Friday, September 23, 2011

Rolling Refuge

The other night, I drove in from work, looked over one shoulder, then the other, and backed in to the narrow parking space in front of the house. I sat for a minute in the warmth and darkness of the car and listened to the end of the song on the radio as I often do before heading inside. It was comfortable and peaceful, the work of the day complete and the chores before me on hold.

I climbed out, leaving the headlights on to illuminate the road, then crossed the street to fetch the mail. As I walked back, I gazed fondly at my car. Something about her front grill and headlights seemed to smile. The thought crossed my mind that she’d put in a lot of miles and it was time to think about getting a new vehicle.

I burst into tears.

My mid-size 2001 Caravan is a deep purple-blue: a unique color when it first came out, but now, you see it on the road a lot. After our kids left for college and our dog died, we down-sized from a Grand Caravan, but this model is still bigger than I need. While she does okay on gas – maybe 21 mpg – I feel guilty about not driving a hybrid.

I have never had my own brand new, snappy auto. When I was a teenager, I inherited a black Ford Falcon with a white vinyl top when my grandfather passed away. When my grandmother, Byeo, died, I took the wheel of her mammoth maroon Impala. Once I married Dave, we shared a car, and when the kids came along, so did the larger family vehicle. My Caravan is the first one that has felt like mine. She is matronly, but has held up well, so we are a good match.

While I never named her or anything, she has been a good friend to me. She has held me through some hard times. I slumped, sobbing, in her gray velour seats in the parking lot after visits with my father-in-law, Colombo, at the nursing home. She was womblike and warm, ready with heat, old favorites on the radio, and the reassurance of my own independence, my own abilities to punch buttons, turn the wheel and go, even though Colombo had lost his.

When I received my cancer diagnosis, she was the first to offer comfort. I’d held myself together as I walked through the waiting room of the radiology center and crossed the parking lot. But I couldn’t wait to get to my car, buckle in and break down before assuming a brave face for my family and friends. And throughout that year, en route to scans, hospitals, doctor’s appointments, and surgeries, she was my refuge. I cried a lot behind the wheel, but I also knew that as long as I was in her seat, I was safe.

Living in the moment got me through that time. As my car and I made our way to whatever needle, stethoscope or prodding awaited, I would tell myself, “Right now, you are fine. Right now you have control. Right now you decide on your music, heat, mood and destination.” And it helped.

In my car, I had no need to be cheerful, or self-conscious about my scarf. In fact, the small square of the rear-view mirror framed only my eyes, so I looked the same as before the cancer. Well, maybe a little sadder.

I will miss my Caravan. It will seem like a betrayal, to park her in a lot somewhere and drive away.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Night at a Country Carnival

Two decades ago, my husband Dave and I stood among the parents waving and grinning as our kids whirled in a silver Scrambler car or spun by in an oversized teacup. Easton’s Fireman’s Carnival has expanded since then and our children have grown up and left home, but the scene is still gloriously familiar. Bells clang, neon lights flash. Kids kick off their flip-flops as the Rip Cord ride rises slowly up a glittering shaft, then – whoosh! – drops its cargo of shrieking passengers. Indulgent dads squeeze into tiny compartments next to their gleeful little ones within a winged serpent for the Cobra’s gentle, undulating version of a small-scale roller coaster. Tan, lithe-limbed teenagers saunter and flirt with much self-conscious hair tossing (girls) and elbow-nudging (boys) as they enjoy a summer’s night out. Wafting over all is the whiff of grilled hamburgers and the sweet, sweet scent of sticky cotton candy.

Dave and I are the rare adult couple strolling without children in tow. For us, this is a chance to wander, hold hands, and catch up with friends and folks from earlier life stages. We spot parents of our children’s school friends, and even some of their former classmates, their second, third and fourth grade faces still recognizable in thirty-year-old bodies. But our memories are not what they used to be; periodically, one or the other of us furtively whispers, “Name?” as someone familiar, but not immediately identified, approaches with a smile.

We make our rounds of the rides remembering when we had the stomach for the lurch, spin and soar of Zero Gravity, the Dodgems, Ali Baba, and Dizzy Dragons. No longer. Dave owes me my annual stuffed animal, so we head to the games and stop at a baseball toss, a likely choice because Dave was a pitcher in high school. We chat with Irv Snow, who is one of those on duty at the booth. Almost every tent, game, and attraction is manned by one of the town’s volunteer firefighters, putting in still more hours on behalf of Easton’s fire department. I’m surprised how many people I know who are wearing firefighters’ blues tonight.

Dave’s pitching prowess wins me a stuffed purple turtle to add to last year’s Chihuahua, and the dolphin and long-legged brown bear of years past. As is our tradition, next we slip into the baked goods booth to savor a slice of blueberry pie in a flaky, buttery crust. Delicious. We catch up with Carol Mulligan who has volunteered here for as long as I can remember, then Dave and I beeline for the Bingo tent: for us, the high point of the carnival.

The place is jammed and we scan the tables for two open seats together. We recognize Kyle Haines, the Kushnir brothers, Jon Davis and the Sabias among the uniformed firefighters serving as Bingo ushers. We grab two seats next to Bill Bartosik (whose math-tutoring savvy helped our daughter through quite a few math tests as well as the SATs) just as the next game begins.

Used to be a dollar bought one cardboard playing card and a handful of corn kernels to mark off numbers. Now, that same dollar buys a three-card sheet. I can barely keep up as I hurriedly scan the appropriate columns when a number is given and, with a magic marker, place a splotch of brilliant red when I’m lucky.

The caller, Joe Puchalski, is a kick. His patter rolls with the fluidity of a stand up comic; if Bingo weren’t thrilling enough, he brings an energy that keeps us in our seats far longer than usual. “Keep your eye on your card, a hand on your dauber and another hand on your seat,” he advises. “Things move fast here in the Bingo tent!” His expression gives nothing away as he reaches for the next number. He intones, as if it were a moment of high import, “Whoa – another ‘B’!” and draws it out, the suspense palpable – how many are waiting for just…this…number for the five-in-a-row or all four corners that would win the pot?

“B-4!!!” Joe calls to hoots of relief when no one shouts “Bingo!” He pauses to announce, “My Chief Financial Bingo Officer tells me we have $50 riding on this game. Yes folks, here in the Bingo tent you get the biggest bang for your entertainment dollar. It’s not just the winning, but the unbridled excitement of the game!” We players crack up and remain in our seats for round after round, earning us Joe’s commendation. “This crowd will go down in Easton Bingo history…In fact, some might say in world Bingo history!”

Eventually, Dave and I lay down our daubers, still grinning. We stroll across the firehouse green to await the shuttle bus to the parking lot at the middle school. We line up behind chatty teenagers, heads bent as they text, weary adults and sleepy little kids clutching their trophies – stuffed frogs, mustachioed bananas (!?), and fuzzy dogs with floppy ears. Everyone is smiling, everyone is happy, after a great night at the carnival in Easton.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Zombies Beware

Video games. Please. I have never understood the appeal. In fact, I’ve worried that they spell the end of literate society as my husband, Dave, and my son, Tucker, seem to have abandoned the joys of absorption in a good book in favor of provoking angry birds, meddling with a pond full of hungry fish, and knocking off Egyptian pool balls.

A few weeks ago, Tucker came to visit. After dinner, instead of a family gathering of Scrabble or Scattergories, my son introduced Dave to a game with defensive gardening as its goal. In Plants vs. Zombies, the player must fortify his virtual front lawn with shrubs that shoot peas, catapults that fling butter pats, peppers that fire flames and grumpy squashes that squish intruders. All this to defend one’s home and brains from zombies.

Zombies? Yes! Well might you smirk! I did too. “Are you kidding, Tuck? A smart guy like you?” But my son merely smiled and tapped the screen of his iPad.

A simple, swaying, cheerful - and yet vaguely foreboding - melody played, a synthesized piano and violin instrumental. I was reminded of the mesmerizing strains of a snake charmer urging a cobra from a basket, except this time it was zombies lurking off-screen. “Ready! Set! Plant!” flashed an urgent red alert. Tuck tapped a round-faced smiling sunflower and “planted” it in the yard between a house fa├žade and rickety fence. Periodically, a sun popped from the sunflower and with another tap, Tuck earned points toward plants. The music hummed as my son planted sunflowers, pea-shooters and mines. “The zombies are coming!” rumbled a threatening, throaty voice and I felt a mild unease because the pea-shooter seemed slow on the draw as cartoonish, bug-eyed zombies lurched toward my son's "house."

My book remained on the end table by the couch in the living room as I stayed on my stool, perched behind Tucker with a view over his shoulder. He lives in Boston and I don’t see him as much I’d like, so I hovered, an observer, as he fought off the undead.

As I said, I was concerned the pea-shooter was too slow and my boy’s brains were at stake. “How about the purple plant, Tuck?” I suggested. (This particular flower lunges at zombies, snaps them up, chews them with a gratifying crunch and swallows them.) “Sweetie? Maybe the cherry bomb? Watch it! Zombies in the upper right!”

A mad fray ensued - leaping zucchini, exploding cherries, flying peas, zombies losing heads and arms and finally falling. I watched with my heart pounding (yes!) until a harp-like trill of triumph signaled the game’s end and the zombie defeat. Exhausting! Exhilarating! Fun! Still, when Tuck swung around in his seat and offered me his iPad, I snorted dismissively. At first.

It was so stupid. But I wanted to play.

So, I did. And I’ve been playing too often since. Sometimes until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. The other day, I announced I was going on a zombie sabbatical – a “Zombatical” - just to prove that I could.

But Dave lures me in. He turns it on, I hear that snake-charmer music and I’m drawn as sure as that sinuous cobra. And I get it now. Fun feels good! Dave and I usually play together, taking turns, reaching over to tap the screen when the odds are too overwhelming, laughing aloud at the antics of shifty-eyed water plants, spore-spouting mushrooms, and zombies on pogo sticks, ladders and bungee cords. Who thought of this stuff? I can only imagine the self-amused glee of the brainstorming team behind Plants vs. Zombies.

The truth is, Dave and I do plenty of fun things, but for the most part, silly and goofy went out the window a decade ago, and it’s silly things that make one giggle or laugh until it hurts. Laughter is a balm in this grown-up life and for some reason, battling a zombie horde does the job.

Problem is, we’ve developed strategies too tough for the zombies – rarely do they breach the doorway to eat our brains. Tucker says there’s another game we should check out – something about covering oranges?