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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Trying to Escape a "Frozen" World

I'm hoping by summer, we'll have escaped all things "Frozen."
Although my family is arriving appallingly late to the “Frozen” scene, we seem to be making up for lost time at an exponential rate.

Until recently, my 4-year-old daughter may have been one of the few children in the civilized world not to have seen the Disney blockbuster released in late 2013 to record box office sales that buried entire populations in a slush of “Elsa” and “Anna” products and clogged up airwaves—and people’s minds—with cloying hits from its soundtrack. Despite the theme song’s urging to “Let It Go,” people just didn’t seem to want to.

But for a long time, my family somehow managed to remain on the periphery of the “Frozen” mania.

During last winter’s frigid months, my then 7-year-old twins viewed segments of the movie during one of their slew of indoor recesses at Cynwyd Elementary School. With the playground and field buried under snowdrifts that kept piling up at record rates, the teachers, at their wits’ ends, understandably turned to Disney’s tale about the Snow Queen Elsa who traps her kingdom with an icy spell.

Georgia and Griffin, however, were generally done with all things cold by that point, and Disney’s depiction of a perpetual winter seemed to repel rather than attract them. My then 3-year-old had heard from nursery school friends that some scary trolls and a frightening snowman haunted the movie, and she refused my repeated offers to play it during one of our many housebound afternoons.

So when my friend, a transplant from Chicago, sent me a YouTube link to WGN morning news anchor Dan Ponce’s “Let It Go (Chicago)” parody last winter, I didn’t really get it—though I watched it anyway because he is cute and possibly, I thought, a budding musical comedy genius.

“You’ve never seen ‘Frozen’?” people demanded, horrified, all last year. Even my exterminator, when I asked him what that tune was that he was humming while re-baiting our rodent boxes (it happened to be, “Do You Want to Build a Snowman”) couldn’t quite grasp my ignorance.

“You mean you’ve really never seen that movie?” he asked, pausing with poison packet aloft. “My daughter won’t turn it off.”

But as the leaves started to drop and the air gained a chill, the “Frozen” tide began to turn for my family, at least for my 4-year-old, who suddenly became enamored with the movie’s princesses and began asking me to braid her hair like Elsa’s and tie our picnic blanket around her neck after nursery school to mimic the characters’ capes.

She attended a “Frozen”-themed birthday celebration, during which the resourceful mother helped costumed partygoers make snow out of cornstarch and hair conditioner, a messy enterprise that disgusted me and delighted the youngsters. The 4-and-5-year-olds took turns on a homemade wooden stage, parading their Elsa and Anna attire and signing “For the First Time in Forever” karaoke.

A teacher at Jane’s small preschool counted 17 Elsas at Halloween. And during our neighborhood trick-or-treating, three Elsas made the rounds with our coterie, two of them sisters in competing braided wigs.

Jane, having recently viewed “The Muppet Movie” from 1979, with its chubby credits and corny banter, was dressed as Miss Piggy. I am certain, however, that my daughter would have chosen to be Anna or Elsa, instead, had she not still been too afraid to watch “Frozen.”

So finally, come winter, Jane’s best friend from school, determined to cure her of her “Frozen” fear and deprivation, invited her over for a special playdate to see the movie. Jane’s friend held her hand during the scary parts.

And a few days later, I caught my 4-year-old eyeing a giant Elsa doll that was being raffled off at our neighborhood pharmacy.

“Wow!” Jane said. “Do you think that’s too expensive?”

“Yes!” I cried, thinking that the toddler-sized mannequin with its bulging eyes was also the stuff of nightmares.

“Can I at least get a ‘Frozen’ CD for Christmas?’” Jane asked, and I found myself picking up the disc from an impulse-buy bin near a checkout lane at the Wynnewood Giant.

Downloaded during the holidays to my laptop, the soundtrack has been streaming out of the tinny speakers and booming from our minivan stereo for months now, at Jane’s request, until neither her twin brother and sister, nor I, can take it any longer.

“Can you play ‘Frozen’?’” Jane asks nearly every afternoon.

“Nooooooo!” Georgia, 8, cries, fleeing upstairs to her “Frozen”-free room.

“I hate that song,” one of Jane’s preschool teachers recently confessed when she heard me singing “Let It Go” while shoving my daughter’s mittens and hat into her backpack.

“So do I!” I said. “But I can’t get it out of my head.”

And as if the recent cold snap wasn’t torturous enough—cooped up with my three kids and a severe case of cabin fever—I also repeatedly awoke in the wee hours to fret about frozen pipes and critters scuttling in our walls, only to hear “Love Is An Open Door” looping through my brain, chasing sleep farther and farther away.

That might be because Jane’s ballet class has been practicing its recital routine, choreographed to that song, for weeks now. I now know all of the admittedly catchy lyrics: “I mean it’s crazy… What? We finish each other’s- Sandwiches! That’s what I was going to say!” I will continue to have the pleasure of humming that tune while watching my 4-year-old dance deep into the warm heart of May.

By that point, I hope to be moving out of “Frozen” territory. But I fear I may not be so lucky, since Jane is now requesting a “Frozen” party for her 5th birthday in June.

“I want to dress up like Elsa and have a ‘Frozen’ cake,” she told me the other day. “And we can make snow in the yard!”

“We’ll see,” I said, hoping that maybe by then we will have managed to “Let It Go”—even if we’re more than a year late.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Holy Matters

I wondered if holy water would still be holy after it thawed.
I recently received some holy water—a gift I fear I may not have properly appreciated—and having left the jug on our porch to freeze, I have begun to suspect that I might be suffering the consequences of some kind of sacrilege.

“What’s with that bubbly water?” my 4-year-old daughter asked the other day when she spied the plastic jug and its solid contents still standing near our front door.
“Not bubbly water. Holy water.”
“Oh yeah,” Jane said. “Well, what’s with it?”

What was with it, indeed, I wondered while recounting to my daughter for the fifth time the story of how I wandered into the Bala Cynwyd Post Office more than a week ago to mail belated holiday cards and spotted a bearded man in Crocs heaving an unwieldy box atop the scale.

“What’s in there?” the clerk asked, eyeing what was apparently registering at an unusually cumbersome weight. “You know you can’t send liquid.”
“It’s five gallons of holy water,” the gentleman replied, unperturbed, even after her warning that his package might be returned and handing over more than $60 for postage.

I, myself, was feeling a bit pinched for cash of late, after paying an obscene sum to exterminators to fight a losing battle against flying squirrels inhabiting our 110-year-old house. Furthermore, we had just found out that the last-ditch hope we had to get rid of the critters was to tear up our deck, let the exterminator seal up any holes he might find underneath and then rebuild the structure. An $11,000 quote for the work had arrived via email that morning. And our twins had celebrated their 8th birthday five days before Christmas, the price tags for the presents still glaring up at me from my unpaid credit card bill.

These financial worries were impeding my festive spirit, which might account for my procrastination in sending out our holiday greetings. As I stood at a counter despondently stamping my envelopes, the man’s talk of “holy water” had an appealing ring. And so I offered to help him load his precious case onto a dolly the postal clerk had wheeled out in order to save her own back.

“Where do you get holy water around here?” I inquired, eliciting a intricate tale that I had trouble following, one that as far as I could make out, involved a priest in Sri Lanka, a well in Texas and a faithful group of distributors somewhere in the Overbrook section of Philadelphia. The gentleman added that he took the elixir for his kidney problems. But before I could ask any follow-up questions—such as why he was mailing gallons of it elsewhere—the fellow had bustled out to his car and in again, carrying a jug for me.

“You have to believe in something,” he said, hurrying back out before I, a longtime atheist, could utter sufficient thanks or ask exactly how I might use the mystical water.

“You never know what you’re going to get at the post office,” the clerk said.

Suddenly carried away with my good fortune, I excitedly texted a friend.

“Someone just gave me a gallon of holy water!”
“Save some for me!” she responded. “I could use some magical potion!”

And then, without further ceremony, I deposited my sacred cargo in my trunk and forgot about it until a few days later when I realized it was leaking all over my groceries. So I decided to leave the bottle on my front porch, not quite sure what else to do with it and feeling superstitious about throwing it away.

By then, circumstances at home had turned grimmer. The flying squirrels were keeping up their nighttime clamors inside our walls, while we were trying to figure out if we could remove sections of our deck without completely destroying it and still battling the exterminating company over payment for the unresolved situation.

My best friend in California was advising us to adopt some feral cats.

In the meantime, my 8-year-old son’s scalp had begun to itch so intensely that late Saturday evening I placed a panicked call to the Center for Lice Control after our pediatrician’s nurse had told me over the phone that he was most likely infested.

“I’m really scared!” Griffin wailed. “I don’t want bugs crawling on my head!”
“Stop being a baby!” his twin sister scolded, though she, too, was soon in tears when the woman from the center arrived and started picking through my children’s hair with her nit comb.

By some undeserved miracle, she declared us lice free, but Griffin still kept me up most of that night with his mysterious itching. And wrung out the following morning, I started to suspect that our trail of tribulations might have something to do with the frozen holy water on my front step.

I wondered whether holy water would still be holy after it had thawed, figuring I had nothing to lose by bringing in the jug and placing it in our kitchen sink. After all, it wouldn’t hurt to use it to anoint the roof and deck and possibly my son’s scalp.

And as I waited for it to return to its liquid form, I remembered that much graver problems plagued the world than flying squirrels and lice scares—silently sending out thanks to the anonymous man with failing kidneys, hoping that he had found succor in his holy waters—grateful for his generosity in sharing something he so cherished with me.

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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Shine Bright, Holiday Lights

It was standing room only at the Macy's holiday light show.
A friend recently charmed me with a tale about wrapping up her Center City work day at the Macy’s Christmas Light Show, tipping her weary gaze up toward the enormous sparkling tree, rolling into the waves of sound streaming from the historic Wanamaker organ.

Although I’ve lived in the Philadelphia area for nearly 15 years, I, myself, have never witnessed this spectacle of more than 34,000 lights that has been dazzling viewers for nearly half a century. Nor have I seen the Mummers. I get claustrophobic in crowds and still haven’t recovered from getting stuck, hungover, in the middle of the Puerto Rican Day Parade as I was trying to cross Manhattan one sultry summer morning in 1996.

Needless to say, these intolerances tend to inhibit my enjoyment of the holiday season, especially when compounded by the lack of daylight, conspicuous consumption and insurmountable ideals of family togetherness this time of year brings.

My husband has remarked to me during more than one December that if he were rich, he would buy me an island to inhabit. By myself.

This winter, however, I made an early New Year’s resolution to try harder to embrace the festive mood. And seduced by my friend’s tale of yuletide peace found at the foot of Macy’s glittering tree, I decided late Saturday afternoon that my husband and I should spirit our three children downtown to take in the famous light show and Wanamaker Organ concert.

“Great idea,” Jeff said, surprised by my sudden interest in holiday kitsch, noting that we had just enough time to catch a train from Narberth to Jefferson Station.

Blissfully ignorant about an extended delay and immune to the frigid wind, our kids cavorted on the platform, peering down the tracks to see if the 4:57 was arriving—though it was now well after 5 p.m.—and stopping my heart each time they danced too close to the edge.

“Stay behind the yellow line!” I couldn’t keep from hollering, relieved when the jam-packed train finally pulled in more than 15 minutes late. We only found enough seats together in a “quiet” car, but because it was a Saturday night so close to the holidays, our fellow passengers seemed in high spirits and maybe some of them a little bit drunk—at any rate forgiving of our children’s chirping.

“Are we going to be late?” it finally dawned on our 7-year-old son, Griffin, to ask.
“Are we going over a bridge?” his twin sister, Georgia, wanted to know.
“I can see myself in the window,” Jane, 4, observed. “Scooch me in closer!”

“Come on kids!” Jeff said, grabbing our twins’ hands when we reached Jefferson Station. “We’re gonna’ make it!”

I scooped up Jane, and we emerged from the stale underground air into the brisk night, charging up Market Street and swooping through Macy’s doors into the crowd.

“Where do we go for the light show?” I asked a security guard who gave me a puzzled look. He must have considered me a dimwit, unschooled in this holiday orgy to which he was forced to bear witness several times a day from Nov. 28 through Dec. 31. But he directed us up.

“The third floor’s my favorite spot,” he said.

I started to wonder if the guard was having a joke at my expense as we crushed onto the escalator behind hefty men, cranky wives, runny-nosed toddlers and pierced teenagers, only to stumble off straight into the women’s lingerie department.

Too late to turn back, we continued to thrust our way through the throng of expectant viewers and racks of bras and underwear, trying to get close enough to the balcony to catch sight of the lights.

“There it is, kids!” I exclaimed to my now drooping children, pointing to a ribbon of red bulbs atop the tree, just visible over the tangle of hats, elbows and hair, hoping that my forced enthusiasm would become infectious.

“These spots are taken,” a woman growled as I tried to nudge our kids closer.

We finally found a corner amongst other people’s parkas and double-strollers when the organ cranked up and an oversized Nutcracker and ballerinas started blinking in time to the music. And we could actually see some of this miracle of LED lights if we tipped our heads back really, really far.

“Wow!” I exclaimed.
“Awesome!” Jeff agreed.

Clearly, my husband and I were more dazzled than our children.

“Scoot in,” I told Georgia, pointing toward an opening at the balcony covered in a sheet of safety plastic.
“I don’t want to,” she said. “I’m too scared.”

I noticed that Jane was paying more attention to the nearby rows of Hello Kitty and Frozen underwear than she was to the spectacle glimmering above her.

“Can we go yet?” Griffin asked, resting his chin on his knee.

But I was not giving up. As reindeers and snowflakes flickered on and off, I inched forward to peer over the railing down at the Wanamaker Grand Organ and into a sea of mesmerized visitors sprawled across Macy’s main floor.

I had to carry Jane through the 17-minute shoving match back down the store’s now stalled three flights of escalator. We nearly lost Griffin in the fray and breathed a collective sigh of relief, and fresh air, once back out in the open on Market Street.

“I’d give it a five,” Griffin said, rating the experience only middling on his scale of one to 10.
“It was just to crowded and hectic for me,” Georgia added.
“I don’t want to go back,” Jane chimed in. “But can we still ride the trains?”

Instead of joining their chorus of complaints, much to my own surprise I realized that I had been bitten by the holiday bug. Next year, we would play it smarter. Next year, I decided we would return on a weekday afternoon and take in the four-story curtain of lights from the ground floor up—whether my kids liked it or not.

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Just Roll With It

This year we tried a new kind of family Turkey Bowl.
Having contracted a cold that our three kids had recently been battling, I felt even less enthusiastic than usual this Thanksgiving about an annual touch football game my husband had been playing in for more than 20 years.

This Turkey Day match typically stretched through the morning at the fields of a local high school and into the dimly lit afternoon at a Haverford Township bar—one that a Yahoo reviewer characterized as “a total dump full of no-accounts and drunks”—a dive where Jeff and his middle-aged buddies liked to swill cheap beer and recount the day’s highlights.

This year, I was afraid that my husband might be named the “Schwantago” for a third time, a dubious honor awarded to the least valuable player and accompanied by a Pepto-Bismol pink toilet seat to adorn the recipient’s mantle for the next 12 months. Plus, I was exhausted.

So Jeff agreed to hang up his cleats, at least for now. And instead of heading out to the chilly turf, we met some friends at Ardmore’s Wynnewood Lanes to begin what I hoped might become a new kind of Turkey Bowl tradition for our family.

I started to question my judgment, however, at about 5 o’clock Thanksgiving morning when our 4-year-old barged into our bedroom to tell me her throat hurt. I read Jane books until she fell back to sleep. Then I sat in our cold kitchen, soothing my own sore throat with tea and wondering how I was going to get turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes on the table, all hot at the same time, later that afternoon.

Popping two Extra Strength Tylenols, I hoped that our upcoming trip to Wynnewood Lanes, despite its sticky outer space-themed carpet and stale pizza stench, would buoy my spirits. And my optimism mounted as we climbed the frigid staircase into the bowling alley from the subterranean garage and heard Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” one of my husband’s favorite songs, piping over the sound system.

“How long have they been coming here on Thanksgiving?” I asked the potbellied proprietor, pointing to several lanes teeming with bowlers.

These motley revelers held Solo cups and hoagies and grooved to their own hired DJ’s jams in between strikes.

“Oh, at least 20 years,” the manager said as he handed us shoes—one of my pair missing its tongue—and directed us to the opposite side of the room.

Soon joined by two more families, bringing our total to eight kids ranging in age from under 2 to 7, we started raising our own kind of ruckus.

Squabbles erupted over a Mickey Mouse ball. The 22-month-old in our group guarded it with her thin arms in between frames. My husband and I and the other parents darted amongst the racks, offering various alternatives to our bowlers in an attempt to keep the Thanksgiving peace.

“How about an orange ball?” I asked Jane. “Or a pink one? Here’s pink!”

In the meantime, another diminutive member of our crew ducked into the next lane and stuffed a pumpkin muffin from a neighboring family’s tray into his mouth.

“It’s totally fine,” the mother responded, full of Thanksgiving spirit and the hot toddies I had jealously watched her consume.

She said that her group had been bowling here on Turkey Day ever since she was young. But before I could hear the rest of her story, my 7-year-old son interrupted to complain about his twin sister’s spares.

“Georgia’s cheering too much!” Griffin lamented.
“You gotta’ roll with it, bud,” I said. “Get it?”

My son, however, grasped neither my lame joke nor its message. And sensing a general downturn in the mood, I decided to whip out a handful of prize receipts a teenager had given me before her family left to feast.

But try as I might, I couldn’t get the outdated toy machine to suck in the crumpled tickets and regurgitate its cheap trinkets into the claws of our now howling brood. So I gave my husband the “giddyup” signal and started grabbing coats and hats.

“Come again next Thanksgiving!” the proprietor called after us as we trudged back to the minivan.

Once inside, I Purelled our kids’ hands and told them to change their socks as soon as we reached the house.

“I didn’t think bowling was supposed to be so stressful,” my husband said.

“Neither did I,” I agreed, deciding that maybe it wouldn't be so bad after all if Jeff came home a little drunk and late next Thanksgiving, lugging a pink toilet seat.

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