Sunday, September 9, 2012

Priority: The Most Important Concept in the World

As we geared up for another school year, I had the annual talk with each of my daughters about her goals for the year.

About halfway into the conversation, Chaos said something that made me stop and think. She said, "'Priorities' is a pretty important word, huh?"

I'd never really expressed it that way. I'd thought in terms of the priorities themselves and the goals to which they related.

But, yeah, the more I thought about it, the more I came to realize I think 'Priority' is the most important concept in the world. More than any other factor, a person's priorities define that person's life. Once the priorities are established, it becomes a pretty straightforward matter to define goals in keeping with those priorities. One of the most important characteristics of priorities is that they are subject to change. As new priorities are defined, they need to be assessed in relation to the existing ones, and some old ones may need to be shelved, at least temporarily, to make room for the new ones.

Of course, when an individual fails to prioritize effectively, life will define the priorities, making that person a passenger in his or her own life.

The goals, too, need to be reasonable.

Most of life's biggest disappointments stem from poorly defined priorities and unreasonable goals.

A person can dream of being a singer with a #1 record. But that would be, at best, a hope. Not a goal. There are too many factors external to that person, things he or she can't control, that will determine whether that #1 record ever comes to be. But there are factors within that dream that can be established as reasonable goals:

1) I will take the necessary steps to ensure I have food and shelter while pursuing my goals.
      a) I will prepare for a job as a/an whatever.
      b) When I am done preparing, I will take a job as a/an whatever.
2) I will learn to sing well.
3) I will seek out and make use of opportunities to build a fan base and make music-industry contacts.
4) I will sing the kinds of songs large numbers of people want to buy, keeping in mind:
     a) that may not be what I consider to be the most worthy music; and
     b) tastes change, over time, so what's hot now may not be in another year's time.
5) I will take steps to prepare myself mentally and emotionally to deal effectively with these scenarios, should they come to pass:
     a) the luck factor necessary to achieve #1 just doesn't happen for me; or
     b) lightning strikes and I hit #1, which might mean:
         1) I and my songs may be treated as commodities and I may have little privacy; and
         2) there's a lot of pressure in being at #1 because, having been there, it stings to be #2... or #2000.

Someone who does all those things may be VERY fortunate and get a #1 record and be happy. Great.

Having begun such a list, though, a person may decide having a #1 record really wouldn't be that great, after all.

Maybe there will be a reprioritization and an adjustment of goals. Maybe #3 becomes:

3) I will sing the kinds of songs that make me feel most alive, keeping in mind:
     a) that may not be the kind of music large numbers of people want to buy; and
     b) my own taste may change, over time, and, if I have fans, I'll need to choose between:
             1) singing what makes me happy, which could mean losing fans; or
             2) keeping fans happy by singing the songs they love, even if I don't love them anymore.

I'll stop there because this could go on and on.

The point is, once a person stops and really thinks about what it is he or she most wants, it often turns out to be something else entirely.

It's a difficult balance to try find, as a mother, helping a child keep his or her dreams alive while also providing much-needed doses of reality.

If I were allowed only one gift to each of my children, it would be the ability to set reasonable priority-based goals.

If I can give them that, they will own their lives, and they will create their own gifts.





Sunday, August 5, 2012

FaLaLa, Here We Come!

Every four years or so, we load into our cars for another epic journey.

Destination -> Florida. Or, as we often call it, FaLaLa, a carry-over from when Chaos was two and couldn't quite manage the pronunciation.

Specifically, we're Orlando-bound.

For us, four years is a good interval between Florida trips. It keeps the children from getting bored with the experience and allows us to explore other vacation spots. And it pretty much ensures that, each time we go to Orlando, there's something new to explore.

When people hear we're driving, they think I'm insane. And I probably am, but not because I drive to Florida with Chaos and Turmoil. For us, car trips are great family time. We play American Idol. Chaos and Turmoil always let me go to Hollywood. They'll bicker some and maybe jab each other with elbows but I'll turn up the Easy Listening radio station real loud and they'll act right just to get me to turn it off.

My son and his girlfriend will be traveling in his pickup but, unlike in the old days, I don't have to be paranoid we'll become horribly, irrevocably separated because now we can call each other.

The trip is just under 800 miles, about 12 hours of driving time.

We usually stop at South of the Border because... well, how can you not stop there when you're making that drive? I still remember those signs from when I was a little girl, Pedro counting down the miles. Sometimes we detour to Myrtle Beach. We might spend a little time on U.S. Routes 1 and 301 but, for the most part, we'll be flying on I-95. At some point, we'll stop for oranges. None of us really like them but it's Florida. Got to have oranges.

This time, we'll do Magic Kingdom, Sea World, and Universal and Islands of Adventure. We're skipping the water parks this time around because Chaos and Turmoil read on the internet that people go to the bathroom in pool- and water-park water. I don't know how long the ick factor will last but, for now, I'm going to enjoy a vacation without a day spent in sweltering, blistering heat, at a place where there is precisely nothing for me to do but get sunburnt and risk heat stroke while lugging around their clothes, shoes, towels, and whatever they've convinced me to buy them that day.
Turmoil has a dream. She doesn't want to know when we're going to Florida, this time. She wants to be surprised with the news once we're in the car.
Ummmm... yeahhhhhh.

I'm remembering four years ago. That was The Year of the Pods. I began packing about three weeks ahead of time, putting everything into mesh bags. I hung the bags from ceiling hooks in the dining room. What the hell, the plants on those hooks had died anyway. This kept everything accessible, just in case we needed to use something, but kept all those packed items firmly in the To-Go realm. Every day, the pod colony grew, and it looked kind of like something out of a horror movie when the lights were out. I loved that whole set-up. I felt so organized... so... so... Mom-like. I was really looking forward to The Return of the Pods.

But no. How can I give Turmoil her much-wanted surprise? I mean, she'd know something was up when the pods disappeared.

And I do want to give her that surprise.

It's silly, yes. But she's 10. She knows all about Santa and the Easter Bunny. There's not much magic left in her world. And I want to make magic for her.

So now I'm hiding the mesh bags all over the house. I probably should write down the locations. Otherwise it's going to be like that year an Easter egg went missing. It did turn up, a few months later. With my luck, the pod that goes missing will be the one containing the only swimsuit in the universe that camouflages my unsightly curves. At least the ones in the front. I'm afraid to look at the back and so I just tell myself it's as not-bad as the front. Now that I think about it, maybe I better pack that in my purse.

Anyway, things are getting really hectic as The Big Day draws near.

I'd hoped to get another book out this summer but I'm not sure it's going to happen. My werewolves aren't acting right and I just don't have enough time right now to beat them into submission.

Who am I kidding? My characters never act right. They're going to make me rewrite that whole damned book. I know they are. And just for that, I'm not going to let them go to FaLaLa.



Sunday, July 22, 2012

Spellbound by The Holdup

Tonight, I had the pleasure of attending a performance of The Holdup at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre in Baltimore.

Michael Spellman directs a mesmerizing performance of Marsha Norman's poignant, nuanced tale of the dying Wild West, in which the last of the outlaws, intent on a rendezvous with a long-lost love, rides out of the night and into the lives-that-aren't-really-lives of two feuding brothers stuck on a ranch. I have a deep appreciation for writers who skillfully interweave darkness and light, the tapestry of life, and Norman's genius shines in The Holdup. The cast in Baltimore is worthy of that script.

Frank Vince's portrayal of the Outlaw, a tired man who's seen better days, is riveting, especially as the Outlaw reveals occasional flashes of the hell-for-leather bandit he once was.

David Shoemaker is downright lovable as Archie Tucker, an innocent, open young man, for whom this serves as a coming-of-age tale.

Zak Zeeks gives a gripping performance as Archie's older brother, Henry, a gruff, bitter man who takes out his life frustrations on Archie.

Stephanie Ranno sparkles as Lily, the Outlaw's love interest, a former prostitute who managed to make a respectable life for herself. Saucy wench in one moment, wise woman in the next, she makes it easy to see why the Outlaw never could get Lily off his mind.

When the Outlaw and Lily look at each other, there's no doubt they're in love. Vince and Ranno beautifully convey the bittersweet torrent of that love. Together, they could have had it all. If only...

Equally compelling is the dynamic between the two brothers. As different as they are, one of the most fascinating aspects of the script and the performances is that it wouldn't take a whole lot of effort for them to find a common ground. Archie's dissatisfaction with life on the ranch hints at a darker side that has the potential to make him a Henry someday. And when it comes to the outlaws Henry idolizes, he's a child again, as wide-eyed as Archie, and it's heartbreaking he was born too late for the glory days of the Wild West.

The conflict between the Outlaw and Henry is the stuff of legends--the aging alpha and the brash young upstart who, blinded by dreams of fame and fortune, has no idea of their true cost.

More broadly, the story examines the question of just how far a man can go, and still be graced with a second chance.

Full Disclosure: Zak is my son.



                                    Henry (R-Zak Zeeks) ties Archie (L-David Shoemaker) up
                                                so he can prove to the Outlaw how tough he is.
                                                               Photo by Ken Stanek.

(Photo originally posted at: http://www.dcmetrotheaterarts.com/2012/07/09/the-holdup-at-spotlighters-theatre-by-amanda-gunther/.)

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Brave

Let me tell you about my weekend...

It started out innocently enough. I had my daughters, Chaos and Turmoil, with me at our house in Maryland.

Late Friday evening, the storm took out the power. After all the electronic gadgets except the iPhone died, Chaos and Turmoil got bored. We went for a ride to get out of the hot, stuffy, dark house. Rain still drizzling. Trees down everywhere--one of them on top of a car.  Chaos used what battery was left on the iPhone to film the devastation.

We could at least have charged the phones in the car except my stupid cigarette lighter thingy doesn't work.

Traffic lights were out far and wide. Detours. Police redirecting cars... in some cases, the llllooooooooong way around. All the gas stations were closed because they had no power. And my needle was moving ever closer to the big red E.

Chaos and Turmoil were bored again (because, I guess, how many fallen trees can you ooh and ahh over?) and hungry and getting on each other's nerves and complaining nonstop and OH DEAR GOD I'M ON E. In the middle of nowhere. Or I might actually be close to something but I have no idea because I have never been on this road the police have put me on.

Finally FINALLY... yes! A 7-Eleven.

I fill our tank, grab snacks, get some much-needed directions, and we're on the way again.

Chaos and Turmoil are still bored. Still getting on each other's nerves. Still complaining loudly. Only now they're doing it with their mouths full so they're spewing crumbs in the car.

Eventually we arrive back at the house. They've worn themselves out and so they sleep.

Morning arrives. Still no power.

I need coffee.

Back into the car we go. Did you know Arby's doesn't have coffee? I didn't... until we waited in the drive-thru line 15 minutes. And then we were stuck there, behind people actually getting what they wanted. Burger King let me have coffee.

I called and the electric company told me the power should be on by noon. Great. Only four more hours.

What to do? What to do?

We went back to the house, which felt like an oven, and so we didn't stay. We went go-kart riding. Fifteen bucks for three minutes. Okay, at that rate, four hours is going to be mighty expensive.

We managed to pass the time by driving around, going to shopping centers, and getting Chaos and Turmoil some haircuts. Another fifty bucks.

We got home. Noon came and went. No power.

We left again. Grabbed some drive-thru food. And called the electric company. Now the power would be on by five.

Okayyyyyyyyy.

We went to the movie. Another seventy bucks for a 3D showing of Brave and some snacks. But I figure it will be a good mother-daughter bonding experience.

I'm still a little torn about that movie. I mean, I guess it's kind of cool that it's a heroine whose identity isn't defined by the man she wants. But... she's a major brat. I mean, seriously, she makes even Chaos and Turmoil look harmless. She nearly gets her mother killed. And the lesson of this story--the moral, if you will--pretty much comes out to be The Kid Is Right. Hmmmmmmmm. I don't know about you, but it kind of pissed me off to pay all that money to have Disney tell my kids that mothers are controlling idiots.

We dropped another $89 at Hot Topic. They were having a sale.

We went back to the house. No power. Now the electric company said eight-thirty.

I lay down and fought the need to weep.

Chaos and Turmoil, no longer content with calling each other names, started jabbing and poking in each other's general directions. Then they poked me. Then I started yelling. Then my son and his girlfriend showed up and, gentle souls, asked why I was yelling and I let them have it.

At ten p.m., the electric company was no longer giving false estimates. It said it would get to my outage as soon as possible but I should be advised some outages might last well into the following week.

Had the message told me that Saturday morning, I would not have remained in Maryland to suffer.

I called and called but there were no hotel, motel or even no-tell rooms to be had.

At around midnight., we packed our things in the dark, loaded them into the car, and set off for our Virginia house.

We got about fifteen miles, somewhere on Rt. 50, when the back passenger tire blew. All that debris, you know, from the storm.

My car insurance includes roadside assistance but they'd have needed to drop us off somewhere. I didn't want to go back to the dark, hot Maryland house and, as I'd already determined, there were no rooms to be had.

SO ANYWAY...

You should have seen me out there at 12:30 a.m. bouncing on the tire iron to try to loosen those damned nuts and both girls whining that I pulled over in a spooky place and telling each other, "Shut up, stupid." Yeah. At that point, there was nothing scarier out there than me.

Stupid tire hadn't been rotated (don't blame me; talk to my moderately significant other; that's his job) so the rim and the bolt thing had rusted together. Fortunately, a nice man showed up and he wasn't even an ax murderer. He couldn't help me with the tire, due to an injured back, but he did loan me a pry-bar and a mallet, which proved essential to getting the stupid tire off the axle, and he did help with that prying, for which I was infinitely grateful.

So I got the tire changed and got back behind the wheel.

Something wasn't right.

"Turmoil? Mommy needs her glasses back." (A little backstory: Mommy needs the glasses to drive, you see, but didn't want to take a chance on damaging them while bouncing on the tire iron and, anyway, she can't use them for close-in tasks because the damned diabetes is fracking with her vision and everything up close is blurry with the glasses on. So she gave the glasses to Turmoil with explicit instructions to take good care of them.)

"Your glasses?" Turmoil said. "Oh! Yeah! I put 'em in the trunk."

In. The. Trunk.

That would be the same trunk from which I had recently withdrawn two suitcases, four computer bags, and a spare tire. And into which I had just--in the dark--thrown in the same, but a real tire and not the spare.

I swallowed. "On top of everything... right?"

"No. It was empty."

Damn damn DAMN.

I threw myself out of the car, fished around. No glasses. Unloaded everything AGAIN and there they were. Right under the tire. Fortunately the glass didn't come out so I was able to manhandle the frame back into a semblance of its former self.

As I dropped back into the driver's seat, Turmoil said, "That man with the tire thing was great. He's my new hero."

Chaos said, "Shut up!"

And this time, I agreed.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

On Father's Day

My brother once said, "Let's face it. My dad was a scalawag."

Truer words have never been spoken. I, myself, would have said 'scallywag' but that's a choice of personal style.

We rarely saw Daddy and, when we did, pretty much everything was about him.

Did that mean we didn't love him? No. It mostly just meant every hope we ever had was tinged with the fear of disappointment. In those all-important formative years, my mind generalized his lack of dependability, causing it to color all my experiences.

I'm all grown up now. Master of my little domain. And still afraid to genuinely, truly, with all my heart, put my faith in anyone.

The most difficult times for me are the ones when I fear I've let down my children.

My husband didn't always understand that. He does now... at least, a little bit.

He used to be a scallywag. How did I let myself end up with one of those? I'm not really sure. Maybe I subconsciously thought it was the best I could do. And at least, when you know they're scallywags from the get-go, you don't get disappointed. There are all kinds of scientific studies on why girls with bad fathers grow up to be women with bad husbands, so my behavior at least can be statistically explained.

We've been married more than a decade now and something amazing happened along the way. My husband developed qualities I never thought I'd see in him.

Here's the truth, as difficult as it is for me to comprehend, much less outwardly express: The man is not a scallywag.

He can drive me crazy as few other people ever could. On any given day, he'll get on my nerves a half-dozen times. But, even as I grit my teeth, I know he's only getting on my nerves because he's there to do it.

When it comes to our children, he made the internal commitment, at some point along the way, to be engaged. And he's kept that commitment.

He's been there for last-minute white-shirt-needed-before-tonight's-chorus-concert excursions. He's frequently hunted and gathered at the grocery store and thrown together something edible and, occasionally, even tasty. He's done laundry. He doesn't hang or fold, so it all ends up wrinkly, but at least it's clean. He's hugged away tears and doctored scraped knees. He's taken little ones to school and gotten them home. He's sat through parent-teacher conferences and doctor appointments and sometimes even evidenced good sense. He's built a 3D topographical map of the state and got a B on it. He's played Simon during our American Idol rounds on long car drives. He's thrown steaks on the grill and lunch money into backpacks. He's dug holes so the children could bury beloved pets.

Granted, he's sometimes slow to act. He waits to see if I'll get there first. And he punctuates most of his activities with words I'd prefer the children not mimic. But, all in all, he's not so bad. And he could be much, much worse.

When my children look back on their shared childhood, he will be as much a part of their memories as I will. Because he cares enough to be there.

I'm doing what I can to ensure he has a good Father's Day. But he won't be expecting too much. Because he knows what all good fathers have figured out. Every day is Children's Day.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Summer's Song

The start of summer always brings a lot of excitement around our house as we look forward to all the things we hope to do together. If this year's like others, we'll get around to most of them. Some, though, likely will be forgotten, overridden by events, or deemed impossible.

Even as summer begins, I feel a sense of melancholy. I know how fleeting the season will be, how little time we have before cold weather returns. But then, it's likely the knowledge that it won't last that makes it so very precious.

I wrote the words below as last summer ended. I'm posting them below as a reminder to myself to make the most of what we have.


Summer's Song

The summer sky seems endless
But I know it isn’t true.
The cold will soon be on us
And I’ll say goodbye to you.

If I could, I’d stop the time,
And summer wouldn’t die.
And we would play together
‘Neath that endless summer sky.

Summer’s song runs through my mind.
It wants me in my dreams.
But when I see the sunrise,
It’s all cracking at the seams.

I feel so lost and friendless
But I know it isn’t true.
The cold can’t come between us
If I keep my thoughts on you.

If I could, and I stopped time,
And summer wouldn’t die.
We wouldn’t stay together
‘Neath that empty summer sky.

Summer’s song runs through my mind.
It taunts me in my dreams.
But when I see the sunset,
It’s all cracking at the seams.

The summer sky seems endless
But I know it isn’t true.
Before the cold’s upon us
I will say goodbye to you.

Spring would never come for us
If summer didn’t die.
I long to play together
‘Neath the dawning summer sky.

Summer’s song runs through my mind.
It haunts me in my dreams.
But when I see the sunset,
It’s all cracking at the seams.

If I could, I’d move up time,
Not watch this summer die.
For we will play together
‘Neath next summer’s perfect sky.

Summer’s song runs through my mind.
It haunts me in my dreams.
But when I watch the sunset,
How much prettier it seems.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Connected... but not

I attended a high school graduation ceremony last night (Congratulations, Jon!).

Watching all the kids saying their goodbyes, I was reminded of how different the world is from how it was when I graduated in the Dark Ages.

Back then, we meant it when we said, "Goodbye." We had house-phone numbers and physical addresses for the people who mattered most but, aside from them, the only chance we'd have of catching up with classmates was to run into them at the grocery store or something. If we called someone and he or she wasn't home, we didn't get to talk.

Even as kids left the ceremony last night with their families and friends, a great many were on their phones, sharing the night's excitement with the people on the other ends of the connections.

With cell phones and social media sites, kids of today don't really have to make much of an effort to stay in touch. Everyone's just... there. A few clicks away.

But are they really there?

In some ways, I think we had it better in the old days. When we did get around to engaging with someone, we really engaged.

Text messages and social media sites work great as supplemental forms of communication for people who see each other often. Social media sites also are great for strangers who've met rarely, if at all, and who first come to know each other through those sites.

I'm not so sure of their value when it comes to maintaining contact with people we used to know.

For people who want to keep the friendships, the new media can be an in-your-face reminder that friends have moved on. And for the friends moving on, the new media can prompt daily guilt pangs. They see their old friends right there in their lists but maybe lack the time or the inclination to talk to them. And some people are so wrapped up in maintaining their virtual lives that they don't have time for real ones.

When I was young, my world was small, but that made it easier to find my place within it. I didn't really have to worry that a clumsy or otherwise embarrassing moment would be captured for all posterity. I felt free to take chances, to try and to fail. People weren't as cruel, back then, as they are now. The rudeness that began with anonymous internet posting and evolved to by-name flame wars online has shattered the boundaries of acceptable treatment of others in the real world.

I can't help but wonder about the effects the Technological Revolution will have on today's kids as they mature and take their places in society. And what will the ripple effects mean for society?

I feel, in some ways, quality of communication has been sacrificed for quantity. Privacy has been slashed to pieces in the interest of sharing.

People scream their lives for the world to see. But, given that everybody's screaming, is anybody really listening? Are we paying attention in ways that can make a difference?

We learn what someone's dog ate for lunch. We read about the guy who cut someone off in traffic. We see pictures of shoes that are just so adorable to people we're never going to see wearing them.

I get frustrated with myself because I read the inane things people blast. It's disgusting to me that, with all the things I need to get done, I'm scrolling through screens and screens of NOTHING. But if I go online, I need to look for things that might be important. Because, if I don't, my friends there will know I came on and talked to other people but not them. And that might hurt their feelings. Especially if they posted something that really mattered.

And when I finally do get to posts about SOMETHING, I'm often sorry they're there.

We find out somebody's spouse or boss is a jerk. That kind of post can make a real difference... but usually not in a good way.

We find out someone's having health or financial problems and we don't know what to type. In the real world, we wouldn't need words. But when words are all we have, we desperately want to get them right. And, all too often, we fail.

The posts that most trouble me are the ones by parents publicly complaining about their kids. A lot of those kids have accounts and, even if they don't, they probably will at some point... and their friends and enemies might already. Nothing on the internet can be trusted to go away. How betrayed are children going to feel when they see proof of what their parents once said about them, for all the world to see?

And, of course, there's always the possibility that something meant for a select few gets blasted to the world. That kind of thing doesn't happen when you engage personally. You know who's at the table with you.

Once bitten, twice shy, they say. As people get burned with the public revelations, they become more careful. They take their private issues back to private places. The result is that, over time, the percentage of inanity goes up and up and up.

I think the free-for-all internet's days are numbered. Over time, people will increasingly find better things to do with their time than read about nothing. I think the mega-sites will increasingly have to cater to the true public interest and offer more possibilities for people to create small, private circles made up of people who have the same interests and who can trust each other to care when they really have something to say. At least, I hope so.

I long for the good old days, when being connected to someone really meant something.