The Weekly Essay

It’s Another Story.

Alternative Thanksgiving.

It has been celebrated as a federal holiday every year since 1863, when, during the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens,” to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November.

Wikipedia

November 25th, 1864

It was even worse than last year. I know every time my family gets together we fall into certain patterns, but that never makes it easier. This time it was even worse because just getting to my parents’ house was such a pain. I thought I’d carriagepool with my younger brother and his wife, but they went up early so that fell through. Then I thought I’d beat the traffic by setting out at dawn, which was such a great idea everybody else in Richmond had it at the same time and the horses were nose to tail, stop and trot, for miles. Finally I got there a little after ten in the morning and my older sister came out already holding a glass of blackberry wine and when she hugged me I could tell it wasn’t her first one. She asked me how things were going and then didn’t wait for an answer and ran back into the house to tell everyone I was there.

I should have known I’d be walking into an argument in the foyer, the way my family is. It’s just what it was about that threw me. My kid brother had this crazy idea for a new way to cook a turkey, leaving the feathers still on and roasting it in the coals of a fire. Well, it sounded pretty stupid to me, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that the neighbors tried the same thing last year and burned down their stable. But I didn’t want to side with my father either. So I said it had been a long trip and I needed to visit the outhouse and slipped out. Well, there was a line at the outhouse: two of my nieces, three cousins, all four of my brothers, and my sister was already in there getting rid of some of that blackberry wine. So I went back inside to see what was going on.

In the parlor my mother was putting together some kind of monstrosity with dead leaves and dried berries that she said she was going to put in the middle of the table.

“Where’s the food going to go?” I asked.

“Well, we’ll move it before we eat.”

I was going to ask why she’d bother to put it in the middle of the table if she was just going to move it again but decided against having that discussion, so instead I sat down and leafed through a broadsheet that was handy.

“The other men are organizing a game,” she said. “It’s some new sport called foot-ball. You should go and join them.”

Well, she knows I’ve never been athletic, but when I protested she got put out with me and said, “It’s your Uncle Wilkes’s idea. You know you’ve always been his favorite. You really should go and do it just to please him.”

FINE.

Well, when I came back in my sister just cackled and toasted me with another glass of blackberry wine. All my mother could say was “Don’t get any blood on the carpet,” and my older brother kept telling me to stop being a sissy and just put some salve on it. Then Aunt Gerda said pinch the back of my neck and tilt my head forward and Uncle Wilkes said no, put pressure between the eyes and lean back, and then my cousins got into it so there had to be a family brawl about that. A day later and I’m still bleeding. So much for the salve.

Then I tried to head off another argument about who’d have to chaperone the kids’ table by volunteering, but my father cut that off.

“No, no, I want John seated here on my left. After I sent him to that fancy and very expensive school so he could waste his time studying the dramatic arts and oratory he should be well-equipped to deliver the traditional Booth family prayer of thanks.”

Traditional since last year, he means. Then my kid brother kicked me in the shins which I know was his way of saying “Don’t start anything”. I kicked him twice as hard in the shins which was my way of saying, “I wasn’t going to,” and then kicked him again to say, “Hurts, don’t it?”

All this might have been a little more bearable if my sister had let me have some of the blackberry wine.

I swear I’m going to get that Lincoln for making us do this.

Netiquette Lesson.

Even though it’s become deeply entrenched in our lives the internet is still a relatively new thing and not all the rules of netiquette are completely worked out yet. And, like regular etiquette, they’re not even necessarily universal. For instance my spell-checker used to automatically capitalize Internet, because I guess it was a proper noun and now it’s not anymore, although in German the rule is that all nouns are capitalized because even when they’re not shouting Germans like the emphasize their nouns. Or maybe they consider all nouns proper, which is nice for the nouns, but I think I hear the verbs grumbling. It’s not even necessarily a universal rule that if you’re typing in all caps, or even several fedoras, and using only uppercase letters you’re shouting. There are lots of reasons why someone might be typing in all uppercase letters. Maybe the Caps Lock key on their keyboard is stuck, or maybe e.e. cummings used up all the lowercase letters. Maybe they’re speaking  Kashubian, which is the only remaining Pomeranian language, and if you’ve ever been around Pomeranians you know they can only bark in all caps. Netiquette is also always evolving. For instance, do you know what the netiquette used to be regarding those business networking sites that send you an email at least three times a month telling you someone you met briefly at a conference would like you to join their network? If you said, “Um, were they once considered polite?” you’re absolutely wrong. They’ve always been even more obnoxious than going into a Star Trek discussion and talking about Zachary Quinto as the guy who directed Three Men & A Baby.

There’s really a point around here somewhere that I will get to eventually, and it’s this: rules of grammar and etiquette and even netiquette are naturally flexible and vary depending on the situation and the person. Having said that here’s something I think should be an inviolable rule: if you reply to someone’s email you should include their original email in your reply. This is especially true if you’re replying to them from an account that’s different from the one they used to contact you initially and that they’ve never used before. And it’s even more true if your entire email consists of this:

Yes I can do that.

Although I now realize I’m being unfair in saying that rule should be inviolable. After all we all make mistakes, to err is human and to forgive is something that rhymes with “human”, I guess, so let me clarify: if you make the mistake of sending a terse reply with no context or identifying information from a different email account so the person you’re replying to can’t find any record of ever having contacted you don’t get upset when that person asks if you can provide a little more information. Don’t imply, or outright state, that the person is stupid for asking you to remind them what the conversation was about. Don’t suggest, or just say, that it’s only been a month since they contacted you and they should remember the details.

It’s a pretty simple thing to ask and really stems from what should be the underlying rule of all interactions: think about the other person’s feelings, and remember that there’s a person on the other side of the computer screen. And also you probably shouldn’t share petty grievances, even in a vague way, with total strangers, although there’s gotta be some flexibility on that rule because to air is human.

 

Monsters In Jeopardy.

Source: Jeopardy.com

[Jeopardy! theme music plays. Alex Trebek stands center stage.]

ALEX TREBEK: And we’re back to this very special episode of Jeopardy! Let’s take a moment to talk to today’s contestants.

[He crosses over to the contestants.]

ALEX TREBEK: Count Dracula, you’re an undead Romanian prince. I understand you can assume the forms of a bat, a wolf, and a white mist, and you travel extensively. Tell us a little about the charity you’re playing for today.

COUNT DRACULA: Is blood.

ALEX TREBEK: Can you elaborate on that?

COUNT DRACULA: Of course. Is great need for blood in Romania. I bring people of all kinds to castle in Wallachia. I take blood and dr—uh, give…give to those who need blood.

ALEX TREBEK: That sounds like a great cause. Moving on, Frankenstein’s Monster, you’re an assemblage of body parts from different corpses. Some people call you “Frankenstein” but that was in fact the name of the doctor who first animated you.

FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER: GAKH!

ALEX TREBEK: Okay then. Tell us about what charity you’re playing for.

FRANKESTEIN’S MONSTER: GRRRRGH! HANNNN! GARGH!!!

ALEX TREBEK: Yes, the Firefighters’ Association is a noble cause. All right, and our third contestant was going to be The Invisible Man but we couldn’t find him.

VOICE FROM AN EMPTY SEAT IN THE AUDIENCE: I’m right here!

COUNT DRACULA: Children of the night, what music they make.

ALEX TREBEK: We were very lucky to get as a replacement the Creature From The Black Lagoon. Creature, I’ve been admiring your suit.

CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON: Thank you, Alex, it’s specially designed to pump water through my gills and keep my skin moist. It’s made by Armani. But I’d really like to talk about my charity.

ALEX TREBEK: Go ahead then.

CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON: It’s called River Run, an organization that purchases, preserves, and reclaims large parts of the Amazon rainforest. Once we lose biodiversity it’s impossible to get it back.

ALEX TREBEK: Well okay. Maybe later we can talk more about that suit. I get a little dry under these lights myself.

[Trebek crosses back to his podium.]

ALEX TREBEK: All right, we have one two-thousand dollar clue left in the Double Jeopardy round under the category Sci-Fi Food, and the clue is: Revenge is a dish best served cold, but this Klingon dish should be warm and wriggling.

FRANKESTEIN’S MONSTER: GAGH!

ALEX TREBEK: That’s correct! I have to remind you again that we ask contestants to phrase responses in the form of a question, but since we’re playing for charity we’ll bend the rules again. Frankestein’s Monster, that brings your total up to seven dollars.

And now for final Jeopardy! The subject today is Renaissance Artists. Take a moment to think about that while you make your wagers.

And here’s the clue: this Italian artist was both a painter and a sculptor, known for both the Sistine Chapel ceiling and a statue of David, and he made a mean Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Thirty seconds, contestants.

[Think! music plays.]

ALEX TREBEK: All right, let’s see your answers. Count Dracula, we come to you first. You had $200 and you wrote down…“is blood”.

COUNT DRACULA: Is answer to everything.

ALEX TREBEK: And you wagered two-hundred dollars, so I’m afraid that leaves you with nothing. Next we come to Frankenstein’s Monster. You wrote down “Abby Someone”. Interesting, but incorrect. What did you wager? Nothing.

FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER: GARGHHHH!

ALEX TREBEK: So you still have seven dollars. Finally we come to the Creature From The Black Lagoon who looked like he couldn’t be caught with a score of fifty-four thousand, seven-hundred dollars. Uh oh, you’re shaking your head. It looks like you wrote “Michelangelo” then crossed it out and replaced it with “Donatello”. I’m sorry, that’s incorrect. And what was your wager?

CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON: I figured go big or go home, Alex.

ALEX TREBEK: You bet it all. Well, that means Frankenstein’s Monster is today’s champion. Congratulations!

FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER: TREBEK GOOD!

 

Doctor X Will Build A Creature.

The following story was written by journalist Allen Walker and appeared in the October 2016 issue of Catchall, an alt-weekly for which he is a feature writer. It’s reprinted here with the author’s permission. His articles have also appeared in Matrix, Road Hogs, Elsewhere, and other publications.His essay Patagonia Dreamin’ is included in the anthology The Journey Of A Thousand Miles. Other stories by Allen Walker that have appeared here are A Werewolf Problem In Central Indiana, Living Or Dead Is Purely Coincidental (Part 1, Part, 2, Part 3, Part 4), That Was The Year That Was, and Submerged.

“Isn’t he magnificent?” Dr. Xavier says as she flips the carcass over on the exam table. Magnificent is not the word that comes to my mind. In fact I feel slightly ill. The glare of burnished metal brings out details that might normally only be seen under a magnifying glass, but here there’s nothing between us. His–since we’re calling it a he–legs are folded inward toward the center of its body in the classic death position of normal-sized specimens, and he gives off a musky, slightly sweet odor reminiscent of rotting hay. Dr. Xavier is gently prying the legs apart to expose the underside.

“How can you tell he’s a he?” I ask quietly, taking a step back.

She presses gloved fingers to different parts, using technical terms and explaining that if it were a female this would be longer, that would be shorter. She points to a cluster of bulbs at its rear. “The spinnerets would be much bigger, although with the original species we bred from there’s not that much difference in size between the males and females. That’s one reason we chose from the family Sparassidae.”

That’s a relief, I think. I’d read that in some species the female is ten times bigger, or more, than the male. The specimen in front of me is big enough as it is, thank you very much.

I am, of course, at the renowned and controversial Praetorius Institute in eastern Tennessee, near where the state shares borders with North Carolina and Virginia. The Institute, or PI as everyone here likes to call it, has been praised, criticized, celebrated, demonized, and even scrutinized by government officials and watchdogs, and yet its work has gone on, thanks in part to its defenders. When scientists first cloned Dolly the sheep in the late twentieth century that was controversial too, but was a great leap forward in understanding biology. And this breakthrough has great practical potential as well.

At least that’s what the PI’s researchers and its defenders argue. There are a lot of people, including me, who still have trouble with the idea of a spider three feet long roaming around.

Since no human, alive or dead, has ever seen such a thing it’s difficult to find the right words. The joints of its cylindrical legs are machine-like, and yet they’re hairy. The upper, narrower thorax is mostly bare, a dull black, with a look of molded plastic. The round abdomen is covered with smooth gray fur with bands of dark brown.

Dr. Xavier’s straight dark hair hangs down as she turns it right side up again and deftly moves it around. I ask her how much it weighs.

“Alive he was twelve, maybe thirteen kilos. About eleven now. They dry out quickly. Would you like to touch it?” She grins. “Unless you think it’ll bite.”

That’s exactly what I’m thinking. Intellectually too I know there‘s no real danger. On my arrival I am given a press packet and taken straight to Dr. Xavier‘s corner office where pictures of her partner and two children decorated her desk along with pictures of spiders. A web knitted from yarn hangs in front of the window overlooking the valley. After offering me some tea in a Spider-Man mug Dr. Xavier starts to give me her prepared speech. Spider silk is the holy grail of engineering materials. As strong as steel but extremely light it has limitless possibilities for everything from medicine to construction to space exploration. The problem has always been getting it. The Praetorius Institute, like some other organizations, started experiments with implanting spider genes in female goats which would then produce spider silk from their milk glands. It had limited success but the silk had to be extracted from goats’ milk and required a lot of processing. “We knew we could do better,” Dr. Xavier says. “And the answer was simple. Instead of cutting out genes from spiders and sticking them somewhere else we had to go straight to the source.” She then pulls a slim book from behind her desk and hands it to me. It’s a children’s book of prehistoric creatures and she’s opened it to a picture of a primeval forest with giant insects.
“The world used to have giant dragonflies and meter-long millipedes,” she says. “There may even be mega-spider fossils we just haven’t found yet. One reason bugs don’t get so big anymore is the atmosphere used to have as much as forty percent more oxygen than it does now.”
“So,” I say, “if one of your spiders were to get loose–“

”It would suffocate before it could even leave the building.” But what if there’s some reflex that causes even the dead ones to react? I wish I’d gone with the group tour instead of the solo option when I accepted the invitation. Then when there was a call for volunteers I could hang back, let someone else put their hand in harm’s way. As I think this Dr. Xavier comes around to my side of the table and grabs my arm. She puts my hand on the abdomen.

“Just stroke it. See? It’s like petting a cat.”

I wonder if this will affect my feelings for my real cat, Emily, whose fur is also gray. In fact it’s nothing like petting a cat. The fur is soft, but the body underneath is hard. It’s like petting a mannikin wearing a mink stole.

“We thought they’d be prickly,” Dr. Xavier goes on, “but they’re surprisingly soft. That’s just one thing. Look at the feet.” She bends a hairy leg backwards. The underside is covered with deep grooves that form circles, like a fingerprint. “It’s almost like a gecko,” she says. “Fortunately they can’t climb. Then she turns the spider’s face to me. I step back, but she doesn‘t notice. “And look at how the palps and mandibles are different from what you’d find in a regular spider. Even after three decades we can’t always predict what will happen when we tinker with DNA to this degree.” Above the broad beak six greenish orbs seem to glower at me.

We go to lunch in the PI’s cafeteria. On a lower floor than Dr. Xavier’s office it overlooks a small artificial pond and the surrounding forest. It’s crowded and I’m reminded that the spiders are just one of a dozen or so projects that sound like science fiction going on at the PI, and yet no one here looks like a mad scientist. Least of all Dr. Xavier. Over our lunch of Caesar salads topped with seared steak I bring up the controversial nature of the mega-spiders. She sighs.

“I’ve had this debate with practically everyone I know, including most of my family. I don’t want to be glib about anyone’s feelings but humans have been manipulating genes for as long as we’ve had agriculture. The mega-spiders are as natural as a hybrid tomato. You want an abomination? Look at a Labradoodle.”

To try and relieve some of the tension I change the subject.

“What made you want to study genetics? Your parents weren‘t scientists.”

“No. My father wanted to be but he went into hardware instead to support my grandparents after they came over from Vietnam. He encouraged me, though, and I’ve always had an interest in bugs. I got a Barbie Dream House one Christmas and used it to raise palmetto bugs.”

“Giant palmetto bugs?”

She laughs. “As big as they get. I was more interested in their life cycle and behavior, though. It was reading about fruit flies that got me into genomics. The idea that everything we are is determined by a single long molecule just fascinated me.” She puts her hand over her mouth as she thoughtfully chews a larger piece of steak. “The problem with mega-spiders, of course, was where to start.”

“Which came first: the spider or the egg?” I start to laugh but she pounces on this.

“Exactly! We couldn’t just flip a switch and make spiders grow big. That’s why it took more than three decades of research before we could get them to this size. It took several generations and more than two dozen changes to their DNA.”

She continues as she cuts a piece of blackened steak into smaller pieces. “There were some terrible mistakes too, horrible things. You wouldn’t believe some of the challenges we faced. But we learned a lot too. Like, what do you feed a three-foot spider? Normal spiders liquefy their prey’s guts and suck it out, but they’re feeding on insects, other arachnids, things with exoskeletons. The genes we changed triggered other changes too. Like beaks. We feed the mega-spiders rats. They paralyze them and swallow them whole.” She takes another bite of steak. “A lot of fur comes out in their scat.”

I push my salad away and make a mental note to suggest that on future tours she save this information for after lunch.

She pushes her salad away too. “Come on. It’s time for you to meet the kids.”

At first “the kids” are no-shows, but their enclosures are fascinating. Through clear plastic walls I can see ferns and what look like small palm trees shrouded in mist.

“Cycads,” Dr. Xavier tells me. “Also horsetail, moss, liverworts. They’re what even some scientists call ‘primitive plants’ because they’ve been around so long. They seem to tolerate the high oxygen better than other plants, and we hope it makes the spiders more comfortable. We have to keep it humid too, for the spiders. Some of their wild cousins live in the desert, but these, well, just to maintain their body mass they need more of everything.”

The plants in the enclosures look more futuristic than prehistoric. Also surprising is the absence of any sign of webs. This is a source of frustration for Dr. Xavier and her entire team.

“Tarantulas don’t build webs but they can spin silk, and their size made them an obvious choice. We just assumed we’d be able to extract silk from them. So far that’s been harder than we thought it would be. Maybe with what we’ve learned we can try with another family, maybe Aranea or Nephila, but that would be like starting all over.”

As she speaks one of the spiders creeps out of the mist. As it moves across the mossy floor its slow plodding is fascinating to watch. I wonder if it’s stirring up genetic memories, perhaps passed down from some of my mammalian ancestors. Its movements are deliberate, reaching out gently with its forelegs.

Dr. Xavier tells me they have nine in all, kept in separate enclosures. Originally they were kept together until one of the females turned aggressive and killed her sisters.

“And when the males started hunting in packs, circling around the rats we put in there for them, we thought maybe we should keep them separate.”

This spider is brighter in color than the one we examined earlier in the lab, with coppery fur. As it turns to face me a each of its dark green eyes is bisected by a single beam of light, like a precious stone.

I hear Dr. Xavier talking to someone behind me, but I’m too entranced by the spider to pay attention. Then she steps up next to me and says , “This is Carl.”

“Hello Carl,” I say, looking down at the spider. Then I jump as a bass baritone voice says, “Hello to you too.”

I turn around. A stocky man in a dark blue coat is standing next to Dr. Xavier. He puts out his hand.

Dr. Xavier apologizes. “I’ve got to go make a call, but Carl can keep showing you around.” As she hurries away Carl and I turn back to the spider.

“Creepy, ain’t they?” says Carl. He chuckles.

“I’m not sure that’s the right word,” I say. “In fact I’m having trouble finding the right words.”

“Come with me.”

In the elevator Carl swipes his ID card and a few moments later we step out onto the roof of the Praetorius Institute.

“I like to come up here once in a while for a little fresh air and a think,” he says.

“What do you think about?”

He chuckles again. “Anything. Nothing. Just take it all in.”

I step to the edge and look out at the forest below. In the distance I can see a low cloud settled over a hill. It looks like a web.

 

Across The Universe.

FROM: THE GALACTIC COUNCIL, MILKY WAY
TO: PEOPLE OF EARTH
SUBJECT: FIRST CONTACT

Dear People of Earth,
We hope you don’t mind being called that. You do have a lot of names for your planet as well as each other, and even the mid-sized yellow star your planet orbits. It gets very confusing. We decided to pick one and go with it.
Now down to business. While this signal may make you say “wow” understand that it is not to be considered a formal first contact. We expect you to carry on as you were, but since a growing number of you accept that you are not alone in the universe we thought we’d make this little courtesy call. We’ve been monitoring your transmissions, although your recent switch to satellites that direct signals directly to locations on your planet, what you call “cellular” communication, rather than broad-range wave-based technology has made this more difficult. We’ve also studied your culture extensively, although almost entirely without your awareness. There have been a few unfortunate incidents when we were sloppy. They were incorporated into what you call “mythology” or “religion”, but since we understand this is a sensitive area for you we won’t go into further detail.
The reason for this message is we’d like to assure you that everything will be fine. Well, perhaps “fine” isn’t the right word, but you can take comfort that your formal first contact with creatures from another planet will be exactly as you’ve predicted.

Your first contactees may be a hostile and scavenging species that is intent on draining your planet’s resources as they sweep through the galaxy.

They may be gentle and enigmatic creatures.

They may be completely carnivorous.

They may see you as food.

They may be vegetarians.

They may be vegetables.

They may make a dramatic appearance in large craft that suddenly appear in your skies.

They may crash land in a small ship.

They may come in large numbers only for you to discover that a small group crash-landed here some time ago.

They may bear such a close resemblance to you that they can and even have passed among you with the aid of little more than hats, socks, or slightly eccentric footwear.

They may be so completely unlike you their forms cannot be contained in anything comprehensible to you.

They may be intimately familiar with your planet and your ways.

They may find you as alien as you find them.

They may land on your planet.

You may land on theirs.

You may encounter each other in space.

They may be bipedal.

They may be mammals, molluscs, cephalopods, insects, avians, fish, amphibians, reptiles, or a form of life that defies all categorization.

They may be machines with an advanced level of intelligence resembling your own.

They may be organic creatures contained within machines.

They may be microscopic, perhaps even viruses, that operate by inhabiting either organic host organisms or specially designed machines.

They may be able to breathe your planet’s atmosphere.

They may require special equipment just to be among you.

They may be gelatinous blobs.

They may communicate, like you, through audible and visual cues.

They may communicate by exuding pheromones, liquids, or by the direct transfer of electrical discharges from one individual to another.

They may not have any interest in you.

They may want to put you in cages and experiment on you.

They may be carbon-based.

They may not.

They may look like giant guinea pigs that wear purple capes and defecate sapphires. This is unlikely, but it’s a big galaxy. A lot of things can happen.

They may have a single planet-wide monoculture.

They may be clones of each other.

They may be at least as culturally diverse as you are.

They may be highly varied, even multiple species working collectively.

They may want you to join their multi-species collective.

They may not.

You may want to have sex with them.

They may want to have sex with you.

They may look like ordinary pets: dogs, cats, ferrets.

They may be arachnids whose enormous size defies the laws of physics.

They may look like creatures from your mythology.

They may merely adopt the look of creatures from your mythology or some other familiar form in order to make you more comfortable.

To sum up, we can say with a high degree with certainty that your predictions are accurate and the first aliens you encounter will look exactly like what you’ve come to expect.
Or they may not.
We hope everything goes well and wish you the very best of luck on your first contact, but ask that when it happens you please at least pretend to be surprised.
Sincerely,
The Galactic Council, Milky Way
cc: Andromeda Galaxy, other members, Local Galactic Group

 

Next Time Order Online.

Hello! Thank you for calling Plank Pizza. Please hold. One of our cheesy representatives will be with you in just a moment.

[Jazzy instrumental music]

Thank you for continuing to hold. Plank Pizzas come in your choice of thin, regular, deep dish, and casserole crusts, and in size ranging from our one-person piece to the Plank Party special. It’s your choice. One of our cheesy representatives will be with you in just a moment.

[Jazzy instrumental music]

Thank you for continuing to hold. Plank Pizza crusts also come in your choice of flavors: white, sourdough, marbled rye, parmesan, romano, olive oil, pretzel, graham, sriracha, cheddar, bleu, cornmeal, peach, and gluten-free. One of our cheesy representatives will be with you in just a moment.

[Jazzy instrumental music]

Thank you for continuing to hold. We know you value quality and that’s why our dough, cheese, sauce, and all toppings are prepared and packaged fresh. That way you can enjoy quality Plank Pizza no matter where you are. One of our cheesy representatives will be with you in just a moment.

[Jazzy instrumental music]

Thank you for continuing to hold. Thirty-four years ago Kevin Plank sold everything he owned to offer the best pizza at the best price. Then, three months later, facing bankruptcy and complete ruin, he sold his soul. One of our cheesy representatives will be with you in just a moment.

[Jazzy instrumental music]

Thank you for continuing to hold. Kevin Plank had just one wish: to make the best pizza in the world, and also wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. With a lot of hard work and a little black magic he made that wish come true.

[Jazzy instrumental music]

Thank you for continuing to hold. That’s right. In a bizarre midnight ceremony involving the sacrifice of a goat with a pizza slicer by the light of a burning can of sardines Kevin Plank summoned Asmodeus, archduke of the ninth circle of Hell and, we’re told, a real pizza lover. One of our cheesy representatives will be with you in just a moment.

[Jazzy instrumental music]

Thank you for continuing to hold. At the time eternal damnation seemed worth it, and if you’ve already tried a Plank Pizza we think you’ll agree. That’s why we’re the most successful pizza franchise in the world with locations on all seven continents, including Antarctica. One of our cheesy representatives will be with you in just a moment.

[Jazzy instrumental music]

Thank you for continuing to hold. Kevin Plank, as you may know, wasn’t content with delivering a pizza that even the world’s top food critics describe as tasty as sin. He’s also one of the most generous business owners in the world, a major contributor to global charities. What you may not know is he also employs a full-time staff of priests, ministers, rabbis, imams, Hindus, Buddhists, and even a small number of modern day Druids in a desperate attempt to save himself from an eternity of pain and torment in the bowels of a pit that far exceed the wildest imaginings of Dante. One of our cheesy representatives will be with you in just a moment.

[Jazzy instrumental music]

Thank you for continuing to hold. It was Kevin Plank’s army of lawyers, though, who finally found a loophole in the contract written and signed in blood and currently locked in a vault in the safe room of his San Francisco mansion. And you can be part of it! Yes, you can be the secret ingredient. One of our cheesy representatives will be with you in just a moment.

[Jazzy instrumental music]

Thank you for continuing to hold. The only way Kevin Plank can save himself from an eternity of unspeakable horrors is if his pizza draws in a large enough number of innocent souls. Then, and only then, can he escape. So be sure to ask about our special, and how every pizza you eat—

[CLICK]

Thank you for calling Plank Pizza. May I take your order?

Fall Into Autumn.

Fall, the season of cooler weather, falling leaves, and shorter days is here at last. Some prefer to call the season “autumn” after the Latin autmnus, meaning both the season and the harvest. It’s the time to reap the fruits of spring and summer labor and prepare for the winter to come. Whatever you call the season here are some ideas to help you celebrate it.

Store Nuts For Winter

Go to a bank and get a safe deposit box. Specify that you want one low to the ground. Fill it with nuts to see you through the winter.

For extra authenticity do this while wearing a squirrel costume then forget which bank you stored your nuts in. As long as you avoid going back to the same bank you can do this repeatedly over several years. It’s not like it’s going to affect your credit rating.

Make Spider Webs

Spider webs are larger and, thanks to cool morning temperatures which causes dew to collect on them, more visible at this time of year. This makes them an ideal symbol for the season as well as a reminder of the circular rhythms of time. You can craft spider webs of your own out of string or pipe cleaners.

For extra authenticity knit an “egg sac”. Stuff several small children into it. Ce sac n’est pas un jouet. Release them in the spring.

Celebrate Seasonal Differences

Have someone in Australia write “Happy Spring!” on postcards and mail them to you. Notice how they change to “Happy Fall!” when they cross the equator.

Enjoy Seasonal Flavors

Pumpkin spice-flavored drinks have become a popular fall tradition. Try making your own pumpkin spice-flavored beverages at home.

For extra authenticity make a pumpkin spice-flavored latte with only ingredients that would have been available to the early European settlers. So, basically, mash pumpkin and milk together. Yeah, never mind. The result looks and tastes like orange-tinted plaster.

Add pumpkin spice to orange-tinted plaster. Serve it along with some real pumpkin spice-flavored lattes to your friends. See if they can tell the difference.

Do NOT make a rhubarb pie.

Rhubarb is at its peak in the late spring and early summer and is really just celery that’s possessed by demons.

Have a bonfire.

Ideally bonfires should be held in the country or in a large open field, but don’t let living in the city hold you back. Learn from my example, though, and point out to the authorities that technically construction hadn’t started on that site.

Go on a hay ride.

For added fun throw yourself in front of the tractor and get seriously injured, then become the tragic hero of a young adult novel about the rewards and risks of farm life.

Note: Discourage others from following your example. A bunch of injuries can bring down the mood of a fun, jaunty hay ride, and you also want that young adult novel to focus on you.

Have a leaf-raking party.

Raking the leaves that clutter the yard is an annual chore, although no one’s really quite sure why we do it, except that some people are just weird about their yards and have tricked the rest of us into being the same way. Why not make it fun? Everybody loves a party, so invite your friends to help rake leaves in your yard. If you can convince them to bring food, drinks, and their own rakes, well, you can pretty much sit back and rest. Suckers.

Name That Season

Have a debate with a friend over whether the season should be called “Fall” or “Autumn”.

Standard debate rules apply: participants will have their left hands bound together with a one-foot cord, but instead of right hands holding the traditional switchblades participants will try to scald each other with cups of hot cider. It’s educational and delicious!

 

Odd.

A year ago I said, “Ask me how I’m doing a year from now.”

So, how am I doing?

Even at the time it seemed stupid but when my second anniversary of being cancer-free came around I was in an emotionally very dark place. Cancer was supposed to change my life, but year two was when I started feeling that it hadn’t really changed anything. It’s not something I should complain about because my life before cancer was good and being able to resume that life, with a few small changes, was something I should have been happy about. I’ll always have the scars, but those are just skin deep, and a year after finishing chemo I was, physically, more or less back to where I was before I’d had cancer. And for most of that year I was fine, but as it went on, the closer I got to the second anniversary, the more depressed I felt about it. September 22rd, 2014, was my last day of chemo. When I was still in treatment I met and heard about people who’d been through cancer and their lives had gone on pretty much the same as before, which is a great thing. There is nothing better than to be able to say, “I survived”. And yet at the time I couldn’t imagine I’d ever be like them. Cancer had changed my life so suddenly and yet, in the middle of it, I couldn’t imagine life without it. I couldn’t imagine what lay beyond. My last day of chemo there was no fanfare, no great celebration. It was just another day at the clinic. I sat in a chair and let a nurse pump poison into my veins, just as I had so many other days, and when it was done I got up and walked out. A year later I hadn’t gone back to the clinic but there had been so much follow-up, so many doctor visits and consultations and new drugs that on September 22nd, 2015, I celebrated my survival even though I felt like I was still fighting cancer. And then over the year that followed, even though I had fewer doctor visits and no reason to think the cancer would ever come back it seemed even harder to accept that it was over. I wondered what “over” meant. On September 22nd, 2016, I looked back on what I’d been through and, difficult as it had been, all I could think was, is that it? The cancer, as far as I knew, was dead and life was back to normal. Was that what I wanted? Shouldn’t things be different? Why had I survived?

What a long strange trip it was.

Last day of chemo–and I couldn’t process it at the time.

Yet I said “Ask me how I’m doing a year from now” because I wanted to give myself something to look forward to. I was staring into the abyss and there seemed to be a strong chance I would fall. Instead I decided to jump.
There’s something powerful about the number three. Three is lucky. Three is the smallest odd number greater than one. The smallest number of straight lines that can create an enclosed space is three. There are three primary colors, three rings in a circus, three laws of motion, three Stooges, three blind mice, three sheets to the wind, three face cards per suit in a standard deck, three miles in a league, three little pigs, three wise monkeys, three men in a tub, the third time’s a charm, there are five stages of grief but you can skip two of them, and three basic particles that make up an atom. If you take any group of numbers, no matter how large, and add them up and the result is three, six, or nine then that number is divisible by three–something that’s obsessed me since I learned it in school. I can’t look at a zip code, phone number, or any string of numbers without figuring out if it’s divisible by three. If it is it makes me happy.
There were three months between my initial diagnosis in June, when I spent three days in the hospital, and my final day of chemotherapy, which came in three rounds, in September. I would have three surgeries–the first orchiectomy, a minor one to install a chest port, and a major one to remove lymph nodes–in the six months between June and December.
So how am I doing?
Every year, every day, every second that I go on takes me farther away from cancer. Maybe it will never be completely out of my mind but I don’t dwell on it like I did. I’m genuinely glad I survived. My wife, the main reason I’m still here, tells me that, according to the doctors, technically the anniversary of my being cancer-free is in December, when I had the last big surgery. I have my reasons for picking September 22nd as my personal marker. The day I finished chemo was a great day, September is when the season just starts to change, and, hey, I’m the one who had cancer. I get some say in this. And yet while I shouldn’t take my health for granted I’ve started to wonder if I’ll even mark the occasion next year, whether September 22nd, 2018 will be anything special, other than a Saturday, and I always look forward to those. Maybe by the end of year three I’ll have stopped thinking in terms of years I’ve survived and instead I’ll only focus on being alive.
So how am I doing?
I’m good. I’m great. I’m odd.

 

Swing And A Miss.

Every fall when school starts again I remember my time with high school golf team. When I started high school my parents informed me I would play a sport. They didn’t specify which one, but it wasn’t an option, so I looked through the school teams for something that would match my complete lack of any athletic ability and settled on golf. I’d played golf some and thought I was pretty good at it. Sure, it was played outside and there was plenty of walking required, but it was a game of slow, steady concentration. And I could usually get the ball through the lighthouse into the clown’s mouth sometimes in as little as five strokes. I also thought, given its Scottish origins, that maybe the team uniform would be a kilt, or at least a tam-o-shanter and some culottes. My parents also occasionally played golf and gave me a set of old clubs that I was able to get most of the rust off of. They signed me up for some lessons at a local golf club with an old guy whose face was so weathered it looked like it had been stretched out and then scrunched up back onto his skull. It was the middle of summer and yet every lesson we had together it was cool and overcast and after the lesson when I was riding home and it was suddenly warm and sunny I realized he created a miserable environment around him. He was a very hands-off kind of instructor, especially after the first time he saw me swing, when he backed up about ten feet and then, after staring at me for several minutes he said, “Walp, the first thing you need to know is the idea is to hit the ball with your club.” So I took another swing and felt the club skim the grass and then, after staring at me for several minutes, he said, “Walp, the next thing you need to know is the idea is to hit the ball with your club.”

I wish I could say the lessons went downhill from there but there was no downhill. If there were the ball might at least have had a chance of going somewhere.

I did a little better by myself hitting the ball around the backyard, maybe because I wasn’t standing around under a cloud of misery and we had a terrible neighbor whose windows gave me something to aim for, but that’s another story.

When school started I found the golf coach who told me practice would be on Wednesday afternoons and I should come to the lobby after school. I lugged my ratty golf bag and only slightly rusted clubs to school that day and when I went to the lobby after school I thought it was strange I was the only one there, but I waited and walked out to the parking lot to see if there was anyone out there. After half an hour I called my mother to ask her to pick me up. The next day the coach told me he’d forgotten I was coming. I wish I could say things went downhill from there but really they just rolled along. The next week practice was cancelled and the coach forgot to tell me. After half an hour I called my mother to ask her to pick me up. The week after that he said he was sure they’d just missed me. After half an hour I called my mother to ask her to pick me up. Finally I got permission to leave my last class early and caught the coach and the rest of the team just as they were leaving. The other four players let me squeeze into the back seat. When we got to the course the other players set up, teed off, and were off and running which surprised me. Who runs in golf? I stepped up to the tee, put my head down, focused, and made an absolutely perfect swing, managing to graze the top of the ball which rolled three feet, and only got that far because it rolled downhill. The coach came up behind me. “You’ve got to play fast! Come on, let’s go, we’re not going to wait for you.” All my ideas of golf as a game of slow, steady concentration were dashed. This was speed golf. We were expected to hit and run, and the coach didn’t want to hear that my handicap was twenty-seven even if it did mean I hit par on every hole.

Panting and sweating at the nineteenth hole I said, “Coach, thank you for the chance. Maybe I’ll try out again next year.” And then I went to the clubhouse and called my mother to ask her to pick me up.

That was the end of my strange and baffling golf career and my parents seemed satisfied with me joining the Latin club, although I never told them I got thrown out for wearing a tam-o-shanter with my toga.

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