The Deep Things of Dog

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Sweet, stinky cheese, dog.

In our 25 years of marriage, my wife and I have brought into our home a total of three dogs, two cats, five bunnies, one bird, twelve chickens, hundreds of insects, dozens of fish, and none of them could ever be considered even remotely attached to my wife (except for the praying mantis that landed on her pregnant belly and wouldn’t let go).  She has this anti-animal thing going on that manifests itself in a mutual animosity.  She barely tolerates our pets and they avoid her like she’s a corpse.

Her aversion has a specific, genetic component, just like blonde hair and blue eyes.  She was born into it.  I know this because I have it on good authority that her mother used to “accidentally” let the new dog out of the house without telling anyone, in hopes that it would R-U-N-N-O-F-T.  D.C. has never just let an animal free to wander the barren land, but she has made it very clear when her tolerance for a specific animal has run its course.

I, on the other hand, grew up with parents that loved dogs and I knew that my own family would one day have a dog.  But, before you start thinking that my kids and I are shoe-ins for the SPCA caring members of the year award, I need to confess that only four of the animals ever stuck… and those just barely.  The countless others were either carted off to “the farm,” given away to unsuspecting friends, sold on Craigslist, let loose or left in the freezer to die (the insects, not the cats).

It turns out that the reason I loved animals growing up is because I never had to actually deal with the animals, other than show them the occasional attention.  My parents fed, housed, walked, washed, cleaned, doctored and scooped.  They did everything nasty and I got all the good parts.

Fast forward to me being a parent and the poo was on the other foot, so to speak. I had to do it all.  Since D.C. hated animals and made it perfectly clear that she would have nothing to do with any animal that I brought into the house, the nastiness was left up to me to take care of.  Anyone who knows me knows that I hate nastiness.

I blame the kids.  It always started with an oath,  a promise made in all sincerity.  “We solemnly swear to feed and clean up after the X” (insert animal type here).   All I can say is that I must have had Alzheimer’s from a very early age because my short term memory is only filled with good animal memories and kept promises and I am, somehow, always surprised at how quickly the shine wears off of a new pet.  At the end of two months I usually had to step in with my Hazmat suit and pressure washer just to free the animal from its tightly packed excrement apartment.  This usually led to the animal living out the rest of its life on the “farm.”

Lather, rinse, repeat.

There are currently 108 official reasons why X animal didn’t get proper care, but that number is added to daily.  Mostly, I stand in awe at the length to which my kids would go in order to not have to care for an animal.  It would have been easier and quicker just to feed the stupid pet.  I’m also an enabler which doesn’t help.   There are self help groups I should be attending.

Since it turned out that we weren’t really pet people, the continuous circulation of animals through the house always seemed to baffle Dream Crusher.  In fact, the origination of my wife’s nickname came about because of her innate ability to cut off at the pass any request to bring an animal into the home.  The first word out of her mouth when the kids got that look in their eyes and asked for, say, a rat or a snake, was always “no.” The first word out of my mouth was always “sure.”  The NEXT words out of my wife’s mouth can’t be printed here.

I’m not saying that she wasn’t always right.  She was spot on about why we shouldn’t have had that particular type of animal in the house, or about the kids not taking care of X animal, and that I would eventually end up doing the dirty work myself.  She was always right.  It’s those darn puppy eyes that get me every time (the kids’ I mean).  I just have a really hard time saying no.

I may have never said no, but I wasn’t the kind of husband that would add another member to his household without first discussing it with his better half.   D.C. and I always discussed her minuses and my pluses before I brought our “next trip to the farm” home.  I credit her levelheadedness with keeping a good many bad ideas out of the house – like the de-scented skunk.

“Honey, the kids really want a dog.”  I brought this up at breakfast.

“No.”  She said this without looking up from her book.

“I think it would be good for them.  It would teach some responsibility. Besides, I had a dog growing up.”

“No.”

“Honey, think how fun it would be.  Think how much they would love a dog.”

“You’re crazy.  Why would we need another pet?”  She had set her book down by this point and was staring me directly in the eyes.  “We have four kids, for goodness sake!”

“It would be great.”

“No way.  Not a chance.”

“Please.”

“We already tried a dog.”

“But, that was a stupid dog.  This would be a better dog.”

(Our first dog Abby had to go for a long visit to the farm.  In hindsight the kids were way too young for an aggressive, but really cute lab/hyena cross that left me bleeding on so many occasions that I seriously got lightheaded from blood loss. When the boys and I and D.C. drove off, leaving Abby at the friends who had agreed to take her, the kids never noticed that she was missing until a week later.  It hadn’t really occured to them that they no longer had to hold their toys and food above their heads and sprint from room to room or stand on a chair when the dog was around, but Kelly and I noticed a change right away.  It was like we had been miraculously cured of leprosy and life seemed fluffy and smooth once again.)

“No way.  No more dogs.”

“Okay. Fine.” I sulked and continued eating my Cornflakes.

The next day I brought home Annie.

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Annie, whom one of the kids wanted to name Darth Vader,  grew up to be a 90 pound Yellow Lab, but when I picked her up from the breeder she was the cutest, fluffiest, ball of yellow excitement on the planet.  She was perfect, all paws and pudge, with a ridge of hair that rain down her nose like a long cowlick.  I wanted to name her “Ridgy.”  NB: The one concession was that D.C. got to name the dog.  Annie was her choice.

When I got home, the boys, who were always up for an experiment, immediately cornered Clark, our tabby, and introduced him to Annie.  The result was spectacular in the minds of the kids and less than stellar for the animals.  The cat was incensed. The dog was wounded.  It was the beginning of a great, long lasting friendship.

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D.C. was less than happy with me and never really warmed up to Annie.  At first, when she had that new puppy smell (like freshly washed leather shoes),  I would put her in D.C.’s lap and she tolerated her just fine, but when she started to get into the teenage years (Annie, not D.C.) and lost the cuteness and started secreting that stinky, oily liquid that coats the fur of all Labs, any hint of emotional attachment flamed into resentment almost overnight.

She really was stinky.  We could have attached an oil rig to that dog and lived off  the oil she produced.  It got so bad that the spot on the linoleum near the backdoor where she slept turned from a bright white to a burnt orange and no amount of scrubbing would remove the stain.

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But it’s not like we could bathe her.  She was 90 pounds and had rancid fur that, like Gore-Tex, had been specifically engineered to repel water.  Not bathing was fine with Annie because she hated water.  It seemed ridiculous to me that an animal so well suited to the water hated getting wet.  It was a bad combination of weight, stink and aversion.  In the end we tied her up in the backyard and hosed off the big chunks and called it good.

As Annie got older it became apparent that we might have bitten off more than we were willing to swallow.  Not only did this 90 pound sweet beast of a dog emanate an awful stench that kept us from snuggling with her, her own fur didn’t want to be attached to her either.  The sheer amount of rancid hair she sloughed off on a weekly basis was overwhelming.  It got so bad that the floor in our basement looked like it had a layer of fog on it, only it wasn’t fog, it was fur.  As you walked through the “fog” it would swirl and tumble around you like weeds tumbling along the desert.

Dogs need to come with warning labels because within the first year of her life we discovered that she had magical intestines, but not magical in a good way.  Annie was a veritable poop factory.  She could eat and excrete like no dog I have ever met.  If we fed her a cup of dog food, three cups of NOT dog food would come shooting out the other end.  She averaged a three to one ratio her entire life.

No matter what she ate it came out three times as big at the other end and what she ate was the stuff of legend.  Her appetite knew no limit.  It was like the voice in her head never spoke up and said, “Okay.  Step away from the bowl.  You are at capacity.”  She red-lined her intestinal system way too often.

It was her propensity to eat that caused D.C. to reach out and touch Annie, on purpose, for the first and only time and did she ever touch her.  It was Annie’s first Thanksgiving and, wanting to participate in the festivities, she quietly pulled the turkey carcass out of the garbage and proceeded to drag it and fling it around the kitchen and dining room like it was a play toy.

There were turkey parts stuck to the ceiling, the wall, and we even found pieces years later when we moved the piano.  It was at that very moment when D.C. touched Annie.  There was so much touching going on at that point that I had to rescue the petrified animal by letting her escape out the back door.  Annie was so afraid of Turkey after that incident that we had to switch her from turkey to lamb flavored dog food to keep her from losing weight.

Her eating had nearly killed her a number of times, so I wasn’t too surprised to find her at the back door a few years later dreadfully ill.  I was sure that she had eaten poison and realized that her gluttony might have finally done her in.   I felt awful for her and when I opened the back door her head hung low and she barely made it to her bed before she flopped down, with a sigh, and lay deathly still.  Her stomach was distended and tight like she was in the throws of labor and drool was forming at her lips.  Rat poison was what I suspected.  I put a bowl of water next to her and left her for the night, fully expecting to have to bury her the next day.

I was awakened by Christian in the early hours of the morning.

“Um, Dad, Annie threw up.”

I was still groggy.   “Can you deal with it son?”

“Um, I think you should come see this.  I don’t think I can do it.”  I was fully awake now and quickly pulled on my pants and made my way downstairs expecting the worst.  What met me wasn’t a dead dog; it was the largest vomit pile I have ever encountered.  It was as big around as a garbage can lid and a full three inches thick.  It was like an enormous oatmeal raisin cookie.  I looked over at Annie.  She thumped her tail cheerfully against the wall obviously proud of the gift she had deposited onto our new carpet.

It is completely accurate to say that the pile in front of me was like an oatmeal raisin cookie because it was nothing but a huge pile of bile and horse feed.  The stupid animal had gotten into the molasses and oats that we fed the horses and had gorged herself to the edge of the abyss.  I had to use the snow shovel to scrape the epic vomit pile off the carpet.

I think this is the only picture of her wet.  I think I threw her in.

I think this is the only picture of her wet. I had to throw her in.

The Christmas Tree From the Bad Place Part Fin

img086I come by my issues legitimately.

The first Christmas DC and I enjoyed together was nothing but sweetness… except for the Christmas tree  (this yuletide thorn has festered just under the skin from the first Christmas to the last).  God had just brought us through a very difficult health issue and we had our new son, Wesley, to enjoy.  I was overwhelmed by the Lord’s kindness and was feeling well enough to get our tree.  I bought a very respectable fir of some kind, brought it home and dragged it through the doorway.  That’s when our tree issues began.

“Which corner do you want to put it in?” I innocently asked.

“I don’t want it in the corner, I want it in front of the window,” she responded. I laughed a superior little snort of a laugh.

“We can’t put it in front of the window.  It HAS to go in a corner.”  I pointed to the corner that I thought would work well.   “That corner is perfect.”  I started dragging it to the spot.

“It has to go in the corner,”  I grunted as I leaned it against the wall.  I turned to her.  It was a teachable moment.  “If you don’t put it in the corner you won’t have anywhere to tie the strings.”

“Umm.  What strings?” she asked.

I rolled my eyes.  “The strings that you have to tie around the trunk to keep it upright.  Without strings it will fall over.”

She picked up the newly purchased tree stand and pointed at it with just a hint of annoyance.  “Let me introduce you to the tree stand…  John, this is the tree stand.   Tree stand, this is my stupid husband.  They call it a STAND for a reason!”  She ran her hand underneath the words “tree stand” like Carol Merill on Let’s Make a Deal.

I was so completely exasperated with “this woman that Thou hast given me”  (a woman who obviously knew nothing of trees or stands) that I wrenched the stand from her hands, tore it open, slammed it on to the bottom of the tree and set the entire thing upright.

“Make yourself useful and hold the tree for a second.”  It was not the kindest way to speak to the mother of my child.  I crawled underneath the tree while she held it.  I tightened the screws with a smug superiority like I was just about to prove to her and to the entire world that tree stands are a farce.

“Okay, now let go and watch what happens,” I said with as much practiced patience as I could muster.  I braced myself to be crushed by the weight of the tree, but nothing happened.

“I said to let go.”  She knelt down from across the room so she could see me under the tree and waved at me.

I reached up surreptitiously and pushed on the trunk.  It swayed a little, then firmly twanged back into place.   I shook it like I was killing a chicken.   I was dumfounded.  It didn’t fall over.  The world as I had known it my entire life shifted on its axis.  Everyone knows that you have to secure your Christmas tree to the wall.

In case you were wondering, I still look exactly like this only flabbier.

Why I was decorating the tree in my underwear is still a mystery to me.  Also, in case you were wondering, I still look exactly like this only flabbier.

Growing up our trees were never plastic, but they were always fake.  Dad loved big, bulky, bulbous trees that looked like they were frozen in time, mid-explosion by high speed photography and that kind of tree wasn’t to be had in our forest – or anywhere on the planet – so Earl improvised.

Using an electric drill and a generous pocketful of screws and twine, Dad would combine the best parts of two or three trees into one.  He would chainsaw one side of the donor tree, press it against the trunk of the regular tree and then bind them together with the twine and a few carefully placed screws.  If there were any bare spots left, holes would be drilled and extra branches would be “grafted” in and then tied to the upper branch with green yarn to keep it from sagging like old skin.

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After everything was in place and the trunk had been braced with 2x4s, Dad would pound two 16 penny nails into the wall, bend them over a bit and then lash the tree to them.  It always felt a bit dangerous to me, like the tree would somehow break its bonds and hunt me while I was sleeping, chanting, “I am not an animal, I am a human being!”

To say that Earl was not a perfectionist is a bit of an understatement.  He was the original Mr. 90 percent and “good enough” was his go-to phrase.  He used to tell the story of cutting stringers for the stairs he was building in our new house.  Every night he would try and fail and then bring the scraps out into the yard and burn them so no one could see his mistakes.  He was not a perfectionist, but he was way too proud to let people see his imperfection.  I think that’s the reason we covered every inch of our tree with garland and tinsel so no one could tell what he had done.

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But the tinsel and garland was no ordinary Mylar affair.  When I was young, tinsel and garland were made from glorious strands of pure molten lead.  Feathery strands of glittery lead that had the heft of a fishing weight and the aerodynamics of a jelly fish.  I was always encouraged to lay them on a few strands at a time, but could never manage it.  The real fun was to wad it up in a ball, throw it as high as you could to bounce it off the ceiling and watch it separate like a bottle rocket and fall in heavy clumps all over the branches.  They were supposed to look like icicles, but they looked more like moldy birds’ nests.  The gray lead marks were still on the ceiling when we moved.

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The lights on our tree were huge and bright and had reflectors behind them that cast a beam of light that would blind you if you stared at them too long.  You had to look at our tree out of the corner of your eye, like you would a solar eclipse, so you wouldn’t burn your retina.  Dad had to use the gas generator to power it because the rest of the lights in the house would dim every time the tree was plugged in and he was afraid it would start a fire.

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And, it was glorious.  It was like Las Vegas had come to visit for a few weeks.  Sure, the lead caused profound hearing loss and I had to compensate for the blindness in my left eye, but our tree was big and hideous and unlike any tree in the neighborhood.  It fit our family perfectly.

The Christmas Tree From the Bad Place Part 2

There was no snow this year in Bethlehem.

There was no snow this year in Bethlehem.

“Do not wrestle with the Baby Jesus!”

I’m not exactly sure when I realized that my kids had completely missed the meaning of Christmas, but I had an inkling that it had happened as I watched all four of them wrestling on the floor.  It was like the quarterback had dropped the ball – only it wasn’t a ball – it was the baby Jesus they were scrumming over.  It was a melee of screaming, crying, writhing humanity as they battled for the glory to be the one to put the Prince of Peace, the Wonderful Counselor, the baby with the upturned arms onto the waiting bed of ceramic hay.

I did what all good parents do: I took the baby away from them and gave it to the one who cried the loudest.  Molly got to do it.  It wasn’t that she deserved it, quite the opposite, but if she hadn’t been chosen she would have pitched a royal tsunami and to be perfectly honest, I was still a bit afraid of her at that time.  To keep the festive dog-pile from happening again, I wrote her name on the creche box and then explained to “all the dear children in thy tender care” that every year from now on we would each take turns putting the Savior of the World onto the manger.

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The decking of the halls always begins with the placing of the creche.  A pad of cotton is placed upon the piano top because everyone knows that it was snowy when Jesus was born.  I then put together the lean-to that Mary sits under and place it on the cotton pad.  Each child in turn then gets to choose and place each figure on the “snow.”  It goes round and round until the “Child of the Year” gets to place baby Jesus on the “hay.”

It used to be a sweet and touching tradition, but in recent years it has turned somewhat preposterous.   It seems that the ox and the ass are prone to wander into the manger where they try to eat the scarf off Mary’s head and the three wise men huddle in the corner, either throwing dice or trying to decide on which play to run next.  Joseph, stuck on the outside of the shelter and far away from his wife and son, looks disinterestedly at the camel like he wonders why it only has one hump.  Mary alone sits calmly amidst all the chaos and along with the cow, serenely looks at her baby as he lays on the manger with no blanket covering him even though the ground is covered in snow.

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Dream Crusher loves Christmas like no other holiday and wades into the fray with her ruler, slapping hands away from the scene with the practiced rhythm of one who would have been a good nun.  She quickly restores order and peace is to be had once again in Bethlehem.

There is Christmas music and it’s not tedious, but rather nice and soothing for the first few minutes.  The boxes are brought up from the storage room and D.C. takes out all the things she wants displayed this year and the kids get their ornaments out and ready to place on the tree.  Every year we give each of the kids an ornament and at this point in our lives we are awash in festive tree adornments.

When the kids were little they were always excited to decorate the tree, each placing their ornaments as high as they could reach.  When they were finished, the tree looked very bottom heavy, but it was beautiful and in their eyes it sparkled magically.  The next morning the kids would come downstairs to look at the tree and see once again where they had placed each ornament, but disappointment would quickly set in because in the middle of the night the Ornament Fairy had come and moved them uniformly around the entire tree.

“Mother! Why did you move our ornaments?!” they would whine in unison.

“Well, you didn’t put them in the right spots.  The Ornament Angel made everything perfect.  Doesn’t it look better?”

The tree from the bad place looked unlit even with every single strand of lights we owned draped loosely around it.  It was like a black hole from which light could not escape.  I am convinced that the National Weather Service noticed a distinct change in the ebb and flow of the tides because of the gravitational pull from our tree.   It took me over an hour to sling the lights around and over its carcass, but still I was forced to head to the store for more lights and even then it cast but a faint glow in the gloom of night.

This giant sequoia also ate ornaments for lunch.  There was such a gaping maw of greenery that once you put an ornament on a branch there was a chance that you would never see it again.  The Ornament Fairy didn’t stand a chance.  There were just too many bare spots and not enough ornaments to move them to.  D.C. was so distraught that she almost allowed me to put tinsel on the thing, which we all know is the cardinal sin of tree trimming.

When it was finally done everyone stood back and took a good hard look at it, but aside from the obvious bare and dark spots there was something terribly wrong.  The darn thing looked crooked.  I climbed underneath and undid the screws while the kids pushed and pulled on it, but no matter what we did it still listed to one side, like a ship taking on water.  There was nothing to do about it, but enjoy it as it was.  Not only was the tree big, it also rode the short yellow bus.

Everything was fine until we were about a week away from Christmas.  We were coping and had adjusted our routine to living with a tree.  We took turns using the one chair in the living room you could get to without crawling under the branches.  We watered it on the hour every hour for 18 hours a day because Dream Crusher demanded that it be hydrated.  She did not want this tree to dry out and spontaneously combust and blow the doors off of the house.  I think the thing actually put down tap roots and grew a few inches when it lived with us.

Moses prophesied ten plagues that would descend upon Egypt.  We experienced three of the ten, four if you include spiders.  There was so much entomological activity taking place within our tree that we were afraid the EPA would find out and declare our tree a wetland and never let us remove it.  The cobwebs hung from the chimney with care and spiders skittered around the ceiling like something out of a Steven King novel.

The gnats were so thick that a black plume arose from the tree if you brushed against it.  I got so used to swallowing the occasional gnat that I actually gained an appreciation for their taste.  The locusts didn’t swarm, but their smaller cousin, the cricket, made its presence known every hour of every day.  It got so bad that we almost killed an unblemished lamb and smeared its blood on our doorpost just to protect our firstborn.

On the second day of treemas my true love gave to me: a phone call telling me that the tree had fallen over.  I was at work, but she just wanted to let me know that water was everywhere and that she hoped the presents weren’t ruined.  There was a thick hint of sarcasm as she told me she “just wanted to let me know.”

I raced home and was able to get the tree upright and lashed to one of the ceiling beams.  That tree was going nowhere.  We filled the stand with water, but it was so dry that tree drank faster than we could keep up.  I must have put two gallons in it before I realized that the stand had cracked when the tree fell over and all of the water had spilled all over the presents again.

I may have said a bad word.

I won’t go into the gory details, but I bought a new stand, unlashed the tree and with the help of my son, a pair of 2x4s and some back strength, we lifted the tree high enough to allow Allison to crawl under and arm wrestle a new, industrial-sized stand to the bottom of it.  By this point I hated this tree more than D.C.  It was possessed.

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Christmas finally arrived.  We all crowded around the outside walls and the girls passed out the presents. As usual, there were way too many and the kids each piled them like a fortress.  We always open our presents one at a time (D.C. says it’s to make the day last) and as we went from child to child opening presents one thing became apparent.  The wrapping paper was sticking to everything.   It was like static electricity on a balloon only it wasn’t static – it was pitch. Everything underneath the radius of the branches was covered in it. The judicious watering had cause the thing to “bleed” like a stuck pig.  There were little ant hills of pitch, built drip by drip, rising from the floor like mini stalagmites.

I was done.  Christmas was dead to me and while the kids opened their presents in the dining room, I took what ornaments I could find off the tree and chainsawed the thing into tiny pieces and dragged them to the backyard.

Pitch burns really, really well.

This year’s tree.

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The Christmas Tree From the Bad Place Part 1

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We are not the Charlie Brown type

The Dream Crusher and I have been married for close to 25 years and in that time we have had our fair share of disagreements.  I hesitate to call them arguments because we’ve never really had a true “argument.”  Oh sure I’ve made her cry a few times, but it’s nothing to the overwhelming number of times she has made me cry.  If she weren’t so darn stoic I’m confident my antics would bring her to tears more often. But as it is, she usually laughs in the face of my “fury” and ends up spooning cold water onto my petty grievances and because of that (and because I’m really, really afraid of her), we get along as well as a Rabbit and an Eeyore can be expected to get along… except at Christmas

As I’ve gotten older this season of good cheer, Spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future, Black Fridays and Kings named Wenceslas just seem to irritate me more and more. When I was little Christmas was a magical time of throwing up on Christmas eve, sleepless nights,  mounds of presents and heaps of food (including one shriveled orange and six hazelnuts in the toe of my stocking so that mom could feel good about the rest of the stocking being filled with candy).  I relished calling my friends to gloat over the new Fat Track I got and to make fun of the new underwear they got.  There was always deep snow and a roaring fire and the afterglow of a binge belly filled to make up for the emptiness of the night before.

Then came adulthood and responsibility and the never ending tundra of whiteness that the singer is always dreaming about on Christmas, but doesn’t have to shovel.  It isn’t always a powdery snow that sheds so easily off the backs of excited travelers as they enter the house in their Norwegian sweaters and balaclavas.  Sometimes, most times, it’s slush and it always melts to dull brownness.  Too much money is spent on too few kids, but  everyone seems so happy because of it.  But then the GI Joe action figures are inadvertently called “dolls” by my wife and the boys refuse to play with them and the dream of my sons having the exact same magical “Kung Fu, action- gripped” childhood that I had also melts into dull browness.

It is the season where someone is always getting their wings or telling George Bailey that she’ll love him ‘til the day she dies or wondering why they have to have so many kids (in that moment I am on George’s side).   There is the ever present  BB gun with a compass in the stock and the Bumpasses’ dogs and shooting your eye out and someone is always getting their tongue stuck to a flag poles and no one ever knows where Flick is.

Cindy Lou Who is always cute (though she now plays in a punk rock band) and the Grinch’s heart is in a perpetual state of growth because Christmas isn’t about the presents, it’s about friends.  There is always a kid in the street ready to get the biggest goose in the world from the butcher shop down the street and Tiny Tim is always tiny and he always lives, but there is no mention of that other thing, the X of the season.

Washed up and drug addicted singers are constantly singing of the baby Jesus or new shoes or wanting Santa Baby to give them something expensive and Michael Jackson is always freaked out because his mom is making out with Santa next to the Christmas tree (wrap your head around that one and see if it doesn’t explain a lot of things).

The avalanche of Christmastide is continual and relentless from the day the month chimes November and doesn’t stop until I get to the point where I wish Jesus had never been born and then I realize that this season has nothing to do with Jesus and I swear that next year I  will donate all the money I would have spent on Christmas to an orphanage in Bangladesh and then I have a hot buttered rum and things somehow get better.

And there is always the ever present Christmas tree.  Some of our biggest disagreements have had to do with the Christmas tree.  The “issue” rears its ugly head the moment we all pile into the car and head out to wrangle us a Christmas tree.  For some reason, every year, Dream Crusher has this idea that our Christmas tree needs to be the size of a small topiary – just tall enough so that we can smile for the camera as we put the angel on top without standing on a chair.

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Her husband and children, who are thankfully made of sterner, Irish stock, have dreams of vast vistas of Christmas trees that need extension ladders in order to put the angel on the peak.  Since we are legion we get our way.  In Dream Crusher’s mind she’s trying to keep the leg lamp out of the window, except that our lamp is a Christmas tree with a trunk the size of an East German woman’s thigh – a thigh so massive that it needs to be tied to the beams in the living room to keep it upright.

Last year’s Christmas tree was a definite low water mark in our marriage and almost caused the cancellation of Christmas in the O’Bryan household.  Weeks before we were to get our evergreen object of worship, Dream Crusher began her annual campaign for a slightly smaller tree.  But all I heard when she brought up the Christmas tree was something on the order of blah, blah, blah tiny tree, blah, blah, blah microscopic tree.  I’m sure she had her reasons for not wanting a big tree, but I had a hard time hearing myself think with all that yakking going on.

When the time came to finally get the tree and we were pounding holes in the snow with our feet out on the tree ranch, I realized that this was one dream that wasn’t going to be crushed for we had inadvertently stumbled onto the secret steroid tree farm where all the trees were the size of Redwoods.  Kelly begged us to turn around and allow her to buy one from the tree lot.  I was having none of it.  We were on an adventure.  We were making memories.  You don’t get memories from a stinking tree lot! Besides, for some strange reason, in that expanse of sky, all of the trees looked amazingly reasonably sized.

The kids and I picked out a remarkable tree that like King Saul, stood head and shoulders above all the others.  I plopped onto my back and shimmied under the tree to get at the trunk with the saw.

“John?” D.C. asked in a quavering voice.  “Are you sure this is the tree we want? I can’t see your feet.”

It was too late.  The proverbial axe was already laid against the trunk and i was already on my back sawing like a madman.  There was a loud crack like a howitzer had gone off next to my head and the tree started to tilt.

I yelled “Timber!” but I was so muffled by the branches that I knew no one could hear me and I prayed they would run in the right direction.  When the tree crashed to the ground I felt like I had received an answer to the age old question of whether a tree makes a sound in the forest if no one is there to hear it.

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It took a good thirty minutes to drag the beast to our Subaru and then another ten to wrestle it onto the roof.  The entire body of the car sagged and moaned as the tree engulfed our tiny red Forester.  I climbed through the back and rolled down all the windows so I could lace the rope through the interior because roof rack was completely hidden and useless.  There was a small group of children that I heard ask their parents why they weren’t getting a man-sized tree like our family had.  I felt an immense sense of pride when I eased the car slowly out of the ranch, like I had just killed and skinned a moose and was bringing it home for the family to feed on all winter.  Subaru even used the picture of our tree topped Forester to demonstrate how awesome Subaru owners are (true story).

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When we got home I had everyone stand back while I cut the cords holding the tree to the car.  They loosed with a twang like a baby grand piano wire snapping.  The tree leapt from the roof like a freed criminal and took out a rose bush and a gutter downspout before it rolled to a stop next to the front porch.

Undaunted, I trimmed the excess branches off the trunk so I could attach the plastic tree stand.  It should have concerned me when I counted the tree rings and it turned out to be older than I was, but manliness is blind, and with the help of my chainsaw and some judicious trimming I was able to finally sledgehammer the stand to the end of the trunk.  The kids quickly tightened the “thumb screws”  as I leaned against it.

Everyone helped push and pull the baby Sequoia through the front door.  Everyone, that is, but Kelly. She was still lobbying (translated as beseeching ) me to take the vile creature away from her house and return it for a full refund, minus shipping and handling of course.  On we went (ignoring her pleas), sounding like a rowing crew manning the oars, chanting “pull, pull, pull.”  With each chant the tree inched closer to its final resting place, taking molding and paint along with it until with a loud whoosh the branches, trunk and all were lying on its side in the living room.

We don’t have a huge living room; it’s good sized and has vaulted ceilings, but when we wrestled the tree into a vertical position and I had tied her off on one of the overhead beams it filled the entire room – and I mean completely filled.  It was so big around that we literally could not see each other if we were standing on opposite ends of the room.  It was like a bottle brush and our living room was the bottle.

“There,” I said, as nonchalantly as possible as I stood wedged between the branches and the wall.  “Fit’s perfectly.”

Dream Crusher fought her way out of the living room like a small jungle explorer, turned and said, “Yep.  Fits just like a glove.” and then she was gone.

The look in the kids’ eyes was one of awe, sheer awe, like the entire real forest had come to our house for a sleepover.

I climbed under the tree to see if could maybe push it closer to the window in order to give us more room. It didn’t budge, but the blind did fall off the casing. Ignoring the house as if fell around my ears I pulled with the strength of Samson after his hair was cut, but my hands gave way and slipped off the trunk.  Blood flowed freely, but I couldn’t feel it because my hands were frozen.  Even though the house was set to a balmy 68 degrees, the inside of the tree it was freezing.  The stupid thing had its own micro-climate and fog was washing over me from above as the tree warmed from the outside in.

I called for my loppers and when they were firmly duct taped to my frozen hands I began working my way up the back of the tree, cutting every branch as close as I could to bare wood without losing all of the green. With one half of the tree gone it snuggled up nicely against the window.  From the living room side it was beautiful.  However, from the window side it looked like it had been dragged behind the car all the way from the tree farm.

I sat in the couch and marveled at this beauty that God had created.  Pitch and needles and discarded branches were everywhere and the living room looked like a Picasso painting, but we had our tree – the state record for that year I think.

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I Was Six Years Old Until I Was 47

This is not me, but my dad wearing the safest flotation device on the planet.

This is not me, but my dad wearing the safest flotation device on the planet.

I finally turned 47 when my dad died.

I’m still not sure how I found myself, a 40 year old man, sitting in my dad’s boat with an orange “Mae West” floatation device strapped to my body as we looked for his crab pots in a lee inlet within 100 feet from shore.  Then again, I was fishing with my dad and something would have been amiss had I not been wearing it.

It was just the two of us and there were other perfectly good life vests in his 16 foot Lund, but for some reason he wouldn’t let me in the boat until I strapped the bright orange life preserver to my body.  Dutifully hanging it over my head, I snapped the rusty clasps shut with as much anger as I could muster.  There was no arguing – I had to wear the vest, but there was no way I was going to attach the strap that goes under the legs to keep it from flying off in in case you do fall in, so I let it dangle behind me like dirty white tail hook.

“Snap the leg strap, John!”

I turned without a word and walked with as much dignity as I could muster through the sunbathers, fellow fishermen, and families enjoying a pleasant day at the beach.  Ignoring the snickering and pointing children and tugging at the tail strap every few feet to free it from the cracks and crevices it kept getting stuck in, I made my way to the boat.  I climbed in and sat there in the bow, knowing that I wouldn’t be allowed to push the boat off from shore for fear that I might fall in or get wet.

Putting on a “Mae West” life preserver may keep you safe in the event that you get knocked out and thrown overboard, but there is a reason that no one has ever called it a “dignity preserver.”  There is nothing life-affirming about wearing one.   It’s like wearing a “cone of shame”  to keep you from biting or scratching yourself or like being forced wear adult diapers on the outside of your pants  and then having to walk down main street.

I was wearing this particular flotation device because, in my dad’s eyes, I was in a perpetual state of being six years old.  Because I labored in this perpetual state of sixness I was never allowed, in his presence, to start the gas grill, lean against a deck rail, use spray paint or solvent, and, I always had to stand at the top of the boat ramp while he launched the boat by himself.  If anything he owned could potentially kill me he would not allow me near it.  It was like his house had been child-proofed for his 40 year old son and all potentially harmful items were removed from his garage, shop or house and stored in an undisclosed location when I came over.

It’s not like I’m totally helpless.  I change my own oil, remodel houses, use chop saws regularly, drive boats, mix gas, use a snow blower, and carve a really mean turkey and never once have I had to make a quick trip the ER with a piece of my body on ice so it wouldn’t die before it could be reattached.  But in Earl’s eyes I was the kid that had to wear a “special” helmet when I walked down the street in case I fell down or accidentally walked into a street sign.

His entire life he worried that something would kill me unexpectedly and his relationship to me always reflected that.  He didn’t go as far as smoothing all the sharp corners in the house, but he did give away his boat, his classic car and his golf cart so I wouldn’t get them after he died.  His single greatest fear was that something he once owned, that I now owned, would kill me or one of my kids.  It was so frustrating and made me want to scream and run circles around him with a pair of scissors in each hand and a butcher knife clutched between my teeth point first.

Because of Earl’s morbid fear of my death, there were certain rules that I always had to obey in his presence and one of them was to never, ever stand up in a boat. This had been so thickly ingrained in me for so long that when I took a ferry ride from Seattle to Port Townsend I never stood up once.

If you have labored under this particular penal institution then you will know that there are certain things that are made extremely difficult if you aren’t allowed to stand in a boat, like pulling up crab pots or peeing over the edge.  I never got good at pulling up crab pots while seated, but I became a master at the other.

NB: Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit.  I WAS able to stand up in a boat on occasion, but only if my dad or mom had a hold of the back of my pants, which made it difficult and more embarrassing to do the aforementioned.

As I got older I almost always patently refused to get in the boat with my dad, but he had promised that people were hauling crab by the bucketful and that he had dropped his pots the day before and would need help hauling them.  I love crab so much that I was willing to endure almost anything and that is how I found myself sitting in the bow of the boat wearing a bright orange life vest on a sunny, flat calm day as people frolicked and played all around us.

The trip to the pots took all of about sixty seconds and as my dad cut the motor I began preparing to pull the pots.  I stood up slowly (so I wouldn’t swamp us) and leaned over the railing to get the buoy, but before I knew what was going on his hand shot out and had me by the back of the pants.  He was a very strong man and had dug deep and had such a large handful of pants and underwear that I could barely move.

I squeaked, “Dad!  You’ve got to let go.”

“Grab the pot.”

“Dad!  Let go!”

“You’re going to miss it.  Grab the pot.”

I stood there for a second facing away from him with my arms crossed and his hand firmly clasped to my posterior, giving me an unintended atomic wedgie.  Defeated, I leaned over to grab the pot and found myself stuck in a sort of limbo between the water and my struggling father.  I grabbed the rail of the skiff and pulled myself closer and stretched my arm out to grab the buoy, but the more I stretched towards the buoy, the more he tried to keep me in the boat.

“Dad!  You’ve gotta give me some slack.”

“You’ll be fine.  Get the buoy.”

“Dad, lighten up.  Let go!”

“Get the buoy.”

He was like the counter-balance to my 200 pounds and my pants were the fulcrum.  I leaned as far as I could and felt my pants reposition.  Cold air greeted areas of my body that were not used to the elements and I knew that I was exposing my white shininess for all the world to see.  I was giving Earl a harvest moon in the middle of the summer and it made the indignation somewhat easier to bare (sic).

As I struggled, the “Mae West” ran up around my ears (effectively shutting out all sound) until all that could be seen of me was my hat and eyes. The muffled world that I was now lost in gave me a renewed focus and all that mattered was grabbing the buoy.  I was vaguely aware of Earl’s voice, and assuming that he was telling me not to kill myself, ignored him and pushed off hard with my legs, stretching my entire length and catching the buoy like a rider catching the ring on a carousel.

I held it up in triumph and grabbed for the side of the boat to pull myself in, but the extra weight of the buoy and wet line tipped the scale in my direction and I felt my pants slip down quite a bit more.  I was floundering, literally, as I flailed to catch my balance.  I made a last ditch effort to fling my arm over the rail and as I twisted, the belt on my pants gave way and I hove into the water with a near perfect entry (except for a large splash that would have resulted in a 5/10 deduction from the Russian judge).

The “Mae West” is designed to flip an unconsciousness victim over in the water to keep them from drowning.  It worked as designed and I bobbed once face down and then, against my struggling will, was on my back looking into a clear blue sky.  I was also looking at a ski boat filled with people, none of them wearing life vests, mind you (in fact there were one or two women wearing less than life vests).

I bobbed there between the boats trying desperately to keep my pants from falling down and trailing beneath me like a Portuguese Man-of-War.  It was impossible to re-embark into my own boat with one arm holding my pants up and if I used both arms I was sure to burn up on re-entry.  My dad (all thoughts of me gone from his mind) was having a pleasant conversation, telling these nice people where the best fishing and crabbing was.

Ever the gentleman, he pointed to me.

“Any of you ever been to Pullman?” he asked. They all nodded. “My son runs WSU.  Go Cougs! Right John?”

I feebly waved and tried to tell them that I worked at the bookstore.

Dad interrupted me to tell them where he had once caught a huge salmon.  He pointed and gesticulated with my belt and even gave them his number to call him if they needed further information.  For the life of me though I didn’t see any fishing gear on that boat.  They waved, turned off their cameras and sped away.

After they left I pulled myself over the side of the boat like a walrus beaching itself (Dad was still waving and yelling, “Go Cougs!, Go Cougs! Go Cougs!”). I struggled to reattach my belt to my wet pants and thought of pushing him in as he watched them speed off.

“You know,” he said without turning towards me, “nice people.  I’ve never met anyone from WSU that I didn’t like.”

I hadn’t let go of the buoy when I fell in and it sat at my feet.   I stood to pull the pot and dad’s hand instantly reached for me.  I spun towards him and held up my finger (my index one in case you were wondering).

“Uh uh! Don’t even think about it.”  He turned away slowly and then quickly back again.  That trick hadn’t worked in 34 years and I hadn’t moved.  Defeated he sat down, rummaged through his bag and poured himself a cup of coffee.  I flinched instinctively and began pulling up the pot.

It was heavy and when I finally got it to the boat I could see that it was stuffed with crab.  I hefted it over the rail and the crabs ran all over the boat.  I deftly picked up the little ones and the girls and tossed them over the edge.  The legal ones I plopped into a 5 gallon bucket.

My dad sat on the back seat and pulled the bucket between his legs and began cleaning the crab by ripping off the shell, breaking them in half and washing them in the water.

I was still chasing the small crabs around the boat and trying to clean the star fish and sea weed from underneath the seats when my dad let out a blood curdling scream and strung together the finest pearl necklace of profanities that I have ever heard anyone utter.

I turned to see him making a valiant effort to shed a crab that had reached up, in a last act of defiance, and grabbed a beautiful clawful of the tender skin right smack in the middle of Dad’s inner thigh.  If the Dungeness had reached for the low hanging fruit I would have felt terrible, but as it was it seemed to me to be about the right amount of retribution and I smiled inwardly, a warm glow filling my heart.

With a spring that only joy can produce I leapt  over the seat and with a hard tug pulled the crab from his leg (like ripping a band-aid off of a hairy leg, quick, but not pain free).  Dad howled in agony as the crab came free and he leaned back, gripping the bleeding spot with both hands.  When his back was turned I slipped the offending crab over the edge of boat and plopped it into the water.

Dad turned, looking with death in his eyes for the crab.

“It slipped out of my hands, Dad, and fell into the water.”

“Well, shoot.” Only he didn’t say shoot.

He looked in disbelief over the edge of the boat and watched as the crab sank slowly to the mirky bottom.   My cheerfulness left me as I saw the pain in his eyes and I reached up and grabbed firmly onto the back of his pants – just to be safe.

Teaching Molly the finer points of crabbing

Teaching Molly the finer points of crabbing

Grandpa Earl wasn't the only one with a crab pinch.

Grandpa Earl wasn’t the only one with a crab pinch.

Hot Coffee, Stained Pants and Skin Grafts

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My dad’s coffee gave me the jitters.

Earl was 70 years old when had his first latte.

“Betty, you ever had one of them double Lah..Tays!?”  Betty is my sister (and from Seattle – the latte capital of the world) and it was more of a statement to her than a question.  “It’s the best thing I’ve ever had.  One of the guys bought me one on the way to the golf course today.  I like them!  You ever had one?”   He was off and running before she could answer.  “You ever watched Meerkat Manor?  It’s about these animals that stand up on their back legs and look at stuff.  It’s my favorite show.  Speaking of animals the democrats are ruining our country.  Did you watch the Mariners last night?  They lost again.  Can’t hit to right field.  I played  terrible golf today.  Couldn’t see the ball.  Couldn’t care less.  It was a great round.  Hey, have you ever had a  double Lah..Tay before?”

Earl had never mainlined coffee and I can only imagine that the heavens must have opened for him and he saw salvation on every street corner with a drive-through.   Folgers was the gateway drug into a pure, undefiled, caffeinated woop-woop, heck, I’m going to live forever,  look out, Earl is on the loose feeling!  If his ADHD was bad on Folgers, it was on afterburners when he was on the good stuff.  His crash that evening must have been epic – like taking Nyquil with a whiskey chaser.

As a child I never really understood my dad’s love affair with coffee, but from my earliest years I can’t remember a time when he wasn’t working through at least one cup and hollering at my mom for a refill when it was empty.  Heck, there were times he didn’t even holler, just raised the cup above the daily paper and shook it back and forth like a beggar shaking his tin cup at passersby and my mom, in her beaten down exasperation, always got up and refilled his cup.  At the time it seemed normal, but now I wonder why she didn’t pour it over his head.  I guess it was always so much easier to do what he demanded than to fight with him about it.

NB: When I was a teenager I turned agreeing with Earl into an art form.  I could agree with him in such a way that it would give him apoplectic fits.  When he berated me for my lack of motivation and told me I would amount to nothing better than a ditch digger (the epitome of the lowest of the low), I would tell him in my best Disney voice that if that happened I would be the best darn ditch digger I could be.  Combine that insolence with my innocent expression and hand motions and I could bring him to the brink of violence in a heartbeat. 

In reality I was petrified of Earl’s coffee.  I know it may seem odd to be afraid of coffee, but I had seen what it could do and wouldn’t come near it after mom set it next to him.  In her hands it was safe.  In his hands it was a liquid hand grenade in a cup.  It was a hot blue mug of steaming nitroglycerin ready to explode at the smallest provocation and my dad was always that provocation.

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Earl had ADHD before anyone even knew what ADHD was and I lived in constant fear that his searing hot coffee would engulf me in a tsunami of brownness and scald me over 90 percent of my body.  He wasn’t one of those burn-your-kids-on-purpose kind of dads, but his distraction drove me to be very attentive whenever there was coffee around and especially when we were in the car.

Drinking while driving was one of the monkeys that my dad was never able to get off his back.  But that monkey had nothing to do with alcohol and everything to do with coffee.  The family’s AMC Jeep Wagoneer was a marvel of American ingenuity in every way but one – it had no cup holders.  It could climb a waterfall of ice in winter, carry enough gear to outfit an entire baseball league, and haul the carcasses of six dead deer and one Christmas tree all at the same time, but it lacked that one very important feature. And, if anyone on this planet could have used a cup holder, it was Earl.

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Driving anywhere with my dad was an adventure, but heading to a baseball game always brought his frenzy to a different level.  He would open the driver’s door and throw in his Thermos, shattering the insides like a Christmas ornament (he purchased the glass inserts by the gross), jump in beside it and set his cup of molten lava onto the expansive dashboard.  I usually offered to hold the cup for him (against my better judgement), but he would always bluster about me worrying too much and slap my hands back as I reached for it.

To say that my dad liked his coffee hot would be a gross misunderstanding of the word hot.  If the coffee in his cup wasn’t the temperature just below the point where water turns from a liquid into a gas, he would dump it out and have mom get him a new one.  And it was this boiling hot cup of pumice that he would set on the dash.

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As soon as his butt hit the seat he would go into the Wagoneer starting routine.  His arms and legs were a blur of motion as he mashed the gas pedal repeatedly, yanked the choke and turned the key back and forth countless times until the engine roared to life. He would instantly jam the Jeep into gear with his foot still on the throttle so it wouldn’t stall, all thoughts of the cup gone from his mind.

The mug would hiss as it slid across the dash.  Earl would slam on the brakes and stab at it like he was wearing boxing gloves and the coffee would spray over everything and everyone like Vesuvius burying Pompeii.  I had mastered the art of making myself really small, hugging my legs to my chest, but I was rarely spared and still have the scars on my arms and legs to prove it.

I was convinced that my dad had no feeling on the tops of his legs.  He would cuss and swear at us for spilling his coffee, but he did nothing about cleaning himself up and seemed to enjoy the feeling of having hot coffee running down his leg into his boots. I’ve had an aversion to wearing wet clothes ever since and looking at his pants clinging to his chicken legs made my skin crawl, but he would just turn on the heater and go his merry way.

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This always led to another problem. So much coffee had been spilled into the defroster that the green dash had a brown sheen and whenever we turned the blower on (which was every time we went anywhere), brown cumulonimbus thunderheads spewed forth turning the car into a full-bodied Nescafe rainforest.  Driving in that car felt like sitting in a sauna where someone had poured old coffee over the hot rocks and then forced you to sit in it your entire childhood.

Old people at my dad’s baseball games used to love me, not because I was particularly lovable, but because after riding in the Wagoneer I smelled so much like a cup of hot Sanka.  They would hug me and linger just a bit too long for my comfort, sniffing all the time like an old dog at a carpet stain.

Earl coached baseball for over 25 years, mostly, I think, because of the free coffee he got at the ball park.  It was hot, like it had been plumbed from the depths of Hades and it was to be had in abundance.  (I tried their hot chocolate once and I was saddled with a speech impediment until the scab finally peeled off my tongue.)  He had fourteen kids on his team, nine of them for the field, four as back-ups, and one as the coffee runner.  I know that on at least one occasion the coffee runner peed in his Thermos.  I’m not sure at what point my dad realized it was tainted and I was never brave enough to ask.

Twenty years after leaving Alaska he had that first latte.  A continuous diet of antacids helped him stomach the reconstituted freeze dried crystals he drank for so many years and that first taste of liquid heaven in a paper cup must have been an epiphany because the next day he bought himself his very own espresso machine.

Let’s just say his level of awareness stayed the same, but his level of awakeness went through the roof.   I’m just glad that his friend hadn’t bought him a Red Bull on the way to golf.  I don’t think his family could have taken it.

How a Group of 8th Graders Killed Dracula

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Wax lips, Pixie Stix & Zots

Even though my daughters stand over 5’9”  they have both been Chunky Little Princesses more than once in their lives.  They really had no choice in the matter.  If they wanted the candy – they had to put on the snow suit.  I don’t know whose idea it was to celebrate Halloween on the last day in October, but in the northern climes hypothermia sets in pretty quickly when you dress up as Michael Phelps and we tend to see more werewolves and Sasquatches than cheerleaders and belly dancers on All Hallows Eve.

Halloween always began with pleadings and tears and ended with our kids begging us not have to wear coats or snow suits with their costumes.  But there was no way on this frozen planet that we were going to let the girls traipse through the streets in nothing but a Little Mermaid costume in the middle of winter begging for candy door to door.  So every Halloween, starting when they were old enough to have an opinion,  we would put them in their snow suits and then pour them, kicking and screaming, into their Littlest Princess dresses, instantly transforming them from cute little Disney princesses into Japanese nuclear accident versions that might date Ultraman.

People would open the door and my girls would yell trick-or-treat and the people would look at them and say, “Oh, what cute little sumo wrestlers.”  The girls would quickly say “princesses!” and then turn their sour faces to Kelly and me as if to say, “I told you so,” and then try to stomp in exasperation, but not be able to because they couldn’t lift their legs high enough in their snow boots.

My boys fared no better when it came to Halloween.  For three years in a row Kelly dressed them in the cutest little clown outfits you have ever seen (outfits big enough to fit over winter coats mind you), with little clown hats and little red noses.  Of course, she had made these costumes and love, love, loved to see the boys all dressed up.  She might even have pinched their cheeks more than once.

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This mockery of all that is decent came to an early demise the moment Wesley, who was just at the age of cognitive reasoning, saw his best friend dressed as an Army man.  Christian was too busy stuffing M&Ms and Tootsie Rolls into his face as fast as he could to care, but the indignation that lit Wesley’s face when he realized exactly what his mother had been putting him through all these years could have been cut with a Ka-Bar fighting knife.   The rest of the evening he was the spitting image of the clown from IT.

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The next year when she tried coax him into the clown costume, no amount of money or promises of a new puppy could get him into the clown spirit.  He dug his heels in and flatly refused, going boneless as she tried to force his body into the suit. I finally had to step in with the camo face paint and a black headband to make things right.

I used to love Halloween when I was a kid and considered it the third high holy day of the year, with Christmas and my own birthday being the first and second.  There was some debate amongst my friends as to whether Easter should be considered the third of the trivium, but only amongst those who got presents on Easter and weren’t required to eat a hard boiled egg (my mom used all kinds of tactics to get rid of the six dozen she had made and hid for me) each time you wanted to have a piece of candy.

Since my mom was an excellent seamstress she always made my costumes and they were always amazingly awesome and authentic.   Being from Alaska, I’m not sure I should have liked getting dressed up so much, but I loved it and especially the accolades I received from my mom when I put her costumes on.  Oh vanity, vanity.  You played me false.

One special year she made me a cape out of black velvet and red silk (so my skin wouldn’t chafe) and bought me a pair of black knit pants.  It was a phenomenal  costume and made me feel more like Dracula probably than Dracula himself.  I ran around the house, raising myself high on my toes and stretching my arms out like a gangly, oversized, slightly flaccid bat and then pretended to pounce on the unsuspecting living, making them the unsuspecting living dead.  I slunk around with the cape pulled up to my eyes and darted furtively from corner to corner looking for my next victim.  This is normal imagination for a boy of six.  I was 13.

My mother was too busy pretending to be scared of her little “Dracula” to stop long enough to consider that maybe my actions weren’t appropriate for a boy my age.  Why she didn’t slap me upside the head and give me the what-for is beyond me, but since she made the costume, I’m sure she didn’t want to see it go to waste.

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Had my dad seen me he would have gone into an apoplectic fit, with the vein in his eye bursting again, giving him that deranged and demented look like the time my sister had used her curling iron to give my hair some bounce.  “You look like a girl for God’s sake!” he bellowed as he made me wash out my greasy locks (I think I only showered once a week back then).  I’m sure he would have been beside himself if he had seen me, but he was either at work or at one of the many different lodges (Moose, Elks, Masonic) or starting a fight with someone.

By the time it was dark I was dressed for action.   My face was a pasty, powdery white, a slightly whiter shade than normal and I had lipstick blood dripping from both corners of my mouth.   My hair was slicked back revealing a hairline that most adult men would have hidden underneath a comb-over and when the plastic vampire teeth were inserted, I was the spitting image of a 13 year old trying to pretend he was Dracula.  Awesome or awful is probably a matter of opinion, but in my mind I was pretty awesome.

 “Just one more house” had been my mantra with Butchie, my best friend at the time, all evening.  We had been out for three hours and he had been pushing to head home for the last 30 minutes. But the lure of free candy and the mystery of what I would get next drove me on with a passion that only candy or caffeine can cause.  Oh, that I would have listened to him, because that was the night fate decided that is was time for him and me to meet.

The take, up until the blue house, had been magnificent.  I had already thrown the apples and popcorn balls deep into the woods (my dad wouldn’t have let me eat them anyway because the apples always had razor blades in them and all popcorn balls had been laced with dope by the hippies), but my bag was still crammed full with countless gigantic, medium and small sized candy bars and the sheer number of wax lips and wax straws I had in the bag would keep me busy for weeks.   The sorting that evening was going to be epic.

I can remember with absolute clarity walking through the gate of the white picket fence and the feel of the wood on my knuckles as I knocked on the door of the blue house.  It slid open silently; the soft yellow glow of shaded lamps and muffled chatter met me as it did.

It’s cliché to say that time seemed to slow down, but time seemed to slow down.  It was like a small hole in the continuum of my happiness had been sliced open and my soul was slowly being sucked out of it.  My voice sounded odd and distant and slow and vaguely not mine,  like I was shouting through a pool of thick molasses as I delivered my standard line of “trick-or-treat” in my best Transylvanian accent.  The word “treat” trailed away as if my lungs had just collapsed and didn’t have enough air to finish the word.

I stood, naked to the world, so to speak, as  I realized that the room was full of my 8th grade classmates having an actual party.  Every single one of their eyes locked onto mine and the room became still and silent.  I realized in that moment that not one of them had a costume on, but I did.  I knew without having to be told that they were “in” and I was the teenager, three years away from driving, five years away from being an adult, standing in the doorway dressed in a Dracula costume that my mom had made.

It was like the dawn of morning had found Dracula standing in a field and he and I were shriveling into dust and being blown away on the wind.  The punch to my heart was palpable.   I was drowning in an unfamiliar sea and had to run, but couldn’t.  I was frozen.   I saw the shock on their faces and then the joy, as if their lives had somehow just been made complete.  The room erupted like a giant burp of laughter being belched simultaneously from every gaping mouth.

Mercifully, the hole in the time continuum chose to snap shut at that moment and my legs instantly came to life on their own.   I bolted from the house (leaving Butchie to his own fate) with the roar of their laughter pulsating into the darkness as I ran.

As I sat on the beanbag in my closet late that night with waxed lips firmly clenched between my teeth, a candy bar in one hand, and a cherry Zot nestled into my cheek, I wondered if it was all worth it.  I smiled a little and thought that it probably was, but I made a mental note to stay away from the blue house next year.