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Clair McFarland

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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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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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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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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