Zombie flies beat biker butt

I’m failing as a parent.

I know, I know…every parent thinks that, but this time it’s for real!

So how, exactly, am I failing. Drugs? Porn? Grades in the tank? Nope.

My son won’t bike with me. *gasp*little mac bike path

His resistance started two years ago when he and his sister were 11 and 13. It was spring break and I’d loaded up the bikes and headed to the Duck Creek Bike Path in Bettendorf. We had a history, us three, of rolling along on the Clinton and Fulton-Thompson bike paths. I wanted to increase our two-wheeled sojourns and introduce them to new views.

It was the first ride of the year so I knew it’d be short, but around 2 miles, KidBoy started to derail. His butt hurt. Despite several breaks, we eventually had tears…and a very brief ride. It pretty much set the tone for the year.Mo on trainer

So last year, saddled with new bikes and high hopes, the butt pain and tears continued. Not with his sister, though. Except for a literal run-in with a fence, KidGirl’s a natural, even on the trainer.

The kids wear all the proper gear, we’ve adjusted saddle height, tilt, even added one of those BS cushioned seat covers. But it’s clear, KidBoy doesn’t want to ride and is holding on to any excuse. While Marty and I both believe it’s a “time in the saddle” issue, our son is unwilling to put in the time to get his duff toughened up.

Today was their last day of spring break and since KidGirl was hitting the links with Marty, I offered KidBoy the following: an hour of relaxed cruising or sweeping the attic and ShopVac’ing a winter’s worth of nasty-ass dead and undead flies.

He chose the flies. FLIES!!! An afternoon in a gross, web-filled attic with a bazillion zombie flies vs. a glorious spring day in the fresh country air…20160329_131814

Last winter he made the comment, “Just because you like fitness doesn’t mean I like fitness.” Was he pushing my buttons? Of course. But was there a nugget of truth? A glimpse into his personal teenage angst? Probably. So what do I do???

Our uphill journey adopting a semi-feral cat

I don’t know if I’ve been effected by the spirit of Joe Brown, but I’m a total sucker for animals. Living in his home, people often share with Marty and I stories about the animals that Joe Brown let reside with him in this cavernous abode.

There are tiny chips along the edge of the porcelain bathtub, surely remnants of duck nibbles. The grooves along several window sills? Probably dogs. There’s goat horn rubbings on the basement doors and in the attic we found a large, wooden crate with old, nasty straw. We assume it was a whelping box for momma goats. This house has seen its share of wildlife.

early clydeAs of late, our menagerie includes just two indoor cats, one indoor/outdoor dog and one indoor guinea pig. Outside, we have a herd of uppity farm cats amenable to petting only when their food bowls are empty.

This is the most stable our family has been in quite a while. In the nine years since we moved here, we’ve gone through about as many dogs, a hedge hog, many farm cats and two indoor cats.

And it’s the indoor cat situation that remains an issue. Ever since Jan. 2 when our matriarchal alpha cat Turbo died, the younger two have battled for dominance. And these battles are so passive-aggressive it’s ridiculous.

There’s the older, stately Fluffy vs the sassy teeneager, Stashy. Without the calming presence of a Boss, these two will go through periods of destruction that explain why we have only area rugs in our home and yet still own our own carpet shampooer.

Earlier this year, you may remember we fostered a ginormous male ginger cat, “Carrots.” He was a wonderful addition to the brood, but after getting stuck in the rafters of our attic over Easter weekend (being rescued only after Marty opened a rafter with a buzz saw), he then snuck outside the following day and has never been seen or heard from again!

The disappearance of Carrots was so sad! He was a lovely, low key cat, but we fear he was too freaked out when we hosted Marty’s entire family that weekend. We later learned he had a tendency to go on “walkabout.”

For the next several months, we tried to live with the chaos that is Fluffy and Stashy. When they avoided each other, things were fine. But when they’d “rediscover” the other on their turf? Ugh. We knew we needed an alpha.

In late August, a Facebook post from the Quad City Animal Welfare Center in Milan shared a picture of “Clyde,” a tiger-striped male who had been brought to the shelter with his sister, “Bonnie,” when they were about 9 months old.

They’d been found behind a dumpster and were semi-feral. While Bonnie had been adopted, Clyde remained at the shelter for the next 18 months, living in the Cat Room with 20+ other felines. Needless to say, this guy had emotional baggage.

So why would we want him? Excellent question considering the issues Fluffy and Stashy had already brought to the table.

I reasoned that our current situation with Fluffy and Stashy couldn’t get any worse and that helping Clyde may be the best thing for all three. We formulated a plan for bringing Clyde into our family, starting with where he’d live.

Our house is rather large and the idea of letting loose a semi-feral cat who’s known nothing but a single room filled with cages and cats for the majority of his life did not sound like the greatest approach.

After several visits to the shelter, when I brought him home, we placed Clyde in the “Sunroom” off Marty and my bedroom. He’s what’s considered a “bush dweller,” staying low to the ground, hiding behind things and burrowing under blankets. The Sunroom offered both low and high spots for him, sanctuary from other animals as well as peace and quiet.

He was easy to find and easy to pet, though I still bear the evidence of my one and only attempt to pick him up.

After two weeks in the Sunroom, I opened the door to our bedroom, allowing him access to now two rooms. A week later, I opened our door to the hallway. A few days after that, we opened the door to the stairs, thus granting him full roaming privileges. He’s yet to venture downstairs and when we’re upstairs, rarely comes out from under our bed.

But as I sit downstairs, working on this column, Fluffy and Stashy sleeping on the couch, Nova the Guinea Pig rattling his cage in the kitchen, Clyde is galloping around upstairs, paws thundering along the floor like horses hooves.

And what a fabulous ruckus it is! He sounds playful and free! But we still have far to go.

I’ve started folding laundry upstairs to acclimate him to our presence and our voices. He rarely peeks out. In fact, it’s become standard practice for all four of us to flip up the bedskirt and peer under to say “Hello.”

But in the moments when he thinks he’s alone, I’ll see him slink from under the bed to the Sunroom and his food, water and litter box. In a calm voice, I greet him. He used to skitter back under the bed, but will now look back at us. If we stay still, he’ll proceed to eat or drink or sniff around.

This is progress. I’ve seen him jump onto window ledges for a look-see and I’ve found him venturing into other bedrooms. We’ve even watched him walk past us and not scramble away.

I’m not sure he’ll ever be a lap cat, but I’m growing a bit more hopeful he may one day let us pet him.

As for his effect on Fluffy and Stashy? While Fluffy can hardly be bothered to inquire, Stashy is a jerk. Sneaking into the Sunroom and eating his food, drinking his water. I’m waiting for one unsheathed claw to put Stashy in her place.

Originally published 11 Oct 2014 in The Observer.

Adventures in lawn care & life north of Hwy 136

Just so you know, I kind of love mowing lawn. It harkens back to those pre-teen years when cousin Laura (Olson) Wallace and I would spend hours and HOURS grooming Gramma Olson’s expansive front lawn, orchard and sprawling east yard that doubled as a baseball field.

More than a job or task to sweat through, mowing Gramma’s grass offered a sense of pride. The clean lines. The level grass. The smooth results. Could there be a more visual example of the term: perfect?

Like a spotless kitchen, a clothesline filled with laundry or a re-organized desk, the feeling of order—albeit brief—is one of the best feelings I know!

And it’s in the grass, a perfectly coiffed lawn, where I find my greater peace . . . or at least I did.

For the first chunk of Marty and my marriage, we were “townies” living in DeWitt, Iowa, and the mowing of our corner lot was his domain. I was used to caring for big spaces with big lawns, not small, fenced-in plots of grass.

A phrase like “clipping the lawn” sounds cute and suggests a job that requires minutes, which is how long it took Marty when we lived in town. A cool 45-minutes of sauntering behind a push mower and that was that.

So when we left town and took over the old Joe Brown place, I was stoked at the idea of having a big lawn. What I wasn’t prepared for was how unruly that lawn would be!

Initially I envisioned using our push mower on the three mow’able acres that made up our four acre parcel. I saw my legs getting buff, my arms, toned, but then reality hit me. We needed a riding lawnmower and went with what we could afford, a hand-me-down freebee from Dad Reed.

That old John Deere lasted a few passes before chugging to its death, mid-job. It didn’t even make it to the end of the season. And because we lacked the necessary moving equipment, the poor thing sat in our front yard for a couple of weeks while grass grew up around it.

If Joe Brown’s spirit still hangs about our farmette, I’d like to think he and his late wife Marge find our efforts to tame their wild land humorous. I’d hate to think he’s put a curse on us.

But when you consider our history with lawnmowers, it’s hard to think otherwise. Joe Brown’s has shown to have the exemplary talent for weed growth and lawnmower extermination.

To date, Joe Brown’s has killed not one, but TWO old John Deere mowers, our once-new push mower as well as a new Poulan. And our current used Sears Craftsman looks as if it won a lawnmower demolition derby (and mows like it, too).

The serenity I used to find in mowing my parents’ and grandmother’s yards has yet to be found at Casa Reed Murrell. Who knew you could actually take smooth ground for granted, but you can. I did. Having grown up along Hwy. 30, between Calamus and Grand Mound, the ground is flat and the lawns have a near fairway-like quality.

After nine years of working to make Joe Brown’s ground behave, fighting with it to smooth itself out, Joe Brown’s ghost has been laughing his tail off.

The early years were fraught with spring thaws that would have the lawn heaving various forms of detritus: glass and bricks, car door handles and lug nuts, batteries and hub caps. The first mows of the season were very much like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates.

You’d think I’d get used to the loud bang that results from running the mower over these objects, but when the blades find an old wrench and send it banging around the undercarriage and out the side, that’s a sound (and feeling) from which you don’t quickly recover.

And then there were the imaginations of our children when at ages three and six, Maclane and Moira, would take large rocks and make “dinosaur nests.” The kids, especially Maclane, were huge into dinosaurs and one day they hatched the brilliant idea of pretending the decorative river rock around the house were dinosaur eggs. They’d take these rock “eggs” and build nests throughout the yard. Sometimes at the base of trees, other times, out in the middle, blanketed by grass “so they’d stay warm.”

Imagine, bouncing along (there’s no smooth rolling), focusing on how grateful you are that the machine was actually working, only to have one’s reverie harshly interrupted by the horrific sound of large river rock being chewed up by your already-ailing lawnmower?

Nope. Not fun.

Along with this, let’s not forget the oodles of trees Marty’s planted every year. Adding to the handful of young firs already established, he’s added countless variety of trees and bushes. Between the trees already here, the stumps of trees lost and the ones Marty and the kids planted, we have exactly 95 trees (and two stumps) around which we now mow.

It’s a job requiring much patience, many hours and lots of “Marty” since he’s the only one who can get the Craftsman mower to start.

Just as I’d begun to think I would never again experience the Zen-like satisfaction of a day’s worth of lawn work, I went and got myself an early birthday present!

For the last year I’ve been sniffing around for a new (or newer) mower. But it couldn’t be just some ordinary rider, Joe Brown’s was proving to be a wily foe. It was time we got serious and until recently, it was an expense I simply couldn’t justify.

The Pat Howell quote: “Grass is the cheapest plant to install and the most expensive to maintain,” couldn’t be more true.

Tune in next week for adventures in zero-turn mowing . . .

Originally published 6 September 2014 in The Observer.

Lady Justice descends on serial-killer lawn

So I love mowing lawn, right? Well, I did . . . back in the day, when still a minor living at home.

The smooth, evenly cut grass of my Gramma Olson’s big yard was a thing to behold. Sure my lines could get a little crooked, especially when ground squirrels whizzed by, diving for their burrow right in front of my mower. But her lawn was flat, the grass was smooth and all felt right with the world.

I thought every lawn was like this. How naïve.

Tnew mowerhe nearly three acres that make up the mow’able portion of our Joe Brown farmette are anything but flat. And smooth? Hardly. Though fitting, given Joe Brown’s used to be a horse ranch, I didn’t think it possible to get saddle sores from mowing. You can.

Our “lawn” is made up of several areas: the front yard, the back yard, the yard in front of the corn crib and the yard behind the corn crib. I’d estimate the only flat, smooth portion is a 10-foot by 40-foot plot northwest of the house. The rest is a mine field.

Hindsight being what it is, I shouldn’t be surprised the four ordinary lawn mowers we’ve operated over the last nine summers would simply falter when faced with the monumental task of taming the beast that is the Joe Brown yard.

I never knew Joe Brown, but am often regaled with wild tales of goats in the bath tub, horse kibble in the kitchen, engines in the dining room and assorted saddles and bits in the living room. I never tire of hearing how nutty and open-hearted he was, but shaping up the Joe Brown place is no small feat.

It was clear, as Marty endlessly toiled to sustain the life of our fourth mower, a used, beat-up Sears Craftsman, we could no longer get by with a common, ordinary machine.

And given Marty’s work schedule coupled with his involvement at the Rock Creek Eco Center, not to mention managing the Charlotte Little League and coaching both baseball and soccer, he was eager to rid himself of the chronic pain that is the maintenance of the Joe Brown yard.

Which leaves me . . . and my lack of education in the industrial arts.

For a year I’ve been nosing around at local dealers, perusing the Internet, eye-balling sale ads and basically looking for something to smack me alongside the head.

Not only did I have my brother, Matt Reed, on the hunt, but Mom and Dad Olson, as well. The hunt was fruitless or maybe I was just gutless, how could I not be?! Our Joe Brown yard had killed three mowers and the fourth was dying a slow, hard-to-watch death. This yard was a serial killer!

Depending on whether it was Marty or I doing the mowing, the job could take anywhere from four to six hours. After, of course, the battery sat on a charger for a couple of hours. And the result of all that labor? A crappy looking lawn.

By Labor Day weekend, after wasting Friday fighting to get the dang thing started and burdening Marty with the task after he got home from work, I snapped. We were either going to fork over the cash for an appropriate mower or buy a herd of goats.

With Dad Olson available to “window shop,” he and I went to G & H Mowers in Grand Mound, Iowa, where he showed me what he’d wanted to buy last spring before Mom went and bought a new house.

I can’t help but feel like Tim ‘The Tool Man’ Taylor when I speak of this beast: a 48” Simplicity Champion XT commercial zero-turn riding lawnmower. Arw arw arw!!!

G & H co-owner Dennis Galloway reviewed the specs, told me about the four-year warranty and what they offered for maintenance. I figured if it was good enough for Dad, it was good enough for us and by Tuesday afternoon they’d delivered it and schooled me on the wily ways of zero-turn mowing.

First, I’ve never felt like a bigger idiot than when making the first passes around the front lawn. It was an all hands, no feet operation. To move ahead, you pushed the hand levers forward. To slow down, you pulled them back. There was no cruise control and no foot break. When I went forward it was either like a snail or a rocket. Clearly this took more finesse than I expected. And straight line? How ‘bout squiggles?

The turning was pretty awesome, but the looking out for low-lying tree limbs was another thing. The Champion XT came with a roll bar that Dennis warned we would likely remove if we had a lot of trees. (Remember, we have 95. NINETY FIVE!)

After snapping a couple of limbs and almost getting thrown off by one particularly strong branch, I parked it and let Marty remove the bar.

I’ve since mowed one other time and I’m quite smitten with the machine. Our grass looks level, the mounds of hay-like clippings are decreasing and the time? The first mowing took 3.3 hours and the second, 2.9!

I think this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

Originally published 13 September 2014 in The Observer.