Archive | August, 2011

A Ten-Year Old’s Epiphany

30 Aug

If I had access to my Dad's pictures more easily, I could have a real picture of his helicopter, but this will have to do! At least you get the idea.

In all the years that my father flew either airplanes or helicopters, I only flew with him as pilot once. He was flying a medi-vac helicopter at the time, and I went with him when he had to re-fuel. It’s the only time I’ve been in a helicopter and it was amazing. I felt like I was in a Vietnam War movie as we took off from the hospital’s helipad. I began to hum the theme music to M.A.S.H. – even though it’s neither Vietnam, nor a movie – and gazed, transfixed, at the city dropping around me.

A Pan Am plane that I never flew on with my Dad! Circa at least the era is correct, though he was in 727's at the time...

I don’t know why that’s the only time I flew with Dad. It seems kind of silly now, that in his Pan Am years I never did. Somehow it just never worked out. For 14 years of my growing-up life, his job was located 8 hours away from home, which made accompanying him rather difficult…not to mention the fact that the Air Force tends to frown on pilot’s taking their kids out on rescue missions. We would see him, occasionally though, flying over our house. He’d let Mom know if they were flying to Alaska for training exercises, and the approximate time of their passing overhead, and we’d hang around all day, just waiting for the magic hour when he’d fly over.

It's a appologies if it's not exactly the correct one!

You could hear them coming before you saw them, the great-big Hueys with their green paint jobs, their flight-patterns taking them straight over our cliff on the north of Orcas Island. We’d run out to the deck and wave like mad, unable to talk over the noise, our hearts beating in time to the whump of the engines. And then, so quickly, they’d be gone – heading over Matia and Sucia islands, over tiny Puffin, over Vancouver, B.C. – and we were left with our ears ringing, our hearts slowing, the blessing of his wave from the window still reflected in our shining eyes.

I hear it...and I come running!

And that’s why, here in farmland, I love the crop-dusters. I’ll be washing dishes, or folding laundry, and I’ll hear them coming. At first – every time, without fail – I think it’s a maniacal driver on our dirt road, going about 100, and then, when it’s almost too late, I realize what it is and I yell for the kids to come, making a dash for the door as I do so.

Out on the deck we laugh and wave and delight in the noise, the proximity, the sheer overwhelming power. Inevitably, at some point, I run for the camera, though I’ve never been able to get a shot of it directly over my head. The good thing is, I usually have several tries, as the planes come back and forth, back and forth in their job of spraying the corn, the soybeans, the bugs that threaten the crops.

Not all of my friends understand the joy I find in the yellow crop duster, though a few of them understand a little. My husband, bless his heart, gets it, and he runs to the deck with us, shading his eyes against the sun as he admires the dangerous flying. Nevermind the possible philosophical issues with chemicals vs. organic farming, to me these planes are my youth – my wonderful childhood of tidepools and forts and parents who loved me – all rolled up in that airplane sound – fixed wing or not – flying over my house, over the years. The pilot has no idea, I’m sure, why this crazy family comes running to wave. Maybe he doesn’t even see us, focused as he is on the field before him. And then he’s gone, only to return, time and again, rising like the sun on the horizon, like a ship on a sea of grain.

Again, not the actual plane I flew in, but still a cool shot!

My dad had a friend who owned a bi-plane and he came up to Orcas Island one time and gave us rides. I remember putting on the goggles and climbing in behind my sister. I remember my hair flying behind me, the feel of the wind against my cheeks. I remember seeing the town I knew so well unrolling beneath me, the beaches and boulders I had conquered, now tiny and toy-like below. I’m the king of the mountain!

And then we were flying over our house, our trees, our garden. “This is what Dad sees!” I thought. “This is his view. This is his world.” And for a moment, for a brief instant in my ten-year old, self-centered heart, I understood.

Sometimes the Pen – or the Keyboard – Has a Mind of its Own

23 Aug

The things that really matter.

I live out in the country, on ten acres of trees and grass and stream, surrounded on all four sides by farmland. Don’t get me wrong: we are not farmers. We are not even “gentleman farmers”. We have no horses fertilizing my future garden patch. No chickens wander around looking picturesque in the front yard. No cow provides our morning milk. No cats purr at our ankles. No dogs annoy the mail lady. Not even a goldfish graces our counter top.

We do have many visiting wild animals. Foxes. Woodchucks. Feral cats. Skunks. Deer. Racoons. Opossums. Beavers. Muskrats. Coyotes, occasionally. Cougars, supposedly (though we’ve never seen one), frogs and toads and birds of many a varied feather.


This makes me, I suppose, an imposter. I really don’t belong here, growing up as I did in a different state, a milder climate, a separate frame of mind. In the Pacific Northwest, people are radicaller than they are here. (Yes, I know that’s not a word. I’m using it anyway.) Here almost everyone goes to church. At least at Christmas and Easter. They mostly grew up here, are raising their children here, will be buried here in the prairie cemetery on the edge of town where an old cannon raises its shiny nose to the sky. And that’s okay.

Another little bit of summer.

But it sometimes makes for a little discontinuity with this former globe-trotter. I said something to our son the other day that began with the words, “When I was in Russia…” and he said, “I sometimes forget that you were there, Mom.” And I said, in a whisper of realization, “So do I.”

And that, too, is okay. I mean, I want to live in the present, to enjoy and thrive in the here-and-now, rather than pine away for what was. And, truly, I tend to be a home-body anyway. I’m content to linger over breakfast with a good book. To put off the grocery shopping until the milk turns sour. I say “no” when I feel I can, to “opportunities” for involvement. (There are still plenty of things I can’t say “no” to!) I hate when night after night brings obligations, meetings, and trips into town.

Perhaps this makes me an imposter as well. I live in a world where how busy you are proves your worth. Or, at least, it feels that way. One thing I witnessed many times while doing Beauty and the Beast was the backstage hustle and bustle of the players. Often I’d see fellow-performers RUN from place to place – whether they needed to run or not. They’d run from one side of the stage to the other, only to stand there, out of breath, waiting their turn to enter from the wings. Sometimes, of course, we had to run. Sometimes we’d push each other out of the way in our hurry, our need, tripping over cords and props in our rush. But often, the running and busy-ness struck me as a need to look important. “If I run from here to there then everyone will see how vital I am to this production.” I too, fell into this trap…until I realized how silly it was.

I don’t mean to disparage anyone…it’s just that it struck me as so interesting. So like real life. We tend to think that if we’re busy, we’re vital. We’re needed. It’s all part and parcel of finding our value in the stuff we do…rather than in WHO we are.

I’d prefer to find my value in the way I think. The way I behave towards a stranger. The way I like to wave to a slow-moving tractor on my dirt road. It doesn’t matter how much I do, or where I’ve traveled. What matters is valuing people the way God wants me to value them. Being kind to my children. Spending time with my family. Being calm enough that I can smile as I face my to-do list…instead of weeping with the overwhelming urgency of it all.

This isn’t what I meant to write about. I meant to write of farming, of summer, of crop-dusters zooming over my house like gigantic dragon flies and sending us running outside in gales of laughter, grabbing the camera, waving like mad. I guess that will have to wait until next time. Sometimes the pen – or the keyboard – has a mind of its own.

And that’s okay.

There is beauty to be found on the prairie.

It’s also okay that I fail at practicing what I preach each and every day. I mean, it’s not OKAY…but it’s reality. I guess what matters is that, hopefully, I am improving.

Seize the day, my friends. Enjoy the moment. Live in light of eternity. Stop and smell the pungent tomatoes. Summer is almost over.

And that, too, must be okay.

The Morning After the Previous Two Months

16 Aug

The whole family! Three angry French two nice Americans who came to the show!

So…our community theater production of Beauty and the Beast is over and now I hardly know what to do with myself. Just kidding! You mean I actually have energy and time to cook? I’m home in the evenings to hang with the kids? I don’t have to wake up each morning and go over the lyrics to my songs before I even get out of bed? Wow. I like normal life.

But, that being said, and in case you’re wondering, yes, I’m glad I did it. Colin is glad he did it, and Katie is thrilled that she did it. It’s been fun getting to know people we either didn’t know before or only knew at a distance. It’s been fun exercising our rusty skills, doing things we hadn’t done in years, if ever. Yes, it’s even been fun “dancing”…though I never thought I’d say that a few weeks ago. I actually found myself thinking, “What? I was worried about this?”

Ian and The Beast!

One of the joys of doing live performance is, of course, the crowd’s reaction. When the crowd is more responsive, it gives us, the performers, more energy. It was in the third performance (out of six) that I discovered this. The crowd laughed more, they clapped more, they radiated energy…and we were exponentially more “tuned in” to our performance when they showed us how much they enjoyed it. It was so fun! “They like us, they really like us!”

I’m only on stage for three songs, though I have backstage duties during the rest of the time. In fulfilling these duties I have learned several things. 1) After setting down Gaston’s chair (in the dark) exit stage LEFT…that way you don’t bump into the Silly Girls (who are also entering in the dark). 2) When your husband warns you that your flower cart – which has sat in the corner of the family room for years doing nothing – will never be the same again after its debut as a bookseller’s cart, BELIEVE HIM. (No, acting hasn’t gone to its head, but its wobbly wheel is going to force it into an early retirement.) 3) You must UNTIE BELLE’S LACES ALL THE WAY if you’re going to get it over her head and microphone pack in the two and a half minutes you have to redress her for the ballroom dancing scene. 4) Always have fingernail polish in your costume bag for those untimely runs in your black “Villager #2” stockings. 5) When you see your husband laughing until he cries – laughing like you haven’t seen him laugh in years – just sit back and enjoy it. This is good. This is part of our developing story. 6) If you’re going to buy a “prop cheese” from the actual grocery store, be sure that there’s a fridge you can keep it in between performances, otherwise it will look and smell more like Roquefurt than Colby Jack.

Beast, Menu, Lumiere and Belle!

One other thing I have learned: if your director asks you, the night before the first performance, to do the scream in the mob scene where everyone first sees the beast in the mirror, don’t underestimate the power of a good Faye Wray scream. I didn’t know I could scream. I have avoided screaming for many years. In fact, when I was in 4th grade and played the part of Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty, I had to ask another girl to do my death scream. I’m not a screamer, but I grimaced (in character) and obeyed when he asked me to. Well, apparently, now I have a reputation. I cannot tell you the number of people who have said, “You do a great scream!” Who knew?!

We had an evening off last week and Colin put on The Music Man (apparently we’re now all about the musicals) and an interesting thing happened while we watched. Lucy and Katie began to dance around the room, they were dramatic, they were expressive, they were acting. I think – and I’m only just now realizing this – that we’ve watched less television since all this has happened, too. There are other things to do…better things…things like dressing up in outfits that trip the wearer (sending them into fits of laughter), and wearing crazy hats, and singing at the top of our lungs while roasting hot dogs in the back yard.

Mrs. Potts and Cogsworth!

Another thing I enjoyed was the multi-generational aspect of community theater. It’s been fun to work with the “little girls” (“We aren’t ‘little,’” they insist). And it’s been fun to work with…well, okay, I’m like almost the oldest performer there, so nevermind about that contrast.) But it’s been especially fun to work with the high schoolers. I haven’t spent much time around high schoolers in the 23 years since I’ve graduated and there are certain things I forgot about. Energy. Shyness. Energy. Self-consciousness. Talent. And did I mention energy?

Lucy wouldn't get her picture taken with the Beast...but Belle was another story!

It’s funny, performing. You do things you never knew you could do. You gain confidence. You gain perspective. You gain friends. Yes, it’s possible that you gain aches and pains from the granny boots you have to wear that used to fit you before you had children but which decidedly DON’T fit you any more…but hey, those things are temporary. They’re forgettable. So forgettable that, it’s possible, I’d do something like this again someday. Especially if there’s screaming involved.

So now my boots have been tossed in the back of the closet where they belong, my Villager #2 tights with the red finger-nail polish “patches” have been thrown away, Lucy has her fake vegetables back because I no longer have to pretend to buy them, and all my kind friends no longer have to avoid answering the phone because I won’t be bugging them to watch Lucy and Ian during rehearsal and/or performances any more. (A HUGE thanks to everyone who was willing to take them for us!) Nor will I be bugging everyone I see to, “Get your tickets today!”
But there’s one thing that isn’t done: I’m still singing the songs in my head.

Oh, and if you’re wondering, no, I never hit that high note again. Not once.

QUESTION: Have you ever done community theater and what was your experience?

50 Years Ago Today: An Overnight Atrocity

13 Aug

Our apartment building in Berlin! We were the top two floors, right-hand side.

Imagine waking up one day only to discover that an impenetrable wall had gone up in your city overnight and you lived, not in a vibrant, whole metropolis, but rather in a divided, frightened island of a land; your grandparents, perhaps, were unreachable, your girlfriend separated from you forever because of the arrogance of her nation’s Communist ideology. It was August 13th, 1961: 50 years ago today.

"My" U-Bahn station - Dahlem Dorf. The prettiest station in Berlin!

I called that city home for my last two years of high school. West Berlin, Germany, was an amazing place to live. Since I had grown up on an island, with access only by ferry or private boat or plane, somehow living in the isolation of Berlin wasn’t a big deal to me. My father was a pilot for Pan American Airlines, so we had that life-line to the western world if we needed it, but there was so much to do in Berlin that really, we rarely left. I had never lived in a CITY before and, though I couldn’t speak the language beyond “Wo ist die toiletten?” when we moved there, it didn’t really matter. (Right before we moved to Berlin, the principal of my high school on Orcas Island asked me, “Sprechen sie Deutsch?” and I wondered why he was asking me if I spoke Dutch.)

A beloved East German "Ampelmann" pedestrian stop to be found all over the reunited city.

I wish I had learned the language better, wish that I had the gift that certain people have of grasping the verb genders, the inflections of a foreign tongue. I learned a little, most of which I’ve now forgotten, though I was able, in an amazing trip last February, to converse with a store keeper in Berlin, both of us smiling, both of us laughing at our mutual struggles – his in English, mine in Deutsch. It was a pleasant experience, despite my terrible accent, and I returned to his shop 3 times because he made it fun.

The Ampelmann says "go"!

It was amazing being back in Berlin, after 21 years of being away. In a normal city, 21 years may or may not reveal much change. In Berlin, even the name was different…the “West” had disappeared…though in metaphorical terms, the “West” had actually taken over the “East”, and it was really the “East” which was gone. Now, the former West Berlin looks much the same: I found my house, my school, the military base where we shopped and hung out (though it is nothing but an abandoned field now). But the “East” part of Berlin…it’s like another war happened and everything had to be torn down and rebuilt to replace the ruined city. And, really, that is what happened. The Cold War was won…and the Communists backed off, leaving Deutschland united, returning Berlin to its glory days as capital of Germany.

Truman longer the bustling base that it was.

I guess you don't have to show your id card at the gate anymore.

"8 o'clock at Oskar"...a good place to meet! The subway station looks much as it did 20 years ago.

My parents were still living in Berlin when the wall came down on November 9, 1989, and I came home for Christmas that year and hammered out my obligatory bits of history from that hideous monstrosity of a wall: 96 miles of repression. They built it ostensibly to “Keep out Western Capitalism” though really it was built to keep IN the eastern people who were moving out in a steady stream of freedom-seekers. The freedom-seekers continued to seek ways out of East Berlin, sending more than 170 people to their deaths…and over 5,000 to freedom…in the 26 years of its existence. The Berlin Wall Museum, located at the former site of Checkpoint Charlie, is an amazing (albeit dusty) conglomeration of artifacts and stories and pictures of the history of the wall, complete with suitcases and empty car engines that were actually used to smuggle people over Die Mauer. My husband and I HAD to eat at a McDonalds which is located directly across from the museum…smack dab in the center of the former barricade against such brazen western ideals. How could we resist?

The former Berlin American High a German oberschule.

Our football, I suppose, a "football", soccer!

Because my parents returned stateside less than a year after the wall opened, I had never seen the actual wall be gone. I had never seen Berlin whole…never been able to take an U-Bahn subway ride from the Kufurstendamm (West Berlin’s main shopping street) straight to Alexander Platz (a famous East Berlin square)…had never been able to shop in the amazing Gendarmenmarkt (because it wasn’t amazing then)…or been able, best of all, to walk through the Brandenburger Tor…because it was in no-man’s land, walk-here-and-be-killed-land. I love that now the Embassy to the United States is actually touching the Brandenburg Gate…love that the French Embassy is close by, the British Embassy…all right there, taking their rightful place in history as the protectors of Berlin back in the days when it needed protecting. The Russian Embassy is up the road a little…nearby, but not right there. It too, has a place in Berlin’s history…but a place that might rather be forgotten.

The Brandenburg Gate - now fully accessable!

“Ich bin ein Berliner,” JFK said in his famous speech declaring the stance of the United States in Berlin’s defense. Nevermind the joke that he accidentally called himself a jelly donut, he stood up for freedom…no less than President Regan did many years later when he stood before the Brandenburg Gate and declared, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” I was there when he made that speech. My mother and I stood there in the cheering crowd, thinking, “Yeah, right, like that will happen any time soon.” It happened two years later. Freedom has a way of coming to the fore.

I, too, am a Berliner. Even though I was not there for long. I think that we are part of everything that we have ever been. The naughty little children, the rebellious teenagers, the idealistic college students, the clueless new parents, the resigned adults. All of that is in me to this day. And so, on this anniversary of such a terrible oppression, I claim my place as a proud Berliner.

Even though I cannot speak the language.


9 Aug

Summer in Minnesota. Somehow the "mess" of nature is still picturesque.

Let’s face it: if aliens came to earth and their criteria for assimilating humans was based on how messy their house was, I would be taken for sure. I thought of this sentence while washing dishes…and had to quick dry my hands, run to the computer (for the umpteenth time today) and write it down before forgetting it. I do this often. I keep a notepad by my bed for late-night inspirations. (I have learned this the hard way, after losing way too many “perfect” sentences and mental lists of things I have to do when I wake up.) I also keep old business cards of my husband’s in the car, along with a yellow pen that the kids don’t like because it’s too faint. I write down my reminders, sentences, status updates, thoughts, on the clean, white back of the cards…and then squint at the messy, faint writing later while sitting at my computer. Usually I can read it. Sometimes I can’t. It’s times like that when “brd ckn ar frsh” can be really confusing. Is it a grocery list? Bread, chicken, air freshener? Or is it “bird checking art fish?” And what does that mean, anyway? There are times the epiphanies get lost in translation.

There is a Seinfeld episode in which Jerry writes down a phrase in the night on his bedside tablet of paper…and can’t read it in the morning. When it is finally discovered what it is that he wrote, he says, “Why did I write that? That’s not funny!” So much was hanging on the meaning of his scribbles…yet it was, ultimately, not worth the time and trouble he’d spent trying to decipher it.

Are my scribbles worth deciphering? Sometimes, yes. Usually. I think. If there’s no bread or chicken for dinner, then for sure they were! But I wonder how many brilliant thoughts have been lost due to the messiness of my writing? When I was in third grade, my teacher threatened me with remedial cursive class. She said something to the effect of, “If you can’t write your capital “G’s” better than that after all the practice you’ve had, you’ll stay after school with Mrs. So-and-So.” (I don’t remember Mrs. So-and-So’s name…I’ve blocked it out.) My eyes got huge and my heart thumped a little faster. I’d never been threatened with staying after school for anything, ever. I knuckled down and worked on my cursive “G’s” as well as my other worst letters: capital “F’s” and “T’s” and lowercase “s’s” and “r’s” and “z’s”…not to mention those crazy-weird capital “Q’s”. (What’s with those?) I also worked on my capital “L’s”…but just because those were fun and my favorites.

Our back yard is remarkably un-messy. At least it was when this was taken a few years ago!

I never did have to stay after school so I must have improved to some degree, though to see my handwriting today you might wonder. At least the “G” in my signature is legible. Every time – okay, probably not EVERY time – that I sign my name to something I think of the day I opened my first-ever checking account. I was 12 or 13 and was depositing around $200 of saved-up babysitting money. I remember the teller instructing me, “Sign your name here.” And my mom saying, “Write neatly. This is the signature you’ll have for the rest of your life.” WHAT? My head spun around to see if she was serious or not. THE REST OF MY LIFE?!! I think my mouth dropped open. The pressure was unbelievable. YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME! I CAN’T DO THIS! I took a deep breath, shut my gaping mouth, gripped the pen, and scrawled.

When I got married, I felt almost guilty writing my new name.

Now, when I put my John Hancock on anything, I am intensely aware of how all the “n’s” and “l’s” of “O’Donnell” turn into a scribble of childish proportions, a mountain range of jagged, illegible lines. My mother would never approve.

She probably wouldn’t like the state of my house, either, which the aliens are zoning in on as we speak.

QUESTION: Would the aliens take you…or reject you as too tidy?

The Most Surreal Moment of my Life

2 Aug

I adore beaches. This is Eastsound Bay...

My sister has brought me to see the new library. I am in the town where I grew up, Eastsound, Orcas Island, Washington. The old library, where I knew every nook and cranny, where I came for story time, for puppet shows, for the Library Fair, is closed; has become a real estate office, or insurance, or some other such place where the stories they weave are more fiction than fact but no one ever admits it.

We walk into the new building and it smells of paint and printing, and, inexplicably in this modern time, paste. (Perhaps that’s all just in my mind.) It holds the old books, housed on new, honey-colored shelves, but not the old feelings. Nor do I find the marble statue of David, complete with fig leaves. I never looked at that thing without blushing.

I wonder, is new always better than old? Is large always better than small? Well, in the case of books, more is better than less, this I must admit. But it feels, somehow, wrong. As if I don’t belong here. As if I am a tourist. I remember, suddenly, the bumper sticker, popular in this tourist town when I was a child, “I’m not a tourist, I live here.” I was never quite sure why a person would want to advertise this. Now I understand better. To live here is to belong. Sadly, I no longer do.

Quintessential Orcas Island beach scene: sea weed and starfish and jagged rocks!

I wander around, admiring the lay-out, the picture windows, the local author’s section. “Will I ever be shelved there?” I wonder, I long. I see the children’s section and am drawn to the books I love best. I see the bean-bag chairs, the colorful painted walls, the smiling stuffed Madelines, Pooh Bears, and chubby ducks, packaged together with their corresponding books, hanging on convenient racks.

I run my hand along a shelf, randomly grab a volume – with a title I do not recognize – and heft it in my hand. Clearly, this book was carted over from the former building. No brilliant illustration graces its linen cover, no plastic dust jacket is folded and taped with precise and crinkly splendor, to protect it from greasy fingers, little brothers. I open the book, compelled.

There, in affirmation of its age, is a cream-colored pocket, complete with card, proving its pre-computer derivation. I pull out the card, intrigued by this reminder of what libraries used to be: written proof of a person’s interests. It has not been checked out very often; only half a dozen names grace its lines. The most recent date is some 10 years previous, the oldest more like 20. I glance at the names, some penciled in childish printing, some in a mother’s neater cursive. Suddenly, my heart skips a beat as my eyes take in the second name on the list, just one certain scribbled name: Gretchen Wendt.

Here, I, on the road to independence, was allowed to sign my name, was allowed to leave my mark, the proof of my existence. Frozen in a moment of time that I have long since forgotten, this card holds a story. Now I have found it, here, where I have never before been…and yet, somehow, I have.

Perhaps I’m not a tourist after all.

I'm the smallest one...probably not too long before writing my name on a certain library card...

(Those of you who know me may be wondering…no…I’m not on Orcas right now! I’ve tried several times in the past to write about this incident – which took place probably 15 years ago – but have never been satisfied with what I wrote. Today, writing it in the present tense, it finally came. I guess it took an epiphany…)

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