Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Stories that Stick

A few friends with young children recently experienced the most magical of all spring vacations: a trip to Disney World.

Oh, my absolute envy. If I could, I'd make a pilgrimage to that Mecca of the Mouse every single year. My own Disney trips with my children evoke such exciting, heartwarming memories. Except... honestly... even as my mind races to recall these vacations, I remember very little. Neither do my two grown sons.

The passing of time is only partly to blame. I think the real reason these memories are vague is because the trips were perfectly pleasant--and not blemished by any tiny disasters.

And seriously: What fun is perfection?

Of the twenty or so vacations my sons and I have taken together, the one we remember most fondly is the Spring Break from Hell.

My sister DC is to thank--or to fault--for this. (She's at fault for much in my life, including my Barbie's fall from grace to a pin-pricked voodoo doll.) A few years ago, DC craved a last-minute escape from the harsh spring of Ohio. She booked a trip with her daughter to the only southern destination available through her time-share trade. With no plans ourselves, my boys and I joined them.

None of us can name the tiny mid-state Alabama town where we landed. I doubt it even exists on a U.S. map. What we haven't forgotten is desperately biding our time by renting dozens of movies from a video store where the clerk told us the nearby Walmart was the hub--nay, the heart--of the entire county. (We spent the next day there, and she was spot-on. Everyone who isn't anyone was there.) What we also remember is eating Easter dinner at a barbecue buffet where shoes appeared optional. And as far as our escaping to the sunny south? One needed a parka, which none of us packed, to venture outside at all. (We did so anyway. But we did wear shoes. With socks.)

A freaking catastrophe of a trip. But looking back at it now? Best. Vacation. Ever.

That experience was much like my other favorite vacation memories.

Of all my college-era camping trips, just one clear memory remains: the weekend thwarted by such a downpour that we slept in our cars and spent our waking hours huddled under a dense stand of trees. (Yes, lightening struck all around us, but we were young; beer trumped common sense.) Ravenous, we eyed our rations: potato chips and a pack of hot dogs. My friend John (rest in peace, Mr. Burgermeister) pulled out a paperback he was reading. He speared it with a stick and lit it afire with his Zippo. We shielded ourselves from the storm and singed our hot dogs over the sputtering flames. "It wasn't a very good book anyway," he said with a shrug.

I remember nothing about another camping trip my sisters and I took to Assateague Island in the eighties, except the part where the wild ponies knocked down our tent as we slept inside.

On a recent trip to New York City, two friends and I dined at world-renowned restaurants and saw a terrific Broadway show. So what do we recall when we discuss this trip? We talk about the drive home through the mountains when one of us had the highly unfortunate experience of needing to go to the bathroom---pronto--without a rest stop or exit for miles. We laughed, she cried, she crossed her legs. Oh, what memories our sadistic potty humor made during that single half-hour (which seemed likely seemed a century to her).

These are the stories that stick in our lives. What we recall forever are seldom the most perfectly executed experiences. Our best memories tend to be those moments that catch us off-guard. The little calamities. The lamented misfortune that at the time makes us hang our heads and yet weeks, or even years later, prompts us to turn to each other, grin and say, "Oh my God, remember that?"

If we want to collect a lifetime of happy memories, maybe what we need is a little bad luck.

I'm hoping to get seriously lost on my next road trip. To face nightmarish weather that causes me to alter my carefully planned agenda. To experience some tiny disaster that turns the vacation of my dreams into the trip from hell.

Oh, the horror I'll endure!

And later, I'll inevitably smile and think, damn, was that fun.

Any vacation catastrophes to share? Low points in your life that somehow became high points? Want more details on how you, too, can spend your spring vacation at an Alabama Walmart?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Playing Truth or Dare

Our favorite game in junior high was Truth or Dare.

Nearly everyone at my Catholic school picked the Dare, even when playing the game in our most reckless venue of all--weekly Mass. (Years later, I've come to hope God possesses a good sense of humor. And a short memory.)

We believed choosing the Dare proved our confidence and our courage, two attributes that play heavily in a thirteen-year-old's popularity.

Even then though, I knew the Dare was the safer choice. Answering a difficult personal question with honesty? This required true bravery. At thirteen, we're far too guarded and insecure to open ourselves up to that transparency, vulnerability or potential peer disapproval. It's a self-defense mechanism which becomes even more ingrained as we grow older.

Hiding from the Truth is a game we play much of our lives.

When we confront difficult personal issues, we tend to evade. We conceal. We occasionally outright lie. Sometimes we're not honest with someone else. Sometimes we're not honest with ourselves. Denying certain Truths, especially troublesome ones, is always easier than acknowledging them.

On a night out a few years ago with a group of girlfriends, someone suggested a grown-up game of Truth or Dare. We quickly dismissed the option of Dare. What are we, kids? No, we most certainly are not. We laughed. Just as friends don't let friends drive drunk, middle-aged friends don't let middle-aged friends run outdoors in their skivvies.

The rules were simple: Each woman in the group would ask one question, and everyone had to answer. We agreed the questions should be thought-provoking yet benign. After all, we were out that night to relieve our stress, not to magnify it.

Choice of plastic surgery? Nose, boobs and all the usual suspects.

Biggest fear? We toyed with the common themes of flying, of tornadoes, of heights. But every one of us with children eventually gave the same answer.

Number of men with whom you've slept? Ah, maybe not such a benign query, this one! Of all the questions, it caused the most consternation and cringing. We tried to veil our surprise at the woman who answered "just one" as well as the woman who said she'd long ago lost count.

Then we came to my--seemingly mild--question:

If you could succeed at being anything in life (actual talent not a factor), what would you be?

We nodded and smiled at the responses: Broadway actress, singer/songwriter, president of the United States. We turned to the last friend in the circle, awaiting her answer.

"My dreams aren't as exciting as all of yours." She hesitated. "Because honestly, if I could choose to be anything, I'd still choose to be a housewife." She looked away, then added in a near whisper, "But I would want to be a happy one."

The table fell silent. None of us would ever have guessed her wish. Because most of us had no knowledge of her reality.

We weren't able to provide a solution to her situation. What we offered her that night was a roundtable of empathy and sympathy, and a bit of friendship-inspired therapy.

I can't be sure she's found peace even now, but just maybe she feels less burdened and less alone in facing the Truth. Maybe she's succeeded at the first crucial step which will allow her to face the next step, whatever that might be.

Truth or Dare is a tough game at any age.

But by daring ourselves to acknowledge one key Truth, maybe we can find answers to other important questions in the bigger game of life.

Have you ever lied to yourself?
What's the most frightening or embarrassing Dare you ever accepted? If you could be anything, without the possibility of failure, what would you be?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Mercury in Retrograde

We interrupt our normally scheduled blog programming to vent and rant and moan and bitch.

These are the events of our last few days:

We pay the $143 traffic ticket for the car accident which was *apparently* our fault.

We also pay the carpet cleaning company (we choose not to read the exact amount on the credit card receipt) for steam-cleaning the one-year-old carpet which they cleaned just two months ago but which has now suffered the wrath of an exploding jar of salsa brought about by an unnamed individual whom we may--or we may not--allow to live.

We venture to the post office to sign for a certified letter from our insurance company that is written in such horrifically standard legalize that we read it three times before finally comprehending the meaning, which is that they may--or they may not--cover the estimated $2,000 damage to the other car in the aforementioned accident, because we may--or we may not--have reinstated our coverage for the winter-stored vehicle we were driving.

We dwell on this possibility from approximately 2 a.m. to 5 a.m., finally concluding that if indeed we are responsible for these damages, we can pay for them by scraping the bottom of our savings account barrel which we had planned to use to replace the huge arched window that somehow managed to simply drop out of its second-story socket and crash to the ground.

We experience a fleeting glimmer of hope that perhaps a portion of one of these costs can be covered by our 2010 tax return, about which we are awaiting word from the accountant who is currently mulling over our likely incomplete paperwork.

We receive a Fed Ex package from our accountant, THIS VERY SAME DAY, indicating that not only will we not be getting a tax return but we actually owe $1,500.

Finally, we discover our happy little goldfish has chosen today to float belly-up.

Is Mercury in retrograde? Did a black cat (which we unwittingly neglected to adopt and add to our residential petting zoo) cross our path? Are we being penalized by some higher power for that incident back in third-grade when we reached under the bathroom stall and stole our classmate's loafer that was dangling from her foot?

Sigh. That is all.

Stay tuned next week for our regularly scheduled program.

And now you expect some sort of inspirational and idea-provoking questions? Nah. I got nothing. You may--or you may not--choose to leave a comment.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Recipe for Disaster

Here's a fun little recipe I recently concocted. Feel free to try it!

  • Several stories of cooking catastrophes suffered by family and friends who probably prefer not to be publicly ridiculed
  • A dash of smugness about your own impeccable kitchen record
  • A cup of bad karma

Combine all the humiliating stories, being sure to include such tales as:
  1. The woman who prepared her first bowl of potato salad for a group picnic but lacked the listed finishing touch of paprika, so she covered the salad with a liberal sprinkling of cinnamon.
  2. The newlywed who excitedly prepared a pan of lasagna but was confused by the terminology and used not just a single clove of garlic but an entire bulb.
  3. The grandmother who baked her three-year-old grandson his much coveted Elmo birthday cake, and then frosted it with an icing which melted and dripped in such a ghastly fashion that the cake resembled Elmo-On-Acid and prompted the horrified child to scream, "I don't like this kind of cake!"
Layer these tales with biting sarcasm and wit. Let them simmer for a few weeks, as you plan to make them public over the World Wide Web. Chuckle at the ineptness of the inexperienced chefs.

Meanwhile, prepare a huge pot of chili. Make a big enough batch to share, because people will fall all over themselves in gratitude for your culinary prowess.

The rest of this process is complicated, so be sure to follow these directions carefully:

Brown a couple pounds of ground beef. Add a few cans of Brooks Hot Chili Beans. Peel and chop a half-dozen tomatoes and dice a couple onions. Pull an assortment of peppers from the freezer: Add a couple bell peppers and a few jalapenos. Remove the seeds from the jalapenos, because not everyone can handle the heat like you can.

Next, ponder the freezer bag of quarter-sized orange peppers which came from an unidentified plant in an assorted nursery pack. Although you never tasted one, they are tiny--and you have a big kettle to fill. Cut up seven or eight and toss them into the pot.

Within a half-hour, you should nearly collapse from the excruciating pain of your burning hands. You will know the pain has fully set when you feel you'd prefer to have a root canal without Novocaine. This signals it is time to Google a cure, as we know is the M.O. of any proper homemaker.

You will find 154,000 hits for "hot peppers burned hands." This will not immediately relieve your physical pain, but it will ease your mental anguish to know that more than a hundred thousand people were as stupid as you.

Be sure to attempt every listed cure: Wash your hands until you are qualified to write a memoir about OCD. Lather them in aloe. Soak them in rubbing alcohol. Pop potentially lethal quantities of Tylenol and antihistamines.

Finally, plunge your hands in bowls of ice water. Be certain to sigh with the ecstasy of immediate relief. Use up every available ice cube in your freezer. Within a few hours, the pain should subside enough for you to face the next step.

Eye your pot of chili. By now it should be bubbling much like a witch's cauldron: one eye of newt, two dragon teeth, and eight devil peppers.

Sample a spoonful. You will immediately forget the pain in your hands--because now your tongue and mouth will be on fire.

Rush back to Dr. Google. Ignore the first noted cure, which is drinking milk. Also disregard Cure #2: sugar water. Proceed promptly to Cure #3: alcohol.

Consume several cold beers.

Next, return to the still brewing pot of Demon Soup. Recall, in your half-plastered stupor, that sugar is supposed to neutralize heat. Pour in a bit of sugar and stir well. Swallow a big spoonful.

Cry, "Holy Mother of God!" Dump in the rest of the bag of sugar. Drink another beer.

The next day, recall that you made soup while you got stewed. Sample your pot of Candied Chili. Cringe. Dump the entire thing in the garbage.

Now, return to your original recipe for a humiliating blog post about your loved ones' pathetic cooking catastrophes.

Toss that too.

Eat crow instead.

Any kitchen disasters you care to share? Has Bad Karma bit you in the ass lately?