Thursday, August 11, 2011

Ran. Ran so far away. Couldn't get away.


My first experience with running at any notable length would be gym class in seventh grade at the Washington College Academy. We ran laps around the basketball court’s defining lines in the gymnasium, standard stuff for any gym class, really. Sneakers padding, slapping, and squealing against that polished and buffed wooden floor as a couple dozen kids from the diminutive seventh and eighth grade classes combined into a seething mass of kids from different walks of life joined under one banner of general misery.

Except for Charles Kennedy. Lap after lap, he high kneed his way through the mandatory mile as though nothing in the world, nigh, the universe mattered more.

Alow me to pause and afford you, dearest reader, with some back story on Charles Kennedy, not all of it flattering, though much of it why I considered him a friend, even if he were someone unable to form or reciprocate similar sentiments.

I met Charles during the summer between fourth and fifth grade, we attended the same camp, a special project camp to be sure, yet a summer camp all the same. I’d been seeing counselors at the Watauga Behavioral Health Services to work on decrypting, deconstructing, and ultimately defusing my behavioral and emotional issues. A couple IQ tests discerned I might just be something other than an idiot after all, though quite what was anyone’s guess.

All ages of folks walk into Watauga Behavioral Health Services for help, and sitting in the lobby while my Mom talked to kindly women often casting strangely sympathetic or sorrowful expressions my way allowed me to overhear a lot of the troubles that ailed others far older than my Mom or me, especially from the staff of orderlies and nurses at the station near the door. Apparently people got to live there full time inside those powder blue walls and halls, a color that remains one of my favorites, and I wondered then as I swung my feet over the flecked Formica tiles that my reception chair elevated me up above what things might be like to live in such a place.

Not knowing then that part of my Mother’s urgency about places like this came from her own mother spending time in one, and not electively. Found that family fact out later, strains of crazy run in the family, and judging by the full measure of my spontaneous outbreaks of rage and fury, might well have found purchase in my gallon drunk from the gene pool.

Not knowing any of that I sat swinging my feet listening to each weeks gossip about the residents sequestered in the many floors overhead. I’d look up at the ceiling, bangs falling back out of my face, squinting as though I might somehow see what these people were up too, and imagining that I could. The guy that each week required new solutions for helping him resist the temptation to shove his metal cutlery into the wall sockets. The lady with the penchant for furs that kept making faux fur shawls with rolls of toilet paper and bathrobe ties. The guy that inadvertently yelled bad words during conversation, then sobbed uncontrollably until someone gave him some Kool-Aide. Sugary fruit flavors will soothe most ills I could think of then.

So being a member had it’s privileges, and on my birthday that summer I woke to find far less presents than I probably expected and a single envelope containing a card with a picture of the forest as I’d come to appreciate a real forest looks like from the many Ranger Rick magazines I’d read from the subscriptions my Grandma C. and her sisters sent over our childhood years, that and Highlights with those tantalizing pictures for words puzzles. Inside the card, a simple printed note declaring that I would be heading off to summer camp, when and where, followed by a note in my Mom’s handwriting wishing me a happy birthday, love Mom & Dad. I looked up from the card at my parents, my expression largely somewhere between perplexed and utterly neutral, while their expectant smiles grew strained as they waited a response. When I nearly exploded with enthusiastic glee, their smiles widened into the real, non-coached variety, and a couple weeks later I was on a short bus to the camp of crazy kids.

If you didn’t know the pedigree of the attendees, the summer camp would be largely the same as any other in the Appalachian Mountains and the rest of the woody hippy bush spread across the crux of where Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Carolinas meet like the smooching siblings they are. All the normal summer camp archetypes were there; the no neck Neanderthal lads shaving off beards before breakfast and puberty, the shy reclusive bug eaters, the nerds, geeks, jocks, richies, and every shade of archetype and kid camp filmic cliché Earnest Goes to Camp, Psychonauts, and the Meatballs series would have you believe. What you might not expect were kids with disabilities, physical or mental. While the physical ones minimally mingled with the rest of us, the Booby Hatch never closed or segregated otherwise. Down syndrome, fire bug, autism, anger management issues, lecherous kin survivalist, dropped baby syndrome, recovering Kool-Aid clown style red-lipper; come one come all.

And somewhere in that wondrous madness I met Charles Kennedy. Shy, stuttering, socially awkward, and terrified of his own shadow. When I saw Crispin Glover in Back to the Future, I wondered what Charles might be up too in life. When I met Crispin Glover in person, I hoped Charles found as good an outlet for addressing his own social incapacities.

In school I’d already drawn the attention of pretty much ever bully could heed the call by that age. Something about the weird kid in the back of the room, too desperate for friends, for validation from others, wide open target for the weak minded, mean spirited, and the conveniently cruel. Add to that my impotent rage anger management issues and I’d shone like a beacon in the night for the creeps and crawlers of the secondary school set.

And while I never stood up to much of anyone in school, perhaps for fear of lasting repercussions, I had little qualm about standing up to bullies at summer camp. Maybe it was that chance to work from a clean slate, be someone without precedent or history, though I doubt that, considering the bullies started after I changed schools the first time, became the new kid, and failed to make the most of that like the downtrodden in films seem to always manage too. Not that Twilight or Heathers remotely reflects life, rather just wistfully reflects upon it. More likely my bravado came from an immediate refusal to let some punks ruin my vacation. Sometimes rash acts stem from stimulus that simple, a refusal to accept corruption of an experience I felt I’d earned and arrived fully entitled to enjoy.

True, the brute I talked out of beating me up for yanking his pants off in the deep end of the pool probably should have hit me. I’d been imitating the other boys more comfortable with swimming, the ones also not in water wings, the others that could leap fearlessly from the high dive and cannonball into the midst of unwary swimmers down below. The ones that could hold their breath and skim along beneath the surface, the ones that accepted me as one of their own when I demonstrated that I could, too. Learning to swim through being tossed into Watauga Lake in an adult size life jacket to fend for myself had some perks, after all. My confidence in an enclosed body of water knew few bounds, pardon the pun. I recall feeling amazed and a touch superior upon seeing all those kids my age and older that were clinging to inflatable rafts, wore water wings, or life vests better suited to youthful frames than that behemoth I’d first been cast to the tides like Moses in. I felt the same way seeing all those young men leap into the pool a couple days into the Navy during the mandatory aquatic proficiency test.

A mandatory test for a branch of military based around a presumption of the life aquatic. About every third person reluctantly jumped in when told to by the commanding officer, and with varying degrees of struggle or concession, dropped to the bottom and had to be prodded with a long pole that the swimming impaired could use to cling to and be dragged out or manage to clamber up and climb out of the massive indoor pool with. The rest of us tread water for ten minutes, then swam by any means possible to the distant far end and back, then tread water some more. I elected to conserve energy since no time limits for the swim had been mentioned, and I’d clued in that instructions were very literal in bootcamp, things were said or left unsaid deliberately. When I’d passed the test and climbed with unasked for burly Navy SEAL assistance one armed fishing technique assistance out of the pool, my Chief quietly said I wound be one of the few with the right instincts to survive a sinking ship. One of the best, and strangest, compliments I’ve ever received.

So a couple armchair bullies tried to poke some fun at scrawny, wire thin, big headed, coke bottle glasses wearing Charles Kennedy and I intervened. Not that I was a lot beefier, not by much, however I made up for that with showmanship, and the bullies pissed off and didn’t return. From then on when not separated by mandate, as we were from different bunk houses, Charles and I were generally in near vicinity to one another, and I kept an eye out for anyone picking at him.

To say we were buddies would be inaccurate to some degree, because Charles had some issues that might have been a highly functional version of autism. He didn’t connect to folks, tended to take what they said with some confusion, or very literally, and shied away quickly as though fearing a smack. Clearly Charles had been bullied a lot through his young life, and having an inability to read people seemed to exasperate the problem. We were friends in that he recognized me and relaxed, knew I wasn’t there to hit him, and when I gave him instructions like stay put or get back from that running car, no ill consequences befell him and he lived to see another day without bruise or blemish.

Another kid I met and played with a lot during camp looked a lot like a young Kevin McDonald with glasses, named Jeff.

When I arrived at Washington College Academy and once classes began I soon discovered that in the class a year ahead of me was Charles Kennedy. A year later, when I moved from seventh to eighth grade, Charles’s younger brother Paul began at the school, and we got to be great pals, even after Paul took his youth group leader’s warnings a little too seriously and convinced me to help him burn all his Marvel comic books in a pit in the dirt at the back end of his parent’s property in Jonesboro one fine late spring night. Charles and Paul’s father did restoration architecture around Easter Tennessee, particularly around Jonesboro where he’d been buying up a lot of the more noteworthy historical properties. Paul assured me his family is a branch off the same tree as JFK and Arnie’s ex. Never know who you’ll bump into when you shake a tree in one of the original 13 colonies.

I also discovered as classes began at Washington College Academy that Jeff also attended, a couple years ahead of me and the person to introduce me to Kitty Pryde and Lockheed and the alien Brood through the pages of the X-Men comics he’d been purchasing with his modest earnings helping his dad with yard work and the like. Like me, his parents also gained his admittance into the expensive school through working for it. The maintained grounds and filled in when the dorms needed house mothers on short notice. Jeff had convinced himself if he squint his eyes hard enough, scrunched his forehead fervently enough, he could teleport. I didn’t help, trying to be nice while watching him lock up for five minutes at a time, then assuring him I’d been hanging around wondering where he’d gone only to see him reappear in front of me again five minutes later. Did my heart good to see him dance and exclaim how he’d proven it could be done, hoping no one else could hear him and ruin his teacup temporal victory.

Charles played the pipe organ. He played it with nearly mechanical precision, and is the only kid I’ve ever met with a functional pipe organ salvaged from a tiny Southern Baptist church somewhere that’d failed to floss sufficient flocks to keep the chapel open for business. He played for the big church downtown on Saturdays and Sundays, always arrived on time, and would become agitated to the point of aggression if anyone tried to mess with his regular schedule. When I saw Rainman, I thought of Charles.

During my seventh grade year the school sent out a short, brown bus driven by the history and civics teacher to collect the kids bussing in from Johnson City, Jonesboro, and anywhere in between. Two of the kids that bullied me most were on that bus every morning. So was Charles. No one said anything when Charles started showing up in class with bruises until I saw the ones on his ribs as he changed shirts in the locker room before gym class. I said something to every adult I could find. Those bruises weren’t from home, or from abusive parents. There were from the boys that could simply stand next to Charles in the locker room for half a minute and Charles would sit there, slumped, shoulders drawn in, and begin to pee.

I’d begun trying to write stories around that time, and as the bullies turned more and more in my direction, especially after Charles’s parents pulled him out of school, and some of those stories entailed gaining super powers that would allow me to right the wrongs and punish the wicked, in particular on behemoth slack jawed idiot problem kid that had ended up at WCA because his parents paid away their problems and after Junior had been expelled from all the local public schools and failed a couple grades besides. I believe what got me expelled when my history teacher, the same one that later went to jail for molesting boys, confiscated my journal story notebook during a quiz, read it, photocopied it, gave the copies to the school’s president, the same guy that embezzled funds, bankrupt the school, and fled for the Caymans a few years later. Apparently repaying all those swirlies and locker room humiliations with the punitive application of a plunger equals a call to the parents and a week’s suspension, followed by watching my tearful, white faced Mother purge every poster, magazine, and cassette she could find from the tiny room I shared with my brother. She never found my Motley Crue or Ratt tapes, but all those Def Leppard posters, gone. The three hard won Heavy Metal issues? Gone. Judy Blume’s Forever? Gone forever.

Right around my week of home imprisonment, the short brown bus pulled up to school with a spider web crack in the wide back window. Chares had a concussion, and an ambulance came for him. Junior claimed Charles had done it all on his own. DeAngelo seconded that though I believe DeAngelo, the “good cop” of the two bully’s Abbott & Costello act turned Junior in as soon as his ass hit the hardwood of the chair facing the school president, the same guy that had given me a week’s exile only days earlier.

Charles returned to school a few days later, though he never rode the short bus again. Junior got a week suspension, ironically the same amount of time I got for wanting him worked over with a fictional plunger wielding super power. And that’s about when running laps in gym class took on a new dimension.

Charles could run fast, old man style cotton shorts flapping against his corn stalk thighs as his knees shot up to about even with his waist line. The day he first lapped Junior we saw Junior’s power begin to slip. The day he lapped Junior twice we knew Charles had stuck gold. And whether for my loathing of Junior or my admiration of Charles, I began trying to keep up. After a couple weeks of this I also lapped Junior, and laughed at him as I did so, despite the obvious risk of repercussion in the locker room thereafter. I took to grabbing my things and running across the parking lot to the classroom building to change, I knew a bathroom down by the band room where the high school age drummer kid practiced none of the other kids seemed to know about, smelled like mothballs but had a lock on the door.

The behemoth of a gym teacher, a guy named Mr. Matthews with horror stories of playing soccer back in his military heyday were players’ cleats were circles of leather punched onto tacks that players would pull off so that they could gouge opponents kneecaps off on the field. Mr. Matthews caught on quickly to the shift in power happening between the bullied and the bullies, at least in the gym. He stopped indulging all DeAngelo’s whiny protests about needing a special cloth under his hair to protect his jerry curls while he did sit ups. He began goading Junior to hurry up, calling out the fact that the brute was being lapped by kids his breaking wind could knock over.

And then Mr. Mathews showed up with a stop watch and a decree. The laps would equal a mile, and would be timed, and anyone failing to beat the federally mandated mile time minimum per their gender would be forced to do extra exercises to help strengthen them up to run all that much faster the next time. Charles always won and always had the fastest time. What surprises everyone is that I almost always came in second, and often by only a few seconds.

I began practicing on my own, running a circuit of farm roads that formed approximately a mile if you ran intersection to intersection to intersection to home again. I recall leaving to run, and arriving home panting, and hearing my Dad ask what I’d done, and I told him I’d run the mile. He looked at me with feigned disbelief and said that I surely must be pulling his leg, no one runs that fast. While I had to pause and decide whether he honestly doubted me or had an intention of giving me praise by pulling my leg, I realized that I needed to overcome my distrustful nature and appreciate that to that point in our oft strained relationship, that comment turned out to be one of the nicest things my Dad had ever said to me. I’d accomplished something. Nothing Forest Gump, sure, but for this troubled teen, definitely something somewhat constructive. I could run, could temporarily forget worry and obligation and things to be angry at, and focus on trying to reach the end, to not stop, to not let anyone see me falter.

And all these years later, I’m freshly rediscovering the attraction to the run. Thanks to my running buddies at work, I’m now running two or three times a week. Certainly a far cry from the six minute something mile I used to manage in seventh and eighth grade, yet still feels pretty good to manage a four and a half minute kilometer after needing more than five minutes for each of the five kilometers that had preceded it.

It’s been a skittish start, a couple 5k event runs last year that I didn’t prepare or train for, and went into with too much gusto, burning out quickly and struggling to finish. My colleague cohorts are compelling me to pace myself, to stretch appropriately, and with the mighty power of positive peer pressure, to preserver through the intermittent walls of doubt, pain, heavy breathing, or other barriers real and more often than not imagined.

And I have to think Charles would be proud, in his way, because while my so called bullies now are age and professional accountability and all the awesome responsibilities of family, his example is readily apparent as I rediscover just how much I love to run, and how much more able a good run leaves me towards dealing productively with almost anything. Beating back your inner doubts and demons is pretty ravishingly refreshing, after all.  

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Eight Legs to Better Tickle You With... Pt 2


Spiders sit somewhere on the list of public enemy pests for most folks I know. Vile creatures readily met with disdain, fear, even malice. Yet it’s hard not to marvel at the complexity of their webs when not walking face first through one.

Webs that span impressively, almost defiantly, across meters of open air between trees or across paths running down along the gap between inner city town houses. Webs crisscrossing the sky high above amid the tropical trees of Jamaica or rounding the corners of barn windows across the Midwest. The sorts of constructions one could believe might save certain pensive pet pigs or keep the air clear of gnats, flies, and mischievous malevolent mosquitoes. The sorts of webs that perhaps inspired lace, corsets, and Goth music. The sorts of tensile constructs that inspired tension bridges and Renzo Piano’s German Youth House.

I once had several glass fish tanks, the result of a passing interest in raising rodents and lizards, and crickets to feed the latter. One afternoon I discovered a terrifying orange and yellow tiger striped, big bodied, prickly bristled long black legged beauty lounging on my window sill, perhaps watching me try to match socks dug up from the clutter around my Kentucky college days off campus rented room; perhaps just enjoying the breeze on a humidly sunny late spring afternoon. I noticed her and figured she’s move on of her own accord, thinking that all spiders must understand the rule: stay outside and be left alone, come inside and take your chances against brooms, toilet paper, bug spray, and flushing toilets. Surely spider young learn that simple rule set before leaving the egg clutch, that basic principle of cohabitation with man.

After a bit of kerfuffle around the ol’ boarding house rental room, I found two socks similar enough in texture and pattern to approximate kissing cousins and donned them with the anticipation then donning some shoes. I noticed then the sharply defined shape of my eight legged voyeur silhouetted against the soon setting sun. I have no idea why or how I ascertained that she might want accommodations, or that the arachnid’s gender was that of a female, though that guess proved true later on when the egg sack arrived.

I sat an empty aquarium down at the base of the window, lined it up beneath the sill, and put a couple sci-fi toys inside for good measure, an Air Command carapace of purple and pink on one end, something from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the other, something with a spring loaded gun that shot plastic discs adorned with pizza stickers on one side.

I went out for the evening, the spider fell out of my head, and I got home to late to care that a big tiger spider might be roaming around the jungles of my room somewhere. Next morning as I rose like the dead with nothing on but kissing cousin socks, I noticed that the tigress had indeed taken up residence inside the glass box, further, had spun a small, cozy web between the toys standing tall at either end of the 20 gallon enclosure. I stared at the web for a while, appreciative smile spreading across my mug, noting that the spider had found a hollow on the side of the Air Command carapace where diminutive plastic figures once stood to nestle down and nap after a hard night’s weaving. Now a bit more concerned about the tigress claiming additional turf beyond the confines of the glass case, I located a screen top for the case and laid it on top gently. I next set out like Renfield to catch some fat juicy flies lest her heiness go for want in her new crib. Fortunately that time of year in Kentucky has ample flies that still haven’t quite yet shaken off the transition of spring into summer, as easy to catch with a Kleenex as glimpses of disheveled freshmen with haywire hair crossing campus on a Saturday morning, shoulders slumped and eyes on the ground, smells of strangers on their fingertips and clothes.

I lift the lid and dropped each fly in, watched them drop to the bottom with a tiny, stunned thud. After a moment they’d twitch to life as though startled by unexpected news and scuttle around the bottom of the tank, perhaps disoriented to be walking on a horizontal window. After a moment or two more, the fly would take flight, and after a couple bounces against the sides of the tank, would cross the space where the web had been strung.

The tigress might have appeared of repose and lounging, yet scarcely had a fly’s thin wing plucked a strand of web before the spider, a blur of yellow and orange, had the fly spinning from a strand, wrapping it up as though to preserve it for a trip down the Nile, and tucked the cocooned package into a corner like tiny, strange fruit, presumably for snack at some later time or date.
After three flies had become dangling jewels, foodie footballs, I left the tank alone and head off for showering, classes, the usual stuff and circumstance of those days. Days when I made extra money painting patterns on fabric grids for an embroidery shop catering to ladies who lunched, golfed, or enjoyed Kentucky university basketball. Those days when Lisa would drive down from Cincinnati to help paint some of those patterns so we could go out guilt free, her glinting braces helping her look enviably under aged.

Those days when Steve lived downstairs with his two cats, one of them an amateur spelunker that had to be pulled from the heating ducts after removing a segment of ceiling to reach the source of the sound we’d all been hearing cry from the vents in the big house’s many bathrooms. When pulling a trapped and terrified cat from tin pipes, be sure to do so from an uphill direction, or a lot more will be pouring out into your waiting arms than just a fearful feline.

Those days when Joe lived across the hall and kept his door locked so that no one could put Wham into his boom box and turn it on while he tried to sleep in after a long night trying to convince a colleague from Ramsey’s restaurant and I that we would never be Kid & Play, 3rd Bass, or EMPD, no matter how many words I could rhyme with Chalk.

The afternoon of the first day of the tigress’s residency in my room, I picked up a bag of live crickets from the local pet shop and let them loose in the tank. Not sure if spiders generally eat crickets, but this little lady knew how to improvise, and crickets really are woefully oblivious, much like hamsters, those furry little bite sized chicken McNuggets of the wilds of nature. Young crickets would stream one after another up to and over the lip of the hollow full of spider, never to be seen again but for the occasional detached, still flexing leg.

Over the following weeks I woke each day to new webs in the tank, new patterns and forms, almost as though the spider were trying to maximize coverage and efficiency, think and rethink her process, adapting to a space that was low and horizontal versus the sorts of open spaces amidst the brush and trees spiders like her typically roost in. I should have documented the patterns and forms, drawn them or photographed them, as every day they were different. And as long as there were crickets, a few flies, and the occasional moth, she seemed content, and grew bigger, not a lot, but easily doubled her size over the couple months she stayed with me. From the size of a raison to that of a grape. A green one. Seedless. You know the sort.

I had the lid up one afternoon to drop in more crickets when a yellow jacket flew past my head, over my shoulder, and straight into the tank. Alarmed, I thought to reach in and try to get the yellow jacket out before it stung my eight legged roommate, however before I could attempt such folly she was on the case. Moving with speed and stunning dexterity, she lassoed one of the yellow jacket’s legs and set it dangling and spinning like a tequila scented piñata filled with lemon shot candies, dodging the flailing stinger as she worked, draping and tangling the spinning bug until only the head and stinger were left exposed, and then she travelled around and bit the poor bastard on the nape of the neck. The stinger stabbed the air one last, final time, and went still, poetic and tragic and worthy of applause like a well done salsa dance, all roses and calve spasm stamping, frothing at the hem line, swirling for what’s not yours but mine. 

After a couple months, a few added toys, and a veritable army of slain crickets, I noticed the egg sack in the corner of the aquarium. And shortly after, I noticed that the tigress seemed utterly apathetic about the food scurrying around in the tank. If we learned nothing else from Charlotte’s Web, we learned that egg sacks can spawn dozens, if not hundreds, of offspring. Not eager to host a convention of tiny, cannibalistic arachnids in my diminutive quarters, I carefully extracted the sack by its connecting threads of spider silk and moved it outside to a sheltered spot beneath one of the sideboards of the house, protected from rain, direct sunshine, and passing crows. Next, I moved the tigress atop her Air Command throne out into the bushes beside the house, near her offspring and shaded by the loose branches of the bush. I gently jammed the toy into a crook of the plant and wiggled it to make sure it would remain stuck firm, beached in the breech of the bush. She barely moved during the whole relocation process, a sure sign she’d be passing on soon.

I checked the spot for a couple days after that, and on the third day she’d gone. Passed away in the hollow on the chassis of a pink and purple toy. Shaded by brambles and branches, surrounded by a cadre of other breeds of spider and those that would feed them.

I’ve had my share of scares with spiders, like the canopy of black widows I discovered overhead in the outhouse I’d been told was safe to use, just never look up. Or the massive wolf spider that lived under my parent’s book shelves in the house behind the kitchen at Washington College Academy, the spider that had figured out if it lie flat on the darker patches of the mottled shag carpet in the house it could remain nearly invisible until someone were about to step on it  and forced it to move and give away its position, much to the distress of anyone around. How about the time I picked up a wooden tomato stake for my Dad in the garden behind that house across the highway from Milligan College, picked it up by one end and saw a black widow begin to lower herself downwards from the middle as though I’d interrupted her nap? I recall I jumped up and down on the grass where she’d landed until even the grass gave up the ghost and dissolved into a greasy smear flecked with tiny spider juices. 

How about the cane spiders on the tropical coast of Hawaii’s big island? I still regret killing the one I discovered in my beach house bedroom when I turned on the light one evening. I hadn’t learned until later that as big and scary looking as these beauties are, they’re actually very tame, unlike the local 10 inch centipedes. Fortunately no one did anything to harm the even larger one we discovered outside, though many pictures were taken. She’d been guarding her egg nest, another good thing to replace the one I’d sadly misunderstood, let fear get the best of me, and popped like a grape. A purple one. Seedy. You know the type.

The closet office I worked in managing the Drexel in Bexley, Columbus, Ohio had a minor infestation of spiders, and no number of ones I Scotch taped to the wall as warning to others seemed to deter them from dangling down in front of me as I counted out the night’s earnings and proceeds. 
When Lisa and I rent a basement suite / floor of a house in Eugene, our entrance faced a concrete retaining wall and the bottom of a flight of concrete stairs that ran up the front of the structure off to the left. The banister at the top of the retaining wall had been overgrown with a thick, luscious mane of ivy type vines and leaves, plants that dangled down to only a couple feet from the ground outside our big glass front door. 

There are several things to note about living in a basement suite, things you should consider before taking up residence in one. You’ll get to know all about how water works, particularly the drainage of it, and how easy it is for a drainage pipe to get clogged up with leaves outside your front door, leading to water creeping in from outside and slowly following the grouted grooves between the clay tiles of your living room floor bound for anything absorbent like the oceans into the viaducts of Venice. Another thing to know is that you get very familiar with all the local fauna, from the raccoon family living in the clump of trees in the back yard that come out at night to rummage the compost heap or try to catch the goldfish in the brick pond in the back yard to the myriad of beetles, bugs, millipedes, and of course spiders that wander in off the street.

The mane of ivy-esque dangling vine foliage outside the front door became a particularly harrowing educational experience. First we discovered as the weather warmed that we’d need a broom handle sitting by the door to clear away fresh webs each morning to ascent the stairs to ground level. Next we noticed how many spiders lived in the vines. And for all we could see, there turned out to be hundreds more. How did we discover that, you might ask?

Pesticides. Bug sprays. The noxious semi-liquid stuff that smells of formaldehyde and has clear warnings forbidding use in enclosed spaces lest lungs bleed and eyes shrivel into wasabi peas.

After feeling woefully outnumbered by the bugs and their friends, we went to the Target and procured the strongest stuff we could find, the stuff that guaranteed to drop dead ants, wasps, and most importantly, spiders.

Sure, we’d tried cohabitation. We’d cut the busy mane back. We’d used the broom to clear a path. We’d even tried closing our eyes and ignoring the thousands of eyes watching us from the plants. A sort of hide under the covers and monsters will never hurt you approach that ended after we discovered more and more of the spinsters finding perches inside the low ceilinged suite.

So we turned to chemistry, tied a bandana around my face and pushed sunglasses over my eyes and set to spraying my loathe juices all over that luscious green canopy pouring down the wall opposite our front door.

When the first couple spiders dropped from the brush, some death spasming as they still dangled from their escape strands, others hitting the ground and crawling, dragging themselves, crumpling tragically as only spiders can, I felt saddened, yet triumphant as well. And then more dropped. And more. And more. Dozens and dozens of a myriad shapes and sizes, a plethora of pesticide death penalties imposed in minutes, and my sense of triumph faded just as quickly, replaced with abject horror, and sense that like Mario discovering a brick that will keep spawning coins if you keep jumping your head into it, I might have just found a way to inadvertently harvest more negative spider kharma than I would know what to do with. Me, the guy that so carefully saved the tigress’s egg sack and gave her a peaceful place to pass. Me, the person that almost always adhered to the rule of spiders outside, no care, but spiders inside, beware.

Outside the front door, in the stairwell, this had to be a gray area if there ever were one. The spiders I’d been euthanizing there were technically outside, however directly in the path of our only thoroughfare for entering and exiting our rented residence. A sort of Gaza Strip of contested territory, as only a week passed before we would sense we needed to spray again, as the wholesale vacancy left by the former arachnid residents proved irresistible to whole new bevies of spider populace, new breeds moved in to replace the dead, bigger and grizzlier than the last. The weekly sprays were something like a demented Suess poem as there can be no other kind:

     There were spiders of raspberry red and spiders of blueberry blue,
     There were spiders summarily dead and that left behind me and you.
     There were spiders big and spiders quite small,
     There were spiders fat and spiders quite tall.
     There were spiders with starts and stripes, and spiders with coats of fur,
     There were spiders to startle a thousand Miss Muffets, that’s for sure!

And after at least a half dozen emptied cans of bug spray over as many weeks, the tides of spiders dwindled, perhaps enough spray lacquer dried to create a repellent buffer zone to dissuade any further breeds move in. Leaving me to live with the knowledge that in as many weeks I had also managed to elevate my spider killing score from low double digits into the thousands. I felt an Oppenheimer quote coming on as I stood looking at the piles of dead spiders around my feet. I did not feel proud, or victorious. Just sad, and eager to find higher ground as soon as the upstairs floor became available so that we’d never have to spray anything on any critter ever again.

I felt a deeper aversion to spiders after that, perhaps fearing karma, or stories of the brown recluse native to the North West. One way to confront this fear was to embrace it, or at least, an abstraction of it. Monstrous abstractions, point of fact.

Years after the Eugene Oregon Spider Genocide and a move to Vancouver, BC, Canada; I convinced my friend and former roommate to confront her fear of spiders with a therapeutic double dose of cinematic spider fun. After months of needling her, I finally convinced Celine to come over for a double feature of Arachnophobia and Eight Legged Freaks, with the scarier film first to get it out of the way and enjoy some goofy absurdity after.

Celine, a strong willed trooper if ever there were one, made it through Arachnophobia and survived to tell the tale. There were celebrations, high fives all around. She’d confront her fear and looked forward to telling her folks back in France of her personal victory and achievement. One film down, the harder one at that, and one more to go. All easy cruise smooth sailing on from here. Celine excused herself to the powder room to do whatever girls do for so long in there with the fan on. And that’s when I got busy. 
What Celine didn’t readily remember is that over the past couple Halloweens I’d discovered that a Pharmacy chain called Shoppers Drug Mart carries really good props for the hallowed holiday, in particular rather large scale rubber latex, foam filled, inner wire armature boned arachnids. I have a tarantula that spans about a meter across I’ve affectionately named George Lucas and another more spindly sort of spider that chose to remain nameless and crouches about a foot and a half tall on its thin, spike bristled legs.

While Celine freshened up, I placed one of the spiders on the back of the couch, roughly framing where she’d sit when she resumed her seat. I dimmed the lights and cued up the next feature. I refilled the chip bowl and fetched a couple more beverages from the fridge.

She took her seat on the couch and completely didn’t notice the over-sized spiders on the back of the couch. Whether my comments about the movie being ready to go and likely very silly what with giant spiders and all had worked to distract her, I can only but guess. Must have worked, she plopped down and didn’t notice a thing. The film had been on about 20 minutes or so, long enough I’d decided she’d never notice the additions to the sofa, when she looked towards her right shoulder, perhaps waved her hair over and her hand brushed against one of George’s rubbery legs, and she whirled, screeched, saw the second spider; and teleported a few feet away.

She’d met George before and had heard of the other one I’d gotten a year later, so her fear evaporated in seconds, replaced by a rage that transcended English into a French string of very strong yet strangely enticing expressions of outrage. It’s true, everything just sounds sexier when said in French. A couple punches in the arm later, and make no mistake, Celine is strong like monkey, the faux spiders were relocated away from Celine lest they end up thrown overboard from my 19th floor balcony, and on with Eight Legged Freaks we went. If killing thousands of real spiders didn’t earn me bad spider karma, teasing a close friend with ample arachnophobia probably did.


Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Eight Legs to Better Tickle You With... Pt 1


My relationship with the spider (Araneae) species has a lot of ups and downs. It’s a lovingly hypocritical relationship that both inspires my aesthetic whims and plumbs many of my darkest, twitchiest fears.

Walk through a web, sputter and wave and look around frantically for the construction crew, a small price to pay for living among trees and what slivers of nature manage to wriggle out from between the row houses and flip cribs in Strathcona. Watch as the annually inconsistent weather favors different breeds of bugs and subsequently the spiders that would eat them. Last year a multifaceted myriad of large bodied beauties preying on gnats and moths, this year a bevy of tiny orange silk spinners spanning surprising stretches with slim strands while aiming to lasso miniature horse flies the long, damp refusal of the climate to acknowledge summer has empowered. Couple years ago long, delicate weavers ensnared butterflies, replaced later in the season by burly black and tan post show bruisers looking for opportunities around the buffet the night lights bring to the board on the front porch.

First spider I remember really seeing close up and at any length had long, hair thin legs that tickled as it walked by and brushed the country boy off white skin of a country lad scuttling around in the pine nettles and fairy dust of a state park by a picnic table on weekend early enough in summer to need a corduroy jacket and floppy patchwork denim hat. I also remember that trip as the first time on my watch that my bio-Dad saved gas by setting his VW van into neutral and turning off the engine to let the thing coast all the way back down Bays Mountain from the park and nearby planetarium.

I had watched the granddaddy longlegs with intent curiosity, the tiny dot of a body suspended in the middle of such fine legs that nearly vanished when the spider crest the table top and crossed in front of the sunlight filtering like kisses from a deity through the leaves overhead. Scanning around beneath the benches and along the concrete struts supporting the bench planks and well weathered wooden table top, I found more, spiders seemed to fade into view from the surface of the concrete, as though seeing one gave me the secret key unlocking discovery of a whole civilization dwelling invisibly in plain sight. The patterns on the concrete weren’t cracks and pits, and as I paused to watch or blow a bit of breeze with a silent awed whistle, spiders would spring to life and hasten to move on, a pretty magical thing and initially not creepy at all, just something new to watch and wonder about. I left the encounter with no ill will towards spiders, just a sense that granddaddy longlegs were pretty cool and vaguely reminded me of an eyeball robot I’d seen once on the Johnny Quest cartoon once.

A short while later, couple months or more, I ran face first into a web for the first time and formed an entirely new opinion of spiders, albeit judging from the dark, spinning, leg waggling blob that dropped down just in front of my left eye, presumably letting himself down from the wreckage of his former home now entangled in my 70’s era mousy brown madly mish-mashed mane.

Let me explain something about my hair. Stayed blonde for a long time, turned brown with age, eventually skipped black and went straight to silver, though that’s decades later.

My Dad once said that he’d taken me as a young kid to a cow pasture to see the dairy cows, and that he’d shown me a cow lick and warned me not to lick it. According the his recount, I asked what the cowlick tastes like, and he said salty. So when he turned away, I ran over and licked the cowlick. And just so happened a big old Bessie, too old to see very well, shambled up, pooping at the same time as cows are apt to do, particularly elderly ones, and not seeing so well the mistook my round head for the salt lick and licked me a good three or four times before my Dad could see my plight and shoo old Bessie away long enough to pull me clear of her huge, agile tongue. According to him, the hair with multiple crowns a Korean hairdresser I went to once considered akin to that of a husky and likely a gift from aliens, is simply the fate of a naughty boy trying to taste a cowlick and getting licked instead.

I recall seeing that fat little spider with the flailing legs dangling right in front of my eye and no matter how much I scrunched up my eyes and squealed falsetto and shook my head furiously, when I’d stop and slowly, cautiously open my eye he’d still be swaying there, looking back at me, clearly in just as much shock as I was. Eventually I swat him away and discovered that doing so would simply transfer him to dangling from my finger, as stubborn as a summertime booger, no amount of flapping jazz hands seemed to fling the fellow free.

So I ran to find Mom.

Growing up in Eastern Tennessee meant growing up with ticks, fleas, lice, and chiggers.

Ticks came with worry about Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, something kids all thought turned you into polka dots, or Lyme disease, which I believed as a child to be “Limestone Decease” enough to burst into tears when learning my family intended to move from Telford to Limestone, as I felt sure there would be no refuge for me from that cursed tick disease in the town the disease had been named after! After playing outside you would pat down your legs and arms to check for lumps that might flap like old scabs, could be a tick, or could just be an old scab. Last you’d check your hair, and inevitably if I got a tick, somehow, that’s where it would be, and then off I’d go to find my Mom or parental unit to burn it off with a cigarette and pluck it clear with a pair of tweezers. You had to be careful about getting the head first and not squeezing the body, didn’t want the head breaking off and burrowing in, and didn’t want backwash out of the tick’s body squeezing back into you.

Fleas and lice were same as anywhere, no more or less than anywhere. Fortunate to encounter minimal fleas in my childhood, unavoidable in warm climates with outdoor pets and 70’s shag carpet. Lice missed me all together, though got my sister when she was in elementary school years later in Kentucky. Mom had always been quick to discourage me from trying on other kid’s hats or using other people’s combs or hairbrushes, and even today I’m reluctant to try on hats in stores or buy hair care tools not blister packed and marked with something medical looking enough to believe the packaging environment had been a sterile environment. Have I ever mentioned I’m a bit of a mysophobe as well?

Chiggers got me, though. A teacher spot me scratching and sent me to the principle who sent me to the nurse. Not sure why that order had been followed, perhaps she thought I’d been clowning, not sure, just remember the principle, a man I knew all too well, lifting my shirts and scrutinizing all the red bumps on my pot belly, dots I actually hadn’t noticed myself until just then, though reminded me of how the kindergarten staff had established that I’d contracted chickenpox using much the same technique. Sent home and salved with harsh smelling ointments, my Mom told me what chiggers were and I knew I really wanted to move out of the South. Also called berry bugs and micro-ticks, they drop eggs in your skin that cause the itchy red bumps as their offspring use your flesh for fine dining.

Vancouver has bed bugs in many of the older apartment buildings, a thought that instantly makes me itch and squirm, because bed bugs and chiggers are distant kissing cousins, and that’s enough to send me packing, for sure.
Spiders though, that’s a whole other thing. More on that tomorrow.