Review of “And These Are the Good Times”

In my Amazon review of Patricia Ann McNair’s collection of connected short stories, The Temple of Air, one of the things I think I got right was the following:

“ McNair has a knack for bringing to life details that are achingly familiar – the slamming screen doors, the headlights illuminating the dotted line asphalt of the highways on the outskirts, the high school gymnasiums, the murmur and glow of distant televisions, the late afternoon shadows of an empty house – but her real gift is the creation of the deceptively familiar and complex characters who inhabit this fever dream of a landscape.”

What I think rings even truer in her second book, a collection of essays, And These Are the Good Tand these are the good timesimes, is the “fever dream” bit. What struck me reading this collection, which is mostly memoir, is the intimacy she establishes with the reader. She has a way of breaking down the distance between herself and the reader. It’s as if she’s whispering her fever dream into our ear as it’s occurring.  It is intimacy and immediacy, it has the urgency of gossip and the musicality of art. On first reading, you get the sense that she is discovering the truths she reveals at the same time you are; it’s only on subsequent readings when you realize and appreciate how well the pieces are crafted and structured.  McNair teaches writing at the university level, and while it’s clear that she practices what she teaches, it’s also clear that she has a gift that cannot be taught, that transcends craft.

I hold The Temple of Air in such high esteem that a part of me was reluctant to dive into And These Are the Good Times.  There was no way I thought her non-fiction could approach her fiction. Boy, did I get that wrong! Turns out that the same things that make her fiction so compelling also apply to her non-fiction. Things like just the right and right amount of detail, her sense of place and time, and awareness of the connective tissue that tethers us to one another, and what happens when that tissue is severed, the free-fall we all tumble into at different times in our lives. This is the goal of any storyteller, fiction or non, to share something personal and remarkable, and ignite a flash of recognition in the reader’s awareness. In doing so, the storyteller is bestowing upon the reader the greatest gift of all:  the awareness that, at least for that moment, he or she is not alone. The depths and the frequency of the truths McNair shares in And These Are the Good Times are evidence of more than artistry, it’s testament to a generosity of soul.



Today, while mowing my lawn, I kept looking at the house, specifically, at the kitchen and dining room windows that face the backyard.  It seemed like every time I looked I saw, staring out of the black of the window, a face. They were different faces every time I looked, the faces of children, the faces of my children as they used to be, when they were small, when they still called our house their home.

They were vivid and clear, yet I knew they weren’t real. I understood that it was just August, that August will play tricks on your mind and eyes, and that for brief moments in the waning sunlight of an August late afternoon, your entire past is laid out in front of you like the inviting surface of a sun splashed lake. Should you choose to dive in to August, though, you have to be weary of the current, because it can be strong enough to pull you under and drown you. August is full of the ghosts that never returned from its bottomless depths.

August is the last full month of summer, and while it’s still warm out, there are just enough days where the wind shifts and blows cool and crisp air from the north. The autumn breeze reminds children that even the endless days and nights of summer vacation are mortal. It’s the month where you first notice that the days are getting shorter, that the dark of night is arriving sooner and sooner.

In the forests of August, the underbrush is still lush and thick, but if you look closely you’ll see that it’s already thinner than it was in July. Only a handful of unharvested and withered wild raspberries and blackberries remain on the bushes that are already tired and aching and longing for the deep sleeps of autumn and winter. Pollen gathers and settles on the August grass, giving it a distinct and evocative aroma while also causing my eyes to itch. Everything August gives comes with a price.


Every night in August, while we sleep, we die, and every morning when we wake, we are reborn, given birth and nurtured by forgotten dreams, and fathered by pale moonlight.

Home is Where the Artist

Some of you, maybe even one of you, may have noticed a dearth of drivel adding up to a paltry and pitiful product of posts made to this site in recent months. You may have wondered why (although you most probably didn’t) the drop-off in both quantity and quality. Despite some answers and rationalizations I had on the ready, if I ever were to be honest with myself, I know that I, for one, was certainly wondering why.

It occurred to me that when I gave my stock answer, that I’d just finished writing my second novel (coincidentally titled I Don’t Know Why) and needed to take some time away from writing after spending so much time on it, it didn’t ring true.  The truth is that I had no new ideas and that, for the first time, writing had become an unpleasant chore for me.  Even worse, I felt that I hadn’t grown, hadn’t improved over the stuff I was writing nine or ten years ago. I felt, after finally finishing what was a fairly ambitious work in I Don’t Know Why, the short stuff I wrote for this site and others seemed tedious and repetitive, and I was showing no growth as an artist.

That’s right, I said it, the “a” word. I’ll admit it – I aspire to be recognized as an artist. Pretentious, yes. Overly ambitious – you bet.  Out of my league – most probably.

But to me, whether I’m capable of artistry or not, it makes no sense to aspire to mediocrity. Better to aim too high than shoot too low.

It’s certainly how I approached both of my novels.  In both Ojibway Valley and I Don’ Know Why, I wanted to write about what I feel are important topics.  In Ojibway Valley, I wanted to write about how the past shapes the present, and loss, how the decisions we make when dealing with it change the world in ways we are not even aware of.  In I Don’t Know Why, I wanted to write about how trauma and isolation can drive an individual to their breaking point, and how love and truth can bring one back. I wanted to write about things like life and death, truth and betrayal. You know, serious stuff.

Additionally, I had specific “technical” themes I challenged myself with.  In Ojibway Valley, these included conveying my own romantic relationship with a real place and trying to make the reader feel the same way about my fictional landscape, and I wanted to tell the stories (because there are more than one) in a non-linear format and tie them together in the end. In I Don’t Know Why, I wanted to write a stronger narrative that unfolds in a shorter period of time than the 120 years or so Ojibway Valley covered (I succeeded in that I Don’t Know Why covers roughly ten years – I’d like someday to write a novel that takes place in a single afternoon or over a single night, but I’m not there yet). I also wanted to play with telling the story from the point of view of an unreliable narrator

Whether and to what degree I succeeded or failed at all this is up to the readers to decide (I know how I feel). And I know that for Ojibway Valley, readers has been a low number. I also know that nobody believes me when I say that I’m okay with that.  Given my diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease, Ojibway Valley was the book I had to write, that I had to complete and publish, if for no other reason than for my children to better know me, to know what laid in my heart and mind and soul. At this stage of my life, money isn’t the motivator – I spent an entire career chasing that, now it’s time to chase other, more elusive things.

Not that more money and readers would be a bad thing.  I did spend a year kind of half-assed trying to sell Ojibway Valley, but my heart really wasn’t in it – I just wanted to write the next one and move on.  During that year I started the first draft of I Don’t Know Why, and settled probably too easily on self-publishing Ojibway Valley.

So what is it that left such a sour taste in my mouth that I found myself first putting off writing and then avoiding it all together?

Could it be my health?  A reoccurrence of the heart problems I had a couple of years ago, or the advancement of Parkinson’s?  Well, let’s take a look at that:

How am I doing?

Overall, I’m doing exceptionally well.

First, my heart – it’s been over two years since I had triple bypass surgery, and I’m doing so well that most days I forget it ever happened.  I recently saw my weight dip below 200 pounds (199.6 for one time only, since then I’ve been stuck between 202 and 203!) for the first time in at least twenty five years. I still work out at the hospital every day, and I’m confident that as long as I continue to exercise and watch what I eat and take my prescribed dosage of Lipitor every day, my cholesterol levels should remain where they’ve been at for over a year now, which is about half of what they were before the surgery.

Now, P.D. –  It’s been twelve years since my diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, and I’m doing better and taking less carbidopa / levodopa, the primary medications used in fighting Parkinson’s’, than I have in years. Thanks to the right mixture of pills and exercise and deep-brain stimulation, the balance issues I suffered last summer are pretty much non-existent.

Every day, I wake up prepared for a fight with P.D.  Lately, I feel so good that it feels like I’m landing almost all of my punches, and that I’m kicking Parkinson’s ass. But while I might be connecting with right uppercuts and haymaker left hooks to Parkinson’s head, almost undetected are the subtle but powerful body shots PD is still hitting me in the ribs with, and when I look at things honestly, I realize the scorecard still has PD. in the lead. PD is a plodder, a bulldozer, able to bob and weave his way in and take the most vicious blows to the head without so much as a stagger, while working tirelessly on my rib cage and abdomen, knocking breath after breath out of me. There will be no quick T.K.O. of Parkinson’s, but at least I’m still in the ring.

I still get exhausted after taking my meds, and take an afternoon nap every day, and sometimes an additional late morning nap, too.  My salivary glands have kicked into a permanent setting of hyper overdrive, resulting in a wet and thick mouth that makes speaking coherently more often than not difficult in the day time and for a flood of drool on my pillow at night time.

My sense of balance is much better than a year ago, but I still have the occasional stumble if not out and out fall. It’s certainly manageable. What is becoming increasingly frustrating is the erosion of my hand to eye coordination.  While I have to admit that when it comes to physical grace, nobody has ever compared me to a Nureyev or Baryshnikov, at least I used to be able to do simple tasks at a normal speed. Now, for example, when checking out at the grocery store, it takes me so long to put my bank card back in my wallet that the high school kid doing the bagging has started his graduate studies. It can be frustrating as hell to try and tie a fishing hook or to simply untangle the wires of my headphones. The worst is trying to open the clear plastic bags in the produce section of the grocery store. I know, everybody occasionally struggles with the two sides of clear plastic that are so thin and bound so tightly together as to make it easier to break into Fort Knox than separate, but most people don’t spend fifteen hapless minutes trying to open one bag until finally some good Samaritan steps in and quickly snaps the bags open for me. I may not be a fading southern belle, but I find myself like Blanche Dubois depending more and more upon the kindness of strangers.

I’m also prone to frequent and sudden drowsiness. This has led to my wife doing most of the driving, and as a rule, I don’t drive if the trip is longer than a half hour. This makes getting up to my cabin in northwest Wisconsin, more than 300 miles from home, an exercise in logistics and planning if I want to spend some alone time up there.  This week, for example, I took the bus from Kenosha to O’Hare and flew the short (the bus ride to the airport took longer than the time we were in the air) and cheap one-way ticket flight to Eau Claire, where my son Nicholas lives.  Nick then drove me the hour (made two hours by unexpected road closings) trip north to our cabin, where he dropped me off.  Today, my sister, who has a cabin of her own a couple of hundred yards or so away from mine, arrived from her home in Oshkosh, where she will take me next Thursday, so my wife has a shorter trip to pick me up and  take me back home to Pleasant Prairie (south of Kenosha).  So in a week and half, I will have traveled by bus, airplane, and three different cars into Illinois and all around the State of Wisconsin, just to get a few days use out of our property.  It truly takes a village.

But these are still, in the grand scheme of things, pretty minor complaints. The big thing to take away from this is that with the weight loss and exercise, overall, I feel really good.

So what was it that put myself into such a funk about writing?

Well, I think one thing was sheer boredom and laziness. I think I’d become bored with writing because I’ve been doing it for long enough now that I wasn’t pushing myself anymore. I’d developed a lot of bad habits, and instead of trying to break them, I found myself leaning on them, using these same old tricks to whip through whatever I was working on.  The result was an increasing mediocrity and repetitiveness in my writing, especially the essays I wrote for the site Anytime I contributed one of my lists (“Favorite one hit wonders,” for example) I was clearly just going through the motions and repeating a formula that was already tired the first time I trotted it out a couple of years ago.

Whatever it was, it had to stop.  Paradoxically, I think the fact that I was feeling so well worked against me as a writer. It seems that denial isn’t just a one-time thing you go through with Parkinson’s, and while it might be better than its twin sister obsession, denying the truth can be just as dangerous as obsessing over it all the time. Writing had become, with the constant typos and misinterpretations of the signals my brain was sending to my fingers, an annoying reminder that I hadn’t knocked out PD yet. I didn’t want to think about these things, they didn’t fit with the narrative I was trying to sell myself on, that I was losing weight and regaining strength and rolling the clock back decades. I chose to ignore things like the fatigue I still suffered from and avoid things that would remind me of my condition and deny those things I couldn’t avoid.  For example, if I was really turning the clock back, I wouldn’t require a nap every day.

Eventually, though, and only recently, the need to express myself has seemingly returned, and I’ve found myself returning to writing and rediscovering my love for it.

Since Nick dropped me off up here almost a week ago, I’ve been at my north woods cabin, not quite alone as my sister is up at her neighboring cabin. A tornado came through in mid-May, right between our two cabins, amazingly not touching either one but knocking down an extraordinary number of trees on my 47 acre property, many over the trails we use to get around the woods on.  So about a week after the storm I bought a new chain saw and have been, when up here, trying to clear the trails. I’d been making good progress when Friday afternoon, as I neared the far edge of the property, I found two immense trees that had fallen smack dab over the trail. I started cutting the first one, when during a momentary lapse of attention I badly buried the blade of my new saw deep in the center of the tree, unable to move it in either direction. I should have known better, that both sides were supporting weight and that  I couldn’t cut straight thru without it binding on me, but hey, it happens. I could absolve myself of that sin. What was more neglectful was how unprepared I was for the situation.  Sure, I had a mallet and a couple of small wedges, but it quickly became obvious that they were woefully not up to this job. Then I remembered that back at my cabin I had my old chainsaw that I hadn’t started in months.  So I hopped on my ATV and went back and got my old saw, with the intent of using it to cut out my new saw. Just in case I couldn’t get the old one started, I looked for more wedges, but the closest I could find was an old wood chisel. Grabbing it and my old saw I returned to the scene of the crime. First, I tried the old saw. Much to my surprise, she started right off, but the chain was worn so bad that it got about halfway through the log before I finally gave up on it. I then sat myself down and went to work with the mallet and the chisel.

The sunny afternoon sky was soon consumed by gray clouds, and sure enough, it wasn’t long before it started raining.  I continued chiseling, and listened to the soft symphony of the rain in the woods, a sound I’ve loved since I was a kid.  It occurred to me as I sat there, chiseling away, how much I was enjoying myself.  You’d think that with the saw stuck and the rain falling down I’d be miserable, but I wasn’t. I knew that eventually I’d get my new saw out of that tree, and in the meantime I’d just celebrate how good I felt, and how blessed I was  to have my hands occupied by the work I was doing, giving a reason to be out there, in the middle of the woods in the soft summer rain.

After working on it for about an hour, I was finally able to yank the new saw out. Figuring that in the process of yanking it out I’d undoubtedly flooded my saw, I packed everything up. I was soaking wet from the combination of sweat and rain, and dirty, my hands and shirt and jeans covered in wet sawdust that clung to skin and clothing. I stood there for a second before starting the ATV.  The rain had stopped and bright summer sunlight streamed through the leaves and onto my face. The woods were lush and green and alive, and I felt good, I felt like for a moment at least I was part of it all.

I strapped all of my gear to the ATV and drove out of the woods.  Somewhere along the trail back, a familiar refrain that I hadn’t heard for a while popped into my head:

I have to write about this.


Aging Sunlight

This morning, at our up north cabin, I woke up late and alone, but that was only for a moment. The sun was shining brightly and as I got out of bed, I saw, on the wall, briefly projected by the scattered sunlight that shone through the leafy trees and the window, the image of your face, and I felt you with me. Even after the sun rose higher and the image was gone, you were still with me, in my heart, in my soul. But that’s nothing new – you’ve been occupying that same real estate for thirty six years now.

Then I thought for a while about the sunbeam that originated from the center of our universe, from about 93 million miles away, and how it was still strong enough to show your face on my wall, and I thought about how it burns so hot it can melt objects into their gooey sub matter from even that great distance.  It occurred to me that the only force stronger and brighter than the sun is your smile and the light that emanates from it.  It’s my favorite thing in all of creation, and its light has been melting my heart every day for the past thirty six years now.

Scientists say that it takes only eight minutes and twenty seconds for a beam of sunlight to traverse the 93 million miles to earth. That may be, but I know that it took the entire almost fifty nine years of the life I’ve lived so far for that specific beam of sunlight to project your face on our cabin wall this morning, and it’s taken a lifetime of loving you to illuminate the uncharted and unexplored dark wildernesses of even the most remote regions of my soul.

The Possum-bilities are Endless


(Tomorrow night I will be the emcee for the next session of our local oral storytelling group.  I was considering reading this as a bit, but thankfully, my wife and children convinced me not to.)

A couple of years ago, I found the skeletal remains of a dead possum in my back yard.  There was no hair or fur, and no internal organs, just a skull and some bones. It actually looked pretty cool.

But then I started thinking – how did I know? This was a possum, after all.  And what do possums do?  They play possum, they pretend they’re dead to fool predators.  They’re like the actors, the little thespians of the animal world. So how did I know that this possum was really dead?

He certainly seemed, with no flesh or internal organs, to be dead, but how could I be certain he wasn’t just giving the greatest performance ever by a possum? I thought of Robert DeNiro, and how for Raging Bull he put on sixty or seventy pounds. How could I know that this possum wasn’t a method acting possum, Robert DePossum, and was so dedicated to his craft that he shed all of his flesh and internal organs to heighten the realism of his performance?

All I could come up with was to find when the possum Oscars are scheduled and where they are broadcast. If Robert DePossum is nominated for best actor, I’ll have my answer.

June, 1978

I was standing on the back porch of the little yellow house, waiting for who only 30 seconds earlier had become my ex-girlfriend  to get  off the phone and come back to  the porch and finish dumping me. It was a beautiful late spring day and as I stood there, I became aware of the sound of songbirds and the warm late afternoon breeze that lightly brushed my face.

Sherilynn was still on the phone. I became aware of a decision I could make right then and there. I could stand there and wait for her to get off the phone and finish telling me why we aren’t right for each other, or I could accept the invitation made by the songbirds and the breeze.

It didn’t take me long to make my decision.  As I pulled out into the street, her little yellow house and the small factory town appeared and faded in my rear view mirror.  I felt alone but not lonely, and as I drove west on highway eight, I began to feel strong.  I was nineteen years old, and you don’t get much stronger than that.


Yesterday, as I turned on the U.S. Open (only because it was being played in Wisconsin – for some unexplained reason I needed to see what Wisconsin looks like on national television.), I was reminded why I don’t watch golf on television.  No, it wasn’t because the pace moves slower than most glaciers.  It wasn’t because of the sleep inducing hushed tones of the announcers.  It wasn’t because of the silence from the crowd that is demanded by the middle-aged millionaire “athletes” while they line up their shots and wiggle their butts, not the righteous indignation  that is suffered should an unfortunate soul in the gallery so much as sniffle, while 18 year old boys in the NCAA basketball tournament, with  the national title and billions of dollars to the school on the line, have to stand at the foul line and make free throws with an entire student body screaming and waving flags straight in their faces. It’s not the ugly slacks and shirts and general lack of understanding of seemingly simple fashion concepts like color coordination or basic good taste.  It’s not even the fact that Rosie O’Donnell was correct when she summarized golf as “men in bad pants walking.”

All of these transgressions would be forgivable, especially when one considers that after fifty some mind numbing years of watching television, my attention span has shortened to the height of a leg-less midget and I’ll stop and watch anything that has a shiny object, let alone a little white ball that’s being swept on a green carpet by men in orange pants, rolling across the screen in hypnotic rhythms until it drops into a cup. That, my friend, is compelling television. So there must be a reason I won’t watch televised golf.

Is it the big corporation sponsorship and the commercials for the Wall Street banks that drone on and on about such foreign subjects as “wealth management” and maximizing one’s “investment portfolio?” Is it the ads for luxury S.U.V.s and sports cars that cost more than my house?  No, it’s not even these things, or the fact that most Republicans love the sport almost as much as they love discriminating against minorities or making money off of and then screwing over poor people.  Compared to how they usually get their kicks, watching golf on television is pretty benign.

So if it’s none of these things that make watching golf on television an intolerable torture, then what is it?  Well,  I’ll tell you what it is …

It’s the guy in the audience, who, as soon as the ball is struck, yells out, “Get in the hole!”

Can there be a bigger moron in the world than this? On every shot, be it the tee off of a 600 yard plus par five or a two inch tap in, some idiot is compelled to yell this out.  Whether they believe that their shouts have the power to override the laws of time and physics and will the universe to act in accordance with their shouted words isn’t clear; the only assumption I can make is that somewhere sometime long ago, someone shouted these words and the ball actually did get in the hole.   Once.  Many years ago. Hasn’t happened since. Yet still the yellers persist.

These yellers somehow strictly embrace the code of silence and the polite “golf-clapping” etiquette that is expected of them otherwise, yet once the ball is struck, something inside demands that they scream out their four word mantra at the top of their lungs.  It’s as if they are saying, I paid my thousand dollars to watch this agonizingly slow spectacle unfold, I have to do something to keep myself awake.  Maybe screaming unsuccessfully at a little white ball to “get in the hole” reminds them of their sex life (note:  it is always male voices you hear shouting this, and there is always a hint of frustrated inadequacy in them that would be consistent with the Republican male that completes the profile of the typical golf enthusiast.)

And it’s only a Republican male that would be shallow and self-confident enough to so brazenly advertise their stupidity. Believing in “get in the hole” with no record of success would be consistent with believing in things like “trickle-down economics” or that climate change is a hoax.

So, golf fanatic, please carry on and enjoy your lunatic ranting and raving. Just do it without me.  I’ll be searching the airwaves for the next televised bowling match.

Welcome Home

(This is a short introduction I wrote tonight for the Kenosha Writers Guild anthology project.)

On a warm summer night in 2008, I attended a meeting of a local writers’ group in Kenosha for the first time. I’d brought with me a short piece, one of several little fragments of memoirs that I’d found myself recently writing. I found the group by doing a Google search on local writers groups. I had no idea what to expect as I entered the downtown ice cream store that was the location for the meeting. I’d brought along my little two page piece and nervously clutched it as I entered the store. The girl behind the counter pointed me to the table in the back where I joined the handful of others who were already there.

With about a dozen participants on hand, the meeting began, and after short introductions, the group got down to business. It turned out the old group was dissolving, and as I sat there, confused and unaware, I witnessed the birth of the Kenosha Writers Guild. After about an hour of establishing baseline rules, electing a president and board of directors and frankly boring me to death, they finally got around to sharing some writing.

There were poems, novel excerpts, short stories, and essays. Some were rough and unfinished, others were more polished, and the subject matter varied widely, but there was something I couldn’t put my finger on right away that they all shared in common.

Then it was my turn to read, and as I was (and still am) mortified by the thought of public speaking, another guy was nice enough to volunteer his voice.  He read my piece aloud for me, and as I sat there and listened to my words spoken by this stranger’s voice, it occurred to me that I knew what the common thread was that all the pieces, including mine, shared. It was the fact that everybody at that table, at the end of a long day working and raising families and living the life they had to live, found time to sit down and put pen to page, or fingers to keyboard, and put down whatever it was they ended up putting down.  But that was only part of it.  The other part was that they felt compelled to take what they’d written and share it with others.  I knew that was the case for me, that the need to have my work heard by others was what drove me there in the first place.

The meeting ended sometime around ten o’clock, and as I walked the couple of blocks to my car, I was joined by an older guy from the group who complimented me on my piece and said, “welcome home.”

That was nine years and two novels (one self-published, one just finished) and three or four published short works and a personal web page with over 200 pieces posted ago. I am now one of the senior members of the guild, and one of the three members of the steering committee that headed this project.  Many writers of wildly varying skill sets, young and old, have come and gone, writing in all kinds of genres and forms. In terms of skill and sophistication, our writers have covered the spectrum.  The one thing they’ve shared, though, is that something drove them to not only write but to share what they’ve written with others. The Guild not only provides a mechanism to fill this need but also an audience who is also driven by the same fever. It remains a place where writing and reading are celebrated, a place where we speak the same language, where we look out for one another, where we help each other grow and develop.  It is in the truest sense of the word a family.

So to all my fellow Guildies, past, present and future, enjoy this collection as a representation of where the Guild is at this point in time. And whether you’re a nine year veteran or a future member, let me extend a simple but sincere:

Welcome home.

Of Porcupines and Men

I know a few things.

For example, I know that with my instance of Parkinson’s disease, my balance is often times off kilter, and I tend to be even clumsier than I’ve always been, prone to trips and falls too frequent to enumerate.

I also know that dogs and porcupines can be a bad match, and that a snout full of porcupine quills can actually be fatal, that innocent curiosity can kill the canine.

Sure, I know plenty of other things, too. But it was these two little tidbits that rose to the forefront of my consciousness this afternoon.

Let me explain:

My sister and I both own pieces of property in Northwestern Wisconsin, our two cabins about one hundred yards apart on the same dirt road.  Across the road is a large farm field. Last weekend, my sister called me up and told me that while walking down the road she observed a dead porcupine in the tree line between the road and the field, right across from my cabin. I was concerned, because I and my wife and our two dogs were planning on spending a long weekend starting today, at the cabin, and as I’ve already mentioned, I know what a bad combination dogs and porcupines, alive or dead, can be.

So the first thing I did upon our arrival today was to make sure my dogs were safely secured inside the cabin while I, with shovel in hand, walked across the road in search of a dead porcupine. My intent was to find said porcupine and bury it before my dogs found it and answered a question whose answer is one of the many things I don’t know but would just as soon not find out: are a porcupine’s quills as dangerous when the porcupine is dead as when alive?

It didn’t take long for me to find the deceased porcupine, right where he’d breathed his last, in a small thicket of underbrush next to the trunk of a small tree. He was, I guess, an impressive figure, at least as far as I supposed when compared to other porcupines, about two or three feet long and thick. Actually, he was pretty much a non-descript combination of fat and quills. I decided to dig the hole for its final resting place out in the open, on the edge of the farm field, about fifteen feet from where its lifeless hulk lied.

I went to work, kicking the spade into the muddy and rocky and root-ridden clay until I had a hole deep and wide enough to cover the substantial girth of the deceased. Satisfied with my work to that point, I had one more thing to figure out: how do I move the body the fifteen feet from under the tree to in the hole I’d just dug? It occurred to me that I wanted to avoid any contact with the ex-beast, one, because I didn’t want to get a snout-full of quills any more than I wanted my dogs to, and two, it’d been dead for at least a week, and was probably riddled with disease-carrying maggots and or other deadly micro-bacterial monsters.

Then I remembered that in my garage I had a half-sheet of plywood, four foot by four foot that would be the perfect size.  I’d shovel Porky’s corpse onto the plywood and then carry it to its grave, where I’d drop him in, say a few respectful and profound porcupine-ish words over him, and then cover him with the blanket of earth that he’d soon dissolve into and become one with.

It was a good plan.  Off to my garage I strode. There was the sheet of plywood, only it wasn’t the four by four foot piece I remembered, rather, it was an odd size, about three by six foot. No big deal, I thought, and returned with the plywood to the lifeless mass of Porky.  I set the plywood down right next to him. I then put the spade on the other side of Porky and half rolled and half lifted him onto the plywood, where he sat, close to the edge but secure on the plywood so long as I held it level.

There’s the rub.  It turned out that holding the awkward dimensions of the plywood with the additional ten pounds or so of inert mass balanced on it level would be more difficult than I had planned, especially when I remembered what I knew, that my sense of balance these days isn’t all that great.

This knowledge was heightened when, while walking away from the tree and the thicket towards the hole I’d dug, I felt my left foot get caught on a root in the ground beneath me, and I felt myself lurch forward. I saw very clearly the mass of quills and decomposing porcupine flesh directly in front of me, and I felt my face surge forward, and I realized, even if I dropped the board, that if I fell forward, my face would end up in Porky’s quill-filled brisket. My life flashed before my eyes, as I’ve known with some certainty for some time now that whenever it is I die, whenever my number is up, it will undoubtedly be in the form of some bizarre and embarrassing death.  It occurred to me right there that getting killed by a dead porcupine would qualify on both counts.

Fortunately, I was able to right myself and remain vertical long enough to get Porky to his final resting place. I tried to think of something to say, something that a porcupine would appreciate, but it struck me that all of the porcupines I’d ever seen over the years (and there’s been a few) never did anything; about all I’d ever seen them do was sleep. It occurred to me that one thing I didn’t know was how to measure porcupine meaning, how to judge a good one from a bad one. I had no idea how to eulogize a porcupine. I placed my hand over my heart and muttered something about dust to dust, quills to quills.

Then I filled in the hole and went back to my cabin and released my hounds. They ran and played happily, oblivious to the danger I’d shielded them from, and to the ultimate sacrifice I’d almost paid to keep them safe.

Hero, you say? Well, if the shoe fits, so long as I keep the laces tied …

The Doctor is In

(This is the first installment in what will be a regular public service, where I leverage my incredible knowledge of health care issues and concepts to answer questions that you the reader might have)

Dear Dr. Dave: I haven’t been feeling like myself lately, and I can’t put a finger on why. I wake up in the morning feeling heavy pressure on my head. I haven’t had any desire for liquids, and I remain dry even when walking outside in the rain. I’m really at a loss on this one, doc.  Signed, Dryer without a Washer.

Dear Dryer without a Washer: I’m pretty confident that what you are describing is a case of Shingles.  If you look in the mirror you’ll see that “the heavy pressure on your head” is a symptom of roofing materials that have been nailed to it.  Early signs of shingles include the nailing of plywood and having tar paper or a similar sub roofing material stapled to your head. If left unattended, like your symptoms suggest, this will lead to the eventual addition of overlapping, rectangular pieces made of asphalt or wood, that will start at both sides of the bottom of the top of your head and continue until the two sides reach the peak.
Short term treatment of shingles usually involves applying tar to the section that is leaking. Long term treatment includes several over-priced prescribed drugs with long complicated names that have horrible side effects. These medications have been wildly successful in driving up the stock values of the companies that produce them, while doing absolutely nothing to improve patient outcomes.

Dear Dr. Dave:  Recently, my knees and elbows have been bursting into flames for no apparent reason.  What’s up with that? Signed, Hot Under My Trousers.

Dear Hot Under My Trousers: You are clearly suffering from inflammable- ation of the joints. You might try carrying a bag of marshmallows with you at all times to best take advantage of the condition.

Dear Dr. Dave:  My best friend has been feeling intense pain behind his face, under his eyes and behind his nose. What gives?  Signed, Charlie Brown.

Dear Charlie Brown:  Your friend is suffering from a Linus infection. Tell his mom to wash his blanket.

Dear Dr. Dave:  Do the terms “stomach” and “tummy” refer to the same thing? If so, wouldn’t it be more efficient to call it a “stummy?” Signed, Madame Curry.

Dear Madame Curry:  You have a point. You should see a plastic surgeon about it.

Dear Dr. Dave:  I put the bread in and it never pops up. It just gets soaking wet and disintegrates.  What’s worse, it doesn’t lather up at all, and ends up clogging the drain.  Please help. Signed, Confused

Dear Confused:  You are confusing your decorative soap dish with your toaster, and you also appear to be confusing bread and soap. Bread has no place in the shower.

Dear Dr. Dave:  This is embarrassing, but I recently had some gastro-intestinal blockages and, to make a long story short, when I was finally able to pass gas, I killed 36 people and injured 62 more.  Signed, Oh, the humanity:

Dear Oh the Humanity:  Are you by any chance a large commercial passenger carrying rigid airship?  If, as I suspect, you are, then you’re incredibly sensitive to diet and have to watch what you eat.  Stay away from yellow cheeses and red meat and hydrogen, and turn to leafy green vegetables and fish or poultry and helium.  Helium might be a bit pricey and hard to find when compared to hydrogen, but I think you and your passengers will find it to be worth every penny.

Dear Dr. Dave:   I live in the 16th century and have an uncanny ability to predict when people will suffer nose bleeds.  Signed, Nostril-damus.

DearNostril-damus:  Aren’t you special.