Thursday, December 31, 2009

Update - 2010

Shocking but true - job hunting, book pitching, and master's degree-ing can suck the life out of a year. Then there's kid-raising, the usual single mom stuff, cranky parole boards, etc. Regardless, I shall return. Many times in the past few months I've wanted nothing more than to post humorous, obtuse rantings about tweens, terriers, and transfattys,but writing papers about data analysis and decision modeling saps the funny from my body like a giggle-adicted vampire and all I can manage is a weak tweet or two.

In college, I've quickly discovered that it's not an advantage to have a sense of humor. For example, here's the cover of one of last semester's books -

This happy shot of a union rep and management shaking hands teaches us that we can all find a way to get along. Upon further study, it also teaches us that the union rep has been speaking into the microphone using his er, shop steward.

Most students might miss that subtle point, but that's why I'm here - to ride the ridge between sanity and serenity.

The job search is over, the book thingy is doing well, and grad school ends in a few months. My funny bone needs a workout...stay tuned!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Flukes & Blooms

She was outside, looking at the flowers. “I don’t think I mentioned this earlier, but one of my hobbies is taking photos of flowers,” she said, contemplating the few blooms left in my yard. “Let me get my camera.”

“Knock yourself out,” I replied, wondering why anyone would bother. I had not planted much this year, cutting back on nearly everything since losing my job. But if she wanted to take pictures….

It had been a difficult year. And it had all been entirely undeserved. Just when I thought I was done with the bitterness, it would all come rushing back. The last thing on my mind was flowers.

She aimed her lens at a rose. I hadn’t seen her in nearly twenty years, since college in New York. So much had changed, yet we seemed the same. We could still party like old times, as long as we were home by eleven, wore comfortable shoes, and took a couple of aspirin and an antacid. And since we couldn’t see our crows’ feet without our reading glasses, essentially we were the same. Close enough, I reasoned.

I fiddled with the television remote. My laptop was on the coffee table, next to a magazine I was reading. That was me, doing a dozen things at once, packing everything I could into a moment. I was busy with graduate school, an arduous job search, and being the stereotypical valiant, strong, single mother of two boys. I’d have a chip on my shoulder, too, if I had any room for one.

She steadied herself near the azaleas, quiet and still, taking photo after photo. Eventually even the dog got bored with her endeavor and walked away.

Suddenly the sound of a song from Mary Poppins filled the air. I was pretty sure it was coming from outside my head. This day was getting progressively stranger.

“That’s my cell phone,” she remarked. “I set the alarm on it to remind me to take my medicine. "'Spoonful of Sugar’ – get it?”

“An alarm for meds?” I laughed. “Are we that old?” I still didn’t write grocery lists, insisting on carrying the list around in my head. I’d forgotten many things that way, but so what? It was the principle of the thing. I’ll get old when I’m good and ready.

Anger keeps me young, I thought. These days were bittersweet, my fury harsh but healthy. Time may not be on our side, but I wasn’t about to check into the geriatric ward, either.

“Strange looking pills,” I remarked as she pulled them from her purse.

“They’re for my liver,” she took a drink of water. “Actually, it’s not MY liver. I’m just borrowing it.” One corner of her mouth curled upward.

Every few hours, Anne took anti-rejection medication to keep her body from attacking her donated organ. Eight years earlier, she had been diagnosed with a rare liver disorder, one so rare that her doctor missed it completely. Somehow, though, she knew something was wrong. But she didn’t know exactly what.

“It was a fluke, really,” she said. “What are the chances of meeting a liver specialist at a party? And he was cute!”

She had a slew of flukes in her life. After her liver transplant, she came down with thyroid cancer, discovered by chance during a checkup by a doctor touching the base of her throat. “I told him he was examining the wrong end of me,” she giggled. She could giggle at the damndest things.

One day she felt dizzy. With her track record, her doctor sent her in for an MRI. “It’s no bigger than your fingernail, and it hasn’t grown at all, so that’s a good sign. After all, size is everything!” That was Anne – ever hopeful, giggling and fluky. Even a weenie brain tumor was something to joke about. I envied her attitude, but certainly not her situation.

She’d be leaving soon. I was just fine alone. It was great to have her here, share old times, but I was comfortable on my own. I didn’t need anybody.

With a hug, she was off. I grabbed a beer from the fridge.

Later that day, an email popped up from her, taking forever and a day to load, especially to an impatient, moody grump like me. Sheesh, I huffed, I have things to do.

It was filled with her flower photos- still, clear, and beautiful. She had taken a few blooms and made them glow, made them perfect, made them timeless. Just a few raggedy flowers….

Damn, I thought. She had gotten past the anger, past the pity. She was on the other side, capturing giggles and picking flowers, making an incredible, everlasting bouquet while I grumbled and whined. That, too, wasn’t fair.

I wanted to be able to do that. Here I was trying to cram all sorts of events into my life so it would count for something, as she blithely took one moment at a time, polished it until it shined, and shared it with everyone. She made it look easy. Compared to many things in her life, I guess it was.

Quietly she was able to stop the world from turning, keep it still for a moment, insisting that it take the time to look at a single, lowly daisy. Even more extraordinary, the world would do it.

“Wow,” I wrote back. “These are incredible.” Lame, I know, but for once I was beyond words.

“Annie,” she replied, knowing what I was thinking. “We don’t know what tomorrow will be. Some of us don’t know if we’ll even have a tomorrow. So I choose to focus on today. That’s why I take pictures. That’s why I came to visit you. That’s why I’m here.”

I shifted my gaze to outside. I got it now. I was stubborn and thick-headed, but finally I got it. And I thought I was strong.

She’ll be back to visit again, I’m sure of it. Until then I have her flowers. Actually, I reasoned, I had them forever, which is longer than I’ll ever need.

Sunday, May 31, 2009


Half a century. What a number.

Fifty years ago, my parents married. Mom says she picked Memorial Day for the big event so Dad would remember their anniversary. If he didn't, she was ready with a red-haired Irish glare to jog his memory. For fifty dang years.

A few times I remember Dad coming to me in a panic. "Quick, here's twenty bucks," he'd whisper. "Go get your mother something nice for our anniversary." It had slipped his mind, and it was too late for him to sneak out and get her something without being caught. So I was sent surreptitiously to fetch a gift.

At work, my dad dealt with less-than-honest subcontractors, some pretty dangerous heavy equipment, and dynamite. He was not afraid of any of these things, but the thought of facing my mom after forgetting their anniversary put a chill in his veins. He had utmost respect for that date, an exquisite symbol of respecting the relationship.

For a long time I didn't have much insight into how they did it. To a kid, it was pretty invisible. They were just Mom and Dad. I never saw them argue or raise their voice to one another. A disagreement was subtle - it might consist of a raised eyebrow, or a look held just a moment longer than usual. Whatever their conflict was, we kids didn't see it. Any disagreement was evidently handled outside of our view. It wasn't until later, trying to build a relationship myself, watching other relationships fall apart, that I realized how hard it really was. In a way I wished I had seen them argue so I could take notes.

Who does that nowadays? Women whine, guys run, and everyone takes a step to the left and starts over again. Putting a relationship first seems to be a lost art.

After seeing many couples together yet so very much apart, there is one thing my parents did that. to me, stands out. They respect each other. They don't always agree, but they don't play dirty, either. And they keep perspective. Because any disagreement pales in comparison to their love for one another.

So I stand here in the shadow of their unending love. In awe, in envy. They make it look so easy. i think they do that just to piss me off.

Here's to the next fifty years.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Flowers and a Song

"Our yard is so ugly," he muttered. "Why don't we have a pool like the neighbors?" He peered longingly through the fence.

"That costs money, sweetie," I sighed. "Now is not a good time for that. But if you help me, we can make the yard look nicer."

"Look at their flowers, Mom!" he said. To a tween, not only is the grass greener on the other side, but the flowers are sweeter, too.

We had been cruising along in that blissful time between toddlers and teenagers, when kids are lower maintenance, doing many things for themselves and not yet suspecting that their parents are clueless. I sensed, with this backyard rebellion, that those days might soon end.

"Come on," I replied. "Let's go get some flowers."

Our shopping cart overflowed with purple - different types of flowers, but all purple. We worked hard all Saturday digging and planting, until we had everything in the ground. A corner of the yard was now transformed into a lush, lavender landscape. He was right - the yard, or at least a small part of it, brightened a bit.

Mothers' Day morning, we ate pancakes outside, admiring our new garden. Suddenly Bobby jumped up.

"I have something for you," he said. He ran to the garage.

After years of receiving handmade cards written in crayon, the tradition had, for me, never grown old. I kept every letter, every note, watching how each year they matured a bit more. They'd be grown up and gone soon enough, so in the meantime I savored every moment we had together.

Instead of a card, Bobby returned with flowers. Beautiful, purple blooms cascading out of their container. I was speechless. At some point he had convinced his dad to drive him to the store and get them.

"I used my own money, Mom," he beamed. "Oh, and here's a card I made."

The lilting sound of a tenor filled the air. His older brother, Tommy, was in the school choir. For his present, I was treated to an a capella solo, a country song he had learned for a recent concert. His voice was clear, steady, and sweet.

As we listened to his song, I held my flowers and glowed. I'm not known for being mushy, but we had been through so much together lately, to see them celebrating our little family was pure joy. As my dad would say, I had "done good."

Happy Mothers' Day.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Tales From the Patio

It was a perfect night - still, cool, with a huge moon rising over the back ridge. After a crazy day, the serenity stung, stealing my breath away for a moment, making me stop my nonstop frenzy of minutiae and chatter to pause and admire.

We walked out to bask in the sweet stillness. Actually, I walked and the two dogs zigzagged after a rabbit, trumping my calm with calamity and ruining what was supposed to be a tepid, mushy bask of a blog post. Just once I'd like to skip the chaos and wallow in the mellow. Grrr.

Suddenly the dogs froze. At last, I thought, they get it. No need to run helter-skelter after bunnies. Relax, dammit.

Then something in the bushes moved. Something big. The bushes were just over my fenceline. Bushes were not allowed in my yard. Only their pricey cousins, the hedges, were permitted within my borders.

Josie the dog growled. Jake the dog hightailed it back into the house. (I will refrain from making the obvious analogy of male/female fight vs. flight tendencies.) Moving slowly, the fur standing up straight on her back, Josie approached the fenceline.

Suddenly an ungodly scream pierced the air. If you were to hit a Sasquatch with your car, perhaps in the process running over a sore bunion on his toe as your bumper caught him in the ribcage, that's what it would sound like. Horrific, high, and hideous. Even the fat, full moon scurried behind a cloud.

I had caught teenagers down there before, skipping school. This was no teenager. Not even a preening teenage prom queen could manage such a shriekfest.

Two glowing eyes peered out from the ragged wild of the bushes, the moonlight reflecting off them in a demonic glow. The thing shook the bushes, then screamed again. Louder, even, than the neighbor child who had rattled windows marketing his lemonade stand by screaming "LEMONADE!!!!" at seven o'clock on a sleepy Saturday morning. May he rest in peace. (No, he's not gone from this world, I just wish he'd sleep in a bit.)

From the doorway, Jake was whining. "Get in here," he seemed to say. "You're making me look bad!"

"Josie," I called, "Get inside. Now!" We ran for the safety of the house, sprinting from the patio that had suddenly turned into the devil's playground.

The screams continued behind us, bouncing off the far hills and stars. I spotted another set of eyes glinting in the sallow moonlight. So there were two of them. That I knew of. And, like many couples, they weren't happy.

I slammed and locked the patio door. Badly shaken, the three of us watched from behind the glass as the monsters screamed at each other. Safe in the house, Jake barked bravely. Josie and I rolled our eyes.

A third monster appeared, much bigger than the first two. It jumped from a tree, chasing the others, shrieking the entire time. All we could see were the eyes - fierce, angry, glowing.

After being married to a German, I do not scare easily. But these...things...were rattling my heartstrings. I couldn't stand it anymore. I grabbed a flashlight and went outside to investigate.

Yes, you're thinking - this is exactly what not to do, exactly what the soon-to-be-dead do in horror flicks. But I couldn't stand it any longer - I had to get a good look at the beasts.

My flashlight frightened them. They scuttled further back into the undergrowth. Furry, they waddled, wearing masks. Raccoons! I had never heard such an outcry. Perhaps, like mine, Madoff had made off with their 401k.

Coons are fierce, bad-ass animals. As a kid, I remember them tearing up our cornfields, in blatant disregard of my dad and his shotgun. To them, beating up dogs was child's play. In the animal 'hood, they were the equivalent of the Rollin' 60 Crips.

However, once I knew what I was dealing with, I could plan my defensive maneuver. Grabbing my boombox and my ex-husband's Barry Manilow album, I stepped outside...and handled the situation.

And we lived happily, quietly, ever after.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Next Horse Whisperer

"They're like dogs, only bigger." As we pulled up to the ranch, I added, "Just don't get stepped on."

My two boys looked at each other. They knew I'd grown up with horses, cows, and itinerant siblings. They were skeptical about this outing. And, because they were brothers, when one was interested, the other was beyond bored.

Nevertheless, I had to check on a sick horse, and since they were with me, they went. The horse was one of about ten owned by a non-profit organization that helps special-needs kids learn to ride. My sons didn't quite understand why I did this, how helping others helped me, how horses helped my soul. And besides a few pony rides at the county fair and a couple of visits to my parents' farm, my boys had never been near horses before.

We headed for Rafi's stall. He had been colicking for a day or two, but was feeling better and wanted to eat. He sniffed the boys, looking for food.

"His nose is HUGE!" Tommy exclaimed, backpedalling into the corner to escape. Bobby tried to hold his ground, but Rafi was pushing him, searching his pockets for treats.

"Um, Mom, he's attacking me," it was all he could do to keep calm.

"Just pet him, like a dog," I said. Bobby stroked Rafi's nose, enthralled. Tommy did, too, grimacing. Always such opposites! Still, one out of two wasn't bad.

Rafi had been sick the day before - I had spent hours with him, walking him, massaging his back, trying to get him to drink some water. He was the kind of horse that, when he wasn't feeling good, wanted to crawl in your lap like a golden retriever. By Saturday night, after a shot of painkillers, he seemed a bit better. Although he still wanted to crawl in my lap.

The next morning, on my way to church, I decided to stop by the barn first. Sure enough, Rafi was down, thrashing, his body twisted in pain. We got the vet out right away, pumping his stomach, more pain medication, then filling his stomach with mineral oil in the hopes his intestines would unkink. Colic is often deadly in horses, especially older ones like Rafi. After that, all we could do was walk him, watch him, and wait. Later that day I took a break to get something to eat and pick up my boys.

To get Rafi’s system going again, he had to be walked. A lot. I caught Bobby staring at the lead rope I was holding. "Would you like to walk him?" I asked. I didn't have to ask twice. "Just don't get stepped on."

He took the lead rope. Rafi looked at him. Bobby walked forward and Rafi ambled off with him, slowly, putting his head down low so he was eye-level with my son.

There are certain moments in a parent's life that freeze-frame in your mind. Watching Bobby and Rafi walking side by side was one of them. Spending time with horses had, in my youth, given me confidence, and recently eased a difficult time. And now here I was, watching my son discover the healing qualities of a horse. The intensity of the emotion caught me by surprise. I fumbled for the camera on my cell phone, hoping to capture the feeling, but I was too spent, my eyes too glossy and worn to deal with it. I sighed. The sun was setting on a Sunday evening. We would have to get going soon.

Circular healing. Walking with my son, Rafi was feeling better. My son was grinning, stepping out confidently to guide the huge animal like he had done it all his life. In the cool breeze of a California sunset, this was a bit too much of a happy ending for a weary mom. I was pretty sure God didn’t mind me missing a hymn or two that morning. Besides, that night, I think we discovered a few new ones.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Like There's No Tomorrow

It was bedtime, the witching hour for complicated questions about life, philosophy, outer space, and trigonometry. The child who had once waxed eloquent about "negative infinity meeting infinity on the other side of the universe" was at it again.

"I have some questions," he said. He always had questions, but especially at this hour, when my brain had already gone to bed. He was twelve, that magical time when kids start to gain energy, somehow sapping it right out of their parents. Just standing near him, I could feel my batteries draining.

"You really need to read your book," I yawned. My tween bookworm was behind in "reading points" for school, because he insisted on reading everything but the approved curriculum. Much like me, he didn't appreciate being told what to read or do.

"Okay, Mom," he said, feigning cooperation. I knew his next move would be to change the topic of conversation.

"Really, you need to read a lot," I gave him the mom-glare, complete with raised eyebrow. "You need to catch up so you have enough reading points. You need to read like there's no tomorrow."

Oops. That was enough of an opening for him to put me into the Nascar wall. I knew it, he knew it, and he took a big breath and did it.

"Mom," he sighed(with twelve you get eyeroll), "If there's no tomorrow, why would I read?"

"Oooh, here we go," I murmured and sat down, getting comfortable and yawning again.

"If there's no tomorrow, why not do something fun? The reading points won't matter anyway. They're not due for another month. And since there's no tomorrow-"

"It's an expression. I didn't make it up. It's just an...expression." Suddenly my bed was so very distant.

"But it doesn't make sense." He had a valid point. "If there's no tomorrow, I'd much rather play video games..."

"I know, I get it," I sighed. "I'm just not up to defending the concept right now." Never mind the minor detail that he was absolutely right.

We know very little about tomorrow. And in that sense, we need to make the most of today. We need to hug more, hate less. Less calls, more contact. Less fluff talk, more action. Corny, but true. Too many manipulative mind games, verbal diarrhea, saying one thing, doing another, by people who pretend to be friends when all they want is someone to listen to them rant. And they'd been sucking the life out of me, to the point that I was too exhausted to listen to my own son.

It was time to cull the herd.

No more long-winded, circular monologues from people who were always too "swamped" to listen to my thoughts, yet thought nothing of wasting literally hours of my time. No time for that, and frankly for me, finally I told them - I had no time for them.

My son had just read The Phantom Tollbooth, where "killing time" was considered murder. It was a valid point. Saying you'll show up and blowing it off, whether it's a lunch, a listen, or an entire relationship, should be criminal. I couldn't have them arrested, but I realized I could eliminate them, so I did. Life is too short. Tick, tick, tick....

My mind had wandered off to an ugly place, a wasteland of broken promises. Josie the dog wandered in, wondering what was taking me so long to get to bed. She saw the perturbed look on my face and made a u-turn out the door. Smart dog.

I looked up. My son had his arms out, waiting for a hug. He beckoned me back from the needy vanity I had thought was love but was only a selfish, cruel farce. Smart kid, patiently waiting for his mom to come around, to heal, to home.

Truly there is no time but now. I mustered up the last bit of energy I had. I hugged and listened to my son. He hugged and listened to me. And that, I realized, is all that matters. The busy busy phonies who had wasted so much of my time in the past would go on forever, however long that was, chasin' their tails and chattin' the world dry. But now they'd do it elsewhere. Now, here in my son's heart, I was untouchable. Suddenly I didn't care about tomorrow, because I had fully embraced today.

Finally, fabulously, I was lucky in love.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Humorous Heroine

The following will appear in "Tough Times, Tough People," available June 16th at your local bookstore.

“Annie,” he said, “It’s time to move on.” I had heard rumors about layoffs, but my head reeled. This was coming from a place I had given twelve years of my life, working weekends, working late, covering multiple positions, and generally nurturing the company like it was my own. Yet it had been bought out by a financial conglomerate and so, like many others, I was gone. Within a month, over 10% of the company would be dismissed. It was musical chairs played to the tune of a corporate funeral dirge.

Remember playing musical chairs? You’d walk tentatively in a circle around the seats, enough chairs for all but one unlucky soul, waiting for the music to stop, then diving for a seat. Remember how you felt when you were the one left standing with nowhere to sit? That’s what unemployment feels like. But you not only don’t have a chair. You feel like you don’t have a chance.

My upbringing had taught me that if you worked hard, you’d be rewarded. I always gave my best effort, putting my personal needs last. My ex-husband had taken advantage of this character trait, and now, I realized, so had my company. A corporate acquisition, coupled with numerous layers of executive incompetence and extravagance, and again my faith was shattered. A bitter lesson learned twice.

I’m a single mother of two boys, struggling to pay a mortgage. We were already running on a tight budget, no fancy vacations or meals out, still paying off an expensive divorce. At least, I had reasoned, I was working and feeding my kids. Now I felt dizzy and rudderless.

In a way I was relieved to be rid of the job, since it was far from my heart’s desire. My kids were happy I was out. “You never liked that job anyway, Mom,” my eldest said. I was surprised he had noticed. I guess it showed more than I realized. Yet, like any parent, my primary goal was to provide for my family. I figured my heart’s true calling could wait until my kids were well established and out on their own. This downsizing had certainly tweaked my career path.

Still, I had my boys, a bit of savings, and a resilient attitude. I thought of J. K. Rowling, author of the “Harry Potter” series. A single mom in desperate straits, she had written an incredible series of books, pulling herself up by her own bootstraps, out of the gutter and into the gold. It would be a long shot, but maybe, I reasoned, I could do the same.

I’d been writing stories about my childhood and posting them on my web blog. As the daughter of two city people who had moved to the country and started a farm, I had an unusual upbringing, full of wacky happenings and unusual situations. The stories were popular, and for years people had encouraged me to write, so I mused – why not put them all in a book? My parents would soon celebrate their 50th anniversary. This could be a nice gift for them AND for me, if I could get it published.

I always wanted to write for a living but never dared make the jump and leave my day job. What a time to follow my star, but the timing was beyond my control. So I rolled with it as best I could. Every day I spent hours writing the book, then scouring the want ads. No success in my job search, but finally the book was done. I started pitching it to agencies, gaining interest, getting turned down, re-pitching, re-writing, and never giving up. While Life was giving me lemons, I wasn’t exactly making lemonade. I was picking up the lemons and pitching them back at Life. Hard.

Around the same time, I met a man who was pursuing his heart’s ambition of becoming a country music singer/songwriter. What a pair of dreamers we were! Still, he had tremendous talent. I helped him craft his biography, a Web page, press releases, stories for the local newspapers and music magazines, and eventually his first CD. Finally he signed a recording contract. I was thrilled for him, and happy to have helped.

Yet the thrill rang a little hollow. Again I had put someone else first. Yes, I loved him dearly, but this was the classic female faux pas. We’re natural nurturers, helping others succeed and grow. I had to focus on giving my life’s dream a serious effort. And now my livelihood, and that of my children, depended on it.

I wrote for newspapers, magazines - any publication that would have me. I wrote humorous stories, amusing anecdotes, light-hearted tales that would ease a worried world. These were especially troubled times for the print media since, in a financial downturn, the first thing most companies cut is advertising. It seemed everyone was panicking, hunkering down until this fiscal tornado was over. Still, I reasoned, the world needed a hero. Or at least a heroine with a sense of humor.

“I saw your column in the paper,” my son’s teacher said. “I loved it! I read all your stories. They make me laugh. Please keep writing!”

“I saw your Thanksgiving story in the newspaper,” my accountant said. “Hilarious!”
Sure, I thought. I’ll keep writing. But my financial hourglass was quickly running out of sand.
Then something strange occurred. I had read about it happening before, during the Great Depression. I first noticed it with the film industry– annual revenue was, surprisingly…UP!

People were tired of hiding from bad times. They wanted to escape, at least for a couple of hours. While they weren’t taking big vacations, they still needed to get away from it all. They did this by going to the movies in record numbers. Tiny breaks from reality, but sorely needed. Could it be the beginning of a turn-around?

One afternoon I stopped by a bookstore. It was full of people. It seems the publishing industry was experiencing the same trend as the film business. Book sales were starting to rise. Inspired, literary agents responded, and inquiries for my manuscript increased. My new book was humorous, light, and odd – could it help people forget how difficult times were? I was convinced it was a matter of time before it sold. Still, I was afraid to hope.

In the meantime, my boyfriend’s record company sent him on a concert tour. Before he left, we had a heart-to-heart talk. Even though we’d be apart, we promised each other that we’d stay close - whatever we would face, we would face together. With renewed strength and confidence, my stories began selling. More newspapers picked up my columns.

“Laugh and the world laughs with you. Cry and you cry alone.” I’m fine with that. I write to ease the tough times, help people see the lighter side. Now I can share it with the world. And I’ve never been happier.

Quite a quirky fairy tale ending! But thank you, tough times. You freed me from a soulless job and shook me out of my comfort zone, enabling me to find true love and follow my heart’s work. I wouldn’t have done it without you.

Life isn’t always what you expect it to be. Sometimes that’s a good thing.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Today's Stock Tip - Invest in Comedy

While channel-surfing the other night, I came across a surly mob of stand-up comedians swapping jokes with each other. It was obvious they had been doing shows together for ages - the personal rapport they shared was terrific. The audience howled their approval. They were hilarious, riffing back and forth, topping each other's lines with the kind of friendly, competitive swagger that only comes from many months of sharing a tour bus toilet.

Some poor audience members were busting a gut so hard they seemed to be in pain. You could hear them gasp as their lungs fought for air against the belly laughs. For a moment I wondered if anyone at a comedy club had ever gone into cardiac arrest, or choked so hard on a pun they herniated something. That would be unfortunate, but imagine the bragging rights for the comedian.

A friend of mine has a strange tradition. Before talking to me at any length, she first insists on using the bathroom. Apparently I’ve made her laugh so hard she’s had a few accidents. In an odd way, I’m proud. If I had a resume for comedy, that gem would be on it. The Excellence in Comedy Incontinence Award, sponsored by Depends.

Sometimes, when she’s around, I push myself, digging for better material in an effort to make her laugh harder. Her bladder challenges me to be better. I’m in a battle of wills with her kidneys.

Making people laugh is addicting. You get that first giggle out of them and you crave more. Laugh again, dammit! Your mind races to find the next bit. You want them to laugh so hard it hurts. Which is weird, since funny is supposed to be, well, fun. But by this time, you don’t care about someone’s pain. You’ve found a rhythm, you’re in a groove, and you don’t want it to end, even if someone gets hurt or puddles a chair.

When life stinks, it is not hard to be funny - it is darn near impossible. While I've never done actual stand-up in a club, I have a comedian's daily routine of writing down jokes, quips, and quirky observations. Every day I force myself to find the funny, dammit. Some days it's simple. Lately, not so much.

It was much easier during the Bush administration, when we all still had some money in the bank and a job. It was so easy, anyone could do it. We could all afford a chuckle and some candy.

But the sweet and easy days of mocking the monkey-eared Decider are gone. Now more than ever, we desperately need to laugh. Even if you're cheery, doing great, with a terrific job, a wonderful spouse, etc. Especially if you're cheery and here's why. Every day, you interact with people on the verge of extreme grumpiness. People who would have no problem thumping you on the freeway, or heaven forbid - throwing candy wrappers on your front lawn. And one thing that can really push a grumpy person over the edge is an excessively cheery person. These grumpy people need a way to blow off steam before they wipe that smile off your dang cheery face with the front bumper of their car.

So somehow we need to find a way to laugh this mess - at AIG, at Madoff, at Congress, before we all go psycho-grumpy on each other. Yes, it’s a challenge. Which is why only the best comedy will do. The fallout of a lousy economy is that only the strong survive. This is true in business as well as humor. There’s a comedic shake-out going on.

Nadir is a funny-sounding word. Nadir, nadir, nadir. It means rock bottom, hitting the lowest you're gonna go. Unlike a roller coaster ride, Life doesn't let you know exactly where and when you're bottoming out. You have to look back over your shoulder after the fact and say, "Yup - that there was my nadir." This is akin to saying, "Yup, I should not have been looking at my nose hair in the rear view mirror and I would have seen the tree." No bonus points for hindsight.

When you’re sitting in your nadir, you usually don’t know it yet. But I’m going to venture a guess and say, hopefully, that right now, we’re sitting in it. It looks like a nadir. It certainly smells like one.

If I’m correct, that means things are looking up. And the best way to get up and out of our nadir is to laugh our way out.

"Tell me a joke. Say something funny. Now."

I used to resent such pressure. What if I didn't feel like being funny? I'm not a foofoo dancing poodle. Hmmph. But it is time to get dancing.

Laugh and the world laughs with you. Cry and you cry alone. Unless you’re laughing so hard you’re crying. Then you’ve come full circle, where bliss meets pain, where hurt is healing, where mirth makes kidneys explode. Maybe not, but close. I'm fine with this. I don't want anyone seeing me cry anyway.
We need funny. We can't sit here licking our financial wounds forever. And I need to be funny as much as you need to laugh.

So laugh, dammit, or I'll throw candy wrappers on your lawn and make your kidneys explode.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

There's a Fly in My Coffee

It's another lovely day. Outside. Inside, not so much.

Daylight Savings is here. Time to 'spring forward.' Woo-hoo. Usually I don't care one way or the other about this sort of thing, but today I'm looking forward to losing an hour. Because so far it hasn't been the best of days.

First, the morning paper arrives without the comics section. Usually I read this with my sons, and it's never simply not shown up. The rest of the paper is there, intact, but no funny papers, which stinks because it's part of our traditional Sunday ritual. We usually discuss whether anyone could still find Beetle Bailey or Blondie funny, and how Prince Valiant hasn't aged a bit in forty years even though he takes all those zany voyages and never seems to use sunblock.

The boys turn up their noses at Family Circus, until I explain that parents are hard-wired to find the stupidest kiddie things amusing. They stare at me.

"Basically, it guarantees we don't kill you," I explain. They nod.

To make matters worse, a fly has landed in my coffee. Not sure how long he has been there. Wish we could choose which Daylight Savings hour to lose. I know which hour the fly would take back, and I'd probably agree with him.

Then there's the dismal economy. Then there's the media talking about the dismal economy. Then there's the media, realizing that people are tired of hearing about how dismal the economy is, meekly trying to find the bright side of the dismal economy. All this doom and gloom probably sucked the life out of the comics section, which would explain its disappearance. This would all be very amusing if it were a Coen Brothers movie. They'd even find a way to save the fly.

On a mixed blessing note, my old company was implicated in the Madoff scheme. Lucky for me, they were kind enough to not pay me decent wages, so I could never afford to invest in their IRAs. They then laid me off, along with a lot of other people, so I transferred my meager investments out of there. I would laugh, but there are still a couple of good people working there, and of course they're the ones being hurt. The evil brokers are long gone, probably now working as bailout lobbyists for the banking industry.

I saw that as somewhat good news, because this company was exposed for unsurly business practices. However, if they go under, locally they'll lay off another few hundred people, putting them in direct competition with me for a job. They've been hemorrhaging staff for a couple of years now, chasing that almighty stock rating by cutting expenses in the form of payroll. That can only work short-term, because the smart employees smell the coffee and fly the coop before the rest of the euphemisms hit the fan, so it's only a matter of time before they shut down. I'd just as soon have a job before all those people flood the job market.

After a brief memorial ceremony, I dump the fly from my coffee. We make our own comics which, in our opinion, are much funnier than the usual ones. I could have done without so many fart jokes, but at least today I don't have to see Kathy obsessing about her weight/dessert/mother.

The economy issue's a bit tougher. We try making our own currency, but apparently Madoff has already spoiled that game.

Recently the US government fined UBS, the Swiss banking giant, $780 million for providing illicit tax shelters to US citizens. The Treasury estimates the tax revenue lost through this money-laundering is over $100 billion a year. That's $100,000,000,000.00 per year, or a little over $11,415,525 per hour. And you thought losing an hour was no big deal. (thanks, Insom, for correcting my math- big numbers make me skittery and prone to error)

Why not take the UBS fine and fund some education for some future financial rain-makers? Why not train me and a few other intelligent, unemployed schmos to chase down the mini-Madoffs of the world, and all the others who think the rules don't apply to them? The fines we could levy would be enough to fund our payroll, and we could close down a few banking loopholes to help stabilize the industry and pacify Wall Street.

This is similar to what the police department does with the seized assets of drug-dealers - sell them off to finance better bad-guy finding equipment. Let's finance the bailout with Madoff's lavish New York apartment, hidden assets, and left kidney. As we know from watching Cops, kicking bad-guy butt feels good. It's time for us to do it white-collar style.

In the meantime, I'm going to scour the park for financial scofflaws. It's such a lovely day outside.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Heart's True Color

I was pretty disgusted with Love. In fact, we weren't even on speaking terms anymore. Nevertheless, every Friday night I went out anyway, just to socialize a bit and get away from the desk.

This was one of those typical, discouraging Friday nights. It was quite late, and a rather large man had just finished regaling me with talk of his "forty acre spread outside of Dallas." I wasn't sure if he was talking about a ranch or his waistline. Either way, I found an excuse to escape to another part of the nightclub, telling myself that this would at least make good material for a satirical expose' on the dark underbelly of today's dating scene. Like we needed more underbelly.

It wasn't long before another man approached me and out of the blue began to chatter on about the wonderful, loving personality of the common pit bull.

"I was recently attacked by pit bulls," I warned. "They nearly killed my dog."

"You just don't understand them," he countered, not missing a beat, but completely missing my warning signs. Here we go, I thought. He's just as misunderstood as his beloved pit bulls, yet the fault belongs to everyone but him. Maybe they'll eat him in his sleep.

"I think I understood these pits pretty well," I growled. "They had my dog by the jugular." He continued on, oblivious to the disconnect. This guy needed to be in a story. Whether it was in the How NOT to Meet Women handbook, or in a police report after I slugged him for being a complete moron, either way he was destined to be put down on paper.

"Excuse me, are you with him?" A cowboy hat interrupted the pit bull monologue. The hat belonged to the best looking guy in the place, and now he had suddenly turned humble in my presence, his hat tipping forward in a sort of cowboy curtsey. Thinking this might be some sort of set up, I glanced about for a hidden camera. The pit bull lecturer was still jabbering.

"Oh hell, no!" I replied. "I am NOT with him!" The Hat dipped down, his shoulders shaking at my joke. He caught that quip pretty quickly, a sign of wit and smarts. Perhaps all was not lost.

"Would you like to dance?" The Hat asked.

"Where were you an hour ago?" The Hat tipped forward again, laughing. I had known him for all of ten seconds and already I was nagging him. They say sometimes when you meet the right person, you know it right away. We headed for the dance floor.

As we danced, an odd feeling came over me. This was nice. This might work, I thought. That was unexpected and made me a bit dizzy.

Most men I meet spend the bulk of their time building themselves up, to the point where they can't maintain their own lofty image, only to slink off to some cave to escape my wrath. Not the Hat.

"I have a two-year-old," he warned, much like someone would mention owning a sawed-off shotgun. He waited, unblinking, for me to squirm.

"I have two tween boys," I countered, knowing I was outgunned by the two-year-old, but wanting to show force anyway.

"I smoke and drink," his eyes narrowed and one eyebrow went up. Now he was double-dog daring me.

"I......don't," I had him on this one. He smiled.

We were both at the point in our lives where we didn't want to expend one bit of effort on something that didn't have a chance. So we parried and circled each other, throwing out any frightening bits of our lives that might send the other scurrying down the road. Better to know sooner than later, after wasting time and heartbeats. It was tough love in the form of full-frontal truth. And it worked. We've been together ever since.

While I don't recommend blabbing your biggest issues to every possible date you meet, I do suggest losing the fluff, the fibs, the phony. It's such an effort, and it's not worth it. It's just not... you.

I have an idea. That doesn't occur too often, so perhaps you should listen. It's kind of a romantic idea, which is even rarer, so anyway, you've been warned...

Valentine's Day is here. If you've been successful in love, why not plant a heart where you met your sweetheart? Just a red piece of paper, perhaps taped to the very spot you met. You could put your names on it, or the date you met, or a little inspirational note, or something like "On this spot two hearts met." Or nothing at all.

On the flip side, if you met someone, fell in love, and they took your forty acre spread and fed it to their pit bulls, you could place a black heart on the site. In parts of Europe, they have 'Black Spot' areas, featuring little monuments warning drivers that someone died there in an accident. It's an effective, sobering reminder. Why not do the same for misguided love? You could write something like "On this spot, two hearts met, fell in love, and bugged the hell out of each other for 2 years and 238 days." Who knows, it might make the next person think twice.

When you meet your Hat, let me know. Let the world know, and put a red heart on the spot. Love may be blind sometimes, but it doesn't have to be invisible. Give hope to those who are still wading through the fakes and the phonies, and paint the town red. At least for the day.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Brazen Coons, Runaway Cows, & Substandard Ducks

There are many classic country memories - the smell of beeswax at the old country store, bidding at the stock auction, and checking out the latest tractors at the local Agway. There are many other memories - lesser known and a bit more unique.

Some mornings I’d lie in bed a while, listening to the sound of cattle & pork futures blaring on my parents’ radio. It was our redneck Wall Street stock ticker, prices fluttering up and down ever so slightly. Some mornings, though, I awoke to the sound of my dad’s shotgun. He’d be at his bedroom window, firing at the raccoons in the cornfield.

“I’m just scaring them,” he’d say as I watched him pull up his pajama bottoms. Dad had a habit of wearing clothes well after the elastic had given up the ghost, to the point that the cloth was shiny and nearly sheer. He’d fire a shot, pull up his droopy drawers, then fire again, never missing a beat.

“Don’t worry, I’m not gonna hit them,” he’d say as I stared at the spectacle. Since I never found a dead raccoon in the cornfield, I left it at that. But I sure wished he’d spring for new pajamas.

Sometimes we wouldn’t get to sleep all the way to the radio. Once in a while, in the middle of the night, the phone would ring. It would be a neighbor calling to tell us our cows were out again, munching their way through his garden. They had to be fetched back home, so at the sound of the telephone, everyone would automatically pile out of bed, into their clothes and wearily head down the road to be zombie cattle wranglers. Mercifully the cows only escaped in the summer, when the smell of the Thompson’s alfalfa down the road was too tempting to resist.

In the days just prior to a ‘jailbreak,’ I’d often catch the cows ‘working’ the fence line, literally climbing up the fence and pushing on it, trying to find the weakest spot. I lectured them about this, but they never listened. They kept on with their wicked ways, going for destructive, moonlit strolls until we came and got them. Some folks had uncles or brothers they’d retrieve from the local bar at 1 am. We had Midnight, Cindy, Sonny, and a few other rowdy, roaming cows.

“Get your furry butts home right this minute!” I’d hiss at them. I prayed this didn’t get back to my friends at school. While the town girls were probably out on dates, I was half-dressed and frumpy, standing in a field, arguing with a bovine gatecrasher.

“What’s it worth to you?” Midnight would inquire smugly. She was the leader, the shop steward of the cows. It was 1 am, and she was arguing with me.

“Get your butt home now,” I’d sigh, “Or I’ll tie you by the tulips.”

We often chained the cows to trees on the front lawn so they could eat the grass. We’d end up with large ‘mowed’ circles, complete with cowpies, and unmowed areas in between. It was an attention-grabbing look. Instead of crop circles, we had ‘crap circles.’ There was a flower bed in one area that contained mostly tulips, and I knew Midnight couldn’t stand them. She despised them, actually, not even daring to step on them, and eating all the grass neatly around them. We liked to put her there because she did such a good job, but I knew she hated it.

“Fine,” Midnight huffed, flicking her tail and sticking her tongue up her nose as she turned toward home. “I wasn’t that hungry anyway.”

Somehow word got out about my cattle wrangling skills (I blame my sister), and I was offered a job at the Dutchess County Fair. Not just any job, mind you, but a job in the baby animal tent. It was my first real employment, and being a cow-whisperer, I took it very seriously. Besides the usual feeding and pen-maintenance, I was saddled with the task of teaching baby ducks to walk up a ramp, grab a bite of food, then slide down the slide. This would be easy if baby ducks came equipped with at least the tiniest hint of a brain stem. I could push them up that ramp all day, but unless I crammed food right down their throats, they weren’t getting it. Suddenly the cows looked smart.

Early visitors to our tent did not get to witness cute, quacking ducklings waddling happily up a ramp and sliding down a slide. Instead, they were treated to a puppet show. I was the puppeteer, having my right hand shoved neatly up a baby duck’s butt, ‘walking’ it up the ramp, where my left hand would force feed some meal down its gullet as the right hand flicked it down the slick slide. The baby duck would choke a bit on its dinner as it tumbled down into the water, hopefully landing right side up. I’d wear a big smile and exclaim how cute the ducklings were as I shoved my right hand up the next duck’s butt. I’m sure quite a few of those ducks are still in therapy.

The Fair was a huge deal, almost the biggest fair in New York State. What made it so big was that it was within commuting distance of New York City. So every year, our little town was inundated with city folk intent on having a good old country time. Whether they stepped on us in the process didn’t matter – they were going to spend a day in the country admiring the local kitsch, littering, and stomping on our every word with the most bizarre accent. My parents still had a Brooklyn accent, but it was nowhere near as raucous and brazen as these urban interlopers. I was stunned. It seemed, also, that many of these urbanites were missing a key filter between their brain and their mouth. Every little thing that came out of their brain went directly out their mouth, with no processing whatsoever, much like the primitive digestive tract of a tapeworm. Suddenly the cows looked smart.

Eventually I had ‘puppeteered’ enough duck butts that the mere sight of me was enough to send the birds squawking up the ramp. One of my favorite activities was to watch the look on the city people when they noticed the effect I had on the animals. They’d stand there, jabbering away, their accents sawing at words like dull chainsaws. I’d stare at them. Once I had their attention, I’d motion to the ducklings. This was their cue to run up the ramp and do their thing. Then I’d watch the city slickers’ jaws drop. I’d give them the ‘you’re next’ look, and they’d skitter away, speechless.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Drivin' Me Crazy

Finally I was old enough to drive a legitimate vehicle on a legitimate road. After years of riding tractors, dirt bikes, horses, cows, and dune buggies, this was guaranteed to be a cakewalk. Just the idea of having a seatbelt, a roof, and a real road made it seem so sissy-fied.

Our grandmother, Nana, had a simple automatic two-door sedan. It was a Gremlin, as ugly as a Scotsman’s backside, but an easy car to drive. There were a few other advantages to having Nana as a driving teacher - Nana’s eyesight was fading, so she was oblivious to near misses. If something happened, she’d have to rely on my version of the story. She liked to have a glass or two of wine, which always helps one relax prior to a crash. The best part was that this would get her away from all those bundt cakes she insisted on baking. We were all quite sick of eating her damn bundt cakes.

But I had forgotten something. Having Nana teach me would be the easiest way to learn. However, the easy way was not the Irish way. Oh, nooooo. Instead, we would take a cherished, high-strung sports car, put a nervous rookie behind the wheel, and add a trigger-happy father next to her barking instructions. And just for kicks, we did it all uphill.

Dad had splurged a bit on a mid-life crisis in the form of a horrifically fussy, stick-shift sports car, a Volkswagen Scirocco. I knew about shifting from driving the farm trucks, but Dad’s Scirocco was a whole ‘nuther story. It was literally like going from a plow horse to a race horse.

I’ve met prom queens less temperamental than this car. If you didn’t engage the clutch at exactly the right time, while the moon was in alignment with Mercury, it would not only stall, it would shudder hard enough to slam your face into the steering wheel eight times, then stall.

Dad drove until he got to a big hill. Then he turned off the ignition, set the emergency brake, and got out of his beloved dream car. We switched seats.

On one side was a hay field, on the other a cemetery. He figured I couldn’t kill anyone if I went off the road there.

“Drive,” he said.

I turned the key. “Ca-chunk,” replied the car, slapping me into the steering wheel. Dad always left the car in gear. Oops. I pushed in on the clutch and held it down as I tried the ignition again. The car was now purring. Or growling, depending on your point of view.

I eased carefully off the clutch. RrrrrrrRRRrrr. A rumble, a stutter, then nothing.

“Ca-chunk,” the car sent my head smacking into the steering wheel.

“Emergency brake,” Dad growled through locked teeth. We both needed a beer. The car needed a shot of Jack Daniels. I took the emergency brake off. We rolled backward. I started again, this time from negative 5 miles per hour.

After several clutch-grinding, head-slapping attempts, I eventually got the car into first gear. It leaped and lurched up the hill like a rabid mountain goat on Red Bull.

“Second gear,” Dad held the dash at arms length to keep from smacking into it again. Another gear? Damn!

Wwwwwhiiiiiiiine!” the car sputtered but reluctantly accepted the shift. Trees zoomed past. A squirrel ran for its life.

Thump–bucka-bucka-bucka! Gravel hit the undercarriage as we caromed off the road and across a ditch. I aimed us back toward blacktop, but the car spun on the soft sod. We missed the cemetery fence and the Traver family headstone. Thank goodness Mr. Marquardt had opted for one of those low, flat, grave markers. The rough, textured top helped us regain our traction. We came back from the dead and headed toward pavement.

“Third gear,” Dad was now grinding his teeth. More gears AND keeping all four tires on blacktop - this multi-tasking was becoming a real pain in the ass. We were back on the road but quickly running out of hill.

Wwwwwhiiiiiiiine!” the car fishtailed a bit as I shifted, then roared forward, gobbling up the rest of the hill.

At the crest was St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. Established in 1760, to my knowledge it had never been hit by a car. Several huge maple trees held vigil, protecting it from vehicular attack. We threaded the maple tree needle and rapidly approached the church’s red front doors.

“Stop!” said Dad. I hit the brake with my right foot, the clutch with my left, and spun the steering wheel hard to the left. I figured if one of those moves would help, all three just might save us.

The car hooked left, popping a sideways wheelie, the left-side tires heading heavenward for a moment as the church steps loomed perilously close to the passenger-side door. I looked over, or down, at my dad as gravel skittered across the church patio. The car righted itself and rolled forward slowly. I peered into the rear view to see if any witnesses made it out alive.

“Look, Dad, I made a happy face!” There behind us, on the front lawn of St. Paul’s, was a big skiddy grin, complete with two eyes where the left-side tires had come back to earth.

We switched seats.

“Drive,” Nana said.

I put the unsightly Gremlin in gear and motored evenly down our sleepy, level road.

“You know, doing this for you, I won’t have time to bake your favorite bundt cake today,” Nana grumbled. “I hope you appreciate that.”

“Ca-chunk!” I thought to myself.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Can't We All Just Not Care Anymore?

As I do on most Mondays, I drove the kids to school. It was closed for Martin Luther King Day. Yes, I should have realized this. While it's one of those marginal holidays, schools are big on celebrating this one. Even though they celebrate it for the wrong reasons.

The United States is about to inaugurate its first black president. He also happens to be half-Irish, but the black part is the big deal, simply because it's new. Record breakers are by definition newsworthy, so I get that. But I'm weary of it. I'm impatient for the next step. Which should be, as far as genetics go, a yawn.

The other day my son's classmate had to choose a teammate for a class project. He chose between two people. "I didn't pick her because she's Mexican," he said. As he grows, he will learn not to give voice to his thoughts. But unless we do something, his thoughts will still be there.

This all irks me. I'm tired of it being such a big deal. King's speech was nearly 45 years ago. When do we become colorblind?

Celebrating one group to make up for past transgressions does not necessarily lead to equality. Do it incorrectly, and it leads to jealousy, retaliation, and deluded entitlement. Schools and other entities celebrate 'Black History Month.' My son wants to know when 'White History Month' is. I want to know when we quit thinking in terms of race.

Years ago my cousin married a Puerto Rican Jew. She converted to Catholicism to be with him. At the wedding, there were a few tense moments. Being Jewish, the bride's side of the chapel was clueless on when to sit, kneel, stand, etc. My dad took full advantage of this by starting to kneel, then sitting, then standing. He had the entire left side of the church faked out, following him in a monkey-see, monkey-do sort of Catholic hyper-genuflecting. Both sides of the church were in hysterics. Except for the moms and the priest. They were required by law to show their disapproval.

Later on, during the reception, the bride's side of the family was having their picture taken. My dad started making fun of them. "Hey, look at all the Spics!" he laughed.

"Hey, look at all the Micks!" one of them called back. They laughed. We laughed. No Jets and Sharks that day. Just Micks and Spics. They started singing some songs in Spanish. My Nana burst into a heartfelt rendition of Danny Boy. We all had a drink and a very good time.

So we celebrate our differences. How we react to those differences is the key. When it comes down to it, I really don't care what color the president is. What's his economic plan? He could be purple with green stripes and curly antennae - just get me a job, please!

Let's toast the new president for what he symbolizes - a fresh start. Then let's get started. He's going to need all the help he can get, poor guy - his mother-in-law is moving in with him.

I, too, have a dream. I dream of a day when it doesn't matter what color or gender a president is, when a woman is paid the same as a man, when the word 'Muslim' does not automatically translate to 'terrorist,' when you can marry who you love and nobody fears you will infect their family with your 'differentness.' Yeah, I dream a lot.

We have a very long way to go.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

"Prom" is a Four Letter Word

Dad (shoved through my bedroom doorway by Mom): You know about the birds and the bees, right?

Me: Dad, we live on a farm.

Dad: Right…ok, guess we’re done!

As a teenager, it was sometimes necessary to step away from the barn and re-enter civilization. This was not something I looked forward to. In fact, I avoided it at all costs.

Flashback to my 16th birthday. A huge gift box. I open it and out spills a puff of red and white lace and chiffon. "What is it?" I ask. I was hoping for a new saddle blanket. This was not a saddle blanket.

"It's a dress," my mother replies excitedly and slowly, as if she were a missionary explaining Christianity to the great unwashed. I wear jeans and flannel shirts. Nothing against dresses, but they tend to get caught in the double clutch on the tractor.

"A what?" I ask, searching desperately for the receipt.

"A PROM dress," she clarifies right before I pass out. I had never even gone on a date. I had been asked out a few times, but since I never knew what to say, I usually just stared back or walked away. That did not go over well, and pretty soon guys quit asking. Now I had a big, stupid, fluffy dress from of all places, that ultra-vogue icon of fashion – Sears, and a mother fully expecting me to grow breasts and social skills in three months. Cupid, shoot me now.

On an even playing field, I might have had a chance. But it was far from a fair battle. I was completely unprepared to match girly wits with the town princesses. For years they had been painting their nails, tweezing their eyebrows, sharpening their flirtation skills, studying Tiger Beat, and generally obsessing about the opposite sex. Meanwhile I was shoveling chicken poo and teaching my horse how to not kill me.

A new boy had just moved to our town. At a small school like ours, where each grade averaged about a hundred people, a new classmate was big news. The even bigger news was that Bernie O’Callaghan was adorable, probably the best looking guy in our class. All the townie girls were abuzz and atwitter, eyelashes fluttering wildly, twirling their hair, snapping their gum, filing their nails, and generally making fools of themselves. I was my usual oblivious bookworm self.

Part of what made Bernie so adorable was his tendency to ignore the rules. He was not concerned about the supreme high school directive of never asking anyone out who got better grades than you. He could care less about grades, including his own. He could care less about what others thought. He was an impish Irish scalawag of the highest, or perhaps lowest, order.

Many of the top social butterflies were waiting for Bernie to ask one of them to the prom. They were, in fact, already fighting over him. Then the strange part happened. A friend of mine found out that Bernie was interested in, of all people, me. Once she recovered from the shock, she cornered me and insisted on becoming my “social coach.” She was tired of watching guys wilt in my gaze, and my insistence on spinsterhood as a career choice. So she staged an intervention.

Some of the townie girls were quite upset by the way things eventually turned out, and my friend still fears retribution, so I’ve agreed to conceal her identity. We’ll just refer to her as “Deep Prom.”

Deep Prom: You know that new boy, Bernie?

Me: Yeah.

Deep Prom: He likes you.

Me: Huh. That’s weird.

Deep Prom: He wants to ask you out to the Prom.

Me: W-what?

Deep Prom: First, though, you gotta tweeze your eyebrows.

Me: W-what?

I was clueless, more concerned with our upcoming standardized tests. Usually I’d continue to be clueless, but this time I had my mother to answer to. My mother and that big, stupid, fluffy Sears dress. So "Deep Prom" set up a meeting. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Bernie: What are you doing Friday night?

Me: Nothing. Why?

Bernie: Would you like to go to the prom with me?

Me: Ok. But why don’t we go on Saturday night like everyone else?

Bernie: Sounds like a plan.

Bernie didn’t even blink. He wasn’t aware of my tendency to reduce guys to limpid puddles by staring at them. As it turned out, he stared right back. In a bizarre quirk of nature, I had a feisty, hunky date and a dress. I was terrified.

In the name of style, we women do hurtful things to ourselves. Hair removal is right up there on the owie chart with high heels and chronic insecurity. But Deep Prom was right –my eyebrows needed a mowing. Wow, did that hurt. Now I understood why the townie girls were a bit skitter-headed. Beauty was downright painful.

I made a serious effort to get rid of my farmer’s tan and do something with my wild Irish hair. The real difference came when I put on makeup. Suddenly I had eyelashes, cheekbones, and the potential to make some townie girls cry. We were truly making a silk purse out of a sow’s caretaker.

Prom night was wonderful, even if the butterflies in my stomach did most of the dancing. A few of the town princesses, in their battle for the supreme dress, had ended up in the fashion nightmare of wearing the exact same dress. I believe the style was from Neiman Marcus in New York City. By the time they were done tearing each other apart, though, the dresses were quite different from each other, bearing various rips, slashes, and scratches, a bizarre yet compelling process of customization. My Sears dress, with its red velvet roses on white chiffon, held up just fine. So did Bernie.

I then returned to my studies.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Country Cookin'

To many, the term country cookin’ conjures up visions of barbequed squirrel, home-baked pie, and deep-fried whatnot. This was certainly not in our case in our house. Dad had a full-time job, plus the farm, plus a side job land-surveying. Mom had us four kids, a herd of cows, several horses, four dogs, a cat or two, a few hundred chickens, the land-surveying business, a snoopy mother-in-law, a house the size of a small European country, and my dad. When in the world was there time to bake pie?

On The Andy Griffith Show, Aunt Bee was constantly scuttling about the kitchen baking, roasting, or frying something. She was always dressed just so, everything ironed and in its place, even her double chin. That needy voice of hers bothered me, and Andy’s awkward bachelor lifestyle seemed suspicious, but that’s another story. I love home-made pie just as much as the next person, but no pie, no matter how tasty, is worth that amount of dysfunctional whining. Hand them each a bottle of Jack Daniels and just let them rip at each other once and for all. I’d watch that episode twice.

I’m sure somewhere there’s a country matriarch bustling about the stove daily, fussing over seven-course meals, but she’s either got an Easybake Oven, plastic teacups, and a teddy bear, or she’s baking fluffy cloud cakes for her roommates in the local psychiatric hospital. On a realistic, working farm, they would’ve hauled her outside, slapped a baseball cap on her, and had her stack hay bales in the barn for three hours. If she felt like stirring and spicing after that, go for it. Bye-bye, double-chin. Bye-bye, whine.

While Aunt Bee didn’t live on a farm, television watchers (aka city dwellers) were given the impression that all country folk do is sit around and bake peach cobbler. On our farm, Aunt Bee would have serious biceps, wear coveralls, and tell Opie to “cowboy up.”

Because of shows like The Andy Griffith Show, Green Acres, and Petticoat Junction, the lifestyle of the rural gourmet has been grossly misconstrued. Let’s take a look at some of the key differences:
  • There’s no one person dedicated to cooking. In fact, the person who made dinner was most likely just lifting bales next to you in the hayfield. In other words, do not expect homemade pie for dessert.

  • You will be expected to help. Yes, you just stacked two hundred and fifty bales of hay. Wash your hands and set the table.

  • No sparkling clean kitchen here, unless you’re eating outside and it just rained. Table scraps roll downhill, and the dogs keep the floor relatively clean. Good enough until winter comes and we have time for some deep cleaning. (The coziest work in the winter is near the wood stove in the kitchen.)

  • The pet you scratched behind the ear last week might now be on your plate. And he might taste pretty good. Horrible thought, right? I had trouble with that one, too. Until I tasted the chicken. It was really good.
This marked my introduction to what some call feminism. It was more like country common sense equality. If you could do it, then do it. If you couldn’t, you’d learn. The tractor didn’t care whether you were packing a trouser snake. Get it in gear and get the hay in, please.

On the flip side, the boys were expected to clean up and help with food and laundry. They didn’t care for it too much. So that was fun to watch.

In high school, girls took Home Economics and boys took Shop. I questioned that logic, mentioning it in passing to the principal one day. Sure enough, the next year everyone took Home Economics and Shop. While I made a few enemies that year, it was quite by accident - I never expected the principal to actually listen. I couldn’t wait to get to the real world and make some real changes. Just lasso a few flying pigs and make the world a better place. Piece of cake. Or pie.

The pizza run –
One of my favorite splurges was every Sunday night when we’d order pizza. Since we were far beyond the delivery area, we had to go fetch it. I enjoyed bringing it home, trying to get back quickly so the pizza was still nice and hot. Since there was no direct route between our house and the pizza joint, I was, for the sake of hot pizza, compelled to barrel down twisting country roads. This was as close to running moonshine as I would ever get, so I took full advantage of it. There were no police cars watching for speeding pizza runners, however, deer liked to jump out of nowhere. Swerving to avoid a deer does very bad things to pizza cheese. I’d race home in record time, only to open the pizza box to discover that the lateral g forces had had a severe, negative impact on the mozzarella. In the middle of the box, there’d be a tomatoed circle of dough. A large, frightened pile of cheese would be plastered to one side of the box. Still hot, of course.

Daddy tried -
Beyond the basic hot dogs, hamburgers, and pizza we consumed, my dad did have some interesting culinary experiments. Most dads take pride in their barbeque skills. This was BBBQ – beyond barbeque. Every once in a while he’d find an irregular recipe for cooking up homemade oddities. They always started with tremendous potential and somehow took a wrong turn. For instance:

· One year we had an over abundance of tomatoes, so he decided to make tomato sauce. Or maybe it was ketchup. Not sure which one it was supposed to be. I only knew that it was inedible. Later we discovered that our ‘Big Boy’ tomatoes weren’t the right type for canning or pickling or torturing or whatever Dad was doing to them. All I remember is staring at row upon row of mason jars full of tomato seeds, skin, pulp, and vinegar, worrying about when I’d be forced to consume their contents. Or whether the tortured tomatoes would evolve, escape, and consume me.

· Apple sauce takes lots of cooking in a big pressure cooker. If the pressure isn’t monitored and goes too high, pressure cooker parts fly in all directions, and boiling hot apple sauce follows the parts. We learned that.

· Homemade root beer was his next attempt. Absolutely flat. Not much is sadder than getting a whiff of the sweet scent of real root beer, only to be repulsed by a lack of bubbles. I wanted to find out who was giving my dad such a nutty do-it-yourself idea and knock him flat.

· The home-brewed apple cider never went flat. It did, however, distill a bit too long, eventually turning into rather potent applejack. We had to carefully remove it from the crawlspace under the house, first venting the area to release the methanol that had built up down there. I was hoping we could at least feed it to the livestock and watch them stumble around. Not much is funnier than a drunken cow slurring her words. I would be reminded of this again much later when I attended my first sorority party.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

DMV, Easy as ABC

My driver's license was expiring, and those fine folks at the Department of Motor Vehicles wanted an updated photo of me. They politely declined the picture from my Christmas card. Instead, they insisted I visit them. Yes, a trip to the DMV, I feel your pity. But I also sensed a journalistic opportunity, perhaps another chapter in the ongoing adventure, "Shock and Awe at Government Inefficiencies."

With the EDD buried under ten tons of unemployment sludge, the thought of visiting any government facility had me shaking. But I'm a writer, and that's what we do. We brave horrific situations and risk great peril to bring you the story. Especially when we have to go there anyway.

First I tried going online to set up an appointment. As anyone who lives on this planet knows, you don't even think about the DMV without an appointment. You probably needed an appointment just to read this article. I entered my information, and the system assigned me to a day a few weeks into the future, well past my license expiration date. How could they! Strike one.

So I called them. You laugh, I know. Here comes strike two. A silly thing to do, unless you have several hours to spare. "Your wait time is less than five minutes," said the recording. Whoa. I heard that several times, and began to wonder if they should be a bit more honest and change it to say, ""Your wait time is less than five minutes until you hear this recording again."

Eventually someone came on the line. The wait was approximately 7 minutes and 23.27 seconds. He cheerfully explained that the DMV would not penalize me for being a few days late on my license renewal. I coughed. "However, the police might not see it the same way," he added. Ok, then.

"Let me check the wait time at your local office," he said. "Let's see - the Thousand Oaks office has a wait time of approximately...." he paused. And paused. And paused. "Three minutes."

"So I can either wait three weeks for an appointment, or go in there now and wait three minutes?"


"Hmmm...I'll have to think about this. Thanks." I hung up and got in the car.

I walked in and was given a ticket with a number on it, something insanely high like 6,302. Luckily I brought with me two books, lunch, a snack, and several bottles of water. Before I could cross the room, an electronic voice called my number. Approximate wait time was less than zero. This was getting weird.

After an eye test (shouldn't it be an "EYES test?" We have two of them), I paid by check, putting "2008" on it instead of "2009." Now I was doomed - sure to be put in a line for numb-numbered knuckleheads, made to stare at a huge calendar for an hour or so until I got it right. Nope. Just a polite chuckle at my goof. Then on to get my picture taken.

Just a notch above mug shots, driver's license photos are notorious for being unflattering. Maybe after a long wait, people are awakened by the bright flash, hence the classic deer-in-the-headlights driver's license stare. Not at this DMV office. A lovely older woman sporting a charming smile and a yellow, stuffed lizard took my photo. Who can resist smiling back at a lady who reminds you of your Nana? Especially when she's waving a bright yellow lizard at you.

The only wait involved in the whole process was the DMV waiting for me. It probably took you longer to read this column than it did for me to renew my license. Approximately.