Monday, November 29, 2010

Toy Story

A couple of weeks ago, Gramma Lis stopped by on her way home from work. She strode into the door with two plastic bags from Walmart. One bag held plenty of chocolate and the other bag contained a toy Woody from the celebrated movie series Toy Story. Both the chocolate and Woody were gifts given with one singular purpose in mind: to finally and fully potty-train Elise. Elise - you see - has been dangling on the edge of being potty-trained for some months now, and Anna was beginning to see signs that Elise knew full what she was doing.

The chocolate was meant to be a reward. Every time Elise successfully went to the bathroom on the potty, she would receive one piece of chocolate. Fortunately for Wyatt, he somehow became engrafted into this reward system, thereby increasing Wyatt's odds of receiving a piece of chocolate daily.

Woody was something of a reward, too. Actually, he was more like a carrot.

Gramma Lis pulled the Woody toy from the plastic bag and began to unbind him from his little plastic handcuffs. All the while she also began explaining to Elise that this Woody was for Wyatt, which cause Wyatt's eyebrows to raise and mouth to open in unhidden glee. Elise, of course, heard nothing of what Gramma Lis was saying, but instead started walking towards Wyatt and the new Woody doll like a cherub-zombie - arms outstretched, eyes glazed over. Still Gramma Lis went on - explaining to Elise that when she learned to use the potty that she could have her own Toy Story doll, maybe even her own Jessie.

That, in short, is why most evenings after the kids have been put to bed, I will find myself at some point tripping over Woody - himself laying prone and lifeless just as he appears in the movies when Andy comes rushing into his room. Tonight, he's on the kitchen floor, his face staring blankly at the floorboards, his legs buckled at odd angles.

By the end of most days, the floors of this old farm house have become minefields from the children's daily dramas and distractions. Sometimes it's Woody. Other times it is Thomas and Friends, which means that the many tank engines that usually run along the tracks of Sodor in Wyatt's room spill out onto the coffee table and onto the floor. Lately, the toy of choice has been a big bucket of Lincoln Logs that get spilled just after breakfast and then travel through the house like some winter virus - attaching themselves to the kids as they roam from this room to that one.

And, of course, with Christmas coming upon us, it won't be long before new toys join the circus. There may even be a Jessie joining the ranks. It's looking that way. Elise is making big steps on her way to being a big girl who knows how to use the potty.


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

a red plate affair

I felt I should write a quick post post-Thatcher regarding his...ahem, consumption. He was salted a day in advance, stuffed with an organic lemon, slow-roasted and served on our family's celebratory red plate. Quite chicken-y. Quite tasty. And despite his breast looking inexplicably small compared to what we're used to seeing on our occasional Trader Joe's bird, Thatcher provided enough white meat for our young family of four. He did dress out (is that the right way to say it??) at just over 4 pounds, afterall. But quite strange, in all honesty, being so close to your food. I had trouble not seeing the poor guy in my mind's eye while eating...his distinctive personality was a curse for me in that regard. For that reason, eating a freshly gathered egg isn't the same as that once breathing animal crowing about your yard. Future edibles may need to be the dolts of the flock until I can habituate...

On a related note, I've been thinking about an occasional post called "mostly local" where I'll write a quick note about our family's meals and give a recipe...maybe this would answer that question I've heard asked about us before: "What do they eat, anyway?" Well, a week ago, we ate Thatcher. Just like the kids told everyone we would.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Dirty Deeds

My father-in-law, Joe, often tells me that you need to do at least one thing a day that scares you ... just to keep yourself young and fresh.  Well, the last few days, I've met my quota.  Big time.

It started on Thursday evening, when Anna and I went to put up the chickens for the evening.  Our first mistake was to wait until7:00 pm to gather up Thatcher and the girls:  Edna, Betty, Dd, Palma June, Violet Mae, Lucille, and [unnamed bird].  Our second mistake was having moved the chicken coop earlier in the day to an entirely new location; chickens - apparently - are rather dull about finding anything other than their own food.

In any case, that would explain why at 7:30 pm, I was running around our property with little to no daylight remaining, a Petzl headlamp on my noggin, and two tennis racquets in my possession - one in the left hand, one in the right.  This, so I believed, was all necessary gear to catch and deliver the birds back into the coop.  I was joined by Anna - the good cop - who tried to corral the birds by patiently walking behind them while calling out, "Here, chick, chick, chick, chick."  We were also joined by Wyatt - himself armed with a padded Pro Series Junior Bat and his own small headlamp.  He managed to find one bird that was lost, but overall Wyatt was a significant hindrance to our whole mission.  He - enjoying the opportunity to stay up past his bedtime AND swing a bat at chickens - continuously ran the girls ragged and thereby made them all the more suspicious of us other humans.

Nonetheless, just after 8:00 pm we somehow managed to get all of the chickens back in the coop - just in time for bedding down into the straw, which is becoming more and more needed in these frosty nights.

That was Thursday.

Friday's thrilling endeavor was the day we had been talking about for quite some time:  Thatcher's demise.  Sometimes we spoke of it casually, unsure if we truly meant it or could do it.  Sometimes we spoke of "killing" Thatcher as we were being attacked- adrenaline pulsing through our body.  Sometimes we spoke of it just to speak of it, just to acclimate ourselves to the idea of holding a knife or ax to his burnt orange throat - staring into the fire red of his face.  Sometimes, though, we spoke of killing Thatcher as something that would have to be done, that needed to be done.

For the past several weeks now, Thatcher had begun to do his job quite well - all of them:  inseminating the other birds, crowing at the crack of dawn (and at midmorning, at noontime, during the afternoon, when I pulled in from work, and at the close of the day), gathering the girls, threatening would-be predators.  Unfortunately, this last job put Thatcher's masculinity into direct competition with Anna, Wyatt, Elise and myself.  Elise - for the strangest of reasons - was the most bullied by Thatcher.  Anna swore that it was Elise's size - that somehow being nearer to Thatcher's line of vision made her a bigger threat.  Perhaps it was just simply that Elise was the easiest to pick on, or should I say claw on.

In the course of the last two weeks, Thatcher used his fierce talons to make a ruckus with both Wyatt and Elise - leaving a nasty scrape along Elise's right ear and a topical scrape near Wyatt's left shoulder blade.  I also had a few more showdowns with him recently, which by the way is perhaps one of the more intense experiences one can have.  Despite the number of times Thatcher came at me with his neck feathers flared, his head jutting forward, his feet then flying at my legs, I never once felt prepared for the horror this produces - tightening my stomach and my muscles, turning my body and mind into a visceral, primal reflex of fear and survival.

Wyatt and Elise, of course, had not nearly as much height or strength to withstand the bird.  So, when he did attack, they were left to screaming and crying - invoking the help of mom and dad who would coming running (again with that evolutionary rush of survival) to their aid.  In any case, this had happened so much that my own children were beginning to feel tense in their own yard.  They would tip-toe onto the front porch, check to see if Thatcher was around, and then proceed on to their bike or the sandbox.  

On Friday, the kids and I came home from a good morning out and away.  As we rolled into the driveway, Thatcher and the girls were near the front doors.  I knew immediately this might get tricky.  I waited until Thatcher was somewhat removed from our space.  I then released Wyatt and Elise from their car seats and started to usher them to the doors.  However, as we drew close, Thatcher and the girls began to close in on us.  I noticed Thatcher was focused particularly on me.  Something had changed as a result of thatThursday evening corral.  I had gone toe-to-toe that night with Thatcher, finally catching him in the crook of a tree.  He seemed unnaturally subdued by that whole exchange.  But, whatever fierceness he had lost the night before was apparently back.  He strutted and cocked and turned at me every time I made a move.  Finally, after circumnavigating him for a few minutes, I managed to get Elise in the door, but not without having to leave Wyatt for a few moments.  

I thought I was doing well.  But, for Wyatt, the prospect of being left outside while Thatcher was on the prowl was unnerving and terrifying.  He began to cry.  Then, he began to wail.  He had no need.  I was a mere ten yards away and Thatcher was far from both of us.  Still, though, there was no calming Wyatt.  I pulled him inside, but for the next hour or so he continued in his flummoxed state.  

That's when I decided to do the deed.  I decided that things had advanced beyond what was healthy or safe, not that I thought that rationally about the matter.  I just realized that this was the day that I was going to kill Thatcher.

How was I going to do it?

That was the question.  It was now early afternoon, and I knew Anna would not be back until 3 or 4.  I still was responsible for the children.  Somehow, I would need to find at least thirty to forty minutes to catch and kill him.  So, I did what any modern, 21st century parent would do.  I put on a DVD.

I found it impossible to catch him, though.  Our run-ins over the last few days made him evasive.  Whereas he used to meet my own advances with a bullheaded toughness - staring me down - now he just simply turned tail and ran as fast as he could away from me.  After twenty or thirty minutes, I finally gave up, came back inside and tried to forget the matter.  

Still, I was restless.  So, I returned outside - deciding to expend some of my energy on the pile of wood that needed splitting.  I went to work - knocking through five or six logs.  I stopped; I turned around, and there in the chicken coop I could clearly see Thatcher and three or four of the girls.  I had him.  He was trapped - confined to an enclosed area that I could use to my advantage.

By this point, I had also solved the other riddle in the question of how to do it.  I had already prepared a log back near the edge of our woods, and near it I had laid a machete that I hoped would do the deed quickly and mercilessly.  I had also begun a pot of boiling water that I hoped would aid in stripping Thatcher of his regal and beautiful feather coat.

I quickly stepped into the coop, and almost as if they knew what was coming the other girls fled through the door.  "Shoot, I can't let him get past me," I thought to myself.  But, before he could make it to the door, Thatcher trapped himself into a corner.  With him no longer acting the aggressor, I was no longer afraid of him.  I placed my right hand onto his body - holding him to the ground and in doing so remembered all over again how small his body felt compared to the apparent girth and strength he had when he would charge me.  Then, I proceeded to grasp both of his feet in my right hand.  That's when I had him.  For some reason, he went weak and submissive.  Do all chickens do that when you take hold of their legs?

I strode the thirty or forty yards from the garden back towards the log - trying to determine swiftly and accurately how I was going to do this cleanly.  I will not describe these next few moments in great detail.  I will only say that there was a lot of attempting and preparing and thinking - trying to determine how best to lay his head, whether I needed anything to restrict him from wrestling and twisting (I did not, which made the matter all the more emotionally wrenching and today makes me think of that scene of Abraham with his boy Isaac on the altar ... by Rembrandt perhaps?), which hand I should use to deliver the death blow, and - truthfully - whether or not I was capable of doing this.  I prayed for forgiveness for taking this birds life.  I spoke my gratitude to Thatcher, and tried to both connect and disconnect with this bird.  I counted to three - moving the blade of the machete into the air and back down each time and resting it on his neck.  I did that several times, unable to strike down.  Then, I decided to count down from 3 to 1, and that time I did swing the blade.  

Even now as I write, there's a sadness and apology in my gut and in my mind.  I felt so terrible for what I had done.

I walked back into the house.  Wyatt, whom I had told earlier about what I planned to do, asked me right away, "Is Thatcher dead."  I said, "yes."  And he took that news with a type of indifference (perhaps even glee) that can only come from a mind that doesn't know completely the finality of death.

Then, I began to make preparations to pick and process the bird.  But, as I did, I noticed that Elise had pooped in her diaper.  I was still the parent in charge, although I had not been performing well in that regard.

Unfortunately, at the very moment that I had Elise on the floor to change her diaper, Anna and Gramma Lis rolled into the driveway, and before I could stand up and get to Anna, Wyatt managed to burst out the door and proclaim, "We killed Thatcher.  We killed Thatcher."  My heart immediately sunk.

For a long time, Anna and I had talked of killing Thatcher, but we had always done so under the premise and understanding that we would do it together, as a family.  Moreover, in many ways, Thatcher was more Anna's bird than my own.  Anna - as always - saw a beauty in Thatcher's coat and colors that I will never see.  That's why I was not surprised to step out of the house and to see Anna sobbing in her mother's arms - her heart and mind overcome by shock and grief and the disturbing image of Thatcher's once proud body lying limply upon a lone log off in the yard.  It was too much, and it was not something that Anna decided.

I gave Anna a hug, but I knew it wouldn't help - especially from me.  So, instead, I went back into the house - grabbed the pot with the boiling water, and I proceeded to walk back towards Thatcher - now just a carcass and potential source of food.

Gramma Lis graciously and gratefully took Wyatt and Elise up to her house - leaving Anna and I a moment to talk and myself an opportunity to explain myself.  Anna understood it needed to be done.  It wasn't the act.  It was the suddenness and unexpectedness of it, and the fact that it wasn't as she had imagined it:  talking with our children about it, thanking God for Thatcher.  But, as Anna drew near Thatcher's body, she began to soften and to ask more questions.  Then, together, we began the work of processing the bird.

That process is in itself its own story, which I will leave for another time.  But, I will say that it was amazing to me how natural it all seemed and how easily it became to strip Thatcher of his stomach, liver, lungs and heart.  By 5 pm, we had a completely clean-picked and ready-to-eat bird in our kitchen.  In fact, he still sits in a pot in our refrigerator with the plan that he will be roasted and eaten for dinner on Monday night.

Eventually, Gramma Lis did bring Wyatt and Elise back, and we eventually were able to thank God for Thatcher and talk about it as a family - even if it was done posthumously.  We stood in the kitchen, and I asked everyone to think of one thing that they liked about Thatcher.  Neither Anna and I can remember what Wyatt said now.  However, when we prompted Elise, she said, "Where's his teef?  Where's his mouf?"  We started to laugh and cry - trying to explain why Thatcher no longer had a head.  Then, we asked Elise again:  "Is there something you liked about Thatcher?"

Elise - with glee - responded: "His blood!"

Then, Wyatt prayed:  "Thank you God for this day, and for Thatcher, and for his mouth, for his blood, and for his strength.  Amen."


It is worth noting as well, that when Wyatt and Elise returned they both wanted to see Thatcher.  So, we pulled the Calphalon stockpot from the refrigerator, took off the top and showed them the naked bird.  Wyatt and Elise both reached in and started to feel him, and Wyatt said in a voice of awe and wonder, "He's chicken now?"  And Anna could only say, "Well, he's always been chicken," thus ending our rather surreal day with the frank, brutal truth.


Tuesday, November 02, 2010


The change,
a sweeping tide -

Yet, how much has changed -
from hope to fear,
from promise to frustration. By "change" today we mean "for me" and "mine" and "enough of the common good."

I came home to a house
full of heat.
On the stove, the lime green
dutch oven - the same
we received from the generous excess of family heritage -
held the meal
my beautiful wife had prepared -
a simmering stew
of wild rice,
and kale,
and baby butternut.
The heaping abundance spilled its aroma through our airy home.

All day my mind was tossed -
toppled by the news and the agitation,
the talk of loss, the pessimism,
the angry smoldering of wanting,
the fuming of rights lost and selfishness encroached upon,
"Don't tread on me" -

the cramped calendars that have no room
for community,
for home,
for garden,
for neighbor.

We are poor. Poorer than we care
to face, poorer
than our ancestors
could dare fear,
even as they stood upon dirt
and watched their crops
blow into dust.

For our poverty is our aloneness,
our isolation,
our privacy,
our islands of plasma screens and
rights and money.

I, though, am rich. Rich for the woman I have wed.
Rich for the food that has grown
on my land.
Rich for the boy who stayed
awake to give me a kiss.

Are we that poor off?

No. Only in what counts.
Only in goodwill,
in kindness,
in civility
and faith
and love.