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Robert Cockerham is Smarter, Weirder, and Funnier Than You


Robert Cockerham and Yours Truly
Robert Cockerham and Yours Truly

(This piece was originally commissioned by MAKE Magazine, but ended up on Yahoo.com, from where it has since disappeared. I feel it is only right and just to reprint it here.)

Nerd Crush For the Connoisseur

When I first heard about this guy Robert Cockerham’s website, cockeyed.com, I pictured something along the lines of an amalgam of clever backyard engineering projects mixed with some of the milder exploits from Jackass, minus the penile injuries. I wasn’t far off, but what I didn’t know was of Robert’s righteous place in Internet pioneer nerd-dom.

And when I told a few of my friends that I had befriended Robert and, eventually, that I was going to be writing an article about him for the redoubtable Make Magazine, the din of giddy squeals from both male and female nerds of A Certain Age was deafening. My friend Summer said, “my ex-husband and I were so geeked out on him and Cockeyed! Oh my GOD!” She put her hands in her lap forcefully as if to calm herself, and was quiet for a tense and excited second or two.

“Have you met him? WHAT’S HE LIKE?” Her cheeks—I’m serious—were flushed. Flushed! Based on things like his parabolic solar concentrator, “The Light Sharpener” and the prank he played at the Roseville Galleria Hyundai Dealership display, which involved his adding a pseudo-time machine made out of a repurposed component of a Korean boxing robot (more on that later.) Ahhh, sapiosexuality. The boon to all of us who are smarter than we are cute (though Robert is cute by any measure.)

I explained to her that Robert is best described in the exact way he describes himself, on his very own website: “I feel my strongest traits are 1) my overall knowledge of material handling and properties, 2) an unnatural ability to complete projects and 3) a good sense of humor through good times and hard times. Oh, and one more, I don’t mind asking basic questions.

“If you liked any of this stuff, or have valuable suggestions, project proposals or lawsuits pending against me, please email me.”

I’ve spent some time with Robert, and what I can tell you is this: his cautious, mild-mannered demeanor does not match what one would expect from a person who once facilitated the flaming detonation of a giant, ketchup-packet-filled, wire-crafted teddy bear on the streets of his neighborhood, like a horrifically-misunderstood prescience of Burning Man. What he does seem reminiscent of, in fact, is a tech employee at a corporation like, for example, MCI, which in fact he was, when he began to gradually lure friends over to his house on weekends for help making manifest his plans for elaborate (and often surprisingly expensive) pranks, with building his mad scientist-meets-Willy-Wonka useless whirligigs, flux capacitors, and shitty-shitty-bang bangs, as well as his heartbreaking works of staggering genius.

He also started using the web in ways no one really was, yet. Back in the days of Alta Vista and Geocities, he got himself a personal URL and started blogging. In days of yore, when it was hard to find images online that were larger than a microchip, he bought a digital camera and started uploading big pictures that got lots of excitement and attention. He predated all that stuff we share like mad on social media now, the “wow . . . why?”–inducing links from eccentric engineering-types who make machines that maybe don’t do much but they’re just plain cool, the smart humor sites and the just plain weird stuff, and even the embryonic concept of flash mobs and the wildly-elaborate pranks that we see on YouTube that go viral before we even get a chance to log on in the morning.

When he and his coworkers got laid off from MCI, they used their severance pay to take a tour of Europe, and he blogged it all. He blogged it. With his (at the time) high-res camera and his growing online readership, he wrote and photographed his experiences. Robert and I are almost exactly the same age, and I, as a writer, am left slapping my forehead at my own lack of foresight: I didn’t even own a personal computer until . . . 2005? When I was thirty-five? All the opportunities missed! But he saw the potential, or maybe he was just enjoying what he was doing, and kept rolling with it.

But is he a “maker?” And where was the seed of it all, really? Way back when, when rocks were formed, little Robert, son of a forensic scientist and one of four kids, developed something of an unnatural fascination with Makita drills, and the first thing he made was a set of speaker boxes. He never lost his desire to create and build–sometimes functional objects, and sometimes things one would more accurately describe as junk sculptures, with a strong bent toward prodigal genius. And he always liked to make people laugh. His nature, then and now, was low-key and more introverted. So, how to get an audience, how to get participants, how to become the charismatic mad scientist and ne’er-do-well gadabout who is the Robert Cockerham of cockeyed.com?

The Early Days: Internet Pioneer, Mad Scientist, or Sex God?

(I’ll give you a clue: he doesn’t own any leather pants, nor does he have a profile on FetLife, nor–sadly for us all–any beefcake posters.)

He ended up at University of California Santa Barbara, struggling to survive in the oh-so-challenging environment of beach-meets-mountains geography, when he discovered a long-standing tradition there that was to inform the person he was to become: their famous annual costume parade. “I realized,” he told me, leaning forward with something of a conspiratorial tone, hands clasped together and resting on his knees, as we sat on stools across from each other in my hoarder-trashed, pink-painted, uh, office, “that with a couple days’ effort, I could be, like, a rockstar.” His eyes open up a little wider, like he’s sharing the secret to insta-fame and glory, to getting-laid-in-a-hurry, to BMOC-status.

But what he chose for his first foray into rockstar-dom says a lot about Robert. He decided to be a kiosk.

“A kiosk?”!

“Yeah, you know, the kind they always have at college campuses, I guess, with the pagoda or kind-of Kremlin-looking top? I made it out of cardboard, and stapled all these flyers to it. I cut out a small sideways oval for my eyes, and made shoulder harnesses so I could wear it. People were all, ‘oh my God, look! It’s a kiosk!’ and stuff like that. Just shouting and pointing. All night it was like that! Man, it was great.” He smiled and shook his head at the memory. The glory, the reveling.

They were pointing and shouting. At a cardboard cipher.

“But no one could see you.”

“Yeah. I guess there was that. Someone did pop under and up and got in there with me for a minute, but that was it.”

I brightened. “Did you have crazy on-the-spot sex? Set the kiosk down and get bizzay?”

“No. No, I didn’t do that.”

“Some kind of rockstar you are.”

“I guess I’m the quiet, anonymous kind.” (Introspective silence.) “There was one year I went as a map of Africa. My face poked out somewhere around Chad. It wasn’t nearly as big a hit, though.” He looked solemn and regretful.

Ultimate Success, Ultimate Prank . . . and he’s not stopping

But the crazily-creative costume-creation would become something of a specialty for Mr. Robert Cockerham, and they would bring him as much glory as some of his other famous inventions and legendary pranks. Sometime back, he had the great good fortune of attending a costume contest at Industrial Light and Magic (YES, birthplace of Star Wars and headquarters for George Lucas’ special effects creative team,) and he went as an old-school crowd of paparazzi, complete with flashing, popping cameras made from deconstructed and somehow re-purposed disposable point-and-shoots that he found, dumped by the hundreds–all the film used up but the flashes still intact.

What you need to know is this: Robert Cockerham won the freaking costume contest at freaking Industrial Light and Magic. He won. that. shit. But what made him most happy is that, apparently, in addition to that insane achievement, George Lucas’ child favored Robert’s costume over all the others as well, and came over to marvel and comment.

But my personal, favorite cockeyed.com creation got him mentioned on the morning talk shows and written about in all the expected places: his piece de resistance, the Disneyland Costume. An absolutely stunning display of attention to detail and hilarious lack of self-consciousness (easily my favorite Robert-trait,) the Disneyland Costume is like the world’s most gigantic hat (when I say gigantic, I mean gigantic: 6’5” in diameter,) worn at a steep angle for maximum view-ability, with his head poking out at the Matterhorn!

“You’ve come a long way from Chad.”

“Indeed. I started the process by studying satellite maps, and, using Adobe Fireworks, printed that all onto seventy sheets of paper, then simplified it so that it was sort of an augmented reality, highlighting the attractions that people would want to see.”

“What made you choose to do a costume of Disneyland?”

He stopped, paused, looked at me, spoke slowly: “Well, because everybody loves Disneyland.” I heard the unspoken word at the end of that sentence: “DUMMY.”

But as a resident of the conservative, moneyed, highly-law-abiding suburb of Roseville, the cockeyed.com story that intrigued me even more was the one he told about how he pulled one over on the infamous Westfield Roseville Galleria. (You know the Getty Museum in LA? The Met in NY? This is our equivalent. Marble-floored, cameras everywhere, a hushed and posh quality.) He had found an enormous . . . object . . . elaborately electronic, printed with unreadable characters and pegged throughout with blinking LED lights, along the roadside. (This sort of thing happens to Robert.) After a whole lot of Google-fu, he learned that it was half of an incredibly expensive Korean boxing robot “toy.” Like, $10,000-range expensive.

“So I got this idea . . . “

He realized that the only way he was going to get it into the rarefied confines of the plush, Nordstrom-anchored church of consumerism was to put it on a dolly and walk with casual confidence right by the front desk. You know, where Information and Security are. So he did exactly that, as-big-as-you-please, and made his way directly to where Hyundai had set up a large promotional area, complete with two parked cars, information KIOSKS [I still smart at the missed opportunity for costumed  shenanigans,] and signage. He “installed” his addition in what looked like a natural spot within, marked with a very professional-looking warning note that said: “CAUTION: TIME MACHINE OUT OF ORDER. CALIBRATION OFF BY THREE DAYS. FOR MORE INFORMATION, CONTACT [and here he put the number of the Roseville Hyundai dealer’s service department.]”

“It lasted three months.”

I leapt off my stool and screamed, laughed, clapped.

That’s Robert. He’s not in it for the glory. He’s in it for the fun.

Hasty Pudding


When, several years ago, we succumbed to unavoidable financial pressure and sold our only family vehicle to help cover the rent for awhile, it was my son, Zeke, the analytical type, the scientist, who wanted to run to the window to watch—solemn, stoic—as the new owners drove away. He was about five at the time.

“Are they going to bring back our Honda Pilot?”

No, Zeke. They’re not bringing it back.

Today, he asks me things like this: “The next time we make a turkey, can I watch it cook from beginning to end? I would like to do that. I’d like to watch it no matter how long it takes. That means you’re going to have to clean the oven window, and I don’t know how you’re going to do that, because it’s dirty in between two panels. So you should research. But I want to watch that. I like to watch the changes happen to things, slowly.”

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He notices now, on the relatively rare occasions when we’re in someone’s vehicle together, that he doesn’t have time to take in his surroundings. Things pass too fast for him to observe and integrate. “The only things I can see better when I’m in a car are other cars. Instead of them just speeding by, it’s like they’ve slowed down. I guess because I’m traveling with them. So I look at zooming cars when I’m in a car, because they’re the only thing I can really see. They become slow.”

Zeke has always talked like this. He used to refer to people smoking cigarettes as “humans operating small smokestacks.” I think of him as a real-life equivalent of Charles Wallace from A Wrinkle in Time, better friends with his fifteen-year-old sister Rainer than with his peers. 

On our bike rides to school, we travel down one long boulevard we’ve come to call “weather street,” where back in late August we noted its late-summer status quo and watched, with little sister Molly, as the densely green trees and the short shadows they cast turned into the golden lens of early autumn. Our morning ride became more softly-lit and forgiving, with even small hedges and rosebushes casting long silhouettes like puddles beneath our wheels as we pedaled. Later, we took pleasure in the crunch of dry leaves underneath our tires, and avoided the carefully-made sleeping mounds at the curbs, representing hours of raking and optimism that no blustery day would carry the work away before green waste pick up.

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We saw the change as autumn gave way to the parchment scratch of winter’s branches against a colorless sky. “It always comes after a really big windstorm,” Zeke said, when we rode to school one Monday amidst streets littered with the smaller branches and limbs from a weekend of near-relentless gusts. I told him that’s when autumn’s last leaves lose their grip, to which he replied, “that’s sad, but it’s okay, I guess.”

“Sometimes you have to let go in order for the next thing to come in, right?”

“Yeah, but what if it’s not better? Like, the leaves are leaving the branches just to be crumbly dead leaves. And a gray branch with nothing on it is what’s left behind.”

“Well, sure, but that’s the order of things. And that’s why they bend with the wind, see? They’ve got time to adjust before they let go of the branch. It’s not so sudden as all that. We’ve seen the change. They haven’t even been green for weeks and weeks now.”

That’s not to say Zeke’s okay with anything and everything nature has to dish out. He’s less impressed when things happen with alarming quickness. A couple times this year, we’ve been “blessed” with a most shocking and sudden fungal display in our yard, known colloquially as “dog vomit fungus.” The fact that it appears seemingly overnight—in addition to its profoundly repulsive appearance and consistency—is deeply disturbing to The Boy Who Likes Things Slow.

Part I of the Dog Vomit Fungus that Appeared in the Nighttime:

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Part II of The Dog Vomit Fungus that Appeared in the Nighttime:

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You can hear me extolling the horrifying “virtues” of the oddly instantaneous appearance of what looks, from a distance, like wet quinoa rejected and tossed out of a pot in in the middle of the yard, but as you approach seems more like tapioca pudding, and only becomes repugnant when the incongruity hits you. Wet tapioca? Soft, fresh, cooked quinoa? In the middle of the yard, in great quantity, at seven a.m.? We approached, in an uneasy darting fashion, and because this was our second-go-‘round with this, and because and I had been told what it was by my friend Nicole, who’s an admitted fungus enthusiast, we took a few extra minutes out of our morning to chronicle its appearance. I told Zeke to fetch a stick; Molly appeared with one instead. [And yes, it dawned on me later that despite my insipid comment in the video, the grass didn’t grow through it, it grew around the grass.]

But something about the suddenness of its appearance was unnerving to our Ezekiel. I tried to rally the native scientist within, but he kept making noises about saddling up and riding as far away from that hasty pudding as fast as we could.

“Just drop the stick and leave,” he implored.

“Why, Zeke?” I was shocked he didn’t want me to poke and prod more.

“Because . . . because it might be . . . unsanitary?”

Laughter all around. “I think that’s pretty much a guarantee.”

Nervously, from Zeke: “Let’s just go.” Black screen.

That’s where the video ends. I obeyed his request, because it came from the very root of who he is. He’s a boy who likes to take things in in his own time, and I am thankful for that, because whether it came before getting rid of the car or was a result of our having gotten rid of the car, it now makes him uniquely well-suited to our lifestyle of biking and walking everywhere. We are able to see small changes—both natural and man-made—as they occur. He enjoys watching new houses go up, and will comment on the roofing paper being rolled out, the stucco getting sprayed on. He likes watching people’s garden beds get seeded, grow into plants, bear fruit.

And so we take our notes, make our observations. And nothing need be rushed. Because in the end, I’m looking for any clinging crimson leaf left on the gray branch, and the last thing I want to do is leave a pile of dog vomit fungus for the child to integrate when he’s in no way ready to handle that.

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. . . and thank you for making it possible for me to write for you!

Buddha’s Journey


I’ve had amazing experiences since I started writing semi-professionally. I’ve seen my byline in The New York Times. I’ve filled out my IRS tax forms with my profession listed as “writer,” and seen that yes, indeed, 95% of what I’d earned had come from my craft. I’ve landed–and lost!–not one but TWO big-shot NYC literary agents. I’ve been on national television. I’ve gone into Safeway and walked up to a rack and opened up a mass-market magazine to show my children an article I wrote. I’ve seen my son walk solemnly, proudly around kindergarten Open House with a copy of Yes! Magazine open to my editorial layout. But this season has been filled with professional (and, yes, personal) disappointments, heartaches, and losses. I just got dealt few more of them today. So instead of crying about the money situation and feeling sorry for myself, I did something fun and creative. Because the only thing that’s saved me . . . really . . . through an incredibly rough year is the circle of support I’ve got around me, not just in my real life, but the one that’s grown around my virtual, writing life. Through this website and through my social media connections.

A woman I’ve never met but with whom I share many mutual friends admired my fat green Buddha statue in a video of my daughter playing piano. She also happens to have been one of my most stalwart supporters, always there to elevate my work, message me when she spots a low in my tone, or crow over my children. I hope she’s not embarrassed or offended by my gentle shout out: this is for you–and all who are like you, Lisa Choate McGovern. You live on Love Street.

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. . . and thank you for making it possible for me to write for you!

I’ll Take Your Halloween and Raise You a Thanksgiving


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I’m grateful for garden gnomes, cuckoo clocks, climbing trees with gnarled branches, and moss. For coffee and chai, nutmeg and cinnamon. For citron yellow,  magenta, map water blue, chartreuse, and a bright orange shag rug in the living room. For oatmeal, bananas, green smoothies, my husband’s Magic Meals, and enchiladas. For kids finding fennel and chewing the stems all day like Huck Finn. For lanterns hanging in trees. For all the libraries I have known and loved, which became my hiding spots and my fantasy corners and the places where I built myself. For Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers singing “Islands in the Stream.” I’m thankful for vintage lamps. For the freshly-brushed teeth. I’m thankful for tall glasses of cold water, and Mason jars of whiskey sipped with friends on the porch in the nighttime. I’m thankful for the pleasure of walking aimlessly. For thrift store velvet. For striped socks, picture books about witches, and for snow-capped mountains I can see from certain vantage points in my neighborhood. For the remarkable cities I have called home. For fireflies. For my chickens: Mary, Rhoda, Phyllis, Chamomile, Clover, and Hilda. For stacks of books on the nightstand. For Jitterbug Perfume and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. For low-watt incandescent bulbs. For patches on old embroidered denim. For star-printed fabric and pictures of the moon in all its phases. And I’m thankful for our wall heater that’s like a fireplace and a gathering spot for our family when we hear its click-whoosh. We meet there. I’m so thankful for them–my four, my loves. And our heat, and our home, which is strung with lights and filled with magic.

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What it Feels Like to Sell Your Family’s Only Car


When the cable and Internet got shut off, I could hide my shame and embarrassment from the kids, who were oblivious to the threatening collection letters. None of us had to face the person sent out to sever our connection to the world, since they can do it all externally without having to enter the house. I knew scrappy Molly would be okay. Molly takes everything in stride, and embraces change. I worried about Rainer and Zeke, who take such comfort in things reliable, familiar, and stable. Having access to TV shows and the Web was something they’d never been without. But still, I could reassure myself it was not a forever thing, that we would eventually breach that financial stranglehold and it would all be turned on again, as though nothing had happened.

But selling the car meant no turning back. Our Honda SUV was only three years old. It was the first new car I had ever owned. I traveled from city to city to earn money for my family when I worked at my sales job, and this was the capsule that carried me along to the accompaniment of satellite radio and my own self-important chatter on the Bluetooth. The leather seats smelled like the expensive purses I had started to carry as my commission checks swelled. I spent more time in that car than I spent anywhere other than home, and I made sure it reflected my success. Twice a year, I got it detailed to shining perfection. I remember once grabbing the worker’s red towel and buffing off a small spot of road grime I spied on an edge of the license plate, with an apologetic smile.

Because we didn’t yet own a house, this was our most visible claim to the comforts of our income level. Emerging from the frosty air conditioning of my stalwart Honda I would arrive at meetings in the morale-sapping endless Texas summers as pristine as when I had left home. Having a nice, new, big car made me feel like an adult. It made me feel like I deserved my job. Like putting on a power suit, it made me act differently. I felt more in-control, businesslike, and competent. Walking to my car with my keyless-entry fob in hand made me feel cared for. My car looked handsome in the parking lot. I liked that it was luxurious while also being (relatively) fuel-efficient for an SUV. I sometimes congratulated myself at having made a good choice. On the rare occasions when I had to get it serviced, the sybaritic dealership had employees who called me ma’am, and brought me coffee in a china cup and a copy of the Wall Street Journal while I waited.

It was also our family vehicle, and when I wasn’t working, we clicked the children into the fanciest and safest car seats money could buy. We idly visited big box stores under any pretext. We took long drives to the rolling wooded hills outside town, often just meandering leisurely, filling the gas tank without concern. Of course those long days of driving without a specific destination would involve eating dinner out, as well. It just seemed a fitting end after the hours spent acquiring. None of this seemed indulgent; it seemed more just what families did on long unplanned weekend days. Nothing we were doing felt extravagant at the time.

I identified with my car. I felt peaceful knowing my children saw it, dent-free and shining, when I pulled up to the curb to pick them up. When I was growing up, my mother drove a station wagon and when I waited to be picked up from somewhere—school, ballet class—I would feel comfort at the sight of the burgundy Pontiac with its blandly reassuring stare. It offered the sort of comfort I associated with my mother.

The Honda was completely paid-off, but the costs associated with insuring, maintaining, and fueling it were taking us over the edge. A few times we had considered driving out to the coast, or maybe into San Francisco for the day . . . but the money required to fill the gas tank was galling. It got about twenty miles per gallon, but with gas prices increasing, it was getting closer and closer to a hundred dollars to fill it up. We were $500 to $750 in the hole every month, and we couldn’t see where else to cut. We figured selling the car would cover that margin for at least eighteen months, if we could sell it for the $15-20K that it was worth. Accomplishing that would, we hoped, give us time to establish new income streams. We analyzed the numbers and seeing them in black-and-white made the choice a clear one. Larry had always indulged me by calling the Honda Corbyn’s car, the car I paid for with my sales job, the car I lovingly shined and kept vacuumed, and the car that it would ultimately be my own decision to sell. In the end, though, this wasn’t a decision I needed to make or we needed to make. The decision was being made for us.

As I posted my ad on Craigslist I felt a combined anger and sadness. (“Excellent condition 2006 Honda Pilot with leather interior. Silver. Seats seven, or eight in a pinch. Clean title, impeccably maintained . . .”) And then, a breaking sort of goddamn it, we don’t need this car, this car doesn’t define me and it doesn’t define my family. The safety it represented was an illusion. Or rather, the safety it offered now was in what it could give us financially. Once I had accepted that this was the best (only) solution, I felt like a pressure had released and, in its place, I felt more-or-less peaceful resignation. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t afraid I would change my mind. Here it was: I could let go (all at once!) of the stresses of not making ends meet for the past year. I could know we’d have enough to survive on for the next eighteen months or so. I cried after I wrote the ad, not because I was grieving. Mostly I was regretting having waited so long. The release of tension felt like a balloon popping—not a slow realization of growing relief but an instant, dramatic one.

It turned out that even after we’d made up our minds, we had to suffer through a panicky few days worrying about whether we were even going to have any takers. Alarmist news outlets had been talking about how previously easily-liquidated assets were not getting bought, leaving the downwardly-mobile class sitting on a pile of luxury items that no longer fit within their means. Eventually we got a serious offer from a young family. We played phone tag, traded banter, and became friendly. In a nod to safety-consciousness, I arranged to meet them at the parking lot of a nearby office building, empty after-hours. I stood next to the car in a way I hoped looked casual. I thought better of it and decided to sit in the passenger seat, door open. I opened the glove box and pulled out the thickly-rolled stack of onion-thin paper, pink and yellow and white, marked with the faint hieroglyphs in duplicate and triplicate that formed my car’s journal entries. I flipped through them and re-stacked them, arranging them in a way that was far too fastidious, like a new mom slicking her son’s bangs down as he prepares to board the school bus for the first time. I put them back in the glove box and gently pushed it until the hardware made that satisfying “chink” of connection.

I recognized the handsome dark family in their gleaming white sedan as soon as they drove up; we made eye contact and shared smiles of greeting. In the awkward giddiness that comes over me when I’m nervous, I pretended I was one of those airport employees with the short orange lightsabers, guiding them into the parking spot. We introduced ourselves—mother Rhonda, father Andrew, and their son, Joseph, who was surely not even two years old yet. I suggested there were probably more kids in their future, and they agreeably let me pry in this small way. “Yes,” Andrew said, “and it would be hard to fit more than just the one car seat in ours,” he gestured.

He walked around the Honda, feeling for tell-tale body repair work. “By the way, it didn’t come up at all on CarFax, which was weird.”

“That’s because it’s a ghost car.” Andrew and his wife looked at each other and barked quick, appreciative laughs. I had put them at ease, which had been my skill in sales. I knew I wasn’t selling them a lemon, but rather a great car at a good price—and I could see them slowly concluding that as the minutes passed, and our smiles became genuine.

I suggested we ferry the cars over the couple blocks to where we lived, so we could go through the paperwork and make the necessary transactions. I turned the key in the ignition and buckled myself in to my first new car for the last time, and still felt nothing but relief. My sentimentality is so rarely eclipsed by my practicality; I kept waiting for the inevitable tears. I was at peace with this decision, and I was excited about the dramatic change and how it might alter our family’s life story.

But still, that evening, they handed us a cashier’s check for the deposit. They would be coming back with the difference and trading that for the pink slip of ownership, but for now they were preparing to drive off in our last real asset. Rainer and Molly gave exuberant hugs farewell to them before they left, as if this little family were long-lost friends we had finally made the time to see. The sky had a green-gray cast to it, and everything looked and felt just a little different when I walked slowly up the porch steps. I was sad, and yes, I was a little jealous of this successful young couple that had weathered these tough years better than we had. Zeke was quiet. He watched from a small window that overlooks the driveway. He saw Joseph try to heave himself up into this high vehicle, and ultimately get efficiently carried up and into the car seat and buckled in. He looked out the tinted window and in at Zeke, watching him. And with no notice, Zeke hopped from his vantage point and ran outside to the front porch as they made their way down the street, Andrew following the Honda in their smaller sedan. I kept gently herding him into the house, trying to discourage him from that moment of loss, but he wanted to see it. He needed to see it and say it out loud: “They’re taking our car. They’re going to have it now. That’s not our car anymore.”

Some quiet reflection and then, “Are they bringing it back later?”

No, Zeke, they’re not bringing it back.

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What Happens to the Apples


apples Start with a dilapidated but cheap house. Move there under duress perhaps, maybe because it’s cheaper or because you need safe haven from things that are harming you. Make sure the tree is there, in front where it can greet you with low branches, and soften the sun’s glare with its canopy. It must be really big and full of blossoms when you pull up with your moving trucks containing everything you value. It has to have been there awhile, it must have witnessed families come and go before yours.

The house should get abundant shade from that tree. This must be a sort of house that is old and has no air conditioning, a house where you throw open the windows on the first hot day after you arrive and welcome the outdoors in, and even where there are no screens, you tolerate the bug visitors because you can smell your tree and feel the breeze and its comfort. There is no hum of a machine to cool you, only the shouts of neighbors and the bugs and this tree, and a wide open front door.The blossoms need to fall, the way blossoms do when the fruit is on its way, and you should probably feel surprised at the beauty of the carpet of petals that densely covers your porch and front walk. You remember the days that petals on your car would bother you in spring, the way they would cling to your window shield after a rain and get caught in the wipers and then rot. But these are petals, and they’re beautiful, and they’re causing you no problems, even when the children track them in on their shoes.

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When the apples start to fall, they’re green and bitter and they get smashed on the street out front. Bees and flies flutter around the pulp, and neighbors kick the crushed ones back toward your yard with some irritation. This is the work, this is where it starts. The same irritable neighbors come over periodically and help you manage this early growth, irritation is softened, and you climb branches and shake the trunk and all of you laugh at the hail storm of new fruit when it hits the ground with a knocking sound and rolls around like ball bearings, making you stumble like you’re already drunk on its fermentation.

Create games on the fly. Start keeping score: who can pitch the most apples into the compost bin, without missing? Have a running tally with the guy across the street that goes on for days; shout your number with a challenging tone. Welcome the gardening couple who have no children and have time to read about what to do for the tree, let them help you prune and cull and fertilize with compost tea.

Provide beer. Sit on the porch and chat.

And when there have been some days when too many have fallen and there are too many frustrations, go gather. Make the kids do it when your back goes out. There’s always more. Pile what isn’t salvageable into baskets and dump it into the chickens’ feed bin, and stop and spend some time watching them bob their heads and dart their beaks into the crunchiest sections, leaving the mush for you to rinse out later.

What you have gathered is good but needs care. First there’s the washing—be thorough—and then of course much coring and chopping. Leave the peel on, and put the pieces through a juicer. There will be a lot of foam on the top, and it might be too tart for the children at first. Pour it through a strainer and sweeten it slightly with honey or maple syrup.

Then you must strain again. You need to rid yourself of the bitter foam and remember the delicate beauty of those blossoms when the tree greeted you. You need to do the work and make it right, make the sweetness linger on the tongue, soften the sharpness of too much disappointment that led to this bushel of fruit that must be processed in order to nourish you. You freeze some for the long winter that seems far away but that’s really right around the corner, when the tree is bare and scratching against gunmetal skies, relentlessly holding its arms out and waiting for the spark of light to return. Those are hard months and you will miss this sweetness.

It’s bound to be surprising, how many tart little apples it takes to make a quart of golden juice that makes the children smack their lips and stop what they’re doing to savor. You pour it out in measured doses so it’s not taken for granted. Each mouthful contains some small story of the year that’s passed.

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Changing How We Mow the Lawn Changed Who We Are


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Sometimes a lawn mower can change everything.

I always associated nice weather with the deafening “rrrrrrrrrrrr” of lawn mowers.  It’s not a bad sound for most of us; it’s generally something that brings to mind summer days, backyards, and the smell of cut grass.  To start a lawn mower generally requires some level of finesse: the perfect amount of fuel to prime the motor, followed by meaningful yanks to the pull cord.  Having too much machine for the job is, supposedly and in some places, a uniquely American point of pride. A lawn mower is a classic symbol of suburbia, a perfectly-manicured carpet of grass the reward for its conscientious use.  Stroll through any big box hardware store and you can see them, lined up and shining, some of them even ride-on style, costing as much as a cheap used car.

We added our own din to that noisy chorus of weekend lawn mowing in our own neighborhood until, at a yard sale about year ago, we came across a barely-used, old-fashioned push reel mower. We might not have bought it if our gas-powered one had been working, but it had mysteriously stopped functioning two weeks before, and we were watching our weedy front lawn grow long and feeling reluctant to part with the cash to buy a replacement. But here was an alternative staring us right in the face: fifteen dollars for a simple, people-powered option.

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We toted our reel mower home and started to use it. I was really excited for a few days, maybe for the same reasons I like vacuuming and find the chore soothing. It was so easy to pull it out and scoot around the yard with it, and I could even do it with my young children nearby. I could hear them if they needed me, I could stop what I was doing and tend to their needs, then easily come back and pick up where I left off.

Why don’t more people use push reel mowers? After using and loving ours, I was baffled by their relative rarity, so I did a little research: it turns out, getting sticks caught in the blades is an irritation for some. Also, if you have a really bumpy, hilly yard, you probably won’t get the precision cut you might prefer. And you can’t let your grass grow really long before you mow, because the blades will tend to just fold the grass over rather than cut it. Compare those negatives to the estimate that operating a gas mower for an hour is the pollution equivalent to driving a car three hundred miles.

What was more unexpected was the cascade of events that happened as a result of switching lawn mowers. The first thing was, neighbors started to ask to borrow it. I had never lent or borrowed lawn equipment; I don’t know exactly why.  Something about seeing us with our quirky, unusual and primitive mower in the front yard captured people’s interest. What grew from that is: it’s the official lawn mower of our block, now.  And we borrow the electric weed eater from another neighbor, because I can’t figure out an unpowered way to do the edging.  We’re all sharing tools, sending each other quick texts or Facebook messages, saying, “Can I use the mower tomorrow? Is it in its usual spot?”

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I also didn’t expect some of the other subtle changes the new mower brought about. The simplicity of its operation gave me a confidence in outdoor chores I hadn’t previously had. I grew more excited about trying my hand at growing vegetables, and instigated a raised-bed garden building project one weekend. Now, three growing seasons later, I know how to amend soil properly, start my veggies from seed, and have a successful compost pile.

I don’t want to overstate how this small change in our family’s lawn care choice affected us, but I will say this: it’s remarkably powerful to stop what you’re doing, disrupt the status quo, and say, “Why?” And, “is there a better way?” Can holding a tool in my hand and operating it using the strength of my body lead me to a certain kind of empowerment in other parts of my life? I can mow our little patch of grass and look over at the new vegetable garden that’s growing the food that’s powering the muscles that are mowing this lawn. And our machines shouldn’t take that sort of simple pleasure away from us.

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The Worst Kind of Fool


Earlier this week I wrote a self-pitying blog post for shareable.net. I’m happy to say that it didn’t get published before I had a chance to review it and revise it. Below are excerpts, which I’m embarrassed to share, but shame is sometimes an important emotion to feel, I think. It’s corrective, like guilt. The key is not to let the guilt and shame overwhelm your ability to improve yourself and your behavior. Let’s call this an exorcism:

I keep forgetting we didn’t do this last winter. We lost our car in March, and even though the dual-season monsoon climate of California still held us in its wet weather grips at that point, were nearing the end of that onslaught. Every week was a little drier, a little sunnier, a little more forgiving than the week before. Now there’s the relentless moving toward darker, colder, wetter days, and even at two p.m. the shadows are long . . .

It’s hard to engage in my sanity-savers, so my sanity is not being saved. My alone time used to be in the jealously-guarded evening hours, when I would put on my earplugs and listen to music on my long bike ride to the gym, through the rough neighborhood near the rail yard, where families sit on couches on the front porch, and there is shouting and tricycles and the smell of dinner cooking. Afterward I might find any excuse to wander through some store or other, maybe on a banana-obtaining excursion to Trader Joe’s . . .

What do I do, now? It’s dark, and it’s cold. It’s often raining, that wind-driven sideways kind of rain. I’m supposed to be bearing up, but I’m not bearing up. There’s not enough French toast in the world for this kind of bone chill and boredom. I can’t remember what I might have done back when we had disposable income and a vehicle or two. Did I find a reason to go to Target? Or Bed, Bath, and Beyond? Were there maybe more purchasing expeditions, outings that were diverting enough to alleviate the tendency to flop around the house in frustration, sighing, while the kids bicker and the dirty dishes accumulate in the sink? Is that why they invented Christmas—to give us all something to DO?

Pity me! Pity me!—right? Woe is me, I can’t go to the gym or idly shop at big box stores. I will say that the mood had a legitimate genesis though, and I can trace it back to a couple of events that happened over the past week.

One evening, my oldest, Rainer, had a choir performance and it was cold and raining hard. In order to be there to see her and support her, we had to bundle three little children (our two younger kids, plus a sweet little guy whose parents were paying us to babysit,) hitch up the bikes to the trailers, attempt to create waterproof cocoons for them, and bicycle hard against the clock, mostly uphill about 2.5 miles (not far by our usual standards) in freezing rain and wind. By the time we arrived, my skirt was clinging to my legs, soaked, my cold ears throbbing painfully in time with my heartbeat. The babies were warm and calm, so I left my husband to deal with finding shelter for the bikes and offloading everyone while I ran full bore to where the choir was supposed to perform in a minute or so. After shouldering through the crowd, all carrying umbrellas and posing for pictures in front of a giant outdoor Christmas tree, I finally found the choir director. They had already performed. They were trying to beat the worst of the weather, so they had started earlier than planned.

I kept calling and texting my ex to try and track Rainer down. Finally, I was told they were having dinner with a group of friends in a restaurant nearby. At that point, bitter disappointment and grief led to tears that I couldn’t seem to stop. I was soaked, freezing cold, and so ashamed that I didn’t have the resources or ability to get to where I was supposed to be, for my daughter. I couldn’t go into the restaurant like that. Instead, I stood outside the restaurant window while my ex sent Rainer out so I could hug her, at least. And apologize. The thing that hurt the most was her confusion and concern; I don’t think she understood my visceral sadness. I had to leave her behind to return to that warm, golden room, and go back and pick up the pieces so we could make our way home in the storm.

At this point, my self pity was getting a nice, running start.

Credit: In Her Image Photography

A few days later, I went to a grocery store to buy our Thanksgiving dinner ingredients. Things were going to be slim this year for sure, but we would be together in our house, relatively healthy, safe, intact and grateful for it. I spent a lot of time in the crowded market, making small talk with other shoppers, joking about my skills in the kitchen, getting advice from store employees, and planning our first home-cooked Thanksgiving meal. I went to the checkout with a cart full of groceries. When it came time to pay, my card didn’t work. That’s when I lost it.

We weren’t going to be able to pay. I didn’t know how, but I had miscalculated everything. There’d be no taking home these groceries, and it looked like we weren’t going to have any sort of traditional Thanksgiving dinner. Now let me be clear: we always have enough, and with the dried beans and grains, canned soups, tomato sauce and pasta, and assorted nuts and seeds in the larder, our family will not go hungry in the near future. It was just that this was going to be the first year that we couldn’t provide the traditional trappings, and that was the just last brick on a pile that was sitting on my chest. I cried right there at the checkout. Hard. I think I might have begged a little, telling them to please try the card again, and again. I remember making quite a spectacle of myself, and things progressed from there, involving getting escorted out by a man in a uniform, but I’ll just leave it at that. Hours later, I had been driven home by a friend, and my head was aching from the crying. No one in the family was able to sleep until the wee hours of the morning. It had been a hard night with lessons learned about expectations, and humility, and gratitude.

I am writing these words on Thanksgiving. Unexpectedly, a friend picked me up this morning, and drove me to the one grocery store that was open today. We had some money left on a food stamp card after all. Now I can smell turkey cooking, and along with the other most fortunate Americans we’ll be having the canned cranberry gel, the mashed potatoes and stuffing, some corn and peas, some pumpkin pie. About the only complaint today is that I forgot the whipped cream.

Fall and winter are always a time of reckoning, not just for me but for lots of people, I think. Short days mean long hours spent at home with your thoughts. The sun encourages extroversion; the lack of it turns your thoughts inward. Holidays bring joy to many, but for lots of us they are emotionally complicated, full of memories and some sadness. It’s a time of extraordinary parental pressures to provide abundance and tradition to the children.

This holiday season had a rocky start for me. This is the first time we’re doing it without a car, and without any money to provide the kind of comforts that the long, dark cold time takes away. But we have a pink Christmas tree, and if you have that, you can’t be hurting too much. A single strand of multicolored lights turns our porch into a warm welcome home in the darkness, and you don’t even need to squint to make it look beautiful. I was the worst kind of fool for not realizing we have absolutely everything we need.

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Starving Writer’s Fund


Buddha10

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. . . and thank you for making it possible for me to write for you!

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