Friday, August 16, 2013

Send In The Clowns

I have always been an optimistic person.  A bit goofy perhaps, with a wry sense of humor.  It's how I look at the world.  Having boys is often like one big, long practical joke, but I have always chosen to perceive their antics in a humorous light.  When friends stress out or worry about something, I question, "Can you do anything to change the outcome?  If not, direct your energy somewhere else."  So, I am seen as light-hearted; naive even.  I like to laugh at the world, not drown in sorrow.

But today I wrestle with sadness, both my own and my family's.  My father-in-law passed away this morning after a quick, steep decline in health.  Actually, his health had been slowly getting worse over the past few years, but this roller coaster peaked in just the last month or so before plummeting swiftly into the abyss. We sat down with our boys and explained that Grandpa was dying only yesterday, so they are still processing everything.  My older son asked, "Why is life so cruel?"  But see, here's where you have to look at things from the optimist's perspective.  He lived a long and happy life.  He celebrated 44 years of marriage just last week.  He was able to see his five grandchildren and spend cherished times with each of them.  He traveled Europe when he was in his 20's, learning languages and drinking good beers.  (Which is why it always confused my husband that his dad chose to drink Michelob later in life.)  He retired from a job that he loved, created a wonderful home on property that dipped down to a river, and spent time doing things he enjoyed. He kept learning and taking classes just for the hell of it.  The man learned Arabic - just because.

When my own father passed away two years ago it was completely unexpected and a bitter surprise.  But I came to regard that as a positive thing.  I had seen him 2 days before, and left him with a hug after I told him I loved him.  He went so quickly that there was no hospital stay; no debates about his care.  I never had to juggle trips to a medical facility in between other obligations, struggle with the financial aspect of care, or feel resentment that a shell of a person only marginally resembled my dad.

Last year my nephew, wise beyond his years, surprised us with his take on life.  He looked around at family members who were crying after yet another loss and said, "Don't be sad for what is in Heaven.  Be happy for what you have here."  He was five at the time, but so astute.

So I choose to see the world in this light.  Bad things happen.  How do they shape us?  How do we deal with challenges and then present this affected persona to those around us?  I still want to stick with humor.  I've found it suits me well.  But if I'm not quite my usual self, you will hopefully understand.

When I was younger I received a music box as a gift - from my parents, I think.  It was a copper clown and it played "Send In The Clowns".  I had heard Judy Collins sing this over and over again from our state-of-the-art 8 track player and the melody haunted me.  I admit that I still don't fully understand the symbolism of the lyrics, but Stephen Sondheim explained it like this (I got this info from the always-correct Wikipedia):

It's a theater reference meaning "if the show isn't going well, let's send in the clowns"; 
in other words, "let's do the jokes."

After 9/11, after countless hours of depressing, frightening, overwhelming images of terror, shows such as Saturday Night Live struggled to find the balance between humor, reverence for the situation, and hope.  When can we go back to our regularly-scheduled program?  When will I be able to fall back on the inappropriate jokes that help me get through?  Time will tell.

For now, send in the clowns...  

Don't bother.  They're here. 

In Memory Of:

Thomas Nuelle - 1935 - 2013
Lew Thomas - 1933 - 2011
Bobbie Thomas - 1941 - 1993
Kerri Anne Thomas - 2012

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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

World War NERF

With four boys hanging out today, I knew that there were potential fights and battles that could arise.  Cue screaming and running around - while they pulled out every weapon in their arsenals.  My house looked like a toy gun warehouse when they were finished.

I have never met a boy who doesn't like a good shoot-em-up kind of game.  I know that some parents start off thinking, "I will never let my child have a toy gun in this house, ever!" but have you met boys?  They realize early on that their thumb and forefinger make a great pretend gun - even before they know how to use those two fingers to hold a crayon, feed themselves, or pee standing up (you had to think about that for a second, didn't you?)  It's hardwired.  Just like they know how to make some elaborate noise with their lips to signify that they have just destroyed something (usually you or the dog) with their powerful finger-shooter.

I never actively tried to keep gun toys out of the house, nor did I invite them in.  But at a certain age, it seems that friends and relatives began giving my sons NERF guns, and we have never been the same household since. Like the Lego company, NERF has some smart developers.  Remember when they just made foam footballs that your goofy neighbor would pick apart every time you wanted to play?  Well, they hit the jackpot when they started making guns that shoot foam darts.  And then they realized that kids aren't happy having only one version of a toy if they can collect an entire series of money-making plastic junk pieces.  It started off innocently enough for us with one gun per boy, and has spread like exploding shrapnel through our house so that they each own about a dozen guns (or more - honestly, I can't keep track and I'm too scared to go hunting around in their rooms).

I could live with the guns themselves, if I had to.  But the NERF bullets are another story.  These things must multiply in the night.  Foam cylinders attached to rubberized suction cups can be found under every piece of furniture I own.  They are stuck under couch cushions, inside lamp shades, half-covered in the dirt of a potted plant, sticking on sliding glass doors, inside shoes... you name it.  I have yet to find any swimming around with the fish in the aquarium but I have plucked some off the glass that covers the water.  Of course, after a while all of the darts disappear from the boys' rooms and they beg me to purchase more so that they can keep 'killing' each other in friendly sibling games.

Enter the NERF Blasters.  These don't use the usual darts, they shoot discs instead.  So you have to purchase a bunch of different ammunition packs for each kind of weapon they own.  Well played, NERF, well played.

All of these plastic guns need to be stored somewhere.  They are just long enough and oddly-shaped that they don't fit neatly into any toy storage or closet shelf that exists in any home.  I joked that I was going to build a gun rack for my boys' rooms to store their guns.  It seems I wasn't the only person to come up with this idea!  Just hop on Pinterest and search "Nerf storage" to see the crazy creations people have come up with to categorize and hold all of the weapons.  And I thought we had a lot of guns!  People, when you need to build a giant PVC pipe frame to hang 50+ guns, you might have a problem!  There's no way I'll let my boys see those crafty creations people have come up with.  Part of my excuse for not buying any more guns centers around the fact that we don't have anywhere to keep additional guns, so I'll let my organizational incompetence help me out for once.

Ironically, it is these "wars" that bring them closer together.  My boys actually get along for quite a while when they are shooting and dodging foam darts.  And it's not just for the little guys.  Sure enough, each Christmas my twin brothers (who I will just say are in their 30s) run around with multiple guns and extra ammo clips, trying to ambush each other.  At least they let the younger kids play too.  Usually my boys are recruited to run down the hallway to draw enemy fire so one brother can try to get the upper hand. And so the NERF legacy passes on through the generations.

If our world is ever attacked by a species that has vulnerable flat, glass surfaces, they are in sooooo much trouble!

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Saturday, August 10, 2013

"Come Here Kitty" - What Not To Say When Camping

For the past several years our family has gone on an annual camping trip to the beach with my husband's childhood friend.  (Technically we missed a year because we vacationed in Hawaii instead - and I have no remorse. I'd totally do it again.)  On the day of our trip we shove all of our necessary gear (and some random crap) into every possible crevice and then squeeze ourselves into any remaining car spaces.  This year we all forgot to bring pillows, so you can see that the "roughing it" mentality must have taken over.  That, or there was no room left after the Jaegermeister, Hershey bars, gourmet coffee, and electronic chargers were all packed away.  I mean, ya gotta have the necessities, right?

I grew up camping with my family every summer, although I have since been told that taking a trip in an RV and staying at a KOA doesn't count as roughing it.  I beg to differ.  We would cram all five family members into a tiny little Toyota Chinook.  Although the name may reference salmon, you need to picture us as sardines instead.  The entire bottom area became a full-size bed... once you disassembled the table and rearranged the couch cushions to make the oh-so-comfy bed.  My parents slept here.  The area over the cab could be pulled out into another double bed and my twin brothers would sleep there.  I got one of the "hammock" beds that swung out over the bottom area.  Each night my mom would shepherd us kids to the bathroom to brush our teeth and we could not go back into the camper until my dad had gotten the metal hammock bars locked into place.  This became known as my dad's "Cuss Time", although I should point out that the tin can was not well insulated and we were privy to all of the swearing as my dad repeatedly bumped his head against the bars and his legs went numb from kneeling on the lowered table/bed.

5 of us traveled and slept in one of these
When I was about 10 they suggested I have my own pup tent outside of the camper.  I was thrilled with the idea of my own sanctuary away from them, and my dad was downright joyous.  I was allowed to use the ancient green, canvas, military-style tent.  Literally two poles, some side ropes to anchor it down, and two flaps that tied around the front pole.  But it was my space.  I read my mom's old Nancy Drew books by flashlight after I climbed into my sleeping bag.  It was heaven - until we camped at Yellowstone and I woke up one morning with a ginormous pile of buffalo dung mere feet away from my tent.  That could've ended badly.

We soon upgraded to a larger, used RV.  It was a total piece of crap.  Half of our day was spent on the shoulder of some God-forsaken highway or other, waiting for the engine to cool down so we could switch our fuel from gas to propane and resume our travels.  Every day. But it was bigger!  And with an indoor toilet that proved quite useful on cold nights, or during bouts of the stomach flu.  Did I mention that these camping trips brought us all closer while simultaneously causing us to hate each other?  That's what camping is all about.

So now my family goes to the lovely California State Beach campgrounds.  No KOA here.  The bathrooms and showers are designed so that they can be cleaned daily with a high-powered hose.  Thus, no soap dispensers, no mirrors, no towels, and definitely no toilet seat covers.  The mere thought makes my OCD friends literally shudder in disgust.  When my boys were younger I would herd them into one shower room.  I'd get everything set up while they undressed and we would pray that the shower we picked actually worked that day.  Otherwise you'd have to decide to redress and file into another shower or make a quick naked run for the next open door.  If everything went smoothly I could get us all cleaned up in about 10 minutes, or 5 quarters' worth of water (yep, you gotta pay to spray).  Of course, it rarely went smoothly.  Logan would be crying that he wanted a bath while the water spurted in different directions and never sprayed far enough away from the wall to be effective.  After carefully removing all sand from their crevices and washing off the rashy areas I'd instruct them to get dressed while I showered.  Too often I'd turn around to see them sitting down to put their pants on --- sitting in the sandy, cloudy, standing water from numerous previous showers.  Mmmm.  I am happy to say that they shower by themselves now and I can be at the campsite enjoying a margarita, oblivious of any standing water issues.

Back to the sand and the chafing.  Every year it's an issue.  My boys used to play in the breaking waves near the shore and body surf right up onto the beach.  They would accumulate so much sand in their shorts that they were weighed down by these saddlebags.  After the first day the waddle-walk would make its appearance and for the rest of the trip all we heard about was the chafing.  We tried compression shorts under the suit, cutting out the lining (with a Swiss Army knife's scissors no less), layers of underwear, wrapping their upper thighs with bandages, and finally we broke down and got wet suits for them.  That seems to have helped some, but it created neck and arm irritation to replace the thigh irritation.  I can't win.

Aside from your general sandy, grimy existence during camping you get to deal with the wildlife.  The upside of beach camping is: no bears, and minimal bug issues.  What we've discovered instead is that Santa Barbara has quite a skunk population!  Last year as we were all sitting around the campfire I heard a rustling sound and looked over to find a skunk heading my way.  Like the brave, protective men they are my husband and his friend immediately jumped up and ran for the hills, leaving me frozen in my seat, worrying that any move would cause it to spray.  The brazen little guy walked directly under my camp chair and out the other side and I finally scampered away - all while the "men" directed flashlights at our furry visitor from the bushes.  This year we joked that we should clean up early to avoid more visitors, but of course you forget such ideas when you've been enjoying a campfire with some drinks in hand.  It turns out that PepĂ© was digging through our trash bag, brazen as can be.  If we tried to shoo him away his tail would stand straight up and we stopped menacing our visitor.  Thankfully he ran away instead of spraying us when somebody lobbed a rock near him.

It reminds me of my first trip with my parents in the ol' Chinook.  I was that kid who followed all wildlife, believing them to be like friendly Bambi.  My parents quickly ushered me inside when they heard me calling "Come here kitty!"  Sure enough I was going after the resident skunk, trying to entice it back to our campsite.  Looks like after all these years my Dr. Doolittle skills were still in effect.

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