Saturday, July 27, 2013

New Eyes

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes. —Marcel Proust

    I knew there were plenty of clubs, bars and coffee shops in Manhattan, but I never realized how many playgrounds there were until I took Jack there two years ago.  I also discovered that for a few bucks, I could spend a pleasant afternoon in Central Park watching my child joyfully learn to create gigantic soap bubbles with a long loop of rope and a bucket of suds. 
Jack learns to create bubbles ...
   Yes, I'd been downtown countless time, but it took traveling there with Jack to get me to Battery Park. 
   "Do you want to take the ferry to see the Statue of Liberty close up?" I asked.
   "No," he replied. "I'm good right here." 
   We sat on a bench together eating warm, soft pretzels, staring out over the Hudson River. We discussed our game plan for returning to a few choice shops in Chinatown that had the best deals on Pokemon cards before catching the subway back uptown. 
 ... and karma.
   If you had told me twenty years prior that a parkside snack shared with an nine-year-old would be more satisfying than all the gourmet business lunches and dinners I'd enjoyed over the years at the likes of 21 and the Four Seasons, I would not have believed you. But that was one delicious pretzel.
After our successful trip to New York, I promised Jack we'd go to Los Angeles where some of his cousins and second cousins reside.  I waited until he was a little older so that the three hour flight would not be to tedious for him, for me, and for the hundred or so other passengers on our flight. And this summer, since Jack graduated from elementary school and my crazy publishing job came to an end, I decided it was time to travel west.
After months of anticipation and planning, the day for our big vacation finally arrived. With no direct flights between Birmingham and LAX, we departed Birmingham at 7:30 a.m. and flew to Houston. 
   We had two hours to kill before boarding our connecting flight to Los Angeles. Our vacation had officially begun and that meant a Dunkin' Donuts breakfast of chocolate covered doughnuts with sprinkles (for Jack) and a poppyseed bagel, toasted with butter (for me.) We settled in to dine at an empty gate area so Jack could charge up his iTouch. By the time we finished, we still had an hour and forty-five minutes left before reporting to our gate. 
   "Whaddaya want to do now?" Jack asked.
   At 9 a.m. Houston Hobby's Central Concourse was not the epicenter of entertainment. We'd have to create our own fun. Thinking of the three hour flight ahead of us (and all the sugar Jack had just consumed) an idea popped into my head.
   "Let's see who can get to the far end of the concourse first—without running," I said. "Ready? Go!"
    Jack was just a few yards ahead of me, walking as fast as he could—without running. As he turned to check his lead, he grinned a chocolate-covered doughnut smile. I feigned a grimace and quickened my pace, rolling heel to toe as I took long strides and pumped my arms like a speed walker. When Jack turned his gaze forward, I broke the rule and ran to catch up. I was just few feet behind him when he turned and saw me. I reached out my hands dramatically to grab him, and we both burst out laughing. 
    Just as I was about to touch his shoulder, Jack trotted ahead of me again. We dodged and weaved, taking care not to upset the elderly or to rouse the attention of airport security. The very thought of being caught by me made Jack laugh, which made me laugh, and so the gleeful contagion spread. 
   Back in the good ol' days (before the tragedy of 9/11 and the security crackdown) I made it a habit of sprinting down airport concourses to make my flights. I rather prided myself on getting to to gate just as the flight was boarding rather than languishing in the waiting area with the rest of the corporate shmucks. But now I was either out of practice, out of shape, or both because even speed-walking Jack easily outpaced me.
   "I won! I won!" Jack gloated when I huffed up to the concourse's end a good two minutes behind him. I was out of breath.
  "Whatcha want to do now?" Jack asked.
   "I dunno," I shrugged. "Let's walk back toward our gate and check out the shops."
   We still had plenty of time before our flight, so we stopped in every Hudson News and gift shop along the way. Jack considered purchasing a Beanie Baby bear in a cowboy hat or a coffee mug shaped like a boot. 
   "Pace yourself," I said. "This is just the Houston airport, we've got all of Los Angeles and San Diego ahead of us, and you've only got so much to spend on souvenirs."
   We made our way down the concourse, and stopped by the food court to consider the options. That's when I noticed an exhibit displaying colorful drawings and paintings created by children. 
   "Let's take a look," I said. 
   "But there's a candy store," Jack said, pointing to a bright kiosk just ahead of us.
  "We'll go there next," I promised. "C'mon, let's find our favorite paintings."
   We walked around the exhibit, pointing to the artwork we liked best. Some of the pieces were quite good. Small tags revealed the names and ages of the young artists. Many of the children were Jack's age, some much younger, a few older. 
   First Jack liked a magic marker drawing of a Panda. I could have guessed he'd pick that one since he's held a love of that gentle, endangered species since he was a baby. In fact, our trip to the west coast included a much-anticipated stop at the San Diego Zoo where Giant Pandas reside. But then he saw an image of a football player and named that as his favorite instead. 
   After some consideration, I chose a watercolor of called "The Tortoise and the Hare" painted by an eight-year-old girl. The watercolor had run a little and pooled in the rabbit's ears and in a spot that must have been his nose. There was something about the bunny that made me smile. I showed Jack my favorite painting.
   "Yeah, that's a good one," he agreed. "Now can we go?"
   We were about to leave the exhibit so Jack could see if Natalie's had the new green apple Skittles when I saw a sign that explained the exhibit, which was entitled Making A Mark. The artwork had been created by children with cancer.  There were post cards on the table and travelers passing through the airport were asked to write notes to their favorite artists, who were receiving treatment at Texas Children's Cancer and Hematology Centers. The reality washed over me. Some of these children, many of whom were my son's age, were very ill. 
    How many airport exhibits like this one had I rushed past because I was too consumed by my own concerns, or by work or my crazy love life or God knows what else? If not for trying to amuse Jack during our time in airport purgatory, I might not have seen this one either.
   I picked up two postcards and handed one to Jack.
   "Let's write notes to the kids whose art we liked best," I said.
   Jack really wanted to get to that over-priced candy but he agreed to fill out a postcard. I thought for a moment and then wrote a note to the Rabbit Girl. It went something like this: "I love your painting. It was my favorite on in the entire exhibit at the Houston Airport. Watercolor is really hard but you did a great job. I particularly liked the way you painted the rabbit. Thank you for sharing your talent. You really made me smile. I am in the airport traveling with my son and we both hope that you feel better soon. Love, Brigid."
   Jack had already placed his note in a cardboard box on the table by the time I finished writing to the Rabbit Girl. I wondered how she was doing and if she was still very sick. I said a prayer for her and her parents and dropped my note in the box with the others. Then I looked at the works of art one last time and said a prayer for all the children and their families, especially for their mothers. And I felt very, very grateful to be in this airport with my healthy son, flying to California on a big adventure. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Other Shoe

Monday, July 15. I have new assignments coming in. Jack started band camp at the middle school he'll be attending in August and he's doing well. Jay and I spent a fun (if busy) weekend in the mountains. Okay, I'm just going to admit it: My life is good right now. There, I said it. Why do I hesitate to broadcast that things are good? Perhaps it's because I'm fearful that if I'm too boastful about the good in my life, something bad will happen just to take my happiness down a peg. Even as I write this, I'm holding my breath just a little waiting for that other shoe to drop. You know the one. It's the 400 pound loafer that comes crashing down just when you think you're in the clear.  Or maybe it's a boot ... or it could be a flipflop.
   Regardless of the type of footwear, just what does this saying mean? Apparently the adage was coined about 100 years ago. Here's the origin as related on

A man comes in late at night to a lodging house, rather the worse for wear. He sits on his bed, drags one shoe off and drops it on the floor. Guiltily remembering everyone around him trying to sleep, he takes the other one off much more carefully and quietly puts in on the floor. He then finishes undressing and gets into bed. Just as he is drifting off to sleep, a shout comes from the man in the room below: “Well, drop the other one then! I can’t sleep, waiting for you to drop the other shoe!”

"Waiting for the other shoe to drop" means something adverse has happened and there's a very likely chance that some other bad even will occur soon because of a direct relationship between the two occurrences. As in, you have two shoes, so if one hits the floor with a thud, it's reasonable to anticipate that the other one is gonna thud too.
   But if I'm making good choices and doing good work and there's no reason to believe that anything adverse is about to happen, why do I still anticipate the worst? Answer: The Upper Limits Theory.

   In their book, "Centering & the Art of Intimacy", Gay Hendricks and his wife, Kathlyn (both psychologists) write about the phenomenon they call "the upper limits." This law of human dynamics states that we can only stand so much happiness before we undermine ourselves and find something about which to be miserable. The authors contend that we derail our happiness as adults because we learned as children that happy occurences are often followed up by unhappy or humiliating ones. For example, you win the spelling bee, but trip on your shoelaces on the way to pick up the trophy.
   Of course, Buddhism teaches that our suffering (or dissatisfaction) in life is caused not by an event but by our perception of the event. When I attach my happiness to a particular outcome, I'm bound to be disappointed. The dropping of that other shoe is inevitable, so why decide that it's bad? Why take it personal? Why lament over something that is completely beyond my control?

Friday, July 19. On Wednesday I banged my head on the Upper Limits. Doh! Although Buddha never said, "If you want to be happy, never, ever read the Explanation of Benefits (EOB) provided by your insurance provider," if he had Blue Cross, he might have made that the Ninth Fold in his Eight Fold Path to Enlightenment. Suffice to say, I read mine. Turns out I owe $1200 for lab tests sent by my doctor to a lab outside my Blue Cross network. Ouch! Suddenly I'm spiraling downward in a funk. Yes, I'll appeal the claim and maybe, just maybe I'll get some relief on that bill, but nothing takes the wind out of my sails like an unexpected major expense.
   I've learned from my Buddhist practice that becoming emotionally bent out of shape over setbacks doesn't help anything. I don't always lose it.  Sometimes I can turn a loss into a win without much effort at all.
   For example, last week, the power went out during a big summer storm. Jack had a friend spending the night and pretty soon the boys had run down the batteries in their game devices. Luckily, I found a big flashlight in the basement (thanks, Jason) and we opened the cupboard in the living room that holds all the board games. No batteries required. Had the power stayed on, the boys would have holed up playing Minecraft all night and I would have contented myself lounging in bed watching "Glee" on Netflicks.
   But this adverse condition produced a great outcome. I love board games, always have, so I was not-so-secretly thrilled that the boys were enthusiastic not just about playing, but about including me. First we played Monopoly, which went well until Jack's friend realized that Jack was about to take him to the cleaners. (Jack's a Monopoly shark.) We switched to Yahtzee, which we were content to play until the power came back on five hours later at 11:30 p.m. We all cheered as the utility man restored the lights and—even more important—the air conditioning. Then Jack made a request for the one board game I abhor.
   "Let's play Life!" he said.
   Have you played The Game of Life lately? You start off with college debt. Then you're asked to randomly choose a job and move around the board into the shark-infested waters of law suits and mortgages. Plus you're heaped with expenses depending upon the number of plastic children you add to your little plastic convertible. Oh, and you have to pay taxes and losing your job means selecting a whole new career. Windfalls do arrive, but in the form of winning the equivalent to America's Got Talent. And no, I am not making this up! I find the whole thing depressing.
  "No thanks," I said to Jack. "I'm living that game, I don't need to play it."
   "You always say that," said Jack.
   "Because it's true," I replied.
   With the power restored, the boys plugged in their devices and returned to the electronic world they were building in Minecraft while I sorted the play money and put away game pieces. At least in Monopoly there's only one shoe. And when it drops, it might land on Boardwalk or Park Place.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The New Girl

The moment I saw her, I knew we would be best friends. The feeling wasn't a hope or wish. It was intuition, perhaps the first true intuitive feeling I ever received.
  On the first day of seventh grade, a new girl entered the fishbowl society that was Our Lady of Holy Souls school. Most of us had attended classes together since beginning our grade school career in first grade under the watchful eye of Sister Brenda. The transition into junior high was made easier by the fact that the school's curriculum continued through eighth grade. Even so, I experienced the stereotypical awkward bumbling into puberty and needed all the help I could get. I was 13 years old, woefully flat-chested and still playing with my Barbies—when given the opportunity. I wanted to be grown up and mature but I had no idea how to accomplish that feat. That's when Wendy Rooney entered my life.
  She was from the north—Canton, Ohio to be exact—about as far north as I could imagine in those days. I grew up in Little Rock and had not traveled further than Silver Dollar City, Missouri. At the time, Ohio seemed worldly and exotic. Borrowing from an overwrought line from one of the coming-of-age teen mystery books in which I consistently had my nose buried (remember "Trixie Belden"?), when I first saw Wendy I "knew we would become fast friends." And we did.
   She was the New Girl and I made an effort to introduce myself and sit next to her at lunch. If she thought I was weird for carrying a Snoopy lunchbox (the yellow metal one shaped like his doghouse), she never let on. Somehow, inexplicably, she accepted me as her friend. Wendy with her real bra (not a trainer) and her northern accent and her long, flowing blonde hair befriended me back. Wendy was a seventh grade miracle.
  I became enamored of the entire Rooney household and their easy-going ways. Her parents were always present, but didn't hover. Her mom left goodies in the fridge for our snacking pleasure. Coca Colas. Chips. Frozen pizzas. From Wendy I learned the joy of eating frozen Ding Dongs. I became a fixture in the Rooney home on weekends, often spending the night.
  Wendy's room was the quintessential girls' domain with twin beds covered in matching chenille bedspreads. We stayed up late listening to music on her stereo and talking about the boys we thought were cute and the girls we thought were mean. But we also discussed God and the Razorbacks (one and the same to many Arkansas fans), and just about any topic that popped into our teenage heads. Nothing was too silly, or too serious or taboo. Since my mother wasn't comfortable talking about menstruation and sex, finding a friend like Wendy was essential.
   Wendy inherited a big box of cosmetics from her older sisters Peggy and Barb. For me it seemed a treasure chest that—if wielded skillfully—could yield my transformation from little girl to woman. Standing before her bathroom vanity, we'd dab our lids with generous amounts of azure eye shadow and slather waxy white concealer beneath our eyes. We painted our lips coral, pink and red to see which color we liked best and topped it off with a generous layer of iridescent Maybelline Kissing Potion lip gloss with its roll-on applicator. We dusted powder and blush all over our young faces to hide non-existent flaws, as if we could improve what was natural and nearly perfect. (Oh to have that skin again!)
  Most of all, we laughed so hard our stomachs ached. Wendy was witty and always quick with a clever response. For the life of me, I wish I could remember some of the things we found so hysterical. I do recall one particularly magical summer after we first earned our drivers' licenses (Wendy's birthday was just 20 days before mine.) With little else to amuse us in Little Rock, we drove around the local neighborhoods in her Dad's El Camino, singing top 40 hits along with the radio, talking and laughing. Somewhere near Hall High School (our high school's arch enemy), a cute boy in a convertible drove past us. Wendy and I shared a looked and then she made a U-turn and gave pursuit.
   We didn't know his name, only that he probably attended the rival school — and that he was a hunk. We didn't intend to meet him, but we followed him through the winding streets of the neighborhood, laughing our heads off at our boldness. We were laughing so hard that we didn't notice when the Hunk came to a stop in front of his house, got out and and waved at us. We were busted, which brought another round of incoherent giddiness.
   I wish I could remember more of our adventures. You always think you'll never forget those seminal days. I thought those moments would be captured like a little movie in my mind and yet, even the best memories fade with time.
   In the same way, I can't remember when Wendy and I stopped being best friends. I don't recall a rift or slight. Sometime during high school we simply drifted into separate interests and took on boyfriends. We attended different colleges and I moved away from Little Rock.
   I saw Wendy only once or twice in all the years that followed. We talked briefly at our 20th high school reunion and I told her I would call and we would get together the next time I was in Little Rock. Years passed. Life got in the way. Caring for growing children and declining parents are among my excuses (the good ones, at least.) I didn't call. I didn't know that she'd been diagnosed with cancer until I got a group text announcing that Wendy was gravely ill. By that time, she was hospitalized with little hope of recovery. Then, just a day later, word came: She had passed away.
   The fact that I could be out of touch with Wendy for 30 years and still feel her loss deeply is a testament to the effect she had on my life. True friendships are like that. It doesn't matter if the relationship lasts two or twenty years.
   Throughout my life I've been given wonderful friends to help me through the most difficult times. Wendy was the Godsend who carried me through puberty. She taught me it was okay to be silly, and okay to be serious. She taught me it was okay to carry a Snoopy lunch box. Just by being my friend during those oh-so-awkward days, she taught me it was okay to be me.
  I regret that I did not take the time to call or see her over the years, but Wendy had many, many friends who loved her. I am grateful for the time we had and the laughter we shared. Even in death, she leads me toward maturity, for today I see that no one is really lost. We are the sum of our experiences, an ever-changing collective. I would not be the person I am today if not for the time I spent laughing with Wendy so many years ago.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Third Chance

Jack stepped up for his final turn. He had two throws. He had to land both to win a prize.

The girl handed Jack a ball. He squared himself in front of the plastic bushel basket and then lightly tossed the green ball into the basket's center.  The heavy, rubber ball made a thud at the bottom of the basket and rolled from side to side before coming to a rest inside. He did it! One down. One to go. The pretty girl working the game booth handed Jack his second rubber softball. I placed my hand over my eyes but watched between parted fingers. "Oh, please, let him make it," I prayed, although I hate to ask God for something as petty as an arcade prize.
- - - - -

We'd spent the day at Legoland, riding the Dragon coaster, eating overpriced panini and gaping in wonder at the intricate "builds" of  Star Wars characters, battle scenes, Manhattan skyscrapers and an assortment of critters made from 1-inch Lego bricks that rivaled the live beasts at the San Diego Zoo. Everywhere you looked, there was a Lego masterpiece. Our clothes were still damp from our ride down the giant orange waterpark flume when we headed to the final attraction on Jack's agenda for this near-perfect day. He wanted to play an arcade game and win a much-coveted prize.

All day Jack watched as other kids (and, more often, their parents) toted their bulky prizes around the park, and he determined to make one his own. He had $22 left of the money he'd saved up for the trip, but he decided to spend as much as $12 (four turns at three bucks a pop.) Jack handed over six dollars for two plays.

The game appeared deceptively simple. A row of plastic bushel baskets hung at angle about four feet from the throwing line at the low counter. The baskets were tipped up slightly so that the ball could rest there without rolling out -- if it wasn't thrown too hard. The ball itself was rubber about the size of a softball with little nodules all over it, like an osage orange. We observed several people win at the game before Jack decided he wanted to play. Playing arcade games at theme parks is much less risky than playing at the state fair where carnies hawk impossible odds and are in it purely for the profit. Legoland just wanted everyone to have a good time, and although they charged for each play, the college students who worked behind the counters were obviously instructed to use their discretion and sense of compassion when dealing with the young patrons.

Of course, Jack had a secret weapon: Jason. Although Jason never played baseball, he is tall and athletic with better-than-average eye-hand coordination, so I respected Jack's deference to Jay when it came to the serious business of winning an arcade prize. I was also somewhat relieved that Jack had not asked me to throw for him. Honestly, I thought I might be able to do it, having played softball as a kid and later with a co-ed softball team. But the thought of losing was too much pressure. Jay tried twice, getting one ball in each time. But when the winning play required two successful pitches, there was no room for error. After his second attempt, the girl behind the counter gave Jay a bonus try, but it bounced from the plastic basket and hopped onto the floor along with our disappointment.

"I'm sorry," Jason said to Jack, "Why don't you give it a try?'
"I'll play two more times," Jack said and handed the girl six more dollars.

The first ball had too much polish and hopped from the basket. Disappointed, he threw the second ball and  it rolled to the edge but stayed in the basket. Still no prize, but he now knew what to do—and what not to do. His confidence was shaken but he wasn't giving up. It was down to his last chance.


On his final throw, the green ball hit the bottom of the basket, bounced up, hit the bottom again and then rolled ... out onto the ground where it bounced beneath the rack that held the buckets. Jack looked down at the fallen ball. The girl handed him another one. "Try again," she said.

Jack smiled and eagerly took the ball. Once again he gave a soft underhand toss toward the center of the basket. The ball hit squarely at the bottom ... and bounced out again. Before Jack could turn away, the girl handed him another ball. "One more time," she said. "Since you've been such a good customer."

I turned away and covered my face with my hands, but I couldn't stand the suspense. I turned around again just as Jack tossed the final ball as lightly as he could. It landed on the side of the bucket ... bounced ... and then ... settled at the bottom with the first ball.

The girl rang the bell above the row of prizes. "You won!" she said. "Which prize do you want?"

As I jumped up and down, Jack proudly claimed his prize. I beamed a smile at Jay.  If he had kept throwing—hellbent to win the prize— Jack would not be enjoying this victory. And I was so grateful to the benevolent girl behind the counter for giving my son a second—and a third—chance. If he'd won straight away would we have been so elated? Sometimes third chances are the best.

The enormous yellow prize was half as big as Jack. As I tried to wrap my arms around him and the over-stuffed plush toy, I realized how happy this win made me feel. We always want our children to win, to get the prize, to succeed, but often it doesn't happen. So in times like this it's nice to revel in the glory, even if it's for a simple stuffed animal prize that I had no idea how we'd fit into our luggage.