Tag Archives: parenting

Smokin’ Rats

Smokin Rats

Note: no rats were harmed in the writing of either this story or the song. Some events in this story are actual. Others are fictional. I apologize if anyone is offended. The attempt is to bring into view the absurdity of daily life through humor.

Smokin’ Rats is the song. I’m no professional musician… still, I think it works. Through the miracle of technology, I can both whistle and accompany myself. Smokin Rats Story is an audio version of the following essay. Friends seem to enjoy hearing the stories.

It’s been many years at this point, since we bought our first house, just mom & dad, Elise and me, Jenny. It was over the mountain, in Milroy, an was an old grey farmhouse we bought from Matterns. I don’t think its goal in life was to be grey. It started out as a drafty plank-sided house insulated by old newspapers. Then I guess, in an attempt to reduce the draftiness, Matterns put blue aluminum siding on, but the blue oxidized to grey and that’s how it stands today.

The house had a dank basement with rows and rows of shelves for canned goods. The foundation wasn’t dry-laid, but there were more chinks between the stones than there was mortar. It was the sort of pace that was terrifying to my sister because, as John Prine sang, “The air smelled like snakes[1]….” It wasn’t the cucumberiness of copperheads. It was more like the sleek blackness of rat snakes, an impression given all the more credibility by the 5-foot long pair seen slithering gracefully up the Keefer pear[2] tree just off the corner of the back porch. Where there be rat snakes, there be rats. Equally terrifying for a six year-old sister. Fascinating for a nine year-old me. The imagined rats (for we knew of their presence only from the presence of the snakes. Everybody knows that the snakes are there because the food’s not far away) were the basis of little stories I made up about their families and how the daddy rats went off to work in the morning and how the mommy rats fed us kids breakfast and sent us off to rat school while they stayed home and watched rat TV and crocheted a new throw for the back of our ratty couch. There were other stories where the mommies went off to work and were moguls and stuff like that, too. They were an endless source of inspiration.

The upstairs walls were horsehair plaster, and I used to imagine the outlines of countries following the cracks in the walls and on the ceiling as I lay in bed on summer mornings, waiting for the alarm to go off. My sister, Elise, on the other hand, imagined armies of spiders emerging from the cracks. The steps creaked when no one was on them, and sometimes when the winter wind howled in the eaves the whole house seemed to moan. She was sure there were ghosts. Even if I thought I knew better, these were notions I did my best to bolster. After all, what are sisters for?

Dad always told us to treat each other as people, not sisters. It wasn’t until we became adults that we would have any inkling what he was driving at. We did understand, however, that he wanted us to quit digging and jabbing each other. For instance, we’d be going somewhere in the car. “Da-ad. She’s in my space. She’s touching me. She’s making faces at me.”

“So ask her to stop.” And some words were said to that effect in a sing-songy voice and the period at the end of the request was a stuck-out tongue. Ah, the subtleties of internecine warfare. Follow the form for peace-making while continuing the provocation. The tongue was returned by a kick to the shins, which in turn was rewarded with a bop on the head. Howls ensued. Dad gave a look to mom that said ungracefully “shut them up.” She turned around, burned a hole through the back seat with her gaze, and proceeded to calmly, in a measured voice, to inform us that we’d best behave or we’d find ourselves walking home. It was her most extreme version of the old saw “don’t make me stop this car or there’ll be hell to pay,” and usually it was sufficient to at least lower the level of poking and prodding to some liminal amount. There was, I have to admit, the time we united as sisters there in the back seat and escalated the conflict into a full-fledged nail scratching, hair-pulling full-howl brawl. The car stopped. We were ordered out. The car drove away. We looked at each other in disbelief. After some recrimination concerning whose fault the present situation was, we both had one of those moments of revelation. We knew on some level that mom & dad were not prone to making idle threats. Sometimes it is best not to play “poke the ogre,” or at least recognize when it’s time to quit. In the best played game of “poke the ogre,” the time to quit is while clemency is still available, just before they stop the car. We had found out what happens when we “made them stop the car.”

All that aside, I was (mostly) daddy’s girl and Elise was mommy’s. I loved the outdoors. I helped him with the firewood and building sheds and mowing the grass and the vegetable garden. There were rocks to flip over searching for newts. The compost pile was a great place to dig for worms to go fishing in Coffee Creek, a quarter-mile from our house.

There was the abandoned house next door. Sometimes Elise did play out doors. She was sure the house was haunted. The game was to demonstrate nerves of steel as follows: burrow under the bottom strand of the rusty barbed wire fence that separated our houses, sprint to the house and touch it, and be back on our side of the fence before you could say “boo!” or the ghost got you, whichever came first. Elise watched, but no amount of dare, double dare, double dog dare or any other kind of insinuation and character assassination was motivation enough for her to even burrow under the fence, much less touch the house. She was sure I would “get mine,” and was more than willing to let me take the risk. On some level, it was the nonchalant game of “kick the chick out of the nest,” with the intent of getting more devotion from the parental units. I wasn’t afraid of that old house.

You just never knew what sorts of adventures lay waiting on summer mornings. The rooster might be out. The goat might be standing on top of mom’s car. The pigs, well you can read about the pigs elsewhere. That’s a whole ‘nother story. The neighbors might be burning their trash which was a time-honored tradition and competition (competitive trash burning. Next Olympic sport), which doesn’t sound all that adventuresome, except they tended to include the aerosol cans with the trash. When the cans blew up (as the inevitably did) the formerly smoldering trash erupted into flame as it gasped enough air while soaring across their back yard. It was pretty harmless fun. I think the worst I ever saw come of it was when Jones caught his compost heap on fire.

Daddy told me that different animals have different ways of showing interest in what the news man would call current events. Horses put their ears forward. My aunt’s cockatoo raised its crest. So, one Saturday morning I was riding around on the lawn tractor with daddy when our ears went forward and our crests went up. Jeff Shockley, our other neighbor across the alley had a dog kennel that sat next to his garage. He worked at the fertilizer plant over in Burnham. He had a good beer belly going. If he’d have been a woman, we would have called him frumpy. But really, we were what you’d call “waving neighbors.” Dad knew Shockley enough to wave at him. I knew him less. I never knew the dog, never even saw it in the kennel. He’d take food out in the evening, and in the morning it’d be gone. This morning he was on some sort of mission. Apparently he had a rat problem, and not enough rat snakes.

What put our ears forward and raised our crests was this: He was walking around the outside of the kennel with a gallon can of gasoline. Every so often, he tilted the can and poured out some gas. What was he up to? Mot wishing to gawk too much, we mowed the same patch of grass about four times. His rats had burrowed in from the perimeter of the kennel. Sort of a reverse Hogan’s Heroes, where they burrow into prison instead of out. When he tilted the can, the gas went down their holes. We figured that he figured to “gas them out.” We were correct in a way. However, we misunderestimated his determination in the matter. His next step took us both (all?) by surprise. He lit a match. He tossed it. The fumes ignited. The holes, as we soon found out, emerged under cover of doghouse. Bawoom! The ground shook! The collective oomph from all those holes underneath, lifted it more than a foot off the ground. As the dog house returned to earth, the explosion vented itself in the other direction, around the edges of the kennel. We congratulated ourselves for our patience in mowing and re-mowing that patch of lawn for the reward of such a show. It paled next to the finale.

As mentioned, it was not uncommon to see flaming garbage sailing across a yard. This finale was both horrifying and entrancing. Like tracer rounds or contrails, a dozen or so smoke trails arced across his back yard. It took a moment to comprehend. We looked at each other quizzically. What was that? From whence cometh the smoke trails? Realization dawned. The human cannonball of circus fame, in multiple, rattine form.  Smokin’ rats.

The lead story (memorialized in song) on rat TV News at 5: Explosion at Relief Mission Kills Twelve. Investigators have determined that a gas leak was responsible for the deadly explosion at the Dog House Kitchen….

 

The song…. Smokin’ Rats

There was a man

Who had a dog

That lived behind his house

And every day he’d take that dog

And bring him out some food

And every night them rats come out

And steal that doggie’s food

‘the man got mad and one day he said

I’m getting rid them rats

 

Smokin rats, O smokin rats

Shootin’ ‘cross the yard

Smokin’ rats them smokin’ rats

Life can be so hard

Smokin’ rats them smokin rats

All they’s tryin’ ‘do

Was eke them out a little livin’

Just like me and you

 

Well one day that man came from in his house

with gallon can of gas

He poured it down those rattie’s holes

And touched it with a match

The boom was a loud, and then the ground shook too

The flames flew out, the man just smiled

And out came smokin’ rats

 

Refrain

 

Now the dog house leapt up off the ground

At least a foot or more

From that ‘splodin’ gas-o-line, like I said before

And the rats left little trails of smoke

As they sailed across the yard

The man knew then full, good & well

Those rats won’t steal no more

 

Refrain

 

Now in this life there’s lots of folks

Who’ll try to steal your bread

And you might be one of them

Just remember what is said

There’s some who think that eking out

A living is plumb wrong

But when the ground shakes and the flames fly out

You’d better be long gone

 

Refrain

 

Alt. Last verse:

Now in this life there’s lots of folks

Who’ll try to steal your bread

Or you just might be one of them

Remember what is said

There’s some who think that stealin’s wrong

And those who just get by

When the ground shakes and the flames fly out

Your judgement day is here.

 

[1] John Prine, “Paradise.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vC65_cq0Js

[2] Known as a “winter pear” because they could be stored for the winter. When they fall from the tree, they’re hard as rocks and not very sweet, but they get a little tastier as the winter goes on. Mostly they get raked up & fed to the livestock or thrown in the compost heap today.

Mom: Theater of the Absurd

It’s a fact of life. We grow old and die. There are a lot of ways to do that. I think they all involve some degree of grieving. My mother passed away in the spring of 2016, a month short of her 97th birthday. Here are some reflections.

The phone rings and rings. She’s hard to get ahold of. It’s not that she’s not there. She sleeps a lot. More even, lately. Maybe because it’s easy. No permission required. No one to interact with. Besides, she’ll tell you, there’s nothing to do. Her friends are dead. The activities the retirement community puts on aren’t to her liking. So she sleeps a lot. More, lately.

But when she does wake up, she calls my brother, John. He’s her anchor. I’m the baby even though I’m almost 60. Maybe that’s why she doesn’t call me. He lives closer, too. He can be there in an hour if she needs him. He’s her window to the world, the one bit of certainty she remembers. He has the answers. She’s sure of that.

Her world is becoming like the tunnel vision of a glaucoma patient. There are shadows in the periphery of her vision. Those shadows, the people and things she used to know. My father, her husband. Died in 2006 at a ripe old age. Is he out of town? I haven’t seen him recently. Do you know where he is? My grandmother, her mother. Died in 1970. She says John, I want to go visit her, but she won’t answer my calls. My brother Bob. Died in 2010. Have you seen him? I need to talk to him about the farms. She calls him, the one thing she can count on. Maybe she doesn’t call every day. The questions, though. They’re the same. It’s like when the kids used to watch the same Sesame Street episode again and again. It drives him nuts. Like the two-year old who’s learned that “why?” elicits a response, she calls. It grinds his gears.

My father’s sister took care of their mother. When I was a teenager, I’d visit grandma in Worcester, MA. I’d do yard work. She’d regale me with tales of the past and make pancakes without any baking powder for me as a special treat and then be sorry she forgot the baking powder. I told her not to worry, the intent was good. They were made with love. She still had her own house up on the hill then. It was a few years later, she moved in with my aunt. And drove her nuts.

When’s the news on? She’d ask. How long until the news is on? My aunt professed Episcopal piety, but apparently that piety didn’t extend to the water torture of how long until the news is on. She could be pretty nasty about it. The news was my grandmother’s window, looking out into a world that had become the image presented by a pinhole camera. When the news was on, she still felt connected. (this was before CNN). When the news was over, it was like it never happened. The questions resumed almost immediately.

11-29-15. It was a raucous Thanksgiving, the kind my brother characterized as “a bunch of introverts sitting around ‘socializing.’” That pretty much nailed it.

Mom’s 96 and not as sharp cognitively as she once was. Her hearing isn’t all that great, either. She still enjoys conversation, and she’s still trying to make sense of life even as it becomes more remote. She no longer lives at home. The County got involved somehow and edictified that either she had to move out or she had to hire a live-in caretaker. Being of the 7th stage of man (everybody’s trying to rip me off), she couldn’t find a way, even when confronted with the choice of hiring a person or being moved to a “home,” to hire anybody. So she lives in a “home.” It’s a nice place. Not cheap. It sort of reminds me of a automobile junkyard, filled with shells of people who lived lives and had families and love and loss, shells like the skeletonized leaf I saw the other day. Transparent. Frail. A sketch of its living self.

She dispassionately says she hates the place. Maybe she does; maybe she’s reaching out, trying to evoke any reaction from the world so that she can still feel alive. I don’t want to go back there, she says. Conversation, like a 2-year old asking why, to get some response- -any response. In the words of Pink Floyd, “Is there anybody out there?”

John brought her over to dinner. They were having Thanksgiving there at the home, he said. Who would want to have Thanksgiving there? He asked, with a note of disgust in his voice. The question was real. There was doubt, angst, trepidation, maybe even a little fear behind it. Disgust is too simple a word for what his voice carried. Sadness? In the next breath, he detailed the adventure that had constituted getting Mom into his little, low-slung car. Each month when we take her to the pancake breakfast at the Methodist Church a mile or so from the blessed, berated home, it gets harder and harder to get her in the car. Her strength is fading. Entropy is harder and harder to resist. I don’t know. Maybe there will come a day when we can’t get her over here. We could still have dinner with her there. She likes the company.

Dinner in 3 acts.

Judy and I agreed to take her back to Kensington Park, the home. The conversation runs a lot like dialogue in a theatre of the absurd production. As with such a play, there’s no point in getting upset with the characters. They may (or may not) see life as the enterprise it actually is. After all, who’s to say what constitutes reality or delusion.

“Where are we going,” she asks.

“Back to Kensington Park, where you live.”

“I hate it there. Does this road go near Melwood?” Sometimes the world encroaches through her fog.

“Yep. We’ll go by Melwood.” My sister worked there for several years. Mom was an active supporter of the place, though not without friction in the later years of the engagement.

“What road is this?”

“Route 4.”

“Why are we going this way?”

“It’s the way back to your place.”

“I don’t seem to be able to get a hold of Mother.”

“That would be because she died in 1970.”

“Oh.” (Puzzled silence. We take the ramp onto I-495). “Is this the right way?”

“Yep. This is the way to Kensington.”

“Look at all the people.”

“Yep. They all had their Thanksgiving dinner and now they’re headed home. Lots of traffic.”

“Does this go to the Beltway?”

“This is the silly circle.”

“The what?”

“That’s what truckers call the Beltway on the CB radio. So, yes, this is the Beltway.”

“Oh. Look at all the people. Where do you think they’re going?”

“Like the wind, they’re going from someplace to someplace else.” (this was what she told me when I was little and asked what the wind was. “Lots of air going from someplace to someplace else,” she’d say) “In fact there are so many going the same direction that they cause a whirlpool, and all the rubbish settles out in the center, which is about where the Capitol is. No wonder the government doesn’t work very well.”

“Hmmmph! I don’t like sycamore trees.”

“Why? Their bark is pretty.”

“I think they’re plotting to take over the world.”

“Well now. It’s all about market share, isn’t it. Just because they want to make more sycamore trees doesn’t make them inherently bad, does it?”

“I still don’t like them. Have you seen Bob” (her eldest son)?

(with resignation, implied patience). “No. He died a few years ago.”

“He did?” (surprise in her voice). “How?”

“Well, he got the cancer, and he up and died.”

“I miss him. But boy could he be an SOB. Where does this road go?…”

Jephthah’s Daughter

This is the last of the bits I wrote for the Midrash class. I apologize for its length, 2,800 words. It was my final paper. The Biblical story tells us nothing about Jepthah’s daughter: not her name, nor her upbringing (Jepthah was an outlaw, remember?), nor what went on while she and her maiden friends were in the wilderness. I have to admit to liking happy endings. I’ll only say that she does not get sacrificed. Follow the link above to find out how that happened.

Peace, friends. Thanks for reading.

Lizzo Blues

I wrote this when I was in my late teens. Much of the stuff I wrote in that time seems to be lost, but Liz copied the poem & decorated the margins with fall leaves. It hung on the wall in my attic bedroom until recently. The ink faded. In places it was only a shadow on the paper. “Trapped in cold concrete” refers to the community college I was attending at the time. “Paint crew reds and greens and blues” is a reference to stage crew. I helped build sets for high school & summer theater plays. See if you remember what it was like to be a teenager in love.

It’s to be sung to a traditional blues tune. I don’t read music, but I do whistle & have a pretty good ear. I’ll see if i can do a recording of it & get that posted.

The Lizzo Blues (ca. 1975)

Well I’ve been runnin’ all the morning

I’ve been runnin’ all the night

And you know some people tell me

Such cavortin’ ain’t too bright

But I’ve got the blues

I’ve got those rotten stellar blues

They get down in your pocket

And you’ll spend your time a-wishin’

You’d see her once again

So you’re working all day

And talking all night

Your parents been away

You’ve never known such delight

I’ve got the blues

I’ve got those far out Lizzy blues

And just one free back scratch

Can take away those blues

Well you wonder how she does it

Now just how she stays so pure

‘cause once you’ve been trapped

There ain’t no man-made cure

I’ve got the blues

I’ve got the flea-bitten, Lizzy-lookin’ blues

And though I feel like shit

I just know I’ll never quit

So here I sit just writin’

Entrapped in cold concrete

The wind and snow  a bightin’

But ol’ Lizzie makes me feel so neat

I’ve got the blues

Oh Lord, I’ve got the blues

I’s s’posed to go to sleep last night

But Lord I’ve got the Lizzy blues

I’ll sleep some more tomorrow

And I’ll stay inside tonight

A wonderin’ ‘bout ol’ Lizzy

I’ve got to figure what she likes

I’ve got the blues

I’ve got the paint crew reds and greens and blues

But I know that if I fall in love (heaven forfend)

My mind’s gone down the drain

Now I’ll write you one more verse, dear

I’ll write you one more line

‘Cause I know by now you must be

Feelin’ really fine

But I’ve got those blues

Those ? far out Lizzy blues

I can’t explain why I love you (reason to be found)

But I’d like to stay your friend

Season of Twilight

Season of twilight

Your father will grow old and die, as will you and I.

And our children….

‘Tis best to make peace while peace can be made.

When he’s curmudgeonly, ornery, contrary or just plain cussed,

Picture a sign on a strand of hairy binder twine around his neck,

The sign laying against his chest

Jagged letters by infirm hand scrawled, that say:

“Humor me.”

Just keep in mind that it really means

“God, I need your love

now more than ever”

Hold me tenderly in your heart

Allow me dignity

As I sing my final song

Remembering

No one knows the last line. ###

I’m not obsessed with death. This & “Back to Iowa” reflect what’s going on in my life. My in-laws come over for Sunday dinner. My wife was struggling with her dad. I wrote this for her on Christmas morning as I sat in the silence of Meeting for Worship.

A Father’s Advice

A Father’s Advice

It seemed the only opportunity. It seemed that career progression planned to take my son & his wife to England, not the sort of place one commutes to or that such plebes as myself visit for the weekend. It seemed the only opportunity to see them before they left. The birth of their son is immanent. So we bailed in the car Thursday at 9 PM and drove all night for a long weekend in Wisconsin. We arrived at 6 in the morning feeling sort of spent, like the fuzzy edges of a spent thundercloud.

After lunch on Friday, Christopher & I went for a hike in the greenspace near the apartment where he lives. We talked of a broad range of subjects from box elders and mulberries and milkweeds to engineering. Then he asked “Do you have any advice for a new father?” It’s something I’ve thought about a lot. Here’s some of what I said.

Mom & I agreed early on that we would present a united front when we you kids asked us something. Whichever one of us was asked first, the other one would agree. In the event of a disagreement, the policy stood and the matter could be discussed privately by us at a time when a decision wasn’t riding on it.

Grandma did a number of things I think were good parenting. Say we were making cookies. She would show us how to measure, then let us measure (for real, not pro forma), but say “can I check that?” The wisdom was in affirming what we did with the opportunity to suggest better ways or corrections.

The actual goal of parenting is to raise children who are capable of making unsupervised decisions that are ethically and morally acceptable. In the same vein as making cookies, allow kids to take risks and succeed while supervised, like spotting them the first few times they cross the monkeybars. Risk allows kids (and adults, too) to find boundaries, which are often well outside expectations. It allows them to learn to evaluate, to fail, to succeed.

My Quaker scoutmaster encouraged me to practice running rapids backwards when the choice was mine so that when the time came that the choice wasn’t mine, I could do it. One day I wound up running a rapid called Coliseum backwards in my C-1 (a decked canoe that looks like a kayak). Coliseum is a class 5 rapid on the Cheat river in West Virginia.

As parents, we always put the truth of the matter (whatever had happened) at the top. It wasn’t to say that there wouldn’t be consequences, but that they would be less if you told us than if we learned of them otherwise. Punishing kids for truth-telling trains them to evade responsibility. Another advantage of the approach was that it was forward-looking. There may have been an element of blame, but the focus was on what was wrong and how it could (or needed to) be changed. As they grew,the kids knew they could tell us what was going on in their lives. It kept communication open, even when they were teenagers. They later admitted that they (more or less) gave up pushing our buttons because they knew they weren’t going to get our goat.