Thursday, July 26, 2012

Who needs Disneyland?

We've never had much trouble thinking of things to do with our youngest grandsons. After all, most of the time we spend with them is at our part-time place on the North Carolina shore, where the beach is always a hop, skip and a jump away. I was pretty sure we'd be able to keep them engaged and entertained when we met their parents halfway between Galva and Carolina to grab the boys for a mid-summer visit a couple of weeks ago. But you never know how a six and four-year-old will react to their first extended trip away from mom and dad, and I wondered if they'd be happy spending all that time with us.
"Take 'em to Disneyland," suggested one friend. "They'll never forget it."
"Me either," I thought. "Like every month when the Visa statement comes."
Actually I'm sure we will do the Disney thing one day with all our kids and grandkids, but this time, the boys got to visit a whole series of theme parks that are all part and parcel of what I've come to think of as "GrandmaLand,"
Now, I wouldn't exactly characterize my own approach to parenting (and grand-parenting) as lazy. No, I prefer terms like "laid back" and "liberating." The grandma-lady, though, has always been more of a hands-on type, filled with energy and ideas for ways to have fun, experience something new and learn a few things along the way. But we wholeheartedly agree that successful child-rearing requires both frenzied activity and hit-and-miss meals, which translates to the parenting style that got us through with our own sons:  "Keep 'em tired and keep 'em hungry and they'll always sleep and eat when you want them to."
After a fun farewell family night spent at a Knoxville, Tennessee hotel with a built-in mini-waterpark, we headed north with Cyrus and John Patrick. A stop at historic Fort Boonsborough in the Kentucky hills took care of the educational portion of the ride home to Illinois, and we gave the two travelers a couple of days to adapt until things got busier still. A 500-mile trip north introduced the young Carolinians to Wisconsin, with a stop at a favored family spot along Lake Geneva. By nightfall, we were in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where a surprise party was planned to mark my sister and brother-in-law's wedding anniversary. It was the first opportunity for the little boys to meet a veritable treasure trove of cousins, aunts and uncles, plus experience the wild grandeur of one of our favorite places in the whole wide world. The morning after the party, three generations of family members hiked up Sugarloaf Mountain, then headed for the beach for swimming, boat rides, fireworks and firelit songs and s'mores. The young adventurers beach-camped with us on the shores of Lake Superior, sleeping under a sky that was incredibly lit by the most amazing display of Northern Lights I've ever seen.
Heading south again, we visited another favorite spot--Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo--when the temperature was a hundred and one.  The lions hid in the shade, the rhinos stayed dug deep in the mud, and the ostrich sat still in the cooling mist of a nearby sprinkler. But never fear, the monkeys--and boys, too--were in fine flying form, and that's all that mattered.
But it seemed to me the best times of all happened at our house, where they experienced the amazing kind of kid freedom that can only be enjoyed in a small town. The boys were wide-eyed when we told them they were free to go across the street and into the park that borders our front yard as long as they stayed in sight and checked in from time to time. They conquered the playground equipment, discovered our old croquet set and hit golf balls with a set of clubs newly inherited from an older cousin. They made friends with neighborhood grandkids, shot hoops with a Galva basketball legend and put up sweet corn with grandma and a friend. They were young gentlemen when we took them to see the Pirates of Penzance at the Orpheum Theatre, old hands when they gamely tried to stay up late for a double feature at the Autovue Drive-Inn, and suddenly notorious when they took a neighbor's Shih Tzu on a dizzying ride down the tornado slide in the middle of the park.
They learned that the deck out back is a great spot for breakfast, that the Galva pool is the only place to be on a hot afternoon, and that the best way to spend a warm summer evening is catching fireflies in grandma's front yard. But best of all, we think they've truly learned to love the place they've called "the snowy house" ever since they saw their first real winter here a couple of Christmases ago.
I have to admit, it seems longer than a couple of weeks since we picked up the boys. Not because time has dragged, but because of the sheer volume of activities, people and places they (and we) have encountered along the way. But I heard son Patrick on the phone with young John the other day, teaching him to say, "help, I've been kidnapped,"  so I guess it's time to take the two of them home.
We hope they'll remember Galva and "the snowy house" as a special place. As a place they want to visit, again and again. We know we've remembered the joys of boys, with laughter in our ears and love in our hearts.
Come again. Come again soon.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The death of a Trooper

Bang the drum slowly.
My beloved 1994 Isuzu Trooper died suddenly--once and for all--just a few days before the Fourth of July. I was hoping it was nothing serious, but, the prognosis was not good and my old-car repair budget is small. So I pulled the plug on the trusty, rusty machine.
I spent a last few minutes with the big green beast the other day, pulling a wild mix of stuff from the back storage area and glove compartment, including a decade's worth of registration forms, oil-change receipts, two sets of jumper cables, a tow chain, miscellaneous tools and musical equipment, and three big bags of old clothes I've been meaning to take to Goodwill since that time I cleaned out my closet back in my senior year of high school.
Then, without a look back, I walked away from the old car.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not getting all sentimental and sappy about a car. But, I've gotta admit, I'm gonna miss it. Throughout its life as our family vehicle, and even since it made the ignominious transition from the "good" car to "my" car, it has served us well, hauling us just about anywhere we wanted to go in all kinds of weather, and starting virtually every time I asked it to, right up until to the morning when it wouldn't start at all. Even then, I guess I should be grateful it decided to die at home, and not on some out-of-the-way country road or in the breakdown lane of a crowded interstate highway.
It's been nearly fifteen years and more than a quarter million miles since we bought the new-to-us SUV at the anxious urging of our younger son, who was then a sophomore in high school and a newly minted driver. Looking back, I realize he was desperate to get behind the wheel of something besides the baby blue mini-van that then represented the top end of our family fleet.
I can't say I blamed him. I was, too.
While the Trooper was generally a model of dependability and performance throughout most of its lengthy career, readers of this column may remember that it--like many of us--did develop some quirks during its golden years. Specifically, it began to shed certain functions that it, apparently, considered nonessential to efficient operation, including the radio, interior lights and the air conditioning except when traveling downhill. Most peculiar, though, was when the otherwise good-hearted vehicle got a little testy and developed a dangling left front door that had to be held shut with a complex combination of straps and bungee cords, lest it fly open and eject an unsuspecting driver into the oncoming traffic flow.
I'm probably going to have to look for another car eventually, but there's really no big hurry. Our Carolina son and wife are starting to wonder when we're going to return the grandchildren we borrowed over a week ago, so we'll be on the road for a while fairly soon. And even when we're around, we seem more and more able to share a car, thanks to schedules that are more flexible than they used to be.
"It'll be like when we were first married," she said, remembering the days when a one-car status was a financial necessity.
"I hope not," I muttered, as I recalled all the times she forgot to pick me up at work.
But I think the main reason I'm in no hurry to get out there and haunt the used-car lots is that there really aren't that many vehicles out there that I'm especially interested in owning. At least, not that I can afford.
So, I'll keep my eyes open.
Maybe I'll find another Trooper. Or maybe it's time for that red convertible. Or a baby-blue mini-van.
In the meantime, if you see me standing on the street in front of my house with a confused look on my face, don't worry too much.
It's going to take some time to remember it's gone.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Just how hot is it, anyway?

I suppose there were probably a couple of places warmer than my house last week. Like the surface of the sun or the gates of hell, maybe.  I was all but certain I had found one of the hottest spots on the planet when we headed all the way up to the Fargo area the weekend before the Fourth to help son Colin and his family move to a new home. After spending their first few years in the area living in a modern townhouse in a treeless, edge-of-town housing development, they've moved to a single family home in a tree-lined neighborhood, not far from a riverside park and the university where my daughter-in-law teaches.
"They've moved to a house with character," noted my spouse.
Yeah, and without air conditioning, too.
Central air has never been a priority in an area where summer usually only means a few days of bad ice fishing. But whether it's a sign of global warming, a coming apocalypse or just plain bad luck, folks on the northern plains have been experiencing the same kind of mild winters, warm springs and hot, hot summers as the rest of us. It's been a while since I've been involved in the box-bustling, couch-coaxing process of moving. And really, Colin and crew had taken care of most of the big stuff, with just some cleaning chores and furniture arranging left for the two of us.
A good thing, too, because even moving a few boxes, vacuuming a couple of rooms, mowing the lawn and washing some windows had me sweating buckets in the unaccustomed northland heat. I was sorry to leave them, but a little relieved when it was time to retrace our steps in order to get home in time for the fabulous Fourth of July celebration in my hometown. It was a great day, but unless you were lucky enough to be accidently locked into an ice machine, you know just how hot it was. I thought about it while participating in the near-death experience of mowing the lawn on the afternoon of the third, and decided it would be worthwhile to prepare myself for the weather-related comments that were sure to come from the friends and family members that would gather on my porch the next day. That night, I scoured the internet for hot-weather facts designed to both amuse and educate my audience. I imagined the lightning-quick commentary I'd provide at the first mention of weather and the record-setting temperatures.
"Hot one, eh?"
It was just the opening I had been hoping for.
"Yeah, it's pretty toasty, all right," I'd say. "But nothing like the Lut desert in southeastern Iran."
My comprehensive internet search had armed me with the fact that a 2005 NASA study indicated soil temperatures that reached about 160 degrees in the region, making it the hottest spot on earth.
Likewise, I had learned that the aptly-named Flaming Mountains of Turfan in northwest China's Xinjiang province are a place where the temperature has been know to reach 122 degrees, and that the hot, dry area near Ahwaz, Iran gets less than an inch of rain per year and averages 116 degrees in the month of July. I discovered that Timbuktu borders the Sahara Desert and once had a recorded high of 130 degrees, along with spring temps of 108 and wintertime highs in the 90s. But, I planned to save my favorite for last--Death Valley, California, the lowest place in the Western Hemisphere at 280 feet below sea level and the site of the highest temperature ever measured in the U.S. back in 1913--134 degrees!
That's the stuff I was going to share with my guests on that sweltering Independence Day, and I'm sure they would have been impressed.
"That John sure knows his weather facts," they'd say.
And they'd be right.
But as I looked around at the crowd on my porch as they did their best to beat the sweltering heat, I realized I might just want to save my new-found treasure trove of knowledge for another, cooler time. Because if there was one thing they didn't need that day, it was any more hot air.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Oh say can you see?

If there's one thing you heard yesterday, along with the pop-pop-pop of illicit fireworks and the BOOM-KA-BOOM of the real thing, it was probably--hopefully--the song that starts with these words.

"Oh say can you see at the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?"

The song, of course, is "The Star-Spangled Banner," our national anthem. It's a stirring piece of music, based on a poem written during the War of 1812 by Francis Scott Key and set to a well-known English tune of the day.  The original was four verses long, though I'd challenge just about anyone to come up with a word of stanzas two through four without assistance.
Heck, a lot of folks have trouble with the first one. And with just singing the song as it was written.
It requires a vocal reach of an octave-and-a-half, which, while a little demanding, should be no real challenge for a competent singer who knows enough to start low in order to successfully reach the high parts. None the less, it's been butchered by a whole host of pro warblers and other celebs, including Christina Aguilera (forgot the words), Hillary Clinton (forgot the mic was on), and Roseanne Barr (should have forgotten to show up in the first place.) Other renderings of the venerated anthem have seen it transformed into a variety of rock/pop/funk/soul/country versions, often with less-than-stellar results.
Key wrote the poem with the song in mind while watching the British blast the bejeebers out of Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore.  He had no idea that the likes of Michael Bolton, Cyndi Lauper, American Idol winner Scotty McCreery and Aerosmith frontman/Idol judge Steven Tyler would go on to blast his words and work into near-unrecognizability.
Of course, not all of the big-venue renditions have been busts.
Check out the Dixie Chicks' rich, but simple arrangement at the 2003 Super Bowl, Whitney Houston's definitive performance at Super Bowl XXV or Beyonce Knowles' sensational singing job at Super Bowl XXXVIII. Dig a little deeper, and you'll find a nifty harmonic rendering by Phish at a New Jersey Nets game, Jose Feliciano's much-maligned, guitar-and-voice interpretation before Game Five of the 1968 World Series, Marvin Gaye's questioned, but oh-so-smooth adaptation at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game and the ultimate surprise, a sweet, poignant rendering by Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and Vince Welnick of the Grateful Dead before a 1993 San Francisco Giants' game.
But my all-time fave was one of the most contentious, at the time, at least.
During the final set of the historic Woodstock music festival, Jimi Hendrix let loose with a stunning rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner on electric guitar that's been called one of the most important political rock statements of the 1960s and the Vietnam era.  Even today, music scholars can't agree on what message Hendrix's screaming guitar and ballistic feedback was trying to deliver. Using a whammy bar and a fuzz box, Hendrix captured the sound of falling bombs and screaming rockets, of ultimate victory and crushing despair. Some saw it as an update on patriotism--stars and stripes turned psychedelic--while others claimed they couldn't even recognize the melody. Musically, it was a shot heard 'round the world, as it changed our national anthem from a traditional marching-band piece into a bombastic vehicle for solo electric guitar during a period of time when our nation was bursting at the seams over the very definition of America and patriotism.
 “I’m American, so I played it. I didn’t think it was unorthodox,” Hendrix said. “I thought it was beautiful.
He was right. it was.
It still is, in fact.
Both the song and the nation it stands for.