Friday, May 27, 2011

It lived up to its name

I've written about the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium before on this blog. And I've been there many times since my son was born. We even sprang for a membership last year, which we thoroughly enjoyed. However, I've been somewhat spoiled in my zoo visitations, because I've always been able to take advantage of weekday mornings and off-season lulls. Our family's zoo escapades were made with crowd avoidance in mind, with daytime temperatures in mind, and we've always steered clear of May visits, period. Why? Field trips, that's why.

Except yesterday, I was the field trip. I went to the zoo with my son's kindergarten class. Some other insane mothers also chaperoned (one of them coming straight from a night shift—no sleep!!!) and we met the buses in the parking lot. We'd already received a list of the kids for whom we'd be responsible, and we checked names, counted heads, double-checked lunches, and set off through the zoo. We had to meet back at the entrance in under four hours, and there was much to see.

A couple of my little cuties immediately decided they wanted to stop at one of several shops; they seemed to be convinced that I'd be ponying up for everyone to purchase an overpriced item from China. Sorry, kids, not happening. I steered them clear of the first store and we made our way toward the leopard and tigers. It began to dawn on me, then, just how many people were visiting the zoo that day. Hordes of kids and a handful of adults, most in a series of matching t-shirts, were crushed up against all the fences surrounding the tiger area. People were standing several folks deep in places. It was a bit unnerving.

I tried to keep an eye on my five children, one of whom was my own; this was not an easy task in such a slew of small bodies. I'd have them in sight, and then one would be gone, then two... Sigh. When I finally was able to extricate all five of them from the mass, I called an emergency meeting. We needed a team name, I said. And some rules.

One child wanted to be the Cats, another wanted to be Orange Cubs, so we combined and became the Orange Cats* for the day. Also, I explained, there are tons of people here and I need to be able to easily see you all, at all times. That meant, I stressed, no one more than 10 feet away at a time. Perhaps I should have forced hand-holding, but honestly, it was hard to do—the day was heating up, people were sweaty, slippery little hands kept sliding away anyway, boys outnumbered girls... and I was not their teacher. They just weren't as willing to do that for me. I guess I can't blame them.

So, the Orange Cats set out once again, up the hill toward the savannas of Africa. It seemed that every display caused a slight uproar of sorts: the elephant house was too smelly, the fish in the pond were yucky, the orangutan was vigorously scratching an inappropriate area, the gorilla had some sort of visible residue on his posterior... Through it all, I kept losing my kids in the crowds, then finding them again. I can tell you in precise detail what each one of them had one because I got so good at locating the clothing. Happily, calling to the Orange Cats yielded better results than yelling out their names.

At some point, after much repetition of the phrase, "I'm hungry, I want lunch," I noticed that indeed, our bag lunches were looking worse for travel. I gave in at 11:30, and we found a large shady rock outside the aquarium and ate our sandwiches. Several people needed help opening packages, but at last we were all munching and for a moment, life was calm. We hit the head, and got drinks of water.

Refueled, we plunged into the aquarium (the building that houses the tanks, not the tank itself) and the madness resumed. Bigger crowds than ever shuffled through the dark halls, and the noise was deafening. Even if you could see your charge a few feet away, they likely couldn't hear you calling because of the throng of voices all around. We finally got out of there, passing through one of the cute zoo shops so the kids could see I was, in fact, not springing for toys for all. Once they comprehended this sad truth, they made their way outside again and we headed downhill to the polar bear exhibit. Outside the big bears' window, one of my kids announced that he was bleeding. Indeed, he was: lovely red droplets stood out on his shin. Did I have a tissue? Neosporin? Of course not. I'm the rebel mother who won't even join PTO, remember? Naturally I did not have the "good mom" tools of the trade. We found another restroom, I appointed the biggest kid as stand-in leader, and I rushed into the ladies' room to get a paper towel and soap. No towels! We're green!!! Blow your hands dry! So I had to stem the flow with toilet paper.

The boy survived and we went on. Little did I know that the worst was yet to come.

Kids Kingdom is a part of the zoo specifically designed for kids. It has play areas, animals you can pet, crazy rope bridges and climbing apparatuses. The Kingdom also has several enclosed slides at its entrance. I hate enclosed areas and have never attempted to partake in these slides, but I know that even on less crowded days, the slides are popular. On this day, they were absolutely mobbed. The children in my little group had been talking about them and couldn't wait to get there; also, I'd happily noticed that my gang was getting a bit more tired and slowing down. I made them all promise to come right back to me and not leave the slide area. (Stupid, I know—I should have handcuffed them all to me and run in the other direction.) Anyway, the Orange Cats had been listening pretty well and staying together. I found an obvious place to stand and waited for them to return to me.

Minutes passed. The two little girls showed up at the bottom of one slide, and I quickly corralled them. One time down was enough. My son showed up. And the other two remained missing.

More minutes passed. It felt like at least ten. Maybe 7 or 8 minutes? I kept checking my watch. They were gone. I had the other three sit in front of me and we all scanned the crowd. I was praying they'd show up. Where were they? What could have happened? Would they have gone on to the next area without me? After we'd all agreed to stay here until we were together again? I scrunched around in my purse, found my wallet, pulled out the number of the teacher... I had to talk to her and find out the procedure for lost kids... There was another little lost kid just behind us, talking to a zoo worker and another adult, and the stricken look on the boy's face made me want to cry. Oh, why did this happen?! I trusted them to come back to me!

My mind raced ahead, to the moment of confrontation with the parents of the boys; would they shout at me? Call me irresponsible? What if someone kidnapped the kids? What if they were found by another teacher or parent, thus informing the world how ineffectual a chaperone I truly was? Would I be ostrasized from future trips? I was just dialing the teacher's cell phone when one of my waiting three hollered out to the missing boys. There they both were, coming away from the end of the biggest, tallest tube slide.

Oh, my Lord, I was so relieved. The two latecomers explained that the line for the big slide had been incredibly long. We hadn't been able to see that, because the whole Kingdom is cleverly designed in a stand of tall trees, most of which had foliage now. It's a great set-up for shade, a beautiful view when you're strolling along the elevated walkways above the whole place... but when you're missing two children? It is decidedly not pretty.

Well, we held hands for awhile after that. Then, after I'd finished having a heart attack, we made our way toward the final building, first stopping at another playground with—yep, you guessed it—more of the awful, horrible, infuriating tubes where kids can climb and hide. And one of my disappearing boys did his best trick again, while my other four students and I looked in vain at every tube opening. When he did finally emerge at the top of yet another slide, I waited at the bottom to nab him. Guess what? The little twit saw me and turned around to exit another way. Suffice it to say that he got to me my favorite little buddy and hand-holder for the remainder of the day, which was thankfully wrapping up. I might have sprained a couple of his fingers when he tried to re-enter tubeland, but at that point I figured it was worth the risk; missing the bus back to school wasn't much better than losing a kid or two.

We made it back in time, and found the sidewalk littered with weary 6-year-olds. The buses came, the kids climbed on, and I left with sore feet, salty brow, and a firm decision that I would not willingly participate in this particular event again. And then I thought, What if I don't go and there aren't enough adults? What if everyone has to keep an eye on 8 or 10 kids instead of 5, all because of me?

Well, I won't think about that now. I'll just keep researching hair colors, so as to best hide the additional grey hairs that I am certain to find after yesterday's adventure. I came away not just with more greys, but also with even more respect for people who can work with large groups of small kids. God bless 'em. Every one.

And for the love of pete, don't go to the zoo in May. Or early June. Or on holidays. Unless what I've just described sounds like a grand time to you, that is.

*I've changed our team name for privacy reasons. Because I'm anal like that.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Duck, duck... and that's all

You won't find a goose here. I figure they've pretty much taken over every small lake or pond within 50 miles, so if I choose to exclude them from my painting, the population will not be adversely affected whatsoever.

We saw these little ducks at my sister's a few weeks ago. Her family has chickens, ponies, cats, a dog, and the space to accommodate them. The ducklings were adorable, if loose-boweled (I know, I know, too much information) and the chicks had just progressed beyond that ball o' fluff stage, or so I was told. The down-covered darlings were all milling on the kitchen floor, and then in a giant plastic tote that was tall enough to contain them. I took photos like crazy, but those little birds just would not be still. Additionally, the big tote was bright blue and made a terrible background. So, after the fact, I pulled out my artist's license and proceeded to place the ducklings in a more appropriate setting.

If only real life were as easy to alter as art and digital images are. I suppose our memories can do that for us... and often do.

Anyway, the painting will be available in my Etsy shop later today.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The shirt that keeps on lying

I'm a bit of a thrift store junkie; if you read this silly blog regularly, you know that already, because I mentioned it here, and here, and here... (I really do lead a normal life, I swear to you—I don't just hang out at resale shops and scan the craigslist page.)

Anyway, I like to shop secondhand. A few years back, I was searching for a replacement sweatshirt to take the place of ol' Esprit. Ol' Esprit was a baggy, grey, mostly-cotton-blend that I had worn happily for years. It was loose in all the right places, had a snug enough neck to actually provide warmth and coverage, and was the perfect neutral shade so it matched nearly everything I own. However, as often happens to favorites, Esprit began to show serious signs of love. When the seams started to split and I could no longer leave the house in it for fear of being jailed for vagrancy, I knew it had to go. I wore it when painting for awhile, but knew all along I needed a shirt to step into Esprit's shoes.

Enter the nearby Goodwill store, which in addition to its convenient location, also accepts debit cards for any amount, no matter how small. I went there to find my new sweatshirt love. I wore a T-shirt, so the try-on procedure would be simple, could be done even without a dressing room (in case they were filled), and would replicate new sweatshirt's most common wearing scenario: over a T. I found lots of options, but only one fit the bill perfectly—the fit was ideal, boxy and wide but not too long; the bottom band was not tight at all, thus permitting free movement and requiring no tugging. Best of all, the arms were not too long! This must have been a true woman's sweathshirt; all the men's versions are always designed for gorillas, or at least it looks that way on me with my short limbs. The only problem with the grey sweatshirt was that it sported a lovely Harvard Business School logo in the top left corner. The logo colors were nice and subtle, dark maroon and navy, and other than that I loved the shirt. So, I purchased it and decided it would not matter that it had writing on it, which I normally shun. (Writing should be on paper. Or a monitor.)

I brought the shirt home, washed it, and have worn it all over the place since that day. But the funny thing is that the Harvard thing gets a lot of attention. I've had a number of people ask me if I went to Harvard. Of course I tell them the truth: "Oh, yes, Muffy and I roomed together and I graduated Summa Cum Laude..." Okay, I tell them the real truth, which is no, I've never even set food in the state, let alone on Harvard's campus. And most people seem to be either happy about it (I'm not such a big shot after all) or disappointed to learn I'm a fraud.

The last person to ask was the chubby, curly-haired young guy working the deli at the nearby grocery. He was a friendly fellow, and I was the only one waiting for cold cuts, so he felt unhurried and entitled to chat. "You said a half-pound, right?" I nodded. He went on: "Did you go to Harvard?"

"No, I bought this at a thrift store."

He was one of the disappointed ones, perhaps looking to meet that one Ivy League person walking around the Shop 'n Save. "Yeah, I guess if you'd been there, you wouldn't be shopping here."

"Well, maybe I would be. Those people have to eat, too," I replied. He handed me the package and we parted ways.

But I thought about it. What are the chances of my meeting a Harvard grad of any kind in my local deli? Would I be buying ham off the bone somewhere in the North Hills of Pittsburgh if I'd walked the halls of Harvard Business School? I only know one person who went to Harvard, and I don't know if she actually attended the school—only that she was accepted. And if she is studying there, will she come back to Pittsburgh to practice whatever she's practicing, or will she likely flock to a bigger, more citified city? If she does live here, will she choose a simple, very affordable neighborhood in the 'burbs, or purchase some mansion nowhere near me? Will she shop for lunch meat, or send a minion? Or are we all really pretty much the same, even the very bright and well educated?

One has to wonder.

P.S. I'm wearing the shirt today. Inside out. I like to get double my money.

P.P.S. This one's starting to look pretty ratty, too... Short-armed sweatshirt donations will be shamelessly accepted.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Crusade against the cowbird

There seem to be limitless examples of how nature takes advantage of changing environments in order to exploit smaller, weaker, more easy-going members of its society. I'm sad to tell you that it also happens in the bird world.
Meet the cowbird—a species I was happily unaware of until a few years ago, when we set up the feeders here in our yard and began to enjoy the beauties of our winged neighbors. This plain, sour-looking fellow showed up, and my son and I were curious enough to find his picture and read about him. We did not like what we read: this bird is a parasite.

Used to be, cowbirds hung out with the buffalo and followed them around, taking advantage of the insect explosion stirred up by the wandering herd. Since the big beasts moved around a lot, so did the cowbirds; in fact, they never stayed in one place long enough to build nests. So what did they do? Why, they used other birds' nests as their own little incubation system. And they still do it.

(If you don't believe me, you can read about it here or here. Appalling, isn't it?)

You can see why we aren't big cowbird fans; we know what they're up to, laying their big, nasty eggs in the nests of smaller, unsuspecting birds, to the detriment and even death of the host birds' own young. And when those cowbirds show up at our bird feeder, we scare them away. We clap at them, shout at them, even open the door and run at them until they flee in fear, their annoyingly high-pitched call echoing behind them as they vacate the premises.

But honestly, how much good does it do? They keep showing up. They've found a way to use and abuse the good, upstanding members of Birdville, and they're going to keep at it until somebody is defeated or disappears. Worst of all, the cowbirds aren't going anywhere because the constant destruction of forest and opening up of more woodland edges actually exacerbate the problem; that's just the sort of surroundings to which they flock.

We'll keep on fighting the good fight. And yet... it's feeling like a lost cause, because even as I type, Mama Cowbird is out there laying roughly an egg a day, invading as many happy homes as possible, dooming the rightful members of the family.

The worst part is that our own society is looking a lot like nature these days. Sigh.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Deep thoughts in the middle of the night

My son knows I am a light sleeper. And he knows, too, that I'm a sucker. Every now and again, he summons me to his room at 3 or 4am to help him find his missing teddy or other stuffed creature. The infrequent bad dream is also a reason for him to call me; the soft but definitive "Mom!" always brings me right out of a sound sleep.

The other night, though, we had a completely new conundrum.

The telltale "Mom!" came to me, quiet but insistent, at around 3:15am, and I hurriedly threw back covers and stumbled around the circumference of the bed and through the short hallway to my boy's room. I had to flip on the bathroom light (which is in the next room) so I could see what I was doing without blinding both of us with unwanted brightness.

There sat my son, upright at the head of his twin bed, in camouflage PJs, rubbing his semi-awake eyes and looking both weary and suspicious at the same time.

"What is it, Honey?" I asked.

"Mom, who took my sheets?" he countered in an accusatory tone.

What an odd thought. Why would he conclude that someone else had taken them? We were the only two in the room, yet this was his first assumption.

I was also half-awake, you recall, and my sensitivity was not at an all-time high as I gazed at him through squinty eyes and replied, "No one." I pointed at the foot of his bed, and there were the offending sheets and blankets, scrunched up into an unrecognizable mass... where he'd pushed them with his own restless feet and legs.

"You kicked them down to the bottom, Babe," I explained sleepily, and I helped him pull the bedclothes back up and rearrange them correctly over his soon-to-be-prostrate form. He snuggled down and was already halfway there, and I tucked him in and exited quickly before our interlude could become a full-fledged conversation, which I was mostly definitely not interested in pursuing.

But I thought about it a lot as I tried to get back to sleep, and on into the next day. How strange, that my little boy's limited exposure to the world, or me, or human nature, caused him to look for the guilty party who'd taken his covers, instead of grasping that he'd pushed them away from himself. How often have I done the same thing? Not just while sleeping, but also while fully awake? How often in my life have I sought the covers thief, instead of accepting responsibility and seeking to make it right so that I am "covered" from here on in?

See, I warned you these were deep thoughts...

Thursday, May 5, 2011

How I became more stupid

Forrest Gump always believed that stupid is as stupid does... or at least his mama felt that way. I think Mama was right, but I'd take it a step further: Stupid is as stupid says. I spent a good many years of my life showing, through my words, that I wasn't very wise.

Growing up in a rather small pond, in a family of people like me, it was relatively easy to pass those early years believing that I was pretty smart. Kids can be obnoxiously confident anyway, can't they? And finding moderate to noticeable success in a school or home setting can lull a young person into feeling pretty darned special. I tried to be humble, but in my heart I didn't buy it.

I chose a less-than-large state school as my undergrad alma mater, and this experience continued to feed the fantasy that I was all that. I had to work a little harder, granted, and I had a little too much fun that first year-and-a-half and watched my grades suffer (much to my parents' chagrin and annoyance). But truthfully, even when I slouched and lazed along, I still didn't do that badly. It was more challenging, but still manageable.

Even my first professional job fell into the same camp of making me believe I was on top. I moved to a little, inbred town near Erie, and taught a variety of kids there. A few of my students were rather brilliant, but many were average; more than a handful were counting down days until their 16th birthday, when they'd proudly file their "outta here" papers and flee to the family farm. So, in comparison to the norm there? I considered myself to be somewhat intellectual. No one told me otherwise. (They were too kind, I see now.)

I had to move to a larger city, and rub elbows with some truly smart people, before I began to figure out I had quite a lot to learn... and that there was plenty I'd simply never learn. I remember this dawning of realization at one of the firms where I worked, while I watched one of my bosses work through an extremely complex piece of information. He sketched it, he explained it, he fleshed out the physics behind it. And I took it all in, gleaning simultaneously that I could never have made it so clear and easy to grasp. I simply did not have that sort of brain power.

There were others at that company, and many since, who have left me with my figurative mouth agape. Great artists and performers populate the group, of course, but more often it's made up of that rare breed of person who oozes grey cell greatness—the people who really understand the stock market and can simply explain why the housing market collapsed, the folks who truly comprehend world economics and the shortcomings of every proposed solution, the people who can describe with perfect verbiage how one splits a cell or creates a new combustion system or safely constructs a tall tower. I have learned, by shutting up and listening, just how much I really lack.

The longer I live, the more I get it: I am not so smart. Actually, I am quite dull. And the more I look for the strengths of others, the more I find them. Even when a strength isn't uniquely intellectual, it usually still has great merit. I know one guy, an everyday guy who isn't the brightest bulb in the bunch, but you know what? He is absolutely fantastic at getting people to feel close to each other and open up; he is great at sensing when a person needs a community around him. And there's one lady who seems so fluffy and flighty, but who can deliver a word of truth in such a way that the recipient actually listens and considers the point instead of taking offense.

The list goes on and on: A neighbor's daughter who is mentally challenged but knows instantly when she confronts a lie; a fellow who is jovial and somewhat goofy, yet can tear apart any machine and put it back together better than before. One of the smartest guys I knew was my dad's mechanic, who repaired engines by ear, and also worked beautifully with wood; I believe he even made his own knives. When I cleaned houses for that awful two weeks last fall, the guy who was training me was a fantastic cleaner. He knew how best to do it, how to work quickly and efficiently, how to keep track of every tool and spray bottle... it was awesome. My husband is great at planting and cultivating things, and not because he studied it exclusively but just because he loves it and learns a tip or two from every gardener he meets. Some people are just born problem solvers, and we all should learn whom they are and admit their prowess and our own shortcomings.

The last time I had this overwhelming feeling, I was attending a luncheon with Todd for new employees at his current university workplace. We listened to a speaker talk about his superior, and how she'd created a new type of missile; we learned that a fellow employee had been the creator of the strange little code word system that I use every time I leave a comment on someone's blog. The other fellow at our table mentioned how he traveled a lot to train others worldwide to use the school's software. I sat unobtrusively, hoping no one noticed my sad state of brainlessness.

It's amazing how stupid I became once I stopped telling everyone how smart I was. It's also pretty embarrassing. To anyone I've ever bored with my own praise, I am sorry. Please forgive me.

Happily, one of the many perks of being a Christian is that my lack of impressive cells is not just tolerated, but sometimes actually welcomed. We are encouraged to do things like be still and be more like a child. I struggle with the stillness, but the childlike acceptance and questioning less? That I can handle.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Happy fruit for a dismal day

I finished a painting recently. Every time I try a subject other than animals, I remember why I prefer animals! They just come more easily to me. Oh well, we all need to step out of our comfort zones and challenge ourselves periodically, right?

It's available for purchase in my Etsy shop.

P.S. I'm offering free shipping on all items through May! Happy spring!!! See the Etsy store for details.