Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Tales of a Google Farmer

The following was first published in Berkshire Magazine:

By Felix Carroll

I wish circumstances were otherwise, but the food I grow and the animals I raise are the result of knowledge gleaned almost entirely by means of blinkered queries plugged into an Internet search engine.

I am a Google farmer. I’m sure there are many of us out there by now—we who haven’t the time, ancestry, or formal education to have it any other way but to hack into the ancient agrarian code. There are drawbacks. There are benefits.

My father was a salesman of molded plastics, not a farmer. His suitcase of wares couldn’t have been any less inspired by the open country. No boyhood hay-baling for me. No late nights around the potbelly stove listening to solemn discussions about fence lines and soil profiles. No leaning against the buckboard soaking in the yarns of old farmers sharing curative uses of turpentine or saying things like: “Life is simpler when you plow around the stump.” (I found that saying through Google after looking up “farmer wisdom.” How lame is that?)

But when I was seven or thereabouts, my mother presented me with a pack of tomato seeds. I dug into the earth, turned it over, set the seeds into it, and food grew. I was hooked, which is how I eventually got to today, the midwife of several acres that, over the course of the last seven years, I have prodded and emended into increasingly nutrient-rich soil, thanks to wisdom liberally doled out by means of Google.

More or less, I look like I know what I’m doing. But to be a Google farmer is to stand on the shoulder of giants—real farmers, the ones worthier of the name than I, their faces furrowed by the learning curve of time, their laugh lines and lamentation lines merging far afield at the vanishing point of an eternally vulnerable crop. 

I’m certain that real queries put to real, local farmers would bear far more rewarding fruit, questions such as: “Is it just me, or is nature utterly ambivalent?” “Is it a Berkshire thing that soil conditions radically change every ten feet?”

But time won’t allow. I have a day job. What I learn about farming is on a need-to-know basis. 

If I encounter heavy clay, I hustle inside, take off my boots, type in “clay soil, what the hell?” (or something like that), and bingo! Twenty minutes later, I can speak with the authority of the ages about clay and soil and what the hell. 

More conventionally knowledgeable farmers probably make use of the Internet, particularly with regard to weather, but I doubt they, like me, bookmark YouTube videos on leaf shredding with a weed whacker. I doubt they need to keep web-page cheat sheets on companion planting.

I’d like to think the non-Google farmer’s vocational soundtrack is the put-put of a tractor not the click-click of a keyboard. 

And yet, the keyboard is my friend. I know about crop rotation because of Google. I know the signs of an unhealthy goat because of Google. If their stool doesn’t look like loose pebbles, for instance, that’s a problem, in which case I would have to bushwhack my way through Google to find reputable advice of what to do about it. 

I have a lot riding on my goats’ happiness. They eat the nasty, invasive multiflora rose. I know it’s multiflora rose because I looked it up. Otherwise, I might have gazed upon all that multi-flora rose and remarked, “My, look at the pretty rose bushes covering the field. How lucky are we?” 

Each year, the goats clear the way for more of this land to farm. They are highly sociable animals. I can tell them my troubles. Each morning, they lean into me as if to say, “Come on, old pal, you’re doing just fine. Now how’s about you feed us some more grain, and then feed us some more grain. And after that, maybe bring us some chips and salsa.” 

They play me for a fool. Look it up: “sure signs goats are playing you for a fool.”

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

That gaze. That loving gaze.

By Felix Carroll

Under jaundiced-yellow kitchen lights, on a Friday evening, with snow still piling up like broken Christmas toys, we’re both so tired we could fall asleep on a stairwell.


I’m over here thinking of all the things I didn’t get done this week. She’s over there loading the dryer. We finally make our way to each other and gaze into each other’s eyes, probably the first time we’ve made eye contact all week.

Our boy is across the room, making fighter jet noises. He’s locked his sights upon us. He’s coming our way. We haven’t much time for this loving gaze, maybe three seconds, tops. Her eyes tell me the following:


This is all a bit much, isn't it? All this work and worry. And I can't even find matching socks anymore. And I know you and I cannot disappear for a while — just the two of us — go to an exotic place near the equator. I imagine us horseback riding along a deserted beach that has zany, improbably bent palm trees and impossibly colored birds, far away from everything, a place where kind, old men play ancient concertinas and even the street dogs gaze upon us and smile. I know we cannot go snorkeling for crustaceans in turquoise waters and then cook them over an open fire while our hearts coo and the moon purrs. I know these things. But I love you.

And I love you.

And ain’t that something.

Ain’t that everything.

Yes I’m afraid so.

Huh? What do you mean you’re “afraid so?”

That slipped out.

Our boy is circling us now, staring at us with a gaze that’s never wordless:

“Hey Dad, check this out. When I turn this like this it looks like a fighter jet. But when I turn it like this, it looks like a toilet. See? Isn’t that funny? Watch. Look. See?”

I don’t look just yet, because I’m still locked in the loving gaze, my gaze saying:

You’re right about the sock thing. I propose we throw out all of our orphaned socks and start fresh. We buy a trunk load of new socks, all the same make, model and color. That way every sock will have a match, forever, amen. And if you want, we can do the same thing with the Tupperware.

She gazes without speaking, a gaze that says the following:

That’s a brilliant idea, and this is what makes you different from the other guys I’ve dated. But you’ve really missed the original point of my gaze.

I know, I know. I dream of that beach, too, even though horses freak me out. But I do like that detail about the kind, old men and the dogs that smile. And I’d totally be into snorkeling for dinner. How about we also wake at sunrise and I’ll cut open coconuts with a machete?

I’d rather sleep in.

That’s a deal. Then after breakfast in bed and a round of you-know-what, we could hike up to that volcano, right? A volcano that smokes like one of those Hollywood actresses in the fifties — you know, smoking but only for show.

I don’t want a volcano. I want a beach.

But I burn easy.

Then park yourself under one of the zany palm trees.

But you’ll be out in the sun. Look, your gaze just 2.7 seconds ago had us purring by a campfire eating hotdogs. Now we’re separated at the beach. I think we’re losing track of this vision.

First of all, we weren’t purring; the moon was purring. And it wasn’t a campfire; it was a beach fire. Big difference! And we’re not eating hotdogs; we’re eating crustaceans.

I gaze back, my gaze saying:

The kind with the shells you can blow into and produce a primordial tuba blast that causes the creatures of the world to cease chewing, look upon us and smile like those street dogs.

Yes. Now you’ve got it! And since we’re at the ocean, when you hold the shell to your ear you can hear the traffic of Manhattan.

Only makes sense. Wow, I love your gazes.

“Hel-lo! Over here. Break it up.”

It’s the boy.

“Hey,” he says, “did you guys know that if you break a pinky promise with someone they’re allowed to break your pinky?”

Our gaze remains locked.

Who sent him?

Aliens.

We realize we’ve only got two-tenths of a second left before our gaze gets busted through like a drug dealer’s den during a sting operation.

My gaze says the following:

Hey, I’ve got an idea. Let’s bring the boy with us! That'd be fun! And he’d loved to climb the volcano with me.

Suddenly, she looks angry and says aloud, “Did you just think what I think you just thought?”

“What are you talking about?” I say.

“It was supposed to be just the two us.”

“What? I didn’t say anything.”



Friday, October 31, 2014

Finding Our Center




By Felix Carroll

The geographic center of Berkshire County is not located somewhere fun, like the cloakroom at the Masonic Lodge, or the high-voltage lab at General Electric, or the pharmaceutical aisle in Price Chopper, or even James Taylor’s hot tub.

Still, it’s the very center of Berkshire County, and my search party and I landed upon it and planted a flag there. Here’s our story:
It took two afternoons, several tense standoffs with my occasionally mutinous cohorts, and the sorrowful surrender to the blood-collecting demands of a creatively limited assemblage of deer flies, but at 1:37 p.m. on June 22, history was made, as far as I know.

How were we certain we stood upon the geographic center of this noble county? By scientific method and a wild goose chase. Luckily, Berkshire County is shaped more or less like a rectangle—unlike, say, Essex County, which is shaped like a mini-India (that is to say, like a bug splat on a windshield), or Barnstable County, which is shaped like a thin arm flexed with pride before big biceps mattered.

Here in Berkshire County, you can draw a straight line between the distant extremities of Williamstown and Sandisfield and another straight line between Florida and Mount Washington. Those two lines intersect somewhere within cannon range of Greenridge Park in Dalton. Bingo! Before getting too excited, however, we saved ourselves time and potential starvation by recalling the fatal mistake made in 1846 by the Donner Party: They took a “shortcut” across the Rocky Mountains without Googling it first.

We Googled, and Google ushered us to the U.S. Census Bureau website, which lists the geographic center of Berkshire County at latitude 42.396128 and longitude 73.209889—not in Dalton at all.

Indeed, according to a free app I downloaded that evidently still has a few kinks to work out, the geographic center of Berkshire County is in West Sand Lake, New York. (That’s not a joke.) Naturally, my exploration team and I were a little skeptical, so I banged the smart phone on the kitchen table, but the free app stood by its findings.

“Just go straight to Google Maps, ya moron,” said a fellow explorer who holds the title of wife in a marital contract that includes my name. So I did what she told me to do, to my credit, and before you could say Marco Polo, Google Maps placed latitude 42.396128 and longitude 73.209889 in the town of Washington, by the northern edge of October Mountain State Forest. And we have a new Bingo!

Armed with a new mapping app that cost money, we made haste. But two things went horribly wrong. First: We didn’t bring snacks for the youngest member of the search party, my porter. Two: When we trekked a couple miles to the point indicated by Google Maps, our app begged to differ. We had overshot the mark by about a mile.

Distraught, demoralized, and getting on each other’s nerves, we turned back, drove home, and tried to pretend none of the above ever happened. That evening, I again typed the coordinates into Google Maps, and it turned out Google Maps had a sudden change of heart—this time placing the coordinates a mile farther to the southwest. You may be thinking, “That’s not possible. Google Maps doesn’t reconsider anything.” But it does, because it did, and the whole thing is weird, and I wonder if Edward Snowden knows anything about any of this.

The following day, we set off again, with snacks this time and a new attitude.

So here’s how to get to the geographical center of Berkshire County. Take New Lenox Road up into October Mountain State Forest, and park where the pavement ends. Hike the unmaintained road east about three-quarters of a mile. You’ll see a ramshackle dam to the left that impounds the old Millbrook Reservoir. Don’t abandon the trail and plunge north into the thick woods for about a half-hour as we did because that would be stupid. Instead, continue on the trail. About 100 feet past the reservoir, take a left into the woods for about 30 feet till you come to a tangle of prone pine trees piled like Pick Up Sticks. As your GPS of choice will probably indicate, you will not be in West Sand Lake, New York. You will be at latitude 42.396128 and longitude 73.209889—a standard-issue patch of mucky Berkshire woodlands.

Disappointingly, what you won’t find at the geographical center of Berkshire County is any sort of welcoming party handing out certificates of completion. No oracle on a tree branch granting you three wishes. No strange cosmic vibe or tear in the space-time continuum. Not even a place you’d want to picnic.

What you may find is the American flag we planted there, in Washington, festooned to a ski pole beside a Jack-in-the-pulpit. Do me a favor: I need my ski pole back.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The font of wisdom

By Felix Carroll

HI DAD.

CONSIDER THIS AN INTERVENTION.

THIS IS REGARDING YOUR EMAILS AND HOW EVERY WORD YOU TYPE IS IN CAPITAL LETTERS. IT’S AS IF YOU'RE STILL SHOUTING AT YOUR CHILDREN AFTER ALL THESE YEARS: “HEY, YOU KIDS KEEP IT DOWN UP THERE!!!!” 


DAD, I KNOW YOU'RE STILL GETTING USED TO EMAIL AND ALL, SO I'M ONLY HERE TO HELP. USING “ALL CAPS” GIVES THE WRONG IMPRESSION. IT SUGGESTS MAJOR NEWS, LIKE A CATEGORY-5 HURRICANE, A SHORT, JARRINGLY PRECISE TELEGRAM FROM PEARL HARBOR, OR THAT YOU’RE CROUCHED DOWN IN THE LOBBY OF THE LOCAL BANK IN A STAND-OFF WITH THE BUREAU OF ALCOHOL, TOBACCO, FIREARMS AND EXPLOSIVES WHILE SIMULTANEOUSLY LOSING YOUR HEARING. ...

OUR FIRST INSTINCT WHEN WE OPEN YOUR EMAILS, DAD, IS TO REPEL DOWN TO THE BOTTOM OF THEM JUST TO MAKE SURE THERE’S A “LOVE, DAD” AT THE END AND THAT YOU HAVEN'T HURT YOURSELF.

MAYBE YOU COULD TREAT YOURSELF TO A FRESH, WELL-VENTILATED FONT LIKE “TEMPUS SANS ITC” EMPLOYED IN THE SENTENCE CASE. NO?

JIM SWEARS THE "ALL CAPS" IS MERELY A MATTER OF YOU HAVING ACCIDENTLY ENGAGED THE CAPS LOCK, AND THAT YOU HAVE NO CLUE HOW TO DISENGAGE IT, AND THAT YOU’RE NOW PRETENDING NOTHING IS THE MATTER.

THAT’S POSSIBLE.

WE EVEN CAME CLOSE TO MAILING YOU A PRY BAR WITH INSTRUCTIONS ON HOW TO EXTRICATE YOUR KEYBOARD FROM AN ALL-UPPERCASE PILE-UP, BUT THEN RECONSIDERED SINCE OUR INTENTIONS COULD BE MISCONSTRUED AS OVERLY SARCASTIC, AND WE ALL KNOW THE WORLD HAS ENOUGH OF THAT, RIGHT?

ANYWAY, LOVE YA!!!!

Felix

* * *

Hi Dad. 

I see what you’re up to now.

You just cannot leave well enough alone, can you? When I suggested you use the Tempus Sans ITC font in your emails, I thought it was implied you’d be using a black font. What is that — Aqua?! Are you kidding me?! Was this your watercolor instructor’s idea?

Every time I open an email from you now I feel as if I'm on the verge of being invited to your wedding shower, or that I'll encounter something like, “Hi kids! You wouldn’t believe where I am! I’m on roller blades in South Beach and I’m very confused, and the weather is great!"

Black font, Dad. Stick with the black.

Love ya,

Felix

* * * 

Hi Dad,

Okay, here’s the thing:

I was only trying to be diplomatic when I suggested the Tempus Sans ITC font. I thought, “Hey, maybe meet the guy half way. He likes ALL UPPERCASE so let's arrange it so his emails still draw attention to themselves in a way that make us recoil but that don't keep us constantly on guard that someday we'll encounter an email like: “HI KIDS, I’VE LOST THE ABILITY TO UNCLENCH MY JAW, AND IF I COULD LIVE MY LIFE ALL OVER AGAIN, THERE ARE ABOUT 400,000 THINGS I WOULD DO DIFFERENTLY."

Now you've gone Tempus Sans ITC, black, sort of (more like "Gray-50%"; I won't quibble), but I spy boldface, do I not? Did I say use boldface? I didn't.

I don't feel like we're making any progress. Do you? I need to think about all this. Hold tight. I'll get back to you.

Felix

* * *

Dear Dad,

Jeez, here I am giving this matter careful consideration, and what are you doing? Sending out emails in Tempus Sans ITC, aqua-something, bold, and all caps. What the — ?! Enough! It's time for a radical email font makeover. Try to keep up.

You’re 72-years old now, right? Thinking about retirement? If anything, Dad, your emails should be in all lowercase — every single friggin' letter. You deserve it. And consider using an old, reliable, no-frills, plain-Jane font like Ariel — bold or not, I don't even care. And you could even make judicious use of italics for emphasis and no one would complain.

If you're feeling funny about it, you and I could practice emailing each other, just the two of us. Go back and forth. No one would need to know. Discuss the good times, you riding the tricycle around our kiddy pool and tipping over and falling in … you tipping over in the canoe, you tipping over in the kayak. What I assume you may discover is that with Ariel, all lowercase, your font would conform to the intentions of your content. It would reveal a man who has retraced his steps in the uppercase and reemerged on the tippy-toes of the lowercase, now on the move, no time to waste, just a quick email and then you've got to fly …

“hi kids, i’ve just eaten a delicious grapefruit, and now i’m going to take a leisurely walk at Peggotty Beach and think of the wonderful light cast upon the rocks and whether i should eat crab cakes for lunch. i wish you were here. I really wish you were here. love, dad”

Ariel, lower-case — go for it, you big, uppercase lug!

I wish I were there.

YOUR FAVORITE,

Thursday, October 9, 2014

My week off with me



By Felix Carroll

Man, we’ve got a lot of catching up to do, don’t we? I haven’t seen my former self in like, what, 13 years? Or is it 14? Really, that long? Holy cow, time flies. Does my former self still eat a lot of Burger King and smoke cigarettes and sleep on a futon in an apartment above a deli that always smells like bacon? I wonder if he still refuses to get a credit card. Is he still snooty about not owning a television?

And does he still have a full head of hair? What about that flat-bottom fishing boat he had chained to a maple tree on the banks of a reservoir? I wonder if he still says, “World, talk to the hand. I’m gonna go get me a large-mouth bass and a good buzz.”

Has his eczema finally cleared up? Does he still quit jobs every 10 months and split town out of antsyness that he’s missing something somewhere else— somewhere far away where people have figured everything out about life and how to live it. People who never yawn?

I’m nervous. My wife and son are in San Diego for a whole week to visit my brother-in-law and his wife. I’m all alone with myself for the first time since I met my wife 14 years ago. A whole week! Just me. I know my former self will pay a visit. It only stands to reason. My former self, the guy who lived alone and did whatever the heck he wanted to do whenever the heck he wanted to do it.

My former self disappeared once I met my wife. You know, three’s a crowd, that sort of thing. He had to go. It was either he or she, and there was no way I was going to let her go. She’s a redhead for goodness sakes. She would be the Lauren Bacall to my Humphrey Bogart. It was time to clean myself up a bit.

That old me — the me who had sworn off career, children and owning anything that took two people to carry — he and I need to catch up. The last I saw him he was sulking. He wouldn’t even turn around to say goodbye. He was cleaning the Whopper wrappers from his pick-up truck and threatening to move to Ireland. He was still a romantic who would allow Chuck Berry and Benny Goodman and Jack Kerouac to poison him with ideas about wide-eyed America and living free-range and feral. My old self even moved with a girl to Chuck Berry’s hometown of St. Louis — one of many strange and tragic decisions — in an effort to self-mythologize. I recall my former self dreamed he’d jump into the Mississippi River to swim out to Huckleberry Finn’s raft and join him on his journey through the central nervous system of America.

He didn’t find Huckleberry Finn or the taproot to glorious American myth in St. Louis. He did find a riverboat moored by the Gateway Arch, and on that riverboat was a Burger King. I’m not kidding. Go figure that one out. And my former self ate one of those combo meals and got sick to his stomach and soon had to duck in a panic into a hotel bathroom on Market Street. I think Chuck Berry used to play gigs in that hotel. Man oh man. My former self is the only one I can talk to about things like that. We’ll be up all night laughing till we can’t breathe. I hope my wife doesn’t call from San Diego in the middle of that one. She’ll think I’ve lost my marbles, and of course I haven’t.

My former self will tell tales of bare light bulbs and blinking neon and broken down barns and playing drums in the greatest bands that no one liked and dragging chains in mud show circuses. He’ll recall his dismay at all those freshly minted strip malls surrounding every old town he’s visited — all those impenetrable moats guarding all those broken downtowns — shoe cities with no more soles. Would Jack Kerouac cry? Would he eat a Whopper? Is Wild Bill Hickok turning in his grave, his trigger finger twitching?

I hope my former self doesn’t still drink Budweiser. I refuse to buy Budweiser for him.

My former self will look around the place and see the Legos and the dish towels, and he’ll mock me. I’m prepared. In the evening when night has settled in and the dog is having a nightmare. When I’m wondering what people are doing in Tulsa right now, or Truckee, or Buckeye, or Calexico, or Baker City, he’ll try to needle me.

Fatherhood?

“Yes,” I’ll say, “and it’s true what fathers everywhere say: Having a child is the greatest thing in the world and makes us better people and happy to be wherever we are, mostly. Laugh all you want: Ha, ha, ha — ya dick.”

Marriage?

“She’s a redhead, you dope. We talked about this years ago. Just look at her. Just talk to her. Somehow she saw in you something I could never imagine. And besides it takes courage to love, ya fuck face. Go have diarrhea in Denver or Durham or Delrey Beach.”

Mortgage?

“I cannot defend myself on that one. I wanted to live in a yurt. ”

He’ll call me a sell-out. I’ll let him. He cannot hurt my feelings. That’d be impossible. 

Yeah, I may have a cigarette and coffee with him at 6 a.m. I owe him that. But I’ll have the bathroom fans running. And he has to skedaddle by the 20th. I have to pick my family up at the airport. 

I’ll look forward to seeing their photos from Legoland. 

I really will.

I hope they miss me in direct proportion to me not missing my former self.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Summertime, you shyster


By Felix Carroll

Summertime, you mesmerized us by your patter. You appeared in June from under an apple tree and glad-handed us like a barker in an old-time medicine show. You made promises you couldn’t keep. You’re nothing but a season of deceitful amenities with a short shelf life. Sunshine, you say. Freedom, you say. Bare feet, you say. We can have it all!

We were weak. We stepped right up for your miracle cure. We swallowed it down with a lemonade chaser and waited for you to take effect.

Fools, we are. Fools, I tell you.

“Yes,” we said, airing out our arms and legs on a cool evening under an ice-cream-scoop-of-a-moon, “I do believe it’s working. I do believe I feel better. I do believe this here ‘Summertime’ clears my head, loosens me up, and makes me easier to be around. I feel as though I could jump into a lake and then towel off and barbecue a hotdog.”

“You need to try this,” we proselytized to friends and family who remained muddled in a mid-winter mindset with their hands reflexively turning the thermostat clockwise. “No, I’m serious. Try it! It’s called ‘Summertime.’ It’ll blow your friggin' mind!”

Colors! Jeez, look at those colors! Green never looked so — what’s the word? — GREEN! And time — it warps! The days stay long. They don’t tuck their elbows in like they did in March or February or November. The days are full, chest puffed out.

We pushed, we pushed, we pushed as pushers push till we saw friends and family hooked and out back, skull dancing to Bob Marley.

Summertime, you caused us to do things we wouldn’t normally do. Like publicly display our twig-like pale limbs. Like set 20 tomato plants in the soil and wish we had planted 20 more. Like desert a perfectly weather tight house to camp in a tent.

Now here we are: Labor Day. Suntanned junkies wanting more, demanding you bear the weight of our impossible dreams. And where are you? Hello? Where are you?

“He was just here,” we tell the children as we strap brand new shoes to their feet and wrestle book bags to their backs. “I don’t know where he went. He was here, and now he’s not here, and I’m just as confused as you. Now go to school and I’ll look into it.”

We shoo them out the door. As we try to regain our wits, we hear a banging. We rush to the back door only to discover 400 yellow squash demanding entry into our kitchen.

“Where did all you guys come from?” we say. They don’t talk. They just shout. We have a hazy memory of promiscuous behavior back when Summertime first took effect. “Yes, I remember the tomato plants, but —.”

Finally, “I remember now. I was brushing my teeth, getting ready for work. It was a fine, soft morning, and I looked out the window and thought, ‘Yeah, I’ll go ahead and just plant some yellow squash, too. You know, keep the tomatoes company.’ Couldn’t hurt.”

We remember now how we went out in our pajamas and plugged squash seed after squash seed into our soil. We were high on Summertime. We were going to dig a root cellar and eat squash all winter. But the moment we put spade to earth we uncovered earthworms. And Summertime, you make us do weird things, so we decided to perpetuate the myth to our shoeless children of how when we cut earthworms in half we get two live earthworms.

“See?” we say to them, our eyes bugged out. “Two of them wiggling. Crazy, huh? Now come on, let’s play badminton!”

Now here we are, without a root cellar, and a backyard deck filled with angry gourds that are prepared to pelt our house with 40,000 fresh tomatoes.

We should have seen it all coming. Summertime’s dangerous side effects revealed themselves in early August when we started rocking on the balls of our feet bumming everyone out that the supply of Summertime was running thin. Though it was still four whole weeks till Labor Day, we said, “Jeez, it’s only four weeks till Labor Day.”

The skull dancing came to a pause, and everyone nodded solemnly.

“I’m sorry,” we say this weekend to friends and family. “I got a little out of hand, and I dragged you guys into it, too. I didn’t realize Summertime was so addictive. I thought I could handle it, and I made a fool out of myself and of you, too.”

You know what I want? I'll tell you: All I want now is to return to my old life when I didn't expect so much out of life, when I wore flannel and went to bed early. That's all I want. Really it is. Burn the swim trunks. Dump the sunblock into the water supply.

Yeah, this Labor Day, as we defiantly toast to new beginnings, you, Summertime — your dastardly wares wrapped tightly to your wooden wagon — wobble past. 

“Till next year,” you say with a tip of the hat and a sinister grin.

We turn our backs to Summertime. We cinch the zippers tight on our windbreakers and lower the needle down on some old Sinatra. Take it, Frank:

And guess who sighs his lullabies through nights that never end
My fickle friend, the summer wind …

“I just got outsmarted is all,” we say.

Friends and family solemnly nod. “We all did.”

+ + + 
First published Albany Times-Union, Sunday, Sept. 2.
By Felix Carroll By Felix Carroll By Felix Carroll By Felix Carroll By Felix Carroll By Felix Carroll

Monday, July 21, 2014

A big, yellow rite of passage


By Felix Carroll
I realize that in other cultures, coming of age requires far more demanding rites of passage than in ours -- whether it's spending a year alone in the wild, or being scarred with a branding iron or performing a wedgie on a water buffalo.
But coming of age is coming of age. And I wish to go on record as being completely against it.
In a week or two, countless parents across this great country will stand dazed and powerless as a big, yellow school bus lumbers up the street, stops, opens its big baleen mouth, and takes their children away.
This happened to me the first time a year ago. I was supposed to be OK with it all. I'm still not. This is my story:
Fatherhood has turned me into a pack animal. That strange noise you hear coming from my mouth from time to time is not some digestive-related ruckus. It's a growl -- sometimes a snarl -- to ward away all dangers to my pack. I never knew I had it in me.
I used to be blissfully and stupidly self-centered. I was a wanderer, a musician, a bum. Then I met her. Then we had him. And in the process, the line of thought that had so precariously underlain my endeavors to that point turned from zigzags to heart shapes.
And then one day, we were pushing the baby carriage along a crosswalk in our town, and I growled for the first time. It was unexpected and involuntary. A car had come speeding up and had made an abrupt stop at our shins, its bumper a mere 2 feet from this new being I had been entrusted to care for -- this fresh loaf of Wonder bread with the eyes that twinkled with madcap laughs and mischief. That's when this noise emerged -- a growl directed at the motorist. An angry, iron-fastened animal cry that said: Don't mess with my pack! It was startling even to me.
Where did it originate? I can only speculate. You go deep down the esophagus, about 20 miles past the larynx. You come to the gut and veer left along its industrial road, past a blinking red light by the bubbling tar pits of the spleen, past an all-night diner, out to where the land opens up. Take that road another 80 miles, through a box canyon, to the green and misty land known as the soul. There's a wooden gate with a latch. Inside, there's an endangered animal who, legend has it, was once rescued from wild game hunters by a jungle boy. The animal has felt indebted ever since. He's got hold of a bullhorn, and he's doing the color commentary of my child's life.
It just sounds like growl, but it's so much more.
Putting a child onto a school bus for the first time should not be a big deal. It's just that, for the first time, I felt like the pack was breaking up, albeit on an installment plan. We were surrendering our boy to the Outside World, handing him over for eight hours a day to strangers in a big, brick building obsessed with shapes, colors and walking in single file. I was so sad, I couldn't even growl. It all seemed too soon. It should be against the law to make a book bags small enough for a 5-year-old.
It was 8 a.m. when we first heard the low rumble. Then we saw it, the big-shouldered yellow whale on wheels, rounding the curve and heading our way. Our boy was nervous. We lifted him up to the first step.
Brenda, the bus driver, greeted him. He stopped, looked down the long aisle and then back at us with a strange smile. It wasn't happiness or even sadness.
I recognized that smile from back when he was about 8 months old. His older cousins were visiting. They had climbed into his playpen with him and had started jumping around. Nothing like that had ever happened in his peaceful world. He looked up at me with that smile, a broken sort of grin that dangled from unblinking eyes, as if he were
saying: What do you have in store for me in this world, old man?
The bus disappeared down the road, and all we could hope for was that when it deposited him back out eight hours later, he'd be wiser, like Jonah, and we'd be revived from our catatonic states, though that would probably require smelling salts.
Yes, of course, getting on the school bus for the first time is a rite of passage. It's binding. It's an act of courage just as in any other culture.
And whether I like it or not (and I don't), it's one of many to come -- including, perhaps, the discovery of his very own growl.



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