Disbelief

The gray jays and squirrels should have tipped me off sooner. I’ve never figured out how critters with a brain the size of a peanut could tell when guests were coming. But they can, and if you pay attention, they’ll tell you.

I’d had plenty of time to learn their lingo. I pretty much lived in the high country any more, and wandered from campsite to campsite. Not the regular Forest Service sites — they’re expensive, and packed with people all the time. But there’s lots of remote areas around the country where no one ever goes, except maybe during hunting season, and I’d been to most of them on my annual circuit. I’d just found this one, and it was big, open, and best of all, completely deserted.

I sat in my camp chair and enjoyed the afternoon thunderstorms as they rolled in, snug under the awning of my pop-up camper. I always love the smell of rain in the pines. The wind picked up, and I heard the patter of raindrops as the front rushed over me. That’s when I noticed all the squirrels and camp robbers. There were lots of them around.

Too many.

I’ve only seen two things that will fill up a deserted site like that. One is a natural disaster, like a fire. But then, you know, they’re all sort of passing through in a big hurry. These critters were settling in. That could only mean one thing: dinner’s on the way. With jays and squirrels, that meant people coming. Lots of them.

I cursed and dashed out into the pouring rain to break camp. I had just rounded the back of my camper, crank handle in hand, when a Dryad stepped out of her tree and planted a big kiss on my lips.

Never been kissed by a Dryad? Think back to that year your hormones took over and girls suddenly went from creepy to enthralling. Think of that special girl you had in your sights — you know, the nice one who treated you halfway like a human being and maybe even liked you a little bit: the girl you desperately wanted to ask to the Saturday matinee. You’d buy the popcorn, and your fingers would touch when you reached into the bucket, and then your eyes would meet shyly under the flickering light of the big screen, and she’d give you a Mona Lisa smile and close her eyes, her lips just ever-so-slightly puckered, waiting; you’d lean toward her, feel her soft breath on your lips. 

Remember that kiss? No, no, not the real one — that one turned into a crawling-away-on-your-knees disaster, which first kisses have a way of doing. No, I’m talking about that perfect kiss you imagined over and over as you lay in bed under a thin sheet on hot summer nights while the crickets sang love songs to each other. That kiss.

Well, a Dryad’s kiss is a lot like that. Only better.

Of course, then you get sucked into her tree, never to be seen again in the mortal world. 

So I growled and bit her tongue, hard, and she jerked away immediately with a squawk.

“Wah wath thah foah?” she shrieked as I spat out the taste of pine tar and turpentine.

“No offense lady, but I really don’t have the time for this.”

She stomped back into her tree, which shook and dumped several dozen pine cones on me. The tree was tall — they stung when they hit. Dryads can get a bit touchy when you turn them down.

I had the camper top cranked down and was working on the hitch when the first RV pulled into sight. The rain fell in buckets, so all I saw were the headlamps and a shadowy square bulk behind it, like the glowing eyes of the fabled Questing Beast struggling to drag itself out of a giant cracker box. Another pair of glowing eyes appeared behind it, and another behind that. A whole bloody goddamned caravan.

My feet went icy cold, and the hitch pulled free from my hands. I looked down. Water covered my feet: a miniature torrent raced at a strange angle across the hillside, through my campsite and under my truck, which slipped sideways as soil and gravel washed out from under the tires. I heard a grinding thunk as the rear axle high-centered on a big rock that had been buried deep beneath soil a moment ago.

Crap.

I glared at the river, which had been diverted by a swarm — or do they call it a nuisance? — of Naiads, who grinned maliciously over their shoulders with their pointed little teeth bared, and waggled their shapely naked little tushes at me. Mischief done, they let the water return to its normal course.

I glanced back at the Dryad’s tree; she stood with her fists on her hips and a satisfied smirk on her pretty face. She stuck out her tongue at me. I noticed she’d sprouted two tiny branches on either side of her tongue where I’d bitten her. I stuck out my own tongue and with my fingers pantomimed two branches sticking out of it. 

She glared and shrieked and ran back into her tree. Two more pine cones fell on my camper.

I didn’t need to see the pentacle decals on the RVs, or the bumper-stickers that read, “My other car is a broom,” to know that a passel of nature-worshipping Pagans had invaded my campsite.

You see, this is the reason I avoid other people. Somehow, other people’s beliefs take on solid form around me. The sudden appearance of Dryads and Naiads told me everything I needed to know about my new human neighbors.

Don’t ask me how or why this happens. I have no idea. Back in the days before it got so bad it drove me out on my hermit’s pilgrimage, most people said it was just my imagination. They twirled their fingers and rolled their eyes when they thought I wasn’t looking.

Then one day these nice young Mormons came to my door, and right in the middle of our conversation the Angel of Death materialized on my doorstep — complete with wings, scythe, and gauzy black robe that fluttered in an invisible breeze. One of the Mormons fainted dead away, the other went white and peed his pants. Turned out the angel wasn’t there for any of us, he’d just lost his way and wanted directions. It made sense, in a way: streets were pretty tangled in that neighborhood, and we always had lost pizza delivery guys asking directions. I’d have thought a divine archetype like Death would at least have access to a good map, though. Maybe it’s some fine point of Mormon theology. At least their Angels stop to ask for directions — don’t get me started on the Catholic Angels.

At any rate, that incident put an end to the idea it was my imagination.

Things only got worse after that. I had UFO’s ruining my lawn and smashing the begonias, aliens with disgusting ideas of “fun” camped out in my bathroom, Communists under the bed who smoked those hideous little European cigars and demanded espresso during the day and vodka at night, black helicopters that buzzed my house at six in the morning — “stealth” my ass, they’re as noisy as a blender full of marbles — and I don’t even want to talk about what lived in the basement. Or what it cost to feed it. Fortunately, it liked dog food.

One day I got tired of it all and jumped in my car and drove away. As I got away from people, the UFOs veered off, the black helicopters took off after them, and the gremlins who had stowed away in my trunk pounded on the lid until I let them out. I had a completely normal weekend for the first time in years. Not long after that, I bought my little pop-up camper and became a solitary nomad.

Now I was suddenly and completely surrounded by Pagans, and Dryads were coming out of the woods. Literally.

The lead RV stopped, and the door swung open. The driver was a bear of a man, completely bald with an untidy blonde-gray beard that poured out over his enormous belly and covered most of the tie-died wife-beater he wore. He stayed inside the cab and out of the rain.

“Merry meet!” he bellowed over the roar of rain that pounded on his RV.

I growled back something, as I contemplated what irresistible force might get my immovable truck to move again.

His eyes grew wide when he saw my truck. “Bummer!” he exclaimed. “When this rain stops, we’ll help you get that thing unstuck.”

I sighed and resigned myself to fate. I was drenched, cold, and wasn’t going anywhere right now. I unfolded my camper and went inside to change out of my wet clothing.

The rain let up just after sunset, and the air warmed suddenly as it sometimes does after a rainfall in the high mountains. By the time the first stars showed, the weather was almost balmy. The campfires leapt high, and the drums started.

Pagans are fun to be around, I suppose, at least for ordinary people. They live at the wilder edge of urban society, and you can easily score some free booze or some ‘shrooms or even a hot night in the sack if you’re polite. But they have the weirdest beliefs. I hated running into Pagans in the woods.

As the drums got going, the whole place grew thick with fairies — so thick that some of them were forced into the updrafts from the fires and took off like bottle rockets with little fairy shrieks as their hair caught fire. They came back down bald and smoking and mad as hell, and tiny fistfights broke out.

Gods and goddesses wandered around — generally identifiable since they were nine feet tall and glowed in the dark — and they blessed people as they tried to pick up free booze, ‘shrooms, and women or men (or occasionally both); one of them handed out four-color brochures for time-share condo opportunities on the astral planes.

Strange shapes lurched in the dark forest around us, like this dude about eight feet tall with antlers, or the short pudgy guy who walked bent-over as he played an enormous flute about the size of a didgeridoo. Then I got a better look at the short guy, and I realized it wasn’t a flute at all…. Well! Maybe he’d keep my Dryad busy tonight. All in all, it seemed pretty innocuous, and since I was stuck here, I cadged some booze and relaxed into the spirit of the thing.

After a while, I wandered over to the biffy to relieve myself. It was an old outhouse that went back — according to the carving on the wooden seat that I’d seen earlier today — to the Works Project Administration under Franklin Roosevelt. It certainly smelled that old. I opened the door, and immediately slammed it shut again, my heart racing. Very carefully, I opened it a crack, and shone my flashlight in, pointed up to reflect off the ceiling. It had not been my imagination.

Seated on the WPA seat was the biggest damned fly I’d ever seen. No, that isn’t right. That conjures an image of a really big fly, maybe an inch or two across. This one sat upright on the seat, and it brushed the ceiling. Its wings were all scrunched against the walls, but it managed a loud buzz nonetheless. I slammed the door again and looked around frantically for a big rock to wedge it shut.

As I listened to the aircraft drone inside the biffy, I could make out words. I listened harder. “Commmmmm innnnnn, zzzhooommmmannnnn,” it buzzed. “Worzzzzzhip mmmmmeeee.” 

“Who the Hell are you?” I asked as I pounded a rock into place with my foot. Not the best way to phrase things around a bunch of Pagan deities, I suppose, but my heart still raced. I wasn’t in the mood for polite.

“Beellzzzzhebuuub, looorrrd uvvv zheee fliiezzh,” it buzzed. Beelzebub? Wait a minute, wasn’t he some kind of Demon Lord from Hell? What kind of Pagans…?

Oh, crap and double-crap.

Sure enough, more RV’s crawled up the road. I’d bet good money these would be emblazoned with crosses and Bible verse bumper stickers. I was not disappointed. The only thing I hate to encounter in the woods more than Pagans is Born-Again Christians. 

The Christians pulled into the next clearing over, and soon had their awnings up and campfires burning. In short order, they had four Guardian Angels who faced outward at the corners of their site — mean-looking bastards with enormous wings and big hands that rested on the hilts of the nasty Roman-style short swords that hung from their belts — and a soft golden glow rose up from the center of their camp as the Christians started to sing hymns. Several of them cast scowls at the Pagan group, no doubt irritated by the drums and the theology over here.

The drums petered out, then started again in a slower rhythm. I could see that the whole Pagan group had formed a circle, surrounded by a glow of mystical blue light like a gas ring on a propane stove. The Pagan drums picked up speed, and the Christian hymns picked up volume.

I heard a howl from the forest followed by a string of some of the vilest language I’ve ever heard. It was hard to see in the firelight, but I thought I saw the short guy with the … ahem, didgeridoo up in the low branches of one of the big pines, screaming at something dark and sinuous and very large on the ground. He threw pine cones at it. A Dryad popped out of the tree to scold him, saw his target, and ran straight back into the tree with a squeak.

A blood-curdling shriek rose from the center of the Pagan circle and the dark form of a banshee drifted through the blue flames into the woods where it put up an absolutely awful racket. The hymns faltered, and most of the Christians fell to their knees to pray.

I decided then and there to make for the top of my camper, despite the little sticker that cited a maximum load of seventy-five pounds. It held my weight just fine.

I saw a light appear in the sky, and wondered if someone in this crowd had brought the black helicopters or UFOs into the mix, but it turned out to be an Archangel: Gabriel, I think, the one with the horn. He cut loose with a doomsday riff — damn, he was good — and three or four of the Christians vanished simultaneously with a muffled pop, leaving their clothing behind.

A cheer went up from the Pagans, and they began to chant, “RAP-ture, RAP-ture, TAKE ‘em ALL, TAKE ‘em ALL…” in time to their drums. No more Christians vanished, but I could see that those left behind were sorely vexed. They stood and belted out “Onward, Christian Soldiers” at the top of their lungs, so fiercely that even their Guardian Angels glanced nervously at each other.

They’d picked a martial tempo for their song that happened to match the beat of the Pagan drums, and next thing I knew, the banshee had drifted into the Christian camp and joined the singing with a fairly tuneful descant, despite the fact that a banshee sounds mostly like someone torturing a rusty hinge. The guy with the big flute settled back on his branch and picked up the melody. Gabriel flew down into the tree and jammed with the flute guy: the two of them together were hot. The four Guardian Angels abandoned their posts and started a Morris Dance with their swords, and the Eden Serpent — maybe it was the Midgard Serpent, I can’t really tell the difference — rose up like a cobra and swayed in time to the beat. The big guy with the antlers minced a minuet in the moonlight — now, that was bizarre. The fairies spread out and swarmed and swooped and swerved like glowing whirlwinds.

Way cool.

I’d forgotten entirely about Beelzebub. The fly in the ointment, so to speak.

The outhouse exploded in a flash of dull red fire and the most awful stink — truly a Smell from Hell — and dozens, hundreds, thousands of dark shapes crawled out over the WPA seat and swarmed the surprised Guardian Angels, taking them down before they could untangle their swords. Gabriel blew a raucous blue note and leaped from the branch to assist his angelic brothers: his baldric caught, and he ended up swinging upside-down over the Serpent, who seemed hypnotized by the motion. I wondered what would happen when he stopped swinging. The Lord of the Flies Himself stalked toward the Christians on his skinny hind legs, buzzing ominously, and the swarming black shapes swirled around both groups and pressed hard against the golden and the blue light. The Christians screamed. The Pagans screamed. I think I screamed.

And then Beelzebub’s eye popped off.

It hit the ground and rolled a bit and then wobbled around like a metal colander. It was a metal colander: you could see the little handles on the rim. The other eye popped off, and a scared human face looked out through the enormous eye-holes, white against the dark fabric of the costume. Beelzebub turned tail and ran. One wire-and-gauze wing fell off.

The rising moon cleared the shoulder of the great peak to the east, and the swarm of black-footed ferrets that circled both camps, now clearly visible in the moonlight, scampered off into the woods as the whirlwinds of iridescent dragonflies dispersed. The eight-foot guy tripped over his platform shoes with a muffled curse and left his antlers caught in the branches of a tree, chin-strings dangling. I heard the didgeridoo deflate with a flabby sound, Gabriel’s baldric ripped and he landed on his horn with a sound like a beer can being crushed, and the giant Eden Serpent ripped in two and disgorged a bunch of Chinese guys with sparklers, who ran screaming incoherently into the woods. 

What on earth?

Another vehicle crunched its way up the gravel road. It stopped in the center of the camp area, and a slender, athletic, very pretty young woman stepped out. She glared at the shocked Christians, who stood in the dirty yellow glow of their Coleman lantern. She glared at the stunned Pagans inside the ring of blue glow-sticks scattered on the ground around them. She scowled at the smoldering remains of the outhouse with its wooden seat that dated from the Roosevelt administration. She sniffed, and her nose wrinkled. She tapped her foot.

“That’s it!” she shouted. “Everyone out. Site’s closed. Douse your fires, pack up and move out. NOW!” Her Park Ranger badge flashed in the moonlight. Both groups moved slowly, like rusty wind-up toys, but they doused the fires and took down their tents and awnings and started back down the mountain road.

“That means you, too, Mister!” She glared up at me where I sat on top of my pop-up camper. I gestured to my truck, which remained high-centered on a rock. She frowned.

“How on earth did you manage that?” she asked as she examined the truck.

I stared at her, enthralled. “If I told you it all started when I turned down a kiss from a tree spirit, you wouldn’t believe me, would you?”

She made a rude sound. “No,” she said.

“What do you believe?” I asked.

“Damned little,” she replied, and looked me straight in the eye with her level gray gaze. I’ve always loved gray eyes. 

“So you’re a skeptic.”

She grinned. “My mama once told me I wouldn’t even suckle ‘till I checked out both nipples to make sure I wasn’t getting cheated. Yeah, I’m a skeptic.”

A skeptic with enough Disbelief to completely mute two camps of warring True Believers. How interesting. How … wonderful.

“Look,” she continued, “you’re going nowhere in your truck tonight, but you can’t stay here — health hazard.” She gestured toward the smoking outhouse. “There’s a couch at the ranger station. We’ll come back in the morning and get you out of that hole.”

A nice girl who treats me like a human being. My heart raced.

“Do you believe in love at first sight?” I blurted out. She stared at me in silence for a long time.

“It’s probably the only thing I do believe in,” she answered with a Mona Lisa smile.

Around me, other people’s beliefs become real.

“Then I think,” I said, carefully, my heart in my throat, “that you and I were made for each other.”

And by the way, I was wrong. A Dryad’s kiss is not one bit better than the real thing.

Copyright © 2019, Joseph C. Nemeth, all rights reserved

Home Projects

“Honey, the tires on the casita are still flat!”

“They’re not flat!” I replied. “I looked at them this morning, and they were still round.”

“You haven’t been outside the house since you got out of bed.”

“Fine, I looked at them recently.”

“They’re soft, and it’s going to ruin the tires, and then we’ll have to buy new tires. Just put some air in them.”

“Fine. Later. After I’ve had my coffee.”

“Your first cup, or your seventh? It’s already getting hot outside. Just go put some air in the tires.”

I hate home projects. Virulently. Meaning — literally — like a virus. My dislike is actually contagious. If someone even mentions a home project in my presence, my aversion reaches out through the psychic aether and affects everyone nearby. The person talking about his home project starts wanting to hire it out. People who do that kind of project for a living start thinking about changing careers.

I especially hate little home projects. Because there is no such thing. Only puny expectations.

Put some air in the casita’s tires. Fine.

Our casita is a little 8′ pop-up camper that has lived in our driveway since we moved into the house last December. As I inspect it, it seems that the tires have, indeed, gone a little soft.

The first thing is to get rid of the spider webs. We have spiders, here, and those little bastards can web over a doorway faster than Spiderman. They’d had a couple of generations to craft the little spider Manhattan in, on, and around the tires of the casita. I don’t want to reach in and have my hand look like lunch to a city full of eight-legged New Yorkers.

I need to get into the garage to get the spider-brush. I don’t have my keys. I search in three places before I find them. I unlock the garage. I find the spider-brush, which was (of course) right where I’d left it, but not right where I looked.

After evicting the eight million residents of Spidopolis, I need to get low enough to read the tire. My knees don’t work like they used to, so I end up sitting on the ground. My hand sticks briefly to the cement as I lift it: there’s a 100-foot pine tree shading the casita, and little drops of pine sap are everywhere. I wonder if I’ve ruined another pair of shorts.

Tires always have a big logo on them, telling you who takes credit for making it, but the PSI (Pounds per Square Inch) rating is, if present at all, in the middle of a long paragraph of specifications involving load distribution on a single axle mount under lateral shear from winds up to 30 MPH, provided you aren’t at the North or South Pole, where gravity is slightly stronger. All of this is written in raised black-on-black, so if the light isn’t exactly right, you can’t read it at all.

And then, there’s bifocals. Not only does the light need to be exactly right, you can’t tilt your head to the side, or your glasses go wonky, and then you can’t read the E on an eye chart at three feet.

I finally puzzle out enough of this black rubber vowelless Ogham to think it’s calling for 80 PSI. Which is — for a tire — kind of high. I don’t believe what I’m seeing, so I have to go check the other tire. First, evict Los Spidangeles. Then back down on the ground on the other side.

More pine sap.

It would be normal at this point to find out that I have two entirely different tires, with two different pressure ratings. But it appears they are both the same, which gives me pause: this looks entirely too easy.

It turns out, that would have been entirely too easy.

I have to hunt down the tire gauge, and find it exactly where it belongs in the car, giving me another twinge of foreboding. The tires are at 40 PSI, so they are soft — no escape in that quarter.

All I have is a bicycle tire pump. It should do the job, I think, since 80 PSI for a bicycle tire is pretty normal. I dig out the tire pump, which is also right where it should be, another bad sign.

This is when I get reintroduced to Boyle’s Law, up close and sweaty. Bicycle tires are kind of, like, really, really thin. You know? They may have 80 PSI in them, but there isn’t a whole lot of actual air. So I pump until I am sweating pretty hard, and check the tire pressure again. 45 PSI. I remember Boyle’s Law. I do a quick calculation: if 20 vigorous pumps will top off a bicycle tire to 80 PSI, a tire with this volume, will, conservatively speaking, take about 20,000 vigorous pumps. Or maybe it’s 200,000 vigorous pumps. I invoke Themon’s Law of Large Numbers, which states that any two large numbers which apply to sweaty, physical labor, are equivalent.

“I’m off to the hardware store!”

Every home project, no matter how small, ends up at the hardware store, usually multiple times. I actually had a second, also-stalled, home project I needed something for, and thought it would be just grand if I could take care of that and get an electric tire pump, or at least one of the old foot-pumps like my father had in his car: those things have a big, fat air cylinder on them that can move a lot of air.

Three stores later, I come back empty-handed. No tire pumps of any sort. And the other project — well, I think it is going to be a custom design that requires a hand-crafted alloy of osmium, beryllium, and transparent aluminum. That’s for next weekend.

It’s lunchtime, now. So after lunch, I decide it’s time to just get smart and take the stupid thing to the gas station and fill the tires. The tires are still round, after all. It can be towed.

But the lock on the ball-and-socket has been out in the rain since December. Oops. It opens, but I’m concerned it won’t open if I close it again. So out comes the WD-40, the 3-in-1 oil, and a million paper towels. Now the lock works.

My wife helps me hitch the thing up. The hitch itself is where it belongs, the lights work once connected, and we’re off. Just down the street a quarter mile or so.

“Stop!” my wife yells at me. “You need a license!”

Sure enough, the trailer doesn’t have a license plate. That was a whole different story, from last June through December, dealing with the California DMV, and we actually got the plate a week after we’d already parked the casita against the fence. The plate is in my wife’s office.

I look at the spot where the license goes, and there are no screws. There are no screws with the license plate, either.

So what kind of idiot takes the old license plate off the back of a trailer, and doesn’t put the screws back in the holes?

Oh, right. I guess that would be an idiot like me.

This would, of course, have been the perfect opportunity for the second trip to the hardware store. It would have been, if my wife hadn’t been involved.

We spend five minutes searching through the “screw box” containing every screw I’ve ever collected over the last fifty years, for something close to the right size. My wife pulls out two candidates. From traces of rubber and glue on the head, I realize they are actually the original screws from the old license. In the box with every other screw from the last fifty years.

I finally get on the road, and when I arrive at the gas station, I discover that the the air pump needs quarters. Guess where my wallet is. No, don’t guess, it’s obvious.

I drive back home, pick up my wallet, and return. I go inside to get quarters, and the clerk tells me I don’t need quarters, the air is free. I give him a strange look, and ask how I turn it on. He tells me that I don’t: he turns it on.

I go back out into the rising afternoon heat — it’s well after noon, now — and the air machine is chugging away as advertised. So I finally — finally — put air in the tires.

Up to 60 PSI. The pump is for car tires. It doesn’t even go to 80 PSI.

I return home, the job half-done with no real prospect of completion in sight, and wrestle the casita back into its spot, which involves a ninety degree turn at the end of the driveway. By this point, piece of cake.

A reasonably successful home project. Hey, the tires are up to 60 PSI.

The sad thing is that I’ll have a work meeting tomorrow, and before it starts, people will compare what they did over the weekend.

“Oh, I put in a deck in the back yard.”

“That’s nice! I rebuilt the engine on my 1966 Mustang.”

“Some buddies and I went hang-gliding.”

“So Themon, what did you do this weekend?”

As God is my witness, I have no idea what to tell them.

May the Fourth Be With You

So I just took my leave of my dear wife, abandoning her in the dining room alone with her Sudoko, to come up here and rant in — as I told her — an indignant and self-righteous manner.

I want to know why I am always the LAST to know.

We just celebrated Beltaine in the park, and Marta and I got to be the May Queen and the Green Man (respectively), and we went, as is our wont, to a restaurant afterward to rehydrate in a beer-centric way after our strenuous declamations. As we sat, waiting for our orders to arrive, we saw two Jedi Knights across the street, complete with drawn lightsabers. I called everyone’s attention to this unusual parade, and they glanced, shrugged, said “Meh,” and went back to their various conversations.

“WTF?” I said, only slightly more politely than that. “Two Jedi Knights on the streets of Fort Collins [sounds like an old Western ballad, incidentally], and all I get from you guys is, Meh?”

“Well, what do you expect?” one of them asked. “It’s May fourth.”

My blank expression evoked a kind of pitying response. “May the Fourth be with you?” my respondent suggested, with his eyebrows raised. “They’re having a Star Wars trivia contest at the other end of the bar, if you want to go down there and fleece some youngsters.”

May the Fourth be with you?

I missed Pi Day for exactly the same reason — not knowing about it. Now I missed Star Wars Day? Which was a big enough deal that Jedi Knights showed up on the streets of our small town? And they had trivia contests in the bars? And maybe that’s why the police had blocked off the downtown streets?

You mean I could have bought a ride on a Banta? Negotiated in some hive of scum and villainy for passage on the Millennium Falcon? Waved my hand and said to two Storm Troopers, “Move along?”

Sigh.

This is how dreams are crushed before they’re even born.

I post this as a warning to you young whippersnappers out there. It’s bad enough that your knees start to hurt. It’s bad enough that you get floaters in your eyes, and stones in your kidneys, and fasciitises in your plantars. But the really hard part is getting left out of all the fun stuff.

Still, we can take our revenge. There is an old saying, “Youth and strength can never overcome age and cunning.” So I offer to all of you young whippersnappers who want to hold a Star Wars Day and not bother to tell ME about it, the following cautionary ballad, sung to the tune of “The Streets of Laredo.”

As I walked down in the streets of Fort Collins
As I walked down in Fort Collins today,
I spied two young Jedi, all wrapped in brown homespun
Their sabers were drawn, and they glowed a pale gray.

“I see by your homespun, that you are both Jedi.”
These words I did say as they swiftly strode by.
They glanced at me coldly, and then at each other.
“He’s harmless,” they said, and avoided my eye.

“One moment,” I said, as they turned to pass by me,
Pass by me with pity, with scorn and disdain.
“What want you, old man?” asked the older young Jedi.
“The party begun has, do not us detain.”

“I see by your accent that Yoda has trained you,
And Yoda is strong in the Force, so they say,
But come to the Dark Side, with all of its pleasures,
And stronger than Yoda you’ll be, yet today.”

“A Sith Lord!” they shouted, and raised both their sabers,
I gestured and shook my head softly, and sighed,
“No Sith Lord am I, my impetuous Jedi,
But beat you I shall, for your shoes are untied.”

At home, o’er my mantle two light sabers nestle,
Their grips are all burnished, they glow a pale gray.
Their homespun-clad Jedi went home without honor,
They fell for my ruse in Fort Collins, today.

Pie Porn

Today I had an epiphany.

It started off with a Saint Patrick’s Day joke on Facebook, that goes like this:

An Irishman walks out of a bar.

Thigh-slapper, isn’t it? Yeah, I didn’t get it at first, either.

Then someone told me it was Pi Day, except you can’t hear the absence of the silent ‘e’ in Pie Day, which is what I thought they were talking about. We’ve had sillier national holidays, so how was I to know? For those of you who aren’t clued-in, today is 3.14 (March fourteenth). Of course, this was really funny in 1593. Someone had to explain this one to me, too.

After it was explained, I quipped about it on Facebook, and got the fracking year wrong. Then someone saw it and corrected me. Themon’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good Day.

On top of that, I had the remainder of my wisdom extracted forcibly from my head a week ago, and while the sedation was nice enough, I didn’t even wake up with an interesting story about the desire to adopt a new uncle. On top of which, the painkillers gave me a nasty case of the solids, so to speak, abetted by the all-liquid diet with the occasional side of mashed potatoes.

It had all left me quite grumpy.

So when two of our dearest friends called us tonight and said they were missing us, and had a Pie (pizza) in the oven, and Pie for dessert in honor of today, and started describing the Pie they had eaten at work today, The Epiphany struck.

Pie Porn.

It works like this. You start with a bank of phone lines, and a 1-900 pay-per-minute service. You then contact extremely sexy women, from high-pressure-killer CEOs in thousand-dollar suits, to blood-pressure-killer booth babes in Spandex who set out those tastings in the liquor stores, and tell them all that you have an opportunity for them to act out their deepest fantasies, and get paid for it. They come to your phone banks, put their hair up in an untidy bun, put on a fresh-pressed, dryer-warm apron, dab a bit of flour on their cheeks and noses, and start talking to men about … Pie. It goes like this:

Welcome to Pie Porn, this is Gladys, what are you in the mood for tonight?

What you got cookin’, sweetheart?

How about a fresh peach cobbler?

Oooh. Yeah. Tell me more.

Well, I did a lattice crust, and it’s just perfect: golden brown, flaky, just a little crisp, with little glistening crystals of sugar sprinkled on top, and in between the slats you can see mounds of golden peach in a thick, sweet sauce….

Oh, baby, yeah, keep going!

I cut a slice while it was still warm, and it came right out of the pan, no sticking, you know? Firm and perfectly shaped. The peaches — oh, my Lord, sweet like they ripened yesterday afternoon. And the bottom crust, it wasn’t the least bit soggy. It’s almost as flaky as the top.

(sound of lips being licked)

And you know, everybody eats peach cobbler with ice cream, but I think that’s just too sticky-sweet. Don’t you? Especially with peaches like these. So I dribbled heavy cream over it. And then ate it with a fork. Slowly….

(moans of pleasure)

But I don’t know. My friends all came over and  ate every last crumb, and now I’m thinking of making a strawberry-rhubarb pie….

Enough! Enough! Marry me now!

This is obviously a great psychological release for all of those attractive women who have put every microgram of their souls into trying to make themselves even more attractive by the standards of that peculiar confusion of sex and death that informs the ghastly anorexia of the modern fashion industry, and then leveraging that hard-won attractiveness into a daily wage. Here, they get to unwind, think about being a dowdy grandmother with a dozen doting grandkids, a cat, and good friends who drop by at ten in the morning for a cup of coffee and some chat. Tell me, ladies, that this has no appeal.

But who would the customers be? I’m glad you asked, since the customer is key to any successful business.

Older men, of course, but not just any older men. You want the rich older men. The ones who will call a 900 number and stay on for hours, and never look at their phone bill unless they want to call the phone company and say, “… and you charged me $(insert value from latest bill) for this kind of crappy service? What nerve!” You know, an older guy who has memberships in three different health clubs, and runs marathons, and throws a few hoops with the guys a couple of times a week, and tries to keep up with that hot trophy wife who is a third his age, but dammit, tonight she wanted to go dancing again, and he wanted to stay home and maybe finish that biography of Robert Kennedy he’d been reading by that know-nothing child of an author who hadn’t even been born when Reagan was President — Ronald Reagan, for God’s sake! — and who obviously didn’t have a clue about what Vietnam was really about, or what the 60’s felt like, tasted like, smelled like, and if she’d stayed home she’d have just pouted and texted her girlfriends and watched reality TV all night, so he’d sent her out dancing anyway, and he was sure she’d hook up with that dance instructor of hers and have a good time. The kind of guy who’d get a hankering at about ten o’ clock in the evening for a slice of peach cobbler, or maybe fresh blueberry, or even the kinky sort who goes in for chocolate creme with a dash of bourbon, but alas, the wife is out dancing with Juan, and can’t heat a can of beans, anyway, and besides, his heart can’t afford the calories or the sugar.

That’s your customer. It’s the next phase for the Baby Boomers. Pie Porn.

Remember, you heard it here, first.

Auguries

It’s the tenth of January, and I’m running late. Everyone else already has their New Year’s Predictions out, and I’m still muddling along, thinking about last year.

However, I’ve taken inspiration from John Michael Greer’s latest blog entry over on the Archdruid Report. In this blog he talks a bit about the year 2030. Of course, he is a thoroughgoing skeptic, having written a book, Apocalypse Not, in which he catalogues numerous End-Of-The-World scenarios that pepper human history back to Pharaohic Egypt and before. None of which, I might add (though I should not have to), has come to pass. He takes an equally jaundiced view of the growing significance of the date 2030 in the Doomer literary and philosophical genre, viewing it as merely the next date for publishers and writers to make a lot of money.

I think he’s wrong about this. Completely wrong. The year 2030 shall be the Big Enchilada, the Ship That Finally Comes In, the Promised Land, Hallelujah!

Unfortunately, in keeping with the rest of human history, our grand end as a species shall not be a tragic affair, but rather a pratfall. A whoopee cushion. A Vaudeville skit. A cosmic joke.

You see, as I was washing dishes by hand this evening, contemplating the future of technology and other human follies, I realized “planned obsolescence” was not invented in the 1950’s. It is, rather, the Everpresent Invisible Hand of History that has driven human civilization for as long as we’ve had clay tablets to write on, and sharp sticks to write on them with.

Consider: back in the 1700’s, let’s say 1730 for convenience, they really built houses to last in this country — they were built to last at least 300 years. By 1830, they were already cutting corners, and a nice, solid brick building was only good for 200 years. By 1930, housing had fallen to 100-year standards. A house built in 2000, of course, will be lucky to keep the rain out within 30 years. We can go back in time to Rome (a solid 2000-year standard in 30) or the pyramids of Egypt (warranted for 3000 years in 970 BC), and the clear pattern begins to emerge.

This is the pattern that gives evidence of a vast, unconscious human sense of our destiny as a species upon the earth, a global premonition of all the hopes, fears, dreams, and disappointments of every human who has lived since our appearance some 200,000 years ago.

2030 will be the year that everything falls apart.

That’s right, everything. Absolutely everything. The year it literally falls apart.

Cheap asphalt shingles on houses in the US will crumble at exactly the same time that slate tiles placed on villas in Spain several centuries ago will crack and turn to mud in the rain. The latest Volt to come off the production line will fail to move on the same day that the last surviving Model T Ford refuses to turn over, and the last museum-preserved Roman chariot gives in to dry rot and loses both wheels. The Microsoft Windows Apocalypse edition of 2030 will be indistinguishable from the Mac OS X Meganterion release that same year, and both will fail to boot, even with patches (leading to the expression, “death by a thousand patches,” which will be utterly incomprehensible to future generations). Transistors will fail to transist, tube radios will blow smoke, and professional yodelers will contract terminal laryngitis. The bindings on new books will fall off before you get to the register at Barnes and Noble; that same week, the last living scholars of Greek, Latin, Old Norse, and Proust will suffer fatal heart attacks. Ink will fade, hand-crafted beer will turn into Budweiser, Coke will finally taste exactly like Pepsi. The bristles will fall out of every toothbrush in the world, Q-tips will unravel, and toilet paper will refuse to tear.

People will take to the streets to riot, but bricks will crumble to sand before they can be thrown at the police. The police will fire tear gas rounds that land at their own feet and release a few sporadic bursts of flatulence. Looters will find the store windows already fractured under their own weight, and the television sets they try to steal will drop their innards all the way home. Gunpowder will fail to ignite, and standing armies will beat their swords into small piles of rust and hurl deadly insults at each other.

It will be … a most unpleasant time.

Woe be unto those who rely upon electric toothbrushes, for their teeth shall remain fuzzy.

Woe be unto those who rely upon the microwave oven, for their pizza shall be forever cold.

Woe be unto those who live by the Internet, for they shall have to tell their stupid jokes to those who have heard them before.

Woe be unto the commuter, who shall have to walk home.

Woe be unto those with indoor plumbing, for toilets shall leak, and plungers shall fail to plunge, and there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.

And so forth.

The died-in-the-wool Futurists like Ray Kurzweil or David Brin like to talk about The Singularity — a point in the future where the rate of increase in knowledge and technology becomes essentially infinite, and humans become immortal godlings of pure intellect, no longer dependent on this rough material world.

It would be nice if all that could show up in, say, 2029. Because in 2030, it all falls apart.

The Joys of Dishwashing

UnknownOur labor-saving automatic dishwashing machine broke.

Actually, it didn’t break, exactly. It developed a leak, which is much worse. First, there was a tiny wet spot on the floor: a spill, we thought, or maybe a spot of dog drool from when we were a little slow dishing up Dorian’s dinner. Then there was a bigger wet spot. Then there was a really big wet spot.

It only happens when we run the thing, so after the third leak, we stopped using it and considered our options.

It probably isn’t a big deal, just a door seal or something. A minor repair.

But to repair it, we have to figure out exactly where it’s leaking, and why, and then go to Home Depot to discover that they stopped stocking that exact thickness of sealing tape ten minutes ago, and no, they can’t order it because they don’t make that stuff any more. We’ll have to figure out how to improvise a solution using epoxy aerogel and shaved rubber grommets. Since we aren’t experienced, we’ll undoubtedly get it wrong the first two times, which means at least two more leaks, probably major. Then we’ll have to scrape out all the rubber and epoxy, hope we haven’t damaged things beyond repair, and start over. On the third try, we’ll probably get it right, or close enough, but the machine might not function at all with those big, boot-shaped dents in the front, and even if it does, we’ll spend the next three weeks checking the floor every five minutes while it runs. It runs for over ninety minutes, so that’s eighteen unnecessary worry-filled trips to the kitchen.

This option is not attractive.

We could, of course, hire an experienced dishwasher repair person to come out and fix it for us. For a price. Since the problem involves water inside the house, a truly unnatural arrangement when you think about it, it will be a pretty stiff price. If there are any such people to begin with. And when he or she is done, we’ll still be checking it every five minutes for leaks.

This option is also not attractive.

Then there’s the obvious, patriotic solution: just go out and buy a new one! That’s what our economy is all about, right? And they are doubtless having a sale somewhere. Of course, we don’t want the cheapest hunk of junk we can find, we want something quiet that cleans the dishes really well, doesn’t use a lot of water and energy, has plenty of capacity, is easy to arrange our dishes in, and which fits the hole under the cabinet. So to Consumer Reports we go, and … Holy Cow! It’s not like buying a new car or anything, but Holy Cow!

There is no inflation in America.
There is no inflation in America.
There is no inflation in America.

So we did the sensible thing, and decided to stop thinking about it.

Of course, in the meantime, there are those dirty dishes already in the labor-saving automatic dishwashing machine, and they’re getting a little gamey. And there’s that plate I used for lunch, and the bowl for my breakfast cereal, and dagnabit, I just need to break down and wash them by hand.

Washing all the dishes by hand has brought about a few minor epiphanies.

For one thing, I realized I was already washing most of the dishes by hand, anyway.

If you try to fit in any of the pots or pans, that’s it — there’s no room for anything else — so the big stuff always stayed out, and got washed by hand. Then there are all the things that are not dishwasher-safe — the good knives with wooden handles, for instance, or the wooden serving tongs that Marta likes to use for serving salad, or the bamboo chopsticks I like to use for Oriental meals, or any of the gadgets and gizmos with moving metal parts that rust quickly inside the steamy hot-box of the machine. I’d guess at least fifty to sixty percent of our daily wash-up did not go into the machine in the first place.

Then there’s the psycho-efficiency factor, which means that bad feeling you get when you waste a detergent pellet and a whole dishwasher cycle for two bowls and a spoon.  Somehow, it just doesn’t seem right, and I’ve never found a formula for justifying it to myself: and trust me, I’m good at that sort of thing. So to avoid a daily psycho-efficiency meltdown, we’d load up the dishwasher until it was full. That meant that about half the time, I’d try to pour my morning coffee, only to find that all the coffee cups were in the dishwasher. So I would open the dishwasher, pull out a dirty cup, and wash it by hand.

Then there are all the practical, unwritten rules for using a labor-saving automatic dishwashing machine properly.

Rule one for any dishwasher is: you have to rinse everything first. If you don’t, you’ll find dried granular crud stuck to the concave bottoms of all your coffee mugs, or any other place the water pools and can’t run off. And if something flips in the water jets, like the plastic sippy-cup your grandchild used last time he came over? Yuk. It’s gross. So you have to watch for all these things while you’re taking them out, and if you see any standing water with crud in it, you have to wash it by hand.

Rule two is that there are substances you just can’t put in the dishwasher, because no matter how many cycles you run, things won’t get clean. Scrambled eggs, for instance, turn into a rubbery compound that could be used in airplane tires, and clings like kudzu. Pizza cheese that melted onto the plate in the microwave, comes out of the dishwasher fossilized and atomically bonded to the plate: there’s a rumor that this is how the original thermal tiles for the space shuttle were made. So if you make the mistake of putting any of these substances into the dishwasher, you have to take it out afterwards and wash it off by hand.

Rule three is that there’s an art to arranging spoons. If you just dump them into the flatware rack, they’ll “spoon” — go figure — and when they come out, they’ll be welded together by whatever the bottom spoon was used in. So you have to pry them apart and wash them by hand.

Rule four is that peanut butter stains the knives. We don’t know why this happens. It seems to be some kind of dark alchemy from the Middle Ages rather than chemistry, but however it happens, if you want clean flatware, it’s not enough to rinse the knife you used to spread the peanut butter — you have to wash it off by hand before you put it into the dishwasher.

Rule five is that anything too small, that might get flipped around in the water jets and fall through the racks to jam the sprayer on the bottom, has to be washed by hand.

Unknown-1The sad truth of the matter is this: the labor-saving automatic dishwashing machine is more work than washing the dishes by hand, at least for the two of us. We’ve discovered some true labor-saving tools, as well, that make hand-washing even easier: a good drying rack, and some new dishtowels.

We have a big Fall party coming up, and I may be looking back on our labor-saving automatic dishwashing machine a little nostalgically right after that.

Then again, maybe I’ll really break with tradition and put the guests to work. We can call it a “sobriety checkpoint” — wash three wine glasses or four plates without breaking them, and I’ll return your car keys.

Hmmm. Have to think about that….

Tittiebone

No, you didn’t read that title wrong. In fact, it’s probably causing you as much confusion as it caused me when I was eight.

I grew up in the 1960’s, in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I started Kindergarten in 1962, a year before JFK was assassinated. Wyoming has always been at least ten years behind the rest of the country — “the 60’s” wouldn’t begin for another fifteen years. We were still buried deep in the 1950’s, maybe even the late ’40’s. The closest thing we had to “pornography” was Playboy Magazine, which in those days was just a tiny bit racier than a pin-up calendar you might find in the mechanic’s office: bare breasts, maybe a glimpse of a patch of pubic hair peeking out from behind a draped towel or a silk robe. The hardcore magazines weren’t easy to come by: you had to know someone whose father kept a stash in the footlocker in the basement where he kept his gun.

As a result, everything we actually knew about sex (and girls) came from older brothers, who were not very much more knowledgeable than we were. On top of that, they enjoyed tormenting their little brothers with misinformation. “Santa Claus” doesn’t even amount to a sno-cone shaved off the iceberg of misinformation we carried around daily.

I didn’t have any older brothers. But I had plenty of friends with older brothers, and those friends were the “worldly” kids in our school classes. They were the ones who taught the rest of us how girls got pregnant, and how babies were born, and what kissing was all about.

It reminds me now of the old joke:

Q: Why do blonde women have bruises around their belly buttons?
A: Because blonde men are dumb, too.

Yes, when I was in third grade, belly-buttons had something to do with sex. We weren’t entirely sure what, but we were sure of that much. After all, Craig Johnson’s brother had told him so. And he had a girlfriend.

So I think it was around third grade — I’d have been eight, going on nine — that the term “tittiebone” entered into our vernacular. Not a single one of us knew what it meant, so it quickly became an all-purpose pejorative. It’s something you’d shout at the opposing pitcher in a Little League game: “You TITTIEBONE!” School cafeterias served up tittiebone sandwiches. We’d call someone we didn’t like a tittiebone.  Anyone who touched a tittiebone got girl germs.

Within a year, the word was gone, swallowed up into the etymological void from which it sprang. It’s a word that will bring a faint smile to the lips of anyone who was in third grade in Cheyenne in 1965. Anyone else will scratch his head in befuddlement.