The Weekly Essay

It’s Another Story.

Olympic Fever.

It’s difficult not to get swept up in the grandeur and majesty of the Olympics. People are drawn to watch, to spend hours watching brave and dedicated athletes perform incredible feats in bitter cold from the comfort of their warm couches. It’s powerful and mesmerizing. It’s like a fever, which is why, looking at the incredible number of events, all I can think is this:






Olympic Sport or Illness?

  1. Curling
  2. Scurvy
  3. Rickets
  4. Skijoring
  5. Bandy
  6. Alpinism
  7. Pelota
  8. Roque
  9. Rackets
  10. Croquet
  11. Sauna
  12. Sibelius
  13. Pellagra
  14. Beri beri
  15. Tryptophan
  16. Influenza
  17. Luge
  18. Slalom
  19. Norovirus
  20. Nordic combined
  21. Rabies
  22. Rubella
  23. Monkeypox
  24. Salmonella
  25. Polo


23-25: Gold

21-22: Silver

19-20: Bronze

15-18: Copper

11-14: Tin

7-10: Rubber ball on a string

4-6: For crying out loud, it’s only once every four years. Would it hurt to take a little interest?

1-3: You will be forced to give a humiliating interview about your loss

Answer Key:





Risky Business.

A coworker asked me, “What’s the riskiest thing you’ve done in the last week?” and it really got me thinking. Not that that’s unusual. Every question gets me thinking, although I don’t always think enough before I answer, and sometimes I don’t really put enough thought into what I say, like the time at work several of us were sitting down to a meeting and a very talkative coworker next to me said, “I don’t really take notes in meetings, I just doodle on my pad,” and I said, “You probably meant to say that with your in-your-head voice,” and she said, “Oh, I’m not sure I have one of those. Ask me a simple question and you’re likely to get my life story.” I then said, “Why do you think that is?” and everyone else let out a collective groan, but that’s another story. The question of what the riskiest thing I’d done in the last week was put me into such a reverie that I had to take a break and go out for a long walk. Had I done anything in the last week that could be considered risky? What about the last month, or even the last year? Diving into the deep end of the pool? Diving into the shallow end of the pool? Going out with wet hair? Eating grocery store sushi? Doing my Steven Tyler impersonation when my lips were chapped? Nothing that I’d done that I could think of seemed particularly risky. I’m not a timid person, or at least I don’t think I am. Maybe I’m just afraid to admit it. My wife has put the kibosh on me ever trying scuba diving because she says it’s too dangerous, and this raises the question of whether arguing with her about that would be considered an extreme sport. Actually the biggest obstacle to my trying risky things isn’t cowardice; it’s frugality. If someone else were picking up the tab I’d jump at the chance to try bungee jumping or wingsuit flying trying out for the Steelers. I’d just want to make sure I did all those things properly and took all the necessary precautions. There are ways to almost kill yourself without being stupid about it. Believe me, I’ve checked the price of skydiving lessons and for that much money I can get on a plane that will land on the ground someplace I actually want to go. Or maybe the destination could be the risk I take–I could go explore some place remote and dangerous like Death Valley or the Sahara desert or Poughkeepsie. Maybe I could just find ways to challenge myself: talk to strangers, take acting classes, knock over a liquor store. As long as it’s still winter I could try one of those polar bear challenges where people in thongs go outside in freezing temperatures and jump into a cold body of water, and, hey, just wearing a thong in public would be a challenge for me. I could even try the extreme version which involves jumping into a cold body of water with real polar bears. As I walked along my head was so full of possibilities I barely noticed the sound of screeching tires and a voice yelling, “LOOK WHERE YOU’RE GOING, ASSHOLE!” although it did give me the idea that maybe I should look into how much it would cost to try race car driving lessons.

The Sunny Side.

Sometimes I worry I’m too much of an optimist. That may seem like a weird thing to worry about, but there are times when I’m afraid I’m going to say something inappropriately cheerful. A few weeks ago I was at a party and talking to a guy who was lamenting his pending divorce which was forcing him to look for a new place to live, and I said, “Well, on the bright side…” The entire room went silent. You could hear a pin drop, which is a neat trick on carpet. Then another guy said, “Oh, I’ve gotta hear this.” And I said that with all the construction and changes going on in Nashville there were a lot of new places around. The guy getting the divorce said, “Yeah, that is a good thing.” In fact my ability to find a bright side to even the worst news sometimes makes me think I should rent myself out as a professional cheerer-upper and “Well, on the bright side” is something I say so often anyway it could be my tagline, but that’s another story.
Bringing up all the construction going on around Nashville reminded me of a period of about three months when I had to change my daily walk to the bus. A whole city block was being torn down and rebuilt to put in some new apartments and businesses. It bugged me because I had to leave work earlier, which meant I also had to get to work earlier, and walk farther. It also bugged me that the construction was blocking city sidewalks and a whole section of the street for months. On the bright side, though, it gave me an excuse to get more daily exercise. And then I worry that I really shouldn’t need an excuse.

Fantastic Bowl.

It’s Superbowl Sunday, a time when people traditionally gather around the TV to watch two teams go at it. Here’s my Superbowl tradition: the ultimate playoff.

Jim Hudson LT Festin

Rick Volk LG King Meshugah

Gerry Philbin C Dejah Thoris

Billy Ray Smith Sr. RG Thorin Oakenshield

Don Shinnick RT Yog Sothoth

Johnny Sample WR Sandman

Al Atkinson WR Ningauble Of The Seven Eyes

Verlow Biggs TE Conan The Barbarian

Ordell Braase QB Sir Gawain

Dick Butkus RB Hellboy

Alex Karras FB Namor Of Atlantis


Jimmy Orr DE Balon Greyjoy

Bill Mathis DT Mongo

Paul Rochester DT Xena, Warrior Princess

Fred Miller DE Anita Blake

Bob Talamini OLB The Red Queen

Dan Sullivan ILB Lessa/Ramoth

John Schmitt/Bill Curry OLB Lord Voldemort

John Mackey CB Atticus O’Sullivan

Joe Namath SS Eeyore

Don Maynard FS Rudy Ruettiger

Jerry Hill CB Number Six

Let’s Do Lunch.

When I was a kid I was taught that breakfast is the most important meal of the day which is why as an adult I so often skip it, or at least I did until my wife started handing me a couple of slices of microwaved turkey bacon every morning, and who am I to say no to that? Most of what I was taught as a kid has turned out to be wrong anyway, so it wouldn’t surprise me if breakfast has been overrated all this time. And consider that lunch is the meal that separates the morning from the afternoon. It’s the halfway mark, the meal before the home stretch. I’m pretty sure most meetings are scheduled in the morning so lunch can be used as a convenient excuse to prevent them from going on too long. Lunch is so important that it forms the larger part of brunch, although that may also be because “lunfast” just sounds weird, but the point is that brunch was only invented as an excuse to take an early lunch and get out of a boring meeting even earlier. Lunch is so important it’s the only meal that gets its own box, and if you grew up in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s chances are you carried a lunchbox that didn’t just hold your lunch. It also helped define who you were as a person. The kid with the Little House On The Prairie lunchbox was romantic and good-hearted, the kid with the Evel Knievel lunchbox was daring and adventurous, and the kid with The Flintstones lunchbox was secretly working on breeding saber tooth cats in his basement. I had a Close Encounters lunchbox because I was pretty much born a science fiction geek, but at least that’s not as bad as the kid who had the Emergency! lunchbox. I have no memory of the show Emergency!, a ‘70’s show about firefighters and paramedics, but I distinctly remember that a kid in my class had an Emergency! lunchbox that had a picture of a couple of firefighters rescuing kids who’d climbed onto the high girders of a skyscraper under construction, because nothing whets your appetite like civilians in terrified distress. I also thought that motif would be perfect for construction workers if they didn’t all carry those simple black lunchboxes.

Holy mackerel, it’s even worse than I remember. Source: Boris Basement


And our kid lunch boxes also always came with a matching plastic thermos that would be filled with soup or spaghetti or Bailey’s Irish Cream because if there’s one thing that makes a baloney sandwich on white bread with some chips and soup and a Little Debbie snack cake taste better it’s when they’re served out of a color-coordinated receptacle. Although I lost my soup privileges in third grade. From first through sixth grade the Campbell’s soup company had a money-for-schools program. Parents could take the labels off the can and mail them back to Campbell’s which would then sell them to Andy Warhol and pass a portion of the profits back to the schools, and by fifth grade my school had a wing named after my mother, but that’s another story. And then one April for some reason she bought an off-brand chicken and mushroom soup and even though that sounds like it should be good I’m pretty sure the “chicken” was made from retired circus monkeys and the broth was a watery version of the stuff you use for papier mache, and I don’t know why but I couldn’t tell my mother any of this. Instead I just tucked the thermos at the bottom of my school locker and every day said, “Great soup, I forgot to bring my thermos home.” The truth is I always knew it was there, haunting me, but “I forgot it” was a plausible excuse because I was always forgetting things, including one day when I came home without pants. And because soup doesn’t travel well in a plastic bag I didn’t have any for two months, and then at the end of school I finally confessed what I’d done and we had to turn the thermos over to the government because at that point it had become a bioweapon.

As I got older school lunch became a lot less fun, first in junior high where every class went to lunch at different times and you had to watch the door because the only way you knew lunch was over and it was time to go back to class was the teacher would come to the door and wave. And once I got separated from my class and was stuck at the back of the room where I couldn’t see the door and missed biology class. When I realized what had happened I went and explained to my teacher that I forgot and she said, “I understand. Please take your pants and go.” The first few weeks of high school were a nightmare too because I just couldn’t concentrate on eating and watching the clock and navigating through the screaming crowd, but then my friends and I figured out we could escape to a quiet place behind the gym and eat quietly and I could really enjoy my lunch which is good because it’s the most important meal of the day.


I Went To College!


Earlier this week someone asked me, “What did you major in?” I had just dropped one of the esoteric facts I’ve spent my entire life collecting and I expected it to, as usual, lie on the floor a minute or two before scuttling up my leg, over my midsection to my neck, and finally back into my ear, a metaphor that should make me a lot more uncomfortable, but which I’m actually enjoying so much I plan to use it every chance I get, which won’t ever happen again. Anyway it was kind of weird to have someone close to my age ask, “What did you major in that you know Ptah was the Egyptian god of sculpture?” Almost as weird as having an Egyptian deity come up in a work-related training session, although I work in a library so I have esoteric facts crawling into my eyes and out of  my mouth all the time. The funny thing is I majored in English and didn’t learn anything about Egyptian deities in any of the assigned reading, but the weird thing is I haven’t been asked what I majored in since, well, since I graduated. For students in the United States it’s a pretty common question, the tertiary education equivalent of “What’s your sign?” although it’s not usually a pickup line. It’s shorthand for, “What kind of person are you, what are you interested in, what are your hopes and dreams?” or in some cases it’s “What are your parents’ hopes and dreams that they’re paying for you to fulfill while you’d rather be taking improv classes?” It was a question I heard a lot when I was in college. With other students it was a nice icebreaker to start conversations, or to stop them. “I’m majoring in English. Oh, you’re majoring in accounting?” would be followed by a long, uncomfortable silence. From adults it was sometimes an expression of interest and sometimes when I told them I was majoring in English it led to expressions of befuddlement—“What are you going to do with that?” to cheap jokes about my future career in burger-flipping. Sometimes I turned it around on them. “Oh, you majored in psychology? How’s that helping you in your job as assistant office manager at a small midstate office supply company?” This strategy didn’t always work out so well, of course. “Oh, you majored in communications engineering and business and now you’re manager of a radio station?” And then I’d nod thoughtfully and say, “Well done,” but that’s another story.

In other countries, of course, higher education is structured very differently. In the United States we have some trade schools and also universities and colleges. Universities take a more unified view of education while colleges take little scraps of data, slap glue on them, and stick them to your brain, and if you’ve studied you should know that data are plural, the singular is datum, first isolated in 1986 when scientists put a Trivial Pursuit card under a microscope, and that Brent Spiner and Jonathan Luke Ke Huy Quan are Data. The “major” is a specific field of study that can range from architecture to zoology, both of which are very popular with people who don’t know what they want to do so pick either the first or last thing listed in the school catalog. In Britain, on the other hand, they have two universities, Oxford and Cambridge, where students spend four years reading before they venture out into the world to either become coal miners or write novels about coal miners, and in Canada young people who’ve finished the secondary phase of their education build a chrysalis out of cheese and Tim Horton’s coffee cups and spend four years pupating before they emerge fully-fledged ski shop owners. In Australia education is a lifelong process of just trying to stay alive in a place where everything is out to kill you, and don’t get me started on higher education in other parts of the world because I know absolutely nothing about it.

So anyway it kind of threw me to be asked by another adult, “What did you major in?” after all these years and then later in the conversation I mentioned They Might Be Giants, and she asked, “Is that a musical group?” And now it was my turn to ask, “Are you sure you went to college?”

Smith’s Forge.

Source: Goodreads

If coming out is easier now than it used to be–and for some people I understand it is, although it can still be a difficult experience–it’s because of people like Bob Smith. He was the first openly gay comic to appear on The Tonight Show and get his own HBO special, making his debut in 1994, nine years before the Supreme Court’s Lawrence v. Texas decision would sweep away the remaining anti-sodomy laws that existed solely to punish gay men.
He was more than just a standup comedian. Bob Smith was a prolific, and funny, author, of both novels and personal essays. His 1997 book Openly Bob, has witty wisdom on every page:

I know on a rational level I shouldn’t feel responsible for the behavior of every gay man, but having been raised Roman Catholic, I’m capable of producing guilt from nothing.
The opponents of sex education believe that if we keep our teenagers ignorant about a topic then they won’t become interested; a theory that has proven itself by the lack of interest shown by teenagers in other subjects missing from the curriculum, such as playing loud music, eating French fries, and the use of pimple creams.
At twenty-three I still lived at home and had reached the age when that admission is not a statement of address but of arrested development.
Being a personal assistant is the most thankless job since food tasting for the pharaohs…It’s tragic that people in both careers think the job is going to be a stepping-stone and end up discovering it can be a tombstone.
Coffee in the morning is my religion. We true believers drink two cups to lead us not into temptation to go back to bed.
Anthropologists have propagated a theory that over millions of years the size of our brains expanded as our ancestors began to use tools. Isn’t it more probable that our mental capacity developed to avoid using tools? It takes more ingenuity to get out of doing something than to do it. Call it the Tom Sawyer Theory of Evolution.
Supermarkets are on the cutting edge of social change. Anyone can buy family-size packages, whether your family is nuclear, dysfunctional, or chosen. At the cash register, all relationships are treated with the same respect. Your right to purchase a family valu-pack of paper towels is never disputed–your family is always valid even if your coupons aren’t.

A few years ago Bob Smith had to have another sort of coming out when he revealed he had ALS. The disease affected his mouth first, dulling his tongue but not the wit that drove it. Born December 24th, 1958, he came out both as a gay man and a comedian in the 1980’s, a great time to be one of those things but not the other. And yet he was always proud, a founding member of the group Funny Gay Males. He was strong too, up until the end. He wrote final book, Treehab: Tales From My Natural Wild Life, on an iPad with only one hand.
Singlehandedly he made the world a better place.
Hail and farewell Bob Smith.


Routing The Routine.

Snow completely disrupts routines, at least here in the South where even a prediction of snow throws everyone into a panic and causes them to rush to the store to buy eggs, bread, milk, and toilet paper. There’s even a running conspiracy theory that the stores are in cahoots with the local meteorologists and will sometimes throw out a false warning when they’re overstocked on those items which would explain the occasional July forecast, but that’s another story.
I understand that other parts of the country are better equipped to deal with snow and Yankees and other aliens have asked me so many times, “Why does snow cause so much trouble around here?” that I’ve developed a standard answer. I say, it doesn’t happen often enough and when snow starts falling there are still some people who run out into the street screaming, “What is this stuff? It looks like chicken feathers but it’s cold!” Nashville has ice trucks and snow plows, although not very many, and one year they couldn’t get out because the door of the garage where they kept froze shut. There was no backup plan because it never occurred to anyone that such a thing might happen. I told a bus driver who’d moved here from Michigan that and she laughed so hard I was afraid she’d go off the road, but I’m pretty sure Michigan does have snow in July.
I know I’m making it sound worse than it is. Most winters Nashvillians will see snow at least once or twice, and on rare occasions the Aurora Borealis can be seen, a faint smudge of neon on the horizon. The snow just never lasts long enough for anyone to get used to it, which may be why I’ve never ridden a bus that was on a snow route. Or maybe I have and I didn’t know it because the snow route for my regular bus isn’t that different from its regular route. And yet the other day when I was waiting for the bus this came zipping up:

At first I hesitated to get on, but the door opened and the driver motioned to a seat. I don’t know what circumstances led to a shortbus being sent out to pick up regular riders, but it was a nice break in the routine.

Keep It On Ice.

While it’s a myth that no two snowflakes are alike snowflakes still come in a dazzling array of forms.

Ice is just ice. It’s solid water. It’s not going out of its way to be special.


If you fall in snow it gently cushions you.

If you fall on ice it will do as much as it can to break every one of your bones.


Snow floats and gently coats the world as it falls.

Ice just falls. It sticks, seeps into nooks and crannies, and pushes everything aside. Ice lets you know it’s arrived.


Most snowflakes form around dust particles.

Ice doesn’t need help from anyone.


A typical snowflake has roughly 180 billion molecules of water.

Ice consumes all. It has no limits. Do not mock ice.


Snow forms drifts that you can see.

Ice forms invisible patches. Ice doesn’t need to be seen and wants you to know that.


Lie down in snow and move your arms and legs out from your body. You’ll form a snow angel.

Lie down on ice. It will make you cold. Ice is going to do its own thing and doesn’t care what you want.


Snow is ideal for skiing, snowboarding, and sledding.

Ice is ideal for skating and hockey. Blades and bloodshed are how ice rolls.

The largest recorded snowfall in the United States in a twenty-four hour period was in April 1921 in Silver Lake, Colorado. It snowed 75.8 inches.

Ice is a really big fan of Ethel Merman.


Light snow is often called “powder”.

Ice doesn’t need any silly nicknames except in drinks consumed by grim men in dark bars, and even then it’s only known as “the rocks”.


All snowflakes are six-sided.

Ice only has one side: ice.


Snow is a good insulator and can be used to build shelters.

Ice wants you to die.


Some people have chionophobia which means “fear of snow”.

Everyone fears ice. Ice wants it that way and ice gets what it wants.


There are records of snowflakes as big as fifteen inches.

Ice will cover a whole lake if it wants to. You got a problem with that? Ice wants you to come out here and jump up and down and say that.


Snowball fights are a fun way to enjoy the winter outdoors with your friends.

Ice ball fights are how wars get started.


Snow only forms under very special atmospheric conditions.

Ice is just cold. If you need this explained to you again ice will cut you.


Winter snowfall provides more than three-fourths of the water that supports the climate of western North America.

Ice has been implicated in international money laundering.


Large accumulations of snow on mountains can result in avalanches.

Ice is directly responsible for avalanches. It taunts the snow into just giving up.


Scientists have found layers of snow at the polar regions that go back thousands of years.

Ice advises you to just keep moving and don’t ask what happened here unless you want to end up like Sonny Corleone.


Frosty The Snowman is a magical character brought to life by children and forced to leave town after an altercation with the police.

Ice runs this town. You cross ice and ice will put you in a woodchipper.


When snow melts it turns into fluffy kittens.

When ice melts it makes everything around it cold. Ice wants you to know that you will pay.

I Came, I Thaw, I Conquered.

So far this winter I haven’t had a cold, or at least nothing more significant than the sniffles that come from being out in the cold and stepping into a warm building which always seems to cause my nose to run. I’m not sure why this is. Even when it’s been really cold outside it hasn’t, as far as I know, been cold enough to freeze my sinuses, and even if it were I don’t think the temperature change is enough to cause such immediate thawing. If it takes the microwave at least five minutes just to get the frost off a small chicken breast I have no idea why the linings of my nasal passages, which should be a pretty stable ninety-eight and a half degrees Fahrenheit most of the time, can go from solid to liquid before I even have a chance to shut the door that divides the indoors from the outdoors. Some might think I’m inviting disaster by bragging that I haven’t been afflicted by the rhinovirus, or even the elephantvirus, the zebravirus, or the aardvarkvirus. That last one combines sniffling and sneezing with uncontrollable laughing because it’s the only known virus that has bunny ears, a pig’s nose, and a big floppy tail, but that’s another story. I’m not worried that talking about it will cause me to fall under the influenza, mostly because I’ve never been really superstitious, knock on wood, but also because I got a flu shot at the start of the season and I think my odds are pretty good even though the flu vaccine isn’t always one-hundred percent effective. It’s like the fall TV lineup: even with the best possible combination of what’s expected to work a few people are still going to get sick, but that’s another story. And I realize I’ve slipped from the common cold to the common flu even though they’re two entirely different beasts and could easily be distinguished at a distance if you could see them without a microscope. The common cold worries me even less because I have this completely unscientific idea that the reason I get at least one every year is because it’s always mutating and therefore one step ahead of my immune system, but this year maybe it’s gone into reruns and I’ve been able to head it off with some nasal streaming. And also at any sign of a cold I’ve started taking vitamin C even though I’ve never been superstitious, and I’m not sure why vitamin C, which is supposed to prevent the common scurvy, is always the treatment for a cold, although I think it has something to do with helping your nose thaw faster.

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