An octet of vignettes

Dang. Tagged. Can’t you people leave me alone?

All right, here are the rules.

  1. We have to post these rules before we give you the facts.
  2. Players start with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
  3. People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.
  4. At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names.
  5. Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged, and to read your blog

I suppose I could list what I had for dinner over the last 8 days, you guys don’t know that, but then I’d have to confess about those lazy days when I ate microwaved leftovers over the sink, and there’d go my suave image as a debonair man of culture. So instead you get eight random recollections.

  1. Grandma Myers’ house was small and sagging and appointed in the classic 1940s style of working class poverty: tarpaper walls and cheap linoleum, a kitchen floor that slumped down towards the south (and proved to be an excellent testing ground for our pinewood derby racers), a west wall that was perforated by ivy and morning glories, creating soothing damp drafts of the Pacific Northwest winds that were combatted by a single small coal-burning iron stove in the dining room. That Christmas, and every Christmas, her family coalesced in that one cramped and creaking spot. There was Aunt Carilda Mae and Uncle Jim and our cousins, Kelly, Julie, and Matt, all wiry and tanned and fresh from the ranch; our bachelor Uncle Ed, who kept us supplied with comic books; Aunt Sally and Uncle Bud, and our cousins Don, Tim, and Debbie, who lived in town like us; my mom and dad, and me and my brother Jim and little sister Caryn; Aunt Florence and Uncle Louie, and their new baby; a friend of the family, Paul Melton, who was in the merchant marine and always had exotic gifts; and anyone who saw the house jumping and thought to stop on by. We boy children had all received the same presents that year, a box of 88 Games!!!, which contained lots of rules and cardboard playing boards and dice and checkers and chess pieces and marbles and most exciting of all, dart guns with rubber suction cups. Forget the rules; chess was more fun when played with dart guns, and then who needs chess pieces when you can run squealing around the house, between the legs of the adults, around the dining room table with its smoking ashtrays and big bottles of rich smokey brown whiskeys, and when you can make the whole house shiver and shake with our leaping and when the leaves of the ivy on the walls trembled with everyone’s laughter and Grandma smiled and stood up and shook her apron and she danced and she danced.

  2. My father was a handsome rascal, a dashing ne’er-do-well from the wrong side of the tracks (literally; my mother’s home was on the west side, and my father’s just across the railroad tracks and up a few blocks), and Grandma Westad did not approve. Have no fear, Dad was also a responsible father and good husband who matured well, but the early years and stress made for some rocky days, and for a time, my parents separated, Dad and we two boys living with Grandma Myers and Mom and the two girls living with Grandma and Grandpa Westad. We children pined. Grandma Westad harrumphed. That no-good Myers boy wasn’t good enough for her daughter! My mother is pretty and quiet and shy, and she doesn’t say much, but when she does, it is softly, and through these harangues, she would wait quietly, and who knows what she was thinking.

    Then one day I was over to eat some of Grandma Westad’s good cookies, when she came up to Mom in a lather of indignant Scandinavian-American fury, full of sing-song squawks, “Nehmen! I found this on the stairs!” She was waving around a pair of men’s underwear. “That man has been sneaking around, hasn’t he!”

    Mom didn’t say a word. She just smiled a shy smile, a joyful smile, a smile full of mischief, and I knew then that she was in love with a charming rogue, and the whole world was going to be right again.

    A replay, some time later. The family was back together, and Mom broke the news to Grandma that she was pregnant again. Grandma did not take the news well. “FIVE! When are you going to stop having all these babies!” Mom just smiled that happy smile again, that radiant, gladsome smile, and gently touched her stomach. And I knew again that she loved us all, and the world was going to be good forever and ever.

  3. Steelhead fishing is waiting. My father and I climbed down the banks of the Green River, threw our lines out deep in the middle of the river, and sat down on rocks and waited. It was raining. We were quiet. The river was our entertainment. It was placid but not smooth; odd humps of water would rise and subside, eddies would skirl briefly and disperse, and the rain would pock quietly. Every once in a while it would rise in intensity, and we could watch it hiss up the river to where we sat, and we’d be briefly drenched … and then it would die down again from a sizzle to the plink and plop. We would spend a few hours watching the river gently writhe. And sometimes there were fish.

  4. As a young nerd, I was bullied frequently enough in school, and usually I could shrug it off…except for this one gang that harrassed me for over a year. A girl gang. A gang of hot girls.

    In junior high, I walked home from school, perhaps a half mile or so. Somewhere along my route, perhaps once or twice a week, I’d be intercepted by a group of about half a dozen girls several years older than me who would squeal and rush over and run their fingers through my hair and coo at me about how cute I was and how they wanted me to be their boyfriend. It was agonizing, not because I thought they were unattractive, but because it was all so insincere. I was their toy doll, their practice dummy, and they were competing with each other to see who could make the most amusingly gushy declarations of my adorability. I felt like the dog who’d been made to wear doll clothes and get pushed around in a stroller for the entertainment of children. My embarrassment was acute, and even now I can’t hear a compliment without feeling that it’s all part of a game of making fun of me.

    The cure? There was a girl my age, who lived near me, and who walked home by the same route, and I found that if I loitered a bit or rushed a bit and arranged to be conveniently walking with her, I was left alone. We could even talk a bit about something other than how pretty my eyes were. She was my white knight. My protectoress. Later, my girlfriend and wife.

  5. Our first child was a colicky beast in his first year. Night after night, he’d wake up in the early evening and start to wail; he wasn’t hungry, he didn’t need his diaper changed, we would burp him to no avail, He’d just howl like a soul tormented with dispair. The only thing that would console him was to hold him tight and rock or walk, and even then he’d be curled up in tears looking consumed by grief. And oh, we were so tired. One night I stood on our balcony, pacing back and forth, and with the ligaments of my back frayed and strained with this unending weight, I thought briefly and morbidly of casting this burden away.

    And at that thought all I could do was hold that poor boy a little more fiercely, and feel his pain a little more deeply. That’s the paradox of parenting: we’re often absolutely useless, and at the same time absolutely necessary. We spend years feeling every bit of their pain, and there is nothing we can ever do, except to be there.

  6. I was driving in to the university, and the dog came bounding across lawns, charging at my car, his tongue lolling—there was no hesitation, he was running all out. He was moving so fast, I was afraid he’d run snout-first into my car, or dive under the wheels, so I slowed down…a mistake. He ran past my car and darted in front of it. I heard the bumper smack into his chest, like hitting a sandbag with a baseball bat. He tumbled a few times, then leapt up, continuing his run, now barking with startled pain. I pulled over and parked, while he ran to the flowerbeds at the fairgrounds, stopped, and then collapsed on to his side.

    I ran to him. He was lying there in the flowers, his jaws working, his eyes darting about frantically, bloody foam coming out of his mouth. I reached out to him—he tried to snap at me. I knelt back and waited as the blood pooled, as he quieted, as his breath came in short gasps, as it stopped.

  7. On hot summer days we would drive out into the desert and on to the causeway to Stansbury Island, and we’d head up to the northern end where there was nothing at all, at least as most people thought of it: gray rocks in heaps, boulders and oddly scoured rock formations to clamber on, and a beach of acrid, salty water reeking of decay, populated only by brine shrimp and dense clouds of flies. The kids loved it. They’d climb the spires of rock and see the Great Salt Lake all around them. They’d turn over rocks and find the surprising wealth of life in this barren patch. There were scorpions everywhere. Spiders. Black beetles with shells so thick they were like ambulatory rocks themselves. Lizards that would drop off their tails to writhe in the dirt for you. Basilisk-eyed horned toads that would stare scornfully at you. Skins of snakes and dry bones of antelope.

    They never had anything in the city parks or malls quite so dangerous or unplanned or thrilling. We went out to that desolate and exciting spot often enough, and we were always surprised that no one else would ever be there.

  8. Finally, one last little story that is somewhat more recent, and I’ll just repost an account of a recent roadtrip.


    Unfortunately, I seem to be cursed when it comes to long road trips this summer. We took off on our three hour drive home, and all went smoothly until we were maybe ten minutes from Morris…then boom, I had a tire blow out on me. I pulled over to change it, and realized I had another problem.

    Morris really is way out in the middle of nowhere; we were 5 miles in either direction from the nearest house. There are no street lights out there in the country, and it was an utterly moonless night, at 12:30 AM. We’re talking dark. Far rural, not even a hint of urban haze, pitch blackness, and even the stars were obscured by clouds. And, I’m afraid, we didn’t have a flashlight in the car, and Mary had left her cell phone with our daughter.

    As a brave and manly man, I struggled valiantly to change the tire blindly. It was hung up on something, though, and as I grappled with it, I slashed my hand on whatever it was that popped the tire. I was bleeding badly, and my hands were slick with road grime and blood. This was not going well.

    We were not going to be able to change that tire in the dark.

    So, we decided we’d just walk home. Five or six miles is a manageable hike, right? Off we went, even though we could barely see the edge of the road.

    On country highways in the middle of the night you can hear all kinds of things. There are swarms of insects in the brush creaking strange tunes, and once I heard something make a squeaky wet cough in a ditch—I had visions of having to fend off swarms of rabid vermin by stomping on them with my tennis shoes, and wished I’d brought the tire iron along. And then there was the infrequent aroma of rich, ripe roadkill. Yikes. This was not looking like a pleasant end to the evening.

    We were trudging along, though, when we noticed something else. There was a light breeze, and the clouds were blown away, and the stars came out. When you’re miles away from any house lights, you really see the stars, dense and bright. We could barely pick out the few constellations we knew, simply because they were mottled with too many stars.

    Next we saw the shooting stars. It wasn’t a major swarm of them, maybe one every five minutes or so, but it passed the time trying to spot them.

    And then we looked straight up, and there was the Milky Way. Wow. Ever stood in the middle of a road in the wee hours of the morning, in a place where the brightest light is coming from that glowing band in the sky? It was spectacular.

    The heavens weren’t done with us yet. We looked to the right towards the northern horizon, and what do we see but shifting, glowing curtains of light—the aurora borealis! This was getting ridiculous. We were just a few comets shy of omens and portents. I expected a fiery chariot with wheels of luminescent diamonds to descend any moment and it’s brilliant occupant to decree the beginning of my imperial reign, or something. It would have been fitting, I think.

    After two hours of dazzling late night trekking, though, we finally arrived at Morris, and the town lights washed out all sky signs. Oh, well. Now I’m home and just waiting for the buzz to wear off (and my lacerated hand to stop throbbing) so I can get some sleep.

    I don’t know whether I need to stay home from now on, or whether I should aspire to take advantage of more automotive failures.

OK, now who on my blogroll should I inflict this curse upon?


  1. says

    Excellent, PZ. This is one for the SOB’s who say we atheists and humanists don’t have a sense of wonder and delight in the world or how to shift our perspective on our place in the universe.



  2. Michelle says

    I don’t usually post here, I just read your stuff, but I had to say that I enjoyed reading all your little vignettes. :) I love your descriptive writing style, and it really felt like reading an inspiring story. You are certainly talented in writing as well as science, sir.

  3. MyaR says

    Thanks. I grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere in northern Wisconsin, and I pine for those night skies. Now I’m lucky to see a few stars.

  4. CCP says

    For a second there I thought I took a wrong turn and ended up in a Chris Clarke post (that’s a compliment).

    Ever stood in the middle of a road in the wee hours of the morning, in a place where the brightest light is coming from that glowing band in the sky?

    As a matter of fact, I have. Mojave Desert in my case, many times. And yes, it is indeed spectacular. (hey that’s a topic for a real Chris Clarke post!)

    And, I had a colicky kid too. It’s utterly heartrending because there is nearly nothing to be done. All that worked was a car ride and, I eventually discovered, sitting on the (lidded) toilet bouncing her on my knee with the hairdryer going while I sang bebop lines into her ear.

  5. Dawn says

    Wow. Just Wow. What a writer you are, PZ. WHEN IS YOUR BOOK COMING OUT? I can’t wait to read it.

    Colicky babies…yeah. Been there. Nothing like crying while you hold your crying baby because you can’t make the baby feel better. What a helpless feeling it is.

  6. Jen Phillips says

    Wow, PZ. You could have chosen to toss off eight stupid soundbytes, but instead you treated us all to another sumptuous literary feast. I so enjoy not only what you have to say, but also the elegant and eloquent way in which you invariably say it. Thanks!

  7. Jyotsana says

    Vignette v brought tears of empathy to my eyes. Thank you. ‘Scuse me while I go hug my son (which will piss him off to no end because he’s playing a video game right now, but what’s a mother to do ^-^ ).

  8. tony says

    I did indeed read iv – as a ‘fat bespectacled nerd’ in school I too was bullied, and wished I could have had a champion then….

    However, I too have my own protectreuse, who has led me to see my own worth and value, and it’s through her I shine the brightest….

    I suppose it’s lucky I didn’t meet her earlier, or you’d all have been blinded by the Nova that would be me, now!


  9. says

    I really miss the aurora borealis from living away up north as a kid. I only travel up there to see the folks about twice a year, and have not been lucky to catch them for a long time. I also need to check the lunar charts when I go up north because the last three times I have had to fight the glare of the full moon against the light clouds that seem to gather when I go out of town.

    Two years ago we were fortunate to have a fantastic viewing night, but the mosquitoes were so incredibly nasty that I could only get the kids to stay out with me for about 10 minutes before they started fainting from blood loss.

    That being said, if you want me to put a little tack in your tire the next time you come to the Twin Cities let me know. I have “friends” who can be discreet enough.

  10. Robert says

    Actually I found #4 quite familiar. I wasn’t taunted by a gang of girls all at once, but had on several different occasions been asked out, or admired publicly by girls I found attractive. Of course it was all quite obviously fake, and extremely painful to go through, but I could think of no way in which I could extract myself from the situation politely (I long ago realized that boldly fighting against them simply stirred them up, and appeals to authority don’t work so well when your tormentors are girls and they are on the surface complimenting you.) It doesn’t help that on some level you wish they were serious too.

    I think perhaps it was their way of either feeling superior, or perhaps it helped them mitigate their own feelings of inadequecy. All I know is that it was probably the most difficult thing about school I went through, and I had no white knight to save me.

    Suffice to say, now whenever a woman compliments me (which isn’t that rare, I’ve filled out my scrawny physique and cleaned myself up) I still sometimes get flashes of that sickly worthless feeling.

  11. says

    intentionally: Harry Turtledove wrote a story called “Crybaby” about just that. I think it’s in his collection called Kaleidescope.

  12. LeeLeeOne says


    You have emulated my parents’ mantra clearly.

    Once a parent, ALWAYS a parent.

    Thank you, PZ. You understand, and I am not alone…

    (BTW: This is re-write #4, everything else seemed so trite. Perhaps my simple thank you will suffice.)

  13. Louise Van Court says

    I know you like to rally your troops with all the religion bashing, but this post shows you really are human underneath. You’ve got emotions too, we are all the same, believers and nonbelievers. You love your wife and children deeply and the eccentric members of your extended family, we can all relate to that. You love the wonders of this earth, so do we. You feel a loss for having unwittingly caused the death of a car chasing dog. Are you working on a memoir?
    I like you better when you are not poking fun at believers. Not that believers don’t do some really stupid things at times and do their fair share of provoking, but bottom line let’s just remember we are all human. There are lots of things we do all have in common. My two cents.

  14. says

    I know you like to rally your troops with all the religion bashing, but this post shows you really are human underneath. You’ve got emotions too, we are all the same, believers and nonbelievers.

    Actually, its all a fake. All non-believers are cold, hard heartless sons of bitches. How can we have emotions with out the love of some floating sky being poised above us with lightning bolts and plaugues and future versions of N’Sync threatening us at all moments?

  15. says

    I agree with Susie! Beautiful writing PZ, that’s one high bar. And thank you for letting us into those moments.

    Mayhap I can enter art in lieu of writing? No? Hmm. I’ll have my eight up by this evening…

  16. says

    It always amazes us when someone listens to us, let alone takes us seriously. If you visit our blog on Fridays, you’ll see why story vi was the toughest one for us to read, but thanks for being human and staying with the dying pooch.

  17. says

    Ah, vignette #4. Been there, done that. It was intensely annoying, especially when it happened in summer camp and involved most of the girls in my group. It was extremely frustrating and depressing; I’ve tried to spin it as something positive in hopes of thinking maybe it was an opportunity I missed, but realistically, considering sane women invariably put me in the friend zone, I know it’s the same thing PZ said it was. Too bad I never had someone like PZ’s wife.

  18. says

    My list of eight wasn’t nearly as interesting as yours.

    Thanks for the tag. It made the hour between doctor’s appointments fly by. :)

  19. Dave H. says

    I thought of vignette IV when reading the comments, and so refrained from commenting myself, to respect your bit of insecurity.

    But I’m selfish, I guess. I’d rather comment that I’d like to read more, as I’m sure many who read this blog would. If you’ve ever the time to write it, I think we’d all appreciate some memoirs from you (as has been said already).

    So much of our current memoirs (and correct if I’m wrong, please) are framed with some vague hat-tip to a higher being, which is just grating when these authors take a last thought to tell us what it all means, or when commentators read this and say ‘see, you’re just like us believers, you have a heart, too.’

    I’d like to see these sentiments further separated from all that (and published), so that my friends, and my father, could see better that it doesn’t take some old dogma to be appreciative of your family or be a good or honest human being. I’m trying to write some of that myself, though I don’t yet have the talent you do. (I had to look up the definition of “pock”.)

    You’re a wonderful writer, and I think you have an opportunity to tug the heart strings of many people–believers and non-believers–with your warm and vivid recollections. Despite the unfortunate memories of junior high school bullies (which I am familiar with, too), I think you should put the touching stuff out there, even without the defensible guards of reason, logic, and science, for all of us who’d appreciate it absent the supernatural mumbo-jumbo.

    But I’m selfish, as you already do so much. Anyway, I just want to say that I sincerely enjoyed reading this post. And I’m not mocking you.

  20. SmellyTerror says

    Pfff. I knew you weren’t the no-talent asshole everyone says you are.

  21. kmiers says

    Well, PZ, you have done it again. You are truly a gifted writer who would do well to pen a tome about just plain old life. You have the knack. Thanks for sharing.

  22. says

    Wowsers. I found the tag and went and scribbled something–only THEN came back to read. Didn’t know yours was actually GOOD!