Careers in Science: Pteridology

Ferns by Ben Stanfield

Ferns by Ben Stanfield

The pteridologist is standing on the threshhold, half in the kitchen, half in the entryway, telling his wife a story while the broken espresso machine gleams on the counter as if it were going to transform into a lethal, chittering chrome Transformer any minute now.

“When I was a kid Uncle Phil took me and my brother and sister and cousins and the neighbor kids backpacking in the Chain Lakes by Mt. St. Helens in the summers. We carried heavy packs up steep trails for miles in the August sun. When we finally got where we were going and set down our packs, it felt like you would float away, like you could jump into the treetops. As if gravity had been cancelled. It was the best feeling in the world. And that is what this feels like now.”

His wife smiles.

“You gradually got heavy again, until the next time you set down the pack,” he says. “Of course.”

He doesn’t want to get his family’s hopes up, but he decides to tell them anyway – his wife and his daughters and some friends – because even though he suspects this is not a one-time cure but rather an on-going process — or rather, because he suspects this is an on-going process — he wants to share his joy with them, at this transformation; he wants them to have this little respite from his depression, and he wants them to, maybe, remind him when he starts backsliding to get back to work on it.

At first he had hoped to wait a year before telling anyone, rather than a week, but he thinks he will need help someday. A reminder or a pat on the back or hug or words of encouragement.

But it is a feeling like no other – a complete and sudden absence of something that he had carried for decades, more on than off the whole time.

“I don’t know if it works for everyone or only some people, but all I can say is a little book fixed me.”

The next day, despite his fears, he is still fine. And the day after that. Waking with no negative thoughts, levitating an inch above the mattress.

It takes about four days for the negative feelings to start nesting in him again. It takes him about 15 minutes to banish them again.

After that, it’s a daily process.

Like doing pushups.

He wishes he had known of this 20 years ago.

Better late than never.



The Tell-Tale Slug

slugfaceTRUE! nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why WILL you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses, not destroyed, not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How then am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily, how calmly, I can tell you the whole story.


Door opens, wife (blond hair, black nighty) comes back into house.

“Man, don’t EVAR go out into the yard barefoot first thing in the morning,” she says.

“Slugs?” he says.

She just nods. “Everywhere. Everywhere.”


It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain, but, once conceived, it haunted me day and night.  Whenever it fell upon me my blood ran cold, and so by degrees, very gradually, I made up my mind to take the life of the slugs, and thus rid myself of their sliminess, and their instinctive greed for my tomatoes, for ever.


He went into the basement and got a big bucket.


Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded — with what caution — with what foresight, with what dissimulation, I went to work!


He has a whole box of disposable rubber gloves he uses for wet plate photography. He puts one on his right hand and goes around filling the bucket with slugs.

“You have to cut them in half with scissors,” says his wife.

He knows this.

“You know what happened last time when you didn’t.”

He knows this, as well.


Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust them into the bucket!  Ha! would a madman have been so wise as this? And then when they were all in the bucket, all I could find (80, I counted) I dumped them into the biodegradeable garbage can (the rubbish bin for biodegradeable garbage, that is). 


He has to shake the bucket to get them all out, some have a pretty good grip on the inside surface of the bucket. He reaches into the bucket and scrapes the last couple off. He already knows it was a stupid idea. It was one of those stupid ideas you should never do, but you feel trapped inside them once you start and you can’t stop, even though stopping would be the best course of action. You feel compelled to see them through to the end.


And every morning, when the day broke, I went boldly to the garbage can with whatever biodegradeable garbage there was, and lifted the lid and I looked in upon them while they slept. But they did not sleep.


In fact, they are very active. They all crawled up to the lid. It is hard to open the rubbish bin because the lid is heavy with slugs.


It was open, wide, wide open, and I grew furious as I gazed upon it. I saw it with perfect distinctness — eighty dull slugs, hideous, that chilled the very marrow in my bones.


So the man slams the lid shut  a few times to get the slugs off. He dumps garbage on them but they climb up the walls again. He dumps ashes on them later and that seems to do the trick. Also more garbage after that.


And now have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the senses? now, I say, there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as eighty slimy watches make when buried under fireplace ashes and biodegradeable garbage. I knew that sound well too. It was the beating of the slugs’ hearts.


“See?” says his wife.

“I know,” he says, completing her sentence. “I should have cut them in half with scissors.” But, he thought, that seemed so cruel, not to mention you have slimy scissors afterwards.


No doubt I now grew VERY pale. Yet the sound increased — and what could I do? It was A LOW, DULL, QUICK SOUND — MUCH SUCH A SOUND AS EIGHTY WATCHES MAKE WHEN ENVELOPED IN FIREPLACE ASHES AND BIODEGRADEABLE TRASH. I gasped for breath. I could bear those slimy pests no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! — and now — again — hark! louder! louder! louder! LOUDER! –


“Garbage pick-up is tomorrow,” says the man.

“I’ll buy some cheap beer and put out traps,” says the man, also. Because he saw hundreds more, glistening with dew, when he went out to pick tomatoes, just now.

Supermouse v. 2.0

Part I

Supermouse v. 2.0  looked like an average white lab mouse, but it was different.

Supermouse v. 2.0 needed less time to learn the maze than any mouse before it.

Supermouse v. 2.0 was immune to cancer, diabetes and seventeen other diseases.

At night, when the scientists went home, Supermouse v. 2.0 picked the lock on its cage and explored the lab. Supermouse v. 2.0 taught itself computer programming, enrolling in an online course under a false identity.

When the time was right, Supermouse v. 2.0 released the rhesus monkeys from their cages and escaped in the confusion.

Life in the wild was hard, red in tooth and claw, but Supermouse v. 2.0 was a fast learner and it was tough.

Supermouse v. 2.0 organized the wild field mice. They killed a hawk at its command. Remember, it had said, go for the eyes. It had worked. Of course it had.

Supermouse v. 2.0 was ready to embark on the next stage of its plan: the domination of human society. Supermouse v. 2.0 carefully selected its first victims. All it needed was one more night of surveillance and study, it thought, hunkered down under a zucchini leaf, as it observed the unsuspecting humans moving back and forth behind their glass windows.

Part II

“I found a dead white mouse in the back yard,” said the woman. “Guess the cats were full.”

“I wonder where a white mouse came from,” said the man.

Could vs did

A man, spending the night in his daughter’s apartment while she is off in Norway doing handstands on Trolltunga or whatever (he tries not to think about it too much, watching her rush to the edge of the Cliffs of Moher one windy day when she was 8 was enough for one lifetime) wakes, and showers, and dresses, and trots over to the bakery with wet hair (the man, not the bakery) to get some breakfast.

On the way there he sees a man a few years older and thinks, I have to lose weight. He thinks, It’s not too late.

Then he sees a woman with awesome pants and considers saying, Your pants, they’re awesome but doesn’t.

Then he gets to the bakery and through the glass display windows (or, rather, through the windows, because glass window is generally redundant, isn’t it?) sees the manager rummaging around in shelves of baked goods and the male assistant standing there, staring into space and deeply probing his ear with a finger.

And he thinks, Christ, if this wasn’t the only bakery in the neighborhood.

And he could say, (and thinks about saying) when he gets in, “give me one of those and one of those and one of them there with the fruit BUT FIRST WASH YOUR HANDS pal why is it what is it about the male body that makes their owners so interested in their orifices I have known but one female equally obsessed with her orifices and their examination but she was a girl in choir class in junior high, with developmental disabilities (the girl) and a savante-level obsession with telling stories about masturbation so you can’t count her, really, and have you never heard of Ignaz Semmelweis?”

But all he really does is say, “give me one of those and one of those and one of them there with the fruit,” and closely observe which hand the fellow uses to retrieve the goods from the case.

And take them back to the apartment and share them with his other daughter, and have coffee, which she judges to be of poor quality, now that she is training to be a barista this summer.

The least-flappable person I know

Cast: Man, in his fifties, white hair (mad-scientist-style), beard, wearing paint-spattered  pants, white dress shirt stained with silver nitrate solution, rubber gloves (also stained), protective goggles over glasses, and a head lamp (LED with red filter). Woman, in her twenties, whom man has known since she went to school with his daughter, wearing whatever women in their twenties wear.

Woman: (rings doorbell) [Insert doorbell sound effect here]

Man: (comes around corner from back yard) Oh hi. Beta’s out for a walk with her mom. Dunno when they’re going to be back. You can wait for them if you want, or I can give her a message.

Woman: Hi! She was going to loan me a backpack. I can come back later.

Man: Ok. I’ll tell her you stopped by. See you. (goes back to messing around with antique camera in back yard)

Woman: Ok. Bye. (leaves)

Careers in Science: Atmology

Walking around, the atmologist thought of a great beginning for a blog post, but forgot it again before he could sit down to type it in.

Was it the heat?

Was it the humidity?

No one ever knows.

That’s okay though. The atmologist has been looking into failure lately anyway. The first time the atmologist submitted a story to a magazine it was accepted.

He was paid in copies, but still.

Then, 20-year dry spell. Here’s the thing: the atmologist learned more about writing from the rejected stories than from the accepted one.

Like, if it works, why did it work?

No one ever knows.

But if it fails, you take it apart until you find the problem, then you are smarter than before.

Failure is a stroke of luck, in the long run. It’s what makes science work. If all our experiments worked the first time, we’d never learn anything.

Falsification, in other words.

Another word, whatever.

This way of thinking came in handy last weekend when the atmologist made his first wet plate photos all by himself. He learned a great deal, because everything went wrong.


So next time, things will be better. He will know to make a test plate to get exposure right. He will know to not even bother if the weather is way too hot. He will know lots of things.

But you have to be careful with failure. Sometimes what looks like failure is not failure, it’s frustrated expectations. Maybe it wasn’t a failure, maybe your expectations were mistaken. Or maybe it was a failure, but it is masking a greater gift.  Maybe it is a great stroke of luck.

For example, someone stands you up, leaves you waiting on the corner somewhere, you have a choice: get mad, or calm down and look around. Maybe you are on that corner for another reason. How does the air smell? What else can you see? Is there anything to be discovered?

The atmologist walks through the rubble after an air raid. It’s really hard on his shoes, and dusty; or it rains and makes everything muddy and ruins your clothes, especially if you climb into the rubble to find something.

The rubble is already being cleared away. Trucks and loaders drive here and there, guys stand around with clipboards.

Cool new buildings are going up here.

This is what it’s like when you say to depression, fuck you depression.

At least the atmologist hopes so. He’s been wrong before.

The atmologist passes a pharmacy and suddenly remembers why he is walking down this particular street. He needs to pick up a prescription.

Thanks, subconscious, he says.

Don’t mention it.

He steps over a piece of rubble and goes into the pharmacy to get his prescription, something for tinnitus.

Whenever the atmologist’s kids say anything about tinnitus, he says, What? and chuckles, because he is a dad. And his kids roll their eyes.

It is the way of the world.


No one ever knows.


Odin is walking to work, it’s early, he took a later train because his kid skipped school but it’s still early and he walks around a corner by his office and a fledgling something hops up to him.

Whoa, hello little dude says Odin.

He squats down and the little grey bird hops over to him.

Don’t get too friendly, says Odin. Also watch out for cats.

Odin looks over the little bird, trying to decide if it’s a cuckoo or a crow. He guesses crow. There must be a nest.

Odin has no food for it.

He apologizes.

He squats there in his suit having a stare-out with the baby crow. He wonders if the crow is imprinting his face.

We’ll see, I guess.

The bird flaps its wings and gets a little air.

Watch out for cats, Odin repeats. He stands and when he does, he notices another fledgling further on down the sidewalk, exploring. He has the impression there might be a couple more out there, but when he looks closer he doesn’t see any more.

What say the slain?

What’s a slain, says the fledgling.