Thursday, January 17, 2019

Things That Go Bump In The Night

This morning, I woke up to the good news that an "IMPENDING GALACTIC CRASH COULD RIP OPEN THE BLACK HOLE AT THE MILKY WAY'S CENTER!"  Oh, great.  I suppose that means the Red Sox game will get cancelled that day. This important information arrived unsolicited on my iPad courtesy of Live Science, which could either be a panel of top scientists operating out of a superlab in Vienna or some disturbed lunatic shuffling around a goat farm in Bangladesh.  The Internet is notorious for letting people into the pressbox without credentials.  Either way, I give the prediction about a .0001 percent chance of being right.  Alleged authorities have to pipe up about some crackpot dilemma every so often to keep the funding train on the tracks.  Anyway, this critical event is scheduled for two billion years from now so I’m not sure there will be anyone except Keith Richards around to care.

 When we were kids, we didn’t have to worry about any of this stuff.  All we had was The Bogeyman, Dracula, the Werewolf, a few mummies and Frankenstein, and we could outrun those last two.  We were a lot more concerned with The Devil, a devious character the nuns claimed was always nipping at our heels.  The Devil ran an amusement park called Hell, rife with fire and brimstone, as illustrated by the sadistic artists who compiled the Catholic catechisms.  (I always thought I could tolerate Hell if they would just let me have shoes.)  The Catholic kids spent much of their time trying to figure out how to have a good time in this life without winding up in Satan’s oven.  If any of my departed friends escaped, they haven’t let me know yet.

Then, in 1951 when I was ten years old, a movie called The Thing came out.  I went to see it with my friend Paul Carroll, who was eight and so scared he stayed under his seat for the last third of the movie.  The thing about The Thing was they would never let you see him, merely lead you time and again to the precipice.  And the locale for the film was an isolated research facility at the North Pole, where it was always dark.
The Thing arrived on Earth via a spaceship which crashed near the research station ages ago and was buried under tons of ice and snow before being somehow discovered by one of the scientists.  The crew from the facility moseyed out, peered through the ice and decided to stand at the perimeter of the buried spaceship, eventually forming a gigantic circle.  Voila!---the first flying saucer in our experience.  We had heard vague tales of the critters but The Thing made them real.  We began looking around wide-eyed after that.

Unidentified Flying Objects

Young boys of that era may not have been inclined to do research on the locations of our nation’s state capitols or the main battles of the War of 1812 but they were oddly curious to discover how many home runs Al Zarilla Williams hit in 1949 (10), whether Superman ever used his X-Ray Vision to look through Lois Lane’s underwear (wouldn’t you?) and what was up with those flying saucers.

We didn’t know it at the time, but on June 24, 1947 a man named Kenneth Arnold was merrily piloting his private plane through the skies of Washington state when what to his wondering eyes should appear but a string of nine shiny objects flying past Mount Ranier at speeds of roughly 1200 miles per hour.  This sort of thing didn’t happen every day so Kenneth perked up at the extravagance of it all and reported in to whomever you tell about these things.  This was the first significant UFO sighting in the United States, but far from the last.

For three weeks after Arnold’s experience, the American press was full of saucer sightings.  In 1948, the U.S. Air Force began an investigation of UFO sightings called Project Sign, which was succeeded by the aptly named Project Grudge and finally by the famous Project Blue Book in 1952.  Blue Book, based at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio carried on from ‘52 to 1969, compiling reports of more than 12,000 sightings or events, each of which was ultimately classified as (1) “identified”---with a known astronomical, atmospheric or artificial phenomenon, or (2) “unidentified”---a mere 6% of the total, cases for which there was insufficient information to make a determination.  Some of the Air Force explanations were hilarious…weather balloons travelling at 800 mph, the planet Venus making abrupt right-angle turns.  Apparently, it was easier for the AF to merely dismiss UFOs than to actually deal with them.  The adults in the room pooh-poohed flying saucers but us kids were outraged.  How could these boneheads spit in the face of such overwhelming evidence?  For some of us, it was the first time we wondered about the inclinations of authority.  We read mountains of books on the subject and talked of joining the no-nonsense National Investigations Committee On Aerial Phenomena, a sober forum for UFO reporting, inquiry, investigation and speculation.  Trouble was, we had no physical evidence, no smoking gun, no DNA.  Or did we?

Roswell And Beyond 

On July 7, 1947, about 75 miles north of the town of Roswell, New Mexico, ranch worker William Brazel ran across some odd debris.  He gathered up some of the stuff and took it to Sheriff George Wilcox in town.  The sheriff immediately reported the find to the nearby USAAF base at Roswell, which dispatched agents to the location of the debris.  On July 8, the Roswell Army Air Field issued a press release stating that a “flying disk” had crashed on a ranch near Roswell during a powerful storm.  Later that day, as government scientists began arriving in the area, the story began to change.  Reporters were told that one of those ubiquitous weather balloons had crashed again.  The Air Force trotted out “debris from the crash area,” which included mere aluminum foil, rubber and wood.  Us kids knew better.  Another coverup, we smirked.  Won’t this gullible public ever learn?

In 1989, former Roswell mortician Glenn Dennis claimed that a friend who had worked as a nurse at the Roswell Army Air Field had accidentally walked into an examination room where doctors were bent over the bodies of three odd creatures resembling humans but with smaller bodies, spindly arms and very large bald heads.  Doggone it, if Glenn’s friend just had an iPhone we’d be sitting pretty right

Roswell, itself, was the ultimate beneficiary, of course.  The town has become general headquarters for UFO enthusiasts, conspiracy theory buffs and, alas, general wackos.  Two years ago, to mark the 70th birthday of the event, 38,000 people turned up from all over the world.  A few of them went out to William Brazel’s old ranch to sniff around, probably ex-kids like us from back in the day, still hoping.

On August 25, 1951, three science professors from Texas Tech were cruising around Lubbock when they were stunned to see a semicircle of lights flying above them at a high speed.  They weren’t the only ones.  For the next few days, dozens of reports poured in from all over town.  Tech freshman Carl Hart Jr. managed to get a few pictures of the so-called Lubbock Lights, which were published in newspapers across the country as well as LIFE magazine.  Project Blue Book, ever at the ready, charged into town, investigated the events and decided the lights were birds reflecting the luminescence from the town’s new street lights.  Citizens who had seen the phenomena doubled over in laughter at this conclusion.  “Fastest damn birds in the universe!” one of them guffawed.

In the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, one of the preeminent scenes features a UFO disrupting the electronics of a car, the inspiration for which came from a 1957 incident in Levelland, Texas, where dozens of people experienced the same problem.  They all attributed the shenanigans to “a rocket” or “strange lights in the sky.”  The local police saw the same lights as they investigated the reports.  “Au contraire!” said those killjoys from Project Blue Book, who called the episode “an electrical storm with ball lightning.”  Levelland meteorologists insisted there were no thunderstorms on the night in question.

Maybe They Were Looking For Bruce

Take it from us, motorists on the New Jersey Turnpike will not slow down for anything short of a bridge washout, but there they were on July 14, 2001, pulling off to the side of the road to look at the sky.  For around 15 minutes just after midnight, an array of lights flying in V-formation soared over the Arthur Kill Waterway between Staten Island, New York and Carteret, New Jersey.  Lt. Daniel Tarrant of the Carteret Police Department was one of the witnesses, as were other metro-area residents on the Throg's Neck Bridge on Long Island to Fort Lee, N.J. near the George Washington Bridge.  Local air-traffic controllers claimed there were no passenger airplanes, military jets or space flights which could have caused the mysterious lights.

On November 14, 2004, the aircraft carrier USS Princeton noted an unknown craft on radar 100 miles off the coast of San Diego.  For two weeks, the crew tracked unknown objects which appeared at 80,000 feet and then plummeted to hover right above the Pacific Ocean.  When two FA-18F fighter jets from the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz arrived in the area, they first saw what appeared to be churning, boiling water in an oval shape underneath the surface.  A few moments later, a white Tic Tac-shaped object appeared above the water.  It had no visible markings to indicate an engine and no wings or windows.  Infrared monitors revealed no exhaust.  Commander David Fravor and Lt. Commander Jim Slaight of Strike Fighter Squadron 41 attempted to intercept the craft but it zipped away, suddenly appearing on radar 60 miles in the distance.  It moved at three times the speed of sound and twice the speed of the fighter jets.

Or Hef….

On November 7, 2006, Flight 446 was getting ready to fly to North Carolina from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport when a United Airlines employee on the tarmac noticed a dark grey metallic craft hovering over gate C17.  Twelve other United employees and several witnesses outside the airport saw the same thing around 4:15 in the afternoon.  Witnesses said it hovered for about five minutes before shooting upward, breaking a hole in the clouds large enough for pilots and mechanics to see blue sky.  The news report became the most-read story on the Chicago Tribune’s website to that date and made international news.  The FAA called it a “weather phenomenon” and declined to investigate.

In 2008, dozens of residents of Stephenville, Texas, 100 miles southwest of Dallas, viewed white lights above Highway 67, first in a single horizontal arc and then in parallel vertical lines.  Local pilot Steve Allen estimated that these “strobe lights” spanned about a mile long and a half-mile wide while traveling about 3,000 miles per hour.  This incident was reminiscent of the famous Phoenix Lights sighting of 1997, which was never resolved.

Leaked in 2017 along with the news of the Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program was a video that revealed a rare encounter between an F/A-18 Super Hornet and a UFO.  Seen along the East Coast on a Raytheon Advanced Targeting Forward-Looking Infrared Pod, the craft was similar to one spotted off San Diego in 2004, a fast-moving white oval about 45-feet long without wings or exhaust plume.  The pilots tracked the object at 25,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean as it flew away and simultaneously rotated on its axis just for fun.  Nobody tried to explain this one.

The Return Of Project Blue Book 

Anyone who deigns to think all those kids of yesteryear have lost their fascination with Unidentifiable Flying Objects might want to take a look at the viewer totals for Robert Zemeckis’ new Project Blue Book on the History Channel.  The program drew 35 million viewers for its series premiere, making it the most-watched series premiere of the 2018/19 season to date.  Over all airings, the first PBB episode gathered in 5.2 million total viewers, and that’s on the History Channel folks, not ABC-TV.

The series is based on the true, top-secret Blue Book UFO investigations and related phenomena conducted by the U.S. Air Force from 1952 to 1969.  Dr. J. Allen Hynek, a brilliant astronomer and college professor, was recruited as lead apologist/explainer by the Air Force and did his job as well as could be expected in the face of overwhelming evidence that UFOs were more than weather balloons, flocks of birds or the popular planet Venus.  Eventually, Hynek suspected the truth: the government, totally at sea about the saucers, was trying to dupe the public, and he defected to the other side.

Hynek conducted an informal poll of his astronomer colleagues, not people easily confused by heavenly goings-on.  Of 44 astronomers, five had actually seen aerial objects which they could not account for with established mainstream science.  Most of these astronomers had not shared their accounts for fear of ridicule or damage to their reputations or careers, although one of them, Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of the dwarf planet Pluto, openly discussed his own UFO sightings.

In 1953, J. Allen Hynek wrote an article for the April issue of the Journal of the Optical Society of America titled “Unusual Aerial Phenomena,” which illustrated his shifting opinions.  In it, he said: “Ridicule is not part of the scientific method, and people should not be taught that it is.  The steady flow of reports, often made in concert by reliable observers, raises questions of scientific obligation and responsibility.  Is there…any residue that is worthy of scientific attention?  Or, if there isn’t, does not an obligation exist to say so to the public---not in words of open ridicule but seriously, to keep faith with the trust the public places in science and scientists?”

 Look To The Skies

When we were kids, way before we worried about hipness and sophistication, we made our decisions based on common sense, the preponderance of the evidence.  We loved Ted Williams but it was possible Joe DiMaggio was slightly better.  We’d rather spend our time elsewhere but it was obvious the smarter people finished school.  If you wanted a girl to like you, the best course of action was not to dip her braids in an inkwell.  And if thousands of dependable citizens had personally eyeballed flying saucers, they probably existed.

As time goes by, of course, and nothing untoward happens, the existence of UFOs becomes moot.  If they mind their Ps and Qs and go about their own business like, say, the residents of Hungary, why worry?  And what harm could thay actually do to us that we’re not already doing to ourselves?  Are the flying saucers from another planet?  Probably not.  Do they soar up from under the seas?  That’s a stretch.  Is it possible they come from another dimension?  Maybe, but why visit Montana in the winter?  The best advice we can offer is not to give away all your earthlies and emigrate to a mountaintop waiting for saucery extraterrestrials to take you away from it all.  If you do, that’s where you’ll really find The Truth.

That’s all, folks….

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Good News!


“It will help us every day, it will brighten all the way

If we keep on the sunny side of life.”

---The Carter Family/Ada Blenkhorn

Ada is not telling us we can’t Speak Truth To Power, storm the barricades every so often or throw waterballoons at Ted Yoho, just that we’re better off doing it with a smile on our faces and joy in our hearts.  If the smile looks more like that of The Joker than Mary Poppins, so be it.  Sure, we’re all mired in the dreadful muck of the Trump swamp, but thrashing around in it will only get you deeper.  Better to just float through the quicksand and paddle to shore.

Often, in times like these, it seems there is no escape from Bad News.  The Nude Emperor is running amuck, dropping bombs in Yugoslavia, dropping trou in Times Square, cuddling up with the Russians in some Black Sea love nest, selling off the Grand Canyon to Universal International.  It’s like the evil Superman showed up and nobody can find the Kryptonite.  A citizen subject to angst could find himself camping out with his psychiatrist, developing yaws, checking the real estate in the Pitcairn Islands.

But when you’re weary and feeling small, when tears are in your eyes, we’ll dry them all.  Like a bridge over troubled water, we’ll be around.  Buried deep beneath the Republican landfill, there is Good News to be found if only someone will commence digging.  And that someone would be us.


Double Shot Of My Baby’s Love

“She loved me so long, she loved me so hard, I finally passed out in her front yard.”---Smith & Vetter

Okay, we’re out of that stuff but we have the next best thing, courtesy of Rutgers, otherwise known as the State University of New Jersey.  How about a vaccine against aging?  We’re not making this stuff up.  Those busy little beavers over in beautiful Newark have been hard at it, brewing up their magic potion.  Professor of the Department of Microbiology, Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, Dr. Hua Zhu and his faithful Indian companion postdoc (Abba) Dabbu Jaijyan are attempting to defy and reverse the biological aging process by developing a therapeutic tool that would bolster essential repair and regeneration processes of the cell.

All complex organisms accumulate damage at a cellular level over time, much of which is mitigated or repaired by the body’s own repair and regeneration processes.  Eventually, however, one or more of these processes fail and the organism suffers from systematic degradation.  This is known as the biological aging process and it is the root cause of most non-communicable chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, chronic kidney diseases and dementia, most of the heavyweights.

Zhu says, “The proposed research has great implication for people and governments all over the world seeking a cost-effective preventative solution for all the major diseases of aging.  If our project succeeds, it could lead to clinical trials to test the therapeutic potential of recombinant virus expressing multiple anti-aging factors.”

Funded by an outfit called BioViva USA, the research team is developing a recombinant mouse cytomegalovirus (R-MCMV) to express several anti-aging and regenerative factors.  Short term, the aim is to extend the lifespan of primary human cells and organoids, as well as those of aged mice.  The long-term goal is to establish a platform for clinical trial studies using a novel human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) as a vector and to develop a multi-gene therapeutic aging vaccine.  BioViva has already applied for the patent and will begin developing this next-generation vaccine to target various aspects of aging.

In his laboratory, Zhu studies two herpes viruses, human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) and Varicella-Zoster virus (VZV) with the goal of understanding the pathogenesis of the two.  Specifically, how these viruses interact with host cells, replicate and cause disease.  According to Zhu, CMV has proven safe and can be used for clinical studies in humans.  His research has focused on developing vaccines for various human diseases.  The lab has established a platform for expressing a gene which could prevent or reduce the outcome of a disease.

Elisabeth Parrish, CEO of BioViva USA, states “This research is poised to develop a new class of vaccines and redesign how we treat aging, making it easier for people to stay healthy longer.  Over 100,000 people die of aging every day, and hundreds of millions suffer from chronic disease.  This vaccine has the potential to forge a better way forward with less suffering.”

Let’s hope Dr. Zhu and his compadres don’t dally.  The bus is already on the way for some of us in Codgerland.



Meanwhile, Back At The Ranch….

The other cowpokes have been equally busy.  Among the leading breakthroughs in the past twelve months, we have good news on the regenerating body parts front.  Ohio State University researchers have developed a new technology called tissue nanotransfection (TNT Technology).  Cute.  This technology is embedded in a tiny chip and can reprogram skin cells to repair organs and blood vessels.  The noninvasive procedure involves placing a postage-stamp-size chip on the skin and sending a small electric current through it.  The process delivers DNA vectors into the body in less than a second.  Clinical trials have already begun.

Pending FDA clearance, and they have been known to dawdle, consumers will soon be able to get EKGs by simply placing a finger on the band of an Apple Watch.  AliveCor, which produces the monitors, is also collaborating with the Mayo Clinic to develop an artificial intelligence system that can predict from an ECG if a patient has too much or too little potassium in the blood and is at risk for sudden death.  Keep a banana handy at all times.

Usually, by the time pancreatic cancer is detected, the tumors have spread and the diagnosis is lethal.  By reverse engineering late-stage cancer cells to their stem-cell state, researchers have identified two key proteins that appear in the blood of patients when they develop the disease.  The test could be ready for use within a few years.

You’re not going to believe this but there are people in this world who startle slugs for a living.  We’re not sure whether they pop balloons or show the slugs old Duck Dynasty videos, but the idea is to get the critters to secrete mucus for scientists to study.  The results have been good.  Researchers now have developed a new superglue to be used as an alternative to surgical stitches and staples.  The hydrogel is made of biomaterials that replicate slug mucus and is strong, non-toxic, flexible and able to stick to wet surfaces, even those covered in blood.  Scientists are now at work to make the stuff biodegradable so that it will dissolve after use.  We would like to report this very good news on the surprising usefulness of slugs to Sister Louise Clara, who gave many of us the title in grade school back at St. Patrick’s.


Brain Ticklers

Our boys at the Cleveland Clinic haven’t been fooling around, either.  Researchers there have recently conducted the first-ever deep brain stimulation therapy on a stroke patient, who regained much more of her motor function than originally expected.  The patient continues to improve.  There are strong indications that this therapy will be useful in helping people recover physical function after a stroke leaves them paralyzed or faced with other disabilities.  Deep brain stimulation has been used with Parkinson’s patients and fosters new neural connections and can improve plasticity in the brains of stroke parients.  It may also boost the effects of standard physical therapy.  Doctors, however, ruefully admitted it had absolutely no beneficial effects on Vice-President Mike Pence.


Can You See Me Now? 

Researchers have developed transparent sensors that can turn contact lenses into sophisticated health monitors.  They believe they can integrate more than 100 sensors into the lenses.  Blood glucose monitoring through contacts could help people with diabetes who must repeatedly stick their fingers to track blood sugar.  The contacts might even be able to detect cancer early, check stress hormones or even improve athletic performance.  Oh-oh. 

London researchers have found that small amounts of tiedglusib, an Alzheimer’s drug, promotes the growth of dentin, the material under your enamel that can repair teeth and jump-start tooth regeneration.  Teeth could repair themselves naturally, using stem-cells to stimulate the growth of dental tissue.  Dental fillings might become obsolete.  English dentists were initially wracked with anguish at this news before discovering most clients came back for the nitrous oxide.

And finally, the Mayo Clinic is working to understand how subtle voice characteristics can detect physical and mental illnesses.  A study there found more than a dozen voice features associated with heart disease, including one associated with a 19-fold higher likelihood of heart ailments.  Scientists are now working on the means to detect depression.  Subtle changes in how we sound can be measured to reflect the underlying health of the nervous, muscle and respiratory systems.  Voice analysis along with the use of digital assistants could alert doctors that a patient’s voice shows early signs of a problem.  You could really drive them crazy if you went there right from the nitrous oxide dentist.

Herald Cay Hermit III

More Good News

Sarah Porter is traveling the length and breadth of the Northeast rescuing beleaguered hermit crabs.  See a crab in trouble?  Call Sarah, now the proud parent of over 30 of the varmints from New York, Connecticut and New Jersey.  Some of the wee crustaceans were found abandoned on the beach, others relinquished by reluctant pet owners.  “It may look kind of silly in the cosmic scheme of things,” says Sarah, “but it feels good to know that they’re comfortable and satisfied as a crab can be.”  In case you’re wondering, Ms. Porter feeds her pets veggies and watermelon.  Visitors allege the crabs are… (wait for it)… happy as clams.

A would-be kidnapper got more than he bargained for while attempting to snatch a young woman off a North Carolina street.  Randall Ephraim said that he was tidying up the studio at the Bushiken Karate Charlotte Dojo when a lady rushed into the building claiming someone was chasing her.  “Right after that, a very big guy ran in and said he was there for the woman, who he had apparently just tried to force into his car.”  Ephraim asked the man to leave but he began aggressively swinging his way further into the dojo.  Randall says the perp was “dealt with accordingly.”  When the cops arrived to take the offender into custory, they had to call for a stretcher to haul the assailant off to jail.  “Who the hell WAS that masked man,” asked the criminal, ogling a shiny silver bullet.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police of Surrey, British Columbia were all set for drunken revelers this New Year’s Eve.  They had road blocks set up all across the second-largest city in BC, home to half-a-million residents, and breathalyzed hundreds of drivers with unusual results.  Not a one of them was inebriated.  That’s right, none.  Zippo.  Nary a soul.  Either the machines weren’t working, the liquor was seriously watered down or the citizens had been very good boys and girls.  Surrey RCMP spokesman Chad Grieg admitted he was “happily amazed.”  Surprisingly, alcohol use has also taken a significant dip in the United States.  According to the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, education efforts and outreach programs have led to a drop in impaired driving over the last two decades.  The AFAAR website claims “During this time, drunk driving fatalities have declined 31%, and among those under 21 the number is 65%.  Underage drinking among the nation’s youth has continued to decline…53% since 1991.”  The Royal Canadian Mounted Police admitted they do not as yet have breathalyzers for marijuana.

Mark Rober was plenty annoyed to discover that local thieves had stolen a package from his front porch.  He was even testier when police ignored his security footage of the incident, alleging the theft was “not worth looking into.”  The ex-NASA engineer felt “violated and powerless,” and resolved to take revenge.  He created an ingenious contraption that resembled an Apple Homepod delivery, with one little exception.  When the thieves removed the exterior packaging, the motion set off a device fitted with a fan mechanism that sprayed a vast abundance of glitter around the radius of the package.  As if that weren’t enough, another of Rober’s gadgets expelled a violent “fart bomb.”  Finally, Mark fitted the package with several cameras and GPS tracking so he could film the reactions of the crooks and then recover his device when the disgusted robbers threw it from their vehicle.  So far, packages have been stolen by three different people.  Rober calls the results “particularly satisfying.”  He’s working on sticky glitter for next time.

The realm of athletics also has some good news.  Kansas State University basketball officials report that 2019-2020 recruit Goodnews Kpegeol will enroll at KSU early and will join coach Bruce Weber’s squad immediately.  This lends a whole new meaning to the phrase, “We have Goodnews….” 


Return Of The Blob

Albeit a sweeter one than last time.  The German town of Werl was all awhirl recently when one ton of liquid chocolate seeped out of a factory and onto the streets of the town.  Those careless chocolatiers at the DreiMeister candy factory became preoccupied in a contentious game of Doppelkopf and forgot to monitor the storage tank, which, alas, drastically overflowed.  This is known in Germany as “zu viel des guten” (too much of a good thing).

The molten chocolate oozed through the factory gates, froze on the cold pavement and left local firefighters with one big grobe katastrophe.  There was at least a ton of the stuff according to spokesmen for the Werl Fire Brigade.  A ten-square-meter choco-pancake formed, leaving firefighters with no choice but to break out their tools, chop it up and cart the sweet stuff off in vats.  If you know any chocolate fanciers who aren’t too fussy, just send them by fire headquarters with a large bucket and a donation of wienerschnitzel.

That’s all, folks…. 


Thursday, January 3, 2019

Happy Days Are Here Again!


“Altogether—shout it now,

There’s no one who can doubt it now!”---Jack Yellen

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

It’s a luminous New Year’s morning in central Florida, sunny and warm, no threat of rain, friends emailing pictures of beachtime bliss from St. Augustine ninety minutes away.  The reddest cardinal ever created stood on a fenceboard and greeted me this morning on my way to feed the horses.  “Your cares and worries are gone,” he chirped, “there'll be no more from now on!”  Cardinals are such optimists.  But there’s plenty to be lighthearted about, despite the raucous rein of The Nude Emperor.  We are not in assisted living yet, we still have all our original parts and the mortgage is paid.  We have not lost any friends to the Grim Reaper in the last two months and all the pets are healthy.  The Red Sox are World Series champions and the rebounding Florida Gators have somehow throttled Michigan in the Peach Bowl.  It’s time to start planning the Summer vacations, two weeks in Idaho and Yellowstone, a long weekend in Provincetown with sisters Kathy and Alice (the embarrassed Republican).  There’s even good news to report on the national front.  The money-changers have been expelled from the House of Representatives and Melania has made it a record 24 months without duplicating one item of clothing.  And then there’s all this:

blue flowers

The Skies Above Are Clear Again

1. The Country Is Not At War With Czechloslovakia.  Or Belize.  Or The Ottoman Empire, even.  President Thump has even recalled troops from Syria and Afghanistan, leaving U.S. forces in a meager 148 foreign lands.  The boring old contretemps with Russia has abated since Kremlin overlord Vladimir Putin was offered and accepted a six-film movie contract from MGM Studios.  Putin will play the hero in a new series of Ramboish films set in rural Russia, battling Chechen terrorists, Leningrad pig rustlers and Tsarist revolutionaries seeking to return 117-year-old Anastasia Nikolaevna to the throne.  Kim Jong-un has been contracted to play Tonto.

2. Godzilla Is Dead.  Really.  After 64 years and 726 films terrorizing humanity, the dastardly creature has breathed his last, the victim of food poisoning at the Osaka Home For Aged Monsters in his birth country, Japan.  In his heyday, the big guy took on all comers, including King Kong, Mothra, Megalon and even Sarah Palin on an ill-fated trip to Alaska.  “Palin was the toughest,” he often said, shaking his oversized cranium.  “She tricked me into chasing her deep onto the Matanuska Glacier and I stumbled around for weeks with nothing but frozen moths to eat.  I would have died if I hadn’t finally run into an Arby’s.” 

3. The Zombie Invasion Has Petered Out.  About time, too.  For a while there, it seemed like every week brought a new undead movie or TV show.  And unlike the zombies of our youth, which were slow, clumsy and often blind, these latter-day characters could run like Secretariat.  They could leap tall buildings in a single bound, trap you in a storm cellar and….well, turn you into one of them.  It wasn’t pretty.  Fortunately for mankind, Woody Harrelson came out of retirement, rented an old Winnebago and drove around the country’s zombie hotspots, plying them with marijuana and Moody Blues albums.  Things quieted down after that. 

4. President And Democrats Agree On Border Moat.  The Wall is history.  The Nude Emperor and leaders of the Democratic Party have agreed on a one-mile wide activated moat along the U.S.-Mexico border.  The moat will be operated by Aquatica Water Parks of Orlando and will feature giant waves and roiling surf.  No vehicles will be permitted on the waters and candidates who enter the moat will have to pass a measuring pole attesting to a minimum height of 5-5.  Anyone who can swim or surf from Mexico to The States will, after a vigorous background check, be placed on the fast-track to citizenship and offered starter lifeguard jobs at remote beaches and inner-city country clubs.  Christian values, of course, will be considered.


About Those Resolutions….

Every year at this time, well-intentioned citizens make promises to themselves to turn over a new leaf, to become better, more conscientious human beings, to engage in physical and spiritual self-improvement, to be more considerate of their fellows.  They are like the robins who appear at the beginning of Spring and quickly disappear into the firmament.  We see them each year at Lifetime Fitness and like facilities, where they show up in sparkling newfangled workout garb on the first week of January, grunt around the machines and free weights for a few weeks and introduce themselves to the regulars.  “I’m Vito, ex-of Passaic,” they will say, “and I’m making a lifetime commitment.”  One month later, Vito gets on the scale, throws up his hands in frustration and is gone forever, another victim of Instant Gratification Fatigue.  It’s a well-known fact that 90% of New Year’s Resolutions are tossed in the dumpster by the middle of February.  But then again, there is that 10%.

Last year, Siobhan Ellison, a research scientist from Fairfield, Florida resolved to become 1/8-inch taller.  She didn’t tell anyone about this, lest they scoff.  Then, she undertook yoga, specialized massage and The Rack to accomplish her promise.  This morning, she measured herself against last year’s pencil-line on the kitchen wall and voila!….one-eighth inch taller.

In for a penny, in for a pound.  This year, I am encouraging her to go for a 12-inch gain so she can be a middle blocker on the UF volleyball team.  She has, after all, four years of eligibility left.  Siobhan says she will do this if I can learn to stand on one leg for three minutes during our weekly yoga sessions.  I called Florida VB coach Mary Wise yesterday and told her to keep looking. 

Not Your Mother’s New Year’s Resolutions

Thursday, January 3, 2019

1. I resolve to never again use my Mickey Mouse voice while having sex.

2. I will find that bastard who let the dogs out.

3. I resolve to be more assertive this year.  If that’s okay with everybody.

4. I will no longer hit on short-haired women driving semis. 

5. I will make absolutely certain my grandfather is no longer inside before opening the shower door.

6. I will change my name to Simon and speak in the third person.

7. I will improve my health in increments.  During the first week, I will stop buttering my doughnuts. 

8. Actually go into an elevator and say, “I expect you’re all wondering why I called this meeting.”  Bill has been verging on this one for years but has never pulled the trigger.

9. Buy a parrot.  Teach him to squawk, “Help!  I’ve been turned into a parrot!”

10. Stop making fun of Aquaman.


Predictions For 2019

Every year, we like to check in with Bulgarian mystic Baba Vanga to find out what’s coming up in the next 12 months.  Baba knows.  Born Vangeliya Pandeva Dimitrova in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in 1911, Baba lost her eyesight at a young age, but the cataclysmic event unlocked in her great powers of clairvoyance.  Her legion of followers claim that Baba foretold the events of 9-11, the sinking of the Russian submarine Kursk in 2000, the Thailand tsunami of 2004 and the rise to power of Vladimir Putin.  And now she’s ready for another Big One.  U.S. President Donald Trump will become extremely ill in 2019.  Say what?!?

Yessir, according to Baba Vanga, the 45th President of the United States will succumb to an unknown disease leaving him with hearing loss, tinnitus and brain trauma later this year.  Trump’s symptoms will look somewhat like those suffered by a number of American diplomats in Cuba early last year.

Baba gives equal time to Putin, who, she claims, will survive an assassination attempt in 2019 from “someone within his own circles.”  Putin has admitted to at least four previous attempts on his life and is now under the protection of an elite team of snipers.

According to the Bulgarian mystic, there could be a much bigger tsunami this year than the Thailand killer, this one scheduled for parts of Pakistan, Japan, China, Indonesia and even Alaska.  Nearly 400 people have already died in September’s 7.5 magnitude earthquake in Indonesia when a tsunami rocked the city of Palu on Salawesi Island.

Don’t worry, though.  Neither Vladimir Putin, the catastrophic Trump presidency nor global warming will bring the world to an end this year.  That won’t happen until faraway 5079, according to Baba Vanga, who does not specify how this will happen but hints that rap music could play a part.


Not Dead Yet

In a previous edition of The Flying Pie, we reported that Bill was undergoing a CT brain scan for possible irregularities in the pituitary gland.  Try as they might, however, the radiologists could find nothing untoward up there.  The next step in The Great Mystery of Bill’s Elevated TSH was a trip to Doctor’s Imaging in Gainesville yesterday for an ultrasound of his thyroid.  Results are pending until tomorrow, but our hero is not worried.  If worse comes to worst, which we’d just as soon it didn’t, thyroid cancer is curable 98.6% of the time.  Bill has already sparred a few rounds with prostate cancer and knocked it out about ten years ago so he is at peace with the issue.  If things don’t work out, though, he would definitely like lots of flowers and not a financial contribution sent to some vague charity in his name.  Once a traditionalist, always a traditionalist.

That’s all, folks…. 


Thursday, December 27, 2018

What I’ve Learned


The year giveth and the year taketh away.  We gain a new friend, lose an old one, an extremely inadequate trade but better than nothing.  Our once pristine bodies continue to regress but we find new ways to slow the descent.  We may not be up to summiting Half Dome these days but we can still climb Cadillac Mountain.  The time has come to substitute brains for brawn and we have learned our lessons well.  We have assembled a fleet of cardiologists, urologists, oncologists, physical therapists, massage practitioners, chiropractors, pharmacists and personal trainers unequalled in the History of Man and we have Webmed on speed-dial to advise us when to summon each.

We have had the good luck to be born late enough to experience the Replacement Era.  Need a nice new knee, a snappy new hip?  Just sign here on the dotted line, we’ll call you in the morning.  Heart petering out, kidneys running on empty, liver fried?  We’ve got you on the list, just try to hold onto that subway strap until the right donor shows up.  Don’t like the shape of your nose, the curve of your lip, the size of your breasts, the plumpness of your gluteals?  Dr. Shapeshifter, that magic man, will turn you into a fairy princess or a golden adonis, just remember to bring your platinum card.

We have learned that the Key to Success is what we have learned.  We know now, of course, that a coterie of friends, associates, auto-repair-men, baristas, golf pros, ticket-scalpers, the folks who sit in the next box at the symphony, are far more integral to our wellbeing than we once thought, that social interaction is critical to survival, that five minutes spent in conversation with the newly bereft widow next door is a better bargain than arriving at work five minutes early and that we benefit from the transaction as much as she does.

We have learned to balance caution with impulsiveness, that reckless abandon should be reserved for special occasions, that an all-night drive to Sheboygan might not be necessary after all.  We have discovered that mad money is best spent on travel, the benefits of which are exponential and unending.  We have statistical evidence that owning a dog is associated with a 20% lower risk of death from any cause, and the same may be true of cats and coatimundis.  We have learned that it’s occasionally acceptable to howl at the moon, but better to do it when the neighbors are away.  Oh, and for those straightlaced doubters who have been abstaining all these years, proof positive is now available that marijuana will not turn you into a werewolf and it’s coming soon to a neighborhood near you.  Try it, you’ll like it.

One of the few boons of getting older is the constant opportunity to also get smarter, to discover beneficial things you didn’t know, to stash Factoid # 5673 in the vast recesses of your memory closet to be retrieved later when circumstances demand.  You never know when you’ll be required to remember that Des Moines is the capital of Iowa or that antivenin (crotalidae) polyvalent is the antidote for rattlesnake venom.  There are community colleges everywhere that will let you in with no questions asked.  You can still sign up for Introduction to Humanities, Bus Welding 101, or How to Raise Nutria For Fun & Profit.

In confronting all the updated ideas, the spiffy new technologies tumbling out of the overstuffed closet, we will occasionally make a mistake here and there.  Don’t let them be discouraging, just plunge ahead.  Take the good advice of your old pal, Neil Gaiman:

“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.  Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world.  You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something.” 


What We’ve Learned: No Place Is Perfect

“Listen to the sound, listen to the sound,

Listen to the tune that the wind brought down;

Listen to the old time sound of the fiddle

Telling of a place you never have found.”

The old Dillards’ song holds the romantic promise there might be a place perfectly suited to each of us, a refuge, a home, salvation, if we could only find it.  Many of us swoop from coast to coast, town to town, valley to mountain in search of Eden, but only Adam and Eve enjoyed the experience and they promptly blew it.  Maybe we’ll be happier in the south of France, in Greenland, living in a shack near the Firth of Forth, kibbutzing it up on the Sea of Galilee.  The travel industry constantly suggests that far is better than near and there is better than here.  Taking that slogan to its logical conclusion, we now have sporadic bands of would-be travelers waiting on mountaintops for altruistic extraterrestrials to transport them to happier climes.  What’s it all about, Tammy?

Camelot, of course, is only a mirage, a temporary resting place, because even Heaven has warts.  Around age 30, I traveled to Hawaii with a collection of cronies interested in establishing the first head shop on The Islands.  We camped out in a hotel a couple of blocks from the beach in Waikiki, meandered around Oahu and took in the scenery.  Originally, I had the thought I could live there forever, the incomparable weather and idyllic beauty of the place proving worthy hypnotists.  But beauty is as beauty does and there were many snags in establishing a business on Oahu.  The rents were atrocious, the available buildings few and the cost of living laughable.  A small bungalow a few blocks off the ocean near Waikiki cost $400,000, and we’re talking 1970 money here.  After a week in Hawaii, I still thought it a wonderful place, perhaps a part-time residence.

After two weeks, the island began to wilt.  The sameness of the days, partly but not entirely our fault, was wearisome.  We made the requisite trip around the perimeter of Oahu, stopped and enjoyed the fabled North Beach, investigated the Banzai Pipeline from a safe distance and marvelled at the signs posting the amazing distance inland travelled by the most recent inconsiderate tsunami.  Showing proper deference to local customs, we even partook of shave (not shaved) ice, which was nothing special but much better than poi, which tasted a lot like we imagined Elmer’s Glue might taste, although who can be sure?  A rare moment of excitement occurred when a volcano threatened to erupt on the big island, Hawaii, but on our way to the airport the radio gave us the bad news: “MAUNA LOA FIZZLES!”

After three weeks, our golden idol was severely tarnished.  We were ready to go home.  The cost of doing business was impossible, the only logical location was the dingy Ala Moana Mall, far off the tourist beat, and the affordable places to live were all in the outskirts of Honolulu, where the locals abided.  None of them seemed thrilled at the prospect of having us as neighbors, nor we them, for that matter.  We began to feel far from anywhere, lost in a strange time zone and barely able to keep track of the Red Sox.  Our final trip to the airport for the ride back was a joyful occasion.

Oahu, in many ways, is just like anywhere else, just prettier, if you can see past the burgeoning housing developments.  It might be nicest to live on the Big Island, a homeland for jasmine, hibiscus and birds of paradise, where traffic is skimpy, you can grow your own coffee and Volcanoes National Park offers steaming sulphurous vents and lava tubes.  If worse comes to worst, that lava moves very slowly and you can pick up your house and move it elsewhere before you’re entombed.  On a cautious note, you might want to skip those well-publicized black sand beaches.  You can’t scrape the stuff off with sandpaper.  Oh, and it rains all the time in Hilo, so Kona might be better.


Austin Reverie

If no place is perfect, there are still some which are much better than others, at least in the short term.  When we were kids, growing up on the streets of Lawrence, Massachusetts was ideal.  For me, going to college in Stillwater, Oklahoma was aces.  There are worst places to pass through one’s adolescence than Austin, Texas.  And Gainesville, Florida was a hippie paradise from the late 1960s all through the 1970s.  It’s just so hard for a town to retain its charm.

Lawrence was sabotaged by the demise of the local textile industry.  Stillwater is proof positive that bigger isn’t necessarily better.  Austin is buried under vehicular traffic with no place to park.  And Gainesville, poor thing, is undergoing the heartbreak of gentrification.  Lovely for business interests but absolutely ooky for hippies.

I am convinced by my inherent provincialism that there could have been no place better to live in 1962 than Austin, Texas.  Austin, unlike the stereotypical Texas town, is a haven of hills and parks and springs and lakes and a river (the other Colorado) runs through it.  In the early sixties, a poor starving magazine staffer could get a gigantic 88-cent meal in the colorful Mexican quarter at restaurants open past midnight and listen to live music of every description throughout the town, including the now-beatified shrine called Threadgill’s, which continues to exist, though no longer in frontier form.

The town drew an exotic collection of retired beatniks, arty students, musicians, rebels with and without a cause, amateur journalists and general troublemakers.  There was a party at someone’s home virtually every night, occasionally with free alcohol, and nobody was checking IDs at the gate.  I’m sure there were unlicensed imitators of Austin scattered around the country but I’m just as sure the Texas capital was unbeaten and untied, top of the league for freedom, talent, adventure and excitement.  Those days were the catalyst for an unprecedented population rise from about 300,000 in 1962 to a rapidly-increasing 1,000,000 now, and all the woes that go with it.  Austin was too magnificent for its own good, everyone wanted to move there.  And apparently everyone did.   The same thing happens, if to a lesser degree, to anyplace on the hip charts.  In most cases, they are torpedoed by their very wonderfulness.  See “Soho” in New York and “Georgetown” in Washington, D.C., still booming but not with the original entrepreneurs, the clever people who designed the sets and wrote the songs.  But nobody who lived in these places back in the day will ever forget their years of wine and roses.  Many of them will continue to search for a reasonable facsimile, checking in at little mountain hideaways, darting off to remote coastal possibilities, hunting for the rare college town which retains its old identity.

What I have learned is that no place is perfect and we’ll just have to settle down with the closest thing, which is a different outpost for each of us.  Sometimes it rains too much, other times it’s too hot or too cold, perhaps a little rough on the budget, more cars than there used to be, ornery to garden, but the air is clean, the coffee shop opens early, we can afford a few acres and Sally Forth will cart her massage table to your living room.

For anyone still looking, our old compatriot Leslie Logan swears by Highlands, N.C., where she just acquired real estate and is welcoming guests.  Highlands is one of those hot new places more esteemed by 70-year-old hippies than by raw youngsters, famed for its rare beauty and collegiality, possessed of decent weather and a very good bakery.  They have doctors and lawyers and Indian chiefs and nobody is looking to bust grannies with grass.  If you go there, knock three times and whisper low.  Leslie will be waiting for you with pie.


That’s all, folks….   


Thursday, December 20, 2018

A Day In The Life


“Some days are diamonds, some days are stones.”---Dick Feller

So here we are, travelers through time, students of the universe, collectors of knowledge, teachers of the young, sometimes leading, sometimes following, always searching for The Light.  We have arrived at this station via good luck and bad, through struggle and heartbreak and joy and rejuvenation.  We are more careful now because we understand the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, the slow diminishment of our physical powers, the realization that the slightest flap of a distant butterfly’s wings can ultimately bring the tornado. 

We consider the many things our lives could have been, positive and negative, with a simple twist here, a little tuck there, more curious than regretful.  Does Fate exist in any measure?  If so, we’re off the hook for bad decisions.  Sure, we sold our little grass shack in Kealakekua, Hawaii and bought this bungalow in snowbound Fairbanks, but the Devil made us do it.  What if there is, in fact, a Cosmic Arbiter who occasionally extends his index finger and gently nudges us in a certain direction?  There must have been some reason we sold all that Coca Cola stock in 1966.

More likely, we’re on our own and each day is like opening time at the racetrack.  We secure our Racing Forms, study the history of the horses and place our bets.  We use all of our accumulated savvy, the totality of our life experiences to calculate the odds before proceeding, then take our best shot.  On some days, the diamonds, we turn out to be clever geniuses, the creme-de-la-creme of sentient beings and things fall our way.  On others, the stones, we accidentally set fire to Aunt Annie’s new drapes.  If we can avoid the Grim Reaper, incarceration and bankruptcy, however, each day we get a new chance, another opportunity to get it right, to turn the lights on and start the mariachis playing in the House of Today.  So let’s have at it another time.  May all of you catch the brass ring.



Tuesday, December 18.

Like the careful fellow I am, each year I traipse off to my general practitioner to get an assessment of my chances at spending another annum on Earth.  I have dutifully reported in to the charming folks at Shands’ Rocky Point Lab a week earlier to have blood pulled, the better to assess my current condition.  I am generally optimistic about these rituals since everything is usually in order, but in the back of every 78-year-old’s mind is the knowledge that sooner or later there will be issues.  According to my physician, the inimitable James B. DeStephens, that time could be now.  Then again, it could be nothing.

For several years now, my TSH numbers have been creeping upwards.  TSH tests measure the amount of Thyroid-Stimulating Hormone in the blood; it’s produced by the pituitary gland, a tiny organ located below the brain and behind the sinus cavities.  TSH stimulates the thyroid to release the hormones thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3) into the blood.  The normal range for TSH is 0.4 milliunits per liter to 4.0.  If a person’s TSH is over 4.0 on repeat tests, he probably has hypothyroidism.  In January, my number was 7.068.  Today, it is 9.243.  Nonetheless, I have no symptoms of hypothyroidism and my T3 and T4 numbers are within range, an anomaly.   Somewhat baffled, Dr. DeStephens has ordered a CT brain scan at North Florida Regional Hospital tomorrow.  This news is not as bad as finding out you have yaws but not as good as hearing there’s a big parade on Wednesday.  The worst thing about any radiology procedure is that nobody will tell you anything for a couple of days, so you are left swinging in the breeze.  As a warmup to the scan, I’m visiting my dentist two hours earlier to see if he can rectify problems with a 40-year-old root canal tooth which is, as he describes it, “disintegrating.”  Happy days are here again.  I have two cranial adventures on the same morning.  In baseball parlance, we call this a double-header.  In real life, we call it the alligator pit.


A Day In The Life

Wednesday, December 19

When we were kids, the four scariest things we knew about were Dracula, the Wolfman, Sister Mary Albert and the dentist, not necessarily in that order.  Dracula had fangs, the Wolfman claws and Sister Mary Albert wielded the meanest ruler this side of Haverhill, but the dentist, well….he had that needle.  And the evil drill, which made unearthly sounds as it whirred through your mouth, occasionally whacking a nerve and sending you three feet into the air, screaming.  Most of us would just as soon be hit in the head with a fastball as go to the dentist.  At least it was over in a flash.

One day, Wally Hoyt didn’t show up for school.  His friends knew he’d be a little late, he had a dental appointment early in the morning, but Wally was still missing at noon.  We didn’t have many kidsnatchers in those days, but everybody was in a big kerfuffle for several hours until Hoyt was found.  Turns out he did tell one friend, Eddie Delaney, that he was running away to California rather than face death at the hands of the dentist.  Wally only made it to North Reading, but you had to admire his pluck.

I, myself, abstained from dentistry for about ten years after highschool due to a lack of oral issues and extreme poverty.  When I returned in 1970, I chose Dr. Roland Thaler, just starting his practice in Gainesville on University Avenue, a smidge past 34th street.  Dr. Thaler was my faithful Indian companion for over forty years, filling cavities, dredging root canals, building bridges, inserting crowns, even constructing a fitted mouthpiece to cover my teeth at night so I didn’t grind them to death.  When Dr. Thaler finally retired a few years ago, I inherited Dr. Wade Townsend, a sports afficionado with whom I could moan about Florida Gator insufficiencies and get the inside scoop on basketball goings-on.  Seems hoops coaches need dental care, too.

Wade performed his magic in two different areas and I was out of his office in a spiffy hour, thus early to my scan appointment at Invision, just behind North Florida Regional Hospital.  Early or not, I would sit in the lovely waiting room until noon, my scheduled scan time, amidst a collection of odd senior citizens with broken wrists, damaged spines, creaky necks and the like.  Patients were called to the desk by a lady behind a glass window, who was difficult to hear.  One such client was Mrs. Mashpee, who was summoned once, twice, and then loudly, perhaps with a megaphone.  The embarrassed Mrs. Mashpee, about 90-years-old, got up from her chair, smiled and went to the desk to retrieve her CT-scan disk.  When she arrived, she turned to the assembled waiting-room crowd and said in a crisp voice, “Getting old sucks.  I can’t hear a damn thing!”  And she was off, to the delight of the audience, which hadn’t expected such magnificent entertainment.

I sat opposite an entry door to the scan area, just in front of an eightyish African-American woman who was a big fan of Jesus.  She was engaged in a lively cell phone conversation with someone going through hard times and she wanted the poor thing to know that Jesus was the answer to her woes.  Then, backing himself out of the scan rooms in a wheelchair and parking himself next to me, came a gentleman in his mid-eighties, desperate to talk.  Mostly, I just sat there and soaked in the conversations.  They went something like this:

“Howdy, young feller.  My name is Robert Benjamin Kenilworth, but you can call me Rob, or you can call me Bob, or you can call me Ben, or you can call me Ken….”

“And let me tell you, Missy, JEEZUS is the only way!  There are TWO roads, not four, not three.  There is the road with JEEZUS and the barren road.  There is no going in the middle, no third road….”

“Been in the wood business all my life, retired now, still keep my hand in.  Now when you’re talking about your wood, first you’ve got your pine, then you’ve got your cypress, you’ve also got your red oak, then you’ve got your hackberry….”

“When you start out in life, you think you smart, you go you own way, you laugh at JEEZUS, and then you fall on hard times, the world falls in on you and you lose all hope, you don’t know what to do….”

“And we sell this wood to everybody….we sell it to Boise, Idaho and we sell it to Chicago and we sell it little old places like Pooh-kipsie.  They made a tunnel in Boston with our wood.  Went under the damn OCEAN, yessir!”

“And when ever’thing as dark as The Devil’s heart, when ever’thing closing in on you, you standing at the edge of the precipice, you look up and you gives you’self to God, you cry PLEASE, JEEZUS, you open you’self up and HE will come!  You can count on JEEZUS, Lord bless us all!”

I sat there desperate for rescue and finally a young nurse opened the door and called my name.  She guided me into the scan room, where a young man was plumping up the pillows on the cylinder.  “Hi,” he said.  “I’m Jay.”

“But I can call you Ray, right?” I asked, still hypnotized by the waiting room jargon.  “What?” he asked, totally at sea.  “Never mind,” I told him.  “Local joke.”

Jay acquainted me with the giant scanner and gave stern instructions.  “You can’t move your head for three full minutes,” he advised.  “Can I smile?”  “No!”  Geesh.  Give a guy a uniform and he goes all military on you.  I didn’t move a muscle.  Jay said I did good.  “You can smile now,” he told me as I exited the metal maw.  Jay’s idea of a little joke.  My fate was now in the hands of the scan reader hidden behind the glass in the next room.  I hope he knows what he’s doing.


A Parting Gift

Thursday, December 20

Don’t say we didn’t give you anything for Christmas.  Here’s a last-minute story from my Best Man, Jack Gordon in Laguna Beach, befitting our station in life:

Two 90-year-old guys, Leo and Frank, had been best friends all their lives.  When it became clear that Leo was dying, Frank visited him every day.  On one occasion, Frank said, "Leo, we’re both lovers of the baseball arts, we both played the game all through highschool and we still watch it today.  Do me one favor: when you get to Heaven, let me know somehow if there’s baseball up there.”

Leo looked up at Frank from his deathbed.  “Frank, you’ve been my best friend for years.  If there’s any way possible, I’ll do this favor for you.”

Shortly after, Leo passed away.  Then, a few nights later, Frank was roused from his sleep by a blinding flash of light and a voice calling him….”Frank!….Frank?….”

“Who is it?” asked Frank, sitting up, startled.

“It’s me, Leo, talking to you from Heaven as you requested.  I have some good news and some bad news.”  “Tell me the good news first,” said Frank.

“The good news,” Leo told him, “is that there’s baseball in heaven.  Better yet, all our old pals who died are here, too, and we’re all young again.  Also, it’s Springtime and it never rains or snows.  We can play baseball all day long and we never get tired.” 

“Wow, that’s fantastic,” said Frank.  “It’s beyond my wildest dreams!  So what could possibly be the bad news?”

“You’re pitching Tuesday.”

That’s all, folks.  Enjoy your Christmas.  May the season be bountiful.




Thursday, December 13, 2018

December’s Bounty

“How did it get so late so soon/It’s night before it’s afternoon,

December is here before it’s June/My goodness, how the time has flewn!”---

Dr. Seuss

When we were kids, December was a difficult critter to pigeonhole, quite unlike frigid January and February, obvious enemies of the flesh and spirit, not as beneficial as June, July and August, the Three Queens of Summer.  Sure, it was freeze-your-ears frosty now and then but every so often a reasonable day poked it’s head through the clouds.  It was only the beginning of Winter, we had yet to be crushed under the weight of endless bone-chilling days when extremities became numb, snow-shoveling took over as the preeminent sport and icicles on the eaves threatened our very existence.

December brought positive credentials into the bargain.  Christmas lights appeared everywhere, as if by magic.  Bing Crosby sang ‘White Christmas” on the radio.  School let out for ten glorious days.  And there was the distinct possibility that Santa would bring us shiny new sleds if we’d been good enough (or hopefully, even if we hadn’t).

But more than that, there was a festive spirit in the air.  Personal miseries were forgotten or put on hold.  Petty animosities withered.  Friends and relatives began showing up at the door with small gifts and liquor.  For the last eight days of the month, our house was a repository of nightly visitors, of laughter, the clinking of glasses, the Spirit of the Season shared.  For this rare smidgen of time, these priceless days in December, a curious mist settled over the land and everyone was happy.  Say what you will about the Ultimate Month, Yuletide euphoria atones for a litany of minor crimes.

When we were kids, December was a villain, but a hero, too, a purveyor of exceptional goods, of life-lasting memories.  We can still see our grandmothers hustling through their pantries, our mothers carefully placing delicate ornaments on the tree, our fathers assembling the complicated toys.  There was a gleam in their eyes, a song on their lips and hope in their hearts that the world would treat their children as well as December did in those days of yore, when treetops glistened and kids like us listened to hear sleighbells in the snow.


Moments To Remember

December offers more than just Christmas festivities.  The month features a variety of events guaranteed to pique the interests of all but the dreariest curmudgeons.  Today, for example, is a perfect time to don your scarf and mittens, plunge outside into the brisk afternoon and celebrate National Cocoa Day.  Tomorrow is the rare and wonderful National Monkey Day, the one opportunity you have each year to overdose on bananas, swing from the trees and throw feces at the mailman.  Important around here, December 15th is National Cat Herder’s Day, although that could be every day at the Ellison Feline Complex.  December 16 is a special date for music lovers, being Beethoven’s Birthday.  Celebrate along with Peanuts’ Schroeder by listening to his famed 5th symphony on an eternal loop.  December 23 is Festivus, created by a Seinfeld writer’s father and populized by Frank Costanza.  You and yours can celebrate by gathering around an aluminum pole and airing your grievances.  This relatively new holiday has gained an increasing number of followers since its introduction in 1997.

December 24, as everybody knows, the Treaty of Ghent was signed, supposedly ending the War of 1812 between America and the British.  As treaties go, this one wasn’t particularly effective as the war leaked on another year.  On December 28, Poor Richard’s Almanac was published in 1732.  The almanac was sort of a calendar-cum-weather forecast for the year, rife with poetry, stories, astrological facts and much, much more.  Think of it as your 18th-century iPhone.

Too late to celebrate this year but not to be forgotten in the future is the annual National Cookie Day on December 4, when Oreos are king and everyone is allowed to be a cookie monster.  December 5th, of course, was National Ninja Day, a perfect time to suprise your friends by dropping from the ceiling wielding your nunchucks and screaming epithets in Japanese.  Not as good as September’s priceless Talk Like A Pirate Day, but better than nothing.

On December 12th some of us celebrate the Festival of Unmentionable Thoughts.  We’d like to tell you about it but, well….you know.




(1.) Fun in the sun.  (2.) April Love is for the very young.  (3.) Siobhan in Amelia Earhart days.

Today Is Your Birthday!

“December’s Child has dreams to live.”---Pat Kelbaugh

England swings like a pendulum do, but not necessarily Ipswich, England, a town in Suffolk set on the River Orwell in east Anglia, about 66 miles northeast of London.  It owes whatever fame it enjoys to being the birthplace of noted equine veterinarian, research scientist, cat mogol, yogameister and rock-hunter Siobhan Patricia Ellison, born of not particularly poor or humble parents on a bright December 13 in 1952.  The world has never been the same since.

My world, at any rate.  I met Siobhan in the mid-1980s when she was starting out in the veterinarian business as an assistant to my long-time vet, Ted Specht.  In our first meeting, she mildly chastised me for keeping alive a three-legged-lame mare named Fast Janice.  The mare was doing fine at the time, having foaled one big, healthy and fast daughter and was pregnant once again.  A couple of years earlier, Janice had run through a fence and came out of the collision with an unhealable elbow infection, leading to her later condition.  My thought at the time was who the hell does this woman think she is?

Time went by and Ted Specht decided to return to school to become a surgeon.  Subsequent veterinarians proved undependable or otherwise inadequate and I called Ted for suggestions.  “Well…” he offered, “I know she’s not your favorite, but Siobhan Ellison is very competent.  What she lacks in experience, she makes up for in intelligence.” 

“Oh, God,” I thought.  “Not her.”  But Ted was persuasive and convinced me it was worth a try.  Siobhan and I established a good rapport even though we occasionally disagreed on how to proceed with a matter.  Her first year working with my 15 mares found all of them pregnant.  The average is about 67%, so I was over the moon, to say the least.  Siobhan thought she deserved some sort of reward and said she’d have to think about just what would be appropriate.  When I got to the farm a few days later, there was a note on my blackboard expressing her preference: “Dinner in Paris.”  She wasn’t talking Paris, Kentucky, I was pretty sure.  I told her next year we’d have to cut back to 11 in-foal mares.  Eleven mares gets you dinner in Bridgeport.





(1.) Helping out a new foal.  (2.) Siobhan at Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone.  (3.) Daring Duo at the Matanuska Glacier, Alaska.

Onward, Through The Fog

At thoroughbred racetracks across the land, those days on which there is no racing are called “dark days.”  Because I worked at the Circus five days a week, often until ten at night, there were only a couple of days a week left for dating.  Betsy Harper, a previous girlfriend, called the non-dating periods “dark days.”  This was not an acceptable arrangement for Siobhan Ellison, who worked seven days a week at her equine vet practice in Marion County.  I moved to her little house in Fairfield in 1986 and 32 years later I am still there.  Through thick and thin, Siobhan has been a trooper.  She has a predilection for anticipating washouts in the road ahead and a prescience for avoiding them.  If there are glass-half-full and glass-half-empty people, Siobhan could best be described as someone who is more concerned with where you get the stuff to fill the glass.  A realist, a pragmatist.  If a body plans to sweep her off her feet, that person better bring a big broom.

In 2005, Siobhan and I were driving around visiting clients in the late morning when I began to feel unusually murky….stomach upset, but not nauseous.  I had just the slightest soreness in the lower pectoral muscles which I blamed on bench-pressing at the gym a day earlier.  The miasma gradually got worse but no pain occurred, none of the normal indications of heart attack.  By late afternoon after hours of prodding, I agreed to check in with my general practitioner in Gainesville.  He didn’t anticipate an imminent myocardial event but agreed with Siobhan that cardiac catheterization might be a good idea.  Since I had none of the normal heart attack signs, I demurred.  Siobhan badgered me from the doctor’s office all the way across Payne’s Prairie before I conceded to have the procedure done the next morning at North Florida Regional Hospital.  By the time I got there, I was nineteen hours into the episode and sick as a dog, with about 30 minutes of Earth time remaining.  Siobhan told interventional cardiologist Dr. Daniel Van Roy in no uncertain terms that the patient must be saved.  “I can’t just go out on some street corner and find another Bill,” she advised.  Van Roy later told Bill that his friend was pretty scary.  “I figured I’d better not mess up.  I was scared to go back and tell her I’d killed you.”




(1.) Watching Old Faithful erupt. (2) Atop the Empire State Building.  (3.) At Jacksonville Beach. 

Career Change

There were many dark days on the financial front, as well, with a 1990s slump in the horse-racing business, the closing of the Subterranean Circus and a glut of Marion County equine vets reducing the coffers of all.  “You can’t always get what you want,” said the wily Mick Jagger, “but if you try sometime, you find you get what you need.”  When our highest-earning thoroughbred, Vaunted Vamp, came along in 1992, she seemed ordained by the gods.  Vamp won 21 races and $420,000 over the next four years and Siobhan returned to school to earn her PhD and began working with a crew studying a horse business dilemma called Equine Protozoal Myeloencephalitis, to which she found some answers.  On graduating, she started her own lab, Pathogenes, Inc. in a small cottage behind our house, tending to clients whose horses have EPM and related diseases.  The enterprise continues to thrive.  The racing didn’t do too bad, either.  In 2001, a colt named Juggernaut won two $100,000 stakes races and bankrolled over $240,000.  We began taking annual 14-day vacations, mostly out West.  With no training or prep work, Siobhan managed the 16-mile Yosemite hike to Half Dome and back and one year later negotiated the 14 miles of the Zion Narrows.  “Bill goes to the gym three days a week,” she told her amazed friends, “I train on Tylenol.”


Here Comes The Bride

In February of 2015 at our annual Valentine’s Day dinner at the Island Hotel in Cedar Key, after a short courtship of 30 years, I asked Siobhan to marry me since she had done reasonably well in her tryout period.  Some girls might tear up, others jump around waving their arms.  Siobhan just said “Sure.”  It’s the Ellison Way.  We got married in the Chapel of the Flowers in Las Vegas on June 25, 2016, but it was a close call.  I was supposed to follow the limousine which took Siobhan and her maid of honor, niece Ashleigh, to the proceedings, but the valet parkers at the overly busy Palazzo hotel took forever getting my car from the garage.  When I hurriedly darted onto Las Vegas Boulevard, I turned the wrong way.  Oh-oh.  Anyone who has ever tried navigating LVB will tell you that you are going nowhere fast.  The red lights are interminable and the traffic brutal.  I called Siobhan to give her the bad news.  I couldn’t possibly get there on time.  Under ordinary circumstances, this would only mean the wedding would be slightly delayed.  At the Chapel of the Flowers, however, nuptials were scheduled every half-hour.  You’re late, you’re cancelled.  Any other bride would be hysterical, furious, embarrassed to death to report this outrage to the guests.  Siobhan was very calm and reassuring, the always reliable port in the storm.

Not me, though.  I drove down Las Vegas Boulevard like a biker on meth, exceeding 80-mph on a couple of occasions, switching lanes left and right, zooming past stunned drivers and pedestrians alike.  I arrived at 1:02, handed off the car to Ashleigh’s future husband, Flo, who was waiting to grab the baton in the parking lot.  Inside, Siobhan was the picture of composure, as if nothing untoward had ever happened.  “I knew you’d show up,” she smiled.  Elvis sang “I Can’t Help falling In Love With You” and the ceremonies went off without a further hitch.  And our heroes lived happily ever after.  So far, at least.

Happy Birthday, faithful Indian companion.

That’s all, folks….