Beyond The Pale

On Childhood, Effyouseekay, Rabbit Turds

I don’t generally try to post more than once every couple of days because I think that flooding a site with new information won’t actually make more people read it, it will just cause some of the stories or date to get lost among the press. However, I’m getting ready to be gone for a month or more, and I’ve had time to write lately, so I guess it can’t hurt to break that rule for once.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing lately, and because of the writing, I’ve been thinking about writing. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the work of the great essayists like Twain (Clemens), White, and Sedaris, and I can’t help but wonder what it takes to turn the everyday experiences of a lifetime into the kind of prose that people will not only take the time to read, but will pay for the privilege of doing so.

I recognize that I have three major strikes against me from the outset. First, I’m not that good at relating conversations or making up conversations when I can’t think of what was actually said. My gift seems to be in the narrative, my weakness the dialogue. Second, I don’t party much, and I don’t generally hang out with those who do. I spend most of my free time at home with Andrea, either just hanging out with her or trying to study, to continue to be a scholar after having left—losing my way from—the academy. When I do go to a party, I generally leave before the craziness starts, and though I’m not at all against the drinking of alcohol, when I do drink, I never drink enough to make my own craziness. Finally, people who don’t have long term value to me often seem to have no value at all. That is, when I make friends, I make them for life, and if I don’t think that I’m going to make a true, long-lasting friendship with a person, I generally won’t go out of my way to spend time with him or her. It feels like taking time away from relationships that are meant to endure in order to nurture the temporary. What I forget, or rather, what I have to work to remind myself, is that the only way one will have weird or interesting experiences to draw upon is to have a wealth of experience to find that weirdness in.

Most of my stories come from the great friendships of my childhood, and thus far, each friendship has been worth exactly one story. Does this mean that there was really only one good story to tell about each of my friends? Of course not. Just sitting here, I remember that sometime I need to write about the Erwins, who I’ve written about before, and the time that they came to stay with us and we stole dozens of railroad spikes and taped money to the tracks. Another time they cut down an acre of their neighbor farmer’s corn, and yet another time all the kids at the church got into a massive apple throwing war with Timothy and a couple of other kids who were cornered up in the apple tree by the old building at NWAG. No, it doesn’t mean that each friend was worth only one story (for the value of a friendship isn’t in what you can write about it anyway); what it means is that I have yet to adequately mine my childhood for all of the tales that it can give me, probably because most of them appear to my mind devoid of context, just remnants that I can’t place, interesting, but useless without a frame of reference to hand them on. In this way, they seem useless at first.

However, what I’ve found is that when I start to tell myself the story, I find a context within it that makes it worth telling.

Here’s an example. I started with two images, one of a kid flicking me off when I was living at the Waller’s house, and another of piling up little pyramids of grass-clipping-balls at the apartment in Delaware where we lived while we waited for the Crottinger Road house to be completed. The following is what I ended up with:

We sold the house on Seabright long before the house on Crottinger was done. In fact, it might have been before the house on Crottinger was even started.

For a while we lived in the Waller’s basement, and my memories of that place amount to snapshots in a shoebox: a trampoline, a big golden retriever who might or might not have worn a collar with the name Toby etched into it; a ball-bearing drop game built into the wall, fascinating because of the faintly frightening dragon and sorcery images in its background; Cody’s fantastic Lego collection, which I would eventually buy parts of because he seemed to outgrow toys before I did; and the neighbor boy with whom we didn’t get along.

Those weeks that we stayed at the Waller’s house feel like a Childhood coming of age story, but I only remember one specific incident from that time. Cody and I had been arguing with the neighbor boy. I’m going to call him Ryan, though I think that Ryan was actually my neighbor at Seabright, who I got along with very well. The argument had been about one of the many nonsensical things that kids and nations are constantly at war about, the use of the trampoline, the ownership of a flat football, right of way through a third neighbor’s yard. Cody and I seem to have won the argument because Ryan turned and walked away in a huff. We were standing in Cody’s back yard, and as Ryan stomped through the grass into his own sovereign territory, he crossed his arms behind his back and covertly extended the middle finger of his left hand into the air while gripping his left wrist with his right hand.

Cody was livid. “Wow,” he whispered. “That’s really bad. If he was closer, I’d knock him out with this football.”

I had no idea what he was talking about. My only clue that something untoward was taking place was the covert nature of the gesture.

“He flicked us off, didn’t you see?”

“Yeah, I saw it, but what does flicking us off mean.” I drew out the last word to show how utterly opaque the topic was in my mind.

Cody stopped tossing the football into the air and looked at me, trying to decide if I was planning on getting him into trouble for referencing a forbidden word. Finally, “it means the ‘F’ word.”

“Oh.” I nodded sagely and picked up the ball where Cody had dropped it. We started walking toward his house. My mom always used an expression, clear as mud, and that’s where I was at that point.

Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. “What’s the ‘F’ word?”

Incredulously, “well, I’m not going to say it.”

“You could spell it. Whisper it in my ear.”

Cody glanced around for parental eaves droppers and gestured with a finger for me to bring my head closer to his. When I was close enough, he cupped his hand over my ear, and I could feel the hot-sticky-wetness of his breath on my face and neck. He said the letters quickly, in a whisper, so they came out as a word of their own, Effuseekay, and he stepped back and stared bug eyed at me, incredulous at his own gall.

“Promise you won’t tell anyone it was me who told you.”

I promised.

Not long later, it could have been only days or maybe a couple of weeks, Dad found an apartment in Delaware that we could live in while he finished building the Crottinger house. It was a dumpy, brown, one story apartment in a row of apartments that sat at the top of an extremely steep hill over Route 42. If the back screen door was functional when we moved in, it certainly wasn’t when we left. My main source of entertainment at this time was watching the maintenance man mow the hill, him constantly throwing his weight uphill to keep the mower in balance, me constantly hoping he would eventually fail and have to bail out as the mower went tumbling down into the fence that lined the highway.

When the mower wasn’t around, my brother, sister, and I would all roll down the hill again and again, trying to keep as straight as possible so that we could maintain the necessary momentum to beat everyone else at crashing into the fence. While we lived at there, we always had people every Sunday, so that they could enjoy rolling down the hill with us. Everyone wanted to roll down that hill.

On the way back up to the apartment, we would gather up these little grass balls that were all over the place and make little ziggurats out of them, a childhood insurgence of man’s ever-present need to give order to the universe.

One evening, I heard Dad saying that the backyard was full of Rabbit turds.

“Where?” I asked. “I haven’t seen any poo in the back yard.”

Dad took me out back and showed me some small, circular balls of wadded up grass. “These,” he pointed, “are Rabbit turds.”

Chagrined, I told him that I had thought they were just balls of grass clippings: “I make pyramids out of them all the time.”

He glanced up at me from where he was squatting over a row of the turds, paused for a second, and then started laughing. “No wonder you always stink,” he croaked out between guffaws.

I’ve told people that story a lot of times. What I’ve never told anyone is that I kept on making those pyramids until we moved out of that apartment and into the house on Crottinger Rd.


September 9, 2009 - Posted by | Childhood, Writing


  1. The beauty of the online blog is that we can never get enough of your stories, we can read them at leisure, and you can edit as you see fit.

    Timothy is a reservoir of great story material, and it is too bad I am so poor at telling stories. Were you there when he @ ten yrs or so turned a fire hose on the Ranger leaders at the car derby race? and few people know that he chased a groundhog up a tree (which we didn’t know could happen) and then managed to kill it. I probably shouldn’t tell that…since people would get the wrong idea about him. He really is very kind at heart, but has that curiosity…ahem…won’t go there either.

    And here I was just telling my cousin how safe I felt leaving the kids with your parents for what was one of the best trips my husband and I had- almost a 2nd honeymoon. LOL! What we don’t know doesn’t hurt us….hmmm.

    I love how you tell stories about your dad- after all those years of his family being sermon fodder it is great- I bet he laughs alot reading things from your perspective. I do. You have such a compassionate strain that come through…..

    and that is part of what makes your stories so wonderful.thank you for sharing

    Comment by Ilona | September 14, 2009 | Reply

  2. I’ve wondered where you’ve been, and it would have helped if I’d read this sooner. Thus the iniquitous consequences of not being up-to-date with your postings. You know, I’m not at all surprised you kept making the ziggurats. Even in childhood, we are transgressive people, building Babels despite divine chastisment (God, dad, etc). Mostly, though, you’re just half-insane, which is the right amount.

    I often wonder at the disparity between my writing and “good” successful writing. How do we cross that chasm? I confess that I don’t know, but I suspect it has something to do with starting to submit. After all, we might be good writers and not know it because we don’t try to publish. It seems a lot like working out your legs for years without ever bothering to join a race and see how fast you actually are in comparison with other racers; it may be that years ago you were ready to join a race.

    Comment by wordorgy | September 28, 2009 | Reply

  3. I used to have a crush on Cody. And then he changed his name. That was dumb.

    I’m with Mrs. Erwin. I can’t seem to get my stories out to save my life, but you certainly could make a go of it. Your stories would be different than Sedaris, but no less entertaining.

    I, too hate dialogue. And you and Daniel would get along smashingly at a party. Outside, smoking your pipes, hating your wives for making you go.

    Comment by Rachel B. | October 22, 2009 | Reply

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