An Amazing Post!

Tears for Fears once sang “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”. A great song and an audacious claim. I believe there’s some truth in it, though. Few would admit it but I believe there’s a little part of everyone that wants to control everything. Maybe it’s the frustration of knowing we actually have very little control over anything in our lives. Controlling something would be a step in the right direction. Or so we think.

I’ll confess that more than a little part of me wants to control more than just a little part of the world. I’ll start right now with my first decree:

The word “amazing” is banished from use forthwith!

Yes, “amazing” is the latest in a long line of words that have been so misused and overused that they’ve ceased to have any meaning. Thus, it must be removed from the lexicon. It has joined the rogues’ gallery of words and phrases that are mutilating our discourse. Others, such as “awesome”, “like”, “literally”, “actually”, “just”, “really”, as well as beginning sentences with “so” for no apparent reason, will be dealt with over time. They must all go and they will when I’m in control.* (In the interest of full disclosure, I’m guilty of leaning heavily on all those verbal crutches.)

Back to “amazing”…

Listen. You hear it everywhere. This movie is amazing. That restaurant is amazing. Some team, book, or blog (!!) is amazing.

Worst of all is when someone calls you amazing. After all, what is being said about you? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Assuming (and this is a huge stretch) the speaker is truly amazed, it says one of two things. Either they have a low level of amazement (I vote for that one) or something about you is truly amazing, for better or worse. And that’s the key point. There is no value judgment in the word. It’s not saying anything positive about you. Kind of like the doctor in the Seinfeld episode who calls both Elaine and an ugly baby “breathtaking”.

The subprime mortgage debacle was amazing.

“New Coke” was amazing.

Hitler was amazing.

Donald Trump is amazing in his own way. (And it’s not a good way.)

So, I literally think we should just… Ignore that. Let’s dispense with the word altogether.

While we’re at it, how about the current addiction to swearing? When I was in high school, there was a poster on the wall in the guidance counselor’s office. It read, “Profanity is the attempt of a weak mind to express itself forcefully.” That’s the only thing I remember from any guidance counselor, but it’s a maxim worth thinking about. Because they’re so ubiquitous, those words have little or no shock value remaining. There was a time when dropping just one of them in a routine guaranteed a favorable reception for a comedian. (Just ask Albert Brooks about his experience in San Antonio.) Not anymore. They fall with the frequency of snowflakes in a blizzard and with the same effect. One alone simply dissolves into nothingness. Pile on enough and conversation comes to a standstill, buried in inanity.

Rather than be heavy-handed about this whole thing, I propose making it into a game. Everyone in the US will be issued a buzzer from the game Taboo. Just like in that game, anyone will be allowed to buzz anyone else who utters one of those verbal pariahs. Speakers will stammer and struggle to avoid the rejected phrases as they do in the game, beginning every sentence saying, “Um, this is a thing that you might, um, literally…” BZZZZZZ!! How much fun will that be?

No more meaningless words, lots of buzzing. Win, win!

Vote for me.


* The alert reader will note that my list doesn’t include the verbal tics we hear and use constantly: I mean, kind of/sort of, really, y’know, um, uh. Stamping those out would cripple most people conversationally, including me. There’s no need to do that.

Yet.

The other pandemic

We’re all about coronavirus for the past year and a half. Something most of us had never heard of or considered before 2020 is now the fulcrum on which everything in our lives turns. Our conversations invariably revolve around the pandemic, the Delta variant, masks, and vaccines. Yet, there is another pandemic sweeping through our land whose effects are equally tragic. I’m talking about…

The Obliviousness Pandemic!

Yes, obliviousness has taken our country, and possibly the entire world, by storm, leaving death, destruction, ignorance, and oppression in its wake. I see the symptoms of this deadly condition everywhere I look.

  • The person who hears “Black lives matter” and scornfully replies “All lives matter!”
  • The one who doesn’t believe in vaccines even though vaccines have effectively wiped out (or at least ameliorated the effects of) some of the most deadly and contagious conditions the world has ever known: smallpox, polio, measles, chickenpox, influenza, tetanus, hepatitis A & B, and many, many more. And yet they suddenly fear the Covid vaccine. Can you spell o-b-l-i-v-i-o-u-s?
  • If you’ve disabled the muffler on your car, motorcycle, SUV, or pickup truck thinking it would make you (1) cooler, (2) safer, and/or (3) more of a man (sexist, yes, but what woman would be foolish enough to do such a thing?), seek professional help right away. You’re a victim of the oblivious epidemic. And everyone else within earshot (i.e. a mile or so) of wherever you drive is a victim of your obliviousness.*
  • Anyone who thinks Donald Trump gives a flying fig about anything but himself and wouldn’t slit their throat if he thought it would add to his bank account and he could get away with it. Or that he’s a conservative.
  • If you never considered the possibility of a pandemic hitting us, as so many have throughout history, you’ve been struck with this condition.
  • Smokers.
  • The billionaire who thanks the people he has exploited for financing his insane space boondoggle. Oh, and the people he exploited who don’t recognize it.
  • Anyone with a “Coexist” bumper sticker who runs red lights and cuts off people in traffic.
  • Me, much of the time.
  • Then there are the obvious, longstanding examples, such as the person hauling a month’s worth of groceries through the 10-items-or-less line, the clown going below (or even at) the speed limit in the left lane of the highway, and the Jeopardy contestants who always start at the top left of the board instead of intentionally trying to find the “Daily Double” by choosing higher value clues early in the game.

There are millions of examples, at least as many as there are people. I’ve expounded on this general topic before but realized I could create a whole new post by repackaging it. 🙂

Where have you seen obliviousness? Or are you oblivious to it?


*One of the most heinous aspects of this epidemic is that it doesn’t cause the victims any ill effects. It only harms others! Imagine if contracting Covid didn’t hurt you at all? What if only other people, some of whom you might never come in contact with, who might even live half way around the world, had to go on ventilators? (Right now, the oblivious among us are thinking, “That would be great!” sigh)

FAQs

(Any web site worth its salt has an FAQs page. Mine has never done so. That could be an inhibitor to its growth from a platform for a curmudgeon trying to unload his lame scribbling to a viral social media giant.

Or not.)

  • Why do you bother with this blog after seven years of almost complete reader indifference?

A fair question, one I’ve wrestled with many times. The most obvious is ego. Having a blog allows me to pretend I have something of import to say, when it’s highly doubtful I do. That’s a self-defeating concept since, as you so clearly and painfully point out, no one appears to be reading it. Ouch! (Thank you for not noting my other blog, “Limping in the Light”, which experienced a similar lack of impact for 10 years. Oh my.)

Another, more reasonable excuse is the desire to sell books. I have seven out there as of this typing (2021) with one more in the works. There’s an infinitesimal but non-zero chance that Oprah will happen on this site and discover that my novel about Haiti, “A Slippery Land”, is perfect for her book club… which it is.

Finally, I just like writing. It’s enjoyable and it’s therapeutic.

  • Have you read the new Andy Weir book, “Project Hail Mary”?

Yes, and it’s great. Similar to “The Martian” in both style and entertainment value. Highly recommended.

  • Can I borrow ten bucks?

No.

  • What’s the deal with that guy in the commercial who points at all your junk and it just goes away?

Nothing is more annoying to me. Our stuff doesn’t just “go away”. There is no “away”. Living under that delusion has brought this world to the predicament it’s in today.

  • How many Frenchmen can’t be wrong?

Last I checked, it was 1,000,000. That might have changed.

  • Is it true that Dick van Dyke was originally cast as the lead in the old movie, “The Omen”?

That’s what I heard. It would be a very different movie with him instead of Gregory Peck, don’t you think? It might have been a musical.

  • Why do people say “dial the phone” when there hasn’t been a dial on a phone in decades?

The same reason my father used to tell us to turn off the gas on the electric stove.

  • How about five bucks?

Okay.

  • Why do motorcycles make so much noise their riders can’t hear themselves think?

They aren’t missing anything.

  • Then they turn up their music above the sound of the bike?

Go figure.

  • Is my call important to you?

Yes, and it will be recorded for customer satisfaction purposes.

  • Where can I get your awesome books?

On Amazon or from me directly.

  • What do you want to be when you grow up?

I have no intention of growing up.

  • What’s the meaning of life?

The Westminster Catechism says “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever.” That works for me.

  • Who are your favorite actors?

For some reason, my favorite actors tend to be more commonly in supporting roles as opposed to carrying a movie. Among those that come to mind at the moment are Stanley Tucci, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, Bill Cobbs, Steve Zahn, Michael Pena, and a bunch more I can’t think of right now. I appreciate people like these folks who (1) are humble enough to take smaller roles, (2) flexible enough to play anything from drama to OTT humor, and (3) make every movie they’re in better.

  • Have you heard the one about the…

Yes.

  • What does “clockwise” mean?

You were born after 2000, weren’t you?

  • $7.50?

Give it a rest!


(Let me know if you have any more questions you need answered.)

Do You Believe in Magic (or Science?)

The estimable musical force of nature known as John Sebastian wrote a song that has become an institution in popular culture. Since it was recorded and released by The Lovin’ Spoonful in 1965, “Do You Believe in Magic” has become one of the most recognizable songs in American pop music history. The reason is simple: It’s a wicked awesome song. (And one of the few hit songs to feature an autoharp.) It has been covered by many artists and has been featured in movies and on TV. It’s likely to live on as long as people have ears and want to move to music.

Recently, I’ve been thinking of that great song in conjunction with an insightful quote by the late science fiction author, Arthur C. Clarke (he of “2001: A Space Odyssey” fame):

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

This statement is surely accurate. I experience its truth all the time. My phone, computer, TV, and much of my car seem to have been created as much by Merlin (or at least Penn and Teller) as by engineers. I have no idea how they work but I trust that they do… most of the time. (When they don’t I curse them up and down while banging my head against the wall.)

This leads to a most relevant question for these trying times: Do you believe in science, even when it’s more like magic? The fact is that most people, even those who deny the veracity of certain scientific claims such as climate change, do believe in science. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be trusting the internet, a world-altering scientific (and administrative) bit of sorcery if ever there was one, to push their anti-intellectual drivel. (An aside to my conservative friends: Please note that the internet was developed and funded by the federal government.)

A friend once told me he thought people who deny clear, obvious, and well-accepted scientific truths shouldn’t be allowed to own a TV. He has a point. If you reject science, maybe you shouldn’t be allowed to benefit from it. I’d add to his list phones, antibiotics, Netflix, eyeglasses, X-rays, airplanes, and most everything else that makes modern life, um, modern.

The truth of the matter is that we believe in the science we want to believe in and reject that which undermines our preconceived worldview. Thus, if what you care about is oil company stock value, you will deny climate change. If you don’t want government to tell you to wear a mask, you deny Covid, in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

My liberal friends can be guilty of the same pick-and-choose attitude toward science. In spite of being told by the same scientific experts they formerly trusted that the Covid vaccine is effective, many are still hiding in their homes and wearing masks.

On the other hand, to quote a friend of mine who happens to be a physics genius, “Medicine is not science.” As a person with a chronic illness about which there is no certain “scientific” knowledge, I’ve experienced this truth first hand… and leg and brain. In medicine, it seems as if very little is fixed and certain. Imagine if physics were like that. What if gravity worked 95% of the time or if E equaled MC2 usually but it equaled MC3 for some people, especially on really humid days?

Thank God (I mean that literally) it doesn’t work that way. So, barring occasional (but inevitable) manufacturing, material, or software flaws or human stupidity or evil, your phone just works. Antibiotics cure you. The plane almost takes off and lands safely where you want it to.

I guess the point of all these ramblings is that there are many subtle sides to this “belief in science” thing. As long as humans are involved, with all their mixed motives and imperfections, science as it is communicated to us, will always feel a bit tenuous. At one point, “science” endorsed things like leeches to cure disease, eugenics to purify the human race, and, not that long ago, homosexuality as a mental disorder. Who’s ready to go back there?

Now, perhaps we’ve reached the point where we actually know everything there is to know for our science to be pure and exact. Not likely. That’s what they thought when scientists said bad smells caused disease. And when people with multiple sclerosis were told not to exercise. See this older post on my other blog for a litany of badly mistaken medical advice from the past.

Maybe we need to be more thoughtful about our beliefs. The question is…

Do you believe in magic?

The Year Without Smiles

The year 1816 has come to be known as “the year without summer”, all because temperatures around the world were up to 3 degrees cooler than normal due to the largest volcanic eruption in world history.

3 degrees.

Doesn’t sound all that bad to me. It wouldn’t have kept me away from the beach or off my bike. Still, it was enough to wipe out crops, cause near-famine conditions, and provoke atypical outbreaks of disease, so I guess it should be taken seriously. (Do we really want to find out what a permanent rise of a few degrees created by climate change will bring about?)

What will 2020 become known as? The year of Covid, coronavirus, or simply “the pandemic”? To me, it will be the year without smiles. What is there to smile about when confronted with the anguish caused by the constant threat of serious illness and loss of life for ourselves, loved ones, and hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens of the world? There’s little reason to smile for the overworked and overwhelmed healthcare workers watching waves of the sick and dying pass through their care. Even less for the elders spending their waning years isolated behind walls of glass or clear plastic, lacking the comfort of human touch.

(And this was written before a sitting president encouraged a mob of misguided, mentally deficient terrorists to attempt to overthrow the government. Sheesh.)

And if you are among the fortunate who haven’t lost a loved one, a job, or a business venture at the hands of this callous virus, perhaps you’ve been able to manage the occasional grin, whether feigned or from a grateful heart. As St. Paul encourages us, we should give thanks in (not necessarily for) all circumstances. It’s safe to assume that he would include Covid-19 within the definition of “all”. Psychologists have finally come around to Paul’s ancient wisdom, acknowledging the power of gratitude in emotional and physical healing.

So what do we have to be thankful for in the lengthening shadow of a killer pandemic? A number of things come immediately to mind:

  • Businesses overcoming the resistance to allowing employees to work from home. (May they not forget!)
  • Increased outdoor activity and the accommodation thereof. (Even if it caused a shortage of bicycles and their parts.)
  • A tiny-handed and tinier-brained would-be autocrat was taken out of the White House and out to the woodshed. (May he remain there.)
  • I don’t have to take my partially completed jigsaw puzzles off the dining room table; no company’s coming.
  • Increased awareness of the need to address issues of racial justice. (Even if we have yet to actually implement the necessary measures to mitigate the problems.)
  • Forced family time (for better or worse).
  • Creativity demonstrated by individuals and organizations to address the limitations imposed by the pandemic.
  • Zoom! (Saving grace for us extroverts.)

So, contrary to all logic, for the above reasons and more, I’m still able to smile and maybe you are, too.

But it doesn’t matter. All those smiles are hidden behind masks.* This is a not-to-be-underestimated problem for our society as a whole. Look, I’m used to seeing people walk down the street wearing grimaces and scowls, but there are usually enough smiles around to compensate for all those malcontents. Now, however, I have no idea what’s hiding behind those masks. I’m not the best at reading facial expressions as it is, but when all I see is a pair of eyes (and a nose, in the case of the weak-minded who seem to believe Covid is transmitted only through the mouth and/or chin) I’m useless.

This problem is most harmful to children. They are nourished by smiles, not to mention the equally unavailable hug. Outside of their immediate families, some little ones may go days or even weeks without seeing someone smile at them. (TV smiles are not and should never be a substitute.) What impression of the world are they developing? In my mind, every child needs and deserves every smile we can give them. That’s one reason I smile at every child I see. I still do, but they can’t see it.

I can’t stand it anymore. When a vaccine was initially under development, I was ambivalent about getting it, especially early in its distribution. Now, though, I’m ready to get in line first chance. By the grace of God, I’m ready to shine my smile again.


* Please note that I’m not an no-masker. Those folks are a toxic combination of ignorance and selfishness. If nothing else, 2016-2021 has amply demonstrated to us the danger of that personality type.

Something/Anything… Else!

Hello, it’s me.

The two devices that store and play most of my music are my phone and my car’s sound system. I have both set to play random selections from my entire collection. Lately, for some unknown reason, they’ve both played a lot of songs by Todd Rundgren. (Pretty much everything I listen to is over 40 years old.) I have no problem with this. I don’t think I’m alone in the opinion that Mr. Rundgren is a musical genius. The (brilliant) LP “Something/Anything” is the one that keeps getting played. Which got me to thinking…

I’d like to talk about something/anything other than Covid-19!*

I can’t be the only one who feels this way, yet it’s still all anyone talks about. Including me! Maybe it’s because we can’t think of anything else to talk about. There aren’t that many subjects we cover in most conversations anyway.

Many of those are off limits.

Religion and politics are taboo in the best of times. Now that they’ve merged into an unholy alliance, they’re even less appealing. Besides, the maniacal moron now occupying the White House part time is a one-man pandemic and just as tiresome a topic.

Others are just plain dull.

The weather is a popular, if tedious, conversational crutch. Let’s skip that one, too, for the cliche it is. Your latest purchase or home renovation? Equally banal. And equally unedifying. And maybe just a wee bit vain.

Hey, we can always rely on sports to prompt a lively discussion or argument. How ’bout that? Oh, yeah. There are no sports happening because of the… well, you know.

So what’s left?

One of my favorite fonts of conversational fodder is movies. Most people have a good stockpile of movie experiences and opinions. The same goes for books and TV shows. Those talks can also lead to deeper exchanges. Such as…

One another. Tell me about you. No, not what you own or what you’ve accomplished. You. As the equally brilliant Michael Omartian once sang:

I don’t want to hear about your conquests,
Or your casual affairs.
Each one a great new story…
But who cares.

I want to know about your feelings,
Or the ache in your heart,
The thoughts that make you what you are,
That set you apart.

‘Cause maybe I’ve had them, too.

We avoid those sensitive topics, not wishing to make ourselves vulnerable, but is anything more important? Granted, this is not the stuff of light banter among casual acquaintances. In those cases, the weather will suffice. When sharing with someone closer, though, coronavirus is as sterile a subject as any. Why not go deeper?

For example, let’s talk about God. (That’s different than religion.) The way we conceive of Him might determine what’s inside us better than any other question. As A. W. Tozer once put it:

What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.

What are your dreams, hopes, and plans? What are your fears, failures, and disappointments? Now we’re getting somewhere. Drop that stuff on me and we both might benefit. You get to share your burden and I could find a kindred spirit.

Or we could fall back on R.E.M.’s advice**:

Should we talk about the weather?
Should we talk about the government?

Sure. Something/Anything but Covid-19.


* I’m not trying to downplay the seriousness of the pandemic, but it shouldn’t be all-consuming. To obsess over it is as dangerous to our mental health as the virus is to our physical bodies.

** I’m of the opinion that a post can’t have too many references to quality music.

Worst Case Scenario

As a writer, there’s not much more gratifying than having your words read by others. Hearing them read out loud is even more fun. That’s one of the benefits of writing plays or screenplays as opposed to prose. Those words are meant to be performed.

Because I have yet to sell any of the dozen or so screenplays I’ve written, I have at times taken matters into my own hands (actually into a whole group of others’ hands) and created vehicles for those words. I present one of them here.

Today we find ourselves mired in–choose your favorite adjective–unprecedented, challenging, trying, difficult, crazy times. As I described in this post on my other blog, unless you were alive in 1918 to experience the incorrectly named Spanish influenza epidemic, you are flailing about with the rest of us in uncharted territory. Perhaps I was prescient when I wrote the script for the accompanying video, but probably not. The video does, however, capture the spirit of the times in which we live. I hope you enjoy the gallows humor.

Profound thanks to my friends at Dark Glass who produced this video eight years ago. Check out their other videos on their YouTube channel.

The Boy in the Box – Part V

[As a result of her unwillingness to face Billy, the boy in the box, he seems to have stopped communicating with her. ]

In the last days of the school year, nothing important ever happens. Kids are all mentally absent, thinking about summer and the beach, little league and vacations. That year, the only school work left to be done was the annual end-of-year science fair. I always did the same project: a model solar system with papier-mâché planets painted vaguely like the real things. I wasn’t particular about the likenesses. Defying astronomical norms, the planets were often egg shaped. One year, Jupiter’s big red spot was more of a purple. I got a “B”. I think the judges were color blind.

The day of the fair, as I lugged my unnatural solar system into the cafetorium (a word the school made up as a label for the space that served as both cafeteria and auditorium) I thought I saw Billy’s Mom leaving the room. I dropped my project on a table and went to look for her but she was gone, if she’d been there at all. I searched the area for any sign of her. What I found was a sign, all right.

A huge, silent crowd of admiring students and teachers surrounded one table. Curious, I elbowed my way through the group until I reached the display that had attracted them.

What I saw was like nothing I’d ever seen in a school science fair. It was a sculpture of a dolphin that looked perfect to my 3rd grade eyes. The subtle shades of white and gray paint that colored it made it look alive, as did the perfect arch of its body captured in the middle of a leap from the surf. I half expected it to continue its path back into the waves, making a perfect entrance into the water with barely a splash. Its mouth wore the mischievous smile that so captured my imagination.

Behind the sculpture was a sheet of poster board on which was clearly handwritten and illustrated all the known scientific facts about the animal’s diet, habitat, intelligence, evolution, and behavior. It even outlined a naive attempt to analyze its language.

The whole display looked as if a college professor had created it with the assistance of a professional artist. I didn’t have to ask who had created it or why.

There was no visible seam in the piece, so I was surprised when a teacher removed one side of the sculpture to reveal an extraordinarily accurate portrayal of the dolphin’s internal organs. Something about seeing that beautiful work of art opened, gutted like a fish, made me scream out loud, “No! Put it back together! Put it back!!” The people who encircled the project probably thought I was insane, which I probably was.

I couldn’t look at the mutilated animal. I shoved my way out through the crowd and stopped at the table where I’d put my solar system. My pathetic project made me sick. It reminded me of my failure. Of all my failures. I smashed it to pieces. Collecting the fragments, I carried them to a nearby trash can and dumped it all in. My oblong Venus fell from my hands and wobbled along the floor. I chased it and kicked it across the cafetorium before running home in tears.

It was Friday and I was beginning to hate the weekends. All I thought about was Billy Almquist. All I felt was guilt. I might have been his only friend, the only person outside his house who cared about him. (But did I really care at all?) It made me wonder whether those thoughts would ruin my whole summer.

Because we’d had so many snow days that year—there were also a couple of “cold days” when the school’s old furnace froze up and school had to be canceled—the last day of school was the following Monday. And it was a half day. What are the odds a classroom full of eight-year-olds in a stuffy classroom, freshly returned from the weekend on a warm, sunny day would be able to concentrate on anything except what was going on outside the windows? I was concentrating on something else: Billy’s desk. Billy’s empty desk.

The box was gone. No speaker. No Billy.

Maybe he skipped out on what was sure to be a meaningless day. It wasn’t likely. He was the most diligent student in the class and the school was going to announce the winners of the science fair that day. Billy would almost certainly take first prize. He should have been listening in.

Maybe something was wrong. Sitting in that room, there was no way of knowing. Was it my imagination or had his voice grown weaker and his class participation less frequent with each passing day after I’d dropped off the workbook? I vowed to stop at his house on the way home from school. I wouldn’t chicken out this time. I needed to know what had happened.

* * *

The “For Sale” sign in front of the house told half the story. At the door, I knocked, rang, banged, peeked, pushed, rattled. The house was completely empty with no indication of what had happened to Billy or his mother. When I realized that I didn’t know if there were any other family members, my failure was complete.

In my mind, years passed as I stood on the sidewalk in front of that house. It was crumbling before my very eyes. Over time it would become the neighborhood eyesore, a childhood terror. The place where a little boy… Where something happened to a little boy. Stories of unnatural events would spread through the town, striking fear into the hearts of children. As long as it stood there, younger children would cross the street to avoid coming too close. It would be a test of bravery for older kids who dared each other to run up to it and knock or push the long-broken doorbell. Rocks rained down on the structure until the day a developer razed it and built a cookie-cutter split-entry house in its place.

We all grew up, mostly leaving behind any thoughts of third grade. Freddie married ratfink Karen. Turned out they were a pretty good couple. It was a shame when Freddie was among the last Marines lost in Vietnam, presumed dead. Karen’s formerly perfect posture declined badly after that. Dale tried college but dropped out. A year later he was found alone in a closet with a needle in his arm. Wiggly Quigley, quite possibly the only person in the whole school who truly cared about Billy, retired after she taught our class. She’d aged beyond the norm during that school year. God only knows what happened to her after that.

As for me, after high school I bounced around the country for a few years, finally landing in a distant city, as far as I could get from my parents and my past. My former dream of becoming a marine biologist was long forgotten. I came close, I guess. I work in a PetSmart, hawking fish flakes, bird cages, and cat toys to annoying customers. No spelling skills needed there.

I never found out what happened to Billy; I never even tried. He would, in fact, haunt my memory for the rest of my life. When I was younger, I promised myself I’d name my first child Billy. Instead, I called him Michael. It was the most popular name at the time and sounded nothing like Billy. I needed no further reminders of the boy in the box, the first love of my life.

[←Part IV can be found here.]

[← To go to the beginning of the story, click here.]

The idea for this story came from my own admittedly hazy memory of grade school. We had boys and girls in boxes. It might never have been written, however, had I not met Mark Sullivan. He was a boy in the box for a while in his youth because of a chronic illness. I talked to him to get some of the specifics to lend more credibility to my tale.

When Mark’s illness claimed his life a year and a half ago, the story gained considerably more gravity. He was my age. Linda’s pain has become mine. This story is dedicated to Mark Sullivan.

* * *

As I write these words, a pandemic has driven home the need to support distance learning at the K-12 level for both individuals and large numbers. The technology already exists, but needs to be improved. As I’m fond of telling friends, if this country diverted the funds from a single aircraft carrier or even a single high-tech bomber, both of which are totally obsolete in this information-driven world, we’d be able to solve this and a lot of other of this nation’s problems.

For your edification, click this sentence to read an article that describes one contemporary approach to the boy in the box.

Thank you for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The Boy in the Box – Part IV

[Linda continues her early morning meetings with Billy, the boy in the box.]

One Friday, after a couple more weeks of my secret rendezvous with Billy’s box, during which time I thought I noticed his voice getting weaker and his cough increasing in frequency and intensity, Mrs. Quigley announced that we were starting a new reading workbook. She handed them out to the class for us to review over the weekend. (Obviously, she was a cockeyed optimist.) Then she asked for volunteers to bring a copy to Billy’s home. No third-grader with any sense of self-preservation would volunteer for anything Mrs. Quigley asked us to do. But I did want to do this. Knowing there would be plenty of time to respond as the other students cowered and averted their eyes to avoid being called on, I slowly raised my hand to half-staff as if I were doing it against my will. No one needed to know how anxious I was to volunteer.

I was dying to see him in person. The thumbnail size picture from the class photo was the only image I had of him, although it took up a disproportionate amount of space in my mind and heart by that time. After class, Mrs. Quigley gave me Billy’s address and the workbook. She thanked me sincerely.

“Aw, it’s no big deal. It’s on my way home anyway.” In fact, it was quite a ways off my usual route home. It didn’t matter to me. I would have gone anywhere to do this errand. That was before reality—reality of my cowardice, that is—hit.

The closer I got to the address Mrs. Quigley had written on the yellow three-by-five index card, the slower my steps became. Doubts were unexpectedly dogging my steps. What was I thinking? What if Billy was dying? Or deformed? Would I have to face him and make small talk about class or the news? (I didn’t know anything about the news except that there were a lot of riots with colored people. My father blamed it all on “that Papist” Kennedy. I didn’t know what to think. I’d never met a Negro but his opinion sounded wrong to me.)

As soon as the house came into view, I froze. Without realizing it, I was crushing the workbook in my tightened fist. The decision to be made was whether it was more embarrassing to deliver the book or to go back to Wiggly Quigley and admit I chickened out. I could lie and tell her there was a dog at the house that was barking and scaring me or I lost the address or something. Unfortunately, I’d been lying to her too often lately. Last time I did, her smirk told me she was catching on. I had to go through with it.

The cramped ranch house was the smallest on the street. It was also in the worst shape, badly in need of a paint job and a good lawn-mowing. Seeing a mailbox hanging beside the door, an idea slithered into my thoughts. The workbook would fit into the box and I could disappear without being seen. I was ashamed of myself for even thinking of it but it was a solution—perhaps the only solution—to my dilemma.

Whether it was nerves or guilt, I’ll never know, but my hand trembled as I slowly and as quietly as possible lifted the flap covering the mailbox. It slipped from my fingers and fell with a resounding clang against the box. I might as well have screamed at the top of my lungs. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs.

The inner door opened and I saw a woman through the dirty screen. She opened the screen door and leaned out. She wore a pretty, though soiled dress. She looked as if she’d spent a lot of time with rollers in her hair and putting on makeup. Still, her eyes were red and her smile was forced. Even at the tender age of 8, I could recognize it. The morning after a big fight, my parents always wore that same expression.

“Hi,” she said. “You must be Linda. I’m Billy’s Mom.” How does she know who I am?

“Yeah, um,” I stared at my feet and held out the book. “This is for Billy.”

“That is so sweet of you, Linda. Would you like to come in and give it to him yourself? He hasn’t had many visitors.”

Her voice quivered on her last statement, but I was unmoved. Even as my feet had resisted approaching the house, now they felt as if they might run away on their own. I was already moving away as I uttered, “I can’t. I gotta go. My mother is probably worried about me already.”

My mother wouldn’t have worried about me unless I was two days late. Even then…

It took a good twenty seconds after I left until I heard the screen door close at the house. Billy’s Mom must have watched me for a long time, wondering what kind of child would refuse to visit a sick friend. I wondered the same. But I wasn’t Billy’s friend. He was a stranger before he disappeared and he was nothing but a speaker in a box to me now. That’s what I told myself anyway.

At home, I went directly to my room and cried. No one was around so there was no danger of exposing my emotions to my parents, who would have simply shaken their heads in disgust. I sobbed for the better part of an hour without knowing—or without admitting to myself—why. At last I fell asleep with tears in my eyes.

I dreamed my bed was surrounded by speakers like the one Billy’s voice came through in class. From each came a different voice, some at normal volume but many in shrill cries. Nothing I heard was intelligible but still they cut me like knives. I covered my ears with my hands, but the voices only grew louder. I awoke in a sweat. I was surprised to see there were no speakers because the voices still rang in my ears.

The weekend dragged by. I wasn’t sure how I would face Monday. Instead of thinking about it, I settled into my early morning routine, going to Mrs. Quigley’s classroom before anyone else. From the doorway, I thought I heard soft sounds coming through the intercom, like a whimpering child. As I approached it, there was a click and no more sounds. I leaned over the speaker and whispered, “Billy? Are you there?” There was no answer. From the switch position, I could see that the classroom speaker was on. But there was no indication at all that the microphone was on at his house. I would have heard background noise or even a little static.

People were milling around outside the door. I had to return to my seat in the corner. When the teacher squeezed her wiggly bottom into her chair, she spoke to us. “Good morning, class.”

We all replied with our rote response, “Good morning, Mrs. Quigley.” I’m sure I heard a few “wiggly”s in there but she didn’t catch on.

With a maternal smile on her face, she spoke into the box on Billy’s desk. “Are you there, Billy?”

There was a click and Billy answered in a tone that could only be described as subdued. “Yes, Ma’am.” Usually, Mrs. Quigley hated it when people called her Ma’am. I heard her tell another teacher it was because it made her sound old (she was old) or like the owner of a house of ill repute, whatever that was. I figured she let Billy get away with it. I figured she let him get away with a lot of stuff.

For about three seconds, I envied him.

In the final two weeks of the school year, Billy and I didn’t communicate at all. I came in early every day, but he was never on the intercom. He must have found out I’d come by but didn’t want to see him. It wasn’t fair. I did want to see him… but I couldn’t. If he felt bad about it, I felt worse.

For about three seconds, I felt sorry for myself.

[←Part III can be found here.][Part V can be found here. →]

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