Wednesday, March 30, 2011

It's Alive!

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I’ve been back from Oman for over a week. My jetlag has subsided to the point where I don’t feel like crawling into bed for a good night’s sleep at noon, and I’m not flipping pancakes and frying sausage at midnight anymore. My circadian rhythm has returned, along with the five pounds it took to reestablish it.

I’m also back in the swing of yard work, pruning and fertilizing and raking up dead leaves. Yesterday I decided to turn on the watering system and walk the back forty, checking each emitter to see if it was plugged with dirt after our long bitterly cold winter, or broken and needing replacement. After touring around from plant to plant with my nose in the dirt, getting spit at and shot in the face, I straightened up to see a disturbing sight: the middle of my back yard was bubbling up from underneath.

I watched this phenomenon for a few minutes; it was like my yard had suddenly developed a huge heart, and it was not only beating—it was bleeding. It kept pulsing and liquid of some kind kept spreading, and I thought, Have I struck oil? I’m just back from the Middle East; did I inadvertently become magnetized or atomically charged enough to pull this geyser from the core of the earth?

I stepped over to the pulsing area of my yard—maybe a five by five foot patch—and watched as the liquid kept spreading. Even though I had a lunch date for which I had to be clean in just a half hour, I couldn’t stop myself from running to get my shovel and thrusting it into the middle of the moist, pulsating earth. I didn’t get anywhere fast because my yard is covered in landscape fabric to prevent weeds, so I ran to get my yard scissors and fell to my knees again in front of the muddy, gooey, still-beating section of gravel. I stabbed my scissors into the ground, found the fabric’s edge and cut cut cut, then ripped. The fabric shredded like skin. The hard clay underneath was slippery and muscular; I used my hands to claw away at it, occasionally jumping up to use the shovel too.

At this point I knew for sure that I had not struck oil, but maybe a natural spring.

Finally, covered in clay mud from forehead to shoe, crouched on my hind legs, I held in my hands the plumbing of my yard’s heart: one section of poly tubing and a PVC pipe, both still connected to the arterial system. I knelt in the hole I’d dug, splashing in the thick muddy water that covered me like blood. Water continued to pour from somewhere, somewhere that I couldn’t reach with my bare hands, so I knew it was time to call in the professionals.

I turned off the irrigation system, went in and showered. I was sad for my wounded yard all through lunch and into the next day until my irrigation people showed up. It took them five minutes to find the leak and fix it with a coupling, for free. You can’t even tell that anything happened there now.

I hope the next time my own heart bursts, somebody jumps to such fast attention. I hope I get a free coupling too—no strings attached, no hidden fees. Wouldn’t it be nice to not pay a price for once.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

No Pretty Lies

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Shopping at my local health food store yesterday, I was in fine chit-chatting form. I bantered with a woman in the coffee section while she finished grinding her beans, bid her adieu, then stepped up to pour mine into the chute. Against all that I feel is right in the world, there were some whole beans left over from the woman’s batch poised to mix with mine.

“Hey!” I called out to the woman, who had taken a few steps toward the organic egg section. “You left some beans in here!”

This sweetly aging Dorothy Hamill of a woman twirled around and looked at me as if I’d caught her accidentally shoplifting. “I did!? I never even thought to look in there! I would have ground them if I’d known! But isn’t it unsanitary to stick your hand in there? Won’t you grind your fingers?”

I slipped into the policewoman outfit I always carry in my purse and said, “What kind of beans were you grinding, ma’am?”


“Flavored?” I suggested, trying to lure her towards a confession regarding the contamination of my own beans.

“No, just plain!”

I released my grip on her collar and set her gently back down on the hardwood floor. “I’ll let you off this time. But in the future you should always check the bean chute to make sure it’s empty for the next person.” I gave Dorothy my best good-cop grin. “Okay?”

“I didn’t even know you should check it!” she said, backing away. “Thank you so much for telling me!”

Having done my good deed for the day, I moved on to the produce section, where strawberries were on special. As usual, I gave them the sniff test: If they smelled like strawberries, I’d buy them, but if not, they weren’t ripe enough. I learned this trick from my old friend Flossie, who of course is no longer with me. I remember bringing her a big carton of strawberries one time: she thanked me, set them aside, and told me two weeks later not to bring her any more raw strawberries. I brought her a huge bag of Craisins one time: she thanked me, set them aside, and told me two weeks later to check with her first before bringing any more Craisins, because she already had enough.

On what was to become her deathbed, she thanked me again for the Christmas brunch I’d made for her at my house two weeks earlier, but said, “The egg burritos were too soggy. Next time, leave out the salsa.”

As I wandered around the health food store, Flossie came with me: There were the pork chops she was going to make for me but never did, there was the wine she drank two glasses of every night. There was that Dorothy lady again who I’d given a hard time, just like Flossie gave me as she raised me up.

Hard friends are good to find. Sometimes, the very best kind.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Need to be Kneaded

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Now that I’m home from my Middle Eastern travels, it’s back to business as usual: teaching, paying bills, not dusting, and getting back in the groove with my cats. Anyone who has ever taken a long trip and left their pets behind knows that there’s going to be a price to pay when you return. The basic adoration is still there of course—animals never stop loving you—but you don’t get to waltz back in like you were never gone in the first place.

I still haven’t had time to unpack my Arabian sea shells, my silk pashminas, my leftover Saudi Riyals—pretty money with the Sultan on them—all souvenirs. Instead, I’ve been running around with my Woolite pet stain remover trying to clean up hairball slimes and pools of bile. Welcome home, Mom. We missed you. However, we find it very upsetting that you were gone for ten days, so now we have to vaughghghmit everywhere, especially under the beds where it’s hard for you to clean.

I’ve been handing out hairball remedy treats to Sara and Lucy like it’s Halloween, and chasing away bold stray cats who took my absence as an opportunity to colonize my yard. Since my cats live inside, watching the wild cats lounge on our outside walls, sneak through our oleanders and chase our birds was particularly traumatizing. Mom, look, there are gunmen in the yard! If we heave our scummy guts out by the windows, they might retreat.

And then the pest control guy showed up this morning: Edmo. “That’s what the kids call me!” he said as he cheerfully tramped off to the back yard. I wondered what children he was referring to, but after one wildly icky idea popped into my mind, I dismissed the question altogether. When Edmo returned to spray the inside of my house and my cats dashed for cover, he announced that I had a few nefarious situations outside. Nefarious situations. Sounds like Edmo learned a new word.

I had to drag the nefarious situations out of Edmo, who enjoyed discussing the disgusting nature of whatever was wrong in my yard—“Don’t wanna scare ya! Don’t like to upset my customers!”—but not the problems themselves.

“Edmo, what are the situations?” As I listened to one of my cats retching under my bed, Edmo informed me that I have two trees growing dangerously close to the foundation and roof, which work just like bridges that welcome scorpions into my house.

Edmo grinned. “It’s like saying ‘Come on in and bite me!’”

I kind of felt like saying something similar to Edmo.

After he left, I retired to my chambers to see how the princesses were faring under my bed. On my hands and knees I pressed my face to the carpet to meet their fearful eyes. Twin mounds of undigested food sat like camel humps next to them. Mom, we didn’t really need that. We need to wipe our noses on you and coat you with fur. We need you to sit in your chair and eat pudding so we can sit in your lap and clean each other’s ears.

It sounded good to me. Business as usual.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Super Full Moon

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I’ve been separating from my mother in various ways over the years: On my own with the cooked pea incident at three; then with the Eskimo hat at five--I knew I wasn't an Eskimo and couldn’t wear the fuzzy hat—-then at 12 I had an allowance and could make monetary choices, but wasn’t allowed bathing suits with mesh, bringing on three years of subversive catalog searching. Mom tried to ignore the whole operation but couldn't prevent that one black mesh plunge V-neck swimsuit arriving from JC Penney, brown paper wrapped, which totally solidified my relationship with the first older boyfriend who mattered. My mother's assessment: “That man is a wild Indian.” How did she know? She had to have known. As a matter of fact, he looked a lot like my father at that age.

Was her comment a deterrent at sixteen? Nooo. I could hardly keep hold of my legwarmers and the mustard-gas yellow eye shadow opening my eyes to this opportunity: No no you guys, he’s Italian! He loves me. He’s teaching me new music I had no idea about. He’s probably a lot more normal than me. And he’s a frickin’ smart football scholar in college and I love love love him. Plus the way he makes time for his little sister and brother makes me lonesome for the times when my older siblings did the same for me.

My father exiled this beautiful interloper to the patio, and then to the back lawn; that’s where I lost a lot of my potential mistakes, the older and younger cute boys who my parents didn’t want me to form attachments to because we were always moving anyway. If they could just get rid of that one, life would be easier. But each one left a permanent impression on my heart: each boy I dated in my grade, the couple of older boy/men I dated, and then the prize-winning super-Mario Monkey/Cat Italian kid who whisked me away from my controlled environment by just rolling up to our front door with a four-wheeler in the back of his truck and yelling, “You ready?!”

Never forgotten.

Free again, I ran down those doorsteps with the skip of a girl who knows that being grounded on a 2000 mile road trip back home to Minnesota holds no candle to a rumbling afternoon with the best looking Italian boy available at the time, all for me. We played like grown-ups at the cabin of our final resting...resting, finally, on some rumpled pull-out couch, my Cat-Boy/Italian super-full moon of the night said to me, “You’re a ten.” His confidence in me did a world of good.

It still does.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Folding Cranes

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At the house where I’m staying in Oman, we’re folding cranes. Well, technically speaking, my friends and their kids are folding paper cranes; my own brain is not wired for arts and crafts and technical origami directions. If I try to fold a crane, it will turn into a paper airplane, so I admire their work from afar and play with the dogs instead. I'm as sure about my inability to fold cranes as I am about my inability to interpret charts and graphs, and to always do the right thing. I'll never be a Somali pirate, but I’ll never teach kindergarten either, and I don't recommend standing next to me if you're about to have a medical emergency.

These cranes that I’m not making will join many more from the local American International School where my friends teach: the students will make a thousand cranes as a gift for the Japanese because in that culture, a thousand cranes can make a wish come true. I heard at the school assembly this week that the Japanese people need as much moral support as we can give them, and I have no doubt that this school and other area schools will have enough cranes folded in just a few days so that the Japanese can dream again soon. I regret that my hands are not nimble enough anymore to easily turn a piece of paper into a crane even if I could follow the directions. I wish that the Japanese needed paper snowflakes. I can make a million of those.

So, serious international matters are being addressed here in Muscat, Oman—but there are no widespread government protests or violent political demands as you might think from watching Western news. Oman is not Libya, just like Arizona is not Mexico and the Republican party is not just Rush Limbaugh (thank the good Lord). If you happen to be at the mall here shopping at Hallmark or relaxing at an outdoor sushi restaurant, you might hear the Muslim call to prayer sound out through the city—and you might see people respond to that call, or not, just like some Lutherans go to church on Sunday, and others stay home to eat lutefisk.

Everyday life rolls on here at my friends’ house: paper cranes on the kitchen table, chicken on the grill, Alf reruns on the TV. Names will be withheld to protect the innocent, but somebody under the age of twelve in this house got his first retainer yesterday, and somebody else made a very creative pan of brownie-muffin-cake-surprise that promptly disappeared. Two of the girls here got henna tattoos at school yesterday, so we are both fresh gypsies, and since Thursday is the weekend in Oman, it’s time for a break from homework and grading and fast dinners that move quickly into reading and bedtime. If there was ever a family who worked in the thick of education all week, every week, it’s this one. Look for them taking a Jeep ride to the beach with a picnic lunch tomorrow, with a henna-covered, crane-challenged American fan along for the ride.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Full Circles

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I’m on spring break, walking through the scrubby desert on the outskirts of Muscat, Oman. The rolling hills are dotted with new construction sites, homes being built in the shape of small palaces. I look down at the sandy path and see a bug crawl by. “Beetle,” I say. To get up this high I had to walk past a group of stray dogs lying in the shade of a tree down by the road. The brave one got up and sniffed the air as I passed by. “You’re a good dog,” I told him, and he returned to his pack.

The breeze and humidity and craggy rock along with all the different shades of brown and blue sky remind me of spring breaks I used to spend in Rocky Point, Mexico, back in the 90’s, when it was unquestionably safe to bomb down from Phoenix, sleep on the beach or in cheap hotels, and party on. That seems like a lifetime ago, and here I am on a similar landscape in the Middle East, greeting wild dogs and beetles, getting my exercise for the day while my friends teach at The American International School of Muscat.

I’m listening to music and an indie folk/rock song comes on, an excellent song by a musician I met in San Francisco years ago. He was happy there, but not quite happy enough, so he found a good woman and moved back to his home state of Michigan to make new music and babies. He lives in the Upper Peninsula now, and in fact I used to live in the Upper Peninsula when I was a child, and I would not be in Muscat, Oman, right now if my best friend from second grade hadn’t lived in the UP too. The three of us are in our forties now, and unbeknownst to them, I’m standing alone on a brown and rocky hill thinking that they are two of the finest people I’ve ever met in life. I still get to listen to my musician friend’s music anytime I want, and in just a few hours I’ll see my girlfriend again, who is prettier now than she’s ever been, a perfect example of the kind of woman that a beautiful child can grow into.

I must have come to Oman for spring break because I wanted adventure, something wildly new, and I find it ironic that Upper Peninsula Michigan has come full circle for me here on this desert mountain. Unlike my friends, I’m not sure if I could be happy making a big move again—back to the UP or Minnesota—or if I’m about to get addicted to world travel. Apparently I can’t shake Phoenix, because this place is a lot like that place too, except there’s an ocean here.

I turn back down the hill and a bug scurries by in front of me. “Beetle,” I say. The dogs down by the tree ignore me this time. I look around at all the mini-palaces coming up in this neighborhood, mostly white but some pale blue, and wonder if I could live right here in Muscat, just like I used to wonder if I could live in Rocky Point, to be close to the ocean. I know there's one thing missing from my life—open water—and I seem to need it more the older I get. Maybe this means I’m getting a pool when I go home; maybe this means I’m signing up to go teach English by the beach.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Me Give Up the Last Cookie for You

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So far so good on my way to Oman, with just a few minor hitches. As I sat in the Minneapolis airport this morning, minding what I thought was my own business, a swarthy gentleman whose back was to mine turned around and leaned into my personal space. “Got your visa?” he said. I looked up from my milk carton into his face, brown eyes to brown eyes. He must have overheard me visiting with someone else about my plans to fly on to the Middle East.

“I’ll buy my visa when I get to Oman,” I said to this stranger.

“Are you sure?” he said. “You usually must have it before you arrive.”

Somehow this man could not shake my confidence, though it seemed he wanted to.
“My American friends in Oman assured me that I could purchase my visa right at the airport after landing,” I said again. Why was I speaking with this man? He was handsome. Oh yeah—that again.

He leaned a little closer, over the backs of the seats that separated us, and told me something more: “Well I’m surprised it would be that easy for you, because you know, they don’t like Americans over there. You make it very difficult for them to enter your country, yet you expect to walk right into theirs. They don’t like that.” He looked at me like I stunk. Did I? Already?

“We’ll see what happens,” I said, and turned back to my little picnic of paperbacks, candy bars, and apples. Jerk, I thought. Ain’t ruining my good time.

And really, since then, only a couple other minor disappointments: For the life of me I couldn’t think of a good reason to climb into my seatmate's lap on the way to Amsterdam—a burly man with scruff on his beautiful face who was heading back from the Iditarod to his home in South Africa—and though I finally got to watch The King’s Speech during the wee hours somewhere over the Atlantic, my headphones didn’t work well, so everyone in the film had a speech impediment.

Pity the icky guy with the visa warning could speak so clearly. What a waste of precision. But he didn’t win the category for Most Unforgettable Voice on this travel day. That award goes to the young man in the wheelchair who boarded the plane in Amsterdam. Long after I forget the exact way his physical body was curled and twisted, how his face contorted with every movement and sound, I’ll remember the way his rumblings and loud outbursts reminded me of Cookie Monster talking to Grover. When I first heard him carrying on, I thought, I’d rather listen to him all day long than that asshole in Minneapolis say one more word.

And I happily got my wish.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Off to Oman

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I flew out of bed this morning not because I was late or because my alarm clock was blaring, or the house was on fire or I had a plane to catch. Rather, I was so nerve-wracked at getting everything done today—the day before my departure to the Middle East—that I had to review my to-do list asap. I had to start checking that list off, starting with an early morning paint job on the front of my house. There I was at 6 a.m. sharp, slapping another coat of Clay Ridge or Plum Raisin or God knows what shade of brown up on the eaves. At 6:10 a.m. I gave up on ever finding the first color I had started with so many weeks ago; I cleaned up the mess and went to e-mail my painter: “I regret to inform you that the paint job will have to wait until I have sufficiently recovered from my first overseas trip…perhaps sometime in June…”

Then it was off to the bank. I had no time to waste on hair-combing or clothes-matching; I just grabbed my list and got in the car, lucky to raise the garage door without backing out. I’m sure that officials at my credit union are still going over the tapes of me striding quickly inside, glancing around, and buzzing up to the first open teller with my purse open, then pivoting and beelining out with green bills clutched in both hands.

Then there was a little trouble with Walgreen’s. I passed one on my way to the bookstore, but—knowing that there was another Walgreen’s right next to the bookstore—I drove by Walgreen’s Number One. When I reached Walgreen’s Number Two, they had everything but what I needed the most: moist towelettes. I could hardly believe that nonsense, and—when informed—promptly fell to floor in a fit of tears. The saleslady helped me up and I said like a two-year-old, “Well, does that mean that EVERY Walgreen’s is out of moist towelettes?” She assured me not, but that meant one more stop.

I jumped back in my car, screeched fifty feet to the bookstore, and ran in. I know what I like in general (memoir, food and health writing, travel literature, very good fiction, contemporary and classic literature, hardbound and paperback, new and used, large print and small print, pretty jacket covers, history, a little transgendered), but it’s the specifics that always get me. Burning about 2000 calories running from one section to the next, I finally got three books, one of which I already know I’ll have to return. Impulse buy.

After driving the speed limit all the way over to the Walgreen’s closest to my house—who needs a ticket on a day like this?—I went in and started shouting about moist towelettes the second I got through the automatic sliding doors. Did they have them!? Where were they!? Where specifically!? Any other kind!? I hustled whoever was helping me up to the nearest cash register and paid with cash. Thank you thank you thank you. There will never be enough thank for you, patient Walgreen’s person.

Finally, back at home, I hauled everything into the house and jumped in the shower. Gotta get ready for work. Under the water I inspected my pre-journey body: cuts and scratches from trying to get the yard pruned in sixty seconds or less before the Middle East trip. Bruises on my hands and arms from one last maniacal workout before the Middle East trip. The sound of my eyebrow hair follicles screaming in my ear from the waxing they had suffered before the Middle East trip. I ran my hand over the scab forming along my eyelid, where the hair aesthetician had ripped my skin off. Gotta find a better place next time.

Who knows what horrors lurk when you wait until the last minute? Luckily I have 1063 of those left. Minutes, not horrors.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


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I run the book club at my school. Each semester we read a book and meet twice for discussion. This semester we’re reading Methland, by Nick Reding—a New York Times bestseller that reveals what meth has done to one entirely unfortunate town in Iowa.

Now that book club members are finishing the first half of Methland, it’s time for the book club president (moi) to come up with some discussion questions for our first meeting. Since I've finished those and locked them in the vault for unveiling later in the week, I had time to put together an alternative list in case the first set falls flat. I invite you to read and critique these questions before I bring them to my group:

1. Rank the following in order of shock value:

a. In the late 90’s, many Iowan farmers quit farming and started making meth. This is where the term “barnburner” comes from.

b. “Nazi cold” meth is named after the Nazis who took it in order to endure the brutality of slaughtering people. Today, Iowans take it in order to endure the brutality of slaughtering cows.

c. Nursing home residents in Iowa are often given opiates so that they don’t wake up when staff members are “batching” meth in the cafeteria. The average wait time for admittance into an Iowan nursing home is fifteen years.

d. The most common hallucination a tweaker has involves looking out his front window to see live human heads hanging in the trees. These are informants.

e. In the 1990’s, America invited Mexican citizens to the U.S. to work in the meatpacking and agricultural industries. That’s right: invited.

2. True or False: If you strap a soda bottle with meth ingredients onto the back of a mountain bike and ride really hard, you end up with homemade ice cream.

3. Why is the average American hesitant to flush a few leftover prescription drugs down the toilet when apparently half the population of Iowa is throwing five pounds of toxic waste into the kitchen trash daily?

4. When you read about the meth-addled man who at first thought his burning flesh was egg white, did you think, “He’s toast!”

5. In the book, meth is described as “twenty times better than sex” and is said to produce a “fully body orgasm”. Have you ever had a full-body orgasm? Please tell us about it.

6. Lori Arnold, Tom Arnold’s sister, ran a meth empire in Iowa. Did you know that? Draw connections between Lori Arnold’s career as a meth distributor and anything that Roseanne Barr has ever done.

7. During the 80’s, many people left the Midwest to resettle in California. Some of these folks began transporting meth back to their home states to make extra money on the side. Are you still doing this?

8. Do you feel that your inability to interact with other human beings is the result of your parents leaving you in your crib for seven-day stretches? Do you currently sleep in a crib but are unsure why?

9. The author often uses the acronym “DEA”, which stands for Drug Enforcement Administration. Sometimes the author uses the word “the” before “DEA” (the DEA) and sometimes he leaves it off (as in, “DEA failed again”). Does the author’s capricious use of “the” before “DEA” make your blood boil like the guy’s blood in question 4?

10. In the 1960’s, following raucous Saturday nights at the Pink Pussycat strip club in Oelwein, Iowa, the owner would make the strippers go to church on Sundays and sit in the front pew. Do you relate to those strippers in any way? Please explain.

11. Do you think that Courtney Cox Arquette and David Arquette’s daughter Coco is named after the nineteen-year-old Mexican meth dealer Coco mentioned on page nine who had been deported three times in the last four years? Doesn’t that just make sense?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Lucky Baboon

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I drive home late at night, deep in thought: Should I go to the Middle East for vacation next week? I do have a ticket. But if I get caught in a hostage situation, my eyebrows will grow together and my acne will flare and then I’ll be the Monkey-Leper Hostage from Arizona on the news when they finally release us, the ugliest hostage ever. I don’t want to disappoint my friends over there, but my reflux gurgles at the very thought of angry crowds and burning buildings. I don’t care if the bullets are rubber. Bullets put a bad taste in my mouth, like blood.

I walk into a dark house carrying mail and schoolwork and a bag of samples from the dermatologist. I go back to the car for five pairs of new shoes I didn’t need but bought anyway because two orphaned and heartsick friends needed some retail therapy and who am I not to support that. Once I have everything inside, I get in the shower and start thinking again. Why must my face break out? I’m 42 years old; when will this horror end? And when will my school start requiring some admissions standards? Why are we expected to help students pass classes and complete their degrees when they come to us unable to write complete sentences? That kid told me last week, “My grammar sucks ass.” Why must I hear these things? Where are the parents? Where is my acne scrub?

My mood foul, I towel off and get into my night clothes. I’m so late that there’s no time for cat-cuddling in front of the TV; they’re getting back at me for being gone all day, knocking my polished rocks off the shelf and nibbling the lucky bamboo. I deserve it. I feed them and lock them in the dungeon, then look at the calendar for tomorrow: termite inspection. Excellent.

Before turning in for the night, my eyes slits and my throat constricting, I check my e-mail one last time. A friend has written, mentioning Alec Baldwin’s Schwetty Balls skit on Saturday Night Live. I have to smile. Why can’t Charlie Sheen be funny like that? Charlie Sheen is in the way of everything good and interesting. Go away, Charlie Sheen, and come back, Steve Martin. I walk down the hall towards my bedroom and say out loud, “Do you mind if I smoke?” I pause and reply, “No, do you mind if I FART?"

I laugh and go to bed; there's funny in my house. Bring on the termites.