Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Shulda Fings

Our family just spent an amazing weekend in Florida over spring break. We decided to drive for the first time since Brian’s parents moved there over 13 years ago.

The drive down and back was amazing. Both children sat in the back and played on their different devices with relaxed but intent looks on their faces. They rarely asked “are we there yet” or “I’m hungry, can we eat?”

At one point, I recall with fondness, I looked back at them while both were quietly reading library books to themselves. I looked over at my wonderful husband, with whom I had finally shared more than a few comments in passing because of his busy work schedule, and thought “life is good”.

Now, close your eyes and listen closely to an imaginary record needle scratching along the length of a 45 and I’ll tell you the real story.

Farts, with a capital “F”.

Don’t ever let anyone tell you that a road trip with a grown man, a twelve year old, and an eight year old is a simple thing.

It began shortly after pulling out of the driveway. Brody must’ve eaten fruit. Allot of it. He took pleasure from shocking us, and at one point Brian asked him if he needed to take a shower or at least change his pants.

Marah, our beautiful newly turned 12 year old, who had spent such focused time in the bathroom getting her hair just right before leaving home, preferred to remain quiet; deadly quiet. Every once in a while, Brody would yell “Crack the window!!!”. She wouldn’t make a sound, and the only evidence that she even knew what she had done was a tiny little smile. Refusing to make eye contact with any of us, she kept on reading while earplugs saved her from hearing our gagging.

Brian was well behaved on the drive to Florida, although I will admit his new obsession with yoga presented some shocking views. Sitting in the driver's seat, I found myself unable to watch the road when he attempted “happy baby” from the passenger seat next to me. Before I could even respond, there were loud cackles coming from the back of the van and the remaining members of the clan were also in full “happy baby” pose. The semi truck on the right gave me a kind honk that jarred me back to the present. In almost 25 years together, I’ve never seen such flexibility in my spouse.

Brody’s stomach seemed to have settled down by the end of our time in Florida, which is good. His father, however, was more than happy to claim the new crown of “Fing” (my new word for “fart king”). On the ride home, we came close to having to stop in Columbia, Missouri, in order to fumigate the car. It came down to this: divorce, or at least he had to stop until we were away from the one place I hate more than any other in the world. Yes, I would rather suffocate then stop near the home of the Missouri Tigers. Brian blamed his attacks on Mizzou, claiming the drive through Columbia naturally brought out the worst in him. I had to agree.

At the end of the day, here is what I will REALLY remember from the drive. It will be the unbridled, from deep in the belly, laughter. My family laughed out loud. They chuckled. They snorted. They cackled, smiled, and grinned. We teased each other, made funny faces, and even funnier noises in response to those simple human acts. It wasn’t disgusting, it was hysterically memorable, real, and all too human; because Brian and the kids made it so.

I wouldn’t trade that drive for a million dollars. Even if I AM missing a few singed nose hairs.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

For Ref Blamers...You Know Who You Are

As a KU Jayhawk fan living in Big 12 country, I've adapted to the usual complaints made by some fans of other schools when we win. Cries of "must be nice to have a sixth man on the court" and "the refs gave you guys the game" are as predictable as Willy the Wildcat's weekly whiplash treatments (a regrettable side effect from wearing the bobblehead).

This particular season, however, has unleashed wave of untempered childish tantrums the likes of which I haven't seen since John McEnroe made an American spectacle of himself in Stockholm. The Big 12 even caved under the whining by actually issuing a statement addressing two individual calls, ignoring in the process an entire epidemic afflicting the nation wherein officials often lack consistency and the ability to initiate control over the amount of physical contact that has not only become routine, but expected.

While it would be easy for me to climb on a very high soapbox (and most of you know I can be quite long winded and focus intently on the minutiae), I will spare you the raging lecture and point out the two reasons KU continues to dominate, obliterate, and eviscerate the Big 12 in basketball every year.

Reason number one is well known to every person out there who has any remote understanding of the game of basketball. Bill Self's teams play defense. Period. Defense is like your grandmother: she's always been there to love you through the hard times, even when mom or dad aren't what you need. Grandma is always there to feed you and keep you fueled. Grandma knows that in this ever-changing world, you must always hold on to simple proven truths. And grandma knows that girlfriends may come and go but if you keep close the core of who you really are and never compromise, you will always find happiness. Defense is KU's favorite grandmother: she's wise, old fashioned, and always there when we need her.

You see, the shortest athlete can play good defense. The biggest player can as well. The best and worst shooters can always be taught basic defense. Not every athlete is born with Michael Jordan's vertical or Wilt Chamberlain's wing span. KU doesn't get the nation's top recruits every year (at least not on the level UK does), although they do get their fair share periodically. Many of their current NBA players were not certain pro bets when they stepped foot on campus. They were taught, they listened, and they grew tough and strong while learning that solid defense is the foundation of a winning team.

Now pay attention, because this important. Defense prevents opposing teams from scoring. When they don't score, they lose. When they shoot poorly because of suffocating defense, they lose. It won't matter as much if your squad is having a poor shooting night. Your team can make up for it by relying on their one tried and proven mainstay: defense. Bill Self's teams are consistently at the top in the nation in defensive efficiency ratings. Remember the Big 12 Tournament Championship game when KU caused a KSU shot clock violation? That is why they won. KSU shot poorly because they were up against one of the best defensive teams in the nation.

Reason number two that KU has been able to win is because they play big down low. Ever heard the term "live by the three, die by the three"? The reason it SEEMS as if KU "gets all of the foul calls" is because working the ball inside presents closer, more physical contact around the rim thereby affording many more opportunities to draw a foul. Bill Self's high/low offense creates this opportunity time after time. It is strategy, it is textbook, and it works. Get the ball down low and either score or draw a foul. Iowa State is lacking in size and has to make up for it by shooting outside, avoiding the interior because of KU's inside presence. It's hard to defend a team when they have a rare night of insane three point shooting but a team that refuses to push the ball inside simply isn't going to draw fouls. KU managed to win that game because we ALSO had an insane shooter that night, not because it was given to them. When we are fouled it is because we are pushing the ball inside and forcing the opposing teams into close contact.

I'll keep it short and sweet: this isn't rocket science and there is no conspiracy. Bill Self has embraced the two simplest concepts in basketball and convinced player after player and team after team that it works. Rather than look for excuses as to why your teams lose, maybe you should be asking why your coaches don't learn from him.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Intruder

The first thing I remember is feeling the breeze against my skin. The second thing I remember is a pillow being placed over my face. And in those moments, the naivete of my family’s trust in small town safety was shattered forever.

I was fourteen, just a few weeks before entering high school. The year was 1983 and it was hot that summer. We had a massive window unit air conditioner, which could really only keep the main living areas cool, so at night my grandmother would turn it off, open all of the windows, and crank the attic fan on high. The fan was loud, really loud, but the breeze was worth the noise and all of us had become accustomed to sleeping through it years earlier. I was used to the breeze and loved to lie still while it ruffled the thin sheet I slept with, bringing in air to blow against my hot neck and for-head. The roar of that attic fan could muffle just about any noise in the house, but we lived in a town of 500; on the edge of town, surrounded on two sides by pasture land....and nothing bad ever happens in small town Americana. It wasn’t until college that Truman Capote would introduce me to the Clutters. I had gone to bed early that night because of volleyball practice the next morning. The heat in our school gym made it unbearable during the day. As a result, two weeks before school started our coach began holding practices very early in the morning. It was one of the most exciting times of my life. I was entering high school, playing volleyball with the upper classmen, and everything in my world was new and exciting.

You know those times in the middle of the night when you wake up just a little? Things are somewhat foggy, dreamlike, but you can hear the sounds? That’s what it was like. I remember hearing the attic fan and feeling that cool breeze as it blew over me. I opened my eyes briefly and saw the curtains billowing out from the window. As I dozed back to sleep, it felt as if the sheet was gently blown off of me. Not to the side, or in a scattered way, but straight down to my feet. In my half awake/half asleep state, I didn’t question this. In fact, it was still warm at 3:00 am and I didn’t mind the air on my skin at all.

Then I felt a pillow placed over my face. This certainly caused a rise from the depths of being half asleep, but my first instinct was to simply turn my head and ensure that I could breathe. Whoever had placed the pillow over my face was not applying pressure and for some, completely unknown reason, I simply wasn’t scared. It was only a matter of seconds before the next act occurred, but it felt like hours in my mind, while I waited breathlessly to see what was going on.

The next moment, I knew for certain something was amiss. I felt a hand grab the bottom of my t-shirt and begin to pull it up to my waist. Was this simply the breeze, pushing up the cotton garment? It couldn’t be; and there was no way the breeze could’ve lifted a pillow and dropped it on my face. The hand then grabbed the top of my underwear and began to slowly pull downward. At this moment, panic hit me like a brick wall and I sat up like a mummy finally released from the bondages of a tomb. In the darkness, I saw a shadow standing next to the bed but before my eyes could adjust the intruder lifted his arm and shoved a lit flashlight in front of my face. As I raised an arm to cover my eyes, this faceless entity slowly backed around the edge of my bed towards the door, never once dropping the blinding light.

My first thought, with certainty, was that it had to be a friend playing some stupid, sick, and ridiculous joke on me. Why else would anyone enter my home in the middle of the night, place a pillow on my face, and shine a flashlight into my eyes? I was already subconsciously forgetting the part where my clothes were being removed. Then I thought “get up, quick, before they leave so you can see who it is!”

So began a strange journey from my bedroom to the backyard, the intruder backing up, flashlight extended and blinding me, and me following, so close that I could’ve almost reached out and grabbed the flashlight myself. The strange invader backed down the hall, through the laundry room, and out onto the deck. As I stood in the door, the flashlight dropped just long enough for the interloper to jump down the deck stairs, turning quickly to hold the light up once again, beaming into my eyes. Then, as quietly as he had entered my bedroom, he disappeared without a sound around the side of the house into the darkness of the night.

It took me a moment to realize he was gone, and in the quiet of the night, I thought it might have been a dream. I shut and locked the back door and headed down the hallway back to my room. At that moment, my grandmother rounded the corner and asked me why I had gotten up. Normally, she would wake at the slightest noise, but with the roar of the attic fan and the stealth of my unwanted and uninvited visitor, she hadn’t heard a thing until I shut the back door. Still foggy, my response was impulsive, somewhat crass in light of what had really happened. I said “some freak was just in my bedroom”, and tried to get past her so I could go back to bed.

Imagine the next few hours, if you will. My grandmother was hysterical. The police were called. Every light in the house was turned on. The neighbors were notified. And my grandfather, in pajama bottoms and a t-shirt, in the front yard with a hand gun I hadn’t realized he owned, waving it as if he could now change history if only he could catch the stranger who had threatened his youngest. I didn’t get it, didn’t understand the outrage. After all, nothing happened. I wasn’t hurt.

Over the next few years, my grandmother would go back to that night, asking me if I was REALLY okay. I would vehemently say “yes, I didn’t get hurt, don’t worry so much”. Her real fear was that some form of trauma would lie dormant until just the wrong time and that it would then show itself, hurting me more than if I would just simply deal with it now. I didn’t feel that I had anything to deal with and I wanted to move on with my friends, with school, with boys, with sports….all of the things that rule the world of almost any average fourteen year old girl.

My grandmother was right, though. A part of me knew that I had escaped any number of horrible fates, not the least of which could have been a rape or beating. Years later, when my professional career opened the door to a specialty caseload of sex offenders, I realized with horror why she had been so upset that night. During this time of my career, I also rented a small house: alone. It was the first and only time I have lived without a family member, friend, or spouse. It was also the time period when I was forced to come face to face with the fallout from that singular night in August of 1983. I had a panic attack, out of the blue, imagining a stranger breaking into my tiny home and brutally attacking me. I was paralyzed with fear and didn’t sleep that night. Nor the next; I didn’t sleep for a week. It was then that I enrolled in Model Mugging, a five week self defense course that involved hands-on interaction with a large man in a padded suit. During that class, I had an opportunity to play out that night in my bedroom with an ending I could live with. In that class, I kicked the living daylights out of the intruder and let him know, in every way possible, that I could protect myself. Thanks to Model Mugging, I learned to sleep again; alone in my own home.

It’s been seventeen years since I graduated from Model Mugging. It has been almost thirty years since the break-in. I think it about it every so often, particularly when Brian is travelling and I’m home alone with the kids. I remember that all it took was a long, sharp fingernail to slice open the screen door. We kept the rest of the doors unlocked until then. I’ll admit, I have a compulsive habit of checking the doors twice, sometimes three times. I make sure the shades are pulled and the windows are locked, at least on the main floors during the summer. I haven’t had any more panic attacks, though, and part of me knows that it’s because I learned to fight back. I also learned that there’s always an element of danger and we can never take our family’s safety for granted. Do I live in fear? Absolutely not, but I’m a pragmatist at heart and believe everything that happens in our lives can afford us an opportunity to learn.

That’s all I’ve got this week. I wish my readers safety and peace as I head to bed. After I double check the back door once more. Just in case.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

My Battle With Religion

On February 11th, Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation. This is the first resignation of a Pope in over 600 years and I was surprised that my first thought was “what are they hiding”. This led to my next thought, which was “why on earth are you so angry at religion?”

Am I ready to tackle that question? Probably not, but in the interest of personal growth, I think I’ll nibble around the edges a little. Maybe in the process, some of the anger and resentment that has been brewing within me for decades will subside; maybe the irritability that rises up each time I drive by a church (this happens often where I live, as there is a church on nearly every block) will disappear.

Think “hellfire and brimstone”, second cousin to Southern Baptist; that’s the kind of church in which I was raised. I remember listening to back-masked tapes of Led Zeppelin in Sunday school, and the teacher explaining that the mangled and indistinguishable garbled-y-gook we had just heard was ACTUALLY Jimmy Page talking about Satan. I tried, I mean I tried really hard, to hear the words, but I just couldn’t. At the time, I was sure it was because I was a sinner and wasn’t letting the Lord work within me. There’s an entirely different language when you are part of a church like that. Terms like “The Lord”, “we come to you”, and “in Jesus Christ we pray” are as common as your average noun and these words come to mind like Pavlov: when asked to pray, I immediately begin, without even thinking “Dear Lord, we come to you as sinners……”.

At the age of seven I remember lying in bed at night desperately sobbing because my Jewish cousins and their parents were going to burn in hell unless they accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. The church had instilled that it was my responsibility to teach the word of God, and if I failed, my loved ones would spend eternity in excruciating pain, flames licking at their skin, agonizing every moment, every second. You see, that’s what hell is: Pain, Fire, Flames, Heat, for all of Eternity. What child wants to think of people they love burning in hell? Honestly, if the children of Westboro Baptist Church are threatened with this horror then it is no wonder they are willing brokers of hate. The visions I carried in my head of hell were so disturbing that in1976 I finally broke down and witnessed to my seven year old cousin Laura, painting a quite excessive picture of the consequences that awaited her if she didn’t convert. As you can imagine, this didn’t go over well with her parents and it forced my Grandparents to encourage me to let this one family slide, leaving me even more confused.

I remember being terrified of airports because after the back mask obsession ended my Sunday school moved on to cults. Garbeld-y-gook was replaced with pictures of Mooneys and their leader, Sun Myung Moon. I desperately feared that a cult might kidnap and brainwash me. As an elementary school student, it simply didn’t occur to me that we didn’t fly anywhere, nor had there been any local sightings of Mooneys recruiting in Morris County, KS.

When I dared to question the bible, as I did once and only once, it resulted in a private meeting with our Pastor. All I did was ask a question about dinosaurs and why the bible didn’t talk about them. I didn’t realize at the time that such a simple question would result in the big gun being brought in, and, having never been comfortable in his presence, I vowed to never question anything regarding the church again (at least out loud).

My Grandparents were thrilled when James Dobson released his Focus on the Family multi-cassette series. The thing was, they were already doing an amazing job as parents. Every single morning, before the sun came up, they would sit together at the kitchen table quietly sipping coffee and sharing devotion. In my long flowered nightgown, I would sometimes wake and secretly peek at them, not understanding what they were talking about, but finding solace in the quiet ticking of the clock, the smell of coffee brewing, the stillness of the morning, and their quiet whispers as one would read the devotion, the other the daily scripture, and then together their prayers. Even as a young child, I recognized meditation, serenity, and a coming together of two souls and I loved living in that home within this safe cocoon. They loved me deeply and were amazing parents; their only flaw, in my mind, was such blind devotion to a church that believed every single word of the New Testament, verbatim.

Later, when the sermons on the Book of Revelation began, the ultimate splinter between my faith and the Baptist church would begin to fester. I am torn at times, wondering if the experience was really as bad as I remember or if my childhood recall is, in fact, reality. But then I think, does it really matter if that childhood memory was completely accurate? Does it? I witnessed to all of my friends, believe me. My Grandmother even recorded some of it. Sometimes, when the pain of missing her becomes overwhelming, I look for ways to feel her presence and turning to her bible seems to be the most logical move. She jotted notes, mostly biblically related, but at other times, dates and personal notes, almost as if her favorite bible was a small diary. I was surprised to find written, about one of my young friends, “Beth B. was saved today – April 24, 1983”. I’m fairly certain Beth doesn’t recall that event (don’t quote this, I could be wrong), but my grandmother preserved it for history. The church teaches that Beth’s name was written in the Book of Life and that she has a place in heaven for eternity. My dearest and closest childhood friend, Julie, was also saved. In the process, we earned the wrath of her devout Catholic mother, who wanted to know “what the hell they were teaching at that church!” Julie’s conversion came about because she was no dummy. She didn’t want to spend eternity feeling those flames melt her skin any more than I did.

The sermons on Revelation, once started, seemed to reoccur over and over. All of those explicit visions I had of hell turned into apocalyptic nightmares of tattoos on wrists and guillotines located on church property. I began having dreams that I’d wake up and both of my grandparents would be gone, vanished into thin air. I recall coming home from school once and having a panic attack because I couldn’t find my grandmother (she was in the back yard). I was sickened when, years later, I realized that even Hollywood saw the value in perpetuating the tribulation nightmare when they created the “Left Behind” movies. There was an earlier version of these films shown at my church called “A Thief in the Night”. At the end, a woman stands before a bloody guillotine (I really did have ongoing nightmares involving beheadings, go figure) in a plain white smock, in front of a picturesque suburban church, white steeple even, preparing for decapitation because she had refused to get the mark of the beast. Did I mention that the night of this viewing was the night Julie accepted Christ? This is why her mother was so incensed.

You see, it didn’t matter that the church also taught us to love our neighbors, to avoid gossip, to abstain from lying/cheating/stealing….for me, all that mattered was not dying a bloody, horrific death and not spending eternity in excruciating pain and agony.

Which leads me to why I might still be so angry: I think I’m jealous. I’m jealous of the thousands of people in my community who experience such comfort and peace within their church. I’m jealous of those people who have simply embraced their chosen religion (even if it wasn’t really chosen, but granted them upon birth, as in most cases) and never experience a pang of doubt or confusion regarding whether or not their minister’s interpretation is truly the correct one……or, actually, whether or not their Old or New Testaments were even translated accurately over thousands of years. I talk to my beautiful mother-in-law about this, and she admittedly has a simplistic view of her own Catholicism. She loves the beauty of the church, the tradition and ceremony, because it brings her peace when she is there. My sister-in-law, raised Catholic but no longer practicing, has defined mass in her own special way as having been the one time every week where she was forced to sit quietly and reflect upon her life. Other family members have found absolute solace within their chosen religions after experiencing a devastating loss. Jewish family members are part of a cultural family. My aunt, who converted after marrying a Jew and almost getting herself disowned in the process, loves the Jewish faith because, as she says, of its age, beauty and because it is a very personal and private religion, one that doesn’t encourage proselytizing.

When I was asked to run for the Kansas House of Representatives, one of the first things I explained was that I do not attend church and I wasn’t about to start. My biggest emotional hiccup occurred after hearing that a neighbor family wasn’t going to vote for me because I didn’t attend church. I can’t put into the words the anger that I felt or the frustration at not having a way to say “I can spout scripture with the best of them! Want me to pray and make it Billy Graham worthy? You got it! I probably know more about the New Testament than 90% of local mega church members!” See what I mean about the anger? It isn’t healthy, and it isn’t justified. Not anymore.

So after nibbling around those edges, I decided to have a talk with my fraternal grandmother, a lifelong Baptist, who through one of those strange twists of fate I wouldn’t meet until six short years ago, and who knows more about the Bible than just about anyone I’ve ever met. I asked her about THAT book: Revelation. And she laughed….she laughed kindly and gently, with affection and love. She told me that she doesn’t believe any of it literally and that the book is, in all probability, an allegory. She doesn’t believe that one day, out of the blue, millions will just disappear. Plus, and this shocked me, she doesn’t believe that there will be an “anti-Christ”. I jokingly stated “why couldn’t I have attended YOUR church growing up?” She said it wouldn’t have mattered, because many church’s teachings on this subject have evolved over time, just as her own interpretation has evolved. She agreed with me when I talked about the rage I could barely contain when my 2nd grade daughter told me two of her christian friends had told her "Obama kills babies" and echoed my sheer bewilderment and sadness over the intolerant obsession some groups have toward homosexuality.

All of this leads me to where I am today, at this moment in time with regard to my own faith. I’m not comfortable yet sharing the details (suffice it to say I’m not an atheist, by any means), but I’m so very tired of being angry at religion. And I’m tired of labels…...labels that I use far too freely, loosely, and irresponsibly when pondering Christianity and, yet, labels I’m very quick to condemn when they are used to describe religions of which I’m less familiar. Some of you following this will be able to read between the lines regarding this last sentence and, I hope, will comprehend how dangerous those labels are regardless of the religion they describe.

This is the bottom line: I control what I hold onto. Today, as I write this, I have decided to let go. It might take a little practice, but the next time I drive by a church I’m not going to roll my eyes. The next time someone posts something religious on Facebook, I’m going to read it instead of quickly scrolling past. The next time I am somewhere and a person prays, I’m going to use that time to meditate, or at least really listen to what they are saying . And maybe, just maybe, I might attend a service this Sunday. I have a few places in mind and haven’t decided for sure where to go yet, but the point is to try again. So my kids can get a taste of the peace I mentioned earlier and so maybe, just maybe, I can find the quiet solace I missed out on as a child. It’s a start, right?