Monday, December 29, 2008

Country C-c-c-cold

Eskimos have about 30 different words for snow. So do New Yorkers, but most of them can't be printed here. On January 20th, 1961 in Poughkeepsie, NY, it was 30 degrees below zero. That day, in Washington, D.C., in a blizzard, John F. Kennedy was sworn into the office of the Presidency. He did not wear a hat and got very sick. I know this because throughout my childhood my mother mentioned it repeatedly, like it was a storm strong enough to make a President ill, especially an Irish one not smart enough to wear a hat. Seemed a mixed metaphor to me. She had several points to make, all conflicting. Hurrah, we had an Irish President, but he was still a man with rocks for brains for not dressing warmly.

Mom: Put a hat on. It’s freezing out. Don’t catch a cold like Kennedy.

Me: That was stupid of him, huh.

Mom: Are you disrespecting the greatest President of the United States?

Me: Didn’t you just say he was dumb for not wearing a hat?

Mom: And now you’re putting words of disrespect in my mouth?

In upstate New York, three feet of snow was on the ground, with more coming down. Even the blanket of snow was shivering. I had been due to be born at Christmas. It’s common knowledge that children born at Christmas time get ripped off in the birthday department. Jesus owns it and nobody’s upstaging him. Plus, in honor of my untimely timing, my mother was going to name me "Holly." I figured I’d lay low and be born in time for the after Christmas sales. Only thing was, it was bitter cold outside, so I kept hitting the snooze alarm.

By late January, however, my mother had had enough. 10 months pregnant, she decided to induce labor by shoveling snow in the driveway. In hindsight, this would have worked better if she had shoveled the hospital driveway, and if Poughkeepsie had not been a solid chunk of ice. In hindsight, this would have worked better if it were August. But we were Irish, so we were determined to give birth a month late, in a snowstorm, uphill, and sideways.

Despite most roads being impassable, the car not starting, and John F. Kennedy’s nose running, we somehow made it to the hospital, up the elevator and almost to the delivery room. Almost. In fact, when the doctor told my dad he was now a father, he denied it. “That’s impossible,” he argued. “I just got here.” He was a bit peeved that he wasn't able to pace the waiting room like the dads in the movies.

I've been trying to warm up to him ever since.

In Brooklyn, much of the cold and wind is deflected by your neighbor’s home, built within inches either next to, under, or on top of, your home. Buildings are so close you can hear your neighbor’s sneeze, perhaps even feel his moist breeze. There are many drawbacks, but one bonus of living wall-to-wall with other people is that you are never really chilly. Plant a spacious, airy house on top of a ridge in the middle of nowhere, however, and you’ll freeze your agrarian tail off. A lovely view, yes, if you make it to spring.

Winter’s like the fierce beast at the zoo – it’s great, but only when you have some serious fortification between you and it. On our windowpanes, frost would create the most magical little ice sketches. Tiny, delicate white scrollwork wending its way around the edges of the glass, the engravings were daintier than those on the finest crystal. The only problem was that they were on the inside of our windows. I thought I might wake up one morning, tattooed all over in the loveliest ice etchings.

To conserve energy, lesser-used parts of the house, like the den, were closed off. But the rooms got so cold, pipes in the baseboard heating system burst because they had frozen, flooding part of the house. Sadly, this ruined some of the best window ice engravings.

For my birthday, I’d invite some friends over for a sledding party. We’d have some birthday cake then head outside. Only as parents in the northern realm are well aware, in winter little kids can’t simply head outside. They need boots and hats and snowpants and mittens and help putting all that stuff on. They need staff. By the time my mother had finished dressing the last of the party girls and sent her out, the first one was back in for dry mittens and cocoa. It was a revolving door – warm dry ones out, and cold wet ones in. For three straight hours, Mom was hunched over putting on and taking off mittens and boots and hats on little girls. A dog wandered by, and Mom inadvertently dressed it in a parka.

One of the toughest things was getting up in the morning. Heating oil was expensive, possibly even more expensive than the treatment for frostbite, so the heat was turned off at night, or down as low as possible without risking a burst pipe. First one up (that would be me) had to build a fire in the kitchen woodstove. And before we went to school, the cows and horses had to be fed. Some mornings were so cold I half expected some of the livestock to be waiting for me in the kitchen:

Midnight the Cow: About time you got up. Get the fire going!

Me: How did you get in here?

Midnight the Cow: Door was unlocked, once I busted all the ice off it. You take milk in your coffee?

Me: Gimme my robe back.

There is no better heat than that of a wood stove. It soaks into your skin like tropical sunlight, baking chilled bones and thawing attitudes. My usual stance was leaning against a wall reading a book, my back to the stove so the heat would melt the ice in my spine. I usually had to negotiate my way past several dogs and maneuver for the warmest spot. Lady, our Dalmatian/Beagle mix, was the biggest fan of the stove. If you happened to be in her favorite spot, she would often lean on you until you moved. We took extra care not to feed her potent leftovers, since the only thing worse than a dog fart is a dog fart on fire.

Brother Bob: What is that smell?

Me: I don’t sm-(gasp!) Oh, my! That’s horrible!

Bob: Did you put something weird in the stove again?

Me: No!

Bob: Smells like something died…or is dying…

Me: Lady!

Lady had been leaning against the woodstove. That was fine when the stove wasn’t fully loaded, but I had recently restocked it with wood, and I guess she slept through that key event, until the stove got going and the scent of her own pelt cooking woke her up. Now Lady was sporting a long, brown racing stripe the length of her body, looking like someone had made a feeble attempt to ‘connect the spots’ on her fur. It was the imprint of the stove – she had literally burned a line on her fur. Being half Dalmatian, the stereotypical firedog, she was quite embarrassed, and asked that we not make this event public, lest her mother find out. I assured her that dogs can’t read. At least not Dalmatians.


There were good sides to winter. We would ice skate on the pond in the back woods. It was a mile hike each way, and the pond usually had to be cleared of snow first, and fallen logs frozen in the ice made the skating interesting, but at least we got to skate. I likened it to climbing Everest - bust your butt to get there, take a picture, then go home.

Down the road, we’d gather a few friends and play pond hockey at a nearby farm. There was an added level of excitement because this particular pond had a spring at one end that never quite froze over completely. Sometimes we’d hear a monstrous craaaa-aack! and feel the ice drop beneath our feet. We’d leap for the nearest bank, feet flailing in the air like spastic, bubble-wrapped ballerinas, afraid to touch the ice again lest it give way completely beneath us.

One particularly spectacular experience was sledding down the driveway. Dad had his own snowplow, and instead of scraping all the snow off the driveway like a sane person, he packed it down like a bobsled run, even banking the turn nicely for the toboggans. We would all climb onto sleds and fly down the drive, dogs nipping at our mittens.

Dogs love mittens, especially when stolen off a sledding kid at 15 miles an hour. We’d zip down the hill, belly side down, hands on the sled handles to steer. The dogs would race next to us, growling, barking, teeth flashing, trying to swipe a glove or a hat. If you fought to keep your glove, you’d lose control of the sled and crash, often becoming a speed bump for the sledders behind you.

Brother Bob: Dog on your left!

Me: What? Car?

Bob: No – DOG!

Lady the Dog: Grrrrr…woof! (snap!)

Me: Mayday, mayday! I’m under attack!

Bob: Give her the glove! Give her the glove! Let it go!

Me: I’m going down! Aaaaagh!

I tuck my head as my body slams into a snowbank, missed by inches by oncoming sledders. My sled continues down the drive without me.

Sometimes it’s best to forsake the mitten to the beast, even if it means catching a cold like Kennedy.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Ow, Christmas Tree

My grandmother was proud of her fake tree. Feathery white aluminum with blue ornaments, I secretly giggled that it was a Hanukkah bush. I never said so because she had a nasty left hook. Each year she'd retrieve this faux ode-to-joy from under the house. Since she never took the ornaments off, and since it was a whopping 30 inches tall, all Nana had to do was whip its trash bag cover off, plunk the thing down in her living room, plop down in her recliner and sigh, "Merry ding-dong Christmas. Now fetch me some Kichels and rub my feet." I looked on in horror, not just at the thought of touching her feet, but at the idea that Christmas could be so grossly disrespected.

Shiny silver trees were probably quite stylish back in the city, where everything was chrome and quick. However, out in the country, things were a bit different. Chopping down our own Christmas tree had been a tradition in our family since I was knee-high to a pine cone. We kids would have an early breakfast and head out at sunrise, hiking through the pastures, northward to a pine forest, carrying rope, a hacksaw, and lunch. The rope was for tying up my youngest brother and dragging him through the snow when he got whiny. The hacksaw came in handy at lunchtime, trying to digest whatever Mom had made for us. To be honest, we couldn't tell if it was stale since by then it was frozen solid.

I remember singing Christmas songs, mostly to make sure the hunters didn't mistake us for deer. If I sang just right, kinda nasally, it would vibrate my nose and heat it. Early on I had learned not to rub my nose to warm it up. In low temperatures, the tiny hairs inside the nasal passage often froze, so if you rubbed your nose, you'd send icy needles into the sensitive lining of your sinuses. The blood would then drip onto your jacket and Mom would be furious.

It would take all morning just to reach the pine forest, longer if we heard a wolf or bobcat. After lunch we would choose a tree to bring home. This took a while because there were four of us, and in our short, frozen lives we had never agreed on anything. Eventually the boys would pick a really tall tree, maybe thirty to forty feet high. Since I was the oldest, it was my job to climb up and lop off the top of the tree with the hacksaw. Taking just the top of the massive tree made my sister happy, since we weren't really killing the tree, just maiming it. The tree would later die of bug infestation brought on by the decapitation, but again, she would point out, we didn't kill it – the bugs did. (She's now an attorney.) My brothers loved making me climb the thirty or so feet in the air to trim the tree. Try as I might, I was never quite able to hit them with the tree as it fell.

It was then time to tow the vegetative carcass home. We'd take turns pulling it with the rope, back through the woods, even through a small stream. In a Norman Rockwell painting, this is all so very quaint and rustic. In reality, it was, like many family traditions, a royal pain in the ass.

On the long haul back, one of us kids would start whining how we didn’t need a live tree, why we couldn’t do something like Nana and have a measly fake one. This was high treason, or considering the situation, ‘tree-shun.’ I would argue tradition, but truly, at that point, freezing, exhausted, I was in the minority. At least the arguing kept us warm until we got home.

Surprised and a bit taken aback to see all four of us alive and intact, ourparents would welcome us home before retiring for the night. Tradition held that we couldn't eat until the tree was up in the living room. Unfortunately, upon arriving at our house, the tree would somehow grow a foot or two wider, too wide for the doorway. We would push, shove and cram the beast until we had shredded the entryway and cracked enough branches to make the poor tree look like the cows came home right over the top of it.
Some years there was no snow, and the tree would become caked with mud, leaves, and whatever else we ran over. This could be a real problem when we went through the cow pasture. We'd get home a little after sundown, and the lack of daylight made it especially hard to spot any unusual attachments before the tree was inside the house. After getting it upright and tied to the curtain rod, we would notice an unusual odor. Cowpie ornaments don't do well in the heat of a living room, but at this point, we were too exhausted to take the whole thing back outside. Instead, we’d knock off the big nasty chunks, spray some Lysol, and call it a day. Most people turn the least attractive part of the tree toward a wall. We did, too, and it was usually the side sporting bits of cowpie.

Some of the ornaments we weren’t allowed to handle until we were much older. They were antiques, carefully handed down from the time of the Depression. Dark, worn, and fragile, for years I thought we kids weren't allowed to touch them because you could catch 'depression' from them. Why we put them on our tree I had no idea. Perhaps, I reasoned, to appease the gods of depression. I wondered how the ornaments felt, making it through decades of strife, poverty, and difficult times, only to be placed in a ragged pine tree right next to cattle droppings.

As I sat there listening to my brothers argue whether the tree was standing up straight or not, I'd get to thinking how I couldn't wait to have my own kids so I could share this family tradition with them. Whether they liked it or not.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Santa Unwrapped

One Christmas Eve, just as my teddy bear and I were toddling off to visions of sugarplums (whatever the hell those are), Dad took me aside.

“We need to talk,” he said.

“Is this about the birds and the bees?” I asked.

“No!” he stammered. “No. It’s about Santa.”

“Is he ok?”

“Yes, he’s fine. Well, no, actually, he’s not.” Dad sighed. “He doesn’t exist. Your mother and I have been um, covering for him all these years.”

It figured. If the pizza man wouldn’t even deliver to us, why should Santa? But I was finally in on the secret. It was quite the letdown, finding out Santa’s true identity. On the bright side, it was a relief to know a jolly, corpulent stranger couldn’t actually waltz into our house any time he wanted.

I had always expected the dogs to nail Santa, cornering him before he could make it back to the chimney, or at least ripping a chunk out of his gaudy red suit. Their lack of diligence had worried me. At least now there was a logical explanation.

“Now that you know,” Dad sighed, “Get down to the basement and start wrapping.” I soon discovered why he had told me at such a young age, and why elves are so short with everyone - gift-giving can be a real pain in the ass. Even with four kids and a limited budget, my parents still went all out, buying us toy upon toy upon toy. As a result, I suddenly found myself toiling in a dank, dark bunker, wrapping eleventy little bundles of retail joy for my brothers and sister. I had just been introduced to the ugly, sweaty underbelly of Santa.

It was confusing, knowing how strict our parents were, yet how generous Santa seemed to be. Why be so ornery all year long and then pile on the toys? Looking back, I would have traded several candy canes in December for a few kind words in August. Eventually this keepsake family tradition would be better explained to me in my college psychology class, in the chapter on parental guilt.

As my back began to throb from wrapping, my parent’s crankiness became more understandable. Until recently they had been handling all this toy business by themselves. Now they had little me to help in their dirty work, and I quickly reached the point that if I saw one more Chatty Cathy doll, I would decapitate it.

It was especially weird wrapping anything for me. The next morning, I was expected to be surprised and joyous at such remarkable gifts, when all I really wanted for Christmas were some painkillers and a hot shower. Yes, I was growing up. And seriously considering converting to a religion that involved a bit less manual labor.

No wonder Santa used elves – they never grew big enough to overtake him. And at the North Pole, there was no way for them to escape without dying of exposure. The big guy sure knew what he was doing. But with all those high-pitched, whiny voices and a serious lack of quality entertainment before satellite television, I don’t know how he made it through the year without bountiful amounts of Scotch.

Beads of sweat soaked my bunny-suit pajamas as I lugged sleds, a doll house, several bikes, forty-seven damn dolls, even a cannon, from their hiding places in the basement. Sweat poured from my body because our traditional Christmas Bonfire to Roast Santa’s Ass was heating the house to nearly ninety degrees. My back ached from wrapping such a huge pile of guilt gifts. Suddenly this holiday wasn’t so jolly. More than a cheery wee elf, I resembled a clammy, muttering troll.

In a few hours, my littlest brother would be screaming at me to wake up, bringing the dogs in with him to jump on the bed and pound on my still-suffering muscles. I was tempted to use my newfound powers of x-ray vision to tell him what each of his presents were, but I figured since Santa no longer had my back, I was pushing my luck with my parents. They not only knew if I’d been bad or good, they wouldn’t wait until next Christmas to smack me for it.

It was a few years before I got any assistance in my elfin basement dungeon. My brother, Tom, was only a year younger, so I expected his help the following year. But apparently since I was doing such a terrific job on my own, my parents neglected to share the Santa-less truth with him. I soon realized that if I didn’t settle down, I’d be curling ribbon and gilding boxes solo until my siblings left for college.

For years after that, when my siblings would write their Christmas lists, I’d pray they’d ask for nothing heavy. Instead of bikes and large mechanical contraptions, I’d extol the virtues of stock options and cash. They never did catch on. Or it could be that they knew exactly what was happening, and enjoyed putting me through Noel hell.

Years later, I looked back at our weird traditions. Our tilting, teetering tree, cut and dragged from our back woods, with most of the ornaments hanging within three feet of the ground, since that’s how far up we little ones could reach. We’d bunch up wads of silver ‘icicles’ and launch them at the top of the tree, creating piles of wrinkled silver dangling in oddish garlands. And every time our mom regaled us with one of her Santa Isn’t Coming This Year scream-athons, I had Bing Crosby crooning It’s Beginning to Look a lot like Christmas in my head. An odd song-association, yes, but part of my own personal holiday tradition carved from hours in our holiday basement sweatshop. I wasn’t real keen on hauling so many toys from the bowels of our house, but if that’s how our parents showed their love, so be it.

Besides, picture-perfect holidays are always suspect – it’s like that one flawless house on the street, with the housewife wearing a smile stretched so taut across her face you expect her teeth to implode. We're quietly aware that all her emotional baggage is crammed tightly into one closet. Open that closet door and bam! Emo-armageddon.


Having a bit of goofiness in the preparation comforts me, since I’m far from perfect myself. I figure if flaws are allowed to wander about like cattle, they will be less likely to build up in a closet somewhere and stampede through our lives unexpectedly.

Besides, the first Christmas was a mess, too – no vacancies, hay everywhere, guests arriving days late, and snoring farm animals. Never mind the gifting headaches - what could you possibly get someone whose father is God? Did you even bother wrapping it? I mean, he probably knew what you were going to get him before you did.

When viewed from a distance across decades, most old, family traditions seem quaint. But for a moment, put yourself in Mary’s place – nine months pregnant, riding a donkey, married to a guy who didn’t even have the presence of mind to call ahead to reserve a room. I’m pretty sure Mary uttered a few words too spicy for the Bible. But she got through and everyone’s happy for that. (For the second kid, though, I'm sure she did things way differently.)

Many of our own Christmas traditions were probably nerve-wracking or simply stupid, but we made it through, and now we can all sigh and think of them as quaint. So odd little traditions don’t bother me so much anymore. Mostly because they’re in the past, and I now have access to Santa’s best Scotch.

When we get obsessed with the stereotypical postcard Christmas, straining to make our holidays faultless, we’re basically guaranteed to be in a foul mood by Boxing Day. The real Christmas is not tidy packages under a perfect tree, a silent night, a shiny home. It’s getting an emotional handle on the holidays, a firm grip on love in whatever odd form it may take, and holding on for dear life. Because before we know it, we’ll have New Years and Valentine’s Day staring us in the face. And from what I had just discovered about Santa, I figured the Easter Bunny wasn’t gonna be much help.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Mom's Recipe for a Traditional Holiday Meltdown

As kids, we never doubted there was a Santa. We did, however, worry that he might not make it past our parents. For some reason they were both out to get the chubby guy in the weird suit.

Dad created the lovely tradition of a Christmas Eve Bonfire for Santa. Right before bedtime he'd build the most glorious blaze in the fireplace, flames leaping and licking the top of the firepit. "Let's make it nice and warm for the fat man," he'd chuckle as he brought in more firewood, his eyes glowing red by the light of the inferno. Helpless to intervene in Santa's roasting, we kids would gloomily head off to bed, hoping against hope that Saint Nick's suit was fireproof.

But compared to our mom's traditions, Dad's meddling was child's play. In the month before Christmas, as the big day approached, Mom's temper would get shorter and shorter, and the vein on the side of her forehead would get bigger and bigger, like some sort of bizarre Advent calendar. Day by day, her desperate grip on sanity would tighten into a deadly stranglehold. She would bark orders quicker than ever, her sharp, practiced tongue clipping the ends of her words off almost before they left her mouth. I would stare, transfixed, at the vein as it popped and bobbled in time to her protestations. That may explain why I didn't hear much of what she said. The coronary traffic jam on her temple was much more interesting.

Sometimes she got so mad at us she couldn't even tell us what we did wrong. The anger would boil up in her face to the point she was speechless, and we’d stare, blinking and clueless. If we ran, we’d be cut down in our tracks. Stay and we risked mental annihilation. It was almost amusing, seeing her so mad that she nearly forgot why. But we dared not smirk, lest we found ourselves assigned to some hideous task like cleaning the chicken house, or scrubbing toilets, or the worst – scrubbing the chickens’ toilets.

Suddenly she’d remember what had piqued her anger, catch her breath, and launch into a tirade, sparks spitting from her mouth. Dogs would dive for cover, birds would make a beeline south, and we kids would scramble for an alibi or excuse or dark corner, all desperately seeking safe haven from the storm.

I figured the thought of a chubby, cheery guy dropping in uninvited, tramping soot and reindeer poo through her living room, and probably raiding the fridge must have really made Mom nuts. After all, she already had Dad for that.

About a week before the big day, as the four of us kids re-enacted our traditional holiday squabbling, she would finally come unglued. "That’s it! Santa’s NOT coming to this house this year!!!" At first we were terrified. Santa always brought the best toys. Without him, all we had were bunny-suit pajamas from Nana and educational tedium from Mom and Dad. We would do everything in our power to placate Mom, petrified that the big guy would pass us by.

Then one year we figured it out. My brother had recently given the cat a bb-gun enema. We thought for sure he'd get coal or worse. Instead, Santa brought him more ammunition. My sister had spent the entire fall semester staring oddly at classmates just to creep them out, and when Christmas rolled around, she got twenty-three dollies with stares just as creepy as hers.
I called a sibling meeting and shared my suspicions. We graphed our naughty vs. nice annuities, and compared it to our gift receivables. The truth was out – good or bad, you could set your watch by the fat man. Mom must have simply been jealous that Santa gave us cooler toys, and she was conniving enough to garner a couple weeks of household peace by pretending she could stop him from coming. The knowledge that she was bluffing was kid gold.

Still, it was scary to defy her. The first year after we knew, we at least pretended to be good. But we no longer quivered in our beds, sweating the daily errors of our ways. To be on the safe side, we carried on the family ritual of superficial fear and cordiality. When Mom raised the traditional holiday roof, we struggled to look scared, but we had found an inner peace knowing Santa didn’t listen to her. Her bombastic tirades were now merely a harmless holiday habit, much like fruitcake, only louder.

Santa made it every year without fail. Even Dad’s attempts to roast him didn’t shake us anymore. We knew the big guy would never let us down, except once, when my little brother asked for new parents. But that was probably because he forgot to say 'please.'

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Holiday Gift Guide for the "Frugal" Man

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. However, he's in line behind the banks and car manufacturers for a government bailout. If Santa had been allowed to drill for oil on his property, you might be seeing something decent under your tree. But noooo - we were too worried about saving the permafrost to let him drill.

So you're on your own this year. The elves are getting reindeer steaks, and since he finally got satellite tv, the big guy is staying home, emailing gift cards to everyone instead of venturing out in the freezing freeze. If you're lucky, by the time you get your gift card, the store will still be open for business.

If you haven't bought gifts yet, you are most likely male. Let's face it - most women buy gifts all year 'round, stuffing them into a 'gift closet' for use later. That closet quickly becomes an archeological time capsule, the lower layers filled with ungiven gifts. Dig deep enough and you'll find some interesting things, like maybe a Partridge Family lunchbox, or rainbow toe socks. Or Hoffa.

As a result, women are ready to gift spontaneously any day of the year. Christmas could be magically moved to August and we would be ready, armed with curling ribbon and raffia. Guys - well, not so much.

The great thing about being a guy is that as far as gift-giving goes, no one really expects anything of you, except perhaps shock-value entertainment in the form of how insipid your gift is. The most we women can expect to receive is fodder for future complaints.

"Ralph gave me another set of soup bowls. Amazing!"

"You think that's bad? I got a cookbook. Written by his mother's parole officer."

Rejoice, men, in these low expectations. There's no need to raise the bar, especially this year. But what should you buy? Those stinkin' soup bowls really cut into your beer budget.

Thank goodness for me, right? As a woman, I know how to make a big deal out of nothing. As a woman, I'm adept at handing out unwanted advice. And as a woman, I have the right to tell you to sit down, shut up, and listen.

"Hey," you might say, "My buddies and I don't exchange gifts. That's a girlie thing." I hear ya. That's why when you give them these gifts, do it at a bar. They won't have anything for you, so they'll be forced to pick up your tab for the night. Now I have your attention, don't I? I thought so.

The following is a list of inexpensive gifts designed to look like you put some thought into it. Feel free to wait until the last minute to get them. Like you'd do it any other way:

1.Build a Nuclear Fallout Shelter Out of Government CheeseYou can make this book for free by going to any fallout shelter website, preferably a hysterical one, copying the 'how-to' information, and replacing the word 'prefabricated' with 'gouda.' Print on your home computer and voila - instant cheapo gift. Your friends will be so impressed that you cared enough to keep them alive, at least a little longer than everyone else. Armageddon one of these for everyone on my list!

2. Photo frame belt buckle($14.98 http://www.whatonearthcatalog.com/) Nothing says 'Ho, ho, ho!' quite like wearing a photo of a loved one, or somebody's loved one, close to your um, heart. Why not be a real friend and preload the buckle with a nice, tasteful photo off the Internet? Make sure you label your giftbox carefully - you don't want this going to your mother by mistake. Unless she's in prison and can trade it for something decent.

3. Regift candles, soap, and other unwanted oddities - What is it with women and candles? There must be an unwritten rule about giving someone a chunk of wax. Something like, "You already have everything, you skank, so I'm giving you this bizarre symbol of excess." Or maybe, "Figuring out what you would really like is too much of an effort. Here's a freakin' candle." I have 800 pounds of wax in my closet. When the last power outage rolled through, I was so excited that I could finally use some of these scented, multi-colored mahoozits, even though it was noon. Anyway, do your gal a favor - dig deep into that gift closet, grab some of those unwanted blobs, throw some paper around them, and get them the hell out of there. Trust me, she'll thank you eventually. Special note - this type of gift is best given to an aunt or your mother, someone likely to buy you a Home Depot gift card in return. Give this to one of your drinkin' buddies, and things could get weird.

4. Nosepicking for Pleasure ($7.95 - http://www.amazon.com/) You know you're gonna read book this before you give it to anyone - how could you resist? Just make sure not to leave any 'bookmarks,' if you know what I mean, because that's snot cool. When you hand this gem to your buddy, tell him he's more than welcome to regift it. Not that he wouldn't anyway, because it's just so darn awesome manly (in a third grade sort of way), all his buddies will want to check it out.

5. "I Love You" Toast Stamper ($4.50 -http://www.mcphee.com/ee.com/)

This is for your sweetie. After all, it's the thought that counts, right? She'll have a blast stamping your toast in the morning. That way she can say "I love you" without waking you up. Do not use it as a branding iron. It will melt. Do not ask me how I know that, or I will bury you in my gift closet.

With any luck, your friends will be buying you drinks, and your wife/girlfriend will ask you to never buy anything for her ever. Which is really the goal, right? If you don't like to do something, do it badly, and you won't be asked to do it again. Just like the makers of government cheese.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Thanksgiving Needs More Salt

When I was a kid, we celebrated the traditional family Thanksgiving - tons of food (lots of it home grown), an all day cooking marathon, a cool fall nip in the air, and football. Not all the best plays were in the football games:
  • My mom would try to intercept my grandmother, who was intent on salting the daylights out of every dish. Nana would fake right, get a key block from a child-distraction (usually my little sister), then loft the saltshaker over the potatoes, turkey or whatever receiver was open at the time.
  • My brother, Tom, made an end run around kitchen duties by discovering a sudden, latent interest in football. He would tiptoe into the living room, bury himself in the couch, and stare quietly at the television, hoping that his stillness would camouflage him. He would blend, forgotten, into the furniture, hoping to avoid being hauled into the culinary chaos. I would not be surprised to discover that he was still there.

  • My younger sister would play ‘assistant coach' in the kitchen, messing up anything she touched, to the point Mom would shoo her off to play before she spilled any more hot gravy on the dogs or poured more cat food in the string beans. At the time I thought my sister was clueless. But now I’ve worked with adults who have perfected similar levels of incompetency. If you act like a child, continually botching projects, no one will expect you to do anything. I call it planned adolescence.

  • My youngest brother guarded the temperamental oven with a fire extinguisher, in case it 'overheated,' a traditional Celtic term meaning house fire. I always wondered if its affinity to go up in flames was somehow related to excessive salt.

    My dad spent much of the day in the back forest cutting firewood. He would come in for a break to watch football a bit, then head back out. After a few minutes listening to our kitchen shenanigans, he quickly opted for the soothing sound of the chainsaw.

    Our kitchen was long, like a bowling alley. Just clearing the table involved lots of hiking back and forth. On Thanksgiving Day, when everyone was in there, including the pets, navigation was impossible. We were constantly tripping over a dog or a grandmother or both. My mom held her ground and her sanity with a bottomless glass of Gallo wine. I huddled in a corner and peeled potatoes, taking notes on a childhood that was sure to someday make me a famous writer. If I survived.

    Even the livestock knew something special was going on. We often fed leftovers to the horses, so through the miracle of conditioned response, whenever they caught sight of my brother with the fire extinguisher, they knew Mom was cooking and that leftovers were inevitable. Ever hear a horse whinny all day for potatoes and gravy? It’s not a pretty sound. They’d get so excited that the cows figured out something was up, and would start in as well-

    Midnight the cow: Moo! Moooooo!

    Cindy the cow: What’s up? Why all the mooing?

    Midnight the cow: Well, the horses are making a racket. Something about a saltshaker run amok up there in the house. Figured I’d join in.

    Cindy the cow: Gotcha…Moo! Mooo! …what’s a saltshaker?

    Sadly, there was so much noise inside the house, with my mother defending the cranberries from Nana the Crazed Saltress of Doom, and my sister shrieking that her Chatty Cathy dolly wanted to help salt things, too, that the din from our cheerleading cows was lost in the commotion.

    Perhaps this was why holiday tunes were invented – to blast them loudly so the neighbors couldn’t hear the real chaos going on inside the house. Perhaps that is why we lived so far out in the country, so neighbors weren’t within earshot.

    In any event, it was Thanksgiving, so eventually, after hours and hours of preparation, pandemonium, and excessive spicing, we all sat down in the dining room together, said Grace, and ate. For about fifteen minutes. By then we had run out of salt.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Video!

You know the credits that whiz by on your screen at the end of a television show? The endless parade of teeny names scurrying by so quickly no human eye can read them? When was the last time you said, "Wait! we simply must Tivo this so I can slow it down enough to find out who did makeup for the second unit during the food fight scene!"

I didn't think so. And music videos, it seems, are even lower on the digital food chain than I Love Lucy reruns. You might see the name of the song, the group, the director, and record company, and that's it. If you want to know who fed the cast and crew between downpours, or who towelled off the patio for the line dancers, or who was in charge of jiggling the handle on an itinerant toilet so things flowed smoothly, you are simply out of luck.

At the time, making the video seemed like such a huge deal. And it was a big undertaking. But my main concern was handling the instant stardom it would certainly bring, and the TMZ paparazzi fallout. Would I be forced to grocery shop late at night to avoid my adoring fans like Britney does? (At the Vons on PCH in Malibu. On Tuesday nights. In case you want to help her load her Evian and Stoli into her car. Evian goes in the back. Stoli goes between the baby carseats.)

It has already started. Yesterday, as I cruised the vegetable aisle, I was getting weird stares and heard the murmurings begin:

"Isn't that the assistant director/lo-flo jiggler for the Country Girlz video?"

"Wow, she does her own grocery shopping - how counter-culture is that!"

I had to autograph 3 cucumbers and a Cup-a-Soup before I could make it out of the store.

So what's the hype all about? This:

http://vids.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=vids.showvids&friendID=61035545&n=61035545&MyToken=f71fae2d-14f5-4263-a0c4-e4c3d289bce2
At about the three-minute mark, I have a brief cameo. I would have been in more of the video, but that misbehaving toilet kept me pretty busy. Plus I didn't want to give my adoring fans too much the first time around. Or I'd be forced to become a recluse and have Britney do my shopping for me.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Just Your Typical Saturday BBQ

The morning of the video shoot, I was awakened at 4 am by thunder. Hasn't rained substantially in the LA area in nearly a year. I haven't thrown a party in several years. But there we were, watching puddles procreate on the patio. Ever try to barbeque in your living room? It doesn't work too well. Ever try to film a country music video in your living room? That works about as well as a barbeque. For either one, pretty soon your house is full of smoke and noise, and your dogs have disowned you.

Taping started at dawn. Tapping the keg started shortly thereafter. Taping and tapping continued until sunset. Tapping my foot from hearing the song in my brain continues. I cannot get this song out of my head! R U Down with the Country Girlz?

The early morning shots were up in the hills. With the storm, lighting was phenomenal. Everything glowed, slick and alive. Too bad Los Angeles can't be like that all the time, but to see it then was special.

Next were the truck shots. The whole band piled into Howie's truck, the cameraman in front of them filming, hanging out of the trunk of the camera car. Major mud puddle action, bumpin', splatterin', country four-wheelin'. No whining from anyone. At least, nothing we could hear over the pounding of the rain.

At times it absolutely poured. After drought conditions for years, we never saw the sun that day. Rain chased many SoCal sissies inside, so attendance was a bit lower than expected. But the group that showed up - wow. To say they were diehards is an understatement. We'd run outside to lighten the margarita machine, then we'd head back in for a while until the rain stopped. Then we'd dance. Then it would rain. Then we'd dance in the rain. Then we'd do it all over again.

Due to the shortage of line dancers, I was forced to put on daisy duke shorts and power jam in the mud with the band. Yes, I know, twist my farmer's-tanned arm. We line danced between downpours, mud sucking at our boots, smiling, laughing, giggling. Not a single complaint all day from anyone. Lots of 'thank-you's' and tons of help from everyone. Even the dogs cooperated by clearing the floor of ribeye bits and margarita spills. Urp.

Were our glasses half full or half empty? All I know is, there was rain in them. And for the record, rainwater margaritas are awesome.

Can't wait for y'all to see this.
Although I'm not sure the country music world is ready. Not sure anyone is. I sure wasn't!

Starting November 17th, we'll be posting 30-second spots on CMT advertising the video. It will then be available for download on Youtube. Some record exec will see it and throw gold coins, which will hurt when they hit us, but eventually will come in handy.

I will be writing in simple sentences until I recover from this whole ordeal. Someone get me another paper bag to breathe into.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

What Was I Thinking?

This Saturday, they're filming a music video at my house. I use the term 'they' to distance myself from the people doing this to me. Yes, I know them, or thought I did. Now, however, in a quiet, fleeting moment of sanity, I have my doubts.

Somehow, in a freak mental lapse, I okayed this. I'm allowing potentially hundreds of people I've never met before, except for seeing their pictures on the "Wanted" posters in the post office, into my humble home. I'm even feeding them. I might even clean up a bit. I'm definitely getting a tetanus shot.

I should point out that this video shoot is sandwiched neatly between Halloween, psycho sugar holiday of rioting teens and pumpkins rumbling down streets at midnight, and Daylight Savings Sunday, when everyone migrates south an hour earlier than normal, turning clocks back a bit so the Stock Market can catch its breath.

Okay, so it's not that bad. Just a video crew, a country band, a lot of food and fun. The song for the video is, in my perfect opinion, awesome, and of course that creates more problems. Once this video gets major airplay, people are going to start picking apart the setting, i.e. my house:
  • Did you see those curtains? With THAT couch? What was she thinking?
  • The rose bushes are eight feet high - when was she planning on trimming them - 2012?
  • Someone was drinking white wine with their steak. How could she let that happen?

Chance of rain on Friday and Sunday. So far Saturday looks ok, but then, SoCal is known for its subpar weathermen. Sometimes their botox absorbs a little too well, and their standard "Sunny and 80" monologue kicks in. They often pre-record their forecasts two weeks in advance, then sneak off to Maui. In other words, who knows what the weather will be like Saturday. Santa Anas, perhaps? Forest fire? Mudslide, anyone?

My son's birthday party was once forced inside by rain. Yes, I'm aware people elsewhere deal with this all the time. Here in SoCal, though, it's simply bizarre and completely unexpected. We pay good money to avoid weather. Anyway, we had to tie a rope off the upstairs railing for the pinata and hope nobody took out a support wall with their pinata bat.

No pinata bats this time. Everyone is expected to bring their own weapons. BYOBats.

If you're curious about the song, it's called "Country Girlz" and it's here - http://www.myspace.com/howievaughn.

Don't mind me - I'm just going to sit over in the corner here until Saturday, breathing into this paper bag so I don't faint.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Halloween's Gonna Be a Bear

I'm not sure how any costume could be scarier than today's economy. There's not enough fake blood in the world to frighten me more than watching my 401k shrivel to the size of a walnut. Although I have experienced some pretty spooky Halloweens...

Ten years ago, I was nine and a half months pregnant. The day before Halloween I bought a new spot steam cleaner for my carpet. It worked so well that I got carried away and cleaned the entire family room with it. Helpful hint - when you're excessively pregnant, scrubbing the floor all day is not a good idea, even if you possess power tools. I was up all night long with 'false labor,' a term that insinuates that the pain is phony. It was not. Imagine wrapping eighty-three industrial-strength rubber bands around your middle. Then let some invisible being snap them randomly for seven hours straight. From the inside.

By the time Halloween night rolled around, I had had no sleep for thirty-six hours. One kidney was still vibrating from the rubber band snapping, and my hormone-marinated temperament was ready to disembowel the next human it encountered. On the bright side, my carpet was spiffy.

Thank goodness my husband (at the time, may he rest in pieces) was assigned to trick-or-treat duty. Somehow, though, he caught wind of my mood. Perhaps he noticed the green smoke curling from my ears that morning, or the way my head swivelled all the way around when he asked for coffee. Suddenly he had to 'work late' again and couldn't make it home in time to help. Putting down my Book of Irish Curses, I tossed on some black clothes and headed for the front door, where some errant tricksters were wearing out my doorbell. I winged some juiceboxes at their heads and disposed of them.

Our neighborhood must be known the world over for its candy, because every pop-sucking rugrat in a twenty-mile radius hits our block up for sugar. They're bused in, swarming the streets with their creepy giggles and hideous "Thank yous!" This sweetness is intentional. They are disgustingly nice in order to avoid giving me any excuse to get mad. Drives me up a freakin' wall. One can only hear "Trick or Treat!" so many times before the nut switch gets flipped.

After several hours of this, a little blonde witch, about five years old, walked over and looked me up and down. "You don't look scary," she sniffed. "What are you supposed to be?"

I leaned over. Actually I was already bent over, my posture nearly done in from the labor contractions, carpet cleaning, and candy-giving. "Little girl," I squeaked, "I'm nine and a half months pregnant, and that is scarier than anything else you will see tonight."

She scurried back to her father and asked him if I was right. "Yes, dear," he concurred nervously."Let's get going. Quickly, now."

Years ago our neighborhood had incredible Halloween displays, and not just the decorations. People went to incredible lengths to entertain. Instead of just candy, every house had a different theme. One house had a popcorn cart tended by a headless witch. Another featured a cappucino machine catered by a very gracious Dracula. Wolfman offered pedicures, which was a little weird, but his heart was in the right place.

This year I'm considering going out trick-or-treating myself. My chocolate bank is running a bit low, and this could be an opportunity to cheaply bolster its bottom line. Much like the Federal government is doing with Wall Street.

My costume would consist of my stock reports - vertical lines are quite slimming. What these busy lines do for my blood pressure is a whole 'nuther story. All this Wall Street wailing is giving new meaning to the term 'Bull' market. Somebody needs a spanking.

Considering the economy (I don't want to, but they're making me do it), perhaps we could tweak Halloween to reflect our nation's current sorry state. One house could hand out resume' tips. Another could give away Canadian coins, a wise investment since they're now worth more than their US counterparts. A punching bag featuring the face of the current chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, would be popular. Others could offer barter services - lawnmowing, babysitting, husband-removal, etc.

Yes, candy still holds a vital place in this holiday. It makes us feel better. But this year we all need a little more. We need to hit something. Hard.

Trick or Treat, smell my feet.
Give me something good, Wall Street!


Sunday, October 12, 2008

This Blows

Gah!

Everyone is in a horrendous mood lately. I did my research, in other words I asked them what the heck their problem was. Sorting through the various colorful responses, I discovered that the real culprit is not the current economic deathspin, global warming, or even worldwide famine, but rather, the Santa Ana winds.

For those not located in Southern California, Santa Ana winds are nasty, dry gusts that swirl and blast, sucking the moisture from your skin, leaving everything coated with dust and the remains of our 401ks. They hit every fall, usually the same day that people climb on their roofs to put up holiday decorations. Traditionally, Santa Anas appear on trash pick-up day, wrapping the garbage trucks in a swirl of SoCal flotsam, papers and plastic floating about them like so many deformed snowflakes.

On the freeway, the Santa Anas push cars around like toys. This has become more of a problem lately, because in an attempt to save the environment money, many commuters have purchased hybrid vehicles. These little 'green' cars typically weigh less than some of the patrons at the local Hometown Buffet. So when they hit about fifty miles per hour, the Santa Anas lift them from lane to lane, pushing them sideways, upwards and all over the place. Nothing like motoring along in a nice solid SUV only to have a Prius splatter across your windshield.

Gusts blow from all directions, with no pattern, rhyme or reason. With a normal wind, you can steady yourself against the anticipated blast. Not so with Santa Anas - you will set yourself for a gust from the Northeast, only to get shoved from the South. They are unpredictable, unstable, moody, and hot - the weather equivalent of Mother Nature's menopause.

The worst part, by far, is the fires. My Aunt Marge had hot flashes that cut through everything in her way, but even she couldn't roast ten thousand acres at a clip. Santa Ana winds knock tree limbs into power lines, which ignite, well, everything, and away we go in, as I mentioned earlier, every dang direction. First a fire blows southward. Whoops, now it's headed east. Hold it, it's heading up a canyon on the west side. Firefighters are truly dancing with the devil.

I've lived in many difficult climes. I've waded through four-foot snowdrifts, shivered in 30 below temperatures, simmered in sweltering summers of 100% humidity, endured electrical storms that hit the building I was in, and hunkered down in hurricanes. The Santa Anas are by far the worst of the weather. Nothing is as irritating as a dirtwind, gusting from all directions, coating your desiccated skin with scuzzy dust from who knows where.

How does this affect the rest of the world? We know that regarding things of importance, such as movies, plastic surgery, and the latest rehab techniques, SoCal drives the country. So when these horrible winds ruin our party, our temperamental tailspin creates a domino effect, crashing moods and creating crankiness all the way to Wall Street. When the proverbial butterfly gets blown sideways in the San Fernando Valley, someone in Palm Beach runs over a cockroach. You might think a dead cockroach is a good thing, but this one might be a pet owned by a mentally unstable entomologist who, finding his beloved bug smushed, vows revenge on the world. Make a few million people cranky and worried about losing their homes in a firestorm, and the whole world's gonna hurt.

Time for a solution. I don't have one, but I do know it's quite entertaining to wander about complaining about how irritated I am. At least it's entertaining to me. Whether others find it entertaining or irritating, I could care less. Which is a very liberating way to feel, and makes me smile. At which point the Santa Ana winds coat my teeth with soot and dust.

Gah!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Country Pumpkins

For a kid in the country, life can at times be lonely, especially at Halloween, when your lack of human contact translates directly into dismal candy poundage. Trick or treat all you want with the cows - they don't hand out tootsie rolls. Most of them don't, anyway.

The kids in town had it easy - they'd walk from door to door, scoring a Hershey bar or pixie stick every 8 seconds. They’d haul in enough sugar to last until Easter. But in the country, Halloween was, sadly, a non-profit industry. With the houses so few and far between, there was simply no way to accumulate a decent amount of candy, even with a parent driving you around. We still went through the routine, out of a ridiculous sense of ritual, although many traditions were altered a bit, for survival's sake.

The first tradition to tweak was the costume. Creativity was worthless- there was little reason to make or buy a fancy costume if you were just going to bury it under a parka anyway. We looked like lurching balls of yarn. If someone asked me what I was for Halloween, I'd reply, "I am cold!" That usually shut them up, and sometimes they'd even throw in some 'pity' candy.


Neighbor Lady: Oh, my – what are you dressed up as?

Me: I'm the tooth fairy, ok? Got any chocolate?


Neighbor Lady: Your pretty costume is all covered up by your jacket.

Me: Could we move this along, please? I’d love to stand here in the sleet and chat, but I can’t feel my toes.

The focus was instead on survival. Your costume would consist of as many layers as possible, for several reasons:

1. warmth – in upstate New York, sub-freezing temperatures in October were routine. We often had snow on the ground. Try wearing a Tinkerbell outfit and battling frostbite at the same time. My Aunt Marge did it once, but she had a huge jug of Gallo wine.

2. anonymity – with a ski cap pulled low across my brow, a scarf across my face, and a Sears polyester bubble-wrap parka pouffing out my torso like the Michelin Man, I was basically encased in an arctic burkha. No one would know it was me taking my little sister trick-or-treating, so no hassle at school for that. That wasn't me - that must've been her handler from the zoo. Humiliation could hurt as much as frostbite.

Plus, bundled up like that, I could murmur naughty invectives at people because they couldn’t tell what I was saying, my words muffled much like the linguistically challenged who burble at us via speakers at fast-food drive-throughs. Behind a Montgomery Wards ski mask and several layers of scarves, a cheery "F**k you!" was often mistaken for a "Thank you!"


3. protection - many dogs liked to play "Pull the mitten off the kid and make her drop her candy." Usually they'd settle for a glove or a hat, giving us a chance to escape. We kept extra, expendable clothes in the car to share with the next mutt we ran into.

However, nothing, nothing could deter Farmer Hornbeck’s guard goose. It was fast, loud, and frightening - honking, flapping and charging at us full throttle, wings akimbo and utterly outraged. It was quite adept at pulling off mitten after mitten, then going after your ankles. We kept candy corn in our hands to distract it, throwing the candy for it to eat in order to buy some time to reach the safety of our car. You knew if it attacked your ankles, you were going down. Then you were doomed, because no one would dare venture out of the car to save you. You had to lie still in the cold mud, hands about your face for protection, and wait for it to stop pecking at you and waddle away.

Neighbor Lady: Oh, my, look at you, all covered in mud – what are you dressed up as?

Me: The Creature from the Black Lagoon, ok? Got any chocolate?

Neighbor Lady: You should be more careful, dear. You got your pretty costume all dirty.

Me: Could we move this along, please? I’d love to stand here in the sleet and chat, but I can’t feel my freakin’ toes.

All this for a tootsie roll, or, heaven forbid, if the people were anti-sugar, a tiny bag of carrots or a toothbrush. At least Charlie Brown got rocks. You could do some damage with those.

While Mom drove us door to door, Dad stayed home and scared the living daylights out of any visitors. Actually, he did that every day, but Halloween was special.

Dad would put sheets over the small trees that lined the driveway, turning them into ghosts, but not really fooling anyone. The yard looked more like a redneck clothesline than a herd of spooky ghosts. I wanted to put a few cows in the front yard, paint them red and put duct tape on them – now that would be frightening, or at least be abstract art that could potentially win us government funding. But I guess that was tweaking tradition a bit too far, so we settled for Dad’s lame tree ghosts to spook any trick-or-treaters wandering our way.

What our Halloween visitors didn't realize was that one of the tree ghosts was actually not a tree at all, but rather my dad, under a sheet, pretending to be a tree ghost. They would drive slowly up our driveway, looking at our fierce horde of tree ghosts, exclaiming how they were soooo unscary, ha-ha, when suddenly one of the tree ghosts, usually Dad, would leap at their car. Everyone in the car would scream, wet their pants, and try not to drive off the cliff.

Did I mention the cliff? We lived on a ridge, and the driveway was shaped like a fishhook, angling across a huge front yard, the downhill side of it dropping off steeply. In daylight, the drive alone was enough to scare people away. Add darkness and a freaky dad-tree-ghost to the mix, and visitors simply never came back.

While Dad was busy 'greeting' people at home, we would trudge from farmhouse to farmhouse, braving fierce dogs, spooky cats, and creepy people, just to get a sticky, clumped popcorn ball that would immediately begin to suck lint from our clothing. My little sister often sat on hers, gluing herself to the car seat. At the next stop she'd realize she was stuck and squeal "Help meeeee!" I'd have to yank on her, hard, to release her from the firm grip of the sticky ball. Often the two of us would fly out the car door into the dirt, whatever goodies we had gathered spilling out into the darkness, our arctic padding saving us from injury. Mixed blessing actually, since I got to pull really hard on her arms, on the pretext of 'helping' her out of the car, and not get in trouble for it.

My sister once literally disappeared. She had been walking behind me, half a popcorn ball still stuck to her bottom, screeching just to keep warm, "Wait uuuuup! Wait uuuuup! Wait uuuuup!" when bloop! Gone. Nothing but serene, peaceful quiet.

Three miles down the road Mom noticed how quiet it was, realized Chatty Kathy was missing, and made me go back and find her. Turns out little sister had missed a step on a narrow walkway and had been swallowed up by a snowy ditch. The only thing that saved her from falling further into an icy crevasse was the sticky popcorn ball on her butt. It had caught in a crack and stuck, much like an ice axe would dig into the snow, saving its hiker from plummeting down Mount Everest. After sorting through her candy and discussing my fee, I pulled her out and we trudged on.


Because there were no streetlights, quite often it was incredibly dark. Pitch black, blanket-across-your-face dark. Sometimes we were lucky enough that the full moon was out, shining on the snow, so we could see our fingers shaking and be reminded how freaking cold we were.


By this
time, if we could gather enough strength, we would start fighting in the car, and, if we were lucky, Mom would 'punish' us by turning the car around and going home. Then we'd eat all the candy left over from the people who didn’t visit our house anymore because my Dad had frightened them away. Why we ever left the farm is beyond me. Tree ghosts had much more fun.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Plague of the Tourists

Every fall they came, just to stare at leaves. And shoot deer. When you live alongside nature, it’s hard to understand: one - why people travel so far to see it, and two - why they want to kill it. I’m speaking, specifically, of the he-tourist hunters and she-tourist leafers from New York City.

Maybe we only saw one side of the situation. Perhaps there was someone in New York City who needed a break from these obnoxious people and said, “Here’s a gun. Why don’t you go upstate and wander in the woods awhile? Maybe we’ll both get lucky. Oh, and take the missus. She can stare at trees and annoy the locals.”

We lived near enough to the city that we were inundated with city-idiots - it was hard to fathom why we should let certain urban dwellers live. What made it especially difficult to keep our fingers off the trigger is that tourist season corresponded closely with hunting season. So very, very tempting. And no limit on tourists!

“Officer, I was aiming for a six-point buck, but at the last moment, that old lady with the walker leaped in my way. It was just an unfortunate accident. Coulda happened to anybody.”

“Understood. Just don’t let it happen again.”

First, let me backtrack and explain my distaste. It would seem that if you were going to take up a sport as deadly as hunting, and seeing how death is somewhat final and appears to hurt a lot, it would behoove you to learn a few things about the sport first. There were basic rules concerning firearms and common sense that city folk consistently broke. For example:

  • Never hunt near a road. You could spook a deer into traffic, and if a car hit it, the driver could get badly hurt. This happened to my mom – her car was totaled, and so was the soul of whatever stupid hunter sent that deer into the road, because my mother put an Irish banshee curse on him. If he’s still alive, he’s in pain, and lots of it.

  • Keep your safety on, especially crossing fences. I can’t tell you how many ‘he-tourists’ shot themselves in the foot going over fences. What really surprised me is that they didn’t demand we put in ‘handicap access’ for our fences. “I shot my foot off going over your fence –put in a concrete ramp for my wheelchair, or I’ll sue.” Go ahead and laugh. Just you wait.

  • Identify what it is you’re shooting before you shoot at it. Nothing like hearing a gunshot and seeing a chunk of bark fly off the tree next to you. Yes, that happened to me. Yes, he, too, received a banshee curse. Then there was the city hunter who was found ‘gutting’ a brown cow. Really. No, sir, that’s not a two-point buck – that’s a Jersey cow. Yes, you’re quite the warrior, sir. I'm sure it put up quite the fight. How now, big dummy?

The rules were there for survival’s sake. If you ignored those rules, perhaps you shouldn’t be permitted to survive. Most of the year Darwin seemed to go easy on the city-dwellers, letting them grow fat and lazy until the first frost sent them into the woods. Come hunting season, we’d avoid the forest as much as possible, bringing the horses and cows up in the pasture closest to the house. Then we’d sit back and let the city-idiots shoot at each other. We had ourselves a whole new kind of turkey shoot.

New York City couples carpooled. The he-tourist, aka hunter, would put on his shiny, bright, orange hunting gear, kiss his wife good-bye, and trespass through the nearest field, where he would promptly climb over a fence and, on a good day, shoot himself in the foot. Then he’d limp back to the road to wait for his wife, who was in town drinking lattes and staring at trees. While he was waiting, he contemplated who he could sue for his misfortune, and where he wanted his wheelchair ramp to go.

In the meantime, his wife, the typical she-tourist aka leafer/antiquer, would peruse all the over-priced detritus for sale at the antique boutiques. She’d then drive out to the countryside, park in front of our house, and brazenly steal a pair of cast iron wagon wheels off our front lawn, stuffing them into the trunk of her Cadillac. At least that’s what the she-tourist I bagged did. Poor thing – she was much too old to be hefting something that weighty into her trunk. I could see her suing us if she were injured during her theft, and I was torn between helping the spinster lift her heavy load, or twisting her arms behind her, cop style, and putting my knee into her kidneys, slamming her against the car while I handcuffed her for stealing our property.

I settled for yelling, “HEY!” She dropped her five-finger discount and scuttled back into her Cadillac, spitting gravel down our country road. I hoped she hit a he-tourist hunter on the way back into town. Or that a he-tourist shot at her car. Come on, Darwin – rise and shine, dammit!

Our hay field bordered Route 9G, a major thoroughfare. In other words, it was paved and had two real lanes. Many wayward city dwellers cruised it, pretending to gawk at the leaves changing color, but we knew they were really trolling for old crappy stuff antiques to steal.

At this time of year we’d be in a hurry to get the last hay cutting into the barn, dodging raindrops, stray bullets, and spinsters dragging stolen wagon wheels.

The leafers would park on the side road, blocking our access to the field, jabbering about lattes, and generally making pests of themselves. They were probably waiting for us to turn our backs so they could swipe our hay rake and resell it on Crazy Larry’s Staten Island Farm Equipment Black Market. Or turn it into some sort of country art artifact. Maybe it would resurface as a decorative wrought iron hanging pot holder for some bored, overpriced kitchen on Long Island. These people were downright soul-less.

Sometimes tourists would pull over to the side of the road to take pictures of us. This used to irritate the hell out of me. What were we, a freakin’ Amish zoo exhibit? I wanted to give them something special for their photo album, maybe drop my jeans and show them a real harvest moon.

My youngest brother, Bob, was in that field raking hay. He, too, had had it with the looky-loos, and decided, while still driving the tractor, to drop drawers and give them a Kodak moment. (How he came upon that idea, I'm sure I don't know, or at least I will never admit to suggesting.) Anyway, as he aimed his motoring moonpie at the startled tourists, he failed to notice a fast-approaching gopher hole. As the front left tire fell into the hole, the tractor lurched sideways, and Bob was launched into the air. Luckily, his wayward pants caught on the shift lever of the tractor or he would have rolled, half naked, under the big rear tires. As it was, he accidentally shifted gears with his belt loop, and had to pull himself back up by the steering wheel of the now speeding tractor. Grabbing the wheel like that made the tractor veer sharply, running over and crushing our brand-new handicap access wheelchair ramp for hunters.

Please don’t tell our Dad.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Fall of Man

"Tell us, oh wise one, what it's like to miss your man." They huddled about the dim light of the sanctuary, shadows wavering weakly, flickering in rhythm with the dancing of the candlelight.

"Yes, I missed him. I admit it," I wiped a tear from my cheek. Shelley was blubbering already, raining salty tears on a bunch of us. "But I adjusted the scope on my Glock, so that wouldn't happen again."

A chilling breeze wafted by, frightening the candle, causing it to sputter and hiss hot wax upon the concrete. We pulled our blankets closer around us to shut out the cold.

Some of the new ones were writing furiously. "Glock?" asked one. "Is a Smith & Wesson acceptable?"

"That was a joke," I continued, "Comic relief. Please don't try that at home. Especially if your carpeting isn't Scotchguarded." They scribbled out their notes.

"They're all going away and there's nothing we can do about that. Of course you miss your men, but you'll have them back soon enough. I miss mine, too," I sighed.

"It was as if Fate had brought us together," I replied solemnly, respectful and in proper awe of our surroundings. "A Fate, perhaps, with a bit too much time on her hands."

"Fate, my friends, has an evil sense of humor," I continued. "She had brought us together, yet every Sunday, she kept us apart. Why, I had no idea. But what I did have," I took a sip from the bottle and passed it on, "was a plan. And I'm here, again, to share it with you."

"We must look on the bright side," I exhorted, "We have been given this block of time for a reason. It is a gift, not a curse. And, as is our way, we will make the most of it. Because we are women, and women persevere."

Shelley perked up for a moment. She remembered last year's speech and knew what was coming. "You mean," she whispered, "the Mall?"

A murmur arose from some of the newer members. The reason for their blind exodus of faith, for leaving their safe havens and venturing out onto uncharted suburban cul-de-sacs, was revealing itself to them.

"Yes, ladies, Sundays are once again ours and ours alone. We will not whine about being football widows. Instead, we will act. We will seize the day. We will seize the credit cards. We. Will. SHOP!"

A cheer went up, then quickly died. Too much noise would invite unwanted attention and perhaps wake a child. Kids were notorious for listening in and then blabbing to daddies. We were meeting out on the chilly patio, disguising our meeting as an "Oprah Book Club," hoping to avoid suspicion, and to keep any non-slumbering rugrats from spilling the beans.

"It is important that we approach this smoothly. No sudden moves, no quirky comments. Just casual business-as-usual. You're not going to the mall, you're going to the store. To them, the word 'mall' is a red-flag." I glared at Shelley, who whimpered. Last year she had blown her entire fall shopping campaign by declaring to her husband, at halftime no less, that she was going to the mall. "Under no circumstances are you to ever use that term. Am I clear?"

"Secondly, it is imperative that you recognize the status of the game. Men equate winning with good fortune and prosperity. If your man's team is losing miserably, it is not a good time to announce that you're heading off to spend money."


"Third, take the time to buy something with his team's logo on it. A bean dip plate, a cooler, a bikini, whatever. Put it away. If you're ever confronted about your shopping time or your credit card balance, pull the thing out and weep that THIS is what you were buying for him, is he happy now for spoiling the surprise?...how could he be so mean, yadda yadda.... the main thing is to have a defense in place ahead of time."

"Remember, you must show enough interest in his team to reflect compassion, yet not too much to arouse suspicion. But be careful - show too much interest, and you'll be sucked into watching the games with him."

A few shuddered and pulled their blankets closer. We had seen that happen to some friends last year. They had wanted to spend more time with their guys so they learned about football. Big mistake. Now they were expected to sit on the couch and listen to why the quarterback should have known the blitz was coming, or why the coach was an idiot for not 'going for it' on fourth down. Our friends had been devoured by a huge gaping hole in the couch, never to shop again. It was still difficult to think about.

The box of wine was nearly empty. The candle sputtered.

"If we do this carefully, they won't bat an eye. Keep the chips and beer flowing, and nothing will be apparent until after the Super Bowl."

"And by mid-February, ladies, they will be disarmed," I held for impact, "by Valentine's Day."

"And I ask you, what is waiting for us that day? A dinner? A big chocolate kiss? A rose? After months of un-Sundays, that's what we get? I tell you here and now, if we want a future, if we want anything, we must buy it ourselves. And we must buy it now."