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.

The great bovine penis debate

A couple of weeks ago, my wife took the boys to a free dairy farm event. I didn’t go, because I had to work, and also because when I was a child I got to go to a free dairy farm event every day. It was called chores.

After the event, my wife called me to tell me about it. Big Brother and Big Man had each taken a turn at milking a cow. Buster refused. “Do you know why he wouldn’t milk the cow?” she asked.

I can think of lots of reasons a boy wouldn’t want to milk a cow. When I was Buster’s age, I didn’t want to milk cows either. Unlike me, Buster had a choice.

I started through my litany of reasons: It’s not really that fun; you can get kicked; fresh, warm milk isn’t very enticing, unless you’re a barn cat . . .

Sensing I was going off on the wrong track, my wife stopped me. “He wouldn’t milk the cow because he said the milk was coming out of its penis.”

She tried to explain to him that cows don’t have penises and that the milk came from the teats, but he wouldn’t be persuaded. I’m not sure I blame him. For a six-year-old boy, penis talk is old news, but having your mom discuss teats with you can shut your mind right down.

If he truly believed it was the cow’s penis, I applaud his decision not to tug on it.

Nothing for me, thanks.

“I don’t care what your brother told you, you’re not leaving this pen until you eat your breakfast!”

One morning, about a week later, I’d given the boys some cereal and gone to put some clothes in the washer. I was summoned from the laundry room by a loud argument. In the dining room, Big Man and Buster were hotly debating the origin of milk. Buster was trying to convince his little brother that milk comes from a cow’s penis.

This did not bode well for the continued consumption of their cereal, so I intervened.

“Cows are girls, so they don’t have penises,” I explained. I believe this generalization is still valid in regard to the four-legged world. “And besides that, have you ever known of any animal that had four penises?”

“Yeah,” Buster replied. “A cow.”

“They’re not penises,” I reiterated. “They’re teats. That’s why milk comes out instead of pee.”

“Yeah, they’re teats!” Big Man, the younger but more reasonable brother, backed me up. “Cows have teats!”

I didn’t know if we convinced Buster, but at least I was confident he wouldn’t scare Big Man away from his Cap’n Crunch. I went back to the laundry before the neighbors overheard me shouting anatomical terms at my children.

I heard the patter of little feet follow me. Big Man entered the laundry room. My little font of scientific reasoning gazed up at me, his face bright with sacred knowledge. “And you know what else? Girls don’t poop!”

So there’s that.

Belief

“It’s hard to know what to believe anymore.”

*Photos: Ben Shahn/US Farm Security Administration

Conversations with my wife: Early birds

If it’s not the skunks, it’s the birds. None of God’s creatures wants us to get a good night’s rest.

I’ve mentioned before how we have a thriving skunk community in our neighborhood. They like to offer their perfumes to us in the night. If you’ve ever shared property with skunks, you know they can jolt you out of a stone dead sleep without saying a word.

The skunks come around from time to time, but in summer, the birds are out every morning. I have no problem with the birds. I’m a country boy; their joyful chirping doesn’t bother me. My wife, who is not a country boy, is driven up the wall by their chatter. By the laws of marriage (“for better or worse, richer or poorer, through plagues of birds, etc.”) this makes the birds my problem.

Every morning, not long after sunrise, the birds wake my wife, who reacts by closing the windows in our bedroom. Country boys are not accustomed to the noise of windows being closed on a pleasant June morning. Consequently, this wakes me up.

“Close the window if you don’t want to hear the morning announcements!”

 

WIFE: Sorry to wake you, but those birds are at it again.

ME: They’re just letting you know , “It’s morning time!”

WIFE: Could they whisper it? Or maybe wait until 7 o’clock? Let’s just leave the windows closed all night.

ME: It gets too hot in here. I’d likely be a wreck every morning.

WIFE: Let’s risk it.

ME: You know, some people buy recordings of birds singing to relax them.

WIFE: Singing? They call that singing? It sounds more like a brawl.

ME: Do you also hate the sound of a gentle rain?

WIFE: I swear, one of them is about to pull a knife.

ME: What about the ocean surf?

WIFE: The ocean is fine. It’s all one constant noise, not all these different notes and pitches these birds have.

ME: So if we could get more birds, and their noises all blended together . . .

WIFE: Have you ever heard bickering that blended together?

Not in our house, I haven’t. Wife wins that round.

If young animals whined like human children

Zebra Mom: “Eat your grass, Jimmy.”

Zebra Kid: “I don’t like this grass. I like that grass over there.”

Zebra Mom: “There’s a lion over there.”

Zebra Kid: “Can you ask him to move.”

Zebra Mom: “No. I’m not asking a lion to move so you can have grass that’s exactly the same as this grass.”

Zebra Kid: “Just ask him.”

Zebra Mom: “No. I’m not asking. This is the same grass. Just eat it.”

Zebra Kid: “His grass is in the shade. I don’t like this sunny grass. It’s too hot.”

The grass is always tastier on the other side of the lion.

Zebra Mom: “How would you know? You haven’t even tried it.”

Zebra Kid: “Come on, Mom! Can you just please ask him. He’s not even eating grass.”

Zebra Mom: “If you don’t start eating, so help me God!”

Zebra Kid puts the tip of his tongue on one blade of grass: “This grass is way too dry. It’s like desert grass. You expect me to eat desert grass? Aw, man! Now I need a drink. I’m going to the watering hole.”

Zebra Mom: “You stay right here. There are crocodiles at the watering hole.”

Zebra Kid: “Ack. Ack. This dry grass is burning a hole in my throat. I’ll die if I don’t get a drink fast. Oh, there’s Dad. I’m gonna tell him what you’re doing to me.”

Zebra Mom: “Be sure to show him the hole in your throat.”

Zebra Kid approaches Zebra Dad: “Dad, can I go to the watering hole?”

Zebra Dad: “What did your mother say?”

Zebra Kid: “Nothing really. I think it’s okay with her if you let me go.”

Zebra Dad: “Oh. Okay then.”

FIVE MINUTES LATER

Crocodile Mom: “Ethan, eat your zebra.”

Crocodile Kid: “I don’t like zebra. I want gazelle.”

Crocodile Mom: “It’s all mammal. It tastes the same. Carcass is carcass. Now eat it.”

Crocodile Kid: “This one has stuff on it.”

Crocodile Mom: “What stuff?”

Crocodile Kid: “Look. It has all these black lines.”

Crocodile Mom: “All zebras have black lines. It’s just how they’re seasoned. You won’t even taste it.”

Crocodile Kid: “It’s disgusting. I can’t eat that. It makes me wanna hurl just looking at it.”

Crocodile Mom: “Eat around the black lines then. You’d better eat it before it gets cold. It’s not gonna be any good cold.”

Crocodile Kid: “The lines are touching all the other parts. Their gross juice is gonna be all over everything.”

Crocodile Mom: “Ethan, there are starving crocodile children in the next water hole who would give anything to have food half this good.”

Crocodile Kid: “They can have it.”

Crocodile Mom: “Don’t you dare come to me in an hour and tell me you’re hungry.”

TWO MINUTES LATER

Vulture Dad: “I can’t believe somebody just left all this delicious carrion here. Animals are so wasteful these days. Well, they’re loss is our gain. Dig in, Judy.”

Vulture Kid: “Um. You know I don’t like the kind with the white stripes.”