I recently attended a winter camp in South Florida, way way out in the west of Palm Beach County, past the city, past the towns, past the paved roads and into the Everglades. A weeklong retreat sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Association, it is called SWIM – Southern Winter Institute in Miami. Of course, this wasn’t in Miami but why let a fact get in the way of totally great acronym.
At the check-in table, I was greeted by a pirate who insisted he take my picture. In full plundering regalia of a tricorner hat, shirt open to the waist, short balloon pants and a lower limb that would have been perfect as one of four legs of a pine dining table, he appeared complete. With the exception of a missing parrot, he was the archetypal buccaneer. I will be honest here, my first reaction was “Holy Crap, that’s a real peg leg,” as I could not figure how he would fake something so realistic.
He wanted to take my photograph and gave me a half sheet of paper to put my name on. I did what he asked because, after all, he was a pirate, and was missing a leg and, more importantly, his parrot, so he was probably surly as well. I wanted to ask him if he was a Pastafarian.
I printed as carefully as possible (which means it was barely legible as he read, in a faint southern accent) “Yo Yo Ma. Because there is always room for Cello.” He looked up at me, slowly. My real name, he insisted, with what seemed a bit of quiet, fatigued humor. I gave in and, after lending my visage to the camera, went to set up camp. I’d be here for a week.
There were workshops and dances and games, evening community meetings, night-time coffeehouses and two in the morning kickball games and cookouts and it is not now my intent to report all that transpired within that week at this Pagan Holiday meets Geek Central. As I packed for my trip, it was my intent and I took my computer with me to do so but the plan fell to pieces because, frankly, I was enjoying myself far too much to step out of life and write about what I could instead be doing. I took notes and, now that things are boring again, I will relive the highlights only and you may, if you like, do so with me.
In truth, much the same thing happened day after day, games, dances, music, meals, so why write about them again and again. There was that peculiar joy of not being able to tell what day it was, not needing to keep track of the date and so, at completion, in memory, I am left with a soft-focused, diffuse feeling of enjoyment and delight over the entire week and need not attribute it to any particular time, episode, day or series of events. Joy ran into joy into joy.
I was there with my Lee, son (Alek), my dear friend Valerie and many people I had not seen in a year or more and others from as far away as the distant edge of the farthest island off the coast of British Columbia. From Wales and France and across the United States. All among the frogs and gators and our one drydocked pirate.
* * * * * * * *
Pop Psychology or My Life as a Made for TV Movie
It was nine-thirty in the morning and I was in the mood for some self-improvement. Lee had, after breakfast, gone off for a bit of a walk with her new buddy from the far side of a large island off the west coast of Northern Canada. But, in order for my self improvement to be fully appreciated, I needed my dear wife to be there and experience it, improving right along with me. So I walked off to look for her.
It was quarter to ten, hunting here and there, before finally finding Lee, She didn’t look ready to go to a workshop, lying, as she was, naked, on her stomach, in the sun, making a careful survey, with Jennifer’s assistance, of precisely how differently massage therapists from B.C practice as opposed to their Florida counterparts. She appeared to be deep into her study.
“Lee, do you want to go to a workshop with me?”
I know she heard me because, knowing she was concentrating, I knelt next to her, speaking loudly and slowly.
“Go away.” I know this is what she said, though it sounded very much like a mix of mumbling and cursing, but after twenty-five years, one learns. However, just in case, I asked, “Are you sure?”
Her next response was much more clear but I heal quickly. Off to the workshop. But, knowing how much more fun such things are with a buddy, I set off find Valerie first. Finding Valerie lying about naked isn’t terribly uncommon, but hopefully, not all of my friends were prone in the sun.
We spent a while, Valerie and I, looking for this class. It was called “Poncho’s Never-ending Workshop” and we had no clear idea what it was about. That was why we wanted to take it.
It was supposed to take place at the fire circle on the island. The island was maybe one hundred feet across and in the middle of a small lake surrounded by alligators and turtles, wiregrass and victoria lilies. One walked to the island by means of a three hundred and seven foot wooden walking bridge. (I paced it. I thought you should know.) It was empty.
We found others walking, seemingly searching, on our way back. Another workshop hopeful suggested the name be changed to “Poncho’s Never-beginning Workshop.” We walked and searched, hand shielding eyes against the ten in the morning sun.
We checked everywhere and finally found it, after long search, starting late on, of course, the island. We took a seat in the innermost row of three circles of long benches.
Once there, we were asked to tell everyone our name, loudly, clearly and then, applaud. We would all clap just because we were who we were. I, among the thirty-two people there (I counted them. I thought you should know.) spoke more than my name when my time came.
“Please don’t clap for me.”
“I didn’t do anything. I was born and I haven’t died. Neither one of these things is an achievement.”
People grumbled about attitude, how I should feel deserving, how I should do as the facilitator said.
“If I have done anything, it is that I am doing something different right now than the rest of you.”
Applause. I can’t win.
The facilitator, Poncho, told us we were going to learn to discover our fears and design our lives by what we discover. We were going to start by being honest. Poncho went on to tell us how nervous he was, how he hated speaking in front of groups. Even small groups like this. He was sweating and worried he wouldn’t do well even though he had done this many times and told us we should all strive, today, in this class, to be as honest as we knew to be. Applause.
I raised my hand, was acknowledged by Poncho, and looked at the mass of pop-psychonaughts. “I just want to point out that when Poncho was honest, you applauded. When I was honest, you grumbled and, and, I just want to point that out.”
I’m use to being stared at.
We were given a choice of “A Scary Movie of My Life” and “A Million Dollar Movie.” Each was a form with blanks to be filled in; a self-discovery Mad-Lib a full page long and we had, in pairs, five minutes each to complete these with one person reading the words and writing-in the dictated blank-fillers as the other person responded to the prompts. Once filled in, they would read like a 1950’s B movie trailer. I chose the scary one.
After it was handed to me, I nearly immediately changed my mind. Don’t I spend enough time thinking about all the myriad worst-case scenarios of my life? Not this time. Let me at that Million Dollar Movie!
We started work, Valerie and I, and were immediately shushed. This is because we were immediately laughing like a pair of weasel escapees from Toontown. Mad-Libs are supposed to be funny, right? We just couldn’t help it. Five minutes passed and we had barely begun. Time to switch. Five more minutes passed and we were supposed to be done with both and start reading them, one by one, to the thunderous power-clapping of the group. We listened to one or two and then, quietly rose and left, back over the bridge, our million dollar movies in hand.
Anyone know an agent?
* * * * * * * *
Sadam at the Head Bangers Ball
A week had passed since having my mugshot taken by a pirate and in that week I learned to dance. I don’t mean I became good at it. Certainly that is not the case at all.
I was asked to take a salsa class. I must have misheard but cannot now recall what I must have thought I was asked. It must have sounded quite a bit like salsa class but, surely, if I had heard correctly, I’d never have said yes.
Salsa is a violent sport. The way it was taught, the guy is in charge and he decides everything while the woman’s job is to make him look good. Salsa is the dance of misogyny.
Our teacher would pull and flip his partner, stating if he wants her head here, pointing to one side of him, he just shoves it there and it is her job to follow it through, though, in this case, it resulted in a very confused and rather “you must be kidding” stare from the quite taller than he, willowy lesbian he had chosen as his demonstration partner. I suspected, after having her head shoved sideways under his arm to change her position from in front of him to behind, she would need a chiropractor.
My partner was Valerie. She is a professional dancer. I didn’t know where my feet were at any given moment and happily let her lead.
The speed was ferocious but Val danced with me at half pace so I could attempt to keep up. She didn’t know how to Salsa and was learning as I was. Our teacher would come over to show us a step and she would immediately understand, nod, execute. I would wonder what he had just done and, if I recall, at the height of my frustration, began to pogo to a Tito Fuentes number.
Two classes of this and I begged out. Two more to go. No, please. No.
But there was contra dancing and I can contra, after a fashion. Turnabout seemed awfully fair and I asked Valerie to be my partner. She wanted to know if contra dancing is done to gunfire and ordnanced insurgency. Yes, I told her. Yes.
A gentleman wandered the hall from front to back. We had all been asked to form groups of four, two ladies and two gents, and put those groups in a line. This fellow, Sid, joined a group, left a group, joined the next, left it, in order from farthest to closest, appearing to be doing the contra equivalent of the moonwalk until he came to us and we were but three. What good fortune had befallen us?
A short introduction was given after a brief stroke on the fiddle. Here are the moves, we were told. Here is what they look like, we were shown. We copied what we saw. I didn’t do too badly. Poor Val. I had never seen her confused on a dance floor. But Sid did his best to help.
As the live music played a tune appropriate for the buckboards, Sid started to yell. He ordered her where to go, how to move and, to all appearances, he did not quite have the apparent command of the dance to carry such authority. Then, and this was not a dance move, he grabbed her arm and relocated her in a way hat was abrupt, at best and designed to move her to a designated spot. I thought, hey, it’s the Salsa again.
That was it. In the middle of a practice dance, through the music, Valerie stopped cold, looked at Sid, stared though Sid, and he became smaller and smaller as she told him just what would happen to him if he touched her again in a way that had nothing to do with dancing, that she was a professional learning a new set of steps and for goodnesssakes, she couldn’t believe he actually wore a pen-filled pocket protector to a dance!
The music continued but the dancing did not until Val had finished diminishing and emasculating her ever-shrinking partner. Then the music ended, started again and we were dancing, dancing, dancing, in and out and around and weaving with swings, promenades, dos-à-dos, allemandes and for two hours Sid behaved like a gentlemen, mechanical pencils clicking in time to the music.
The next day it was the talk of the camp. Someone had put Sid in his place. It was about time. It was about time. She was congratulated, thanked and, graciously, Val was the model of civility to Sid regardless the entire rest off the camp. But that they would hit the dance-floor together again was doubtful.
The next night was New Years Eve. “You are going to dance with me,” Valerie told me. What could I do but go to my wife. “Your’re going to dance with me.” I saw her face. “Right?”
“We’ll see,” she told me. I know what this means. If she is comfortable. If the people there are friendly. If she doesn’t feel claustrophobic. Lee hasn’t danced with me in years and I know it has nothing to do with me. We had not found a place she felt comfortable. But she had been comfortable there and I had high hopes.
But just in case, I did my best to find a way out. I told Valerie I’d happily dance if they play the music I like. I had seen the play list on the computer during a surreptitious glance and the mp3s were one after another hip-hop, rap, oldies, disco. I was safe. Away went the fear I’d have to dance. Away went the panic of the thought of being on the dancefloor, having to actually do something coordinated with this body as people watched. Away went my certainty I would look a total fool. I could ask for my favorite numbers and they’d never come up. I could make DJ requests ‘till the cows came dancing home and the cows would be dancing without me. So would Val.
“I’ll dance if they have ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper.’ And, ‘What I like about You.’ I’d dance to that. I’ll go request them.”
The dance was due to start within the hour. I walked up to the DJ. I made my requests and he said he’d see what he could do. I went a step further and asked if he’d play The Eagles’ “Get over It.” I offered to supply it as it was sitting on a flashdrive in my pocket. I knew it wouldn’t fit, would never be played and but would certainly demonstrate my sincere effort. I tried.
Why did I have a flashdrive in my pocket? The gods work in strange ways. “Sure I’ll take that.” I handed him the drive and he popped it in. He asked if he could look through the music and I, of course, told him it was fine. There is quite a bit of music but also books and documentaries and such and I’m sure there is nothing you’d be interested in but. “Fraggle Rock! Man, I can’t believe it. Can I take that?”
“I want to play the theme from Fraggle Rock. And here is your Eagles song. Oh, and look at this. Some bluegrass. Hey, thanks. I was looking to mix up the music some.”
Ten in the evening came and the music started in the hall that was crowded but not compressed. I had spent the week with these people and I was not as nervous as I had anticipated. Dancers filled the floor moving to a tune I did not recognize and had no desire to dance to. Loud with bass for no reason other than bass. Bass supporting nothing above it; a foundation with no building. I so very much dislike, boom boom music but, this time, I loved it. It meant I’d be safe. There is no way my requests would be played.
Suddenly, The Romantics pumped from the speakers. “What I like about you…” and I was pulled from my seat, lead by my arm, out to the floor and was wondering where my feet were as, certainly, they must be behind me somewhere, back at my seat, astounded to find themselves behind the action, at the wrong end of the chain of command. I was on the dancefloor with Valerie.
And having no idea what to do, I just started jumping up and down.
And looking to my left, Val was doing the same.
And looking to my right, my dear wife, dancing beside me. I nearly faltered in my disbelief. My wife, dancing. Dancing with me. I was flabbergasted. I was amazed. I was delighted and smiling larger than I can remember in an awfully long time. And, to my further joy, so was she.
Then the song ended and the next began but why sit down? Song after song and then, “Get over It” by The Eagles and what was there to do but headbang?
Apparently it was the right choice and we were all headbanging. My son’s friends came over to join us. All of his friends. Not my son, of course. Not Alek. I’m sure he’d rather have had his toenails pulled off.
Later than evening, Alek, quietly, when his friends weren’t looking (so he believed) walked over during a slow song and danced with Lee. One minute. Maybe two and there was that wonderful, rare, expansive smile again on Lee’s beautiful face as Alek spoke though his own smile, “There, are you happy now?” And she was. Quite.
“Don’t Fear the Reaper,” another request, made sure I had no excuse to sit. More headbanging. Then, suddenly, we were all in a line dancing the in the most appropriate way for anthem of nihilism – the hora. It seemed quite the right thing to do; to hora to Blue Oyster Cult. It still does.
I sat down when Michael Jackson was playing. I needed the break and it was now a little past eleven. People were dancing to “Thriller” and, it seemed, all doing the same dance as if choreographed. I was told latter, by Valerie, of course, this was the dance from the video. I had an idea.
“If I could get them to play ‘Godzilla’ by Blue Oyster Cult we could dance the same thing nearly. We could stomp Tokyo with our claws in the air.”
“Do you want me to request it?”
“No, please. No. I’m afraid he’ll have it ready to go.”
Headbanging again. “The Twilight Zone.” Lee, Valerie and I, and then a yelp and Lee was holding a thumb front of my eye.
“You hurt me.” But she was, incongruously, laughing.
I felt terrible and apologized. She laughed at her unlikely injury, told me she would show it to everyone though no-one would accept her story because who would believe I was dancing. And already it was swollen, turned black and blue. And she laughed even more.
A Salsa. I went to sit thinking Lee and I would take a breather. I turned to find myself, amazed, alone and, on the dance-floor, Lee, my Lee, in the midst of a meringue and I didn’t know, after twenty-five years together, I didn’t know she could salsa. How wonderful it is that I can learn new things about a woman I have spent so long with. What a joy.
Sid had approached Valerie. She was surprised and it showed, albeit briefly, as he asked her, as politely as anyone could ask, for her to dance. And, to her credit, she gave him his second chance and said yes. Off they went, dancing as the next song started and I rejoined my wife in the crowd.
It was nearing midnight. Another fast song and we bounced some more; up and down to a shred so fast I could barely keep up and on the wall a newspaper front page had been clipped and on it a half-page spread picture of Saddam Hussein hanging from a rope, lolling tongue and limp.
I froze. Instantly. I had not seen a newspaper in a week. I did not know this was to occur. Perhaps the person who posted it thought it right. Perhaps he or she thought it a service that we should be kept abreast of events. Perhaps he or she thought it appropriate for a double celebration; New Years and a hanging.
The music had stopped. A hand tapped me on the shoulder and gave me champagne. Lee. And that same hand clasped my free hand, led me away as the countdown started at ten.
* * * * * * * *
Broadway Name that Tune
I was the last morning and the last workshop before we were due to fill our packs, sweep the cabins and head back to everyday life in this first day of the new year and an unlikely workshop it was under any circumstances but especially for a retreat designed to revive the spirit and renew the soul. Broadway Name that Tune. Of course, I had to go. If I hadn’t, I’m sure Valerie would have wondered who had replaced her friend with a pod.
It was held in the spacious dining hall and three other workshops were there at the same time. One was by a life coach, another was a tarot workshop and a third was on Hinduism. We had one half of the dining hall which had all the tables, save ours, removed and the other half was being shared by the three other workshops. Down the center was drawn an accordion wall that did little to insulate for sound. You would be surprised how loud a tarot card can be.
It was facilitated by two supposed Broadway Musical experts and expert they certainly were. Kay and Tom created four sets of ten questions each. They would sing a line or two and we were to know the musical. If it was in a movie, we might be asked who sang it originally. I expected to bomb. If we knew the song, we’d all sing it. This made Broadway Name that Tune the slowest trivia game I had ever played.
I guessed with the most ridiculous responses. Yet, in the end my scrawling of “Oklahoma” and “Flower Drum Song” won me the first round. Even my guesses of “The Secret Policeman’s Ball,” “Ren and Stimpy” and “The Itchy and Scratchy Show” didn’t keep my dismal score from being significantly less dismal than the other six people. I had a better score than Val. That was a no-no.
The second round she and I were tied but overall I was still ahead by a few points. By the end of the third round she had learned to write smaller so I couldn’t read the answers on her paper.
Inexplicably, she was now winning.
By the end of the fourth round she was ahead by four points and was handed the prize. A perfect award for her: a compendium of Broadway tunes with music, words and history of the shows. She had won and it was time to stop competing and sing. Selection after selection from the book was sung with exclamations of I didn’t know this came from a musical from some one or two surprised participants prior to every other song.
Including “When You Walk Through a Storm.” Some showtunes show up in the strangest places. I knew this song was sung by the Lettermen and Gerry and the Pacemakers but I didn’t know it was from a show. When “Beautiful Dreamer” was sung, I pointed out it was featured in “Space 1999” when the aliens were putting Earthpeople to sleep in rather permanent ways. Many tunes, in fact, were used in science fiction movies and television. So when the question of what show “When You Walk Through a Storm” came from my answer was immediate.
“Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy BBC Mini-series. Eddie the Shipboard Computer sings it as two missiles from Magrathea are headed toward the ship. ‘We would like to assure you that the guided missiles currently converging with your ship are part of a special service we extend to all of our most enthusiastic clients, and the fully armed nuclear warheads are of course merely a courtesy detail. We look forward to your custom in future lives … thank you.’ And Eddie starts to sing and continues to until Arthur hits the Infinite improbability drive and one turns into a large sperm whale and the other a bowl of Petunias and all it wants to know…”
“It was sung in a sci-fi comedy by a computer.”
Kay responded with her head shaking, “I know better than to ask if you are kidding. But it actually came from “Carousel” by Rogers and Hammerstein” and she commenced to sing:
Walk on, through the wind,
Walk on, through the rain,
Though your dreams be tossed and blown.
We all joined in.
Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart,
And you’ll never walk alone,
And the boys ran in. Two, including the pirate fellow. Boys, men, in their thirties or forties. Of course, over the last few days I had spent much time with Charlie and never a peg was in sight. He was chased into the room by Joshua. Up went Charlie held around the middle by Joshua, down went Charlie to the floor held around the middle by Joshua. Face toward the floor, hands on the floor, knees on the floor, and Joshua, holding him down unsteadily with one arm, reached under his dungaree hem for Charlie’s right ankle with the other and pulled. He pulled as Charlie struggled, laughed, struggled. Both laugh and we watched.
And his leg grew longer. As Joshua pulled, Charlie’s leg stretched, slowly, an inch, two, slowly, slowly, then, all at once, it simply pulled out of his pants and we gasped, song stopped dead, and Joshua got up and ran off with three legs as an arisen Charlie hoped after him with one.
Just as many legs went out as came in but not with the same people.
Mary Ann walked by, Charlie’s Mom, Coordinator for the camp, and said as she passed, as though it was commonly known, “They’ve been doing that since they we were ten.” She kept on walking. My mouth was, I am sure, still open because I know Valerie’s was. So were several others.
And I can’t remember what we sang after that.