When I was a sophomore in high school, I appeared in the classic musical Mame, and in a high school which cranked out a musical every spring, it was a show-stopper. I will never know, objectively, just how high the level of talent and how rich the level of entertainment this production provided, but now, more than 30 years hence, I can say unequivocally that it was the best thing staged at Carroll County High School in April 1979.
American Movie Classics has been running its traditional Halloween scare-a-thon movie marathon, and yesterday I watched a little bit of a zombie movie.
Like everyone, I am captivated by the undead.
What makes zombies so interesting is that they move around sort of like living humans, but they’re deadly dangerous, have no sexual allure whatsoever (unlike vampires) and their existence puts survivors into all sorts of moral quandaries. It’s why The Walking Dead is so popular. While arrows to the eyeballs is fun a couple times an hour, you really can’t take a steady diet of close encounters with rotting flesh. So, like The Stand, most of your time needs to be spent on how the living cope with the apocalypse.
Stephen King, when writing The Stand, chose a deadly strain of the flu virus to wipe out 99.7 percent of the population. Zombie movies and TV shows routinely blame a virus for “infection” and the spread of zombification of human beings. World War Z, for example, mostly occupied itself with finding the originally infected human and, for a zombie movie, wasn’t particularly scary. The scrabbling mass of CG undead humanity was awesome, however.
So when I turned on AMC I was thrilled to find the Hollywood zombie purveyors had kicked it up a notch and given us what we want: horrible zombies who eat the flesh of the living on a plane.
Yes, the title of this movie was Flight of the Living Dead, which I totally wish I had made up. Actually they probably did come up with the title first and then built the movie around it. Zombies! On a plane! It’s even better than Snakes on a Plane — although, no, it didn’t have Samuel L. Jackson, so it could not, by definition, have been more awesome.
As a matter of fact, why didn’t they get Samuel L. on board for this project? I mean, come on. He needs to be the go-to guy for terror in the skies.
I confess I didn’t watch more than about 20 minutes of the movie, which was billed, as I later learned on IMDB as “action horror.” But of course I didn’t have to; you know what happens. The zombies get out, bite nearly everyone, and they chase the remaining people — who not only have to fight the undead but cope with the fact that they’re 30,000 feet from terra firma, which is where all good zombies need to be. Preferably, beneath it.
I was amused by the periodic shots of the big ole jet airliner, taken from slightly above and always covered by flashing, menacing lightning. It reminded me of Airport ’75 (1974) with Karen Black flying the plane, her slightly crossed eyes locked on the instrument panel as she winged a 747 over mountain peaks and brought nuns and sick children safely to the ground.
The movie is a few years old and I might try and scare it up sometime. Even though I enjoy zombies the year ’round, there’s really nothing like Halloween to really bring the undead to life. Gives you an appetite for it, you might say.
Thank heaven writing about these undead ruminations and unsavory combinations only strike me about once a year — although if you put a corpse in some fetching footwear you might captivate me a whole lot more frequently.
Not long ago, I helped to organize the Kentucky Women Writers Conference, which brought together talented published authors, writers who wished to learn from them, and appreciative readers who sought to immerse themselves in writing at the longest running conference for women in the nation.
But I’m not going to talk about that today.
I bring it up, though, because it was this conference — and the book written by acclaimed author Bonnie Jo Campbell — which led me to hunker by the size of a busy road yesterday morning, in the polar conditions of autumn which bore down upon the Commonwealth, and pick two giant mushrooms the approximate size and weight of my head.
Back in the spring, I dove into Once Upon a River, which tells the compelling story of a young girl driven by circumstance to live by her wits and considerable outdoors acumen along a semi-wild river near Kalamazoo, Michigan. The author, Campbell, was due to appear at our conference in the fall.
It was shortly after reading this book that I practically became Bonnie Jo Campbell’s sister — yes, it’s true. But that’s a story for another day.
This day, I point directly to Once Upon a River as my first exposure to Calvatia gigantea or the giant puffball mushroom, which our heroine harvests and dines upon as she literally lives off the fat of the land.
Giant puffballs growing wild. And edible? I had my doubts. But she could shoot the eye out of a buck — and attract any male who may or may not be a card-carrying member of the NRA — so I tended to trust her on the issue of free-range fungus.
Fast forward to yesterday morning.
Driving home after taking my son to school, I spied on the side of the road, two large, round white shapes which could have been:
A) used diapers chucked from a car traveling the adjacent New Circle Road (a local bypass);
B) Styrofoam blown out of the back of a pickup used for who-knows-what unholy purpose; or
C) actual, bonafide giant puffball mushrooms.
I slowed down for a closer look. And then I drove home and, like most people in 2013, posted about my discovery on Facebook.
Were they these fabled things that me, a girl raised in semi-rural conditions, had never observed, let alone ingested? Were they something that I could harvest, like dandelion leaves and poke sallet, and eat from the side of the road and call it actual food?
Or were they some other, more nefarious form of fungus, intent upon poisoning me with their plump charms — the deadly I Will Kill You in Horrible Seizing Agony mushrooms, which present identically to the giant puffball shroom?
At home, I applied mascara and pondered. I would never know what they were, I thought between eyeliner applications, unless I stopped for a closer look.
As you can see in the photos, they’d already been munched by some resident fauna, and I flicked one off before pulling them up. (A slug! Eww!)
They came out of the ground easily and they really are surprisingly heavy! Maybe not as heavy as my head (filled with all these brains, you know) but pretty hefty for something that goes by the name of puffball.
I put them in a plastic bag, braced myself against the buffets of passing cars, popped myself back into the Prius, and off to work I went.
But were they actually edible? I got confirmation from Bonnie Jo herself, via Facebook, that I did indeed have two gorgeous puffballs on my hands and I should prepare them with lots of butter and invite all my friends.
At this point I wasn’t sure I was going to convince a Doubting Husband that I brought something home from the side of the road that we can actually eat. But, gamely, I cooked one of the things up last night, and as I mentioned earlier, documented the whole process on Facebook for the entertainment of my far-flug friends.
Yes, from Kentucky to Rhode Island, and North Carolina to Texas, people were following the Great Potentially Death-Inducing Mushroom Saga, hoping I presume, that I would live to cook another day.
I won’t doubt that there were some expecting I would experience violent vomiting at the bare minimum, with seizures, coma, and death a distinct possibility.
No such luck, you guys!
This is the mushroom I prepared, shown here cleaved in two on the cutting board in my kitchen:
Cubed and ready for the sautee pan:
I assure you I did not fail to eat some of these cubes, atop my spaghetti, but I did fail to take a picture of it. Doh!
Since nobody touched the things except me — despite the fact that they were drenched in butter, olive oil, garlic and salt — I put the remainder in a bag and tossed them in the freezer. The Internets told me I could.
I am here to report that I am in fact alive. Although for all I know I’m a zombie, Walking Dead in the wake of my mushroom induced-death, getting my just desserts for daring to eat something that wasn’t purchased at the grocery store.
And if you ever see any giant mushrooms that resemble severed heads along the road, you too can take them home and cook ‘em up. They’re delicious — especially around Halloween.
I consider myself an imaginative person; give me a situation and I guarantee you, I can make the most of it.
Say you’re fated to hours driving down a featureless Interstate. How do you escape crushing boredom? Keep on the lookout for owls and crumbling remains of farmhouses or abandoned tuberculosis asylums. Zombified in the dentist’s waiting room? Just sit and imagine the lives of mystery and intrigue of your fellow patients.
There are, however, a few places where scope for imagination is virtually nil. Imagination deserts, if you will — places and situations where no matter how hard you put your little creative brain to the task, there is Absolutely No Stimulation Possible.
The creative juices dry completely up, and one is rendered hopelessly bereft of any entertaining anything to pass the excruciating minutes until the sunshine and stimulation come out from behind the clouds and illuminate the mindscape once more.
Exhibit 1 — The Hardware Store (Alternate title: The Bolt of Death)
I am blessed with a handy husband. He can build things, he can improve things, and he can fix things. What kinds of things? All kinds. Many, many things are fixed, constructed, destructed and otherwise assembled and disassembled in my home.
All these projects require numerous, I mean NUMEROUS, small and precisely calibrated pieces and parts to complete. And many trips to Lowe’s or Home Depot. Sometimes I go along. What does that lead to? Imagination death.
There is nothing to live for in the bolt aisle. Nothing. In vain, I cast my eyes about for some object with a connection to the real world. Something that I can work with. Some recognizable feature of the human landscape that I can relate to. There is nothing.
Instead I behold a sea of small pieces of metal in boxes with incomprehensible numbers affixed. I feel entire body systems shutting down from the lack of input. Hungrily, I look toward the bathroom fixtures, yearning for a healthier landscape where I can dream about brushing my teeth and drawing a luxurious bath in my opulent spa tub.
Exhibit 2 — The word problem to nowhere
This is an idea that I have decried for years: the senseless cruelty and unbelievably death-inducing misdirection of the mathematics word problem.
A train leaves the station at 3:15. Immediately you have my interest. Who is on it? Where is it going? Are we talking present-day Amtrak here, or is this something juicier, like a day trip to London from Downton Abbey for a quickie gynecological exam? And if not, are there suitcases involved?
Now I’m thinking about steamer trunks versus regular suitcases, and why has train travel all but disappeared, except I think California is supposed to be investigating light rail, and even pouring some money into it, but I don’t follow California politics much and … Oh. Wait. What’s this? A MATH PROBLEM?
Mother of God, what a crushing disappointment. Here I am, all interested in this little world that’s been created at the end of the chapter and I’m supposed to come up with an equation to find out when trains are going to get there based on all sorts of ridiculous variables?
Wait. There’s more:
Ella swims four times a week at her club’s pool. She swims the same number of laps on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and 15 laps on Saturday. She swims a total of 51 laps each week. How many laps does she swim on Monday?
Ella. What a pretty name — why, it’s almost Ellen when you think about it. I like to swim but laps are a total drag, what with the flip turns, hello? Water in my nose! And what about when you start panting and get out of breath — in the water, no less. That’s a health hazard, not exercise.
It gets worse:
Laura is making a patio in her backyard using paving stones. She buys 44 paving stones and a flower pot worth $7 for a total of $73. How much did each paving stone cost?
Well, what color are they? Do they match the trim on her house? What kind of landscaping are we talking about here — just flowers, or are we planning an arbor of some kind? And ONE flower pot? Come on, Laura! There’s no way you’re going to have your plantings done before the first of May at this rate. And we haven’t even begun to talk about furniture.
Speaking of home improvement:
Tom, Dick, and Harry arrive early one morning at the job site and get ready to paint a huge, old, Victorian mansion. Tom, working by himself, could paint the whole house in 14 days. It would take Dick 10 days to do the job by himself. And Harry could do the job in 8 days. How long does it take for the three men to do the job working together?
This is just cruel. Huge old Victorian mansion? How huge? When was it constructed? That matters, you know, whether we’re talking about the early Victorian or late Victorian period. Do you know how much paint you’d have to buy to coat one of these suckers? A ton, that’s how much, and it costs literally thousands of dollars — and then you have to paint them again in just a couple years! Which leads to abominations like people putting aluminum siding on 100-year-old houses. SIDING.
Finally, we have this depressing piece of news:
Sarah and John leave Perryville traveling in opposite directions on a straight road. Sarah drives 12 miles per hour faster than John. After 2 hours, they are 176 miles apart. Find Sarah and John’s speeds.
There are no straight roads around Perryville. You are deep in the Boyle County countryside around Perryville, which is the site of the largest battle of the Civil War fought in the Commonwealth. It happened, as Dave Barry likes to say, on the same day all historical events occur, October 8. Listen, Sarah, why are you driving so damn fast — and what are you doing going in the opposite direction as John? Are you all going to the Battlefield or not? Don’t you care about history? John, you’re missing out on an opportunity here.
Thankfully, trips to Lowe’s are rare, dear though they be to my better half, and mercifully, I have very little call to solve mathematics word problems — though that may be changing soon. I’ve got a son soon passing from second grade to third and as he journeys on through the academic ladder, Some day he’ll probably put down roots squarely in the land of calculus or some other incomprehensible country.
Thank God I’ve got a blog is all I’ve got to say, where I can think about train trips and Victorian mansions that are populated by people, not distressing demands for mathematical computations.
And there are no trips to Perryville to plan.