S’no Fun

You would think that since I’m a native Floridian and an avid boater, that I would also be able to water-ski. You would be wrong. Not that I haven’t tried. Quite a long time ago, my friend John tried to teach me and after dragging me the length of the Imperial River several times behind his boat (mostly underwater) he came to a conclusion. “Ben, you can’t ski!” And that was it for skiing. That is, until my sister invited me on a snow skiing trip to Vermont. Now, I had barely even seen snow, but since the ski resort pictures made it seem soft and friendly, and I didn’t see a boat dragging people helplessly behind it, I accepted.

After flying to my sister’s house in New Jersey, we all split up into different cars and left for Sugerbush Vermont. For some strange reason I was selected to drive one of the cars. Strange, because we were driving straight into an ice storm and I wasn’t even sure what an ice storm was. The poor people that fate chose as my passengers, discovered this little tidbit of information three hours into the trip when the windshield wipers became the size of frozen baseball bats and we had slid past dozens of cars left deserted in the ditch on the side of the road. “Hey Ben… You’re doing great! Man! Look at all the wrecked cars!” exclaimed my sister’s friend Sue, from the back seat. I gave a thumbs-up and said “Thanks. Not bad for never having driven in ice or snow before, right?” About the time they had all stopped screaming in terror, we started up a long steep hill and the four-wheel drive car in our group started pulling away from us. I tried to keep up, but every time our car’s wheels started to spin on the ice, I had to let off of the gas a little more. This kept happening until we were almost to the top and traveling about five miles an hour. Then, they spun once more… and we were stopped. I put my foot on the brake and we just sat there in the middle of the road as the temperature outside continued to drop. I had no idea what to do so I turned around and looked at my “snow experienced” passengers for advice. “Well, now what?” I said. And just as the words left my mouth the car began sliding backwards down the hill. This time when everyone started screaming, it seemed like the right thing to do, so I joined in. Luckily, we only slid about thirty feet before the car hit the shoulder of the road and the car and the screaming suddenly stopped.

The screaming had already turned to cheering when out of nowhere, a salt truck drove effortlessly past us, the road magically thawed and we were able to drive away. Soon after, we were at the cabin, the fire was crackling and we were all fast asleep under cozy down comforters.

The next morning I looked out the window at the thermometer to find that it was 40 below zero! I thought everyone had lost their minds, but they couldn’t wait to “get out there.” So we suited up and headed to the slopes, where I was, of course, the only one scheduled to take lessons on a mountain that had overnight, frozen solid.

By noon, I was zigzagging down the slope with my classmates, single file. I was at the very end and doing rather well until I realized that I was slowly overtaking the person in front of me. Try as I might I couldn’t get the skis to cut into the ice enough to slow me down, so I turned past everyone. The instructor wasn’t amused. “Very funny Ben… Get back in line!” Just ahead of me was a steep slope with a crowd of people gathered at the bottom. I had no desire to share the fate of the people that I had, just moments ago, laughed at as they plowed into those same people, so I turned to the left, perpendicular to the slope and mercifully, slowly came to a stop. Relieved, I sighed and waved to the others. “I’m OK!” I proudly yelled, pumping my ski pole in the air. Then… I started going backwards. “WHAT? NO!” I couldn’t believe it… I was sliding backwards down a hill again! “OH COME ON! NOT AGAIN!” I didn’t know what to do, so I just plopped down on my rear and stopped. Not pretty or dignified, but nothing broken either.

The following Christmas I opened a gift to find… rollerblades. I thanked the person that gave them to me, walked to the kitchen… and threw them in the garbage can. A person’s got to know their limitations.

Social Science and HotDogs

When I think about some of the things that I’ve experienced over the past years, there seems to be a widening disconnect between our technological advancements and our social development. I have always loved science and building things, so I decided at the ripe old age of eight to build for my school science project, a better and faster hot dog cooker. (Warning! Do not to try this at home!) I drove two large nails through a piece of plywood, hooked electrical wires to each, added a switch and an electrical plug and Presto… a beautifully simple and (as we all know now) deadly kitchen appliance. When a hot dog was impaled across the nails and the switch was thrown, the unsuspecting hot dog was immediately cooked to the point of being split open, leaving the smell of electrified pork product in the air.

I know… cool, right? But, because of everyone’s reaction to what now would be considered a weapon of some type, this actually turned out to be more of a “social” experiment. My parents had seen me build similar things before and seemed mildly interested but unconcerned. The bus driver didn’t bat an eye as I carried it proudly onto the school bus, and even my teacher seemed interested, yet unalarmed. My demonstration at Bonita Springs Elementary was a success. Something between an infomercial and Young Frankenstein. Amazingly, no one was electrocuted (except the hot dog), I wasn’t expelled and after the schools fuses were all replaced and the power came back on, everything returned to normal. Well… except for the strange smell that legend has it, still lingers there.

Things are a lot different now. To begin with, I don’t think you can even bring a plastic butter knife to school. And technology wise, when you wanted to know something back then, like “Is this hot dog cooker going to cook me too?” you went to the “World Book Encyclopedia”. Of course, we now have most all of man’s accumulated knowledge and experience (after you sift through all the weird stuff) right here on our home computers via the Internet.

Technology has not only drastically out paced our ability to understand it, at times it doesn’t seem to have added equally to our general understanding of the world around us, improved our ability to reason or allowed us to socially understand or tolerate each other better. We recently had a DSL computer line installed in our cabin, in the middle of nowhere in Georgia. I had high hopes regarding this subject and thought, “The 21st century has come to the Mountains”. Soon after, the DSL serviceman came out to locate the lines buried under the road. He stepped out of his truck and armed with a bent wire in each hand as divining rods, he proceeded to “conjure up” the fairly obvious location of the utility line. I know some of you are saying, “That really works!” I prefer to just savor the sweet irony of socio-technological whiplash.

Boys will be Boys

Every time my wife and I leave the grocery store, me pushing the cart across the lot by her side… she knows what to expect. But I can’t help it. I am overwhelmed by an irresistible urge. Without warning I take off running with the cart, (I can hear her behind me mumbling “Oh for Pete’s sake…) then I jump on the back of the cart and ride! I know, I know. It’s not very mature behavior for someone who is approaching 60 years old. But in my defense… well… I just don’t care. It’s fun and for a fleeting moment the worries of the world melt away and I’m a kid again. Actually, I’m pretty good at it and I seldom run over anyone or crash, so besides looking like an idiot… what’s the big deal?
If you ask me, having fun when you’re of a mature age has gotten a bad rap and people are way too uptight with their “play prejudice”. Yep…I just made that term up, but it’s true non-the-less. Sure, there are respectable ways to have fun… we call it recreation, a.k.a. biking, skiing, golfing, running (ugh!), fishing… but I think that these are way too organized and goal oriented to qualify as true play. The need to play like a kid is inside all of us no matter what age we are… it just takes a little nudge and a quick look over the shoulder to release the eight year old.

There is also a particular social phenomenon that seems to help things get started… at least for men. The more of us that get together, the younger and dumber we get. So, given the opportunity and enough guys, we will demonstrate types of behavior that are not just undignified but downright dangerous, irresponsible and stupid. But that is a rare occurrence… well… pretty rare.
Case in point. At a recent pool party, four of us (all guys over 50) were hanging out in the corner having a way too serious conversation about what was wrong with the world and everyone else but us, when my friend Bill, ran past us and jumped into the pool completing a rather lame cannonball. We all looked at each other and shook our balding, graying heads. “That was stupid,” I said, polishing off my beverage and setting it on the table. My buddies all nodded. Then I added “Watch this!” and I launched myself into a beautiful and purposeful belly whopper. SMACK! “Ohhhhhh!” yelled everyone. And then…it was on! One after another we launched ourselves into higher and more painful belly whoppers, our skin turning beet red. The only guy not participating was some twenty-year-old who was apparently trying to act mature. (Kids!) Of course our wives didn’t seem to share our zeal for this type of play, (except for my wife Lori, whose competitive nature finally caused her to launch her petite frame ala cannonball into the sloshing water of the pool). Being the only adults left, our wives kept yelling something about breaking our necks or permanent brain damage… I’m not sure, for some reason I can’t remember… but we kept on until Mike pulled off a back breaker… a high flip that landed him with a loud “pop” flat on his back. All the guys screamed in delight and then laughed hysterically as his limp fire-truck red carcass was pulled from the pool by his wife. Ahhhh! Good Friends! It was a good day.
Now, I’m not recommending this particular behavior, but I am a big fan of a wide variety of simple fun like sliding around on tile floors in my socks, shooting spitballs at my buddies as they’re trying to talk on their cell phone at lunch, or eating their French fries when they’re not looking. It’s not that I don’t take life seriously… I do. But because I do take it seriously, it’s worth enjoying it while we’re here and while we’re able. You’re only young once… so why not make it last a long time. Jump on your carts and ride my friends!

Night of the Raccoon

The morning of the Keep the Beautiful in Bonita clean up this year, I thought it would be nice to take a swim in the pool when we got home. Since my Floridian blood freezes solid in water anywhere below 87 degrees, I turned on the solar heater so that by the time we got home that night the pool would be just the right temperature for a “quick dip.” My wife Lori of course knew better. “You know you’ll never make it past the couch, right?”

And of course… she was right. As soon as I walked in the door I plopped on the couch and in minutes was sleeping soundly… until I was awakened by the sound of the doggy door banging open on the pool deck. I sat up quickly… looked over at Lori and growled, smiling…”Raccoons!” You see, the Nelson family and raccoons have been feuding for decades and from the stories my father used to tell me about he and his brothers hunting the wily masked creatures… it’s fair to say that we had started it. So, in what could easily be considered raccoon karma, these hoodlums now tip over our garbage cans, slice through screens, eat the cat’s food and make funny faces and apparently insulting gestures at our dogs through the windows at night. This makes our dogs go crazy, and we of course then yell at the dogs, which delights the raccoons to no end, causing them to run away laughing their little raccoon tails off!

Recently, they discovered the doggy door into the pool area and how funny it was to make me run after them in my underwear. I do this because I can’t let the dogs out with potentially rabid raccoons on the pool deck and because I’m not thinking clearly at midnight. So that night, I again exploded out of the door looking like a giant maniac baby, wielding the pool net high over my head as I ran after the masked bandit. As usual he ran into the bushes behind the spa, and as usual I jumped up on the edge of the spa and began poking the net into the bushes. As the dogs barked frantically from inside the house, I could hear Lori yelling through the closed door and the chaos, “Just leave the screen door open and he’ll leave.” But this, my friend… was war. Suddenly, the angry mammal shot up the palm tree and fastened itself onto the screen just above my head. Without thinking (which should actually be the name of this story) I scooped the “much larger than I thought” raccoon off of the screen with the net like he was a giant pancake. As I watched him falling in slow motion directly in front of me into the spa, it dawned on me that the only way for the crazed mammal to get out of the spa was to climb over the top of me. I had no desire to have an angry raccoon attack me while I was in my underwear, so I decided on a different strategy. I turned and ran like an eight year-old girl. But just as I took my first step it became clear that I had, like a cartoon character, run out of solid ground and was for a split second running in mid air over the pool. Strangely enough, as I plunged into the dark black water of the pool my first thought was…”Hey, this water temperature is perfect!” followed quickly by… “ARRRGGH… AN ANGRY RACCOON IS GOING TO CLIMB ONTO MY HEAD!”

I scrambled out of the water and grabbed my pool net again, and with my back to the French doors scanned the pool deck. “COME ON PAL! IS THAT ALL YOU’VE GOT!” I bellowed mightily, standing there soaking wet in my now drooping “not so tighty whiteys.” As I stood there doing a really bad Navy Seal imitation, I heard a quiet “tap, tap, tap” on the window behind me. I turned to see my wife Lori silently mouthing the words “He’s right behind you!” Sure enough, there behind me was a wet, snarling raccoon with his back up against the wall. Our eyes locked for an instant and then we both came to the same conclusion… “RUN!” Luckily the masked intruder headed for the door leading outside where he belonged and I headed for the door leading to the couch where I belonged.

The raccoon has never returned to our pool deck, but as I nurse my pulled back muscles and suffer the disappointed looks on my dogs faces … I’m not so certain who won this battle. But I suppose that is the nature of a feud… no one ever really wins.

Trimming Branches

A couple of years ago while trimming the branches on some young trees that I was growing in Georgia, I came upon a small Dawn Redwood that I had raised from a seedling.  It died back in a hard freeze the year before and although I had given up on it, for some reason it had come back.  Growing up from the base of the stump were two healthy bright green limbs, both reaching for the sun.  I cut the old dead main trunk from the center and then stood back to look at the small three-foot tall tree.  The two remaining branches seemed identical in every way, healthy, beautiful mirror images.  But if the tree was to grow strong and fast, capable of surviving to a ripe old age without splitting in half, one of the branches had to be removed.  I bent down on one knee and took one of the branches in each hand.  Then, after looking up at the angle of the sun and the position of the other trees, I took the shears from my back pocket… and cut.  Continue reading