The Hess Report

Sunday, June 27, 2004

The Happiness

As soon as the girls had finished their parts in the dance recital (cf.The Bitterness), we piled into the van and headed for the beach, or, more specifically, Duck, North Carolina. Our original plan had us hitting the road at 4 a.m. In order to minimize waking travel time for the kids, the day before we left, psychic!Joy and I simultaneously came to each other with the idea that we should leave immediately following the recital, drive until midnight, stay in the cheapest hotel we could find, and split the trip into two parts. So that's what we did.

Our split-trip plan took us to the Motel 6 in Frederick, Maryland. Rolled in about 12:40 a.m. The girls woke up and were all excited, because we were staying in a hotel! Oh boy! As I shuttled a few necessities from the van to the room, I noticed that this was not the nicest neighborhood or clientèles I'd ever seen, even for a cheapo place like this. There seemed to be a biker convoy making their layover there, and several groups of swarthy individuals speaking in tongues strange to my ears sat at tables around the closed pool, smoking, drinking, and laughing. At least, they were laughing. That must mean they're friendly! Maybe I'll go tell them a joke, er, or not. On my second trip, I noticed that the parking lot security guard was wandering around talking to himself about how he "doesn't have no gun on this job. No way. No gun here." Oooooookaaaaaay, sir, I'll just be staying up tonight to make sure that you don't try to break down our door. On my third trip, I noticed that had an ear bud in and was talking on his cellphone. Oh. Sorry, dude.

Morning came, we all did the standard morning stuff, then shuttled our stuff to the van, and we were off! Five hours later, we arrived in Duck. In preparation for this moment, Joy had spent an insane amount of time on the Internet over a period of several weeks, searching for the perfect vacation spot for us. Her work paid off, because she found it.

So what is happiness? With apologies to You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown,, Happiness is:

- Your wife finding a kick-ass house in the nicest development in town
- Being fifty yards from the private beach
- Being across the street from the clubhouse, with indoor and outdoor pools
- Flying kites with your family in the never-ending breeze of an Atlantic sunset
- Water gun battles with brand new Super Soakers
- A hot tub on the lower deck that looks up on the stars
- One full week of sunny, 78 degrees, and light breeze
- Maddie learning to swim, mostly on her own, four years sooner than I did
- No bad sun burns
- Both my and Joy's parents being able to make it down for a couple days
- No schedule. None.
- Finding that only about one in ten houses were occupied that week. Sweet, sweet privacy
- Rolling down the giant sand dunes at Jockey's Ridge State Park
- Teaching Maddie to tie her shoes and watching her do it right for the first time ever
- Watching Lucy dance and dance and dance to the Shrek soundtrack
- Police who come within three minutes when you make a late-night neighborhood noise complaint
- Neighbors who actually shut up gracefuly for the whole rest of the week when the police tell them to shut their pie holes
- Buying good, inexpensive wine in the grocery store
- One full week of no one but family, and instead of people getting sick of each other under that condition, people enjoying and liking each other even better than they did before

I'm not a beach person. I don't give two screws about the ocean, from a personal standpoint. But in this case, being at the beach added the breeze that kept it cool enough to be absolutely beautiful, so I'm not going to actually say that it was a negative.

My ideal place to spend a day would be a long, sweeping grassy valley, big mountains in the background. We would be perched halfway up one of the grassy hills, not quite to the tree line, but close enough that a few big, stray oaks provide good shade. One of the oaks has both a clean 110V outlet and an Ethernet port in it, near ground level. Removing that as an option, though, this was indeed the perfect vacation for us.

Well, almost perfect. There were a couple of dings, and they were both packing related. I have this packing system in which everything that goes first finds it way to a staging area inside the house (or hotel room, etc.). That way the person who will be packing the vehicle can get a good idea of how much stuff is going, and what he/she wants to pack where. The best feature, though, is that nothing gets left behind. Okay, things do get left behind, but it's because they were not in the staging area. The rule is “If it's in the staging area, it goes. If it's not, I'm not responsible for it.” The staging area method gets rid of the “I put all of that stuff on the bed to go!” “Well I didn't see it!” “Doh!”

We forgot a bag full of unopened food items at the beach house. It had been placed at the top of the stairs, where it was assumed that I would find it. I didn't. We also forgot Lexan, one of Lucy's millions of stuffed animals, at the Motel 6 on the way down. There was no packing/loading system in effect on our Motel 6 departure. It was strictly grab and growl. I'm surprised we didn't forget a kid.

The bag of food was no big deal, but Lexan was another matter. Lucy's preschool, which she attended two days a week, held a big festival for the kids at the end of the year. The ladies of the church (it's a church preschool) had made something like four hundred bears, so that each kid could choose one to have. Lucy came home with this crummy bear, sort of the runt of the lot, eyes drawn on with magic marker and “God Loves You” written on its left foot. She carted it around for days and showed it to everyone. There were some really nice, creative bears at the school, many with great embroidery, and she picked the measliest one. Just like I probably would have. So, add to the above list that happiness is seeing your kid do something odd, and a little touching, that reminds you of yourself.

When she learned that Lexan was gone, it was a problem. We had stopped at the Motel 6 on the way home, and people!Joy used her stunning interpersonal skills to locate the custodian who had found it and, against policy, had taken it home. “When I saw that 'God Loves Me' on that bear, I knew that God loved me. I wasn't stealing him.” Okay, whatever. We just want it back. The school provided another bear, but Lucy gave it to Maddie, because “it makes me sad to see it.”

After a couple of weeks, and several phone calls by Joy, Lexan showed up in our mail. Lucy was ecstatic. We were happy, too. We wrote them a thank you note. Happiness is having one lost bear returned to you when the people who had it had to go out of their way to do something nice for a stranger, and even though you have a hundred other stuffed animals that were never lost in the first place. And in the end, I think that made the whole thing even better.

Happiness is morning and evening, daytime and nighttime too.
For happiness is anyone and anything at all
That's loved by you.

A Break in the Saga of Bitterness

Went camping three weekends ago. Lucy's camping experience can be summed up pretty easily: stayed in the maternal grandparents' camper the entire time, playing Polly Pockets or three bears. The one night, she got in the stream and helped to build a dam. The rest of the time she spent pouting and encouraging Joy and I to develop a creative new discipline routine to enact at the beginning of the coming week.

Adventure!Maddie had a blast. A small stream ran through the center of the campground. Very clear water, maybe twelve feet from bank to bank, ranging in depth from several inches to a foot and a half. Perfect adventure material for a six year old. We waded up and down the stream a bunch of times, and had close encounters with a frog, a crayfish, a water snake, and several flying ducks that came within a few feet of taking our heads off. She made a silly fishing pole from a stick, a length of bright pink nylon braided rope and a safety pin. She baited it with a dried kernel of corn.

She was surprised and disappointedly that her contraption failed to catch anything in the shallow, rapid stream. Her Pap had cleverly brought along a child-size fishing rod. The three of us (Maddie, myself, and Pappy Jack) road in the golf cart to the camp's pond. Even several failed attempts at “fishing” with the homemade rod would not convince her to abandon it, which reminds me a lot of myself when I was her age. As small boy, I made a pool table from scrap plywood, quarter round and nails. Needless to say, it was a complete piece of crap, and I knew it, but my pride refused to let me say that it was utterly unplayable, as the rails would fly off the sides if hit too hard by the little balls. To my eternal shame, I believe I actually defended it with the phrase “homemade quality”. Yikes. I know better, now. I mean, I still unnecessarily manufacture a lot of my own stuff when it would be easier to just buy it or pay someone to do it for me, but that's how I am. And my stuff is actually good now. So blah. Maybe I'm still trying to make up for the pool table.

In any case, I did point out to Maddie that the bright pink rope was scaring the fish, and that the closed safety pin would be unable to actually hook anything, and finally that the fish didn't give a rat's ass about some corn in the water when there were delicious bugs to be had all around. She was interested in the actual mechanics of catching a fish, and this engineering style approach finally swayed her. She took the “official” rod. We baited it with a worm. Within half a minute, four little sunfish were fighting with each other over it. One took the bait. I helped her jerk the rod to set the hook, and she had caught her first fish. She was quite excited. I could tell that she would much rather have caught it with her handmade rod, and I was sympathetic, but Damn! She'd just caught a fish!

We put him in a styrofoam cup full of pond water and took him back to the camper to show Joy. Maddie really wanted to eat it, but that would have been silly, as the little guy was only about two inches long. So, I explained that we'd have to kill it, scale it and gut it, and it would be a better idea to just unhook him and let him go in the stream, which is what we did. I can count on one hand the number of times I've gone fishing, and this will probably be around 20% of Maddie's fishing experience for her entire life. But it was fun, nonetheless.

Maddie also learned (sort of) to drive. The campground allows golf carts, and the grandparents had a neat one, with a cargo bed and hopped up suspension. It was basically turn the key, press the gas and steer. Maddie's Pap took her out into a field and let her drive it by herself. She was grinning like a loon when she came back.

She also had her first spelunking experience. The campground has two state safety-certified caves, only one of which was accessible over the weekend, the second being too muddy and steep to admit a six year old. The one that was accessible was pretty neat, and Maddie went the whole way in with me. The mouth of the cave was as big as a one-car garage. It descended and narrowed quickly, though, going maybe thirty linear feet at a 30% angle. Very rocky. At the back of the main cave wall was a tunnel, small enough that I had crouch was down and put a hand on the wall to get through. The floor in that part was muddy, with small pools of water. After about seven feet of tunnel, the cave opened back up into a nice sized room. Six adults could have comfortably stood up in it. The ceiling narrowed and came together maybe twelve feet above the floor, and lots of neat rock formations and nook and crannies were there to observe. Maddie thought it was very cool, and it was.

Other fun stuff that went on: a whole group of ducks (six males, two females, eight or nine ducklings) lived around the stream right beside our camp site. They would go around in groups, and suddenly start quacking and acting all pissed off. They'd do this for a couple of minutes, then return to their normal behavior. Extremely dumb animals, and very funny to watch.

Saturday night a group of older gentlemen set up some amps and speakers in the camp pavilion and played some country/bluegrass/folk/gospel music. The vocals were a little shaky, but the guitar and dobro (almost a guitar) playing was very good. My father-in-law had an extra guitar, so I sat in for a little while, and got to sing some old bluegrass tunes that I hadn't heard in years: Salty Dog, Hot Corn Cold Corn, Fox on the Run, and Footprints in the Snow, to name a few. Mostly bluegrass songs are either about missing someone who died, cheatin' on your woman, or drinking whiskey. Sometimes all three. Joy pitched in some vocals on a couple of gospel tunes, but she had to be brow-beaten into doing it, as she had kind of blown her voice out the previous week at Camerata rehearsals and a concert, and was probably feeling the beginnings of some kind of throat-central viral thing.

So that was our weekend. It was a nice campground, and we'll probably come back at some point this summer. Maybe we can get Lucy to be a little more involved next time, but if not, oh well. As I have to keep reminding myself, she's only three.

Monday, June 07, 2004

The Bitterness, followed by the Happiness, followed again by the Bitterness and Happiness, this time mixed together in a baked casserole of indeterminate state

The structure of the following, so you can skip the parts you choose:
1. The Bitterness - dance recitals on the low end of the spectrum.
2. The Happiness - a week in the Outer Banks.
3. The Bitterness and The Happiness together again - returning to Pennsylvania and to home, respectively.

Part the First - The Bitterness
I have to preface this with a disclaimer: I know that a lot of things that led to me being in the about-to-be-mentioned place at the about-to-be-mentioned time are largely due to conditions of my own choosing. I don't care.

We're on our fourth different dance program for Maddie. The first one was sort of trashy. The owner/head instructor kept ducking out for smokes. The second was very good, and the older girls were doing some pretty advanced stuff. But we got the feeling that they were looking for people who were very serious about dance. The classes were getting unusually tough and sort of militant, which might work well if you really want to dance as a profession, but not so good if your kid is just looking for a little structure, exercise and fun. The third was also good - nice facility, more laid back. A fairly classy operation overall. However, it seemed like they were just humoring a lot of the younger kids, and well, I can do that for free at home. So this year we tried Maddie (and now Lucy) in the local school's PTO-run dance program. It was not nearly as well run as the third, best-so-far program, but it was much closer (7 minutes vs. 20 minutes), and significantly less expensive. And like I said, at this level they're pretty much just humoring the kids anyway.

So we've slogged through another season of "dance", which in Lucy's three year old case is called Creative Movement, and in Maddie's is Acrobatics I. The classes are clearly not as good as the previous place we were, but it really is all just to get kids' feet wet at this point, so what's the difference? What were we paying for at the other place? Apparently, we were paying the other place exclusively for the retention of our sanity and human dignity during the recital process. The recital rehearsal that I took the girls to was perhaps the most poorly run, embarrassing, horrific function in which I've ever been semi-compelled to participate.

To better simulate my experience for the rest of this section, please find someone's baby, take it from them, strap it into a chair behind you, then have someone begin to jab it in the ass with a pen knife every time it stops crying for its parents. Because I suspect that is what the people behind me were doing, the entire time I was there. If your 1 1/2 year old won't stop crying, the best plan is generally to remove them to a different setting and then try to determine what the problem is with them. A worse plan would be to growl "Be quiet! Stop it!" at the baby through your clenched teeth every five minutes. But who's to say what's better and what's worse?

The auditorium is your standard middle school fare - big stage, folding seats, unremarkable in every way, and that's fine. The kids are supposed to be there at 5:45, in costume, because everything will start at 6:00! They have the kids arranged by their particular class in the auditorium seats, and they take up the 1/6 of the whole place. But there is no adult supervision. So you have a hundred sixty kids, aged 3 through 10, sitting by themselves. Okay. If they get started at 6:00, like the info sheet said, the dancing should hold most of their attention. That must have been what they were thinking. But oh. Oh. Oh.

A girl (who I later learned was the twirling instructor) climbs onto the stage and grabs the mic. She looks like she's barely out of high school, and the program obtained on the night of the actual recital confirms it. "Okay everybody! Listen up! Come on! Listen up!" Do you know what a Pittsburgh accent sounds like? Do you know what a Pittsburgh accent sounds like over a loud speaker? We all talk like we talk, but colloquial speech is generally not for public broadcast. When you're with friends or family, you use your casual dialect, whatever it might be. When you get on the stage, though... eek. It's embarrassing to hear.

And did I say that she was the "twirling" instructor? Twirling as in majorettes. I need to say that I find the whole majorette thing completely trashy. There is no excuse for it. People who learn to play a musical instrument, or dance, or sing, or even to do gymnastics can take pleasure from that for most of the rest of their life. But when was the last time you saw some old lady twirling a baton? You haven't, and God Bless You and your poor gouged out eye sockets if you have. Twirling's sole purpose is to let high school girls think that there is a valid excuse for running around in public in whore-level makeup and sequined bathing suits in which even the most flaming of homosexuals wouldn't be caught dead. A valid excuse, that is, other than being trashy. Which they are. Offended because you either were a majorette yourself, or best friends with one? Think back then, and be honest. Weren't you/your friend trashy, at least in intent if not in actual practice? Indeed you/they were. Therefore, when you teach such a thing to little innocent girls, and have them dress in the same sort of hideous, slutty outfits, and give them "dance" routines that would be better performed with brass poles in the room, to music that would make a, well, a person like me blush, are you doing anything other than training them to be the future trashy excuses for something useful that it's clear they're going to be.

Oh look! Joy bought Lucy a baton at the beach! Lucy thought the baton girls at the recital were great. I've often said that the only reason Lucy doesn't want to grow up to be a stripper is that she doesn't know what a stripper is yet, and this just throws one more log on that fire. She's on her way.

So now we've suffered through twenty-five minutes of announcements that were all printed quite clearly in the distributed information sheets, but we have the advantage of having heard it through the filter of Twirly-Girl's (TG) over-amplified Pittsburghese. And the real fun hasn't even started. We are then treated to the random award of about thirty prizes to the kids from local retail and service establishments. Maddie won a $10 Build-a-Bear gift card, which is actually perfect, as she's going to a Build-a-Bear birthday party the very next evening.

By the way, remind your assistant to jab that baby a couple of times, because I think it's settling down. Waaaaaaaa! There, that's better.

Let's get this show on the road! Miraculously, the horde of unattended children is relatively well behaved. Are we ready to dance yet? No. Parents, every parent in the auditorium is now asked to line up and receive some special gifts for their dancers, including trophies if the parents had previous sprung for them and... THEY... BRRRAAARRGGGG.... HUUUULK SMAAAAAAASH!!!!!!!!



Sorry. Just the parents buying their kids a trophy thing. I thought that, like, you won those when you did something particularly well. Or even, dare I say it, when you beat everyone else. This whole thing is making a green cloud of barely-checked fury descend on my thoughts.

So we line up and for ten minutes waddle back and forth in line. I see my kids looking a little worried because they can't see me. I finally manage to catch their eyes. At the front of the line, I receive their completion certificates. Oh, Mr. Hess, you need to get their commemorative bags. Cool, I'll just grab them... I'm sorry, you have to get in the line for them. But, they're right here. Sorry, everyone else is waiting, I can't just give them to you. Take deep breaths. Close eyes. Recite primes. One. Two. Three. Five. Seven. Nine. No. Eleven. Fourteen. Damn! What's wrong with me. This place, this... event, is like a virus, a cancer on this planet. I can't stand it any longer. It's the smell, if there is such a thing. I feel saturated by it. I can taste the stink, and every time I do, I fear that I've somehow been infected by it.

And so I'll enjoy the rest of it. I'm a part of it now, waiting in line for the purple canvas commemorative bags. The music, covers of I Love Rock and Roll, I Want Candy, an original song by the Olsen Twins, is grand. And that song Under the Sea from The Little Mermaid, why it had been begging for a dance-themed cover version for years. I'm surprised it didn't happen sooner. They had some crappy orchestra song in there for the ballet girls, but it was the one from those diamond commercials with the shadow people, so I guess it wasn't too bad. And what's the use of putting costumes on kids if they don't sport five different fully saturated colors a piece? And what about sequins? It's good exercise for your eyes, I say.

A tangy, comforting smell invades my mouth and nose.

Little kids strutting and gyrating, just like that Madonna lady. Gosh, that's cute. Oh look! Majorettes!

Suddenly, I'm standing outside, with Maddie and Lucy. How did we get here? I'm not sure. They're pulling on my arms, saying "Dada?" A voice in my head tells me to give them a licken' with my belt and send them to sleep in the outhouse for the night. Then slowly, the cloud begins to lift.

"Girls," I say, and it's weird, because I can hear my own voice like it belongs to someone else.

"Dad," says Maddie. "Tell me about fractions again. Can we look at the dictionary before bed?"

Lucy tries to help. "Let's listen to the Mozart song on the way home," she says.

It's like I'm swimming upward, but not through water. It's engine oil: used, thick, nearly-impenetrable. There's a scent to it, pungent and organic. The same odor from inside. I've smelled it before today, but can't remember where.

Like a robot I walk the girls across the parking lot. My hands know to buckle them into their car seats even though my brain is telling me they should both ride up front.

They will not be going back to the PTO's dance program next year. From now on, it will be the moderately more expensive place that humors the parents and kids. But not for the girls sake. It's for mine.

It's not until we're halfway home these thoughts coalesce, as my senses come back to me. And it's not until later that night that I realize what the smell was, as I stare with the bitterness of a broken man at the flecks of chewing tobacco caught in my toothbrush.

Oh the bitterness. The horrible, horrible bitterness.

Apology/Disclaimer: Okay, that got really weird. But if that's the first time you've ever seen me get weird, then what are you reading this for? Go away.

Still to come: The Happiness