Posts Tagged ‘humor’

By Bob Chrisman

After my father died in 1984, my mother made semi-annual trips to Southern California to stay with her step-sister-in-law, Aunt Gladys. Uncle Roy had died a couple of years before my dad did. I would fly out to spend some time with them and then accompany my mother home.

During my first visit, Mom and Aunt Gladys announced their desire to decorate Uncle Roy’s grave at the VA cemetery in Westminster, California, near the Pacific Coast. At 90 my aunt had stopped going. “I’m not as quick on the highway anymore. I’ll leave that to you.”

We loaded the car with grass trimmers, scissors, throw rugs, plastic buckets, dishwashing liquid, sponges, old rags, and rolls of paper towels. My aunt directed my driving.

“Take that exit. Now be careful, Bob. A lot of these people aren’t paying attention. Lucile, look. Honey, did you see those mums in front of that grocery store? Weren’t they beautiful? Roy loved mums.”

I moved into the right lane to head back to the store. Aunt Gladys wanted mums. And my mother would want to make Aunt Gladys happy. One right turn, three left turns, and 15 minutes later we pulled up to the store. They climbed out while I parked.

When I caught up with them in the store, they had removed all the pots of deep red mums from the rack and lined them up for inspection. My mother and my aunt handed me the mums they eliminated as possible choices.

“Here, put this back where it belongs.” While I redecorated the mum display, they narrowed the choice down to three.

“Bob, you pick the one you think is the best one.”

I chose, but my choice wasn’t the best one so they bought the one they had already agreed on.

That done, we headed toward the cemetery.

A sign greeted us at the entrance:

The level of the cemetery has been raised by several inches. If you have trouble finding the gravesite of a veteran, please contact the manager located on the property.

We drove to the spot closest to Uncle Roy’s grave. My aunt and my mother tottered across the grass. I, the beast of burden, unloaded the trunk and followed.

“Now, he’s here somewhere. Lucile, you don’t think they’ve moved him, do you? That sign said something…”

“No, Gladys, they only put more dirt on top of him.”

I found the spot. “Here it is.” I dropped all of the grave decorating equipment and took the bucket to get water.

As they spread out the throw rugs, Aunt Gladys said, “Lucile, I don’t remember the grave being this far from the road.”

“Gladys, it’s always been here.” Mom yelled at me. “Don’t fill the bucket too full. We don’t need that much water.”

They had donned their gardening gloves and hats and set to work. They trimmed the grass around the stone. They scrubbed the marker with old rags and dried it with the paper towels.

“Roy and I bought an in-ground vase. I can’t remember exactly where it is, but I’ll find it.”

She pulled out a knife with a long slender blade and stabbed the ground like Anthony Perkins slashed at Janet Leigh in “Psycho.” Stab, stab, stab.

“Aunt Gladys, please stop.” Mom didn’t say a word. Stab, stab, stab.

“I need to find that vase. It’s buried here. They better not have removed it. We paid good money for it.” Stab, stab, stab.

“Wait. Put the knife down. I’ll go to the office and find out where the vase is.” Stab, stab, stab.

My aunt worked up quite a sweat. “Okay. I’m tired. Why don’t you go to the office. We’ll keep ourselves busy while you’re gone.”

I ran to the car. I knew they wouldn’t wait long to do whatever they wanted to.

I drove to the office. As I entered the building, the air-conditioning hit me in the face like a block of ice. The hot and humid outside air vanished in a room where you could have hung meat without it spoiling.

A cheery young woman asked, “Hello. May I help you find your loved one?”

I smiled. “My aunt is stabbing her husband’s grave with a knife to find the in-ground vase. To avoid injury to her, can you tell me where the buried vase is located?”

The woman’s mouth dropped open.

“Let me speak to the manager.”

She disappeared only to return with a rotund man dressed in a robin’s-egg blue polyester, double-knit suit. The exertion of walking from his office to the desk had turned his face beet red and he mopped his brow with a white handkerchief.

“I’ll show you where it is.”

I asked, “Do you want me to drive?” I wasn’t sure he would fit in the rental car.

“No, I’ll take my car. Suits me better.”

He climbed in a huge car, exactly the same color as his suit and rolled down his window.

“Lead the way.”

When we arrived at the gravesite, I pointed to my aunt and mother busily working.

“That’s them.”

He nodded and waddled off, wiping his head and neck as he went.

When I arrived at the throw rugs, grass trimmings and dirt covered both women. The manager stared at the ground, his jaw agape.

Aunt Gladys said. “Honey, we don’t need him. When we couldn’t find the vase I paid for…” she looked up at the manager. “…we simply dug a little hole and planted the mums on top of Roy.” She looked very happy. They both did, but the manager didn’t.

“You…you can’t do that.”

“Can’t do what, young man?”

“Can’t go around digging holes in the cemetery. It’s…well, it’s grave desecration.” His color had grown much redder. Sweat poured off his face. His handkerchief looked sopping wet. “It’s against the law to dig holes here.”

“If we had been able to find the vase, which, I will remind you again, we paid for, my sister-in-law and I wouldn’t have dug this hole.”

He took out a pocket knife. My aunt grabbed her knife, prepared to fight.

He stepped next to the stone. He jabbed in the ground and dug out some grass.

“Here. Right here.” He stood up with a smug smile on his face.

My aunt ignored him. “Lucile, look. It was right there all the time…under a foot of grass and dirt.”

“Next time, ladies, please don’t dig a hole.” He snapped his knife shut and waddled back to his car.

“I think I’ll report him. Grave desecration? What a bad attitude these young people have.” She extended her hand to me. “Help me up.”

With both of them on their feet, I brushed off their clothes. I gathered everything, wrapped the knife in an old rag and dropped it in the bucket. I packed the stuff in the trunk.

When I went back to help them to the car, I heard my aunt ask, “I think we did a lovely job, don’t you? Roy would be pleased.” My mother agreed.

About Bob: Bob Chrisman is a Kansas City, Missouri writer who frequently writes memoir about his mother, her three sisters, and their influence on his life. Desecration Day is about his Aunt Gladys and his mother. Other pieces about his aunts include Aunt Annie’s Scalloped Oysters and The Law Of Threes. He published two pieces about the life and death of his mother — Hands and In Memoriam.

He also wrote a trilogy about his father: My Father’s Witness, Bearing Witness, and My Life With Dad. Bob’s other red Ravine posts include Growing Older, Goat Ranch, and Stephenie Bit Me, Too.

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Moms are the best
to hug and to nestle
My mama’s bad ass
She can arm wrestle

Bobbi goes up against MOM...

Bobbi versus Mom, in the First Annual Arm Wrestling Holiday Championship, December 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

...and the winner is MOM!

And the winner is Mom!, photo © 2008-2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

The holidays are just around the corner. We have tamales to make (after Thanksgiving) and biceps to beef up. Last year Mom beat at least five of us—my two daughters, myself, Dad, and my sister Bobbi—in a jolly game of arm wrestling. Mom is 83. (Did I mention she’s bad ass?)

What’s on your list of things to do before the holidays? And, what family traditions are you most looking forward to?

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Baby quenches her thirst (one), Baby the Bullsnake drinks her fill of water on a warm spring morning, April 2009, photo © 2009 by Jim. All rights reserved.

The other morning Baby the Bullsnake was lying in her empty water dish, breathing hard as if she were panting. (Do snakes pant?) I’d gone into the potting shed to water the geraniums, and as much as I wanted to open her cage and relieve her thirst, I was afraid she’d moved suddenly and send me fleeing from the shed, screaming. So I did what any sane person would do; I called Jim.

Psst…have you ever seen a snake drink?

A snake walks into into a bar and orders a beer. The bartender tells the snake he can’t serve it. “Why not?” asks the snake. “Because you can’t hold your liquor.”

Jim poured the water into her dish while Baby was in it. I expected her to jerk forward and come slithering out. But she lay there, letting the water swirl all around. She got to the task of drinking right away, floating in the water like an alligator, eyes and nostrils above the surface, mouth below. Then she appeared to inhale deeply, breathing the water in as if parched.


Speaking of water, Jim irrigated earlier in the week and ever since a hundred or so Mallard ducks have been frollicking in the field. They really do look like those shooting range carnival games where the little duck swims back and forth, back and forth. These Mallards swim along the channeled grooves dug into the field for the purpose of irrigation.

They’re fun to watch. They dip their heads underwater and shake vigorously. Jim says they’re pulling up the grass to eat. That’s why property owners chase them away, he tells me. I ask him why he doesn’t mind having them. Because they’re part of nature, he says.

A duck walks into a pharmacy and asks for Chapstick. The cashier says, “Cash or credit card.” “Just put it on my bill,” the duck replies.

Ducks in the field (one), pairs of Mallard ducks frollicking in the field after irrigation day, April 2009, photo © 2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

Ducks in the field (two), you can just make out Mike and Mallary Malloy to the left of the Ortegas, April 2009, photo © 2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

-related to posts Baby Wakes From Her Nap, Who Said Snakes Aren’t Cute?, snake awake haiku, and sticks for legs and arms.

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stress incontinence

yellow rivers by I.P. Freely, doodle © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

I had a flashback the other day. I had to pee badly, so I ran into the bathroom, unzipped my jeans, peed, wiped, flushed, and walked out of the bathroom while pulling up my pants. Suddenly I saw my mom, 30 years earlier, doing the exact same thing.

She did it all the time. Ran into the bathroom, peed, walked out while pulling up her pants. No closing the door. Just pee and run.

One time I had just come home from school with my boyfriend and two friends in tow. We walked through the front door, turned the corner toward the kitchen, and there was Mom, heading out of the green bathroom off the entryway while pulling up her Bermuda shorts over white nylon panties, the toilet flushing in the background.

She must have said something like “Oh my!” but all I remember is, she was embarrassed, I was deathly embarrassed, and my boyfriend and two friends were speechless.

Yet, that was such a “Mom” thing. She never closed the bathroom door when she peed.

And now, I seem to have inherited that trait.

tinkles 2tinkles 2tinkles 2tinkles 2

Besides the obvious aspects of our peeing proclivities (the fact that we don’t wash our hands when at home and that we’ve fallen into this loosey goosey don’t-care-if-someone’s-in-the-next-room groove whenever our pants are down) I’ve gained another insight from this flashback.

I realized that I never bother to close the door when I pee because, frankly, I don’t have time. I’ll be standing at the sink washing the dishes and then, BOOM, it hits me. I have to pee! (In Spanish, they say, “Me estoy meando,” which literally means, “I am peeing on me!”)

Maybe it’s a familial thing. Maybe it’s from having babies. Maybe it’s the last thing I ought to be sharing about myself on the blog, but for whatever reason, once my brain registers “I need to pee,” my pee seems to scream, “I need out!”

Sure, I can wiggle and squeeze and even do what my sister (who used to work with toddlers) fondly calls “the pee-pee dance.” And in a professional setting I somehow manage to hold it until I reach the bathroom. But when I’m in the comfort and safety of my home, I have a tendency to push the envelope and barely make it to the bathroom.

So I’m thinking, if I have this problem, I bet Mom also had it; ergo, Mom never closed the door when she peed because, like me, she suffered from stress incontinence.

                       tinkles (one)
                                                                              tinkles (one)

There are other signs, too. Jim plays this trick on me whenever we shop for groceries where when we get to the aisle with toothpaste and shampoo, he waits until someone is within earshot and then yells, “Honey, don’t forget your Depends!” Then he zooms off with the cart in the other direction, leaving me facing the person who’s just come down our aisle.

And there was that one time I got a coughing fit at the grocery store. I was eight months pregnant with Em, and Dee was about three years old. With an almost baked eight-pound baby pressing down on my uterus, every time I coughed I peed just a bit in my pants. (Actually, I was wearing leggings over a maternity top.) Fortunately the coughing finally stopped, allowing me to finish up our shopping and head to the check-out line. 

There we were, standing in line. One lady was in front of us, one man behind. Being shy around strangers, Dee clung to my legs. I could feel her little hand probing around the spot where my leggings were soaked, so I tried to push her away, but before I could she looked up at me, eyes wide, and said, “Mama, you peed in your pants!”

I tried to ignore her but that only made her think I couldn’t hear, so she backed up a bit and yelled this time.

“MA-MA, you’re wet DOWN THERE, you PEED in your PANTS!”

I bent down and whispered in her ear that if she stopped talking and went over to find the kind of gum she liked, I’d buy it for her. As she disappeared around the point-of-purchase display, I looked at the three people staring at me—the cashier, the woman checking out, and the man behind me—shrugged, smiled, and gazed back down at my cart.

                                                                                               tinkles (one)

Truth is, though, I don’t think I technically suffer from stress incontinence. I mean, stress incontinence is a pretty serious issue, and once you get to reading about the many incontinences there are—stress, urge, overactive bladder, functional, overflow, mixed, transient—well, I’m not ready to go there. 

My little problem? A bad family habit of peeing and fleeing. Or fleeing, peeing, and fleeing. That’s all.

I just need to listen to my body and get to the bathroom more frequently. And I need to start closing the door before my girls inherit our trait.

I know. My apologies. Too much information.

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Ready for Take-Off, this angel baby pooch stops to pose before marching on in the Harvest Festival Pet Parade, photos © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

Every year in early fall, our little village holds a Harvest Festival. This used to be a farming community, and although many fields have turned into big houses with lawns, you can still find acres of apple orchards and corn and chile crops. Not to mention the good-sized gardens and non-commercial farms that produce a bounty of fruits and vegetables. It’s definitely a time to celebrate.

My favorite part of the Harvest Festival, hands down, is the Pet Parade. The first year Jim and I moved here, we heard that the festival always kicked off with a parade for pets down the main road in the village. I’d never been in a parade before, and something inside me was hankering to walk with our dog, Roger, as observers lining the street cheered and clapped wildly.

I tied a red paisley handkerchief around Roger’s neck and headed to the staging area where parade participants were gathering with dogs, cats, goats, chickens, turkeys, and horses.

Roger, of course, was chomping at the bit. This was the most exciting thing to happen in his life, too. He pulled me from one animal to another, sniffing the spray paint on their coats and their silly wigs, hats, tu-tus, flower arrangements, polka dots, shoes, and tuxedos. Clearly, Roger was underdressed, and I towered two feet above the tallest human participant.

Still, we marched. We smiled and waved. We posed when Jim snapped our photo and then watched him stagger off holding his stomach from laughing so hard.

Nowadays, entire families march in the Pet Parade. This year there was a “wench wagon” with showgirls dressed in velvet corsets sitting in a horse-drawn carriage. (Forget the kids and pets, I’m taking my bosom to the parade!)

There’s still the odd assortment of animals. One year I saw an iguana in its glass terrarium atop a chariot, looking like Cleopatra. This year my favorite was the Chicken-Mobile (a chicken perched on a Playskool car) and the weiner taco (weiner dog in a taco shell). The goat in a straw hat was a stand-out, too.

After the parade everyone scattered for other parts of the festival. Some headed to the food court—all that clapping worked up an appetite for turkey legs and Indian tacos—while others jumped on hay wagons heading in the direction of the three-mile-long corn maze.

We made our way to the Old Church and Casa San Ysidro, where we bought tamales and burritos from a woman who scooped extra ladles of red chile meat onto your plate if you asked.

We took our food to a bench under an old quince tree and talked about how cool it would have been to take Azul and the Toms, or Sony, Otis, Rafael, or even Baby to the Pet Parade.

There was a time when I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. Maybe next year.

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First, Rafael.

Oh, there’s the human taking my picture. Lemme give him this profile.

Oh no, my schauze looks big in that one. This side’s more flattering.

Wait, what am I thinking? Straight ahead is always the most dignified.

Next, Otis.

I’m here to save the day! Aha! I knew he’d love my Rin-Tin-Tin.

Finally, Sony.

Sony of the River. Strong, fast, deep. Wait, why don’t I get to stand in the meadow?

Way better. Man, mountain grass is good. Purple asters and daisies…yum-my!

I LOVE the mountains. Please, Mom, please, please can we move here??

Rafael, Otis, and Sony in the Pecos Mountains on July 22-24, all taken by Jim except for last two, photos © 2008 by Jim or ybonesy. All rights reserved.

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Oh, look, it’s the humans. They’re watching us.
Let’s give ’em a show, BOYZ!

Exhibitionist Turkeys...Ready...

Strut, aha, strut, aha…
Funky turkey, yeah, funk it up, yeah…
Ready, set…

Oh, look, they’re running away screaming…
Mission accomplished. Good job, BOYZ.
Duck, get lost. You’re such a peeping tom.

Ready, Set, Mount…, Eagle Eye and her toms mating on the patio,
June 2008, photos © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

Other Things I’ve Learned:


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Ah, it’s a beautiful day. Look at the clouds.
I think I’ll just lie down here and take a picture.

Oh, hi Otis. What are you doing? (plumph)
Otis, hey, do ya mind? You’re sitting on my chest.

Otis, really, you’re too big to lay your dog down on me.
Come on, I need to get up now.

Otie, come on, this isn’t funny, I can’t get up.
Otie, get up, boy…

Hey, you guys, help! Help me!! Someone!! (no answer)
Otis, PLEASE, let me up!


Whew. That’s better. Thank you, Otis.

For more touching stories about people and their special relationships to dogs, check out NPR’s These Books Have Gone to the Dogs.

No animals were harmed in the making of this post. (I do have a sore lower back as a result, however.) Photos © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

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I Love U Pa, doodle © 2008 by
ybonesy. All rights reserved.

We spent the afternoon with Dad. One of my sisters got him a card with the above message, which netted lots of laughs. My other sister wrote her own goofy card having to do with hoes, but that one requires too much explanation, so I think I’ll leave it at that. 

There’s always laughing on Father’s Day with Dad. I sure do love him.

Hope all the fathers out there had a great day. And what about that golf game?!

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By Bob Chrisman

Pond at Ghost Ranch, Ghost Ranch, NM, April 2008, photo © 2008 by Bob Chrisman. All rights reserved.
Pond at Ghost Ranch, Ghost Ranch, NM, April 2008, photo © 2008 by Bob Chrisman. All rights reserved.

Who can forget that fateful trip to Abiquiu, New Mexico to visit Ghost Ranch? A brief recounting of the experience appears in Natalie Goldberg’s latest book about writing memoir, Old Friend from Far Away, but I didn’t recognize her account even though we were both on that same trip.

Twenty-four people left Taos in silence for Abiquiu that hot, August morning, drinking lots of water to avoid dehydration. The journey took at least three hours.

At the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge we slow walked to the middle and peered over the railing. Our teacher told us to leap over the short walls of the pedestrian walkway and hurriedly slow walk across the busy highway to the other side. I still can’t figure out why we crossed the road. One side of the Rio Grande Gorge looks pretty much like the other side except for the appliances and cars that people have thrown into it.

We took a “short cut” on a packed dirt road with a washboard surface. Add a few thousand potholes, more dust than you should swallow in a lifetime, and speeds of up to 60 mph. When we reached the highway, one of my kidneys had dislodged and the other one was traumatized.

We stopped at Bode’s where twenty-four overly hydrated people visited the two bathrooms. Twenty-two of the people were women. One women’s bathroom with one stool made for a long line that moved very slowly.

Outside our teacher ordered people into cars for a short trip up the hill to look over the adobe wall of Georgia O’Keeffe’s former home and into her former front yard. O’Keeffe had a nice lawn from what I could see. That whole process must have taken another 45 minutes.

When we arrived at Ghost Ranch we drove past the main buildings to a parking area near a “long house” with no walls, three floor fans, and a soda machine. We piled out of the cars for slow walking to the pond, where we would swim.

As the group disappeared down the trail I noticed a sign: “PLAGUE PRECAUTIONS.” I stopped to read the fine print.

Because plague is endemic in New Mexico and fleas and rodents with plague have been found at Ghost Ranch, we ask you to follow these guidelines when hiking here:

  1. wear insect repellent and dust pets
  2. absolutely stay away from alive, sick, or dead rodents and their burrows
  3. report any sick or dead rodents to the office at Ghost Ranch.

The rest of the sign explained how plague was transmitted and described the symptoms.

Plague Precautions, Ghost Ranch, NM, April 2008, photo © 2008 by Bob Chrisman. All rights reserved.Now, really, I don’t dust my house let alone my pets. Who actually believes that insect repellent works on rodents? And you don’t need to tell me to “absolutely stay away” from rodents in any state of health. I fantasized about how I would report sick or dead ones.

Well, sir, I saw this sick rodent holding its stomach and frothing at the mouth at the cactus about 20 feet past the hogan.

Which cactus?

Well, one of the 6,000 near that place.

I caught up with the group as some members were jumping into the jade green water of the pond. Being from Missouri I do not swim in water where I cannot see the bottom, because unpleasant things live in murky water. I sat on the ground amidst the rodent burrows, and who knows how many sick and dead creatures, to have my lunch, which consisted of a hot plum and a warm pork sandwich. I couldn’t eat. Then someone broke the silence with an ear-piercing scream.

“EKKKKKKK!!! There are big black snakes!!!”

Our teacher calmly said, “Leave them alone and they won’t bother you.” On that note, I abandoned the hike for the shelter of the long house where I joined three other people to await the return of our classmates.

Three or four hours later the happy hikers returned in silence. We made a stop at the Visitors’ Center to use the bathrooms, buy trinkets, and purchase more water for the journey home. We climbed in our cars and waved good-bye to what I will always remember as “Goat Ranch.”

The journey home only took a couple of hours — for some of us. The lead car turned onto the highway and disappeared over the horizon. Since no one else knew how to get back to Taos, we all put the pedal to the metal and caught the leader, temporarily. We lost her again at a critical turn. Three cars turned left and two cars turned right. Those of us who turned left made it back to Taos in an hour. The two cars that turned right wandered in the desert like the ancient Israelites, finally arriving in Taos about two hours later, mad and not speaking to any of the rest of us.

The whole experience left a bad taste in my mouth, or maybe that was the dust. I vowed never to return to the Ranch.


Several weeks ago a writing friend talked me into a stay of a few days at Ghost Ranch. I balked, but she finally convinced me.

I knew this trip would be different when the journey from Taos only took 1½ hours. We stayed in lovely rooms atop a mesa with a panoramic view. We enjoyed quiet meals in the cafeteria. We took pictures. I returned to the plague area to see if it was as bad as I remembered. It wasn’t, but then it was April, the temperatures cooler, the drive not as long, my kidneys weren’t traumatized, and the rodents seemed healthier and, I assumed, less plague-ridden.

I’m glad that I re-visited Ghost Ranch. I have a new feeling about the place — but deep in my heart I will always remember the trip from Hell, the trip to Goat Ranch.

Bob Chrisman is a Kansas City, Missouri writer whose pieces Hands and Growing Older have appeared in red Ravine.

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What should we name the store?

Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this. How about …  “VALLEY SUPERMARKET”?

SUPERmarket?? It’s not a supermarket. Smith’s in Taos is a supermarket. Albertsons in Santa Fe is a supermarket.

No, no, no, wait a second. This is big, man, this is huge. Our store is gonna be the biggest one this town has seen. It’s a supermarket, man.

Dude, truth in advertising. We can’t call it something it’s not!

Oh, and what do you think it is…  a mini-mart??

Exactly! “Valley Mini-Mart.”

Give me a break! We’re gonna stock, what?, six brands of bread! Circle K doesn’t stock six brands of bread…7/11 probably carries two.

Well, I’m not gonna call it a supermarket. Just ain’t gonna happen.

Well, it ain’t no mini-mart, that’s for sure.

OK, wait, we can make this work. Come on, we’ve gotten this far, haven’t we? Surely we can come up with something that satisfies both of us.

Yeah, you’re right. We’ll figure it out. We always do. Come on, man, I’ll buy you a Coke at the Gas-A-Mat and we can think about it some more.

Super-ettes and other Oxymorons, grocery store sign in Española, NM, photos © 2008 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

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The search term

orangutan without hair on butt

led someone to our website.

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Peanuts letter

Knock, knock.
Who’s there?
You who?
You who, take a look at what a dork you were as a teenager!

Have you ever received a Box of Life from your parents? You know, the box they’ve been storing in their garage for the past two or three decades.

I got mine two weeks ago. It’s Box #3. Boxes 1 and 2, which I got ages ago, contained early childhood to elementary school: report cards, spelling bee awards, the story I wrote about Grandma and the one Bucky Mulvaney wrote about his horses. Box #3 holds within its dusty, greasy cardboard walls my inner life from ages 13 to 18.

It has Peanuts and those big-headed doll-kids from Betsy Clark and Hallmark. Loopy handwriting. Endless talk of which boys are cute and who likes who and how we weren’t invited to the prom (again). Sorry so sloppy and Always a friend.

Betsy Clark image from a letter, 1975You see, my Box of Life was filled with letters I received in junior high and high school. Not two or three or even ten letters. Inside the box, there were (to use an over-used term from that time in my life) really a lotta letters!

Letters from cousins Suzanne and Kathy in Long Beach, from Lisa who moved to (yuck) Lubbock, from Andrea and Thecla, both of whom moved less than 20 miles away. Even my two best friends, Lori and Laurie, mailed me letters from down the street!

Right now I’m trying to figure out what to do with all these letters. I could donate them to a library, the way presidents and other important people do. Decades from now, some graduate student will come across this piece of Americana that Laurie wrote me from Social Studies class:

Are you going to dress up on Friday in your peddle pushers? They’re very, very foxy! Pinhead will find them amusing! (noy) I wonder if Pinhead will dress up? He doesn’t have any hair to slick back but he does have high water pants. Haaaaa! (like a crow) Oh Boy! Mr. Cook is soooo foxy! Boy, his wife must be madly in love with his cowboy boots and high waters.

I’ve also considered writing a screenplay. In one scene, I am sitting on my pink-and-white bedspread with Laurie, reading to her this snippet from Thecla, who recently moved one town over. Our hands fly to our mouths over how loose and fast Thecla has become, and we walk out of the room whispering that we really need to start testing out new methods for getting the guys:

The problem is most of the foxes are older guys who hang out in the bars. I’m only 16 and don’t look 21 so we just stand in front of the door and every time someone comes out or goes in we take a look in with our tongues hanging out. Not really! But the foxes are really in the bars.

Scentables letterSo far my most plausible idea is to use the letters as material — quotable quotes — for red Ravine. You know, for those days when I have nothing more interesting to post; no salient information for writers or artists, not even some fascinating tidbit about the turkeys or Baby.

Excerpts from the letters might become quasi-writing prompts in and of themselves. Or maybe, like this gem from Lisa, recollections of a time when letter-writing was what teenage girls did instead of email or texting, when we used P.S. and P.S.S. as if they were going out of style (they were), and when we really didn’t have much to talk about except the weather:

I bought $20 of clothes. Pants and 2 shirts. I wore shorts and short sleeves all day, and its in the middle of Jan. Do ya’ll still have snow? If so send me some O.K.

          Sorry So Sloppy

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By OmbudsBen

Yesterday Part 1 ended with my newsletter story “Coffee Muggings,” about the misappropriation of coworkers’ coffee cups. Little did I know, that was one of the more peaceful brew-hahas the stimulating bean would initiate for me. This was back in the years B.W. (Before Wife), and for a while I dated a lively young woman, more given to night life than morning’s tranquil pleasures. Still, as I got to know her better and we enjoyed more movies and meals together, we soon were getting a jump on our weekends by waking in the same place, too.

Which is when I made my next caffeine-fueled discovery.

For as extroverted as she was the rest of the day, as much of a dynamo as she could be when we went out evenings, mornings were an introverted affair — it seemed she waged a painful battle with wakefulness. I, on the other hand, happy to have made a new friend and mind alive with the prior evenings events and conversations, would wake ready to quietly say hello and pick up anew.

She might manage an answer or two, but her replies were decidedly monosyllabic, until she finally turned to me, impatiently brushing hair out of her morning face and plaintively whimpered, “It’s not fair! Don’t talk to me until I’ve had my coffee!” before she collapsed face down into her pillow.

Well, that was easily remedied.

So I began making coffee for her, which brought me to the second discovery. After she had visited my place several times, we spent a night at hers, and I woke the next morning, ready for her to begin the coffee ceremony for me. Unfortunately, we had plans to be somewhere, and the demands of the morning were already upon her when she woke.

As I smiled and asked, “Is there any coffee?” she answered, “Yes, it’s downstairs. Why don’t you go make some?”

Which I did, and found mildly amusing, but my women friends shook their heads in warning. And they were right. It was the first whiff of inequity, a sort of coffee-colored blotch on the early relationship, and proved a kind of Rorschach test in reverse. For if some find love reproduced in the ink blots, I saw the opposite. Subsequent events outlined a distinct incompatibility, and we were soon waking apart, a move I’ve since learned was well-advised. And it was coffee that spilled the beans, as it were.

I do not drink coffee first thing in the morning. While it may be starter fluid for some, it is more the oil of my day. I rise and brew a pot for us, deliver a cup to my wife and reserve the rest for my thermos. She wakes slowly, and just as no blossom greets morning suddenly, her transition from somnolence to sentience is never abrupt, either. It seems a gradual emergence, and she takes in her coffee like a flower drinks in sunshine — thirsty flowers, especially. Once she gets started she downs a cuppa far quicker than I, drinking it while it’s still far too hot for normal human consumption. The marines may be known as leathernecks, but gauging from my wife’s ability to down a cup shortly after it stops boiling, the lining of her throat would well qualify for the few and the proud. She leaves me in her dust — or her grounds, perhaps.

My grandfather had a trick for drinking it while hot — he poured a little into his saucer. His wide hands would grip the saucer between thumb and finger and he lifted the disk carefully to his lips, blowing across the thin flat surface of the quickly cooling coffee, and winking at me as if sharing a good trick. I wish I could share a cup with him now, I wish I had a chance to hear him talk about FDR or Ike, the price of crops or telling jokes on his friends. (“What goes va-room, screech! va-room, screech! va-room, screech!? Denny Brighton at a flashing red light.”)

I wish I had a chance to visit my great-aunt Florence’s farmhouse kitchen again, with the smell of its wood stove, the thin-slatted white wainscoting, and her deep, full pantry. Even as a child, I felt transported back in time. I wish I had a chance to taste her coffee again, however thick it was, and however it “stands up” against the latest trendy blend. It could be that a good cup of coffee can be made just as much by the company you have as by the country of its origin.

I bring my thermos in to work with me, and do not pour my own first cup until I’m sitting at my desk. Now is the time I want the mind engaged, to be alert, aware. For me, my cup is still akin to Bobby, the companionable little dog, loyal nigh unto death. I like to recognize my mug, my boon companion, right away. If they ever invented a vessel that wagged its handle in recognition, I’d be a sucker for it. And microwave ovens are a blessing for me. Top it off and warm it up, and back to work I go.

In fact, my faithful cup is cold now. It’s time for a break.

About the author: OmbudsBen once traveled to the island of Java in Indonesia and ordered a “cup of java, please.” His traveling companion was quite amused by the blank stares the request drew, everywhere. While the Javanese are familiar with the term hamburger, and our word catsup comes from their word kecap, if they use slang when ordering a cuppa joe, it does not involve the word java.

Since then, he has met with similar rebuffs involving Vienna sausages, French fries, and Chinese fortune cookies. He found some consolation in a Belgian white ale. You can read more about him by clicking here.

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By OmbudsBen

I’ve known a lot of women who rely on coffee for ignition. A kind of starter fluid, rise and grind. In my experience, it’s enough to draw a tenuous gender distinction, so long as I draw it carefully, or at a safe distance. Of course coffee can be starter fluid for men, too, but in my family the percolation prerequisite (the perc perk?) is less dire for men. We’re early risers by nature. As a kid I was a morning paper boy and would no more have dreamt of having a jolt of coffee first than sticking a fork in an electrical socket.

It was different for my mom, who wakes like a tightly closed flower and isn’t going to open up until she’s got a little boost of caffeine running through her veins. Hoping for the best perhaps, but caffeine-fortified for the worst. I grew up in a medical household where one of the jokes was that the first IV of the day should be run from the coffeemaker upstairs to our mother. She might have tried it, too, but as she was the only one trained to start an IV, she wasn’t taking any chances with the rest of us. Not without having a cup of coffee first.

We brewed ours like everyone else did, out of an aluminum canister labeled “coffee” with a black plastic lid and kept on the kitchen counter next to three others for flour, sugar, and salt. After Mom had her first upon rising and most of us had a cup with breakfast, we were good to go, and I don’t think we gave coffee much thought after that. It was, at most, break fluid. You complained if it sat on a burner too long and cooked down to the consistency of 30 weight oil, but none of us ever thought to ask whether our beans came from Guatemala, Kenya, or Sumatra.

I now live among people who believe that coffee is more than just a plant, a product of agriculture. One of them told me that the word bean doesn’t do the fruit of the coffee plant justice. Beans are kidney, pinto, lima, and string. The elixir of coffee is finer stuff, more powerful; it is morning’s complement to an evening’s cocktail.

My grandfather would have scoffed at distinguishing coffee as separate from beans. He was a farmer before managing a grain elevator, one of the gray prairie spires that gather our corn, wheat and oats. His simple linoleum-floored office, with metal furniture and desk, kept coffee simmering on a burner, as a social gesture for local farmers. It was a place to do business as well as share a cup. They’d formed a cooperative, and I imagine sharing a pot of coffee was an extension of that, discussing the price of commodities and the events of the day as they sipped thin coffee. They were a dry-humored bunch of leather-skinned old farmers who told jokes about each other, and who grew the grain that may well have gone into sandwiches you’ve eaten.

So their coffee was more a social beverage than a starter fluid, meaning what they drank was weak by our standards. I suppose that way they could sip it frequently during the day. Or maybe after a few hours of cooking down on the burner it wasn’t too lethal, I’m not sure. But Grandpa wasn’t fond of thick stuff. My great-aunt Florence, on the other hand, favored a potent pot. “That Florence,” Grandpa said, “brews a cup of coffee you could stand on.”

Florence, I believe, resented the notion. I never heard Grandpa say it around her, but she complained about thin restaurant coffee to me once. “Just a spot of cream I added,” she groused as an aside, “and the whole cup turned white. It was too thin for cream. What that coffee wanted was milk.”

I left home as a young man, moving to a distant city, where the notion of coffee as sensory experience had escalated far beyond the kitchen counter canisters of my youth. My peers debated refrigerated or frozen, bought fancy grinders and coffeemakers that ground beans just before brewing, and they considered the qualities of foreign beans like the French discuss wine. My coworkers debated which vendor purveyed the best coffee; one disgruntled employee in accounting vehemently refused to drink the trendiest blend, a pungent brew he likened to the odor of camel droppings. (How did he recognize the scent?)

The topic of office coffee gathered so much steam we had a mini crisis over the cups, and I wrote a humor piece, called “Coffee Muggings,” for our office newsletter:

It’s Monday morning, and after the week’s first crawl to the office you’re approaching your goal – a cuppa hot coffee. But just as you near caffeine paradise, good humor is snatched from the jaws of java heaven as your very own coffee cup, the one your lips are accustomed to, is nowhere to be found. It happens, and there’s nothing to be done except snap at your boss or snarl at your secretary, or maybe blame Housekeeping and plot revenge. People seem to fall into two distinct camps on this. Some, like joyful beagles, go through life befriending all, eager to share any old coffee cup they have. For them, the trauma of separation from one’s coffee cup elicits nothing more than knit brows and a quizzical smile. Others are like Greyfriar Bobby, the Scottish terrier loyal nigh unto death, and a coffee cup is a treasure, a true friend lost in the moment of need.

This is a friendly plea from the terriers to the beagles. A number of cups are “missing in action” and the woeful howling emanating from our kitchen some mornings is a sorry sound. If you haven’t a cup of your own, please use a plain tan cup or one of the unclaimed castoffs in the far left cupboard. It may save on churlish morning manners – some bites can be worse than their barks.

And that was just about the cups, the collection of motley travel keepsakes from the Grand Canyon or Wall Drugs, South Dakota. Cups with heat-sensitive logos where the Phantom of the Opera would appear or some corporate logo would be revealed promising a solution to our temp employee needs, until the heat-sensitivity wore out and the poor phantom lost his disappearing act, looking a little bit sheepish.

Stay tuned for “Coffee Rorschach – Part 2,” where the author talks about the perils of caffeinated vs. non-caffeinated dating, his coffee habits, and how he prefers his coffee today.

About the author:  OmbudsBen once traveled to the island of Java in Indonesia and ordered a “cup of java, please.” His traveling companion was quite amused by the blank stares the request drew, everywhere. While the Javanese are familiar with the term hamburger, and our word catsup comes from their word kecap, if they use slang when ordering a cuppa joe, it does not involve the word java.

Since then, he has met with similar rebuffs involving Vienna sausages, French fries, and Chinese fortune cookies. He found some consolation in a Belgian white ale. You can read more about him by clicking here.

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I find humor in the oddest places. In fact, I think humor finds me.

Like nervousness, humor sneaks up on me. It replaces my nervousness. I can list all the times where I have giggled uncontrollably in places where I should, instead, have been somber.

Jim’s parents’ Thanksgiving dinners. I’ve now gone to how many years of them? Almost twenty. I have giggled during Grace at every one except for one. The one I didn’t giggle at, I actually wanted to giggle. But I had a good reason not to.

I had had a miscarriage on about November 10. It was close enough to Thanksgiving that I told myself, Think of the miscarriage, think of the miscarriage. And it worked. That one Thanksgiving I did not dissolve into uncontrollable laughter while Jim’s father said Grace.

Nothing very funny about that.

There’s no way to get across how immature I can be. I have laughed so hard that I had to pretend I was crying at three different funerals. Well, one was technically a rosary mass. And I don’t know why.

Is laughter really the flip side of sorrow? Was I grieving something that I didn’t even realize I was grieving? I laughed so hard during John Dunne’s funeral that the whole pew rocked. Jim laughed, too, and Andrew, and the three of us tried to pretend we were sobbing. I don’t know. That doesn’t sound like grief.

John Dunne was a nice man. He died when his bicycle got hit by a car. We noticed the bike on the six-o’clock news. John was the only guy we knew who had a red ten-speed with a white seat. We called the news station and asked if they could tell us who the person was that got killed. No, we haven’t notified next of kin, the man on the phone told me. If I say a name, will you tell me whether it’s him or not, I asked. He agreed. I said John’s name. Yes, I’m sorry, he told me and we hung up.

I laughed in the zendo when L farted. After that I dreaded sitting in the zendo for fear of someone farting. I avoid yoga retreats for that reason. Surely people fart all the time when they’re bending their stomachs the way you do in yoga.

I dread having to go to either Mom’s or Dad’s funeral when they die, not only because I dread either dying. I don’t actually dread them dying. Mom and Dad are both peaceful about life and death. I just dread the funeral.

I will have to take something, an anti-anxiety pill, to make sure I don’t laugh all the way through it like I did when Aunt Barbara died. I sweated so hard trying not to laugh that I could feel the drops of sweat rolling down the sides of my body. I laughed because the priest was dramatic. When it came to the Communion, he boomed up there at the altar, THIS IS THE BODY OF CHRIST!

I find humor in America’s Funniest Videos. I laugh when the big woman boing-boing-boings on the trampoline and boings right off into the hedge. God, I can even feel a physical reaction to the pain she must feel, something that hits deep in my stomach, and still I laugh. I laugh until my girls yell at me, Mo-om!, that’s not funny!!

I laugh until Jim laughs at my laughing. I laugh in bed afterwards, thinking about my laughing, and sometimes I am laughing so hard I can’t even get out the words to say what it is I’m laughing about.

I find humor in the stupidest jokes. I have three from my “brown series,” one of which is, What is brown and floats in the toilet of the SS Enterprise? The Captain’s log.

I sometimes laugh so hard at that joke that I can’t even tell it. Funny, it doesn’t strike me as the least bit funny right now, and I feel as though I’m failing as a writer to convey how funny it is when I tell it.

Humor finds me, I tell you. It’s like a gremlin, creeping up on me when it should be sleeping. When more appropriate emotions, like sadness or empathy or disgust should instead be by my side. Inside of me.

Humor resides somewhere deep in my nerve system, and I no longer know if I should even call it “humor” at all.


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I find humor in ridiculous things like the Great Pumpkin Catapult or singing moldy oldies with Liz in the morning when I’m spooning French Roast into the Braun. I crack up after belting out dreadful tunes from the seventies, something by Gilbert O’Sullivan or Bread, or rocking out, jammin’ to Stevie Wonder in Happy Feet.

I smiled the whole way through a documentary Liz taped off PBS on Les Paul. The way he invented machines to overdub tapes, recorded in every room in his house with his wife, Mary Ford, and, of course, made guitar after guitar with big bodied, amplified sound. Without Les Paul there would be no rock and roll.

Did you know he’s a Midwesterner, born in Waukesha, Wisconsin; his last name was Polfuss before it was Paul. He’s worth millions, saved every guitar, every recording machine, every headset and microphone. The collection will be in the Smithsonian. He’s in his 90’s, still going strong. He loves to laugh and smile and play his guitar for audiences for a pittance. He loves life. That makes me laugh. I want to be near people who love life.

I don’t find humor in jokes. I never have. Riddles and rhymes that crack other people up are lost on me. I just don’t find jokes funny. Half the time they seem crazy or dumb to me. The other half, I probably don’t get it and stare at the person with my face curled up in a dumbfounded question mark. That’s me. The jokeless wonder. I think I still turned out okay.

I laugh out loud when Liz and I dance all crazy across the kitchen floor. This is a regular occurrence. So you can guess, I laugh a lot. I laugh when I play fetch with Mr. Stipeypants. I knew he was okay when I found his furry red ball, his trophy, in his food dish yesterday.

I smile when I watch the moon rise through the oaks. Liz called on the way to work to tell me the full moon tonight will be the closest to the Earth of any in 2007. The movement of planets, moons, and stars makes me smile, connects me to something way bigger than me. I like paying attention to when Mercury is in retrograde (right now). Retrograde, moving around the sun in an orbit opposite to earth. Don’t sign any contracts. Expect communication delays. Back up your computer.

A friend sent me an email a few days ago letting me know that mischievous Mercury, messenger of the god Jupiter, the smallest planet nearest the sun, was up to his old tricks, turning his face counterclockwise, contorting what normally travels with godspeed to a likely destination. I don’t laugh at myself enough. I work every day to let go.

When darkness falls, I’ll watch the Moon’s billowy skirt slide through crackling, clinging leaves along golden rayed bundles of clouds over the deck. I’ll wish I had a tripod to screw on the digital Canon body. I’ll sigh, decide to skip the photos, and enjoy the Earth in shadowy descent.

-related to Topic post, WRITING TOPIC – A LAUGHING MATTER

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