Ramble With Me.

Poke In The Eye.

pokeA single stalk of pokeweed came up in the backyard. I recognized it by its bright red stem and its black shiny berries, little oblate spheroids that somehow I knew even as a kid were poisonous, although it was fun to squeeze the juice out of them and write stuff on concrete in dark purple. Except I would later learn pokeweed isn’t always poisonous. Woody Allen’s line that everything our parents said was good for us—milk, sunlight,, red meat, college—actually turned out to be bad for us has its opposite, at least in nature. Plants that are normally toxic—pokeweed, milkweed, stinging nettle—can be edible if you boil them to death. And in the case of pokeweed you have to get the very young leaves when it first comes up in the spring, before it’s put up a stalk. People boil it and eat it, and call it “poke sallet”—not salad, which is what I first thought they were saying, before I saw it in print. I’m not a big fan of leafy greens. I like them best in the form of sag paneer, which is Indian for “creamed spinach”, but I’m kind of tempted by pokeweed, or I would be if I could spot it before it’s branched out. I always forget it Every time I see pokeweed I think of Jerry Thompson. He was a columnist for The Tennessean, back when it was a newspaper and not just a stack of printed coupons. I’m old enough to remember the morning paper being delivered, and I started reading Jerry Thompson’s columns in the fifth or sixth grade. I don’t know why, but I noticed one morning that he’d written something snarky about Barbie ditching Ken and taking up with a sketchy character named Rio. And it was funny to me that this was newsworthy. So “Thompson’s Station”, with his ruminations on everything from pop culture to the good old days when he did things like throw cats on his father’s bare back and accidentally shoot roosters. And there was the time he and a cousin took a snort of an uncle’s moonshine. His uncle kept a jug in the barn “for medicinal purposes”, and Thompson and his cousin weren’t happy when they learned it was flavored with pokeweed root, which may or may not be poisonous but tastes really awful.

My senior year in high school I took a creative writing class. And writing was only part of the class. We also had to submit. The teacher would let us thumb through her copy of The Writer’s Market in search of places that might take the contributions of high school students. And I found some. I had a real knack for finding small publications that had ceased or simply disappeared even though they were still listed as active. Some of my fellow students got their first rejection letters. All I got was envelopes marked “Return to sender”.

The teacher also brought in a few local writers. I was really excited that Jerry Thompson was one of them. By that time I’d learned that he didn’t just write a funny daily column. He’d had a long career as a journalist. He’d been the first journalist to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan, and had written a book about it, My Life In The Klan. I had to explain to a black friend that it was intended to be an exposé of the organization and not a recruiting manual when he saw me reading it. Maybe I should have kept it hidden under my copy of Rooster Bingo, Thompson’s other book, which was a collection of his lighter newspaper columns, although if I’d looked like I was trying to hide it that might have come across as even more suspicious. Thompson in person turned out to be a lot like his columns: gentle and kind and funny and laid back. He told a few jokes and a few stories. Aside from mentioning his love of poke sallet—something he brought up regularly–I really don’t remember anything specific he said, but I do remember he had the longest eyelashes I’d ever seen on anyone.

After each writer visited we were supposed to write a thank-you letter to them. At least that’s how I interpreted it. A girl in the

He signed my copy and added, "Dear Chris, if you ever play rooster bingo I hope you win." I feel like I lost.

He signed my copy and added, “Dear Chris, if you ever play rooster bingo I hope you win.” I feel like I lost.

class wrote a report on Thompson’s visit, describing his attitude and adding that he was really cool. It, along with my thank-you letter, was mailed to him, and Thompson wrote about it and quoted her, but didn’t mention me, his number one fan–at least in the class. Being published eluded me once again.

A few years later Jerry Thompson would be diagnosed with cancer. Since I was off at college I didn’t read his columns regularly anymore so I missed most of his fight with the disease, although on a few trips home I did see his new “Thompson’s Station” photo. Already bald when I’d met him Thompson’s new photo showed him completely hairless, eyelashes and all. He would fight the disease for eleven years before finally passing away in early 2000. Maybe I should put a marker or a small fence around that spot where that pokeweed plant came up so that next spring I’ll be able to spot it as soon as the first leaves appear, but I’ll probably forget about it until there’s a bright red stalk.

The Return.

radnor1Last weekend for the first time in over a year I took part in a volunteer day at Radnor Lake.

Radnor Lake is an artificial lake created in 1914 to provide water for the railroads. The surrounding woods were preserved and used as a recreational area by the railroad owners and their families. In 1973, facing the prospect of being developed for condominiums, a group of citizens worked with the state to purchase the land and preserve it. The area now gets over a million visitors a year.

There are still remnants of a pipe that ran downhill over seven miles from the lake itself to Union Station in downtown Nashville. A small part of that pipe is now on display alongside the Historic Valve House Trail. I helped move that piece and helped build the trail. I’ve also worked on other trails and other projects, including the new aviary. The part I’ve played is extremely small, but it’s still a part. With a lot of others I’ve helped make Radnor Lake a better place.radnor2

What makes Radnor Lake unique is that it’s a completely protected wilderness area in the middle of a major urban city. This makes it easy to get to, but it’s large enough that there are places within it where the forest seems infinite. It’s a place where a complete stranger might come up alongside you on the trail to point out a great blue heron standing just a few feet away, and where deer have become so accustomed to people they’ll come right up to you. I can go there when I want to be completely alone, and I can really enjoy taking friends there, or meeting strangers. It makes me happy to see other people enjoying Radnor Lake, which, I think, is why the volunteer days mean so much to me.

A little over a year ago I didn’t know when I’d be able to go back to another volunteer day. At times I wondered if I’d ever be able to go back. And then this weekend I was there spreading mulch on a trail. People walked by and paused to say, “Thank you.” I thanked them.

Are you lucky enough to have a place like that?

I really was working and not just standing around like a schmuck. Source: Friends of Radnor Lake



The People You Meet.

elvisWhen friends ask me, “I’m going to England, what should I do?” my standard answer is “Go to pubs.” Most of the time they already know their itinerary and a guidebook will list the touristy sights to be seen better than I can. Going to a pub will enhance their experience because, in my experience anyway, it was the best place to meet interesting people.

One night I was in a pub and had just ordered a pint when I heard a voice next to me ask, “Are you American?” Some people advise responding to this question by pretending to be Canadian, but I found that most of the time anyone who asked was interested to meet an American and didn’t want to berate me about my country’s political and military policies, although sometimes when they learned I was from Nashville they’d have so much to say about Elvis I’d wish I’d said I was from Toronto, but that’s another story.

On this particular occasion I said “yes” and looked over at the guy who’d asked. He had a blonde mullet, going bald from the front, and was wearing the kind of tracksuit I associated with 1980’s-era Al Sharpton. In Britain they’re called “shell suits.”

“All you Americans are a bunch of wankers,” he said. As he tilted his pint glass back to drain the last golden drops from it I was tempted to say something like, “No, just the guys,” but he was glassy-eyed and had slurred a little.

“You Americans are all wankers,” he said again, then he turned to me and moved a little closer. I got a little bit of a buzz when he exhaled. “But you listen to me. I was in America the other day.” The other day? Did he just pop over there for a day trip? He’d leaned toward me menacingly and I thought I’d better hold my tongue. “Everybody was trying to sell me ice cream.” It was really hard not to laugh, but he was so serious I kept still. “But they took care of me. You know that? The Americans took care of me, and I want you to know I’ll take care of you. Anybody gives you trouble I’ll fix ‘em.”

“Steve, your cab’s here,” someone called from the door. Steve—that was who I’d been talking to—stood up. He was six feet tall but looked like he weighed about eighty pounds. I appreciated having a potential bodyguard who could be knocked over by a stiff breeze. As I turned back to finish my own pint I noticed the bartender was red-faced from laughing.

I’ve always been fascinated by Marx’s statement that history repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce. There wasn’t anything tragic about meeting Steve, apart from the fact that the pub was in a remote town I’d been passing through and that I’d never go back to, but events in life sometimes have echoes. A few nights later I turned on Spitting Image. The episode ended with a song about the county of Essex, and there was Steve! Or at least bulkier versions of Steve wearing shell suits just like his. I laughed until I hurt.

One of the wonderful things about the internet is for years I’ve been able to tell the first part of the story but there was no way to convey the second part without actually having the Spitting Image video on hand. And here it is.

The Haunted Hole: The Revenge!

A few months ago I wrote about the haunted hole in our backyard. To recap: last summer after filling the hole with dirt only to later find the dirt all washed out and the hole filled with water again I filled it with tiny rocks which were then mysteriously removed.

I don’t want the hole to fill up with water because then it becomes a breeding pond for mosquitoes.

This summer I tried dirt again and it didn’t work, so I added more dirt and placed a large rock in the hole thinking, hey, just like the small rocks this rock will be removed within a few days and then I’ll write something funny about it. As Robert Burns said the best laid rocks gang aft agley. And then the rock sat there. And sat there. And sat there. I accepted two things: first the holey ghost had a sense of humor and by writing about it I’d taken all the fun out of the joke, and, second, I’d finally solved the mosquito problem.

And there was a third thing I had to accept: the term “spunk-water” I quoted from The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer didn’t result in unusual search results bringing anyone here. Neither did the fact that the hole, formed by two trees that have grown together, does sort of resemble a certain part of female anatomy as pointed out by Jamie of The Pinknoam.

Anyway here’s the hole a few days ago:

002No joke. The ghost was back. At first I thought it only moved the rock aside slightly because psychokinesis requires a great deal of energy regardless of what you see in the movies, but then I realized it was mocking me.

The dirt at least is still there, but sooner or later it’s going to rain. This just might turn into a trilogy.



The Details Are Nuts.

Details intentionally obscured.

Details intentionally obscured.

I got an envelope in the mail with “DETAILS INSIDE” printed on it. I could be wrong but I thought that it was in the very nature of envelopes to keep the details of a letter on the inside, usually because it’s too easy for multiple pages to get separated and lost from each other, although also for reasons of privacy. I once asked my grandfather why steam came out of the kettle when it was heated. He said, “So your grandmother can read the neighbors’ mail,” but that’s another story.

I have no problem with warnings on labels that other people seem to consider ridiculously redundant, like “May contain nuts” on jars of nuts. Logically I know that the labels are made by large companies that package a lot of different things and one standard label is cheaper and easier than separating the nuts from the chaff. And an allergy to nuts can be fatal. If I were allergic to nuts and saw “May contain nuts” on a jar of nuts I’d think, “Thank you, large faceless corporation, for going just a little bit further to protect my safety.”

So why did “DETAILS INSIDE” irk me so much? Maybe not so much because it was redundant but it was inaccurate. There were details on the outside too. My name and address, not to mention the sender’s address, which, if nothing else had, gave it away as junk mail, were details. It should have said “MORE DETAILS INSIDE”.

For a while my wife and I inexplicably got the mail of a guy who, as far as we knew, had never lived there. Most of it was junk mail so I think maybe he got our address from somewhere and was giving it out instead of ours to throw off marketers. The mail that came gave me some details about him: he liked to collect swords, enjoyed cigars, and I think he even subscribed to Details magazine.

Pictured: Some magazines I might subscribe to.  Not pictured: Details magazine.

Pictured: Some magazines I might subscribe to.
Not pictured: Details magazine.

I had a more disturbing mail experience when I met a guy at a local coffee shop. We’d see each other at poetry readings we both attended. I learned he worked at the post office and he learned I wrote poetry. And then he started writing me notes on the outside of my mail. He was right there in the post office. Couldn’t he have just written me a letter? I didn’t want to report him because he knew where I lived. That was a detail I’d never wanted to share with him.

I Before E, Unless You Mean Me.


Gina over at Endearingly Wacko reminded me of the Myers-Briggs personality test which I’ve taken three or four times. Everyone I’ve ever talked to has said no matter how many times they take it their results are always the same. Because I can’t do anything right I’ve ended up with slightly different results each time.

The first time I was an INFP. That’s an Introverted iNtuitive Feeling Perceiver. You can check the Myers-Briggs list of personality types to see what that says about me.

Another time I took a version of the test with an even number of questions and came out as an INXP. That is I was precariously balanced between being a Feeler and a Thinker, both analytical and emotional.

In that same test I was just one question shy of being an XNXP since I was, according to the results, an introverted extrovert. Or an extroverted introvert. And I’m so ludicrously ambivalent about most things I think I’m just a few questions shy of being an Australian beer.

Australians only drink Foster’s when this stuff gets caught in their work computer’s filter.

When I took the test at work I came out an ENTP. Maybe that explains the variations in my results since that type is described as “Bored by routine, will seldom do the same thing the same way”.

Again, though, it was a very small number of questions that made the difference between me being an E and an I, and I didn’t think all the questions were exactly fair. One stood out: “Do you prefer to (a) see a movie in a theater or (b) watch a movie at home?”

Anyone who answered (a), I understood, must be an extrovert while anyone who answered (b) must be an introvert.

Is it that simple? I love to see movies in the theater—it’s my preferred way of seeing a movie, and I enjoy going with people I know so we can talk about it afterward, but I don’t want to carry on a conversation while the movie’s going on. And I’m fine with going to see a movie by myself. It lessens the chance that someone will (a) sit directly in front of me, (b) sit directly in front of me and hold up their phone, or (3) talk during the movie.


Sometimes it’s just me and Claude Raines.

Normally people talking during a movie, or even during the previews—hey, sometimes the previews are the best part!—makes me crazy, but I think because I’m an iNtuitive type there are times when it doesn’t bother me. There are even times when I enjoy it. Well, there was that one time. During the first few minutes of Pulp Fiction a woman directly behind me said, “I’ve seen this before. I’ve seen this on the TV.” And then a man next to her chuckled loudly and said, “You’re dumb! This ain’t never been on the TV.” They kept up this discussion a little bit before I finally turned around and gave them an “Okay, the joke’s not funny anymore” look. The guy added a final parting shot of “See what you done?” before shutting up.

Then there was the time I went to see the 2011 film The Thing which was a prequel to the 1982 film The Thing, which sometimes gets described as a remake of the 1951 film The Thing From Another World, but was really a more faithful adaptation of John W. Campbell’s novella “Who Goes There?” first published in 1938.


This simple diagram should make everything clear.

As Ennio Morricone’s haunting theme played over the credits all of us—me and half a dozen others, I think, all strangers—in the theater gathered together and got into an impromptu discussion of how the 2011 film fit with the 1982 film, how both differed from the 1951 film, and what all three films drew from the novella.

The house lights came up, a theater employee came in to sweep up any spilled popcorn, and we separated—reluctantly, or so I imagined. As an extrovert I should have said what I was thinking, which was, “Hey, there’s a burger joint next door. Why don’t we continue this over milkshakes? By the way, I’m Chris, but you can call me Spunky The Wonder Squid.”

It Spoke To Me.

When I was six or seven I was touring a colonial house with my parents. The guide picked up a bucket and said, “Imagine if this could talk. Imagine the stories it would have to tell.” And I thought, well, it’d probably say, “I liked being filled up. It was my only chance to look around. Then they’d empty me and stick me back here in the corner. Been here a long time. So, do you guys like water?”

Jokes aside it was the first time I’d heard the cliché of “if this thing could talk”. It was a concept I liked because it really did tickle me to think how different the priorities of antiques would be, which would make them less than ideal witnesses to the history they’d been privy to.

Including privies.

Especially privies.

So I found the story written on this car interesting. It was as though the car were speaking to me, although it seems to really have been the story of the owner. It sounds like a love story, or the start of one. This was yet another case of a car I would have happily followed to learn more about its owner. I don’t know why I didn’t leave a note. A note is one thing we can create that does speak, not for itself, but for us, which is what matters.

001Taking a broader view I can see a couple of other reasons I would have liked to talk to the driver.


Pick A Card.

slinkyListening to a radio report on the demise of voice mail reminded me of how much time at work I used to spend on the phone. My first job out of college was in customer service where all I did was answer phones. If you’ve ever worked in a job like this my heart goes out to you. It was a miserable three months even though a lot of the truck drivers were nice, and two were former professors of anthropology.

Even when I went on to work in a library I still spent a lot of time on the phone. Sometimes the only way to resolve an issue was to call a publisher or other company and speak to someone personally. This continued long after email became ubiquitous. A funny side story: I used to have to contact a company in Europe. Because of the language barrier and the expense of phone calls I’d send them faxes. They’d type a reply on the same sheet as the fax and mail it to me. This drove me nuts because if they replied by fax I’d have an answer the next day, but they used some bizarro mail rate that meant it took a month for a letter to get to me. When they got email I thought, “At last! My problems are solved!” and fired off a quick message to them. A month later I got my email, printed, with a response typed at the bottom, sealed in an envelope.

They did figure it out eventually.

"Wait a minute. There's a button here that says 'Reply'. Can we use that?"

“Wait a minute. There’s a button here that says ‘Reply’. Can we use that?”

The library where I work, like most libraries, used to have a card catalog. Librarians stopped updating it in 1986 when computers were installed. It must have seemed like a gradual change. Most of the information in the card catalog was still useful for years, even until they ripped out the drawers to make way for meeting rooms, although long before that the cards themselves were removed. They were given out to anyone who wanted them. I took stacks and stacks, and kept going back for more. They were useful for taking short notes so I kept them next to my phone.


No joke–I drew this while waiting for someone to pick up.

Most of the time I spent on the phone wasn’t even spent talking to anyone. It was waiting for someone to pick up, listening to hold music. I’d sit and eat peanut brittle and pass that off as static when a person finally picked up. Or I’d draw pictures.

The time I spent on the phone diminished so gradually I didn’t even notice it going away. I still have stacks of old library cards. I still use them to write notes sometimes.


Light ‘Em Up.

I’d always assumed lightning bugs–also known as “fireflies” by the utterly pretentious–could be found in Britain as well as the United States. There are legends there of the will-o’-the-wisp that would lure unwary travelers into bogs and drown them, although that was probably swamp gas. And there are glow-worms. There’s a glow-worm in Roald Dahl’s James And The Giant Peach. She’s a pretty minor character and I think Dahl forgot about her once most of the action moved to the top of the peach, but it’s not as though bioluminescent insects are unknown on the other side of the pond. So it kind of threw me when, as we were walking up the driveway to the house where I was staying, my British friend stopped and said, “Chris…why are there little lights all over your yard?”

We’d had a few drinks and he wondered if I’d slipped something in his beer while he wasn’t looking. In retrospect I wish I’d strung him along a little bit and asked, “What? What the hell are you talking about?” Instead I reached down and scooped up a lightning bug. And it was a good opportunity to tell him about the time when I was a kid and filled a jar with lightning bugs then turned them loose in the house. My parents spent half the night catching them. Then when they finally went to bed they lay there in the dark and could see the occasional flash.

This was in Indiana where a bill to make the lightning bug the state insect. It never went anywhere. Regardless of your political views how can you not embrace that? There’s a U-Haul trailer design of a giant lightning bug that specifically says “Indiana”.

Maybe it’s because they’re sneaky. I set a camera out one night when there seemed to be hundreds of them out. No matter where I put it they seemed to say, “Okay, we’re being watched. Let’s move over there!”


I’m Writing Like A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off.

“I didn’t even know what salmonella was. Until I was twenty years old I thought it was some guy who used to run around and dip his ass in mayonnaise products.”

Dom Irrera

I’ve mentioned before that my wife and I feed our dogs raw food, which is called, appropriately enough, the Bones And Raw Food or BARF diet. It’s supposed to approximate what dogs would eat in the wild, minus the hair, parasites, and fights over who gets the head, which some of my Southern family members have assured me is the tastiest part of the squirrel, but that’s another story.

Providing this diet means every few weeks I grind up a hundred and twenty pounds or so of raw chicken, usually in the form of chicken necks.


It’s not as bad as it sounds.

Raw chicken necks also occasionally come with the head still attached, which is all part of the fun. I run the necks—minus the heads, which I’m pretty sure aren’t that tasty anyway—through a meat grinder. And I’m careful because raw chicken can carry salmonella.


My chicken chamber of horrors.

Accidents can still happen, though. I’ve heard cases of cooks getting sick from a little squirt of chicken liquid while they were chopping one up for the fryer. And there was a possible outbreak of salmonella over at Crankoutloud that confirmed that it’s not a lot of fun.

Because we buy chicken necks in bulk, sometimes directly from a distributor, I sometimes get them frozen in a block of ice. This means I end up with coolers full of watery chicken blood. I’ve found safe ways to dispose of this. I used to dump it in the front yard, thinking it would be good fertilizer, but I got into trouble when the photographer across the street, the one who’s been stuck at home since he broke his leg, saw me dumping blood while my wife was out of town.

I hope you don't need this to underline the punchline for you.  Source: IMDB

I hope you don’t need this to underline the punchline for you.
Source: IMDB

The last time I ground chicken necks I went out to dinner afterwards, and I imagined coming down with salmonella. This might lead to an investigation of the restaurant. I can see the headline.


Then there’d be an investigation of me and they’d find the freezer full of ground up raw chicken. I can see the headline.



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