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Monday, December 06, 2010

The Christmas Letter

War, Sports and Redemption

A Year in Which Evan Earned 28 Junior Ranger Badges, a Turkey and Salvation


After years of avoiding guns and violence we succumbed to the rat-a-tat call of firearms. Colette figured that if Evan was going to be lured by the images of war, then he should actually learn history as opposed to the intricate political dealings of the galactic senate and the machinations of Chancellor Palpatine. With this goal we marched Evan to Indiana in January to visit the boyhood home of Abraham Lincoln and a memorial to George Rogers Clark, America’s first action hero. Evan earned the first two of his badges on this trip .

The next seven badges came on a trip to New Orleans that included stops at three battlefields and a fort; Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chalmette, and the Arkansas Post. While in the Big Easy,Evan also visited a swamp, ate plenty of beignets and played the washboard.

Having covered the revolutionary war, the Civil War and the War of 1812 ,we decided that Evan should make a foray into more modern warfare, so in April we took him to a World War II reenactment. Evans favorite part was collecting the shell casings scattered throughout the field afterwards. The excitement of this reenactment, coupled with Colette’s NEH grant to study the Kansas Missouri Border Wars, paved the way to Mississippi for a staging of the Civil War Battle of Dover. Evan found himself close to the action when he was “accidentally caught on the southern side” during a skirmish.

Fighting continued to be a part of our lives as Evan witnessed jousts and duels at the Kansas City Renaissance Festival in September and visited Fort Scott in Kansas the next month where he earned yet another Junior Ranger badge. For those of you good with math you have by now noticed that Evan is 18 badges short of our stated goal of 28. That is because I have not mentioned the epic vacation we took through five states in which Evan earned 17 more badges. Though Evan probably wanted to visit a few more forts on this trip, he had fun at Bent’s Old Fort, Great Sand Dunes, Mesa Verde, Hovenweep, Natural Bridges, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Grand Canyon, Pipe Springs, Cedar Breaks, Great Basin, Canyonlands, Arches, Dinosaur, Colorado Monument and Nicodemus.

When not learning about our illustrious military history or hiking through desert canyons Evan participated in athletic endeavors. He played coach pitch baseball, kicked around in soccer, competed in dive and continued to excel at swimming. He attained personal best times in all four strokes. He also took his first steps into the world of competitive eating, finishing two-and-half hotdogs at the Catsup Festival.

Considering his increased consumption, we decided it was time that Evan started providing for the family, so he was enrolled in fishing classes over the summer. Most of the fish he caught were little more the bite size, but we hope that he will soon be appearing on the Fishing Network. In November Evan surprised us by winning a turkey in the soccer shootout. Because of Evan, we were able to have a happy Thanksgiving.

The fourth Thursday of November was alsothe occasion of Evan’s first communion. He was very excited by it, but when asked if he wanted to go to church with Grandma the next Sunday he said, “I don’t want the bread of life today, maybe next time.”

But it doesn’t add up, you say? We heard about the turkey, the salvation, and 26 badges. Aren’t we owed more badges? Indeed, Evan also earned a badge on Junior Ranger Day at Ulysses S. Grant’s farm home, and he completed the book at the Old Courthouse, part of the Jefferson Expansion Memorial. Evan’s curriculum of war, sports, and redemption will continue in the new year when he plans on taking up basketball and making a sojourn to our Nation’s Capital.

Dan and Colette are still teaching.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Big Taste

“Get that out of your mouth. You don’t know where it has been,” Devon Guntoe’s mom screamed as she rushed toward him to get the penny out of his mouth. “Devon that is filthy. It is covered in germs.”

“How do you know?” Devon asked.

“It doesn’t matter how I know. I just know. Now go get some mouthwash.”

Devon stumbled up the stairs to the bathroom and got the mouthwash out of the cabinet. He was eleven years old and had been putting things in his mouth since as long as he could remember. Now let us be clear. He was not a biter. He was a taster. In fact he was a super taster.

If Devon’s mom had taken the time to ask him where the penny had been instead of assuming he didn’t know, then he could have told her. “It was minted in Denver in 1978.”

Big deal right? You can just read that. But then he would have gone on. It then traveled to the Federal Reserve in Kansas City and stayed there for two weeks until it was purchased by First National Bank. It was in a teller’s drawer along with 49 of its buddies for a while. The teller was a nice lady who loved to eat pickles. Eventually, its roll was purchased by a local gas station and given as change the next day.

Devon could have gone on, but suffice it to say that the penny then spent the next few decades hopping pockets, making several trips back to various reserve banks and eventually finding its way to Devon who got it as change when he bought a package spearmint gum.

“Swish, swish, swish, gargle, swish, spit.”

Devon glanced at the trash. There were three empty bottles of mouthwash, two tubes of toothpaste, and a million gum wrappers. When you can taste everything, you will do anything to cleanse your palate.

“Devon come down for dinner,” his mom yelled up the stairs.

Ugh, dinner. Tonight was hamburgers, which was great for most kids, but Devon could always taste what the cow had eaten for its last meal, corn, field weeds and a little growth hormones. He had learned to cope by drinking gallons of water at every meal.

“I made your favorite,” his mom said as Devon plopped into the chair.

She had no idea what Devon liked. Long ago, Devon had given up trying to explain things to his mom. She just wouldn’t understand. So Devon made up a few “favorites,” and managed to make it through most meals.

She had no idea the explosion of flavors that occurred every time he took a bite. It hadn’t always been a secret. When he was little, he had tried to explain to his mom and dad about the taste. When he ate liver, he would tell them that it tasted like poop.

“Devon, just take one bite. It will make you strong.”

He told them that lima beans tasted like moldy leaves and worm poop.

“Devon, just eat three beans. It will make you smarter.”

He told them that eggs tasted like . . .

“Devon, everything does not taste like poop. Eat all of your eggs or you can’t leave the table.”

Devon became quite skilled at sneaking, subterfuge, and sleight-of-hand. The family dog, whose name used to be Rover, changed to Porky. Devon felt bad when Porky was sent outside for taking food and hiding it in corners, but he couldn’t tell his parents the truth. So he ate what he could, and Porky just kept getting porkier.

There was no dog to slip his food to at school so when students asked why he didn’t eat anything, he explained. Apparently, nobody wanted to know exactly how many fly wings were in each hot dog, or that each chicken nugget is only 5% chicken, or that the sloppy joe was left over meat from last week’s hamburgers. So Devon usually sat in the corner drinking tap water and eating a banana.

“Eeewww gross! That is disgusting.”

Suzie Meddleson was pointing at Devon. He stopped mid-lick. He had an annoying habit of tasting things that most normal people would not put in their mouth. This time he had been licking a library book that someone had left in at the table. Just the quickest taste and he knew the last person to check out the book. He actually could tell you everyone that had ever checked out the book.

In this case it was a copy of Stinky Cheeseman that had been checked out by Eddy Bookman. Devon knew this because he had, quite by accident, tasted Eddy before.

Of course none of this mattered because Suzie had the whole lunchroom chanting, “LICKER, LICKER, LICKER.”

Devon jumped out of his seat and began to run. He didn’t know where to go, and before he could even ponder it, he ran smack in to Mr. Covert.

“Hold on there Devon. Where are you going so fast?”

“I have to get out of here,” Devon gasped.

“Why don’t you come with me? We can finish our lunch in my classroom.”

Happy to have a place to go, Devon walked silently to the classroom.

“So, why don’t you tell me what’s going on?” Mr. Covert asked.

“The other kids were teasing me because I uh. . . uh.”

“Spit it out, Devon.”

“But I don’t have anything in my mouth,” Devon stammered.

“The words Devon! The words!”

“Oh,” Devon paused, “The other kids call me Licker.”

“Why would they do that?” Mr. Covert asked as he pushed a little red button under his desk.

Devon picked up a pencil off of Mr. Covert’s desk and started chewing nervously. Suddenly Devon saw images of unmarked vans, men in dark suits, and a secret lab in the basement of an old factory. Every taste bud on his tongue screamed, “RUN!”

Mr. Covert glanced out of the corner of his eye. Devon followed his gaze and saw two men in black suits filling the window of the door. One was fat and one was skinny, but they both looked mean.

“I’m sorry Devon, but you are going to have to come with us.”

“Who’s us?” screamed Devon.

“Let’s just say we head up an international team of ice cream makers and private detectives, and we are very interested in you unique abilities.”

“Like my ability to kick your butt?” Devon yelled, charging at Mr. Covert.

As he propelled himself over a student desk, the two men in the hall crashed through the door and snatched him mid-leap. They wrestled him to the ground with minimal effort.

“Please prepare Mr. Guntoe for an E.T.L.”

“Yes sir,” replied the agents.

“What is an E.T.L.?” Devon demanded.

“That is for me to know, and you to find out,” cackled Covert.

The skinny agent whispered in his ear, “It’s an extreme tongue lashing, kid, and you are not going to like it.”

When skinny leaned in, Devon was able to just barely get the tip of his tongue onto the shirt collar. Images flashed through his brain:

A nice house on Maple Dr. with freshly cut grass
the coffee shop at the corner of Broadway and 1st
the dry cleaner on Main
The ice cream shop on Sherman
The post office on the square
ABC Daycare

Wait a minute. Didn’t Covert say that they were ice cream making private detectives? Devon swished the spit around in his mouth a little more and focused on the ice cream shop. That was it. The ice cream shop must be their secret hide-out.

“You get him out of here. I’ll call his mother and tell her that he has detention for not finishing his homework,” Covert said.

“She won’t believe you. She saw me do it last night. Tell her you caught me eating food in class.”

“Whatever, just get him out of here. We need to get the ETL started as soon as possible.”

The two agents hauled Devon out of the school and into a van that was waiting outside. They threw him into the back and drove off.

There were no windows, but Devon knew this van belonged to Skinny. There were three black suits with dry cleaning plastic still on them, a packet of coloring pages from ABC Daycare, and a coffee stirrer that tasted like dark roast and creamer. Devon just hoped his plan would work.

As Devon relaxed he was able to hear the faint sound of The Entertainer by Scott Joplin chimed from a black box in the corner.

“I thought I told you to turn that thing off. It just attracts attention,” the stumpy one said.

“I can’t. The button is broken. Anyway, we are supposed to be an ice cream truck.”

Devon licked the floor. This was an ice cream truck, but it hadn’t been used for that purpose in a long time.

When they yanked him out of the van, they were parked in an alley. They odor of rotten milk and waffle cones filled the air, and the pavement was marbled with a sticky Neapolitan glaze.

The agents lifted a metal door that revealed a service elevator, and Devon was forced in. The whine of the motor and grinding of gears would normally be quite obnoxious, but Devon had the slightly off tune calliope of The Entertainer bouncing around in his skull so he was grateful for the distraction.

The smell of rotten milk became monstrous as they were lowered into the underground factory, and there was no sweet relief of waffle cone to same his senses. As his eyes adjusted to the light Devon saw row upon row of conveyor belts with armies of ice-cream cartons marching towards wide-mouthed trucks.

Near the middle of each line was a dog, or sometimes a cat, held in cage with metal bars and leather straps. Their tongues were held out with a clamp and electrodes placed on either side. Wires ran to a computer with a read out that either said “YUCK” or “YUM.”

The animals looked at Devon mournfully, but he didn’t know if it was because they hated the working conditions or because they knew that he was there to take their jobs away from them.

“You’re not going to strap me into one of those things are you?”

“No, of course not. We’re not monsters. We are just going to take a sliver of your tongue and clone it. It won’t hurt a bit.”

Devon looked at him with a raised eyebrow.

“Okay, fine. It will hurt a lot, but there won’t be any permanent damage.”

“What do you need my tongue for anyway?”

“Well, as you can see we have an elaborate ice-cream tasting apparatus, and we wish to simplify. And . . . uh . . .we kind of thought we could use your tongue to taste out criminals, spies, and terrorists.”

“I’m pretty sure that would be you guys. You kidnapped me and I am pretty terrified. So mission accomplished. Can I go now?”

“Yeah, no. We got some clonin’ to do”

The two agents drag Devon into the ETL and strap him down, and then they wait, and wait some more, and wait just a little bit more, and after that they waited just the teeniest weeniest bit more. Skinny looked at his watch.

“Where do you think Covert is?”

“I don’t know,” replied Stumpy.

. . .


Meanwhile, back at the school.

“At least tell me what he was eating because he is the pickiest eater on the planet, and I just don’t believe he would be eating in class.”

“Now calm down Mrs. Guntoe. I’m sure Mr. Covert can give a perfectly good explanation. Starting with some information about where Devon is,” said Principal Pavlov.

Mrs. Guntoe turned to glare at Covert.

“Uh, I sent him to the office,” stammered Mr. Covert.

“Well he never made it,” replied Principal Pavlov.

Mrs. Guntoe then grabbed Mr. Covert by the arm and demanded, “You better tell me where my son is right now, or I will give you such a tongue lashing.”

“Well funny you should mention that,” Mr. Covert said as he tried to pull away. “We have been tracking Devon for quite some time because of his special abilities.”

“First of all, who is ‘we’, and second of all what abilities?” Mrs. Guntoe demanded.

“WE are the F.B.I.O.”

“Oh what?”

“No, the F.B.I.O, Flavor Based Information Organization. We are a super secret government organization whose goal is to collect flavor information and develop new ice-cream varieties. We were founded by Burt “Butch” Baskin after he discovered that the Russians were sending secret messages in the Rocky Road ice-cream.”

“So how does this have anything to do with my son?”

“Well, Mrs. Guntoe, Devon is a super-taster.”

“Super what?”

“Super taster. It means that he can taste just about anything. We were going to clone his tongue so that we could use it to find spies and create new flavors.”

“Why didn’t you just ask him for his help?”

“Uh, I said we were super secret. We can’t just tell anyone about our organization.”

“Well you will tell ME where my son is right now.”

. . .


Meanwhile back at the ice-cream factory.

“Maybe we should start without him,” Skinny said.

“I don’t know,” said Stumpy, “maybe we should wait.”

“I'm with him. I think we should wait,” Devon chimed in.

“Be quiet. No one asked you,” squawked Skinny.

“Maybe they should have.”

At that moment there was a loud squeal of tires, and a few seconds later the heavy metal doors clanged open.

“Stop! Let the boy go,” Mr. Covert yelled down the hole. He pushed the button for the elevator.

“Devon are you okay?” Mrs. Guntoe yelled down the hole.

“I’m fine. Just get these goons off me.”

“Let him go,” Mr. Covert said reluctantly.

The elevator had reached the top and was descending again with Mr. Covert, Mrs. Guntoe and Principal Pavlov.

Devon ran to his mother and gave her the biggest hug ever.

Mr. Covert walked over to apologize to Devon. “Your mom says that you probably would have helped us if we had just asked.”

“Yeah, maybe, but you guys totally freaked me out. Let me ask you a question. Can you help me so that I don’t taste everything all of the time?”

“Actually, our scientist accidentally developed taste dulling technology we would be happy to share with you if you help us out.”

“Dude, stop threatening people and just ask.”

“You should talk Devon,” Mrs. Guntoe said. “Why didn’t you ever tell me that you had special powers?”

“You never asked.”

“Devon I am your mother. Sometimes you just need to tell me. I have a giant pile of hamburgers with your name on it.”

“Mom? As long as we are telling each other things, I guess I should mention that I don’t like hamburgers.”

“But Devon, they are you favorite.”

“No. I think they taste like grass and chemicals.”

“Well, what would you like to eat?”

“How about a banana? And just bananas until Mr. Covert can fix my tongue. Oh and Mr. Covert, I would be happy to help you save the planet if you let the dogs and cats go.”

“I would love to, but they don’t have anywhere to stay.”

“I can take them,” said Principal Pavlov, “I have plenty of room and I already own a dinner bell.”

“While I’m at it, here is the taste dulling paste I was telling you about. Just brush onto your tongue before every meal.”

. . .


That night Devon discovered that hamburgers truly were his favorite meal, and Porky realized that it was probably going to be time to change his name again. For now he just sat next to Devin’s chair in a puddle of drool.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Turkey Winner


If last year was any indication, Evan would be eliminated in the first round.

The little man spends at least three days a week flutter, dolphin, and frog kicking his way through swim practice, but ironically when it comes to soccer he does not have a power leg. So quite logically we were not expecting much when it came to the turkey shoot.

As it had been throughout the fall soccer season, the weather was nice. This was the final game of the year, and the high that day had been in the seventies. Since the sun had gone down so had the temperatures, but it was still comfortable with just a light jacket. We were playing under the lights. I used plural because two light standards stood watch, but the field was pocked with dark blemishes and areas of half-light that lent to the feeling that we were all sharing a waking dream. The parents sat on the side line only occasionally looking at the field. Expectations had withered under the barrage of shut-outs and disappointments. We had won exactly one game, and on a regular basis the boys were outscored on average by about four goals. Several of the parents chose to perpetuate the stereotype of Catholics and have a beer to hold back the chill and wash down the taste of defeat. For the most part the players were oblivious. A few of the more mathematically inclined would announce the score, but huge grins of excitement were worn by all as they chased the ball up and down the field.

Our guys scored a goal in the first half, but experience told us that this would not hold up. Evan had not been part of much of the game. He did have one nice break-away and pass, but nothing came of it. Most of us in the crowd were hoping that the clock would run a little faster and preserve our victory. The coaches facetiously promised a party featuring Justin Beiber, who happened to be in town that weekend. I don't know if it was the promise of the Beiber that did it or a lack of faith in the progression of time, but the boys of St. Roch scored a second goal, and the victory held.

The turkey shoot would follow the game, but Colette and I started packing our chairs in anticipation of an early exit. The turkey shoot is not elaborate. The boys line up a random distance from the goal, determined by where the official threw down a jersey, and shoot in a single elimination format. Each successive round the distance from the goal increased. We were so certain of Evan's inevitable elimination that we boasted about it to other parents, but he made through the first round. There was no way that he would continue.

At this point he was just shooting against other players on his team. There are players with much stronger legs. Some of them could kick the ball the entire length of the field, but this was not a game of strength; it was a test of accuracy. At this Evan excelled.

With each round the big kickers would fire rockets, meteors, and other metaphorical projectiles at the goal. Shots that I would not consider standing in front of. Though the currents created by these shots surely resulted in Tsunamis in Japan, one by one they missed. Some by only a fraction of an inch. During the third round Evan was last to go. Every other player had missed. If Evan made this shot, he would move on to the finals. Our excitement was such that we had stopped talking about the event and were watch intently. Our chairs lay on the ground and we started to lament our failure to bring the camera. Evan lined up with the ball, took several steps back, made a running start and missed.

The official recalled all of the kickers from the third round and tried again. Evan went first this time and made it. Every other player repeated their performance and Evan was the last man standing.

Colette and I thought that he had won. Not quite. He now had to face the winners from the other teams in a final shoot-out. There were four players; Evan, the orange guy, the blue guy, and the other blue guy. Those were the descriptions Evan gave later on a phone call to his grandmother.

Honestly, I have no idea why orange guy was in the shoot-out. He was eliminated in the first round. Blue guy went out next. In the third round other blue guy lined up for the kicked. It went wide right. All Evan had to do was make this final shot. The official placed the ball, and before he could remove his hand Evan ran up and kicked it. The official waved it off since the ball had not even stopped moving when Evan kicked it. If this had been an NFL game, I'm sure the opposing team would have asked for a video review, because this shot went left of the goal. However, since this was little league soccer Evan was allowed to kick again.

Evan made the universal sign for "calm the heck down." He placed both hands palm down at about chest level and shoved the anxiety down to his waste. I don't think I had ever seen him this excited. It was like a real life Lego Clone Trooper had shown up to his birthday party.

With the ball in place, Evan took a few steps back to get a running start. One . . . two. . . three, kick. The ball rolled straight on the ground. No lift. No air between ball and turf, and by turf I mean a lumpy, grass clumpy field that threaten to knock Evan's shot off course. But for each hillock and ant hill pushing the ball right there was an equal and opposite clump of soil making a course correction, and the ball trickled into the goal.

I ran over and grabbed Evan hoisting him into the air. A reaction that should be limited to winning the world cup or greeting soldiers returning from war. Feeling a tad embarrassed, I immediately put him down so that he could be swarmed by his teammates who tried unsuccessfully to do some hoisting of their own. And for the next twenty-four hours Evan was known as Turkey-Winner.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Booger

Booger
by: Dan Holden


His name was Stephen Xavier Battlehorn, but everyone called him Booger. When his mom would wake him up she would say, “Time for school Booger.” At breakfast his dad would peek over the top of his newspaper and say, “How’s my little Booger today?” The kids at the bus stop, the bus driver and the crossing guard all chimed in, “Hey Booger.” Mrs. Singleton, the second grade teacher, called roll, “Ashley Adams, Chip Baden, Booger Battlehorn, blah, blah, blah”
Stephen really enjoyed picking his nose. It just felt good.

“Hey Booger, did you find any gold in there?” His father asked.

“Noooooo.”

“Hey Booger, did you find any gold in there?” His sister Nails asked.

“Noo stupid head.”

“Hey Booger, did you find any gold in there?” His mother inquired

“Moooom!”

“Hey Booger did you find any gold in there?” Asked his friend Sam.

“NO!” Booger replied and quickly jumped on his back and wrestled him to the ground.

“Get off me man.”

“No. Take it back.”

“Take what back?”

“The gold stuff.”

“Alright, I take it back. Now let me up.”

Booger slowly removed his knees from Sam’s arms. As soon as they were free Sam socked Booger right in the nose.

“Oh dude, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you bleed,” Sam said.

With his hands cupped to his nose Booger ran home and straight to his room. Standing in front of the mirror Booger tilted his head back in order to survey the damage. There was definitely blood, lots of blood, but there was something else that glimmered deep inside his right nostril. He grabbed his flashlight but it still was too dark to see. In desperation Booger jammed his indexed finger as far up his nose as possible. Something hard was up there but Booger couldn’t hook it.

“I’ll have to use tweezers,” Booger thought.

He bolted to the closet and pulled out his Operation game. He had lost most of the pieces but he still had the tweezers. Booger took those tweezers and shoved them deeper and deeper into his proboscis

“Clink”

“Was that metal?” he thought, “Got it.”

He pulled as hard as he could and with a sudden

“Ploink,” out came the tweezers grasping a nugget of gold.

“They were right all along. I was digging for gold. They didn’t have to be so mean about it though. I’ll show them. I’m going to be a millionaire and I’m not going to give them anything.”

The next morning when he went to breakfast with his finger in his nose his father said, “Hey booger, diggin’ for gold are ya?’

“As a matter of fact I am.”

His father chuckled and went back to his paper.

That day at recess Booger found a secluded corner and began mining. In a mere half and hour he had filled his pockets with little booger sized nuggets. Just as the bell rang yanking the kids from their games of four square Suzie Meddleson screamed, “Ungh, Booger you’re nasty. I’m gonna tell my daddy and he works for EF BE I. They are going to arrest you for booger picking.”

“They can’t arrest me for booger picking ‘cause I ain’t pickin’ boogers. I’m diggin’ for gold.”

“Now I’m really gonna tell you big liar.” She ran off with her pigtails bouncing and begging to be pulled.

The rest of the school day was unbearable. Why do I have to learn all of this stuff? All the money I will ever need is right up my nose.

When Booger walked into his house after school he was anxious to get to his room so he could add to his horde of gold, but in the living room with his mother sipping coffee were a couple of men in cheap plaid suits and over-sized mirrored sunglasses.

“Oh Booger what have you done?” his mother managed to say through her tears.

“Nothin’ ma”

The fat suit stepped forward and said, “Booger you need to come with us.”

“But I didn’t do anything.”

“No buts son. You come with us.”

Skinny suit grabbed him by his arm a dragged him out to a van that was waiting across the street.

“Don’t worry Stephen your father will know what to do,” his mother cried not too convincingly.

“Oh now you call me Stephen,” thought Booger, “What happened to the nickname now? I’ll show you all when I’m rich. I bet I could pay these guys off in boogers.”

“Hey you guys I can pay you a lot of money if you let me go,” Booger said.

“Oh we know, Booger, we know.”

The doors to the van slammed shut and it was pitch black. They drove for what seemed like forever. Booger finally fell asleep.

When he woke up he was strapped to a table, and hovering above him was a horrendous mechanical contraption.

“Booger Battlehorn,” a voiced boomed from a speaker somewhere in the room, “meet the NosePicker XP, NosePicker XP meet Booger.”

“What’s going on?” Booger screamed.

“We have information that there is gold up your nose and we plan on extracting it. We need the gold to fund our giant military industrial complex.

“No the gold is mine.”

“Ha! You said mine. Get it. Mine. Forget it. Now be very still this is a very delicate operation.”

Suddenly Stephen remembered something his Dad had always told him. “You can pick your friends and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friends nose.”

“Oh, hey your right,” the agent said, “Gee I hadn’t thought of that. Whatever shall we do? Oh yeah.”

“Click.” A series of gears and pistons begin to move and a pair of tweezers shot forth. In the background Booger could hear people singing.

“The shin bone’s connected to the knee bone. The knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone.”
Suddenly his father burst into the room and snatched Stephen from the table. The tweezers missed his nose and accidentally plucked his eyebrows.

“Hurry. Let’s go.”

They ran out to the car and sped off.

“Stephen what was that all about? Your mother said that the FBI came and got you this afternoon.”

“Dad, they wanted my boogers.”

“Your what?”

“My boogers. They’re made of gold”

“Stephen, that’s just a joke.”

“No it’s not. Here look.” Stephen dug into his nose and pulled out a gold nugget.

“Why didn’t you tell us?”

“I wanted to keep all of the gold to myself. Everyone was always picking on me.”

“Ha. You said picking”

“Dad stop it.”

“You’re right. I shouldn’t have said that. If I had just listened to you this morning. I should have known.”

“No Dad it’s my fault I should have trusted you guys. I know you love me even though you pick on me. Maybe if we all just picked our noses instead of picking on each other everything would be O.K.”

“You know what Stephen. You’re awfully smart for a booger picker.”

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Pioneer Spirit

DSCF1991

If there is one thing that I have learned in our visits to our nation’s parks is that I am not nearly insane enough to be pioneer. It first occurred to me when we were in the Badlands as a passing thought, “Can you imagine stumbling upon this for the first time?”

It became more coherent in the Tall Grass Prairie Preserve. “Seriously, half a day’s wagon travel from Kansas City and you hit this?” Imagine the ocean. Now imagine that it is made out of tall grass. Now start walking.

That night at the campfire would have been like, “Um, I think I forgot my wallet. I’m like one punch away from a free wheel rotation at Willy’s Wagon Shop. I’ll probably head back, but don’t worry I’ll catch up.”

Finally this summer these nagging thoughts and humorous asides coalesced into a fully formed thesis.

The pioneers of westward expansion were flippin’ insane.

We were in the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, which with some skillful camera work could easily have been used for the location shots in Lawrence of Arabia. We were surrounded by mountains, and though it was shorts weather, the temperature was moderate. Yet before us stood monolithic mounds of sand. We were at the base of God’s hour glass. If Paul Bunyan had a big blue cat instead of Babe, then this would be its litter box. No cactus or tumbleweeds, no rattlesnake whipping a wave across the desolation, no variation in color, just the monotony of the ocean, writ not in water or grass, but the muted yellow of sand. Yet at the highest point I could see of people marching like ants on a pheromone trail creating a dotted line between unending sky and interminable sea of sand.

Those tiny specks of humanity represented a challenge; if they could make it, then so could I. There would be no turning back. No defeat, no surrender. I can conquer the sand and I will drag my wife and seven-year-old son with me. So I packed our earthly belongings, or in this case water bottles, a couple of apples, and some sunscreen, into my backpack and struck out to seek our fortune.

The initial part of the sojourn was over level, relatively compacted terrain, but the distance alone inspired the first bubbling of complaint from Evan. It would be a theme for much of the vacation. There must be a part of child brain that demands parameters on any trip. It is what leads to the ubiquitous whine, “Are we there yet?” Without a concrete end in sight the only alternative is infinity, and to be honest looking at the unbroken horizon of sand I can begin to understand.

With a little pleading, manipulation and lies Colette and I were able to get Evan to reach the peak of the first dune. Walking in sand is the classic two steps forward one step back scenario. I had to consciously lift my foot out of the sand and plant it perpendicular to the direction of the miniature sand slides each movement would make. Sand crept into my boots and added weight so that I was soon lifting an additional five pounds per foot.

We had scaled several dunes and though our destination looked no closer the path back to the car had expanded as if the camera of my eye had suddenly zoomed up and out to reveal that we had become the ants. The appropriate Ennio Morricone score blending a scream of terror and the distant call of a vulture played in the background. It was becoming clear that we were not going to make it. In fact as some of the ants had crossed our path on their return I had noticed that they were all part of a high school cross country team. I group of humans bred to endure the lack of oxygen and water as well has the monotony of running in perpetuity. We were going to turn back.

Sitting at the top of the dune, sand creeping into every crevice, I inspected the sandbags laced to my feet. Grains had worked their way between the rubber sole and leather body of my shoe. The front end was flapping up and down like a bizarrely deformed duck. This would make a good excuse. I couldn’t make it. My shoe fell apart.

With clearly defined parameters the whining had settled down. Evan had surpassed me in exuberance, and I had to frequently tell him to stay close to us. The sole of my left boot began to flap as well. My longer strides had allowed me to pass Evan on the upward slope of the last dune. Following close behind, he called out to me. I told him I would stop at the top. As I removed my backpack and plopped on the sand Evan handed me a foot-shaped piece of blue rubber. For the last ten minutes I had been hiking in what amounted to a moccasin.

I placed the mocking shoe rubber into a zipper pocket of my backpack and continued with my soleless right boot. The grasping hands of sand kept pulling at the sole of my left boot necessitating that I lift my leg higher than normal in order to extricate it. We eventually made it to the car, and I disposed of my hiking boots. Luckily, I had a pair of Keens that would protect my feet for the next twelve days of vacation. Our hikes were all of the out and back variety always ending with a collapse into air conditioned car and familiar sounds of an iPod playlist. I get the solitary explorers, the mountain men, the trappers. They were solitary. Loners with nothing better to do and nothing to tie them down. But the pioneers that packed up their families, their homes, their lives and just started walking? They were flippin’ insane.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Ravenous

DSCF2541

My only experience with ravens had been literary in nature; seeing them in nature itself was quite extraordinary. The crow was, of course, familiar as a regular consumer of road kill along Missouri highways, but it paled in comparison of size and ingenuity to its cousin. The eponymous Raven that taunted Edgar Allan Poe and his melancholic loss of Lenore, the creator of the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Bella Bella, and Kwakiutl plucked my eyes with its ebony beak and would not let them go as it perched with three others on the twisted tree and picnic table of the campground.

Capitol Reef is one of nearly a thousand national parks in Utah, and we were preparing to have a lunch of Spaghettios after a morning of hiking and picking apricots from the groves that remained from historic Mormon orchards. My table of choice had earned that distinction due to its proximity to the car. Hauling the food, stove, drinks, utensils, and propane canisters was not strenuous, but I saw no reason to walk farther than necessary. Colette, however, had other priorities. She decided that our lunch would be better enjoyed in the shade. I am not at this point, or any other, going to say that what was to transpire was her fault, but this particular decision does seem to have a direct causal relationship.

I also can’t blame the birds. They were merely following the food as the adjective form of their species name demands. You can’t blame a wolf for wolfing down his food, a wasp for being waspish, or a raven for its ravenous behavior. So it must have been fate that brought forth the foul (fowl?) fecal rain.

As the reddish-orange sauce sizzled at the edges of the aluminum pan, the avian sentries squawked and cawed in the branches above. I passed the first serving of Chef Boyardee’s cuisine to Evan, and quickly turned to the rest of the family sized can that was rapidly burning around the edges. What happened next is a little unclear, but suffice it to say that there was now an additional ingredient that Chef B had never intended to include. A soupcon of green and white raven poo was swirly through Evan’s dish like oil in a rain puddle, beautiful to look at, but horrifying in it implications.

Ravens, as is their nature, are not precise animals, and the seasoning was not entirely accurate in its application. In addition to being in Evan’s food it was also liberally ladled on to his hair and shoulders. During the cleaning process splatter was discovered on the oven mitt, grocery bag, and the box for our new propane stove.

Thanks to the raven and its trickery, for nearly half an hour, instead enjoying a meal amongst the glorious iron tinged rock formations and the bountiful groves of Capitol Reef, I was suppressing my gag reflex while expunging poo from Evan’s hair. The raven, along with eastern gray squirrel (It’s a long story), is the focus of a blood feud, and as such is subject to equal justice. The problem is that I don’t have the time or resources to find a tree overhanging a raven eating its lunch.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Collared


T-shirt and jeans in the winter. T-shirt and shorts in the summer. It says to the world, “I have more important things on my mind than how I appear to you.” Occasionally a message, ironic or otherwise, will declare my loyalty to the Kansas City Royals, Amish country, or Irish dance. I ensconced myself with this mixed message ensemble the morning of our family golf tournament. A pair of cargo shorts, a t-shirt displaying an image of Huey from The Boondocks, and an utterly awesome yellow bucket hat were, as far as I knew, acceptable golf wear. Until a phone call from the lead car in our caravan delivered the news that the lack of a collar on my shirt would preclude my participation.

I am not, by nature, an avid golfer, and as such was ignorant of many of the written rules and entirely unaware of the unwritten ones. Prior to this tournament it had been nearly two years since I had sliced and hooked my way through the links. Until now my puttering was limited to public courses. The propensity for golfers to don knit shirts and khakis had not gone unnoticed, but I attributed this to the same urge that made all middle class people, who may have at one time in their life experienced a chill, buy a North Face jacket. These knit shirts had become so intertwined with the Polo brand that, like Kleenex, a distinction between authentic Ralph Lauren clothing and a generic knit shirt could no longer be sufficiently made. These were Polo shirts. And while the iconic logo did feature a man hitting a ball with a stick, I could see no other connection to the game of golf. Until, I became aware of the unwritten rules. Rules passed along by those in the know to keep the unclean, unkempt and unwanted away from the genteel sport of gentlemen.

Different societies and cultures have often designed elaborate rules and procedures to determine if one belongs to the group. Uniforms, secret hand-shakes, shibboleths, and circumcisions all indicate one’s fidelity to the organization. You are a team member, and you respect the traditions of our society. Etiquette is your ticket to enter. So why is the etiquette to golf unwritten? The answer is simple. Like the mysterious placement of utensils at the dining table, the arbitrary cut-off dates for wearing white, and prescriptivist prohibitions against ending sentences with prepositions, golf etiquette is designed to clearly delineate between those that have and those that have not.

Some may say that it is out of respect for the game, and of them I would ask, is respect for the game more important than respect for other people. When rules of etiquette are broken we do not feel moral outrage because the game has been disrespected; we just calmly elevate our noses so as to better look down them. Soft-spiked golf shoes will chuckle lightly under their breath at the $150 Nikes because they know that you can’t buy class. Cuffless slacks will battle their cuffed brothers cruelly pointing out their propensity to trap dirt. Slacks of any sort will join forces to berate anything denim. And the collared shirts laugh derisively at their collarless counterparts, “That buffoon should be riding an ATV and drinking a domestic beer.”

Despite my reservation concerning conformity, I did stop at the Goodwill in a nearby town to buy a shirt for $4.00. The tournament was held in honor of my grandfather, so out of respect for him, not the game, I modified my principles. I was now acceptable to the fine folks of the golf community. I was one of them. After the first couple of holes the collar began to whisper to me. First just giving some tips on club selection, but later suggesting that we should strengthen border security. By the 13th hole I was often putting for par and thinking that Fox News may actually be on to something. My clothes really do say a lot.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Danger Ranger

After driving 45 minutes on a serpentine road to a remote destination in Mesa Verde National Park we boarded the tram to take the tour of Long House. Tension, though mild, had been building. As is usually the case when decision making is left up to me, I chose poorly. When scheduling the tour, I failed to take into consideration that humans require sustenance. And though the more astute readers may view the storm clouds on the horizon as a metaphor, I can assure you that they were quite real.

Colette was concerned that the gear, specifically the sleeping bags, that had been left out at our campsite would blow away. I reassured her that at worst things would get a little wet. A problem easily corrected by the industrial size driers at the campground laundry. To be honest I was not entirely sure that would be the case.

As we boarded the tram, the wind had begun to gust, but still the sky above us was clear. Sunscreen was liberally applied to my seven-year-old son Evan. We were of course in a desert.

Ranger-guided tours at Mesa Verde have a tendency to become repetitive since virtually nothing is known about the Ancestral Puebloans. There is a reason why alien abduction remains a popular theory with amongst others, Fox Mulder. This one was no different. “We are not rally sure why they moved into these cliff dwelling,” “The architecture is truly amazing,” “We really don’t think it was drought that forced them to leave, but we don’t know for sure,” “The kivas may have been used as family meeting rooms, or for religious ceremonies, or as shelter from the cold, or something else,” “We just don’t know.”

What separated this from the other tours was the rapidity at which it was given as the storm clouds that had been perched in the distance swooped into the canyon.

“I don’t care if you get wet, but I am concerned about the lightening,” proclaimed Danger Ranger as he became know to my family. Before he earned this moniker I gave him the respect that comes with the hat he was quickly covering with a shower cap explaining that his failure to do so previously had resulted in the destruction of his old hat. This should have been my first clue that he may have been missing a chapter from his Mesa Survival Guide.

The drops of rain were large and cold. If Evan had looked up, he could have easily drowned in the tablespoon sized precipitation. In addition to my trust of the ranger, my decision making abilities were further compromised by the uncertain state of our campsite. I should have known better. I should have known that staying in the shelter constructed under literally tons of stone would have been safer that what was about to occur. The tour following ours was in the shelter and wisely decided to stay put. Instead, I followed the ranger’s command to make the trek along the steep stairs and narrow path up the side of the exposed cliff.

The rain on our faces mixed with sweat and the gritty desert dust to create a blindingly toxic potion. I had Evan by the hand dragging him up the hill. Colette, struggling with the elevation, was left behind as I rushed Evan to safety.

In a matter of seconds the thunder had grown from the rumbling of a disgruntled crowd to the crack of a police baton against the skull of a rioter. My memories of lightening are vague at best because I was squinting through stinging eyes, and I felt Evan’s hand slipping from mine as the storm tried to pull from by grasp.

Colette was no longer in sight so I was the only ears to hear Evan’s pleas to rescue him from the cold sting of rain and the ear-numbing thunder.

Around each bend, behind each tree, and between each deafening growl I expected to see sanctuary, but it remained elusive. It was as if it had been erased with a few sonic shakes of the global etch-a-sketch. As the cover of shelter neared the sound of thunder was replaced by the maniacal marching bass drum beat of my heart. Desperately sucking in the dry desert air aggravated the cough that had nagged me through the early days of our trip. Evan and I had made it, but I knew I had to go back and get Colette.

Leaving Evan with David, assuming that a pedophile would not concoct an elaborate plan involving the National Park Service, Danger Ranger and weather manipulation, I rushed to recover Colette. I found her accompanied by a helpful woman only about fifty yards down the path. She immediately questioned me about Evan, but was reassured to find out that David was in the same party as the woman that had helped her. This reduced his pedophile percentage to near zero.

We were reunited and sheltered though there were lingering doubts considering that we were ensconced in a metal-framed tent atop a 9000 foot mesa. But, if we were going to die we would do so dry and in the company of thirty or so strangers.

Danger Ranger, in a rare show of responsibility, brought up the rear of our group. Not content, however, to leave any semblance of heroism he decided to reclaim his role as purveyor of anecdotal evidence. His thought process must have gone something like this:

Mouth: Hey brain, I don’t think they are scared enough.
Brain: Are you sure? I think they have had enough.
Mouth: Naw. Give them a good story. That’s your job. You are a ranger to the end.
Brain: If you say so.

Huddled together in the center of the tent to avoid the viper bite of cold and rain I was unable to protect Evan from the cascade of fear that was about to descend.

“Did you all here about the people that died in the storm at the Grand Tetons?”

Evan stammered, “Dad I don’t want anybody to die before they are old, and it’s their time.”

Though impressed by the sophistication of his empathy, I was mad that the thought was ever introduced into his mind. “Nobody is going to die,” I reassured. Though as with the status of our campground I had a few doubts.

And because death was not nearly menacing enough Danger Ranger continued, “I had a buddy that was struck by lightening and he hasn’t been right since.” Brilliant so if we don’t die at least Evan can be sure that his parents will become lobotomized zombies plaguing him the rest of his life.

By this point the tram had arrived and Evan hade slipped into a fear induced coma. We returned soaking wet to the car and retraced our path to a mildly wet, but relatively undisturbed campsite. I was two for two with my optimistic predictions. Our gear survived, as did we. I didn’t, however, forecast Evan’s fear of any cloud darker than dingy laundry. The cumuluphobia extends to photos and videos of clouds as well as the rumble of distant planes and Harleys, which are much more common in our nation’s parks than you would think.

He will eventually grow out of it, but hopefully he is smarter than his father and learned to recognize Danger Ranger when he appears again.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Summer Fun

What started out as a promising summer of intelligent students, stimulating conversation, and fun has now devolved into a chaotic humid mess of curse words, sass, and inanity. I remember the first week going home to my wife and telling her that the students here were much better than those I teach during the regular school year. Unfortunately, many of those students had hidden issues that forced them to lash out or drop out during the six weeks we have been here. Not all of the students have been trying, but those that have far outweigh those that have not.

One of those, who just so happens to be standing in front of me right now, has been a pebble in my Converse since day 2. Her contrarian attitude and penchant for verbosity makes her incapable of being a good student. Though she seems like a pleasant enough person, I can’t bring my self to respect her as a student, and ultimately that is how I am required to judge her. The sound of her voice has become synonymous with wasting time and epic distraction. A Marvel character based on this student would never have to throw a punch, she could just start a conversation about what her girlfriends did last weekend and kidnappers would spontaneously let go their hostages, burglars would happily dust and vacuum the homes they broke into and carjackers would chauffeur their victims just to get her to shut up.

My students and I have been victims of verbal abuse and assault from a variety of students. A gang has formed whose sole requirement for entry is a vocabulary limited to the n-word, any and all s-words, and the f-bomb. Their propensity for spewing hot ash and magma has burnt many villages, obscured the sun, and set back the course of education by several centuries. I can only assume that as a child they were raised on a steady diet of Captain Crunch, Kool-Aid, and The Sopranos.

Like Tony Soprano, my students are incredibly loyal and dedicated. For the first time in my years of teaching summer school I have students that have clung to false hope and a belief in the kindness of human nature so fiercely that they have deluded themselves into worshipping the mythical Magical D. Magical D father of their pantheon. He grants credits from on high like they were lollipops from a doctor. Soothing the sting of an F with the three-lick tastiness of a Tootsie Pop. Students follow the Magical D on the path of graduation to be lavished with $10 checks from aunts and uncles and a life time of unsatisfying work in a slightly above minimum wage job. All hail the Magical D, granter of mediocrity, savior of the unmotivated, and creator of all that is okay.

The students most harmed by this mudslide of mediocrity are those that found themselves here by some quirk of fate, a tiny knot in the fabric of their lives. These students came to summer school expecting to learn and have been thwarted at every turn by the champions of average and the divine intervention of the Magical D. I feel powerless against such a mighty Olympian, yet I know I must continue the struggle.

I have given up frequently. This usually manifests itself in the form of frustration, blunt answers, and slides into what some consider sarcasm. I wish that I had the strength to face my enemy everyday instead of hiding behind the flimsy shield of irony, but I have been stuck by bolts of below standard work for so long I may have forgotten what to do with anything else. I must find the elixir that will restore my love teaching and students so that I may continue to fight the influence of students and their undying devotion to the Almighty D.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Lost Spin-off (ZE-Plane)

HUGO
Dude we could totally bring people here to solve there problems with a little smoke and mirrors. It would be like Yoda's little magic cave where Luke saw Vader. But, Dude, the sub blew up.
BEN
Now Hugo, you can make up your own rules. Why not simply have guest arrive by seaplane? I would alert you to the planes arrival by ringing a gong in the temple, and then we could go and cordially greet our guests.
HUGO
Dude, have you gotten shorter?
BEN
No, but I would like to make note of the fact that this new leadership role has certainly made you more svelte.
HUGO
Thanks for noticing dude. I have totally been working that underground excercise wheel.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Looking for Logic in all the Wrong Places

As part of an interdisciplinary unit students at my school are reading The Perfect Shot by Elaine Marie Alphin. The book, a YA murder mystery, covers several themes, but I decided to focus on deductive reasoning by creating a murder mystery "party game."

I constructed a narrative and then split it up amongst the teachers in the school. We are a small alternative program so I was only working with seven teachers. The students were then supposed to interrogate the teachers to discover motive, means and opportunity. These eyewitness accounts were supplement by "evidence" that I supplied.

Slow to start, students eventually got the hang of the assignment. In the final days leading up to the essay that would explain their theory of the crime, one of the students proclaimed, "I don't know what to ask."

I pointed out that drawing conclusions is what we have to do on a daily basis, and that it is extremely important to make sure that we are always asking the right questions.

Several hours later I was still pondering the student's statement and realized that I should not be teaching answers, but should instead be teaching questions.

So the question is how do I turn my students into interrogators, detectives, deductives (deducers) (those that deduce) and inductives (inducers).