“I’m coming down to you,” shouted Sam, though how he hoped to help in that way he could not have said.
“No, no! wait!” Frodo called back, more strongly now. “I shall be better soon. I feel better already.”
—The Lord of the Rings
My mom was coming over the mountains to work her magic with bottles of supplements and strange machines cobbled together by my loving grandpa and there was only one way to stop her: kill Sauron. That motherfucker had wrecked me, then told my mom I was sick. He’d also convinced her to leave Orthanc, travel across the Dead Marshes, climb the stairs of Cirith Ungol and bug the shit out of Shelob and I with vitamins and voodoo magic. How had he told her? Did they both have palantirs? Fuck.
My body was working in reverse and the black death shit I’d been throwing up was no doubt half digested food sent back up the pipe by crap golems animated with Sauron’s dark magic. Crap golems were mighty foes but Ex-Lax could destroy them, right? It was worth a shot so I steeled my resolve for another trek to the grocery store. The clerks who had seen me drop my basket full of potions were probably still there so I grabbed Life Lesson No. 1: Anything Can Be Cool and put on some clothes.
I was halfway to the shady block where my car was parked when Sauron attacked again. Fortunately, I had a new weapon: Winnie the Pooh’s Tummy Full O’ Honey Belly Rub. With one hand I held my jeans up, and with the other I massaged my beleaguered guts. The spot where Sauron and the crap golems laired was on the right near my waist, next to that line girls loved so much. I pushed down and rubbed for a few seconds and, sure enough, a gurgle sounded. Something released and the knife-like pain went away. A little Ex-Lax, another century or two in the shower and there would be no need for my mom to drive over the mountains. We, I mean I, would be better soon.
I drove to the grocery store and parked in the handicapped spot by the entrance on the side of the store where the medicine was. Exhausted, I sat and contemplated my next move. The last trip had been a disaster, but I had learned. This time would be different. I already had a fridge full of healing potions and this time I would not get distracted. There were some variables to consider, though.
Natural gurgles were better than tummy-rubbers because there was more time in between flare ups, but you had to endure a ton of pain to get one. Should I sit in my car and wait for the cycle to run its course or rush inside and medicate with my new technique? Unbidden, my mind came up with a nightmare scenario. What if some handicapped chick pulled into the parking lot while we, I mean I, was inside? Gollum! And what if she was hoping to buy some Pepto for her baby who was sick with cholera infantum and because I, I mean we, were parked in the closest spot her kid died? I had done some pretty awful things in my time, but killing a baby was not one of them. I got out of the car as quickly as I could and shuffled into the store.
The store was extra busy, a veritable cavalcade of Denver’s finest. I focused on finding the Ex-Lax while dodging hipsters and lesbians, terrified I’d switch to autopilot and end up on the wrong aisle. That winter I’d eaten an Olympic-sized swimming pool’s worth of spaghetti and green beans and I knew there was a 50/50 chance I’d get distracted by some old lady with an orange mohawk and wander down the pasta aisle without thinking.
Aisle 14, aisle 14, aisle 14.
There is no way a Shih Tzu is a service dog.
Aisle 14, aisle 14.
I wonder if I’d look good in those shorts. Probably, but everyone already thinks I’m gay and now I look like I’m dying of AIDS.
Aisle 14, aisl—why does aisle start with ‘A’? We have bureaucracies governing everything except language, the one thing that could use a little regulation. Doesn’t Argentina have protocols set by a council, or was that the Spanish language as a whole? I think Borges wrote about it in one of his essays or did I hear about it from one of my Spanish professors?
My mind had started wandering, autopilot was just around the corner, this could have proved disastrous but Robbie texted me from South America. Robbie was my best friend and he’d been gone since January, gallivanting through Latin countries and showing off his newly acquired Spanish skills. I didn’t have time to message him back, but his text snapped me out of my digression. Strange that he had sent it while I was thinking about Argentina. Was this what Carl Jung referred to as synchronicity? Tiny Carl Jung was one of my favorite characters from the web comic Dres…
Unbelievably, I made it to the medicine aisle without getting lost. We, I mean I, found the Ex-Lax and saw that the box read “maximum strength.” That was good. Maximum strength was good. I shuffled toward the checkout stands. Three were open, but there were people with carts full of groceries standing in front of each one. I wondered if it was more dangerous to shuffle across the store to the self-checkouts where the line moved quicker or stand in line for an extended amount of time. I was exhausted from my Pepto trip and pretty sure that shuffles gave Sauron power, but time was of the essence. As I limped along, I read the dosing instructions then broke open the box and swallowed two pills. I felt them grate painfully down my shriveled throat. It was the closet thing to food I had eaten in three days. The pain in my gut flared. I switched the box to the other hand so I could hold up my pants and tummy rub another gurgle. Next thing I knew I was at the self-checkouts. Autopilot had kicked in and chosen for me.
As the three blessed Fates would have it, the self-checkout cashier who had been running things when I collapsed was still there. He no doubt remembered the skinny wraith who had dropped a basket full of juices. I didn’t want to look at him, but instead of turning around I stared in his direction and waved the box of Ex-Lax in friendly greeting, “Back for round two!”
I had this thing about fear. If something terrified me, I attacked it. I was in an awkward situation but there was no way I was going to let Sauron embarrass me into cowering at a checkout stand. He had taken my Precious and wrecked my guts but I was still a proud bastard with everything to lose. It would be more than a month before that mother fucker destroyed my mind, body, friendships, finances and pride; and longer than that before I understood what he’d meant when he told me he wanted to live.
The cashier returned my gesture with a nod, but whether this was a knowing nod or common decency, I could not tell. I purchased the Ex-Lax, exited the store, shuffled across the parking lot and climbed, breathlessly, into my car. I was sweating and spent. It made me laugh.
Life Lesson No. 2
All Humor Is Dark Humor
I got this from Heinlein and it holds up. I used to think there was one exception, but Jordan set me straight. The gist of the argument is that at the core of every joke, prank or hilarious YouTube clip is a painful or negative circumstance. Dude gets kicked in the balls and we erupt in laughter; a terrified cat screams, “No! No! No!” and 100 billion people watch the clip. Humor is our response to tragedy and the absurd. This is unique to the human experience, animals don’t laugh, just ask Marcus, he’ll tell you those hyenas are just trying to get laid. Humor is the way humans come to terms with a vast, dark universe.
Who is Marcus and why should you believe him? Marcus is my friend and he knows more about animals than anyone on the planet. Right now he’s trying to build a zoo in Grand Junction, bringing creatures to the mall so kids can flip out while he talks to their parents about the importance of lizards and parakeets. Marcus is amazing. Stories about his faunal knowledge have been told again and again at parties, over coffee and on first dates by everyone who knows him. One of my favorites was passed down to me from Nate Klein-Deters, the invincible weapon who will soon save my life. This story gets dark. This story gets shitty. This story almost ends in eight days with our hero committing suicide, but a text from Nate stays his hand.
I’m writing these words on a laptop at 42,000 feet sandwiched between a Coloradan and a New Yorker. It is July 10 and I am returning from a vacation in The Big Apple. In chapter one I weigh 165 lbs. Before this shit show ends, I lose 35 of them, 21 percent of my body weight. As of this writing, I have gained 10 lbs back and now wrestle at a sun tanned buck forty. This story is painful, it is tragic, it is hilarious. You’re reading it now. Are you enjoying yourself? Know that this tree grew from a mound of shit and dead things, but that’s not the lesson. The lesson is that every tree grows from a mound of shit and dead things. Let me explain.
This one time Marcus and Nate were riding mountain bikes on one of the world famous trails of Colorado’s Western Slope. It was getting on towards dusk, or the weather was a little less than perfect – the reason it was cold depended on who was telling the story – but it was chilly; the kind of weather cold blooded creatures tried to avoid.
They were zipping along with Marcus in the lead when he slammed on his brakes, threw down his bike and ran past Nate. Confused, Nate slowed to a halt, dismounted and turned to see what Marcus was doing. Marcus jumped over a spiky plant and lightning-quick grabbed something off the ground. He turned and began running back towards Nate with an enormous bull snake in his hand.
“Open your back pack,” Marcus cried.
“What? Why?” said Nate, backing away in fear.
“This snake is sick and needs to get warm or he’ll die!”
Not only had Marcus seen the snake in the brush, he knew what kind it was and that it was sick. He saw this while riding his mountain bike at top speed along a rocky trail. He also knew a guy with a house full of terrariums who could nurse it back to health.
“We’ve got to head back to the car and get him,” he checked the snake’s belly, “I mean her, to Grey’s.”
“Don’t put that thing in my bag, it’s disgusting!” Nate said, more confused than angry.
“Dude, we can’t carry it back to the car.”
“We’re not going back to the car,” Nate said. “The bike ride’s not over.”
“Then I guess you’re pedaling home.”
“What!?” said Nate. “We’re almost in Loma!”
“Then you’d better call your brother so he can come pick you up.”
Marcus put on the squirmy backpack and started pedaling for his car. For a moment Nate stared at him, then sighed and climbed onto his bike.
“Alright,” said Nate. “But you’re buying me a new backpack.”
I love that story. I tell it every time I see a snake. It never fails to get a laugh. The details are wrong, the story has grown in the telling, but that doesn’t matter. After the two friends involved read my version they told me that Nate was more than compliant and the back pack was Marcus’, but I am a poet and find what could have or should have happened more interesting than what actually did. Accuracy comes hard for me which is why I invented the poetic and scientific numbering systems, which is why I’m telling you the truth about Marcus’ snake story. As the years passed and I told and re told the tale I seasoned it to perfection. It was no longer true. Or it was truer than true, if you take my meaning. Even Marcus and Nate can’t agree on the details and they were there. Reality is perception and I have given you mine. The facts don’t matter, they conflict with the larger point. The larger point is this: would the story be funny if Nate wasn’t confused and grossed out? What if there hadn’t been a sick snake and the two had finished their ride and driven home? That story would go something like this.
“So I had these friends, right?”
“And they went for a bike ride near Moab.”
“And when they finished they got into their car and drove home.”
“Wasn’t that hilarious!?”
“Correct, I was testing you. You got an ‘A.’”
“You don’t seem excited.”
“Well yeah, I didn’t do anything. Your ‘A’ is meaningless.”
“That’s a Life Lesson for another time, right now I’m proving that All Humor Is Dark Humor. Are you convinced?”
Some of you are and some of you aren’t. When I make this argument people inevitably try to come up with a scenario that does not fit my mold. The only person to do so is Angie. When I make this case to her she counters with a story about her daughter. She says that sometimes when she looks at her baby she gets so happy it bursts out of her in laughter. I know what she’s talking about, I’ve had similar experiences from time to time. For years I thought Angie was right and Heinlein was wrong; that the life lesson was All Humor Is Dark Humor Except When You Look Into Your Child’s Eyes And Are Filled To Bursting With Joy. Until Jordan read this chapter. He pointed out that what Angie feels when looking at her child is joy and that joy, while wonderful, is different from humor. Humor is a very human way of dealing with a cold, dark universe, it is our response to the tragic and absurd. All humor is dark humor. For years I thought there was an exception, now I know there is not. Jordan gets my pages early for a reason.
So dark implies light, good defines evil, death sustains life and pain brings us joy. This story exists because I am going through some nasty, life altering shit and the reason you continue to read is because you’re getting something out of it too. We are both pots in the kiln crying out to our maker, screaming, “Why, God, why?” Not understanding that the thing we hate is the very thing we need.
Right now sickness is taking my body and the meds the doctors prescribed to fight it are ravaging my mind, but the knowledge that people are out there laughing at and learning from my mistakes fills me with joy. Sauron cannot take this happiness. In fact it would not exist had he not tried to destroy me. Like a comedian I am crafting joy from tragedy. Like a potter I am sculpting vessels out of mud.
We begin this life as lumps of clay, little babies at the bottom of a river. The potter dredges us up from our peaceful slumber then pounds us into workable order. He dries us until we are too thirsty to fight, then burns us in the flames of inequity and strife. The universal constant is pain, but from it bursts a well spring of hope, joy and laughter. The comedian is not a charlatan or buffoon. He is not the least among us, but the greatest, for only he knows that at the core of every painful or awkward moment is a masterpiece waiting to be found. All Humor Is Dark Humor is not a celebration of the macabre, but an acknowledgment that there is good in everything. When you truly understand this you will be invincible.
Back to the story.
I sat in my car, laughing at my ridiculous situation. I thought about the imaginary handicapped mother with her sickly child at home and shook my head at the absurdity of it all. Life was a tight rope stretched across a pool filled with lava and sharks. No one made it across, but each man’s attempt was entertaining. I put my car in reverse and pulled out of the parking lot.
Once home I took off my clothes and climbed back into the shower. The warm water washed over me as I rubbed Middle Intestines and waited for the Ex-Lax to do its thing. Hours turned to days then weeks rolled into months. I blessed my landlords for buying the industrial grade water heater and let my skin absorb an infinite number molecules. Gradually something changed. The frequency of the stabbing pains decreased and I became an expert at tummy rubbing them into innocuous gurgles. Eventually I climbed out of the shower and sloshed through black death shit, past green splatters, then pink. I put on a podcast and climbed into bed. Over the course of the last three days I had burned through my backlog of Adam Carolla and gone in search of other audible amusement. A blog directed me to The Tobolowsky Files. I had listened to an episode and enjoyed it greatly. The next one blew my mind. I sat there rubbing my stomach and listened to him tell a story about his horse. It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever heard.
My cell phone played the super hero series of beeps that signaled a text message. I checked it. It was Nate Klein-Deters, the guy who lent his back pack to the bull snake, the guy who, in 8 scientific days, would save my life. He was asking if we were gaming this week.
On Wednesday nights my friends and I got together to roll 20 sided dice and pretend to be elves, dwarves and halflings. The game was called Dungeons and Dragons and it was fantastic. I texted back that I was sick and couldn’t make it. He was worried and responded: Still?
On May 12, the night the Nuggets lost to the Lakers, I had already cancelled two consecutive gaming sessions due to illness. This made it three. On those previous nights I hadn’t been throwing up coffee ground colored blood, but I had been throwing up. I told him I was sorry and asked him to tell the other guys. He said he would. I put the phone down and listened to some more Tobolowsky while hoping I would be well enough come Friday to attend the Magic: The Gathering draft at The Wizard’s Chest.
An hour or so passed. I managed the pain with belly rubs. I decided it was again time to try drink some water. I shuffled into the kitchen and put the lid back on the unfinished bottle of Pepto. I poured myself a glass of luke warm water. I was afraid that ice would warn Sauron of my secret plan, better to keep it close to body temperature. It had been three days since I’d drank anything. Tentatively, I swallowed two sips then went back to bed and listened to another podcast. Three hours passed. The sun sank beneath the world. Night filled the room with its dark blanket. I didn’t throw up. The two sips of water stayed down. I had done it. I was cured.
I picked up the phone and called my mom.
“Mom, I’m better.” I tried to force strength into my voice, to sound like a healthy guy, “You can stay in Junction and take Grandma and Grandpa to the hospital. There’s no need to come to Denver.”
“You don’t sound better.”
“But I am. I just kept down two sips of water. It’s over. I’m fine.”
“Have you eaten anything?” She asked suspiciously.
“No, but I have some apple juice and Naked Juice in my fridge so as soon as I can drink an entire glass of water I’ll – “
“I’m coming to Denver,” she said, though how she hoped to help in that way I could not have said.
“No, no! wait!” Frodo, I mean I called back, more strongly now. “I shall be better soon. I feel better already.”
“Shall?” said my mom, incredulous. “I’ve already rescheduled your grandparents’ appointments and cancelled my hotel room for the night. It’s done. I’m coming to Denver. I’ll be there tomorrow morning at 11.”
“Mom, please,” I begged.
“Nathan,” her voice raised slightly and took on an angry edge. There was no way I could fight her in my condition. Dejected, I conceded defeat and hung up the phone. We had failed. We were worthless.
“Wretched we are, Precious. Misery misery! Ashes, ashes, and dust, and thirst there is; and pits, pits, pits, and Orcs, thousands of Orcses.”
We got up and clenched our long hand into a bony, fleshless knot, shaking it towards the West with helpless ire. “We won’t!” We cried. “Not for you.” Then we collapsed again. “Gollum, gollum,” we whimpered with our face to the ground. “Don’t looks at us! Go away! Stay away!”
We lay there moaning in pain and fear. Scared of the inevitable morning. Below us, Shelob shifted in and out of wounded delirium. The night moved on, uncaring.
to be continued
This is the video Jordan made to go along with the awesome song that brought us in to this week’s podcast.
From the Grave
This is my version of Jordan’s awesome song.
From the Grave
This is Jordan’s version of his own amazing song!