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The Heritage

26 Jun

 

The Heritage

A Short Story by

L. Stewart Marsden

 

It might have begun with Alex Haley’s phenomenon “Roots,” with its fictitious tracing forward of the ancestry and heritage of Kunta Kinte. When the TV series hit the airways, the nation became obsessed with the story — even though it was historical fiction.

My dad was crazy with the idea that our family was somehow linked to an Adjutant Lieutenant who was a close aide to George Washington, and who had left the British military to fight on the right side. Oh how he sifted through yellowed letters and cracked photographs to prove that association. Notes folded and tucked into family Bibles. Photos with illegible notations, some with nothing to identify the stoned-faced subjects. Guess-work and some liberties were taken in developing a narrative of the family, how it came to be in the United States, and then in the Midwest and Minnesota.

This was long before Ancestry.com and others bought up most of the public records, foiling the best efforts of family researchers. We were’t Mormon, so that avenue wasn’t available.

And then came the pièce de résistance: DNA testing.

“Oh, you definitely do not want to submit your DNA!” warned my paranoid sister. “They’ll find something genetically wrong with you and you won’t ever be able to buy Life Insurance — or any insurance for that matter!”

Actually, I figured anyone who had any doubt as to his legitimacy might be compelled to send in a little spittle. I remember how growing up, my little brother and I sparred verbally, announcing the other had been adopted and was not a real part of the family.

That was actually the reason for my buying into the ancestry ploy: I was so different from the rest of my family, and had often wondered had I been adopted?

“No, Son. You weren’t adopted. I still bear the stretch marks on my belly. You were the largest of the three.”

Mom started having children almost immediately after marrying Dad. The first, Marylee, died as a two month old suddenly. Back then they called it Crib Death. I guess it would be called SIDS, now. But my parents were from Minnesota and the Midwest, where the mentality was infant mortality was almost a given. The solution, according to Dad, was to have another child as soon as possible. So my paranoid sister was born ten months after Marylee’s death. And then I came along two years later, and my younger brother, a year and a half later.

From the start I stuck out like a sore thumb. My sister and brother were beautiful babies and children. Fair haired and blue eyes like Mom. But I was gawky and had ears much too large — that stuck out of the side of my head like radar detection saucers. Plus I had a long, thick unibrow that ran above both of my brown eyes. Mom thought I looked like a monkey, and called me her little Monkey Man. I hated that.

But, unlike my siblings, I had two things going for me: I was extremely athletic, and I could sing. So I was in harmony with the music of my times, and the music of nature. Dad loved to sing, too, and awoke every morning singing “Oh, what a beautiful morning!” from the musical.

One Sunday Dad took us to the Plantation Supper Club, which served the best buffet in three counties, and featured a live band. All us kids loved going there, because sometime during the band’s performance, the conductor would ask if any kids would like to come up and perform? Nearly all chose to lead the band, waving the conductor’s baton to a rhythm that did not match the band’s tempo in the least. The reward was a huge multi-colored lollipop that would last for days. 

So we all went up, my sisters and I. Mom was pregnant with my younger brother at the time. The girls waved their arms while the band played, received their lollipops, and returned to the family table.

“Do you want to lead the band?” the conductor asked me.

“No. I want to sing.”

“And what song do you want to sing?”

“Je-sus luffs me!” I said loudly into his mic.

“Well, I — uh, I guess the band knows that one,” and handed his mic to me. The band began a rather tentative rendition of the song — musicians unsure of the beat or the notes.

“Je-sus luffs me, this I know!” I sang and continued to sing in my innocent and crystal-clear voice. The band dropped off behind me while I continued a cappella.

“Yes! Je-sus luffs me!” I could see just beyond the apron of the stage where diners sat, enrapt. Tissues were out and dabbing eyes.

“Yes! Je-sus luffs me!” The waiters stood in their tracks, not knowing whether it was okay to tend tables or not while I sang the song.

“Yesss! Je-sus luffs me! Da Bi-bull tells me so!”

Silence. Do you clap after “Jesus loves me” is sung? No one knew. Mom was blubbering into a large dinner napkin. 

Finally, Dad stood up and clapped, and the other diners followed suit.

I grabbed my lollipop from the hands of the stunned conductor and raced back to my seat. My two sisters glared at me.

And that’s pretty much why I decided to send in my DNA.

__________

The company letter came a few weeks later. Basically, it was an apology, stating that sometimes DNA samples were erroneously contaminated — either by the sender or during some part of the testing process.

“This happens very rarely. In fact, only on nine previous occasions have we ever had to send an offer to retest DNA for free, and we test thousands of samples, comparing them to our growing DNA bank for matches, every day.”

Whatever. Someone screwed up at the testing site. I was very careful to follow the instructions meticulously, and knew it wasn’t my fault! Inconvenient? Sure, but you pick your battles, and I sent in another sample.

Three weeks passed and the same letter came back to me.

So now I’m frustrated. All I want to do is disprove my younger brother’s decades-old assertion that I was adopted — something Mom and Dad had continued to deny.

“They’re lying!” my brother hissed, snakelike.

As it turns out, they weren’t lying — not exactly, at least according to the man who showed up at my door one day dressed in a black suit with black tie and fedora and sunglasses.

______

 

Before the Blues Brother showed up at my front door, I gotta be honest and say this thing about the DNA FUBAR had begun to get to me. This feeling I considered too silly to mess with had sunk into my head. I couldn’t sleep at night. I couldn’t concentrate at work. I was short-tempered with people around me — impatient to the max. I’ve never sunk into such a dark place in my life — yet, here I was.

So when I answered the doorbell early one Saturday to greet this whatever and whoever he was, there was a mixture of tension with relief! Somehow I knew this funk I was in was going to see some light of day. I knew this guy was some sort of key to getting out of my pit, and I was damn well ready to be rescued.

He identified himself so quickly I missed half what he said, still, I held the door open and he walked into my house.

“We alone?” he asked.

“Unless you count my fighting fish in the bowl over there.”

“No girl friend?”

“With these ears?”

“Yeah. No girl friend.”

He carried a locked briefcase, spun the combination dials, and it popped open. He set it on the small table in front of the couch where he sat. He pulled out a manila envelope and opened the silver clasps, then slid out photos of people.

“Would you mind looking at these and telling me if any of them are familiar?”

I picked each up and briefly studied them. Various ethnicities — Hispanic, black, Asian, a few different caucasians. Male and female. Adults and children. While I couldn’t say for sure, I was fairly certain I didn’t know any of them. And yet … there was a sense of underlying familiarity about each person. But I couldn’t put a finger on it.

“Nope. I don’t know them. Should I?”

“Unless you travel the world a lot, I doubt it.”

There were three adult males, three adult females, two male children and one girl. Nine photos in all.

Nine. I remembered the letter.

“This happens very rarely. In fact, only on nine previous occasions have we ever had to send an offer to retest DNA for free, and we test thousands of samples, comparing them to our growing DNA bank for matches, every day.”

“This about my DNA test about my ancestry?”

“It might be.” He was stone-face. I think if he smiled his head would crumble apart. “I can’t really tell you much …”

“… or you’d have to kill me, right?” 

He didn’t appreciate the quip.

“I’ve read your files.” (They have files, plural, on me?) “We’ve been waiting for this for a number of years.”

“Waiting for what?” I was getting more uneasy by the second.

“You to get your DNA tested. Of course, our operatives are the ones who messed them up.”

“Why would you do that? Why are you interested in me?”

“Same reason you wanted to get your DNA results. To find out who you are related to.”

“So I’m am adopted?”

“Not in the classical sense.”

“What other sense is there?”

“We ran your DNA years ago.”

“YEARS AGO!” I am now officially freaked out.

“It’s a long story.”

“I’ve got time …”

“Actually, we don’t.”

“Tell me the short version then — skip all the boring stuff and get to the highlights. I AM an American, and have rights, you know.”

“Possibly.”

“WHA — ?!”

“Calm down, Sir. I’ll tell you this,” as he reached into his coat pocket and removed something that resembled a gun.

“SHIT!”

“Sit, Sir. Please. Take a deep breath.” 

I did.

“Those photos I showed you? The people you say you know nothing about? Those nine people are the only people on this earth — as far as we can determine — who are genetically related to you.”

And then he pulled the trigger, and I blacked out.

_____

I awoke with a clear head, and no grogginess or dizziness — which surprised me. I’ve had surgery before and have gone under the knife, so knew what coming out of an anesthetically-induced sleep was like. This was definitely not that. 

There were lights, but not blinding. Blues Brother guy was among several others seated about a stark room all about me. I was stretched out on some sort of sofa, or bed. I remember I felt completely relaxed and unafraid. Including The Blues Brother, there were nine others forming a ring around me: Three men, three women, two boys and one girl. They were of varying age and ethnic look. All were smiling.

I sat upright and swung my feet around to the floor. No one spoke. Slowly I looked about the room, studying each face. I realized after the third person there were similarities too obvious: the ears, large and prominent, as if satellite dishes, scanning for the visually undetectable; mono brows, dark and thick.

Just like me. The nine were the DNA rejects! 

“You are the others.” It was not a question on my part, but a statement of realization.

They smiled and nodded.

“Your DNA is a match to me.” Again, a statement.

Again, they smiled.

The Blues Brother stood up and walked to me.

“You asked if your were adopted. You weren’t in the usual sense. Your birth mother basically cocooned you in her womb.”

“What? There was an immaculate conception?”

“Interesting you asked — more like an immaculate switch.”

“Switch?”

“You, and your brothers and sisters, took the place of feti already growing in your ‘birth mothers’ wombs.” He couched the words birth mothers with finger quotation marks. “They were not, of course, your biological birth mothers.”

I was stunned. The news of being adopted is impactful enough, but to find that your birth mother was not your biological mother goes well beyond shocked.

“So you implanted me in my mother’s womb?”

“In a way. More simply put, we switched you out. Like replacing a carburetor in an engine, or a lightbulb.”

“And what happened to the feti that were in these mothers’ bellies?”

“We don’t speak of that.”

“Why not?”

“It is not germane to your purpose. It will do nothing for you to have that knowledge.”

“Try me!”

The other nine also turned to the Blues Brother, seeming as interested in the truth as I.

One in particular, a light-skinned, white-haired and blue-eyed middle-aged woman stared at him intently, to which Blues Brother reacted with immediate nervousness to the point he began to sweat profusely.

“Well, if you must absolutely know — we recycled them.”

“What?! What the hell does that mean?”

“They were ingested.”

——-

In the span of a little over three months, my life had turned upside down. Not only was I not my parents’ legitimate offspring, but I was no longer a part of the human species! And, my race was not of this world. And we were cannibals, apparently.

“The precise definition of cannibal is one that eats the flesh of its own kind. So, technically, the feti that were ingested was not an act of cannibalism.

Blues Man was very careful in his use of words: feti … ingested. Terms of sterility, and very little direct inference to what really happened. They ate babies, by God! He made it sound as if humans were little more than part of the Four Main Food Group’s of his — or our — planet!

I remembered the classic Twilight Zone episode, To Serve Mankind — the realization as a group of earthlings shuttled onto a space vessel that the “manual” the Alien had brought with him was actually a cookbook.

And while my nine relatives and I were not grossly obvious as outerworlders, we were still distinct in our appearance. The ears. The eyebrow. I had never had the slightest inclination to eat anyone, though.

That wasn’t all. Each of us also had special abilities. Talents, you might say … but not normal. My brother from Ecuador, Josue, had the ability to see around corners. No idea how you would use that, or how you develop it. Genetic mutation? He wasn’t sure either.

Each was different in that regard, except we did share perfect pitch, and could spontaneously break into a long strain of melodious and harmonious song. That experience was incredible! I likened it to a pack of wolves baying in the moonlit night air — their parts wrapping around each other’s, lifting the pack to unequaled heights of ecstasy! My siblings and I matched and exceeded that of the wolves — or of the whales — or of any other earthbound creature. Then I realized all earth’s creatures — with the exception of humans — spontaneously broke into choruses — from katydids and tree toads to rutting Elk. Perhaps we were more like they.

Blues Brother reminded us humans were quite capable of exquisite song — but not all. I thought of my human siblings and had to agree. Each was tone deaf. But at Christmastide the televised performance of Handel’s Messiah always sent shivers throughout my body.

“Why do we sing?” I asked.

“Two reasons,” said Blues Man. “We enter into a oneness with each other, with nature, and with the Universe; and we’re horney and want to mate.”

Once Blues Man had answered all of our various questions in various languages (we all understood each other perfectly), he addressed the one question no one had dared ask, but was paramount on our minds.

“You are probably wondering why you’re here. I would be, too. I’ve long waited for this moment. The annuls of our world will highlight this moment. Your thoughts will be heralded for millennia to come. You are here to save this planet, pure and simple.

“Not for our use. Not as a breeding farm for food. Not for resources or any other reason than its direction is perilous. Humans have so distorted this planet’s balance that it stands on the precipice of destruction. And as many countries have ironically reserved vast areas for preservation and against the total waste of precious lands, we are going to preserve this world because of its uniqueness — either with, or without humans.

“They have become the top liability, and either we will convince them to reverse that, or we will not.”

“And if we don’t?” I asked.

“Our goal remains the same. We adapt our approach to the problem.”

_____

 

Imagine that within a matter of weeks you had discovered:

  1. Your parents were not your real parents;
  2. You had been implanted into the womb of your mother (is this similar to the Virgin Birth, I wonder?);
  3. You were, in fact, alien;
  4. That you and others like you had the responsibility of saving the Earth;
  5. And, finally,  that saving the Earth might not include saving humanity.

I grew up immersed in the science fiction of my day, which demonize every flying saucer, alien, or unknowable thing that happened to be discovered by the guys with horn-rimmed glasses and who wore starched white short-sleeved shirts. Enmity, never understanding. Or hardly ever. The beast of Forbidden Planet. The three-eyed monster of The Day the World Ended. The emissary, Klaatu, from outer space who arrived in Washington with his stainless steel sidekick, Gort, to tell humans to quit nuclear proliferation. Only Klaatu had some semblance of sanity — the rest were train wrecks.

Alien equaled “bad,” regardless how the term was used. Alien, foreign, nonhuman, maliciously dangerous, deceitful, untrustworthy. Shoot when you see the slits of their eyes. And, shoot first, ask questions later, which was the military mentality in each film. 

And there I was — smack dab in the middle of a small herd of Aliens, and I was one!

“After a brief period of training, each one of you will be returned whence you came,” said Blues Brother. I think he was trying to impress us with his use of the word “whence.”

“We don’t have much time, family. Some of you will skirt the time rings and go back to small but pivotal events that steered the course of history to where we now are. Others, will skirt ahead, and provide the necessary evaluation of any changes to the good. Personally, I would prefer to go back in time, as I think those evaluating change are going to be disappointed. Were it me (again, the odd use of the verb), I would dispense with the entire efforts at redeeming humanity. Like when the God of the Bible said, “Oops! That didn’t work! Guess I’ll flood the Earth.”

I raised my hand to interrupt and challenge the assertion, but Blues Man had already guessed my intent and ignored me.

“Your training will not be very difficult. The pods being lowered are your training encasements (as he spoke, shiny black pods — almost like those of The Body Snatchers — descended from the darkness above to hover at waist level in front of each of us), and you will spend some time in hibernation.

“During that time you will be more fully informed about the mission as well as your personal backgrounds. Each of you has various — how shall I put it? — unearthly abilities. You will be acquainted with and thoroughly trained in the proper use of these abilities. 

“If there are no questions, I ask you to touch your pod to open it.”

I raised my hand. All the other pods opened. Blues Brother eyed me sternly, and I put my hand down and touched the pod in front of me. It opened along the horizontal middle.

“Please get into your pod. It doesn’t matter which end you position your head at. Your pod will make the necessary adjustments.”

We all clambered into the pods.

“Lie down on your backs — face up.”

And as we did, the interior of the pod began to expand and gently form-fit to our bodies. My experience was one of total relaxation and comfort, and I wondered it this was what it was like to lie in a coffin. 

“Touch the inside top of your pod to close, and I’ll see each of you shortly.”

I touched mine, and the lid slowly closed. A light wisp of cool air circulated about me, and though the lid was shut, it wasn’t dark. An ambient blueish-green glow radiated slowly about me, and as it did, I could hear music similar to the chorus we had participated in when we first met. It was so soothing! When they speak of utter peace? This was it.

And I fell into a deep sleep.

_____

Early morning sun rays beamed through the window blind slits onto my face. Outside I could hear the morning-tide welcome as birds joined in a wonderful chorus of praise. I felt myself beginning to join in the song fest when my birth mother knocked on my bedroom door.

“Eggs and sausage on the table!”

Eggs and sausage. Birds and pigs. The thought was now nauseating. How could I ever have thought those were edible?

I pulled myself out of my bed and shuffled into the bathroom, flicking the light on and staring at my reflection in the walled mirror above the counter sink.

“Still me,” I thought. Wait! Was that a dream?

“You will invariable have moments of doubt that any of this has taken place,” I remember Blues Brother warning us.

“Merely remember our group choruses, tilt your head back, and sing — preferably in the shower so no one thinks it odd.”

I turned the shower on and slipped out of my pajamas, then entered into the glassed closet. The warm water felt good — like soft needles pricking my face and shoulders and chest. I leaned my head back and allowed the sound to flow. And in an instant, knew it was all true.

I toweled and dressed, making my bed for the first time in millennia because it made me feel happy to do so.

In the kitchen I kissed my birth mom, which, again, was something I never did. It surprised her and she turned red in the face. I could read her mind: what’s gotten into him?

“Nothing has gotten into me,” I replied to her shock. I looked at the plate of sausage and bowl of scrambled eggs and squelched a gag reflex. Then I got up from the table.

“Not going to eat?”

“I’m not hungry, Mom.”

“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day!” she chided him.

“I know. I’ll grab something later.”

I headed for the front door and turned back to look at her, busy in the kitchen putting away the sausage and scrambled eggs. I wanted to say something, but what? She was so much a part of me before, and now seemed so very far away.

“You have a good day, Mom!”

“Go save the world, Son!”

“I’ll try.”

And I walked out into a new day.

_____

The End

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Long Walks on the Beach

22 May

Continue reading

Storytellers

19 Aug

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Storytellers

To some extent, we are all storytellers. Our abilities to weave a tale hie back to childhood (at least mine did), when confronted by Mom with such questions as:

  • Did you break that?
  • Where have you been?
  • Why didn’t you answer when I called you?
  • Why are you late for supper?

And the skills and tendencies grow over the years.

  • How do I look?
  • Did you like the meatloaf?
  • Tell me you love me first.

Face it – each of us has a story to tell. Some are riveting, others, sleep-inducing. Some need “tweaking” to portray us in the best light. Witness 45 and the life-long politicians who reside and feed in Washington and state capitols around the country.

From fish tales to impossible golf shots to the hottest person we ever dated (and what we did on the date) to the largest-ever gathering for an inauguration, we’re ready to mesmerize our friends and families with our fantastic feats – however based in truth or not.

The counter-tale of little George owning up to his dad with “I cannot tell a lie” is probably hogwash. It’s the historic manipulation of fact in order to get us to spit-paste our cowlicks and ‘fess up – which flies in the face of reality.

“Don’t worry, Chief. This treaty will ensure your people maintain their lands and way of life without any interference from Washington.” 

Wink, wink; nudge, nudge.

Stories are the centerpiece of every gathering, whether about the long past, when it’s now okay to reveal an exaggerated truth; or about a trip or an experience. And when the stories fly, it’s like different hands grabbing the bat handle to see who can triumphantly cap off the end of the bat in victory with “the greatest story.”

Like the famous challenge between Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley and Lord Byron to write the best horror tale, we gather over dinner and in dens to joust with our own tales of interest, each story perhaps spinning on the edge of truth along that dangerous precipice of – what shall we call it? Creativity?

What’s that? You say you don’t or never have done that? You say you’ve lived the pristine life of a cloistered monk in terms of never exaggerating or perhaps stretching the truth a bit? 

Some of you – even now – are thinking “but that would be lying!” 

You say toe-mah-toe, and I say tew-may-toe. Again, like our politicians, it depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.

I say you are a storyteller. You say you are a truth teller.

Psssst! Don’t look now but your pants are on fire.

The Phil Mickelson Caveat

18 Jun

 

The Phil Mickelson Caveat

By L. Stewart Marsden

As expected, sports news talking heads are all abobble about one of the two major take-always from the 2018 U.S. Open Golf Championship at Shinnecock Hills Golf Course this weekend in Southampton, NY.

An aside: Wonder why the nation is not equally outraged by the golf course’s logo? It never came up, somehow.

One has clearly drawn the serious attention away from the other. Phil’s desperate antics on the 13th (ironic, no?) hole in venting his day-long putting frustration by whacking his putted golf ball that was clearly going to end up (oh, who knows where?) drew the commentating from how the PGA screwed up again with an unholy course, already difficult, and made three times more difficult by shaving the grass from the greens.

At least for the moment. While spewing venom at the game’s most likable pro, greens keepers flooded the greens at the end of Round Three after Big Guy Dustin Johnson unceremoniously slipped the balding slopes from what looked like an insurmountable four-stroke lead of -4 to a share of the lead by day’s end at +3.

“Cheater!” cried the pompous PGA elders.

”Horrible precedence,” they added.

So, without due process, Mickelson was hung out to dry. If only he had taken a knee instead of stopping his hockey puck putt!

Did you know that duffers like me make mince-meat of the rules of golf on a regular basis?

Ever hear of the 10-inch rule? According to my brother, you can move your ball to any point within a 10-inch diameter to improve your lie. You won’t find that one in the book.

Ever hear of the Mulligan rule? Or the reincarnated Mulligan?

Ever hear of the “within the putter grip” rule?

The PGA has spent a lot of money trying to get golfers to follow the rules.

Actually, Phil DID follow the rules. Ask any defense lawyer. He gladly took the penalty.

Was it the right thing to do?

Well, if morality is going to enter the conversation, then let’s talk about DJ’s reported dalliances. And what about … TW? How quickly we forget and forgive. Don’t worry, plenty more scarlet letters where Phil’s “C” comes from.

Did you know it’s thought golf was actually a drinking game? At least, the winners were afforded drinking credits. And even that it was banned and against the law to play it? Look it up. It’s on the internet. Gotta be true.

Here’s what would be fair in terms of the controversy over Phil’s sin:

Make him play the remainder of the round, and the next five tournaments in which he plays, right-handed. Now that should be tantamount to cutting off his hands at the wrist. Except Phil is actually right-handed, and I’m sure would adjust. Then cut off one of his feet. “I’m still playing!” Okay, then –– cut off the other foot. “I’m still playing!”

You live by the rules … you die by the rules.

You might look at Phil’s action from a different perspective, however. Isn’t he really saying, I’ve done this that you may be free (of the rules)? Kind of a golfing savior for the rest of us golfing wannabes.

Back to the real problem this weekend: while there was some nasty satisfaction at watching the world’s best golfers get massacred by those gatling gun greens, it was also sad.

PGA:
Please don’t ever do that again! Choose courses for The Open that are indeed challenging and have the respect of each golfer, but don’t make them impossible! I hated looking at the leaderboard this weekend. Don’t go back to Shinnecock Hills until they pledge to

  1. plant a few trees back,
  2. let the grass on the greens grow a bit.
  3. change their logo. How about a shield that has something representing a shin and something that represents a cock?

As it is currently, I’m sure most of the PGA golfers who played the course this weekend felt cuckolded –– by the course AND by the PGA.

 

Kicking the Tires

15 Jun

 

Kicking the Tires

By L. Stewart Marsden

My dad was an auto mechanic for years. On the weekends he and me used to work on an old jalopy he bought for practically nothing. Said it was his therapy. Well he musta had a severe case of the crazies on account he worked on that car till the day he died.

Sally, he called her. And she was the jumpin’ off point for many a life lesson I never forgot.

“Sally is just like a woman,” he said a lot. “She may be old, and may not work the way she did when she rolled off the assembly line, but she’s reliable and fixable. Not like the shiny new cars you see in the dealerships. No. And she wasn’t made for the smooth life of the highway, but the bumpy backroads.

“Once she’s back in shape, she’ll purr like a kitten and be the envy of every guy within three counties.

“Not like those fancy-finned gals with all kinds of gadgets. The ones what seems great the first time you take ‘em on the road, only to fall apart after not too long. The ones with built-in ob-so-lescence. Cosmetic crates, I call ‘em. Lemons with a fancy paint job.”

My dad’s ability to hone in on Sally as a universal roadmap to life was better than a lecture from a triple-PhD at some high-powered college or university. According to my dad, those guys had nothing but wind chimes for brains, which tinkled loudly whenever a fresh wind blew.

But Sally was the real thing. The true compass. From sex to marriage to being dependable and trustworthy as a worker. She was the rusted splotch-polished real McCoy example of how life should be, and once was.

“The thing about marriage is you are drawn by the sleek sexiness of a sedan or a convertible under the lights on the car lot. Never buy a new car at night, by the way.

“Oh, the shine and the new vinyl smell and the reflections of city lights as you cruise the boulevard make you think you’re in heaven! The AM/FM works just fine, and the steering is tight. The big rubber whitewalls grip the road on every turn, and you only have to tap your breaks to slow or stop on a dime. The clutch is taut, and the gears slide like butter from first to third.

“And there ain’t no crusted-over milkshake spills on the floorboard. The cigarette lighter is virginal, and the ashtray slick and clean. The visors hold where you place them, and the rear view mirror ain’t spotted.

“And it’s just fine as it can be, you say to yourself.

“But you worry. About the first bug marks on the silver bumper that won’t scrub off. Or a ding on the side where some jack-ass parked too close and swung open his door. Or the temperature gauge light popping on suddenly when you are miles from a filling station.

“That first slow leak from a nail in the road. Is that person going to stop at the light or not?

“It’s all a worrisome time.

“Plus your car needs the high-priced gas, not the cheapest leaded fuel, although you are tempted to ask the attendant to use regular instead, knowing your baby will eventually chug and shudder on the road –– right when you’re trying to pass a semi on a two-lane county back road with oncoming traffic.

“And you begin to try to save in other ways, avoiding the manufacturer plugs and points and air filters for the cheaper no-name brands. Less expensive motor oil. Maybe you don’t change the radiator fluid for a while. You quit hand-washing and waxing and zip through the new automats.

“Then it’s not too long before you hear the door hinges and springs creak loudly, and there is a crusted-over milkshake spill or two on the floorboard. The vinyl smell is gone. The cigarette lighter has turned gray-white on the coils, and the ashtray is dusted over and no longer shiny. Rust spots dot the bumpers and other chrome trim. And when you idle at a light, blue-gray puffs of lead-filled exhaust spew from your loud muffler.

“And you think to yourself, ‘It’s time for a trade in.’”

Don’t get me wrong. Dad loved Mom. And he always treated her like the fine Cadillac convertible he saw her to be.

But he was at his happiest when he worked on Sally. And he whistled. And he compared life to his life-long restoration project.

He and Mom stayed married sixty-seven years.

“Don’t ever forget, Son. You gotta kick a few tires to find the right one. And never –– ever –– buy a new car at night.”

Words to live by.

And Now a Word …

23 May


 

And Now a Word …

By L. Stewart Marsden

I’ve been amazed at the quality and production value of TV commercials over the past few years. Especially the ones aimed at the national marketplace — though it’s difficult to tell, sometimes.

It used to be that various industries dominated the airways in attempts to bend my mind to buy their products. As a kid, that didn’t work so well. Most were aimed at Mom and Dad. Dinah Shore and Chevrolet (Burt must have liked those). Speedy, the animated drug pusher (although the Drop, drop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is part could have been used for a laxative product as well). Madge and her green “you’re soaking in it!” reveal. The incredibly mesmerizing Comfort Fit bra commercials (as close to skin as it got in the day and much better than National Geographic).

For me they were real bothers (other than the bra commercials), especially if the Lone Ranger was about to ride Silver into a canyon where there were about a hundred bad guys lying in wait. The cliff hanger.

And now a word … That part hasn’t changed. Then, no remotes to click on the “Last” button to toggle to another show. But even that has been taken into consideration today in a last-ditch effort by Madison Avenue, and most of the commercials seem to be synchronized to begin at the same time. I’ve actually surfed through several stations at commercial time and landed on the same commercial, milliseconds separation. Technology!

The only commercials I paid attention to were the rough and gruff cowboys who rode off into the sunset with a Marlboro stuck to their lower lips, the ash about 3 inches long (symbolism?). Or the Chesterfield commercials where doctors told me smoking was safe (https://youtu.be/TOKc6TNwlj4). At the time, a pack of cigarettes could be bought for a quarter from the cigarette vending machine tucked into the Men’s room of a local gas station.

Today, commercials are full of comedy, action, good writing and incredible acting. There are two times a year I look forward to a barrage of commercials willingly: the Super Bowl, and the Clio Awards. The first is an all-out competition between brands to wow and spin us about with ad producers’ incredible creativity and artistry. The second is an industry pat-on-the-back of its blatant efforts to seduce and manipulate.

My current favorite is the All State commercial where a teen enters his parents bedroom to admit a fender-bender (https://youtu.be/zBYTIklIodE) incident. I can identify as both the kid as well as the adult.

The arrival of the industry to this level of entertainment wasn’t overnight. Coca-Cola has been striving for years for the emotional prod for a long time. “I’d Like to Teach the World to Singhttps://youtu.be/ib-Qiyklq-Q” is iconic –– as well as the Mean Joe Greene commercial https://youtu.be/xffOCZYX6F8. If you don’t know of these, you are too young and need to be spanked and sent to bed.

There have been ads that leave you puzzled, like the EDS commercial Cat Herders (https://youtu.be/vTwJzTsb2QQ) An example of the medium overwhelming the message. It was banned by somebody or organization for some reason. Probably cat lovers. I don’t remember seeing a disclaimer that no cats were harmed or branded during the production of the ad.

While the tugs and pulls at our senses, sentiments, and savings haven’t changed, I’m glad the commercials have. Launched quite a few acting careers as well, like the I’m a Pepper guy (https://youtu.be/jvCTaccEkMI) who later starred in the best werewolf transformation film ever (albeit the budget must have caused the director to stop the film without the typical beast resolution — https://youtu.be/E7BmQc5QKVs).

There was a time TV was “free.” Of course it was underwritten through advertisers who used the programs to siphon from America’s money gas tanks. But still, it was free to the consumer. Now, alas, not so much (I recently begrudgingly wrote out my monthly cable service fees).

Commercial sponsors once ruled the day, and provided America with much-needed diversion from the day-to-day grind. Now we’re content to spend the big monthly bucks to see our fare without interruption. Or, as the Romans might have said, continuatam scilicet entertainment. And that decision has dire ripple effects:

  • On our bladders.
  • On fewer trips to the kitchen, hence less consumption of various foods (chips and sodas, which constitute two of the five major American food groups. Pizza and McDonalds and ice cream are the other three).
  • On our social interaction skills. There are also other entities currently mastering this demise: Facebook, Twitter, etc.
  • On our ability to discern between night and day (if binge-watching).
  • On the advertising industry, which will be forced to lay off thousands of writers, directors, producers, actors, and Best Boys.

The result will be that whatever “free” TV remains. The commercials will be local, and you know what that means, right?

https://youtu.be/Gl6F12DWI7o.

Or, https://youtu.be/HqGsT6VM8Vg.

Sorry about that. Too much uninterrupted binging on The Walking Dead.

You get what I mean.

Don’t be a putz. Let’s save the TV commercial industry by giving up those expensive cable TV contracts. And by doing that, save the many careers that will inevitably be eliminated. And if they are, the only commercials we will see will be like the following:

 

 

 

 

Taking the Count

18 Apr

 

Taking the Count

By L. Stewart Marsden

 

Lately I’ve caught myself subconsciously counting things. I don’t know why, I just do.

There are 14 steps from the main floor of my condo where I live to the lower floor. That’s counting the two steps formed by the corner at the bottom of the stairway. Consequently, I take the same number of steps up to my bedroom at night and again in the morning.

When the wall pendulum clock begins to chime, I count along: one … two … three –– until the hour designation has bonged out.

It takes two minutes and thirty-six seconds for the frozen boiled chicken tenders I feed my dogs to thaw. Approximately four minutes for my Mr. Coffee to drip-brew my morning quota of two cups of coffee.

Why? Not why how many, but why do I count?

Perhaps at age 68 I’ve become painfully conscious of things like how much time I have left in my life. I didn’t count everything when I was younger, except things like how many days till my birthday, or Christmas, or until summer.

Now, practically everything is a count:

  1. Number of wives;
  2. Number of children and grandchildren (that are known of);
  3. Number of days until the longest day of daylight;
  4. Number of days until the shortest day of daylight†;
  5. Number of Christmas cards I get††;
  6. Number of age spots;
  7. Number of prescribed medicationsß;
  8. Number of calories in a meal;
  9. Number of calories I eat in a day;
  10. Number of times I check my weight;
  11. Number of times during the day I think about food;
  12. Number of days those leftovers have been in the frig and can I eat them anyhow;
  13. Number of times I’ve gotten food poisoning;
  14. Number of people I can count on;
  15. Number of people who can count on me;
  16. Number of years Duke basketball will continue its failed One-and-Done strategy;
  17. Number of days 45 can go without embarrassing either himself, his wife, or the nation;
  18. Actually, instead of days, use hours or minutes for the previous count;
  19. Or maybe seconds;
  20. Number of days I can go without showering;
  21. Number of times I wear the same clothing without changing;
  22. Number of friends I have (which is greatly reduced because of #’s 18 and 19)
  23. Number of miles per gallon I get in my hybrid Honda Insight;
  24. Number of miles I can go on a tank of gas in my Insight;
  25. Number of miles I have to walk on the highway to get five gallons of gas;
  26. Number of days I can go with the Check Engine light on without getting nervous;
  27. Number of dollars I have to give the mechanic because I didn’t heed the Check Engine light;
  28. Number of cans of LeCroix I drink in a day;
  29. Number of days I’ve been off Facebook;
  30. Number of days I’ve been off Facebook without thinking about Facebook;
  31. Number of times I now check my iPhone for text messages having left Facebook;
  32. Number of times Bless your heart is uttered in the south;
  33. Number of grits in a serving;
  34. Number of times the 2nd Amendment is referred to in a day;
  35. Number of things I count during the day.
†Only one state where this doesn’t count: Arizona. I don’t mind visiting Arizona … I just don’t want to live there.
††I don’t send Christmas cards, but might have to this year since I left Facebook (see #29)
ßWhich at this point is limited to one prescription, and 99 OTCs for all of the other symptoms I’m self-diagnosing and treating (after all, there’s only one letter difference between the AMA and the AMRA). BTW: you have to do some research to understand this quip.

I don’t actually blame myself for this counting obsession. It’s all around us. And, I suppose, brings some semblance of order to what is otherwise a chaotic and unpredictable time in the nation. It’s in our vernacular. Ensconced in our euphemisms. We’ve done it for countless centuries.

  1. Down for the count.
  2. Don’t count me out –– or for the optimist, you can count me in.
  3. The full count.
  4. Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.
  5. Count your blessings (bless your heart).
  6. Count yourself lucky.
  7. The countdown.
  8. That doesn’t count.
  9. That counts.
  10. Nobody’s counting.
  11. Look who’s counting.
  12. Ad infinitum (which is like trying to determine the true value of π).

I guess I won’t worry about it. It’s a feature of my life, and I can’t count how many times I’ve tried to ignore it –– which is futile. In the long run, it counts for very little anyway.

So I accept the inevitable, and will turn my attention to more important matters, such as how many days until the new season of The Walking Dead launches.

By the way, the word count of this article is 793. I need seven words to make 800.

You can count on it.

 

 

 

 

 

The Opportunist

29 Mar

 

 

The Opportunist

By L. Stewart Marsden

 

The label has a slightly negative connotation. I have one living with me. He is cute and playful, and now, with good breath, fun to have up close.†

But behind those innocent eyes are the secretive desires of an opportunist. And, specifically, with regard to: the garbage.

Each night we climb the stairs for bed, this con artist deftly feigns bones too tired to make the effort. He lags. He needs coaxing and a plethora of “C’meres” before he reluctantly hops up the stairs.

I now know why, having decided to leave him to his own designs, figuring it wouldn’t be long before he came up. It was just long enough. And he was quiet at his work, like a skilled thief in the night.

But with daylight came the discovery: the garbage can toppled to its side. Every scrap of aromatic packaging strewn about.

All it took was a look, and the culprit slinked out of the kitchen, tail between his legs, making no eye contact. Still, he got his breakfast — Fromm bits and boiled chicken tenders (not a lot, mind you), and then the inevitable Talk from me.

Oh he understands, though he might play the ignorant one. He is, after all … The Opportunist. I believe it to be an innate compulsion –– this deceit masked by cuteness and cuddliness. He knows I’ll not be the fool twice.

He is found out. Discovered. Unmasked … for the opportunist he is.

 

 

†Gordie is a rescue dog, and about 8 years old. He never had his teeth cleaned by his previous owners, and his breath could stop a freight train two miles away. I scheduled teeth-cleaning, both for Gordie’s sake and mine. The vet told me he might have to extract some of Gordie’s teeth due to bad gum conditions. He pulled 9. I asked if there are dentures for dogs.

Out of the Blue

10 Mar

 

 

Out of the Blue

By L. Stewart Marsden

 

The photo above isn’t of my driveway, but it might as well be. I live in the mountains of North Carolina, and unlike last year, this year has been rife with snow and bitter cold, with short rests of 60º and higher weather –– enough to confuse the trees into budding early.

Each morning I take my new rescue dog, Gordie, for his constitutional, and Wednesday was no different. Overnight a light covering of very dry snow had fallen. Bundled up, and shod in my overpriced walking shoes (at least look the part, I always say), I snapped the lead onto Gordie’s halter and we set out as always, crunching onto the snow.

We had gone about ten feet when I stepped down on my left heel and –– whoosh! My leg splayed out to the side awkwardly and down I went, experiencing incredible pain along the back of my left leg. Did I say incredible pain? There’s not a word to adequately describe the shot of paralyzing agony that became the focus of my being for the next few moments.

Did I mention it was 7 AM?

Did I mention it was in the teens temperature-wise?

Did I mention I live in a cluster of condos where the owners are present ONLY during the warm weather mostly?

Flat on my stomach, grinding and writhing in anguish, with a confused Gordie licking my face, it dawned on me there was no one about; I didn’t have my cellphone (Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!); and I was already feeling the intense cold.

A sheet of ice beneath the snow (the original culprit) kept me from any progress at getting up, much less the pain I felt shooting down my leg whenever I tried to move.

I managed to get to my hands and knees somehow. There was nothing in the empty parking lot to grab to help me pull myself up.

So I crawled. Inch by inch. Slowly. Feeling woozy. Mentally seeing myself found days later frozen to death, by the propane gas man who periodically checks to see if my tanks are adequately filled. Or the electric meter reader. Most likely it would be the attractive postal carrier who brings mail to my door whenever one of my Amazon orders arrive, and I remembered I have two or three orders out there. It was 7 AM, and she comes around 10:30 AM. Then I remembered I hadn’t showered and I knew my hair was a mess. Which was enough impetus to continue my desperate crawl towards my condo door.

Gordie looked confused and a bit guilty …

All the while Gordie looked confused and a bit guilty, as though perhaps it was his fault. I did all I could to let him know he was not the problem, but my sporadic shrieks of pain didn’t help. Gordie is a rescue dog, as I said, and is about 20 lbs and just turned eight. He is a Havanese, but doesn’t look at all like the photos on the internet –– so I figure he’s a mix. The Havanese was bred initially in Cuba (Havana, get it?), and looks kind of like a terrier and Scotty dog mix. His previous owners got a new dog –– a big dog –– and Gordie didn’t take to the intruder. Small dogs are no problem. So, in their infinite love, they chose to give up Gordie for adoption, preferring the new dog. Their loss. The dog community around here is irate about it.

Anyway, I digress.

I managed to get to the wooden walkway to my front door, which has wooden rails on either side. I pulled myself up, and began the hurtful shuffle to the door, and then back inside. Both Gordie and I were glad to be inside where it was nice and warm.

Navigating through the first floor by holding onto doorknobs, counters –– anything I could use for support –– I finally fell into a recliner love seat in my living room.

Relief! Gordie jumped up onto the nearby sofa and curled onto his special dog bed and stared –– obviously worried.

Across the long room, which got longer as I looked at it, was an umbrella stand with several walking canes next to the fireplace. From

Across the long room, which got longer as I looked at it, was an umbrella stand with several walking canes next to the fireplace.

my vantage point, I could remotely operate both the gas fireplace as well as my TV, so warmth and diversion were not in question. But I knew my body was going to demand that I eventually get up in order to go to the bathroom –– either that, or the you-know-what consequences. And I wasn’t about to spend the money to recover the recliner.

There is no comfortable way to get out of a recliner when you have injured a leg muscle. I figured it was a hamstring, and looked it up on
my iPod, which happened to be close enough to the recliner.

How to treat?

I had ice packs in my freezer …

RICE, is what the internet told me. It’s an acronym standing for rest, ice, compression and elevation. The rest part was simple enough, as the pain that resulted from nearly any movement below my waist was plenty motivating. Ice. I had ice packs in my freezer. A mere 15 or so feet away. May as well have been in Siberia. Compression? Nothing. Elevation? Tipping the recliner to its maximum was the answer. According to the information, reducing swelling was the goal.

What if something tore? Perhaps a ligament that held the muscle to the bone had ripped away during the slip. I knew a guy who snapped his Achilles muscle during football practice in high school. I imagined how that muscle shot up his calf –– like a taut wire snapping. Nothing I want to experience more than surgery and the recovery necessary to repair that kind of injury. I will have a new respect for athletes who experience a torn hamstring. I swear.

Rather than recount all the tedious detail, suffice it to say I literally hobbled about to prepare my new command post for the next several hours/days/weeks/months. With each venture from the chair, I planned out every move carefully, from getting a cane, to getting the ice pad, and, eventually, struggling to the bathroom.

I popped Aleve beyond its maximum dosage suggestions. I mean, death by drugs can’t be worse than death by the pain I was experiencing. That probably wasn’t the wisest decision on my part. But the pain did gradually diminish to around a 7 on a scale of 10.

What to do with Gordie? Like me, he needed to be fed and relieved. My door to the deck is a few million feet from the recliner, and with the snow covering it, what did I care? Plus Gordie enjoyed frolicking in the white stuff.

It’s now Accident Day plus two. Surprisingly, I was able to stand and quasi-limp around later that afternoon, and learned very quickly what stances were not painful. I ordered a set of crutches from Amazon, and my son sent me these neat retro-fit snow/ice shoe grips for future use. All arrived overnighted the next day. The attractive mail carrier left them at the door and was gone before I could limp over to greet her. Snap.

All my family in the hinterlands (I live alone) berated me for going out onto the snow and ice. In my defense, how was I to know Nature had it in for me, and was going to striketh me down out of the blue?

Biggest question on my mind as I improved to hobble status was whether or not to Facebook the account. I decided not to do it. I figured most of my Facebook friends had experienced way worse, and that it would be seen for what it was: a ploy for sympathy. Well, not that day, anyway. I like sympathy as much as anyone.

I knew this before, but it’s different when you really know because you go through something that strikes out of the blue: there’s a learning curve.

I learned just how much my hamstring comes into play for the simplest of things, like putting on socks, or getting out of bed, or standing on tippy-toes to turn off the smoke alarm when the blackening salmon fills the kitchen with enough smoke to set it off.

I learned that crutches suck, and are not very comfortable no matter which way you use them.

And while I have written this meme many times before, I know that “this, too, shall pass.”

I pray this is my out-of-the-blue experience for the year. Last year it was kidney stones, which was not anything close to the pain everyone warned me about. My doctor shot the stones with sound waves, and the residual passed with no discomfort. Yeah, I know. I dodged a bullet. Actually more like shotgun pellets.

At 68, I’m hoping the health malady waves don’t begin to hit the beach with increased frequency. For me it’s a matter of doggone it, I don’t have time for this crap! Know what I mean? Places to go and people to see. Better ways to spend my time than detailing out how I’m gonna pull on my Tommy Johns in the morning.

The Boy Scout motto is Be Prepared, and that’s all well and good. As much as I can, I try to prepare, and have band aids and Aleve in the condo, and chains and emergency flashers in my car. Sometimes I run out of tonic water and limes, though. But I don’t take it to the nth degree like some of the Preppers do.

So, no doubt I’ll get caught again with my pants down when something happens out of the blue. I hope that’s a ways off, though.

∞∞∞

My stance on the 2nd Amendment

24 Feb

 

My stance on the 2nd Amendment:

 

Everyone has the right to bear arms.