Book Review: The One and Only Ivan

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I used to work as a BSC. A lot of my job was sitting in the back of classrooms “observing the problematic behavior” of my clients, but that only worked when they were being problematic. This kid was a little demon, but he would shut up during story time, and that’s where I first had a chapter of The One and Only Ivan read aloud to me by a kindly but exasperated secondary educator.

I put it on my to-read list, then forgot about it for a couple years, because it’s a YA book (being generous) and I don’t read YA. I was born old, and crotchety. I started into my father’s Stephen King collection when I was in 2nd grade, and to regress to whatever iteration of Harry Potter knockoff is currently sucking the attention of the near-literate would be detrimental to both mind and dignity.

“Don’t be such a fucker,” you might be saying. “It wouldn’t kill you to read YA once in a while.”

It wouldn’t kill me to eat Gerber Strained Peas for dinner once in a while either, but I wouldn’t hit my macros.

Animorphs was my stepping stone between Goosebumps and terrible, pulpy adult video game novels, like the abysmal Doom novels (in every sense of the word), and the Magic the Gathering novels that shared nothing in common with the card game, except that they both occasionally referred to wizards. I was voracious with the Animorphs series, and listed K.A. Applegate as my favorite author on more than a few grim late 90s/early 2000s internet forums, each undoubtedly devoted to one of the four franchises mentioned earlier in this paragraph.

I just sat down and read this book in one sitting, cover to cover. It took me two hours. I cried, openly and like a bitch, no fewer than three times.

The story’s about a gorilla named either Ivan or Mud, depending. His family is killed by poachers and the infant gorilla is sold off to some sleazy mall manager, who tries to raise him like they did to Caesar in the remake of Planet of the Apes. It works because Ivan is far too traumatized to develop a rebellious streak. Eventually, his owner tucks him away in a glass cubicle in his dead mall and charges people to gawk at him and an elderly elephant with an infected foot that never gets treatment.

The book focuses on Ivan’s understanding of himself, his limited grasp of “civilization”, and his avoidance of remembering the joy of his childhood because of the pain it would inevitably bring. It’s driven by the relationships with the wise, sick old elephant Stella and a feral dog named Bob who plays the role of Diogenes. I’m 90% sure that in the first draft, Bob was a rat, and Applegate changed it in order to sew up a happy ending for everyone. Feral rats are rarely adopted.

The mall owner, Mack, becomes an increasingly jaded alcoholic and flirts with animal abuse, though it never shows up. Children’s book, remember.

It really starts to grind up the ol’ heart meats when Mack buys a baby elephant named Rosie, whom Stella begins to raise as her own, for as long as she could. It’s a book about learned helplessness, about the isolation and gradual dying of the soul that comes with captivity, acceptance, complacency. It’s about the horrific ways humans mistreat animals, but also the kindnesses that we can do, however infrequently.

On the surface, that’s what it’s about. But under that, it’s about freedom and security. Ivan liked laying on his pillows in his cute little pajamas, being hand-fed orange soda and watching cartoons on TV, but late at night, the snatches of dreams he remembered were about the jungle, and the wind in his fur, playing with his sister, picking ripe fruit from the trees and weaving himself a nest to sleep in.

And I think that’s true of all of us.

Five stars. Read the book. Absolutely crushing.



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Book Review: The Body Keeps the Score

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This should be required reading for anyone majoring in psych. Associate’s. Hell, standard grade school curriculum, if that weren’t such a joke. We all need to know this. This book isn’t just going to change your treatment approach, or the way you think about trauma. It’s going to change your life.

The first thing you need to know about trauma in general and PTSD in particular is also the last thing, and they’re both the title of the book. The body keeps the score. Every time you experience a traumatic event, especially of the kind that are so severe that your brain goes offline, your body, like a sketchy 3rd party emulator, takes a save state. There’s an evolutionary reason for this. Every cell you’ve got is convinced you’re facing annihilation – whether this is brought about by physical abuse, incest, or getting royally and publicly dunked on in gym class is only relevant in terms of depth of response – and the system that is You agrees that if you make it out of this alive, whatever you did to survive is obviously the plan you’ll need to stick to the next time something like this happens.

It’s adaptation, and our capacity for it brought us from being tall, gregarious monkeys to owning the world. In PTSD, the triggering event to implement that survival script can get a little overeager. Better safe than sorry, after all, even if the safety save state is blackout violence, a dissociative episode, or full catatonia.

And that, my beauties, is the process a veteran undergoes when he returns from the atrocities he witnessed and, in many cases, committed, and tries to integrate back into society. The fireworks go off, and they sound like gunshots. The save state is quickloaded, and you have to understand, it’s not remembering what happens last time. It’s a complete neurochemical and hormonal overhaul to match the conditions of “the last time this happened”. His brain replicates the circumstances of the war, his endocrine system double-times the adrenaline and cortisol he needs to do whatever it was he did the first time to survive. Obviously, the neighbor kid playing with firecrackers in the suburbs is not the same as his 12th straight day of being shelled in Fallujah, but it doesn’t matter. His body can’t tell the difference, and neither can his brain.

Same is true of an abuse survivor. (Tap out here if you think this might trigger you).

Someone who lived through being molested in their early childhood, when they were dependent on the adults in their lives to literally keep them alive, they internalize the necessity of cooperation, often to the point where they identify with their abuser and condemn their victimized self, because it’s easier to hate yourself than to be without the anchor points of your childhood world. The desire to escape or to fight will necessarily give way to the freeze response, and that “compliance” will go on to fuse with the frustration, the trustlessness, the self-loathing to form a melange of cognitive dissonance that the victim internalizes and eventually spills over onto their adult relationships.

The thing to remember is, should a panic attack and dissociative episode emerge at a triggering point (most likely when the victim is having regular, consensual sex with a significant other who cares about them), it’s not that they’re being reminded of their assault, or drawing similarities or associations. They are quickloaded into their childhood bodies. A flashback is time travel. They are reliving it, and they need to follow the script that let them survive it the first time. It’s not a mind over matter situation, and it’s not a decision they’re making. As far as the whole system of their selfhood is concerned, it’s their only way they’re going to live through what’s happening.

Heavy, right? The whole book is like that. When I say it’ll change your life, I mean it. No matter how self-possessed you are, you’re not going to walk through this particular thicket without getting some scars.

Van der Kolk is the last word in trauma treatment. He’s a psychiatrist (boo hiss) but he rails against overuse of psychopharmaceutical interventions (wooooo yea), especially the widely overprescribed antipsychotics that blunt the physiological responses causing most of the problems. In PTSD therapy, as in most things, the only way out is through.

Van der Kolk suggests that it’s an issue of integration. A good way to think about it is corrupted data. Once upon a time, saving things on a computer took more than a microsecond. If you turned off the power before the file was saved, the data would be corrupted and unusable, and every time you tried to open that file, something bad would happen. Maybe it would just be computer code gibberish, or crash the program, or short out the whole computer. Maybe it would fry your entire motherboard.

That’s trauma. We encode memories on the fly, integrating episodic information into the personal narrative that comprises our life, and from this narrative we extract the information of who we are. Our concept of self comes from our ideas about identity, which we draw from the stories about ourselves, and the only place we can source those are from our memory.

During episodes of extreme trauma, the encoding process shuts off. Huge chunks of the brain shut off. You can’t be running all that extra hardware right now, you’re fighting for your life. We go into shock. So we save bits and pieces of the information coming through – impressions, sensory data, feelings – but not a comprehensive understanding of what happened, because at the time of the trauma, it’s too horrible for us to comprehend, and our thinking brain simply refuses to the task.

But the brain is continually referring to previous experiences for reference, especially in what it deems similar situations. So the brain tries to load that corrupted data, and the whole system crashes, and there’s the sudden onset of explosive PTSD symptoms, dissociation, panic attacks, numbing, crushing depression, and whatever might naturally follow from these experiences (risky behavior as self-soothing, self-harm, suicidality, etc.)

Van der Kolk’s answer is surprisingly direct and intuitive. Integrate the trauma. The flashbacks offer a doorway directly to the trauma, and if we can descalate the physiological response sufficiently to reintegrate the data into our story, we can accept the trauma as “something that happened in the past” and move on, rather than an ongoing experience we continually live and relive.

Since the brain is slackin’ ass, which is the entire problem, and trauma is stored in the body, the body is how treatment is approached. Trauma survivors usually have terrible relationships with their bodies. Eating disorders, obesity, dysmorphia, self-harm, chronic pain, alexithymia, you name it, all born of a disconnect from the body’s wants and needs, originally developing as a mechanism to survive the trauma. “If thine eye offend thee,” and all that. The first step is reconnecting the survivor with their body. Any physical modality will get them there, so long as there’s an element of interpersonal connection to it – martial arts, dance, gymnastics, theater, most forms of structured group exercise. In theory, crossfit would do the job, although weight training alone might be too isolationist, and can worsen things like body dysmorphia and eating disorders. Van der Kolk himself is absolutely horny for yoga. I’ve never heard anyone pop off about yoga with such fanatical adoration. Like, I’ve known a lot of yoga practitioners and teachers, and they tend to be like, “yeah, it’s pretty nice”. Van der Kolk is straight up yoga street-teaming.

It makes sense. The point of yoga is reintegration with the needs of the body, releasing the energy from the muscles, being kind to yourself and compassionate to others. Those are exactly the issues of PTSD. It’s an ideal counterbalance.

Once the body is grounded, the trauma work itself can begin. Van der Kolk is dismissive of “just talk therapy” to the point of contempt, which is not normally what you want to see from a guy who prescribes psychotropic drugs, but he acknowledges it’s a necessary component of childhood trauma processing. The trauma is stirred up, brought to the surface, then “experienced” and processed along with the new arsenal of improved bodily awareness, often “dipping the toe in” a little at a time until the whole of the traumatic experience can be mapped out and integrated into the memory. The reflexive responses that the body needed at the moment are manifested, allowed, and released. The system’s job queue is cleared, and the trauma can be accepted as something that happened, not something that’s happening. The physiological responses to it die off, and the PTSD just… disappears. It goes away. The spirits are exorcised.

Van der Kolk also talks about fringier approaches like EMDR, IFS, and biofeedback, all of which have seen fantastic results in certain populations of PTSD sufferers, and all of which are pooh-poohed by establishment shrinks and researchers because they’re expensive and difficult to understand empirically (beyond the demonstrable improvements in patients), and everybody in the field just wants to rave about how great CBT is, rather than gamble with their tenure.

It’s an incredible book, and everyone should read it. Not just every clinician, not just everyone who’s been traumatized. Every living person. If we all knew this information and we all applied it, it would be a much, much better world.



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Book Review: The Cancer Code

The Cancer Code by Jason Fung

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Nobody loves codes as much as iconoclast physician Jason Fung. This is his third code so far. Though it’s easy to suppose they’d be spiritual successors the Robert Langdon trilogy of shitty mystery novels, Doc Fung instead focuses his energy on street-teaming for intermittent fasting and pushing low-carb paleo living without ever saying the word “paleo”, for which we’re all grateful.

Now, full disclosure, I haven’t read the Diabetes Code, but my high IQ and longtime Rick and Morty enjoyment makes me pretty good at recognizing patterns, so I’m still going to take a stab at cracking all three codes for you, right now, to save you the thousand or so pages it would take to assemble the whole picture of “the Wellness Code”, which apparently contains the cancer code, but neither the diabetes nor obesity code. Fung moves in mysterious ways. Coded ways.

Here’s the Konami code to health: Insulin is the devil. Minimize insulin exposure, maximize everything else from disease resilience to longevity to looking sleek and sexual at the beach.

Fung’s money is where his mouth is. I googled him, and he looks pretty ripped, especially for a doctor. He’s not massive or anything, not like that one doctor on Instagram who keeps trying to sell you special rubber bands to use in place of weights. All other things constant, I could beat up Dr. Fung, but I would never, as he inspires me.

The Cancer Code details the sordid history of attempting to treat cancer and its repeated, catastrophic failures. It’s implied that cancer is a disease of civilization, as outside of agrarian societies it’s rare to the point of mythical. Immunotherapy seems to be the most effective, if the least profitable, treatment option, but Jason Fung gently suggests (as most of my favorite practicing scientists, psychologists, and medical professionals tend to) that we don’t know shit about dick and consequently fall back on tried-and-true Hail Marys like radio- and chemotherapy, which poisons everything in hopes of killing the cancer.

Cancer is a disease of irregular cell growth. Normally, cell growth is a pretty good thing, but only if the cells cooperate with what is expected of them within the confines of the tissue they comprise. Cancer is the wires getting crossed and the cells in, say, the liver deciding that cooperation is too chancy and they’ll go it alone from here. The cells revert from eukaryotic function to a more primitive, prokaryotic function, remembered in the DNA from back in the days when each cell was fighting for its own life. And that’s what cancer is. These cells grow and propagate individually as fast as they can, sabotaging and consuming the surrounding cells (who are still being team players). The meme of cellular primeval psychopathy bounces all over the body, setting up satellite colonies, and that’s metastasis. Since these cells only care about individual survival now, the health of the organism isn’t taken into account, and it typically dies, taking the newly expanded cancer empire with it.

So how do we protect against cellular mutiny? As in most nutrition books, the message refines to Michael Pollan’s dietary dictum: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

Doc Fung is always pushing intermittent fasting, so that’s step one. After that, low carb. Step 2. Get some exercise, the human body needs to move. Step 3. Voila. You’re… not quite cancerproof, but you just improved your chances enormously.

Here’s the why.

He repeatedly likens cancer to a sort of weed that grows in the garden of your body. The thing is, it needs specific soil conditions and nutrients to take root and strangle out the rest of the garden. The most important of these conditions, these specialized weed-foods, is IGF-1, or insulin-like growth factor, released whenever we have an insulin response. The more insulin circulating in our system, the more IGF-1 comes with it. Insulin is pivotal for growth and development, especially for things like protein synthesis, testosterone production, and building muscle. We need some insulin, but we need it to serve its purpose.

Keeping the body perpetually inundated with insulin causes all sorts of stupid, avoidable problems, and it turns out cancer is a major one of them. A nonstop stream of IGF-1 keeps cells growing, and growing, and growing, and as soon as one flips the switch and decides it would do better on its own, baby, you a got a tumor goin’.

Caloric restriction, weight loss, and increased insulin sensitivity all help to shrink tumors, sometimes pushing them into full remission. Cancer needs insulin to grow. Burn the granaries and starve the empire.

Intermittent fasting becomes a magic bullet in this situation because not only does your insulin sensitivity improve when you phase out snacking, 16+ hours of fasting promotes increased autophagy, which is sort of like defragmenting your hard drive, if your hard drive was your body. Autophagy means “eating your own damn self” and it’s like a concerted effort within your body of looking for dying, damaged, or junk cells, then catabolizing them into component proteins and energy, potentially stopping fledgling cancer before it has a chance to foment rebellion.

It was a truly fascinating book, and a talisman against the 21st century’s answer to the Grim Reaper. Now that I think about it, it’s kind of ironic that he carried a wheat scythe.




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Book Review: Elric of Melnibone

Elric of Melniboné by Michael Moorcock

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I’m a big Conan the Barbarian fan, which is unfortunate, since I never cared for the books. I’ve always loved the prehistoric aspects of the setting, the easy ferocity of the sword and sorcery genre, and the prospect that all of these ancient and unknowable Lovecraftian evils weren’t an instant sanity-breaker. Once, when men were better, we could oppose them with nothing but steel and sinew, and we could win. It’s a good message. It’s the kind of thing that pushes you to grind out the last few reps in the gym.

What kept me from successfully finishing a Conan anthology is that he’s a Mary Sue. I’m a longtime Doom franchise devotee, for many of the same reasons I like sword and sorcery, so I’ve got a pretty high threshold tolerance for masculine power fantasies, but at a certain point they get embarrassing, and Conan always did a beautiful, muscular yet supple swan dive over that particular precipice within a couple paragraphs.

John L. Howard at his typewriter like: “And then Conan, who is powerful and sexual and smells good, rippled to his feet like a hot panther who girls like and said, ‘I WILL PUNCH YOU! WITH MY FISTS!’ And the crowd roared and cheered in unrestrained delight, for Conan was so honest and handsome with the deepest squat and biggest dingaling in all the land.”

Whereas Elric of Melnibone is a slouching albino goth who maintains a high dose meth addiction to counteract his anemia and perpetual caloric deficit. He’s the emperor of his floundering, ancient, neutral evil nation, but none of his subjects understand him because he reads too many books (which makes him a contemptible nerd) and as a result developed a moral compass.

Essentially, the plot of Elric of Melnibone is if Marcus Aurelius had an autoimmune disease and became a warlock about it.

It was spectacular. The writing was phenomenal, and not even hokey! I didn’t think that could be done, considering the subject matter. It’s easy to see Moorcock’s influence on modern fantasy greats like GRRM, although it might be more fair to call GRRM a past fantasy great, as big boy is never gonna write another book.

Elric has Mary Sue elements, sure, he’s one of the finest swordsmen who ever lived and he’s also the literal emperor, but he’s also deeply flawed. He’s a brooding, melancholy drug addict. A real Sigma male. Nobody understands him and it’s not a phase, mom.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough to anyone who loves high fantasy in general and sword and sorcery in particular. It checked all the boxes. Moorcock is a tremendous writer with an appropriate surname.



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Book Review: Paleo for Beginners

Paleo for Beginners: Essentials to Get Started by John Chatham

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


It could have been a pamphlet.

At no point is the paleo diet ever discussed in any detail, or any reasons provided why it’s a logical, or even sensical choice. This one’s like an arbitrary rulebook that makes vague, buzzwordy reference to things like “blood sugar” and “bad cholesterol” and expecting you to take that at face value, then condemning milk and beans without making any sort of explanation for why that isn’t on paleo.

And then, the “recipes”.

Cook a fish! And some vegetables! Delicious fish and vegetables, serves 4.

Craving steak? Grill a steak! And some vegetables! You won’t go back to eating anything other than meat and vegetables after you try THIS paleo classic!

Do you miss pancakes? Smash a bunch of bananas and eggs together! That’s “batter”, now. Just fry it up in olive oil because butter is dairy! Whatever! Just like the cavemen!

On some dumb.

Two stars because it made me hungry for trail mix, so I made my own trail mix, which rules.



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Book Review: The Culture Code (Coyle)

The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


One of my favorite books is also called The Culture Code, so I figured I’d try my luck again. It panned out!

Unfortunately, the culture Coyle is talking about is not the interesting kind, with folklore and recipes, but the corporate kind. That would be enough to turn me off in most instances. I/O psychologists are barely better than advertisers, and advertisers don’t deserve to sleep indoors. But the studies that Coyle pulls and the conclusions he draws all generalize out of the office and into the parts of life that matter. And it was pretty well written, too.

“Safety” is the take home. The more rigid the hierarchy, the worse the performance. The more comfortable and familial the environment, the more people will collaborate, the better the output and happier the participants. It’s not rocket science, but it is actual science, and backed up with a bunch of blind experiments.

Four stars, because that’s the highest rating I can give a business book and maintain my integrity.



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Book Review: The Holy Sister

Holy Sister by Mark Lawrence

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


It’s an objectively good fantasy series, and this is a great installment. You feel for the characters and you get wrapped up in the DBZ-style power escalation that happens whenever the worldbuilding includes a magic system.

But I’ve seen what Mark Lawrence is capable of. Each book in the Broken Empire series are some of the best I have ever read, especially the Prince of Thorns. I’ve reread them so many times I’ve lost count and they only get better. I couldn’t do that with these. The Book of the Ancestor is good, but it’s also Lawrence punching way below his weight class.

If I’d never read Prince of Thorns, I’d probably have given this book 4 or 5 stars. It really did have everything a good fantasy novel needs, but unfortunately, I know what the man is capable of.



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Book Review: Go Wild

Go Wild: Free Your Body and Mind from the Afflictions of Civilization by John J. Ratey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


One of the best nonfiction books I’ve ever read. The idea is that humans are wild animals, and for all the trappings of civilization we wrap ourselves in, we’re still running the old jungle OS. We’re primitive creatures with primitive drives trying to force ourselves into the shape demanded by a modern world, and it’s making us fat, sick, and crazy.

The concept is a sort of natural expansion of Freud’s suggestion from Civilization and its Discontents, but less pseudoscientific and quacky. Freud said we’re animals. So did the Bloodhound Gang, in their seminal 1999 treatise “Bad Touch”. According to Siggy, the root of all neurosis is our superego trying to cram our id into the acceptable conduct box, so We might continue to Live In A Society.

Ratey says the same thing in more modern and empirical terms. Evolution programmed us over the last couple million years to exercise constantly, socialize constantly, eat huge quantities of fats, and maintain a state of mindfulness (which is just awareness of our surroundings so we don’t get eaten by bears). Our stress was immediate, and faded as soon as the danger was gone.

Flash forward to the present day. The most physically fit among us exercise seven or eight hours a week. We live in privacy boxes with immediate family or a couple roommates, who we tend to avoid because of how stressful talking to people at work or school is. Most of what we eat is corn and sugar. We don’t have time to be aware of our surroundings due to the constant hyperstimulus beaming a stream of shining blue data from the attention-hog computer we keep in our pockets, directly into our frontal lobes. We are mad at our computers because someone said something WRONG about VIDEO GAMES on the INTERNET, and we maintain a constant high-boil of cortisol because the tried and true tactic of “sprint until you escape” doesn’t work on student loan debt.

The answer? Knock it off.

The first book I read by Ratey was Spark, which changed the way I looked at exercise. I’ve always been obsessive about it (I tend to be hyperactive to a point just south of mania, Jackie Chan snap-kicking out of bed a few seconds before my alarm goes off), but I didn’t realize the effect it has on mental health and hormone profile. Most of what ails you, regular exercise will cure. Present research suggests that in trials for treatment of depression, anxiety, and ADHD, daily cardio worked as well or better than medication in terms of treatment. So naturally, that’s what they lead with in Go Wild: get off your ass and get your heart pumping, remind your body it’s alive.

Then comes groundbreaking life advice like “Zebra Cakes aren’t dinner”, “Sleep regularly”, and “Talk to people you like, in real life”.

I’m doing it a disservice with the pithy summary, but it’s an amazing book, and one I took my time reading because I didn’t want it to be over.

SECOND READ:
Read it again. I was right the first time, although now that I’m older and wiser I can recognize some of the reaching Ratey did in the last few chapters. A lot of the evidence was anecdotal there and instead of providing sources or studies he was like, “Try it! You’ll like it!”

I also found myself getting a little defensive when he talked about his other psychiatrist friend who insisted that PTSD therapy didn’t work and qualified it as “yakking”. So how do you resolve a lifetime of the collected, complex trauma from childhood physical and sexual abuse? Just go ahead and dance it right out. Join a Zumba and all those scars will evaporate. Oh, and slam down a handful of these super special drugs every day, of course.

I was going to write “get fucked, van der Kolk”, but in googling what the hell his name actually is I found out that he initially formulated the PTSD diagnosis and has been researching it for 50 years. He’s an authority, and pretending I know better based on my own anecdotal treatment experiences would be disingenuous, especially considering how often I push physically active coping skills on my clients.

The bleedover is van der Kolk tends to focus on ritualized movement methods within cultures like dancing, shamanic and wildly boolin’ religious practices (Shaker/Quaker style), and ancient Greek theater. A lot of these things included elements of psychotherapy right in them. Catholic confession is the most on-the-nose example, but exercises like shamanic soul retrieval have persisted largely unchanged into modern psychotherapeutic practice, so maybe our man has a point. I’ll give you this round, van der Kolk, and I’ll read The Body Keeps the Score someday.




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Middlebury, Vermont: Good Night Sweet Prince

Friday, April 16, 2021. Middlebury, Vermont.
Soundtrack: Here Come the Mummies – Ra Ra Ra

We touched down on an active farm deep in the heart of Clarendon, where we would be staying for the weekend while she conducted whatever dark and uncatholic dealings she had lined up. The nearest neighbor was a mile away, so no one could hear screaming, should there have been any screaming. I wasn’t afraid. Remember in the third Texas Chainsaw Massacre, where the actor who played Kenan’s dad just boots Leatherface square in the gut, side-kick style? I knew karate once. I’d go high, Beefy’d go low, the witch could nuke from the backline.

Assuming Leatherface was the concern, of course, and I didn’t get turned into a donkey and ridden all over the countryside like in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. That series gave me a powerful childhood fear of agriculture. I maintain the fear, but now it’s because of comparative studies of hunter gatherer societies, and knowledge of what grain does to the human body.

The farm itself was populated by aloof female farm dogs, and a single male Australian Shepherd named Cody with a mutation that caused his right pupil to split, like the eye of a goat. He would not stop humping my attorney.

Beefton is a gentleman of culture and refinement. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone, and he doesn’t want to kill the vibe, so he never fights other dogs unless it’s clear that they’re just wrasslin’. He kept running away. Cody was single-minded, obsessive, and not actually too into it, since he was whining on the approach every time. I figured he was trying to assert his dominance over the larger, younger male dog invading his territory, but halfheartedly. Beefton had no idea what was going on and just kept fleeing.

“You’re gonna have to flip him,” I told him. “You’ve got to set boundaries.”

Beefton gazed at me with his doofy Baby Yoda face, awaiting intervention as Cody set up to sort of hump at his left hip. I imagined Cody didn’t get off the farm much.

“It’s a microcosm of life,” I said. “You’ve got to stand up for yourself. They’ll try to fuck you if you let them. Or… do whatever that is.”

“Cody!” yelled the farmers. “Get off him!”

Cody would not be dissuaded. Beefton looked at my beseechingly. I shrugged.

“You outweigh him by like 30 pounds. Put him on his ass and this will never happen again.”

“I am a man of peace,” Beefton told me. “We’re better than this.”

“Just throw one of the left hooks you use to flip the scrappy little German Shepherd madchens at the dog park.”

“But that’s for funsies and this feels like it’s for serious,” he said, apprehensively. Beefy took a few steps away from Cody, glancing back over his own rippling, overdeveloped deltoids. Undeterred, Cody wandered over to get back to what he perceived as his task.

“It might be funsies, but they respect your torque! An armed society is a polite society, lil mans.”

“Cody!” the farmers were still yelling. “What the hell’s the matter with you? Leave him alone!”

Beefton nodded, considering my words. He turned toward Cody, who was crookedly humping the air in the vicinity of Beefton’s side. They made eye contact. Beefy growled a little, then let loose one of his bassy sonic boom barks that have proven so effective at scaring teens off my front stoop back in Philly.

Cody dismounted and drifted away.

For the time being.

We loaded back up into the wagon and made our way across the state so the witch could scout locations for a thaumaturgist’s hut. Beefton and I secured the perimeter, burning the pent up anxiety from his protracted assault by lunging at squirrels and peeing on everything. He did most of the lunging and peeing.

And once in Middlebury, we stopped in to pay our respects to the late Amum-Her-Khepesh-Ef.

You’re gonna love this one.

In the late 1800s, deep in the social oasis of Middlebury (relative to the utter backwoods desolation that is the rest of Vermont), there lived a collector of expensive, weird things by the name of Henry Sheldon.

He looks around his curio collection and decides, “You know what this could really use? A mummy.” So he puts in an order for a mummified Egyptian prince, a two-year-old called Amum-Her-Khepesh-Ef. This was before Craigslist, so there were really no pictures of the mummy available. Caveat emptor and all that.

The mummy arrives, and Sheldon is inconsolable. It was apparently “in such a degraded condition that Sheldon never put it out on display”.

“This mummy sucks!” Sheldon probably said, jabbing a finger at the withered corpse of Egyptian royalty dating back to 2000 BC. “This mummy is bullshit!”

Disgraced and ashamed, Sheldon stashed the little body up in his attic, where it remained until decades after Sheldon himself died.

Lil Amum is then happened upon by the curator of the Henry Sheldon museum, a good-hearted fella called George Mead. Mead recognizes that this isn’t what this two-year-old Egyptian prince would have wanted, to be so far from home, from the land of his forefathers, boxed up in some Vermontian attic because he’s too ugly to be displayed, like a leisure suit or home movies on VHS.

Mead sets things right by having the mummy cremated and buried in a Judeo-Christian cemetery across the street from the Middlebury Art College.

I like to think Amum was just booling out in the Egyptian afterlife with all his slaves and gold, all the things that mummification was required to insure, and then abruptly vaporizes a la “I don’t feel so good Mr. Stark” and reappears in the middle of Sunday mass in Heaven, seated in the pew and looking up at the actual, actively writhing body of Jesus, since you’ve got to assume in Heaven they don’t need to do carved representations.

Probably frigged up his whole day.

“Rest in power, little king,” I said to Amum.

At that moment, probably coincidentally, the sky opened up and it started pouring. We ran back to the car where Beefy was waiting to make sure the campus police didn’t ticket us.

Love,

BT

Vermont: A Travelogue Prologue

Thursday, April 15, 2021. Clarendon, Vermont.
Soundtrack: The Sword – Tres Brujas

I’d been chewing holes in the walls since quarantine was first announced, and by the second year of the two-week curve flattening, my increasingly feral mindstate had only marginally improved. The plague still sweeps through our land, slipping through cracks and into our homes in the dead of night, blighting our crops and killing our fats and olds, both of which are cornerstones of this great nation. Bill Gates is filling our blood with liquid 5G, offering a stay of execution and increasing our personal bandwidth so long as we upload our RNA straight into the Bing Matrix.

For a year I’ve been crouched in the blasted ruins of The City of Brotherly Crackheads Screaming at 3 AM, shooting arrows in the basement and slowly trading away all my worldly possessions for mid-range guitars and houseplants.

This is no way for a bastard to live.

Luckily, a witch offered me reprieve from the monotony of the broken glass pile that is Philadelphia.

“I’ve got to go to Vermont,” she said. “Come with?”

I’ve had many, many what you would call encounters with witches over the years, and they often end in hexing. That’s just the dice you throw. When the only tool you have is True Polymorph, everything looks like a newt.

You can imagine my leeriness, especially having waited out the statute of limitations on curses so many times before. There was even one who would convince her thralls (we call these simps now) to do “blood pacts”, and cut their hands, then reopen the same wound in her finger to blend their blood.

Imagine playing it that fast and loose with your essence. That’s unrepentant necromancy. She never got my blood. To this day, I won’t even touch a goddamned crystal.

But this witch, the witch offering me an out of the city, she maintains that she is of a different stripe. She says she’s a green witch. I’m a simple man, and a melee build, so I don’t know all the subclassifications, but I imagine they all have access to the same skill tree. But I am eco-friendly, and I did miss silence.

“Let’s go,” says I.

And so I loaded the same pack that got me across Yurp with the same essentials – a few changes of clothes and a glowing rectangle with a library in it – then clambered up into her broom-drawn carriage. We were joined by my attorney, Beefton Duke.

He’s very good.

It barely occured to me to ask why Vermont, bit-champing as I was to get free of the 215. The 5-hour haul allowed plenty of time to correct that.

“Why Vermont?”

“Matters to attend to,” she said cryptically. “Business.”

Components, I reckoned. Bones and rocks and herbs and whatnot. Something big brewing. Big and allegedly green. That’s okay. I would be looking down the right side of the barrel this time.

We screeched past a collection of cop cars, all with their flashers on, but only flashing in blue.

“Looks like trouble,” Beefton whispered to me.

“I know you can’t tell, but it’s all just one color,” I told him.

“What?” the witch asked.

“The flashers. They’re only one color.”

“I can tell!” she said.

“Maybe it’s not a stop, then,” I suggested. “Maybe it’s a sale. Blue Light Special.”

“What the hell is blue?” Beefton asked. “Ridiculous. You can’t afford the heat right now.”

“I don’t think we have to be worried about it.”

“As your legal counsel,” he continued, “here’s my suggestion. Pull off up ahead in this next plaza with all the wooden sasquatch lawn ornaments. Go into that grocery store. Buy a whole big bag of pepperoni.”

“I’ll take it under advisement.”

“The big bag. Economy pack. None of that 2 oz shit.”

And so began the Dream-Quest of Unknown Clarendon, into the most desolate reaches of New England.

Love,

BT