Archive for August, 2010

Always attend weddings and funerals.
Do not neglect your thank you notes.
Follow the golden rule.

These represent a partial list of my best, and sometimes idealistic, intentions in this life.

I might also add:
Pet cats lazing on the sidewalk.
Give stranded drivers a jump-start.
Always run through green fields of sprinklers.
Do not ignore lemonade stands run by children.

This last one is especially important, because when I fail on other items, say on the rare occasion that I am wearing clothing unfit for sprinkler running, it is improbable that I will forgo a proffer of lemonade, especially if it comes from a child in a checkered camisole with braided hair, especially if she has a pony-tailed companion who stands beside her holding a hand-lettered sign.

While I have long since retired from summer lemonade sales, I remember well the feeling of anticipation with every potential customer. Does he look overheated? Is he carrying change? Is that the type of person who would stop for lemonade no matter what his destination?

A hush would fall over us, and we would straighten our table, setting out cups just in case. Then, with the eyes of a puppy at treat time, we would watch our approaching stranger, willing a generous disposition upon him.

I did not take many things seriously before my entrance into middle school. I dabbled in a co-ed soccer league, took piano lessons, but avoided my scales like a container of unappealing leftovers. I hated my dance classes so much that I sometimes made myself physically ill dreading the mere forty-five minutes I spent in the studio each week. Lemonade stands, on the other hand, were a different story. If I took trick-or-treating seriously, insisting on an early departure and late return, sorting and resorting my bounty, then my best friend Nicole and I embraced lemonade sales with the vivacity of an open flame to wood shavings. Give us some materials and you’d be hard-pressed to reign in our excitement.

Looking back at the age of ten or eleven, we would laugh about the days of lemonade stands past—our first one with a cardboard box for a table, a single pitcher and cups, one measly sign leaned up against our table, and the two of us sitting behind our box on two shrunken sticker-ed chairs.

“Try selling it for 10 cents,” Nicole’s mom suggested. “You’ll underbid the competition that way.”

We spent half a summer this way: just two girls and their pitcher. Once, at the end of what seemed like hours of selling, we squandered all hard-earned eighty-six cents on a fudgesicle from the ice cream truck. It rolled onto our street, a metallic sounding Yankee Doodle plinking from its speakers. In the seconds it took the truck to travel the half a block to our stand, panic overtook us as we debated the dilemma before us. Resist the irresistible–an ice cream truck so close we could have licked its treat-printed side? Or squander our meager profits on the promise of happiness?

Regret was already tugging at my throat as we surrendered our savings to a man in a crisp suit. With only money enough to buy one, we shared the fudgesicle between us. Chocolate dripped beguilingly down our forearms and dried on the stick but it tasted only of deceit.

Following our discouragement, we sought to revamp our advertising strategy. As the proud owner of vast supply of tiny penguin stickers, some with their flippers raised, some seeming to teeter on an invisible edge, I rethought our poster design. The penguins became an advertising constant, lined up on our signs along a marker-drawn ice-berg, diving one-by-one into a pale yellow pool of “ICE COLD LEMONADE.”

What followed was surely our golden age. Lemonade stands were a neighborhood affair, a festival of children in swimming suits and bare feet. After someone brought cookies to contribute to the sales, no stand was complete with out a preliminary trip to the corner store to buy a pack of sandwich cookies. We were ever on the lookout for ways to expand our enterprise. We began to sell friendship bracelets alongside food, someone began drawing pictures, someone else began making bouquets—whatever we could think of. In some of our later years, we introduced what somewhat erroneously called “advertising metro buses,” an operation headed by our younger siblings, who, on their bikes would take to the nearby streets calling “ICE COLD LEMONADE! TEN CENTS A CUP!” Our messengers would return from their travels sweaty and breathing heavily, park their bikes on a spot in the front lawn with signs saying “metro bus parking” and reach unabashedly for the pitcher.

Indeed, it was no secret that the majority of our sales went to neighborhood kids, who all seemed to know of my parent’s change bowl, a hollow stump my mom once built in a mother-daughter ceramics class. Every few minutes someone’s younger brother would disappear into our house and return with a dime, having stood on tiptoe to reach the shiny stump. The Dayton Street lemonade stand was an internal operation sustained largely by the change stump, but it was one that my mother didn’t mind supporting, at least not enough to hide all the change.

On certain days, we had competition. Rory, our across-the-street neighbor, sold lemonade just outside his front door. He was probably no more than twelve, but at the time we thought him ancient–a reprehensible phony in the world of lemonade standing. He seemed to swagger even when he sat, his legs spread wide with one outstretched down three concrete steps. He had no table. No set-up. No sign. He would just call out his wares. “What an embarrassment to the industry,” we thought, “no charm. And no passion at all.” He may as well have been smoking a cigar, we decided, with as little as it looked like he cared about his business. Just a man and two jugs, one with water from which he drew regular swigs, one with lemonade to be he sold. We glared at him and pitied the thirsty passersby who had naively chosen to tread his side of the street.

Rory, sitting casually on his stoop, probably had no idea his presence was a call-to-battle–that with his every customer, we quietly seethed and in whispered voices, plotted his demise. Lucky for Rory, we were not so ruthless in our actions as we were in our plans. While we often threatened to spread the word that he sometimes drank lemonade straight from his selling jug, we never brought him down in the colossal confrontation we sometimes imagined—a face-off of glacial proportions, where there would be no shortage of lemonade shed.

Our disdain for Rory and his minimalist sales made one thing clear: It had become unfathomable to us that there was any purpose in holding a lemonade stand without the hullabaloo—absurd that anyone would want to just sell lemonade. Such a simple-minded paradigm was rife with missed opportunity, we were certain. Of course, by that point, a somewhat elitist dichotomy was already emblazoned on my mind. There are two kinds of sellers: those who know how to hold a lemonade stand and there are those who do not care.

For years to follow, I would pull up alongside road-side stands, eager to vicariously revisit my own selling days, but would always face disappointment. “Fifty cents?” I would silently scoff. “At this ramshackle operation? Honey, at some point you have got to learn that that cute face will only get you so far.” The six year old stand owner would stare back at me with a smile, her slim arms tan like honey, hair curling delicately around her temples.

In July, while visiting a farmer’s market in Columbus, we took an alternate route back when we spotted two children parked behind a table, their sign boasting a reasonable 25 cents for lemonade. The sellers were no more than three—the girl, a wispy blonde in a sun dress and jelly shoes, the boy slightly younger with large watchful eyes. As she began to spoon ice into our cups, their mother stepped out of the front door and sat in a chair beside the stand. She helped them to pick up the pitcher as I resisted the urge to whisper to the girl that her young brother might better serve as an advertising agent. “He can ride a bike, can’t he?” “Just with training wheels? Really? Well, that could still work.”

Adorable, they certainly were, and their set-up was altogether respectable. Starting so young, they will surely blossom. In the meantime, I do hope I am carrying a twenty-dollar bill when I encounter a lemonade stand that surpasses all my hopes and expectations. It might not seem like much, but with that kind of profit, we could have bought ice cream treats for everyone—three times over at least!


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Dreams of Control

My biggest problem with Kirk was the way he slouched in his chair—that, and he had just been moved to sit next to me. It was a Wednesday in fourth grade and we had just learned our new seating arrangement, one in which, much to my chagrin, my desk-mate was Kirk. He sat next to me gumming an eraser and rubbing it into the plastic wood lamination, breathing short gusts through his mouth. On the board, a student teacher helped us identify the grammar mistakes in the large printed sentence: Our neighbor Lorna spilled milk in my parent’s car and it is smelling like a pig sty? I didn’t even see the easy errors; I was too busy fuming about my new state of affairs.

If you had given me one desk-mate veto, one person in the whole class I could set in the corner never to breach my vicinity again, it would have been Kirk. Kirk, who wore the sleeveless Emmitt Smith Jersey with the smudge along his back bottom rib. Kirk, with the penchant for kicking balls over the fence. I preferred to disassociate from Kirk, especially on days when we had substitutes, because unlike the other days, when those in charge knew Kirk like I did and were aware of his malevolent capabilities, a substitute would be left unarmed. Kirk would read books in a corner when he should have been sitting at his desk, he would throw things and speak out of turn. Once, he and another boy in the class switched places so that each time the substitute called one of their names, she didn’t know she actually meant the other. Neither would respond as they both sniggered mockingly.

When I was taking class full time at the University, I would wake in terror over not showing up to a test, or forgetting I had another paper to write. Now, my most common nightmare involves me subbing a group exercise class. It usually goes something like this:

I am late to teach the class because the bathroom has flooded and I had to scale my way out of the stall pressing against the two walls and then jumping to the sink. My ipod is playing loud music during class and I cannot seem to turn it off. My dance professor brings in pizza to celebrate my brother’s birthday. I run out of things to do and decide we will do partner yoga, so I tell everyone to hold hands with the person across from them. Suddenly everyone is naked and they are holding hands and squatting and I can’t imagine many things more awkward than how everyone is paired—young with the old, women with men, young men with older women. Then the regular teacher comes back, five minutes before the end of my class. One of the women leans over to her and says “we miss you.” And the regular teacher nods understandingly.

It is a dream, yes, crazy and irrational, and yet, these dreams would not shake me so much were they not at least somewhat based in reality. Perhaps we are conditioned from our elementary days to view a substitute’s presence as a chance to act out, to test and tamper and push the boundaries. I wonder this because, while subbing Pilates classes, I have had people roll their eyes and walk out partway through class, others who stay but repeatedly huff in a dissatisfied way, still others who send text messages while doing their roll ups. When introduced to a new stretch for their hamstrings, I have had people look at me as if I asked them to de-pants and hold hands with the naked man across the room.

If this sort of mayhem can unfold in a roomful of fully matured, rational adults, I hate to think what sorts of nightmares public school substitutes see in their dream-time wanderings through a world where critical thinking is a skill still left undeveloped and impatience and compulsion reign supreme. Does the chalk come alive and pour from its boxes as they try to explain the algebra homework? Do children stand on chairs, hang from the shelves, spit on the floor? Or is it just Kirk wielding his squishy eraser, his tongue dangling from his mouth, a maniacal glint in his eye?

This is the plight of the  substitute who does not succeed in securing respect from the beginning. It is a position I’ve been in more than once. And in all my time in public schools, I have only witnessed one teacher do it so thoroughly and effectively that the whole time she was there, no one even dared to speak.


“I saw a girl get hit by lightning,” a third grade substitute confided gravely to my class. “It was at a softball game in Janesville.” She nodded thinking back on the incident. The woman occupied a wide area in front of the chalkboard, spindly hair rigid and alive as if an electrical current had only just left her body. Her wide-spread sneakered feet were anchored firmly to the tile, its gray surface cold as if all the warmth in the room had been channeled toward her, sucked up those two great tree trunk legs.

Sometimes, the best way to gain control is to spread a few nightmares of your own.

The classroom was dark and the only light sneaking in from underneath the drawn shades illuminated a word puzzle on the board, a game scribbled by this substitute in our first moments with her, just after we had returned from gym class to find our teacher unexpectedly gone, this woman in his place.

Man  _

Man overboard.

This substitute looked like a softball player, I thought; with that unmoving stature, she would never miss a catch. “It was stormy from the third inning,” she drawled, her voice deep and rumbling, her arms dropped firmly by her sides.

I imagined a solemn gusty day—horizon, bleachers, spectator faces, everything in sight a different shade of gray except for lurid green grass. It was hot, electricity collecting in the air, but in spite of the heat, the softball coach wore a jacket, large letters printed across his back. It was the kind of day where the crowd sits silently, arms folded across their chests, their postures erect. Their cheers are half-hearted, almost timid, as they sense that more than the softball game is beyond their control.

No one sees a giant oak tree behind the field sway in the increasing wind, but suddenly everyone’s attention turns to the center-fielder. She is planted on two feet her arms outstretched for the coming hit, her appearance unchanged except that her long hair, tied up in a pony tail, now stands on end, framing her head like a crown of fanned gold. The spectators gasp with horror. The ball drops from the air.

Our substitute shifted her weight. She brought a hand to her face and rubbed her chin slowly. The class was spellbound, suspended like a pop fly sailing inexorably toward the substitute’s open glove. She couldn’t have known of my fear of lightning, I assured myself, the way I talked myself down from excitement every time I slept in a tent or heard thunder, how I convinced myself that if it were not safe, my parents wouldn’t let me stay outside. Lightning was deadly, I was certain, and no amount of comforting statistics or rational thought could wipe the girl’s electrified picture from my mind. The substitute nodded again—the corners of her charcoal lips curling ever so slightly upward. Then she shook her head, switching in a fluid motion as if it meant the same thing as nodding, her hand still on her chin, eyes scanning the room: “Never even heard the thunder.”

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As we prepared for camping with my extended family, my Aunt Lee mentioned a canned stew they always take camping. “It’s really gross, but they love it,” she said, referring to her kids. “That’s what camping is to them.” Anyone I’ve ever meant who has camped with any regularity has some strong opinions on just what it is that makes any given woodsy experience camping. S’mores are a key component for me, along with speckled metal tableware, and the unmistakable sound of tent poles slipping against the canvas. For some, it’s not camping without ghost stories by the campfire or hot chocolate sipped in the dark. If you’re my cousin Oliver, it is all about the fire, tending it until the coals disassemble under the tap of a stick, to be restarted again with a blow from puffed cheeks.

If you’re one of the lucky offspring Jake and I may someday produce, you are in for a treat, because above and beyond our traditional burritos, some fork-flipped morning pancakes, a teepee style fire, and the smell of a certain green dish soap that will probably never run out, we are bent on providing a real psychological trip. Go to bed happy and full of puffed sugar, wake up at two a.m. convinced the camper across the way is going to axe your tent. Say what you will about how we set up camp, but we are two people exceptionally skilled in imagining our own bloody demise.

I have not watched many horror movies, but I am familiar with hubris, cognizant of the proclivity for bad things to happen in the dark, and a reasonable judge of events warranting ominous soundtracks. Horror movie heroes always look so silly, and we are ever crying after them:

“Don’t wander off alone!”

“Just forget about examining that sound, and find some light!”

“No, no, no! It is a bad idea to venture down that unbeaten path as the sun is setting!”

But then again, they aren’t aware they’re a horror movie character. They can’t hear the ominous music. No matter how reasonable your sense of foreboding, those little things (the matches you forgot, the significant look from the gas station stranger) don’t take on meaning until you know there is a potential killer on the loose and you’re heart is beating like you’ve just run a 3-minute mile. At that point, these little observations all assemble into the shocking realization that you are tragically doomed.

Jake and I camped two weekends ago at in the Cascade Lakes area near Bend. Things did not go as planned. The first night, the site where we planned to camp was full, and after touring a number of other packed campgrounds, we settled for a campground near the highway: acceptable, but no water in sight. The next day brought the same problem. We thought to get an early start on other campers, to snag a site right after checkout, but we again found ourselves rolling hopelessly past site after full site, each well-laid an assault on our campground short-fallings. “To hell with this,” we finally cried to the overstuffed campsite that became our last straw, where a young girl in a ruffled suit strode by with a pug, and a boy with spiky hair rode by on a bike. I swear they stared menacingly. I think their eyes may have gleamed a little. “To hell with this! We have a four wheel drive vehicle. We’re done with camping in civilization! We’re taking this to the forest roads, to the unchartered territory, the camps of the free!”

Cue ominous soundtrack as we turn onto National Forest Development Road 4209

“4209,” that’s what we call it, with a bit of scathing deference in our voices. 4209 and our car had met the day before, courtesy of a mistaken direction on GoogleMaps. Driving down then, we had deemed it all but impassable and turned around. But, campground vacancy, or lack thereof, worked in the favor of our sinister plot, and there we were, less than 24 hours later, a brand new hope for the same stretch of rubble.

4209 is unfit for travel by passenger cars. The road is like a riverbed in drought, rocks strewn hither and thither, enormous ruts, jutting boulders. Jake, in the driver seat, straddled the chasms and dodged buttes. There were moments we thought we’d never make it, thought we might turn back, but civilization had done us wrong.

As it turns out, so did the backwoods

There was the mosquito infestation, insects that swarmed as though they’d never before encountered human flesh, and still no more promise for a campsite. What ultimately slowed us down, though, was the other-worldly screeching emitting from our front right tire.

At first hint of this racket, Jake and I regard each other with dismay. We pull over and jack up the car, take off the tire, examine the brake. Jake bruises his forearm badly on the wheel well trying to loosen the bolts holding the brake to the rotor. I kick the car. Jake tells me not to kick the car when it is jacked up. I call my dad and get out the words, “car trouble . . .  camping . . . unimproved road . . . no one around . . . bad . . . reception . . .  can’t . . . hear . .  . ” before the phone cuts out. Jake swears at the car. We each have two flies circling our heads, their buzzing incessant, unmistakable mocking in their tone. I am standing 20 feet up the road and I begin to cry thinking that we will surely meet our end: If not starving to death, then devoured by mosquitoes. If not devoured by mosquitoes, then driven mad by these goddamn deer flies. But, we have a cooler full of food, the almost ripe huckleberries and the car’s shelter from swarming mosquitoes. Jake takes out his pajama pants and begins to swing them wildly around his head, cursing and gritting his teeth. So, it will be the third then.


It is Sunday night, and the neighboring campers at the campground we finally find are sparse–mostly fisherman and older couples occupying those sites directly on the lake. We have had our share of bugs, and are elated to have any choice of sites at all and so we choose a campsite far from the water, surrounded by dryness. We have one neighbor, who we don’t see all evening, but as we pass his site, Jake notes the neatness of the camp, a lamp hanging from a PVC stand, Coleman stove opened on the table’s end. “Who would have such a clean camp?” we wonder, and then we go to cook potatoes in the fire.

That night, I wake to a repeated rustling and the light of a flashlight scanning the nearby woods. Jake has left the tent. I turn over and close my eyes again, but the scanning continues. He goes to the car, then returns, then walks off in another direction. After ten minutes, I pull on some pants and go to investigate. Jake sits in the driver seat of the lighted car with his foot propped up on the seat, applying a band-aid to a hiking blister on his ankle.

“I walked by to catch a vibe, but he’s just sitting there staring in the fire,” Jake reports on our sickly neat neighbor. Evilly. Menacingly. I can hear these attributes in the undertones of his voice.

There is a sinister clarity that descends at 2:00 a.m., especially if you’re prone to embellishment and a bit of drama. There are things that might strike you odd about your camping experience early in the evening, but go ultimately unnoticed: perhaps an unattractive man-made fountain gracing the campground entrance, the fact that there’s no need to pay until morning, perhaps the presence of no one but a single RV parked behind the “Camp Host” sign, the owner of which insists he’s “not really the camp host, but just camp wherever you like.” Come 2 a.m., when you wake in a cold sweat, those details have sorted themselves into a rather gruesome story wherein the RV camper drowned the real camp host in the river, built a ramshackle fountain to lure people into a sense of beauty and security, but will personally see to it that you don’t pay in the end–well, you’ll pay, alright, but the currency won’t be money.

The onset of mosquitoes, the treacherous 4290 were clearly clever ruses to wear us down and weaken our resolve. Where we earlier joked about banishing a screeching demon from our wheel well, we now see the noise as an obvious incidence of foul play, an unmistakable intrusion of an ill-intentioned horror-seeking villain.

Finally, our neighbor’s neatness–at first, impressive–now seems too perfect and contrived: “Safari hat tipped against a water bottle, Coleman stove set up just so, lamp hanging from a pole, dish towel draping deliberate, yet casually, next to lamp as if to say, ‘Look other campers, I am just like you! I cooked my dinner and then did my dishes after a long day of wholesome recreation. I have no reckless and creepy intentions. I have no blood-stained axe stashed within my tent.'”


The dark is like a mirror trick, our image of this unseen camper’s face appearing like some flame-stained demon in the flickering of our imaginations, his expression contorted, his anguish palpable as he waits in silence for the last remaining variable, for us to slip back into the tent, so he can fulfill his perverse and gruesome plan. Smoke rises and it’s difficult to tell who is crazy, this nocturnal man staring into a dying fire, a beer in the crook of his elbow, or these robed strangers whispering conspiratorially by their unlit fire, one eye still fixed on the nearby camp.

Three times waking to a sound in the night, rising from the tent, sitting by the fire, going to sleep in the car, and it’s no longer something that happened by accident one night, and rather something you do. Perhaps this ritual has become a part of our camping experience like a certain handle-less corningware coffee pot is part of my parents’ morning, its inside stained brown in a ring three inches from the top, the exact depth my father fills when pouring water every day. My parents make good coffee, one with a rich flavor and sweetness to it that many an electric maker is hard-pressed to replicate. You could give them a new pot for Christmas, one with an internal percolator, but I’m certain it would go unused. Offer them a filter and they will say they like the grit. It’s possible they began by “roughing it,” making coffee in a ceramic pot, and grew so accustomed they began to prefer it. Whether that’s the case or not, it’s my sense that our camping experiences begin like that—making do until the clumpy canned soup, the too-thin sleeping pads become the norm, become fun. The grounds aren’t so gritty anymore, they make the whole cup better.

So, it might just be a case of “you can’t take the over-exaggerated gruesome fabrication” out of the camper. You can’t take it out because I think I enjoy it. Just a little. Just the part where the camp was less scary when Jake and I sat there together in the early morning, our shoulders almost touching, how the frogs became louder as our heartbeats grew slower.

Of course, I can’t guarantee our aforementioned offspring will view our horror movie ritual the same way. Perhaps they’ll see the late night flashlight, hear our whispers, groan and bury their head in the sleeping bag hood. Better, though, they will get the notion to start the fire, to cook another marshmallow, to point their sleeping bagged feet toward the center of the circle. Maybe they too will relish the stillness and the biting night air and our voices will droop heavy with sleeplessness as the moon slips into the Western sky.

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