Snowfall

Another snowstorm hit the northeast over the weekend, thus successfully closing schools and granting teachers and students a five-day weekend.  Wahoo!  Teachers are not known for laziness during their days off.  No siree!  I’ve built a kickass Paladin deck in the Hearthstone Beta, leveled my ranger to level 30 in Guild Wars, cleaned my room of excess clothes, filled my room with books, watched the excellent Lego Movie, and beat ‘Ganon’ in Link between Two Worlds.  Many of my students’ papers still need . . . correcting, but considering that I’ve accomplished so much I can afford to give myself the day off.  Oh, and I also managed to engage in some amateur photography as well.  At night no less.  ‘Cause let’s face it, I’m a badass.  Continue reading

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Let it go

Hi!  My name is Ivan, and I like hot chocolate!  And cigars!

Hi! My name is Ivan, and I like hot chocolate! And cigars!

“Hey Murph, do ya wanna build a snowmaaan . . ?

It’s no secret around the Murphey household that the sibs and I adored Disney’s latest film Frozen.  Over the last two weeks, Kevin, Bree and I have managed to coerce, beguile and flat out bribe the rest of our family to the local theater just to watch the film again — mostly because the holiday season is all about swapping stories with those you love but also because a grown man attending an animated film alone is inviting sidelong glances from concerned parents and mall security.

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We’re decorating intensely for Katie’s wedding next week. Normally, the front yard would be filled with giant inflatable snow-globes and mechanical snowmen tipping their hats. Mom vetoed this approach in favor of a ‘country Christmas’ appearance.

As I mentioned elsewhere on this blog, stories enrich our lives, bestowing understanding, empathy, and wisdom.  They also help to chase away boredom and offer the social American a talking point during Christmas parties before the spiked nog disengages the brain.   The prevalence of stories and storytelling in all facets of our lives (entertainment, history, religion, politics, relationships) has always intrigued me to the point that I’ve often argued (usually after three Red-Solos of nog) that storytelling is the center of all human life: to create, discover, and retell tales.  Of course, most listeners simply shrug off these notions as drunken rants (which many were; the nog is strong in my family) and shrug unimpressed “We communicate.  All animals do it.”

The instruction booklet that arrives with your microwave communicates, but when was the last time anyone has actually read it.  Mostly we avoid the words entirely, gazing at the diagrams and attempting to divine a message like a back-alley fortune teller staring at the bumps on your head for the night’s Mega-millions numbers.  You add a sparkly vampire with predilection for vapid teenage repair-women and 90% of teenage girls become electrical engineers overnight.  No, I’d argue that communication is a subset of storytelling, simply a really boring example of the craft, shorn of all metaphors, characters and sparkle-vampires — for that reason alone I’m willing to be more forgiving.

To me, stories nourish my soul and sustain my willpower through the work week like oxygen through the suit of an orbit-bound astronaut.  Yet very few tales really satisfy your expectations: e.g. Mockingjay, Green Lantern, The Black Cauldron . . . Disney, you could have done so much better.  Of the numerous books, movies, and TV shows that I immerse myself, only a handful of these truly manages the detailed world-building, charming characters, and multi-layered epics, which are near and dear to my heart.  Still, this absence motivated me to write my own short stories.
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Snow Recovery Plan

We stand at the edge of a storm, the third in the last week, predicted to unload another six inches of snow overnight.  Like prison bars, the icicles stretch far outside the windows down to the lower drifts, which swollen with the piles deposited from the roof consumes much of the view of the back porch and my lil’ sister if she should venture outside.   The blizzards of the last few weeks were efficient tyrants, burying all of the driveway, several of vehicles,  and most of the house, locking its occupants inside together for a week.  And still it continues to fall.  After only a few days, the kids grew tired of the house walls and the blank empty landscape outside.  Pining for girlfriends and jobs, the boys race outside with snow shovel and plow as soon as the last flakes fell, eager for the return of status quo.

The Prison Bars

The Prison Bars

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Snow Apocalypse

Just when you thought it was safe to plow . . . the snow begins again.  Wave 2 of this winter storm, what the newscasters have brilliantly dubbed “Snow-apocalypse 2010,” is presently frosting the canals and alleyways we’ve constructed over the last few days for vehicles and emergency egress lest one of us accidentally swallow a Monopoly hotel or a bear attacks — it happens.

Thus,  I am forecasting a slow week here at Murphey’s Pub and a perfect opportunity for a little photojournalism to showcase the blizzard for those readers in Brazil, which I imagine doesn’t receive much of this stuff. Continue reading

Love to Hate

Somewhere in the PETA headquarters across the offices and cubicles adorned with decorative puppy calendars, I imagine, there lies a Wall of Hate.  Every organization possesses one or two.  The simplest features a single photograph of an ex-girlfriend or work rival, their face painted with graffiti, fake mustaches, and the like; others, ridiculous caricatures punctured with darts, forks and knives, perhaps even gunshots – if you happen to work in Tennessee.  The FBI has one, displaying blurry pictures of mass murderers, terrorists, and gangsters; the CIA has one too, though invisible to the naked eye.  Even the White House adorns their distinguished offices with printed screen stills of Fox News anchors, wrinkled and faded from Super Soakers and Nerf guns, large speech bubbles that shout “Capitalism is for shmucks!!!”

At PETA, these portraits of animal rights offenders are encased in mahogany frames and frequently polished, allowing no smudge or stain to mar or obscure the faces of these enemies of animal-kind.  The inherent effect is a photo mosaic of taxidermists, sushi chefs, furriers, and exotic gourmets that smother crickets in chocolate.  Nearly all the department has visited the wall at least once.  After a year, the PETA volunteers and managers have memorized nearly all the mug shots, ready at a moment’s notice to spring on them with a can of paint or a club – PETA members are quite sensitive to irony.  Somewhere on this collage my face too is entombed, squeezed between Michael Vick and a comical poster of Cruella DeVil.  Beneath my hairy chin in large red block letters reads “At Large.”

This week you see, my brother’s, Sean’s, cow escaped their paddock again, and I screamed some very unkind threats to our bovine friends, which no doubt the PETA satellites intercepted and treated me accordingly.  The denizens of ‘Old MacDonald’s Farm’ represent the first additions to my own Wall of Hate, unless deep-fried and plopped between a Kaiser roll, no cucumbers though – the second vegetable to appear on the list, wedged between ‘asparagus’ and ‘geriatric drivers.’    The cows or rather heifers in particular with their repeated escape attempts, calling to mind Frogger-esque excursions across the highway and through briar-laden trees, are especially noisome creatures.  Yesterday however, Katie and I succeeded in herding the bolting bovine into its cell, where we learned sometime during the night their water trough had run dry.

Quickly giving into her maternal instincts, Katie sought to rectify the situation:  “Murph, we need to give them water.  It’s not good for them without it.”

Honestly – I freely admit – my conscience momentarily abandoned me here as my mind entertained the thought of simply shrugging my shoulders and walking away.  Or at least waiting until the boys came home to fix the problem.  I do not consider myself a cruel man, but spending another moment with the walking value meals is akin to cleaning crap from chicken coops and my own personal version of Hell.  Yet if the animals managed to escape again for want of water, then that would prolong the ordeal even more.

Katie might feel disappointed in me as well and that I could never allow.

“Sure,” I sighed, searching the ground for the hose.  “Though pumping the water through these hoses will be impossible in this weather.  Look there . . . ”

Beneath the snow and ice, we saw the raised impression of the hose, snaking its way under the frozen pond, up the hillside, and into the underground pump.  Absently I stepped on the coiled tangle trailing into the barn, noticing how stiff and solid it felt as if frozen from the inside out.

“GD, how the hell are we going to get water to these stupid animals?” Katie cursed – or at least as close to cursing as Katie can.  She stomped her feet and seemed quite irritated with the heifers, which simply bellowed lazily.  That moment, I was quite proud of my little sister.

“It’s okay, Big Mamma,” she cooed after a while.  “We’ll figure out something.”

Something in fact proved far more difficult than we originally hoped.  Nearly all the hoses were frozen and several pumps only trickled a few brave drops.  We thus decided to divide our efforts: Katie would chip away at the pond while Mom and I transported buckets of water from the far side of the house downhill to the barn.  Combining our efforts, enough water could be stored away to keep the cows happy and imprisoned for the rest of the day.

Regrettably, wet snow, a fool’s balance, and a pot filled to the brim mix well for comedic effect.  As we gingerly edged our way downhill, my feet rebelled against me, sliding out from my legs like a man who had just slipped on a banana peel.  Water and bowl flew into the air, landing atop a soon-to-be bruised head as my knees collided with the frozen ground.  I then rolled several feet down the hill, wet, sore and in desperate need of a towel.  Katie and Mom fell to the ground as I played dead, mourning for my lost dignity.  Their giggles painful but expected.

The heifers mooed and chuckled too, and I promised to treat myself a quarter-pounder with cheese later that evening.

Thankfully, my sister’s excavation of the pond had hit paydirt and we spent the next half-hour shoveling water into buckets like kids playing at the seashore.  We filled the cow’s trough and promising to mete out some words to the boys, the girls trudged back up to the house and some hot tea.  I remained behind to store the shovels and buckets while the animals slurped noisily, ignoring me.

“You better thank that girl,” I said.  “If not for her, you’d be roadkill chuck roast.  Remember that the next time you make a run for it.”

From politicians to the Care Bears, ‘hatred’ often suffers a bad rap.  No criticism accompanies our shared hatred of injustice, cruelty or corruption, but punting puppies is frowned upon.  Or ignored: my feelings toward cucumbers.  Our hatreds define us as much as our hopes and our dreams, yet we curse those negative feelings or worse pretend they do not exist, allowing them to accumulate and build like the pressure beneath a geyser.  And while sometimes dangerous (we cannot always immediately erase our misgivings about people and cucumbers), we might surround ourselves with individuals, who might challenge us to reexamine these base inclinations.  Sisters are typically a good place start.  They teach us about sympathy, I think.  Or at least compel us to do the right thing every once in a while.

So if any PETA-people have stuck around to the end of this post, I humbly offer you my services.  Every team needs its rogue agent to keep it honest.  A brave new carnivorous world awaits us.  Let’s do lunch next Tuesday.  Say . . .  the local Five Guys?  My treat.

Mountains from Molehills

Root WineMost Friday nights, relaxation consumes the pith of my free time.   Others might consider sitting by the heat vents book-in-hand a tad tame, even pathetic (Or in words of my little brother, a soul-crunching waste of my youth), but that’s just how some of us are put together.  There are those with the constitution to drink, carouse, and womanize all night.   If that’s all they’re capable of, God bless them, but some of us need a little bit more: travel, sword fights, damsels in distress, and that’s all before I even picked up my first tome.  With my family even the dullest chores or stagnant afternoons can emerge as a circus act, complete with clowns, lions, and jugglers (Shannon and Charley are still quite upset about that Belleek vase, Mom.).

The angle is the key, the difference between boredom and amusement.  As one of my old teachers and religious advisers reminded me, the value of these idle moments is akin to finding a peep-hole into the girls’ locker room: with the proper perspective and a little imagination, a world of untold riches unfolds before you.

One evening, in preparation for Christmas and the impending snowstorm, Mom and I drove out to the local liquor store and wine emporium.  What Borders and Barnes & Nobles is to me — that is a land of wondrous magic and adventure, from which my siblings often must drag me kicking and screaming, my hands clutching the latest Stephen King for ballast — so is the wine store to Mom.  In our most honest moments, adults revert back to childhood, peeling back the time-encrusted layers of restraint, reserve, and responsibility.  As we walked through the doors, I found her quivering with excitement.

“Okay Murph, we need a few bottles for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the next week or so until New Years.  They say it’s going to get below freezing and I might not be up for leaving the house until 2010.”

“Right, Mom.”  It was quarter of eight.  The liquor store I reasoned must close sometime around 10PM or so, giving us little more than two hours to finish our shopping.  I just hoped it would be enough.

Meeta Panesar CabernetSeriously the woman can spend hours staring at bottles, divining secrets of pomegranates and flame-burnt oak through green-tinted glass and labels adorned with yellow-tailed kangaroos.  Other customers skirt around her like a small craft around a rocky shoal.   After some five minutes, she begins to sway from side to side, smile to herself and hum Toby Keith, a musical collage of alcohol-related operas sung with a country twang, half-whispered, and off-key.  I leave her to her studies, scurrying off down the aisles to critique the artistry of bottle labels.  Most modern liquor stores are in truth an art gallery in miniature, offering an eclectic collection of landscapes, impressionistic reliefs, and abstract still-lifes with polyhedral grapes.  I spend the next hour or so staring at withered trees swallowed by fog; an Aztec dragon curling around the ornate vine; an antique home or castle sketched in charcoal.   Honestly, these glass-curled portraits are the only method I have for choosing new flavors.  Once home, we quickly drain the bottles of their respective juices, wash the inner chamber, and mount on the shelf for the world to see.

The lagers are even more intriguing: Bad Elf, Bastard Ale, Honeyed Meed, and even CopperDragon – Golden Pippen.  The geek in me giggled, while secretly regretting my utter distaste for beers.  If only the stuff did not taste of swill, I could picture myself with a flagon of ale, pwning fell demons and scale-skinned marauders from unholy lands online.   As Dad would remind me, if you don’t look the part, you’re always forced to prove yourself.  I might not possess the strength to wield a Viking axe — or even possess an axe — but many a bandit might reconsider picking my pocket if I learned to drink like one.

Cardinal Zin WineI find Mom still rooted near the wine racks, deciding.  Somewhere in my subconscious, I imagine her silently communing with the ghosts of Italian wine makers and liver-soaked drunkards of Christmas past.    The spirits convene over smoked gouda, Carr crackers, and a 1986 Mondavi Cab before passing out, leaving my mother to her own frugal judgment.

$17.95.  A Sterling merlot.  Everything else is too expensive.  I add several bottles of my own, feeling quite pleased with the decorative quality of my choices, and  lie about the price.  She’ll thank me later, once the snow begins to pile.

We finally leave, my arms and back laden by several box-loads of wine, beer, and assorted spirits (the drinkable kind).  Cars pile outside the store as families quickly replenish their supplies for a long weekend snowed in with their children.  The nearby bar appears packed, nearly brimming over into the cold night.  The air felt tense and still, as if the evening was just about to exhale.  The flurries began then, showering the car as we crossed bridges, through the woods, and nearly skidded down hills.  At home, the snow had started to cover the asphalt.  Brigid had stayed over a friends house and alcohol safely stowed inside, Mom sent me out to retrieve her.

Shefa Profusion wine bottlesIt’s the small things in life that matter.  Armed with my iPod and a playlist of epic soundtracks, I set off again into the night, snow piling on the roads like powdered sugar.  Oncoming traffic weaved between lanes as the line dividers disappeared; my car fishtailed into the shoulder near the bridges, nearly colliding with a few mailboxes after only a mile.  At one point, I thought I saw a yeti disappear into the trees.  Bree, my sister, nearly groaned when she saw me pull up to her friend’s house.

“Awww . . . I hoped that I could spend the night.  Could you leave me here, and tell Mom that you got stuck?  Or hit a tree or something?”

There are guys who spend their Friday nights bar-hopping around the city, having adventures that they can barely remember in the morning.  Each to their own.  Yet among the grind, chores, and duties of large families, other adventures surface.  It’s not about making excitement routine, as much as discovering the excitement in the routine.  Sometimes all it takes is a slight turn of the head, a blink of the eye, and BOOOM! you’re there.  You don’t even need alcohol . . . though I wouldn’t tell Mom that.

B Frank wine bottle

Silence

The lady orchestrating the morning’s events cracked the first joke, the loud and obnoxious type.  This was to be expected of Kevin’s Confirmation coordinator.  She would need to enervate children and sponsors alike from their  agnostic and mostly private social habits.  Her goal now was to inspire candidates and their sponsor to talk openly about their faith among strangers, people who like Pat and me possessed little desire to regurgitate age-old religion lessons from grammar school or weep blood.

Yet if that’s what it took to get us out of there by twelve, then so be it.  Frankly, I was feeling a little teary-eyed myself after the previous night’s combination basketball match and Nazi Zombie game-a-thon.  I yawned loudly, stirring lukewarm coffee while searching for our designated table, labeled Yellow with yellow marker.  On white paper too.  Wonderful.

Pat just rolled his eyes.  Our cousin Kathleen, his candidate, dragged him to their table across the room.  Kevin simply sat down and stared out at the snow falling outside the window, no doubt anxious to begin plowing when we returned home . . . if we returned home.  Mom had suggested the chance of snowfall the night before, but the flakes fell thick and fast, nearly covering the nearby lawns in seconds.  The roads alone still resisted the assault of ice, but as the temperatures continued to drop they too would be overwhelmed.  The aspect of bunking overnight at the kids’ elementary school with a crazed Confirmation teacher did not excite me in the least.  Still as far as Saturday night’s go, I’ve had worse.

Swarming around Ms. Rachel buzzed the hyper, overly-enthusiastic giggles of past year’s confirmants — three girls and two boys — all wearing brightly colored t-shirts which I learned later corresponded with the various table labels.  Team yellow was led by a relaxed kid in a sunshine polo, who introduced himself as Mark.  The other two kids likewise appeared bored but emotionally stable individuals, their personalities easily overshadowed by the last two girls who introduced themselves in song.

“Hi, my name is Crystal and I’m in love with God . . .”

10:00AM  Half-an-hour into the retreat and already I found myself clock-gazing.   Around the table we began introducing ourselves to the other candidates, mostly girls.  And their mothers.  I shoot Kevin a sympathetic grin but he ignores me.  I hear him murmuring Ford F150 and ‘sucky GMC plows’ and ignore him.  Pre-arranged questions in sealed envelopes are passed around as a means to break the ice.  The girls and their sponsors seemed hesitant to talk but nevertheless kind and down-to-earth.  Betty likes the beach.  Julie paints and runs track.  At an adjacent table, I caught Pat rolling his eyes.  Afterward he admitted that one of his neighbor’s wrote love songs to Jesus.

“I just didn’t know what to say to that . . .” he said.  “I just nodded and tried not to laugh.”

Of late, I treat most religious discussions with a fair bit of cynicism.  Though my religious faith remains unshaken, my faith in the religious wavers.  Most sermons — especially those outside mass — come off as fake and though not entirely dishonest, still very much lacking in honesty like a sales pitch for spray-on hair.  Too many people seem to have too many answers, flooding classrooms and auditoriums with words and not enough actions.  Singing songs and playing Bible games feels like ample carnival fair but cannot replace honest discussion.  Frankly, I’d be satisfied if Ms. Rachel removed the press-on nails, toned down her voice several decibels, and spoke simply, quietly: “This stuff makes sense to me.  These teachings have helped me become a better person.  Give me a few hours of your time and perhaps you’ll find something worthwhile as well.”

Instead we played games.  Name two gifts of the Holy Spirit.  What does the bishop carry with him during the ceremony?  Name two Sacraments of Initiation.

Admittedly it was interesting and fun to tease Kevin a bit.  Particularly around the girls at our table.  After announcing his favorite animal was a cheetah, there was only so much I could do.  Next Junior Youth Brigade herded Yellow and Purple tables into an adjacent room for a short video on Silence, why it’s so important, why we have so many distractions in our lives, and why does not God take up more of that time.  They threw candy at us beforehand to contrast with sudden and long silences dispersed throughout the program.  Stacks of paper were passed around for notes.  Yeah, right.

Outside the snow continued to fall, now covering the sidewalks and collecting lightly on the roadways.  Words flashed on the screen, much too fast for Kevin and his dyslexia to catch.  Pen in hand, we played tick-tack-toe until someone turns on the lights.

When we returned to our tables, I grabbed myself another cup of coffee while the second group including Pat and Kathleen left the room.  I gave them a hearty thumps-up as they shuffled outside.  Returning to our seats we began another Powerpoint presentation on faith and began discussing God as the whisper or God as the storm.  ‘How did you feel after watching the film?  Do we live our lives looking for the divine in silence or through iPods and television?’

Personally, I felt the conversation a little one-sided (In a large Irish Catholic family, silence are bad omens and often follow shattered porcelain or report cards.) not to mention a little condescending but shrugged it off with a few well-practiced answers from my Jesuit days.  No one wanted to discuss anything anyway.  These silent discussion about, well . . .  silence grew louder as conversations bubbled over into Christmas Lists, video games, and the snow ball fights.  By 11:30 we were all anxious to leave.  Even Ms. Rachel’s color-coded minions seemed a little less enthusiastic, abandoning the Powerpoint for their phones.  Tetris themes were heard over the intercom.  Pat returned from the media room and rolled his eyes for the twelfth time that morning.

As noon rolled around, we were quickly dismissed, eager to test my Explorer on the slippery slush of the highway.  The entire parking lot was an arctic tundra, cold, icy, beautiful.   I looked out at the falling snow, white fields and frosted trees, like an eraser in a cartoon expunging the scenery: blanketing all color, all grime, all noise.  It was probably the most religious experience I had all day.  Quickly, reverently and noisily we piled into the car and drove back home.  Laughing all the way.

Mom was making cookies.  It was snowing.  And Bing belted out the hits on the radio.  Life was good.