Deer Hoof Destiny

I am a practical joker. I enjoy the practical jokes, mostly those played on others. Don’t get me wrong – I am a good sport, I’m just more of a sport when the gag is at someone else’s expense.

I have been playing practical jokes on my family since I was little. Of course, once I learned to walk and talk the jokes got easier. You can only play, “Hey Mom, guess what’s in the diaper?” so many times. And that has to be played to a very specific audience.

Mainly Mom.

At 2am.

I love my mom. Mom was my first victim. She didn’t know she was raising a prankster at first, but after The Diaper Games she figured it out.

When I was 13-years-old my family rented a house in the mountains of New Jersey. Yes, we’re from New Jersey and yes there are mountains. It’s not just a collection of highway on-and-off ramps as most people think. New Jersey is called “The Garden State” for crying out loud! It’s on our license plates.

Speaking of pretty states with license plates, the state of Colorado’s plates used to say “Colorful Colorado”, although the plates were just white with green lettering. After vacationing in Hawaii, a Colorado congressmen saw the Hawaiian license plates which feature a full rainbow on them and (feeling outdone by the islanders) returned to the Rockies and petitioned to have their motto changed to, “Colorado: at least we don’t pay $10 for a gallon of milk.” Sadly, that fact does not fit on a 12”x6” plate, so they went with “We’ll Have Weed One Day”.

The house my family rented in NJ was on beautiful Highland Lake. It was a hunter’s home, and aptly decorated with multiple deer heads, raccoons holding up lamps and a stuffed possum on the fireplace hearth. (Sidenote: it turned out to be a real possum, playing possum, which we found out during Family Game Night two weeks later. Kudos to the possum. Seriously. Top of his class.)

Mom said the house gave her the hebbie-jebbies. Not like a “This-house-is-drafty” feeling, more like a “I-think-that-picture-is-watching-me-make-coffee” feeling. So after a few weeks, my father was encouraged to take the creatures of taxidermy out to the garage. At 2am.

Back then when my siblings and I would feel sick, Mom would want to feel our palms for clamminess and kiss our foreheads to see if we were running a fever. This was common practice. Apparently she had temperature sensors in her lips. Looking back now I think she was actually doing it for strength, kissing our heads and praying to God like, “Lawd, give me the strength not to take this one to the No Kill Shelter on Route 23.” I’m kidding of course. Mom loved us dearly and the No Kill Shelter was actually over in Hoboken, NJ. That’s a fun word to say: “Hoboken”.

“And now, welcome to the center ring – Hoboken the Clown and his Flaming Swords of Death! Watch in amazement as he…wait. What’s that? What happened? Oh, that’s too bad. I didn’t even know they were real swords. …ahem.  And now, welcome to the center ring – Tonya the Bareback Rider! Watch in amazement as she…”

So one night Mom and my older sister Heather are watching TV in their PJ’s under a blanket on the couch. And I’m bored. Which is a bad combination. I’m rifling through drawers looking for pencils to journal with, when I find the most unusual paperweight. It is a deer hoof, about eight inches in length, cut off at the ankle and weighted down to about two pounds by the taxidermist. The fur is reflective and soft to the touch. The deer’s toes are out stretched and rough. Deer’s hooves are actually formed of keratin, the same material that forms our fingernails. Speaking of fingernails, my next practical joke springs to the front of my mind…

I hold the “ankle nub” of the hoof with my left hand and with my right I roll my blue flannel pajama sleeve down, covering my hand and fingers. Now, just a hoof protrudes from my shirt sleeve. I tuck my hoof and my remaining five fingers behind my back and shuffle down the hallway in my slippers, back towards the den, passed the picture that watched Mom brew coffee this morning. The time is 9:15pm.

(Can you see where this is going? I’m so excited!)

I walk into the room slowly yet purposefully, squaring myself up in front of the one that gave me birth and I try to look pale. With one eye partially closed, I make my voice soft and say, “Mom, I don’t feel so good.”

“Oh, no,” she says, silently wondering how long it takes to get to Hoboken. “Let me feel your hands.”

At 13 years old, the mind is not fully formed. Childish things are behind you, your whole life is ahead of you, yet you’re stuck in this space where you cannot define who you are. You just know who you are not.

I already knew I was never going to be a professional athlete, I knew I was not going into politics and that I didn’t like to be alone. I also knew my attention span lasted shorter than this sentence. …where was I going with this? Oh, yes.

The point is at that very moment, standing in that winter living room I realized that my calling was to bring joy into this world for others. Even though sometimes the joy I brought was only for myself.

And as my destiny in life became clear to me, I brought my arms from around my back…

I Was Jaded.

My first love was Jill Dwyer in the 3rd grade. I was attending a catholic school at the time, Our Lady Queen of Peace in West Milford NJ, and she was my classmate. Jill had long fiery red hair, white skin with freckles and bright green eyes. I had never seen this combination before. To me she looked like an angel, or one of Strawberry Shortcake’s friends. Either way I wanted to be near her.

Jill was a little taller than me and wore the school-required plaid skirt and solid, short-sleeved dress shirts. Always buttoned up to the neck. Always smiling in her patent leather shoes with silver buckles. Having feelings for her, I didn’t know how to act around her so I remember treating her “just like one of the guys”. This non-special treatment I showed her did not make her notice me (which I found to be odd) but she was always kind. Always smiling.

One day on the playground, a boy noticed me looking at Jill and figured out I had a crush on her. He jabbed an elbow into my ribs and chuckled, “Well, you know what they say about red heads!” I did NOT know what they said about redheads and starred at him blankly. He starred back just as blank, apparently waiting for me to finish the thought. When I did not, he just turned and walked away. Looking back I don’t think he knew what they said at all. He probably just overheard someone else use that phrase and was trying to find out for himself. I don’t remember what his name was, just that he was twice everyone’s size and never tied his shoes.

Third graders at Our Lady Queen of Peace in North Jersey got to participate in “Show-and-Tell” on a pretty regular basis. This was similar to an Oral Book Report, although no reading was required. Nor was there any real attempt in learning anything. It kinda went like this:

“I have this thing that I keep at home, but today I brought it with me. It’s not my favorite thing. I never bring my favorite thing outside, let alone across town on a school bus full of idiots. I’m not meaning you people of course — you idiots are on a different bus route. Honestly, I wanted to bring something else, but Mom said it was too nice and it might break. I don’t see what the big deal is. Christmas is a month away and if it broke Santa could just make me another one.”

On this particular Show-and-Tell day I was thrilled to be bringing in one of my Star Wars action figures. Luke Skywalker! This…THIS will make Jill Dwyer notice me! Once she sees that I am into Star Wars she’ll have to like Star Wars too! And then we can play Star Wars together – forever! I had cleaned up Luke the night before for the Big Day and had placed him in my book bag next to my bed. I wanted to set him directly on the bookbag so I could fall asleep looking at him in anticipation, but we had a dog at the time. A dog that clearly worked for The Empire. So Luke was rolled up neatly in some napkins and tucked safely inside.

The next morning I dressed quickly, shoved Sugar Pops into my mouth and was early for the bus. The bus drove uncharacteristically slow this day. I was so anxious I wanted to pull out a lightsaber and slice the driver in half! However, it would be another 9 years before I got my driver’s license, and another 15 years before I got my bus license, so I spared him. Just drive faster. Idiot.

Twenty minutes later I walked into class. It was there that the height of my excitement was met by the depth of my disappointment — Jill was home sick. (If this was a movie, we would begin slow motion here.) “What???” I cried. “Why?”

The why didn’t matter. My heart sunk so fast and so heavy it brought me to my hands and knees on the dirty tile floor. How will Jill Dwyer know that I like Star Wars if she’s not here? My book bag slid of my shoulder and landed next to my right hand. I could feel my Sugar Pops coming back up. My classmates shuffled in past me as if they couldn’t feel the foundations of the earth collapsing… It was over between Jill and I before it even began.

I don’t remember her after this; it’s apparently the last memory I have of Jill Dywer. I had had my heart stomped out by a woman who never really talked to me even though I strategically ignored her in an attempt to make myself more attractive.

At my request the following year, my parents transferred me to another school, I grew out my hair and we changed religions. I was jaded.

I left Jill on her barren, desert planet to deal with her issues and (much like Luke Skywalker) I headed off to find my own destiny. A destiny that would take me well beyond any realm I could come up with using a 3rd grader’s imagination.

Funny how the movies we watch are not nearly as entertaining as real life.

My name is Curtis Johnston — and that was real life.

A Cup of Coffee by Any Other Name

I Like my Coffee Like I Like My Women…

We’re all addicted. Some people are addicted to chocolate, some to cute little kittens. I am addicted to hot water filtered through ground beans — coffee. I love the sound of it brewing, the smell, the taste.

Did you know that coffee first begins its life not as bean, but as a fruit? More specifically a cherry? Neither did I. Did you know that it was first harvested in the ninth century in Ethiopia? Do you even know where Ethiopia is? Yeah I had to look it up too. It’s not my fault though. My school teacher never turned the globe to the other side.

My love affair with coffee began at a very young age. I was about 13 years old and working for my father’s contracting business. Picture a crew of big, burly, bearded men clad in flannel and denim and sloshing around in the mud. And one small, blonde boy, wearing tan corduroys and a Knight Rider Jacket. (Which character do you think I am in this story?) One of these lumberjacks would inevitably make a morning coffee run and the order would be “Six cups of coffee and a hot chocolate for the kid.”

“Kid?” I thought. “KID??? I don’t see no stinkin’ kid here. We’re all lumberjacks! Coffee all around!” It was my first contact with coffee. At 13. And I have to tell you it left something to be desired. Actually, it was hideous. It tasted like hot gravy, brown crayons and motor oil. Yuck! But this was my induction into manhood. Swallow it! I had to consume all 10oz. while discussing halfbacks, fullbacks, fastbacks and scratching my bathing-suit area. It made no sense to me at the time, but I eventually grew  to love fastbacks and my bathing-suit area.

Flash forward 30 years later, my stomach is as tough as the hull of the USS George Bush. Lined with the remnants of thousands of pots of java, it could be used as in an emergency as Kevlar by Knoxville’s Finest…although I hope it never comes to that. I take my coffee black, strong and hot. Extremely hot.

Ideally, I would like it served with tongs at a rolling boil by a man in a fire retardant suit. I would also pay high dollar to have a cup of joe filtered through the hide of Juan Valdez’s mule. But, that’s just me.

Coffee (like Leonardo DiCaprio) is an acquired taste. No one takes their first sip of piping hot black coffee and thinks, “Wow! Where have you been all my life?”

Now yes, your first sip of a Caramel Frappa Mocha Hydro-chino Latte? Sure. I imagine you would go back for seconds. But to us this is not true coffee — more like pecan pie in a cup. (Oh, pecan pie in a cup…great business idea.) Drinking black coffee is like driving a 5-speed—our numbers are diminishing.

Unlike other beverages, coffee is a common thread in the world today, bringing people together with just a few simple words. “You want to get together for coffee?” Absolutely. “You want to get together for root beer?” I’ll have to check my schedule.

I don’t understand decaffeinated coffee, though. What’s the point? It would be like having a marine life preserver lined with tuna fish. You’ve missed the purpose.

Speaking of porpoise, I could go for a cup of coffee in a thick restaurant mug right now. Who’s got time?

Confessions of a Yard Sale Junkie

My wife and I are yard sale junkies. I wasn’t always this way. Ten years ago I didn’t see the value in yard sales. Hey if those guys didn’t want it, why should I bring it into my house? Turns out you can find some awesome deals at yard sales. I have bought tools, water toys and DVD’s for $1. Now they’re not BluRay…and yes, some of them say BLOCKBUSTER across the front, but hey it’s a dollar! You can’t RENT a movie these days for $1. And don’t bring up the Red Box, buck-a-night from Wal Mart. You know you guys don’t return those things within 24hrs — stop lying to yourself!

On any given Saturday, my wife (who I’ll refer to as Smooch going forward) is up by 6am and checking her multiple yard sale apps. Smooch is actually on an email chain that sends her times/addresses of local yard sales. During this “critical research time”, she’s click-clacking away on her iPhone as I lie next to her wondering why I didn’t fall in love with a sleeper-inner. Ah, a sleeper-inner… (cue fantasy music) My sleeper-inner and I would lie in bed for hours watching the sun rise across our popcorn ceiling making stalactite shadows. But no. That’s that the woman I chose. The woman I chose is up and moving before the sun and the stalactite shadows. She makes the coffee, leashes the dogs and is in the car before 7:20am. I stumble down the driveway in yesterday’s t-shirt, looking like Rod Steward the morning after a late night concert in Fiji.

Smooch and I spend the next three to four hours driving around West Knoxville looking for things we just can’t live without: cross-stitched Christmas ornaments, Chris Farley’s highlights from SNL, perhaps a Darth Vader Pez dispenser.

We head for the main streets first, usually spotting signs on Kingston Pike, Campbell Station or Grigsby Chapel Road. Unfortunately, we’ve learned you can’t judge the quality of the yard sale by the quality of the sign directing you to it. We were once lured into a HUGE letdown by some well-made signs. Personally I don’t think they made enough money at that sale to cover the price of materials. But whatever. On the flip side, we followed some mediocre signs with deflated balloons to a sale, and found a chandelier that used to hang in the old Lord Lindsay Nightclub downtown! I know, right?

Hey, one word of unsolicited advice to anyone who hosts a yard sale — have iced drinks for sale and have your kids sell them. Better yet, make it a lemonade stand. If you don’t have kid, borrow some.

Unfortunately after years of yard sales, we had to devote one side of our two-car garage to her “treasures”. Now we have a house full of previously-enjoyed furniture, a front parlor of antiques and a man cave full of…non-manly items. Quite frankly, if our house ever caught fire it would burn for 6 months. They’d see it from space.

Now I don’t have a problem putting the quantity of our possessions into this blog. I’m not afraid.  It’s not like we have a 52” HDTV or expensive jewelry. The 4,400 lbs. of possessions we own amount in street value to roughly $138. But the items we have are full of character, you know?

It’s really not about the purchasing of physical stuff that matters. We’re in it for the story. During our yard sale adventures we’ve made great friends. We’ve been on dozens of house tours. Me and Smooch even helped a guy tap a keg at 10am.

We want to preserve the rocking chair that put three generations down for a nap. She wants to find the earrings that Great Aunt Myrtle wore to meet Uncle Fletcher at the bus station after World War II.

Yard Sales inadvertently protect tangible pieces of that Americana I’ve mentioned before. I love it!

So during your upcoming Spring Cleaning, set aside your old baseball mitt, your grandma’s canning jars and the carousel slide machine. Throw them all on a blanket in the front yard, pull up a lawn chair and make some new friends.

It’s Saturday!

Beaten by a Butter Knife

“Give me your knife,” she said. My wife was standing above a box that had just arrived at the house and was having trouble with the packing tape.

“A knife?” I replied.

“Yeah, your knife.” She chuckled. “All real men carry knives. Where’s yours?” I was caught off guard.

I don’t have a knife. I mean I do, but it’s up on my dresser in my jewelry box, with my pinky ring and my ID bracelet. However, I didn’t want her to think her rough-neck husband was a Mama’s Boy. So, I did what any other honest, self-respecting husband would do. I faked it.

Thinking that I was about to have my Man Card revoked, I patted my pants like I was trying to identify which pocket I had slid my knife in, as if I had just used it to remove a tick from my bicep. Honestly I was just killing time, hoping a knife would magically appear in my “wrinkle resistant slacks”. Perhaps, when I wasn’t paying attention, my iPhone and car keys conceived a knife-child. I checked my suit pockets while praying to St. Al Buck, believing he could magically make a Wal-Mart run and slide a Buck 210 into my vest pocket. Nothing. I feigned surprise but was inwardly embarrassed. With an air of disappointment, she shuffled off to the kitchen to get a butter knife out of the dishwasher. I was beaten by butter knife.

I haven’t carried a knife with any kind of regularity since the 90’s. And if I recall correctly, it was because I was deployed in Saudi Arabia during a war! Are we at war in Knox County? No. Will I be jumped by guerilla rebels while carrying Gouda Dip from Fresh Market to my car? Unlikely. Will I need to defend myself against an actual bear while picking up takeout at the Panda Express? Of course not.

My father however has been packin’ heat for years. Actually, he is a walking Swiss Army Knife. Growing up under this Boy Scout/Vietnam Veteran, I was instructed to carry a multitude of items including a comb, a pocket knife and a handkerchief. A handkerchief? You want me to blow my nose into a cloth and then stick it back in my pocket for later??? I think I just answered my own question.

Additionally, Pop’s car has an Emergency Supply in his trunk: a shovel, a gallon of water, and a blanket. “Because you just never know, son.” You just never know…what? Are we preparing to dig ourselves out of a snow embankment, using the water for hydration and the blanket for warmth? Do we have to trek through the snow, following the stars back to civilization? I know how to follow stars–OnStar and Starbucks. And I never leave the house without either one.

I can’t make too much fun of my father, without inadvertently poking fun at my wife. It is her belief that we can put anything in the trunk of her car as long as it is preceded by the word emergency. We have our emergency dog bowls, emergency swim trunks and emergency snow boots. “Sorry, Dad, but there is no room for blankets and shovels with these emergency travel board games in the way.”

At any rate, after losing to a butter knife that night, I carried my Starbucks up the stairs and dug through my jewelry box. There, tucked nicely between my pocket watch and a movie stub from Die Hard II, was my thin, locking blade. I slipped it into my pocket and instantly became more like Clint Eastwood and less like Woody Allen.

So, what’s in your pocket?


Kids are Puppies, Too

My wife and I have no children at home so like many of you, we have given personalities to our pets. We’ve rescued two mixed-breed dogs from the shelter: an Australian Shepherd named Gracie, and Billy a Sheltie Mix. Carol claims that Billy is a purebred, he just doesn’t have papers. (Yeah, and I graduated from the French Culinary Art School in New York, I just don’t have my diploma…but, I digest.)

If we wanted to know for sure about Billy’s purebred status, we could enlist the services of a web-based laboratory to find out. They say that by being aware of what your breed’s makeup, you will be better equipped to understand your dog’s needs. I kid you not. So, with a sample of Fido’s saliva and 80 bucks, you can learn exactly what kind of dog you have. For example: 40% Labrador, 40% Shepherd, 15% Akita and a dash of Cocker Spaniel. Mix well, walk often, enjoy.

In my eternal effort to create a stream of income without actually having to perform any work, I thought I would start a business like this. However to cut down on overhead, I would conduct no actual testing. What I would do is request a picture of the K-9 in question and using only keen eyesight and my stellar powers of observation, I could determine gender, color(s), and the weather conditions in the immediate area around the dog. For an additional fee, they could subscribe to my virtual mailing list (where I send virtually no mailing) and would receive an autographed picture of me and my neighbor’s dog.

At any rate, in this fantasy world Carol and I have created our dogs talk to us, walk on their hind legs, talk on their own cell phones, leave dirty socks on the floor and stay out late with their friends. It keeps us busy. Surely we’re not the only people who do this, right? Right? Anyone? Beuller? Taking in account that dogs age faster than humans by 7x’s, Billy and Gracie are 17 and 20 years old, respectively.

Gracie works at the library part time and is attending the University of Tennessee on a soccer scholarship. Billy cannot spell scholarship, although he’s dated numerous sorority girls. (Are you following?)

Gracie has applied for the foreign exchange student program so she can study abroad, preferably somewhere in the Mediterranean. Billy also wants to travel to the Mediterranean, but only because he heard from a Chihuahua that there are topless beaches. Additionally he would like to travel with many women, not just a single “broad”.

Now I’ve got to tell you, we’re not the only ones who humanize their dogs. Our good friends the Massaglias have a black and white Shitzu named Cosmo. Cosmo is a distinguished, 60-year-old gentleman who speaks with a British Accent. He spends most of the afternoons in his private, two-story library wearing a smoking jacket, reading The Count of Monte Cristo and enjoying a good Scotch. On the weekends he takes his vintage Aston Martin to Cades Cove. It’s a gorgeous convertible; he wears goggles.

Truthfully, pet ownership can be good for your health. Studies have proven that pets can relieve blood pressure and reduce stress levels. Pets provide exercise, companionship and can even get you dates. I’m serious! When was the last time you saw an available woman avoiding a puppy? Not that there’s anything wrong with unavailable women, they’re just harder to date. I challenge you to borrow a puppy from a friend and take it to a greenway on a sunny day. I am willing to bet that you will meet at least one woman who could potentially turn into a solid relationship. …That is until you have to return the dog and come clean that you scammed her. Chics don’t like to be scammed.

As a bonus, if you send me a picture of the potential date and $80, I’ll tell you what type of women they are. For example: 40% Scottish, 40% Irish, 15% Italian and a dash of Russian. Mix well, walk often, enjoy.

Back Porch Baggage

My wife and I dated for a number of years before things started getting serious.  I encourage everyone to date for at least 12 months before you get engaged. Why? There are some critical questions that can only be answered at certain times during the calendar year. Will I still get to color Easter Eggs at age 40? Does she unwrap the stockings first or the big gifts?  How does she look in a bathing suit?  Does she know the difference between Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day? This one, by the way, was a deal breaker.

As we both work in Corporate America, Carol and I treat our relationship like a corporation. We came together one night to see if taking our relationship to the next level was going to be a wise business merger or would it be more like a hostile takeover and furthermore, would I be able to roll over my marital 401k? Having been married before and having 3 wonderful children from that marriage, I knew I had baggage.  Heck, if you’re 35-years-old you have baggage whether you know it or not.  If you’re 35 and think you don’t have baggage, well, that’s baggage in and of itself. Carol had baggage, but it matched. My baggage was an array of gym bags, a carry-on with a broken wheel and a plastic Wal-Mart bag for my emotional toiletries.  It wasn’t pretty.

We sat out on her back porch, unpacked our baggage and mapped out our future together. We bartered. We made deals. We traded.  We even made bar graphs and pie charts.  When the dust settled, we had come together on some major points. I was not going to own more than 5 vehicles at one time and she was not going to own more than 15 sets of china at one time. Furthermore, we decided to not have any children, not move away from East Tennessee and I promised not to fill her Victorian Style house with plasma TVs, surround sound and Blu-Ray players, a decision I would later regret. I don’t think there was much difference between the iron-clad tables at the Geneva Convention and our cast iron patio set that night, but it ended well.

That event has turned into an occasion that happens with some regularly, simply called Back Porch Time. I invite you to initiate this with your spouse.  Here’s how it works– If one of us has a deep topic we want to address about our relationship or money or family, we simply ask to meet the other on the back porch at a predetermined time, usually a day or two away. Nothing is discussed until then. This helps both people. 1.) The wife knows that it is going to be talked about and resolved within a week’s time–which they love, and 2.) the man knows that she is not going to blindside him without warning. This, my friends, has actually happened to me. I was in my PJ’s one night, getting ready for bed and thinking that tonight was going to be a special night, as it was Wednesday and all. While lighting a few candles and cuing up Frank Sinatra, I hear my wife’s voice calling from the bathroom–“Honey, I noticed that you’ve been putting a lot of money on the credit card lately. Do you know what you bought at Home Depot for $47.87?” Yes, nothing goes with cocktail shrimp and rose petals quite like a money talk. It was then that I decided for the sake of our marriage and my personal sanity that we would initiate Back Porch Time on a regular basis.

Currently, we meet on the back porch about once a month. Carol requests it to discuss holidays with the family, career goals, our health and the life insurance policy we have for our dogs. I request Back Porch Time…basically never. Why would I want to subject myself to that? I’m kidding, of course. For the benefit of our relationship, I request it regularly…usually after a Home Depot run.