Thursday, June 24, 2004

The Last Laugh - Battle of the Briquettes

The minute the temperature climbs above 60 degrees, the smell of charcoal-broiled food wafts through my neighborhood. I’m pretty sure that my husband and I are the only two people on our street who don’t own a grill, or even a hibachi. I have to admit that it’s all my fault, mainly because I don’t trust myself around anything that can self-combust and force me to use the “stop, drop and roll!” technique I learned back in school.

Every time I think about our friend, Henry, who squirted lighter fluid onto red-hot coals and ended up having to wear a toupee for the next three months, I whip out the electric frying pan.

It’s not as if I haven’t tried my hand at barbecuing. One of our neighbors once gave us his old grill, complete with a big sack of charcoal, when he purchased his new Deluxe Turbo-Flame gas-on-gas grill with a heavy-duty rotisserie big enough to roast an entire cow.

A few nights after we received the grill, I decided to surprise my husband by cooking up a batch of juicy cheeseburgers. He’d always said that burgers cooked outdoors on a charcoal grill were the best on Earth, so I knew he would be thrilled when I handed him a plate of burgers with telltale grill marks on them.

Getting the charcoal to light, however, was another story. I tried everything short of a flame-thrower to get the briquettes started, but they refused to catch. Two hundred matches later, when one briquette finally did light, I blew on it until my cheeks hurt and I felt lightheaded … and still the flame died.

I grew so frustrated, I took all of the charcoal out of the grill, lined the bottom with crumpled newspaper and stacked the charcoal back on top of it. Then I set the newspaper on fire. I also threw some dead maple leaves on top of the whole thing. I figured that maple tasted good on pancakes, so it might add a little zip to the burgers.

I’d never cooked on a grill before so the burgers turned out just a tad on the well-done side. Actually, they resembled hollowed-out lumps of coal topped with overcooked, brown rubbery cheese. Not wanting to hurt my feelings, my husband choked them down.

“Well, how were they?” I asked after he’d finished.

“They had a really … unique flavor,” he said, then added under his breath, “A flavor that I’m sure will linger with me for the next few days.”

After that night, I refused to use the grill again. In fact, I left it standing outside untouched for so long, the next time I lifted the lid on it, I found a big wasps’ nest inside. That did it. The grill mysteriously disappeared the next day.

To be honest, there actually is a plus side to not owning a grill. When we go to other people’s barbecues and stuff ourselves with their food, they don’t expect us to reciprocate with a barbecue at our place. But even if we did own a grill, I’m pretty sure no one would show up to eat our burgers anyway; not unless they wanted to risk developing an intestinal blockage.

Still, a few of the barbecues we’ve been to over the years haven’t exactly been gourmet fare. My husband once was handed a hot dog that had been burned so badly, it resembled a long cigar ash in a bun. And at another barbecue, I cut into a chicken breast that was so raw in the middle, I swear I heard it cluck.

Alas, no food ever was quite as bad or made my husband suffer as much as my maple-leaf burgers. Perhaps it’s because when I grabbed the handful of leaves to toss on top of the charcoal, I might — just might have — accidentally grabbed some poison-ivy leaves, too. NH

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Mowing The Lawn: What A Drag

I bought myself a new toy a few weeks ago…an electric lawnmower.

Up until my purchase, I’d been using an old-fashioned push-mower, which was about one step above cutting the grass with a sickle. Anything thicker than a blade of grass (such as a dandelion) required me to mow over it 30 or 40 times before the mower either finally cut it, or it became so flattened out, it didn’t have the strength to pop up again. Sometimes I got so fed up, I just bent over and yanked out all of the stubborn stuff by hand.

So last month, I finally decided to move out of the Stone Age and climb the next step on the ladder of lawnmower evolution. That step was an electric lawnmower. I figured that going from and old push-mower directly to a modern gas-powered mower would be such a drastic change for me, I’d probably end up accidentally de-whiskering the neighbor’s cat with it. So an electric mower seemed as if it would be easier to control.

The clerk at the store showed me a nice lightweight model. His sales pitch piqued my interest when he said I wouldn’t have to worry about gas, oil or spark plugs, the way I’d have to with a gas-powered mower. But when he demonstrated that all I’d have to do was plug in the mower and press a little bar on the handle to make it work, I was sold. Too often, I had seen my neighbors, red-faced and heavily perspiring, double over from hernia-induced pain after they’d yanked the pull-cords on their mowers three or four hundred times without succeeding in getting them started.

I bought the mower and a 100-foot extension cord, and then headed home to mow my lawn.

I loved the mower. It sliced through even the toughest weeds as easily as a hot knife through butter. It also sliced through part of the extension cord.

From the moment I tried my new mower, I developed an instant hatred for the extension cord. For one thing, 100 feet of thick, outdoor-type cord, feels as if it weighs about the same as a ship’s anchor. To keep the cord away from the mower, I tried slinging it over my shoulder, but it was so heavy, it made my knees buckle. So I had no choice other than to let it drag behind me.

Believe me, dragging a 100-foot cord behind you has its hazards. For one thing, the cord slides through every disgusting thing that’s in the yard or in the vicinity of the yard; from mud to doggy souvenirs and poison ivy. And when you turn around to mow in the opposite direction, the cord suddenly crosses in front of your ankles and makes you do some pretty fancy footwork...to avoid tripping and landing in the mud, doggy souvenirs and poison ivy.

Because of the cord, it took me longer to mow the lawn with the electric mower than it ever did with the push mower. I spent so much time untangling the cord from around trees, stumps, rocks, branches, the porch and my legs, I forgot why I was out in the yard. And whenever I tried to fling the cord out of my way, it inevitably landed in a bush or over a low-hanging branch. I think I even accidentally strangled a squirrel with it.

Another problem was that the only outdoor electrical outlet at our house is on the opposite side of the house from the lawn, so I had to pull the cord around two corners to get it out to the back yard. And every time I pulled on it too hard, it unplugged. I walked back to that outlet so many times to plug in the cord again, I wore a path through the grass (at least that’s one place I won’t have to worry about mowing any more).

And maybe I have crazy bees in my area, but they actually seemed to be attracted to the humming noise the lawnmower made, because they kept buzzing around me as I mowed. Either that, or I knocked their nest out of a tree when I flung the cord into the branches.

I must confess, however, that my lawn looks better than it’s ever looked, and I owe it all to my new mower.

And if anyone wants to buy it, I’m selling it cheap…so I can save up for a battery powered one.

Tuesday, June 8, 2004

A Walk On The Wild Side

For the past 33 years, I have spent at least six hours a week walking on the cross-country and hiking trails throughout Bear Brook State Park in Allenstown. As a result, I’m fairly well acquainted with most of the park’s 10,000 acres.

Believe me, I’ve seen some pretty strange sights in the park during my walks, and have encountered a lot of interesting creatures…of both the four-legged and two-legged varieties.

Lately, however, it seems as if the wildlife in the park purposely is trying to rip my arms out of their sockets. You see, I usually walk with my dog, who weighs nearly 90 pounds, and she takes great pleasure in bolting after everything from squirrels to butterflies (and an occasional bicyclist)…while I am hanging onto her leash. As a result, my poor arms have been yanked so often, I now can touch my kneecaps without bending over.

At dusk one day last week, for example, a deer suddenly darted through a clearing about 50 yards ahead of us. My dog, wagging excitedly, thought it was another big dog and immediately charged after it. When she reached the end of her leash, the jolt was so hard, I felt my teeth rattle.

There also are quite a few pheasants lurking in the bushes in the park. Pheasants have a sinister habit of quietly hiding until you walk past them. Then, when you least expect it, they fly up out of the bushes and take off. Their wings make a sound that is comparable to that of a low-flying helicopter. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve nearly suffered from pheasant-induced cardiac arrest.

And, of course, my dog thinks she can leap high enough into the air to catch one of them…while I’m still hanging onto her leash.

Once, we also encountered two wild turkeys in a cornfield adjacent to the park. I honestly never knew that turkeys could fly, but I suppose when you startle them by screaming at the top of your lungs (heck, I’d never come face to face with a wild bird that big before, so they really startled me), the poor birds will do just about anything to get away from you.

I like to think of myself as somewhat of a wildlife expert by now, but to be honest, two things in the park recently have puzzled me. First of all, I came across a large pile of what looked like tan-colored, two-inch long, jelly beans. I knew that the pile was the calling card of some animal, but which one?

I immediately ruled out deer, horses and rabbits, and I was pretty sure a bear hadn’t done it…even though I had absolutely no clue what a bear’s calling card might look like. The more I thought about it, however, the more curious I became, so the next day, I brought my digital camera and took a photo of the “evidence.” Then I showed the photo to several hunters and even e-mailed it to a few of my friends.

The general consensus was that a moose was the culprit. “You be careful around the area where you found that pile!” one hunter warned me. “It’s the time of year when the females have their young, and believe me, you don’t want to mess with a protective mother moose!”

“If I ever come face to face with a moose,” I told him, “the moose won’t be the only one leaving its calling card in the woods!”

The other thing that has been puzzling me lately is beginning to make me think I’m hallucinating. On two separate occasions during the past week, when my dog and I were about a mile into the woods on one of the isolated trails in the park, we heard something rustling in the bushes.

When I turned to see what was lurking in there, I caught of glimpse of an animal that looked like a big black and white spotted guinea pig, about the size of a housecat, moving swiftly. The reason I thought it looked like a guinea pig is because it didn’t have a tail.

The next day, near the same spot, the black and white animal once again appeared, but this time it was with a rust-colored companion. I stepped closer to try to get a better look at them, but they bolted off into the deeper woods.

Did someone abandon a bunch of cats (without tails?) or pet rabbits (without long ears?) out there? Or are they perhaps some strange new hybrid species?

I may never know. But I do know that every time my dog spots them, she yanks so hard on her leash, my arms feel as if they’ve been stretched another inch or two. If this keeps up, pretty soon I’ll be tripping over my knuckles when I walk.

Tuesday, June 1, 2004

Nothing Soft About Softball

I enjoy watching baseball because it’s one of the few sports I actually understand…other than bowling. It’s also one of the few sports (other than bowling) that I actually have played.

Okay, so I played it way back in junior high, and it was softball, not baseball. And I didn’t play it because I wanted to, I played it because it was part of my mandatory physical education class; a class that I loved so much, I usually spent the night before praying I’d come down with the bubonic plague just so I’d have an excuse to stay home from school.

Back when I was in junior high, girls had to wear skirts or dresses to school. And, heaven forbid, if any girl ever dared to wear pants, the reaction from the teachers would be one of such shock, such revulsion, you’d swear she’d shown up naked. The student also was sent straight back home to change into a “proper” dress.

So whenever our physical education class involved playing softball out in the field near the school, we usually stood out there in skirts or dresses, complete with nylon stockings and our stylish “squash-heeled” shoes. We looked more like a group of tea-party goers than softball players.

To be honest, I wanted nothing to do with softball. For one thing, I’d expected the ball to be, well…soft. The first time I picked up a softball, I figured that the guy who’d named it must have been out binge-drinking beforehand. Instead of the wad of cotton I’d expected, the softball felt more like a rock wrapped in leather. That’s when I decided that there was no way I was going to try to catch that thing. Past experience already had taught me that I was lousy at catching stuff (even big stuff) so anything smaller than a beach ball was destined to conk me on the head.

Unfortunately, the physical education teacher had other ideas. She told me I had to play first base, which, technically, did involve some catching. So I took my place at the base (after someone told me which one it was), and there I stood, wondering how on earth I was going to be able to do any serious running in my fitted black skirt. The only thing I was wearing that looked even remotely softball-ish was the bulky baseball glove on my right hand.

The glove didn’t make my hand feel any safer, though. Heck, I’d have needed something the size of a laundry basket strapped to my wrist to give me even a remote chance of catching the ball. So under the circumstances, I did the only thing I could do…I promised God that I would eat my spinach without giving my mother a hard time ever again, if only He wouldn’t allow any balls to be hit in my direction.

Well, I guess God thought that the prayer from the girl who wanted to hit the ball and not strike out in front of her friends took priority over my spinach prayer, because the second batter hit a fly ball right in my direction. When I looked up and saw the ball coming straight down at me, I immediately reacted…by covering my head with the baseball glove so I wouldn’t be knocked unconscious.

The ball missed me by about two inches.

I just stood there, smiling with relief, while the batter ran right past me and kept on running. For some reason, the physical education teacher wasn’t pleased.

“The object of the game is to CATCH the ball before the runner gets to your base!” she said to me.

I shook my head. “I’m not about to try to catch that thing! It’s gonna hurt!”

And if I thought my catching was bad, my batting was even worse. I held the bat as if it were an ax, and “chopped” at every ball. I never hit a thing, other than my own kneecap.

I volunteered to sit on the bench for the rest of the softball season, but that sort of thing wasn’t allowed in physical education class. Every student had to participate in every activity. So I was relegated to the outfield during the rest of the games. In fact, I was so far out in the outfield, I could have walked home, had a snack, watched TV and then come back, and no one would have known the difference. Even Joe DiMaggio couldn’t have hit a ball that far.

Junior-high softball did change the history of physical education at my school, however. You see, one day one of my classmates was running to second base when her wraparound skirt unwrapped and fell down around her ankles. She kicked the skirt out of the way and finished running the bases in her slip.

After that, girls were allowed to wear pants on the days when physical education classes were held because even though pants were considered to be shamefully improper attire, slips were considered to be even more shameful.

Personally, I think they should have handed out crash helmets, too.