Saturday, August 9, 2008

Ode to a Second Belgian Beer

Oh, the palpable earnestness! Oh, the saccharine fervor of untapped expression!

Oh, the unspoken fear that the pearl in the clench-jawed clam has been, after all this prying, just the orphaned relic of a J.C. Penny necklace, fated to bounce forever on a scratched linoleum floor, in the display room of Bob's Furniture Outlet on the business loop just north of Dante’s rings.

Thursday, August 7, 2008


Yesterday at Bill's, the neighborhood mom & pop gas station near the homeless center where I work, I stepped out of our beat-up Camry with what I'd like to think was '70s flair. Taking out a handkerchief, I blew my nose -- but cool. Marley, my companion, leaned against the passenger door, waiting while I pumped the gas.

I thought I knew why we were getting the unwelcoming stares.

Marley has a bit of a scowl. It's not that he's mean -- in fact, he's as kind and gentle as they come. It's just that Marley "hears" by reading lips, and so he tends to concentrate deeply on the faces of those around him. Granted, it looks a bit like Harvey's glaring. Like he hates you, at least a little.

He's not, and he doesn't. Ask him and he'd gladly bake you a pie. But with this misinterpreted scowl, a couple of missing teeth, arms covered in skulls and whatnots and a tattooed tear falling from his eye, Marley "ain't from around here" in small town Missouri.

Thus, the stares. Or so I thought. Meanwhile, I tried to distract myself by pumping gas like (I assumed) folks did in the '70s. You know. Cool.

From across the car, Marley's hissed whisper snapped me out of my reverie. "Nate -- the mask!"

In the rural Midwest, Marley was right to be concerned. Meth labs are rampant in these parts, and with a dust mask propped on my head like a tiara and a look on my face like I hadn't slept in weeks, I'd just turned myself into local Suspect #1. We were lucky nobody could see the rubber gloves, gram scale, household cleaners or mason jar "beakers" on a table back at the ranch.

You know. Cool.

Why the beat-up look? This one's easy: I was a few days into one of my signature colds, which left me the eerie sensation that someone had (yet again) inserted a baseball squarely behind my nose.

But why the mask? The beakers? The methanol and Red Devil Lye?

Marley, Jamaal and I were just beginning the wonderful journey of discovery that is Making Your Own Biodiesel. The person who usually teaches our eight-hour biodiesel workshop just skipped town to marry an old ex-girlfriend, leaving the rest of us in the lurch. Now, tomorrow, I and the new trainees will be teaching the class ourselves. No time like the present to make our first batch.

Back to the books...

Monday, August 4, 2008

Blank New World

In Terrence Malick's latest film, The New World, there is a scene in which Pocahontas -- or at this point we should say, simply, she -- sheds the garb of her people, and first tries on "civilized" clothes. Malick captures the awkwardness, the displacement, with immaculate grace. The shoes pinch. The heels wobble.

She isn't Pocahontas anymore. She's not yet Rebecca.

I understand. She's on a plane.

30,000 feet up, she dutifully thumbs through a United Airlines magazine. The pages are blank. She puts it down. She stares out the window at a motionless wing. A single red light blinks. For a moment everything has stopped: the plane, time itself -- everything but that light.

Even the light has little to say into the darkening stratosphere. "I am blinking. I am a light."

A row up, the flight attendant glances the aisle seat with his cart. Pocahontas asks for a tomato juice, then stares out again. For a moment, visions of the unseen New World fill the emptiness, projected in the plane window, dimly. Looking down again, she stares into her plastic cup. She prays to the ice, "Don't melt."

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Urban Nature: Stalking the Wild Red Fiddle

(click image for larger view)
azolla rutilus fiddlis caput capitus: the crimson fiddlehead fern
(common name: "red fiddle")

Do an image search on the common fiddlehead fern, and you'll see that half the photos taken are not of these ferns in the prime of their life, sunlit against the backdrop of some pristine Mainer forest. No, for whatever dark and macabre reason, people tend to shoot the fiddleheads as they face their green and gristly deaths: ghastly shots of their furled "scrolls" (the "fiddle heads" themeselves), already unceremoniously de-ferned, de-frocked and de-fiddled, post picked, post butchered, and now piled by the hundreds in the produce aisle or in some crackling New England skillet.

As rural legend goes, the red fiddle (this one, above, photographed today in the northwest corner of our yard) once thrived in this area, before midwestern skillets made similar assaults and practically did away with the now-endangered "azolla rutilus".

The idea of a former golden age of the Great Red Fiddle is probably not all hocus-pocus. Surviving records of pre-colonial America include numerous accounts of what many believe -- and I among them -- could only be the red fiddle fern. When, for example, the first settlers made their way through central Missouri, they often spoke of "curled, crymson flaires" that peppered the fields and prairies from early spring to late August.

It could only be a matter of time before someone tried to eat them. "Come, let's cook the red thynges, with garlicke and the taile of badger!" A delicatessen was born, and the fate of the red fiddle was all but sealed.

But, at last, what is truly remarkable about the red fiddle fern is not its near extinction, but the fact that it has survived at all. The ingeuity of a brainless thing can only bespeak a Creator: the surviving red fiddle fern lives on today because the "crymson flaire" no longer means "lunch" to the grazing Midwesterner. Today, it means stand clear: the modern red fiddle has a chemical component remarkably similar to "Frontline" flea and tick repellant. Extremely poisonous.

Do not eat.