Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Beauty of Low Standards

The only way I can get anything done, as far as thesis writing, is to set the bar low. If I say to myself, "Okay self, once you have written your 100 words for the day, you can take a break." This helpful advice is from Shannon Hale, famous UT author of The Goosegirl and Austenland, who is expecting twins and has answered numerous questions about how she finds time to be author and mother.

Before I had such low standards, I found myself wanting to do everything except write. Instead of working on my thesis, I would much rather have:

a. scrubbed the toilets
b. braved the rush hour crowds at Wal-Mart
c. gone shopping at Lowe's with Jesse
d. folded laundry.

Why? Because, as Walter W. Smith says, "Writing is very easy. All you do is sit in front of a typewriter keyboard until little drops of blood appear on your forehead." The challenge of writing is further evident in Ernest Hemingway's conversation with an interviewer from Paris Review:

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?

Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times, before I was satisfied.

Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that stumped you?

Hemingway: Getting the words right.

Or better yet, look at Ezra Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" (1916). Pound began with 30 lines after stepping off a metro train at La Concorde in Paris (in 1913) and seeing so many captivating images that he had to put them down on paper. He said, "
I tried all that day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find any words that seemed to me worthy, or as lovely as that sudden emotion." He threw away the thirty-line draft. Six months later, he pared it down to 15 lines, but later realized they had still not been "that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time." So at least one year later, he found his final draft:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

And I thought my job was hard...

In the past I have tried to reward myself for sporadic bursts of productivity by saying, "Okay self, once you have written today, you can take a shower. You can get dressed. You can eat lunch. Or go to Ross, or babysit the neighbor kids, or check the mail." These pep talks work 50% of the time. Which is why I've spent many a day in my pajamas, with swamp-thing-hair, sitting at the computer until 3 PM.

Hale's advice makes sense because if I say, "Self, you have to write for an hour," I can easily end up "thinking" for an hour, or finding another source to annotate, or staring at the wall, instead of actually writing. So, the fool-proof way to do it is set a word count limit. At least 100 words each day. This amounts to one short paragraph!

What's supposed to happen is that you get so into it that you inevitably end up writing much more. So this is my new theory--set standards so low that it's impossible to fail! It has worked since I started--yesterday. Only one week off schedule!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Little Friend Next Door

There's no shortage of cute children in a family ward. Several live next door. Yesterday I babysat one of our personal favorites, Gavin. He'll be three in September, and Jesse and I have babysat him before. The reason he hasn't been deleted from our list of clientèle is that he's so cute, but also incredibly well behaved.

It had been a while since we visited with him, and this time I was informed that he has graduated from his crib to a "big boy bed" and he is potty-trained. I guess that's why they had a tiny plastic toilet with a faux silver flush handle and an inviting smiley face (also nearly brimming with pee) sitting in their living room. I made a mental note not to trip over it, while wondering, "What if he gets a peristaltic urge?" Later he was excited to explain the disappearance of his diapers by pointing to his underwear and triumphantly yelling, "I'm wearing panties!"

I had to explain that his newly acquired article of clothing technically has another name. My goal for the evening was to get him to recite a new mantra: "boys wear briefs, girls wear panties."

At dinner, Gavin sat at the table with me and Jesse and entertained us with his version of "Twinkle-Twinkle Little Star," into which he inserted random lines from the ABC song and "The Wheels on the Bus." After dinner he helped Jesse water the dead grass, although he insisted that the huge concrete slab in our backyard get its share of water, along with the east side of the fence.

Then, when it was bed time, I thought I'd have to be more persuasive to tear him away from his Thomas the Train DVD, I was pleasantly surprised when I said, "Okay, bed time." He looked at me and said, "Okay, let's go," and took my hand to lead me upstairs. He got up into his bed, wrapped himself up in a cocoon of blankets with only his blonde head poking out, and said goodnight.

A few minutes later he was whining about how I didn't put on his music--which his mom forgot to mention. I played the CD and said goodnight.

A few minutes later he was crying. This time when I went up to check on him he said, "Cuddle me." So I had to get in his bed and find a square inch of space among the 500 stuffed elephants and lions on the side. He scooted closer, two inches from my face and stared at me while I pretended to be asleep. I had to peek every few minutes to see if he was asleep yet, but he stayed awake, just lying there, thinking about who knows what.

What seemed like eons later, after both my arms had become tingly from falling asleep, I heard little snoring noises. "Yes!" I thought. With the stealth of a clumsy ninja, I crept off the bed and tiptoed two feet before I heard a creak in the floorboards. Gavin sat straight up and looked at me in the dark and said, "Where are you going?"

So I had to start all over again. It took him about an hour and fifteen minutes to actually fall asleep.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Hotel Rich

Jesse and I practiced our spontaneity last week by renting a car and packing up to drive to California. We never just decide to go on the spur of the moment. Trips are typically planned weeks or months in advance because there's always work or school. But last week work ended for me on Thursday, and Jesse's classes are wrapping up, and he's so "astute" anyway that he could have spared three weekends without studying.

So right after work, we picked up our Nissan Versa Hatchback and promptly got stuck in rush hour traffic on our way to Provo. Once we got going at real speed, we made good time and arrived at our final destination, Hotel Rich, at 2:30 AM (UT time).

We spent Friday at Newport Beach, where Jesse asked me to ensure that his back was adequately covered in sun screen. I covered his back, he covered mine. If people gave out report cards for effective application of sun screen, I would fail with flying colors. I rode home with sunburn everywhere--except for my back. Thanks Jesse! And by the end of the day, Jesse's whole back had turned the shade of those plastic ornamental lawn flamingos, minus the five spots where I distinctly recall aiming the Bullfrog spray bottle. Sorry Jesse!

Hotel Rich offered excellent accommodations, as usual--better than the low-rate Priceline deals at Christmas. Here's why:

1) Individually wrapped Dove Chocolates are deposited on top of the pillows.

2) Funny little people are accessible at most times--whether it's Audra asking if her bum is fat (she's two-and-a-half), Evan reading Dr. DeSoto and demonstrating his concept of print awareness by reading the words on the signs in the illustrations that aren't actually words in the story, or Skylee who has solved the problem of body temperature regulation by shaving her legs.

This time we saw Megan, Jacob, and Lexi, who we hadn't seen in years! The last time we saw them was Thanksgiving in Reno, 2007. I was just about to finish student teaching and had a massively tedious project due in December, so I spent a lot of time doing homework. Lexi was maybe three at the time, and she sat on the bed in the guest room, coloring on scrap paper and watching me work. When I was out of earshot, she said to Laura, "Mommy, Sarita's perfect." Laura said "perfect" was Lexi's then current word for everything which met her approval.

3) Animals are allowed.
I finally got to see the chickens in person, although they were monopolized by the grandchildren. The chickens were designated as rightful property in this order: Megan attached herself to Susie, because this chicken was the biggest, like Megan (the oldest), Barbie went to Jacob, and Bobbie, the smallest one, to Lexi. Lexi became distressed whenever Jacob held "her chicken."

The chickens spent most of their time trying to evade the grasps of Megan and Lexi, who at one point had cloistered all three of them in the upper reaches of the clubhouse for at least half an hour. Their attempts at escape thwarted, the chickens perched side by side on the bench and fell asleep.

Lexi decided that chickens would enjoy the playground as much as humans, so she tossed them or gently patted them down the metal slide whenever she thought nobody was looking. Jake had to intervene when Lexi tried to give Bobbie a boost up on the zip line. All this, I might add, is normal behavior for children, as it reminded me of how I used to dress up our cats in doll clothes and the time I walked my chicken to the elementary school playground behind our house and sat with it on the swings (a story for another time).

Jacob starred in a one-minute video on Granny's camera in which he runs around screaming in the process of escaping the clucking advances of both Susie and Barbie. After watching the video numerous times, Jacob was convinced that it would win second place on "America's Funniest Home Videos."

4) There was a pool. It was filled with Megan and Lexi and the chickens and their food and water trough contraptions. But there was still room for me to sit cross-legged inside.

When we went to Jake and Laura's hotel to try out the Hyatt Place pool, Lexi swam up to Granny, who was supervising pool activity from a safe place under the shade of some flimsy patio furniture, and asked, "Granny, which one is your favorite chicken?"

Granny said, "That's like asking me which is my favorite child." So Granny devised this politically correct answer: "I guess I like each chicken equally for different reasons. Barbie and Bobbie are cute, but I didn't feel as connected to Susie because she has a personality problem, and I feel like I've made progress with her."

Lexi didn't know how to respond, so she swam away.

5) Express food lanes are open 24-7. Staples of this visit featured bottomless pasta salad bowls, fruit smoothies, and homemade cheesecake. Starving is never an option.

6) We played our third favorite game. Cranium! Everyone knows that Pictionary is our absolute favorite, but we're too humble to subject others to the devastation of facing us as we expertly doodle things like "Pat Benatar" and "A rolling stone gathers no moss" or "gastric bypass diet" in record time. Whenever we play Pictionary, our opponents can just expect to be lapped around the board at least twice. Our second favorite is a tie between Citadels or the "Bean Game," depending on how vindictive I'm feeling. So that leaves Cranium, which I’m not sure why I like because I’m neither a “Star Performer” nor a “Data Head,” and I can’t spell backwards or hum on key. The appeal must be that the game always makes someone look silly--like when you're at a loss as to how to impersonate "Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen" (Abby would have come through for us!) or you're doing a poignant impression of "roller derby" and it's really obvious and your teammate can't figure it out. Sorry Jesse! What's not to like? It also must be the interchangeable hair pieces and hats on the players.

I give Hotel Rich 5 stars! The only disadvantage was the conspicuous absence of rubber flies and lizards strategically hidden around the premises. Although Jesse did find a fairly realistic wooden snake in one of Abby’s bedroom drawers.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Five Takeaways of Teaching Primary

When I was a naïve newly married 20-year-old, I longed for a calling in Primary. I didn’t get it until two years later, when we bought our house in Murray. It wasn’t long before I was teaching in Junior Primary, where the kids are ages three to seven, and thus consigning myself to the ranks of anonymity, because nobody knows who you are if you don’t go to Relief Society.

Later I would learn from my neighbor, who majored in early childhood education, that this invitation to teach Primary was a classic case of the bishopric breaking one of the unwritten rules of the Mormon universe—you do not call a full-time teacher to teach Primary every Sunday because then he/she has no respite from teaching. School teacher + room of wiggly kindergarteners (with ADHD) does not = blissful spiritual education for all. There is only one exception to this rule: nobody else in the ward will do it, which I suspect is what happens in our ward. For a long time, I taught by myself. Then Jesse was called to be my partner, and we have had the same class for two years, so now they’re six-year-olds.

So, in the fashion of the website, (check out the Legos and the bees!!) here’s my Five Takeaways of Teaching Primary.

1. Do not feed the children.
Primary kids who get treats in church are like mogwais that get fed after midnight in the movie Gremlins, i.e. candy does NOT improve their behavior. The children may look adorable, but do not resist the temptation to feed them. If you do, and if your kids start to expect a treat every week, you are guaranteed to get Pavlovian classical conditioning gone wrong. The kids won’t respond favorably to your threatening stimulus: “If you aren’t reverent, you won’t get your treat today!” Instead, they will interrupt you every two minutes by raising their hands, and you might actually think they have something relevant to contribute to the discussion, but they simply must know, “Are we getting a treat today?! When are we getting a treat?! Next week can you bring jelly beans, I don’t like gummy bears…?!” And thus jelly beans are the reason for coming to church.

And if you fall into the trap of distributing treats every week, what happens if you’re sitting in Sacrament meeting, gazing off into space, and suddenly realize you forgot the treat at home? Why, you have to dig the car keys out of your purse, explain to your husband why you’re leaving Sacrament meeting early, and drive home to get it (this did not happen to me, in case you’re wondering).

And when kids get their treats, all sense of propriety is temporarily inhibited by the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream, so they throw their wrappers on the floor and forget to pick them up. And then they’re not hungry for lunch or dinner when they get home and parents are puzzled as to where their children’s appetites have gone—although, I haven’t ever heard of a parent complaining about this, so maybe this isn’t really a problem.

I suppose this is why the church’s auxiliary program manuals say “Do not feed the children.” Just resort to being the mean teacher who follows church rules. This has worked for me and Jesse thus far.

2. Do not tell the children where you live.
If you live anywhere in close proximity to your Primary children, and they think you’re even remotely cool, they will come find you and knock on your doors (or ring the doorbell 10 times in a row, in case you didn’t hear it the first five times) at inconvenient times—while you’re in the shower, cooking dinner, or just home from work after being surrounded by rambunctious seventh graders and being stuck in traffic. So it is best to do all your gardening, yard maintenance, and checking of mail at night, past their bedtime, because they equate your presence outside with an invitation to stop by.

If you’re of a weak constitution, like me, and all resolve breaks down when you see the little girl—who has loaded all her Barbie dolls and stuffed animals in her wagon and has towed it all the way across the street to your door because she’s been waiting all day for your car to arrive in your driveway to signal that you’re home—look up at you and say, “Hi Sarita! Can you come play?” you can’t say no. Even when you have a research paper to write, or a stack of papers to grade, or a throbbing migraine.

You’ll be sitting at home, lounging on the couch on Fourth of July weekend and hear a forceful adult-sounding knock, like the knock of persistent Amway sales people. But you look through the little window-glass thingy at the top of your door and see no one. So you open the door, and there they are. Two little boys asking if your husband can come play “Harry Potter” with them, because they already have a Harry, and a Ron and all they’re missing is a Voldemort. Or they’ll want to build Lego forts. Little do they know that the one day of free time you have off from work was never intended to be spent with them. But you can’t resist because they’re just so cute.

3. Do not leave home without a box of Kleenex and your hand sanitizer.
Can you guess where this is headed? Children are inveterate nose-pickers. Even the girls dressed in frilly outfits that make them look like little pink cupcakes do it. Right in front of you. Bless their hearts, they’ll attempt to be discrete and turn their heads, thinking perhaps that you can’t see it, but you always see it. It doesn’t seem to phase them either, that you’re making eye contact with them while they’re doing it, so maybe I should just forget about it. However, when you warn a kid to stop or he’ll get a bloody nose, and he doesn’t stop and gets a bloody nose and you have to steer him, with his head tipped back in the air, to the closest bathroom, you have to draw the line somewhere.

4. Do not say the word Christmas. Ever.
Just see if you can mention Christmas in a Primary lesson without turning the classroom into a slightly less chaotic version of the New York Stock Exchange with every child jumping in their seat, waving their hands in your face, and clamoring to tell you what they’re getting for Christmas. You might be teaching a lesson about gratitude and innocently say, “Gratitude means being thankful, like when you get a present from Grandma at Christmas, and—“ then you get this barrage of:

“Ooh, guess what I’m getting for Christmas? A cell phone, and I get to pick the color…”
“I already have a cell phone, but my mom said she’s going to get me a Polly Pocket helicopter…”
“Christmas is my favorite holiday because I get lots of presents!”
“I asked Santa for a Megatron Transformer, the kind that’s a truck and it turns into Megatron…”
“I have a story about Christmas, can I tell it? Please? Please? Please? Please? Ok, last year I got a Beauty and the Beast Barbie, and Isaac, he’s my brother, was mad at me, and he locked himself in the bathroom with the scissors and cut all her hair off, so my mom said I could get a new one this year, and this time I can get the one with the yellow dress and not the red dress… ”

And they’re all talking at the same time. When they realize you’re not listening, then they’ll just turn to their neighbor and talk about Christmas until Primary is over, if you let them. So, for your own sake, don’t say the word Christmas.

Disclaimer: Actually, the truth is, this happens with anything you say, and not just Christmas. Expect the same results if you’re telling a story about, say, a pet. Kids hear the word pet and they’ll all simultaneously chatter about their dog, cat, frog, hermit crab, or fish, or how someone killed their fish over Christmas vacation. Even ten minutes after the conversation has been pointed back on track, someone will still want to explain the story about how their dad killed cockroaches in Brazil on his mission (because some people have cockroaches for pets, right?). Just expect multiple digressions within the course of a 40 minute lesson.

5. Smile, because they love you.
Despite the nose picking and the frequent visits from children at odd hours, Primary has been our favorite calling. We don’t know what we’d do with ourselves if they released us. It’d be nice to go back to Relief Society, but then nobody would fight over who gets to sit next to you in Priesthood or Relief Society. After teaching in Relief Society or Priesthood, nobody has ever gone to the store to buy helium balloons and been inspired to name them Jesse and Sarita and draw faces on them. And we wouldn’t get nearly as many trick-or-treaters on Halloween, or cards that say “UR the gratest teechers.”

Thursday, July 8, 2010

His, Hers, Theirs

This post is inspired by Jesse's mom, who got me thinking about chickens again.

"His, Hers, Theirs"

When the kids are all grown up and move out, parents must cope with the significant void left in their lives. With the convenience of internet shopping, my parents are learning to ease this inevitable burden of loneliness in their respective ways.

Mom buys shoes. Dad buys chickens.


Nordstrom is to fashion what Welp, Inc. is to chickens. An internet search on for women’s shoes, specifically “pumps” yields four pages at 99 results per page—Kate Spade “Gracie” Slingbacks, Boutique 9s, Franco Sarto Platforms, Sam Edelman “Yorks,” Pedro Garcia “Elishas,” Enzo Anglioni “Starlites”… It’s stiletto heaven accented with sequins, rhinestones, satin, suede, buckles, zippers, bows, and faux snake skin.

One featured pair of shoes, the Beverly Feldman “Hottie” Pump—which sounds like a misnomer because names like “Beverly Feldman” should belong to the old ladies next door who crotchet afghan cushion covers and have 40 cats—offers the following helpful information: “An oversized, zipper-trimmed bow offers a unique touch to a peep-toe pump fashioned from animal-print calf hair. Stacked heel. Approx. heel height: 3 1/4". Calf hair and fabric upper/leather lining and sole. Imported. Salon Shoes.”As of right now, the shoe is priced at $235 and has no customer reviews.

Sifting through endless descriptions like these presents no challenge whatsoever to Mom. In the sleek world of Nordstrom’s website, with its aesthetically appealing abundance of white space, she feels perfectly at home. She can navigate the entire website in her sleep.


Welp, Inc. is a chick hatchery in Bancroft, Iowa. It’s like Nordstrom’s, except with chickens instead of shoes. Clicking on the link to Welp’s poultry catalog takes you to a menu of eleven different links, each with sub menus of their own.

You can buy various assortments of Cornish Rock Broilers, or twelve different egg layer types from Rhode Island Reds to California Whites. Black Minorcas and Silver Laced Wyandottes are only two of eleven different standard breeds (of which the Turkens, or “Naked Necks,” look most unfortunate, as their necks are bald, elongated rubber hoses).

You can order from an alphabetized list of 66 different rare and unusual breeds. You’ll see descriptions like, “Sultan Chicken - Hen weight-approx. 4 lbs. Introduced in Turkey. Features muffs and beards…feathered legs and 5 toes…May have problems with freezing crest feathers in cold weather. Poor forager, suited for close confinement. Calm, non-aggressive, easily handled. Small white egg” and read names like “Salmon Favorelle,” “Crevecoeur” (an uppity bird originating in Normandy, France) and “Egyptian Fayoumi.” Finally, Welp also sells numerous varieties of Bantams, turkeys, goslings, pheasants, guineas, and Chukar Partridges.

A bit overwhelming, yes?


Mom’s rule is: “Never Buy Anything Full Price. Wait For A Sale.” With the patience of Job, she has scored many a good deal by adhering to this mantra.

Case in point: the Betsey Johnson something or other pump. It was first spotted in a Nordstrom high heel display while vacationing in Anchorage, Alaska. Whipstitched Italian leather, 4 ½ inch spike heels, ¾ inch platform, leopard print inside lining, and electric pink soles. She eyed it, slipped it on, and paraded around in circles with as much lopsided grace and ease as is possible when only one side of you has the advantage of 4 ½ inches of extra height. The shoe cost $200 plus tax.

The package arrived in the post office six months later after Nordstrom’s annual fall sale. The shoes came tucked in the signature electric pink Betsey Johnson box, with the musky leather smell wafting out at the rustle of layers of crisp tissue.. Mom wore them to Hawaiian Day at work. I’m sure she sparkled amidst throngs of feet clad in white socks and Crocks or Nike tennis shoes.

I remember coming back from college in the summers to find shoe racks filled with wedges and ballet flats, and pointy, square, and round toed shoes. Red, black, navy blue, psychedellic zebra print. Where do you wear shoes like these in a town like Kotzebue, a place where so many roads are unpaved gravel that are either dusty or muddy? The road conditions don’t phase her. Luckily for Mom, we live on one of the paved roads. Work is a five minute walk down the street to the hospital, so she wears flats to work and switches to heels when she gets to her desk.

If the weather is favorable, she wears her heels on the sidewalk and you could hear click-clacking down the street before you’d see her. I’d watch for her out the kitchen window, coming home from the accounting department, for her lunch break. In a northern Alaska town of 3,500 people, she is the only one who wears bright floral print one-piece dresses, with matching heels, to work. It takes a considerable amount of confidence to stand out like this.

One day as I watched her walk home in a fitted purple and black hounds tooth dress with silver Chinese Laundry slingbacks, I wondered how it is that I, her daughter, comfortable in boys’ cargo shorts and plain t-shirts, could have no distinct fashion sense at all.


Dad is the bane of the post office staff’s existence because when his internet mail-ordered chicks arrive, nonstop buzzing and peeping and humming emanate from the holes in the egg-carton shaped boxes. A minimum order from Welp is three dozen, but they always send extras because in transit a handful of chicks usually dies of dehydration or stress. But what can you do? They’re only about $2 or $3 each. It’s not like breaking the heel of a Betsey Johnson pump. And besides, shipping is free. Feed is $50 per 50 pound bag and in one year, about six birds consume about six bags: one bag of barley, two bags of corn, three bags of pellets.

In the first batch of chickens from Welp in 2004, two-thirds were roosters that could only redeem themselves by producing a ruckus that drowned out the slurred epithets of the drunken neighbors across the street. However, after a few months, they were sacrificed for the good of the sober neighbors’ peace.

As happens in trial and error chicken farming, Dad learned that some chickens, such as the Cornish Rock, gain weight rather quickly and will eat themselves to death (much like the humans cited in Mary Roach’s Salon article ( or die of heart failure if their food consumption is not restricted to a 12-hour eating schedule.

All but two of the rest of the brown egg laying types in the 2004 batch were pecking around in the yard, minding their own business when they were suddenly massacred by what remains, to this day, an unknown predator.

The survivors deserved a housing upgrade. So Dad erected an impenetrable pallet and super-strength chicken wire fortress. At first one of the chickens succeeded in escaping; she flew over the fence and discovered the neighbor’s yard. The neighbor called to report the chicken’s trespassing, whereupon only Dad could go and coax it back into its rightful pen; he added an extra layer to the fortress and earned the title “Chicken Whisperer.”

Of the two that lived through the massacre, only one is still alive now. She’s a Buff Brahma, the queen of the hen house, a feather duster with a head and legs. She is obviously quite hardy and her feathered toes have served her well through several winters of temperatures down to thirty-below.

Now Dad buys hens only—Cochins and Brahmas mainly, the chickens that best handle cold weather and look like they’re wearing little pants because they’re feathered from head to toe. They peck at melon and orange rinds, avocado peels, and apple cores in the summer. Like mothers who know the meanings of each register of babies’ cries, the Chicken Whisperer knows all the nuanced chicken voices—the contented chortling of eating, the angry squaking of rivalry, the strained clicking of distress—which he’s heard outside while working.

The Snowhens (Dad’s name for the chickens) would survive outside on their own in winter if it weren’t for snowdrifts. So when winter comes, Snowhens are shuttled from their outdoor yard pen into the “hen house,” Dad’s old tool shed, where they can lay eggs in wooden cubicles, nest in dry grass piles, and eat snow cones; by snow cones, I mean the snow that is shoveled into their water bucket, which is supposed to melt, but instead clumps together and forms a crusty shaved ice top. At the very beginning of winter, when the garden snow peas are just frozen, Dad throws those into their water bucket, a rare delicacy he calls “greensicles.” Without any other heating contraption—space heater, light bulbs, what have you, Snowhens roost, dormant, and most likely ailing of a chicken version of Seasonal Affective Disorder, dreaming of summer and variety.


Chickens and shoes do not replace my parents’ children. Internet shopping is merely a hobby, a simple indulgence that keeps the monotony of life in a small town slightly more interesting when they no longer have their children at home to entertain them, and while they wait for their children to come home for the summer.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

In Defense of Pyromania

The Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders begins its entry on pyromania with three key facts: first, pyromania is defined as “a pattern of deliberate setting of fires for pleasure or satisfaction derived from the relief of tension experienced before the fire-setting”; second, the word “pyromania” is derived from the Greek words for “fire” and “loss of reason” or “madness”; and third, pyromania is described in the clinician’s handbook, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSMMV), as a rare disorder of impulse control, that “a person diagnosed with pyromania fails to resist the impulsive desire to set fires—as opposed to the organized planning of an arsonist or terrorist.”

The encyclopedia entry also specifies that only adults are pyromaniacs, whereas children and adolescents fall into categories of “firesetters” including, but not limited to “delinquent firesetters” who burn for the thrill of damaging property or committing hate crimes, “severely disturbed firesetters,” kids who also happen to be psychotic or paranoid and whose delusions are enhanced by the sensory experiences of fire, and “sociocultural firesetters,” kids who light fires to win the approval of the antisocial adult role models whom they admire.

Throughout his childhood, my dad was, and still is, a pyro. But he was none of the above. He prefers the more refined term “functional pyromaniac,” which, by way of explanation, involves a combination of the pleasure-seeking aspect of the pathological disorder, the pragmatic necessity of garbage disposal, and the continuing of family traditions (sans madness). All the descriptions that follow confirm Dad’s indisputable assertions of self-proclaimed pyromania, but may also help to explain that I inherited more from him than just his nose.

DSMMV Diagnostic Claim #1:
The patient must have set fires deliberately and purposefully on more than one occasion.

As a boy in the fifties Dad watched trucks making their rounds in his neighborhood of Elkins Park, Philadelphia—the white Good Humor ice cream trucks, the pastel yellow trucks of the milkmen who unloaded milk in glass bottles at each doorstep, and the green coal trucks that backed into the yards of homes with coal chutes. Some homes back then relied on the coal trucks to supply weekly rations that were funneled down the coal chutes and into bins in the basement.

Not only did trucks deliver coal along with ice cream and milk, but many homes in Dad’s neighborhood had fireplaces or wood stoves, as centerpieces of living room furniture arrangements, to supplement central heating systems. In days, when it seemed that, of all the décor on an accent wall, the fireplace—not the TV—commanded the eye’s attention, it was also not illegal for each household to burn their own trash in the backyard.

One of Dad’s chores was to help with the trash burning. The burning barrel, a 55-gallon steel drum with the top sawed off, was kept next to the backyard garden. On designated burning days, Dad helped collect all the paper trash from the house. Burning commenced at 5 PM. He would empty all the trashcans into a paper grocery sack, tote the load out to the barrel, listen to the requisite fire safety lecture, and watch his father (Grandpa George to me) light a blaze that swallowed the contents of the barrel.

Along with other boys who helped their fathers, my dad learned lots of useful things—how to build a teepee shelter of dry twigs over the flammable paper, how to light a match on the first strike, and where to stand on a windy day to avoid singing his eyebrows.

Ashes full of phosphates from the trash barrel were then emptied into the garden to nourish the soil that produced, besides Indian corn, roses, raspberry and blueberry bushes, strawberry vines, parsley, bell peppers, and tomatoes. Emptying the ashes completed one full burning cycle, and it would start all over again next month.

In elementary school I know fire safety basics—don’t play with matches under the bed or you’ll burn your house down like Billy Hand who was Dad’s neighbor when he was a kid. In first grade I come home excited about about stop, drop, and roll and Dad gathers us all in the living room to stage mock house fires, without any actual flames, much to my disappointment. My brother and sister and I have to crawl around on our elbows, single file, with washcloths on our faces; the washcloths are supposed to protect us from the noxious carbon dioxide fumes that would accompany a real fire, but after about one minute the seriousness of the drill deteriorates as my siblings turn their cloths into ninja face masks and karate-chopped each others’ backsides. “If this was a real fire you guys would be dying!” I scold from beneath the cover of my washcloth, as I am still taking the drill seriously. They ignore me.

After first grade I am cheerfully more reckless in my firesetting. My sister and I are always on the lookout for promising clubhouse locations. One year we construct a pallet shack in the backyard in which we hold secret meetings and consume massive amounts of candy our friends buy with their allowance. The candy wrappers have to be disposed of somehow without our parents knowing. So I “borrow” some kitchen matches and we dig a small hole in the shack and destroy all evidence of unauthorized sugar consumption, then cover the shallow fire pit with some scraps of plywood.

Several weeks later Dad storms into my room with an unpleasant speech about how he had spotted ashes underneath the scraps of our clubhouse floor, and how I could have moronically blown up the whole house and the neighbors’ too, sending everyone’s belongings into a roaring mushroom cloud blaze—because I had chosen an optimal site for the clubhouse and propped it against a 50-gallon drum of gasoline stored for winter snow machine use.


Down goes the clubhouse.

DSMMV Diagnostic Claim #2:
The patient must have experienced feelings of tension or emotional arousal before setting the fires.

Today kids get adrenaline rushes sitting before the computer zapping aliens, or slashing the heads off of swarming chthonic fiends in medieval dungeons, or waving their extremities in front of their plasma screen TVs “playing” Wii cyber sports without sweating. Dad did what was in vogue in his day, like pedal his bike as fast as he could through foot-high piles of dead leaves by the curb. Sometimes those piles of leaves were on fire.

New England autumns are exquisitely scenic, with pockets of explosions of red and yellow in the changing colors of sycamores, maples, and oaks. Every year leaves drift to the ground and blanket lawns in thin films of fragile, cruncy parchment which must always be disposed of before winter. Now families clean their lawns with leaf blowers in a matter of minutes, but back then the common method of disposal in Dad’s day was to burn the leaves and make a day-long party out of turning work into play.

There were no county ordinances against curbside fires until the 1970s, and since it was considered disgraceful to just ignore the leaves piling higher and higher in your yard—only abandoned houses and inveterate slobs had leaves scattered about their lawns—dads and kids from every respectable house on the block would rake all the leaves into small mounds off the sides of the curb and burn them. This happened during football season, after Thanksgiving but before the first snow in December, while the grass was still green on a day that wasn’t too windy. Opportunistic dads taught their kids the essentials of fire safety, between sips of beer and talk of politics or fishing or college sports, and my dad raced his brother through the flaming (or more likely, smoldering) leaf piles, like Danny Lyon of the Chicago Outlaw Motorcycle Club speeding down Highway 66, while the dry, tangy scent of leaf smoke wafted through the neighborhood and the ashes swept away with the whisper of a breeze.

We do not take the average family camping trips where a weekend’s worth of hotdogs and soda are loaded into the car and driven to a nice, neat campground with port-o-potties. We live in the remote Alaskan villages where you can leave in the summer by plane and boat, or snow machine in the winter. Our camping is done in the summer, so Dad loads the boat with a messy jumble of sleeping bags, tents, fishing poles, rifles, gasoline cans, and peanut butter, 12-grain bread, cheese, canned oysters, Snickers bars, frozen burritos and Dinty Moore Beef Stew. Everything is covered in a tarp and lashed down with bungee cords. And since our boat trips typically double as hunting excursions, on the return trip, the boat is always weighed down with animal carcases—usually the antlered heads or hoofed legs of moose and caribou sticking out of the tarp at odd angles.

On trips like these, fires are of utmost importance. I am told that when I was three or four, I loved these fires. At times when it was safe to approach a dying blaze I was delighted to be the designated poker in charge of stirring the embers with a willow branch, sending sparks swirling into the air like a vertical parade of dancing orange fireflies, and I was so excited that I made up a chant to go along with the fire poking. I would say, “Look Dad, it’s Halloween time! It’s Halloween time!” And it was just as much fun as Christmas morning.

DSMMV Diagnostic Claim #3:
The patient must indicate that he or she is fascinated with, attracted to, or curious about fire and situations surrounding fire (for example, the equipment associated with fire, the uses of fire, or the aftermath of firesetting).

Poring over the book by the light of a dorm room lamp in Temple University in the 70s, Dad found in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 an author who wrote what he had been thinking all his life, “It was a pleasure to burn.” Dad wasn’t a book-burner (except phone books and Sears, Montomgery Ward, and Spiegels catalogs) but he couldn’t read this and not think about the fires burned at Elkins Park.

The men of the house—Grandpa George, Dad and his brother—would head out, armed with buck saws and a vintage two-man handle saw with a broad blade and one-inch teeth, to the forests beyond the field in the backyard. They were in search of “slash.” Slash was any part of a tree that blew onto the lawn after a storm, or any tree branches that needed trimming to prevent gnarly blockage of the views from kitchen and living room windows. Slash was either trimmed or blown into the yard from the forests that edged the field just beyond the backyard.

Sometimes a more serious storm left thicker limbs partly sheared off. These required rope, tackle, and ladders. These required someone to climb the ladder and saw the limbs down. The boys then bucked the fallen limbs, split them, and piled them for Thanksgiving and Christmas fires and for the occasional power outages, especially loved by Grandpa George because he could assemble materials in the fireplaces and light the backup candles and kerosene lamps. Then the brothers joyfully dug fire pits in the middle of the Indian corn patch and burned the remaining slash. When the “charm and vigor of the old bucksaws and two-man deal” faded for his brother, Dad continued the yard maintenance alone. His work was finished much more quickly when he graduated from handsaws to chainsaws at age sixteen.

And then there was the wood. Dad could catalog all the different types and uses for wood in his neighborhood. White, gold, silver, black birches were family favorites because of the volatility of the bark peeling back like dry slabs of speckled skin. Pitchy white pine and spruce were loved for their fragrant smoke, but inconvenient for leaving tar streaked chimneys. Hardwoods burned cleanest: beech, hornbeam, ash, and especially maples.

I don’t remember exactly when I discover the entertainment value of marshmallows and fire. It must be during one of our family’s epic road trips from Anchorage to Pennsylvania. We’re in a campground in Manitoba, since our route takes us from the Alaska Highway into the Canadian provinces, and someone persuades the parents to buy a bag of jumbo Jet Puffed marshmallows. Marshmallows are basically nutritionally bankrupt, (their only redeeming qualities are that they are very low in sodium, cholesterol, and saturated fat) so we never have them at home. Perhaps they’re a reward for getting through the whole day riding in the car without causing a backseat ruckus.

When the evening fire has died down sufficiently, out come the roasting sticks and the marshmallows. It takes me a few tries to master the art of marshmallow toasting and it’s fascinating watching the sugar burn into golden brown bubbles or turn flaky and black.

And then someone, I don’t remember who, drags a log over to the fire and starts painting it with burnt marshmallow goo. It looks fun, so I try it. I spear several marshmallows on my stick, wait until they’re melty, and poke the shapeless blob of sugar into a crevice in the log. Soon the whole bag of marshmallows is melted and mixed with ashes, covering the log like gray glue, much to the disgust of my parents who, in general disapprove of wasting food, but who also don’t consider marshmallows to be food, so we get away with it. The old log ends up looking kind of cool, like you could put it in a museum and call it modern art, the marshmallows keep us busy for hours, all for a grand total of 99 cents plus seven percent sales tax.

DSMMV Diagnostic Claim #4:
The patient must experience relief, pleasure, or satisfaction from setting the fire or from witnessing or participating in the aftermath.

On more than one occasion fire helped Dad solve several significant problems.

The backyard of the red brick Elkins Park house merged into a large empty field hedged in by forests of ancient colonial growths. The trees in those forests were at least 200 years old, giant white oaks with stumps wide as tables. The oaks were full of giant carpenter ants that tunneled and nested in the trunks. Dad and his brother enjoyed driving spikes into the trunks of dead trees to make climbing ladders. Ants often got in the way, because when their nests or tunnels were disturbed by the heads of spikes being pounded in by the hammer, they scurried out with pincers like serrated knives and bit anything on contact. So the boys learned to pack matches on their climbing excursions. When the ants scurried out they met their demise by fire. If fire didn’t work, the boys resorted to smashing them with hammers.

Another time, while Dad was scouting around in the empty field, he discovered an unusually large infestation of tent caterpillars. They were notorious garden pests that, if given the chance, would create cobwebby nests everywhere. The nests filled with seething masses of maggots that would grow up to be two inches long, black with yellow bristles and sometimes yellow-red and blue spots. These fat, wriggling pipe cleaners devoured all plants and fruit within their reach.

Dad enlisted a friend to help him make torches to set the whole nest on fire. It also happened to be summer. The nest also happened to be in the middle of a field full of dead, dry grass. When the fire spread into an uncontrollable radius the boys ran for cover and climbed a tree to observe the damage. The guilt washed over Dad as he watched the field burn to the ground. Fortunately the neighbors saw the smoke and called the fire department. Dad didn’t get caught, but felt guilty for a good half hour or so. He had only meant to be a creative problem solver without ever hurting anyone. Just the caterpillars.

And yet there were still more non-woody items to burn or dispose of. The sandbox outside served occasionally as a fire pit for toasting an assortment of insects and crayfish to a crisp. Later, as a teenager, the sandbox became a toy soldier graveyard for all Dad’s mutilated figurines. He had an impressive collection of plastic toys and soldiers he’d received as gifts for birthdays and Christmases—colonial Revolutionary War red and blue coats, men from both world wars, Ali Baba Arabian Knights, Cape Canaveral rockets and astronauts, dinosaurs, model planes, ships, tanks, little submarines. They would have been worth quite a bit of money now, but where did they go? Up in flames. These were rite of passage kind of burnings, where the men were all lined up in the sandbox together and blown up with firecrackers to signal the end of childhood.

What sweet relief it brought. . . at the time. The same goes for the thick knit sweater he got from his Grandma Honey one Christmas, and the Italian Cabretta leather jacket he wore in high school, all burned to herald the end of one phase and the beginning of the next.

In a small town with no trees to climb or open fields to roam or anything else remotely interesting, unbearable ennui sets in by mid June. So in the summer of 2000 my sister and friends and I decide to have a Fourth of July celebration of our own (names are left out to protect the not so innocent).

Several weeks before the big day we set up shop in my bedroom. Our task is to construct a miniature metropolis made entirely out of Popsicle sticks, cardboard, and milk cartons. On the fourth we will blow it up with firecrackers and watch it burn.

I am in charge of delegating responsibilities—Merella and A-- will sneak all the discarded cardboard milk cartons out of the trash in their respective homes, I will gather Popsicle sticks, and at the appointed place and time (our backyard, 1600 hours), C-- will have firecrackers and handfuls of her brother’s green plastic army men.

The construction begins two weeks before the fourth. By the end of the first week we have the sheriff’s station, the church, and the schoolhouse all ready to go in their pastel colored pencil and washable marker exteriors. All we need are the post office and saloon. The saloon ends up being the largest building the town, since Merella can’t find any more tiny milk cartons.

We wait to set it up in the yard until Dad falls asleep for his afternoon nap. We go out to the dirt hill in our yard and at its base erect our makeshift creation, a cartoonishly colored town dubbed Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, circa 1900. The random assortment of green support infantrymen, snipers, riflemen, anti-armor soldiers and demolition experts don’t exactly match but the add to the ambiance of imminent destruction that is about to take place. We allow a large number of soldiers to congregate at the swinging doors of the saloon. The firecrackers, of the variety that claim only to produce small smatterings of sparks, are laced throughout the milk carton maze in domino train fashion.

Operation Rabbit Hash begins rather well. The firecrackers spark as planned, the soldiers’ heads and limbs melt into green puddles, and the saloon goes up in a glorious half-inch blaze.

At first, there is a minimal amount of smoke. Then it really gets going. The smoke starts to rise straight up in thick billowy pillars, and the neighbors surely see it. We don’t notice. We are too absorbed in the scene of melting mayhem at our feet.

The next thing we know, police sirens are blaring down the street, red and blue lights flashing, doors slamming, badges glinting in the sun, guns in holsters, cops running straight toward us. My “friends” see all of this a split second before I do and A-- and C-- disappear before I can say anything, or think of anything to do but stand there and look idiotic. Fortunately, Merella doesn’t desert me.

All the time my heart is pounding because one of the officers is the dad of a casual friend I had in elementary school and I pray he doesn't recognize me, and the other lives right around the corner and it's not like I'll never see them again in a town of only 27 square miles and me with three years of high school still left.

They’re standing there asking us what we think we’re doing with fireworks, and don’t we know they’re not allowed, and why don’t we put out the last of them before the sparks shoot someone’s eye out, and this is a warning but next time we’ll be arrested and so on and so forth. I am so grateful that I promise never to light another fire until next year.

It’s a close call. Nobody finds out until I confess years later.

DSMMV Diagnostic Claim #5:
The patient does not have other motives for setting fires, such as financial motives; ideological convictions (such as terrorist or anarchist political beliefs); anger or revenge; a desire to cover up another crime; delusions or hallucinations; or impaired judgment resulting from substance abuse, dementia, mental retardation, or traumatic brain damage.

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