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How to write a sweet children’s story

14 Dec

Author’s note: Many people approach me and ask, “you know, Matthew, you write so beautifully about how to remove your own appendix and how to talk to Satan and how to grow human heads out of the earth…when are you going to write a children’s book?” Usually, I just laugh and laugh and laugh, because I don’t speak English, and I don’t know what they’re talking about. This little story, I believe, teaches children that having good friends and extraordinary luck is just as important as hard work or having a job. Enjoy!

 Irwin was a spider. A very lazy spider.

 

While his friends Cassie, Carlos and Bud spun beautiful and intricate webs in the barn, Irwin just watched. He didn’t feel like spinning a web. His ankles hurt from playing foosball.

 After awhile, however, Irwin started to get hungry. So he went to Cassie’s web.

“Hey! Is anybody going to eat this juvenile trichoptera?” he yelled. “Is it all right if I eat this? Can I eat this? Can I eat this thing? Hey, Cass–“

“–Yes, Irwin, just eat it!” cried Cassie, who was putting the finishing touches on her web.

 

Later, he went to Carlos’ web. The husk of a grasshopper was trapped in the silky fibers, its abdomen ripped open, its insides liquified by Carlos’ digestive enzymes.

Irwin looked inside the grasshopper husk. There were still a few puddles of gelatinous tissue.

“Hey, Carlos! He yelled. “Are you going to finish this? Can I have the rest of this? Are you saving this for later or something?”

“Just eat it, Irwin!” Carlos yelled back. He seemed annoyed.

“Whatever,” Irwin muttered, using the teeth on the basal segment of his chelicarae to mash some of the grasshopper’s spiracles into a soft paste.

 

Finally, he headed to Bud’s web. Just as he got there, a moth flew into the sticky threads. Sweet, Irwin thought, moths were his favorite!

“Hey, Bud! Can I have this moth? Can I have it, PLEASE? Hey, Bud, can I? I am starving!”

 

Bud suddenly appeared from the top of his web.

“No, Irwin, you can’t have my moth.”

“AWWWW!” Irwin cried. “C’mon! That’s not fair!”

“You have to learn to build your own web,” Bud said, calmly, in a deep and resonant voice that reminded everyone in the barn of Barry White. “You’re a spider. You have to learn to take care of yourself.”

 

That evening, Bud showed Irwin how to build a web. He showed him how to secrete silk from his major ampullate glands and through his tapering duct (“aw, gross!” Irwin said). He showed him how to attach one end of the silk to a wall, using a tiny hammer and ring shank nails.

He even showed him a nice location in the barn, right across from Cassie, where there were lots of juicy insects!

 

That night, Cassie looked over at Irwin, who was sitting on the wall next to his web.

“Well,” she said, “when are you going to finish it?”

“It IS finished,” said Irwin.

“But it’s just one string hanging from the ceiling with two little angled pieces on the top,” said Cassie. “You’ll never catch anything in that!”

“My ankles hurt,” Irwin sighed.

Cassie shook her head. “You are the laziest spider I know.”

 

In the morning, Cassie woke up and was very pleased to discover that she had caught a big, fat Junebug and a fig wasp!

 

She then looked over at Irwin’s web and couldn’t believe her eyes.

“What is that?” she yelled.

“It’s a pizza,” Irwin yelled back. “Deep dish Chicago style. My favorite!”

 

“But spiders don’t eat pizza!” Cassie cried.

“Speak for yourself,” said Irwin, warm marinara sauce running into his chin beard.

 

The next night, Irwin built a web close to Carlos’ corner of the barn. He worked on it for hours, spinning the most beautiful and intricate web he’d ever spun. Finally, it was finished.

“Is that it?” Carlos asked.

Irwin shrugged. “Um…yes,” he said. “Yes it is.”

 

The next morning, Carlos was excited to see that he had caught a mosquito and a walking stick. And, the walking stick was wearing a brand new pair of LL Bean walking shorts! Carlos could definitely sell those on eBay.

 He looked over at Irwin’s web.

“Whatthe –” he choked. “Irwin! What is that?”

“I think it’s the little Peterson boy,” Irwin said.

“But spiders don’t eat people!” Carlos shrieked.

“Why not? They’re delicious,” Irwin said, spewing digestive enzymes all over the Peterson boy’s shoulder muscle.

How to pick out a watermelon

13 Oct

Cutting open an ice-cold watermelon on a hot summer afternoon is one of the greatest joys in life. However, cutting it open to find it’s completely hollow in the middle and is now filled with tiny bridges and ornate wooden houses; not to mention cobblestone roads, terraced slopes, gas lamps and hundreds of people no bigger than a peppercorn is a supreme disappointment.

“Aw, it’s ruined!” you cry. You show it to the kids, who were really looking forward to some juicy watermelon. “I’m sorry, guys.”

“Can’t you just cut around the villages?” your wife asks.

You sigh. You lean in for a closer look at the two halves, which are sitting on your kitchen counter like a couple of big green salad bowls. “It smells funny. I think I cut through the waste treatment plant,” you say.

You can barely make out the faces on the tiny people, but they all seem to be looking at you. Some of them are clinging to beautifully woven rope bridges while others have taken refuge in brightly-painted homes that resemble Bavarian chalets, neatly staggered up and down the slopes of this peculiar little world. The houses are barely the size of corn kernels. Some of the people are standing knee deep in the watermelon fruit and holding primitive construction tools or musical instruments; others appear to have fallen to their death on your countertop and floor.

One of them begins to scream in a tiny, unintelligible voice. You can’t make out what he’s saying, or even who it is.

“It’s that guy,” your son says, pointing to a gray-haired fellow on the edge of the rind, although his entire mass of hair wouldn’t equal one hair off your arm.

“Him?” you ask, pointing with the tip of your 12-inch chef’s knife. The screaming suddenly stops. “Oops. I think I cut him.”

You take a soup spoon and scrape at some of the delicate cottages, flower gardens and intricately detailed stonework (such tiny stones!) that create retaining walls for the pathways that spiral through the inside of your infested melon.

“It reminds me of the Amalfi coast, honey,” you say, plowing a swath through the village.

“Oh, it is,” your wife says. “It’s Positano.”

“I was thinking Ravello, but OK.”

There is more faint screaming as the homes crumple and roll up in front of your spoon. You can’t quite make it out, but it sounds something like, no, no; please, please have mercy; we’re the earth spirits from which you have evolved. Or something like that. A tiny landslide of bodies and debris tumbles into the middle of the melon. Behind all the homes and what appeared to be a free health clinic, however, is the brightest red watermelon fruit you’ve ever seen!

“Here,” you say, holding out a glistening spoonful to your son. “Try it.”

He pops it in his mouth and smiles, then pulls something off the tip of his tongue and wipes it on the edge of the counter. “Yuck. That part is kinda bitter,” he says.

You grab a magnifying glass from the kitchen drawer and zoom in on it. “Lederhosen,” you announce.

You give another spoonful to your daughter, who also spits out a foreign object. “Vespa,” you announce. “This is some sort of European strain.”

“Maybe we should just throw it away,” you say. “I don’t want anyone choking on a lamppost, or breaking a tooth on one of these quaint little patisseries. Are you sure you guys don’t just want a snow cone?”

Your kids look up at you, their faces sunburned and their lips chapped, and break into wide grins: “Yeah! Snow cones!”

So you throw the watermelon into the compost pile. As an afterthought, and to prevent the infestation from spreading to your tomatoes, you douse the two halves with gasoline and set them on fire.

A few minutes later you’re sitting at a picnic table outside Big Betty’s Sno-cone Shak. Your daughter takes a bite out of the top of her snow cone and gasps: “look, daddy!”

You peer down and right beyond the curved edge of the shaved ice is some sort of primeval jungle-scape; a lush, verdant, primordial garden. It’s impossibly green, and teeming with life. You lean in closer to see clouds curling across the inner surface of the ice globe. A one-inch bolt of lightning crackles through the tiny sky.

You daughter begins to cry. “I wanted blue cotton candy flavor!”

Angry, you go back to the counter and shove the snow cone with a world inside it at the 15-year-old girl running the machine.

“What the hell is this?”

She looks into the snow cone, pauses, and falls to her knees. “It’s…it’s so beautiful!” she says.

“Look, buddy, if I wanted a snow cone with a self-contained universe of indescribable beauty and complexity, I would have ordered it that way, OK?”

You grab the snow cone from her and slam it into a trash can.

“C’mon, kids,” you say. “Let’s go to McDonalds.”

How to raise good kids

13 Oct

How to know the difference between a human and a pheasant

13 Oct

It’s a crisp fall morning, shortly after Thanksgiving, a perfect day for pheasant hunting. After a sunrise drive into the countryside, you and your buddy, Jim Nevil, set up a block at the end of a long waterway at the edge of a recently-cut sorghum field. The sweepers in your hunting party, Marty and Joe Potater, are marching toward you through the cottonwoods and Johnson grass from the opposite end of the field.

Hopefully, among the parade of wildlife they roust from the waterway, there will be a few pheasants.

Your heart picks up a few beats as you settle in beside a stand of redbuds. Oh, the excitement! It’s primal, this hunting. The wild man is alive and well in you and your friends.

After just a few minutes, you hear the rustling of leaves in the thick underbrush. A deer bolts into view, leaps past you, bounds over a barbed-wire fence and disappears. A few meadowlarks flutter higher into the treetops and a couple of ground squirrels scurry by.

You glance over at Jim, 50 yards away. He looks back, cradling his 20-gauge and grinning like mad. He gives you a thumbs-up. The rustling grows louder. It won’t be long now, you think.

Another deer appears from the tree line, 10 feet away. You can practically touch him! Another flurry of meadowlarks sprinkles through the trees like confetti. And then…what is that?

You squint, hard. Stumbling into view are four, tiny, bearded men, each of them no taller than your knee. They seem confused, each of them turning in circles and bumping into the others. They’re dressed only in white bikini briefs, though one is wearing a sleeping cap, and another one has shaving cream on his upper lip.

They notice you, and stop. They point and you simply stare at each other for a few seconds, motionless. Then they run, boosting one another over a log you would have simply stepped across. You look over at Jim, who shrugs and moves his mouth: gnomes.

No shit, you mouth back. You turn back to the tree line, just as the 1994 Slovakian Olympic hockey team appears. You recognize Zigmund Palffy. They’re all wearing striped sweaters in the Slovakian national colors.

“What are you guys –?” you whisper, and they turn to look at you, at once. They seem frightened, as well, and they run, their powerful skater legs carrying them easily across the waterway and out into the sorghum field, where they go into a full sprint and disappear over a far terrace.

1994 Slovakian Olympic hockey team, you mouth in Jim’s direction.

What? he mouths back.

You start to say it again, but there’s a terrific roar as a military tank crashes through a tangle of wild blackberry brambles. It pauses in the clearing, its huge diesel engine growling. Without warning, the turret spins in a complete circle, its enormous gun reducing several cottonwood trees to splinters. The engine revs and it rolls away, clackclackclackclack, smashing a jagged tunnel through the woods.

You and Jim stare at each other. You throw your arms up and shake your head. He mouths something, and shrugs. You shake your head again.

“LeClerc battle tank,” he says, just loud enough for you to hear him. “I think. Could be an AMX-30. Definitely French.”

You nod, slowly. You thought for sure it was Italian.

There’s no time to think, however, as a nine-foot, extraterrestrial flagellus with a puckered, siphon-shaped feeding orifice hurtles from the brush line directly in front of Jim, terrified! It shrieks and throws up its 12, biforcated grappling stalks, then falls on your friend, sucking his head into its gelatinous vacuole.

There’s a strange slurping noise as Jim’s body pulses in and out of the flagellus like a baby’s pacifier. After a few seconds, however – apparently disliking the taste of cheap aftershave, you tell him later – the creature spits Jim out, his head dripping with a translucent mucus. After a frantic emission of both gas and digestive lubricants from his porous membrane (a defensive gesture), the flagellus disappears down the waterway using a series of rapid muscular contractions.

Jim seems stunned, shrugging and shaking his head vigorously in your direction.

What was that? he says, mouthing the words.

You mouth the words extraterrestrial flagellus.

“Huh?” he says, a little louder.

“Extraterrestrial flagellus,” you say. “Big one.”

He nods, and gives you another thumbs-up. You both turn back to the trees as there is, once again, something coming.

This time it’s pheasant! Two beautiful birds pop from the Johnson grass and you blast away, loading and reloading your shotgun as fast as you can. You shoot from the shoulder, from waist-level, from between your legs. You even get out a little mirror and shoot Annie Oakley-style, over your shoulder. You shoot into the side of a steel pipe and hit the ground as pellets zing over your head. From your back, you shoot straight into the air about 20 times.

You shoot and shoot and shoot, for a good half-hour. You can hear Jim doing the same.

When you finally stop there’s a thick, white haze in the air and your ears are ringing. You look over at Jim. His gun is jammed, and he’s sitting on one of the pheasants, beating it with his fists. “Die, bitch!” he screams. The pheasant is shielding its face with its hands.

Then you realize: It’s not a pheasant! It’s Joe Potater! And Marty Potater! You run over and pull Jim off. Joe and Marty look up at you. Happily, you missed.

“Good golly!” Marty cries. “Do you guys shoot at everything that moves?”

“Uh, sorry,” you say. “I guess I thought you were a pheasant.”

“Look here,” Joe says. “I don’t look anything like a pheasant.”

You look at Joe, trying to suppress a smile. You look at the other guys, who are doing the same. Jim kicks at a clod of dirt and lets out a little giggle.

“Well, Joe, actually you do,” says Marty. You all laugh. Joe laughs, too, wiping a tear from his pointed beak.

Then you all go home, bringing this story to a convenient end.

How to understand noises in your dresser

13 Oct

How to drive a nuclear sub

13 Oct

Well, you did it. You made it through four, grueling years at the U.S. Naval Academy, graduating third in your class, if you count up from the bottom. You made it through officer training school and all the most strenuous courses the Navy could possibly throw at you: thermodynamics, reactor dynamics, differential equations. You know seamanship and command, strategic weapon systems and nuclear propulsion as well as anyone, and you’re ready for your first sea tour as a Division Officer aboard the USS Tennessee, an Ohio-class Trident nuclear submarine.

You report for duty in South Korea, and the CO names you Diving Officer – a huge responsibility. Basically, you get to drive the submarine, and when the CO asks you to back the Tennessee out of the dock, you don’t hesitate.

“Yes, sir!” you say, climbing into the driver’s seat. You turn the key and the big, S8G PWR nuclear reactor rumbles to life. You let it warm up for a few minutes, revving the engines, and put Journey’s seminal, 1982 release, “Frontiers,” in the cassette player [note: the Tennessee was commissioned in 1986. Nuke subs only came with cassette players back then]. You jam the transmission into reverse, floor it, and the sub launches backwards. The steering wheel tears from your hand and you hear an awful scraping noise.

“Whoa! Whoa! Shut it down! Shut it down!” cries the CO.

There goes my Navy career, you think. Sheepishly, you follow the other officers onto the deck to inspect the damage. It’s minimal, a few pieces of chrome trim are bent and you totally wasted a couple of fishing boats, but that’s about it.

“Do we have some kind of adhesive spray on board?” you ask. “I can fix that trim in about five minutes.”

“I’d better let someone else drive,” the CO mutters, pointing to one of the other officers.

“Aw, come on,” you say. “How was I supposed to see the dock? There aren’t any windows down there.”

But the CO is adamant. He names you Weapons Officer, instead.

“Yes, sir!” you say. You like the sound of that: weapons officer.

Still, after a few hours on board, you realize that being a submarine officer in the U.S. Navy isn’t all that great. You kind of thought there would be more adventure involving motorcycles and speedboats, but no. Basically, you just drive around in the ocean.

“Borrrre-ring,” you tell Ensign Price, one chair over. “I’m bored. Call me when I need to shoot something.”

You go to fix a sandwich. Unfortunately, while you’re away you miss the announcement from the commanding officer that you’re about to undergo a live fire exercise on a derelict ship; however, the exercise will be staged as a real-life nuclear launch against Beijing.

You come back onto the bridge just as the exercise is getting under way. Ensign Price is tapping nuclear launch codes into the computer. “Hey, what’s happening?” you ask, taking another bite from your smoked ham and gouda on a fresh-baked Kaiser bun.

“We’re going to war,” LPO first class Benjamin Nipples says. He seems scared. Really scared.

“Prepare to launch MIRV Trident II on Beijing!” the CO cries out from his position near the periscope.

You throw your sandwich onto the console in front of you and quickly punch in the firing coordinates for Beijing. Your mind is racing. Did the Chinese attack first? Or is this some sort of preemptive strike?

“Weapons officer, do we have coordinates?” the CO calls.

“Yes, sir!” you say. “We certainly do!”

You clench your teeth. You know better than to follow a “yes, sir,” with a “we certainly do.” Nobody does that in the Navy.

The CO begins his countdown to launch: “6, 5, 4…”

Lord forgive me, you think.

“3, 2, 1…”

Images flash through your head: children laughing, singing, playing on a playground.

“Fire!”

“Come again?” you say, turning in your chair.

“I said fire!”

“I thought you said ‘hire,’” you say, laughing nervously. “I was wondering who I was supposed to give a job to.”

“Fire, goddammit!”

Your finger is poised over the launch button, trembling, but you can’t do it. You see the helpless faces of 100 million Chinese children who have done nothing, who bear no responsibility for this genocide. You start to cry, your sniffles echoing through the cold, steel chamber.

“Fire!” the CO yells. He’s angry.

“Oh, all right,” you say, under your breath. The world is ending, anyway. You stab your finger at the fire button, only your eyes are so blurred from tears you push the wrong button. Instead of firing a missile, a small door next to the CO pops open and an ironing board swings down and hits him on the head.

Well, there goes my Navy career, you think.

After a few minutes of stunned silence, however, the CO breaks into a wide grin and starts to laugh. Soon, the whole bridge joins in.

“Permission to starch your collar, sir!” you yell to the CO from your station.

“Permission granted!” he yells back, and everyone starts to laugh even harder.

A few hours pass and it seems everyone forgets about bombing Beijing. Just as well, you think. Heck, you didn’t want to annihilate one of the world’s greatest cities, anyway.

Your shift ends late and you head back to your bunk. On the way you run into Petty Officer Jesse Klute, who does light welding and maintenance on the boat.

“Hey, wanna get high?” he whispers. He shows you a huge Tupperware bowl full of pot. You look at him, stunned, and the pound or so of dank bud he’s holding. He smells like potatoes.

“I – I’m an officer, Klute,” you whisper back. “I could have you arrested, but, well, OK, um, let’s go. Follow me.”

You lead him down a side hallway to the lower level, through the engine room and into the nuclear plant.

“Let’s step outside,” you whisper, pushing on a door. Ice cold sea water pours into the room. You shut the door, quickly.

“I forgot,” you whisper, pointing at the door. “We’re underwater.”

“They should put a sign on that door,” he whispers back at you. You nod.

You climb a ladder to a steel platform by the ceiling. There’s at least a foot of water on the floor. The reactor is making a funny noise.

Klute loads his pipe and you both take a few hits. He reloads and after a few minutes you’re higher than you’ve ever been in your life.

Suddenly, there’s noise in the hallway. The door opens, and the CO steps into the reactor room. He’s wearing fleece pajamas with band instruments printed on them. “What the hell is this?” he says, sloshing through the water. He throws a switch that evacuates the water from the room, then opens a little door at the bottom of the reactor. “Damn pilot light,” he says, “just as I thought.”

He lights a match and gets on his knees, holding down the control knob for a minute or so to let the thermocouple heat up. Slowly, he turns the knob from “pilot” to “fission reaction.”

When he stands up he sniffs at the air, then looks up and spots you and Klute. You both snap to attention. Klute, however, drops the Tupperware bowl full of pot, which lands at the CO’s feet and spills open. The CO looks at it, and back at you.

Well, there goes my Navy career, you think.

“I should have you both court martialed,” he says after what seems like an eternity. “In my 40 years in the Navy, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an egregious violation of military regulations.”

Your mind is numb. The CO stoops and picks up a handful of Klute’s weed. He smells it.

“Nor,” he continues, “do I think I’ve ever seen such a righteously keefed bud. Load me up a bowl, bro.”

An hour later you’re back in your bunk. That sure was an eventful first day, you think.

How to deliver a baby

13 Oct