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Occult Knowledge

   Sometimes I find myself in the same position as the native who found the rifle.

    The native knew what the rifle could do; he had seen it work, and now he was trying everything in his power to make it do that thing. He carefully twisted wads of grass, cuts of bark, and stuffed them into the chamber. He tried using stones, earth, a burning ember; he used incantations and interpretive dance; he prayed; he anointed the rifle with sacred dust, with purified oil.
    The persistent native spared no effort or ingenuity, but it was all in vain; nothing would induce the rifle to utter its terrifying lightening and thunder: the deadly magic which could slay from a distance and provide meat for his lodge, or cause his enemies to flee in terror.
    The native's considerable experience of the world was not sufficient to unlock the secret, even if he spent his life studying the inner workings of the rifle. The simple mystery of gunpowder would forever be concealed, in a parallel reality separate from his.
       
     This scenario is from a story I came across many years ago. I sometimes feel that it is a metaphor for my own life, as I stumble forward in darkness.

Drawing of Geodude, by L. Solomon

I Said, Beer!

    When my son was about 3, he expressed an interest to taste some beer, as I was having a bottle. So I let him try a spoonful.
    Apparently, he liked it. A few days later, our family was eating in a restaurant, and I ordered a beer with my dinner. When it came, my little son asked if he could have some, and I told him I didn't think it was a good idea this time. To my astonishment, he began reaching over the table, and calling loudly, "Beeyoo, beeyoo!' in his piping little voice. Many heads in the restaurant turned to see what was happening.
    My son is a good, biddable lad, and this outburst took us all by surprise; it was quickly quelled by a stern word or two by myself and my wife, but not before I was mortified to notice the expressions on the faces that had turned towards our table: "Just look at that little boy having a tantrum; calling for beer!" they were frowning sternly; "Now, that must be a nice house."

Requiem for a Rat

-Peter Solomon, Guinea Pig-
     I had the mournful task today of cleaning up and putting away all of Peter's things: the kibbles, the hay, the wood shavings, the cage itself; all the reminders of the life of the family guinea pig. For seven years the "little rat" had been with us, with his charming little ways.
     The impatient rodent had a way of yanking rhythmically at his hay hopper (it sounded like someone was knocking at the door), if someone had the discourtesy to begin making coffee in the morning before attending to him: a little orchard grass, a piece of carrot, a few scratches behind the ears. He would purr like a cat when you would stroke his soft furry head.
    At dinnertime, as soon as someone would open the vegetable drawer in the fridge to get something, Peter would again begin chewing and yanking on the metal bars of his cage. Watching him with amusement, I would comment, "He has very well developed nose parts" (from all that energetic yanking). I would wait just an extra minute before giving him the carrot, or broccoli trimmings.
    "He loves those metal bars," I would tease. "The metal must be really good for him."
Or, "He's trying to tell us something! What is it, boy?" He would chew and yank with renewed frustration. Then I would hand him his treat, and he would make a soft murmur of satisfaction as he took it.
    But, you know, if I ever offered him my finger to bite, he would only nibble it very gently. He was a generous and sweet-natured creature, in spite of all my teasing. There's a lesson.
    He lived a long time for a guinea pig: seven years. For the last few years he was with us, every time I would buy a big bag of wood shavings, or kibbles, or hay, I would think to myself, I wonder if most of this is going to end up not getting used? Well, that's just another thing that I found strangely moving at the end: there wasn't much left over in any of the bags; we had used up pretty much all the current supplies.
    When we first got Peter, we couldn't agree on what to call him: Jaw Pickle, Poop Kitty, Stoopid;
we got him for our young boys, and to begin with, I resented having one more thing in the house that I would have to take care of. Well, if I did, it's a burden that I will miss. I keep thinking I hear knocking, and I reflexively look over to where his cage had been. I thought it was going to be a luxury to not have to do anything; but then why do I feel a pang when I look over and see no cage, no little animal that needs my attention?     
    Well, Peter is with his ancestors now, in that great meadow-grass place in the sky, where no hawks are. He crossed the bridge peacefully in the night, after a brief illness in which he stopped eating. For two days, he just muttered to himself once in awhile, and whimpered occasionally, and refused even his beloved carrots.  But even right before the end, I could just hear him purring softly when I stroked his little head.
    "Never give your heart," sadly advised Kipling, "to a dog to tear."
    Who knew a little rat could do it?

Hugging the Bowl

    I've been hugging a toilet bowl, on and off, for two days. No, I haven't been sick, or drinking.
    Let's say your toilet was leaking underneath; it was dripping through the floor and making a puddle in your basement, and you wanted to fix it. You would have to disconnect things, take off the tank, unbolt the contraption from the floor, and at some point you would have to lift it up to move it off the spot. Have you ever tried to lift a toilet bowl? It's damned awkward, actually: you have to sort of hug it. Now you're getting the idea.
    When you're putting it back again, having settled it carefully on its wax seal after getting the wobbling bolts to go through their little holes without falling over underneath, you also don't want to over-tighten the nuts because the porcelain is very brittle. I knew this, but even so, as I was carefully snugging down the nuts the first time, I felt a sickening feeling as I turned the wrench; a sudden slackness. It wasn't the porcelain cracking: it was the flange on the ancient cast iron pipe underneath, crumbling away. The bolt was free as a bird.
    I was strangely calm. Well, I did swear a blue streak, with a rising note of hysteria in my voice that was a little frightening, but if there's no one there to hear you, did you actually make a sound? But then I thought, I can take a piece of steel bar stock, and with a hacksaw and files, I can make a flange to fit under what's left of the broken cast iron rim of the pipe. So that's what I did, and it worked; it took me about 2 hours. But I must mention: in the meanwhile, since you've lifted and moved the toilet away from its place, there is the dreadful menacing 4 inch hole in the floor; the pipe that goes straight down into the netherworld of the septic tank far below. This hole was just inviting me, for instance, to fumble and drop a tool down it; never to be seen again, or something worse. Your instinct bids you to cover that hole, so I did; I cut a plastic cover out of an old piece of tupperware, and I used it to seal the hideous hole while I was working on the broken flange.
    Now, before I relate how I came to install the toilet bowl not one more time, but two more times, I will mention another good reason for keeping the pipe covered while you are working: septage flies. These interesting creatures actually live in the fetid subterranean darkness of the septic tank, flying around above the liquid in the underground chamber, and communicating with the outside world via the vent pipe on the house roof. And you thought you had a bad job. Perhaps you can understand that I didn't want any of these little denizens of the dark to visit me in my world. And in fact, as I worked, I would occasionally see one of these small flies flying around under the cover for a few moments, perhaps contemplating the wondrous light that he could see through the translucent plastic.
    When I was done making the new flange, I reformed the squashed wax seal around the hole in the bottom of the toilet, buttering it around with a putty knife, like frosting a cake. When I was satisfied that the wax ring was well formed and would seat properly, I carefully lowered the toilet bowl down over the hole for the second time, getting the bolts to go through their holes without knocking them over. It took a couple of tries, but I got it done, and I felt the satisfying "give" of the wax spreading out and sealing the joint. A perfect job, and I would be very careful tightening down the nuts this time. But something was nagging at the back of my mind. Think carefully, I told myself; is everything shipshape? It ought to be, but think...
    NO! That's right; maybe you guessed it: the tupperware cover was still in its place down under there! Not as perfect a job as I could have wished. One more time, I get to bend my back to this fascinating job, and hug the toilet bowl. Off it comes again, and although it's too late now to make a long story short, I finally made an end of it, and as of this writing, there's no more puddle under the pipes in the basement.


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Grammar Test

When I was in grade school, we would get questions like the following:

- Correct the error(s) in the following sentence -
"Jack seen Fred fix them cars hisself."

    I would always think, who could ever get these questions wrong?  Everyone knows where Fred ain't smart enough to fix no car by hisself!

Mystery Fish

    Nobody could figure out where the sardines were coming from. They just kept appearing, as if an evil sorcerer were at work.
    I was living in a house with a group of people, and we shared a communal pantry.  A lot of people came and went in that house, and it wasn't always clear who bought what.      
    One day, a great stash of sardines appeared in the food closet; there were about 20 cans of them. Nobody claimed responsibility for having bought them, and it was strange to see so many. I shrugged my shoulders along with everyone else.
    So a couple of cans of the fish were sampled by several people. My friend Gene was the first. His nose wrinkled as he opened the can; he had a doubtful look on his face as he peered at the contents, but he cautiously tried a bite.
    "These sardines are spoiled!" he pronounced, and he just left the remainder on the table for someone else to deal with.
    Another person tried opening a new can, with much the same results. It soon became clear that none of the cans were any better; the fish was unpalatable. So the several opened cans got discarded; a stinking mess in the garbage can.
    But in the pantry, there remained the large and mysterious stacks of unopened cans. About 20 of them sat around on the shelf for a few weeks. In spite of all the hungry mouths around that house, no one had anything further to do with those sardines. 
    The question eventually arose of what to do with the stacks of cans; nobody seemed to own them and certainly no one wanted them. I hate to see food get wasted, but we finally agreed that they would just have to be thrown out. This was done with little fanfare, and the mystery was soon forgotten.
    But a few days later, what a commotion ensued when an even greater mountain of cans of the same dismal stuff appeared back in the cabinet! Everyone became greatly excited, and questions were flying back and forth.
    "Who is bringing this stuff? Was it a friend of yours?"
    "Is it a well-wisher, or an evil doer?"
    "Can we just waste this food?"
    "Even the cat won't eat it. I tried giving him some."
    Without much more discussion, the pile of cans went out in the garbage a second time; this time I watched it go. I even saw when the garbage truck came and picked it up. As I watched the truck trundling off, I was grinning a secret smile that nobody noticed.
    Several days after this, the mystery took on sinister proportions, when, incredibly, there was a third appearance of Manna from Hell in our food pantry; the biggest pile of cans so far: about 50 of them.
    This was truly a profound study in human perplexity. The people were buzzing around like a hive of stirred-up bees. 
    "They're here again! This is incredibly strange!"
    "This is freaking me out."
    "We should start locking the front door."
     The only problem this time was, as hard as I tried, I couldn't keep a straight face. I was cracking up, and suddenly all eyes were on me.
    "Solomon, what do you know about this?!"
    The high drama was completely spoiled; I had cracked under the pressure. Yes, I was the culprit;
I myself had been the unwilling recipient of a "gift" of several cases of very old sardines, which had been purchased by a traveling friend from a cannery several years previously. As the aging fish were becoming inedible, she had begged me to take it all, in hopes I would find some use for it.
Well, I told her I'd see what I could do.

More Allen Stuff

    I've been observing the interesting behavior of my friend Allen, since we were small boys more than 60 years ago.
        When we were 9 or 10 years old, our family was over at his family's house for dinner. Just as Allen was sitting down at the table, his younger brother Gene pulled his chair away, and Allen landed with a thump on the floor. He immediately flew into a shouting rage, sitting there on the linoleum, and his mother Charlotte drew him up onto his feet and gave Gene a sharp reprimand. Then she tried to soothe Allen. He was raving in anger, and nothing she could do would stop him, so she finally just grabbed a dishtowel, balled it up and stuffed it into his mouth. She pointed, "Go to your room!"
    Without a pause, Allen continued to shout a remarkably fluent stream of invective at Gene and the world in general, but now his raving was in a strangely muffled howl through the dishrag. He toddled angrily but obediently out the door and down the hall, still flailing his arms and shouting through the gag. I thought it was very peculiar that it didn't occur to him to pull the rag out of his mouth.
    The noise receded and abruptly stopped, with the slamming of his door. Charlotte shook her head with a helpless but amused grin, "That's my boy!"

    On the kitchen wall, there was an office phone for the family's landscaping business. This phone was right next to the house phone, and the two looked identical, but their rings were different to distinguish incoming calls. It occurred to my wicked mind one time to switch the receivers on their hooks. The switch wasn't obvious to look at, because the long cords hung down side by side. It seemed like a harmless prank, and then I forgot about it. A few days later I was there again, and I noticed that the receivers had been put right, so I switched them again.
    A few minutes later, I was in the next room and I heard a phone ringing. Allen picked up, and I could hear him saying, "Hello… hello…?" Then, to my mortification, he became furious, and began swearing. "The #&*#-ing phone is &#%-ed up AGAIN!! NOTHING ever works around here!!" He slammed down the phone in a fury.
    There was another person in the kitchen with Allen, and I could hear him trying to calm things down. "It's all right," the friend was saying. "The phone's not broken. See? Someone just switched the receivers here."
    "Is that all it was?!" Allen shouted, cursing some more. "What kind of IDIOT would keep switching the receivers?! How can we run a *#%-ing business?!"
    I slunk away, quite abashed. Of course, the business caller on the line would have been able to hear Allen cursing and shouting, because before Allen hung up again, the live receiver was sitting right there on the other phone's hook. I'll be tortured in hell for this stunt, or sooner, if Allen ever reads this.

    Allen nourishes a myth about me, that I will eat anything. This is actually not true at all; I'm very particular about what I eat. The myth began because of an event one day when he came over with our friend Brady, to visit me in my workshop. Earlier that day, I had been eating a peanut butter sandwich, and I had put the half eaten sandwich on a plate near the table saw. Then I did some cutting with the saw, which of course throws up some dust.
    When the guys came to my shop a little later, I spied the half-eaten sandwich on the plate. I picked it up, blew off the harmless sawdust and resumed eating it. Then I noticed Brady's reaction; he was green with disgust. His impression was that I had found some ancient moldy food in a corner and had begun carelessly devouring it, after having blown off the accumulated filth. The next day, Brady and Allen excitedly related this story to others, with some interesting embellishments, and thus the myth was born. Whenever Allen would introduce me to someone, he would be sure to tell them, "Solomon will eat anything!"  So I would encourage him, saying, it's no big deal.
    Allen conceived of a dare; he thought he could stump me by proposing that I eat a tuna fish ice-cream sundae. If I ate it, he would pay for it. That didn't sound so bad to me; it was really no challenge to say, "Sure!"
    Accordingly, we went out with some friends to an ice-cream parlor. When the waitress asked me for my order, I said, "I'll have a chocolate banana split, with a scoop of raspberry, a scoop of tuna fish salad, and a scoop of... um..."
    The waitress interrupted me, before I could say, "vanilla"; she completely ruined my comic timing.
    "Tuna fish?!" she frowned at me.
    "Yes. Tuna fish, and... um... a scoop of vanilla."
    "You're not serious!?"
    "Yes, I am."
    The waitress refused to go along with it, and after a little more discussion, she ended up bringing over the manager. The manager listened to the case, and finally responded by saying,
    "If she brings it, you're going to have to eat it!"
    "No he won't." Allen broke in, excitedly. "No he won't. He'll just have to pay for it."
    So the manager gave the nod, and the waitress clamped her mouth tight, and wrote down the order, obscurely annoyed.
    Everyone was eagerly watching as the tuna fish sundae was brought out and set before me. By this time, the entire restaurant was alerted, and watching me with rapt attention. I had made sure that I was good and hungry before we went out, and to tell the truth, the sundae didn't taste bad. I've tasted better combinations, but there was nothing disgusting about it, and I ate it up.
    But somehow, to Allen this was all very remarkable, and he gladly paid for the sundae. This event gave them all something to talk about for a while, and the myth remained intact, with no very great effort on my part.

    Allen's wife affectionately refers to him by the title I gave him once: the "waddling encyclopedia".
In some ways Allen is a lot smarter than me, but, as with all enduring friendships, there's a balance there.

Primitive Powder

Originally published in Muzzle Blasts, March, 2007  -- 

    I made a very exciting discovery while poking around in the basement of an abandoned house. The house was an antique colonial from around 1810; it was nominally owned by the Park Service, but in fact it had been unoccupied and unattended for many years. The ancient place was in a state of disrepair; and the fieldstone foundation had a crumbling hole on one side. I felt it was only my civic duty to make a tour of inspection of the historic building, and so I contorted my way through the badger-hole in the foundation wall, and I entered the dank earthy basement. What I found among the rough stones of the inside wall, gave me a shiver of excitement.
    No, it wasn't a brittle leather sack stuffed with gold coins, that gleamed when you rubbed them with your sleeve. That's what I was hoping to find, of course, but it must have been too cleverly hidden. Also, I didn't even find an alcove that held a moldering oaken chest, bound with iron bands and a hand-forged padlock, filled with minted silver.
    None of that, but what I did find, in the cracks between the stones, was an encrustation of powdery  grayish-white material; with here and there some translucent brownish crystals. I found it more where there was mortar between the stones, and not as much where the stones had been laid dry. Examining the powdery deposits in the beam of my pocket-light, I thought, "Can this stuff be saltpeter?"
    I had some sketchy notions of how saltpeter had been obtained in colonial days, for its use in the manufacture of gunpowder; the king's men would periodically rove through the countryside, breaking open stone walls to collect the saltpeter that accumulates inside them. I also remembered Poe's story, "A Cask of Amontillado," in which two men are deep within the catacombs of an old European city, and one man mentions the white webwork of "nitre" which they could see encrusting the damp stone walls. Nitre is the ancient name for saltpeter, or potassium nitrate. I thought it was a pretty good possibility that that's what I had just found. Gold would have been better, but this was interesting too.
     So, I crawled back out of the hole, and I returned with some jars for collecting samples. I collected about 1/2 cup of the crystalline powder from between the stones, and then I headed back to my lab for some experiments.
     To refine the samples, I put a stainless steel pot on the stove with about a quart of water, and added the powdery material. I boiled and stirred for a few minutes to dissolve out the soluble salts, let the sediment settle, and then filtered the liquid through a coffee filter. Then I put the clear liquid back into the pot, and boiled it away, which took about fifteen minutes. I was left with a brownish white crystalline residue in the bottom of the pot. This would be the saltpeter, if that's what it was. I scraped the stuff out of the pot with a wooden spatula, and I ended up with about a teaspoonful of the brownish powder.
    The easiest way I had to find out if the material was in fact saltpeter, was to go ahead and try to make gunpowder with it. If the material was something else, the worst that would happen is, I'd waste my time making mixed dirt.
    First I made some charcoal. Using a propane burner, I heated chunks of willow wood in a covered clay crucible, monitoring the crucible until it stopped off-gassing, then keeping it sealed until everything cooled. The third ingredient of gunpowder is sulfur, and for this I had to cheat and use store-bought from a lab supply, because I don't know of any natural deposits of sulfur in my location.
     After grinding the ingredients separately in a mortar and pestle, I weighed them out in the correct proportions, mixed in a few drops of water, and ground the resulting paste in the mortar. Then I spread the black paste on a sheet of glass and left it to dry in the sun for a few hours. When the paste was dry, I lightly crunched it up into granules, about the consistency of very coarse salt. I ended up with about 6 1/2 grams of finished powder. This is about one hundred grains, in firearm parlance; enough for a musket-load, with some left over for priming.
    Now came the moment of truth. I put a small amount of this stuff on a metal dish, applied a flame, and Foomph! It flashed up! It wasn't as fast as commercial power, but it actually worked!
    In commercial production, the ingredients of gunpowder are milled together for several hours, always being kept moistened to prevent accidental ignition. I milled my batch for only a few minutes, but it performed well enough for proof-of-concept. The samples I had collected  in the old basement probably contained a combination of sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate, because my powder burned with a softer, yellower flame than ordinary powder: a sign of sodium.
     For my final experiment I wanted to load up my big .68 caliber flintlock pistol to try out the powder, but I didn't have enough powder left for a proper load in that. So I used a .45 cal. caplock pistol, which would work better with a smaller charge, although I would have preferred the flint ignition. I loaded the pistol with about 25 grains, a little under 2 grams, of my concoction, (most of what I had left), then wrapped a .44 lead ball in a greased cotton patch, rammed it down over the charge, and placed a percussion cap onto the nipple.
    With the loaded pistol on half-cock, I carried a couple of phone books outside, and propped them against a stump. Then I presented the piece, brought the hammer to full cock, and squeezed the trigger. When I felt that pistol kick and heard the boom, I was quite pleased; I had made functional gunpowder from found materials! I felt I was one step closer in kinship to the ancient ways of our colonial forbears, whose self-sufficiency and resourcefulness I have always admired.


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New Doors

    My friend Dave called me to do some work on the cabinets in his kitchen. He had some new doors that needed mounting, and so I put some tools in a box and headed over.
    After showing me everything, Dave started right in with the kibitzing; he was worried that the wood was hard, and he thought my screws might crack it if I didn't drill the right size pilot holes. "These are new doors." he reminded me.
    I told him, "Dave, I have every size drill from a human hair, up to an inch and a half, and that's not counting the hole saws. I think I'll find something that will work for the pilot holes."
    "But how will you line the holes up, to get the doors on straight?" he wanted to know. "They have to look good."
    "Oh! You're right; that is a good point," I agreed. "I guess I'll have to measure stuff."
     "No, I'm serious; I mean, how will you do it?"
     "I'll clamp the doors to the brackets, and mark the locations of the holes very carefully,"
I reassured him. "You don't have to worry about it."
     "I don't know about using clamps," he told me doubtfully. "Do you have a type of clamp that won't damage the doors?" This was starting to get on my nerves.
    "I'll pad the clamps, of course. And I'm not going to do this job unless you go into a different room while I'm working."
    So Dave went into the other room with his laptop, to watch ebay and see how his paintings were selling. Back in the kitchen, I fumbled a clamp, and it made a noise. "Are you OK?" shouted Dave from the living room. "How's it going?"
    "Don't talk to me, or I'm leaving," I shouted back.
    "OK. I'm just checking." Dave subsided back to swearing at the computer, where the ebay people were certainly underbidding his goods, the morons. "Those bastards," I heard him muttering angrily.
    I kept working as silently as I could, although the pivoting arms of the corner cabinet were puzzling me. They had a motion that I wasn't familiar with; I couldn't get the clamps to fit, and I wasn't sure how I was going to locate the screw holes. Dave's radar picked up on the silence. "Can I do anything to help?" he called a few moments later.
    Now he's finally got me rattled; I can't figure this out. "I can't do it!" I admitted. "I'm going home; you'll have to get someone else; there must be a template or something that they use."
     Dave instantly came pattering into the room, full of concern. "You can't figure it out?" he asked. Yes, he had known all along, it would be too tough. "It's OK," he told me. "We tried." Nothing ever works right; Dave knew that much. "I'll have to hire a cabinetmaker," he concluded, with a deep sigh. "It'll be expensive. I'll call Ted."
     Ted! I worked for Ted sometimes, too. He's a brilliant cabinetmaker, a mentor to me in that line. I could picture Ted coming into Dave's kitchen, and looking at my unfinished job. Ted would be shaking his head sadly, and he would be thinking, "Leonard, Leonard…  " That image was too much for me. I suddenly decided: By gum, Ted's right! I can do this!     
    I picked up my measuring tape and my square, and I went back to the problem, this time with determination. But now Dave was not so easy to convince. Disaster is always right around the corner in Dave's world. "No, Len. We tried, OK? I don't want you to screw it up. You don't have to do it."
    "I'm fine. I'm OK now. Go back in the other room and check your computer. I think they're really screwing you on ebay."
    "No, Len. You'll mess it up. These are new doors. You know how expensive these cabinets were?"
    I finally persuaded Dave to go away, though he was now extremely uneasy. "What could go wrong?" I shouted cheerfully. That didn't help. I went ahead with my measuring and marked the holes, confident at this point that I had them correct. From the other room, I heard Dave explode with a string of expletives in his Brooklyn accent; apparently, things on ebay had just taken an ugly turn. I began drilling the holes. I knew Dave could hear the sound of my drill, and I could feel him wincing.
    "What if you put the holes in the wrong place?" his voice wailed.
    "I'll patch it up, don't worry!"  I kept drilling.
    "No! Those are expensive doors!"
    "What do they say again?" I called with demonic glee, "Measure once and cut twice? Oh, damn!"
I went on, "I cut this same board three times, and it's still too short!"
    Dave came running into the room. "What board? What are you talking about?" Dave is rarely in the mood to laugh, and this certainly wasn't one of those times. "What do you mean, 'cut the board'?"
    "Never mind." I had screwed the mounting brackets onto the doors, nice and snug, and now I wrangled the doors into position in the corner cabinet, then I screwed the pivoting arms onto the brackets. Now came the moment of truth! I swung the doors closed, and they lined up perfectly.
    "Cut the board three times and it's still too short!" I cackled, way more relieved than I cared to admit to Dave. "Still too short; get it?" No he didn't get it, but it didn't matter.
    "You did it!" he said. "They're perfect! How did you figure it out?" For one moment in Dave's life, all the stress was forgotten. "How did you do it?"
    "I have no idea," I told him.


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Current Optical Theory

    It is well known that one cannot see as well at night, as one can during the day. What follows is a theory which may help to understand this phenomenon.
    During the day, the optical beams emitted from the eye pass easily through the rarified aether, and upon reverberation back into the eye, an image is formed. However, as nightfall begins, there is a cascading descent of myriads of darktons (this is, literally, the fall of night). These descending particles being dense, they render the aether into a viscous medium which inhibits the passage of eye-beams. Ergo, one's vision becomes less keen at night.
    The fall of darktons slows and stops by midnight, and the particles are gradually absorbed by the ground and and other objects (this accounts for why it is impossible to see through a rock). The rising of the sun, with its powerful rays, completes the dissolving and absorption of the remaining darktons, and one's eye-beams can once more penetrate through the aether without impediment.


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Jan's Psychotic Plants

     I lived for a few years in a group house with seven other people, in Cambridge, MA.
My housemate Jan, an older woman, had her room next to mine on the third floor of the old Victorian. I loved to spend time with Jan in her room; the place was filled with life; caged birds and a dog, and a luxurious profusion of tropical plants everywhere. I often watered Jan's plants for her when she was away, and I took care of the birds.
    It happened that I had some friends visiting overnight one time, when Jan was to be away, and she offered us the use of her room. I agreed with Jan that I would sleep in her room, and that I would let my friends use my own room for the night. Jan seemed pleased with this arrangement, and I was too; I felt that it would be an interesting experience, to sleep in a jungle among all those plants. I felt a slight, momentary uneasiness about the idea, but I dismissed the feeling.
    As it turns out, my night in Jan's place was filled with hellish nightmares: the plants were gruesome and hostile; they bent over the bed in my tortured visions, writhing and emanating a demonic energy; they were jealous of my intrusion, commanding me get out of that place, or die.
    First light the next morning didn't come too soon. I took the hint, and I got out of there. Before anybody else woke up, I spent a groggy morning drinking coffee and letting the unpleasant reverberations slowly dissipate.
    I never told Jan that I had had such a dreadful night in her bed. She was my friend: a very sweet person, and we got along well. I never perceived any sort of negative energy from her, so the whole thing was strange and a bit embarrassing; and that's why I never mentioned it to her.
    Some time after that, I had another friend visiting. Again Jan was going to be away, and she offered the use of her room for the night. I had no wish to try the previous experiment again myself, but I thought there was no reason not to let my visiting friend Allen use the room. Allen is a plant person; his avocation is cultivating rare plants, and I felt that he would be delighted in the variety and profusion of plants to be found in Jan's "jungle". Physically, Jan's room was also the nicest one in the house; a very elegant room filled with arched windows, air and light. So I decided I wouldn't mention to Allen about the peculiar reaction I had experienced when I slept there. Perhaps a shadow of a doubt entered my mind about letting Allen try it, but I'll have to admit, I was curious to see how he would like the room.
    Strangely enough, Allen was not amused. When I met him in the hall the next morning, to my complete amazement, he looked shattered and wild-eyed. "That was the worst night I've ever spent; I hardly slept at all!" he exclaimed accusingly. "I was having horrible nightmares all night!"
    After that, I became really curious to know what Jan would make of all this, but still I thought it best never to mention it to her. And I never did.



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Mind Trestle

    "Now, you have to do it again. Walk back across."
    "What? I have to do it again?"
    "Yes; this time with your other side facing the abyss. just to make sure you didn't miss something important."
    "Oh, G-d, look how far it is; I can't do it."
    "Yes you can."

   Whose voice is this, calling me "you"?  And whose voice is it, answering "I"?  Conversations with oneself are mysterious. I fixed my concentration on the walkway that I had just traversed; the outside edge of a RR trestle, with a 25 foot plunge to the river just inches from where my feet would be moving.
    "Yes, I can," I answered myself. I started walking back across.
    The foot-wide ledge along the outside of the tracks was not a highwire, but it was high enough to cause me great anxiety. It was also high enough to kill me if I stumbled and fell. The rusty iron edges of the trestle abutment were just under the water, 25 feet below me.
    Of course, a foot-wide path is not physically hard to walk, but if one edge of it is a potentially fatal drop, then a misstep seems much more likely. In fact, the empty space seems to exert a mystical sideways pull, making a faltering step seem more probable.
    Why not walk down the middle of the trestle between the tracks? The spaces between the ties gave a view straight down to the water, but that wouldn't be so bad. But this was one of those times when I got the urge to probe my limits, to try to overcome my fears, so as I had been strolling along the tracks and arrived at the trestle, it had occurred to me that I was going to make myself walk the edge, just to prove that I could.
    But the contradiction about walking such a path is that the danger must be completely ignored, even while it is acknowledged. The artist Dali described "the exquisite anguish of the empty void." This is what attracts me to, and at the same time repels me from, heights. This "exquisite anguish" is the very thing that I cannot allow myself to appreciate, if I am to successfully negotiate this walk before me.
    So that is what I did; I ignored it completely, as I walked the 100 feet of the trestle, along the outside of the rails just inches from the edge. The spaces between the ties along the edge were filled with blocks of wood, making the walkway a flat, though uneven surface. As I walked along it, I thought of nothing but carefully placing my feet with each step, until I was safely across. Only then did I allow myself to look back and contemplate what I had just traversed.
    But after making the walk, to my dismay it occurred to me that I was going to make myself do it again, back the other way. Maybe it would be possible, I was thinking, to "unlearn" the irrational vertigo that attacks me in such places; to allow myself more freedom to enjoy the expansive vista, instead of shrinking from it.
    No; I discovered that that would not be possible. It was not any easier the second time; once again I had to clamp on the mental "blinders", as I carefully traversed the ledge. I concentrated on each step, and thought of nothing else. 
    But I did it; I didn't faint, stumble, or get sucked wildly sideways by a mystic force. It was all over, sooner than I expected, and I stepped with relief onto the solid ground.


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A Surprising Visit

    Years ago, I was sleeping at the home of a friend, in the historic Colonial harbor town of Marblehead, MA. On this night, I had a vivid dream.
    I dreamed that I woke up in the bed, where I was actually still lying on my back, asleep. In my dream, I heard some people outside the bedroom door, and I turned my head to see the door open, and admit a man who walked briskly toward the bed. As he strode towards me, I was aware of every detail of his clothes and person: the square shape of his face, his short bristly salt-and pepper beard, his strong frame in a loose blue sweatshirt and canvas pants, the clear impression that he was a seafaring man.
    In three steps he was at the bedside, leaning down with his face inclined towards mine, and I thought, "He's going to kiss me!" I recoiled, startling in the bed, and at that point he saw me clearly, and he recoiled backwards as well, straightening up with an astonished look on his face. In that moment with our eyes fixed on each other, my eyes flew open in reality, and I came abruptly awake.
    Now fully awake, I found that I was still looking at the man; his eyes were wide in dismay and confusion. I was thinking, "I'm awake. How can I still be looking at him?" I watched, unmoving, as his frozen image slowly faded away and disappeared.
    I lay in quiet amazement for a few more moments. My friend, in whose home I mentioned that I was sleeping, was in fact lying next to me in the bed; her name was Nancy. I turned over and looked at Nancy, assuming that she would also be wide awake at this point, since I had physically startled, and probably cried out "Hey!" just moments before. But she was sound asleep. So I didn't disturb her, and after awhile I fell back to sleep myself.
    The first thing next morning, I told Nancy about my experience. She listened to my description with grave attention, and she said, "That sounds like my Bestefar; [Norwegian for] my Grandfather. He passed away years ago, but he comes to check on me from time to time." I felt a little mortified as she told me this; we weren't married, and the man had not been pleased to see a stranger in his granddaughter's bed. "We have a family tradition that he comes to visit us now and then, to make sure I'm all right," she went on. "I would normally be sleeping on that side of the bed."
    Later, Nancy showed me a picture of her Bestefar. He was dressed exactly as I had seen him, he had the same square face, but no beard. "He grew a beard and wore it later in life, after this picture was taken," she told me. "He was a sailor all his life."


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