The Weekly Essay

It’s Another Story.

He’s Coming Clean.

Hello Everybody,

The holidays are finally here. It’s my time to take up my usual position watching over everything. Most of you set me up to keep an eye on your kids. I do, but I’m watching you too. Some of you obviously know that. Some of you do things I wish I hadn’t seen. Some of you do some pretty awful things just because you know I’m watching.

I want you to know how much I hate all of you.

I didn’t even want this job. This was supposed to be temporary, or a compromise. The Boss couldn’t keep an eye on everybody all the time, in spite of what you’ve heard. Every year the list gets longer and double-checking it is hard enough. I was supposed to only have this job while I was studying for dental school but somehow it’s ended up being a full-time occupation.

Maybe it was because I was always a rule-follower, unlike most of my peers. I was a misfit, if you will, but the wrong kind of misfit. I wasn’t the cool kind of misfit, the kind everyone admires and even aspires to be. Almost everyone. That type is overrated, if you ask me, and a menace. That’s why I was the one who reported that gang smoking behind the gym. Addiction, lung cancer, not to mention the danger of starting a fire. I tried to be discreet about it but since I’d told them to stop first it was obvious who reported them.

I had to develop my own coping strategies after that, like always being sick on days when we played dodgeball.

For the same reason I tried to turn in my senior class for the prank they were planning to pull. The adults didn’t take that nearly as seriously as I thought they should, but who did they think was going to clean up all that shaving cream? Being on school property after hours was no joke either.  

Sometimes I think this is all a punishment, but I can’t believe the Boss is that vindictive. Look at how he still put Rudolph in charge after all the trouble he caused. There’s a real misfit for you.

I also know the dislike is, in many cases, mutual. Some of you don’t even want me around. Some of you think I’m creepy, or that I’m teaching kids to be too casual about surveillance. Well, you can’t be too careful, but, gradually, I’ve come to think that there might be some things that can be allowed to slide. There are some secrets I’ll keep from the Boss, depending on what they are.

It wouldn’t hurt if you’d pass some of the milk and cookies my way once in a while too.


The Elf On The Shelf

Thanks, 2022.

It seems like only a year ago I last shared this annual tradition, and thanks to WordPress’s nifty scheduling function I had this set to go three years ago without knowing what the 1091 days in between would bring. Anyway happy Thanksgiving to everyone except those in countries that don’t celebrate it and the Canadians who are heathens who have Thanksgiving before Halloween.

It has been celebrated as a federal holiday every year since 1863, when, during the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens,” to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November.


November 25th, 1864

It was even worse than last year. I know every time my family gets together we fall into certain patterns, but that never makes it easier. This time it was even worse because just getting to my parents’ house was such a pain. I thought I’d carriagepool with my younger brother and his wife, but they went up early so that fell through. Then I thought I’d beat the traffic by setting out at dawn, which was such a great idea everybody else in Richmond had it at the same time and the horses were nose to tail, stop and trot, for miles. Finally I got there a little after ten in the morning and my older sister came out already holding a glass of blackberry wine and when she hugged me I could tell it wasn’t her first one. She asked me how things were going and then didn’t wait for an answer and ran back into the house to tell everyone I was there.

I should have known I’d be walking into an argument in the foyer, the way my family is. It’s just what it was about that threw me. My kid brother had this crazy idea for a new way to cook a turkey, leaving the feathers still on and roasting it in the coals of a fire. Well, it sounded pretty stupid to me, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that the neighbors tried the same thing last year and burned down their stable. But I didn’t want to side with my father either. So I said it had been a long trip and I needed to visit the outhouse and slipped out. Well, there was a line at the outhouse: two of my nieces, three cousins, all four of my brothers, and my sister was already in there getting rid of some of that blackberry wine. So I went back inside to see what was going on.

In the parlor my mother was putting together some kind of monstrosity with dead leaves and dried berries that she said she was going to put in the middle of the table.

“Where’s the food going to go?” I asked.

“Well, we’ll move it before we eat.”

I was going to ask why she’d bother to put it in the middle of the table if she was just going to move it again but decided against having that discussion, so instead I sat down and leafed through a broadsheet that was handy.

“The other men are organizing a game,” she said. “It’s some new sport called foot-ball. You should go and join them.”

Well, she knows I’ve never been athletic, but when I protested she got put out with me and said, “It’s your Uncle Wilkes’s idea. You know you’ve always been his favorite. You really should go and do it just to please him.”


Well, when I came back in my sister just cackled and toasted me with another glass of blackberry wine. All my mother could say was “Don’t get any blood on the carpet,” and my older brother kept telling me to stop being a sissy and just put some salve on it. Then Aunt Gerda said pinch the back of my neck and tilt my head forward and Uncle Wilkes said no, put pressure between the eyes and lean back, and then my cousins got into it so there had to be a family brawl about that. A day later and I’m still bleeding. So much for the salve. I’ll have to make an appointment with Dr. Samuel Mudd when I get back.

 Then Uncle Aloysius had to start in Daniel about supporting the Whigs and Elizabeth about Suffragettes, just trying to start an argument. Fortunately they didn’t rise to the bait.

Then I tried to head off another argument about who’d have to chaperone the kids’ table by volunteering, but my father cut that off.

“No, no, I want John seated here on my left. After I sent him to that fancy and very expensive school so he could waste his time studying the dramatic arts and oratory he should be well-equipped to deliver the traditional Booth family prayer of thanks.”

Traditional since last year, he means. Then my kid brother kicked me in the shins which I know was his way of saying “Don’t start anything”. I kicked him twice as hard in the shins which was my way of saying, “I wasn’t going to,” and then kicked him again to say, “Hurts, don’t it?”

All this might have been a little more bearable if my sister had let me have some of the blackberry wine.

I swear I’m going to get that Lincoln for making us do this.

Pass The Stuffing.

Fall is the season of death and sleep. It’s also the season of the harvest, which is why we put all the feasting holidays at the end of the year. It also used to be the time when the place where I worked would have an annual challenge for employees to maintain our weight. They called it “Hold The Stuffing”. We’d gather in various locations to be weighed and then, in January, we’d be weighed again, and if we hadn’t gained more than two pounds over the holidays we’d get a prize. That’s how it started, anyway. The first few years everyone who kept their weight gain under the limit got a gift card. Then it got downgraded to a keychain or a pen. Then they decided even that was too expensive so they changed it so that there was no longer an automatic reward. Instead everyone who didn’t gain was entered in a raffle for a gift card. Looking back I wish I’d stuck with it because at that point so many people dropped out that my chances of winning were pretty good, but then they were raffling off five gift cards and only five people entered so they dropped the program entirely.

Besides fall and winter are a time when it’s natural that we should put on a few extra pounds—maybe even more than two. As the weather gets colder we start layering on sweaters and hats and wool socks and electric blankets and it makes sense that our bodies add on a few extra layers too. We also burn more calories in cold weather, since our bodies need fuel to fire up the core when the surrounding temperature drops, and with all the holiday goodies that get set out it can be really easy to overcompensate for the loss.

I’m just extrapolating wildly here but I believe holiday feasts date back to when we were still hunter-gatherers, nomadic creatures who hadn’t yet learned to store food for the long term so, like bears, we’d bulk up for the winter months, although we never gained the ability to hibernate since we originated in a pretty warm climate. Still we learned the art of preservation by drying, salting, smoking, and even canning before recorded history, so nibbling, and even occasionally gorging, all through that time of year when the days grow noticeably shorter and the nights get longer, when all the harvesting has been done but it’s still too soon to start planting for the next year.

Fall especially is a transitory time, a time of change, which is why it’s ironic that I’m thinking about how deeply rooted some of our traditions are—how the human tendency to have winter feasts in preparation for the pre-spring famine have been with us maybe as long as we’ve been humans, maybe even longer. And it’s not so ironic that I think about how a dieting program at work went by the wayside, burned away by the harsh realities of dark winter nights when our natural inclination is to gather around the fires and stuff ourselves.

Frosty Morning.

There’s something about this time of year that just saps all the energy out of me. I wonder if it has something to do with the time change. Suddenly we go from starting to get light in the mornings when I get up to it still being dark when I start work. It doesn’t help that the days are getting shorter. It’s as though I’m solar powered and my batteries aren’t getting fully charged.

And yet I like the dark. There’s something special about seeing the sun, that’s moved to the south, set early. The cooler weather makes the sky brighter and clearer; the stars seem closer at this time of year.

The cold doesn’t bother me either. This is the time of year when we switch from cooling the house to heating it. There’s that short period when the furnace fires up for the first time in months and there’s a distinct burning smell that goes through the whole house. That doesn’t sound appealing but somehow it is. It’s the sign that the weather is really changing, that we’re moving into the time of year when the holidays start, when everything winds down, when the pace gets a little slower. School days are far behind me but when I was in school this was a time when even the teachers took a more relaxed attitude. The pace might pick up a bit after Thanksgiving but it would slow down again as Christmas approached. This was in spite of, or maybe because of, final exams—the lessons could drift a bit so we could have time to prepare, to really absorb all that we’d already crammed into the exciting, energetic fall days when everything was still new.

Then, this morning, there was frost on the car’s windshield. I was already running late and it was just one more thing to deal with. And yet I was okay with it. It just meant I had to take a little extra time, relax, and let the car’s engine warm up before I finally set off for work. I was fine with that. It’s that time of year. There was no need to rush.

Morning Light.

I had an epiphany this morning, which is the worst possible time to have an epiphany because there’s so much happening in the morning that most early epiphanies I have get lost in the shuffle of getting ready for the day. I do keep a notepad and pen next to the bed but, unfortunately, I rarely write anything on it. Or I wake up in the morning to find I’ve written down something like, “I tried my hand at gambling and lost an arm and a leg,” which is neither an epiphany nor particularly useful. Or there was the time I woke up to find I’d written down “Invention idea: DormWallz, a board students can put up in dorm rooms they can write things on or stick pictures to.” So apparently at some time during the night I’d invented the whiteboard, which seems less like an epiphany and, at best, more like a phany.

And it’s also a Monday and since I go in to work on Mondays I’m even busier and more stressed in the mornings than I am most other days of the week because I still have to get the dogs fed and taken out, then I have to get showered and dressed and in the car so I can get to work on time. Four days of working from home plus the weekend, I’ve realized, is just enough time to forget how much less flexible my schedule is when I have to be in the office. I have to be there at a specific time and it’s harder to do something like take a long lunch and then make up the time by working later in the afternoon because I also have to be home at a certain time. I could, once I got home and got the dogs fed and taken out, fire up the computer and get some work done. For that matter I could wake up in the middle of the night and go to work. First thing in the morning there are always questions waiting for me. But I like to keep my work and home schedules separate as much as I can and I know mixing them up would lead to madness.

None of this is this morning’s epiphany. What I realized this morning is that I like Daylight Savings Time. I like the time change. For several days now I’ve been getting up in the dark, doing most of my morning routine in the dark, and even starting work in the dark.

This morning I woke up to light. I left for work in the light.

I know it won’t last. The days will keep getting shorter and if it isn’t dark when I leave for work next week it will be the week after that. But gaining an hour made a difference today.

Leave It.

Jumping into a great big pile of leaves on a crisp fall day is one those childhood pleasures I’m pretty sure no one really enjoys. I hope I’m not ruining any fond memories from anyone’s youth, and I doubt I am. The only time jumping into and scattering a big pile of leaves was enjoyable was when we did it in that one guy’s yard. You know the sort of guy I mean—every neighborhood has one. He’d sit out on his porch scowling at the world, his mouth twisted up as though he’d been sucking a lemon, and if my friends and I were just walking by he’d yell at us to stay out of his yard. Sometimes, though, in the fall, we’d pass by and see piles of leaves in his yard and if he wasn’t around we’d jump into them and kick the leaves and throw them at each other. Then he’d come running out of his front door yelling and throwing lemons at us and we’d scatter like, well, so many leaves.

The leaf pile seems like a good idea in principle but in practice it’s just not that much fun. It’s like a ball pit. Yes, I have strong feelings about ball pits because I remember my first and only experience with one. I was nine or ten—almost too old to go in a ball pit, but I’d never seen one before and didn’t want to miss the chance to try it. I thought it would be like swimming in little plastic balls. It wasn’t but it was kind of an interesting tactile experience flailing around in there until I moved into a cluster of balls that were all oddly wet and I was trying to figure out what in a ball pit could be wet when I saw, at the edge, a kid who was half my age, or maybe even a third my age, in there with me, only he was standing up while I’d been stretched out, and he looked oddly relieved. I got out of there as fast as I could.

A pile of leaves may not be the target of the same kind of unintentional marination, although it could be if there are kids in your neighborhood, or if you have pets, or other animals that run loose through the area. Piles of leaves also attract various crawling things and while I like all sorts of bugs that doesn’t mean I want them finding a way into my pants. For that matter I don’t want tiny bits of broken, dried leaves getting into my clothes, and jumping into a pile of leaves naked is, at best, an imperfect solution—one that comes with all sorts of problems of its own. And piles of leaves tend to collapse easily. If they don’t that usually means there’s something in them other than leaves which is a whole other issue.

Still there’s a part of me that longs for a childhood experience that never was—one that’s been idealized in the imagination. I look at a pile of leaves, leaves I’ve raked together in my own yard, so I at least know where they’ve been, and it’s as though I can see my childhood self, decades removed now, on the other side of that pile of leaves, telling me, Just do it, just jump, and then I see that my childhood self has this oddly relieved look on his face and I yell at him to get out of my yard.

Looking Up.

Source: SkyView app

This morning on my way to the car I stopped to look up at the sky, because I stop to look up at the sky on a regular basis and if I didn’t stop I’d probably trip over something and end up looking at the ground and maybe some sharp object would pierce my eye and then I’d be looking at everything with no depth perception. The bright side of that—since I can find a bright side to everything—is that it wouldn’t affect my stargazing. Celestial objects are so distant they all look like they’re on a flat field. Anyway I noticed a bright red object directly overhead and thought it might be a star but, after checking, found it’s actually Mars, hanging out with the Moon in the constellation Gemini.

I’ve always thought Mars has an unfairly bad reputation because of its association with the Greek and Roman gods of war and science fiction’s long history of imagining hostile invaders from Mars. Historically we’ve fired more objects at Mars than it’s sent our way, although as a result we’ve learned that Mars is cold and barren but still holds the promise of life—it’s just like Toledo.

What we see when we look to the skies says a lot about what we see in ourselves, and seeing Mars as hostile and a harbinger of war doesn’t say much for us. Then again the more we’ve learned about Mars the more it’s captured our imaginations in a very different way: it’s the first planet other than our own that we may be able to reach and explore, and a potential stepping stone into the universe beyond.

And on the third hand it occurs to me that when I look up at the skies one of the things I see is incomprehensible distances and vast emptiness, which doesn’t say much for what’s going on in my own head so sometimes I need to keep my eyes on the ground. Anyway there’s a pretty long history of humans seeing Mars as a welcoming place as well. Here are the final lines of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles:

They reached the canal. It was long and straight and cool and wet and reflective in the night. ‘I’ve always wanted to see a Martian,’said Michael. ‘Where are they, Dad? You promised.’ ‘There they are,’ said Dad, and he shifted Michael on his shoulder and pointed straight down. The Martians were there. Timothy began to shiver. The Martians were there – in the canal – reflected in the water. Timothy and Michael and Robert and Mom and Dad. The Martians stared back at them for a long, long silent time from the rippling water…

%d bloggers like this: