Friday, May 29, 2015

The Ghost of Rusty Pliers

(Part 1)

   “This is the room where he died, sir,” intoned the butler, who stood at the threshold showing us the way. “Take care! His ghost still walks!”
   We stepped into the somber room where we were to spend the night. The Count, whom we had met earlier, had kindly agreed to put us up in his castle for a nominal fee, once the unpleasantness about the damage to his moat had been settled.
   We were temporarily stranded without transportation and therefore had accepted his offer.
   We were without transportation because I had crashed our rented Peugeot into the river Rhone. I did this while narrowly avoiding a collision with an advancing oxcart. Yes, an oxcart. Not something you see everyday where I come from and I’d panicked a little and flew off into the river. I’ve never claimed to be much of a driver. No one was hurt and my wife thought it was very funny and coincidentally provided her with more evidence that I was a dunce. She liked those moments, of which I’d presented her many over the years. Then we’d somehow, after being pulled from the river, snapped our towline and along with the oxen and oxcart and a few French villagers who’d innocently come out and tried to assist, ended up in the Count’s moat, causing not a little damage to the moat itself and flattening the nearby shrubbery on either shore. 
   It was the oxen I blame for that. But they couldn't help it. They're just dumb beasts. They’d scrambled for footing as they were being sucked into the dark swirling waters with the innocent villagers. How where they to know the water in the moat was only three feet deep? Even the next day there was a terrible smell from the shit they sprayed everywhere in their panic to escape.
   The oxen I mean, not the villagers. Spraying shit. 
   I could go on, but why bother? 
   Stuff like that happened to me all the time when I travelled. The shit was always flying!
   “Will there be anything else, sir?” asked the butler as we passed into our room.
   “Uh, no. No thanks,” I stammered. I’d never addressed a butler before.
   “I’d like a gin and tonic, if it’s not too much trouble,” said my wife. She had never addressed a butler before either, as far as I knew, but she spoke now as if she'd spoken to one every day.
   “Yes mum,” he said. “Will there be anything else?” After hearing there would not, he turned and left the room.
   “Kinda creepy, wasn’t he?” said my wife, after he’d left. 
   “Yeah,” I responded. “Do you think it’s odd that a French Count would have an English butler?”
   “Not in this country,” answered Saucy Boy. Saucy Boy is a nickname I have for my wife. I call my wife that because she’s saucy, in case you were wondering, not because she’s a boy. “Listen,” she continued. “Any country that thinks Jerry Lewis is funny has got to be a little screwy!” She paused a moment, then added, “You think there’s really a ghost?”
   “There’s no such thing as ghosts, honey,” I lied. 
   Our luggage had preceded us. It had been opened and our things, those that had survived the crashes and the oxen and the river Rhone and the moat, had been put away.
   “Put away by whom?” said Saucy Boy as she inspected the closets.
   “I don’t know,” I answered. “Maybe the butler.”
   “I don’t like people touching my underwear,” said Saucy Boy.
   “That’s not what you said last night!” I laughed.
   “You!” she exclaimed. “Don’t you ever think of anything else?”
   “What’s that?” she said suddenly, looking behind me.
   “What’s what?” I said, turning to see.
   “That.” She pointed past me.
   There, peeking out from under the massive oak dresser that stood against the wall, was what looked like the corner of a dusty old telephone book. It appeared to have been there for years, yet seemed strangely out of place.
   I went over and picked it up. I blew off the dust. It was a manuscript.
   “Hold the Beetroot,” I read aloud. “By Rusty Pliers.”
   “Nice name,” said my wife. “I’ll bet he’s a fun date. Funny title, too. Wonder what it’s about?”
   I hefted it. “It’s about two kilos, I’d guess.”
   “Smart-ass!” laughed my wife. “You don’t suppose it’s really about beetroot, do you?”
   I shrugged my shoulders. “How would I know?” I answered.
   “Reeeeead it,“ came a deep, quavering voice, seemingly from within the stony castle walls. 
   “What’d you say?” asked Saucy Boy.
   “I didn’t say nothing,” I replied, my grammar failing me in my terror.
   “Reeeeeeead it!” commanded the voice.
   “Cut the clowning, will ya?“ ordered my wife. “I’m tired and I think an ox stepped on my foot.” She leaned down and rubbed her foot.
  “Reeeeeeead it!” commanded the voice again. “It’s nooooot about beeeeetrooooot!”
   My wife and I stared at each other. Neither of us had spoken.
   "Reeeeeaaad the boooook," said the voice.
   “Who are you?” asked my wife as she looked around the room. “Show yourself!” 
   That Saucy Boy, I thought with admiration, she is afraid of nothing!
   “I am the ghost of Rusty Pliers,” intoned the voice. “The author of the book you have found. Reeeead the book!” he commanded again. “Forget the beetroooot!”
   “If it’s not about beetroot, then why did you name it that?” asked Saucy Boy.
   “Ooooh-oooooh!” the ghost wailed in tormented anguish. “Everyone asks me that! If only I’d changed the stupid title before I died! Oooooh, woe is me!”
   His anguished wailing rent my heart and I felt pity for the poor ghost.
  “Why must we read it?” asked Saucy Boy. “What’s so important about your book?” 
   “Alas!” said the ghost. “I suffer the curse of the unpublished writer. My soul clamors to be heard! Unless one person can be found who has actually read my book and enjoyed it, I am doomed to forever walk the earth as a deathless spirit. It’s my punishment for wasting my life trying to creatively express myself for the enjoyment of others.” 
   “A curse?” I asked. “You’re being punished then? By whom?”
   “Yes, a curse!” responded the ghost. “I’m being made to suffer for my sins. Aa all artists must suffer! Some of us more than others!”
   “Make yourself visible, if you can,” said Saucy Boy. “Or are you too hideous?”
   “I’m not hideous,” said the ghost defensively. “I’m a ghost!”

   To be continued…


Saturday, May 16, 2015

It Ain’t Easy

   Timing is everything, as we used to say in the animation business. 
   But that wasn’t entirely true. Animation is a lot of things. It’s timing, and staging, and anticipation, and solid drawing, and squash and stretch, and exaggeration, and pose to pose or straight ahead, and overlapping action, and appeal, and arcs, and deceleration and acceleration (which we called, confusingly, slo-in and slo-out). And plenty of other stuff to, especially plenty of hard work, for we also had another saying, more true than all the rest, “It ain’t easy.”
   Perhaps that’s true where you work, or in what you do?
   Yes, timing is everything. Even when one is born. Of course, we have no control over that. I don’t remember anything before I was born. I’m not that clever. But I do know this, that if I knew what was coming in this life I would have been a little afraid of being born. 
   More afraid than I am of dying, that’s for sure.
   Not that I want to die, or disdain this life. I love this spark of earthly existence! In fact, for a writer, I’m remarkably un-depressed. Maybe it’s all the sunshine in Florida, or the fresh air and exercise I get working in my garden, or the books I’ve read and have have yet to read, or the beers I drink and have yet to drink with friends. 

   A friend of mine in New Zealand used to say, “It’s a beautiful life, if you don’t weaken.” I couldn’t agree more. But then, beauty is in the eye of the beer holder, isn’t it?
   Yes, I love this life. Maybe not every minute of it, but who does?
   Lately, the moments I don’t enjoy are when I’m fighting with my wife. To be more precise, I don’t enjoy the silent treatment we give each other after the fight.
  I’ll bet it sounds pretty funny to an outsider, each of us in our room with the door shut, trying our best to ignore the other. When we do happen to meet (usually in the kitchen because one must eat, mustn’t they?) we still continue to ignore each other. Make our own food without talking, reaching for the salt without seeing, baking our own potatoes without sharing. It’s so silly. I feel like such a fool at those times. 
   This is when I realize how stubborn my wife and I can be. 
   “You can’t be this angry just at me,” I tell her, finally breaking the silence. “What are you really angry about?”
   “You!” she insists. “You haven’t spoken to me for days!”
   “Me? What about yourself? You haven’t spoken either. Why is it always my fault?”
   “Because it IS your fault!” she accuses. “I’m right here! But you ignore me and hide in your hole!”
   My wife calls my office my hole. She thinks I’m in here to get away from her, to spitefully ignore her. She cannot understand, no matter how many times I try to explain it, that I’m in here working.
   “I’m in here working!” I insist. “Working hard on my next blog!” But she’s not falling for it.
   “I know you! You’re in there ignoring me and goofing off!” she answered. “Or worse!” She’s never actually said what ‘worse’ things I could be doing all alone in my hole. 
   Knowing me as she does, she’s too afraid.
   “Why is it me,” I ask, “that’s doing the ignoring? What about yourself? Why don’t you come out of your bedroom and down off your high horse? What frightens you so much about saying you’re sorry?”
   “I’m not frightened of anything!” she boasts. “Especially of you!”
   “Why is it always my fault?” I repeat. “Why can’t you accept some of the blame sometimes?”
   “Because it always IS your fault!” she repeats. She hurled some oaths at me before adding, “You’re a stubborn old so-and-so!”
   Only she didn’t say so-and-so. Then she added, “I can’t jump high enough for you!”
   “What are you talking about?” I say. I’m completely perplexed by her statement. By this time I can’t even remember what we’re fighting about. 
   “Nothing I ever do is good enough for you!” she says. Just to prove it, she begins to hop up and down, her thumbs tucked into her armpits and flapping her arms as if she would fly. “Look at me! I’m jumping! See? But I can’t jump high enough for you, can I?”
   I do my best to suppress my laughter, because she looks rather like Big Bird from Sesame Street flapping that way. Only not so yellow. 
   “I don’t want you to jump anywhere,” I say. “That’s what a frog does.” Yes, my mind was going. It went totally blank except because I’d been thinking about Big Bird, for the image of Kermit the Frog.
   “You calling me a frog?” she asked me threateningly.
   “No-oooh! Of course not!” I answered. “You don’t have to jump for me. I’m not asking for that! I just want you to say please and thank you now and then. Like a human being does. Is that asking so much? To talk to me as you would to a friend.”
   “You? A friend?” Now it’s her turn to be perplexed. “Don’t be an idiot! You’re my husband!”

“Wait Here, Boy.”

   It was my first day of school in New Zealand.
   Mr Hamilton, the assistant headmaster, and I walked to his office. 
   It was my third trip to the assistant headmaster’s office that day, and it was still the first day.. 
   “A school record,” the assistant headmaster had said, “for a new boy on his first day.” 
   “Thank you, sir,” I said, not intending to be cheeky. He took it as cheeky anyway and put me down as a troublemaker. He was very proud of his school and its records, but I don’t think he was very proud of me. We walked in silence, our footsteps on the wooden floorboards echoing in the musty hallways of Avondale College.
   “Wait here, boy,” said he.
   I took my place outside Mr Hamilton’s office as he went inside. I had stood there before, earlier in the day. Then, it had been busy in the hallway with pupils and teachers going past, most of whom had slowed to ogle the new, foreign boy waiting to be caned. I had already been caned twice that day, for disrupting assembly and smoking in the toilets. Neither of which I was guilty of, let me hasten to add. Honest, it wasn’t me. Being the new boy and unsure of how things worked, I had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
   But you know what they say. Justice is blind. 
   And, at Avondale College, it was swift and cruel. 
   Now, late in the afternoon with final classes underway, it was much quieter in the hallways. No one passed by. I stood there and pondered my day so far. 
   It seemed like a century since I had left home that morning wearing the drab, depressing school uniform and dreading my first day of school in this strange new land. 
   “Be yourself, honey,” my mother had said as I stood at the door before leaving for school. She could see into my heart that morning, (as she could anytime) and saw how nervous I was. She had wanted (as she did all the time) to encourage me. 
   Be myself. Where was that boy now, I wondered? Since arriving in New Zealand I wasn’t sure who I was. Everything was so different. At school in California I’d been popular and successful. Here I was the gawky foreigner with the funny accent, a thing to be ridiculed.
   Yes, it was an unjust universe, I said to myself as I awaited my punishment. Why had Wilkens, the school bully who had taunted me, insulted me, beaten me, escaped while I, an innocent bystander caught up in mindless schoolboy malevolence, was to be punished? If there was any justice, Wilkens would be inside Mr Hamilton’s office right now, getting what I was soon to get more of.
   Perhaps this universal justice in which I wanted to believe needed a little more time to catch up with Wilkens. I had always enjoyed Science class, a thousand years ago it seemed back at school in California, and the astronomical concept of infinity had particularly fascinated me. No ending? Going on forever? I found it impossible to comprehend or imagine with conviction. Perhaps my brain wasn’t big enough to think of something so big. 
   I found it easier to imagine a just universe where everything worked out fair, than I did to conceive of an endless, infinite one that went on forever. Yes, I wanted to believe that Wilkens would get his comeuppance eventually, given enough time. 
  Given enough time. What was a little time, even a human being’s lifetime, or a civilization’s lifetime, compared to the one-hundred-thousand year cycle of a photon’s journey from the center of the sun to it’s surface whence it escapes blasted into the solar system as visible light? Or the ghostly, beautiful residue that we see from the exploding death of a supernova two-hundred-million light years away?      
   The door beside me opened and out stepped Mr Hamilton. He stood for a moment and eyed me sternly, then beckoned me inside.

Hamlet Cleans Up

   From Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2.
   (to POLONIUS) Good my lord, will you see the players well bestowed?
   POLONIUS: My lord, I will use them according to their desert.
   HAMLET: God’s bodykins, man, much better. Use every man after his desert, and who should ’scape whipping?

   By the mid-nineteen-eighties I felt I could call myself a film animator. 
   I’d made a lot of TV commercials in New Zealand. Even made some in Africa, when I lived there in the seventies. Over the years I had honed my skills and learned my craft. I wasn’t the best there ever was, but I wasn’t bad.
   After nearly fifteen years at it, I was ready to become an overnight Show Business success.
   I wanted to try my hand at animation in the United States.
   New York City, to be precise., where I had a friend upon whose couch I could crash. 
   Maybe, if I was lucky and worked hard enough, I could play with the big boys of animation in the United States and work on feature films, or at least work on bigger things than 30 second TV commercials for peanut butter, ice cream cones or toilet bowl cleaners. 
   Seems people need cleaners and cleanliness, for over the years I had made films that hawked the lot, a veritable universe of cleaners. Household, kitchen, driveway, roof, clothes, sink, dishes, toilet, wall, floor, glass, denture, face, hair, shoe, dog, cat, kitten, carpet, tile, engine, water, air, et cetera, et cetera. Every type of cleaner imaginable. To divide them inventorially, as Hamlet once said, would dizzy the arithmetic of memory. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, you bet, and we’ve got just the product for you to take care of that! Now with a clean, fresh scent! What a filthy world we live in, this goodly frame the earth, to judge by all the crap that’s advertised to clean it up with! 
   Get thee to a nunnery if you must, but no need to get on your knees with our new and improved scrubbing bubbles! Just spray and rinse away! 

“The rest is silence.”

    Ah, Shakespeare. You magnificent bastard!

Sunsets and Turtles (Part 2)

   In Hawaii there was always a new beach to discover and more turtles to see.
   This pattern was broken only once while we were in Kona. That was the day we went by coach to the top of Mauna Kea, the tallest of the volcanoes that make up the Big Island. Don’t worry, it’s safe enough, it hasn’t erupted since 2460 BC, although how they would know that is a mystery to me. It’s close to 14,000 feet above sea level and giant astronomical observatories, a dozen of them, reside at the top. Private vehicles are not allowed up there because of light pollution caused by the headlights. That, and because the road is almost impassable (we were in a specially designed diesel bus that seated sixteen passengers). On our way up we stopped at the tiny Visitor Information Station (called The Onizuka Center for International Astronomy, a name bigger than the place itself). At the station we ate a boxed dinner and watched a score of amateur astronomers begin setting up their telescopes.   
   After this modest dinner we continued on our way, reaching the summit just before sunset. The sky was aflame with rich reds and purples. We were so high up there was no sense of land, just you and the sky, with the clouds way below. At 13,796 feet (you see, I check my figures, sometimes) you are affected by the lack of oxygen. Both Saucy Boy and I were exhausted merely from the short effort of walking up a gentle rise to the lookout. After filling my eyes with the sunset, I turned around to look away from the setting sun. Behind me, clearly defined on the cloud-cover below was the giant, pyramidal shadow of the very volcano I was standing upon. It sloped from horizon to horizon, entirely filling my field of vision. For a moment I felt the reality of the earth as a rotating sphere under my feet, my mind briefly comprehending the cosmic state of things, suspended as I was between sun and shadow. 
   Saucy Boy had an uncomfortable moment, feeling dizzy and short of breath. 
   “I don’t feel so good,” she said.
   “You look good baby,” I replied. “Good enough to eat!”
   “You! Don’t you think of anything else?”
   “Nope,” I answered.
   Saucy Boy had altitude sickness. She was panting and a little panicky, so I pulled a funny face and took her picture, then handed her the camera so she could take mine and we laughed it off.
   She’s game for anything, Saucy Boy. I like that about her. 
   We watched the sunset until darkness enclosed us and the stars came out. Millions of them.
   On our way down we met another bus and stopped for some thermos coffee and stargazing. With nightfall it had gotten quite cold, so we were issued fleecy jackets. Everyone had a chance to look through a couple of 12-inch telescopes the drivers had set up. Saucy Boy enjoyed that, she’s very curious about things, and how often do you see the moons of Jupiter? 
   It’s a long drive back to Kona from the top of Mauna Kea and I fell asleep during the trip, warm at last, snuggling under a blanket with my wife.
   The next day was our last full day on the island. No more blankets for us, it was back to the beach. We returned to a favorite, Kahaluu Beach, and got our usual spot. Funny, it doesn’t take long to become familiar with a place, does it? Just a few days before, I’d seen it for the first time. Now I was right at home and even nodded to some locals who seemed to recognize me. I was dressed as usual for the beach, in dark glasses, flip-flops and Speedo, wearing an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt with a towel over my shoulder. Of course, it makes you conspicuous if you are with a pretty girl, and Saucy Boy is all that. She stood in Spanish sandals, her brown, shapely legs and arms exposed by a short, gaily colored chiffon wrap over her bikini. The sun gilded her short blonde hair, while her dazzling smile was set off with a touch of lipstick. Most likely we were a memorable couple, visually speaking. A sort of Beauty and the Beast. 
   I’ll let you guess which is which.
   We enjoyed another wonderful day at the seaside, swimming and sunning and laughing.
   That night we made love, our sunburned skin warm and tingling.
   The next day, as the airplane lifted into the sky to take us home I looked out the window and fell to musing. It’s sad to leave a place you’ve come to know and love. How wonderful that Hawaii, with its Aloha spirit, its gentle climate and tremendous natural beauty, had lived up to my romantic ideal of paradise.
   Had this vacation changed my life, I wondered? 
   After all, anything can change a life that’s ready to be changed. 
   Not really, but I wasn’t looking to change my life, just enjoy it in a new location for a little while and make some pleasant memories. One mustn’t entertain too grand an expectation of things in this world, that can only lead to disappointment. 
   But you still have to dream. 
   That’s one of the contradictions of being human.  

Friday, May 15, 2015

Sunsets and Turtles  (Part 1)

   I like to travel. 
   I have an unquenchable curiosity about the world. I blame it on all the reading I’ve done and the wonderful places that books have taken me. And, to be honest with you, I have trouble with my feet. They’re often itching to be away, these feet of mine, and travel scratches that itch. 
   So today, instead of blogging about my combative marriage and the humor to be found there, I thought I’d recall happier times in other lands. 
   Hawaii, for instance. 
   After a week in Hilo, Saucy Boy (that’s my wife’s nickname) and I drove over Saddle Road and arrived at our hotel in Kona just in time to register and settle in before sunset. What happy timing on our part, because they enjoy their sunsets at the Kona Tiki Hotel. Behind the hotel is a patio scattered with tables, surrounding a small swimming pool on three sides. The forth side is a low wall over which one looked straight out to the Pacific Ocean and the setting sun. Tiki-torches, lit by the guests, flamed golden nearby. 
   That first night we found ourselves sharing a table with another couple; Diana, an ex-pat American and her husband Paul, a true-blue Australian of the old school. She did most of the talking, while he topped up the drinks, grunting the occasional quip. He was a quietly hilarious guy with a dry Aussie humor that I found irresistible. Gin and Tonic was their drink, like ours, so we shared a few, turning our chairs to gaze at the beautiful sunset roaring into our eyes. As the sky darkened our conversation ceased and we sat in silent contemplation, sipping our drinks. 
   Up came the moon and down went the gin.
   If our time at Waikiki had been Hawaiian urban ukulele chic, and our time in Hilo rural verdant waterfall lushness, our time at Kona was sea and sunsets. Every day, after a simple breakfast at the hotel, we headed for one of half a dozen beaches recommended by guidebooks or locals, all quite close by car. Arriving at the beach we dropped our towels under a coconut palm, applied sunscreen and stepped the few feet to waters edge. Saucy Boy, the flat of her hand shielding her eyes, stood and scanned the horizon. I laughed and called her the Ancient Mariner. 
   “Look who’s talking, graybeard,” she said, giggling and stroking my chin. I hadn’t shaved in a few days, beach-bum style. She smelled of coconut from the sunscreen and her smooth, tanned skin was warm to the touch.  
   “Come on,” I said. “Let’s see if there’re any fish.”
   Holding hands we threaded our way through the tourists and submerged in waist-deep water. After an unflattering view of huge white tourist thighs, my goggled eyes sighted bright yellow Tang fish, nipping at the swaying grassy stuff that grew on the rocks below. A large Rainbow Parrotfish darted by, chasing something or being chased. There were fish everywhere! I adjusted my breathing, reminding myself to relax, and looked around for Saucy Boy. We headed along the reef away from the tourists. Not ten minutes into our first swim we spotted a sea turtle, swimming in about fifteen feet of water, languidly stroking for the open ocean. Saucy Boy was elated and we followed it for awhile, careful not to touch or hinder it. He was a dignified, if sluggish creature with surprisingly evocative eyes, altogether not unhandsome. We wished him well and turned back towards the reef. At one point, we found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of black parrotfish, becoming part of the school for a moment, a funny feeling we both commented on later. It was a wonderful swim. I still have trouble believing the variety of fish we saw, especially in such a public place with so many people.
   In the afternoons, we read or wrote, avoiding the sun and contenting ourselves with just looking at the water from our lanai, or terrace. We were on the second (which is the top) floor, offering a lovely view of the horizon and closer up, of the surf rolling in and crashing on a small, rocky beach. This beach, or cove really, was right next door to the hotel and the home to hundreds of nasty-looking crabs. I used to wander off down there to have a smoke and got to know the place reasonably well. The crabs turned out to be very shy. I found the spot very contemplative.
   What is it about the sea, with its music and motion?
  Nights, after a sunset at the hotel, we dressed up and went out to dinner. We were usually back and in bed pretty early. 
   There was a new beach to discover tomorrow and more turtles to see.

   To be continued…

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Midnight Garden Supply

   There’s a freeze warning on for tonight. 
   I live in central Florida, so a freeze warning is not unheard of. It usually happens once or twice a year, but last year we didn’t have any. I put that down to global warming, as I do most things, but I could be wrong. It’s supposed to drop to thirty degrees Fahrenheit tonight, which may not sound cold if you’re from Boston or Chicago, but it’s cold to a Floridian. So my wife is concerned for the Areca palm in our backyard. It’s a tropical palm, and could be damaged from the cold.
   She’s already covered every plant in the yard that has any kind of sentimental value to her, whether they were cold-sensitive or not. These include specimens transplanted from her childhood home in Alabama (where they’d survived uncovered for decades in colder temperatures than we ever saw), plants taken from every botanical garden we’d ever visited from Miami, Florida to Victoria, British Colombia (she’d take a cutting or pull up a choice specimen while I nervously kept a lookout, acting casually by whistling a tune with my hands in my pockets) and even plants taken from our trips overseas, including Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, Jamaica, Mexico, Spain, Thailand, France, etc. How she was never caught smuggling them back into the country, I couldn’t say.
   It was something I found impossible to understand, her compulsion to steal plants. For that’s what I thought it was, stealing, and of course she couldn’t understand why I wasn’t more understanding.
   “You smoke dope, don’t you?” she asked sarcastically. “That’s illegal, isn’t it?”
   “Yeah,” I answered. “But I don’t dig it up from my dealer’s front yard, do I? Besides, it’s not whether it’s illegal or not, it’s the morality of it.”
   “You read too many books!” she snarled. That was her answer for everything. Like I was a fool for reading books in my attempt to wise up and not be a fool.
   “Why don’t you just buy them?” I asked her. “Why steal them?”
   “It’s only a plant,” she answered. “I’m not hurting anyone. Nobody will miss it.”
   “What if everybody did it?” I replied. “There’d be no plants left.” I looked around the botanical garden she was pilfering from and gestured, adding, “This beautiful garden we’re standing in would be reduced to rubble.”
   “Oh, you’re being silly.”
   “How would you like it if someone took one of your plants?”
   “It’s not the same thing!” she insisted. 
   “What about the golden rule?”
   She had no answer for that, not believing herself bound by anyone else’s rules, golden or not, but I knew what she’d do if she caught someone digging up a plant from her yard. She’d kill them! Then she’d hang the mutilated body in a prominent place as a warning to others. Her yard and garden, unlike everyone else’s, were sacrosanct. You should have heard her tell off a neighbor who had dared to let his dog do some business on her grass! (The grass which I tend and mow, by the way.) After discovering some droppings, she’d got down on her knees, inspecting and counting them, noting how many times some dirty rotten so-and-so had allowed his mutt to despoil her property. 
  “I know who it is!” she told me. “It’s the fat guy with the big Alsatian.” 
   “Are you sure?” I teased. “Maybe it’s the old lady with the Dachshund. Or the kid with the Yorkshire terrier.”
   “Don’t be an ass,” she accused me. “No Dachshund poops that big!”
   She was scientific about it, I’ll give her that.
   Then she’d lain in wait, getting up early to peep through the curtains at any passersby, hoping to catch them in the act.
  “There he is!” said called one morning a week later. “See! I told you!”
   “Where?” said I, sipping my tea. It was early in the morning. She pointed through the window. It wasn’t the guy with the Alsatian or the kid with the Yorkie, but our new neighbor, a thin, quiet young man with a Dalmatian on the end of a leash. Sure enough, about two feet from the sidewalk on the grass of our front yard was the Dalmatian, hunched over and straining, crapping it’s heart out.
   Why do they name dogs after regions, I wonder?
   Boy, did she tear him a new one! Our new neighbor I mean, not the Dalmatian. She rushed out in her housecoat and slippers and scared him half to death. I stayed inside, too embarrassed to show my face, peeping through the curtains and drinking my tea. 
   Afterwards the neighbor slunk away, turning back occasionally with a quizzical look. His dog apparently couldn’t have cared less, and trotted merrily along at his side. 
   “See! I told you!” said told me when she returned. She was proud of herself to have caught him, and happy to have the chance to give someone (other than me) a piece of her mind. 
   As I mentioned earlier, it’s going to be cold tonight. 
   So she wants to cover the Areca palm. It’s a big, clumping palm with many trunks, and impossible to cover with just a sheet.
   “I know you don’t want to help me,” she said. She’s always telling me what I am or am not, or what I’m thinking or feeling. But she doesn’t know. We’ve been married fifteen years, and I believe she knows less about me now than when we began.
  “What?” I answered. “Didn’t I come out here and ask if you needed any help?” That was true. From my office window I’d seen her struggling with it by herself, and had come out to help. “You certainly didn’t ask for help, did you? No, you’re too proud for that.” She really is proud. And stubborn, too. 
  “I know you don’t want to help me,” she’d said. This was after an hour of us pulling and lifting and climbing and cursing, without result. She had no plan as to how the palm might be covered, and so we had had no success. As my old boss at EMI Records in South Africa used to say; “To fail to prepare is to prepare to fail.” He was full of sayings like that. But that’s another story. 
   Regarding the Areca palm, I knew enough to keep my mouth shut. My wife hates being told anything, even if you’re trying to be helpful.
   The only note of levity all afternoon was when I fell off the ladder and knocked over a bird feeder. 
   You should have seen her rush to see if the bird feeder was alright!

Monday, May 11, 2015

So Much Better Than Here

   My first day of school in New Zealand wasn’t going very well. 
   Me being a tall, gawky kind of kid freshly arrived from America, I didn’t fit in.
   After causing much hilarity in Geography class, where I knew nothing of the southern hemisphere and couldn’t pronounce the Maori place names, and History class where it was the same thing, I got along to my next class, 5 Ac II English. 
   English. At least I spoke that. But guess what? Only having been in New Zealand a couple of weeks I couldn’t understand a word they were saying. They spoke so fast and used words I didn’t recognize. 
   My usual response to any question was, “Huh?”
   Which made everyone laugh at the dumb yank new boy.
   Unlike morning Assembly, with its repressive atmosphere, or Geography or History where I didn’t know what they were talking about, I enjoyed Mr Olinski’s class. He was a good teacher, I thought, and the hour in English flew by on wings.
   Mr Olinski was speaking to the class, when in through the door stepped Henry. As Henry waited to interrupt Mr Olinski his eyes scanned the classroom. Seeing me, he laughed derisively.
   “Blimey!” he guffawed. “What happened to you?”
   The class looked from him to me and they laughed.
   I had got a terrible haircut, that’s what had happened to me. It made everybody laugh.
   I had met Henry before, last week when we had taken an intelligence test to see which form we would be placed in at school. We were both new students. He was from England, I was from America. At sixteen-years-old, he was two years older than me.
   I had had a haircut since we had met and it was my haircut that had surprised and shocked him. It had surprised and shocked me too. It was a hideous haircut, called a ‘short back and sides’ but no name could do it justice. On the day I had taken the intelligence test I had been ordered by the assistant headmaster to get my hair cut before I would be allowed to attend school. 
   Unfortunately, a joke had been played on me and I received a haircut normally reserved for inmates of the lunatic asylum. 
   You might have read about it in the book I wrote, HOLD THE BEETROOT.
   Henry handed Mr Olinski a slip of paper. In that instant, while Mr Olinski’s head was down reading, Henry twisted towards the class and made a silly face, screwing up his nose, crossing his eyes and sticking out his tongue. 
   The class erupted in raucous laughter. Mr Olinski looked up at the class, then over at Henry. By then Henry had composed his face. Now, with his innocent eyes gazing heavenward and a look of modesty adorning his face, Henry looked every inch the pious schoolboy.
   “Very well,” said Mr Olinski to Henry, unimpressed. “Please take a seat.”
   Henry took a seat and the lesson continued. 
   There sat Henry, slouching in his chair with one leg outstretched and his chin in his hand. He looked bored. I noticed his hair had been cut since I had seen him, but it wasn’t cut by much. It was nowhere near as short as mine.
   But then, nobody’s was.
   I laughed to myself when I recalled that Henry had predicted, before the intelligence test, that he would easily be in a class higher than me, two classes higher probably, when the bell in the hallway outside started ringing. 
   Class was over. 
   I gathered up my things. Before I had even managed to get to the door, Henry had caught me up and was jabbering away.
   “Blimey! Who butchered you?” he snorted, indicating my hair. “And how’d you get in the advanced class with me?”
   We weren’t in any advanced class. It was just 5 Ac II English with Mr Olinski. I changed the subject. “I’ll tell you if you tell me how you passed the haircut inspection this morning.”  
   “The what? Haircut inspection? Missed it, I reckon. I got here late.”
   “Oh?” I asked. 
   “Trouble at home mate,” he explained. “Wif me Mum. Missed Assembly completely. When I got to school I was told to report straight here, and here I am.” 
   He made a theatrical bow. It was a natural gesture, with tremendous charm.  
   Standing up, Henry sniffed and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “I won’t be in this bloody school long, anyway,” he bragged, looking around him with disgust. “What a dump! I’m just killing time here until me Mum goes back to London. She’s got a posh new boyfriend back home and I’m going to live with them.”
   Henry breezily told me all this in his cocky way, as if he were a movie star allowing me a glimpse into his beautiful, fabulous, jet-setting life. It sounded like a tall tale to me, especially with the braggadocio with which Henry told it, but I suppose stranger things have happened. He talked about how good things were going to be back home in England.
  “Then it’ll be the sweet life for me, mate!” Henry bragged. “London. It’s so much better than here!”
   ‘So much better than here.’ That comment stung me, because I realized I was beginning to think that way myself and I didn’t like the way it sounded when Henry said it out loud. I noted it’s negativity and snobbishness, two things I detested, and imagined how insulting it would sound in a New Zealander’s ear. Of course, Henry didn’t think he was being insulting or snobbish or negative. He wasn’t even bragging. He was just giving me the facts, enlightening me as best he could while preoccupied as he was with his own sweet life.   
   “Yeah, he’s loaded,” continued Henry. “Owns a cinema on the High Street and a pub on the Lower Side. He’s promised me me own car, too, soon’s I get a license. Yeah, that’s nuffink to him. A little motorcar? Nuffink mate!”
   By now we had reached the end of the hallway.   
   I pushed open the doors and stepped outside into the sunlight.
   “Sounds great,” I said. “What kind of car do you think you’ll get?”
   It was lunchtime. Students gathered to sit together at tables or under trees.
  “Hey you wanna have lunch together?” asked Henry.
   “Sure,” I replied. 
   My first day of school in New Zealand was half over.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Myths and Mind Powers

   Pat laughed out loud, then said, “That Tom-the-Pom, what a little bastard!” He shook his head in admiration of Tom-the-Pom’s bastardly ways and chuckled to himself.
   (Tom-the-Pom wasn’t present at the worksite with us, he was off searching for Ben.) 
   “Yeah,” I agreed. “He feels the same way about you too mate. Except more so.” I did my best Tom-the-Pom imitation as I continued, “That blasted Pat, what a bleedin big headed bloody bastard!” 
   “Ahaw haw haw!” laughed Pat. 
   I looked over at him, adding, “That’s what he thinks of you, mate! Hapuka Head*!”
   “What?” said Pat, his eyes flashing red. For a minute I wondered if I’d gone too far. Nobody called Pat Hapuka Head to his face. Most of the men didn’t even call him that behind his back. 
*Hapuka, fish found in New Zealand waters. Known for a large head.
   Pat was the depot foreman. He didn’t tolerate disrespect of any kind. 
  We were standing in the dust and noise of the worksite. Pat had come up to have a chat and see how I was doing. I liked Pat, and it was a relief to stop and put my shovel down, or rather to stand and lean against it.
   Pat was a larger than life character. A giant of a man with a booming voice and a Maori warrior’s stance. He loved a laugh and was good to the men. He was looking out for me, I thought, me being very young and having just started at the depot, although he never admitted he was.
   He raised his voice to be heard above the earthmoving machines rumbling past, “So he called me Hapuka Head, did he? The little shit! Ahaw haw haw!”
   Pat threw his head back and laughed heartily, showing his white teeth. 
   “Hell!” he said. “I know what that jumped-up-never-come-down-little-so-and-so thinks before he even thinks it!”
   I felt suddenly bold, and asked outright, “Mind powers is it, Pat?”
   Many myths surrounded Pat at the depot, where myths and rumors were rife. Myths about his strength and wisdom. Myths about his pranks, his manliness and his drinking prowess. Myths about the fierce justice he dispensed and the men he’d bested. It was said at the depot that Pat had mind powers effective on all living creatures to some degree, but more so on the weak minded.
   To hear the men tell it, Pat had even brought the dead back to life. 
   Years before, after weeks of rain a worker had fallen into a flooded stormwater culvert. It was dangerous, fast moving water and nobody wanted to jump in after him. That would’ve been suicide. The worker was trapped underwater against some debris, they could see him from where they were. By coincidence Pat arrived at that moment and hearing from the men that somebody had fallen in he dove straight in after him. The men watched from above as Pat fought the rushing water and dragged the lifeless body out. 
   “This guy’s dead,” said the men, and so he was according to Malcolm, who told me the story.
   Malcolm was the depot engineer, well educated and not given to believing every rumor that came his way. “He wasn’t moving and he wasn’t breathing either,” added Malcolm. “He’d been underwater quite awhile before Pat dragged him out.”
   The gathered men stood by in silence and watched as Pat kneeled beside the corpse. The only sound was the rushing water in the culvert. Pat bent down and began to give the drowned man mouth to mouth resuscitation. Where he’d learned it nobody knew. Again and again Pat blew the breath of life into the dead man’s mouth. 
   Miraculously, within a few minutes the drowned worker was up and asking what happened and did anybody have a spare smoke? His were all soggy. 

  “Sure I can read Tom-the-Pom’s mind!” said Pat to me as the earthmoving machines rumbled past. “It’s not very difficult to figure out what he’s thinking. It’s obvious he resented being told to look for Ben.” Pat turned and faced me more squarely, then said, “You were just thinking that yourself, weren’t you?” 
   Surprised, I answered simply, “Yes I was.”
   Ben had gone a little crazy over the summer from the heat and dust of the Tristram Ave worksite, and now he was missing. No one had seen him for the last week. Pat, not wanting the police involved in a depot matter, had ordered a few of the men, Tom-the-Pom included, to search for Ben. 
  “It’s no trick to read a mind that small,” laughed Pat. “You see? Even you can do it.” 
   It’s true. Tom-the-Pom had crossed my mind as I was shoveling shit from the bottom of a ditch, before Pat had arrived. It’s not rocket science to labor at the bottom of a ditch, and I often let my mind wander as my body did the work. I’d been thinking about Tom-the-Pom and Ben. I didn’t much care for Tom-the-Pom. He used to taunt me mercilessly about my youth and my naivety and my being a yank. (The other men did too, but they weren’t so mean spirited about it.) He and Ben detested each other and their bickering often made for amusing reflections as you shoveled away the shit of the day. 
   Tom-the-Pom, who didn’t care for Pat and scorned (behind Pat’s back) his authority, certainly would have felt himself ill-used to be ordered to search for Ben.
   “Hell!” repeated Pat. “I know what that little pipsqueak thinks before he even thinks it mate. 
   “It’s reading your mind I’m having a little trouble with,” he added with a wink.
   “Huh?” said I. Every time I was convinced that Pat couldn’t possibly have mind powers, up sprang an instance of apparently that very thing. It was a delicious uncertainty to me, this whole mind powers thing.
    For I was young and hadn’t yet had much experience of the world and its wonders.
   Reading books had opened my mind to some things, while at the same time it had shown me how uninformed I was about everything else. The curse of dawning wisdom is that one begins to understand just how ignorant one truly is. 
    Pat was held in the highest esteem by most of the men at the depot. Did he, as was rumored, possess special powers? Most of the men thought so. Did men need to believe in myths, I wondered, to hoist one of their humble number higher up, that he might reside closer to the gods? Did we, as humans, need something greater than ourselves to help us to greatness? Considering Pat, the mythological larger than life man-among-men whom it was rumored held sway over life and death, why couldn’t he read a mind? 
   Especially a mind as feeble as Tom-the-Pom’s.
   By someone as powerful as Pat.
   Who was I, unschooled and young, to say it was impossible?  
   I wasn’t surprised in the least to learn that my mind was more difficult to see into than Tom-the-Pom’s. 
   I’d have been mortified if it were otherwise.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Whine and Cheese

   Last week I met my friend Kathy at a Wine Bar on Orange Avenue. 
   I arrived early. After scanning the menu, which listed at least two-hundred different beers, I couldn’t decide and settled for a local brew, and some Spanish cheese with crackers to go with it. I couldn’t be bothered flirting with the young lady behind the bar. She was probably half my age, which to some men might sound good, but not to me and besides, three other guys were flirting with her already. They jabbered on about what successful, important days they’d had, and dropped hints about the foreign sports cars they drove. She smiled sweetly but seemed unimpressed.
   The beer I ordered was called, rather appropriately, Swamp Brew. Made from the finest Florida waters, bragged the label, and collected at the shores of Lake Okeechobee when the moon was full. Why during the full moon I couldn’t say, maybe the water tastes better then. It’s a very dangerous profession, by the way, collecting this water, because of the alligators and snakes that inhabit the lake. 
   That must explain the excessive price, I reckoned, danger money for the brewmasters.
   That might have explained the taste, too, alligator and snake poop in the water.
   I was reading my Kindle, chewing cheese and sipping beer. I like reading from a Kindle, no one can see what you’re reading. I like my privacy, especially about what I read. Don’t worry though, I wasn’t reading anything naughty. I was reading Aesop’s Fables.

“After all is said and done, more is said than done.” ― Aesop

   “Hi Rusty!” called Kathy as she entered. We’d been friends for many years, Kathy and I, both of us having worked for Walt Disney Feature Animation, animating gorillas and lions and horses and bears and Stitches. All of whom, when they wanted to, spoke perfect English, except Khan*, the horse from Mulan, who never said a thing. Then, after the Disney execs laid us all off and closed the Florida studio in 2004, we’d worked together for five years at Full Sail University, teaching animation to mostly disinterested young video game players.
   They thought animation was going to be easy. How wrong they were!
   Funny how life is. I’d been Kathy’s boss at Disney, she’d been my boss at Full Sail. 
   So remember; you artists out there! You’d better try to be nice to the people you meet as you make your way through life, because you don’t know when you might meet them again.
   “What’s new?” asked Kathy.
   I noticed the slight look of apprehension in her eyes. She was afraid I’d start on one of my favorite subjects, my impossible-to-finish book or my sometimes pugnacious marriage. She’d heard it all before, many times. Disregarding her apprehension, I pitched straight in.
   After all, what are friends for?
   “I’m fighting with the missus again,” I started.
   “Oh really?” she asked with more than a touch of boredom. “What about this time?”
   There were so many things we fought about, it was difficult to choose just one. I looked down at the table, where the Kindle and plate of cheese sat, and answered simply, “Crackers.”
   “Yeah,” I sighed. “Crackers.”
   Kathy poured herself a Swamp Brew. After tasting it, she made a sour face and said, “Go on, I’m listening.”
   “We’d been fighting like cats and dogs,” I began. “About what I can’t remember. I think it was the weather. Her smartphone app said it was going to rain, mine said it wasn’t.”
   Sometimes even our apps can’t agree, so what chance have I got?
  “Anyways,” I continued. “I was making a salad for my dinner and I needed a bowl. Well, the bowl I reached for contained small packets of crackers, like the ones you get with your soup at Denny’s, you know? So I spilled them out onto the counter top, intending to replace them when I’d finished with the bowl. I’m not that stupid!” I insisted. “I know enough not to mess with my wife’s stuff, even if it’s just crackers. 
   “She comes in and seeing the crackers, starts yelling at me not to touch them!”
   I took a sip of my beer as Kathy asked, “What happened next?”
   “‘Don’t touch those crackers!’ she ordered. ‘They’re for the meatloaf I’m going to make!’ And I said, ‘Fine, I’m not touching your crackers. I’m making a salad. Don’t worry, your meatloaf is safe!’ 
   “‘Yeah?’ she says, ‘Well, I’m not going to make the blasted meatloaf now! It’ll be a cold day in hell before you taste my meatloaf again!’
   “‘Okay,’ said I, ‘Then I won’t touch the crackers you won’t be using to not make the meatloaf!”
   Kathy excused herself and went to get a beer.

*Disney's Mulan 1998