12.06.2010

How Many Stars Does Your Heart Attack Have?

I'll admit I watch more than my fair share of reality cooking shows. Why cooking, you ask? The more you cook at home, the better you eat and the healthier you are. The more you watch reality show cooking shows, the more you're motivated to cook at home.

It's true. It's called inspiration, and after that, it's called plagiarism (or theft) when you recreate the Barefoot Contessa's gratin recipe with no intention of ever buying her cookbooks. The more you cook at home, the more you save money on your food bill - that's not rocket surgery. Last time we went out, and it wasn't anywhere special, for two people it cost the same as two weeks' worth of CSA boxes.

Either I watch for motivation, or I watch because they aren't as loaded with crazies. You have to have some skill to get on and remain on a cooking show. And is it just me or are cooking shows less loaded with those narcissistic contestants who, when their self-indulgent behavior is called out, say, "I'm not here to make friends?"The more contestants say that, the more you're probably watching something on MTV.

The high-end professional chefs on these shows make a big deal out of using farm-sourced, fresh, organic, local ingredients. These are the contestants who work at fancy restaurants and have some mighty, superior attitude, particularly against other contestants who work in diners, cafes, or corporate law cafeterias. The pretensions fly down their noses, as if their food not only tastes better but is better in every other way, too.

I've got news for them. It's obvious news, so if you're smarter than me and figured this out already, good for you. Fine dining is no better for you than fast food. In fact, it might even be worse. Foie gras anyone? Ever watch those poncy chefs spoon the fat in their saucepan back onto the meat, over and over? It's as if they want their customers to get fat and die. They all seem to do it, the fancy ones. That and frying steak in inches of butter, to keep it moist, they say, and you know what moist means. It's as if they want the maximum possible density of artery-clogging death per serving. Meat prep is just the beginning.

Watch as the Iron Chefs drop big knobs of butter into their pans. Before Alton Brown even has a clue what they're preparing, there goes the big blob of butter. It's as if the more fat, the more their chances of winning.

Stare as Top Chef contestants shake cupfuls of oil around in their pans. The more oil, the more flavor, the fatter the judges get.

Cry as Hell's Kitchen contestants screw up another greasy pan full of scallops. "Too dry!" Gordon Ramsay will say if the little circles of death aren't oozing grease. It's worse than burgers at McDonald's, I suspect, but how would I know? Only McDonald's has labels.

Chefs don't care about you. You go out to eat because you want to eat something flavorful and pretty, and you aren't going to pay five times the price of a quarter-pounder if it doesn't taste five times as fancy.

Rich sauces make you salivate. Fat and salt tastes delicious. The more fat, the more you'll pay. I've known people who, when going out, purposefully close their mind to the fatty cooking methods. They know they're getting a plateful of indigestion and a heartful of grease, but discussing extra greasy calories isn't socially acceptable conversation topic when it costs so much. So they eat their 800 calorie, 62 fat grams' worth of Caesar salad and keep quiet, knowing they'd be better off at McDonald's.

Or home, which is where they would be, their spouses warned, if they brought up this (click for more proof) topic one more time.

12.02.2010

Dirt Cheap

fennel root
Once you get on a list somewhere, these cheapskaters are onto you. You click something sounding completely guiltless and pious, something you could use to save money, and within hours your inbox is stuffed with crap. You may be cheap, but they know a fanatic when they see one, and cheap people are nothing if not obsessed.

Some emails push positive suggestions such as raising chickens, rooftop gardening, beekeeping and many useless, time-consuming hobbies you could do badly for little financial gain, like making your own butter, or soap.

We made butter at Sunday school at my grandma's church and it still seems like a lesson I never got, a metaphor for resurrection I can't grasp years later. How's that a money-saving tip? Can't grasp that, either. You can get butter for less than two bucks at Safeway on sale and stock up, or better yet, pretend you're vegan like we're doing, use olive oil you already have, and save your heart and the two bucks both.

Soap is even cheaper. It's something you can also do without if you're like me and too lazy to buy more when it runs out. Instead, you can make a game of seeing how long you can do without. It's been three months so far, although my husband borrowed half a cupful of dish soap from the kids down the hall once.

Not to mention, if we made our own soap, we'd be poorer as well as smellier. Rather, we'd smell like soap ingredients gone bad because no matter what, the first time you do something, it never turns out right and there's a big mess at the end guaranteed: your prize for trying. You'd be wishing for real soap to clean up all the mess.

Other emails are full of no's, like, don't buy anything new, don't eat outside your home, ever, don't drive anywhere, don't spend on anything for a whole month at a time. Buy nothing, do nothing, go nowhere.

Being cheap is more like a game when you fill your list with positive suggestions, so I delete the no's.  When you once spent half your life scrimping and pinching to feed your kids the two meals a day they couldn't get free at school, you don't need another no. Say yes. Yes, we will be happy with what we have. We may not have soap but we have coffee, and with a lot of calorie-burning scrubbing, those coffee cups get clean enough, oh yes.

After your first cheapskate spreadsheet, you're hooked on the simple life. You figure out where you can be in a year, financially, if you only use three squares of toilet paper. Soon, you're telling everyone to wash out their garbage bags, or better yet, don't use garbage bags. Don't make garbage. You hear yourself bragging about not showering, saving (albeit incrementally) on your shampoo and utility bills. You even volunteer at a voluntary simplicity seminar and end up sitting next to the guy who wrote "Voluntary Simplicity." When a boring speaker won't shut up, he leans in, tosses you a twenty, and says, "Can you go get me a light beer?"

You think, the guy who wrote 'Voluntary Simplicity' is okay with paying almost double digits for a beer in a swanky bar? A light beer? You might be taking this voluntary simplicity thing to an extreme. Your rules don't allow you to bring money to seminars like this. You could be tempted to spend on overpriced beverages outside the home - a guaranteed route to wastefulness and unhappiness. Instead, you remain cheap, thirsty, and practically drool in Duane Elgin's beer when you put it down in front of him.

Loosening up - something we can do if Duane Elgin is allowed - meant signing up for a CSA. For $33, we get a big cardboard box full of mostly green things delivered to our doorstep every Thursday. When we lived in Oregon, only rich people could afford CSAs. In Oregon, only rich people could afford produce. (Okay, I'm exaggerating. Only rich people could afford organic produce.)

We have an idea of what's been picked and pulled up for the week: they send out a warning email so if you have allergies, you can ask for substitutions. In my case, there are never, ever any beets in that box. Just looking at them makes me beet-red and ready to heave.

Opening that box is like Christmas, and by Christmas I mean Christmas with cheap bastards if what you get for Christmas is green and grows in the ground. Okay, heh heh, it's like Christmas with my grandma who I dearly loved but her idea of a gift was sometimes the jeans I desperately wanted, the ones the popular girls wore but mom said were too expensive, or, sometimes, an old bath towel. When you're ten and squeezing the wrapped gifts when nobody's looking, hoping and imagining, those two items are unfortunately interchangeable.

During the summer, our green Christmas box was full of the tastiest strawberries you've ever had, popping-ripe, exploding blueberries, and bags and bags of crunchy, bright vegetables you could name and explain. Each item was enjoyable to prepare, knowing that someone living in our zip code picked or pulled it just for us. You don't let that kind of love get squishy and slimy in the bottom drawer of the fridge. Instead, you eat slowly, enjoying the taste of somebody else's manual labor and transportation through San Francisco traffic.

Not only do you and your husband have plenty to talk about at dinner now, and you can talk plenty about broccoli and its after-effects especially if you're open to less proper types of conversations, but you eat differently. You taste every bite, considering if the last time you ate broccoli, did it taste like this? Like a sip from the coldest creek water? Did it crunch this way, even though it's soft around the edges? Not being that great of a cook, I know I can't take the credit for all the flavor, although I do. You don't want to discourage positive comments, however misguided.

Then there are the old bath towels you sometimes get in your box, like kohlrabi, romanescu and fennel root. And here's where everything changes.

Instead of a surprise CSA box, you could have headed to the Farmer's market every weekend, spending hours shopping for home-grown produce, cooking up familiar recipes, buying only what you have discerningly hand-picked from bins of vegetables, vegetables that you don't have to read the sign to figure out what they are. How boring. How safe.

Isn't Romanescu in the Czech Republic? How'd they get broccoli to grow in a fractal pattern? What's fennel and why only the root? How do you pronounce kohlrabi? What kinds of cultures eat these things? Yours, once it's on your doorstep. You're a cheap bastard, after all. Food waste causes methane-type global warming and is the basis for more admonitions from mothers, and the basis for the originating of more eating disorders, than anything else in any other room.

You didn't pick these vegetables. Do you trust the CSA enough to give you the prettiest pears? Or did they give you the crushed, sat-upon lettuce? You aren't in control so you can't think that way anymore.  Free your mind.

You have to trust that someone eats kohlrabi or it wouldn't have been hand-placed next to a bag of persimmons. Although, to be honest, some of the more unusual items left on my doorstep have appeared in Chopped baskets. Chopped is the show where professional chefs compete at creating a dish incorporating the weirdest ingredients ever, like octopus, duck and animal crackers, or, chicken, blue tortillas, Tuscan kale and sea urchin. After Chopped, fennel root is child's play.

We never cooked squash and never ate it because, well, why would you? It looked like a lot of work and reminded me of the free food boxes in Montana where, in the winter, squash was the only thing you got that wasn't in a box labeled with a paragraph of ingredients.

Now we eat cute, little dumpling squash filled with brown rice, whole-wheat bread crumbs, leftover chopped grilled vegetables and browned in the oven. We mix leftover acorn squash into zucchini bread instead of butter or oil, and add delicata to soup of our own free will. This mystery box has saved us a ridiculous amount of money, forcing us to create meals from produce obscurity that taste better than I'm able to convince without you actually coming over for spaghetti squash pancakes with salsa and sour cream. Be positive - it's really good. Your mother would say so, too.

11.29.2010

What Happens When You Move

If you're a shy person, you have friends because you already had them. You went to school with them and kept on going. You worked with people, or your spouse did, and you gradually incorporated them into your evenings and weekends. Your kids had friends with parents you got to know bit by bit, and you continued the relationship. When you stay in one place, it takes little, simple steps to have a social life.

When you move like we did: not with a job and not with kids, you have to start over. It shouldn't be difficult with a son and his family down the hall (we're the apartment managers of my dad's building, not a real job). It should be easy with relatives by the houseful scattered an hour south. A few decades ago, I worked at jobs near here, went to high school and college near here, and even lived twenty-one blocks east in my mom's apartment for a year. Easy, easy, easy. Slipping into a past social life seemed simple.

The thing is when you move away, you become a stereotype. You aren't a bunch of little stories you tell about yourself when asked at birthdays. When you're gone, you can't admit what you want to share and leave out the embarrassing stuff. You can't defend yourself when the spin about those embarrassing situations goes south.

When you move, you become a relative with a tagline. I was the bohemian daughter. I didn't know this until I returned and was introduced, or re-introduced, to people I have known my whole life. I wasn't someone's daughter or niece. I was "that one," as in, "you remember her? That one?"

My relatives invited me for holidays again, and asked me the weirdest things. They had only heard bits of my life, and the bits were not representational. Like everyone, I'd had successes as well as failures, but unlike everyone, I had been on food stamps. It was twenty years ago or so, and for less than a year, but it was what had been said after my name. That was my label. That, and the reminder that I had moved around a lot. They didn't know I was fixing up and selling those houses  I'd been moving around in for a profit.  To my face, they told me I was "non-traditional."

It's going to take a lot of birthdays to forget those food stamps.

My idea of an easy social life died, too. Everyone had moved on without me for over twenty years. They weren't keeping a space open at the table, hoping and waiting for me to return. The table was filled with new people who didn't know me. When you go to Thanksgiving dinner at a close relative's home, at a table you sat at hundreds of times as a kid, and you don't know two-thirds of the people sitting there, you realize you are the newcomer. You are the one without a social life.

When we first moved, my husband stayed to finish work in Oregon for a year. For days I sat alone in my kitchen chair, or on the floor if I was really sad, holding my phone. It's hard for a shy person to call someone when they're lonely, and harder when people don't call back. Everyone has a full life but you and here's the proof. You could spend three days holding that phone, talking to nobody during that 72 hours. You make up an excuse to go to Safeway just to walk around three dimensional people and have a superficial conversation with the checker.

If I were one of my kids, I would have advised to join a group. Sign up for a meet-up and meet people with similar interests. When I got the reminder emails, I left them in my inbox. Shy people don't go to random locations and walk into a roomful of strangers. If I'm going to act on-stage, it's going to be around relatives, not people who may not be worth all the effort. I joined so many meetups that my inbox was full of potential social life but I declined every invitation.

When my husband moved down permanently, he had a lot of fix-up work to do. He talked to the other tenants, he had to. Talking to tenants was something my dad advised me against doing. He said, rightly, "You don't want to get too close. They're not your friends. You might have to evict one of them some day."

He didn't have to tell me in such an extreme. Avoiding people is something I do naturally. When we lived in a condo with a shared hallway, I put my ear to my door to make sure there was no one near before I opened it. My heart starts pumping and I stutter and blurt stupid comments if I happen upon someone without advance warning.

I couldn't always avoid tenants. I chose the quietest time of the day to water the plants or vacuum the hallway, but one tenant always caught me. She'd start talking and, even though the vacuum was so loud I couldn't hear, kept talking. She asked questions so I couldn't smile and keep on going, pretending I had to get the vacuuming done. She talked easily so she probably didn't realize I had no idea how to respond. Afterward, I'd finish vacuuming with a happy feeling, like I'd had a good conversation with a real friend, ready to spend another three days alone in my kitchen, holding my phone.

That tenant moved out a few months ago but by that time my husband had moved back into my kitchen and my life. All the deferred repairs from all the tenants who I'd avoided kept him busy, so he was gone most of the day. In this way, the transition from hermit-hood was gradual.

By talking with tenants and repair people all day, he wasn't worried about his lack of friendship outside the building. He seemed relieved he didn't have people calling him all day long like at the job he'd just left. He still might be in that sweet spot, like vacation, where the contrast between your regular day and your vacation day is so striking that you aren't bored yet.

Not me. It feels weird not to have unrelated people call up and ask you over for dinner. The electrician got to know my husband so well, thanks to an un-pampered building, that he eventually invited us over. It was the first time since moving that I'd been inside someone else's house. I felt like a country girl going to the big city for the first time. "Look at all your art," I said. "Look at your pots and pans."

How many times can you compliment someone's pots and pans? They were the nicest I'd ever seen, and more plentiful than I'd ever seen. My three that I was pretty proud of up until then, made me feel rural, like I had teeth missing. Maybe all their friends had the same kinds of nice pots and pans. Maybe they thought everybody had pots and pans worth $150 each, and so many.

They talked about things about which I couldn't add to the conversation, like jobs and work travel. It felt like going to a different country with strange customs, like cheese plates. How much cheese were you supposed to eat before dinner? It was just sitting there, a few pieces sliced, with a knife available to cut as much as you were allowed. How much were you allowed? Should I eat all the slices and stop after that? Should I leave the sliced pieces for someone else and slice my own?

They were busy stirring and cooking in those beautiful pans and it looked like dinner would be a while. Which bread went with what cheese? There were three of each and the bread had bits of hard, dark things mixed in that I couldn't recognize. I kept slicing more off, trying to figure out what the dark bits were. They were probably nuts but I'm still not sure. I'm sure I ate too much but that's what you do when you don't know what to talk about. One of the cheeses, the electrician's wife said, was eighty dollars. Did I hear that right? I kept quiet, not sure how to respond. Nothing I could come up with seemed appropriate.

Maybe it's best not to stress my lack of social life. I've lost all the questions that used to pop up in my head when people were talking to me. When you can't think of something to ask, you do a lot of sighing and really, that's just embarrassing. You can do that all you want at home, in your kitchen, by yourself, with your phone in your hand.

10.24.2010

In the future, you'll spend a lot of time feeling like a dog leashed to a pole outside a grocery store

Douglas Coupland is a Canadian so when he says something completely in-your-face radical, it doesn't sting. It doesn't stink, either, which is what I first wrote. Well, to be honest, no writing actually stinks, even mine. But Coupland is like what philosophy could be if it weren't so pleased with itself.

My title quote is from his NPR interview, talking about his Radical Pessimist's Guide to the Next Ten Years. Seriously, read it. It's short, one page, as this is not a long-winded guy. Or don't if you prefer to get your information spoon-fed like a baby and yes I mean all TV news, not just Fox.

Remember Generation X? If you do, one of his tips is make sure you have someone to change your diaper. Okay, that's something you'd expect from a radical pessimist.

How about this? It is going to become much easier to explain why you are the way you are, due to structural and chemical functions of the brain. I like that, although I don't want to live in a world where too many more people go around explaining why they are the way they are. I live in California, after all. There's too much self-absorption, way too much, especially by people who have nothing to say but say it over and over again.

Another one: enjoy lettuce while you can. Yeah, I suppose any pessimist could predict the end of trucked produce with the probable success of the old energy technology monopoly completely squashing the green shoots of energy innovation.

How about this one: dreams will get better. No explanation. If you have one, please share.

My justification? My dreams are better (how about that for being self-absorbed? oh, just read on - I can't give an example I haven't actually experienced, can I?), being older.

My husband said, "You were crying in your sleep last night, did you know that?" I remembered transferring Burma VJ into my imagined REM vacation. It's good to empathize with other people, far away without a voice, trapped in a shitty country with no way out, though. I felt - feel - like I lived that experience. I woke up grateful for living in the United States, Tea Party rights-removers and all, and energized about working for people less fortunate.

My husband said, "You were laughing, too." I think that had something to do with getting revenge on bad guys, but that does nothing except make me feel good enough to get out of bed and make a difference, maybe, hopefully. When I was younger, my dreams all occurred in the same place, like same neighborhood kind of place, and they were always stressful.

So in that way, it is just better when you're older. You feel things more deeply but it doesn't feel like the first time, thank you Foreigner. You deal with whatever hits the fan because you've been sprayed before, better and harder, and you can use that hurt to help. It's not just me explaining the way I am. I'm no different - no better than anyone.

10.15.2010

Words about Water

It's a wet day in the bloggy world.

Instead of scary, fear-building, depressing facts about the devastating environmental impacts of water scarcity and pollution (that comes later), there's a great documentary on the subject that does what words, at least my words, cannot. It's Tapped and it's not boring so don't make excuses. Watch it and love life.

My wish is that somewhere deep in our heads and hearts Americans will soon comprehend the luxury of life we take for granted while we flush our toilets with completely good, drinkable, potable water. Ever since living overseas where such a wasteful idea is considered stupid, this complaint slips out of my mouth inappropriately during social settings involving too much family or alcohol. Don't kill the messenger. Even Republicans know that much of what we take for granted as Americans is thought of as wasteful and stupid everywhere else on the planet.

It is stupid. It is wasteful and we know it. We whine, "What can I do about it?" while we flush and waste and drink bottled water and whine some more and say inappropriate things around family members.

Here's something to say to those family members who push you over the edge with their assumptions about how much better they are and how justified they are to live better than 99% of all humans who have ever lived on planet earth. (If you don't have family members like this, I feel badly for you. They are good for learning patience and learning how to disagree without disrespect).

This information is from Treehugger.com, and if you think treehugger is an insult, then you more than anyone in your family needs to read this, over and over while enjoying your day living in the richest country ever to exist on the planet where even poor people (not you, of course - you worked hard for your money, if you can justify luck as hard work) live better than most kings in history:

  1. Every week, 42,000 people die from unsafe drinking water and unhygienic living conditions.
  2. Students in developing countries lose 443 million school days each year due to diseases associated with the lack of water, sanitation and hygiene. Repeated episodes of diarrhea and worm infestations diminish a child's ability to learn and impair cognitive development.
  3. More people have access to cell phones than to toilets. As a result, tons of untreated human waste make their way to water sources causing a litany of diseases, and even death.
  4. The US, Mexico and China lead the world in bottled water consumption, with people in the US drinking an average of 200 bottles of water per person each year. Over 17 million barrels of oil are needed to manufacture those water bottles, 86 percent of which will never be recycled.

These facts are disheartening, but they don't have to be the norm. Even in the darkest depths of the water crisis, we found positive solutions that are already being put in place.

  1. Organizations like Water.org and charity: water are leading the charge in bringing fresh water to communities in the developing world by not only building wells in remote villages but also creating sustainable infrastructure to maintain those wells.
  2. The average person uses 465 liters of water per day. But by educating yourself about where you are most wasteful in your water use, you can begin to reduce that waste.
  3. There are small steps we can all take to help keep pollution out of our rivers and streams, like correctly disposing of household wastes.
  4. Communities around the world are saying no to bottled water. Doing so not only drastically reduces water bottle waste, but also saves taxpayers a pretty penny. For example, the city of San Francisco saved $500,000 per year by terminating all of its bottled water contracts.

While the realities of water issues around the world are grim, the organizations and individuals driving positive solutions show us that it doesn't have to be that way. Thank you for joining us, and for all of your work for a future filled with clean water.

Drink, Fish, Smoke: preparing for a life in law enforcement

Here's where you can get my new book. Please buy a copy. It's cheap!

A somewhat general sort of description kind of thing:

Charlie was good at only two things: shooting a gun and driving fast. Cops get to be on a team with a bunch of other guys and wear the same uniforms like in football. Law enforcement would be like hanging around friends all the time without any girls telling you what to do, always saying, "Why are you doing that? Why don't you be with me?" Helping others starts with helping yourself, he thought. All he had to do was turn twenty-one, the minimum age to be a cop. Until then, living in Florida in the seventies, there was plenty of time to grow up.

Why I wrote this particular story:

Law enforcement is a career like no other.

Rarely do you get a honest explanation of what it takes to become a cop. You're told you have to be a good boy scout, an upstanding citizen, polite, get good grades, be confident but not judgmental, command presence but not be overbearing, and most of all, be truthful. There's no such person.

It isn't like a regular job. You're part of a family, part of a team, regardless of your private life. Your previously private life doesn't matter. Now when you go to parties, you'll hang out in the corner with other cops and talk cases or, rather, bitch about your department. While considering a career in law enforcement, details such this would be good to know. That, along with one young man's experience of growing up, is why I wrote this book.

9.19.2010

Hungry Planet, Part II, Completely Guilt-Free

India looks delicious.

Have a look at these eleven photos of families from around the world, sitting around their dining table, with their dining table filled with all the food they consume in a typical week.

After doing the Hunger Challenge, I can't stop myself from doing math every time I see a carrot. How many of those people, how many people of the six and a half billion alive now, must by on less than the $4 a day a person allotted for food stampers in the United States? The Hunger Challenge forces you to be aware of not only what you eat but how you eat and where you get it.

How low on the food chain must you go? You can make that conclusion yourself by looking at the brightly-dressed, happy-looking Guatemalan family and compare them to not only the narwhal-eating Canadians but the stuffy French. (Honestly - you already have a bad rep. The young woman sitting on the left looks as if she's thinking that, yeah, my cat eats better than you.)

And what the hell is with those Luxembourgers?

Hungry Planet: What the World Eats

9.18.2010

Second Thoughts on Hunger Challenge

Only my parents have money enough. Everybody, even those previously smarmy superior relatives that used to brag about how much they paid for things, has sunk a couple of notches on their tax bracket.

It's my hope that, excluding my parents (different generation = different way of codifying), more people will open their eyes and see a fellow individual, at least one, with a little more compassion. It's easy when you live by a strict rule structure to blame people for their circumstances, especially when you've never been anywhere remotely close to the edge.

When it's your own life that implodes, your rules about the benefits of hard work versus luck, for example, relax. It's the only good benefit - compassion - that comes from a personal earth shattering financial incident.

Now that the layer of my brain where the deep thoughts reside has been cleared, phew, all that remains is shallow, random ideas about the Hunger Challenge, food stamps and the inequality that will always exist due to trans-national corporations (oops, slipped on a deep spot there). I have three:

1. Location, location, location. This week I spent $4.75 at New May Wah on a big bag of beautiful deep pink pluots, an avocado, an onion, cilantro and some yogurt drinks for Stella. When I was on food stamps, I lived in Montana and Safeway was my only option and the only option for cheap produce was crappy squash and dried up root vegetables. I would have killed for a pluot or anything of any color pulled off of any tree.

I wake up every morning grateful for cheap produce, not only from little Chinatown but from the abundant and plentiful friendly Farmer's markets in San Francisco, and even the La Playa begging-for-a-remodel Safeway. All choices here are a good deal cheaper than anything I found even in Oregon last week.

2. When you're poor it's almost impossible to buy smart. My kids went to Costco and were nice enough to stop by first and ask me if I wanted anything. There is no better way to shop than handing over a list and a debit card and finding it magically carted up three flights of stairs so all you have to do is put it away.

All told, I spent $22.62 on so much half and half and soy milk that my husband will be in coffee and milk heaven for the next month. $22.62 at Safeway would have bought exactly half. Limited resources signifies shopping immediacy. It's hard to shop well and load up your pantry and refrigerator when you can't buy in bulk.

3. Don't even think about a CSA. I didn't until a few months ago and I am convinced this is the most decadent thing I do done all week. Greenhearts charges $33 a box a week for fresh, organic, local produce delivered to my door. There's no membership fee or share purchase up front. Still, who has $33 extra for food not qualified to be bought on stamps?

And yes math whizzes, this tipped me over my $4 a day a person. I spent a little over $60 for two people in a little over a week. We accidentally started our Hunger Challenge early due to laziness. After returning from several weeks in Oregon, it seemed like a lot of work to shop. So with nothing in our refrigerator and a fairly bare pantry, we re-enacted a more accurate week on food stamps (that's my excuse anyway).

Most importantly, there is more to life than money. When you're really poor, it's really hard to remember this. Obsessing over what you don't have, though, is a 100% sure way to repel friends, hate life and attract frowns. Money was created by kings 3,000 years ago who saw all this local bartering and wealth being exchanged and they weren't getting a cut of it so they stamped their faces on coins, killed those peasants who didn't conform, and kept the production of money scarce so they could control the supply.

I heard that on a podcast when I was running yesterday so the details might be a little sketchy. Once you have enough for the basics, it's been proven many times that more doesn't mean happier. Want what you have, even though that is too easy to say when you don't have enough.

9.14.2010

The Hunger Challenge is Underway

If you haven't done a food challenge lately, you're missing out on a lot of fun. There's the Eating Down the Fridge week and you can figure out the parameters of that challenge without much explanation. If you stock up the day before and have a well-stocked pantry full of fancy things I don't even know what they could be, a refrigerator all filled up with jars and packages of ingredients my friends don't even acknowledge on the grocery store shelves unless we want to laugh at the prices, and a freezer stuffed with whatever it is freezers get stuffed with, you are cheating. The challenge is to be honest with yourself. How willing are you when it comes to cravings and how dependent are you when it comes to your grocery store?

The excitement is turning nothing in your refrigerator into something good and the best part is that anybody can do it. You don't have to be creative, you don't have to have hours of prep time, you don't have to have expensive ingredients. If you have an internet connection, you have all. You knew that, though. Do a google search of the ingredients you have with the word "recipe" at the end and what you get will amaze you. There's so much you can make with nothing at all.

This week is the Hunger Challenge for the San Francisco Food Bank and it's even better than Fridge Eating Down. You can spend $3 a day, or $4 if you want to do what food stamp users live on in this, our fat year of 2010. Next year, without government support it shrinks back down to $3. It's just one week of $3 or $4 per person per day: your choice. Limits are a wonderful thing. Try it and when the week is done, it's like you're rich. It's like not eating sugar for a month and when you finally break into the Ben and Jerry's you think it's too sweet and you're disappointed.

I know what you're thinking: food stamps. Why would you want to do anything to simulate your life on food stamps? Food stamps aren't even stamps anymore, but you can sneak a look at the machine to see if the people ahead of you in line are using them. You know you look. You especially look when the people ahead of you in line LOOK like what you judge food stamp users to look like. You know you do.

Me, too. Last week at Winco, the last time I shopped, a couple of fake-tanned chunky young women were in the line ahead of me, sisters, both of them wearing better clothes than me - yes, it's so easy to judge, judge, judge - talking louder than anybody, buying more than everybody and taking their time bagging up all that food. They were buying so much packaged food, dinners that looked delicious, frozen things you could put in the microwave or oven and dinner would be ready without extra effort.

When the Oregon Trail card paid for their purchases I had an uncharacteristic teabagger-like thought: I wish I had food stamps so I could buy all those bottles of juice (I always think I'm too poor to spend money on juice). Did I think that, I thought. When did I become one of those people who convinces herself it's okay to judge what other people buy at the grocery store when they're buying it on food stamps? It isn't okay, although when I was on food stamps I was so careful to get only produce and flour/salt/baking powder kinds of things. I still look over my items lined up on the conveyor belt, judging my potential purchases like an observer, as if someone is judging me on what I'm buying here. Once you become one of those people that live in the glass house of food stamps, it's hard to be normal again. It's hard to not judge, even yourself.

With my face still red and swollen from getting the rosacea damage and pre cancerous stuff lasered off, ouch, I was already getting stared at and already telling myself I'd never see these people again so I don't have a reason to care what they think of me and my open sores. These sisters, though, they clearly didn't see themselves as representing every food stamp user, making ends meet by careful shopping and extreme budgeting of their scarce limited, ever-so-grateful for resources. I ought to get a spray tan, I thought. That's what I thought, after the first judgmental thought of how can you be that big and well-dressed and orange on food stamps? Orange, I have to say, is a better look than pink-face. What would it be like to be that orange and have that much packaged food in the house?

Only when they left did I stop thinking about their cavalier attitude toward shopping. They made it look so fun, doing it together, talking about how they're going to have to move the golf clubs in the truck to fit in all their groceries, acting as if they were actually golfing or doing some sport they excelled at, they were so excited, so good at it.

I should be that excited. I had more money to spend on food even if I don't because of all the guilt. Food stamps, when I was on them, were like Christmas the first of every month. I had more money to budget for food during that time than during any other time in my life except for last year when there were no kids at home and my husband was making the most he ever made and will ever make by about four or five times, and I told myself to relax and I listened for once.

Now it's back to living on a stingy fixed income but I'm into to doing these challenges even more. There's no reason to do them, not really. They don't solve the problem of getting food to hungry people. It's hard to live on little, I know that, too. And I even donated so I don't feel guilty for having more than others.

It feels good - it simply feels right - and that's why we do most of what we do. After the week is over, knowing you could easily eat for $3 a person a day without much planning or thinking about it, you feel like you do when you've completed a good run. You feel even better that you're not on food stamps and don't have to be on such a tight budget even if it didn't feel particularly tight to you.

Things could be a lot worse. It's just a week. We have the ability to return to normal and buy more coffee when we run out, more half and half, and restart the CSA box of produce for $33 we enjoy from Greenhearts. When you're done with food stamps though, you're done. Unless you sell the golf clubs, I suppose.

7.12.2010

Madness

Lately, the relatives haven't been as shy about admitting that little problem grandma had was alcoholism, or that no, grandpa wasn't just a little off - he had bipolar bad enough to require shock treatments, and you remember when your cousin kind of hid out for a while during college? Bipolar.

Not sure how you're supposed to respond to that. My relatives, thankfully, aren't the kind who stare at you until you say something pithy; they're zooming off to another subject, racing to brag about another relative's accomplishment to bring you back to earth, or below. Meanwhile you've stuck that crazy dna nugget in your head to mull over in the shower later, trying to deconstruct fractured memories to put back together into a new, truer, reality. Later, into the shower you go and it's still crazy: how do you piece together odd, incongruous dinner party conversations from twenty years ago with this new information?

At the AWP writer's convention, I happened to hear Marya Hornbacher talk at the "laughing at sickness" seminar (that's not the official professional-sounding title, but you get the idea). I'd read "Wasted," her book chronicling her experience with eating disorders - getting down to 52 pounds shows the extreme of her experience - and it stopped my dabbling with the same match and gasoline, just like that. Getting into those thoughts, even vicariously through written words on a page, was enough. When you can't fit into your fat pants, you remember reading about her throwing up toast at nine years old, her teeth outline showing through her cheeks and the thought of going to extremes dissipates. Who'd want to recreate what she lived through? You can learn moderation by her account of complete lack of it.

When returning home, I bought "Madness," as she seemed so approachable and just simply cute at the talk - the brightest star on the panel by far. All the other sickness ladies brought dolls, talked about the cancer bitch, and generally made fun of their diseases while sounding like one of your old out-of-touch high school teachers while explaining the consequences of necking with boys. No, Ms. Hornbacher was interesting, young, and read her excerpt she was talking to a friend. Moreover, she answered all the crazy girls' questions (the audience was filled with her fans, some of them not far from their own 52-pound nightmare from what I could tell) with genuine, humorous compassion.

That's how I came to "Madness:" for the author, not the subject. With all the family birthday party confessions lately, however, the timing seems perfect. Or is it that when you have your mind on something you are like a magnet, noticing these things more? Either way, I wouldn't wish this disease on anyone. I started to feel bipolar, understanding the craziness of it, at about page 200, and unlike my relatives, was treated simply by taking a break. (And not reading right before I went to sleep, duh.)

Now, rather than looking kind of oddly at my relatives who have been outed and have lived through this, I have such a deep respect for what they've survived. Us normal people have it so easy. We take no meds to straighten us out that then for no reason stop working, our obstacles are due mostly to our decisions rather than our dna, and the psych ward isn't a possibility in our future except in dumb, probably inappropriate jokes.

People ask why read? Who does that anymore? To me, the best books take you somewhere new, some other place with a whole new you that you get to be in the process. Not saying going crazy is a preferred destination, but if you're going to do it - this kind of smart, sweet, fascinating writer is the one you want as a tourguide. Compassion and deference for your "crazy" relatives is a great benefit, too, don't you think?

6.25.2010

Ah-Oooo! Bacon!

The sea lions are out at Seal Rock, barking madly at whatever it is that has caught their tiny eyes and an IRS agent will be squinting her beady eyes over my 2008 real estate paperwork on Wednesday, so putting words together on a screen for some future publication seems somehow superfluous. (I'm on the fourth draft of something or other.)

Riding the bike around Lake Merced in the morning, as I do every morning, is off, too. Yesterday my brakes didn't work in this soupy fog - not at all. I tried to stop for the N-Judah on La Playa and nothing - not even a squeak or a slowing down. Instead, armed with excuses, I stayed in and finished the last bit of Kenyan roast, clicked on every twitter link that looked interesting and looked out the window at other, more energetic people exercising at the park. For some reason right now there are about a dozen high school-aged kids standing in the crosswalk on Fulton, facing traffic in a line like they're practicing for some future protest. They're yelling something but I can't understand it. It sounds like, "Ah-Oooo! Bacon!" Like kids, they're really confident, standing tall, arms outstretched like they're in front of a tank at Tiananmen square until the light changes. Without hesitation, they dash to the curb, laughing when they stop there, back to being kids.

I could spend all day (not) doing taxes.

4.15.2010

Wheel


You wanted someone to love, a baby 'cause the guys you knew were so weird, 'cause tough love wasn't love. Got pregnant, married, loved the baby so much you wanted another. You can do that: you have the job, the insurance. Who would know? It was an accident, you say. Nobody questions that. Another accident. Just one more.

One more again. A girl. Someone on my side, mine. Husband gets fired, gets fired again, loses money, can't keep his hands off a little girl. He does bad, bad things but your parents say I can't help you. I have a new life and a new husband, your mom says. No room for you and all those kids.

The oldest imitates your husband, pushes you against walls, leaves marks. That happens. When he throws the only other girl in the house across the bedroom, spraying paper clips, post-it notes and pens, too, you leave. Not for you. For her. She's not going to have such a thoughtless life.

You lose, you lose, you lose again. The lawyer, a friend of a new friend, tells you stupid things. What do you know? You do what she says 'cause you don't trust yourself. Even the judge says you were stupid. The lawyer bats her eyelashes. She says nothing so you don't, either. Your husband's parents blame you even though he's still a felon, still can't keep a job, still borrows their money.

You give your kids a normal life, considering. You work two jobs, fix up a foundation-less house so they can stay in the same schools. You pay for good grades and proms out of your new husband's craigslist profits. You hurt when they take their music and move out. It's too quiet. You love them as much or more.

Ten years later, you convince yourself they want to see you when they are all in the same town, back home for Christmas, far away from you now. You drive up to meet them. You pick them up, take them to revisit friends, you watch them as they sit in the back of the car, reading, giving you one word answers. You spend an hour at the movies, at a restaurant, anywhere they'll meet you, anytime. You cry at night in the freezing basement you've talked a friend into lending you for your visit, wishing you didn't have to do 80%, 90%, that they would just do 50%, just call you back, just call once in a while without you calling, texting, emailing, begging.

You go home. You look at their pictures. You think about calling, texting, emailing, begging but mostly you remember their first words, their little feet and their funny ways of saying "shoes" and "Spiderman."

Your parents call, and again. They invite you to birthdays and lunch, living closer to you now. You go, uncomfortably. Tough love becomes less tough. They don't seem so tough when you study their gray hair, sitting behind them at their church. You look straight at them, their eyes watery blue. You start to forget why you moved away, why you never called. You answer the first time when they call now, most of the time. You don't want to be thoughtless.

3.26.2010

Body and Other Battles

What's worse than waking up sick? How about having someone else wake up sick and reliving it back to you, in full mucus detail. Hearing someone talk about the golf ball in their throat, unless they're your kid or you're a doctor, is about as bad as having to hear my husband talk about the details of his last dump. You could pretty much go your whole life happily oblivious.

So I'll just say I woke up in battle, the details of which I will hold close. Women are familiar with body battles - we start the war against ourselves early; fighting calories, pants sizes, and hair textures until the day we die. You fight sickness to the death only once, and rarely is that battle with a cold. Unless I sneeze, my suffering shall be silent.

Silent suffering is a gift, to a point. My mother-in-law cannot share, to the point that it's a lot of work to find something to break up the dead quiet. It's a lot easier, and this is going to sound awful, now that she has dementia. You find one thing she's interested in, repeat it for half an hour until she's tired, and go home. You learn only one new piece of information but you learn it well and everybody's happy.

Californians are known for over-sharing, having long one-sided conversations with clerks at Starbucks, not about the details of their last dumps, but close. They'll hold up the line, saying, my uncle, who is a cop in New York and should have surgery for his heart problems but won't and I should call him to find out if he'll get that scheduled soon? Anyway, he came out here once to visit and he had this wet cappuccino and it was really good and I asked him what was a wet cappuccino and he said he doesn't like lattes cause they're too milky but regular cappuccinos are too dry, and he asked a rude clerk, not like you, for a suggestion and he was told what you want is a wet cappuccino, so that's what he had, and that's how I learned about wet cappuccinos. Everybody should learn about wet cappuccinos, they're really good, don't you think?

You can learn a lot just by listening, and there's always something better to talk about than body battles. Wet cappuccinos, for example.

3.25.2010

I Dream Of A World Where All Have Access to Kitchens

It's been hard to find contractors who'll work on an 80 year-old apartment building that hasn't seen an abundance of maintenance. I'm being nice. There's an icebox in my kitchen. A real ice box, like a safe with a drawer. The paint in my closet pre-dates lead-based paint - it's some weird stuff that peels if you paint over.

So we're upgrading the vacant apartment but just the functional stuff, like electrical. While getting bids, one electrician came by, noticed all the breakers were forced open, fixed them, and didn't charge us. He got the job and he got the permits to do the work.

The good thing about a detail-oriented electrician is that he'll save your apartment from an electrical fire without charging you. They'll also find the junction boxes plastered over, hidden in walls and above the garage, installed when electricity was the hot new thing and who needed standards, code, and inspections? The bad thing is the same hardship working with anyone detail-oriented: anal people are annoying.

Charlie talked one of his friend's workers into pulling off the old earthquake (yes, the 1989 earthquake) damaged plaster and re-walling the kitchen in this vacant unit while the workers had some down time. Charlie would have had to do it otherwise. It's their first day and they've already done more than Charlie could do in a week (or more - let's be honest. A 55 year-old man isn't a match for two crazy-for-work hungry kids).

The electrician sees they're doing work and says something about permits. The workers don't speak English but they know this word. Charlie gets a call.

All they're doing is tearing out crappy plaster and replacing it with drywall, putting the electrical work inside the walls this time (seriously - our apartment's electricity is stuck in metal tubes against the wall). Nothing's being changed except that instead of having an 80 year-old kitchen with a tiny doorway fit for a tiny housewife like you would build in 1930, there'll be a normal-sized doorway allowing kitchen access to all sizes and genders. It's an exciting day for men in kitchens everywhere.

Now, since the electrician asked, we have to find out: is there a permit for kitchen access equality?

3.24.2010

New May Waht?

Ew, it stinks, the lady says.

Yep.

I move away a little so she knows it's not me. I suspect it's the guy, not the cleanest-looking, hovering over the frozen bun section, stinking up the little piece of ground on which I planned to stand. I stepped off to the side - he smelled like a dead body - and I'm waiting for him to stop touching frozen bun packages and go away.

He won't go, though. He leans over, touches a bag, stares, touches another bag. Am I stupid? I'll just reach over and grab something. Wrong decision. Even a few inches closer and I felt like my nose hairs would burn off. I grabbed a bag anyway but it was nasty bamboo rather than red bean. For a second I thought about keeping it so I could get the hell out of here. Now this lady is standing on the other side of me, pushing me closer toward Mr. Stinky. Why won't he leave?

Durian, the lady says.

Oh yeah. I forgot how nasty durian smells, and New May Wah sells it on the stands outside. It smells like this. Did the guy take a bath in it?

I took another dive into the frozen bun packages, pulled out a red bean, and got the hell out of there. It was weird that I kept smelling durian all the way home, though. I even looked to see if the stinky man was following me. I figured out it was something in my bag. Can stink attach itself to a frozen bun package, just from slight contact?

It got me home fast, as I was wanting to say 'it's not me - it's my package' when I passed by people. I kept trying to outrun that smell. Durian is amazing to eat but it's not allowed on public transportation in Southeast Asia. It smells like dead body and feet.

When I got home nothing in my bag smelled at all. I took it out and put it all away. Still - stinky. Why is my bag, the bag I held against me while shopping and all the way home, full of wet marks? When did I brush up against something wet? The only time I touched something all afternoon was . . . I need a shower.

3.20.2010

Before Revision, as Proof it Gets Better: Growing Up Stupid, Chapter 1 (not)

“It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson




1.

For being the outcast, George knows more about our history than anybody. He’s like a library of stories for me, my own private Southern storyteller brother. We’ll be sitting at the table, nobody’s talking and he says, did you know? That’s how he starts it: did you know? Did you know dad was wild man, he says.

No.

He was a wild man. He stole a neighbor’s carriage, took it apart and reassembled it on top of the roof of their church. You don’t think the pastor gave our grandparents an earful on that, do you? He did a lot of fooling about and got a girl pregnant, an ugly girl. He himself wasn’t all that pretty to look at, even then. Dad’s dad, he about had enough of that. You can’t marry that girl, his dad tells him. She too ugly. You best get yer ass in the military. We don’t want no ugly babies round here.

Dad did just that and got himself captured the very first battle in North Africa. War’s over, he comes home to find a pretty nurse and marries her. He’s in the Air Force now, moving all over. One day this girl Sue shows up. We’re living way the hell out in Newfoundland. Mom says, who’s this? That’s how she finds out he had whole life before her. Sue moves in, another kid in our house. Do you remember her?

I don’t.

You must have been too young. Being the oldest normal kid, I ask who’s this. Mom says, ask your daddy. She knows I won’t talk to him. I learned it from Aunt Hattie. After a while Sue’s gone. Never saw her again. We were the lucky ones, George says. We have a family ‘cause mom’s not ugly.

The way dad is with George I don’t know how he can call that lucky, particularly once we moved to Florida. We got this crappy apartment above Western Auto on Drew Street and right away mom’s upset. It’s such a run-down place. It’s small, too, and she’s used to living in officer’s quarters, larger houses off base. Here we have a set of outside stairs to get to the front door and once you’re inside the front door it’s still kind of weird. There’s this screened-in enclosure with dirt on the floor, like a patio or an unattended garden upstairs between the front door and the real front door. Mom hates this part the most. There’s dirt and everybody knows she does not like dirt. I’ve never seen her go outside. Dad says this is the only rental I could find until our house is ready. Mom is always crying about the apartment, no matter how temporary. We’re upset at dad for making mom cry. The facts don’t matter. You made mom cry so you’re the bad person. Welcome to retirement, dad, now we hate you.

George goes outside, makes new friends and disappears. He’s gone all the time. He’s the smart one. That leaves me home with my little sister, the twins, mom and dad. At least I’m smart enough to get out of the house too, but I don’t know where to go. What kid is going to go hang out around the Western Auto? I go down the creaky stairs and walk around the aisles at Western Auto looking at bolts and tools. When I can’t stand that any longer, I go outside. Outside, in this case, is a messed up screened-in abandoned garden out back. The bushes are dead and all pulled up so it’s a lot of dry, hot dirt, but it’s in the shade.

I like playing out here so dad gets me a Civil War army set, with blue soldiers and gray soldiers, to set up in the dirt. I build hills and valleys and I facilitate battles for hours. It’s an escape to be outside, even though Florida is so sticky hot. I didn’t think anyplace could be hotter than Mesa, but I’d never heard of humidity. I can feel sweat through my pants and down my legs. I can’t say I miss Arizona, but I’ll be more careful next time I say anyplace is better than Mesa.

This army men set has generals and officers and enlisted men, each with different uniforms. I like the uniforms and I think everybody should have a uniform. They’re neat, professional and they have a purpose. You know who everyone is when people wear uniforms. I learn this from my Civil War experience and I learned this from dad being in the Air Force. I like rank and structure. I like order. You can learn a lot more from army men than real people sometimes.

Other families talk to each other. Why doesn’t our family talk to each other? We move into the house so now everybody has a room to hide in unless we’re watching TV but when we’re watching TV, we aren’t commenting on what we’re watching. We’re just watching. I’m floundering from being shy and moving so many times, and with George gone so much how am I going to learn how to talk?

My family calls me Davey because my middle name is David. I’m done with Davey. I want Davey dead. I want out of my head that badly. There’s nobody else in there to talk to and I’m tired of me. I’m all out of tricks to entertain myself. When I start sixth grade at Skycrest Elementary, the teacher leans over and asks me, do you want to be called Davey, Charles, Charlie or what?

If I have a new name, I will be somebody else without even switching bodies - more like changing clothes than going from caterpillar to butterfly. I can be someone that people will like. I’ll have friends, like George. George has a lot of friends at school he talks to, even girls. He does the things other kids at school do, like talk to people and go places with them. He’s the only one who talks at home, but my dad says you don’t want to be like George. Don’t be like George, Davey.

I want to be Charlie, I say. Davey is officially dead.

She tells the class, we have a new student today. Please welcome Charlie to our class.

Everyone in my class has gone to the same school since the first grade, you can tell. They all look at me like, who is this? They keep talking to each other about the Little League game they had the night before. It’s obvious everyone knows everything you could possibly want to learn about other kids but no one comes over to talk to me.

At P.E. I’m sitting on the bench with the rest of my assigned team, trying to remember I’m Charlie if someone calls my new name. I’ve never played softball before so I’m worried I’m not going to be very good. Kids near me start talking.

What time you coming over?

Are we spending the night at your house?

What time you want my dad to drive me over?

Who else is coming?

The kid closest to me says, Gary and John. And Alan. And everybody. We’re all spending the night.

I’ll ask my mom if I can do a sleepover. We’re supposed to do a family day.

I’m listening. Should I not be? They catch me looking at them so they stop talking.
What are you guys planning? I say. I’m not trying to invite myself. I know enough not to do that.

Nothing, the kid next to me says. He gets up and moves over to the other end of the bench. The rest of the team scoots over closer to him and away from me. I listen to everybody being friends with everybody else and I don’t try to make any more conversation, ever. Now everybody wonders why the new guy doesn’t talk, so they don’t try to talk to me, either. I did the best wrong thing I could possibly do.

We go back to class and it’s time for math. They’re doing long division and I never had that before, either. The teacher has a game she wants to play. She splits the class in half and we line up into two teams. She puts a long division problem on the board and says she’ll see which team can finish the problem first. She has a stop watch to time us.

She puts the first math problem up on the board. I can’t do that. I don’t know what the long division symbol means or what’s divided into what. The kids go up and do these problems like they’re nothing. I’m fifth in line and getting sweatier as I get closer. Can I figure this out? My heart’s pounding and I’m trying not to breathe too hard through my mouth.

It’s my turn. I know long division like I know softball and how to make friends. I pick up my piece of chalk and wait. I’m against another kid and he’s focused, staring at the stupid board with his face tight, ready to try to beat me. If I could talk, I’d tell this kid he should thank me: he’s going to look really good in a minute. He’s going to be good at math, starting right now.

The teacher writes 384 divided by 11 on the board and says, Okay, go. I freeze. Show your work, she says. I don’t even move. The other kid finishes in five or six seconds. It’s official: I’m a moron. I’m so embarrassed. Right in front of the whole class, I prove I’m a retard. I go back to my seat and look down at the floor for the rest of the day.

My walk home begins on Cleveland Street. I cross at Venus. Before I get to Mars where I turn left, I start to cry. I’m walking down Mars Street, a sixth-grader, crying. Why am I so stupid and everybody else is so smart? My chances of making friends now went from very little to zero. Who would ever talk to me now? My heart feels like it weighs five hundred pounds.

When I turn the corner at Rainbow, I make sure my eyes are dry since I have to go inside to quiet as outer space family. I look up enough to watch where I’m going but I keep my head down for the rest of the year, walking to and from school, at school and everywhere.

I told them I want to be called Charlie, I tell my mom.

That was my daddy’s name, Charlie was, she says. I’m glad you decided to do that.
My dad comes home and my mom says Davey wants to be called Charlie. I think it’s wonderful.

My dad gets all huffy, How come you want to be called Charlie? Your name’s Davey.

I don’t like Davey anymore. I want to be called Charlie.

You’ve been called Davey all your life.

Yeah and I don’t like it. It’s a baby name and I don’t like it anymore. I want to be called Charlie.

That’s the end of that. My mom immediately starts to call me Charlie but my dad won’t call me Charlie, no matter what. A couple of days later I ask my mom, Why does he refuse to call me Charlie?

’Cause it was my daddy’s name, she says, and he doesn’t like him.

The kids in class can’t wait for recess but I dread it. It’s when it’s the most obvious that no one likes me. I stand all by myself - far away from anyone so there’s no question no one likes me - waiting for it to be over. It’s torture every day. I watch kids play, walk around, sit under a tree and look around, look at the sky, praying recess will be over soon so I don’t have to keep reminding everyone I have no friends. I never threw a ball or held a mitt before so I’m not going to join the softball game and prove I’m not only friendless but also uncoordinated. All I know how to do is shoot firearms in the Arizona desert and that’s not a skill meant for recess.

George comes around to get something to eat at our new house sometimes. He’s having a sandwich so I make a sandwich and sit down at the table with him. You know mom’s dad died of drinking, he says.

Yeah, mom said he vomited buckets of blood before he died.

I’ll never drink because of that, and because of the way it makes daddy act.

Daddy drinks? I had no idea.

At my first parent teacher conference we all sit down around a little table in the back of class, the teacher, mom and dad, and me. We’re very happy to have Charlie in our class, the teacher says. It’s the first thing she says and she’s already pissed off my dad.

Charlie? my dad says. His name’s Davey.

My mom says, all Southern-like, He wants to be called Charlie.

Why do you want to be called Charlie for? my dad says to me. I continue to look at the teacher, ignoring dad like mom does.

The teacher can see I’m nervous so she looks at my mom and, when that gets uncomfortable, over to my dad. There’s not enough time allotted for this conference if she’s waiting for us to talk. We have the communication skills of zombies, without the personality. She’s going to have to carry the whole conversation: the reason everybody regrets starting a conversation with us.

Anyway, she says, he told us he wants to be called Charlie so we call him Charlie. And we’re happy to have him in our class this year. He’s coming along, he’s at grade level in most of his subjects but he needs a little work on his spelling. Spelling and math, I notice . . .

What problems is Davey having in spelling? my dad says. He won’t let it go. He keeps calling me Davey while the teacher answers calling me Charlie. My mom sits there with the serene little look on her face that she always has. My dad sits there steaming. I don’t know why he’s so pissed. It’s my name. Let me be called what I want to be called. I’m not really worried about your opinion of my name. I don’t know why he’s taking it personally. It’s not like I vanished. I’m here until I can reinvent myself again. Next time I do it right.

3.13.2010

Ever take a road trip with a friend you don't know? Me, too.

Chicken Shit

“I’m taking a trip to North Carolina,” my dad says. “I talked to Ed’s pop and he’d like to go. You and Ed can come.” That sounds uninteresting. I don’t even know that kid and I don’t know how to be friends. How am I going to be friends with him for a whole trip? What if he gets bored? What if he thinks my dad is weird? Or me? I’ll be stuck in a car with some fat-cheeked kid for a couple of days, with my dad and his, too.

“Your aunt Hattie owns a chicken farm.”

Who is aunt Hattie? Why would I want to see her chickens?

“Hattie likes to shoot guns. They have a lot of room to shoot.”

Guns? That’s one thing that’s good. Firecrackers are legal in North Carolina, too. Even if Ed is bored, or boring, neither one of us would be bored with firecrackers. That’s two things, then. “Okay.”

I run over to Ed’s and knock on the door. I’ve never done this before but I’ve never had a reason before. “My dad says you guys are coming with us to North Carolina.”

“Pop’s talking about it,” he says like he’s been sleeping. Is he bored all the time, like me? Neither of us says anything for a minute or two. “What do you think?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “It could be fun.” The more I think about it, the more I want to go. There’s no place to shoot around here and my dad hasn’t taken me anywhere since Camp Waterdog so I think I want to go at least to shoot. It’s something I’m good at and so far that’s the only thing I’m good at. “I heard they have guns. We might be able to shoot guns and do neat stuff like that.”

“Yeah?” Ed says.

“Yeah.” I’m starting to get excited. “My aunt likes to shoot guns. We can stop and get firecrackers and light them and throw them at each other.”

“Okay. If we can shoot guns and mess around with fireworks, at least that will be something to do. Let’s do it.”

My dad has so many cars he buys and sells that it’s hard to remember what’s in the driveway. His latest big tank is a Buick Skylark so that’s what we take to North Carolina, wherever that is. We wake up early in the morning, get in the car and go right back to sleep. We’re trapped in the back of a big hunk of screaming, grinding, airtight metal coffin on wheels. My dad’s over six feet tall so he has the seat all the way back. We’re really cramped and I hardly know this guy. We don’t have anything to read. We have nothing. All we can do is sleep but the more we drive on, the more boring it gets. Get me out of this car. It’s really hot in here and it’s as dull as hell.

“This is boring,” I say.

“Yeah,” Ed says. “It is.”

We brought food: peanut butter sandwiches, bags of potato chips, beef jerky, moon pies and glass bottles of coke. When we can’t sleep anymore, we eat. We eat all this junk we’re not used to eating so we get too full, too sick, go back to sleep, and do it all over again. We’re aching from eating all the disgusting food on the first day so I don’t eat anything on the second, and so neither does Ed. We drive straight through. That’s what you do, you drive until you get there. I don’t know what kind of people stay in hotels, but not our kind. Ed’s pop and my dad took turns driving while the other one sleeps. If they’re talking, we don’t care. They’re not going to talk about anything interesting. All they talk about is grown-up stuff, like work, weather and what they see outside.

We get off the main freeway and onto these long country roads. There are a lot of mountains, a lot of ups and downs, and a lot of curves. I look outside and see a bunch of dirty old houses with dilapidated rusted-out pick-up trucks in the front yards. We keep going along the country roads and progress further until we don’t see anything but trees and dirt roads. It’s trees and mountains, trees and mountains. There are fences all along the dirt roads for the cattle and pig farms. This is livestock farmland. The mountains are so different than flat Florida but I don’t care about scenery and mountains. I would much rather be out of the car blowing up stuff or shooting guns. Scenery isn’t interesting.

“Oh, look at this farmland. Look at all that farmland,” Ed’s pop says. “What do they grow there? What do they grow here in North Carolina? What kind of crops are those?”
“Well, Ed, they grow a lot of tobacco, corn, you know. Crops like that.”
Ed’s pop seems to be expecting more of an answer, judging by the look he gave him. But nothing else comes out of my dad’s mouth. My dad likes to pretend he knows the answer to everything.

“Davey,” my dad says. “Look at that,” trying to change the subject.

“Look at this farmhouse in this little valley,” Ed’s pop says. “Oh will you look at that, isn’t that beautiful? That looks like it could be on a postcard.”

Ed and I aren’t having any of it. We don’t give a care. If it were righteous to look at something, we’d look. We want out of the car. We’ve been here for two, hot, raunchy days, riding in the back for over five hundred miles already. We don’t look and we don’t talk. We’re not even looking out the window. The only things we move are out eyes. We press our heads against the side of the car and leave them there, in extreme lazy boredom.

My dad takes a turn onto another dirt road. It’s really steep going up this mountain. It levels off and we come up to a driveway, a long dirt road with grass growing between the tire tracks. My dad says, “We’re here.”

“Oh,” Ed’s pop says. “Oh. See, that didn’t take long.”

“Thank God,” Ed says.

“Get me out of this car,” I say.

We keep driving through the dirt to this big old brick farmhouse. I don’t care about scenery but even I can tell this place is gnarly. It’s a big old-fashioned ranch-style farmhouse with a big old lawn all up on top of this hill with two gates you have to go through to get to the house. There are bushes and trees covering the sides of the house and the dirt roads, growing kind of out of control. I’m used to seeing suburban neighborhoods and houses with trimmed lawns, all the same. This is untamed and wild.

“Far out,” Ed says.

“Yeah,” I say. “Far out.”

There’s a big, shiny, red tractor parked in front of the house, like it’s on display. Ed and I look at each other. “I want to drive that tractor,” Ed says. “It’s radical.”

“Yeah, me too.” We get out of the car. We don’t know what to expect or what to say.
Here comes Aunt Hattie. She opens the front door and jumps out of the house to greet us. She looks exactly like my dad except she has long hair. She’s tall, like six foot, and an imposing woman. She has these long stork legs, a little bit of a belly like my dad, same small eyes with a big nose like my dad, kind of a weak, double chin, kind of soft. She’s loud, loud and bossy, and I’ll bet Ed’s thinking the same thing I am. Who is this hillbilly?

“Y’all made it, huh?” she says. “Y’all made it!”

“How you doing?” my dad says. They hug and that’s the only time I’ve ever seen my dad embrace anyone, male or female. “There’s Davey and this is Ed, and Ed Junior,” my dad says, pointing.

I look at Ed. “Ed Junior? Ah ha ha!”

“Shut up.”

I’m Davey-Charlie and Ed’s Ed Junior. No wonder no one talks. You can piss someone off just by saying his name.

“Hey, Ed,” my aunt says. “I guess we got two Ed’s now, huh? Well, come on in. Y’all must be hungry.”

We walk into this farmhouse and it’s a throwback to something. It looks like George Washington’s house at Mount Vernon. There is a pile of old antique furniture everywhere, and on top of everything is a doily. All you can see are white snowflake doilies all over the place. She uses them to protect her furniture, I guess. Old people do that: they put crap everywhere so you can’t use your furniture for the reasons you have it because there’s so much shit on it. These bogus doilies are on the coffee tables, end tables, the fireplace mantel, and over all the rest of the place like spider webs. Then she has these two little raunchy dogs; little yappy Chihuahuas, one black and one white. As soon as they see us they run up to us barking and nipping at our feet. “Grrr! Grrr!” they say, showing all three of their old gray teeth.

“Just kick ‘em out of the way,” Aunt Hattie says. “Kick ‘em out of the way if they bother you.”

Ed lifts his foot up to try to move them out of the way. He’s too timid to kick so he just tries to guide them away. “Grrr-ruff!” they say. One of them bites the crap out of Ed’s shoe.

“Queenie!” Aunt Hattie says. “I call her Queenie because she thinks she’s queen of the house. Queenie, don’t you bite him!” She picks them both up, shoves them into another room and shuts the door. Now they’re quiet.

I look at the dining table and there is a ton of food there, just a ton. The table itself is as big as a normal dining room. There are biscuits and gravy, pancakes, huge slabs of bacon, like a mountain of bacon, and so many eggs like I’ve never seen before. There’s a huge ceramic bowl, at least a couple of feet in diameter with a top on it that’s as big as a garbage can lid, full of scrambled eggs. There must be ten pounds of scrambled eggs in this thing. There’s nothing like fruit or vegetables anywhere. We’re really hungry and it’s nice to see all this food but there’s so much of it. My mom doesn’t cook like this. She buys a roast beef or a ham, already cooked, and puts it on the table and we eat in our rooms. She makes tuna salad that I love, with pickle relish and mayonnaise, but you get it out of the refrigerator and help yourself when you’re hungry.

“I’ll go get Bill,” Aunt Hattie says. “Hey Buddy! Buddy! Get over here. Buddy! Buddy! Get over here!” I look out the front window and see some old geezer drive up on an ancient four-wheel Jeep that doesn’t have a body. It has a seat and a steering wheel and a wooden bed somebody built on the back of it, like a prop for a Depression movie. It must be the farm vehicle. “Go get Bill. Go get Bill. Tell Bill family’s here. Get Bill!”

“Okay.” Five minutes later, while we watch, Bill comes up, riding alongside Buddy. He’s a short guy with a cowboy hat, in good shape and tan, with lines on his face. Buddy drops him off and takes off.

Bill comes in, takes off his hat, and Hattie introduces him to everyone. “Nice to meet you,” he says, meekly. “Is breakfast ready?”

“Well Bill of course it’s ready!” Aunt Hattie says. “It’s been on the table for an hour. Sit down now.” She directs us to where each of us is supposed to sit. This is new, too. Bill sits at the head of the table and Hattie sits at the opposite end. “Bill, say the grace. Say the grace, Bill.”

“Lord, um,” Bill says. “Thank you for your bounty that you’ve bestowed upon us. Thank you for the harvest you have given to us. Thank you for our visitors. Amen.”
We’re back in the 1920’s and they way people were when my parents were kids. The way they act, the way they dress: it’s like a different country here. I don’t even know Ed. He must think I’m like this, too.

We start putting food on our plates and pass it around. I scarf down biscuits and gravy, pancakes with maple syrup, and a ton of eggs. I eat quickly and I’m done. I’d get up but it doesn’t seem right. I look around and all the old people keep eating, and putting big hunks of butter on everything. Bill drinks a lot of whole milk and my dad drinks lumpy buttermilk. He seems to like buttermilk. I don’t even want to look at it. Who drinks milk with butter in it?

“Eat,” Hattie says. “You can eat more. Y’all have another serving. Eat. Eat. Eat. Eat. Eat.” I can’t eat another bite. I can’t even breathe.

“Eat. Eat. Eat.”

Shut up! I say in my head. I’m full. I’m not used to sitting at a table for a long time. This is the first time I’ve ever had anyone hover over me and force me to eat. What’s wrong with her?

“Eat. Eat. Eat. Eat.”

Eventually I say, “I can’t.”

“You barely made a dent in that meal,” she says. “Are you sure, Davey? Are you sure? There’s plenty more where that come from.”

It’s different, sitting at a table with other people, all at the same time. Nobody says a single word, since half of us are uncommunicative Blevins’ and the other half are freaked out by us Blevins’. There’s a weird kind of silence until Hattie says, “How long did it take you to get up here, George?”

George? That’s strange. Hey, George! What a weird name for my dad. It was his dad’s name, too, and now my brother’s. Who would force that name on a baby, turn around and punish future generations in the same way? Another reason to be thankful George is my older brother. My sister and my mom are both named Martha, after my mom’s grandma. Ed’s pop is Ed, too. I could have easily ended up Obadiah, Homer, or some other cranky old man name, so I’m grateful I’m just Charlie although my dad won’t even call me that. If names are such a big deal to him, he ought to realize his name is the dorkiest of all. I heard him telling Ed’s pop once, ‘I’m George and my wife’s Martha. You know, George and Martha, like George and Martha Washington. America’s first First Couple.’ Do me a favor dad - don’t say that to anyone ever again. George by itself is bad enough.

“A couple of days,” my dad says. “We drove straight through. Almost six hundred miles.” He says it like we’re Lewis and Clark and we just arrived in Astoria. Ed’s pop isn’t saying a word. You can tell all this is weird to him, too. This is probably the first time he’s ever visited a chicken farm, or the 1920’s.

“I’m going to put Ed Junior and Davey to work,” Bill says. Ed and I look at each other. What? “We want you to help us gather eggs. Get eggs from the hens.” He tells us this like it’s an exciting adventure, like he’s doing us a favor.

“Okay,” we say. “I guess.” Work?

“I’m going down for a while,” my dad says.

“Yeah, that’s a good idea,” Ed’s pop says.

“Come back here, y’all can lay down and let the children work. I got clean sheets!” Hattie says.

Buddy comes back in the farm vehicle. Bill gets in the front and we crawl up on the back. Buddy takes off driving down the dirt road, downhill from the ranch house. There are a lot of twists and turns and trees so we can’t see where we’re going. We’re sick from all the eggs and getting sicker from the bumpy ride. The scrambled eggs are up to my neck. I don’t want to see another scrambled egg in my life. The ride is making it worse.

We get to this clearing with six huge buildings and chickens everywhere. I’ve never seen so many chickens before. There are chickens everywhere, in the buildings and all over. “Boys. This is the baby chick house over here. This is the house for the chicks a little older. This is where we keep our roosters. These hen houses are where they lay the eggs and this is where you will get the eggs. You put them in bushel baskets.” Bill’s talking and we’re pretending to be interested. “Let me show you what you boys are going to be doing here,” Bill says.

It reeks. It smells so badly that I can’t breathe. It’s raunchy. “Oh God,” Ed says. “It stinks.”

“It stinks so bad,” I say. “Who died?”

“Take a big, deep breath,” Bill says. “It’s good to be alive.”

Old people are so bogus. Bill leads us into one of the three back buildings with rows and rows of hundreds of hens sitting on their eggs, all lined up on these shelf-like structures. “Lemme show you,” Bill says. He sticks his hand out, reaches under and grabs an egg from a hen and puts it in a basket. “That’s what you’ll be doing. Grab the eggs, put them in a basket. Basket’s full, put them over there, get a new one. Buddy will come and pick them up.” I don’t want to do this. Ed looks at me kind of pissed off, like it’s my fault. “Here’s some leather gloves. Sometimes the hens will pick at you so wear these. Start with one row and remember where you started. Go through the whole place. Ed, you come with me.”

“Okay,” Ed says. He takes Ed out to another building.

The hen Bill demonstrated with didn’t peck at him so I don’t think the hens are really going to peck. The gloves are too big and uncomfortable so I take them off. I start in on the first one. The very first hen I stick my hand under bites the living shit out of me. That bitch put three holes on the top of my hand. It hurts to the bone. I pull my hand back really quick, yell, “Fuck!” really loud, shake my hand and put the gloves on and try again. The hen bites the crap out of my glove. The gloves are thick so it’s better and I move on to the next one, and then the next one. By the tenth chicken, I do it quickly enough so they don’t bite. When you show confidence, they leave you alone.

I start to think about what I’m doing and I start to feel bad. These eggs are their babies. We’re taking their babies from the hens. What a fucked up way to live, ripping chicken babies off from their mothers. I’d hate myself if this is what I ended up doing with my life, kidnapping and eating all these bird babies.

Hens fly all over the place. They’re squawking and peeing, shitting and flapping their wings. They’re above me, and everywhere, all pissed off at me for stealing their babies. I’m about halfway done with this whole building, putting eggs in a basket, filling the basket, setting the basket down in the corner, and grabbing another basket and starting all over again when a chicken flies right over me and shits right on top of my head. It’s like Hershey’s syrup, runny chicken shit is, and it’s all over the top of my head and running down the back of my neck through my shirt. It’s warm and I can feel it dripping. It stinks so sharply, this close up. Oh my God! Why is this my life?

I reach up and feel my hair. It’s like axle grease. It’s sticky and gummy, like tar all over the back of my head. Now I know why Bill wears that cowboy hat. I work faster to finish up the building. It’s the only way I’ll get out of here. I finish just as Buddy comes driving over with Bill. “This chicken shit all over my head,” I say. I turn around to show them. “Look.”

They start laughing their asses off. “Ar har har har,” they snort. “That’ll teach you to wear a hat.”

“But I don’t have a hat.”

“Ar har har har.”

Ed hears us and comes walking out from his hen house. “How’d you do, Ed?” Bill says.

“I almost got done, like halfway done. Maybe almost halfway done. Can we do something else now?”

“Yeah,” I say. “I need to get this shit off my head.”

Ed sees it and starts laughing. “What the fuck are you doing?”

“What do you think I’m doing? What are you doing?”

He’s laughing too hard to talk. “I didn’t do it on purpose,” I say. “What kind of question is that? I didn’t tell the chicken to shit on my head.” I’m not laughing but he can’t stop.

“Hop on,” Bill says. “We got some hands that can take over. Hop on and we’ll go to the house.”

We drive back up to the house on the back of the farm vehicle, nobody saying anything. “I have to take a shower, man,” I tell Bill when we stop.” This is bad.”

“Shower?” Bill says. “We don’t got no showers. Got a bath. You can take a bath.”

Great. No shower. I gotta stick my head in the same water that my ass is in just to get this shit off my head. I hate baths. I say nothing. I don’t want to be disrespectful.

“Hattie,” Bill yells. “Davey got chicken shit all over him. He needs a bath.”

“How come he didn’t wear a hat?”

Bill’s quiet. I’m quiet. Even Ed Junior’s quiet.

Hattie shows me the bathroom. There’s only one and in it is one old claw foot bathtub. I bring in my suitcase, fill the tub and as soon as I submerge, the water’s brown, oily and shitty. I’m soaking in shit and I have a thin, even coat of it all over me. I can’t do anything about it so I get out, dry off, get dressed, and come back out to where Ed is, sitting amongst the doilies.

“I hear you have guns,” I say to Hattie. “Can we shoot some guns?”

“We got guns. We got plenty of guns. Lemme get Bill. I don’t want you shootin’ yourselfs.” She goes outside and starts yelling for Bill. “Bill! Bill get them handguns.”

Bill gets a couple of these weird old small handguns like I’ve never seen before. My dad and Ed’s pop are still sleeping even through all this. We go out to the back yard and Bill gets these old tin cans. There’s a fence all around the back yard. “Set these cans up back here,” Bill says. “Make sure you shoot in this direction ‘cause there’s a hill back behind.” He hands us a big case of ammo and shows us how to load the guns.

We set the cans on the fence post, right where we’re told. We step back about ten yards, start shooting and we can’t hit a thing. We get closer and closer, shooting and missing, shooting and missing. Fifty rounds later, we’re five feet from the cans and finally, finally we start to hit them. “Ping!” my can says. “Ping, ping.” Ed looks over at me, looks back at his can, and shoots. “Ping.” Now we’re both hitting the cans. We move back a little, still hitting, still pinging the cans. We move back a little more, still hitting the cans, scooting back more and more. Ten yards, fifteen yards, we keep shooting. “Ping! Ping! Ping!”

Each magazine has about six rounds. We shoot, reload, put the magazine back in and shoot some more. We’re absolutely silent, focusing on cans and only cans. We’ve shot about a couple of thousand rounds. We shoot all afternoon. Both of us are intensely focused on shooting. Ed’s just as into it as I am and I’m really into it. Even though we don’t talk, we’re connecting with each other. This guy’s okay and I can tell he thinks I’m okay, too.

“This is far fucking out,” Ed says. “Let’s just do this the whole time we’re here.” Ed is so focused that he wants to do this one thing and blocks everything else out. He’s so intense he can’t think of anything but this. Neither can I. I’m happier than I’ve ever been with Danny or at school, or with girls, or anywhere in my life so far. “It’s better than getting shit on, collecting eggs, isn’t it?” he says.

“Yeah, I’d rather do this.” This is rad. I love this shit. We’ve been left alone all afternoon, no old people bothering us, shooting a couple of tin cans. Far fucking out. I am so happy.

“Y’all gonna shoot up all my ammo,” Bill says, appearing from nowhere.

“Oh, sorry,” I say. “You left us here with all these bullets.” We have to stop now, no question. Even I can see that he wants us to stop. We give the guns back. Now what are we going to do? The dads come out back and light up. Both of them smoke. They sit down in these two lawn chairs in the big expanse of a back yard, smoking and talking, smoking and talking. They smoke all the time. All the time.

“George, Ed,” Bill says, showing them the guns, “You wanna take a run at it?” Sure, give the dads an opportunity to have fun while we sit around and watch. What are we supposed to do? Smoke?

“No,” my dad says.

“No,” Ed’s pop says.

What lazy fucks. Why not? Why would you sit around when you can shoot? We watch them smoking and sitting for what seems like hours. “You’re boring,” I tell them. “All you guys want to do is sit around. Let’s do something.”

“Let’s do something,” Ed says. “Let’s go hunting.”

The dads laugh and smoke, and ignore us. All they want to do is take naps and smoke. My dad talks to Ed’s pop the whole time. He doesn’t talk to us. There isn’t a conversation with us, not about farm life or anything. He talks to Ed senior and if I talk to anyone, I talk to Ed junior. We watch them sitting and smoking. What else are we supposed to do? Look through their garbage? I’m too old for that now but it reminds me. “We gotta get firecrackers,” I tell my dad.

He doesn’t say anything but he must have realized we’re not going to let up. He sighs, like he does before he gets up. Now I know I’ve won. What is the cure for bored kids who won’t get out of his hair? Firecrackers.

“I’ll ask Bill where we get firecrackers at,” he says, taking a few steps toward the house. “Bill, where you get firecrackers?”

“Right down the road there’s a store,” he says. “They wanna get firecrackers?”

“Yep.”

Bill goes off to get his truck. Ed’s pop gives Ed $30 so I get $30, too, from my cheap ass dad. This is another good thing about having a friend – my dad won’t be a cheap ass in front of witnesses. We sit in the front of the truck with Bill and drive to the store. My dad sits back and lights up another cigarette. What a big blob.

They have everything. They have ash cans, M-80’s, and I’m surprised they don’t have dynamite. All these fireworks are illegal in Florida. We are pretty freaking stoked. This is quickly making up for kidnapping chicken babies and soaking in shit. We load up. We have bags full of fireworks and matches, and everything we could ever want.
Bill drives up to the house and we race out of the truck. “Where you going?”

“We’re just going to go and walk around the farm,” I say.

“Stay away from the hen houses,” Bill says.

Ed and I walk around the roads. We find these holes in the ground where there are gophers and snakes. We pack fireworks in the holes, cover them back up with dirt and light them off. We throw them at each other when we start getting bored. Soon even that’s boring.

“Man, our dads are lazy,” I say. “They don’t want to do anything.”

“Yeah, all they want to do is sit around,” Ed says. We’ve made these comments before but we’re not responsible for entertaining our own dads. “What can we do?”

“I have an idea. Let’s sneak up on them and surprise them with some firecrackers.”

“Don’t do that to my pop,” Ed says. “He’ll get pissed. Do it to your dad. Do it to your own dad.”

Since the farmhouse is on the top of a hill and since we went down the hill to blow stuff up, we can’t walk up the hill on the road or the dads will see us from the vantage point of their lawn chairs. That is, they’d see us if they had their eyes open. If they aren’t smoking, they’re sleeping. They are so lazy.

We sneak around the perimeter of the house and get behind them. One of the fireworks I bought is a whole pack with all the fuses intertwined and touching each other. If you light one fuse, fifty firecrackers will go off. This is the pack I have in my hand right now.

“I’m not going up to them,” Ed says. He hides behind the corner of the house, watching me. I look over to the dads. They’re about fifty feet away, their lawn chairs halfway between vertical and horizontal. They look so lazy. They deserve this. I sneak up behind them. They’re both snoring loudly, so boring, so asleep. I can see the back of my dad’s bald head. I light the fuse and throw it under my dad’s lawn chair and run. It lands about a foot away from my dad, right under his chair. I don’t even make it back to where Ed’s hiding at the corner of the house when I hear: “Bam! Ba-bam! Ba-bam-bam! Bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam!”

I turn around to see my dad leap up from his chair. He jumps up so fast he gets tangled up in his lawn chair. He knocks over the lawn chair with his feet, falls down from tripping and starts to run. He has this scared look on his face like ‘What the fuck is going on?’ I didn’t know then that he’d been a prisoner of war in a German concentration camp and this might have brought back some unpleasant memories. I don’t think about things like that. I only think he’s lazy. I can’t think ahead past that. It takes me another twenty years, at least, to get to the point where I can think things all the way through. This is unfortunate for everyone that happens across my impulsive path, but it makes for more fun for me.

Ed’s pop’s eyes are as big as sunny-side up eggs. He has a look on his face like he doesn’t know where he is or what he’s doing, as you would if you were napping and you woke up to an air raid. It’s so funny I stop running and start laughing. This is funny! I look over to Ed and he looks like he’s going to cry. What a pussy! You’re not in trouble. This is hilarious! Come on! Have a sense of humor.

I look back over to the dads. They ran about twenty feet away from the lawn chairs and stand there, watching the fireworks. “Bam! Ba-bam! Ba-bam-bam! Bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam!” They’re still going off. It seems like they went off for about an hour. It’s a big pack. I’m halfway to Ed and the dads are halfway to me. I’m laughing uncontrollably. They’re looking at me, at the fireworks, and you can tell they’re trying to figure out what happened. They put it together pretty quickly. When they’re not lazy and napping, they’re pretty quick.

“Damn it!” my dad says, the first and last time I ever hear him swear. “That’s not funny! Davey, that’s not funny.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Ed’s pop says. “That’s not funny.”

I keep laughing. Hell yeah, it is. I look at Ed and he’s scared. He looks like a scared squirrel, but I’m laughing so he starts laughing. Then his pop starts laughing. “I guess he got you, George,” Ed’s pop says. He laughs harder. My dad won’t laugh. I know he won’t laugh anyway because he never laughs. He doesn’t have a sense of humor. You don’t joke with him but I don’t care. Everybody’s laughing but him.

My dad calms down, we have dinner – steak and gravy, biscuits and butter on everything - and leave early the next morning so Ed’s dad can go home and get back to work.

“I want to show you something,” my dad says on the way back. “It’s not too far out of the way. I’ll tell you when we get there.” Ed’s pop already knows what it is because they talk, but we don’t know. At this point I don’t know what to expect. More chicken shit? See a pig farm? Who knows what my dad thinks is interesting.

We drive up this dirt road in the mountains with overgrown trees and grass, like at Hattie’s farm. There’s a gate open and we drive through. I’m sick of all the trees and mountains. Trees and mountains are everywhere. We pull up to this clearing in the trees and drive onto some grass. We get out of the car and start to walk around a little bit. There’s a wooden sign saying something about a cemetery. I start looking at the gravestones and they’re all “Blevins.” I have to look hard to find one that isn’t “Blevins.”

You can tell where the graves are as they’re indented in the grass lawn. There are at least forty gravestones, mostly rectangle with a rounded top. They all have crosses engraved on them. They’re really old, like creepy old, not interesting old. Dead people are not fascinating to me, no matter what their last names used to be.

“Well Davey,” my dad says. “This is where most of your ancestors are buried.”

Great Dad. My dad and Ed’s pop walk away from the car and toward the tombstones. They bend over looking at them. I think it’s disrespectful to walk on a grave and honestly, the whole thing is starting to freak me out. I’ve never been to a graveyard before and seeing “Blevins” all over the place is scary. I’ve never even met another Blevins anywhere, at school or anyplace else. Now their ghosts surround me. I stay close to the car.

Ed stays close to the car, too. He pulls me aside and says, very seriously, “Why are we here?”

“I don’t know why we’re here, Ed. I don’t know.”

We stand close to each other watching the dads walk around the tombstones, examining them and looking around like they’re at a show. I don’t want to walk around here and it’s clear Ed doesn’t, either. I might fall in and touch a dead person.

The dads notice us standing by the car so they both come back and we take off. Ed and I get in the back and go to sleep. Within a couple of years, Bill is dead. All those eggs gave him a heart attack. Bill was Aunt Hattie’s third husband. Her husbands keep dying on her so she gives up on husbands and on the chicken farm. She gives up on my dad, too, when he keeps reminding her she sold his pony when he went off to war. He won’t let it go so we never saw her again.