The Beginning, Again

How far the emptiness seems to stretch before me,
Although not nothingness, for I see the days and weeks ahead,
Peering into their empty shells, without form
Passing through the void of the coming year.
Yet, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Never fear, this is just my new calendar,
Empty, yes, but not for long, soon to be full of
Wonders that will happen this coming year; I hope.

Yesterday’s deeds are crossed out, and new
Events are written in – a sortie soon to the symphony,
A work thing in February, birthdays, and a trip, as
Round the sun again we go.

I Have Expensive Taste

I have expensive taste – in some things,
but not in others. I’ve found
that most important to me
is the person who’ll be my company.

If it came to it, I’d choose to stand
in line with you. However long
the wait, it’d be a better home
than fireworks and music for me alone.

What I remember most about that eve
isn’t the performance itself. Though
it was lovely, it would mean much less
without you in that suit, and me in that dress.

I have expensive taste – in company,
in time shared. Remember
the museum? It was our laughter and light
that brought those paintings to life.

Truth in the Forest

I don’t think I’ve ever told you of that Halloween night eighteen years back – a night that started off merely eerie, and ended in something like horror. I haven’t forgotten it, and by the time I’m done, neither will you. And, before you ask, yes, this story is actually true. Just because something is told like a story doesn’t mean it is only a story.

It began like this: it was October 31st, and night, and a well-intentioned neighbor knocked on our door to let us know that she thought she’d seen our horses escape. They were normally confined to the fields and sprawling forest behind our house on the edge of town, but now they were outside the fence. Or so our neighbor thought she’d seen, she couldn’t be sure.

Panicked, my mother and I frantically pulled on boots and jackets and wound scarves hastily about our necks, for there was a wind and a chill in the air. We dashed outside, but saw no horses around the perimeter of the house, and none near the road, which was the most important part. So we decided to divide and conquer. My mother grabbed a bucket of feed and stood by the barn calling, while I set off with a flashlight and my own bucket for the woods.

It could not have been a worse night for finding the quiet, shadowy beasts that horses can be. It was a full moon, to be sure, but that wind was truly raging, shaking the nearly leafless branches and bare vines into a distracting, obstructing dance. I didn’t believe in ghouls or whatever else was supposed to inhabit such environs on such a night, but that didn’t stop me from starting when, much like Little Red Riding Hood, I discovered I was not alone. Our cat, Asta, had followed me, his sooty fur blending in with the dark.

He hopped up on a fallen tree and began meowing insistently. I gave him a caress, but that did nothing. Oh, well, no pleasing cats. I set off through the woods again, calling for the horses, loudly crunching leaves underfoot. Yes, that was the sound I was hearing, just the crunching of leaves. Those leaves crunching wasn’t masking and blending with some other, scuttling noise.

I carried on for some time, finding no evidence of horses, but slowly becoming aware that I thought I heard a buzzing sound, growing louder and a bit louder by the footstep. I was sure it was just a phantom or my own imagination, maybe vibrating leaves in the wind. And, of course, Asta was there still, his meows becoming even more demanding as he began darting in front of my feet, tripping me up more than once – accidentally, I also thought.

Finally, at one spot between two cedar trees, Asta became such a nuisance that I concluded I had better pick him up and carry him the rest of my search. Had I been paying attention, I would have noticed the buzzing sound had swelled into something real and solid, and close.

I hoisted Asta to my waist, but before I could take a step forward, he yowled and scratched at my face, forcing me to drop him. He collected himself, and stood between the two trees, back arched, fur spiked. I hardly noticed. Something was moving behind him.

I lifted my flashlight, and saw – something, several giant patches of iridescence that fluttered, and many large branches, unusually hairy, which then moved and began crawling about, and numerous giant, inky pools of eyes framed by antennae the size of saplings. And the buzzing was a veritable din.

It was then that Asta opened his mouth: “See, you really shouldn’t go that way,” he said, quite calmly, for all that. “Stupid human, I’ve been trying to warn you all night…”

Oh, fine. The talking cat taking it a bit too far?

You see, when I said the story was true, what I meant was that there was truth in the story.

It wasn’t Halloween, though it might have been October. Or November. Or maybe even December. Or, let’s be real, seasons in my neck of the woods are sometimes hard to differentiate, so it might have been January or March. I don’t remember. I did check, though, and there was a full moon on Halloween night eighteen years back. But I was in grade school back then, and when this story really took place, I was in high school.

There was definitely a moon that night, though, and it was windy, and the forest made strange shapes, but we lived on only 10 acres so it was really more like a patch of trees. We found our horses, in case you were wondering. They hadn’t escaped, and I was nowhere near the hive of very normal-sized bees that at one time lived on our property. The whole thing was eerie, a bit, true, but nowhere near that fabled “horror.”

But I’ll tell you what is true, cross my heart: out cat Marble walked by my side all through that patch of woods. No, not our black cat, Asta, who we did have. It was Marble, not black like a bat, but white and gray, like the Irish cat Pangur Bán. Marble follows me nearly every time I walk through those trees, even today. I like to imagine he is some sort of guide, guarding me from something – from what, I don’t know. But I can tell a story.

A Stereotypical Millennial Wasteland

My friend sets the pizza boxes on the table, turns, and makes a general announcement to the expectant partygoers: “There’s pepperoni, Hawaiian for you weirdos, and also cheese pizza. Help yourself. Just give me cash or Venmo me five bucks sometime.”

Well, this is awkward. Like most of my millennial brethren, I no longer regularly carry around those totems known as “cash.” But, up until now, I have also been avoiding digital payment platforms.

Sure, there was that one time I let someone pay me over Facebook, an act I regret, as The Hackers, or more likely Facebook itself, are surely coming for me. Besides that, I’ve mostly conducted my informal transactions via the good old-fashioned bartering system: you bought the chips and guac at Chipotle last time, so I buy the chips and guac at Chipotle this time. Occasionally, for larger purchases, I’ve resorted to an antiquated system, utilized by my great-great-great grandmother, known as “checks.”

But my friend wants concrete payment in the near future, not IOU karma. I could go to the bank later and get cash, but the ATM only dispenses twenties, and sure, maybe I could go inside and they’d give me a five dollar bill, but that would require talking to someone. And so would going to a store and breaking up a twenty there.

Well, the time has come to bite the bullet. I download the Venmo app. I start the sign up. I breeze through those pesky little Terms & Conditions, and get to a screen that insists I enter my phone number. I do so.

“This phone number is already registered in our system.”

Oh. I thought I was a lone holdout in the war against the machines. But no, the truth is much darker. I do have an account – but I had erased its existence from my memory. 

Hazy images float through my mind: another age, another me, going on a trip with friends, perhaps, and venmo-ing my share of the hotel fees. Let’s see. What email would I have been using at the time? Probably my old Yahoo account. I don’t have access to it anymore, in fact, I straight-up deleted it after The Hackers got to Yahoo for the 52nd time.

(As a side note, Googling “What’s going on with Yahoo these days” will just get you a bunch of sketchy links to “is yahoo down? real time status updates.” It will not get you news about the state of the company. Google is not your boyfriend; you can’t make conversation with it.)

Anyway, let’s see if I can use my old email to reset the password.

Success! I enter it as my username, and an automated text is sent to my phone number. I reset the password, replacing whatever it was with the super secret mega-safe password that I use far too commonly. For my efforts, I am prepared to be greeted with some sort of Welcome screen.

Instead, a new message appears. “Fancy new device you’ve got there,” it says, somewhat snidely in my mind. But, thank you for noticing, I guess? 

The next screen lets me know that they’re going to need to confirm that it’s really me signing in from said new device. “If you select the phone number above, you confirm that you are authorized to use this phone number and agree to receive SMS texts to verify your identity. Carrier fees may apply.” How helpful.

Except, the only option listed “above” that can be selected is not a phone number. It’s an email. My Yahoo email. The one that no longer exists.

(In moment of what I thought was inspiration, I would later go home and dig up my college laptop, hoping against hope that it was the device I originally signed up for Venmo on. For reasons that are lost in the mists of time, it was not said device.)

And so here I sit, unable to access Venmo, that most hallowed of digital banks, all because I had the gall to get a new phone. I suppose I could call Venmo, see what could be done. But no, that presents the same problem as going to the bank: people that I must interact with.

I suppose I should be grateful, as Venmo’s distrust of new electronics probably keeps my information safe from The Hackers. But right now, I just want to pay my friend for pizza and not talk to anyone. Like a truly stereotypical millennial.

Lilies in Water

“Good news!” called the Intern, as his boss, the museum’s director, finally emerged from her meeting. “The object labels for the Monet exhibit are finally here, and are being installed right this sec!”

“It is 4:00 p.m. the day before the exhibit opens!” the Director exclaimed. “How could they just now have gotten the object labels to us?”

The Intern shrugged his shoulders apologetically. “I wish I knew. I got them the info over a month ago, and I’ve been calling all week, and they just kept saying it was ‘taking longer than expected.’”

The Director sighed. “Well, at least they made it in time, if just barely. Let me know when they’re done installing them – this is an incredible exhibit for us, and we’re expecting almost a thousand people tomorrow at the opening. I’d like to take a look at the finalized display before I leave.”

“You’ve got it, Boss!” the Intern mock saluted.

An hour later, all the signs were installed, and the Director, followed by her intern, walked into the gallery and gazed around admiringly. There they were, over 50 of Monet’s famous water lilies and other assorted garden paintings, all together under one roof – her own museum’s roof. She smiled, and turned to the first painting’s placard.

Water Lilies with a Lot of Froggy Green Rather Than Blue in the Water (1917), it read. 

It took a moment for the Director to register what she was reading. “Um, Josh,” the Director called, with an unusual tremor in her voice. “What is this?” she pointed a slightly shaking finger at the title. The Intern trotted over, but without waiting for an answer, the Director turned hurriedly to the next painting.

This one said: Water Lilies Where the Water Looks Kind of Brown (1917). Water Lilies Where All the Flowers are Purple-ish (1918), said the next, and the one after that: Water Lilies Where the Flowers Are Purple-ish Again but There’s Also a Willow Tree (1918).

“Josh, you sent the label info over to the printer, what…” the Director struggled to find words that were calm and non-accusatory, but all that came out was: “What did you do?”

The Intern apparently failed to sense the displeasure in his boss’s inquiry. He beamed “Oh, well, Monet really wasn’t very inventive with his painting titles. They were literally all just Water Lilies or The Japanese Bridge and I thought, like, how are visitors going to talk about which ones were their favorite, you know? ‘Which one did you like’ ‘Oh, I liked Yellow Irises’ ‘But which one?’ So, I added some description to all the titles, some color commentary, if you’ll pardon the pun. Problem solved!”

“All the titles,” the Director repeated, numbly.

“All the titles!” the Intern repeated, enthusiastically.

Indeed, as the Director wandered blankly around the exhibit, every title had some alteration. Water Lilies that look like Monet was Experimenting with Finger Painting (1921), The Biggest Water Lily Painting (1920), Weeping Willow with a Whole Lot More Orange than the Others (1920). They’d never be able to reprint them all before the exhibit opened.

It was The Japanese Bridge that Doesn’t Look at All Like the Japanese Bridge (1923) that finally caused the Director to snap. Later in his life, Monet had developed cataracts in his eyes, and he’d painted that particular picture of the Japanese bridge that didn’t look very much like the Japanese bridge when he could barely see anything.

“Josh.” The Director turned to the Intern, and looked him dead in the eye. “You’re fired.”

Unfortunately, the satisfaction of saying that was nothing compared to the chagrin the Director felt the next morning, when she overheard a museum patron talk about how their favorite painting was definitely “Water Lilies with a Lot of Froggy Green Rather Than Blue in the Water.”

The Odd Job

Unlike some professional assassins, who simply eliminated their targets in whatever generic manner was easiest, Robert prided himself on his personalized kills. Since your neighbor had stolen one of your goats a few years back, you now wanted him to choke to death while eating a poisoned goat? Robert would find a way. You had a special phrase you wanted uttered right before your uncle was stabbed in the very same rib that he stabbed your father? Robert would make it happen. 

After twenty some-odd years providing such customized assassinations, Robert was pretty sure he’d heard all the weirdest, most specific requests, from some of the most peculiar people, that he would ever hear. That was, until the day he heard the Emperor describe exactly how he wanted his mother killed.

“The Emperor” was the short nomenclature, of course; the long version was His Imperial and Royal Majesty, the Emperor of the Koruna, King of Lira, Protector of the Confederation of the Mark, Mediator of the People. After that last title was added, and the Emperor started mediating what some people thought was a few too many things, other, unofficial titles were often used, like “Dictator, “Despot,” and “Tyrant.” That was none of Robert’s concern. The man had invited him into a very swanky room in his palace, served him what he assumed was good wine, and said some very complimentary things about how Robert was just the man to “take care of” the Emperor’s mother.

“I confess I don’t especially care exactly how it all goes down in every little detail,” the Emperor admitted, casually swirling the wine in his glass. “You can use a knife, a rope, a pistol, whatever suits you. But,” the Emperor paused his swirling, and looked very intently at Robert, “this is very important: as she dies, you must tell her precisely this: ‘Today, your son has become the Lavender Rabbit.’”

Even Robert had to admit that there was a slightly awkward beat. He recovered quickly: “Oh, okay, I can do that. ‘Today, your son has become the Lavender Rabbit.’ Certainly. Your order will be carried out within the week, unless you have some other timetable in mind.”

The Emperor waved his hand. “No, within the week will do just fine. End of the month would even work, if some complication arises.”

“From what you’ve described of your mother’s guards and habits, I don’t foresee any,” Robert assured him. 

There was another long silence. Finally, the Emperor cleared his throat. “I assume you’re restraining yourself from asking just why your Emperor is reminding his mother of a lavender rabbit as he has her assassinated?”

Robert shook his head. “Not really, your Imperial Majesty. I like to assume that all my clients have their reasons. My job is just to make their vision a reality.”

The Emperor wore a highly amused expression. “Well, you’ll be returning here once the job is done for your payment. If, by that time, curiosity has overwhelmed you, as mine would if I were you, I will be happy to satisfy it.”

Robert and the Emperor parted, and Robert set off to do his job. 

The Emperor’s mother was killed within the week, just as Robert had promised, and, just as the Emperor had predicted, Robert was dying – no pun intended – to know what the Lavender Rabbit referred to, and why the Emperor had become it. It had to be some sort of in-joke. Robert thought he had seen a flash of understanding in the woman’s eyes, but death was often full of very confusing emotions for those undergoing it, so that didn’t necessarily mean anything.

The Emperor appeared very satisfied when Robert told him he was indeed quite curious as to the mysterious phrase. The Emperor sat back in his chair, and propped his legs up on the table in a very un-imperial manner. “I was quite close with my mother as a child, and to all appearances throughout adulthood – by the way, I’m sure you were surprised she was my target, and I doubt many people in this kingdom will dare suspect a thing. Anyway, she used to read to me every night, and my favorite was a little book entitled Lavender Rabbit’s Odd One Out.

“It was a delightful story of a lavender rabbit whose owner’s house was such a mess, and so he took it upon himself to clean it up. He does so by sorting all of the things into piles of like objects – dishes with dishes, blocks with blocks, and so forth – but there was always an “odd one out,” – a paintbrush with the socks, say, or a rubber ducky with the dishes. The rabbit would take that odd one out, and put it where it belonged.” The Emperor paused for a moment. Robert, practiced in being nonjudgmental, simply fingered the envelope of money he’d been given.

The Emperor continued: “I was very inspired by that rabbit. Creating order from chaos, seeing what needed to be done and doing it, molding the world to fit his vision, doing what others would not do. Finding the odd one out, the thing that no longer belonged.” He laughed. “Reading a bit too much into a children’s book, perhaps, but, you know, impressionable youth and all that. I would often joke with my mother that it was that book that made me who I am today…and doubtless you see where this is going.”

Robert nodded as if he did. 

“My mother had become the odd one out,” the Emperor explained. “She was saying things like, ‘Perhaps you shouldn’t take all the peasant’s flour, your birthday cake may be important, and I understand that you want it to be the biggest birthday cake ever, but the people do have to eat…’ That simply wouldn’t do. So, I had her sorted where she belonged. Ridiculous, I’m sure you think.”

Robert shook his head. It took all sorts to make a world.

“I appreciate you being a good sport about all this,” the Emperor said. “Now, I do have just one question before you go.” He reached forward and rang a small silver bell on the table.

“Of course,” Robert agreed.

The door opened, and three guards walked in, sabers drawn, advancing until they stood just behind him. Robert felt his palms, still clutching the cash, grow cold.

The Emperor grinned. “So tell me. Which of us here do you think is the odd one out?”

 

Inspired by Alan Baker’s lovely children’s book “Gray Rabbit’s Odd One Out,” which I highly recommend and contains no murder.

The Worst Thing I’ve Ever Done

This is the story of the worst thing I’ve ever done.

Okay, fine. This is not the story of the worst thing I’ve ever done; this is the story of one of the worst things I’ve ever done. And, obviously, it’s not even really all that terrible, because I have no qualms telling any of you about it, ye anonymous internet reader, ye not-so-anonymous internet reader, or ye rando I’m swapping anecdotes with at a party.

So here it goes. When I was a sophomore in college, I semi-routinely went two-steppin’ with a group of friends at the local dance hall. Not for any great love of country/western music, as I actually dislike the genre. I can claim no higher motives than that all my friends were doing it, I’m a bit of a social caterpillar, and dancing can be objectively fun, especially with people who are good at it. Also, the guy I was into at the time sometimes made an appearance, so I was always hoping to run into him.

This one time, though, this time I’m telling you about, it was just me and a friend. We’ve lost touch since then, this friend and I, for a few valid reasons, but I still think fondly of her. She was, well, the fun friend. Some of you will know what I mean by this very simple description; for others, you should know that she was charming, clever, cheeky and opinionated, extremely generous and also incredibly impulsive. Arguably flighty, and openly flirty, she was fun, and she persuaded me to accompany her and her alone to the dance hall one night, because no one else could go, but she still wanted to go dancing.

It was she who would be the victim of that very bad thing I did, which occurred between the hours of 10 and 11 p.m., on the left-hand side of the first dance floor in the building.

We, two unaccompanied girls, stood on the edge of the shuffling couples, thereby signalling that we were ready to jump in at a moment’s invitation. We didn’t want for partners (well, she especially didn’t). Like most country/western halls, I gather, the atmosphere was congenial, and you, a male, could ask unknown females to dance without being inherently creepy. Unless, of course, you yourself were creepy.

This is the juncture where I will introduce the third player in the upcoming scene: Fedora Guy. In the spirit of charity, I should state that “creepy” is perhaps too strong a word for him. In all of this that I am about to tell, I never felt threatened, and he was perfectly polite in every interaction. But, he was…weird.

First off, he was wearing a fedora, a buttoned vest, slacks, and a pair of dress shoes that had, I think I recall, slightly pointed toes. Not to belabor the point, but this was a country/western dance hall, meaning that jeans and cowboy boots were the unofficial dress code, and if a hat was worn, it was obviously also a cowboy one.

Secondly, it was the way he danced. He danced much as I imagine an oily octopus might. He oozed his way rhythmically across the floor, attempting to exude what he thought was pizzaz while draping his tentacles as best he could around his partner.

Being that partner dancing with him was exactly as awkward as it looked. I know this, because I danced with him when he asked me that one time. I attempted to make small talk with him as we slimed our way across the floor. I thanked him for his trouble when we were done, though it was really all mine. I was determined to never dance with him ever again.

So, on that night out dancing with my Fun Friend, it was with quite a bit of panic that I watched Fedora Guy seep his way over until he was in front of us, and faux-suavely hold out his hand between the two of us, mutely asking: “Do either of you want to dance with me?” And so at last we come to it: the moment of the kind of bad thing I did.

I picked up my friend’s hand, and placed it in his.

He sucked her into his eight-legged orbit, where she remained for the next three to four minutes, while I went and hid.

Afterwards, she was, honestly, pretty much fuming at me, and she did not appreciate my defense at the time: “You said you needed a wingwoman, and look at me! I think I’m being a pretty great wingwoman – I just got you a guy to dance with!”

Postscript: I actually met Fedora Guy a couple years later, outside of the dance hall, at a wedding. Turns out he was good friends with both the bride and groom, who were also friends of mine. He was not wearing a fedora at the time, and he seemed pretty, well, normal. Thus, I’m not really sure whether the moral of this story is “Know when it’s worth it to throw your friends under the bus,” or “don’t wear fedoras.”

Manufactured Drama

We all know that scene in the movie or TV show. Some great change has come, or is about to come, to the protagonist’s world. The music, which can be either diegetic or non-diegetic (there’s your two million-dollar words for the day), slowly swells. Before you know it, our protagonist is contemplating their life while wandering around an empty house, or while staring off into the distance as neon lights go by, or while listening to the waves crash on the shore, or while watching the sun and wind flicker through green leaves. If it’s a popular enough movie or show, whatever song is used to convey said desired emotional atmosphere might even enjoy a slight spike in traffic on Spotify.

Then, of course, there are those times when we, the audience, just happen to be sitting in our car and gazing at the raindrops tracing their way down the windows. A sad song will come on, and we will take the opportunity to pretend that we are in one of those introspective film scenes. Or at least, I will freely admit that I have done so.

I will also confess these moments are not always, shall we say, “organically produced.”

The most obvious statement I hope to make today: Music calls forth emotion; music has power. Sometimes, more than once or twice, I’ve sought some sense of catharsis by playing the right song at the right time. It does not always work, as life is not a movie (fine, there’s a second obvious statement). Manufacturing drama doesn’t always go according to plan.

There are times that I’ve done it successfully. After a Year of Very Big Decisions, I sat at the top of a mountain, looked out across the miles, and very intentionally listened to Cat Stevens’ “The Wind” as the real wind whistled around me. I felt all the better for it. And I did some gazing and reflection again the next year, after a Year of Strange Changes, to Gillian Welch’s “Winter’s Come and Gone.” Again, the year after that, after an Eventful Year and It’s Not Even Half Over, I listened to “Should Have Known Better” by Sufjan Stevens, and felt, well, something like peace.

But these are the times when the stars align just so. My “headspace” was clear, so to speak. Very few, if any, people were around. The sun wasn’t overly hot. Other times, I’ll try to reenact the pensiveness one sees on television, only to be pulled away by a rogue mosquito – literally, the song had just reached its crescendo, and I was forced to divert my attention to slap at a bug. Or my own thoughts will betray me – eggs, that’s what I forgot to buy, I don’t really need them this week though, I’ll just have to remember to put them on my list when I get back, also peanut butter.

I wonder why I, and anyone else, might do this contrived musing to certain chosen tunes. I said earlier that it was for catharsis, and it is, to a certain extent. But also, if I’m honest, it’s because I want my life to be like a movie. I want to start the song, which is just a few minutes long, and, when it is over, I want my brooding to be done and the next plot point to arrive. I also want to be the director of my own movie. I choose the song, I choose the set, and I control the feeling.

I think this is mostly harmless, if a bit silly of me. And I mustn’t forget that some of the best moments of music-induced emotion, of that catharsis, have come through the power of shuffle. Something quite random, from my perspective, at least, chose to play “The Night We Met,” by Lord Huron, just at that time, and it turned out to be just what I needed to hear.

The Things About Us I’d Forgotten

I destroyed my diaries, finally.

Rest assured, there weren’t any horrible, dark secrets in them, though I might have been grateful for one of those at the time. No, they were merely full of the inane babble, punctuated by a few attempts at Deep Thoughts, of a child whose imagination was usually more remarkable than her actual existence. I cringed every time I so much as glanced at the pages, and so, at long last, I ripped out a few half-decent-ish poems, and chucked the rest in the trash.

More of my high school writing is at least salvageable. In fact, I was looking through a trove of old Word documents when I rediscovered an essay I’d written, responding to the following prompt: “Has there been a time in your life when a friend or relative really lifted your mood or improved your outlook on something?  Write a letter to that person, describing the situation and how you felt, and thanking them for what they did for you.”

And who was this heartfelt note addressed to? To the following individuals:

To the People at Church that Sit at the Table Nearest the Trash Can, a.k.a. the Kid’s Table.

Yup, I definitely wrote that. I don’t think much of a good chunk of the writing; it’s far too full of verbose meanderings on subjects that, while perhaps tangentially related, are really just there because I wanted to include them. E.g., I get it, 16-year-old me, you were a Tolkien nerd and proud of it, and you and your little friends thought Peter Jackson could do no wrong. It would be years before The Hobbit films came out, and it all came crashing down…

…Obviously, there are aspects of writing that I still struggle with to this day. But boy was I into italicizing words for emphasis back then. Never mind that; it’s nearly ten years later, and I have the power to edit as I see fit, deleting some portions and focusing on what I see as important now, in this nostalgic mood I’m in.

I wrote a letter to my ten or so best childhood friends. “When we share our ‘fellowship meal’ after church,” I explained, “the adults always sit at the table nearest the bathrooms and talk about politics and other stuff, and we, all ten of us kids (we’re such a small church) eat at the other table. This is the ‘Kid’s Table,’ even though we range from twelve to nineteen.”  I thanked all of them, for letting me be “…as silly as I want with you. You are my friends and I…yeah, I love you. As sappy as that is to actually say.”

Here’re some of the “situations” I described:

and then there’s J.C.M.’s take on the whole ‘Guns vs. Gold, Which Should You Stockpile When Society Breaks Down?’ discussion – this was R.J.’s brainchild: he delights in predicting the end of America as we know it. J.C.M proclaimed: “Guns will get you gold.”

Ultimately, K.G. and J.J. and I are the sort of people to whom you can tell an unbelievable story about your encounter with aliens in the woods, and we will totally go along with it, and try to identify these aliens to see if they’re the same kind we met the other day.”

If it comes right down to it, we’re all rather silly.  The ‘Slightly More Sensible Circle,’ J.C.M., J.J.M., and D.J., will always take a break from their discussion of technological stuff to help us make a list of ‘Worst Smelling Stores’ (with Bed, Bath & Beyond being #1).”

Even the calmest of us isn’t immune from the rivalry that invades whenever we play Uno…It’s so easy to chuckle at R.J.’s droll commentary (‘J.J.M. now proceeds to dump a Draw Four card on D.J. A.M. will now take the lead and lay down an Eight of Blue.’) ”

K.G. purposely mixes his food together – defiles it! – because he knows I can’t stand that.  Which is why, when I deal out Uno cards, I viciously spit out: ‘six-six-six.’ He’s superstitious about it.  Or pretends to be.”

“…as I so famously quoted to y’all some time ago: ‘Life’s not a rosy bed of floppy bunnies.’”

Mom once asked me: what if, when I grow up and move away, I forget all about everyone here. I said: ‘I think I’d have a hard time forgetting about these people.’ When I recently re-told the story to y’all, I added, jestingly: ‘Some of these memories will probably haunt my nightmares.’”

I’ll never let anyone forget how someone was once twisted into saying – very sarcastically, it must be admitted – ‘Yes, and it’s every boy’s dream to become a dolphin.’

But here’s the thing: I did forget. I’d forgotten every one of these things. I don’t want to think of how many more things I’ve forgotten.

Although, it is true, I have not forgotten the people. This last paragraph I wrote still does ring true.

This letter really doesn’t say all I want it to. It’s hard putting love down on paper, hard putting years of us down on paper. How can you portray people and relationships in all their wondrous complexity in crude words, especially since I primarily think in images? I hope that, wherever I go, whatever serious business I get up to, when sensibleness gets to me, I’ll keep that picture of us all, sitting at the church lunch table, giving our crazy spin on life.”

Still. I really should have kept a better diary.

My Pledge

Rats, rats, rats, rats, rats, rats, RATS, I thought, using the expression I picked up sometime in elementary school, ‘cause Michael-what’s-his-face used it and I thought it was funny. It’s a slightly absurd exclamation to use, especially in dire circumstances such as these, but I contend that it’s much better than other things I could say. At the moment, I was directing my ire at the creek crossing in front of me, which, sooner or later, I and my horse, Lilah, were going to have to navigate.

Oh, in the grand scheme of things it was nothing so horrible. It certainly wasn’t a very large creek bed, and it was nearly dry, too. A short short slope down, a small flat area at the bottom, and an even shorter slope back up. But then, the path down was just a little bit steep, and the bottom was a tad muddy, and it really was a rather steep path back up. And so here I was, frozen in, well…I am unfortunately forced to label my emotion at the time to be “terror.”

Of course, I wasn’t the only one about to navigate what was fast becoming, to my mind, a gaping chasm. My dad was ahead of me, on his horse, Sawyer, and I watched as they walked down the slope into the gorge, and then did a little hop-skip-and-a-jump over the mud and up the other side. Dad congratulated Sawyer, and then turned around to wait for me.

My turn, now. But, what if Lilah slipped and fell and took me with her? What if she, the horse, always attuned to the nerves of its rider, grew just as nervous as me and started to fight me? What if she decided to actually jump and I fell off? What if I just forgot how to ride altogether and slid off on the way down, or up? What if she became stuck in the mud and freaked out? What if we were slowly sucked into ooze, down, down into oblivion and despair, a la that horse from The NeverEnding Story?  What if…?

No, there could be none of that worrying nonsense, or we’d never get out of here. Hope may have been at its lowest, but that just meant it was time for an epic speech, which I promptly gave myself:

Okay, come on. If you want in any way to be able to even remotely survive Middle-earth, if you want to ride with the horse-lords of Rohan, if you want to be in any way worthy of the Mark, you are going to have to at least be able to get across this little trickle of a creek. Onwards and upwards. Literally.

And, so, we went. And, of course, Lilah and I did just fine. Down the slope, and then a hop-skip-and-a-jump over the mud, and up the other side. And, it was even, dare I say it, a fun experience, what with the skipping and the jumping. And I told Lilah, in my “sugary” voice, very unbecoming a rider of Rohan, that she was “such a good girl!” And so we set off on our way.

You see, as should be quite obvious, I did not live in some adventure story. To tell (or face) the truth, I probably didn’t want to. I liked hot water and soft pillows and air conditioning far, far too much. I don’t even like camping for a night, let alone traipsing about the wild for weeks on end like a real ranger. So, in my line of work, I must take whatever small chance I get, like this one ever-so-slightly-maybe-theoretically-a-tad-dangerous creek crossing, to show a little of something resembling courage, to pledge my unused, still-in-its-box pocket knife to all my favorite fantasy books, and to have just a tiny bit of adventure.