The Weekly Essay

It’s Another Story.

Let’s Brew Up A Little Something.

Source: The Ghost Diaries

Source: The Ghost Diaries

Kate: Hello, and welcome back to Cauldron Cooking, the show that puts the magic back in your kitchen. I’m your host Kate. Earlier in the show we talked about new uses for poison ivy, and I also want to tell listeners who are just tuning in that our recipe for cream of vulture soup is on the show’s website. Check it out.

All right, now it’s time to take some calls. We have Diane from Salem on line seven. Hi, Diane, what’s your question?

Diane: Hi Kate, thank you so much for taking my call. This isn’t exactly a cooking question but I have an issue with my stepdaughter and I wondered if you could suggest anything.

Kate: Oh, yes, kids. They’re always hard to deal with, aren’t they? Especially when they grow up.

Diane: Right. That’s my problem. She’s getting older and she’s starting to really get in my way.

Kate: But you don’t want to kill her.

Diane: Well, I did, but  not anymore. I’d just like something that’ll, you know, take her out of the picture.

Kate: Let me think. Okay, I have just the thing for you. We have a great recipe for a poison apple.

Diane: That won’t kill her?

Kate: No, this is perfect. It will just put her in a coma. Have you got a crypt or something where you can put her while she sleeps?

Diane: I’ve got a crystal case that rests on a plinth out in the woods.

Kate: Fabulous. She’ll be perfectly preserved there for as long as you want, and here’s the good part: she can only be revived with a kiss from a charming prince. And it’s not like there are a lot of those wandering around the forests, am I right?

Diane: Yes. That sounds absolutely perfect. Thank you so much Kate!

Kate: No problem, and good luck. Email us some pictures so we can see how it’s worked out. We’ll put them on the website. Thanks for your call, Diane.

Well, it looks like the witching hour is almost up, so I’ll just leave you with this: When shall we three meet again, in thunder, lightning, or in rain?

Of course you know it’ll be the same time next week. I’ll see you then.

It’s A Good Thing I Was Paying Attention.

There was a new bus driver. Apparently he was very new because he didn’t exactly know the route and took us on an unbelievable detour. One of my fellow passengers even questioned the driver about it but was quietly told something something construction and that if she wanted to get off right in the middle of nowhere that was fine.

When we got close to my stop I pulled the cord. There was no “ding!” The indicator light didn’t come on. The friendly bass baritone voice that says, “Stop requested. Please remain seated until the bus comes to a complete stop” didn’t come on. I walked up to the front.

“That’s my stop at the corner,” I told the driver.

He looked up from a pile of papers in his lap that may or may not have been the bus route.

“Good thing I was paying attention!” he said.

Yeah, good thing.

That in itself might make an interesting story but what was really interesting–and what might have made me miss my stop is that someone decided that on this particular day the riders in my route should get a double bus instead of one of the usual singles.

To those in the UK and other aliens: we don’t have double-decker buses here. Well, we didn’t. We have them now for tour groups, but that’s another story. Instead of double-decker buses someone had the harebrained idea to smash two buses together end-to-end. And like most harebrained ideas the result is actually kind of cool.


It’s Nashville, Jake, so of course the seats have a musical theme. Can anyone out there recognize the tune?



First World Problems Require First World Solutions.

Silence isn’t golden. Silence is the deep, velvety blackness of the early morning. At no time are you more aware of the depth of that silence and how easily broken it is than when you’re going through your usual morning routine without waking up the person in the next room. You become intensely aware of just how much noise you make.

The door hinges creak. The latch snapping into place sounds like a gunshot.

The toilet flush is a cannonade.

The shower isn’t merely running water; it’s a thundering cataract, a waterfall of immense proportions. Adjusting the temperature, moving it from scalding to lukewarm to a final reasonable medium only  intensifies the crash.

Even the steam seems to make noise as clouds of it pound the walls.

The soap squeaks in your hands like a rabbit in a poacher’s trap.

The shampoo and conditioner bottles burp out their liquid allotments.

Halfway through you realize you’re singing Duran Duran’s “The Reflex” at the top of your lungs.

Old habits are hard to break.

The faucet creaks as you turn off the shower. Water floods from the now open tap with the sound of an angry river.

After the rush even the stillness seems loud.

The activity of drying off brings the noise level down, a quiet dance with a thick terrycloth veil.

The toothpaste cap twists off with only a gentle sigh.

As the loud ratchet sound of you brushing your teeth fills the room you realize those post-shower moments of silence were just long enough that a person might be able to go back to sleep.

More silence follows. It’s blissful. You feel peace spread through the house you’ve disturbed.

Then the electric razor snaps into action, a chainsaw felling the hairy seedlings that have sprouted from your face over the past day. In the harsh glare of the bathroom bulb you wipe away the five a.m. shadow and you’re racked with guilt for breaking everyone else’s hibernation.

Sound familiar? If so I’m giving you a chance to get in on the ground floor of my latest invention: the sound-proof bathroom!


Mixed Nuts.

nuts-Hey Phil. Phil, you here?

-Yeah, a little shaken, but I’m here. What’s up Wally?

-Just checking. Everything got crazy there and now it’s gone quiet. Really quiet.

-Yeah, I know. I’m okay with the quiet. Better than dealing with—


-Whoop. Let’s party like it’s 2006.


-I’m Wally.




-Ich hasse dich so sehr.


-You two want to be alone?


-I’m Wally.


-Over here, next to your Teutonic twin.

-Ich verachte Euch alle.

-Some of us can understand you, Brazzy.

-Mein Name ist Bertholletia.


-I’m Wally. And [sigh] the most common language there is Portuguese, and anyway he’s speaking…forget it. Yes, Al. Yes I do.

-Dies ändert nichts


-That you’re his best friend in the world, Al.


-Wenn es einen Gott ist, werden Sie das erste zu sterben sein .


-I’m Wally.


-He’s trying to butter you up.


-Ich würde Sie mich zerquetschen, wenn ich könnte.

-He says he’s sorry.


-Y’all keep it down.


-Der einzige von euch, die erträglich für mich ist.

-Y’all make more ruckus than a mess of hounds done got a possum.

-Who is that?


It’s All Plasma.

physiologyScientists have announced that our tongues can detect another taste: starchiness. For millennia there were only four tastes: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Then umami was added in 1985 although technically it had been accidentally discovered decades earlier by the Japanese who were doing research on giant fire breathing reptiles. If you’re keeping count that’s six now, although if you’re keeping count it’s because you’re a primary school teacher frustrated at having to update your lesson plan and the colorful cartoon tongue hanging in your classroom again. And this discovery raises serious questions about what scientists will discover next. It’s bad enough that in middle school science class we learned that there are three
states of matter-solid, liquid, and gas-and then halfway through the year had to add plasma, which was very strange because the year before we’d learned that plasma is part of our blood but now we had to remember that there’s a different kind of plasma which is a state created by high energy atomic nuclei, and it’s important to keep one separate from the other and remember which one is in the human heart and which one is in the heart of the sun. And then it turned out nature might have at least fourteen other states of matter, not including my Aunt Lena’s Jell-o salad which everyone, including scientists, agrees is unnatural and should not exist. And we have absolutely no idea what other categories of matter, taste, or even color will be uncovered by scientists. We already know that while the human eye can detect three color wavelengths the mantis shrimp eye can detect twelve which must make mantis shrimp primary school classrooms very interesting. When I was a kid all primary school classrooms had a series of colorful pictures around the wall with all the colors of the rainbow from red to purple, but in mantis shrimp classrooms they must go all the way to, I don’t know, hyper puce maybe.
The discovery of new layers to our senses reminds me of synesthesia, a neurological condition that allows the senses of some people to intersect, allowing them to “see” sounds or “taste” colors even without the assistance of that bearded guy who passed out the sugar cubes while Pink Floyd played “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun”. Synesthesia enjoyed a brief surge of popularity in literary circles, or at least in creative writing classes when I was in college where we were encouraged to mix up the senses in our descriptions, coming up with images like “the mahogany smell of coffee”. After years of being told not to mix our metaphors it was as hard as wrapping our tongues around the idea of more than four states of matter, especially with my roommate who always went off and left the coffee pot on so that my best description of the smell of coffee was “wet ferret plasma”.
The important thing is it was an intersection of art and science, two things too often assumed to be separate, even though by the time synesthesia trickled down to creative writing classes it was a cliché, an important lesson for science too: most discoveries eventually get superseded by something else.


Twenty Minutes Later I Wanted To Do It Again.

crutchWhat does it take to make an experience valuable?

I was a college freshman and alone for reasons I don’t remember. It was unusual for me to be alone since there always seemed to be someone around, even when I didn’t want others around,but on this particular night I was bored out of my skull and had left a series of messages on my neighbor’s answering machine describing in excruciating detail just how bored I was. When I guessed the tape was nearly full I left a final one that ended with, “Being able to share my feelings in this way has given me an entirely new and happier outlook on life. I think I’m gonna go fly a kite.” All of which was, of course, completely untrue. I didn’t even have a kite. But I did get up and leave. I’d been hit with a sudden craving for Chinese food and like a lean and hungry hyena, or at least like a pudgy guy in a trenchcoat, I set forth in search of numbers five, nine, thirteen, and a handful of fortune cookies. The problem was the closest Chinese food place I knew of was three miles away. I had heard of Chinese places that delivered, but New York is a long way from Indiana and I doubted any of them were willing to make the trip. Besides I barely had enough to cover a cup of hot and sour soup, let alone the extremely generous tip they were bound to demand. So I called in my order. I wasn’t going to sit there in the restaurant and eat by myself because that would be weird. And set off on foot. Having measured my walking pace I’m guessing it took me about an hour to get there and even though there was a chill in the air I didn’t worry about my food getting cold on the trip back because it was already cold when I picked it up. And I returned my dorm and had a small feast that I wouldn’t say was fit for a king or even the general whose chicken I was allegedly eating, but at least it broke the boredom. And the next morning I felt like it had broken something else. I had an intense pain in my right foot. I couldn’t stand on it but could hobble along by leaning on walls or on friends. The student health center provided me with a pair of Civil War-era crutches and my parents considered fetching me home to Nashville where my father knew a podiatrist named Doctor Payne. And I kind of wish they had, not because things would have been any better but because when your doctor as a homonynomous moniker like that the jokes just write themselves. I even spun out elaborate imaginary introductions. “Hello. I’m Doctor Payne. I’ll be assisted today by my interns Doctors Hertz, Bledes, and Nurse Stab.”

Instead an aunt and uncle nearby took me to the hospital where I was doted on by the same doctor I’d seen about a month earlier when campus security took me to the emergency room at three a.m. with severe stomach pains that turned out to be the result of mixing caffeine pills with Coke. I’m pretty sure that same doctor was there twenty-four hours a day which, in a small town, probably isn’t unusual, but that’s another story.

It turned out I had a stretched tendon. At least that’s what I think he said since it was kind of hard to pay attention over the sound of the guy a few chairs away who was trying to pass a kidney stone the size of a baseball. I was told I needed to stay off my right foot for the next six weeks which was annoying because walking was my primary way of getting from point A to point B since geometry wasn’t covered in any of my math classes. And I was stuck with the campus crutches which I knew dated from the Civil War because they’d clearly been made for Abraham Lincoln, and even once I got the hang of using them I didn’t move from place to place so much as take flying leaps that luckily didn’t stretch any tendons in my left foot. And when I got bored in class I could amuse myself by picking termites out of them.

It was an interesting experience but I leave this question to you: was anything learned or was it in any other way valuable? Would it help if you could try the egg rolls?


Milking It.

Source: SkyView app

Source: SkyView app

The other night I was dragging the garbage can up to the curb, one of those routine chores I always enjoy because I always do it after dark and walk through patches of shadow where anything could be lurking which, now that I mention it, is starting to make me wonder why I enjoy doing it and why I don’t do it earlier when it’s still light out even though it’s better to do it late to make sure I’ve gotten as much trash as possible because if anything’s left over we’ll be stuck with it for a week. And I enjoy it because while I’m dragging the can I look up at the sky which is another thing I didn’t think about until just now: the contrast between the earthy, grimy, trash and the ethereal, seemingly eternal sky above me. Really I’m just looking for planes. Or at the clouds. Most of the time I see the stars. At this time of year the night is also noisy. Even in our suburban neighborhood the children of the night, what music they make. I mean mostly bugs and frogs, of course, since we don’t have any wolves, or at least I haven’t seen any, but the little critters of nature know that they’re noisy. And they’re noisy because even though it doesn’t feel like it yet the summer is coming to an end. Their biological clocks are winding down and there’s a special urgency, one last desperate chance to meet that special someone. They’re brooding on the need to make a new brood.

It’s really the stars I focus on, though. Last night at the edge of the street I looked up and even through the pale orange glare of the streetlight I could see three bright stars in a line. They were part of the constellation Sagittarius which might have been more visible if that streetlight hadn’t been there. Beyond Sagittarius, though, is the Milky Way.

Strictly speaking Sagittarius is part of the Milky Way, and so is Earth, which is why it confused me when I was a kid when people talked about seeing the Milky Way. We’re in it, albeit far out in one of the outer arms. If it really were an arm I think we’d be just past the wrist and our galaxy also has more arms than a Hindu deity. So I thought saying “I can see the Milky Way” would be like standing in your closet and saying “I can see my house”. It wasn’t until one night on a camping trip in an extremely remote area on a cool late summer night that I actually saw the Milky Way, the band of shining, stellar clouds that stretches across the sky. According to the ancient Greeks it was formed when baby Heracles suckled on Hera in her sleep and some of her milk spilled out across the sky—a myth that was meant to explain the origins of the breast pump, but that’s another story.

There was something strange about looking into it, knowing that even though I could only see a small part of it I was still looking into the very heart of our galaxy. How did astronomers feel when they first realized our sun is just another star, and a pretty puny one at that? How did they feel when they first realized we only see mere ghosts of stars, that interstellar distances are so vast it takes years, even centuries, sometimes millennia, for the light of stars to reach us? The ground under their feet must have seemed a lot less stable. And in my lifetime alone astronomers, working with geologists, have come to understand the Earth’s long history of being hit by big rocks on a disturbingly regular basis—one about every twenty-six million years. The idea that a nearby star might be throwing wild pitches was dismissed almost as quickly as it was proposed, but the regularity might not be a cosmic coincidence either. Our solar system doesn’t stay in one place. Even as the Milky Way slowly turns the regularity of mass extinctions may be the result of the way our solar system bobs and weaves in its arm, perhaps taking us sometimes into dangerous territory. And some people get a kick out of saying we’re overdo for an interplanetary sucker punch, but a million years is a really long time. It may not happen.

Closer to home is the issue of light pollution, the growing number of photons we’re spewing into the sky nightly that make it harder and harder to see features like the Milky Way and smaller, dimmer stellar neighbors. It’s a scary thought that the more lights we use to light the night here on Earth the more we lose a perspective on our place in the universe, as if we were standing in a closet with no way to know what lurks in the patches of shadow.


swimmerSeptember’s coming soon.

I’m pining for the moon.

And what if there were two

Side by side in orbit around the fairest sun?

-R.E.M., “Nightswimming”


Every time the Olympics come around I make the same joke: I’m gonna move to a small island nation and take up a sport and that’ll be my free ticket to the big event. And I think there would be other advantages to living on a small island. Vanuatu for instance has a cool volcano—actually a really hot volcano, which is kind of the point. And Tuvalu is less than eleven square miles, so pizza delivery must be really fast there, and its capital is Funafuti and it would be great to live in a place that starts with “fun”. Sure there are disadvantages like not being able to find a decent pool hall or eventually being swallowed up by rising oceans, but every place has its ups and downs. I thought about this the other night while watching Olympic competitors swim—specifically the butterfly stroke, which, believe it or not, used to be my event back when I was part of a swim team. Oh yeah, believe it or not I was part of a swim team.

I wasn’t exactly a good swimmer, although I was pretty good at the butterfly stroke which is really challenging, especially over long distances. At least I was the only member of the swim team good enough to do it in competition so they put me in. It seems strange to me now because I never really did care about being part of the swim team. It was when we were members of the Dolphin Club, although calling it a “club” was a stretch. It was a plus-sign shaped swimming pool in a field on the outskirts of town, past a small collection of warehouses and auto shops that I’m pretty sure would be happy to take that car of yours that you “lost” the keys to with no questions asked, but that’s another story. There was a weedy tennis court with a rotting net next to the pool that I think was the only thing that qualified the place as a “club”. And the membership was small enough that the swim team really needed all the members it could get, so even though I was a mediocre swimmer who didn’t really care and never won anything I was never in danger of being cut. You may be wondering why I bothered with being a member of the swim team in the first place, especially since I did feel kind of self-conscious about my diving ability, or lack of it. All my teammates and fellow competitors could dive cleanly off the starting blocks into the water, but I never got the hang of that and could only just sort of flop, and by the time I got oriented and going I’d already be eating everybody else’s watery dust. But the swimming season wasn’t that long, especially since the Dolphin Club never made it to the semifinals or playoffs or Swim Series or Swimmerbowl or Swimmly Cup or whatever the big finale is in swimming. And I liked to swim and being part of the team meant getting into the pool early, before the crowds—which at the Dolphin Club meant about a dozen people—arrived. It was also fun on hot summer mornings to jump right into the cold pool and do a few lazy warm up laps, twisting my body around under the water, thinking about humpback whales migrating from the iceberg-laden waters of the Arctic to the tropical regions every year. That was worth humiliating myself in competition every Saturday because, in case I haven’t emphasized this enough, I really didn’t care about competing.

Anyway my wife pointed out that being from a small country isn’t enough in itself, that there is a minimum requirement of ability needed to qualify for the Olympics, so even if I did pack up everything and move to a small island in the middle of nowhere I still wouldn’t qualify for a free ticket to the big event even if I could finally learn to dive.

And I don’t want to treat the efforts of the athletes from these countries as a joke. Every athlete who goes to the Olympics has worked hard to get there and they all want to win. For the ones from small counties, the ones with delegations of a few athletes, or the ones who are only sending one athlete, the chances of bringing home a medal may be slimmer but the stakes are so much higher because so much attention is focused on them. They’ve made incredible efforts just to be able to qualify.

That is something to care about.

You Have The Wrong Department.

giantMay 11th

Dear Chris,

I’m reaching out to you with this exciting new opportunity offered by Silverplate. I’m sure you’ll want to know more about it when you learn that Silverplate can increase your company’s productivity by as much as 23%. It’s really exciting. Click the link below or hit reply to learn more.


Kevin Dohmase

May 13th

Dear Chris,

I know you’re busy and that’s why I thought I’d be proactive and remind you about Silverplate. It works with your schedule. That’s why you need to click the link below or just hit reply. I know you’re excited about this! I am too! Silverplate can increase your productivity by 38% or more, but you need to get back to me soon.


Kevin Dohmase

May 17th

Dear Chris,

You and I both know how easy it is for things to get lost. I bet your inbox is just as cluttered as mine. But that’s why you need Silverplate.  It can cut down on what you don’t need by as much as 17% or more. Click the link or just hit reply. You can’t wait anymore on this!


Kevin Dohmase

May 19th

Dear Chris,

I don’t know why you haven’t gotten back to me. It’s been a rough week, right? Well that’s why you need Silverplate. We both know it’ll increase your productivity and you can grow profits by 22% or more. Just hit reply or click the link below. It’s that easy to get started. Let’s talk soon!


Kevin Dohmase

May 21st

Dear Chris,

I’m going to be in your area this week and I’m willing to give you 100% of my attention if you’ll schedule a time to meet with me and talk about Silverplate and all it can do for you and your company. I think you’ll be amazed how it can assist with hiring, managing, collating, associating, generation, leveraging, synergizing, and innovating. Hit reply or click the link to set up a time that works for you.


Kevin Dohmase

May 25th

Dear Chris,

You’ve been in a serious accident, haven’t you? That’s why you haven’t gotten back to me. I hate to think of you suffering. That’s why I’m here to help—with Silverplate! It can help you solve crises 12% faster or more. I’m ready to dial 9-1-1 to send emergency responders to you right this minute but I need you to reply or just hit the link below if the accident has left you unable to type.


Kevin Dohmase

May 27th

Dear Chris,

What’s wrong? You know I’m here to help and I really want to help, but I can’t help you unless you’re willing to take that first step. We both know that Silverplate can do 19% more of what you really need so there’s no reason for you to not hit reply or click the link below. Don’t you think it’s time?


Kevin Dohmase

May 31st

Dear Chris,

Look, if you don’t want to talk to me just say so. Did you notice there’s an UNSUBSCRIBE link at the bottom of these emails? How hard would it have been to click that link or the TELL ME MORE link or just hit reply since they’re all right there together? If you’re not interested in the 26% savings Silverplate can provide just say so.


Kevin Dohmase

June 6th

Dear Chris,

What are you, some kind of jerk or something? I thought we had a relationship here. I thought we were friends. I’m trying to help you out here. I’m giving this 123%, exactly in discounts the you’ll get with your first order from Silverplate. But if you’re a big old moron  can’t hit reply or click that link. Well I hope you’re happy with yourself. I wish I’d never heard of you.


Kevin Dohmase

June 6th


PUTRID SACK OF ROTTING OFFAL. Something percent. Reply. Link. Whatever. Chicken jockey lips percent. Go down in flames piece of Sacramento


Kevin Dohmase

June 7th

Dear Chris,

I am so sorry. I don’t know what cane over me. I just get so upset thinking about how much you’re missing by not using Silverplate and behaved terribly. My blood alcohol level was 16.8%–the same amount you could see in benefits with Silverplate. Let me make this up to you personally. Hit reply or click the link below to set up a time.


Kevin Dohmase

June 8th

Dear Chris,

You have a right to be upset but please give me a chance to make this up to you. I wouldn’t do this for anyone but because it’s you I’m prepared to offer a 60% discount on your first Silverplate order. Reply or click the link and we can have a fresh start.


June 15th

Kevin Dohmase

Dear Chris,

Now I’m starting to get upset. I tried to give you some space because I know how you are but now you’ve had more than enough time. How much time? Try 77%. And that’s how much you’ve lost by not using Silverplate. This will be my final message. I’ve invested too much in this but we both know we’ve finally come to an end.


Kevin Dohmase

June 17th

Dear Chris,

How serious am I? I’m 100% serious. Silverplate will change your life. Without it you’re nothing. If you don’t at least try it you’ll regret it. I mean really regret it. Think I’m kidding? Click the link or hit reply for proof.


Kevin Dohmase

June 28th

Dear Chris,

I’m sure you’ve heard by now about the tragic and sudden loss of Kevin. It came as a great shock to all of us at Silverplate, and I know it’s affected you and his other friends profoundly as well. In this time of gried we are making a special offer of 25% off all Silverplate products. This is a limited time offer but I’m sure you’ll want to take advantage of it.

Reply to this message or click the link below to find out more about the memorial arrangements for Kevin.

With great sorrow,

Susan Teheler

VP, Silverplate Inc.

July 7th

Dear Chris,

I’m Alex Prigson. I’m sure you’ve heard by now that Hoalsmacker Inc. has acquired Silverplate. We’re very excited about this new transition to a more lucrative partnership. I can assure you the standards of quality you’ve come to expect in Silverplate’s products will not change. We have big plans and the future looks bright. During the transition we’ll be offering a special percentage on new products for existing customers. I can’t disclose the exact details in this message but hit the link below or click reply and I’ll be happy to discuss the deal further.

All the best,


P.S. Kevin speaks very highly of you!

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