Sunday, November 05, 2017

Kitchen stove, stuff of nightmares

It was the worst nightmare I'd had since I was a child dreaming that Sleestak, reptile men from “The Land of the Lost,” were invading our house through a hole in the basement wall.

Nightmares. We all have them. Dreams are the brain's problem-solving mechanism working overtime while the conscious mind sleeps. When we have a nightmare, it's because the subconscious is trying to warn us of danger. “Stop watching 'The Land of the Lost!'” your brain screams. “Get dad to patch that hole in the basement wall.”

The truth is, there was no hole in the basement wall of the house I grew up in, although I did have an older brother Bill. We used to watch “The Land of the Lost” together on Saturday mornings, and we got along so well that sometimes he even appeared in my dreams, at least until the Sleestak got him. He stopped appearing after that.

When you get down to it, this was a fairly stupid dream to be scared over. It's kind of like having a dream in which your oldest brother becomes a dancing skeleton, and you get so scared that you lean over the railing to your bed and throw up on your younger brother while he's sound asleep in the lower bunk. You just can't help but feel a little silly afterward.

This particular nightmare was nothing like that. It was legitimately terrifying, with horrors beyond anything Stephen King has given us. There were zoning law violations, bad computer coding, defaced kitchen appliances, questionable H.R. decisions, and ultimate evil loosed upon the earth after a long captivity. Nightmares don't get worse than this.

In my dream, I was married to the president of the board at the Christian school I used to teach at in Bethlehem, Pa., and we ran a private airport out of our home. If the paperwork for that mixed use wouldn't be bad enough, our home was also a church, an honest-to-goodness Assemblies of God church with yellow padded pews and a baptismal at the front of the sanctuary.

I'd like to think that the dream at this point carried some emotional heft. My wife was leaving on a trip, taking the airport's only plane. I'd like to say that our hearts were heavy, our faces besotted with tears that mixed with the rain as it fell, but it was sunny and my wife merely smiled in her flight suit before she donned her helmet, and flew off from the runway that doubled as the church's rear parking lot.

I went inside, where I joined my friend Scott, our lone air traffic controller, in the kitchen; and we approached the stove.

Most kitchens have stoves, and most stoves are unremarkable. They have burners, and they have controls to control the heat. Whether your stove is gas or electric, it works pretty much the same. Turn it up, and the heat goes up; turn it down, and the heat goes down. Your stove may be black, it may be white, and it may be yellow, but probably the most memorable thing about it is how well you can use it to make a grilled cheese sandwich.

This stove was different. Years ago, someone had faced beings of indescribable evil, and with powerful enchantments they had locked them one after the other inside the stove. The stove had six burners, and each one held a different devil prisoner. As long as they were trapped there, the world was safe, but if they were ever set loose, we were doomed.

It was a heavy responsibility to have such a stove. As long as you were careful not to write the name of the imprisoned entity in an opening HTML tag right above the dial before lighting the burner, things were fine. You could even make a grilled cheese sandwich, and no one would be hurt.

“You need to free them,” Scott said. “Write their names.”

“But I don't want to,” I said.

“But you have to,” Scott said. He was nothing if not persistent.

“OK,” I said. He was also persuasive. “But I want to note that I don't agree with this.”

I wrote "<satan>" on one burner, and then turned it on. A blue flame blossomed amid the smell of burning gas, and the devil was loose. The horror was getting real, and I didn't even have a grilled sandwich to show for my troubles.

Just as I don't know what happened to Bill — did the Sleestak sacrifice him to their god, or did they torture him and turn him evil? — I don't remember everyone who was imprisoned in the stove. Aside from Satan, the only one I remember clearly is Dr. Doom, arch-enemy of The Fantastic Four.

All I can say for certain is that in one dramatic moment, I saw the armored arm of Dr. Doom rise up from the stove, and I started awake. The room was dark and all was quiet, save for my own rapid breathing. I was coated with sweat and filled with horror that I had unleashed such tremendous evil on an unsuspecting world. (Damn you, Scott. There, I said it. Damn you and your silver-tongued arguments. Damn you to hell, sir!)

It's been 18 years now since I had that dream. In that time, we've seen the worst terror attack on U.S. soil in history, and in the wake of a war that destabilized the Middle East, we've watched as ISIS has thrown the entire region into chaos. Domestically our social contract has unraveled as the wealth disparity between our richest citizens and the rest of us has grown ever wider, and far right ideologues have sought to undo all the hard-won progress of the past 60 years.

When you go to sleep tonight, if you find the stove in your dreams, stay away. Remember, I lit only two burners before I awoke.

There are still four more to go.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

(I wrote about this before)

Friday, November 03, 2017

Building a better mouse, one trap at a time

Some time ago, we had a mouse problem at our house.

Now, by “mouse problem” I do not mean that I was unable to beat my wife's high score on Windows Solitaire because the tracking ball on her mouse kept getting stuck. Nor do I mean that a mouse may have been politely poking her head through a hole in the wall and demurely offering to come back later if this was a bad time to come visit.

“Ooh,” we did not coo. “You adorable little thing! You must be starved. Here, have some peanut butter and crackers.”

No, we had a problem.

I would be working at the computer and from behind me I would hear not the pitter-patter of little feet, but the skitter-skitter of tiny paws. Sometimes instead of paws I would hear tiny teeth gnawing away at the wooden struts inside the walls, or at things that had fallen unnoticed to the floor at the back of the pantry and remained there unseen. We would be abed, and my wife, a far lighter sleeper than I, would hear an unwanted guest scurrying across the floor.

This was no dramatization of Aesop's fable. The city mouse hadn't merely invited the country mouse to come visit her in the city. She had arranged a full family reunion from Uncle Sid to distant cousin Yeta, with our house the grand hotel, safe from the feral cats that wander through our back yard.

Admission to the family reunion cost only $200, and came complete with access to an open bar and presentations on the history of the mouse family, from the time Uncle Webster and Cousin Cyrus spread plague the length of the Ohio River down to the present breakthroughs in spreading leptospirosis.

There was a time when we would have made a trip to the store and bought some poison. I'd have opened the boxes and placed them in strategic places where the children wouldn't see them, and where the dog couldn't get them. The mice of course would discover them and perform a tarantella in wonder over this unexpected bonanza of delicious green pellets, right up until they died of thirst, preferably outside.

Changing rules and concerns over the wisdom of putting such poison in the hands of homeowners meant that we could no longer buy the poison ourselves, so we called an exterminator. He came, sized up the problem, and made us an offer.

“I can set some poison and get rid of them for two hundred dollars,” he said.

That's a lot of money for something you'd like to think that you can do for yourself. So we resorted to traps, which after all are a fairly straightforward affair. You bait the trap, the bait attracts the mice, and the mice die. Maybe they fall into a bucket of water and drown, maybe they walk over glue and get stuck, or maybe they trigger a spring and it all ends with a loud snap. As long as it ends with a dead mouse, it's a story with a happy ending.

Alas, I failed to consider the role of evolution and the population pressures that humans have been applying to mice since time immemorial.

It's a principle of evolutionary theory that species adapt to changes in their environment, and each generation is slightly different from the one before it, and therefore harder to get rid of. Antibiotics eventually produce superbugs that are virtually unstoppable. Head lice develop a resistance to the insecticide that we place in delousing shampoo.

And mice? Ever since "Tom and Jerry" debuted, they've been getting uppity. They've learned to outrun the cat, and now they're figuring out how to avoid traps.

I set up a bucket of water in the basement, a tin can smeared with peanut butter, resting on a metal rod over the middle of the bucket. The idea is that a mouse will climb the ramp to the rim of the bucket, walk out into the middle to get the peanut butter, and then roll into the water and drown.

The mice weren't having it.

We set glue traps. In the morning the traps had paw prints on them, next to what I only can assume was mouse script for “Calvin was here,” written in the glue with tiny sticks.

We also set the traditional spring-loaded traps that go snap in the night. These proved to exert the biggest population pressures of all. After we eliminated the mice that were stupid enough to set off the traps, we were left with a mouse population of gradually increasing intelligence.

At first the smarter mouse would convince his companion to run across the trap and see if it was armed, and then eat the bait. After this had gone on a few months, the surviving mice, born from the intelligent mice, had wised up to this trick, and formed a union to protest their unsafe work conditions. That in turn led to exploratory committees that investigated ways to get the food without setting off the traps, and even administrative requirements that the mice forage where there were no traps at all.

It seemed like it was all over at that point. Mouse unions had bettered the working conditions and livelihood of everyone but the people trying to kill them.

Deliverance came, of all things, from plaster of paris. Apparently if you thoroughly mix a cup of it with a cup of all-purpose flour, you create a lethal combination. Drawn to the flour, mice also will eat the plaster of paris, which turns to rock in their guts and kills them. You can add milk if you want, to create dough balls, but either way intestines of rock apparently are detrimental to a mouse's good health.

Problem solved.

At least until the next evolutionary leap.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The never-ending game of peek-a-boo

I'm from Pittsburgh area. My parents still live there. It's about 300 miles to get there, or roughly six hours, given the occasional pit stop.

A little less than 16 years ago, we took Oldest Daughter and her foster brother out to visit my folks. Oldest had proved herself excellent at entertaining herself on the trip before, with the Elmo Toy From Hell and other diversions as may occur to a 2-year-old on a long trip, such as naps and shouting "Again! Again!" every time her favorite Jimmy Buffet track had ended.

But Lumpy? We had no idea. He was only beginning to discover how to play at our house, and we had no idea how he would fare in a car.

We needn't have worried, Since he had come to stay at our house six weeks or so earlier, Lumpy and Oldest had bonded quickly. Besides dressing him in her best princess clothes and flowery head bands, she ran around the house with him, played "This little piggy" on his toes once her language skills had reached that point, and consistently challenged and engaged him in regular, wholesome play. She was just beyond his ability, and just his size, so they made for natural engagement.

For example, you probably knew that if you cover yourself or your child with a blanket, and then pull the blanket away, you can shout "Peek-a-boo!" and have lots of fun together, You probably also know that it teaches object permanency, the idea that things continue to exist even when we can't se them, and that after you're bored with it and are ready to hang yourself with your child's blanket, she will want to keep the fun going for hours more.

And if she has a foster brother in the back seat with her, it can.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Regarding the Nashville Statement

I'm going to say something that may shock you. Being gay isn't about sex.

I swear to God.

That's not the impression you would get from the signatories of the Nashville Statement, freshly released by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. The Nashville Statement -- so called because it was written and signed in Nashville -- is an attempt by certain prominent evangelical leaders to draw a line in the sand over the cultural shifts in the United States the past 50 years.

It makes the sort of strident condemnations that we've come to expect from such groups: adultery is bad, polygamy is bad, premarital sex is bad, transgenderism is bad, homosexuality is bad. The whole thing is couched in a series of 14 affirmations and rejections that focus on what the signatories presume is the "clear meaning" of the biblical texts, all focused on the configuration of people's genitals and what they do with them in private.

"Clear meaning" becomes more suspect once we consider cultural and literary context in an attempt to understand what the biblical authors actually were talking about, and how to apply those principles in our society. But that doesn't seem to matter here.

What the Nashville Statement and its signatories miss is that gay people are, well, people, with the same desires and life goals as other people.

Being gay isn't about whom you have sex with, it's about whom you love. Like heterosexuals, gays want to be with someone they love, to spend their lives and grow old together. The little things that matter in a straight relationship -- reading a book or playing a game together, sharing a meal, having a conversation when you come home from a day on the job, sharing what matters to you, making plans together, the touch of a hand, and having someone to hold you when you're upset, scared or lonely -- those are things that matter in a same-sex relationship as well.

Article X is the killer, though. According to this statement, it's not possible to be a Christian and support your best friend's decision to transition from male to female, nor to affirm the happiness another friend has found with her fiancee. Do these things, and you've left the fold. You're an apostate.

This is some serious stuff. It requires a response.

I thought about all the great times I've had with my best friend, who was born David but is now Jennifer. There's the time Chicken Soup for the Soul threatened to sue us. One afternoon at college as she was listenig to "The Acapella Project 2," I opened her door just to say "This is really cheesy" and then shut it just as quickly. I stood at her wedding, and she stood at mine. We've been there for each other through divorce, head injury, three kids apiece, and even an unfortunate escapade with white Christian rap.

I thought about another friend and our late-night conversations over the Internet when she was working and I couldn't sleep. There's been snark, there's been laughter both out of control and out of bounds, a cascade of puns and an exchange of books. She's been there when I've stood on the brink and the void threatened to swallow me; and I've seen the high cost that can be exacted by the attitudes celebrated in this Nashville Statement, when her family discovered she was gay.

Or there's Darren, one of the friendliest and most drama-free people I've ever worked with in the theatre world. I've found him to be a rock: supportive, professional, flexible and a joy to work with as an actor, as a stage manager and as a co-producer.

These are the people the authors of the Nashville Statement say I have to reject in order to go to heaven with them.

But I think of all that I've been through with them, and the kind of people they are, and I find that I must borrow a sentiment from Huck Finn.

"All right, I'll go to hell then."

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Hell is not other people

Jean Paul Sartre famously said "Hell is other people."

All respect to Sartre, the man was full of shit. Hell isn't other people; it's no other people. It's having as much space as you could want, even more, and no one to share it with. Count yourself king of infinite space, gaze upon the desolate void you inhabit, and feel the desolate void that inhabits you.

Why do you think the cruelest and most inhuman prisons put inmates in solitary? It's because we're not given our own soul, we're given a piece of one big soul, and in hell our piece withers and blanches and takes all life, all hope, all joy with it as it dies.

Watch the shadows move on the wall of your cave, pilgrim. We live in hell, and the only one with the key is the person in the cell next to you.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Finding the ice cream connection

Now that there are three of them and the oldest is about to leave for college, this summer we instituted a tradition of one-on-one ice cream nights.

Every Friday my wife and I take turns taking one of the girls out for ice cream and a time to talk about whatever they want to. The trips may take an hour, they often take more. They're a great way to build on the connections we have with one another, and all it takes is a little ice cream.

The Milltown Ice Cream Depot is just 3 miles from our house, and uphill from Borough Hall. This is where the Police Department is located, and because Milltown could be mistaken for Riverdale in old issues of Archie Comics, it's not uncommon to see a police car sitting in the driveway, lights out, waiting for someone to drive past. Someone like me.

No one enjoys seeing a police car while they're out driving, but it gets even worse when there's one directly behind you. You run through an inventory of every possible offense you may have committed, may be committing, or even may accidentally commit while the police are directly behind you.

Is one of my taillights out? you may ask. Are my turn signals working? Did I fasten the lug nuts on the right rear tire? Is my radio playing too loudly? My radio is off; should I have it on?

You think of everything you can do to minimize the chance of doing something wrong and getting pulled over. You try turning the headlights on, even though they're already on. You run the wipers in case there's bird doo-doo on the windshield. You tune in to an easy listening station in case the cop likes Kenny Loggins.

Now there's a light where Washington Avenue runs into Main Street, and that creates problems of its own. Can you turn right on red? If you didn't see a sign, does that mean it's not there, or did you just miss it? Do you make the right turn and risk running a red light, or do you wait the extra 10 seconds for the green light?

Better safe than sorry, I figured, and I waited. Somewhere in the back of my head I remembered an incident where Plainsboro police charged a motorist with failing to turn right on red, but Plainsboro police are an aggressive lot when it comes to collecting ticket revenue, almost as bad as Green Brook, where they will find a way to charge a driver seventeen different ways for the same offense.

The light turned green. I went right. Patrolman Milltown followed me.

Main Street is lined with signs. I saw signs for Dunkin Donuts, for Hair After, for Wells Fargo and for Hanna's Florist, but nothing about the speed limit. A co-worker of mine once was pulled over for driving 22 mph in a 20 mph zone. (He got out of the ticket because he couldn't stop laughing long enough to give the office his license and registration.)

It's a residential stretch. I stuck to 20. A half-mile up the road, a sign declared the limit to be 30. I sped up -- and saw the telltale lights in the mirror.

"I'll need to see your license and registration," Patrolman Milltown said when he reached my window. Then: “Sir, you were driving very slowly. Is anything wrong?”

We have an idiot running the country, I thought. I'm haunted by a profound sense of ennui and of loneliness, I can't focus on my writing and thus have dozens of stories that I would like to sell but can't seem to finish. I have serious doubts about the validity of my faith, and I feel like our nation is lost in the grip of an existential crisis.

"No," I lied. "I'm fine."

"You didn't turn at the traffic light, and then you were driving 10 miles under the speed limit," he said, and our eyes met. There, on that empty stretch of Main Street, our souls connected and we understood one another.

You think you have problems? he thought. My girlfriend left me when I took a pay cut to get this job, and she took our Netflix subscription with her, so now I'll never see the rest of “Luke Cage.” My dog won't stop pooping recreationally, and I'm afraid if the guys at work find out about my rash, they'll start calling me “Spiny Norman” again.

He handed me back my license and papers and walked back to his car. A moment later we each drove off into a night that was at once both literal and metaphorical, the road before us brightened by the street lamps of our chance encounter.

Life can be a lonely journey as we travel from birth to death, but if we take a little time and make a little effort, we can lessen the burden for one another along the way.

All it takes is a little ice cream.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Attention whore

I have a confession to make to everyone: I am an attention whore. Please look at me.

I love to be noticed. It's the remedy for what ails me. You see, as New Jerseyans, we live like ships at sea, warmed by the same sun, cooled by the same breeze and lashed by the same storm as our fellows, but so absorbed in our day-to-day that we rarely notice the others on the same voyage with us.

Sometimes the heartache and the isolation are too much, and I risk running the ships together. I get up on stage in front of dozens of strangers and pretend I belong there. I meet a friend for coffee, or invite people to celebrate my birthday with me. I even spend time with my kids.

Nine years ago, my daughter and I took her sister to school and then walked home in broad daylight. We sang. We laughed. Look at me! I fairly shouted. Someone please pay attention! And someone did. We weren't even halfway home before a police car pulled up beside me and an officer demanded to see my driver's license.

Someone had called the police in a panic to report that a brown-haired man in his late 30s was luring away a young blond preschooler.

I had been noticed.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

(I told this one before.)

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Commandments concerning ice cream

"When the weather warms and you desire a cold dessert, then your heart shall remember the kindness of your father, and you will look in the freezer and find the ice cream that he bought the last time he went shopping.

"On that day, after the dinner dishes have been put away, you shall turn to your brothers and your sisters, and to your parents, and you shall ask who wants ice cream, and you shall offer it to them in a bowl with a spoon, or in a cone if there are any in the house.

"But do not offer it in a cone if there are no cones, for it is after dinner, and your father has no desire to visit the grocery store just to buy more ice cream cones; nay, not even if you can think of ten other things he can buy while he is there."

"When you desire to eat the ice cream, know that the following flavors are blessed of your father -- chocolate, vanilla and minor variations thereupon -- and therefore do not eat them all, but leave some for him.

"For your own ice cream, all other flavors are permitted, even unto pistachio, provided they come in their own separate containers and do not mingle with the ice cream of your father, and you make no attempt to give any to him when he asks you also to get him some. Nor shall you insist that he give it a try; nay, nor shall you give your father a bowl of Peanut Butter Ripple when he asks for ice cream, but know that it is loathesome to him. Have I not spoken?

"If you beg and implore that we buy a carton of a flavor that you have never tried before, the entire carton you shall eat, even if it takes you all year, before we buy another flavor. Do not complain that you do not like it, for we have warned you beforehand, and like not to say 'We told you so.'

"In the same way, do not request strawberry ice cream, even though it comes in Neopolitan, with equal sections of chocolate and vanilla, for nobody eats strawberry and the carton shall sit in the freezer for an age of the world, never more than a third empty.

"Nor shall you ask for Rocky Road, for who in her right mind wants that? It is an abomination, and not good for eating. Rather leave it at the store that others may recognize the folly of creating such a flavor and learn wisdom, and not eat it."

"At the table you may eat it, whether in the dining room or in the kitchen, for the tablecloth may be washed this Tuesday, or sooner; and the tabletop may be wiped clean as needed. Similarly, you may eat the ice cream outside, for if it spills upon the ground there will be no harm done. You will get no replacement ice cream for you were careless; although in your father's mercy he may replace a small portion or even the full amount, for all fathers were children once and sang the lament of lost ice cream; but do not presume upon the mercy of your father, as he may want to be sure you have learned your lesson.

"But in the living room you shall not eat the ice cream, whether it is a sundae, or served in a cone or in a bowl, for when you eat ice cream you may spill it upon nice carpet or the good furniture, and that is a horror in my sight for the nice carpet and the good furniture will need to be cleaned properly, and behold it is come to pass, even as I have said, and now there shall be no ice cream for the next week."

"With caramel and hot-fudge or chocolate sauces you may eat ice cream, providing the ice cream is in a bowl or a cup, eaten with a spoon and at dinner table, or safely outside.

"Chocolate chips are acceptable as add-ons, and even crushed cookies, but not gummy worms, for when you ask for gummy worms, your parents shall look at you astounded and ask, 'What were you thinking?'

"Nuts you shall not put in the ice cream, for as in cookies, to put nuts into ice cream is an abomination most displeasing to me.

"With caramel and hot-fudge or chocolate sauces you may eat ice cream, providing the ice cream is in a bowl or a cup, eaten with a spoon and at dinner table, or safely outside. But do not ask for a sauce to be poured over your ice cream if it is served in a cone, for it will make a mess."

"Blessed is the one who finishes the carton and throws it out rather than returning it empty to the freezer, or who leaves but a spoonful of ice cream and says, 'It was not empty'; for does not your father perceive what you have done?"

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.