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Some teenagers take to driving like a duck takes to water. I was not one of those teenagers. I was more like a chicken taking to water or a cat or any creature that drowns just by looking at water.
The sad truth is that I wore down many driving instructors. Driving disaster incidents included, but were not limited to: plowing through shed doors, running over blueberry bushes, sliding up onto a student-filled sidewalk on a busy college campus, and plunging into a twenty-foot snow drift by hitting the gas, gas, gas, instead of the brake, brake, brake!
So, by my mid-twenties, I still had no license and had pretty much alienated even the most forgiving of teachers. I was down to one woman and her boyfriend who instructed me from the back seat, for safety’s sake, while I risked their lives and limbs behind the steering wheel in the front seat. Let’s call them Valerie and Butch.
You may wonder how these two managed their fear. Well, they did not have nerves of steel. However, I will tell you a little secret: just before each lesson, they partook of inhaled relaxation enhancement. I do not recommend this. I am just reporting the facts.
One of the most exciting (read: dangerous) driving habits I had developed over the years was to stare at my rear view mirror while driving down the road. Somehow, I was fascinated by the Possible Danger that Might Lurk Behind Us. I didn’t really think much about Actual Danger that Existed In Front of Us.
One day, after I swerved a little too close toward oncoming traffic, Butch covered his eyes and screamed. Valerie, a valiant woman of action, leaned forward and flipped up the rear view mirror. “What’s wrong with you? You’ve got to look ahead. Stop looking back.”
Yes, that was a draconian response to my little driving peccadillo, but it worked. I began to concentrate on what was in front of me and after much effort, passed my license exam and became the stellar driver I am today.
Why I am I telling this story? Well, I’ll try not to murder this metaphor, but I’ve learned that in Real Life I can be preoccupied with my rear view mirror, regretting past actions, rehearsing and nursing grudges. I can spend so much time entangled in those thoughts that not only do I forget to fully experience and deeply enjoy the present, I also neglect to look ahead and prepare for what is coming. Yes, we can and should learn from the past, but if our eyes are only and always fixed on the rear view mirror, we miss the present and are unable to navigate toward the future.
So, with the new year approaching, perhaps this may be a resolution to consider: When you’re driving down the road of life, (oh no, not another bad metaphor!), remember to look forward through the window, not back in the mirror.
- Two minutes after we sit down to dinner, Ian chokes on a Brussels sprout. This supports my opinion that Brussels sprouts, for many reasons, are not A Safe Food Choice.
- Then, Grandpa Jimmy, wearing a droopy-sleeved fisherman’s sweater, reaches across our candlelit table, trying to gain access to the bowl of Brussels sprouts. This immediately results in him setting his droopy sleeve on fire—thus reinforcing my Brussels sprout/safety theory. As we douse the flames, Grandpa thinks the whole thing is uproariously funny.
- Trying to do a good deed, Eric decides he will cool off Grandpa by bringing him some Coke with ice. No more than five seconds after Eric carefully places it next to Grandpa, we hear a POP and the glass explodes (I’m not lying) sending ice, Coke and blue shards across the table (further increasing the risk factor of eating the Brussels sprouts).
My dad is an easy-going fellow, a lover of peace, the first one to wave an olive branch when everyone else is still swinging bloody battle axes.
He’s easy-going except when it comes to his garden—a tiny plot of land planted with tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, pole beans, parsley and basil. The garden patch always kept fresh vegetables on the table until one summer when a ground hog moved into our yard on Lantern Hill. Each morning, my father awoke to find the remains of the previous night’s ground hog feast.
“Ground hogs can’t swim. Flush him out,” advised Louie, my dad’s plumber friend.
So, Dad hooked up an industrial-sized hose. He slipped it into the mouth of the hole. Then he turned on the water full blast. The water gushed for many minutes before my father noticed peculiar happenings at the other end of the yard.
Apparently, the ground hog had created two entries to his abode, the second being near a shed. By the time my dad noticed this fact, water was flowing into the storage unit, heading toward old end tables, lawn furniture, and stacks of picnic paper goods.
Not one to give up easily, my dad asked his pinochle buddies for advice. Nick, a retired air conditioning repairman said, “You gotta do it clean and easy. Gas the little fur ball.”
Intuitively, my dad knew that my mother would not approve of this method. So, he waited until a Sunday afternoon when she was safely off at the opera. The only witness to his activities was my ninety-four year old grandmother who sat inside the glassed-in sunroom. He didn’t worry about her, because he figured she couldn’t see all that well.
My dad drove his tractor to the hole, connected crinkly black tubing to the exhaust pipe, and then snaked the tube as far as he could down into the opening. Dad turned on the engine and waited hopefully.
Apparently, gas did not spoil the groundhog’s appetite. The nascent pole beans were gone the next morning.
Stymied and desperate, my father talked with my lunatic uncle about his problem. Uncle Bruno did something with explosives during one of the wars and had two fingers missing on his right hand to prove it.
Bruno told my father, “Hey Jimmy, you gotta blow him up. Fried ground hog. It’ll be fun.”
So on Tuesday morning, when my mother always took Grandma and great aunt Angie shopping, Dad and Bruno poured gasoline down into the ground hog hole. Then, they soaked a thin cotton rope with gas and dropped one half the length into the opening. The other (unsoaked) half they stretched across a few feet of lawn. They placed a metal garbage can lid over the hole. I never heard the rationale behind the lid.
Bruno tried to light one end of the fuse, but it kept going out. So, they poured a little gas on the whole length that lay above ground. Bruno dropped a match on one end and they both ran for cover. Within a few seconds, flames ripped down the fuse and straight into the hole. A great explosion sent the flaming lid several feet up into the branches of a cedar tree which immediately caught on fire.
Fortunately, my father hadn’t put away the hose since the water fiasco. So, after a while (and most importantly for him, before my mother got home), my dad was able to douse the flames.
And the ground hog? All that stress made him head for comfort food. That evening, he ate his way through the plum tomatoes, taking a large bite out of each one.
By the end of the summer, the score stood at Ground hog–Four, Dad–Zero.
Well, my dad has returned to his peace-loving ways. All-out war was never in his nature anyway.
My father has decided that sometimes you need to shift your perspective in order to cope with intractable problems in life. He tells people, “You know, it’s all a matter of how you look at things.”
Now, when asked about that fat furry brown creature rooting around his garden, my father replies, “Oh that? He’s my pet ground hog.”
*The names in this story have been changed to protect the guilty.
The phrase performance anxiety has a special meaning for my husband and me. For us, the term refers to the cold sweat that covers us whenever our middle son takes to the stage or playing field. We don’t worry whether he’ll shine in the spotlight or excel in a game. Rather, we just hope for a catastrophe-free performance of whatever it is he’s doing.
For the past twenty-odd years, we’ve watched Eric give piano recitals, sing, dance, and act in theatrical productions and play various sports. No matter what, Eric exudes confidence and enthusiasm for the enterprise before him. However, watching him perform is like being blindfolded on an enormous roller coaster ride. It’s fun. It’s exciting. But it’s also terrifying because you never know how the ride will end.
When Eric was nine, he had a piano teacher who ran a tight ship. She would coach the parents and students ahead of recitals, “No coughing or sneezing, and no flash photography.”
At one memorable recital, Eric had to play two pieces. Totally at ease, he smiled at the audience, then sat at the piano. He plunged into the classical song, making it to the end without major mishap. We exhaled.
As it turned out, we exhaled too soon. Next, he started in on Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer. Eric tended to play this piece faster and faster until it degenerated into a whirling dervish of frenzied sound. At home, in order to hold him back, we forced Eric to practice with a metronome.
But on stage, Eric let restraint fly to the wind. By the middle of the song, his fingers approached the speed of light. Of course, it is a basic principle of physics that the speed of sound cannot keep up with the speed of light. For a full three minutes, musical chaos ensued.
At this point, a normal child might have panicked or might have been paralyzed by embarrassment. Not Eric. He kept grinning and nodding to the audience, fully enjoying his improvisational journey.
I sneaked a glance around the room. Usually, when a kid flubs up on stage, parents paste a frozen smile onto their faces. Not these folks. Everyone was grinning right back. We had a regular love fest going on.
Miraculously, Eric discovered the last few measures of Joplin’s original melody line and ended with an enthusiastic flourish. Then, the child bowed so low, we thought the he’d tip right over. The audience responded with high-energy applause.
After the recital, we congratulated Eric. I didn’t mention his melodic wandering. My goal was for him to have a non-traumatic recital experience, which he did. Let the teacher handle quality control.
Eric’s response to our congratulations was “Yeah. That went great. I got a little lost during The Entertainer. But nobody knows that song anyway.”
When he was in fifth grade, Eric’s elementary school decided to perform The Pirates of Penzance, quite a theatrical challenge for children. Assigned the part of the Major-General, ten-year-old Eric spent hours listening to the Linda Ronstadt/Kevin Kline production of the operetta. In his sleep, he’d sing, “I am the very model of a modern Major-General, I’ve information vegetable, animal and mineral…”
Not having a Gilbert and Sullivan mini-orchestra on hand, the elementary school used canned music to back up their singers. As he practiced the song, most of Eric’s effort was directed toward singing it fast enough. He struggled to fit in all those long words in such short musical spaces.
The night of the performance, Eric raced for the finish line. He belted out all the lyrics of the piece a full four measures before the canned music ended. Then, with a look of pure victory, he bowed to the audience.
A few years later, Eric’s piano teacher (a different one by now) scheduled a recital in a fancy retirement community. There were chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, pretty murals on the wall and a thick rose-colored rug covering the floor. Elderly residents and family members of the young musicians made up the audience.
Eric planned to perform a lengthy and complex sonatina. He began pounding away, giving those keys a workout. In fact, he was pure hell on that piano.
About midway into the sonatina, Eric’s fingering seemed weird. He looked as if he were doing a Chico Marx imitation of piano playing. You know Chico–he’s the Marx brother who used his thumb and pinkie to pick out fancy riffs on the piano.
By the end of the piece, I noticed a horrified look on his piano teacher’s face. Playing so hard, Eric had cut his finger on what must have been a chipped key. Blood dripped all over the keyboard and down onto that nice rose-colored rug. The accident didn’t faze Eric one bit. He just gave a slight bow and raised his bloody hand in the air, as if he were a prizefighter.
You may wonder, what kind of child needs a haz-mat crew to clean up body fluids after a piano recital? The kind of child who visits the emergency room seven times in thirteen months with sports accidents. That kind of child.
I’ll spare you the details regarding those mishaps. I’ll just tell you about the very last one when Eric lacerated his scalp playing paintball. He walked into the house a bloody mess. We knew we had to take him to the hospital, we couldn’t bear the thought of seeing all those familiar ER faces a seventh time in one year. So, instead, we drove to a community hospital in another part of town where they used eight staples to repair his scalp.
We thought the paintball accident might deter Eric, but no. Just after he started attending University of Virginia, he also signed on to a professional paintball team based in San Diego, California. So, for most of his college years, he spent Tuesdays through Thursdays in class in Charlottesville. Then, at least twice each month, he traveled (Thursday through Mondays) with his team all over the country and all over the world (Spain, Puerto Rico, Australia). I am a staunch pacifist and my husband is an eye surgeon. So as you may imagine, it’s taken us a while to adjust to the irony of Eric’s career choice.
Now, Eric lives in New York City and works for a sports company. On weekends, he plays on a professional paint ball team based out of Baltimore. Is our worrisome, thrilling and fun-filled roller coaster ride over? Probably not.
I guess parenting never ends. Lately, I’ve been having visions of my husband and me in our nineties, cheering for seventy-year-old Eric during his golf game, all the while wondering whether he’s going to find a way to injure himself or create a spectacle. But really, I can’t think of anything else we’d rather be doing.
“People expect too much from speaking and too little from silence.” – Henri Nouwen, The Genesee Diary