The Weekly Essay

It’s Another Story.

A Hazy Shade Of Spring.

When I was a kid I would call Spring “the second Fall of the year”, because, like fall, it was a time when some days were warm and some were cool, the mornings were often misty, and the few leaves that had managed to hang on through the winter finally drifted down, although the reason was that they were being pushed out by new growth. And, yes, I know, it would have made more sense to call Fall “the second Spring of the year”, but give me a break—I was six or seven and was still grappling with the concept of the “school year” which was not only not a whole year but started in late August of one year and ended in late May the following year and I’m still not sure who thought that up.

I also just liked Fall better. I wasn’t sophisticated enough yet to think of it as, well, the end of not just the year but the time of the harvest, the time for reaping all that had been sown in the spring. I didn’t know what “reaping” was, or “sowing” for that matter. In kindergarten the beans we stuck in soil-filled egg cartons in March had produced a handful of beans that we added to a giant pot of soup in early May, so we were doing the whole farm-to-table thing on a highly condensed timeline.

One spring a few years later some friends and I were looking through a volume of poetry when we ran across the poem “Annus Mirabilis”. I don’t remember whether it was the Dryden poem that kind of shrugs off the Great Fire of London with an attitude of “Aside from all the fire and death and destruction it wasn’t such a bad year”, or the Philip Larkin poem about the year he lost his virginity, which he kind of shrugs off with an attitude of, “Aside from that and the fact that you could now buy a copy of Lady Chatterly’s Lover and The Beatles hitting big it wasn’t such a bad year.”

The thing is we never read either poem because we were so stuck on the word “Annus”—but give us a break.  We were thirteen and terrible spellers.

A few years later I’d go and read both poems. It was in college and I’d long since gotten over being bothered by the “school year”. Instead I was being hit hard by the feeling that time was accelerating—that years weren’t as long as they used to be, and that Spring, supposedly a time of new growth and renewal, was just another end: the end of the school year, the end of Winter.

Every year that same feeling comes over me, always in the Spring. No other season reminds me of mortality the way the season of rebirth does, and the older I get the faster the Springs come back around. And then, even before Summer’s in full swing, I forget about it and go on. Give me a break. At my age I forget a lot of things.

 

 

Pie In The Sky.

“Pizza Is a Healthier Breakfast Than Cereal, According to a Nutritionist”–Health.com

Welcome to another episode of Mouth Of America! This week we’ll be enjoying some of the different styles of cereal around the country. First we’ll head to New York, best known for its thin style of serving up Raisin Bran, usually on plates instead of bowls. Paper plates are great and can conveniently be folded in half for easy carrying when you’re strolling around the five boroughs, although they don’t hold milk too well.

Next we’re off to Chicago for their famous deep bowl cereal style, often served up with heavy cream and requiring an extra large spoon. Few things go better with a Bears game than a big bowl of shredded wheat topped with a hot, gooey layer of melted sugar.

As long as we’re in the Midwest let’s also stop to take in Detroit style cereal. The legacy of John Harvey Kellogg, inventor of corn flakes, still reigns here with his traditional cereal  served up in square or rectangular bowls, and for some reason they also put butter on it.

Right next door of course is Wisconsin, America’s dairyland, which explains why corn flakes are also popular here and also why instead of milk they use cottage cheese. That’s…interesting. Let’s move on.

Down South cereals lean more toward the dried fruit and whole nut end of the aisle with puffed rice also a popular choice. South Carolina style cereal is especially well known for its vinegar and mustard based toppings and seriously what is wrong with people?

Now we head back to the middle of the country for some of the famous St. Louis cereal and molasses I can understand but why for the love of all that is holy are they putting tomato sauce on it.

Just a little to the north is Iowa where the most popular cereal is corn. Just corn. Raw corn on the cob. In a bowl.

Let’s move on. You don’t have to jet across the Pacific to enjoy Hawaiian style cereal which has become popular across the country. Adding pineapple to your cereal doesn’t sound so bad. Oh, please tell me you didn’t just put ham in a bowl of Cocoa Puffs. I think I’m going to be sick.

Finally it’s off to California for, oh, no, wait, we’re going to the Pacific Northwest for Seattle-style and, yep, I was afraid of that, they’re putting fish on it.

Well, that’s all for our tour of the cereal styles of America, and I’m only going to say because I’m contractually obligated to read the script that cereal is good food no matter how you slice it.

And All The Devils Are Here.

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March Pride.

March comes in like a lion.

Specifically it comes in like the lion in the old joke who goes marching around the veldt and when he finds a giraffe he roars at it, “Who is the greatest animal in all of Africa?” And the giraffe trembles and says, “You are!” The lion nods and moves on. Then he comes upon a cheetah and roars at it, “Who is the greatest animal in all of Africa?” And the cheetah trembles and says, “You are!” The lion nods and moves on. Then he comes upon an elephant and roars at it, “Who is the greatest animal in all of Africa?” The elephant picks the lion up with his trunk, swings him around, and slams him against a tree.

The lion, dazed, picks himself up off the ground and says, “Fine, sure, whatever, you don’t have to get upset just because you don’t know the answer!”

Or maybe it’s like the one in the old joke about the two photographers taking pictures of a sleeping lion. The lion wakes up, stretches, and starts to move toward them. One of the photographers reaches down and puts on a pair of running shoes. The other one says, “You don’t think you’re going to outrun a lion, do you?” The first one says, “Forget the lion. I just need to outrun you.”

Or it’s like the one about an aquarium owner who calls in her assistant and says, “We’ve got a serious problem. We’ve got a bunch of preschoolers coming today and the dolphins have picked now to start mating. They won’t stop going at it. The only thing that acts as an anti-aphrodisiac to dolphins is the cheeping of baby seagulls. I need you to run down to the beach and get a couple.”

The assistant starts to go but the owner stops him. “Wait! There’s a problem! A lion escaped from the zoo next door. They hit it with a tranquilizer dart but it’s still out there somewhere so be careful.”

 The assistant runs down to the beach and grabs a couple of baby seagulls. On his way back he finds his path blocked by the lion. The lion is sound asleep so he steps over it very carefully. But just as he does so a policeman steps out and arrests him.

“But officer, what’s the charge?”

“Transporting young gulls across a sedate lion for immoral porpoises.”

Or it’s like the one about a priest traveling alone through the African bush. One day a lion jumped out at him and immediately put its paws together and began to pray.

“I’m saved!” shouted the priest. “It’s a miracle!”

“Shut up,” said the lion, “I’m saying grace here.”

Or it’s like the one about a couple of lions walking around Broadway. One says to the other, “Weird. There don’t seem to be a lot of people around.”

March goes out like a lamb.

There aren’t any jokes about lambs. That must be why April starts with fools.

It Could Happen.

Source: Sitcoms Online

Certain corners of the internet are exploding with the news that the new streaming service Blitz will launch with a reboot of the classic sitcom My Mother The Car. The show’s premise was typical of the ‘60’s, and perhaps even less ridiculous sounding now: attorney David Crabtree, played by Jerry Van Dyke, buys an antique car, specifically a 1926 Reichenbach, only to discover that it’s inhabited by the ghost of his deceased mother. She talks to him through the car’s radio and only he can hear her. She helps him through various difficulties with his wife and career as he evades the unscrupulous Captain Manzini, who’s determined to acquire the valuable antique car.

With its moody lighting, lack of a laughtrack, and muted performances My Mother The Car continues to be widely acclaimed as the worst sitcom of all time but still managed to develop a loyal cult following. It even spawned a series of comics published by DC with Crabtree and Mother becoming crime fighting quasi-superheroes.

Most attempts to bring back My Mother The Car since its 1966 cancellation have failed. Perhaps the most notable was Steven Spielberg’s 1986 big screen adaptation. Because of the film’s raunchy humor, including a subplot of Mother working for an escort service, it barely got by with a PG-13 rating and posters of Mother sporting an oversized cigar under her hood were quickly pulled from theater lobbies. Fans who continued to hold occasional “car-ventions” at Jerry Van Dyke’s Ice Cream Soda Shoppes around the country lamented the steady decline of their beloved franchise.

Then in 2018 interest was renewed with the cinematic release of the four and a half hour superhero epic Justice League: Quantum Fracture, which pulled together a vast range of DC characters, including David Crabtree and Mother. Although Jerry Van Dyke, who sadly passed away before the film’s release, was too ill to appear as himself he did record the dialogue and the onscreen David was played by a digitally enhanced Andy Serkis, who also provided Mother’s voice.  

The new series features a cast of largely unknown actors and, while the producers say they want to remain faithful to the original, will feature greater diversity and much less reliance on mother-in-law jokes. They also describe the new series as “a mashup of Herbie The Love Bug, Knight Rider, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Speed Racer, Wonderbug, The Magic School Bus, Speed Buggy, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”.

Environmental concerns will be addressed too. Reichenbachs of that era operated entirely on whale oil, an issue that will be dealt with both in the series itself and through the Blitz service’s new sponsored conservation program My Mother The Narwhal.

I’ve now watched the three screener episodes Blitz provided to critics, social media influencers, members of the official My Mother The Car Fan Club, and pretty much anyone who asked and I think it’s safe to say it will be universally acclaimed as not too bad.

Shades Of Gray.

Chess is getting a bit of a resurgence right now thanks to the miniseries The Queen’s Gambit, and the original novel by Walter Tevis which had been out of print is also getting a bit of a resurgence, not to mention new editions. As a billiards fan I know that Tevis is also author of The Hustler and I wonder if there’s a chance for a comeback for eight-ball, although that could lead to trouble in River City, but that’s another story.

I tried chess but I don’t think I ever had the right mind for it. For a while we had a chess program on our home computer, and I quickly learned that playing chess against a computer was an exercise in futility. The game was advanced enough that it had levels of difficulty and the first level, the only one I could ever win, had a very simple strategy: bloodbath. The computer and I took turns taking out each other’s pieces until finally whichever one had the most left would pin the opposing king into a corner. It didn’t require thinking beyond more than a move or two ahead. Level 2 was real chess, serious chess and it was frustrating but also kind of fascinating to watch the computer develop a strategy and advance it relentlessly no matter what I did, and in the opening moves it would flash names on the screen like Alekhine’s Defense, The Venice Attack, The Corbomite Maneuver, The Hofstadter Insufficiency, or The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald.

Before that, when I was a kid, I also played chess, mostly because we had chess and checkers sets in our classrooms at school, and while I sucked at checkers the intricacies of chess somehow gave me enough of an advantage that I could beat most of my friends in a game of bloodbath–I got my kicks by going for a vein, Charlemagne. While it was a babysitter who taught me the basics of chess a lot of those games with my friends were prompted a book about chess that came into the school library when I was in fifth grade. It was a fun introduction to the rules and rhythms of the game but it was the illustrations that really got me. The pieces were drawn as individual people in elaborate faux-medieval costumes and weapons. The pawns were brawny guys with heavy clubs, the bishops wielded morning stars, which seemed out of character for priests but, hey, this was warfare. The rooks stood on top of wheeled towers, the queens looked haughty, and the kinds were, well, kind of dopey and scared.

The pictures inspired me to start writing a play about chess. And I’d just like to point out that this was years before Murray Head teamed up with ABBA, although my version wasn’t a musical. It didn’t have much of a plot either: it was just two aggressive kingdoms, Black and White, facing off against each other and making threats before the bloodbath finale that left all the players dead. I didn’t have an ending planned when I started and I realized as it went on I’d written myself into a corner; all I could come up with was an unstageable final scene of the players dumped into a box and the board folded up which, admittedly, ain’t a bad allegory for the Cold War.

For some reason that year I wrote a lot of plays in fifth grade. In addition to the chess play I wrote an adaptation of Alice In Wonderland and a weird one about a haunted pancake restaurant and an even weirder one about a warlock and his minions. None of them ever got performed, although I do wonder if my life would have taken a different direction if I’d ever gone to a school with anything resembling a theater department. Most of them were really too elaborate to be produced. The chess play’s ending was just part of the problem. It would have also required sixteen performers and in a class of twenty kids that wouldn’t leave much of an audience.

What I realized, too, was that what interested me about chess was never the game itself but the players. For all that it’s considered a game of cool logic and intellect chess players are serious, passionate. The fictional games in The Queen’s Gambit are a mere backdrop to the story of a young woman coming of age, and real games like Bobby Fischer versus Boris Spassky in 1972 played out a miniature version of tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union while a very real bloodbath raged in Vietnam. The only difference is the real game never ends.    

Ten Things Only I Think Are Funny, With Unnecessary Explanations, Annotations, And Footnotes.

Source: fromoldbooks.org

I have a rare album: Rex Harrison[1] Sings Billy Idol[2].

Explanation: There’s at least one other person who finds this funny, although I texted this to him one night with no other explanation after I’d had a couple of beers and, since it was a Friday night, I’m sure he’d had a few too and at that point just about anything is funny, and I still kind of wonder why I didn’t say I had an album of Brian Blessed singing Cyndi Lauper which, let’s face it, would have been almost as funny.

Annotation: Rex Harrison was hopeless as a singer but regularly cast in musicals, most famously the 1967 film version of Doctor Dolittle. He developed a style of “speech singing”, essentially talking his way through songs. Billy Idol, on the other hand,  has both a broad vocal range and a much cooler haircut.

Medieval European polearms [3]

Explanation: This one is a you-had-to-be-there kind of joke although I bet there are a lot of historians who get why this is funny. There are literally dozens of different designs for what’s basically a blade and some pointy things on the end of a stick, each with their own specific name and it just makes me laugh to imagine a knight saying to his squire, “Hey, I asked for a bec de corbin and you brought me a ranseur!”

I put a quarter in a Wurlitzer[4] and pita bread stuffed with thin-sliced roasted and seasoned lamb[5] popped out.

Explanation: This came to me one night when I was on my way to get some Greek takeout food and I was kind of embarrassed because I couldn’t tell the guy behind the counter why I was laughing so hard without sounding like a lunatic.

Annotation: Foreigner’s album 4, first released in 1981, has proven to be one of their longest lasting, with the second track, an ode to a young boy who is unable to buy a concert ticket but, hearing a guitar, becomes a musician himself, is considered by critics to be the best song in their entire catalog.

Aardvarks[6].

Explanation: I was watching a nature documentary and an aardvark came on and started digging into a termite mound and I couldn’t stop laughing because I’d never realized before that they’re basically giant long-tailed pigs with bunny ears.

Annotation: Aardvarks share a common ancestor with elephants, manatees, and hyraxes, none of which any rational person finds funny.

Hansel and Gretel[7] kill their parents.

Explanation: This is a bit dark but my lifelong love of fairy tales has prompted me to write alternate versions of several, including Hansel and Gretel, and I think it would be weirdly funny is the kids figured out their parents were planning to abandon them and took matters into their own hands and maybe got adopted by the witch.

Cans of mixed nuts.

Explanation: It’s not so much the nuts as the conversations I imagine them having. Hazelnuts[8] would call each other “Phil” and “Bert”, pecans[9] would speak with a Southern accent, and Brazil nuts[10] would speak German.

Annotation: Most commercially available nut mixes also include peanuts, almonds, and cashews, none of which are funny.

Excel spreadsheets[11].

Explanation: Actually not funny at all, not even to me, and I think I’ve established that I’ve got a really weird sense of humor, but at this point I’m just trying to pad out the list.

Annotation: In high school I knew guys taking computer classes who’d get really excited about making spreadsheets. This was the ‘80’s and it just goes to show how much of a novelty computers were that something accounting-related could actually seem exciting.

Padding lists[12]

Explanation: It’s always funny to me when someone throws something weird and seemingly random into a list.

The word “swab”

Explanation: There are plenty of weird words that just sound funny to me but “swab” is my go-to when someone asks for an example. Maybe it’s because I think of pirates swabbing the decks but it could just as easily be because cotton swabs tickle the insides of my ears.

Annotation: The origins of the word “swab” date to at least the mid-17th century when it originally meant a mop made of rope yarn, ultimately derived from the Swedish “svabba”, meaning “a dirty person”, and why the Swedish needed a specific word for a dirty person is a mystery.

Ridiculously long titles.

Explanation: None needed.

Annotation: See above.

Footnotes follow.

1-An English stage and screen actor (b.1908-d.1990)

2-An English musician, singer, and songwriter (b.1955, d. probably several times because, you know, rock stars)

3-A weapon consisting of a blade attached to a long wooden staff

4-A brand name of jukebox.

5-A sandwich commonly known as a “gyro”, sold as Greek or Middle Eastern cuisine.

6-Scientific name Orycteropus afer, an insectivorous mammal whose range extends across much of Africa.

7-The child protagonists of a German fairy tale of medieval origin first published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812.

8-Nuts produced by the hazel tree (scientific name Corylus avellana), hazelnuts are also known as “filberts” and now we’re just over-explaining the joke.

9-Nuts produced by a subspecies of hickory (scientific name Carya illinoinensis)

10-Not technically a nut but rather a seed from a South American tree (scientific name Bertholletia excelsa)

11-A computer application used for storing, sorting, organizing, and analyzing data in the form of a table.

12-Made you look.

 

Let Me X-Plain.

X is the twenty-third letter in the alphabet. It’s one of the oldest letters, having come from ancient Greek where it was pronounced like the sound you make when you clear your throat because the ancient Greeks liked to give really long speeches and they would cut off interruptions by pretending to interrupt themselves, or maybe they stayed hydrated by drinking heavy cream while making their speeches because skim milk hadn’t been discovered yet. Some people think X is a redundant letter but really X is a very hardworking letter. X can mark the spot, it’s what you put on moonshine bottles and unrated films before they invented the NC-17 rating as a way of telling people, “This film is pretentions and awful and doesn’t have nearly as much nudity as you’d think.” Without the letter X there’d be no X-Games, X-Men, or X-Files. And in regular words it’s very hard working. The letter X allows you to have experiences and it’s why Billy Joel can go to extremes. It’s part of excess, excellence, exceed, excelsior! Without X your axe would be an ae which isn’t nearly as exciting or exceptional, and would barely make an excerpt where an excision was needed. X works by itself too, in X-rays and X-Mas, and xanthan gum and Xanadu where Khubla Khan built a stately pleasure dome and then Charles Foster Kane renovated it so Olivia Newton John could build a roller rink there some time later. It’s why we have xanthan gum and no one knows what that is but it’s in everything. Without X your xeriscaped lawn would be all wet, your xylophone wouldn’t be nearly as xippy, and Xerxes The Great would just be Eres The Whatever. X also starts cool obscure words you only find in really big dictionaries, words like “xenium”, which means “a present, usually food, offered to a guest or stranger,” which is a really nice word that’s so much better than xenophobia.

X is also the Roman numeral ten which raises the question, when Romans said “ex”, which was a preposition that meant “out of” did they pronounce it “e-ten”? And did that make people say, “Oh, I get it, you’ve had your xenium so now you’re leaving”? Except “ten” in Latin is “decem” so I guess really they’d say “e-decem” on their way out.

All this shows what a really powerful and important letter X is, and why it’s a total badass of the alphabet. You do not want to meet X in a dark alley, and despite what you may have heard not all Xes live in Texas. X is useful and strong, it can work with others or stand on its own, not like, say, K, which other letters will tell you is a total dickweed, frequently standing there silently doing nothing in letters like known and knife, and making C look weak even though C can crunch it or be a stand-in for S.

I’m getting away from X though so this is a good point to make an exit or, as some people say, an ex-scape.

And actually it’s the twenty-fourth letter in the alphabet. I was just seeing if you were paying attention.

This was my response on an algebra test to the question “Define X”. My math teacher Mr. Stengell wrote a note in red at the bottom of my paper that said, “See me after class!” It turned out I was in trouble and did not get what I hoped for which was extra credit.

It’s Really Something.

So I’ve decided to become an expert on nothing. Admittedly I think I may already be an expert on nothing—it seems like it would be pretty easy to have absolute mastery of nothing, but the more I think about it the more I think maybe I’ve just skimmed the surface of nothing and that there’s a lot more to it that I could really look into. There’s already a long history of nothing that goes back much further than the sixties when kids were told to tune in, turn off, drop out, drop in, switch off, switch on, and explode, although the most famous event in the history of nothing might be the 31st of September, 1873, a day when absolutely nothing happened, and the people who experienced it have no idea how lucky they were. Or maybe they did and didn’t make a note of it.

More recent developments in the field of nothing include sensory deprivation tanks which I’ve heard described as being sort of like what Hamlet called the undiscovered country, except you get to come back, which makes me think there must be something to nothing. Admittedly I’ve never tried the sensory deprivation experience and that description makes me even more afraid of it than I was before. Whenever I’m surrounded by nothing my brain tends to fill it up with something and sometimes that something can be pretty terrifying. When I was a kid I was afraid of the dark because when all the lights were out all I could see was nothing and the dark is a pretty good place for something to hide, which reminds me of the joke about the guy who wants to talk to the burglar who broke into his house. “You’ll get your chance in court,” the police tell him, but the guy says, “He got in without waking up my wife and I need to know how because I’ve been trying to do that for years!”

I also think caves are really cool and have a fun time going to them but every time I’ve ever been in a cave there’s been a point where the tour guide has said, “Now we’re going to turn off all the lights so you can see just how dark it is inside a cave.” And I never want to see that. In fact I never do see it, or anything else, and most of the time it freaks me out so much I close my eyes but somehow that makes it even worse.

It seems like the deeper I get into nothingness the more there is to it. There are whole days when, no matter how much I work, I get nothing done. Lots and lots of nothing. Not that it’s anything new. Everything was once nothing. Between the blissful nothingness of Buddhism, reached through meditative enlightenment and the unnerving nothingness of the existential void and chaos what is there? And it occurs to me that at least half of Jean Paul Sartre’s philosophical magnum opus L’Être et le néant is about nothing, or at least I think it is–I haven’t read any of it.

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