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Wasn’t I Just Here?

Going back to work after a holiday is weird. I’m not complaining; it’s been a long time since I had some time off and I really needed it, but I get used to a routine and forget to plan ahead so suddenly when there’s a longer break than just the usual weekend it takes me by surprise. It’s tempting to say this is because I’m working from home and haven’t really gone anywhere. There’s no distinction between my work space and my life space, but brief breaks from the routine have always felt weird to me. It’s one thing to take a vacation and actually go to an unfamiliar place, and, perhaps for the first time in my life, I really understand that. When I was a kid and we’d have a short break from school—Thanksgiving, Easter, the air conditioner broke and the building was too hot for us to go in which I swear is something that happened when I was in seventh grade—the familiarity of home made the days fly by so fast it seemed like hardly any time passed at all before I was back to the usual grind.

Making things even stranger I woke up this morning just a few minutes before the alarm went off, even before the dogs went off, and had one of those dreams which somehow compress time, lasting longer than the actual sleep. It’s an editing trick, or maybe it’s done with mirrors. I was walking to work—to my real office that I haven’t seen in so long now. And I was passing through different buildings, which I used to do on my way to work if it was cold or raining or cold and raining. Only in the dream I was simply passing through buildings, going down hallways, walking past conference rooms filled with people, until I emerged from one that, in real life, would be my last shelter, the final building before a long stretch of open air I couldn’t avoid. In the dream, though, it wasn’t just open. There was darkness ahead, and, in the distance, where my work building would have been, only sepia and mauve clouds, and lightning.

I woke up with only one thought: I really need a break.  

Light A Candle.

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

Hey Vern! It’s Graffiti!

It’s been a long time since I spotted any local graffiti, much less any that was worth stopping and looking at, since circumstances have mostly kept me at home. That’s only part of what made this particular piece so special, though, but before I get to that let me describe a bit of where it is: it’s on a wall next to an interstate. The berm in front of the wall is fenced in which I suspect is designed specifically to keep out the sort of person responsible for the graffiti. There’s a gate in the fence with a loose chain and a padlock which are clearly there to say, “You can’t come in here unless you push a little bit.” I don’t know when it was done but it’s big and pretty impressive so I suspect it was done at night, which makes the way the sunlight highlights the silver, which in turn stands out so well against the red, even more impressive.
Then there’s the name. If you’re of a certain age and grew up with U.S. pop culture the name Vern probably makes you think of a very specific character: Ernest P. Worrell. You probably even know the actor behind Ernest, Jim Varney, from his Saturday morning TV show Hey Vern, It’s Ernest! which I loved, in spite of the fact that I was already getting too old for Saturday cartoons–or maybe because I was getting too old for Saturday cartoons. It could be described as Pee-Wee’s Playhouse with a Southern accent, but it was so much more than that; Varney put on other characters, including my personal favorite the supervillain mad scientist Doctor Otto.
The cliche of the sad comedian is, of course, a cliche because it’s so often true. In a November 1999 issue of the Nashville Scene titled, appropriately, “The Importance Of Being Ernest”, Varney talked about having depression and his cancer diagnosis. At the time of the profile his prognosis seemed good and doctors thought the lung cancer which had spread to his heart and brain was in remission. Unfortunately it came back and he’d pass away just four months later.
In that same profile for The Scene Varney reflected on how good the character of Ernest had been for him, making him financially successful, and he enjoyed meeting kids as Ernest, including hundreds of terminally ill children, and he was glad he could brighten their lives. 
He was also, he hoped,on the verge of a creative breakthrough, having gotten good reviews for his portrayal of Jed Clampett and his role in the indie film Daddy And Them. He said, ” I would like to do some new techniques, stories that haven’t been done before. I want to be artsy-craftsy and get into my Orson Welles stage.”
He never got to that stage. He’ll forever be Ernest or, occasionally, Slinky-Dog from the first two Toy Story movies.
Was the artist responsible for the graffiti also thinking of that? To me it represents another cliche: the artist who can’t break through, held back by circumstances, bad luck, who needs to break in just to be seen, and who’ll get painted over, forgotten.
That’s a lot to read into something that was probably just done by some guy named Vern.

 

I Mostly Feel Fine.

After a couple of sneezes and some soreness in my throat I finally had to admit I have a cold. And I’m pretty sure it’s just a cold and not something much worse, although if it is that other disease going around then the vaccine’s definitely doing its job. And maybe it’s not even a cold. The temperature’s dropped recently and the leaves are falling and I know from past experience that the sneezes I get from being out in the leaves are indistinguishable from the sneezes I get when I have a cold. I also know from experience that I get a cold whenever the weather changes and some say it seems like everyone has a cold right now anyway.

The point is I’m not taking any chances. There’s a big holiday luncheon at work and just to be on the safe side—that is, to keep everyone else on the safe side—I’m skipping it. I’d rather not spread around any germs I’m carrying and it’s an added benefit that they won’t mingle with anything anyone else is carrying, although everyone I work with is supposed to be vaccinated and recently boosterized. Also there’s the added benefit that I don’t have to worry about getting there, finding a place to park, and finding a place to sit, and I’m still wary of being inside with a bunch of people. Then there’s getting out once it’s all over.

The fact that I’m fine with missing a free lunch, funny enough, brought up memories of when I was a kid and it always seemed like whenever some big special event was coming up at school like a holiday party or a play I had a part in I’d wake up that morning with a sore throat or feeling sick. And I’d spend a few minutes walking around my room saying “I feel fine” to make sure I could stay vertical and sounded normal, at least long enough to get through the day, or long enough to get through the party. It always felt like nature, or my immune system, was playing a cruel trick on me for all those times the rest of the year when I’d pretend to be sick so I could get out of going to school. The day of a party or other big event was always the one day I’d say, Let me be sick tomorrow, even if tomorrow happened to be a Saturday. And then I’d spend the day at school spreading my germs around and mingling them with whatever all the other kids were carrying.

I know the drive and the parking would be a hassle and I’d have to make up for lost time which I really don’t want to have to do when we’ll all be out for Thanksgiving later this week, but I also hate to miss the big luncheon. It’s not just the food, which is always really good, and, hey, you’re supposed to feed a cold, but it’s also always a chance to see people I spend the rest of the year talking to via email or the occasional instant message and actually talk to them about something other than work.

Maybe next year I’ll be able to go, when I can honestly tell people, “I feel fine,” and not worry about sneezing on them.

It’s Curtains For You.

A friend of mine used to have a Mondrian-themed shower curtain but in spite of that I never thought of shower curtains as an art form until Bored Panda posted forty different ones that elevate it and now I can’t stop thinking about how whole dissertations could be written just about the simple shower curtain. There’s the not-so-subtle eroticism in the way it conceals and the knowledge the person behind it is wearing, at most, a layer of soap suds, there’s the fact that it’s the size and shape, more or less, of a large painting, and it’s a utilitarian object but not really needed if you’re taking a bath or if you angle the shower head the right way. And that’s only scratching the surface of what a shower curtain says. I haven’t even gotten to the fact that what most of them say is “I was on sale at Target.”

Here are a few of my other favorites and I find it interesting that there seem to be some recurring themes:

 

I’d love any one of these but the bookcase one is really my favorite. I may never live in an old manor with false bookcases that hide secret passageways but at least with that one I could pretend I did.

Source: Imgur

 

 

 

 

 

Smell This.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Born To It.

Source: Wikipedia

The 2003 reboot of Battlestar Galactica was full of surprising plot twists even from the beginning, but, for me, the most surprising moment was when Dean Stockwell showed up at the end of season 2. It’s a pretty dark series, but Stockwell was one of those actors who, whenever he appeared on screen, could change the atmosphere entirely. Would change the atmosphere entirely. He didn’t have to be serious to do it either. On Quantum Leap he was second banana to Scott Bakula but, with the exception of that show’s finale, the producers wisely made Stockwell the one who knew everything. He was there to be a father figure, or, really, more like a funny uncle, with his cigar in one hand and, well, an early smartphone in the other, and off-the-cuff references to his ex-wives.

I didn’t realize how long his career had been until I watched the 1947 film Gentleman’s Agreement a few years ago and saw Stockwell’s name in the credits. I kept looking for him, expecting him to, well, appear as a funny uncle probably, waving a cigar around, or maybe a dark, shady character. It didn’t occur to me until later that he would have been ten or eleven at the time of filming, and that he’d played Gregory Peck’s son who sits at the breakfast table quizzing his father about why anyone wouldn’t like Jews. Even as a child actor there was something compelling about him—not just the way he delivered his lines but the seriousness with which he carefully sliced a banana into his cereal and sprinkling it with sugar. His actions were natural yet deliberate.

His onscreen presence got me thinking about the craft of acting and something I’ve thought a lot about when watching really great actors at work. Is it something that can be learned or is it innate? Stockwell had plenty of time to learn—he was acting on stage before he was eight years old and worked pretty much non-stop until just a few years ago, but was he in high demand because he worked so hard or did he get so much work because he was such a talented actor? Maybe it’s a little bit of both. And no matter how effortless he seemed in his roles he worked very hard at the craft of acting, giving special attention to detail. He has a hilarious story about the inspiration for his character Ben from Blue Velvet:

You know that thing that I do with my eyes? Carol Burnett had a character of this super snooty woman and she was always like this. I stole it and I told her one time and she laughed her head off when I told her.

Maybe great acting is a little of both: it begins with natural talent but that talent has to be honed and crafted until it just seems effortless, and that’s what he did.

And, on an unrelated note, when I heard he died I texted a friend and said, “Sorry to hear it. I know you’re a fan.”

He texted back, “Yeah.” Then a few minutes later he added, “But isn’t everybody?”

Hail and farewell Dean Stockwell.

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