Category Archives: Personal

Furlongs Per Fortnight

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Assuming that everyone has the same frame of reference is a problematic concept. Some people, like me, measure speed in ‘furlongs per fortnight,’ which is an actual speed measurement. MPH might be more convenient, but not nearly as interesting or capable of inspiring fits of math, a condition shared by most school children and all rational adults.

The security guard ran past me as I stood near the main lobby. I use ‘ran’ in the loosest sense of the word. If he were a cheetah, he would be an arthritic three-legged one.

30 seconds later, he half-jogged to the main door and stopped, his love of donuts now severely impairing his ability to continue on whatever chase occupied him.

After a few heaving breaths, he asked me, “X, did you see a woman run by here before I came by the first time?”

“Yes, I sure did.” A woman had nervously and quickly passed by me a minute before the security guard. She seemed to be fidgety, like someone trying to light a short fuse on a stick of dynamite. I assumed she had eaten in the cafeteria, a mistake often preceding a very quick and unexpected tightly-wound walk to the nearest bathroom.

The security guard impatiently followed up with another question. “What did she look like, X?”

“Well, her hair looked like Tourette Syndrome would look if it were a visual thing instead of an auditory one.” It seemed like it was the most distinguishing thing about her.

I now realize that the security guard was unaccustomed to descriptions by allegory, however, as he rolled his eyes and waved his hand dismissively.

As he headed back around for another look, I shouted after him, “She also had on pants that reminded me of an LSD-inspired fractal!”

It seemed like the only thing I could do to help him.
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Spices and Altercations for $1000, Alex

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I made a quick trip to the store. As always, things go awry. In this case, though, the maelstrom didn’t involve me. I was just a witless witness.

I stood near the spices, admiring the universe of flavorful options. Not only was my mouth watering, but also so were my eyeballs. (Though the detail adds nothing to this story, I highly recommend both the chipotle bacon and garlic jalapeño seasoning.) I can eat cardboard with the right spices or sauces. My wife would testify that I, in fact, often do, given my irreverence for what constitutes ‘food.’

Voices rose, obviously in dissent, and probably emanating from a nearby and unseen aisle. In a few moments, an employee of the dubious retailer walked into my peripheral vision, taking small steps backward, yet still barking at someone I couldn’t yet see. As he stopped, an older woman approached from the other side of the endcap of the aisle. Her finger stabbed the air in irritation as she spoke. She was adamantly demanding that the employee go self-procreate and accompanied by his terrible attitude, even though her recommendation was couched in both vernacular and anatomically specific language.

It should have been awkward to witness, given the venom in the air. It wasn’t, though. It was more like Live TV and comparable to the scene which ensues when the three guys attempting to put the alligator in the SUV suddenly find themselves being violently schooled by an uncooperative lizard.

I laughed. Both the woman and the employee took a moment to throw quick glances of scorn my way and then turned on one another again.

Since neither of them had swords, daggers, nor jousting sticks, I assumed the scene was safe. At least for me.

Exactly .5 seconds later, a man wearing an industrial uniform approached and stepped in front of the woman. She stopped her malevolent incantations. His arms were hanging directly down, probably to signal a benign intervention.

He spoke to the retail employee. “Sir, did you bring a mop with you?”

“What? Why do I need a mop?” the employee asked. “No one told me there was a spill.”

“If you keep talking to people the way you were just talking to this lady, I’m going to mop the floor with you.” He didn’t even wait for the employee to reply. He turned to the woman and said, “I’m so sorry. I think I fixed your problem.” He walked away, perhaps to right another wrong. If he wore a cape, it was well concealed.

The employee continued to stand at the opposite end of the aisle. His face was becoming increasingly redder. It seemed like his head was expanding as it did so and I feared his glasses might burst from his face like shrapnel if it persisted.

When I went to check out, I could see the employee near the end of the register area, animatedly telling his story to another obviously disinterested co-worker. His arms waved and moved like a broken windmill as he spoke. I’m not sure what version of the truth he was telling but I was certain his eyes were keeping watch for the mysterious man in uniform as he did so.

What’s The Buzz?

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This morning, I walked a route I’d never taken before. The block behind me can’t be accessed directly, so I walked the circuitous path out of my neighborhood and around. Despite previously driving down the dead-end road behind me and seeing it on Streetview, I never noticed a spur sidestreet jutting from it, truncated as it points South. Unknown places are a treat, especially in the early morning before life startles everyone from their cocoons.

As I rounded the bushes on the entrance, I saw a man walking toward me. I could smell marijuana in the air as if someone with low self-esteem and a bad haircut had used it as a perfume by mistake. Keep in mind that it was still mostly dark and I was walking in a strange place. I felt like Donald Trump might if he were accidentally transported to a library.

By the time I was within a few feet of the approaching walker, he took a drag from what looked like a vape pen and exhaled. Marijuana wafted through the air. The man said, “Hey,” and kept walking.

Tempted to shout, “Police” and run for my life as a prank, I instead kept walking, the distance between us growing.

For the remainder of my walk, I pondered the question, “Who smokes marijuana at 5:00 in the morning, especially when no convenience store lurks nearby?”

Maybe the man in question is getting his exercise and buzz simultaneously, having just completed a ‘GTD’ seminar.

P.S. The photo isn’t the man in question. It’s what I picture in my mind when I think of how it should have looked.
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Who Says A Doctor Visit Can’t Be Fun?

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This story is true. All of us involved laughed at least 25 times during my visit. I’m beginning to question their sanity.

I was seated in a nondescript patient room, amusing myself with wordplay and possible shenanigans. I vainly tried to make the interactive patient information display do something unexpected, such as indicating “Stop Touching Me.” I remembered to add something to my to-do list: bring a few crazy magazine titles on my next visit and exchange them with the normal magazines on the wall racks. I pulled this prank a few times when I was younger and it never failed to bring the expected confusion and hilarity. The interactive computer confirmed that I needed to lose more weight and recommended a haircut, preferably one starting with my back hair. Computers these days are increasingly impertinent, a trend which I enjoy.

My doctor asked me to come back in after 3 months, allegedly to determine if the blood pressure medication worked well enough to suit him. Being a doctor, though, meant that any condition not generally characterized as “still not dead” was an acceptable one to him. In my opinion, though, my visit was probably due to his suspicion that I had resumed eating for two people. No, I’m not currently pregnant, despite the rumors being broadcast by the waistline of my pants. I simply tend to eat for more than one person – not to be confused with a cannibal, who would tend to eat more than one person.

Because I arrived early, I could hear the goings-on of the doctor’s office as staff bantered, medical reps bartered their wares, and patients attempted to conceal the horror presented by the specter of a medical office. For most patients, a medical office is indeed a Pandora’s box, one filled with a hypochondriac’s WebMD web search. From outside, I heard the medical assistant say my name. “X” sounds like a curse when spoken in a normal tone of voice. Once people get to know me, they also tend to add an inexplicable “hissss” sound after my name, something that renders me slightly suspicious. I had already entertained her by claiming that the Med Rep in the inner sanctum of the back offices had given me free medical marijuana samples while in the lobby and that imbibing this sample resulted in the very low blood pressure reading she had elicited from me.

Assuming that the doctor would be on the cusp of opening the door, I placed my purple cellphone screen side down on the exam sink counter. I then quickly stepped behind the door, jamming myself in the corner as tightly as possible.

I felt the door open more than halfway. I held my breath.

I knew that on the other side of the door that Dr. Brown was scanning the length of the room, probably noticing my purple cellphone while doing so, and wondering where I went.

“Did the patient escape?” the doctor asked the two medical staffers seated nearby at the administration counter.

As he asked this, I quietly stepped out and away from behind the door, directly behind him, in plain sight of the two staffers, both of whom were looking at the doctor as he turned to face them and inquire as to my whereabouts.

Because decorum demanded it, I made a terrible, crazy face. Both staffers burst out laughing. The doctor sensed something behind him and half-turned, freezing as he saw me in his peripheral vision.

He shook his head and also burst into laughter.

Once we all stopped laughing, he told me, “No one has ever hidden behind the door from me like that, X. Well played. Well played.”

P.S. I don’t know what the billing code for playing “Hide-And-Seek” at the doctor’s office might be.

 

It’s A Place Which We Never Leave

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On the way back home from Texas, I turned off the discolored and uneven blacktop highway and drove through a small farming town in Arkansas. It was almost 7 p.m. on a windless Sunday evening. My windshield was a graveyard of hundreds of insects. The richness of the delta has its gifts.

I had lost all sense of urgency and time. Because I knew I wouldn’t drive all the way home that evening, I chose the blue highways to take me across part of my journey. These highways were once the only way to traverse the country and each one of them pierced rural communities, loosely connecting them to the outside world. As interstates rose to meet the demands of speed and commerce, the blue highways remained, like half-forgotten pictures tucked away in the top drawer of a dresser in one’s extra bedroom.

Downtown was a disintegrating and deceitful testament to the past. The solitary water tower still stood, rusting, and even the town’s name, once proudly emblazoned there, was long erased. The youthful graffiti always found on such a tower was illegible. The few young people who might live nearby attended school in another town, their own hometown mascot supplanted with another. Each of them quietly reminded themselves that they’d leave as soon as graduation came.

The jolt of crossing a desolate set of railroad tracks caused me to reach over and turn off the radio. A town’s railroad crossing conveys a clear message: a smooth transition indicates a thriving economy and nicer vehicles, while an uneven and poorly maintained one usually means that people live lives filled with less. People with money and separated from their agricultural roots clamor for better roads, ones devoid of historical reminders of commerce and transport.

History accompanied me as I made my way slowly across the brick-paved street. Without any evidence, I knew that several years ago, some well-meaning resident with a little money had vainly attempted to rejuvenate the corpse of this place, one founded on the backs of farmers. With his passing, the enthusiasm for saving the heritage of the place no longer loomed large on the psyche of the town. His tombstone, larger than those surrounding his resting place, is easily found in the cemetery not too far from the train tracks. In a generation, most of the cemeteries would be overgrown and many of these buildings would fall in on themselves, a gradual shattering and splintering of history. If I were to look, somewhere in the juncture of the small side streets would be a shuttered museum; its existence once contained within but with time, opened to spread out and include the entire town. My own hometown shares a similar and degenerative trajectory; the fiercely loyal will stay until nothing remains. They are the geographical observations points for entropy. Death need not make haste in these places.

Somewhere within the 4 blocks traversing west to east, I noticed a particular vacant storefront, displaying a single white rocking chair perched haphazardly up front, undoubtedly home to the bones of a once-thriving furniture store. The setting sun illuminated the faces of a hundred stacked cardboard boxes near the front windows. As carefully as the boxes were stacked, I couldn’t shake the feeling that they had been packed in haste and then abandoned, much like the store and probably like the town in general. I was certain that human hands hadn’t touched the boxes in years and that no one had relaxed in the rocking chair since its placement there. People were choosing to leave with as small a burden as possible.

Something about this store spoke to me. I pulled unevenly toward the broken curb and hesitated as I shut off the engine. The brick pavers had ended with the last block, probably as fund-raising dried up and people chose to leave instead. Every few feet a clump of grass was triumphantly sprouting from the untarred cracks in the road. I sat there, hands on the wheel, watching. Nothing moved around me. Maybe nothing had moved in the last hour, day, or week. A block ahead, the only traffic light in town blinked a dull red, casting a strange pall on an approaching evening. The light wasn’t blinking to any certain tempo and its arrhythmia went unheeded.

Looking at the sun reflected in the terrible facade of that building, I felt a creeping sadness wash over me. It seemed like I could feel the glances of the thousands of inhabitants who had passed here, reluctant to leave their hometown, but certain that they must. Brake lights always yield to a foot on the gas as nostalgia loses inevitably to hope. The fondness we so often feel for the places in our rearview mirrors softens our doubts about leaving yet rarely detains us.

The sun gave me its warmth as I sat in my car. Though the air was still and uncomfortable, I couldn’t break the silence by starting my car. The heat seemed to stir the ghosts of this place. I could hear their whispered names: Robert, Henry, Thomas, Samuel, Maggie and Jane Elvira. It was both melodious and cacophonous, like a choir warming up to an unspecified crescendo that would never quite arrive.

I could picture a shotgun house not too far from here, its ancient inhabitant eating cold cereal or buttermilk-soaked bread from a chipped white bowl. The metal fan nearby would be loudly alternating air through the cramped room. Around the person would be dozens of pictures, spanning generations, each of them revealing the face of someone long departed or of one who visits with less frequency. Next to the stubborn resident was a small wooden table. It was adorned with dozens of pill bottles, knick-knacks, and an older telephone, one wired to the world. In the rare event of a call, I could hear the fizzled and tired ring and recite almost every word that would ensue in the phone call, one measured by regret, loss, and small details.

I imagined the smell of cornbread, mustard greens, and fish quickly fried under the shade of any available tree. This place, once dominated by the sounds of screen doors casually slammed, pitchers of iced tea, and enthusiastic summer baseball games, was losing its voice. It seemed that even the echoes of lives once lived were fading now, departing with their particular smells and customs.

Before leaving town, I turned on the radio again. I pressed the ‘next station’ button and to my surprise, Merle Travis was singing “No Vacancy.” I smiled, pressed the gas pedal with enthusiasm, and took one last glance in the driver side mirror.

As I passed over the railroad tracks, I didn’t even notice the jolt.

I would wake up in another town tomorrow morning and this haunted place would fade to become an uncertain memory. All who had departed this place would unknowingly share this in common with me.

I, too, am from such a town. It is with me, always, in my quiet moments.

 

 

Voting Is Like Boots For Cows

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Warning: this madness may trigger you, either on the grounds of satire or foolishness. Were it my choice, partisanship would go the way of the Blue Squirrel, full of pellets and eaten with roasted potatoes. Part of the joy living in a d̵i̵c̵t̵a̵t̵o̵r̵s̵h̵i̵p̵  free country is that each of gets to voice our own ridiculous opinions. Unless you work in the NFL, home of the buy-one-get-one-free concussion special.

I voted on election day because the rodeo grounds in Springdale is the best voting station in Northwest Arkansas – and not just because they have free coffee and tanning beds available. The voting stations are no longer drive-through, though, as I discovered the hard way. Note: vehicle insurance covers these types of mishaps. My apologies to Janet, John, and Frida, who thankfully escaped injury as I drove through. It is fitting that the same odor which sometimes graces the hallowed acres of the rodeo grounds also captures the essence of the political process. It is an olfactory reminder that we shouldn’t take our own vote for granted, much in the same way that those already in office tend to take us for granted.

It serves as an early voting location, too, for the county. I tend to early-vote twice and then just once on election day unless my social media friends have been especially tedious and annoying about voting – in that case, I vote 3 or 4 times. The throngs of ineligible voters the Democrats bus to my voting location usually give me adequate cover to not get caught. (Note: part of that was a joke, obviously, much like the current presidency.) As a fairly nondescript middle-aged white guy who is often favorably compared to Danny Devito, I tend to blend in well with people, until I open my big mouth. They assume I’m a Republican mostly because I sound ridiculous and doubly so if you can understand what I’m saying. Once I get my hand inside their wallets, though, they know I tend to vote as a progressive. Any chance I get to vote to raise taxes, I do so gleefully and if I can raise yours too, I consider it a bonus.

I opted to vote in the Republican primary again, mainly to disrupt the process. Not that the GOP needs my help. Putting Trump in office has given everyone the idea that they should run for office, even if they are currently leaking brain fluid. I gladly did the same in 2016 so that I could vote against Trump in the GOP Presidential primary. In November, I had the honor of voting against him again. Because I live in Arkansas, though, the hordes overwhelmed me, as they were armed with the antiquated “Electoral College,” which is just about as bad as weighted voting on “The Voice.” I wish that the Native Americans would get together and deport all these white Europeans who are ruining the country. Somewhere, there’s a “Fox and Friends” viewer who is reading these words who is getting really pissed off. “That’s racism!” he or she will undoubtedly repeat two or three times before dragging out his or her old typewriter to write the editor an angry letter. That last part is supposed to be funny, too, because we all know that no self-respecting Fox & Friends viewer is going to read anything past the first paragraph unless it says “Applebee’s” across the top of the menu.

I voted against Steve Womack in the 3rd District race and I’ll vote against him again in November, probably twice just to be safe. There’s a rumor that he might have to drop out of the race in order to have the stick up his rear end removed. Those who revere his rigid posture often overlook the fact that it’s due to that same stick. (Also, he looks like Mike Pense’s 2nd cousin after a hard weekend of drinking.) I voted against Asa, even though Jan Morgan is nuttier than a closet full of fruitcakes. She wouldn’t win the primary, of course, so I’ll vote against Asa again this fall. She might be the next VP candidate, though, if Tom Cotton ever figures out that literally, anyone can become president. Additionally, it irritates me that Asa’s actual first name is “William.” For the supreme court, I voted for David Sterling, because more dark money was spent in his favor than the other candidates. In the Age of Trump, that’s the kind of idiotic logic that I find myself agreeing with. A massive influx of dark money and influence is very important to me, unless you ask me, in which case I’ll say the opposite and do so while waving my arms nonsensically. I’m not too fond of the supreme court, anyway, since black olives and onions are generally terrible on pizza.

Because I’m adept at reading upside down, I scanned down the clipboards the poll workers left in plain sight on the registration table. First, the text I was reading upside down was inverted- not me. I think the poll workers would not have been amused had I been upside down, either like a slumbering vampire or a gymnast walking on my hands. The R columns vastly outnumbered the D columns; simply put, the Republicans turned out in much greater numbers to vote today. I understand that there are variables which affect this observation, not the least of which is that a progressive voter is more likely to early-vote and traditional voters also tend to be retired and can, therefore, follow the tradition of voting on the day of the election. I like to think that by voting in the GOP primaries that marketers foolishly assume that I am anywhere in a Venn Diagram with their targeted constituency. Obviously, if I were to suffer a major head trauma it is possible that I would suddenly start seeing both logic and appeal in the platform of the GOP but until then, please continue to send me ridiculous flyers to warn me of the dangers of foreigners and the need to personally own no fewer than 17 guns, each of which I’ve given cute names.

I enjoy the moment immediately after I give the poll worker my I.D. Given that the average poll worker is older, he or she invariably reads my name at least ten times. Most of them usually give up and assume that my license, like every other person in this state, lists my last name first and vice versa. When requested to do so, I try to find the strangest way to recite my name, address, and date of birth. Today was no exception. My wife hates the way I recite my date of birth even though logically it’s the only way to be precise while simultaneously getting on everyone’s nerves. That last part is very important to me. One of my favorite quips is to quickly ask, “Date of conception, you asked?” and then pretend to start counting backward with the months of the year.

I sometimes ask if they have ballots with pictures of the candidates on them. One day, the answer will be “Yes.” It seems only fair if they can ask me to repeat the information that is plainly visible on the I.D. they are holding, I have the reciprocal right to amuse myself with a barrage of my own questions to yield the confused and nervous looks they often give me.

All of y’all pushing to get everyone out to vote should sometimes stop and remember that people like me listen and go vote, much to the detriment of the political process.

I was a little disappointed to find out that it was a rumor that Springdale was voting on whether to get rid of that horrible criss-cross pattern it chose as it’s mascot. Logo. I mean to say, “Logo.” The poll workers did tell me, however, that I was welcome to get some colored permanent markers and change all the logos in the city myself. Heads up, Chamber of Commerce and local constabulary.

Once done voting, I boarded the bus with the throngs of ineligible voters. As we drove away from the rodeo grounds, we saluted our framed picture of Robert Mueller.

 

S-Hook, Lime and Sinker

Just off  I-40 in Clarksville, Arkansas, there’s a Tex-Mex restaurant adjacent to the interstate. We’ve eaten there a couple of times. It’s inexpensive and we usually find ourselves pleasantly surprised by the speed, quality, and cost of the meal. Typically, we compensate by over-tipping by a wide margin. This is in no way related to the fact that the workers invariably point a machine gun at us as we pay. I’m just kidding about that last line. I just wanted to ensure that you’re reading closely. The pico de gallo, which all Tex-Mex eateries should be judged by, is delicious.

As we went to the front counter to pay, I heard the older gentleman who seemed to wear several hats of responsibility at the restaurant ask in Spanish, “How’d THIS get here?” I turned to see him holding the ‘S’ hook, inquiring toward our waitress and another waitress from the other half of the restaurant. As we exited the table, I had placed the hot hook on the edge of the large salsa dispenser at the edge of our table so that it wouldn’t be missed.

Toward the end of our meal, my wife had picked it up out of the bowels of the chip basket, not realizing how hot it had become in the warmer. We weren’t disgusted by the discovery of the thick metal hook, just intensely curious. I imagined that it had fallen from something at some point, but couldn’t place what the mysterious piece of machinery or structure might be. Such an ‘S’ hook typically is used to support two chains. Unless you’re at Applebee’s, one wouldn’t expect such random pieces of metal to be in one’s food.

So strange was the look on the older Latino man’s face that I felt compelled to walk the few steps back to our table and explain. In Spanish, I told them it was indeed inside the basket of chips as we ate, that we weren’t upset by its presence, and to have a great day.

“I’ve been looking for this darned hook since yesterday!” the older gentleman told me. “How did it get in the chips?” He wondered aloud.

“Suicidio,” I joked in Spanish and he took a moment to stare at me as if I had just sprouted a large tree from my forehead.

The other two waitresses looked at me quizzically, still confused by the large metal hook and the fact that I was suddenly speaking coherent Spanish to them. I think that the waitress for my table suspected that I spoke a few words in Spanish but it dawned on her that I had probably understood all their shouted conversations during my visit. (Yes, I heard their conversation about North Carolina. I wouldn’t move there, either.)

Mistakes happen and my wife and I weren’t bothered by the metal hook being in the basket of chips. At another restaurant, one staffed by less personable employees, it might have escalated into a full-fledged verbal duel-to-the-cash-register situation.

As it is, though, I find myself still wondering how the hook fell from whatever it was attached to and into the chips. I’ll bet that the older Latino man is wondering, too.

 

Celery Is The Cure For Happiness – An Autobiographical Anecdote

 

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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, unless it’s a reminder for everyone to avoid being ‘food stupid,’ as I call it.

To assist you to better understand my youth, you can observe through the picture that while food scarcity was sometimes a problem for me, starvation was the least of my worries. It wasn’t until the end of my 9th grade year that I managed to break away from my intense infatuation with food. I probably should say ‘temporarily breakup’ given my adulthood. That’s my mom with her arms over my shoulders. She’d been drinking when my Aunt Ardith snapped this picture.

I wish I had been drinking heavily, especially if I had known I’d be writing about the herpes of the vegetable world: raw celery.

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 as 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 always held in high esteem. 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 without trying it. My grandma knew that overall I was going to get much 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. Wherever we lived, most evenings threatened to turn into WWE nights, without referee or ropes. 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 and Vienna sausages, which as we learned from Karl in “Sling Blade”, 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. As I’ve written about before, I also acquired an intense LIKE for over-cooked and burned food.

Even though it seems unlikely, it was because of my parents that I went years without eating much meat voluntarily. 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 an unlimited amount of salad from a popular eatery in Tontitown and from a distant cousin we lived with that I found a love for lettuce.

Since I grew up in small-town Arkansas, I heard the phrase, “Boy, you don’t know what’s good” with such regularity that it lost all meaning. This phrase was considered to be the height of culinary comparative arguments. On one occasion, my Uncle Harold was chiding me for not wanting to eat any of whatever dead carcass flesh was being offered and proudly yelled, “Boy, you don’t what’s good!” Uncle Harold was one of the good guys, too. My grandma laughed and said, “Harold, why are you sitting there picking on the boy when you know darn well you wouldn’t eat a lot of things growing up?”

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 real men. It incensed him that I had no desire whatsoever to eat what he dictated. Deer, frog legs, snake, gizzards, cow livers, boiled beef tongue, rabbit, and squirrel: all of these were required eating. I hated them all and don’t eat 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 with sufficient time to do so.)

It is 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 did. I often daydreamed of sautéing 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 was peas or one of the ten varieties of mixed vegetables that generally got boiled in huge cauldrons on the industrial 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. While I looked like I traded for desserts, the opposite was usually true.

One day during elementary school, our teacher proudly explained 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. Unlike my fellow classmates, my world viewpoint didn’t preclude adults acting as if they had lost their minds at any given moment. 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. Just like at home, I couldn’t always determine what the food was supposed to be. Unlike home, however, I could be reasonably certain it wasn’t poisonous, given the likelihood of dead children all over the concrete block cafeteria if things went terribly awry.

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 under-rim 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. If foreign terrorists ever capture me, all they’ll need to do is force me to eat celery in order to get a confession from me.

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 a clenched jaw. I knew the battle lines were drawn and that just like at home I had no artillery with which to fight back.

A few days later, celery once again made its disgusting appearance on the menu. They must have purchased a truckload of it from the local Satanic Distributor. I traded my celery and dessert 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 we were forbidden to trade food. Therefore, 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 that I often didn’t touch. However, 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. Moreover, 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. However, I don’t know. I was too sick.

Another teacher came and helped me to the restroom to clean up. I enjoyed several exceptional teachers. Like so many others growing up, I also had a few who somehow seemed to know that I was an easy victim. My secret shame from my tortured home life must have registered in some instinctive corner of their brains.

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. I’ll start with beet chips and celery filled with tripe and livers.

She did me one favor, though: unlike so many other foods I grew to like or at least 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.

A Springdale Morning’s Anecdotes

With the lengthening days, my inability to sleep soundly in the mornings once again dragged me from the bed and out into the morning. I chose to walk a byzantine and unplanned path through the bowels of Springdale’s downtown.

The brightest and most vivid storefront at 4 this morning was that of “Mr. Taco Laco.” I pitied those who would work there later today as the throngs of goofy Americans crowd in, each trying to eat their weight in appreciation of Cinco de Mayo, a dubious excuse to imbibe.

I stopped and admired the neon promise of salvation at the next corner. I was about to snap a photo of it but the inclination passed as I remembered that the worst logo in modern American history was just across the street. As I walked past it, I considered buying a large black sheet to hang over it, one to conceal its hideousness. The Chamber of Commerce is the furthest thing from a comedy club, though, so perhaps I’ll continue to just imagine doing so.

The store near the corner barbershop on Blair Street caught my attention. Despite the hour, its lights were blazing. The mannequins all seemed trapped in mid-step, waiting for me to pass and begin their secret dance. The store was strangely lit, like an aquarium.

As the theme song from “Stranger Things” started, an image of “The Langoliers” came to me. Though I was the sole owner of the morning, I knew that soon the streets would begin to hum with people as they began their days. I think the feeling was amplified by the empty and newly-renovated Tyson hatchery building. Its front was dark and I could see empty tables and chairs awaiting their occupants, each one preoccupied with whatever business they might be engaged in.

As I turned on to Grove Street, I surprised a man standing on the landing of his upper story converted apartment. He was smoking. The converted house he lived at was one I had lived in almost 30 years ago. Knowing the people who would need to live in such a place, I knew that his day was probably not going to be filled with pleasurable pursuits. When I lived on the lower floor of that place, the upstairs neighbor loved blaring “Opposites Attract” by Paula Abdul. He played it a dozen times in a row, day after day. He was one of the meanest and ugliest people I’d met and he certainly didn’t look like a person who would listen to Paula Abdul; his preference, based solely on his looks and personality, should have been a drum track against the backdrop of people screaming. (Not Top 40 material, I would imagine.)

When I passed the creekside behind the Montessori School, the one which began as First Baptist Church and then served as a drug rehab facility for years, the thickening mist on the creek rose to about shoulder height. As I passed the curve behind the fire station, I didn’t see the opossum until my foot was next to him. I did a stupid dance backward and the possum scrambled away. Unfortunately for him, he chose to run forward and was trapped against the black wire fence as it ran up to the underpass of the railroad trestle above it.  I stood for a moment under the train tracks, unable to see where my new friend had hidden.

About 100 feet further along, a skunk was hunkered down on the rise to my left. He didn’t pay me any attention as I whispered, “Here, kitty kitty” to amuse myself. I survived another day without being sprayed by a startled skunk. I’ll tell my wife later that it’s a certainty that I’m going to get sprayed at some point. Walking in the deep dark has its benefits and dangers.

Crossing Johnson Street, I remembered a rainy Friday afternoon long ago when I was driving too fast and failed to stop soon enough at a stop sign. I hit the driver door of a souped-up Honda. The driver had borrowed his roommate’s car without permission and I had rewarded his bravery by hitting him. The owner never filed a claim. The policeman who came to the scene was a little irritated at me. Not because of my excessive speed, but rather due to his dashed hopes. He had spotted what he thought were empty beer cans in the back floorboard. He had excitedly reached for one with an “Aha!” expression about to pass his lips. The cans were non-alcoholic beer cans. I couldn’t help but laugh. And laugh some more. He ticketed me and I didn’t complain because I deserved it. The officer should have received a commendation for not screaming at me as I smiled at his diminished glee of catching me in the act of driving while drinking non-alcoholic beer.

The aura of older homes in the dark streets always appeals to me. The defects are hidden, the owners tucked away in slumber. I pass the houses, seeing only the splendor of the intricate woodwork, covered porches, and elaborate trim inside the living rooms.

You Don’t Bring Me Flours Anymore

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Several days ago, I brought my wife Dawn a nice vase of flowers.

It was, therefore, a surprise when she said, “X, you don’t bring me flowers anymore,” a couple of days ago. (Much like the old Barbara Streisand standard…)

Later that day, as I was reading, it struck me that she was, in fact, using one of her favorite communication tricks: the homophone. I won’t bore you with a redundant reminder of what constitutes a homophone because I’m sure that you all, much like myself, spent a good portion of the weekend reading your “Obscure English Quarterly” magazine.

So, today, I granted her wish. Now, she can no longer say, “X, you don’t bring me flours anymore.”

Quizzical initial looks of consternation aside, I think she enjoyed the surprise.

When I bought this gift today at Richard’s Flourist Shop, he told me to not add water to these flours. Even if I was going to make bread.