A Truly Pointless Conversation

“I still don’t see the problem.”

“The problem, brother-dear,” Bree sighs, mildly exasperated.  “Is that squirrels have rabies.  They are rabid.  Raa-bi-DA.  You know, foaming at the mouth?”

She placed her fingers in her mouth to imitate fangs, which I was certain had little to do with rabies, squirrels or foam, but did paint a horrifying peek at her mind’s eye.  I noted never to watch Watership Down with Bree . . . ever.

“Understanding the meaning of the disease, I still don’t see how that factors into the argument.”

“You don’t . . ?  If an elf rides a squirrel like a horse, skittering and jumping willy-nilly from treetop to treetop. . . ” my sister explains, arching her hands as if trying to explain the flight-plan of the squirrel in the branches, “. . .  then there is a good to fair chance that the rodent will infect them with the disease.  Thus, your theory that fairies use the rodents as mounts is impossible.”

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Wonderdog

My uncle once owned a dog that did not love him. Despite his owner’s constant adoration, affection, and regular meal offerings, the mustard-colored mutt escaped the confine’s of both yard and house with a regularity that would have impressed Steve McQueen. Whenever my uncle arrived home from inspecting train wrecks — that was his job — he would discover the yard empty, his food untouched, or the window screen torn asunder.  At such moment, my uncle would race down the street to our house, load my brothers into his truck, and slowly circle the neighborhood, shouting ‘Ralph!  Ralph!” — for that was the dog’s name — ‘Godammit dog, where are you?”

Ralph would always emerge a day or two later from the woods, wet from a swim at the reservoir, or covered in briars.  At which point, my uncle would hug and kiss the doe-eyed convict, while muttering in a sing-song baby voice “Such a goood dog!  Such a goood doggie.”  Ralph would be chained of course for another week or so, before his master would forgive his past transgressions.  The dog, who knew nothing of redemption, gratitude or the human parole system,  would immediately celebrate its freedom by running into the woods for another three or four days, chasing squirrels and sniffing deer pellets. Continue reading

I Hate Cows

My cowHamburger, cheeseburger, chili, steak, meatloaf, and hamburger helper.  Ten o’clock at night, I continued to repeat my delicious resplendent mantra, which proved the sole remaining argument for another tour of the neighborhood.  Twenty-minutes ago, Shannon had bounded downstairs just as I decided to pop some Final Fantasy into the Xbox.

“Need any help?” I asked, believing his excitement to be physics related.

“Yeah, the cows got out again.  Get dressed.” Continue reading

Love to Hate

Somewhere in the PETA headquarters across the offices and cubicles adorned with decorative puppy calendars, I imagine, there lies a Wall of Hate.  Every organization possesses one or two.  The simplest features a single photograph of an ex-girlfriend or work rival, their face painted with graffiti, fake mustaches, and the like; others, ridiculous caricatures punctured with darts, forks and knives, perhaps even gunshots – if you happen to work in Tennessee.  The FBI has one, displaying blurry pictures of mass murderers, terrorists, and gangsters; the CIA has one too, though invisible to the naked eye.  Even the White House adorns their distinguished offices with printed screen stills of Fox News anchors, wrinkled and faded from Super Soakers and Nerf guns, large speech bubbles that shout “Capitalism is for shmucks!!!”

At PETA, these portraits of animal rights offenders are encased in mahogany frames and frequently polished, allowing no smudge or stain to mar or obscure the faces of these enemies of animal-kind.  The inherent effect is a photo mosaic of taxidermists, sushi chefs, furriers, and exotic gourmets that smother crickets in chocolate.  Nearly all the department has visited the wall at least once.  After a year, the PETA volunteers and managers have memorized nearly all the mug shots, ready at a moment’s notice to spring on them with a can of paint or a club – PETA members are quite sensitive to irony.  Somewhere on this collage my face too is entombed, squeezed between Michael Vick and a comical poster of Cruella DeVil.  Beneath my hairy chin in large red block letters reads “At Large.”

This week you see, my brother’s, Sean’s, cow escaped their paddock again, and I screamed some very unkind threats to our bovine friends, which no doubt the PETA satellites intercepted and treated me accordingly.  The denizens of ‘Old MacDonald’s Farm’ represent the first additions to my own Wall of Hate, unless deep-fried and plopped between a Kaiser roll, no cucumbers though – the second vegetable to appear on the list, wedged between ‘asparagus’ and ‘geriatric drivers.’    The cows or rather heifers in particular with their repeated escape attempts, calling to mind Frogger-esque excursions across the highway and through briar-laden trees, are especially noisome creatures.  Yesterday however, Katie and I succeeded in herding the bolting bovine into its cell, where we learned sometime during the night their water trough had run dry.

Quickly giving into her maternal instincts, Katie sought to rectify the situation:  “Murph, we need to give them water.  It’s not good for them without it.”

Honestly – I freely admit – my conscience momentarily abandoned me here as my mind entertained the thought of simply shrugging my shoulders and walking away.  Or at least waiting until the boys came home to fix the problem.  I do not consider myself a cruel man, but spending another moment with the walking value meals is akin to cleaning crap from chicken coops and my own personal version of Hell.  Yet if the animals managed to escape again for want of water, then that would prolong the ordeal even more.

Katie might feel disappointed in me as well and that I could never allow.

“Sure,” I sighed, searching the ground for the hose.  “Though pumping the water through these hoses will be impossible in this weather.  Look there . . . ”

Beneath the snow and ice, we saw the raised impression of the hose, snaking its way under the frozen pond, up the hillside, and into the underground pump.  Absently I stepped on the coiled tangle trailing into the barn, noticing how stiff and solid it felt as if frozen from the inside out.

“GD, how the hell are we going to get water to these stupid animals?” Katie cursed – or at least as close to cursing as Katie can.  She stomped her feet and seemed quite irritated with the heifers, which simply bellowed lazily.  That moment, I was quite proud of my little sister.

“It’s okay, Big Mamma,” she cooed after a while.  “We’ll figure out something.”

Something in fact proved far more difficult than we originally hoped.  Nearly all the hoses were frozen and several pumps only trickled a few brave drops.  We thus decided to divide our efforts: Katie would chip away at the pond while Mom and I transported buckets of water from the far side of the house downhill to the barn.  Combining our efforts, enough water could be stored away to keep the cows happy and imprisoned for the rest of the day.

Regrettably, wet snow, a fool’s balance, and a pot filled to the brim mix well for comedic effect.  As we gingerly edged our way downhill, my feet rebelled against me, sliding out from my legs like a man who had just slipped on a banana peel.  Water and bowl flew into the air, landing atop a soon-to-be bruised head as my knees collided with the frozen ground.  I then rolled several feet down the hill, wet, sore and in desperate need of a towel.  Katie and Mom fell to the ground as I played dead, mourning for my lost dignity.  Their giggles painful but expected.

The heifers mooed and chuckled too, and I promised to treat myself a quarter-pounder with cheese later that evening.

Thankfully, my sister’s excavation of the pond had hit paydirt and we spent the next half-hour shoveling water into buckets like kids playing at the seashore.  We filled the cow’s trough and promising to mete out some words to the boys, the girls trudged back up to the house and some hot tea.  I remained behind to store the shovels and buckets while the animals slurped noisily, ignoring me.

“You better thank that girl,” I said.  “If not for her, you’d be roadkill chuck roast.  Remember that the next time you make a run for it.”

From politicians to the Care Bears, ‘hatred’ often suffers a bad rap.  No criticism accompanies our shared hatred of injustice, cruelty or corruption, but punting puppies is frowned upon.  Or ignored: my feelings toward cucumbers.  Our hatreds define us as much as our hopes and our dreams, yet we curse those negative feelings or worse pretend they do not exist, allowing them to accumulate and build like the pressure beneath a geyser.  And while sometimes dangerous (we cannot always immediately erase our misgivings about people and cucumbers), we might surround ourselves with individuals, who might challenge us to reexamine these base inclinations.  Sisters are typically a good place start.  They teach us about sympathy, I think.  Or at least compel us to do the right thing every once in a while.

So if any PETA-people have stuck around to the end of this post, I humbly offer you my services.  Every team needs its rogue agent to keep it honest.  A brave new carnivorous world awaits us.  Let’s do lunch next Tuesday.  Say . . .  the local Five Guys?  My treat.

Stupid, Stupid, Cow-creatures

Mornings at the Murphey house are typically quite productive.  In the past, my job involved waking early to drive the kids to college and school, visiting the grocery store en route back to the house for some amenities and a Starbucks iced tea.  Since Shannon acquired his license, I’ve been afforded the pleasure of another half-hour sleep before waking to scratch, stretch, and sit at my chair to write.  This morning promised to be quiet and productive, the day gray and contemplative, Pandora performing a piano piece by Yasunori Mitsuda as Word finally loaded and Mom burst into my room to tell me that the Sean’s cows had escaped their pen again.

In case you’re new to the site, my brother Sean keeps cows — heifers to be agriculturally correct — on the family homestead.  Four or five critters of varying ages, mother and children.  Though on occasion butchered, mostly they act as show cattle, breeding and being bred for various farm shows around and outside the state.  We keep them here at the house in pens designed and constructed by my brothers with minute precision, which explains why they’re constantly escaping their enclosure.

Today the Mother found . . . or rather created a hole in the fencing and scampered out into the surrounding woods.  My sister Katie, already late for class and in pair of pink loafers, met me outside.

“Murph,” she said.  “Try to cut her off.  If we lose her in the woods, there’s no way we’re getting her back.”  Not to mention if she manages to find the road, someone could get severely hurt.  Deer as I mentioned one time before cause enough problems for Maryland drivers.  Heifers are at least a hundred times as heavy as Bambi and not nearly as nimble.  They’re ugly, smelly, and dumb as bricks too, but that’s just my own personal bias.

As I eased my way downhill to the barn and the broken paddock, my foot was nearly swallowed in a patch of thick slime that made a sucking noise as I slowly tugged on my trapped shoe.  Sluuluckkk . . .   Due to rain and poor water management much of the area surrounding the barn is essentially a thick muddy swamp.  The pens themselves are no different.  In some spots, the level of muck can swallow the animals up their thighs like prehistoric tar.  Human beings with only hiking boots and pink loafers stand little chance of ever making it out alive.

Luckily the slime would have to wait as the heifer moved deeper into the trees, munching on dry leaves left left on a several fallen branches.  My job as Katie explained — as I possessed no experience whatsoever with the animals — was to get ahead of the animal and cut off its path into the woods, keeping it close to the border of the paddock, while she attempted to lasso it with the holster.

At first, this plan worked well.  I scampered through the forest like Mel Gibson in Braveheart, jumping over logs and through brambles until I felt comfortable enough cut off the animal from the deeper forest.  Katie moved in rope in hand.  Now if I were to graph the family’s  experience with farm animals, it would look very much like a bell curve, peaking in the middle with Sean and falling away with the oldest and younger siblings.  In 4-H I mostly baked cakes and built wooden trashcans from wood kits.  Farming to me is like cleaning septic tanks, necessary but only if someone else is doing it.

Katie raised and showed pigs for years, and thus acquired far more experience with livestock.   As we closed in on the animal outside the fence, I trusted she could wrangle the creature and lead it back safely to the pen.  She . . .

“Hey Murph,” she said eying the large, highly muscular animal.  “So what do you think about switch places?”

“Huh?”

“You know . . . how about you putting this thing around its neck.”  She sounded nervous, imagining no doubt the creature kicking her in the head like a mule or suddenly bolting with her in tow.

“Seriously?”  I was willing to try, but knew instantly that it would not work.  The animal seemed particularly spooked by me, as sensing the contents of my dinner plate last night, smothered in gravy and seasoned to perfection.

“Yeah . . .” she said edging towards me with the rope.  “. . . here.  Oh shoot!”

The cow suddenly took off.  Running along the treeline and back towards the barn.  I too took off into the woods, keeping my distance in case she should suddenly change direction.  We cornered her in one of the old paddocks that share a common side with their current pen.  The heifer was pushing her head through the planks of the broken fence, trying to gain footing in the muck and grime from several days worth of rain to leap through the opening.  We tried to coaxing the animal back among its fellows, but it refused to budge.   As I said, stupid creatures.

Katie sighed.  “We’re going to have to move her somehow.  Let me go up and grab some boots.  Murph, you stay here an block this entrance so she doesn’t get out again.”

And so like some human scarecrow, I stood guard at the cow pen until my sister ran down the hill again, took one step into the enclose and sank down to her knee.

“Ahrg . . . I can’t move.  Murph!  I can’t move my feet.”

“Well, pull!”

“I am you idiot!”  NOTE:  ‘idiot’ was not actually said as much as implied.  Katie routinely does not insult people, even if she wants to.  I chose to add it here, for the sake of integrity.

With that, she jumped onto the fence, and made her way inching along the planks to the corner where the cow stood watching us.  She resembled a cat-burgler, scaling a wealthy high-rise or an dame from the old dime-novels, inching past molten lava.  One misstep and incineration.  Exaggeration aside, if she fell into the mud, no doubt there’d be no coming out again without a shovel and several bottles of Purell.  Quickly, she kicked off the broken board, and after more wrangling, involving the halter, our mother, several shots with the camera phone, a few curses, and some texting to relevant family members, the cow finally jumped through the crack and back into the enclosure.

Among the muck and mire, we then wailed at the broken pieces of the fence, attempting to repair the broken planks.  Hands that have only used a hammer to break open steamed crabs and deflect Donkey Kong barrels tapped steadily at nails much too small and thin to piece winter-soaked wooden planks into place.  Our feet gurgled with every step.  Shloop!  Shlop!  While the cows gathered together and watched with some interest at the stupid humans trying in vain to convince themselves that all was safe, all was fixed.  Those silly animals can never escape from THIS again.  HA!

And with our feet corroding with slime, our skin welling with cold, our minds filled with delusion, we vacated the barn and trudged back up to the house  for hot tea and warm showers.

West Coastin’: Feeding the Animals

Giraffes!

Giraffes!

Our second port of call was San Diego.  Having heard of its charm, beauty, and the annual comic convention – which we missed this year but desperately hope to attend next summer if I can beguile . . . er, convince Dasad – we decided to scout out the city.  We stopped first at the zoo, since it was a bit of the inspiration for Critchon’s Jurassic Park and I was curious to see if it lived up to its reputation.

“This place is more like an amusement park,” Dasad said, gazing at the map, nearly the size of a Risk game board.  Various regions color-coded by continent or climate, divided the map into pieces; animal icons indicated species-specific paddocks.  We decided to invade the ‘Urban Jungle’ first, one of more intriguing lands with rhinos and anteaters and because it was also closest to the entrance.  Along the way, we halted our expedition to take pictures of some koalas and a capybara, the largest rodent on Earth, a fact indifferent to most tourists.

“Here come take a look at this big rat,” a red-faced man said picking up a small boy, who I assume was related in some way.  “If only I had my shotgun . . .”

The pair (father and son?) walked off to join a larger group – family I suppose – the man, shouting ‘Boom! Boom! Click!’ in his wake.  The unwitting ‘rats’ continued to scamper around the cage, blissfully ignorant and sleepy.

RT2_rhinoWe made our way to the elephant paddock then, a huge pen intermingled with other animals: vultures, lions, snakes, insects, and other modern day descendents of those swallowed by tar eons ago. The elephant compound could not have been larger had the zoo built it for dinosaurs.  Large open space sparingly furnished with trees and downed logs; a gated bridge joined the two enormous pens, allowing tourists to pass beneath.  Huge steel rails, nearly as thick as a mammoth’s thigh, circled the enclosure.  I had the passing image of a rampaging bull elephant ramming against the bars, trumpeting in rage, scattering frightened tourists.

Mom once warned us after noticing the heightened police presence at the mall that we should be careful, watchful for gangs and pickpockets.  Pat and I laughed then at the irony, but looking at the huge mammals stomp across the plain, I have a greater appreciation for what Mom meant.  Despite the impressive lodgings, the dung beetles garnered larger crowds than the mammals whose waste they depended on. We fought through the crowds for just a glimpse of three black bugs the size of quarter roll dung up a hill.  Amazing.

Sodomy2Passing through a tunnel beneath the paddock, Dasad spied a large four-foot statue of a condor or an eagle, silently surveying the nearby leopard pen.  Various statues and animal busts guarded several of the enclosure throughout the park, perhaps like fiberglass owls back home, to scare away local (and thus uninteresting) wildlife from the grounds.  Nonplussed my friend attempted to ride the stone bird, but stretching his legs across the bird’s back proved dangerous, awkward, and painful – unfortunately he halted the attempt before I managed to free my camera.  Feeling quite foolish, I suppose, amid the crowds, he instead stood behind the animal and humped it.

One of the zoo officials called out to him as I took the shot.

“Hey man!”  Somehow I felt that this exhibition would signify an immediate expulsion from the park and probably several PETA fines to boot.  The fact that the animal was actually made of stone and several times larger than its model seemed a moot point.

Thus I gaped while the official high-fived Dasad and yelled, “Some days man.  Some days, I wish I could get some too . . .”

What this signified about San Diego zoo employees, I could only guess, but Dasad reacted as if he had received a medal of honor.  Worse, he had discovered an audience, and if there’s one thing I learnt from reading Batman over the years, it’s that crazy people love an audience – which is why Freud created psychologists.  Garnering strength from his new fan base, my friend proceeded to pleasure several additional stone fauna before we managed to extricate ourselves from the park.

RT2_waterOn the way down to the Seaport Village, we passed the city’s monstrous convention hall, swarming little more than a week ago with geeks and fanboys for the 2009 ComiCon.  Of the city’s many pleasures, this stood out in my mind as I’ve been meaning to attend the convention for the last few years, only to arrive now several days late and a dollar short.

While Dasad and Jay argued over suitable dining for the evening (seafood or Mexican), I gazed with rapt attention at the sizable edifice, imagining the site next year: awash with costumes, movie stars, and fans from every corner of geekdom.  Aisles glazed in plastic inserts, polished art, and one-of-a-kind sketches.  Manga and graphic novels shimmering on the racks like unpolished gold, shrouding the magnificent stories deep within their leaves. Beautiful.  Next summer when we fly back to San Diego, we’ll need to bring extra bags for . . .

“Wait, hold on dude,” Dasad interrupted as we drove north under a multitude of cranes, arching above us like medieval cathedral.  One or two cargo ships in dock sleep patiently while the mechanical arms reached down and snatched at the crates nestled snugly in their holds.  “Who said anything about coming back for ComiCon?”

“Well, I did silly.  Thought it best to mention the trip now, so you can plan out the rest of your year.  Save the date, and all that.”

“We’re not going to ComiCon or at least I’m not.”

“Of course, WE are.  Did you not hear what I said about the comics, the movie stars, and the graphic novels like buried gold?  Beautiful stories buried beneath piles of obsequious merchandizing?  The metaphor might be too subtle.  Maybe an allusion  . . .”

“No way.  Do you know how much the tickets to fly to Anaheim cost?”

“About $400 dollars round trip?”  For both of us, and for the moment ignoring hotel expenses.  As I said, I’ve been considering rubbing elbows with geek-elite since New Years.

“Well, San Diego is probably more.  Just to see sweaty unbathed virgins pore over stories we can buy here with the airfare we save.”

“With the rising cost of gasoline that might not be true anymore . . .”

“I can live without it,” he grumbled. For someone horny enough to violate a cement eagle, he sure had difficulty sucking it up now and then.  I penciled him in as a definite maybe, and listening to my stomach growl, refocused my efforts on finding dinner.

RT2_westWe decided on Old Town, a collection of historical houses and shops much in way of Colonial Williamsburg, back home.  I tried picturing John Wayne or Clint Eastwood walking through the streets, kicking up dust and dried blood with their six-shooters as their sides, but the green lawns and ice cream parlors suggested more Ann of Green Gables than the Man with No Name.

The surrounding area about the antiquated buildings is devoted to small Mexican markets filled with trinkets and t-shirts and restaurants, bursting with the scent of refried beans and sizzling fajitas.  Here – at least according to Jay’s iPhone – the enchiladas and burritos were considered quite authentic, and being quite techno-savvy, as well as famished, we strode the three blocks without argument to the restaurant just outside Old Town’s Plaza del Pasado, a hotel that showcased live entertainment and open-air dining with fiery brick fireplaces.  The sun had sunk behind the architecture, and the warmth of the fires was inviting.  While Jay convened with Google, Dasad and I stopped to gaze at a sign just outside the plaza.

“Haunted tours, huh?”  Dasad read.  “Nine o’clock.  ‘We know where the ghosts are.’  Sounds interesting.”

“Might be fun to simply stand in the back and scream every now and then,” I said, “Just to keep things interesting.”

“Probably isn’t much though.  Hell, we could start our own tour.  Get a list of places, research the history, and then scare the tourists with flashlights and mirrors.  Easy.  We’d get plenty of screams just having you pop out from time to time.”

“Funny,” I muttered.

RT2_city“Here boys and girls,” he shouted in his best Barnum-voice, “We have the rare treat of encountering a single American otaku, look at his pale features and large gut.  Unemployed specimens like Murph here dwell in the dungeons and cellars of their ancestors, absorbed in painting miniatures and playing with themselves.  Watch out Miss, he has not known a woman’s touch in so long . . . He might become unpredictable when aroused.”

“Look, I wouldn’t . . .” I began.

“Ewww, Mommy make it go away.  Its pasty skin . . . like it’s dead.” Dasad continued, whining in a high-pitched voice.

“Don’t worry, son.  We’ll go to the gym tomorrow or spend the day outside.  It hates sunlight and physical labor.  Otaku can’t chase us even if we jog.”

In my case, this happens to be quite true.  In his current marathon-ready state, I could never hope to catch Dasad even if he skipped up the lane (which he does, ladies, more often than any grown man should).  I returned with a few pointed jabs at Trekkies, computer consultants, and assholes until I felt that we were even.  Together we laughed at the absurdity, creating several other skits before we reached the restaurant.  Jay followed silently – clearly the most mature of our group – holding his iPhone before him as if scanning the area for clues.

Now Mexican food is a treat for me, one reserved for road trips and the occasional movie night with Dasad.  The man loves his spicy food about as much as my family hates it: the hot sauce and spices do not mix well with their strict meat and potatoes diet.    Thus, I only manage to feast on enchiladas about twice a year (I refused to eat at Taco Bell with their $.99 tacos and brown bean parfait, sluiced through an old Slushee machine and sprinkled with week-old chedder.).

Thus, I had high hopes for Casa Guadalajara.

Inside we were met with an explosion of color: paper streamers of sun-burnt oranges, reds, and blues hung loosely from the ceiling; large vases overflowed with green leaves and bombastic flowers; and striped tablecloths like hand-woven shrouds dangled from long family-sized tables.  A mariachi band played in the corner and families chattered noisily in the corner.  Kids giggled, running and ducking beneath their parents legs.  The whole place reminded me so much of home, I nearly cried.

RT2_mexfoodOur waiter sat us down and gave us our menus.  One of the principal rules for dining – much like grocery shopping – is to never ever choose anything on an empty stomach.  This might at first appear a rather faulty paradox, seeing as you arrive at a restaurant to eat, and thus rather peckish.  Yet men oft order with their eyes, thinking little of the portions their hunger demands, and before you can consider otherwise, your appetizers spread out before you several portions larger than expected.  Like the surfer praying for a wave, and ending up with a tsunami.

Such was our case.  The appetizer in addition to the free chips and salsa nearly overwhelmed us; nevertheless we dived in, scooping out soft tacos, guacamole salsa, and cheese drenched chips.  Five minutes into our feast, we abandoned our pre-game meal to the doggy bag and loosened our belts.  Our burritos and enchiladas had yet to arrive, and short of storing the meal in my cheeks, most of our entrees would have to be taken home.

In the end, we waddled from the restaurant, our arms dangled with take-home bags, our guts hanging over our belts in complete and utter satisfaction.  After a walk around the shops and market – searching in vain for an authentic pancho for Dasad – we left to drive back to Anaheim.  Tomorrow we would set up the Pacific Coast Highway, on our road to Napa Valley and a truck full of wine.

Shots After Midnight: The King’s Diet

shots_after_midnight-copyAs night falls here at the pub, Jameson and Bailley’s fill our glasses and loose our tongues.  Tales emerge to accompany us on our long walk home through the darkness . . .

Brigid and Kevin were fighting again. No one knew the argument began: a touch on the shoulder, a misplaced word, a subtle insult intentioned or not (doubtful). “Loser,” “idiot,” “moron,” “freak.” The words avalanche as the afternoon fades into the night.

I find the two sitting around the sofa fighting over the remote control. Bree demands her favorite crime drama citing the age old maxim, “I was here first.” Kevin counters with a “But this is important,” compounding his argument by reminding Bree “You always get it!” The television flickered mournfully between the two stations, trying vaguely to decide which child it loved best.

“Dang it, Bree! Give it to me! I have to watch this game!”

“So go find another TV! I was here first!”

“I was in here at 3:30. It’s still mine.”

“Then it’s my turn.”

“Losers don’t get a turn.”

“Do too. Wait a sec . . .”

“Do not.”

“Alright, you two,” I say turning off the mildly schizophrenic screen. “Let’s cool it with the TV for a while.”

This gambit pleases neither. Bree slams the remote to the ground, a portion touchdown spike, a portion lightning strike.

“Geez, Kevin, look what you did. For once in your life, why can’t you be less of an idiot?”

“Hold on,” I say to the bickering siblings. “Lets cool down a bit. Bree did I ever tell you the story of the King’s Diet?”

“Uh, no,” Bree sighed.

“Sit down with me,” I say sinking into an armchair. “After the story’s over, I’ll let you watch TV again.”

“Is it stupid,” Kev asks. “I don’t have to like . . . know anything to understand it, right?”

“Not at all,” I smile.

———————————————————————————————————-

A lion woke one morning to look at his realm, a wide savanna teeming with life. The lush jungles to the west where trees grew high nearly reached the sky. The dense marshlands to the south, a paradise to insects, frogs, and amphibians. The dense mountains to the north, snowcapped and shrouded in mystery. Then the veldt to the east, where his pride hunted, occasionally shading themselves beneath dense tree groves, which cast long cool shadows long after the sun dips behind the jungle gardens.

This contemplation soothed the mighty lion. As he sat atop a large rock, the King’s Seat he called it – once the germ of a small volcano, which long ago had risen from the earth and then as if Nature herself had grown unsatisfied with the location ceased its ascent, the Seat marked the center of the large valley – considering the days meal (zebra or antelope, he could not decide), his tranquil thoughts were interrupted by the loud trumpeting bellows of the elephants, splashing themselves with mud in the nearby pits. The king turned his nose up at such disgraceful behavior.

“You would not see me or my kind act in such a manner,” he scoffed. “Fortunately the other members of my kingdom are far more dignified than to be caught playing in the mud.”

As you well know, the elephants cover themselves in mud to protect themselves from the intense heat of the sun, like sunblock your Mom rubs on your back. The lion did not know this however, and continued to mock the elephants without restraint. As he considered several spectacular insults concerning pachyderm hygiene and the size of their rears, a foul stench drifted through the air. A migrating herd of wildebeests had ventured into the king’s territory from the south, their coats now stained with unctuous marsh gas and globs of slime. Of course, wildebeests like most creatures that travel together in groups have accrued a hearty stench after journeying together without food or water for several hundred miles. After a long road trip, I would challenge you to sniff yourself and see how clean and fresh you smell.

Nonetheless the ignorant lion, disgusted that other members of his kingdom could reflect so ignobly on himself, began to decry the worthlessness of these creatures as well. Escaping the fecund smells and disgusting smack of mud on skin, the lion strode closer to the shade of the jungle. There he rested beneath a tall fruit tree, breathing in the fresh air and engaged in a mid-morning nap. Just as his dreams began to take shape, forming fields of antelope and fat zebras (lions as a rule think of nothing else), the tree began titter and rustle with the chatter of the monkey clan, who being social creatures talked effortlessly among themselves. The irritated lion immediately awoke.

“Will you foolish creatures, please silence yourselves?” the lion shouted. “Your king is seeking rest.”

The monkeys stopped their discussions to stare at the enraged lion. Silence filled the jungle, even the largest and proudest monkey – named Chi – stopped his argument concerning jungle politics and disappeared into the foliage. The others followed.

“Thank you, many apologies for losing my temper. Foolish though you may remain, of all the creatures I have met today you have . . . Ack!” A large rotting mango had struck the lion in the snout. Then suddenly other fruit – both fresh and not-so-fresh – flew from the tree, along with sticks, rocks, and other material much more disgusting.

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“Did they throw poop?” Kevin asks with a smile, earning him a quick slap from Bree.

“Ewww . . . Kevin, don’t be disgusting!” she shouts. “I bet the lion was quite angry about that.”

“As mad as anyone,” I said, twisting myself more comfortably in the seat. The leather screeched as if agitated. “Anyone who is barraged with sticks, rocks, and . . . well worse things. After all more so than money, power, or fancy parties nobility love respect and admiration. When you take that away well . . .”

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“Ah what horrible habits,” the lion roared. “Rude though I was, such a reaction is uncalled for. My subjects squander their talents for such mean gestures. How can the kingdom survive in the future without more noble spirits like me to guide them?”

The revolted lion ran from the jungle and returned to his cave at the center of the valley. There he ruminated on why the creatures under his domain were so foolish, so disgusting, so weak, and incapable of nobility.

Even the delicious zebras are mere food for us larger stronger animals, he thought. They exist only to be eaten. The other prides to the north, south, east and west must think me an idiot for babysitting such repulsive subjects. Why can’t they be more like me: proud, strong, agile? And wise too. Surely such a king as I can solve this trifling problem for my subjects.

The lion thought about this for three days and two nights. Then while nibbling on the broken leg of a well-fattened antelope – the poor creature had twisted its ankle not three days prior at the exact moment the lion had unripe fruit tossed onto his snout, a day later – he had an idea. A brilliant idea, fit for a cat of such high lineage.

“Maybe, it is the food they eat. Indeed if all my subjects ate meat like myself, then they would be stronger, braver, more courageous and thus more refined. Too often have they relied on the bounty of the trees and leaves of this kingdom. My subjects have grown lazy. Yet virtue is the key. I shall weed out their weaknesses simply by changing their diets.”

The next day the lion gathered all his subjects from the four points of his territory. The elephants, the wildebeests, and the monkeys arrived along with many other animals both large and small to hear what the king decreed.

“All creatures seek to improve themselves, to become stronger. We in this valley have grown too soft over the years, weakened by this continued peace. The land has taught us to remain ignorant beasts, unaware of our hidden potentials. This no longer must continue. We must change our ways or fall prey to greater threats.”

The animals listened to the words of the mighty lion. Many felt troubled, unsure of what threat the king spoke, worried that their happy lives might end. They pleaded with the lion for protection and wisdom in these dark days to come. Others like the antelope and the monkeys who frequently joined the lion on his dinner plate grew skeptical of the lion’s plans.

“Worry not citizens. For though I cannot protect all of you all the time, I can train you to be like me, strong and brave, unafraid of any threat. We must make sacrifices, abandoning our old habits and traditions so that we might grow stronger and wiser in our ways. We must adopt the code of the hunters, feasting on weakness and building a nation of virtuous warriors. All of us must learn to eat meat. Only then can we cease to be mere prey, but transform ourselves in noble lions regardless of age, sex, or species.”

A loud cacophony of applause, shouts, brays, and trumpets met the lion’s speech, as the animals cheered this new way of life. For all creatures desire to be strong and great and noble. If a change in diet was all that was necessary to protect themselves, to rise in stature, what is a minor sacrifice or two? The animals listened in rapture as the brave king and teacher concluded his speech:

“Meat is the one food that keeps us lions strong. Our daily hunt requires that we continue to grow and improve our mind and bodies, for the hunter is his own master, not a slave or someone else’s meal. Through hunting we lions become noble and great, like kings of old that have ruled this land by the grace of the Mother Spirit herself. Thus, go forth and hunt. Be strong!”

More applause followed, and the lion grew pleased and confident in his decision. Yet there was silence among other members of the crowd. Other animals did not applaud the lion’s words. To the zebras and antelopes, a nation of hunters was nothing to applaud. They looked to the far jungles, marshes, mountains, and valleys, wondering if any would survive the next week. Yet none spoke up; all remained silent except for one brave monkey, named Chi.

“Mighty lion,” said Chi. “You speak of becoming strong like you, but are we not better as we are? The great Mother Spirit gave us monkey’s hands to grasp fruit and tails to swing from tree to tree. Might we already be strong enough for our own kind?”

The lion looked upon the monkey, the leader of those that assaulted him not three days before. Quick as lightning, the lion pounced on the helpless monkey and swallowed him whole.

“Hands and tails might be used better to protect yourselves,” gulped the lion, “than eat fruit. If you wish this to be your fate, please remain the same, change not. Skills are meant to be used not wasted on fruit and trees. Yet if you wish to be strong and be the victim of no creature, then follow my advice. Hunt!”

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“He ate the monkey!” squealed Bree, whose nicknames was also ‘Monkey.’ “Poor monkey.”

“Good,” grinned Kevin, who was also aware of Bree’s nickname. “Stupid monkey, he deserved what he got.”

“Ah,” I said. “Well then, I wonder what the lion deserved . . .”

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The following weeks saw great change in the valley as the animals all followed the lion’s advice, learning in their own ways how to hunt. Bloodlust has a way of changing creatures, you see, affecting even the most docile into . . . well, into something else altogether.

The elephants sharpened their dull tusks into razors, honing their hunting skills as they gored the weaker members of the herd for their dinner plates. Other small creatures were trampled by their thick legs, served as appetizers or kneaded into mouse-pudding.

The wildebeests possessed no such size but departed deep into the fume-filled swamps, surrounding their bodies with thick horribly-smelling ooze and slime. They ate from garlic plants, skunk weed, and rotting onion bulbs; using their tails like paint brushes they lathered their coats with poison ivy, rag weed, and methane gas. Such they experimented with these stenches until the revolting stench from their breath and bodies could incapacitate the most powerful skunks in the land. By night they would emerge from the north like a foul wind, descending into the woodlands and jungles, allowing their ooze and stench to drift into the trees. As the sleeping animals fell to the floor unconscious or dead, the herd scooped the inert bodies into waiting jaws.

True to the lion’s words, the monkey clan as well strengthened their own hands and tails. Grasping tree and fruit no more, they sharpened their teeth instead. With stick and stone, they hunted their feathered brethren in the treetops and fell zebra from hundreds of yards away, hurling their spears like a deadly rain. The laughter of the monkeys once full of mirth now chilled the hearts of all who entered the lofty tree tops.

Slowly the land grew silent.

More weeks pass. After a long slumber, the lion emerged from his cave to look upon his paradise, his newly improved kingdom. The air smells sweet, the lion thinks, like . . . like Sunday breakfast. A new wind carries the promise of a changed land. With a roar he calls forth his subjects from the four corners of the land. Slowly his subjects approach, three great hunters knell before their king and teacher, all that remains of the kingdom’s citizens. The lion stares at his subjects, the monsters before him. The air, he realizes then, is soaked through and through with blood.

“Greetings, great king,” bellowed the first of these creatures. The lion looked down and stared at the speaker, a monster of great size that once might have been a elephant. About its body draped bones of its own kind, sharpened to fine points like thorns upon a dried rose. Hides of various animals replaced the mud of old, making the creature look almost prehistoric, a living corpse returned to life.

“You spoke true,” said monster. “We do indeed feel strong. Like demons in fact, no trouble or danger do we now face ever again.”

“Yesss,” laughed the second monster, whose body remained hidden behind whirled smoke and gas, a living smog wrapped around rotting flesh. Ooze dripped down to floor, a slime trail marked the creature’s descent from the northern marshes. “For you are fat and no other animals dwell now in this valley. The grass is soaked in blood and littered with bones. We need to feed if we are to become stronger. . .”

“Wait!” shouted the lion, staring into the creatures’ eyes. “This is not what I intended. This is not what I proposed.”

“Too late,” spoke the third monster, an ape . . . no, ape-like, stretched and contorted into fantastic and horrid shapes, like melted clay doll. One long sinewy hand absently choked the air about it, while the other gripped a long barbed – unclean – spear. “We can do great things now. Great and terrible things. What are skills if we do not use them? Potential cannot be wasted . . .”

And with that the three monsters descended on the poor lion, dethroning him piece by piece.

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The kids seemed visibly scarred from the stories I told. Both did not sleep for a week afterwards and it would be a month before either ate their ham sandwiches again. Mom and Dad kept me on a strict Dr. Seuss diet for an even longer interim.

Brigid and Kevin don’t fight as much anymore; Bree doesn’t call Kev a loser and he in turn seems more willing to watch the crime scene shows. Yesterday I found them crying together on the sofa. The control had accidentally changed channels. The screen flashed to an golden savannah where an animated lion prince practiced his roar.