Collecting and Divesting

My wife and I are different in many ways.  That’s a good thing.  We kind of complement each other.  We compliment each other too, but that’s beside the point.  Like Jack Sprat and his wife, when faced by a challenge, between the both of us we are usually able to get the proverbial platter licked clean. 

For instance, my wife is skilled at deciding where to move the furniture and I am skilled at moving it.  In fact I’m so skilled at it that she often tasks me to move the same furniture eight or nine times in a single day within the same room, just so she can watch my genius at work.  Or we will both draw from our diverse fields of expertise in the matter of house work.  She’ll prep the floor by mopping it so clean you could eat off of it, and then I come along with my interior decorating flair and accent it with a subtle, homey, rustic smear of fresh barn mud highlighted by a splash of manure. 

When an item gets lost around the house, I shoulder the burden of searching for it for hours and then when I’m on the verge of finding it, I turn the burden over to her, whereupon she takes the responsibility of going straight to the item and retrieving it. 

She saves time by not checking the air pressure in the tires and I do my part by fixing the flat when the sidewalls delaminate from her driving on them to Fairbanks and back. 

Speaking of Fairbanks, when it comes to shopping, she’s the one with an eagle eye for a good bargain.  Naturally, her job is to load the shopping cart.  I, on the other hand, have the money, so it’s only right that I pay for the splendid bargains she finds. 

Admittedly, every once in a while one or the other of us falters in holding up our end of the arrangement.  In fact, the last time we went to town, my wife found so many bargains, that my money-making capacity found itself beggared by the dizzying audacity of her bargain-sleuthing genius.  Unable to do my part, I was forced to fall back on the subterfuge of purchasing her bargains with a credit card.  I didn’t mind, though, knowing how much money we were saving with all those bargains.

Perhaps the most distinctive example of our symbiotic relationship is the way we balance each other in the matter of what we keep and what we discard.  You see, I am a collector by nature, while my wife, on the other hand, is a divestor.  We secretly admire these qualities in each other, even though we sometimes playfully use more piquant terminology to describe each other’s respective strengths.  In those whimsical moments my wife might call me a “pack rat” who turns the house into a junkyard, while I banter back that she is the “mad janitor” who would toss my wallet in the trash compacter if I were foolhardy enough to take it out of my pocket and set it down for a stinking minute.

I really wish my wife could understand how wasteful it is to throw away everything that isn’t nailed to the floor.  There are little starving children in Ethiopia who would give anything for a bin full of used aluminum foil or a rubber band ball or a bucket full of the fittings cut off of the end of ten years worth of leaky garden hoses.  She claims she’d rather go out and buy what she needs when she needs it rather than spend decades tripping over a bunch of clutter on the off chance that we may someday find a use for it. 

I find that line of reasoning flawed at best.  It makes no sense, for instance, to throw away a box of perfectly good reloading brass, just because it only fits an obscure Philippine rifle that has been out of production since 1893.  Why, I might find one of those rifles at a yard sale someday.  Then what would I shoot out of it?  Brainstorming just such eventualities happens to be one of my strengths which I humbly use to compensate for my wife’s inability to think in such a logical and visionary way. 

I’m not knocking her.  I don’t doubt that there really is such a thing as legitimate trash that needs thrown away, and if I ever run across an anomaly like that, I won’t hesitate to let my wife know.

It sure is good my wife didn’t marry somebody like Stradivari.  I can hear her now, elbows akimbo, hands planted firmly on the hips of her kirtle, calling out in that strong, clear, shrill voice of hers: 

“Antonio, Antonio!”

Si, tessorina mia?”

“Is dis  anudder feedle I see sittin’ onna middle of-a my dinin’ room-a table?”

“Please-a!  Mama!  How-a many times I gotta beg-a you not-a to call dese magnifico instruments ‘feedles’?  Dey are violins!”

“Whatever, Antonio.  I know you did not-a bring anudder of dese tings into my casa!  You gave-a me your word…”

Mi dispiace! I could not-a help-a myself.  I was-a sittin’ in-a my chair, mindin’ my own-a business, smokin’ a pipa, when-a sometin’ hit-a me in-a my head.  I tink it was a flash of inspiration, no?   Before I can say arpeggio, I am in-a my workshop-a workin’ hard.  Look-a here.  I am a genius, si?  I took-a da fingerboard and added a… ”

“How many hands-a you got?”

“Huh?  Uh…two, of-a course.”

“So, let-a me see.  Dat means you can-a play exactly how many of dese contraptions at-a one time, Papa?”

“You askin’ a silly question-a, Mama.  Uno.  How come-a you askin’?”

“Dassa what I thought!  So why you can’t-a play just one-a feedle like a normal maestro ‘til it’s all-a wore out, den you can-a trow it away and-a make a new one?”

“TROW IT AWAY?!  Tu sei pazzo?  You know how much-a dese babies gonna be worth in tree hunnerd and-a fifty years?  Dey’re a great investment.  Dey only gonna increase in-a value…”

“Of course-a, dey gonna increase in-a value, idiota!  By den dey gonna be antiques.  Everyting we got gonna be antique by den.  In tree and a half-a century, somebody gonna find-a my wooden-a spoon and-a sell it to some poor sucker for a seven hunnerd lira!”

Cara mia!  Da saints-a preserve us!  Dese Stradivariuses–dey are not-a wooden-a spoons!”

“You just-a sayin’ dat because you dunno how to make-a wooden-a spoons.  I want dis-a ting outta my casa in one hour, or I gonna chop it up and trow it in-a da stove to cook your quince pastello wit’.”

“(Muffled squawking sounds.)  You can-a not do dat!”

“I can-a do dat, an’ I gonna do dat!  You got a tousand of dese gizmos-a pokin’ outta every nook and-a cranny of my casa already.  Dey’re hangin’ on-a da walls…in-a da back-a my wardrobe…unner da furniture…in-a da pantry…  Enough is enough!  I can’t-a take it no more.  I want-a my nice tidy casa back.  Is dat-a too much-a to ask?  Take it away!”

“But where you want I should-a put it, Mama?”

“I don’-a care.  Out in your workshop-a if-a you got to.”

“But you don’ understand!  Mio bambinos Don’a like da humidity and-a heat.  Da varnish will-a blister!  Da rosin will-a fuse!  Da pegs will-a swell!  Da bridge will-a warp!”

“I gonna blister your peg and warp your fuse if it don’-a get outa here. You got-a one hour, Antonio Stradivari!  Den dat ting gonna find out how humid it-a gets inside-a my cook-a stove.”

Si, si, Mama.”

I’m not exaggerating.  This spring, my wife burned up my treasured collection of “Woodworker’s Journal” while I was at work.  Fifteen years worth of back issues!  It’s a national tragedy!  I’ll never be able to replace all those cool articles and glossy pictures of macho power tools.  When I confronted her about it, she got huffy with me and started accusing me of never having done a woodworking project for fifteen years, so excuse her if she was under the mistaken impression that building something out of wood wasn’t high on my priority list.  What kind of reasoning is that?  Like she can predict the future or something.  There is no way she could know with certainty that I wasn’t going to make her a curly maple china cabinet for Christmas.  Well, I guess she’ll never know now, will she?

She seems to suffer under the delusion that I’m disorganized.  She thinks I just drop junk anywhere I please, willy-nilly.  If she only knew how wrong she is. 

I keep my stuff in orderly piles.  I really do.  I know where everything is.  For instance, my pre-approved credit card offers are stacked on the left side of the upstairs hallway in ascending chronological order by year issued.  If I ever find myself in need of a lot of money, I’m going to fill out every one of those applications and mail them in simultaneously.  The way I figure it, that should set me up with 12 billion dollars worth of guaranteed credit overnight.  On top of them I have artfully positioned my collection of seven hundred empty toothpaste tubes.  They’re to pack my pureed food in when I get accepted as a space shuttle passenger.  On the right side of the basement steps, sorted by make and model are all the old fuel filters from every vehicle I have ever owned.  They weren’t completely plugged up, and I think it’s a shame to waste them.  Someday I plan to cut them open, clean them, and epoxy them back together again so that I can reuse them.  Hanging on nails above the fuel filters are all the gas masks I’ve accumulated.  I’ve got one for every respiratory emergency, from a World War I mustard gas attack to spraying a polyurea pickup bed liner.  All I need to make them functional are the filters.   Then there’s my sunglasses; all hanging by their earpieces above the kitchen cupboard.  I never use sunglasses, but they look so cool, I can’t resist buying them.  Someday when the earth is attacked by giant solar flares, I’ll be the hero of the neighborhood. 

But that’s just me.  Like I said, my wife and I are different, and I fully respect her need to throw things away.  That’s probably a valuable skill that somebody ought to have.  So instead of denigrating her, I celebrate our differences.  Every time I get a chance, I try to help her nurture that gift by giving her opportunities to use it. 

As a romantic gesture I will frequently try to leave a dirty tissue on the kitchen counter in a spot I know she’ll notice, or lovingly tuck a candy bar wrapper into the corner of the bathroom mirror where she’ll see it first thing in the morning. 

After working in the barn I’ve even been known to stand in the middle of her recently vacuumed living room and vigorously beat the hay strands and grain dust out of my clothes. 

I’ve been amazed to experience how investing a few extra seconds here and there can reap huge marital dividends. Just one little act can blossom into the opportunity to spend several hours worth of intense relationship-building dialogue with your spouse. 

I encourage everyone to work on celebrating your differences.  Your life will never be the same.

The Arctic Death Squeeze

Picture via Pixabay

The brisk weather we’ve been experiencing lately here in Interior Alaska has been a wonderful learning experience.  Hopefully it has taught my friends and neighbors a thing or two–especially my neighbor, Bing Snudlick. 

People get complacent when the weather is too warm.  However, at sixty below a guy has a chance to re-evaluate his priorities.  He is given a rare opportunity to set aside the jaded, superficial, contrived computer-generated mirage of 21st century civilization, and return to a world of primitive basics where the strong thrive on raw instinct and survival skills, while the weak fall apart and blubber like a baby girl.  Yes indeed.  A little bit of classic Alaskan weather really cuts a huge swath between the men and the boys…between the sourdoughs and the cheechakos…between legendary mountain men, and the pitiful little Admiral Peary wannabes who fancy themselves outdoorsmen and nature lovers, like my neighbor, Bing.

Bing showed his true nature early on by his laughable propensity to call this recent experience a “cold snap”.  How ridiculously naive!  Why, anyone with a little bit of common sense could tell you this was no snap.  A snap is what you do with your fingers in a flippant micro-moment.  A snap is what a dry twig does the instant you step on it.  A snap is the amount of time it takes for a mouse to die in a spring-loaded mousetrap.  Oh, no, my friends!  This was no snap.  Nearly three interminable weeks of temperatures lower than thirty degrees below zero is no cold snap.  This was what should properly be categorized as an arctic death squeeze!

I tried to explain this to Bing, but he didn’t pay any attention.  That was partly due to the fact that he was wearing a monstrosity of a fur hat, like some kind of Eskimo, with the flaps cinched down over his ears, so he couldn’t hear me very well.  I, on the other hand, being a seasoned Alaskan sourdough, am immune to the worst that nature can dish out.  I’m too tough to be seen in public wearing such trappings.  Somebody like Bing just doesn’t seem to comprehend the simple reality that silly clothes like fur or Bunny boots or Carhartts or big huge puffy Michelin Man parkas or mittens the size of poodles might as well be a neon billboard flashing, “Look at me!  I’m a wimp and a redneck dork!  I can’t take the cold.”

In contrast, my winter gear consists entirely of a fleece hoodie and a pair of cool Nike sneakers.  I don’t use gloves, either.  They take too much time to put on, and they feel weird.  I’m careful to wear baggy sweatpants too.  That way I can use the small of my back and the top of my buttocks to vent any excess body heat.  If Bing could have just gritted his teeth and toughed it out for a few seconds, he would have realized that his ridiculous wardrobe is completely unnecessary, regardless of the temperature. 

Sure, I get a bit chilled at first, but I’ve found that if I just ignore the slightly unsettling sensation of having the plasma membranes of my epidermal squamous cells split open like water balloons dipped in liquid nitrogen, why, after a couple of minutes my toes and fingers and ears and rear end don’t feel a thing.  In fact, within the past month, several of my body parts referenced in the previous sentence became obsolete.  They evidently lost interest in remaining warm altogether, turned black and fell off in the snow.  Now I have much less surface area to be affected by the cold.  I hypothesize that my body is adapting to its environment, as I evolve into a more advanced species of arctic humanoid.  It’s a liberating feeling, really!  The only drawback is that I now find it a bit more difficult to sit down.

The second reason why Bing wouldn’t listen to my well reasoned and eloquently presented argument was that in retrospect I realize I must have slipped into the Chistochina Chitter.  Any sourdough is fluent in Chistochina Chitter.  However, for any of my readers who are not familiar with this uniquely Alaskan dialect, perhaps I should take a moment to elucidate.

Chistochina Chitter has its phylogenetic origins in a primal tongue that predates the entire Indo-European language family.  However, it was systematized and codified into the dialect as it is spoken today by pioneer philologist and linguist Stumpy McCracken in 1898 after falling through the ice into glacier-fed Spitwater Creek in his red longhandle underwear at 20 below while chasing a ptarmigan on a drunken dare.

Time and space do not permit me to cover the vast complexities and subtle nuances of the dialect in this treatise.  Suffice it to say that Chistochina Chitter is a characterized by a preponderance of sibilant consonants, vocalized by expelling the breath sharply through chattering teeth in an almost stuttering manner.  Vowels are slurred together into a single protracted diphthong.  The terse sentences are typically interspersed by a shallow coughing sound, particularly following an extra deep inspiration of subzero air.  Native speakers of Chistochina Chitter maintain stiff lips throughout the enunciation process and often permit icicles to accumulate in their moustaches to facilitate an even diffusion of the sound.

I catch myself effortlessly slipping into Chistochina Chitter when I am outside for extended periods on those invigorating days when the temperature is on the chillier end.  I find that the dialect lends itself to more efficient communication when one’s tongue is not cooperating due to the intoxicating stimulation induced by the natural euphoria of hypothermia.  With a little practice, anyone can master Chistochina Chitter.  I would strongly encourage anyone who is serious about becoming a sourdough to practice it on your next ice-fishing or snow machine trip.  Here are a few basic terms to get you started:

Uh-c-c-c-c-anfilma-[koff koff]-f-f-f-f-f-fingus”:  (I can’t feel my fingers.) 

A jocular slang term, which can have a variety of meanings ranging from, “I’ll just leave my stupid jacket unzipped.  I wasn’t really trying to get a hold of my zipper pull tab anyway!” to, “I can’t believe I just dropped my car keys in the snow!  I’ll never be able to find them with these stiff, talon-like alien appendages I notice protruding from the end of my sleeves.  Maybe if I just rake them through the snow, there will be enough heat left in them to melt the snow and moisten them a bit so that the keys will stick to them like a tongue to a flagpole.”

Um-g-g-g-g-gun-n-n-n-na-[koff]-k-k-k-k-kilmuz-[koff]-b-b-b-b-bin”:  (I’m going to kill my husband.) 

An affectionately kidding expression reserved for those moments after your car’s fan belt shatters and the heater hose bursts, requiring you to hike for help in high heels, miniskirt and fishnet stockings at 50 below.  This is usually accompanied by fond reminiscing of what life was like back in Las Vegas before your husband got the harebrained notion to sign a contract to work in Alaska so he could (whooo-hoo, big joke, don’t make me laugh) “get rich”.

M-m-m-m-m-moron-[koff-koff-hack-koff-wheeze]”:  (Moron!) 

A personal title conferred upon an individual who has earned it due to their incompetence.  It shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to be able to make a product that actually function properly at 60 below, should it?  We weren’t born yesterday!  This title is most frequently applied to vehicle manufacturers, water and sewer line companies, furnace makers, residential home construction companies, insulation manufacturers and propane or fuel oil distributors. 

Do they actually expect us to believe their ridiculous explanation that molecular changes happen at severe cold temperatures, rendering equipment vulnerable to failure that normally would not be a problem? 

Pshaw!  What brazen garbage.  That’s almost as bad as the claim that many electronic sensors are not programmed for temperatures colder than 40 below, and below that will re-calibrate to 70 above, thus improperly regulating fuel mixtures, etc.

This title is also sometimes conferred on service people who demonstrate a refusal to instantly correct the product failure on demand.  Such service people often cover their incompetence with the flimsy excuse that they have 82 people ahead of you and they will get to you as soon as possible, but can’t make any promises.

k-k-k-kinya-g-g-g-give-[koff]-m-m-m-meahan”:  (Can you give me a hand?) 

A formal greeting that should be offered upon being introduced to the driver of any vehicle that stops to laugh at the sight of you standing beside your vehicle, which is buried in a snow bank in the ditch on a perfectly straight stretch of road.  This expression is interchangeable with “g-g-g-g-gotta-t-t-t-tow-st-st-st-strap-p-p-p?” or “k-k-k-kin-n-n-n-ahyuzher-[koff]-c-c-c-cell-[koff]-f-f-f-f-fone?”

Even when I’m not speaking Chistochina Chitter, however, Bing and I don’t seem to be communicating on the same wavelength.  We really don’t have much in common.  For instance, Bing burns wood.  I tried to explain to him that if he would use a propane fireplace and electric heat like I do, he wouldn’t have to get all bundled up and drag in firewood twice a day.  He ignored my suggestion, mumbling something about talking to him after my propane pressure failed and the power went off. 

How stupid is that?  If that unlikely situation ever occurred, I’d be too busy calling the service people to give him friendly advice.

Bing always breathes through his nose when he’s outside at severely cold temperatures.  He claims it warms the air a little more before it hits his lungs.  I tried not to snicker too obviously when he said that, but clearly the man is a couch potato.  No wonder he’s got a potbelly.  If he jogged a hundred yards every day like I do, he’d know that there are times you have to breathe through your mouth.  A person’s nostrils simply don’t have the capacity to provide enough oxygen to meet your body’s needs when you’re panting and gasping during a vigorous cardiovascular workout like that. 

You know what? I think that as soon as I recover from this severe case of pneumonia that I picked up somewhere, maybe I’ll swing over there and try to talk Bing into jogging with me.

Then again, maybe I won’t.  He’ll probably start to razz me about how he had to carry me into the house to warm up last week, after he found me in my back yard.  He likes to claim I was blubbering like a baby girl.  I tried to explain that my plumber’s crack area had just cramped up for some reason and I was utilizing some deep breathing exercises to relieve the spasms.  I might as well have been talking to one of those moronic sewer drain thawer company dudes.  Like I said, Bing and I don’t have much in common.

The Diet

I had an argument with my wife the other day.  It was during a nutritionally balanced breakfast of wild Alaskan blueberry hotcakes smothered in butter with birch syrup, Eggs Benedict smothered in Hollandaise sauce with caribou sausage and extra thick cut bacon, and grits smothered in cheese.  That was for my son and me.  My wife won’t eat real food.  She says it’s not good for her diet.  Go figure.  Pun intended.

For herself, she spritzed a skillet with Pam and fried up a little itty bitty Egg Beater’s omelet lightly flecked with alfalfa sprouts, salsa and fetid cheese (or whatever you call that stuff they make out of sour goat’s milk).  She also had half a grapefruit and a mini bran muffin.  I told her that she was gonna catch anorexia eating like that, but she was too busy counting calories, simple carbs, and saturated fat grams to hear me, I guess.

Now I could put up with her culinary idiosyncrasies if she could leave me to mine, but she can be quite dominating when it comes to how she wants thing to be at the table.  A guy can’t even belch his appreciation of a good meal or clean his ears with his toothpick without my wife feeling the need to micromanage his dining experience.

I mean, it’s not like I don’t notice her issues.  I saw her daintily cutting her mini bran muffin and smearing a molecule-thick sheen of sugar free jelly on it.  I recognized that it was not only an absolute waste of time (how do you even taste a molecule thick sheen), but that it also pointlessly dirtied a knife.  I would have been glad to lend her my bailing-twine-cutting, stick-whittling, psoriasis-scraping, sandwich-cutting, fish-filleting, moose-gutting, paint-stirring, brush-cutting, goat-castrating, apple-coring pocket folder if she had asked.  But she didn’t, and I didn’t push the point.  Whatever makes her happy is fine by me.  I attempted some light banter.

“I read something really disgusting!”  I said through a mouthful of grits.

“Ew!”  she replied.  “You can tell me about it after you have swallowed, and used your napkin, please.”

“What?”  I sprayed. 

She blanched and grimaced.  “Please!  You have some cholesterol running out of the side of your mouth.  Don’t you have any manners?”

My son chortled with delight.  “Cool!  Gross Mom out some more, Dad!”

I swallowed my grits in a mighty gulp and jabbed my napkin perfunctorily in the general direction of my face.  “Now, son,” I snickered, “Your Mother is right.  We should all show our manners at the table.”

“Oh, yeah.  Right, Dad.  Hey Mom.  Look here.  Look at these manners!”  He took a slug of milk, tilted his head back, gargled the first stanza of “Yankee Doodle”, and then blew a giant milk bubble out of his left nostril.  With a look of fiendish triumph, he concluded, “See, I showed my manners at the table—my bad manners.  OW!  Mom! Leggo of my ear. Ow!  Good grief, I was just playing around!”

“Well, I’m not, young man!  You can go to your room this minute, and don’t come down until I tell you.”

He stomped off, rubbing his ear and muttering.  “It’s no fair.  Dad started it!”

She lashed out at me.  “See what you started?”

“Started?”  I was hurt.  “What are you talking about?  I couldn’t blow a milk bubble out of my nose if I tried, and I don’t even remember the tune to ‘Yankee Doodle’.”

She snatched the dishes off of the table, strode to the kitchen and plunked them in the sink.  I followed her. 

“Aw, come on, now, Sugar Dumpling.  You’re not mad at me, are you?”

She whirled to glare at me.  “How many times have I told you not to call me that?”

“What?  Sugar Dumpling?  It’s just an affectionate name.”

She poked her nose in the air and spun back to face the sink.  “If you want to call me something romantic, why can’t you call me ‘fat-free cream cheese on a celery stick’, or ‘Splenda’, or ‘my little bean curd’?”

I silently formed the phrases, testing them.  The chemistry just wasn’t there.  Those monikers didn’t give me the urge to dim the lights and put on a CD of saxophones playing Barry Manilow or anything.  Perhaps I’m getting old. 

I decided to try to salvage the day.  “So, anyway, my little bean curd, don’t you want to know about the disgusting thing I read?”

“You sufficiently disgusted me already when you said I remind you of a sugar dumpling!”  she pouted.

This was going nowhere fast.  “No, no!  Not at all!  Why, my beloved Fat Free Cream Cheese on a Celery Stick, you remind me of an hourglass, a needle, gazelle, a…”  I felt a gleam ignite in the back of my eye.  I couldn’t resist:  “…a petite young hippo sveltely cavorting…”

I woke up twenty minutes later on the couch with a pounding headache and a beefsteak on my eye.  My wife was cradling my head in her lap and cooing over me.  It was great.  I summoned the most pitiful moan I could muster.  “Oooaaahhhrrunngh!  What happened?”

“You attacked me,” my wife whimpered.

That didn’t make any sense.  I must have gotten hit even harder than I thought.  “Excuse me?”

“You were saying the meanest things to me and then you just hauled off and hit my best cast iron skillet with your hard old head and you cracked it.”

“The skillet?”

“No, your head.”

That was a relief.  If I had damaged her skillet, she might have smacked me.  “Sorry about that.  I don’t remember much.  Are you alright?”

“I’m feeling much better now, thank you.”

I tried to smile reassuringly, but the effort caused the headache to ricochet around my skull like an electron in a particle accelerator.  I closed my eyes; just managing to groan, “Glad to be of assistance.”

My son called down from his room.  “Can I come down, now, Mom?  I promise not to be gross anymore.”

“I suppose.”

He came thundering down the stairs like a whole herd of bison.  “So, Dad, what was the disgusting thing you were going to tell us about?”

“I…I don’t really remember.  Something about Splenda causing toenail fungus in laboratory rats.”

My wife pulled the beefsteak off of my eye and swatted me with it!  I’ll never understand women.  I’ll bet you my best hunting rifle that if I had swatted her with a beefsteak, she would have started screeching about it being bad manners, unsanitary, and “Don’t even come close to me with that 1700 calories of fat and cholesterol.”  Oh, well.  At least she doesn’t force me to drink tofu shakes for breakfast. That would be the last straw.  If she did, I’m quite certain I would lose it and start spiking her toenail polish with Splenda. 

The Spirit of Christmas

It was the early 1980’s.  That year, yet another new schoolteacher had moved into the modular housing unit that the school district had parked on skids behind the ramshackle log and plywood structure which served as the Moose Hole Community Center and Village Council Hall.  The teacher’s name was Mr. Manfred.  He was the most recent of a long line of bright-eyed idealists who had ventured into rural Alaska to experience the fulfillment of educating little wide-eyed bush kids.  I don’t know who kept telling these teachers that we bush kids were sitting around just quivering with the anticipation of having our potential unlocked.  Most of them lasted about two and a half years at the maximum before their disillusionment reached critical mass.  As it turned out, bush kids weren’t eager receptacles, thirsting to drink in whatever information would blossom them into responsible citizens.  At least not us bush kids at Moose Hole Public School.

Who wanted to take responsible citizen lessons when you could be outside racing snow machines across Moose Hole Lake, or ice fishing for Northern Pike or riding car hoods down the bald spot on Ptarmigan Knob?  We were quite content with our lives, thank you very much.  But somehow teachers refused to understand that.  So we took it upon ourselves to cure these arrogant strangers of the misguided notion that they somehow had anything of interest to offer us.  We took our mission very seriously.  We diligently employed every means at our disposal to persuade each new teacher that their agenda was both tyrannical and futile. 

By the time Thanksgiving had come and gone, Mr. Manfred had become the recipient of the standard treatment.  There had been several tacks in his chair.  Unflattering drawings of him had mysteriously appeared on the blackboard.  His lunch sandwiches had been laced with hot peppers and he had discovered frogs in his coffee.  There had even been an unfortunate accident in which the restroom door had somehow become jammed as he was attending the call of nature, while at the same time a fire extinguisher had inexplicably discharged itself through the crack under the restroom door.

Typically, by this point in the process, the teacher would be showing signs of stress.  This could manifest in various ways.  Sometimes his speech patterns would change, causing him to stutter or to randomly lapse into a high-pitched tremolo.  She might develop a noticeable facial tic.  Or he might take up the habit of abruptly leaving the classroom for extended periods of time. 

In special circumstances, a precisely calculated amount of duress could be applied, resulting in the teacher handing out punitively time-intensive homework assignments.  This created an opportunity for us to innocently and tearfully complain to our parents about our unjust treatment at the hands of an unreasonable tyrant.  Goading the teacher into homework revenge mode was considerably more work than we would have preferred, but we had learned that as a long term strategy, disgruntled parents could be a powerful weapon in the War on Teachers.

Sadly, Mr. Manfred seemed completely immune to our tactics.  A semester was nearly spent, and yet we could detect no noticeable change in his behavior.  He continued to arrive at school on time with a cheerful smile.  He greeted us all as if he were genuinely happy to see us, and never appeared too busy to devote personal attention to our questions or concerns, no matter how trivial.  To top it off, he consistently dispensed both discipline and homework with fairness and mercy.  I’m telling you, the guy was incorrigible!

It got so bad, that some of us even began to feel a twinge of remorse for the way we had treated him.  That was when we knew that we were really in trouble.  We struggled to maintain our tenuous grip on reality.  It would never do to allow ourselves to be sucked into the big lie!  Once a kid capitulates to authority, it’s the beginning of the end.  Everything just goes downhill from there.  We had seen it.  Some of our friends had shamelessly caved, buckling down to studying as if it actually mattered.  The aftermath of such fateful capitulation had been ghastly.  Those unfortunate victims had never been the same again. 

Some attrition was to be expected, of course.  Every couple of years or so, we could count on losing one or two.  But this?  What we were up against with Mr. Manfred was a threat of a whole new magnitude!  By the first week of December, there had been enough conversation among us that we all had confessed to increasingly frequent struggles with a soft spot for Mr. Manfred.  Clearly something drastic had to be done before it was too late.

So we hatched a plan.  Deep in the root cellar beneath Larry Fred’s uncle’s cabin, a determined band of us gathered.  There by the hissing light of an Aladdin lamp, we made a solemn pact that we would ruin Mr. Manfred before Christmas.  To seal the vow, we agreed that should we fail in our mission, each of us would bring our favorite Christmas gift to Anika Van der Veen’s backyard at midnight on New Year’s Eve.  There we would place them in the great big honkin’ incinerator that Anika’s dad had welded out of half-inch steel.  Then we would throw kerosene on our precious gifts and watch them burn to ashes.  If that wasn’t motivation enough to guarantee that we would see our assignment through, nothing would be.

You see, just as we loathed and detested teachers, so we were entirely enthralled by Christmas.  Why, Christmas was a glorious massive hedonistic orgy of self-gratification.  The whole point of Christmas was to expand our inventory of stuff so that we could gloat to each other about who got the most, coolest and most expensive loot.  We would do anything to maintain our post-Christmas gloating rights.  That was why the gift-burning pact was so ironclad.

The plan was elaborate but we were convinced that it was foolproof.  It involved a coordinated effort, split second timing, and quite a bit of gear.  We decided to divvy the gear up among us.  It would be easier to smuggle it into the school that way.  Mr. Manfred might become curious if one of us came to class on Monday with a giant duffle bag.  Anika would bring the coyote urine lure disguised as perfume.  Larry Fred’s lunchbox would hold a length of 30 lb. test fishing line and half-a-dozen halibut sized treble hooks.  The Smorkstini twins would handle the straight razor, the fluorescent orange dye and the super glue.  My brother Justin volunteered to provide the grizzly pepper spray and I said I’d bring the hog tattooing hammer and ink.  Last but not least, Walrus Fahnestock offered to snitch his Dad’s old straightjacket.  He was pretty sure his Dad wouldn’t miss it since he hadn’t used it for a good 6 months or so.

Phase one went off without a hitch.  We successfully smuggled all the gear right into the classroom under the very nose of Mr. Manfred.  Each one of us knew exactly what our task was.  As soon as the bell rang for recess we would go to work.

The thing was, just before recess Mr. Manfred threw a monkey wrench in our plans.  He wished us all a blessed Christmas and, beaming beatifically, announced a special contest.  Our assignment was to submit a creative entry, using any medium we chose, which we thought best depicted the Spirit of Christmas.  The winning student would receive a brand new Walkman portable audiocassette player.  Second place would receive a gift certificate for an ice cream sundae at Moose Hole Lodge.  Third place would earn an extra recess each day for a week.

Well, the recess we could resist.  It was no big deal, since we made a point of taking recess whenever we chose.  The ice cream sundae, though tempting, was not incentive enough to outweigh the importance of our mission. But the Walkman?  Oh my!  Back then before the advent of iPods and MP3, a Walkman was the Holy Grail.  Why, a fellow could listen to taboo music like KISS and Twisted Sister right in the middle of class and nobody would even know it.  Rumor had it that the Walkman had been developed using recently declassified NASA technology.  No one else in Moose Hole had one, or even touched one, for that matter.  It would be the supreme acquisition, earning its owner unrivaled gloating rights for several Christmases to come.

We didn’t even need to discuss it.  By mutual, unspoken impulse the scheduled teacher ruining was postponed until after the end of the contest.  Instead, we began to pour our energy and imagination into besting each other at the Christmas Spirit contest.  Brunhilda Glomdiddly, our resident silver-tongued orator, began memorizing the entire classic, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”  Jack Smorkstini began crafting a scale model of Santa’s workshop completely out of candy canes.  His sister, Jill, began rehearsing “The Twelve Days of Christmas” on her kazoo.  I set a caribou trap in the back yard and built a blinking red nose to put on it after I had tamed it.  Anika Van der Veen began baking the world’s largest gingerbread house.  The most ambitious project, however, was Walrus’.  He set about constructing a five-story tall Frosty the Snowman on the ice in the middle of Moose Hole Lake.

Then it happened!  The night before the project was due, Mr. Manfred found himself taking a midnight stroll down by the lake.  Suddenly, he heard a great creaking and groaning, followed by a thunderous crack.  Then the echo of a huge splash reverberated throughout the river valley, accompanied by the sound of Walrus Fahnestock’s terrified screams.  Frosty has grown too heavy for the lake ice to hold him.  Now Walrus’ disintegrating project was plunging toward bottom of Moose Hole Lake, while Walrus himself struggled to stay afloat in the icy water, his clothes freezing to his rapidly numbing body.

Without a second’s hesitation, Mr. Manfred leaped to the rescue.  He was able to grab some branches, scoot out onto the ice on his belly and slide the branches close enough for Walrus to grasp.  If he hadn’t been there and acted as quickly as he did, we would certainly have lost Walrus that night.  As it was, we nearly lost Mr. Manfred.  He had gotten soaking wet during the rescue, and not having as much avoirdupois as Walrus to keep him warm, ended up with hypothermia, bronchitis and double pneumonia. 

By the time he got out of the hospital, the deadlines for both the contest and the teacher ruining had come and gone.  But, somehow, we didn’t care.  Mr. Manfred had shown us what the true Spirit of Christmas was all about.  When he returned to class we greeted him with a welcome back party.  There under the classroom Christmas tree was a clumsily wrapped gift from each of us.  Instead of incinerating them, we had given our favorite Christmas gifts to our favorite teacher.  I understand that Mr. Manfred continued teaching at Moose Hole School until he retired several years later. 

Dream Apps

Photo via Pixabay

If I were the supreme commander of a highly advanced but malevolent alien race intent on conquering Earth, I wouldn’t just send in a fleet of starships and start blasting away with paratrethiconic quantum phased lithmogrium bursts.  Why, these primitive humans might not appreciate what invincible genius they were witnessing.  Like apes attacking a particle accelerator by throwing bananas at it, they might decide to detonate one of their crude nuclear devices at my delicate equipment with the annoying result that I would then be forced to waste resources recalibrating it.

No.  Rather, a shrewd commander would save his valuable resources and conquer the target planet by stealth.  Better yet, he would allow them to conquer themselves.  It would be a simple matter to seed small tidbits of technological advancement into their culture.  Of course, the technology would need to be something obsolete by my standards, with little military value, yet just beyond the threshold of their current capabilities.  Furthermore, it would have to be done in such a way that they would believe that they themselves had invented it.  Then, obsessed by the lust to corner the market, they would foist our technology upon their fellow drones during peak buying rituals.  The pitiful cattle would literally trample each other for the privilege of owning their own personal copy of our Trojan horse.  If managed with finesse, they would end up literally thanking their captors for their own subjugation, even going so far as to label their new toys with such symbolic names as “Android” or “Apple”.  (For anybody unfamiliar with the “Apple” reference, please read the story of Eve and the snake in the Garden of Eden.)

Well, the good news is that we needn’t worry our little heads about such things.  Thankfully, there isn’t  some malevolent alien race attempting to conquer us.  Conventional wisdom assures us that the only entities bent on such nefarious goals are quite earthbound.  That certainly is comforting.  As much time and money as folks devote to their apps, It would be frightening if they were being used as a mind-numbing zombie-producing sedative, or some sort of a hypnotic indoctrination technique.

But, no worries!  Those nifty little apps are perfectly harmless.  At the minimum, they serve as cute remedies for boredom or clever ways to boost efficiency and enhance productivity.  At the other end of the spectrum, they may very well be the crowning achievement of our entire civilization.  So, with that cleared up, let me just review a few popular apps in order to illustrate their value. 

Basically, you can break apps down into categories such as Games, Travel, Entertainment,  Social, Lifestyle, Business, Photography, etc.  Perhaps the largest and most popular app category is the game category.  Who can resist a good game?  Games are intellectually numbing…I mean…stimulating. They help improve thumb motor skills and increase blood flow to the adrenal gland. 

A classic example is the game known as “Angry Birds”.  This app truly illustrates how far mankind has come since the stone age.  Back in the knuckle dragging days, with nothing better to do, men commiserated with each other’s sorry existence over a crude game of Chess, Go, Seti, Mah Jongg or Mancala.  Boooring!  Who wants to sit around shuffling pebbles on a table, when he could be jamming out to an exciting game of Angry Birds? 

What!  Never heard of it?  What rock have you been hiding under?  Picture this:  Pigs.  Pigs everywhere!  Nasty, smelly grunty pigs.  Oh, what can we do?  What can we do?  These pigs keep hiding behind obstacles made out of wood, stone and whatnot.  Get them out of here.  How can we bust up the obstacles?  How can we chase the pigs away?  All I have is a slingshot.  Oh, wait!  What’s this?  A birdie?  A red birdie?  An angry red birdie?  Why is the birdie angry?  He seems to be angry at the pigs.  Awesome!  So am I.  Maybe birdie and I can work together to solve this problem.  Nah!   Too touchy-feely.  I’ll just stuff this angry bird in my slingshot and shoot him at the pigs.  Spaang!  Sorry birdie.  I guess this just wasn’t your day. 

No, seriously!  That’s the game.  You shoot angry birds at pigs with a slingshot.  Period.  Isn’t that great?  It helps vent aggression.  No protocol.  No deep thinking.  No complicated move sequences to keep track of.  You just shoot at creatures by using smaller creatures as projectiles. 

One more quick game review will demonstrate the sophistication level of modern gaming.  “Hatoful Boyfriend” is one of the most downloaded game apps of 2020.  The premise of this brilliant game is simple:  It’s a pigeon dating simulator.  No, you read that right.  Pigeons.  You know, rats with wings?  As a pigeon you get to fail at love, squabble (Get it?  Squab?  Squabble? A squab is a baby pige… aw, never mind) and die.  It’s a short life, but you you and your bird of a feather flock together, enjoying it while it lasts, sharing cozy little intimate dinners of tire tread imprinted french fries after which you take turns crapping on a statue.  That is, if you can find any statues left standing in 2020.

Moving on to the Travel category, we find an array of popular apps designed to help us locate services of various sorts while in a strange place.  For instance apps such as Expedia, iExit, GasBuddy, or Kayak can identify eateries, gas stations, car rentals or hotels.  This, of course, is an absolute godsend.  So much better than the old method of looking around and reading nearby signs.  After all, who can guess what double golden arches are supposed to mean?  The gold color could indicate a bank.  The arches might suggest cascades of gasoline pouring out of a gas pump nozzle.  The twin configuration might be symbolic of a pair of pillows at the head of a hotel room bed.  Very confusing!  Apps clearly simplify one’s travel experience.

In the Lifestyle category, there are some really exciting options.  Mixology would probably be one of my favorites if I were a drinker.  This handy app lets you input what alcohols and mixers you have on hand, and then offers up possible libations that can be created from them.  After all who can keep track of complex liquor ingredients after you’ve had a few? 

Those who use the Mixology app a lot will find that it dovetails nicely with the WebMD app.  It would work something like this:

“Mishen, Lister!  I ain’t any more under the –hiccup– affluensh of inkahol than shum people may think I am.  I only had two martinizh, and anyway, the drunker I shtay here the longer I get…oof!  Tardblum it!  Who moved that wall into my way?”

“Tee-hee!  I think you dropped your pocket, and now your faish izh bleed –hiccup– bl-blee…leaking!  Tee-heee-heee!”

“Izhit shposed to leak like that?”

“I dunno, but I don’t think your ear izh shposta be on your chin.  Teee-heee!”

“It ain’t?  Well shtop laughin’ an’ look it up on my WebMD app.”

“Hey!  Tee-hee!  Look at thish cute shkeleton.  He’s hot!”

In the Entertainment category, the hands down clear winner is the Netflix app.  Wow!  We sure have come a long way in a few short years.  It seemed like it was only yesterday when big screen TV’s were all the rage.  Back then people had the quaint notion that the bigger the screen, the more enjoyable one’s movie viewing experience would be.  Now it seems that squinting is cool.  Personally, I have to admit that I haven’t quite gotten the hang of it yet.  I tried watching an old M.A.S.H episode on my phone the other day.  I was halfway through before I realized I was actually watching The Ghosts of War instead.  But that wasn’t half as embarrassing as getting arrested for watching child porn.  It took me forever to explain to the judge that I had only been watching Netflix’s latest original series.  After all, if it’s on Netflix, it must be legal.  Right?

I could mention dozens of other apps, but I think I have provided enough examples to illustrate my point.  Thanks to the wizardry of modern phone apps, our civilization has clearly advanced to a level of cultural sophistication and intellectual superiority unparalleled by any other people in the prior history of the world.

I do have one gripe, though.  There just don’t seem to be enough apps available for Alaskans.  Not all Alaskans seem to appreciate many of the popular ones.  For instance, Google Earth doesn’t work very well in most of Alaska.  Zipcar doesn’t make much sense in rural Alaska either, especially in a village that gets around primarily by snow machine.  However, I can think of a few apps that would come in really handy.

With all the food apps on the market, I don’t see why a camp cooking app can’t be made.  How many charcoal briquettes do I need to pile on the lid of my dutch oven if I want to bake a batch of bannock?  How long do I soak my gorp before it’s soft enough to eat?  A wild mushroom and wild-berry identification app would help provide variety to the wilderness menu.

How about a fire lighter app?  Swipe the touch screen, and—whoosh!  A flame shoots out of the microphone to ignite your campfire or wood stove.  If that would cause too many problems with TSA, how about at least a hand-warmer app?   Or a smoker app for quick hickory smoking your game in the field?

Then you could have the Wyoming knife or ulu app.  In my book, that would be a real winner.  Shoot your trophy bull moose, then whip out your iPhone, take a picture of him to post on Instagram and then field dress him with the same device.  For that matter, why not a game calling app?  Let your app emit a moose grunt or a coyote yelp.  It could scream like a rabbit or squawk like a mallard.  There’s no reason why an app couldn’t store a call for every species on the North American continent. 

When fishing, a lure app would be great.  Simply tie your smart phone to your fishing line, attach a hook and select your chosen lure simulator, whether it be a spoon, spinner, crankbait, or even a dry fly.  Then cast it out and watch it work its electronic magic.

Someday, maybe I’ll start my own app company and market some of my great ideas to fellow Alaskans.  After all it’s past time we moved into the twenty-first century.  I’m convinced that it would only take a few outstanding apps to make our state a better place.  And I’m not the only one who thinks so.  My new buddy, sLarin-5 who flies down to visit each evening in his cool Frisbee shaped airplane agrees with me.  In fact, I think he’s the one who suggested it.

Terrible Tips

Image via Pixabay

I don’t know why I’m such a sucker for the “handy tips” routine.  I should know better by now.  These insidious tips always appear to come from innocent appearing sources:  a cute e-mail from an old friend, a slightly damaged book on the discount rack at Barnes and Noble, an offhand comment by a trusted co-worker, a suggestion key-scratched into the paint job of my double-parked vehicle.  Whatever it’s origin, the handy tip invariably sneaks up on me in such an earthy, homespun disguise, that I never realize what has happened until I have ended up as its tragic victim—again!

For example, I was told that Super Glue works for closing wounds.  My source even related how that when they had gone to the Emergency Room, the doctor on call used Super Glue instead of sutures.  I thought that was the neatest idea I’d ever heard, and couldn’t wait to try it.  Wouldn’t you know, the very next week I was lucky enough to be able to do just that.  While cutting up some firewood with my chainsaw, I accidentally cut the toe off my boot.  When I removed my boot, I discovered that my big toe had decided to stay behind and keep the boot company.  Eager to try out my handy tip, I hopped into the house on one leg to break out the Super Glue.

Disappointingly, the stuff didn’t work at all.  In retrospect, I think the copious nature of my bleeding kept hosing the glue away before it could set properly.  Worse than that, I must have been a little careless with the Super Glue at some point, because next thing I knew, my toe was stuck fast to three of my fingers.  My wife had to drive me into the clinic to have my severed toe surgically amputated from my hand.  That wasted a lot of time that could have been spent re-attaching my toe.  Now my left big toe looks kind of like a baby carrot that’s been in the fridge for six months.

Then there was the time I read somewhere that pet fish grow bigger if they are put in a bigger aquarium.  That spawned a brilliant plan in my mind.  On my next trip to Fairbanks, I bought a whole bag full of those cheap little feeder goldfish.  I could hardly suppress my glee.  So much for grocery shopping.  In fact, so much for Chitina.  Never again would I have to climb up and down that treacherous bank wrestling with a cooler loaded with two hundred pounds of slimy, stinking salmon.  Never again would I have to tie myself off to the rocks and dangle my dip net into the savage current of the Copper River in a gamble that I could catch my winter’s meat before the river tore my arms out of their sockets.

As soon as I got home, I filled my bathtub with water and dumped the feeder fish in it. Pulling up a chair, I shepherded my little school of future fillets for several hours.  Partly because I wanted to witness their first growth spurt, and partly because I had to fend off my wife who was vowing to flush them all down the toilet so she could take a bath.  The women they are married to appreciate geniuses least, I’ve discovered. 

Alas, my fish farm dreams never reached fruition.  The next morning, I rushed down to tend my investment only to find most of my livestock floating belly up.  I was deeply chagrinned to observe that their tragic little corpses hadn’t grown at all, even though my bathtub was significantly bigger than the cramped tank at the pet store where I had found them. 

I just wish I knew why they died.  Of course, my wife did little to comfort me during my season of mourning.  On the contrary, she goaded me with the baseless accusation that if I had wiped my soap ring out of the tub before I plopped them in there, they might have stayed alive long enough for her to whip me up at least get one good meal out of them.  I think she mentioned something about force-feeding me a minnow stir fry, or a pot of goldfish chowder!

Another handy tip suggested that kitty litter could be used to provide traction on your icy sidewalks and steps.  Boy was that a mistake!  It turns out that those frozen little cat turds stick to your boots, and then when you come inside they fall off, thaw, and get ground into the carpet.  My wife threatened to make them into a chowder for me too!

A while back, the zipper on my jacket was stuck.  As I wrestled with it, I remembered a handy tip I had read somewhere:  “To make a zipper slide up and down more smoothly, rub a bar of soap over the teeth.”  Whoever said that should be dragged in front of a national press conference and shot.  That soap tasted awful, and I was blowing bubbles for a week!  It made my teeth squeak, too, and it didn’t do anything for my zipper!

Speaking of soap, never follow this tip:  “When pins become difficult to push through a diaper or fabric, push the pin into a bar of soap.”  It was my wife who had tried this one.  Evidently the phone rang before she had finished, and then she forgot about it until she was vividly reminded of it the next morning by my blood-curdling scream from the shower.  Rushing into the bathroom, she found me dancing about in agony with a bar of soap skewered to my underarm!

A well-intentioned family friend dropped the handy tip that feeding your dog Brewer’s Yeast and garlic will keep the fleas away.  This turned out to be one tip that actually worked.  What my misguided friend failed to mention is that it will keep you away from your pet too!  If you’ve ever been licked in the face by a dog that has been feasting on Brewer’s Yeast and garlic, you will never forget the experience.  I had to rinse my face off with raw sewer, just to get rid of the smell!

Some handy tips are downright dangerous!  I had a neighbor suggest that when a light bulb breaks, it can be easily removed by pushing a raw potato into the base and twisting the broken light bulb out.  I guess my neighbor never did that experiment in high school where you stick a couple of galvanized nails into a pair of potatoes and use them for a battery to power a clock.  Couple that conductive capability with the household current flowing into the broken stub of the light bulb, and you have enough potential “OOMPH” there to knock you off of your step ladder and fling you across the room. 

It only seems to affect certain people that way, though.  My wife was able to step over my smoldering body, flick the light switch off, and use the potato to unscrew the broken bulb with absolutely no ill effects.  She must have some sort of natural genetic immunity, although she claims I’m the one with the immunity.  Only she calls it congenital buffoonity.  Whatever that’s supposed to mean.

Another dangerous tip goes like this:  “Frozen water pipes can safely and easily be thawed out by using an ordinary hair dryer nozzle directed at the frozen pipe.”  Seems pretty harmless, doesn’t it?  Easy too.  So when my sewer line froze up, I thought I’d give it a shot.  Now the situation was complicated slightly by the fact that this was a buried sewer line.  I couldn’t just go down in the basement and apply the hair drier to the area of the pipe in question.  However, using my Alaskan ingenuity, I improvised a solution to the problem. 

My wife had one of those nifty little hair roller/hair drier combos.  I securely duct taped a long extension cord onto the curler’s plug, waded into the water pool that had overflowed onto the bathroom floor, turned it on and flushed it down the toilet.  At least I started to.  Unexpectedly, as soon as the contraption hit the water, I found myself enveloped in a crackling blue cage of lightning.  The hair curler and I sort of convulsed around the bathroom together–locked in the embrace of a macabre pulsing dance–gyrating to the bass buzz of electrically energized commode water until my wife unplugged the extension cord.

Other handy tips, though not as dangerous, can sure be a nuisance.  Like the one that claims placing cucumber peels on the kitchen will keep ants out of your house.  Maybe so, but I think I would prefer ants to the snowshoe hares that were attracted to the cucumber peelings.  Since the infestation, every day at my house is a bad hare day. 

Now when I come downstairs for a drink of water in the middle of the night and switch on the light, instead of seeing cockroaches scurrying for cover, I see a receding hare line.  Every time I turn on the radio the dial has been changed to a hip-hop station.  The other day I opened my refrigerator and there was a hare sitting in there.  The following conversation ensued:

Hare:  Eh, what’s up, doc?

Me:      I was about to ask you the same question.  What are you doing in my refrigerator?

Hare:  This is a Westinghouse isn’t it?

Me:      Yes, so what?

Hare:  Well, I’m westing!

Frankly, I’m tired of being on the receiving end of handy tips.  I think I’ll go on the offensive.  I’m going to close by dedicating a few handy tips of my own to all those folks who have dropped me tips through the years: 

Handy Tip #1:  Old telephone directories make ideal personal address books. Simply cross out the names and address of people you don’t know.

Handy Tip #2:  Avoid parking tickets by leaving your wipers set to ‘fast wipe’ whenever you leave your car parked illegally.

Handy Tip #3:  No time for a bath? Wrap yourself in masking tape and remove the dirt by simply peeling it off.

Bwaaaah-hah-hah-haaah!

A Nation Asleep

Photo via Pixabay

There comes a point in the evolution of any great civilization which marks the apex of its rise.  That, of course, is a good thing.  This culminating moment of pomp, glory, power, and dignity will be the standard by which its character is remembered by the historians and poets of cultures yet to become a coffee stain on the annals of history.

That also is a bad thing, because by its very definition an apex means that the top has been reached.  Even as the civilization struts, crowing and preening atop its precarious apex, the inevitable reality remains that such a civilization has nowhere left to go but down.  Great civilizations never decline, they free fall.

This being so, it would appear that if we want to preserve our way of life as we know it for ourselves and our kids, the best way to do this is to postpone the apex.  In other words, we need to slightly sabotage our country’s ascent to greatness.  Not in a big way–no revolutions or coups or anything, just annoying little things to gum up the works, so to speak, in order to fend off the impending apex.

As Pliny the Elder so eloquently phrased it, “Da country, she get too big for her britches, she gonna go BOOM!”  Of course, I was quick to tell Pliny that he had better pay attention to what he was doing and stop shouting in my ear or I was going to have to get a new barber.  The last time he waxed philosophical while he was cutting my hair, he cut one sideburn three inches shorter than the other one.  Who does he think he is?  A Roman historian?

He has point, though, as soon as we become a really great nation, we’ve had it.  Once we reach the apex, we might as well wax up our snowboards, because we are on the slippery slope now.  Bye-bye apex, hello Kleenex!  At that point we would do ourselves a favor to hunt up the nearest barbarian or Hun and hand him the title to our real estate and the keys to our SUV. 

So before we reach the lamentable apex of greatness, I urge each of my readers to make it a point of personal patriotism to nip the ascent of our civilization in the bud.  Once the dogs are eating corpses in the street, and tanks are reducing rioters to textured blacktop sealer, just about anyone can develop a touch of nostalgia for the “good old days”, but by then the point would be a bit moot.

They say that the foundation of a culture is its family unit.  Strong families make strong communities, they say, and strong communities make strong nations.  Now you cannot have a strong family without harmony and peace and all that, so here is where you can all do your civic duty to preserve our heritage. 

Let’s all make a point to undermine each other’s sleep!

That’s right.  Everyone who sleeps with a bed partner can begin this very night to sabotage your family harmony, which will then degrade the family unit, which in turn will weaken our communities and ultimately bog down our country’s mad race to greatness and its subsequent plummet into anarchy and ruin.  If you love your country and your family, then, please observe the following checklist on a nightly basis.  In advance, your country thanks you.

  1.  Always read for an hour and a half after retiring.  The glare of the bedside lamp or the EM radiation pulsing from the screen of your device, the deafening rustle of pages like the rattle of musketry at Gettysburg and the raucous guffaws or sobs evoked by the wordsmithery of your favorite author will encourage your husband or wife (who has to get up at 4:00 to leave for work) to eschew the pitfalls of indolence and lassitude.  Your spouse will rapidly begin to eschew you as well.
  2. If retiring after your bedmate is already comfy, warm, and nearly asleep, a strict bedtime regimen must be observed.  Although it requires discipline and concentration, the benefits that will be reaped in the form of weakened family ties and marital disharmony cannot be underestimated:
    • First, stomp loudly up the stairs, carefully switching on any lights your partner may have switched off.
    • Next, prolong the disrobing process, punctuating it with eloquent bodily noises and excerpts of classical chamber music played with great skill and vigor upon the hangers in the clothes closet.
    • Thirdly, set your alarm clock, allowing it to beep shrilly for two or three minutes to verify that it is still in working order.
    • Fourthly, seize the bedclothes and abruptly peel them all the way to the footboard.  It is especially important that you never neglect this step if your bedmate sleeps au natural and it is rather chilly in the bedroom. 
    • Fifthly, gathering your legs under you for maximum trajectory and impact, leap high in the air and plummet with a house-rocking crash into your side of the bed.  (Note:  If your bed happens to be a waterbed, an additional step must be inserted between steps five and six, consisting of extracting your bedmate from the mirror on the opposite side of the room where the tsunami has deposited him or her.)
    • Sixthly, recreate a Champion WWF match using the mattress, bedclothes, and both your and your bedmate’s pillows as your wrestling opponents.  Continue this step for fifteen minutes or until you are comfortably nested, whichever comes last.
    • Seventhly, decide you’d better use the restroom or remove your contacts.  Rise and do so.  Repeat steps one through six.
    • Finally, remember that you forgot to turn off the kitchen light or lock the basement door, or turn off the oven or mow the lawn.  It doesn’t really matter what you forget as long as you are careful to cajole, beg, nag and pressure your bedmate into getting up and doing it for you “…if you really love me!”  The closer they are to sleep, the better.  If they are actually fully asleep, this step alone can stave off America’s apex for at least a good thirty years.
  3. Eat plenty of chili, refried beans, or broccoli throughout the day so that the sleeping environment will be unwholesome.  After all, it was Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, who advised in Proverbs 7:17 to avoid those who say, “I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon.”  Therefore, be careful to create a bedtime atmosphere as diametrically opposed to such olfactory contentment as possible.
  4. Cultivate the fine art of snoring.  No other single element is so crucial to the instability of a home and thus a family, community and civilization.  Do not be content with mundane or mediocre snores.  Strive for excellence!  No muted warbles or intermittent snorts will do.  Make your snoring an intense, incessant and exuberant endeavor.  Let the sound strike upon the hillside and echo through the river valley.  Let the anthem swell.  Let your voice be heard!  Who knows, perhaps someday an immortal poet will look back upon your dedicated service and write stirring words in homage to your selfless patriotism:

‘Neath the rude quilt that arched the bed

            Their nostrils in the breeze unfurled;

Here once lax, drooling lips were spread

            And fired the snore heard ‘round the world.

  1. Whenever it becomes necessary to roll over or shift position during the night, don’t move beneath the sheets, move with them.  Make the bedclothes an integral and inseparable part of you.  Bind them upon your forehead; wrap them about your leg.  A properly executed roll should twist the blankets around you like spaghetti on a fork or cotton candy on a stick.  Imagine yourself to be a toilet paper roll and your sheets and blankets the toilet paper.  If done correctly, you should wake up in the morning at the center of a giant convoluted cocoon of fabric.  Or, on a hot night, by carefully reversing the procedure you will be able to deposit a mountain of insulation precisely on top of your partner.  Not only will these techniques erode family harmony, but they will strengthen your bedmate’s immune system and help to nurture the qualities of sacrifice and self-denial in the one you love.
  2. In keeping with the tenets of some of the worlds most degenerate civilizations, cultivate the principle of taking from the have-nots and distributing it to the haves.  Apply this to mattress space.  A simple mathematical equation will enable you to quickly determine how much of the bed your partner should occupy.  Start by determining the age of your partner.  From this figure, subtract the number of years your partner has been alive.  The number that remains represents the percentage of mattress space that is your bedmate’s equitable allotment.  Firmly but lovingly enforce this allowance by strategically positioning extremities to block access to forbidden areas.

There you have it, my dear readers and compatriots–a manifesto for the longevity and preservation of our great nation.  Heed it, and you can rest assured that posterity will bless you.  Ignore it and the miserable, sordid collapse of an entire civilization will be your fault.  It’s up to you.  Will you rise…er, retire to the challenge? 

Sweet dreams!

Road rage

Photo by Thomas on Pexels.com

I wish someone would pass a law making it illegal for anyone to own or operate a vehicle unless their name is identical to the one on my Driver’s License.  Although at first glance, that may seem a little extreme, I am convinced that such a course of action is really the only way to get rid of all the idiots out there on the road.  Every time I take a drive, I swear that I see at least a dozen such idiots behind the steering wheels of hurtling steel and glass weapons of mass destruction.

Shockingly enough, when someone’s idiotic driving habits force me to pass them on a blind curve, frequently I’ll look over at the driver on my way past and discover that it is someone I know.  In real life, these morons appear to be completely normal, rational people, but put them behind a steering wheel and they enter their own universe, oblivious to the rules of common courtesy and civilized society. 

Whenever I can catch their eye, I mouth earnest words of admonition, pumping the air with my closed fist to demonstrate my sincerity.  It seems to have no effect.  They look sharply away and stare fixedly at the road ahead while their knuckles grow white on the top of their steering wheel.  They are obviously set in their ways and have closed their minds to any constructive criticism. 

It is in hopes of appealing to at least one idiot’s sense of shame that I offer a list of the five most common idiotic driving mistakes.  I can only hope that by reading the following list in black and white, a glimmer of understanding will be sparked that may in time persuade them to moderate the hazardous behaviors which daily place responsible drivers like me at risk.

Turn Signals

The first idiotic driving habit is the improper use of turn signals.  I don’t know how many times I have witnessed a driver dutifully activating their turn signal for the last hundred feet before their turn and then canceling it immediately upon completing the turn.  It makes me crazy!  Such drone-like thinking can get you killed!  Creativity. Improvisation.  That’s what keeps drivers alive on the highways. 

Think of the driver’s manual as a brainstorming resource.  It gives you the raw material to stimulate your thinking.  From its sketchy outline of suggestions there are limitless possibilities for expansion and customization until you have developed a driving style which is distinctive to you. 

Turn signals provide the perfect example.  Imagine the possibilities of using those under-appreciated blinking lights in a variety of scenarios.  I’ve noticed for instance that if I leave my left turn signal on after I’ve made my turn, I don’t have to worry about people passing me.  I find this technique especially useful on a gravel road, where a vehicle passing on my left might very easily throw a rock into my windshield.  An additional advantage is that I can see clearly without having to eat the dust of some idiot in front of me.  This technique significantly elevates the safety and comfort of my driving experience.

Another creative way I have found to use my turn signals is to wait until a car’s length prior to my turn before activating them.  Of course, I begin slowing down at least 1500 feet before the turn and for safety’s sake, I always like to come to a complete stop before initiating the turn, so that I can evaluate the texture of the road surface and visually note all traffic in or approaching the intersection.  I do this any time I get a bad vibe about the turn.  I don’t want to commit myself to turning until I’m absolutely sure that it’s safe. 

It’s a good thing I do, too.  You wouldn’t believe the experiences I’ve had at intersections.  It is not at all uncommon to have some idiot roar by me on the left, just after I’ve executed my pre-turn stop, but prior to activating my left turn signal.  If I hadn’t stopped when I did, there could have been a nasty collision. 

Many times when I’m decelerating to make a right-hand turn, I’ll notice a vehicle just sitting at the intersection with their car idling, staring at me.  I tell you, this world’s full of kooks!  I go ahead and do my safety stop, and begin evaluating the intersection.  At this point, the guy in the driver’s seat of the parked car frequently intensifies his stare and begins flapping his arms about, fingers spread and palms upturned.  It gives me the creeps, I tell you! 

I hesitate, trying to decide if I should commit to turning so close to a driver with obvious mental health issues. I decide to risk it.  I flick on my right turn signal.  My goodness!  The faces some people can make!  I think I’ve gotten more one fingered salutes in situations like this than in any other.  Suddenly the idiot stomps his accelerator, laying smoking rubber for half a mile as he squeals out into the intersection and away!  Where are the cops when you need them?

A third technique is to not use the turn signals at all.  As an American citizen, I have a right to my privacy and in the rare situation where I want someone to know that I’m turning, I’ll use my signals.  After all, I know when I want to turn, and when I’m ready, I simply do it.  This saves wear and tear on the light bulb and effectively conceals my intentions from any credit collectors or State Troopers that might be following me.

High Beams

The second idiotic driving habit on my list  regards the usage of high beam headlights.  I can’t stress enough the importance of driving with your high beams on at all times.  Alaska is literally crawling with moose and bears and bison and hitchhikers and mailboxes ready to leap out in front of you at any moment.  The more long range visibility you have, the safer your trip will be.

And yet it never fails that while driving after dark, some oncoming vehicle will have his lights on low beam, barely dribbling a puddle of light mere feet in front of his vehicle.  That’s all fine and good.  Whatever gives them their jollies!  The really annoying thing is that inevitably the idiot starts flicking his high beams off and on—off and on.  Why can’t they make up their mind?  I try to ignore them and go about my driving, when–wouldn’t you know it?—they wait until they are almost abreast of me and then suddenly flick on a bank of fog lights that are rack-mounted on the roof of their pickup cab!  I go instantly blind and nearly drive off the road!  Don’t these people have any compassion?

Reasonable Speed

The third idiotic driving habit involves people that can’t drive a decent speed.  Literally everybody but me either drives too fast or too slow.  There are a couple of techniques for dealing with idiots like these.

If they are traveling too fast, they will come up behind you.  When you notice them gaining rapidly in your rearview mirror, simply steer to the left until your vehicle is straddling the center lane.  Stay there until you arrive at your destination, only moving back into your lane briefly to allow approaching traffic to pass.  You will find that this simple technique will encourage everyone behind you to travel at a sensible speed.

If, on the other hand, the idiot is driving too slowly, simply approach the back of his vehicle until your hood ornament obscures his license plate.  Maintain this distance until the slowpoke accelerates to a reasonable speed, or pulls off of the road.  I guarantee that you will see results within 15 miles.  If not, repeated and prolonged application of your horn should be supplemented until the desired result is achieved.

The last three idiotic driving habits may not always be relevant in much of Alaska, but seem to be chronic in the lower 48.  In the sordid realms that we Alaskans call “outside”, where you find interstate highways intertwined with vast complexes of secondary roads,  thrives a whole new breed of idiots.  Beware of them when you find it necessary to leave the comfortable frost heaves and potholes of our fair state.

Entrance Ramps

There you will encounter things called “interstate entrance ramps”.  Be not deceived.  This is merely an innocuous name for some of the most diabolical death traps ever devised by highway engineers.  The idea is for a driver to launch his vehicle off of this thing into a four lane wide, 70 mph raging river of tractor trailers and Greyhound buses.

Caution and common sense would scream at you to slowly drive to the bottom of the ramp, park, and wait for the traffic to go away before entering the interstate highway.  That’s what I do, and you will notice that I am still alive today.  I seem to be one of an overwhelmed minority, though.  You should see the idiots!  Rather than slowing down and proceeding with caution, they literally accelerate down the ramp and recklessly plunge into a tiny gap between hurtling semis!  What can I say?  The insanity speaks for itself.

Then you have what I call the “sheep factor”.  Once you successfully enter the interstate highway system, you find yourself on a road where two or three lanes are going the same direction.  It’s exactly like a one way street in Fairbanks, except completely different.  So here you are on three perfectly good lanes, with no oncoming traffic.  Where can you drive?  Come-on, folks, this isn’t rocket science.  They’re all going the same direction!  It doesn’t matter!  Pick a lane any lane, but for Pete’s sake, pick one that gives you a little reaction time, right?

Wrong!  These idiots will actually get in a row in the right lane and follow each other for hundreds of miles.  To the left of them beckon one or two inviting lanes with not nearly as much traffic, yet they continue to congest the right lane, playing follow the leader. Surreally, nobody seems to understand the potential for disaster here.  What if the guy four cars ahead of you stops suddenly?  What do you have?  The domino effect:  a multi-vehicle pileup, right? 

So here’s what I do.  I move all the way over to the left lane and I stay there.  I’m driving the same speed they are, in the same direction they are, yet without the risks.  If I wasn’t as humble as I am, I’d call myself brilliant.  An added perk is that I end up being the leader of my own string of followers.  Behind me, as far as I can see, there are two solid lines of traffic, yet before me, the highway is clear.  I usually wind up being literally the only one on the interstate that doesn’t have to worry about rear-ending the guy in front of him.  I guess not everyone has been blessed with my instincts for safety.

Four Way Stops

The last idiotic driving behavior on my list involves what they call a “four-way stop”.  This is where you have a crossroad, yet all four lanes entering the intersection display a stop sign.  How stupid is that?  Four cars arrive at the intersection within seconds of each other.   All four have a stop sign.  There they sit!  Whoever came up with that arrangement must have just crossed the thin line between genius and insanity! 

As you may have guessed, I am very safety minded in my driving habits.  That’s more than can be said of the 9 million people who are sitting at a four way stop as you read this sentence.  From my experience, they will begin to randomly proceed through the intersection.  I never have discovered a pattern to their decision process.  It’s not clockwise, and it’s not counterclockwise, it’s just willy nilly.  It’s a miracle that four way stop intersections aren’t a perpetual smoldering pile of shattered glass, twisted steel and corpses!

Being the sensible, cautions man that I am, I always let everyone else go first.  If I notice another vehicle arriving at the intersection, I wait for him, too.  It’s the only decent and safe thing to do.  You’d think the other drivers would appreciate my courtesy, but they don’t.  Sometimes they get downright rude!  They flash their lights and honk their horns and give me the one-fingered salute. 

That used to puzzle me and bother me a lot, but I finally figured out that most drivers are threatened by competency.  It shines the spotlight on their idiocy, and I guess that must be a really uncomfortable feeling.  I wouldn’t know.  I’ve never had that issue.

Well, I don’t mean to cut this short, but I’ve got to run to the store before they close.  I’m not looking forward to it.  I’d be willing to bet that while I’m en route I will encounter another vehicle.  Between that driver and myself, one of us will be driving like an idiot.  I don’t need to tell you which one.

Raul Pevere’s Ride

By George M. Hosier II 

Listen my children and you shall hear

Of the arctic ride of Raul Pevere,

In middle of winter, of seventy-five;

How the man did ever survive

Is a secret we’ll never know, I fear. 

He said to his wife, “I’m out of beer

So I’m making a run to the town to-night.”

Said his wife, “That’s madness this time of the year!

The thermometer glinting ‘neath Northern lights 

Is pegged at sixty and five below!

You leave, and you’ll never come back, you know.

Drunk as you are, I bet my right arm,

You’re setting yourself up for ruin and harm.

Please stay by the fire with me where it’s warm.” 

But he growled “Good-night!” and with teeth clenched tight

Lurched silently into the frost-laden night,

Just as the moon rose over his cache

Now starkly devoid of his alcohol stash.

But long winter nights make some men drink

And most drink more than they’d like to think.

Across the valley an all-night bar

Called Raul’s name like a siren’s song

And the cold bit deep and the wind howled strong

As he fumbled with keys to his car. 

Meanwhile, his wife with slipper-shod feet

Rushes outside, propelled by her fears

And grabs for the keys, but her husband veers–

She slips in the snow and with heavy heart

Watches him climb in the driver’s seat!

But his triumph is hollow for it appears

Cars at these temperatures don’t like to start. 

Then he burrowed frantic through hand-split birch

In the woodshed where he’d stored his sled.

He barked his knuckles and bonked his head,

And startled the ravens from their perch

On the black spruce rafters that o’er him made

Masses and moving shapes of shade,–

With a trembling hand he dug and tossed

‘Til, to his relief, he came across

His snow machine, and he squealed with glee

At finding a method to guarantee

That the miles to town he now could cross. 

His bad back spasmed; and made him shout,

As he seized the Snow-go by force of will,

Drug it to the top of the hill,

And pointed it toward the snow-choked rout

That led to booze-soaked happy hour

There to bask in Bacchus’ bower.

The watchful night wind seemed to whisper,

“The road is long; the cold grows crisper.”

Yet for only a moment he felt the dread

Of the lonely tundra that stretched ahead;

For suddenly all his thoughts converge

On a shadowy need–a poignant urge

To be blowing cash in a reckless splurge

On bosom pals he’d barely met

And whose love endured while their glass stayed wet. 

Wheezing, impatient to mount and ride,

Mittened and booted with stumbling stride

To the starter cord handle Raul Pevere

All his tugging strength applied.

But the cold caused the brittle spring to shear.

Raul’s momentum flung him to earth,

Where all the weight of his ample girth

Contorted his ankle with a crunch

That nearly compelled him to toss his lunch.

Yet he rose again to pursue the fight,

Lonely and spectral and somber and white. 

And lo!  As he scans his homestead plot

A nicker, and then a quizzical trot!

He limps to the paddock, infused with hope

And after a chase, his mule he had caught

Assisted by a short length of rope. 

A hurry of hoofs on the glacial lane,

A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,

And beneath from the permafrost, icy shards arc,

Struck out by a saturnine steed with its mane

Frozen stiff–its ice-fogged breath forms a haze.

The mule and its rider press on in a daze

And the shards struck out by that steed formed a glaze

That still in June would mark the terrain. 

It was twelve by the village clock

When they crossed the bridge just east of town.

The mule moved in a shuffling walk

And the barking of a husky dog

Failed to pierce their mental fog,

For their bodies’ cores were shutting down. 

It was one by the village clock,

When a patron at the craved saloon

Noticed them like a frosty rock

Standing stiff in the parking lot.

And Raul’s fingers clenching the frozen reins

Were hard as links of an iron chain.

His beard was set with freeze-dried snot,

And it glittered in the light of the moon. 

It was two by the paramedic’s watch

When they got Pevere pried from off his mule.

His feeble bleating for a fifth of Scotch

Brought the toughest EMT’s to tears,

But they could smell he’d had too many beers.

They gently eased the fragile fool

Out of his saddle and into a bed,

Taking great care not to let him fall,

Lest he shatter a limb or head.

Then gave his wife an urgent call. 

You guessed the rest.  In the books you have read

How drinking in winter can make you dead,–

How what you sow at 40 below

You’ll reap in spades among the snow.

Harmless stunts where palm trees thrive,

Are death traps when Jack Frost arrives.

Raul’s survival was not due to smarts,

And now he’s missing some body parts.

In the cold and the dark, I hope you will heed,

I pray you will waken and listen to hear

The staggering hoof-beats of that steed,

And the midnight folly of Raul Pevere.  

The Old Man and the White Filly

I used to read a lot when I was a kid.  Some of my favorite stories were about horses.  Ironically, Ernest Hemingway was one of my favorite authors.  I always resented the fact that Hemingway hadn’t written more about horses, and less about more boring subjects like bullfighting and boxing and wars and fishing.  I bet if he had set his mind to it, he could have written a classic horse story.

Since he hadn’t written anything like that, though, I had to create my own equestrian adventures.  I fantasized about finding a gorgeous unwanted horse that I could tame for myself after the mean rancher guy had failed.  It would stare at me, ears perked, neck arched, nostrils flaring, expecting to be chased or beaten.  But I would be patient.  After a few days it would be eating out of my hand.  A few days after that we would be galloping bare-backed across the countryside, boy and beast melded together in a heady camaraderie of mutual respect and eternal friendship.  Every night when I knelt by my bed, I begged heaven to send a wild horse to my back yard.  Any old Lippizaner or Sorraia or Posan would do.  The truth was, though, that I would have settled for a 30 year old, toothless, worn-out draft horse.

I don’t know exactly when the dream began to fade, but once I got a job and a wife with the accompanying responsibilities, the keen yearning for a horse adventure attended me more and more infrequently.  In fact, for the past several years, I hadn’t even thought about those delicious flights of fancy.  I owe part of that to the three horses tromping around in my field.  They have acquainted me with a less romanticized perspective of equine ownership–a perspective integrally tied to my dwindling bank account. 

So I must say that the last thing I expected was to ever again experience the intensity of emotion invested in my prepubescent equine fantasies.  Yet just the other day, out of the blue, my childhood dream unexpectedly popped out of the brush beside the four-wheeler trail just a stone’s throw from my house.  There she was, wild and white, with ears perked and nostrils flaring, just like I had seen her in my daydreams.  I went to my knees, gasping with the vivid shock of longing that belted me hard in the solar plexus. 

I cannot describe what the next few minutes were like.  Papa Hemingway would have been able to describe it for you if he were still alive.  Too bad I can’t tell my story to him and let him seize your imagination in that inimitable way of his…

***

He was an old man who walked alone on the trail.  He had gone forty-three years now without glimpsing a wild horse.  For the first thirteen years, a boy had lived inside of him.  But after thirteen years without catching a horse, his parents had told him that he was the worst form of daydreamer, and he had better get on with his life. 

It made the boy in him sad to see the old man return from his walk each day with his dream empty.  The old man would shuffle to the barn and take the soft rope halter down from its rusty nail.  He had braided it when the boy’s hands were still smooth and pink, but it had never been worn.  These days the old man would inspect the halter with deep-creased hands and then hang it back on its nail like a flag of permanent defeat.

The old man was thin and gaunt in the shoulders with deep wrinkles in the front of his shirt where his pecs should have been.  The sodden bulge of a developing paunch strained against the shirt buttons above his belt buckle.  Everything about him seemed old and weary.   The old man knew he was living on borrowed time but his eyes were not ready to give up yet. 

There were a few leaves still hanging from the trees and the urgent wind of Alaska’s autumn made them shiver.  He thrust his fists deep into his pockets and leaned forward into that wind as it came down from the mountains.  He inhaled deeply, taking in the clean early morning smell of frost on dead fireweed stalks.  A rose hip caught his eye.  He felt embarrassed by its shriveled and misshapen tenacity, clinging to its naked branch so long after the first freeze.  He picked up a stick and tried to knock it to the ground, but its stem was anchored deeply among the thorns and refused to surrender its grip.

The stubborn rose hip reminded the old man of himself.   Why should he force it to give up?  He tossed the stick away.  From the patch of low bush cranberries where it landed four spruce chickens whirred up one after another into his face almost.  Then they veered sharply away to land in a cluster of black spruce.  From their perch they peered at the old man, heads bobbing at him in silent laughter. 

The old man didn’t blame them.  When you have lived as long as the old man had, you have a lot of fine things you can remember.  When you think back over a cup of hot coffee on the things you have loved in life, your memories should bring you pleasure.  Old men should be content with that.  But all the memories that came dancing out of the crackling flames of his wood stove at the end of the day were not enough.  He could not expect the mocking spruce grouse to understand why he could not contentedly fade away like everybody seemed to expect.  He didn’t understand it himself.  But the boy inside him knew.  He was made to catch and befriend a wild horse.  He needed that memory.  That need kept him alive.

He pushed his fists back into his pockets and began to work his way down the trail, humming the theme from “Hidalgo”.  The sun, rising thinly from behind the low mountains to the east, cast tree shadows like groping fingers against the frosted ground.  In the fall the frost was always there and he did not give it any notice.  Between the shadows the sun was warming the frost into fading tendrils of mist.  Small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers.  Fifty yards ahead something moved in the brush.  Then it stepped out onto the path.  The old man stopped in mid-stride.  There were two of them.  A big brown one and a small white one.  The old man went to his knees, gasping as the vivid shock of longing struck his stomach like a hard-fisted right hook. 

When he could breathe again, the old man eased to his feet delicately and softly, and his left hand slowly began to unclasp the buckle from beneath the bulge of his paunch.  He wished he had the bridle that hung in the barn on the rusty nail, but it was too far.  There was no time.  A belt would have to do. 

The mare swung her head around to stare at him.  The wind had backed into a little breeze that was blowing his scent away from her so that she was trying to identify him by sight.  He stood still to let her look and he took a good look at her.  He could see her long face tapering the wrong direction to a nose like a boxing glove.  Gaping nostrils drooped over her front lip.  She seemed to be made up of random parts of other animals.  She had the beard of a goat, the legs of an arthritic giraffe and the shoulder hump of a grizzly bear.  The old man couldn’t tell if she had any tail at all.  The ears that were perked in his direction belonged to a mule.  She was an exceptionally ugly horse and clearly her filly had inherited the same mismatched features.  Any decent horse breeder would have shot them both on sight to prevent them from infecting his stock. 

Yet it was just that outcast quality that stoked the fires of the old man’s boyhood fantasies.  He would befriend this ugly little white filly who had been so misunderstood and rejected.  Their souls would be joined in a mystic union of mutual respect and eternal friendship.  The white filly’s mule ears were perked and her nostrils flared just like the boy inside him had seen in his daydreams.  He had almost forgotten how much the dream could hurt.  A chill still hung in the air but the old man felt the sweat trickle down the back of his neck.

“Little white filly,” he said aloud.  “I am going to catch you.  I am going to catch you or die trying.”

He shouldn’t have spoken.  The mare flicked her ears twice and moved away across the road in a rollicking canter that was deceptively fast for such a comical gait.  The filly went along, pressed against her left flank.  The old man froze and held his breath.  In the ditch on the other side of the road the horses stopped again.  The old man exhaled softly with relief and scolded himself.  Think of what you are doing.  You must do nothing stupid.  I wish I was a boy again, he thought.  But you aren’t a boy.  You are just an old man with a belt and it is up to you.

The mare was looking in his direction again.  The old man’s thighs were cramping and his poised hand had begun to quiver with fatigue.  He looked at his hand in disgust.   What kind of a hand is that?  He willed it to stop quivering.  Cramp if you must.  Make yourself into a claw.  It will do you no good.  You will remain motionless until I am dead if I ask you to.  A raven came from somewhere behind him, tacking sideways in the wind.  The old man could see that the bird was very tired.  The raven settled in the ditch between the old man and the horses and began to strut back and forth, plumping his feathers.  That seemed to comfort the mare.  She abruptly flicked her ears again and began stripping the bark from a willow sapling.  The white filly dropped her head and nibbled at something on the ground. 

“That’s it”, the old man smiled to himself.  “Keep eating.  Don’t be shy, horses.  Doesn’t that taste lovely?  Eat it up now. ” He dropped to his hands and knees.  The high shoulder of the road rose up to hide him from the suspicious mare.  Steadily, the old man began to crawl, ignoring the rocks that tore his hands and bruised his knees.  When he had reached the spot where the horses had crossed the road he raised himself up slowly and steadily. 

The horses were just across the pavement from him now.  Their rumps were toward him and now he could clearly see that they had no tails worth mentioning.  Someone had trimmed them back until they resembled a Rottweiler’s tail.  In fact their manes were gone too.  Such human cruelty nauseated the old man.  Once he caught the filly he could fix that. With enough love and oats and time the hair would certainly grow back. 

He felt a surge of delight to be so close to his dream.  For a moment he saw himself sitting on the filly’s back smacking that white rump with a cowboy hat, but he knew she would not let him do that.  Not yet.  I must convince her, he thought.  I must never let her learn her strength nor what she could do if she took a dislike to me.  He knew that it would be hard to sneak up on her.  He would only have one chance.  The old man fed the end of the belt through the buckle to form a noose.  He let it slide, controlling the buckle with his forefinger and thumb until he had enough of a loop to throw over her head when the right instant arose. 

The old man crouched to make himself as small as possible.  He started to work his way across the road.  It was easy to tiptoe quietly on the pavement, but when his feet crunched into the gravel shoulder the mare’s head swung around.  Her ears probed and her nostrils quivered as she searched for him.  The old man was off-balance and felt himself tottering.  He had no choice but to shift his footing.  In that moment, the mare licked her lips and the hair rose along the ridge of her grizzly hump.  Then the mule ears flattened against her skull and she came at him with a rush.  The filly bawled and scooted into the brush.

The old man saw the mare rearing above him, hooves flailing.  In moments like that it is curious how a man’s mind works.  The thing that he noticed was that her unshod hooves were in bad shape.  The bottoms were deeply split all the way up to the fetlock.  He didn’t have time to notice any more details.  The hooves were coming down toward him then.  He rolled beneath her belly, aiming for the gap between her hind legs.  That was a mistake.  The hind legs danced upon him with numbing blows to his ribcage and neck.    The old man kept rolling.  He had never before seen a horse that could kick all four directions at once.  It was impossible to escape her fury.

The old man grew desperate.  At this rate he would never be able to catch the white filly.  Just then both of the mare’s rear hooves connected with his paunch.  The impact lifted him clear of the ground and he closed his eyes against the pain as he tacked in the wind like the raven had done.  He seemed to spin slowly through the air.  Now she has beaten me, he thought.  I am too old to catch wild fillies.  But I will not give up as long as I have legs to run and arms to cast a belt noose.  He had let go of the belt, though.  As it turned out, he did not need it.  He opened his eyes very wide as he felt a tremendous impact between his legs.  It was the white filly.  The old man had landed on her back.

The filly seemed to be as startled as he was.  With a braying sort of bleat she started to run.  The old man wrapped his arms around her neck and wove his fingers tightly into her dense white coat.  She moved like a runaway rollercoaster, scraping the old man against birch trunks and shredding him through willow thickets.  Still he hung on with teeth gritted, flopping against her hump.  His face cracked into the back of her skull.  He felt the cartilage sever in the bridge of his nose.  The white of the filly’s neck was suddenly covered with a rush of crimson.  A pink cloud seemed to pass before his eyes.  The cloud was full of blinking spots.  He felt something pluck at his collar.  Then the daylight contracted into a bright white dot and went out.

He dreamed of vast herds of wild Lipizzaners thundering across the tundra.  It was the time of their mating and they leaped high into the air and twirled in an awesome spectacle of synchronized dressage.  Then he dreamed that he danced with them under the northern lights and the herd was nuzzling him and nickering soft greetings. 

He woke with a jerk.  The jerk was his neighbor who prodded him and asked if he was all right and why was he dangling all bloodied from a birch branch by his shirt collar.  The old man felt faint and sick and could not see well.  But he kicked out at his neighbor and the motion caused him to spin in a little circle.  The spin twisted his collar onto the birch branch until he began to strangle and the pink cloud came back.  The neighbor cut him down just before the bright white dot went out.

“Don’t sit up,” the neighbor said.  He handed the old man a canteen.   

The old man took it and drank from it.

“She beat me,” he said.  “She truly beat me.”

“That was a big moose.  I saw her.  The albino calf too.”

The old man knew that the neighbor would not understand.  He spat something strange and it felt like something in his chest was broken.  He also realized that the boy inside him was dead.  The boy’s dream was dead too.

“Can you help me back to my house?” he asked the neighbor.   “I need a clean shirt and something to eat.”

Ten minutes later, in his house the old man was sleeping again.  He was sleeping on his face and the neighbor was sitting by him watching him.  The old man was dreaming of butchering horses.