Sunday, December 29, 2013

An Open Christmas Letter about Kitchens

Usually, I enclose with my Christmas cards a letter that is intended to be a parody of that humble literary form, the family newsletter.  Nothing humble about that literary form, other than its standing in literature, where it huddles in the cold and rain, shoulder to shoulder with the obscure blog.  And since I am an obscure blogger, faithfully indulging my every rumination, this year's holiday round robin seemed redundant.

So let's talk about kitchens.  I'm on my third.

The first kitchen, a square room big enough to include a high-chair, (Josh was a baby), small table and four chairs was in Middleborough, Mass.

The house was built in 1906, and, like most grand homes of the period, the kitchen was not a room in which the owners were intended to spend time.  A call button on the floor in the dining room testified to this:  with it, the lady of the house could summon the maid or butler with an imperceptible shift of her foot.

[Believe it or not, the image above is "Smedley Maid Illustration, 1906".  What is it about 1906?!*]

Of course, by the time Phil and I bought 35 Peirce St., (e before i, yes), if there was a maid and butler in residence, they were vestigial spirits whose presence was manifest only in the form of imagined comments and the occasionally overheard footfall on the steps to their former rooms on the third floor.

"What are you doing?" the maid asked.

"Painting the kitchen."

"I can see that.  What I mean is, why?  And why aren't you painting it white?"

"I am painting it because it is my kitchen to paint.  And I am painting it Tuscan Vista because I want it to feel like an Italian kitchen."

I could plainly see the maid cover her mouth to keep from laughing.

"What on earth are you doing, now?"

"I am scratching at the second layer of paint to give it transparency and to create the illusion of antiquity."

The maid was doubled over, trying not to pee herself.  Finally, she straightened up and walked right through the wall that I had been scratching and sponging and tearing at with artistic intent.

We pulled up the dirty old yellow 1970's linoleum floor and Phil laid down slate tiles in an artful pattern.

The butler's ghost stood framed in the doorway, watching.

"You neglected to put an appropriate amount of that chemical on the slate to keep the grout from sticking on the surface," he said.

But Phil couldn't hear him.

"You're being a little too liberal, young man, with that grout."

But Phil couldn't hear him.

As a result, Phil spent many hours of back-breaking labor scraping off the excess grout with a wire brush.

In the end, the kitchen was a mishmash of cherry cabinetry, tile counter tops, slate floors, Tuscan vistas, New England lace curtains, and whatever appliances and furniture had either come with the house or been donated to us by relatives.

We had managed to spend more than we should have on discrete elements, yet the room never had any aesthetic focus.  The maid giggled every time she passed through.  The butler shook his head and tsk-tsked.

We liked it.

Second kitchen.  Different house, different state, but built in the same year: 1906.  Oregon, Wisconsin.

This house was not nearly as grand as Middleborough, but it had handsome arts-and-crafts woodwork--in the form of oak pillars, headers, paneling, and a beveled mirror on the coat closet door--typical of the Victorian and slightly post-Victorian homes in that neighborhood.  It was as if everyone in that day had hired the same tradesman to do the woodwork in their homes.  

Again, the kitchen was barely an afterthought.  Long and thin, due to the traffic patterns it was limited to being half a galley kitchen.  There could only be appliances, sink, or counter space on one of its two long sides, and both short sides were points of entry or egress.

There was a built-in cabinet in the dining room that backed up to the other long side of the kitchen.  It protruded into the kitchen about half a foot and had been covered up with wainscoting.  I thought, at one time, it was probably a smarter design; the drawers may have been accessible from both the dining room and the kitchen, for convenience.  But in our time, there was nothing useful about the arrangement from the perspective of the kitchen.

The ghost of the tradesman who had installed the cabinet and all of the handsome woodwork in town sometimes glared at me from across the room, like he knew what I was thinking.

"You're not thinking about taking down that built-in with the stained-glass doors that I built, are you?"

"No," I said, for the first few years we lived there.  "We love your cabinet.  We love the stained-glass doors.  Don't worry."

But when my dad passed away in 2009, I needed something to think about other than the fact that my dad had passed away, (a fact which took up enormous amounts of time and energy and emotional reserves to grasp); and a very wonderful awful idea then occurred to me.

"You're not," said the tradesman.

"I am.  There's no way around it.  Can you suggest a way?  I see none."

That cabinet had to go.

And go it did.  And with it, that wicked wainscoted wall that en-robed it.  It was replaced by a peninsula, which inserted itself into the middle of things, cleared its throat, and said, Dammit, I am a kitchen!  A kitchen, I tell you!  Take notice!

We spent too much money on that kitchen.  We could have done without soap stone.  We could have done without nearly-commercial grade appliances (which nevertheless required constant maintenance of an overpriced warranty plan to cover their inevitable and expensive failures; a plan which fell millimeters short of being called what it was: protection money).  We could have done without stainless steel, farmer's sinks and subway tiles.

But we couldn't have done without the designer who came up with the plan--that brilliant, wonderful, awful plan--which exploded that skinny kitchen and blew it right into the living room--so that I could watch television and talk to humans while preparing the roast beast.

We could have spent a lot less.  Our elbows were cold on the stone counter.  But we enjoyed it, nonetheless.  To hell with ghost carpenters.

Kitchen number three.  This is a small country kitchen on our lovely old farm with eighties cabinetry and a nineties counter that bridges to the family room without actually letting you pass through.  You may pass through food, but there's no way to get into or out of the kitchen except to walk the long way around and enter via the dining room.  You may look at the family room from the kitchen, but you may not enter it except as a projectile flying over the counter.

In exchange, we have a half bath off the family room.  It's a devil's bargain.

The more serious problem with  the kitchen was the general sense that it was the lowest-priority room for the previous owners, and perhaps for the owners before them and before them going back 100 years.

The original house is about 100 years old, but it is dwarfed and engulfed by more recent additions.  I suspect that the original house was no more than 800 square feet, and we are now 3,000.  If there are any ghosts, they are truly lost souls, passing through walls they did not remember being there before.

And so we have no idea how old the kitchen is, but we know that there was only one layer of wall paper, with little tears here and there at the seams.  The paper was never bad, it was always beige and drab.  The view out the window compensated for a multitude of sins and seems to have sent all previous occupants off into reveries such that they let things go on the opaque surfaces and focused their attention exclusively out the window.

But it bothered me.  The overall beige country kitchen thing began to wear on my nerves.

At first, I simply installed a charming oak harvest table that had been in someone else's family for generations. (Sometimes I gaze upon that table and drift off into someone else's childhood memories.)

But the table, like me, couldn't overcome the aesthetic sink hole that was our kitchen, where I spent so much of my time, looking out the window onto gorgeous vistas like a prairie dog peeking out of a hole.

Have you read THE YELLOW WALLPAPER by Charlotte Perkins?

That paper had to go.

And so I spent a week or more soaking and peeling and pulling off every inch of that paper until there were only two square inches of it left, intentionally, behind the stove, as a reminder.

Did I mention that the Formica counter was the color of gray?

And the cupboards below were so much worse than the cupboards above.  There were places where the wood was just contact paper that you could peel like an orange.

I painted those cabinets.  I painted them pea soup green.  It was two days before I realized, after someone pointed it out, that they were the same color as my cabinets in my previous house, the one with the soapstone counters.  I painted one coat and a second and a third and even a fourth coat.  And then I purchased hardware, but it was wrong, so I went back and returned it and brought home the right hardware.

The result was trans-formative.  There is purple in the kitchen, now, and red.  Somehow, you don't even notice that the formica counter is gray.

We removed an over-sized floor-to-ceiling cabinet that contained only a broom and a dust pan.

We removed a refrigerator that did not fit into its cubby, but instead jutted out into the kitchen an additional four inches like a big drooling slumped-over fellow in the seat next to you in economy class. We just happened to have another refrigerator in the basement, one size smaller.  It fits perfectly into its chair and reads alertly from its Kindle without attempting conversation.

[Beth Remmes, a devoted reader, asked me to insert before and after pictures, so I did.]

We did not need to ship a giant slab of stone from Brazil to Wisconsin to have cold elbows.

We will remove two layers of linoleum from the floor, but we will replace it with...beautiful, red, yellow-flecked, commercial-grade... linoleum!   I am incredibly psyched.  It's going to be gorgeous, and, at $100, it's going to be genius!

So that's it.  I spent money on paint and brushes and linoleum.  And hardware.   I went to the hardware store every day for about two weeks, so I'm sure I spent a couple hundred, easy.  But it's done.  We didn't have to take out a loan.

Phil and Josh (less so Josh) and the oak harvest table and I love it.  We sit together and look out the window, and I think, You're lovely, table, too; and the table says, I am redolent in memories, but this is a particularly good one.

Merry Christmas!

* In Wisconsin, I bought a Kranich and Bach on Craigslist just like this one.  Built in 1906.  Spooky.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

A Social Commentary Comment

 Brace yourself.  Social Commentary is coming.

As a society, we take less time now for some things than we used to even twenty years ago.
For example, remember psychoanalysis?

When I was a kid, everyone who went to a psychiatrist was in psychoanalysis.

Or, if it wasn't Freudian analysis, it was Jungian analysis.

Empirical studies now suggest that psychoanalysis, while not exactly a sham, was little more than an interesting  experience.  Painful and somewhat elucidating, maybe, but ineffective for dealing with seriously inconvenient symptoms of mental illness.

Back in the day, if psychoanalysis didn't work and you had inconvenient symptoms, like clinical depression, the next step was electrolysis.

No, that's wrong.  What was it?  Oh, right: electro-shock therapy.

Electro-shock therapy actually yielded results, the worst of which was significant loss of short-term memory; the best of which was a veritable rebooting of the addled brain, a fresh start, clear of recollection and the vagaries of mood...relief that was by and large temporary.

If electro-shock therapy didn't do the trick, then a lobotomy was still an option.  Better a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.

Being gay or transgendered was considered an illness even as recently as when I was in high school. Adverse conditioning was considered a valid approach to curing it.

To recap, even in the relatively brief framework of my lifetime, psychiatry has been at once high-highfalutin' and medieval.

Nowadays, no one is in psychoanalysis--which is too bad, because it was an interesting subjective experience, if little else.  But today, the idea of spending 50 minutes lying on a couch and free associating, while a psychiatrist sits outside your field of vision (lest he distract you from stumbling toward your next epiphany) taking notes (so he can later look up the symbolism of your dream imagery in his dream translation dictionary) seems pretty patently absurd.

Why?  Because a psychiatrist gets paid way more for one 50-minute hour than an MSW.  Today, hardly anyone who can still hold their head upright talks to a psychiatrist for more than twenty minutes...certainly not five times a week! (Did I not mention that one saw one's psychoanalyst five times a week?  Can you imagine?!)

When my friend's child had mental health issues, that child saw a psychiatrist for twenty minutes.   Sometimes a resident psychiatrist-in-training would practice asking questions for that 20-minute appointment.   The child was nice.  The parent was nice.  The professionals were nice.  Medicine was dispensed.

At one point, it was thought that the child might benefit from talking to an MSW who specialized in kids with these issues.  The MSW was always late and exhibited disturbing symptoms of OCD.   Eventually, the parent became annoyed with the MSW for always being late, (did she not know this was a grave breach of trust?); and for scolding her child for playing with the wrong toy in the wrong way at the wrong time.  The last straw was when the MSW got down on her hands and knees to scrub the water that the child had accidentally spilled on the carpet (half a tiny Dixie cup), scrubbing and scrubbing while trying to maintain the thread of discussion despite her evident rage.

Had the child's therapist and psychiatrist consulted with one another about the child?  Did one process inform the other? The parent saw no evidence of this.

As the child grew older, the parent he saw the same congenial and bright psychiatrist for many years, and yet he did not know the child particularly well at all.

And YET, the child was lucky to have even this much access to mental health care--because clearly, as evidenced by the notorious acts of troubled souls who do not have access to mental health care, (who languish on waiting lists for years), even a twice-annual twenty-minute encounter with a psychiatrist is a class privilege.

Many others don't have access to the medication they need; which, for those of us more fortunate, is procured by an un-elucidating practice of taking medication after medication, in various dosages, until the primary symptoms are alleviated and the side effects are not intolerable.

Another area in which society today takes a similarly prescriptive approach is education.

We are all so busy, most of us are working full or part-time while also managing families and households; when our kids say that school is fine, we're inclined to need to believe them.  We may not know that our kid is struggling with learning, or focusing, or bullying, or a developing sense of alienation.

We are probably all a bit laissez-faire, (a nice word for benignly neglectful), in the area of homework supervision.   How many of us know what our child's homework is?  How many of us sit down with our child as they do their homework?

I do.  Sometimes.

I have been a a pro-active parent and a passive (laissez-faire) parent.  I prefer and default to the later, but circumstances usually insist that I become the former.  I do, and then I slip, and then I do again.

My kid goes to a very good public school.  But I think that one person, however amazing a teacher he or she is, can't effectively teach 21 kids.

I have found, when I've volunteered in my son's school, that I am needed.  Maybe I am only needed for twenty minutes, but for those twenty minutes I am there for kids who need me.

I wish I could do it every day--go and volunteer in Josh's school--but I can't.  I have my freelance work to do.  I have other stuff to do.

And YET...

And yet, when I was doing it, I had the feeling that there was nothing more important that I could possibly have done with my time.  Nothing else was as important.

Still, life today doesn't accommodate that kind of altruism.  Or maybe it's just me.  Is it me?   I know lots of moms who volunteer at their kids' schools.  But it's like a lot of things along those lines: Volunteering at the food pantry, volunteering to feed the homeless, volunteering to read to kids with cancer....

When you become involved, you risk arriving at the conclusion that the need is endless.  We all have to come to terms with that fact in our own way.

Public education is, perhaps surprisingly, like that.  The ongoing need is so great, it's daunting.  The need is built into the structure of the thing.  One teacher, 21 kids.  It doesn't work.  The kids are all different; some of them are painfully disadvantaged in any number of ways:  by a dysfunctional home life, by poverty, by aptitude, by ADHD, by autism....

The teachers are young and bright and strong.  I am amazed by their ability to discuss the specific details and issues attendant to each of the learners in their charge.

The endless salvo of standardized tests, which grade not only the child, but the school, and the school district, and the state, and the country... We are competing against South Korea and Vietnam and China on these tests.  Poland has risen among the ranks, a potential usurper.

Even children who don't test well--who very specifically do not test well, but who will be judged by their performance on these tests--are encouraged to take them, because the worst thing that could happen--the WORST THING--would be for the school to have to factor in a 0.

The school psychologist, maybe, tells you this.

Your child's psychiatrist, when you mention anxiety, lights up.  They're doing a study on anxiety.  Would your kid like to participate?  Oh, but then you couldn't have the medication.

Here he pauses, and you know that he is measuring not only his own words but your reception of what he has just said, and what he might say next.   In his calculus, you are too sophisticated not to realize that he is no longer sounding like your own child's best advocate.

It is easy not to be a child's best advocate when you don't really know that child.

This is how I would tie all of this together.  I would say that in today's society we are losing insight.  Yes, psychoanalysis as a practice was self-indulgent, maybe, and not particularly effective for dealing with obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, clinical depression, bipolar disorder, etc.

And YET, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.  Today, it is possible for a child to receive what is considered to be very good mental health care--and nonetheless, somehow, INSIGHT, that old chestnut, that once gold standard of psychology, is missing from practice.

Caveat:  As ever, a good MSW is admirably capable of navigating your average neurotic through the rocky shoals of life.

Back to social commentary:  My point is that where mental health requires a marriage of insight and medication, we find that the two have been amicably divorced for some time, and that they share joint custody over the dominion, in a scenario whereby the one leaves us at a certain meeting point, and the other picks us up, and the two of them don't really talk like they used to.  And of course, being estranged, why would they?

And so, we live in a time when the very structure of our educational system is still essentially broken, because one person cannot effectively teach 21 children.  And the schools try to address this by fiddling with the pedagogy in wildly imaginative ways, reinventing the wheel to be bigger or smaller (but always more or less round) every few years.  And the government tries to address it by imposing these ridiculous tests, which is a very quick way of getting a very superficial impression of how our broken system compares to other countries' broken systems.

And we, at home, are tired, because our computers allow us to do so much more than anyone ever used to have to do.  We are eager to be diverted by a hundred diversions, like making supper and shopping for groceries and doing the laundry and cleaning the house and ferrying kids to games.  Or maybe we have a second job, in which case, God help us.

What if we had twice as many teachers?

What if the talk-therapists and the prescribe-doctors were required to work together as part of an integrated program oriented around a healthy marriage of insight and science?

What if we all pursued insight again--not with crazy navel-gazing indulgence--but just enough to shed light on what's broken?

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Play-Dating Scene

581-3398.  That was my best friend's phone number when I was ten.  I'd call Mary Beth up, and then I'd walk over to her house and we'd play for the afternoon.  No parents were consulted.

I knew Mary Beth's dog before I knew Mary Beth.  His name was Chummy and he was a Black Lab, more or less.  Like my 145-pound St. Bernard, Susie, and everybody else's dog, Chummy just wandered around the neighborhood, saying hello to whomever he pleased and pooping wherever he wanted.

Fast forward to 2013.  Before we moved to this farm, Josh could walk out the door and usually find a neighborhood friend.  But, as the kids on the block acquired X-Boxes and Play Station, finding someone to play required knocking on doors and either joining in or prying someone away from their game.

If Josh couldn't find anyone to play with, he'd ask me to call a friend's mom.

Can you ask Joe's mom if I can come over?

I can't invite you over to his house, but you can invite him over to our house.

Joe doesn't want to come over.  He's playing on his X-Box.

Well then, I don't know what to tell ya.

I used to invite myself over to Mary Beth's house every day. My dad and I used to stop off at his friends' houses unannounced every week and stay for hours.  I'd play with their kids and he'd hang out with the parents.

My one single regret about moving to the farm is that I have to pursue play-dates for Josh, because it's totally my fault that we no longer live in a neighborhood filled with kids.

Many parents are used to making play dates, but I find it daunting.

First of all, you have to establish a rapport with the other kid's mom.  You have to get her cell-phone number.  That closes the deal.  No number, no deal.

Sometimes, this means loitering around after school lets out.  As the unwitting target picks up her child, you make your move.

Hi, my name is Jess!, I'm Josh's mom.

Oh, hi!  I'm Nancy, Mickey's mom.

Josh was hoping that he and Mickey might get together for a play-date sometime.

(Don't say "sometime."  "Sometime" is weak.)

I wait for the pained expression to wash over her face.  How many kids does she have?  Two?  Four?  If she doesn't have a calendar on her phone, she has absolutely no idea when Mickey could possibly squeeze in a play-date.

If Mickey plays ice hockey--forget it.  Your kid is never getting a play-date.  Between out-of-town games and practices, Mickey needs a play date like feet need warts.

Unlike your only child, who is not into sports, Mickey is doing just fine.

For the first play-date, and maybe all of them, Mickey's mom prefers to have the play-date at her home, rather than let him go to some stranger's home, where he might be tempted to play Call of Duty for four solid hours while eating Halloween candy and drinking Mt. Dew.

And then there's the allergies thing.

One of Josh's friends has a hard time breathing in our house, due to cat allergies.

Most parents want their child to breathe.

You hate to ask, as you load the prized date into your mini-van, Did he pack his epi pen?

When I pick Josh up at the end of the play-date, (can I just call it a date?  would that be weird?), Mickey's mom gives me a full report.

They had fun outside bouncing around on the trampoline for half an hour. Then I gave them a healthy snack and they played Legos for two hours.

Then, inevitably, wait for it...

Always with the same pained confessional expression, she inhales and admits that my child has spent the last hour and (she looks at her watch) ten minutes playing Mine Craft.

I never know what to say at such moments.

To tell her, I'm on a need-to-know basis, seems cold.

To scowl, with imperious contempt, seems inappropriate.

So, I screw up my mouth into what I hope is a reassuring and good-humored smile.  It is a smile that is meant to say, your secret is safe with me! 

But, the fact that I don't appear to be at all concerned, while it may give Mickey's mom some immediate relief of conscience, it does not bode at all well for Josh ever having Mickey over to our house for a play-date.

And of course, you can't invite yourself over to Mickey's house.  He's had you over several times already. So there we are.

But we did get a play-date with Mickey (not his real name) at our house!

And so, to avoid Josh and Mickey becoming sedentary from the moment they entered our house, I dropped them off at the edge of the neighboring field, which had been recently harvested, suggesting they walk the one-quarter mile to our house.

Mickey was thrilled by the prospect of adventure.

I could see them from the road as I drove home.

I patted myself on the back for giving them the illusion of  independence, even though they were always visible to me, and our barn was always visible to them.

But I had let them out on the road to the town park, but not near the parking lot that sometimes featured high school kids in cars shooting up heroin.  

That turned out to be an indigestible detail for Mickey's mom, who could not wait to drive away from my house with her son so she could check his arms for track marks at the very first stop sign.

At such times, I miss our old neighbors, who probably thought that I was the most overweening and conventional mom on the street, because Josh is not allowed to play first-person slaughter games.

Except for Skyrim.  Josh is allowed to play Skyrim, but only with play-dates who can answer the following question correctly:

What is the empire waiting for as it hangs in the balance?

(Correct answer:  The empire is waiting for the coming of the prophesied Dragonborn.)

Why did I buy Skyrim?  Four words:  Really Good Critical Reviews.  I'm a sucker for RGCR.

I know that the things we choose to let our children watch or read or play can ruin their life.  Because when I was in eighth grade, I announced to my Republican, Irish-Catholic, South Braintree, Massachusetts cohorts that I was an atheist.

Of course, I was merely parroting my Atheist-Judeo-Unitarian (and later, Islamic) parents.  I was not really in possession of any kind of spiritual or religious identity of my own--pro, con, or otherwise. But, for a tinderbox, it would do.

Rather than feeding Josh a constant strain of pablum, I choose to warn him that he might want to not mention the title of his bed-time book, GOD IS DISAPPOINTED IN YOU, which, I hasten to point out, received Really Good Critical Reviews.

I wasn't planning to buy it.  Even I could see that it was unnecessarily inflammatory.  But, the owner of the comic book store praised my selection of books, and assured me that I really needed to have GOD IS DISAPPOINTED IN YOU, and that not only should my ten-year-old read it, but I should certainly read it as well.   

It's brilliant.  The critics adore it.  

So I bought it, putting out of my mind the inevitable loss of play-dates with the Hillcrest Bible set.  

Don't bring this up in recess, I warned Josh.  Or, if you do, maybe don't mention the title.

What can I say?, he asks.

And I want to answer, Very little, if you want to play it safe.

When Josh read Art Spiegleman's MAUS,  I did some advance damage control.  To put the whole German thing into perspective, I reminded him that we lived in a part of the United States where you couldn't swing a cat (at least not in town) without hitting a person of German ancestry.  And, I reminded him that he himself, as well as I, was of German extraction, on my father's side.

I will admit, I'm not always spot-on when assessing developmentally appropriate material for my kid.

When Josh was thirteen months old, if he showed no interest in a particular toy, I'd give it away.  And then, maybe two years later, he would play with that same toy at someone else's house.  And I'd remind him,  That used to be your toy, but you didn't like it.  So I gave it away.

Yes.  So often, it really is better to say nothing.

Flash back to yesteryear.  By the time I was Josh's age, 10, I'd already seen The Godfather at the Drive-In with my parents. In particular, I saw the scene with the horse in the bed.  You know the one.  Don't make me say it.  I haven't slept well in 38 years.

So, to recap, Josh doesn't watch The Godfather.  He doesn't play Call of Duty.  He does play Skyrim.  I am determined not to buy Assassin's Creed.  He goes to church sometimes, but he may insist that he doesn't believe in God.  (I assure you, on that point, he has no idea what he's talking about.)

If we moved a few miles north to Madison, I think we'd get more play-dates. I could even see myself getting a little impatient with those raw-food folks up there, who feed their babies strips of kelp.  But, I would still go out to Blain's Farm & Fleet to buy packs of kelp, so when their little sea urchin came over to our house for a play-date, he'd have something to nibble on while Josh drank his Mt. Dew, ate Halloween candy, and played Assassin's Creed.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Fourth Graders' Champion

I know it's time to change the subject when my mother calls to remind me, having read my post, that she, too, found menopause confusing and difficult.  I thanked her for her concern and reassured her that, although I may be writing like a deranged person,  I do not yet have menopause as an excuse.  I am still two years younger than she was when she was hit with that hormonal tsunami which altered her personality to such a degree that I was in the process of arranging an exorcism when her proverbial barge began to turn with tugboat haste away from the imminent berg.

Blame it on the moon--the full moon, not my moon.  That moon won't set for two more years, so I still have that year of dementia to look forward to.  If you happen to wish me a happy birthday in 2015, you might remind me, also, to take a year-long sabbatical from publishing my blog.

With that disclaimer aside, let's go ahead and launch into a new diatribe.

I would like to make a modest proposal.

My son's fourth-grade class just finished taking the WKCE test.

If you're unfamiliar with this exam, [ ] suffice to say, it falls somewhere on the exam ordeal spectrum between the MCAT and the New York State Bar Exam.

Obviously, that's an exaggeration which applies only to the fourth, eighth, and tenth grades, which are tested in all subjects, not just reading and math, but also science, language arts, writing, organic chemistry, comparative literature, and microeconomics.

All of the other grades are only tested in reading and math, which is akin to sitting for the bar in some statutory backwash where they make the law up as they go along.

Fourth graders, of course, are awesome at sitting for exams.

Most of us old folks would be bored, but fourth graders can keep it interesting.

One girl drew faces in all of the little bubbles on her worksheet.  Some she  made into flowers.

I thought that was very clever.

The teachers,  not wanting to identify with the Spanish Inquisition, encourage the kids to chew gum, suck on Jolly Ranchers, and take bathroom breaks as needed.

Unfortunately, Joshua swallowed his gum.

I've discouraged Josh from swallowing his gum as a general practice.  One shouldn't, don't you agree?, swallow one's gum; one should wad it up in something handy and dispose of it properly.

Who knows what happens to that indigestible stuff when it enters the alimentary canal?  Does anyone know? Has anyone ever survived to tell us about it?

The WKCE minutes ticked by as Josh pondered that question.

Finally, he raised his hand and ushered the teacher to his desk, where his answer bubbles were neither decorated, animated, or, (dreary choice!), penciled in.

I swallowed my gum.

That's okay, Josh.  I think you're alright.

Are you sure?


Should I go to the nurse?

I really don't think it's necessary.  You'll be okay.  I promise.  

Thoughtful silence.

Can you go back to focusing on your test, do ya think?

I guess so.

Okay. Good man.  Want a Jolly Rancher?

Yes, please.

So here is what I would propose, given what excellent test-takers fourth graders are:

They should elect  a Champion to take the test for the whole class.

Some fourth graders, three or four maybe, are really good at taking tests.

I've identified one such child in Josh's math class.  He always finishes his worksheet first, after cheerfully whipping through it, and his score is nearly always perfect.

He's the kid who puts his pencil down smartly, looks up with a smile, and recognizes once again that he is the true test-taking champion of the classroom.  He tries not to be smug.

That's not my child.  My child doesn't do well with time.  Given all of the time in the world, he would probably complete that worksheet by Saturday.  And the answers would be 99% correct.

But the clock doesn't stop for my son, in the same way that it doesn't stop for me.  Time is a kind of tyranny for people like us.

Not so for the Champion.  He's always got extra time; time when he has to be quiet and busy himself somehow while everyone else in the classroom continues to slog through the test, mired as they are in daydreaming, cartooning, gum swallowing, fidgeting, fatigue, and brain-freezing anxiety.

It's good to have a big, huge, all-consuming, enervating test to measure whether or not the school system is educating our kids.

But don't tell me that my kid's score on this timed test reflects his  aptitude or academic accomplishments.

His reading score was sub-par on the test, but according to his teacher, he is among the top readers in his class.

His fluency score was average, but he is extraordinarily articulate.  Ask anyone who knows him.   Josh has his issues, but being so-so in the brains department is not among them.

Clearly, the WKCE doesn't accurately measure what my kid knows.

The academic accomplishments of the creative young lady who decorated her answer bubbles were not accurately measured by the WKCE.

She and Josh should not be the school's test-taking Champion.

Let that boy whose head is up and pencil is down first--the one who hums happily while taking a test, and who emerges triumphant every time, with a smile on his face--I say, let him take the damn test.

I nominate him to be the school's WKCE Champion.  He's not home-schooled.  He's learning the same stuff the other kids are learning--he just is better able to perform well on a long test.  It's a gift.  Outside of academia, it's not especially valuable, but inside the institution, it sets him apart as being one of the only children, if test scores are to be taken seriously, (and you cannot convince me of that), who is learning anything.  

So, if the state needs to know what Prairie View Elementary is teaching our children, let our Champion test takers fight that battle.  Let the two or three fourth graders who are truly gifted at taking long arduous endurance tests do what they do best, and let them represent the school.

And then we won't have to undersell ALL of the other kids for not being so great at taking tests.

The state bureaucrats, if they're even paying attention, will discover what the school is teaching.

Our kids won't have to be unnecessarily tortured and stigmatized.

And our kids' teachers can take back those long, lost weeks, days and hours of test-preparation and testing back and use them productively--for teaching.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Does this Post Make Me Look Like An Elitist Schmuck?

Did my last post make me look like an elitist schmuck?

Did I suggest that one ought to spend money on horses, good beer, and fine cheese, rather than fritter it away at Kohl's or Shopko, like the woman in my portrait of consumer's remorse?


That wasn't what I meant, though it may be what I wrote.

What I've been thinking about over the past many weeks, and what I've been trying to write about and examine in my own life, is the habit of throwing money at unhappiness and ennui and you-name-the-problem.
I have often used money instead of creativity, or the resources at hand, to address a host of dilemmas and sour moods.

I did not mean to point a finger in judgment at some beleaguered every-woman leaving a department store, as if to say, Look how pathetic she is.  She ought to be spending money on a gym club membership.  She ought to get out there and jog every morning before the kids wake up.

What I meant was that I am that woman and I have been that woman, and I don't want to be that woman anymore.

That is what I look like when I leave a department store after having drifted around it in a trance for far too long, looking for that elusive thing that will boost my morale and give me the confidence I need to face another day.

It is that thing that I think I cannot live without that I cannot find.

What should I do, instead?  Should I meditate?  Should I jog?  Should I pursue a pinterest?  

Is it a class issue?

Are the things that can make a real difference to one's happiness intrinsically expensive?

Or just intrinsically elusive?

Or just not at Kohls or Shopko?

To be continued.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Bingeing on Cheese

How is the money diet going, you ask?  Pretty good...  I don't know.  I guess I've fallen off the wagon, if that means not spending more than $10 a day, forever.

Yesterday, Josh and I went shopping.  He needed sneakers and pajamas.  We bought sneakers and pajamas.  I bought nothing for myself, a detail which did not escape my notice.

We had some time to kill before picking up his dad, so we went to the Dollar Store.  

I have to confess, I did get a little euphoric, idly perusing the aisles.

I bought butterfly stickers, autocollants geants, in French (it's right here on the package).  You stick them on your walls.

I bought doggy waste bags (50 count), and automatic night lights, (you can never have enough of those).

Ah!, the piece de resistance!   Les petit ordures sacs (it's on the label, it's all French).  Translation? Vanilla-scented plastic bags for kitty poop.  Genius!  They smell so good!

I can't say I harbor any regrets about that $28 shopping spree.  It was indulgent, but it passed the time in a pleasant way, and my office smells like vanilla instead of cat poop.  I look forward to passing more time putting butterfly stickers on my walls one day.

Last weekend, I took my foodie friends from the West Coast to a fancy cheese shop in Madison, Fromagination.

I'm pretty sure they sprinkle crack cocaine on their cheese samples.  You've never tasted such drop-dead delicious cheese in all your life.  And it's priced along the same lines as crack cocaine, too, or so I've read.

One has to be careful in this town, so let me be perfectly clear on this point: I do not now smoke, nor have I ever smoked, crack cocaine.

I spent $20 on cheese, though.  As I walked off with my little, very light-weight package, I thought about what it meant to have spent so much on so little cheese.

I told myself, it was a rare treat.

But I have to admit, I don't really care about cheese nearly as much my friends from California do.  I wasn't quite as thrilled about possessing this cheese as they were.  My friends talked about the cheese with the cheese scholars behind the counter for twenty minutes before making their purchases.

Once I got home with my cheese, I had to remind myself that it was there, in the fridge, demanding to be savored.

I knew I should eat it without distractions, preferably on water crackers, so as not to interfere with the integrity of the fancy-cheese flavor.

Ultimately, I concluded, this was a bit burdensome.

I had enjoyed the cheese more when it was served up in tiny little pieces as a tantalizing sample sprinkled with contraband in the heady and redolent store that is Fromagination.

My husband spends indulgently on good beer. Really good beer, usually IPA.  He also brews beer at home sometimes, and people who know beer say that his beer is as good as any micro-brew they've ever tasted.  He brings passion to beer making and to beer tasting.

That's not a bad way to spend time and money, in my opinion.  It enriches his life, and, who knows?, maybe some day he'll brew and market his beer and that will mark a whole new chapter in our life together.

I spend money and time on my horse, as anybody who has a horse does.  I have no regrets about that. (Don't worry! I won't turn this into a horse essay.  I know those aren't as good for you as they are for me.)

I saw a woman coming out of the department store yesterday who had a familiar look on her face.

It was the look of disappointment, probably because shopping hadn't made her feel better, and maybe it had even made her feel a little bit worse.

Maybe nothing flattered her figure quite enough to compensate for a lack of fresh air and exercise.

Maybe now she had even less time to get home and make dinner, and maybe she was feeling a little bit ashamed that she wasn't spending more time with a child or a loved one.

Maybe she was ashamed that she wouldn't be spending her evening with anybody.

That look, when we discover that what we thought was an oasis turned out to be a mirage, and that the thirst that is so intense is now even less bearable than before.

Oh, that was a happy ending, wasn't it!  Neigh.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Thoughts of a Person of Interest

It was a lousy, rainy, and prematurely dark afternoon in November. I had been home for ten minutes when the police pulled up to the house.

A lot of things run through your mind when the police come to your house, wearing a bullet-proof vest.  My son claims to have noticed a taser gun suspended from a holster.

I figured it had something to do with the fender bender I'd had at the sandwich shop not twenty minutes before.

It was raining, as I said, and dark. The other car was gray, straddling two spaces that were legal, but ill-conceived.   That said, I took full responsibility for what happened next.

I backed my mini-van into the other car's front passenger door.

I got out, apologized profusely, claimed all responsibility, and immediately called the number on my insurance card,which was tucked inside the glove compartment with the car manual and vehicle registration.

Flustered, I relied on the counsel of my insurance provider, careful to communicate every detail of that dialogue with the driver of the other car.

The police would take no interest in a parking lot fender bender, the insurance rep said.

The police take no interest in accidents on private property, the driver of the other car said.

So we did not call the police.

We exchanged information.  I apologized again.  And again.  The driver (of the other car) was understanding--a mom, like me.

I said good-bye, and left to pick up my son from after-school daycare.

When the police come to your door, and your loved ones are all accounted for, and you have reason to suspect that you are their person of interest, it's Judgement Day.

In a way, I had been preparing for this moment for my entire life.

Earlier that afternoon, I had found my friend's expensive chocolate bar in the cupboard.  She had forgotten to take it with her back to California.

I had spent my entire morning making an inventory of Property Law topics, for an hourly wage.  Personal property, trespass, trover, replevin, "first in time"; and, of course, chocolate bar.

The thought of returning the chocolate to its rightful owner--my beloved friend, who loves chocolate more than I love chocolate--did not for a second enter my mind.

Unlike that marvelous character in Game of Thrones, my confessions are not wicked or bawdy.  They are trivial and petty.  Yet they dog me, like my basset-lab, baying and barking constantly, out of jealousy or greed or desperate and proprietary love.

And so, when the police man came to the door, accusing me of leaving the scene..., I was prepared. I had taken inventory, and I did not count fleeing the scene of that accident among my sins.

We went round and round on this point, the officer and I.   At some point, I said, One has to leave sometime, right?

Except for the chocolate bar, I had been trying hard that week to be a good person--particularly, in the parenting department.  As a result, I hadn't been writing, and I was beginning to wonder when I'd get the chance again.  That's the sort of thing that gets pushed to the bottom of the list, sometimes, when you're trying to live a diligent life.

Try as you may, accidents happen.

Disasters happen.  This was not a disaster.

I'd like to state for the record, I did not flee.

I ate the chocolate bar.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Observations in Fourth Grade Math

I've been volunteering in Josh's fourth grade math class for a couple of weeks.

I've noticed that the kids are no longer affectionate, the way they were in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade.  (I didn't volunteer last year, so I don't know if this change occurred during third grade or over last summer.)

Even the neediest one, who has known me since kindergarten, passes by without a word or so much as a glance.

If I happen to catch a kid's eye, (because I recognize them and I generally acknowledge people I know), they look away as quickly as possible, as though recognizing me had been a potentially compromising mistake.  (I am still redolent in fourth grade unpopularity.)

There is one kid who passes me in the halls and says hello.  He's handsome and popular, and he can do whatever he wants.

When our kids are very young, they don't understand what we're talking about, so we say whatever we want.  Later, we continue to say whatever we want, and our kids do understand us, but we pretend that they don't, or that they're hearing isn't as acute as our own--an example of gross self-deception, when you're over 40 and your kid's tiny inner-ear hairs are as thick as grass and he's never accidentally punctured his eardrum with a Q-Tip, as adults of my generation do, on a regular basis.

Joshua regards Q-Tip usage as similar to smoking cigarettes.  You're not supposed to do it, it's not good for you; it's a bad example for your children, Josh is quick to point out; and, most of all, it is morally suspect.

So, it has come to this: I enjoy cleaning my ears with a Q-Tip when I am sure that I am absolutely alone--and much less frequently than I used to.  (But it just gets better!)

Given how we adults pretend that our kids are deaf and dumb, or simply not there, (so we can have an interesting conversation from time to time,) it shouldn't come as a surprise when they ape the same behavior among their own friends, with regard to us.

I don't remember from fourth grade that adults suddenly became so ridiculous that you simply couldn't afford to be seen associating with them.

What I remember from fourth grade is my teacher, Miss Teaman, telling us about growing up during the Great Depression, when she would eat an apple with a reverence unknown to fourth graders in my classroom, consuming every last bit except the seeds and stem.  She'd take on a childish voice, refer to herself as "little Molly," wrap her arms around her shapeless middle, and rock herself as she described eating the apple.

It must have been some apple.

I have always been completely oblivious to politics, except when I have run afoul of them.  I don't think anyone played with me at recess until sixth grade, when Wendy Matthews moved back to town and became exceptionally popular.  She strapped me to her star and away we zoomed, into an exciting world of birthday parties and sleep-overs.  It was great!  I've been trying to tether myself to popular people ever since.

Josh's math teacher, a paragon of virtue in stylish clothes, usually gives me the kids' math worksheet with the correct answers written in, which is not quite as condescending as it sounds.  

You have two graphs: You have to interpret them and draw a conclusion.

The teacher had written, "The answer varies."

What kid in third grade uses the word "varies"?  What kind of trick question is that?  What does that even mean?  "The answer varies."  I had no idea.

Just as I was getting really annoyed about this meaningless answer, a kid asked me about that precise question.

Oh, God!, I thought.  I don't even understand the answer!  

The answer varies, I said.

Oh!, the kid said.  So there can be different answers?

YES!, that's right!  There can be different answers!  That made perfect sense!

Tell me, young Skywalker, what conclusion would you draw?  

The kids fare better when I don't have my cheat sheet.  Then I have to read through the problem and think through the math, and that makes them see that that is what they are supposed to do.  They are emboldened by my oafish progress, and usually arrive at the correct answer before me.

If I already have the answer, then I am merely performing one of those adult magic tricks in that mystifying way in which adults perform impossibly complicated tasks, like driving five hundreds miles without getting lost, and having conversations with other grownups that are almost impossibly difficult to follow.  

Josh enjoys having me in his classroom, but he doesn't show it.  (Savvy!)  

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Reflections on Day Five of My Spending Diet

Day five of my spending diet.

On Oct. 17, I spent $9.70 on subway sandwiches for Josh and me. I also bought Josh chips. No need for him to suffer.  (I needed a sandwich because I had a meeting at 6:30.)

I spent nothing on Oct. 18.

On Oct. 19, if you don't count the cost of the two kittens, two litter box pans, and their cat food, all of which fell under the category of earmarked expenses, I spent nothing.  (I know how that sounds. I did in fact spend a bit over $200 on the kittens, but it was earmarked--let's not be arbitrary and rigid; that's not what this exercise is about.)

Today, I spent about $9 on a gallon of milk and double-A batteries.

And what is this exercise about?, you might ask.

Well, let me just say, I went into Walgreen's this afternoon, took $60 cash out of a cash machine, got the milk, got the batteries, paid for them, and left.

Previously, when I went to Walgreen's, I'd go into a rapture-like trance.  I'd lose my focus, hardly be able to remember what I'd originally come there for; I'd peruse the aisles with fully engaged gathering instincts, scanning the merchandise for anything that I might need, anything on sale:  Facial cleansers, skin moisturizers, hair moisturizers; buff or nude non-comodogenic foundations....

The cosmetics aisle was a particular area of weakness. I could never decide whether my skin was neutral or cool.  Were my veins green or blue?  Was I ready to buy one of the anti-aging formulas?

I'd stand there for quite a while.  Staff would approach me, Can I help you?  Are you looking for something?  No, I am a crazy lady, rapturously overwhelmed, scrutinizing the the veins on the back of my hands and wrists.  Do you think they are blue or green?

Twenty minutes might go by easily, and I'd never leave without spending $25 or more.

I agonized over every purchase.  Everything had to be well-reasoned and economically justified.

How is it that I did not need something when I was home, but when I got to the store, I'd find so many things that I needed?  It happened all the time.  I'd get to the store, and I'd be like, What do I need?  What do I need?

The thing I need most in my life is time.

I need time at least as much if not more than I need money.  I need time to do the work that I do that makes money.

I need time to write these posts.

I need time to go to the barn and ride my horse.

I need time to walk my dogs.

I need time to spend with my family.

I need time to myself.

I need time to do household chores.

My life sprawls, happily, and the one thing I need the most to accommodate that sprawling life, is time.

So, that's mainly what this crusade is about: Not spending 20 minutes at Walgreen's.  It's less about the money, and more about the time.

And yet, it's also about the money.  Because, every now and then, I realize, I am frittering away so much money that I am reluctant to spend it on things that matter.  For example,. I  might feel that I can't afford to be generous in writing a check for a charity that I like.

Having a farm, (or, for that matter, being alive), there is always the potential for unexpected expenses--there's just a lot of ongoing maintenance and repairs, like blowing out a tire on the new International Harvester tractor circa 1957.  Add to that, a horse, two kittens, possibly some goats, maybe chickens, three dogs...There's a lot of actual and potential expense there.  One can't reasonably continue to fritter away one's income on this 'n that, any more than one can afford to fritter one's time away at Walgreen's or Target, with so much stuff to do.

The other thing about being on the farm is that I don't want to be anywhere else.  I  love being here, and I don't want spend time away from here if I don't have to.  I don't want to be in Walgreen's.  I don't want to be at Target.   There are very few places I want to be, other than here.  I know, this could become a vice.

I am not coming to this spending diet from a Puritanical perspective.  No.  I am coming at it from a perfectly selfish perspective.  I want more of my life back.  I want my time and my money.  Time is life.  Money is power.  I want more of both.

I also want to break the habit of throwing money at anxiety, in the same reflexive way that I sometimes eat to assuage anxiety.  If it worked, that would be one thing, but, in my experience, it doesn't work.  Take, for example, my earlier post about Josh's birthday.  Or, for a new, updated, fresh and enhanced example, that over-priced cake and wine that I bought for my birthday in a fruitless effort to impose cheer on a difficult Tuesday.  You can buy  happiness, but on that Tuesday, it would have had to have been either a lot more money coming to me, or just a much better tasting overpriced cake.

You have to factor in that money also raises your expectations, and thereby sets you up for further disappointment, so if that fancy gourmet cake turns out to be stale, then you feel even worse than you would have without it, or with a regular cake.  And if you spend a lot of money on your kid's birthday, and he doesn't have a good time, then you feel worse than you would have felt if you had not spent so much money for his enjoyment.

Being on a farm is different from being in town in some ways that make you think differently.  We have our own septic and our own water, and we have to take our own trash and recycling away.  You start to think more independently, because you are independent of so many of the public services that in-town folks enjoy.

The woman who sold us this farm told me, several times, that if we were diligent about harvesting the green beans, and if we froze them properly, they would last us all through the winter and into the spring.  At the time,  I thought, Well, how many bags of frozen beans have I bought in the last fifteen years?  Frankly, I could go a whole winter with no green beans at all.   I'm not from the Midwest.  I don't do the green bean mushroom soup casserole thing.

I think that what she was trying to tell me was that if I played my cards right--if I sewed and reaped my veggies and raised chickens, and bought a bread maker...then maybe I could get away with hardly ever leaving the farm. Maybe, I could just eat green beans and butternut squash all winter and gaze out over the natural beauty surrounding me through the changing seasons for as many hours of mt life as I possibly could.

I think that was the promise that the green beans held out, and also of the freezer in the basement, big enough for a year's supply of vegetables and one-half of a grass-fed cow.

It's about trying, if not succeeding, to cut ties with Walgreen's and Target--or, failing that, to change the relationship to just being friends.  No more rapture.  No more long afternoons spent together.  Just keep it formal and civil.

Hello.  Milk.  Double-A batteries.  Thank you.  Good-bye.


Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Ten-Dollars-a-Day Diet

I'm on a money diet.  Specifically, a spending diet.  Other than already ear-marked purchases, bills, car fuel, etc., I'm not going to spend more than $10 per day.  

When I'm at the supermarket, I'll buy milk if we need milk.  I'll buy the ingredients I need, and only the ingredients that I need, to make what I'm going to make when I get home.  

No longer will I spend $75 - $100 at the supermarket when all I really went there for was a package of ground coffee and an onion.

No longer will I throw money at problems, think creatively about how to spend money, or spend time and money saving money by shopping at thrift stores for stuff I don't need.  

I'm not going to think about spending on home improvements.  

I'm not going to shop on Craigslist.  

I'm not going to shop on the Internet at all. 

Because, let's face it, it's madness! 

I picked up a china cabinet from a woman on Craigslist the other day.  Her new house was full of new stuff, stuff from Pier One and Bombay Company (or similar).  

There seemed something frantic about it.  At the moment, she was anguishing over the placement of a few decorative objects in her finished basement,. (Everything above ground was already just so to the point of shrill.) 
Her basement was more formal than most people's above-ground rooms.  

She was not happy about giving up the china cabinet.  It had been part of her childhood and may have been in her family for generations, (circa 1880).  But, it no longer fit in, so it had to go.  

Everything, everything, everything!, was new and everything, everything, everything! was Bombay Company (or similar), brought to the Midwest on container ships from parts unknown.  And, eclectic as it strained so hard to be, it still insisted on elbowing out the china cabinet, with its sordid untold tales of bearing witness to the human condition and all of its cluttering emotional effluvia.  

Does this go here?, she asked me, referring to two large curio cabinets and the vessel in between with brightly dyed decorative grasses exploding out of it.  

You'll say, I shouldn't have been honest, and I should have said it looked fabulous.  Perhaps, that would have been the kind thing to do.  

But, it wasn't quite right.  She knew it.  I knew it.  And she wasn't going to let it go, not ever.  

So, I said that I thought that if it was all just 25% smaller--if she could possibly run the whole thing through a 3-D photocopier at 75 percent--then, it would be perfect.  

But, I pointed out, because it was true!, and because she clearly needed a reality check!, it really didn't matter.  It was, after all, a basement.  Get a grip, lady!

In one corner, her husband had staked a space for himself.  I could tell immediately that he fished and hunted.  The head and neck of a deer had been mounted to a wall.  It had more gesture than any deer head I had ever seen.  There was arch in its neck and expression in its eyes.  I don't care for mounted heads, but I found this one captivating.  

The wife hated it, of course, the whole man-cave space, an aggressive assault against her aesthetic campaign. 

I imagined, looking at his area, that the husband was more sane than the wife.  And that the wife's house had somehow turned into a prison, and that all of this decorating, which clearly had been going on for months if not years, and which must have cost tens of thousands of dollars and countless hours, were less comforting for her than the accumulated tallies that prisoners etch into the walls of their cells to mark the days.   

And as we hauled the china cabinet up the stairs to the surface, and out the door to my minivan, I thought, okay, she's further along on the spectrum than I am, but I am on the spectrum.   

The whole experience was deeply discomfiting.

So!, I'm on a spending diet.  This is day two. 

Yesterday, I spent nothing.  

I kept remarking to myself, I'm not hungry!  Isn't that odd?  Why would I be hungry?

I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Work of Grace

Grace, that beloved horse, will not be returning to Wisconsin from South Dakota after all.

And that is okay, because Phil and I were going mad under the pressure of setting up house for two horses in the midst of setting up house for ourselves.

The barn needs work, there are soybeans where there ought to be grass, and then there is the matter of erecting fencing...

It was making Phil and me cranky.  For Josh, for whom the farm had been a hard sell, this was not sweetening the deal, which I was aware of, and which put me in mind of the legal term "bait and switch", the practice of advertising something wonderful at a low price and substituting it with something crappy for a high price.

Yes, the farm had been a hard sell.  There had been discussion of purchasing an ATV Gator, of getting kittens and raising bunnies, of building tree houses and hosting parties in the loft of the barn.

What Josh got instead was a big old tractor that he won't be allowed to drive until he's 14 or 15.  Having discovered an enormous pile of raccoon excrement in the loft, (which, if you recall, is outrageously toxic), we decided to stage the birthday elsewhere.  Needless to say, no kittens or bunnies.  No tree-house, as of yet.

Yeah.  We promised him a Porsche.  We gave him a toaster.

So, today we are going to go get a couple of kittens.

When I mentioned this to Josh yesterday, he threw his arms around me and screamed with delight.  I don't think he's liked me this much since before we moved to the farm.

Over time, we may get bunnies and goats, and we will certainly have a couple of horses by next summer, after the pastures have been established and we've put up fencing.

Gracie's story is worth telling.  I wrote about Gracie in an earlier post, but, to re-cap, I half-leased her last year and spent a lot of time with her.  She's a tremendously dear creature--think 1200-pound Basset Hound, all stubbornness and devotion.

Last year, Gracie moved to South Dakota to live on a big cattle ranch near the Minnesota border.  (She was not, thank God, affected by the recent blizzard that tragically killed hundreds or maybe thousands of livestock and horses.)

Unfortunately, Gracie didn't take to the cows.  She found them frightening, and she was disinclined to work with them.

With Gracie, as with Basset Hounds, disinclined means DIS-IN-CLINED.

The very tall and handsome cowboy whose ranch it was, whose boots practically touch the ground when he rides a horse, tried to make Gracie see sense.   But she was DIS-IN-CLINED, with an obstinacy that defied proven-effective cowboy persuasion techniques.

That horse is no good, he said to his wife, who loved Gracie.  It won't work with the cattle.  No one can even ride her, she bucks so much.  

The wife, who was also a mother and a media celebrity and a bit of a rock star, knew what was coming.

That horse is a hay burner, said the cowboy.  [I'm kind of imagining this conversation, btw.]

Hay burner.

From a cowboy perspective, that's what my own horse is.  Belle doesn't make money, she costs money.  I ride her around and groom her and write checks.  I don't compete with her, she doesn't win money.  She's not a wrangler or a cutter...To be fair, she's capable of all of these things.  With a great rider, she could be a money maker.  Her potential has gone largely untapped.

But Grace, to be honest, hasn't got the potential to be anything but a hay burner.

When the cowboy's wife, (let's call her Moxie), had the blues, she was in the habit of going out to the pasture and calling Gracie, who would come running.  Moxie would wrap her arms around Gracie's neck and have a good cry.

Moxie agreed, back in June, to sell her to me, because she knew that there was no place on a working ranch for a hay burner, and that I loved Grace and would take good care of her.

After my family moved to our farm, I began to ask Moxie exactly when they would trailer Gracie back to Wisconsin.  For one reason or another, Gracie's ETA kept slipping.

Finally, Moxie admitted that she was ambivalent about selling Grace, and in fact had been crying herself to sleep every night thinking about it and crying on Gracie's shoulder daily.

Now of course, I harbor no judgments about hay-burners, I think they're fine.  I hail from the suburbs where all little girls aspire to have a hay-burner some day, a hay-burner of her very own to ride around on and love on.  From my perspective, Gracie was an ideal horse; her hay-burner heart was as big and true as you could ask for.

So I said, Then keep Gracie, for goodness sake!  Why would you even think of selling her?

But Moxie had been trying to see things in the practical way of the successful cowboy rancher.  She loved her big handsome cowboy and didn't want to come across as being decadent and suburban.

And yet...

Some folks, (not just cowboys, but those whose paramount interest in horses is winning in shows or running a ranch), don't appreciate the usefulness of a horse like Gracie.

But I think, prior to the proliferation of the automobile, horses like Gracie were keeping people like Moxie and me, and people coming home from wars, and young kids who didn't fit in well at school, and all kinds of troubled, broken, human people--sane and sound for thousands of years.

We just didn't know it.

Eventually, a couple weeks ago, Moxie's cowboy did come to understand the implications of life on the ranch without Gracie.  In fact, Gracie really was a working horse. And that is why Gracie, that great and gifted horse, will not be coming to live on our farm.

P.S., Thank you, everybody, but please do not send me the name and number of everyone who is looking to re-home their horse.  You can pluck a horse out of the air in Wisconsin, (I've had already had offers of half a dozen equines), and I really don't need one before June of next year.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Many Perils of Country Life

This is my first post from the farm, and I am here to tell you that we are okay.  And well you might wonder whether we are okay, given the many perils of country life.

Oh, you're not aware of the many perils of country life?

Neither were we (!) until we announced that we were moving and the scary stories came flooding in.

Did you know that our original barn (not our new barn, circa 1940), was blasted off the planet by a tornado? Which goes to explain why the new barn was overbuilt, in the way that Noah's ark may have been said (by his building inspector) to be overbuilt.

Our new barn, (circa 1940), stands square, its knees slightly bent, shoulder-padded against the expected onslaught.

I can see the barn from my bedroom window, clear as Oz.  It's all that stands between one homicidal breeze...and me.

There is a swarm of wasps outside our bathroom window.  They squeeze through the cracks in their pilgrimage to the tub, the sacred place where they go to die.

There's a swarm of yellow jackets in the chicken coop.  Don't open that door.

A thousand million heat-seeking flying beetles bask in the warmth of the south side of our house.  They cling to the cedar shakes like noodles on drywall.  As the day cools, they begin to search for an opening.  By dusk, they are frantic.

Hundreds find their way in.  I hoover them up with a screaming loud hand-held vacuum.

But at night, as I try to drift off to sleep, invariably, one crawls across my shoulder.  I wake up, turn on the light, throw back the covers, scrutinize the floral pattern of my sheets....

I see nothing.  But I had felt it.  It was there.  It is probably still there.  I have to turn off the light.  Sometime.

I grew up with nature magazines that featured an adorable critter named Rocky Raccoon.

I now know four people who would to come to my farm, armed to the teeth, for the express purpose of blowing away my inevitable raccoon problem.

Like the legions of beetles, the raccoon seeks relief from the cold.  Undesirable tenants, they bring rabies and poop so poisonous that if you touch it to your eyes (and I don't know why you would do this, but do not do it if you're at all tempted) you will go blind.  Truly.  Dead serious.  Don't touch it.  Don't breathe it.  And for God's sakes, don't stick it in your eyes.

Raccoon fear nothing.  Not barn cats.  Not dogs.  Not horses.  Not giant circa 1957 International tractors. Not light, not power tools, not even the giant water slides at Kalahari can deter the rabid and toxic bandit from setting up its "nursery" in your barn.

You have to get a gun.  Or a trap.  Or hire a hit man.

Or, you could get an owl.  Barn owls eat baby raccoon, and that makes for a bad nursery situation.   But you can't find one on Craiglist.  You have to make a barn owl home (a very big bird house) and hope that the owl finds it on Craigslist.

We don't have an owl, yet.  Or a gun.

Among other unexpected frights, we have butternut squash.

What, you don't know about butternut squash?

They were planted in the garden, and they are legion.  Their little forms look like cabbage patch dolls, or, actually, they look like real babies that grow big and plump nestled in among the weeds.

They also grow near our compost,which we haven't been stirring or handling properly, so that is another horror show and we are quickly losing our taste for salad.

I am inundated with the squash, and since they look like babies, I have to take them in.  And then I have to peel them and chop them up and put them in the freezer in plastic bags.  Because that's what you do with butternut squash.

I skinned three the other night, all of them found huddled in the grass around the horrifying compost.  I held each one in my left hand over the sink and peeled its skin off with my right hand.

When I finished, I took up my customary spot on the couch between the dogs.  Phil and Josh were chuckling over the genius of Mike Meyers as Dr. Evil in an early Austin Powers, when I suddenly noticed that I could no longer feel the tips of my fingers on my left hand....

Then the whole palm went numb and took on the appearance of a monkey hand.  The skin was thick and leathery.  Flexing or stretching, it felt as though the skin would crack open, as if I had been ice-fishing all day with only one glove.

Josh and Phil weren't particularly interested in the bizarre reptilian metamorphosis of my hand.

You can Google "butternut squash skin".  It is a real and much under-reported phenomenon.

It's always the hand that holds the squash, never the hand that peels it.

You can wash the hand as much as you like, or douse it with intensive moisturizers.  It makes no difference whatsoever.

If you peel it, thinking it's like an Elmers glue of butternut squash goo, well, you can; but, in fact, that is your skin.

You just have to go to bed and pray that the condition doesn't spread to your elbows and your shoulder and your forehead, and that you don't wake up in the middle of the night with your whole body cracking like an old discarded saddle in the barn, which, btw, you can see from your window, still braced for catastrophe.

Fortunately, the squash condition did  not spread to my eyeballs.  My hand returned to normal by the end of the next day.

But I do wonder:  Why vilify the raccoons?   And not the butternut squash?  I mean, am I going to rub raccoon poop in my eyes?   Probably not.  I am more likely to peel butternut squash.

A word to the wise:  Wear gloves.  All the time.  You never know what you're touching.

Monday, September 30, 2013

A Fun Problem

Josh turned 10 this month.  To celebrate, I took him and two of his friends to Kalahari, a giant indoor-outdoor theme park in the Wisconsin Dells.  

I believe the theme of the indoor theme park was soul-wasting vagaries of a commercialized childhood. Or, if that wasn't right, it might have been the desperate pursuit of fun amid a head-splitting cacophony of visual and auditory noise. 

People with peanut allergies should avoid peanuts, and people like me should really steer clear of amusement parks.  I loved them as a child, but now they bring out my dark side: a cynical, critical, coffee-house misanthrope.  

I'm not usually like that anymore.  Parenthood has sweetened me beyond recognition.  Talking to my pregnant belly, singing Rogers & Hart songs to my baby, scrunching up my face and making cross-eyes for a smile...I forgot why I  spent so many years of my lazy youth wondering why life was meaningless, commercialized, over-scripted, and dully ironic. 

But birthday parties bring it all back, clear as day. 

In fact, they scare the hell out of me because I know that deep down inside, despite having identified, finally, so much spirit and love and beauty in the world, I am still not as light as air or sea foam or Styrofoam or even wd40.

So, it was my kid’s birthday.  We were at that giant indoor amusement park, and I was stressed.  But I dearly wanted Josh to have fun, so I assumed a worried expression and trailed after him from a respectful distance, eating overpriced and weirdly sour frozen yogurt that was supposed to taste like birthday cake.  

After about ten minutes, Josh's friends glommed onto each other and vanished into the ether.

I searched for them everywhere for at least twenty minutes. And then I begin to panic. I went to the front desk and confessed that I had lost two children, not my own.

The woman at the desk took her phone into the entryway vestibule (the only place where a person could hear herself scream).  When she returned, she explained that the announcement would only be audible to people who were playing electronic games.  

Within seconds, the two boys showed up. 

With classic Barmackian intensity, I explained to them without raising my voice that they must tell me where they were going at all times unless I could actually see them. I knew, because I am my father’s child, that they would abide.

We took a long walk of shame from there all the way to the water park, where, for the next two hours, Joshua anguished over whether to go down any of the water slides. He would wait in one line with the rest of us for twenty minutes or so.  With each step toward our goal, his agitation would escalate.  

I tried to comfort him.

If it scares you, I’ll give you five dollars.

What if it doesn’t scare me?

If you just get in the raft, I’ll give you five dollars.

No, I don’t think so.

It was our turn to step into the raft.  I reached out to comfort him.

Ten dollars? How about ten?  All you have to do is get into the raft. C'mon!  Get in the raft!  It will be fun!  

I don’t want to get into the raft.

Ten dollars…! Ten dollars...!

No!  I don't want to get into the raft!  I’m not getting into the raft!

Okay, okay!   I’ll see you at the bottom of the ride.

My son had to turn around and walk, all alone, past all those people, down all those stairs.  Did I mention, it was his birthday?   

Water-jets propelled my two-person raft (with just me in it) through a boiling, curling tube of high-speed, stomach-churning, kinetic disappointment.

Josh, are you sad?



didn't get ten dollars. He burst into tears.  

I have spent so much money on this place, I think. And for what?  

Josh scolds, You shouldn’t bribe me with money.

And I think, Then with what should I bribe you?  Candy?

Okay.  I won’t bribe you. 

I had made those stupid water slides extra important by offering Josh money to get on them, thereby magnifying his sense of failure.

I just wanted you to try it because I thought you would really enjoy it.  I thought it would be fun.

What the hell do I know about fun?

The slides are not important, Sweetie. They are just for fun. 

For the love of Christ, stop saying fun.  What do you know about fun?

(I want you to work through your fears. I want you to dispense with this inconvenient anxiety. 
I want you to be like the other boys.)  

Horrible, horrible parenting.

I searched my mind for an ennobling thought, and stumbled over my shame at having thrown money at the problem of Josh's inconvenient birthday.  

We had just moved...We were still unpacking...I was overwhelmed... So, I tried to solve the problem with money, and yet the problem remained.  

A less expensive, less time-consuming, less exhaustive effort might have been unsuccessful, but at least it wouldn't have been so wasteful.   

I gave up.  I gave in.

As long as we’re sad, I said, we might as well play water-basketball.  

That pool is too cold, Josh said.  He was right.

Yeah, but we're miserable anyway, so what difference would a cold pool make?  I don't see any balls available, either.  Let's go!

Josh laughed.  We jumped in the pool.  His two loyal friends reappeared.

Something heavy with talons launched itself silently into the humid air, off my shoulders.