Frog Circus

Dear Mrs. Harleminn,

I realize it’s been quite a long time since we spoke. I’m sorry I haven’t kept in touch, but there is a relatively good reason for that. See, I have a confession. In 1982, I placed that four-pound coffee can full of tiny, lifeless frogs, covered in a thin layer of grape jelly, on your porch.

If you’ll indulge it, I’d like to explain.

I’ll start at the beginning. Eddy Griffenbackher and I were going to create a frog circus, wherein frogs would do short, but elegant gymnastic routines. You undoubtedly remember Eddy — he was basically notorious. I have a lot of Eddy stories myself. One time Eddy convinced me to ball up the fresh tar they used to seal cracks in the asphalt and hurl it at the backs of passing cars. Never satisfied with mere mischief, Eddy upped the ante to offer me ten extra points if I could hit Officer Cramer, who was on duty at the time. (That’s how my mom met Officer Cramer, actually. He’s a really forgiving man, and that uniform was a lot more expensive than you’d imagine. My mom knows how to get a lot of stains out of a lot of things, but gooey tar and trooper uniform are unfortunately not in that impressive number, and she owns at least one trooper uniform to prove it.)

Eddy was notably the one who tricked me into jumping out a second story window while playing Dukes of Hazzard. He was also the one who told me I got shot by a 22-pistol, when Ben and JP shot me in the hindquarters with a BB Gun. (That was an interesting story to Officer Cramer, too, and he spent a not inconsiderable amount of time investigating it, much to the delight of Ben and JP’s moms. You can likely imagine the ways this improved our relationships, as well, after the fact.)

Eddy was also the one who insisted that I was so good at cartwheels I could definitely do one across the top of the swing set. It was a 4×4 on top, as big as a balance beam. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t do a cartwheel on a balance beam, he said. What I lacked, Eddy said, was confidence, not experience. So I did it. I think you saw that one, or at least the ambulance.

Before you judge him too harshly, you should know that when I missed the beam and dove, head-first like a portly little flesh-dart, into the packed snow beneath the set, it was Eddy who ran to get my mom, like Lassie summoning grownups to the well. And it was Eddy who sat next to me while the ambulance came, promising that I would eventually be able to move my arms and legs again, and if I didn’t I could be Bo Duke the next time we played Dukes of Hazzard.

I’m not trying to make excuses. I mention all of this so that you’ll understand that there were special rules when it was me and Eddy “playing” together. It’s fairly remarkable that we both survived our relationship.

Back to the frogs on your porch.

We gathered all of those frogs from the muskeg behind our houses. It took most of the morning. We started early because Eddy said they were slowest at dawn, when they were first waking up. I’ll tell you, Eddy was wrong about a lot of things, but he was certainly right about that. We meant to get 30 or so of them, you know, selectively snatch the best, the real frog impresarios — but there were so many, and they were so easy to catch, we got carried away. After filling both our yogurt containers to absolute capacity, we still wanted more. I ran home and emptied the coffee can my mom used for second-tier utensils (potato mashers, that giant fork thing, etc.) and we dumped the yogurt cups into there. We were dizzy with frog acquisition and increasingly audacious in our plan. As we threw frog after frog into the can, we rhapsodized about trapeze frogs, frog gymnasts, and even a special musical number with frogs riding other frogs to Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.” It was going to be magnificent.

Admittedly, mistakes were made.

First of all, we should never have taken a lunch break. Our furious frenzy of frog gathering took us much further into the day than we intended, and Eddy’s grandma started bellowing Eddy home for lunch. As you know, Eddy lived with his grandmother, who had openly dedicated her life to three very discrete pursuits: growing marijuana, smoking marijuana, and drinking gin and tonics. All legal at that time in Alaska, but making her sort of a postmodern Tom Waits-y grandmother. So you know as well as anyone else on our block that ignoring Grandma Griff was as dangerous and ill-advised as ignoring an overflowing toilet. In a rush to comply, we attempted to secure our frog supply for a short break.

We cut a hole in the lid of the coffee can we’d been tossing the frogs in, but Eddy, evidently inspired to uncharacteristic sentimentality by our impressive, squirming brood, was adamant that the frogs needed lunch, too. He suggested we bring them flies, which were the only thing we were certain frogs liked to eat. A quick reconnaissance of our respective windowsills yielded derisory results, so Eddy and I began to explore other fly-getting stratagem. This brings me to the grape jelly. (We voted for poop first, of course, but rejected it on the grounds that: a) neither of us had to, and b) it would take our friendship in a direction neither of us was sure of, for reasons we couldn’t really elucidate.)

We knew that flies loved grape jelly, based on our experience with church picnics at Sandy Beach. You could hardly eat your own sandwich, for the flies circling anticipatorily around your head. And we’d all seen what happened, should some poor provincial child leave their PB&J unattended — it was like fly bacchanalia. Grape jelly would bring us flies. We were delirious with the perfection of our solution. The only problem was how tightly the frogs were packed in the can. After smearing grape jelly on the lid of our coffee can, we postulated that only the strongest of the frogs would be able to get access to the flies licking the jelly on the lid. We solved our problem by putting the grape jelly directly into the can. That way, we thought, the flies would fly right in.

I’m aware that this conclusion was specious, but there’s a reason the phrase “hindsight is 20/20” is cliché. It’s because so many people have left their own coffee cans full of grape-jelly-frog-corpses on their neighbor’s porches.

Maybe not exactly that, but you get the idea.

Our second big mistake was caused by Eddy’s failing to return from lunch. In fairness to Eddy, his grandma was pretty unpredictable. Midday was usually a sweet spot in her ascension to weed and gin nirvana, and her lunches were more epic than an Up in Smoke, Pineapple Express, Top Chef montage. I personally witnessed one Dali-esque cornucopia that included taco dip, Swedish meatballs, and stacks of frozen burritos. Before you get too worked up about this, remember that Grandma Griff also thought the bus driver deliberately lingered in front of her house trying to catch a glimpse of her in her nightie, and would not be convinced it was because she lived on a bus-stop corner. It’s pretty likely Eddy was forced to play protracted rounds of UNO, or had been sent on some weird surveillance mission (see “Bus Driver,” above). I’m not trying to point fingers. Regardless, we should’ve checked the frogs much, much sooner. Much sooner.

Our last, and definitely biggest, mistake was that we morbidly miscalculated the viscosity of grape jelly.

Generally, Eddy and I relied more on inspiration than research in making our plans. If we had read even a little bit about frog physiology, we’d certainly have learned that frogs breathe through their skin. Which we can all agree is pretty hard to do if your skin is covered by a non-porous, sticky, grape layer of death — regardless of the size of the hole you cut in a coffee can lid. I feel badly about it now, but what’s done is done. It literally sealed the deal.

I waited for Eddy forever. Long after I ate my own sandwich, watched back-to-back episodes of The Addams Family and The Munsters, and got into a slap-fight with my little sister, I realized Eddy was likely out for the day. After laboring over my loyalty to him and my general fear of successive noogies (the typical penalty for insubordination), I decided he would want me to forge ahead with our endeavor, rationalizing my plan with a fantastic idea: I would surprise Eddy the next morning with a small but impressive troupe, performing some basic tricks on a popsicle-stick balance-beam I would construct.

Naturally, I built the balance-beam first, thinking that the glue could dry while I trained the frogs. I giggled like a lunatic at the thought of Eddy’s shock and delight when he angled his head into the sheet tent we’d built and saw what I’d already accomplished. He’d be so proud of me. This last, albeit short, construction project extended the window of frog-jelly immersion well beyond the survivable duration. Whatever hope remained for, say, the top layer of frogs was categorically eliminated while I lovingly placed those popsicle sticks on the lateral supports. By the time I finally opened the lid to the frog can it was clear the final circus curtain had fallen, long before it ever was raised, for all of the can’s occupants. I pulled lifeless frog after lifeless frog from the can, finally dumping the lot of them on the grass next to the now irrelevant tent and tiny balance beam.

They were goners.

In a cataclysmic fit of desperation (and a testament to the utility of offering the class to fourth graders) I actually attempted CPR on one frog, but our disproportionate lip size kept causing me to essentially insert the frog’s entire head in my mouth, and after several attempts I realized I was only desecrating and disrespecting the dead with my efforts. Also, the likelihood of me vomiting was progressively and exponentially increasing, which would have worsened an already deep transgression. Unfortunately, I found my attempts at chest compressions equally futile, being either too firm, which was messy and vivid, or too slight, which was like giving the world’s smallest and most irrelevant massage.

In my anguish and panic, I thought that if anyone could save them, it would have been you, Mrs. Harleminn. I don’t know if you were aware of this, but at the time you were something of a neighborhood hero. You were the one who told us the worms Ben and JP cut in half to freak us out would ultimately become two worms. You were the one who told us that puppies and kittens would never get carried off by eagles because eagles just ate fish. You were the one with a greenhouse in your backyard. You were the most scientific neighbor I knew. So I left the coffee can on your porch and rang the bell.

I’m writing to say that I’m ashamed I didn’t stay to explain. Please understand my mother had very firmly informed me that if Officer Cramer came to our house even one more time that summer she was going to send me home with him. And, based on his thoroughness in the BB-gun incident, Officer Cramer was certainly going to investigate the death and unceremonious gifting of 300 tiny frogs. So, I split. I watched you from my porch window, though, which is why I’m finally compelled to write this letter.

I want you to know I am sincerely, truly sorry, and deeply regret the pain I caused you. I just wouldn’t feel right if you died and I never told you the truth. Not that you’re going to die or anything, although my mom did used to say your soprano solo in the church choir made her think you were.


Your Neighbor
Anna Tennis

P.S. I smacked your giant dog in the face with my alto saxophone case every school day for probably five years. He was trying to eat my cat’s food, and growled, lunged and nipped at me as I attempted to disembark the porch, so I did what I had to do. That dog was an asshole.

Two Boulders

Shortly after my daughter was born I watched the movie 127 Hours and had a totally revelatory experience. I’m probably not the only person to have a 127 Hours revelation — the movie is pretty impactful. In it, Aron Ralston, a lone-wolf mountaineer, is forced to cut off his own arm to save his life. It’s memorable, even if you’re not nursing a newborn.

At the time, I was profoundly sleep deprived in the way only new parents and cannery workers can be. I was probably legally crazy. Plus, it was before James Franco got busted attempting to hook up with high school girls. It actually was a time-delayed revelation — a kind of revelation landmine that I stepped on much later, when I reread an essay written by Albert Camus about Sisyphus — a Saturday Essay of sorts, I guess. (“Camus on Sisyphus” sounds like either the awesomest or absolute worst pro-wrestling matchup of all time.)

We all know the Sisyphus story, in part or in parcel, right? Sisyphus angers the Gods (he’s Greek) and they punish him by condemning him to an eternity spent laboriously pushing a gigantic boulder up a mountain.

In his essay, Camus postulates that Sisyphus was no unhappy prisoner of fate. No doomed and “futile laborer of the underworld,” Sisyphus was neither witless nor despondent. The assumption in the punishment, Camus asserts, is Sisyphus’ awareness of the futility of his efforts will really crush his soul; the knowing that his work will always immediately be for nothing, evinced every single day by the prompt return of the boulder to the bottom of the mountain.

The Gods, bent on revenge and punishment, insure that Sisyphus knows every detail of his fate. This, Camus argues, doesn’t mean Sisyphus can’t be happy. But it’s a sort of sardonic, existential happiness. A Sienfeldy happiness. Our Sisyphus knows he’s fucked, and the knowing allows him to see the bigger reality, in which life itself is absurd and futile. For this reason, Sisyphus can relax and find contentment in his rock-shoving life, since it’s no more or less absurd than anyone else’s. In fact, at least he knows what to expect. As the rock rolls down the hill, he is triumphant over his punishment, because he knows his shit lot, but he’s rolling with it like a boss. In fact, Camus’ essay ends with the conclusion that, “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Every day he wakes up, knows his job, and does it.

I imagine Sisyphus like one of the Landmark Forum alums, evangelizing about the transformative power of accepting a life in which all meaning is assigned and arbitrary. The complex and magnificent allegory of the aphorism, “Shit happens.” Add, “ad infinitum,” and you’ve got the CliffsNotes to the One Unifying Theory of Everything.

The horrible suspicion I have is that Sisyphus’ fate is no worse than yours, or mine. We are simpler in that we are largely unconscious of the pointlessness of our efforts. That unconsciousness requires us to labor under a significant and important misapprehension: that we might create something lasting; that our goodness will protect us. But even with a literal God to worship and obey, we shake off the world in which we have so carefully selected our granite-look Formica counter tops and had our perfect babies. We die and leave everything behind; our houses are someone else’s houses, our bodies, irrespective of the formaldehyde aftershave, eventually return to the dirt. We are gone, as certainly as we were ever here.

So, if life is meaningless, but humans endlessly search for meaning (necessitating an entire cult of self-help retreats in which attendees might discover what meaning is assigned and who is doing the assigning), it begs the question: why do we keep searching for meaning? Evolution? Is the only reason we search for meaning because searching for meaning makes us more likely to live longer and make more meaning-seeking babies? Because that would be the definition of irony, and super fucked up. Delusional belief in the meaning of being confers greater survival potential? Jesus. That goes in the same category as the Fermi Paradox — a kind of meta-despondency in which hope is promptly transformed into proof of the inherent futility of hoping.

In the moments in which I alternately do and do not believe there is anyone to whom I might direct a strongly-worded letter on this matter, I’m tempted by Camus’ sardonic comfort. Fuck it, I’ll do it. I’m captain of the futile labor team. I am a proud member of the suicide-averse fatalists: I’m not killing myself because life is bad enough for me, thank you. I’ll cling to this shit show because there is no other shit show. Plus, here there’s cilantro.

I promise I’m getting to the part where Aron Ralston cuts off his arm. Bear with me.

So I was watching that movie. Ralston goes on an independent hike in Utah and gets trapped in a deep canyon, his arm pinned in an intractable way underneath a literal boulder. Over the next 127 hours, he works it out, his role in his own destiny, and the terrible, impossible thing he must do. He cuts off his own arm. It’s so viscerally palpable it inspires a kind of sympathy-induced synesthesia. You can feel his pain. Not necessarily in your arm, but in more powerful, ephemeral locations — like, in whatever you prefer to call your soul.

Before he saws off his arm (after breaking two arm bones using his bodyweight and the boulder as leverage, Lord have mercy) he has a crystalizing moment in which he realizes categorically that he chose his fate by remaining utterly independent from everyone who would love him. “This rock … this rock has been waiting for me my entire life. In its entire life, ever since it was a bit of meteorite a million, billion years ago up there in space. It’s been waiting to come here. Right, right here. I’ve been moving towards it my entire life. The minute I was born, every breath I’ve taken, every action has been leading me to this crack on the Earth’s surface.”

Rereading the Camus essay, I remembered this scene from the movie entirely and it hit my addled brain like a bolt of lightning. The two stories wove together, Ralston and Sisyphus, two entirely different but equally heavy boulders. Both stories are impossibly evocative, and darkly beautiful. Neither was entirely satisfying to me on its own, but together they finish a broader picture.

Ralston’s life is no more meaningful or explicable than Sisyphus’. Neither climber escaped the boulder — both made their peace in the only ways they could. Sisyphus abandoned a freedom that was defined by ambition and accomplishment, and Ralston abandoned a freedom that necessitated the sacrifice of intimacy. Both relinquished a different aspect of control, to preserve joy. They both returned to the climb, whatever that would be, different than before they’d embarked.

In the end, it’s the union of the two narratives that is the most interesting to me. Because it’s not really about the boulders. It’s the rack-focus between futility and meaning. Not the meaning of life — the meaning of meaning. Ralston was under his boulder because he never told anyone anything, and Sisyphus was under his boulder because he told everyone lies, and they both believed their actions put them under those rocks. They both considered that each individual decision they made to get them to those canyons was possibly part of some larger, unknowable whole. Camus’ Sisyphus concluded that the whole is random, meaningless, and absurd, but makes his meaning in each moment he lives, now. Ralston saw his foibles, his fallibilities, his ego and his selfishness as the causes of his disaster, and he believed himself the architect of his own tragedy. Ralston concludes the whole is comprised of each decision he made, leading him to a tailored destiny in which he might learn an important lesson.

I think both things are true. Lying there in the half-light of the TV, I thought the isolated events in our lives might indeed be meaningless, but we can’t make decisions about them unless we assign meaning to them, and maybe to the events that precipitated them. The meaning we assign, as much as the decisions themselves, are all part of how we demonstrate free will, or exhibit agency.

Either way, Ralston’s boulder was coming for him, or whomever was in that canyon at that moment. Ralston assembled the story of his life, the meaning of his experience to include a destined boulder. If it had been another person in that canyon, the movie would have been very different. I wonder what I would have read in that boulder. How much I would have been willing to leave in that canyon. What would my movie have been? Same scenario. Same rock. Different fate, entirely.

And Sisyphus’ boulder was coming as well. Sometimes shit happens, apropos of nothing, and it’s fucking horrible. It isn’t because we weren’t good enough — our goodness does not protect us. Our worth, our culpability, our intrinsic value don’t protect us. The rocks are coming, the meteors are forming, hurtling through silent, roiling galaxies to the canyons we’re convinced we’re discovering. We are chosen by the gods for pain and destruction, for envy and despair. We shoulder the burden, however heavy, and live in whatever space is left between the effort of lifting and the descent down the mountain.

It’s ordinary to be doomed. We’re all doomed in some way — maybe not until the very end, when, however peacefully, all of our perfect, beautiful silliness will disappear to somewhere unknown. It is, even in its gentlest form, catastrophically unfair. So are the unbelievable gifts we’re given. One sunrise, one baby, one wild blueberry is ridiculous abundance. We are cursed and we are blessed in impossible, unbearable ways.

Ralston and Sisyphus’ stories have been made allegorical by what they did, but I think that’s a mistake. Because your fate is much less determined by what you’re willing to do than what you’re willing to think.

Sometimes, in that brutal space in which harsh truths lurk and strut, I think about something G. Gordon Liddy said. Liddy held his hand over a candle flame until the flesh crackled and burned. Someone asked him what his trick was. “The trick,” Liddy responded, “Is not to mind it.”

And sometimes, in that same space, I think instead of Henry Moore, who said, “The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for the rest of your life. And the most important thing is, it must be something you cannot possibly do.”