March 15th marked the 192nd anniversary of Maine statehood — the perfect day to watch “The Mist” according to The League of Dead Films. For those who haven’t seen it, the film adapts a Stephen King story about an incursion of extra-dimensional beasties into Maine. The major set of the film is a supermarket, where survivors try to make sense of the peril and keep safe. Of course they also split into contentious factions, because that’s what always happens when the beasties come.
For me, the date meant that I’d finally be buying a new pair of boots. Not a very momentous event but a much-needed one. I had passed on several opportunities to perform the errand in a timely manner, and my boots had both split at the seams. The lining still held them together, so I could have worn them for another few weeks. However, the advent of the rainy season made for a soggy and potentially malodorous prospect.
Understand, it wasn’t cheapness that kept me wearing broken boots. The driving force, as in so much of my life, was routine. In high school a friend called me a nervous cat. He meant my general level of paranoia and anxiety, but I also rely on a high degree of predictability in my daily life. Like a nervous cat, when confronted with stimuli outside of the ordinary, my instinct is to retreat for safety.
Sadly, I do not fit underneath the sofa.
Thursday produced my best prospect for boot shopping; Wendi taught drawing that night, so we drove separately. I had both motive and opportunity, and so after work I drove to the east side of town with the intention of re-booting my feet.
A few drops of rain had fallen as I’d walked to the parking lot, and as I inched through downtown traffic tornado sirens went off. The sky grew dark. I kept driving toward the store. I’ve lived in this area for over 20 years. Tornado sirens wail all the time, rarely amounting to more than a stiff breeze and a little rain. Now and then, somewhere south or east of us, someone loses a shed. So there wasn’t much more on my mind than parking as close to the store as possible to minimize dampness.
Having accomplished that, I went into the shoe warehouse and quickly found the men’s shoe ghetto. It truly was a warehouse, with a metal ceiling at least 40 feet high and aisle upon aisle of goods. The stacks made little use of the space, being about four feet tall, but there were many long rows of shoes and boots for woman and children. To the left lurked a couple of rows for men, filled with an amazing variety of shoes that basically looked the same.
A quick check verified that the only boots currently offered were for hiking. There’s nothing wrong with a good pair of hiking boots, and I’ve worn a pair or two in my time, but I can’t handle laces. I’ve tried double knots, treble knots, special knot clasps; there is no power on this Earth that can make my shoes stay tied for more than an hour. It’s an odd super power, but if the need arises for my shoes to come untied to save the world I’ll answer the call. Until then, no laces.
I headed to the back of the warehouse, where the discontinued stock sat in quiet desperation. A scan for the shelves centered around my shoe size narrowed the selection, and I was just about to test some boots for fit when a saleswoman approached.
“Excuse me, sir. You’ll need to go back by the restrooms. There’s a tornado warning.”
I went meekly in the direction she’d indicated, and by the time that I thought to bring the boots with me I was trapped in the relative safety of the potty zone. Preventing me from leaving was the assumed authority of the shift manager, a woman barely over half my age and certainly under half my weight. Shoe-changing benches were brought in, and having been raised on syndicated episodes of “Leave It to Beaver” I held back so the women and children could claim them all. I saw another man standing down the hall, and we acknowledged each other somberly.
The staff sat on the floor near the door to the store proper. I hung out there myself so that I could keep on eye on the storm through the distant windows. It was dark, but not more so than I’d expect during an evening rainstorm.
At this point most of us felt that this was all a bit silly. We joked about getting a free car wash and traded stories of tornado preparedness lessons from grade school. One customer asked the manager at some length about the prospects for release. She was tall, lean, and wore a track suit, so my money was on her if she decided to make a break for it. Instead she sat just outside the safe area in mild protest.
For the moment, boredom and restlessness predominated. Also hunger, as the warning had preempted the dinner break of one saleswoman. Almost everybody pulled out cellphones or iPhones or Blackberries or tricorders of one brand or another, and they looked up the weather and issued reassuring reports that this would blow over quickly.
I didn’t join them, because I’d left everything in my car. My phone was safely tucked into its pocket on my backpack. I was stuck by these bathrooms with no way of telling Wendi what had happened or of playing spider solitaire.
When the downpour came so did relief. Here at last was the storm, which would produce some heavy rain for a few minutes before heading for Detroit. We’d been hanging out in the back for about a half an hour, and the warning would expire in fifteen minutes. The worst was over.
Then the storm revved up. Thunder sounded overhead, and the windows at the front of the warehouse bulged. An employee heard something in the stockroom. She and the manager checked it out but did not share their findings. Hail pounded the roof, filling the store with the sound of a drum corp striking their rims. The employee who’d sent me back here retreated to the women’s restroom. The manager followed her.
Now we could sneak out, but the desire had left us. The woman in the track suit pulled back to the doorway. All of the idle conversations stopped as we listened to the weather lash at our shelter. Reports came in of tornado damage to the northwest of town. One was sighted to the southwest. The warning was extended by another half hour.
I really began to wish for my phone. We live to the west, between the touchdown and the sighting. If I could reach our answering machine, I’d know that our house and pets were probably okay. I knew that Wendi would never knowingly head out into tornado weather — her instinct for survival is much stronger than my own — but I wanted to let her know that I was safe. Everyone around me had already made all their calls.
Something landed on the carpet about six feet from our doorway. A saleswoman cautiously left the safe area to investigate. She picked it up and stared at it, then tossed it into a nearby trash basket.
“Hail,” she explained on her return.
Several of us stared dumbly at the high ceiling. How had a single hailstone entered the store? There was no telltale drip from a hole in the roof.
Plap. There was another one, landing in the same spot.
Over the past few weeks I’ve heard a number of plausible theories about ventilation shafts and bouncing hailstones, but none of these very wise and rational people were in that hallway watching hail sporadically land between the rows of shoes. I was there, and I know that it was an extra-dimensional spider messing with our heads.
Fortunately, the storm passed and the dimensional rift closed before the beasties finished playing and started in on the killing and consuming. The warning ended, and we filtered out of the back hall and dispersed into the warehouse floor. I settled on a pair of half-boots, and the clerk gave me an additional 10% off for surviving the non-incident.
With the perspective granted by the intervening weeks, I’m grateful that nothing happened. It’s not as though I had wanted a tornado to toss us with the shoes like a salad, or be torn into digestible pieces by extra-dimensional horrors; it’s just that as a group we were completely unprepared to deal with a crisis.
There we were — a collection of 20-some people, most of whom were strangers. We represented a reasonable spectrum of ages and a minimum of three religions and four ethnicities. For an hour and a half we shared a confined space during an emergency under the direction of a young store manager with no actual authority over us or demonstrable experience. There were questions, but nobody rebelled. Everyone simply waited, without starting any trouble or creating divisions.
With that cooperative attitude, how could we have hoped to weather an actual emergency?

Spider Farm

I don’t remember when I began to fear spiders. I can remember playing with cellar spiders and holding them in my hands, but at some point I became convinced that they were plotting my death. My mother blames Scooby Doo cartoons, with their spider webs hanging over everything. I’ve never been the manly sort, but I refuse to believe that anything the Scoobies encountered ever frightened me.
I have theories of my own: the scene in “The Incredible Shrinking Man” where Grant Williams fights a spider over some cake; the thought of brainless, instinctual hunters; the obvious fact that spiders are downright terrifying.
The actual source of my fear is purely academic. When I see a spider on my steering wheel, I don’t think “My, my. An arachnid! I wonder if mayhap the giant cave spider episode of ‘Gilligan’s Island’ planted the seed of unease that has grown into my current pants-shitting terror.” Rather, I think “AAAAAAAGH!” and try to avoid crashing while I crawl into the back seat.
Oddly, tarantulas don’t inspire the same fear in me. I’m sure one would scare me if it appeared on my steering wheel, but no more so than would anything else — say a koala bear or a presidential candidate. I made a study of tarantulas when I designed a crochet pattern for the Mexican Red-knee species, and I don’t consider them to be spiders anymore. For them, I have only the wariness I feel of any non-domesticated fangy creature.
An ordinary house spider, though — clearly part of the vast anti-hominid conspiracy.
One night when I was very young, I awoke to find myself surrounded by dense webbing. I wasn’t certain what would happen if I touched it, largely because the phrase “immediate desiccation” resided outside of my vocabulary, but I knew that I shouldn’t move. Looking to my left, I saw something incredible. There was a clear path to the door! It wasn’t very high, but I could make it if I was careful. I slid gingerly out of bed and crawled slowly out of my bedroom. Then I ran to my parents for help.
My mom was less than sympathetic to my plight when no webbing was evident in my room.
Clearly, I’d been set up. But how? By whom? The answers came quickly. As I glared sullenly at the ceiling I caught movement in the corner of my room, where the walls before and to the right of my bed met the ceiling. A light twinkled there, dim but observable in the darkness. At once I realized that the spiders had a holographic projector. Jerks!
Those deceptive spiders got left behind during the first of many moves in my childhood, and I’ve not encountered any with that mastery of technology since. They appear to be local to Kent County, Michigan. If you’re in that region and experience horrific visions in your bedroom at night, you should check the corners of your bedroom ceiling. Or pull the mask off of old man Jenkins.
What worries me more than spiders with technology are social spiders. Working alone, even the venomous ones are at a disadvantage against humans. But a group of spiders that will not attack each other can even take out William Shatner — at least until his character is miraculously resurrected for the final reveal.
In Australia a few weeks ago, wolf spiders escaped rising floodwaters and took over nearby farmland. Pictures showed webs covering everything; in one a dog wandered through tall grass under a canopy of webbing. None showed any victims drained of all body fluids, but when ‘Australia’ and ‘spiders’ share a sentence I’m pretty sure that those are a given.
Back in 2007, conditions at a Lake Tawakoni State Park in Texas created an overabundance of insects. Food was so plentiful that the spiders didn’t have to compete for resources. Quite the opposite, their response was to work together and share in the bounty! This incident involved spiders of different species, although the majority seemed to be Long-jawed Orb Weavers. The pictures showed white curtains wrapping and connecting trees. White curtains, filled with hungry, cooperative death machines.
John Wyndham, most famous for the novels that “The Day of the Triffids” and “The Village of the Damned” were based on, left behind an early draft of a book upon his death. Called Web, it told of an island where a group of idealistic settlers encounter a species of spider that form battalions and swarm like army ants. The infested scenery Wyndham describes matches precisely the pictures from Texas.
If that’s not enough to remove arachnophobia as an official diagnosis of mental disturbance, consider the series “The Future is Wild”. Aired in 2002, the show explored evolutionary possibilities put forth by a team of scientists that included mostly biologists, botanists, geologists, and zoologists. Different landscapes in one of three future eras were examined each episode, with descriptions of a few potential species that would be suitable to the environment.
Episode 9, “The Great Plateau”, takes place 100 million years in the future and focuses on the region where Australia, Japan, and Kamchatka have collided. Here dwell poggles, the cute descendants of hamsters. They are the last mammals on Earth(!), and they eat seeds in tunnels along the cliff tops. How do they get the seeds? Well, a community of silver spiders collects them from the wind with giant webs. The seeds are provided to the poggles, and if once in a while a poggle becomes spider food, that’s just the rent.
That’s right. Spiders. Farming mammals. In Australia.
Now if only I could make my fear of telephones seem that reasonable.

Dream Job

The best dream that I can remember was about work. A best dream could be a great many things — fanciful, satisfying, revelatory — but for me it displayed my work situation with refreshingly blatant imagery.
At the time, I was working at a book store on campus. This was my first job after college, and it was sobering. A liberal arts degree had earned me nothing more than minimum wage employment ringing up text books and crap branded with the logos of the university and its sports teams. My prospects were minimal, and I pinned all of my hopes on the novel I was writing.
Incidentally, that is precisely what rendered the manuscript a unsalvageable mess. Conceived and started in high school, it contained ten years worth of ideas — most of which clashed like lions and hyenas. Like most aspiring writers I wrote as though I had only one chance, so I burdened my poor silly plot with every “deep thought” that occurred to me.
I wrote most of the first completed draft at my cash register. I’d purchase a university branded notebook with my employee discount and keep it on a small ledge on my register until it was filled. Customers generally came in waves, so I could spend nice blocks of time writing — when I wasn’t chatting idly about nonsense with coworkers. (One of whom remains a good friend some 20 years later.)
The register rested on a flimsy pedestal before me, and to my side was a narrow counter made of cheap plywood. Full-timers stood for roughly eight hours on thin carpet mats that failed to soften the ancient hardwood floor. Our relief from this was taking shifts in the greeter pen. There we sat on a broken stool and pleaded with customers to leave their bags in coin-return lockers.
We caught no end of hell for those coin-return lockers. They were individually labelled as being coin-return, and we always referred to them as such, but the word “return” never registered on a portion of customers who would berate us for profiting off of returning coins. To be fair, since few patrons ever seemed to notice that their quarter had been refunded, we grazed at the lockers to pick up “tips”.
Around this time, the news media picked up the word “McJob” to refer to low pay, no future jobs. There was little question among the cashiers that this described our lot. We had escaped the grease, but in return we had to deal with irate customers. There weren’t many — the majority of folk simply wanted to pay and escape before having to acknowledge us — but the enraged customers left ugly stains on our memories.
They mostly held us personally responsible for the high prices of the text books. Not the publishers, not the store — the cashiers. These customers seemed to believe that if they revealed that they were on to our scheme we’d have to cut them a discount. It’s notable that they didn’t usually want lower prices for everyone else.
The worst were the law experts. They weren’t lawyers, but they gave us to understand that they knew the law and that the law said they didn’t need id to write a check, didn’t need to be the person whose name was on the credit card, and most especially didn’t need a receipt to return sweat pants that had been worn long enough for the color to fade and the logo to disintegrate. To them we were whatever “-ist” they thought would frighten us into risking our jobs by violating store policy.
Being a contrarian, I’d provide them with whatever manager most fit their accusation to resolve the dispute. The racist manager almost always let the customer win, which goes to show that some people are more lazy than hateful.
I reached the nadir of my life as a cashier when the head cashier left. I’d been there a year by then and had been more reliable than many of my fellows. My friend had been there longer, but he wasn’t interested in the position. I figured I had a decent chance.
I didn’t, of course. I was new to the workforce and didn’t know how the advancement game worked, and so I thought I could rest on my proven competence. Meanwhile, an applicant from another department chatted with my boss about recipes. She got the job and left within a year.
It took another 20 years for me to learn how to win over management and get ahead. I’ve never been very good at the soft skills.
Shortly after that let down, the dream came.
In the dream I’m standing at my register, flipping burgers on the counter beside me. There don’t seem to be any order slips, or a prep area, but the grill is filled to capacity. Customers stretch in a line back to the staircase that divides the store in two. People mill between my station and the charge desk, which stands behind the registers as the last line of defense.
As I work the grill my weight shifts, and the thin scraps of carpet squish beneath my feet. Confused, I look down. There’s a quarter of an inch of water on the plain wood floor, flowing back and forth as the store gently rocks from side to side.
More water pours in from the doorway. No one else appears to notice, but I’m growing alarmed. I abandon my station and head outside to investigate.
The store rests on the deck of a large ship, but I knew this. I also know that the ship is the bright new star of the line, The Titanic. Now that I’m on the deck of The Titanic and can see the water lapping over the bow, I know that it’s sinking.
The rest of the dream is a confusion of trying alternately to warn everybody and to find a suitable place to empty my bladder. I wake up and staggered for the bathroom on legs that still thought I was at sea.
This was not a subtle message from my subconscious, but after a chuckle over its accurate portrayal of my mood I ignored it. Like one of the customers in the dream, I simply didn’t want to know that I needed a lifeboat.

Monkees Do

I’ve been listening to The Monkees since Davy Jones died at the end of February, and I am sad to report that I generally didn’t care for the songs on which he sang lead. Most of the songs that everyone’s mentioned over the last few weeks were sung by Micky Dolenz: “I’m a Believer”, “Last Train To Clarksville”, “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”.

A lot of celebrities die every year; talented people whose work has touched lives. Mere weeks before Jones’s death, Whitney Houston died tragically young. People remember their work and what it meant to them, and they mourn publicly — sometimes extravagantly, as mourning is a jagged emotion. Some people make juvenile remarks to prove how little they’re affected.

Mostly I feel sorrow for those left behind, and I return to the pressing concerns of my life. If I remember the celebrity fondly, I make a mental note to revisit their work. If the celebrity helped me see life differently, I actually do pull their output out of my stash and give it another watch, read, or listen.

I’ve been listening to The Monkees.

The nature of the band, and their musical frustrations, are well-documented. Thrown together and told what instruments to play despite their actual proficiencies, being allowed only to sing on their own recordings at first, having no input on the track lists: they were a band held at the will of their handlers.

That this treatment was typical of the music industry at large is beside the current point. What matters to me is how The Monkees reacted to the aggravation and absurdity of their situation; and while my natural proclivities tend toward the rebellion most often associated with Mike Nesmith or even Peter Tork (the first to actually leave the group), I aspire to the sort of irrationality judo exemplified by Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz in “Gonna Buy Me A Dog”.

Arguably the stupidest song ever foisted on the band, “Gonna Buy Me A Dog” tells the supposedly amusing tale of a man seeking to replace his lost love with a dog. The lyrics take this clunky conceit straight to the scrapyard with verses like “She used to bring me my newspaper / ‘Cause she knew where it was at / She used to keep me so contented / But I can teach a dog to do that”. Either the singer is extremely easy to please or his plans for the dog verge on the unspeakable.

I don’t know the story of the recording of this travesty, but over the years I’ve built up a story to explain the outcome of the session.

The Entirely Fictitious and Not At All True History of “Gonna Buy Me A Dog”

It starts with Micky Dolenz being steered into the recording booth with the lyrics to a stupid, stupid song. He can’t take it seriously, and every take shows less life than its predecessor until they’re finally dead on arrival.

The producers panic. They need this song! (This part of my invented history is unsettled. I often decide that the producers’ families are held hostage by the songwriters, but as the song was both written and produced by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart that seems really strange. Maybe they each held the other’s family so neither could relent.) Something needs to be done to generate a usable vocal track.

An assistant engineer is sent to the hallway. He breaks the glass on a little cubby where Davy Jones is kept for just such emergencies. Davy is hurriedly deployed to the booth, and the door is locked. Micky eyes Davy warily as the tambourine man picks up the lyric sheet. Davy reads it thoughtful, then sets it down gently.

“It’s not so bad,” he lies. “Let’s give it a try.”

Micky emits a sound that’s two parts scream, and one part defeat. Then he takes a deep breath and nods.

“Yeah. Okay, Davy.”

They put on their headphones, and the music starts. Micky begins to sing, and while he makes two false starts it’s better than before. Then Davy starts in, cracking stupid jokes, making faces — doing his best to make Micky lose it. The mood shifts. Suddenly they’re having fun trying to just get through the take. Micky loses his place, jokes fall flat, their timing is shot to hell, and it’s wonderful. All of the frustration and exhaustion pours out into this ridiculous mess of a song, and the humanity behind the pre-fabricated band stands revealed. Boyce and Hart congratulate themselves and let our boys out of the recording booth. Order has been restored.

Then Davy’s put back in his little room to await the next crisis.

That’s not even remotely what happened, of course. There’s evidence within the song itself that many of the jokes and silly business were planned, just as it’s clear that Micky and Davy flubbed the majority of them. With a band that was partly fictional to begin with, perception is reality; the reality is that a terrible song became a silly track that made fun of itself.

The Monkees had some brilliant songs, but the greatness of the group lies in “Gonna Buy Me A Dog”. They were able to do the job, despite everything, with liveliness and determination. To me, Davy Jones embodied that spirit — the willingness to soldier through.

I think of the scene in Head where Davy enters an empty soundstage and starts performing in the midst of cavernous silence. It didn’t matter if there was no audience; there was a stage, and that demanded he give his all.

That’s a professional. That’s who we lost. The fact that it was all for show is exactly the point.

It’s Good to be Lucky

We’re told that a good goal is one that is achievable. My dog had a single goal, and he achieved it at a fairly young age.

Lucky was an excitable yellow and white mutt who may have had some Collie in his heritage, particularly in his nose. His snout was about five or six inches long, which gave him a much more impressive jaw than that of our sour old miniature poodle.

I used to play “jaws” with him. He’d lie on his back, for reasons he never explained, and his upper lip would hang slightly to reveal his front teeth. The objective of jaws was to tap his teeth and pull my finger away before he bit it off. I always won, and his mouth would snap shut with a clapping noise that delighted me. Not a very good game perhaps, but it entertained us well enough.

His favorite game though was “git ‘im”. This was played during the brief period that we lived on the “less good” end of the street. Our back yard was fenced, and the door to it was in an odd room that only seemed to exist to join the garage to the house. There was a large tree about 20 feet straight out from the back door, just near the picket fence. The most crucial element of the game was “‘im”, the squirrel. I think of it as the same squirrel, waiting for the door to open to try its luck for one more day.

Certainly the sameness of the game play bordered on ritual. Lucky would fidget at the door; I would rev him up, asking “Ready? Ready?”; when I deemed him to be at maximum throttle, I’d fling open the door and urge “Git ‘im”; and within a few seconds he’d be barking and dancing at the base of the tree as the squirrel raced upward to safety. This was a good game that left Lucky well satisfied, and occasionally muddy.

Well satisfied, but not completely satisfied. Lucky lived for one objective: to fill his mouth with squirrel. If he could close his teeth on that squirrel just once, he could die fulfilled. Maybe on the spot.

It came to pass, one fine afternoon when he was about three years old, that Lucky met his goal. Everything began as usual, following established procedure. I wound him up, opened the door, and snarled “Get ‘im!” Lucky tore outside, shredding the turf between the house and the tree. The squirrel shat itself (presumably) and wound its way up the trunk… and then improbability teamed up with inevitability, and Lucky got, well, lucky.

The squirrel slipped. It slipped and fell — directly into Lucky’s mouth.

This is a dog that chewed shoes with the feet still in them. He shook his toys until their hypothetical necks were broken in all of the breakable places. The life expectancy of the squirrel was now a span of time that approached 0 seconds but did not reach it. To be honest, I was shocked. As were the squirrel and, surprisingly, the dog.

None of us moved. For a few protracted seconds, potentials worked out which would triumph.

The squirrel was first to react. Realizing that the jaws of death had not yet closed, it carefully slipped to the ground. It looked up at Lucky, still frozen in confusion, then bolted up the tree again.

With events returned to a familiar course, Lucky came alive. He barked and danced around the tree, tearing up the sod; then he trotted off contentedly to do his business.

He never had a better day.

Would Lucky have been happier if he’d killed the squirrel? Maybe. Certainly not the next day, or the day after that, continuing until a new squirrel moved in to the yard. His goal was simple: catch the squirrel.

End of story, it was a good goal.