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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Attack of the Crab Monster

I've been enjoying The Monti so much over the last year that I started a story-telling meetup for over-40s - over 40 because I was hoping to cut down on the number of stories about getting drunk on spring break and penis and booger jokes. (If you live in the Durham Chapel Hill Raleigh area and you're over 40 you can join.) I never thought I'd be able to tell a good story because I'm so impatient, I always want to get immediately to the punch line.

Anyway, for the first time I got up my nerve to throw my name into the hat for the Monti story slam tonight - the topic was FEAR - and wow, I won, or actually, I tied for first with a young guy who told a penis joke. Here is my story.

PS Apologies to my daughter for leaving her out of the story. She was there, laughing at the crab monster too.

As a kid I was so afraid of dying it kept me awake at night. My mother heard me crying once and came in to console me. In the dark she said: "You're so little, and you're afraid you won't have the time or get the chance to do all the things you want to do. When you're older it won't seem so bad."

The first thing that came close to scaring me as much as dying was the movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. I was four when it opened in my home town, it was so popular they ran out of seats and lots of us crowded up front right under the giant screen. When the wicked witch loomed up over our heads I shrieked and hid in my mother's lap until she said, "I paid for you to see this movie and you're going to watch, damn it." Eventually the movie ended and we had some ice cream.

So babysitters were not allowed to let me watch scary movies. One night, though, Lucy Gilburg didn't shoo me out when she and my little brothers tuned in to "The Attack of the Crab Monsters," about a bunch of scientists in lab coats marooned on an island infested with radioactive crustaceans. I already didn't like crabs, they smell funny and walk sideways and remind me of the awful zodiac sign Cancer. So I was already nervous before it the movie started, and then it was rolling and I got more and more apprehensive ... and then...

... well for the next 30 years I'd say "and then, the crab monster put its monstrous claw round the door jam and went TAP TAP TAP, that's the last thing I saw, I ran upstairs screaming."

I was inconsolable, Lucy had to call my parents to come home. My mother knelt beside my bed smelling of booze and cigarettes and perfume, she tried to calm me down but her jewelry was jangling she was so mad, I knew she wanted to wring my neck. I didn't watch scary movies after that.

When, decades later, the crab monster came into my life, it came not for me, but for my son. Ezra was 12 when he woke up a couple times with a headache. After throwing up he felt fine so I wasn't worried when I called the pediatrician, until her voice grew low and careful. She said, come see me right away. We came. She said, go to the hospital. We went.

Usually at the hospital you wait and wait; this time doctors met us at their doors and ushered us in. When the waters part like this you know you're in trouble. We were in an exam room eating sandwiches when the door was flung open and a tall doctor stalked past us, threw an x-ray up on the window, and showed us a malignant tumor the size of a golf ball in Ezra's brain. Not looking at us, the doctor warned it could choke off the spinal fluid at any moment and kill him, so he sent us straight from that room, with our half-eaten sandwiches, to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. There was a 7-1/2 hour operation during which the surgeon had to scrape so close to the brain stem he feared, he later told us, that Ez would never wake up.

The medulloblastoma was removed through a long incision in Ezra's cerebellum. When he came to, he didn't know which way was up. Learning to focus his eyes again, to sit, to walk, to use his left hand, it was one struggle after another. Six weeks of radiation left him thin, green, bald, cold, vomiting every day, but he insisted on going back to school. The weeks crept past, hellishly. I had to make sure when I looked at him he wouldn't see the fear eating away at me.

A year and a half of chemotherapy later, Ezra didn't die. He graduated from middle school and high school and college. He lives across the driveway where I see him every day. I know when he feels sick he sometimes fears the crab is back. I'm afraid then, too: afraid he won't get time enough, get the chance to do all the things he wants to do.

Back when he was recuperating I bought an old VHS copy of "The Attack of the Crab Monsters" on eBay so we could see what had frightened me so. We laughed from the opening scene, it was clunky and beyond stupid, but I was rapt, waiting for the legendary TAP-TAP-TAP. Well, the moment came, but it was a fakeout! It was just the ceiling fan in the next room. My tortured brain had invented the monstrous claw.

We kept watching and after a lot of ominous music the crab monster did eventually shuffle onto the scene, low, sluggish, clacking laboriously, lisping threats. We could see wires holding up its claws. It was so preposterously slow that if the frightened scientists hadn't just stood there quaking in their lab coats watching it waddle sideways towards them, they could easily have strolled to safety. We mocked the crab's voice: "Thtay thtill tho I can eat you!" Eventually the movie ended and we had some ice cream.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Locavore donkeys

donkeys eat weedsWhen I was first considering getting a donkey I thought: "I know places there are lots of weeds for a donkey to eat." Came to learn there are several problems with the weed thing:
  1. Donkeys (mine at least) are incredibly picky and will only eat 1 out of 10 or 15 types of weeds present in local weed patches. Eeyore ate thistles but my donkeys don't.

    Jethro and Hector on a weed-eating walk keep their noses to the ground and after they've passed up 14 weeds they find one kind they like.

  2. Even eating as fast as they possibly can, donkeys have to eat for hours to keep up their figures. I can't stand to stand there holding the leashes that long. But they won't stay put; if they're not on leashes they instantly relocate to the neighbors' homes and eat expensive landscaping.

    So if you want your donkeys to eat weeds, you have to fence the weeds and that's very expensive. Otherwise prepare to stand around contemplating while they munch. Here you see Hector and Jethro eating the (invasive) Japanese switch grass that grows under the power line right of way.

Roger Tate Farm in MebaneSo my donkeys, after they've eaten or killed all the grass in their fenced-in fields, live on hay. I never knew there was so much to the hay business before I had Jethro. If I get stuff he doesn't like, he gets bony. (Hector is not so picky.)

They love second-cut orchard grass and today I was lucky enough to get 54 bales of it, green and fragrant, from Roger Tate's farm in Mebane. I love knowing the farmer who grows the hay. On my second trip out I met Roger's mother, who came out of the house to say she enjoys seeing a woman loading her own hay. She told me Roger was very independent as a toddler.

On the third trip I ran into Roger himself. We always talk about the weather, and today remembered with horror the summer of 2007 when the drought was so bad the grass crunched under our feet and he ran out of hay in July.

This year there was a late frost that ruined a lot of the first cut, but kinder weather recently resulted in a lovely second cut. After three trips to Mebane I'm happy our barn is almost chock-full, that's a satisfying feeling as the leaves start falling off the trees.


Wednesday, October 01, 2014

How I am like my donkey Jethro

donkeys eatingMy donkey Jethro is like me: stubborn, defiant, cowardly, and unable to compete.

Here's how I ended up with a donkey. In August 2007 my daughter and I went to Bulgaria and I fixated on the donkey carts trundling down the road. The drivers were tan, leathery old guys in no particular hurry. The harnesses were cracked, dusty old leather, the carts were homemade out of what looked like driftwood. The carts were full of weeds, why were old guys driving weeds around?

We saw one of these hand-hewn carts by the side of the road and stopped to investigate. Through some trees we saw them, the guy and his donkey, hip deep in greenery. The donkey was eating as fast as he could and the man had a scythe. So that's it: they were ambling around the countryside gathering donkey dinner.

At that moment I decided to become a donkey owner. I thought: when Armageddon arrives I'll be ready with my donkey and cart, I won't have to compete for gasoline. I thought: I know places I can steal weeds and nobody is competing for them. I thought: nobody else I know has a donkey, no competition there. I thought: I would like to live my life at this tempo, rolling down the road looking for something nobody else wants.

I found Jethro through a friend of a friend of a friend and went to meet him in Iredell County where he'd been lazing his young life away servicing hinnies. As I walked across the field I saw in his body language and the cocking of his magnificent ears that he was rebellious and fearful. That's the opposite of what you want, which is brave and obedient. I bought him instantly.

Here's why Jethro is still lazing. If you ask a donkey to do something, he asks "Why?" and unless there's an answer that satisfies him, he refuses. Jethro can do anything I ask, but generally doesn't choose to. For instance, he happily carries stones, but if I ask him to stand still so I can unload the stones, he keeps going till he finds a place with better weeds. He doesn't mind pulling a cart, but he is going to pull it in the ditch, where there are weeds. He was ok with being tied to a big heavy chicken coop I wanted him to haul, but first he stood still acting like it was too heavy and then he galloped across the field with the chicken coop bouncing heavily along behind him until the thick rope I'd tied to it snapped and the coop was upside down in the woods. Eventually I gave up and so, he lazes.

A donkey shouldn't live alone. I made a website for a gentleman farmer and he paid me with a miniature horse named Superman. Superman came stumping into our lives, short and broad and unflappable. Jethro was afraid of him at first but they eventually became pals and Superman learned to like donkey games, which involve a lot of biting.

Superman really knew how to look out for #1. He got all the treats because Jethro, three times his size, moved respectfully out of the way when Superman nosed into the bucket. I felt bad for Jethro, he got no banana peels unless I handed them to him directly. It bothered me so, I finally gave Superman away to the little girl who lives across the railroad tracks - her daddy snuck up that Christmas morning and led Superman away with a big red ribbon stuck in his mane. Now he gets brushed every day and eats ice cream sandwiches.

Superman's replacement is a little donkey with unattractive brown fur like matted dirty dog hair. Hector was cheap because his owner had expected him to be born white and had planned to use him in living creches at Christmas time. At his first performance Hector dropped to the ground, rolled in the dust, hooked his hoof under Baby Jesus's cradle, knocked Him over, and gashed his own leg. So I got him cheap. Jethro was of course afraid of Hector at first but now they're good friends.

Still, if I put down a bucket of treats, Jethro dives in enthusiastically, then little Hector trots up on his tiny hooves and pretty soon Hector's snout is in the orange peels and Jethro is at his side, staring politely off into space. I can't tell if Jethro wants treats less than Hector does, or if it's that he's too afraid to stand up for himself. For years he was afraid, of strollers, bicycles, recycling bins, flags dangling from mailboxes - and he thought everything in the world wanted to eat him. He's not afraid of recycling bins any more, but he's still afraid of being eaten and he still always loses when it comes to the treat bucket.