19 July 2006

Chlorine & Dried Popsicles.

{This is a republishing of the very first article I ever wrote on this blog, entitled "Summer & the Simple Life in Madison, NJ". I recently rewrote it and submitted it as a memoir to our town paper, The Madison Eagle.}

Chlorine & Dried Popsicles:
A Memoir of Summertime
in Madison

I grew up in a town where I knew my neighbors, their kids and their grandkids. In this small suburb, we could feel free to knock on our neighbor’s door to borrow milk for pancakes when all the stores were closed on Thanksgiving morning. In fact, I don’t remember a time that we ever locked our doors or thought twice about striking up a conversation with a stranger passing by.

I grew up in Madison, and summertime always reminds me of its breezy, carefree days. My family knew both of our next-door neighbors well: coincidentally, they were both older Italian couples with husbands named Joe. On one side we had the Marano's and on the other side, the Romano's. Summer was as perfect as it could be. I woke up to the crack of a Little League bat hurling a ball onto one of the three baseball fields across the street from our home, since the windows were always wide open to let in the fresh air. Summer meant riding my pink bike with streamers on the handles up and down the driveway while my mom gardened in the front yard and my dad grilled hotdogs. But most importantly, summer meant the privilege of spending every sun-kissed day at the Madison Community Pool. As late morning approached, mom would call upstairs and see if I was ready to go. Are you kidding? Of course I was! I'd grab my already-prepared beach bag and jump into her '70s Camaro, ready for another day bathing in the sun, playing with friends, and anxiously awaiting the arrival of Herbie the Ice Cream Man.

We always drove the same route to the pool: past all the Italian homes on our street, left on Ridgedale past the historic homesteads, right on Fairview, down the hill to the corner of Central where the huge, ancient Victorian was poised majestically, across Central, around the curve, past the soccer field and...oh yes…

As we swerved into the parking lot, I could already hear the sound of the diving board flubbering on the metal supports as someone plunged into the diving tank and as the crickets sang from the thick woods on the other side of the pool fences. My nose caught the scent of chlorine mixed with dried popsicles, a smell that can only be characterized as the stickiness of summer.

To my chagrin, Mom always parallel-parked at the farthest possible spot from all other cars so no one would hit her precious Camaro. So I had to stomp in the weeds as I shimmied out of the car with only my bathing suit, beach bag, and a dry towel wrapped around my waist. Woe to the day I forgot my sandals and had to draw in my breath and run on barefoot tippy-toes across the burning asphalt in a race for the front entrance, my mom clomping behind me in her wooden Dr. Scholls.

The entrance to the pool was a monument to my childhood. To the left, there was the grassy picnic area next to the bike rack, worn with tire marks from the ice cream truck's daily pit-stop. Right in front of the entrance sat a grass island in the middle of the circle drive which was home to the flagpole and glimmering “three big rocks.” These three big rocks were not only boulders; they were daily visiting spots, gossiping points, and home bases for freeze tag. They also had the world's stickiest surface due to years and years of drips from Creamsicles and Toasted Almond Good Humor Pops.

So past the rocks, and in we'd go. My heart raced: which lifeguard would be at the entrance checking badges today? Would it be the cute senior guy from Madison High who I had a crush on at age 8? Regardless, all guards had the same demeanor at the entrance: feet propped up next to the cash register on the desk and whistle on a chord double-wrapped around the neck like a choker (which my friends and I thought was SO cool and would imitate as soon as we got home). Upon being asked to show my membership badge, I would proudly expose my upper left hip where my badge was pinned to my one-piece, then walk a few steps further under the portico and remove my sandals (if I hadn't forgotten them). Why did I always remove my sandals within a few steps of the entrance? "NO FOOTWEAR ON DECK." This sign was glaringly obvious, and everyone who ignored it was harkened by a guard and asked to remove their sandals promptly, or else.

The best time to arrive at the pool was when it opened at 10 am. The guards were just taking their stands, and the water was clear and unbroken. There were few people there, except for that one old lady with the leather skin whom, if I didn't know better, I would believe had actually taken up residence in the women's locker room so she could be the first and last one there every day. The first important decision of the day was where we would "set up camp." We always sat on the parking lot side. Mom would set up her lawn chair, I would lay my towel on the grass next to her, and we'd both set off for the water. Once my mom stuck her first toe in the water, you were not getting the lady out unless she absolutely had to go to the bathroom or occasionally, for a badminton match. The "mer-woman" could swim for almost 8 hours straight, filling her time with laps, jogging in the water as her side ponytail swung from side to side, and chatting with the guards. Yes, Mrs. Piccione was well-known in these parts, and dare you hurry her out of the pool when the last whistle blew at 7:30 pm, or you were in danger of receiving a really dirty look and being kicked off staff by the manager, Al.

Before I entered the water, I'd usually scan the pool from right to left, awed by its enormousness. So many possibilities! First there was the kiddie pool and tire playground with the tetherball and volleyball/badminton courts in the far distance, then the 2-ft. and 3-ft. areas with the small winding water slide, and the blue and white twisted rope which sectioned off the 4-ft. area where most of the “big kids” swam. It was so vast that I could yell across the pool to my friend, but she wouldn't hear me as she dove in to do another handstand! Past the 4-ft area was the real temptation for all little kids like myself: the exclusive "adult-badge-required" 5-ft. lap lanes where diving was allowed. Yes, it was a celebratory occasion of childhood when I passed my "deep water test" and was allowed to swim under the rough blue and white rope with the attached mini buoys to the adult badge area. I'll never forget my first time in those forbidden waters. It almost felt like snooping around my parents' bedroom when they weren't home.

However, beyond the adult lap lanes was something even greater still...the glorious crown jewel of Madison Community Pool: the diving tank.

You must really understand the diving tank in order to appreciate it. Being 12-ft. deep, this colossal chlorinated punch bowl was only for the brave. I started on the low dive, then the medium dive, but it was the pinnacle of summer the day I first jumped off the towering high dive. I remember jumping off so many times in a row that the bottoms of my feet were blazing from the impact later that night. And then there was the sweet victorious day when I actually did a dive off the high-dive. Deep breath…hands together in a fist over your head....stand on the edge....keep your arms straight and strong...then slowly tip your body forward and let it go over the edge head-first. The first impact was like diving straight onto concrete....but I did it! And after the first time, I couldn't stop doing it again and again.

[The above picture is how the diving tank looks today...sadly, they've removed some of the diving boards :(...]

One of the best games to play with friends in the diving tank was to yell out a question right as the other person jumped, and the jumper had to answer it before her face went underwater. This was best played on the medium dive. I'd wait in line for my turn, trying to anticipate what question I might be asked and plan out how I was going to jump high enough to have time to answer it. But no matter how much planning any of us did, it seemed we could never finish our answers in time, which of course made the game even more hilarious!

The Other Girls: "Say your full name and address!!"
Me: (Jumping as high as possible in a cheerleader-like split) "Christine Piccione! 43 Myrtle Avebbbbbbbbbbbbblllllllll......"

One big SPLASH! Everyone would then start giggling until I popped my head up gasping for air. I would climb out of the now-turbulent waters, flatten the stomach on my one-piece to release the big air/water bubble, and head to the back of the line for another round.

One event that kids at MCP could count on every single day was a visit from Herbie the Ice Cream Man. As soon as we heard the jingling bell signaling the Good Humor truck's arrival in the parking lot, utter anarchy broke out as children of every age jumped out of the pool, grabbed their towels, abandoned tether ball courts, mowed down their parents, and left the swimming area in swarms in an effort to be the first one in line to see Herbie (I learned the hard way to secure my ice cream money ahead of time so I didn’t have to waste time fumbling in my mom's purse as other kids trampled me in the mass exodus). Once I got to the truck, I was surrounded by wet hair, wet towels, the scent of runny suntan lotion, and often, wet bottoms brushing the sides of my hips, as I pondered what I was going to order that day.

Herbie had a very endearing stutter and was always wearing a buttoned-up white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, even in the dead of summer. He remembered our names, even when he saw one of us outside of the pool environment at a town baseball game or on the side of the street in one of our neighborhoods. He seemed to have an affinity for Cherry Bombs and always suggested those to the indecisive kids. Herbie was someone you could count on, growing up in Madison in the ‘80s.

After we'd received our selections from our beloved Herbie, my friends and I would head to the three big rocks with our sugary delicacies, our towels wrapped around our waists, or, if we were feeling naughty, twisted into a painful wet whip. We'd spread our towels on the burning rocks as to not singe our buns in the midday heat. Then, I would slowly open the paper wrapping and take that first delicious bite into the crumbly goodness of the Toasted Almond. My favorite bites were those beginning ones before hitting the stick…even though hitting the stick was special in this case, because that meant you were that much closer to your potential prize....a stick that contained the magical words, "One free Good Humor pop." What a joyous occasion this was...because it meant not one, but TWO, treats that day. If I was the winner, I would head victoriously back to Herbie's truck and order another (perhaps a Chocolate Eclair this time)...and always pretend it was my first in case my mom happened to see me!

After ice cream, I'd return to the pool area and relax on my towel for a little while. If I wanted to play badminton, my mom would get her pruny self out of the pool and join me. Sometimes as the day got later, around 4 pm or so, my dad and brother would come by. I remember my heart jumping when I saw them walking across the parking lot, because this meant that I could get piggybacks in the water from my dad and launches across the pool by my brother (which I secretly loved even though I screamed when he did it).

By 7 in the evening, I was finally tired of swimming, my lips were purple, and the sun was sulking lower in the sky. At this point, I would retire to our "camp" and sprawl out on mom's lawn chair, eating snacks like sesame sticks, carrots, and golden raisins that had been hiding deep in her pool bag. My hair would dry knotty and curly and chlorine-filled as I reveled in another day of carefree summer life.

At 7:15 pm, the guards started making their rounds and cleaning the deck. I loved to lie back on the lawn chair, close my eyes, and listen to the swishing sounds. They always had a system for cleaning the deck: one guard had a big bucket and would scoop up water from the pool and pour it on the deck. The other guard then took a big push-broom and swept the water all over the deck to the edge until it soaked into the grass. Sometimes I'd follow them all the way around the pool and dance on the edge of the grass, trying not to let the water touch my toes. At 7:30 pm, the loudspeaker clicked on and the announcement came, "Attention: The Madison Pool is now closed. Lifeguards, please clear the pool." The guards could not stand up quickly enough and blow their whistles in unison to signal that it was now time for everyone to get out of the water so they could go home and party the summer night away with their high school friends.

After a day at the pool, we headed home in our damp bathing suits…all except for my mom who kept her trusty navy blue sweatshirt in the bowels of her pool bag to wear over her suit. Blue sweatshirt, swimsuit, and Dr. Scholls...nothing else on the bottom.

Fast-forward to 2006, and the Madison Community Pool is thriving more than ever, attracting more and more families each year. My mom is the Social Chair on the Board of Trustees, planning parties and family events for the summer season. Although I live in Texas now and don't have a community pool, I still leave part of myself there each summer. Walk through the lobby on any given day and look for a colorful posterboard sign decorated with markered mini-pineapples, hula girls, or music notes advertising the next Madison Community Pool "Moonlight Swim" or other family event. Each poster is a DreamMore.com original and my contribution to a place that characterized my whimsical summers.

17 July 2006

1 Year With My Best Friend.

" A successful marriage requires falling in love many times,
always with the same person."

~Mignon McLaughlin

Yesterday, my husband and I celebrated our first amazing year of marriage! We had an absolutely exceptional meal at The Capital Grille, where we also dined during our honeymoon. The meal featured outstanding service by our waiter, Neal, who, is also the proud owner of 3 Jack Russell puppies. The filet mignon was MELT-IN-YOUR-MOUTH, and the coconut cream pie and cheesecake were TO-DIE-FOR (and FREE!) We ate our weight in pumpernickel raisin bread, and then Neal smuggled us an entire warm loaf wrapped in a napkin in our doggie bag! Now, that's service!

My husband and I spent the dinner enjoying every single bite of our food and going back and forth reciting one "good" memory and one "hard" memory from our first year of marriage. As you can see, we really enjoyed the food :)

(Barely a drop of whipped cream left on that dessert platter! hee hee!)

During our little dinnertime "game," I was reminded of how much I've changed and learned in the process. Here are just a few...
  • Even though I didn't know it was possible, I love my husband more than I did a year ago :)
  • Although it's hard to not always get my own way, it's ultimately more fulfilling to learn how to be selfless.
  • Marriage is dreaming about possibility but living joyfully in the present.
  • Just "being" together is more important than the dirty dishes being washed (tough one for me!)
  • When you are both surrendered to God, somehow this unexplainable thing happens: the joyful moments outweigh the difficult times.
  • Brokenness is meant to bring us freedom.
  • Smuggling people their favorite bread in a real cloth napkin is a surefire way to get them to return next year.
After dinner, we strolled in the 100 degree heat (yes, at 10pm - only in Texas!!!) to the beautiful fountain in the Crescent Court to finish off the evening...

Today is the 7-Year Anniversary of my dear friend/matron of honor Christy ~ congrats Christy & Steve!

A wonderful marriage...incredible friends...good food...none of these do I deserve. That just makes me treasure these gifts all the more today.

07 July 2006

A Memoir of College Days.

Wonderful blog readers: I wrote this last week while in Nashville for a short work trip...

I’m sitting at a metal table outside the Massey Business Building on the campus of Belmont University, my beloved alma mater. It’s about 6:30pm, and the sun is at the perfect spot in the sky. It's my favorite time of day. Absolute quiet surrounds me...more quiet than I've ever experienced on this campus, with a slightly cool feeling in the air. I’m sipping a cold bottle of Aquafina from Corner Court. Suddenly, I feel like I’m 20 again, in another time altogether, since it’s been over 7 years since I did this.

When I was in Corner Court, there was a sweet man working there, and by the pictures on the wall of him with several students, I could tell he’s well-loved and most likely has been here awhile. I small-talked with him about how I live in Dallas now. I told him I haven't been in Corner Court for over 7 years, and I didn't even know how long they'd had the new wall colors and chalkboard paint. He laughed and kept talking about how much he loves the students and how great of a place it is to be employed. Nice 'lil guy. As I'm typing this, he just locked up Corner Court for the night and walked past me saying, “Ya have a good one, now! Ain’t as hot as Texas out here is it?” I just smile.

Oh, bittersweet nostalgia. The memories are flooding back freely...

It is now 10 am on a Wednesday, and I don't have another class until PR in the Music Industry with Mr. Elliott (my fave professor) at 2pm. I'm sitting at the metal table chatting with my best friends Christy and Angela, decked out in my trusty denim overalls and Belmont baseball hat, munching on a very unhealthy but yummy coconut chocolate granola bar and guzzling a Dr. Pepper. Up walks J.T., Amanda, Jonna, Surupa, Heath, and Jonathan...to our regular meeting spot. We chat about how ridiculous that Accounting test was and how late we stayed up last night cramming. But most importantly, how many people are coming over to watch Friends tonight? And who is bringing the guitar?

Yet, it is 2006 and I’m no longer in college, I only visit Nashville now, no one will be coming over to watch Friends tonight (although maybe LOST instead!), and I'm sure not drinking Dr. Peppers by the dozen. ☺ As I decided about a half hour ago to kill some time before meeting up with friends by walking across campus to get a drink at Corner Court, I passed some teenage girls, and we smiled at each other. I decided to be friendly and asked them why they were here. They said it was for church camp (Centrifuge) and then asked if I was a student here. It was weird...I had a little tiny pang inside when they asked me that...I guess it was that little part of me that really misses all of it...being a student and the college way of life. I paused, smiled with a slight sense of sadness and replied, "No, I graduated in 1999 [which I realize is when they were about 10, and I suddenly feel really old...]. I'm just on campus visiting...but it was a wonderful place to go to school." They giggled and kept walking to meet up with their group for icebreakers or trust falls. I continued on my trek to Corner Court...through the center of campus and past the beautiful iron gazebos where we sang worship music many a night while a friend played guitar.

This whole business of recalling the college life is hard to understand. I’ve been learning a lot about “being in the moment” and living life in the here and now...getting the most out of today rather than spending today dreaming about another time and place. But how do I live in the present and deal with such sweet memories? This place is such a part of who I am today...and so maybe that's the answer.

My husband and I have also been talking a lot lately about community living and how that was played out in the "carefree" college life. Recently on a walk one evening at SMU, Steven asked me what my top 5 things were about being in college, and then he recalled his. Both of our favorite memories had to do with being with close friends all the time and always having some new activity/social event to be a part of...fraternity/sorority parties, outdoor concerts, all-you-can-eat-pancakes during Dead Day, late night movie marathons... And we both expressed how much we loved having people around all the time and living in the same place as those in our closest community. So we started pondering why that sense of life/community is something that rarely seems to happen outside of college. Why are there so many of us roaming around saying, "Man, that was the life. What I would give to go back to that now." Is it just what naturally happens when you grow up? Or is it how we form our lives after college because it's somehow expected that this is how it is supposed to be? Why can't we still have the benefits of college life while also being grown-ups? It baffles me. And I don't have an answer.

The sun is getting lower in the sky, casting a golden glow on everything in touches. I'm no longer thirsty, and it's time to go meet some friends for dinner at a restaurant on Belmont Blvd. Just a few last thoughts before I go:

I think it's time I walked on the sidewalk rather than trampling the manicured lawn through worn shortcuts in a rush to get to class.

I think it's time to pause and appreciate the lovely roses in the garden by the Belmont mansion, because 7 years ago, I didn't stop once as I passed them twice a day.

I wish I had loved this place this much when I went to school here.

I wish I didn't have to admit how much it disarms me to reconcile the present with the past.