Monday, October 25, 2021

Another stroll around the neighborhood

I have a good idea who the mockingbird is mocking as I pass him on my morning walks.

“Come here. Come here, you silly thing. See what I can do. Come fly with me above the trees. You can’t? Ha ha ha.

But I don’t speak mockingbird. It’s all music to my ears. Beethoven, Mozart, Dylan, Sting, Lyle Lovett alighting on tree limbs to enthrall the audience, then back into the air and onto the next gig. Tomorrow San Antonio, next week Denver.

On the road again, I always wonder what a ‘possum is contemplating as it wobbles by.

Probably: “Just keep moving, moving – wait a minute – what light through yonder nightfall breaks? It looks like two suns, and I am but potential roadkill unless I keep moving, moving – wow, that was a close call – moving, moving, moving.”

It’s possible ‘possums are sharper than they appear, but you never know.

I imagine a tree, after sucking up as much nutrients as it can from the soil below, takes a twinkling to catch its breath then turns to its neighbor and whispers, “See, I told you I could chug-a-lug just as good as those young cedars. Looks like the next round is on you, bucko.”

Have you ever noticed that trees are always whispering? It makes me wonder what they’re saying behind my back. More than likely: “Look. Only four limbs. How sad.”

Sometimes when I walk around the block, a small little yappy dog sneaks up on me from behind; yap, yap, yapping up a storm with a bark three times its own bite, making my heart beat a whole lot faster than it was a second before, which is probably good for my health, as long as I survive my ankles being mauled.

“I got’cha, I got’cha, I got’cha; just slow down an itsy-bitsy bit and I’ll bite that ankle clear off,” I can just hear it yapping. “Your meat might be a bit old and tough, but I won’t know until you stop moving and you’re down on the ground, yeppity-yep-yep.”

It’s best to just keep walking because once you’re down on the ground, you’re only inviting trouble from the circling scavengers up above.

VULTURE 1: So, what do you wanna do?
VULTURE 2: I don’t know, what do YOU wanna do?
VULTURE 1: He might be playing ‘possum, so let’s give him a couple of days.
VULTURE 2: Sounds good to me.

I don’t see Death as some hooded dude standing behind me holding a scythe. Death to me is a middle-aged, overweight white guy, lounging on the couch watching reruns of “Wheel of Fortune.” He’s always trying to get me to “come sit down. You’ll love this episode. I’ll even share my pizza with you. No? Well, you go on your little walk. I’ll wait for you right here. I’ve got some time to kill.”

The other day on my “little walk,” I saw a squirrel turning the tree limbs above my head into its own personal superhighway. Climb, climb, climb, up and over, take the next exit – don’t look down – jump to the next tree going one way, my way, jump again, higher and higher, never touch the ground, and around – now hide.

I imagine a squirrel’s thinking process is simple: “Find a nut, hide a nut, climb a tree, contemplate the existence of dark matter throughout the known universe, go find more nuts.”

Walking is good for the heart, good for the soul, good for waving at your neighbors as they drive by heading to work or the grocery store. Walking gives you the time to ask yourself who you really are, and what’s your purpose in this old world. Better yet, it gives you the time to make up whatever answers suit you best.

Friday, October 1, 2021

Growing up in the Age of Pong

I don’t know if life was much easier during the “Pong” dynasty, but it certainly seems like it was, now that I’m looking back at it through the cloudy pink mist of years.

I guess I was in junior high during that time. The early 70s. A time when every mall arcade worth its weight in quarters had Skee-Ball lanes and pinball machines. You’d make a high score, get rewarded with rolls of coupons, then trade in those coupons for anything from neon-colored pencils to silly-stuffed animals. 

“Skee-Ball or pinball. Pinball or Skee-Ball. That’s your choice. Only cost you a quarter. Ah, too bad. Maybe you’ll do better next time. Win the big prize. Impress the girl. It’ll only cost you another quarter.”

And then a couple of years later, things seemed to change practically overnight. There was Pac-Man, and Space Invaders, and Donkey Kong, and my personal all-time favorite – Asteroids. So many games to play; not enough pocket change. “But dear father, lead me no longer into the temptation of pinball. Better yet, push me into the valley of outer-space to fly a little wedge of a ship bent on destroying two-dimensional space rocks floating on a screen of black; for thine is the kingdom, and your hard-earned quarters given to me because I begged them of you are the glory, forever and ever, Yee-Haw!”

And then came the first and absolute king of home gaming – Pong, by Atari. 

I was at a high school band party the first time I ever played Pong. I think there was a swimming pool; there may have been some snacks; I vaguely remember music over a home stereo system. But the biggest impression on me was the Atari home console that contained Pong. Its components were black. The wires seemed like tentacles from an alien squid. Somehow it plugged itself into the television set. Somehow, we manipulated a couple of vertical “paddles,” raising them and lowering them on the screen. Somehow a digital ball was passed back and forth between the paddles. And somehow, we all waited our turn to play the winner without falling into a riotous digital feeding frenzy. And it was the best party ever.

Growing up, I never had a home gaming console. I guess it was just too expensive. “So much money for to do what? Play games? Go outside and play. You have a bicycle, don’t you?” But every trip to the local mall included me forgoing looking for new clothes in favor of me spending my fair share of my parents’ quarters at the mall arcade, and I was as happy as could be.

I’ve been thinking about Pong and Asteroids and Space Invaders lately, wondering if it’s possible to recreate those carefree days during these trying times; wondering if I can poke my head into some reincarnations of games long past as a temporary cure-all for what ails me. And since it’s cheaper than buying liquor, I’m sure my better half would half-way approve.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

It's just 500 words

It’s just 500 words. Nothing to get worked up about. Nouns and verbs holding hands as they walk through the snow, keeping their little adjectives and adverbs in plain sight so they don’t wander off into the woods to lose their way.

It’s just another story. Even though I was pert-near sure that the last one would definitely be the last one. But then I started hiking through some ideas, and the phrase, “It’s just 500 words,” was like a hidden root under the path, tripping me up just enough to come and jot it down.

And so, I did. 

I gave up writing my little stories a couple of weeks ago because I’ve always felt like a fraud doing it, even though the local newspaper gave me a fair amount of space for my ponderings as well as a small stipend. Some people said they even enjoyed reading it. Still, I didn’t feel right about continuing. Type up some nonsense, give the story a somewhat funny plot turn, end it with a quip or two about this or that, email it off to the publisher and not really worry about it being corrected or rejected because they really just wanted some copy to fill a hole – like cheap asphalt to cover up a pothole in the middle of a small country road.

I read a lot, so I believe I can somewhat tell good writing from bad. I know what I like and what I don’t like. It’s just I didn’t feel like my stuff matched up to what I thought was worthy or worthwhile. 

So, I stopped. And the sun still came up the next morning.

(To be honest, it would have felt good if the “powers that be” and said, “Whoa, there, good buddy. Our readers prefer your work over all others. So, how about some more cash to keep those words a flowing in our direction?” I might have written a few more, but it would have ended the same way.)

I don’t know if these 500 words will be more heartfelt than any of the other 500 words I’ve ever written, but it’s worth giving it a try. Who knows, maybe I’ll come across a frozen river of meaningful thoughts and opinions just waiting for me to sit by the bank and stick around until they are good and defrosted. Maybe I’ll warm them up in my hands, breathe a little bit of life into them, and then set them free to see which way the wind blows them.

So, at least for a little while, these words are just for me. Not for the grandmother across town, not for my co-workers, not for my mother or wife who will always love whatever I write, and especially not to just fill some empty space. Unless it’s the empty space inside of myself from which whispers words of defeat.

I never thought I’d say this, but it feels pretty good to being shoveling 500 words again. 

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Go ahead and take your best shot

SHE SAID: It’s just a vaccination. A little old shot.

HE SAID: That’s what THEY say, but it’s really two. And who knows how many after that. Five? Six? No, it’s too soon. Way too soon.

SHE SAID: They’re smarter now. They know all about that DNA stuff. And it’s been the right amount of time.

HE SAID: Too soon. Way too soon. Do you know how long it took us to invent a vaccine for smallpox? Well, I’ll tell ya. Counting from the day the Universe popped into being until the day they invented the smallpox vaccine, that would be about 14 billion years. And you’re going to tell me that a 12-month-old vaccine is safe? Would you put a 12-month-old baby behind the wheel of a car? No, I didn’t think so.

SHE SAID: You’re not still afraid of needles, are you?

HE SAID: Of course not! By the way, did you notice that this virus all started when the government announced that it’s been investigating UFOs? One day the Pentagon is releasing video footage of “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena,” and the next day we all have the COVID. They say there’s a connection.

SHE SAID: Who is “they”?

HE SAID: People. Smart people. Really smart people. Smarter than you, me, and good old Aunt Edna in El Paso. They say the UFOs probably brought this virus from another galaxy, and that’s one of the reasons why our scientists can’t make up their minds if the virus started at a meat market or in a lab. They say it more than likely started in an alien lab. And this vaccine is some kind of alien concoction meant to sterilize the whole human race so the aliens can have an easy time colonizing our planet since theirs is going to be wiped out by a rogue Black Hole. I can forward you the link to the article where I read it, if you want me to. 

SHE SAID: You read this on Twitter?

HE SAID: Of course not! I’m not that dumb. I followed a link FROM Twitter. It was a very scientific blog. Everybody’s reading it.

SHE SAID: Who is “everybody”?

HE SAID: People who think for themselves. Who aren’t sheep. Who have common sense. Who can add one and two together and get seven different reasons for why we shouldn’t get the shot.

SHE SAID: Yep, you’re still afraid of needles.

HE SAID: Hey, they sting. Besides that, give me one good reason why I should let some kid with a sharp object, who looks like he’s just graduated from junior high, who’s looking at me like I remind him of the teacher that always sent him to the principal’s office – why should I give someone like that the pleasure of inflicting his adolescent revenge on my innocent body?

SHE SAID. It’s just a vaccination. A little old shot. And it’ll do a lot of good for stopping the spread of the virus in our area.

HE SAID: Have you heard about the side effects? I’ll be the one whose arm will probably fall off – pop right out of its socket and right onto the floor. And they’ll throw it in a bucket of cold milk, hoping to save it so it can be reattached. And when the doctor tries to knit it back on, using the reverse stocking stitch because he’s trying to look fancy, he’ll knit instead of purl, dropping the stitch as well as my arm, again, and I’ll be just out of luck. Too bad, so sad.

SHE SAID: Now you’re just being silly. How ‘bout I go with you tomorrow to get one?

HE SAID: You promise not to laugh if I pass out?

SHE SAID: I promise. 

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Come on in, the water's fine

 I haven’t made up my mind whether to be excited about Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson heading up to the very edges of space in their homebuilt rocket machines, or to ridicule the whole endeavor as an expensive precursor to the opening of a new roller coaster ride that you and I will never be able to afford.

Sign At Park Entrance: “Welcome to Virgin New Origin, the Gateway to the Stars – You must be THIS tall to ride, over 18 years of age and in good health (not recommended for those with heart problems), and have proof that you could purchase Greenland if you had the inkling.”

On the one hand, it might be cool to be able to brag that you went to outer space on your summer vacation: “Yep, we floated around in Zero-G for a couple of minutes, and I have the selfies to prove it.”  But on the other hand, does anybody really like being a tourist?

I hate being a tourist – walking around trying to figure out the best way to get from Point A to Point G, trying not to look like your average lost out-of-towner. My wife and I went to Chicago once. I wanted to eat at an authentic Chicago hot dog joint that I swore to her was only an easy one-mile walk away. Turned out to be five. That place is closed now. My wife no longer trusts my map-reading skills.

And that’s all Branson and Bezos were – space sightseers. They flew up to the very boundary of space, dipped their toes into the water to see how it felt, then fell back home with lofty revelations such as: “When you look at the planet, there are no borders,” Bezos said. “It’s one planet, and we share it and it’s fragile.”

Shoot. I’ve been to Four Corners and paid some money to put my right foot in Utah, but that doesn’t mean I’ve really been to Utah. And I can just imagine the astronauts on the International Space Station looking down at the whole show, rolling their eyes and mumbling, “Just what we need. More darn tourists.”

If I were rich enough to be able to afford to hitch a ride into space, I’d much rather book a hammock on the Space Station, spend some time up there, get to know the place, see the sun rise every 90 minutes, find out what it feels like to poop while floating upside down. 

But on the other hand, Wilbur and Orville Wright’s first flight on their homebuilt flying machine lasted only 12 seconds, and look where we are today. I can just imagine what their parents thought when they heard the news:

“Susan, I swear those two boys are crazy.”

“Now, Milton. No need to go naysaying them for what they’ve done. Twelve seconds is a long time, I’m guessing.”

“But where will it lead? And how far can you get in only 12 seconds? You can’t even circle the block and pick up some tomatoes at the market in 12 seconds. Besides that, it’s much quicker and safer to walk.”

That was back in 1903. The brothers sold their first plane to the United States War Department in 1909. Between 1910 and 1916, the Wright Brothers Flying School trained 115 pilots, one being Henry “Hap” Arnold. Arnold, later to be known as the architect of US airpower, was eventually appointed the first (and so far, only) five-star General of the Air Force. 

And in 2021, after 118 years of powered flight, two billionaires and their friends tiptoed just beyond the surly bonds of Earth, and didn’t barf up their breakfast. At least I can give them credit for that.