This is the time of year when I pull out my copy of The Complete Tales of Edgar Allan Poe and peruse some old favorites. What’s your favorite Poe tale?
This is the time of year when I pull out my copy of The Complete Tales of Edgar Allan Poe and peruse some old favorites. What’s your favorite Poe tale?
There’s a new pizza place going in just a block from where I work. By my count that’s the seventh pizza place within a half mile radius, not counting places that aren’t exclusively for pizza but still sell pizza. If you include them the number goes up to a hundred and seventeen, including the doughnut shop that’s serving up its special pizza doughnut–for a limited time only because no one really wants to eat that, but that’s another story. I realize it’s near a college campus but even when I was a college student I didn’t eat pizza more than twice a day four days a week. How can that many pizza places in such a small area survive and, more importantly, how different could they possibly be from each other? Some may be better than others but it’s still going to be flattened bread with, in most cases, a tomato-based sauce, some cheese, and various toppings ranging from meats to vegetables to mushrooms, which aren’t exactly vegetables but they’re sure not meats and while some pizza places serve good mushrooms at others you might as well ask for pencil erasers. What’s funny to me is I noticed the new pizza place just as I was thinking about accusations of joke theft against various comedians, most recently Amy Schumer. But as some of her defenders have pointed out she’s making jokes about popular topics—sex, race, men and women—that get covered by a lot of other comedians. It’s really hard to come up with something on almost any broad topic that’s going to be funny and that hasn’t already been thought of by someone else. Unless you’re Steve Martin making a joke about working on a Findlay sprinkler head with a Langstrom 7″ gangly wrench to a roomful of plumbers–a joke, by the way, that had been going around plumbers’ conventions since Roman times–it’s almost impossible to avoid instances of parallel thinking, a term I freely admit I’ve taken from somewhere else, even if I can’t remember where.
I know some performers are really guilty of outright plagiarism because they’re too lazy to write their own jokes and too cheap to pay someone genuinely funny to write jokes for them and that’s a terrible thing and I think they should be booed off the stage, but then I get worried because everybody else around me is yelling “boo!” and I feel like I should come up with something original to yell. And then I feel guilty because I’m not sure whether joke theft is a joking matter, especially since there have been times when I’ve felt like a victim of joke theft. Many years ago I wrote something about videophones and how I thought there would be a big market for miniature interior design so people could impress each other with cool backgrounds. About six months later there was a commercial with Jason Alexander trying to impress a woman he’s video chatting with by putting up a cool backdrop in his shabby apartment. Of course I realized that it was extremely unlikely whoever wrote the commercial had read what I’d written–it was probably just a case of parallel thinking. A true original idea at that time would have been to realize that eventually mobile phones would have video capability and that if you want to impress someone you’re talking to by having, say, the pyramids in the background all you need to do is hold up your phone while you’re standing in front of the pyramids.
And possibly originality is overrated. There’s an episode of Frasier where Frasier and his brother Niles read an unpublished manuscript by a reclusive author, and then they try to one-up each other by coming up with clever things to say about it. One of the things they come up with is that the story’s structure is based on Dante’s Divine Comedy and the author, frustrated because he feels he has nothing original left to say, throws the manuscript out the window and, hey, I just got the irony of Frasier and Niles trying to one-up each other with unique insights. But it’s not like Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven were concepts invented entirely by Dante, nor is he the only artist to use them form metaphorical purposes. Imagine if someone had said to Hieronymous Bosch, “Hey, that Garden of Earthly Delights triptych is really cool. Did you get the idea from Dante?” and he had said, “What? I thought I had an original idea here!” and burned it. Or maybe it would be Dante being asked if he’d gotten the idea for The Divine Comedy from Bosch. I don’t know. I can’t remember which one came first. This also reminds me of a short story called “Who’s Cribbing?” by Jack Lewis about an author whose short story submissions keep getting rejected because the editors accuse him of copying the stories of an earlier writer he’s never even heard of. And as one of the editors tells him the chances of two authors writing exactly the same story, word for word, are the same as the chances of four royal flushes on a single deal. Now that I think about it, though, four royal flushes on a single deal isn’t impossible–it’s just extremely unlikely. When I was eating pizza twice a day four times a week I read that story to a bunch of my friends and we all agreed it was a writer’s worst nightmare because we forgot that even Shakespeare lifted whole plots from other sources and that a great source of creativity is being inspired by others. There’s a fine line between copying and retelling, and stealing from one source is plagiarism while stealing from many is research. I forget who that line is commonly attributed to, but I’m sure they heard it from someone else.
Granted I do think copyright is important, to an extent. Artists deserve to be paid for their work (and if you’re enjoying this won’t you please donate?) and one way they can ensure they track their work to make sure they get paid for it is through copyright protection. Mozart’s Don Giovanni was a flop in Vienna but went on to become a blockbuster in Prague. He died in dire poverty because he never saw a penny of that revenue, but they could at least have sent him a Czech. What I’m getting at is that if Mozart had gotten a share of the profits from his work he might still be alive today, even though he’d be two-hundred and sixty now and collecting killer royalty checks. Ray Davies expressed his frustration with this problem in the Kinks song The Moneygoround, although the album went on to be Top of the Pops. On the other hand some works only really become widely known because being really cheap or even free means they get passed around and a lot of airplay. It took decades for Moe Howard and Larry Fine to finally get some financial compensation and at that point most of the other Stooges were dead. The syndication of their films made the studio that owned them a tremendous amount of money and the Stooges certainly deserved a cut of that, but if their law firm of Dewey, Cheathem, and Howe had given them extensive and complicated contracts the cost of replaying their films could have gone up and they wouldn’t have gotten as much airplay and consequently wouldn’t have been as profitable or as famous. Whether this is good or bad is a question I’ll leave you wiseguys to murtilate each other over because the value of copyright and its abuse is a whole can of worms I don’t want to open because I’m afraid I’ll be sued by the publisher of at least one of about two dozen books titled Can Of Worms that are out there, not to mention the song by Squeeze.
What I’m getting at is that the best any creative person can do is offer their own unique vision, keeping in mind a joke that’s been around since I was at least a kid in Roman times: each of us is an individual, just like everybody else. So who wants pizza?
Every year on the first night of Hanukkah I stop to remember a squirrel.
Gassing the woodchucks didn’t turn out right.
The knockout bomb from the Feed and Grain Exchange
was featured as merciful, quick at the bone
and the case we had against them was airtight,
both exits shoehorned shut with puddingstone,
but they had a sub-sub-basement out of range.
– Maxine Kumin, Woodchucks
I have a contract with the squirrels. It’s understood by both of us that they’re supposed to stay out of my attic and not come in to make nests in the insulation and chew the cables. Since I can’t retaliate by moving into their nests in the trees I reserve the right to set traps in the attic. A few years ago I woke up to squirrels or mice or used car salesmen or some other kind of vermin scrabbling around in the ceiling over my head. I set traps in the attic and whatever it was avoided the traps and went away. I like to think it or they saw the traps and said, “Holy mackerel, let’s move to some place safer like a nuclear reactor!” This is the way it should work. In December, though, a few dumb squirrels moved in and were holding cocktail parties well past midnight. I announced the terms of our agreement very loudly as I set out traps smeared with peanut butter. I didn’t really want to set the traps, primarily because that meant going up in the attic, which meant climbing that rickety wooden ladder. The ladder has two warnings on it. One, in huge print, says, “Failure to use ladder correctly could result in damage to the ladder!” As far as I can tell “failure to use ladder correctly” means dousing it with gasoline and setting it on fire. The other warning, in fine print, says, “Oh yeah, you might also hurt yourself, so please take off those stupid slippers and put on some real shoes.”
But the real problem is I don’t like heights, or, to be more specific, landing at the bottom of them. I get the shakes when I stand on a chair. Once in the attic I’m fine because I’m on solid ground again, or at least solid plywood over that insulation that looks like cotton candy but tastes much better. It’s the climbing part that gets to me, especially since I have to use at least one hand to carry the traps. I use the spring bar traps, the kind that are sold under the slogan, “Build a better mouse trap and the world will beat a path to your door,” except I use the larger ones. The slogan for the large ones is: “These will cut your fingers off.” I could pride myself on being able to set these traps and position them with the steady hands of a neurosurgeon or bomb defuser, but there’s nothing good about any part of the job. Maxine Kumin’s poem about killing woodchucks in her garden ends with her saying there’s one woodchuck who eludes her gun, and she concludes, “If only they’d all consented to die unseen/gassed underground the quiet Nazi way.” It’s not a perfect metaphor, although if it were it wouldn’t be a metaphor.
The only perfect metaphor that I know of in English literature is, “A rose is a rose is a rose.” The Jews didn’t do anything to the Nazis. There was no justification for the concentration camps. The woodchucks, on the other hand, threatened Kumin’s food supply, or at least her rhubarb and brussels sprouts. And the squirrels in my attic could chew through an electric cord and burn the house down, which would mean we’d all be out of a place to live. I thought about all this the night I found a squirrel wounded but still alive in one of the traps. I knew I couldn’t let it go. Even if it survived its injury, even if it avoided being run over by a car, even if it escaped neighborhood dogs, stray cats, coyotes, foxes, owls, hawks, werewolves, and pangolins it would just get back into the house. I knew all this, but I wasn’t looking forward to what I knew I had to do either. I put the trap with the squirrel still in it into a white plastic garbage bag and took it out to the driveway. I got a shovel out of the basement. The squirrel struggled a little in the bag, which I appreciated because it told me exactly where to hit. I wanted to to make this as quick and merciful as possible for both of us, although I nearly lost my nerve at the last minute. My wife had suggested I use a hatchet, but I didn’t want to do that because I’d actually have to look at the squirrel. A history teacher once told me that Mary Queen of Scots, as she approached the chopping block, turned to her executioner and said, “Be mercifully quick.” Her request apparently made him lose his nerve; it took him three tries to finish the job. After the clang of the shovel faded, I heard someone a few houses away in their backyard practicing “Jingle Bells” on a flute. For some reason this song always makes me think of people and woodland animals sharing the sleigh ride together, a sort of Eden with snow and blinking lights. The sun had just set, and in the stillness I realized that in some houses and places of worship the first candle of the menorah had either been lit or was about to be lit. Hanukkah is a holiday that celebrates hope and perseverance. It’s about a miracle of light and life coming to people who have just been through darkness and death. I didn’t feel compelled to think about all these things as I emptied the trap. I was glad for what seemed like a conspiracy by the universe to make me feel bad about what I’d done. I deserved it. I can rationalize out the wazoo. I can say that even though one-fourth of all mammal species are presently in danger of extinction squirrels aren’t one of them. I can tell myself that rodents are the cockroaches of the mammal family. I can say that at least I’m not actually harming another person, and that through history people have done terrible things to other people with less justification than I have for killing the squirrels in the attic. Nothing I can say changes the fact that, hokey as it sounds, I don’t want to be directly responsible for the deaths of squirrels. As long as the traps were killing them I could shirk responsibility. I was just a caretaker; the traps were doing the work. When the trap failed, I had to face my own role in squirrelicide. I realized I’d have to take the ladder outside, quit my whining about my fear of heights, find where the squirrels were getting in, and seal it up. It was up to me to keep them out, because ultimately that was the only way to prevent more deaths. I’m pretty sure that, somewhere in the contract, it says that I’m responsible for this because I’m the one with a memory, a conscience, and, for that matter, a big warm attic full of nesting material. It must be in the fine print.
Halloween just seems to bring out the poet in me. Here’s another one that was inspired by a program I watched one night about haunted hotels. An owner of a B&B claimed there was a ghost named Ed that she’d see walking up and down the halls and sometimes she’d say “Good night Ed!” and he’d turn and look at her. I wondered what he was thinking.
Ghost Of The Watertown Bed & Breakfast
Touch sparks to wet bones. Watch them dance. That’s how this feels.
All night Ed walks up and down the hall. In recent years
He’s become an anomaly, an attraction, a circle of cold.
For hours he concentrates on the frozen candles that hold the night
Away. There’s a place he’s supposed to be, but both ends of the hall
Are blocked. Not even his feet sound the floor. The well-fed guests
Sleep in their rooms, except for one who, unaware of the presence
Outside the door, watches a star move across the sky.
Ed is in his shirtsleeves always now. It was evening when
He closed his book and came up here. He wasn’t going to bed
Just yet. It was a quiet evening in the spring. The house
Had guests in it then too. He’s forgotten which room was his,
And thinks that’s what’s wrong, but can’t remember. The rooms
All seem occupied now, and no one speaks to him in a way
That makes him think he knows them. The ones who come through
Drag trails of themselves along, and are so fast
They slip away when he tries to speak. Their voices too
Are murky, but sometimes when the air is thick and he moves
Through it less easily he can hear them. A woman screamed
One night that someone was in her room standing over
Her. It’s said now that Ed enters the rooms. He’s heard
This, and it baffles him. All the doors are locked
To him, and he never stands still, not until the sun
Rolls in through the East window and fills the hall
With blood and fire. What’s after that he can’t remember.
Here’s a crude video version I made. I wish I could draw better. Also animation is hard.
I have a fascination with werewolves which led to this poem which I shared here a few years ago. Before that I submitted it to a contest. The judges liked it very much—one even told me personally how good he thought it was. It was so good it didn’t get first, second, or third place, but was the first runner-up. Always a bridesmaid.
He, my best friend and I, were just bouncing
A fuzzy gray ball that had lost most
Of its bounce back and forth. The dog,
The big sheepdog who lived next door,
Was in its own yard, just on the periphery.
It was always there like the broken sink
In the vacant lot we went to sometimes
To look down at our houses. And then
It jumped at him, knocked him down, that
Engine in its throat humming loud enough
To be heard over him screaming. I ran.
I couldn’t tell where he was under the dog.
I’d been told not to run, that was wrong,
But what was I supposed to do? His mother
Was already coming out right at me
And I got behind her. The dog was gone.
And then he was gone.
The big blue car came
Out from behind the house and he went in,
Still screaming, a towel pressed to his face
With a stain starting to come through.
I heard enough from what his mother told mine
To see what happened, why the dog was gone.
Two men from the pound came and stood
On his porch and stared at themselves
In the man’s wraparound sunglasses. I’d seen him
Through the slits in the fence that kept his back
Yard from the neighborhood, so I could see him
In his white t-shirt, V-neck, telling them they
Were welcome to take the dog if they were willing
To come in and get it. And they said they’d be back.
That was the summer of the drought. Toward school’s
End I watched the corn come up emerald then turn gold
In a field just past the road my street disappeared into.
A year later the field itself was replaced by turnkey
Condominiums, every other one painted yellow.
That was the summer my quarter-Cherokee grandmother
Pulled down from the overhead crawlspace an old book
Of tribal stories and I learned that in the beginning
The wolf and the man used to sit together by the fire,
Until the dog came down from the hills and drove
The wolf away. Now the wolf lives alone in the hills.
I had to pee. My dog and I were out
Together in the summer night, following each
Other and finding our way in the dark by smell and sound.
If I went back inside I’d lose my night vision
So I dropped my shorts by a tree and let go, the stream
Reflecting the pieces of streetlamp that came through
The trees. I couldn’t see the mark I left but I knew
It was there. My territory. I was zipping back up
When I heard my dog barking in the street. I ran,
And there she was with the man who lived two doors up
Pinned against his car. She went after him like a stranger.
Dammit! You’d better get this dog away from me
Or I swear I’ll do somethin’! I’ll kill it! I swear!
He swore and leaned at me while I grabbed my dog
And put my face in her ruff and pulled her back to me.
It was time to go in. The next day I was in my front yard
When he came home. He came over and didn’t look
At me, just said, Son, I wanna apologize about last night.
I’m sorry. I just wasn’t myself. You understand. He raised
His fist and something gold flew from it, sparkling
And I caught a butterscotch medallion. I understood.
I knew more than he realized, had known since the first
Week of summer when I was coming up the back steps
To water the bean plants I’d brought home from school
In a paper cup where they’d sprout and die. I heard
My father talking, telling someone who’d dropped by
Something so serious I knew I shouldn’t be listening.
He’d been drinking all day.
Maybe around sunset he decided he
Wanted fried chicken for supper and sent
His wife out to get it. We hadn’t been here
That long and didn’t know any of this
Was going on. She was gone too long to suit
Him or something, I really don’t know, but while
She was gone he decided he was going to kill
Her when she got back. She
Got away somehow and came down to our
House. We let her in and he stood there on
The porch and yelled and swore. The kids were
Gone that night, away at camp. I called
The cops and it took eight of them to get him
Into one of their cars. She stayed with us
That night and told us, It’s over, he
Won’t do this to me ever again. We
Didn’t know it had happened before.
We saw them next week at the pool
Holding hands. She smiled, but he wouldn’t
Look at us. I thought, Never again.
They’re lucky it wasn’t worse than it ended
Up being with all those guns he has in there.
This was news to me. I thought all attics
Were the same, webby with years of old clothes
And moth dust and naked bulbs over rivers
Of cotton candy insulation. Now I saw the inside
Of the three-cornered roof with blue-steel bars
Marching along the walls like corrugated wallpaper
Or bare columns propping the whole structure.
On the dead-end street late in summer
The world was hot and thick all night. Not even the moon
Frozen outside my window could cool it. In drought
Wind in the leaves sounds like footsteps.
You wake up believing someone else is in the house
And the phone is in the other room or dead.
There at the yard’s edge the jingle of metal
On metal means tags for rabies, or just
House keys, someone else coming home. Across
The street is the opal of a doorbell
Or a cigarette of someone blindfolded.
The movement I see in the window is my hands
Washing the dishes, the reflection imposed on
The brown stubble of the yard. If I went out
Water on my hands would freeze and break.
I keep all the doors locked from inside.
The trailer for the movie Suspiria gave me nightmares. At the time I wrote this I hadn’t watched the film. Then I did and was disappointed. As usual I got myself worked up over nothing, but, hey, I got a story out of it.
Here’s the text version, originally published October 15, 2010:
Even from the beginning I thought there was something in the attic. My closet was long and narrow, running parallel to one wall of my room, and at the far end of it there was a door into the attic. Maybe it was the fact that for a long time that door was kept padlocked that gave me the idea. Maybe I assumed the lock was there to keep something in, rather than keeping me out, since I wasn’t interested in going into the attic. For some reason I felt that whatever it was that was in the attic was malevolent, even if I didn’t know its name or what it looked like. Then one summer we took a trip to Texas. My parents went out one night and left me with some complete strangers. I assume my parents knew them and didn’t just call up random strangers asking, “Could you watch our son while we go out for a few hours?” But to me the people were strangers, albeit nice ones who gave me some ice cream and let me watch television. While we were watching television the trailer for a movie called Suspiria came on. The trailer, which you can find online, opens with a woman with long black hair, seen from the back, and a voice singing “Roses are red, violets are blue…” The head spins around, revealing a skull under the hair. I still haven’t seen the movie, directed by Dario Argento, to this day, although I have seen some of his other movies. Some people call him an amazing horror film director, but I can honestly say I’ve seen episodes of Spongebob Squarepants that were more frightening. But as a kid in a strange house the trailer for Suspiria completely freaked me out. I got over it, at the time, thanks in part to the ice cream, and the fact that my parents eventually showed up. The next day there was going to the beach and fishing off the pier behind the house to occupy my mind. Then we came home. The thing in the attic now had a name – Suspiria – a gender – female – and a body – a skeletal creature with black hair and a black dress. I couldn’t sleep. I hated to go up to my room alone at night. I wasn’t even comfortable there during the day. Any time Suspiria might come out of the closet and get me. When I came down the stairs, even in the middle of the day, I could feel her up there watching me. The padlock on the door to the attic didn’t make any difference. She was a supernatural creature, and since when have those been bound by simple things like locks? I wanted more than anything to leave my closet door closed when I went to bed, but I was convinced she wanted it open. Maybe she was afraid of the dark, like me. I’d leave the closet door cracked. One night I dreamt that I got up and started to close the closet door. Suspiria jumped out and hissed at me, “Leave the door open, boy, or I’ll stab you through the stomach!” The dream was so vivid that for a long time I wasn’t sure whether it was a dream or whether it really happened. I never told my friends – I couldn’t tell anyone about Suspiria – but they told me about similar experiences, of dreams that were so vivid they didn’t know if they’d really been dreaming or not. It wasn’t exactly comforting. For one thing I wouldn’t wish the torment I was living with on anyone. For another I thought maybe they really weren’t dreaming – and maybe I wasn’t either. I don’t know why I couldn’t talk to anyone about Suspiria. Maybe that would have just made her even more real. And I’d been through attempts to “cure” me of imaginary fears before. Before Suspiria I’d been afraid of snuckles, weird slug-like creatures that lived under my bed. A friend of my mother’s came and pretended to pull the snuckles out and put them in a shoebox. And it helped, until they were replaced by something much worse. Even if Suspiria could be driven out, what if something else took her place?
Logically I knew that such a thing couldn’t exist, that she was nothing more than my imagination, but the fear was stronger than logic. Since my childhood was pretty normal and happy I’m not even sure what the source of this intense, unreasonable fear was. It was just there. Until I was four we’d lived in another house. My closet there wasn’t attached to the attic, but it did have giant caterpillars. They weren’t malevolent, but I still didn’t like having my bedroom door closed. If there hadn’t been an attic, if we’d lived in another house, I probably still would have found some place for Suspiria to hide and watch and torment me. Or she would have found a place.
As crazy as it sounds I still think of her as a separate entity. Maybe it’s a twisted kind of Stockholm syndrome, or maybe it was just the realization that Suspiria was part of me that makes me want to consider her as a real person, or whatever she is. Even as an adult, even on the last day I visited my parents in that house where I spent most of my childhood, shortly before they moved out of it, I could feel her watching me from the top of the stairs. I won’t say I ever came to love Suspiria, but the fact that we had such a long relationship makes me want to believe she was more than just my imagination playing a prolonged and very cruel game.
She has no place in the house where I now live with my wife. I’ve never sensed her presence there. Even though I’m writing this in the middle of the night in an (I hope) empty house, I feel safe from her. And yet a dream I had just a few months ago almost makes me wish she’d come back. In the dream I met Suspiria again. This time she didn’t jump out at me. We were outside, in a forest somewhere. Dappled sunlight shone down through the trees. And she was no longer taller than me. She was bent over, but even standing upright she would have barely come up to my chin. Her hair was thin and stringy, and there were patches where I could see the pale skull with flaps of skin flaking off of it. Where there had been empty eye sockets she’d grown bulging, bloodshot eyes with tiny dark irises and pupils. She seemed barely aware of my presence. She didn’t speak. I can’t tell if she was dying, but I hope not. Any suffering she caused me doesn’t justify me making her suffer in return. I think it was just her nature, and hating her for making me afraid would be like hating a wasp for stinging me. I think her suffering was my fault. Real or imaginary, I believe she feeds on fear, which means that for years now I’ve literally been starving her. I feel guilty, although if fear is food to her then sympathy must be poison.
Even in her absence I occasionally think about Suspiria, not so much reminiscing about the times we shared, but really trying to understand what was going on. The older I get the more skeptical I become, and I always come back to the same conclusion: I spent years of my childhood torturing myself. I’m no longer as easily frightened as I was as a child, but I’ve had to admit to myself that I am the monsters I made. That scares me.
With the Emmys over and the fall TV season getting into full swing here’s a repeat of something I wrote a few years ago. Nothing’s changed.
Summer is almost here, which means the major television networks are currently working on their fall schedules. What follows is a memo regarding new shows that one network is planning to air. How it fell into my hands is another story.
To: Scheduling Dept.
Re: Fall 2013 schedule
This network has consistently been fourth out of four among the networks in most markets, and fifth in a few, coming behind PBS. The programming heads have determined that major changes are needed for the Fall 2013 schedule. In developing new shows we’ve tried to aim for innovation, to create shows that are new, exciting, and different to appeal to the vital 18-35 demographic while also staying within established parameters so as not to alienate other demographic groups. The key is being innovative with what works. Please produce a schedule with slots for these shows we’ve developed for the coming season:
Eye See You (30mins, Reality): This is from the producers of Burn, Baby, Burn, our popular reality program in which families competed against each other in the Sierra Pelona Mountains while having to escape being burned by a giant magnifying glass. Eye See You is an exciting new reality program in which diverse contestants from all walks of life will have to perform emergency surgery. They will be provided some training prior to competing, but the real twist is they have to do it blindfolded!
Suck It (60mins, Drama): Aloysius Bernard isn’t just a vampire: he’s also a cop who’s been fighting crime as a member of the Atlantic City police force since the Civil War. Now he’s got a new partner, a tough girl rookie who grew up on the streets fighting the undead. Together they’ll have to work out their differences to solve crimes. Will she have to hide the crucifix her late grandmother gave her? Will he be able to restrain himself when she gets a paper cut? Things take an even stranger turn when these two very different cops find they may have feelings for each other.
For Richard Or Poorer (60mins, Drama): After trying and failing to save the life of a homeless man on his street recently-divorced doctor Richard Poor decides to fight hospital policy, and budget cuts, to provide medical care to the disadvantaged. It’s a heavy job, but he knows someone has to do it. With the help of his fellow doctors he just might find a way. Meanwhile he’s got to juggle a budding romance with a nurse and the faithful companionship of his pet iguana.
Too Old For This Bleep (30mins, Comedy): Five friends and veterans of the Tulsa, Oklahoma police force have been looking forward to retirement. But when a clerical error wipes out their pension funds they find themselves unable to leave the force, and training a group of unruly rookies to solve crimes. It’s a clash of generations as the old guys try to keep the kids in line while also finding out that you can teach an old dog new tricks.
Cut Ups (60mins, Dramedy): Life is tough for University of Ohio med school student Alannah Hayes. Her loans have been cut, and she’s struggling to make ends meet. On top of that an uncle she only just met has just passed away and left her his Toledo comedy club. She has to sell it as quickly as possible…or does she? With her fellow students she’ll be taking gross anatomy by day and telling gross-out jokes by night, and just trying to get by in Frogtown.
Finally, while the network executives are pleased that the exciting and innovative mid-season filler, Is That You Mo Dean? (60mins, Drama), about an HIV-positive man making peace with his past and looking for love in a small Iowa town, has already been nominated for six Emmys, three Critics’ Choice Awards, a Writers’ Guild Award, a Peabody Award, two Golden Globe Awards, and even a BAFTA. Having been featured in TV Guide as “the best show you’re not watching” it is being cancelled after its third episode due to lack of viewer interest. This will leave the Tuesday night, 9PM slot free. This decision is NOT final. Executives are considering re-working the series and making the main character a retired doctor who now spends his time helping the police solve crimes.
I was unusually late in getting my driver’s license (which I’ve chronicled here and here and even here). At least I was late getting it for where I live. In New York or many parts of Europe it wouldn’t be that unusual to not have a driver’s license, but I live in an area where it’s hard to get around without driving–or, in some cases, impossible. Being able to take the bus home most days is a luxury I don’t take for granted–some of my co-workers are five miles or more from the nearest bus stop, and once on the bus I talked to a woman who had to change jobs because the city was eliminating a bus route.
I don’t take the luxury of driving for granted either. When I want to go to a place that buses don’t go to, or that they only go to very rarely on weekdays and never on weekends, or when I just want to go when I want to go without having to walk to the bus stop which, even where I live, is a pretty good hike. It’s because I can drive that I got a membership at the YMCA where I regularly go to swim. I love to swim. It’s liberating, it frees me from gravity, and under the water it’s just me and my thoughts.
And then one day I dropped off the car to have something worked on. There was a bus stop conveniently placed near the car repair place, so I took my gym bag. The same bus went right by a Y on the other side of town, and I found another kind of liberating experience. I didn’t have to drive. The fare was less than I would have spent on gas and parking. I was only bound by the bus schedule, but I had the luxury of time.
Revelations that boredom can be beneficial always remind me of a piece I wrote back in 1996 about the time I dangled a pink hippo out of a 7th floor window. Looking back at that piece I realize there were so many interesting details I left out, so it’s worth revisiting.
Why was the hippo pink? It was a furry stuffed animal and supposedly the fur had been treated with cobalt chloride. The coworker who owned it said it would turn blue if rain was imminent and pink on clear days. Actually she had it backwards—dry cobalt chloride is blue and wet cobalt chloride is pink. That explains why we never could get it to turn blue, even though I put it under a running tap and also licked it. Maybe if we’d put it in the oven it would have changed color.
Still it was the belief that it would turn blue that first prompted me to dangle it out the window. Wanting to see whether my big ball of string would reach the ground from the 7th floor was secondary. It was while unrolling my big ball of string, of course, that I discovered I’d failed to tie the first three feet or so to the rest of the ball. The hippo plummeted into the bushes below.
After the hippo took a dive I switched to using a pen as a weight because I didn’t want to risk my coworker’s toy hippo. The pen was also slightly heavier, and I thought this would provide a more accurate reading. It had gone at least seven or eight feet when someone on the 6th floor reached out and grabbed it. When I pulled back they started yelling, “Hello! Hello! Who’s up there?”
I should have explained previously that the 6th floor of the building is a parking garage. It’s where people went to smoke, unless you were the mailman, and then you smoked in the 7th floor hallway next to the mailroom where only delivery people went. That way you could crush your cigarettes into the linoleum floor, but that’s another story.
I have nothing against smokers, but in retrospect I feel I was being unfairly judged by the person who grabbed the pen. I assume they assumed they had the moral high ground. They were attempting to stop someone engaged in something more foolish and unproductive than sitting in a parking garage smoking. This is because they sounded angry. What was the problem? Maybe they were one of the people who worked for the Jack Daniel’s distributor on the 10th floor. They were always kind of standoffish and snappish even though they had tons of whiskey in their office. I know this because they regularly gave free bottles of it to delivery people who in turn would pass it on to me. Before the distributor moved to another building I had enough Jack Daniel’s to last
The final element that makes this story worth revisiting is something I couldn’t provide at the time I first wrote it: illustrations. Now you can see where it all went down.
At first it looked like a plastic bag tinged blue. As I got closer I could see a mass of blue-green strands gathered up underneath it like wet yarn. One thread, faintly dotted, stretched over the sand. It was a Portuguese man-o-war stranded by the outgoing tide. Up and down the beach there were more of them, some as big as six or seven inches, others tiny enough that I might have stepped on them if I hadn’t been looking. I’ve read that people sometimes do step on the “sails”, the air-filled sacs that keep the Portuguese man-o-war afloat, to hear them pop. You have to be careful, though. Even when they’re dead the tentacles can still sting for several days. It’s an automatic reaction. Put your foot in the wrong place and you’ll be in excruciating pain and have red welts. You can also get a fever, go into shock, and have trouble breathing and heart problems. And, by the way, being urinated on is not an effective treatment, although I’d be tempted to urinate on someone stupid enough to go stomping on an animal on the beach.
I’m not sure why they’re called a Portuguese man-o-war. Supposedly they look like that particular type of ship, but I wonder if the name isn’t also a joke suggesting that the Portuguese were terrible sailors and could only float where the wind took them. Then again if it were a joke I think Belgian man-o-war would have been a better name. Maybe it’s a compliment to the Portuguese, since a Portuguese man-o-war can still sting you long after the animal itself has died. It’s a purely autonomic response. Maybe Portuguese sailors were just as deadly on land as they were on water. The Portuguese man-o-war’s scientific name is Physalia physalis, so for the rest of this piece I’m going to call them physalians, which I think is a strange and attractive name for a strange and attractive animal. It comes from the Greek word for “bubble”.
As I looked at them the phrase Life will find a way came to mind. Physalians are a weird form of life. Everything’s relative, and I’m sure we look weird to them, but physalians are part of an evolutionary branch that’s weird compared to most other life forms on Earth. They’re part of the group of animals called siphonophores that started a huge fight among 19th century scientists. Are they single animals or are they colonies? Every major organ system of a siphonophore starts as an individual animal. They then cluster together. Every tentacle of a physalian was originally a distinct creature. It gave up its independence to be part of something larger. It was a bit of Solomonic wisdom that siphonophores don’t fit into one category or the other. Life will find a way, and they represent one of the many ways life has found.
It was sad to see dozens of them stretched out over the beach, baking in the late afternoon sun. As I watched one it curled a pointed tip of its sail away from the wind. At sea they can deflate to sink under the waves, then fill up with air again to rise. The man-o-war is a ship that can only sail. The physalian can be both ship and submarine.
Most had their tentacles curled up under them, but a few had one or two tentacles stretched out over the sand. I touched an extended tentacle with a stick and it withdrew. They were dying in the air and the heat, but there was still life there. The shore birds and crabs left them alone, but some were attracting clouds of tiny flies. One death would give way to another life.
Anywhere there’s life there will be death, a fact that, for me, seems so much starker at the water’s edge where two worlds meet. In the ocean and on land are countless organisms that reproduce in huge numbers. Corals spawn freely, starfish, crabs, oysters, conchs and others will each produce thousands of young. For octopuses laying and caring for long strands of eggs will be the last thing they do. Sea turtles come ashore to lay, on average, more than a hundred eggs. For all of them fecundity is their way of stacking the deck because the odds are against life. Only a small fraction will survive to have offspring of their own.
As the sun set I sat and watched a physalian directly in front of the deck. A wave came up, lifted it, and carried it closer to the water. Another wave that followed pushed it farther up onto the shore. The succession of waves that followed didn’t come close. It lay there as it got darker. Soon I could only hear the waves, and it was time to go in for the night.
The next morning it was gone. Life had found a way.