The Weekly Essay

It’s Another Story.

Weirdness Drives Me.

When it’s cold outside, and lately it’s been really, really, really cold outside, I like to sit at the back of the bus. Actually even when it’s warm outside I like to sit near the back of the bus, just because I’m weird like that, but when it’s cold sometimes I can find the seat at the very back of the bus that’s right over the engine so it’s nice and warm. That’s a good thing because I’ve usually been standing at the bus stop for a while, not to mention the three block walk to the stop. It’s also a bad thing because I know that getting all warmed up and sweaty is going to make the walk home from the bus stop worse than it would be if I sat in the chilly midsection of the bus, but better to be warm now and cold later than cold now and even colder later. And no matter where I sit as the bus gets closer to my stepping off stop I work my way up to the front. I always like to thank the driver and wish them a nice evening as I disembark because I think driving the bus is mostly a thankless job, unlike driving an electric streetcar which is a tankless job, and, yes, I really did go well out of my way just to make that pun because I’m weird like that.
Anyway the other day when I got on the bus there was already some guy sitting at the very back of the bus. He was sitting on one side, and it was kind of nice to know I’m not the only one who’s weird like that. When I sat down on the other side, though, I realized he was sitting on the engine side, so I made sure to give him a cold look. He stepped off only a couple of stops ahead of me but I still slipped over to his side and then had to rush to the front of the bus when we reached my stop. I was determined to get as warm as I could in the few minutes we had because, well, I’m weird like that.

 

The Law Of Averages.

The most popular New Year’s resolution is to lose weight, according to the Institute For The Study Of Stuff That Happens Annually, or at least that’s what I read in their bimonthly report last week. It’s also the most broken resolution, or at least would be if those people who still think it’s worthwhile to make resolutions bothered to remember them beyond mid-January. The only resolutions I remember are ones I made and then broke a long time ago, like my resolution to make notes of things so I wouldn’t forget them, and I even went to the extra effort of writing it down, but then I forgot where I wrote it down. And I’d think losing weight in the middle of winter would be an easy thing to do because I have a theory that in cold weather your body burns calories just to keep warm. After all it’s called “burning calories”. And consider this: have you ever seen a fat Canadian? Maybe you have, but there are also a lot of skinny Canadians, even though their national food is fried potatoes and cheese slathered with gravy, but that’s another story.
This year I’m doing something a little different and making a completely different resolution to get fat. In spite of the cold weather I suspect this’ll be an easier resolution to stick to, although I’m not doing it because it’s easy. If anything I see it as a challenge, and I do love a challenge, especially if it involves poutine, but the main thing is I’m looking to make a major change. Currently I’m not really skinny, but I’m not really fat either. I’m about average, and I’ve realized that pretty much sums up everything about me. If I ever commit a crime I imagine the description the eyewitnesses give the police will go something like this:

Police: What was his build?
Eyewitnesses: About average.
Police: How about height?
Eyewitnesses: About average.
Police: And his general appearance?
Eyewitnesses: That was average too.
Police: Okay, so we’ve got to put out an APB for someone who looks like everybody else.

Or maybe the police will say, “This guy’ll be easy to find. Anyone that average is some kind of freak.”

There’s nothing good about being average. There’s nothing bad about it either, though, which is part of the problem. Average people never accomplish anything, and they’re never anything major, except for Major Major in Catch-22, and Joseph Heller says, “people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was.”

The other thing is, as I was contemplating this resolution, I remembered an article I read many years ago when the internet was still young and I was too, sort of, in an average way. It was by a self-described fat guy and he was making a case that being fat really has its advantages. It was easier for him because he was a guy and, let’s face it, from Henry VIII to John Belushi society has celebrated fat guys, although I hope we’re now moving toward a world where everybody, regardless of gender, can be accepted and even celebrated for who they are. Anyway, because this was before blogs and comment sections I sent the guy an email directly and told him I really liked his article and asked if he’d ever heard Allan Sherman’s “Hail To Thee, Fat Person.” He replied, which was a really exciting thing to me because he was a published author, a group I desperately wanted to be part of, and he was reading my words. He said he hadn’t heard Allen Sherman’s bit but that he’d look it up and signed off with, “Rock on, sexy fat brother!”
And I thought about replying to him and letting him know I wasn’t really fat but I didn’t. I felt like we’d had a moment, albeit electronically. I felt guilty about being mistaken for something I wasn’t but I also felt accepted, like I belonged. Even if it was only in someone else’s imagination I was still part of a group that was cool.
So now I want to do something to really be part of a group, and I invite everybody like me to join in. Come on, fellow average people, let’s do this!

Classic Christmas Quiz.

Source: Wikipedia

All of us are getting older whether we like it or not. Or so I’ve been told. Personally I’m not convinced that I’m getting older, although, to steal a line from Tom Lehrer, it is a sobering thought that when Mozart was my age he’d been dead for twelve years, but that’s another story.

One of the keys to staying young is to keep the mind active, or so I’ve been told, and one way to keep the mind active is to take a skeptical attitude to every silly notion you’re told. Another way is with puzzles, toys, and games. My mother-in-law, for instance, regularly does crossword puzzles and other games, and has given me quite a few books of crosswords and other puzzles which have kept my mind active, especially when I have to use my mind to figure out where I put them.

The Christmas season is also traditionally a time for toys and classic movies, so here’s a little mental activity: classic toy or character from L. Frank Baum’s Oz stories?

1. Tik-Tok

2. Stretch Armstrong

3. Slinky

4. Yo-Yo

5. Jellia Jamb

6. Tik-Tok

7. Mr. Potatohead

8. Weebles

9. Patchwork Girl

10. Colorforms

11. Jinjur

12. Kalidahs

13. Frisbee

14. Hammer-Head

15. Jack Pumpkinhead

16. Aibo

17. Gumby

18. Polychrome

19. Mombi

20. Creepy Crawlers

21. Kabumpo

22. Hungry Hungry Hippos

23. Toto

24. Triops

25. Mannheim Steamroller

Scoring:

22-25: You’re incredibly mentally active and also spend too much time playing with toys. How old are you?

18-21: Christmas is still your favorite holiday and the time of year when you make the whole family watch The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz.

15-17: You’re a master of crossword puzzles.

12-14: You know without checking how old L. Frank Baum was when he was your age.

6-11: You’re mildly amused by toys and think Oz is in the southern hemisphere.

1-5: You were banished from the growups’ table for playing with your food.

 

No Business Like Shoe Business.

The package landing on our porch was a surprise even though it was the holiday season. My wife and I weren’t expecting anything, having gotten every package we’d ordered, and, as far as we knew, anything that everyone we knew was going to send us had already arrived. Since it was just two days before Christmas whoever had sent the package was cutting it pretty close. And then I checked the delivery address and found it wasn’t for us. This wasn’t surprising. Our regular mail carrier regularly slipped our neighbors’ mail in with ours, and probably vice versa too, but I didn’t mind. Sometimes I’d put the mail back in the box and let it sort itself out and sometimes I’d walk to the neighbor’s house and usually I was early enough that they hadn’t gotten their mail yet, so I’d just slip what I had into their mailbox and if they had gotten their mail I’d still slip what I had into their mailbox and assumed it would just sort itself out. And on some occasions I talked to one of the neighbors, and older man. He’d look through his mail and say, “Well, this is crap, this is crap, more crap,” and then he’d thank me and we’d talk a little. And that’s how I learned he was ninety-two and his wife had passed away a year earlier, and one day he told me he’d just remarried and that his new wife was ninety, all of which I thought was the height of optimism. I didn’t ask but I assumed the wedding was a quiet affair, probably done at city hall without any fanfare. I didn’t ask because I preferred to believe the wedding was a big gala with a banner that read “Here’s To The Future!” and that as the happy couple ran to the limo that would take them to their honeymoon in, let’s say Poughkeepsie, the guests all threw nitroglycerin tablets.

Anyway the package was small and rectangular and heavy for its size. I thought it might be a fruitcake and that its intended recipient had left it on our porch to get rid of it, and I have heard stories of families that pass around the same fruitcake from year to year, which makes me think it’s fruitcakes passing fruitcake, and I’ve never heard of anyone passing a fruitcake on to a complete stranger. The fruitcake theory was further bolstered by the name of the company on the box which was something like Rjujsjnk, which I thought might be Dutch, and if there’s one thing the Dutch are famous for it’s pastries that can be used as building material, and if there are two things they’re famous for the other one is using “j” as a vowel. And also Van Gogh, windmills, dams, funny hats, being extremely blonde, tulips, dairy products, a pretty decent system of government, and Amsterdam where you can wander through the red light district and then walk purposely to a cafe where you can sit and smoke a spliff the size of your head in a desperate effort to forget what you just saw a woman wearing lingerie in a glass booth do with a chicken, also wearing lingerie, but that’s another story.

The odd thing was the delivery address wasn’t our street. As I said, normally we got the neighbors’ mail, and it was only a couple of blocks over which, I guess, is still the same neighborhood, so still neighbors, just not anybody whose house I’d normally walk to. And since it was dark and cold I really didn’t want to walk so I threw the box in the passenger seat and set off into the night. It was supposed to be an easy mission, but it was a part of the neighborhood I wasn’t used to. I made a couple of wrong turns and had to backtrack a few times, and then, once I found the house, I couldn’t find the right number. This was mainly because it was dark and I couldn’t see the house numbers on mailboxes or on the houses themselves, but finally I got the right house. I thought about leaving the package in the mailbox and letting it sort itself out, but I could see people in the house through their big front window where they were gathered around their nice big Christmas tree, and they’d seen me, and I thought it would look weird if I left something in their mailbox. So I went up to the door and knocked. A woman answered and I handed over the package.

“Oh, thank goodness!” she exclaimed. She’d been tracking the package and knew it was misdelivered but didn’t know where and she was afraid she’d never get it.

“Well,” I said, “enjoy your fruitcake.”

“Oh, it’s not fruitcake!” she said. “It’s some special shoes I ordered for a Christmas event.”

And that’s when I noticed that she and her husband and children were all blonde and if there’s one thing the Dutch are also known for it’s wooden shoes and I got out of there in a hurry when her husband yelled, “The chicken’s ready!”

 

The Christmas Play.

Like a lot of professional actors I first trod the boards in a school Christmas play. It was second grade and the play was the idea of Mrs. Knight, one of the greatest teacher’s I’d ever have. She had a Master’s degree in education which, surprisingly, did not interfere with her ability to teach. She encouraged us to use our imaginations and challenged us to think. She told us “There’s no such thing as a bad word,” and I said, “Holy shit!” because semantics is heavy stuff when you’re seven years old. She kept us apprised of current events in science. We built a papier-mâché solar system that stretched from one end of the classroom to the other and read about Jacques Cousteau’s undersea expeditions. She was also a big fan of Star Wars, which had just come out the summer before, and thought we should put on a Star Wars-themed Christmas play.

The plot was pretty straightforward: Darth Vader decides to steal Santa’s beard which, we learn, is the source of all of his magic power. It’s the beard that allows Santa Claus to fly around the entire globe in a single night, delivering toys without setting off alarm systems or getting shot. That amount of power would also presumably make rebuilding the Death Star a lot easier. Grounded on Christmas Eve Santa is desperate until Luke Skywalker makes a dramatic entrance and announces that he’ll carry the toys in his X-Wing fighter, or maybe the Millennium Falcon which, let’s face it, has a lot more cargo space, and deliver them, thus saving Christmas and giving Santa’s beard a year to grow back.

It was all very simple and observed the Aristotelian unities. It would be filled out with a few Christmas carols, accompanied by our music teacher Ms. McKraken on the piano. There was, I think, a subplot about Santa agreeing to help Han Solo pay off some debts to Jabba, but that ended up on the cutting room floor.

I was cast as C-3PO, because Mrs. Knight recognized that robots and British accents were a specialty of mine, but also because that’s who I’d been for Halloween so I still had the costume. And I was pretty excited because I’d never been in a play before, and it didn’t bother me that I only had one line. At least I had a line, unlike R2-D2 who didn’t even have a single beep and could easily have been played by a cardboard box. And, in fact, that’s what R2-D2 was: the smallest kid in the class inside a cardboard box. And I did try to expand the robot roles by writing a duet for C-3PO and R2-D2. I gave it directly to Mrs. Knight, since I didn’t have an agent at the time. She liked it but it too ended up on the cutting room floor, or maybe in the trash can over by the coats, since it did nothing to move the main narrative forward, but that’s another story.

My one line was “R2 and I will shoot the toys down the chimney with our laser guns.”

It was so clumsy and stilted it could have been written by Lucas himself, and then there were the logistical issues. Even if a blaster could be refitted to shoot toys instead of high energy photons, in less than twenty-four hours, C-3PO could barely hold a gun, let alone shoot one. Still, the theater always requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief, and on the big day we took our places on the stage and almost everyone delivered their lines on cue.

It wasn’t stage fright and I didn’t forget my line. I just forgot when I was supposed to say it. Fortunately Ms. McKraken was there to give me a gentle nudge. I said my line. Then, as we all went into a rousing chorus of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas”, I looked out over the audience and, like so many who’ve been in Christmas plays, realized that was where I belonged: in the audience.

From The Workshop.

From: SC/Kringle Enterprises (501(c)(3) Non-Profit)

To: All Household Members Ages 4-9

Item Request/Delivery Information Form SW-2017

Thank you for your participation in the annual operations of Kringle Enterprises. It’s your continued belief in the services we provide that make what we do possible.

We have tried to respond to numerous complaints that we send out this form earlier every year by finding a balance between seasonal events. We apologize if you feel you are receiving this is too soon.

The purpose of this form is to facilitate an accurate and equitable distribution of requested items. In order to provide you maximum satisfaction we request that you please fill out this form as accurately and thoroughly as possible. If additional space is needed you may use the back of the form. Once this form is completed please use the attached sheet to list your desired items. Additional sheets are available on request or may be printed from our website (under construction).

For reasons of efficiency any and all minor infractions committed during the standard grace period of January 1st-November 23rd have been waived. Please limit your responses to the appropriate time frame.

  1. During this period have you done any of the following:

(a) Shouted

(b) Cried

(c) Pouted

The reason we ask this question is to determine whose behavior has been inappropriate or not consistent with the standard guidelines set by the recognized guardians and whose behavior has been commendable.

In order to optimize our travel arrangements to your city, township, or geographic region this question is more important than any other. We ask that you answer this question as accurately as possible and will be performing secondary reviews to ensure that it is correct.

  1. Your residence is best described as:

(a) House

(b) Apartment

(c) Trailer

(d) Other (please specify)

If you answered (a) House please answer the following additional questions. If not you can skip to question #8

  1. Does your house have a fireplace?

(a) Yes

(b) No

If you answered (a) Yes please answer the following additional questions. If not you can skip to question #8

  1. The type of fireplace your home has is:

(a) Wood-burning

(b) Gas-powered

(c) Electric*

(d) Other (please specify)

*If your home has an electric fireplace without a chimney you can skip to question #8

  1. What are the exact dimensions of your home’s chimney? Please note that if any of the items you requested exceed the specified dimensions they may not be placed in the standard delivery area but may be left elsewhere in the residence or outside.

 

  1. Is your fireplace traditionally lit during the expected delivery period?

(a) Yes

(b) No

 

If you answered (a) Yes please answer the following additional question. If not you can skip to question #8

 

  1. What time in the evening is the fire usually extinguished? For reasons of efficiency and safety we ask that you answer this question as accurately as possible.

 

  1. During what times do you expect to be asleep? In order to avoid possible conflicts resulting from chance encounters we ask that you answer this question as accurately as possible. Contrary to some reports we do not keep records of when individual customers are active and when they are dormant.

 

  1. Have you or do you plan to leave out the following during the expected delivery period:

 

(a) A glass of milk, cookies, and carrots

(b) A beer, cookies, and carrots

(c) A snifter of brandy, a pastrami sandwich (rye bread only), and carrots

(d) All of the above*

*While we try to be as fair as possible the response (d) does increase the possibility that customers will receive most of all requested items.

The final question is purely optional and is only included for informational purposes.

  1. Has anyone personally told you there is not a Santa Claus? If yes this person would best be described as:

(a) Close to your age

(b) Older than you but not a teenager

(c) A teenager

(d) An adult

Please be aware that answering this question will in no way reflect upon you although the penalties for the responsible individual may be a lump of coal, limited driving privileges or difficulty obtaining a driver’s license, or a reduced credit score.

Thank you for assisting us in maximizing our customer experience by filling out this form. We request, as always, that your behavior remain consistent with the guidelines set forth by the appropriate guardians for goodness’ sake.

 

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.

 

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