Once upon a time there was a squirrel named Fred. Fred was a rather large squirrel, remarkably so considering his young age (8 in squirrel years), and in fact he was often mistaken for a small groundhog by his rodent brethren. It wasn’t Fred’s fault he was plus-sized—he had ‘big bones’ as his mother liked to say, and all the acorns he ate went right to his haunches. It made for some tough going as far as participating in typical squirrel activities: climbing tree trunks could be a challenge, hanging from small branches was rarely possible, and jumping onto rooftops almost totally out of the question. Fred often felt isolated when his 15 brothers and sisters took off racing up and down the gutters of the house adjoining their backyard nest and not a little but jealous of their camaraderie and prowess as well.
Fred hid his feelings of exclusion, but it was ever-present and gnawed him to the point where he was contemplating doing something reckless just to keep up with the other squirrels and prove to himself that he really was squirrelly. The last straw was being left in the nest when his parents and siblings took to the rooftop for the final acorn toss of the season. It was almost insulting not to be involved, but besides that the acorn toss was a quintessential squirrel activity, and the last toss of the season is as close as it gets to a rodent holiday. Last year he was small enough to carry to the roof, but now Fred had been left out completely. He felt like an outsider, positively unsquirrellike.
Fred climbed out of the nest and craned his neck to look up the walls of the house to the roof, full of resolve. He dusted his little rodent paws off on his fur, got a good grip on the gutter of the yard’s house, and slowly hoisted his furry bulk upward. Paw over paw, going slowly, Fred ascended. He was huffing a bit with effort, but pride kept him moving. By the time his paw pads began to slip with sweat, he was already up a storey and a half so there was no jumping down to the ground. Fred tried to dig in his claws for stability and to rest, but the gutter was much different than a tree to climb; the young squirrel lost his grip and screeched down the metal tubing until finally, to save himself, he took the flying leap of his life to the nearest ledge, an open windowsill in the house. Fred landed on it and rolled into an environment that seemed completely strange and foreign. And then he passed out.
When Fred came to consciousness, he found himself wrapped in a blanket at the feet of a human child. The child made great, loud noises with its mouth and a second, adult human joined its side and both peered at him. The small human reached out its hand and began to pet Fred’s back. Fred was both horrified and startled and about to bite, but the ruffling of fur felt quite soothing and actually helped the kink in his neck that had been bothering him off and on for about a month. So Fred relaxed. The big human set down a bowl of pellety food chunks, which seemed hospitable enough, and then a bowl of clean water. The little one kept up with the massage until finally Fred dropped off to sleep, and when he woke the next morning there was even a treat in the food bowl with the pellets.
Fred stretched out and considered his position. Until recently he wanted desperately to be accepted as a normal squirrel, climbing, leaping, hanging upside down into garbage cans, etc. But this seemed like a pretty decent living right here, and it seemed due largely to the fact that the humans didn’t appear to realize he was a squirrel. The pellet food smelled like fish. Did they think he was a cat? Normally Fred would be insulted, but under the circumstances this wasn’t a bad thing. So Fred made the decision to renounce his squirrelhood and live for the free meals and head scratchings as a weird, bushy-tailed brown house pet.
After the car accident, the woman had to have her left arm amputated. The doctors asked her if she wanted to participate in an experimental procedure where a donor arm would be attached to replace the limb she had lost, and in the haze of shock after the ordeal of the crash and surgery, she assented. So two days later, after many hours of skillful scalpel work and grafting, the woman woke up with a new left arm that was not her own.
The weirdest thing was that it seemed to have belonged to a man. The hands looked blockier and broader than hers, and there was a lot of hair on the knuckles. She wondered if she would start having impulses to grab her breasts with the new hand, but the new appendage seemed indifferent; it wasn’t hers, but it wasn’t anybody else’s anymore, either. It was a weird and anonymous lump of flesh that startled her most when she was driving or typing and forgot for a second before glancing at it that it was a stranger’s arm.
She started wearing gloves. Then long sleeves, even in the hot weather. But she still had to shower, and it was there, looking at her: hairy, skin color just a little too pale. Finally she went back to the doctors who performed the operation, and they suggested a psychiatrist whom she saw twice and abandoned when she was asked to talk to the arm and address it by name.
So the woman bought a good, sharp saw.
I bought a bag of brown and white spotted beans to plant in my garden, and one had a Jesus head on it. The head was white, in profile, on a backdrop of dark brown on the oblong bean. Otherwise it looked just like the others. So I thought no more of it and planted all the beans in a long row, forgetting where exactly the Jesus head bean was, and dumped some water on the ground and left.
The seedlings sprouted about two weeks later. They all looked the same. As they got bigger each plant sprouted broad leaves and bushed out until about midsummer when they began to flower. Then I noticed a difference—one plant had white, cottony flowers while the others were violet. I kept an eye on that plant. When the flowers dropped all the other plants started growing regular green string beans; the odd one grew what looked at first like tiny cabbages that developed into dozens of quarter-sized green, leafy Jesus heads.
It was a pleasant plant. The flowers smelled very innocent and sweet, and the little heads all seemed to be smiling. I felt calm and even a little intoxicated when I’d stand near it. But soon the Jesus plant started spreading beyond the green bean patch and took root in the herb section. Then it choked out the lettuce and crept into the tomatoes. The squash was taken over next, and in less than two weeks Jesus head beans had taken over most of the garden.
I felt uncomfortably as if I’d go to hell if I sprayed RoundUp on the thing, so I resigned myself to picking off the Jesus heads to boil and eat. They were kind of like Brussels sprouts, but not bad overall.
I once knew a girl named Maria Trollsaas. She was Swedish. I always wondered how her family got their last name—trolls? And sauce?—and when I finally asked her she said that according to Scandinavian legend a giant troll watches over the people of the north, and because they are so heroic to brave life in such a bitterly cold land, the troll will ensure that no northerners ever go hungry by leaving gifts of gooey meat stew on doorsteps on the darkest winter nights. And this is actually where Swedish meatballs come from.
I personally think that the legend has too many similarities to the dog-doo-on-the-stoop prank, and I will never eat Swedish meatballs again.
One of the cats in the apartment is Sasha, a delicate-footed Siamese with sleepy blue eyes. She is an extremely sedate cat, spending most of her time burrowed in a corner of the sofa napping or settled semi permanently on the leather chair ottoman with her gaze directed at the sofa as if to make sure her favorite spot for dozing isn’t desecrated by a pair of stinky human feet. She is not aloof from the other cats, but doesn’t participate in their spats and games, either; she almost seems like their matron, very indulging.
Her diet was always prepared specially for her, including fresh tuna and god knows what else mixed with a canned cat food. When her owner was suddenly needed out of town I had to come in to feed Sasha and the others, and lacking precise instructions I simply gave all the cats the same food, figuring that a few days of fishy little pellets would be OK. Sasha, however, began to have more energy. Within a day I caught her climbing the drapes; after two days she was chasing the other cats around the living room yowling and wild-eyed. After three days she was gone.
A month later, I read an article in the newspaper about a boating accident at the lake where a fisherman fell overboard and was rescued from the water by the scruff of his neck by a “wild furry thing with bright blue eyes”; upon reaching shore the nearly-drowned and shivering fisherman realized that all of his bait, a 7-pound trout and a 12-pack of beer was missing from his boat.
My dad had some terrible cars in his life, but one that I remember was the pea green Plymouth Duster. It had a black vinyl bench seat up front that my three-year-old self would slide back and forth on whenever the car took a sharp turn. It smelled sort of musty; when it rained, water would seep from a bad seal between the windshield and the dashboard and pool in the car. This didn’t stop my dad from driving the Duster in the rain, however—he didn’t have much of a choice.
One day he and a coworker decided to drive in my father’s car to get lunch. It had been raining earlier and had since stopped, and the car was drying out. On the way to the restaurant, my dad made a sudden stop, causing the flooded glove compartment to burst open and dump a load of rainwater square into his coworker’s lap.
My grandfather was a blustery, loud old fart who whose stubbornness made everything he did beyond argument. He was clumsy but would never admit or acknowledge his clumsiness, which means that my grandma often had to clean up after him when he stepped in things or knocked over glasses.
Around the time my aunt and two uncles were in high school, my grandfather began complaining about a pain in his side. This had the effect of making my grandmother crazy, because grandpa refused to see a doctor even though the complaints were constant; this was the same man who almost cut his thumb off with a band saw and tried to hide the wound for three days under a couple of band-aids and gauze. Grandma knew she had to be persistent, and finally dragged my grandfather to a doctor to be examined.
After a little while in the examining room, the doctor and my grandpa emerged, the doctor holding in a glass jar my aunt’s high school class ring. He explained to my grandmother that the ring, which my aunt had lost several weeks prior, had been apparently been left in the bathtub where my grandfather, as was typical not looking where he was going, had sat on it. The ring had spent two weeks causing a burning pain that my grandfather had tried first to ignore, then to self-medicate with hemorrhoid creams. Two full weeks of agony was caused by a fancy ring lodged up my grandpa’s butt.
My grandma gave the ring back to my aunt, who I’m sure never wore it again.
The U.S. government invented a miniature version of the atomic bomb that detonates in a three-inch mushroom cloud and melts everything in a one-block radius into white-hot uranium magma. The radiation from the explosion spreads for just under a mile from the epicenter, making it the ideal tool for the surgical removal of the Bush family ranch in Texas from the country.
True story: my roommate, Liz Atz, hates to get up earlier then 10 AM, but on one particular morning she had to get up earlier than that in order to get to her summer job painting the inside of a well. Her one solace that day was that she had bought a big, fancy croissant at the co-op market down the street to eat for breakfast with her coffee. She had set her pastry on the kitchen table the night before, and in the morning started the coffee, then went to change clothes. When Liz returned to the kitchen she readied her thermal coffee mug and turned to grab the croissant and go, but it was missing. Suddenly attentive and pondering where she might have moved her breakfast, she became aware of a rustling of plastic and cast a sharp glance at the source of the noise: the bag with Liz’s breakfast was being tugged at and munched on through a hole in the kitchen window screen by a hungry squirrel. Not only was my roommate left to start her day hungry, she had to tell everyone that a squirrel ate her breakfast.
If there were such thing as land sharks—about the size of Dachshunds with four short, hyperactive little legs—I wonder if they would gang up and circle unsuspecting mall goers in parking lots at night.
In one dream, I was walking beneath trees in a closed-in courtyard orchard. Other people were milling around also because this was a day of festival for the city, but despite the general feeling of gaiety there was a sense of danger because the trees’ fruits were carnivorous. One group of trees in a row had baseball-sized fruits that were translucent yellow and squishy with seeds that formed what were basically the insides of mouths for eating prey. I walked under these trees looking upwards, chilled; I asked my traveling companion who was walking slightly ahead of me and too fast if this festival was a bad idea considering the potential carnage and possible lawsuits that would follow. My companion told me without turning around to face me that only about 20 people died a year from the trees so it wasn’t a big deal. I was still awed and unbelieving that a whole city would settle in such a perilous and damned location.
A second row of trees had translucent red-orange fruits that were like large mushrooms but with masses of jellyfish tentacles reaching up from below that burrowed into people’s arms at the shoulder and took over their bodies. These were low-lying fruits, and therefore difficult to avoid; one began to jab insistently into my left shoulder and even pierce the flesh, but I managed to pull it out. A scan around the courtyard for a safe haven discovered the festival ‘prince’, a local teenager with a crown of blue sugar puffballs on sticks attached to a headband, emerged in a doorway of one of the brick townhouses that surrounded the courtyard: he was Frank Bramblett’s son, and I was told that if I stood by him I would be safe.
The rust spots below the tub faucet where the enamel had worn off looked just like my mom did from a distance—it had the same haircut, anyway. And it had no legs, but when I was 4 I only saw my mom in pieces, either from the waist up when I was in her lap or as a pair of legs when I was on the ground, so it made sense. There were some saucer-like things behind the mom-splotch, but those weren’t anything identifiable; they were just for scale. My mom didn’t see those things in the rust spots, but they were perfectly obvious to me even up till the day my parents replaced the tub.
In another dream I was wandering around a hilly ranch with bright green grass and long (seemingly endless) winding fences made of wood beams. Inside and outside of the fences—I guess there was no way to tell what was inside and outside, really—there were mechanical horses and chickens that had no legs, just big coiled springs. The animals looked like they were made of metal, and were painted in bright, shiny colors, but were somehow alive (I could tell). Periodically, the horses would wind up and buck up and down for a few seconds in what seemed to be fast forward, then stop suddenly. I was looking for a way out of this ranch, but the fences made it difficult to navigate around. I saw a big warehouse/barn side up ahead and thought that might be a way out of this weird wind-up land, but it looked threatening; I headed for it anyway.
When I had my wisdom teeth removed the dentist didn’t put me completely under; the anesthetic he gave me numbed my whole face and made everything I saw seem very far away and require slight effort to focus on. Somehow, the drugs also made it seem perfectly normal that the dentist was putting some whirring machine on a stick into my mouth that made crunching noises in my jaw and a warm iron taste fill my throat. When I was asked to spit into a basin, I did; when they stuffed gauze into the new holes in my gums I thought pleasantly loopy thoughts. When the operation was over, I stood and walked as if I was drunk with assistance from my mother, and after the dentist handed over pain medication and dictated instructions (which I still can’t quite remember) he smiled and made a crack about the tooth fairy as he handed me a tiny manila envelope filled with the fragments of my four cut-out and broken wisdom teeth.
My first encounter with art teachers was when I was in kindergarten. The class was seated around the 6 big, round green tables on stools, straining short arms to grab at the bins on crayons on the tabletops. The crayons were all broken and used, and it was at times difficult to tell what color was what as the waxes had marked all over each other. I don’t remember what I was trying to draw, but the kid next to me announced in a voice that indicated conspiracy that she had found a ‘water crayon’ mixed in with the regular crayons. This was for some reason immediately known to be contraband and therefore completely fascinating. But in a strange power play for a five-year-old, my neighbor put the water crayon, a bright red oil pastel, back in the bin and then dared me to use it to draw. I don’t know what possessed me, but I took the pastel and drew big red scribbles all over the green table, reveling in the smooth gliding mark. It was time for cleanup as I finished this illegal act, so I hastily put all of my drawing instruments back in the bin and ran to line up in the hallway with the class. As we were waiting for the go-ahead to find our respective carpools, the art teacher came out of the classroom and asked if anybody had found a water crayon. I was silent. The teacher walked up to me, squatted so we were face to face, and asked if I knew anything about a red water crayon. I lied and said no. The teacher said she had to show me something and took me by the arm back to the table I had scribbled on, and demanded to know if I had done this. I think I nodded as I started to sob, and the teacher handed me a soapy sponge so I could scrub the table clean. I was crying so hard that it was hard to tell if the scrubbing was doing any good, but the teacher finally told me that I was free to go and that I should never, ever lie. I ran out of that room, humiliated and horrified, sobbing and red-faced, and late to meet my carpool.
I don’t know how rare it is to actually see a squirrel pee, but one day as I was waiting for my laundry to finish in the dryer I was sitting on the concrete steps up from the basement of the three-story brick apartment building and noticed water dripping to my right. Casually looking up, expecting to see an air conditioner sweating in the late summer heat, I saw a squirrel hanging half off of the roof, pissing down the side of the building. It was then that I realized that I had never seen a squirrel pee before (even though I know they must), and that the novelty of such a sighting was mildly ridiculous.
Things one must find new ways to do when constricted to using only one arm:
Washing hair isn’t as effective in general. Using the restroom takes a much longer time, causing suspicion in public bathrooms. One cannot slice a bagel. Driving is perilous, but using only one arm puts a normal person on a par with the rest of Philadelphia’s motorists. Filling a coffee cup from a self-serve carafe suddenly requires aiming. Putting on a t-shirt becomes uncomfortably like putting on a straight jacket. To tie shoelaces, a person must be flexible enough to plant the foot in question on the wall near one’s head so teeth can substitute as a second hand.
My prayer plant once decided to die without any seeming external reason. It was determined. Leaves withered and fell off no matter how I varied its waterings, what light I gave it, how near the radiator it was. After about a month it was gone, even the brittle, layered stems had broken off for good, leaving me with a pot of dirt. I left it to sit in a corner, neglected, until springtime when I would be planting some herbs for my apartment’s window garden, and the dirt collected a little dust. When the weather outside began to warm up, I noticed that there was a green shoot emerging from the dirt where the prayer plant had been. Soon there were more, and offshoots of the existing shoots. It looked so promising that I started watering it again, and by the high point of spring the prayer plant was back, more vigorous and healthy than it had been before.
One late night when I was riding the Metro back home from a bar in D.C, a man sat next to me. The car was sort of crowded because the subways run infrequently once rush hour ends, so this wasn’t really noteworthy. But the man immediately started talking to me. He was an older Indian man with white stubbly hair and a noticeable body odor, and the first thing he asked me was what do I do for a living. I answered that I do graphic design as a job, but I was an artist, a painter. He said he could tell by my eyes, and taking one hand of mine between the two of his he said that he could tell I was an old soul, and he began to tell me what he claimed was my future, periodically opening his two hands like a book and scrutinizing my palm.
I was both bemused and put on guard by that man, but I remember the strange and sudden intimate connection; to me he remains in my memory not as just one person but as both an all-wise Gandhi-like yogi figure sitting in full lotus and a guileless mentally ill man bartering for his food with spirituality.
Ginger the frog set up a tent on top of her lily pad so that she could rest over water undisturbed by the glaring sunlight. It was a good idea except for one thing: the lily pad was carnivorous, and Ginger has not been seen since Saturday.
Once there was a vampire that needed braces. He normally managed to get by with his nightly feedings, but it really was difficult to get a good drink of blood with two buck-toothed fangs that stuck out in opposing directions. Things got messier than they really should. So the vampire decided to brave the local orthodontist’s earliest available early morning appointment with sunglasses and sunscreen slathered on to see about getting his teeth fixed up. The orthodontist examined the vampire’s mouth with barely an odd glance at his large pointy incisors, and began discussing a schedule for an initial gap-closing mouth fitting, then braces, then a retainer. It sounded like a reasonable plan, and since going out in the weak morning sunshine had turned out not to be such a big deal the vampire signed on for a full course of orthodontic work.
The mouth fitting was a bit cumbersome but worked pretty well to bring the vampire’s teeth closer together, making feeding a bit more manageable even though the ‘I vant to suck your bluud’ part got a bit lispy. Then the braces went on to align the teeth, hurting like hell and requiring the vampire to knock his prey around a bit before biting in so he could be more ginger about it. But finally the big day came when the braces were to come off.
The vampire went in to the orthodontist who approved everything and then set about removing the braces. While the patient sat reclined, mouth agape and eyes staring off at the specked ceiling tiles, the braces were pried off one by one. Then, with a whirring noise, the orthodontist told the vampire to relax, that he was going to sand off the glue that held the braces on and touch up a few things. The vampire nodded as much as he could and kept counting specks. Within a minute of grinding and flying chemical dust there was a warm, dullish pain in his front teeth and a burning smell. The vampire began to feel unwell. Thankfully, the procedure was done and the orthodontist sat his patient up, presenting with a smile a mirror for the first look at a newly braceless face. The vampire smiled and gasped—his teeth were smooth and straight, but
The shock of defangment made the vampire speechless to complain, but upon going outside a new realization dawned: the sunshine felt quite pleasant, the hot dogs from the cart at the end of the block actually smelled appetizing, and the idea of sleeping in a coffin no longer appealed. The vampire was now just like everybody else.
The Japanese maple out front of the house I live in is delicate and knotty, with lacy leaves like tiny spreading fingers and a crooked ascent to the rooftop. It basically looks just like something a Japanese sensibility would create: perfect in its elegance and grace. So did the Japanese breed the tree to fit their notions of perfection, or did the tree help to create those notions in the first place? Or, like German chocolate cake, was the tree named by some American named ‘Japanese’?
When I was a kid, my parents used to take my brother and I to the open grounds of Cave Hill Cemetery to feed the ducks. This isn’t as morbid as it may sound: Cave Hill has a large portion of its real estate dedicated to a park grounds with a large lake, and the graveyard portion boasts the burying place of Colonel Sanders, replete with a giant bronze statue of the Colonel which seems to be waiting for a bronze bucket o fried chicken to complete it. So it was really a lighthearted thing; we went to the lakeside with a loaf of stale bread and flung little bits out into the water or onto the shore for the mallards and the big, white ducks with long necks and yellow beaks. The ducks were so used to being fed that they were very casual about human presence, and some even got brave enough to eat out of one’s hand. This was delightful for young children, and I fed the couple of ducks near my five-year-old self as fast as I could to see them grab for food. My brother, however, was only three and therefore a bit slower about doing things, so the few ducks in his vicinity began to get impatient. Seeing as the birds weren’t all that much smaller than a three-year-old human, the ducks began to get brave. Within just a few minutes of arriving at the lake, my brother had gotten bitten by an aggressive duck bully, had his bread snatched away, and was mildly traumatized, making it clear that pleasant family activities can’t be counted upon to run smoothly when live animals are involved.
(All names spelled creatively.)
The radio announcers on NPR are hiding their real names; the ones they use are just too catchy to be true. Take, for example, Carl Cassell, Don Gonyay, Marty Moscowaine, Michael Eric Dysan, and Dave Davies. The so-called normal names—such as Terry Gross—are put in there just to throw people off. Why do they do this? Well, as it turns out, all NPR announcers are actually orphans; while they do have real names they don’t actually know them so thus they get to pick their on-radio call names based on catchiness and whim. It’s a good strategy as far as creating an easily remembered persona for NPR listeners, but it also conceals deep-seated psychological issues about fear of abandonment and anonymity.
There were a lot of mice in the unkempt house so the family set out glue traps to catch them. The little boy, about 10 years old, hated the thought of killing his mousey friends, so every time he found a mouse caught in the glue, either squeaking frantically or frozen with fear, he would dissolve the glue with a bit of oil, trap the freaked-out rodent in a box, and then walk down the street a couple of blocks to set the mice free. Half the time the mice would come back to the unkempt house, but the other half of the time they would run off to the fields.
The boy kept only one mouse for himself, a small adolescent whose insistence led it to be captured and then freed from the glue traps more than four times. This little one was named Jumpy, and true enough it spent all of his waking hours jumping up to see over the edge of its cardboard box, jumping over and over again until it tired, then beginning again. The boy enjoyed the mouse’s spunk and persistence but worried for its future in the unkempt house—this was why he had decided to keep it in the first place—so he spoke to the mouse regularly, encouraging him to keep trying to set himself free. The cardboard box was really not that well made, and after about a month of jumping and jumping, Jumpy jumped out and finally journeyed to join the other mice outside the unkempt house in the fields; rejoining mousedom as one chosen, he added his mousey voice to the legend of the benevolent giant who sent mice into a free new life anointed with greasy paws.
Riding the subway is surrender to noplace; it is entrance into a space that has no specific location except the blackness without the car’s windows, and implicitly passengers partake in the faith that the strange blindness will eventually cede to the concrete location of what one expects to be one’s destination. Until landing, though, the traveler becomes part of tiny insular station off the maps and unable to be pinpointed.
In the summertime, fruit flies appear and buzz in swarms around rapidly ripening tomatoes in windowsills. In earlier centuries, scientists affirmed that the flies were spontaneously generated by the fruits themselves; this was proven when the flies disappeared as the ripe tomatoes were eaten. The same was true of rotting meat and maggots: as a side of beef went bad, it gave birth to maggots, and this is where maggots came from. Now that we are in the 21st century, scientists know that matter is not generated spontaneously; but I know without doubt that if all the accumulated knowledge of the sciences was suddenly hidden away from the common man, leaving people to fend for themselves, that I would be living in a leaky house with no electricity, my car long since broken down, encumbered by piles of dirty laundry and a firm belief that the tomatoes make all those damn fruit flies.
How much marble dust does a person have to inhale to become a marble statue? If you breathe in enough to leave healthy-sized deposits in the lungs, when you die and decompose are two lung-shaped rocks left in the casket?
Boiling in oil was an excruciating and terrible medieval execution method. We are much more civilized about our oil nowadays, especially the oil we choose to boil. Not that people have gotten nicer, but since execution is much more strictly monitored the applications left for hot oil are by default far more productive: french fries, car engines, and calamari are fine examples of better ways to employ a good, bubbling vat of greasy stuff. This is Progress, which is held as a national ideal.
The squirrels outside of my studio window are frantically hoarding huge nuts in the hollow of a medium-sized tree. They frequently carry nuts the size of their heads and somehow climb a perfectly vertical surface at the same time; I have even seen squirrels clamber into the upper branches of the tree with their cumbersome cargo, mistakenly thinking that they can deposit the big, heavy nuts on top of delicate forked twigs for safe keeping.
The irony is, for all this labor squirrels have almost no long-term memory. Instinct leads them to hide food in trees and lawns and dig holes to put things in, but they do not have the mental capacity to remember where these secret locations are. Nuts hidden in trees are almost immediately forgotten.
Under water, the quality of light is shimmering, super-luminous threads waving through invisibly undulating liquid, cutting effortlessly through murkiness to suffuse the ocean with ambient illumination. I’m jealous of the fish, who simply do not appreciate this.
I have a friend who is an Army lieutenant in Iraq. He is a very intelligent guy with a law degree and a passionate way of debating history and politics in which he utilizes his detailed memory to defeat any opponent utterly. He is always freshly-shaven and dressed impeccably, usually in a suit although I have seen him in a sport coat a couple of times. His weaknesses, though not many, are the usual: math skills are rusty and like so many he is terrible with directions.
With all this in mind, one would think the army would have assigned him to a post as a negotiator or a clerk in a military court; this would show off his many talents and place them in a position where they could benefit others. But in fact, my friend’s duty in the army is to scout ahead of main forces for tank missile targets and then radio back to specific tanks with the exact coordinates of these targets, taking into account their potential movement in a given amount of time.
So for my friend, life in Iraq is like a big, bad word problem, and I really hope his mission co-operators now know to duck and cover.
I hate watermelon. It tastes insipidly sweet with little complexity of flavor, the buglike black seeds are riddled in its flesh like an infection, and the texture is like juicy Styrofoam. It’s not even like the other melons: the plant is actually closer structurally to a cucumber. But I am intrigued by what can be done with these heavy fruits, besides of course smashing them à la Gallagher. When the Japanese decided they needed to make watermelons more modular and thus easier to ship, they figured out that a watermelon grown in a small box will grow into and fill the negative space within the box in order to get as big as it can; this means a watermelon grown in a square box will end up square, etc. Considering the development of the art of topiary, I think watermelon shaping has a bright and shining future. It could mean the displacement of ice sculptures as wedding buffet centerpieces and a healthy alternative to bunny-shaped cakes for birthdays. It could be much more than that, too, if the right corporate schemer gets behind the idea; it’s all about creating a need in the consumer, much as Mr. Gillette created a handle for replaceable razors in which only his specially-shaped blades would fit.
Obsessive housewives are the ones who invented The Price Is Right.
On Halloween, there were always the old ladies that handed out homemade cookies for the neighborhood kids, there were the folks that plunked nickels into bags, there were those who didn’t even answer the door or who left baskets (“take one”) on the stoop. There were the people who thought root beer barrels were a treat or that the generically orange- or black-wrapped off brand chewy things would cut it. There were even people who gave out bite-sized Snickers or Milky Way bars, or Pixie Sticks, or Smarties. But I was told by my father that a trick-or-treater should always ask for meat.
Valley Forge, a site of great historical importance as the 1777 winter campground of the Continental Army, whose tenacity prevented further British advance and helped guide the course to victory and freedom for the American colonies, is a very boring place nowadays.
My neurotic hypochondriac great aunt always insisted that my mother bring her vials of holy water from Lourdes so she could bless herself before bed (she was sure she would die at any moment). My mother, unwilling to spend the money for specially imported plastic bottles of water from Lourdes, would refill my aunt’s vials from the tap, ensuring one or both of them a place in hell.
Once there was a tiny, tiny pomegranate tree in a tiny, tiny pot by the window. It grew bigger as time went by, but once it got to be three inches high it started filling in foliage instead of adding height, eventually becoming an exquisitely jewel-like precious living thing. Its diminutive size suggested fairy tale surroundings, but it was just sitting in a windowsill in a house, like any old windowsill in a house, with chipped paint and needing a wipe down by a damp rag. One day the tiny, tiny tree decided it was time to make a pomegranate. So it put forth all of its effort into creating a fruit, letting some of its branches sicken and leaves droop at the cost of producing a perfect red-skinned pomegranate. The fruit the tree produced was jewel-like and exquisite as the tree, but it was bigger than the tree’s proportion would suggest. And as the tree kept putting more effort into the pomegranate, it got bigger and bigger until it was the size of a tennis ball. Finally, the fruit ripened and dropped off the branch, allowing the tiny, tiny tree to get back to the business of making itself exquisite and jewel-like, and the owner of the plant to eat the average-sized pomegranate.
I saw a middle-aged lady standing on the sidewalk beside a driveway; it wasn’t a proper street corner, but she stood there waiting expectantly nonetheless. An elderly lady joined her there, waiting. Buses passed but they seemed unfazed, confidence unwavering, still waiting.
An Isthmus is a very precious thing to have, as very few exist in the world. Ask Panama—it knows how such a valuable thing can be squabbled over and cried about, and that if one doesn’t hold one’s ground it will be taken and drilled into.
Before the age of 13 I dissected a large number of animals in laboratory environments. I went through several frogs, a worm, a halibut, a squid, a cow heart, and (vicariously) a baby pig. It wasn’t traumatic or anything but was in fact wholly voluntary; it was the product of an interest in zoology combined with the availability of free weekend classes for nerdy kids and the unsqueamish support of a mother with an advanced degree in biology. This hands-on experience gave me all the knowledge I need of animal physiology for my chosen path in life (and more!), which is fortunate because I can no longer stomach the smell of formaldehyde.
Aqua Net makes a superb fixative for drawings. Coat hangers can be twisted and mangled into functional TV antennas. Duct tape holds shoe soles together quite well because it is essentially plastic, and drywall screws can be used in a pinch to keep a car bumper from falling off. James Castle made drawings entirely with spit and soot. A little lemon juice in milk works as a substitute for buttermilk, and dry sticks and shredded newspaper can help light a charcoal grill as well as lighter fluid. And people still by the special triangular-headed Swiffer made just for cleaning the dust out of hard to reach corners.
If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?
If the choice were based on personal preference I’d have to pick a Japanese maple, but if it were based on which type of tree I was most like it would probably be a red bud tree.
This is given my less than encyclopedic knowledge of trees.
The Russian folk tale of Baba Yaga sticks in my mind when I see news footage of the flood plains by the Mississippi River; houses on chicken legs that pick up and move at will are exactly what those people need. I suppose pneumatic steel legs would work just as well if the mechanization was right, but a grant proposal to the government for funding on research and development of chicken-legged houses would be far more entertaining.
There once was a blind man who could tell by the sound of a bell rung with two taps of a 16-ounce iron hammer what type of metal the bell was made of, how much it weighed, what general shape it had, and what color it was painted. It was his only skill.
Collecting seashells is humbling because it is a reminder of the vast segment of this earth that remains foreign to us, and of the multitudes that populate it whom we will only know by remains.
Rain forests offer at least a possibility of true understanding, or educated sympathy.
Oliver Sacks, the famous author and psychologist who studies neurological disorders, has written quite a few anecdotes about former patients who become so accustomed to a particular deficient apparatus for coping with the world that when given a method for erasing that deficiency they suddenly cannot function. Like the story of the almost totally blind guy who is given somewhat restored sight by an operation but sinks into a state of overwhelmed anxiety and depression in the face of the sudden burst of new sensory input. It makes me wonder what crazy deficiencies in functioning or just perspective other people might have that could spell mental doom if corrected. For example, would Michael Jackson succumb to despair if he was suddenly granted basic, survival-level self esteem? And how would Oprah react if relieved of the need to provide justification for middle class women’s self indulgent tendencies? Or what if everyone in the world suddenly became aware that the green we used to see is not green in reality, but instead a shade of mercilessly retro teal?
It’s neither the disease-bearing attributes of cockroaches nor the fact that their presence indicates filthiness, but the shiny-crunchy shell that cracks audibly and physically when they are stepped on that makes them the most absolutely disgusting creature on the face of the planet. It can challenge any snake, toad, rodent, silverfish, millipede, worm, maggot, or stick bug to an ugly duel and win without effort. Cockroaches are hands-down wretchedly vile. This must be why they’ve been around for such a long time and why they can wander into open microwaves and be roasted on high for three minutes and walk right back out: they know they’re ugly, and they’ve developed forty times more than just a thick hide.
As I’m sitting here past 1:30 in the morning writing this, my eyes keep wandering to the cover of the cooking magazine on my desk. Crème brûlée? Sure, I’d love some. With a nice glass of red. Or a reasonable substitute like ice cream and grape juice would work (given the hour). Crackers, even.
Do you mind? I’ve gotta… I’ll be back in a minute.
“ Kchendkdkila ignominious spatula kvetch gherkin quintessence refulgent tartan lacuna chum gambleputty azygous waggish bandicoot ruff paté calumny yucca dogbane undulant tresses. Dandledaisychain obelus boltonia empurple barbel galiput lilliput confabulatory hookah hoo-ha wherewithal eyrie irksomeness macula jigger-the-nunnery ophiological feldspar peashooter catachesis sardonic shindig guipure fogbound velar minim.”
I nod-jerk just a little too hard and wake up properly.
Olav is saying, “Ehhm, so what do you guys think? We could go to the Comet for a beer or so, then come back here, everyone could read these stories on their own sort of fast, then we can go back to somebody’s house with this bottle of vodka and talk about the stories. Maybe somebody could pick up a few six packs on the way and some orange juice or so. Sound like a plan?”