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!”

You Just Gotta Know What to Do

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You’re an artist?  I saw you painting there and I just had to stop and say “hi”.  I love art.  My name is Kara and I live just up the street with my husband Terry.  I’ve been here for twenty-five years, and way back when this neighborhood used to be nice.  Folks moved here ‘cause it’s so close to the highways, so if they worked at the Cape or at Martin Marietta they could drive a few blocks and hop onto an entrance ramp.

Do you have any family?  Two kids, that’s nice.  Two little baby children.  Enjoy them while they’re young.  My boy’s all grown up now.  He went to Colonial High School.  He’s a good boy, and he had to be.  That school was rough.  He could’ve got into all kinds of trouble if he’d had a mind to.  He did anyway without trying.  Someone slipped a tab of LSD into his cola when he was at this party, and he comes home and tells me all this crazy stuff and I realized right away what was wrong with him, so I sat him down on the sofa and made him drink ice water and held him tight until he calmed down and fell asleep.  He was right as rain by the next morning…Everything turns out all right if you know what to do.

What do I do?  I’m a housewife right now.  I used to work, but I hurt my joints at this package delivery company.  I packed boxes and got them ready for shipping, and I liked the job and my boss, but the doctor put me on this new steroid for my arthritis and it did the devil’s work on my shoulders and I had to quit.  I tried to file a lawsuit against the company.  I know that lifting all those boxes did me damage even if they can claim that I was sick before I started working there.  But my lawyer keeps dragging his feet while he takes my money, and meanwhile my disability claim is all up in the air.  But I know that lawyer is going to work things out.  I’ve put a little spell on him, a little white magic.  What you do is mix some herbs and put them into a cheesecloth sachet, and you say a few words right before you toss the sachet into a fire, and the smoke carries the spell away and puts it into the universe.  It’ll work (and if it doesn’t it makes me feel better).  That lawyer’s gonna earn his money, one way or another, and I’m gonna get my due.

Sometimes I think that I got sick because of my husband, Terry.  He’s a good man, a good man.  But his first wife is a sneaky bitch and kept nosing around playing up to him, and he was dumb enough to fall for her act.  I could tell he was thinking about leaving me, the dumb ass, but my arthritis flared up so bad I was nearly crippled and he had to wait on me hand and foot and felt so sorry for me that he forgot all about that whore.  But I have to remind him from time to time whenever he gets that look in his eye and I can tell that he’s thinking about her again that I need him so much .  He loves me.  I know he does.  I tell him that we were meant to be together, and there’s no escaping what nature and the universe has decreed.  And every morning I get up and make him breakfast even when my hands feel like claws and my knees freeze up, ‘cause it’s a wife’s duty.  You never know if your husband’s gonna get hurt or killed on the job, so you gotta get up and make him his breakfast and kiss him goodbye like it might be the last time.  That’s a secret to a happy marriage.  It’s what you gotta do.

Do you follow politics?  I don’t know about this Clinton, how he’ll work out.  But one president I sure did like was Richard Milhous Nixon.  He knew how to run a country, and when he said jump, everyone jumped.  Now I know they said all kinds of things about him, all kinds of bad stuff about Watergate and how he was a crook and all that.  But you gotta look past that.  He was a good man and he didn’t deserve all the grief they threw at him.  He threw some back, but he just didn’t know how to duck.

You might think that I’m some kinda witch from what I said before, but my spells are all for the good.  But being a spiritual person can get you into trouble.  The devil doesn’t want you to stay on the good side of things, and you have to be careful if he comes knockin’ at your door.  But everything turns out okay if you know what to do.  Like one day I was looking out my back window out toward the drainage field beyond my back fence.  You know, where the high-tension lines run through?  And I saw the devil rise up out of the swamp, and he was big and ugly and glowed dark like a charcoal briquette, and he called my name and I knew that he wanted me for his own.  But I just closed my blinds and sat on a chair and thought all about the good things I had all around me.  I knew that the devil wanted me to lift the blinds and take a good look at him and open my soul up to his poison, but I wasn’t that dumb.  I just sat there and waited, and pretty soon I felt him going away, the evil draining out of the day.  And when I opened my blinds again he was gone.  For good I hope.  But if he ever comes back I know just what to do, and everything will be fine.

You come down and visit some time.  We like to build a bonfire out back and shoot the breeze.  There’s nothing better than a cool night, a bonfire and some beer.  And visits from neighbors and small talk and listening to the frogs croak out on the drainage field.  Some nights I can’t hear myself think they get so loud and the noise fills up the inside of my head until I just want to scream.  But then I sit by Terry and hold his hand while he smokes his cigarettes and sips a Bud Lite, and I think that I’m a lucky girl to be living here with him on a sweet night with stars in the sky and embers glowing on the fire.  The frogs stop bothering me and I’m glad I left Ohio and came down here to Orlando way back in 1962, that I followed my heart and knew just what to do.

Sleepless in Orlando

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I woke up with a sore knee one morning in December.  A few months later I aggravated it while mowing the lawn.  Physical therapy helped build muscle to stabilize the joint, but overexertion can still annoy it.  At its worst it feels like a migraine has decided to forsake the cranium to torment the under side of my knee cap.

Last Sunday it throbbed enough to wake me up at 4 a.m.  I tried to adjust the position of my leg.  I bent it, straightened it.  I lay on my back and angled my foot from one side to the other, and finally rolled over on my stomach.  I knew that my neck and shoulders would tie themselves in knots by dawn, but my knee felt better in that posture.  I drifted off with face buried in pillow, but the sound of shredding metal woke me up again.  The screeches and scrapes came from the side yard near the air conditioning unit, and I wondered if a druggy punk was trying to strip out the copper.

I knelt on the bed to open the blinds, and the pressure on my knee sent a sharp jolt up the leg.  I gasped, shifted my weight onto my other knee, and then pulled the cord down to lift the slats.  A large raccoon stared me in the eye.

He straddled the chain link fence that meets the house at a 90 degree angle, and his nose was no more than three feet from mine.  He must have been making that racket with his claws as he climbed.  Now he seemed unable to move.  I rapped against the pane to send him on his way as I still had hopes of getting back to sleep.  But he just gave me a weary look as if to say, “Hey, buddy.  I’m doing my best.”

I saw his point and tried to drop the blinds, but they snagged on one side.  I fiddled with them, but couldn’t unsnarl the cord.  I gave up eventually and let the slats hang at a crooked angle.  I slumped down on my bed, and my knee hurt worse than it had before.

I closed my eyes, but my mind raced with plans to trap the raccoon, put spikes on the top of the fence, call animal control.  I thought about all the raccoon jokes on “Parks and Recreation”, including the one where Leslie Knope tells a state commission that Pawnee’s raccoon problem has been solved.  She says, “They have their side of town, and we have ours.”

A half hour later I snapped on my light and turned off my alarm.  No more sleep for me.  “Yippee,”  I thought.  “A new day.”

A Spoonful of Covfefe (By Kellyanne Poppins)

Just a spoonful of covfefe makes the agreement fall down,

Paris fall dow-wown, the agreement fall down.

Just a spoonful of covfefe makes the agreement fall down,

In the most atrocious way.

 

A senator blustering his views says that we’ve an awful lot to lose

While China can go on its merry way.

He claims the science won’t be complete till the ocean laps his feet.

Then he’ll get—a tan—when the shore comes to Spokane.

 

Just a spoonful of covfefe makes the science seem wrong,

The science seem wrong-ong, the science seem wrong.

Just a spoonful of  covfefe makes the science seem wrong

Until we all get washed away.

 

A Trump man feathering his nest has very little time to rest

While gathering his bits of slime and gross intrigue.

But he tweets out his pursuits and English convolutes.

He knows—a lie—can turn the Russian (rushing?) tide.

 

For a spoonful of covfefe makes Jim Comey disappear,

Jim Comey disappear-ear, Jim Comey disappear.

Just a spoonful of covfefe makes Jim Comey disappear.

But did he really go away?

 

Poor Spicer is surrounded and on every side he’s hounded by

reporters making up outlandish news.

But for every question that he takes he knows his job’s at stake.

He groans—he sighs—he sputters and denies.

 

For a spoonful of covfefe makes democracy fall down,

democracy fall dow-wown, democracy fall down.

Just a spoonful of covfefe makes America fall down.

Let’s hope we can come back some day.