The Living Nativity Starring Dominic the Donkey

Shepherds (grade school boys and girls wearing  bathrobes) sat by a smoking brazier.  Tethered goats ate at the hay scattered in front of the Winter Park Presbyterian education building, and Dominic the Donkey stood within a separate enclosure with his head down.  Joseph and Mary entered the lot and took their place beside stacked hay bales and a manger.  Mary wore a pregnancy pillow under her robes, and walked with the confident stride of a woman who was not about to give birth.  Dominic began to pace as if impatient for the impending delivery.  Mary and Joseph disappeared for several minutes, and Christmas carols played over a loud speaker.  Dominic paced.

Mary and Joseph reappeared, and Mary carried a swaddled baby doll which she placed in the manger.  Angels entered from the right and stood before spotlights shining up at them from the ground.  The shepherds turned away from their brazier to absentmindedly study the supernatural beings, and then wandered over to Mary, Joseph, and baby doll Jesus.  Dominic brayed.  The loud speakers drowned him out with more carols, and the shepherds lost interest in their savior and wandered back to their tethered goats.  The wise men entered from the left and briefly confabbed with King Herod.  They then wound in a snake like path over and around the lot, in and out of the “flock” of goats, and timed their arrival at Jesus’ feet with the last falling notes of “We Three Kings”.  Dominic brayed once more.

More hymns played on the speakers; more pre-recorded passages from Luke were read.  Dominic the Donkey ignored Scripture, lay on his back and squirmed from side to side to relieve an itch.  The kings eventually departed.  Mary, Joseph and baby doll exited, and the junior pastor came out of the shadows.  Dominic brayed loud and long as Pastor Emily began to speak.  She paused and introduced her heckler with amused forbearance.  She then invited the children to pet the goats, warned them that Dominic could be temperamental, and advised parents to keep their toddlers away from the flames of the brazier.  She then invited all to come inside for cookies, drinks and more carols, and told them that all were welcome to find a home for worship at W.P.P.C.

Judy and I went inside and took refuge in the sanctuary.   The crowd of adults and rambunctious children in the fellowship hall drove us to find a quieter place to relax.  Candles on the altar and a Christmas tree to the right gave a warm glow to the nave.  Bright red poinsettias and a Christmas banner ( a sheep standing in a Christmas Star lit landscape) added accents to the front of the hall.  Judy and I sat near the back and meditated for several minutes.  I paged through a Bible in the pew where I sat, and I came upon a psalm that asked God how long the arrogant and wicked would be allowed to prosper.

Judy turned to me and smiled.  We held hands and felt the peace of Christmas.


Making the Grades

I paged through another portfolio in my studio and gave grades to each drawing.  Classical music played in the background, and from time to time I looked up at unfinished paintings that I hadn’t touched in a week or two.  So many classes to prepare and give.  So many judgments to make and advice to give.

Some portfolios were well organized with no missing drawings, and the work showed effort and talent.  Some showed talent but little effort.  Some showed no talent whatsoever but a desperate need to get something out of the course.  (I respect the students in the latter group and wish that I could give them higher grades.)

When I work my way through a stack of portfolios I get indirect feedback from my students.  I’m making a grade for myself as I review the successes and failures of my students.  I take mental notes about which exercises worked better, which bombed, and which seemed easy only to the highly talented.  I think about other classes where a usually successful assignment caused despair in this class, and try to figure out what led to the different outcomes.

When I get to the end of grading a group of portfolios I usually feel great relief, but also regret that the relationships I’ve built with my students will come to an end soon.  I’ve gotten to know their quirks, their weaknesses and strengths, and sometimes it seems a shame to let all that go.  I know that a new semester will give me an opportunity to build new ties to a fresh batch of students, but sometimes wish that I could keep working with the ones I have.  It’s like parenting in that success means an eventual bittersweet departure.

Of course I’ve gotten an occasional class that made me happy to see them hit the exit for the last time.  I get dreams that repeat for years following this scenario:  students ignore me, mill around the class, and find my mounting anger and frustration amusing.  A Drawing II class from two springs ago was the living embodiment of this nightmare.  And when these students spent a large portion of the final critique complaining about assignments, I cut the proceedings short and deleted my final speech.  I hoped that most of them would never cross my path ever again and knew that many of them thought the same thing about me.

But all things pass, good or bad, and I like to recall the times I shared a joke, helped a student figure something out, got to know someone better.  Teaching is about sharing knowledge while making a human connection.  And even if the connections get broken as students go on, I like to believe that traces survive, that a moment of giving echoes through time.

Close Encounters of the Arachnid Kind

I glanced sideways as I drove my car to work this morning and saw a spider the size of my thumbnail swinging on a thread.  His silk must have been attached to the ceiling as he swooped back and forth like Tarzan at my eye level.  I waved my hand at him, blew him away from me and saw him land on the top edge of the passenger side door, whence he disappeared.

That set me on edge once again.  Earlier in the morning a wolf spider landed in the shower a few feet away from me as I sat on the toilet.  I had just stumbled out of bed, so his sudden appearance (and initial charge in my direction) startled me.  Wolf spiders can get huge, have long legs, and move very fast.   This one was double the size of a fifty cent piece and covered a yard in half a second. I threw a roll of paper towels at him as he crouched and glowered at me.  I made contact, but Captain Arachnid sped off to a corner of the shower.  I tried once again, failed, and the spider ran into the curtains and hid.  I scrunched the folds together, but couldn’t spot him.  I searched around the toilet, the curtain, the floor of the shower, but finally found him huddled in a corner formed by the bathroom wall and the outer edge of the shower.  I threw a shoe at him and missed, but he didn’t bother to move. He was either exhausted or wounded.  I delivered the coup de grace (juicy and sickening crunch) by pressing down with a piece of paper towel.

My wife and I had watched a PBS science show about memory the evening before.  A psychiatrist in London had figured out a way to disrupt memory reformation in order to cure phobias.  She frequently treated a fear of spiders and took patients to a room with a terrarium holding a tarantula.  Their eyes widened as they confronted the furry beast, and they nearly backed out of the room when the shrink suggested that they touch the edge of the glass.  After they managed to do her bidding, she took them out and gave them a drug that inhibited memory reformation.  The disruption somehow shifted their attitudes toward spiders, and the psychiatrist soon had them petting tarantulas and cooing to them as if they were pets.

I told my wife about the spider after I fled the bathroom and said, “Remember that show last night?  I think I need therapy!  Where’s that drug?!”

Timeline:  see a show about arachnophobia; wolf spider adrenaline fest the next morning; spider swinging at my eye level in an enclosed space an hour later.  Are the gods sending me a message?   Have I offended in some way?  And is it time for me to build an altar, install a spider statue, and offer burnt sacrifices?

Please advise.

A Sense of Humor Helps

There are many ways to judge whether a relationship might work. Sharing or at least tolerating each other’s sense of humor is one. When my wife and I dated I sometimes cooked a meal for us, and one night Judy held up her plate with a pathetic orphan look on her face and said, “Please, sir, may I have more?” My eyes popped wide as I recognized a speech from Oliver Twist. My previous girlfriend had thought that Steven King novels were the height of literature, and Judy quoted Dickens. My heart leapt with joy.

I had first studied biology in college, and Judy was in the process of earning her Ph.D. in plant physiology when we met and married. On our honeymoon in Maine we climbed to the top of a mountain in Acadia National Forest. A cold breeze blew as we stood on a rocky plateau at the top, and a thick fog surrounded us on all sides. She pulled a sweatshirt out of her backpack, and her head got stuck inside as she attempted to push her arms through the sleeves. She stood with her arms waving over what appeared to be a headless torso and I said, “My wife, the hydra.” She started laughing, and it took her a bit longer to emerge.

When Judy got pregnant with our first child we went to an OB/GYN group in State College. We saw four doctors on a round robin basis, and some could be gruff and rude. Judy appreciated it when I nicknamed a sixty year old man, a former army doctor, who kept advising Judy to watch her weight. His name was Wengrovitz, but we privately referred to him as Vinegar Tits. Dr. Mebbane gave us stern lectures at odd moments, and we hoped that he wouldn’t be on call when it came time for the delivery. We held up our arms in crosses as if warding off a vampire when we discussed him and called out, “Med Bane” in hopes of repelling him.

I rewrite lyrics to pop songs, and sometimes sing my version of Joe Cocker’s, “You Are So Beautiful, To Me” in the morning while making breakfast.  Original version:  “You are so beautiful, to me.  You’re everything I’ve ever hoped for.  You’re everything I need.  You are so beautiful, to me.”  My version: “You look available, to me. You are everything I’d ever settle for. You’re the only woman I see. You look available…to me.” Judy doesn’t take offense but comments on how romantic I’ve become over our years together.

We got new flip phones a few months ago. Sometimes my phone emits rapid bursts of beeps when I walk with it in a pants pocket, and it woke me up one night with a beep and flash of light as it rested on my bureau. Judy took it from me when it sounded off during a meal and searched through the menu. I asked her to look for a “random bullshit” button that she could turn off. She went through a bunch of applications, but didn’t find anything that might help. She handed it back and drily said, “Sorry, they don’t list ‘random bullshit’ anywhere.”


Fighting Roommates and Wayward Dogs

My neighbor from the rental on our east side is walking up and down the street yelling, “PACO!  PACO!”  His pit bull, the one who never gives a warning bark and moves in a blur once a target has been sighted, has escaped again.  Paco made his move tonight around 8:30.  Breaks for freedom usually occur around three in the morning when Joe, his owner, is drunk and lowers his guard.  One can tell how drunk Joe is by the slurring of his “Paco”s as he wanders up and down the road calling for his missing doggy.

I used to worry about Joe and his haphazard lifestyle.  He lives at loose ends and tends to run through roommates at six month intervals.  They usually leave following late night shouting matches.  The language gets loud, abusive and threatening, and I sometimes wonder whether I’ll wake one morning to discover police cars and yellow tape next door.

The latest blow out happened a few weeks ago, and it began when I heard scuffling sounds followed by Joe saying, “Now where do you think you’re going?”  I assumed he was wrangling his dog inside his gate to his back yard, but instead it was his roommate attempting to run from Joe at five in the morning.  I couldn’t make out what they were arguing about, but the fella shouted, “I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you!”  Joe mocked, “Oh sure, you’re gonna kill me.  Yeah, why don’t you try it?”  Roommate sputtered in fury and slushed, “I’m gonna slit your throat!”  Joe mocked him again and said, “You owe me $150, bitch,” and, “This is my house.”  I heard more scuffling sounds, and a woman stepped out onto the carport and yelled in a high pitched whine, “Stop it you guys!”  Roommate must have broken away–I heard his work truck door squeak open and the motor grind.  Joe attempted to stop him, but the man drove off.

He returned an hour later, and Joe and he sat outside and made their apologies.  Peace at 6 a.m.  Yeah.

Some might wonder why I didn’t call the cops.  It’s a matter of growing indifference.  I did call 9 months ago when Joe and another roommate, Ray, got into a loud argument on their front lawn.  Joe came home at 3 a.m. and started to pound on doors and windows.  He had forgotten to take his keys when he went out on a drinking spree.  Ray didn’t answer right away, and Joe pounded so hard on Ray’s bedroom window that he shattered the glass.  I decided at first to ignore the commotion when Ray burst outside and started to curse Joe.  I thought, “If they want to get into a fistfight, let them.”  But the argument escalated until Ray said, “Oh, you’re the big man with a gun.  Why don’t you shoot me?  I don’t give a damn.  Shoot me!” I called 911.

The cops arrived a few minutes later, and by then the argument had calmed down.  I saw Ray and Joe go in for a man hug just before a squad car pulled up.  No gun in sight.  An officer talked to them and offered to take Joe to a hospital as his hand was bleeding from a glass cut.  Joe declined.  Finally the cop said, “Is everything warm and fuzzy between you two?”  Joe and Ray muttered something, the cops left, and the two men went inside.

I gave Joe a ride to a gas station a few months ago when he needed fuel for his generator.  Hurricane Irma had toppled a tree onto his house that stripped his power line away.  He told me that he had rented next door for seven years.  I said, “Wow!  That long?!  We’ve been here since ’92, and we’ve seen a lot of folks come and go.  We called the lady just before you, ‘The Screamer’.  She was always yelling at her kids at the top of her lungs.  We could hear her inside her house with our windows closed.”

Joe smirked and said, “Well, I bet you’ve heard a lot of screaming from me too.”

“I didn’t mean that,” I said.

We rode on in silence for a minute or so, and then he said, “It’s these roommates.  I can’t get them to pay rent.  This latest guy is two weeks late.”

“That sucks.  And your power’s been out for aweek,” I commiserated.

Joe laughed and said, “Well I just keep rolling.  Whatever comes my way, I just keep rolling.  What else can I do?”

Paco remains at large, and I hear Joe shouting far down the road.  I wonder how many times he will wake me up tonight, but don’t doubt that this could go on for a long time.



An Odd Night Out (The Beer Garden Botch)

I walked into a local restaurant and saw five folks dressed in business attire standing by the bar. A harried forty year old woman wearing a too short German peasant dress rushed out of the kitchen with a platter.  She reminded me of one of my aunts at a family function attempting to manage a crisis.  A long line of tables were pushed together down the middle of the room, and about forty people chatted, drank and picked at their food. The waitress flitted and hovered from customer to customer, but never smiled or offered a pleasantry.  Steamers hung across the room:  cartoon cut outs of German men in lederhosen and Alpine hats were suspended row upon row.

No one greeted or offered to show me to a seat, so I wandered to a table near the back and waited for a server to approach.  Loud German drinking songs played on the sound system, and the odd mix of folksy cheerfulness set to a frenetic martial beat made the tunes slightly unnerving.  No one came to bring me water or a menu, and I realized that while the lone waitress had seen me, she had no intention of coming anywhere near.

I debated leaving, but decided to try the beer.  I strolled up to the bar and saw that they had five selections on tap.  The bartender looked like a 1970s stoner with bags under his eyes, a stubbly beard and stringy, long blond hair.  He poured me a large mug of porter, and I sat at a stool by the window.  I sipped the brew and found it watery but inoffensive.  A middle-aged couple exited, but didn’t head to their car.  The woman sat in a chair in a row of chairs set up on the sidewalk for smokers.  She buried her face in her hands, elbows to knees, and her shoulders began to shake.  Her partner, a lumpy man with a torso shaped like a potato, stood helplessly nearby.  I looked away.

The angry waitress pushed more tables together with the help of the manager (?), and glared at me as she worked.  I couldn’t tell if she had wanted me to help her, or whether she had taken offense when our eyes met. She scurried back to the bar to try to shoo the carousing customers to the tables, but they ignored her, drank their beers and continued their conversation.

I finished my porter and went back to the bar counter.  I asked the bartender if I could order food.  He said, “Sure!  What do you want?”  I shrugged my shoulders to let him know that I hadn’t seen a menu yet, and he grabbed one for me.  I chose a pork schnitzel, a dark honey beer, and a side of a cabbage dish.  He surprised me when he delivered the food five minutes later.  Pre-made and fired up in a microwave?  A man walked up and asked for a Bud Lite, and the barman explained that the restaurant was a micro-brewery and served nothing but the five selections on tap.

I sat at the bar and stared at the evening news on a wide screen TV, sound muted, while the room buzzed with conversation and the German drinking songs plunged forward one after another.  A sign at the back of the bar read, “If you’re still standing, you need another beer.”  The schnitzel tasted okay but required dedicated sawing with a dull knife to tear off a chunk.  The cabbage had been spiced with chilies and melted in my mouth, but the beverage had the flavor of a lite beer spiked with honey.

The angry waitress came to the bar and directed her formerly suppressed rage at the bartender.  They exchanged curt snarls in a running skirmish.  Once the waitress looked past the barman to the window and called out in an accusing tone, “Hey, has anyone called an ambulance yet?”  I turned and saw the woman who had been sitting in a smoker’s chair lying on her back on the sidewalk.

A man, not her partner, knelt beside her and held her hand.  Another man draped his arm across the comforter’s back to comfort him.  The woman stared at the sky, and her eyes looked glazed.  Some customers standing near the door ignored the drama outside and stood sipping and chatting about sports and business.  They were about ten feet away from the stricken woman, but studiously ignored her.  Next to me at the bar, a young business woman with black lacquered hair and bright red lipstick flipped through screens on her smart phone and muttered about so called friends who had failed to meet her.

An ambulance arrived, and a paramedic gave the woman on the sidewalk an injection.  When they lifted her onto a gurney her head lolled toward me, and her eyes were half closed.  They loaded her into the ambulance and closed the door, but didn’t rush off.  A paramedic stood with the potato torso man and took notes for ten minutes.  Potato man looked worried, weary, but not panicked, and I got the impression that similar scenes had happened before.

I paid my bill and left to run a few errands.  I picked up a good porter at an ABC on Semoran and headed to a Walgreens to fetch prescriptions for Judy.  I had hoped for a night out with a bit of a diversion, but as I drove home I kept thinking, “I like my wife.  I should have stayed home with her.”

I felt like Dorothy Gale wishing for Kansas.