TTWA: North Dakota

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TTWA Assignment:  Imagine you have moved to North Dakota in the midst of winter.  Write a postcard that will make Californians jealous.  

This task is quite easy.  I’ve always had a strong opinion about the value of winter.  Christmas in my humble opinion while certainly a religious holiday exists as a winter festival, a celebration of warm food, white lights and warm fires.  December and its holidays exist to chase away the fears and despair that accompanies the season.  Temperatures fall far below freezing; snow and ice coat the roads; the trees extend from the ground like the living dead.  Living things abandon the outside world; we hide in our homes and avoid any reminders that the planet has tilted away from the sun for the next four months.  

Christmas for my family chases all that despair away.  The smell of baked goods intermingle with pine wreathes.  Cranberries and cinnamon pepper our food.  As a family we draw close together before the oven and fireplace; lights dance across the treetops; children giggle beneath Christmas trees.

How far that little candle throws its beams! So shines a good deed in a naughty world. — Shakespeare

I cannot imagine Christmas in Florida or California.  Sure, the holiday exists, but it has no meaning, no significance.  You can drink hot chocolate in San Diego but without the bite of winter, how good does that chocolate taste?  How can you revel in bonding with family when you are free to move outside?  Some of the greatest myths and stories exist because families and friends would sit around a fire and talk to one another.  In some respects, this may prove boring, but boredom often spurs creativity.  

Yes, winter is not pleasant.  Anyone living around the East Coast this year can tell you that, but all the good things associated with Christmas and the holidays are born of the cold and snow.  I imagine North Dakota would prove a similar experience. Except for the bears. With that respect you’re on your own. 

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

Fire and Ice

As I sit and write, the teachers in the science department are jamming out, banging their heads to Pink Floyd’s “Brick in the Wall.” Besides the obvious irony — my coworkers practically screamed ‘Teacher, leave those kids alone!’ — those students that have dropped by wrinkle their noses as if they caught us cooking chocolate-covered crickets.

Winter proves a difficult time for school.  Too little snow yields a figurative eternity between Christmas and Spring Break, while too much and you may as well cancel your summer holidays.  All in all, I’d to stay indoors by the fire with a good book and a pot of tea, a schedule broken only by my writing, gaming, napping, and jogging to the bathroom — all that tea, you know.

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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.

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.