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Clair McFarland

Clair McFarland: The Essence Of Shin Guards, And Other Pungent Memories

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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily
Clair@CowboyStateDaily.com

Some equipment is required.   

That’s life. While Henry David Thoreau probably envisioned a future of clans running barefoot in matching loincloths, teaching their young’uns to read from petroglyphs, society and the local sports clubs have other ideas.    

Helmets, shin guards, shoes – they’re all admissions that we can’t accomplish all we wish with our bodies alone. They admit that we’re breakable and finite, shedding our years and adventures in Time’s gale-force winds.   

But look again at the equipment. The wailing years left a few whispers in it as they fled.   

Helmet  

“Dad, can I ride the four-wheeler?” asks my middle-born son, because his dad will say yes.   

“Yes,” says The Husband. “But wear the helmet.”   

Middleborn doesn’t realize the helmet was mine. It’s milky white with bright-orange swirls, even though my mother thought I’d look sweeter in a pink one. It has a metallic orange vent in its beak and a firm, thin visor swooping over the opening where my breath once fogged a set of black goggles.   

The helmet exhales cold ling and dead algae.   

When I was 14 years old on an ATV, the helmet and I spun cookies over thick mottled ice at the annual Boysen Lake ice races.   

My best friend, a foreign exchange student from Taiwan, clung to my orange coat and squealed. She forsook her composed English whenever I had control of a machine: 

“I tire circle,” she shouted. “You slow now.”   

I slowed. Misty tendrils slithered over the ice. My dad waved us back to the truck.   

When I got there, my mom, smelling of currants and leather, slipped handwarmers into our coat pockets. 

Looking at the helmet now sitting cozily on our dining room table, I shiver.  

Shin Guards  

“Mama, I think they’re too small for me,” says the big, sweet twin, prying off his shin guards after a tough soccer game. The upper and lower Velcro straps plump out his firm, brown skin in the trapezoid between them.    

Big-Sweet and his twin, Little-Feisty, have just out-maneuvered a platoon of 8-year-olds to gain control of a shiny leather sphere.   

They won 2-1.   

But it wasn’t always this way, and the shin guards weren’t always too small.   

Three years ago, Big-Sweet trudged onto a soccer pitch with his hands folded on his belly, blue eyes blazing with abject terror. He watched, awestruck as every single kid on the field mobbed the ball and toppled in a heap to the ground. Then he turned to me and shook his head slowly.   

The shin guards today are salt-worn from sweat. I slide my hand behind Big-Sweet’s firm, round heel one last time to coax the shin guard’s sleeve off his foot.   

A fading summer, wet mud, trampled grass and Big-Sweet’s wordless plea for a hug – all these escape his shin guards and knock me out of the present tense.    

Shoes  

My firstborn son has huge feet.   

Like, tripping-the-bystanders, cheating-at-swimming, don’t-wake-the-neighbors-when-you-stomp-to-the-bathroom feet.    

He needs huge shoes.   

“Hey, could you please order me some new running shoes?” asks Firstborn.   

“But, I ordered those like – like – “   

“Last year. That was a million miles ago,” Firstborn says.   

I narrow my eyes. “A hundred miles ago.”   

Firstborn juts his jaw. “A THOUSAND.”   

His first cross-country season began 13 months ago and we were running together even before that. He’s not the swiftest, but I was prouder than a three-legged dog of a rabbit kill when I bought those running shoes for him.   

They’re slate grey with soft soles and mesh tops. When he first unboxed them, they smelled of strawberries and tissue paper. Their silvery mesh caught a faint rainbow gleam in the light.   

Shoes come and shoes go, from these retiring running shoes to that first pair of baby shoes. Those were fat and blue, nearly circular to suit pudgy, untrodden feet.   

Firstborn called them his “hoos.” He wore them for stroller rides under weeping cottonwood canopies, through streaming gutters, over parallel, relentless sidewalk cracks that ticked and tocked his stroller like some insistent clock.   

“So. Mom, can I have new shoes?” asks Firstborn.   

I swallow the years. “Sure.”   

Because life is full of equipment. And sometimes, equipment is full of life. 

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Clair McFarland: Have Mercy On The Fifth Grader’s Four-Wheeler Passenger 

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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily
Clair@CowboyStateDaily.com

Wyoming’s best cathedral is a four-wheeler in motion with a 10-year-old at the helm.    

Last week, The Husband revived that little four-wheeler and taught my middle-born son how to shift it. No one had to teach Middleborn how to throttle and steer the thing, though, because that’s in his DNA.   

He is allowed to ride the quad around our circular driveway. He is not allowed to drive through the neighborhood without a responsible adult sitting on the seat behind him.    

A smallish adult who won’t upset the weight ratio.    

“What – me?” I stammered.    

The Husband and Middleborn had cornered me in the kitchen that evening, with their twin hooded eyes and their earnest nodding heads.    

“But – but I’ve had way too much garlic for that,” I protested.    

The garlic is medicinal, not recreational.    

My pleas made no difference. I was destined to shoot through the neighborhood on a roaring anachronism, one fifth-grader’s sneeze away from a spectacular death.    

Middleborn perched his tiny frame on the seat and started the engine. I swung a leg over and settled onto the seat behind him, unsure whether to hold his thin swooping ribs or grip the quad’s metal rear rack.     

We lurched into gear. I grabbed the metal.    

“Swing low, sweet chariot,” I yodeled over the engine’s full rattle.    

“Mom. You’re fine. Calm down,” said Middleborn, smashing his vengeful thumb into the throttle.     

It’s a straight shot from the larger driveway into a canal’s rushing waters. Or, if you want to live, a sharp right turn will take you to a boulder, then a bridge. From the bridge you can turn right along the canal or launch straight downhill onto a corrugated dirt road leading to civilization.    

My little savage chose civilization. And he talked the whole way there.    

“See, Mom, you just gotta do this –“ he shifted up “– and then you’re good to go until you hear that –“ the engine raced. “Then you gotta shift again.”   

Middleborn sniffed at the flying dirt grains pelting our faces like enemy fire.  

“Hm,” said he, “someone’s cookin’ hot dogs. When are WE gonna have hot dogs?”   

We clattered over the packed ruts. My organs melted together.    

“Our Father, who art in heaven –“ I murmured.    

“It’s OK Mom we’re not gonna die right now,” said Middleborn, hurtling onto the paved road. “Does this thing have a turn signal?”   

“Sweetie….” I said, “This road has no shoulder. Don’t you think you should slow down?”    

It was a 10-foot straight drop from the road into someone’s pasture.    

“Nahhh,” said Middleborn. “The road is paved. That means you can go as fast as you want.”    

“That’s not what that means,” I yelled, but the engine drowned out my reasoning.    

Middleborn hung a hard right onto another dirt road known for its hairpin curves and puddle scars.    

“I want to wave at my buddy if he’s out,” he said.    

We careened down the road. The sun, gored and defeated, slunk behind the hills to die.  

“Uh-Uh-mazing grace, how sweet the sound,” I bellowed.   

“Oh – There’s my friend,” said Middleborn, waving at a formless blur in my periphery.    

This road also intersects with a watery grave, but Middleborn was too smart for that. He whipped the quad left away from the canal, clattered over a cattle guard, dodged a fat raccoon, jumped the barrow ditch and swiveled us right, just in time to scare the tumbleweeds off a disused canal road.   

“See what a good driver I am?” Middleborn said, turning his helmeted head toward me long enough to lose sight of the road and veer left against the canal.    

“Whoopsie,” he said, shoving the handlebars clockwise like a person who is not at all insane.    

“I ONCE was LOST, but now am FOUND,” I sang into the weakening sky.    

“Shh!” snapped Middleborn. “Listen.”    

He braked and turned off the engine. The world emptied of noise.    

Then. A choir of crickets, ascending forever in layered harmonies stretching back to their own cricket Adam, flooded the evening with song.  

I sighed. My fists thawed. My lungs relaxed against their cage.    

“Now THAT’S a prayer,” I whispered.    

Middleborn nodded. Then he fired up the quad and trundled me back to our home.  

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Clair McFarland: Heartbreak — The Velociraptors Have Gone Back To School

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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily
Clair@CowboyStateDaily.com

A part of me dies each year when my sons go back to school but don’t worry – that same part rises again as a ghoul when they come home for summer vacation.  

That’s the bipolarity of it. I’m crushed to see them go; I’m bamboozled when their summer vacation starts and with it, a chorus of velociraptor shrieks to haunt all my phone interviews.  

To cope with the fall blues, I imagine what those children are doing at school while I’m working at home. Sometimes I reminisce about my own days at school two decades ago, and how good it was for my little velociraptor hands to learn cursive.  

That was then, this is now. 

Now: 

The twins are in third grade but in separate classes because their school says it’s better this way. They still can meet up at lunch, sample each other’s sandwiches and reassure the other students that that’s normal, because, “we have the same DNA.”  

They’re learning mathematical division with M&Ms. They play sharks and minnows in P.E. The little, feisty twin hates speed math, which has nothing to do with energizing drugs and everything to do with solving math problems as fast as you can while waiting for the inevitable buzzer to give you a heart attack.  

The big, sweet twin loves speed math, books about sentient crayons and high-fiving his teacher.   

Then: 

In third grade I had a sturdy ageless teacher who wore floor-length denim skirts and quoted the U.S. Constitution from memory. I wish I could remember her name: she lives in my memory as an iconic Missus or Madame. She was a grammarian, a puritan, a patriot and traditionalist.  

I learned many small essential skills from her, but it’s the lesson she didn’t mean to impart that has lodged in me like a cheesecake. And that is: you’re never smarter than History itself, and you’re never wrong in being humble.  

Thanks, Madame.  

Now: 

My middle-born son is in fifth grade, in a school with lockers and subject periods just like high school – because the school board in Riverton a few years ago was like, “Ah what the heck. Let’s do it this way.”   

Some of his teachers on the first day of school launched presentations about who they are outside class.

The science teacher has three doctoral degrees, a sprawling farm, a parachute factory and dreadlocks, according to Middleborn.  

“Three doctorates, are you sure?” I asked.  

“Yup,” nodded Middleborn. “And my other teacher is a karate black-belt.”  

“Oh. Wonder where he learned that,” I mused.  

“Teacher school,” said Middleborn, casually wiping his nose on his new jacket.  

Then: 

In fifth grade I had two sassy female teachers who snuck my written work off to the newspaper’s longtime editor. That same editor then made me the paper’s official kid-columnist. It was a special year.  

I wrote, um, precious columns such as “why my favorite color is pink,” or “my baby sister is the coolest thing ever.” The newspaper paid me $10 per piece.  

Fifth grade for me was the year I found something to be good at – so everything else fell in line to enhance that skill. If you can find just one thing at which you excel; if you can marry hard work to passion, empathy to obsession, you can view the world from a height of purpose.  

Go, Middleborn – go.  

Now: 

My first-born son is starting seventh grade. Heaven help us.  

His feet are bigger than mine, his shoulders are broader. He’s got a good pack of friends with frank mischief in their smiles and devoted mothers in the backs of their minds.  

Firstborn is also in band.  

Then: 

Band class is a key experience of youth, if you can swing it. Nowhere else in life can 60 amateur musicians spew a hellish cacophony without judgment for weeks on end until – in one startling epiphany – the whole melody comes together. The song provokes real, aching, human emotion. And it hits all 60 preteens in their plastic chairs at once.  

Firstborn, even though you’re hungry, moody and trying weird stunts for female attention, don’t forget to savor that miracle, and others like it – no matter what grade you’re in.  

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Lander Police Catch Fugitive Sexual Predator But Not Without A Knife Fight

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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily
Clair@CowboyStateDaily.com

Lander police arrested an escaped sexual predator Tuesday evening, but not without a knife fight.    

Joshua Eaker, 47, of Phillips, Wisconsin, reportedly cut off his GPS-monitoring ankle bracelet and fled to Wyoming days ago with a female companion. Eaker was released to parole on Dec. 14, following a prison term of about 20 years. He was sentenced in the late 1990s for second-degree sexual assault of a child, according to Wisconsin corrections records.    

“I guess he didn’t want to stick around anymore, and cut off the ankle bracelet and away he went,” said Lander Police Department spokesman Duane Kaiser.    

The Lander Police Department received a tip from authorities in Wisconsin, but Kaiser wasn’t sure how those authorities discovered that Eaker might be in Lander.    

According to Kaiser, police officers went to a local hotel room where Eaker was staying at about 6 p.m Tuesday and confronted him. Eaker pulled out a large knife and swung it toward three officers in the hotel room. When Eaker kept swinging the knife and ignored officers’ commands to stop, they tased him. 

Kaiser was relieved that the situation did not turn deadly, especially in light of a recent slew of officer-involved shootings in Fremont County: There have been five officer-involved shootings in the county in the past three years, but the Lander Police Department hasn’t had one during that time.    

“It was real close (to deadly) that night. It was very close to it turning south, quick,” said Kaiser. “But the officers (with) their tasing – they did an awesome job.”    

The female who was with Eaker was not taken into custody, Kaiser said. Eaker is at the Fremont County Detention Center waiting for his extradition to Wisconsin, where, the release says, “he will face numerous new charges.”    

Kaiser said he’s not sure what Eaker’s destination was while he was on the run.    

“I don’t think he really knew, himself,” he said.  

The Wisconsin Department of Corrections did not immediately return an email and phone call requesting additional information.  

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Clair McFarland: Stupid Wood And The Zombie Apocalypse

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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily
clair@cowboystatedaily.com

 It didn’t hit me until I wrote my second news story that day that the house was eerily quiet.    

And when you have four sons, quiet usually means someone’s been stuffed in a suitcase and mailed to Grandma’s house. Not that we’ve ever gotten away with that.    

I leaned out of my office and listened to the dead air in the hallway. Nothing stirred. The bare floor gleamed with cheery amnesia as if it had never been trampled 

I padded outside. The cottonwood trees shrugged.   

Thinking I’d fetch my car and scour the neighborhood for those little vagabonds who hadn’t bothered to tell me where they were going, I rushed to the garage, whipped open the door, stubbed my toe, slashed the air with my car keys and accidentally walked in on… a symphony of effort.    

In the back of our garage beyond windowed double doors is a woodshop full of clean fragrant planks, wood scraps, a high countertop and its attendant stools. There the boys worked with wood.    

One boy pieced together a Viking hammer; another built a battle axe, another a scepter and the youngest boy – the little, feisty twin – chiseled away at a mystery. They murmured suggestions to each other, like: 

“Buddy, you might want to hammer this in a little more before you spray paint,” or “Just so you know, that drill will need charged in a minute.” But these suggestions were soft ripples in their bustling harmony, not the bombastic war cries of their fluent tongue.    

On that day of eerie quiet, my boys had trapped their cacophony in a hushed thrall, in the invisible vibration of sawdust flecks disbanding on a sigh.     

But Little-Feisty was getting frustrated.    

I watched him slide down from his stool and trudge to the vice clamp with his formless hunk of lumber in hand. He wedged the wood into the vice and cranked the vice rod. The untanned crescent joining his neck to his shoulders peeked out of his collar with each violent crank.  The wood wheezed miserably.    

I tip-toed through the sawdust.   

“What’cha makin’ honey?” I asked.     

“This stupid thing,” Little-Feisty huffed.    

I bit my lip. “What… is it?”   

“It was SUPPOSED to be a gift for him,” said Little-Feisty, gesturing toward my first-born son. Little-Feisty’s eyes flared each time he emphasized a word. “But it’s not WORKING, be-CAUSE every time I attach the upper PRONG, the wood falls uh-PART.”   

It’s hard to take a cute small angry person seriously. And it doesn’t help that Little-Feisty is the last of my four sons who still has a vestige of the Bronx accent of toddlerhood.    

“How dare it,” I said.    

Little-Feisty trained his eyes on the stupid hunk of wood. Silver rivulets sharpened in his irises like a storm blasting sea-eaten cliffs. He yanked the drill off the countertop and rammed a screw into the wooden joint.    

The joint cracked and fell apart.    

Little-Feisty’s shoulders sank. “AUGGH, see? Every time I try to drill it, it falls apart like a – like a” – he fumbled for an insult. “Like a SANDWICH!”    

I don’t know the first thing about woodworking. I glanced at the other boys as they piped out wood glue and sanded rough edges. On a distant stool the big, sweet twin’s lower lip relaxed, his eyelashes dropped softly as he slipped a leather cord into a hole he’d bored through the handle end of his war hammer.    

Little-Feisty kicked a box.    

“It seems to me you need a break,” I said. “Why don’t you go get a popsicle, take a few deep breaths, and when you’re ready, call Dad and ask him what to do.”   

He nodded and left.    

It’s one thing to build something for fun or for personal use. It’s quite another to channel all your creativity, will and vision into a creation intended for another person. You’re likelier then to push the limits of your skill and understanding and, what’s worse, to forget the spontaneous goodwill for which you started the project in the first place. 

Little-Feisty paced on the deck with our house phone in one hand and a cherry popsicle in the other.    

“It’s called a pilot hole,” The Husband explained through the phone. “You drill the hole with a drill bit smaller than the screw. Then, you can screw in the screw without cracking the wood.”   

Little-Feisty furrowed his brow. His cheeks rounded as he crunched red ice into sugar juice.    

“And it doesn’t have to be perfect,” The Husband added.   

He’s right. The more we strive for perfection, the more we fail. We find instead that, as we pour ourselves into a craft, it becomes a formed realization of our selves. Of whatever we are; the hidden figures that live inside us and can only be funneled out with the making.    

Little-Feisty went back to the woodshop and made the hunk of wood stop being stupid. He held it up and beamed.   

“That’s great, sweetie! Um,” I paused, unsure how to pose the question. “What does it do?”    

“It’s a zombie-killer!” he gushed.    

“Uh…”   

“See, you can wedge it into a zombie’s mouth so he can’t close his jaws, then you can pour poison or acorn squash soup down his throat!”   

(My acorn squash soup is a lot better than people say, actually.)    

Firstborn gasped. “Is that for ME?”   

Little-Feisty nodded.    

“I LOVE IT,” said Firstborn. “Thanks buddy. It’s just what I needed.”  

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Clair McFarland: Shrimp Tacos And The Blood Of Our Enemies

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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily

It was an insurrection.    

The Husband got our two oldest sons to play one of those card-and-token table games with four-hour, ghoul-infested medieval plot lines.   

“Now,” he said, “Who wants to loot, and who wants to kill?”   

“I’ll do both,” said my middle-born son.   

“Nooo,” countered The Husband. “Just pick one. Be a team player.”    

Middleborn nodded. “Right. So I’ll kill and loot.”    

The Husband sighed like a tornado blasting a cat through a chimney. He shuffled and re-shuffled the attack cards, straightened a character profile and arranged his plague tokens in alphabetical order.  

“I’ll kill,” said my first-born son. “Wait – don’t you get to keep the goods if you loot?”   

The Husband shook his head. “No, we split all the goods at the end.”    

“So it’s socialism,” said Firstborn.    

“It’s a team game!” protested The Husband.    

Firstborn shrugged. “Tell that to Venezuela.”    

One countertop away, I kneaded tortilla dough and heated the griddle.    

The Husband gathered his dad-patience back together.    

“When do we sleep?” asked Middleborn, shearing away an overgrown pinky nail with his gritted exposed molars.    

“We can’t sleep this early,” said The Husband. “We’d lose a card.”    

“But we’d gain an axe,” said Middleborn.    

“We don’t NEED an axe. We need food, and mead, and to kill off the townspeople before they turn zombie, OK?” the Husband said.  

I dumped raw shrimps into a pan and sautéed their springy grey corpses in chili powder and olive oil ‘til they blushed. Their aroma broke free.  

Firstborn sniffed. “I smell victory.”    

“It is – “ The Husband inhaled “ – a team. Game. We ALL have to conquer the landowners and defeat the scourge, or we’ll all die together.”    

“Of gangrene?” asked Middleborn.    

“Of distraction,” groaned The Husband, massaging his temples.    

Middleborn grinned and slipped a card from his sleeve. “OK so I’m going to muddle the monster with this hex, and I’m going to disappear your head.”   

“You can’t disappear my head. I’m not the blood clot,” said The Husband.    

“Then where’s the blood clot?” asked Middleborn.

“He’s on the other side of the fabric of reality, you dork,” snapped Firstborn.    

“I’M not a dork, YOU’RE a dork,” said Middleborn.    

In table-top gamers’ hallowed vernacular, there are few dark incantations as grotesque as “dork.”  

“Guys…” warned The Husband. “If we don’t pull together, the phantom quicksand is going to eat our brains. Now focus with me: what do we need to do to restock our potions?”   

“Boil the hag,” said Firstborn.    

“MARRY the hag,” argued Middleborn.    

I minced a red onion. Middleborn scrunched his nose into deep branched lines between freckles. “What’s that reek?” he asked.   

“Your wife,” quipped Firstborn.    

“Heyyy!” Middleborn furrowed his half-tanned brow under a sweeping monocular shock of butterscotch hair.   

“You SAID you wanted to marry the hag,” Firstborn said, his voice rising.   

I chopped four peaches, popping their fibrous bloody inner morsels into my mouth when no one was looking. Peach syrup oozed onto the countertop like a curse.  

“Mo-om!” wailed Middleborn. “He said my wife reeks!”   

“That’s just sweat,” I said. “That’s what happens to women when they exercise.”    

“No, Mom, I never made her any stamina potion.”   

“Then you’re not a very good husband,” I said, as I snipped parsley leaves into papery green trapezoids and sprinkled them over the peaches and onions. I flipped the tortillas on the griddle. 

“This is dumb,” said Middleborn. “When do we eat?”   

“As soon as we seal the portals with the blood of our enemies,” said The Husband.    

“In about five minutes,” I said, working pulpy fragments of an Anaheim pepper into my peach salsa with both hands.    

The Husband straightened his attack cards and gave it one last try. “OK guys. We got this. We just have to get the monks chanting to ward off the hexes, strap on our flying boots and gas the village with halitosis and ill will. Ready?”   

“Dinner!” I called. Everyone’s eyes widened. Time froze, and so did the monsters trapped in the fabric of reality.   

“Oooh, dinner!” shouted the boys, leaping up from their chairs and scattering hex cards into kaleidoscopic chaos as they fled for the counter.    

“What’s for dinner?” asked Firstborn.    

“The blood of our enemies,” said Middleborn, scrunching his nose again at the red onions.    

I smiled and gave the bright salsa one last shake. “Shrimp tacos.”    

Firstborn sighed, relieved. “That’s a win.”  

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Clair McFarland: Home Air Conditioning And The Stages Of Hypothermia

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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily

I can’t control the weather, OK? 

Yes, the Wyoming year is a cradle swinging too close to the fireplace then too close to the frosty window, endlessly, over a dirt floor jutted with cacti. And yes I love it, but that doesn’t make it my fault.  

We’ve been in the fire lately, so The Husband would call me every morning at 11 to remind me of it.  

“Did you shut all the windows and blinds?” 

“… Yes,” I said, tugging the last window shade down with my toes while gripping the phone in one hand and a mug of hot ramen in the other.  

“Did you turn on the swamp cooler?” he asked.  

“Not yet,” I said, rushing outside to flick the swamp cooler switch on.  

My bare feet minced across the hot planks; the sun crept into my skin. I closed my eyes, bathing them in the smooth lava glow of my sunward eyelids.  

“Did you go back inside and open the swamp-cooler window?” asked The Husband.  

I thudded across the deck, back into the house and dragged the sliding window open for the humid, roaring jet stream.  

“Yep,” I finally answered.  

The Husband sighed. “Aren’t you excited to have air conditioning in a few days?”  

“Sure,” I murmured, sticking my upper half into the washing machine to peel away some chewing gum caked to its barrel.  

But the truth is, I thought the home air conditioning was a myth. Sure, The Husband had an outdoor fan installed a couple months ago. He also spent a lot of time monkeying about with some shiny, square metal tubes down in our basement.  

I washed dishes and sang folk songs with our sons, wondering just how much fun The Husband was having downstairs sticking his sparkly tube maze to the ceiling.  

Then he came upstairs and carved neat rectangles into each room’s floor, fixing metal vents into the holes as he went.  

“Oh honey, you’d better not do that,” I said.  

He looked at me like I had four heads.  

“Lots of LEGOs will go missing,” I explained.  

But The Husband just shook his head and went back to his man-project. His labored groans echoed up through the new vents as he angled the pieces together and drove screws into their sharp overlapping hems.  

“Sure sounds exciting down there!” I chirped through the vent.  

“MMMGGGHH!” agreed The Husband.  

Then came Monday. The Husband turned the air conditioning on. The thermostat, whose unholy blue glow splashed drunkenly across the floor, was linked to his smartphone.  

Holding my wellbeing in his hand, The Husband set the day’s temperature and left for work, whistling.  

My skin cinched into bullet points. My joints gelatinized. Complex words and ideas slipped out of my head, leaving a dull weary hunger and the glug-glugging of my intimate pulse.  

That’s the first stage of hypothermia.  

I called The Husband to let him know the end was near.  

“But Clair,” he protested. “It’s a whopping 69 degrees in there. You should be fine.”  

“P-p-please,” I chattered. “Turn it up to 75?” 

“Nah, put on a sweater,” he said.  

See, all the seasons suit me because my brownish skin fades and darkens with their passing, welcoming or dampening the sun as needed. There’s no need for air conditioning and in fact, there may be some human rights violations in the whole barbaric torture ritual of chilling one’s skin below its proper acclimation level.  

The Husband does not acclimate. He’s the inverse of a bear, preferring to hide in a dark cave all summer and hunt for bargains and helpless sandwiches all winter.  

I swam into The Husband’s biggest sweatshirt. My eyes shifted slowly, trailing blurred traces of the world like tadpoles across my vision pool. My heart stuttered. My brain boomeranged in its cage.  

That’s the second phase of hypothermia.  

Two of my boys were delighted… Two were miserable.  

“Wow, Mom, do you FEEL that?” asked my firstborn son with a grin. “Feels pretty good in here, huh?” 

My eyes glazed over.  

My middle-born son nodded. “Yeah, no more sticky swamp cooler.” He stretched his pale toes, revealing the fine pearly webbed crescents between them.   

My lungs crackled. My ears grew hot.   

Just then, the twins waddled into my office.  

“Mama,” began the big, sweet twin. “We’re cold.”  

The little, feisty twin clung to Big-Sweet’s arm with his skinny brown fingers.  

“Can we snuggle?” asked Little-Feisty.  

“Yes, dear,” I chattered. “We must all cling together and share body heat.”  

The twins and I sank together onto my office floor, knowing that if we froze on this particular July Monday, at least we’d be surrounded by books, clasped in each other’s arms, hallucinating about inept swamp coolers.  

Middleborn hmph’ed.  

“Lame,” he said, turning to Firstborn. “Let’s go get some popsicles.”  

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Clair McFarland: Of Summer And Sunsets And Battles With Millers

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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily

It’s miller season, but some of y’all call them moths.  

Dark and furry, millers are just butterflies’ homely cousins who didn’t get asked to the ball. They congregate instead at my window, insanely tempted by their soul mate: a reading lamp.  

Silken breezes float the tang of rain past that window, but I dare not open it because the millers will pour in through a rip in the screen. So I sit near the pane to hear rain sift through the withered lilacs, sending their dead fragrance into the night like a second, fleeting youth.  

Millers are a summer constant. Their blurry purr is a surer sign of twilight than the oily horizon itself. When the sun rises again and their polite derby slows, they cram into some unimaginable crevice of architecture and nuzzle each other to sleep.  

I sigh.  

My middle-born son careens down the hallway barefoot and in green pajamas, clears my outstretched legs in one bound, balances on the couch arm, throws open the window and cackles. The millers pour in like the wicked witch’s possessed monkeys, churning our post-pancake air into a dusty tornado.  

“What the heck – “  

But Middleborn has no time for my calculated questions. His eyes ablaze, he thrusts a tiny Altoids tin into the hairy brown cloud.  

“Gottem,” he says with a grin, snapping the tin shut over a dozen fat moths and running off to offer my first-born son an “Altoid.”  

That’s when the big, sweet twin wanders past me into the kitchen. He opens the refrigerator. Its light switches on.  

“No, don’t –“ I splutter. But it’s too late.  

The miller cyclone swoops into the open refrigerator and Big-Sweet, ever helpful, simply beams and shuts the ‘fridge.  

“Now they’re trapped,” he says.  

I slap my forehead.  

Middleborn returns, holding a miller by the wing.  

“Hey Mom,” he says. “Why does it feel like it’s just made of dust? Like, why does its wing sorta flake off in my hand like that?” 

“Because – “ 

“And Mom,” continues Middleborn, “is it a boy or a girl?” 

I scour my brain for anything on moth anatomy.  

“It’s a – it’s a – “ 

“NASTY BROWN VAMPIRE!” bellows The Husband, charging from nowhere with a Shop Vac under his arm. “And I’m sending it back to the crypt, where it BELONGS.” 

“Aw but Dad, they’re just millers,” protests Middleborn, who befriends monsters with ease.  

But The Husband has had enough. He wakes the Shop Vac and darts through the house, sucking the millers into their roaring tomb one by one. Then he scours the open window’s frame, where the heart-shaped moths cling with their pathetic limbs to crumbling delusions of summer eternal.  

“DIE, YOU SAVAGES,” commands The Husband.  

He vacuums them from the screen and frame, nods and switches off the Shop Vac.  

“Um, Dad –“ begins Middleborn.  

“That’s what you GET,” mutters The Husband. “Filling up my house. Pooping on my window – “ 

“DAD,” says Middleborn again. “They’re on the other side now.” 

On the far-left end of the large picture window a miller flock has blackened the view. The Husband opens that pane and sucks Middleborn’s new friends into the abyss.  

Then more millers crawl onto the far-right window screen, so The Husband vacuums those up. Then again on the left. And again on the right.  

“Where are they COMING from?” asks The Husband, amazed at the mysticism of miller physics. He seats himself across from the window with the vacuum hose braced across his knees like a shotgun.  

“It doesn’t matter,” he tells the millers. “I’ve got all day.”  

Three hours pass.  

The Husband has clotted the Shop Vac’s openings with paper towels and duct-taped the hole in the window screen. He dusts off his hands and trots to the ‘fridge, whistling.  

I walk through my living room with absolutely nothing fluttering in my hair.  

Middleborn swats me gently on the arm. “Pssst!” he says.  

I lean toward him.  

Middleborn smiles, reaches for his pocketed Altoids tin with one hand and points at the reading lamp with his other. There, as relaxed and entitled as summer’s chosen minion should be, perches a miller.  

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Clair McFarland: Love Between Lice

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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily

This is a love story about two lice.  

Where their journey began or what electric quiddity brought them together only future bards will know. I discovered them whirling heedless and infatuated in a courtship dance so idiotic it was almost beautiful.  

But first, I took a vacation.  

We left Wyoming last week for Salt Lake City because The Husband is the fun parent and wanted to take our four sons and me to the amusement parks, the golfing balconies, the arcades.  

“Or,” I had offered, “we could ride our bikes to a natural mountain spring, shinny up the trees and watch birds in flight.”  

“HAH!” laughed my middle-born son while packing a snorkel for the hotel pool. “Good one, Mom.” 

The boys ogled Wyoming as we rolled through it and into Utah.  

“That would smash open your bum if you sledded down it,” said Middleborn of Lander’s picturesque Red Canyon.  

“Hey guys, I found a cloud that looks like a leech with a mustache!” cheered the big, sweet twin at the Continental Divide.  

“Walmart lives HERE, too?” shrieked the little, feisty twin when we reached Evanston.  

Yes, yes, the Cowboy State is full of miracles.  

Near Salt Lake City, the Interstate spewed us into an arcade that whelmed with the technicolor vomit of 200 electric games. There, Middleborn won a beach ball from an enormous metal claw large enough to snatch a sugar-drunk child away from the vending machine.  

Not that I ever envisioned such a use for it.  

That night we rode a shimmering escalator to an all-you-can-eat buffet that I didn’t think could handle us, but it did. The Interstate then shot us into our hotel, which is the crown jewel of any vacation because there, you can jump endlessly between two adjacent beds that magically re-make themselves each day. Why even go outside? 

But we did go outside the next morning, to an amusement park so luxurious, our every breath tasted of aerosolized sunscreen and cotton candy.  

“This is it,” said Firstborn, gazing up at the roller coaster peaks with his solemn green eyes.  

Middleborn and The Husband rode tower drops. Firstborn rode the same roller coaster 30 times. The twins put me in a teacup.  

Six giant teacups seating four people each, spun on a merry-go-round platform. We strapped ourselves into the pink one. Little-Feisty discovered that by cranking the wheel in the teacup’s center, he could rotate us faster than the other teacups. And this is considered a “win.”  

“It’s like the planets,” explained Big-Sweet through his flapping cheeks. “We’re spinning around a center, but we’re also rotating.”  

The all-you-can-eat buffet churned under my esophagus.  

“C’mon, help me go faster!” yelled Little-Feisty to Big-Sweet. They both spun.  

I suppressed my nausea by shifting my focus from our puréed surroundings to the twins’ determined expressions; their noses wrinkling, their teeth gritting in the shade of two oversized baseball caps.    

Finally, the ride slowed to a halt.  

“Which way is west? Nobody KNOWS!” roared Little-Feisty with the certainty of a man who’s made his mark on the world.  

I stood and wobbled.  

“Woah, Mom,” said Little-Feisty, glancing furtively at the other riders. “Get it together, OK?”  

The twins walked me to a red roller coaster where The Husband and the other boys met us. Everybody had a riding buddy, and mine was Big-Sweet, who squeezed my hand bloodless as our cart crept to the top of its fearsome precipice.  

In that moment, I glanced at his soft brown hair gleaming in the full sun – and my blood went cold. Two adult lice danced in his hair. I tried to reach for them but, just then, the roller coaster blasted us down a slope, whipped us left, then right, then up another slope and down it.  

The lice had no idea that only gravity and man’s foolhardy inventions stayed my hand from ending their honeymoon in a bloody catastrophe. Big-Sweet smiled and grabbed my outstretched hand.  

Once safely back on the ground, I gripped Big-Sweet’s shoulders and planted him in front of me.  

“Hold still,” I snapped.  

The whole family gathered around us.  

“What is it?” asked The Husband.  

I crushed the bride between my thumb and forefinger. 

“I think he has lice,” I grumbled.  

All the boys gasped.  

I smashed the groom between my thumb and my darling son’s scalp. Then, standing in a rush of adrenaline-hungry Americans, I sifted through every strand of Big-Sweet’s hair. But no more lice could be found.  

“I think you got lucky and caught the first two,” said The Husband.  

“No,” I said. “We have to treat everyone, just in case.” 

He sighed. “OK. I know what that means.”  

“Right,” I nodded. “Evacuate everyone and torch the park.” 

“What – no!” stammered The Husband. “It means we have to go to the store for supplies after this.”  

So we went with The Husband’s plan, not mine. I slathered my own hair in Vaseline and tea tree oil, buzzed and lice-combed Big-Sweet’s hair, then oiled and inspected everyone else’s scalps with a flashlight and a magnifying glass. No one had lice.  

(The Husband was already bald before this.) 

Big-Sweet had, somehow, intercepted two honeymooning lice in a spinning teacup, let them swoon in his warm earthen musk, and carried them unknowingly to their gruesome deaths at the foot of a roller coaster.  

And that’s how all love stories should end, when they’re about lice.  

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Clair McFarland: A Death-Defying Family Forage 

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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily

Nothing in this column is meant as advice.  

We get more serious about foraging every year. The first year we tried it, we sprinkled dandelion greens on our sandwiches. The second year, we made spruce tea. Now my four sons and I race from the house in thirsty sockless sneakers with canvas pouches looped around our necks, nosing along the wild fuzzy hills for mustard seeds, cactus blossoms and Russian thistle sprouts.  

You can’t pick the Indian paintbrush because it’s the Wyoming state flower, according to my middle-born son.  

“But its blossoms are edible,” I protest.  

“Mom,” says Middleborn, as serious as a raven, “you wouldn’t like it in jail.”  

I doubt I’ll go to jail for poaching flowers, but I do all I can to uphold Middleborn’s occasional reverence for law and order. 

The Indian paintbrush isn’t the state flower in Colorado, so there’s nothing but high gas prices stopping me from loading up the boys, heading south, and harvesting a whole crop of dainty blossoms. And when a lawman pulls us over on I-80 with a trunk-full of plants, I’ll say “trust me officer, it was legal in Colorado.”  

But there’s plenty to forage right here in Wyoming. The lilacs taste terrible but they make a fine garnish. The blue mustard blooms taste of radishes. The dandelion roots can, reportedly, be plucked, washed, toasted, and ground into coffee, though I’ve never had the patience to test the theory.  

Then there’s the wild onion: Curse of my sanity – trophy of my appetite.  

“Before they flower, wild onion plants strongly resemble death camas, a plant that also has a bulb but is deadly if any part is eaten,” reads a foraging handbook by expert weed-eater Caleb Warnock.  

Not just deadly: the death camas is the deadliest plant in the West. Poison symptoms include vomiting, excessive salivation, tremors, weakness, loss of muscle control, convulsions, coma, and death.  

Pretty flowers, though.  

I admit, something in me wanted desperately to test the effects of the death camas. I wondered just how much it would take to sicken or kill me. Could get away with nibbling a leaf or a petal? Could I build a slow immunity and become the only human being living on death camasses? 

Even in the finest stages of life, there’s a dark cooing chord of the human soul that longs to taunt death, to stand up to it.  

Middleborn and I hiked a three-mile loop this week in the rain, popping wild onion bulbs from the mud with the butt-end of my knife. On our way home the slope spit us into a sprawling lowland near the canal.

And there were the death camasses.  

Middleborn plucked them all and bore them home in a muddy bouquet in both arms, so that none of the neighbors’ cows would have to die. Ever.  

I bit my lip and thought of the meatloaf in the oven.  

Once home, we laid the death camasses and wild onions in separate piles on the countertop while the other three boys oohed and aahhed around us.  

“Hold out your hands, touch the leaves,” I urged. “Smell the bulbs. Learn the differences.”  

The Husband walked into the kitchen and found us with our hands and noses buried in towering heaps of weeds, sniffing wetly through the mud.  

“What’s going on in here?” he asked. 

“Mom’s showing us the poison!” chirped the little, feisty twin.  

The Husband backed slowly out of the kitchen. I popped an onion bulb into my mouth. The boys’ eyes widened until they resembled the love-gaze of a catfish.  

“Mom, NO!” begged Middleborn.  

“It’s OK,” I purred. “It’s a wild onion, I promise.”  

“But what if it’s not?” 

“Well, then, I only ate one. You can watch me for symptoms the rest of the evening,” I said.  

“She’s gonna DIE!” bellowed Middleborn. “Take the camas to the ‘mergency room so they can make an antidote!”  

Middleborn stuffed a death camas into his pocket.  

“I am NOT gonna die,” I said. “I’d lose control of my bowels long before that point.”  

All four boys took a step away from me.  

The clock ticked, plucked up its courage, and ticked again. I didn’t die.  

Carefully, Firstborn and I scooped up the death camasses and carried them to the dumpster. We then shelled the wild onions from their fibrous brown husks and packed them into a Tupperware, while Firstborn absentmindedly drew figure eights on his inner calf with his big toe, the way he has since toddlerhood.  

Middleborn watched me with his wide green eyes. I still hadn’t died.  

We lured The Husband back into the dining area with meatloaf, had a nice dinner, and finished the evening with a board game and a brutal argument about whether salamanders get married.  

I tucked Middleborn into bed last.  

“Mom. Why were you OK with eating the death camas?” he asked.  

“Because I knew it was a wild onion,” I murmured back.  

“Would you ever eat a death camas?”  

I thought for a moment.  

I thought of Middleborn, how he still “borrows” my knuckle to scratch his nose. And Firstborn, how he can be coaxed into my arms when he’s gushing about the evolution of army tanks. And the twins, how they argue that the other “no, not me,” should have the last piece of watermelon.  

“No,” I said, stroking his downy temple with the side of my finger. “I’d never eat a death camas.”  

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Clair McFarland: Fear The Biker Gangs!

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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily

Biker gangs are scary.  

The bikers rattle up the hill in a cloud of dust, baring their remaining teeth, hunkering their heads between their shoulders and whooping savagely at the indifferent sun.  

The livestock whine, roadside saplings quake at the thundering chains and whirring spokes. Blue-bellied lizards scatter before the bikers’ crunching tires. 

I can see them from here: 

Six bikers, four of them caused by me. Two of them donated by neighbors.
A bicycle for each.
12 sneakers, shoelaces flapping.
Average speed: also 12.
Average age: 9.
Wrecks today: three.

Lemonade stands held at gunpoint: none so far, but there’s NERF ammo in the house.  

As I check the cupboard to make sure I’ve got enough Gatorade to slake their furious thirst, I cram the last of the peanut butter into my mouth so they can’t steal it.  

“Mom!” yells a biker gang member, “We’ve got a hunger!” 

I set out six cups of trail mix, smile nervously and hide behind the bar – er, the counter.  

The bikers slam the trail mix like a fluid.  

“Golly,” curses their second-in-command, red with exertion and heat, “I am one roasted marshmallow.”  

“YOU might be,” bellows the kingpin, also red-hot, “but I’M a baked potato.”  

They waddle bow-legged back out to their trusty old hogs, nod at one another and peel out of my driveway, their skinny legs plastered with dried blood and Pikachu band-aids.  

Window curtains snap shut throughout the neighborhood.  

Will the reign of terror never end? 

The longer the gang rambles down the road, the more members it snags. And you can’t just join a gang with no questions asked. You’ve got to prove yourself.  

“OK. You gotta sing ‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno,’” says Kingpin.  

“Nah,” counters a biker. “Make him do a headstand.”  

Then the dreadful chanting begins: those with 24-inch wheels bellowing “BRU-NO! BRU-NO!” and those with 20-inch wheels barking “HEAD-STAND! HEAD-STAND!” Finally, they let the initiate join their gang after one “Bruno” chorus, then they careen down the canal road. 

If they sing out in one continuous monotone, the bikers realize, the ruts on the road will translate their droning into operatic vibrato: 

“Uh-yayayayayayayayaaaaa.” 

Once they’re out of sight, I try to work off the trauma by gardening, even though I never manage to grow anything in this atmosphere of terror.  

Still, I plant raspberry roots. They remind me of the warm evenings of my childhood, when I would ease ripe berries from the vine with a gentle tug while the light around me dampened and brimmed with pollen.  

A car rushes up my driveway.  

“Hey we found your little guy,” says a neighbor in a panic, “and he’s just about in tears down the road. Something happened to his bike.”  

Different scenarios crash through my brain at once, and they’re all scary.  

Was he hit by a car? Did the bikers get into a rumble?  

The neighbor and her husband gesture for me to get into their car, and we trundle over the bridge to where a stranded biker – the little, feisty twin – mourns his useless set of wheels, his poor judgment and whatever foolish impulse drove him to be in this gang in the first place.  

Thanking the neighbor, I run to my biker and cradle his soft brown face in my hands. He tries not to cry.  

The moments just before a child weeps are sacred. His trembling composure lasts only until he realizes he’s safe and loved; then he loses it. His roguish independence crumbles in the arms of the person eager to absorb his tears and shoulder his woes.   

“He wrecked,” explains the kingpin, his eyes still wide with shock and awe. “He tried to go BETWEEN the dumpsters.”  

Little-Feisty’s brakes are so cinched up, the bike will neither ride nor coast, and I have to carry it up the dirt road. Little-Feisty trudges along next to me, vowing never to join a biker gang again.  

But later that evening, The Husband fixes the brakes and offers the cruiser back to the boy.  

Little-Feisty straddles his bike and sets off, timidly at first. He hovers above the seat and presses the pedals down in slow syncopated arcs, until the momentum sweeps his legs back into the circular whirl of fearless bikers everywhere.   

The other boys join him, easing gently down the road as the light around them dampens and brims with pollen.   

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Clair McFarland: I’m Too Scared To Cut My Kid’s Hair

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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily

At this point, I’m too scared to cut my kid’s hair.  

It’s been months since my middle-born son had a haircut because he says he can feel his hairs crying when the clippers chop them.  

Middleborn’s bronze and copper quills plume like a nuke cloud and cascade down his skull, twisting into columnar ringlets behind his ears and dusting his shoulders with curled tendrils.   

There could be anything in there: A chocolate. A LEGO. Slingshot ammo.  

My firstborn son and young twins got haircuts last week. Each boy in his turn teased the bathroom mirror while I sheared their aesthetic rebellion away thatch by thatch.  

As the fringe hit the floor, untanned horizons broadened along their hairlines. Their eyes widened with the stretched periphery. Their happy scalps exhaled scents of leather and rain.  

Middleborn hid in an elm tree until the haircuts were over.  

“Man!” said Firstborn, sporting a military crop. “You’re starting to look like John Lennon.”  

Middleborn frowned.  

“Nuh-UH,” snapped he. “I look like one of the Beatles.” 

Firstborn tried to stifle a laugh but failed.  

I think Middleborn looks like a tough misunderstood teenager in an ‘80s movie. The twins think he looks like a Polish rooster.  

Middleborn has developed tics to deal with his hair. He flicks his head up and left to rattle the quills out of his eyes. He’s constantly smoothing, plastering, twisting his hair behind his ears. His eyes roll in their sockets when the strands tickle his nose.  

With his one exposed eye he guards the red comb no one else is allowed to use.  

His tics drive me crazy.  

“We’ve gotta cut it,” I blurt at bedtime.  

The copper mop shakes a “no.”  

“Why not?” 

“Because,” says the mop, “it looks cool. And it feels cool. And it’s fluffy.” 

I wonder if “fluffy” is a synonym for “explosive.”  

“And I NEVER have bad hair days,” Middleborn continues. “Except when the poof sticks up.”  

Ah, the poof. The bane of every 10-year-old boy who ever went vogueing down pastel elementary school hallways while pretending not to notice girls.  

Even though it annoys me, I can’t bring myself to cut his hair. It reminds me of Middleborn’s refusal to domesticate wild things; which is one of the traits he got from me.  

See, we aren’t just living one life. Heroes and savages hide in us all, vying against each other for the chance to blaze forth against the survivalist instincts that shackle us into lockstep conformity.   

And the longer Middleborn’s hair gets, the brighter his inner legends blaze.  

He stalks up and down the soccer field like a lion, tracking the ball with his one uncovered eye, lunging for it with bared teeth. 

On the ride home he’s a bonfire. Middleborn sticks his head out the open car window and lets the wind flow through his mane. The bright tails flutter into pointed flames. His exposed forehead welcomes the rushing air like a secret.  

At home he’s a hermit meditating in his own shade. He builds a LEGO battle scene of long-haired warriors with black helmets, pitted against naïve and doomed helicopter pilots who, incidentally, have no hair. When he leans forward his hair flows down like autumn willow limbs, hiding the lip-biting, squinting intensity of a boy at work.  

Middleborn’s imagination grows with his hair. And watching him shift from rogue to legend with each new adventure makes me long to see the world through his one uncovered eye, and live the many tales that make up his one-of-a-kind soul.  

Well, I can’t do that. But I can bury my nose in his poofy mane and let him go a few more days without a haircut.  

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Clair McFarland: Lessons About Life – And Death – In The Kitten Maternity Ward

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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily

We’ve been expecting.

Kittens, at least. We’ve been expecting newborn kittens since we noticed the yearling cat, Leia, toting around a beer belly, though none of us could recall giving her beer.

“Oh my golly!” I squealed. “Are you gonna be a MAMA?”

Leia purred, fanning her black-tufted toes.

My twin sons’ identical foreheads wrinkled.

“But where did she GET the babies?” asked the little, feisty twin.

I faltered. “Ummm….”

“Amazon,” said my firstborn son.

Just then, Leia sprinted across the deck, angled her head into a gap between the railing slats as if to vault across the prairie, and… she got stuck. The keg beneath her ribs would let her go no farther.

Humiliated, she backed out of the gap and slunk down the deck stairs.

I giggled. Our older cat narrowed her eyes in disgust.

It takes three cats roving this country home to keep the mice away, which in turn keeps the rattlesnakes away. Which deprives us of some savory reptilian dinners but prevents me from having to teach 8-year-olds how to hunt rattlesnakes. That’s a skill that even I don’t have, though I’ll tell you otherwise if you ever find me wearing my greasy old hat and listening to “El Paso.”

The oldest cat is a gaunt beast descended from Himalayan snow leopards, standing knee-high and pushing 30 years of age. Her coat’s a sludgy grey, her eyes glow like algae. Her lips are black from disemboweling jackrabbits in mid-air.

My sons named her “Mittens.”

Then there’s Luna, a sleek indoor cat. She’s a princess, a Russian ballerina, a Jane Austen character forever waiting to go to the ball.

But back to Leia. She’s a tiger-striped yearling whose arrival attracted a certain white tomcat.

“Out in the west Texas town of El Paso,” sang I, to the tomcat. “I fell in love with a Mexican girl.”

“Mom, you’re scaring him,” said Firstborn.

“Nuh-uh,” I said. “I’m TEASING him.”

Leia’s prance slowed with pregnancy. This month she swayed into a pendulum waddle.

One spring Thursday Leia trotted to my car after I brought the boys home from school, looked up at me and meowed, earnestly.

Her belly was empty. Her back legs were drenched and bloody. But I could see no kittens, anywhere.

It was my middleborn son who found them, soaking wet and next to a slain robin under the bottom deck stair.

The Husband (who had come home to celebrate) held a towel-lined box out to me while I shinnied under the stairs and, with my hands gloved, transplanted the kittens.

There were five, including one odd grey fellow whom I found separate and cold. The other four were still tied to their purple placenta, which Leia ate later when I wasn’t looking.

“That’s disgusting,” spat Middleborn.

“That’s nature,” I sighed.

“Did you eat MY placenta?”

“No, but I ate a whole box of Nutter Butters.”

Middleborn shook his head. “Not the same, Mom.”

Leia mooned over four of the kittens but completely ignored the grey one. He was icy to the touch.

“He’s dying,” I said. “What do we do?”

“We save it,” said The Husband.

Middleborn fretted. The Husband brought Grey into the house, warmed him by the fire and fed him with an eye-dropper.

Grey faded anyway.

One day later, on a blanket near the fire, Grey went cold for the final time. Middleborn begged me to do something, anything, to revive him. Feed him, massage his little cold body – just DO something.

But the time for doing things was over.

It took Middleborn a long while to admit that Grey was dead. At last, Middleborn zipped his black hoodie up to his nose, trudged outside, grabbed a shovel, lumbered up a prickly hill and dug a grave – kitten-sized.

I carried the tiny bundle up the hill to meet him. My other three sons marched up after me, sniffling in the cold wind.

This was the boys’ first experience with birth:

An invisible fusion severed into five distinct identities, who grew, fed by a plump bloody envelope under a beating heart, then left their dark haven for a world too big for their minds to comprehend.

It was also my sons’ first visual experience of death:

The irreversible parting. All the what-ifs fallen away. And the hard lesson that, however clever or strong or capable you are, you cannot gather that fleeing life essence into your hands and push it back into the shell it just left – because it’s not yours.

Middleborn closed his eyes and leaned his forehead on the shovel handle.

Later that evening, he sat on an overturned bucket and watched Leia feed four fluffy kittens. A sigh poured out of him, made of four parts life, one part death.

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Clair McFarland: The Joys Of Cooking By Committee

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18644

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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily

Do not enter this kitchen.   

It all started when I decided to quadruple a cookie recipe to feed my four sons. Their eyes shone from across the countertop like full moons cresting an alien horizon.  

I wiped down the countertop; it was the only furniture keeping them from mauling me.  

“Can I lick the spoon?” asked my firstborn son.  

I looked at the wooden spoon. “But – this only has butter on it.”  

He grinned and nodded.  

I shook my head and dumped in all the brown sugar we’d been saving for the apocalypse.  

“Now can I lick the spoon?” Firstborn asked.  

“It’s not even dough until it has flour in it,” I said.  

My middle child thought this was a great time to sneak into the pantry, shinny up the shelves and cram some Doritos into his mouth.  

“OWWWW!” wailed Middleborn from inside the pantry.  

I rushed to him. “What, sweetie? What hurt you?” 

“I cut myself!” 

“On what?” A misplaced knife? Some fishing gear? A stray nail? 

“A chip.”  

So this is how it ends. When Child Protective Services comes to take my children, they’ll say “Sorry, Mrs. McFarland, but this is our third deadly-chip alert from this location.” 

I dusted Middleborn’s face off and shooed him out from my pantry. Then I cracked eggs.  

“Oooh, can I crack an egg?” asked the big, sweet twin.  

“Sure!”  

Big-Sweet tapped the egg lightly on the countertop. Nothing happened. He tapped it a little harder. Nothing happened, so he smashed it onto the countertop, grimaced at his yolky fingers and flapped his hand so fast it blurred in the air, flinging egg on the ceiling and walls.   

I smothered his eggy little hand with a dishrag and tidied up the mess.  

“Mom, are you stressed?” asked Middleborn.  

“Not at all,” answered I, through gritted teeth.  

“You’re breathing heavy,” he said.  

“Am not.”  

“Are too.”  

“Can I crack another egg?” asked Big-Sweet.  

“No, thank you.”  

“But I’m an expert at it.”  

“That’s nice, dear.”  

The little, feisty twin zoomed into the kitchen on a hoverboard from absolutely nowhere, yelling “Yeeeehawww!” 

Big-Sweet sighed. “He thinks he’s a Tex-edo.”  

I raised an eyebrow. “A tuxedo?” 

“A TEXedo.” Big-Sweet rolled his eyes. “A guy from Texas.”  

Ohhhh. “We all think we’re from Texas, because here in Wyoming, many of our ancestors were Texas cow-herders who – “ 

“I’M more of a Texedo than HE is,” said Big-Sweet.  

Little-Feisty careened through the kitchen again. His brothers whipped him with dish towels, so he yelled “GET BACK OR I’LL SHOOT!”  

From his hip, Little-Feisty drew a ketchup pistol.  

See, a few years ago The Husband bought a plastic pistol, with a trigger, designed to shoot ketchup. The Husband thinks stuff like this will end well.  

“Get BACK I said!” bellowed Little-Feisty. 

I used my de-escalation voice. “Buddy…. You don’t have to shoot that.”  

The air stiffened in a tense silence. 

Middleborn lunged. Little-Feisty fired!  

Some clear runny fluid shot from the gun, and it took me a full three seconds to realize it was only water, because I was expecting battery acid or homemade sauerkraut.  

“That’s IT!” I shouted. “Everyone get OUT of my kitchen.”  

Their eyes widened.  

“But… why Mom?” asked Big-Sweet.  

“Because she wants to be alone while she listens to yodel music, DUH,” said Middleborn.  

“Nuh-UH,” argued Firstborn. “It’s because she’s gonna eat the butter when we’re not looking.”  

“Hey Mom,” said Big-Sweet. “Can I crack another egg?” 

My powers of speech left me. “Go – not – kitchen.” 

The boys looked at each other in confusion and horror, wondering which of them had written down the CPS phone number.  

“You – kitchen out,” I continued. “Mom make cookie lone self.”  

They backed away slowly. Little-Feisty laid the pistol on the countertop with its barrel pointed at the wall, opened his hand wide and raised it from the pistol grip in hushed surrender.  

Ten minutes later, I pulled a dozen cookies from the oven and invited all four boys back into my kitchen for a treat.  

Even though they’re Texedos. 

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Clair McFarland: First Rule Of The Fight Club — Don’t Let Mom Know

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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily

The first rule of Fight Club is: don’t let Mom find out about it.  

It all started on a sunny afternoon when I cuddled my four sons before going to work.  

The boys are getting old and sturdy now, but I still see them as plump babies grasping blindly for human warmth.  

I listened to their tales. I inhaled the spring breezes caught in their hair, watched the light glance off the smooth sandy crescents joining their temples to their cheeks; followed the rise and fall of their sharp black lashes.  

“Welp,” I finally said, “I’ve got to get a little work done.” 

“Aww-ww,” pouted a twin. “But I’m hungry.”  

The poor helpless dear, I thought to myself.  

“I’ll fix you a snack when I’m done,” I said, and slipped into my home office for some last-minute writing, sighing gratefully over my four sweet cherubs.  

The profession of writing swallows you whole into its churning sea of demands, and blocks out the linear reality that claims to have birthed all that language in the first place.  

I got so absorbed in my work, I didn’t check on the boys for a while. When I backed away from the desk and stood myself up on solid ground, I realized they were shrieking.  

Naturally, I assumed the house was under attack and the boys were crying for me with their final breaths. I rushed down the hallway, through the dining room and into the family room, only to discover… 

Mayhem.  

Two boys were locked in full physical combat. Another boy dry-heaved in a corner as pink handprints took shape on his shirtless back. A fourth boy, scowling, counted off push-ups on the rug.   

Their shirts lay scattered and flung on the furniture; one of the shirts rotated slowly on a ceiling fan blade. In denim jeans and red bandanas, the boys punched, kicked, shoved and tackled one another with their strong, sapling arms.  

I couldn’t take it.  

“Stop it! Stop it!” I wailed.  

No one heard me.  

“Boys! Boys, please!”  

My world collapsed. Weren’t these my babies? Aren’t they meant to babble, coo, and beg for snacks? How is it they became so violent, muscular, and smelly? I covered my eyes with my hands.  

Astonished, they paused the fight and watched their mother groan into her palms.  

“Whaaat?” asked my first-born, who is now 12.  

“Why,” I whimpered, “Why are you – HURTING each other? What HAPPENED?”  

He cocked his head to one side. “Nothin’, Mom. It’s ninja training.” 

Ninja training. I hate it.  

I leaned against the doorway for support.  

“Hey Mom, you’re blocking the bomb exit.” 

I schlepped onto the rug, near the twin who had now switched from push-ups to sit-ups.  

“Oh NO!” squealed my middle-born child. “Mom’s in the LAVA!” 

Four boys sprinted wildly then snatched up their shirts and plastered them onto my face, to extinguish me.  

“Get ‘er to safety!” 

And then those boys – those squishy cherubs who squirmed out of my body a decade ago and drooled iridescent bubbles from their heavy little faces onto their helpless bodies – they lifted me. Those boys lifted me out of the “lava” and dumped me in the “base.”  

And then they, um, beat each other up.  

“I’m going psychooooo!” yelled a ninja. He charged his foe and kicked him in the gut. The foe snatched the ninja’s foot and hoisted it. The ninja thudded to the floor, where the pair wrestled bitterly.  

I jumped up to help, scouring the nether layers of my brain for first aid techniques.  

“It’s OK boys, I’m right here – “ 

But when I got to that brutal nucleus, their laughter reached me.   

Locked in each other’s arms and smudged with fresh bruises on the hard floor of this lava-ringed battle zone, my babies grew, into something more like men – and laughed about it.  

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Clair McFarland: Driving Lessons With A 9-Year-Old

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17754

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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily

Sometimes I let the kid drive.  

First, I pick up the boys from school. My 9-year-old flumps into the front passenger seat.  

My 8-year-old twins careen giggling into the back seat of our little Honda, where they argue about which of the “Madagascar” penguins they’d each be.  

(My 11-year-old is at swimming practice so he’ll have to sit this episode out.) 

“I think I’d be Skipper,” says the big, sweet twin.  

“Nuh-UH. I’d be Skipper. You’d be Private,” retorts the little, feisty twin.  

“Nahh. I’ll be Rico,” says Big-Sweet. Private is a real wuss, even for a penguin.  

The 9-year-old swivels around, knits his copper eyebrows together and snaps “SHHH! Don’t stress Mom out.” 

“What penguin do you think you’d be?” replies Big-Sweet, who is oblivious to rebuke.  

“Doesn’t matter. Now stop arguing, so Mom will let me drive.” 

For a 9-year-old to be given a Honda Accord, the interior conditions must be perfect: brotherly harmony, mild heating, minimal flatulence.  

“I think you’re Kowalski,” continues the twin.  

The 9-year-old slaps his own pearly forehead with his pink-knuckled hand.  

Exterior conditions also decide whether a 9-year-old gets to drive. The day must be dry, clear, not too trafficky. The national headlines can’t be too disturbing. It also helps if no one went to Walmart or heard country rap that day.  

I turn onto Main Street.  

“Now?” asks the hopeful driver.  

“Goodness no,” I say. “We’re still in town.  

The boy chews his lip and cranes his neck. He’s watching me flick the turn signal. He’s judging other drivers.   

“Now?” he asks again.  

“Not yet,” I answer. “We’re in a school zone.”  

He nods under the thick copper mop I should have cut last week.   

We clear the school zone and head north. The sidewalk falls away, leaving sheer weedy barrows and sassy little prairie dogs.   

“Now?!” 

“Yes, honey. Now.” 

My seat whines as I power it backward to make room for him. He scrambles over the center console and drops his full weight onto my lap, then grips the steering wheel in both hands. His left foot rests on my right foot, which is poised just next to the brake pedal in case I have to make an intervening “urch.”  

He accelerates.  

“It’s only a 35 zone here,” I warn.  

“Dad says you can go four miles over the speed limit and not get in trouble.” 

“Dad’s not 9.”  

That’s fair: he slows down.  

Sunlight catches in the fuzz of his arms, revealing innumerable soft bristles. His back straightens; his arms tense into the angular hold of every man who ever steered any vessel, anywhere.  

And he’s happy. Gone is the surly boy who won’t sit for pictures. Gone is the bossy brother; the prankster, the vegetable-hater. When my boy drives, he’s just a soul under the sun, forever accelerating on a road that belongs only to him – and that road’s end will evade him until he’s run out of places to go.  

But he can’t simply drive straight. For him, “straight” is a constant quiver from left to right.  

I try not to get involved. 

See, the trick of the good driving-coach parent is calmness. One must be so chill, so relaxed, so –  

“DON’T HIT THAT TRUCK!” 

He swerves right. I grab the wheel to get us back on course. He jiggles his soft cheeks in shock.   

“I wonder who was in that truck anyway.”  

I wince. “Ummmm, the county sheriff.”  

Big-Sweet decides to have an existential crisis.  

“Uh…. Mom?” he asks.  

“Yeah?” 

“Are we OK?” 

“Of course we’re OK. Your brother’s a great driver. That’s the first time he’s ever almost hit the sheriff.”  

“But what if we die?” 

“We’re not gonna die.” 

But the twin is not convinced. Secretly he wonders if he’ll ever have another pickle quesadilla. If he’ll ever break his jump rope record. If he’ll get home in time to –  

“I gotta go potty.” 

“What?”  

The driver speeds up. 

“I gotta go potty right now!” bellows Big-Sweet.  

Little-Feisty encourages his twin with some spontaneous singing. “OHHHH, WE’RE HALF-WAY THERRE!” 

We race onto a bridge.  

“WO-OHH! LIVIN’ ON A PRAY-ER!” 

We drift around a sharp bend.  

“Not the ditch, not the ditch,” I plead. 

The driver straightens the wheel; we miss the ditch by a few song lyrics.  Big-Sweet dances in the back seat. Not from the music, but from the same burning urgency that powers my car.  

The house whips into sight. We barrel down the long driveway, swerve around the elm tree, skid to a halt at the garage, throw the car in park and let everybody out.  

Big-Sweet trots to the bushes. Little-Feisty skips to the house, still singing.  

The driver turns his large green eyes on me. “Thanks, Mom.” 

“You bet, buddy.” 

He pulls my key from the ignition and carries it to the house like a trophy, imagining himself the all-time NASCAR champion, striding through a rain of tossed roses as his heart downshifts in his chest.  

See – it’s just that easy to let a kid drive.  

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Clair McFarland: Peaceful Family Moments Are The Real Magic

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17364

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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily

We needed a miracle.  

“For my first trick,” began the 8-year-old magician, “I will turn this LEGO into a coin.”  

I had some doubts.  

But the boy had built his magic stage out of boxes and cushions, whittled a wand, donned a cape and demanded attention. An enchanting silver glow diffused through the window.  

There was just one thing missing.  

“Where’s my lovely assistant?” called the magician.  

Silence.  

The magician cleared his throat.  

“Oh lovely assistant…!”  

The magician’s twin brother trudged onstage, his stout frame wrapped in red Spider-man jammies.  

“I don’t see why I have to be the lovely muh-sistant,” pouted the duplicate.  

“Because it’s my turn with the wand! Now, get your booty over here.” 

The lovely assistant complied.  

“And now – “ said the magician “ – behold this penny. It’s got Abraham Lincoln on it, which is the real miracle here, because he was definitely worth more than a penny…” 

The assistant nudged the magician.  

“Oh, right. I shall, before your very eyes, slide this penny into this sock.” Though he’s long past toddlerhood, this louder twin still pronounces the word “sock” with the weighted “o” of the Bronx New Yorker.  

“Be-fore your ver-y eyes,” echoed the assistant, reluctantly.  

“And turn it into a LEGO brick!” added the magician. He slid the penny into the sock, turned to his assistant and whispered “psst. I need some magic.”  

The assistant lowered his head.  

Whack! The magician swatted his assistant’s head with the homemade wand.  

“There! Now I’ve got some magic. Ahem.” And, gripping the sock’s frayed toe in his finger and thumb, he turned it upside-down, making it drop a LEGO onto his other, open hand.  

“Hoorayyy!” I cheered.  

From the shadows emerged a 9-year-old boy.  

“I know how he did that,” said the boy.  

I frowned. “Don’t – “ 

“But I do!” 

“House. Rule,” I growled. The house rule is, there shall be no theorizing, guessing or spoiling miracles. Just let them be what they are.  

The loud twin reckoned it was the quiet twin’s turn to be the magician.  

“Now you do a trick, and I’ll assist you,” he chirped.  

The quiet twin nodded. His eyes were two pools of grave innocence as he took a deep breath, and said “Please watch this cup.”  

“Pre-PARE to be a-MAZED!” bellowed the loud twin, who was now the lovely assistant.  

“I’m going to put this gum ball in it,” continued the quiet twin. Little did he know, it was not a gum ball, but a white marble. But I knew it – and so did my teeth.  

He plopped the marble into the cup.  

“But it’s an anti-gravity gumball,” he said.  

Yeah, I thought, or an anti-cavity marble.  

The quiet twin turned the cup upside-down… and nothing fell out.  

“Dun-da-da-DUNNN!” called the loud twin.  

I clapped and cheered. The two performers switched roles again: the loud twin would play magician, the quiet twin was stuck being lovely assistant. Again.  

“I’m gonna shoot a coin from this rope,” the loud twin shouted. “Yeeeeeeee-HAWWWWWW!”  

He circled the rope’s end above his head, flung it over the audience; it whipped the couch and spat Abraham Lincoln onto the window sill.  

“Ta-DAA!” 

I applauded. My 11-year-old son whooped. My 9-year-old nodded darkly, as if accepting a dubious new gang member.  

The magician and his lovely assistant both bowed: the show was a hit.  

In this frantic world full of math problems, itchy jeans, and health food, four young boys shared a moment of warm regard.  

And that, is a miracle.

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