Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Pig Farmer's House

The wind is whipping and I hope the pig farmer who built this place thought of that. Pearl said that all this wind is a new thing. She thinks it’s because they keep bulldozing down all the woods for new houses and fields to feed cows or grow hay and now there is nothing to block it. She said you never used to be able to see that mountain down yonder. “Woods is nice,” she said, “but if you need to feed your cattle...” I was thinking it had to do with something more sinister like global warming. Or maybe it followed me here from Oklahoma like the red dirt encrusted in the tooling on my saddles and in the wheel wells of my truck.

On days like this, even though the windows are new and even though they are closed, the wind comes right through them and blows the plantation shutters open. Kurt is putting up plastic on the windows to try to stop it. To try to make it warmer in here because I am always cold. It comes in a little kit and he uses a blow dryer to vacuum-seal it. I watch the bubbles disappear and the plastic gets tight like Saran Wrap on a mixing bowl. I take my finger like I’m shooting a marble and go ping! I test my breath. I blow out. Nope, I can’t see it. It’s not cold enough for that. Kurt tells me to peel the tape around the windows or get out of his hair. I opt to go downstairs to check the fire.

I wish the plastic could also keep the noise out. The house rattles and bangs. I run outside to see what happened whenever I hear a clunk. One time I chased a piece of siding that was blowing down the street, tumbling like a steel ribbon and threatening to decapitate whoever got in its way. I think Kurt got all the siding fixed now. But I still don’t feel secure knowing the pig farmer didn’t have to get any permits when he built this place.

We used to complain about that up north. You couldn’t turn around without having to get a permit up there. One time we got into trouble because Kurt changed an outlet in the kitchen. In our own house! A simple outlet! The way they had a conniption when they discovered it during a routine visit on another matter, you’d think we illegally disposed of a body or perhaps built a nuclear substation in our backyard. Then we had to jump through hoops and give them all our money, which was called penalties and fees, to make amends, or risk being sent to Rikers Island or Guantanamo Bay, someplace bad, when we got sentenced by the judge, who was the clerk’s brother-in-law and who was still praying she wouldn’t tell her sister about that itty bitty squeeze on the ass.

Defiantly, I decided to see how far they would go. I told them we were thinking about building a little stall for Minnie, about yay high.

“You need a permit for that,” the clerk in the office said.

“About waist high,” I stressed, holding out my hand.

She tapped her fingernails on the counter. I could tell she would have preferred to smack me for my stupidity because clerical jobs in local government offices require workers who are arrogant, self-righteous and have a disturbing lack of patience. Double that if they got the job because they know someone. “You still need a permit,” she said.

“Okay then. What if I build a dog house?” I asked, blinking and ducking.

“You need a permit for that too. If you build it, you need to purchase a permit for it.” Then she threatened me. “Unless you want to get a fine. A big one.”

I should have asked her about permits for birdhouses. And would I need a condo license if it was a purple martin house? It made me so mad, them telling me what to do, overseeing every move we made looking for ways to wring a few more dollars out of us. Pretty soon we’d need a permit to clip our fingernails. I couldn’t wait to get out of there and get to a place where there was some freedom, where you could do what you wanted in your own house.

The ironic thing is, I now realize, after living across the street from the Evils who burned garbage on a regular basis, stacked broken farm machinery and old car tires right outside my kitchen window, and whose fences consisted of ropes and boards and wires—whatever the kids could rig up to try to keep their hungry animals from ransacking everyone else’s property, and never worked—why permits are a necessary evil. Not to be confused with the Evils themselves, who are not necessary to anything but the scourge of neighborhoods. But that’s a whole other story. Permits protect you from discourteous or unruly neighbors, and from yourself, if you are so inclined as to do something stupid like splice together a positive and negative wire or install your well right next to your septic.

The problem is, I can’t get a feel if the pig farmer put any pride into his work, if he had any actual skills or if he just had to get a roof over their heads, because the woman I bought it from, almost seventy years after the actual building, who bought it from the pig farmer’s kids when they finally moved him out because he was old and the front porch was falling down, stripped it of all it’s original detail. She removed all the Depression-era fixtures, doors and woodwork. If there were any kitchen cabinets, or old porcelain sinks worn smooth like the underside of a shell, or a claw foot tub, she took them out and replaced them with new, but cheaply-made, Home Depot versions direct from the mills and assembly-lines in China. She covered walls in paneling made to look like wood; she paneled around the brick chimney like it was a bump on the wall, creating a big box in the middle of the room; and she laid stick-on tiles on the floor that were supposed to look like the black marble you’d find in a McMansion in Staten Island or in Rome, and not something you’d step on in a little farmhouse in south Virginia.

She was a single mom who enlisted the help of whatever boyfriend she had at the time, victims of circumstance, to install the new windows or cabinets or siding—whatever his area of expertise. If you can call it that. As Kurt insists, everything is done half-ass. I keep telling him to look on the bright side. I keep telling him I’ve got to give her credit, being a single mom and doing all of this. She’s the one who built the barn. He humphs and reminds me it had a hundred leaks. She’s the one who rebuilt the porch. He asks what good is a porch if you can’t lean on the railing on a warm summer day because it’s attached to… nothing? A faux railing, if you will. He has no patience or sympathy. And certainly no admiration. He has to fix it all. Doors were installed incorrectly and don’t close. If you want to turn on the floodlight outside, just plug in the orange extension cord that comes through the hole someone poked in the sheetrock near the ceiling in the upstairs bedroom. Moldings are cheap pine boards stamped with Georgia Pacific or are missing altogether. In fact, there is a piece of molding missing in every single room including the furring strips on the ceilings and the trim around the sliding door on the barn, as if they took the last one to start a new one, kind of like a rib.

Of course all this sounds pretty bad until I remind myself that I could still be living next door to the Evils. Who cares if the old owner sided right over the row of charming back porch windows and put wainscoting up without using nails? And what’s a little wind when I’ve got Pearl next door?

I plan to write about the Evils, who I lived next door to, before we moved here. They were the classic neighbors from hell and they did a lot more to us than burn trash and pile their junk outside my kitchen window. Suffice it to say that they are the reason we call that house the Amityville Horror House and moved here, to Heaven-on-Earth.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Santa Sighting

I spotted him. He's in Wal-Mart. It won't be long now.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Peeing in the Tractor Shed

Today I almost got caught peeing in the wood guy’s tractor shed. I think he thought I was casing the joint. Kelly and I were there right on time to pick up some wood but Henry was not around. I knocked on the door to the brick house up on the hill. Someone said he’d be back in a spell and slammed the door before I had a chance to ask what “a spell” actually meant. Was a spell a few minutes? Was it an hour? Was it as long as it takes to read the newspaper front to back including all the ads and in the case of the local paper, Odessa Link’s Christian column that comes out on Wednesdays and includes recipes direct from Jesus like Out of this World Meatloaf and Scripture Cake, plus her home telephone number in case you run into trouble.

This was not good. I already had to go to the bathroom. I jigged from leg to leg. I decided to start loading. This way, the minute Henry got back, I could hightail it out of there and if he wasn’t back by the time I was done, well then, I’d leave anyway and leave the check with the people up in the house or else mail it to him because they seemed kind of mean. There was no time to waste when you had irritable bladder. You know the commercial with the traffic cop?—Gotta go! Gotta go! Gotta go! That’s me.

The field was filled with mounds of wood in various stages of fading and drying. I chose a pile with pieces that looked small and easy to handle, and backed up to it as close as I could get. Kelly and I weren’t too happy about having to load the wood ourselves. We weren’t prepared. We were clean and she had on her new boots. They weren’t working boots. They weren’t cowboy boots, rubber boots or even snow boots. They were boots for good looks only, black vinyl cockroach stompers, as my father would say, with a clunky heel and a pointy toe. They did not function well but elicited oohs and aahs from the girly girls at school, which was the whole point; certainly not comfort or protection. I had on my new white sneakers. Brand spanking white. Plus, we didn’t have any work gloves. Kelly was wearing pink chenille mittens interwoven with silver threads and I had on soft leather gloves, the kind a person wears with a dress coat. I want to call them kid gloves. But I don’t really know what kid gloves are. Are they gloves small children wear? Point being, what we were wearing was not conducive to the grasping of the rugged bark of a hunk of oak or the heaving of a locust log sharp and jagged with splinters.

One of the things I like about getting wood from Henry’s is that he and his helper, Langley, a one hundred-and-thirty-seven-year-old black man who appears out of nowhere in a 1976 Ford truck, the color of grey primer because all the paint has worn off, and who I can’t understand a word of what he’s saying, do all the loading. (For those of you who haven’t had your coffee yet, I really have no idea how old Langley is—he’s old. As a matter of fact, I don’t really know the age of his truck either—it’s also old.) Anyway, you don’t even have to get out of your vehicle—just hand the check out the window when you stop hearing wood clunking in the back. That’s why we weren’t prepared with the proper foot gear or gloves. But I had to pee so there was no choice. We had to hurry.

We got out of the truck and stepped gingerly around the wet, rotted wood sticking up out of the mud. We climbed onto the wood pile, wobbled, and picked out the nice pieces. I tried to toss the logs to the truck but I was afraid I’d hit the outside of it and mess up the crappy Dodge paint job that scratches and chips if you give it a dirty look, or torpedo it through the back window, which would have been even worse. We climbed down from the wood pile cradling three or four logs in our arms, bonking our chins, scuffing our sleeves, and skirted around the wet wood to the side of the truck where we tossed the logs into the bed. They landed with a thud. It was slow going. Thud. Thud. Thud.

Finally, I couldn’t hold it anymore. There was a tractor shed right over yonder as Pearl would say and it was facing away from the house up on the hill. There was old, rusty machinery inside and a scattering of feed sacks, some overflowing with baling strings and trash. I looked around. Not a soul in sight. The only thing I could see were dozens of piles of wood, straw-colored grass sticking up out of the crusty snow in between the piles, and the woods on the edge of the field, covered with frost like rock candy on sticks at the boardwalk. I told Kelly, “Keep loading. I’m going to pee.” Before she had a chance to protest, I hurried over to the tractor shed, ducked inside and squatted lickity-split. I was standing up and zipping in under 30 seconds flat when Kelly cried, “Someone’s coming!” and bugged her eyes wide open in the direction of the old black guy’s truck which had appeared soundlessly from around the curve. I exited the shed, patting down my hair like I just came out of a public restroom and yawned like this was completely normal.

For a split second I wondered if I should admit I was in there peeing. Did he actually see me come out? What if he didn’t? Would I be embarrassing myself unnecessarily? Langley’s hearing wasn’t very good. If I turned myself in, I might have to yell a number of times, “I was in the tractor shed peeing! I have irritable bladder!” And he’d say, “What was that you say? Your bull’s fatter?!”

But even though he was a hundred-and-thirty-seven-years-old, he was still a guy and there are some things a woman and her little girl shouldn’t call attention to out in the middle of a snow-covered field with no one in sight while they are getting wood. I made small talk instead. Langley said something but I didn’t understand what it was so I took a chance it was something entertaining and laughed. I felt like telling him if you guys were here like you were supposed to be I wouldn’t have had to pee inside the tractor shed and look like I was up to no good. But I just kept nodding and smiling in case he was telling me something funny.

I could understand if they thought I was out to steal something. They know I’m a Yankee. We’ve discussed that before. It usually comes up as soon as I open my mouth. They ask right away where I am from. They say, “You’re not from around these parts, are you?” like they’re on to me. And I admit it because I sound just like the Sopranos. What am I going to do? But it’s usually not a problem because as soon as they get to know me, they see I’m okay. I’m like no Yankee they’ve ever heard about. I’m not like the ones up in the Wal-Mart in New York who trampled a guy to death because there was a big sale going on. Or like the neighbors who lived right next door to each other for twenty years and didn’t even know each other’s name. Me, I smile and talk to everyone. I’ve even made friends down at the Dumpsters. Anywhere is over the picket fence to me. Plus, I don’t like to shop, never mind trample people. No, I’m not your average Yankee.

But maybe they were wrong about me if I was sniffing around in their tractor shed while they were away. Who knows what I was doing in there? About halfway through the wood loading, Langley couldn’t stand it anymore and he walked over to the tractor shed and went inside. Either he had to pee himself or he was looking around to see what I stole. I kept loading like I didn’t notice. I decided not to say nothing. I was just so happy that I didn’t have to pee anymore I didn’t care what they thought about me.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Getting Lucky

I pick up beer cans along the side of the road and automatically crush them like I used to crush them when I was a bartender. It conserved space in the trash. If you put hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of empties into the trash every night, squeezing an aluminum can in the middle so it resembled a bow tie, made a big difference space-wise. Every time I pick up a can, I squeeze, and it reminds me of that.

I wonder what the neighbors think when they see me out there in my red, white and blue Giants jacket picking up litter. I used to be afraid to wear that jacket down here. The Giants are a northern team. A New York team. No one likes them down here except for the transplants. And you want to get along. It’s bad enough that I am a Yankee. Should I throw it in their faces? But then the Giants won the Super Bowl. So I thought I had a right to wear it.

It appears I am on a winning streak lately. Everyone I wanted to win, did. That never happens. Usually, whoever I’m going for loses. Maybe it’s because I have a soft spot for the underdog. Or I’m automatically turned off the person everyone else is following because it reminds me of cheerleading cliques and Nazis, mindless followers whose blue-eyed blondness can’t disguise their ugliness. That’s why I picked Jimmy Johnson to be my favorite NASCAR driver. You have to have one of them if you live down here—a favorite NASCAR driver. While everyone else is Dale Jr. obsessed (there is even a book out called St. Dale) I decided to go for the guy who no one, at least around here, wanted. Plus he wears a cowboy hat and I love a guy in a cowboy hat. Kurt puts his on occasionally, like when…hey, but that’s another story.

Yeah, so, Obama, Jimmy Johnson, the Giants, the Phillies, David Cook the American Idol, Mark Warner and even Tom Perriello, the long shot running against the good old boy, won. So I thought for sure that I was going to strike it rich when I found an old lottery ticket while I was picking up trash. But then I came to my senses and realized the likelihood of this crumbled up ticket found next to a coffee-stained credit card offer from Discover, being anything other than worthless litter, was nil. It was just a scrap of paper that had blown out of the back of someone’s pickup truck on the way to the Dumpsters with all the other garbage no one secures but thinks won’t go anywhere when they are flying down these country roads at sixty miles per hour. What do they think when they get to the Dumpsters and walk around to the back and see half their trash is gone? Do they put two and two together when they see me out there in my Giants jacket picking up litter? What do the drunks think? We’ve got someone on this road who downs a six pack of Miller Lite on his way to and from work and tosses the cans out the window so the wife don’t see. Three on his way to work, three on his way home. I know what he’s up to. I know all the tricks. I used to be a bartender and people admit things to bartenders. We’re kind of like doctors and priests.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure I know which house the drinker lives in because of the location of the cans. I also know where the guy lives who spits his tobacco juice into an empty soda bottle and then throws it out the window when it’s full. He’s moved down the road a bit since he’s seen me out there. He used to throw them closer to 40, where the road curves and no one can see, near the empty white farmhouse. I’d find a full bottle of brown spit, like what you’d imagine is inside a septic tank, about every other week. Now he throws them out the window when he gets past Effie’s house. I don’t do that section as often as I do here, my house, to 40. Here to 40 I stop and pick up litter on a regular basis. I get it on my way out. I keep a wad of empty Wal-Mart bags underneath my truck seat and if I see something, I stop and get it. I clean the rest of the road four times a year. That is what I committed to when I adopted it. They put a big sign out there on each end, “Adopt A Highway, The Van Cleave Family” and supply me with orange signs, orange vests and plastic bags. Sometimes neighbors help.

It’s a great way to get to know your neighbors. Not only the ones who help. But the ones who leave behind their mark. Like dogs. Like the spitter. We’ve found a rug, tires, a cell phone (picture this—someone takes a fit because he can’t get service again, bangs the phone on the dashboard, looks at it like it’s suddenly going to work, and giving up on that, finally throws it out the window where it hits an old locust tree and falls to the ground, cracked), fertilizer sacks, Skoal containers and many cellophane bags that once contained pork rinds. I know. It’s classic—what you’d expect redneck litterers to be tossing out their windows. But it’s true.

Someone’s favorite restaurant is Chick-fil-A and I suspect she’s hiding her little fast food habit just like the boozer is hiding the empties. We picked up enough Chick-fil-A trash to fill a large Hefty bag alone and there are no Chick-fil-A fast food places in this area. I believe that indicates it’s coming from one person, and not the general traffic passing through. I imagine this is one big mama who is having two dinners every night but no one knows. She works in Roanoke, in an office, perhaps in the accounting department at the hospital, somewhere near the mall, and she picks up an order on the way home, shoves it in before she gets there, throws the trash out the window when no one is looking and starts the Hamburger Helper when she arrives. “I’m famished,” she says.

Oh, you can find all sorts of things out there that tell all sorts of stories. We even found the kitchen sink. Okay, it wasn’t actually the sink. It was the sink faucet. Whatever. Point being, there’s a lot of crap out there and everyone should go out and pick up the stuff in their neighborhood and then we will all be winners. Lottery tickets or not.

Monday, November 17, 2008

How Sarah Palin Turned Me off Religion

Being a Christian is not synonymous with being a good person, just like being a Muslim is not synonymous with being a terrorist.

The Jesus freaks blew it. For a while there, they were making progress. I thought, this is nice, sitting there in the Baptist church down the road where Pastor Lonnie spoke right to me and Mrs. Pastor Lonnie dabbed at her eyes with the corner of a hand-embroidered hanky. But God never said anything. Not in so many words. Oh, I was open about it. I looked for signs and coincidences that could be construed as messages under just about every rock one could turn over. Electric bill went down? That must be God because I’m reading the bible now. Tire got a flat? Must be God testing me, seeing if I was going to kick that old tire and take God’s name in vain. Could have been worse. Could have been a blow-out and I could have careened across the road and down the kudzu-entangled embankment stopped short only by an old oak tree many feet in diameter. That’s God watching me because I go to church now.

I was open-minded all right. I wanted it to be real. And like always, I was passionate. I gave it my all reading the bible even though, to be honest, it was boring, and some of it was, quite frankly, ridiculous. Nonetheless, I underlined words and turned over corners. I called the church ladies to ask questions. I went to bible study. I even considered checking out what was meant by getting saved. Does something actually have to happen? Do I need some sort of a lightening bolt to hit me in order to be saved? Or can I just declare my salvation? Announce, “I am saved,” and that’s that, like someone says, “I am lactose intolerant,” or “I am Irish?”

Oh, there were some things that bothered me. Like I heard there’s something in the bible against gay people. How could this be? These are good people, the bible readers! I thought, God, they know not what they do. (See! They were making progress!)

Okay, I thought. Let me think this through. How could I work with this? How could I make this align with my values and ethics when I know it’s not right? Because I’m not going along with human beings hurting other human beings. Even indirectly.

I decided if someone started talking hate to me about gay people, and hate to me is as seemingly benign and simple as praying for someone to change, implying something is wrong with them, I would hope, by then, they’d know me and like me and respect me enough not to shut me out. Because I’d speak up. I’d talk of my love for Cousin Eric, the classic gay hairdresser, and how I haven’t had a good haircut since the day he died. And how Cousin Jeannie and her partner raised a wonderful young man who is married now to a lovely young woman and who is a valuable member of society, in law enforcement, nice to everyone, the kind of child every parent strives to raise. Nothing bad has happened. No traditional marriages have been hurt in the making of this movie. Only good has gone on. Perhaps, maybe if I couldn’t actually change their minds, maybe I could chip away at it a little. Maybe, just maybe, God wants me to be an influence and that’s why I’m here at the church counting all the squiggly lines in the acoustic tiles up above Pastor Lonnie’s head when I could be out riding my horse.

But it never even got to that. McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate. And if that is not the most contradictory thing to be, a McCain/Palin supporter who loves Jesus, I don’t know what is.

Maybe I should say, “How the Republicans Turned Me off Religion,” because they’re the ones who picked her to represent them. Christian extremists hijacked the Republican Party and the GOP let them in order to get votes. That’s one of the reasons that Karl Rove made McCain pick Palin. (The other being the insulting and miscalculated belief that any pair of breasts would get the Hillary votes.) The funny thing is, the Republican Party was always known to be one for smaller government. But with the religious extremists at the helm, and their choice of Palin to represent American citizens in the second highest office, I think it is safe to say that we would have had more government intrusion and not less. If it was up to Palin, she would ban abortion, some forms of birth control, sex education and books she doesn’t think I should read. She is not tolerant of religions that are different than hers and believes that Jews, as well as the picked-on gays in the bible, should be converted. She took a citizen’s land by eminent domain (legal stealing) to build a hockey ring and fires people left and right if they don’t adhere to the will of the lipsticked pit bull. Her whole mode of operandi is “my way or the highway.” Her husband even belonged to the Secessionist Party and there was talk of Alaska breaking away from the United States and going on its own. Basically she’s a bully. But that’s okay as long as you believe in Jesus.

Just because someone is against abortion and refuses to believe the science of evolution, doesn’t necessarily make him a good Christian. What happened to the Ten Commandments? What about just plain old being good?

There are a lot of things a good Christian does. But I’ve not been seeing much of that lately. I’ll tell you what a good Christian doesn’t do. He doesn’t incite violence against a United States senator by spreading rumors and smiling smugly when supporters scream, “Kill the terrorist!” A good Christian doesn’t lie, sling gossip or call someone names whether it’s over the picket fence, by forwarding hateful e-mails under the guise of warnings that no one checked for truthfulness or by publishing TV commercials that are blatant lies in order to instill fear and hatred for the other candidate. There are bible stories about this. I think it’s called bearing false witness.

A good Christian doesn’t complain about giving the poor “a handout” because a good Christian knows that being poor is not synonymous with being lazy. Here’s what’s ironic—Palin doesn’t believe in sex education, most birth control or aborting the resulting accidental pregnancy but she doesn’t want to give the 17-year-old mother, who perhaps doesn’t come from a financially secure and supportive family like her daughter does, “a handout.” What happens to all these babies? They certainly aren’t going to be adopted because according to the most recent numbers I could find online there are already 115,407 children in public foster care in the United States right now who are waiting to be adopted. And no one is doing it. Oh, I get it. That’s the older ones no one wants. The 17-year-old girls should give up their cute, cooing babies before they reach the terrible twos. Hey, that works out! Don’t let them have education, birth control or the choice to abort and then take their babies!

Maybe, this whole thing would be a moot discussion if ignorant people like Palin would stop butting in and let people get educated and protect themselves in the first place.

But this story isn’t about abortion. It’s about how the Republicans are giving Christianity a bad name. What happened to “Thou shall not kill?” A good Christian is not a warmonger, uninterested in stopping the killing of human beings, as soon as possible, because he has a chip on his shoulder and paybacks are a mother. As McCain is. Wait. Now that I’m thinking about it, how come it’s not okay to abort fetuses, even microscopic embryos that aren’t viable, specks smaller than a pimple, perhaps even products of rape or incest, but it’s a-okay to kill someone from another country because we think we have a good reason? More hypocrisy. I’m tired of it.

The crazy thing is, Obama has been accused of not being a Christian at all, when he is the one who is the good one out of all of this. A true, good Christian. He reminds me of how Jesus kept his cool and behaved like a gentleman when things got really bad. He did not attack anyone’s character or make up lies like McCain did because all he cared about was winning an election. That one, as McCain disrespectfully called Obama, practiced what he preached.

No wonder people are turning away from religion if McCain and Palin are the role models the conservative Christians are touting. And no wonder the Republicans lost.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is

The McCain team is freaking out they might lose the election so they’re stepping up the lies. Now they’re claiming Obama is a socialist, hoping some people will associate it with communism. I guess the terrorist thing is not working and they’re panicking.

Not all McCain supporters are willing to swallow tall tales like, I don’t know, maybe the Brooklyn Bridge is for sale. Here’s what someone said to me:

“My friend that I work with, who is a staunch republican, plans to vote republican, at least has the integrity to respond to an email she received with a check at snopes and the washington post and found it was false. She then returned the information to her texan republican friend, stating the facts. Although she was met with a lot of ridicule...she insisted that it only diminishes the integrity of her party to not take the responsibility to vote with the facts and check the facts prior to participating in sending emails along that mindlessly slander.’’

Even though she’s voting for McCain, I’ve got to admire this woman.

But she’s in the minority. I get tons of e-mail every day from people who hope I’m gullible enough to believe the crap the McCain people directed them to forward. Usually I respond back with some links to the facts like http://obamafactcheck.com/facts/10/345798.shtml, www.Snopes.com and maybe a quote or two to prove the truth. I doubt they even read it. I don’t think they want to know the truth. It’s frustrating. Therefore, I am doing something even better. Every time I get something that’s a ridiculous lie, I am sending a five dollar donation to the Obama campaign. Talk about sweet justice—I donated twice already today!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Some Reasons People Will Vote For McCain/Palin

Racists give rednecks a bad name. I don’t want to be one. A racist, that is. I used to want to be a redneck. Now I’m not so sure. For a while, being one was in style, i.e. Gretchen Wilson’s song, “Redneck Woman,” television shows like, “My Name is Earl,” the success of “Get R Done” and all its branded merchandise, and musical groups like, “The Trailer Choir” who make it look like there’s nothing better than playing fiddles and washboards and perhaps, pork rind eatin’, on the porch of a dilapidated but nonetheless charming doublewide. There are even books about redneck cooking called things like, “Mama’s Sunday Fixin’s” and “Recipes from the South Guaranteed to Blow Your Veins Out.” I thought, hey, I want to be a redneck! This redneck thing sounds like fun! I bought camouflage sweatpants, a T-shirt that says, “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy,” and learned how to grow sweet potatoes, drive the tractor and get another month out of my rubber boots by lining them with plastic Wal-Mart bags when they spring a leak.

Then this presidential election happened and I learned, due to all the rabid rednecks in my circle who practically rip my head off whenever I try to get a word in edgewise about Obama, that I might want to think twice. Do I really want to associate myself with folks who don’t care that McCain and Palin are liars?—in fact, who won’t even read the facts by neutral parties (like independent groups such as the Tax Policy Center that concluded four out of five U.S. households would receive tax cuts under Obama’s proposal), as long as Palin has her lipstick on and her gun in her hand? (Overhead at the livestock market, two guys gushing, one in bib overalls, the other chewing a corn cob pipe, no shit, “She’s a member of the NRA,” and “Palin’s hot!”) Are they for real?

Hotness aside. Even political party affiliation aside. Why in the world would somebody vote for these two? It doesn’t make any sense. Can people be this dumb to make the same mistake for the third time? One’s a war mongering old man with a chip on his shoulder and a bad temper who keeps pointing to his record, a record of voting with the Bush administration ninety percent of the time. He’s the reason the country is in the mess it’s in! The other, who is against sex education, abortion rights even if a girl has been raped by her father, believes the birth control pill is abortion, believes God wants the war in Iraq, believes Jews and gays can be converted but doesn’t believe in evolution, stem cell research or the existence of global warming, tried to ban books, took a citizen’s land by eminent domain, is under investigation for firing her public safety director because he wouldn’t fire a state trooper who had a messy divorce from her sister, has in fact hired lobbyists and got more money per person from the federal government for pork projects than any other state in the union, and whose husband was, until the year Palin decided to run for office, pretty convenient, a member of the Secessionist party (Alaska wanted to break away from America. Ha! And they have the nerve to accuse Obama of not being patriotic because he didn’t wear a pin?) Oh shoot! As she herself might giggle. I could go on and on but suffice it to say that I think she’s a bad joke at best and dangerous at worst.

So why would anyone with half a brain vote for these two? Admittedly, religious fanatics who want to force their beliefs on everyone else are one of the reasons. They see Palin as their ticket to boss everyone around. What’s the difference between a religious freak like Palin who believes she’s on a mission from God and the Islamic extremists who blew up the twin towers because they believed they were also on a mission from God? Nothing. There is no difference. They both think they’re right and would go to war for it. A radical is a radical. But these are not their only supporters.

This is what my friend said, who is an animal activist and who runs a Yahoo group for horse rescues, when I e-mailed her some information about Palin killing animals. You know, the part about how she runs down wolves from a helicopter until they are too tired to run anymore and then she shoots them. About how she also offers $150 for anyone who brings her the foreleg of a wolf. The reason for this is so that the numbers of the wolves’ prey increase so there are more polar bears and moose or whatever it is they kill out there, for the hunters to get. Don’t need any competition from the newly off-the-endangered-list wolves. Sounds like cheating to me. Or at the least, taking unfair advantage due to having the power. Kind of like firing people because they don’t read the same kind of books you do or they used to be married to your sister and you’re mayor or governor—and you can.

At any rate, it’s cruel and I thought my friend was going to jump all over it, being the animal lover she claims to be. Instead, she e-mailed back, “Yeah, but the only alternative is a black man who hates America.”

Holy cow. I guess racism hasn’t gone the way of cheap gas after all.

That same week, my husband mentioned to one of the guys who hunt on the land next door that he’s going to vote for Obama and the reasons why. The guy said, “Yeah, I know, I know,” nodding. “But I don’t know if I can vote for a coon.” Whoa! What is this, 1960?!

Then my daughter came home from school and reported that a little girl in her school, 12-years-old, has a picture of Obama on her pink cell phone morphing into a monkey. And the children’s principal is a black woman! A lovely lady. What are these kids’ parents teaching them? I had to tell my daughter, who is innocent of this kind of hatred, exactly what it meant. It made me sad to have to tell her such things. Especially since the hatred is coming from the people around us, what appear to be God-loving, wholesome farm families who don’t think twice about bringing you some soup or a cake if you’re down in the dumps or helping you out if your tractor’s broke or your horses are loose. They’re nice people. It’s contradictory.

Listen. I admit I have some racist tendencies. I’ve been fighting being a racist my whole life. I grew up in Jersey City in the sixties with a father I affectionately describe as an Archie Bunker type. The riots were going on and we kids were warned not to walk down certain streets or you’d “get jumped by the coloreds.” But this is 2008. I’ve gotten educated. I’ve been ashamed because it’s not right. I’m fighting any leftover ignorant thinking I have left. It’s still there. I know. Like how I still bite my nails when I’m under stress and not paying attention. Or a cancer that’s deep inside that nobody knows about. But I’m fighting it. And I won’t follow any crowd that’s an advocate of it. Even if I want to be a redneck so bad that I’ll put plastic Wal-Mart bags inside my boots.

Check out "Southside VA Rural Rednecks fer Obama"

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Big Dogs, But Not That Kind

Since my daughter Jamie, the artist, took pictures of her cute little feet in cute little sneakers for her blog (they had polka dots or daisies or something on them, that’s how cute she is), I figured, why can’t I? I have something interesting to say. But before I get to that, here are my feet.

I know. They’re big. They don’t smell or anything though. One time, a friend came over to my house who refused to take her shoes off. I’m still traumatized over that. Everyone knows I’m OCD about my floors and I can’t stand it when people come into my house with their nasty shoes on. It’s not like you can throw your carpet in the washing machine and then hang it out to dry. What? Now I’m supposed to lie down on that carpet and tussle with the dog or sprawl out and watch a movie with the kid after you’ve been walking around in the Wal-Mart parking lot in your new penny loafers? And then you want to come into my house and walk all over my straw-colored sisal, soft as the sheepskin collar on a leather jacket and made out of recycled bottle caps or something? Nah. It’s disgusting. You might as well just keep going and lick the ground while you’re at it.

It never entered my head about smelly feet. My friend started sweating bullets and ignored my carefully and politely worded plea to please just humor me when I asked wouldn’t she rather leave those muddy shoes by the door? She sat there at the kitchen table and I watched her mouth move but I didn’t hear anything she said. I was too busy thinking about the puddle forming underneath her chair. (Believe it or not, there was carpet in that kitchen. It wasn’t actually the kitchen. It was the dinette area; close enough. Hey, we weren’t the ones who installed it—the previous owners put it in. If we would have stayed there, that would have come out with the brass fixtures in the bathrooms and the wallpaper border with the blue geese on it in the spare bedroom.)

Later, someone told me that my friend has stinky feet and you will never, I repeat, never, see her with her shoes off. They’re cute little feet any self-respecting foot fetishist would jump at the chance to massage but that is neither here nor there since you will never see them bare. Like you’ll never see my breasts bare. Which is probably why they stink, if you ask me. Not my breasts. Her feet. They never get any air. And if they’re constantly encased in that cheap crap they try to get us to believe is leather that comes from China but looks like plastic, sometimes called pleather, well, no wonder.

Which led me to the conclusion that there are a lot worse things than having big dogs. Clodhoppers, banana boats, hoofs, puppies, whatever you want to call them. But I digress. The point of this story is to show you my new Converses. It appears, at 48-years-old, I am still happening. I told the salesgirl to bring out two pairs—a seven and a ten, one for Kelly and one for me. Kelly has big feet too. The poor kid doesn’t have a chance. Kurt’s a size twelve and I’m an eight but nine’s so comfortable I buy a ten. Alright, that’s not entirely true anymore. There have been occasions where I found a ten-and-a-half and bought them. Once I even happened upon an eleven and when no one was looking, tried them on. Suddenly, birds were singing and horns were blaring. They were comfortable!

I heard your feet, nose and ears never stop growing. They even keep growing after you’re dead. If that’s true, I would hate to be one of those people who have the job of exhuming bodies when the cops suspect the wrong person is buried there. Dead people with big feet, noses and ears has got to be a horror story. What kind of sick joke is that anyway? The things you want small, keep growing? Why can’t my breasts keep growing? Or even my hair? (Did you know that after a while, hair gets old, breaks off and won’t grow any longer depending on things like genetics and diet? It looks like it stopped growing but it’s actually just breaking off at a certain spot. My hair has never gotten past the middle of my back no matter how much I wanted to be a blonde Crystal Gale when I was sixteen. I had visions of swinging it to and fro and brushing it back with my pinky but no go.)

At any rate, I felt like the Converses took ten years off me. I told the salesgirl I’d wear them home and put my old grandma shoes in the box. Then, feeling cocky, I went into Hot Topic. But you’ve got to draw the line somewhere. I don’t think lime green corsets with black lace edges and skulls-and-crossbones designs would look good on me. I just don’t have the skin tone.

Friday, September 19, 2008

A Hardworking Man

Kurt is building me a riding arena. He’s been chipping away at it, literally chipping away, for a couple of months. Every day he’d go out there after work and dig a little bit more. Even though our property is considered level land around here, it’s not. Flat land is what I had in Oklahoma where you could drop a marble and it wouldn’t roll unless the wind was blowing. Or even what I had in New Jersey where you couldn’t tell if something was off without getting out the level. Flat land here means sloping. Not rolling. But it’s not really flat either.

Since riding arenas have to be flat, especially for barrel racing, we picked the flattest spot on the property that we could find, which, luckily, happened to be in the most convenient place, right behind the round pen and the tobacco shed, not far from the barn, and next to a telephone pole where we will install a light someday for night riding. But it still needed to be leveled and so Kurt moved the earth on his bright orange Kubota. He bought metal teeth for the bucket and went out there every chance he got. He dug into the side of the slanted field, as hard as cement, and in big puffs of dust. Everything is hard and dry since we’ve been in a drought. Inch by inch he dug; carving really. Curls of striated clay and rocks filled his bucket and then he drove over to the other side and dumped it. Back and forth, back and forth. On the weekends, he spent whole days out there. When he came in at night, he was red from exertion and clay. All you could see were the whites of his eyes. I felt sorry for him, doing all this for me. But he said he was on a mission.

It took a couple of weeks to get it flat. Men came over for one thing or another, looked back and forth from Kurt’s tractor to the raw earth arena, obviously newly excavated, and whistled. They’d say, “He didn’t do that with that tractor, did he?” Someone had written “Wash Me,” and a smiley face in the red dust on the hydraulic arm and dried mud caked the tires like a ruffled collar. I’d proudly say that, yes, he sure did. It was the work most people hire bulldozers to do. It was the work of ten men. It was a major excavation job and Kurt did it all by himself.

After he got it all level, he started putting up the fence. The posts were even more difficult than the digging because of the drought. Even though he rented a gas-powered post-hole digger and broke down and hired another guy to help him (against his better judgment, being the super man that he is), the dirt was so hard that they spent one full day putting in half a dozen posts and broke the bit at one point and the belt at another. The earth, like concrete, ripped the thing apart and they had to stop and wait for rain before they could continue.

After the rain and the posts were in, the rails went pretty fast. Kurt worked the whole weekend nailing up the boards and got three quarters of it done before he ran out of wood. He threw all the scrap wood into the back of the pickup truck and when I went down to the Minute Market to get some milk, I stopped at the Dumpsters to get rid of all the trash. I backed the truck up to the container and climbed into the bed so I could throw the pieces of wood inside. I was up there flinging, when another car pulled up beside me and a lady with a grey ponytail and a faded sweatshirt with a picture of a Labrador retriever on it, got out and came over to my truck. She reached for the grain bag that was filled with scrap and garbage from the barn and was leaning in the corner of the bed of the truck.

“Does this go?” she asked. I stood up.

I was surprised. I was surprised that it was a woman offering to help me. Nine times out of ten when I go down to the Dumpsters to bring our garbage, if a man is there, he will reach into my truck and help me. And believe me, it’s not because I’m some hot mama down there all dolled up in my Cruel Girl jeans with my little pink tank that says, “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy.” No. When I go down to the Dumpsters it’s usually in the morning after cleaning manure, in the same kind of faded sweatshirt this lady was wearing, maybe in a pair of bleach-splattered sweatpants, make-up-less, and hair all discombobulated, on the verge of turning into dreadlocks. Unrecognizable except to those who are on an intimate basis with me and know my truck with the little barrel racer sticker in the window, it’s not pretty. Things can get ugly on the farm. But guys will help as a matter of course. Not because they think you’re hot; just because it’s the gentlemanly thing to do. Especially country guys who call you ma’am and whatnot. But this was a woman.

“Yes, that goes,” I said. “Thank you.”

She pulled it out and hauled it into the Dumpster where it landed with a big thud and busted open. Then she climbed up onto my bumper and jumped into the bed with me. “I’ll help,” she said.

“Oh, you don’t have to,” I said, embarrassed.

Why am I embarrassed when someone does something nice for me anyway?

She reached down and gathered up coils of plastic binding and empty Mountain Dew cans and tossed them. She was moving fast so I moved faster to keep up with her. Clunk. Clunk. Clunk. Clunk.

“Don’t matter none whether we got us a man or not,” she said. “Us women’s got to do things us-selves sometimes. Can’t count on no man to do it for you. Bunch a bums.”

She hefted a broken post like a torpedo. Boom!

I didn’t know what to say. My husband worked all weekend long building me a place to play with my horses. He was back there right now mixing up cement. You could write your name in the dirt on his back.

“I know what you mean,” I said. “Lazy bastards.”

“Ain’t that the truth.”

Kelly on Doc in the arena

Friday, September 12, 2008

What I Like About Being a Jersey Girl

Since I’ve been accused of picking on New Jersey, I promised I would write some nice things about my home state. Here are a dozen things I like:

1. Horseshoe crabs. What other place has a crab like this? This is the king daddy of crabs. They look like prehistoric helmets. They might scare you, but unlike regular crabs, they are really very gentle and I’ve never been bit or pinched by one even though I’ve carried hundreds of them to safety, back to the water, by that tail thingamajig they have.

2. Open-mindedness and tolerance. Which one depends on how you really feel about the person and the thing he does or is, but either way, you’re not going to get your ass up about someone who’s different than you. Gays don’t rattle us. Cross-dressers, transsexuals, transsexuals who are gay, racially-mixed families, people with Down syndrome, Parkinson’s disease or muscular dystrophy, turban-wearing Turkish next door neighbors, turkeys (as in idiots), go-go dancers, unwed mothers, fathers with custody, women who are never having children by choice, women bosses, Unitarians, Libertarians, Presbyterians, Wicca worshipers, tattooed freaks with pierced eyebrows and wooden disks in their earlobes, people who are better-looking than us and older women with younger men—none of it makes us blink an eye and any of them would be welcome to come home for dinner. Well, we’d try to avoid inviting the idiot. And maybe the chick who’s better-looking than us.

3. There’s a tavern on every corner. Not a bar. A tavern. The old kind, with a diamond-shaped window in the door, dusty red-and-white floor tiles and a jukebox with songs like, “Make the World Go Away,” “The Summer Wind,” and “Mack the Knife.” Some taverns of note include The Barrel Tavern in Jersey City, The Wagon Wheel in Keansburg, Backstadt’s in East Keansburg, The Cambridge Inn in Union Beach, and any American Legion or VFW hall whose bartender knows what a highball is and that has a shuffleboard machine.

4. The energy. Whenever I go up there, as soon as I get close, like the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I start to feel excited like I had too many cups of 24-hour diner coffee and I better hurry because I’m missing something. I used to feel the same way going over the George Washington Bridge or through the Lincoln Tunnel. Or when finding my seat at an Aerosmith concert. Or a peep show. There’s action up there. (Okay, I’m only kidding about the peep show.)

5. And that’s right. Diners. There are no diners down here. I miss French fries with mozzarella cheese and brown gravy at three in the morning in a diner with Greek decor, miniature jukeboxes attached to the wall over chrome napkin dispensers, and waitresses who call you hon and keep pouring the coffee whether you want it or not. You always want it.

6. Speaking of food, there’s no food like Jersey food but everyone knows that, don’t they? However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t include it because it’s one of the things I miss the most. Jersey has real Italian food loaded with garlic, fresh parmesan cheese and tomato sauce, sometimes called gravy, that simmers all day with basil and oregano. Forget that slop down here that has too much sugar like watered-down ketchup. It’s almost as bad as jar sauce. In Jersey there’s real pizza and real subs (as opposed to the fake stuff down here), cannolis lightly dusted with powdered sugar hand-cranked out of an aluminum sifter, Napoleons, biscotti and anisette cookies all from the Italian bakery (those Italians again), jelly donuts, zeppolis and French fries with vinegar from the boardwalk, French bread, Italian bread, bagels, hard rolls, pork roll, pork roll-egg-and-cheese on a hard roll, salami with peppercorns in it, Philly cheese-steak, Sabrette hot dogs with red onions, fluke, and White Castle hamburgers. Need I say more?

7. Anything you want, you can get. A job. Drugs. Rolfed. Tickets to see Hannah Montana or Air Supply—whatever floats your boat. A midwife. A reiki instructor. A pizza delivered. A taxi. Flying lessons. Three-hundred dollar ostrich-skin purple boots with a chunky heel and pointy toe. Lemon zest. (Edited to add—skip what I said about the drugs—this is supposed to be good stuff about Jersey. In fact, disregard the Hannah Montana mention too—no offense Kelly.)

8. Garage Sales. It’s garage sale heaven. Not because there are so many antiques up there. The country with its old farmhouses has the corner on that. No, it’s not the quality of the loot you can find but the quantity. It’s a numbers game. On any given weekend, weather permitting, many of the people who live in the one hundred-and-something matching houses in the new development down the road called Evergreen Estates or Three Oaks Manor, whatever, inspired by shows on HGTV, get the same idea—get rid of the junk. I furnished my whole house on modern garage sale when I was living in Jersey due to the invention of closet organizers alone. Check out my 1940s yellow kitchen table with chrome legs that I got for twenty bucks, Kelly’s red cowboy boots and the dual VCR you can use to make illegal copies of rented videos.

9. The people are good-looking. They’re slim, attractive and up-to-date. I don’t know if it’s the expensive haircuts, nail salon appointments, access to malls or what, but they’re slick like the display in a storefront window. Heck, I just found out what a Coach bag was, never mind carrying one. Jen would probably reprimand me for this too; accuse me of caring too much about what’s on the outside of a person. But it’s not true. Because pretentiousness and vanity is also one of the things I hate. It’s a love hate relationship. Here’s my position about our outer packaging—I’m always going to be a platinum blonde but I’m never going to get a face lift. There’s a fine line…Well, unless I run into big bucks, like hit the lottery or something.

10. People are educated about their animals up there. All dogs and cats get fixed. I hadn’t seen testicles for so long that I forgot they existed on the canine variety until I moved down here. When I spotted my first pair, the hound’s junk was swinging to and fro for everyone to see and I thought I was back in the caveman days. I might as well have been looking at two heads and not two balls, that’s how weird it was. And red-necky. But not in a good way red-necky.

11. This is cliché but I have to include the boardwalk. Especially the Keansburg Boardwalk. It doesn’t really have boards but it has seagulls, rock candy, and plastic buckets and shovels and rubber flip-flops for sale in the variety store on the corner. Clicking, ticking wheels lure you to games of chance where you can bet on names like Ike, Hal or Mom and win Sponge Bob Square Pants pillows and pictures of the New York skyline, with or without the twin towers, in shiny brass frames. There is Madam Marie who recently passed away in her nineties, God rest her soul, and who scammed, uh, removed the hex from my friend for a mere two-hundred dollars and who was immortalized by Bruce Springsteen along with a girl named Sandy on his Greetings From Asbury Park album. There are bumper cars with greasy rods that come out of the back and skim the ceiling causing sparks and making nervous children worry about electrocution, the Tilt-A-Whirl, skeeball, water gun games which I always win, and the dreaded spook-house. And when you get hungry, you can go and have a sausage-and-peppers sandwich and freshly squeezed lemonade in a wax cup.

12. The people up there tell it like it is. (Hence, the shameless mention of dog balls.) If you ask me, it’s better than pussyfooting around or being polite to a person’s face and then gossiping all over town about them the minute they turn their back. Or whispering about the unmentionables when what they should be embarrassed about is the fact that the dog even has them in the first place! In Jersey, they’ll tell you. Oh yeah. And if you don’t like it, too bad. Keep it up and you might get the middle finger.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

To Be Born a Cow

Two blackbirds are walking down the road. I’ve watched them go from Katie’s house, all the way down to Pearl and Eldon’s. They are walking right down the middle of the road like they own the place. Not one car has come. I don’t get a lot of traffic on this road. Two birds couldn’t have walked far down the road in New Jersey without a car coming, not even on my little country lane.

Behind them, cows are crying. They are penned up in the back of Eldon’s barn, having just been weaned from their mothers. They didn’t cry all night long but this morning they started up. It just hit them. Their mothers are not coming back. Maybe they can hear their mothers calling them from the pasture down the road. It sounds like my metal garage door scraping on the asphalt driveway when you open it. I bet they are getting hungry. Eldon is not going to rush out there and give them some grain like a human would soothe a human baby with a bottle or a pacifier. He’ll feed them when it’s time. He takes good care of them. But still. They’re cows. When they go to the livestock sale, they might not eat all day. There will be long periods when no one will feed them. When they get loaded onto metal tractor trailers and taken across country to the slaughter house, crowded with other calves they don’t know, stepping on each other, peeing on each other, they won’t eat. The killer buyer is not going to pull over into some truck stop to feed and water all the crying cows. What’s the point? He is taking them to be slaughtered. I imagine we have laws about it, about how long a cow can go before he has to be fed and watered but I don’t know.

This is the part where if I was telling this story out loud to someone, they would make a joke about steak. They put on a good front. But the truth is, they are uncomfortable hearing my tale of peed-on sobbing baby cows but they won’t admit it for fear they’d have to stop eating meat if they showed any feelings.

The boy cows are the saddest. They get killed sooner. You can’t keep a bunch of bulls around. The girls, called heifers, are sometimes kept to have more babies. They will live for a few years. But not very long. I asked Pearl how long she keeps the girls and was surprised and disappointed that it was not very long. About as long as the life of a plastic lawn chair or a pair of Sunday shoes. But before that, they will cry for their own babies when they are taken away. I think, how unlucky, to be born a cow. How unfair. Just because you are a cow, you have to go through all this sadness.

In the old days, when I heard mooing, I would think, oh, how nice. Now I know what they are crying about. I hear screeching metal doors and terrible heartbreak when Eldon moves the cows around.

I feel like a traitor with these cows. I can’t complain. I am the reason they suffer like this. I eat them. I can hardly look them in the face anymore, I feel so guilty. I send Kelly over with bread, heels leftover in the plastic bags, stale hamburger buns. She feeds the mother cow who just had twins and is penned up right next to our garage. The mother cow has a tongue that is long and purple. It is the color of a Chow’s tongue. Real pretty. It hooks the bread and she pulls it into her mouth and licks her lips. The purple tongue touched Kelly’s hand. She said, “It’s soft Mama.”

I can’t think too much about the cows. I didn’t realize how sad it was.

The blackbirds fly up onto the top of Eldon’s split-rail fence and then they jump down into the field for something interesting in the grass. They don’t know how lucky they are, born a blackbird.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

The War Zone

Every morning when I go out onto the porch with my coffee, it looks like a war zone. I have to pick up the broom and sweep all the bodies away. Waspy looking things. Funky things with pinchers. Blue bees. Spiders. If it was up to me, I wouldn’t kill any spiders but Kurt keeps insisting I’m going to get bit. He says, “Okay then, but don’t come crying to me when you get a bad spider bite and you’re in the hospital with a gnarly infection up your arm and they might have to amputate.” So I don’t say nothin’ when he kills the spiders. I don’t kill them though. It’s kind of a compromise.

Then there’s the king bees. Kurt looked them up on the computer. They’re really Japanese hornets. But he calls them king bees and he’s got everyone calling them king bees like that’s really their name. Eldon, whistling, “Them there king bees are mighty pesky this year.” And Kelly’s friend, Heather, “Mrs. Van Cleave, I would have picked you more apples from my apples trees for your horses but there were king bees all over the place!” And Kurt’s boy at work, “I mighta coulda come into work but there was a swarm a king bees chasin’ me and I ran down yonder in the wrong direction.”

At any rate, he dubbed them the king bee because they put all queens to shame. These suckers are big. They’re about as big as a man’s big toe and they have a stinger like you wouldn’t believe. For some reason, they are dying to get into this house. They crawl up the window screens and stare longingly at my family eating dinner inside. They hang onto the edges of the door waiting for someone to innocently step outside for a smoke and then wham! They hitch a ride inside and they’re flying all over the place, crashing into my lampshades and denting the walls. They’re so big, the cat thinks they’re flying mice and he leaps up into the air, tries to bat them, twists and misses.

Kurt tries to get them before they come into the house. He is on his third electronic fly swatter. I admit, I broke one of them in a panic swinging it around blindly when a wasp kept coming after me. He broke the other one whacking it on the post on the railing. You don’t use them like a traditional fly swatter. You swing gently with no flick of the wrist and let the bug sort of float into it and get electrocuted of his own free will. Kurt and Kelly jump up and down with glee when one of them gets fried. Zzzzzzz! Then they examine the bodies. Sometimes they make me look. That’s how I know the king bee has a stinger like you wouldn’t believe.

I don’t know what the neighbors think, the ones who don’t know about the electronic fly swatter, when they drive by at night and Kurt is out there smoking and swinging. It looks like he’s got a tennis racquet and he’s hitting invisible balls. Sometimes he does something fancy. Makes a big loopy swing, seeing how many he can get at once. When he’s feeling really creative, he might attempt a swing from behind his back or under his leg.

In the morning, I get out the broom and sweep away the casualties.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

An A-ha Moment

Am I turning agoraphobic? Or at least becoming a dud? Because I don’t want to go anywhere. It’s not that I’m afraid to go places. Or even uncomfortable going places. After all the places I’ve been to, all the jobs I’ve had, there’s not too much that scares me. I can pretty much get along with all types—from biker dudes, farmers, police officers, accordion players, nuns, retired ladies who volunteer and Harlequin romance novelists, to hippies, transvestites and obsessive-compulsive CEOs who micromanage and have no sense of humor or conscience—I like them all and they usually like me.

Places don’t scare me either. I’ve been in ghettos, drug dens, roach-infested projects with caged light bulbs and five deadlocks on the doors, abandoned factory buildings, insane asylums, mansions, New York City penthouses, after-hours bars in the meat packing district, in cop cars, on stage, on TV, on a ranch in Oklahoma with tarantulas the size of kittens and on a roller coaster that hung me upside down until I thought my eyeballs were going to roll out of my head and I did in fact lose an earring. So that’s not the problem.

I guess I’m a dud. Because I don’t feel like going anywhere, even to do things that might be fun. Like to the Westlake Library the other night to hear an author I am interested in, Scott Loring Sanders, read from his book, “The Hanging Woods.” In fact, I was dreading it. Because I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay here on the farm and ride my horses, pick up rocks in the riding arena, even pick up manure, which is when I do my best thinking. I wanted to wash the red-and-white checked curtains on the kitchen windows, do the bills, paint the trim on the barn, write a story, or go out to the woods with Kelly so she could show me where she saw the blue lizard.

But I let my friend Becky (one of who I call “the writer friends,” though she is also a “horsey friend,” since she owns two of them, an over-lapper in the friend department), drag me to the library. If the author of “The Hanging Woods” ever heard this, I would hope that he wouldn’t take it personally because, in truth, I really wanted to hear him read and planned to buy the book and read it myself. I thought, if only he could come here and maybe read me passages from the old horse’s back. He could follow me around on Doc who is totally bombproof and wouldn’t care if there were disturbing and dark incidents even if they involved animals. Nothing much rattles Doc. Plus, he can’t understand English. I could work Bullet in the round pen while the author was reading and even deworm all the horses, Doc included. It would be a win-win for everybody.

But then all those lake people who came to hear him read, in their creased white trousers and open-toed sandals, would have had to come here and I don’t have enough seating. And the flies. Even though I have an electronic fly swatter (that’s another story) I don’t think they’d be happy about the flies. Plus I don’t have any bottled water. That’s one of those things I think is crazy, buying bottled water when it comes free right out of the tap. So I went to the library.

And I had a good time. I was a little nervous meeting the writer because authors are celebrities to me. That’s who impress me. I could care less about Lindsey Lohan or Britney and I can’t stomach Brangelina. One time I met Joyce Carol Oates. Now that was exciting. I still remember how she was older than I expected and how conservative she seemed, like a church lady or a school marm. It amazed me that such a savvy and disturbing story as, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” which was made into the movie, “Smooth Talk,” with Laura Dern and Treat Williams, could have come out of someone who appeared to be far removed from teenage angst and who, by the looks of her at least, couldn’t have known about sexual manipulation (or sexual molestation, depending on your tolerance). Of course, as we saw in the story, sometimes appearances are not what they seem and the mark of a great writer is the ability to create characters you think are real and stories you suspect really happened. I had to refrain from asking, “Is that you?” Because I know better.

At any rate, now I have another reason not to leave the farm. I want to sit on the porch in my rocking chair and read “The Hanging Woods.” But it is in line behind a few other books since I can’t stop buying them—I’m a real book junkie. And if I read them out of order of how I bought them, I feel guilty. So “The Hanging Woods” has to wait its turn. It is behind “Population: 485” by Michael Perry, a collection of essays about small town life and which I am almost finished with. I am also in the middle of “Writing Alone and With Others” by Pat Schneider. I always have a writing book going at the same time. After “Population: 485,” I have a couple of memoirs: “Candy Girl” by Diablo Cody, the writer of “Juno,” about when she was a go-go dancer, and “The Tender Bar” by J.R. Moehringer, both of which I was attracted to because I am writing a collection of short stories that is set in bars. One of those stories, “Onion Beach,” was published in “Mid-American Review” a few years back. Another one is out, submitted to a contest.

After the memoirs, I have “Flower Children,” a novel by Maxine Swann. Oh, and I’m not even including the horse books. Right now I’m reading, “Horses Behavin’ Badly,” because I always have a bucking horse on my hands or know someone who does. And we shouldn’t forget the magazines. “The Writer,” “Writer’s Digest,” all the country decorating magazines, the horse magazines and of course “O,” because that’s where I learn to be nice to everyone and to look for my a-ha moments.

A-ha! I can’t leave here because I have too much to read! That’s it. But sometimes I’m glad I did.

If you want to find out more about “The Hanging Woods,” go to Scott Loring Sanders’ website: www.scottloringsanders.com

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Beginner's Luck

I’m in trouble with these vegetables. It’s only July and I’m already giving them away. Every night we have tomato and green pepper salad and I’ve made my special zucchini spaghetti three times. Going on eight if you count the leftovers.

This is the recipe: Fry zucchini in olive oil and garlic. Add sliced black olives. Pour it over spaghetti and mix it up with garlic salt and fresh parmesan cheese. That’s it.

That meal, though not what one thinks of as a traditional country meal, such as chicken and biscuits, reminds me of being on a farm in the summer. When I was a little girl, my mother’s friend, Alice, took me to her sister’s farm in upstate New York. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Madelyn, the sister, let me do farm things. She gave me a bottle to feed a baby goat. She let me pick out a cookie recipe from her black-and-white composition notebook where she kept them all hand-written inside and let me make a batch myself. (Two pages were stuck together, and so I followed two recipes, unbeknownst to me. Somehow, they still came out delicious. Perhaps it was the dumb luck of a beginner.) Madelyn also sent me out to the garden to pick zucchini and the other sister, Jeannie, made the zucchini spaghetti. They served it out of a big dented aluminum pot to all of us kids and now summer is not summer to me unless I make it.

The problem is, that’s the only thing I know how to make with zucchini and my vegetable drawer is stuffed with them. Plus there are three more big ones waiting to be picked as we speak and no gang of kids to feed it to. Even the tomatoes. A dozen ripen every day. More than we can eat. And there are a hundred green ones waiting their turn. My mother is always wanting me to make fried green tomatoes. I think she got that from the movie of the same name. But why fry a green one when you can eat a red one or fry up some zucchini or eggplant? If gas wasn’t so expensive, I’d take the vegetables to some soup kitchen or homeless shelter but I’m not going to spend seventy-five bucks driving to the city to hand over a bag of vegetables. It’s not like you can make it worth your while and save them all up and bring a truckload of veggies, which is what it looks like I’m going to get when all is said and done. If I had the room to save vegetables, I wouldn’t be in this predicament.

I don’t know who I could give my vegetables to. I don’t see many people on the farm. The UPS guy comes once in a while. The ladies down at the Minute Market when I have to go and get milk. The bank lady. That’s about it. I asked Kurt to bring some to work but being a guy who hates sissy-Mary vegetables like zucchini, and most things green, he said, “Nobody wants that stuff.” The neighbors are no good because they all have their own gardens—big plots of red earth surrounded by wire fence reinforced with various methods to keep the deer out—aluminum pie plates rattling and spinning in the breeze; strips of neon orange tape fluttering and wiggling; scarecrows in worn-out overalls and straw hats with broken brims; electric wire; baby powder. People will try anything to keep the deer out. But they don’t need any of my vegetables even if the deer get through and munch on theirs all night long. I couldn’t shine their shoes as far as gardening goes.

Pearl moved one of her gardens to a different spot this year because the deer were having a hay-day and she wanted to throw them off the track. This was the one that was next to my driveway. I’d asked her what she was doing with it because June was already here and nothing was planted. She said, “Oh, do you want to use it?”

I almost had a heart attack. It’s about an acre big.

“No, no, I just wanted to know what you were going to do with it,” I waved my hand and backed up.

It’s nice to know Pearl has a lot of faith in me. But it is obvious she doesn’t really understand just how much of a real city girl I am. How I recently learned gardening tools are not for tying in a ribbon and hanging on the wall like in Country Living magazine. Or how I just learned how to weed, deadhead, prime the pump, identify a black widow, back the truck up to the loading dock at the feed store without hitting the hitch, that Sevin isn’t a number and gathering wood isn’t romantic.

Still. It appears I have a green thumb. You’d think I have a big garden with all this surplus stuff. You’d think I was using Pearl’s acre next door. The neighbors are suspicious. Truth be told, I have given them some of my vegetables before their own, in their big plots of land with their professionally tilled up dirt and spinning discs like round mirrors keeping the deer out, came in. Effie raised an eyebrow when I handed her a Wal-Mart bag full of tomatoes and zucchinis. “Debi, where are you gettin’ this stuff?”

“Right there,” I turned and pointed to my little garden. It’s only about two feet wide and runs the length of the garage, turns the corner and runs the width. That’s it. One row. Actually, I wasn’t even planning to make it that big. Last year I had a hard enough time managing the tomatoes. But when I saw the pepper plants at the feed store, I thought I should at least get a package. I don’t know what they’re called. It was a container of four. Peppers are eighty-nine cents a pop in Wal-Mart and half the time they’ve got little soft spots on them. So I thought I might as well pick up a package of four and save some money. I got a package of four tomato plants as well. You have to have tomatoes. There is nothing more glorious than a juicy tomato still warm from the sun.

Half the garden is a strawberry patch. It overflows onto the lawn. We planted that last year with a couple of seedlings we bought from the 4-H club for a fundraiser. It has now run amok. I’ve gotten a couple of pints of sweet strawberries out of it and though the strawberry farms in the area have closed for the season, my strawberries are still coming.

I thought I was all set but then Kelly came home from school with some sweet potato plants they started in ag class. So we planted them too. On the last day of school, she stepped off the bus with two more packages of tomato plants. The teacher was unloading everything in the greenhouse. I gave half to Pearl. I should have given her all of them. And then the next time I was in the feed store I thought about zucchini spaghetti up on the farm and so I picked up a package of zucchini plants. That’s how the garden ended up going around the back of the garage.

What do I do with all of this? Last year Pearl got me freezing my tomatoes. I can’t can them because I have a smooth-top stove and you can’t can on those types of stoves because the heat will break the glass. Well, that is neither here or there because I don’t know how to can anyway, plus if I did, I wouldn’t, because it sounds like too much work. So Pearl turned me on to freezing. It’s pretty simple. Just boil the tomatoes, slip the skins off when they’re cool, and put them in Tupperware containers. The problem is, I still have tomatoes in my containers in the freezer from last year.

Even if I could handle Pearl’s acre next door, it is apparent that I don’t need it. I have a green thumb all right. Or just the dumb luck of a beginner.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Hurting Jersey's Feelings

My friend from up north thinks I’m picking on my home state. She said, “We’re not all mean, you know.” Duh. I’m from there. Well, I’ve been known to get mean when somebody eats the last of the Chunky Monkey or takes my favorite spot on the couch. She’s from there. She’s definitely not mean.

Let’s call her Jennifer. Jennifer complained that I depict New Jersey in a bad light. She’s never had a driver shake a fist at her or give her the finger. I don’t know what New Jersey she lives in. All the northerners who have read my stories about getting the finger because I was too far in the road with my horse or hesitated when it was my turn to go at a light, commiserated and shared their own stories about the same thing happening to them—many times. We shook our heads. And then we laughed.

Everyone has a story to tell about rude behavior on the road up there. There is even a term for it when it gets really bad—road rage. That’s how common it is. In fact, I just read an article in the newspaper about how Belmar, N.J. is trying to make a new law banning all obscene gestures—aka finger flipping—it’s gotten so out of hand. Sounds like a lot of it is going on if you have to make an actual law about it. Go here if you want to read the article:


I, myself, have probably been given the finger dozens of times in my forty-three years of life in Jersey and I’m a good and polite driver—I’ve never even had a traffic ticket. Down here, all I’ve gotten from other drivers is a nod or a wave. I wonder when was the last time a stranger coming from the other direction on Route 537 waved hello to Jennifer as they passed each other?

But I don’t think it’s simply a matter of a difference of opinion about the existence of mean people in the north and disappointment over my lack of loyalty to my home state. No, there is more to it than that because after Jenny insinuated that my experience with finger-flipping couldn’t have happened in the friendly state of New Jersey, she added that she often goes strawberry-picking or peach-picking and for my information, she has a porch to sit on too. With a view. Ut oh. That’s when I knew there was more going on here than me outing the mean people and possibly hurting New Jersey tourism.

This was not the first time she shot me down for bragging about my new life in the country. One time I tried to tell her about how I got peaches right from the orchard and was making homemade cobbler. This was all new to me, these country things—making cobbler, picking strawberries, growing tomatoes, buying jars of sorghum molasses at bluegrass jamborees. Simple things. But things I’ve dreamed about my whole life. And I wanted to share it all! Especially with my friend. But every time I tried to tell her, she would say something like, “We have strawberries here too.” Like I don’t know there are strawberries in New Jersey. Like my strawberries canceled her strawberries out. She stopped me in my tracks. I wasn’t allowed to gush about how I love it here without getting into a competition.

Yes, I know there are farm products in New Jersey. It’s not called the Garden State for nothing. But since she brought it up, agriculture is on its way out up there. Only twenty percent of the land in New Jersey is still farmland. Chemicals are the number one industry in Jersey. Other important manufactured items are oil refineries, pharmaceuticals, instruments, machinery and electrical goods. Agriculture is the number one industry in Virginia. It is followed by tourism. Maybe she has never been here before. Anyone who has visited both states can see with their very own eyes that Virginia is mostly farmland and New Jersey is cities and suburban sprawl with a few farms left people are selling off in bits and pieces because they can’t afford to pay the property taxes anymore. Or they’re cashing in big time, taking all the equity and…coming down here.

But I am not writing about New Jersey. Other than the occasional anecdote to illustrate a point—whether it’s the bad behavior that makes me appreciate being here, or simply to show why being here is like being on another planet, both of which give me colorful material to write about—I am writing a love letter about Virginia. I am talking and writing about strawberry-picking down here because this is what is going on right now. City girl gone country. This is what my stories are about.

And yet, I admit, Virginia is not perfect. There’s good and bad in every place and in my defense, I think I’ve written about some bad things in Virginia even though that’s not what the subject is. If anyone was eavesdropping on Kurt's and my conversation with the tack guy at the barrel race the other day, they might have thought we hate Virginia. We complained there are no good bakeries down here and I cried, “I’d kill for a real cannoli.” Then we snickered about how everything’s on a biscuit. We followed that with complaints about how they nickel-and-dime you to death down here and agreed that nothing is cheaper except for real estate and car insurance but the pay is a fraction of what you get up north, so, in reality, you are behind the game. We continued with jokes about hunting season, rants about Wal-Mart, and bewilderment about so much religion going on. Then we said how much we love it here.

I’m not sure why it bothers Jen so much that I make fun of my home state. Like she said herself, she has a porch to sit on too. Maybe she’ll feel better when she reads the story I am writing about how I think all the women down here let themselves go. (Not really all of them, lest I offend someone else, let me clarify—I am only exaggerating for effect.) Of course, since I am infatuated, in new love where the lover can do no wrong, I find that a plus—there’s freedom in not caring if one has a muffin top or make-up on.

I guess in a way I’m like Larry the Cable Guy who makes fun of himself and the south. I make fun of where I come from. Gosh, if you can’t laugh at yourself, who can you laugh it? I want to tell Jenny, lighten up. Everyone else laughed or nodded knowingly. Plus, I honestly don’t think it makes a bit of difference what I say about Jersey. People are leaving in droves without my help. In fact, there’s a bumper sticker up there that says, “Will the Last One Who Leaves NJ Please Turn Out the Lights?” Ha! I guess I’m not the only one who hates the finger-flipping. And the ones who somehow have never gotten an obscene hand gesture, like Jen, or who don’t care because other good things are more important, are staying up there and enjoying all the culture, the shopping, the jobs, the open-mindedness and yes, the cannolis.

Perhaps in another post I will talk about what I learned in sociology about why people are meaner in cities so that no one thinks I believe New Jerseyans are inherently bad. And to be fair, I will also write about some wonderful things in New Jersey. Things that I miss. Like the smell of creosote on the docks and salt in the air, Bruce Springsteen, Italian people, the New York skyline. But for now, it’s time to go and get a piece of peach cobbler, still warm from the oven.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Racket on the Farm

There is no getting any rest on the farm for the city girl. My niece Erin, who has come to visit, has dark circles under her eyes and yawns more than any normal American sixteen-year-old kid has a right to. And it’s not because she’s used to the clamor of the city—horns honking, bottles breaking, laughter and tinny music coming from the alley, and this is dead quiet. Too quiet. That’s not it at all. In fact, it’s just the opposite. She claims Spot the Donkey hee-haws in the middle of the night and wakes her up. I hear nothing. She said a wild animal of some sort, something very big and ferocious, perhaps a grizzly bear, or even Bigfoot himself, woke her up after Spot was done with his shenanigans. Then The Big Stupid, who recently found his voice and whose bark is deep and full-bodied like what would come from a very large breed such as a St. Bernard (we don’t know what he is, adopted from the pound, he’s like a potluck supper), spotted deer encroaching on my garden on the side of the garage and he ran from window to window barking at them. I imagine he was thinking, “Hmm, this bark comes in handy,” amazed at himself. I went down to pee and let him out. He can’t catch the deer but he’s good at scaring them away.

After that commotion was over, Erin said the cows were mooing. I didn’t hear that either. I’m not saying the girl is lying. But she’s got one set of ears on her.

After the cows, when she finally drifted back to sleep, she had a dream her cell phone was ringing and it was on vibrate. She jumped up and nearly hit her head on the shutter next to the bed. Turns out it wasn’t the phone at all but the rare king bee buzzing against the screen, dive-bombing it, trying to bust through. (In truth, there is no such thing as a rare king bee, as far as I know, but there’s a humongous bee around here, about as big as a man’s big toe, that we felt we were within our rights renaming, considering no one will know and we have no idea what kind of bee he really is. But he’s a monster.)

Throughout the night, the frogs croaked like this was the bayou and the resident whippoorwill called from somewhere in the black trees on the edge of the horses’ field. These noises I know were happening because I hear them myself all the time. Not only the frogs and the whippoorwill, but crickets and an owl. Erin said it’s worse than living over a tavern that does karaoke on Friday nights and has brawls in the gravel parking lot when last call is over—all the noises around here. I’m pooh-poohing that. You can’t compare the lonely sound of the whippoorwill! whippoorwill! whippoorwill! to a drunk guy singing “Taking Care of Business.”

When the first light came and I was on the porch having my morning coffee, I heard the neighbor’s rooster. That’s my favorite farm sound, a rooster cockadoodledooing. In the background, there was a cacophony of assorted bird songs, tweeting and twittering and whistling, starting their day, looking for worms and rotten cherries that dropped from the trees—easy pickin’s. Apparently, some of these birds hang out by Erin’s window and flutter against the glass up top. Flap. Flap. Flap. Maybe they’re building a nest up there, in the eaves or on the sill, I don’t know.

Included in the morning songs of the birds was a hummingbird, about the size of the rare king bee. He was like a miniature engine zooming around the purple flowers on my hostas. Not long after, Eldon came around on his tractor. He tipped his straw hat when he went by. Then Kurt’s alarm went off. That’s a whole racket in itself. That clock rings incessantly and shatters all peace and quiet within a two-acre radius for a good half hour every morning. I have to go up there myself and hit the snooze button at least twice and shake him and lie and say it’s later than it is and we’re all getting a headache from the ringing so please get up, before he will finally struggle out of the sheets and shut it off. Sometimes he curses. He’s been known to stomp. There have been occasions where I was outside with some service provider, the blacksmith for instance, and he’d look up and ask, “What’s that ringing?”

“Oh, that’s Kurt’s alarm clock. He’ll get it sooner or later.” Then I pretend I don’t hear it. And the blacksmith goes along with it and keeps right on nailing like he doesn’t hear it either.

But if you’re sleeping in the room right next door, or trying to, it’s no use.

Right around that time, MoJo the Siamese cat, known for being vocal, starts meowing. He wants in. He wants out. He wants in. I think he meows mainly to hear his own voice because it doesn’t matter what you give him; he’ll find something else to meow about. Sometimes he rubs up against the dog who innocently leans down and sniffs him. Then all hell breaks loose. “Don’t touch me!” He hisses and whacks the dog. The Big Stupid yelps and runs around in circles, skids across the floor, tail clamped to his butt, while MoJo screams at him, occasionally reaches out for another swat, and the dog goes faster, his nails clicking on the floor, until he crashes into the sink or rolls under the table knocking a chair over. In other words, the fur is flying and the sun is barely up.

Add to that the physical labor this city girl has been doing, chores she’s not used to—picking up manure, weeding the garden, sweeping the barn, carrying buckets of water…and this kid is pooped. Therefore she has been partaking in the afternoon nap, of which I myself am an aficionado of. She gets in maybe an hour on the couch before the afternoon thunderstorms start and it sounds like we are being bombed.