The Weekly Essay

It’s Another Story.

Feeling Sluggish.

April showers have brought out the slugs. Like a lot of common animals I have a history with slugs and it’s not all happy. When I was a kid my mother showed me how to kill slugs by pouring salt on them and I went up and down the sidewalk at night with a big container of the “when it rains it pours”, pouring it all over every slug I could find. The next morning I’d find shriveled leathery bodies like three-dimensional commas, an interrupted life sentence.

Why did I hate the slugs so much? I can’t explain it because I loved snails. I collected snails, built little terrariums for them in empty jars, and spent hours watching them. Slugs were just escargot liberated from the extra cargo of a shell. If anything they deserved more respect for daring to go bare, but I think it was the lack of a shell that bothered me. Snails are builders, architects. They make a refuge and carry it with them, and I could pick up a snail without getting slimed, although I also let them crawl up and down my arm. Slugs, I thought, lived up to their name: sluggish. Lazy. Fat. Stupid. Slugs are unstamped coins. Big, slow moving boats. Hit somebody hard enough and you say you slugged them. And according to the Oxford English Dictionary was an insulting term for people long before it was applied to the gastropod.

That’s imposing a lot on slugs, none of it true. Well, I don’t know about slug intelligence, but their bodies are all muscle, as some friends who decided to fry them up in garlic butter since it was cheaper than going to a French restaurant discovered, and slugs can move pretty quickly, although I guess they have enough natural defenses that most of the time they don’t need to. Most animals either know or, like my friends, discover that slugs aren’t that appetizing.

I’m sure I’d also feel differently if we lived on the west coast where banana slugs are found and are even a school mascot because they’re amazing. I’d probably feel the same way about them that I did about snails. And I’ve always found sea slugs fascinating, from when I first read about them in my Jacques Cousteau books to when, on a trip to Florida, I found some hanging onto a piece of driftwood. They had amber bodies and azure gills. I carried them to the house where we stayed in Florida in a bucket with some sand and rocks and seaweed and watched them for hours. They crawled all over their temporary plastic home, occasionally swimming by curling and uncurling until they floated up to the surface then drifted back down. The next day I took them back to the beach and released them to the sea, not wanting them to die in captivity.

They lived in salt, the same stuff I used to destroy their terrestrial cousins. I don’t know if that’s what changed my mind about the sidewalk slugs but after that I let them pass.

Spring Storms.

March is supposed to come in like a lion and go out like a lamb but the one this year apparently didn’t get the memo and came in with summer temperatures and went out with ups and downs. Then the April showers started with a midday thunderstorm that was so bad I left work in the middle of the day. My office is safer than my house in a storm—it’s eleven stories of heavy concrete, not counting the basement that’s below street level, so while it would be a lousy place to be in a flood it’s pretty solid protection from tornadoes. Still if anything really bad happened I wanted to be at home to be able to deal with it. I walked from the office building in heavy rain—“downpour” really is the best word for it, and not just because a solid sheet of water was sliding off the awning over the door—to the parking garage where I’d been smart enough to park on one of the covered levels instead of the roof as I usually do. Then I drove home through rain that was so heavy at one point I had to pull over into a parking lot because the wiper blades just weren’t cutting it. When I got pulled into the driveway at home the rain had stopped and the sun had come out.

Spring storms are weird.

Of course it’s the kind of weirdness that, when you think about it, makes perfect sense. Winter’s cold slows everything down; it’s nature’s resting period. And then spring comes in, the temperatures go up, and it’s like the Earth stretches and, like a lot of us, struggles to get out of bed and needs a shower, a hot beverage, and a little time on the toilet to get going. It’s no wonder most thunderstorms hit in the spring, or at least it seems that way. I’ve never actually kept any kind of record but, again, it’s a kind of weirdness that makes sense. And after I’d gotten home, taken the dogs out, and had lunch the rain started again, followed by a rush of cold, because nature isn’t just waking up; it’s got a hangover.

The worst of it had passed by nightfall but I went out in the dark and looked up at the sky where dark pulpy clouds hung so low I thought I could reach up and touch them. A plane went over, lights turning the mist bright green and red and white, the people inside it cocooned from the dark, soggy ground below. Then I went in to get ready to bed, the spring wakeup having left me so tired.

All In Good Taste.

Source: The Food Disgust Test

According to the Food Disgust Test which I took recently my disgust is “low” at 31%, and I’m not sure whether to be proud of that or concerned. I’m going to go with proud, though. It looks like a very scientific test but I’m not sure it’s any more accurate than other online quizzes that ask things like “Which Credence Clearwater Revival song are you?” and which inevitably give the answer “Up Around The Bend” when everybody who knows me knows I’m “Lookin’ Out My Back Door”, but that’s another story. The Food Disgust Test also has thirty-one questions which seems like it makes it more accurate but coincidentally that’s also the number of flavors a certain ice cream shop claims to have which just makes me even more suspicious.

At least most of the questions seem reasonable and have a sliding scale. When it asked how I felt about moldy cheese, for instance, I thought, that makes sense. Some people don’t like their cheese to have blue veins at all, some don’t like Gorgonzola but like Stilton, and, well, I’m pretty sure I draw the line at Casu martzu, but then I also haven’t found a cheese yet I wasn’t at least willing to try. And I could understand some of the other questions too, like whether I’d eat a banana with black spots on it. Of course I would—those spots are a sign the banana has reached that golden point, though I understand some people like their bananas when they’ve reached the blacken point, which is ideal for banana bread, and some want them closer to the greenen point. That’s fine. Taste is a very subjective thing, which is why I don’t believe “disgust” can be objectively measured no matter how scientific you make your test look. The test didn’t ask me if I like raw tomatoes. I don’t—I find them disgusting, but that’s just me. I’m glad other people like them—otherwise that big tray of sliced tomatoes at the deli is just going to go to waste. The test even seems to have a bit of an obsession with mold, also asking if I’d eat bread that had mold cut off of part of it. Yes, I would, as long as the bread I’m eating isn’t moldy, and a science teacher once told me a little mold in bread can act like penicillin, keeping away infections.

There are also questions about whether I’d eat something a friend or acquaintance handed to me. I would—unless it’s Kevin, who I know doesn’t wash his hands—but I know some people have qualms about their food being handled. There’s nothing wrong with that but still one person’s disgust is another, hey, are you gonna eat that?

After really thinking about it, though, what I think the test told me is that I’m open-minded when it comes to food. Or I thought I was until a friend got an even lower score. That’s when I said, Challenge accepted. Let’s take a ride on a flying spoon.

Two Cars Down.

Sometimes I see a car with bumper stickers that make me want to meet the owner. Actually it happens quite a bit, probably because I have a pretty wide range of interests and also someone else’s enthusiasm for something can really interest me. At least I’ve come to realize it’s the people who interest me, not necessarily the thing they’re interested in. I once spent two hours talking to a retired railroad worker and I was absolutely fascinated the whole time. I like trains and I think they’re interesting but I wasn’t inspired to quit my job and pursue a career in the railroad industry, or even take up trains as a hobby. It was really his stories and the way he told them that interested me.

Most of the really interesting bumper stickers I see are on moving vehicles so I don’t really have any chance to talk to the driver—they’re usually in another lane and even if they’re going the same direction I am they almost always turn at some point. I don’t think there’s ever been an occasion when someone in front of me with a really fun bumper sticker and I ever went to the same place and even if we did I can’t imagine any way that, once we’d parked, getting out and yelling something like, “Hey, I understood that reference!” would go well.

I also see a lot of cars with fun bumper stickers in parking lots and when I was at the store the other day I was really, really, really interested in meeting the driver of the car two spaces over from where I’d parked who was really into frogs. And a fan of Dolly Parton. I’m tempted to add, “but who isn’t?” even though I did have an aunt who hated Dolly Parton. I never did find out why because I wasn’t interested in asking. My parents lived two doors down from Dolly–which is interesting because of her song “Two Doors Down” and became good friends with her husband They moved before I was born, but I don’t think my aunt was aware of that.

I think I saw the driver of the frog car, which was a new experience for me. What are the odds we’d both be in the parking lot at the same time? The green shirt and the green-framed glasses made me think it must be the driver and I really wanted to ask them about their interest in Anura. Are they a biologist? Or just someone who really likes frogs? Either would be cool. But there was enough distance between us that I couldn’t think of any way walking over to them or yelling something like “I will always love frogs!” would go well even if they did understand the reference.  

Useless Information.

Spring is a transitional time which may be why I suddenly started thinking about middle school where, in addition to the standard subjects of English, math, science, and social studies we had four “creative” subjects that we cycled through, spending half a semester in each: art, home economics, music, and industrial arts. I guess it was the school’s way of giving us a sample platter of subjects we could take as electives in high school.

Art was the first one for my class—different classes started with different courses so the teachers in each one would be occupied all the time–and was a pretty fun class. We painted with watercolors—one assignment was to do a landscape using shades of just one color, and also bleach on construction paper, making negative pictures. We also made wax candles, copperplate prints, and, toward the end of our time in the class, got to use an airbrush to decorate t-shirts, I guess because we were too young to own vans we could have painted wizards or dragons or guitars on. Also one kid sliced his finger open with an X-acto knife and it was the only time I ever heard anyone swear that much in front of a teacher and not get in trouble for it. Although I didn’t pursue a career in art I can honestly say I still use some of the things I learned in that class.

Home economics was the next one my class went to. Some adults were surprised when I told them that and would say, “The boys at your school take home ec?” Yeah, we didn’t have a choice, but it was also a fun class. We baked cookies and learned about nutrition, and also watched some really outdated film strips about dating etiquette. I still remember one of the things I learned about dating is that, at the restaurant, the guy should recommend something to his date that’s within his price range as a subtle way of telling her what he can afford. So “The chicken Caesar salad is good here” is the guy’s way of saying, “Please don’t order the surf ‘n’ turf or I’ll have to wash dishes and you’ll end up walking home.” Also, according to the filmstrip, the guy should look like Johnny Unitas. Like I said that part was really outdated but I can honestly say I still use some of the things I learned in that class.

In the music course I learned the basics of how to read music, play a little bit on the synthesizers in the back of the class and also participate in a bell chorus, as well as watching Oklahoma!, The Music Man, and a documentary about the making of Michael Jackson’s Thriller—the video and the album. I wasn’t really interested in playing music at the time and when it came to singing couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket but I still liked the course and can honestly say I still use some of the things I learned in that class.

Industrial arts was, of course, the only one that started with a safety lecture because of course nothing goes together better than a bunch of hormone-flooded teenagers and a room full of industrial woodcutting equipment. The teacher proudly told us he still had ten fingers, most of them original, and swigged linseed oil directly from a jug he kept on his desk. I made a Plexiglas pen holder and a wooden pinball machine. Both are long gone and I don’t do a lot of woodworking these days but I can honestly say I still use some of the things I learned in that class.

My second year of middle school each of the courses was shortened by a week and they added a fifth one, computers. One of the science teachers got moved to a room full of shiny new Apple computers and we each got a floppy disk to store our assignments—part of them, anyway. Most of our classwork was written down in our notebooks because we couldn’t take the computers with us and most of us didn’t have computers of our own. We learned the basics of programming in BASIC, and how to create graphics on monochrome monitors. And the funny thing is I can honestly say there’s not a single thing from that class I’ve ever used.

A Spring In Their Step.

Famous Literary Rabbits

Bugs Bunny-The greatest of all Leporidae Bugs was originally based on Groucho Marx—hence the carrot which replaced the cigar, but his trademark phrase, “What’s up, doc?” and all his wit are purely original. Bugs isn’t just the pinnacle of rabbits; he just might be the best cartoon character ever.

Source: Tenor

Rabbit-For all of A.A. Milne’s imagination in adapting his son’s stuffed animals into the characters of The Hundred Acre Wood you’d think he could have come up with a more original name than “Rabbit” for Winnie The Pooh’s Neighbor. A bit crotchety and eccentric he should have been “Reginald” or even “Herbert”.

Peter Rabbit-Few writers understood rabbits as well as Beatrix Potter. Peter isn’t nearly as wayward as his cousin Benjamin Bunny and, let’s face it, while his siblings get blackberries and milk for supper Peter gets to spend all day stuffing his face in Mr. McGregor’s garden, which has to be a lot better, and was also a convenient way to get rid of the jacket he never really wanted in the first place.

Thumper-A lot of children were traumatized by Disney’s film Bambi but somehow I avoided it by finding Thumper a lot more interesting as a character, and also he was the one whose mother didn’t get killed.

The Velveteen Rabbit-While not really a rabbit until the end of the story but Margery Williams’s hero still deserves special recognition for goodness and endurance.

The March Hare-No one really knows what a “hare” is, and by “no one” I mean the average person like me who hears the term and thinks, What is the difference between hares and rabbits? I should look that up only to completely forget about it ten seconds later. Anyway, hares are larger, have forty-eight chromosomes compared to forty-four for rabbits, and have never been domesticated. And now the number of people who know the difference between hares and rabbits is slightly smaller so Lewis Carrol’s character belongs on this list. Also, unlike the White Rabbit, who serves the King and Queen of Hearts, the March Hare is his own boss.

Judy Hopps-While Zootopia is a film and not adapted from any literary work Officer Hopps is  a solid character. Honest, hardworking, ambitious—she stands out for being pretty much the opposite of most rabbits, real and fictional.

Source: Tenor

Harvey-Another example who’s not really a rabbit Harvey’s still special for being Jimmy Stewart’s pal.

General Woundwort-Richard Adams’s Watership Down, the epic tale of rabbits escaping the destruction of their homes was adapted into an infamous 1978 animated film that’s been shown on TV a few times. Well-meaning adults have turned it on thinking, “Oh, it’s a cute cartoon about bunnies” and left their children alone to be traumatized by, among other things, the rabbit Woundwort fighting a pack of ravenous dogs in a scene so violent and bloody it’s a wonder the animators didn’t run out of red paint.

The Easter Bunny-While always second banana to Santa Claus the Easter Bunny—originally the Easter Hare among German Lutherans—once also had his own version of the “naughty and nice” list and still brings baskets of candy and eggs to children. Sometimes the eggs are hidden and children have to go on a hunt for them which is a problem if no one finds that one under the couch until July.

John Updike-Honorable mention.

Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun.

The first time I saw the sunrise was on a camping trip. I’d been up all night before but my bedroom faced west so I saw a lot of sunsets but in the mornings I’d only seen the sky lighten and get gradually brighter. It depends on your definition of “sunrise”, though—I suppose any time before it reaches its zenith you’re seeing the sun rise. I expected it to look like a sunset in reverse but was surprised by how different the light was, how the whole sky brightened even before the first bright sliver appeared over the horizon. I’d spent the night in a tent that was little more than a canvas draped over a pole so my sleeping bag was on the ground and during the night I woke up to find I’d moved around so much in my sleep my head was outside the tent. I was looking straight up into the stars and in my barely conscious state I had this vision that the stars weren’t points but long beams of light that spanned an unimaginable distance. I thought that, if I could move just enough so that I was no longer looking at them straight on, I’d see them like lines of a web stretched across space.

In school I’d just started reading Thoreau, and I remembered the line, “The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.”

I thought about it this morning too while driving into work. For the first time in weeks I left the house in the dark, thanks to the time change. I know some people love Daylight Savings Time—they love the light lingering later in the afternoons, but the mornings, as far as I’m concerned, are for the birds. Or would be if the birds were even awake.

I drive east to work so I was headed straight into the sunrise. I passed joggers, dressed all in black for some reason, and even in the brightening sky could only see the lights of airplanes making very early flights.

Once I got to the parking garage and got out of the car the whole sky was azure except in the east where it was peach and seashell pink. The sun still wasn’t up though, and I didn’t wait around to see it. Getting up before dawn isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Wild Onions.

The wild onions are popping up all over the yard, one of the first signs that spring is here. I once heard that wild onions are a sign that there will be no more frost, but unlike some other folk wisdom that doesn’t seem to be true, at least not around here. I’ve even seen them make a full recovery from a hard freeze. Right now they’re mostly fine as hair but once summer gets into full swing they’ll be thick and tall. The lawnmower will leave stands of white-rimmed tubes that look like they should sing like pan pipes when the wind blows over them. The ones that don’t get cut down will send up big clusters of purple seeds. I’m a little surprised to find out that they really are onions—closer to scallions, I guess, than the big Vidalia and Walla Walla varieties.

Whenever I see wild onions I think about a kid I knew named Tommy who lived in my neighborhood. He was a good guy, funny, and we were friends though we only played together occasionally, and I think he only wandered up to my house when none of the kids who lived closer to him were around. Maybe that’s why he came into my yard one spring afternoon when, for reasons that made perfect sense at the time even though I probably couldn’t have articulated them then, I was pulling up wild onions and stacking them below the rain gutter at the corner of the house.

“I love onions,” said Tommy, and he took one, put the dirt-covered bulb in his mouth, bit it off, and crunched.

It’s a lucky thing we weren’t west of the Mississippi where a plant that looks like wild onions but is aptly named “death camas” poses a risk to amateur foragers. Tommy wouldn’t suffer any ill effects even after stretching out on one of the lawn chairs on the deck and eating several more wild onions. He even took a big bunch of them home, telling me he was going to give them to his mother “for supper”. By comparison me pulling up the wild onions doesn’t seem so weird.

That was the last time I’d see Tommy, or at least spend any time with him, for a few years. I don’t think the onions had anything to do with it. While I wouldn’t be completely surprised if he did suffer some side effects of taking home a bunch of wild onions even if it was just being yelled at by his parents for eating weeds, maybe even for going so far from home to eat weeds. I don’t think I even enabled his onion-eating since he could have pulled them up in his own yard. I think it was just the way our lives went that kept us apart. We were in different sections of the same school, and in sixth grade when we were in the same section we were both older and had developed different circles of friends. Tommy had gotten tall and athletic and I hung out with more nerdy kids.

Junior high separated us even further, and I wouldn’t see him again until my sophomore year of high school when he stomped into my English class wearing ripped jeans and a leather jacket. He threw a slip of paper at the teacher who picked it up, looked at it, and said, “So you’re dropping out of this class.”

“Man, I’m droppin’ out of school,” said Tommy. And he grabbed the piece of paper and stomped out.

That would be the last time I’d see him. Wild onions, on the other hand, are everywhere. I don’t pull them up anymore, and I’m really not even tempted even now to eat them. After all look what they did to Tommy.

Food For Thought.

The refrigerator died. I always knew it was going to—this isn’t our first refrigerator, and it’s lasted a really long time, but I always thought of its eventual death the same way I think of the sun eventually exploding. Yes, it’s going to happen eventually, but it’s not something I have to worry about today. Except in the case of the refrigerator today arrived earlier this week. Hopefully the sun exploding will stick to its current schedule of happening in approximately five billion years, by which time we will have gone through a few more refrigerators.

It’s really hit me how much I take the refrigerator for granted, it’s always been a reassuring presence, and how true it is that you don’t really miss something until it’s gone. Sure, the ice maker never really worked properly, and if you closed the freezer door too hard the refrigerator door would pop open, or vice versa, but at least it kept things cold. Still, as problems go, it’s a relatively small one, or rather it’s relatively six feet tall, three feet wide, and about three feet wide. It’s substantially bigger than the refrigerator my mother-in-law has in her basement and which, in spite of being made back when Leave It To Beaver was in its original run, is still working, unlike ours which, if I remember correctly, we purchased about fifteen years ago. And we have another small problem: newer refrigerators are even bigger, but the doors on our house, which also dates from the 1950’s, are still the same size. So we had to find a refrigerator that will fit into our home because leaving it outside isn’t an option. Also I don’t want a “smart refrigerator” that says things like, “Hey, I noticed you’re running low on milk. I’ll order some for you if you’ll just give me your credit card information which I promise I won’t give to some guy in Uzbekistan unless you decide to microwave that fish you’ve got in my bottom drawer.”

I know when we’re low on milk which brings me to the other problem which is only metaphorically small, and that is the new refrigerator couldn’t be delivered for three days. Three days! Normally three days goes by in a matter of minutes, except when I have a dental appointment coming up or, well, when we’re waiting for a new refrigerator to be delivered. It’s not like the dryer going out, which happened last year—that was fine because as long as we had sunny days I could hang up the towels to dry. Try doing that with leftover chicken curry. It’s just inviting the neighborhood raccoons to drop in. So the three day wait lasted at least a month.

We have managed a stopgap measure. First we threw out a bunch of things that should have either been eaten or thrown out a lot sooner, but that just caused me to reflect on how you don’t know what you’ve got in the refrigerator until it dies, and we packed everything we wanted to save into coolers and I’ve been buying bags of ice regularly at the mini-mart down the street. That’s got me asking questions like, will skim milk last longer than whole milk? What about half and half? Will it last twice as long? Does ketchup really need to be refrigerated? And what about Gary at the mini-mart? He’s seen me every time I go in to buy more ice and I feel like I’ve become a reassuring presence in his life. Will he miss me when I’m gone?