Thursday, January 26, 2023

The Colonoscopy Blues

I never thought much about colon cancer until I was about 60 and the girl on the treadmill next to me in the gym started kvetching about her upcoming ordeal.  The worst part, she moaned, was the horrendous prepwork, which involved drinking gallons of sludge to properly evacuate her bowels.  She didn’t say “Gag me with a spoon,” but I got the idea.

Shortly afterward, a long-time friend was startled in the night by a tumor sticking its neck out of her anus to snap at her as she applied the Charmin.  This is the kind of grisly image that has a tendency to zip around your mind like a pinball on meth and send you screaming to the doctor.  “Relax,” he said, “you have no signs and you’ve been taking Metamucil since you were 29.  You’ll never get colon cancer.”  Okay, if you say so.

Then, about five years ago, each of my sisters came up with a benign polyp during their own colonoscopies, which is like a brisk tap on the shoulder.  Not wishing to have either anesthesia or an aggressive probe snaking through my nether regions, I decided to visit Shands for a virtual colonoscopy.  This one requires no knockout juice; the attendant merely inserts a gaspipe, blows you up like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon and slides you into a CT scanner.  This works out fine if you have no suspicious issues; if you do, you go back for a regular colonoscopy.  I didn’t.  The only real downside is occasional sharp pains the rest of the day as the gas escapes your body.  While this is going on, you have to be vigilant to avoid small children and members of the ladies auxiliary who might be frightened by the occasional thunderclap.  By nightfall, the storm will have abated and all you’ll remember are the encouraging words of your doctor: “Since you’re 77, Bill, you’ll never have to do this again.”  Insert Smileyface here.  But, alas, lies, all lies.

And You thought You’d Like To Be A Postal Inspector

Earlier this year, I changed primary care docs when my old one started beating the tub for Trump and handing out Ivermectin samples.  The new guy, of course, suggested a colonoscopy, but I demurred.  “How about we just send a stool sample to Cologuard?” he suggested.  A what to whom?  I was vaguely aware that this sort of thing went on, but not in the better neighborhoods.  The scary idea of boxes of excrement floating hither and yon through the airways of America was somehow worrisome and fascinating.  Who worked at these receiving plants on the tail end of the journey?  When you apply for a position there and they tell you you’ll be starting at the bottom, they’re not kidding.  Imagine your first day on the job.  You get dressed up in your sweaty Hazmat uniform, enter your well-lighted cubicle and start opening….well….boxes of shit.  Immediately coming to mind are the wise words of your father advising you what might happen if you abstained from that college education.  Remember when you used to laugh at your cousin Eddie who worked in “waste management?”  Well, Eddie was a piker.  You have now reached the very pinnacle of the waste management business.  And don’t bother looking around for Allen Funt because no, you are not on Candid Camera.  It’s real. 

Waste Management For Dummies

So one day you get a perfectly cubical little box in the mail containing all the tools of excrement gathering.  The box is cleverly constructed to also act as a return receptacle for your deposit.  Reams of diagrams and instructions are provided, more than they give you to construct a nuclear power plant.  The box contains basically four things; a plastic piece which fits from side to side of your toilet and under the seat; a large plastic bowl which fits inside of it; a short pencil-like object for shit-scraping; a bottle of liquid which is poured over the treasure deposited in the bowl.  You have your equipment, the rest is up to you.  When the job is done, you reclose your little box and rush off to the UPS Store, where the smiling staff can’t wait to meet you.  On the way in, you wonder if the UPS workers recognize these little charmers and have a special bin for them, surrounded by a moat.  But no, they treat them the same as they would Queen Elizabeth’s Crown Jewels.  You leave, hoping there are no untoward incidents which require further inspection, and you smile finally, assured you’ll never have to do that again.  But sometimes, as we all know, a funny thing happens on the way to the shittery.

A Double-Shot Of My Baby’s Love

It’s not every day you get a call from the Cologuard company, but you instinctively know it can’t be good news.  “We’re sorry to advise you, William, that your sample is defective,” said the sad voice on the other end of the line.  “I see” said the crestfallen feces donor.  “Was it something in the manufacturing?”

“It was the amount,” she advised.  “There was too much in the sample for the liquid to handle.”  Well, I never!  It immediately occurred to me that I was going to be responsible for discriminating shit removal, not the cheeriest of thoughts.  After several minutes of serious consideration and analyzation, I summed up what I would need for the next attempt at glory.  I could see this going on for some time, as in an Edgar Allen Poe story in which the principal adds a little here, subtracts a little there but never gets it just right.  The search for the perfect bowl might be like Goldilocks’ hunt for the most comfortable bed, only an extended version.  Fortunately, everything went right the second time.  Well, almost everything.  A few days later I got back the good news.  “Hello, William, we have your Cologuard results.  Your sample is positive.  Have a nice day!”  I never had a minute’s doubt this would happen.  Walk by the tree every day, ignore the beehive and everything goes like clockwork.  Put a stick in the hive and rotate, you’re on your way to Perdition.

The weighty columns of company literature admit that 14% of the Cologuard results are false-positives, though, so buck up, deflated camper.  And all they really discern is blood in the stool, the possible result of a harmless polyp, as with your sisters.  Even if worse comes to worse, there are reputed to be magic medicos in today’s world who can remove defective tissue, toss it aside and duct tape 82-year-old intestines back together again.  Considering all this, I maintained my usual optimism.   I went outside, looked to the skies and bellowed, “Run, run as fast as you can, you can’t catch me, I’m The Gingerbread Man.”  I hope I have enough of a head-start.

The Medical Rube Goldberg Machine

Remember Rube Goldberg?  Rube was an American cartoonist prominent in the 1920s for certain chain-reaction contraptions designed to perform a simple task in an indirect and overly complicated way.  Think the domino effect, but with traffic circles.  Or recall the linguist who advised the politician never to use a simple word when a five-syllable substitute would do.  This is the University of Florida Shands Medical Colossus, where seldom is heard an encouraging word and the skies are real cloudy all day.

It all starts with a simple phone call.  No matter whether you are the lowest grunt on the street or the Mayor of Peoria, you will be put on hold and forced to listen to atrocious music.  How come these people never play Red Headed Stranger by Willie Nelson or Unchained Melody or at least Take Me Out To The Ball Game?  It’s always unidentifiable dreck piped in from Sphincterville.  You can hold or leave your number and someone will call you back later in the day or as soon as Hell freezes over, whichever comes last.  I put the phone on speaker, wash the curtains and feed the goats until I hear something.  When someone finally deigns to answer it will absolutely not be the person you need, so you will be transferred to another party currently unavailable, which starts the merry-go-round all over again.  This time we get Lawrence Welk and the Honolulu Fruit Gum Orchestra playing Tiny Bubbles In The Wine, which, believe it or not, is an upgrade over the previous number, a sad ballad of unrequited love among the swineherds of Jalisco.

Nonetheless, after endless hours of watching Shands employees place things on top of things, I finally come upon an oasis in the desert.  Her name is Sendrella, she works in Radiology and has all the answers.  Grateful, I promise Sendrella her weight in lemons if she will only solve my problems.  She tells me she is the mistress of the maze, born to stand and deliver.  We’ll see.  I have dutifully bagged several dozen citrus delights, placed them in the trunk of my car and cancelled all my previous appointments.  I can see clearly now, the rain has gone, and I’m sitting here hopefully, listening to the Beatles sing Don’t Let Me Down.  It’s hell when the thing you need most is a virtual colonoscopy and the only light in sight is a phantom named Sendrella.

Here Comes the Sun

Oh, somewhere in this favoured land the sun is shining bright.  The band is playing somewhere and somewhere hearts are light.  And somewhere men are laughing and somewhere children shout.  But nowhere more than Fairfield, where Bill’s schedule has come out.

By the time you read this column, I will have picked up and digested my bowel swill, tootled off to the virtual colonoscopy building and been dutifully surveyed by the Magic Eye.  The day may be rainy or sunny, but I’ll have a little less money.  Turns out the free virtuals of 5 years ago are now in the neighborhood of $2000.  If you don’t believe me, just ask Medicare.  It will be worth it, of course, if I turn out to be problem free.  If not, it’s off to the man with the big snake and I don’t mean Doctor Thacker.  That’s life in the big city.  Either way, when it’s over I’m sure the docs will look at me, smile and say “Bill, you’ll never have to do this again.”  But we all know I will.  That’s the price you pay if you want to live forever.

That’s all, folks….

Afterthought: I realize my readers are very clever but nobody gets merit points for emailing me a comment like “What a shitty column.”  This means you, too, Thacker. 



Thursday, January 19, 2023

A Portal Opens

Welcome to the realm of Janus, the two-faced god of beginnings, gates and passages, a supreme being who looks both forward and back.  In his right hand, Janus holds the key to the future, and so do you.

January is the time when right-thinking humans promise to mend their ways and turn the page on the seven deadly sins, entering a new portal where the slate is wiped clean and everyone starts over.  Gyms and athletic centers fill up with new registrants seeking to rehabilitate bodies gone wrong, reverse the damage from reckless behavior, rev up their dating profiles and live happily ever after.

Penitents give up sugar and spice and everything nice, eschew salt, embrace the treadmill, investigate gluten and skip merrily into the vegan life.  Thousands of waterbottle-bearing trekkers make the pilgrimage to Yoga, try out salt rooms, suffer through Thai massage, trade their Honda Civic in for a nice healthy Schwinn, swap their comfy plush BMW for a more respectable BMI.

There is a time, the prophets say, a time for every purpose under heaven, and January is the time for redemption, for self-discovery, for taking the road less traveled.  All things are possible now, all doors are open, the explorer simply has to pass through, accept a new set of tenets, cope with the oddities facing a stranger in a strange land.  All of your instincts implore you to give it the old college try, to persevere through drought and darkness, to face the 31 days of January with gumption and grit and to break on through to the other side.

If, after all is said and done, the sinner crashes and burns, well, that’s February’s fault.

A Casual History Of January

Big things happen in January.  Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves on the first day of the new year in 1863.  George Washington defeated the British at Princeton and drove them back toward New Brunswick on January 3rd, 1777.  On the same date in 1959, Alaska was admitted as the 49th U.S. state, for better or for worse.  And in 1946, William Joyce, widely know as “Lord Haw Haw,” was hanged by the British for broadcasting Nazi propaganda into Britain, the bastard.  Who’s laughing now? 

On January 6, 1412, Joan of Arc was born in France.  After a series of mystic visitations by alleged saints, Joan inspired French troops to break the British siege at Orleans and win several important battles during the Hundred Years’ War between France and Britain.  Alas, she was eventually captured and sold to the British, who tried her for heresy and burned her at the stake.  Ouch!  Peevish, those British.

On January 8, 1815, General Andrew Jackson took a little bacon and he took a little beans and he met the bloody British at the town of New Orleans, inflicting over 2000 casualties.  Both sides were unaware that peace had been declared two weeks earlier with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent.  “Oops, never mind,” said newscaster Emily Litella.

On January 8, 1935, Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi.  His father took a peek at the none-too-pretty child and snorted, “He ain’t nuthin’ but a hound dog.”  Somebody wrote it down.

On January 11, 1964, the U.S. Surgeon General declared cigarettes may be hazardous to one’s health.  Since then, about 480,000 people a year have died from cigarette smoking.  In 2018 alone, smoking cost the United States more than $600 billion, including more than $240 billion in healthcare spending and $372 billion in lost productivity.  “It looks pretty cool, though,” said Marlboro Man Jerome Jackson, who died of lung cancer in 2008.  Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em, JJ.

In mid-January of 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met at Casablanca in Morocco to work on strategy during World War II.  In the subsequent movie, Humphrey Bogart played Roosevelt and Ingrid Bergman portrayed Churchill.

In 1741, that rotten traitor Benedict Arnold was born in Norwich, Connecticut.  After gaining command of West Point in 1780, he conspired to turn over the garrison to the British, but his plans were discovered and he fled to British headquarters in New York and then to London, where he ran a Slurpee kiosk in Trafalgar Square until his death in 1801.  Boo on you, Benedict!

On the other hand, good old Albert Schweitzer was born on the same day in 1875 in Upper Alsace, Germany.  He served as a medical missionary in Africa and received the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on behalf of the brotherhood of all nations.  You go, Albert!

And finally on January 15, 69 A.D., Roman Emperor Servius Sulpicius Galba, who had succeeded Nero, was cruelly assassinated by the evil Praetorian Guard in the Roman Forum.  We told you about those damn Praetorians, Servius, but would you listen?  No!


During the Great Depression, only about one-quarter of the American population made New Year’s resolutions.  By the end of the 20th century, however, that number nearly doubled and nobody knows why.  Perhaps, with the world seeming to go to hell in a handbasket, people began grasping for any illusion of control, up to and including ancient pacts with the gods that have over time turned into pacts with ourselves.  That hypothesis begins to fall apart, however, when we notice that resolutions in 2021 dropped back down to Great Depression levels.  Apparently, we have a threshold for how bad things can get before we go back to just leaving events up to the gods.  In any case, some New Year’s promises from the past:

 On 1 January, 1660, Samuel Pepys resolved to write a record of his daily life in England.  Pepys continued his ritual for almost ten years, providing readers with a key description of everyday life in London during the 1660s.  Trouble was, nobody cared.

Satirist Jonathan Swift, the famed writer of Gulliver’s Travels, penned a list of New Year’s resolutions in 1669.  Among his resolves, Swift promised he would not be grouchy or morose or suspicious, that he would marry a young woman, embrace cleanliness “for fear of falling into nastiness,” and, most notably, “Not to be fond of children, or let them come near me hardly.”  It must have worked, Swift never had a single child, thus avoiding all those long, boring Little League games.

So you think you’ve got a challenging list of resolutions?  In the 1930s, the great Cambridge mathematician Godfrey Hardy, one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century, aimed rather high: 1. Prove the Riemann Hypothesis; 2. Make 211 not out on the fourth innings of the last Test Match at the Oval; 3. Find an argument for the non-existence of God which would convince the general public; 4. Be the first man on top of Mt. Everest; 5. Be proclaimed the first President of the USSR, Great Britain and Germany; 6. Murder Mussolini.  Hardy never did prove the Riemann Hypothesis, but his pupil Ramanujan did.  Oh, and someone else took care of Mussolini.

A good friend of The Flying Pie, having smoked  marijuana every day for five years to no good end, resolved to quit one January 1st.  “The weed is derailing my life,” he said,  “I just want to feel clearheaded again.”

During New Year’s Eve festivities, he tried to get as high as humanly possible with a long drought at hand.  “One of my friends really got into the weed that night and offered me this tincture—a THC concoction he used to put himself to sleep.  He told me to take two drops before bed.  Once everyone was gone, I took the two prescribed drops to help me sleep.  Thirty minutes later, nothing.  I took two more, then a half-hour later three additional drops.  That worked, though it was now past midnight.  The next morning I woke up stoned out of my mind.  I couldn’t even gather myself up to get out of bed and I stayed there all day, hiding under the covers.  Finally, I sobered up and realized I had broken my resolution only an hour into the New Year.  Initially, I felt forlorn, a bust at even getting through the first two hours of my solemn promise.  As they say, however, Time heals all wounds.  In retrospect, I decided that having failed in my resolution, I guess I’m good to smoke weed for another 365 days.  No harm, no foul.  I want you to know, though, that I haven’t given up.  I’m more resolute than ever.  And just wait til next year!”

Who says Satan doesn’t exist?

I’ve Just Seen A Face….

“Had it been another day, I might have looked the other way.”---Lennon & McCartney

The cold can be fierce in the early days of a New England January, but there is beauty to buffer the shock.  The rains creep in during the early evening before the temperatures drop like a rock into the teens, freezing the water to the leafless branches of the trees, creating a vast mirror for the Sun when it rises in the morning.

Snow falls softly in the night, the wind molding the white modeling clay into voluptuous sculptures, curved without angles, sweeping off into the distance.  Here and there, the window-candle  remnants of Christmas still brighten the dark streets and lighten hearts.

In Boston, a young boy, 16, gets on a bus for home after a basketball game.  Looking out a window, he can see into a bus adjacent and just before he turns his head away, a young girl sits down, looks out her own window and smiles.  This is not just any girl, this is Helen of Troy, Cleopatra and Annette Funicello rolled into one, and there is mischief in her eyes.  Then again, it’s easy to be flirtatious when safely  ensconced in one vehicle while the victim of your spell is locked in another.

The boy, a hopeless romantic, is a quick study.  His instincts tell him to fly to the girl at all costs, even though he’ll be delivered to some frozen hell untold miles from home with no relief in sight.  The promise of Romance is one thing, the possibility of frostbite another.  “I’ll never see her again,” he thinks, correctly.  “I’ll never be able to find her.”  Just as the driver closes the doors with an emphatic wheeze, ardor wins the day and the boy leaps to his feet, runs to the front of the bus and asserts some feeble excuse to leave.  The driver throws up his hands and obliges.

The girl has seen all this from her comfortable nest and rises in welcome, smiling at her boy’s pluck.  “You have no idea where we’re going, do you?” she laughs.  “No idea at all,” he allows.  “Whatever happens, it will be worth the risk.”  There are women who wait all their lives to hear such a glorious peaen, and even young girls of little experience are struck to the core by the shock of hearing it.  She looked at him differently now, discovering a new smile she had never thought of using before.

They sat in their seat for the better part of an hour, exchanging stories, laughing, and finally, holding hands.  The girl was visiting her grandparents, lived off in the hinterlands of someplace called Iowa, had an “unimportant” boyfriend, would go to college there some day.  She would write, maybe even call, they would surely find each other again.  As the bus pulled into her destination, she lightly kissed the boy on the lips and rushed outside to her waiting grandparents.  The boy instinctively knew he would never see her again, and that was okay.  Even if nothing else followed, this one rare hour of a single night was enough.  He felt headstrong, giddy, grateful for the day.

Trudging through the snow backwards with a thumb raised, his heart skipped a beat when a new Lincoln pulled over.  The driver, a middle-aged man, had once been an inveterate hitchhiker and was happy to find someone to listen to his stories.  Once done, he turned to the boy and asked him about his evening.  “I took the wrong bus on my way back from a basketball game,” the boy said.  “The Celtics won in overtime.” 

“Wow!” said the driver, brightening.  “You don’t get to see something like that live very often.  Must  have been the highlight of your week!”  His passenger smiled and looked back at him, as if in happy affirmation.  “Not exactly,” he thought.  “It was right up there,” he said.

That’s all, folks….   

Thursday, January 12, 2023

There’s A Nip In The Air

We Floridians can deal with weather.  Ninety-eight degrees?  No problem.  The pool boy’s got the deck all ready.  Hurricanes?  Let’s have a few people over for dancing and umbrella drinks.  Savage lightning storms?  Gas up the generator, Lucy, there’s a big game on TV tonight.  It’s all good, we’re smug and adaptable.  Just don’t let the temperature drop below thirty.  Less than 25, it’s the Apocalypse.

For only the second time in 37 years, local temperatures around here danced with 20 degrees on Christmas Week.  Everybody wanted in on the lowest, as if it was a badge of honor to be the coldest.  “It was 19 at my house,” claimed a Flemington woman on a morning when everyone else registered 25.  “It was only 15 at my sister’s place in Lake City,” boasted a proud Ocala temp-dropper.  People pulled out forty-year-old mittens, Russian Gulag hats and all the boots in the closet.  Meanwhile, it was 10 degrees at my sister’s place in New Hampshire and she was out roller-skating and sniffing the daffodils. I think we’re spoiled.  You want cold?  This is cold:

“On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold!  Through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn’t see.
It wasn’t much fun but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.”

Sam, of course, was a Southerner.  At minus 20, at least he had a good excuse.

The Winter Of My Discontent

Well, almost.  In November of 1962, harshly evicted from my free Austin housing and dead broke, I was forced to accept a $5-a-month residence on a friend’s screened-in back porch.  The screens were surrounded by thin black polyethylene to keep out the wind but some nights temperatures fell to the low thirties, requiring all manner and make of borrowed blankets to keep out the cold.  One frigid night I took home a flirtatious young lass I met at a backyard bonfire and she was astonished at the dearth of amenities.  “You’re kidding!” she said, slackjawed.  “There won’t be any clothes coming off THIS girl!”  It’s amazing what you can accomplish with a little ingenuity, though.  Already a member of the exclusive Mile High Club, this lucky woman now entered the Subfreezing Sisterhood.  “I would call this a new low in my dating history,” she remarked, throwing on her parka.  “Call me someday when you get electricity.”

Even if you were destitute and scruffy, being on the staff of Gilbert Shelton’s Texas Ranger gave you instant heft in Austin.  Women batted their eyes, chatted you up in bars, at parties.  The trouble was that almost all of them lived in some form of communal housing….dorms, sororities, curfewed apartments approved by the university….so you weren’t going to their homes for after-hours pursuits.  Except for Greta Gotlicks, of course.  Greta was a very large woman of considerable means who had her own place in the country.  She showed up at all the Wednesday evening folksings at the University of Texas student union, invariably singing a sad tale of woe called Barbara Allen.  If there was some form of intermission at these gatherings, Greta’s number set off the alarm and the bathrooms filled up.

Now, most women have their own means of enticing the rabid male gender.  Some tilt their heads, lift a glass to their lips and deliver a smoky pout.  Others let a sleeve fall off a naked shoulder, or undulate across the room with unmistakable intentions or spill a little champagne on your brogans.  Greta, knowing my desperate circumstances, carried a large photograph of a fireplace, which she would flash often in my direction.  There is something to be said for scenes of chestnuts roasting on an open fire when Jack Frost is nipping at your nose, but I’m proud to say I resisted the advances of this amateur harlot even though she was the only heated game in town.  I have to admit I thought about it, though.  In “the cursed cold when it’s got right hold till I’m chilled clean through to the bone,” you need all the insulation you can get.


When we were kids, there were three epic annual events; a trip to Salisbury Beach, our birthdays and Christmas.  Better make that four.  There was occasionally the often-unexpected, awe-inspiring bolt from the blue called the Snow Day.  Alice and I would huddle around the radio avidly incorporating all the information about school cancellations in unimportant places like Rowley, North Reading and some unheard of hell called Dracut, but Lawrence never came up early, as if to torture the young denizens of the largest town in the area.  Deeply chagrined, we would ask our Mother how these school board savages could expect mere children to venture out in such outrageous weather; what about health concerns….what about the possibility of your tongue sticking to some flagpole?  A person could slip and fall on his head, what about that?

Most of the time, the board would deliver a last minute reprieve, shutting down the classrooms for the day.  What seemed like a torturous prospect, dealing with biting winds and streets cluttered with knee-deep precipitation now didn’t look so bad.  Mittens were pulled on, snowshoes buckled, three layers of clothing donned and earmuffs set in place.  Amidst whooping and hollering, we blasted open the doors and slogged through the snowy wilderness, carrying sleds and fort-building shovels, hoping there was wet stuff among the powder for making snowballs.  Our earlobes pulsed, our nosehair froze, our fingers and toes numbed, but nobody yielded.  It was our once (or twice, or three times) a year day, full of adventure and anticipation, marked by the wisdom of someone named Mary Beynon Lyons Ray: “We have only this moment, sparkling like a star in our hand and melting like a snowflake.  Let us use it before it is too late.”

With the gusto that only small children can bring to bear, we happily took Mary Ray’s advice.

The Iceman Cometh

“When you’re Hof, you’re hot!”---Jerry Reed

You’re not really cold, you just think you are.  You would not, for instance, even think of running a marathon barefoot and in shorts at the Arctic Circle because you fear you’d freeze to death.  Wim Hof of Finland, who did just that, deigns to disagree.  Hof, now better known as “The Iceman,” was nervous himself at the prospect of running 26 miles at –4 degrees Fahrenheit.  “What did I get myself into,” he recalls thinking the night before his venture.  But from the moment his toes hit the snow, he began to feel “surprisingly good.”

The 59-year-old Dutchman has climbed Mount Everest in Nepal and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania (Africa’s tallest peak) wearing shorts.  “I’ve done about anything I can fantasize about in the cold,” Hof said in an interview.  He holds the Guinness World Record for longest swim under ice and just for laughs also endured the extremes of dry heat, running a half-marathon through the Namib Desert without drinking any water.

Naturally, the field of medicine looks with wonder at The Iceman.  Doctors have put Wim Hof’s brain--and body—on ice in an effort to better understand the mental and physical mechanisms which allow him to seemingly defy the laws of nature.  Otto Musik, a pediatrician at Wayne State University’s School of Medicine and several coauthors recently put Hof into a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine while exposing him to cold water and analyzed what happened inside his body.  The results of the experiment, published in a study in the journal NeuroImage, might at first sound like so much mumbo-jumbo rather than fact.  The researchers found that Hof is able to use his mind to artificially induce a stress response in his body that helps him to resist the effects of cold.  Musik calls it a case of “brain over body,” in which Hof activates an internal painkiller function by conducting breathing exercises, then exposing himself to a threat like extreme sudden cold.

“By accident or just dumb luck he found a hack into the physiological system,” Musik believes, adding that the hack allows Hof to feel euphoric while in a freezing cold environment that would be impossible under normal circumstances.  The researchers tested the Iceman’s responses alongside 30 control subjects.  The pediatrician had conducted earlier research on the way the human body reacts to extreme temperatures.  When he heard about a man who could sit in buckets of ice cubes for hours at a time and walk up the Himalayas as if it were a walk in the park, he was intrigued.

Hof attributes his success to what he’s dubbed the Wim Hof Method, a type of conditioning that involves a series of breathing exercises he says anyone can replicate.  Rather than by luck or accident, Hof says he learned his technique by trial and error while venturing out in nature.  “I had to find the interconnection of my brain together with my physiology.”  The technique first requires relaxation.  Hof says he must find a comfortable place to lie down, like a sofa or a bed.  Then he begins a series of deep breathing exercises for several minutes, often prompting a kind of tingling in parts of his body---a sign of hypocapnia, or low carbon oxide in his blood.  “That’s what nature meant us to do, breathe deep when we are stressed,” Hof says.

To some degree, Musik’s work supports Hof’s hypothesis.  After Hof went through his preparation exercises, Musik put The Iceman into his MRI in a special suit shot through with very cold water, then hot water in five minute intervals.  Previous research had shown that this exercise made Hof’s blood more alkaline since it became saturated with oxygen.  Musik found that when exposed to cold, Hof activates a part of the brain that releases opioids and cannabinoids into the body.  These components can inhibit the signals responsible for telling your body it’s feeling pain or cold, triggering the release of dopamine and serotonin.  The result is a kind of euphoric effect on the body which lasts for several minutes.

“Your brain has the power to modify your pain perception,” Musik contends, adding that this mechanism is particularly important for human survival.  Pain and the feeling of cold are basically your body’s way of telling you something is wrong.  Since humans instinctively look to remove the source of pain or alleviate any sensation of cold, feeling hurt can help us survive.  But the pain mechanism isn’t always useful.  Musik gives the hypothetical example of someone spraining an ankle while being chased by a tiger.  You might not feel the pain while an angry Tigger is on your tail since your brain senses the greater danger and pumps out opioids and cannabinoids to inhibit pain signals.  “Your ankle is not important in this context,” Musik says.  No kidding.

Musik’s study shows that breathing, often thought of as an automatic skill, can be willfully controlled, just like our yoga teachers promised.  Harnessing breathing can result in increased activity in those parts of the brain that deal with thought and action.  Hof claims that stress-induced analgesia will only last a few minutes at best.  For Hof to continue his ability to resist the feeling of cold, Musik believes that his body needs to anticipate the continued effect, which helps his body maintain the state it’s in.  “The placebo effect is real,” he says.  “This is actually by generating in your cortex a certain expectation, and this expectation is fulfilled.”  Musik adds that expectation triggers the release of more opioids, serotonin and dopamine in a kind-of self-fulfilling cycle.  In other words, the longer people jump into holes in the ice practicing this method, the easier it gets as they become more confident in their expectations.

Okay everybody---ready to try it?  The bus to Yellow Knife leaves at 5 a.m. tomorrow morning.  Just bring a little sunscreen, your bathing suit and some snorkeling gear.  As the dentist always promises, you won’t feel a thing.

That’s all, folks…. 



Thursday, January 5, 2023

Road Kill

The last four times we’ve travelled more than 30 miles on Interstate 75, the dreaded Blockage Monster has reared its ugly head.  A journey on this highway is akin to driving a wagon train across the old Western prairies, running from robber bands, looking for Indians and trying to ford swollen rivers.  If we can just make it to the fort—or Turnpike—a few miles in the distance, all will be well.

Fortunately, these days we have equipment on our phones that allows us to see trouble ahead in the form of yellow and red lines on our little cell maps indicating slowdowns and stoppages and the time it will take to wade through the morass.  The maps replace the old Indian scouts who travelled ahead of the wagons sniffing out trouble and looking for alternate routes.  Ah yes, another path, an escape from imminent doom.  Let’s zip off the next exit and over to Rte. 441, where bliss reigns.  Except that everyone else has the same idea and now you’re marooned on a two-lane shoestring with traffic lights and no hope the cavalry will arrive.

The Gainesville to Wildwood section of I-75 has become the Bermuda Triangle of automobiling.  Every day another car or two falls into the abyss and is never heard from again.  Strange ethers emerge from the marshes of Payne’s Prairie, fogging up windshields and causing monstrous multi-vehicle collisions.  Large alligators emerge from the depths to cross the road at twilight, sending tandem trucks careening through the ectoplasm.  Previously sane semi-drivers turn into werewolves when the moon comes up, swerving madly from lane to lane chasing tiny Subarus.  Timid schoolteachers and librarians are overcome by evil I-75 fumes and start rocketing down the road at 85 MPH, humming tunes from Mad Max.  Every car, including yours, is an accident waiting to happen and not for too long.

Take us back to old Nebrasky where the poppy-mallows bloom.  Can we still get our kicks on Route 66?  That guy who said “Hit the road, Jack. and don’tcha come back no more, no more,” has a pretty good chance of getting his wish these days.  Maybe we should all have listened to the wise words of our parents more, heeded their cautions, trusted their experience.  I, for one, can clearly recall the measured advice of a worldly-wise father who sat me down and bade me listen; “Son, you’re gonna drive me to drinkin’ you don’t stop drivin’ that hot rod Lincoln.”

Take Me Home, Country Roads

More and more these days, we hear a common promise; “I’m not motivatin’ on that I-75 no more.  I’ll leave it to the banshees and the cross-country truckers.”  Fine, if you want to arrive somewhere on the Twelfth of Never.  Ever try to drive through the funland known as The Villages on U.S. Routes 441 or 301?  Whoever got the traffic light franchise in those parts hit the jackpot, there’s six on every corner and they’re s-l-o-w.  You know those pesky crosswalks in most towns where you have to grind to a sudden halt to avoid crushing an unwary grannie carrying a bejeweled pomeranian?  In The Villages they have veritable trains of golf carts, twelve at a time, parading across the avenues at speeds approaching three miles an hour, their address books open to the phone number of the nearest accident lawyer.  Nudge one and you’ll be moving into low-income housing in Dubuque and eating at the Salvation Army.

Welcome To Airbag Country

According to the Department of Transportation, the accident rate on I-75 crossing through Alachua county is 90% higher than the statewide average for similar roads.  Ninety friggen percent!  Worse even, the number of wrecks jumped from 935 in 2011 to 1,538 in 2015 and a whopping kazillion in 2021, leading to the highway’s perky motto, “If you’re not crashin’, you ain’t tryin’!”

They don’t even let you ride I-75 in these parts unless you’re shot out of a cannon from the on-ramp at a blistering 70 mph.  Driving at 80 is sissy stuff, the Highway Patrol won’t even quit their side-by-side banter for anything less than 85.  Nashville resident Mark Quarles, who makes the Florida trip often, says it’s Katy-bar-the-door when you reach the Florida line, “particularly from Lake City south.  Once you get to U.S. 90, it’s like NASCAR out there because regular drivers know there are not going to be any troopers present.  The stretch between Interstate 10 and Gainesville is sheer madness.  People are swerving left and right, tailgating right on your ass and being extremely aggressive.  You consider the volume of cars on the road in that space and accidents are inevitable.”  So is getting the finger a lot. 

Vehicle crashes in 2017 killed 55 people in Alachua County, the most in a decade and a 52% increase over the 10-year average.  It was also the first time there were more fatalities in Alachua than neighboring and more populous Marion County, which will undoubtedly take umbrage and shake things up in an effort to get the trophy back.

The main culprits, of course, are sleepy and/or meth-crazed semi drivers, who easily swap CB info on cop hidey-holes, laugh at the speed limit and run right over the top of you if you’re driving less than 75.  The great majority of highway deaths involve truck drivers and they’re usually not the ones getting killed.  There once was a time not long ago when new semi drivers couldn’t get a job without a good safety record and a solid learning period.  Now the number of vehicles on the road has outstripped the qualified drivers and all the shipping companies require is someone with a pulse and a death wish.  Vision issues?  Can you see the steering wheel in front of you?  You’re good.  Narcoleptic?  Here’s some tape to keep your eyelids open.  Brain fog, heart issues, repeated strokes?  Hey, nobody’s perfect.  Can’t back up?  Don’t.  Hawthorne Mayor Matt Surrency, who was on a highway task force studying remedies once suggested having an all-truck lane, maybe two on wider roads.  The semi industry replied with lawyers, guns and money and the idea was abandoned; Surrency was last spotted hiding out in San Juan de los Lagos, disguised as a nana tending goats.

Go West, Young Man!  In the Summer of 1962,  Bill leaves Massachusetts for The Great Beyond.

King Of The Road

Remember when driving was fun?  You got your first car, washed it by hand til it gleamed every Saturday morning and set out looking for girls (or boys) in the afternoon.  Cruising down Main Street like a hotshot, waving to lesser beings like the queen of the homecoming parade.  You’d have fun, fun, fun til a couple of rolling stops through the big red signs took your T-bird away.

When I was a mere 19, I bought a 1950 Cadillac Superior Model Hearse for a whopping $300 at an ambulance graveyard.  It had all the accoutrements…plush seats, lovely purple drapes and a velvety maroon casket platform with actual rollers on top for ease of transport.  The vehicle was painted a sullen dark gray to suit the mood of the occasions for which it was put to use.  My grandmother took one look, blanched and said, “Billy, you’re not putting that thing in the driveway!  What will the neighbors think?”  Well, gee, I don’t know, Nan, maybe they’ll think I’m going into the discount ambulance business.

The hearse paid early dividends when my pal Jacques Guerin and I became major heroes a few months later.   About a dozen Tufts college girls got a bit tanked at a Boston party, lost their bearings and faced sanctions if they didn’t make curfew back at their Medford dorms.  We loaded them up and zipped across town just in time to save the day, pulling up to the residence just before the gong struck.  The ladies hopped out of the back one at a time with Jacques the last to climb out, getting a large round of applause from passersby.  We got a lot of good telephone numbers from that escapade.

In 1962, unjustly relieved of my driver’s license (for pitifully minor crimes) by the police chief who lived across the street, I set out to reunite with Jacques Guerin at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.  My neighborhood buddy John Chaffe drove the hearse to the outskirts of town to foil the cops, and I was on my way.  My Mother, the ultimate law-abiding citizen, fretted over the possibilities.  “License?!?” I replied.  “I don’t need no stinking license.”  I mean, who’s going to bother a hearse driver?  He might be on his way to somewhere carrying important cargo.  Speeding could be necessary to prevent spoilage.

Like everyone else I knew, I had read Lowell neighbor Jack Kerouac’s On The Road by this time and was charmed by the notion of roaming across the country dirt-broke, letting the chips fall where they may.  I flitted across the newish Pennsylvania Turnpike into Ohio, stopping in University Heights to reminisce with an old Champagne-Urbana girlfriend whose influential parents once had me clapped me into jail for not being Jewish.  Her mother arrived home unexpectedly just as I left.  Eager to get out of Dodge in a hurry, I was slowed by a flattening tire.  I had wisely brought along one of those canned-air devices, which provided enough sustenance to get me to a gas station.  In those days, long, long ago, such places as gas stations had sage employees called “mechanics,” who could promptly fix what ailed you and send you on your way.  Where have all the mechanics gone, long time passing?  Gone to Sam’s Club, every one.  Oh, when will they ever learn?  When will they ever learn?

On The Road Again

“The coyotes wail along the trail, deep in the heart of Texas.”

Shit happens when you try to drive a twelve-year-old hearse with bad tires and a sulky radiator 2246 miles across the country in hot weather.  On a good day or two, it’s 33 hours non-stop, but Bill is not a big believer in non-stop so it takes a bit longer.  Approaching lovely Oklahoma City, where the deer and the oil rigs roam, the weary chariot began heating up, steam crept out from beneath the hood and the dreaded hissing sound arose.  “You need a new radiator,” reported the nearest mechanic.  Surely you jest, I thought, checking my pocket to find a mere $76.  “You can drive for awhile with the sealer I put in there, but you have to stop and fill the tank every fifty or so miles.  Where are you trying to get to?”  Ahem, Albuquerque, 544 miles in the distance.  “Well, that’s downright hilarious, Mr. Bill, what’s your second choice?”  I remembered Gilbert Shelton inviting me to sleep on his hair coach in Austin if I would come and help him put out the Texas Ranger humor magazine.  “Just under 400 miles,” calculated my new pal.  “Might make it if you get lucky.”

I had heard the stars at night were big and bright deep in the heart of Texas, not to mention the prairie sky being wide and high.  It was true.  Crossing into the Lone Star State at twilight felt exhilarating, the land was open and you could see for miles.  I had the eerie feeling that my change in course had been predestined, that I was finally heading where I was supposed to go, even though I have never been a subscriber to Fate.  Flagging after a long day, I pulled into a closed primitive gas station/fruit stand to spend the night.

Next morning, I pulled back the drapes to see twelve pair of eyes directed right at me.  The Mexican family which ran the operation was ready to open but fearful of arousing whoever was in the Deathstar.  The back door was inoperable from inside, thus I had to roll down a window and climb out, all the while holding the rapt attention of my silent audience, which backed up a few steps.  I spent a few dollars on gas, bought some orange juice and a couple of apples without a word being spoken, as if any conversation would place some kind of curse on the place.  The smallest kid gave me a tiny wave as I pulled away, the rest of the family exhaling mightily.  “Customer of the Day,” I thought, smiling, not worried a bit about any possible competition.

Despite proper watering, the radiator was heating up as I reached the Austin city limits on the Interregional Expressway.  Fortunately, Shelton’s place was on the East side of town, not far from the highway.  I pulled into the laneway alongside his humble apartment just as the radiator arrived at its death throes, a large steam cloud enveloping the entire vehicle and sounding like a pitful of vipers.  Gilbert, unabashed was standing nearby with his arms crossed, a trickle of a smile threatening his face.  “Welcome to Austin, Killeen,” he said, merrily.  “You sure know how to make an entrance.” 

That’s all, folks…      


Thursday, December 29, 2022

A Day In The Life

I think I’ll go to Paris next year.  Not the one in Kentucky or the other one in Texas, the real one in Europe where people speak French and snub outsiders.  Both my sisters and most of my friends have been there and tell me it’s the bees’ knees, and I have viewed all the appropriate Woody Allen movies, so I think I’m ready.

I’m a little worried about the language, it’s very oily.  I took two years of Spanish in high school, so when I go to Mexico I’m in good shape.  I can read all the signs, tell people what I want and even understand them if they talk pretty slow.  But I wouldn’t know merde from shinola in French.  How do I order an apple fritter or tell a woman I’m impressed with her assets?  How do I find the bathrooms?  Is it Uber or Ubaire?  If I start singing “There was an emperor, Napoleon…he never heard a nickelodeon,” will French people get pissed off?  Maybe I’d be better off with a tour, where the management can bail you out of jail if you slip up.

I might gain some weight.  The food, as they say, is to die for and if you eat enough of it that’s just what you might be doing.  It’s practically impossible for me to pass a bakery, especially if the door is open and the odors are wafting outside.  My wife might be even worse than me.  Her philosophy has always been to eat dessert before the entree (there’s one word I know) just in case there’s an earthquake or a sudden societal uprising and you have to flee the restaurant.  It’s easier to take your lemon meringue (see, there’s another one) pie with you than to haul off the pate de foie gras (I’m on a roll!  Or is it a baguette?). 

I might meet my friend Danny Levine on the Left Bank, wherever that is.  Danny’s been around, he’s very cosmopolitan.  If some pseudo-intellectual Frenchman gets snooty with him, he’ll jump right up and ask him some fancy questions about the French Renaissance and the wise guy will put his hands to his forehead and go skulking off into the shadows.  Danny knows where all the good stuff is in Paris and how to frustrate the pickpockets.  We can even visit 83-year-old Gilbert Shelton if he’s still sentient.  Gilbert and fellow-cartoonist Robert Crumb both moved there decades ago to bathe in the adulation of comics-loving Parisians.  Luckily for them they haven’t made any wisecracks about Muhammad, so nobody’s shot them yet.

And I don’t care what anyone says, I’m going to the Eiffel Tower.  I may even go to the top.  I’ve heard all the yahooing about the place being an overcrowded tourist trap, but how do you go to Paris and not see the Eiffel Tower?  You come home and people ask how you liked the famous landmark and you say, oh, I skipped it and went to a drag show matinee at Boas ‘R’ Us instead.  They’ll think you’re a pagan, a Neanderthal, a cultural bumpkin.  Nobody wants that.  When you travel to France, of course, there are also certain expectations placed on you by the folks back home, like photos from the cheese caves, pictures of you dancing naked on a table at the Moulin Rouge, small trinkets from the Louvre, and air shipments of exotic pastries from Boulangerie Utopie.  It’s all so galling.

Maybe I’ll go to Lithuania instead. 

Where There’s A Will, There’s A Way

My friend Will Thacker is coming to visit today.  This is always an adventure.  Will likes to take “the back roads” through the wilderness and he usually gets lost and shows up an hour late, if at all.  Once, he got in a dustup with a homeless person at a boondocks gas station and arrived a little unkempt.  Say what you will about turnpike oases but this almost never happens at the Okahumpka Service Plaza.

The last time he arrived with Tudy Hanke, a wild woman from Tampa who had just damaged her leg in an urban bar fight.  A large piece of plastic from somewhere behind the bumper was dragging on the ground but Tudy was very blase about it, as if all cars had big wads of plastic dragging behind them.  Will being the ladies man he is, even at an advanced age, is subject to show up with all manner and make of people he has met at rattlesnake roundups and alcohol emporiums for senescent DJs.  Once he drove up with a heavily tattooed woman named Marge who liked the neighborhood so much she left him and set up shop in an abandoned railroad car in East Williston.  If you want a nice switch-blade with a smileyface on the handle, head for Levy County and look for the sign of the flying red cleaver.

We love Will, partly because he is one of the few remaining Gainesville Originals of the 1960s and 70s.  In those days, he was an infamous disc jockey called Montana who could get away with saying anything he wanted to on the air because his show was sponsored by rich joolery magnates and the nookular fission industry.  Thacker also ran a serpentarium called The Underground Zoo, which was barely legal.  When he got bored, he would talk nice local girls into accompanying him on snake-hunting journeys to exotic places like Rangoon, Bimbombay and the scary Ilha de Queimada Grande, returning with scads of smuggled reptiles which he would stash in his clothes closets.  Needless to say, in those days, nobody would go to Thacker’s house for dinner.

Will is older now and maybe a little wiser.  He stays closer to home, maintains less than a dozen snakes and has moved on to more genteel women who have no extensive police records.  He hums about in a little vehicle he calls The Phoenix, explores the wilds of metropolitan Clermont, carries a boxcutter around homeless ruffians and has been the subject of only one Silver Alert in the past four months.  He said he was bringing along a nice lady friend called The Spider.

Lemon Tree, Very Pretty, But….

“If you see me comin’, better step aside.  A lot of men didn’t and a lot of men got lemoned.”---W.T. Killeen

Once upon a time, an eager young girl planted a Meyer lemon tree on her property and nothing happened.  A few years went by with no fruit, but the girl and her family admired the healthy-looking tree and wrote off the failed experiment as just one of those things.  But then one day, a visitor spotted a tiny lemon in the upper branches, and then another.  Before long, the tree was swimming in healthy, growing lemons, far too many for the family to use, and the girl began giving them away willy-nilly, loathe to see any of them reduced to fallen pulp.  Neighbors got lemons, distant relatives got them in the mail, Fedex drivers were gifted with yellow fruit, repairmen and landscapers and Jehovah’s Witnesses were victimized.  But it still wasn’t enough.  More lemons fell to the ground, perished in the dust, causing great consternation for the members of the lemon tree family.  There was only one thing to do; call in Bill, Incorporated, sometimes know as “The Dispenser.”

“Have Caddy, Will Travel” reads the card of a man.  On daily trips, The Dispenser carries with him Fruit of the Infinite Tree.  Pharmacists receive them in plastic grocery bags, bank tellers see them slide into their deposit windows, street people rush up to greet The Lemon Man.  No one is immune, not the butcher, the baker or the Los Angeles Laker.  The Delivery Man roars up to the ATM machine, leaps out, smiles, hands the customer a bag and says, Here, you’ll be needing these!”   Who was that masked man, the recipients wonder in awe, staring at their golden bullets.

Needless to say, if there is a dire lemon shortage in your neck of the woods you should immediately rush up to your roof and turn on the Lemonsignal.  Relief is just a swallow away.  Or you could call 352-lem-onad(e).  Our operators are standing by.

How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down On The Farm After They’ve Seen WEC?

Siobhan and I had dinner at Stirrups restaurant in the grandiose hotel at the World Equestrian Center in Ocala the other day.  It’s lovely to look at, delightful to hold, even when they spill champagne on you.  The waiters replaced our $11 glasses of bubbly with the $65 stuff in atonement, as if we’d know the difference.  The hotel, majestic as it is, surrounded by enormous Christmas decorations and fronted by the Grand Arena, a 145,000 square-foot equine playpen (almost twice the size of your average soccer field), is but a single part of this far-ranging Metropolis.

The WEC is a world-class facility, the largest equestrian complex in the United States situated on 378 acres of state-of-the-art arenas and luxury accommodations, with another 300 acres set aside for future expansion.  They have a laundry on the property that is bigger than a blimp factory.  The Center is like a Plaza Hotel for horses, who show up from everywhere for equine competitions of every description.  You remember the old saw about anticipation always exceeding actuality?  Uh-uh, not this time.  Whatever someone tells you about this place, it’s more awe-inspiring than that.  Don’t care about horses?  Makes no difference.  It’s worth your time just to drop in, walk around the massive grounds surrounding the main arena, grab a pizza and take a gander at the Christmas decorations.  If you are horsy, you can shop in any one of the several equine-flavored shops, just remember to get a loan from the bank before setting out. There are also two monster-sized exposition centers on the property, each big enough to house huge conventions, auto shows or ten volleyball games at the same time without crowding anybody.

The 248-room Equestrian Hotel, which opened in 2021 cost a piffling $800 million to build, and it looks like it.  The interior is stunning, the ultimate in posh.  The builders of WEC, Mary and Larry Roberts, make Scrooge McDuck look like Ebeneezer.  The cost to construct the entire facility is unimaginable and will take decades, if ever, to reclaim.  Maybe the Roberts gang knows something we don’t know, such as the likelihood of eventual casinos.  Maybe they have endless money to burn and a wild desire to expand forever.  Who cares?  The result of their madness is a colossal island of extravagant beauty and wonder, a magic land for everyone from small children to ancient citizens looking for a lively after-dinner stroll.  And better yet---no Towers of Terror, no upside-down roller coasters or Haunted Mansions to give you frantic acid flashbacks.

“Come, let’s mix where Rockefellers walk with sticks or umbrellas in their mitts.  Puttin’ on the ritz!”

That’s all, folks….     

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Walkin’ In A Winter Wonderland

For a small child, Christmas approaches with the speed of molasses, visible on the horizon just after Thanksgiving, teasing, waving from a distance, laughing at the impatience of babes.  It comes a step closer when Mrs. O’Grady, always the earliest in the neighborhood, tucks a trio of candles with red-orange bulbs in the upstairs front windows of her streetside apartment.  Now and then, an overeager disc jockey slips Jingle Bell Rock into the day’s playlist, maybe a few flakes of snow flutter down.  Will it ever get here, the small boy wonders, and what largesse will Santa provide?

Then one day—can it be?—Mr. Pennywhistle’s old red pickup truck appears on the corner lot, followed by a couple of flatbeds laden with the greenest Christmas trees anyone ever saw.  Jackie Mercier’s older brother Bunky, who knows about these things, announces the downtown Christmas parade is a piffling week away and the seminary lights are going up on Sunday.  The children can feel it now, sweeping in on the wings of carolers, taking center stage in the brilliant department store windows, encouraged by the first light snowfall.   

There are really two versions of Christmas, after all, the real one being the holiday we celebrate while still believing in Santa Claus and the dimmer imitation that occurs after that.  Small children, you see, are willing to suspend reality and believe in Magic and elves and aerodynamic reindeer, all foolishly abandoned by silly older kids and adults, who obviously don’t know how to have fun.

Some moron reports one day that there is no Santa Claus, but doesn’t he watch the local TV weatherman who tracks Santa’s course across the planet?  If something is on television, it must be true, right?  Eddie McFuddle, that brat from third grade, says something called the logistics are impossible, that St. Nick can’t be everywhere all at once, but why not?  Works for God, doesn’t it?

Everyone thinks what children like most about Christmas is the gift-getting, but that’s not true.  What excites them most is the feeling of Wonder that Christmas brings, the ebullient joy in the atmosphere, the airborne elixir that makes grouchy old men smile and taciturn nuns trip the light fantastic.  Everyone is happy, even old Mr. Grabbit on the corner.  Eleven months a year, when a ball inadvertently falls into his yard, he scoops it up and runs into the house.  At Christmas, the old crustacean throws it back like a guilty fisherman.

Christmas means our homes will have visitors, relatives and friends who visit once a year to engage in small talk, backslapping and serious alcohol consumption with our parents.  They will pat us on the head, maybe hand us a dollar and dispense well-meant but silly advice to enrich our journey through life like “You should grow up to be an engineer, Billy, that’s where the money is” or “Everybody can’t play for the Red Sox, kid, you might want to have a backup plan.”

The Wonder Years seem long at the time, but they are a mere speck on the windshield of Life.  When we finally concede the unlikeliness of Santa we unknowingly abandon Magic, leave a fairyland world where the days are filled with light and anything is possible, and we can never go back.  Years from this time we will forget most of the gifts we received but we will never forget these rapturous moments when Santa Claus sails through a snowy sky, bliss rules the Earth and dreams come true.  It might be the only time in your life you don’t want to get too smart too quickly. 

“In The Lane, Snow Is Glistenin’…”

Now, some people will tell you that Christmas stands on its own, needs no embellishment, can do quite well, thank you, without snow.  This is utter folly.  You might as well tell a kid not to apply butter to his corn on the cob or add mustard to his Fenway Frank.  Snow is essential, best served up in walloping big doses that enable the construction of impregnable forts and carrot-nosed snowmen.  Snow is necessary for atmosphere, for sleigh rides, for snowball fights.  How’s a lad to make any money without walks to shovel, automobiles to uncover?  Even after kids lose faith in the magic of Christmas, they still believe in the wonders of snow.

Noone is immune, really.  Even would-be sophisticated college kids yield to the temptations of snow.  Once, a group of fun-loving students from haughty MIT gathered to roll up the world’s largest snowball, then pushed it all the way out onto the exceedingly busy Memorial Drive, which runs along the Charles River in Cambridge.  You might not believe this, but the world’s largest snowball was enormous enough to block up both lanes of traffic on the busiest artery in the city.  Being the skillful geniuses that Massachusetts Institute of Technology students are, they contrived a way to pour water on the snowball and freeze it, thus making it difficult to break into pieces.  The snowball sat for a very long time while passing pedestrians tittered and drivers cursed and policemen scratched their heads.  Finally, someone thought to invite a few firemen to the party and the snowball was slowly vanquished, but not without a fight.  False alarms were called in to distract the firefighters and it was several hours before the street was cleared.  Many of the firemen were irked, but one of them smiled merrily and had to admit “You’ve got to appreciate the artistry involved.  And who doesn’t like seasonal humor?”

Snow is immortal.  It may take a leave of absence to travel somewhere else but it will always return.  Snow is a muse.  Artists paint it, photographers try to capture its essence, songwriters celebrate it, poets like Robert Frost embellish it.  Here’s what Frost had to say:

“The way a crow shook down on me
The dust of snow from a hemlock tree
Has given my heart a change of mood
And saved some part of a day I had rued”

Of course there will always be wiseguy poets like Gary Schmidt:

“The light made the snowballs look yellow.  Or at least I hoped that was the case.”

A Little Romance

They met at a little gathering spot in the University’s Student Union, she sitting in a booth with a smiling girlfriend, he walking by with a college pal.  The young women invited them to take a seat, they did, conversation flowed, people laughed, phone numbers were exchanged, light promises were made.

The taller boy called the taller girl one day and a meeting was arranged at a park with a pond at the center of campus.  The boy, who came from the East, related tales of life in New England replete with blizzards and baseball and history.  The girl told stories of a very different existence on a Native American reservation, her father an Indian Agent.

The boy liked the girl very much and the girl liked the boy.  They went to the movies together.  They dined on banana splits at a sweet shop.  They had dinner at a cheap restaurant with a tiny menu.  They walked together a lot, automobiles being a great luxury in those days.  The boy was always very respectful of the girl.  At night, she returned to the dormitory and he to a room in an old lady’s home.

Time passed, emotions rose.  When they kissed on a bench by the pond on a twilight evening, the tall girl from the Indian reservation made it known by her actions that something more was required.  The boy said he would make the arrangements.  The boy and the girl had but limited experience in these matters and the excitement was palpable.

A few nights later, the boy whisked the girl in the back door of the old lady’s house and into his small room, adorned with a bed, a desk and little else.  They were careful to be quiet as this was a forbidden adventure promising severe retribution if discovered.  The tall girl smiled as the boy helped her unbutton her clothes.  The bed creaked a little too loud as they fell into it, bringing muffled laughter.  In a warm room in an old lady’s house on a chilly winter night in December, the Eastern boy and the Western girl shared a night of rare bliss.  “Merry Christmas,” said the boy, a few days in advance.  “I’ll say,” replied the girl.  The next morning, the tall girl left before the old lady arose to start coffee.  The New England boy kissed her out the door.

Two days later, the boy met the girl one more time at the downtown bus station.  He was leaving school for good, moving back east, had a nice job waiting in Manhattan.  The girl would stay in school one more year, then move back to the reservation well-armed with great knowledge to help her aging father.

“I know I will never see you again,” said the tall girl.  “I know I will never meet anyone like you.  Just do me one last favor—don’t turn around when you go to the bus.”  The boy had a tear in his eye and a lump in his throat, but humor was his saving grace.  “You’re sure that’s not something you saw in a movie?” he asked.  “No, it’s not,” she said, laughing and crying at the same time. “I have seen about three movies in my whole life.  Just do as you’re told and get on that bus.”

The tall boy from back East walked up the steps into the bus with tears running down his face.  The sympathetic bus driver touched him on the shoulder and said, “Are you sure you want to be leaving that woman?”  The boy tried to smile and said, “I’m not real sure of anything.  Well, maybe one thing.  I’m really sorry that all these years I’ve been rooting for the cavalry.”

That’s all, folks….and Merry Christmas from The Eastern boy and the Western girl, wherever they are.