Friday, December 18, 2009

Santa is a Fraud

When the batteries snapped into his back, Capt. Awesome suddenly became aware of flashing lights and Christmas music in the living room. His tiny AAA heart beat faster.

And then a middle aged woman set him on a coffee table – a COFFEE TABLE! – and took a huge bite from the cookie.

“What the ****,” he thought. “You’re not Santa!”

As the woman stuffed him into a red felt stocking, the reality of Capt. Awesome’s situation set in.

He wasn’t built in Santa’s workshop... he was bought in a store! He was a bastard toy! And like all bastard toys, his life expectancy would be that of a house-fly. Even if he didn’t break before his batteries ran out, Capt. Awesome knew that no self-respecting child was going to choose him over a genuine North Pole toy.

He was doomed to life under the bed.

Eventually, the woman turned off the lights and went to bed. After working for hours to build a bicycle and set up something called a “Barbie Tropical Water Park,” she looked exhausted.

“Why would she go to that much trouble,” Capt. Awesome wondered. “Santa will be here any minute.”
Capt. Awesome spent a sleepless night peering over the white-furred edge of his stocking, waiting. To pass the time, he counted the presents under the tree. There were thirty-four. Four red boxes had gold bows. Two red boxes had green bows. Three blue boxes had silver ribbons. Eight boxes didn’t have bows or ribbons. Six boxes were wrapped in green, five had paper with pictures on it, and one little box was silver and shiny. Most of the presents were square-ish, but three were strange shapes that crumpled the paper. Tucked in a corner were two gift bags with white tissue paper erupting from their tops.

Shortly before 6:00am, Capt. Awesome heard tiny voices telling sleepy parents it was time to wake up. An old man, probably the grandfather, scooped coffee into a pot and made noises that sounded like they belonged outside. A few minutes later, a little boy ran down the stairs and shouted when he saw a shiny blue bicycle.

Capt. Awesome was exhausted. He stayed awake the whole night. Santa never came.
It was the parents. It was the parents the whole time. Every box. Every bow. Every toy and foil wrapped chocolate was a fraud. It was all carried home in a sack. None of it rode in a sleigh.

And the parents let it happen. No, they didn’t just let it happen. They made it happen. Every year they filled their poor, empty-headed children with stories about a fat man – a stranger – who loved them so much and thought they were such good little boys and girls that they deserved presents.

Capt. Awesome was furious. “Wrapping a lie in red velvet,” he thought, “doesn’t make it right.”

Three weeks later, Capt. Awesome sat on the kitchen table while the mother wrote checks to pay credit card companies for the Christmas presents they had bought. Capt. Awesome thought she should forward the bills to the North Pole for reimbursement, but he decided not to mention it. At the moment, the mother looked too fragile to take suggestions, even from a superhero.

Capt. Awesome was sure that before Christmas both the boy and the girl had written letters to the North Pole asking the non-existent Santa for everything they wanted, including a bicycle and a Barbie water park. To their credit, the boy still rode his bicycle and the girl hadn’t yet forgotten about the pink water park in the corner of her room – not that she could. On December 26, however, their markers suddenly went dry. Every day they played, but they never said thank you.

Ungrateful kids.
During the months that followed, Capt. Awesome spent most of his time in the van. He went to soccer practices and swim lessons. He waited in the backseat during dance recitals and birthday parties. He endured the agony of family vacations and once almost won his freedom in a Burger King parking lot. He probably would have gotten away – or at least might have been picked up by a new boy in a new van – if the boy hadn’t shouted for the mother to stop. Apparently, bastard toys aren’t as expendable as Capt. Awesome once thought. Damn.

Capt. Awesome eventually overcame his nausea from the van's stale french-fry smell. He also learned to ignore the endless repetitions of something called “Finding Nemo.” He even taught himself how to mentally dissociate when the boy forced his head through the van’s cracked window as they rushed down the interstate. Capt. Awesome couldn’t tolerate it, however, when he got wedged between the back seats. The horrors he saw in the depths of that dark and sticky hell were more than even the bravest toy could endure.

Capt. Awesome soon learned that the boy’s name was Daniel. The girl was Kris. The mother was usually called Mom or Mommy, except when one of the men was in the van. Then she was called Susan. Capt. Awesome got nervous when the mother became “Susan,” especially if the boy and the girl were staying with a babysitter or sleeping at their grandparents’ house. On those nights, when the mother was in the van alone with one of the men, he sometimes heard things that made him wonder if Susan might be the reason Santa didn’t stop at the Cooper house.
In November, the mood in the van began to change. The boy and the girl, who seldom sang along with the radio, started requesting songs about Frosty the snowman and Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer. Finding Nemo was replaced by a movie that referenced a disturbing place called the “Island of Misfit Toys.” The mother also began asking the boy and the girl awkward questions about elves and what kind of cookies Santa likes.

Soon it would be Christmas, the most dishonest time of the year.
Early one morning, the family piled into the van already arguing about their day.

“I get to go first,” said the boy. “I’m older so I get to go first.”
“But it’s my turn,” the girl protested. “Daniel got to go first last year. It’s not fair!”
“I told you, it doesn’t matter who goes first. You’ll both get a turn,” said the mother. “Kris, what are you going to ask Santa for?”

The girl didn’t even have to think about her answer. “I want an American Girl doll, a bike like Daniel’s with a pink helmet and a white seat, and a white fairy princess dress.”

The boy also had his list memorized. He wanted a chemistry set and a microscope like Brendon’s “so we can do experiments together.” He also said he was going to ask Santa for a remote controlled car and something called a DM3.

The rest of the way to the mall, the mother was obviously working to keep her lips from moving while she rehearsed their lists. Capt. Awesome couldn’t believe the boy and the girl didn’t see it. Sure, they were only kids, but how weak did your batteries have to be to not see the mother memorizing every word they said?

American Girl. Pink Helmet. White seat. Princess dress. Chemistry set. Microscope. Car. DMSomething.

A week later, the mother drove back to the mall without the boy and the girl. She stayed inside for several hours. When she came back to the van, Capt. Awesome could see a chemistry set in one of her bags and the white sequence of a fairy princess dress in another.

“Christmas,” he thought, “when deception disguises itself as goodwill.”

After last Christmas - his first Christmas - Capt. Awesome was convinced that Santa was a great manipulation, and nothing more. He was a fraud built by the collective imaginations of adults who regularly spanked their children for lying. Capt. Awesome was sure that by perpetuating the Santa story, the parents were digging their own graves.

Did parents really think the world leaders these parents were raising would find solutions for the fossil fuel crisis when they honestly believed magic elves spent twelve months a year making everything people asked for?

Had the parents actually convinced themselves that the global economy would be stabilized by a generation who thought an overweight saint slid down their chimneys to deliver toys?

And who did the parents think would care for them in their old age? What possible motivation would their children have for giving selflessly to another person when they believed a 1400 year-old fat man existed for no other reason than to give them presents?

It was all so absurd.
After the kids sat on Santa’s lap, the van was filled and emptied four different times. The mother brought home rolls of paper and hid department store bags under her bed. At the grocery store, she bought two bags of the candy she used to help fill the kids’ stockings. Capt. Awesome remembered it from the year before when he stood on it through that horrible sleepless night. At the toy store, the mother asked a handsome young man wearing a blue vest to help her load a bike-sized box into the van. The young man smiled weakly when the mother handed him a dollar and wished him Merry Christmas.

Long before Christmas morning, Capt. Awesome knew that not only was the boy getting a chemistry set and a microscope from “Santa,” he was also getting a basketball and two new shirts.

The girl would love her fairy dress and would probably spend most of Christmas afternoon riding her new bicycle. But Capt. Awesome knew that “Santa” was also going to surprise her with a shiny chrome bell for her handlebars.

The kids had no idea what was happening behind the Christmas scenes. Every afternoon they rode home in the backseat of a grey Astro-Van that secretly doubled as Santa’s sleigh. If they knew that Santa poured their cereal and drove them to school every morning, they would go absolutely mental.
On the Saturday night before Christmas, the mother dropped the kids off at their grandparents’ house and picked up the man who was her current favorite. On their way to dinner, the mother and the man talked about Christmas and which child would like which present the best. “Susan,” the man said, “You’ve kinda gone overboard this year, haven’t you? Can you afford all this?”

“Not really,” said the mother.

And then she started to cry.
After Christmas, the man helped the mother tie a brittled Christmas tree onto the top of the van. After they dumped the tree in a pile near the playground in their favorite park, the man announced he was taking everyone out for pizza to celebrate the new year.

On the way, he turned to ask the boy and the girl if they had a good Christmas.

“Sure did,” said the boy. “Santa got me a microscope and a cool chemistry set and a DM3!”
“I got a silver princess dress and a pink bicycle with a bell on the handles,” said the girl.
“That’s great,” said the man. “What did your mom get you?”

The boy and the girl looked at each other blankly.

“I don’t remember,” the boy answered. “Mom, what did you get me?”

Capt. Awesome couldn’t believe his ears. If he had any muscle control – if he had any muscles at all – he would kick the boy in the lap.

“Santa,” he wanted to scream, “is just a front man your parents use to launder their own generosity. He’s a puppet crafted to give you the clothes you need and the toys you want and let somebody else get the credit. I can’t believe your mom sits in the shadows while an overstuffed fairy tale steals her glory.”

Ungrateful kids.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Super? Human.

Michael

Michael discovered he could become invisible when he was a teenager – that glandular time when the other boys were also discovering their own secret and hidden abilities. When he realized he could become invisible, Michael dreamed of using his power for the ultimate good: surveillance missions… gaining important intelligence… and infiltrating the girls’ locker room.

Visibility happens when light bounces off an object and gets caught in the camera of an animal’s eye, making a picture in the brain and immortalizing the object as “visible.” Invisibility happens when light doesn’t bounce – when it passes through an object, frictionless. Clean glass. Clear air. Calm water. These things are “invisible” because light shines through them in a straight line, never bounced back to report the shapes and colors of where it’s been.

Michael could turn invisible. He could allow light to pass straight through his body, keeping him a secret. But becoming invisible meant light passed through his body. All of it. It didn’t bounce off his shoulders, stomach, and feet, showing his size, shape, and location to everyone around him. But it also didn’t get caught in his eyes.

Instead, when he was invisible, light passed through his lenses, ignored his retinas, and shot straight out the back of his head, never telling his brain anything about where it had been.

Michael could turn invisible. But when he was invisible, he was also blind… which made the girl’s locker room much less interesting.


Susan

When Susan won $500 in the lottery, she wasn’t even excited. Oscar could fly, and that was so much better.

If she could fly, Susan knew she wouldn’t need the lottery. She wouldn’t have a car payment, or auto insurance, or rising gas prices to worry about. She could even earn extra money as one of those traffic reporters on the radio that tells everybody where all the wrecks are on the highway.

Her stupid brother had the power to fly, and he never used it – not even if he woke up late and there wasn’t any coffee and rush-hour traffic was a mess. He said it was too slow. He said he could spit faster than he could fly.

When they were kids, Oscar occasionally took off in the front yard to show off for his friends. But when his friends started crawling under him to untie his shoes and tickle his feet while he lifted off, Oscar had an important revelation. Unless a neighbor’s cat was stuck in a tree and they weren’t in a hurry to get it down, his power was neither very useful nor very impressive.

What’s the point of flying, Oscar thought, if it’s not fast?

As he got older, his opinion didn’t change. Once, when he got caught in traffic on the way to an emergency surgery, Oscar took his chances and took off. Four blocks later, he was passed by a butterfly.

Now, unless the puddles were unbearably deep, Oscar usually walked. And Susan hated him for it.

Oscar knew his sister was jealous of his ability, but he was thankful Susan couldn’t fly. His logic? There’s a reason animals in the wild walk on all fours, hiding their underparts. There’s a reason birds, who fly so unashamedly, don’t have external genitals. It’s the same reason women who only wear short skirts, women like his sister, shouldn’t have the power of flight:

Decency.

Nobody wants to look up and see that, especially in slow motion.


Paul

Like a Bible character he barely remembered, Paul got his strength form his hair.

In 1967 he and his flower children friends – his botanical brothers and sisters – all grew their hair long in protest of a war they didn’t believe in. But as his friends grew shaggy, Paul grew strong. Very Strong.

The first time his mother hinted that he needed a haircut, Paul already knew to be careful when he tied his sneakers before a protest. He was so strong that sometimes he got over-zealous and bruised his feet before the laces broke.

When his bangs had to be parted to keep the hair out of his eyes, Paul was regularly entertaining his friends at sit-ins by bending gun barrels into balloon animals while singing “Give Peace a Chance.”

By the time Paul’s muddy locks covered the tour dates on the backs of his tee-shirts, he spent every fourth Saturday holding his family’s El Camino in the air while his dad changed the oil. His dad wanted him to get a job that “took full advantage of his talent.” Unfortunately, when you’re a super-strong hippie pacifist, there isn't much work that fits your skill set.

When the boys in Washington heard about his extraordinary strength, they "randomly" drew Paul’s draft number. Like it or not, they said, he was going to Vietnam.

“Don’t you want to be a star soldier,” they asked. “Don’t you want to serve your country?”

He didn’t.

The first day of boot camp, the Army shaved Paul’s head and gave him a pair of green pants. His commanding officers wouldn’t listen when Paul told them not to cut his hair. They said it was “regulation.”

Nine months later, Paul ran through the jungle with a new haircut, sweating under the weight of his backpack. Unable to keep up with his company, Paul never saw his home again.


Heather

Heather spent her life as a quiet prisoner to her inside voice.

Heather’s “inside voice” wasn’t anything like her “inner voice,” that whispering conscience that gives paranoid advice and warns people of impending doom. Heather’s “inside voice” was the contrast to her “outside voice,” a sound that froze everything that moves.

Every time Heather shouted or screamed, her raised voice pressed a pause button that stopped time.

Usually when a woman shouts, one of several things happen: 1) people run to her aid, 2) a child is sent to its room, or 3) everyone rolls their eyes and wonders why that horrible woman is being so mean to the poor waiter. These things happen because a shout is meant to be heard. A shout, by nature, elicits a response.

Heather’s shout, however, was terribly counter-productive. People who heard it, strictly speaking, couldn’t respond to it. They were too busy being immobilized. Frozen. Instead of turning in alarm, people who heard Heather shout were temporarily petrified, stuck in an involuntary game of freeze tag.

Because Heather had colic as a baby, her father was constantly late for work. Several times a week, he woke up early, sat down for breakfast, and was then turned to a statue while his carpool left without him.

“Shit,” he thought. “If that kid doesn’t stop crying, I’m going to loose my job.”

Heather was six months old when her unemployed parents sent her to live with a deaf couple.

In the 8th grade, all the girls in Heather’s class were required to take woodshop with the boys. The school said it taught them to be well-rounded. One day Heather told the shop teacher that “the needless butchering of trees for poorly made book cases and bird houses violates my principals as a vegetarian.”

Mr. Reinheart explained to Heather that she apparently misunderstood what “vegetarian” meant. When Heather yelled a defiant “BUT…,” all the drills stopped drilling, all the saws stopped sawing, and everyone in the woodshop froze. It was SO embarrassing.

By the time she got to high school, Heather was already one of the prettiest girl in her class. When she tried out for the cheerleading squad, her gymnastic routine was great, but her cheers left the judges silent and still. She didn’t make the squad.

The day Heather rode a roller coaster at Six Flags was an absolute disaster.

Heather hated being quiet while her friends were being crazy. She hated using her “inside voice” when her inner bitch wanted out. Most afternoons, when she got home from school, Heather was so frustrated that she slammed the door and shouted as loud as she could.

When her deaf foster parents saw the cat frozen with one leg in the air, wishing its bath hadn’t been so rudely interrupted, they signaled each other and spoke in their sign-language shorthand, “Heather must be home.”


Martin

Martin sat in his favorite coffee shop, bemoaning his fate.

He had been fired earlier that day after an unfortunate incident at school. Martin (or Mr. Smithson as he was known to his students), was walking down the hall just outside the girl’s bathroom, when a kid pushed past him in a rush to get to class. Martin stumbled and tried to catch himself, but with no luck. He fell through the wall and straight into the girl’s bathroom.

Since he was a child, Martin had been able to pass through things. He could reach his hand through ceramic cookie jars and walk through solid walls. Unfortunately, none of his wardrobe shared his super-ability. Just because Martin could walk through walls didn’t mean his clothes could come with him.

When Martin fell (literally) through the solid wall outside the girl’s bathroom, he landed on the other side unscathed, uninjured… and unclothed. Now, thanks to the several shrieking sophomores who had seen his “biology lesson,” he was also unemployed.

The school board said Martin was a danger to the kids. They claimed he was a liability. They paid no attention to his defensive argument. "At least I'm not turning invisible and intentionally stalking through the locker rooms," he said. "This was just an honest mistake." Twenty minutes later, they fired him.

Martin hated his super dis-ability.

Superman. Wonder-Woman. The Green Lantern. They all did what came naturally and the world embraced them for it.

“For the rest of us,” Martin thought, “life’s a little more complicated.”

The End.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Orbit

The Earth took his training wheels off only a few billion years ago. Before then, he obediently followed the other planets through their frenzied orbits, barely keeping out from under their feet. He wasn't the typical middle child, quiet and demure. The Earth was curious and inquisitive, constantly asking questions like:

Why do I have to wear sunscreen?
What if I don't want to eat my vegetables?

and
Are we there yet?

Despite the endless questions, the other planets liked the Earth. He was innocent, green, and good-natured. He never even made fun of Uranus... which was hard not to do. There were a few years during puberty, when his face erupted in a volcanic mess, that the Earth was a little moody, but that was all behind him now.

The Earth was settling - reluctantly - into middle-age. He was none too happy that his formerly tight pangaea was giving way to urban expansion. His rainforests were receding. His doctor was even nagging that his rising sea levels "might be cause for concern."

In other words, the Earth wasn’t happy.

He worried that his life was moving in circles, never really getting anywhere. Parts of him felt like the days went on forever and the night would never end. He enjoyed his yearly commute around the sun, but how many times could he smile and make small talk with Venus as they passed? Sure, she was attractive. Saturn was dying to get his rings around her. Even Pluto, a shy planet with an obvious identity crisis, wanted to talk to her. But for all her charms, Venus wasn’t much of a conversationalist. The Earth needed more.

He wanted adventure.
One day, shortly after putting the finishing touches on an amazing sunset, the Earth heard some unsettling news. An asteroid was coming. The Earth wasn’t eavesdropping, of course, but it’s hard to ignore a few billion voices whispering in your ear. As soon as the asteroid was sighted, television reporters across the world began talking about "the catastrophic event," "our pending extinction," and "the violent end of life as we know it."

And the Earth was listening.

News of the asteroid’s approach rocked the Earth to his core. The dinosaurs hadn't done a very good job of warning him about the last asteroid, a surprise from the black that hit him like a cosmic car accident. One day he just turned around, saw the asteroid swerve into his orbit, and thought, "shit, this is going to hurt." And it did. Bad.

"Whoever's out there throwing rocks needs to stop," he thought. "I'm too old for this."

Unfortunately, the asteroid that was on its way wasn't just a medium-sized rock meandering through the universe. It was bigger. Much bigger. A rock several times the size of Earth, the asteroid was technically a small planet that had broken free from its own solar system and achieved geologic independence. Apparently, when planets stop orbiting a single sun and start freelancing through the universe, they earn the slightly more sinister title of “asteroid.” Unencumbered by the obligations of orbit, the “asteroid” went wherever it wanted, aggressively barging its way through an otherwise orderly universe.

The asteroid was sighted on a Tuesday. Within a few weeks, it would become visible as a small speck in the Milky Way. The speck would grow as the asteroid approached, slowing filling the night sky. First the North Star would disappear. Then the Big Dipper would loose its handle. Within a few months, Orion, Scorpio, and all their twinkling friends would be hidden from view, eclipsed by the asteroid’s huge girth.

Several weeks before the Earth and the asteroid met, its gravity would pull the Earth’s oceans from their beds, gathering them together until they looked like a giant raindrop falling up into the sky.

Then, at the moment of impact, the Earth would shatter like a snowball, barely feeling a thing.
“It’s just obnoxious the way these asteroids think of no one but themselves,” the Earth ranted. “They go wherever they want and do whatever they want with no thought of who they’re inconveniencing or what they’re destroying. It’s not as if the stupid asteroid doesn’t know where I’m going to be 253 days, 3 hours, and 14 minutes from now.”

The Earth had a good point. His schedule was as regular as clockwork. In fact, his schedule was the basis for clockwork. Everyone always knew where the Earth was going to be several years before he got there. That’s the beauty – and monotony – of orbit. It leaves little room for variation.

If the asteroid knew where he was going to be and when he was going to be there, then why, the Earth wondered, did it insist on running into him?

The answer, of course, was that the asteroid was terribly inflexible. Concepts like “yield,” “stop,” and “turn” implied compromises that the asteroid, who was both terribly selfish and very hard headed, saw as signs of weakness.

In 253 days, 3 hours, and 14 minutes, the Earth and the asteroid would meet somewhere on the other side of the sun. The Earth couldn’t decide which he hated more – the anticipation of conflict, or conflict itself.
The Earth wondered how the people would deal with the approaching asteroid. He suspected they would recycle one of their Hollywood clich├ęs and shoot a missile at it. The people, of course, had the same idea.

Within hours of the asteroid’s discovery, a swarm of satellites started buzzing. China talked to England. Mexico and Canada joined in a conference call with Australia. NASA turned its telescopes to the heavens and told everyone the end was near unless they acted fast.

The people acted fast. Their leaders pressed buttons and unlocked doors, uncovering weapons hidden long ago like eggs in the Easter grass.

“If we can split an atom,” the people thought, “surely we can split an asteroid.”

But given the choice between fight and flight, the Earth wasn't sure picking a fight with the asteroid was the best idea. "Flight," he thought, "might be a better option."

Afraid for his own future, the Earth began to formulate a plan.

"If I start running now," he thought, "I can just get out of the stupid asteroid’s way. I can be halfway across the solar system by the time it arrives. If I’m 186 million miles ahead of schedule, I won’t even have to brush shoulders with it when it passes!”

The Earth knew that speeding up would require everyone – including himself – to adapt to a new schedule. The change would be hard for the people. Traditionally, even slow changes that obviously needed to happen (like evolution and equality) had been difficult for them. But what choice did he have? Change was coming whether he (or they) liked it or not. He simply couldn’t continue on his current course and expect to survive.

And so, before the people could launch their missiles at the sky, the Earth took a deep breath and started speeding up. Faster and faster he ran. The faster he ran, the faster the days flew by, passing with quickening speed until a single week was little more than a blur of sunrises and sunsets.

He sped straight through summer and practically skipped fall. The long trip that usually took a lazy year to finish was done in a matter of weeks. Birds, confused by the strobing sunsets, flew south for the winter only to find their homes under several feet of snow. Children were equally surprised when spring break started three days before Christmas.

The children loved the new schedule. They had hardly finished one birthday before the next one began. Girls celebrated their sweet sixteen with Barbie Doll cakes and Dora the Explorer parties. Boys were old enough to buy beer before their voices changed.

Anxiety levels also rose among college students who complained they didn’t have enough time to study for exams. Pulling an all-nighter was practically pointless. The sun came up before they could finish a second cup of coffee. And when fraternity boys partied all night on Friday with plans of sleeping late on Saturday, it was sometimes Monday morning before they woke up and wondered where the weekend had gone – which wasn’t very different from the way things had always been.

Even Santa’s elves were disgruntled. Unable to keep up with their new production schedule, the doll division threatened to strike.

The future was simply coming before the people were prepared for it. Before the Earth began his sprint toward safety, both the quick and the careful could order their lives because they knew what words like “next week,” “next month,” and “next year” meant. Like “one pound” and “four meters,” the meanings of “one minute” and “four days” were constant. This predictability not only sold thousands of calendars at Christmas, it also gave the people an illusion of control.

But now “tomorrow” was like a menstrual cycle -- reliable, but unpredictable. The people always knew it was coming, but they didn’t know exactly when it would get there or how long it would stay.

Across the globe, petitions were signed asking the Earth to slow down. Concerned citizens gathered at community centers and organized anti-Earth demonstrations. Unlike the great protests of the past, however, the people marched without knowing where to go. Since City Hall couldn’t solve their problem, the people wandered aimlessly, hoping the Earth would hear them yell.

At a march in Oregon, an environmentalist who had once fought to save the rainforests led a group in chanting “stop the world, I wanna get off!” At a rally in Atlanta, a construction worker carried a shovel, but never followed through with his threats to dig a hole.

It didn’t take long, however, before the people realized that there wasn’t anything anybody could do to make the Earth slow down.

Activists couldn’t boycott anyone.
Armies couldn’t attack anyone.
Police couldn’t arrest anyone.
Lawyers couldn’t sue anyone.
Men couldn’t threaten anyone.
Women couldn’t manipulate anyone.

The AARP, whose membership had recently doubled, printed an informative pamphlet, but nobody had time to read it.

The Earth knew the people were frustrated, confused, and afraid… but it felt so good to finally control his own future.
The Earth felt it first in his North America. Then it spread to his Europe and across his Asia. This wasn’t one of those headaches he got from too much pressure along his tectonic plates. This headache was the direct result of 6 billion feet marching across his surface in angry unison. If they didn’t stop stomping soon, he would be forced to knock the people off balance. The Earth hadn’t been this upset since the invention of high-heeled shoes.

During what he considered the puberty of their race (generally referred to as “modernity”), the Earth felt the people had become disturbingly self-centered. Maybe he had a heart of stone, but the Earth was tired of being taken for granted. He was tired of letting ungrateful people walk all over him.

Wasn’t he always patient during their Thanksgiving Day Parade? Didn’t he suffer quietly through their New York City Marathon? He even allowed their military to practice their ridiculous advances and retreats at all hours of the day and night. His patience, however, was growing as thin as his ozone. The endless protest marches had to stop. They were not only irritating, they were insulting.

The Earth wasn’t deaf. He knew what the people were saying about him. He was listening when Greenpeace voted to take his name off their website. He noticed when Earth Day was cancelled and replaced with a symbolically violent tether-ball tournament. He tried to ignore preachers when they filled their Sunday Sermons with stories comparing him to somebody named “The Prodigal Son,” but he couldn’t. From pulpits across the globe they shouted that he was like an arrogant child who ran away from his father and leapt carelessly into the future. They said he “neglected his responsibility” and “denied his true calling.” They condemned him for “choosing a path other than the one assigned to him” and urged him to return to “the natural state of things.” They didn’t think the Earth realized how serious things had become.

The Earth was offended that the same people who invented oil-powered engines and artificial sweeteners dared to lecture him about “respecting creation” and “acting according to the laws of nature.”

Why, the Earth wondered, didn’t the people understand that he hadn’t broken away from his pre-determined path? He was still following the same circle around the same sun… he was simply doing it differently than he had before. And even if he had rushed into the future, he hadn’t done so carelessly. He had done so from necessity.

Self preservation and selfishness are two entirely different things.
Right in the middle of the evening news, the people looked up and saw it.

Fist the North Star Disappeared.

Then the Big Dipper lost its handle.

When a shadow fell across the sun, the people began to panic.

Some of them ran deep into underground cellars. Others herded themselves into churches to pray. Just as a few important people prepared to push important buttons and send missiles streaking into space (with little or no effect on the outrageous rock), a physicist scribbled something on her chalkboard. Out of the lines and numbers rose a wisp of chalky hope.

“But how is that possible,” the important people asked. “We already calculated that if the Earth is orbiting the sun at 29.77 km/s and the asteroid is traveling in a straight line at 56.2 km/s, then we should collide with it… 7 months ago?”

The director of the CIA stormed into the room, brushing the first flakes of a light summer snow off his jacket.

“So, you’re saying what?”

“The asteroid,” the physicist said, “is apparently going to miss the Earth by 186 million miles.”

“Well,” he stammered. “I’ll be damned.”
Before the asteroid arrived, the Earth’s path was familiar and frictionless. Every day he moved through space carried by his own momentum, hardly working to spin through the seasons. In the vacuum, there was little need for effort or exertion. Nothing worked against him. Trusting his instincts and inertia, the Earth took for granted that he would always coast easily through life. But now, everything was different. As the asteroid came closer, the Earth felt his forward motion interrupted by a sideways force. For the first time since he settled into the routine of orbit, The Earth felt resistance… friction… gravity pulling him in a direction other than the one he had always known.

At first the asteroid’s gravitational pull was as indefinable as emotion – little more than an idea tugging at his corners. Like happiness, fear, and excitement, it could be felt more than it could be explained.

As the asteroid came closer, however, its gravity grew into something more concrete. The Earth’s oceans noticed it first. Suddenly disinterested with the moon, they found themselves attracted to the asteroid, drawn to its rugged strength. Like crazed fans, they crowded the beaches and fought for the best view of its approach.

Like a ball fighting to roll uphill, the Earth strained against the asteroid’s gravitational pull. But when he tried to move forward, the asteroid’s gravity tugged him back. It didn’t matter how tightly he tried to hold to his orbit. The Earth was a movable object fighting an unstoppable force.

The Earth didn’t know what to do. He had already done everything he could to control his future, and was worn out with the effort. He couldn’t run any more.

Finally, after weeks (or was it months? or years?) of straining against the asteroid’s gravity, the Earth finally accepted what he could not change. He stopped fighting the invisible truth. Exhausted, he stopped running. For the first time since the asteroid was sighted, the Earth relaxed and let nature take its course.

And as the asteroid passed – only 186 million miles away – its gravity wrapped around the Earth’s middle, slowly pulling him away from the sun and into the deep, dark unknown. The predictable curve of the Earth’s orbit was straightened into an infinite line. Like a puppy led on an invisible leash, the Earth left his home and followed the asteroid into in the unknown of space.

When the asteroid was first sighted, the Earth tried to save himself. He chose to run – to avoid the asteroid rather than let it collide with him – and his plan worked. He hadn’t been destroyed by an impact. But despite his effort (or perhaps because of it), his path had been forever changed. Now, as the Earth followed the asteroid past stars he had never seen, he wondered which was better, change or annihilation? He didn’t yet know.

He noticed, however, that the people weren’t saying anything about what happened. They weren’t admiring the view or complaining about the cold. They were all strangely quiet.

The Earth thought he might like them better that way.

The Extra Credit Kid

When the boy was ten, his 5th grade teacher used the hour after lunch to teach her class the beautiful language of the deaf. Even though everyone in the class could hear – even though they all listened to their radios at home and turned their TVs louder than their mothers would have liked – this particular over-achieving educator wanted her class to know sign language. She wanted to teach their still innocent hands how to do something constructive. She wanted them to learn gestures that would communicate without offending the elderly.

The children loved their sign language lessons. Once, during a silent game of Ring Around the Rosie, they even got so rowdy that the teacher had to remind them to use their inside hands.

After the first week of learning to speak with silent words, the boy told his teacher that his mother was deaf. He said that everyone in his family knew how to use sign language. He had been doing it for years. Sometimes, before bed, he even used his hands to read out loud to his mother.

"But not the Bible," he said. "All the whosoevers and wherefores make my knuckles crack."

The teacher was amazed. Like an exotic exchange student from a quiet and faraway land, the boy was a native who already knew the language. He was a natural tutor. In a moment of instructive genius, the teacher offered bonus points to any child who spent time with the boy whose hands could talk.

He was the extra credit kid.

Within hours of the teacher’s edict, the extra credit kid became the most popular kid in class. His lunch table was always full. His seat was always saved. He never spent recess jumping rope by himself. He was extra credit.

Every afternoon The Extra Credit Kid leapt off a bus full of new friends, eager to tell his mother how popular he was at school. With exhausted fingers, he bragged about how everyone wanted to spend time with him because he was good at something. Because he knew something. Because he could do something no one else could.

Because he was extra credit.

The teacher asked The Extra Credit Kid to keep a journal of the time he spent with friends from their class. She wanted to be fair when she assigned extra points. The Extra Credit Kid soon noticed that he was invited to lots of birthday parties and sleepovers, but only on nights before the teacher tallied progress reports or just after difficult math tests. He played lots of video games with the lazy kids, but was never spoken to by the smart ones who had stars next to their names on the bulletin board.

In March, everyone celebrated The Extra Credit Kid's birthday by singing Happy Birthday with their hands.

In April, his class took a special trip to a school where the children couldn't hear. The Extra Credit Kid ate lunch at a table full of deaf kids and told a joke so well that a boy almost choked on his peas. Everyone from The Extra Credit Kid's class turned around to look. The rest of the cafeteria hadn't heard a thing.

In May, everyone waved goodbye to each other and promised they'd play together at the swimming pool.

In June, when school was over, the Extra Credit Kid's new friends stopped returning his calls. His hands, once limber from telling jokes and stories, grew lazy and fat. Summer vacation wasn't nearly as much fun as the school year had been.

The sixth grade was even more disappointing than the summer. His new teacher, Mrs. Espinoza, had severe arthritis and wasn't interested in sign language. She wanted to teach the children Spanish. The Extra Credit Kid had never been to Spain. For a month he spent the hour after lunch memorizing conjugations with his hands folded politely in his lap.

It was hard crossing from extra back to ordinary. It always is.

During the seventh grade The Extra Credit Kid learned to play the trombone.

In high school his hands were often busy, but with a new form of “sign language” that involved him talking mostly with himself.

The Extra Credit Kid eventually went to college and found a job and became a man.

After a while, the man almost forgot that he had ever been extra credit.

But then, when his mom visited, they would sit together and tell stories with their hands. And laugh. And he would remember.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Red Light?

New York is a pedestrian city. New Yorkers don’t walk for recreation or because we can’t find a closer parking place. In New York, the closest parking place is New Jersey. In New York we walk because it’s too expensive to hire a $20 taxi every time we leave the house. Poor and unwilling to remain confined to our apartments, we walk everywhere, littering the sidewalks with our smaller carbon footprints.

When we walk, we watch the traffic signals. New Yorkers know that when the green light turns yellow, the stream of cars blocking our path will slow to a stop and we can get an early start across the street. Unlike their suburban cousins, New York drivers are trained to never speed through a changing signal. In New York, running a red light means running over twelve people.

Last weekend, Jeremy and I were part of a crowd of NYU students and out of work actors crossing 18th street before we should. Several seconds before the red hand gave way to a walking man, a little girl on the opposite sidewalk stepped away from her father and into the street, following a herd of bad examples.

I saw the little blonde girl step off the curb, disobeying the red flashing hand that told her not to. Her father saw it, too. He shouted for her to stop, but in the chaos of the crosswalk it was hard to tell if he yelled more from fear for his daughter’s safety or hate for what his insurance company would do if she got hit by a car.

The little girl heard his shout and quickly stepped backward onto the sidewalk, safe and repentant.

When he knelt in front of the little girl and put his hands on her shoulders, the middle-aged man was still a father – angry, frightened, and flawed. But when he opened his mouth to scold his daughter, he was also something more – part prophet, part poet, part messiah. If the little girl remembers his advice, it will help her survive more than just the city.

“What have I always told you,” he said, sternly. “Don’t follow the people. Follow the signs.”

I listened too, and was thankful for the reminder.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

SNAP!

Mice haven’t invaded my apartment, but they’re beginning to send spies. Every few days one scurries across my kitchen floor and hides under the stove. One by one they enter… but they never return home.

When the first mouse was spotted, my roommate shrieked, “it’s not even cold outside yet! I’m not emotionally ready for this!”

Is anyone ever emotionally ready for mice to invade their apartment? Isn’t the hallmark of a good invasion that it starts as a surprise? Would the Nazis have succeeded in occupying Eastern Europe if Hitler had RSVP’d with Poland for a September attack? Probably not. That’s why it’s important to end an invasion before it begins.

And so, with Old Testament vigilance, I’m catching the mouse spies one by one and killing them.

(Technically, and is the incorrect conjunction in the preceding sentence. The story shouldn’t read “I’m catching the spies and killing them.” It should read “I’m catching the spies by killing them.”)

SNAP! is my new favorite sound.

While I happily accept the role of grand executioner, serial killer, and/or instrument of rodent death for our apartment, Casey (my roommate) is a pacifist. She’s not offended by death, but she doesn’t think it should be forced on anyone (or anything). She wants the mice exterminated, but she doesn’t want to hear stories about it. Like the problem in Darfur, she’s aware of the killing, but thinking about it makes her sad.

Casey and I briefly discussed buying catch-and-release traps, but agreed that the theory behind catching and releasing is only effective if there’s an element of rehabilitation involved. Otherwise, your kindness is mistaken as hospitality. After the “release,” you’re practically guaranteed the mouse will bring its rodent friends back to your apartment to meet the nice people who keep filling the wire box under the sink with cheese and snacks.

The instructions for these pest-control placebos should read like the back of a shampoo bottle: “catch and release… and repeat.” Unless you have an infestation of golden retrievers, why bother?

It might be true that ever time a mouse dies, PETA cries… but in my opinion, the best way to catch a mouse is to kill a mouse.

***

Belly-up is always a posture of death. When you see a mouse trap flipped on its back, you know your resident rodent has finally joined Puckers – the goldfish you forgot to feed – on the other side of eternity.

This morning I looked behind the kitchen trash can to check a trap. It was sprung, tossed at a wild angle by the force of its snapping spring. The bait, a walnut tied to the trap with a piece of string, was completely intact and uneaten.

Beside the trap laid a dead mouse.
It wasn’t injured.
It wasn’t broken.
It wasn’t bloody.
But it was dead… next to the trap.

The mouse was resting three inches from the overturned trap, just far enough to blur the line between cause and effect. It was like finding a dead man across the street from a car accident.

Mysteriously, they both lay there, coldly divorced from each other, their bodies not even touching.

As far as mysteries go, “the case of the mouse who died, but wasn't caught” isn’t a very good one. I’m smart enough to know that cholesterol isn’t the only thing that causes heart attacks. When, on a calm autumn afternoon, your tiny mouse heart is already beating at over 9 times per second, SNAP! probably isn’t your favorite sound.

Animal rights activists can say what they want, but this confirms what I’ve always known. I’m not a killer… I’m a heart-breaker.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Soda Man

There’s an elderly – and slightly crazy – man who walks past my apartment almost every day. If it’s warm and the windows are open, he stands on his tiptoes, peeks through the screen, and asks, “Do you want a soda?”

Usually, I don’t… which is convenient since the Soda Man never has any soda with him.

Yesterday I was sitting at the table next to my windows eating dinner when the Soda Man stopped to talk. “Where are you from,” he asked. “Peru?”

For the record, I look as much like a Peruvian as I look like a puppy. This should explain the slight up-turn in my voice when I said, “…no?”

“India?”

Again, I’m one of those Caucasian hybrids who doesn’t look like he’s from anywhere, the human equivalent of a maple tree. I’m too ordinary to be from anywhere exotic.

“…no?”

“Scotland?”

Closer, but still a confused “no.” Letting the Soda Man off the hook, I told him, “I’m from the south.”

“Oh,” he exclaimed. “That explains it! I thought you sounded patriotic!”

The only remotely patriotic things I’ve done in the past two years are vote, watch fireworks, and sleep late on Memorial Day. I don’t even turn toward Washington, D.C. when I pray. Maybe I'll feel prouder of my country when my country's government starts acting prouder of its people, treating them all is if they're created equally. Even then, however, I'm not sure I'll want to be identified as a "southern patriot."

I won't waste valuable space on the internet retelling the part of the conversation where the Soda Man asked what I do for a living, but you should know that our talk ended with the question, “Did you write part of the Bible?”

For the record, I didn’t.

When you live in a street-level apartment in Brooklyn and your windows have no curtains, you live in a fishbowl of crazy.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Memories


Pac-Man was about a hungry circle that lived in a haunted square.

Pong was about two lines negotiating the joint-custody of their dot.

Frogger was about drivers ignoring the world's most polluted river.

But I can't remember who started WWI.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Hi(gh)

Several times a week, a generous pot-head (or glaucoma patient) gives the homeless woman who lives in my subway station a free joint. She then sits on her bench, burning it down, filling the cave with sticky sweet smoke.

I wonder if the pot-head thinks he's funny, giving a homeless woman an unbearable case of munchies she can't afford to cure.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Ellen's Island

Several years ago my friends and I embarked on a campaign to abandon our lives, move to a tropical island, and adopt lives of Gilligan-esque simplicity and equality.

At the time, Ellen Degeneres - whose talk show I watched every day during lunch - was in the habit of answering viewer mail by granting wishes. I started writing Ellen, asking if she would like to escape with my friends and I to a tropical island where she would serve as our Queen. While the flattery was sincere, the letters were (in truth) really a thinly-veiled ploy for Ellen to finance the adventure.

Sadly, I am no longer self-employed. I am no longer able to watch Ellen during my lunch break. But as summer approaches and I desperately miss the three-month bliss a year of multiplication tables and spelling tests once earned, I am thinking of re-visiting my campaign for Ellen's Island...


(originally sent 8.20.07)

Dear Ellen,

You may not be aware of it, but you and I eat lunch together almost every day. Because I work from home, most afternoons you dance into my living room and chat while I enjoy my lunch. You usually bring friends, and I enjoy the company. Sometimes you talk on the phone for a few minutes, but I don't mind the interruption. In fact, you've so generously shared your time with me that I'd like to return the favor with an invitation.

Would you like to be the Queen of my island?

I know... it's quite an offer. And so, I suppose it's only fair to disclose that I live in a small condo that is desperately landlocked. To be honest, I am not yet an island-owner. My friends and I have decided, however, that an island will be our next (and first) group purchase. We plan to quit our jobs, sell our stuff, and move to a tropical paradise where money isn't allowed and there are no bills (we'll make an exception for the occasional William if you know one you'd like to bring). We're ready to run away, but we don't want to leave you behind.

I know this might sound a bit like a failed social experiment one of the Marx brothers dreamed up a few years ago, but in my opinion his communist vision was never fully realized because...

1. Lenin had virtually no sense of humor.
2. The guest list was all wrong.
3. Nobody in Siberia makes a decent Mai Tai.

We think our island remedies these flaws because...

1. You are much funnier than Lenin.
2. Our island is invitation only.
3. The Mai Tai will be our state bird.

As we chose our monarchy, the candidates were narrowed to either you or Jimmy Buffet. We eliminated Jimmy because we were afraid he would just spend his time wasting away again. But you're so funny, energetic, sincere, and kind that we feel you'd be the perfect Queen. We love your show and know that you must be as wonderful in person as you are on syndicated television. You're obviously the piece we need to make our island paradise complete.

It won't be big or fancy, but our island will be surrounded by clear water and warm, white sand. We're fun people, Ellen. You'll like us. Will you please come and be our Queen?

Of course, we're all very poor and could never afford an actual island. We'll probably have to settle for sharing an inflatable raft at the public pool – but you're invited to that too.

Don't forget to pack your crown and some sunscreen.

Your humble servant,

Bryan Currie

Friday, May 15, 2009

Survival of the Fittest


When they ate the herbs out of her herb garden, my mom was irritated. When they dug up her daffodil bulbs, she was upset. But when the chipmunks chewed through the wires in my step-dad’s car, my mom declared war.*

For the past two months her tactic has been to lure the chipmunks into a wading-pool trap where the rodents drown while trying to eat floating sunflower seeds. The "Salem Witch Trap," as I've come to think of it, may be barbaric... but it's also brilliant. (a similar version can be seen here.)

To celebrate both my mother’s birthday (which was Sunday) and her apparent victory over the chipmunks (she’s drowned at least 10), my sister and I bought flower bulbs to replace the ones the rodents have eaten. For the card I composed the following series of chipmunk limericks/memorials.

Feel fee to add a few verses of your own, but please remember... chipmunks seldom live on Nantucket.

There once was a chipmunk named Pete
who thought your backyard was a treat.
While he was digestin'
you taught him a lesson.
"You shouldn't swim after you eat!"

There once was a chipmunk named Mills
who feasted on your daffodils.
He got a surprise
when he realized
He should have spent time growing gills.

There once was a chipmunk named Jay
who thought your yard was a buffet.
But lunch isn't free
as he would soon see.
Too bad he's now floated away.

A chipmunk was named Alowishus
who thought your backyard looked delicious.
But eating a car
was going too far!
you sent him to sleep with the fishes.

*for more on my mom's war against small, seeminly defenseless animals, click here.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

grounded?

Today I found myself outside the Chrysler Building (which, by the way, is tall enough it might block God’s view of Brooklyn) where a small church sits snugged between the skyscrapers.

This morning the cross outside the church was still wearing its Easter outfit; a shroud draped across its shoulders… and a chain securing it to the street.

I know what the chain says about my city, where bicycles and icons (apparently) need the same pad-locked protection. But if this is what the last two millennia have been leading us to, I think someone deserves an apology.


O Lord, forgive three sins that are due to my human limitations:
Thou art everywhere, but I worship you here;
Thou art without form, but I worship you in these forms;
Thou needest no praise, yet I offer you these prayers and salutations.
Lord, forgive three sins that are due to my human limitations.
(traditional Hindu invocation)

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Too Many Lives

There’s something great about being complicated, but it’s terribly complicated as well. The truth, then, should be faced with courage. We cannot be fully known. By anyone.

We have simply lived too many lives.

The good news is that this shadow of lonely will always haunt us. It must.
Without it, our lives would be too brightly lit and we would always long for the privacy of some dark.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Two in the Bush

I like to run, even when dogs and the police aren’t involved. A few years ago I trained for a marathon. On the big day, however, I only ran half the distance. Running a half marathon is like being pregnant with twins but only giving birth to one baby. It's both painful and rewarding . . . and when you finish, you always wonder if you should have pushed harder.

I watch the sidewalk when I run. Even on the prettiest spring days I ignore the sky and search the ground, hoping some other runner might have dropped his second wind. Once, during the final push of a 10 mile trot, I was counting cracks when a flash of movement caught my eye.

did I just see a *breathe* over near the *breathe* is that a . . .

I looked up from the sidewalk to see a small spark of a bird dart out of a ditch and fly a few feet from my sweating face.

This wouldn’t have been noteworthy except for one small detail – the bird’s color. Instead of camouflaging its feathers to blend with a earth toned environment, the bird was bright green, like a crayon or piece of construction paper. Crossing the street, its wings flashed neon in a cardboard world.

Of course, I hold no prejudice against green birds. I believe all of God’s creatures should be proud of their heritage and display their colors without fear of drawing undue attention to themselves. It’s just that in most neighborhoods outside the Amazon, birds tend to be less flashy. Less exotic. Less green.

In Nashville, where I was running, we had many lovely blue birds, brown birds, red birds, and gray birds. We even enjoyed a few spectacular yellow finches. The only place in the Music City where you might find green birds, however, was at the zoo and on the Discovery Channel.

That’s why it was surprising, as I ran up a hill and into what I feared might be the beginning of cardiac arrest, when a wad of emerald feathers flashed across the sidewalk and into the great suburban wild of Nashville. I was certain the bird – a small fist-sized parrot – must have been an illusion, a figment of my sweating imagination. Had I suddenly tasted pennies or felt a tingling sensation in my left arm, the hallucination would have made much more sense and I might have expected to turn the corner and find myself running into a warm, white light.

But instead of a glowing end to my suffering, all I saw on the street was a rust red pick-up truck approaching on my right.

When you’re running and a truck passes going the opposite direction, you don’t have long to look through the windshield. Dolly Parton could drive past and you probably wouldn’t notice. But because the rust red truck was moving slower than it should have been, I had a few extra seconds to see the driver. Sitting behind the wheel was a sixty year old man, rough and unshaven, with gray hair, a red shirt, and a large green parrot perched on his right shoulder – the second parrot I had seen in the past two minutes.

With the exception of Jimmy Buffet – who lived in Nashville before he moved to Margaritaville – men in the Music City don’t generally wear parrots to work. In fact, the average Nashvillian knows as much about parrots as he does about recording contracts. Both are rumored to be real, but few have seen either in person.

After ten feet of careful consideration, I decided that the pirate trucker must have been driving through my neighborhood not because he wanted to spoil and plunder, but because he had a pet problem. It’s only a hunch based on unbelievable coincidence, but I think the pirate was the proud owner of not one, but two parrots - one lost, the other riding shotgun on his shoulder.

The parrot in the truck wasn’t simply along for the ride, tagging along to tell stories when the eight-track went out. It was being used as a zoological GPS to find the lost bird that crossed my path only moments before. The pick up pirate must have hoped that if birds of a feather really do flock together, he might be able to use this instinct to his advantage.

(I think it’s worth questioning whether a grown man should really trust directions squawked by an animal that has a vocabulary of only eight words, three of which are “cracker” and “pretty bird.” Personally, I wouldn’t. Of course, I don’t usually talk to anything that doesn’t have two external ears.)

It will forever remain a mystery as to why the little green spark flew away from home. Maybe he was tired of being served corn-nuts and Budweiser for breakfast. And while I will probably never know if the pick-up pirate was ultimately successful in his quest for the lost bird, I continue to be impressed by his effort. Finding a lost pet is never easy. At least when rounding up a runaway dog or searching for a lost cat, your pet’s hiding places are limited geographically by things like fences and streats. And gravity.

But when tracking a runaway parrot, there’s a tremendous amount of up to consider. The bird might be enjoying a bath in your neighbor’s backyard, or he might be eating french-fries with the parking-lot pigeons at Sonic. Or, if it hasn’t been fond of your brand of crackers, your bird might be on his way back to South America to teach a flock of its Brazilian cousins how to read the sports page in English. The sky is literally the limit.

As I rounded the corner, I glanced back to see the pirate’s truck turn left into a neighborhood filled with towering oaks and bushy maples. The Captain and his parrot sailed into the suburban jungle and I never saw them again. But on sunny days when the sidewalk calls, I still lace up my shoes and run. And I still sometimes wonder if the little green bird ever found its way home.

**

As a child I went through a stage of wanting to keep a bird as a pet. I was told, however, that it is both inhumane and inconvenient to keep a bird in a cage. Birds are born to fly free and cages are meant for naughty children who disobey their parents. Plus, depending on your political bias and opinion of the popular media, newspapers are intended to be read, not pooped upon. That’s why, in the redneck south, birds aren’t pets. Birds are target practice. Or dinner. Or both.

In Asian cultures a proverb says love is like a bird in a cage. If you love something, you set it free. If it comes back to you, it is yours forever. If it doesn’t, it was never yours to begin with.

In the Christian tradition, the bird is replaced with a sheep. The sheep is free to wander off – which it does – and is lost in the wilderness. Fortunately, in the traditional story, the shepherd is smarter than Little Bo Peep who lost her sheep and didn’t know where to find them. The shepherd knows his sheep and is convinced they are worth more than grilled kabobs and warm winter sweaters . . . so he leaves his flock to rescue the one who is lost.

And when he finds it, he joyfully carries it home where his friends and neighbors rejoice because the lost sheep is found.

During this season of Lent, I celebrate the shepherd Jesus. I am thankful that he is wise enough to know that love isn’t like a bird in a cage. If something you love runs away, you go after it no matter the cost.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

One in the Hand

Some people approach the new year like they approach a swimming pool in the spring, before the sun has really had time to share himself with the water. They step up to January first cautiously, poke one toe into the wintry water, and then decide that the only way they’ll survive the shock of a New Year is to dive head first into the deep. And so they take a breath and plunge into the New Year by making resolutions to change. To lose 100 pounds. To pay off all the credit cards. To learn Portuguese and read A Tale of Two Cities.

But what is it about the midnight between this year and the next that makes people decide they should make life altering resolutions? Why must we celebrate a new calendar year by buying a membership to a gym we’ll never use or spending ten torturous days dropping a smoking habit that we’ll be forced to find again in February? Why do we start our year with a maddening sprint when the finish line is still a long 365 days away? It just doesn’t make sense.

That’s why, when the New Year says jump, I don’t ask how high. I ask for how long and set the bar accordingly low. If I’m really going to commit an entire year to doing something that’s so unpleasant it requires a resolution, I at least want to know that I’m capable of finishing what I start. I like to set my New Year up for success by making bite sized changes that are small and easy to swallow.

For example:

One year I resolved to make my bed every morning. After 365 days of straightening my sheets, I finally realized how much more inviting it is to sleep in a bed that looks like it got dressed-up for the evening than it is to crawl into one that seems to have just wrestled a small goat. I liked the change so much I’ve made my bed every day since. Success.

The next year I committed that I would always hang my keys on the hook next to the front door instead of keeping them between the couch cushions or under my bed. I find that I’m much more punctual now and tend to swear less in the mornings. Success.

One year I told myself that I’d floss regularly. For the first three weeks of January I ate an unusual amount of corn-on-the-cob just to start the habit. This strategy met with mixed results. Literally.

I enjoy my manageable resolutions so much that several years ago I challenged myself to train for a marathon.

Three days a week I stretched my legs and laced my shoes, preparing my body to run its way through dehydration and heart attack. As anyone who has followed in these footsteps knows, whenever you attempt to run any mile number greater than your shoe size, death always feels approximately one breath away.

Although running carries with it both positive and excruciating side effects, it really is a wonderful way to learn your neighborhood. When you run, not only do you burn calories and exercise your heart, but you also see a snapshot of the people who share your sidewalk and your mailman.

For example:

When I ran the ten mile loop around and through my Nashville neighborhood, I often passed a thirteen year-old boy at the corner of mile three. I saw him only on colder days, but I think the boy wore his hood pulled up more for attitude than for warmth. He never smiled, and I learned that I shouldn’t either. Instead, when we meet on the sidewalk, we frowned coolly at each other and raised our chins in a sort of cranial wave. I assumed this meant hello, but considering the neighborhood it might have also been the boy’s way of telling me his pockets were filled with smokeable plants that he was “holding for a friend.”

If the boy’s nod was some sort of subtle sales pitch, I hope he takes a marketing class when/if he gets to High School. The boy obviously has no idea of how to recognize his target consumer. Trying to sell weed to jogger is like trying to sell a bikini to a nun . . . in December.

I also occasionally saw a man I called “Cross Country.” When he ran, Cross Country looked as if he was concentrating, like his mind was thinking about things like form and balance and breathing, like his brain had to focus to control his body. Until I began training for the marathon, I had no idea running was so complicated. I thought it was simply an evolution of walking that we all learned when we were toddlers and our cholesterol had not yet awoken.

When he jogged past me, Cross Country never nodded to acknowledge that we were both sweating through the same sadistic ritual. He ran in his own world, and no one else was invited. Cross Country wore special shirts that were loose and synthetic and probably designed to recycle his sweat and prevent dehydration. Not me. I wore pre-stained shirts bought from the bargain bin at Goodwill. They were 100% cotton and advertised everything from credit cards to Christian camps. They also retained water like a pregnant woman.

Some people like to run with partners or groups so they can encourage each other along the way. But what is there to say while you’re running except “help,” “oh God,” and “glycerine”? When I run, I don’t want to be encouraged. I want to be alone. Sometimes I don’t even listen to music. Although I like the distraction of music, I get mad at the singers for breathing so easily.

Once, however, I was running up the hill that marked mile eight when I passed a fellow jogger who smiled and shouted “That’s right! Good job!” as he reached out his hand and gave me five. At the time I was so busy needing something actual like oxygen that I didn’t feel the need for something abstract like five. To my surprise, however, an encouraging slap from a stranger was exactly what I needed to finish the last two miles. When I collapsed exhausted in front of my house, I repeated his words “That’s Right” and “Good Job” just before I threw-up.

Then, one afternoon, just after I passed the hooded boy and shortly before my encounter with Cross Country, my heart and iPod were each thumping their own separate rhythms when a homeless man stepped into the sidewalk fifty feet in front of me. The man looked confused and unsteady, like someone who has just rolled out of bed and is still uncertain of how to start his day.

In my mind, I called him Oscar.

I gave the homeless man this name not because of his unusual aroma or wild, discolored hair. I didn’t call him Oscar because he was green or because I had ever seen him associate with a Cookie Monster, Big Bird, or Mr. Snuffleupagus. In fact, I don’t think there was a Sesame Street anywhere near my house. I called the man Oscar because of his unpleasant personality and half-empty attitude.

Oscar was a grouch.

After climbing over the curb and into my path, Oscar stood in the sidewalk silently watching the cars pass. He looked left. He looked right. And when Oscar finally turned toward me, made eye contact, and raised his right hand, I smiled, preparing to wave and say hello as we passed, pleased that I was making a new friend.

It soon became clear, however, that Oscar wasn’t interested in becoming friends. If he had been, his raised hand would have been opened in a gesture of welcome and brotherhood. But it wasn’t. His hand was almost entirely closed. Except for one lone finger.

Fortunately, since the middle finger is the tallest of all the fingers, it can be most easily seen from the farthest away. Even at fifty feet I knew exactly what Oscar was trying to say, and it wasn’t hello.

(As a child, I often played checkers with my grandfather. We called him Granddaddy Jack, but I’m not sure why. His first name was Harvey and his second name was Lee. We called him Jack because that’s how he was known to everyone in the small town of Trenton, Tennessee where he lived - but I don’t think anyone in Trenton knew why he was called Jack either.

I liked to play checkers with my Granddaddy Jack because he had style. When we sat down to play, Grandaddy Jack didn’t move the checker with his pointer finger like I did. Instead, he always used his long middle finger . . . his “bad finger” . . . the finger tough kids on the playground used when they were angry . . . the finger that got you sent to your room without any dinner if you used it while you were shouting at your sister. Granddaddy Jack was a deacon in his church and a man of great integrity. He never got in trouble on the playground and probably had no idea why I giggled every time he moved his checker.)


Oscar began his unfriendly gesture when we were still a staggering fifty feet apart. As I ran toward him, the grouch and I stared at each other for every bit as long as it has taken you to read this story. I’m not a very fast runner. And for each of those seventy-five awkward steps, Oscar’s finger stood in its lonely salute as a testimony to his feelings for me. He and his finger hated me for fifty feet. It was like watching a Peter Jackson movie or reading Tolstoy or listing to Queen’s almost six minute Bohemian Rhapsody. Oscar’s grouchy middle finger took a simple message and turned it into an epic statement.

I would like to think that Oscar was like my Granddaddy Jack and was simply using his middle finger for some innocent and utilitarian purpose. Maybe he was checking the wind or letting his nail polish dry. But I don’t think so. Oscar didn’t seem like the nail polish type.

But because I try to see the best in other people, I choose to believe that when Oscar raised his finger that day, he had the best of intentions. He probably meant to give me five and simply forgot the other four. I understand. I’m not very good at math either.

That’s why, when we passed, I decided that Oscar didn’t need something actual like income. He needed something abstract like encouragement. And so, instead of ignoring him or saying something unkind and trotting by in a sweaty blur, I acknowledged Oscar’s finger with a smile, gave him five, and cheerfully said “That’s Right! Good Job!”

And then I finished my last mile, happy to be a bright spot in someone’s day.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Slippery Squirrels


I'm not sure why my mom hates squirrels, but I think it started with popcorn.

In an age before coaxial cable wired HBO and Showtime directly into televisions across the United Sates, the first VCRs found their way into suburban living rooms when I was in elementary school. Prior to the VCR, if you wanted to watch a movie you were forced to either see it in the theater or wait ten years until a highly edited version was shown on one of the three network channels your family’s television was able to tune-in. The houses of my childhood looked like giant bricked insects with aluminum antenna mounted on their backs. TV Guide was much thinner.

The idea of preserving video on cassette tape revolutionized the free time of an already television addicted generation. The new VCR recorded our favorite shows and gave children the freedom to go to the bathroom sometime other than during commercial breaks. It allowed us to pause, rewind, and skip the boring parts of programs we taped while we watched the Cosbys settle this week’s crisis or the Miami Vice keep Florida crime free. The VCR helped us memorize favorite jokes and imitate the characters who were live on Saturday night. It let us watch any movie any time we wanted to. It did for cinema what reruns had already done for television. It gave us a second chance.

I’m convinced that both the newly invented VCR and its accomplice, the video rental store, were also ultimately responsible for the great squirrel invasion of 1986.

One particularly warm summer night my parents piled my sister and I into the family station wagon and drove us to the new local video store to see what blockbusters it might offer as entertainment for the evening. As always, the choices were so overwhelming that Kathy and I argued over what we would watch. I wanted to rent an action move. She wanted a drama. I wanted to laugh. She wanted to cry. It wasn’t until we remembered that a boy named Ferris Bueller had recently narrated an entire movie about how to take the perfect day off that we reached a compromise: I would rent the movie about the kid who knew karate, my sister would watch Molly Ringwald blow out her sixteen candles, and we would both enjoy learning from Ferris, Cameron, and Sloane the fine art of skipping school.

After a night of watching movies and popping popcorn, Kathy and I were cleaning the living room when my mom noticed a few handfuls of popcorn left in the bottom of the bowl. Before we could put the uneaten corn in the trash she said, “instead of throwing that popcorn out, you guys should toss it in the backyard for the birds to eat. Wouldn’t that be fun?”

At the time, the idea of throwing leftover food in the backyard for birds to eat seemed both indecent and exotic. My family usually put its leftovers either in Tupperware or in the trash. We never threw them in the yard. But since Jesus didn’t seem to get too upset when his five thousand friends left a bit of stale bread littering a rural hillside, we decided that tossing a few kernels of popcorn in the backyard might not be such a bad idea after all.

Feeding the birds with our table scraps quickly became a game for my sister and I. For several weeks after the first popcorn feeding, when my mom baked biscuits or made cornbread for dinner, Kathy and I fought for who would win the right to crumble and scatter the uneaten bread across the yard. Although the project was really less about feeding hungry animals than it was about making our backyard look cheerful and charitable, the birds loved our homemade treats, and we were convinced they loved us for providing them. Our backyard soon became a bird buffet with loyal customers ranging from blue jays and cardinals to robins and redbirds.

We eventually graduated from feeding the birds discarded popcorn and biscuits to using an actual birdfeeder. Our first one looked like a little pine house on a pole. Its clear plexiglass sides let potential diners see what kind of seed we were serving for dinner, and we soon found the birds were just as happy with convenience food as they had been with home cooking.

The cardinals enjoyed a diet rich in sunflower seeds while the doves and finches ate lots of wheat. Thistle seed was a favorite of the goldfinches. The mockingbirds, blue birds, robins, and woodpeckers enjoyed dried fruit in the feeder. For the sparrows, we bought lots of millet. When you consider their diet, it’s really not surprising that birds have become infamous for giving a sh** where others dare not.

Although our intent had always been to feed the birds, squirrels apparently enjoy bird seed as much as birds do. And since birds tend to be fairly messy eaters, they usually supplied the squirrels in our yard with a fairly constant rain of castoff sunflower seeds and millet to supplement the thousands of acorns already littering our yard.

I would like to think that that most creatures who can’t enjoy the luxury of large franchised supermarkets would be content with free food raining from the sky. Our squirrels, however, were smart enough to understand that the shower of seed raining from above was coming from somewhere other than heaven, and they wanted to know where that somewhere was. When the first squirrel championed an expedition up the birdfeeder pole and found a small wooden house full of food at its summit, he knew his days of foraging and hoarding were over.

In the frenzied seconds that followed, the air in our backyard grew thick with fur and flying seed. Until I witnessed the squirrel’s appalling table manners, I never imagined that animals could binge eat. It was a Jenny Craig nightmare. In less than a minute, a single squirrel emptied our entire birdfeeder of its contents. While some of the seed must have found its way into the squirrel’s small mouth, most of it flew like Cookie Monster crumbs across the yard and was quickly collected by the squirrel’s waiting (and grateful) friends.

My mother was mortified. After months of enabling the birds with a steady diet of ever-available seed, she was convinced they would no longer be able to survive in the worm-eating world. Thanks to the selfish squirrels, she said, our backyard birds were going to bed hungry.

And so began our quest to protect the birds and keep the squirrels out of our birdfeeder.

Plan A:

Our first anti-squirrel experiment involved a cone that was attached midway up the birdfeeder pole with its open side down. The cone made our birdfeeder look like a skinny one-legged girl wearing an aluminum dress. In theory, the hungry squirrels would climb half-way up the pole, reach a dead end, turn around, and give up. Unfortunately, our squirrels either didn’t think the birdfeeder’s new outfit made it look like an underfed supermodel, or they were terribly immodest. Not only did the squirrels continue to climb up the birdfeeder’s one long leg, but they also found a way past her shiny aluminum skirt and into her feed box, where they eagerly scattered their seed.

Who could blame us for our outrage?

Plan B:

Because, as natural climbers, the squirrels would always find a way up the birdfeeder pole, the next logical solution was to eliminate the pole altogether. If the birdfeeder could somehow be suspended in midair, the squirrels would be forced to wait for evolution to grant them the gift of flight before they could steal our seed. And since evolution is notoriously slow, hanging the birdfeeder above the ground seemed like a marvelous idea.

After three trips up a stepladder, a tightrope of clothesline cord was strung between two trees with the birdfeeder dangling from its middle. Unwilling to wait for wings, however, the squirrels decided to attack from the trees. Two hours after we hung the birdfeeder, a squadron of squirrels dove from the branches, landing on the birdfeeder’s roof and swinging it until every seed had been thrown from its hold. The troops waiting below devoured the seed in moments, eating it off the ground and picking crumbs from each other’s fur.

Until that spring, I never considered that birdseed is actual seed, but it is. And like all seed, it grows. April showers usually bring May flowers, but by June our yard grew more than daisies and tulips. Thanks to the squirrels and their seed scattering, the spring rain of 1986 transformed our backyard into a half acre of suburban farmland.

While our neighbors’ yards grew dandelions, ours sprouted sunflowers. While other neighborhood dads tried to keep their crab grass under control, mine fought a backyard full of summer wheat. And as the squirrels continued to sow their seed, I became increasingly aware that I had somehow transitioned from mowing the yard every Saturday to harvesting it.

Plan C:

My Uncle Frankie, the Peter Pan of our clan, devised a plan to eliminate our squirrel problem that involved a five gallon tub of Crisco and a pair of latex gloves.

Although we should have known better than to play along with whatever Neverland game my uncle’s imagination had invented, we didn’t. Instead, we followed Uncle Frankie’s advice and smeared handfuls of shortening along the length of our birdfeeder pole.

Uncle Frankie claimed that this homemade slippery pole would make it impossible for squirrels to climb all the way to the birdfeeder above. They might make it half-way, but the combined forces of gravity and whipped vegetable fat would ensure the birdseed’s safety. He personally guaranteed that the Crisco pole could be conquered by not even the most persistent squirrel. Climbing it would be impossible, like climbing a stick of butter.

Uncle Frankie was right. The Crisco pole was an unparalleled success and as entertaining as it was effective. A few ambitious squirrels made impressive attempts at climbing the greased pole, but after four lubricated feet their exhausted arms lost their grip and they inevitably slid slowly back down like small, greasy firemen.

(The whole scene was reminiscent of that torturous day in jr. high gym class when the girls were moved to one end of the gym to play kick-ball while the guys were herded to the opposite corner and told to climb a giant rope hanging from the rafters. For some unknown reason, gym teachers always wanted us to climb the rope, as if this was a life-skill that boys were required to master before adulthood. Didn’t our gym teachers understand that most modern buildings are equipped with both stairs and elevators? Unless your career goals include becoming a pirate, I could never think of a single job that would require a grown man to climb a rope on his way to the office. And yet, they still made us climb.)

After several unsuccessful hours trying to pillage the birdfeeder, the poor squirrels sat at the bottom of the pole, spent and frustrated, licking the Crisco off their paws. Since squirrels generally survive on nuts, berries and the occasional high fiber-bug, their small bodies aren’t accustomed to an un-cut Crisco diet. And so, thanks to both my Uncle Frankie’s brilliant plan and my family’s blind obedience, our yard was quickly filled with the fattest squirrels ever seen in the wild.

At the end of a long day of pole climbing, when the greasy squirrels finally summoned enough energy to drag themselves back home, tree branches creaked and groaned under their pot-bellied weight. The summer was particularly harsh as several of the cat-sized squirrels baked to a golden greasy brown in the hot August sun.

**

More than two decades have passed since the great squirrel invasion of 1986, and its final moments have been lost to memory. All we know for sure is that what began with the Hansel-and-Gretel-like innocence of children dropping crumbs in their backyard quickly degenerated into a Crisco-covered mess.

Family lore doesn’t record who finally won the battle or how. But as we laugh over the story during countless Thanksgiving dinners, my mother continues to defend her actions. She says she simply hoped that if we put the food just out of the squirrels’ reach for long enough, maybe they’d get frustrated – maybe they’d give up and go away.

Not long after our backyard conflict was resolved, a more significant family battle began that eventually caused my parents to divorce each other and re-marry other people. When I was a senior in high-school my mom met and married a wonderful man named Bob and together they moved into a home that wasn’t haunted with memories of slippery squirrels and starving birds. The hummingbird feeders that now hang in their kitchen window are filled with sugar water. While these feeders attract the occasional winged insect, they are never fought over by anything larger than a bumble-bee.

Unfortunately, at her new house my mom is now doing battle with another rodent foe. A family of chipmunks has invaded the yard and is threatening my mother’s sanity. She and Bob have approached this new challenge with very different strategies. Bob is a kind and gentle man who has attempted to re-habilitate the chipmunks in an unsuccessful catch-and-release program. My mother prefers a more aggressive approach. She wants to adopt a hungry cat.

My Uncle Frankie has a brilliant solution to the chipmunk problem that involves steel wool and peanut butter, but we don’t listen to him much anymore.