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Help for the Humor Deprived

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It’s fun to take a joke and build a tasty story around it. That’s what I did for Mother Earth News magazine for a number of years. Your student might enjoy reading these tales but, more importantly, you could challenge him or her to write something similar.

Help for the Humor Deprived

“Hey, Rube, look at that man burning leaves,” I said, squatting to my son’s eye level and pointing to the fire that almost singed an above-ground swimming pool. “What’s wrong with this picture?”

My claim to immortality paused, thought. “He’s too close.”

“What might happen?” I prompted.

“Burn a hole.”

“And…,”

“Water’ll go all over the fire.” Rube chortled and clapped his hands.

“Hey, buddy,” I shouted, “My son likes your fire extinguisher.”

The leaf-burner studied his fire for a moment. Then he grinned. “Actually, I was trying a new way to heat the pool.”

There was a man after my own heart – a man with a sense of humor. And that’s exactly what I wanted to teach my son – to see the funny side of life. I never had any help as a kid. Everything I learned about whimsy, I learned the hard way – on my own. But my son was going to have it easy. I was going to teach him the joy of jokes the way some people teach their children to build a log cabin – step by step.

One of the first lessons was how to size up an audience. We were getting a pre-school physical when the pediatric nurse strapped a blood pressure cuff on my arm to show Rube that it wouldn’t hurt. I took the occasion to rub her wrist. “You’ll have to excuse me,” I said. “I’m just not feeling myself today.”

“Mr. Sandwich,” the nurse sniffed as she pulled herself to the full height of her indignation and marched out of the room.

“Now we know not to waste good jokes on her,” I explained to my son. “She was probably a deprived child. I bet her parents never played a joke on her or asked her riddles or even made puns.” I sighed. “There but for the grace of God go you.”

I remember the first time I encountered comically deprived children. I had just died – as us comedians refer to a joke that bombs – at my friend’s house, in front of his parents and grandparents. It was the old gag about why we put angels on top of Christmas trees. You know the one about Santa being all stressed out because the reindeer had hoof and mouth disease, and the elves were on strike, and Mrs. Claus had the flu when an angel bounced into the toy shop with a Christmas tree and asked, “Where would you like me to stick this, Santa?”

Everyone just stared at me. I quickly added, “So, from that day to this, the angel sits on top of the Christmas tree.”

Nothing.

You can’t blame the kids in that situation. They didn’t know any better. It’s the parent’s responsibility to introduce their children to the finer nuances of humor in our culture. Somebody needs to spend quality time with those kids loosening them up to the possibilities of word play, the surprise of the unexpected; not to mention the joy of a roomful of people groaning in unison.

You can imagine my delight in another class-clown in the making when Rube came home from the first day of school and announced, “It’s a tough house, Dad.”

“And how’s your teacher.”

“Too damned sweet.”

“I prefer that you don’t use that word.”

“Okay. She’s too damned nice.”

My efforts were paying off. But like a good coach, I looked for every opportunity to challenge my star prospect. For example, one day at the beach, a live Barbie doll lay on her see-through air mattress in the shallow water. What caught my eye was the turquoise dog’s leash – I’m serious now, humor is not a laughing matter – that trailed from her hand straight into the lake. I nudged Rube and rolled my eyes at the floating princess.

“What’s wrong with this picture?”

“She’s probably using it like an anchor rope, tied to a rock or something,” he offered.

“Come on, you can do better than that,” I coaxed.

Rube’s eyes started to dance. “Maybe she’s taking her catfish for a walk?”

I shrugged. “Not bad. Try again.”

Rube looked at me, grinned.

“Go for it.”

“Excuse me, lady,” my son said. “In case you didn’t realize… your dog’s been underwater for a long time.”

Some months later shopping for Christmas ornaments, my son and I priced a set of colored lights.

“Let’s see,” I calculated, “$9.95 plus six percent for tax brings it to…”

“Tacks?” Rube inquired. “What do you need tacks for? Don’t you just loop the lights over the branches?”

I stopped. Studied my son. “Tax, as in income tax. Only this is a sales…” That’s when I caught the corner of his mouth twitching. He got me. He had me going. For a person who sees life as a stage and every person out there as an audience, you have to admit my son did me proud. He’s got the eye, the timing – whatever you want to call it.

When it was our turn at the register, the clerk checked my ID.

“James Sandwich,” he read aloud. “Interesting name. Ever think of working in a deli?”

I grimaced. How rude – taking liberties with my name.

“And what’s your son’s name? Ham? Ham Sandwich?”

“No,” Rube replied, “my name’s Reuben…”

My son stopped. Stared at me for a long time. He hasn’t told a joke since. And he was coming along so fine

City Food/Country Food

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City Food /Country Food

Danny studied the fruit and vegetables laid out on the planks of a make-shift roadside stand. He glanced at the money box with the ‘thank you’ card taped on its side and the stack of reuseable bags next to it. Then he made a bee-line back to my car, slammed the doors and turned up the radio. What’s happening here, I wondered?

Danny’s my grandson. Once in a while I like to spend the day with him, get him away from his inner-city neighborhood. Our ride in the country was going fine until I stopped for fruit.

“Here. Have some cherries,” I offered as we drove away.

Danny took one look at the crumpled bag of sweet black cherries I had just bought. “No way,” he said. “You don’t know where those came from. Besides, what kind of people leave food out in front of their house and expect you to pay for it – on your honor?”

We rode in silence for a while. I knew that if I kept quiet, he would eventually tell me what was on his mind.

Finally, Danny opened up. “That’s not how fruit is supposed to look. Fruit’s supposed to come in those little trays with plastic over it and a tag that tells what it is and how much it costs. Then you take it to the check-out and you pay and they give you a receipt. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

“What about bananas?” I asked. “They don’t come in bags or trays?”

My sharp grandson thought for a moment. “Well, that’s different. Some of the fruit have labels to let you know they’re cool. Like the little tag they sew on jeans. Designer fruit, that’s what I’m talking about. And some of them – the oranges and the grapefruits – they’re tough. They got their own tattoos. And if they don’t have a special tag, well, at least they look shiny and clean, stacked up all neat.”

Danny paused. “That’s a job I’d like to have.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Making designer labels for fruit and vegetables.”

I could tell he was on a roll.

“Here’s what I would do. First you got to get down to their level. Put yourself in their place. Take a potato. Potatoes are low. You don’t get much lower than potatoes. Now, wouldn’t it make you feel great if some guy slapped a slick sticker on your head that said ’Grade A Select’? And then he stacked you in a pile with the rest of the best. See, that could be satisfying work.”

I loved it when he took off on an idea.

“Now, strawberries and blueberries – that could be hard. I mean, I could design a great sticker. But it would take too long to put each one on.”

Danny licked his lips, hands waving. “And then, if I really got into it, I could make little instruction labels – like for a banana – that said things like Open Other End. And maybe I could add in a recipe for banana nut bread and like that. And maybe throw in a bar code thingy if the managers wanted it.”

I laughed. “Well, all I can say is, it’s not that complicated for farmers. See, if a farmer saw a worm hole in an apple, he would cut around it or make cider with it. Farmer’s aren’t star-struck by fruit – waxing and stacking them in pyramids – not unless they wanted to sell them to city folk. For themselves, they work around blemishes. Food is food, plain and simple.”

Danny cut a glance at me and shook his head.

I wanted him to understand. So I told him this story.

“It seems there was a reporter for the National Inquirer cruising the country roads in pursuit of a story when he spotted a pig with a wooden leg in a farm yard.

Now there’s got to be a good story behind that pig’s leg, the reporter thought to himself.

‘So, tell me about this porker,’ he asked the farmer’s wife.

‘Oh, that pig is a real hero in these parts. Last winter, when we had a fire in the house, the pig woke us all up. When we got outside and realized that grandma was still inside, the pig went in and got her. Dragged her out by the night-shirt. Yessir, saved our lives that pig did.’

‘Yeah, but why does it have a wooden leg?’ the reporter asked.

‘Tell him about this spring, honey,’ the wife asked her husband.

‘This spring when I was plowing the east 40,’ the farmer explained. ‘My tractor tipped and pinned me in a drainage ditch. My face was under water. That pig stuck its snout under my chin and kept me from drowning. Saved my life, he did.’

‘Yeah, but why does it have a wooden leg?’ the reporter insisted.

‘Why, son,’ the wife explained in a matter of fact tone, ‘a pig like that, you don’t want to eat all at once.’

I checked Danny for his reaction.

“Oh, that’s cold, man,” he replied.

When we stopped for gas and Danny went inside to buy gum, I poured the cherries from the paper ‘farmer’s’ bag into a plastic ‘grocery produce’ bag left over from luncheon pears. On the way home, I offered Danny some cherries. This time he accepted without question, munching and spitting pits out the window while we talked over plans for our next outing.

Pack Rat

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Pack Rat

Being a long-term married man, I felt compelled to sing the praises of financial planning to my fancy-free bachelor brother. In fact, I was just about to unload some free advice about TSAs when he goosed his newly acquired, twenty- year-old VW bus up to freeway speed. Bits of cardboard and other debris, suspiciously similar to mouse droppings, came flying out of the dash. We could have used windshield wipers on the inside to swat away the blizzard of flotsam swirling around our heads and shoulders. “Mice,” Zygot explained. “The previous owner shouldn’t have left it in the woods all those years.”

That’s my brother for you. He has a penchant for retrieving failed, all but useless, cars and appliances and trying to prolong their lives the way some people pick up stray cats.

Before there were garage sales, he used to comb neighborhood alleys looking for scraps and thoughtlessly cast-off fragments of other people’s lives. We called him an alley picker. He didn’t care.

When Zyg filled our garage with junk, my father, in an effort to find some professionally redeeming value in my brother’s innate proclivities, took him to a junk yard.

“That,” Dad said, pointing to computers with databases and numbered parts in labeled bins, “is how you should do it. It doesn’t do any good to stash things if you can never retrieve them when you want them.”

Zyg, underwhelmed, even turned down an offer for summer internship in reclamation management by the junkyard owner.

No, my brother had his standards. Like the symbolic mathematicians who revel in the absolute, non-utilitarian nature of their chosen profession, my sibling collected trash for its own sake. Retrieval and recycle were not even on his radar screen.

In fact, he actually wears a rusted bottle cap on an old string around his neck in memory of his senior field trip to a zoo outside Tucson – a pivotal moment in his self-definition. It seems there was an underground exhibit to demonstrate life under the desert. Zyg was speechless in front of the pack rat diorama. He had found his totem. His kindred spirit in the animal world. While his classmates bought souvenirs at the gift shop, my brother scavenged through the trash cans till he found just the right bottle cap and a shredded piece of string for his amulet to the gods of hunting and gathering and gathering and gathering.

So, here I was, spitting bits of cardboard and studying the boat Zyg had turtled on the van roof for our day of brotherly bonding and fishing. I watched the bow wiggle and bounce above the windhield. It actually looked shiny and unused.

“I finally took your advice,” he announced through teeth clenched against the next mouse-nest blizzard as he accelerated to pass. “I went to the Odd Lots store and actually bought a new boat.”

“Hey, great!” I exclaimed hoping to encourage any signs of moving up the chain of manufacturing from obsolete to new. “How much did you pay for it?”

“$99.00.”

“Uhmmm. That’s quite a bargain,” I observed.

“Well, I had been eyeing it for three months. It looked so lonely sitting in the corner of the store. When it was marked down for the last time, I finally decided to pick it up.”

This seemed like as good a time as any to segue into my financial planning lecture. But as I watched my brother swat nesting material from the air, from his hair, from his clothes, I quickly ratcheted down from the value of 401Ks to Certificates of Saving, to a simple savings account. Maybe I could leverage his need to stockpile into at least some form of savings. I was just about to broach the broad subject when we approached the public landing to our favorite lake.

“Oh, and while we’re fishing,” Zyg offered, “I plan to leave a cup of milk under the dash to lure out the snake that I think is hiding in there.”

“Ahh, you did say you found this van in the woods?”

“Yep,” Zyg smiled with the righteous self-satisfaction of a back-packer saving an injured bird. “Abandoned. But I got it running again.”

“And how might you have arrived at the conclusion that a snake inhabited the dash – along with the mice?” I gingerly inquired, curling my ankles under my butt.

“There was this hissing sound any time I tried to change the radio from an NPR station.”

“Milk sounds like a good plan,” I replied. “You wouldn’t want to have a strange critter crawl up your leg while you were driving 70 mph.”

“Well, not without knowing what kind of snake it was. It could be deadly.”

“Indeed,” I concurred. “But, back to the subject of your new boat. The question does come to mind,” I gently prodded, “why no one else saw fit to snatch up this bargain.”

“Oh, that’s easy,” Zyg explained. “Its an irregular.”

He uncharacteristically picked up on my open-jawed incredulity.

“Oh don’t worry. It’s just a couple of misplaced rivets – above the waterline.”

Nevermind long term savings. “You didn’t happen to think to bring a pack of gum along,” I suggested, “just in case we spring a leak in twenty feet of water.”

“Good idea,” Zyg concurred, patting his chest and pockets for a stick of gum. “I don’t seem to have any on me. But wait a minute,” he smiled, reaching under his seat, ”there’s probably some stuck under here.”

He doesn’t deserve savings, the squirrel.

Vermicelli and Vermiculture

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Vermicelli and Vermiculture

“Have some more vermicelli,” my godmother offered, forking a huge serving of pasta over my plate.

“Did you know that vermicelli, in Italian, refers to worms?” Uncle Tony asked.

I shook my head – no, I didn’t.

I like eating at their house. Between my aunt’s background in psychology and uncle Tony’s in cultural anthropology, dinner is always entertaining as well as filling.

“Yep,” he said staring at his plate of tangled noodles. “I don’t know where they got the idea.”

“Tony. Please,” Aunt Josie pleaded, “we’re eating here,”

“That reminds me,” I said. “I have to do a science-fair project on vermiculture. But I’m having trouble getting started.”

“Do it on worm psychology,” my aunt suggested, passing the breaded eggplant.

“Worms have feelings?” Uncle Tony asked.

“It stands to reason, Anthony,” my aunt replied, cutting her dancing dark eyes my way. “Wouldn’t you feel inferior if everyone looked down on you? Feel downtrodden when people walked all over your home?”

“I suppose,” he agreed. “I just can’t picture worms going to a shrink. Can’t you just see little signs all over the lawn?  Doctor is in, 5 cents. Drop-ins welcome.”

“Are you done?” my aunt asked sarcastically, pushing some artichoke frittata my way.

“I see where you’re going, Aunt. Being hermaphrodites, worms probably have a lot of gender issues to work out.”

“Maybe just the opposite. Think about it. As both a man and a woman, worms don’t have to be afraid to crawl out alone at night. No glass floor to worry about. Unisex bathrooms. No need for rainbow marches. Equal responsibility for safe sex.”

“So, maybe worms don’t need vermicologists with their little hole-in-the-ground offices, after all,” Tony cracked.

Aunt Josie stared at her husband for a long moment. “Why don’t you fellows go in the den while I clear off the dishes. We can have coffee out there.”

“The important thing,” my Uncle Anthony declared, sprawling into his easy chair, “is to find an interesting angle.”

“Like?”

“My favorite is to try to figure out how the first person came up with an idea – like fermentation.”

I nodded – go on.

“I picture a cavewife dragging home a big pile of grapes. She dumps them in the middle of the floor. Everyone digs in. Neighbors, babies stomp all around. A few days later, the cavehusband is hungry, thirsty. He scrounges around – like you in our fridge – looking for food. He spots some squashed grapes. They smell a little funny. But like I say, he’s hungry. He gets a buzz. The next year he starts the second annual wine and harvest festival.”

“You want some cannoli with your coffee?” my aunt calls from the kitchen.

I held my stomach and rolled my eyes.

“Leave the kid alone, Josie,” Uncle Tony replied for me. “He’s full. Where were we?”

“Cavemen.”

Yeah, that’s right. What about clothes? How did clothes get started?”

“You tell me.”

“Okay. This prehistoric hunter carries a deer home in a snowstorm. He slings the animal off his back and realizes he’s cold all over except where the animal was. Now he doesn’t want to put it in the pot and everyone wants a turn keeping warm. They extrapolate to other food – experiment a little – chickens, porcupines, fish. A few generations later another budding Einstein with a sensitive nose figures out that you don’t have to carry the whole animal, you can just use the skin. Ta-da! clothes are invented.”

“But what does this have to do with my vermiculture project?” I asked.

“Explain how it got started.”

“But I don’t know how it happened.”

“So who does?”

“You have to try the cannoli,” Aunt Josie insisted, swooping a tray of dessert onto the coffee table .

“Use your imagination,” Uncle Tony prompted. “Go ahead.”

I scooted forward on the couch, elbows on my knees. “Let’s see. It probably started with a guy who sold worms to fishermen out of his garage. And he had a wife, like Aunt Josie, who kept telling their only son – EAT! EAT! EAT!”

“Yeah. Yeah. That’s good.” uncle Tony chimed in. “And the kid didn’t have a dog to feed under the table, so he ends up burying all the extra food in the worm box in the bait store where he works after supper.”

“After a while,” I add, picking up the narrative, “when fishermen come back to the store complaining about a chicken wing they found in the bait container or a chunk of store bought cookie he figures that worms are vegetarians and their sweet tooth does not include bake goods with preservatives. Pretty soon the worms multiply faster than he can sell them. So he starts using his mother’s house plants.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Aunt Josephine interrupts, “I don’t follow…”

“Stay with the kid, Josie,” my uncle implores and then explains in a teacher’s voice. “House plants are in pots. Pots have dirt. Worms like dirt.”

“So, after a while,” I continue, “the mother notices that her asparagus fern is growing out the door. Her Wandering Jew is wandering all over the house. She makes the connection. Worm poop is good fertilizer.”

“Castings,” Aunt Josie corrects. “Not poop. Castings.”

“Don’t get technical on us,” Uncle Tony interjects. “We’re hypothesizing here.”

“But,” I broke in, “I need to get technical. This is a science project, after all.”

“So get technical. Who’s stopping you. Compare and contrast red worms and night crawlers. Learn the names – esinia foetida, crawlerensis nocturnus – who knows. Make a chart of all the nutrients they put back into the soil – the nitrogen, the calcium, magnesium – whatever. Back to the story.”

“So the couple now have a booming bait shop and nursery.”

“Which,” uncle Tony shouts, “they called The Bait Casting Center – we got you covered rowing or growing.”

Aunt Josie shook her head in mock disgust and headed for the kitchen. “I’m going to wrap up some left over vermicelli to take for your mother.”

I groaned.

Uncle Tony flicked his hand – Go! Go!

Living in the Moment

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Living in the Moment

 

“Why did they take the color out?” Jeremy asked, pointing to a black and white snap shot of his grandfather and grandmother on their honeymoon.

I closed the album, leaned back in the porch swing and looked across at our ‘baby’ expecting a sardonic grin. Hey, when you’ve raised three teenagers, you come to expect a little mouth. But Jeremy was dead serious.

“For the same reason they took the sound out of Charlie Chaplin movies,” I replied sarcastically.

Again, innocent inquiry played across my son’s face. He wasn’t smarting off.

“Color film hadn’t been invented yet,” I finally blurted out.

My son stared at the floor, his face screwed into a puzzled expression as I imagined him trying to grasp a world of black and white photos and movies without sound.

I tried to explain. “Think if you had a small computer that you could hold in your hand and it was a book. Then your son, like twenty years from now, looks at a regular paper book and says, why didn’t they just scan this into …”

“They already got that, Pa. You can download books into readers.”

“Okay. Okay.” I tried again. “What if this hypothetical kid of yours wants to know why we were so dumb as to try to record everything on hand-held camcorders when we could have had cameras all over the house and recorded everything 24/7?”

“They got that too, Pa. On the Internet. It’s called reality TV.”

I must be getting old, I used to be able to stay ahead of my kids but now I can’t even keep up. “Reality TV? You mean people sit and watch other people doing – everything?”

“Yeah. It’s kind of neat. You get to see this married couple walking around the house. Getting dinner. Cleaning.”

“You need the Internet for this? You watch your mother clean house all the time as it is.”

“Well, you learn things, you know. How other people talk. How they cook. What they eat.”

“You get too nosey – you find out things you wish you hadn’t. Take Neil Armstrong for instance.”

Jeremy rolled his eyes – a story was coming.

“You know that when he stepped on the moon, he said, ‘One small step for man, one large step for mankind.’”

Jeremy nodded, resigned.

“But not many people know he mumbled something else right after that. A reporter played back a tape recording and asked Armstrong what he meant when he said ‘This is for you Mr. Grabowski – bon appetit!’ Well, it turns out that when he was a boy, Neil used to play under the neighbors bedroom window and one morning he heard Mr. Grabowski say, ‘Honey, while you’re up, would you bring me a cup of coffee and maybe a piece of toast?’ Mrs. Grabowski shouted back, ‘When they put a man on the moon, that’s when I’ll bring you breakfast in bed!’”

My son groaned. That’s all I ever asked for from any of my kids – a moan of appreciation for a story well told. Then he defended himself. “Reality TV is more than just watching other people, Pa. It’s about noticing what’s happening every second of our lives. My school counselor says it’s about living in the moment, about learning to experience the here and now.”

“Counselors have to tell teenagers to enjoy themselves in the present without worrying about the future? That’s preaching to the saved. That’s how you define teenager, for crying out loud.”

“C’mon Pa. Just because it’s new to you doesn’t mean it’s bad. Or just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s good.”

I always like this point in raising kids when they start lecturing me. It makes me feel like I’ve done a good job of teaching them to think on their own, to stand up for their own opinions. They’re almost ready to leave the nest.

“Take your duck tail hair style,” Jeremy said. “Just because it was cool in the fifties doesn’t mean it’s cool anymore.”

“Hey,” I interjected, reaching for my comb in the back pocket of my jeans. “Leave my duck tail out of this. We’re talking Marlon Brando, here.  On the Waterfront. Now that was a great black and white movie. Gritty. Dark shadows.”

“I wonder what it would look like in color.”

“Thank god they can’t change that.”

“Uhm, Pop. They can colorize old movies.”

“Oh man, next thing you know they’ll be showing the Wizard of Oz in color.”

My son opened his mouth to say something, then stopped. Looking at his wrist watch, he frowned, tapped it a couple of times, stood up. “My watch stopped. Can I have a couple of bucks for a new battery?”

“Why don’t you just wear my old wind up Bulova. It might give you something to do besides watching strangers brush their teeth.”

“Does that mean I have to roll up my T-shirt sleeve to hold a pack of cigarettes? Jimmy Dean. Rebel Without a Cause.”

Jeremy scampered down the porch steps and gave me a quick smile over his shoulder. Gotcha!

Hot House Shanty

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Hothouse Shanty

“Hey, Ernold I see you’ve hung curtains in your see-through shanty,” my buddy, Clutch, called from the pool table.

They weren’t curtains. They were vertical blinds. But I was sure the distinction would escape all the Grotty’s Tavern regulars staring at me open mouthed, expectantly awaiting my reply.

“Maybe you’ve got a Laz-y-boy in there too,” Clutch plowed on. “Some doilies on the end table – hmmm?”

How could I explain to a whole room full of flannel-shirted fisherman how I came to use my wife’s catalogue-ordered hothouse for my ice fishing shanty.

It started one Saturday afternoon, my blue fingers trying to suck warmth and color from a bowl of steaming chili. The final score for a morning on the windswept ice in front of our home: Fish 0, Frostbite 20.

“Honeeey,” my wife, Mudge (short for Magenta), called in her I’ve-got-a-project-for-you voice. “Where’s the best place for my greenhouse to get the most sun?”

If you know my wife, that’s not really a question. She’s looking for buy-in. She knows she needs me for assembling and lifting and hauling – all that. And she would just as soon I did it with a happy heart.

Ha! My interest in her project, at that moment, matched the tingling and burning in my thawing extremities. “Whyn’t you stick it right out on the ice in the middle of the goldarn lake. No shadows out there.”

“What a great suggestion. Thank you, dear.”

Four hours later, I stared out our frontroom window at the newest addition to Mudge’s gardening domain. A fisherman emerged from his windowless shanty blinking in the bright light before dragging his sled homeward. He stopped in front of the metal frame structure, late afternoon sun pouring through the clear plastic cover, and studied the architectural anomaly that had magically sprung up while he was cocooned in his outhouse on skids.

Inspiration!

“Mudge,” I called sweetly (I needed to change my tune about this project). “You know how I get all grouchy in the winter?”

“That’s SADD.”
“Sure is.”

“No, it’s Sunlight Affect Deficiency something,” Mudge corrected.

“Whatever. I was thinking maybe I could use your hothouse to catch a few rays on the weekend. Who knows, I might be more cheerful around here if I spent more time in the sun.”

“Certainly, dear. How thoughtful of you,” Mudge remarked as she paused on her way to the basement with a bucket of kitchen scraps for our vermiculture box.

Another inspiration. “And by the way, why don’t I just keep the worms right out there with me? That way I can keep an eye on them.”

The next day I trudged out to my snowbound tanning salon. Pushing aside packets of Salvia Officinalis and Lavatera Trimestris and who-knows-what-all seeds and trays and starter soil, I slid the worm box next to my lawnchair. Then I stripped down to my shorts (for appearances sake) and dangled a line through an unobtrusive hole in the floor.

Angry footsteps scrunch, scrunch, scrunched across the ice.

“I saw that,” Mudge announced, yanking the door open. Goose bumps ran up and down my naked limbs in response to the blast of chill air and my first nibble of the day. “You’re fishing.”

“Wait and see,” I backpedaled. “I’ll be a different person this winter – a little sunshine, a little fishing.”

“That’s not why I bought this greenhouse, Ernold,” Mudge persisted, oblivious to my tightly reasoned rationale for co-opting her oversized cold-frame. “I need to get my Dame’s Rocket on its way, not to mention my Dipogon Lablab and Gomphrena Globosa.”

So, in case you’re wondering, that’s how I got around to hanging the vertical blinds. A man needs some privacy when he’s fishing. I mean, what’s the good of getting out of the house if you’re going to leave yourself open to constant scrutiny. Defeats the purpose, if you see what I mean. Finally, after some negotiating around watering, thinning sprouts and harvesting vermicompost, I was able to hang the blinds on the side facing the house.

A couple of Saturdays later, following an especially warm and sunny week, I slogged through ankle deep slush to my tanning/shanty/nursery looking forward to a morning of sun and surf. As I got closer, I paused, squatted, not sure of what I was seeing. Worms floating in space? Inside, icy water threatened to swamp my boot tops. A jumbo perch swam around with his mouth open, gobbling up redworms as they floated over the top of our worm box. We were chumming the lake with our vermicomposters. A slabby bluegill snatched himself a wriggling treat. My shanty had become an aquarium, a scaled-down Sea World. A chunky sunfish brunched on our esinia foetida. How could this have happened? Is this what they mean by the ‘greenhouse effect’? What would I tell Mudge? The basement of her hothouse had flooded? Fish swam up the drain? After a moment’s thought, I did the only sensible thing I could do. I grabbed my fishing net and a camera.

Back at Grotty’s, I didn’t bother to dignify Clutch’s taunts with a response. I simply passed around a photo of thirty two monster sunfish and seven perch resting in a bed of fresh snow.

Awestruck, Clutch asked, “What’s your secret?”.

“Peas,” I replied to the suddenly quiet crowd in the tavern.

“Canned or frozen?” Clutch asked.

“I prefer canned. But frozen works too.”

Clutch gestured anxiously – and?

“Well, I put three or four around the ice hole…”

“Yeah?”

“…and when the fish comes up to take a pea, I grab him.”