Wednesday, November 4, 2009

What's Gourd-geous: Life Lessons from the Pumpkin Patch

Every autumn I make a visit to my favorite farm in Colt's Neck, New Jersey. I am never alone. The company changes from year to year, always some joyful, chaotic combination of friends; some with children, from wobbly, chubby-cheeked toddlers to aloof college freshmen who'll gladly sacrifice their cool for the irresistible innocence of this ritual.

The farm is popping with pumpkins of every variety, butternut and acorn squash, rows of apple trees dropping their cheerful fruit onto the lush carpet of grass below. In spite of muddy fields, sunburnt noses, and poopy diapers, everyone enjoys themselves here. And everyone gets to take a little of the day's magic home with them, to carve and set proudly alight on Halloween night, or to cook up for dinner.

Pumpkins and produce aside, however, it seems everyone gets a special kick out of choosing their very own gourd.

Gourd selection is big fun, at any age. I know, I've witnessed this. Grown-ups and children alike know exactly what they want when they see it -- thee gourd to grace the ledge of their cubicle, or to set in the center of the kitchen table and vocally distinguish to anyone who'll listen, "That one's mine! No, not those two, those are my brothers'. That one right there, I picked out that one, it's mine!"

This past Sunday was my annual pumpkin farm n' orchard day. The weather was brilliant, crisp and sunny, the fields smelled like heaven. I strolled slowly around the perimeter of the farm, noticed an old white clapboard farmhouse I'd overlooked in years past, and picked three varieities of apples I'd never tasted before.

And as we were leaving, I paused with my girlfriend beside an old wooden flat-bed wagon resplendent with little gourds. Adults and children were crowded around its perimeter, pawing enthusiastically through the pile of greens, golds, and shades of fire.

There were gourds shaped like geese with long, curling necks and beak-like stems. Some gourds looked uncannily like oranges and eggs. Some took smooth shapes, pleasing to the hand, like droplets with tapered handles, like maracas; others had flanges like hardened wings or fins, like a child had pinched their flesh like Play-Doh and pulled it outward. Some looked like spaceships; others like cauldrons burping foam. Some gourds were pinstriped. There were gourds that were hilariously phallic, balls-and-all. Other gourds looked like they were so happy to be gourds that their joy was erupting from beneath their skin in knobby, popcorn-like clusters, as though the meat of the gourd itself were giggling. I wanted them all.

On the opposite side of the wagon, a little boy of about six had found his gourd. "Mom, I want this one!" he declared with complete confidence. I smiled to myself.

His mother took a quick look at her son's gourd and in two seconds, determined it was not the right gourd for him; that it wasn't the kind of gourd he should want.

"Ew, no honey, it's warty. These here," she waved a hand over a small section of giggling gourds, "These are all too warty. You want to pick one with pretty colors, see." Prid-dee CULL-lerrrrs, she emphasized.

"See, like maybe this one," Mommy said, picking up a style of gourd she deemed acceptable. She showed it to the little boy, made sure he saw it and understood which aesthetic should please him. "Yes, this one is -- oh, wait, no..." she stopped and threw the gourd back into the pile. "Not that one. That gourd had an imperfection," she said sourly. Let's keep looking."

The woman's teenage daughter chose a gourd and sought her mother's approval. "Ma, Ma, how 'bout this one?"

"Yes, see Jonathan?" The mother took her daughter's approved gourd in-hand and showed it to the boy. "Prid-dee CULL-lerrrrs."

As they drew away from the wagon, the father and husband of the group, who'd been hanging back, leaned in for a lazy look over the gourds. Like a beaten, exhausted man, in zombie-like monotone, he droned, "The perfect gourd. The perfect gourd." Then he too withdrew.

And the boy, who would one day be a man, perhaps a man capable of love, perhaps a man with the potential to choose a partner based on the mysterious urgings of his heart, walked away from the pumpkin farm with the gourd his mother chose for him.

The gourd he truly wanted, a gourd "too warty", less than "perfect", was left behind.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Only Thing I've Ever Stolen.

When I was in eighth grade, my friends and I went to the mall almost every weekend. There wasn't much else for a thirteen-year-old girl to do in Bristol, Tennessee, at least not in the early '80s.

We had a nice big Rite Aid in our mall, and it was a required stop on the teen mall train. There was a rack of magazines right inside the door, and each week a portion of my five-dollar allowance went towards one of those bubbly teen celebrity magazines, like Bop, Superteen, 16, Seventeen, etc. (I was a "Duranie", you see -- that's pop culture slang for "Duran Duran fanatic" -- and I couldn't miss a single issue of any of the aforementioned publications. Because Duran Duran was in all of them in those days. How else could I keep up with John's favorite colors [red and black] and Simon's nickname [Charlie] and Nick's favorite kind of weather [gray and rainy]?)

Boy, y'know, it's amazing. I could stretch a five-dollar bill from one end of the mall to the other in those days. I remember paying $1.25 to get into the movies. Then maybe $1.25 for the magazine. That still left half my money for hair styling products, a treat from Orange Julius, or a couple of 45 records.

Anyway, so one day my friend Charlene and I were walking through the Rite Aid, and suddenly a rack of mascara packets fell on top of me. It was one of those spinning racks, and some genius had placed it perilously high atop a tall display case. Bubble packets of pink-and-green mascara tubes on cardboard backs rained down on my head as the rack tipped over. A Rite Aid sales associate rushed over to put the rack upright and slide the packages back on their skinny aluminum display rods. Charlene bought herself a flatulent can of fluffy hair mousse. We went back to my house and played with our hair.

As I was about to remove my white blazer with the big patch pockets (almost identical to the one Duran Duran's John Taylor wore in their famous all-white photo session), I noticed one of the pockets was weightier than it should have been. I put my hand in, and pulled out a brand new package of mascara.

"Oh my god!" I shreiked. "Charlene, look! This must've fallen into my pocket when that rack fell over!"

"Woo-hoo!" she cheered. "Free mascara for you!"

But I was horrified. I held it tentatively in my hand, out away from my body, like it was a gun.

"I can't believe I walked out of Rite Aid with this in my pocket. What if somebody had stopped me! They could've arrested me for shoplifting! And I didn't even notice it was there!"

As odd as it may sound, I felt something akin to survivor's guilt. Or like a woman who'd murdered for the joy of it and who remained twenty years unsuspected and unpunished.

I couldn't even bring myself to use the thing.

"Here, take this," I said to Charlene. "You use it. Take it home with you."

As if by keeping it I'd be cursing myself to a peculiar sort of transparency that only the employees of Rite Aid could detect. I'd innocently step inside the doorway for a look at the latest Bop and a girl in the signature blue apron would point and scream,

"Thief! Mascara thief! I see it written on her brain!"