Friday, October 19, 2007

"The Not-So-Great Pumpkin Carver"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate

One of the most hallowed of Halloween traditions – the one that makes mere mortals susceptible to vampires because it involves not fake blood but the real stuff – is the carving of the pumpkin.

When my two daughters were young, I would take my life in my hands by taking my knife in my hands and attempting to carve a pumpkin without either: (a) severing a major artery or (b) doing such a horrible job on the face that the girls would giggle and say, "That pumpkin looks just like Dad!"

These cherished memories came flooding back recently when I read a story in the 2007 edition of the Old Farmer’s Almanac about Michael Valladao, a jack-o’-lantern of all trades from San Jose, Calif. Under the headline "Carving Cues from a Pumpkin Pro," the story tells how "Farmer Mike" has become famous not only for growing a specimen of pumpkin known as the Atlantic Giant, which can weigh up to 1,000 pounds, but for being the official carver at the Half Moon Bay Pumpkin Festival in Half Moon Bay, Calif.

"The whole concept here is to have fun," Farmer Mike said. "The only thing that you really need to carve a pumpkin is imagination."

It also helps, Farmer Mike added, to have tools. His favorite: a pocketknife. I’m not sure how you can carve a half-ton pumpkin with such a puny blade, unless you are a fanatic with lots of free time, in which case you probably shouldn’t have access to sharp implements anyway, but a paring knife or a steak knife also works.

Among Farmer Mike’s other tips: "Use a water-based marker to outline the face that you want to carve" and, of course, "Carve with care."

I hate to argue with Farmer Mike, especially since he is handy with knives, but I have more practical tips for carving a pumpkin. Here, as I recall from my days of performing reconstructive surgery on gourds, which made me, in my daughters’ eyes, out of my gourd, are the five things you need for a successful job:

1. A chain saw.

2. A gas mask.

3. A tourniquet.

4. A transfusion.

5. A priest.

Because your spouse is not likely to let you use a chain saw in the house, except maybe to slice meat loaf, you will have to settle for a steak knife. You will notice that the top of the pumpkin doesn’t come off easily. That’s because it is attached to the disgustingly pulpy interior mass, which smells bad enough to curl the wallpaper. Here is where the gas mask comes in handy.

Once you have scooped out the seeds, you should place them on a piece of newspaper (ideally, this column, which is about all it’s good for). Then you are required by federal law to knock the seeds all over the floor.

Now you are ready for the actual carving. See Nos. 3-5.

In a fit of nostalgia, my wife and I recently went pumpkin picking. The girls weren’t with us because they are all grown up and out of the house and wouldn’t want to relive the nightmare of being seen in a pumpkin patch with me.

Our journey took us to Lewin Farms in Wading River, N.Y. We were growing pumpkins in our yard (not Atlantic Giants, but another species, Long Island Midgets), but I mowed over the vines while cutting the grass.

So we picked a pair of perfect pumpkins and paid a pittance. Actually, it cost $7 for the healthy specimens, which weighed 9 pounds each. While wandering through the patch, my wife and I came upon a shoe that apparently belonged to someone who never made it out.

"We’ll send in a search party," said Bob Mudaro, who was manning the stand with Megan Donahue, whose family owns the third-generation farm.

When Mudaro mentioned that he has a 4-year-old daughter, I asked him for pumpkin-carving tips. "Let your wife do it," he said. "That’s what I did last night. My wife carved the pumpkin with our daughter and I watched." Mudaro held up his hands and added, "I still have all my fingers."

I guess it’s up to my wife to carve our pumpkin this year. Unless, of course, Farmer Mike wants to come over and do it.

Copyright 2007 by Jerry Zezima

Friday, October 5, 2007

"Big Daddies"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate

Now that I have reached middle age, that wonderful stage of life between changing your kids’ diapers and needing them yourself, I have begun to grow a bit more reflective. This isn’t easy to take, especially in the morning, when my reflection in the bathroom mirror tells me that I am getting old.

The passage of time really hit home when I found out that the first guy in my circle of friends (at our age, it’s too difficult to form a trapezoid) became a grandfather.

My wife, Sue, and I went to college with Tim Lovelette, who with his wife, Jane, are now grandparents of Anna Grace Lovelette, daughter of Tim and Jane’s older son, Marshall, and his wife, Sara, if you are scoring at home.

Last year, our older daughter, Katie, married her husband, Dave, which made me the first person in our obtuse triangle of friends to be father of the bride. Now it is Tim’s turn because his and Jane’s daughter, Amy, is getting married next year to her fiancĂ©, Mel, which will make him (Tim, not Mel) father of the bride.

This recently allowed Tim and me to give each other unsolicited advice, which, if we are smart, and there is ample evidence to the contrary, we won’t take.

The meeting of the minds, or what passed for them, since cocktails were involved, occurred when Sue and I visited Tim and Jane at their home on Cape Cod. Tim reminisced fondly about the moment when he found out he was a grandfather. "I demanded a paternity test for Marshall," he said. "I’m still not a grandfather. In the absence of the test, I’m not sure the whole thing is going to stick."

According to an official source (Jane), it will, so Tim picked the name he wants Anna, who is 5 months old, to call him when she learns to talk. His choice: Big Daddy. "Not for any other reason than that Jane will have to be known as Big Mama," said Tim, who acknowledged that he has to lose a few pounds for Amy’s wedding. Jane, a marathon runner, is anything but big.

Then, inevitably, the subject of changing diapers came up. Will Tim do it? "Not at all," he said firmly. "I’m world-famous for not performing my fatherly duties, so it’s advancing one generation."

What about bottle feeding? "I’ll bring a quart of liquor and a nipple," Tim said. "I’ll outdrink the baby."

And what words of wisdom did Tim give to Marshall? "Hide. Get out of the house. Pretend you have to go to work. Your qualities as a father will be pretty limited, so take up fishing, boating, get a second job if you have to."

Speaking of jobs, Marshall works for Tim at Lovelette Insurance, a third-generation agency on the Cape, and recently brought Anna to the office. "Every woman in the place had to hold her," Tim recalled. "There was zero production. It set business back three years in one trip. She’s the most expensive baby ever born."

Tim, of course, said all of this with tongue in cheek, which made him pretty hard to understand, and even though he thinks he’s better-looking than the baby (sorry, Tim, but no one else does), he’s thrilled to be a grandfather, which was obvious when Sue and I met Anna. She is, without question, the best-behaved baby in the world. She developed a regular sleeping pattern her second night home, although, Marshall said, "That first night was tough. I’ve been recovering ever since." A chip off the old block!

Also, Anna didn’t scream or cry when she saw me. In fact, she cooed and laughed and let me hold her while Marshall snapped a picture of us and e-mailed it to Katie, who drove out with Dave the next day and met Anna.

When, the question was asked, will Jerry be a grandfather? Immediate answer: Not just yet.

Besides, the next big event will be Amy and Mel’s wedding. "Your chief role as father of the bride," I informed Tim, "is to be like a bobblehead doll: Just keep nodding and sign everything that is put in front of you. Otherwise, stay the hell out of the way."

"I’ve already done my part," Tim said. "I’ve agreed to show up."

What more could you ask of two guys who not only love their growing families, but who have promised to be burdens to everyone in their old age? Then again, that’s what everyone says about us now.

Copyright 2007 by Jerry Zezima