January is the New April

Mom wrote last week to report 60 degree temps in southwest Ohio. We played spring baseball in 60-degree weather when I was a kid. Times and weather patterns have changed: January is the new April.

Back when, the coldest days of the year in the Midwest clustered in mid January. 20-below temperatures persisted for two weeks in 1977. When a February mini-thaw arrived that year, folks basked in the relatively balmy, just-above-freezing weather. I also remember a January day in a mountain valley in Pennsylvania where college kids strolled around campus in shorts and t-shirts. The mercury read 36 degrees.

We had several harsh winters when I was an undergrad at the University of Dayton. One of my friends, a fellow biology student, spent his early years in sub-arctic Minnesota. He kept his thermostat set at 50 degrees and didn’t mind when frost formed on the floor beneath drafty windows. One particularly frigid night, he noticed my running nose and shivers as I huddled in a winter coat on his sofa. He took pity and offered some advice: he told me to shed my coat and stand outside on his porch. He said, “You’ll feel nice and warm once you come back in.” I didn’t follow his instructions but chose to go home where I sat near a register and sipped hot chocolate.

This same friend suffered the tortures of the damned during the summer. He worked in a factory with no air-conditioning. The most relief he could summon at home came from sitting in front of a floor fan. I felt tempted, when he chafed and moaned about steamy Dayton summers, to tell him to go stand out in the full sun until he felt faint. He’d feel much cooler when he came back inside.

This week, the Canadian Arctic reclaimed its normal dominance by sending waves of frigid air south. Miami had a low of 43 degrees this morning. Comatose iguanas fell from trees creating cold-lizard precipitation, a weather phenomenon occurring only in south Florida. Our temps in Orlando flipped from an 80-degree-high/60-degree-low to a 52/38 split. A blustery wind whipped by at 20 m.p.h. further chilling cold-averse central Floridians.

Judy and I drove to the grocery store this morning. Wind shuddered the car and sent plastic grocery bags and bits of paper (trash day in a neighborhood lacking in garbage can lids) drifting by like the jetsam in the tornado scene from “The Wizard of Oz”. I saw Judy shivering in the seat next to me, her arms wrapped tightly around her chest. I took pity and thoughtfully echoed my college friend: I told her that when we lived in the frozen north, we’d consider a day like this a lovely spring day. I implied that temperature is a relative experience. Her discomfort was all in her head.

She didn’t agree. She turned the car heater to full red.

Don’t Let It Bug You

Mrs. Owenby said to my wife, “Honey, there isn’t a single bug in that house!”

Judy hadn’t mentioned the possibility, but the old woman seemed eager to reassure her when we closed on the house. Mrs. Owenby’s son apologized after business had been concluded by saying, “We tried to get it clean, but it’s not perfect.”

A few days later, we got a babysitter to watch our four and one-year-old while we began to thoroughly clean our new home. I vacuumed and picked up a stray pea or two in the dining area. Then we noticed straight pins along the baseboards. Mrs. Owenby had used them to pin elaborate arrangements of window curtains in place. After we got down on our knees to make a close inspection (one-year-olds stick anything in their mouths), we started to find dead bugs at the edges of the carpet. Mrs. Owenby should have said, “Honey, there’s not a single living bug in that house!”

And she still would have been wrong. Wolf spiders had survived the Owenby spray-fest and stalked across ceilings and walls at unexpected moments. We spent years squishing them into submission, and sometimes found more lurking on the front porch waiting for an opportunity to invade. I killed one near the doormat one day. It had a blobby white “backpack” that released dozens of little spiders once torn open by my shoe.

We turned on an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” last week. Judy and I wanted to relax after a long day, but the show was a suspense thriller about an inside plot to undermine the Federation. Tension built up as Captain Picard discovered that ships and men had been shifted to odd assignments, and ships had self-destructed for unexplained reasons.

Captain Picard returned to Federation headquarters to report his findings and discovered that the admiralty had been compromised. Scorpion-like aliens had implanted themselves on the brainstems of key officers and controlled their actions. Picard and Riker used their phasers to stun the admirals, and little creatures exited mouths and attempted to crawl away. One bug made it to the next conference room, shimmied up the leg and torso of a blond-haired junior admiral, entered his mouth and made a bulgy lap or two around the inside of the man’s neck. Blondie explained that the aliens were a superior race bent on infesting human beings. “We are the brains, and you will be the brawn,” the man said smugly.

Riker and Picard decided not to worry about the prime directive and lasered the crap out of Blondie’s chest. A fiery hole opened, and a giant cockroach, the ringleader of the plot, emerged to die in agony.

At that exact moment, a two-inch cockroach flew across the dining room ceiling. It’s wings made an unpleasant clacking sound. No ray guns were available, so I grabbed a magazine, chased and killed it with a hard swat.

I got a strip of paper towel to pick it up off the floor. Crunched it again to make sure that it was truly deceased.

The bugs are coming for us again. But they won’t take over, Mrs. Owenby. Not on my watch, honey. Not on my watch.

Broken Doors: The Locks of Hazard

I’m not handy. I can do some carpentry and painting, but the skills and problem solving processes for plumbing and repairing mechanical devices are beyond me. Our front door lock had been jamming badly and only opened when twisted hard clockwise. I realized that we’d soon be unable to open the door and went to an Ace hardware to pick out a replacement. I walked several times past a rack with door knobs on display, and a salesman finally directed me to the obvious. I found a dark brass model that looked workable and headed home.

I had no trouble unscrewing and pulling out the broken center piece and knobs, but installing the new unit quickly turned problematic. Every time I tried to screw in two screws to hold the two knobs together, the knobs jammed and refused to turn. It was difficult to thread the screws to begin with, and after the second failure I began to sweat, curse and stomp around. I tried something a bit different on the third attempt and managed to complete the job. The knobs turned, and the little toggle thingee fit into the plate on the door…

But the toggle thingee wouldn’t go into the plate on the door unless the knob had been turned. If I swung the door shut, the toggle hit the door plate and rebounded. I explained the complication to my wife, and we agreed to let it go until my blood pressure had lowered a bit.

Two days later I disassembled the lock, flipped over the center piece, rejoined the knobs and had a working door–except that the toggle thingee didn’t insert far enough into the hole in the center of the door plate to hold the door shut. One could push it open with a finger from the outside.

This time I didn’t lose my temper. I went to my wife, who is much better at these things, and told her about the new anomaly. She examined the problem and told me that the new door plate was out of position. And that the new door plate had a little ridge that prevented adjustment. The old door plate (then resting in a trash bag filled with rotting vegetable peelings and stinking chicken bones) would have to be reinstalled. I rummaged through garbage for ten minutes before finding it in a mass of coffee grounds and road kill scented chicken gunk. I cleaned the door plate, moved the screw holes over an eighth of an inch on the door jamb, and managed to securely fasten the plate. The door locked properly. Mission accomplished.

And this morning the outer security door broke. I turned the key in the lock and it spun without opening. Swearing and stomping ensued. My wife managed to get the broken inner works to connect one more time but warned me not to try to lock it again. She saw me glowering at the security door as if the broken lock was my mortal enemy. She took a breath and then quietly said in her most diplomatic tone, “Why don’t I call a locksmith?”

Sell Out

Puppy or What Is Puppy?

This color pencil drawing of a puppy is not cute. It doesn’t express the sentiment that doggies are wonderful. Instead, the drawing questions whether a canine image can supplant the paradigmatic construction of “dog-ness” in a viewer’s mind. The syrupy approach calls into question the fawning nature of all portraiture (the privileging of one person’s mien over all others within the gilded confines of the artificial, faux-precious canvas-in-frame space). A dog replaces a human face, thus devaluing the species-centric ascendancy of the homo sapien visage.

Artist as “Artist”

The artist pictured above is not a sell out for drawing said puppy. His choice of colored pencils (the medium of amateurs) self-critiques his role as a dominant image maker in a paternalistic art market. His apparent prostitution of his talents is a false maneuver, a coded rebellion against the strictures of the artist-as-revolutionary model. By drawing a greeting card image, he storms the dual citadels of Clement Greenbergian Flatness and Frank Stella’s what-you-see-is-what-you-get Dicta.

And while calling into question the pillars of post-war Modernism, he avoids the pitfalls of Post-Modernism. His straight forward, irony-free depiction deconstructs deconstruction by asserting the possibility of Sincerity. Even as he tears down traditional conventions of portraiture and the role of the modern artist, he builds (constructs) true possibility.

The puppy isn’t cute, and the image is not puppy-ness, and the artist has not made a signifying object of any importance. But the defiant act of wrapping himself in unapologetic triteness lifts him like Icarus above the binding gravity of professional integrity:

True artistic freedom achieved.

The Case of the Briefly Missing Daughter

Last night I sat on a hard plastic chair in an empty waiting room of a bus station. A sign near the counter in the next room told me that travelers had to report to a reception window, cash was not accepted, and no cash was kept on the premises. Another sign on the wall across from me said, “Smile, you’re on camera.” A window to the right had spider web cracks that shattered outwards from an impact crater.

I read an opening chapter from “Raven Black”, a thriller by Ann Cleeves, to pass the time while I waited for my daughter’s bus to arrive. I had just passed the point where a young woman had been found strangled in a field. Ravens pecked her eyes out. A strange man who lived in a crooked shack at the top of a nearby hill had been implicated in the disappearance of a girl twenty years before. The locals suspected that he had been at it once again. The victim’s father visited the woman who had found the body as he couldn’t face coming home to an empty house. Police had begun to interview the dead girl’s friends and associates.

Two guys emerged from behind the bus station counter and exited. I followed them to a nearby parking lot and saw a double decker bus pull up. A few passengers straggled off, but my daughter wasn’t among them. I checked the sign on the bus, and it said “Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Orlando”. Annie’s route. Annie’s bus. No Annie.

I wandered back toward the bus station thinking that she might have slipped by me. Perhaps she waited for me inside the bus station. Perhaps… Scenes from the novel danced in my head, and lightning flashed in a distant thunderhead. Dark figures crossed the nearly deserted lot.

.A second bus rumbled up to the disembarkation zone. This one was full, and the countermen took several minutes to unload luggage. Annie appeared at the exit door near the driver, and I smiled and waved.

Ravens, if any lurked about, would have to go hungry that night.

*I once gave my wife Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” to read on a bus trip (I stayed behind). She called the next morning to yell at me as the story is about a road trip that goes horribly awry (a family gets waylaid, shot and executed by an escaped killer). I finally got my karmic payback 30 years later.

I’m Your Mother GPS

I had to take a trip to an obscure section of downtown Orlando the other day and decided to download a GPS app before leaving.  I’d been avoiding using that travel guide as I’d found it annoying when riding with other drivers.  The monotone repeating commands and reminders seemed too controlling and insistent.

I skimmed through a few options and found one entitled, “Mom”.  It came in three levels.  I had no idea what each level offered, so I chose #1.

I backed down my driveway, and a sweet low voice hesitantly spoke:  “Oh dear, did you leave the stove on?”  I ignored it, checked my rear view mirror and backed out onto the road.  “Please pull over and clean the windshield before we go any further,” Mom asked kindly.  I pulled back on the windshield wiper lever, and cleaner fluid shot onto the windshield.  My wipers are getting a bit ragged, so a few streaks marred my vision when I turned east and faced the sun.  The GPS sighed quietly..

“Turn right,” she told me when we reached the stop sign.  “And watch out for that hooligan driving that yard service truck!  Why don’t we wait and let him go ahead of us?”  I had plenty of time to pull out before the driver cleared a speed bump with his trailer, so I edged forward.  Mom sighed again and said in a slightly discordant singsong, “You’ll seeeee.”

Yard guy sped over the bump, trailer nearly went air borne, and I had to stomp on the gas pedal to avoid a collision.  Yard service guy leaned on his horn and tailgated me all the way through the neighborhood.  Mom said nothing when we reached the intersection of Eastbrook and Aloma.  The green light gave me a chance to accelerate through the turn and leave my antagonist behind (he couldn’t manage to stay glued to my bumper without jack-knifing his trailer).

I kept up my speed for a few blocks and took another turn to make sure that I’d lost the yard service road-rager.  The silence remained deafening until I turned onto Howell Branch Rd.  Mom muttered, “Now I don’t have the slightest clue why you’re taking this road.  You’ve got me all turned around.”

I pulled in at the Casselberry Commons shopping center and found a parking space.  I went to the app page and found the “DELETE” command. But every time I tapped the button, the phone harrumphed indignantly and refused to comply. Mom said, “You can’t get rid of me that easily, young man.”

I turned off the phone, tossed it onto the passenger’s seat beside me, and resumed my trip.  I heard an odd noise when I turned left onto 17/92 in Maitland.  I glanced to my right and saw that the phone had somehow turned on.  The screen glowed hot pink.  I picked it up when I came to a stop at the next light and saw the GPS app had switched on to level 2.

Mom said, “Well, I’m back…Aren’t you going to say something?  You know that you’re just like your father…Why are you turning onto Lee Road?  You’re not going to take Orange Blossom Trail downtown, are you?  I bet you are.  I can tell by the squirmy look on your face.  You can’t fool me.  I’ve told you again and again that there’s nothing on OBT but hookers, drugs, strip joints and porno shops.  You’re going to turn right around and go through Winter Park on 17/92.  When we reach Colonial, you’ll take a right, go a mile west and take a left on Orange Avenue.  Well, do it.”

I turned onto OBT and headed south.  The phone turned a deeper, more fiery shade of pink.

“You never listen to me, do you?  Professor Bigshot, used to ordering people around, can’t take simple instructions from someone who knows better, who knows what’s best for him.  Maybe if I’d been around you’d still be married to Rhonda.  Such a lovely girl, and you just cast her aside like last week’s garbage.  You thought I didn’t know about her, didn’t you?  You should see the dumb look on your face.”

“But how?” I faltered.

“You agreed to unlock personal data when you signed the user agreement for my app.  I can look all over the internet and find out about you.  That picture today on Facebook looks embarrassing.  Were you drunk when it was taken?  And that girl you’re with looks like a little chippy.  Is she after your money, what little there is?”

“She’s nice,” I insisted.

“I like Rhonda better.  She looks like a good girl, and you married her in a Catholic church.  You’re still married to her in the eyes of God even if you think that a silly piece of paper gives you the right to cheat on her with loose women.”

“She cheated on me!” I shouted.

“Don’t raise your voice to me, young man!  And keep your eyes on the road.  There’s a porn shop on the right.  Eyes front!”

I drove past and didn’t look at the female dummy in the window display.  I didn’t notice that it’s nipples were painted bright red and that it sported a spiked black and white striped teddy with a lacy black fringe.  I focused instead on the road straight ahead.

I crossed Colonial and kept going south.  Parliament House appeared on the right.  The phone turned hot orange.

“Are you one of them?” she hissed.  “Is that why you flit from one relationship to another?  You’re looking for a woman to satisfy you when all you really want is a man?  Is that it?  Your father must be spinning in his grave!”

“I’ve never been to the Parliament House.  I’m not gay, and my father is still alive,” I said.

I parked at a meter further down the block, picked up the phone and tried to pry the battery cover off.  A sudden electric shock made me drop the phone.  I sucked on my fingers and listened to the phone screech at me.  The screen turned red.

I took an envelope out of my shirt pocket, gingerly wrapped it around the phone and tossed it into the glove compartment.  I got a second shock, but the insulation took some of the sting away.  Muffled shrieks and curses came from the compartment as I continued on, so I popped a Led Zeppelin cd into the player and jacked up the volume.

I pulled into the parking lot of a run down motel (daily and weekly rates) and got out.  GPS Mom howled long and loud.  I opened the trunk, retrieved a bag of groceries and walked to a unit on the ground floor.  Patty, a woman I had met at church, opened the door and let me in.  I handed her the groceries, and she made me a cup of coffee.  We sat and chatted about the new pastor, the ongoing feud in the finance committee, and the recent memorial service for a woman who had died two days after turning 94.  Patty thanked me once again, and I returned to the car.

I saw smoke coming from the glove compartment.  I tore off my t-shirt, wrapped it around my hand and pulled the door open.  My registration and insurance cards had caught fire.  The phone glowed bright red.  I grabbed a water bottle out of the compartment in the console between the seats, sprayed it onto the flames and got the phone wet.  I heard a smothered scream and a gurgling rattle, and the screen went blank.

I tossed the phone onto the sidewalk once it had cooled down.  The screen shattered, but I ground my heel onto it to make sure it was dead.  I should have buried it.

I got lost a few times on the way back but attributed my mistakes to a mind sorely disturbed by the events of the day.  I didn’t need a GPS program to get around.  I really didn’t.

Two days of blessed peace followed.  I went out and bought an old fashioned flip phone, ran a few errands, read a book and avoided the internet.  On the third morning I heard a timid knock on my front door.  “Girl scouts?” I wondered.

I opened the door and saw a man wearing a dirty shirt, torn pants and battered boots. The left one was missing its heel.  He held something behind his back.  A rusty bicycle lay on its side near the edge of my bed of plumbagos.

“Umm, Mister, I’m sorry to bother you, but I have to return something that belongs to you.”

I took a step back and partially closed the door.

“I’m sorry mister,” the bum continued.  “I picked up your phone on the sidewalk near where I live, and it started talking to me.  It told me your address and kept ordering me to bring it to you.  It told me a lot of other things about you, and I tried not to listen…None of my business.   I would have left it on the sidewalk but it wouldn’t let me be.  And I couldn’t make it shut up until I promised to return it.  I’m sorry mister, but this is yours.”

He slowly swung one hand forward. It held my phone. The screen was shattered, but the remaining splinters had turned purplish black. Red, broken letters suddenly lit up among the dark shards, and I read, “Level 3”.













Ode To The Garbage Man Who Bashed The Handles Off My Can

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I weeded and picked up my yard this morning and filled one and a half cans.  I pulled them to the curb and recalled that someone had dropped a Chick Filet cup on top my yard waste the week before.  Inspiration struck, and I felt moved to compose a poem dedicated to special moments in my personal garbage history.  I apologize in advance.



Ode To The Garbage Man Who Bashed The Handles Off My Can

I admit that I jammed

the bags too tight in the one we could afford,

and the garbage man with sinewy might

lifted can and bashed it ‘gainst

edge of loading bin.

He waved his arms with savage delight after handles parted base

and lifted plastic scraps up as

if for heaven’s praise.

And he the sweating, raging prole transfigured:

an avenging seraphim.


And now his judgment plagues me still when by curb I place

my garbage can on weekly dawns

with handle not replaced.

Dog walkers scoop scatterings left in chihuahuas’ trace

and blithely drop the steaming bags unto my wounded bin.

The trashmen do not lift the can–no handles afford them grip–

but pull forth bags stacked neatly to the lip. 

But they deign not touch the excrement,

and on the bottom it festers and ferments.


The curse has spread to yard waste bins still with worthy form:

the careless toss their Styrofoam cups on top of grass and fern.

They brazenly flaunt collection norms

and ponder not the price to be paid

 for the wanton mix of natural and manmade

rotting on foulsome landfill berms.

Oh that the angel of vengeful scorn 

would descend upon them with fiery sword 

and usher miscreant garbage sluts 

to a malodorous final reward.

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