Sunday, February 24, 2013

. . . Let it Snow!

Rain, rain, go away! Let it snow, let it snow! There is nothing like waking up to the beauty of snow glistening on the trees as the sun rises in the woods. I love snow. So how did I ever end up living in South Carolina? That’s probably a story for another time, but here’s what I remember about my earlier life in snow country.

Growing up in Massachusetts ensured that I always had plenty of snow to play in. Winter days were filled with hot chocolate, snow fights, sledding and building snowmen . . . snow women . . .  snow kids, and sleeping in igloos.  Of course we had to shovel and scrape ice off car windows before school, but snow related chores were far outweighed by the fun times playing in it.

College days in Maryland indoctrinated me into another type of fun in the snow – no classes and beer runs on cross country skis. A blizzard in the mid-eighties shut down our campus and all of Frederick. It was the perfect storm. Students were snowed in and professors were snowed out, for days. Thankfully the food services department managed to get to work so we got fed. But even better than eating, was the fact that we could use the cafeteria trays to shovel paths to each other’s dorms. We attempted to use the trays as sleds, but even though it is nice to remember that my butt was once small enough to fit on a cafeteria tray, they don’t make very good sleds. So when the “tray sled” attempts failed, my student job in the PE and Recreation Department really came in handy.  I had the keys to the supply closets. Cross country skis provided the transportation we needed to travel straight to the nearby store to fill back packs with essentials . . . including the ever-important beer. Did I mention that half the Marines stationed at Camp David were also snowed in with us?  Well I imagine you get the picture!

 In the 90’s I experienced snow in a whole new way. Living in West Virginia, miles from a main road, with two small boys made snow storms an adventure back in time. We would go days without electricity, running water and only the wood stove to heat the house. We could shovel the driveway but it was a futile effort digging to nowhere since it took days for the rural roads to be plowed and then days more until our private hilly road was cleared.

One particular storm came on without much warning. We were snowed in before we could load up the house with essential supplies. The snow was wet, heavy and clung to the trees creating an immediate winter wonderland. We lost power before we had time to fill the tub with water and had no choice but to melt snow on the wood stove. We assessed food and supplies and hoped we would not be stuck long. The boys, still in diapers, loved playing in the snow but were too small to play alone in snow deeper than they were tall.  So I played with them while dad split wood and melted snow. It may sound like it was a lot of work, but truthfully there was a special beauty and peace in a winter wonderland that makes life stand still for awhile. We enjoyed time as a family, free from the distractions of TV, jobs, phones and the usual business of daily living.

And it was all good . . . until we ran out of diapers. Going back in time to hand washing diapers with melted snow would not be fun for long! Thankfully, Dad ran out of cigarettes at the same time so I knew a rescue was eminent and he did not disappoint.  With snow shoes and back pack strapped on (did I mention he was a Marine?), he set out on the two mile hike to the closest main road. Who says addiction is always a bad thing? It took many, many hours but he eventually returned with the essentials: cigarettes and diapers - two things you don’t always see mentioned in the same sentence!

Funny how the essentials of life change over time – from hot chocolate to beer to diapers, life is always changing.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Gentle Nerd Jock

Everyone’s talking about Valentine’s Day.  Cupid’s arrow strikes when you least expect it, and sometimes cupid’s arrow just stabs you in the back and leaves you bleeding. Like most of you I have had a few bleeds in my day.
I remember an August day in 2007 when I was bleeding heavily. It was the day I was scheduled to go to court to finalize my divorce and the ending of an 18 year marriage. I was feeling weak in the knees. It was one of the few moments in my life when I didn’t know if I would have the strength to get through the day.
But then something wonderful happened. My brother Eric flew 1000 miles to be with me. Eric is five years older than me. He is a rock and his quiet strong presence can calm any storm. This wasn’t the first time Eric had shown up to save the day.
When I was 8 years old, our family was on a cross country trip from Massachusetts to California visiting state and national parks along the way. If you recall from an earlier story (Dad’s Polar Bear), I was a wanderer. My curiosity sometimes got the better of me.

We were in Yosemite National Park hiking among the waterfalls. It was a truly spectacular place. The sound of the water crashing over the rocks and cascading down into the river just kept drawing me closer and closer, until I was way too close. My mother looked up just in time to catch a glimpse of me and screamed at my father to get me. My father, ever the photographer, looked up and saw me teetering on the edge of the rocks reaching for the water. He called back to mom, “I’ve got it”. He then reached for his camera and captured the moment just before Eric grabbed my ankle and kept me from cascading over the rocks with the water. Eric saved me. There may have been moments later during that eight week journey across the country that he wished he hadn’t saved me, but he did. The proof was in the picture and I am forever grateful.
Years later when I entered seventh grade, I enrolled in our local junior/senior high school.  Eric was a senior and the captain of the football team. He wasn’t the typical jock type. He was a quiet, smart, nerd complete with polyester plaid pants and bowl haircut. If he hadn’t been the captain of the football and baseball teams he would have been a total embarrassment to me.
I pretty much tried to pretend that he wasn’t related to me; however, there was one benefit. Since he was my brother, the quarterback of the football team would actually speak to me. Jimmy was a sophomore and every girl in the school had a crush on him. You know the type – absolutely full of himself. But at lunch he would talk to me, a little seventh grader. I was in heaven and every day I looked forward to lunch time.  One day Jimmy showed up in the cafeteria with a black eye. He barely looked at me. I tried to joke with him about the shiner but he just walked away and never really spoke to me after that. I never knew why, until years later, when a former teammate of Eric’s told me the story of Eric decking Jimmy in the locker room for making a comment about me. I never knew that Eric had been the one to give Jimmy that shiner, and what a shiner it was! No wonder Jimmy never talked to me again. That was probably a good thing.
Fast forward back to divorce court day. Eric and I walked into my attorney’s office only to be told that I wasn’t going to be getting divorced that day because she had not filed the necessary paperwork. I was furious. She looked at me, then looked at Eric and said, “Well I can now see why you’re in such a hurry. He’s very handsome and much better looking than your husband”.  I wish Eric had decked her right then. But alas, Eric doesn’t really have a violent bone in his body. I quickly informed the attorney that if she couldn’t get the divorce completed that day she could at least get my name back. I’d much prefer to share Eric’s name any day.  In the end, I fired the attorney, divorced the husband and kept my brother. He’s a keeper.
So as I think about Valentine’s Day, rather than focus on cupid’s arrow, I think about all the love in my family. Cupid’s got nothing on that!


Sunday, February 10, 2013

"Clothing Optional"

Apparently I was a storyteller long before I knew I was a storyteller. At the age of 10 I was determined I would be a professional wrestler. On a summer day in Nova Scotia, I sat on a log in the middle of the woods with my brother Brian. He was 24 and the smartest person I knew, so I told him all about my plan.

Brian listened intently to my plans and acknowledged that I had thought it out all very clearly. He then looked at me and explained that wrestling was fake, phony and cheap entertainment. He stated that I should do something real like boxing. He explained the merits of boxing and even agreed to be my trainer. As I think about it now Brian may have been the smartest person I knew, but surely I knew more about boxing and wrestling than him. I had already survived 10 years with three older brothers. 
We sat quietly on the log and I thought about what he was telling me. Be real, be genuine, be you. Then he looked at me and said, “Forget about boxing, you should write down all those weird stories you’re always telling. You’re kind of entertaining.” His words stuck in my mind and I never thought about being a wrestler or boxer again.
I started writing my weird little stories. Journal after journal filled my childhood until soon stories were in my soul. Much to the chagrin of my high school principal, I began speaking in story. He would look at me and say, “Just the facts Johnson. Please no story!” But I simply couldn’t help myself. Stories became my native language.
Imagine my surprise, after years of writing and speaking in story, I got a call from an event planner who wanted to hire me as a storyteller/entertainer for a banquet at a nearby resort area. At the time I did not know what a “professional storyteller” was and had never been invited anywhere to “perform”. The event planner had heard me telling stories at the local Boys & Girls Club where I volunteered and wanted to hire me. He told me what they were willing to pay, and I about passed out. It is still the best paying job offer I’ve ever had. I was stunned and immediately agreed to take the job. I had a couple  of months to plan, prepare and practice; I worked hard. One week prior to the event I was feeling ready, but nervous about my first paying gig. The phone rang and it was the emcee calling to review details. He rattled on about parking, arrival procedures, time on stage, sound checks and so forth.  He then stated, “and as you know clothing is optional for our performers”.
It took awhile for my brain to process the “clothing optional” comment thrown in along with parking and microphone details. Finally I snapped out of my trance, and it all came to me. “Avalon” was the nearby nudist colony. As I tried to picture my 8 month pregnant self telling stories to a room full of naked people, I just couldn’t seem to put myself in the room. When the silence became deafening, the man on the other end of the phone said, “They forgot to mention the nudist colony part when they hired you, didn’t they? . . . You’re not going to be able to do this are you?” When I finally had to admit he was right, he answered, “Don’t worry, it happens all the time.”
If asked to take that job today, I just might go for it – would have been quite a story. But probably, I’d still pass. I did get a pretty good story out of the experience though and for me that is what life is all about . . . the stories.
I’m glad Brian thought my weird little stories were entertaining enough to write down, that a nudist colony thought I was entertaining enough to hire, and that thirty-eight years later Karen Chace encouraged me to start writing again. We just never know which characters in life will shape our future and help us discover who we are.
Stories are what I love; they are my passion, my joy, my journey.  I hope you find the crazy love of my life somewhat entertaining, and I hope your life is full of crazy love.




Sunday, February 3, 2013

Smiles in the Sky

It’s February.  Love is in the air. Or at least that is what Hallmark, FTD and all the candy makers would have us believe. Each of us probably has a little bit of the hopeless romantic in us, even if we don’t wish to admit it. But for those of us not yet struck by cupid’s arrow or perhaps shot in the back by that arrow, February is a long month.
Even so, I am just as sucked into the February love theme as anyone, and I will feature a few crazy love stories this month. Love is everywhere. I’ll start with my parents.
Mom and dad met in 1952 at Tufts University. Dad was immediately smitten, mom was more slowly convinced. They were married in 1954 and settled in Springfield, Massachusetts. Together they had four children, and raised a fifth by choice and love.

I always knew how much my parents loved each other. They were open in their affection for each other and for all of us. What I didn’t know was how difficult it was for them to be lovers with five kids running around all the time. Not until just recently.
In April of 2011 I was one of the feature tellers at the Storytelling Festival of the Carolina’s and told my “Skinny Dipping, Cops & Clergy” story which went on to win a humorist story competition in South Carolina and became the feature story on my first CD. My mother was in the audience that day and I heard her laughter above all other laughs in the audience.
Later that night in the hotel room my mother shared her “skinny dipping” story with my sister and me. It was priceless.
As young parents of five children my parents became creative in their escapes from us to enjoy “quality couple time”. They loved to canoe and often would take off for an afternoon paddle. On one particularly beautiful, unusually warm fall day they escaped to Plum Island Wildlife Sanctuary to paddle through the marsh lands. They packed a picnic and eventually found a sand bar to enjoy their lunch.

As the sun shone down on them they decided a swim would be nice. Swimming turned into skinny dipping. Skinny dipping turned into snuggling on the sandbar with the sun warming their skin. Snuggling turned into . . .
It was a wonderful afternoon. So intent were they on gazing into each other’s eyes, they did not notice the sightseeing plane circling above them until the plane flew away leaving a huge smiley face in the sky.
As my 80 year old mother revealed her story, her eyes twinkled and my sister and I laughed, and laughed! Priceless. Imagine my surprise this past summer when I found a journal my father kept of our summer adventures in Nova Scotia (see Aug/Sept 2012 story posts). Throughout the journal there were entries that read, “went canoeing with Faith today . . .  J 
I knew just what that meant. Love surrounds me. I am blessed.

. . . and yes, this story was mom and dad approved for posting. They're still smiling . . .