The Weekly Essay

It’s Another Story.

Perennially Annual.

Facts About Dandelions:

  1. The common dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, is native to Europe and was introduced to North America some time in the late 18th century.
  2. Although technically an invasive species dandelions in North America don’t pose a threat to native plants and animals and are an important source of nectar to bees and other insects.
  3. Dandelions are edible in their entirety and given the ease with which they can be grown could be an important food source.
  4. A form of latex has been produced from cultivated dandelions that’s of the same quality of that produced by South American rubber trees but without the same environmental concerns.
  5. Dandelion seeds have been an inspiration to engineers who have produced small windborne sensors that can travel long distances.
  6. Dandelions are a sign of a diverse, healthy lawn.
  7. If you blow all the seeds off a dandelion head and make a wish it will come true if your wish if for more dandelions.
  8. Dandelion seeds are an important food source for many birds.
  9. My neighbor Kevin hates it when people blow dandelion seeds on or near his lawn and, really, do you need another reason?
  10. Dandelion wine, made famous by Ray Bradbury’s novel, is easy to make and will make you really popular at parties.
  11. Dandelions have never lured small children into the sewer and devoured them. You’re thinking of azaleas.
  12. Dandelion roots, when dried and powdered, can be used as a caffeine-free substitute for coffee.
  13. Dandelions are actually more closely related to housecats.
  14. The taproot of dandelions brings up nutrients for other shallow-rooting plants, making it an ideal companion plant.
  15. Dandelions were arrested on suspicion of selling knockoff foundation garments in 1923 but were ultimately cleared of all charges.
  16. In Belgium dandelions are known as dandepangolins.
  17. Dandelions are an uncredited scriptwriter for the 1936 film adaptation of the musical Show Boat, directed by James Whale.
  18. No one’s sure what dandelions do at night or why the shoes you left by the back door had moved three feet to the left in the morning.
  19. Dandelions swept the 1987 World Croquet Championships in Paramaribo.
  20. Dandelions are excellent swimmers. How do you think they got from Europe to North America?
  21. Dandelions pay back loans in a timely manner and with interest.
  22. Dandelions know what you did. Don’t worry–they’re not going to tell.
  23. Dandelions will always let you sit in the window seat on the airplane so you can see the Grand Canyon.
  24. If dandelions invite you out you should go. Seriously, you may not remember it but that crumpled up receipts you find in your jeans the next morning for two bottles of quality scotch, four hundred Twinkies, and a hot air balloon ride make you think it was a great night.
  25. Dandelions did not take down Benny “The Nose” Lewis in the infamous St. Dymphna’s Day Massacre. Again you’re thinking of azaleas.
  26. They’re lions and they’re dandy, hey, what’s not to like?
  27. Dandelions are high in vitamins. Probably. I don’t know which ones but you could look it up.

Source: Imgur

The Deadline Is My Watermark.

Source: www.fromoldbooks.org

One of the advantages professional writers have is the deadline. I think that’s true, anyway. I’ve never been a professional writer, at least in the sense that I’ve never gotten a steady paycheck for writing. I have written a few pieces for magazines that needed me to turn in my work by a specific time, but they didn’t pay me, but most of my writing has been done without a specific publication or even necessarily a specific market in mind, which explains why, among my collection of rejection letters, is a really nice one that said, “Thank you for your astronomy-themed poems. We enjoyed them a lot and wish you the best of luck but we don’t feel they’d be right for our publication. Sincerely, the editors of Trout Fishing Monthly.”

I realize deadlines can cause a lot of anxiety, especially for anyone experiencing writer’s block, even if it’s self-imposed. But the advantage of a deadline is that facing the empty page can be really scary, even for those of us who want to write. The impulse to write stems from an inner voice that says, “I have something to say!” Which is fine as long as it’s drowning out that other inner voice that’s saying, “Who cares?” and “Why do you think you’re special?” and, occasionally, “What is reality?” In fact I believe it’s the desire to turn up the volume on the former and try and drown out the latter that motivates all writers, or at least all who want to write for an audience other than themselves—even those who pursue careers as ghostwriters or doing low level journalism like obituaries, although in their case the voice they’re trying to amplify seems to be saying, “I have something to say! I just have no idea what it is and I don’t care if I get credit for it!” but that’s another story.

And the other advantage of a deadline, one that’s externally imposed by an editor or publisher, is you have someone outside of you saying, “Okay, you have something to say, so let’s hear it!” And occasionally adding, “By Monday at the latest or we’re going to ask you to pay back that advance we sent you and that you’ve already blown on coffee, rent, and a really expensive nose hair trimmer which you bought even though it didn’t seem like a good idea even at two a.m. when you were hopped up on allergy medication.”

So anyway the Manuscript Writing Café just opened in Tokyo, Japan, and I want to go there even though I already had plenty of reasons for wanting to visit Tokyo, because I’m fan of cafes, coffee shops, or other places that offer a space to write or work on other creative projects with the added benefit of having food and beverages that I don’t have to worry about preparing myself. If you recognized the reference to Henry Miller’s essay “The Angel Is My Watermark”, in which, overcome by a vague but insistent inspiration, he went out to a café determined to just sit and drink quietly and ended up writing all over the tablecloth, give yourself five bonus points. If you didn’t give yourself ten bonus points because, well, who would recognize that?

The Manuscript Writing Café offers writers and other artists an extra bonus: you have to book time there, you have to come in with a specific goal, and you can request “verbal pressure” from the staff—they even have different levels, and you can’t leave until you’ve finished your writing goal. Or until the place closes which does take some of the pressure off no matter how much you’ve asked the staff to come out and yell at you.

It’s a funny idea but I also like that it was very likely started by, I’d even say inspired by, someone who felt the pressure but was still struggling to write and who said, “There’s a need for a place like this!” and they were heard.

Signs Of Spring.

Spring is a time of awakening.

The first and most obvious sign is the days getting longer. Sunset is later each day, sunrise is earlier each morning. The sun seems brighter too, moving in a higher arc across the sky. The birds that have been quiet for months start greeting the day, and singing throughout.

The days are warmer, temperatures rising steadily.

With the warmer weather the grass has started to grow rapidly, forming high clumps in some spots and a lush, level green carpet in others, dotted with the purples of violets, larkspur, and henbit, and the bright yellow of dandelions.

Looks like the poison ivy is back too.

The dandelions form cottony heads then send their seeds sailing out into the world.

Leaves start to bud out from trees, oaks forming tassels that dangle and blow in the breeze.

Cars, driveways, and streets are covered with a yellow-green powder as the budding trees spread their pollen.

You could get allergies just from looking at it.

Spring storms are especially intense. Powerful thunderheads sweep across the country propelled forward by high winds.

A light sprinkle turns into a heavy downpour. The sky darkens and then, suddenly, a crack of lighting illuminates everything brilliant white.

It’s hail all right.

Creeks and other waterways overflow, yards are sodden.

The next day the sun comes out as though none of it happened, but there are puddles where robins, bluejays, and cardinals splash and play.

Why is there a bumblebee in the basement? It probably won’t sting if I duck around it and it seems fixated on the bulb in the ceiling, but, still, why?

I should do something about that spare tire. The one in the backyard that collects rainwater, but also the one that hangs over my belt.

Then a new morning dawns and with it a new sensation. Just below the ribs. Itching.

Oh, great, of course, this early in the season and I’ve already got mosquito bites.

All this awakening makes me want to go back to bed.

Marching On.

March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb, but sometimes…

March comes in like a lamb and then starts tearing up the place like a lion and who knows when it’s getting out of here?

March comes in mad as a hare and goes out like a sleeping dormouse.

March comes in like a mushroom and goes out like a marshmallow.

March comes in like your boss with a really bad hangover and goes out like someone from Human Resources.

March comes running in to tell everyone the circus is coming and slinks out when it admits the circus won’t be here until June.

March comes in like the New York Marathon with everybody excited to get started and ends like the New York Marathon with only about a quarter of the people who started and they’re all exhausted and just glad it’s over.

March comes in like it forgot its keys and goes out like it really wants to know when the locksmith is going to get here.

March comes in like a crocodile and goes out like one of those frilled lizards that run around on their hind legs.

March comes in like the Superbowl and goes out like your kid’s soccer game.

March comes in like lava—something the movies you saw on TV when you were a kid made you think was going to be a much bigger concern when you were an adult—and goes out like quicksand—something else the movies you saw on TV when you were a kid made you think was going to be a much bigger concern when you were an adult.

March yells at you to get off its lawn, but why? You’re walking on the other side of the street.

March comes in and sets the curtains on fire but also does the dishes.

March comes in and everyone pretends to be really busy until it leaves.

March comes in like a Jackson Pollock painting and goes out like a clown painted on velvet.

March comes in like that guy in that movie that you recognize from that other thing but you just can’t remember his name and goes out like someone doing an ad for reverse mortgages.

March comes in like Chinese takeout and goes out like a pizza delivery.

March makes like a tree and leaves you with excruciating allergies.

March comes to your dinner party with a cheap bottle of wine and leaves with an expensive one.

March knew it came in here for a good reason but can’t remember what it was.

March comes in like a raccoon in your garbage can and goes out like a possum under your porch.

March comes in like a string of expletives and goes out exegetically.

March punches you in the back of the neck then buys you a drink because it thought you were someone else.

March comes in like a Bruce Springsteen concert and goes out like an 8-track of Tom Jones’s greatest hits that someone just threw at you.

March comes in like a colonoscopy and goes out like getting your taxes done.

March comes in like Tyrannosaurus rex—really cool, but terrifying, and goes out like Pachycephalosaurus—really cool because it’s a dinosaur but, I don’t know, should we be scared of this one?

March is just a month.

It’s Enough To Keep You Up At Night.

Source: From Old Books

Congratulations on buying a Scanton Super Snooz Mattress! The Super Snooz Mattress is specially designed to provide full body support and temperature control while you sleep. It’s guaranteed to provide comfort and rest, ensuring you will be fully rested when you wake ready to face each new day.

You ever wonder if dogs get songs stuck in their heads?

The Super Snooz Mattress is made with a proprietary foam developed by scientists for use by astronauts and soldiers. As we’ve demonstrated in our commercials you can balance a full wine glass on one side of the bed and drop bowling balls on the other and the wine glass will remain perfectly upright. However we don’t recommend dropping bowling balls on the mattress while someone is sleeping on it.

Hey, whatever happened to Vic Tayback?

The proprietary foam the Super Snooz Mattress is made with is a special compound that is made to be fire-resistant. However it can and will burn if exposed to an open flame or other heat source.

So apparently “segmented sleep”, where some people go to sleep at, like, ten o’clock at night, then wake up at around 1 in the morning, do some stuff when it’s quiet and no one else is up, then go back to bed is a thing. About thirty percent of the population does it. Who knew? Well, about a third of the population apparently.

The Super Snooz Mattress has been clinically tested to give you the most complete night’s sleep possible, providing uninterrupted rest.

Supposedly you get weird dreams if you eat Stilton cheese before going to bed. Didn’t work for me. I mean I tried it a couple of times and all I dreamed was that I was at work and then I was annoyed when the alarm went off and I had to get up and actually go to work.

The Super Snooz Mattress is hypo-allergenic and made with sustainable fair-trade materials, and manufactured entirely in the United States of America.

Once at an entire jar of expired olives before bed and dreamed my stomach came up out of my body and we went to my old high school and watched my class put on a production of “Oh! Calcutta!”

Sleep and dreams remain mysterious even to scientists but we at Scanton, makers of the Super Snooz Mattress, continue to look for new ways to give you the best night’s rest possible.

Hey, you ever wonder who invented the pillow? Someone should look into that.

The Super Snooz Mattress is only available at specially authorized retailers or you can take advantage of our special installment plan and and have a Super Snooz Mattress specially delivered to your house and installed by our friendly professionals. However you purchase your Super Snooz Mattress it will be covered under our three-year unlimited warranty. If you’re unsatisfied with your Super Snooz Mattress for any reason you can return it for a full refund.

So I was on this website reading stuff about sleep and there was a link to an article called “Ever Tried Giving Yourself Nightmares?” And I thought, well, okay, maybe I could give it a try. I clicked the link and got “Page not found” and I don’t know if it was removed or if somebody was jerking me around.

Oh yeah, and you know that tag on the mattress that says “Do not remove under penalty of law”? You can remove it from your Super Snooz Mattress. Seriously. We won’t tell.

Fear-ring.

Source: Atlas Obscura

A friend told me her son was getting his ear pierced, which surprised me. Earrings seem to be passé now, at least among guys, or maybe I just haven’t been paying attention. It’s not as though I have anything against guys, or anyone, really, getting earrings. For what it’s worth I think earrings are cool and I admire anyone who wears one or two or more. A young man getting an earring just seems to be a throwback to when I was a teenager and guys getting earrings was an act of rebellion. In fact it became such a popular rebellious act that the entire football team at my high school got earrings, and you know you can’t get more anti-establishment than institutionalized sports. Yes, they were really sticking it to The Man–specifically sticking it right through his earlobe with a stud of gold, silver, or perhaps a gemstone if they were feeling especially rebellious.

I remember when my friend Trav got his ear pierced. We went to one of those places at the mall because if you’re going to do something rebellious why not throw a chance of tetanus into the mix? Anyway Trav sat down in the chair and the young woman who’d probably been a senior when Trav and I were freshmen assured him it might sting a little but it would be over quickly. And while she was prepping the equipment a mother with her little boy, who might have bene eight or nine, came in. The little boy looked terrified and his mother kept saying to him, “Are you sure you want to do this?” And the darling little rebel, wide-eyed, slightly slack-jawed, would nod his head. He wasn’t going to wait for his teen years to show what a non-conformist he was. He was going to be the youngest anarchist on the block. With his mother’s approval, of course.

So the young woman who did the piercing poked Trav’s ear he grabbed the side of his head and screamed bloody murder. Our pint-sized provocateur took off running. I assume his mother caught him eventually, but I was too busy laughing to even see where they went. Trav would continue to stir up trouble, including, his senior year, joining every single school club so he could appear in every single yearbook photo, and even donning an eyepatch for his shot with the chess club where he was named as “Pirate Trav”, which is the sort of thing you can get away with when you’re also on the yearbook editorial staff.

He also caused a bit of trouble for me. My father was not impressed with Trav’s earring and told me I’d better not get one myself. All I could say was that I’d never planned to. He might as well have said, “Whatever you do don’t go out and get run over by a steamroller.”

As I said I think earrings are cool, which is exactly why I can never get one. I’ll never be cool enough to wear an earring. It takes a certain level of confidence, poise, even swagger to wear an earring, or, failing that, you can get the rest of the football team to get one. It’s just not a look I can pull off—and if I tried I should pull it out. And also Trav’s reaction kind of terrified me. 

Paperclipped.

Source: Wikipedia

I needed to write an actual document for work, something I don’t get to do much anymore, just because it doesn’t seem like that much needs to be written down anymore, unless you count chat messages, texts, and the occasional email, but most stuff people need to know is either already documented in some way or absorbed through osmosis, and the amount that’s gleaned through intuition sometimes makes me wonder how much people could save on tuition, but that’s another story.

Anyway I was staring at a blank word processing screen and it hit me. I miss Clippy. And I say that unironically because I know almost everyone who’s old enough to remember Clippy, the “office assistant” in the form of an animated paperclip who popped up in the corner of documents, was an incredibly divisive figure. In every office there were two types of people: those who hated Clippy and those who really, really, really hated Clippy.

And I know that waxing nostalgic for a bit of late ‘90’s/early Aughts bit of office technology seems a little odd, and I know that for most people Clippy is not only gone but mercifully forgotten, and it’s a reminder of the continuing advance of time that there are office workers today who never encountered Clippy, and whose ignorance would be envied by their elder peers if anyone cared enough to even think about it.

What those elder peers may not realize, though, is that Clippy was, for many of us, our first real encounter with artificial intelligence—although Clippy, while very definitely artificial, wasn’t that intelligence. No matter what you started typing Clippy would pop up with, “It looks like you’re writing a letter. Would you like help?”

How did Clippy know what I was writing? Well, most of the time they didn’t. I’m assuming Clippy is gender neutral, by the way, since both computer programs and paperclips are, although the latter have demonstrated the ability to reproduce. Seriously—I expect to eventually go back to my office and find my desk covered with paperclips. Anyway I never asked Clippy for help. I never needed help and I couldn’t imagine what help Clippy could provide anyway. Most of the writing I did was creative and I didn’t, and still don’t, trust any artificial intelligence to help with that.

There was something comforting about having Clippy hang out in the corner of whatever document I had open, though, occasionally waggling their eyebrows at me or switching to a star shape before going back to being a standard rounded paperclip. It was almost as though I had an actual assistant, a little helper with me while I wrote.

I feel like I encounter a lot of artificial intelligence now. That’s not a joke. I just mean that when I contact customer service about pretty much anything it seems like their first line of defense, and sometimes even their second or third, is an automated system. I’ve had online chats with what I’m pretty sure were very sophisticated bots responding to keywords in what I’ve said, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve even had some phone conversations with computer programs. I think people were at least partly unnerved by Clippy because the artificial assistant was a harbinger of things to come. There’d be a time, we all knew, when Clippy wouldn’t just offer to help write letters but would eventually write them for us.

So why did I like Clippy? I guess because I knew there were people behind Clippy. And I’d worked in an office long enough to know there were a lot of people behind Clippy. And I didn’t know it at the time but I spend a lot of my day answering questions, and I get so many of the same questions I have a file of stock answers. I’m still a person, I think—at least I can refute Berkeley, and drop an obscure reference—and I read each question, but I still copy and paste a lot, and it’s all part of offering some help.

Make A Wish.

So I was driving almost due west at sunset with a melting orange sky in front of me that faded into violet and deep blue overhead, and close to the horizon I could see a bright object. It looked like a star but I knew it wasn’t—it was the planet Jupiter, the fourth brightest object in the sky, after the sun, the moon, and Venus, and strangely enough the International Space Station doesn’t come close in spite of the combined brightness of the people on board, but that’s another story.

If I hadn’t known it was Jupiter I might have mistaken it for a star, and it would have seemed to be the first star of the evening, at least that I could see. Overhead, I’m sure, the sky had darkened enough that actual stars were visible, but I had my eyes on the road. I only saw Jupiter because it was in my line of sight. But it did remind me of the old tradition of wishing on a star, usually the first star you see in the evening, and the poem that goes with it:

Star light, star bright,

First star I see tonight.

Wish I may, wish I might

Have the wish I wish tonight.

It may not have the melody but I do think it’s a little snappier than Jiminy Cricket’s version, but that’s just me. That also brought back memories of third grade and a story I read about a kid named David who, after finishing up a backyard dinner of hot dogs and potato salad and ice cream with his family, makes a wish on the first star he sees. He doesn’t tell his family what the wish is—that would spoil it, you know—but he does tell them he made a wish. And the story follows David over the course of the next year as he keeps wishing. He loses an eyelash and his mother tells him he can make a wish on it—the tradition is you place the eyelash on your finger, close your eyes, and blow. His father points out a rainbow and says those are for wishing, so David makes a wish on that. At his birthday party he makes his wish on his birthday candles. At Thanksgiving he wishes on the wishbone with his sister, and succeeds. His parents take him to a place with a wishing well and he throws a penny into it. His teacher tells him about wishing the first robin of spring he sees, so he does that. Finally summer comes back around and his family has another backyard dinner and his sister brings him a dandelion to wish on. And he says, “Oh, it’s okay, my wish came true. I wished we’d come out to the backyard and have hot dogs and potato salad and ice cream this summer.”

I remember reading that and being fascinated by all the wishing traditions, and then I got to the end and thought, wow, and I was completely speechless for a long time thinking about that and how profoundly it sucked. David really came across as some kind of jerk, drawing everybody else into this elaborate web of wishing and when it’s finally fulfilled he didn’t say anything until his sister—the same one who lost out on whatever she wanted when they broke that wishbone—was about to sacrifice another shot at a wish of her own and he brushes her off with, “Thanks, I’m good!” Not to mention all the trouble he could have saved everyone else if, a year earlier, he’d just said, “Hey, this was fun. We should do it again sometime.”

I’d finished second grade reading at a fourth grade level, but in third grade I had a different teacher who stuck me in the regular third grade reading class. There was an advanced reading group—about five kids out of the forty or so who made up the third grade, and I spent a lot of time wishing I could join the advanced group. And the story about David sparked something in me. Mostly it was a desire to get away from such lousy stories. I went to the teacher and told her I wanted to join the advanced group, that I could do the reading. She was dismissive—third grade was not a great year for me—but gave me a chance to read out loud in front of the advanced group, where I choked. She gave me a second chance to read a story the advanced group was reading on my own, and while I aced the reading comprehension test she said I’d been too slow in getting through it so I had to stick with the regular reading class. But that became a learning experience in itself. I’d at least made the effort, and I got to keep the book the advanced group was using and read several of the stories on my own. As terrible as it was the story of David and his wishes stuck with me and there’s never been a point when I wished I hadn’t read it.

Source: Dinosaur Comics

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