Where the wild things are

In the O. Henry short story, “The Ransom of Red Chief,” two small-time criminals kidnap a banker’s son and hold him for ransom. The banker does not respond as he is enjoying a break from the child.

rabbit jumpingThe kid proclaims himself Red Chief and exhausts his captors. He even announces that one of his abductors is now his prisoner and threatens to scalp him by daybreak. Eventually the kidnappers pay the father to take the child back.

Two of our grandchildren came to stay with us recently and, while I would never say that the darlings were as rambunctious as Red Chief, I was thankful we did not have a tomahawk on the premises.

They are children who register on the lively end of the activity spectrum. Part of the reason is that they and their baby brother live in a 2-bedroom Chicago apartment, which in their case is tantamount to housing wild mustangs in a small horse trailer. Naturally, when they have access to wide-open spaces, they enjoy running, galloping and pawing at the ground.

Invigorated by the great outdoors, one of the things the active 5-year-old likes to do is wake the household each morning with an owl call. She’s quite good, really. She does a very lifelike screech owl. If you have ever been awakened by the loud and piercing cry of a screech owl inches from your face, you will understand why there is no need for morning caffeine.

You will find that you start—and finish —the day moving quickly, startling easily and acquiring a small tic beneath your right eye.

They spent nearly every daylight hour playing in the backyard. They barreled outside as early as 7:15 or 7:30. I can’t remember exactly, but the neighbors do.

They spent hours with the sandbox, two big old galvanized tubs and the hose, basically realigning natural resources. They excavated sand from the sandbox, flooded the sandbox, then returned sand to the sandbox until they perfected a marvelous, disgusting swamp-like mixture that cemented to their skin and found its way into every nook, cranny, towel and bed in the house.

As each day drew to a close they would appear to wind down a bit, line up two chairs in the middle of the backyard and have a seat.

“Peaceful,” the husband said.

“The calm before the storm,” I said.

They were sitting motionless to stake out a rabbit. Not just any rabbit, but a rabbit that is a routine visitor and so large he could easily be Sunday dinner. I may have told the kids if they could catch the rabbit they could keep it. So they sat and waited armed with nothing but fierce speed and their bare hands.

They came so close to the rabbit so many times that I reached for my grandmother’s Wild Game cookbook. But the rabbit always escaped, each evening bouncing higher and higher in the air until it appeared to be part white-tailed deer.

The children have returned to the city, the sand has been swept away and the rabbit has resumed regular evening visits, although it appears a bit nervous. It has acquired a tic beneath its right eye.

Little space cadet too well grounded

One year when I was in elementary school, I was chosen to go to a summer space camp. It was a special privilege, the sort of special privilege that I found terrifying. Surely there had been an astronomical mistake. I kept waiting for someone to correct it, but nobody ever did. And so the girl who considered gravity her best friend attended space camp.

EarthLooking back, all I can think is that those were desperate times. The Russians had launched Sputnik. John Glenn had orbited the earth three times in Friendship 7 and Americans were trying to win the race for space.

Space camp was for kids who teachers thought might have potential in the sciences. If my country was depending on me to help win the race for space, my country was doomed. It was a heavy burden for an 8-year-old to know she was about to bring down a super power.

On our first day at Space Camp we made helmets from empty Baskin-Robbins ice cream containers. We cut out holes for our faces and then painted them. I painted mine green, the color of grass, grass that grows on the ground and stays on the ground, the same place we should stay, too.

To this day, I have imagined the inside of every space shuttle, and NASA itself, smelling like mint chocolate chip ice cream and green tempera paint.

Our solar system at space camp was made of graduated balls plastered with strips of newsprint slathered in thick glue. The paper Mache planets simulated rotation courtesy of fishing line and coat hangers. Saturn’s rings were pipe cleaners and we included Pluto without a hint of debate or controversy.

The one not-terrifying thing about Space Camp was learning about the sky and the stars. We learned that the Big Dipper was connected to the Little Dipper, and the Great Bear was connected to the Little Bear, and the hip bone was connected to the neck bone. I may have been confused. In any case, we learned that you could see interesting things in the night sky, including the Moon and sometimes Mars.

Even now, when I try to point out Mars in the evening sky, others will insist that what I think is Mars is actually an incoming plane. They are just jealous that they did not go to space camp. OK, so maybe Mars is moving toward the airport.

The point is, if you aren’t stepping outside and looking up from time to time, you are missing some of the best this world has to offer. If you are in the country on a cloudless night, you can feel yourself dwarfed by countless jewels glittering in the sky.

If you’re on the late end of early morning, you may catch dawn as the horizon streaks with a twist of apricot and neon orange. I learned this much at space camp: You don’t need a Baskin-Robbins helmet to enjoy an amazing view.

The irrefutqable power of dads

A humorous illustration of a woman’s brain depicts it sectioned into compartments. The smaller, equal-size compartments are labeled food, shopping, shoes, talking with girlfriends and relationships with the opposite sex—all of which are dwarfed by one huge over-riding compartment labeled “my mother.”

Relationships with mothers tend to be complex. They are powerful relationships that may inspire undying love and loyalty, or guilt and anger and sometimes a curious mix of the aforementioned.

Relationships with fathers, although equally powerful, tend to be less complex. This is probably because fathers are prone to be less verbal. They not only use fewer words but are less likely to exercise a flair for drama, burst into tears, slam doors or hone a great martyr routine, hence leaving offspring with fewer good stories to retell.

Nevertheless, the relationship between father and child is critical. Social science research constantly underscores the blithely, or even intentionally, overlooked power of the father-child relationship.

A father who has a decent (note the word is decent, not perfect) relationship with his children is highly likely to raise children who have fewer behavior problems, graduate high school, have a high sense of aspiration, delay becoming sexually active, stay on the right side of the law, do not engage in drug and alcohol abuse and are likely to have stable relationships as adults. A father involved in a child’s life isn’t an iron-clad guarantee of stability, but it’s real close.

Every time there is another senseless killing in our city, people appear on television camera, distraught, saying, “I don’t know what the answer is.”

The answer is nearly always fathers. Our out-of-wedlock birth rate is 40 percent and climbing. We’re not supposed to talk about such matters directly; it could be deemed insensitive. You know what’s insensitive? Intentionally leaving kids without a fundamental component of life for which they intrinsically ache. Insensitive is telling fathers that they are dispensable.

With all respect to trees, the air and fossil fuels, it is our dwindling supply of fathers that will one day render us unsustainable. Their increasing absence plays out in out in a million ways.

Carey Casey, CEO of the National Center for Fathering, has served as chaplain for the Dallas Cowboys and the Kansas City Chiefs. He says many professional football players—strong, powerful, rich, handsome men—have said that when they run from the tunnel into a football stadium filled with 80,000 people, they would give anything to look up in the stands and for just one moment see their father looking down at them.

If fully grown men still feel the ache deep in their gut, how much greater must that longing be for children?

A father doesn’t have to be perfect. Mothers certainly aren’t. A good and decent father will do just fine. Such a man is far more than a meal ticket: he is a moral compass, a guide, a safe place, an encourager, a comforter, a shield against the storm.

Our sons and daughters don’t need perfect dads, but they do need dads who are present and engaged.

Casting call was a real bear

I received a casting call last week. Hey, I was as surprised as anybody. I was minding my own business at the computer when the request came in asking if I would perform in a starring role.

3 charisI didn’t hesitate. These opportunities don’t come your way every day.

Maybe you’ve heard of the production? The Three Bears.

I was offered the part of Goldilocks. Imagine. Me, a brunette. And at my age. I always pictured Goldilocks younger. And shorter. And thinner. Oh well, the things they can do with make-up and special effects these days.

Anyway, it was an off-Broadway production. Way off. Way, way, way, way, way off. It was so off-Broadway that it was in our front room.

So I walked over to the set and saw that the cast and crew (you do double duty when there are only a few of you) already had all the props in place. The wooden play table had been set with three plastic plates for porridge. Two small chairs and a little red rocker were lined up and two love seats were designated as the beds.

The cast and crew looked young, as in under age four. But, clearly, they knew their stuff.

“Do you know your part, Grandma?”

“I think so,” I said. “This is the one where the girl goes in a stranger’s house uninvited, eats their food, sits in their chairs, falls asleep in a bed, then the bears come home, find her and she runs away screaming.”

“That’s it!” They were equal parts amazed and delighted that I was familiar with the story.

It was a family-friendly production—something hard to find these days. The only strong language was from Papa Bear, who preceded his every line with an emphatic “HMPF!” That’s a standard Papa Bear line in one of their Three Bears books and has become a favorite. There was no nudity either, as long as you didn’t count the brief intermission where we changed their baby sister’s stinky diaper.

I knew I wasn’t the first one asked to play this part, nor would I be the last. I’m not the only grandma in town. But that’s showbiz, isn’t it? You’re only as good as your last performance. HMPF!

Any chance of a callback would depend on a grand finish. When the two bears (they played multiple roles) woke me up, I, Goldilocks sprung from the loveseat, jumped over the back of it (a feat these legs and this back had not done in years) and ran from the room screaming and waving my arms wildly.

The finale was well received. It wasn’t just a standing O, they started running and screaming behind me. It was like Goldilocks being chased by the paparazzi.

When the dust settled, one of them said, “Let’s do it again, Grandma. You know, the part where Goldilocks wakes up and runs wild.”

We may take this show from the front room on the road—now selling tickets for seats in the backyard.

Through hail and high water, trip was fine

Whenever you are traveling and have the good fortune to arrive at your destination in one piece, I think you are obligated to tell people your trip was fine.

I had a fine trip last week.

I headed an hour north to a speaking engagement. Fifteen minutes out of town my vehicle began to shake. To see if the shake was significant or just my imagination, I belted out a note and held it. For the first time in my life, my voice had vibrato.

The vibrato was so full and rich I wondered if I had missed my calling for opera. The engine light began flashing wildly. Fortunately, I had several friends who lived not far from the next exit. I called one and asked if I could borrow her vehicle for the afternoon.

I bee-lined to my friend’s place and ditched my vehicle, now shaking like a mechanical bull, then headed back to the interstate. I was behind schedule, which was why I may have broken the speed limit passing a motorcycle.

For an instant I thought I had passed an unmarked police officer on an unmarked motorcycle. Paranoia runs in the family. It was all good, the bike just had shaky lights flickering in my rear view mirror. I pulled my heart out of my gut in time to see the sign that said “Slow and stopped traffic ahead.”

Once I slowly wound through several miles of construction, traffic began to sail. Until we came to the trucks with flashing lights blocking traffic. Workers were removing a deer that was no longer with us. And a second. And a third.

After another delay, and a brief moment of silence for the deer, traffic resumed speed. Right into towering, dark, ominous clouds.

They were the kind of clouds that spawn tornadoes. I know my clouds. I grew up in Missouri, right across the state line from Dorothy and Toto.

Maybe I’d get there in time for my introduction.

Rain fell in torrents. Traffic slowed to a crawl and then came to a halt.

I was thinking how to word my apology for being late when the hail began. It was so dark I could barely see. Thank goodness for the lightning. It was killer hail, the kind that blows out windshields. I was torn between shielding my eyes and looking to see what was happening around me.

Open, eyes! No, close! Open! Close! Open! Close!

The hail ended, the windshield remained and the traffic resumed. The cloud doubled back and dumped all five Great Lakes on us. Stopped again.

Maybe they’d have refreshments beforehand. Maybe whoever was introducing me could do a song and dance.

Waiting for the second torrential rain to pass, I programmed my destination into Google maps. As they closed the flooded highway behind us, I took my exit and headed to my destination, which I had inadvertently entered as S. Salisbury instead of N. Salisbury.

Recalculating. Recalculating.

I arrived at my destination late, harried, wide-eyed and disheveled, but in one piece.

“How was your trip?”

“Fine, thank you. Just fine.”

Can’t leaf the trees alone

On the eves of our daughters’ weddings, I gave both of them what I considered to be excellent marital advice: Never leave your husband unsupervised with pruning shears.

LeafIf only I had heeded my own caution. I recently let my guard down. Thirty-some years of marriage can do that to a woman. Now, as a result, the only thing that has been harder on our trees and shrubs than this past brutal winter has been the husband.

Give a man pruning shears, a telescopic extension and electric trimmers and he will give new meaning to the term armed and dangerous.

Champing at the bit, the husband pronounced the crab apple tree dead earlier this year.

“Why do you think it is dead?” I asked.

“Look at it; there’s not a leaf on it.”

“There’s not a leaf on anything. It’s March,” I said.

“It looked sick last fall and with this bitter winter we had, I’m convinced it’s dead.”

The truth is he’s never liked the crab apple. Sure, it has beautiful blooms in the spring, but then it gets a fungus, the leaves curl, it drops those little apples that ferment on the driveway and make the bees drunk. Once your bees are buzzed it pretty well puts an end to outdoor activities.

Each passing week he pronounced the tree dead. Eventually I began to believe him. Though he agreed it would be a regrettable loss, there was a twinkle in his eye. He armed himself a couple of weeks ago and began trimming. A branch here, a branch there, a small limb, then a larger limb. I watched and then decided to check the wood on some of the branches closer to the trunk. I broke one off and saw green.

The crab apple was not dead, it just hadn’t had time to leaf out. The tree was now lopsided, but it was not dead. I would have told him so, but he had moved on to a maple. Once the man starts, he can’t stop. One trim leads to another. He was giving the maple what could only be described as a haircut that was high and tight.

“Please, stop!” I called. “It’s a maple, not a Marine!”

He smiled and nodded, but he couldn’t hear because he had revved up the hedge trimmers and was preparing to “touch up” a line of shrubs.

Zip, zip, zip. Zip, zip, zip.

“What do you think?” he shouts.

“It’s supposed to be a privacy hedge; now all that will be private are our ankles.”

He revved the trimmers again. “Stop!” I called. “Come back!”

“Why?” he shouts.

“You’re in the neighbor’s yard.”

Be glad you weren’t invited to speak at graduation

The quandary of this current graduation season is whom to feel sorrier for— graduates facing the real world or speakers invited to speak at commencement ceremonies and then uninvited to speak.

MortarTo be cajoled, wooed and invited to be a commencement speaker and then abruptly uninvited, is reminiscent of that horrid fellow who dumped you in the tenth grade. Let’s just hope today’s incidents do not result in graffiti in the restroom stalls or shaving cream on someone’s car windows.

The first this season to be invited and then uninvited was the First Lady. Originally invited to speak at a high school commencement in Topeka, Ks., it was determined that her security detail and accompanying entourage, roughly numbering the population of Texas, would be so large that family members would not be able to see their loved ones graduate. So the First Lady’s invitation was suspended. Shortly thereafter she was invited to speak at a different event prior to commencement. This invitation, uninvitation and reinvitation was actually more like a 24-hour breakup followed by “we’re back together,” explained by “we just needed time apart.”

Of course, if such a thing can happen to the First Lady it can also happen to someone like Condoleezza Rice. She was invited to be commencement speaker at Rutgers University, whereupon a few students and faculty objected because “Rice played a prominent role in the Bush administration.” Yes, she did. The secretary of state often does.

Rice was uninvited. Rutgers then invited Eric LeGrand, paralyzed former Rutgers University football player, to speak at commencement. And then they uninvited him. And then they reinvited him.

Consulting with Anna Post, the great-great granddaughter of etiquette maven Emily Post, on the proper technique of inviting and then uninviting a guest, as near I can gather, it falls under the heading of “Things Not Done.”

Thank goodness for WikiHow (second cousin, once removed, to Wikipedia) that offers four steps (with illustrations!) on uninviting someone. First: Rest chin in hands and make sure you don’t want this person at your event. Next: Close eyes, rub temples, ask yourself if you’ve had an argument with this person. Step Three: Wearing a cardigan, confront the person calmly and suggest you stay out of one another’s way. Final Step: With a big red embarrassed face, only uninvite someone in a serious circumstance.

Brandeis University invited Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali, one of the most courageous women walking the planet, to be commencement speaker. A few days later they skipped to Step Three telling Hirsi Ali to stay out of the way. Among other things, Hirsi Ali is critical of forced female genital mutilation, a view deemed intolerant by the tolerant Brandies, which resulted in Hirsi Ali not being tolerated and thus being uninvited.

You’re in, you’re out, you’re in, you’re out. I’ve seen dice games with greater predictability.

If you’re out there buying graduation gifts this year, be grateful it’s only costing you money and not personal humiliation.

The mom in the mirror

I officially morphed into my mother last week. I flipped down the visor in the car, opened the mirror, looked at my reflection and said out loud, “Why didn’t someone tell me I look like death warmed over?”

Word MOM in a mirrorI’ve never said that line out loud before because it was always my mother’s line. She often used it when we were going somewhere in the car. It was a show-stopper, a line that could hold a crowd. My dad would glance over from the driver’s seat, my brother and I would momentarily stop fighting in the backseat, and we’d all direct our full attention to the front-passenger seat to see what would happen next.

What happened next was what always happened next. She’d open her purse, whip out a tube of red lipstick, stretch her mouth thin, carefully apply the lipstick, smack her lips and snap the visor back in place. Another near-death encounter successfully averted. I grew up thinking red lipstick was the CPR of motherhood.

Why is it we think we won’t become like our mothers, when we share the same gene pool, voices, laughs, gestures and mannerisms?

I had just gone a verbal round with our youngest when she was in high school as we were on our way to the grocery one day. We were both miffed, both certain the other one was pigheaded and stubborn, both wondering how we were even related.

As we walked side-by-side into the grocery, a man walking out of the grocery said to us, “Don’t tell me you’re not a mother-daughter combo! You not only look alike, you even walk alike.” Of course we walked alike; we were mad walking. Stomp, stomp, stomp. Thinking we were radically different, we were unmistakably alike.

My mother and I did our share of mad walking as well. Like all mothers and daughters we were alike but different, different but alike. Not long after she died, I picked up a picture of her and wrote on the back of it as fast as I could all the marvelous things about her that I was terrified I would one day forget, praying I would always remember.

“Thank you, Lord, for the things you taught me through my dear mother. Kindness, goodness, forgiveness, fortitude, patience, forbearance, organization, zeal for life, love, “lighten up,” thoughtfulness, anticipating needs of others, honesty, stewardship, planning, how to have fun. I miss her, Lord. Her voice, her laugh, her racing mind, her sparkling eyes. You have given me a good gift.”

I know now that I could never forget my mom. By nature, mothers are unforgettable. I often picture Mom in my kitchen, sitting at the table, drinking coffee, cup after cup after cup, speed talking, offering wit, insight and commentary on people, places and things. Tell me that apple didn’t fall from the tree.

To those of you still insisting you’ll never resemble your mother in any way, shape or form, thanks for the laugh.

If you’ll excuse me now, I need to apply some lipstick. Why didn’t somebody tell me I look like death warmed over?

Now brewing: Spanking the Keurig

I asked the pastor’s wife to repeat herself to be sure I had heard correctly. “I was just saying that this morning I spanked the Keurig. I mean I really spanked it. Right over there.” She nodded toward the kitchen sink. “Spanked the mess right out of that thing.”

Coffe makerJust when you think you’ve heard it all, you discover the pastor’s wife is smacking the coffee maker.

Another woman, a woman active in women’s ministries, spoke up and said, “Everyone’s doing it. It’s all over the internet.”

There was a time when church ladies would have said, “Just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t make it right.” Alas, these are the times we live in.

I thought a Keurig was simply a pricey single-serve coffee maker that could brew coffee, tea, cider or hot chocolate from a little pod in under a minute. I had no idea these elite machines required spanking, but they do. The ladies were right, “Spanking the Keurig” is one of the hottest trends in coffee. That said, I wouldn’t advise walking into a Starbucks and asking the barista if she has done any spanking lately.

Keurigs, though wildly popular, have been plagued by recalls, faulty parts and machines that one day simply gurgle and stop brewing a full cup. And now, someone, somewhere, madder than all get out that an expensive coffee maker stopped working, utilized good ol’ American know-how and whacked the machine a good one, only to discover it returned to full power.

This desire to whack something back into working order is common to many of us. Who hasn’t watched the evening news, wishing you could reach through the screen and gently whack a few folks up alongside the head to see if they might not return to full power. But this technique is for coffee makers, not humans. Although I will say I have seen this technique also used on vending machines and CD players with remarkable results.

Message boards are filled with Keurig spanking dos and don’ts—advice on how hard to spank, when to spank and how many times to spank. It’s like reading parenting manuals from the 1950s.

All advise unplugging the coffee maker before turning it upside down before administering the spanking. This is excellent advice if you want to avoid filling out insurance claims stating that your bodily injuries, and the fire in your kitchen, were the result of spanking the coffee maker.

Many message board posters contend that several firm spanks are required, while one poster claimed 16 slaps were necessary. No doubt the suggested number of spanks bears a corollary to the level of caffeine deprivation of the one administering the spanking.

Caffeine or no caffeine, the idea of smacking a machine of any kind back into working order is extremely appealing.

Our coffee maker works fine. My question is, will a spanking work on a weed eater?

Hardware mystery down the drain

The entire family was here recently, 14 in all including six crumb-crunchers under the age of 5. We had a joint birthday party for two of the grands with pink princess cupcakes and chocolate train cupcakes.

Drain plug imageThe day after everyone cleared out, I noticed that the drain stopper was missing from the downstairs bathroom sink. Yes, I could look straight down that pipe into a dark abyss to nowhere. I was certain I hadn’t been able to see down the drain the day before.

The last thing you want to do is accuse your own flesh and blood of stripping hardware from your bathroom, but a drain stopper doesn’t just wash itself down the drain.

Being a matter of a delicate nature, I sent out a carefully worded email saying what a wonderful time we had and asking if anyone had inadvertently tucked a drain stopper in a purse, pocket or suitcase. I even attached a picture of a drain stopper (a round silver disc with a 6-inch plastic prong protruding from beneath) in case there was any doubt as to what the missing part looked like.

Our son responded that he thought his 10-month-old may have eaten it. He said he’d let us know if they found it in the next day or two.

One of our sons-in-law said he ate it to prove his manhood after being ridiculed for eating one of the pink princess cupcakes.

Our youngest daughter responded that she thought she saw it in her husband’s lunchbox that morning, but she could be wrong.

Our oldest daughter replied that she had suspected her sister’s husband all along. He replied that he had been framed.

Our oldest daughter then shook down one of her twins with the following exchange:

Mommy: “Do you know where Grandma’s drain stopper is?”

Three-year-old: “Yah! Let me show you.” (Heads to the bathroom.)

Mommy: “No, not ours, where is Grandma’s? Did you take it?”

Three-year-old: (Hands on chin, lots of gestures.) “I think she took it.” (Points to 18-month-old baby sister). “She’s a naughty kid.”

Naturally, the 18-month-old defended herself saying, “bububbubnananabub lalala!”

The next day an email arrived from our daughter-in-law. “Guess what I found in my laundry this morning? I thought the dryer was loud last night.”

Our perp was short, but adept at lugging a step stool. He has a known history of building and disassembling, is mechanically inclined, determined and just turned 3.

He’d been my primary person of interest all along. Someone suggested we put one of those forward facing video cameras on him for a day just to see what he does in the course of 24 hours.

It’s always good to know a child’s interests and talents. We have a valve that occasionally drips under the kitchen sink. I may have him take a look at it the next time he’s here. And I’ll pat him down before he leaves.