Latest Posts

For What It’s Worth…

If you’re not familiar with the show Adam Ruins Everything here’s the pitch: comedian Adam Conover takes big subjects–weddings, pets, prison, death–and challenges common misconceptions about those subjects in entertaining ways. I’m kind of hooked on it and I rarely feel like anything’s really been ruined for me; I just feel slightly better informed, especially after watching several episodes in a row, which is why I dread the inevitable Adam Ruins Binge Watching, but that’s another story.

In a second season episode Adam Ruins Art he breaks down the idea that experts have an objective understanding of what’s good art and what’s bad art, and he explains that the sometimes ridiculous prices on art, especially modern art, mean that wealthy collectors can buy a piece then donate it and get a tax break. So it’s not just gallery owners and artists who have the chutzpah to smack a six-figure price tag on a pile of beer bottles and cigarette butts; it can benefit the collectors too. Anyway for a palette cleanser I switched over to the first season’s Adam Ruins Restaurants in which he talks about, among other things, how wine experts will praise an expensive wine and bash a cheap one even if it’s the same wine.

And that got me thinking about how we value things and how a high price can trick us into thinking something’s inherently more valuable than something with a low price, and, graffiti is pretty cheap. Most people even think graffiti brings down the value of an area, or they think about the cost of removing it. Graffiti might be the only art that’s seen as having a negative value. So consider this piece.

This funny, odd little fish made me smile when I saw it from the second floor of the Belcourt Theater. It was across the street, on a building that was under construction. And because of the way it was placed it could only be seen from inside the theater’s second floor, or if you were one of the construction crew. I only saw it after I’d bought a movie ticket. I wasn’t looking for graffiti but did that make a difference? And whoever put it there took a risk. They took the risk of being caught, of being injured. All that gets into my head and makes me wonder, what’s it worth?


Prepare The Transit Beam.

I was home from college because it was Fall Break, a holiday that doesn’t get nearly the credit it deserves, barely even heard of, unlike the flashy, high-powered beach-hopping, binge-drinking, rowdy Spring Break. It was after 2:00am on Sunday morning, just hours before I’d be heading back to school and I needed to get home and pack and maybe get some sleep, but for now my friend John and I were on the road between Franklin and Nashville, having just gone to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. We were having our usual post-Rocky debate, which we’d had thirty or so times before, but which we always had even though the singing, dancing, and general rowdiness left us exhausted. The debate was about whether there was any meaning to the movie. John argued that it was a nonsensical assemblage of songs and silliness, that it was almost random and certainly meaningless, which you’d think would be an argument-stopper, but he loved to debate. John was studying to be a lawyer, and had known he was going to be a lawyer while most of us were only thinking about whether the school cafeteria was going to be serving pudding that day. Even before starting high school John had a life plan: what classes to take, where he’d go to college, where he’d eventually go to find a law firm and what kind of cases he wanted to take. His plans didn’t always pan out but I envied him for having plans. Anyway my side of the post-Rocky debate was that there was a theme running through the movie of innocence subsumed by darkness and cynicism, as foreshadowed by the opening in which Brad and Janet sing their way to an engagement while the wedding decorations are replaced by funeral ones. It was a bleak and bitter interpretation even though I didn’t think of myself as a bleak and bitter guy, but still it was the best I could do. And then on this particular night I added something else: that innocence is fleeting and that once it’s lost we have to struggle to find meaning in amidst the uncertainty of the world. It was a bit heavy-handed, but still, at the very end, when the Criminologist says we are “some insects called the human race, lost in time, and lost in space, and in meaning” he leaves the globe lit. There is still a light in the darkness.

John was considering his response when the car shuddered and the engine knocked. He pulled over to the side of the road and the tires crunched over gravel before coming to a stop.

“Oh,” he said, “we’re out of gas.”

Source: IMDB

We were in sight of Exit 69, and John set out for a nearby gas station, leaving me with the car. Alone. A cop car came by and shone a spotlight on me without stopping. I waved, unsure what to do. At that point I felt unsure about everything. My sophomore year of college was not going well. I’d just ended a long relationship, some good friends I’d made as a freshman had transferred or dropped out, my classes were boring and I felt like I wasn’t learning anything new, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, what I wanted or what I could do. I was literally and metaphorically stuck and the road ahead, also literally and metaphorically, was dark. The woods were tempting. I started thinking about a childish fantasy I’d had for years, that I retreated to whenever things got tough. I thought I could slip off into the woods, abandoning everything. I could build a fire, make a shelter, find food and water. What else did I need?

I stepped back out of the woods when a pickup truck pulled up on the other side of the road and stopped. A guy got out of the driver’s side and John got out of the passenger’s side, carrying a gas can. We thanked the guy and he brushed it off, saying he was going our way anyway, and a few minutes later we were back on our way.

And without really knowing why I suddenly felt better about the road ahead. It was still dark, metaphorically but not literally, but all I’d needed was to stop and refuel.


Big Mouth.

A man was walking along a road at night when he found a skull. He lifted his foot to kick it when the skull spoke.

“My big mouth got me here and yours will too.”

The man bent down to examine the skull. He moved to pick it up then jumped back as it spoke again.

“My big mouth got me here and yours will too.”

The man ran to a nearby tavern to tell everyone what he’d found. A big crowd followed him out into the cold and dark. He took them to the spot where the skull lay.

“Speak!” the man cried.

The skull was silent.

“Say something!” the man cried.

The skull was still silent.

The man tapped it with his foot then kicked it.

The skull rolled over but was still silent.

The crowd began to get angry at having been come out of the warm, well-lit tavern into the cold, dark night. They started to shout at the man who insisted he’d been telling the truth. Then, in his frustration, he began lashing out at the crowd with his fists. Some of the larger men in the crowd hit back, then, as the man started to curse at them, they knocked him down and beat him severely. They kicked and punched him until he was quiet, then returned to the tavern.

As the man lay there dying he looked at the skull.

“I told you so,” said the skull.

Monsters In Jeopardy.


[Jeopardy! theme music plays. Alex Trebek stands center stage.]

ALEX TREBEK: And we’re back to this very special episode of Jeopardy! Let’s take a moment to talk to today’s contestants.

[He crosses over to the contestants.]

ALEX TREBEK: Count Dracula, you’re an undead Romanian prince. I understand you can assume the forms of a bat, a wolf, and a white mist, and you travel extensively. Tell us a little about the charity you’re playing for today.


ALEX TREBEK: Can you elaborate on that?

COUNT DRACULA: Of course. Is great need for blood in Romania. I bring people of all kinds to castle in Wallachia. I take blood and dr—uh, give…give to those who need blood.

ALEX TREBEK: That sounds like a great cause. Moving on, Frankenstein’s Monster, you’re an assemblage of body parts from different corpses. Some people call you “Frankenstein” but that was in fact the name of the doctor who first animated you.


ALEX TREBEK: Okay then. Tell us about what charity you’re playing for.


ALEX TREBEK: Yes, the Firefighters’ Association is a noble cause. All right, and our third contestant was going to be The Invisible Man but we couldn’t find him.


COUNT DRACULA: Children of the night, what music they make.

ALEX TREBEK: We were very lucky to get as a replacement the Creature From The Black Lagoon. Creature, I’ve been admiring your suit.

CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON: Thank you, Alex, it’s specially designed to pump water through my gills and keep my skin moist. It’s made by Armani. But I’d really like to talk about my charity.

ALEX TREBEK: Go ahead then.

CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON: It’s called River Run, an organization that purchases, preserves, and reclaims large parts of the Amazon rainforest. Once we lose biodiversity it’s impossible to get it back.

ALEX TREBEK: Well okay. Maybe later we can talk more about that suit. I get a little dry under these lights myself.

[Trebek crosses back to his podium.]

ALEX TREBEK: All right, we have one two-thousand dollar clue left in the Double Jeopardy round under the category Sci-Fi Food, and the clue is: Revenge is a dish best served cold, but this Klingon dish should be warm and wriggling.


ALEX TREBEK: That’s correct! I have to remind you again that we ask contestants to phrase responses in the form of a question, but since we’re playing for charity we’ll bend the rules again. Frankestein’s Monster, that brings your total up to seven dollars.

And now for final Jeopardy! The subject today is Renaissance Artists. Take a moment to think about that while you make your wagers.

And here’s the clue: this Italian artist was both a painter and a sculptor, known for both the Sistine Chapel ceiling and a statue of David, and he made a mean Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Thirty seconds, contestants.

[Think! music plays.]

ALEX TREBEK: All right, let’s see your answers. Count Dracula, we come to you first. You had $200 and you wrote down…“is blood”.

COUNT DRACULA: Is answer to everything.

ALEX TREBEK: And you wagered two-hundred dollars, so I’m afraid that leaves you with nothing. Next we come to Frankenstein’s Monster. You wrote down “Abby Someone”. Interesting, but incorrect. What did you wager? Nothing.


ALEX TREBEK: So you still have seven dollars. Finally we come to the Creature From The Black Lagoon who looked like he couldn’t be caught with a score of fifty-four thousand, seven-hundred dollars. Uh oh, you’re shaking your head. It looks like you wrote “Michelangelo” then crossed it out and replaced it with “Donatello”. I’m sorry, that’s incorrect. And what was your wager?

CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON: I figured go big or go home, Alex.

ALEX TREBEK: You bet it all. Well, that means Frankenstein’s Monster is today’s champion. Congratulations!



The Vanishing Hitchhiker.

Vanishing hitchhiker stories are almost as old as the wheel, which may be why they have as many twists as old country roads.

I wish I could say it was a dark and stormy night, but it was actually very clear, and not really all that dark because there was a large full moon overhead that lit the carpet of mist that hung over the English countryside. I was in the back of a taxi being driven by Big Dave. Big Dave drove for a local cab company that carried students back and forth between the manor where I lived and the nearby town of Grantham. It was Harlaxton Manor, by the way, which appears in several films, including the 1999 film The Haunting, but that’s another story.

Big Dave, who was called that because he took up the entire front of the cab, usually had a story to tell, like the time he went for a swim in the fountain in Trafalgar Square at midnight, fully clothed—in December, or the time he was bitten by the only poisonous snake in Britain. This particular night, though, he was unusually quiet. I said, “It’s lovely out tonight.”

“Yer,” said Dave. “Reminds me of when I lived in Cornwall. Ever been to the coast down there?”

I hadn’t. “What’s it like?”

“Pretty. Lots of ruins. Lots of history down in Cornwall, there is. Strange thing happened to me there on a night like this too.”

I leaned forward. “Go on.”

“I was drivin’ down an empty stretch of road, a lot like this one, and see this bloke walkin’ almost in the middle of it. I swerved around him and stopped. Somethin’ might be wrong with him, I thought, so I opened the car and offered him a ride. He got in. Didn’t say much. I asked where he was goin’ and he said just down the road a bit. I thought that was odd. No houses around that I could see. So we drove on a bit and up ahead I could see this little church, a little place I must’ve passed a hundred times and never seen anyone in it. And that’s when he said, ‘Here it is.’ I started to slow down and he said, ‘Ta for the ride, I’ve got something for you.’ I thought, that’s torn it, I’ve picked up a lunatic and he’s gonna kill me. I pulled over in front of the house and was about to punch him or run for it when I felt somethin’ stick in my ribs.”

He took a deep breath.

“What was it?” I asked.

“I thought it was a piece of paper. I unrolled it and it was a fiver. I looked up and he was gone.”

“He paid you for the ride and then he disappeared.”


“So the money was real?”

Dave shrugged. “Dunno. It disappeared too.”

“It did?”

“Yer. I went down the pub after that and had a few pints and when I left the money was all gone.”

Then he laughed so hard the cab shook the rest of the way.

Red In Tooth And Claw.

Edgar Allan Poe hated allegory. Most of his stories are just stories. That doesn’t mean they’re one-dimensional, but he didn’t usually have a clear moral or message or metaphor in mind, which makes The Masque Of The Red Death a weird story for him. Then again he also liked to dabble and experiment and he was kind of a joker—hey, the guy authorized his worst enemy to write his biography, but that’s another story. It’s also one of Poe’s most famous stories, one of several that Roger Corman decided to adapt from 1960 to 1965, starring—of course—Vincent Price–and which he then remade—unfortunately without Vincent Price—in 1989, although the plot needed a lot of beefing up. Another adaptation was done by Wendy Pini, famous for the Elfquest graphic novels, as a web comic (NSFW), this time set in the distant future and full of polymorphously perverse characters who run the gender spectrum.

Anyway, it’s written in third person, and set, like a fable or fairy tale, in a remote land, and its protagonist, Prince Prospero, is mostly absent from the story although he is introduced as “happy and dauntless and sagacious”—that last is a favorite word of Poe’s and almost always used ironically. He’s a party guy, not much of a leader, and hopes to cheat death with a bunch of his friends by sealing himself off from the world, a plan that won’t work out and that’s only a spoiler if you don’t know anything about Poe. It was also a common technique. In Boccaccio’s Decameron, which may be one of Poe’s sources, a group of nobles try to escape from the plague by hiding out in a remote castle and telling each other sexy stories, and Poe may also have read at least one account of masked balls held in Paris during a cholera epidemic.

What’s even more unusual for Poe than the allegorical nature of the story is its use of color symbolism. Prince Prospero has seven rooms, possibly a reference to Shakespeare’s seven ages of man. Each room devoted to a single color and in a very specific order: blue, purple, green, orange, white, violet, and finally black. In The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe Stephen Peithman says, “Color symbolism is a tricky business,” but based on the context it’s possible to make some informed guesses. Blue, for instance, symbolizes the dawning of life, and is also the color of morning. Purple is blue colored by red–that first rush of blood. Green is the color of growth and renewal, spring and summer. Orange is an autumn color, and the color of the setting sun, white is the color of age–of whitening hair, and also winter and snow, violet is purple mixed with white, a color mid-life crisis, and then black is oblivion, the absence of color. Each room has stained glass windows, all lit from behind by braziers–even the sun is shut out of Prospero’s world–of corresponding colors, except for the black room where the window is “a deep blood color”. Blood is the very essence of life, but also the mark of the plague Prospero and pals want to escape.

And if the symbolism isn’t heavy enough the final black room has a giant ebony clock and every time it strikes all the partying stops, briefly, until that moment in the story when the guest who crashes every party shows up.

And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.

Doctor X Will Build A Creature.

The following story was written by journalist Allen Walker and appeared in the October 2016 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 A Werewolf Problem In Central Indiana, Living Or Dead Is Purely Coincidental (Part 1, Part, 2, Part 3, Part 4), That Was The Year That Was, and Submerged.

“Isn’t he magnificent?” Dr. Xavier says as she flips the carcass over on the exam table. Magnificent is not the word that comes to my mind. In fact I feel slightly ill. The glare of burnished metal brings out details that might normally only be seen under a magnifying glass, but here there’s nothing between us. His–since we’re calling it a he–legs are folded inward toward the center of its body in the classic death position of normal-sized specimens, and he gives off a musky, slightly sweet odor reminiscent of rotting hay. Dr. Xavier is gently prying the legs apart to expose the underside.

“How can you tell he’s a he?” I ask quietly, taking a step back.

She presses gloved fingers to different parts, using technical terms and explaining that if it were a female this would be longer, that would be shorter. She points to a cluster of bulbs at its rear. “The spinnerets would be much bigger, although with the original species we bred from there’s not that much difference in size between the males and females. That’s one reason we chose from the family Sparassidae.”

That’s a relief, I think. I’d read that in some species the female is ten times bigger, or more, than the male. The specimen in front of me is big enough as it is, thank you very much.

I am, of course, at the renowned and controversial Praetorius Institute in eastern Tennessee, near where the state shares borders with North Carolina and Virginia. The Institute, or PI as everyone here likes to call it, has been praised, criticized, celebrated, demonized, and even scrutinized by government officials and watchdogs, and yet its work has gone on, thanks in part to its defenders. When scientists first cloned Dolly the sheep in the late twentieth century that was controversial too, but was a great leap forward in understanding biology. And this breakthrough has great practical potential as well.

At least that’s what the PI’s researchers and its defenders argue. There are a lot of people, including me, who still have trouble with the idea of a spider three feet long roaming around.

Since no human, alive or dead, has ever seen such a thing it’s difficult to find the right words. The joints of its cylindrical legs are machine-like, and yet they’re hairy. The upper, narrower thorax is mostly bare, a dull black, with a look of molded plastic. The round abdomen is covered with smooth gray fur with bands of dark brown.

Dr. Xavier’s straight dark hair hangs down as she turns it right side up again and deftly moves it around. I ask her how much it weighs.

“Alive he was twelve, maybe thirteen kilos. About eleven now. They dry out quickly. Would you like to touch it?” She grins. “Unless you think it’ll bite.”

That’s exactly what I’m thinking. Intellectually too I know there‘s no real danger. On my arrival I am given a press packet and taken straight to Dr. Xavier‘s corner office where pictures of her partner and two children decorated her desk along with pictures of spiders. A web knitted from yarn hangs in front of the window overlooking the valley. After offering me some tea in a Spider-Man mug Dr. Xavier starts to give me her prepared speech. Spider silk is the holy grail of engineering materials. As strong as steel but extremely light it has limitless possibilities for everything from medicine to construction to space exploration. The problem has always been getting it. The Praetorius Institute, like some other organizations, started experiments with implanting spider genes in female goats which would then produce spider silk from their milk glands. It had limited success but the silk had to be extracted from goats’ milk and required a lot of processing. “We knew we could do better,” Dr. Xavier says. “And the answer was simple. Instead of cutting out genes from spiders and sticking them somewhere else we had to go straight to the source.” She then pulls a slim book from behind her desk and hands it to me. It’s a children’s book of prehistoric creatures and she’s opened it to a picture of a primeval forest with giant insects.
“The world used to have giant dragonflies and meter-long millipedes,” she says. “There may even be mega-spider fossils we just haven’t found yet. One reason bugs don’t get so big anymore is the atmosphere used to have as much as forty percent more oxygen than it does now.”
“So,” I say, “if one of your spiders were to get loose–“

”It would suffocate before it could even leave the building.” But what if there’s some reflex that causes even the dead ones to react? I wish I’d gone with the group tour instead of the solo option when I accepted the invitation. Then when there was a call for volunteers I could hang back, let someone else put their hand in harm’s way. As I think this Dr. Xavier comes around to my side of the table and grabs my arm. She puts my hand on the abdomen.

“Just stroke it. See? It’s like petting a cat.”

I wonder if this will affect my feelings for my real cat, Emily, whose fur is also gray. In fact it’s nothing like petting a cat. The fur is soft, but the body underneath is hard. It’s like petting a mannikin wearing a mink stole.

“We thought they’d be prickly,” Dr. Xavier goes on, “but they’re surprisingly soft. That’s just one thing. Look at the feet.” She bends a hairy leg backwards. The underside is covered with deep grooves that form circles, like a fingerprint. “It’s almost like a gecko,” she says. “Fortunately they can’t climb. Then she turns the spider’s face to me. I step back, but she doesn‘t notice. “And look at how the palps and mandibles are different from what you’d find in a regular spider. Even after three decades we can’t always predict what will happen when we tinker with DNA to this degree.” Above the broad beak six greenish orbs seem to glower at me.

We go to lunch in the PI’s cafeteria. On a lower floor than Dr. Xavier’s office it overlooks a small artificial pond and the surrounding forest. It’s crowded and I’m reminded that the spiders are just one of a dozen or so projects that sound like science fiction going on at the PI, and yet no one here looks like a mad scientist. Least of all Dr. Xavier. Over our lunch of Caesar salads topped with seared steak I bring up the controversial nature of the mega-spiders. She sighs.

“I’ve had this debate with practically everyone I know, including most of my family. I don’t want to be glib about anyone’s feelings but humans have been manipulating genes for as long as we’ve had agriculture. The mega-spiders are as natural as a hybrid tomato. You want an abomination? Look at a Labradoodle.”

To try and relieve some of the tension I change the subject.

“What made you want to study genetics? Your parents weren‘t scientists.”

“No. My father wanted to be but he went into hardware instead to support my grandparents after they came over from Vietnam. He encouraged me, though, and I’ve always had an interest in bugs. I got a Barbie Dream House one Christmas and used it to raise palmetto bugs.”

“Giant palmetto bugs?”

She laughs. “As big as they get. I was more interested in their life cycle and behavior, though. It was reading about fruit flies that got me into genomics. The idea that everything we are is determined by a single long molecule just fascinated me.” She puts her hand over her mouth as she thoughtfully chews a larger piece of steak. “The problem with mega-spiders, of course, was where to start.”

“Which came first: the spider or the egg?” I start to laugh but she pounces on this.

“Exactly! We couldn’t just flip a switch and make spiders grow big. That’s why it took more than three decades of research before we could get them to this size. It took several generations and more than two dozen changes to their DNA.”

She continues as she cuts a piece of blackened steak into smaller pieces. “There were some terrible mistakes too, horrible things. You wouldn’t believe some of the challenges we faced. But we learned a lot too. Like, what do you feed a three-foot spider? Normal spiders liquefy their prey’s guts and suck it out, but they’re feeding on insects, other arachnids, things with exoskeletons. The genes we changed triggered other changes too. Like beaks. We feed the mega-spiders rats. They paralyze them and swallow them whole.” She takes another bite of steak. “A lot of fur comes out in their scat.”

I push my salad away and make a mental note to suggest that on future tours she save this information for after lunch.

She pushes her salad away too. “Come on. It’s time for you to meet the kids.”

At first “the kids” are no-shows, but their enclosures are fascinating. Through clear plastic walls I can see ferns and what look like small palm trees shrouded in mist.

“Cycads,” Dr. Xavier tells me. “Also horsetail, moss, liverworts. They’re what even some scientists call ‘primitive plants’ because they’ve been around so long. They seem to tolerate the high oxygen better than other plants, and we hope it makes the spiders more comfortable. We have to keep it humid too, for the spiders. Some of their wild cousins live in the desert, but these, well, just to maintain their body mass they need more of everything.”

The plants in the enclosures look more futuristic than prehistoric. Also surprising is the absence of any sign of webs. This is a source of frustration for Dr. Xavier and her entire team.

“Tarantulas don’t build webs but they can spin silk, and their size made them an obvious choice. We just assumed we’d be able to extract silk from them. So far that’s been harder than we thought it would be. Maybe with what we’ve learned we can try with another family, maybe Aranea or Nephila, but that would be like starting all over.”

As she speaks one of the spiders creeps out of the mist. As it moves across the mossy floor its slow plodding is fascinating to watch. I wonder if it’s stirring up genetic memories, perhaps passed down from some of my mammalian ancestors. Its movements are deliberate, reaching out gently with its forelegs.

Dr. Xavier tells me they have nine in all, kept in separate enclosures. Originally they were kept together until one of the females turned aggressive and killed her sisters.

“And when the males started hunting in packs, circling around the rats we put in there for them, we thought maybe we should keep them separate.”

This spider is brighter in color than the one we examined earlier in the lab, with coppery fur. As it turns to face me a each of its dark green eyes is bisected by a single beam of light, like a precious stone.

I hear Dr. Xavier talking to someone behind me, but I’m too entranced by the spider to pay attention. Then she steps up next to me and says , “This is Carl.”

“Hello Carl,” I say, looking down at the spider. Then I jump as a bass baritone voice says, “Hello to you too.”

I turn around. A stocky man in a dark blue coat is standing next to Dr. Xavier. He puts out his hand.

Dr. Xavier apologizes. “I’ve got to go make a call, but Carl can keep showing you around.” As she hurries away Carl and I turn back to the spider.

“Creepy, ain’t they?” says Carl. He chuckles.

“I’m not sure that’s the right word,” I say. “In fact I’m having trouble finding the right words.”

“Come with me.”

In the elevator Carl swipes his ID card and a few moments later we step out onto the roof of the Praetorius Institute.

“I like to come up here once in a while for a little fresh air and a think,” he says.

“What do you think about?”

He chuckles again. “Anything. Nothing. Just take it all in.”

I step to the edge and look out at the forest below. In the distance I can see a low cloud settled over a hill. It looks like a web.


%d bloggers like this: