141. Dancing at the winery

While listening to the Al Parson’s Band at the local winery on a hilltop overlooking Gettysburg, Pat said something about blogging this. Okay, I can do that. It’s a nice place to chill out after a hard week. The crowd is not too boisterous and only rarely do folks get noticeably drunk or obnoxious. So the winery is pretty smooth, easy to take.

We usually meet our friends Pat and Clark and share a couple of hours of their company. My wife gets a glint in her eyes and says, “Let’s dance.”  And then stands over me awkwardly, a dance bully who won’t take no for an answer. This after a day of yard work, yanking weeds and grass, weed whacking, push mowing, and groundhog hunting. Slavery and dance bullying were supposed to have been outlawed by the 13th amendment.

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Well, I have to hobble to my feet and justify the hours of dance lessons we have endured over the past three years. I’d be completely content with the Grope and Shuffle while Al sings, “You were always on my mahnd”, more Willie than Elvis, but my wife wants more. Swing, swing, swing. I think it’s because the woman is the elegant one in these dances; she twirls and sizzles while the hapless post up guy who has to actually think through each carefully choreographed turn and catch is tired from yanking and lugging weeds and groundhog carcasses. It’s not fair that the dance gene is so randomly and rarely distributed. I don’t know one straight man who possesses it.

Okay, so here’s something you don’t see everyday. In preparation for this night out my wife was searching frantically for her black knit tights that she wears under a cute dress she would not wear without leggings. I’ve told her she looks good in this outfit, and I’m sure that she can figure out that if I’m getting her vibes, so are other guys in my demographic and perhaps younger dudes, but definitely older letches if they still have their blood pressure and eyesight. Anyway, she could not find the black leggings, which I called Spanx. Now I know they are not Spanx, and she knows I know this, but I told her I’d look for her Spanx. I did for about 2 seconds and then gave her unhelpful suggestions. “Did you look in the laundry room?”  “Maybe Jess put them in with her laundry.”  “Do you think the guy who is staking out our house at night stole them while we slept, you know, for a creeper trophy?” No good. She did not like my  counter productive hints. Finally in a fit of madness or perhaps a fashion-driven or possibly rabid seizure, she turned on a neatly stacked pile of clothes and began digging through them like a terrier after a gopher. T-shirts, blouses, pajamas, shorts, underwear went flying up behind her as she scoured through the pile until there was nothing but bare floor in front of her flushed panting face. “Aaaghhhh. I’m mad! I wore them in Tucson. They’ve got to be here.”

I began laughing out loud, realizing that such behavior had a 50/50 chance of ending in bodily harm for me. Fortunately, she began to laugh at her furious canine activity. I began to scream in my Black woman falsetto voice, “I’m sooooo mad. I’m a get me my black Spanx. This aint right! I’m maaaad. Oh I’m so maaaaad.” And so it went. We never found her black tights. We left the bedroom in total chaos with a solemn promise to downsize, recycle, reduce, and refuse to shop ever again.

On the way up to the winery, which is a mere 15 minute drive, my wife will sometimes engage me in a deadly debate that she presents as an innocent “conversation”. For example, not long ago we were three minutes into our drive and she asked me if I’d thought about end of life nursing home care! I foolishly said, “No” without thinking that this was not what I thought it was. It was an ambush.

“Well, I have. And if I’m in a horribly critical accident, I want to come home. I want you to make the therapists rehabilitate me so I can come home.”

“Okay, sure.” Again, stupid move. Not enough compassion and reassurance. I did not get on the cruise ship Empathy with her request. I stayed in my little dingy of disinterest.

“I’m serious. So many rehabilitation hospitals hit a certain plateau and then they give up on you. I want to pull out all the stops so I can live a full life. Promise me.”

The red light seemed stuck at 997 and Route 30. Time slowed down as my blood pressure began to rise. My survival instinct was activated. “Well, you can leave me in the nursing home. Pull my plug. I’m okay with that. I don’t need any heroic efforts to bring me back into full turnip capacity.”  Again, stupid move. Now I did not value her since I was devaluing my own potential  incapacitation.

“Well with that attitude I will leave you in the nursing home.”

I broke into laughter. I could not take another dramatic moment engaged in a passionate debate about something that was unlikely to happen ever, but the more we talked about it, the less likely it seemed we’d arrive alive at the winery. “Honey, it’s five thirty on Friday night. We’ve both worked a long week and we’re going to relax for two hours on the mountainside. Why are we debating end of life issues now?”

“You don’t care.”

“I do care about my sanity, and this conversation is pushing me off the cliff.”

“Fine! I’ll leave you in the nursing home, and I’ll go out dancing with some younger man.”

“Hey, that’s okay. Just don’t forget where you put your Spanx.”

140. Replaced

every so often I’ll start a post that goes nowhere. So I have to delete the mess and begin again. This is the result of one of those cakes that did not rise or cornbread that tastes like Comet. ( the ingredients would be my brain cells; they just did not rise to the occasion. ) I mean the next post, this one, was born after a previous disaster had passed. So the thing that was, has been replaced. [Okay, it was about the poverty of FM radio stations on my local radio. The topic was so unworthy that I gave up on it in the birthing process.] It was not simply moved or displaced like refugees are herded out of war torn countries; it was eliminated and a new thing rose up where it had been. The displaced can return one day (except in Israel, where the right of return was blotted out for Palestinians who’d been shoved out of their homes in 1948); the replaced cannot.

I’m thinking back over folks’ stories of replacement. I remember the one fellow whose parents did not like him as a rambunctious young boy, so they went shopping for two orphaned sisters. These sisters took his place in the parents’ hearts and he was treated like a Dickens’ orphan peering through frosted glass at a forbidden holiday feast. He had to move along [Ishmaelishly] without anyone’s blessing; and bitterness rose up in him– a sandstorm in the desert. A really big sandstorm. It’s not right, but it happens after years of drought when there are no grass roots left to hold the soil together. One child replaces the other. A father remarries a tornado and  treats his step kids better than his own biologicals. Ouch, ouch, ouch! Like sand in your eyes at ninety miles an hour.

I knew a lady once whose father married her mother’s sister after her mother had died, but not long after. Weird?  Well, sure. Then her aunt/stepmother and father had her sister/cousin, upon whom they doted. This sort of thing does not just make one bitter; it tosses what’s left of cosmic sanity into the whirlwind. It is distilled like wormword absinthe, deadening the drinkers. Everyone available to speak to is unavailable because he or she is compromised by competing agendas. The horror reverberates with a telltale heart from the grave that makes one wonder about the circumstances of mother’s demise. Oh, but you can’t even think such things in the new world order. It’s a dust storm of apocalyptic proportions. A twister. “Dorothy, get in the cellar!” “Oh Aunty Em, I can’t. I’m blind and the wizard is molesting me.”

Oh what to do?  Displace/replace… here’s a twist. I saw a young man with a silver medallion around his neck. It contained a bit of his father’s cremains (cremation remains). How cool is that? Since there is no grave with cremation, the “grave” is worn as jewelry. It dawned on me that something new was happening in our super mobile society. No one goes to graveyards any longer. The former direct physical connections have moved on to electronic cyber connections.  Graves are like land lines and phone booths. You can’t move them around with you. So the grave jewelry thing makes a lot of sense to a nomadic culture. Actually in the Old Testament I think Joseph’s bones were hauled around until his ancestral burial site could be visited. So it’s not an entirely new concept of dragging one’s ancestors’ remains around with you, whether you are a nomad or a monad.

Then I thought of my own family and our mobility. I am not from Franklin County, PA. but I’ve lived here for 32 years. My daughters are from here but do not live here. None of us will be buried here. My parents are not from Fairfax County, VA. but they are buried there. Their parents were not from Boston, MA but they are buried there. Back in some village in County Cork or County Kerry, Ireland is a grave yard with my great grandparents in it. Doesn’t matter.  I’ll never see it. The great emigration replaced Ireland with the USA in 1848 and later. After WWII the minor migration replaced Boston with Washington, D.C. for my folks.  And then my wife and I migrated out of there into the calmer ruburbs of south central PA. Always away and never back to the point of origin. “Away” is not really a direction so much as a desperate plea to the horse at the end of your reins.

So many things have been replaced in my lifetime. I can’t even count them. Hubcaps were once metal. Like everything else they are plastic now. Cheap, and who needs things to last?  Tape players replaced record players/phonographs. CD’s replaced tapes. I-pods replaced CD’s. And who knows what’s next? Cell phones are doing everything anymore, so my guess is some app on the phone will do it all soon. And once again a former  technology will be buried in the landfill, which, when you think about it, is sort of like a graveyard for stuff. I wonder if one day our children’s children will wear little medallions around their necks with landfill cremains and explain, “Yeah, this was a DVD player in the early 2000’s in Atlanta, I think. And Wow! How about that bracelet on your arm?”

“Oh, this?  The guy at the recycle store said it was a melted hard drive from an I-Mac in Boston. 2009.”

“Yeah, I really like that. My hair band was a fender from a 1990 BMW.”

And way, way out there one day we will all be replaced permanently by the next dominant species. Just pick one– buzzard, cockroach, rat, fly, worm, moth. All of them work in the recycling industry, come to think of it.

139. Running with Jimi

I had an intense nightmare last night. I was being chased by FBI agents while running through my old geographic area, Alexandria, Virginia, with Jimi Hendrix. Jimi was wearing a bright yellow embroidered suede jacket over purple corduroy pants and blood red boots. He had his afro pulled back into a frizzy, semi- dreadlocked mullet, held in place by a shiny moss paisley bandana. No hat. He did not talk to me as we ran from car trunk to alleyway to open streets, ignoring traffic signs. I recall being jammed up where a street dead-ended into an alley and a garbage truck was picking up a dumpster. Panic rose in my belly as I realized then that we had to walk out in the open park pathways while a traitorous informant who had never heard Jimi’s music ratted out our location to J. Edgar Hoover, curiously long dead. Jimi breathed quietly through his nose, unperturbed.

I looked in all four compass directions, scanning for uniformed cops or undercover guys in detective gear. My heart was racing. I had no idea why we were being pursued, especially since Jimi had been dead for so long. But you know how dreams go, there is no logic to them, just a racing visual documentation of methamphetamine intensity. I know I kept thinking that we needed to get into the woods across the street from my childhood home. We’d be safe there for a while. I knew we could hide in those familiar old overgrown woods.

Running with Jimi Hedrix is not an easy thing to pull off in broad daylight. He’s an iconic figure who is easily recognized even by folks who have never heard his music. Like Che Guevara. I never heard one of Che’s songs, but I could pick him out in a police line up in the 1960’s. A handsome totalitarian, murderous Marxist rascal, he was perhaps the polar opposite of Jimi, the love machine. “Peace baby.”  Che’s face emblazons many a tee shirt today just like Jimi’s does. Overlap. Boom! I awoke when my real life dog whimpered to go out and pee at 3:00 a.m. My heart was fluttering. I could not forget the stroboscopic scenes in my mind. I felt a sociocultural duty to save Jimi. I let Johnny the dog out in the darkness, trying not to confuse the unconscious with the semi-conscious.

Now how does one get into such a psychological pickle jar, dodging sweet gherkins and dill chips, pearl onions and bits of garlic while swimming through greenish vinegar?  (I went to the bathroom also. I know what you’re thinking.) I wonder about Freud and his cocaine use at times like these. I tried to reconstruct my recent history to uncover links to the bizarre narrative of my dream. I had been watching the movie Chaplin the other night. It was very well done; Robert Downey, Jr. did a heck of a job portraying Charlie Chaplin. There was the political back story of J. Edgar Hoover who set out to ruin Chaplin and anyone who was not a pure American, whatever that may be. And in some odd way, Chaplin’s Tramp is a comic-tragic iconic figure like Jimi. The ugly, fear-gorged Americans in Chaplin’s day made him out to be a communist Jew. He was neither. They were just rabidly stupid. Jimi was viewed as trouble too, I think. If anyone scared the conservative silent majority of Richard Nixon’s imagination, it was Jimi “Burn Your Guitar” Hendrix. Like Chaplin he was a sex hound, I think. So there is sufficient overlap between Hendrix and Chaplin for my dream.

Image result for j. edgar hoover pictures

And then I ingested an hour of CNN overcoverage of the bomb blasts in Boston last night before going to bed. All those swarming bodies shifting from exultation to disaster in a split second. Runners lost their footing and the limelight as two explosions took center stage. Cops turned into runners, their focus switching from the sprinters in front of them to the splinters behind the police barricade. In the blink of an eye terrorism visited the U.S. again. And a corps of reporters larger than the entire Homeland Security and CIA combined began their smothering overage, saying the same damn things over and over. Interviewing new faces and officials who said the same thing over and over and over.

Perhaps that is where my tired brain left reality and went to sleep for some rest. And lo’, what awaited me in dreams?  A Jimi Hendrix/ Charlie Chaplin/ Richard Nixon/ Che Guevara/J. Edgar Hoover marathon chase. The Tramp was a lovable rascal who was always in trouble, chased by cops or immigration officials, child services officials or landlords. He was anti-authority in a good way, since Authority in Chaplin’s films was always fat and pompous, easy to hate. Without words every gesture had to be exaggerated. Now it seems audiences want nuanced close ups and lots of yakking. My dream had no words, not one. However, if I ever make a soundtrack for this dream, I’ll be sure to include Crosstown Traffic….”so hard to get through to you“. And All Along the Watchtower…”two FBI riders were approaching, and the wind began to howl”. And The Wind Cries Mary...
“The traffic lights they turn up blue tomorrow
And shine their emptiness down on my bed
The tiny island sags downstream
‘Cause the life that lived is, is dead
And the wind screams Mary

And finally, Fire… I have only one burning desire, let me stand next to your fire“.

Good night, Jimi Hendrix. Let the cat out and turn off the television, man. Peace out.

138. Angerum Initiatus

[This post is serious, just to give you a heads up.] I deal with the emotion of anger a lot, my dear bloggies, in my muted natural-colored office. Lots of folks have a problem with anger; most I’d say. It’s right up there with fear. So I thought I’d write a brief treatise on anger.

First of all, anger is just one of hundreds of God-given emotions. Somehow, though, most folks don’t want to own their anger. They don’t want to be known as an angry person. But let’s look closer. Anger is also a secondary emotion; it follows hurt; so it’s a reaction to a reaction. Even though anger often appears to be immediate and first line, it follows some form of hurt. In fact, anger is often used to cover over the hurt, which may appear like weakness. Anger, so most people believe, is an emotion of strength. As a secondary emotion anger is intended to push out the hurt, to defend oneself. It’s a defensive emotion, a protective one. But like all emotions it must be ex-pressed, or “pushed out”. Unexpressed anger is like unexploded ordinance; it does no good.

I work with two kinds of angry people: the overly expressive/explosive type, and the underly expressive/implosive type. (Yes, I realize that underly is a  questionable construct.) The first type come in for anger management counseling. They have trouble containing their anger. They offend others often and deeply. By the time they come to see me, they are also angry at themselves for failing to contain their anger. They are emotionally irresponsible. The other type feel anger but refuse to honestly express it. They avoid confrontation, which is another way of saying they are people pleasers. (The only person not pleased is the people pleaser. How about that?) So these folks walk around with megatons of unexpressed anger that usually tries to find a way out in fatigue or depression, acid reflux, bowel problems, migraines, and misery. The under-expressives over contain their anger and choke on it. Some are so afraid of any anger that they nearly dissociate in frozen fear. Many wind up depressed under the crushing weight of their own anger. Theses guys are overly responsible and try to manage others’ feelings and lives. (So, who do you think works harder?)

I have looked into the root word for anger and found that it is the root of anxiety also. Both words originate with a sense of choking, which is a common result from anger or anxiety. Explosives often unbutton their collars as their necks swell with rage. Implosives find it hard to swallow and breathe when they are bombarded by anger. I find this fascinating though you may not. Go ahead, blog kittens, get angry and claim it. Oh, I see, you don’t want to. You’ll do it later. Okay.

Okay, let’s go back to the origins of anger. Often the hurt comes from one’s expectations not being met. “I thought you meant a Caribbean cruise not a cruise on the Inner Harbor! I’m so  disappointed…and angry.” The appointed expectation is not met and hurt rises up. Depending on how much hurt there is, anger may follow. [If the original cruise was on the Carnival Triumph, perhaps the reaction is one of joy and not anger.] So, blognogs, if you are careful with setting reasonable expectations, you can practice proactive anger management.  Yippeee! Say it with me, “Practice proactive anger management”. It begins with a deep breath and a new perspective about what you expect. It’s also fun to say. “Practice proactive anger management.”

Another point to consider is that angry people fool themselves into thinking that by gripping anger, they are in control. They shout and attempt to dominate others with hostility, and maybe even get physically violent. But they are just hurt folks, like the other persons who don’t express their anger. The implosives dive for cover when anger erupts. They are ready to surrender to a raised voice or an eyebrow. This reminds me of the time I was playing paintball with my daughter. She and another girl were the only ones left on their team and were being attacked by a man who had no more paintballs in his gun. He was simply firing compressed air and yelling for them to surrender from their bunker. They complied, not knowing that they had the only power left on the battle field. They surrendered control. The loud guy never had control, only the illusion of it. I wonder how it would have gone if Grace had yelled out, “Hey Dude, fire one in here before we move. We have plenty of time and ammo. How about you?”  What a fun shift in power dynamics that could have been…but fear carried the day.

Calling out the bully takes confidence that the implosives lack. Bullies count on it. They (the bullies) also lack confidence but double down on aggression to convince others of their immense and seemingly fearless threats. Implosives operate on fear, and therefore shrink back from these aggressive tufted guinea pigs, who puff themselves up to appear like tusked wild boars. Like demons, bullies suck their power out of their fear filled victims. When the victims stop trembling, the bullies get nervous and tremble.

So let’s review. Anger comes from the root word “choking”. It’s a God-given emotion meant to be expressed and not turned into a career of imploding or exploding over and over. It’s a secondary emotion that follows hurt. If handled responsibly, anger defends one from the hurt. If handled irresponsibly, it leads to explosive displays of offensive anger and rage that burn others, or to implosive non-displays of anger that corrode the angry person, leading to depression and anxiety. Often the source of hurt is unmet expectations.

In the end anger must be released. You can yell it out, bust windows, punch people, set things on fire, etc. You can pout and cry, wail and weep. Choose one.

137. Fame

I’ve decided that I’m going to be famous after I’m dead, so I am being careful now that I don’t leave incriminating evidence behind that will besmirch my future fame. I don’t want some bitter friend or acquaintance to write a book or a magazine article about me and endanger my legacy. I’m leaving bigger tips at restaurants and trying to return phone calls promptly. I’m NOT going to massage parlors or off track betting either. (I never did go, just in case you were wondering.) I’m paying all my debts so that I leave no one in the lurch to complain about my financial recklessness. No Bernie Madoff scams with my name. No Burnietto Special is gonna go down on my watch! I’ve begun apologizing to total strangers just in case they become acquaintances or friends of friends later on. Frankly, it’s exhausting to go through the staging of proactive Teflon Fame. I feel like I’m washing my coffee cup while I’m still drinking out of it. “Oh. To Life, To Life, L’chiam.”  (Uh, just a random outburst of song.) Oh, floss and gargle too. More deodorant. Hair gel. “Camera One… Cue Forrest Gump…”

“Hahh, Ahhmm not Joel Osteen, but Ahhd like ya’ll to treat me like ya’ll would Joel. Ahhhmm just as humble as ahh Odor Eater shoe insert. Ahh, Ahh just love babies and puppies and Jahzuss. Ahh go to three churches a week and Ahhh always sit in the last pew, cuz Ahhhhmmm a humble man. Ahh eat the heels of bread loaves and shrimp heads. It aint much, Ahh know, but Ahh don’t want to be no bother to nobody. If Jahzuss come back today and thowed a picnic, Ahhd give’m Mahh bread heels and shrimp heads soes we could make a big ole gumbo an feed them Beatitudes on the hillsahhd. Ahh always lahked thur music.”

Hopefully a full press Forrest Gump would not insult anyone and thus prevent my reputation from further exposure to myself. This fame pursuit is quite complex.

Going back through one’s life taking a fearless inventory of wrongdoing sounds like a story ripped right out of the AA Big Book. It is. How can I rewrite the past? I can’t. It’s that simple. Nor can I kill off all the witnesses to my past. Only ruthless dictators can afford to exercise this option. Kim YOUNG Fool in North Korea, for example, simply has folks incinerated for hiccupping in his presence. ( I am exaggerating here, I think. Not sure if I have the name right either.) I’ve heard that he sends folks with ADD to concentration camps. Is that even possible?  [Note: no Bernie Madoff and no Korean dictator tactics in my fearless inventory.] Now mass hypnosis is a thought I’ve considered, one huge magic trick where my life story is hypnotically replaced with, with um, a perfect guy’s life, only I can’t think of anyone who is or was perfect.

In fact, when I think harder about famous folks, I find that a lot of them were arrested and/or spent time in jail, like Nelson Mandela, John McCain, Martin Luther King, Keith Richards, Charles Manson, Napoleon, Joseph, Daniel, Moses, Socrates, and Galileo. So I wondered if maybe some time in jail for a crime I did not commit would help me pre-habilitate my reputation as a hero of the people. But what crime? Something wretched or treasonous? Then I’d need the trial of the century to build my support base. A sensational murder case would do it, along the lines of O.J. or Tot Mom or Phil Specter. But I have to be found guilty and then exonerated posthumously. I’d have to do hard time in a cage and die in exile. Man! I need a Byzantine novelist to work out that script!

Ahh!! Why didn’t I think of this earlier. Forrest Gump was a made up guy who was woven into real historical film footage so seamlessly that he seamlessly seemed real also. So, I wonder if Robert Zemeckis could weave me into some Kim Young Kool meets Jackie Chan martial arts footage. I would not cost him a cent if he could make a comprehensive film of my life that had me come out majestic and heroic. If he needed Tom Hanks to stand in for me, okay. Maybe this is what John Edwards had in mind when he had that lady filmmaker follow him around.

“Oh Fame! Why dost thou plague me?” Shakespeare never said that, because he was not proactive about his image. If he’d been clairvoyant like me, he’d have gotten a hair comb over and lost the pie crust collars. But no, he bought into his quick sand Elizabethanness, and now he sits like an old palm print memorialized in concrete that was poured back in 1600. But his loss is my gain. I will purge my photo history of all bad haircut pictures, flannel shirt poses, moustaches in search of meaning, and the one where my infant daughter is gumming a cold beer as I tip an open one to my mustachioed lip. Gone like Soviet history. Hmmmm.

Do I really want a Soviet photo-shopped biography? For my story to be believable I will have to keep some warts and freckles. “Oh Fame! Why dost thou plague me so?” (I like saying that. I feel like Hamlet for a moment.) Some scars and nicks add character to a fully lived life. On the Antiques Road Show the furniture maître de says “there is a lovely patina that’s so desirable”. Maybe I can keep a fungal toenail or my imperfectly placed bicuspids as proof of my provenance. And maybe I should allow my biographers to include a story or two of my self absorption. Hush, blogkins. It must be done.

Living like this is wiping me out. Maybe I should just live a clean life from here on and leave it to my agent to make me famous. Only problem is, I have no agent. Phewwww. WWJD? Get some Gospel writers. My accountant Bill. Joel the lawyer from the coffee shop. My tenant the good doctor Cinda upstairs. And then a reformed Pharisee who is harsh with women? No, it’s too much. I just want to scream,

“I’m gonna live forever, Baby remember my name. FAME.”

136. The Fun Club

I always wanted my own play house or tree fort when I was a kid in the suburbs of Northern Virginia. Unfortunately that never happened. My family lacked tools, talent and materials to build much of anything. Also, there was only one tree in our yard, the same ugly elm tree that was planted dead in the center of every front yard in the cookie cutter neighborhood of post war Virginia Hills. A young elm is not a tree that is conducive to supporting a homemade fort in its branches.  Of course, there were other trees growing in folks’ yards, but in the 1960’s they were weak saplings just trying to survive in the hard clay of the area. In the neighbor’s yard behind us, (the Emkirs at one time), was a small circle of mimosas, lovely to sit under on a hot summer day but totally incapable of supporting a boys’ clubhouse tree fort. So I lived without. Not exactly the desolate Great Depression tale of my folks, but it was the cross I had to bear during the Great Society of Lyndon Baines Johnson.

No one in our working class neighborhood did much that could be considered gardening or landscaping. That took time and money and must have seemed foolish to veterans of WWII and Korea and Vietnam, the gritty men who lived on Dorset Drive and the Parkway, Virginia Hills Avenue and Enfield Drive. Kids in those days were told to “Go outside and play”.  Being constructive was for men. Tired out men did not play. They sat in lawn chairs and drank cheap beer on warm summer evenings in wife beater tee shirts that were never gonna be fashionable. They smoked short cigarettes that had earned their lifetime loyalty– Winston, Lucky Strike, Camel, Salem. Like the cars they drove, things were pretty darn basic back then. Hand crank windows, no air conditioning, a.m. radio, and an ashtray with a lighter. Had to have a lighter since everyone smoked then, even in grocery stores.

We kids had forts made of sticks and leaves, and many years later we had big boxes and shipping crates that served as hideaways, but by then girls and candles and cigarettes and beer were part of the equation. Those were nests for unsupervised horny adolescents not innocent tree forts or kids’ clubhouses. The best thing to do with those nests of nadirity would have been to burn them alongside the Christmas trees we burned each January and thus purge the earth of two sand grains of adolescent sin. {Note: nadirity is a construct made from the root nadir, meaning lowest point. Yes, I made it up, thanks to Mark Craver.}

When my girls were old enough to want their own playhouse beyond our basement, they were maybe 11, 6 and 2 years old. I say that they wanted it, but if I were being totally honest, it was my idea. I wanted them to have the experience that I had wanted as a kid. A fort with a window and door and a ladder and a slide and a sandbox. One summer I decided that they were getting their own play house at the back of our yard. I laid out $500–600, what would have paid for a week’s vacation at the time or a month’s mortgage, for the materials needed. I had a very simple plan: an 8′ x 8′ deck that sat up 4′ off the ground above an 8′ x 8′ sand box. On the deck would be a little house with a slanted roof. The single room measured about six by eight feet and was seven feet tall. It had a single window and a hinged door like a horse stall.

It took me several days to put the parts together– pressure treated 2″ x 6″ decking on a 4″ x 4″  frame set in post holes with concrete. I wanted everything to be solid, plumb, square, level and worthy of time. The house part was 2″ x 4″ construction covered with T-111 siding. It was a thing of basic beauty. My girls could not wait for occupancy. Before I had the guardrail installed on the front walkway, my daughter Grace pushed the neighbor boy off and shattered his elbow, requiring surgery that night. My wife and I were watching him, and I did watch as Grace pushed him and he doubled over and collapsed into a ‘V’ as he fell four feet and his elbow met a rock. It was one of those moments when you just knew that you weren’t gonna get any closer with that family. You had come as far as you could. It was time to eat them or turn back…or something like that.

In any event, my three daughters and two of the neighbor girls took occupancy and declared that the fort was to be called THE FUN CLUB. The two older girls, Erin and Suzanne, appointed themselves dictators for life without chance of overthrow. They began making up rules for their younger siblings to follow, which was briefly tolerated in the new colony. But like their British predecessors, they overstepped natural law and fueled a rebellion. Grace and Kristy seceded and took the Gerber baby Jessi with them. Basically they waited until the older girls grew bored and then squatted in the abandoned playhouse. However, while they were a united colony, they wrote and sang their theme song in all their throaty glory.

“This is the fun club; this is the fun club; this is the fun club so let’s have fun! fun! fun!” to the sped up melody of “You are my Sunshine”. Very primal, like spring peepers croaking out their calls into the stillness of spring nights.

The older girls moved on to post-Barbie appointments with destiny while the three younger ones kept a diary and collected dues for future expenses that were never incurred. Pennies and old pink sticky notes adorned the FUN CLUB for a couple of years and then we used it for storage until the ladder steps broke and the roof began to leak. It was an odd arrangement to store summer chairs and toys in an old playhouse four feet above an old sandbox. Cats and groundhogs enjoyed the structure, though.

Years blurrily passed. I don’t remember when, but I found myself tearing down the playhouse and exposing the deck. And then I cut the 4′ x 4′ posts and dropped the deck onto the sandbox frame where it has sat now for a dozen years or more. It’s an odd sight to see an 8′ x 8′ deck at the back of one’s yard. The uninitiated would never guess that there had once been a FUN CLUB on that very spot; a spot as pure as the white sand that filled the box beneath it. My childish dream had come full circle.

135. Groundhogs

Enough of the weird stories already, Grandpa, tell me about the groundhogs.

Well, my little one, it’s graphic and gross and grisly stuff you find when we get up close and personal with groundhogs.

I know, Grandpa. I like cop shows and dark mysteries, same as you. Remember? I’m your favorite and only granddaughter. So let’s get gory. Mom’s not gonna be home for an hour. Let’s do it!

Okay, you have me there. [Deep breath and exhale.] It started many years ago, way, way back in my childhood. The first time I remember encountering a live groundhog was in the abandoned gravel pit behind Virginia Hills Elementary school. My neighbor Richard had a Suzuki 90 motorcycle and he used to take me on the back of it, racing around the dirt roads and hills and bumps of the pit. One time I saw this large furry animal loping along, trying to get cover near the wood line. Richard saw it and away we went in pursuit. He cut it off and spooked it by circling around the thing. Meanwhile I’d hopped off the motorcycle and found a crate to trap the critter, which I did while Richard distracted it. So there we were with a groundhog under a crate in a big open gravel pit. We had no plan or any way to control the agitated animal, so we let it go. I didn’t know what the creature was. I thought it was a beaver, but I knew they needed water, and there was no water in that old clay and gravel, bone dry crater.

Grandpa, you’re so dramatic. Bone dry? C’mon.

Hey, little lady, I’m telling this tale. Right?

Right. Keep going.

I don’t recall seeing another groundhog until your grandmother and I moved up to Pennsylvania in 1980. We had a sheltie collie named CoCo who used to run loose in the orchard behind the farmhouse we rented. I was walking him one day when he tore out after a large rodent. Obviously Coco knew what to do and what not to do with a groundhog. Pretty soon he had disabled the varmint and snapped its neck.

Cool!

Leah! don’t cheer on slaughter and death! It was still one of God’s creatures.

Grandpa, don’t go Bambi soft on me. It was a groundhog, vermin, lettuce eater. Suck it up, man!

Okay, well it was gross to see nature in its pure form. I was a bit shocked at primal instincts then, such capricious killing.

Grandpa, what’s a capricious?

Uh, it’s not a thing, Honey, it’s an adjective that means careless or unpredictable, erratic.

You mean like Grandma?

Yes, but don’t you dare tell her that. Okay? Pinkie swear.

Okay.

For years afterward I’d see dead groundhogs alongside the country roads of Franklin County, but it was not until we built our house next to the open farmland that I began to see them regularly. One time I looked out the sliding glass door and saw one in the wild cherry tree, maybe three or four feet off the ground. I swore it was a monkey. I went to see it closer and it plopped down and scurried into its hole in the bank between our yard and the farm field.  I was intrigued and began to pay more attention to these creatures.

Grandpa, how can a groundhog look like a monkey? Weren’t you wearing your glasses?

You sound just like your mother, Leah. You know one time she saw me squinting at the bill in a Chinese restaurant and said rudely, “Dad, put your glasses on!”

Mommy said it like that?

Yes she did, but when I turned the bill around and showed her it was all in Chinese characters, I said, “I don’t think it would help, Gracer.”

Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. That’s funny, Grandpa.

Yep. Your mom is a funny girl.

Grandpa! Mommy’s not a girl. She’s a mom.

You’re right, Noodles. But she’ll always be my little girl, just like you’ll always be hers.

Okay, I guess. Now what about the monkey mistake?

All I could see was the groundhog’s face, Honey, and it was furry and in a tree…and no, I did not have my glasses on, but I put them on and then I saw it was a groundhog. Okay?

Okay. Did you shoot it?

No. Grandma would not let me have a gun then.

Why not?

She always worried that I’d shoot her with it. It’s that capricious thing again.

Really?

She’s funny that way, Leah.

But you got a gun and shot groundhogs.

Yep. After many years Grandma and I put in a garden. By then there were many groundhogs burrowed in to the bank at the back of our yard back in Pennsylvania.

Can we go and see them, Grandpa? Can we? Please?

No, Honey, someone else lives there now and they built a road through the farmer’s field, so there aren’t any groundhogs there any longer.

Shucks! I wanted to feed them like Mommy fed her guinea pigs and then shoot’em like you do.

That’s an odd combination, Leah. But anyway, once we had that garden growing and lettuce and cauliflower plants growing in the black soil, something changed in your grandmother. One day all the lettuces were chewed to nubs and the cauliflower was destroyed to the roots. It was the Plague of the Groundhogs!! And Grandma’s blood curdled. She authorized me to arm myself and exterminate the groundhogs.

Wow! Now it’s getting excited, Grandpa. Say that again.

…exterminate the groundhogs!!!

No, say…”And Grandma’s blood curdled!!!”

… and Grandma’s blood CURDLED…like cottage cheese, buuuhahaha!!!!

EEEEhhhhh. [Giddy Laughter and wiggling about.] Tickle me, Grandpa. Okay, Stop.

So then I went right away to Walmart and bought a .22 rifle and ammo before Grandma changed her mind capriciously. She can be a fickle pickle sometimes, like you, Leah.

Aunt Jess says you used to call her PickleButt. Did you?

Yes, often when she misbehaved.

What’s a pickle butt, Grandpa?

I don’t know, Honey, it’s just a word I made up and Aunt Jess didn’t know it had no meaning. So she would stomp off to her room, saying, I am not a pickle butt, and then slam her door and scream.

Ha, ha, ha, ha. Grandpa you’re a pickle butt!

I am not, you fickle tickle pickle.

134. continued

Ralph looked right at me with gold flecked, walnut brown pupils and bloodshot whites. We locked in a mind meld moment, as he attempted to download all the wisdom and pedantry that he had absorbed in his 40 years in Washington. I felt like a cruise ship was offloading its septic reservoir into my barren brain. A surge of epic proportions pulsed through me. I felt my arrogance swell immediately. My sense of entitlement needed a limo to carry itself respectfully. I felt underdressed and deserving of so much more. In that instant I knew that I was ready for Congress. I wanted caviar stuffed lobster tail. I wanted Godiva chocolates delivered by Lady Godiva. I needed my own talk show so I could sell useless investments to the unsuspecting. Finally, I saw my meaning and purpose laid out before me– to plunder my fellow man. How could I have not seen it till now?

Ralph nodded at me. “You’ll have to do, kid. What’s your name?”

“Ralph,” I said, taken aback, “it’s Connor. We’ve been coming to these meetings for months, just four or five of us. I thought you knew my name.”

“Relax, kid. I don’t remember anyone’s name. It’s something you’ll learn on the Hill. People come and go. You’ll learn. If you bother with getting to know someone, it just gets in the way when you have to disembowel them later. You know what I’m saying? I only bother to learn lobbyists’ names. They’re permanent. Bill at the NRA, Ed at Northrup, Jake at Exxon. Those boys are heavy hitters, let me tell you. And they can get you in and out of places like no one else… no paper trail, you know what I’m saying?

“Once ole Jake took me all over Canada on a drunkit, I mean junket. We skipped all over the place, hunting, fishing, playing golf and whoring about. I even invested in the Native people while I was there. Thought I’d leave a bit of legacy to the Native women, ya know what I’m saying?”

“Ralph, I don’t know what you’re saying. What do you mean with ‘a bit of legacy’?”

“Kid, once you’re in Congress you’ll learn the code. Ya know what I’m saying? You’ll learn to be just vague enough that everyone thinks you agree with’m and just specific enough that you can deny anything later and pin it on semantics. Yeah, I just love semantics. I used to have an old coon dog I named Semantics. Folks couldn’t figure out why I’d name a coon dog after an odd word like that. But that dog could hunt, let me tell you.”

“Ralph, the code, I get it, but could you be specific? The bit of legacy thing, what in Hell do you mean?”

“Now son, settle down. No need to rush. What we don’t do this session, we won’t do next session. Ha, ha, ha! yeah, the Speaker told me that 40 years ago when I was just a freshman. Those were the days, let me tell ya…. Ah yes, the code. What I’m saying is that I likely procreated a few bastard children up in Canada, which does not trouble me since they have a form of socialism that will take care of them. No sweat off my nose, ya know what I’m saying? Strengthen the gene pool.”

[Connor glared back at him with his own walnut eyes above his wolf snarl.]

“Ralph, I’m beginning to know what you’re saying. Were you ever on the River of No Deposit No Return? It’s in northern Saskatchewan. Lots of wolves and otters up that way, know what I mean?”

“Well, it’s funny you should mention that river. Yeah, I was there once, maybe 30 couple years ago. Let’s see, thirteen then minus 19 or so, yeah, like 1988. Why do you ask? You probably weren’t even born yet.”

“Ralph, I think that’s a safe statement. IN FACT, I THINK I WAS IN MY MOTHER’S WOMB THIRTY TWO AND A HALF YEARS AGO, YOU SCUMBAG!”  [A scuffle breaks out. Stale syrupy coffee spills on the filthy floor of the anonymous meeting room. The two men wrestle briefly until Connor gets Ralph in a chokehold.]

“Son, have you lost your mind? I can’t breathe. If you’re gonna be a congressman, you can’t be doing this sort of thing.”

“Shut up, you rapist. I don’t want your stinking anointing, you pig. Or should I call you Dad?”

“Now I’m sure you’ve lost your mind. How could I be your Dad? I’ve never… uh,oh. You know the River of No Deposit No Return? So your mother was that Pocahontas  snowbird I got with all those years back?”

“That’s what I think, DAD. Now I’m gonna swab you for DNA, Ralphie. We’ll see who I am in a few weeks. Louise, hand my a tissue. There, I have enough of your pig sweat to get a profile. ”

“Now, son, what are you planning on doing with that illegally obtained sample of my sweat? Can’t we work out a deal? You know what I’m saying?”

“Shut up! And quit with the ‘You know what I’m saying?’ hangover talk. I’m gonna make you sweat some more, Ralphie. Your legacy is gonna be crap when I’m done with you.”

“Son, I’m a career politician, and I can assure you that your mother and I had consensual sex strictly along party lines.”

[Another struggle erupts. Connor chokes Ralph until his reddened face turns purple.]

“It’s no use, Ralph. You can’t give me back my childhood and adolescence. No deal you offer will erase the fact that I was raised by wolves and an otter.”

“No kidding? How about a seat on the Interior Department. You could do a lot good for wolves there, son. You know, make your pack proud of you. Think of it, Canis Lupus Emeritus.”

[Connor loosens his grip, ponders the offer.]

“Can you guarantee it, Ralph?”

“No problem, kid. Remember who you’re choking.”

“Can I get that in brass? Congressman Canis Lupus, Emeritus. HMmmmm. Sexy.”

“Now that’s my boy. Let me up and we’ll have a drink on it.”