The Perks of Being a Bookworm


I was generally a pretty good kid. Generally. Mostly, because almost every time I’d try doing something bad, the universe would rain down massive, fiery karmic retaliation upon me. In other words, I’d get caught. But one time I got away with it, because I was a giant nerd.

For the most part, I just read a lot. Hard to get in much trouble when you’ve got your head buried in a book. Lunches, recesses, classtimes, on the bus, I’d be reading. I’d sit in the back of class, pretending to be paying attention or doing schoolwork, all the while with a book on my lap. Most of my teachers, bless their hearts, pretended like they didn’t notice. I thought I was pretty sneaky at the time, but in retrospect I think they were just glad somebody was reading. So, I had a well-deserved reputation as something of a bookworm.

But every once in a while, I’d get a crazy idea in my head. I’d sow my oats. I’d really cut loose and do something wild.

Like flipping the bird to a road construction worker.

Party animal, right? Of course, this was in the second grade, when living dangerously meant sneaking your vegetables off your plate and feeding them to the dog.

But anyway, I was riding the school bus home, one fine day, and we passed by a group of county workers in reflective vests and hard hats, doing some road maintenance. My friend (whose name I forget, but let’s call him John) and I thought, for second-grader reasons, that it would be the coolest thing in the world if we flipped off these grown-ass men who were out doing their jobs. But, criminal masterminds that we were, we would hide our faces by crouching down below the level of the bus window, and hold our hands above our heads, middle fingers raised, like some kind of obscene puppeteers.

And so we did. The bus approached the road construction. We scrunched down in our seats and raised our little hands aloft, flipping the unicorn at these poor unsuspecting schlubs who were just out doing their jobs, who hadn’t done anything to warrant being disrespected by two nerdy eight year olds at three fifteen on a Tuesday afternoon.

We waved our digitorum impudens around, giggling all the while, until the bus moved past. A clean getaway. The perfect crime. We were so cool.

I should have known, there’s no such thing as a perfect crime. There we were, sitting on those smelly green vinyl bus seats, when a white county truck pulled up behind the bus, flashing its yellow light bar. My friend and I exchanged panicked looks.

The bus screeched to a stop. The hydraulic bus door honked open. And then, clomp, clomp, clomp, a great big angry grownup in a hard hat climbed up the bus steps and stared coolly up and down the aisles of the school bus.

To the bus driver, he said, “I’m sorry to bother you, but we were just working by the side of the road, and when you drove by, some kids on this bus flipped us off.”

I took a deep breath and reminded myself: we’d taken precautions for just this sort of situations. We’d scrunched down. We were criminal masterminds. Nothing to worry about.

“Whoever did it was scrunched down in their seats,” said the road worker, “so I couldn’t see their faces. But I saw the top of one head, and it looked just…like…him.”

A great big meaty calloused old grownup finger pointed directly at me.

My sphincter clenched tighter than a submarine door. I broke out into a flop sweat. I trembled. I gazed back at that finger like I was staring down the barrel of a loaded shotgun.

I should point out that at this point in my life I had what could kindly be described as a flattop. I thought it made me look like Val Kilmer in Top Gun. In retrospect, I looked more like a bucktoothed hedgehog. In any case, it was a pretty distinctive haircut. Certainly nobody else on the bus had the same cut. It was just the sort of thing that would make the top three inches of someone’s head immediately identifiable.

The moment stretched out forever. I’m busted, I thought, boned, hosed. The jig is up. I’m going up the river. I hear if you just confess they’ll be lenient. I can cop a plea. Maybe I can turn in my accomplice for a reduced sentence. I wonder what prison food tastes like.

And then the bus driver let out an incredulous laugh. “Matt?” she said, “You’ve got to be mistaken. It couldn’t have been Matt. He just sits there and reads all day.”

“Not Matt,” said Heather, the girl across the aisle from me, “he’s a bookworm.”

“He just has his face buried in a book all day.” added David, sitting next to Heather.

“All that dork does is read,” called out Travis, from the back of the bus.

The entire bus rose to my defense, declaring that I was such a nerdy little bookworm that there’s no way I could have ever committed the crime of which I’d been accused.

I just sat there and tried to look angelic.

His confidence shaken, the road worker looked around at the other faces on the bus. “Well…” he said, “then I’m not sure.” He’d lost his momentum. He looked up and down the aisles one more time, mumbled something about respect, and then left the bus.

And I got away scott-free. What’s the moral of the story? I don’t know, maybe: Don’t flip off total strangers. Or maybe, the moral is that you don’t know what kind of black and twisted criminal heart beats within the chest of a nerdy goody two-shoes bookworm. Or maybe it’s that if you’re going to be guilty, it’s a good idea to look innocent.




That One Time When I Almost Took a Shower With a Bear

Now, I know that Craigslist is chock-full of opportunities to take showers with a bear. But I mean an actual, big, hairy, bear. No wait, I mean, a grunting, rotund…crap. I mean Ursus americanus californiensis. A real four-legged bear.

stelprdb5396801I live in Northern California, in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada mountains. One of my great joys in life is getting out into the wilderness and going camping. Also some of my fondest memories. Ever since I was a little snot, my parents would take me and my brother out in the woods for at least a week every year. The crisp chill of the morning air, the burble of a tiny mountain stream, the breeze whispering through stands of Jeffrey pine and Douglas fir, the scent of pine needles and campfire smoke…dang it, I need to go camping.

Anyway, where was I? The only thing better than camping is camping with hot showers. Our favorite campground had wonderful, wonderful bathrooms. (My readers who are camping enthusiasts have no doubt seen and smelled some vile, horrible bathrooms, and will appreciate the simple joy of flushing toilets and hot water.)

I do love backpacking and the more pure forms of camping, I know what it’s like to go a week without a shower or a real bathroom, but good Lord. How wonderful a thing, to go out hiking all day, fishing, playing in the creek, doing camping things, getting filthy and sweaty, then being able to take a scalding hot shower until your skin pinks and then go off to your sleeping bag freshly scrubbed.

black-bear-dining-out_NPSIn fact, the only downside to this little slice of campground heaven was the bears. Once they lose their fear of humans and learn that campgrounds are chock full of tasty tasty human food, it’s game on. My family had the unique experience of being there when this particular campground’s bears figured out that fact. One summer it was okay to leave your ice chest out, the next summer it very much was not.

People adapted pretty quickly. It didn’t take very many dismantled ice-chests before campers started leaving their food in their cars. The park rangers made sure to pick up trash before dark. But still, it was a bit unnerving, these roaming gangs of bumbling assholes wandering down from the hills every evening, going from trashcan to trashcan. In the middle of the night, you’d hear a clang! as a trash can went over, then a few minutes later you’d hear another.

All in all, black bears are pretty docile. A loud noise usually scared them off. Like so many giant, lurking, vague, hairy 300 pound threats in life, you just learn to live with it. They were really nothing much to worry about.

But try telling that to a naked thirteen year old in a shower.

There I was in the late evening, the only one in the bathroom, enjoying a nice hot shower. The shower stalls were private. Sort of. There was like a public bathroom type door, with a flimsy latch and a one foot gap between the door and the floor. A psychological barrier only.

shower-feet1So I was taking my little shower when I thought I heard something. It was a public bathroom of course, people go in and out. But Something was odd. I stood still, straining to hear over the spatter of falling water. Yes, I heard something. A snort. The click of nails on a tile floor. I crouched down and peered under the door of the shower stall. And what did I see but four black bear paws, claws the size of ballpoint pens, standing there not ten feet from where I crouched, naked and wet and alone.

The bear paused, becoming aware of my presence, then continued on. Click-click. Click-click. Snort. Snorfle-snark snort. Grunt. WANG! KA-WHAM! CLANG! The bear had found the metal trash can in the corner of the bathroom, and sent it ricocheting around the room with one casual swipe of his paw. Wrappers and used tissues and strands of dental floss sprayed across the floor. I still stood, crouched in the shower, the hot water still spraying down on my back. The bear sniffed his way through the wreckage, gave the trash can one more thump, snorted again in my direction, and walked back out the door.

Being the brave sort that I am, I only hid in that shower for another forty-five minutes.



Why I don’t play with Ouija boards anymore

You’re probably going to think this story is fiction. But it happened.

It was a dark and stormy night.

That’s a pretty cliché way to start a story, I know. But in this case it actually was a dark and stormy night. I was living in a flimsy little house in the woods at the top of a hill, and there was a ripping rainstorm outside. The wind howled. The pine trees swayed. Rain lashed the windows.

So, me and Emily decided it would be a good night to try the Ouija board. Continue reading

That one time when I went to the wrong funeral

Let’s just get the sad part out of the way first. Josh was one of my best friends in high school. He always had your back. He’d give you the shirt off his own. But he always had his demons. A series of half-hearted suicide attempts, a near-fatal drug overdose, a restraining order from his ex-girlfriend. I loved him like a brother, but I guess he wore us all down a little. It’s not easy, caring about someone so bent on self-destruction.

We’d been going in different directions for a while. He joined the army two weeks after 9/ll, and we lost touch. When I reconnected with him on facebook, years later, he was out of the service, married, and living in Utah. Continue reading

That one time when I almost died in a fiery explosion

I was a real hell-raiser as a kid. A really exciting Friday night for me was going over to my friend Pete’s house, then we’d get in his Mustang and drive from our shitty little town to a shitty medium-size town that had a Blockbuster Video. We’d pick out a few movies on VHS, load up on candy and soda, maybe get a pizza, then drive back to Pete’s house. Then we’d eat junk food and watch bad movies on Pete’s tiny TV, the TV and the VCR sitting on the floor in Pete’s room and us sitting on the floor in front of it. Good times. No, really. Those were some good times.

Something something 90s kids.

Sometimes I get nostalgic about Blockbuster and I regret their demise. But then I remember the time when they sent me to collections over a twelve dollar late fee, and I realize that the jerks probably had it coming.

But anyway, back to the part where I almost died. We’d just left Pete’s house, him driving his Mustang, (just to correct your mental picture here, this was The Worst Mustang Ever Created, an anemic mid-80s shoebox-on-wheels, white with red vinyl upholstery) pulling onto the freeway. He was trying to get his car up to speed, but the car (probably a minivan; Pete hated and still hates minivans) in front of us put on its brakes. “What the crap!” said Pete, and swerved into the fast lane to pass the offending vehicle.

But then the minivan swerved into the fast lane, nearly clipping Pete. “Asshole!” he yelled, and swerved back into the slow lane.

And there, in the middle of the lane, was a shiny red gas can. Obviously, in retrospect, what the minivan was swerving to avoid.

The helpful co-driver that I am, I pointed and screamed, “Gas can!”

It was too late to do anything. Wham! Crunch! The metal gas can disappeared under Pete’s car. It caught on the undercarriage, and we could hear it scraping against the pavement. Font of wisdom that I am, I screamed, “Stop stop stop!”

LPT: Don’t run these over. It sucks.

Pete merged over to the center median and stopped the car. I got out and went to take a look. The metal gas can was hopelessly mangled, folded up under the car and wedged there. Friction from being dragged over asphalt at freeway speed had ground the corner off, and I saw a trail of gasoline following us down the median and across the freeway to where the collision had occurred.

And then came one of those moments that if I’d seen it in a movie, I would have called it too unrealistic. I don’t know if it was the exhaust from the car, a spark from a passing semi, or simply the puckish sense of humor of a bored god, but at that moment the trail of gasoline ignited. I watched in horror while this tongue of flame crept towards Pete’s Mustang and the gas can wedged underneath it.

“Go go go!” I screamed, always full of good advice.

Pete floored it. Which didn’t do much in his Mustang, but still. The car surged forward, the gas can still grinding on the pavement, the advancing trail of flaming gasoline just feet from his back bumper. Meanwhile, I danced around frantically, trying to stomp out the flames, or to rub away enough fuel to interrupt the makeshift fuse following Pete’s car down the shoulder of the highway. It didn’t work, and I kept running ahead a few more feet to get in front of the flames.

I wish I had a better ending for the story. Something involving heroics. An immense fireball. A fistfight. Paratroopers. A moment of truth where our protagonists rise above their problems and save the day. But no. The gas can ran out of gas, and the trail of gasoline ran dry. At that same moment, some good Samaritan pulled his car over and jumped out with a fire extinguisher. We, and the Mustang, were safe.

We pried the gas can out from under the car. It looked like a smashed beer can. We took a moment to compose ourselves, then we went to Blockbuster and rented Hell Comes to Frogtown and Big Trouble in Little China. We stopped at the Safeway and picked up a half pound of sour gummy worms and some potato chips. Then we went home and watched some movies.

Good times.