Saturday, September 22, 2012

That one time we were trying to throw watermelon rinds off the deck

With a whoosh, my watermelon rind makes a nice high arc over the railing and hits the ground, stirring up a few pebbles and tumbling a few feet down the steep hill until it stops.

No Points.

With a whiz, my brother’s shoots through the air: over the low branches, between the high ones, perfectly aimed so as to splash into the shallow water neatly.

One Point.

With a slurp, Mom sheepishly takes another bite. “I’m not done yet!”

No Points.

With a roar, Dad rears back and flings his rind with all his might.


But with a surprisingly loud thwomp, it immediately hits the nearest tree trunk with incredible force and explodes, showering us with wet, pink, cold confetti.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Lake Stories

Once upon a time in the seventies, my dad was a crazy young thing with long hair and short shorts. He bought a big plot of land at the lake and made big plans to build a big old lakehouse where his soon-to-be-big family could spend lazy weekends fishing, swimming, boating, roasting marshmallows.

Big lakehouses are, of course, easier drawn than built, and the land stayed bare for quite some time. But everything changed one warm spring day during what should have been a routine trip to the local sporting goods store.

As the legend goes, Dad spent quite some time admiring the camping backpack display, a three-sided log cabin in the middle of the store. “Can I help you?” a friendly salesperson asked. “How much for the cabin?” Dad replied. “That’s a backpack display, sir.” “Okay. I’ll take it.”

An hour later, Dad and three long-haired friends stood sweaty in the parking lot. They dusted off their hands on their short shorts and looked contentedly at the new cabin, now dismantled and loaded into the bed of a borrowed pickup truck.

The cabin eventually made its way up to the lake and was reassembled, bit by bit gaining a fourth wall, a roof, and even real windows. Dad was bestowed with decorating privileges for the cabin, and its walls were soon flanked with stuffed buffalo heads, goat heads, deer heads, deer butts.

The close quarters of the cabin were quaint—pull out the sofa bed, and more than half of the cabin was filled up. No running water? No oven? No toilet? No big deal. It was an adventure! Plus, it was only temporary. “This’ll be the fishing cabin, for poles and lifejackets and bait, once I build the big house,” Dad speculated.


A quarter century later, the big house remains a reality only in drawings, and the whole family still squeezes into the “fishing cabin” during weekend trips up to the lake. The buffalo head maintains its eternally creepy stare, and the sink is still filled with maps and bug spray and flashlights instead of dishwater. Countless visitors have braved carsickness and unmarked dirt roads to spend a weekend at the Lechner lakehouse (okay, lakeroom).

Sometimes when there’s bad weather or it’s late at night, we all cram into the cabin to play cards. We circle around the table in an assortment of sticky orange nylon chairs, pleather barstools that are spilling their stuffing, lawn chairs, upside-down five-gallon buckets. With the sounds of lapping water and of moths flinging themselves at the porch light in the background, someone shuffles the cards and deals them out.

The conversation sometimes turns to the rules of the game; sometimes to the next morning’s breakfast menu; sometimes to chores that need to be done the next day. But, especially when we have visitors, we eventually start telling the lake stories.

There’s the time when Mom’s visor flew off while she was driving the boat, and Dad, waterskiing, reached out a hand and caught it.

There’s the time when the raccoons jumped off the roof so they could knock over the trash cans.

There’s the time when we had a real-life armadillo invasion: so many armadillos you could hardly move a foot without being in danger of stepping on a nasty little gray waddler.

The lake stories that follow are stories that everyone knows by heart and has heard a million times.  Around the table, we all trip over each other to try to tell these stories the best. We flap our hands and contort our faces into ridiculous expressions, trying to recreate the scene. We argue about what really happened; we dissolve into laughter; we count backwards to try to figure out what year it was when the bumblebee fireworks turned mutinous and flew straight for Dad, chasing him up one side of the dock and down the other, until he finally had to jump into the lake to escape them.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Hammerhead's Code

In sixth grade we are learning about the Code of Hammurabi, more commonly known as "Hammerhead" on pop quizzes.

The students were given the beginning of an ancient Babylonian law and asked to fill in the anticipated punishment.

Results = hilarity.

If a person commits a robbery and is caught, you shall be in jail, and be a slave for the king.

If a person commits a robbery and is caught, cut your head off. 

If a person adopts a child and raises him, the biological parent must leave the city forever.

If a son shall strike his father, he is hanged.

If a son shall strike his father, sit in the ditch.

If a person steals another person's child, the child is theirs to keep.

If someone opens his ditches to water his crops, but accidentally lets the water flood his neighbors' crop, say sorry.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Scene from an Interview

Whitney, an excited prospective employee, waits in the office for her interviewer, Ms. Principal, to arrive. Due to construction, summertime projects, and many transitions, the office is in a state of disarray. Boxes and books and computers are piled up around her. She smiles at the promising clutter and breathes in the delicious school-y smell.

Ms. Principal enters the scene. Whitney rises to shake her hand and offer a winning smile. They both seat themselves.

Whitney's foot rests atop an unknown object. She is, however, busy chatting and does not bother to look down until five minutes into the interview.

She looks down. Her foot is resting upon not a book, nor a stuffed bear, nor an empty Sonic cup, but...

...a mouse.

A dead mouse. But definitely a mouse.

Whitney's eyes open wide. She does not scream. Perhaps this is a stress-test that all potential teachers go through? She smiles her winning smile again.

Whitney: Um, excuse me? There is a mouse on your floor?

Ms. Principal (shocked): WHAT?! Did it get you?

Whitney: No, I think it's dead.

Ms. Principal: Oh, my.

Ms. Principal exits the room, then returns donning rubber gloves and holding a wad of paper towels. She disposes of the mouse.

Ms. Principal: Well, that was embarrassing.


Whitney goes home and googles "Is a dead mouse an omen?"

Results are inconclusive.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012


Nancy stands up from the table to get the sugar from the kitchen. The chair scrapes across the floor as a giant hiney rises in the east. Her gray sweatpants are hiked, ambitiously, halfway up her spine -- but never higher than the waistband of the Depends that peek out on top.

My coworker, the staff member in charge of neighborhood associations, has banned Nancy from running for office. “She can come to all the meetings she wants,” she told me once in private, “but I refuse to have a president who tucks her shirt into her Depends.”

Nancy is an ungainly, looming woman with short, slicked-back gray hair, flattened ears, and googly eyes made googlier by thick glasses. She steadfastly pairs her gray sweatpants with a rotation of XXXL tee-shirts featuring cartoon animals, crude phrases, or both. Nancy has a sputtering Sylvester-the-cat lisp and the loudest damn voice I have ever heard in my life.

Someone once told me that Nancy had had a stroke somewhere along the line, contributing to her bizarre speech patterns. Sometimes her pregnant pauses are so long and so painful that you can almost hear the words building up inside of her, finally escaping in an impossibly loud grunt of a word. “UM!” she will shout, finally, breaking the silence. “WELL!”

Nancy arrives at 9:30 every Wednesday morning to make coffee for the 10:00 counseling session. “Good morning!” she squawks, making her way toward the kitchen. Once the coffee is brewing, she sits down at the table to chat with her best friend and neighbor, Donna.

Donna’s low, androgynous voice and Nancy’s screech clatter about like a Jerry Springer soundtrack. They talk about Nancy’s cats, about other neighbors, about the pile of leaves amassing in Donna’s yard that Maintenance refuses to take care of. They talk about former lovers, estranged children, and wild days of yore. Donna does not mind much when Nancy gets stuck on a word. She usually just finishes the sentence for her.

It is almost four months before I notice Nancy’s hands. The discussion topic for the day is the importance of having a support system—family, friends, neighbors, someone, anyone. As sometimes happens, however, conversation has gotten off track. One resident is in tears in the corner. Donna, already on pancakes number five and six, is eating her feelings. And Nancy, having momentarily overcome her speech impediment, is delivering a hair-raising diatribe about her traumatic childhood. She cannot seem to stop. Her wild-eyed description of her negligent mother is equal parts horrifying and histrionic. But somehow, it is her hands that catch my attention as she waves her fork about, spraying half-chewed pancake into the air, and condemns her mother’s soul to hell.

The rest of Nancy’s body shows seven decades of poverty and misuse: slabs of extra flesh and fat, missing and gray teeth, sunken eyes, a stiff shuffle. But the backs of her hands are as smooth as wax. She has long, tapered fingers with delicate fingernails; every morning she slips on a still-shiny gold band. Even though she is nearing seventy, there are no liver spots, no swollen veins, no yellowed nails or bony knuckles.

Towards the end of the meal, Nancy has made real progress with the counselor. Things have quieted down significantly. I take the quiet moment to compliment her on her hands. She blinks her googly eyes open and shut rapidly as her mouth tries to catch up to her brain. Seconds pass; Donna drowns her seventh and eighth pancakes in syrup. Finally Nancy’s words come to a head. “WELL!” she hollers, scooting back her chair to put the coffeepot in the sink. “Thank you! My mother did always have nice hands.”

Monday, January 16, 2012

Hang On To Your Hat

As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society—things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man's curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.

(E.B. White-- in a letter, via Letters of Note)

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Stories from the Census: Southern Hospitality

I hope my mother does not read this blog.

That is to say: I have to admit that sometimes, during the Summer of the Census, the heat just did me in. It addled my brains. It made me make decisions that I would now classify as "poor."

But it was 102 degrees outside all summer, and I was carrying that stupid polyester messenger bag the whole time, and no one ever answered their door, and I was just so damn hot I could have cried.

I knocked on door after door after door. Night came, and morning followed. The fortieth day of enumerating. With a slight delirium settling upon me one afternoon, I banged on one more apartment door and pressed my forehead against a nearby post.

The door swung open, and my eyes met a navel. I gazed upward: a swath of dark skin stretched over a protruding ribcage. Upward again, to crying eagles and Gothic lettering and barbed wire tattooed across a skinny chest and collarbone. Upwards further, to a toothless grin.

"Hey, lady!" said a mildly creepy and very tall man.

I smiled. I showed my badge.

"Census lady!" he said. "Come on in."

Here are things I did not do:
  1. Peek my head inside with trepidation
  2. Smile and decline sweetly
  3. Accept, but then remain safely just inside the doorway
  4. Pass GO
  5. Collect $200
There was no hemming, hawing, or waffling about like I had done during my first dozen home visits. It was hot and my flesh was melting off of my body. "Oh, thank you!" I said and positively leapt through the doorway into the cold air of the apartment.

I blinked my eyes, adjusting to the dim room. I took in my surroundings, both admiring the decor and formulating an exit strategy should things turn out poorly. Having staked out a secondary exit, I then made a comprehensive mental list of items in the apartment (you know, in case I needed a weapon).

Zebra print rug. Check. Inflatable mattress. Check. Five-foot-tall pyramid built entirely from Red Stripe bottles. Check.

Aaaaand... we're done. That was pretty much it. My new friend, the minimalist, lived a life few could imagine. He also, judging from the delicious smell wafting from the kitchen, was a hell of a cook.

"It smells amazing in here!" I said, peeking over the island into the kitchen. "What are you making?"

"I'm making jambalaya, Miss Lady!" he said. "You want some?" My stomach rumbled.

"There is no way she's saying yes," you may be saying to yourself.

"Yes," I said.

I know! I know. I don't know what I was thinking. I almost never do something my mother would disapprove of. I have watched plenty of terrifying, children-snatching episodes of 20/20 and 48 Hours. I have completed all of the Stranger Danger puzzles in the McGruff workbooks. I have no excuse!

There is no moral to this story except that, when heat-addled and hungry, I make questionable decisions. "Yes, I will take a bite of your potentially-poisoned, delicious-smelling jambalaya, O Half-Naked Red-Stripe-Drinking Stranger," I said. And then I took a bite. Heck, I ate an entire bowlful. It was delicious.