Scenes From a Jeep

Scenes From a Jeep

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

When Life Gets Small

Jeep scenes typically show something exciting or unique just beyond the iconic hood. By that standard, this scene is admittedly a dud. It's just a parking lot and a building. But before you click away, there is something special happening here. We're at the nursing home, and inside among its residents is a 101-year-old great-grandmother. Her whole world is in there, and lately she's down to about two rooms at that. But when life gets small, granny gets creative, and without having a clue herself, gives us all a little lesson.
Let's first get our heads around 101-years-old. There was no Internet, no jeep blogs, no smartphones, television, or even radio. They didn't have the words for that stuff in 1912. Counting world wars hadn't started yet. The Titanic was floating. The Beatles and Rock-n-Roll sounded like gardening problems, and the Brooklyn Bridge was still a relatively new thing. Travel was rare, and soon after the boat docked in New York City, granny was born. She grew up, went to school, got married, worked, and retired all in the same square-mile town.
It was a small life by today's standard, but that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. It's really a matter of perspective. We all do a small life, at least to start. As babies we know just a few key people, notably mommy and daddy, one or two familiar locations, and some noises that come in handy when we want stuff. No one ever complains that they want more out of life at this point. That's probably because we have what we need, and don't know anything about the other stuff that's out there. And therein lies granny's secret to nursing home living. She's well cared for and has what she needs, and she no longer knows much about anything else. 
Now don't panic just yet thinking we're on the train to depression-ville. There's an upside to what's happening here. Extreme old age certainly has it's sad side, but the way some people adapt to it, knowingly or not, can reveal something good. When a life that starts out small gets that way again when we're really old, our frame of mind can let us still enjoy the ride. As granny would confidently say when she still knew how to do things, “Here's how I do it...”
First, not knowing exactly where she is, or even that she's in a nursing home, she sometimes talks like she owns the place. The theory being, if your world is small, you might as well be the boss. Sitting in the day room, she'll point at the paintings on the wall and say, “I just got that, you like it? We went there last week, and had a lovely time. Next time we go, I'll take you.” Now when you visit in the day room you sit on one of its fine vinyl-upholstered metal chairs. She'll sometimes point to one and say, “I bought two of those. One there and... I don't know where the other one is. I should get more. They're nice. I only get the best.”
 And when the maintenance man comes to change a fluorescent light bulb, she'll pretend she remembers him and the light bulb, saying: “Oh, thank you sonny! I don't know what I was going to do about that!” Then she'll turn to me and say, “He does so much for me whenever I need work done. I'm going to give him a raise next week. You know, I can get you a job here too. I know the head honchos – there's a fat guy and the tall one. Would you like that?” Wow, a job offer! I usually nod yes so we can move on to other topics, but I've considered bringing my resume in case I do ever meet “fat guy” or “tall one”. 
Next, let's say you prefer the good old days when you were the star quarterback or prom queen, but alas, those days are gone. For that, granny uses what I call “geriatric time travel”. When you want, you can just go back. It's that simple. A few years ago when she was still understanding and responding to questions, we'd ask things like “What year is it?” - “1943!”, and “Who's the president” - “Roosevelt!” Baffled at first, we realized that 1943 was her happy time. Her son was born and her husband hadn't yet gone off to war. And that's where she is now. Not a bad deal.
Finally, when your world gets small, try to think like it's still big. We saw her demonstrate this advanced technique with a flower arrangement. Granny always loved gardening, so on one visit we brought a vase with some spring flowers. We knew she'd enjoy it, but had no idea how much. We put the vase on the table in front of her. She grabbed it immediately, almost pulling it off the table to get in closer. “Ooooh! How beautiful!” She then gave it a quarter turn and did a double-take: “Oh, I can't believe this! Look at that one!” Another quarter-turn, another reaction. Then again, and again, until she had spun it around several times, seeing the same flowers as if for the first time on each spin. This went on for hours as she almost forgot we were there. We simply kept the vase on the table as she pulled on it like she wanted to jump in. That bouquet appeared to her as 2-acre garden terrace. I probably could have used that trick in my old studio apartment. “Ooooh! So spacious with many rooms and closets!”
Despite this unexplained ability to adapt, seeing what old age does to once young and vibrant people naturally makes us a little sad. But it's encouraging to see someone like granny take a small life and somehow make it a good one. So remember her ways and learn from them. They'll work in your big world now, and later on if your world shrinks back down. Always act like you own the place, make now your happy time, and find ways to make a small life feel big.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Wood Peace

That's a lot of wood. The Jeep came across this pile of recently felled trees stacked at a local saw mill. A nearby site had been cleared for construction, and the logs were being milled for use as lumber on the project. The saw mill workers were giddy with excitement, since it was the biggest job they had ever seen. However, my reaction to the giant log pile was a bit different. It triggered a flashback to the summer of 1980, a small tornado, a university professor, thirty international graduate students, several kegs of beer, and possible proof that all men could actually live together in peace. Care to read on?
I was ten years old in Baltimore, Maryland, and just getting my summer vacation started. The university professor in question was my father. Coming from New Jersey, he was a different kind of professor than was the norm in Baltimore. He too was starting his summer off right, introducing Jersey-rule stick ball to the neighborhood kids, and making his grad students, grown men, cry as he would hurl their thesis drafts at them, cursing with words that required a stoic Italian translator. Nothing, we thought, could ruin this summer of fun. But our summer plans were about to change...
We had seen plenty of Baltimore's afternoon thunderstorms, but this one was particularly nasty, taking out several of the 200-year-old oaks that dotted our neighborhood. Some say they saw a tornado come right up the street. Whatever it was, it ripped the trees out of the ground like you would pluck daisies from the garden. Two of the massive trees were in our back yard, and had fallen domino-style onto our newly built shed, which if I ever find a Jeep scene of a shed would merit its own story. Dad, the do-it-yourself professor, later paid the tree man only enough to cut the trees into large sections measuring 8 to 10 feet around and about 3 feet high. This is where the graduate students and beer enter the story.
For a few weeks, my brother and I did what you're supposed to do with giant logs. We built a fort, and covered it proper with a roof made of bark – there was plenty laying around. But the fort was doomed. Dad woke us up one Saturday morning and said “Fellas, it's time to split the logs”. I asked how we were going to do that, but I should have known the obvious answer that followed... “We have to go to the liquor store and get the beer”.  Never question the wisdom of a New Jersey college professor. He has a rare combination of accredited book knowledge and Animal House ingenuity that can be found nowhere else.
You see, Dad had told his graduate students that he was having a beer garden party at the house, and that they were all “invited”. There was just a little yard work to do first. He set up the kegs of beer, along with a variety of wood splitting instruments such as axes, sledge hammers, iron wedges, and something called a Monster Maul, which I believe is illegal in many states that are otherwise fine with things like assault rifles.
His plan was perfect. There are two things that a graduate student cannot refuse... free beer, and the request for help from the one man that holds their life in his hands, the professor. Dad had them cornered. They all arrived on time, like bugs to a light, and soon had a beer in one hand and an ax in the other. Genius.
Soon, the wood splitting and beer drinking began in earnest, each student trying to out-split and out-drink the other. My brother and I were ordered to stay and help. We could barely lift a Monster Maul, so our job was to hold the iron wedges steady while the students with sledge hammers swung those over our heads. As the afternoon wore on, their aim steadily worsened. I would try to balance the wedge and run before the hammer came down. I don't remember seeing my mother for much of the day. She probably couldn't bear to watch. It was the kind of scene that would today result in child welfare outrage, but we didn't care. Child Social Services wasn't as big a thing back then, and we were having a good time. And that's when I saw it... the potential for all men to live together in peace.
Present that day were representatives from all the world's major conflicts. Dad's students came from all over. There was an Orthodox Jew from Israel, and a Muslim refugee of the Iranian Revolution. There was an Englishman telling me “Stupid Irishman” jokes. When he got up to re-fill his beer, the Irishman came over and told me the same jokes, but his were about the “Stupid Englishman”. There were Russians that escaped the Iron Curtain, Germans, Greeks, Africans, Asians, and even the occasional American.
All of these representatives from warring nations were gathered together, having available to them all of mankind's most basic and primitive weapons... the stick, hammer, and ax. But there was not even a hint of animosity or threat of violence. But why? 
It was because there were three things there that day, any one of which by itself could prevent war and make friends out of enemies. But in his wisdom, or more likely by accident, Dad had all three at his wood-splitting beer garden party... there was a strong authority figure, a manly show-off job to be done, and free draft beer. World peace. Nailed it!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

DaVinci

This is DaVinci. And this is DaVinci's Jeep. Traveling with DaVinci in his Jeep is probably the closest I'll ever get to touring with a rock band. In DaVinci's Jeep, he is the rock star, and every stop along the way is a public appearance and photo opportunity for him and his fans.
First, since DaVinci has no money, cannot drive, nor claim title to anything such as a Jeep, how can we say that this is DaVinci's Jeep? We make such an assertion based on net volume. When DaVinci and four adults travel in the Jeep, he occupies the largest interior space. DaVinci gets the entire rear cargo area while the rest of us pack light and sit in our seats with our luggage on our laps or under foot. Any thought of throwing our bags in the back with DaVinci is quickly dismissed by taking note of the amount of hair and drool found in his private space. If you do put something in his space, he gives a look as if to say, “Really? You're putting that there?”. So we dare not challenge.
Besides his travel arrangements, what else proves DaVinci's celebrity status? Well, a true celebrity needs the right name. Since Beethoven was already taken by some other popular large dog, “DaVinci” seemed the next best choice, and possibly a better one. Sure, Beethoven is named after a classical master, but DaVinci is the proper name of a true renaissance dog. His name also puts him in the elite realm of those known only by a single word, like Cher, Madonna, and Fabio.
Of course, celebrities need a following. DaVinci's following is second to none. Wherever he goes, people rush to meet him, often before he can get out of the Jeep. They call his name to get his attention and snap his picture endlessly. For the most part he rolls with it, but like true Hollywood elite, when he's had enough, he walks off and finds some quite spot to get away from it all. Wouldn't you?
And finally, what greater mark of celebrity status is there than being able to get into places the rest of us can only dream of? “No Dogs Allowed” is no problem for DaVinci. Restaurants, hotels, shopping malls... you name the normally “no pets” venue, and DaVinci simply walks in like he owns the place. On our last trip, we both stayed in the same “no pets” hotel, but naturally he got a better room.
So if you ever do get opportunity to meet DaVinci in person, don't get star stuck. You'll only embarrass yourself.  He's really a regular guy like you and me. He just does things with a bit more style and class. If he's in a good mood, he'll let you have a picture with him, and may even look into the camera. Offer him a doggy treat, and if it's up to his standards, he may eat it. Pet him on the head, and if he likes you, you may walk away with the best DaVinci souvenir of all... some signature drool. Never wash it off. Treasure it forever.