The Weekly Essay

It’s Another Story.

Life In The Sublurbs.

Book Blurbs Written About Blurb, My New Novel Written Entirely In The Form Of Book Blurbs:

“Stunning!”

-The New York Herald

“Incredible!”

-The Boston Spectator

“Thrill-seeking!”

-The Tuscon Citizen

“I couldn’t put it down!”

-Stilton Blue, The Seattle Scene

“Surprising!”

-The Leavenworth Leader

“Staggering!”

-The Breckenridge Post-Dispatch

“You’ll wonder where it’s going!”

-The Steamboat Springs Chronicle

“Leaves you wanting something!”

-The Ketchum Banner

“A novel idea for a book!”

-The Bismark Telegraph

“The novelty quickly wears thin!”

-The Sturgis Herald

“An unusual premise that keeps you turning the pages, hoping it will eventually develop into something!”

-Emmental Dickinson, The Bay Times (Omaha, NE)

“Not really a novel!”

-The Ontario Olympiad

“Like no other novel I’ve ever read!”

-Caerphilly Wells, The North Platte Telegraph

“I can’t believe this is a book!”

-Brie Rogers, The Davenport Mirror

“Why would someone do this?”

-The Duluth Star

“About three-hundred pages!”

-Bloodstone Publishing

“About three-hundred and forty grams!”

-Fynbo Shreeve, scientist

“I couldn’t pick it up!”

-Allen Walker, The Catchall

“Just keeps going!”

-Terry Cheshire, The Whitehorse Observer

“Completely messes with your head, and not in a good way!”

-Feta Hampton, The Telluride Post

“The most entertaining drivel I’ve read this year!”

-Red Windsor, The Winnipeg Inquirer

“We only publish reviews of academic non-fiction in the field of biology!”

-Nature

“I keep it next to the toilet!”

—S. Clemens, author of The American Claimant

“Floats well!”

-Boaters Digest

“Responsible for an outbreak of diphtheria!”

-Tiverton Tribune

“Reminiscent of Finnegan’s Wake, and by that I mean completely unreadable and people will only refer to it to sound pretentious!”

-The Ely Telegraph

“Makes you look at aardvarks in an entirely new way!”

-Annapolis Reader

“Opened up a trans-dimensional portal that I fell into and now can’t escape! Please send help!”

-Terry Weiss, The Marfa Bugler

“You might want to read it!”

-The Dorset Times-Picayune

“Potential best-seller.”

-Poughkeepsie Plain Tribune

Coming next year: the sequel, Disblurbing The Peace.

Back To School.

The biggest lie I was told as a child was that school was preparing me for a career. I don’t mind having had to learn a lot of stuff that I haven’t had to use. A basic understanding of science, economics, history, and culture make me a well-rounded person and a killer at Jeopardy!, at least sitting on the couch at home. I can rack up thousands of dollars and imagine just how wealthy I could become if they’d let me compete in the annual kids’ tournament so it doesn’t matter that I’ve completely forgotten what the quadratic formula is and what it’s used for. The problem, one I’m reminded of every year when kids go back to school, is that school wasn’t like working at a job at all. Well, there are some resemblances. Depending on where you work you might have a cafeteria where you go and get lunch every day, although chances are you don’t have to deal with a bully who takes your milk money because those kids all grew up and went into the telemarketing industry. And in a lot of jobs there are breaks for holidays. They’re just a lot shorter than they were when we were in school, and the main thing, the most important thing, is that there is no summer recess. Summer was all we looked forward to when we were in school, except for those weird kids who really liked school and grew up to be actuaries.

I’m not saying I want a three-month vacation every year, although I wouldn’t turn it down either. What I really remember fondly, aside from having a three month vacation every year, is that feeling of going back to school when summer was over. It was a time when I felt energized and excited, like my whole life was going to change for the better. I’d start school saying to myself, this is the year everything changes, this is the year I will get straight A’s, turn in every assignment on time, and be like one of those kids who actually likes school, but not weird about it because I don’t want to be an actuary. This is the year I will become such a model student I’ll be set on the path to Harvard and becoming president of the Lampoon, because I was an ambitious and worldly eight-year old. Every new school year was a chance to sweep away everything that happened last year and start over with a clean slate–oh yeah, this year, I’d say to myself, will be the year I stay after class and clean the slates!–or at least a nice new notebook that this year, I’d tell myself, I’ll fill with actual schoolwork and not terrible song lyrics and cartoons of my teachers turning into Lovecraftian monsters. And I stayed naively optimistic about turning over a new academic leaf well into high school. There was the year when, instead of a notebook, I got a set of folders, a different color for every subject. On the first day of school we were sitting quietly doing nothing because our homeroom teacher, Mr. Dobson, was still recovering from his two and a half-month bender. Well, I was sitting there memorizing the first twenty digits of pi, and a friend of mine who was very artistic, asked if he could decorate one of my folders. “Sure,” I said, and handed him the red one. “This one’s for English.” So a few minutes later he handed it back to me covered with pictures of punks and goblins and demons and a squid riding a motorcycle, all under an elaborate banner that said “I ♥ Urine Soaked Bread” and I swore I would kill him when I stopped laughing, but since I figured I’d be the only one to see it I kept it. Then my English teacher announced that she wanted us to keep our work in folders and once a week we’d have to turn them in so she could make sure we were keeping up with our assignments. And I could have switched folders or gotten a new one but instead I just handed in the red one. She didn’t say anything about it. The next week she didn’t say anything about the portrait of her sprouting tentacles out of her skirt either, although she did write in red marker on the song lyrics, “Sounds like third-rate Pink Floyd,” but that’s another story.

Anyway, I miss that fresh and excited feeling of starting over, of potential greatness, even if it was followed by an inevitable crash that left me feeling like I’d ruined everything, had no clue what was going on, and would never succeed at anything, which usually hit about halfway through the second day of school.

Under The Sea.

Source: Wikipedia

When I tell people I’m a fan of Aquaman they laugh and say, “Nobody’s a fan of Aquaman.” Who’s been buying his comic books all these years then? I want to ask but then I remember in the ‘80’s there was a comic book buying bubble when every comic would double or triple in price within a week of hitting the rack and some people were buying everything. Anyway I have an older friend who started collecting comics when he was a kid in the ‘50’s and I said to him that I’d like to see an Aquaman movie. “Aquaman’s just not a strong enough character,” he said, and that’s when it hit me that I’ve always been a fan of the idea of Aquaman even though I’ve never read an Aquaman comic. I don’t know what villains he fights, although plastic, oil tankers, and whaling ships are probably high on the list. I didn’t read comics at all when I was a kid, really. My parents didn’t object to comics—as far as I know they weren’t fans of Estes Kefauver—but I didn’t know where to find comic books. I grew up in the suburbs and if there was a corner drugstore with a comic book rack then it was not only far out of even my wide-ranging explorations but it was a drugstore we never went to. Even my neighborhood friends who had comic book collections had inherited them from older relatives. My main exposure to comic book heroes was through cartoons, and even there Aquaman was mostly absent. He was part of the Super Friends but it seemed like he showed up so rarely he was more of a Super Acquaintance or even a Super Remind Me Where We Know That Guy From.
When my friends were old enough to drive we’d travel across town to one of the comic book shops, which were a new discovery for me, but the comics I collected were mostly new indie titles and I didn’t think to pick up Aquaman comics because I didn’t want to dive into an established comic. It wasn’t because, as my friend said, he’s not a strong enough character—even with those green tights and bright orange pullover. I didn’t know anything about his character and it’s not as though any superhero’s identity has to be fixed. And it’s not because of the running joke that Aquaman’s powers are that he can breathe underwater and talk to fish. Those are actually some pretty impressive powers and anyone who doesn’t think so is missing that the Earth’s surface is mostly water.
The oceans are where life originated and even after the first multicellular life appeared, some time between 1.2 billion and 900 million years ago, it was only 500 million years ago that the first organisms came out of the water. The oceans are the source of all life on Earth and life on Earth still depends on it. And yet for most of human history we’ve literally been skimming the surface of the oceans. What we knew of deep sea life came from what fishermen brought up or the occasional specimen that floated up because it was dead or dying. There was a common belief in the Middle Ages that there was a whole undersea society of fish people, that everyone on land had an aquatic counterpart, which was easy to believe because there was no evidence to the contrary and it was also fun to point at a knight eating a large piece of swordfish and yell “Cannibal!” but that’s another story.
The first real submersibles date from the late 1700’s, but when Jules Verne first published 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea in 1870 the idea of a submarine like the Nautilus was still science fiction. In 1930 the first bathysphere was designed and built by the engineer Otis Barton, assisted by the naturalist William Beebe. It was a hollow metal ball on a string–not exactly high tech, although it was specially built for going deep. Before taking a ride themselves they sent it down on an unmanned trial run and got a grim reminder of how dangerous ocean pressure is: the craft sprung a small leak and when they opened the hatch a strong jet of water shot out over the deck. After patching everything they made their first nervous descent to 803 feet. They may not have been the first people to descend to that depth but they were the first to make it back alive. Beebe described creatures of the deep, never before seen in their natural habitat, that were so weird other naturalists thought he was making them up and they were disappointed there were no fish people even though it meant they could eat salmon with a clear conscience.
Aquaman’s first appearance in comics was in November 1941, almost a year before Jacques Cousteau would secretly test the first open-circuit scuba gear which opened up a little more ocean exploration and promised more but even now, even with specialized equipment, human divers are limited to a few hundred feet. It wasn’t until 1960 that the bathyscaphe Trieste, piloted by Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh, made the first dive to the bottom of the Challenger Deep, so far down that if you cut off Mount Everest at its base and dropped it down there its peak would be a mile under water. It’s so deep, so far from sunlight, that it was assumed nothing could live there, and yet there is life–even seasonal life affected by what drifts down from above. Decades later we’ve explored more of the ocean but it’s still difficult to get down there. More people have walked on the surface of the Moon than have been to the Challenger Deep, and the only way that depth record can be broken is if somebody goes down there and digs a hole.
Aquaman can go anywhere, to any depth, at great speed, and come back up without having to stop and decompress. And he can talk to fish while he’s down there because he doesn’t need any bulky equipment blocking up his face. Still think he’s too lame to be a superhero?
Yeah, I think Aquaman is cool because I love the ocean and love to swim and wanted to be a marine biologist when I was a kid, but there’s something else. We’ve finally started to get greater cultural and gender diversity in superheroes but Aquaman adds ecological diversity in a way that’s subtler and smarter than that unbelievably stupid Captain Planet cartoon of the early 1990’s that is currently resting where it belongs, in a hole at the bottom of the Challenger Deep. And Marvel Comics has its equivalent of Aquaman–his fish person–in Namor Of Atlantis, who’s an interesting character, a brooding anti-hero who wreaks havoc on landlubbers because of our mistreatment of the oceans, but then Namor isn’t human. He’s immortal and laughing in the face of death loses its punch if you’re not in any danger of dying. Aquaman, at least originally, was the child of a scientist and his mastery of the oceans is a throwback to the water that first gave us life, and that we still depend on. Aquaman reminds us that what happens in the sea affects the land and vice versa. When we harm the oceans we are the villains of our own story.
And, by the way, there’s an Aquaman movie coming.

Aesop’s Prequels.

The Fox Tries Some Grapes

The Stag offered the Fox a bunch of grapes.

“Hey, I’m really full and don’t want these. You want some?”

“No thanks,” said the Fox. “I really don’t like grapes.”

“Come on!” snorted the Stag. “What do you mean you don’t like grapes? Everybody likes grapes.”

“Well I don’t,” said the Fox. “So clearly not everybody likes grapes.”

The Stag threw the grapes down. “Look, I was just trying to be nice. You don’t have to be a jerk about it. You say you don’t like grapes, fine, don’t eat the damn grapes then.”

“Fine!” yelled the Fox. He bit off a few grapes and chewed them up. His mouth puckered at how sour they were but he forced himself to smile anyway.

“Good, aren’t they?” said the Stag.

The Fox nodded, suppressing the urge to spit chewed up grapes in the Stag’s face.

Moral: Sometimes you just have to eat the grapes.

The Grasshopper & The Ant

The Grasshopper was a hard worker who diligently prepared for the future. From morning to night the Grasshopper collected food and cleaned house. One day, carrying home a heavy parcel, the Grasshopper bumped into the Ant who dropped its load of seeds wrapped in a leaf.

“I’m sorry,” said the Grasshopper, putting down her own parcel and helping the Ant gather the seeds.

“I don’t have time for this,” muttered the Ant.

The Grasshopper placed more seeds on the Ant’s leaf.

“It must have been hard work collecting these. Why don’t you take a minute to rest?”

“No time to rest,” said the Ant, collecting the rest of the seeds. “We have a saying: If you rest it’s the death of the nest.”

The Grasshopper held up a seed. “You really should take a break once in a while.”

“No breaks,” said the Ant, snatching the seed and wrapping it up with the others in the leaf. “We’re born, we work, we die.”

After the Ant left the Grasshopper sat and thought for a long time. Finally she stood up.

“I’m never going to be like that.” She turned toward home. “And I really need a drink.”

Moral: What are you busting your ass for if you’re not going to enjoy life once in a while?

The Tortoise & Friends.

The Hedgehog looked to the Rat who looked to the Goose who looked to the Tortoise.

“So,” said the Hedgehog, “we’re all agreed. We’re sick of his bragging, we’re sick of hearing about how fast he is, and we’ve got to take him down. We just need to decide who’s going to run the race.”

The animals all looked at each other.

“Well,” said the Rat, “there’s only one of us who hasn’t raced the Hare and lost.”

“Fine,” said the Tortoise. “I’ll do it. I just have one question. Who’s gonna slip him the sleeping pill?”

Moral: Fill in your own answer here.

Seeing Stars.

Stargazing is as much a part of a fun summer evening as running around in dewy grass barefoot, catching lightning bugs, and seeing how many bottle rockets tied together will still fly and how many will just fall over and explode on the ground. Here are some fun facts about prominent stars in summer constellations.

Sirius in the constellation Canis Major is the brightest star in the night sky. For the ancient Egyptians the rising of Sirius marked the beginning of the flooding of the Nile, and for the ancient Greeks it marked the beginning of the “dog days” of summer.

Mizar and Alcor are two stars that form the handle of the Big Dipper. Mizar is the brighter of the two and the stars are so close together that in ancient times being able to differentiate them was used as an eye test by insomniac ophthalmologists.

Capella in the constellation Auriga is so bright it can often be seen at night.

Polaris in the constellation Ursa Minor is, because its location appears almost fixed, is sometimes called the “north star” and also the “pole star” when it worked with Milton Berle.

Pollux and Castor are the two primary star in the constellation Gemini and have recently filed for separation.

Spica in the constellation Virgo is a binary star. Its primary star is a blue giant while the secondary one wishes you’d notice it’s been on a diet.

Regulus in the constellation Leo is made entirely out of jellybeans.

Vega in the constellation Lyra enjoys sushi, long walks on the beach, and books about endocrinology.

Altair in the constellation Aquila is really sorry about the incident with the chafing dish but you shouldn’t bring it up unless you want to hear a twenty minute bit about why it’s called a “chafing dish” that’s really not as funny as Altair seems to think it is.

Sabik is part of a binary star system in the constellation Ophiuchus and is an extremely good boy.

Algol in the constellation Perseus is rarely visible because it keeps setting off the motion-activated light on your neighbor’s porch before it realizes it has the wrong house.

Arcturus in the constellation Boötes wishes you’d stop asking about the oregano.

Aldebaran in the constellation Taurus is a red giant and once shot a man in Memphis just to watch him die.

Antares in the constellation Scorpius wants to know what you’re looking at. You wanna make something of it? Well? Do you?

Deneb in the constellation Cygnus denies ever meeting Lando Calrissian.

Jupiter is not a star but a planet that in the western part of the northern hemisphere can be seen rising in the southwest each evening because it’s drunk.

When You’ve Gotta Go…

Once in an English pub I asked the bartender where the bathroom was and he sarcastically replied, “Why? Do you need to take a bath?” And I was quick enough to snap, “Well I just might, but in the meantime can you direct me to the loo?” I was reminded of that when I was passing through Music City Central, the downtown bus depot, which is currently being renovated and part of that is they’ve shut down the loos, the heads, the johns, the throne rooms, and also the bathrooms with plans to make them nicer. I can understand that. Although I’d only been through the men’s room–or “the gent’s” as that English publican might say–it wasn’t much more than a narrow corridor with openings at either end that didn’t leave much in the way of privacy which must have been tough for anyone with a shy bladder or the “rari nantes in gurgite vasto” from Virgil’s Aeneid. Still there’s gotta be something. One of the nicer features of the depot is a donut and coffee shop, but what are riders supposed to do when they need to get rid of that coffee? Back when all the buses gathered on 4th Avenue TPAC was just a block away, or, for anyone who wanted something more elegant, they could go to the Hermitage where the loo is a bona fide tourist destination, but that’s another story.

href=”http://freethinkersanonymous.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/schmuck.jpg”> Should I stay or should I go now?[/

I’m not worried about the drivers since they can stop almost anywhere. It’s not like the bus is going to go off and leave without them. For a while the regular driver on my route would always stop at a McDonald’s and chat with people at the register and get a 99 ounce drink, even if she was running late–and she was always running late–and you don’t take in that much liquid unless you’re really confident that you’ll be able to get to a place where you can recycle it.
Anyway I’m kind of curious to see what the renovated restrooms will be like. Maybe they’ll even put in something where you could take a bath.

Another Way.

There are two ways to respond to rejection: try again or give up. Or find another way. There are some famous books that were rejected dozens of times before finally being published, countless others that we’ll never know about because their authors gave up, and then there are those who found another way, publishing on their own. Well, this story has been rejected multiple times, and while I could keep trying I think instead I’m going to take the other way.

Prejudices

“If you feed them they’ll just keep coming back!” the man next door yelled.
“Ignore him,” muttered Linda. Carl ignored her and the man next door and threw another handful of bagel pieces to the seagulls hovering around the deck. Then he grabbed another and started ripping it up. They were the bagels they’d bought at the Sea’N’Sand when they arrived on the island, some national brand that turned out to be too light and bready.
“I don’t want to sound prejudiced,” Ruth had said that morning when they tried one, “but the goyim just can’t make a good bagel.”
The phrase struck Linda as odd; the only other time she’d heard Ruth use it was earlier on this same trip. They’d flown to Mobile and met their daughter Annabel at the airport, and this was their first chance to meet Carl whom she’d been dating for six months. In the car they rented to drive to the island he entertained them with his original Broadway cast recordings of Wicked, Fun Home, and Ethel Merman in Gypsy.
“I don’t mean to sound prejudiced,” Ruth said when they’d stopped and Carl insisted on pumping and paying for the gas, “but are you sure he’s not gay?”
“Oh yeah,” said Annabel and gave a throaty laugh.
“Really?” Ruth pressed. “So, tell us, does he–”
“That’s enough!” shouted Linda and Ruth and Annabel giggled quietly the rest of the trip until they passed a restaurant with oyster shells piled in its parking lot. Carl said, “I’m really looking forward to some fresh oysters” and Ruth and Annabel exploded with laughter.
There were at least a dozen seagulls hovering over their deck now. Linda could see their white-rimmed eyes and the red tips of their beaks. Most had black heads but one near her had a mottled gray head. Linda wouldn’t have guessed birds could hover and yet here they were, their bodies almost motionless while their wings beat the air.
The man next door turned and went back into his house. Linda had watched him and a woman she assumed was his wife, a frail-looking figure who wore a headscarf and spent hours stretched out on the beach chair on their deck. It was late April and yet Linda watched him drape three or four blankets over her. She’d never seen him before; in fact she couldn’t remember having any neighbors before. She and Ruth had first come to the island a decade earlier for their honeymoon, and came back to the same beach house, a tan-colored three-bedroom place decorated with classical frescoes inside called “Dun Roman”, for a week every year for their anniversary. Ruth had fallen in love with the place immediately; Linda wasn’t so sure. It was always windy on the beach, and at first she didn’t like seeing the gas drilling rigs out in the bay, but now they were like old friends, and she looked forward to nightfall when their amber lights glowed.
After the bagels were gone Linda dragged the garbage can across the sand up to the road for the next morning’s pickup. It was still early evening, or late afternoon, but the sun was setting, the sky was starting to turn pink and orange. She stopped to look at it and saw the man next doorwith his garbage can. She gave him a polite smile.
“Ahoy!” he said then walked over to her. He was bald with a cottony fringe of hair around his ears and wore glasses over his pale blue eyes. “Sorry I yelled earlier. These days I’m just a little too conscious of seagull poop.” He put out his hand. “I’m Michael Jackson. Not the Michael Jackson, though.”
His handshake was gentle. Linda smiled. “You’re not the craft beer and microbrew writer then?”
His eyes widened and he grinned. “Most people don’t make that connection. So, neighbor, you’re here with family?”
“Yes, my daughter Annabel, her boyfriend Carl, and my wife Ruth.” She was used to varying shades of hostility, especially in Alabama, when she said “my wife”, especially from older people, but he only smiled.
“Good, good. First time?”
“No, we’ve come here every April for ten years now, for our anniversary.”
“Congratulations!” he beamed. “My wife and I always come here in the fall but six months from now, well, not sure where things will be.” Then abruptly he checked his watch. “Well, it was nice meeting you, but it’s my wife’s cocktail hour and I have to tend to her.” He gave a quick salute and strode back to his house.
Inside Ruth asked, “So what’s the guy next door like?”
“I don’t want to sound prejudiced,” said Linda, and went to the kitchen to make a Bloody Mary.

 

 

 

Beyond Understanding.

Dr. Seuss cartoon, October 1941. Source: Snopes.com

When I was four years old I got lost at the shopping mall. I’ve written about this before but while history may not exactly repeat itself it often rhymes, and the present changes how we see the past. What happened is my mother was shopping for clothes and I was trying to make the sleeves of shirts and jackets talk and I also discovered that I could squeeze in between clothes on a circular rack and be completely surrounded by gray and navy jackets, and if I spun around and around I wouldn’t know where I came in, so when I came out I just sort of zigzagged off into the mall. What I distinctly remember, though, is that I was never scared. I understood what happened. I was concerned and definitely wanted to find my mother, and even when outside thinking she might be out there. And I thought maybe I could find her car and stand next to it, but I gave up on that when I realized I couldn’t remember where we’d parked. So I went back in and asked a woman who worked at the store if she could help me, and she let me sit behind a cash register while she called the store detective and he found my mother. As I said I was never scared. It was actually kind of exciting, and the calm way all the adults I spoke to acted and spoke to me without being condescending was reassuring. We might have just been hanging out together, and I think before my mother and I left I thanked them and added, “You must come and see us in Cape Cod this August.” And this wasn’t long after another big event in my life. We’d just moved to a new house, and that was exciting too. It wasn’t a dramatic move. My parents moved from a pretty nice house in one suburban Nashville neighborhood to another pretty nice, but much larger, house in another suburban Nashville neighborhood. I could be excited because my parents were happy to be moving, they wanted to move, and I understood that. It was an adventure. The first night in the new house I slept in a sleeping bag on the floor of my new bedroom which seemed enormous without any furniture, and still seemed enormous after the bed and bookshelves were put in. The first time I went out to explore the backyard it was wild and overgrown with weeds and I put my bare foot in the middle of a thistle the size of Delaware because I was looking around and not down. Not long after we moved in my parents would clear away the weeds and one old tree, leaving behind a spindly oak that cast a strange shadow like heads swaying back and forth on my bedroom wall.
I can’t explain why but recent events made me think about moving to a new home, how easy it was. My parents were able to check out their new home before they decided to move. They weren’t worried about being welcome in the neighborhood. After all they’re white. So am I. When I got lost at the mall I was a minor but not a minority.
For a long time when I remembered that time I was lost I thought how lucky I was, but it was more than just luck, unless you count the . There were countless circumstances that gave me an advantage. The woman who worked at the mall had some strong words for my mother but that was the worst that happened.
When I see kids being taken from their families I can’t imagine what they’re going through. To even try I’d have to consider almost every aspect of my own experience and reverse it. What would it be like to have parents who had to leave difficult and uncertain circumstances in hopes of finding something better, to be taken away from those parents because of a new policy, to be locked in a cage.
It’s difficult to imagine how that would feel, but still easier than trying to understand why.

 

June Bugged.

Source: Wikipedia

I was out on my lunch break and saw a scary looking swarm of dark bugs buzzing around a patch of grass, so of course I headed right for it. I’d seen swarms like this before, starting when I was a kid and staying at my grandparents’ house one summer day, and there was a dark cloud of buzzing bugs around the bushes of one of their neighbor’s houses. My grandmother was terrified and told me to stay away from them because there was no way we could tell what they were, so of course when she wasn’t looking I went over for a closer look. My grandmother saw lurking death in everything: grass that was too tall could hide spiders and snakes, grass that was too short could make the ground dangerously hard, being outside too long on a summer day I could get pneumonia, being inside too long I could get rickets from vitamin D deficiency, and she carefully went through every piece of watermelon out of a fear that the seeds might sprout in my stomach and grow out of my nose. And the bugs in that scary looking swarm turned out to be June bugs which I still love because they’re completely harmless and just big goofy bumblers. As a kid who studied bugs of all types I knew most beetles to be, in spite of their heavily armored backs, kind of timid. Most preferred to hide under logs and rocks or in basements; they’d retract their antennae and back away from any movement, any light. Not June bugs. You find June bugs right out in the open, happily buzzing or bumbling around with their antennae up and spread wide like radar dishes, broadcasting to the world HEY, WHAT’S UP? I’M GONNA CLIMB UP YOUR LEG AND FALL OVER AND THEN FLY INTO A BRICK WALL FOR NO REASON. They’re big and really attractive beetles, with mottled green and yellow backs and their undersides are metallic green or gold. I caught some and took them to my grandfather who showed me how you can tie a string to a June bug’s leg and it will buzz around like a tiny weird balloon or maybe yank really hard and leave you with a string with a prickly beetle leg tied to it.
The next summer I was old enough to stay at home by myself and there was a time when my friends in the neighborhood had either moved away or were away so I had a lot of time to myself. I found a swarm of June bugs and it was fun at first just watching them, catching one and examining its shiny underside before letting it go, but then I started to perform what I called experiments but which even then I knew were really sadistic tortures.
Anyone who knows me know this story has a happy ending, for me, anyway, although not for some of the June bugs. I didn’t grow up to be a serial killer or for that matter a criminal of any kind. I’m not a vegan but I probably would be if I couldn’t get meat so neatly sliced and packaged it no longer looks like any animal and while I will hurt a fly I only do it if the fly is in the house and I feel guilty about it and I occasionally cause my wife some consternation when I catch a spider so I can release it outside even though I try to explain to her that it’s a member of the Lycosa genus and therefore completely harmless. So this story is not as dark as it could be, or rather it’s not a prequel to something much grimmer, but it still makes me uncomfortable that I put June bugs in glass jars with cotton balls soaked in alcohol and then pinned them to a piece of styrofoam, and then I started to put them in plastic bags and put them in the freezer then revive them in the hot air that blew from the air conditioner in the back of the house. The stove in the kitchen had those black spiral burners and I’d turn one on, crank it up until it glowed orange, and press a June bug’s back against the metal. At worst I was risking a burned finger but for the June bug this was always fatal.
As I consider this heavily loaded words like “normal” and “healthy” come to mind. I wonder how many others have done the same sorts of things, but most who did, understandably, don’t want to talk about it. Even then I felt guilty about what I was doing, wondered why I was doing it to such inoffensive creatures that don’t bite or sting or even get served up neatly sliced and packaged. And I’d already stopped when I went out one morning and walked around feeling like my head was wrapped in invisible cotton, and aching in my arms and legs. I went back inside and went to bed and woke up with a fever of a hundred degrees, and the only thing more miserable than missing precious summer days because of illness is having a body temperature that matches what’s outside. And I was too weak to cross the room and get rid of the styrofoam board of neatly mounted June bugs.
I’m resisting the temptation to try and draw some bigger conclusions from this, or to turn the June bugs into a metaphor. Some people might say, hey, they’re just bugs, and maybe this is a common, or at least not rare, phase kids go through, but I also don’t want to offer up any excuses. What I really want when I walk through a swarm of June bugs, when they crawl up my leg and fall off or fly away and bumble into things is to be like them, oblivious to any threats, or maybe they’re really the smart ones who know there is no lurking death.

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