Clyde the Cat adjusts to domesticity

Sullen Boy remains a pouty force about the house. Some of this I attribute to hormones, a little might be connected to the weather, but I’m beginning to suspect he thinks it’s funny to act so moody. But it’s when he’s with Clyde that his guard drops and the ooey-gooey sweetness of this 11-year-old boy is revealed.

Recently he told me he thought readers would be interested in an update on our semi-feral housecat. In October, I shared about adopting Clyde from the Quad City Animal Welfare Center in Milan, Ill., after reading his story on Facebook.

clyde gutHe’d been brought into the shelter in January 2013. He was roughly 6 months old at the time and was rescued from the streets of Rock Island. He had a few “issues” that had made him not the most sought-after cat. Mainly, he wanted to hide and stay hidden for the rest of his life.

It broke our hearts to think of this somewhat mentally-effected cat craving solitude among 20 or more other felines in the shelter’s cat room, so we threw our own sanity out the window and adopted him. This was in early September and when I wrote in October, he was still a solitary being, sticking mainly to Marty and my bedroom, specifically under our bed.

In the three months since I wrote that, Clyde’s personality has morphed from fraidy cat to crazy cat. It’s been a daily journey watching his confidence build and his personality change. He’s no longer the scared, untrusting cat we brought home in early September.

Because he does not venture downstairs, he continues to live a bit of a solitary life and likely why he’s made friends with the guinea pig, Nova. The pig’s cage is on the floor in one of the upstairs rooms and has an open top. It’s not uncommon to find Clyde in the cage with Nova, nose to nose.

This is one example of his continued “odd” nature. On the one hand, he’s wary of any other living thing, yet on the other, he absolutely craves connection with any living thing. And in this craving, it appears he’s “imprinted” on me.

I’m the first one he approached, I’m the first one he let pet him, I’m the only one he lets pick him up. When he was still sleeping under our bed, I remember talking to him (yes, in the house, we talk to our animals) and telling him he’d probably be more comfortable on our bed.

I’m not sure how soon after that, but it wasn’t long before he found his way up. I’d sense a presence at our feet in the middle of the night, but by morning, he’d be gone. Soon after this started his bravery grew. In the minutes I read before turning out the light, Clyde would emerge from under the bed and meow at me. I’d coax him up and he’d stay at my feet. If I moved toward him, he’d bolt.

But eventually, he inched his way toward me and nightly nestles in against my chest, my hand stroking his soft fur, his purr lulling us to sleep.

Now when I go upstairs he doesn’t charge out of sight. In fact, when I’m gone, he usually wrestles back the covers on my side of the bed, kneads himself a nest and wriggles in for a long winter’s nap . . . every day. His sanctuary is no longer under the bed or behind furniture!

And when I show up on his turf, he merely yawns and stretches, waiting to be pet. While he remains skittish with both kids and Marty, Sullen Boy is developing a bond with this weird cat. Sullen Boy has figured out that Clyde loves to watch his fish tanks, especially at night.

We realized this after waking suddenly to Clyde galloping from the hallway into our room, leaping across our bed, stabbing a claw into the palm of unconscious, slumbering Marty and leaping back to the floor, charging back to the hallway and skidding to a stop before the closed bedroom door of Sullen Boy.

We assume the whole performance was his way of saying, “I’d like to watch some fish. Now.”

And apparently Sullen Boy has a softer approach than either KidGirl or Marty. He talks low and softly, approaches slowly, and he’s often rewarded with a rubbing of Clyde’s generous gut. Clyde has thusly taken over Sullen Boy’s room, chilling out under his bunk beds, stationing himself before the fish tanks or snoozing on a pile of clothes in a wide swath of sunshine.

KidGirl, on the other hand, with a personality more joyful and cheery, continues to foster a relationship with Clyde. Her glee being her biggest hurdle. She approaches Clyde with laughter and smiling while Clyde remains wary and easily rattled. But they’re working on it.

Marty? As Clyde grows more comfortable, so does Marty. When Clyde isn’t sleeping against me, he’s usually at our heads, wriggled in between our pillows. Marty’s an animal lover, through and through, but he was never 100 percent on board with Clyde’s adoption. Yet he’d readily admit that rescuing Clyde from the cat room at the shelter was a good thing.

But his punctured palm did not win Clyde any points.

Originally published 17 January 2015 in The Observer.

Joe Brown’s goes to the dogs, literally

By now, it’s no secret we’re a family of animal lovers. And except for a couple of cats we had during the seven years we lived in DeWitt, our entire cast of fur-covered Murrell children have dwelled in the confines of the old Joe Brown place.

Our family began with Tuttle, a black lab wedding gift from Marty’s brother and his family. Named after M*A*S*H character Hawkeye’s childhood pretend friend, Tuttle was kind of ours and kind of my parents.

When our first human child arrived, we determined Tuttle needed a vacation and would be happier at my parents’ Grand Mound farm. Mom laughs about it now, but apparently we never really verified that little agreement. I assumed Marty had cleared it with them and vice versa, but as Mom tells it, “One day, you brought Tuttle out for a visit. And left! Marty would take her hunting . . . and then bring her back!”

maudry in pastureBy the time Moira was three and Maclane arrived, Tuttle was back. Back in DeWitt for a couple more years before heading north to the old Joe Brown place.

By the time we moved, Tuttle was around eight. Though not terribly old, she’d lost the spring in her once-youthful step. Enter Zeke.

A RAGBRAI teammate from Ames realized his behemoth, caramel-colored giant of a mutt was too big for his small house in town, and since we had a big ol’ house and all that fresh, country air. . .

But Zeke turned out to be awesome with the kids and a buddy for Tuttle before her health deteriorated into a debilitating spinal condition that ended her life.

One of my favorite Zeke memories occurred during a particularly long road trip. If it’s possible for a dog’s hair to turn green, poor Zeke’s had. When that oh-too-familiar stank wafted to the front of the vehicle and I turned around, a woefully comic expression rested on his face. Zeke was car sick.

After depositing some of his stomach’s contents in the back of our old Ford Explorer and leaving the rest in a ditch alongside the road, he eventually passed out.

His favorite pastime, however, would also be his demise: chasing down the many milk trucks that travel to and fro Blanchard’s nearby dairy.

After Zeke died, Tuttle’s health failed and we found ourselves dogless. Within days Marty located a beagle pup, Sydney. She was an absolute sweetheart except for an irritating habit of snacking on dirty underwear, specifically small, pint-sized Spiderman briefs.

Sydney was our one and only mother, having found herself in the family way after dog-sitting Dad Reed’s fully-loaded springer, Chubby. Dad couldn’t remember if Chubby was fixed, but when we’d taken Sydney to the vet to be spayed, it was too late.

Following a litter of seven puppies that winter, Sydney, like Zeke, met her end on 136. Again dogless, Marty and the kids visited a local shelter and were sweet-talked into taking TWO dogs: a massive black lab mix named Gordy and a small, ugly-as-sin rat terrier, Maudry.

After a few months, 136 struck again by luring Gordy to his death. This was around 2009, which I’m happy to say was the last such victim. For now.

Maudry, who wheezed like a chain-smoking 87-year-old bridge player and exhibited a similar level of fitness, remained committed to her belief that she be allowed to hump all the couch pillows and sleep her days away. What a peach.

As lovely as she sounds, old Maudry needed a companion. When a neighbor called to see if we wanted a puppy, a springer/collie mix, that’s when Joe Brown “The Dog” entered our family.

Joe, who remains alive and well with my brother, Matt Reed, is one of the funnier dogs. One Christmas we went south and Dad Reed agreed to dogsit. When we returned and brought Joe home, he seemed blue. When Dad came over for supper, Joe jumped in his car.

The two were perfect for each other. Dad thought Joe should stay outside, Joe thought he should be in. Come sunset Joe would bang on the front door and Dad would yell, “Knock it off!” This banter became an evening routine with Joe always winning. The most faithful of companions, Joe remained at Dad’s side until the end.

Prior to Joe’s taking over Dad’s place, we briefly had a trio: Maudry, Joe and Pugsley, a stray pug. We quickly learned, he was probably a stray for a reason.

Whether it was finding him on top of the dining room table or snorting dead flies, Pugsley was at once both cute and gross. His biggest fault, though, was his running.

It should’ve been no surprise given that’s how we got him. We could barely let him out to pee without him taking off. On one such adventure, we learned he’d shacked up for a weekend with Joe and Kelly Sparks under the pseudonym “Larry.” What a player.

It was clear Pugsley needed open, corralled spaces and we weren’t about to fence in our yard. Though Maclane continues to resent me for it, I encouraged Marty to find Pugsley a new home with an enclosed yard.

And then a pregnant stray showed up at Marty’s parents’ Arkansas home! When the pups arrived, they looked a bit Labrodor’ish. And Marty wanted a hunting dog.

So with hopes the Lab line ran strong, Charlie was brought from Arkansas to Iowa where he continues to be the best darn dog on the planet! He loves the outdoors, tries to flush birds and is a pro at avoiding eye-contact with cats. He’s great at scaring off possums and skunks, doesn’t snore too loud and has the most expressive face ever.

He’s so mutt’y he probably has a dozen different breeds flowing through his veins, but he’s proven himself the most devoted overseer of the Joe Brown place.

Except for having to put Maudry down a couple years ago due to her suffering with COPD-like breathing troubles, we’ve had no further canine sorrows. Let’s hope this lucky streak continues!

Originally published 6 December 2014 in The Observer.

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.

Luck be not the lady for me

I tend not to pay attention to luck as I’ve resigned myself to having very little of it. That’s not to say I’m a pessimist, I’m just not the one to win playing scratch tickets and my number is rarely drawn for a prize.

However, I’ve got a pretty great life, but luck has very little to do with it. For me, I think it’s more about simply doing the best I can and trusting that things will work out. And they always do . . . just usually not according to my plan or timeline.

Take my string of bad luck last week. It was a classic case of “if it could go wrong, it did.”

bad luck lpIt started on Thursday afternoon. I was in Milan for an appointment when I received a call from the school, my son was laid up in the nurse’s office with back pain. He woke that morning complaining his lower back hurt so I gave him some ibuprofen and sent him on his way.

Maclane is rarely one to cry wolf so I cancelled the appointment and headed back home. While in route, I contacted our chiropractor in Clinton who told me to bring him in.

When I got to Northeast to fetch Maclane, the boy was in tears. Unfortunately, once we got to the chiro, he said Maclane’s muscles were too locked up to be adjusted and suggested we visit our doctor and have him x-rayed, though Maclane could remember no trauma.

I opted to try one more thing before heading to the doctor, my soft tissue therapist in Davenport who has also treated both kids for posture and muscle issues.

I started seeing this guy a year ago and his ability to find the problem, workout the pain then identify exercises to strengthen the affected area is AMAZING. Luckily, he was able to see Maclane yet that night.

Back to the Quad Cities we went and after a number of strength tests, the therapist opted to do a cupping on Maclane’s back which involved placing 12 plastic vacuum cups over his lower back. Leaving them in place for 10 minutes, the therapist explained the technique creates negative pressure on the skin’s surface allowing the soft tissue underneath to release.

Within seconds Maclane started joking and giggling about how weird it felt. The boy was getting relief! After removing the cups, the therapist covered Maclane’s lower back with an analgiesic then kinesiology tape, assigned him some exercises and scheduled him for a follow-up.

Maclane practically danced out of the office and to the car only to have another monkey wrench thrown at us: my car wouldn’t start. Two hours later, with an auto service looking it over and Marty waiting in the wings to rescue us, the service guy reprogrammed my key fob and brought the car back to life. Whew!

But the next morning my car barely started so we took it directly to DeWitt’s Bauer Repair. Eventually we’d learn it was a battery issue—that as a battery weakens, it shuts off service to various systems. I’m just grateful it was such a simple fix.

But the luck issue was far from over.

Last Friday, if you’ll remember, was a gorgeous day, and since I had no transportation, it was perfect for catching up on laundry and mowing the lawn. My plan was to quickly mow around the clothes line and lp tank which was nearby, hang a couple of loads of on the line and then proceed with mowing.

Our 1,000 gallon lp tank had been listing terribly and literally mere moments before jumping on the mower, I’d been looking at it, its left side sinking into the ground, knowing it needed to be moved.

Well . . . it got moved alright.

As I was mowing around it, the back tire of the lawn mower may have made contact with the tank. If it did, it was a light nudge, hardly a push, in fact, it was likely the wind, but whatever it was, as I drove my new mower away from it, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. The tank was rolling after me.

It sounds horrible, but it only rolled forward a foot or two, the line didn’t disconnect and all was well. (My lack of luck? Maybe I’m luckier than I thought because several people said it could’ve easily resulted in an explosion. Yikes!)

As it turned out, Eastern Iowa Propane was able to move it to a different spot and all is well.

Except one final “grrr” happened before my bad luck streak would be complete.

While a writer really only needs pen and paper, in today’s world, computers are vital. Mine seized Sunday as I was working on a project and stayed frozen until Wednesday when I was able to get it to a tech person. Of course it started right up for them! The techies claimed it was a glitch in one of my programs, but it solidified the disdain I have for my dependence on technology!!! (And my belief that computers have personalities and that mine is a passive-aggressive jerk.)

That said . . .

My son is again chasing soccer balls,

My car is purring like a kitten.

My fuel tank is sitting solidly safe

And my computer isn’t giving me fit(ten)s.

I sure hope these days of bad luck are done,

That blue skies and happy faces return.

But I guess it helps to count my blessings

And consider this week a lesson learned. . .

Originally published 27 Sept 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.

County fair crunch time leads to state fair crunch time!

And here I thought it was just my kids!

In talking with many parents, it’s clear that a lot of our 4Hers spend most of their year talking about projects and what they’re thinking about doing, but when it comes to the execution? It’s usually the two weeks prior to the county fair when the rubber meets the road and 4H Crunch Time hits.

Throughout the county, there were sanders sanding, photographers photographing, painters painting, bakers baking and knitters knitting. It doesn’t matter how detailed their plans, how pure their intentions, every year the ball-and-chain that is ‘procrastination’ bites many a 4Her in the keister.

2014-07-09 09.10.52Why? As has been our case for the last four years, I listen to their grandiose ideas for numerous 4H projects. These projects remain lofty ideals as Moira and Maclane try to convince us their “plans” are stored right upstairs, tapping their temples.

Those plans remain closeted safely in their minds until finally, usually sometime in late June, do those plans jostle loose after receiving a loud dose of motivation from their loving father.

It’s only after those pep yells talks begin are those dreams parsed from “what can I do to help myself learn and grow as a person” to “what can I get done in two weeks?”

To their credit, both Moira and Maclane had decided months ago what they wanted to do for their fair entries: Moira would refinish a dresser once owned by the late Joe Brown, and Maclane would create a new sign for the late Bruce Bielenberg’s Lake Loretta.

There’d been talk of photography exhibits, baking, gardening, maybe even a little knitting, but when 4H crunch time hit, they both chose to focus on one large project. Again, I have to give them props because they certainly didn’t gain this less-is-more mentality from their mother. I’m notorious for taking on more than I can handle . . . must be those sensible Murrell genes.

For this, I am grateful, because shouldering just the one project held within it many more meltdowns within the two-week 4H crunch time than I ever could have imagined. Literally spitting mad, Moira would burst through the backdoor, gagging and yelling. “Sanding is terrible! It keeps getting in my mouth!” (Maybe next year we’ll remember to dig out the dust masks?)

2014-07-09 09.19.32Then there was Maclane’s behemoth eight-foot-by-four-foot sign that required the same design be painted on both sides. He struggled with the design process and accepting that the little, happy trees in his mind are not easily translated onto canvas, er, plywood.

And just managing the size of the project, sent him spinning. More than once hot tears sprang loose when a strong wind would come up and blow the sign over. Admittedly, there were moments when I wanted to get in there and help him, but Marty and I agreed, they must do their own work.

In spite of the heavy angst each project caused the kids, they hung tough. Neither were easy, nor impossible . . . it’s weird how they each chose the perfect project for themselves.

That’s what is so impressive about the county Fair and touring the auditorium where each club displays the efforts of its members. The creativity, ingenuity and unique designs are inspiring! Every year, without fail, I end up strolling around with the same giant, weirdo smile on my face—we grow great kids here in Clinton County!

And though Moira and Maclane didn’t execute their projects for the accolades, it’s what they received! Each were practically floating on Monday when, during the judging process, they both learned their entries were considerations for the state fair.

I really hate to admit this, but selfishly I’d hoped they’d remain considerations. How could we possibly fit a visit to the state fair into an August schedule that’s already laden with a week-long vacation and the annual insanity that is our early school start?

And then there’s the potential heartbreak and havoc of having one child’s project make it to the state fair and the other not. Sure, we’d navigate those waters just as we’ve done every other crisis, but . . . fortunately for 2014, we don’t have to.

As luck would have it, we don’t have to find out: BOTH ARE GOING!

This is truly a fresh experience as neither Marty nor I had any project at the state fair. Though my nephew, Jacob Reemstma has shown livestock, this is virgin territory for our gang!

So I guess we squeeze a second trip into our tight August schedule. I think it’ll be worth it. While the state fair is a big deal, I believe the best part of this year’s 4H projects happened the day before our local Charlotte club show on July 11.

Moira walked up to Marty and asked, “So what furniture can I do for next year?” Do I dare hope she start that project sooner?

Originally published 19 July 2014 in The Observer.