About Gene Twaronite

Gene Twaronite is a Tucson author, writer and poet. His short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals and magazines. He is also the author of the juvenile fantasy novels "The Family That Wasn’t" and "My Vacation in Hell," and the collection of children’s stories "Dragon Daily News: Stories of Imagination for Children of All Ages." His latest books include "Approaching Wilderness: Six Stories of Dementia" and "The Absurd Naturalist," a collection of humorous nature and gardening essays

The Next Big Thing

Think I’ll pass on 
self-driving cars
and wait till
someone invents
a self-driving
me so I can
surpass myself
doing a hundred
and ninety
and eat my dust.

First published in NewMyths.com Issue #43 https://sites.google.com/a/newmyths.com/nmwebsite/poems/the-next-big-thing

Intimacy and Dental Floss

Until you take a bad fall, you don’t know how good life can be when all limbs work properly and you’re not dependent upon someone to wipe your ass.

When my life partner Josie took a freak fall one evening, while walking home from dinner, the words from our marriage vow “for better or worse” took on a whole new meaning. One moment, she was fine, the next she was flat on her face in the street. Fortunately, having broken the fall with both arms, she had escaped with only a few bruises to her face and her head uninjured. Unfortunately, she had managed to completely shatter her right elbow and break her left wrist. As the doctor in the emergency room described the extent of her injuries, I tried to stay calm as I processed the information internally, weighing each word. I could see the neurons flashing a fortune cookie message in my brain: Your life will be filled with new adventures.

Whenever I heard about such stuff happening to other people, I would try to imagine how I might deal with it. Would I be up to the task when, these days, getting out of bed is challenging enough? I mean, how does one deal with your spouse developing Alzheimer’s? Or terminal cancer? Would I be able to face the fact that I was now a 24-7 caregiver for an indeterminate future stretching into a life unknown? What if I ended up having to do everything for my spouse and, like most of us, couldn’t afford to pay someone to do it? My mind reeled with the daily realities. Dressing. Feeding. Bathing. Hair brushing and tooth brushing. Walking, including to and from the bathroom, followed by ass wiping. That last part gave me pause. I have enough problems wiping my own ass, but to think I might have to do this for my spouse and also have to deal with how she might feel about it was not something I wanted to think about.

Our situation was only temporary, but I knew that, for months ahead, the carefree retired life we had enjoyed was about to go on hold.

Luckily for me, Josie’s mind was still sharp as ever. It meant that I would not have to face this test alone. More than ever, we were a team, devising new strategies to meet daily challenges. Of course, with both arms incapacitated, she was forced to play a more passive role and could only advise me on what to do, gently informing me when I screwed up, and cheering me on when I got it right.

First, we had to establish a base camp for sleeping. We live in a townhouse apartment, and going up and down the stairs to our bedroom was just not an option. Fortunately, we have a guest bedroom with two single beds on the first floor. This meant that Josie could have her own bed without the danger of my rolling over and crushing her arms during the night. Also, I could be in the same room to help her to the adjoining bathroom.

Having secured safe sleeping quarters, I began to reevaluate all those little daily tasks I perform automatically for myself and to consider how best to perform them for another person. Take bathing, for example. You just jump in the shower and start cleaning yourself without so much as a game plan. You don’t think about the most efficient way to apply the soap and rinse, or whether you are getting yourself clean enough. But it’s different when you’re cleaning someone else, especially someone who’s wearing bandages that can’t get wet. The problem was resolved with a trip to the drugstore where I purchased plastic sleeves to fit over each arm, and a sturdy bathtub seat. Then it was on to Lowe’s to pick up a handy shower attachment so I didn’t end up flooding the bathroom every time I bathed Josie. But it took us both several weeks of splashing, thrashing, and cursing to figure these things out.

Eating was fun. Not only was Josie totally unable to pick up a fork, but she was still suffering from a recent flareup of orofacial nerve pain as a result of a botched root canal procedure a few years back, and her fall did not exactly help matters. So we took it slow. I would cut up her meal into bite-size portions and wait until the pain subsided enough for her to eat. We had always enjoyed our dinners together, enlivened by wine and intelligent conversation, but it was painful to watch her struggle now to get a bite down, made even more so by the look on her face from the realization that I had to feed her like an infant. Meals took twice as long. We eventually worked out a routine in which I would alternately feed her a few bites, then take a few bites myself. After a while, she started experimenting with two unbandaged fingers on one hand, and was soon able to pick up small pieces of food herself, though she still could not pick up anything as heavy as a glass in order to drink. Thank goodness for straws.

Funny how you adjust to things and find new insights. After the first week or so, as we settled into a new reality, we started enjoying our much-extended dinner times. No longer would she have to remind me not to wolf my meal. We learned to savor each bite and our time together, made more precious by the knowledge that we had survived this setback and were both still alive and kicking. And if takes us an hour and a half to eat our dinner, hey, so what?

We’re both very active people, and Josie knew she had to get moving again. The first few days, she would take walks around the first floor of our apartment, with her trusty guide at her side. The fear of falling was very much on our minds. We were still the same people who had fearlessly tackled rugged trails in the wilderness together. But now that one of us had taken a bad fall, it reminded us how vulnerable our increasingly brittle and fragile bodies can be. I hate that! And I hate writing that line. Reality sucks.

Before leaving the hospital, the physical therapist had given us a broad nylon belt, which could be buckled around Josie’s waist while leaving just enough room for my hand to be slipped behind it, giving me a way to hold her firmly in the event of another fall. Such a simple thing, yet an invaluable tool in getting us walking again and conquering our fears. It was a little awkward getting used to, at first, but with me holding on tightly behind her it gave me a way to get us safely down the concrete stairs leading to our apartment and to resume our walks in the neighborhood.

It did feel kind of weird. With my hand planted behind her back and both her arms extended uselessly forward, I felt in complete control, directing her every movement. By turning my hand ever so slightly and applying gentle pressure, I found I could make her turn in the direction I thought we should go to avoid obstacles or rough surfaces as we attempted to walk in unison with some degree of dignity. It was a totally different kind of walking for both of us, and for a brief time I was in charge, whether I liked it or not.

Gradually our walks extended further afield in the neighborhood, as we gained confidence. Walking had always been a vital part of our life and now, more than ever, it was essential to get back into the routine.

One thing I noticed. I seemed to tire more quickly. At first, I thought it was just stress. After a couple of weeks had passed and I was able to leave Josie alone for a short time to visit the nearby gym, the normally ten-minute walk now took twice as long and I had to cut my workout sessions short. I always came home exhausted. What was happening to me? Suddenly I felt ninety years old. Then it dawned on me. The older you get, the more time you must devote to the seemingly endless series of routine tasks just to care for oneself each day. Only now, I was doing them for two. Not only did I have to put on clean underwear, but I had to put hers on as well. I had to go to the bathroom, and take her there next, followed by grooming, feeding, drinking, toothbrushing, walking, and whatever else I did for myself. A tiny epiphany, but it gave me both a sense of relief that I was not facing total decrepitude, and a sense of awe at the work that full-time caregivers do.

Not that there weren’t compensations. After a few weeks had passed, we settled into a manageable and at times even pleasant routine. We took each day at a slower pace, trying to find some new insight or small pleasure we had overlooked. I began to see things I had never noticed before. As I tried my best to comb Josie’s hair, according to her instructions, at first I felt hopelessly lost. It dawned on me, then, that I really didn’t have a clue as to how my life partner of over forty years wore her hair, except for the fact that it was short. How she combed her front bang down slightly to cover her high forehead. How she brushed the hair behind her ears and shaped the back into a point. Had it not been for her fall, I would never have known these things. After a while, I got pretty good with the hairdryer. I imagined myself as some handsome and suave hairdresser—just call me Ramone—getting her hair to fluff up just right. My flight of fancy lasted but two weeks, at which point she decided she could manage her hair without me. Guess I wasn’t really cut out for hairdressing.

Bathing presented even more opportunities for new insights and intimacies. Once the basic problem of how to get Josie’s body clean efficiently without stressing us both out and flooding the bathroom floor was solved, we gradually settled into a smooth rhythm. I now new the drill and could devote myself more fully to the appreciation of my spouse’s lovely body. Not that I hadn’t appreciated it before. But this was different. I was performing a necessary basic task which I had initially viewed as somewhat onerous, but it had taken on a wholly new dimension. Like that first time we had made love, I was clumsy in the beginning, but as my hand glided over her body with a soapy washcloth, I began to see and discover it anew. You do not really know your lover’s body until you have washed every inch of her and gently patted her dry. It was a different kind of sexual pleasure, an arousal more of spirit than of body. We both grew to enjoy this gentle touching, as I explored parts of her body never really noticed before in simple lovemaking. And while I am glad that I don’t have to wash her anymore, I will remember it always.

Wiping my lover’s ass, however, is hardly a memory to cherish. Damned if I could find any compensations there. The only thing I can say looking back on it now is that it wasn’t nearly as unpleasant as I had imagined, aided considerably by the use of latex gloves, but largely by the fact that my spouse has a cute ass. But don’t take my word for it. During our first year of marriage, I found I needed a new dentist. So I made an appointment with Josie’s dentist, who I was quick to discover was a lecherous old man with a wicked sense of humor. As I sat agape in his chair, his instruments probing my teeth, out of nowhere he suddenly exclaimed, “You know, your wife has a great ass!” I almost choked, as I mumbled some unintelligible reply, then reluctantly nodded. How could I disagree?  I had always especially treasured that part of her anatomy. But now that I had to keep it clean each day, I learned to approach the task as a sacred honored duty. It couldn’t have been a pleasant experience for her, but once again Josie came through with calm, clear instructions on what needed to be done and where, and got me through it. Hard to believe that such a simple basic thing as wiping my lover’s ass could bring us closer and make me feel more needed and worthy than ever.

But for real intimacy, nothing beats dental hygiene. I thought I knew all the hidden mysteries and intricacies of Josie’s body, after all these years, but I still knew nothing of the world inside her mouth. Now Josie is a real stickler for proper brushing, flossing, and rinsing, dutifully spending over half an hour each night in front of the mirror while cursing its relentless monotony. And here I was, stepping up to the plate, in hopes of performing this duty at least passably and getting it done before midnight.

The first few nights were a struggle, compounded by the fact that Josie has extremely sensitive teeth. In brushing your own teeth, of course, you can just bend over the sink and spit, but in Josie’s case this was impossible. Not only was she unable to rest her hands on the sink, but there was no way for me to see inside her mouth while standing at the sink next to her. So I sat her on the toilet and covered her torso with a bib, as I played at being dental hygienist. Then I used our electric toothbrush, with one hand gently brushing from tooth to tooth and the other hand holding a small plastic spittoon beneath her mouth to catch the overflow and allow her to occasionally spit. It was not a pretty picture. Often I would have to slow down to let her catch her breath or go back to reach a tooth missed.

The real challenge came in flossing. It’s difficult enough to floss my own teeth properly, holding a long strand of floss between two hands and then manipulating it in my mouth, rhythmically rubbing up and down against each tooth a half dozen times. When done correctly, it’s a painfully boring task, but vital to tooth and gum health. But trying to get my two big paws and that strand of floss inside Josie’s mouth proved awkward and frustrating for both of us. Fortunately, I discovered a handy little plastic tool called a dental flosser, which holds an inch or so of floss taut, so I didn’t have to put both my hands in her mouth and risk choking my dear wife. Disposable plastics to the rescue, again.

Having previously experienced periodontal disease during my wasted youth, I am also a stickler for dental health and pretty much knew the drill. But the only teeth I knew were mine, and I had to fast learn about a whole new set of teeth and gums. Indeed, I can say that I know them now almost as well as my own.

Coming at the end of the day, and taking even longer than Josie’s usual half hour, it was probably the most tedious task for both of us. But together we learned how to better navigate around her mouth, and gradually it became less strenuous. And when the job was finished, she would look up at me and flash a grin with her now sparkling teeth and I felt a communion with her that transcended all that had gone before. We were more than lovers and friends, we were comrades of tooth and gum forever.

After two months, the bandages came off and slowly our life returned to normalcy. Josie began to resume her daily routine, taking pride in again performing her own daily maintenance and freeing me up to go back to doing all those things I had put on hold, which in retrospect seemed less urgent. She embraced weekly sessions of physical therapy with a fierce determination to regain all her strength and ability. She had always been a strong woman, but I now watched in amazement at my new wonder woman surpassing herself each day with daily feats of recovery. And evildoers better beware of that sharp right elbow, newly reinforced with metal brace.

Our experience left us more aware of not only the possibility, but the probability of falling as well as our ability to survive it. Not that we dwell on it. But I’ve noticed a certain tendency to nag, whenever one of us goes up or down the stairs without grabbing the handrail or makes too sudden a turn. According to government statistics, one out of four Americans aged 65 or over falls each year, and every 19 minutes one of us will die as a result. Those are not good odds. Makes you almost afraid to go out the front door. Not what we seniors need to hear, especially when we’re also told to not sit so much and to keep on moving. So what’s an old fuck to do?

For one thing, I’m going to make damned sure I don’t fall. At heart I am a coward when it comes to being a care recipient. I can’t begin to imagine someone having to feed, wash, and dress me each day, let alone—horrors—wipe my ass. I am sadly deficient in all the social skills my life partner possesses in spades—patience, grace, good sense, and fortitude. I know full well that, in the event I did fall, my loving spouse would be there to take care of me. All I can say is, good luck with that, Josie. I would not wish that monstrous fate on anyone.

 

 

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Lot O. Jobs

Even when you’re writing about something you think is completely different, in the end you’re always writing about yourself. Each of us has a unique take on life, and elements of this will invariably creep into your work, no matter how rigorously objective you try to be. In my middle grade fantasy novel The Family That Wasn’t, for instance, I created a character with the pen name Lot O. Jobs. He was the author of an autobiography Travels of a Mixed-Up Man, in which he described the hundreds of different jobs he had held, each with its own special flavor. The character didn’t just pop out of my head. He’s me, of course.

Not that I’ve had hundreds of jobs. Let’s just say I’ve had my share. And yes, I’m still mixed-up.

I remember my first job as paperboy for the Hartford Courant, in Connecticut, supposedly the oldest continually published newspaper in the U.S. I should explain here, particularly for younger readers, that a newspaper is a multi-paged object composed of wood pulp, filled with news of local and world events, that is published daily or weekly and requires you to hold it up at arm’s length to read while you flip through the pages and grimace before using them to line your parakeet’s cage.

Since it is a morning paper, I was required to rise at 5 am, which for a school kid is inhuman. Fortunately, my dad, being a mailman, was used to getting up early. He would wake me, then put on some strong coffee. I forced myself to drink it because it was the only way to stay awake and get moving.

Then I had to walk two blocks to where half a dozen bundles of newspapers awaited me. In those days, if you took on a newspaper route you didn’t get to cancel delivery on account of weather. Just like my dad’s mail, newspapers were to be delivered through rain, snow, sleet, flood, hurricane, earthquake, volcano, or nuclear war, the latter being very much a possibility in my early youth. So if we had a big snowstorm, and all the schools had snow days, you were still expected to trudge through two feet of snow and deliver your damn papers. Often it would take me hours to finish delivering my route, while my buddies were out sledding.

Delivery was bad enough, but then came the hard part—collecting each week from my cruel, miserly customers. This was before the days of credit card subscriptions. Each Friday evening—and the following Saturday morning if that didn’t work—I was expected to ring doorbells and politely ask people to pay up. You wouldn’t believe the lengths some people will go to to avoid paying what they owe. They would simply hide and not answer the doorbell. In some cases, I could plainly see them scurrying around inside like trapped roaches. Other times, they would let out their big ugly dogs in the yard, timed just before I showed up. Or they would purposely avoid being home, for weeks on end, then when I did finally catch them home would question my accounting and try to convince me that they couldn’t possibly owe for two months. I did have my little pay stubs to prove otherwise, but they would then accuse me of forgetting to hand them out when they had obviously already paid. And forget getting any tips. How dare I accuse them of not paying? I suspect many of them secretly enjoyed this game of screwing the paperboy. I think this is when I first became deeply cynical about human nature.

During high school, I was a page at our local library, which for a bookworm like me was a dream come true, though the wages sucked. The job involved mostly re-shelving returned books. I simply wheeled my cart of books through the aisles where, for a brief time, I diligently placed the books in their proper locations. After a short time, however, I learned how to find a quiet, secluded section of the stacks, preferably upstairs and out of sight of the main desk. This was where the benefits came in. As long as I stood in front of my still full cart, I could make it look as if I were working while reading to my heart’s content. That is, until the hatchet lady head librarian invariably found me, chewing me out so badly I didn’t dare do it again until next day. I think back on her fondly and can still see the poor woman chasing us pages through the stacks, shaking her long, bony finger in stern chastisement.

There was one other aspect of the job I should mention. It involved taking reference room calls to retrieve past issues of magazines and newspapers from the basement, where such materials were stored. I would be issued slips of paper, with names of the items and dates published. In those ancient days, you couldn’t simply Google something on your smartphone or computer and find a hundred online articles on the subject. There were no personal computers and no digital information. Repeat, no digital information. Let that sink in for a moment. Any information you needed could be found only on the printed page. So there I was, lifting up piles of musty magazines, searching for some obscure issue, only to discover that it had been lost or misplaced. It was sort of like the great lost Library of Alexandria, where all the world’s knowledge at the time was stored on scrolls. Being a page back then was probably a lot harder.

In my senior year of college, I briefly had the best job a lonely, testosterone-fueled young male could ask for. It was only part-time, in the evening, but the benefits were priceless. I was the designated male host—sort of a bodyguard—in a women’s residence hall. All I had to do was sit behind a front desk and check male visitors in and then escort each of them off the premises at a set time, defined by each dorm. A word of explanation here. I went to college during the late 1960s when many colleges and universities had what were referred to as parietal hours, limited times when men were allowed to visit and mingle with women in the female dormitories. Dorms would often insist that doors be kept open and couples instructed to keep “three feet on the floor.” Talk about thwarting your sex life.

Of course, creative women would always find ways around restrictions to get their men inside. Meanwhile, as I sat at the desk—studying, of course—young ladies wearing slinky nightgowns or pajamas would come downstairs and greet me, offering cookies and snacks. I was treated like a god. Even the kindly old dorm matron liked me. I admit, it was quite possible that some diversionary tactic was in play here, with dozens of guys sneaking past me as the women plied me with cookies. But what did I care? Life was good.

My other part-time job in college was as freshman counselor during my senior year. In exchange for a free room in my dormitory, I was expected to offer information and advice to incoming freshman. You can imagine what a perfect fit this was, wise old senior that I was, enjoying my own first year on campus after commuting three years. In the midst of cramming as much drinking and carousing with women as humanly possible into just two semesters, I did manage to fit in some actual counseling. Not that I had much advice to offer. Mostly I just listened. And sometimes I would break up unruly dorm parties at 2 am, for which at the end of the year I was ceremoniously awarded a carved wooden wand in the shape of a penis with the words “King Prick,” signed by my grateful freshmen.

Fresh out of college, and not finding any suitable positions based on my considerable experience drinking and guarding co-eds, I took a job as science teacher at a small residential private school for emotionally disturbed kids. As part of my forestry major, I had taken some basic science courses, and that was good enough. The fact that I had no educational certification or training, and even more important, no psychological or counselor training, did not matter in the least. I was a warm body who knew how to dress for an interview and to give the right answers. And they were desperate for someone who knew at least a little about science and would be willing to work for slave wages.

My first experience with one of my new charges gave me a clue of the challenges ahead. As part of my duties, I sat behind a desk after class in the administration building, as a faculty member on call to assist students with their homework. One of my female students—an attractive, shapely, and much too mature looking sixteen-year-old—approached my desk. Then, looking over her shoulder at her friends in the corner, who seemed to be daring her to do it, promptly sat upon my lap.

Dazed at first, it took me a couple of seconds to figure out what was happening and what to do. (There was no mention of such things in the employee handbook.) Normally I am not at all averse to attractive young women suddenly deciding to sit in my lap. But this was way different. I could hear a little voice in my head ask, What’s wrong with this picture? Then, seconds later, the voice started screaming, “Stand up, stand up, you fool! I jumped from my chair, nearly dumping the girl on the floor as I mouthed some indignant protest. She just smiled and walked away.

As someone with no teaching experience, suddenly thrown into a classroom filled with unruly teenagers, I fared no worse than most first year teachers, many of whom leave after only one year, vowing never to return to that infernal snake pit. Fortunately for me, the class sizes were small, and the kids were too emotionally messed up to notice what I was trying to teach anyway. I’m talking real heavy emotional issues. Kids hooked on drugs or suffering from various traumas. Kids who had been verbally and physically abused, often by their parents or other relatives. Many had even been sexually abused. They were shunted off to this school because their parents and their former schools could no longer deal with their problems. If this didn’t work, the next stop was military school or an institution.

So there I was, a 22-year-old guy, still screwed up in far too many ways, surrounded daily by a bunch of emotionally bleeding kids. Forget about the lesson plan. All they wanted was for me to listen. So I did.

In the process, I quickly realized that I was in no way equipped to handle this. I became too emotionally involved with these kids, talking with them frankly while trying to teach them a little science, but not having a clue how to help them.

I made it through the academic year and decided to leave, when the school offered me a limited, temporary contract due to financial uncertainties. Shortly thereafter, the school closed, though my decision probably had nothing to do with it.

After my ill-fated experience with teaching, I decided to try something else. A local pet shop was looking for a full-time sales associate (Don’t you love the way stores add that little word at the end to make the job sound more important?). This wasn’t your run-of-the-mill pet shop, but an exotic pet shop. In addition to the usual puppies, birds, and tropical fish, they also sold critters like lizards, tarantulas, and snakes—my kind of animals. They liked the fact that I was a college boy and promised me that, if I worked really hard for two years and brownnosed the boss and didn’t mind taking orders from his wife, who arrived each morning wearing more makeup than Alice Cooper, I would be promoted to assistant manager.

What I really wanted, however, was my first python, at full employee discount. He arrived at the shop one cold winter evening. A beautiful baby African rock python, he was only 18 inches long and perfectly gentle. I put him under my coat and brought him home to my parents’ house and placed him in his cage, where he thrived and grew … and grew.

The problem with pythons as pets is that, with proper care, they can quickly begin to approach adult size, which in the case of a full grown African rock python can be over 20 feet long, with a thick, muscular body used to constrict its prey.

Not only did my darling little pet quickly outgrow his cage, but he was now six feet long and quite a handful. Though still gentle as ever, there was always the danger in handling such a powerfully muscular snake that he might suddenly grow frightened of falling and wrap his coils around your neck for support, which is not conducive to breathing. In fact, that is exactly how they constrict and kill their prey. So sadly, I found him a new home and bid both him and the pet shop goodbye.

After that came a stint as a computer operator for an insurance company in Hartford. At the time, I knew nothing about computers—and still don’t—but the job’s hours seemed ideal. All I had to do was work three consecutive 12-hour shifts from 7pm to 7am, and I had the rest of the week off. And for full-time pay and benefits. How tough could it be?

Basically, the job involved running large, room-sized computers called mainframes, which were series of various processing and communication units all hitched together and operated in batch mode. I was expected to keep them going, feeding them punch cards and magnetic tapes to run them at near full capacity while they spat out tests, insurance policies, statements, and payroll. I would then collect the continuous printed copy that came out. Scattered throughout the room were interactive terminals where you could push a button and make the computers pause in their operation.

One night, I was told by my shift supervisor to go hit a certain button. Now I knew perfectly well which button to push, having been instructed numerous times in proper button pushing. Turns out there was another button, way on the other side of the terminal console, which I think read “System Stop” and which was never, never to be pushed unless absolutely necessary. This button, you see, didn’t just pause whatever operation was being run but shut down the whole system. Meaning that whatever programs had been running at the time had to be completely restarted, at considerable cost.

To this day, I still can’t figure out why I pushed the wrong button. As soon as I hit it, I knew it was wrong. Perhaps the subversion of my circadian rhythm and the cumulative lack of sleep had something to do with it. I remember a lot of yelling throughout the department, with people running around, looking for someone to blame, followed by the sound of laughter from my colleagues.

I was due for my annual performance review, the very next week. My boss, a kindly man whom I really liked, told me that I was doing great, overall, with top marks in all categories. Then he looked me straight in the face and shook his head. All he said was, “Why?”

Shortly after, I decided to pursue more normal work as a public-school teacher, normal only in the sense that I was able to work during daylight hours. Despite the fact that my private school teaching had pretty much left me as much of an emotional wreck as the students I tried to teach, maybe I wasn’t as bad a teacher as I thought. I took a few more college courses to get certified and to show I was serious. I was ready, or so I thought.

As it happened, there was an opening for a science teacher at the very same junior high school I had attended. I desperately needed a job and didn’t give a second thought to any potential weirdness of going to work with my former teachers, including my much-feared, former Phys. Ed instructor, who had treated us worse than Marine recruits in boot camp.

The interview was a snap. The vice-principal and science department chairman briefly glanced at my Forestry degree transcript, with a minor in philosophy. It was not especially heavy in hard science courses. However, they remembered that I had been an A-student and science nerd and hired me on the spot.

I was to teach Earth Science, which included geology, meteorology, and astronomy, to ninth grade students. As a kid, I had loved to collect rocks and gaze at the stars with my small telescope, so I was sure I could transmit that enthusiasm to my grateful, attentive students. Trouble was, I didn’t know the first thing about either ninth-grade students or class control, which as I learned the hard way is just as important as knowledge of subject matter.

I shall not dwell here on the ugly details that still haunt my dreams. The kids were rude, disruptive, sneaky, and downright mean, constantly inventing new ways to torment and subvert me. In other words, they were perfectly normal, ninth-grade students. They ate me alive. A couple of times, the department chair who had hired me, upon hearing all the yelling and commotion coming from my classroom across the hall, came running into my room, as if someone were being murdered. As soon as he entered, of course, the kids would all be sitting at attention, perfectly quiet. He would give me a disdainful look, then shake his head as he walked away muttering.

Bad as things were, at least I didn’t have to worry about mass shooters. The worst event to happen was when one of my troubled students pulled a knife on a jock, right outside my classroom. We all ran out, and I momentarily froze. Then I herded my students to slowly back away. The issue was quickly resolved, as the jock yelled and threatened the student enough for him to drop his knife and run out the door. Show’s over. No heroes, no deaths, that day.

I was a terrible teacher, but I made it through my first year. That was the main thing, the principal told me upon renewing my contract. “You survived.” I had passed the test, and he expected me to carry on.

I worked there five more years, becoming a reasonably competent teacher, able to control the classroom while providing my students with a creative learning environment. I was now teaching seventh-grade life science and was given an expanded new science lab, which I lined with tropical plants and cages filled with snakes (including two boa constrictors), tarantulas, hissing roaches, and other exotic creatures. On Parents’ Night, the principal would always show off my lab as a model classroom.

I did not delude myself into thinking I was a great teacher, however. During that time, I came to know some truly extraordinary teachers, fully attuned to their students and learning outcomes. But that would never be me. I had fallen into teaching because it offered a regular paycheck while aligning with my social and intellectual ideals, but my mind was elsewhere. And that’s always a dangerous thing.

One day, one of the boys in my class called me out, openly challenging my authority. Something inside me snapped, and I suddenly shoved him up against the wall and shouted in his face. I watched myself, as if in slow motion, acting out this scene, and knew right then and there that I had to get out. (Can you imagine a teacher doing that in a public-school classroom today?)

There were many other jobs on the journey. None lasted more than five or six years. Yet, much like my character Lot O. Jobs, I saw each job as having its own flavor, providing new insights on life. I never wanted a big house or family, and fortunately neither did my wife, who found her niche early, pursuing a long career in education. So that left me free to follow my dreams, whatever the hell they happened to be at the time.

Some of the jobs, like groundskeeper and landscaper, involved down-and-dirty grunt work, even menial tasks, such as picking up trash. Others, like teaching and bookselling, required me to use my brain more than my back. Most of the jobs paid so little that, had it not been for my wife’s job, I would have qualified for food stamps. What they lacked in remuneration, however, they repaid in new experiences and discoveries. It may sound corny, but through them, I found dignity in a day’s labor and the simple joy of performing a job well. Mostly I was flying by the seat of my pants, learning as I went, though the last job I filled—Instructional Specialist at the University of Arizona—made it sound as if I knew something. And when I left there, after working the usual five years, I actually did.

Through it all, writing remained the one constant thread. It was the one thing I really cared about.  Since my twenties, I had dreamed of making a living from my creative writing, something that very few writers achieve. I did manage to find jobs as columnist, feature writer and editor at small local newspapers, and scored occasional sales of my stories, essays, and poems to magazines and newspapers—always the sweetest dollars earned—as I continued to feed the writing madness.

Maybe someday, I kept telling myself, if I do this long enough, I will make some real money from my writing. Yeah, right.

Meanwhile, I think back to all the jobs along the way, a rich tapestry which has given me enough raw material to last a lifetime—or at least to fill these pages—and to make a life from my writing. First published in Work Literary Magazine. 3-19-2018

Alimentary Proof

 

 

 

 

Snoop and Snort pounded all day
on a rusty Remington typewriter
missing the letter “e,”
writing stories for Metro Daily News
about mythical creatures called humans—
smart as dragons, some say—
but no one believed them.
They needed proof.

So off they set to find a human,
a hard thing to do, since none
existed in all the dragon world.
As they passed through an alleyway,
all at once the air around them
began to shimmer and squiggle,
like something struggling to be.
Then out popped a tiny creature,
wearing striped shirt and baseball cap,
chasing a ball.
Snoop and Snort stared in wonder
at the human-shaped creature,
which did not seem fierce at all
and not half as big
as the beings they wrote about.

The creature froze, as Snoop and Snort
sniffed it from head to foot.
Grinning with sharp teeth,
they licked their chops
as their bellies growled.
It was nearly lunchtime.
The creature screamed and ran,
but not nearly fast enough
to outrun a fiery breath.

Snoop and Snort searched in vain
for more delicious creatures.
Tired and still hungry, they returned to the office
where they pounded all day
on a rusty Remington typewriter
missing the letter “e,”
writing stories for Metro Dragon News
about mythical creatures called humans.

First published in Lowestoft Chronicle Spring 2018   http://lowestoftchronicle.com/issues/issue33/genetwaronite/

Sestina: Rape and Shell Collecting

My first sestina was just published by Tipton Poetry Journal, Winter 2018.  According to Poetry Foundation, “a sestina is a complex French verse form, usually unrhymed, consisting of six stanzas of six lines each and a three-line envoy. The end words of the first stanza are repeated in a different order as end words in each of the subsequent five stanzas; the closing envoy contains all six words, two per line, placed in the middle and at the end of the three lines.” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/learn/glossary-terms/sestina

Whew! It’s enough to make your head spin. But a recent poem I had written in free verse that didn’t sound quite right to me. It just lay there on the page. So, despite my trepidation, I decided to see if I could rewrite it as a sestina. I even used a famous sestina poem (“A Miracle for Breakfast”) by one of my favorite poets, Elizabeth Bishop as a model.

The result is my poem “Rape and Shell Collecting.” You can read the poem here (turn to page 40). https://issuu.com/tiptonpoetryjournal/docs/tpj36

 

Whenever I See Empty

I seek to fill it
whether it needs filling or not
inserting my vanity into space
undefiled by actuality
as if I could fill the vacuum
between the stars and electrons
as if I could fill the gulf between us
no matter how close you seem
as if I could fill your vacant stare
so you don’t have to be there alone
as if I could fill all the holes
and lonely places within me
as if I could fill the blank slate I embrace each day
with words enough to keep the void at bay.

First published by The Ravens Perch. It’s a great new literary blog which allows readers to rate published pieces. You can find this poem as well as three more of my poems at this link  http://www.theravensperch.com/whenever-i-see-empty-by-gene-twaronite/

Living the Absurd Life

A framed quote by Albert Camus hangs over my desk: “The absurd is the essential concept and the first truth.” To which I would add, but can it dance?

It is not a question Camus might have asked. In fact, it’s ridiculous. It just popped into my head, like so many other wacky thoughts. Cultivating such silliness is a strategy I’ve found most helpful during times of darkness and despair.

This intentional silliness is what many of us think of when we hear the word “absurd.” Unfortunately, many people also have a negative view of the absurd, since it involves a deliberate violation of what we consider reasonable, leading to illogical, nonsensical, often bizarre situations. Totally unpredictable, it follows no rules, turning on its head everything we hold logical and true. And some of us don’t like that.

Absurdist, or surreal, humor is the heart of all great comedy. Think of the preposterous scene from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in which Alice attempts to play croquet using a flamingo as mallet and a hedgehog for a ball. Or Edward Lear’s “Owl and the Pussy-Cat” sailing off to get married and eating slices of quince with a runcible spoon? What exactly is a runcible spoon? Or Franz Kafka’s novella Metamorphosis? You can’t get more ridiculous than waking up and suddenly finding yourself having turned into a giant bug. Then there’s Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play Waiting for Godot, in which two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, wait for a guy named Godot who never shows up and nothing really happens. But oh, what a glorious nothing it is! More recently, comics George Carlin, Jonathan Winters, Robin Williams, and Monty Python, to name a few, have shared their private worlds of wackiness and helped to keep us sane.

But this silliness quite often masks a deep sadness, alienation, and inner struggle. Lewis Carroll used absurd humor as a way to deal with the chaotic changes taking place during the Victorian Period when, much like in Alice in Wonderland, the traditional British life he had known was being turned upside down. So he showed his character Alice struggling to make sense of this ever more curious world she must navigate.

Camus meant something entirely different by the absurd, which can also mean “the quality or condition of existing in a meaningless and irrational world.” According to him: “There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide.” Silly was not his game. Talk about depressing. Can you imagine this guy at a dinner party? Instead of the usual banter, he would stare, with eyes ablaze, at the guests around the table and ask, “What is the meaning of existence?” And as each cited their various religious, philosophical, scientific, and personal answers, Camus would knock them down, one by one.

Ever the skeptic, he would insist that there is no adequate answer to this question. Despite all our efforts to find purpose to our existence, the universe remains silent on this issue. We cannot reason our way to meaning, he argued, for “this world in itself is not reasonable.” Considering the vast, ever-expanding amount of information available to us as well as all that may forever remain unknown makes total certainty beyond our grasp.

Camus rejected the false hope and comfort offered by religion. Like the philosopher Nietzsche, he saw the danger of devaluing this life at the expense of an afterlife which may never come. Why deprive ourselves of the rich opportunities offered by a life we know for one which we cannot know for certain? And therein lies the dilemma. While our human hearts seek to find purpose and meaning to it all (as in Dionne Warwick’s song “What’s It All About, Alfie?”), there is no definitive answer, no “familiar, calm surface which would give us peace of heart” This is what Camus means by the absurd.

In his classic work The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus provides us with the memorable image of a man doomed for eternity to push a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back each time it reaches the top. Sisyphus is the absurd human, doomed to struggle through life without hope or meaning.

According to Camus, you have two choices. Deal with this emptiness in your soul and embrace it, with no hope of escape or consolation, while boldly seeking your own meaning, or decide you can’t deal with it and just end it.

Camus saw death as “the most obvious absurdity,” so he chose life instead. Through his writing, and his personal and political life, he defiantly resisted the apparent meaninglessness of existence. During World War II, he joined the French Resistance to help liberate Paris from Nazi occupation, and edited the underground newspaper Combat.  In 1957, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Though his life was cut tragically short, he showed us a way to triumph over despair and live an authentic life with dignity.

Have to admit, I do sometimes feel like Sisyphus, pushing my personal rock up the hill only to see it come crashing down again, times when everything I do seems hopeless and my life seems to have as much purpose as the floppy disk I found wedged between a copy of The Hobbit and The Oxford Book of Modern Verse. Unlike Camus, however, the question that comes to mind is not: should I kill myself?

I do agree with Camus that the world is not reasonable, and find it curious that I am here. I look in the mirror and see a creature no less bizarre than a giraffe or a star-nosed mole, with all those weird tentacles at the end of its nose. As a kid, I used to gaze at pictures of certain animals in books and shudder. How could they be? They seemed so unreal.

And here am I, as improbable as Ionesco’s rhinoceros running through the streets. My face stares back at me in disbelief. I feel a disconnect between the image in the mirror and the image I carry inside. Is it really the same me, with all those dreams, lusts, and ambitions, all those noble and idle thoughts, all those precious and hateful memories? Or is it a mirage of someone who once was? As I write this, countless cells in my body have died and been replaced, as neurons flash and chart new pathways and memories in my brain. The person I saw this morning is no more.,

Tomorrow I will look in the mirror again, and what will I see? Will I see “the master of my fate” and “the captain of my soul?” Or will I see the more usual face of befuddlement and despair?

It is the dance I perform each day—a dance for meaning—and I never know how it will turn out. Some days, it’s a little jig before breakfast. Other days, it’s more like a polka from hell, or a slow, sad waltz on my grave.

Most often, it begins with some little thing. A little ray of hope that sets my feet moving. Some encouraging thought or word from a friend. An inspiring poem or essay. Some newly discovered truth I had forgotten. A piece of news that proves the world is not coming to an end … not yet, at least.

And I remember that the purpose of my life does not come from external sources. There is no guidebook or grand plan, no voices telling me what to do. Rather it is a series of little daily steps I take to keep the darkness at bay. It’s realizing the value of simple things, like kindness, empathy, and understanding. Expanding my mind with new insights and knowledge. Exulting in the awe of this wondrous universe and the fact that, for a little while, I am here to experience it. Writing the best I can, relishing the little triumphs while accepting that I will never be as good as Shakespeare, Yeats, or Steinbeck. James Baldwin famously wrote: “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.” That’s as good a credo to live by as any.

But there are times when I lose sight of these and all seems lost, and the only thing that can save me is silliness. Not some tired slapstick silliness, but the kind that’s absurd to the bone and makes you laugh so hard you start blowing things out your nose.

Humor is highly subjective, of course, but there’s a scene in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail that gets me every time. The knights appear to be riding around on invisible horses as their squires clap coconuts together to produce the sound of hoof clopping (it was a low budget movie and the group didn’t have enough money to afford actual horses, or so they say). And you want to know what’s really absurd? Watching the movie, I begin seeing the horses. When and if nuclear war breaks out, I will watch it, laughing, as the world ends to the beat of horse’s clopping.

In the introduction to my book Dragon Daily News, a collection of silly stories for children, I paraphrased Thoreau and wrote: “In silliness is the preservation of the world.” The world presses down on us with relentless reality, often unfolding in ways that seem to make no sense. How could such things happen in a sane world? we ask ourselves. But the world is not sane. It can be as crazy beautiful as the arms of a spiral galaxy or human eye. And it can be as crazy ugly as anencephaly in which a baby is born without parts of the brain and skull, or a flu virus that suddenly mutates and kills tens of thousands of people. Or all the not-so-nice and horrific things we do to each other daily. Sometimes, all that saves us is our ability to laugh.

Tears are overrated, if you ask me. Beware of anyone who cannot laugh. Run for the nearest exit.  Nicanor Parra, a Chilean poet who died recently at age 103, frequently wrote poems marked by absurdity. Explaining his relationship to the reader, he said: “Humor makes contact easier. Remember that it’s when you lose your sense of humor that you begin to reach for your pistol.”

Whenever I get particularly depressed by the doings of my fellow human beings, I try to do something silly. It is a personal act of defiance against a world that seems to grow more absurd by the moment.

Maybe I’ll wear a silly T-shirt or write a silly poem. I’ll do like Shel Silverstein in his wonderful poem Put Something In: “Do a loony-goony dance/’Cross the kitchen floor/Put something silly in the world/That ain’t been there before.”

The Museum of Unwearable Shoes

The mall has many wonders
and most amazing of all is
the Museum of Unwearable Shoes
where perched on glass
pedestal displays of torture
you’ll find multi-strapped
leather sculptures adorned
in beads and buckles
that bind and pinch
with exquisite agony
and six-inch gravity
defying dagger stilettoes
guaranteed to make
a woman look sexy—
except for bunions
and the moment her
face meets the earth.

Originally published in Lowestoft Chronicle Issue 32  http://lowestoftchronicle.com/issue32/genetwaronite/