Wednesday, November 20, 2013

I would rather be poked in the eye than drive anywhere during the Holidays

It was December 1990 and my family was living in Missoula, MT. The house was festively decked out for the holiday season including an honest to goodness real tree, a rarity for those of us who grew up in warmer climates. We were settling in for our third Christmas in Montana, looking forward to sipping cocoa by the fire while admiring the holiday lights in the valley below. My dad had passed away in May of that year and my mom had thought to visit us but had changed her mind when faced with the snow and cold, sending our presents ahead as we had done hers.  Two days before Christmas she called, sounding woe begotten and lost, devastated by the reality of the first Christmas without her husband of 40 years. I looked around at the house, the kids, the dog and uttered the fateful words "Lets go spend Christmas in California!" We ran around the house in a flurry of activity, grabbing the unopened presents, stripping the tree then tossing it on the back deck, canceling in-city plans, packing for Christmas in Southern California.

It took 21 hours driving straight thru to reach my mom's house. 21 hours in a car with stops only for quick meals and even quicker bathroom breaks is only hard on the parents. The kids loved it. The excitement ramped up when we hit the California border, dimming slightly as we passed the desert towns of Barstow and Baker, only to reach a frenzied high as we neared the freeway turnoff that my 12 year old daughter recognized as the way to grandma's. "We're almost there!" she kept telling her 9 year old brother, dragging Cricket, our Springer Spaniel, onto her lap so that she, too, could see. "Almost at Gramma's!" Excited to be included, Cricket responded by licking the cold window and then Jenn's cheek, then the window again. "Yuck!" my daughter said, shoving the dog off her lap and toward her brother. "We're almost there!"

Christmas was wonderful. There was sunshine all week long and being with my mom, my cousin, my brother's family that first year without my dad was something I will always treasure. But eventually we had to return home on a drive I like to call the Nightmare After Christmas.

We were driving in the family car, a huge Chevy Suburban, with the back seat flipped down so that the kids and dog could sleep all the way to Montana.  It had turned bitterly cold and the farther we drove North, the colder it got. Our windshield kept icing over and it was snowing so heavily that all we could see was a swirling flurry of white coming at us. It was after midnight and we were in Utah, a little south of Salt Lake City, crawling along, hoping we were still on the actual road, when we heard an odd thump from the engine. Had we run over something? The thump was followed by a strange noise like a banshee screaming in the night accompanied by a weird shimmy of the entire vehicle. Worried that pulling over and stopping the car would mean we wouldn't be able to start it again and we would be found frozen two days later by the side of the road, all curled around each other in a futile attempt to stay warm (I've seen that movie!), we limped into a small town, woke up the manager of a motel and settled in for what remained of the night. The next morning our hopes that the engine would have magically cured itself were dashed. We were advised that there was zero chance the car could be repaired in the little town we were in, so had it towed to a slightly larger town. All of us (including the dog) piled into the cab of the tow truck with the driver, a man who was inclined to run red lights and who had suggested that the dog ride on the flat bed of the truck because he was just sure she would love that. No, thank you, I vacation was not going to be remembered as the one where the family dog, who had never ridden in the back of a truck, ends up road kill (I had seen that movie, too). We found another motel and began calling to find a repair place that was open on Sunday. Of course there were none. By this time it had stopped snowing and the whole eerily quiet town was covered in snow halfway up the doors. Nothing was open except our motel and a mini mart a long, cold block away.   

The news was not good. The engine was toast. This was well before the advent of the Internet, so finding a new engine meant calling around to locate one that was available and within driving distance, which in Utah meant anywhere in the state. On the 2nd day one was would be there within 24 hours...48 at the most...and it would be installed immediately, unless it arrived on New Year's Eve or New Year's Day or Sunday, which, of course, it did.  By the time the new engine was installed, I had given up any pretense of shopping for nutritious meals at the mini mart and had taken to turning my daughter loose with a $20 bill and carte blanche. I spent hours making long distance calls on the motel phone, racking up astronomical charges, calling other Speech coaches to cancel a High School Speech Tournament I was supposed to host the following week (they were not happy), rearranging appointments and keeping my family updated. I finished 3 books, watched more TV than in the entire of my previous life, read enough magazines to supply a Dr's waiting room, and gave hourly thanks for whoever had invented the Nintendo Game Boys that my kids had gotten for Christmas. Tetris became our salvation in that motel room...a room filled with perpetual wet dog smell, food wrappers and cranky people. By the time we left, $3500 poorer but Tetris champions all, we were a little crazy. Except for my dog, who, as a pack animal, had loved having her pack sleeping and eating in one room. I believe she may have whimpered a little when we loaded her back into the devil's car, as I now regarded it.

When we got home late that night, eager to drop into our own beds in separate (!) rooms, I realized that in our haste to get on the road to Christmas, we had forgotten to do a few things...ok, a lot of things.  Like close drawers or clean up or make beds or do dishes or empty the fridge or leave the outside back spigot turned on a little so that water could move. The pipe had exploded sending a geyser of water over the Christmas tree, the deck and the dog house, where it had then frozen so that whole area was a giant ice sculpture with the very top of the tree poking up like a flag.

Time has given me a little perspective on the trip.  Things that seemed awful at the time became things to be laughed at, retold and even cherished. But I never touched a Nintendo Game Boy again.  And I will never, ever drive anywhere for any reason over Christmas break.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Kids, blogs and turning your brain to mush

I read a blog recently on LinkedIn entitled "Electronic 'Baby Sitters' turning brains to mush". Interesting, I thought...did someone actually find definitive evidence that playing video games (I am assuming that's what the electronic babysitters are and not some version of Rosie the Robot) affects your brain and if so, how did they get that evidence? As it turned out, the blog had nothing to do with mushy brains, but was a description of a family the author had eaten breakfast next to in a restaurant.  Apparently the parents had given their two young children (aged about 2 & 4) iPads when they sat down, then engaged in adult conversation while they waited for their food. The rest of the blog was a rant (polite, but a rant nonetheless) lamenting the death of dinner table conversation and the necessity of parents using a trip to a nice restaurant as the optimum time to encourage its rebirth, even pleading with parents to please, please teach your child the art of conversation. I laughed out loud. I can vividly recall taking my own children out to eat at that age, pulling crayons or puzzles or small toys out of what my daughter called my purse-o'plenty, and hoping they would be occupied long enough for me to 1) actually eat my own dinner and 2) talk to another adult about things other than Barbies, GI Joes and Transformers. Sometimes that actually happened. The author readily admitted that the children were polite, quiet and seemed to be enjoying dinner.  Where, then, in this pleasant family tableaux was the evidence of brain mush? As a survivor of parent/children restaurant wars I have to admit that when I see children being seated near me at P.F.Chang's, I cringe, imagining screams, shrieks, whines...and noise from the children, too. If it had been me at the table near the iPad wielding parents, I may have stood up and applauded.

We see this sort of overblown and exaggerated headlines in news stories all the time. Who among us hasn't gotten reeled in by a headline proclaiming something awful or stupendous had happened, only to read the article and find it either completely fact challenged or sometimes an outright lie.  I confess to having opened many a photo collection, drawn in by You Won't Believe How These Celebrities Look Without Their Makeup, thinking (hoping) to find Jennifer Anniston looking like a hag, only to see that ok, she is still drop dead gorgeous.  But I was surprised to find someone on a social media networking site, someone whom I followed, using this tactic.  Did the author think that no one would read her blog if she called it something closer to its actual "Step away from the iPad, Billy"? Or did she really believe that the event she was describing was actual evidence that children's brains are being adversely affected by the use of an iPad in a restaurant? I scrolled down thru the comments submitted by readers and found that all of them agreed with her.  No one pointed out the lack of brain mushery, let alone that there is not much difference between what these parents did and what I, with my purse-o'plenty, did years ago or what my mom did by encouraging me to bring along a Nancy Drew book. Of course it could also be that those of us who did not agree, refrained from saying so, not wanting to be contentious.

The author closed the blog by saying that these children are "future employees and leaders in our community and we need them to be articulate and healthy" and not "mesmerized by electronic pictures".  I don't know why this blog bothered me so much.  It is her blog and she is free to make any number of sweeping generalizations based on nothing more than her observation of a family eating breakfast.  I have read worse blogs and even worse blogs by this same person! I recall one entitled "Nine Life Lessons" accompanied by, for some bizarre reason, a photo of Marilyn Monroe.  The life lessons turned out to be bullet pointed gems such as "the more I teach, the more I learn" and "process sets you fee".  As I read the recycled Lessons, I marveled at how this author ever amassed 257,520 followers.  And maybe that is what bothers me.  The fact that 257,520 people read this blog...and that I was one of them.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

It's November...time for craft shows!

I love Fall craft shows!  From small ones held in church basements, to shows so big they are held in sport stadiums...I just love them all.  Today my friend, Marilyn, and I headed out to what was advertised as the largest craft show in Western Montana.  Held in the ballroom on the top floor of the student union at the University of Montana, it featured over 80 vendors, with items ranging from pottery to homemade jam to knitted scarves. I could have easily emptied my bank account, but am proud of the fact that I limited myself to just a couple of purchases.  I am ashamed to say that at no point during the show did buying Christmas gifts for anyone else even enter my mind.  Nope, it was all about me. My favorite purchase is the pair of mittens pictured below.  Assembled from at least 4 repurposed sweaters and lined with fleece, these will certainly warm my hands on long chilly walks...the fact that they will also make me smile is just icing on my Christmas cookie. 

Today's jaunt made me think of the ghosts of craft shows past...beginning when my daughter was just a baby.  In Southern California, virtually year-round sunshine means most craft shows are held outdoors, many of them in abandoned drive-in movie theaters...which, when you think about it, is the ultimate in repurposing!  I would bundle Jenn into her stroller and, fortified with homemade strudel purchased from a lovely German couple, would wander the aisles for hours, admiring the variety of goods available and, since money was short, memorizing the crafts in the hopes of replicating them at my own craft table at home.  Many a Christmas gift was based on those crafts I admired but could not afford at the Orange County Fairgrounds.

The largest show I have ever attended was at the Tacoma Dome, an indoor sports arena.  My adult daughter (a craft show veteran herself by this time) and I went each year we lived in Washington.  A mix of both handmade and imported items, the show filled two huge rooms generally reserved for basketball games and was so large they had an entire wall of food vendors and a stage populated by local choirs and bell ringers.  My favorite item from the Tacoma Dome years is a gorgeous cut linen cloth imported from Austria, about 18 inches in diameter, shaped like a star and heavily embroidered with gold poinsettias.  I bought my mom one at the same time, embroidered with red poinsettias...she re-gifted it.  Word to the wise: not everyone loves crafts shows or their merchandise.

The most beautiful craft bazaar I attended was in a fabulously decorated, 4 story Victorian mansion in Kalispell, where local singers, dressed in vintage Dickens costume, caroled in the chilly Montana air.  We were snug inside, enjoying hot chocolate and Christmas cookies while we shopped for delicately tatted doilies so airy you would swear they were fashioned by fairies and wooden toys, looking to be straight from Santa's workshop.

The smallest show I can remember was in the cafeteria of a local high school, and was advertised as having something for everyone.  The parking lot was full as my friend and I pulled up and we were eager to get inside, hoping the abundance of cars meant an equal abundance of remarkable crafts. We entered through a door, followed the signs up the stairs and down several halls to find a handful of tables haphazardly spaced out along the walls of an enormous room.  We could have played indoor soccer in the middle of that space and not endangered a single display. When we made our way back out of the maze of corridors to the still full lot, we realized the cars belonged to the students who were taking their SATs in the auditorium!

Today's show was my first since returning to Montana but it certainly won't be my last.  I am, after all, a craft show addict and will attend them until I can no longer walk on my own.  After that, you'll find me shuffling along, wielding my cane like a saber as I cut in front of those who might be younger but cannot possibly be as determined as I to reach that display of handcrafted tea cozies.