By Lavinia Plonka
It was a simple mission. Get locally roasted coffee. My car headed to BeanWerks where the smell of roasted coffee intoxicates the entire street. People float down the sidewalk led by their noses like Bugs Bunny on his way to Elmer Fudd’s fabulous kitchen. To my delight, there was a parking space right in front of the store. I signaled to parallel park, pulling up close to the next car. I know how to parallel park. After all, I spent twenty years driving in Manhattan. The car immediately behind me zipped past to allow me space to back up. I began to turn, then I heard a honk.
“What? What the heck are you thinking? I’m trying to park!” I muttered in the rear view mirror to the car that had come up on my ass. She beeped again. I waved her to back up. The car behind her backed up to give her room. A helpful bicyclist was waving her back. She didn’t move. I looked back. She was talking on the phone. I tried again to fit into the space, talking to my car. “Come on baby, we can do it, just ease back in there.” But there was no way.
Enraged, I pulled away and found a spot in a parking lot. When I told my husband Ron about the parking debacle, he asked, ”So did you simply get out of your car and ask her to move back so you could park?” Duh. No.
“I didn’t want to make a scene,” I mumbled.
“But that would have made the point, don’t you think? There’s this idiot, talking on the phone, oblivious not only of your obvious intention, but that everyone is trying to help her. You could have woken her up.”
I couldn’t admit to Ron that I had been afraid. Not only was I afraid of creating a scene, I was also afraid that if she finally backed up to give me room, I was so emotionally overwrought that I would end up parallel parking on the sidewalk, or sideswipe a car. Yes, I can parallel park, but only when no one’s watching.
The other day, someone in my office picked up one of my books, What Are You Afraid Of? that I wrote almost ten years ago. “So, Lavinia Plonka, what are you afraid of?” he quipped. The only thing I could think of at the time was large horses and skydiving. And now here it was. Not a life threatening situation. Not even a career or relationship challenge. Just the fear of looking utterly incompetent on Haywood Rd.
Later that day, I was in my Indian dance class. I had chosen to study Indian dance for a number of reasons, paramount being that I LOVE being a beginner. There was no way to pretend I knew anything about Indian dance, so I was free to be delightfully incompetent, getting my mudras mixed up, my feet tangled and in general having a good time. That is, until my teacher said, “Hey, that’s great! You’re getting really good at that one!” Immediately, my arms and legs went askew and I froze, a bizarre Indian statue of the goddess of clumsiness.
I failed my driving test as a teenager. Actually, the first time I was scheduled to do my test I had to cancel because while practicing driving in the high school parking lot, I had panicked when my mother screamed, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” I wrenched the wheel, riding up onto the sidewalk in our VW bus and blew out the two left tires.
My mother, bless her heart, was one of the worst drivers on the planet. All the children in the family held their breath and gripped the armrest (this was before seat belts) each time Mom had to drive more than a mile. If she had to move from the fast lane to the slow lane, she would slam on the brakes and slow to a crawl before changing lanes. She hit the brakes at green lights. Her knuckles were blue and her fingers often had to be peeled off the steering wheel after a trip. Yet whenever we traveled and my Dad drove, she relentlessly harangued him about his horrible driving. “Poldek, look out! Poldek, slow down! Poldek, what do you think you are doing?” she’d shriek as we cavorted in the back seat, singing “Car, car, c-a-r, stick your head in the pickle jar,” My father would explode in a string of Polish curses that usually ended with him rolling down the window to “hock a loogy” as we said in Jersey, otherwise known as spitting phlegm. If the back windows were open, we had to duck to not get whacked with his mucusy rage flying back in.
When I finally screwed up the courage to take my test, I failed parallel parking. I hadn’t actually practiced parallel parking, it seemed like a useless skill. Who would bother to parallel park when there are so many parking lots around, I had reasoned. Besides, any day now they were going to invent a car that allowed you to turn the wheels ninety degrees so you could just slide sideways into a tight space, right? Trying to actually execute the parking under the stern eye of the examiner however, caused me to not only park badly, but in my embarrassment, I wrenched the wheel the wrong way, knocking over those damn orange cones and causing him to scream.
I know my parents loved me, my father said that each time I was punished for incompetence. I would do my best to be good, acing the test, winning the essay contest, cleaning my room. Then some imp of the perverse would possess me to drop a hot casserole on the floor, forget the last note while playing a solo in the accordion concert, or blow a bubblegum bubble while singing Deus Irae with the school chorus during a funeral mass. (Our eighth grade class got out of geography, or sometimes science class, and was marched over to the church to sing for High Mass funerals. It was a wonderful introduction to mortality.) By the time I failed my driver’s test, my father’s spanking hand had been exhausted and he merely shook his head, pronouncing, “What are we going to do with you? You will never amount to anything.”
Nothing motivated my siblings and me more than wishing to prove our parents wrong. And so we are eternally grateful for the kick in the pants. But every once in a while, incompetence washes over me like a cold shower, reminding me that I have no right to make my parents liars. When I became a performer, my father never came to see me on stage. I once asked him why, assuming it was merely disapproval of my choice of profession. “Truth is, Kid, I’m so afraid you’re going to make a mistake on stage that I can’t enjoy myself.”
When no one’s watching, I parallel park like a champ. But if someone’s waiting, or worse yet, if my Ron is in the car, the Indian goddess of clumsiness takes over, I ride up on the curb, or bang into the car behind me, as he rolls his eyes and clucks his tongue in loving contempt. My only revenge is that when he drives, I allow myself to channel my mother. “Ron, look out! You just cut that guy off! Ron, slow down! Ron, what do you think you’re doing?”
Is it programming? A karmic issue I have to work out in this lifetime? Parking PTSD? Part of my DNA? (Hey, is DNA karmic?) All I know is that each time I successfully parallel park, I wish someone on the street would break into applause, that passersby would flash scorecards with a big 10 written on them, that my car would suddenly learn to speak and simply say, “Awesome parking job, Lavinia.” That’s all I ask.
When not talking to her car, Lavinia moves others towards expanding their comfort zones via the Feldenkrais Method at Asheville Movement Center. Laviniaplonka.com. Want more cosmicomedy? Visit cosmicomedy.com
To learn more about Bharata Nattyam, the classical Indian Dance, email ThessalyChance@yahoo.com.