,"  to finish "Hey Jude."

When it was over we walked back into the steamy night, laughing and holding hands.

I almost missed this concert because I was worried it would cost too much. Instead, Paul McCartney reminded me I was that girl playing jacks, and I was the young woman in the Peace Corps, and I am all the things the that have defined my life, and that experiences are more important than a remodeled bathroom.

Tomorrow may rain, so I'll follow the sun.