The Great Improviser, or One Blesséd Thing After Another…

I remember watching an improv comedy group with friends in college. Each member of the troupe was a whirlwind of wit and creativity, responding instantly to audience suggestions, random props, and fellow comics’ off-the-cuff reactions.

After more than an hour of nonstop hilarity and laughter, the group took its bows, then the members spoke briefly to the audience about how they do what they do: How they keep the laughs coming at such a breakneck pace when even they aren’t sure what will happen next?

The basic answer was so simple: Say yes, and

Whatever the situation, the idea, the inane detail added by the last castmate as he passes the scene to you, say yes, and build on it. Anything else — a no, a but, a hesitation, a rejection — derails everything. The joy of improv (for both performers and audience, I’ll wager) is in the way that it embraces the unknown and absurd and builds on them, laugh upon laugh, until the entire humorous edifice is revealed and the leader says, “Aaaaand scene!”

Say yes, and build on it. Embrace the situation and move forward. Such a simple trick — but it requires practice. (If you don’t believe me, get two friends and try Three-Headed Broadway Singer.)

It strikes me today that this is good advice for life, as well. This world is tilted, spinning, ridiculous in so many ways, and at times life appears to be, as an old saying goes, “one damned thing after another.” But it’s not. The sequence of events is not damned, but blessed.

We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. — Romans 8:28

God, in fact, must be the Great Improviser, to work out  His plan among so many free-willing, fallen creatures who are constantly doing the dead-wrong thing. God’s providence, it seems to me, must be a resounding, eternal, “Yes, and…”

Fr. Mike Schmitz shares great perspective on discerning God’s will for us, in which he reminds us that, even in scripture, when God’s appears to be taking His people by the hands and leading them, still less is known than unknown. In particular, he reminds us that, after being told by the angel Gabriel that she will bear the Son of God, Mary says “Be it done unto me according to your word,” and the very next line in scripture is, “Then the angel departed from her” (Luke 1:28).

Mary is left to improvise: to build upon that yes and each yes after, until the entire astounding edifice is revealed and the Master calls out, “Scene!”

Like Mary, we don’t know what’s coming: what incredible, impossible, unwieldy, absurd situation we may encounter, this moment or the next. But our response matters. In fact — since the universe is beyond our control — our response is all that counts.

It’s so simple, though it takes practice: Step with joy into the unknown. Say yes, and build upon it.

Road Trip Review, Part 5: What We Learned and Why We Laughed

Emma, Trevor, and I spent a lot of time together last week — time enough to have learned a thing or two in common and to have developed a few “in-jokes.” We learned, for example, that when you’re playing Score! (a road-trip game in which you count yellow cars for points*), the game gets faster and more furious as you travel south, as sunshine-colored muscle cars, Love’s fuel tankers, and Penske rental trucks take over the highways. Do rental car companies in Florida stock higher numbers of brightly-hued, late-model Mustangs and Camaros? They were everywhere, and more than half were bright yellow!

We learned that, south of Tennessee, drivers have  little regard for posted speed limits, unless it’s to add at least 15. In Georgia, especially Atlanta, and on the return trip through Alabama, I generally drove five or 10 miles per hour over the speed limit, even in reduced speed zones, to keep from being killed. We laughed to think that, if I got pulled over, it would be because the police figured they could actually catch up to me.

We learned that Florida drivers are the craziest I’ve ever seen. At least in Georgia and Alabama, the need for speed did not come with rage, impatience, or homicidal or suicidal tendencies. In Florida, I was passed by a car at such a high rate of speed (while I was driving 10 over) that the air around us seemed to split and our own car shook. As I regained my bowels and watched that car shrink toward the horizon, a crotch-rocket motorcycle zipped by even more quickly — like someone removing my left ear in one motion, with a Dremel — and vanished into the distance! I also watched two or three drivers, stopped at red lights, who began inching (or rather, jerking) forward into the intersection mere seconds after coming to a stop; one arrived in the center of the intersection while cross traffic was still advancing and made them steer around him!

But the worst example was a driver who rode my bumper as we were entering a construction zone. I was decelerating, but still over the posted limit; he or she was behind me mere moments before deciding to pass…at freeway speeds…on the right…using a rapidly diminishing merge lane lined with orange barrels and Increased Fines signs!

Of course, I always try to oblige the locals, so I added to the chaos, emerging from behind a left-turning semi in a non-freeway construction zone to wind up headed the wrong way into oncoming traffic in a dusty, narrow lane lined both sides with orange pylons. We laughed in retrospect, once I quickly backed between pylons and pointed us back the way we came, and the kids learned that I am, in fact, prone to frightened expletives in times of stress.

We learned that deputies in the Keys will pull you over for a burned-out headlight (“Do you know why I pulled you over?” “No, sir, I do not.”), but the one we encountered was very friendly, even when out proof of insurance was set to expire at midnight that very night! He let us go with a verbal warning and the admonition to get the light fixed ASAP.

We learned that gators can, indeed, be spied along the highways in rural south Florida. We speculated that the panther and bear crossing signs were posted to drum up intrigue rather than to warn of any actual wildlife present, and again, that the bears were escaped polar bears (judging from the shape of the black silhouette on the signs) from an apparently flooded zoo. This odd thought led to further speculation that behind the high fences and tall grasses, Floridians were breeding armadillos and releasing them along the highways of Tennessee — or at least littering that unfortunate state with their carcasses.

The prevalence of roadside armadillo carcasses made roadkill-watching something of an activity, in addition to license-plate hunting (45 states, all but one from passenger vehicles, not trucks or trailers; five provinces; and the U.S. Government) and the Score! game. We laughed at a term I made up as we passed a particularly unidentifiable critter on the pavement: inside-out-opus. Indeed, inside-out-opus may have been the second most prevalent creature we saw along I-75, armadillos being the first, and easily identified by their disjointed but intact bands of so-called armor.

We learned (or rather, confirmed) that Trevor and Emma have the same dark, though nonsensical, edge to their humor as I sometimes have, as when we passed a dead deer that had been clearly blitzed by a large truck. “There’s a semi deer,” I observed to pass the time. Trevor replied, “That’s exactly what it was: a semi-deer…half a deer!”

Another example: After being pepper by no-see-um bites the first night in the Keys**, we discussed now and again the possibility of chewing off our own limbs to rid ourselves of the itch. Emma was in a particularly bad state the evening we were in Memphis — relieved only by the distraction of eating those exquisite Rendezvous ribs. She railed at Trevor his seeming inability to get the bones clean of pork to her exacting standards, which led to the best joke of the trip: as we left Memphis and my own numerous red spots began to itch with a fury, I asked Trevor to gnaw off my feet (since I was driving and unable to do it myself). Without hesitation, Emma said, “He won’t be able to finish.”

In addition to inside-out-opus, we learned two new words, courtesy of Trevor: froth-tips (he meant whitecaps) and crane-truck (he meant tow truck). We laughed to recall Randy telling us of his late Airedale Sandy, who rode with him everywhere and became something of a celebrity in Wetumpka, Alabama — how, if something caused Randy to say an angry word, Sandy would jump in the back of the vehicle until he said, “I’m sorry, Sandy, I didn’t mean it!” We learned that a manatee on a mission can swim more than 20 miles per hour, and that Hemingway’s then wife, Martha Gellhorn, stowed away on a Naval vessel to be the sole woman to land at Normandy on D-Day.

We learned many other things, and laughed a lot — though much of the humor was born of 60-plus hours together in a car. I won’t share more. You had to be there!

————

* As my kids play Score!, when you spy a yellow vehicle moving under its own power, you get two points; a yellow vehicle parked (on land or a trailer) is worth one point. Yellow Hummers are 15; yellow construction vehicles, school buses, and vehicles with fewer than four wheels don’t count at all. It gets a little touchy at times: designating which shades of chartreuse are too green, or which of signal yellow are too orange, or which bucket trucks, dump trucks, or semis are sufficiently vehicular to not be considered construction equipment, or how to handle a Penske rental lot. After many hundreds of points combined, the final score and victory came down to the last two miles of the trip: Emma spied the last two yellow vehicles and beat Trevor by a mere three points. (She also “scored” multiple Hummers, while Trevor saw none — controversially, the first one came with an accompanying gasp from me, which was followed by Rose saying, “Is that a Hummer? Yeah, it’s a Hummer!” Trevor claimed she didn’t know for sure, so it should have counted. That 30-point swing would have made him the victor by a sizable margin.

** We learned that no-see-ums are a plague on humanity that make mosquitoes and ticks seem quaint and tolerable; the sheer volume of tiny red blistery, burny, itchy bites, couples with the intensity of the itch and the week-plus duration of inflammation (not to mention the sheer madness of a bug you can hardly see carving chunks from your living flesh) make it no competition. Emma got it worst; they loved her, and her bites swelled to pea size early on, like mosquito bites. I was bitten second worst, and Trevor least of all, but still plenty badly — his also seemed to take root and flare up later than ours. Wicked. I won’t make the same mistake and trust the breeze and tent screens to keep the bugs off!

Just the Four of Us

For the first time in more than 20 years—near as we can figure—my mom, dad, sister, and I are alone together in my parents’ house.* The last time this happened, according to Jill’s recollection, was just before I left for South Dakota to marry Jodi. Jill was pregnant with my niece and goddaughter Kayla (hence the asterisk above) and couldn’t travel; she recalls sitting together in the loft overlooking the great round beams of my folks’ house, talking with me and giving me a old penny from her coin collection that had belonged to Grandpa Thorp. I don’t recall the exact moment as clearly as she, but I have the penny still, and the timing seems right.

And now here we are again, just the four of us, talking and laughing together. Births, holidays, weddings, funerals. Decades pass like minutes. We are entirely different people than the last time, and just the same.

I’m not sure I have a point tonight, other than to commemorate this day and note the speed with which time’s arrow flies, the swift fluidity of life, and the beautiful permanence of family.

Long Goodbye

It’s a strange sensation, like a high-tensile wire stretched six hours west to a bluff above Bismarck and the Missouri River, a steady thrum, more felt than heard, reminding me that a part of me is there. Not gone, but definitely not here, and I can’t know from one moment to the next what he’s about. We are six hours distant, so I know less about his day-to-day — but I am more keenly aware of him than I have been in years. His absence is a presence, palpable, in our home.

I am wearing an old hardware-store t-shirt he left behind.

I haven’t felt this sort of connection to my eldest son since he first came home with us — the heaviest ten pounds I ever lifted — and I realized he was ours to shape and raise to manhood. Then the connection was direct, bare skin on bare skin, almost frighteningly close: his little chest expanding and contracting, the soft spot where his skull had yet to form pulsing, his every need and discomfort so close to the surface we could almost feel it. Now it’s this invisible strand from one eggish Thorpian occiput to another. He’s always at the back of my mind.

I wonder if he feels it, too?

* * * * *

At different points this past summer, it felt like such a blessing that the University of Mary started late. We planned an August send-off, since Brendan didn’t want a grad party and had lots of time to plan and few conflicting parties to contend with. As we watched more and more friends drop their teens off at college, we thought it was helping to prepare ourselves for this weekend. Perhaps it did. But the past three weeks or so began to feel like a very long goodbye. Brendan left his job at the hardware store at the end of July, and his electrician’s job a few weeks back. His band, Pabulum, played their Final Jam. (They insist they are done as a group, which would be a pity.) All of his friends expect Olivia (who is a senior this year) left for college, and he started packing his things, some for Bismarck, some for storage.

The week before last he took a solo road trip to Michigan to spend some down time with my folks. As God’s providence would have it, a high-school friend of mine has a son who was transferring to St. John Vianney Seminary in St. Paul this fall; he and Bren were best friends in preschool, and Will and his stuff needed a ride to Minnesota. They came back together, two peas in a pod, and Will dropped right into our family. When we took him to the seminary a day or so later, it was actually a little emotional — call it practice or anticipation, we were beginning to feel the ties to Brendan being stretched.

Last Monday, Jodi and I took Brendan out to supper and to get sheets, supplies, and decor for his dorm. We had such a good time eating his favorite food (Mexican, this time at El Bamba), listening to his current favorite band (Icelandic blues-rock outfit Kaleo — Bren, his friends and I are going to see them in October); making him pick out dishes, sheets, and towels when he couldn’t care less. It was a great evening.

And then this weekend. Originally only Trevor wanted to make the trek to UMary, until Gabe realized he could potentially get 12 hours of driving toward his license. Once he decided to go, Emma jumped aboard, realizing that otherwise she would be left to babysit Lily alone. So all seven of us went — the largest single-family contingent I saw on campus.  Jodi and I took Friday off, and we left early in the afternoon so Bren could connected with his NDSU friends in Fargo and catch our local high school’s football game against Moorhead. He spent the night on campus; the rest of us in a hotel. Seeing his friends joyful and comfortable on campus, was reassuring; arriving at UMary itself was doubly so: simple, joyful, peacful.

Bismarck’s Big Boy Drive-In — unique in my experience,
with menu items you don’t see anyplace else. Google it!

We met his roommate, Ethan, a nursing student and Vikings fan from western Minnesota, and Ethan’s parents — they seem like a wonderful family — and heard from UMary president Monsignor James Shea, who told the students with clear affection and blunt honesty that their lives were not their own, but a gift for others, and unless they find a way to spend themselves in love, they will have wasted their time here. He told us parents, as well, to step away and allow our children to stumble and fall that they may learn to stand on their own.

He strikes me as a good man, and I couldn’t be happier to entrust Brendan’s young mind and character to him these next few years.

One other speaker shared an Erma Bombeck quote, comparing raising children to flying a kite: letting out more and more string until ultimately the tether breaks and the kite soars away on its own. It’s not a bad metaphor, but I see things differently. This connection between us is stretched thin, but not to breaking; it is keen, sensitive, and strong, and though it can be tangled, wound about the world, stretched to invisibility and nigh untraceable, it cannot be broken.

I told him as much, in a letter I left in one of his boxes. No matter how far away he goes, I am here waiting for his return. Because he is mine, and I love him.

When we finally decided, after dinner on campus, that it was time to head home, Bren walked with us to the Suburban. He hugged each of us (Mom and Lily more than once) and told us he loved us. He told the older kids to keep doing their thing: Emma, to keep baking; Trevor, to keep drumming; Gabe, to keep being himself and making people laugh. Lily’s last words to him from inside the Suburban: “Love you, Brendan! Don’t do anything bad out here!”

We’ve done the best we could. I think he’ll be alright.

Time Flies: A Thorp Family Update

The most recent photo of us all, with my folks and
sister’s family thrown in for good measure.

I’ve remarked more times than I can count in the past year: “My age doesn’t bother me; it’s the fact that Brendan is heading to college.” It’s my kids’ ages that get to me — not the the additional salt in my pepper, the aches and pains, the fact that I’m often tired and can rarely sleep.

This past year has flown, and with a grad party and a trip to Poland for World Youth Day, the summer promises to be even faster. So I thought I’d offer you all an update on our family before we blink and the leaves fall again.

Prom-goers: Brendan and Olivia

Brendan, as you may have heard, is headed to UMary in the fall. He will graduate early in June in the top 10 in his class, with a varsity letter in wrestling and local scholarships from Knights of Columbus Council 4174 (of which he is one of the newest members), the American Legion, and the Hanover Athletic Association. He loves Ultimate Frisbee (actually all four of our teens/tweens do), dabbles in swing-dancing, and is still happily dating Olivia. (Last night’s consisted of Adoration and ice cream.) He is still working at the hardware store, and just starting a second job with a local electrical contractor for the summer. He loves his bass and his music (Foo Fighters is his current favorite band), and yesterday, he bought an acoustic guitar for song writing and kicks. And he has a pipe, which he smokes on occasion.

Swing-dancers: Gabe and Kate

Gabe is now the tallest in our family, by perhaps a quarter inch. He is working on getting his driver’s license this summer, helping our friend’s taxidermy business, and preparing for his junior year of high school. He was confirmed this month, was just inducted into the National Honor Society like his older brother (NHS at our high school does a great deal in service to the school and community), and will be one of the leaders of the high-school pro-life group in the fall. He played soccer but didn’t wrestle this year, and is on the fence about next year — too many other interests, including reading and writing, teaching himself piano, learning Quenya (J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elvish language), and swing-dancing. In this last activity, he works hard and excels — especially when paired with his friend and fellow Lord of the Rings geek Kate. They aren’t dating, just dancing and discerning together.

Emma and two of her flute-playing besties

Emma is easily the tallest female in the house and explored the high-school for the first time yesterday as an incoming freshman. She played volleyball in the fall and is running track this spring — plus playing flute in the band and woodwind ensemble and singing in the middle-school choir. The music, at least, will continue in high school. Emma has followed her brothers to help with the church’s Core Team and is also an avid swing-dancer (which means boys); Gabe’s dance-partner is one of Rosebud’s mentors in becoming a young woman of virtue. Emma dabbles in piano, too; reads voraciously, and bakes like our family is twice the size (and it will be, unless we share her goodies). She is hoping to start baby-sitting soon and wants a new dog almost as much as her dad.

Trevor rocking

Trevor will be our sole middle-schooler next year, and plans to work out this summer in hopes of wrestling on the school team in seventh grade. He is a rhythmically gift version of the boy his father was: a creative thinker and storyteller, easily distracted, heart-on-his-sleeve…but coordinated enough to rock a drum kit (or the kitchen table, a couch cushion, his thighs…), to play basic piano music with relative ease, and to dance to almost any song when the mood strikes him. Also an avid reader and a good student, but with a style all his own: whereas Gabe has a hat collection and wears them on occasion, Trevor wears a brown fedora each day to school. He shows signs of a mechanical knack (another difference from his father) and still loves Legos.

Typical Lily

Lily completed her year of Catholic co-op preschool yesterday. She is colorful, funny, opinionated, and creative, with an ever-expanding vocabulary and a precocious sense of humor for a four-year-old, included puns and word-play and physical comedy along with the typical (non-sensical and never-ending) knock-knock jokes. She, too, likes to dance and to watch her swing-dancing elders, and she makes her siblings friends her own whenever she has the chance. She, too, has sprouted in the past year — she is a head taller than her plastic barn playset she so enjoyed last summer — and although she rarely eats a lot at a sitting, she would eat constantly if allowed. And she loves superheroes, especially Batman and the Justice Leaque.

Jodi and I are well — and abundantly blessed, in the midst of such breakneck activity. My bride often says it feels like only a short while ago that Brendan got on the bus for kindergarten the first time, and so it seems to be as well. We will have been married 20 years this August, and for my part, I am as happy as I have ever been.

That said, I had to be reminded of something not long ago, with the help of a priest friend: as Christians, spouses, parents, we have a serious call in this world, which requires a serious, heartfelt response — but none of that means that God doesn’t desire our happiness or enjoyment of this life. He came that His joy may be ours — shame on us if that joy does not pervade all that we do, and all that we are. It can seem terribly romantic to think ourselves unworthy of the blessings in our lives — the soft warmth of the one who lies next to us in the wee hours before waking, or the noise of a full and laughing house — and to strive and sacrifice to show our appreciation and earn our worth. But in truth, we are worthy — intrinsically — as God’s beloved children. So while I must not take my beautiful bride and these five awesome children for granted, I can love them best if I realize that my worth, and each of theirs, comes from our creation in His image and in resting in his embrace.

We are so blessed. As sinners, we don’t deserve it…but what else should we expect from such a God as this?

Last summer…where does the time go?