Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Sore Muscles

   The days were warm this past weekend, air-conditioning warm.  The bugs were enjoying a break from the rain, and the moist ground was more than willing to give up even more bugs than usual.  The grass seemed to have sprouted overnight and it looks as if hay season will be here tomorrow.  The landscape has swallowed much of what was visible only days ago.  And even though we can no longer see it, we know it is there, the dilapidated old house that is our neighbor.  The owners have abandoned it to foreclosure, the renters or squatters or what-have-you's have even packed up and left.  The building has long passed unlivable. 
    It is not the building we have become interested in, however.  It is the quiet half-acre adjoining it.  It is actually the old home's yard, a separate parcel of land lost to taxes.  We acquired it from a local man that had mistakenly bought it at auction and had no need for it.  It will soon serve as access to our pasture and as a watering hole for our horses.  All this after reclaiming the land, cutting back the trees, removing the old fence posts, fighting with the old barbed wire, and brush hogging the weed choked field.  Memorial Day weekend, three days away from work and the city, would be the perfect time to take on such a task.
     Initially, my father and I fought our way through the tall grass, surveyed the topography, and formulated a plan of attack.  He would mow down the grass while I chainsawed my way through the tangle of pines sitting beside the small spring we planned to use as a water source for the pasture.  With plenty of sweat and wood chips flying, the branches piled up quickly.  The forks on the tractor carried them away as I moved on to battling the barbed wire.  The old strands were matted in clumps of grass that hadn't seen a good mowing (or even grazing) in forever.  My hands and calves and jeans bear the marks of that battle.  My gloves have been reduced to tatters.  The fence poles followed shortly after, pulled one by one out of the ground.  The steep lay of the land does not easily lend itself to tractors and other machinery, so much of the work is done with sheer brawn.
    By the end of the third day, the land is cleared and ready.  It awaits the new fence, the new water trough, the trot of new animals upon it.  It is nearly complete.  Another weekend of sweat is all that is needed to reclaim this once forgotten parcel.  My muscles are sore, to be sure.  I am tired.  Yet, the sweat and soreness are comforting as I look at the work that has been accomplished.  In the end, it is my family's land and they enjoy their time here.  The soreness will fade, my body all the better because of it, but their smiles and the legacy of the land will not.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Views from the Courtroom

    I was told it was an honor and extremely important task, participating in the judiciary process, a civic duty to be embraced.   I now know why a person is sent a summons demanding involvement.  I realize why they threaten jail time for skipping out.  If they truly wished happy volunteerism, they would at the least provide parking and maybe a few comfortable chairs.
    I am sitting here on what seems to be the oldest benches from the oldest courthouse in the country.  They were originally built to seat arrested people awaiting their trial.  They are hard, bolted to the floor too close to one another, and promote only the finest posture.  Around the perimeter of the room are several library cubicles for the people that need to continue their work with laptop or pen and pad,  and apparently the current judiciary feels twenty of these is just about the right amount to create enough hostility over seating arrangements without escalating into physical blows.  After five hours, the administrators have tried to quell the boredom with a videotape of some obscure 90's movie shown on a single 26" TV suspended in such a fashion to face only one side of the room and adding to the seating arrangement hostilities.  The room itself is sparse, could use a tad more than just paint (it probably hasn't seen refreshing of any sort since about '64), and somewhat dismal.  There are a couple of books to fight over, some outdated magazines, and, of course, a person could use their phone until the battery dies.
     The administrators are pleasant enough, going even so far as to apologize for the $5-a-day compensation not covering the $12 parking fee.  They are more than happy to help guide you through the process or answer any questions.  They are kind enough to inform everyone present that their compensation will be processed on "Payroll Friday" and mailed to us within 2-3 weeks.  The manager even pre-apologizes for butchering your name before you are given your assignment.
     I am currently participating in the new jury duty system.  It is a system in which, if you are lucky enough to escape the big room's boredom (the bullpen), and find your courtroom, the fun really begins.  The excitement builds when the county sheriff tries to politely shoehorn 100 people into 75 seats.  It grows when all cell phones need to be powered down or forfeited.  By the time the judge enters the room, the excitement is at a fever pitch.  The excuses for not participating in the judicial process fly at an alarming rate.  The classics come out first: disabilities (not being able hear being popular, especially while listening to music on one's phone), no comprendo coming in a close second (especially comical when answering all the questions asked in English), and financial hardship (really funny when proposed by the unemployed of the group saying it interferes with the job search).  Then the really creative ones start dropping: "I'm a radical", "I'm a militant", "All cops are honest", "All defendants are guilty and should get life", "My daughter's sister's cousin is pregnant and I have to watch their dog", and so on.  The final trick, for the hardcore, is the honesty approach: "You're the judge that sentenced my little brother last year" or "He looks like the guy that raped my sister."  The jury pool shrinks considerably and then the lawyers throw out all the most stern-looking or forthright-looking citizens.  Anyone with an honest job usually finds themselves back on the Fourth Floor.
    And so it is that I find myself returned to the "Bullpen" watching the clock creep along toward the final bell of my final day of jury duty for the next couple of years.  I have learned much.  I have learned that when faced with adversity (or just really dirty bathrooms) a person can hold his bladder for nearly 10 hours.  I have learned a new argument against the minority conviction rate (more minorities were excused from service purely on language and reading, or the claim that they could not communicate in the courtroom only outside of it, than anyone else).  This seemed truly odd to me, seeing as the demographic pool seemed to side away from predominantly white, the jury box did not, solely due to minority unwillingness to participate. I have seen enough to know exactly why trials take weeks and seem to drag forever, and jurors are able to write books during the process.  Lastly, I have found a place perhaps more horrifying than the DMV.

Monday, May 21, 2012


   It is quite a dreary day.  The rain is hitting hard against the window.  I can see the puddles dancing as the drops endlessly pelt them.  The sky is cool and grey, not a ray of sun to be seen.  I am preparing to pick the kids up from school as I peer out the window for the most accurate weather forecast.  I can see the other parents running as if they can beat the drops or weave between them.  There appears to be a parade of umbrellas battling to fit through the playground gate.  I remove two oilskin cowboy hats from their hooks in the hallway and begin my harrowing journey down the never ending block to the school.  The kids love to don these hats and pretend to fight their way home on some epic, rain swept adventure.  As I feel the rain on my face I remember earlier days of marching younger daughters down this same block to kindergarten and pre-k, shooing them out of the puddles as they giggled.  When my oldest attended school but her sister did not, the little one used to love skipping through the puddles and filling her boots with water outside her sister's classroom.  To this day neither one likes to give up the outside playground for the cramped quarters inside the school during inclement weather.  Both would rather experience the weather, question the comings and goings of clouds or snowflakes or raindrops.  They stand defiantly outside their classroom doors, daring their classmates to brave the elements alongside them.
      I really hope my children never lose that wonder.  I hope they never learn that fear.  The fear of wet jeans or wet socks, the fear of messy, damp hair, the fear of wet hands from playing outside with wet toys.  I hope that they always remember that a little rain on the skin does not melt them but washes away worries.  There is nothing like the freedom of playing in the puddles of a spring rain.  I still marvel at how much fun a puddle can be. Too many times too many people forget what it is to be young, to be carefree, to give in to the giggles, and that those giggles can bring rays of sun on the dreariest of days.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

April Showers

    You may have been wondering where April went.  Well April was full of showers, and it poured...hard.  The previous month was busy.  It had doctors' appointments, back surgeries, physical therapy, and plenty of discomfort.  It also had some outsourcing.  My wife's job was moved to South America and we endured all the good stuff that goes with the loss of employment.  (Big thanks to Big Government.)  It was a rainy season, to say the least.
     But May has turned those storms into wildflowers.  Our job search was painful but more than successful.  The back pain is nearly gone and there is a return to better days, chockful of activities.  Our steps have grown quicker and lighter, our hearts lighter.  We have weathered the rain together, as a family and the sun is now, finally, beginning to shine through the clouds.  I'm still an ornery SOB but I'm smiling a little more each day.  And the adventures can be delayed but the road can not be denied.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Awards Ceremonies

    I used a sick day a few nights ago.  I felt it was more important to attend an awards ceremony for the local Girl Scouts.  Missing a day (or night) of work is a small thing compared to disappointing two little girls.  They might not see me, I usually occupy a back corner to avoid adult interaction, but they always know when I am there. 
    The thing that struck me on this particular night was the lack of girls.  I have attended this ceremony for the last several years and there had always been a great showing.  Some of the troops have close to 50 girls, some even top 70, some are smaller (10), but combined there are 150 girls, with parents the room should be tight, at least 300 people, I would guess.  This night did not even get near those numbers.  There were rows of chairs empty.  The Scout leader cut right to the heart of it.  "Please leave a couple of extra seats for girls that might be coming.  It is raining and hopefully the games will be postponed.  Thank you."
     As always, I started thinking.  If they handed out trophies for the number one team tonight the room would be overflowing.  Instead they were handing out acknowledgements for visiting lonely senior citizens during the holidays.  They were passing out badges for gathering cans for the food pantry.  They were applauding each other for helping each other gain confidence as they conquered a 40 foot wall during rock climbing.  They were celebrating the passing of a friend, a scout, a person with more than 50 years of touching the lives of young women.  There were other awards, other acknowledgements, for years served, for projects completed, for other lives touched, like the home schooled Girl Scout in Missouri that the troop adopted.  She simply asked to share experiences because time with doctors and at the hospital with her sick brother did not allow for a lot of social activities.  
     I realize that trophies for coming in first are memorable.  I sadly concede that a ball game played in the darkening drizzle of a Monday night is more pressing than nurturing community, charity, caring, and helping others, and recognizing the sacrifices, however small, that are made by a group of school girls.  It was a dark, damp night.  But it is also a dark, cold time we live in.  Maybe I am a bit more pessimistic than most, but this was a sad statement of what is more important to most people and the priorities we teach our children.  Our role models are million dollar prima donnas that are burnt out and used up by 40 getting paid to play kid games, serious kid games that callously leave most behind, broken.  Our role models are not strong women that bucked the system and taught the world that they were just as capable in the outdoors as men and could give back to their community at the same time.  Perhaps I missed something but I doubt it.  And I used a sick day to make sure I didn't miss a thing. 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Too Much Concrete

      I heard this the other day and it stuck with me, "That's what's wrong with this country, too much concrete."  It seemed fitting that we were only a day away from making the trip into the mountains to visit Grandma and Grandpa.  It had been a long week, a longer month, and the trip always sets all four of us at ease, a kind of "breath of fresh air" to blow away the stress and unwind a little.  During the drive, we, as a family, have time to reconnect, talk about our misadventures during the week past, discuss upcoming events, and make plans for things that we would like to do after everything else is done.  It also allows us to ready ourselves for the week's worth of farm chores we will try to accomplish in just 24 hours.  Sometimes we can pull it off.  Other times we simply sit and relax.  And so it is with this weekend, a nice mix of doing some simple, quick chores to check off the to-do list sprinkled with rocking chair sitting.
     A lot of the stress-free atmosphere has to do with the lack of concrete.  The feel of the damp grass beneath bare feet tickles not only the soles but the soul.  The fragrant wildflowers fill the air and the lungs with life.  The bubbling of the creek as its water rushes over the rocks fills the ears and drowns out the white noise of the cityscape left behind (my ears seem almost superhuman without the throbbing pulse of city living constantly drumming in my head).  With the city's haze left behind, everything seems clearer.
       On Saturday, my daughter began her wildlife checklist for the weekend, a test to see how many different kinds of animals she can see during the weekend.  My test was merely to see how sparse I could make the concrete that surrounds us all week.  The world obliged us both, and in a single day.  We always spy plenty of birds (eagles, turkey buzzards, and a variety of songbirds), squirrels, chipmunks, deer, and groundhogs.  But this day would allow even more possibilities.  A stop at our local farmer to buy some fresh butter and milk brought cows, farm dogs, and pigs.  It also brought that wonderful pound of fresh butter sold by the crock on the side of the road that comes with a down-to-earth conversation with the folks that make it.  The only concrete here is in the foundations of the barn and home on the land, and the road that passes by them.
       When we pull off that road and on to the 4 miles of gravel that lead to our driveway, we spot beaver and geese making their homes in a local pond.  We wave to our horses out in the pasture and call to our goats as the "Baaaaaaaaa" at our truck's approach.  Roxy, our chocolate lab, meets the truck in the driveway, awaiting our little daughter's emergence from the passenger door.  The concrete has disappeared and with it the need for shoes.  Pants get rolled up to dip toes into the pond and dip the net into the water in awkward attempts to catch newts.  Water guns appear as if by magic and wet everything in sight, triggered by children's laughter, or is that the other way around, I am not quite sure.
        A break in the action is the perfect spot for a snack, a quiet interlude on the deck munching on fruit and veggies, some chips and dip, interrupted by "accidental" water gun discharges and fits of laughter.  My wife has brought a bucket of dandelion heads to the table, recruiting fingers to help pluck the petals, preparing for a try at making dandelion wine.  The weedy flowers grow here like a yellow carpet, (no handful of weeds sneaking between concrete cracks).  That is when we are visited by our chickens.  Instead of noisily chasing bugs in the garden, however, they are frantically dodging here and there.  This chaotic dance reaches a crescendo as one chicken breaks from the flock and heads for the pond and a mangy fox leaps out of the high grass at the pond's edge.  Grandpa was already in motion as the fox made her dash for the tiring chicken.  The shotgun went off and the fox slumped.  Grandpa dashed for the chicken coop as my daughters came running out of the house with their Crickett .22.  They would dispatch the writhing fox as Grandpa cleared the perimeter and put the chickens away to unwind from the excitement.
          With a full day of chores and checklists complete, my wife laid out a feast for grumbling stomachs.  Homemade on Saturday night is the only way to reflect on the day.  Grandpa and I retire to the comfort of the couch to catch a bit of the baseball game.  Beer in hand, my muscles untangle and my mind drifts.  The evening eases away, Grandma and the kids retire to the big bed to read and sneak candy and giggle.  My wife curls up under the covers as the night's chill creeps through the window with her own book.  As the moon brings light to the choir of spring peepers,  Grandpa and I are contentedly pretending to watch the game between eyelid tests.  The quiet is shattered by the dog, hair-raised, growling at the door.  She is spooked by the intruders outside.  We spring from the couch and pile out the door all at once, dog, Grandpa, and I, ready to defend our homestead.  The intruder cloaked in black gives out a growl and heads for the trees.  The bear cub stares at us in bewilderment, highlighted by the spotlight in Grandpa's hands.  Momma bear voices her discontent and wanders back into the woods, cubs in tow.  Our animal checklist is complete for today.
          The lack of concrete does not mean a lack of action.  It does, however, mean the action is different.  The life lessons are different.  The attitude different.  The people different.  The view is different and will continue.....

Friday, May 4, 2012

Pride & Projects

        I am beaming with pride, a father's heartfelt pride.  My oldest daughter was awarded a gold medal for her science project.  I am proud that she achieved such a goal but I am more excited for much deeper reasons.  The pride comes from not helping her achieve this honor.  She took on this project and worked hard on her own. She would not be denied her objective, dragging Grandpa through the woods.  Maple syrup would be her goal.  She wanted to learn the process from start to finish.  And she wanted to learn the "old-fashioned" way from her grandfather.
         Along the way, she had guidance but she did not ask for someone to do it for her, neither would Grandpa allow her to put the task off on someone else.  They worked together, mentor and student, over several weeks, tapping, gathering, evaporating, boiling, and bottling.  She wanted to show how the nutrients in trees traveled up through the trunk to the branches and leaves and then prove that those nutrients could be transformed into something people could live on.
          In the ever-escalating arms race of childhood excellence, where parents take over homework and school projects to ensure their child's achievement, my daughter wanted to reach her goals on her own.  She flew in the face of those that would commandeer a child's learning in order to pad school transcripts with awards that they garnered and not their child.  My daughter took on the responsibility of the task, win or lose, with the real possibility of mistakes or failure.  My job as a parent is to allow those mistakes and the life lessons that come from them, be it disappointment or success.  I am proud of her growth, her maturity, and her achievement, made all the more sweeter because it was her own.