Brain Cookies

Chickens

Back in Tract Housingville, Suburbia, the overlords in the homeowners association wouldn’t allow residents to keep chickens on their property. Due in large part to my contrary nature, the inability to have chickens made me want them all the more. Chicken ownership became something of a touchstone for me, a symbol of overthrowing the oppressive micromanagement of a bloated and self-important bureaucracy.

When I moved to Smallsville, I was suddenly freed from the draconian regulations. I can have a shed. I can have a clothesline.

I can have chickens.

My husband built me an amazing coop, with nesting boxes inside the heated garage that connect to the screened-in pen outside. I got myself a used copy of “Backyard Chickens for Dummies.” I compared prices on scratch grains. I bought straw.

Then all I needed was some chickens. Like everything else in my life, this transaction was arranged on Facebook. A local farm family agreed to sell me four chickens for $5 each. The woman took us out to her chicken shed, grabbed four at random from among her 30 or so birds, and tossed them unceremoniously into a large cardboard box we’d brought for transport.

My new flock was quiet on the drive back home—until we took a turn a little on the fast side. From the box in the back seat, we heard a low, grumbling “buk buk buk.” One of the chickens was complaining about the driving.

This was my first true taste of chicken ownership. Because here’s the thing: chickens are hilarious. I had no idea how funny they are. They don’t even have to do anything special to be hilarious.

When I go out in the morning to top off their feed and refill the water trough, they come running over to see what I’m doing, talking the whole time. They’re curious about everything. They chase each other around the yard for table scraps. You can tell they still think of themselves as their ancestors the velociraptors, despite being stuck in a poofy four-pound body.

Best of all, they have widely different personalities. Delta is the queen mum, fat and serene. Bob never shuts up. Dave is big and dumb and does whatever Bob does. Jimmy is like Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting—a scrappy tough guy with an attitude.

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I think Jimmy may be connected to the mob. I’m afraid to ask.

Sometimes I’ll let the chickens out into the yard for a few hours. They stay put fairly well, but do enjoy a nice explore when they’re feeling frisky. Once, when I looked out the kitchen window, I counted three birds—Dave was missing. I went out to see where she’d got to. (Yes, Dave is a she—all my chickens are hens, despite their names.) Bob, as usual, started clucking nonstop. I swear she was tattling on Dave like a three year old: “Dave went into the neighbor’s yard even though you said not to go over there and I told her not to go but she did anyway and now she’s over there but I’m still over here because I’m a good chicken and Dave is a bad chicken because she went over there when you said not to.”

Another time, we had to put the chickens back inside while it was still daylight (chickens will naturally go back into their safe place when it gets dark). I thought I’d be smart. I got out the food scoop and made a big production of pretending to fill their trough. Delta cooperated nicely, as I expected she would. Jimmy knew I was bluffing, but she couldn’t take the chance of missing out on extra food if I wasn’t. Dave, being dumb, didn’t understand my pantomime, but also being dumb, wasn’t hard to catch.

That left Bob.

Bob is the smallest chicken, and fast. In that moment, when her freedom was threatened, she was smarter and faster than the two allegedly intelligent bipeds working together. If we went left, she faked us right then scrambled left around our grasping arms. If we cornered her by the fence, she darted between us. Ten solid minutes of chicken hockey later, Bob succumbed to the classic “trap her against the door with your leg” ploy.

Egg laying is a subject for another dispatch.

Originally published at The Preterit Review
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Purposefulness

Six months ago, I moved from a large Chicago suburb, about 38 miles from the city, to a small rural town about 24 miles further out. You wouldn’t think that a mere 24 miles would make much of a difference in lifestyle. After all, the United States is nearly 2,700 miles coast to coast. People speak with no accent to my ear. I can use the same money I always have. I didn’t even leave the state.

My town has 1,017 people (as of 2013). There are no stoplights. There is a fire station but no police department, a library but no grocery store, a diner but no pizza place. Some people have mail boxes, others don’t. People don’t lock their doors. Golf carts are a popular means of local transportation. I don’t have one, but it really doesn’t matter because you can walk the entire town in 15 minutes or less.

I also moved from a 20-year-old tract house to a 106-year-old Victorian. It has one tiny bathroom, no dishwasher, no central air conditioning, an unfinished basement, and a detached garage. The front door has a draft, the floors creak, and the paint is chipping.

These things could be considered annoyances. But here’s the thing: they’ve made me realize the immense satisfaction that comes from living purposefully.

This is easiest to explain, perhaps, through example.

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I don’t get mail delivered to my house. Instead, I have a box at the post office. Unless the weather is extremely brutal, I walk the three blocks to pick up my bills, junk mail, and the occasional greeting card. I take the same route each time, a circular path that doesn’t retrace any steps. Doing this lets me enjoy the fresh air and get a little exercise—something that can be hard to come by for a work-from-home couch potato. But beyond that, the ritual of walking to the post office is soothing. It forces me to put Important Life Things on hold for just a few minutes. It connects me to my neighborhood, my surroundings, the place I inhabit for this slice of time. I notice when my neighbors put up holiday decorations. I know which houses have dogs and when someone gets a new dog. I follow the seasons in the flowers and trees that I see every day. I find myself looking forward the trip to the post office, a novel feeling.

Another example is shopping. Aside from a gas station and a dollar store, it’s at least a 15 minute drive to buy anything. Stores are far enough away that I must consider my purchases carefully. If I forget to buy capers for tonight’s chicken vesuvio, we don’t have capers in our chicken vesuvio. I schedule multiple stops on one trip—first Walgreens, then Aldi, then PetSmart—and thus avoid spending half my life in the car. Added bonus: I spend less money this way, because shopping has moved from entertainment to chore.

Because there’s no central air, I must plan my daily summer activities to take advantage of cool mornings and afternoon siestas. Because there’s only one bathroom, I must plan the family’s routines so everyone has a turn at the sink. Because our public library is very small, I must plan which books I want to read and request them through the interlibrary loan system. These mundane tasks take on new meaning when they receive such attention and forethought.

I’ve noticed this purposefulness leaking into other areas of my life. I check the nesting boxes several times a day for eggs and get a thrill when I find one. I made both bread AND butter the other day. From scratch. A friend asked if I was Amish now. I laughed, but honestly, I can see the appeal of that kind of life. Not that I’m ready to give up my internet and flushing toilet.

Could I have made my previous life purposeful? Probably. But like many people, I’m lazy and tend towards convenience. If I have an easy way out, I will most likely take it. Being purposeful is hard work. At the end of the day, I’m often more tired than seems reasonable. I think back over my day and both wonder how I filled it all and marvel at how much I’ve done. So many rituals. Walking to the post office. Making a menu and grocer list. Feeding the chickens. Washing the dishes. Dusting the woodwork. It all becomes an exercise in zen, when approached from the right perspective.

If I could only figure out how to make mowing the lawn into a meditation, I’d be zenner than a Buddhist monk.

Originally published at The Preterit Review

In early December, during the town’s Winter Festival, we stopped into the insurance agent’s office for free cookies, coffee, 2017 calendar, and chit-chat. We learned that on Christmas Eve, one neighborhood sets up an amazing display of luminaria.

Flash forward to Christmas Eve. Driving home with bellies full of Chinese food, we took the long way through the apparently famous luminaria. It was beautiful, that soft glow lining the curving streets.

Then we found The House.

A dazzling rainbow of lights flashed and danced over lawn, trees, roof, and windows. A sign directed us to “listen along on 92.7 FM.” It was a personal playlist of Christmas carols and holiday pop hits providing the soundtrack for the display. Animated light bulbs sang “Blue Christmas.”  Giant snowflakes twinkled in on the roof in time with “Let it Snow.” You get the idea.

We parked and marveled.

A boy, maybe 10 years old, came out of the house with a plastic tub in his hands. My jaded suburban self assumed he was collecting money–best case scenario, to support a charity dear to the hearts of the family.

Nope. He offered us mini candy canes from that tub.

What followed was a 10 minute conversation with this young man. We learned how his dad started planning the show every February, which pieces were added how many years ago, how he and his brother got to climb on the roof to set up the snowflakes, that “Go Cubs Go” was left out because of potential copyright issues, the perils of selecting branches that might break off in a storm, what they planned to do next year.

We also learned that these brothers not only knew my son from school, but also that “he’s the one who has a cat named Pickles.”

This town has 1,000 people, according to its official sign along the highway. Yet this sort of thing happens all the time here.

Merry Christmas.

My mom always made the best vanilla frosting from scratch. It was smooth, creamy, buttery–the perfect complement to a fresh cake.

Others would try to duplicate her results with little success. No one could get it right: myself, my sister, and even my grandma, who was the best baker I ever knew. Our frosting always came out looking separated, almost curdled. Tasted fine, just looked gross.

But my mom? She could make it right every time. The running joke was that she purposely never gave out the whole recipe, but left out an ingredient or step, thus ensuring that we would all have to rely on her to make it properly. She denied this.

After she died, my dad tackled mom’s frosting with determination. With each attempt, he adjusted some minor aspect of the recipe: the brand of margarine, the temperature of the milk, the length of time it was beaten, all systematically. He had varying degrees of success, but never was his frosting smooth like hers.*

Today I decided to use up some limes by making a lime cake. I didn’t have the ingredients to make the recommended cream cheese frosting, so I dug into my giant blue recipe binder and found a card labeled “vanilla frosting,” not realizing this was my mom’s recipe. I set about making it, substituting butter for margarine (because butter) and adding a few tablespoons of fresh lime juice and a little extra flour to compensate for the extra liquid.

When it was finished, I realized what I had just done: I had created a perfectly smooth, beautiful frosting just like my mom used to make. Only lime flavored.

This is quite possibly the greatest achievement of my life.

My mom passed away on Labor Day 2012. I don’t believe in the supernatural, but I can’t help but wonder at this coincidence.

*Dad says he had success on a few occasions, but since he failed to invite me over for cake I have no way to verify these claims. I remain skeptical.

I’m a little excited.

You may remember that I’ve had a story accepted for publication in an anthology coming out this fall called Circuits & Slippers. You should totally buy it, multiple copies, makes a great gift for all your major gift-giving holidays and a few non-gift-giving holidays as well. Groundhog’s Day comes to mind.

Current release date is September 29. No need to write that down because, trust me, when it’s published, you’ll know.

My story, “Code Red,” rips Red Riding Hood out of the woods and tosses her, head over heels, into space. It’s got all the good stuff: a Wolfe, a Woodman, a Granny. I’m not saying anything more. BUT, I do have a little teaser for you.

THE COVER

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More info on this book here

 

[insert squeal of excitement here]

Circuits and Slippers Anthology Announces Featured Authors

Spoiler alert: one is me.

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cow3badgeloser

Yesterday’s Cookies

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