The Weekly Essay

It’s Another Story.

School Work.

It’s a living.

“School prepares you for going to work.”-statement made by at least three of my primary school teachers

“Compare and contrast.”-task on reading comprehension tests given to me by at least three of my primary school teachers

School-Get up at a specific time, get dressed, eat breakfast, get on the bus. Do this Monday through Friday from early morning to afternoon.

Work-Hit the snooze button on the alarm at least twice. Skip breakfast. Pour coffee into a travel mug and carry it with you to work.

Additional notes: Specifics vary widely from one job or place to another. Some people have flexible hours. Some work shifts that vary depending on whether that guy who just got hired a week ago unexpectedly walked out. Some people work the weekends, some people work entire days without stopping.

Some people take a bus but not necessarily a bus that will drop them right in front of their place of employment. Some take trains. Some drive alone. Some people travel all over the place. Some are part of a carpool which can either be fun or like the most miserable bus trip imaginable depending on what that one guy had for breakfast.

School-First thing upon arrival if you didn’t already meet up with a bunch of your friends on the bus now is the time you get together with them.

Work-Mutter obligatory greetings to various people whose names you may or may not remember. Engage in small talk at the coffee pot.

Additional notes: Specifics vary widely from one job or place to another. Some people don’t report daily to a specific office, travel, have different shifts, etc.

School-Gather in a classroom with a bunch of other people who are close to your age.

Work-Sit in a cubicle surrounded by people whose ages may be as little as a few months to several decades different from yours.

Additional notes: Specifics vary widely etc.

School-Agenda is set by a single person who is much older than you. Tasks are very specific and time frames are clearly set.

Work-Agenda may be set by someone who is significantly younger or older. Tasks and time frames aren’t always specific.

Additional notes: Specifics vary blah blah blah.

School-The daily schedule is highly organized. Classes usually last an hour. Each class is devoted to a topic—language, math, geography, science, etc. Specifics within these topics may be reviewed for several days or several weeks.

Work-You’re gonna do pretty much the same thing for eight hours a day.

Additional notes: Something something specifics.

School-Daily scheduled “recess” gives you a chance to get outside.

Work-You might be able to grab a few minutes for a breather depending on what you do but I’m not going to speculate on the specifics.

School-Have a regularly scheduled lunch in the cafeteria. If you’re lucky someone will start a food fight.

Work-Maybe grab a quick bite between meetings. If you’re lucky you won’t dump a big blob of marinara sauce on a highly visible part of your white shirt or blouse.

School-Significant failure may result in you being held back and having to repeat a year of lessons.

Work-Significant failure may result in you having to look for another job.

School-Sometimes if you don’t complete an assignment on time you get a failing grade. Sometimes you might be able to get an extension or do make-up work.

Work-If you don’t complete an assignment on time you’re probably gonna get fired. Specifics vary widely though, but your ability to stay focused and finished tasks can determine your career. For instance if you procrastinate a lot you should reconsider being a firefighter.

School-Many assignments can be completed with minimal effort and require little more than copying information from the out-of-date encyclopedias your parents keep as decoration.

Work-Specifics vary but odds are your boss isn’t going to be very impressed with a double-spaced hand-written report on the primary exports of Ceylon in 1968 even if you put it in a nice folder and padded it out with some maps you traced.

School-Getting out of taking the English test you didn’t study for might require Shakespearean-level acting to convince your parental unit(s) that you are sick.

Work-Pinching your nose while talking on the phone might be enough to convince your germophobic boss that you should stay home but that earnings report is still going to have to be turned in.

School-Do your work well and you’ll be allowed free time to pursue your own interests.

Work-Do your work well and you’ll be given a raise and a promotion and a lot more to do.

School-Rule-breaking will result in punishment. Serious enough infractions can result in suspension or, if bad enough, even expulsion, and that incident where you “accidentally” set the building on fire can have a serious impact on your plans to be a firefighter.

Work-You can lose your job for any number of reasons, specifics yadda yadda.

School-Snow days mean you can stay home, hang out with your friends, sleep in, and have fun. If you try to go in you’ll be the only one there and you’ll feel like an idiot.

Work-If you try to go in your dedication and persistence may be rewarded. Or you might end up stuck on the interstate or in a terrible accident. Or you might find you’re the only one who made it in. Pretty much whatever you do you’re going to feel like an idiot.

Conclusions: I forgot these were due. Can I turn them in tomorrow? I think the important lesson here is specifics vary.

If You Didn’t Need Medication Before You Will Now.

Thank you for calling the automated pharmacy refill service. You may use this service at any time to refill your prescriptions. This includes times when the pharmacy is closed. Were you aware that you can now use the automated pharmacy refill service to refill your prescriptions?

If you were not press ‘1’ now.

If you were press ‘2’ now.

If you would like to move on to the next option press ‘3’ or remain on the line.

You have selected ‘3’. If this is correct press ‘1’ now. If it is not press ‘2’ to return to the main menu.

Thank you. You have selected ‘1’. You will move on to the next option in just a moment.

Is this a medical emergency? If it is press ‘1’ then hang up and dial 9-1-1 for emergency medical assistance now.

If it is not a medical emergency press ‘2’ to move on to the next menu option.

You have selected ‘2’. Are you sure this is not a medical emergency? If you are not press ‘1’ now for a list of situations that might require emergency medical attention. If any of these apply you should hang up and dial 9-1-1 for emergency medical assistance.

If you are sure this is not a medical emergency press ‘2’ now.

You have selected ‘2’ indicating that this is not a medical emergency. Please be aware that we cannot be held responsible if you are experiencing a medical emergency and insist on trying to refill your prescription instead of seeking medical assistance.

If you are on a specialty medication or there is another reason you may need to speak to a pharmacist please call during regular business hours. If you would like to know what the regular business hours for this pharmacy are press ‘1’ now. If you would like to move on to the next menu option press ‘2’ now.

You have selected ‘2’. Are you sure you know what the pharmacy hours are? If you do press ‘1’ now. If you’re not sure and would like to go ahead and hear them press ‘2’ now.

You have selected ‘1’. We will not be responsible if you try to pick up your prescription in the middle of the night because you don’t know what regular business hours are.

If you are with a doctor’s office and are calling to submit a new patient subscription please hang up and call our doctor’s office number. If you don’t know what our doctor’s office number is press ‘1’ now. If you are with a doctor’s office and do know what our doctor’s office number is but called this one by mistake please press ‘2’ then hang up and dial the correct number.

If you are a patient calling for a prescription refill press ‘3’ now.

If you think we should have put that last option first please remain on the line once you’re done and you will be redirected to a short customer satisfaction survey.

You have selected ‘3’. Please enter the last four digits of the phone number we have on file for you followed by the pound key.

I’m sorry, we could not find that number in our files. If you would like to try and remember which number you gave us when your prescription was placed press ‘1’ now.

If you have so many numbers you don’t have a clue which one we could have press ‘2’ to spell your last name now.

You have selected ‘1’. Please try and enter the correct number this time followed by the pound sign.

Thank you. We have located your file. Please enter your prescription number—

I’m sorry, you didn’t listen to the full message. Please enter your prescription number preceded by the star sign followed by the pound sign after you have pressed zero. Once you have entered your prescription number press the number 1.

Thank you. This prescription has no refills. Would you like us to contact your doctor? If yes press ‘1’. If not press ‘2’ then hang up and call your doctor.

You have selected ‘1’. We will contact your doctor for you.

Do you have any other prescription refill requests? If yes press ‘1’. If no press ‘2’.

You have selected ‘2’. Please be aware that if you are mistaken you’ll have to listen to this entire message again.

Would you like to leave a message for the pharmacist? If yes press ‘1’. If no press ‘2’.

You have selected ‘2’. Would you like to leave a message explaining why you don’t want to talk to the pharmacist, even to just say hello? Sometimes a little personal message can really brighten the pharmacist’s day. If yes press ‘1’. If no press ‘2’.

You have selected ‘2’. Because the pharmacist is a professional this lack of concern on your part will not be taken personally. However if you call back within the next half hour to refill another prescription your call may be routed to this message in Albanian.

We will process your prescription refill request. If you would like to take a short customer survey please remain on the line.

If you are using a rotary phone please hang up and call from another phone or remain on the line. If you are calling during regular business hours someone will be with you after the short customer survey.

Fender Bender.

As soon as I started driving it was inevitable that I’d have an automobile accident. Well, maybe not inevitable, but highly likely. I think it is possible to drive and never be involved in an automobile accident but statistically the odds of it never happening are the same as being attacked by a shark, hit by lightning, and winning the lottery all on the same day. Since I got my license fairly late in life—at the age of thirty-six to be exact, something which, around here, is about as unusual as being attacked by a shark, hit by lightning, and winning the lottery all on the same day—I managed to avoid being in an accident while I was behind the wheel as a teenager, unlike all my friends who, within a year of getting their licenses when they were sixteen, all had at least one accident, especially my friend Martin who was pretty much an existential threat whenever he was operating a vehicle. Martin managed to total one car less than a month after he got his license and then had seven or eight minor bumps and dents over the next year, mostly as a result of driving over sidewalks. Martin had a strange belief that he could drive on anything that was concrete—sidewalks, patios, porches. Actually I’m not sure if this is something he really believed or if he just wasn’t paying attention. Once when I was riding with him he said, “You know, I don’t know how I manage to get into so many accidents.” I looked over and he had his hands behind his head and his eyes closed and was steering with his knees. He was also speeding because no matter where Martin was going he was in a hurry to get there. Normally I don’t think anyone should exceed the legal speed limit but in Martin’s case everyone was better off if he sped so he’d spend as little time as possible getting where he was going.

That’s when I said, “You can let me off here, I’ll walk the rest of the way home.” And then a few minutes later a nice cop pulled over and picked me up for walking along the interstate, but that’s another story.

With that experience behind me you’d think I’d be an extremely careful and considerate driver, and I am most of the time, but of course all it takes is being a bonehead one time.

I really should have clarified at the beginning that I wasn’t just involved in an accident. I caused it. And I would have mentioned that but I was in a hurry to get on with the story, so bear with me while I back up a bit since I was backing up at the time. I in a hurry to get home even though I really didn’t need to be, and backing out of a parking space. And in my defense I was being extremely careful to check behind me to make sure I didn’t back into anyone—so careful, in fact, that I didn’t realize until I heard the sound that I was scraping the side of the car directly to my left.

Luckily the owners of that vehicle happened to be walking across the parking lot at that very moment because I really couldn’t live with the guilt of leaving the scene of the crime and there are half a dozen places around that parking lot and if they hadn’t shown up I’d be walking into every one and yelling, “Hey, does anybody around here drive a big gray SUV sort of thing?”

That was my plan, anyway, since I was completely  flustered, flummoxed, and discombobulated.

And they were very nice about it and listened patiently while I gave them my name, license, phone number, mother’s maiden name, first pet’s name, the street where I grew up, how I met my wife, a coupon for a free burrito, my favorite color, and then proceeded to demonstrate that I wasn’t intoxicated by walking a straight line then taking a piece of chalk and playing hopscotch and wondered aloud about the phrase “pure as the driven snow” because snow that cars have driven through is always filthy. By that time I’m pretty sure they did think I was on something and I would have understood completely if they’d quietly backed away and forgotten about the whole incident.

In fact I did think they’d forgotten the whole thing because that was more than two months ago, but relatively speaking that’s a pretty short time. An accident can happen in seconds but dealing with the aftereffects takes a lot longer, and I’m pretty sure the insurance company will make sure I remember it for the rest of my life. Even if I never have another accident I’ll still have to pay a higher rate so each bill might as well have HEY, REMEMBER WHAT YOU DID? stamped on it in big red letters.

There have been predictions that someday accidents will be eliminated, or at least dramatically lessened, because we’ll have self-driving cars, removing all human error. I’m a little skeptical but it is still possible that in the future, maybe even in the very near future, we’ll have much safer vehicles. I really look forward to that and I’m eager to get there, but not in too much of a hurry, and I hope the people who design self-driving cars have their eyes open and aren’t steering with their knees.

A Dream Within An Involuntary Succession Of Images Occurring During REM-Stage Sleep.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

I had that dream again.

There are several sleep-related issues I’ve fortunately outgrown: sleeping with the light on, night terrors, and sleepwalking. At least it’s been several years since I sleepwalked and my wife no longer has to worry about me trying to take down the picture that hangs over her bed to get the computer disk out of the wall safe behind the picture, mainly because she moved the picture to another part of the bedroom but also because we don’t have a wall safe. And even if we did I’m not sure why I’d store computer disks in there.

One thing I haven’t outgrown though is the recurring dream, although I don’t have them nearly as often as I did when I was a kid. Psychologists might say this was me working through a particular issue or set of concerns, the same reason some children reread the same story. I think there’s a much simpler answer: I just hadn’t built up enough experiences yet so my brain regularly had to go into reruns. And I also think I prompted it. Even now I can do that sometimes: I’ll be in the midst of a really interesting dream, wake up, and then find that I can re-enter it, although usually at a later point, sort of like stepping out of a movie to go to the bathroom, but it doesn’t really matter because the move is Un Chien Andalou which would make just as much sense if you watched it backwards. And sometimes at night when I’d lie down to sleep I’d think, hey, that dream I had the other night was really fun, I’d like to dream that again, and my brain would oblige. Then halfway through it would turn that fun dream into a nightmare because that’s the sort of thing my brain thinks is hilarious. And I’d try to explain to my brain that that sort of thing is only funny if it happens to other people, then realize that I’m a truly horrible person and that my brain was just giving me what I deserved, but that’s another story.

Anyway I have this recurring dream. The alarm goes off. I get up, take the dogs out, take a shower. Sometimes I get all the way to work before the alarm really goes off. Since this is a dream my brain will skip over the boring parts and go for the really boring parts.

Here’s the odd thing: I’m always sound asleep when I have this dream so why do I wake up exhausted? Probably because that’s the sort of thing my brain thinks is hilarious.

Hey! Nice Hat!

heynicehatMy wife is trying to keep me from turning to a life of crime.

That’s actually the end of a long and winding train of thought so let me back up a few cars and start over instead of just giving you the caboose, especially since I notice most trains don’t even have cabooses anymore and anyway the proper plural is cabeese.

My wife knitted me an octopus hat. It’s a really nice hat and fits me perfectly which is one of the advantages of being married to a knitter. She’s also knitted me several pairs of socks and before this she knitted me a hat with police boxes and Daleks on it, and before that she knitted me a fish hat so one of these things is not like the other two, but that’s okay because my interests range from the sea to the stars. When she knitted me the fish hat some of her friends asked, “Will he wear it?” which just goes to show that they don’t know me whereas she does, although I think even she was kind of surprised by how often I wore the fish hat and sometimes she’d say, “Okay, I’m glad you like it, but you can take it off now. It’s August.” But that’s another story.

As I was walking along in my octopus hat it occurred to me I was at a real disadvantage if I wanted to commit a crime. I wasn’t thinking of any specific nefarious acts, or even any non-specific ones, so I’m not sure how the idea popped into my head, but you know how these things go. An idea pops up and then it links up to a couple of other ideas and then they get moving and pick up some extras and my octopus hat might as well be a conductor’s cap because we’ve got a full load of freight and we’ll be hauling all night until we’ve pulled into the yards just on the edge of Poughkeepsie.

You see how these things go. The point is if I committed a crime and there were any witnesses their interview with the police would go like this:

“What did he look like?”

“Well, average height, average build, pretty much average all around.”

“Anything distinguishing?”

“He had an octopus hat.”

“That’s all we need!”

And that got me thinking how when I was a kid and riding in the backseat of my mother’s car and a guy on a motorcycle pulled up next to us. He had a big bushy beard and wore a leather vest and had tattoos on his arms. My friend Troy who was riding along with us said, “He looks like a bad guy.”

My mother said, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” which confused me because we weren’t talking about books and also how are you supposed to judge a book? Even if you’re not judging it by its cover you’re at least making a decision about whether or not you want to read it based on the title. It sounds nice in principle to withhold judgment about a book until you’ve finished it and I even once tried to live according to that but gave up when I realized I didn’t even have an Atari so reading the entire repair manual didn’t help me at all; besides I figured out by page two that the capacitor did it so that was not the big twist ending I think it was supposed to be.

Anyway I had this strange intuition that maybe this guy, even though he looked kind of scary, might not be a bad guy, or if he was he’d be a really dumb criminal because in those days he had enough distinguishing features that he’d be easy for the cops to find. Now of course the exact opposite is true.

“What did he look like?”

“He had a big, bushy beard, a leather vest, and tattoos up and down both arms.”

“So pretty much average all around.”

Since this train of thought is now running out of steam, or maybe coal which they use to fuel the fire, or maybe water which is what the fire turns into steam, or maybe we’re just pulling into the station, the big twist ending is that if I’m going to turn to a life of crime it’ll have to wait until at least August.

Bonus: The Fish Hat


Holiday Greenery.

christmastreeThe traditional Christmas tree is an evergreen because evergreens keep their foliage year round, hence the name, so they’re symbolic of life surviving through the winter, of renewal and hope at the very darkest and coldest point of the year.At least that’s the conventional wisdom, but at a certain point when I was a kid I started wondering if this was really the case. If it’s all about life and renewal why does the tree have to die? And let me add this was long before hip people started bringing live trees into their homes, decorating them, and then planting them outside once Christmas was over, pretty much guaranteeing that the tree, used to being in a nice warm house, watered regularly, and treated with great kindness, would die of shock.

The idea that a traditional real Christmas tree is not really a symbol of life but the sacrificial murder of a living thing in order to appease the cruel winter spirits didn’t come to me easily. After all we always had a plastic tree that spent most of the year in the attic. One of our holiday rituals was unpacking it from its box and putting it together. The metal ends of the branches that were inserted in the trunk were color-coded and had corresponding marks on the trunk itself for the benefit of anyone who’d never actually seen a tree and wouldn’t know that the biggest branches would go at the bottom and gradually get smaller as they went up. If we’d ever had a yule log I might have gotten the idea that there was some kind of ritualistic sacrifice going on since it was a tradition that went back to pagan times, even if it was the burning of a dead hunk of wood rather than an animal or a person. But we didn’t even have a fireplace until I was fifteen when my parents turned half the basement into a rec room and had one installed so they could have cozy fires in the bottom level of the house that would trick the thermostat into thinking it was July so my room, at the very top level of the house, would be freezing. And since we didn’t have a fireplace I just figured Santa, like everyone else, came in through the front door and, like the mailman, just parked his sleigh on the street rather than bothering with landing on everyone’s roof.

Also I’ve never known anyone who had a yule log. It was one of those things I heard people talk about but never actually saw and for years I didn’t even realize it was an actual log and thought it had something to do with the fact that during the holiday season at least one TV channel would show The King And I, probably for the benefit of adults who were sick to death of singing and dancing animated characters and would rather see some real people singing and dancing, but that’s another story.

What put the idea in my head that the cutting and eventual destruction of a Christmas tree is more symbolic of death than life was my decision to cut down my own Christmas tree and use it to decorate my room. I was nine, by the way. I wasn’t trying to separate myself from the family or anything like that. I just thought it would be fun to go through the whole ritual of going into the woods, cutting down a tree, and bringing it home. Except in my case I’d be going to the rocky vacant lot near my house. Not exactly Robert Frost territory but I worked with what I had. I didn’t have a hatchet either but I found a rusty old saw in the basement that I figured would take down any of the stunted cedar trees that grew among the rocks. I picked one that was a little taller than I was and went to work on its trunk. First though I cleaned off the bagworms. If you’ve never heard of them bagworms are caterpillars that make cocoons out of evergreen needles and silk and hang from the branches and it only now occurs to me that they’d make interesting decorations if spray painted different colors and given a coat of glitter and when they eventually turn into moths that’s a special bonus.

Anyway half an hour and half an inch into the trunk I realized there was no way I was going to bring the tree down before June so I moved onto a slightly smaller one. And then a third one. I went through several more before I finally got one that was small enough that I could yank it out by the roots. Stuck in a can with its base wrapped in a blanket in my room it looked more like a decoration for a doll’s house than the majestic towering tree I’d hoped for. And as I carried my bounty home I felt guilty, thinking I’d needlessly killed half a dozen or so trees in my quest. That at least I didn’t need to worry about. Those trees grew in a pile of limestone between two busy roads. They could survive anything. Even the holidays.


It’s All In The Details.

fragileDetailed Package Tracking

December 9

10:12am-Your package has been accepted for delivery.

10:44am-Your package is now ready to be shipped.

11:01am-The shipping department crew is now laughing at you for purchasing the extra insurance.

11:07am-Your package is being shaken by Kevin who’s really good at figuring out what’s being shipped.

11:22am-Your package has been thrown across the room into a large wheeled hamper.

11:34am-A bunch of other packages have been dropped on top of yours.

11:37am-The hamper with your package has just been moved six feet to the left.

11:43am-Everyone’s gone to lunch.

12:36pm-The hamper with your package has been moved six feet to the right.

12:42pm-Employees are now playing ‘Toss The Packages Marked Fragile’.”

12:57pm-Kevin just lost for the fifth time.

1:03pm-Kevin is re-taping your package.

2:34pm-Your package has been loaded onto the delivery truck.

2:58pm-The delivery truck driver is still scratching himself.

3:21pm-The delivery truck is now in transit.

4:05pm-In transit.

5:07pm-In transit.

5:22pm-In traffic.

5:43pm-Delivery driver getting coffee.

5:58pm-In traffic.

6:03pm-Driver stopped to have a beer.

6:48pm-Driver going the wrong way.

7:22pm-Driver knows you’re home. Quietly left a note saying delivery attempted but no response.

8:31pm-Driver returned to shipping hub.

9:03pm-Employees are laughing about people who didn’t get their packages delivered.

December 10

12:03pm-Driver in transit with your package.

12:24pm-Per instructions you arrive at the shipping warehouse to pick up your package.

12:36pm-Clerk looking for your package.

12:45pm-Warehouse employees laughing at you for making a special trip.

1:03pm-Package delivered to your neighbor’s house.

2:25pm-Your neighbor is in transit.

2:34pm-Neighbor going the wrong way.

2:48pm-Package delivered.


Light ‘Em Up.

christmastreeWhen I was a kid decorating your house—the outside, anyway—for the holidays meant throwing a few strings of lights around the eaves and maybe on a tree or the bushes. Some people would put up a statue of Santa or a snowman but I think that was considered gauche. And then one year the neighbor of some friends of my parents decided to go all out. He covered the front of his house with lights, filled the yard with a dozen Santas and at least three nativity scenes plus giant illuminated candy canes, stockings, a workshop complete with elves, and three more Santas in sleds with reindeer on the roof. People would drive by just to stare in wonder at this wonderland, and it wasn’t hard to find: just look for the beam, like a stationary searchlight, pointed straight up. And also straight into the windows of the people across the street. This was before this kind of Christmas excess became a regular thing, before it was the subject of TV shows, although the guy did get featured on the local news which just added to the neighborhood traffic. You had to avoid looking directly at the house or it would be burned into your retina and you’d still see it for months, which is why the place brought down property values through March. There’s a fine line between kitschy and tasteless and this guy was the John Waters of Christmas decorations. And I thought, wow, there’s a guy who really loves Christmas. Or really hates his neighbors. Maybe both. At the time most families—including mine—didn’t decorate the outsides of our houses. It’s not that we lacked the holiday spirit. My mother had approximately three tons of Christmas decorations, including a green ceramic Christmas tree that lit up, rotated, and played “Jingle Bells” and which she placed on top of the TV where it provided the perfect background music to Quincy. All these decorations, though, were for the inside of the house and I had a serious longing to join the cool people who decorated the outsides of their houses. I didn’t want to create a neighborhood eyesore. I just wanted something subtle: a few strings of lights, maybe around the eaves, some covering the low-growing holly bushes in front of the porch to make them less menacing, a string around each of the windows, and a dozen or so around the trees at either end of the house.

I wanted to keep it subtle.

My parents did eventually capitulate to my pleas for bubble lights for our Christmas tree so I not only got the joy of bubble lights but also the added fun of wondering why that one weird holdout wouldn’t bubble, why, when all the others were happily bubbling away it remained still. For so long I’d wanted bubble lights and yet when we got them it was the one that wouldn’t bubble that drew my attention, that, late at night when we turned off all the lights except the ones on the Christmas tree, would speak to me. “Hey kid,” it said, “do your own thing. Be an individual, follow your own drummer, dance to your own tune, and when you bury a body in a shallow grave be sure to use quicklime.” But that’s another story.

In retrospect I’m not sure why it mattered so much to me that our house join the ranks of decorated ones. It didn’t occur to me that the only time I really thought about it was December, and that the strings of lights would spend most of the year boxed up in the attic slowly tying themselves into knots. I think I just liked the way they looked. In the cold winter, when the days shortened and the nights were long and quiet, when the trees were bare and the grass brittle and pale, there were lights. They shone through the darkness in many colors, reflections of all the hopes and dreams of all the people who lived in those houses.

Then one year we did get some outdoor lights—just a few, and my father strung them around one of the trees in the front yard. And that’s when I learned the downside of outdoor lights: you can’t see them if you’re inside the house, listening to “Jingle Bells” and watching Quincy.

Stick A Fork In Me.


We were sitting in the school lunchroom and a friend and I were having an argument. It wasn’t a serious argument because I don’t do serious arguments. It was more of a friendly debate about something arcane and he made a really superb point and I, stumped, just said, “Oh, fork you.” And we all laughed and went on with our conversation.

And then gradually I became aware of a voice behind me.

“Son, I don’t want to hear any more of that kind of language from you.”

It was Mr. Blankley, my algebra teacher, or, as I preferred to think of him, Human Valium. Mr. Blankley was in a perpetual state of slow motion: he moved slowly, he talked slowly. Algebra was my first class of the day and it was more than I could take as soon as he started talking.

“Studentsss, today we will have a quizzzzz on chapterssss ssssixxxxx and ssssseven.”

The one saving grace is he would use up twenty minutes of class time saying that that but I still couldn’t keep my eyes open, much less focus on getting any work done.

Mr. Blankley was also so clueless he had no idea I was one of his students, although I’d be transferred out shortly afterward because half the kids in his class were below average, half the kids were failing, and half couldn’t even grasp simple fractions, but that’s another story.

“I said ‘fork’” I said, holding one up for him.

He sighed for five minutes then said, “Ssson, I said I don’t want to hear any more of that language.”

Fortunately at that moment the end of lunch bell rang and my friends and I quietly gathered up our things and left, a series of actions which, from Mr. Blankley’s perspective, must have looked like hummingbirds around a feeder.

I’m sharing this story now because tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the United States—the Canadians do it six weeks earlier—and for many it’s a stressful time. For many it means getting together with family and that can lead to arguments ranging from the pointlessly political to the annoyingly personal. If things get too stressful for you just remember that Thanksgiving is a feast and if you feel like things are getting overheated in the kitchen or out, if somebody says something or insists on doing that one thing that gets under your skin…fork ‘em.

A Very Special Talk.

The winter holidays always meant a few days off from school, and that usually meant my friends and I had a lot of unstructured, unsupervised time, and that usually led to trouble, like the time I told my friend Jerry about sex.

Let me back up a bit.
Learning about sex was like learning there was no Santa Claus, but weirder and more uncomfortable. Supposedly my friend John, whose mother was a gynecological nurse, had explained the facts of life to my first grade class but all I remember was that he told us babies came out of women’s bodies. He didn’t go into specifics about how the babies got there. So I thought pregnancy happened randomly. At a certain point in each woman’s life, I thought, she’d just spontaneously get pregnant. For some it happened multiple times. I held onto this belief through a lot of my childhood. Based on others’ experiences it seems extremely bizarre that at ten years old I still didn’t know that it took two to make a baby.

I knew adults did naked stuff together, primarily from my next door neighbor Mr. Rick who was gone a lot and had boxes and boxes of Playboy and Penthouse magazines in his basement. I mean tons of them. This was the seventies and neither magazine had been around that long, but it seemed like his collection just went on forever. He kept his basement open all the time so his dogs could go in and out. My friend Troy loved going in there and looking at the magazines. I kind of liked it too, but didn’t entirely understand what the big deal was. They were mostly women and mostly naked, which seemed strangely fun, but I didn’t think of it as something that everybody did or that might have some purpose other than just being something to do.

At this time I believed we men were unnecessary. I didn’t think women would undertake wholesale slaughter of roughly half the population, but I also thought that men should treat women with respect and give them equal rights and pay. I was the only boy in my fourth grade class who supported the Equal Rights Amendment. I didn’t do this because I wanted to curry favor with the girls. The whole idea that girls and or boys had cooties and purposely stayed away from each other never seemed to be the case when I was in school. Most of my friends were fellow boys, but I had no problem hanging out with the girls as long as they weren’t playing with Barbies or doing something stupid like that.

To clarify: I no longer thing playing with Barbies is stupid. In fact it was a notion I got over pretty quickly. I was never big on playing with army men either, which are basically just tiny dolls with guns. I realized this when Star Wars came out. I became an insane collector of the action figures and I spent hours playing with them. And one day I heard my mother describe them as “dolls for boys”. Okay, I thought. I play with dolls. They just happen to be special science fiction dolls.

Eventually I’d figure out the basics of reproduction, mainly from what I read about animals. As a kid I had dreams of growing up to be a marine biologist like Jacques Cousteau, so I was always reading about ocean animals, especially octopuses. There was a book about octopuses I checked out from the public library so many times I had it memorized. It included an explanation of octopus sex. I took this information in stride, and even once explained octopus sex to my grandfather. The male develops a modified tentacle as it ages, I told him, and shoves it inside the female. He was silently impressed.

I knew that among octopuses, frogs, lizards, crabs, snakes, and all sorts of other animals that interested me the females would have eggs and the males would fertilize them. It just took me a long time to extrapolate that humans, being animals, must be the same way, that human males do have, to quote Navin Johnson, a “special purpose”. It took me a while because it’s not like nature is consistent. Hermaphroditism is rampant in the animal kingdom, and anyone who’s seen Jurassic Park knows certain reptiles and amphibians can self-fertilize or even change sex under duress. And humans don’t have sex solely for the purpose of reproduction. Neither do some other animals. It was confusing because it was complicated, and made even more complicated by how uncomfortable it makes some adults even when they try to talk to each other about it, never mind trying to explain it to children, and it doesn’t help that a lot of adults find it so uncomfortable that if human beings reproduced by spontaneous parthenogenesis it seems really unlikely we’d have ever developed stand-up comedy or even jokes, but that’s another story.

What finally settled it in my mind was an after-school cartoon I happened to stumble upon about the changes boys’ and girls’ bodies go through when they hit puberty. It showed an egg rolling down the fallopian tube and explained that the egg would dissolve unless it was fertilized by a male. I had no idea how the fertilization took place exactly, but from bits and pieces I’d picked up from other places I realized it would be sort of like how the octopus did it, except that human males are born with a modified tentacle between our legs.

I don’t know why but at eleven or twelve when I first realized all this I felt like it was something I shouldn’t know. I felt like I’d stumbled upon something that was supposed to be kept locked in a box until I was eighteen, or at least until my parents had The Talk with me. I knew about Talk from Very Special Sitcom Episodes that conveniently avoided including the actual talk but made it clear from the context what it was about. And I felt like I would be in serious trouble if my parents ever found out.

So naturally I talked about it. I did manage to keep my parents from knowing what I knew for three or four years, but then one day when we were out of school I talked to my friend Jerry about it. Jerry was a year younger but knew pretty much everything I knew about sex. He’d been in Mr. Rick’s basement too. He’d even torn pages from some of the magazines and kept a pretty big stash hidden in his room. But for some reason when his sister, who was two or three years older, heard me talking to Jerry about sex she was horrified. He was too young to know about that stuff! And she told my mom.

Deep down I like to think my parents were relieved they didn’t have to have The Talk with me in its entirety, that I knew enough that there wasn’t much left for them to fill in. The only bad part was my mother asking me what exactly I’d said to Jerry—his sister was sketchy on the details—and then telling me we’d have The Talk later on. Please, please, please I thought, let her forget about this. Let’s skip The Talk. Having been caught talking about it was punishment enough, I thought, without having to talk about it with my parents. And my mother did seem to forget about it for about a week until one night when I was about to go to bed and she started talking about it. I think it was a spur of the moment thing on her part. And fortunately my mother’s version of The Talk was very sparing on details. The most memorable part was her saying, “Your father and I aren’t embarrassed when we see each other naked because we love each other.” I could almost hear muscles popping in my father’s head as he strained to keep his eyes from rolling. I wish he’d just given in. It would have given both of us permission to acknowledge that I was fourteen, not four.

Fortunately that was the end of it, at least as far as my parents were concerned. I never wanted to talk to them about sex and, beyond that greatly modified version of The Talk, never would. And I wouldn’t become a marine biologist. I also didn’t really understand sex until I’d done it, so there at least I learned something every scientist knows: theoretical knowledge is worthless without fieldwork.


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