Monday, June 14, 2010

The Jammed Ketchup Bottle Move, and Other Graduation Memories. (Thinking The Lions)

The Boy graduated on Sunday -- the third, and latest, of the kids to do so -- and because the Babies! aren't yet four, that means that I've got 14 years to wonder whether, in the future, someone will come up with a way to make graduation speeches entertaining. Or at least come up with a way to get students to not mention how "just a blink of an eye ago we were freshmen coming into the building for the first time" but "now we're seniors making fun of those freshmen."

We all get it: time passes, and life goes on. Except for during graduation ceremonies, when time seems to come to a complete stoppage, suspended in the endless stream of "Dylans" and "Alisons" who walk across the stage, each trying to come up with something unique to do to commemorate the occasion and each settling on an identical combination of a slightly-embarrassed smile matched with a slightly-awkward walk, the uniform visages of graduates broken up only by the one guy at every graduation who pumps a fist in the air and smiles broadly, unaware that he will, years later, mimick this exact gesture, only then he'll be doing it to celebrate his promotion to shift manager at Arby's.

The cool guys in high school rarely end up being the cool guys in life... or so I told myself at my high school graduation, and at Oldest's graduation, and Middle's. By the time I got to The Boy's graduation, yesterday, I was no longer worrying about whether people who are cool in high school (as I was not) are still cool later on in life (as I so obviously am), because by the time I arrived at The Boy's graduation, I was faced with a much larger problem, that larger problem being the question of just how I was going to get pants on Mr Bunches.

Mr Bunches was not in the mood to attend graduation. He was tired, which was understandable because he and Mr F and I had gone on an adventure earlier that morning, walking to pick up beer for the graduation party later, but opting to get to the store via the "nature trail," which crosses over a river three times, each time providing an excellent opportunity for Mr F and Mr Bunches to wade into the river and throw rocks at the water and each other, and each fording providing me the opportunity to worry about the waterfall that was just feet away from each crossing, waterfalls that the Babies! were drawn to like magnetic moths to an iron-shaving filled light-bulb. I had to combine those two similes to show just how powerful the attraction was -- an attraction that did not diminish when Mr F tried to get to one of the small waterfalls and dropped off a small ledge into water up to his waist, surprising and scaring him (and surprising and scaring me a lot more). Instead of fearing the waterfalls after that, Mr F just tried to get me to walk ahead of him towards them, shoving me towards the waterfalls while following me, so that I could (presumably) show him where the hidden pitfalls were and clear the way for him to go over the falls, which were small but had rocks on them and would probably have hurt even the Babies!, who seem impervious to most harms if you judge solely by how many times they can whack their heads into things and go on without seeming to notice.

The Babies!' have reached the point where their heads line up with pretty much everything painful in our house: doorknobs, countertops, bags of groceries that I'm carrying, and the like. They walk through our house sometimes like concussion-proof pinballs, bumping into the counter and then zinging into the doorknob and not being deterred by any of that as they careen upstairs to jump on their beds and watch Pinocchio. But even with heads that seem to be crack-proof, I didn't want to let them try their luck going over waterfalls, as I was reasonably sure that Sweetie would disapprove of that (and not "disapprove" in the way she disapproves of 102% of the plans I make, automatically rejecting them before I even finish talking about them; I mean really actually disapprove, the kind of disapproval that I can't buy my way out of by giving t-shirts I got on sale at Wal-Mart.)

We made it safely to the store, thereby having created the World's First Beer Run Undertaken By Three-Year-Olds Fording A River, and got Sweetie to come pick us up, because I didn't want to walk the 1 1/2 miles back shepherding wet Babies! and carrying a case of beer and two giant bags of ice.

Once back home, the Babies! got ready for graduation by washing river muck off of them and eating french fries from McDonald's, and I got ready for graduation by doing the same thing, plus cold pizza. Plus, we all put on polo shirts.

Except for Mr Bunches. Mr Bunches, after his bath, didn't want to get dressed right away, and since the rule in our house is "Pants Are Necessary Only When Company Is Here" (making it a very good idea to call ahead if you're going to visit us) I let him stay mostly-undressed clear up until we got him into the car to head to the graduation ceremony, which we left for at 1:09 p.m.

I note that time because I thought we were leaving perfectly on time for a 2 p.m. graduation that was only a 30 minute drive away (everything in Madison is a 30-minute drive from everything else.) I wasn't entirely sure that it was a 2 p.m. graduation, because for every special event, Sweetie operates on what I like to think of as "Sweetie Time."

Sweetie Time is a series of weird times that coincide with special events. By "weird times" I mean that no part of Sweetie Time is the actual time of the big event. Instead, Sweetie keeps track of big events by noting all kinds of arbitrary, strange times before and after the event. So if you (as I did, several times) ask Sweetie "When, exactly, does graduation start?" you'll get a variety of answers, none of which actually say when graduation starts.

Instead, Sweetie will answer that question by saying "We have to leave at 12:45." Or telling me that Oldest is coming over at 10:00 a.m. Or by noting that we have to pick up the pizzas (we celebrate every major event in our lives with pizza, except for Sweetie's birthday, which we celebrate with Whoppers) by 4 o'clock because people are arriving at 5 and the party goes until 8. And if you say (as I did) "Why do we have to leave at 12:45?" Sweetie will say "Fine, we can leave at 1:15."

All those times blend together in my head, combining with such earlier Sweetie Times as "We've got to pick up the cake at 12:00 on Saturday," a message that was said with such urgency that I worried, if we were late, they'd give the cake to someone else -- the name on it would pose no problem, as most people in The Boy's graduating class shared the same first name, all those Alisons and Dylans and the like blending together in a wave of boys with slightly messy hair and embarrassing beards and girls with perfectly straight-shoulder-length hair -- and because of all the different times, I still didn't really know what time graduation started as we left the house at 1:09 p.m., which I thought was pretty much on time but which Sweetie didn't seem to think was on time at all.

It was okay that I didn't know what time the graduation started, because I also didn't really know where the graduation was. I thought it was at the "Alliant Energy Center," but Sweetie's dad asked, when he arrived, whether it wasn't actually at the Dane County Coliseum. I found that confusing because I thought those two things were the same thing. Things got even more confounding when Sweetie said that she'd read in the paper that the graduation was at the Dane County Coliseum, but she'd ignored that.

The Coliseum and the Center are located on the same piece of land, next to each other, so I figured we'd go there and just follow the crowd to our seats; if there was more than one graduation going on and we followed the wrong crowd, well, what would the big deal be? We'd see a guy walk across the stage in a robe, and we'd hear some speeches about people who used to be freshman but totally weren't, any more, and that'd be that. It's not like we had something planned to make sure The Boy would know we were there, watching him -- we weren't going to bring our vuvuzelas, or anything. Although I would rather hear an endless droning buzzing noise than any graduation speech ever again, so maybe we should have brought them.

Once we got there, and determined that the crowd going into the Coliseum was the crowd we would follow, I had bigger things to worry about that vuvuzelas (if you can imagine). I decided we'd bring the stroller in to let the Babies! (still tired from RiverBeerRun2010) relax a bit, and we got Mr F (who was fully dressed) into it. Then I focused on Mr Bunches, who'd fallen asleep on the way there.

Mr Bunches didn't want to wake up.

And he didn't want to get out of his car seat.

And he certainly didn't want to wear shorts.

Mr F was in the stroller, and Middle and Oldest and Sweetie were watching, as I tried to convince Mr Bunches that wearing pants and not screaming were not only acceptable in society but were good things to try, and Sweetie was getting more and more nervous because graduation started in just 20 minutes and she (I'm guessing) didn't want The Boy to not graduate and then be able to claim that it was because we were late that he didn't get a diploma.

I had an ace in the hole, though, by which I mean "a book in my backpack that I could read if for some reason I ended up not being able to go inside the graduation ceremony." So as Mr Bunches continued to complain, I put Plan A -- not going inside was always my "Plan A"; Plan B was "actually having to sit through graduation"-- into action.

"Go on inside," I said. "I'll catch up, and if he won't settle down we'll just wait out here for you and I'll sit in the car with the Babies!." So the girls went in, and I surveyed the scene: Mr F in the stroller, looking bored. Mr Bunches in his car seat, looking as though he was trying to figure out if his thirty-billion viewings of Kung Fu Panda would come in handy in the event I tried to get him out of his seat again.

Perfect, I decided, and started to get Mr F out so that he could hang out in the car and read his book, while I hung out in the car and read my book, and Mr Bunches groused.

Only Mr F didn't want to get out of the stroller and started Kung-Fu-Pandaing me, too.

Now I was stuck with one kid in the car and one in the stroller, and I had to on the spot invent Plan C, which I immediately put into action. And I will only say this about Plan C:

If you drove by the Dane County Coliseum yesterday and saw a guy who appeared to be trying to cram a kicking three-year old into a pair of khaki shorts using a move that can be best described as "The Jammed Ketchup Bottle," you now know what the heck was going on.

I got Mr Bunches into his shorts and shirt and decided shoes would be optional. I belted him into the stroller, but even then he didn't understand that he'd lost, and kept on yelling at me and fighting to get out until I handed him the first thing I could grab from the backpack of toys, which in this case was a slightly-deflated basketball.

He quieted immediately, giving me the title for my next parenting book: 'The Calming Basketball: Managing Your Child Under Stressful Situations."

With his basketball in his lap, we made our way in, and I tried to join Sweetie and her parents and the girls at the seats, only to realize that Mr Bunches was not totally calm -- he was calm only so long as the stroller was moving.

Which is how I came to attend The Boy's graduation circularly: I walked laps around the outside of the theater, passing entryway after entryway in the circular arena, getting smidgens of graduation speeches as I walked by:

"It seems like just a little while ago we were freshman..." one speaker said.

"College will pose its own challenges," another said as we walked by another door.

"Friends forever," I heard, and "Memories we'll always cherish" and other bits and pieces of a graduation speech I could write by memory by now, speeches formed as though they were written using the "Graduation" kit of a magnetic poetry toy. I listened and walked laps and watched Mr Bunches clutch his basketball and stare at the boringly uniform walls we marched through, jealous that Mr F got to sit in the stroller and read his book while I kept pacing in my dress shoes and dress pants and polo shirt.

Through several laps the speeches continued, repetitions of the words friends and memories and cherished and hopes and dreams and fears and challenges, and I listened and pondered how those words could be rearranged into almost any sequence without changing the essential nature of a graduation speech:

The friends and memories we've cherished will fuel our hopes and dreams as we face our fears and challenges of adult life...

could be

The challenges we feared will become cherished memories of how our friends helped us overcome them...

and could be

The cherished challenges our fears created were surmounted by the friends we hoped and dreamed of

And it's all the same speech.

To amuse myself, I began adding, mentally, to the things the speakers were saying. One speaker told the students:

Remember, the only thing that can stop you is you.

To which I mentally added:

And Iron Man.

That same speaker threw cliche after cliche at the kids, apparently hoping to stun them through boredom before releasing them into the wild. He claimed that there were more stars in the universe than there were grains of sand on all the beaches of all the world, and upon hearing that as we completed lap 15, I wondered:

How can that possibly be proven?


What in God's name does that have to do with graduation?

I was trying to think of other impossible-to-prove claims that might be mistaken for inspirational thoughts, in case I'm someday called on to speak at a graduation -- something that's not likely to happen if they prescreen my speech. I settled on a few:

There is no substance more malleable than Play-Doh, and you, graduates, are the Play-Doh of the mind.


If you were to take every piece of advice ever given to every graduate, and lay those words end to end, and read them off in order, at least 40% of you would still end up working at a fast-food restaurant at age 45.


The power of ideas generates the power of reality. Literally: when you think of an idea, your brain generates electricity, and that is what will eventually fuel the Matrix, so try never to think creatively.

But those thoughts were driven out of my head by the speaker -- a football-coaching physics teacher, claiming something that sounded impossible to me. By that time, Middle had joined me on our continuing walk (Mr Bunches would not let us stop and still held his basketball) and as we walked I heard this snippet of Football Coach's speech:

"If you laid them end to end from Massachusetts to Los Angeles, they would cover America to a depth of 700 feet."

"What did he say?" I asked Middle, who had not been paying attention, either. She texted the question to Oldest, who responded "What?" and I asked Sweetie about it, later, and she, too, had not been paying attention. Nobody could tell me what it was that if we laid it all out, would bury us all under 700 feet of... cheesecake? Memoirs from actresses on The Hills? Who knew?

I learned later that it was molecules -- The Boy told me that the teacher had been talking about how many molecules there were in something or other and made the 700-feet-deep comparison. But I didn't learn that until we were at the graduation party, later on, so for another mystifying hour, I tried to kill time by walking laps and listing all the things that might cover America 700-feet-deep, stopping thinking about that only when Mr Bunches finally let me stop walking -- about the time they were calling names out, and were up to the Ns, a neverending series of Dylans and Alisons whose last names started with N, and instead of walking we switched to playing soccer in an abandoned end of one concourse, Mr Bunches and I kicking the ball around while Mr F watched us and occasionally tried to sneak off to the utility staircase I wouldn't let him climb.

I didn't let him climb it because parents don't let 3-year-olds climb up old, scary-looking utility staircases, no matter how badly the 3-year-olds want to do that -- and no matter how badly the parents want to do that, too, because when I looked at the staircase, I could see the allure: it led off to some recesses of the Coliseum that we wouldn't ordinarily get to see, and there was probably exciting stuff atop it, but I felt that Sweetie would disapprove of that, and also we had to be ready to dart inside and see The Boy graduate. So we kicked the ball around and listened as the Dylans and Alisons' last names approached The Boy's section of the alphabet. As we got closer and closer to The Boy's name, I gathered up Mr Bunches and Mr F, who by that time had moved on from soccer to the more-interesting pasttime of spilling milk on each other, and got near one of the entryways to the seating.

I listened as the Dylans and Alison's got their diplomas, and when they called The Boy's name, I stretched up over the heads of the people who were also standing in the hallway, people who had no real reason not to be in their seats, people who certainly had not been forced on a Bataan Death March for the past hour in a desperate bid to keep Mr Bunches and his basketball happy -- and my stretching paid off as I saw The Boy walk across the stage and take something that I hoped would be a diploma from someone who I hoped would not give another speech before we all could leave.

That ended our participation in the graduation. Sweetie and the girls came out from their seats with pictures, and everyone tossed their hats in the air, and we headed back out to the car to go pick up the phenomenal amount of pizzas we wanted to have ready for the party that night. We walked out to the car, with a light drizzle completely failing to break the heat, and Sweetie talked about how happy she was for The Boy, smattering her comments with references to various times that would happen in the near future -- people would be arriving at 5:00 p.m. and they would probably leave about 8:00 and she wasn't sure when her sister would get there because she might have mentioned 4 p.m. (talking with Sweetie is sometimes like listening to that voice you used to be able to call on the phone to get the correct time.)

I loaded Mr Bunches into the car and listened to Sweetie, pondering how it seemed like just an eyeblink ago that we'd arrived at this Coliseum, fresh-faced parents ready to try to figure out which building we had to go into, facing the challenges of getting clothes on recalcitrant Babies!, and yet, time flew by and here we were, older, and wiser, ready to take the next step into a brave new world where pizzas had to be picked up and grandparents had to be chatted with. As I sat in the car, looking steadfastly into my future and resolving to meet those challenges with the same resolve I had once used to overcome my fatigue on the 21st lap around the building, I thought to myself about the memories of kicking a basketball into the men's room that I would always cherish, about the friends I'd made along the way, like the other guy pushing some kids in a stroller, the guy we'd lapped. And I knew that as we advanced along the path that we'd set out for ourselves, that nobody could stop me except for me.

And Iron Man.

"Thinking the Lions" refers to a particular way to think about life. Read more essays like this here.

1 comment:

Rogue Mutt said...

I can't remember what the speaker at my graduation said, but I remember the valedictorian threw a pie at someone. Why, I can't remember. With three siblings I had to go to four graduations and they were all dreadfully dull. At least the ones for my siblings I could leave after they got their diploma. And luckily my last name is near the front of the alphabet! How awful if your last name is Zylinski or something.