The Weekly Essay

It’s Another Story.

Light A Candle.

The squirrels have stayed out of the attic. At the start of every Hanukkah I think about this because several years ago we had a squirrel infestation. There was at least one family nesting in the insulation. The scrabbling sounds that woke us up in the middle of the night were a minor inconvenience, as was the possibility the squirrels were using whatever we had stored up there for nesting material. A bigger problem was that they might be tearing up the insulation, as was the possibility that they might chew through wiring which could start a fire and burn down the entire house, leaving all of us without a nest, and unlike the squirrels we couldn’t easily move to a clump of leaves in the nook of a tree.
So I unfolded the rickety wooden ladder and climbed into the attic through the door in the hallway ceiling. I was able to chase some squirrels out but that was a temporary solution so I also took some traps smeared with peanut butter. I used the spring bar traps, the kind that used to be sold under the slogan, “Build a better mouse trap and the world will beat a path to your door.” Since we were dealing with squirrels, though, I used the size intended for bigger animals. These had the slogan, “These will cut your fingers off,” and could be sprung from ten feet away by a good sneeze. I discovered dexterity I never knew I had and set the traps carefully, hoping they’d serve as a deterrent and convince the squirrels to move out. I wasn’t so lucky. I had to bag a few bodies, their necks broken by the steel bar, and carry them to the garbage then reset the traps, trying not to sneeze.
Then one night I found a squirrel still alive in one of the traps. It was struggling to get away but badly injured. I knew I couldn’t let the squirrel go. Even if it survived its injury, which wasn’t likely, even if it avoided being run over by a car, even if it escaped neighborhood dogs, stray cats, coyotes, foxes, owls, hawks, even if it wasn’t attacked by other squirrels, it could get back into the house. And it would spend whatever life it had left in excruciating pain. I’d caused it to suffer and I had a responsibility to end that suffering.
I knew all this, but I wasn’t looking forward to what I had to do either. My wife suggested I use a hatchet but that would mean I’d have to look at the squirrel, I’d have to aim carefully, and I wasn’t prepared to do that. A history teacher once told me that Mary Queen of Scots, as she approached the chopping block, turned to her executioner and said, “Be mercifully quick.” Her request apparently made him lose his nerve; it took him three tries to finish the job.I put the trap with the squirrel still in it into a white plastic garbage bag and took it out to the driveway. I got a shovel out of the basement. The squirrel struggled a little in the bag, which I appreciated because it told me exactly where to hit. I wanted, for both of us, to be mercifully quick.
After the clang of the shovel faded, I heard a flute playing. Someone a few houses away was in their backyard practicing “Jingle Bells”. For some reason this song always makes me think of people and woodland animals sharing the sleigh ride together, a sort of Eden with snow and blinking lights. The sun had just set, and in the stillness I realized that in some houses and places of worship the first candle of the menorah had either been lit or was about to be lit.
I’m not Jewish. I’m not even religious in any traditional sense, but I know Hanukkah is a holiday that celebrates hope and perseverance. It’s about a miracle of light and life–one day’s worth of oil burning for eight–coming to people who have just been through darkness and death. It’s a celebration by people who survived an all-out attempt to wipe them off the face of the Earth. It may not be the highest of holy days but it’s usually celebrated around the solstice, and there’s something fitting, even poetic, about candles being lit against the darkness on the darkest nights of the year.
I first learned about Hanukkah when I was a Boy Scout and working on a project about religion. I was supposed to learn about a faith other than my own. I was raised in a very relaxed Presbyterian church and because I wasn’t particularly religious then either I could have picked just about any other Christian sect and had friends who were Catholic and Baptist and Methodist, but I didn’t know any Jews. I’d read stories about Jewish families and traditions. The minister of our church had a sign on his office door that said, “Shalom!” I decided I wanted to know Judaism better. I went to a local temple one afternoon when it was empty. First the rabbi took me to his office and started asking me questions. How long had I been a Boy Scout? What was my project about? Why had I chosen Judaism? It was nice to have an adult take an interest in me but also confusing. I knew “rabbi” was the Hebrew word for “teacher” and I was there to learn, not talk about myself. When he asked if I knew anything about Judaism I panicked. I should have done some cursory background reading before coming, I thought, but I hadn’t done anything to prepare. I admitted this and prepared myself for his disappointment. Instead he smiled.
“There’s no sin in ignorance.”
Suddenly I felt relief. I’m sure adults had told me that before, but it was not what I expected, especially from a teacher. I spent most of my youth feeling like I was supposed to know things that I’d never been told; everything seemed to be a test, and I frequently thought I was failing. At that moment I felt assured that it was okay to not know anything as long as I was willing to learn.
“Do you know any Jewish holidays?” he asked.
Since I’d learned about Passover in Sunday school I didn’t think of it as a Jewish holiday. Instead I said, “Hanukkah,” which I knew sometimes overlapped with Christmas.
“Do you know the story of Hanukkah?”
I still didn’t feel great about not knowing anything, but he smiled again and told me the story of the Maccabees, and the destruction of the temple, and how the oil that was only supposed to last for one night burned for eight, and Hanukkah is the celebration of this miracle.
Then he took me into the main sanctuary and showed me around. It was very much like other churches I’d been in, very much like the Presbyterian sanctuary I went to every Sunday, in fact, with pews and a raised section at the front, but with slightly different decorations. He explained about the Torah, how the ark that holds it is positioned so those who face it are facing toward Jerusalem. Then he pointed upward to the Eternal Light. It was just an electric light, made to look like a flickering flame, but the specifics didn’t concern me. I was captivated by the symbolism. I had only a vague idea of how unkind history, particularly the 20th Century, had been to the Jews but here, I thought, was the central symbol of a belief system built around hope.
In college I took a class on Judaism, and attended services at the local synagogue. The first time I went I picked up a prayer book and opened it. On the first page there was a short story about the prophet Isaiah, who stood at the door of the temple and said, “I cannot go in, this temple is full.” The people looked in and said, “There’s no one in the temple. Why do you say it’s full?” And Isaiah said, “The temple is filled with prayers that are not sincere. Only prayers offered from the heart will ascend into Heaven.” Again I felt that deep sense of hope. Faith, the ultimate expression of hope, is worthless if it’s not sincere.
I went to services at the temple several more times, and took part in Passover seders in the spring, and, with a friend, lit the menorah candles for Hanukkah. One day while I was doing research for a paper in the synagogue library I sat in on a talk the rabbi gave parents about coping with, and hopefully preventing, teen suicides. He was emphatic that “l’chaim”, “to life”, wasn’t just a toast made at meals but a philosophy, that to be a Jew meant taking joy in life.
In my studies of Judaism I kept going back to Hanukkah and its traditions. I read how, over a thousand years ago, two rabbis, Shammai and Hillel, had competing ideas about how Hanukkah should be celebrated. Rabbi Shammai said all candles should be lit on the first night and then one extinguished on each night as a literal representation of the diminishing oil. There’s a strange beauty in Shammai’s literalness, and I assume the growing darkness would end with a grand blaze. Rabbi Hillel said that one candle should be lit each night so on the final night all eight candles would blaze with glory. Instead of increasing darkness there would be growing light and hope. Hillel’s tradition is the one that’s survived.
None of this has anything to do with the squirrels, but it all came to me anyway. I was extinguishing a light even as in other houses flames were being offered up against the darkness. It seemed like the universe was conspiring to make me feel bad about what I’d done, but I accepted the responsibility. I’d even say I welcomed it, even if I wished the epiphany had come more easily. I can rationalize until I’m blue in the face. I can say that even though one-fourth of all mammal species are presently in danger of extinction squirrels aren’t one of them. I can say that at least I’m not actually harming another person, and that through history people have done terrible things to other people with less justification than I have for killing the squirrels in the attic. Nothing I can say changes the fact that, hokey as it sounds, I don’t want to be directly responsible for the deaths of squirrels. I don’t think squirrels are a cornerstone species, or that the disappearance of Sciurus griseus would tip the balance and lead to the extinction of Homo sapiens, but being too casual about extermination threatens us all. As long as the traps were killing them I could shirk responsibility. I was just a caretaker; the traps were doing the work. When the trap failed, I had to face what I was doing. I thought about a poem by Maxine Kumin, who was Jewish, called “Woodchucks”, about her efforts to protect her vegetable garden. She opens with a quick description of first using gas, “The knockout bomb from the Feed and Grain Exchange/was featured as merciful, quick at the bone,” but it doesn’t work and over the poem’s thirty lines she quickly escalates to shooting them, “The food from our mouths, I said, righteously thrilling/to the feel of the .22.” One woodchuck evades her and in the end she laments, “If only they’d all consented to die unseen/gassed underground the quiet Nazi way.” This is the danger that comes from being too casual about death. She feels herself becoming her own worst enemy.
It’s not a perfect metaphor. The only perfect metaphor that I know of in English literature is from Gertrude Stein, also Jewish, who wrote, “a rose is a rose is a rose”. There is no justification for the Nazi concentration camps. The woodchucks, on the other hand, threatened Kumin’s food supply, or at least her rhubarb and brussels sprouts. The Biblical land of milk and honey is called that because, in theory anyway, called that because nothing has to die to provide them, but we can’t live on milk and honey alone. Part of the web of life is death.
As a counter to that I also thought of a poem by Gerald Stern, also also Jewish, called “Behaving Like A Jew”, about finding an opossum shot and lying in the road. He says, “I am going to be unappeased at the opossum’s death./I am going to behave like a Jew/and touch his face, and stare into his eyes.” What exactly he does next isn’t clear, other then moving the opossum off the road, but what is clear is that he refuses to let a death pass; he is going to mourn the loss of a life so small and seemingly unconnected to his.
I didn’t reset the trap in the attic that night, or again. Something in me had broken, but in another strange coincidence the squirrels left and didn’t come back. There were still a few traps up there at either end of the attic, where I’d balanced carefully on the rafters and tried to avoid stepping through the insulation, but they stayed empty. Maybe the injured squirrel had frightened the others away. Maybe it was just a coincidence. If I were religious I might believe they knew I’d prayed for the killing to stop and that because my prayer was sincere it rose up.

Smell This.

Benjamin Franklin famously said “Fish and visitors stink after three days”, and it seems like solid advice when staying with someone, at least depending on the size of their house. There used to be some reasonably sized houses in our neighborhood that were torn down and replaced with sprawling edifices with seven-car garages and indoor golf courses–houses so big you could drop in and stay for three years and the owners would never know you were there, much less smell you.

Anyway I get the visitors part but why fish? More importantly who keeps fish for three days? You don’t put a fish in a cool part of the basement to mellow like you would a ham or a bottle of wine or Uncle Charlie, not even for just three days. I’m pretty sure a fish would start to stink in the first twenty-four hours, if not sooner. Most fish smell as soon as they get pulled out of the water, although there’s some difference between fresh and salt water. And even then there are not so subtle distinctions. What I’m saying is if you pull a catfish out of a backyard pond you might not want to put your nose too close to it, although not just because of the smell but because they can bite.

What was Franklin thinking, anyway? The late Eighteenth Century was a notoriously bad time for food preservation, even though most people might not have realized it at the time. Yes, he could get electricity by putting a key on a kite string, but this method could rarely power a refrigerator for more than ten or fifteen minutes, hardly long enough to keep any fish fresh for three days.

I think we can also say with some certainty that, although Franklin was a successful printer and inventor, he never really did work in an office, at least not with other people because if he had his famous aphorism would have been, “After three days visitors are like fish after three minutes in the microwave–they stink up the whole place, seriously, Kevin, do you think you could bring something else for lunch?” While it lacks the pithiness of the original I think we can all agree it’s an improvement, especially those of us who’ve worked with Kevin, but that’s another story.

Granted the time of year can make a difference. In the summer, even in New England, keeping any kind of fish around for three days would be lunacy, but in the winter most kinds of fish, if you could get them, could be preserved on ice or even packed in snow, and this would be a good way of keeping them as long as the weather stayed cold, but it probably wouldn’t work so well with visitors.

Except Uncle Charlie because, you know, he smelled like that when he arrived.

Pen & The Art Of Writing.

Source: From Old Books

Someone in my writing group brought up the subject of writing software–that is, programs that are meant to assist writers, not writing programs which is more specifically called “coding”–because they were working with a new one called Vellum. And several other people talked about using an older program called Scrivener, and someone yelled out “Notepad!” and if we’d been in the same room I would have high-fived them because I’ve used Notepad and also actual notepads. And I thought about writing something that would make fun of writing programs since my own personal preference, most of the time anyway, is to write on actual paper, or to use the most bare-bones word processing program I have available (see Notepad) but I’m pretty sure that joke’s already been done and more importantly I realized it violated something I sent to a friend several years ago when he told me he was writing a book and asked for advice. And I sat down and thought about it and wrote out the Nine Commandments Of Writing:

1. Write every day. As much as possible write at the same time every day.
2. Set a specific quota for your daily writing. For a lot of writers this is two-thousand words or roughly four pages.
2. Use a specific place to do most of your writing.
3. Save all drafts. Writing by hand or using a typewriter is the best way to do this but most word processing programs can now save old versions of whatever you’re working on.
4. Before you start writing take several minutes to mentally prepare yourself. Don’t just dive in.
5. Isolate yourself when writing. Writing is a lonely art by necessity.
6. Avoid distractions. Stay focused on the writing in front of you.
7. Get down a rough draft or an outline before you start revising. Have a specific ending in mind.
8. Everything will need to be revised.
9. Throw out all these rules. How you write is how you write. It may take a while to figure out what your particular method is and you may even try different things, but do whatever works and if it works don’t let someone else tell you it’s wrong.

I do try to follow some of those rules myself but I purposely put some things in that list that I don’t do just to be able to point and laugh at myself. And just to underscore the importance of Rule #9 here are some examples and counter-examples: Virginia Woolf wrote standing up, Mark Twain wrote lying down, Nabokov wrote on note cards, and I once met a TV writer who fed a roll of butcher paper through his typewriter so he’d never have to worry about reaching the end of a page. Philip Levine has said he hates having a view and was once staying with friends whose house looked over the Golden Gate Bridge, so he went and wrote in a closet. Joyce Carol Oates, who’s famous for her output, likes to look out the window while she writes. A minor quibble I have with Stephen King’s book On Writing is he puts down writer’s retreats, and, well, maybe they don’t work for him, but I once had a very productive weekend at an arts retreat. It got me out of my usual space and headspace. I also like to write in coffee shops where people come and go. Once I was working on a story and I was interrupted by a person from Porlock and the story took a turn that made it better.
Some people work just fine on a computer with a word processor. Some writers I know buy old typewriters and use those even if it means doing all their typing twice, although advances in scanning technology are reducing that need. I like to write by hand, best when I use fountain pens–I have some heavy ones that make me feel like my ideas have more importance until I go back and read that I’ve written, “Dogma is more engaging than catma.” I also end up having to retype everything because there will never be a scanning technology that can read my handwriting.

Source: Imgur

And while I don’t use them myself I can see the value in high-powered writing programs that store all your drafts and track changes, have easily accessible sub-folders for notes, and can even auto-generate a table of contents for your book, which does seem a little weird to me. I’m going to go off on a tangent about tables of contents because I like how some writers, like Henry Fielding in his novel Tom Jones would write descriptive headings for his chapters. Carlo Collodi also did that for Pinocchio. My favorite one is Chapter 35, after Pinocchio’s been swallowed by a giant Dog-Fish, and the heading is, “In the body of the Dog-Fish Pinocchio finds…whom does he find? Read this chapter and you will know,” and I said, “Thanks for the giant spoiler there, Disney!” More recently there’s Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler where it’s best if you don’t read the chapter headings at first because there’s a giant spoiler there, but I’m getting off the subject.
Maybe the one inviolate rule of writing is that reading is important–I’ve never known a writer who didn’t have a love of reading, who didn’t start writing because they fell in love with a book or books and said, “I want to do that.” Samuel Johnson wisely said, “one must turn over half a library to write one book,” and I’m not allowed to go back until I pay for the damages, but that’s another story.
I could turn the importance of reading into its own rule and make it an even ten but I’d rather leave it as it is. If you want ten commandments write your own list.


Three Halloween Poems.


Ghosts of Chernobyl

Uncertainty is the stuff any place is made of. In

The abandoned city music is played for the cleaners,

Especially the ones who don’t believe in ghosts. Where

They go into buildings they pull the curtains away

From the windows. The emptiness is extra protection.

Uncertainty fills their ears where music can’t

Reach, where the walls have turned it back against

Itself into cold pockets. Watch: a window breaks.

Two seconds later uncertainty is surgically extracted

By airborne needles. The eye believed more quickly,

But sound came to fill in the cracks. The cleaners go

Forward in their white suits. Somewhere ahead

Is food without the ghosts of teeth, without the weird

Mouths that come down into basements. The deer left.

If they came back the most terrible sound wouldn’t

Be the clack of their feet on the pavement but between,

The choke of Is that you? like a hook in the throat

Would spin ghosts out of every corner.


Bermuda Triangle

Scylla took six,

Charybdis took all.

Did you really think

The choice was


The bowl of blood

You brought wasn’t enough

To keep the cyanide

Fingers of the dead

Away. You’ll suck

The exhaust

Of their tailpipes

Whether you want it or not.

The ship is grounded

In the shoals

And soon branches

Will grow from its sails

Across continents, across

The centuries. The force

That pushed the continents

Apart is pushing them back

Together. Auroras and earthquakes

Are only the creak of the rigging.

They’re only the opening,

The collision of whirlpools

Against waterspouts, against

The gale that forms the eye

Of the hurricane.

The only answer

To whether or not you’ll have to board

This ship is you’re a fool

If you believe there was a beginning

When you could have said No.


Blood Pudding

Between the thousand year leftover

Stick candy and the bad beer

It’s no wonder I’m craving blood.

I’ll extend the food chain

Past ticks, mosquitoes, leeches,

Lampreys, and my brethren bats,

Where my ancestors hail from,

Between the steppes and the Black Sea,

The undead aren’t unknown.

Perhaps that explains the desire,

A craving for proteins closest to my own.

Whatever the reason

Human beings are now in season.




How D’You Like Them Apples?

It’s October and time to finally put to rest one of the most vexing seasonal questions of all: what is the difference between apple juice and apple cider?

Apple juice: Non-alcoholic.

Apple cider: May be non-alcoholic or alcoholic. Traditionally alcoholic in Europe the term “cider” referred to raw apple juice in the US for a long time in spite of its derivation from a Hebrew word meaning “strong drink” before the rising popularity of alcoholic cider.


Apple juice: Filtered, clear.

Apple cider: Generally unfiltered; may be clear or cloudy.


Apple juice: Pasteurized.

Apple cider: Generally also pasteurized but at a lower temperature or shorter period, giving it a shorter shelf life. Left alone will either turn into apple cider vinegar or applesauce.


Apple juice: Consumed year-round, mostly by children.

Apple cider: The alcoholic variety is consumed year-round, mostly by adults, while the non-alcoholic variety is consumed in the fall at church picnics by people who think it sounds kind of seasonal and also it’s cheaper.


Apple juice: Squeezed from the fruit using modern equipment, processed, and bottled within twenty-four hours.

Apple cider: Fruit and pulp are pressed in ancient stone building. The juice is then left to ferment for months or years while druids perform strange rituals over the barrels.


Apple juice: Usually served cold but can also be served hot and flavored with spices such as cinnamon, cloves, and star anise.

Apple cider: Always cold because of its aura of menace. Sucks the life force from cinnamon sticks like Billy Zane in The Mummy.


Apple juice: Made from a variety of red delicious apples specifically bred for juice.

Apple cider: Made from cursed apples that grow in orchards planted in forgotten graveyards.


Apple juice: Apples are harvested by industrial means in large quantities.

Apple cider: Apples are harvested by hand by tough withered Steinbeck characters with names like Nick, Skipjack, and Hortense.


Apple juice: Found on grocery store shelves next to the powdered drink mixes.

Apple cider: Found in the refrigerated section of the grocery store next to the beer, but may also be sold to you in the alley behind the store by a tough withered Steinbeck character with a three-day beard, an eyepatch, wearing a tattered trenchcoat, and carrying an axe. Answers to “Hortense”.


Apple juice: May be made from concentrate.

Apple cider: You know it’s thinking something.


Apple juice: Family friendly; often sold in bottles adorned with cartoon characters.

Apple cider: “We only fly the flag of the Jolly Roger,” says Hortense, glaring at you.


Apple juice: Goes great with a child’s afternoon snack of graham crackers or ginger snaps.

Apple cider: Lurks in the darkness waiting for the proper incantations that will release the demons trapped in its depths.


Apple juice: May have added sugar.

Apple cider: “I’d be more concerned with what it takes,” says Hortense, wiping something from her axe.


Apple juice: Makes adults nostalgic for carefree summer days of running barefoot through the tall grass with friends.

Apple cider: Wants you to pour it out over a blood sacrifice performed under a full moon, thus opening a portal to the netherworld where dark and mysterious creatures still reign.


Apple juice: Has a diuretic effect.

Apple cider: The only thing known to dislodge that bubblegum you swallowed in third grade.

Source: Wondermark

Source: Wondermark

Lord Of The Rings.

Source: SkyView app

The Moon and Jupiter are very prominent in the southern sky right now in the early evening, but my eye is also drawn to a less luminous object between them. It’s Saturn, which, back in the days when astronomers thought the heavens were composed of crystal spheres, must have been the weirdest of all the wanderers, being the slowest—it takes nearly three times as long to orbit the Sun as Jupiter, although in those days astronomers also believed everything revolved around the Earth. Saturn was also, for most of human history, the edge of the solar system. Things got even weirder when Galileo turned his telescope to it. He’d already discovered that Jupiter had four moons of its own—and those would be followed by dozens more—and Saturn at first looked to him like a planet with two very large moons, but he couldn’t figure out why they sometimes disappeared. Once they were recognized as rings, and that those rings are held in place by the influence of some of Saturn’s moons, it made sense. We see Saturn at an angle and the rings are so thin that when they’re flat from our perspective they’re practically invisible.

Maybe it was because of its distance that Saturn got its name. The other planets were all named after Olympian gods, but Saturn, mythologically speaking, was the father of the Olympians, the one who swallowed all of his children except Jupiter, and who was defeated, sent down to a second-tier position but kept some of his original glory, becoming the scythe-wielding god of the harvest and time, and through the Dark Ages and Renaissance people who were born under Saturn were believed to be moody and cynical, but also ambitious—most artists were believed to be influenced by Saturn’s position at their birth.

I’m a skeptic when it comes to astrology, mostly, but I do think it’s possible planetary movements have some influence over our lives, and who we become as we move through time. The Earth isn’t a closed sphere; our little planet is affected by the Moon and the Sun, and it’s not unreasonable to think the powerful tug of other planets plays a part too. There’s even the idea that regular meteor impacts on the Earth—the most famous being the one that wiped out the dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago—could be the result of where our solar system happens to be as it moves around in its outside arm of the Milky Way. If the universe beyond our solar system can affect, even destroy, life on Earth imagine what effects our closest neighbors might have.

And, looking up at Saturn, I remember one fall night when I was a kid and I was talking to a girl who lived across the street. Neither of us knew enough about astronomy to identify anything other than the Moon, and she said, “You know what would be cool? If all the planets were close enough or big enough that we could see them all clearly.”

That would be pretty cool but, with the way gravity works, I’m sure having every planet crammed in so close would have some powerful effects.

The Makeover.


It’s been several thousand years and I finally decided it was time for a makeover. The look I’ve always used has worked well but, you know, sometimes it kind of gets me down how people react when they see me, so I thought it might be nice to lighten up a little bit. The black robe was really a matter of convenience, anyway. I’m always really busy and rarely get a chance to sit down and put my feet up before there’s another call, so having something that was easy to put on in a hurry just made sense, and the black is always good for sort of blending in, especially when I needed to sneak up on people. I don’t like doing that but, you know, it’s unavoidable that some people will try to get away when they see me coming.

Black is always in fashion too. You know, they had a saying back in the mid-1300s: black is the new black.

So I wanted to keep it simple, you know? Something that would still be easy to put on when I have to rush to work or when I just have to walk the dog. Oh yeah, my dog doesn’t leave me much downtime either. With three heads and one butt he’s constantly on the go if you know what I mean.

Sometimes I also ride a horse, which is great for covering a lot of territory, especially when I get called to a battlefield or some place like that. It’s just not convenient when I have to get into small places and you can’t take a horse everywhere. Sometimes I switch it up with the motorcycle just for more speed but sometimes it’s better to just wing it.

Not wanting to get too dressed up didn’t leave me with a lot of options so I thought the best thing to do might be a pattern. Believe it or not I thought about trying a camo look. I figured it would be good for blending in, especially on those battlefields, but it just didn’t feel right for me. I don’t always enjoy what I do but I still feel like it’s important and I don’t want to hide it. I thought maybe some stripes or a paisley pattern could be a good way to mix it up, but that’s not really my style either. Finally I decided to trade in the black for a nice lavender, in taffeta so it would have a nice sheen. I also got the same thing in magenta or, if I’m feeling really kicky, aqua, and got the wings to match. Sometimes I’d also trade in the hood for a raspberry beret. Got the idea from Zevon–we always had this mutual admiration–and again when Prince came over.

I decided to put on a few pounds too. You know, they had a saying back in the 1980’s: you can’t be too rich or too thin. I guess I’ve always been both, and neither one’s done me much good. Anyway I wanted to give people a friendly smile, which is hard when you don’t have lips.

The scythe really didn’t fit with any of that, and, well, it’s always been just a prop anyway. It’s not like I’m actually out there reaping, so I traded that in for a small pointer kind of stick.

I didn’t think about running any of this past HR—I’m pretty much my own boss—but then I got this memo from another department:

Dear Mr. Death,
We formally request that you cease and desist from using our look as this can result in confusion among our clients. It is also disparaging to our brand.
Fairy Godmothers, LLC

Okay, fine. It was just something I thought I’d try. I guess I can let them have their clients. They all come to me in the end anyway.

Source: Expresso Beans Forum

Taste Is In The Eye Of The Beholder.

So an Indian farmer grows a mango that looks like an apple and tastes like a banana, cutting out several steps in the process of making mango-apple-banana smoothies, and some also taste like sweet lime, while others have a cumin flavor, all of which sounds like the sort of thing someone would have just come up with but they’re actually a variety that’s been around for at least two hundred years. And that makes me wonder why in all that time I’ve never had a chance to try them because they sound delicious, although I also like the regular mangoes I can get in the local grocery store. Well, usually—the last time I looked they were all out, so they weren’t mangoes but manwents, but that’s another story.

The surprising variety of flavors got me thinking about taste in general, and reminded me of when I was in college and a friend and I would sometimes get bored hanging out on the campus at night so we’d go to a gas station across the street that was called Don’s Station. I think it was originally called Don’s Gas but you know it took about thirty seconds for college kids who were bored hanging out on the campus at night to start making tasteless jokes about that, but my friend and I were more sophisticated and instead found it funny that Don was there behind the counter twenty-four hours a day, or at least he was always there any time we went in.

The refrigerators in the back held a wide range of exotic soft drinks and by “exotic” I mean sodas that were specifically midwestern. As a kid who grew up in the south I was familiar with Pepsi, or, as we called it, “Coke”, and Coke, or, as we called it, “Coke”, and RC Cola or, as we called it, “Coke”, and Dr. Pepper, or, as we called it, “Dr. Pepper”, but Don’s station had a whole rainbow of unbranded sodas in simple glass bottles that were only thirty-five cents each. We could, for fifteen cents more, get brand-name sodas, even ones that, I think, were specifically midwestern, like Red Kreme Soda or, as we called it, “what the hell is this supposed to be?” but the cheaper ones were good and also fascinating to me.

And also the way my friend talked about them drove me nuts.

“Let’s get two reds,” he’d say, which sounded more like a drug deal than two kids buying soft drinks, “a blue, two purples, and an orange.”

These would also be shared with guys on our dorm floor, especially that one guy who had a secret stash of vodka he’d use to turn his soft drink into a hard drink, and which he once shared with us, leading to a night I’m pretty sure was either great or terrible, but I have no memory of it and the only record of the events was a photo of me in an oversized cowboy hat holding another guy’s head over a toilet which was mysteriously burned in a deliberate fire several years ago.

It was a long, strange night. I think.

What drove me nuts is the way my friend rattled off the colors of the sodas instead of, you know, the flavors. Purple was grape, blue was, I guess, blueberry, orange was, well, okay, I had to give him that one, and red was strawberry. Or cherry. Or raspberry. Or possibly even watermelon, although that’s usually more of a pink color.

In the end I had to admit the sodas didn’t taste like any fruit at all but like something entirely different, and anyway taste defies words. Scientists have identified five distinct taste receptors for sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and, finally, umami, which was first identified by a Japanese chemist in 1908 but only accepted by western scientists about the time I first started seeing mangoes in the local grocery store. But those five basic tastes don’t begin to cover the whole palette available to our palates. What does a mango taste like? It’s sweet, with a touch of sour, but there’s also something else; an apple could be described the same way but it’s different.

It wasn’t my friend who made me nuts but the futility of putting tastes into words, and, hey, what do nuts taste like? And why did “nuts” become a synonym for “crazy”? Maybe because walnuts look like brains, which is a whole other area that can drive you up the wall. Nuts.

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