Snakes

I’m honestly not sure why we never had a pet snake growing up, unless it was familial squeamishness about feeding it live rats. It certainly wasn’t reptile fears. We had anoles, the occasional turtle, and even an iguana. We loved snakes. Mom somehow convinced all of us, Dad included, that there were no poisonous snakes in Ohio, in spite of the fact that they lived in all the surrounding states. Where other little girls (and many boys) in our area were taught to feel habitual fear, if not outright terror towards snakes, Mom showed us how to keep a respectful distance and developed our collective fascination with them.

We lived in a drafty old farmhouse that was prone to acquiring rodents and reptiles alike. I’ll never forget racing into the bathroom in second grade, jumping over a rope stretched out in the middle of the floor on my way to the toilet, only to realize, once I was seated, that the “rope” was slowly moving.  It had not registered the seismic event of my leaping over it, or if it had it was either too cold (this was early spring) or too busy figuring out its strange environment to care. I imagine it lying there thinking “what the hell? Where’s the grass?”

Later, I tried to write the experience down for a ‘what I did on my summer vacation’ essay when school started back. I got a good grade and a ‘my but you’re creative’ smile, but I could tell the teacher didn’t really believe it had happened. Even in that rural area, people were used to houses with foundations (ours had none), where such a casual visitor would have been unlikely at best. I had tried to explain the experience by saying I had initially mistaken the snake for a toy, but in fact, I had to pee so badly that it had barely registered. I mainly thought “Huh, rope” as I leaped over it on the way to my destination. I only realized what it was on slow reflection.

Another year, Mom took my brownie troop to Cincinnati’s Natural History museum.  We were there for the fossils, the awesome fake cave (to which I returned again and again while my grown-ups looked for me with increasing panic) and the planetarium, which was then located inside the museum. (This was before the museum moved to Union Terminal).  What I remember most vividly about that visit was the snake. Once she’d captured me exiting the caves, Mom took us all over to see a naturalist with a boa constrictor.

I don’t know if this thing was a pet or a zoo animal or what, but it was huge. The other girls and chaperones stood very far away. I walked over with Mom and stroked it. He let it rest on my shoulders, even, so I could feel its weight. I’ll never forget those scales that were smoother than skin. When I take my own kids to see snake exhibits like this, the rules clearly prohibit touching, let alone holding, by the audience, so I must assume that either such commonsense ideas had not yet been put in place or, as so often happens to me, I was just violating them without knowing it. It was beautiful.

Perhaps another reason we never had pet snakes was that, aside from my bathroom encounter with the garter snake that one time, our property had a hearty black snake population all its own. I feel for the Iowa people who lived in the snake house. But that house reminds me less of the place I grew up and more of a friend’s experience. My friend Rachel had to have someone from wildlife control remove a python from her ducts when she moved into a new home some years ago. I forget whether the previous owner simply lost his snake or whether he actually abandoned, it, but Rachel was not happy to meet it face to face, and I don’t think she appreciated my “oh wow” response to her experience.

We never had that problem. Our snakes never overtook the house or required outside intervention. But then, maybe black snakes are more territorial or something, because we only ever seemed aware of one indoors at a time. We periodically found snake skins in the attic, and those seemed to grow with every new find, to the point that by the time we met their owner face to face, we were already aware of his size.

One day, while Dad and I were watching TV, Dad looked out the transom above the living room door and saw this head looking in on us. I don’t suppose transom is really the right word, because it didn’t ever open. It was just three little windows above a heavy wood door, and there was actually a sort of window seat up there on the outside. This was where the snake had arrived. God only knows how he got up there. Actually, we rather think he got down there, rather than up there, and that he had slithered down from a tree to the roof, then crawled through the space in between the porch roof and the house. Possibly. Or maybe he just appeared himself there. If Harry Potter had been written, we would have started howling “Voldemort” and “appirated”. In any case, he was at least four feet long and thoroughly pissed off when Dad used a long forked stick to get him out of the transom area and down onto the porch. We named him Big Brother and attributed our nonexistent mouse population to him for some years after.

As recently as a few years ago, we were walking around Mom’s yard and a baby black snake dropped out of a tree very nearly on Scott’s head. At least we think it was a black snake. Scott was walking behind Mom and I, and the snake suddenly flew past his face and plopped at his feet, where it lay curled for some time before heading off. It was maybe  a foot long, though this was hard to be sure of, since Scott had only gotten that one glance at it as it plummeted by, and it landed in a grumpy coil right at his feet. Its body was gray with brown, or maybe black spots on its back. We were visiting from Kentucky, and we had recently seen baby copperheads that looked a little too much like this fellow for our comfort. He looked nothing like a garter snake, and it was really only our certainty that the black snake population on Mom’s property was high that supported our conviction that this was, in fact, a black snake, not its more venomous cousin. Even Mom didn’t try to argue he couldn’t possibly be poisonous. We just walked away and gave him a wide berth. And really, when dealing with snakes, that is always the wise course of action.

Hamsterdam

                We had hamsters growing up. My parents allowed them because I was frantic in wanting a puppy when we already had two grown dogs and didn’t need another.  I called my first hamster Olga-Da-Polga, and my sister called hers Frisky. Olga, named for a guinea pig in a book I’d read, was white with gray spots and a mousy little face. Frisky was of a variety called “golden”, though to us he seemed more tan in color. He earned his name by being a spastically active creature. Indeed, Frisky’s friskiness taught us several of our early lessons in rodent care.

                Lesson 1:  Tape the ball shut.

We had one of those clear hamster-balls to give our pets free run in the house. But Frisky could do this thing where he would ram the ball up in between a couple of chair legs or into just about any other tight space, and, while it was wedged there, use his body to twist the lid off. The first few times, we thought it was an accident and blamed ourselves for failure to screw the top on tight. But after awhile, when Olga started getting out too, and when we finally saw him doing it, we  realized we would have to actually tape the lid onto the ball. We got lucky with that pair. They always came back when we left out a trail of chow, never falling victim to the numerous cats stalking the house.

Lesson 2: Get a male

A couple of weeks after we got our new pets, I looked into the cage and started screaming, “Olga Da Polga’s HAVING BABIES!”  We presumed that she acquired her pregnancy in our care, though she could have just come that way. And, though they aren’t born pregnant, hamsters definitely breed like tribbles. Olga had four in that first litter, though only three survived. Frisky killed one. Oops. We bought him his own cage after we learned the hard way how quickly daddy rodents turned into ferocious competitor rodents. Of the other three, one vanished into the walls when it was still small enough to squirm between the cage’s bars, and the other two grew to maturity.

Lesson 3: Maturity comes extremely young in hamsters.

We thought we now had Olga da Polga and her daughters safely cordoned off from the violent offender. But then one day I looked in the cage and screamed, “Olga da Polga and Helen are BOTH having babies!”. We knew who had to come out, because only one of the three still in there wasn’t in labor. We realized the babies had to be kept apart from the (oops) daddy who was the (aw shit man) uncle, as well. (Hamster incest.)Since Frisky had proven so violent towards his offspring at birth, we worried about putting father and son together, but there was nowhere else to put the hamster version of a teen parent, so in with Pops he went.  I guess they swapped hamster sex stories or something, because they did fine.  The next crisis came when, as I was counting the newborns later in the morning, I saw Helen cannibalizing one of hers.

My mother figured out how to stop this while I ran screaming through the house. (Yet  it was nonetheless years before I developed the kind of rodent paranoia stereotypically associated with women of a much earlier generation.)  I do know the fix involved a series of frantic calls to a pet store and some other rodent loving friends on a corded phone that Mom couldn’t quite stretch into the room with the cages. But she threw me outside so she could hear before I saw what actions she took in between setting the phone cradle on the kitchen table and running into the middle room where the hamsters were then housed.

                Lesson 4: Plastic cages

                Between the two mamas, we had some ten little hamster babies. Helen and her brood went into the bottom floor of one cage, while Olga and hers went up on top. These particular homes resembled birdcages, with metal jail-cell bars and a plastic base.  They had been transferred out of my sister’s and my room and into the living room at some point in the murderous chaos, but we all checked on the new families regularly. When babies started vanishing again, we at first feared Helen had reverted to eating her young once more. But Helen couldn’t get to Olga’s crew, and we woke up one morning to find each hamster down by two. The ugly truth came out when we saw one of the cats perched beside the cage, tail eagerly twitching. Where kitty paws could fit in, tiny hamster snacks could be pulled out, and the new location was apparently the perfect stalking ground.

We swapped the mamas with Frisky and son, as those two had been sharing a plastic hut, but that meant putting Helen back with Olga. Helen’s cannibalism could possibly have been related to her having been in the cage with another new mother (her own) at the same time. (Or maybe it was the hamster incest driving her crazy.)  Mercifully, the babies were old enough to seem less tasty by the time we reunited them, or else her body had regained some of its nutrients or something, because she didn’t go on another killing spree once she and Olga were together in the smaller enclosure. Though Olga did bite the piss out of me when we were moving them, so I would have wished her the worst of whatever she got.

After that, we did a better job sorting the boys early (or maybe there was a miracle and both litters contained all girls), but we still had something like half a dozen rodents when all was said and done. Our initial cages, both the wire and the plastic, had been pretty basic. But as the babies grew, we added tubing and additional rooms. Helen eventually pulled the hamster-ball trick one time too many and escaped into the woodwork, never to return.  I think Olga just died one day. And I don’t remember what happened to the other babies (or the baby daddy) as they grew up. But for awhile there,  we had an apartment complex we called New Hamsterdam because of its city-like proportions across a table in the living room.

But slowly, the population dwindled, until only Frisky remained, back in that one original plastic square. He was a fat, lazy, friendly creature who had run out all his friskiness in his youth. He liked to sit on the insides of my arms when I let him get out on the table and walk back and forth between my open hands. He actually grew too large for the hamster ball and his wheel, so he had to exercise through personal contact. Finally, after I think three or more years, he, too died quietly in his cage. After he was gone, we didn’t replace him, though we still maintained quite a menagerie of pets.

It was fun having hamsters for those few years, but I honestly still secretly think things would have turned out better if my parents had just gotten me the puppy in the first place.

Ballet Camp

Caroline spent roughly an hour of one recent afternoon confined to her room sobbing, “I want pretzels. I wah-hant pretzels”.

It would be funny if it weren’t so common.

This is the downside of Asperger’s for us. The fit has nothing whatsoever to do with pretzels, although Caroline would certainly argue otherwise. This is about sensory overload, and it happens pretty much every time we introduce her to something new. This time, it’s a combination of the Orlando vacation and ballet camp. She’s been in ballet for three years now, but this is her first summer experience. It’s a three-hour long program three days a week, and in addition to dancing, the “campers” do crafts and watch movies. Sam goes, also, but his group meets Tuesdays and Thursdays to her Monday-Wednesday-Friday gatherings. Anyway, I think it was the movies that had her on edge the other day, because those have always been a trigger for her. But it could be more gestalt and encompass the whole vacation experience and the change from her normal ballet routine. Whatever the case, she came home happily singing “Échappé out, échappé in,” pointing her toes as the feet came together and moved apart and her arms scooped most gracefully. Then, almost without transition, she was arguing with Scott over the pretzels. She has this thing she does where she’ll nibble the salt off the pretzels and skip the actual consumption of the underlying bread product. Or, if she thinks we aren’t looking, she’ll stick her hand into the nearly empty bag and grab a whole handful of salt and eat it. Plain. Now, I enjoy pretzel salt eaten one crystal at a time, too. But never by the handful, and I always eat the whole thing in the long run, not just the sodium chloride topping. So her debate with Daddy was concerned with her unwillingness to actually eat the pretzels she was busily sucking on. By the way, we’ve had her tested. As far as we know, she does not have any dietary deficiencies, and there isn’t any underlying nutritional need driving this behavior. Of course, she eats so much salt that it’s really hard to say how accurate the tests might have been. From what I’ve seen, it’s not even about taste for her. It’s the texture. She likes how those tiny crunchies feel in her mouth and between her teeth. It’s the only food she’s found that will allow her to press her teeth together almost completely, without actually touching the top row to the bottom until the crystal crumbles. I’ll see her sitting on the couch with a bowl of pretzels and this odd grinched up face and know she’s crushing a salt crystal in slow motion. We wouldn’t complain if she only did this sometimes. Or if she generally ate the pretzels as well. But she doesn’t. She’ll go months without a problem, doubtless eating her fair share of secret salt, but still consuming the other things she’s been offered. And then she’ll hit a spate of licking all the pretzels and leaving them scattered around the house absent mindedly. Or she’ll come to the table starving and try to eat nothing but pretzel salt. Which was what happened after ballet camp. Not only was she in a state of sensory overload, but she was also completely irrational with hunger. Bad combination. She melted down when Scott tried to offer her other foods or get her to at least eat something besides the salt on the pretzels she had chosen. Eventually, he had to take the top half of the child while I wrestled with the bottom half so we could truck her off to her room for the lengthy “I want pretzels” serenade. Then, as fast as it had started, the meltdown stopped. I could go in and comfort her, and we could get her to eat her lunch. There was a bad moment when she learned there were zero pretzels in her immediate future, but Ro-Gurts changed her attitude, and she ultimately ate two servings of everything (noodles, cottage cheese, Ro-Gurt, and buttered bread). She was starving. Any kid as hungry as that could have melted down. But a neurotypical kid would have been likely to regain slow control of the emotions while eating. Caroline, in contrast, had to be completely calm before she could even approach the table again. If she had still been at the hiccup and sniffle stage of her meltdown, the whole scenario would have spiraled back down as soon as she found out I had cancelled the pretzel pass. We’ve had similar scenes in museums, stores, and schools, and there were a lot of them at the Y while she was learning to swim. Each meltdown is its own entity. Some tactics work all the time. But Scott and I, as parents, have to be hyper-alert to what’s going on so that we enact the right strategy and do it together. Sometimes, the right thing to do is distract her, as when the random stranger suddenly showed her a picture of a lizard on a digital camera. In that case, the woman was probably trying to make sure we weren’t kidnapping the screaming child we were manhandling into our car, and she’s one of the people who has used a respectful approach. She just popped up out of nowhere and said “Do you want to see a picture of a gecko?” and got Caroline completely entranced. A few minutes later, she explained that her grandson has autism and that the photo trick sometimes worked with him. We appreciated the intervention, because, quite frankly, when I see a screeching flailing child fighting to free itself from some adult, my senses go into mom-alert, too. I listen for words like “I want my Mommy”, afraid that I’m watching a child being stolen, but also aware that I’m probably just seeing a temper tantrum or meltdown. While I don’t particularly appreciate the rude people who either come over to glare daggers at us or send over random security personnel, I’m willing to endure it if it means just one child in danger will be saved. I have friends who hand out business cards that say “Hi, my son has Asperger’s syndrome” and explain a little about sensory overload and meltdowns (and that the only way to get past the overload is to go through the meltdowns). It’s just a byproduct of the syndrome. And, as I’ve noted before, our family is lucky. Caroline is extremely high functioning and has a loving, outgoing personality. She’s going to grow into an independent adult, and will quite likely fulfill her childhood dream of becoming a marine archaeologist. For us, these moments are just bumps in the road. But that doesn’t make it any more fun to drag her off to a quiet bathroom or fitting room in the middle of a department store, or to stand making eye contact with Scott while we heave her down the hall to her room. Autism is a mixed bag on any given day, and while Caroline is lucky to have more ups than downs, it’s important for us to be aware that the downs are out there, and our job as parents is to help her land softly when one of them trips her.

Killer Golf

So. I have just realized that I’ve spent more days blogging about Disney than I actually spent in Florida.
{awkward pause}

We were in Orlando a total of roughly five days. Only two  of which were spent at anything even related to the Mouse with the House.

{another awkward pause}

And this is my seventh day of the Disney-vacation-blog. Innnnteresting.

{a final awkward pause}

Well, now that we’ve addressed that little issue, I’ll just move on to today’s topic, shall I?

Our resort had goofy golf.  (Every time I say the word “resort”, I feel obligated to note that we paid very little. I’m really not turning into a travel snob.) Anyway, it was called Jurassic Golf (very creative), and involved a (surprise) dinosaur theme. Now, our family’s favorite activities include bowling and mini-golf. Scott and I both still remember the “Putt-putt for the fun of it” song with nostalgia. We prefer indoor mini-golf, but we’ll take the outdoor variety if that’s what’s available.

Jurassic Golf was an outdoor adventure. The first morning after our arrival, we headed over to try it out. Right away, Sam and Caroline started fighting. Neither one of them is very good with the using of words, so both of them tend to seize each other bodily and cause harm over things like who went first.

They're only smiling here because I threatened them

This was problematic when the combatants were both armed with golf balls and clubs and when one of them was Sam. After I had taken the club away three times, I was ready to take him off the course. But his sister, while less with the physical violence, was no better, because she could not take turns nor concede anything to her younger sibling.  Add in the 90 degree heat at 7AM, and you can see why the outing was fast heading for disaster.

 Yes. He touched that with his mouth. Ew.In an effort at distraction, Scott and I started taking pictures of them with the dinos, which Sam kept licking. Ultimately, we ended the adventure early when all else failed.

So sweet. You'd never know he was showing her how not to hit brother.However, I did get one great shot of Scott showing Caroline how to hold the club correctly (when not trying to bash her brother with it).

We tried the same tactic when Dennis and Kristi arrived, with similar results,

 No. The kid beside Caroline isn't Sam. Which is why nobody's getting hurt.

though at least that time we could bribe the kids off the course with the promise of a ride on the stinky Thomas-the-Tank-Engine themed ride around the grounds with an ultimate destination of the pool.

I took Sam alone. He was hurting the other kids and had to be kept away for a little while.

Although this particular activity was destined for failure, the overall five day experience was glorious, and we hope to go on vacation again soon with Dennis and Kristi, while our kids are still little enough that it doesn’t matter if we throw Caroline in with three boys at night. Next time, we’re hoping to avoid the theme parks altogether and go someplace where we can just spend a lot of time interacting with each other as families.  Also, Dennis and Kristi introduce us to new alcoholic drinks we would never experience otherwise, another real perk of the friendship.  I can honestly say they’re one of our favorite couples, and we treasure the time we get to spend with them. Dennis, Kristi, see you at Christmas, because the fates are unlikely to align again before then.

Lost at Disney

We lost Sam at the Magic Kingdom. It lasted all of five minutes, but it was a frantic five minutes, I can assure you. Anybody with small children knows how fast they can vanish. I remember in my teens watching a dear friend’s toddler at the county fair for a few minutes. I was holding Tessa’s hand one second, and then the next, she was gone. Like that. And even though I found her barely half a minute later, she was already yards away from me, investigating the elephant ear stand. It scared me then, and she wasn’t even my personal baby.

Sam’s a runner, and he’s scared us before. Two years ago after dark on the Fourth of July, he pulled a disappearing act on Scott. My niece Kaylee was with us, and I was with her on the lawn getting ready for the fireworks to start. Scott was over at a water slide with Caroline and Sam. He reached over to do something for Caroline, and turned around to no Sam. It was the longest several minutes of his life before a security guy appeared from behind the ride with Sam cuddled up in his arms. He’d gone over to see if there was a train on the tracks. This knowledge did not soothe Scott’s soul when he had the child back. The whole thing was over and done before I had a whiff of it.

But I’m well familiar with the experience of chasing Sam from an impossible distance while he dashes ahead at an outrageous pace. Not this past Christmas, but the one before, Scott and I left our friend Dennis (the same Dennis who was at Disney with us) with his older son, Caroline, and Sam at the top of the slide at the Indianapolis children’s museum. I don’t remember why Scott and I both had to go off, but I do remember that we were pretty sure it wouldn’t go well. And, yes, as we walked away, we both looked back to see Dennis making a mad dash down the sloping ramp that runs up the museum’s center. His son and Caroline were both standing quietly in line, so we knew he was chasing Sam. He had the situation under control by the time we were reunited, but he said, “that kid runs fast” .

I’ve misplaced Sam before myself, but always in semi-safe circumstances, where I know with a reasonable degree of confidence that we’ll find him eventually, doing his own thing, very surprised to have been labeled “lost”.  He’s also lost track of me, a couple of times, most notably at Caroline’s school’s Spring Fling this year. I had left him eating and wandered too close to the stage to get pictures of the kids performing. He forgot where I was (very nearby) and set out in search of me, finding instead Caroline’s principal, who knows him well and returned him to me smiling.

But Disney was a little more scary, both for him, and for us.

We were eating in the Tomorrowland café, a locale that has bad associations for our little group. The last time we were there with Dennis and Kristi, their younger son had a pull-up crisis and Kristi wound up with the unpleasant end of a short stick. This time, Sam ordered me to go back for more ketchup at the same time that Scott was making a return trip for straws. Kristi was at the table, and we both told him to stay put, but he took off after us anyway. Kristi turned around and saw him close on our heels and thought we knew he was back there.

We didn’t, and somewhere between the table and snack bar, we got separated. I returned, saw his empty seat, and knew at once what he’d done. Kristi felt terrible, but it wasn’t her fault. I’ve told him to stay put too much lately only to have him ignore me.  I should have known what he’d do when both his parents walked away.

Scott and I set back off the way we had come, shouting his name. He didn’t bounce out from behind any chairs, laughing that he’d ‘twicked’ us. He didn’t crawl out from under some table declaring “I was wooking foh Awiel undew da sea.”  And he didn’t come sneaking out from behind the snack bar shouting, “I WIN AT HIDE AND SEEK”.

He was lost, really gone, and I was headed fast into a panic. I seized the arm of a white shirted employee. “I’m missing my little boy,” I told him. “He’s barely forty inches, with blond hair, blue eyes, and…” suddenly, I couldn’t remember what Sam was wearing. I could have told the employee about a freckle just under Sam’s bellybutton, but the scenarios in which that identifying characteristic would be useful were too scary to let in right then, and I just went quiet.

He hailed another employee, this one with a radio. The all-call went out, and within moments, three staffers led Sam to me together. He’d been caught trying to exit the building, insisting his Mama was out there. “I was wooking and wooking for you!” he lamented to me. He’d been scared, too, a detail I found somewhat comforting as I picked him up and held him close.

I did not cry, though I wanted to. Instead, I told him, “Daddy and I were looking and looking for you, too, baby. And now we’ve found you. Let’s go finish our lunch.”

We sat down and ate, giving all four adults a few minutes to recover from the panic. I know I kept an even closer eye on him after that. I wish I could say the experience had the same impact on him, but the fact of the matter is that he is still only four, and he’d forgotten the trauma long before we had. By later that night, he was running merrily ahead of us trying to catch up to complete strangers, fearless again as if he’d never been lost at all.

Of burkas and hijabs

We saw a remarkable number of international dress-styles at Disney, and not just on the “It’s a Small World” ride. There were saris and dashikis, Rasta shirts and pants, kaftans of every variety, and turbans and hair coverings aplenty. Hair coverings. Why did I stick on those? Why did Scott do the same thing? We didn’t take pictures, because we didn’t want to be rude, and because we weren’t entirely comfortable with our own response to what we were seeing. But for the whole two days, we pointed them out to each other, as if they were really more eye-catching than the bright green kaftan that was short enough to be lingerie.

OK, to be fair, we openly stared at that thing. Besides being lime colored, it had gold trim and a deeply sculpted neckline that stopped just after revealing the cleavage. It flowed out over its owner’s arms  then came down to a V point that landed on her thighs just shy of revealing cleavage of another variety. She was a tall woman, dark of hair and olive of skin. We could probably have taken her picture for the amount of time we spent gaping. But she still didn’t occupy as much of mental our effort as the women with scarves on their heads.

I believe the right to the freedom of speech extends to the clothing one wears, not to speak of the freedom of religion, and I feel strongly that any US law telling a woman she couldn’t wear a head scarf would constitute a breach of those constitutional protections. There is no reason to prohibit it.

And yet.

And yet.

And yet I still swiveled my eyes instantly when Scott said, “Did you see the woman with the covered head back there?”

I had seen her, had taken notice of her when walking past, because her outfit was thoroughly modern, jeans and a short sleeved shirt. But her head was covered, and she wore large sunglasses. Very Audrey Hepburn, hooded scarf, incognito celebrity. And maybe she was that, some variation of pop under cover. But it shouldn’t have mattered, and the other women we saw were very much not dressed in that style.

On Sunday, walking around with Caroline, I saw two women wearing burkas. Both in fashionable black, one with an eye slit and the other with a kind of covered mesh breathing area over her eyes, nose, and mouth. Even with the park totally packed, passersby maintained a circle of about two feet around them and their four children, as if collective fear of difference forced them into isolation. As if they were being sent a “go home” message from the other guests.

My first thought, since it was Star Wars day, was that they were characters. I had, after all, been recently stalked by a female bounty hunter wearing mostly leather whose only hair was a long, thick red pony tail. But when no line of autograph seekers formed around these two, and when the four children collectively attached to them kept babbling away in a language I did not understand, I caught on that they were only visitors like myself. After that, I experienced a rush of empathy. How lonely. How utterly lonely.

But the more I considered it, the more I felt simply confused. Why wear burkas at Disney? Why wear them in Florida? They could not possibly be American citizens, could they? The children didn’t speak English. But maybe they were new immigrants, still uncomfortable with Western dress and the English language. But that didn’t feel right, either, because it implied a superiority of those Western ideas and suggested that these women would soon ‘come around’ and change their habits. Or burkas. It suggested that what they were wearing was wrong, which flies in the face of my belief that people should wear whatever clothing they want. And it doesn’t even address the possibility, nay probability, that Islamic tourists whose religious beliefs include the need for body coverings might still have fun at Disney.

I also saw numerous women in hijabs, which actually frame the face, covering the head and shoulders entirely. These individuals wore everything from the more flowing, traditional outfits to go with their headgear, to completely modern clothes that seemed at odds with their form fitting hoods. One woman even had her Bluetooth clipped to the side of her hijab, half on the outside of the fabric, and looking like she wore it every day.

And I didn’t mean to be rude, but I stared at all of them.  I would nudge Scott and point, if he happened to be nearby. Look. Another. Another what? And he’d show them to me, too. There was nothing wrong with how these women were dressed, and given the hundred plus degree heat, their scarves made as much sense as any other hat in the parks those days. But the ball caps barely registered, and I hardly even turned my head for unusual floppy brims. It was the head scarves that caught my attention for two days.

It’s a prejudice. I won’t pretend otherwise, nor will I make my post into some kind of patriotic bullshit brag session. It’s an attitude that smacks of bigotry that I don’t like in myself and don’t really tolerate in others. And it’s not like I had the excuse of novelty. There were several Muslim families living near us in Lexington. We used to go to the same pool, and I would get all up in arms because the staff wouldn’t let them wade in with their kids when wearing long robes, no matter how infernal the temperature got. I got to know one woman who lived along my walking route well enough to ask about her hijab. She said she wore it for religious reasons, to keep the faith with her family in Palestine.

The answer was no different than why a Christian might wear a cross or a Jew the Star of David. And yet it is different, because Jewish women aren’t the only ones sporting stars on thars, and Christians don’t limit cross wearing to the female of the species.  Islamic men do sometimes cover their heads, but they do not believe God wants them to hide those heads from the world. I think my objections boil down to feminism, a notion I refuse to consider merely “Western”. Why should a woman be any more subject to covering her head than a man? How could a just God assign one gender to a subservient status? How could a just society fail to realize that such subservience would be the almost guaranteed outcome of an edict like that?

And how can I presume to judge this, when I live in a world where I have to present my son’s love affair with hair pretties and tutus extremely carefully. To protect him from ridicule, I have to assure perfect strangers that he likes to imitate big sis. If I am to judge the wearers of scarves, should I not also support the double standard American culture has about cross-dressing? A girl in ‘boy’ clothes is cute. A boy in ‘girl’ clothes is weird. The two emotions are conflicting ones, and they aren’t feelings I’ll be able to resolve soon.  I don’t want to notice women in head scarves, no matter whether their headwear is in the news. And I’d like to hope there are mothers who don’t mean to gawp at my son when he wears his tights and leotard to ballet class. But humans seem programmed to desire controlling norms that dictate others’ behavior. So I suppose I’ll keep looking at the women whose hair, and often faces are hidden from me,  even as I struggle to create a safe space for my dress loving son, hoping all the while that the time is soon coming when we can really understand each other.

American Idol

Before the blog post today, let me guide you to a website created by my publisher:

http://throwaway-lines.com/

More about that another time, but you can currently find my bio by hovering over the word “Fiction” and clicking my name.

 

I tried out for American Idol (and is it any wonder that this particular bit of reality-showdom has an acronym that could also mean artificial intelligence?) while we were at Disney. It was a total lark, and I didn’t get past round one, and there are no photos for evidence, but I actually learned some fun stuff in the process. For one thing, I had no idea that Disney owned American Idol, though Walt’s company owns the rest of the planet not bought up by the Sam Walton family, so I shouldn’t be surprised.

I’m sure this is an upshot of my refusal to have a working television in the house. We can play DVDs, but don’t have so much as an HD converter for our 14 year old set, let alone cable or satellite. I can’t stand commercials and am not willing to sit through them for the slight amount of programming I would actually enjoy. Scott is neither here nor there on the topic, and we both like saving the money, too. So I really know nothing about Idol. I know that former judge Simon Cowell was rumored to be the king of sarcasm, that Steven Tyler’s got his bow-chicka-wow-wow on this season,  and that the Pants on the Ground try-out went viral (even I viewed that one on You Tube), but that’s about it.

So when we went to Disney’s Hollywood Studios the Sunday before Memorial Day, I didn’t even know trying out for the show was an option. However, we quickly found out that much of the park was not age appropriate for the kids. This didn’t prevent Sam from enjoying it all enormously. He adored the shows, the videos, and the rides equally, and since it was his actual birthday, he spent much of the day pointing to his “Disney Birthday” name badge and saying “I’m actually four now” in his most grown-up voice.

In contrast, Caroline spent most of the morning cowering in terror. We tried to take her on the Narnia ride, which was nothing more than a couple of non-interactive videos. She screamed so badly before the first screen even lit up that Scott had to take her for a hike. Then, we tried to go on a ride that was essentially a romp through a bunch of famous movies. She made it approximately to the flash of a scene of Sigourney Weaver running hell-for-leather through the bowels of the Nostromo before I had to get her out of the room. Fast. (Sam, in contrast, now wants to see Alien, thanks to that moment.)

Back outside, it was unbelievably hot, and the ride we’d just abandoned was some thirty minutes long, as, like much of the Hollywood Studios fare, it was really more of a movie. Movies overwhelm Caroline in the best of circumstances, and theme parks do, too, so the combination was really a no-go for her. But I wanted to do something indoors while we waited out the half-time-highlights version of “a complete history of film”.  As we wandered, we passed the actual studio where All My Children is taped (wonder what they’ll put there after the show is cancelled?) and a variety of other really grown-up things.

And then we came to the American Idol building. “Auditions today” said the sign. There was no line whatsoever. The air conditioning beckoned. I asked, “How does this work?”

The gatekeepers explained, “First you sing thirty seconds a capella, any song you can think of. Then, if you make it to round two, you karaoke one of these songs”. He handed me a card with a  bunch of unfamiliar titles on it.

I recognized two of them and thought I would be able to fake them if it came to it and said, “Come on Caroline.” She wasn’t allowed to audition per se, but they did let her pretend to try out. We first entered a hall where they played a short clip of the show’s host (whose name I do not know) welcoming us. Then, we were quickly ushered into a room with a Disney employee who was to hear our thirty seconds of a capella singing.

Caroline went first and sang “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. 

Which was good, because my mind had suddenly gone blank. I wasn’t nervous. I had no expectations, largely wanted to get in out of the heat for a few minutes, and didn’t feel at all uncomfortable with the laughing woman who was chirping, “That’s wonderful! You sang “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star while standing on a star!” to Caroline.

While she carefully and laboriously wrote out my daughter’s name on a badge, I stared at the list in my hand (which didn’t even pertain to this round) and struggled to remember thirty seconds of any song. The woman seemed prepared for this, as she had an entire spiel explaining that only 10 or 15 percent of the contestants moved on to round two, but that everyone’s contributions were welcome. Blah-blah-blah, OK whatever, I couldn’t even remember what came after “up above the world so high” in “Twinkle Twinkle” right about then.

She said, “Whenever you’re ready, you can start.”

And I finally remembered something I knew by heart. I sing all the time, and I know hundreds of songs by heart. I get my kids and myself through the day by singing. Are they getting demanding and while I’m feeling frustrated? A nice round of Beast of Burden will diffuse us all. Who doesn’t feel better for bellowing “Pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty girl” a few times? Right-wingers at the door selling God-on-a-stick? A nice chorus of “Obvious, Child” will set my mood to rights.  Insomnia? “Sweet Dreams”.  Grumpy with my Spouse? “Somethin’ So Strong”. But I couldn’t have thought of any of these  songs’ titles right then, let alone remembered thirty seconds of one.

It was another familiar favorite that finally popped into my head. “Okay,” I said, “This is Pure Prairie League’s’ Amie’”.

I actually sang the song’s final chorus and the first strains of “Falling In And Out of Love With You”.  It’s the perfect song audition, really, when one has only thirty seconds to share. Amie’s chorus is fast paced, but the song shifts into slow gear as it heads into “Fallin’ In And Out of Love”, and it allows a singer to exhibit a fairly broad vocal range, as well. And the word “you” can be drawn out to fill out those annoying last five seconds.

As I said, I didn’t make it past this round, so I never got to sing the karaoke tunes on my list. But the Disney staffer actually felt like I carried a decent tune. (I tend to think of my voice as being somewhat off key, so this was a pleasant surprise.) She told me my voice did need to be stronger, but I knew that. I only figured out where my diaphragm is very recently, and in spite of several theater courses in college, I still haven’t really learned how to speak or sing from it.

So in spite of my complete lack of Idol knowledge, the experience was a positive one, and it was a great way to beat the Orlando heat at the end of May.

Down by the Ocean

I’ve always been a Gulf coast kind of girl. As in the Gulf of Mexico. I cannot imagine a retirement that doesn’t have Naples, Florida in it. In fact, to my knowledge, in spite of spending a large portion of my childhood in South Florida, I had never been to the Atlantic coast until we went there last week during our Orlando visit. Mom hates the Atlantic. Well, not really. It’s all relative, and any ocean is better than none for her. But she has always said the Atlantic is cold and the shells aren’t very good. She is right on both counts. But I wanted to see it for myself, so we drove from our resort near Orlando to Titusville, about an hour away.

We had not counted on the number of toll roads between us and the ocean. We paid out close to $10 one way, I do believe, and we only switched roads a couple of times.  SunPass and EZPass customers could get a “by” and zip on through, but those of us paying cash, even if we had happened to have the exact change, which we didn’t,  had to slow down (or stop entirely) for the toll lines.  By the time we got to the Eastern shore, I was bankrupted of ones and quarters, and Scott was down to his last two singles, meaning we would have to restock before returning or hope one of the booths could make change for a twenty.

We had been navigating with the GPS, which, unfortunately, mistook a KFC for the coastline and tried to steer us to the parking lot. But we were close enough by then to follow the signs to Canaveral National Seashore. Admission was $6 (broke that $20, yay Scott), and we  headed down a twisty road to the beach. We could see Kennedy Space Center for most of that drive, and we kind of regretted that we weren’t going there. But it would have been expensive, and the attractions wouldn’t have been particularly age appropriate for our group. In any case, we were eager for that ocean.

Caroline, adorable as everMy initial reaction, once we unloaded the car, slathered on the sunblock, and trundled over the wooden sand dune bridge, was “Mom was right”. There were hardly any seashells, and in spite of the hot day, the water was icy. However, after I’d broiled my pre-existing sunburn for a little while, the frigid water felt mighty good, and the kids didn’t care that the shell selection was paltry. The mere fact that the shells existed was sufficient to keep Caroline enchanted for our entire visit, and Sam was far more interested in the sand than the shells in any case.

 Digging in the sand

Far, far, more interested.

 wallowing in the sand

At one point, he started to build a sandcastle, inspired by a crumbling one I’d found down the beach. He joyfully packed his bucket and dumped it out, but quickly lost interest when he found out that the sand could be neither too soupy nor too dry to make the castle come out. I’ve never been much of a sandcastle fan, myself, except when the work is professional and resembles sculpted stone or ice. In fact, I’m not a big fan of sand when it comes right down to it. I hate the way it feels inside my swimsuit and the way it gets in my mouth.

The sandcastle without a boyBut I wanted to help Sam, and Scott and I engaged ourselves in filling the bucket with him, trying to regain his attention. We scooped with our fingers, part of a crumbling shell, and the other shovel Caroline gallantly lent to the cause. We carefully used the damp sand left behind by the retreating tide, and packed it down tightly. In the end, we turned out our triumphant structure, only to find that Sam had departed entirely and joined another family.

We only stayed a few hours, hoping to catch up with a former student of mine who lives in the Daytona Beach area, around forty miles North of Titusville. She got stuck at work, though, and  we puttered on back to the resort instead, paying our tolls along the way.

I can now formally say I share my mother’s opinion. The Gulf Coast is better. And I knew it intuitively before. But I have at least been to the Atlantic, now, to know for myself exactly how cold the water is when it reaches up for the shore from the icy depths.

Skywriting

So. We stayed at a resort in Orlando – technically in Kissimmee – and we’ll definitely be doing that again. It’s a timeshare place that also does rentals. Unless you have an extremely fixed schedule and a lot of disposable income, buying into one of these is never a good idea. But renting from them, when they have unsold rooms available to the general public, can be an extraordinary deal. We shared expenses with Dennis and Kristi, and even if we hadn’t, we would have still paid tons less for the three bedroom suite at the resort than we would have paid for a hotel room without a kitchenette. And the place was loaded.  Besides the sixteen pools on the property, there were a lot of other activities. We played goofy golf,  we took out the paddleboats, and we took advantage of the reasonably priced on-site childcare. (In fact, owners got all that stuff free, but, again, time-shares are money pits unless your circumstances are completely perfect for them.)

Depending on where we wanted to go, we could have gotten discount tickets to some of the local amusement parks. (Disney barely even offers a AAA discount, so it’s no surprise that we couldn’t find any tickets for ourselves.) Among the parks offering steep discounts to resort owners was one called The Holy Land. This is a real place, presumably about as cheesy and full of bullshit as Kentucky’s Creation Museum (another locale whose doorstep my feet will not darken, lest lightning strike upon my entrance).

Anyway, one morning, while we were out on the paddleboats, we looked up to realize there was some skywriting in progress. The day was clear and perfect, and I’d never seen good skywriting before. In fact, the only skywriting I had ever seen was a shabby “We  [heart]Boobies” that blew away as soon as it was written during the Joy To Life 5K Breast Cancer run/walk earlier this year. So I was majorly excited and spun my boat around several times to keep the plane in view as it spelled out its message.

U + G! Maybe it's algebra!!! 

I had so much fun trying figure out what it was going to be,

I can't wait for the next letter

 

right up until here

Damned Religious Right

 

 

when I suddenly realized the whole message was going to be U+God= something (the ‘something’ turned out to be a smiley face) and stopped taking pictures.

It was an advertisement for the Holy Land.

Disgusting.

But that’s OK. I got back at them.

We parked our swan-boats and got out, and I shouted to the sky, “Thanks, but I’d rather just go to Jerusalem you morons.” I’m sure they got my message and will be acting on it any day.

Sam and the Princesses

I have a confession to make. I know I said I hadn’t been blogging because I was swimming with Sam, and I know I claimed to have been grading like crazy. And those things are true. But the primary reason I haven’t been online for the last several days is that we were on vacation in Orlando. Yes, that’s right, we did Disney for Sam’s birthday.  And then I’ve spent a week getting caught back up with the paying job, because, well, Scott and I aren’t wealthy enough for me to contemplate the alternative.

We had an awesome time with friends Dennis and Kristi and their kiddos. If you want Disney tips, I suggest looking for the great advice to be found here: http://disneyworldforum.disney.go.com/home.aspx .

For my part, I’d much rather tell you about our vacation.  Naturally, this will take several posts. Today, I want to talk about our favorite moment at the Magic Kingdom, which came late Tuesday afternoon. Thanks to Kristi, we knew that it was impossible to tackle an all-day visit to any of the Disney parks with young children. So we had already spent the morning exhausting ourselves in Tomorrowland and gone back to the hotel for a couple of hours of break. Sam had napped in the car, and I’d stayed out there with him, working on my laptop so he could sleep. He actually only woke up on the return trip to Disney. Now, in the morning, Sam wakes up all noisy and excited. If he’s not easy to be around, it’s largely because he’s so impatient for LIFE to catch up with him. At naptime, in contrast, he wakes up mean.

So he was still a grouch when we caught the tram back to the monorail station. (Any Simpsons fans out there singing the “Monorail” song right now? We did.) He cheered up a little for the actual monorail ride, but went straight back into sulk-mode when he found out Caroline got to pick our first activity. We had FastPass tickets to get autographs from the Princesses and Mickey Mouse. Now, he’s my princess boy. He had been talking nonstop about getting to meet the princesses since before we left for Florida. But at that precise moment, he wanted to ride the train around the park and had no interest in doing anything suggested by big sis.

I told him, “We’re going anyway.”This is the right time for it.”

“Den I won’t wet de pwincesses sign my book.” He really is getting in those r’s and l’s. Except when he’s angry. Then he regresses. And he was absolutely threatening me.

“Sure,” I told him. “It’s your book.” We had gotten both kids autograph books because they’re way into that kind of thing.

“And I won’t take a pictuwe wif dem.” Hmm. More threats I didn’t care about.

“Fine with me. You still have to come along.”

“Weelllllllll…..welllllllll….” Anyone who has spent any time with Sam knows this “well”. It starts as a high pitched yell, and it sounds more like he’s saying “Whale”.  And it never ends happily. But Scott picked him up and tucked him under one arm to forestall the inevitable tantrum until we could get situated in line.

And yes, once we had joined the queue, which was several people long even with our FastPasses, he sat on the floor and tried to scootch away while arguing about what he would and would not permit the princesses to do.  Fortunately, we weren’t waiting long before we reached the throne room, where velvet rope separated the children from Cinderella, Belle, and Aurora.

Sam quieted down, then, after a few contemplative minutes said, “I guess dey can sign my book.”

When we reached the front of the line, Caroline got to meet the crowned heads (they only store three of them there – they hide the others throughout the park, I guess), and she posed beautifully with each of them, first Cinderella,

Cinderella and Caroline

 

 

 

 

 

                                             then Belle,

Sorry the background is funky. I was rushing to catch the unfolding Sam drama at the same time

                                                                                                   then Aurora. 

See what I mean about height? This woman was at least 5'8" before the crown, and all angles. She's sitting here BTW

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sam watched Caroline carefully when she went to Cinderella. His eyes had gotten huge, and he was clearly falling in love. But when his turn came, he went and hid his head against the wall, not sullen any longer, but completely shy. We gave his book to Cinderella so he would at least have an autograph. What happened next was magic. Cinderella spent five solid minutes coaxing him away from his hiding place and into her arms.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then, she handed him off to Belle.

 

 

 

 

Not to be outdone by Cinderella, Belle first flirted with Sam and then planted a giant lipstick kiss on his cheek before passing him along to Aurora.

Now, Aurora couldn’t hope to top the kiss, but she did flirt and call Sam a prince. She also crouched down on his level (no easy task in a ball gown), saving herself from the distinction of “the princess who was so tall I had to take every picture in ‘portrait’ mode because that crown stuck up too high for ‘landscape’ even when she was sitting”.

As we walked away, Sam abruptly laid down on the carpet, not so much refusing to leave as completely swooning over his loves.

In retrospect, this visit to royalty was not a very good idea. It means I’ve got to hope William and Kate have a daughter and she digs Americans. Because I don’t think my little boy is going to settle for anything less than the real deal.