RETROSPECT (CLUB PROMPT – TIPTOEING)

When I heard this prompt, I was stumped. I couldn’t imagine what I would write about. My first thought was ballet. But I have no stories about ballet. The next thing that came to mind was one of the first songs I can remember singing as a child – Tiptoe Through the Tulips, a happy, perky little song that I don’t think I ever really knew all the words to but just the first line was enough to hum and sing throughout my childhood. Even recalling it now, years after I last thought of it, it still put a smile on my face. It led me to Google to try and hear it again and learn a little more about it. My thinking was perhaps here I would find some direction. Imagine my horror when I got to Google, having no background knowledge of this song at all other than the first line or two, pulling it up and finding out that what I must have heard as a child was the re-release of this song the year after I was born by a freaky-looking guy with long, curly hair, in a cheap suit, calling himself Tiny Tim, playing a ukulele, with a voice halfway between a soprano and a horse neighing! How disappointing and quite frankly disturbing! This is the problem with getting older and looking back on things….things are never quite the way you remember them.

It starts with the magic of Santa, of course. After that, it’s all downhill….you lose not only Santa, but the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, etc. This is the beginning of the end……except, it never really stops.

What happens next is that this gradual disillusionment carries over into other aspects of your world. In my case, it went straight to TV. I remember some of the commercials for toys I saw as a child. One of them really impressed me. It was Squirmles the Magical Pet – a fuzzy little worm thing that ‘magically’ moved over your hands, through your fingers, peeked out of trees, slid across a table, etc. Oh, it looked so cool I just had to have it! Finally, somehow, I convinced Mom to get it for me. Upon opening the package, there was Squirmles which actually just looked like (and was) a very fuzzy piece of material about an inch wide and 6 inches long with plastic eyeballs glued on one end, but also a piece of clear string. The instructions went something like, “Tie the invisible leash around Squirmles’ neck. Sit Squirmles in your hand. Pull the string through your fingers and Squirmles will follow.” Needless to say, it wasn’t nearly as great in person as it looked on TV. Some would probably say this is great advertising since it got me to want it and got the product bought, but in my head it was just deception.

Another great TV commercial that really pulled me in was the ad for Juicy Fruit gum. It had a perky little song that stuck in your head and rows upon rows of trees growing in the fields. As the camera zoomed in, we could see that the trees had bright yellow packs of Juicy Fruit gum growing on them by the hundreds. What an awesome sight that was to behold! It was years later and a sad day when I learned that there were actually no trees that grew packs of gum on them. I got online this week and tried to find a picture of one of these trees to share, but what I found instead were A LOT of angry people about my age venting about the fact that they had spent hours looking for these trees as kids never to find them. One person had planted Juicy Fruit gum packs in her yard hoping to grow one of these trees and another person had actually gone to the Wrigley estate as a semi-adult and was frustrated not to find them there either! Well, at least I wasn’t the only gullible kid in the world.

There was another ad I remember for wine coolers made by the Bartles & Jaymes Company. Every commercial featured Bartles and Jaymes as two country gentlemen sitting on their front porch somewhere in the late afternoon sun with their wine coolers and ended with one of them saying, “Thank you for your support.” The reasons they gave for trying their wine coolers were nothing short of ridiculous most times (i.e. it makes ice look better, etc.) and they acted as if they were kind of dumbfounded about this whole making-a-commercial thing. They were memorable ads to me because I felt we were really getting a behind-the-scenes look at the owners of this company and the way they actually were. Well, it happened again… disenchantment arrived as years later, I found out they were only actors and not the real Bartles & Jaymes at all.

Then there were the shows on TV when I was growing up like the Brady Bunch. I thought this was THE ULTIMATE family. I kept telling my mom I wanted our family to BE the Brady Bunch. It was quite disheartening years later to learn that Mr. Brady, the patriarch of this All-American, happy-go-lucky, nuclear family, felt that this role was beneath him and found it embarrassing that he was part of this enterprise. He was not the easy-going, happy guy he portrayed in the show at all. Greg, the oldest brother on the show, had a real-life crush on his TV mother which put them both in an awkward situation. Marcia, the oldest sister had real-life drug issues and had an ongoing feud with Jan, the middle sister. Bobby, the youngest son was arrested for drunk driving….on and on the list goes. I think finding all this out was actually helpful because it taught me to be careful what you wish for but still….it was another let down.

As we get older, the disillusionments in life gradually increase. There is a point where you finally realize that your parents are only human and not the omnipotent beings you’ve perceived them to be your whole life. This might come when they lose it when they’re trying to deal with all your teenage angst, when they have a health issue, or when you become a parent yourself and realize through your own kids that there are no set parameters and perfect answers to the questions of life.  And so it continues on up and through into your adult years…..People become disillusioned with politics, with marriage, with life, with their dreams, with other people, with laws, and so forth and so on.

But you know, looking at the kids coming up today and seeing what kind of things they’re pelted with in their world as they grow, I’m actually kind of grateful for the disillusionments I had growing up. Somehow, I can’t help but feel relieved that my days were spent watching everyone’s idea of a perfect family instead of the “reality” shows of today where a family’s dirty linen is played out on TV for the “entertainment” of all the world giving kids whose TV time isn’t censored by parents quite the education into the seedier aspects of life. Teenage pregnancy, alcoholism, and not knowing the paternity of a child are no longer something to be ashamed of and hidden, but instead are ratings boosters!

One thing I really like about the shows I watched growing up is that we always knew who the good guys were. Alas, icons like The Fonz, the policemen from CHiPs, and Charlie’s Angels seem tame compared to the pop icons kids have today where a tattoo, time spent in rehab, and an arrest record seem to be not only expected, but badges of honour.
The worst thing I ever had to worry about in school when I screwed up or did something stupid was whether people would talk about me behind my back. Kids today don’t get that luxury….if they make a mistake it’s going to end up on the Internet for all to see forever. Further, I’m actually quite glad that I had dreams of trees that grow gum instead of worrying about being bullied to the point of suicide or getting shot in school.

Even my disappointing toys like Squirmles had an innocent and creative element that isn’t there for kids today with videogames named Destroy All Humans, Resident Evil, Bloody Roar, and Hellfire. Certainly, no version of Atari ever had to have a rating on it and parents didn’t really have to worry about the games their kids were playing were desensitizing the kid to the point that shooting people seemed normal.

And then there are the movies. When we went to see a movie as kids, it was E.T. and the Bad News Bears. As we grew into teens, we graduated to Saturday Night Fever, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Ghostbusters. Now, teens are assailed with movies called The Virgin Suicides, 10 Things I Hate About You, and Kick-Ass.

In comparing the two worlds – then and now, I think I’m actually quite content to have been disillusioned. As a matter of fact, I’m wondering if we, as parents, grandparents, and mentors, shouldn’t make it our goal to ensure our kids are given that chance to become disillusioned by the magic every childhood should have. Where has the time for letting children be children gone? When is their time to dream all the impossible things? I was given the chance to tiptoe into adulthood and I hope that’s a gift I’ve passed down.

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KALEIDOSCOPE (CLUB PROMPT – MOVING)

The year is 1987 and I’m 19 and pregnant with our first child.

What an absolutely different sort of feeling it was – inexpressible really – the day the baby first moved in my tummy. Though at first it began with a very slight somersault only discernible by the feeling that I had just gone down the biggest hill of a roller coaster, it was something that sent tingles through my whole body and thrilling little pulses to the tips of my toes and fingers each time it happened. I couldn’t wait to tell everyone I had finally felt him moving! It seemed an eternity after that first time until I felt it again a few weeks later. Waiting until someone else could feel him moving took forever! How nice it was to be able to share that by putting someone’s hand on my tummy and having them smile along with me though I’m quite sure they weren’t getting the total effect of this movement like I was with my whole body tingling each time. How reassuring it was when I could feel my little baby moving inside me every day letting me know that all was well.

This is what EXCITEMENT AND SERENITY feel like.

The year is 1989 and at 13.5 months, the baby begins to walk on his own.

He is moving where he wants to go and into EVERYTHING! We watch proudly and I call everyone I know to tell them of this fine event. Of course, no one else has ever had such a clever child who has learned to walk! How much easier it is not to have to carry him everywhere! I can get used to this walking business easily.

Pretty soon, it’s not enough to get where he wants to go – now, he wants to get there quickly. He begins then to run, moving himself even faster toward his goals. How exciting!

This is what PRIDE feels like.

The year is 2008. The baby is now 20 years old.

It was just before 1.00a when I bolted upright in bed. My eyes were wide open and I was in a semi-panic mode – goosebumps all over, muscles tense, every nerve in my body on high-alert. I wasn’t thinking yet as I had been soundly asleep, but with every core of my being I knew I had to get up and MOVE! My body was totally tense. Moving only by sheer instinct, I put my feet on the floor and scuttled into the little alcove in the hall right outside our bedroom. The thoughts in my head now were, “Move! Move! Get moving! You have to move,” over and over. I might have said it aloud a few times. I put my back, hands and arms flat up against the wall behind me and tried to make the space between the wall and my body as small as possible. I stayed there against the wall ramrod straight for quite a few minutes. And then, as suddenly as it came, it ended – my goosebumps disappeared, my muscles relaxed, and I felt calm again. I stood there a few minutes more and then went back into bed. I immediately fell back to sleep.

In the morning, I woke up to an e-mail from my older son. He was in a summer program at a university in the Midwest. His e-mail reported that overnight the university had been hit by a tornado. He was checking in so we didn’t worry if we heard about it on the news. He said he was alone in his office when it hit. He wrote, “I knew I needed to move when I realized the window was going to break. The rain and wind had been beating against it for some time, but all of a sudden, it started beating so hard that I knew it would break. That’s when I went out to the long, concrete basement hall with the janitors, other refugees from the tempest. I stood against a wall there with the janitors and listened to the radio for half an hour, until the tornadoes had dissipated.” Fifty feet from the front door, a car had been flipped onto its back. The university had over $20,000,000.00 in damage from the storm. But, hearing him say he “needed to move” and “stood against a wall,” peaked my curiosity. Later, we were talking about all this, figured out the time change, and knew that I must have awakened in my panic at the same moment he was out there living through the tornado.

This is what CONNECTION feels like.

The year is 2010. The baby is now 22.

It has been a heck of a few weeks around here. Two weeks ago, we sat in the stands and watched our boy graduate from college. Sitting next to him at the ceremony in her matching graduation robe was his soon-to-be wife. Thirteen days later, we watched these two kids get married. Now, a week later, here I am standing in my basement surrounded by hundreds of boxes filled with wedding presents, old teddy bears, cookie jars, and the million other tidbits that make up the things that can’t possibly be left behind when newlyweds are moving across the country. The movers are due to arrive at any moment and the kids will follow via airplane tomorrow.

I have been keeping an eye on these boxes for the past few weeks as they started to show up slowly, one load at a time, and then in more of a frenzy once the wedding was done and the arrival of the moving truck drew closer. I monitored all the boxes coming in and used packing tape to further protect some of them. I arranged them artfully in the basement, section by section, being the great organizer that I am. One night, an unzipped duffle bag showed up and when I picked it up it rattled jarringly! I peeked in and there were a bunch of ceramic mugs just tossed in there unprotected! No way would those make a cross-country move like that. I took them all out, wrapped them in bubble wrap, and repacked them in a box. These possessions and boxes would go out into the world with the best chance I could give them. One day, we had a very hard rain with high winds. As it’s typical in western PA to have a bit of water show up in your basement sometimes during storms like this, I ran down to check on the boxes. All was well, but I moved them nearer the center of the room and put them up on bricks anyway, just in case. I was the guardian of the boxes and no harm would come to them on my watch.

Soon enough, the day was upon us. I woke up early and, as usual, immediately went to check on the boxes. Boxes were fine. The truck arrived an hour early. In came three strangers – big men. I showed them where the boxes were and they cheerfully started hefting and shifting the boxes into their large truck. I stood there and watched my boxes disappear one by one. The pile was shifting at an alarming rate. My stomach dropped and I got sort of dizzy. Before I knew it, I was standing there bereft in the middle of my basement with only a few boxes left to be shifted into the truck. Tears were streaming down my face. I think it set in then and there as I cried freely in front of strangers….my boy was moving forward and I was not going along for the ride.

This is what LOSS feels like.

The scenarios above are a kaleidoscope of emotional perspectives on moving. In life, movement is essential and unavoidable. It’s one of the only sure things. The reactions to the movement may vary at different junctures, but as Albert Einstein said, “Life is like riding a bicycle…to keep your balance, you must keep moving.”

THE BOX (CLUB PROMPT – I NEVER FELT SO LONELY)

The assignment was simple….find an orchestra and conduct it. That’s how it started. I was part of a conducting apprenticeship program for high school students in the world of classical music. We had been meeting for a few weeks now and it ended up in this final assignment…supposedly a culmination of all that we had learned and should now be able to employ.

I stumbled around a bit thinking of where in the world one could “find” an orchestra that would let a teenage student actually lead it for 45 minutes. After much thought about this dilemma, I went back to where I had begun…..to a training orchestra I had joined for a year until there was an opening and I moved up into the youth symphony. The conductor that had been with the training orchestra when I was there was retired now, but some of the other leaders there still remembered me. I wrote them a note with my request and held my breath. The response finally came about a week later. I opened the envelope and was thrilled to find out that they would allow me to conduct them for one hour on a given date to music they were currently working on – one problem solved. However, problem two quickly arose…..I was not familiar with the music they had chosen and had only 2 weeks to get ready. There was much to do so I got busy!

Two weeks later, the day had come. I was back where I started awaiting the end of the usual 15-minute break when my time would be at hand. I had asked my uncle to videotape the session so I could provide the tape to the apprenticeship program for critique as asked. He was there waiting too.

As the room filled back up with the student musicians, only one of whom I knew, my heart stepped up a beat. At last, the conductor introduced me to the orchestra and told them the plan. I had one run through and then we would tape for my class – no time for error here.

Slowly, I went to the podium and took that giant step up. I felt like the first astronaut stepping out onto the moon. How strange it felt to then be confined to a 3-foot by 3-foot box 12 inches off the floor. Not something you think about until you’re up there. I was hopeful I wouldn’t fall off.

I turned to face the orchestra and that’s when I began to shake. I noticed then that my uncle was even filming this initial run through. I saw the conductor and other leaders had taken seats in the back and were watching me intently – the training orchestra also on a new elevation – training a student conductor. I was too nervous to speak, to smile, or to even say hello – I couldn’t look anyone in the eye. I believe it was then that the reality set in and I realized I had NO IDEA what I was doing and no idea how to begin. Hundreds of eyes on me and I was totally blank. I think I stopped breathing for a few seconds at this point. I never felt so lonely in a room full of people.

Finally, the concertmaster, the only student I knew in that orchestra, looked up and whispered, “Take a deep breath and let’s go.” And so I did. I raised the baton and began the count imagining I was back in my bedroom in front of the mirrors where I had practiced and practiced for this moment. When the baton came down and the music began, I knew then where I was. The grand sweep of the score from my new perch was even more breathtaking than sitting in an audience in a grand concert hall or playing in the orchestra. It was a heady moment for a 17-year-old – my prelude to music from a new plateau – my 3-foot by 3-foot box, 12 inches off the floor – a much better view!

THE ALARM CLOCK (CLUB PROMPT – I NEVER FELT SO LONELY)

F. Scott Fitzgerald writes in The Great Gatsby that, “The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole life fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.” In a lifetime, these moments come more often than we’d like. Sometimes, it’s a wake-up call. Other times, we’re not so lucky.

My friend lost her 10-year-old son to cancer. It was a short fight – less than a year. I’ll never forget when they got the diagnosis and she told her son they would FIGHT this and they would WIN. Over and over, that was her creed to him – “We will beat this!” Every radiation session that brought lower numbers she told him, “You are winning!” One day, he asked her, “Mommy, what if cancer wins?” What a question! She told me then of the emptiness in her when he asked. How could she possibly answer?

For months and now a few years after he left her, she continues to miss him so terribly. She is a changed person – she is missing part of her soul. She continually asks me what she is to do with the extra piece of love she has reserved in her heart just for him. How can I answer?

How can anyone relate to how lonely she feels?

The husband in this story was sent on a Sisyphean task – to earn more money than he could ever make to afford the treatments his child needed. The last months of his son’s life, he was not able to be with him every moment but labored instead to try and meet the need of the future that never was and the family that still is. How hard would it be to go out into the world to deal with the family’s needs as a whole when all he wanted to do was to hold his son close for the precious time that was left?

I’m sure I have never felt so alone.

I was an adult the day I first saw my grandmother cry – it was the day Grandpa left us. In a moment, it hollowed her out. The disconnection of a tube and she was on her own. My grandmother had always been an exclamation point in my life – There was no doubt. There was no weakness. There was no question about what she thought. I was shocked when she broke.

In the following months and few years she had left, she kept herself busy with things, but it was always obvious she was missing that one vital piece. She spoke of the house where they had lived with great sentiment, but when offered a chance to go back she refused – she knew it wouldn’t be the same. Her other half had gone on and she was just here marking time.

I have never had to feel this lonely.

My dad has always been another rock-solid person in my life. He never got ill. He never took a sick day. He was responsible. He was hard-working. He was sturdy. All that was true, until the day I fainted in his hospital room. He’d had a major heart attack while out jogging. It was the first time I’d ever seen him not 110 percent. My mind could not process this dad in a hospital bed with tubes in him and looking so pale.

That night, I went home with my mom. She cried all night. She was so upset I thought certainly no body and mind could contain so much sadness. She cried for him over and over and over again. I was overwhelmed with the fervent outpouring. She moaned, cried, and wailed until she was a sagging scrap of emotion.

I’m sure I can’t comprehend the lonely place she was that night. It was almost as if I wasn’t there – she was far away and alone in her own mind.

One day last year, my dad called me on the phone. This is a rare and unusual thing that almost never happens – my antennae were immediately up and twitching. Mom was in hospital. She’d had a stroke. I went there to see her. She seemed normal to me – up walking and talking. This couldn’t be real. All night that night, I kept waking up with the question on my lips, “Mom had a stroke?” I’d sleep and wake up asking the question each time. I could not fathom a world where my base was not intact. I could not imagine having no place to take every little morsel of my life to share. I couldn’t picture a world without the purest and most unconditional love of my life to hold me up. In other words, I could not fathom a world without my mom.

For certain, I have never felt so lonely.

Luckily for me, both these issues with my parents were wake-up calls and i still have them here to help me soldier on. But times like these happen in everyone’s lives. What matters is that we realize these moments come and when we’re lucky, we can use them as a wake-up call to really recognize what’s important in our lives and to never take it for granted for one moment. All too soon, there will be no more wake-up calls and the alarm will go off. This will be the moment when you recognize that your world is falling apart and all you can do is stare blankly. You’ll realize then, you’ve never felt so alone.