He Didn’t See It Coming

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Acrylic on canvas, 16×20″

Another narrative painting that I started early this year and finished today.  Sometimes I like to take a lot of time and effort to tell a bad joke based on puns.

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Big Two-Fisted Introvert

A recently found story by Ernest P. Hemmingway.

Nick rolled out of bed.  Midmorning light bleached the pattern on his rug.  He tucked in the sheets and plumped the pillow.  It was a good pillow.

Nick brushed his teeth and whizzed, put on a clean white shirt and cargo shorts, and sat down at his computer.  He booted the computer, and it loaded quickly.  His screen saver glowed green, silver and blue.  A trout leaped out of a stream.

Nick wrote a short story about fishing.  He liked to write; he liked to fish.  He never got lonely when he fished.  Nick waved when fishermen passed by in boats, but it was good when they turned a bend.  It was good when they disappeared. The quiet of the river swallowed them.

Nick’s phone rang.  The phone was in the kitchen.  Nick waited until the ringing stopped, and then walked to the kitchen: time to make coffee.  His receiver blinked.  He picked it up.  He checked for messages:  one from mother.  Nick deleted his mother’s message.  He had heard her talk before.  He’d heard enough.

Nick drank the coffee hot and black.  It burned his tongue.  The burn stung.  He wanted to swear, but didn’t.  The phone rang again.  Caller ID said that his mother had dialed his number.  He saw her holding her receiver like a fishing rod.  She would pull him in if he took her bait.  She would ask about last night.  Nick did not answer the phone.

Last night Mother made a meal for him.  She served it on china plates.  The silverware was silver.  Candles lit the room.  They ate roast beef, boiled potatoes and green peas.  The roast beef was dry.

Nick drank too much whiskey.  He often drank too much at Mother’s.  Mother talked.  Mother invited women to dinner, women she wanted him to marry.  Nick did not want to marry.

Nick was not gay.  He liked women when they were quiet.  He liked women who fished.  He liked lying with women on sun baked pine needles on paths in high mountains.  He liked to “make the earth move”.

Last night Miriam talked more than Mother.  She talked about dresses, her hair, an article in a woman’s magazine.  Nick’s finger itched as he ate his food and listened to her talk.  He wanted to kill himself with his shotgun.

He knew that Miriam was not talking about fashion and cosmetics.  She was talking about babies, houses, insurance policies and retirement plans.

Nick did not have a retirement plan.  He did not like babies when they cried.  A man did not need insurance, and died before he retired.  If he grew too old to be a man, he went deep sea fishing in a leaking, rickety boat, he ran with the bulls at Pamplona and let the bulls catch him.

Right now Nick had hunting, fishing, and writing.  He had what he wanted.  He did not want Miriam.

The phone rang again.  Nick went to the case in his study and pulled out his 12 aught shot gun.  He rubbed the steel barrel with an oily rag.  It glistened cold and deadly.  He slotted a shell into the breech.  He walked twenty five steps to his kitchen.  Nick shot his phone.

Nick sat down at his computer.  He poured two shots of whiskey into his coffee mug.  It tasted better that way.  He reread his story.  It was good.  Nick smiled.  He was alone.

 

Man Cleaning

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Laundry room debris field

I’ve done my share of cleaning house over 30+ years of marriage.  I stayed home with the kids when they were little and waged the losing battle of keeping their chaos at bay.  I once told a college class that managing a house occupied by two toddlers was like composing a term paper with a drunk roommate deleting key passages whenever the writer looked away for a split second.  All accomplishments are doomed to erasure.

Doing chores while surrounded by little barbarians gave me a fatalistic approach to house cleaning.  I got in the habit of taking care of the worst of the worst, nibbling at the bits I somewhat cared about, and letting major areas collect dust and debris.

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Dresser top of lost hope

Recently our circumstances have forced me to take on more of the chores than I ever did before.  The kids are grown and gone, so there should be less to do.  But now I’m starting to see things through my wife’s eyes and realize that the cobwebs growing from the ceiling in the back room really shouldn’t be allowed to hang down to eye level.  The strange odor in the laundry room behind the Christmas tree boxes no longer lingers, but its fossilized source really ought to be removed (dead lizard or corn snake?).  Ancient stains on the side of the fridge could be scrubbed off, as well as stratified layers of greasy fuzz on the kitchen ceiling fan.

I eventually come to the conclusion that I could start at one end of the house and scrub inch by inch.  Repainting and patching could follow.  New curtains could replace the moth eaten ones over the front window, and the coat closet could be excavated for usable tennis rackets, tennis balls, and vacuum cleaner attachments from amongst the debris at the bottom.  The job seems endless.

And now I begin to understand a major difference between the sexes.  Women tend to see housework as a manageable project that produces a cozy nest if the right effort is applied, if their housemate abstains from random acts of stinky sock/wet towel dropping.  Men see the interior of a house and shut down.

Housework induced catatonia in males is not always caused by laziness, but more often by willful blindness in the face of overwhelming odds.  The blindness has no evil intent, but is more a matter of self-preservation.  A man who has taken the time to do a thorough survey of his domestic environment is like an astronaut spacewalking and contemplating the stars.  He feels so small compared to a vast number of tasks spread over a mini-universe of domestic space.

When confronted by the infinite, it’s best for a man to pretend that the majority of it does not exist.  He pops a beer, sits in a recliner and waves to his friends, the spiders hanging all around him.  He might knock down their webs down in a day or two, but at that moment he just wants a little company.

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Entropic night stand

Nature in Action: Heavy, Man. Heavy.

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Backyard in the rain.

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Penta and Coreopsis

My wife Judy sits in our back yard garden every day when it’s not raining (the Florida drought has turned into afternoon monsoons) and watches nature in action.  She’s reported on the activities of caterpillars and butterflies.

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Zebra Long Wing (near the top)

One type of butterfly likes to lay its eggs on a passion flower vine growing up and through a beauty berry bush.  Geckos and other lizards love to eat the eggs when they in turn are not being pursued by black racer snakes.  Red shouldered hawks soar overhead in search of careless snakes sunning a bit too long in the open after a heavy meal.

Caterpillars hatch from the remaining eggs and begin to eat the leaves on the vine.  A parasitic wasp, if it manages to locate a caterpillar in the tangle of vegetation, injects its eggs inside.  The wasp larva hatch and eat their way out of the caterpillar.  Ants come along and take chunks out of caterpillars.  The vine secretes a sugary substance when attacked, and the ants are drawn to its tormentors.

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Zebra Long Wing caterpillars.

The desperate action continues after a caterpillar survives long enough to fatten and turn into a chrysalis.  A female proto-butterfly gives off a pheromone that attracts males before they emerge from their cocoons.  Male butterflies land on the chrysalises, flap their wings impatiently, and wait for the lady to make her debut.  I’m not sure if they allow the females to stretch their wings before the “romance” begins.

So nature in action seems to be all about eating or being eaten.  This leads to a frantic urge to spread one’s genes to succeeding generations before a bigger, sneakier, meaner creature seizes one in its jaws.  We witnessed desperate sexual ardor on display the other day among the branches of a plumbago plant in our front yard.  We saw a large female grasshopper bearing the weight of two smaller males on her back.  One male was attached to the female and attempted to deposit his seed.  He was distracted, however, by the male on his back.  The male on top had no homosexual intentions, however.  Instead the uppermost hopper frantically flexed his hind legs to try to pry the male beneath him off the female.  He had decided, apparently, that it was his turn.

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Male grasshopper.

Judy’s a plant physiologist and taught botany courses at Rollins College for many years.  She and I were talking about our garden and how the caterpillars were chewing their way through the milkweeds and passion flower vines.  I teased her about GMOs and said that scientists should come up with a genetically modified plant that turns insects into Existentialists.  Instead of chewing, mating and fleeing predators, the bugs would glumly sit around thinking about the ultimate futility of their lives.  “What’s the point?” they’d ask themselves, “of all this useless activity?  Life has no inherent meaning and worth.  Why spread it?”

Never kid a plant physiologist.  Judy told me that plants like the opium poppy and marijuana create protective intoxicants: the production of opium and THC evolved as a means of defense.  An insect predator becomes passive and uninterested in consuming more tissue after ingesting these drugs.  The motionless, tripping bugs attract predators, predators on the look out for a way to harsh a buzz with extreme prejudice.

I had been thinking of nature as the WWII movie, From Here to Eternity:  sex, violence, survival.  Now when I stroll in the garden I hear the opening strains of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and think about episodes of “The Mod Squad”.  You know, the ones where a love-in on the beach suddenly turns tragic.  Sex, violence, survival and drugs.  And as Peggy Lipton would say, “Heavy, man.  Like, heavy.”

 

 

A Professor’s Dream

Last night I dreamt that I was teaching math to a college class.  The lesson involved finding a way to analyze cargo manifests to determine how a shipment had been packed.  I didn’t fully understand the formula myself until I went through it with them for a third time and was pleased when the light fully dawned on me.  And suddenly I realized that this was my last class with them and began to give a closing speech.  I told them that I was really pleased by all the hard work they had put into learning the course material and that I had enjoyed our interactions, but half way through the speech they grew restless and began to talk among themselves.  I raised my voice to regain their attention, but was interrupted by a young man who started to complain loud and long about the treatment he received when he bought, say, shaving cream at a local drug store.  He grew increasingly vehement and wouldn’t let me finish the class.  I yelled at him, told him to shut up, but he kept going.  I walked toward him and explained that I had nothing to do with the drug store and his purchase of shaving cream, but he refused to stop.  I snapped my fingers and turned him into an apple pie.

The apple pie began to rant about shaving cream, however, so I put it on a picnic table outside.  The students were still friendly when I returned to class saying that Brian, the ranter, had been acting like an ass.  Snacks had appeared during my absence, and everyone helped themselves to a treat.  One woman said, “I’d sure like to have some of that pie.”

I realized that I hadn’t turned Brian into an apple pie, but had merely entrapped him inside a pie someone brought for our celebration.  I decided to retrieve it and release Brian, but they were no longer directly outside the classroom.  It turned out that I had placed the pie in a location far away.  I hopped into my car and drove down a highway.  I spied a pie sitting on a table at a roadside park on the opposite side of the road.  I turned my car around but didn’t drive all the way back to the park.  I got out and began to run.  I took off my shirt (it was hot) and noticed that my chest and belly had become chiseled and that I had the endurance of a twenty-year-old man.  I sped up as I saw Brian (freed from his crusty prison) near the pie.  I feared that he would eat it.

When I arrived, I saw that all that was left was a bit of crust and a smear of filling.  I carried the dish up a hill to return to class, and students milled about on either side.  Buildings sprang up around me, and I took for granted that I had instantaneously returned to campus.  I plotted ways to flunk Brian or give him a much lower grade, but realized that he had hurt himself by eating his way out of the pie from the inside.  He had consumed most of his body and spirit and greatly diminished himself.  There was no need to punish him further.

I woke up with an ache in my lower back.  I had fallen asleep fully clothed with the lights on, and the alarm clock read 5:30.  I knew that I wouldn’t be able to fall back asleep and blearily stumbled off to the bathroom to take my morning piss.  I sat on the toilet, thought about the dream and realized that “Brian” looked a lot like Brian Ferguson,  a guy who attended Fairmont East high school with me forty some years ago.  High school Brian had never treated me badly.  His appearance as a rotten student in a teaching dream must have been the odd byproduct of reading Facebook posts about our recent fortieth class reunion.

Lost: I Blame the Elves

Lots of things raise my blood pressure:  political news; financial uncertainty; computer glitches; and health concerns.  Sometimes I’m able to reason my way out of an anxious funk.  But misplacing something drives me crazy.  I’m plagued by the feeling that my inability to manage my possessions is a sign that my life is about to descend into chaos.

When my children were little I could blame an unexplained disappearance on them, but now that they’re grown and gone I have two options:  elves or the onset of dementia.  I choose elves.

A friend of mine named Jean had a third option.  She blamed the disappearance of a ring on a ghost.  Her Victorian house was haunted by a friendly spirit who once, according to Jean, brought her a cup of tea when she was in bed with a high fever.  Jean eventually decided to move to a new house and asked the ghost to come along with her.  He shook his spectral head and told her that he couldn’t leave the premises.  On the morning Jean left she found a ring in the middle of the floor of a room she had emptied the day before.  She understood, by telepathic means, that the ghost had taken it several months back as he admired the gemstone’s beauty.  He apologized, and she forgave his thievery.

One of my incidents usually begins with a search for an object in its last recalled location.  For example, I look for a pocket knife on my dresser where I’m sure I’ve left it–not there.  I look in the next obvious location and note my growing panic as the knife remains perversely absent.  I expand the circle of my search outward until I’m pawing through tool boxes, opening drawers in cupboards seldom used, looking under sofa cushions where I’ve not sat in months.

I eventually rummage through shoes on the floor beneath the dresser, the pockets of pants in the laundry, the dust bunnies under my bed, but discover the knife hidden underneath a piggy bank on top of the dresser where I first made my search.  I had neglected to take into account the elfish predilection for shifting things slightly to one side.

Today I went on an expedition to find some credit cards.  We had received a new batch just before my wife and I left on a mini-vacation, and I had forgotten when we returned to mail cards to my son and daughter.  My wife told me that my son had asked after his, and I remembered putting them on the desk in the living room.  I made quick searches through bank statements and bills, but couldn’t find them.  My wife noticed the strained look on my face as I redoubled my efforts and began to look in progressively absurd locations.  She said, “We’ll find them.  Don’t worry.”  I replied, “Will we?  I’ve looked in all the places I can think of, and they’re gone.  I’m running out of ideas about where to look!”  My wife looked at me with a mixture of exasperation and pity, and offered no more comfort.  “Those goddamn elves are ruining my marriage,” I thought.

I took Judy to an appointment a few minutes later, and when we returned I made another search of a desk drawer where I believed the cards had been left.  I found the them tucked in an envelope with an auto insurance bill.  They hadn’t been there 90 minutes ago.  Fucking elves.

I sighed in relief.  I bolstered my self-confidence by telling myself that I had defeated my tormentors once more.  The sheer power of my desperation had forced them to return the cards to the desk drawer while we were gone.

The jewel case for my Lemonheads’ CD, “It’s a Shame About Ray”, is next on the agenda.  I’ve turned my studio upside down on at least three occasions, but haven’t yet summoned the eye bulging intensity necessary to intimidate the elves.  But there’s always tomorrow.  I’ll recall all the things I’ve permanently lost over the years and work myself into a monumental froth.

 

Research Animals: Buh-caaaaack–Thunk!

I heard odd stories about the use of animals in research at the University of Dayton when I was a biology undergrad. My wife got her Ph.D. in plant physiology there, and she told me a few more tales.

U.D. is a Catholic school run by Marianist priests and brothers. They taught standards of morality in religion classes as expected, but the clerics’ influence extended to animal physiology labs as well. One doctoral candidate dosed lab rats with hormones. He needed to collect their sperm to analyze the results. He consulted with the university board that dictated rules for animal research, and they told him that the rats, whether they professed allegiance to the pope or worshipped gods of their own, could not be “milked” for their semen. Rodent sexual gratification was not permitted. The only church approved method of extraction was the following: behead the rats with mini-guillotines, dissect their testes, suck out the vital fluids with syringes. Dozens of rats died to further scientific research, but the school stayed true to its interpretation of Catholic doctrine: win-win.

One poor slob continued the research after the doctoral candidate graduated. One evening he came to my wife’s lab upset because he’d lost a decapitated rat before he could extract its semen. Someone had tidied up during one of his breaks, and he came back to discover an empty dissection tray. Judy and Ted, a fellow researcher, told him that his missing carcass had probably been thrown into a dumpster outside the back of the building. Ted and Judy watched from a window and saw the man’s progress, his hesitation to open the dumpster, his desperate scrabbling search through the refuse. Judy asked Ted, “Should we go help him?” The man was Ted’s roommate, but Ted  said, “Nah.”  Some folks chose to work with critters instead of plants, and they got what they deserved.

A biology professor once confessed (probably in a moment of drunken candor) that he drove through the middle of town one day with the arm of a dead simian dangling out the back of his car trunk. The deceased baboon was too large to fit comfortably inside, so the prof had to fold the body and strap the hood down. The arm refused to stay put. The drunken professor marveled that no one even honked a horn as a hairy hand bobbed up and down beckoning to motorists following behind.

He had picked up the dead baboon from Wright Patterson Air Force Base and planned to collect its bones. It had been strapped, while still alive, into a prototype ejection seat designed for fighter jets. Its sudden death came by an abrupt, crunching drop.  The broken body provided data to Air Force engineers about worst case scenarios for pilots making quick exits from their aircraft.

The alcoholic prof had another incident involving a dead baboon. He collected another carcass and dumped it into a vat filled with acid, and put the vat on a burner set low. The plan was to stew the baboon overnight to eat flesh away from bone. The vat boiled over in the wee morning hours while the professor slept blissfully unaware, and a noxious sludge drained through the lab floor, seeped into the ceiling tiles of the room below, ate through them and dripped down. The department secretary came in the next morning and found the department files and her desk coated with toxic, liquefied remains.

The engineering school’s Research Institute received funds from the Pentagon to test aircraft windshields. The military had lost planes and pilots in airborne collisions with large birds. I heard from undergrad engineering students that the experiments involved firing chickens from a cannon at windshields mounted against a wall in the basement of the Institute. I later found out that the chickens were frozen birds bought at a local Krogers, but at the time I assumed that they were alive. When a buddy and I walked by the building we sometimes heard a strange rumbling sound. We imagined hens and roosters rocketing to their dooms.  Ed and I memorialized their final moments by intoning, “Buh-caaaaaaaack—Thunk!”