The Weekly Essay

It’s Another Story.

Take Me To Your Mascot.

School has been back in session for a few weeks now which means it’s time for a pop quiz! Match the following advertising mascots with little known trivia about their personal lives.

  1. Mr. Clean
  2. The Jolly Green Giant
  3. The Energizer Bunny
  4. Snap, Crackle, and Pop
  5. Chester Cheetah
  6. Captain Morgan
  7. The Pillsbury Doughboy
  8. The Michelin Man
  9. Mr. Peanut
  10. Ronald McDonald

 

A. Also owns a modest chain of car wash places with locations in Van Nuys, Pasadena, and Yorbalinda.

B. Worked with Ted Healy in vaudeville before moving to food marketing.

C. Lives in Nebraska, only travels by hovercraft.

D. Showed up at an audition for mascots after misreading the ad as a sale for “ascots”.

E. Has 20/20 vision but can only read Braille.

F. Did an episode of Undercover Boss wearing a vintage toupee and fake beard previously owned by Eisenhower.

G. An accomplished bass player, often touring with Herman’s Hermits

H. Also has a line of athleisure wear.

I. Went to college to study nuclear physics, was expelled after a bizarre incident involving a Geiger counter, a box of Brillo pads, and an electric eel.

J. Can’t eat gluten.

Scoring

1-2: You have no idea who most of these characters are. Congratulations–this is a winning score.

3-4: You were raised on a commune in upstate New York but have been acclimating to “normal” life. Good luck on your CPA exam.

5-6: One of your parents made you watch “Days Of Our Lives” with them each afternoon during the summer.

7-8: Both of your parents made you watch “Days Of Our Lives” with them each afternoon during the summer.

9-10: You are an advertising mascot.

 

Answer key:

1-F

2-D

3-G

4-B

5-E

6-C

7-J

8-A

9-H

10-I

Night Birds.

The barred owl was back last night, calling out under the almost full and brightly ringed moon. A couple of weeks ago I was taking the garbage out in the dark, because of course that’s the best possible time to carry an overstuffed twenty-pound plastic bag around the patio, down a set of steps, behind the car, and under the deck where there’s no light at all. I heard the barred owl’s distinctive call, “who cooks for you? who cooks for you?” from the southeast, where there’s still a pretty heavily wooded area between houses. I stopped to see if another one would answer. We sometimes also hear great horned owls and my wife can hoot back at them and get them to respond, once even convincing one to move closer. I can’t tell if the owl knew it was talking to a person and thought it was funny or whether it was fooled and ultimately disappointed when the owl it thought it was talking to vanished.

In classical mythology owls are a symbol of wisdom, associated with Athena, although I think corvids rank higher on the scale of bird intelligence. Other cultures see owls as bad omens, though—they fly silently in the darkness and swoop down on prey, and they have those large, rounded heads. As with all anthropomorphizing, though, I think it says more about us than it does the animals themselves. They’re just trying to get through the night, take down a few mice, and cough up the bones and fur, which is a pretty efficient way to eat. Imagine being able to swallow a chicken whole and have your stomach strip away all the good parts so you could hack up the feathers and bones in a compact mass about half an hour later. It would make dining out a lot more interesting.

I’m not sure what the fact that I’m thinking about this says about me.

I was happy it was a barred owl and not a barn owl, which I know are around here and are very distinctive, I’d even say handsome, even among owls, but they make a sound like someone being murdered. And then there are screech owls, which I have heard around here. Their call sounds like the laugh of an evil clown hiding in the trees waiting to eat children, although you have to respect the evil clowns for swallowing them whole then about half an hour later hacking up all the bones in a compact mass inside the backpack.

After the barred owl my favorite experience is the night I was home alone and I kept hearing a repeating bass sound, like someone playing In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida just outside the window. Finally I went outside to investigate, because of course when I hear a weird noise the best thing to do is go and wander around in the dark to see what’s causing it. We have a big shagbark hickory tree right outside the den window, and silhouetted against the night sky I could see a great horned owl sitting there.

We stared at each other for several minutes, then I went back inside. It seemed like the wise thing to do.

It’s Cold.

The cold weather has been brutal. The other morning I looked at my phone to see what the temperature was and it just said, “You don’t want to know.” When I checked back later it was negative one, and that’s Fahrenheit. I went to an online calculator to see what that converted to in Celsius and it just said, “You don’t want to know.” I know I could do the math myself since my eighth grade math teacher gave me the formula for converting temperatures from Fahrenheit to Celsius, and after working really hard to understand it and practicing several times I said, yeah, I’ll just look at the basement thermometer that has Fahrenheit on one side and Celsius on the other, although the only number I really remember is negative forty, which is the same on both scales and also happens to be the freezing point of mercury. I also discovered the big freezer we kept in the basement would never get that low no matter how far I turned the knob in the back, and also that if you spill a bottle of liquid mercury in the freezer you might as well just buy a new freezer, but that’s another story.

I know we in the US should switch to the Celsius scale since it’s the one most of the world uses, and also it would help me when I’m talking to, say, a friend in Australia, and they say, “Crikey, it’s forty degrees here, I might take a dip in the billabong then crack open a tube of the amber fluid,” and I say, “Would you mind switching to English?” But I also get the appeal of the Fahrenheit scale. I think it’s a psychological thing. What most people consider a comfortable temperature is around seventy degrees Fahrenheit, or about twenty-one degrees Celsius. That’s a forty-nine degree difference and more is always better, even if the two numbers mean the same thing.

For me there’s also something I can only call nomenclatural synesthesia. The name “Fahrenheit” just sounds warmer to me, and I’d always rather be warmer, especially when it’s really cold out. I hear the name “Fahrenheit” and I picture a big, round-faced laughing guy with a curly copper-colored mustache wearing lederhosen and holding a big tankard of foamy amber fluid. I know that’s not what he looked like but it’s hard to shake that since I never met him, and I can’t explain it but everything about that image just exudes warmth. I’ll take the warmth, even when the temperature hits a hundred degrees—Fahrenheit, that is, because if it hit a hundred degrees Celsius we’d all be dead.

And speaking of Celsius, who seems to have been a much more modest guy since he named his scale “centigrade” but it’s been relabled with his name because Sweden needed something to be proud of other than ABBA, when I hear the name “Celsius” I think of a pale, skinny guy with bluish skin and lanky white locks, which is sort of what he looked like—aside from a relatively normal complexion, at least in his portraits. The term “Celsius” with its repeated sibilants just sounds cold to me.

I’m willing to accept a compromise, though: we could all switch to the Kelvin scale. It’s the same as Celsius but instead of zero being the freezing point of water it starts at absolute zero, which is negative 273.15 on the Celsius scale, the lowest temperature matter can reach. Think of how optimistic that is: once you reach zero on the Kelvin scale the only place you can go is up, even if once you’ve reached that point you’re dead. The problem with the Kelvin scale is the name. If Fahrenheit is Sargeant Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes and Celsius is Snow Miser from The Year Without A Santa Claus the name “Kelvin” just conjures up a Dickensian villain who stuffs children in sacks and throws them in the Thames. In winter. We’d have to come up with another name.

Maybe the Australians can recommend something.

Hey, Aqualung.

Stages Of A Cold

Day 1, Morning: You wake up with a sore throat. It doesn’t seem bad, but it’s a harbinger of things to come. You gargle with some warm salt water and assume that the gagging that follows must be enough to dislodge any infection.

Day 1, Late Afternoon: The runny nose starts. This also doesn’t seem bad. The fluid is clear and a few good blows into a tissue seem to clear it out. By the time you walk out of the bathroom and down the hall your nose is running again and you decide you’d better just take a couple of tissues with you.

At this point you could take some cold medicine but why would you when you haven’t got a cold?

Day 2, Morning: You’ve got a cold. Your head feels like it’s stuffed with cotton, your voice is an octave lower, and you can’t pronounce glottal stops. You blow your nose into a tissue until it’s completely soaked through and starting to disintegrate. This takes approximately twenty-three seconds.

Day 2, Evening: You can’t remember whether the rule is “Starve a fever, feed a cold” or the other way around. Not that it matters because you’ve lost your appetite. The good news you still have your senses of taste and smell. The bad news is you don’t really want anything you can taste or smell.

 

Day 987: Actually it’s Day 3, Morning: It just feels like it’s been that long. You can’t tell if it’s the cold or the cold medicine that makes you feel like all you want to do is lie in bed and shiver.

Day 3, Late Morning: A scaly crust has formed on your upper lip. A quick search tells you the divot under your nose is called the “philtrum”. This is mildly interesting but you don’t see how you’ll ever use this information since at the moment you’re hot, sweaty, and leaking fluids and can’t imagine wanting to be near another human being ever again.

Day 3, Afternoon: All you want is just a few minutes of normal breathing, the kind you had in the distant, hazy past that was last week. And now the coughing has started. It’s just small coughs. You’re hopeful this is as bad as it will get. You’re also wrong.

Day 3, Late Afternoon: You remember seeing people put a towel over their heads and lean over a pot of steaming water. You decide to try this to see if it will work. The bad news is it doesn’t. The good news is you now know the fire extinguisher you’ve had in the kitchen for decades works. Next time will you take the pot of water off the hot stove before you hang your towel-draped head over it? Of course not. You’re never going to do this again.

Day 3, Evening: Still shivering uou take your temperature. It’s 68.9. Oh, wait, you have that upside down. It’s 98.6. Is the rule “Feed a cold”? Let’s just say it is. You heat three cans of condensed chicken soup. You’re halfway through slurping it straight out of the pan when you realize you didn’t add any water. While you’re finishing the rest you order a pizza. While you’re picking it up at your front door your six boxes of Chinese food arrive.

 

Day 4, Morning: The cold medicine you took last night is labeled as “working for up to eight hours”. At exactly seven hours and fifty-nine minutes terrible, hacking coughs cause you to fall out of bed. You stumble into the kitchen and blow your nose into a paper towel which now looks like someone hit it with a spoonful of crème brulee.

Day 4, Lunch: Your nose has become a gelatin factory. The less said about this the better. You’re cycling through hot beverages: cider, tea with honey, tea with lemon, tea with orange juice, tea with maple syrup, tea with yak butter.

Day 4, Evening: You’re tired but not so listless. You crawl into bed and almost immediately slip into a dreamless sleep.

 

Day 5, Morning: The cough persists but you can breathe deeply through your nose without any trouble. You think you just might recover.

 

Day 10, Evening: You’re out for Trivia Night with some friends. The host yells out, “What is that divot under your nose called?” You’re about to answer when a guy on the opposing team says, “Philtrum!” You avoid him. You don’t want to catch whatever he’s got.

 

 

Thanks For Being A Year, 2023.

This is one of my annual traditions, celebrating a time when turkeys aren’t the only thing that gets stuffed. Happy Thanksgiving to all those who celebrate it, and a very special belated happy Thanksgiving to Canadians who celebrate it 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.
–Wikipedia

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.”

FINE.

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 who was sitting over there grinning at me 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.

What We Leave.

When I was a kid I read a book of Cherokee legends. The story of the beginning of the world stayed with me because, according to it, all animals, plants, and trees were tested by having to stay awake for seven days and nights. Some animals—rabbits, mice, even deer—fell asleep. They became prey for the ones who stayed awake: the mountain lion, the wolf, the owl. Some of the trees managed to stay awake too. These were the pine and cedar, so they would be evergreen. Other trees didn’t pass the test, and I still remember the line: “Unable to stay awake they would sleep part of each year, and lose their hair in winter.”

I’d never thought of leaves as tree hair before that, and not just because leaves grow back while most people I know who lose their hair lose it permanently, but I still liked the phrase. And yet it didn’t explain what, to me, was the biggest mystery of all: why so many people felt it necessary to rake and bag leaves in their yards. Most put the leaves in their garbage cans, as though the trees were purposely throwing trash around. It seems like an insult to the trees. It would be different if they were sneaking over to someone else’s yard and throwing down a bunch of leaves then running back in the middle of the night, like a bunch of kids having a toilet paper party. That is something I did once—a toilet paper party, I mean, not dropping a bunch of leaves, and even though I was a teenager at the time it still seemed like a stupid thing to do.

And at least leaves are bio-degradable. Technically toilet paper is too, but leaves land there naturally, and toilet paper tends to stand out against the landscape, at least as long as it’s fresh out of the package and hasn’t been used previously, but that’s another story.

Why clear away leaves? People love to see the changing colors: the reds and yellows of trees on hills in the all-too short, beautiful time before the fall to the ground, before they turn brown and papery and crackle underfoot. Once the leaves have been shed they blanket the ground providing insulation, protection, safe spaces for next year’s insects, and nesting material for squirrels and other animals. They’ll give back to the soil what they took from it, passing it on to the next generation. A clean yard is a terrible thing, the rake and leaf blower instruments of destruction.

Well, I do use them to keep the leaves away from the doors. Tracked in underfoot they won’t do anyone any good. We don’t need leaves in the house, where we sleep.