Thursday, November 30, 2006

Family Gatherings, Take Two

I love holidays with my family. Food, fun, and running joke fodder can all be found within the confines of a house that, depending on the holiday, the side of the family, and the house, should not be able to hold as many people as we cram into it. Every holiday is full of the delicious chaos that I've grown to know and love.

But I have to tell you, as much as I love my extended family, they are a little, um... shall we say, eccentric? Odd? Sitcom material?

Thanksgiving is all about traditions for my Dad's family, and I have figured out over the years that "traditions" translates to "a huge list of do's and don't's. For starters, Grandmama has only taught one of her granddaughters the "secret family recipe" for the dressing that must be made every year, and she has supernatural senses that let her know if the dressing isn't exactly right (in fact, I seem to remember a story in which she chastized my cousin for not wanting to pull the chicken off the bone with her fingers...). And if she arrives while the food is still being prepared, she personally watches over the baking process, including giving instruction on how to properly stir the not-quite solidified dressing. But not to worry, my dear grandmother does not descriminate -- she is this way when it comes to any dish. I mean, heaven help the soul who puts marshmallows on the sweet potato casserole instead of brown sugar, or does not have a proper Ritz-cracker-to-cheese ratio on the pineapple casserole.

The meal is always at our house, which means Mom is in a reasonable state of panic if everything is not ready before eleven. We always have to have a table decoration theme worthy of a Southern Living magazine, and it has to be different every year for fear that one of the in-laws will notice that, "Lord have mercy, Debbie reused Thanksgiving decorations!" My mother also puts a quick stop to any wonderfully impish Weasley-twins ideas my sister and I might have, and has ever since we threatened to put live creatures in the pinecone arrangement two years ago. She was not very amused last year when we managed a clever little trick with the salt shakers on the main table, especially when the first victim turned out to be Grandmama (and why I was the only one who got in trouble, I will never know). But it's still fun to dream of troublemaking schemes, even if we can't get away with anything.

Table conversation is sometimes like walking on eggshells. One must not talk of religion, politics, or football while at the table, but inevitably someone will break this unspoken rule. My personal favorite is from a clever little stab like trying to get a cute little member of the second generation of cousins to say "Roll Tide!", to which someone (Mom or Dad, most likely) will reply, "No, no, you're saying it wrong, it's War Eagle!", and Kate and I mentally add a tally to the cumulative "number of times we've heard that one." And during the meal, everyone who made something must be complimented on their dish. This is often a tricky situation, as it is imperative that the right dish be attributed to the right person, otherwise you're likely to step on Aunt Kathy's or one of the cousins' toes and start a feud. ...okay, I lie, maybe not a feud. At most, maybe a hissy fit.

The new traditions are already starting, too. It's weird to have our cousins' children running around; Matthew and Andrew, who are respectively 8 and 6 (I think... o_o how old are they now?), MUST watch my old Land Before Time videos after the meal, and it has been this way ever since they learned to put the words "little" and "foot" together and somehow make it sound like a ferocious demand. The first two years, I didn't mind. In fact, it was kinda cute -- they were carrying on an obsession that had, at one point, been near and dear to my heart. But I never thought my once-sweet memories of happy little dinosaurs would turn into ghastly torturous sprints down Memory Lane, chased by the haunting sound of high-pitched voices singing all the songs that the rest of my family had long ago suppressed from memory. It's utterly beyond me why my little first-cousins-once-removed have not discovered the magic and wonder of 80's and 90's Disney movies -- I mean, at least I can shamelessly sing along with those without finding myself thinking things like, "Thank you, Lord, for sending us the Ice Age!"

And, as we progress through the afternoon and the little cousins leave (at which point Kate and I dive for the storage bin of Disney movies), the adults begin their "new" tradition: dominoes. I don't know who got my grandmother and my aunt into dominoes in the first place, but most of my adolescence is tainted with memories of that sharp crack of a domino being slammed on the dining room table so loud that our neighbors across the street could testify that Aunt Kathy has one domino left. But I guess I shouldn't complain -- their last game obsession was Spades, and that one went on so long that even I, the one who on a game-by-game basis still has mild difficulty remembering the rules of Uno, learned how to play. All the same, I usually find myself in the TV room with Kate and an old Disney movie we haven't seen since I was six... and when we run out of those, it's up to whoever is quicker at the draw as to whether we watch my Aladdin DVD or her Beauty and the Beast VHS.

The one thing I most look forward to comes after everyone else has left our house. We pack up all the Fall decorations that Mom put out back in September, put them away, and get out our family Christmas tree (artificial, of course; have you ever tried to get pine sap out of carpet? Ugh...). Kate puts Mannheim Steamroller in the stereo, we put up the tree, Dad does the lights (and I help, sort of ^^;), and all the jam-packed bins of Christmas ornaments come down from the top of Kate's closet; in those bins we have collected more ornaments over the years than could fit in the local Hallmark store, not to mention the collection of around-the-house decorations. We have more decorations than I can consciously recognize anymore -- I'll point out something with a "When did we get that?", to which Mom says, "Oh, don't you remember? We got it the year that..." and rattles off a tale from a Christmas that I do remember, but the recollection as to the origin of the decoration still evades me. Sometimes it makes my failing memory feel better to believe that she makes up a new Don't You Remember story for things that she, in reality, bought in the summer from a clearance sale and managed to pack it away before I caught a glimpse of it.

And with the changing of seasons comes the transitions to other holidays... maybe next I'll get to write about my Mom's family and the chaotic Christmases in Huntsville. Ah, good times...

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Shameless Plug? Oooh, Yeah.

While I'm working on my Thanksgiving update (yes, that's how much free time I DON'T have right now!), here's a little thing to tide you over. ...and by "little", I mean "only start watching if you have an hour and a half of free time on your hands".

This is a full-length movie that is, quite possibly, the best Mystery Science Theater 3000 I have ever seen. I know I have not seen very much (I mean, if I could sit down one month and watch all ten seasons, I most certainly would...), but I am never quick to label anything "the best" or "the greatest" or "the most awesome thing on the face of the earth". And besides, the movie speaks for itself.

(If you are unfamiliar with the premise of MST3K, Wikipedia has a cornucopia of information that I suggest you become mildly familiar with before clicking the link. And this might not be the best intro MST for some, but it worked for me ^^)

And now our feature presentation, an incredibly '80s movie called Space Mutiny. For full effect, after the movie loads you can flicker some lights on and off while screaming "WE'VE GOT MOVIE SIGN!" :) And make sure to watch for the undead crew member!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Sometimes The Light At The End Of The Tunnel Is A 1,500 Word Paper Strapped To A Flashlight

With the first semester drawing ever nearer to Finals (a.k.a. Hell Week), I've had time to reflect upon my first four months of Covenant life. ...not very much time, I'm afraid, but enough to analyze my observations and put them into my dear little blog.

The daily routine up at Covenant is more along the lines of a weekly routine; ask any student what their near-future plans are like, and they'll probably say something like: "Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays I do this, Tuesdays and Thursdays I do this, and weekends I do a whole lot of this!" The days go by like the twenty-four hours they are, but the accepted unit of time up here seems to be "weeks", seeing as how anyone will voluntarily unload their week's schedule to you if they are stressed enough. However, this is only true when we are not eagerly awaiting -or doggedly struggling towards- an upcoming break. Then we bring back "days" so we can count down how long we have until we can sleep the sweet, sweet slumber of the academically dead; the kind of sleep that comes to those who are not worrying about tests, papers, grades, or even getting up in time for morning classes.

(If that rant didn't make any sense, just blame it on my 3,785 minutes of accumulated sleep deprivation.)

Everyone is crazy during the week. Classes keep the students running around from one building to the next, and some are calmer than the others -- I can be stressing and wailing about a next-day test for which I've already studied my brains out, but some of the more seasoned individuals study in silence with iron expressions only worn by those in utmost concentration. I don't know how they do it, but somehow the distractions of the hall don't seem to faze them.

With all the studying that goes on, much to my surprise there are still more daily antics than we know what to do with. I would have thought that college life would drain any regular human being of his very life force and leave him a dry, withered heap in mid-crawl to his Xbox. But college kids... we're an interesting bunch of individuals. Where others would buckle under the stress and suffer nervous breakdowns, college kids thrive by feeding off of the stress like it's a bag of chocolate-covered coffee beans. It does... things... to our brains... Some of the stronger make it to Finals before some of the stress leaks out; others are not so fortunate. They succumb to the infectious symptoms of insanity and start to let it out by performing random antics in public, and always where you least expect it: for instance, a guy in my Psych class came in one day wearing a superhero cape in mid-September. Other people spontaneously act out in the middle of the Great Hall (I swear, it's only a matter of time until someone re-enacts La Vie Boheme in there!). Just a month ago, a friend of mine wheeled a suitcase into the Great Hall, pulled it over to a table, and unzipped it so his hallmate could climb out and go swipe his card at the register. Yes, Covenant students are nothing if not creative.

If the days and weeks go by like this, I can only imagine what years of exposure could do to the upperclassman brain. But I guess I shouldn't assume that everyone reacts to stress in the same way as the suitcase guy... actually, lately I have begun to notice certain adaptive traits in the upperclassmen that we "poor wee freshies" have yet to develop. When someone screams in the Great Hall, only the Freshmen look to see what's going on. When a hall hangs a banner from the chapel roof, only the Freshmen seem impressed. When it's Veal Fritter Day in the Great Hall, only Freshmen have included the meaty monstrosity as a part of their balanced meal. If someone is wandering around the administrative part of Carter with a hopelessly lost look in his eyes, or someone is complaining about the "bathroom problem" and she lives in Mac... well, you get the idea.

(Wow. I just noticed how long a list of "You Know They're a Covenant Freshman When..." I could write. Shiny!)

My point is, it seems that the semesterly (is that a word?) stressors are likely to bring out peoples' "true" natures; but whether that nature includes dancing on tables, becoming a hoveling mass of tears, or adapting for survival and moving on is different for each student.

Hey, I think I just found a topic I can use for my SIP in three-and-a-half years...

Thursday, November 09, 2006

You Think YOU Had a Bad Day?

Okay, no, I have not had an unreasonably bad day today. I was just looking through some of my journal entries from my Latin club's trip to Europe and was remembering just how terrible our first few days in Rome were. Seriously, Shakespeare could not have written a better comedy of errors.

This has been revised from the original entries for your reading pleasure. Enjoy.
Names! So you're not unbelievably confused...:
[The students: myself, Chrissy, Naomi, Jennifer, Katina, Jordan, Andrew, and Abigail.][Important people to remember who are not students: Lee (my teacher), Phil ("Papa Phil", her husband), Miss Teri (our female chaperone, and mother of Katina), and Patrick (Lee's and Phil's son, who was of legal age to be a chaperone but declined the title).]

Rome promised to be quite a learning experience even before we set foot outside the airport. Through ways of which I am still unsure, we were invited to join the yearly Founding of Rome parade. All of us, a little group of homeschoolers from Alabama, were going to be the first group of Americans to ever walk in the parade. It was a great honor, and a few of us were excited about it. Now... the arrangements Lee had made with the historical reinactors ("Groupo Historico", I'm not joking) were that someone was supposed to meet us after we landed and made our way through customs. When we finally got our luggage and walked past every sign-carrying pedestrian, there was no member of the historical group to meet us. This struck us as a little odd. So, we sat in the airport until Papa Phil, who had been exploring around a bit, rushed back to us to say that the people had been waiting for us outside this whole time. Oops.

Exiting the airport, we were hit head-on by a steady rain and a cold wind. The weather made the chaos outside even worse than it was, and it took me a minute to realize that the two strange Italian guys wearing the nuclear highlighter-yellow vests were taking our suitcases because they were from Groupo Historico. They loaded our luggage into a white cargo van, and I hoped to high heaven that their van had seats enough for all of us. Unfortunately, I was wrong: it was a van with only seats in the front and room for luggage in the back. Most of us would have to sit on the luggage en route to our accommodations. Ha. It was awkward for the first few seconds, but when the first drop of rain made its way down my neck, I was willing to sit ANYWHERE that would be potentially dry.

So, with five in the front (counting the driver) and the rest in the back (including Mr. Blinding Vest who didn't speak a lick of English) sitting on top of luggage, we set out. And when I say "set out", it's because "drive" is too good a word for our method of transportation. We swerved through heavy traffic at speeds that no cargo van should go. When the traffic was at its worst, the van went into the emergency lane like it was his right to be there, and I think we actually passed an ambulence on its way to an accident.

It should be known that, in any part of Europe, the lines on the road are only for perspective.

We finally arrived at Camping Fabulous, where we were to stay with the other traveling reinactors. Unfortunately, the van dumped us out in the rain with only our luggage and a prayer before leaving for more... er... duties, I guess. And while Lee went into the welcoming center to get the keys to our rooms, those of us with umbrellas stood outside in the mud. We were still cold, half-drowned, and our luggage was getting very wet as well.

[note: some in our group still consider "fabulous" to be an unspeakable word. Long after the trip, we continued to use "fabulous" in a sarcastic manner... or just to hear someone else from our group laugh.]

It seemed an eternity until Lee and Phil emerged with keys and directions. Now, the place where we stood had promise: the so-called "bungalows" nearby looked like glorified trailers, and made me feel like we were back in the South. However, when we were led through the rain and mud dragging our suitcases behind us, our humble accommodations were a bit less, well.... just less. One single-wide was split down the middle into two separate "hotel rooms", consisting of a cramped bedroom with three beds and one closet-sized bathroom We really didn't care, though; it held promise of a dry, warm place out of the rain.

Well, at least it was dry.

All of the rooms were cold, had non-working heaters, no blankets, and no hot water. So, we (myself, Chrissy, and Jennifer) put our muddy suitcases in the dryest places possible, stashed our umbrellas in the shower stall, and headed nextdoor to Naomi, Katina, and Abigail's room. They made us wipe our feet and remove our shoes before we could venture farther in, and while the room was warmer than ours had been, it smelled of sweaty feet in there. Jennifer disappeared to find Jordan so she could talk to Lee, and I stayed for a little bit before leaving with Katina and Chrissy to visit the guys. I was getting tired of smelling other's feet.

At some point during the visit to the guys' room, I asked Patrick to come look at the heater in my room, because I knew he would have better luck at fixing the blasted thing than I would. He and I headed back around to the cold room, and upon investigation, we flipped the circut breaker and Viola!, it lived! Almost. It still wasn't putting out warm air, and would reset itself when we tried to adjust it. Oh, how amusing. But it was working, in the loosest sense of the word, so Patrick started to leave.

And now comes the tangent aboutnthe doors. All of the doors had at least one issue with them: two of them would not latch unless locked with the deadbolt, one's handle would fall off in your hand (though Katina was able to climb out the window and open it from the outside), and the door to my room would latch a little too well (e.g. I had to throw my shoulder against it the first time before it let me out). Patrick thought that our door was like his, which did not completely close on its own, and that naturally we would have latched it upon entering the first time. So, to get out, he accidentally locked the deadbolt, and then couldn't figure out what was wrong with the door. We tried to get out, but we flipped the deadbolt back and forth so many times that we couldn't remember which way to turn it to open the door again!

So, as Patrick patiently fiddled with the lock, he turned his head to grin at me. "Oh, by the way, you're trapped for now."

My first thought was, 'I'm accidentally locked in a room with a guy. Wow. How cliche.'

After a while we grew increasingly desperate to leave the room, but just as Patrick was readying himself to climb out the window, I shoved against the door and (luckily for me, who could've ended up with a broken shoulder) it finally opened. Another crisis averted.

But when we had all regrouped in the warmest, least threatening room (the other girls' room, which still smelled of feet), Lee came in to give us very bittersweet news: we were still going to the banquet for the re-enactors tonight, but we were promised that we would have working heaters and running hot water by the time we got back that night. With that carrot dangling in front of us, we almost didn't notice when she reminded us to dress in costume.

Hang on... what was that? Costume? The students had all been under the impression we could wear our warm, comfortable streetclothes instead of our non-rain resistant Roman garb. Evidentally not... Lee had been told that the re-enactors should be in costume. Well... fine, if everyone else was doing it, maybe it wouldn't be so bad. So we grudgingly layered as best we could with whatever would blend into our costumes, grabbed our jackets, and trudged out into the cold afternoon. Sunlight was streaming through the breaking clouds, thus holding a bit of hope on the horizon.

With the promise of hot water and heat on our return later in the evening, our weary group headed down to the area where the buses were parked. May I remind you that we are in full costume at this point, and the most observant amongst us began to notice that no one else was in costume. Needless to say, a few of our conspiracy theorists (myself included) began to mutter about how the Groupo Historico members were probably laughing at us behind our backs. The entire banquet went like this, and many were more than peeved that we were the only visiting group who came in costume, aside from the entertainment. And, when we got back, the rooms were freezing cold, and we were still unwashed with no intent of bathing in ice water. We prayed for good weather over the parade the next day as we fell into bed that night, huddled together.

We awoke from our cold slumber to a mildly sunny Sunday morning. It was almost too good to be true! Could today really be a happier day for us?

Hmm... let's put it this way: before we left the States, someone suggested we name our to-be scrapbook about the trip "A Series of Unfortunate Events". If I ever find who said that, I will personally strangle them for being right.

Trouble started even before we left Camping Fabulous that day. When we tried to board the charter buses with the other re-enactors, we were stopped by several people talking to us in Italian. They finally found a translator, who struggled through anything from "Where are you from?" to "Where is your group?" in an attempt to help us. We thought she meant, "Where is the REST of your group?". Oh, no; she was asking where our group's bus was. Weellll, we had just hopped on the last available seats to go to the banquet the night before -- we didn't have a bus. So when she told us, "This... this not your bus," we panicked. How were we going to get there?

Fortunately, some other group let us jump on with them. The girls (plus Lee and Miss Teri), Jordan, and Andrew rode with the Bacchanalians (which turned out to be a bunch of people singing in Spanish and bearing the most frighteningly realistic adhered horns on their heads), and Patrick and Papa Phil jumped on with the group they called "Grumpy-Old-Men-Re-enactors, Italian Edition." It was a short ride, thankfully... I was getting a little wary of the guy across the aisle from me, whose horns looked unreasonably sharp.

It was starting to cloud up in the distance as the buses slowed to a halt and shuffled us out onto into the busy city, but we soon figured out they had dropped us off across the street (and nearly a block away) from where the other re-enactors had congregated. Had I known I would have to run across a busy Roman street at Patrick's heels, I would NOT have worn sandals without a heel strap. In any case, we found our way through the crowd to the head of the event (who called himself Nero...) and asked him where we were supposed to be. He showed us a paper of "formations" that instead resembled a text version of a pan of lasagna, and cheerfully told us he had to go deal with everyone else and ran off. Dazed, confused, and overtired, we resigned ourselves to stay put between the groups on either side of us.

Our formation? Naomi and Katina were in the front with their bright, cheerful, and particularly too-thin-for-rain costumes; I was between Patrick and Andrew, and we were second in line; Chrissy and Abigail were behind us; Miss Teri and Lee followed them; and last came Jordan and Jennifer. Papa Phil was on the sidelines, filming the parade. Luckily for him, he had enough camera equipment that no one thought he was one of "those weird Americans" and he was not questioned or stopped by anyone.

The cool thing was, we got our own flag-carrier! She was a nine-year-old Italian girl named Sylvia (and like almost everyone else, she spoke no English) who had either volunteered or been volunteered by her group. Her mother wasn't far off, and she had briefly spoken with Lee (because she spoke enough English) before we set off in our cozy little formation. Sylvia was placed at the front, shyly carrying the American flag she had been given.

As the parade went on, we heard an ominous booming in the distance. My head shot up from where I'd been trying to stare at Katina's ankles, and I swallowed nervously and said, "please tell me that was a drum horribly off-rhythm..." But a loud crack of thunder caused us all to jump. As we had feared, the clouds were getting bigger and darker by the minute, and heading straight for our precession. By the time we had nearly reached the Colosseum, a light shower had started to fall on our heads (and down our necks, which was cold!). The eternal optomists of our group agreed that in a matter of moments, the rain would stop and the sun would be out again.

Oh, yeah.

The bottom dropped out of the clouds. In a matter of moments, the rain had gone from an uncomfortable shower to a fabulous downpour that was a lot of rain on a lot of people who had no means of shielding themselves. Sylvia, our poor flag-carrier, was taken to the sidewalk by her mother and sheltered under an umbrella; we felt so sorry for her, as frozen and half-drowned as we all were. Andrew took the flag and we reassembled our fleet a little: Patrick was between Naomi and Katina now, and I was between Chrissy and Abigail.

The rest of the parade went on in this manner, rain and all, and at the end of the procession was a small tent at the bus stop where most of the groups had already congregated. But it was dry. We all huddled as tightly as we could, and I ended up resting my forehead on Patrick's back, partially hugging Katina, and squished between Andrew, Naomi, and Abigail. Normally I have fear of being trapped in such a crowd, up to the point at which I get violently desperate for personal space or make myself as small as possible and cry, but I suppose this only shows how a basic need can overcome an irrational phobia.

Also, some of us were able to strip their top layers of dripping wet costume, tolerating their mostly wet topmost undershirt (yeah, I was THAT prepared) for when they found a dry place to wear just their middle and lowest undershirts, and that morning I had slid on my jeans had been under my costume with the legs rolled up around my knees. ^^v I was happy -- I HAD PANTS.

a troupe of shivering bellydancers offered to give Katina a ride in their van, and unbeknowst to the adults in charge other than Lee, she jumped at the opportunity to be warm and left with them. Soon, our bus came, so we boarded eagerly only to find that we were still cold, wet, and slightly miserable, but now we had additional elbow room.

Just think: all this has happened, and it's only just lunchtime!

Okay, we arrived at the restaurant where the other re-enactors had already congregated. We searched desperately for Katina, and we were very surprised to see that she had changed clothes... and whatever she was wearing, it was blindingly emerald green. She told us that the dancers had borrowed a tablecloth and pinned her together in the bathroom, and she honestly didn't know how she was going to get back to Camping Fabulous in anything but her tablecloth.
Finally, it was time to eat. In all honesty I don't remember what we ate -- it disappeared too fast from my plate for me to become well-acquainted with it. But as fast as we all ate, it was still closer to three or four in the afternoon before we all managed to get out of there.

But our day was still to be eventful yet. Someone -probably with the dancers, because they were everywhere- caught Katina by the shoulder, pointed to her tablecloth fashion statement, and said, "Be careful, the restaurant might want that back!" Those of us who were nearest to her (including myself, Papa Phil, Patrick, Naomi, Abigail, and Miss Teri) panicked. Papa Phil quickly bundled her in his jacket and we smuggled her out of the restaurant before anyone could see, but by the time we found our way out, the rest of our group had vanished. We hurriedly searched buses in hopes of finding them, but to no avail; then we turned and, to our horror, a bus we hadn't checked was speeding off down the street. Wouldn't you know, our group was on that bus, and now we were somewhere in Rome without a ride.

Papa Phil immediately took charge and shuffled us to the nearest bus stop, checked the schedule, and cheerfully told us there would be a bus along in a few minutes. From there, we could navigate back to Camping Fabulous between a couple buses and two or three Metro stops (which seemed strange because, compared to where we were at that moment, Camping Fabulous was on the end of nowhere). So, when our bus came, we hopped on and took a seat. Keep in mind, more than half of our traveling circus was in street clothes, two were in costume, and one was in a tablecloth with a gold hairpiece on her head. It's safe to say we got some weird looks.

After a series of running to catch last-minute buses and an event in which Katina's tablecloth began to become unpinned in the middle of the subway, we made it to our last bus stop. We only waited a few minutes for our ride, but night had already fallen and we were getting hungry again, and with hunger came the overwhelming desire to be back at the Hell-On-Earth that was Camping Fabulous. But when we got on that bus, we were so tired that we forgot to watch where we were being taken.

After a little while, Patrick looked suddenly alert and glanced out the window. He looked back at Papa Phil a little worriedly and said, "Um... Dad, wasn't that our stop?"


We got off at the next stop, which was a little over a half-mile from our intended destination. So... cold, tired, hungry, sore, and minorly lost, we started walking in the direction from whence we came along the side of the road. It was exciting to walk on the side of a busy foreign road, for some reason... I think I was possibly delirious at that point to think it our entire day had been "fun", because I should have been grumbling about how the day had been nothing short of a lively romp through Hell.

But the day ended happily for us. When we got back, we found Lee in utter relief that we had finally returned. She had worried herself sick because the buses wouldn't go back for us, and she had held a sit-in at the front desk of Camping Fabulous until our group was either reunited or given better accomodations. Fortunately, both were eventually granted -- we now had heat, hot water, and a dry place to sleep. There was much rejoicing ^^

I guess it's true that, as the saying goes, "That which does not kill us makes us stronger."