I Believe in Isaac

The Rookery

Posted in Uncategorized by isaacmcphee on March 14, 2012

Please note: The following short story is not to be confused with the children’s book of the same name–though the two stories just so happen to have originated both on the same day and in the same dining room.

Now: The Rookery

He grew up in what others called a rookery.  It was a vile place, really; so vile as to be almost enchanting.  So perfect in its contempt of the perfect houses of the bankers and lawyers of the city as to be almost idyllic in its misery.  His home could truly have been loved, but only as a humorist loves his most perfect work of satire; as the novelist loves his most perfectly dystopian vision of the future.

It is not entirely certain that his dwelling could even have been called a house, for it had but three walls and a roof so patchwork that he could see the moon and stars through its cavities as if laying in a field atop one of the hills to the north.  Beyond the invisible fourth wall – the barrier that might have transformed his meager dwelling into something more homely an abode – lay a host of others; those with the misfortune of having been cast aside by society and banished to the rookery until the moment their fortunes would be reversed.  Such reversals were rare, however, and were greeted within the little paupers’ commune as something rather worth pitying than celebrating.

He left the rookery once each day, awakening at the rising of the sun and returning just after dusk.  It had been months since he had seen the rookery in the fullness of daytime, though he took this peculiarity of his schedule as far more of a blessing than a curse, for the rookery was no more worth laying one’s eyes upon than the serpentine headdress of Medusa. Seeing the thing in the light of day might just as easily have turned him to stone.

Though unknown to those with whom he so closely dwelt, the life he lived beyond the walls of the tenement was radically different from that within.  In fact, these two worlds were so different as to be almost unbelievable; so drastically improbable as to be almost impossible to tell, lest one be accused of fabricating the most abhorrent of lies – fairy tales offered up as pure history.

This boy (or perhaps he was a man – he stood right on the cusp between the two worlds; where the line is crossed cannot be stated for certain) awoke each day and ambled out of the shackles of his existence, dressed in torn rags, unkempt and wild hair, with soleless shoes covering only the tops of his feet, offering only the appearance of being clad.  Each day the routine was repeated, he would leave the frail building behind and make his way through the dirty streets, passing by the poor sellers setting up their little booths in the gutters, past the meat shops smelling sweetly of freshly-butchered poultry and cattle, past the row houses and banks and book binders and every other little piece of society. He would cross the bridge and take in the foul odor of the rank water flowing beneath, passing in and out of the crowds that occupied the streets of that metropolis.

Those he passed each morning he passed not passively, nor in solidarity regarding their shared status in life. He did not ignore the people (though they certainly ignored him. He looked at them, met their eyes, and sneered in great contempt, for, you see, they were all beneath him. Too low even to be pitied. He did not so much trudge by them in his haggard dress and soleless shoes as he marched over their broken, frail bodies while scoffing in derision at their poverty; he thumbed his nose at them all as he walked passed, cursing them for disgracing the streets of his beloved town with their presence.  He walked by the fine little cottages just outside of town and cursed at their hedgerows and lilies; their buttercups and their rosebushes.  So small and so frail as to be trampled under the feet of even the most delicate of invading armies.

Only his castle could stand against such foes.

Oh! His castle!

He marched cruelly through the city until at last he arrived at the foot of those great stone walls. He stepped up to its grand and magnificent gate every morning and peered up at its glorious towers and crenellations; the archers perched as sentries atop its great walls. The vast, impassable moat and wooden drawbridge; the pointed arches of stained glass and waving flag bearing the symbol of the city striking intrepidly upward.

He stood and looked and knew the truth that was hidden to the rest of the city. These were his towers. His walls. His archers.  He stood straight and tall and a single, delicate tear of endless pride began to well up at the corner of his eye as he spoke, softly at first, then with increased fervor and intensity:

Prepare yourselves, men!  For though this may seem a time of peace, let it never be forgotten that a time of war is not far off. A time of bloodshed stands just at the door. But we must meet our enemies; we must stand before them with courage. We shall stride together into battle; I shall go before you and lead you all in great daring, and honor shall be restored to our kingdom.  I shall lay aside my crown of honor and pick up my sword of defenestration.  When our enemies arrive, men, we shall be prepared, and we shall fortify ourselves with the honor of knowing that our kingdom is good and righteous.  The war shall end, my friends, my brave warriors, and we shall be received at this very castle as mighty conquerors and defenders of liberty.  A time of peace shall be upon us once more and our kingdom will grow under my gracious rule.  Oh! My throne! My table! How I shall miss you upon those helpless days of war, and how I shall cling to you upon my return with renewed love and affection!  How the rabble may look up to me!  How the poor shall covet my wealth; the proud fear my power!  How the haughty shall fall and the good be lifted up!  There has never been a king such as I, and though my loins be fertile, the kingdom shall  not see such prosperity under my sons.  The kingdom is nearing its pinnacle; let us embrace all that we are and strive to be that which we are not yet.  Good day, men.

He stood still, staring forward at that mighty edifice; that centerpiece of the city. Finally, as day turned to late afternoon, he turned and walked back through town, never looking back to his castle; to his home; to his great army standing at attention just beyond the gates.

He spat at a newspaperman as he passed by. He cursed a cab driver and was chased into an alleyway and beaten.  He took a boiled egg from a grocer’s cart because it was his right as King and took yet another good lashing.  He limped silently, pitying his people for their poverty.

The sun had just set as he climbed the final hill and set his eyes upon the silhouette of his rookery.  He crawled over the bodies of paupers strewn on thin mats across the floor and found his way at once to his own bed.  He slept soundly, as he did every night.

In his dreams there was no rookery.


On Opposition to the Metric System

Posted in Uncategorized by isaacmcphee on February 15, 2012

or, on the virtue of difficulty

I don’t believe it would serve much purpose to claim that there is anything particularly rational about U.S. System of units; nor would it be honest to insist that there is anything particularly irrational about the metric system. In fact, it doesn’t seem difficult to conclude that in terms of sheer rationalism, the metric system has all others soundly beaten. Few could argue that, given our adoption of a base-10 numerical system, there is profound logic behind also adopting a base-10 system of weights and measures.


I will never be heard arguing that a gallon is somehow a more efficient or useful tool than a liter. I will never be seen cursing the speed limit signs in Canada for being difficult to understand. I will never say that there is anything fundamentally comprehensible about the U.S. System (which, it should be noted, was called the “Imperial System” when still in regular use in England—I, as something of an imperialist myself, much prefer the old to the new). The truth is—and it would take an especially wonderful sort of stubbornness to deny this—that the metric system benefits from an almost unbelievable ease-of-use factor. Conversions can be carried out with ease, often without so much as picking up a pen or hitting a button on a calculator. In the realm of science, especially, where one must keep their units straight at all costs, there is great value in the metric system.


This is well-trod ground. America’s stubbornness in terms of unit adoption is a thing of legend, made only the more dramatic when it is recalled that the U.S. has actually been on the cutting edge in popularizing the metric system since the early 19th century; what’s more, the U.S. Congress officially adopted the system with the Metric Conversion Act of 1975, at which point America smugly shrugged its shoulders and simply went on measuring in pounds, miles and inches (the legislative history of the United States is a treasure trove of such tidbits; and I an avid treasure hunter).

We were thus saved by our own obstinacy from a slow, agonizing death.

Like the very nation I inhabit, I now (after having admittedly wavered) stand firmly in my opposition to the metric system for reasons that have very little (almost nothing, really) to do with measurement. My own opposition stems, instead, from my insistence on asking: Must ease-of-use be our only guiding light in this matter? Must we be constantly tilting at the windmills of simplicity?

“The task must be made difficult,” said Kierkegaard, “for only the difficult inspires the noble-hearted.” Likewise, I ascribe my opposition to the metric system to what I would call the “virtue of difficulty.” When minor tasks are made simple, they remain insignificant; when a hint—even a whisper—of difficulty or complication is added, the mind is suddenly opened up to wonderful things. The simple is transformed into the profound; hidden mysteries are opened and our imaginations are rendered free.

There is, of course an even deeper social aspect to this all—and this particular rabbit hole can be followed absolutely as far as one would care to take it, which is a beautiful thing for those who care to think, but for the moment I choose to keep things (relatively) superficial.

Simplicity is poison to the soul.

As young children, we did not attend school simply that our minds might be filled with information; while the particular facts and ideas might have served more beneficial purpose in later years of education, in the first (and most formative) years of school, it really seems that much of we are taught serves only the purpose of teaching us to think. It does not truly matter, really, that we may have misplaced some of the particulars of what we were taught; what we studiously memorized and promptly forgot the moment it ceased to be a requirement. It matters only that in doing so we exercised something far more valuable than our capacity for trivia; we arrayed our minds toward the very fundamentals of thought, even though most of us had very little worth thinking about just yet. We were given challenges simply because they were challenging, not because it was thought that we might face identical challenges in our adulthood (I have not once since the fifth grade been asked to describe the difficulties faced by pioneers on the Oregon Trail, though I am certainly grateful that at one point I knew). We are made what we are by challenges; by character building.

The moment we begin to idolize simplicity (for the sake of being simple) may very well be the same moment we cease our growth as individuals and begin to succumb to to decay. This is certainly true physically—we all reach a point in our lives when we no longer actively seek out physical challenge and instead choose to run from it. It is true spiritually—stagnation of spiritual growth is far too often a symptom of no longer seeking; no longer asking questions; no longer challenging ourselves. And it is certainly true mentally.

What is the metric system (to at last return to the point of this all) if not a methodology born out of a languid desire for simplicity? Modernization has brought nothing if not the means for greater simplification, such that there remain few avenues by which we may truly be challenged. Our imaginations are threatened by an endless loop of images, some worthlessly inane and some disastrously sensual. Our souls are threatened by a growing devotion to what these same images are telling us. Our bodies are threatened by both misuse and lack of use. Every commercial, every catalogue, every billboard preaches the gospel of self-improvement by some outside means. And in the midst of it all, we grumble persistently in the electronic media of our age (the same grumbling that might once have been heard, in person, around a water cooler), that we still somehow lack this one necessity: We remain in some terrible dark age of measurement. We cry out to the heavens for justice, for there is still this one luxury that we as Americans are denied. And we cower in shame as the rest of the world laughs at our stubbornness.

Let them laugh.


Now, as an added bonus for making it this far, a bit of trivia:

Most of us find it difficult to remember how many feet are in a mile (5280). Perhaps this is because we’ve somehow forgotten that, classically, one needn’t make such a long jump. The Imperial units actually provide us with some intermediaries: We know that there are three feet to a yard, but very few know that there are 22 yards to a chain (which was precisely the length of a chain used by Edmund Gunter in the 17th century to perform surveys in England—and even this was no arbitrary measurement, for he chose to use a chain consisting of exactly 100 links to keep things consistent. On yet another note, this measurement remains in use worldwide as the wicket-to-wicket distance of a standard cricket pitch). Ten chains make up a furlong (ten square chains make up an acre), eight furlongs to a mile, three miles to a league. And, finally, 93 million miles make up one Astronomical Unit (the average distance between the Earth and the Sun).  Interesting, yes? There’s more where that came from. The fun of measurement is practically boundless.

A Fair Response to Lamarckianism (Two Centuries too Late)

Posted in Uncategorized by isaacmcphee on August 8, 2011

I’m no true Lamarckian, but I hold a certain amount of respect for Lamarck.

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and I have very little in common on the surface. He was a nineteenth century Frenchman who strongly believed in the notion of “soft-inheritance” (where certain acquired traits are passed genetically from one generation to the next) as mechanism for evolution, and I am none of these things. It was Lamarck’s understanding that the process of knowledge and behavior learned throughout life has a physical effect on a person’s genes, leading shadows of these effects to be passed on through the natural course of species multiplication (which is a pretentious way of saying that parents pass off things they learn to their kids).

In all of this, Lamarck and I have very little common ground.  I was not alive in the nineteenth century; I have never been to France, and I think science has capably demonstrated the fallacy of soft inheritance.

And yet, all that being said, I don’t think Lamarck’s ideas were so foolish when he first considered them. Therein lies my respect. In addition, I believe that Lamarckian evolution remains useful, even if only as something to consider. In fact, it is a perfectly worthwhile tool–a tool I would like to use in order to examine yet another figure of the 18th century: Charles Willson Peale.

But before I can get to Peale, I must allow for an illustration of my own life so as to frame the debate:

Very few young children are capable of finding any true enjoyment in a church service. There may be truth spoken there, but to a child truth is insufficient in terms of entertainment. A child much prefers a lie to the truth—and who can possibly blame them?

Though there are certainly churches (such as the Baptist church in which I was raised) that endeavor to heighten the quality of their Sunday productions to the point where they might rival (and too often resemble) a Broadway musical, it does not seem that the evolution of church will ever do away entirely with the centerpiece of the service: The Sermon.

Though some sermons are certainly more entertaining than others (and unfortunately, entertainment value need not have any direct correlation to quality of truth—would that it were!), as a very general rule there is something endlessly dull about listening to a man speak. As a child I would be reasonably entertained for the first twenty minutes of every service—a time for singing, announcements, sometimes a dramatic performance, very occasionally a video or slideshow—and then bored to tears by the lengthy latter portion, wherein the pastor would stand up and speak for forty-five minutes. Like watching a film with but one character and no real drama.

My boredom (and the boredom of every child in church) has nothing at all to do with the truth of the sermon and absolutely everything to do with me being seven or eight years old and not wanting to listen to someone talk to me for the better part of an hour. I believe that little more can be reasonably expected from a child.

All of this is to say that I had an hour to kill every week. An hour to keep myself occupied while waiting for church to come to an end; and like many children (and certainly many adults who are far less likely to admit to it), I was forced to rely on my creativity to get me through. I was fortunate that each week upon entering the sanctuary each parishioner (no, we never did call ourselves parishioners—we were just people) would receive a bulletin, upon which was printed every necessary piece of churchgoing information—sermon topic, special announcements, upcoming events, and a blank space upon which to take notes.  This last page was the key to my sanity during those fidgety times on lightly-cushioned pews.

I had several methods of whiling away my time, but often it was very systematic. I would often begin by coloring in the letters throughout the bulletin—every “o”, every “a” and “b” and “q” and “p”.  Every letter with an enclosed loop I would color in.  That would kill about ten minutes. I’d then make my way to the margins of the paper and practice drawing basic geometric shapes and patterns. Most commonly I’d draw a box, then I’d turn it into a three dimensional box.  Then I’d pull a little M.C. Escher (unconsciously, of course) and add some other impossible dimensionality to it—angles and sides would extend outward into some hidden reality; two sides of the same box would somehow meet or pass over one another as if a manifestation of the very curvature of space-time itself… it was all a lot of nonsense that could easily be interpreted as profound (as many of the most nonsensical things far too often are).

This much I could draw—even if my lines weren’t particularly straight and my attempts at shading proved ineffective, I could generally draw a box that looked like a box.  A cylinder that looked like a cylinder. Therein lies the extent of my artistic proficiency.

This would keep me occupied for perhaps another ten minutes.

The sermon would be about halfway over when I moved on to attempt a more “realistic” style of art.  Every week I would draw one of two things. I cannot remember a time when I bothered to venture at all beyond this comfort zone; I refused to make so much as an attempt at any other artistic form. It was always one of these two, without fail.

The first thing was a very specific bit of scenery, very much in the vein of classic Bob Ross (who I consider to have been something of an unconscious artistic mentor). Week after week would see me producing a subtle variation on just one scene:  A few hills drawn off in the distance (these were just curve lines—I could do curved lines with reasonable proficiency), and in between two of these hills there would rise up a mountain. This mountain always bore an uncanny likeness to Mt. Baker in the north Cascades—the mountain I observed more than any other during my childhood. From in between these sloping, interlocking hills I would draw a flowing river—some parallel s-shaped curves growing farther apart the closer they get to the bottom of the scene, so as to create the illusion of depth (a feat which immediately puts me a league ahead of most cave painters). Finally, I would draw a sun up in the sky, along with a few puffy clouds, and a small cabin near the river.  The cabin always looked the same—a box with a roof, one door and two windows—and it was dreadful.

The second thing I would draw was perhaps more unique—certainly more unexpected: I would draw a surfer riding a large, curling wave. Hundreds of them. And I’ve never once been surfing.

I had watched a friend draw it once—just a fun little cartoon surfer. Nothing particularly noteworthy about it, but people seemed impressed by this drawing, and that was more than enough to inflict me with that human desire to impress with a work of my own. I spent countless hours in my attempts to replicate this image, with no concern at all about adding any element of originality. I did not want to be able to draw anything—I wanted to be able to draw that exact picture. I didn’t want to be an artist; I just wanted to have one arrow in my artistic quiver with which I could impress people.

Like all things born out of childhood delusions, my dream was never realized. But I was never deceived; no little inkling of inappropriate self-confidence or egoism ever crept into my perception of my own artistic skills.  I was fully aware of both my transparent unoriginality and my utter inability to create anything mistakable for “art.”

All is not lost, though. Had I truly held any pure desire toward art I might easily have excelled in abstraction. The nature of art, for better or for worse (most certainly for worse) is such that many is a niche left waiting to be created, developed, capitalized upon and then squandered.  Many are the art lovers just waiting for the next bit of horridly existential tripe to adore as a passing and (later) regrettable fad, and few are those who recognize true talent. I might have found success by exploiting my failures as some form of social commentary—but in terms of merit and artistic vision, I’ve never had it and I’ve always known that I never would. And it was not for lack of practice. Apart from my weekly art sessions in church, even, I would take time out to draw and sketch throughout a great deal of my education, but not only did I never become technically proficient, I did not seem to even improve!  Not even marginally!

This is remarkable, and it is also profound.  It is also the basis of my acceptance of at least one element of the principle of Lamarckianism. And this is what finally brings us to Charles Willson Peale.


Like me, Peale was an American (in this we both differ from Lamarck).  Like Lamarck, Peale was born in the 1740’s (in this I am very much unlike them both).

Peal was one of the most famous, prodigious and fertile (in several senses of the word) artists of American history—and he just happened to come into his own in the midst of a period in which American history was just beginning.  Peale was a capable portraitist, meaning that men would pay his rather exorbitant fee for the privilege of sitting perfectly still for hours on end in order to have him paint their likeness.

Peale is responsible for some of the most well-known American portraits of the early nation—iconic images of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Hancock and Thomas Jefferson stand among countless others (many of which you’d probably recognize if you saw them). Prior to the revolution, he had studied for two years in England with Benjamin West, an American-born painter who had since moved to London.

But Peale’s abilities were not limited to painting alone.  He had many other talents, as well, such as carpentry (he wrote a very well-received article entitled “An Essay on Building Wooden Bridges,” which I would certainly read, if I ever happened to come across a copy), shoemaking (cobbling, as it was then called) and optometry. As a teenager, he even owned his own saddle-making shop for a time, though his business was forced into bankruptcy when some Loyalists (those who remained loyal to the British crown in the years leading up to the revolution) discovered that he was a member of the Sons of Liberty, a Patriotic organization.

All of this is somewhat peripheral and has little to do with my point, but it has that invaluable quality of being good biography, so it would be a pity not to allow a bit of wandering for the sake of something interesting.

The point (if there is one) is this: Throughout his full, meaningful life, full of children (he had seventeen of his own!) and portraiture business, Charles Willson Peale maintained the firm and outspoken belief that the seed of artistic ability lies within all men. To Peale, absolutely anyone could be taught to draw, and to draw well. He believed, in other words, that there is no man naturally born with the instincts and ability to compose a portrait or landscape or what have you better than any other man. The quality of a man’s art is the result of a man’s training and discipline.

While I personally think that Peale’s assessment is almost disastrously foolish (using myself as proof), his theory was not without evidence. His own family makes his point rather strongly. Upon returning to America in 1769 after his apprenticeship in England, Peale decided to teach his younger brother James how to draw. James took well to the lessons and became a famous painter himself, known for his miniature and still-life works. In addition, after becoming the progenitor of a houseful of children, Peale decided to teach them to paint as well—as any good patriarch would. Several of these heirs to his artistic crown, to whom he gave such fittingly artistic names as Rembrandt Peale, Titian Peale, Raphael Peale and Rubens Peale, became well-known artists in their own right. Even Sarah Miriam Peale, the daughter of James (Charles’ niece), devoted her life to art, becoming the first professional American woman portrait painter.

Perhaps Peale was right. His family certainly seems to be a testament to the theory that anyone can be taught to draw.

Or is it?

Here’s where Lamarck (finally) comes in and the argument threatens us with some semblance of lucidity.

While a century and a half has passed since Lamarck’s theories of soft inheritance were brutally and savagely supplanted by those of Charles Darwin and his “survival of the fittest,” I still propose to set Lamarck against Peale as
if the debate was still relevant.

So while Lamarck’s theories have been thoroughly debunked, I think that he might yet be willing to apply them to the Peale problem, asserting that any family with such clear artistic ability, spread over a number of blood-related individuals must possess some form of the “art” gene—that which makes them creative, gives them a steady hand and an eye for recreating reality on a canvas.

At the very least, Peale would have to explain how, if the artistic potential lay dormant within everyone, then why do I seem to have no capacity for putting images to canvas—why does continued practice yield no results?

Why indeed?

I have to admit that when I began this essay, I had every intention of siding with Lamarck in asserting that the Peale family is living proof of some form of Lamarckianism, but I admit that as the argument has progressed I have become less and less convinced. I finally reach my breaking point with Lamarck on the strength of just a single piece of evidence: My own family.

If the artistic ability of the Peale family could be somehow attributed to genetic inheritance rather than the product of education, how am I to explain the artistic bloodline into which I was born?

Art, both as a hobby and as a profession, exists on both sides of my family in some abundance.  My grandmother on my mother’s side was a prolific and successful painter—she certainly had a way with both portraits and scenery and lived a long and healthy life off the fruits of her artistic labors. Likewise, my Aunt on my father’s side of the family has also made her living as an artist—painting, sculpting, carving and molding in every conceivable medium.

Now I am left in a bit of a tough spot as far my conclusions are concerned, a position I do not enjoy in the least—I am infinitely more comfortable living in a world without any gray area; where all is either passion or dispassion, and where nothing is allowed to exist in between; I am absolutely appalled by the very notion of indecision. For if it turns out that Lamarck was right, and artistic ability might be inherited genetically, doesn’t it stand to reason that I might have received some of that from my own relatives? On the other hand, if the skill is something to be learned, then why have I failed so dramatically in honing my own skills?  I can recall countless hours spent attempting to create objects out of clay given to me as a gift from my aunt. I remember her attempts at teaching me to carve objects from soft stone. I remember avidly watching Bob Ross (for he was everywhere) and thinking, “That doesn’t seem so hard!” But then, in practice, coming to realize that to paint even the simplest landscape or surfer or even a bowl of fruit was just about the most difficult thing I could imagine attempting… where am I to land on this issue?

Might there be a middle ground?

Heaven help us!

A Knight in Suburbia

Posted in Uncategorized by isaacmcphee on November 13, 2010

He made very little stir the day he walked into town.  If anything at all was said about his arrival, it was of his appearance alone, for he ambled along the city’s sidewalks and streets with a severe limp impeding his progress, a back hunched over as if burdened by some great and invisible weight and contorted from some unknown childhood ailment.  The odd shape of his body was covered from the brisk fall air by only a dirty, torn blanket of dark gray and an equally rancid woolen cap pulled down to his eyes.

On that first day and for many to follow, all that was known was that the man appeared to be without direction; a wandering vagrant, his dress and posture providing ample evidence that he had traveled a great distance in order to arrive here; but now that he had arrived, he seemed to have forgotten what he came there to do.

So would the thoughts of the people have remained had the man left town, but he remained there for some time and would be seen on occasion throughout the winter to follow, ambling here and there on his bad leg, never revealing his destination nor making known the secret of whence he had come.  He never allowed any to know his name, though no one ever dared tread close enough to ask.  

The stories told about the man were varied and never held any truth; driven, as the very best stories often are, by the imaginations of children and adults alike.  Tales of the man grew and contorted and  evolved and became over time increasingly far-fetched, though without ever fully crossing over into the truly fantastic.  He was a fugitive, it was said, wanted elsewhere for murder; he was an escaped freak from the circus; he had been raised by animals rather than humans, and had in turn become one of them.  He was ravenous and diseased; he had lost everything gambling; he was a self-immolator, punishing himself for unspeakable sins of his past. 

No one would approach him, even to offer him a glass of water in the heat of the following summer.


When the day finally came for the man to reveal his identity to those fortunate few who were near enough to hear, the word spread as an unstoppable wave across town.  All such gossip was set aside in favor of the truth, which was yet more fantastic than any of the tales, and as a result far easier to believe.  He declared all at once, with some imperceptibly exotic accent and without any evidence of hesitation, that he was and always had been a valiant knight of the highest order; born with a champion’s blood, trained in the chivalrous arts, and sent by some absent but fair ruler to save this tiny town.  He was to be their hero.

The man’s words ought to have meant nothing to these people – their power would easily have been suppressed by the absurd thought of a brave knight with a bad leg, a hunched back and a foul odor.  The very thought might have been ridiculed endlessly and tossed aside as garbage if the man’s actions had not all at once demanded that he be taken seriously; effectively appealing that the people of town either lock him up within a madhouse or lift him upon their shoulders in veneration.

When he explained to them all that he had been sent from a distant king, whose power and riches were superseded only by his magnanimity it was all at once forgotten that the man dressed in rags; it certainly did not occur to them that any such king must have passed from the Earth long ago.  They saw only the invisible presence of freshly minted armor encasing the brave and bold warrior whom they had misunderstood for so long.

When he burst into the taverns and coffee shops of town and promised to all who would hear that he would slay their dragons it was entirely overlooked that he hobbled about with all the burdened mobility of a hermit crab; it never dawned on them that there were no longer any dragons upon Earth to be slain.  They saw instead the promise of a young, swift soldier who would gladly give his life if only to rescue them from their enemies, whether large or small.  

When he promised that he would protect them from the armies of the North they lost all sight of the debilitating curve to his back forcing him to hobble about as an invalid.  They came out in droves to cheer him on when he walked alone into the forest to the north of town and, in a Quixotic flight of the most observable chivalry proceeded to cut down the trees and shrubs as if facing down an army of Visigoths.

He was raised upon the shoulders of the people and held in the greatest esteem by all.  If any dissenters arose to question the man’s stability of mind or his capacity as a warrior they were promptly silenced, for though the illusion had draped them all it did so quite thinly, for though they looked upon the man and saw a knight of such selfless bravery and compassion as they had never before witnessed, there was a part of every man who knew that he was only looking upon a poor, delusional beggar.

Thereafter, the town grasped ever more tightly to the ideal of the brave knight, and held him up ever higher upon the pedestal of adoration.  When he asked town’s mayor (whom he bowed before addressed as “My Liege” in the most flattering display of adulation) for the hand of his only daughter – the fairest princess in the land – as repayment for having saved the town from its enemies, the Mayor at once obliged with the most heartfelt enthusiasm and proceeded to plot the most ostentatious wedding that suburban town had ever witnessed.  It is not often, after all, that a town of this size is called upon to bear witness to such nuptials as that of a princess to a knight.


The day dawned with such blueness of sky, such greenness of grass and such warmness of air that the morning of the wedding was universally believed to have been stolen from the pages of a fairy-book.  The whole town was to come out and witness the knight being bound at last to their flock by way of their own princess (who had herself gone very much unnoticed until these events took place, but suddenly found herself being treated in every way as royalty, which delighted her greatly) upon a grassy lea past the edge of town, where a stark white gable had been set up, candles lit, hundreds of chairs lined up in rows.

Flowers of all colors and kinds were brought in and were laid about with great fuss while a small band was put together to accompany the service with a popular form of music.  The guests gathered, the priest was in place, audience, friends and family of neither bride nor groom, were seated.  As the ceremony began it seemed that all of nature had gone quiet so as to avoid missing what came next.

The groom himself entered with little fanfare, for in his humility he could not rightfully bear the honor of having any great flourish in his name.  He had taken no steps to alter his appearance, still lost within his vestments of poverty and hidden behind a great beard which had been growing upon his face.  It mattered not, for when the people saw the rags they could picture it quite clearly as a coat of mail atop a very regal and dressy outfit of a great many colors. 

The princess herself entered with a far more tangible beauty – flowing dress of white and hair fancifully prepared, an appearance which had required great effort to perfect that day, and in which she took great pride, even as she came to stand side by side with her mottled betrothed.

The ceremony was set to begin as both Knight and Princess now stood before their rapt audience, awaiting the formalities of matrimony.

No sooner could the elderly priest, blissful at the honor of performing such a rare and coveted ritual, open his holy mouth in an utterance of ceremony than the great illusion was in one moment shattered.  It was not that the town at large had suddenly opened its eyes and saw the slovenly beggar for who he was, for indeed to these people he remained heroic, now more so than ever in his quest for the Princess.  It was not the elders of town who saw him for what he was, for in him they saw an ideal of youth; nor was it the highly educated, for they envied his recklessness and unwavering commitment to the illogical. It was an individual no one could have imagined capable of finally making such an observation; a plain young girl of seventeen.  The daughter of a grocer.  The sister of a scoundrel.

The girl arose from her seat in the midst of the crowd, and as she opened her mouth to speak her delicate, subtle voice was the only sound to be heard, for it seemed that even the breeze had ceased its ceaseless motions so that the words might be heard in their loveliness.

“What are we doing?” She asked. “What are we allowing?  What has become of us?”

Her questions were met with silence.  Not so much as a cough.

“I look upon this couple in great curiosity because I have read in all the papers that I ought to find this a most marvelous occasion.  I am told through rumor and through the tongues of the gossipers what I now take to be not slander, but whatever it is which is the opposite of slander and yet just as profane.  I look upon the alter we have erected in the grass and I see something ugly, but I am told that it is good.  I see a man who has lost all he has ever been given in terms of sanity, and I am told that he is the only truly free thinker among us.  I look upon a town without enemy and I am told that this is the only man who can save us.  What, then, am I missing?”

As she cried out, her voice seemed directed to the heavens themselves and only partially addressing the town.

“Why do I alone see the man standing there – a man no more a knight than I am a baboon!”

She paused, smiling.

“I shall tell you why, for I’ve only now figured it out.  The man being wed today is perhaps the most broken among us all, and for this reason he has become something of an ideal.  He is to all men and to all women precisely what he ought to be.  To the young girls who still possess the imagination of youth he is the knightly prince of whom it is written in fairy books – never mind the rags, for the greatest of princes come often in disguise.  To boys he is the very embodiment of the manhood to which they strive, for it has not yet occurred to them that it is a foolish thing to chop at trees as if it were an invading army.  To the old man he is an ideal of a youth where imagination was not discouraged and to the old woman, he is merely nostalgia.  He is and has become all of the best things.  We have accepted him as a knight and as a hero because we have seen neither but have always longed for both, ready to accept the first that came our way.  I believed at first the situation something similar to the famous story of the Emperor’s clothes, but I now realize that it is something far more tragic.  We are not a town of liars hoping to save face, for we have believed with every fiber in our being that the man is precisely what he claims to be, simply because he is the only one to ever claim it with sincerity.

“We have never  voiced the need for a knight to enter into our midst, and yet when he arrived we could no longer imagine life without one.

“We have never asked for a hero, but we have been given one and accepted him with open arms.

“The madness of but one man,” she concluded, “has given an entire town precisely the lie that they had always desired, but has made us all madder than any ten men.”

It is not clear just which of her words had made their impact upon the hearts of her hearers, but they indeed had their intended effect.  The armor melted from the man’s body and what was left was an unwashed and holey blanket.  The bold athleticism evaporated from his joints and his infirmities were made perfectly clear, as they had been when the man had first wandered into town.  Those handsome and indefinably heroic features drifted from his face and much of what was left was a thin, wiry beard.

The mayor’s daughter was sent into a fit of weeping and the townsfolk at once stood to depart the spectacle, hoping that it would all never be spoken of again.  And indeed it would not be; it would remain nothing more than a hideous truth staining at the hearts of man.

Only one figure remained wholly unaffected by the events of that day.

The gallant Knight had saved a town from utter desolation and was yet rewarded only by the shunning of the people, but he expected no less.  He performed his good and valiant works not to earn the praise of men, but out of allegiance to the demands of his sovereign. 

He at once made off quickly toward the next town, eyes set firmly on the evil that was afoot.

The Candlewick

Posted in Uncategorized by isaacmcphee on November 3, 2010

That the Candlewick was kept burning at all times was seen as a symbol of something grand.  Something of such profound importance that it could not be spoken of but in hushed whispers, with eyes glancing constantly in fearful anticipation of perhaps being seen; being caught in the unthinkable act of speaking of the candlewick.  That the modest tongue of flame should have held any such importance to such a community as this stood as something of a mystery to outsiders – men who saw only the narrow strip of waxed cotton, lapping up oil from a frequently-replenished reservoir, burning with no more brilliance than the candelabra upon a common dining room table.  Though the town itself had grown far beyond the state of rampant superstition, the Candlewick had yet taken on a sort of unintentional mythology – it was worshipped by way of silence, by way of utter neglect.  It was attended to by its caretakers alone – two elderly men who had known nothing else throughout their lives, having been born into this calling and raised for this one purpose; men who conveyed no regrets about their station.  They were high priests of the irreligion of the Candlewick.

It was no national sensation when the town awoke one morning to find that the Candlewick had been dowsed.  None of the national papers bore even the slightest mention of the occurrence; for indeed, no one outside of the town cared that a single, meaningless flame should be kept burning.  Nor, indeed, was the incident mentioned aloud within the town itself.  No crowds gathered in the vast, red-brick circle surrounding the Candlewick, no prayers were offered aloud to any deity concerning the tragedy, no tears were shed.  That the Candlewick, now hanging limp and flameless, had been ordained to occupy the center of town and upon a frequently traveled path meant that almost the whole of town was forced to pass by that place upon that day and every day thereafter.  They had to, each of them, look upon that empty Candlewick and understand that the symbol had faded; their minds telling them that whatever the symbol represented may have died as well.

No one spoke of it.  No one wept.  And no one dared undertake the obscene act of relighting it.
In its death the Candlewick had been robbed of its symbolism, but not of its mysticism.  Its caretakers stood in silence, staring up at what had once been their glory, unspeaking, unfeeling, uncaring, until they both died.  Their bodies were hauled off without ceremony and buried under blank headstones, no one having ever known their names.

The clear oil beneath the Candlewick grew old and cloudy in the months to come, and in due time it was gone as well.  The town yet struggled along, the hearts of the people still harnessed by intangible straps to the burning of the Candlewick; their minds ever occupied by the apocalyptic revelation that whatever had snuffed the light of the Candlewick remained ever in their midst, and that their own fates were inextricably tied to that of their fiery golem.

That the world should have been oblivious to the slow dying of the town ought not to be surprising in the least.  A traveler passing through the town might have noticed no distinct change from one week to the next.  A town which once took wordless, expressionless joy from the presence of a burning Candlewick now writhed in wordless, expressionless agony from the loss of the same.  That the town itself was fading into obscure nothingness would have caused man to think nothing particularly dreadful, for man had never given the town much thought at all.  One year it simply was and the next was not; it was only the hard shells of buildings, hollowed out by hasty departures and the encroachment of the surrounding forests into the streets and homes once trod by a community.  It was only a place which might have been spoken of in hearty mockery.  A place whose superstitions might have been ridiculed, had they ever been known or understood.  As it was, when the town ceased to exist, when roads were built around it so that no traveler would ever have to pass through its vacant streets, it became as the Candlewick had once been – something that was never spoken of.

It was never fully understood that the Candlewick had been a symbol of the world’s wellbeing.  No, this would never be understood.  That this obscure town had formed the final wall of defense between the world and its very lifeblood was something no one would ever truly acknowledge.

That a young man, acting upon the impulsive power of a dare, should have skulked into the temple of the Candlewick that night and, with one powerful huff of breath, extinguished the tongue of fire forever was something one can perhaps understand without any great difficulty.  That as a result of this one action – a rash decision of youth – the town should have come to utter ruin seems remarkably tragic, but not impossible.  That the loss of the town should have precipitated the loss of others, immediately surrounding it… that the county should then have been driven to ruin in a year… the nation set ablaze after five the whole of the world itself after ten… that seems somewhat more difficult to believe.

And yet, that is what happened.

A Town Without a Bridge

Posted in Uncategorized by isaacmcphee on October 28, 2010

Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan tower

The city of New York has accomplished many things since 1883.

She has succeeded in expanding upward; from red and yellow brick to hardened concrete; from wrought iron and wooden timbers to steel alloys and tempered glass.  Horse drawn coaches have been replaced by vast networks of subway tunnels and internal combustion engines.  The dense haze of coal fires and animal waste have been abolished.  The most corrupt of the Tammany politicians have been disposed of.  The worst of the tenements have been razed to the ground; the communities gentrified; jobs created.

New York has many successes to her credit and, as I see it, one rather notable failure. 

I walked yesterday across the Brooklyn Bridge, beginning at the New York anchorage and terminating at the massive gothic tower on the Brooklyn side; the same course I have walked countless times before and under many different circumstances.  I stood awash in the cool breeze of the East river, looking back and forth from Brooklyn to Manhattan, one town having grown outward and the other upward, but rather than consider the massive cities pressing in on either side of me, I found myself rather laboriously pondering the bridge itself. 

I stood just beneath the first of the two great arches, looking up onto the faces of granite blocks and the thick wire ropes by which it all hangs; I pressed my fingers into the smooth mortar between the stones, noting to myself that even now, one hundred twenty seven years later, the materials don’t seem to have aged at all.  I stood and looked at the bridge, then back to the city; and here I recognized at once the great failure of New York. 

She has failed to make the bridge seem small. 

No matter how tall her buildings might reach; no matter how modern and efficient her transportation; no matter how wealthy her citizens; New York City in all its glory and success will never succeed in making the Brooklyn Bridge appear diminutive.  It may be, as many have stated, the greatest city in the world – the epicenter of today’s civilization – but nothing within it looms larger than the Great Bridge. 

Though the towers themselves stand all of three hundred feet from the surface of the East River and are towered over by countless skyscrapers on either side of the river, there remains something of a breathtaking thing to be discovered when standing beneath either of these hulking pillars of granite, looking up at the finely-spun web of steel, drawn from the massive wire rope machines of Haigh Steelworks of Brooklyn and John A. Roebling’s Sons Steel Wire of Trenton.  One feels looking up at the stone façade of the gothic arches – the last and greatest major bridge to be so constructed (the newer, even larger models, such as the Manhattan, Williamsburg and George Washington, would be constructed of a purely steel skeleton; functionality having trumped aesthetics) – an awe far greater even than standing beneath the Empire State building or the Statue of Liberty.  One may feel closer, standing upon the bridge, to the literary and cultural genius of the nineteenth century than even in the great reading rooms of the New York Public Library. 

Bridges, and especially the Brooklyn Bridge, embody nothing less than man’s greatest potential upon the Earth – they are as profound and direct a statement as one is likely to find of the Providential endowment of human ability.  It is not only that we have succeeded in conquering boundaries laid down by the progression of the natural world; that two bodies of land, once cleaved by the slow recession of glaciers, should be so satisfactorily joined yet again by the work of our hands – though this is an impressive thought on its own. It is not only that we should put up so solid a fight against those natural laws which seem to demand that such a thing never be attempted.   

It is not the natural laws that we subvert by building bridges, but the human laws that we validate.  It is that this bridge – and every such monument ever constructed – exists as a reflection of what mankind ought to be.  Two bodies being so thoroughly united by a common thread of wood and steel allows us a glimpse into what was intended by the creator. 

Man was never intended to be tribal, and yet his heart has led him in this direction from the first.  He has played host to such divisions and migrations; he has severed his own arms, legs, hands and feet and strewn them across the landscape with ill-abandon.  Man has established himself as a many-headed beast across the globe; the great human-hydra.  That he should now hold up as his greatest achievement the construction of something so symbolic as artificial land between two points is something to be celebrated with far more sincerity than even the most resounding military victory. 

To build a bridge is to be civilized.  It is the culmination of the influence of every great city upon which western civilization has been founded.  Jerusalem gave us our moral and religious convictions – so brazenly brought to bear in our endeavor to connect disparate communities and forge human bonds.  Athens gave us our philosophy – and the Brooklyn Bridge seems as much a philosophical statement as an architectural one.  Rome gave us our politics – the common bond under which all great building projects are instigated.  London gave us our literature and still survives as our most direct cultural ancestor.

Standing upon the promenade of the Brooklyn Bridge teaches us also that man was not intended to be separated from himself; that the great sacrifices made at the altar of individuality, to the false god of cultural pluralism ought to be cast back to the same hell from which they arose.  To stand upon the Great Bridge is to stand face to face with an ethical dilemma.  It’s importance is as moral as it is architectural.  It would be a disgrace to the bridge to stand upon its promenade and to fail to love one’s neighbor.  It should be impossible for a man to stand upon that great span (the longest in the world when it was built and for many years thereafter) and harbor contemptuous or sinful thoughts against another.  That a man could contemplate an act of hatred or violence is ever contemptible; that he should do it while leaning against those steel railings, peering out over the open water of the harbor is far more loathsome. 

Some, whose eyes have not been opened to the world around them, cannot see any of this.  Certainly, it is possible for a man to do these things, and certainly men surely have, but it is not normal to do so.  It is a perversion of everything that that is represented by the very nature of human achievement.  Any man who should walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, climb to the peak of a pyramid, stand upon the apex of any grand building defining any culture throughout history, ought naturally be stricken by some unexplainable feeling of brotherhood; the knowledge that some measure of falsehood exists within the condition of man, but that the construction of great buildings allows a hint of truth to seep in.  The burning of the world’s ancient libraries were acts of great falsehood, leaving the world choking for even the faintest breath of truth; the toppling of the Colossus of Rhodes, the Hanging Gardens, the Lighthouse of Alexandra.   

The Great Bridge tells a story of humanity ignored in popular histories.  It conveys a story that has always existed, but has never been seen, for it has ever lurked just beneath the surface, peeking through in momentary flashes of artistic, scientific, or literary brilliance.  Bridges have made the world a smaller place; they have erased barriers, both natural and arbitrary.  Bridges have been erected for every reason and in every economic condition.  Some have been proven worthy of their cost and some have been dismal failures, but every one of them stands as a litmus test of where we are; a testament to where we are going.

The Great Bridge may be placed side by side with any of New York’s storied buildings, no matter how tall or ornate, and it will nevertheless outshine them all.  Its shadow, in all its simplicity, will cover over them and leave them appearing utterly unremarkable.

I grew up in a small town with a number of bridges – every single one of them remarkable in its own peculiar way.  I would love one day to live in a small town yet again, separated from the struggles of the city and the brokenness of her people.  I would love the freedom to appreciate nature unadorned by architectural achievement; to live where humanity continues to distinguish itself, but it does so amidst the startling beauty of creation. 

And yet, I don’t believe that I could ever bring myself to live in a town without a bridge.

They Call Me a Mighty Brontosaurus

Posted in Uncategorized by isaacmcphee on June 8, 2010

By someone who is not me

They call me a mighty Brontosaurus

Friend of the moon and stars

Bludgeoner of the slabs of truth

Champion of darkness,

and friend to light

What my neck cannot reach

is not worth being sought

This is what it is to be a Brontosaurus

It is rare that an animal inspires me to poetry (though to be fair, this particular verse is not entirely original, but is very loosely based on the structure and meter of a stanza about trolls from Skáldskaparmál by Bragi Boddason), but for the Brontosaurus, I gladly make an exception.

In the annals of animalia, there seems little room for debate when it comes to dinosaurs.  They have long proved fascinating and awe-inspiring to the human mind; mankind has eagerly sought to understand these tremendous and powerful animals whose fragmented bones and footprints have spurred us on to new heights of forensic paleontology.  Though perhaps no practical value will ever be found for this immense scientific field, I know of no one willing to argue that we should stop searching.  Though the reaches of space and the depths of the ocean may be man’s next great frontiers, the mysteries of the Earth’s past and, specifically, giant lizards, must be seen as valuable as well.

I have few more vivid recollections of the earliest years of education than this:  Second Grade.  We are informed by our teacher (Ms. Valentine) at the beginning of the year that we are going to be spending some time studying dinosaurs.

It was the first time in my life – the very first – that the word “studying” was being applied to an action I would be performing, and it was an absolute revolution!  In my mind (yes, this is exactly what I thought when I was in second grade, which is what makes the memory so vivid), my educational career had suddenly taken a startling leap forward; I was no longer merely an elementary school student attempting to learn the basics of getting by in the world – I had arrived at an altogether new and exciting tier of academia: Studying things.  Investigating to discover.  With that one statement from Ms. Valentine (surely ignorant of the power of her own words), I was no long a student, but a true man of science.  I was going to embark on groundbreaking original research on that greatest of all subjects: Dinosaurs.

Now, I cannot remember any of the details of what I might have learned in second grade, because that is not at all important (there is an important lesson to be found here about pedagogical theory and the value of method over substance in the teaching of certain subjects, but I’ll leave that to be debated at a later time).  What is important is that through the study of dinosaurs, I was given my first taste of scientific exploration and given an opportunity to see myself not as a child, but as one who has the potential to seek out and discover new things using only the mind.  It was a very powerful time in my life.

So, it was with great excitement that we began our dinosaur unit that year by looking at one of my favorite dinosaurs: The Brontosaurus.  This mighty herbivore, with its long, serpentine neck and powerful pachyderm-like feet had the gimmicky frills of neither the triceratops nor the stegosaurus, nor the sheer ferocity of the Tyrannosaur, but the fact that it could have simply stomped any of these other beasts out of existence with its might feet gave weight (no pun intended) to its credibility.  Next, we moved on to a similar study of that beautiful, graceful flying dinosaur: The Pterodactyl.

Come to find out as an adult:  The Pterodactyl is not actually a dinosaur, and the brontosaurus doesn’t exist.

At least, these are the claims of science.

On this first point, I will momentarily defer to the opinions of the true scientists, as this is not the issue being addressed here (though I leave the door open to perhaps reopen this door in the future).  But to say that the Brontosaurus – a creature so beloved by children and adult alike – never existed… that seems something like treason.  After all, in a manner of speaking America is the Brontosaurus (at least in spirit).  How can one say that one exists and the other does not?

Clearly, it is in the best interest of the world that the Brontosaurus issue be resolved as quickly as possible.

Though the full story behind this bemoaned dinosaur is both long and fascinating (it is very much on my list of “books needing to be written”), the issue cannot be fully addressed here.  A sadistically acute explanation goes like this:

19th Century:  The Gilded Age of America.  The fossil discoveries in Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming and the Dakotas leads to a great rush of fossils and a sudden fascination among Americans over the rapid influx of exciting new species of these “terrible lizards.”  All is right with the world.

Many of these discoveries can be credited to just two men:  Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope.  Former friends and later bitter opponents, the rivalry between these two explorers, each searching to better the other in the great dinosaur hunt (which boils down to simply discovering and naming the greatest number of new species), grows to the extent of libel, theft, vandalism, and mutual loathing.  Fossils are destroyed, false claims are made; enough nonsense to go around.  Though perhaps the behavior of these men proved damaging to science itself, this is certainly made up for by the fact that it is really a great little story.

Anyway, this all leads back to the Brontosaurus.  Othniel Marsh discovered the fossils of a massive sauropod (really big dinosaur) in 1877, which he called the Apatosaurus (which in Greek means “Deceptive Lizard,” due to some of its bones closely resembling that of another species).  Marsh published his findings and then two years later discovered still another similar dinosaur of even greater proportions.  This second sauropod Marsh called the Brontosaurus (“Thunder Lizard”).

Othniel Marsh died in 1899, perhaps never realizing that in his epic quest to discover more dinosaurs than his bitter rival, Cope, he had made a little mistake.  Just a few years later paleontologists began to realize that the Apatosaurus and the Brontosaurus were not really as different as Marsh had claimed.  In fact, it was soon enough realized that Marsh’s original discovery which he called the Apatosaurus was really just a baby Brontosaurus.

And yet (and this is where things get absurd), “scientists” (I use this term loosely) decided that it was the former name – the one originally published by Marsh – which would stick around as the official name.  So the two dinosaurs were amalgamated into one, the Apatosaurus.  Never mind the fact that Brontosaurus is a significantly stronger name.  Never mind the fact that Brontosaurus was the name given to the fully grown adult dinosaur, while Apatosaurus was given to the child.  Never mind common sense.

And of course, never mind the fact that people wanted the Brontosaurus.  This fact is quite evident in that even 86 years after science decided to do away with the Brontosaurus, the thing was still showing up on U.S. postage stamps (leading to a remarkably petty outcry from the paleontological community, who take these things far too seriously and don’t seem to care about what people want).  It wasn’t until the 1980’s and 1990’s that museums stopped using the term Brontosaurus!

If scientists had their way (God forbid!), the name Brontosaurus would never again tumble off of a person’s tongue.  Those dreadful remnants of the “Bone Wars” would be left in the past and never mentioned again.

But let us start again!  Let us revive the Brontosaurus, if not literally (though I dream that one day Jurassic Park will become a reality – it is more than worth the risk) then, at the very least, in the hearts and mind of our children.

May we teach our young ones the truth:  Though they try desperately to be more so, scientists are only human beings and are not to be held up as infallible.  Scientists (not all of them, certainly, but as a generalization) believe that by amassing knowledge they might somehow be “freed” from the very biases and aesthetic devotion which make us humans in the first place.  They feel that by pushing aside the common traits of humanity they might make themselves into something far better, when in truth all they are becoming nothing more than robots.

I don’t believe there is any way around these two facts:

1)      The spirit of the Brontosaurus ought to be revived, for the thing never truly died.

2)      Scientists are robots.

The Delightful History of a Name

Posted in Uncategorized by isaacmcphee on April 22, 2010

As far as I can tell (and I seem to be able to tell somewhat far, though I cannot say just how far the average person is able to tell – you’d have to ask an average person), I am the only Isaac McPhee alive in America today.    This is what is called “being special.”

I am certainly not, however, the only Isaac McPhee in the world.  In fact, once global statistics are taken into account it turns out that there are a number of other Isaac McPhees on the planet – mostly in or around Scotland.  Upon discovering this I became fascinated by people who share my name, because there is a link there – a common bond.  At least, there ought to be.

Embarking on this little expedition a few days ago (which, admittedly, required nothing more than typing my name into Google and then clicking on various things which arrived in front of my face as a result – not particularly worthy of being called “journalism”), I found myself faced with something of a peculiar and delightful question:  Why is it that everyone in the world with whom I share a name seems so peculiar?

I have not thought particularly hard about this, and yet I seem to have come up with two answers, each of which is surely true in part, and which together seem to account for the entirety of the problem.

1)      It seems to me that we are all a bit peculiar, even though some of us do not show it quite so readily.  Or at the very least we all know of someone else who is peculiar, and it is not out of the realm of possibility that we might get dragged along with these people into their bizarre and nonsensical misadventures.  Furthermore, it is most likely the peculiarities which will end up on the internet.  There’s a little life lesson in that.

2)      There are probably Isaac McPhee’s out there who are relatively common and ordinary (even boring), but I can’t imagine why anyone would have written about them on the internet.  A search of phone books in Scotland would surely turn up a few dozen such individuals, though of them one might only find one or two who are worth talking to.  It is only the particularly interesting ones who would end up jumping to the top of my Google query.  Such a phenomenon (not to get off track, though I feel the door has opened for just a bit of regurgitated social criticism) is certainly nothing novel.  I quote G.K. Chesterton, just to lend my point at least a morsel of credulity when he notes that, “It is the one great weakness of journalism as a picture of our modern existence, that it must be a picture made up entirely of exceptions.  We announce on flaring posters that a man has fallen off a scaffolding.  We do not announce on flaring posters that a man has not fallen off a scaffolding.  Yet this latter fact is fundamentally more exciting, as indicating that that moving tower of terror and mystery, a man, is still abroad upon the earth.”  Indeed, I agree with Mr. Chesterton but for one fact:  One would get quickly overwhelmed of reading about the rule, and therefore journalism must be about the exception.  I would find myself mercilessly bored by reading of all the endlessly dull Isaac McPhee’s who might be wandering the Earth – several of whom might be tax auditors; perhaps a couple television repairmen – but, as I believe this very essay proves, I find no small amount of delight in reading of the remarkably foul and brazenly lunatic Isaac McPhee’s who seem to be cluttering up the highways of the planet.

This all being said, I really ought to be moving forward, lest I become any more bogged down by the philosophical underpinnings of nomenclature and of the act of studying oneself.

The Election Thief and the Secret Society

Let’s travel back in time to 1920.  Michigan.  Isaac McPhee is listed as a ballot-box custodian for all of the county of Shiawassee.  This is the first instance I can find of an Isaac McPhee in history.  That’s right, thousands of years of human history pass by without any Isaac McPhee’s and thenjust like that, one of us arrives on the planet and carries our name practically to the apex of Michigan politics.  Sure, it may not seem as if there is much to being a ballot-box custodian, but think a little harder:  Isaac McPhee could have engaged in any sort of corruption he liked when watching over his ballot-box.  He could have (and perhaps did) engage in voter intimidation tactics; he could have been a ballot-stuffer; he could have been but a pawn in the infamous Michigan political machine.

But is there evidence for any of this?  Yes, I believe there is.   Let’s move forward to 1923, when Charles Durand was Grand Master of the Michigan branch of the Freemasons and none other than Mr. Isaac McPhee (the ballot-box custodian himself) was the local Master Mason in the town of Byron.  Clearly there was something going on with those ballot boxes than meets the eye, for Isaac McPhee was not just some innocent bystander who happened to make his way into politics – he was member in good standing with the single greatest secret society ever!  The same masons who have been responsible for every human conspiracy, from the building of the Great Wall of China to the moon landing, are those who allowed a young man of humble origins from Byron, Michigan to climb straight to the top of the food pyramid alongside the candy bars and cotton candy.

Clearly in the first couple decades of the 20th century it would not be a stretch to believe that Isaac McPhee played a vital role in the state of Michigan.  Unfortunately, things in the world of Isaac McPhee were soon to turn tragic.

The Great Closet Fire of 1923

1923.  Sandusky Michigan.  A guy named William J. McPhee (allegedly) kills his wife.  The son of both the victim and the accused:  Isaac McPhee.

Is it the same Isaac McPhee who was even then at the height of fame and power in both the political and conspiratorial arenas?  Perhaps, though I’m afraid it is impossible (or at least, not particularly easy) for me to say.

Anyway, no matter who this Isaac McPhee is, one cannot help but feel sorry for him as a result of this tragic, but undeniably intriguing, little story.  Try as I might (though I did not try particularly hard) I could find no other details of this particular case beyond a single newspaper article from October 30th of that year in the Ludington Daily News.  Here are some direct quotes from the article which begin to shed some light on what exactly happened between Isaac McPhee’s parents:

“Re-cross examination of prosecution witnesses and a few former Melvin neighbors of the defendant were heard late Monday and this morning.  Points elicited by defense attorneys included testimony to the effect that McPhee attempted to have his wife, that his relations with her were friendly, that clothing in the closet which formed Mrs. McPhee’s death chamber(!) could have furnished material for an accidental funeral pyreand that the type of lamp which Mrs. McPhee carried could have exploded or ignited clothing in the closet by burning too high.” (italics and exclamatory punctuation mine)

There are, of course, any number of questions which could (and should) be raised by these rather cryptic details of what certainly seems to be a rather horrific crime, but I guess one stands out above the rest:  What kind of shoddy and old-fashioned lamp was this woman using?  Was it really the kind of device which was prone to exploding?  Had she never heard of a flashlight?

I’m sure some sort of answers could be found by searching a bit harder, or perhaps traveling to Michigan and scouring through old microfilm records of newspapers from that era like old-fashioned journalists do in the movies, but I think in this particular case I prefer to use my imagination, as should you, and revel in, if nothing else, the journalist’s choice of words, particularly “accidental funeral pyre,” and “death chamber.”

Later in this same article (the very next paragraph, in fact) Isaac McPhee finally enters the scene, described as “only son of the defendant,” and seems to testify in favor of his father’s innocence.  I’m sure this was a difficult time for the McPhee’s of Michigan, but as I would not be born for sixty or so years, I had very little knowledge of any of these events.

Kneed in the Groin

After the great Michigan Isaac McPhee boom of the 1920’s, we all but disappeared for the following six decades.  I smell a conspiracy (probably a Masonic one), but that is a story for another time.  All I can really say with relative certainty is that I was born in 1982, and with that, the Isaac McPhee floodgates seemed to burst open with a freshness and virility not seen since the ballot-stuffing fiasco of 1920 (novelization to follow).  Sure, in my own life I have engaged in my share of misadventures, many of which have found their way in one way or another to the internet – but I surely pale in comparison to the others who have found in this name a license to be peculiar.

One quick story from the 1980’s before we move on to the 90’s and the 00’s (aughts?), where the pinnacle of peculiarity is to be found.

For this story we must travel outside of the United States, where we will stay (thankfully) for the remainder of our journey, for it appears that every peculiar Isaac McPhee in the past 25 years or so have been thankfully quarantined within the British Isles, and hopefully denied tourist visas.

Now, 1984 seems to have been a rather noteworthy year for Isaac McPhee, a tragicomic hero hailing from the Grampian region of Northeast Scotland.

In truth, though I certainly try my best and at times have been known to write with some ability, I simply cannot do this story justice in my own words.  I defer instead to Mr. Bruce McKain, law correspondent for the Glasgow Herald who wrote, on June 29, 1988 (a full four years after the events described therein) a remarkable story.  In fact, it is hard for me to believe that Mr. McKain could have written the following without chuckling to himself, and perhaps calling a few colleagues over to his desk so that he could read it aloud to them:

“The chief constable of Grampian Region and one of his officers are being sued for £75,000 by a man who alleges that he was violently kneed in the groin while he was being searched by police and is now infertile.

Isaac McPhee, 34, gave evidence before Lord Sutherland in the Court of Session yesterday in his action against Chief Constable Mr. Alistair Lynn and Constable Malcolm Beverly.”

So, to begin with, you have to feel sorry for Isaac McPhee of Aberdeen.  Kneed in the groin?  Infirtile?  Sounds like decent cause for a lawsuit, right?  Keep reading:

“He told the court that on November 13th, 1984 he had been drinking in Willie Miller’s Bar in Exchange Street, Aberdeen with some friends.  He was not sure how long he had been there because he had been drinking and had also taken a couple of tranquilisers.”

A quick search reveals that Willie Miller’s Bar no longer seems to exist.  A pity, really, because it’s tough to find a good bar in Aberdeen which serves both beer and tranquilisers.  So, to recap, Isaac McPhee is good and drunk and ought to be relatively tranquil:

“He said he believed that police had been called to the pub because he had been behaving in a “boisterous” manner.  He told the court he had been doing one-armed press-ups in the pub.”

Impressive, right?  Drunk, boisterous one-armed press-ups?  If it hadn’t come from the mouth of Isaac McPhee himself while under oath, I don’t know if I’d believe it!  We continue:

“Police handcuffed him and took him away in a police car.  He admitted that he had struggled with the officers and at one stage tried to head-but one of them.  He was still struggling when he was taken into police headquarters in Queen Street.  He said he was told to put his hands on a desk so that he could be searched but refused to co-operate and kept his arms rigidly by his sides.  He also refused to give his name.”

I applaud Isaac McPhee for two things:  First, his honesty.  No, it’s not good to resist arrest, but once he was in court trying to get his £75,000 he owned up to his actions like a man.  Second, he refused to give his name, probably knowing that doing so might cause problems for other Isaac McPhee’s, should they ever decide to visit Scotland.

So anyway, to make a long story short, the police responded by kneeing him in the groin, at which point he felt a sickening pain, collapsed to his knees and was dragged to his cell, completely infirtile.  Now, four years later, he sued the Chief Constable and another officer.

Perhaps it is wrong for me to choose sides in this particular case, so I’ll keep my own opinion to myself – but I can at least provide details of the verdict:

Glasgow Herald – July 23, 1988.  Headline:  CLAIM AGAINST POLICE REJECTED.  No, Isaac McPhee never got his money.  Instead, “Lord Sutherland said that Mr. McPhee . . . ‘exaggerated substantially’ about aspects of the case.”  Does this mean we’ll never know for sure if he could really do one-armed press-ups?  Doesn’t look like we’ll ever know.

The Bed-Wetter

I found the previous story funny, but now a brief foray into the simply tragic:

A brief filed in Scottish courts, 1999, details the tribulations of another Isaac McPhee – this one a child.  It begins like this:


delivered by LORD MILLIGAN



under Section 24 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992





Reading further in this document, we learn the tragic truth about young Isaac McPhee:  He is a “Chronic Asthmatic Bed Wetter.”  Essentially, Isaac’s legal guardian, the loving and kind (one assumes) Margaret Stewart, filed an appeal against an earlier ruling which denied young Isaac disability benefits.  In this particular case there is good news:  The appeal was upheld and it looks like Isaac McPhee got the help he needed to deal with his several conditions.

Not much point to that little story – just another instance of an Isaac McPhee finding himself in an unfortunate and peculiar situation.

The Criminally Insane

Finally, we’ve arrived at our dénouement.  The epitome of the individuals with whom I share a name:

A quick glance at some headlines from a variety of Scottish papers over the past decade:

“Knife Attacker Gets Five Years”

“Man Accused of Abducting Couple”

“Accused of Threats and Extortion”

“Three Men Have Been Accused of Abducting Terrified Couple and Threatening to Torture Them in a Bid to Extort Cash”

“Armed Gang Charged Over Scrapyard Attack”

“Third Man in Court Over Abduction and Torture Threats”

Now, what is the one thing that all of these articles (and several more which I did not include) have in common?  If you guessed that they all follow the light-hearted and whimsical trials and tribulations of a sociopath named Isaac McPhee, you are correct.  Except that these stories contain no whimsy.  They are terrifying stories of a criminal dullard who just happen to share my name.

Because of this one individual and his blatant disrespect for the life/property of others, I don’t know that I can ever visit Scotland, lest I strike terror into the hearts of the residents therein by merely introducing myself!  Any Ted Bundy’s or Jeffrey Dahmer’s in other countries surely know exactly what I mean.

So, a brief overview of what seems to have happened:

In 1999 Isaac McPhee, then age 32 from Crieff, was arrested and jailed for 5 years after committing a “serious knife attack at a travelling persons caravan park.”  I don’t exactly know what a ‘travelling persons caravan park’ is, and I don’t particularly want to know, but I certainly know better than to attack them (or anyone else) with knives.  That’s just bad behavior.  The judge of the case, Lord Abernathy, seems to agree with me when he summarized the situation to the defendant: “You have been convicted of a serious charge.  To slash a man across the face with a knife is a dreadful thing to do.”  Hear, hear!

Oh, and one more thing just to make this story even more tragic:  Isaac McPhee’s girlfriend gave birth to a child only days before his conviction.  If ever there was someone who should have been kneed in the groin…

Anyway, Isaac McPhee went to jail… then he got out.  Ten years later, when Isaac was 41, he had apparently not learned his lesson from jail because it appears that he then “conducted a reign of terror… threatening people with violence and extorting hundreds of pounds from them.”

I actually found this particular article, from the Perthshire Advertiser on January 16th, 2009, last year.   It was this story which first made me somewhat interested in what others are doing who share my name.  Highlights from the story:  “(McPhee) warned that if the cash wasn’t paid, he would be ‘cut and scarred for life’” and “It is alleged that if he didn’t pay up, McPhee would slash him, stab him, set fire to his house and burn it down with him and his family inside.”  Isaac’s brother, George, was also arrested during this time for crimes they committed together:  “The two denied threatening the occupants of a house in Ward Road, Muthill, and repeatedly kicking the door, and assaulting Brian Hutchison in Crieff by punching and kicking and head butting him and striking him on the face with a chisel.”

Hmm… not particularly sure what to say to that, except that a chisel does appear to be a deceptively terrifying weapon of torture.

Isaac McPhee was certainly not done yet.  It seems that during his brief time out of prison he also formed a gang with two other middle-aged Scottish men, Thomas Blair (46) and Brian Blair (49) and engaged in vicious attacks and extortion plots in 2009 (yes, just last year).  Together these three model citizens kidnapped some other middle-aged folk, Gordan Barnes and Annabelle Hutchison, tied them up in a salvage yard, put a plastic bag over their heads and held a knife to their throats in an attempt to extort cash.  “It’s claimed the men – said to have wielded an axe and a hammer – demanded Ms. Hutchison tell them where the pair kept cash, before dragging her across a floor.  The men then allegedly fled in a stolen Honda Accord car along with other items and left the pair tied up at Dacrue Auto Salvage yard…”

We can take at least a bit of solace from the fact that Isaac McPhee, Scottish criminal extraordinaire, has been duly captured, along with his fellow gang-members, and is once again looking at some pretty hefty jail time for his actions (other charges leveled against him, it seems, include another little extortion plot and some minor issues involving the distribution of heroin for money).

I suppose there is something comforting about knowing that, despite all of my own faults and peculiarities, despite my plethora of quirks, my premature senility and my eccentricities; I appear to be the most normal of the Isaac McPhee’s.

I take no small amount of solace in that fact.


Posted in Uncategorized by isaacmcphee on September 18, 2009

Once a crook, always a crook.

That was something his mother had always told him, which was peculiar, for as far as he could tell he had never once shown any signs of being a crook.  He could remember being just four years old, as his mother walked him down the sidewalk past a local toy shop; he would be gazing longingly through the window at all the wonderful inventions inside when his mother would stop him and look into his eyes.  “Remember William,” for his name was William, “once a crook, always a crook.”

They would be walking past a fruit stand.  “Remember William,” for his name had not changed since the first example, “once a crook, always a crook.”  He did like fruit, but not once had he considered taking any.

Or perhaps most vexing of all:  They would be walking past a barber shop.  He would be looking the other direction, naturally (for he possessed a healthy fear of barbers), when his mother would stoop down low (she was an unreasonably tall woman) and whisper harshly in his ear.  “Don’t you ever forget it, William.  Once a crook, always a crook.”

He was never quite sure what one might want to steal from a barber shop.  An especially nice pair of scissors might fetch a schilling or two in the back alleys, but there was not much of a market for hair cutting utensils these days.  He knew these sorts of things now.  After all, he had become a crook.

It seemed a most natural course for him to take.  After years of his mother’s endless prodding, he had finally taken her threat seriously.  Only to him it had never been a threat.  To him it had been something more of a guarantee.  Once a crook always a crook.  After a childhood of mindless odd jobs for the neighbors; of hocking papers on the street corner, carrying the groceries of widows or doing whatever he could find which might garner a penny or two, the idea of becoming a crook had become highly appealing.  After all, his mother did promise him that such a life decision would lead to nothing less than a life of consistency and, if he took the logical leap, happiness.  If a crook remained a crook forever, there must be something to it, otherwise they would want to quit; only if there was true happiness in the job would those who embark upon such a path feel so little desire to leave it.  So he became a crook and, thus, would always be one.   And he was happy.

William Priest (his last name was Priest; passed down from a long line of Priests – his father, grand-father, great-grandfather, and so forth.  Being, however, that a person’s surname was often intimately tied to the profession of one of their ancestors, one has to wonder what a Priest was doing having children in the first place.  He was a child of infidelity, to be sure, though the sin had surely been watered down in the ensuing generations, so he didn’t lose much sleep over the fact), was eighteen when he stole his first pocketwatch.  It was gold in color, though upon closer examination it wasn’t very remarkable (or valuable) at all.  Fortunately he wasn’t intending to hock this watch.  This was his first real attempt at crooking.  It was his first grab, and it was a source of pride.

Oh, to be certain in his heart he knew what his mother had meant when she had warned him about becoming a crook.  He was not so dull as to misread her meaning; but he was clever enough to yet convince himself that she, God rest her (which is what one says to signify that a person has died, which is what Mrs. Priest had done when her son was only fifteen, leaving him orphaned, though in the care of kind and not altogether impoverished relatives), might actually be proud of what he had made of his life in the decades since; especially since now he could buy some decent flowers to put on her grave.

The pocketwatch was only the beginning.

It was a noble, if somewhat undersized start to his career, and he promised himself that he would never stoop to such petty crookery again.  If he was going to devote the remainder of his life to crookdom, he would have to move swiftly along to greater prey.

So the crooking of William Priest began in earnest.  He was nineteen years old when he stole his first grand piano.  Twenty three when a prized walrus suddenly went missing from the zoo, only to be found three weeks later on the estate of a rare animal collector in Australia (where decent walri are most certainly at a premium).  He was forty years old when one of Hartfordshire’s most famous pubs disappeared entirely over the course of a single short evening, foundation and all, leaving nothing but a crater into which several people fell while on their way to get a beer.

All of this is to say that by the time he was fifty, William Priest had been a crook for some three decades and had amassed a not altogether inconsiderable amount of wealth.  He could very easily have retired at the age of forty, but his mother’s words proved true enough indeed.

Once a crook, always a crook.

That’s not to say that the entirety of his life was about taking things.  It was neither an obsession nor an addiction.  It was simply something which he found to be a reasonable diversion from the oddities of life, and a great way to pass the time while keeping his mind sharp.

And while William Priest was most certainly a crook, it is not his crookery which he considered to be the most significant aspect of his life.  He had a great many other hobbies and interests; he was never short on friends (for he himself was about as likeable as they come – when he said “Hello, how are you?” there was no question at all that he meant it), and since his marriage at the age of only twenty-four to one of the most lovely girls in the village, his family had been growing by leaps and bounds.  Four children and two dogs later, his house was filled with the roar of laughter.

So all was very nice; but that is not particularly the point of this particular account.

The point of this account is a particular conversation.  All that preceded was included for no other reason than to provide suitable context for that which is to follow, which is something of a dialogue.  It took place at a particular gentleman’s home, precisely in the midst of some thievery.  William Priest was taking for himself the chimney from this man’s house, which was a rather remarkably difficult feat and while I haven’t got nearly the time to fully elucidate how such a thing might have been possible, suffice it to say that William had been forced to learn a thing or two about reverse masonry, which is not at all simple.  His reason for doing this, however, was relatively simple, and must be added, for the reader must surely be curious as to why one would bother to steal a chimney.  He was stealing this particular chimney because it was a chimney of particular worth.  It was attached to a wood-burning fireplace which was not altogether absent from the history books.  It was the very same chimney upon which Lord Cromwell had once hung up a pair of boots to dry after a particularly bloody battle against the King’s forces.  While this may seem to rather lack the sort of importance which would make one take notice, to certain wealthy collectors of all things relating to the Lord Protector, the chimney was something of a find.  Added to this was the blessed difficulty of extracting the object in the first place – something which added value to any task.  It should not be difficult at all, in fact, to recognize the intrinsic value William Priest saw in the challenge.

It was directly in the progress of this remarkable task that William Priest was confronted with some suddenness by a certain senior citizen who had, up until and including this particular moment, owned the building to which the chimney belonged and, consequently, the chimney itself (although at this point, the chimney was just about half stolen, so it could be said that he only owned half of the chimney).

“I don’t suppose you’ll stop?”  It was a statement spoken as a question, and it caused William Priest to stop what he was doing quite suddenly and turn around to find the dark silhouette of a rather frail old man looking on at him from the doorway leading into the kitchen, clearly somewhat taken aback that he seemed to have lost half of his chimney over the course of just a few hours.  In his hand he held a candle which only partially lit his wrinkled face in an orange glow and carelessly dripped wax across the wooden floors.

The remaining portions of the conversation went as follows:

William:  Ceasing my activity does not seem particularly likely, kind sir, but only because I’ve come so far already, and I’d certainly hate to provide anyone with the opportunity to accuse me of failing to follow through with something I have so thoroughly decided to do.  While not a virtue, certainly, there is an inescapable matter of pride to attend to which ensures that I will continue with that which I have begun.

Milton Bullfinch (which is the name of the old man):  I can’t say I particularly care much about your image or the protection of it, but my chimney is another story.  That I do care something about.  I suppose you already know of its history.

William:  I certainly wouldn’t be here if I did not.

Milton:  No, of course you wouldn’t.  But there’s surely something that even you do not realize.  You, a man of what I’m sure are not inconsiderable talents and what must be a very quick mind – for what I see you doing here… it really is something quite a bit more remarkable than I have seen in all my years, though I suppose I might have forgotten a few remarkable things as the years have passed.  No, it really does surpass all, and I praise you for your ingenuity.  And yet, you will forgive me for pointing out the obvious facts:  While a remarkable thief, you are not all knowing.  Nor are you all seeing.  You understand only what you have been told – that this is a chimney of supreme monetary value, and indeed it is.  Why, I’ve been told that there is not another chimney of such worth this side of Greenwich Mean Time.  That’s never meant much to me, of course.  I’ve got plenty of money (though I won’t bother explaining just how I came into my fortune, for that is a story that is far too long and uninteresting to be recounted here), and I never once cared about owning anything of particular monetary value.  What I do care about, however, is that it was in front of that very fireplace that I proposed to my wife, God rest her.  It was on that mantle that we hung the stockings of our children every year until they went out on their own and began their own families.  It was in that fireplace that I burned the first draft of my very first short story upon deciding that I could never be a successful writer.  You see, it is not in the form of money that I see value in this particular possession, but in memories, which are more valuable than any hearth.  So while I can see your reasoning for so taking it from me, I do hope that you’ll also see my reasoning in trying to dissuade you.

William:  Oh, please don’t get me wrong, sir.  I do understand the whole of what you’ve said, and it certainly moves me greatly.  I daresay that memories are some of the most important things that one can have in life.  I, too, am certainly in a place where I have no want for material goods, and yet I would give up all if it meant holding onto my most cherished memories.

Milton:  Oh good!  I was so hoping that you would see things from my perspective.  You seemed from the first like such a reasonable gentleman.

William:  Indeed I am, my good sir.  Reasonable and, I assure you, filled with a certain particular form of kindness.   And while I recognize that because of my career choice there is a certain irony to be found in my personality traits, I have learned to look past life’s little inconsistencies.  In fact, in my great kindness I will give you a grand gift; a gift that may very well affect the rest of your life and teach you lessons which will prove invaluable for you as you continue on in this world.  I give you the gift of taking your chimney.  Yes!  I will take your chimney, and you will no longer be in possession of it.  Now, Mr. Milton, please don’t give me that look!  Such a look makes my heart feel heavy, and I do not care for that feeling.  Please hear me out!  I will take your chimney, as you can see I continue to do, and you will heretofore be without it.  I will sell it for a substantial amount of money, which I will keep for myself (a fair price for such a difficult task as this, I should think) and spend as I see fit.  While at this moment it may seem to you as if this fact will result in the loss of your memories, it will, in fact, do precisely the opposite.  It will teach you a valuable lesson, which is just this:  Memories do not lie within things; they lie within each of us.  This chimney is just an object, and because it is an object, it is foolish (I don’t mean to call you a fool, but it is a wise lesson you must learn) to associate one’s memories so directly with it.  Tomorrow, you will awake to find little but a hole in your wall where once was brick and mortar, and I guarantee that you will find that you still remember your wife.  You still remember the Christmases spent with your children.  You still remember your failed literary endeavors…  And I will have considerably more money.  There will be benefit to all.

“I would certainly be willing to leave your chimney in place,” William finished as he turned to go back to his work, “but I am a crook.  And as my mother once said: Once a crook, always a crook.”

An Elephant Can Kill You in Six Ways

Posted in Uncategorized by isaacmcphee on September 8, 2009

“An elephant,” so he said, “can kill you in any one of six ways.”

We were, of course, in awe of such a statement and certainly desired to hear more.  One cannot simply make such a bold declaration and presume that others will not wish it to be expounded upon.  He knew this, of course, and was ready with his explanations.  Explanations of not just one or two of the elephant’s homicidal methods, but with all six; all presented in the fullness of horrific detail.

The first method possessed by an elephant with which to take the lives of his victims is perhaps that which is least shocking.  This, of course, is known in every corner of this globe as “the trample.”

An elephant can and will trample any man who should dare stand in his path, and there is a very good chance that he will go out of his way to trample a man who is very much minding his own business.  The elephant considers this nothing less than his modus operandi, and one would be well advised to resist arguing this point with him, as elephants commonly have much more pressing matters to attend to than to argue matters of behavior with what they uniformly consider to be a “lesser species.”  While we, of course, are most correct in asserting to the contrary – that is, that it is we who are the greater of the two species’, as we have motorized boats and Chunnels to our name – there is not much point in trying to convey this to an elephant, as they do not speak, and are liable to trample anyone who dares oppose them.

Not to move along with an excess of speed, but it is important, so said that experts on all things pachyderm, that we move along to the second point, as the first was so simplistic that it need not be explained any further.

The second method by which an elephant can kill a man is, of course, by way of its bite.  While other animals are far more well known for the ferocity and deadliness of their bite, it is the elephant’s which is surely the most fierce when one finds themselves in the midst of an angry herd.  So it certainly pays to know something of an elephant’s teeth.

The incisors can grow upwards of six inches from the gum.  That is certainly sufficient to pierce a man’s spine should they be inserted through the front of the abdomen, or enough to pierce the hart if inserted through the back of the ribcage.  Either of these methods are commonly employed by most common species of elephants, – including African, Indian, and Northwestern European – with very little abandon or concern for human rights.  For to them human rights, if anything, are a joke – something to be laughed about around the savannah or in culs-de-sac.

Teeth in a very general sense are fearsome when being used to bite through a man’s skin, but certainly all the more dangerous when they are in the mouth of the world’s largest land mammal.

The third way that elephants have been known to indulge in their murderous ways is through the act of mistaking a man as a pile of hay and sitting on him.  Laugh as you might at such a scene, this happens far more often than is thought by most.  It has been estimated, in fact, that worldwide more humans are killed by being sat on by elephants than by either being struck on the head by shovels or being crushed by falling timber.  Perhaps even both put together – and the risk only increases when an elephant is in captivity, where seating is far less ample than in the wild.

Fourth, an elephant may infect a human with any number of deadly viruses to which man has not built up an appropriate immunity.  These imparted illnesses are terrifying enough to put the venom of the asp to shame.  Even the sparsest interaction with the person of an elephant is more than likely to result in the exchange of several  billion bacteria, some number of which are most certainly hostile to the health of humanity.  Only those who have spent some significant amount of time in the company of elephants might grow to withstand such terrible calamities – but alas! Would one dare spend time in the company of elephants simply to achieve such an immune defense if it means risking death by any of an elephant’s ample other means of killing?

Fifth, and penultimate, elephants have been known to kill by means of suffocating men with their ears.  As much as there is very little to say about this method, for it is so simple that even a child could understand it, there is value in repetition.  An elephant may kill with his ears.  One often wonders the reason for an elephant’s massive ears, but the answer is easily discovered by being around these beasts during feeding time.  With their strong, yet gentle trunks they embrace their victim (whether it be human, rodent or wildebeest) and draw him up, not directly to their mouth – for they do not eat their victims alive – but to their ears, where they proceed to wrap the animal in these terribly strong flaps of skin like a giant boa constrictor until the breathing stops.  Only then is the animal eaten.

Sixth and last on the list is surely the most shocking of all – the man said as we all waited with baited breath, hanging upon his every word as he imparted upon us his elephantine knowledge – elephants have certainly killed by means which must remain a mystery.

It is clear by the ample evidence provided that elephants possess a certain means by which to end the life of a human in such a way that even the most modern medicine is unable to determine precisely what caused this tragedy, for there are neither marks on the body nor signs of a struggle.  While elephants may not be particularly known for their abilities of stealth, this has in no way impeded the continuation of these mysterious deaths.  Individuals throughout the world have woken up only to find themselves having been killed by an elephant during the night.  How do we know that elephants are responsible for these innumerable deaths?   Precisely because it is only in areas where elephants are known to dwell that they occur.  Also, there is universally a faint smell of peanuts to be found in the vicinity of the death.

This final method by which elephants have to systematically thin the human population is one which should certainly be capable of keeping one awake at night, for even if one does not particularly live in an area where elephants are known to roam free and to stalk the land in search of human victims, they are certainly not far from a zoo, where elephants most certainly dwell, contemplating escapes and reigns of terror.  You could die tonight, and an elephant could be responsible.

So he said, and so we believed, because it was true.