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.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Big Red

In rural areas, city rules are bent, tweaked and twisted until they resemble country roads. Things that make sense in urban areas simply don’t apply out here. We intend to keep it that way, for good reason.

For instance, regardless of age, every able body works. If you can drive, that adds a tool to your toolbox. Suddenly you can run equipment down to the hayfield or deliver lunch to Dad when he’s cutting down trees in the back woods. Farm work tends to mature kids a bit earlier, so waiting until sixteen to learn how to drive seems just plain silly. Especially when you’re the oldest kid – Mom and Dad have been running all the errands and are anxious to put you behind the wheel. A very dented and rickety wheel, but a wheel nonetheless.

For town kids, your 16th birthday is usually the momentous day upon which your parents hire a professional company to whisk you away and teach you how to drive. The perilous, stressful business of learning to drive is administered by trained, well-medicated instructors in a well-padded, sterile environment. Mom and Dad throw some money at the issue, then go duck and cover.

In the country, there are tons of vehicles and animals upon which to practice your driving skills. After trying to get an ornery two-year-old horse to stop, finding the brakes on a car is child’s play. Your horse has already taught you a basic rule - you mess up stopping on a horse, and you will soon be sporting stitches or worse. Ye olde simple country rule – mistake=pain.

When I was about twelve, I was given an all-terrain vehicle. It was pink, had six moon tires, a massive roll bar, an earsplitting engine, and was named Maxx. It could go through nearly anything, including deep mud, water, and snowdrifts, even taking on steep hills. The butterfly choke didn’t work very well - in order to start it, you had to lean way back across the engine, putting your hand over the intake so your hand was literally the choke. Unfortunately, you had to lean directly over the exposed battery terminals, so if your arm was a bit too low and made a connection, a nasty shock would run from your elbow to your hand, now covered in fuel. That would happen only once, then you’d be more careful.

At first glance, this sounded like great fun. The only thing is, we used it more for work than anything else. Although I will admit, once you got past the chance of getting your arm shocked, being able to drive a pink ATV around was a thrill. If you ever want to keep your brothers from borrowing something of yours, get it in pink.

My first truly scary driving experience was on an International Harvester tractor. Dad let me drive “Big Red” because he said I couldn’t kill it no matter how hard I tried. It had a double-clutch that ignored my puny weight, so in order to shift, I had to jam both feet on the clutch, grip the steering wheel, and push down on the clutch with all my abdominal might. Then shift.

One day I was driving Big Red in a hayfield, nearly a full load on the hay wagon behind me, with Mom on the back stacking the bales. We were headed downhill and suddenly the old tractor’s brakes took a break. Big Red wouldn’t stop, and we were quickly running out of field. I peered back at the hay wagon, flexing and bending behind me faster and faster as we picked up speed. The bales swooped and swayed, threatening to fall off, possibly taking my mom with them. I knew she’d survive to kill me later. I yelled to her but she couldn’t hear me, probably because she was yelling at me. I tried turning Red slightly to the right, hoping to miss the trees and swamp, all the while pumping the brakes.

Tractor accidents usually look pretty ridiculous, rarely getting the respect and awe due, say, a NASCAR crash. They often occur at very low speed, with sad, silly, predictable results. A silo gets wiped out, a tractor rolls over seemingly in slow-motion to take a nap, or simply plows through an old barn as the driver bails out to safety. They’re usually more embarrassing than anything else. Especially for a young driver not weighty enough to compel the brakes to work.

Big Red lurched to the right. A few bales flew off the left side. I stood up on the cranky clutch and stomped, downshifting to slow the tractor. It was not happy, stuttering and growling, but Red did slow a bit, enough for me to turn it away from the fast-approaching trees. Eventually we rolled to a stop. I crawled off and hyper-ventilated on the ground, watching bales tumble down the hill past me.

“Are you gonna sit there all day? Let’s get this hay picked up.” Mom was apparently just fine.

Later on, when blood returned to my head, I mentioned the faulty brakes.

“Don’t be silly,” Mom said. “Your father’s never had that problem. You just need to try harder.”

The following week, Dad was hauling a full load of hay back to the barn. He was negotiating a narrow, tricky, back road when Big Red’s brakes disappeared again. The whole rig ended up jackknifed, one rear tire on the hay wagon hanging over a cliff.

The nice thing about being a grown-up is that you can send the kids home, call a friend with a big tow truck, and quietly fix your messes without anyone the wiser. And you don’t even have to try harder.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

There's Snow Place Like Home

My two sons had been clamoring to 'go to the snow,' so the other day, to cork the clamoring, we finally went. After two hours of 'Are-we-there-yet' clamoring, we arrived, only to discover that the waiting lines for the ski slope were longer than the actual ski runs, the parking lots were overflowing, and I'm guessing the porta-potties were, too.

You know the feeling you get when you're poking around in the woods, and you flip over a rock just to see what's under it, and you uncover a huge swarm of ants milling about, climbing all over each other wondering what the hell is going on? That's what this town felt like. We had driven through the prettiest, most serene winter landscape to get there, only to arrive and discover a horde of swarming snow-tourists, choking the main road with their skiboots and clamoring.

"What are we gonna do?" my boys clamored, although by this time it was more of a whine than a clamor. It was then I remembered my snow training from my youth.

In upstate New York, snow was a way of life. It was handy to keep beer cold, and to put down your little sister's back. We did not drive two hours to see it. We were so spoiled, Mother Nature delivered it to our driveway. Many, many times. As a result, I was a snow ninja. I packed it, shovelled it, sledded in it, burrowed in it, and froze my butt off in it. And here I was, raising two boys who had barely even touched it.

Southern California is a wonderful place. Depending on your mood, you can choose your climate from a sort of weather menu - beach, mountains, movie set, ghetto, even snow. The problem is, you have ten million other people doing exactly the same thing. If they all feel like snow on the same day, there's gonna be some serious clamoring. But the difference between most SoCal clamorers and me is that they have little or no experience as a snow ninja.

When my boys finally paused their whining to catch their breath, I turned the car around and headed back into the quaint mountain town of Wrightwood. To be honest, I'm assuming the town was quaint once you peeled all the layers of tourists off of it. At that moment, though, it was under siege. It was like a beautiful winter scene, a picture postcard, only with metal fencing around everything. "No Snow Play" signs were everywhere, including the bathroom. Even the squirrels wore little "Don't touch!" vests.

Like everyone else, my kids were anxious to touch snow. So anxious, in fact, that when they got out of the car, they immediately got to touch ice, slipping and landing right on their keesters. They quickly recovered and followed me into the general store to buy toboggans.

There, on the shelf above the pinto beans and flashlights, was the toboggan of my youth - the red, plastic speed-demon, able to sustain a direct collision with a maple tree, bounce off and keep on skidding downhill sideways while you counted your teeth and fingers. I had assumed they were colored red to hide any blood. As a kid, we often wore slits right through them, snow would spraying up through the holes, hitting us in the face and further enhancing our winter experience.

They were low-budget enough to not worry about destroying them by hitting mailboxes and cars. For $4, we'd just get another one. Now, in this quaint, snowy SoCal town, they were charging $13, but they were still way cheaper than renting skis. We picked up a couple and headed out to find more snow and less people.

We escaped to a side road and eventually found serenity in the form of a quiet, steep, snowy hill. Our ears popped in the stillness. The kids quit clamoring. We each grabbed a toboggan. For a brief moment, my elder son stood up in his, before the icy snow smacked him down for that. He only did that once, but it was enough for me to realize that I would have to teach them the rules for sledding survival:
  • Trees are not your friends. They are especially hard when they are frozen solid.

  • Snow is cold. Don't let it get into your clothes.

  • Snow is often ice, which is really cold and sometimes sharp.

  • Don't pack bark in your snowballs. Mom will get you.

  • Don't forget to steer. Especially away from cliffs.

  • No, Mom won't carry you back up the hill. Deal with it.

To teach them how to steer, I took them down the slope in my toboggan a few times. Apparently I'm a speed demon.

Frightened Son: Mom, slow down!!!

Me: Come on, it's fun. The kind of fun we used to have, before video games and cable television ruined everything.

Frightened Son: Aaaaaaagh!!!

Me: Just steer with your hands and brake with your feet and you'll be fine.

Frightened Son: Aaaaaaagh!!!

Me: See, I knew you'd like it!

I'm apparently not as young as I used to be. After a few hours of being used as a steering and braking system, my knees clamored for a break. We were fresh out of dry clothes and knee cartilage, so we called it a day. A good day. Then I clamored for home.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Nashville Camp

Tired of singing only in the shower? Want someone besides the dog to appreciate your vocal chops? Your wait is over - come to Camp Nashville and for five fun-filled days, be treated like the latest, greatest country music star. All for the mere pittance of $7,995 (hotel not included). Yes, this is in small type. Yes, I was stunned at the price, too.

Welcome to Nashville's fantasy camp for Country Music Elvii-wannabes. I've always wanted to use the term, Elvii- it sounds very scientific, scholarly, and well, cool. Do I care if it's grammatically correct? Noooo. Thank yew. Thank yew verra much.

Camp Nashville is sponsored by CMT, Country Music Television, proud purveyors of such shows as My Big Redneck Wedding and Country Fried Home Videos. Call me crazy, but I envision Camp Nashville being filmed and produced as a future television musical train wreck, a la American Idol's William Hung episode.

The first camp will be held February 12th-16th. Makes sense, since many of these crooners will be celebrating Valentine's Day with the person they love the most. Themselves. They'll get to sing onstage in a club, so it could be fun. Hey, it could happen.

Maynard: Golly, Lurleen, I sounded much better in the shower....must be this here microphone.

Judge: NEXT!

No judges listed though, so far just a 'mentor' and a vocal coach are attached. Guess I'm dreaming of "American Idol - Camp Redneck." Hey, it could happen.

Although fantasy camps have been around a while, up until now I'd only heard of the baseball type. These are usually attended by financially-endowed, middle-aged guys who always dreamed of making the major leagues. It's all in good fun as they get a whiff of what 'the show' is like, then go home.

Perhaps this will lead to other creative camps such as:

  • CPA Camp - balance spreadsheets like a real, live Certified Public Accountant. Hang at the coffeemaker with other radical CPA's and diss the geeks in R&D. Class includes free pair of black-rimmed glasses and CPA Camp Special Edition calculator. (Pen protector available at additional cost.)

  • Camp Mafia - pretty much self-explanatory. I'd tell you more, but then I'd have to kill you, so fuggedaboudit.
You think I'm kidding? I'm as serious as a country ballad sung in the rain in an alley-

UPDATE - just discovered this gem - Singstar Country for the Playstation 2 - homestyle karaoke with artists like Brad Paisley, Gretchen Wilson, and Alan Jackson. There's even a contest - best singer goes to the Country Music Awards. And it's a tad less expensive than Camp Nashville. (Just don't take your Playstation 2 into the shower to sing.)

P.S. Whatever happened to just picking up a guitar and singing?