Wednesday, January 30, 2013

To See A Kea

This is not a parrot
When I got home from vacation, I read that there had been a little excitement in O'Hare when airport security turned up a set of eighteen frozen human heads in cargo. Well. This sort of thing is going to happen. It's as common as pants-monkeys. In fact, it isn't even the first frozen-head incident I've read about in the past year. But it got everyone all het up, especially in Chicago, where there might have been political implications.

Also, not parrots
You sense a different national attitude before you even get out of the airport in Auckland. In New Zealand, officials would assume you wouldn't be carting around a box of severed heads unless you had a good reason. We slid through security without being asked to remove our shoes, with the agent requesting only that we partition our daggers in a baggie for admiring. The entire setup was designed to funnel travelers through one at a time so that security personnel could wish each of us a proper good day, hand us a complimentary pair of sheepskin slippers and top up our shampoo. They were a little touchy about us bringing in apples, but otherwise everyone was nice as pie, and in something closely resembling English. The only sign of passive-aggression I witnessed was the placement of doorways in shops and houses. You have to step up into them, as though entering a hatch on a rocket-ship, and they were clearly designed to sieve out the easily-tipped-over visitor; probably a sensible ploy in a land with good medical care available to all. But on the heels of a series of spectacular crashes, I had recently developed a high prancing step like a Clydesdale with an admirer. I was not about to be selected out at the beginning of my trip, and I caught on right away.

Again, a very nice picture, but not of a parrot
On our first foray to a snow-covered mountain, I was promised a kea. The kea, I am given to know, is the world's only alpine parrot. An alpine parrot! I visualized a stunner bright as the flag of an island nation, wearing a sporty fur earflap-hat and a muffler. I had to see a kea! Sadly, none materialized. "They'll be around soon, when we get lunch," I was told. "They'll strafe your shirt and make off with your sandwich, and then they'll do the finger-poppin' number from West Side Story." Oh boy! Parrots!

No parrots. We even went on a hike specifically labeled "Kea Point," but it was pointedly unparroted. "Is this something I'm liable to overlook?" I asked my friends, who insisted that it was quite a large, ungainly parrot, sort of soiled-looking and dingy, and not overlookable. Plus, any one of them was likely to entertain us by eating our rental car. I was assured they would show up any time we slowed the car down sufficiently, massing up on the windshield wipers and mirrors in a gang, and one of them would shove a sharpened beak through the window and demand five dollah. Oh boy! I thought. Parrots!

No parrots. Many other feathered oddsters showed up. My favorites were the silver-eyes, sweet greenish jobs with pink armpits and flight goggles, and the fantails, which spread their tails just for fun, coy as geishas. The guide book claims they do this to attract insects, but I believe they're just tarty by nature. It's hard to resist a truly flirtatious bird, and I was very happy, but I still thought I deserved a parrot, especially if everyone else had already bagged a quorum.

This is Betsy, not a parrot, but it was RIGHT HERE, swear to God.
Monday we hiked the Te Henga ("Taaah-wow-wow") trail. I spotted another fantail and a brace of silver-eyes and then--oh spank me with a glory paddle--in a pohutukawa tree ("paaah-wow-wow"), I saw a new bird, now known loud and wide in a localized area as Murr's PARROT! PARROT! PARROT! LINDA! HOLY SHIT! PARROT! PARROT! PARROT! or, elsewhere, the Eastern Rosella. And a proper parrot it was, too, red and yellow and blue and green and probably other things not even on the visual spectrum, attractive and bouncy and not at all put off by sudden loud noises. Way finer than that big, dingy, greasy, car-eating, invisible, hooligan parrot. I looked that one up. Closest living relative is the jackalope.

Attention Portland-area readers: I will be reading from my book, Trousering Your Weasel, plus some new bonus material, at the splendid St. Johns Booksellers at 7PM on Friday, Feb. 8. I'd love to meet you and shoot the you-know-what.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

New Zealand: Where Tomorrow Begins Today

It takes about thirty-two hours to get to New Zealand from Oregon, the way we did it. I had a petite cold before we left and distributed the last delicate strands of it over the air circulation system of a series of airplanes, but it took Dave to make something manly of it, ramping up to a galloping bronchitis upon our arrival, where we met our traveling companion Betsy. Betsy has a raft of fine qualities. In fact she is very accomplished, for a woman who could totally have made it on her looks alone, but it was her stash of potions that really stood out at first. "You have a sore throat?" she said, animated, pulling out pharmaceuticals from her luggage like scarves from a clown's sleeve. "Gargle with this. It's really stinky, but it works great." Instructions on the bottle echoed her advice, as well as going on to explain how to clear slow drains and repel mice. Dave performed a glum, heroic garble and went straight to bed in horror. Betsy funneled three thumb-sized capsules into him and tamped them down, and when he came out of the coma twelve hours later, he was measurably improved. We got set for a hike.

It was supposed to be a five-star beauty, through the bush [hee hee! they say 'bush'], around a turquoise lake, with the promise of parrots, and the likelihood of biting flies. I was stoked about the parrots but Dave whimpered. "Oh, you attract bugs too?" Betsy said, animated. "I've got this amazing stuff. Wipe it on yourself. It's really stinky, but it works great." Dave wiped.

Rachael, demonstrating youth and springiness
The remarkable Linda organized the whole trip as a sixtieth-birthday present for herself, which is making me rethink my own plan to splurge on socks for my own. Going anywhere with Linda is a ticket to miracles. For instance, she dramatically improves one's odds of finding an insect with a tubular snout. There are wonderful things to see in any new place, but sometimes it's the humdrum stuff that catches my attention. Right off the bat we were able to witness the southern-hemisphere Corolla Effect wherein all the cars circled the wrong way around the rotary. Fortunately we were chauffeured by Linda's daughter Rachael, whose brain is still nimble enough to override habit. The signs facing us as we approached the rotaries said "GIVE WAY" instead of "YIELD." Variations on idioms charm me, and I traveled the world's rotaries in a daydream: "ACQUIESCE POLITELY" (U.K.); "SUBMIT" (China); "PREPARE TO DIE" (France).

Other road signs indicating locations with Maori names revealed that New Zealand is blessed with an abundance of vowels. This is usually good news. Your South Pacific nations have built entire languages around the prevailing human response to the weather, which is "aah, wow, wow," as opposed to the poor consonant-encrusted Eastern European countries whose founders were reduced to "brrrr" and stuttering. Our friends had just come off a tramp near Te Anau (pronounced "taaah-wow-wow") and snatched us up in Queenstown on Tuesday (pronounced "Wednesday").

Done right, this is what sixty looks like
I was looking forward to new flowers, new birds, and new toilets. In my experience, every country has its own proud toilet tradition. My dream toilet would feature the display shelf that I saw in Germany forty years ago, the little balconies upon which you can admire your glistening output properly before whooshing it away. New Zealand toilets are light on display functionality, but they get their own room and have their own majesty. At the press of a button all contents are shot straight to the center of the earth where they remain for millions of years before being volcanically recycled. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to demonstrate their powers right away. "You should poop," Betsy advised. "It's really stinky, but it works great."

The sun dawned bright on Double-Dookie Day ("Thursday").

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Bound For Glory: Conclusion

Okay, I'm back from vacation, but I figured I'd be jet-lagged. Here is the final excerpt from my book Miss Delivery: A Postal-Mortem. 

Retired mailmen are thickly distributed all over the country, but they aren’t all that frightening if you know what they are. They aren’t decorative, but they aren’t dangerous, either, and they’d be much obliged if you bought them a beer. They’ll get the next round. Oh? You have to go so soon?

As a general rule they can be expected to take care of themselves. The pension is usually adequate for those who have never married, or never divorced, although that’s a thin cross-section. Low standards of self-maintenance serve the rest of them well, as long as they’re not inclined to invest in video poker. The National Association of Letter Carriers, the union that has always looked after our best interests, has even established a nice retirement community in Florida specifically for retired letter carriers. There are five hundred garden-style apartments available, for which there is quite the waiting list. This is where a lucky few of our finest faded blue are quarantined from society. Um, sheltered.

Recently, it was reported that a fire broke out in the development. Thankfully, no one was killed or injured, although a half-dozen or so retirees were displaced. Officials in the fire bureau, last I checked, have been unable to determine the origin of the fire. This is surprising to me. I can see it just as clearly as I have seen my own future.

“Hey Vern,” it starts.

“Hey Herbie. What’s new?”

Herbie and Vern collapse into helpless laughter. Vern is first to recover.

“So I think I got me a propane leak,” he says.

“Naah. You’d smell it,” Herbie reassures him. Kerm and LeRoy let themselves in, leaving the door ajar.

“Vern here thinks he’s got a propane leak,” Herbie says. “But I told him it’d smell.”

“Propane doesn’t smell,” LeRoy informs him. Kerm begs to differ.

“It does smell,” he insists. “It’s just that it sinks to the floor and you don’t notice it.” Randy Randy and Cliff filter in through the open door and are promptly filled in on the disagreement. It has been exactly the same temperature for ten weeks running, season’s closed at the dog track, and they’ve all gotten all the juice they could out of betting on the election. Everyone senses an opportunity to make a wager. Everyone’s perking up.

Randy Randy has a different theory. “Kerm’s almost right. Propane does smell, but it rises to the ceiling, not the floor, and that’s why you can’t tell.”

“Floor,” Kerm says.

“Ceiling,” rejoins Randy Randy.

“I got five bucks on Kerm,” Herbie says. Vern demurs. Frank and Stricky walk in, sniffing money.

“Besides, propane doesn’t even burn,” Herbie asserts.

“Propane burns!” Vern is exasperated. “Jeez! It’s what’s in my stove!”

Herbie stands pat. “Five bucks on Kerm,” he reiterates. Frank pipes up.

“I’ll take five of that,” he says, producing a crisp fin.

“You don’t even know what we’re talking about,” Vern points out. Frank explains, with exaggerated patience, that whatever Herbie is willing to bet in favor of, he’s willing to bet against. “Herbie has no brain,” Frank goes on, “and besides, it’s diesel he’s thinking of. Diesel doesn’t burn. You could drop a match right in a bucket of diesel and nothing would happen.”

“Bullshit,” Stricky says. “Prove it.” Frank goes out to Vern’s garage and pokes around the cans. Meanwhile, Kerm and Randy Randy have gone to fetch a ladder to investigate the ceiling-floor controversy. Cliff and LeRoy agree to volunteer neutral noses. Cliff lies down on the floor, and LeRoy, teetering on the ladder under the direction of Randy Randy, presses his face into the ceiling. Neither of them smells anything.

“That doesn’t prove it doesn’t smell,” Vern points out. “I was just saying I thought I had a leak, because the tank’s been running out so fast. Let me open up the valve for a minute.”

Everyone smells something now. “Oh, shit, that’s Kerm. Jesus Christ, Kermit, put a cork in it,” Vern says.

“Kerm’s a national treasure. Put a tap on Kerm, and we’d solve the whole energy crisis. I’ll bet you any amount of money Kermit here could let one rip for fifteen whole seconds, any time you wanted,” Randy Randy proposes. Wallets fly open. Kerm drops into a crouch and frowns in concentration while Randy Randy holds his finger up, looks at his watch, and waits for the second hand to hit straight-up. Frank comes back in with a gas can, wrinkling his nose. He has also located a nearly empty can of turpentine, which he empties into Vern’s sink, and begins to decant diesel into it. Vern is incensed.

“Crap, Frank, not on my good sofa! Take that to the dining room table. Jesus Christ.”

“Go!” Randy shouts, and Kerm bears down, pacing himself. No one is quite sure, under the circumstances, if the propane has an odor or not. Vern gives the valve another half-turn. Frank is ready with his can of diesel. “Are you sure that’s diesel?” Vern asks. Frank is sure. “But did you get that out of my garage? Because..”

Frank is holding a match against the matchbox. “Prepare to be amazed,” he exults.

Myself, I would have bet any amount of money retired mailmen would smolder a long time, but they don’t. They fizzle right out.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Bound For Glory: Part One

I'm on vacation. While I'm gone, you've been reading excerpts from Miss Delivery: A Postal-Mortem, a book of postal stories I wrote four years ago. We conclude with a two-part fantasy about the end of a career.

Have you ever wanted to see your own future? Think carefully.

I’ve had the opportunity to glimpse my future every few months or so throughout my career. It clumps towards me, stumbling through traffic. I’ve come to recognize it from a distance. My future takes on the shape of a slightly different man every time, but his approach never varies. He first appears as a lumpen mass going nowhere in particular, and in no particular hurry, and then he spies me and tilts across the street with a little more purpose and a spring in his mosey. “HEY!” he’ll start out, projecting from about a block away. “ARE YOU ON YER AUTHORIZED TEN-MINUTE BREAK?” This is followed by a deep, phlegmy chuckle. He is nearly overcome with hilarity by the time he has ambled all the way over to my position, clapping a soiled paw on my shoulder to steady himself. His trousers are puckered up on the sides where the stripes have been torn off. He has a sidewise grin, leaky eyes and a throat full of loogies, and he looks really pleased with himself, because he’s about to deliver his punchline. “Ah used to do what you do,” we say in unison, not that he notices.

I smile and tell him that I’ve already taken my break and am sorry but I have to be moving along, although I haven’t and I’m not, but he’s having none of that. He’s faced down dogs, postal supervisors, and his own personal Kryptonite in the form of laundry detergent, and he’s not about to be fended off. He has spent a lifetime developing two or three conversational themes and he has his wheezy heart set on running them by me. The man--every one of them--is as tenacious about his monolog as a crow attending a freshly-squashed squirrel. You could drive a Buick of distraction right towards him and he’d just hop aside for a few moments and then he’s right back on it. I settle in.

“You’ll never catch me back there, nosiree,” he starts out. “Nope: free as a bird. I did my time. Now it’s time for the good life,” he continues.

“I can see you’re dressed for it,” I say.

“Thing is, they can only ask so much of a man, and then there ain’t no more. It’s like gettin’ blood from a tune-up. And we didn’t have it so cushy back in ‘sixty. Not like you all have it now. Yer own Jeep, and I don’t know what-all.”

“You’ve got something hanging off your chin, there,” I contribute, pointing. The man wipes off a curtain of slime on a crusty sleeve.

“Thing is, they’ll take whatever you can give ‘em, and then they’ll just keep asking for more. You gotta learn to stand up for yerself. ‘You cain’t fire me,’ I tole them, ‘I didn’t do nothing.’” He hikes up his trousers, squints up into the sun, and shoves his arm into his pants up to his elbow for a prolonged scratch. “But they push, and push. It’d make a drinking man out of you, if you didn’t already have the knack,” he concludes.

“You shouldn’t talk with your pants full,” I say.

“Haw. You sound just like my ex-wife, Irma. Anyway,” he continued, “That’s why the boys went on strike back in New York back then. You wouldn’t’a had none of what you got now if it weren’t for the boys in New York.”

“You should have those boils looked at,” I say. “They’re going to start pussing up and you’ll end up stuck to the park bench.”

“Anyway,” the man continued, “I’m done with all that. Free as a bird. No one telling me what to do. Not that they don’t still try. I’m sittin’ at home, minding my own business, and the man come right up to the window and tell me to move it along. What? A man can’t enjoy a little peace and quiet in his own home? After forty years service to his country?”

“You smell like poo,” I observe.


“Seriously, it’s like something died.”

“Haw. You sound just like my ex-wife.”


“Naw. Bootsy. Anyway, I ain’t taking any crap from Mr. Fancy Pants Cul-de-sac about where I should and where I shouldn’t be living. It’s a free country. If he thinks it’s so important I ‘move it along,’ then he can just bring his own rope and haul me out of there, because that Econoline ain’t turned over since the oil run out. And that wasn’t my fault.”

“My, look at the time,” I say.

“There wasn’t a thing wrong with the crankcase until my ex-wife Doris got it in her fool head to ‘express herself’ with the .22. Use yer words, I always say, but does she listen?”

“Gotta go,” I insert.

“Haw. You sound just like my ex-wife.”

“Which one?”

The man scratches and ponders, ponders and scratches. “All of ‘em,” he admits, and then my future claps me on the shoulder one more time, turns, and heads off in the direction of the tav.

To be continued.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Marbles: Third Dingle

I'm still on vacation. While I'm gone, you can read excerpts from a book I wrote four years ago, Miss Delivery: A Postal-Mortem. This is the third part of a series that begins here and continues here.

I was a half-hour earlier getting to Mrs. Jackov’s house, but apparently had still not achieved the magic delivery time. The door swung open, and I ducked my head reflexively. My work ethic, personal habits and parentage were all brought up one at a time and speculated on. I had had time to think about it, and managed to insert a proposition when she drew breath for another tirade. “I could just ring your bell when I get here, and then you could hand me your outgoing mail,” I offered, just before the door slammed shut.

Back at the station, I made a general inquiry. Did anyone know what time Mrs. Jackov expected her mail to be delivered? As it turns out, everyone knew. And not just the carriers, either. Also the supervisors, and the clerks, and the janitorial staff—anyone who had ever been in a position to answer the phone. A gruff, unsmiling carrier turned towards me and spoke with the voice of a cattle rustler. “Dead last, kid,” he growled, stubbing out his cigarette for emphasis. “She gets it dead last.” I was awestruck. Maybe some day I would have the self-possession to carry off an attitude like that. That little reverie was quickly extinguished with the memory of my waitress stint.

Wally Collins was gone all week, failing even to call in a few of those days, which made him officially AWOL. He was rechristened, in his absence, “Awolly.” You never want to give postal employees a chance to yoke you with a good nickname. You’ll die with it. Just ask Crud-lips and Dribbles.

But by the end of the week, I had really picked up the pace, both sorting and delivering mail. One day, the mail volume was so light that I actually got out earlier than Awolly would have, and I blazed through the route just to see how well I could do.

It was very well indeed. Marbles, sound asleep by the wall, was nonplussed, but he elected to postpone his nap and provided the usual escort service. I had developed a bit of a strut by the time I waltzed up to Mrs. Jackov’s house. There were no letters hanging out of her mail slot. I stuffed her mail inside and turned smartly to go, getting as far as the first bed of tulips (planted in rows, rigid as soldiers) before the door snapped open. “Hey!” came the familiar snarl. “You’re early!” I smiled and took a little bow. Possibly, this was inappropriate.

“I don’t have my bills ready! How am I supposed to get anything done when other people can’t even keep to a damn schedule?” A host of retorts rose up within me along with some quite specific fantasies involving ice picks. What actually came out was a mild-mannered offer to come back and pick up her mail in a half-hour. It was not the loudest of the voices within me. How had it achieved dominance? It had been around the longest; it belonged to the well-brought-up little girl who said Yes Ma’am and No Sir and strove to reduce friction. Only the fabled ice pick had been around longer, but no one has actually clapped eyes on one since Trotsky.

The rest of the day I replayed the encounter, replacing my part of the dialogue with ever more vivid recreations. By the time I’d gotten back to the station my embellishments had sharpened right up and become audible. Even the notable fact that I had completed an entire route in eight hours did not soothe me.

The next day, I was still engaged in perfecting my rant and was still lobbing some choice syllables into the air when Marbles offered to give me a listen. Marbles was sympathetic but was of the opinion that I should just do the best job I could and then sit in the sun, maybe drool a little. And it was Marbles who further suggested that maybe my job was a little more important than I had thought. For one thing, he transmitted, scratching his left ear with his hind leg, it was clear that Mrs. Jackov was determined to be angry no matter what I did. And if that was the case, why, it was important that I be there every day to bleed the pressure valve, or there could be dire consequences for the neighborhood and possibly (here Marbles briefly consulted an itchy spot on his tail) the whole world. This could indeed be one of the great contributions of the letter carrier breed. There were probably Jackovs in every place and time, and the everyday disappointment that the letter carrier brings is the only thing taking pressure off the system before they all explode. Without people like me, Marbles concluded, shards of malevolence from the Jackovs of the world would rain down upon the planet and doom us all.

Marbles sensed that he might be needed a while longer and accompanied me for the rest of the afternoon. When we turned the corner towards Mrs. Jackov’s house, we saw her open her door, check her watch, and place a letter in the mail slot for pickup. We arrived within the minute. The door flew open. Mrs. Jackov stared at me, face crimson, as I wished her a good day. I had turned to go before she found her voice. “I don’t know who keeps letting that damn dog out, but he’d better stay the hell out of the tulips,” she yelled.

Marbles and I moved on, companionably. He wasn’t so bad. He was a pretty good dog. It was a pretty good life. We both had a job, we had our independence, and I don’t know what-all else.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Marbles: Second Dingle

I'm on vacation. While I'm gone, I've put in some excerpts from a book of postal stories I wrote four years ago, just for fun. The story of Marbles begins here.

Whether or not a route had direction cards was a matter of the route’s regular carrier. They could be useful, confusing, illegible, or non-existent, depending on the carrier’s artistic sensibilities, clarity, or tendency to care. This batch was one of the good ones. My progress delivering the route was slow, but it never stopped altogether, and whenever I hesitated, a direction card would appear with arrows and boxes representing houses and all would become clear. At one point I had come up to a dead-end, having delivered all the houses in sight, but still hadn’t run out of letters, so I glanced down at the explanatory card.


Across the street was a grassy hill with a worn path, and I went that direction until a short stone wall came into view, and then I hesitated. There was a large, peculiar-looking yellow dog sitting by the wall, regarding me with his tongue lolling. “Marbles?” I said, and whap whap whap went the yellow dog’s tail. He took off at a human pace through the woods, beside a hedge, and over an embankment, culminating in a driveway to a house. He trotted up to the mailbox and sat down solidly in self-satisfaction. The house numbers matched the address on my next letter. This might have been the finest dog I had ever met, and I told him so, whacking him affectionately on his side. He stood up once again, to make himself easier to praise, and that’s when I took a good look at him.

There was something hanging off the dog, something underneath, something I fervently hoped was a temporary accoutrement, a little something picked up in a romp through the woods, but no. I took in just as much of the dog as I wanted to and then directed my attention elsewhere. The dog did not so much defy description as defy observation. I didn’t want to look. Marbles turned around and headed amiably off, trot-bobble, trot-bobble, to a place in the sun, and plonked down in a contented heap. He had a job, he had his independence, and I swear I don’t know what-all else he had.

The rest of my section looked pretty straightforward and I went on my way, pleased and a little unnerved by my introduction to Marbles. The direction cards were invaluable and the rest of the route went slowly but uneventfully, until I got to a Mrs. Jackov’s house. I was just dropping mail through her slot when the door flew open. Mrs. Jackov glared at me like the living bane of Oz. “You’re late,” she hissed, unnecessarily. I began to apologize in a general sort of way, without the desired effect. In fact, she had a couple letters to go in her hand and she began to swat me on the head with them. “I can’t just leave my letters hanging out of the slot all [swat] day [swat] long [swat], waiting for you, they’ll get wet! Or stolen!” I promised, based on a habitual and unfounded optimism, to do better the next day.

Wally Collins called in sick the next day too, so I did have a chance to redeem myself with Mrs. Jackov. Things went a little smoother, and Marbles was once again at his post next to the little stone wall. We greeted each other like old friends, and I patted him carefully on top of his head. Once again he led the way, trot-bobble, trot-bobble, and when we emerged at the driveway, we startled the meter reader. “Is that your dog?” he asked, and I explained the dog and his evident function in life. “This here is Marbles,” I said, introducing the two. “Marbles, Meter Reader.” Marbles put out a nose, accepted a pat, and began to trot away.

“There’s something hanging off that dog,” the meter reader said. “Looks that way," I said, looking a different way. He observed the dog for a scant moment and then abruptly launched into a torrent of idle chatter. The meter reader and I developed an equally fervent and precipitous interest in anything not related to the dog. We were still gabbling away when a Sears delivery truck pulled up. The driver got out, with a friendly wave in our direction, and went towards the back of his truck. Marbles got up to investigate the new possibility for attention, and the driver provided some, pronouncing him a good boy. Re-validated, Marbles trotted back to his sun spot. The Sears man stared after him.

“What is that hanging off that dog?” he wanted to know.

“We don’t know," the meter reader and I said in unison, and steered the conversation hard in another direction. Meanwhile, the other fellow failed to pick up on our diversion tactics and continued to stare at the dog. “Holy cow,” he said, crouching down.

To be continued.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Marbles: First Dingle

I'm on vacation. But I've loaded up Murrmurrs with something a little different. When I retired from carrying mail in 2008, the first thing I did was write a book of dang-near true postal stories. I called it Miss Delivery: A Postal-Mortem. Here are some excerpts: "Marbles," in three parts, begins on my second day delivering a route all by myself. The first day had not gone well.

It’s hard for me to feel bad for long. I rebound fast. This is not a sign of intelligence. In fact, it is often achieved by willfully ignoring or denying all that is true. If I were the last tyrannosaur holed out in a cave when the asteroid hit, I’d come out and think: hmm. Chilly. Dark. But look! Toasted stegosaurus nuggets, as far as the eye can see.

So the day after my hellish solo debut, after a dreamless sleep, I went off to work in a much lighter frame of mind. After all, there was no possibility this was going to be as bad a day as yesterday. For one thing, I had gained some familiarity with the sorting case. I would be able to make some headway sorting the mail this time. And I’d been out on parts of the route, at least, and wasn’t likely to forget where the mailboxes I’d already found were. Certainly not that cutesy little birdhouse piece of crap with the hungry cat face on it holding the little tiny US MAIL sign in its mouth swinging from the tree halfway across the yard in Gnomesville that you could only see by climbing the steps to the front door and leaning out over the porch. Yes, things were certainly looking up. I walked into the station, punched in my shiny new time card and strode over to the sorting case. The boss met me there. “Collins called in sick,” he informed me. “I’m going to need you over on route 136.” And just like that, there I was, right back to looking like an exhibit in the Postal Wax Museum.

It occurred to me that it was inevitable that, in one’s first days on any job, things might go a little sideways. It takes a while for the smoothness to set in. You can’t expect yourself to be able to accomplish the same things as a seasoned professional, and no one else would expect you to, either. Would they? I picked up a letter and scanned the new case, hardening into a familiar pose. I wasn’t getting anywhere.

As I stood, poised with my original letter outstretched towards the case, I thought about some of my previous jobs. I had been a waitress at Friendly’s Ice Cream. On my first day, I admired the other waitresses who flew around the corners with dishes stacked all the way up either arm, swinging them down gracefully and setting them before their customers, and I thought: amazing. Soon, I’ll be able to do that. But I wasn’t. I was quite possibly the worst waitress ever. Months into the job, I still couldn't bring two lunches at a time to a table and park them correctly in front of the people who ordered them. In fact, I had so little talent that when I did manage to bring someone his correct order, and then served his coffee upside-down in his crotch, he went out of his way to reassure me. “Don’t worry,” he said earnestly. “It wasn’t warm, anyway.” He felt so sorry for me that he gave me an extra-large tip. Although maybe that was for dabbing him dry.

I wasn’t all that great shakes as a lab technician, either. I never could bring myself to kill a rat, and I used to wash all my colleague’s test tubes for him in exchange for dispatching my rodents: a half-hour’s work for me vs. fifteen seconds for him, and I considered it a great deal. I stood there with the same letter in my hand and it dawned on me that nothing in my personal occupational history could rule out that I would suck at this, too.

On this day, though, I got some assistance from another rookie carrier, one with a few months’ experience and a proper sympathy, and we were able to plug all the mail in the case and get the route ready to go in a reasonable amount of time. I had learned to place the Bad Dog cards in front of the letters for a bad-dog house, so that was an improvement right there, and my new friend also introduced me to the concept of Direction Cards, which were made up to guide the carrier through the odder deliveries—“back door,” “slot in garage,” or “blue house behind laurel hedge”, for instance. The other rookie didn’t seem to think I was irredeemable, and that plus the direction cards had given me a little heartbeam of hope.

To be continued.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Old Crack-In-The-Face and Bust-In-The-Mouth


You don’t really notice gravity all that much until something goes just a little sideways and it takes you right down, like it did me the other night. Could have been worse. I didn’t go straight to the center of the earth, because the sidewalk stopped my face. The scariest part for my friend Margo, who, being the one who was right beside me, is pretty much on the hook for not grabbing me out of mid-air, was the sound: a mighty crack, like God snapping his fingers. Margo, being a recovering Catholic, is trained to react to God snapping his fingers, and she began to freak out right away. “Stay right there,” she yelled, “right there in that 34-degree puddle on the pavement, in the wind and rain. Don’t get up.” I started thinking.

What was that mighty crack? Oh. Face hitting pavement.

Man, that was fast. That didn’t take any time at all. Of course it doesn’t take any time, you idiot. You’re, like, three feet tall. And isn’t that exactly what old ladies say when they fall down? Yes it is. “Oh, my word, dearie, it all just happened so fast! I didn’t have time to think. And now my hip is broken, and soon I will die.” 

What the hell happened to my airbags? Didn’t I used to have airbags? Shit. I should have had them recharged after they deflated a few years ago.

I think I hit my cheekbone. Cheekbone! I have cheekbones! Awesome.

Well, I’d better get up, because we’re late for our dinner reservation, and it’s a serious dinner reservation. Margo was spinning in place making noises about throwing a coat over me and fetching Dave, and I had to head her off. “You’d better not get Dave,” I told her. “You’ll be in deep shit. Because he put me in your custody, and he totally would have caught me.” He might have. His reflexes are miraculous. He’s faster’n the smacky-sound on a spank.

Margo and I were trying out a restaurant that was hard to get into. Especially her, because she’s tall. The restaurant is in a converted broom closet. They’ve got room for five tables, with butter pats for spacers.  The sixth table was lubed up and jammed in hard by the toilet in the rear. The kitchen is in the front. You walk right through it, burners on the right, prep area on the left, with about a foot to spare, when you walk in. The wait staff has to wear satin pants to cut down on the friction. They’ll try for two seatings a night, and they don’t have room for error. So if you do score a reservation, they want your credit card up front and an option on one of your kidneys. If you don’t give them 24 hours notice for a cancellation, the chef is going to Mexico on your dime.

I explained all this to Margo, who was not letting me up off the sidewalk. “I’m fine,” I said. “We need to go eat before I lose a kidney. Come on. Do I sound at all loopy?” Well, that’s not really a fair question. Margo did a quick comparison to how I usually sound, and decided I might be as good as I get.

America's Fun Couple
We walked into the restaurant and I pointed at my face and said I'd just hit the sidewalk with it, and could I use the bathroom? They were nice as pie. They funneled me to the back, and gave me swabbing alcohol, a washcloth, and Neosporin. Once I was cleaned up and down to a steady ooze, they parked us at table six, next to the toilet, away from everyone else, and gave me a napkin filled with ice. I pressed it to one corner of my mouth and slid my dinner into the other corner.  Bleu Cheese Pear Hazelnut Blood Salad, Risotto Parmesan Nettles With Blood, and Plasma Panna Cotta. It was very good; maybe a little over-reliant on the one ingredient. By the end of the meal, my napkin looked like laundry day used to look like for me once a month. When the check came, a very, very, very long set of tongs emerged from somewhere behind us and snatched the napkin away.

The next morning, my knee was exploring new directions in life, and my upper lip was sprawling over my lower lip like a stranded oyster. No matter how you cut it, it has to be noted that this has not been a good winter for my face. First I poisoned it until it started sliding off my head like magma, and now this. But my face is not my fortune. If I actually did fall on my fortune, it would have hurt a lot worse, because it’s thin. Most of it is in a collection of fine salamander art that has not appreciated in the marketplace as anticipated. But still. I don’t ask much of my face. It’s there mainly to give folks an idea if I’m coming or going, and to keep the head goo inside. Either way, it’s falling down on the job.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Save The Children: 2013

Newtown CT is the epicenter of a radiating pain. All across the nation people are clutching their children or their guns to themselves, depending on which they fear for most.

I’m ambivalent about the Second Amendment, but I do know that a nation awash in junk food is going to fatten up, and a nation swimming in guns is going to suffer some casualties. I have many friends who are fond of their guns and have become persuaded that they are on the verge of having to hand them over, usually to some malevolent force called “the government.” The government, in this land, of course, is us, and sure enough, although few politicians will tilt against the NRA, there are a whole lot of plain citizens who would like to thin out the arms inventory. So I guess we are the malevolent force. I rarely chime in on this issue. I don’t warm up to guns, but I am willing to accept that other good people feel strongly that they should have some.

It’s the infamous “slippery slope” arguments that irk me: the notion that gay weddings will eventually cause people to bang their own dogs; the idea that giving people some control over their own deaths will lead to the establishment of gas chambers for grandma. There’s precious little possibility that Americans are ever going to be stripped of the arms they need or want, but that’s the bottom of the slippery slope the NRA has sold its adherents on, certain that we will be helpless to halt our skid. The slope goes both ways, of course. If we the people decide it’s okay to arm ourselves with assault rifles, why not multiple-grenade launchers? Why not nukes? Where do we draw the line? Can we talk about it without being hysterical?

There’s never a good massacre, but the ones that claim our children hurt us the worst. Once we’ve gotten a little age on us, we’re barnacled up with everything from annoying quirks to outright evil, or mental illness, which sometimes looks the same. So we care the most for our children. We presume them innocent. That’s an arbitrary distinction we make on the spectrum of life, a spectrum that some believe even includes the aspiring souls of sperms, but most of us make it. And we might just as well. We’re liable to make better decisions if we make them on behalf of the children. Especially if we include everyone’s children. There are families in Africa and Syria and Iraq that are suffering the same pain and terror as the families in Connecticut, but magnified, and endlessly. Bombs fall from the sky and the streets are flooded with personal weapons of mass destruction. We know because we provided them, for a price, and the only voices in our heads were those of the arms merchants and the fear merchants and the oil profiteers, operating under cover of our apathy.

So what do we do for our children? Do we start to stem the saturation of arms? Do we devote more resources to mental health? Do we finally get up the gumption to say hell no to the depleters of the earth who are so willing to trade our very survival for money? If we think only of what’s good for our kids, we’ll be on the right track.