The Weekly Essay

It’s Another Story.

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.

christmas

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.

whisk

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.

 

Remedy < Disease.

coughThe average cold lasts five days. That’s according to something I read somewhere so it must be true even though whenever I have a cold it feels like it goes on for five years. Even from an objective viewpoint that seems ridiculously short and it also occurred to me that’s probably the average time with cold medicine. I have a theory about cold medicine. I don’t think it makes you well and in most cases it doesn’t. It just treats the symptoms which is the problem. I think cold medicine drags out the cold making it last longer than it would if you just did the natural thing and curled up in bed for five days. People seem to have a problem with that, mainly, I think, because the second or third day you’re going to run out of fresh sheets to blow your nose on. But like I said cold medicines treat the symptoms: the runny nose, the coughing, the aching head and body. These symptoms are not directly caused by the disease itself. They’re caused by the body’s response to the disease. Our bodies are smart enough to know when unruly neighbors have moved in and need to be evicted. Let’s put it even more forcefully: our bodies know when an enemy has slipped in and it becomes necessary to go into attack mode. All that excess phlegm is the body’s way of clearing out the intruders. Coughing and sneezing are the body’s way of expelling what doesn’t belong and those wads of mucus are the graveyards of germs and the brave antibodies and the white blood cells that bravely fought in our defense. That’s why it’s so important to keep drinking and taking vitamin C when you have a cold. You’ve got to keep your precious bodily fluids topped up so the expulsion and continue and vitamin C does, well, it does something. That’s why whenever I get a cold I take about two billion milligrams of vitamin C a day. I don’t just pop vitamin pills like they’re candy. I take it like they’re candy and it’s the day after Halloween only I don’t need my parents to check any of my stash because my throat already feels like I’ve swallowed razor blades, but that’s another story. Every cold is a battle and hot tea and orange juice are the only things standing between you and your lungs turning into the Somme. Whenever I come through a cold I like to think there’s a tiny monument placed somewhere along a major artery: “This plaque commemorates the brave leuokocytes who gave their nuclei against the viral threat. Lest we forget.”

And that’s the problem I have with cold medicines. They stop the coughing, they dry up the runny nose, they even remove the aches. I feel like cold medicines aim for the wrong target—and even then they miss. Cold medicines don’t just put me to sleep. They put me into a coma and I wake up the next morning feeling even worse than before. I get those dry, hacking coughs that sound like a goose being goosed. At least with a wet, phlegmy cough I feel like things are moving, being cleared out. And that’s true of blowing my nose too. At least when my nose is running all it takes is a good blow to clear out the junk. There’s a feeling of intense relief that comes when I blow out a two or three pound mass, the kind that leaves me feeling like I’ve blown my brains out but in a good way because now my head is empty, for about ten seconds anyway and then the sinuses start to seize up again. Cold medicines deprive us of that. They make us just carry around the cold that much longer. Those cold medicines that are designed to get you through the day are really the worst because they encourage you to take your disease-addled body out into the world. Hey co-workers, the holidays come early this year and I’m giving you all influenza! At least the night-time cold medicines provide some relief and in that respite it’s possible to sleep. And if there’s one thing the body needs while your antibodies are charging across Pleural Fields it’s rest. Rest provides strength and speeds recovery. Without it you might get one of those colds that lasts five years.

A Werewolf Problem In Southern Indiana.

wolfanddogThe following story was written by journalist Allen Walker and appeared in the October 2015 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 Living Or Dead Is Purely Coincidental (Part 1, Part, 2, Part 3, Part 4), That Was The Year That Was, and Submerged.

George Bathory reported during the night that he’d shot a large animal near his campsite. The next morning park rangers found a naked man with a bullet wound in his shoulder. The man, later identified as Sam Gould, refused to press charges. Neither of the men knew each other, nor did they have any connection that investigators could find.

Those are the facts and they are strange enough in themselves but to make it stranger Bathory maintains he did not shoot a man. The whole matter could have been easily dismissed as a hunting accident if he hadn’t insisted on going to court to protest his innocence. When I arrive at his home on a small suburban cul-de-sac he tells me almost immediately that he’s decided that an appeal would be too costly, but he insists, in spite of the court’s decision, that he is not guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

“It wasn’t a man,” he says. “I know what I saw. I might have shot to kill if I hadn’t been so scared.”

What exactly did he see, or think he saw? A clue to that is in the list of witnesses he wanted to call: mostly biologists, at least five of whom are in Canada or Alaska, but also folklorists and anthropologists. It’s hard to see how any of them could offer anything that would bolster his case.

“They have to know,” he says. “They have to know these aren’t just stories.”

While he goes to the bathroom I examine his bookshelves. He has a whole series of books titled Roughing It Easy and several more on camping and hunting. At the end of the shelf is a cluster of books about mushrooms. I flip through one that’s full of colorful photographs and diagrams clearly marking every species as delicious, inedible, or dangerous. He finds me looking at this book when I return and launches into a talk about mushroom hunting, how there are five types easily identifiable by anyone that are not only edible but very good.

“Were you collecting mushrooms when you were camping?” I ask. I hope the question doesn’t sound too obvious. Mr. Bathory, with his short hair and straightforward demeanor also doesn’t seem like the type to engage in recreational drugs of any sort, but I’ve learned you never can tell.

He shakes his head, waving the question away. “With the drought you’re not going to find any mushrooms out in the woods.”

His wife, a tall, slender woman with a halo of red hair and pale blue eyes, comes in to tell us lunch is ready.

Once we start eating I try to bring the conversation back to his conviction.

“You do understand why it sounds pretty ridiculous,” I say. “A large creature like that roaming around the woods here just seems too incredible to be true.”

“I know what I saw!” He slams his fist down on the table.

After a few minutes of silence I tell his wife the paprikash is delicious. The chicken floats in a sauce that looks like blood.

wolf

Even though I felt obligated to talk to Mr.Bathory he’s not the real reason I’m in Glasgow, a small town in southwestern Indiana. The real reason is a woman I’ll only call Alpha. A month earlier, after I’d written up a brief filler about the shooting, she emailed me to tell me she wanted to confirm his story. She also added that there was more to it.

We stroll along an easy path through a state park. As we get deeper into the woods she inhales deeply.

“I work in an office but this is where I really belong,” she says.

“How often do you come out here?”

“Every chance I get.”

An unseasonably cool breeze passes through us. I’m at a loss for what to ask next when I remember the moon was only a sliver in the sky over my hotel this morning. I ask if I should have come closer to a full moon. She looks at me, frowning.

“It’s not a lunar thing. It doesn’t work like that. Do you know where that comes from?”

“Tell me.”

“There’s all kinds of myths and stories about lunacy and the effects full moons have on people but the idea that we’re bound to the moon comes from Hollywood and Hollywood got it from Petronius. Except Petronius doesn’t say it’s a full moon. He just tells the story of two slaves who spend the night in a field. One of them sees the other strip down and transform. He can only see it because of the moonlight. The change really can happen anytime. It’s not something we become. It’s who we are.”

“Always?”

“All the time.”

We stop. Alpha looks around. “There are people here.” There were a few other cars in the parking lot when we arrived but I haven’t seen anyone. “They’re about fifteen, maybe twenty minutes ahead of us on the trail,” she says. “I shouldn’t be telling you about us.”

“Why did you contact me then?”

She sighs. “Because you seem open-minded. Because you were asking about the shooting and it has all of us on edge. These things have happened before but we’ve never had anyone make so much noise about it. It’s never been this public. It got some of us thinking maybe it’s time to come out. We have so much to lose but so much to gain too.”

“Like what?”

“For one thing we don’t know how it happens. My mother wasn’t like me. She would have told me. And I never knew my father. We don’t know if it’s genetic, but if it is we could make the world safer for our children.”

We continue walking. I ask if there’s any evidence that it’s passed on by a bite, like in some folklore.

“You’re thinking rabies. And porphyria. We think it’s more complicated than that, like it just crops up in people at random.

“But if you come out there might also be efforts to try and cure you,” I say. “There are stories about that too. Wolfsbane, silver bullets.”

Alpha turns and glares at me. “You think Sam got shot by some camper who just happened to be carrying a rifle with silver bullets? Don’t be a dumbass.”

When we reach the end of the trail Alpha shakes my hand.

“I need to get back to work. It has been nice talking to you. We’ll pick you up tonight at seven.”

I thank her politely but inside I’m elated. I’ve passed the test and will get to meet the pack.

werewolf3

The van pulls up at the front of my hotel a little after seven. The late summer sun is still high in the sky. It’s humid and I’ve been dousing myself with bug spray to keep the mosquitoes at bay. I open the back to toss in my gear. Then, as  I’m climbing into the side, I come face to face with a man with a thick, long beard. He looks at me suspiciously then turns to the front where Alpha sits in the passenger seat.

“Is this a good idea?” he asks.

Alpha’s reply is blunt. “Yes.”

The other three passengers—two women and an African American man—are friendlier. They introduce themselves to me as Kathy, Linda, and Larry. Larry invites me to sit next to him. The bearded man will only tell me his name is Beta, and he spends the trip staring out the window. Once we get underway I ask if anyone minds answering a few questions. I try to address this to everyone in the group, but I’m intrigued by Larry. He grins widely and says, “What do you want to know?”

A hundred different things, but I start with the obvious.

“How did all of you meet?”

Kathy turns around. “It started with me and Alpha. We met when we were Girl Scouts. We were in different troops but using the same campsite. That’s how we met each other one night. Out roaming the woods alone. We’ve been friends ever since.”

“So you were…”

“Different,” she says. “But we both knew we needed each other. And we needed others.”

Linda interrupts. “The internet has been what’s brought us together but you have to be careful. Most people think we’re crazy. Some people want to join us and it turns out they’re crazy.”

“How can you tell?”

Linda’s nostrils flare. “You smell like a skeptic.”

“And bug spray!” yells Alpha from the front seat. “God, let’s crack some windows.”

Linda’s right, I am skeptical, but while I’ve tried to keep my questions neutral it’s not exactly a revelation. Even though stories of lycanthropes extend across the northern hemisphere and almost every culture has its stories of humans that turn into animals—including dolphins—the idea of meeting the real thing still seems incredible. Yet this group’s insistence that they are a “pack” seems strangely believable. As Alpha said there are many things they don’t know. If this were a hoax, I assume, they’d have built up an elaborate story. Taking a single reporter on a camping trip also seems like a poor way to stage a hoax. They’re too careful, too secretive. Kathy tells me they have to be.

“Sam got sloppy. He forgot that we don’t just go out with each other for fun. We also do it to protect each other. He forgot that some people will try to hurt us.”

I ask if she thinks I might.

“It’s hard to tell through the bug spray and deodorant and hotel soap but I don’t think so.”

The others, aside from Beta, agree.

I continue asking questions and learn that they do these camping trips at least twice a month from March through October, tapering off to just once a month in the winter months. There are a few other members who aren’t attending, apparently put off by me. The van’s driver is Karl whom I learn is not really a member of the pack but a trusted outsider who only serves as chauffeur and won’t be staying with us.

When we get to the parking lot of the place where we’ll be camping I offer to help carry gear which makes everyone laugh. This group travels light. I’m the only one with a pup tent and a sleeping bag. I also brought two thermoses of coffee, anticipating a late night, an early morning, or both. Everyone else has rolled blankets and small bags for carrying food, water, and cooking gear. We set out for the campsite. Larry brings up the rear and I walk with him. We chat and I learn during the day he’s a librarian, “mostly behind the scenes stuff.” Everyone else is quiet. Alpha and Beta lead the group and talk a little as we go. Kathy and Linda walk single file in the middle.

At the campsite everyone puts their bags down in a circle but Alpha advises me to set up my tent on a ridge about a hundred feet away “to be safe”. Safe for whom? I decide not to ask.

Once my tent is set up I rejoin the group. Everyone’s eating field rations, MREs, in self-heating packages.

“We used to build fires but it was too distracting,” says Alpha.

“From what?” I ask. Everyone looks at each other.

“They could attract others. Someone also had to stay up and make sure the fire was put out so nobody’d step in it or get scared away. This way we all get to relax and just be ourselves.”

Larry hands me an MRE. “And with you here,” he says, “I don’t get stuck with the vegetable lasagna.”

I’m not sure what the joke is but I laugh along with everyone else.

The sun sets. Someone places a small portable lamp in the middle of the group and soon the others are just five faces bobbing in the darkness. From their conversation they could be almost any group of hobbyists. Alpha complains about a difficult co-worker. The others’ advice is generic. Then they start to talk about previous camping trips, about the time in late March there was a light overnight snow. During a lull Linda pulls pulls out a flask. She hands it to Alpha who drinks then reaches across the circle to me. The others all watch.

“What is it?” I ask. I wonder if I’m being drawn into some ritual, if this is a plan to make me one of them. There are stories of potions and moonlight ceremonies. Some werewolves are born, others are made.

“Drink,” says Alpha.

I tip up the flask and take a mouthful. Warmth fills my mouth and then spreads through my chest and body.

“Whiskey?” I ask.

Scotch, Linda tells me. “It’s tradition but for you I brought the good stuff, the twelve-year old single malt.”

I feel honored. I pass the flask to Larry who shakes his head and motions to Beta who takes it and has a long pull. Cathy and Linda receive it next and then it goes back to Alpha who then hands it to me. This time after I drink I hand it to Beta, and it makes the same round again two more times before Cathy turns it over.

“Time for bed,” says Alpha.

I climb up to my tent. Behind me the lamp is turned off. As I crawl into my sleeping bag I hear murmurs. I feel like a kid who’s been sent to his room so the grownups can talk. I keep the tent flap open but they’re all in darkness now. The waxing moon is just visible through the trees on the horizon but doesn’t cast enough light. And then, somehow, I sleep.

For a moment I’m not sure where I am. The moon is directly overhead now. I hear rustling and can make out shadows moving. I flick on my flashlight and aim it at the clearing below. There are blankets spread out but I see no one. As I raise the light bright green eyes shine back at me. Against the stars I see the silhouettes of hunched figures. There’s a crackle of leaves then the scream of a rabbit.

I can’t move. I am unarmed and alone.

A long howl echoes from the hills around me.

werewolf1

%d bloggers like this: