So suppose you kind-of sort-of invite somebody into your house, expecting him to act right, but he turns out to be a big slovenly dude that never so much as gets his own dirty dishes as far as the sink and he never once does anything you ask him to do and all he does is take up space and whine about shit and just about the time you've been able to pretend he's not there he cuts loose with a big grotesque belch and a fart? That dude? He's living here. And if you decide to give him a chance and ask him to do something really small like take out the garbage for once? And he clears his throat and makes some kind of noncommittal noise like he's planning to get around to it sometime and you more or less give up on him but then right in the middle of the night he starts banging the garbage cans around and scaring the shit out of you, and even after all that when you check in the morning he's still left half the garbage behind? Hate that dude.
We needed a new printer, we really did, but this one is all Boris when what we really wanted was something along the lines of a Timmy. Sucker is totally the size of an apartment refrigerator. We've parked it next to a sophisticated computer but it has learned no manners at all. Originally, it would print out pages if you asked nicely. It has a scan button that doesn't do anything, and a fax button that does nothing but print out endless status reports on the faxes it won't send. Generally, if you ask it nicely to print something, it makes a bunch of noise, sucks in a piece of paper, poops it partway out about a quarter-printed, and then squeals and clicks for a while before shutting down entirely. I've learned to leave it alone because every now and then, say, at midnight, when you're concentrating on your writing, it will abruptly fire up again and spit out your page, and sometimes it's even the whole page, and not just the quarter it had already printed.
A few weeks ago it refused, as usual, to print something, and informed me that I was out of black ink. I opened it up, replaced the black cartridge like a big girl, and hit "print," and it said now I was out of yellow ink. I replaced the yellow cartridge, and then it said "did you replace the yellow?" and I said yes and it said "but I didn't feel anything. Do it again." So I did it again. And again. And again. And then I went to the Googles and found the most wonderful piece of advice. It involves black electrical tape--the same tape you use to fix your car's check-engine light. And it worked. And then it said I was also out of cyan ink. And I taped that sucker too. And hit print, and it fired right up and started printing. Printed a half-page of something I'd wanted three weeks ago that no longer showed up in the queue, but it seemed like progress.
Then my sophisticated computer got super sludgy. I did a little research and determined that I needed more memory. Like, duh. So, with complete confidence, I went into the Mac store and asked the nice man to put in some memory. I explained it to him. I explained that I'd checked the Utilities Application and the Activity Monitor and the little pie-circle that should have a lot of green had NO green and was mostly yellow instead. "Let's have a look," he said, as though my logic were worthless, and sure enough, in his house, everything ran like a dream and my little pie-circle was three-quarters green. Huh.
"You've got plenty of memory," he said, and asked me if I had any peripherals. Is that something that goes with onion dip? No, he said. Things that plug into the computer. Oh. Modem. Router. Solar panel monitor.
"Printer?" he asked. No, I said. It's wireless.
So I brought my resurrected computer home and plugged it in, and when I was set to stick in the last of the leftover USB cords, I noticed that it went to the printer after all. The bastard. I left it out. The computer is running fine.
But I have all the tools I need to fix the damn printer now. I have electrical tape. I have a splitting maul.
The chairman of the search committee pulled on the intern's elbow. "Is that all you got for us?"
"Not at all, sir. But there's nobody tougher, or brighter," the intern whispered. "Frankly, we think he's the strongest candidate."
"I'm very comfortable with him, personally. He's got gravitas. He's our kind of guy," the chairman said. "I just don't know how he's going to play."
The committee in charge of coming up with viable alternatives to Donald Trump had been working hard to find candidates with similar qualities that resonated with the base, but who might be expected to better toe the party line. On paper, Foghorn Leghorn appeared to foot the bill.
"AH, BOY, AH SAY, BOY, FETCH ME SOME OF THET WATER, BOY!"
Mr. Leghorn was, to the chairman's horror, pointing at Ben Carson.
"No, it can work," the intern insisted. "This gives Mr. Carson someone to push against. He didn't do that well on the vaccine question; he came across sort of wobbly."
"THAT'S A JOKE, AH SAY, THAT'S A JOKE, SON," Mr. Leghorn continued.
Mr. Carson shrugged and looked off to the side. "I'm sure he meant it as a joke," he said, his voice trailing off.
"No wonder he doesn't believe in evolution," the intern said, under his breath.
The chairman frowned. Things had not been going well. In spite of the splendid work of the Fiction Faction, there had been one setback after another. They no sooner had painted a picture of Benghazi on a cliff than the Democrats charged right through it, and the Republicans pancaked themselves on it. What they needed to do now was concentrate on personality rather than issues. He studied the new prospect. "I don't know. I can see the attack ads now: Foghorn Leghorn is just a big chicken. Got anyone else? Someone a little tougher? And don't even think of bringing Scott Walker back. Even I don't think facing down the citizens of Wisconsin is like taking it to ISIS."
The next candidate strutted in carrying a shotgun.
"That's more like it," the chairman said. "Sir, what do you say: you ready to fight some Democrats?"
"That wascawwy Hiwwawy! I hate that tweachewous miscweant!"
The intern tore up an index card. "Next."
In came Yosemite Sam, pistols blazing.
"Now we're talking. Good sir, tell me. What is your plan to stop Obamacare?"
Mr. Sam whacked at the air. "When I say WHOA, I mean WHOA!"
"Right?" the intern whispered. "I mean, that is so totally our plan."
"I don't know. I'm not sure a cowboy is the way to go if we're going to woo back the Latino vote."
"Are we still trying to do that? Because..."
"I'm just saying. Where's Quick Draw McGraw? Doesn't he have a burro friend or something?"
"Baba Looey. But he has an accent. That's probably taking it too far. And besides, what I think we really need to do is appeal to more women. And with that in mind, sir, I'd like to present one more candidate. He's pro-gun, he's courteous, and he's devoted his life to saving women. Gentlemen of the committee, I give you..." The intern swept out his arm and a man in a snappy uniform came in on a horse. Backwards, but on a horse.
"I like it, I like it...I like what you're going for, here. But--Dudley Do-Right? Isn't he Canadian?"
"Pssh. He's whatever we need him to be. Delores, sweetheart? Bring in the Fiction Faction boys. We're going to need a new back-story."
I'm going to tell you about something. It's the damnedest thing. Most people probably don't even think it's the damnedest thing, because they've gotten used to it, and I'm sorry for them. They've gone way past being thrilled with the orange in the Christmas stocking and are all the way up to being bored to tears with the mound of whizbang toys under the tree. But this is the damnedest thing.
Not all that long ago if you had a baby, nobody knew about it except the folks in your cave, or the next farmstead over. Maybe some of your family took off for the hinterlands years ago and you're lucky if you ever get a letter, scrawled out by candlelight and stuck hopefully in a passing saddlebag. You might not even want to write to them about your new baby because by the time they
get the letter it could have been taken by the yellow fever, or one of the other colored fevers.
Even at the time I was born, and for quite a few decades after, people had to wait for the baby to hit air before anyone knew a thing about it. First thing anyone said, including the woman who'd been harboring it all those months, was "what is it?" Like maybe it could have been a badger or a hamster or something. Oh, some busybody might have made pronouncements about the nature of the baby in utero by dangling a threaded needle over it, and declaring it was a boy if it swung in a straight line, or a girl if it swung in a circle, but that's totally in Ouija territory, and just as accurate. Mom would send out a batch of pastel greeting cards to her home-town friends with a big-eyed baby painted on the front and "It's a girl!" or "It's a boy!" printed inside, and the closer family members would get a black and white photograph tucked inside too, of a squinty and irritable-looking critter that in no way resembled the adorable infant on the front.
Yes, every now and then, but not that often, the question "what is it?" would be answered with a rumpled smile and a quirked eyebrow, because the answer was complicated and not that clear, and the infant would be handed back to the doctor with the instruction to "make it regular," and there would be decisions and incisions, and maybe everything would work out, but not always. Hallmark failed to produce cards that proclaimed "We don't know what it is!" But maybe they do now. Things is diff'rent.
Still, when I was born, mail service was quick and cheap, and Grandma and the relatives could rely on getting updates throughout the year and maybe another photograph at Christmas, but nobody expected to be kept apprised of all the details. That is how a child who would be over the moon to receive a stuffed animal, any stuffed animal, kept getting dolls and sweater sets from the aunts. Not enough information. But that's just the way it was.
These days, there is nothing on this planet that doesn't fit in our pockets. Not for Dave and me--we're back'ards. We're not as smart as our phones and we get back at them by leaving them behind most of the time. We live in a constant state of underinformation that would quake a younger soul. But let me tell you about this thing.
There we are on a mountain. We've hiked eight miles in from the nearest road. We're peering over a ledge into a ravine at a river that threads all the way down from a glacier in a mighty peak, and there's a tweedling coming out of Dave's shorts, and it is a photo of our niece and her brand new baby, her beautiful much-anticipated much hoped-for actual baby girl, in pixels shot through the ether from a thousand miles away and reassembled in Dave's phone in the wilderness, and we burst into tears at all the beauty, and all I'm saying is no matter what you think, that is the damnedest thing. It is.
Some people refuse to be put in a box. And by "people" I mean cats. And by "some" I mean our cat, Tater.
Most people have no trouble whatsoever being put in boxes. They'll put themselves in their own boxes and label them so you don't even need to look inside to see who's there. They'll advertise themselves on their car bumpers and put Confederate flags on their license plates and kittens on their checkbooks. They'll carefully curate their Facebook personae by linking to politically charged sites and engaging in snide commentary with strangers, or praise the Lord a few dozen times a day for every little thang, or demonstrate their vulnerability by insulating themselves with pictures of adorable animals. They willingly provide access to all of their buttons and display them to the entire world. Push here, they say. You'll see what makes me squeak. We need only a glance and we know what box to put them in.
Not cats, so much. Your standard government-issue cat is going to be fine with putting herself in, say, a cardboard box. Don't you try it, though.
Tater is a relatively biddable cat, as they go. She has rubber caps on her claws, because she persists in waging war on upholstery, but not on us. But try to jam her in a box? Good luck with that.
A cat's social behavior and tendency to write its own rules has been formed through thousands of years of knowing that nobody wants to eat cat meat. Your normal cat will have predictable responses to stimuli. If you pull on her tail, she will double back and try to staple you with her face. Not Tater cat. If Tater is heading in a direction you strenuously do not want her to go, and you grab her tail--an evolutionary relic from some Labrador Retriever in her personal woodpile--she will continue in her preferred direction, at a slightly reduced clip, towing you on your belly, if need be. She is a sturdy cat.
Similarly, if you want to put a normal cat in a crate, you approach her from behind and grobble the back of her neck like her own kitty mama did when she was wee. This move is designed to strip the obstrepory right out of a cat. A neck-grobbled cat will fold up into damp laundry before your eyes. She can then be lowered into an upended crate with no fuss. There's some kind of instinctual thing that happens to cats that are properly squoze at the back of the neck. It's like the knee-jerk reflex. It's a guarantee.
You come up on Tater from behind with a big, capable, muscular hand like (for instance) Dave's and grobble her by the back of the neck, and none of that happens. She may have been snoozing like a bag of pudding but all of a sudden she develops discrete body parts and every one of them is sticking straight out. She looks like an opinionated starfish. It takes two of us to jam her in the crate and it always seems like we're going to snap something important off. And that she might be fine with that.
Sturdy cat, that one.
We don't do this to take her to the veterinarian. Lord no! This cat does not need a vet. If she were any healthier we'd never get anything done. We do this to take her to the cabin. There were problems with just putting her in the car and hoping she didn't insinuate herself under the brake pedal. We thought she'd be better off boxed up.
And we do this because we truly believe she'll feel better if she's in our cabin for three days sleeping on the ratty sofa next to us than if she were left home alone with a bucket of kibble, sleeping on a ratty recliner, one that was just fine before she and her predecessor ratted it all up. We think she likes us that much. We're right about that, too. She does not have the luxury or burden of thoughts about the future, so we have them for her. As far into the future as she gets is: am I being boxed up? And am I about to be boxed up? And when she is, that's when she earns her nickname.
It's well before my bedtime, and Dave is sound asleep on the Sleep Fumes Couch. Dave is not a good sleeper. He gets by on the virtue of the first three or four solid hours he gets just after finishing dinner, and then he cobbles together a mosaic of wakefulness, TV, brief losses of consciousness, and the internet, until he gives up around dawn and starts another productive day. He can sleep in the car. In fact he can't stay awake as a passenger in a moving automobile. When he's really short of sleep he's been known to beg me to drive him around. There aren't really too many adults who get all the sleep they want. It's a gift.
That's why we think of our Sleep Fumes Couch as a gift, freely offered to anyone who visits our cabin. No one is immune. When we bought the place, it came with furnishings, such as they were. They included mismatched cutlery, board games, antique packets of cocoa, and a fair amount of furniture that couldn't withstand ordinary adult use. So a lot of that has gone by the wayside and been replaced by garage-sale items of equal cheapness and more substance. The Sleep Fumes Couch that came with the place is an exception. It has reigned in its original position from the get-go.
It's sturdy and has one of those '80s neutral, unobtrusive weaves. Nothing objectionable about it. In all likelihood it has served, or is serving, as bedding material or actual beds for a transient rodent population. No matter. At some point anyone who visits this cabin will find him or herself irretrievably drawn to sit on the couch, possibly sprawl a little, and then be sucked into it like an octopus in coral. They virtually disappear. Their mouths gape. Noises are emitted. Everyone not on the couch, which is everyone else at this point--because they are taking up the whole thing--is quite amused by this. Photographs are taken. We all feel a little superior because we, personally, have not lost control of our saliva in the middle of the day. But our time's coming.
We can only surmise that the Couch has magical Sleep Fumes in it, and we are all helpless in its vicinity until Glinda the Good Witch shows up and snows on us. There's a possibility that the lure of the Sleep Fumes Couch has something to do with the confluence of abundant clean air and fatty foods and romping good exercise and a nearby stoked wood stove and, gosh, alcohol. But you never see people curled up on the floor, or with their foreheads plonked into the mashed potatoes, except that once, and there was Benadryl involved then.
No. It's the magical Sleep Fumes in the Sleep Fumes Couch. I wish I could bottle them.
Mostly, Dave and I have been good about not living beyond our means, even though we can easily see the edge of our means from here. We've even been good at putting money away. Which is a good thing because this way it will take a little longer for our money to disappear completely.
That's what it's going to do. It's going to evaporate, and just leave behind a little ring of good intentions. What you're supposed to do is learn a little about finances, and then make wise choices. You're supposed to make your money work for you. This concept makes me squirmy. I understand how I made money. Some days, I was even worth what I was paid. But it seems wrong that my money should go off and make money on its own, maybe even while I'm asleep and possibly drooling. Like maybe my money will make enough money to move out of the house some day. Get a girlfriend and a dog and a cable connection and a bedroom set from IKEA. And I'd never see my money again.
In fact, the idea that my money should work for me is deeply repellent. That would make me The Man. I won't even get a pedicure because I'm too creeped out by the vision of some small woman laboring away at my toe jam, like I'm Genghis Khan or something. Why should my money make money? What could it possibly do that is useful to society? I'd be fine if it just sat around the house and didn't drop wet towels on the floor.
So we're not good about money; we're too indulgent, and let it slack off. Our house is the bright spot. We bought it long ago, when you could score a complete house for twenty dollars as long as you paid, like, a million bucks a month interest. We certainly couldn't afford it now. Which means our real estate makes us worth a lot dead. We've inadvertently become winners in a game of economic roulette that has produced conditions that are supposed to make homeowners feel terrific, assuming they do not give a shit about poor people.
Oh, we used to have investments, but we bailed out of them on at least two noteworthy occasions corresponding to the precise nadir of the market. They say you can't time the market, but they're wrong. If we do it one more time, we'll have no money saved at all, and might have to write a check to a financial institution just to make them promise to stop giggling.
So our money is now working just as hard as cash stashed under the mattress, assuming there is a little mouse nibbling at the edges. It's not working. So be it. We don't work so well anymore, either.
Daddy! Come look! There's water falling right out of the sky, just like Grandma said it used to do!
Get your pale little fanny right back in here. Your five minutes are up. And you can't take everything your Grandma says right to the banking app.
She said it used to do it for months on end sometimes.
That's just the kind of thing I'm talking about. Use your common sense, boy. Remember what Grandma used to say about Florida?
She said that's where the old folks used to go when they retired.
Exactly. Now think about that. Why would anyone ever go to the Sunken Peninsula? It was just an expression. Like when we told you we took Rover to live on the farm.
Rover isn't on the farm?
Rover's fine. He's fine. What I mean is your Grandma comes up with some stuff sometimes.
What about the solid water? She said sometimes the water would go solid. She said she'd roll it into a ball and smack her brother in the head with it.
That I believe.
And there's be so much solid water that they'd pile it up in the mountains.
Where it would get all dusty. Eww. Solid water! As if!
No! She said! She said there used to be a lot of it in the olden days. That they had to have solid water to stand the mastodons up on.
See, right there. Mastodons? Your grandmother doesn't know anything about mastodons. She only goes back to the Cruz administration, and there haven't been any mastodons since Noah economized on cubits. What is it they're teaching you in the Edu-Pod these days?
But Crayonce's Grandpa said the same thing. That water used to fall right out of the sky, all the time.
I know, son. The old folks used to tell me the same stuff. And rainbows stretched across the sky like giant oil slicks! And there was a beast with a single horn coming out of the middle of its head! And tomatoes and corn came right out of the dirt. And people used to eat things that floated around in the ocean. It's revolting. If Grandma saw water coming out of the sky, why isn't she rich? Get in here before you dissolve.
But it's true! There's water coming out of the sky right now! Not a bunch, but little bits of it! Come look! We could take all our jugs and set them up on the, on the--the place Grandma calls a patio. Where she says they used to sit around, of an evening.
God help us.
And maybe they would all fill up with the water that's falling out of the sky.
Son. I'll break into next week's allotment if you absolutely must have water. The good stuff. With the minerals and the marketing in it and stuff. Where does water come from? Do you even know? You kids, I swear! They drill it. They mine it. They put it into bottles and your daddy and your mommy shovel data all day long to be able to buy it. Water doesn't just fall out of the sky, son. And what if it did? Would you drink something that came out of the sky? Do you know where the sky has been? It's all smoke and coal and farts up there. Now get in here before your eczema gets eczema.
What if we drill too much and we run out?
Son. You have to have faith. The Lord will provide.
What's faith? Is it like a drill?
It's more like a leaf blower. It takes all the chaos and things we don't understand and blows it into tidy little piles that make sense. If we run out of water, and we have faith, the Lord will take care of us. There are scads of other planets. Why can't the Lord just put more water here? I get carsick.
Faith, son, faith. It's not for us to know how it works. But it will be easy. There'll be a portal or something. It'll open up for us once we...retire to Florida. And then we'll be on our new planet. There'll be a planet for you and me and Mommy.
Grandma said you could go to hell for all she cared.
And with any luck, there'll be a planet just for Grandma.
I'm indebted to my friend Jessica Morrell for alerting me to the words of poet John Ashbery, who declares that wasting time is a critical part of the creative process. And that the time must be well and truly wasted. There must be no laundry done. I seized upon this theory like a billionaire who hears about trickle-down economics for the first time and believes it with all his pea-sized heart.
And I want to believe it, because it certainly puts a shine on some behavior of mine that might otherwise seem untoward. I spend a lot of time looking sort of unfocused. My eyes haze over, my jaw drops a little, there might be a little drool, followed by--in time--some crustiness. I'd much prefer to refer to these episodes as the crucible of creation rather than something less sexy, like dunderheadedness, or rabies.
Besides, it sort of works. If you don't know which synapses are going to go off in your brain at any time, and make which connections, it's best to just leave the entire apparatus wide open. Keep it perforated like a box you're storing crickets in, and listen for the chirping. Mine is well ventilated indeed. I can tell because stuff drops out of it all the time, but stuff also drifts in, and if I can sling a neuron over it before it hits the other side, I'm golden.
I don't know which is worse: the moronic gaze of the writer, or the thing that happens when I draw. If I'm drawing something with a face on it, my whole face assumes the expression I'm trying to depict. That would be fine, socially, if I were sketching a Madonna, but it's much more likely to be something like a constipated meerkat. It can be a little alarming to the casual observer. "Are you in pain?" the casual observer might ask, and he doesn't get a response right away, because the act of drawing confuses the passage of time for the artist, and it takes a while for the question to filter in. "No," I'll say eventually, blotting a bit of drool off the paper, "it's the meerkat," and I'll point helpfully at the sketchbook, and he will smile and back out of the room.
This is the main reason creative people wish to be left alone. And also the reason they're likely to get their wish.
There are many things about the eastern part of the country that a person might miss if she moved to Oregon, none of which is humidity. Or ticks. Or black flies. Or mosquitoes. But if there is a sparser selection of good beer, there is a richer complement of salamanders. There is the sweet and evident wealth of the deciduous forests. And there are fireflies.
In my memory, we had fireflies all summer in Virginia, but the internet informs me that that is yet another fabrication of the nostalgia department of my brain. They go off for a few weeks, maybe. But what a show! As usual, it's all a matter of advertising yourself to the opposite sex, and it works way better than a Speedo. Who's not going to be impressed by someone who mixes an enzyme with oxygen and magnesium and blows light out his butt? No one. Well, the firefly doesn't blow it out. It's more contained, like a little lantern.
That's what kids in firefly territory invariably try to do with them, at least once: capture as many as they can and put them in a jar with holes considerately poked in the lid, and stick it on their nightstand as a lantern. The beetles mope darkly in there for a while, and then they wait until the kid is asleep before dropping dead, and by morning, when you don't need a lantern anyway, all they can do is rattle. Good kids give up after a while, recognizing this as cruelty, and content themselves with catch-and-release.
The male fireflies flash in a pattern and cadence peculiar to their particular species, and the females are thus able to mark them as fellow tribesmen and possible consorts. The females are perfectly capable of flashing back, of course, but they do so whilst parked in the recliner, while the males say "look at THIS! I can do this while I'm FLYING! I'm over HERE! Now I'm over THERE! What a GUY!" The females are cool with that as long as they don't have to get up and do anything. That's nice, dear. I'm right here. Bring me some nectar while you're up.
I was surprised to learn that we do indeed have fireflies out west, but they don't flash, which makes them a sorry excuse for a firefly, really. You wouldn't watch an acrobat lying down doing bench-presses with the trapeze, not for long, anyway. In some areas, fireflies of the same species coordinate their flashes so they all go off at once. Supposedly it helps with the advertising. One gets to be The Dude, and the rest are his wing men. Everyone gets along because they all think they're The Dude. For all anyone knows, the west coast fireflies, that don't flash, also don't flash in unison, which is only marginally cool.
Fireflies can also be helpful in assisting human females to sort out the goods. A certain kind of little boy cannot be prevented from catching a firefly, ripping its glowing abdomen off, and sticking it in the middle of his forehead to show off. Your higher-quality girls can immediately eliminate these boys from favorable consideration. As they metamorphose into adults, those boys become too fat and lazy to catch fireflies, and present instead with sleeveless Confederate flag t-shirts and a Budweiser.