Friday, July 6, 2012

Flying Squirrels

Squirrels. No introduction needed. We all have a story about them, right?

Here is Eddie Izzard's take on squirrels.

They really are smart animals, though. They can learn from human interactions and adjust their behavior accordingly. A friend just told me about a university she attended that had a "No Squirrel Harassing" policy. If you were caught shoeing, throwing stones at or otherwise tantalizing a squirrel, you could be hit with a $250 fine. "And those squirrels had a 'tude about it!"

Growing up, I didn't have a problem with squirrels. My dad said they were a nuisance, but I found them fascinating. I would sit at the dining room table pretending to do my homework and watch red squirrels race each other through the majestic pines that stood at the edge of the lawn. They reminded me of acrobats who didn't need a net. They were sure-footed artists that defied the laws gravity. They flew through the branches at break-neck speeds and screeched to a stop at the end of a tree branch with nowhere to go. Every once in a while a squirrel would lose her foot and slip off the branch. She never fell, though. She would hang on with one tiny foot and scramble back onto the branch. Did she learn her lesson? Did she slow down on sharp corners?

Never. "I'm an effin' squirrel!" she'd scream in delight.

I think have felt that speed and freedom before. Of course, it wasn't on my own power I flew threw the air, but it doesn't really matter in the end. I was in my uncle's Cessna plane. He took us for a ride. In a craft that small, it feels like there's nothing between you and the sky. There is, thankfully, but not much. Chris gave me control and said "Let 'er rip!"

Imagine with me: A little boy who has always been intrigued with flying crafts, creatures and objects. A boy who would watch movies about planes and birds and high peaks just so he could get a sense of what it would be like to glide through the air like Superman. A boy who would draw pictures and make up stories about being miles above the Earths surface, plummeting to his death to be saved at the last possible moment by his parachute. Imagine that little boy controlling the plane that you are sitting in the back seat of.

That's right. My (now) wife and little sister were in the back seat as Chris said those fateful words. I'm sure something sparked in my eyes because the next thing they knew, we were shooting straight towards the ground. Think of the first crest of a roller coaster, but no rollers. And a lot higher. The cameras in their laps were now floating in front of their faces. We were no longer sitting in our chairs, but were being clenched down to them by our seat belts. The girls were screaming, but not from terror. I was laughing my fool head off. Oh, the childhood fantasies being fulfilled in these few moments.

I finally pulled up, and the engine died. For about two seconds. We flew around a bit more and Chris took us in for the landing.

And that's what squirrels make me think about.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Greek Baseball

I spent a week in Greece with three friends. While there, we rented bikes so we could get around to the different hot spots on the tiny island. Since we were very clever world travelers, we decided to rent 3 regular bikes, and one tricycle with a large basket in the back so we could transport groceries and day bags and cameras and the like. A novel idea indeed.

The trike was red. Bright red. The basket was white, and there was a horn. The big brass horn with a black bubble to honk it with. It sounded like a horn you would expect to hear if you tweaked a clown's nose. It was a beast to get up hills. Sometimes I thought the pedals were working against me just to have a laugh at my expense. I would work and push and grunt and finally get to the crest of the hill thinking my salvation would be there, and the chain would fall off. By the time I got back on the bike after fixing the chain and coasted down the hill, the sweet reward for my work had already passed.

On our small island of Tinos, there was a big beautiful Greek Orthodox church. White-washed with bright blue trim. The grounds were like a maze and each nook had a different aura of holiness to it. There were prayer rooms which looked like no more than closets carved into the wall with a curtain hanging for privacy and an icon for the devotee to focus on. There was a corner away from the sanctuary that held the cemetary. It was a small plot, and the bodies were only allowed anywhere from 20-50 years to rest, at which point the bones would be stored in a box in a warehouse to make room for fresh bodies to lay for a while.

There was also a path that we noticed while biking to the church. It was carpeted and it led from the harbor to the church. We were unsure what it was for until we stood on the roof of the church surveying the city. From that point we could see the entire path running from the church to where a ferry recently dropped off a group of pilgrims. They were slowly making their way to the church on their hands and knees, praying with their rosaries. The demographics were startling.

There was a man in his mid-thirties who looked as if he was at the end of his rope. If this pilgrimage didn't bring him to God, nothing else would. He had searched for so long the path leading to God. If he couldn't find God at the end of this road, there must not be a God for any road to lead to.

There was an elderly lady. She took a lot of breaks on her way up the hill. She rubbed knots out of her knees and prayed continuously while she worked through the pain of crawling through a city. Her face glowed. She loved her God and this journey was her last gift she could offer him before her body wouldn't allow anything else. Perhaps she didn't realise that her whole life was a reflection of devotion and discipline that she was demonstrating on the meager path.

There were about fifteen other people in the group. They didn't speak to one another. They kept their heads down. Their rosaries running through their fingers with a new fervor as they approached their destination. My band of rugged travelers were on a bit of a pilgrimage ourselves, but none of us dreamt of crawling through a city to a church.

As we wandered through the grounds, we found the sanctuary. It was a large room with walls of plaster. Through the doors we could see the wooden pews and flaming candles everywhere there was a ledge large enough to support the wick. The benches were filled with the faithful, praying to the saints. Everyone was dressed so well that we decided it would be disrespectful to enter in our shorts and t-shirts. We went back to our bicycles.

When we first rented the bikes, we decided that we would ride on a first-come-first-serve basis which meant, "the slow poke gets the trike, sucker." After an afternoon of strolling through a lovely church and seeing the pilgrims making their way up the path, I was lost in thought and taking my time getting to the bikes. I looked up to see my three friends with snarky grins sitting on the bikes, and a big red tricycle staring at me with pouty eyes begging me to love her.

Ugh. You've got to be kidding me.

It didn't help that I was wearing a baseball cap with a brim that rivaled the cowboy hats of the west. I was also wearing a 3/4-length t-shirt with blue sleeves that could have been mistaken for a baseball jersey. I was tired. Maybe a little crabby. I had the face of an angsty teenager who didn't want to ride to the store to pick up groceries for his mom after baseball practice. And as we turned the corner, a priest and his cigarette were confronted with that picture. I fought with my trike to get through the intersection, and when my back was turned to him, I heard him burst out in laughter.

I can still hear you, buddy. You're not inconspicuous.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Those Magnificent Kids and Their Flying Machines

Children are most interesting to watch when they think adults can't see them.

I was watching a little boy at a church picnic who had wandered away from his parents. He was close enough to be within eyesight, but far enough for him to think his parents were too engrossed with their conversation to pay him any mind.

Then began an intriguing game involving ants and blades of grass. Almost immediately his hands and knees were muddy and his shirt had streaks of dirt across the front. He would get the ants to climb up his blade of grass or stick or pine cone or whatever else he could coax them with, and lift them high into the air. At this point, things would get really interesting.

I'm sure you've heard a boy make sound effects. It's an instinct wired into our brains at conception. It probably stems from our cavemen ancestors who couldn't use words and we never evolved out of it. The little boy made sound effects like a pro while making the ants fly around. Each object he was carrying them with came with a new sound. From my untrained ears, I thought I heard a WWII fighter plane complete with firing guns, a bird (probably a raven), and what sounded like an ant (coming from the boy's voice) on a hang glider screaming for precious life itself "Ah! Help! The straps are coming loose and I'm slipping out of the harness!" I may be paraphrasing.

For several minutes, he would pick up his ant and dance around the lawn until the ant fell off its aircraft, or the boy would drop the pine cone and the ant scamper off. Then he would chase it until he lost sight of it, or squished it. At which point the game would start over with a new playmate.

When, during the growing up process, does one stop being fascinated with grass, dirt and bugs? It seems a terrible price to pay for maturing. Playtime goes the way of the buffalo.

I was engaged in conversation for the next part of my story, but when I returned my observations to the boy, he was no longer playing by himself. There were two more children dancing in the grass with him, but they were not terrorizing ants anymore. A little girl had a doll with her and another boy had a truck and an airplane. Some kids don't share very well, but these kids did. I wonder if their parents didn't suggest they bring an extra toy to play with the boy with the stained shirt.

The original boy eyed the airplane and sheepishly asked to play with it. Another interesting thing about children: they don't always ask each other with words. His blue eyes got big. He walked up to the boy holding the toy. He waddled a little with his hips and looked at the other boy expectantly. The other boy handed the plane to him and his lips cracked into the biggest smile only a child can give. He jumped a bit and started running around in circles making more engine and gun noises.

I was tempted to go join in when they sat down with the toys. I couldn't hear what the plane was saying to the doll from where I was sitting, but I'm sure it was significantly more interesting than the dull grown-up conversation I was having.