When I arrived at my first arts residency, one of the composer fellows said, “Welcome to Paradise.” Even Dante and Milton couldn’t have imagined a heaven such as this: three meals a day and two quiet rooms for work and sleep, with views of apple-stealing horses and complacent cows. All real-world distractions banished—even sex.

Since I lived only an hour away, my family came to visit. That morning, I shaved and showered meticulously, then slipped on lacy undergarments, even though my eight-year-old daughter was accompanying my husband, so he wouldn’t have a moment to linger on my lingerie.

We squeezed into a booth at the only open restaurant in town, slurping runny omelets and sucking our straws, my toes seeking the bare skin above James’s socks under the table. When Ella rose to marvel at the animated carousel horses, he cupped my thigh. His touch felt novel and naughty.

I showed them my bedroom after lunch, and when Ella went to the bathroom, James stroked my belly, then squeezed my breast. I immediately replaced my shirt as Ella started opening the door. James whispered in my ear, “Thanks for letting me steal second base. On our next date can I go all the way to third?”

We continued heavy petting when she wasn’t looking. When she was, we held hands and I slipped my fingers into his back pockets. We copped feels with our eyes. We weren’t an old married couple any longer. We were virgin teenagers with a crush, longing someday to score.

To have him this close and not be able to actually have him was titillating. I wanted him even more since he became fruit just out of reach.

We left my bedroom and I showed them the studios in the barn. “Don’t look in the windows!” James warned, shooing us away. “Naked people,” he whispered in my ear.

“A nude model posing for a painting?” I suggested.

He raised his eyebrows and said, “I’m not that naive. I know what you artists do.”

Then we gamboled through the meadows and fields while Cole, one of the photographer fellows, took our portraits with an old-fashioned accordion-style camera on a tripod. He hung pink bed sheets to filter the low-in-the-sky, harsh December light. I was as sensitive to James’ touch, as we pressed hip-to-hip to fit in the frame, as if this was our first time.

At dinner, my family gone, Cole confessed that he’d forgotten to hide some sex-shop photo montages in his studio before Ella entered it. “I don’t think she was paying attention, though,” he said. When I told James that story later on the phone, he chuckled. “If only Cole knew what we’d been up to.”

We’d planned on hiking after the photo shoot, but James had a cold and wanted to rest, so we returned to my bedroom, where Ella sat in an armchair and lost herself in a Hardy Boys mystery. James and I sprawled on the double bed, first over the covers, then under. That’s all we meant to do.

An hour later, my family drove back home, and I sat at my regular spot in the library for our daily writers’ group meeting. Alice sat at the table, her notebook open.

She said, “I’m glad you had such a good conjugal visit.”

“You can tell?” I asked.

“You’re glowing,” she said.

“Yes.” If only she knew why. I felt my face, warm and elastic, as calm as the beatific cows out the window.

“I heard something,” she said, “and wondered if you and your husband were having sex.”

She knew! “I was so sure we were being quiet,” I said, “so Ella wouldn’t hear.”

“Don’t tell me she was in the same room?” Alice said.

“It’s a big room,” I said, as if size was all that mattered. “She was on the other side, absorbed in a Hardy Boys book about vampires she’d found on the shelf.” Ella didn’t hear us, I’d convinced myself. When she reads, she’s absorbed in a fictional world and blocks out all else. She doesn’t hear the phone or door, doesn’t hear the bell at the end of recess. Her teachers have to tap her on the shoulder.

“If I could hear you,” Alice said. “I’m sure she could.” Her bedroom was right next to mine.

“Everybody heard,” I said. “We might as well have been on a stage.”

Alice nodded. “The walls are thin.”

“Heard what?” Lori, the other member of our writing group, asked, eager as if for lurid gossip, as she sat down at the library table. Who knew married sex could be so scandalous?

“In the same room?” Lori said, after I told her.

“We didn’t mean to,” I pleaded.

“I could have taken Ella for a walk,” Alice said, “if you’d asked me.”

“We didn’t plan it,” I explained. “Ella was reading on the other side of the room. James and I slid under the covers with our clothes on, to take a nap.” He was a little sick, and tired from driving. so we spooned each other. Hands moved under shirts on warm skin, fingertips fell on thighs, pants dropped below our waists—just low enough. Legs scissored, his belly still against my back. It’s a pose we perfected during my high-risk pregnancy, a way to continue intercourse while keeping baby Ella still and safe in my belly. We moved very little–not enough, or so I’d thought, to squeak the springs.

“Did she say she heard anything?” Lori asked.

“She said she heard us snore. We slept a little, afterwards.”

I didn’t tell them that as a baby Ella had an uncanny ability to awaken when we were on the brink of orgasm. Her piercing cry killed our desire, and I always rushed to nurse her. Maybe reading the Hardy Boys book and allowing us our fun was her way to give us back a little lost time.

“She didn’t seem disturbed,” I said. Did she?

“This will give Ella juicy memoir material, ten or twenty years from now,” Lori said. “Would any of us have become writers if our parents hadn’t traumatized us?”

I have vivid memories of my own parents having sex, or rather, what I now recognize as sex, but might not have then.

At five, I hovered with my brother and sister outside my parents’ bedroom after dinner. When our father opened the door to go to the bathroom, we caught a glimpse of our mother naked before she grabbed her robe and shooed us to bed. In my memory, it happened every night, but I’m sure it didn’t. Now that I’m a parent I recognize the exaggerated recall of young children, who will say “Every day you picked me up late from school” even if it happened only once, because it feels that way.

I have memories of my mother’s boyfriends, too, after my father died. Bob, the Armenian mailman, was my favorite. When I was a little older than Ella, we often tagged along for our mother’s dates at Bob’s apartment. We children lingered in the living room, eating Little Caesar’s pizza and watching Three’s Company or The Three Stooges while Bob and our mother sequestered themselves behind the bedroom door. Did I know they were having sex? I’m sure it wasn’t the word they used. I don’t remember thinking about it much as a child—only now, since I have a child myself.

I’m grateful that my mother kept her sex life private. She wasn’t like the white trash single mother in the movie “Eight Mile,” who complains to her son that her boyfriend “won’t go down” on her. My mother never let boyfriends spend the entire night, either.

I’m glad my mother slipped away for sex with Bob the mailman or Tim, the electrician with six children; or Roy, the refrigerator repairman who favored corny jokes; or David, who liked to bet on greyhounds; or Frank, the romantic. I’m glad she stole some kisses away from us to give to them. As Amy Bloom says, in the story of the same name, “love is not a pie.” You don’t slice it and distribute it until it’s gone. There’s an infinite supply.

I’m happy that my mother socked away a few hours to take care of herself, not just her family. That’s what I did at my first arts residency, nurturing my novels, stories, and self instead of everyone else. Every day there I took my mother guilt—about not being home to cook meals, help Ella practice piano, and nurse James’s cold—and tried to channel it away from the black hole that has made women throughout history disappear inside their family duties.

“Do you think I’m a bad mother?” I asked Alice and Lori after my confession.

“No,” they both said. “Of course not.” What else could they say? “Yes, and by the way, do you know the phone number of child protection services?”

Will Ella be traumatized because she heard her parents having sex? I wasn’t ruined by my parents’ erotic noises. Mostly, I am bemused that I didn’t know then what they meant. Is it bad childrearing to expose a child to parents hungry for each others’ bodies even after almost ten years of marriage, diapers, bills, and dishes?

I hope Ella learns from my residency that women are allowed to be greedy for sex and time, to make art not just babies, and to have a room of their own (or two—a bedroom plus studio—if you’re in Paradise). Maybe she’ll even be inspired to return as a fellow. I can imagine her pulling the Hardy Boys vampire book off the shelf of what was my bedroom, as the memories flood back. “Oh,” she’ll say. “Now I know what those squeaky sounds from the bed were. How did my parents get away with it?”

 

Photo credit: Andrew Palmer.

 

The following are descriptions of six books I read as a kid that still haunt my brain to this day, as interpreted by my child-aged self.


1. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein


Summary: Once there was a tree… and she loved a little boy. She gave him leaves to play with, and he climbed her and swung from her branches. He loved her and hugged her a lot.

And then he grew up and forgot about her until he needed something. He took her apples to sell, like a teenager stealing drug money from a purse, and then blew her off again for a few years.

He came back only to cut off her branches and build a house with her severed limbs. This made her happy, even though cutting off all the branches on a tree would nullify its ability to photosynthesize, killing it slowly. But the fact that she’d helped the boy build a house made the tree happy, because she was a kind and selfless tree. And yet he ignored her again for a long, long time.

The boy didn’t come back until he was an old man, and when the tree asked him to play, he said, no sorry, I’m too old and all I want is to get the hell away from you again, you stupid nice tree. So the masochistic tree told him to cut her down and make a boat with which to sail far, far away from her, because apparently giving chunks of herself to this greedy, selfish man would never be enough to make him love her. And the sonofabitch did it. He said, “Thanks for your body parts!” and sailed off into the sunset. But still, the tree was just happy to have helped.

The heartless bastard came back years later to see how else he might destroy the sweetest tree on the planet, which was now only an ugly stump. The codependent tree stump was so happy to see him that she actually asked him if she could do anything else for him. He told her he was too old and tired to torture her in new and exciting ways, so he sat on what was left of her.


The moral: Sometimes no matter how nice you are to people, you’re still going to end up with an ass on your face.

Hidden message: Mom was right. If you give your body to a man, he will leave you.

Bonus trauma: The photograph of Shel Silverstein on the back of the book.


***


2. Bunnicula by James Howe


Summary: This family finds a cute baby bunny in a theater during a Dracula movie and brings it home, where a dog and cat with the miraculous ability to read reside. The dog and cat soon realize the bunny can magically escape his cage at night to suck the juice out of household vegetables, turning them ghostly white. Despite naming the rabbit Bunnicula, the family is too dumb to realize what is going on, blaming the obviously bitten and drained vegetables on some sort of plant fungus.

The cat researches a book about vampires, becomes super paranoid, and tries to kill the baby bunny by trapping it in its cage via vampire-repelling garlic fencing. We watch the rabbit suffer as it slowly starves, until the dog finally gets all aggro with the cat and saves the poor dying bunny. The dimwitted humans never figure it out.


The moral: Sometimes your adorable pets will try to kill each other while you sleep.

Hidden message: Animals are smarter than people.

Bonus trauma: Sketches throughout the book of a bunny with fangs and a malevolent gleam in its eyes.


***


3. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson


Summary: An unpopular boy makes friends with an odd new girl at school. They hang out together in the forest and use their imaginations to create a world in which they aren’t losers. One day, the boy chooses to hang out with a teacher he has a crush on instead of hanging out with the girl in the woods. The girl goes into the woods alone, falls, hits her head on a rock and drowns in the stream. The boy must live with the guilt for the rest of his life.


The moral: Hey, kids. Guess what? Your friends can die.

Hidden message: Hey, kids. Guess what? That means you can die, too.

Bonus trauma: Awareness of your own mortality.


***


4. A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck


Summary: Just in case your parents haven’t yet had the birds and bees talk with you, this book starts off with a cow alone in the woods, failing miserably at giving birth. A wandering boy helps the cow release the calf that is stuck in her vagina like some sort of slimy and bleating mammalian cork by fashioning a crude pulley out of his pants, using a tree as a fulcrum.

The cow rewards him for helping her live by nearly killing him. Her owner then rewards the boy for not suing by giving him a baby pig. He calls the pig Pinky, and she becomes a beloved pet, much like a family dog.

I should probably mention at this point that the boy’s father slaughters pigs for a living. I think you know where this is going now.

They discover that the pig is barren, and therefore worthless. In one of the most horrifying coming-of-age moments ever captured in print, the boy is then forced to help his father murder Pinky. Descriptions of skull-crunching noises and snow-turned-to-red-slush abound. This book holds the distinguished honor of: First Book to Ever Make Me Sob Uncontrollably.


The moral: Living on a farm will make you so lonely that sleeping in a shed with a pig will sound appealing.

Bonus trauma: Highly disturbing pig-on-pig rape scene involving lard.

Quote I still love and should apply to myself more often: “‘Never miss a chance,’ Papa had once said, ‘to keep your mouth shut.'”


***


5. Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls


Summary: A young boy saves all the money he makes trapping animals for years to buy two hunting dogs. He names them Old Dan and Little Ann, and the three of them become an inseparable raccoon hunting trio.

Old Dan eventually goes up against a mountain lion and is mortally wounded. Little Ann dies of starvation and a broken heart after dragging her weak dog body to the grave of Old Dan, where the boy finds her stiffened corpse.

He buries her next to Old Dan, and a red fern grows up between their graves. For some reason this ghoulish plant makes the family less sad about the painful deaths of their dogs.


The moral: Your pets will die before you do, leaving you heartbroken and bereft.

Bonus trauma: Learning that there have always been bullies, even back in the peaceful olden days when people had dirt floors and pooped outside.


***


6. Old Yeller by Fred Gipson


Summary: There is a family of Texas settlers. The dad leaves the farmstead for a few months to travel to Kansas for a cattle drive. His son, a teenager, must temporarily become the man of the house.

A yellow dog comes along and adopts the family. After it saves the younger brother from a bear, they all love it. After it saves the entire family from a hydrophobic wolf, the boy immediately shoots the dog in the head because it may have possibly caught hydrophobia from the wolf bites. (It is never mentioned that hydrohobia is old-timey speak for rabies, because creatures with rabies refuse/avoid water. This knowledge might have helped young reader me understand why everyone was killing and burning animals willy-nilly.)

The book jacket explains it all in one sentence: “Travis learns just how much he has come to love that big ugly dog, and he learns something about the pain of life, too.”

Because life is pain, children. Life is pain.

Got it?

Now who wants cookies?


The moral: In order to become a man, you must violently kill something you love.

Bonus trauma: Dogs always die. Seriously. They’re just going to die, kid, no matter what. Why would you get a dog, ever?


***


In Chicago, back in 1998 BR (Before Rodent), I needed a little hole filled in my lower front tooth. My dentist had retired, so I finger-walked through the local phonebook for another one. Parkside Dental Group on 57th Street sounded just fine. I got an appointment with Dr Yank, as I will call him.

Dr Yank was a happy, chatty guy, and needed only to make a plaster cast of the tooth. While he prepped the plaster and tooth, he asked, “What do you do for a living?”

I began to respond, but he continued, “I love to interpret dreams. How about you? Do you interpret dreams?”

I began to respond, but he continued, “Last night I had an incredible 3-D Cinerama dream . . .” and he described what seemed like an MGM musical peopled with cows—grazing cows, talking cows, singing cows, dancing cows, lots of cows—and his ex-wife. “Now, just what do you think those symbols meant?” asked Dr Y.

I declined to comment on the obvious, but he didn’t seem to notice. Then he said, “All set now. You just relax for a couple minutes while the plaster hardens, and I’ll be right back, OK?” He disappeared, probably to whiff some painkiller, I decided.

Years passed while I memorized the wallpaper.

I glanced at my watch and noted that Dr Yank had been gone for ten minutes. My jaw ached from the awkward cast.

I yelled: “WHEH ISH EH EH-ISH??!!”

Dr Y popped right into the room, happier than ever, grabbed the cast’s edge, pulled . . . and it didn’t budge.

Time was not our friend, and we both knew that my tooth and the cast might never be separated. Grabbing again and again with no result, Dr Y reached for what I’d call Really Big dental pliers, and clamped them to the cast.

For a heart-churning second or two, I thought he might plant his foot on my chest for better leverage, but he just—with every muscle, sinew and nerve—YANKED, and, despite my best efforts, my head rapidly followed his direction.

I felt a TREMENDOUS suction, heard a “POP”, and expected to see him holding my tooth nicely embedded in plaster, looking like the ashtray my son had made in kindergarten. But, no, Dr Yank was holding the cast, and I still had my tooth.

When I’d amply rinsed my mouth with water, and my shaky fingers had somewhat calmed, I said the first words Dr Yank had ever heard me say (articulately, at least): “I don’t think we want anybody to know about this, do we? You surely realize that you’ll never see me again—nor my money to pay for this little visit.”

Dr Yank seemed overcome with exhaustion, and, uncharacteristically, said nothing.

When I called Parkside Dental Group a month later about the bill I’d never pay, they told me that Dr Y was “no longer with us”, which I took to mean that he had found, or been forced to find, greener pastures, or that he had died.

“Guy” and I met while working at a tiny summer stock theatre in Vermont.

We quickly fell in love and on the anniversary of our first kiss, onstage, in front of a cooing audience of 150, Guy chivalrously dropped to one knee and presented me with a diamond ring.

He had been engaged once before, he announced, but it didn’t work out. He simply couldn’t marry her. This time he wanted to do it right.

For the right girl.

For me.

I burst into tears.

I was nineteen when we met and Guy was my first everything: first boyfriend, first sexual partner, first fiancé, first musician, first bi-polar manic-depressive, first Jesus freak and first deeply-closeted Gay. So looking back, it was only natural that the following year, his was also to be my first broken engagement.

The late-night Vermont cabarets in which we performed were loosely themed around a few staples of hard-scrabbled New England in-jokes: maple syrup, cheese, Flatlanders, fudge and cows.

I had finished my first act number and changed into my next costume before escaping to the back porch where the cast and crew spent intermissions for mid-show smokes and beers.

On that porch, in front of a cringing audience of 15, Guy cavalierly dropped the bomb.

It wasn’t going to work out. He simply couldn’t marry me.

As it turned out, I wasn’t the right girl after all.

I burst into tears.

The emcee stuck his head out the backstage door and called, “Places.”

He looked down at me, crumpled on the ground, wildly sobbing into the arms of a friend –

– in a cow suit –

– one of those black and white Holstein get-ups, complete with a hot pink boa.

The emcee put a gentle hand on my shoulder. “Can you still go on?”

I could not.

I was convulsing so hard that my chest bounced against my friend’s as they pulled the costume from my shoulders – the emcee having chosen to punt and reassign the number, rather than cut it – for as we all know, The Show Must Go On.

I vaguely recall gathering myself together to watch the end of the cabaret. I made it just in time to see someone else onstage, in my cow suit and my feather boa, singing my song: the seminal Cats’ classic: “Memories,” but revamped for Vermont audiences as “Mammaries.”

“Mooooonlight, and no sound from the pasture, all alone with my mammaries, and their days in the sun.”

It suddenly seemed so very, very appropriate.

* * *

I never went back to Vermont after that summer.

I had heard through the grapevine that Guy had gotten engaged twice more after me; breaking off each one with equal severity. Thus bringing the total number of cancelled engagements for him to four in six years.

I never heard of another cow suit, though.

I guess there’s a first for everything.

Life is funny. I mean, just when you think that you’ll never get a newborn Kenyan cow named after you, WHAM!, you hear the sweet pitter patter of little hooves. As I type this, Rob the Cow (who, by the way, is quite the looker) is happily grazing in the Kenyan village of Sauri (population: 4,214 cows and nearly that many people). When I first met the future Rob, he was approximately three hours old, just a newborn, naked and nameless. We were introduced to one another towards the end of the two-week African safari that I took with my wife Julie and her parents.

You’re probably wondering, “How the heck did you get a cow named after him?!? Are you, like, a Cow Whisperer or something?” The answer to the second question is NO. Believe it or not, I’m not even that good with animals. This probably stems from the fact that, before this trip, the only time I’d encountered wild animals was while riding The Jungle Cruise at Disney World (oh, and diving away from an angry stampede of senior citizens en route to the General Tso tray at the all-you-can-eat China King buffet in Ft. Lauderdale). Soooo when Julie asked me if I wanted to go to Kenya with her family, naturally I was excited. And not just because her parents were paying.

Julie’s parents are soil scientists whose jobs require them to live in Kenya about six months of the year. This qualifies them as official Kenyan residents, which is a pretty big deal because, in addition to receiving junk mail (“You might already be a winner! Return this card and win a free cow!”), they get to participate in the traditional Kenyan Welcoming Ceremony where each new resident, upon receiving their pair of complimentary running sneakers, is asked to recite the Kenyan Creed. I’m paraphrasing: “I vow to face each day with strength and bravery, taking on all challenges, laughing in the face of danger, doing my best to seek out dangerous and potentially life-threatening situations, under strict accordance with the Fear Nothing Principle.”

The Fear Nothing Principle, as explained by The Idiot’s Guide to Avoid Getting Eaten by a Lion, has only one rule: fear nothing. Allow me to clarify. Nothing, in this case, includes everything that might worry someone (me) who’s traveling to Africa for the first time (again, me). My father-in-law, who has lived in Kenya for over fifteen years and is the only man I know that has caught a shark WITH HIS BARE HANDS, then placed it (still alive) into a household bathtub, is diehard follower of the Fear Nothing Principle. That’s bad news for me.

You see, when it comes to things like disease, infection, and wild animals that could remove all the flesh from my body in 0.2 seconds, I prefer to follow the somewhat safer, yet no doubt less manly, Fear Everything Principle. Sure, I understand this mindset might make some men feel weenie-like, but personally, I’ve grown pretty accustomed to the Fear Everything Principle over the years—really ever since 1988 when I became the talk of Camp Coleman for being “the kid who got the funky purplish rash over his entire body from playing in the woods and had to spend three weeks quarantined in an empty cabin that smelled like socks and warm cheese.”

So there you have it. A Fear Nothinger and a Fear Everythinger going on a safari to deepest, darkest Africa. Man, this has TV magic written all over it! So if you’re a TV exec looking for your next ratings hit, I’ve got just the thing for you! It’s called “Nothing to Fear but Everything” (it’s a working title) and it follows the wacky adventures of a modern-day odd couple as they trek through the jungles of Africa. It’s your classic fish out of water story meets Cinderella story meets swashbuckling blockbuster meets any other popular cliché that would help get the show on the air. And best of all, it’s based on real life so the scripts practically write themselves! For example, here’s an unedited transcript of an actual phone call I had with my father-in-law prior to the trip. As you’ll see, like any good sitcom, hijinks ensued.

ME: How many different travel vaccines do I need?
HIM: Why would you need vaccines?
ME: What about Malaria pills? Don’t I need those?
HIM: What for?
ME: What happens if we’re viciously attacked by a pride of hungry lions?
HIM: There’s nothing to worry about as long as you have your running shoes. And a change of underwear.

But don’t get me wrong; it’s not that my father-in-law didn’t care about my fears. He just didn’t think there was anything to be afraid of! Take our first day in Kenya, for example. When our jeep’s engine overheated and we were stranded on the side on the highway—and by “highway” I mean “dirt path in the middle of nowhere with nothing around us but 50,000 acres of dust and rocks”—he simply shouted out: “Everything’s fine; I’ve got it all under control!” Now keep in mind that he had to shout if he wanted us to hear him over the sizzle of the radiator and the hissing from the snake that was just five feet from my door. Seriously.

But despite this being a situation that some (read: sane) people would find to be unnerving, both my in-laws remained true to the principle and, amazingly, feared nothing. Impressive? Yes. But the real test was still to come. About four days later, in fact, when we traveled to Masai Mara, the wondrous savannah that Disney animators visited to collect research for “The Lion King,” a film that, looking back, was mostly accurate detail-wise, but quite frankly, we spent a few days in the savannah and I didn’t hear ANY animals singing. Not a one.

So we’re in Masai Mara on our fifth or ninth day of safari (it’s hard to keep track when you’re dehydrated), and everyone is actively playing the “spotting game.” This is where you spend several hours driving around the savannah in a jeep, trying to spot animals by peering through binoculars, which incidentally is something that I’ve neverbeen able to do very well because when I look through the eyepieces, all I ever wind up seeing are my eyelashes. My in-laws, on the other hand, are exceptionally skilled at spotting which is great for them because they’re also avid bird watchers, a hobby that involves squinting through binoculars, seemingly staring at nothing for long periods at a time, then saying things like: “Is that a blue-chested fartwallop?” “No, I think it’s the pepper-speckled hasselhoffer.”

I tried hard to be good at spotting, I really did, but unfortunately I just couldn’t contribute much to the game.

“Oh, oh! I’ve found an elephant,” I’d shout with pride.

“That’s a tree,” my in-laws would say in unison.

As you can see, spotting is a true measure of one’s patience, visual scanning techniques, and most importantly, the ability to tell the difference between a living, breathing animal and a stump of wood. Thankfully though, every once in a while, you get tipped off on where to look for animals. The rule of thumb is that if you’re driving around and spot a parked jeep filled with people, chances are, these folks have stopped because they’ve found something good. Or a lion has eaten their tires. Either way, it’s a National Geographic moment.

And that’s what happened to us. My mother-in-law (again, an expert spotter) saw a jeep in the distance and sprung into action. “Drive over there! Fast!” she yelled with the trademark enthusiasm of a Fear Nothinger. “I bet it’s something good!”

“I hope it’s dangerous!” my father-in-law yelled back, licking his lips in anticipation.

We sped ahead, racing through the grass at record speeds with almost-but-not-quite as much concern for safety as a city cab driver. When we got closer, we noticed there was something beside the parked jeep: another jeep. And there was another jeep beside it. And another. Turned out there were eleven jeeps in total, all filled with people, arranged side by side in a semi-circle. Whatever these people were looking at, it HAD to be good.

We pulled up alongside the other jeeps and I couldn’t believe what I saw: a pride of five lions gorging on the carcass of a buffalo. Right there. Less than 30 feet from us. It was surreal to observe these awesome creatures in their natural habitat. We watched for several minutes, staring in awe as the lions devoured the buffalo. The scene was so amazing that I (momentarily) ignored my Fear Everything instincts and instead, reveled in the excitement of the moment. And that’s when I noticed all the other jeeps had turned off their engines while ours was still roaring away—a definite safari no-no. And I wasn’t the only one who noticed this glaring violation of safari etiquette. At that moment, mama lion looked up from her feast and let out a mighty roar. Directed right at us.

Now when placed in a situation like this, there’s two clear choices one can make: stay or leave. Actually, there’s a third choice, but “wet your pants” would require way too much coordination under this kind of pressure. Clearly, a Fear Everythinger, valuing their limbs over a good photo op, would choose to leave, which leads you to assume that a Fear Nothinger would stay, right? Right? Not my in-laws. No; THEY decided on a fourth option: to drive closer to the lions.

Hold up. For dramatic purposes, that needs to be repeated.

There was (Percussionist begins banging on drum) a pride of five lions (drumming gets louder and faster) feasting on a buffalo right in front of us (drumming is super fast and crazy loud) and WE DROVE CLOSER!!! (Big finale: drums, cymbals, horror movie scream, chicken squawking, et al.)

It turned out that driving closer was a very, very, very bad move. All five of the lions stopped eating to stare at the insolent fools who had the audacity to interrupt their buffalo banquet. Hell, even the other people, all of whom were professional Fear Nothingers (you could tell because their pants were completely dry), were shocked at this display of stupidi…er bravery.

So there we were. And there were the lions. With less than ten feet between us. Course my in-laws were in Fear Nothing heaven, enjoying every second of this. Meanwhile in the backseat, I was enjoying it as well, much in the way I enjoy getting a tooth pulled.

“Turn off the engine so we can hear them chewing,” my mother-in-law suggested.

“Wow, look at the size of those teeth!” my father-in-law said as he turned off the car. “Betcha those babies could tear right through human bone!”

“Can we get any closer?” asked a familiar voice. Noooo, it couldn’t be! Surely it wasn’t! I looked in the direction of the voice and saw…my wife! What?!? Did my wife Julie, a tried and true Fear Everythinger, seriously just ask if we could drive closer to the lions? This coming from a woman who slipcovers public toilets with four rolls of Charmin before sitting down? What was going on here?!?

I thought I knew my wife pretty well. But the gentle woman I married was suddenly several continents away from the wild-eyed adventurer sitting beside me. Julie had gone from a Fear Everythinger to a Fear Nothinger in less time than it takes me to clean the lint from my belly button. I was shocked. Especially when she climbed into the front seat of the jeep, joining her parents for the traditional Fear Nothinger snack (beef jerky) and a classic Fear Nothinger discussion that involved questions like “Do you’d think the papa lion would mind if we pet his mane?” and “How long do you think it’d take one of these bad boys to digest a human body?”

I was feeling lightheaded, which probably had as much to do with the stench of Slim Jims filling the air as it did with my shock of Julie going over to the ‘dark side.’ Meanwhile, the lions had yet to return to their feast. Something about our presence (maybe it was the smell of fear from the backseat) had fascinated them and they were too distracted to eat. SO distracted, in fact, that they abandoned the carcass lying in front of them and starting walking towards us.

“Hey look,” my father-in-law said as he turned off the car. “That one’s licking its lips!”

All five lions were now directly in front of the jeep, staring at us through the windshield and drooling. After taking a moment to survey the situation, I knew we were in trouble, and not just because the mama lion was tying a napkin around her neck and setting out the good china. We were in trouble because the jeep was parked, the cameras were out, and the lion-human staring contest was entering the second quarter. Clearly, my wife and in-laws had no intentions of leaving anytime soon.

“What do you suppose the big one’s thinking?” my mother-in-law called to me in the backseat.

“Mmphmwmb,” I said. (Though I had lost the ability to produce intelligible speech, I was still quite capable of whimpering.)

I didn’t know how much more of this I could take and yet, my in-laws and wife were only getting started. I knew it would take some amazing, miraculous act of a higher power to persuade my father-in-law to drive away.

“I gotta pee,” my father-in-law announced. “Let’s get out of here.”

And with that, my father-in-law went to start the jeep. But nothing happened. He tried again. Nothing. The battery was “dead” as in “gone” as in “finished” as in “holy crap, we’re gonna be lion kibble!” Now you won’t believe what happened next, mainly because it’s pretty unbelievable, but ‘believability’ never stopped Jerry Springer from reporting a story, and it won’t stop me! Besides, I promised myself that if we ever made it out of this situation with all limbs intact, I’d write about it. So here goes.

It was at that moment, that exact moment, that the lions, all five lions, began, get ready, to circle the jeep!

(Percussionist throws his drumsticks in the air, screams like a eight-year-old girl, and runs away.)

Let’s recap: we’re stuck in Masai Mara with a dead car battery and a pride of five lions circling our car. It was anyone’s guess as to what would happen next. Would my father-in-law continue to laugh in the face of danger? Would my mother-in-law, expert spotter, notice the two vultures flying in circles above our jeep? Would Julie ever return to being the person I married (“There’s a bug 400 feet away! Kill it! Kill it!”)? Would I ever resume a normal breathing pattern?

All jokes aside, this was very bad. C’mon, LIONS CIRCLING THE JEEP?!? Surely, THIS would be grounds for a Fear Nothinger to cry out “Principles Schminciples!” and start Fearing! Think again. Amazingly, my father-in-law remained calm and tried to reassure us (“I’ve got it all under control”) while my mother-in-law attempted to get our minds off the situation with some light conversation (“Look in that tree! Is that a black-billed sniffle sniveler?”). Even Julie kept her cool and showed a familiar softer side (“I think we could cut back on the Charmin”).

Amazing. Here’s a situation that would send Crocodile Dundee back to his trailer for a Scotch and Dasani and yet my insanely brave family members continued to fear nothing. I was impressed. And I wasn’t the only one. The lions also seemed impressed, or just bored, because they walked away from the jeep and returned to their buffalo buffet. And then, another miracle happened: my father-in-law turned the key and the jeep came back to life.

“Now wasn’t that fun,” my father-in-law asked as we drove away from the lions and back to the lodge.

I’m happy to report that was the last lion encounter we had in Kenya. In fact, the wildlife we saw thereafter was an assortment of giraffe, monkeys, zebras and other animals that, while exotic and beautiful, don’t send your pulse shooting to triple digits. No question about it, these animals were much more my speed. Like Rob the Cow, for example, which brings me back to the matter of how one goes about getting a cow named after them.

Truth is, it’s all who you know. The villagers in Sauri are extremely grateful to my in-laws for the countless resources (food, electricity, Coca-Cola) they’ve introduced to the village. And rather than giving a Hallmark card, the villagers show their appreciation by naming animals after you and your loved ones. So, long story short, the villagers named the cow “Rob” out of gratitude to my in-laws for their hard work, assistance, and for passing on valuable knowledge about soil science. Plus, they know better than to tick off the guy who caught a shark with his bare hands.