Category Archives: Personal

Mismatched Fingers of Color and Delight

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People are craving the weird and eccentric, even when they may not even know it. Sure, we like pants whose legs are both the same length and houses painted more or less one color – and even food that bears some resemblance to its assigned name. As for me, I’d prefer to live in a world of spilled paint, one adorned with mismatched clothing and polychromatic houses spelling doom for a bored eye. It would be a carpenter’s dream to build in such a world. (But a carpet installer’s nightmare.)

Being around people, though, demonstrates that their eyes are drawn to those things less expected and strange. They may behave differently about it if they feel they are being observed, but the fascination with the novel is undeniable. Given a way to stop and look at something, they usually will, provided life gives them a moment to do so. Too much of our daily life is devoted to cursory swipe-left or swipe-right stimulus, rapid judgments without careful insight. It’s true that we tend to enjoy the feeling or familiarity. I’m not arguing specifically against that tendency, but instead am pointing out that if given a chance, people will frequently step off the known path for a weird stroll. The more they choose to do so, the less appeal the black and white world holds for them.

This week, I had the opportunity to watch and listen to a multitude of voices. When given the chance, I would sit and draw strange things. Some years, I’ve done 20+ feet of artwork along the paper-laden tables in the common areas where people congregate. All of the writing and drawing occurs where people constantly pass by, most taking at least a stolen look at whatever I’m doing. Some projects go quickly, whereas others take hours.

People stop and comment, most of them engaging with humor and relatively striking admissions about art, their lives, or how they wish they were more creative or able to do whimsical things. This week, several asked me if I were an art teacher, a writer, or something impossible to guess; I take these wrong guesses as high praise. We all need a plumber when the tides rise, so to speak, but it is the unseen and shared je ne sais quoi underlying our motivations that truly make the extra step worthwhile.

The passersby perhaps think they are observing me; however, I’m certain I’m getting more from the interaction than they are. The “What in the heck….?” type of reaction never fails to amuse me. I suppose that some expect me to be engrossed in drawing something pragmatic, such as a large intestine with vascular indicators – or a boat sailing along a riverbank filled with somersaulting otters.

One of the teachers who expressed interest in what I was doing asked me, “How do you get the detail so exact?” Her question puzzled me, so I asked in return, “Why do you think I had a vision in mind? Life doesn’t work that way – and even when it does, everything changes once we’re halfway through.” She laughed, “It seems like you were just waiting for me to ask something like that.”

Several people shared their stories with me, while others told me about things which sprang to their minds when watching me draw. All of them had something interesting to say, something which was already perched inside of them, waiting to stretch out into the world.

For those trying to make sense of what I was drawing, I would offer a spontaneous interpretation for each, with my goal being to devise a new explanation for each person asking.

The scale of the picture is much larger than you would imagine: the paper stretched across a full-size cafeteria table. I couldn’t take a picture of it unless I had dangled by a harness from the ceiling. Given that I’m three times the girth of Tom Cruise, I opted to avoid buying the school a new ceiling. This time, instead of leaving all of my work for the puzzled maintenance staff, I cut one piece of it off and brought it home. One person insisted on writing a compliment to the artist, so I brought that, too.

Most years, I leave the tables intact, with whatever I’ve created upon them. No matter how diligently you work, even on a whim, you simply are going to get up from the table one day, without even a glance behind you, and leave this world. Some of us will lament, “Not enough time!” while others will just shrug their shoulders and admit, “I didn’t make enough time.”

I’m hoping that you have color-stained fingers and a mind stuffed to the rafters with strange ideas when it’s your turn to go. You have permission to lead a normal, unflinching life, but it’s possible to lead a normal life and still have your hair full of crazy straws and pockets filled with half-scribbled notes to yourself.

I learned a lot this week, as I always do. I met new friends and shared outrageous jokes. However life is measured, my mind grew a bit, which is more than many days offer.

 

 

Ponder That Day

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Each of you should imagine stepping back in time tonight, no matter how long the leap you contemplate. Before you pause to consider the illogical impossibility of such an act, I’d ask you to struggle to remember a long forgotten voice, a familiar dish being prepared in the kitchen, just as you can almost hear the impatient clang of pans in difficult to reach cabinets or the rough embrace of someone who rarely hugged without the accompaniment of a joyous incantation of your own name from their lips. It could be the sound of an old 45 record as the needle drops unceremoniously and as the music eerily resonates over magnetic speakers, the image of a stretched green or yellow phone cord coming from the dining room – or it could be the hot feel of the seat of an old car as you jumped inside on a summer day, the idea of a seat belt a laughable imposition. All that seemed to matter was the eternal question of “What next?”
 
It is the month of June and regardless of your road to adulthood, most of us shared moments forged in detachment from the pressures of an adult world. If we were lucky, we piled into cars with our own families; if we were not, we joyfully did so with surrogates who gladly served in their absence.
 
Who among us would not leap without question if only to test our memories against those recollected moments? Anyone who would not deserves our envy because their life now exceeds the promise of a remembered life.
 
The advantage of age is that we seem to realize that we will never pause with enough force to appreciate the burn of a summer car seat or to impatiently wait for the break of a new day the next morning when sleep seemed to be an admission of loss.

 

Hot Springs: Fork You

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Hot Springs is a town of aromas. While the tourism board would like to entice you with outdoorsy scenes of frolicking on the lake, the reality is that this town is one which holds its center due to the eateries. Forget the “National Park” logos; this place is a silhouette of a grill, surrounded by 2,000 forks trying to get inside of it. If you are trying to avoid eating like a newly-awakened 15-year coma victim, this place is not for you. Even the ambulances yield to people trying to make turns into the parking lots of the local places to eat.

Last night, people who for some reason like me invited me along for a culinary trip to the Back Porch Grill, a steakhouse on the lakeside. I, of course, balked at eating meat as I usually do and instead had delicious grilled asparagus, salad, baked potato, vegetables, and a napkin. I ate the napkin by mistake, as I thought it was some sort of crépe. I also had some avocado quarter fries, which are cardiac-event starter packs, if you’ve never had them.

Earlier today, I parked the car a couple of miles from where I’m staying and walked. Yes, there are ‘better’ places to walk recreationally, but my old habits often flare up and insist that I do some urban walking. Being in another place allows me to stroll through as if I’m a traveling dignitary, one whose mission it is to see as much as possible while not feeling self-conscious. Walking a trail might connect you to nature, but walking the streets gives you a window into the place you’re visiting. And, instead of bears, you might be accosted. Being the keen mind that I am, instead of walking when it was cooler, I instead waited for clearer skies to ensure that my head might catch on fire. (It’s a fact that the sun is at least a million miles closer to Earth here in this part of the state.)

It’s difficult to walk and focus when you’re distracted by almost visible waves of cooking aromas. If I were a food critic, I’d say my review would be this: “There’s too much of it.”

Within a block of where I parked, I could count 20 places to eat, ranging from Colton’s, BBQ, pupusas and Southern-Style. (PS: ‘Southern-Style’ simply means it’s been murdered with oil and/or suffocated in gravy, much like my arteries.)

When I walked past some older apartments, a man sitting on the stoop near the street raised his hand and offered a bit of wit about the heat. I, of course, asked him, “Are you saying I’m whiter than a set of bed sheets and will burn like my mom’s toast or are you saying I’m too old to be doddering around?” He laughed and slapped his thigh. He asked, “What’cha listening to?” and pointed to my headphones. “Il Volo,” I said and he nodded his head as if he had just seen the group live in concert in Amsterdam. “Keep your head cool,” he told me, as I walked away. I’m not sure if he meant for me to be cautious about the heat or adopt a lighter philosophical touch in life; one never knows in these situations.

When I doubled back to intersect with the main road near Oaklawn, a couple arguing in Spanish approached me from the other direction. I turned down my headphone volume to hear them. In an argument as old as time, they were arguing about where to go eat, with the woman objecting to walking so far when there was BBQ just five minutes away. To them, I was invisible. As we drew close, in Spanish I said, “Colton’s has BBQ and what he wants.” The woman’s eyes widened and she said, “¿Qué dice?” (“What?”) So, I stopped long enough to point them toward Colton’s, where they could both eat exactly what they wanted without walking two more miles. I felt like a tourism guide at that point. (A nosey one, too.) I’m sure they reminded themselves to not assume they couldn’t be understood, even if it was some white-legged guy wandering the streets who might be eavesdropping.

While I was ambling about the town, I received a couple of texts, informing me that we were scheduled to dine at Fisherman’s Wharf again. When my wife texted to tell me, all I could think of to reply was, “Til death do us part.”

I have life insurance where I work, so death while eating wouldn’t be a terrible way to go. In fact, I’d agree that it’s likely.

My initial reaction when I read the words, “We’re eating at Fisherman’s Wharf tonight” was one of shock. I felt exactly like a fallen soldier from the Battle of Gettysburg might feel if he were resurrected and forced to relive and die on the bloody battlefield. I decided the analogy was unfair, as the soldier at least would have been armed. It would be awkward for me to start shooting the lights and windows out at a restaurant for bad service or food. Entertaining, too – just illegal.

For me, it’s more about the banter and interaction than it is the food at group meals. Large groups tend to take longer than trimming Methuselah’s toenails and the truth that food and service vary wildly. I’m glad just to be included. Everyone who knows me also knows that I simply can’t get bored, not even when the place I’m eating at is willfully trying to poison me or get me to run from the establishment in tears. There are times, though, when we need to be able to go out and dine and throw penalty red flags at the waiters and or managers at restaurants. Trying to get 3 people fed is a Ninja Warrior Challenge; with 20 or more, it would be easier to shoot them all and hide the bodies.

It’s weird how people will stand over their sinks and eat raw hot dogs for supper but insist on spending 12 minutes discussing the subtlest differences in dressings for their organic Hungarian carrot casserole appetizer. (This is the “Nathan Rule” of eating, by the way.)

My last visit to Fisherman’s Wharf was so epic that I followed up on the visit with an Iliad-length review, one which I published under a pseudonym. It’s a good thing, too, because it literally started an internet war on Zomato (Urbanspoon) and another review site. This pleased me to no end, I must admit. When we went to eat there, the meal took so long that I established residency in 7 other states just waiting to finish it. Also, I invented a new time measurement standard: the FW. I packed so many jokes into that review that I thought Netflix was going to pick it up as a series. When we left the restaurant, it had taken so long that I quipped to the staff that I needed to see a breakfast menu. In short, that visit was the de facto standard for “terrible,” if terrible could be defined as “being tortured while both angry and amused.”

By the way, the restaurant is on a scenic arm of the lake. It’s beautiful. But beware. Most people eat outside on the deck, with “outside” being the key word. Hot Springs can be hotter than a Republican fact-checker at a debate. I speculate that even though it’s outside, the staff has a secret thermostat for the areas where large groups congregate to dine. They get irritated if you jump off the railing and into the lake, no matter how much you start sweating. They get really irritated if you throw them into the lake. That waiter Pete is still mad at me to this day.

For a few years, all of us have amusedly laughed at Fisherman’s Wharf for our last experience, if only because we weren’t allowed to purchase the business and bulldoze it in frustration. It’s located on the lake and could be one of the best places to eat in the state of Arkansas. It should be, but a commitment to quality is much more difficult to maintain, especially when available staff seems better suited to watch Mystery Science Theater 3000 than dealing with hungry miscreants like me.

So, in a town which memorializes great food, I’m going to instead return to the gastronomical scene of the crime and revisit my sins. While I’m optimistic that everything will be different, I can’t shake the foreboding that the Book of Life might be open there, awaiting my presence to inflict a new level of torment upon me. Perhaps I will get “time served” credits for being willing to return? I did try to arrange a revisit last year but was slapped and thrown into the trunk of an abandoned 1972 Dodge Dart just for daring to bring it up. Nevertheless, some anonymous sadomasochist decided for us all this year. I also can’t shake the idea that each time we visit this restaurant that we aren’t part of either a prank tv show or one of the reality cooking shows where the guests are fed pig testicles and sprayed with goat urine – and not the expensive brand of goal urine, either.

Joking aside, I would love to be proven wrong and have the best meal possible. If not, I’m taking my snorkel mask with me.

PS: ‘Concealed Carry’ in these scenarios means you have a bag of snacks hidden in your purse, even if you are a man. It would be embarrassing to die of starvation at a restaurant, don’t you think?

An Abridged Reminder to Our Social Media Friends…

Note: “If you choose to not engage with any of my personal posts – the ones which reveal both personal humor and outlook, you don’t get the privilege to snark unhelpfully on those posts which prick at your political, religious or social discomfort.”

I use social media to share my life; not just the window dressings, either – I share what lies behind and beneath. Most people are astonished by my volume and willingness to share. Unlike most, I create what I share and of course do so with the belief that not all my nonsense will interest you.

If you can’t honor the expectation of engagement with the full range of meaningful sharing without lashing out, the problem then lies within you and with the uncotrolled urge to fight every opinion which fails to mirror your own. Spirited debate is not the problem. It is the surliness people exhibit when their ideas are challenged, especially by contrary or superior ones.

I can imagine the spittle spewing from your snarled lips, the zealotry throbbing at your carotid artery. Take a moment and consider: if my opinion is meaningless it should not awaken anger. And if it is valuable you do yourself a disservice by screaming in response.

Disagreement is mandatory, but doesn’t negate the social graces imposed on us mutually and reciprocally.

We each have equal footing in these personal spaces. If we are to engage as if we are visiting each other’s houses, we must refuse to enter with pointed finger or raised fist. Let courteous wit and wisdom be our calling card. Friends do not hurl bricks through windows – unless asked to do so. Each person and each house sits on its own foundation.

May ideas win by their merit. Use your soapbox and inded your life to demonstrate by example.
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PS: a reminder came to me during the wee hours. It’s expected that the internet will scorn, with its distant anonymous anger – but not from those who’ve shared moments with me.

Invisible Fingers in Our Minds

Whether it’s on social media or in a blog, I’m constantly surprised by the eternal nature and reach of the internet. We all see to travel a similar trajectory of recognition when we discover music, words, or content which move us. When people find and identify with things I’ve written, it’s a fulfiling sensation.

The video below is something I did last year, after brawling with people who insist on editing history or controlling the content of their friends and family social media. This tendency is especially evident after someone passes from this world.  All those stories and truths which might wound get buried with that person, too, if we aren’t careful. I’ve long fought the battle against censoring anyone’s full story.

I’m a big believer in sharing the content of our lives as it unfolds. It’s true that our perspective will change even toward the facts of our lives as we grow older. We tend to either blossom outwardly, taking our secrets out there with us, or contract and hide within an ever-narrowing caccoon.

In this case, someone else happened upon my blog, and out of the hundreds of blog posts that still remain, watched this video. It sparked a renewal to write their story, no matter who liked it or not, and regardless of whether it was well-done by any objective standard.

 

 

The Monster Is Always There

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Do you want to read some words which will take you in a different direction?

No matter where I live, invariably there is a neighbor behind me with an apparent need to recreate the jungle and underbrush of some faraway land. It’s never the landscape featured in tourism photos, either. It’s the type of terrain which tends to appear in crime scene photos or as seen in a disturbing documentary about abducted people.

The house where I now live is new, but the subdivision it’s in abuts the rear of Green Acres Road in Springdale, a much older spur of Springdale.  Unlike the tv show with a similar name, this ‘Green Acres’ heyday has long since faded away, leaving the footprint but stealing the foot.

There are days when I peer through the extra bedroom window, where I just know that some fantastical monstrous face is going to return my curious gaze, eyes blazing with danger.

Or so I hope.

So far, though, my expectations of interesting mayhem have clashed with reality.

I have sun catchers in the window facing west. These power the illusion of things unseen coming in and out of focus as I watch. Most days, these prisms cast out intricate webs of color. As with most such things, though, it is precisely through this sort of misdirection that things also take advantage of in order to slink from the shadows.

Optimist that I am, though, I peer out and draw in a breath, especially on those majestic evenings when dusk approaches and the sky is already darkening from impending rain.

Many people may not be aware of this, but dusk cleverly invites such monsters and rain makes them feel welcome. It’s a truth that most of us as human, frail and subject to disconcerting biology, feel in our bones but rarely utter. Such utterances bring the reality into focus. Rain tends to cluster people inside, where human nature boils in a slow cauldron.

There are days in which I identify the monster as the reality, the one so hell-bent on hiding its kaleidoscope of truly deep shadows from me. I know that most of our universe is empty space, even as I reassure myself by leaning in against the horizontal slats of the blinds and looking more closely at the underbrush facing my house. It’s precisely the empty spaces and the dark where we cower with the most silent vigilance.

On such a day when the monster materializes, I think instead of drawing away from the rush, I will lean in for an embrace of the unknown, even if its salutation comes teeth first.

I can only wonder at spilled paint cans which not only surround you but hide in plain sight, waiting for eyes to focus on them.

Fart Synchronicity

 

I’m about to give you a glimpse into the inner sanctum of my life. It will irrevocably change the way you look at me, perhaps with more or perhaps less admiration. If you are allergic to humor or gastrointestinal references, you should go back to watching the news, where the worst you will see might be a recap of the horrors of the day. Please stop reading now. Continuing to read is a legal agreement that you, like me, have absolutely no taste whatsoever.

Dawn was at one of the computers, watching SNL skits from last night’s episode. I was sitting at my desk behind her, busily making snarky notes for my mammoth list of nonsense.

After a few minutes, Dawn started watching the RKO movie set sketch with The Rock and Vanessa Bayer. I swiveled around in my office chair to see what mayhem was about to ensue. (PS – the sketch with Rock visiting the doctor for a prescription was the funniest, in my opinion.)

Without warning, I felt a rumble in my stomach and passed gas – and not the light gentlemanly type typical of what you’d expect from such a lightweight such as me, either. No, this was a reminder that I should stop eating pizza, horseradish sauce and lemon pepper, especially at the same time – and that I should seek immediate relief from a qualified medical professional.

Coincidentally, the exact moment my colon exhaled, Vanessa Bayer’s character also passed a loud blast of gas in the sketch. I didn’t hear it, though, given the volume of my own contribution. Dawn turned to look at me, bemused and aghast. My contribution had kept her from hearing what had happened, too.

Dawn backed up the video to re-watch the portion I interrupted.

We both shared a great laugh, as the odds of my flatulence coinciding perfectly with that of the character on the sketch had to be at least a million to one.

(In fact, the premise of the entire SNL skit was one of Bayer’s character being flatulent in creative ways as The Rock struggled not to laugh.)

As Shakespeare once quipped, “Each of us, even reluctantly, must play our own f̶a̶r̶t̶ part in this tragic comedy of life.”

Peace to each of you still reading this, my friends. May your days be filled with spring breezes of the kind we all look forward to.

A Snortee For Someone Encountered

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A few days ago, I was at the liquor store. (These are places which sell alcohol, for those who’ve never heard of such a thing.) I had heard an almost-familiar voice as I wandered the aisles, searching for the things which I already knew to be in their places. I looked to the side and saw an older gentleman, wallet out and open, fingering his money. He had a couple of tens and a few ones. He had a bottle of wine perched on one of the shelves. It was a nice one, a happy medium between cat urine and the kind one might drink at a million dollar wedding. Like men of his generation, he was carefully dressed, his white hair cut short and his shirt without a wrinkle.

Seeing him and hearing his voice reminded me so much of my Uncle Buck, who could be as jovial as a box of delighted kittens. To be frank, he also died from complications resulting from alcoholism. He and my aunt had decided a few years before his death to engage in a race to the bottom of their shared bottle. He won. But as troubled as his life was, he gifted me the word “snortee,” his humorous way of saying ‘a small drink.’ It was only after he retired that alcohol became his consuming passion. Yes, I recognize the incongruity of the word ‘snortee’ for someone who passed in this manner.

I told the cashier that I was going to pay for the elderly gentleman’s wine in addition to mine. Rarely do I question my impulses to pay it forward; so often they’ve rewarded me with reminders of the incredible overlapping of our lives.

“Are you friends or acquaintances?” she asked.

“No, I’ve never seen him before. But I bet he’s going to be tickled when he finds out someone bought his bottle for him.”

After ringing me up, the clerk toggled the conveyor and dragged the gentleman’s bottle forward and scanned his bottle.

“Hey, miss, that’s mine,” the man said.

“This man bought your bottle for you,” the clerk said and smiled, pointing at me.

The smile started at the older man’s chin and stretched halfway across the room. “Well, I’ll be. I never thought of getting a surprise at the liquor store, but I thank you and will most assuredly pay it forward!” He was beaming.

As I left, I turned to watch as the man strode with pride from the liquor store, as best as he could given his age. To my surprise, he opened the door to a minivan exactly like one my aunt and uncle had owned.

I’m not certain why I know it, but I am certain that the encounter pleased him and that he was contemplating it as he drove way, his life bifurcating away from mine.

Uncle Buck would have loved to share a laugh with that gentleman, in another life. In some small mundane yet wonderful way, we all saluted one another, even though one of us had long passed beyond this place.
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The picture is of me on the left and Uncle Buck on the right.

Raw Celery or Bus Station Toilet?

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The beet chip story from a few days ago forces my hand toward another story. It’s not one which ends with a grand moral observation, though.

Note: I mean no disrespect toward the current food waste programs. Teachers do difficult jobs and those involved in USDA-related food programs emphasize giving students control and also encourage eating what’s taken and taking only what one plans to eat. I went to elementary school 40 years ago, about the time that fire was discovered. What’s true now was definitely not true then.

Today, I listened to a story about food waste in schools. Most of the arguments were well-reasoned and supported. They were so proud of the food waste reduction and that kids were now squirreling away leftover food instead of throwing it away at school.  I knew immediately that at least one school kid was going to get his revenge on these well-intentioned people as they patted themselves on the back for reducing food waste. We not only don’t learn from history, but we also tend to amplify our egregiousness with even greater folly.  I laughed as I imagined that imaginary and gleeful child puking all over the high heels of his well-intentioned teacher.

Thanks to my grandma, I was spoiled by food. Even though her type of cuisine leaned toward the basic, there was nothing so delicious in my mind as elbow macaroni soup, collard and mustard greens, green beans, corn in any form, tomatoes, okra, or potatoes. Unlike my parents, my grandparents were compassionate about food, even though they were children of the Great Depression. Both money and food were appreciated. In my case, they didn’t care what I put on my plate as long as I ate it all. Wasting food was simply not something one could do. On the other hand, they didn’t threaten me for disliking food or force me to eat something for my own good. They weren’t “food stupid” as so many modern people are. They asked me to try everything before deciding whether I liked it or not. And I did, even things such as sardines and salt pork. I never rejected a food with trying it. My grandma knew that overall I was going to get way more than I needed, especially since I was known to eat more vegetables than any other 5 kids combined. I don’t know how harsh grandma was to other grandkids (because I was her favorite) but I do know that she would never have forced me to eat something I clearly indicated I didn’t like. In my defense, it would have never occurred to me to lie to her about it, either. I found out at a young age that I didn’t like beets, which puzzled my grandma.

At home, my parents were tyrants about food. I ate some of the worst, most ill-prepared foods known to man, many times under the guise of not being wasteful. This particular line of logic confused me, given that dollar for dollar, most of their money was spent on alcohol, cigarettes, or replacing broken furniture each time they decided to practice their ever-widening domestic violence reactions. Never mind that because mom chain-smoked her entire life I had never eaten potatoes at home that didn’t look peppered already. Mom also put onions in everything. I mean that literally. I kept expecting to find several peeled onions in her bathwater. Because of dad, mom would often prepare the nastiest meats; large slabs of beef nonsense, barely cooked, smelling of old paper and blood. When she could, mom would buy large volumes of sliced ham, the kind that reminded of what a toilet smells like when seldom-flushed. It’s one of the reasons to do this day that I dislike ham, and more so when it is sliced into slivers of hell like deli meat. Mom also made me eat potted meat, which as we learned in “Sling Blade” from Karl, is nothing more than brains and beef peckers.

I was content with noodles, soup, or vegetables. I was a simple kid and easily satisfied. Give me a soda, basic food, a book and stop beating on me, and I could make a good day out it.

Event though it seems unlikely, it was because of my parents that I went years without really eating much meat. I wasn’t sure that meat could be prepared in an appetizing manner, so I’d eat salads, bread, and vegetables – or the tablecloth if it kept me from getting ill or having to force down food better suited to be thrown from a moving car at one’s enemies.  Forays to other people’s houses showed me that the food at home versus out in the world were wildly different animals and that I was trapped in a culinary hell from which there would be no escape. It should be noted that no green leafy vegetables, much less lettuce, were kept at my house growing up. It was when I was older and had access to unlimited salad from a popular eatery in Tontitown and from a distant cousin we lived with that I found a love for lettuce.

As for retaliation, for each gesture of love and kindness from my grandma, my dad would be capable of the most brutal reprisals for not wanting to eat whatever he wanted me to. I took beatings night and day. If I told him I didn’t want fried chicken or a slab of whatever animal carcass of the day he had, I would get hit by a fist, belt, spatula, or item he found nearby. He was like the Wile E. Coyote of food beatings. His creativity toward brutality was endless. To him, eating, especially meat eating, was a characteristic of all men. It incensed him that I had no desire whatsoever to eat what he insisted upon. Deer, frog legs, snake, gizzards, cow livers, boiled beef tongue, rabbit, squirrel: all of these were required eating. I hated them all and don’t at them willingly today. His cruelty expanded to other areas, too. Once, he forced me to try raw forest-gathered mushrooms at my Uncle Buck’s house. They tasted like a deer’s anus. When I started to throw up, he punched me. He then forced more of them into my mouth. Crying, I forced what I could down. He made me agree that I loved them. As soon as possible, I went outside and threw it all up on the next door neighbor’s side of the house. This same scenario was re-enacted many times in my youth.  (I often think I could have painted the house with vomit had I had enough time.)

It’s strange looking back because despite having been in prison and falsely claiming he could eat anything, the truth is that my dad hated a lot of food, especially the healthy stuff. I’m not sure why food granted him such an expansive outlook on cruelty towards me. He never missed a chance, though, and I got it much, much worse than my siblings. I often daydreamed of sauteeing him a skillet full of wild mushrooms and steak – and then bashing him over the head with it.

In school, I learned that people would willingly barter with me, and happily, for my dessert or milk in exchange for whatever concoction of vegetables the school was inflicting on us that day. One of the most common were peas or one of the ten varieties of mixed vegetables that generally got boiled in huge cauldrons on the stoves. Countless times I would press my tray against that of a schoolmate and swap for something better. At home, I would eat green beans, corn, and tomatoes directly from the can – something I often do even now.

One day during elementary school, it was announced that we would be graded on what we ate. “What fresh hell was this?” I asked myself. I figured there was some kind of error or that all the teachers had lost their minds. At that school, we didn’t choose what we wanted. The school workers plopped, flung and threw whatever the next item was more or less into the segregated concavities of our food trays. There were things I simply couldn’t eat. Make no mistake, unlike most of my schoolmates, I overall REALLY enjoyed school lunches. They simply were miles above the consistency and content of what I could expect at home.

In those days, it was almost impossible to explain to your teachers that you were accustomed to being tortured by your dad if you said you didn’t like something. They didn’t know that if I wet the bed, I’d have stripes across my back and legs for a week if my dad had a hangover or was simply bored. I knew that with time, the school’s ill-advised plan to judge what I chose to eat or didn’t eat would cause a problem.

It was the same week that the food grading system started that I met my lifelong nemesis: Raw Celery. On a dozen previous occasions, I had attempted to eat this abomination without throwing up. I was scoreless against the impulse. It was puzzling, given my love of all things vegetable. If given a choice between licking the underrim of a bus station bathroom toilet and eating celery, I would unflinchingly opt for the toilet, even if someone was sitting on it at the time. Lest you think I’m exaggerating, I will demonstrate this if ever given the choice between death and celery.

I don’t remember a lot about the lunch grading starting, honestly, other than dreading it. When I went up to put my tray on the conveyor, the teacher told me to eat my celery or get a reduced grade. As I was fearful of almost all teachers when controversy arose, I told her that I was fine with that. She got mad at me and reversed course. She insisted that I eat it – a reduced grade was no longer at stake. A paddle was in my future. I told her that I would get sick if I tried to eat the celery. She forced me to take a bite anyway and I spit it back out immediately. She let me go, through clenched jaw. I knew the battle lines had been drawn and that just like at home I had no artillery with which to fight back.

A few days later, we were again served celery. They must have purchased a truckload of it from Satan himself. I traded my celery for another boy’s mixed vegetables. He ate the celery with glee, as I did his vegetables. Soon enough, the Gestapo teacher doing lunch duty came over and told us that trading food was forbidden. So I got another reduced grade, even though I had eaten more vegetables by trading for a serving of mixed vegetables compared to a slice of celery stalk.

How much later it was, I’m not sure, but the day came when celery was once again served. Except another horrific layer was added: they put peanut butter on the stalk. While I was okay with peanut butter, the only thing worse than a celery stalk with peanut butter on it would be if a large diseased bird pooped on it first. The teacher didn’t even wait for my reaction this time. She insisted I eat it, that everyone liked peanut butter and celery. Having forgotten the exact words, I’m sure she ranted off a list of reasons why I was being a little jerk for not wanting to eat the celery. Since I wasn’t getting out alive, she also insisted that I drink my carton of milk, something which I often didn’t touch. But I held my nose and drank the milk quickly.

“Now eat the celery. You and I both know you are pretending you don’t like it.” The teacher glared at me. Having been shamed and beaten by experts way beyond her level of cruelty, I didn’t really care about getting a paddling. A paddling from someone at school was comparable to a pat on the back from Attila the Hun at home. The teacher, seeing my reluctance, came around next to me, picked up the celery stalk, and put it in my hand, then dragging my hand holding the celery toward my face. I unwillingly took a bite, immediately feeling the urge to vomit. “Keep going. You’ll see it won’t kill you.” The teacher stepped away at the end of the table. I took another bite – and that’s when the universe shifted.

The mix of peanut butter and raw celery triggered something in my mind. It might have been the last time my dad held my face into my plate and forced me to get a mouthful of whatever man-making garbage he wanted me to eat. Whatever it was, it was powerful. From my nose and mouth came a simultaneous torrent of milk and lunch remnants. It went across the table and onto the floor, splashing across to the table on the next aisle of seating. I flooded my plate with it, knocking over my milk carton. I heaved and expelled everything I had eaten for the last 10 meals, or so it seemed. And I then put my head down into the mess, feeling a massive wave of nausea and dizziness. Keeping my head up wasn’t an option.

This story would be much better if I remembered what sort of shocked reaction the teacher had on her face after seeing me projectile vomit. But I don’t know. I was too sick.

Another teacher came and helped me to the restroom to clean up.

We didn’t do lunch grading for very long. I don’t remember why that it ended but I do know that my fantasy is that the teacher who was so intent on being totalitarian in regard to what I ate or didn’t eat was so sickened by my volcanic eruption of vomit that she insisted that the program be abandoned.  While I don’t remember exactly which teacher was the mean one, I could figure it out, if I really wanted to. I won’t though because I might be tempted to go to her house with an array or reprehensible food and force her to eat them all, one by one until vomit ejects from her ear canals.

She did me one favor, though: unlike so many other foods I grew to like or tolerate, raw celery to me is no better than raw sewage – and I’d drink a cup of the latter before I’d ever eat a stalk of celery.

If I every develop super-villain powers just spray me down with raw celery.