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Sunday, March 31, 2019

Four Gifts From a Dead Moose

Part 1: The Phone Call

It was a day much like today, six or seven years ago. It was mud season, after what  had been a long and snowy  winter; the deep snow was finally starting  to melt.

 I  was driving to pick my kids up at school when I got a phone call. It was my neighbor, Tim. Tim and his family are, as my kids point out, really our only neighbors, and even they are 3/4 of a mile down our  dead-end dirt road.( In mud season, which is when this story happened, it is  a death-defying quagmire.) Tim, who is  not easily rattled, sounded upset. He said his son Daniel, who 14 or 15 at the time and on the ConVal track team, had taken a run on the slowly defrosting trail and come across a dead baby moose emerging from the snow.


“Daniel is super freaked out,” Tim said grimly. “He says the moose didn’t have a head. And it’s just a baby one.”

He let his words sink in. This could mean only one thing—a poacher.
Although we had been spending summers in Greenfield since 1995, we had been  living full time in NH for only a few  years. The possibility that someone had illegally killed what I considered my moose was completely horrifying (now, it would really be  just another Tuesday!) Tim said he would go try to find the moose and check it out, and got off the phone. I then called my other neighbor, Sheldon Pennoyer, who is the go-to guy for the entire neighborhood on anything to do with the woods.

“Sheldon,“ I said, my heart racing, “Daniel found a dead baby moose in the woods and he says it doesn’t have a head! Could it have been a poacher?” I described the location, which was right across a popular mountain biking trail just off my driveway.

Sheldon heard the panic in my voice and, as he has on many occasions, calmed  me down.

“It most likely died of natural causes, and someone took the head,” he said. “It’s very unlikely anyone around here would kill a baby moose or leave it right on the trail.” Sheldon said he would put the word out to the Greenfield  trails club—a diehard  group of cyclists who were  out in the trails any weather, day and night, 12 months a year—to see if anybody knew anything

Then he added:

 “But if we do find out that moose was killed illegally, I have a feeling who it could have been. We’ve had some problems with Joe Smith who lives back behind us on the swamp, hunting illegally before. If that  moose was shot, leave him to me.”

I thought to myself, I would not want to be Joe Smith if we find a  bullet near that moose!

I got off the phone with Sheldon and picked up my boys at their schools. I didn’t want to tell them anything yet.  When we turned back into our driveway, I saw Tim, hiking back through the mud and melting snow—now it was sleeting and the wind was blowing hard. I stopped and put down the  window.

“It has a head,” Tim said irately, wiping sweat and mud off his face—the moose was halfway  up a steep hillside. “It was just buried in the snow. Daniel was just so freaked out he didn’t see it.”

“Phew,” I  said, and waved to Tim as he slogged back to his  house.

The  back seat had grown very quiet. I turned around and saw two little faces staring at me  with their jaws hanging open.

“MOM,” they said, “WHAT DID YOU THINK DIDN’T HAVE A  HEAD?”

The first lesson from this moose was a reminder of how much I love my neighbors.

Part 2: Stand By Me

Right after that, we got another six inches of snow, and the moose was covered up again. While I   was out of town for a few days, my husband ( who is a doctor and served in Iraq doing combat triage; nothing bothers him)  set out to find it. This is what he saw (Warning! slide!!) By this time the coyotes had found it and started tearing it apart. My husband sent me this picture and warned it I might not want to come see it, I am famously squeamish. Our boys, on the  other hand, could not wait to see it. Abe took them to see it and they were enthralled by the gore.

Mac, our younger son, then asked if he could bring his friends over to see it. Now again, I was pretty new to New Hampshire. Until my boys were 9 and 11, we always lived in  the suburbs in several places around the country. Things in  New Hampshire were really different from the suburbs. In our last town, the elementary school, and I am not kidding, had to have a two hour parents meeting  to address concerns about the second grade talking a nature walk in the state forest in the same town. Parents raised their hands freaking out about everything from fisher cat attacks to poison ivy to Lyme disease. Theere was actually a policy in place that kids were not allowed to retrieve soccer balls from the woods. They would stand there staring at them on the other side of the fence.

So anyway, i was a little nervous about exposing other people’s fourth graders to the moose, which was, by this point, really gross. I approached one mom nervously,

“Raisa. I have to ask you something and I’m not sure what you’ll say.”

“Yes?”

“Would it be ok if  August came over and looked at our dead moose?”

Raisa fell down laughing, as did Amy, the parent of the other child I asked. They both said, Oh my God, yes. And I was reminded, this is why we moved here.

A few days later, Mac, August and Emmett went hiking down the driveway to find  the dead  moose—just like, several parents remarked, the four boys in Stand By Me, one of my all-time favorite moves. It was now pretty warm out, and the moose had been  decomposing for maybe  a month. A hour or so later, they came back.

“What did you think?” I asked. The three boys looked at one another and shook their heads.

“That was really gross,” said August. Mac and Emmet concurred.

“We couldn’t even get that close to it,” said Emmett. “Because of the smell.”

“And the flies,” said Mac.

“And the maggots,” said August.

So the second gift from this moose was what the boys learned that day,  which maybe a  lot of kids in the world aren’t learning anymore: nature is beautiful, and harsh, and gross, and completely efficient.

Part 3: The Proposition

Just before Daniel spotted the moose, I had been taking a winter tracking class at  the Harris Center,  and at this class I met this really cool woman. Coincidentally, the same day the class started, this woman and I realized we are also on the same email list for the fourth grade boys lacrosse team. At the first game,  I saw this woman sitting on a blanket with a baby who was about eighteen months old. This woman was so cool, and I just thought, I  would really love to be friends with her.   So I sidled up and asked her:

“Hey, want to come over and see my dead moose?”

To which she said, “Yes, I do!”

This woman possibly the  best person in the Monadmock Region to solve  the mystery of the our dead moose: it was Susie Spikol of the  Harris Center.   A few days later, Susie came over with  her baby, David, on her back, and  hiked up  to find the dead moose. When we found it, it still has most of its fur, with its organs torn out.

Little David, in the backpack, looked down at the moose and said,

“Dat moose is dead,” with seemingly no alarm. Obviously this child is a New Hampshire native!!

Susie did immediately solve the mystery, which would not be  a mystery to anyone who knew anything about what is going in with moose in New Hampshire these days. She  said the young moose had probably died from dehydration from ticks. Covered with thousands of these blood sucking parasites, the poor little moose had collapsed, by strange luck, right on our mountain bike trail. Ten feet in either direction and no one would have ever  known.

Susie said in all her years being a naturalist in New Hampshire, she had never  before come across a decomposing moose. She said the moose population has been decimated by ticks in  recent years, and which, as we all know, is affected by global warming.

When I told Susie about this essay, she told me David still brings up the  moose to this day.

The third gift from the moose was my new friend.

Part 4: The  Head

All that  spring, we kept checking on the moose. What was fascinating was to see how quickly nature disposed of it, but also, how long some traces of it stuck around.  A  thick mat of moose hair stayed on the trail for at least  four  years, and  I would find  clumps of it all around that area long after the mat was gone. Every week when we checked on the  moose, more of it had disappeared. A few weeks after Susie, David and I saw the moose, my husband and I returned to find virtually no soft tissue left on the skeleton, except the intestines, which were what I will call….an advanced state of decay.

Sometime after that, even the intestines were  gone.  Coyotes had torn away the skin, muscle and organs, and the bones were  spread all over the area. There were signs of the gnawing on the bones—a feast for the countless rodents waking up from hibernation—as well as  the trails of  insects. At one point I found one of the hoofs and brought it home for the dog, but the  dog had no interest in it.

The one thing we never  found,  however, was the head. After Tim had located it under the snow, it  was covered up again, but then we never saw it again. My husband and I  scoured the whole area and were amazed by how far away we found other bones—ribs, leg bones, even the pelvis—but no skull.

This got me thinking. While I am close to many of my neighbors, there are far more that I don’t know. In fact, there are probably a lot more people out there in the woods than we realize. Just today, I found a deer stand I didn’t know was there! I’ve had more than one person tell me that  their grandfather brought them hunting on Woodland Hill or Blanchard Hill, and now they’re bringing  their son or daughter. We’ve had a few issues with ATV’s. One time we found a caravan of Jeeps stuck on our Class 6 roads. I had someone who wanted to bait bears with organic apples. Even so, I have rarely ever found so much as a beer can in the woods.  Someone out there, not one of my friends or neighbors, or at least they are not admitting it,  found and took the moose skullI. We have no idea who. If Joe  Smith has the moose skull, he probably took it for the same  reason I wanted it: it’s cool. Most of us who live here also love that we live side by side with these beautiful wild animals. We may not always agree on how to use the land, we all love the woods. 

I wrote this essay years ago, not knowing I would read it as part of event for the Monadnock Conservancy. But the final lesson I learned from the moose is very simple: the woods belong to all of us. They bring us together. We share them in ways we may not even realize. Preserving our rural landscapes and keeping at least part of the woods wild is something that benefits us all.




Sunday, March 6, 2016

Crazy Fred and Me

My husband complains that I will make friends with pretty much anyone who wanders across my path, often with less than desirable consequences. I am a slow learner on this front.

The most perfect example is Fred. I met “Fred” at church when we were living  deep in the Bible/Rust Belt. Well, it was kind of a church, but not really—it was more of a support group for  non-Evangelicals. There were a handful of Wiccans, several Secular Humanists,  one Spiritual Naturalist, whatever that was; three pairs of swingers who had all gotten divorced and re-matched; a rabid blind lady football fan in a wheelchair, a family that (I am not making this up) dropped off several dwarf children and peeled away in their van every Sunday morning; and, there was Fred.

Yes, I did see all this the first time I walked into this church. Most visitors, after sitting through one of our services—which usually involved children reading prayers for dead hamsters and the football fan lady standing up  (!) and yelling “GO STATE!” at inappropriate times—walked out afterwards and never came back. Not me! I said to myself, Don’t judge on appearances! Give them a chance!

The church was small and, not surprisingly!—somewhat desperate for new blood. In a matter of months I was the Sunday school teacher and serving on a number of committees.

(When I brought my mom to this church a few months later she said, “Jesus Christ, Jesseca, that was the oddest group of people I have ever seen in one place in my entire life!” )

Fred--one of the more normal people at the church!—was legally blind, had wild red hair, severe scars all over his face,  and a terrible limp. ( I never asked how he got that way. Years later, when we watched Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire and Mad-Eye Moody stomped onto the screen, my husband and I clutched each other gasping, “It’s Fred!” )

Because he was legally blind, Fred could not drive a car. But he could ride a bike—and not just any bike!—an enormous, modified tricycle, painted purple and orange, with a giant bell, streamers attached to the handlebars,  and a huge basket on the front.  Best of all, it had two long poles attached to the back which he festooned with seasonal decorations. I thought it was awesome.

“I can’t  see ‘em coming, so might as well make sure they see me,” he grunted. I could see his logic. (The fact that he rode around town barely able to see was a little disturbing.)

At the town holiday parade, Fred was in his glory, weaving the SuperTrike though the parade, narrowly missing Girl Scouts and baton twirlers, the bike flashing with colored lights, and a large plastic Santa head looming unsteadily six feet overhead.

“What the hell is that?” gasped my husband, his jaw dropping.

“Ah…you know my friend from church?” I said, “Fred? The one I’m on the Community Outreach Committee with?”

“Yeah?” said my husband, staring, spellbound, at Fred, who was now riding in figure eights and lobbing Twinkies at the crowd.  He glanced at me. “Is he here? He better watch out so that freaking nut job doesn’t run him over.”

“Umm….actually, that’s Fred, “ I said, as Fred ran over one of his own Twinkies and swerved dangerously into the crowd.

What’s Fred?” asked my husband, mesmerized, as people from the crowd gently righted the SuperTrike steered Fred back onto the parade route.

“On the bike. That’s Fred,” I said. “That’s my friend, Fred, on the bike!”

“What?”  My husband whipped his head back to stare at me. “That’s Fred? The lunatic on the giant purple tricycle? Are you serious? What is wrong with you!”

“He’s funny,” I said defensively. “He’s a good guy!”

“Is he homeless?” my husband demanded, aghast. “Does he live on that bike?”

Fred was not, in fact,  homeless.  Despite popular belief, he was a professional accountant who held down a job in social services.

After I had known Fred several months, he asked me  if I could drive him around to run errands for the church, since it was winter and hard to get around on the SuperTrike. I readily agreed—who wouldn’t help a blind guy with church errands!—but I said I had to bring the kids. (I did like Fred, but being alone in the car with him felt a little awkward. I mean he wasn’t exactly normal. )  He seemed a little put out at this, but grunted his assent.

I was thinking his errands would run an hour.  First, we went to the party store. Fred spent 45 minutes picking out balloons and streamers for his bike—St Patrick’s Day this time!— and a couple of things for our next church event (“Pagan Garden Party”).

As we walked out, thinking we were finished, I said something about getting home and Fred said, “Do you mind if we stop by Wal-Mart?”

Of course not. I like shopping at Walmart —especially in the  South—about as much as I like having a hypodermic in my eyeball, but whatever, it was right next door.

The boys groaned. (I am sorry to say I had conditioned them to hate Wal-Mart, too.)

“Just one more stop,” I hissed, dragging them back to the car.

We went into Wal-Mart. I knew it was a bad sign when Fred purchased a hot meal—a jumbo bucket of popcorn chicken—to sustain him during our visit. Luckily, the kids were pretty entertained by Wal-mart, and kept helpfully pointing things out, like, “That lady has no shoes,” and “That man’s belly is too big for his shirt,” or “That lady has eleven kids, and one of them doesn’t have any pants!”

Fred filled an entire cart. While we were in there, we ran into at least half a dozen of his friends, all of whom looked like they slept under overpasses.

After an hour, I said I really had to get the kids home.

“Okay, okay,” said Fred in irritation.  Now I was getting annoyed—this was tuning into a major hassle! After loading up his nineteen shopping bags, I turned the car toward his apartment complex.

“Oh, just one more stop,"  he said. “I’m out of cigarettes. Pull in here.” He grunted at a gas station and hopped out when we pulled in.

I turned to look at the boys, who were both staring at me with huge eyes. For kids of their generation, cigarettes are like, a really, really bad thing, like Nazi propaganda, or goat porn, or meth, or something.  Now I was really pissed at Fred. We had been out for nearly three hours, it was getting dark, and, now,  I was taking him to buy cigarettes—in front of the kids! Church errands, my ass!

Fred seemed to know a lot of people at the gas station. After shooting the shit with all of them, he finally headed back to the car.

“You guys, start screaming as soon as he gets back in!” I hissed. My boys nodded. They totally got it. Fred was the type who barely acknowledged kids and had zero tolerance for their noise.

Fred got back in the car. The boys looked at each other gleefully and started screaming and smacking one another. Pretty soon they were trying to kill one another for real.

“I really better get them home,” I yelled over the noise.  Fred grunted and mumbled something about really needing to go to the drugstore, but I ignored him. My kids were both under 8, it was dinner time, and we had been running around all afternoon.

We pulled up in front of Fred’s apartment. I offered to help bring in his 19 Wal-Mart shopping bags, three huge bags of St Patrick’s Day supplies including helium-filled, shamrock-shaped-Mylar balloons and an electric leprechaun, and two cartons of  Marlboroughs, but he nimbly blocked me from getting anywhere near his front door (I realized later he was probably trying to spare me seeing the inside of his apartment, for which I should be probably be forever grateful. )

We got home 5 minutes after my husband, who had been a little alarmed to find the house dark and cold and no one home.

“Where were you guys?” he asked, as the kids, after 3 hours pent up in the car,  made straight for the trampoline. He saw by the look on my face that I was seriously steamed about something.

I told him Fred has asked me to take him on some errands for the church but that it had turned into a three-hour odyssey, including a stop for cigarettes!

“We kept running into all of his friends,” I complained. “It took forever!”  My husband sighed and closed his eyes.

“Oh, Jesseca,” he said. He patted my arm.

“Wha—“ I said blankly, suspicion slowly dawning on me.  “You don’t think Fred has—a thing for me? He can’t. He knows I’m married, and  anyway, he can’t even see me. ”

“Yeah, well, his friends can see you! Why do you think he dragged you around Wal-Mart for an hour?” My husband shook his head at my hopeless naiveté.

“Huh,” I said. Maybe he was right!

But I still felt bad for Fred. A month later, we were back at the party store, buying decorations for the SuperTrike to sport in the Easter parade.







Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Driver's Ed

Now that I have a kid old enough to start thinking about Driver's Ed, all my own Driver's Ed memories are flooding back to me. Anyone who grew up near my hometown when I did will remember our Driver's Ed teacher, who I will call "Bob" (not his real name.)

The first time I met Bob, we were hanging out at my friend "Amy's" (not her real name) house when her parents weren't home, definitely not inhaling anything or doing anything illegal. I'm sure we were getting a jump start on our homework for junior year! Anyway, while were sitting around getting high on life and talking about economic policy, we heard a honking from the driveway.

"Oh my God! Shit! " yelled Amy, jumping up. "I have to go driving with Bob!" We all thought this was the funniest thing we had ever heard in our lives and rolled around giggling while Amy shoved  gum in her mouth and rooted around under the couch for her purse.

Bob kept honking insistently as Amy looked desperately for her shoes. None of us were in any state to help.

"God damn it, I'm  coming, you f**ing ***hole!" yelled Amy, running down the steps and out the front door.  We looked out the window. Two other kids from school were already in the car, looking anxiously toward the house. Bob leaned out the window and yelled something unintelligible at Amy, who got in the backseat with no shoes on. We heard her and Bob yelling at each other. The car made an  agonizingly slow 67 point turn--we could hear Bob yelling at the unfortunate driver the whole time--  and headed back out the road.

After Amy left, Jill from next door walked home, and Helen left on her bike. I suddenly felt really hungry. Staying there alone and  making a huge batch of mac n' cheese seemed completely logical! After I ate, suddenly occurred to us that I probably shouldn't be here, all alone in Amy's house, cooking, so I bolted down to my bike and headed for home. (I found out later that Amy got in big trouble when her mom came home and found the front door wide open and a huge mess in the kitchen. Amy got grounded for a week. )

The next day I asked Amy how the driving went.

"Oh my, f***ng GOD," she complained, "That m***f**** is completely disgusting! I  don't even want to talk about it!"

My first time driving with Bob was a week later. Amy warned me to a) wear old clothes, b) bring wet wipes, c) bring money, and  c) for god's sake, get some friends to observe at the same time.  I followed her advice. I got in the driver's seat in sweatpants (it was the 80's!) and an old t-shirt. I had ten dollars cash in my pocket. My friends Heather and Josh were in the back seat. (I don't ever remember my twin sister and I ever driving with Bob at the same time for some reason.)

We pulled out of my driveway. Bob started to gesture frantically. I looked back at Heather and Josh, who shrugged.

"Shraba blagahgah," Bob snapped, gesturing straight ahead at the woods.

"Um...what?" I asked nervously.

"Shraga blagagahgah!" yelled Bob, jerking his hands in three different directions. I tried to turn in the direction he seemed to be indicating, but he slammed on his passenger side brakes as hard as he could.

"AAAAAAAHHHH!" screamed Josh and Heather, hurtling forward.

"FRAGGAH MURGA FLEP!" yelled Bob furiously, cranking the wheel the opposite direction. Dandruff and spittel flew around as he shook his head, muttering angrily. 

"Okay, okay!' I yelled, glancing back at my friends, who were hastily putting on their seatbelts.

We drove slowly through town, me trying desperately to learn Bob's dialect and the meanings of his hand gestures.  I felt like I was getting the hang of it. Josh and Heather translated when they thought they knew way saying.

We seemed to be heading for the army base in the next town over.  About a mile from the gate,  Heather poked me--I was concentrating hard on the road to avoid getting yelled at--and I glanced over at Bob. He was sound alseep! Drool was running down his chin onto the seatbelt. Now I understood about the wet wipes. Bless Amy!

"Oh my god, I think I'm going to puke," hissed Josh, gazing at the river drool dripping off the seatbelt onto the seat, "Can you just take me home?"

"No way--it hasn't even been an hour yet!" I hissed back. "And we have to pick someone else up!"

"Can we at least get something to eat?" whispered Josh as we neared  the McDonald's on the rotary. (Again, this was the 80's. We thought McDonald's was awesome!) Now I knew why Amy had told us to bring cash (no one had credit cards in high school then!).

Fortified with fries and McNuggets (which we all thought was delicious), we kept driving around and around the rotary until Bob woke up.

"Mava drava guh," he muttered, shaking his head.  He pointed at the exit for the army base.

"We're going on base?" I asked, pointing at the exit sign as we went by it for the 12th time. Bob nodded and pointed anxiously, looking at his watch. I got on the base entrance road.  I could not wait to get out and let the base kid drive.

We went through the gate--the sentry on duty seemed to be familiar with Bob, as he just waved him through--and pulled up in front of  an apartment building. Bob leaned on the horn, making us all jump. A young man with a buzz cut waved from the window and then came out with a young Asian woman, whom he introduced as he wife, Lin. We all said hello. Lin looked really nervous. The young man gave her a kiss and said, "Good luck, honey!" Then he hopped on a motorcycle and took off.

"Mrrrthp," said Bob, indicating the driver's seat.  I immediately jumped out and squeezed in the back seat with Josh and Heather. Lin looked petrified. She pointed to herself and then the driver's seat and shook her head. Bob shook his head back and pointed at the driver's seat again.  Lin made blocking motions with her hands like, No way am I driving that car, pal! She spoke rapidly in a foreign language, shaking her head.


"Ah graaaabaada!" Bob yelled, stamping his foot. Lin looked at us in terror. We looked back in perhaps more terror, seeing what was about to happen.

"Ah, Bob," said Heather, leaning out the window, "I don't think Lin wants to drive. Why don't we let her observe today and I'll-"

"Glabagondabagaga!!" yelled Bob. He picked up his clipboard, pointed to the list of drivers, and waved it at Lin. He took her arm and steered her into the drivers seat.

"This is a really bad idea," muttered Josh, closing his eyes.

"Um, Lin?" said Heather politely, leaning over the seat, "Can you--ah-- understand what he's saying?" Lin nodded and smiled again, looking petrified.

"Okay, yes," she said nervously.

"Ah--do you speak any English at all?" asked Josh."Have you ever driven a car before?"

Lin smiled and said, "Okay, yes."

"Oh, my god," said Josh.

Bob got in the passenger's side and slammed to door. He began to point out the parts of the car to Lin, who just nodded and smiled.

"Okay, yes," she said. Bob reached over and started the car. Then he pointed at the gas pedal.

Lin slammed her foot down on the gas pedal as hard as she could. We roared out of the parking lot. Heather, Josh and I all grabbed on to one another. Bob leaned over and grabbed the wheel,  shouting angrily. He was so mad we could even make out a few words, like "brake" and "signal!"

Lin then stomped the brake pedal with both feet and we all slammed forward, nearly winded by the seatbelts. Bob was alternately screaming and gagging on his on saliva. He made "slow down" motions with his hands, and Lin seemed to understand. She pushed the pedal down more gently. We rolled toward the front gate, were waved out, and approached the rotary. Bob made fast motions with his hand, indicating that Lin should  speed up to merge into the rotary.  Lin slammed the gas again and we flew forward into the rotary, all of us screaming in terror. We came inches from sideswiping a guy in a pickup who swerved out of the way, waving his middle finger at us. Lin  then slammed the brake again, causing the car behind us to drive right off the road into the grass.

"Oh my god we're going to die," Heather whispered. Josh was trying to hide on the floor in case we saw someone we knew in the rotary, which wasn't unlikely. 

"Ga! GAH!" screamed Bob. "NO STOP!"

"Okay, okay!" gasped poor Lin. She hit the gas again and we shot toward  McDonalds. Now people were leaning out their windows and screaming at us to get the F out of the road.

"Okay, yes!" Lin yelled back.

Bob grabbed the wheel and we screeched around the rotary again--cutting off a large truck in the process --finally exiting onto the road back to town.  Heather and I had our arms wrapped around one another  and Josh had his eyes closed again and looked like he was going to be sick. We all gasped a huge sigh of relief to be out of the rotary Bob pointed straight ahead, staring at his clip board. Lin slowed down to twenty miles an hour. 

Five minutes later we head a snore. Bob was out cold again, probably exhausted from ten minutes of sheer terror.

Heather leaned over the seat motioned for Lin to pull over at a farmstand. We held our fingers to our lips and pointed at Bob. She nodded and, very carefully, got out of the car. Josh got in and slowly parked under a large tree. Then he and Heather quietly got out. Heather turned the radio up a little to keep Bob from waking up. We all carefully closed our car doors. Then we all looked at each other  and all high-fived.

Josh went in the farmstand and called his mom. She said she could drive Lin home. We started walking to his house, which was less than a mile away, so we wouldn't be in sight when Bob woke up.

We never heard what happened when he did wake up. As far as Bob knew, it had all been a bad dream.




















Monday, May 18, 2015

Worst. Massage. Ever.

We were in Phoenix, AZ, visiting Grandma, and not only was a) my back acting up, I needed b) a break from the mother-son dynamic that always manifested itself when we were visiting my mother in law. (This consisted primarily of my mother in law making copious amounts of hot dish involving tater tots and mushroom soup, and my husband desperately trying to think of reasons not to eat at home.)

I found a spa online that sounded ok. It was in Scottsdale, which is the nicest part of Phoenix. I left my husband, the boys, and Grandma debating whether to eat lunch at  Taco John's or stay home and open a can of soup (it always rains when we go to Phoenix.) I found the spa and was introduced to my masseuse,"Krysteyl." She seemed very bubbly and friendly. She led me into the totally spa-ed out New Age darkened, candle-lit, aroma-therapied massage room. I sighed with happiness --my back really hurt after the 6 hours flight from the East Coast--and was looking forward to an hour or relaxing bliss.

Two minutes into the massage Krysteyl got a phone call.

"Oh sorry, it's my son, I have to take this," she said, and answered the phone will poking ineffectually at my back with one hand.  After a long conversation comprised mostly of Krysteyl assuring her son she would be home in two hours, I asked how old her kids were.

"Four and six," she replied. "They're alone so they're always calling me at work!"

Four and six! My heart  seized with sadness for the little boys, home all alone in Phoenix (which, actually, is pretty sketchy--the headlines in the paper that week were all about local teenage girls being kidnapped out of malls into human trafficking.)

"Oh," I said finally, not having anything positive to say to that information. I shut my eyes and hoped for peace and quiet, thinking, why does this always happen to me? Complete strangers tell me their life stories on a regular basis-- I have no idea why. Usually, I find it very interesting, but today, I just wanted a quiet massage. And there I was, trapped in the dark, naked, and Krysteyl really needed someone to talk to.

"Yeah, well, my boyfriend, he's not too good at watching them, " Krystel confessed. "My PlayStation is broken, so the don't have anything to do."

"Right," I said, and thought about the walk we had taken at the foot of  the Superstition Mountains the day before (which was free,) our trip to  the Botanical Gardens, and the sheer joy of just running around in t-shirts in February. 

"I really like this music," I  added, desperately hoping Krysteyl would turn it up and stop talking.

"Course they don't know him very well," she continued as she started on my shoulders. "I mean I've only known him for a couple weeks now."

"Really," I said as disinterestedly as possible. 

"Yeah, and my mom really doesn't like him. She thinks I just picked him up on the side of the road and started, you know,  doing it with him that same day!" Krystel said indignantly. Her hands paused. I remained silent, with my eyes squeezed shut. Maybe if I pretended to be asleep, she would stop talking.

"Of course, that is basically what happened," she mused. Oh my god. "He was standing on the side of the 50 and I saw him, like, standing there, and I was all, he's so hot! So  I asked him if he needed help, and he said he had no money or anything for a tow--he just got away from his crazy ex girlfriend over in Goodyear--she had a restraining order against him--and he had nowhere to go! He didn't even have ten bucks to his name"

"So you picked him up?" I said in disbelief. "From the side of the highway?"

"I know, right? So I brought him home and-" here she giggled--" we started doing it right that day, you know, like it was meant to be. We tell everyone- it is so romantic how we met! Like a fairytale!"


This rendered me speechless. She kept talking.

"So, that whole first week it was just like, we were so in love!" Krysteyl gushed. "And the week after. But he doesn't like to go out much, you know, so I always stop and get food on the way home to feed him a good dinner.  He doesn't like to do stuff with the kids. Until he gets his PlayStation back, then he'll play with them. We're trying to get it back from his crazy ex girlfriend. But she lives all the way in Goodyear--and he doesn't have a car, so we can't get over there--we're thinking about taking her to small claims court to get it back!"  Awesome! Burden the court system!

 "So....." I ventured, "What, ah, what does he do for work?"

The hands paused again.

"He's looking for an appropriate opportunity to go into business right now," Krysteyl said  solemnly. "I mean he's not going to do just anything, you know, he's not going to be a working stiff."

"Right," I said, thinking, this guy is a complete, full-on, bottom of the barrel loser.

"And we were both raised LDS, so you know, we have this work ethic we learned in our church."

What?! What kind of Mormons did they have down here in Arizona?  Epic fail, Mormons! These people definitely did not get the same message at Sunday School as the Romneys!

"--so right now, you know, he's just working on getting his PlayStation back."

"That's what he does all day?" My brain was actually having trouble processing it all.

"Well, you know, he keeps calling her, and she doesn't want to give it back! So what's he supposed to do all day?"

"Maybe he could look for a job," I said. "Or could take your kids outside?"

Krysteyl's hands slowed a third time.

"Well, he doesn't like, you know, going outside. Actually...." she reflected,"He doesn't like to get off the couch too much. So sometimes, actually a lot of the time, I just tell the kids to go in their room so we can do it on the couch so he doesn't have to get up or nothing."

Right. At this point I was wondering if I should call DHS on the way home.

"But I don't know," she said seriously, "I'm starting to think we are having some relationship issues."

"What makes you think that?" I asked.

 "Well, there are just some things, you know, that we need to have a serious talk about. Because now when I get home, you know, after working eight hours and picking the kids up and doing the shopping and cooking us all dinner, and he wants to do it on the couch, sometimes I don't want to." Krsyteyl was starting to sound sad. "I think we might need to talk to, you know, a relationship counselor."

"Maybe," I said, thinking, this the stupidest woman I have ever met in my entire life. What she really needs is a total head transplant.

"'Cause he's like, you know, 'I feel like I have to beg for my kisses,'" Krysteyl said tragically. "I think we need to talk to someone. Like they have on Dr. Phil."

What I would not give to see Dr. Phil talk to this couple: "Krysteyl, do you often pick up broke, unemployed losers on the side of the road and immediately bring back to your apartment and start sleeping with them while your children are present?


"Ok, hon, you're all done. Gosh, it was so nice talking to you and getting to know you!" Kysteyl gushed. The lights came on. We looked at one another. There was nothing to say.

"Well, good luck," I said finally. Krysteyl gave me a hug. I reeled out of the spa into the Arizona rain, thinking, sometimes, you meet people who make you lose all hope in humanity. But it was a pretty great massage.


















Monday, February 2, 2015

All U Can Eat China Buffet and Donuts

I have already described some of our eventful six months in Kansas City, MO: I was mistaken for a hooker, I stole a cat from a family of sociopathic squatters, and our ice cream man wore nothing but underwear. There are, in fact, really lovely parts of Kansas City (both in Kansas, and Missouri!) but we did not live in one of them.

However, due to my completely delusional sense of optimism, I was determined to make the best of our totally sketchy neighborhood! I used to take long walks around what used to be historic boulevards. There was a formerly grand Victorian mansion  that had cages of rabbits with signs that said, and I quote, "Meat 4 Sail". There were dogs chained up guarding piles of scrap metal that absolutely no one intended to steal. There was a former scenic drive along the river bluffs which now served as the go-to spot for buying crack, setting your couch on fire, or both.

I also harbored the insane belief --which had absolutely zero basis in fact!--that we would find great local cuisine in the blighted region of Northeast Kansas City. If I had wanted to find good local food in this neighborhood, I should have stuck with BBQ. But no,  I had to go with....Chinese food!

One night while my husband was studying,  I drove a few blocks to "All U Can Eat China Buffet" to pick up dinner.  It seemed all right when I walked in the door--it was clean, and the few people sitting down eating were all wearing shoes (which was not always the case in restaurants that part of Kansas City and I am not kidding. ) There was a box of donuts and a box of pizza at the end of the buffet, apparently for family members attending the buffet who did not actually like Chinese food. (This was a new one on me, but I would see it again when we moved to North Dakota!)

I got three take-out containers and headed for the buffet. In the first I put two Peking ravioli and two eggrolls. Then I closed the container and reached for a the next one.

As I did this, the woman behind the cash register stared at me in amazement. As I put the first container aside and opened a second one, she came out from behind the register. She pointed to my first take-out container and urged in strongly accented English,  "Open that please!"

Startled, I opened my first take-out container and obediently showed her my two Peking ravioli and two egg rolls. The woman laughed, and motioned for me to close it again. Then she indicated that I continue what I was doing. Mystified, I scooped Kung Pao chicken into a second container. When I closed that and reached for a third container for the rice, the woman patted my arm and said, "You stay here!"

Now completely stymied, I stood there,  rice scoop in one hand, wondering what the heck was going on. A second later, the woman from the cash register re-emerged from the kitchen with an older Chinese man, who was smiling and wiping his hands on his clean white apron. The woman spoke to him in Chinese, motioned at me, and  pointed at my take-out containers. The man nodded at me to open them all up, which I did. He smiled. Then, seeing the confused expression on my face, he started to laugh. He laughed until he had to wipe his eyes.

"You good girl," he said. He motioned at the my three take-out containers. "Everyone who comes in here, they won't take more than one box. They pay by the box--put everything in just one box. They pile it up so high, they can't close it."

The woman was smiling too, and pointed at my boxes.

"THREE boxes!" she exclaimed, "You pay for three boxes!"

The cook shook his head, smiling. He put his arm around my shoulders and gave me a squeeze.

"We have never seen anyone pay for more than one box here," he said, "You good girl."

"Some people come with just fork!" added the woman. "Eat straight from buffet!"

"One box....fork?" I felt like I had walked into the Twilight Zone. "People try to eat right from here....with a fork?"

"No pay!" the woman said gravely, "Just fork. And stay all day! All three meal!"

"Ahhhhhh --my god," I said. They both nodded their heads, and then shook them gravely, as if to say, Now you know what we are dealing with!

I paid for my food in a state of disbelief.  The cook said again, "You very nice girl." I think they gave me a discount for not being an unconscionable glutton.  I drove home in shock. I kept thinking about what they said about forks. And staying all day!

On the way home and I tossed the Chinese food in a dumpster.

When I walked int the house Abe said, "What about the  Chinese food?"

I said, "You can read about it in my blog 19 years from now, but right now would just lose your appetite." (Actually I said, "It was closed.") I think I made spaghetti. And gave up on local cuisine.


















Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Prince and I

It was my very first day as a preschool ski instructor at Aspen Skiing Company. As the rookie, I was last on the totem pole for being assigned students, so that first day, I did not have a class. My boss told me to just hang around and help inside in case someone showed up late.

Soon after that, a group of what appeared to be Saudi Arabian men in sequined one-piece Bogner ski suits, furry Moon Boots, and radio head sets came into our lobby.  My bosses' ears pricked up: major, big time serious client coming in!

This was the fall of 1993--eight years before 9/11.  In Aspen at that time, everyone loved the Saudis, and they in turn adored Aspen.   One time when I was working at the Aspen toy store, a teenage Saudi Arabian girl hopped out of a limo in front of the store and came in and spent $800 on plastic mood rings. My friend Jency got 3 carat diamond earrings as a tip for serving cocktails; one of the ski instructors got a Jeep. Everyone in Aspen knew they could ask Prince Bandar (later Saudi ambassador to the US) --who had a house in Starwood the size of a small shopping center --for money for their boy scout troops, senior class trips, or lost cat fund.

The man in the front of group inquired politely about getting a getting a lesson for a four year old girl--right now. My boss looked at the assignment board in a panic and saw that everyone was already out on the hill--except me. She eyeballed me is dismay. Not only was I brand new, I was not even from the West.  I had learned to ski at Mt. Wachusett for God's sake.  My boss said yes, absolutely, they had one of their finest instructors ready to give a lesson right now!

The man stepped away and spoke into his microphone; the rest of the entourage then began to speak rapidly into their own headsets. Some of them ran out onto the Snowmass Mall, others positioned themselves by the door. My boss, "Deb,"  hurried into the back. My other boss, "Jen,"  came running. They stood in front of me looking panicked, sizing me up, and probably wishing desperately there was someone else--anyone else!!-- around to take the lesson. They had never even seen me  actually teach.  For all they knew I was a complete incompetent! But, it was me or no one.

"Her father is Prince Farud*,"  Deb hissed, grabbing me by the arm and steering me toward the back door. "Don't worry, they're always very nice. The whole group will stay and watch--probably the whole time. Don't get rattled. Don't push the little girl too hard. And SMILE! You'll do fine. " Then she kind of gave me a pinch like or else!

I hustled outside to wait by our tiny little bunny hill--a slope of about 100 yards where the kids took their first steps on skis. From the bunny hill, first-time skiers could see the other kids gleefully riding the Magic Carpet further down the hill, which motivated them to learn to stop as soon as they could. Most kids stayed on the bunny hill for an hour or less until they learned to snowplow. Some kids managed it their first time--for others it took a few runs--but everyone made it to the Magic Carpet by the end of the morning. Or so I thought.

Ten minutes later, a bevy of sparkly-jumpsuited, fur-boot wearing Saudi Arabian women began wandering into the corral, accompanied by bodyguards, nannies, grandmas,  and more guys with headsets and walkie talkies. The entourage lined the fence surrounding the bunny hill. There was my first client: an adorable four-year-old girl in her own brand new, bedazzled snowsuit and brand new, top of the line ski equipment. Accompanied by two women, she came laughing over to the red mats where kids put their skis on. The ladies all smiled and took pictures and then politely got out of the way, going to stand on the fence with the bodyguards. Another woman stayed nearby to translate.

With approximately twenty-five Saudi Arabians watching me, not to mention both my supervisors and the translator, I started to teach the little girl how to ski. She obligingly stepped into her skis like I showed her and practiced stepping down on the bindings so that she was buckled in. Then she practiced getting out of the skis, and getting back up from being on the ground. Next, she stepped out on the snow. She giggled with delight, slid her feet back and forth, and tumbled down. We practiced getting up. So far so good.

Maybe an hour into the lesson, all the walkie talkies began crackling and the bodyguards and guys with headsets all started freaking out. They shouted at each other across the corral, "He's coming! He's moving! He's on the move! The Prince is coming!" The bodyguards fanned out from the corral and up to the mall. The women all started chattering and rearranging themselves. Cell phones--so rare at the time that if someone whipped one out in the lift-line, everyone would actually hiss at them!--were produced, and rapid conversations undertaken. Everyone waited in tense anticipation for the arrival of the Prince.

I tried to focus on my little student (whom I'll call Salah, although I have no clue what her actual name was,) while all this was going on. The bodyguards started to shout out the Prince's location: "He's gotten out of the limo! He's passing the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory! He just passed the Stew Pot!" --as he made his was down the Snowmass Mall.

Meanwhile, to my dismay, Salah didn't appear to be making  any progress whatsoever on learning to snowplow. She just giggled and coasted to the bottom of the slope, making absolutely zero attempt to point her toes together. I caught her every time before she crashed into the fence--where several of her aunties were taking videos--and asked the translator to point out that the other kids got to go on the Magic Carpet,  because they had learned how to stop!--this usually did the trick. We even attached Edgie Wedgies to Salah's skis--these pretty much made it impossible not to snowplow--but  no luck. On top of that, Salah had no inclination to walk back up the hill. The kids were supposed to walk back up the red plastic mats themselves--another motivator for getting off the bunny hill--but Salah just laughed at us and waited for us to tow her. It crossed my mind that this tiny child had probably never really had to do anything, and was probably not going to start now.

By now the prince was entering the corral, and I was sweating from chasing and catching Salah and towing her back up to to the top of the slope every 5 minutes. The prince came over and said hello --my supervisors nimbly jumped in between us and introduced themselves before I could say anything unfortunate!--and patted his daughter's head.  With both Jen and Deb staring at me in grimacing agony, I explained the progress she was making and what we were working on. The prince just smiled and waved his hand as if to say, "It's all good!" After a few minutes he went to the fence to watch our progress with the rest of the family.

My supervisors had noticed by now that Salah was not even close to snowplowing. She seemed perfectly happy to coast down the hill, have me catch her, and then have me tow her back to the top.  Jen gave me a look like, just let it go and keep smiling! So I kept at it--chasing, catching, and towing--for another stultifyingly dull hour and a half, at which point, thank God, Salah got hungry and opted to quit. I thought my back was going to give out. The Saudis and their entourage gave profuse thanks and meandered away from the ski school, walkie talkies crackling, body guards sprinting ahead, and no doubt, stretch Hummers warming up somewhere in the basement of the Ritz Carlton. I was completely exhausted and aware that her lesson had pretty much been an epic failure!

The next day, when the royal family came back, my bosses were ready. No more taking chances with a rookie who could not even teach a four year old to snowplow in two and a half hours! They had our best, most patient, most experienced and amazing male (by request) instructor, "Mike," ready to take Salah out. After a few days, "Mike" hit the jackpot: the royal family invited him to spend a month at their house in Chamonix, pay him like $10, 000 a day just to be on call for Salah,  and let him bring his girlfriend. (You really can't exaggerate the stuff that happens in Aspen.)

When Mike got back from Chamonix we all asked him how it went. He said he only had to work an hour a day, the family was incredibly nice to him, and Chamonix was fabulous.

The only thing that made me feel better was that he said it took him two weeks to convince Salah to snowplow.
 





* Name has been changed!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Orphanage

A few weeks ago, my kids were joking about goons from the psych hospital dragging someone off to a padded cell. This reminded me of something.

When we lived in Kansas City, MO—in the same unforgettable 6-month period in which I stole a cat from our brain-damaged squatter neighbors and I was mistaken for a streetwalker—I was  a substitute teacher for four different school districts around Kansas City.

The only people who substitute teach are a) recent education graduates trying to get jobs, b) moms who need a little work or are kindly helping out their kids school, usually at the request of the principal; and  c) the freaks, weirdos and losers who will work for like, $30 a day, and can’t find other employment.  The first two groups target the nice schools--they avoid  neighborhoods where they wouldn’t feel comfortable, say,  parking their car. So for the assignments in the rough parts of town, that left, group C), and me, Miss Pollyanna Happy Pants, skipping into schools with bars on the windows and police officers stationed in the cafeteria, eager to figure out which learning styles the children had!

In retrospect, I should have just worked at Barnes and Noble, and had a relaxing six months shelving books and sipping lattes.  Anyway. My son’s comment about the men in white coats reminded me of my three days at The Orphanage. Until I got this assignment, I had no idea there were still orphanages. I found the facility tucked away in the woods all the way on the outskirts of the city. When I walked in and introduced myself, the ladies at the desk positively fawned over me. I think one of them actually hugged me. They led me into the teacher’s room and showed me they had baked me a cake. It said, “Welcome substitute!”

 This couldn’t be good.

“We’ve never had a substitute show up before!” the lady at the front desk explained.

“Oh,” I said. “Heh.”  I had accepted the job for three days. I was wondering if I could cancel it before lunch.

But, I took some cake and was led to my classroom. It was a beautiful building—modern, clean, and bright. (It  actually reminded me of my cousin’s classroom in their excellent private Quaker school in Philadelphia.) It was by far the nicest classroom I had been in thus far in Kansas City.

A sweet, older lady who was a classroom aide gave me a rundown on the kids. There were only twelve of them, all in elementary school. As the kids filed in, the aide whispered  to me: this girl was here because both parents were in jail. This boy’s family was homeless. And this little boy here, with the big blue eyes and spiky blond hair, had been found alone in an abandoned building, in a room full of animal feces. I remember his face to this day.

It turned out to be the easiest substitute job I ever had. I stayed all three days. Every day they made me cake. The kids were quiet and well behaved. The food in the cafeteria was really good, and I noticed the facility had a pool outside, covered up until summer. I noticed at one point that several kids did not have shoes on--their living quarters were attached to the school--and asked the aide why.

“So they don’t run away,” she said , as if I was an idiot. (Which, in this situation, I was. For a fact, I knew less about harsh reality than anyone else in the entire building—brand new teaching degree or not!)  I looked outside at the woods and thought about how long I had driven to get here. I thought of a twelve year old kid walking along that road. I couldn’t imagine past that.

At the end of the third day, the kids started to act up a teeny bit. I was nice to them, and obviously, had just stumbled off Rich White Lady Stupid Planet. I was not in the least alarmed when one of the kids talked back to me—in another school, I had seen kids throwing chairs at each other with the principal present!—so a little lip from these kids did not alarm me. My aide, on the other hand, was really alarmed.

“You got to press the button,” she said. “He can’t act like that.”

“No, it’s fine,” I said, “No big deal. The day is almost over.”

The kid, hearing me defend him, threw a pencil across the room. The aide stood up.

Press the button,” she said urgently. Mostly out respect for this lady who had been so kind to me for three days (not the typical substitute experience, I must say!),  I pressed the big gray button on the wall behind my desk.

In less than ten seconds, two enormous men in white coats entered the room, looked to the aide, who pointed at the offender, gently lifted the kid off his feet, deftly removed his shoes, and took him away. He didn’t seem overly concerned—definitely not frightened—he had obviously been down this road before.

“But—“  I was so shocked I could not even speak before they had quietly closed the door behind them.

The aide shook her head and went back to her crossword. The other kids went back to their spelling.  I hissed to the aide, “But where did they take him?”

“Oh, he’ll be in detention and talk to the counselor until he can calm down,” the aide said. “Don’t you worry. He’ll be fine.”

When I finished telling my own kids this story, fifteen years later,  they too, were utterly speechless. I don’t know what shocked them more: that I actually did things before I had them, or that there were still orphanages, where kids were taken away by men in white coats if they talked back.