Grow tomatoes, they said

Back when we first moved into our house, and I was trying to build a garden that wouldn’t be raided by wildlife, people told me: “Plant tomatoes. The animals won’t touch them.” I didn’t plant tomatoes. I don’t like tomatoes. I like lots of things made from tomatoes: pizza sauce, tomato soup, marinara, but an actual tomato has just the right texture to make me flinch when I bite into it. I’m a freak, I know, but there’s just something about the feel of a tomato that makes my tongue want to retreat down my throat.

Instead, I spent lots of time fortifying my garden. The effort paid off. I made my garden impervious to rabbits and groundhogs, etc., just in time to abandon gardening in order to take up the hobby of raising children. Through all the years my garden lay fallow, I took pride in knowing herbivores could not get at the various weeds filling the space.

This year, my wife took an interest in gardening. Men familiar with wives will understand this means she did a lot of pointing while I did an equal amount of digging around in dirt. The pointing was crucial; without it, I may not have understood which dirt I was to play in.

In our refurbished garden, we kept it simple, planting only cucumbers and peas. The cucumbers went wild, overrunning the peas as well as the garden fence. It’s a good thing we didn’t plant tomatoes in there; they wouldn’t have stood a chance against the invading cucumber hordes.

Cucumber plants going over the wall to carry their conquest into the back yard proper.

My wife likes tomatoes. She likes them a lot. So, we planted some tomatoes in a pot on our deck. They prospered well, until the fruit started to turn red. Then we began to find bites taken out of them. The Internet cast the blame at squirrels. The Internet casts blame for a lot of things at squirrels. I’m sure some of it is justified, but I bet some of it is thrown at them based solely upon reputation. Squirrels have a PR problem.

I wrapped chicken wire (or as the chickens prefer: flightless bird wire) around the pot. The depredations continued unabated. A friend suggested it must be birds attacking our tomatoes, but I’ve seen the mouths on the birds around our place and I doubt they’d leave teeth marks.

One day I noticed movement inside the wire. As I came closer, the movement noticed me. Up the wire scampered a dirty little red-faced chip monk. He leapt from the wire to the deck railing and was gone before I could do more than stomp my foot and yell at him to get a job.

What a nice chap. He left half of the only ripe one for us.

We slid the pot away from the railing and removed the accommodating wire. The thievery continues unabated.

To date, the tomato arithmetic has worked itself to a ratio of one tomato for us, one tomato for Chip. I guess that makes us Nature’s perfect socialists.

Baked goods in the key of C: a musical prequel

Last post, I wrote about my son bouncing from instrument to instrument in his school’s music program. Since this seems to be a genetic condition, it’s fair I explain how he inherited his musical vagrancy.

In sixth grade, three friends and I decided to become drummers. The music teacher needed tuba players, but tubas weren’t how we wanted to make noise; we needed to bang on stuff. We began with borrowed sticks, playing on an old wooden table. Eventually, each bought a lesson book, sticks, and a little drum pad. At year’s end, the music teacher retired. I presume this retirement was planned before he met us.

Meanwhile, my mother put me in piano lessons. My sister was going to college and Mom didn’t want to lose my sister’s time slot with her highly regarded music teacher. The teacher’s reputation was a mystery to me. She was a hoarder. Her piano was an extension of her clutter. It gave me anxiety to sit at it.

She was a chain smoker. Her house reeked of stale tobacco. Between puffs, she instructed me. I recall an image of her swatting my fingers with a ruler when I messed up, but that must be an invention of embellished memory. Yet, I did frustrate her by messing up a lot, and there was certain to be a ruler somewhere among the old newspapers and cherub figurines.

I hated piano.

Our junior high and senior high were combined, so 7th grade put me in the high school band. The music teacher was new. On the first day, we sat on risers as he called out the various sections. Players of the called section stood and were directed to their places. Brass, woodwinds, percussion, etc., he went through them all. When he finished, four of us remained. He looked at us sideways. “Well, what are you then?” he asked.

We looked at each other. One of us marshaled the courage. “We’re drummers.”

The room exploded with laughter. The teacher shook his head and pointed toward the back, where the older percussionists stood in their places.

A group of Civil War percussionist boys preparing to percussion the troops into battle ranks.

We must have ruined that teacher’s day all year, because in 8th grade we had a new one. After enduring our playing for a while, he decided we should try other instruments, just in case. The school had one alto sax available, which two of us wanted. We held a competition for it. I made the least cringeworthy noise come out of it, so I won.

I was even worse at saxophone than piano. All I played were overtones, until I got winded and whatever tune I was playing shut down completely, at which, no one complained.

Spring brought marching season. I was still playing a snare in band. One scorching hot parade day, the bass drummer developed a problem walking and keeping a beat simultaneously. The band teacher asked me to carry the bass. I thought I was in a position to negotiate. I said I’d do it if he gave me an A in band. In my mind, he agreed.

Maybe I had a lot of balls, trying to bargain with my teacher, but I was fixed when I sweated them off under that tyrant drum. But I kept the beat.

I got a C+ in band.

The next year we had yet another new band teacher. I didn’t care. Stung by band teacher treachery, I took Home Economics instead. Our town sounded better, and I baked brownies. Things have a way of working out for the best.

The little pianist, violinist, clarinetist, drummer boy

Our guest room has transformed into a percussion studio. There’s a snare drum, a marimba-ish/xylophony instrument, a drum pad, and assorted sticks and mallets where once there was a peaceful rest for weary guests.

Big Brother, the artist formerly known as a clarinetist, and even more formerly known as a violinist, and still kind of known as an occasional pianist, is suddenly a percussionist.

He’s been taking piano lessons for a few years. He’s pretty good. He could probably be really good, but that would require practice, and of course that’s out of the question.

In 5th grade, he had to choose between playing a string instrument or joining the choir. He chose violin, and he hated it slightly less than he hated the idea of singing for an audience. It was an unfortunate choice, because you don’t have to pay hundreds of dollars to rent a voice for the school year, even one that just mouths the words.

Sixth grade brought the option of switching to a wind instrument. His mother still had her clarinet from high school, making the instrument’s cost roughly equal to that of a child’s voice. The small clarinet case was easy to transport to school. It was the perfect situation, until the boy discovered he hated clarinet as much as he hated violin.

A month ago, we got an email from the band teacher. Some students were being allowed to switch to percussion. Big Brother wished to be one of them. This was not a decision to be taken lightly, as it would entail the procurement, at parental expense, of additional apparatus, and (I’m hoping the email didn’t actually say this, but I fear it did) enrolling in private lessons – also at parental expense.

“I have no gift to bring, pa rum pum pum pum. My family spent it all on my drum, on my drum, on my drum.”

I grilled the child about this. Yeah, he told his teacher he wanted to switch to percussion, but he changed his mind. He probably wasn’t even going to audition for it.

Relieved at the false alarm of additional parental expenses, I deleted the teacher’s email and went along with my marginally contented existence.

Last Friday, at my regularly appointed time to nag the kid into practicing his clarinet, he told me, “Oh, I don’t have to do that anymore. I switched to percussion.”

“You said you weren’t going to switch,” I accused.

“Yeah, but then I tried out and the teacher said I was pretty much the best at it.” (Note to band teacher: You just sunk any chance of having him practice by telling him that.)

Monday evening, the boy and his mom were late coming home from his piano lesson. When they finally arrived, they brought boxes. Inside the boxes was my percussion nightmare, lacking only a cluster of tympany. I didn’t ask if we were renting or purchasing; I’m not ready for that info. Either answer is the wrong one.

Let’s see if he ever practices on any of this.

This kid changes instruments as quickly as . . . well . . . as his father did when he was in school. But that’s another story.

 

 

 

Give it the old middle school try

There’s an old American phrase: “Give it the old college try.” If you are not American and old, you may not have heard it. To give it the old college try means to lend a task your best effort, even if you believe the challenge may go beyond your abilities.

Saturday morning, we woke up to six inches of new fallen snow. I went out to shovel. Buster was planning on coming out to help, but when I told him he had to wear his snow pants, he decided he’d rather stay inside and whine about how much he hated wearing snow pants.

The snow was wet and heavy – the kind they refer to as Heart Attack Snow, because it takes down so many older gentlemen like me through overexertion. I didn’t experience any coronary events, but it was slow going through the heavy snow.

When I was half way through our driveway, Big Brother came outside, wearing snow pants and not whining about it, which made him my favorite kid for the moment. I asked him to grab a shovel and begin on the neighbor’s driveway. Our neighbor does helpful things for us, and I’m trying to teach the boys to be neighborly.

Big Brother went to work on the neighbor’s driveway and kept up a good pace for all of three minutes. Then he came back, complaining of tightness in his shoulders. I told him that’s what hard work feels like and if he did it a little more often the tightness wouldn’t come around so quickly.

I said he could take a break, which he understood to mean he should go inside. He did reassure me that he might come back out after a while.

A good day’s work – when you are 11 and disinterested in work.

There was no sign of him when I finished our driveway and sidewalks. I walked to the neighbor’s driveway to see what Big Brother had accomplished before his shoulders gave out on him. He’d cleared a fine-looking rectangle with sharp right angles. His work was an ode to geometry – a very small ode. Seeing the extent of his industry inspired me to think of the old college try.

I don’t know why it made me think of the old college try, because there was no evidence of it here. I’m calling what he had given “the old middle school try.” The old middle school try is what happens when your dad asks you to do something and it turns out to be harder than you thought, so you come up with excuses to give up after a few minutes.

I couldn’t leave the driveway in that condition, so I finished shoveling the snow. Thanks to the old middle school try, nearly 10% of it was already done for me. By the time I was finished, my shoulders and forearms were sore. It’s right that I should have more sore spots than the kid, since I’ve had the benefit of college and he’s only been to middle school.