Wednesday, April 27, 2005

That Ain't My Kid!

There are times in life I wish for Roadrunner-style signs to announce to the general public things I wish them to know, but would feel funny renting a bullhorn for. Like when I know my youngest is going to have a tantrum on a 2-hour plane flight, I want a sign that says, "Don't Sit Near Us Unless You Have Nerves of Steel." But inevitably someone with a fragile psyche will be in the seat or row near us, and then spend two hours glaring at me as I try to keep the 3-year-old from tearing a hole in the seat in front of us or hurling the complimentary beverage service at the flight attendants. I needed a sign this morning for a trip to the dentist. And not on behalf of my children, who were in great behavioral form today. We had packed dry cereal, green grapes, juice boxes, books, and a whole squadron of ninja turtles to help pass the time while we waited. The 3-year-old was content to sit on my lap. When we got there a little girl was the only one present in the waiting room. She seemed slightly younger than my 5-year-old, maybe 4 or barely 5 herself. But she had the presence of a movie star. She immediately greeted my kindergartener and engaged him in animated conversation about her Disney accessories. I wondered whose kid she was. She seemed young to be hanging out in a waiting area by herself. I mean, if I were a door-to-door Child Predator, I could've just grabbed her and then Fedexed her to evil people in Malaysia, or donated her to a local zoo. There was a receptionist behind the window, but she was busy answering phones and processing insurances, so I'm sure she wouldn't even have noticed. Perhaps she was related to one of the hygienists, I thought. Maybe she spends her whole day out here in the waiting area staring at the fish tank. It was a spectacular fish tank. Lots of brightly colored fish and fish furnishings. Some cool plastic plants. And to make things even more exciting for my son and his new companion, the fish didn't like each other! There was a lot of chasing, nipping and agitation going on. So this girl and my son discussed the fish for awhile, with particular emphasis on how mean the catfish was. Meanwhile other dental patients began arriving, all older, signing in and awaiting a call from the dentist. None of them bothered with magazines. They were staring at the fish tank and the two children. Only one of which (I want to emphasize) was mine. Well shortly after the arrival of the other patients the girl announces, "I'm going to kill the catfish!" The other patients and my boy looked startled. I said, "I don't think that's a good idea." I don't know if she said this for effect, or if she had an actual plan in mind, but just in case I wanted to discourage any aggressive movements toward the 55-gallon tank. A 5-year-old attempting to slay a catfish would surely result in some unwanted wetness. The other patients glanced at me. I knew they thought all three children were mine. This is where I wanted the sign announcing that this aggressive, vocal little girl with the Killer Instinct did not share any DNA with my family. A simple "She's Not Mine!" sign would've been just the ticket. Apparently the little girl decided against the proposed Catfish Homicide now that she knew I was watching. She continued walking back and forth in front of the tank, making loud comments to my son. Who agreed that possibly the fish were all going to kill each other. Of course she soon grew bored with this. So she opened up the cabinets below the tank to examine the humming aquarium equipment and accessories down below. (a 55-gallon tank is quite large. It took almost the entire length of the wall next to the door leading to the Dental Chambers.) She started poking around amongst wires and hoses. My 5-year-old was bent down, not touching anything, but looking at what the girl was doing. It was time for stern voice. "Ned, come over here," I said. "I don't want you playing around under that tank." Plus I'm thinking now it will be clear to the rest of the faintly disapproving dental patients that this child was mine, and the loud, nosy girl who liked to kill animals was someone else's kid. But it was not to be! Both my son AND the nosy little girl came to the area where I was sitting with the 3-year-old. She even picked up some of the 3-year-old's toys, looked at them and put them down! She stared at me like I was her mother! E. Gads. They went back to the fish tank. The girl looked at my son. "I can touch the top of the fish tank," she announced. "I can too," he said. He stood on tiptoe and touched the top of the tank. Monster Girl was not quite as tall. She had to jump, and then hung on the side. I was picturing 55 gallons of foot bath cascading into the waiting room. Sterner voice this time. "Please don't grab onto the tank," I said. "Just look at the fish." One of the other patients started speaking to his wife rapidly in Spanish. I only know small amounts of Spanish from remote high school memories, but he definitely was referring to "la nina." I don't know what else was said, but I am certain it was not complimentary. The girl paced back and forth in front of the tank. Like a lioness, only dressed in a pink and purple striped dress. Probably she was contemplating her next angle of assault. My son was discussing a fish imbroglio occurring amongst the plant life. Suddenly the girl picked up her Disney Purse. She began smacking the side of the tank where the fish were chasing each other. The tank reverberated ominously each time she whacked it. "Please don't do that," I said. "You're scaring the fish." More conversation in Spanish. Everyone thought I was a horrible parent. I had to spend another 15 minutes in this uncomfortable position until the girl's father finally came out of the Dental Chambers and spirited her away to commence killing frogs in their backyard. In this day and age I would not leave my 5-year-old by himself in a waiting room out of fear for his safety. Or in the case of this little girl, out of fear for the general public and any domestic pets or wildlife she may come in contact with.

Monday, April 25, 2005

It Wasn't Exactly Mattress Rage

I was following a mattress in traffic the other day. Driving in conjunction with it, actually, on a four-lane highway. Not an altogether atypical sight. I've followed weirder stuff on the highways. Like giant hoses. A silo. Motorcyclists without helmets. (nothing worth protecting, I guess) But this was not a solo mattress. It was a family of mattresses out on an excursion around town. There were five of them, to be exact. Four of the five were affixed to the rooftop, and one (probably disgruntled) mattress was wedged into the hatchback. They were not traveling by van, pickup, station wagon, SUV or trailer. No. It was a compact car. Which I should've noted the model of, but there were too many mattresses in my field of vision for that. Plus of course I had to watch the Traveling Hotel Room from the mirrors whenever it maneuvered behind my van. Wouldn't want to get rear-ended by a Pride of Posturepedics! (don't know what mattresses are called when they travel in groups. Maybe a Coil of Mattresses would be more apropos.) You're probably thinking I should've been keeping my attention on my driving. Well phooey! This was better than talking on a cell phone, watching a DVD or eating Chinese food while driving. You see, that many mattresses stacked up made the vehicle look like a double quarter pounder. And when the car accelerated, its rooftop passengers became agitated, flapping like giant cloth-covered lips. (They seemed to be mouthing, "Please! Give my owner a ticket!") All that was missing, really, was a Princess with a thirst for speed, and a bag of frozen peas. You might imagine these mattresses were on their way to their final resting place (may they recline in peace) but I suspect not. They were not ratty-looking, as old as the baby boomers who own them, and in service since before the Korean War. You know, the kind your parents or grandparents finally drag out of the house when their back pain gets chiropractor-worthy. The kind you think will still be there even after the house gets torn down. The kind the owners think are supposed to last the length of their lifetimes. Those are warranty labels, not expected lifespans before being reduced to subatomic particles. Anyway, these mattresses looked in good shape. Possibly even new! But they had no plastic covering, so either the mattress owner was careless, or doesn't much mind car grime. (maybe this was like a Mattress Shuttle Service, and the passengers had to worry about their own hygiene.) So who knows the destination of these poor publicly exposed things. Maybe there were other reasons for the car to be wearing a Mattress Headdress. Perhaps it was a homemade asteroid protection feature! Imagine, it would be the only car on the highway to have a giant space rock bounce off its layer of protective mattresses and bounce conveniently into a nearby cow pasture. I'm thinking this would also be a great feature for SUVs prone to rollover. As they careen into the median the driver's head can be protected by several layers of bedding. Of course SUVs don't look as cool with four mattresses on the roof, but what could? Of course you always have to worry about a mattress flopping onto the road. That sort of thing can tie up traffic for weeks. Because people not only have to get around the obstacle, they have to STARE at it. Better yet, we could all pull over and take pictures of it with our cell phone cameras. So four bouncing into traffic all at once would definitely make the papers in what I like to call the Traffic Idiocy section. So I don't know where the mattresses live, but I'll be on the lookout for them as I drive around town. They seemed friendly, and I'll bet they have some great stories.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Papa Benedict: Sweet 16

The Catholic Church elected a new pontiff today, the 265th in its history dating back to Peter the Fisherman. Between the death of John Paul II, funeral, conclave and election of Josef Cardinal Ratzinger as Benedict XVI, I've been amazed at the tsunami of media coverage. Perhaps I shouldn't have been. Catholicism is the world's largest religion, numbering 1.1 billion adherents. And a Pope hasn't died since the late seventies, when much of today's media probably hadn't been on a prom date yet. So covering a papal funeral and conclave was a definite novelty, and one with lots of exciting audio/visual accouterments. Still, in the age camera phones, the Blackberry and DSL, it's sort of weird to watch all these cable stations focused intently on simple Vatican chimney, awaiting a puff of smoke. Prior to today's smoke signal there was nothing to do but explain the traditions and engage in speculation. Would they select a third world guy? A non-cardinal? An American? Someone who would drag the church kicking and screaming (or kneeling and genuflecting) into the new millenium? There was also discussion of the 117 voting age cardinals' simple living quarters. All accounts of this included mention of rooms with a private bath. Well I'm glad the media is fixated on bathrooms. I'd hate to have to picture sixty- and seventy-something guys all sharing a big locker room style shower situation. (Although like our biggest pro sports this is an all-male enterprise.) Would this be a bad time to mention that kitschy gift item of yesteryear, the Pope on a Rope? Tacky. So when the smoke cleared today, Pope Benedict XVI appeared at the window in St. Peter's Square to greet the assembled crowd. Not an Italian this time, as I suspected, but a German! Cardinal Ratzinger had been John Paul II's right hand man since 1981, serving as Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This is the Enforcer role in the church, the guy who gives out demerits or raps the knucles of priests, bishops, theologians and other wayward Catholics who think they know more about church doctrine and practice than the church does. Prior to his recent surge in the bookmakers' odds, I don't think many people picked Cardinal Ratzinger as the next Pope. A lot of people look and sound stunned. I know I'm more than a little bit surprised. But hopeful. American Catholics in particular seem to want the church to change with the times, modify its doctrine to suit the lives and sensibilities of the people. There is no doubt the church needs repair, particularly in areas like the seminaries, universities and dioceses that are fuzzy on doctrine. And in the aftermath of the ongoing U.S. sexual abuse scandal, it needs to be shouted everywhere from the rooftops to the sewers that souls are more important than reputation, children are always to be protected ahead of clerics. Why this even needs to be stated is beyond me. There is that passage in the New Testament where Jesus suggests that anyone who harms a little one would be better off with a millstone around his neck. So why aren't some clerical necks itching? Perhaps Pope Benedict can revive the sense of the sacred in the church, repair the damage done by abuse of children and neglect of doctrine. Maybe he can remind people of what it means to be Catholic. It isn't something you call yourself, it's something you do. Maybe he can chase out the "smoke of Satan" that Pope Paul VI famously suggested entered the church in the 1970s. Some people have mentioned that recent Ratzinger homilies have been hard-nosed about the loss of faith and our need to return to it. Critics say he should realize you attract more flies with honey than vinegar. True. And dog poop also attracts them. But vinegar kills weeds and freshens the laundry. His nickname during his years as Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith was "God's Rottweiller." Now others are calling him "The German Shepherd." That has a nice New Testament ring to it! The Italians are calling him "Papa Ratzi." It's springtime. Maybe Pope Benedict is ready to don his apron and conduct a spring housecleaning. With the help of the Holy Spirit, he just might succeed.

Friday, April 15, 2005

The New "Dream" Date: A Child Molestor

I wish I wouldn't have to read about these subjects or hear about them on the news. The problem is they're so pervasive lately it's like trying to ignore a wasp in your ear. So I read these awful stories about the latest child abduction, usually a girl, often a teen or younger. I've already discussed the case of the deceased Jessica Lunsford, her unlocked house and busy parents. Parent 1 busy socializing with buddies at the local watering hole. Parent 2 busy living a life minus her daughter in Ohio. Not much has changed in that regard. Which is not to excuse the Child Molestor crowd or the dumb relatives who harbor them. Update on Lunsford case: the victim may have still been alive when the police came knocking at the door of the Child Molestor's sister and her mangy friends. They denied knowledge. Might as well deny common sense while they're at it. Okay, this week's social travesty and childhood horror consists of the Ruskin, Florida girl who disappeared from her home the same Saturday night that her mother's ex-boyfriend showed up at the door after a long absence. He is -- I'm sure you guessed it -- an ex-offender as well. Police are still searching for the girl, with the help of Jessica Lunsford's father and another man whose wife was dating a child molestor before HIS daughter disappeared. I have to they state this in the newspaper ads when looking for dates? Does it make the men more attractive? "Single White Child Molestor seeks attractive female, mid-twenties to mid-thirties, preferably with teenage or younger daughters." I mean, they might as well. The police are aware that these guys are offenders. All it takes is a simple internet search to find out. Or better yet, call the guy's parole officer. They always have the background information in the file! The most recent case (girl still missing, 13 years old) is another whacky one where the parents are clueless. Apparently the 17-year-old brother went out that night, returned at 4 a.m. and his sister was missing. (what the heck is HE doing out that late? And who's the responsible party at home? The girl? The dog? The gator in the backyard?) The mother did not report the girl missing until Monday morning because she thought she was staying with a friend. Huh? She did not speak with her daughter on Sunday after the Vague Saturday night? Is this parenting, or is this a bunch of stupid people occasionally inhabiting the same house together? The ex-boyfriend ex-molestor was busy getting into a bar fight, allegedly attacking someone with a screwdriver, so he was too tied up to make any phone calls, apparently. I am always sorry to hear about tragedies involving kids, because it can happen to anyone, even parents who are vigilant and children whose parents DON'T date child molestors. But. It always kills me to read these background stories about parents who value their children about as much as an old suitcase. They know it's there. Don't think about it too much. Don't assume anyone would want it. Are surprised to find someone stole it. After it had the family name and number attached to it. Why wouldn't someone call and return it? And there were so many memories attached to that baggage. Maybe parents should start treating their kids like a million bucks. Nobody would leave THAT home with the door unlocked. Would they?

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Dignified Deaths Defy Disaster

It's been more than six months since the last of several large hurricanes hit Florida, and hurricane deaths are now soaring! You may be wondering why, since it isn't even hurricane season yet. Well the figures have just come out on how many hurricane-related burials are being paid for by FEMA. Turns out they are paying for quite a few more than the recorded deaths. According to official reports FEMA is paying for 315 hurricane-related funerals, even though the state of Florida has recorded only 123 hurricane-related deaths. So that is 212 more funerals than bodies! (Of course Florida does have a recent history of sending people to their graves before their time has come.) What could possibly explain those numbers? I have come up with several theories: 1) They buried a few people who maybe have seen better days, but weren't, technically, "dead." 2) People without Casket Coverage or a Burial Nest Egg decided to expire during the hurricane in the hope that the federal government would consider the deaths hurricane-related. 3) The news media under-reported hurricane deaths because let's face it, after four hurricanes it's easy to get your notes all confused. 4) FEMA miscounted a goodly number of deceased Florida Swamp Monsters as Hairy Floridians. 5) Many of the victims traumatized by the hurricanes are only on life support, awaiting a court order and media frenzy before they can be officially unplugged. 6) Maybe they are "spotting" us a few funerals in anticipation of the upcoming hurricane season. 7) Who cares, no one expects a government agency to be accurate about anything. It is true that many deaths were caused by the effects of the weather. A Banyan tree falls on you. Your mobile home gets transformed into a trash compactor. You cross the road in 125 mph winds to see what's on the other side. (more wind) You mis-use your handy generator and gas yourself to death. But just as likely, there were probably a number of people teetering on the edge of death who got pushed over by the stress. Plus it got me to thinking, how DO people handle death during hurricanes? They are not like tornadoes that are over in a couple of seconds. One minute you have a house, the next you have plywood potpourri with an attic insulation topping. In that case you just locate the deceased and take care of business. (and I don't mean to be blase about this. It is kind of an oddball subject. ) However a hurricane plays out over a period of hours, or in the case of Hurricane Frances this past fall, DAYS. So what do you do with your newly-minted dead body if you can't get those Embalming People out to take a look? And no refrigeration techniques because the power is out? I guess the best thing to do would be to pull up a sheet and tell the children they can't play in that room. (although is anyone legally allowed to "pull up the sheet" if a coroner hasn't been consulted?) Another option would be to prop the person up in bed, maybe with festive accessories, and tell the children to not bother them unless they ask for snacks. You see, there are no really good solutions to this. Neither dying nor living with dead bodies is a fun option when it comes to hurricanes. However I hate to suggest adding bodybags to the list of things Floridians need to stock up on prior to the next hurricane season. Which starts, ahem, in JUNE. A mere month and a half away. There is one good thing, though. In Florida, even if you are deceased, you can still vote. No matter what killed you.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

What ARE These Children Playing?

Watching little kids play sports is like watching a monkey play racquetball. There is always the possibility that the monkey might take a whack at the ball and hit it, but you're probably just as likely to see the monkey throw poop at you. Well, fortunately all of the 5-year-olds at our son's YMCA-sponsored basketball program are toilet trained, so we don't have to worry about bringing our very own Excrement Shields. We do have to be prepared to watch whatever is happening on the court, which doesn't often resemble basketball. Take, for example, one of basketball's most fundamental skills: Dribbling. Dribbling is essentially unique to basketball, distinguishing it from every other sport. The children at the YMCA's basketball clinic view dribbling as optional, nay, even "annoying." It takes longer to go down the court when you dribble! So they don't bother. The simply seize the ball from whomever has it (opponent, teammate, referee, baffled doesn't matter) and then they run full speed toward the basket, hugging it to themselves like football players on a quarterback sneak. One boy sprinted full speed at the basket (which was lower than regulation height for this half pint crowd) and then managed to shoot the ball with all the strength contained in his body. He was only a couple feet from the backboard when he fired his shot. Well it hit the backboard dead on, then shot straight back at him, striking him in the chest and knocking him over. If this were bowling I would've given him credit for picking up a spare. Another reason you cannot take your attention away from the game -- you may suddenly find yourself in the midst of the action. The parents ring courtside with folding chairs, some with strollers, camera bags, paraphernalia etc. But you see these budding basketball players are not a crowd that pays any attention to LINES ON THE FLOOR. So once they get running in a direction, there is very little to stop them from continuing that way until they careen right into the parental crowd, followed by all of the rest of the "defenders" trying to wrest the ball from the ball handler. (This includes the teammates, who apparently don't realize basketball is a team sport.) One rugby-type scrum broke out right around one of the strollers until a panicked parent excavated the ball from underneath her toddler's accessory basket and hurled it back to center court. One little girl was frustrated by the process. She didn't understand why everyone wanted the ball. It was big. Hard to shoot. Everyone was trying to grab it. What was the point? She, on the other hand, was far more interested in the buttons on the referee's shorts. They were some kind of decorative thing going up the side, and she was hanging onto them while he was trying to pry the other children apart long enough for the ball to move freely. So far our 5-year-old excels at several things: Dribbling! He attempts to do this, and actually makes it a good distance, say 10 feet or more, before the pack descends on him and steals the ball away. Also, Passing! He has apparently taken to heart what the coaches have told him, that it's okay, even desireable, to "pass" the ball to your teammate and let them score. So far he is the only one I have seen that passes the ball to anyone else of his own free will. And, Keeping Score! Our son counted each shot that was made by both teams, and shouted out the score to everyone with each new basket. He was keeping track better than the coaches. It was the only reason I was certain there was a game being played! Our son is a stickler for details, so this shouldn't have surprised me. At one point a center court scuffle looked more like a mosh pit than a basketball enterprise. Several players were yanking on the arm of the ball-carrying-person in an effort to wrest it away. Meanwhile the girl with the Button Fascination had gone over to one of the baskets and was hugging the pole that held it up. Then she transferred her affection to the referee's leg. He had to shake her off, and a parent intervened, telling her if she wasn't interested in the game, maybe they wouldn't be back next week. She did not look distressed. Finally the session was over. My son's team had lost by several baskets. But he had scored twice, somehow, so he was happy with the outcome. He explained it to me this way: "Our coaches taught all the teammates how to play basketball, but the teammates didn't like those rules."

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

John Paul The Great

A great man left the earth this past weekend, Karol Wojtyla, better known as Pope John Paul II. I'm sure he didn't consider himself a great man, though, rather a humble servant of the Lord, just as did the first Pope, Peter the Fisherman. In addition to being a statesman, a charismatic man of the people, an intellectual, athlete, author, actor, playwright and Lord only knows what else, this Pope was an intensely prayerful, almost mystical human being. He would lie on the floor of his chapel for half an hour, 40 minutes, sometimes an hour a day (before he became too infirm), just communing with his God. As I was watching the solemn procession of the Pope's body on the cable news networks yesterday, I got to thinking what a cool religion the Catholics have. More pomp than the whole royalty system of the British Empire put together. More circumstance than all the lawyers on the planet could conjure up. We had robes! Incense! Beautifully sung Latin! Mass! Official paraphernalia! Swiss Guards looking like they popped right off a deck of cards! Onlookers galore! Doves! News Media awed into long periods of reverential silence! Old buildings! Traditions we never even knew existed! (Bash the pope on the forehead with a silver hammer to make sure he's dead? Well if he wasn't dead before then...) It was so cool I wanted to be a Catholic! Then I bashed myself in the forehead (just my hand. We don't have any silver hammers) when I realized I AM a Catholic. Gee whiz! My Sunday masses don't look like that. Ours sort of look like a hoe-down by comparison. Bounce into the church. Genuflect or not, depending on your mood and if you can find the Blessed Sacrament. (my current church, yes, it's up front. Other churches keep it tucked away like the winter sweaters or clothes that don't fit right.) Enjoy greetings, guitars, applause, prayers that get tinkered with every other month, standing or kneeling depending on how well you like the bishop, more hand-shaking, Mass is over, everybody scatter. The stuff that's going on with the Pope right now is so reverent and impressive, you really get the idea that God is important, and maybe even watching. I know I should have that feeling at Mass every week, but it's difficult to maintain. Many of the churches in Europe feel that way. That the people who built them really believed in God, and that God Himself may inhabit the walls. Our modern church boxes with funky layouts and oddball architecture don't give me the same feeling. I know I'm supposed to use my brain to achieve the same effect, but it's difficult. St. Malachy's prophetic list of popes dates back to the 1200s, I think. People claim it is highly accurate. The title he gave for John Paul II was "Labor of the Sun." This was viewed in the sense that the Pope labored in a quarry for four or five years during World War II. He is also intensely devoted to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, who is also known as "The Woman Clothed with the Sun," so he is seen as doing her work. The next Pope on the list is "The Glory of the Olive." It will be interesting to see if the cardinal chosen as the next pontiff has any connection with that phrase. The one after that is Petrus Romanus, "Peter the Roman," or Peter II. Not since Peter the Apostle have we had a Pope named Peter. The list ends there. Creepy or what? The list ENDS. Definitely creepy. Like I said, I always thought it would be cool to be Catholic. This week, at least, I'm going to get to be one.