Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Woman in Her Thirties Needs to find Robert Hays

*I read this essay at Morningside After Dark last night.  I was nervous, I'm not going to lie.  Autobiographical writing is the toughest form, if you ask me.  But this piece kinda came to me a couple months ago, and I was happy for a chance to share it.  Though this was deeply personal for me, probably the most emotional thing about last night was seeing so many supportive faces in the crowd.  Feeling very blessed and loved.  Now I need one of you resourceful women in your thirties to find Robert Hays, and get this to him immediately, okay?

Thank You, Robert Hays

For those of you who don’t know, Robert Hays is the dashingly handsome star of the greatest movie of all time.  Airplane! (with an exclamation point!), directed by Jim Abrams and the Zucker brothers, and released in 1980, when I was two years old.  If you are not familiar with this film, I give you full permission to stop listening and download it onto your preferred technological device.  But just promise me you’ll start from the beginning—“The white zone is for immediate loading and unloading of passengers only,” and stick with it until the end.  The very, very end, when the thirteenth president of the United States, Millard Fillmore, is thanked in the credits. 

When Airplane entered my home, it was in its boxed VHS format, at least eight years after its release.  Airplane! 2 had already been made, released, and sent to VHS.  Leslie Neilsen was promoting his Naked Gun series, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was embarking on his long and totally under appreciated run in TV sitcoms.  The late eighties were a time of Phil Donohue, the First George Bush, and Please, Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em.  I was twelve years old, an awkward Catholic school kid smack in the middle of all that awesome. 

I don’t remember my very first viewing of Airplane, though it must have happened on the green shag carpet that underlined most of my childhood in California.  I loved it instantly, as did my brother and sister and dad.  We watched it daily, and for a long time.  “Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue!” we would roar to each other, while my mother stirred far-past al dente pasta on the stove and begged us to shut up.  This was before the academy of pediatrics was hell-bent on making parents feel terrible for “screen time”.  We grew up in front of the TV, and lived our lives through it.  Mornings: the Today show.  Afternoons:  All My Children Evenings: The NBC Nightly News while we ate dinner and begged incessantly for it to be “our turn”, which meant putting Airplane on.  

“Joey, do you like movies about Gladiators?”

Of the hundreds of jokes in that movie, we got maybe ten of them.  Ted’s drinking problem was a favorite, and none of us could get enough of Barbara Billingsly speaking jive.  I can’t tell you what it was about that movie, but we all bonded over it.  When dad laughed, we laughed. When we couldn’t find something to talk to each other about, we talked about Airplane. 

“You got a letter from headquarters this morning.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a big building where generals meet.  But that’s not important right now.”

We got the news of my father’s illness in June of 1990.  Fresh Prince of Bel Air.  Ally McBeal.  And my dad, with inoperable cancer at age 49. When you’re twelve, and your biggest worry is how much Aussie scrunch hairspray you have for your bangs, there is no preparation for such a thing.  We needed Ted and Elaine more than ever.

There’s no reason to become alarmed, and we hope you’ll enjoy the rest of your flight. By the way, is there anyone on board who knows how to fly a plane?

Something happens to a home when it holds a sick person.  It bursts with movement and energy.  It is constantly filled with equipment and clicky prescription bottles, and the smell of other people’s casseroles. All the attention, all the noise…  I didn’t mind it. It was the only way to keep from screaming as we watched my father embark on chemo and radiation. 

First time?
No, I’ve been nervous lots of times.

We as a family endured that painful summer, which is to say we survived it.  My mom fell deeper and deeper into despair as the leaves turned, and the conversations in our home were quick, as though we were all made of glass and liable to break if someone used the wrong verb.  Airplane played on what could only be described as a constant loop during those cancer days.  Every time we couldn’t take another second of sickness, we put on the scene where Ted Stryker dances to Saturday Night Fever.  Try watching that scene and crying about the state of your life.  IT CANNOT BE DONE.

Twelve is an odd time to watch someone die.  At twelve, you feel invincible.  You feel like life owes you something.  You feel things should be fair.  But nothing about what was happening to us was fair, and we all knew it.  One night in October, after my dad had been checked in to the hospital for good, I overheard him pleading with my mother.  His voice was barely intelligible from drugs and pain.  “Let me go,” he moaned to her.  “Please, just let me go.”

“Captain, how soon can you land?
“I can’t tell”.
“You can tell me, I’m a doctor.”
“No, I mean I’m not sure.”
“Well, can’t you take a guess?”
“Not for another two hours.”
“You can’t take a guess for another two hours?”

Something happens to a house when a person inside of it dies.  It hollows out and echoes, as if it’s in mourning with you.  The emptiness was torture for me, but no more so than being the kid at school that every feels sorry for.  So I watched Airplane.  I showed it to my friends so we could have something to talk about other than my sad, sad mom. We acted out scenes from the cockpit.  “We have clearance, Clarence.  Roger, Roger.  What’s our vector, Victor?” We laughed and laughed, and somehow, made it through.

In the many years that have passed now, I have continued to love slapstick.  I think of my father every time I watch Modern Family, and how much he would love love love that show.  Comedy gets us through hard times.  Airplane taught me that it’s okay to laugh when things are unlaughable.  And now, when I see clips of that movie, or think of it in passing, I see it as a way of connecting with my dad, whom I missed so much during the Dana Carvey SNL years, and miss today, but in a different way. 

As a teacher and now a young adult writer, I have been asked many times about getting through hard times as a child.  “How did you do it?” People ask.  “How did you get through.” I say lots of different things, depending on my audience, because there’s no one thing that gets a person through pain.  But I would be lying if I said Robert Hays and the entire cast of Airplane didn’t have an impact on how I handle difficult times now. 

I mentioned this to a grieving friend recently, the ebb and flow of life, and how I look at my challenges as pieces of a great mosaic that came together and formed me.  And I thought of Airplane, and the power of laughter, and how it makes me sad that one day when I write my autobiography it cannot be read by the late, great Robert Stack, who was the perfect host of Unsolved Mysteries, but an even more perfect Captain Rex Kramer. 

“You mean to tell me that I won’t hurt like this all the time?  That I’ll be okay?  Surely you can’t be serious."

I am serious.  And don’t call me Shirley. 

Saturday, February 14, 2015

A Woman in her Thirties in Austin

Last year, a terrible mistake was made and we did not escape the Minnesota winter.  It wasn't for lack of trying, but rather it was L's impossible work schedule.  Do you remember last winter?  Because I do:

I vowed this year not to make the same mistake, and booked our trip to Austin to visit Gu Gu (L's sister) and Uncle C.

We have had a very mild winter, comparatively speaking, but let's just say we were all beyond excited to see that our daytime temperatures were going to be in the mid-seventies all week:

Anna and Aaron, making a run for Lake Austin on a gorgeous Monday morning.  

I'd been to Austin once before, and had gotten a sense that Austin was like Berkeley:  lots of hippies, lots of great food, maybe not-so-kid friendly.  I was wrong about the last one.  There was SO much for us to do, and we took full advantage thanks to Gu Gu's experienced navigation. 

Duck boat tour of Austin-- the bus went right into the lake!  The kids were in heaven and I learned why Texans fly their state flag and the US flag at the same height.  (Because they can.)

Hanging out at Zilker park. I'm thinking, 'Hmmm.... how do I get my sister wife on board for a winter home in Austin?'

Austin has an AWESOME children's museum called The Thinkery.  The kids were in heaven. 

We went to a place called Kiddie Acres, and this amusement park truly deserves its own post.  Besides the pony rides, there were maybe five other "rides", all meant for toddlers.  Stepping into Kiddie Acres was like stepping into a Stephen King novel, set in 1955.  

Kiddie Acres was AWESOME.  As I write this, Aaron is standing next to me saying, 'Momma! I ride airplane!'  Great memories.

Lots of eating of amazing junk food.  An important agenda item when one travels to Austin.

And speaking of food, this is my lunch before Kiddie Acres.  A chicken soft taco, but did you know that in Austin 'chips and queso' are a thing?  As in, nachos with pretty much every meal, if you want it?  Queso might be my new favorite word.  I will say it in the depths of winter when I need to be reminded of Austin's greatness.

Now might be a good time to include a teeeny tidbit that might have added to our trip's pleasure.  Gu Gu and Uncle C are remodeling their home right now, and because they have put so much wonderful energy out into the world, it has come back to them.  What I'm trying to say is that the house we were allowed to stay in was the kind featured in magazines and posters about rich people (real, actual posters, that hang in the house).  We were so, so lucky to stay there.

Sunrise, from the kitchen window.

Standing in the backyard, wondering just how many rocks one can throw into Lake Austin.

Blowing bubbles by the pool.  Yes, a huge playscape behind that.  This place was truly gorgeous.

It feels really weird to post pictures of the inside someone's home, particularly someone I haven't met.  But suffice it to say the artwork was fantastic-- like FANTASTIC-- and I may or may not have discovered a picture of the home's owners chillin' with a pretty famous politician whose name rhymes with Phil Blinton. We were beyond lucky to stay there.

But of course, where we stayed paled in comparison to the company we kept.  I got to visit with an old friend from Santa Clara I hadn't seen in five years.  I met several of Gu Gu and Uncle C's friends, and I realized how true it was that great people attract great people.  But most importantly, we got to spend time with family we only see once or twice a year.  As I told several people before we left, I want my kids to spend as much time with their Aunt and Uncle as possible, in hopes that they will be inspired by their kindness, generosity, and overall awesomeness.

Despite all of this, I would be lying if I said the trip was complete. I purposely booked the trip when I did because it fell during what I knew would be an insanely long trip for L.  Which isn't saying much, considering it feels like the last six months have been one insanely long trip for him.  It was hard for us to be with L, and hard for L to see the pictures and not be with us.  So the trip served a dual purpose for me:  to solidify the importance of escaping the Minnesota winter, and solidify the importance of MAKING SURE L escapes with us, next year.  

I'm not sure when we will come off the high of our trip to Austin last week, but based on Anna's obsession with her new cowboy boots and pink-tiara cowboy hat, I don't think it will be for awhile. Grateful for the time away, grateful for wonderful family, and grateful a yee-hawing, giddy-uping, great time in Austin.