The Old Man and the Swamp excerpt

The Old Man and the Swamp
Simon & Schuster, 2011
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EXCERPT FROM PROLOGUE

Many people have called me a couch potato, but I don’t buy it.

The phrase is too geographically limiting, for one thing.  “Couch potato” says nothing about the many hours I spend awake in bed each week contemplating crossword puzzles, marveling at the effortless way my wife is able to rise daily at precisely 7:03 a.m., and guiltily gorging on reality shows that focus on people with no special qualities aside from an overwhelming desire to be momentarily famous.  The term doesn’t factor in the regular procrastinatory marathon computer sessions during which I check the lineups of my three fantasy baseball squads or track down arcane facts about 1980s sitcoms while swiveling obsessively in my desk chair.  And while I do of course lounge frequently on my actual couch all manner of spudlike things, the futon in my office gets equal usage.  “Furniture potato” would be more like it.

Further implied by the expression is that I must look, well, potato-y.  Not true.  When I last dared to check myself out in a full-length mirror, I glimpsed a gangly physique that was neither ovoid nor pointy in parts—more asparagus than anything in the tuber family.  My head didn’t sport googly plastic eyes, a huge plastic nose, or oversize plastic ears.  At least not plastic ones.

But I admit that there must be plenty of couch potatoes who look nothing like Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, and some of them may even resemble yours truly, a man an angry former girlfriend once described as “JFK Jr. after a bad couple of years.”  So go ahead and call me what you want.  I mean, certainly I am partial to inactivity, the identifying characteristic of couch potatoes around the globe.  Or maybe it’s not so much inactivity that I’m prone to as it is indoors activity—it does take quite a bit of exertion to press all of those buttons on a video-game controller, you know.  I realize that this will make me sound pathetic to even the most pear-shaped of adventurers, but unless it involves an athletic field, a questing literary character, or something showing on an IMAX screen, I don’t care much for the outdoors.  I never have.  That’s not to suggest that I wish nature any harm or that I don’t appreciate it.  I am very much on the side of the good men and women striving to preserve our forests, wildlife, bodies of water, and other precious natural resources.  I feel outrage and sadness whenever I hear about an oil spill, a corporate land grab, a smog-billowing factory, or the extinction of a species, particularly one wiped out to satisfy the demands of the senseless aphrodisiac and SUV markets.  I share basic sentiments about nature and our environment with every other thoughtful human being on the planet, namely that there’s some amazing stuff to be found out there (e.g., geysers and narwhals) and that much of it is mesmerizingly awesome (ditto).  It’s just that I happen to think about these things while chilling out in a La-Z-Boy surrounded by bags of Funyuns.

Frankly, the outdoors has always seemed unnecessarily daunting.  The lack of climate control, the abundance of wide-open spaces with no flat-screen televisions for hundreds of miles, the difficulty of finding toilets or meatball subs at critical moments, the probability of being eaten alive by bugs, sharks, and hippos, the threat of being take out by rock slides, lightning, and quicksand—who needs any of that?  And who can deal with the constant menace of ickiness?  You can muck up your shoes in a puddle.  You can brush up against fungi.  You can walk face-first into spiderwebs.  You can encounter horsey smells.  You can get dripped on by substances that can only be described as goo.  You can be assailed by rats, gnats, and cheerful hikers who haven’t showered for days.  You can step in dog feces—or worse, human feces.  Almost everything I’ve ever experienced in the out of doors has made me want to come back to the in of them.

So as you can imagine, spending three straight days in the swamps of southern Michigan would not be something I’d regard as a good time.  Especially if such an excursion also involved my dad.  You might as well throw in a jackhammer to the groin.

Whenever you make a list of the worst situations you might be unlucky enough to find yourself in—and obsessive paranoiacs like me compose lists of this nature roughly twice a month—there’s a tendency to include the absurd.  Falsely accused of necrophilia.  Forced to attend a Speedo fashion show.  Tethered to a wolverine.  Tethered to Carrot Top. But unless you’re terminally misfortunate or you have some very interesting substance abuse issues, these things will never, ever happen to you.  Considering them at all is a waste of your God-given list-making abilities.

Indeed, the most airtight list of this kind is filled with scenarios that not only might reasonably happen to you in the future, but with ones that have also repeatedly threatened you in the past.  In other words, these are situations that, in one way or another, you’ve spent much of your life trying to actively avoid.

For me, being subjected to unnecessary alone time with my dad has always ranked at or near the top of this list.  So it’s difficult to remember why I ever thought that spending multiple consecutive days in his company would be a sensible idea.  Nearly three decades after the divorce that allowed my mom, my two brothers, and me to flee the home we shared with him like sanitarium escapees, he is practically the same.  He’s still broke.  He still snores.  He still chews noisily.  He still dresses inappropriately.  He still smokes (only now he occasionally does so while simultaneously wearing as many as five nicotine patches).  He’s still given to bellowing, often while consuming Franzia boxed wine, “Stick that in your pipe and smoke it!”

Plus, he stutters.  Badly.  Especially when gooned on Franzia.  This would be easier to cope with if, upon being instructed in therapy that mantras and aphorisms can help mitigate difficult speech impediments, he hadn’t gleaned many of his safe words from his favorite movies and TV shows.  Or if he didn’t make use of them quite so frequently.

Take, for example, “prove it,” Jack Palance’s deadpan line from the 1953 western Shane.  Literally anything can and will be followed up with “prove it.”

“Dad, I need a ride to the arcade,” you might say.

“Prove it.”

“Whoa—this pizza is incredible!”

“Prove it.”

“A muskrat gnawed off my left arm on the way home from school, Dad, and a significant amount of blood appears to be squirting out of the stump.”

“Prove it.”

All of these quirks, as well as any other idiosyncrasy he ever whipped out to frustrate, humiliate, or anger me, are still present and accounted for in the seventy-year-old vintage of Mark Ashley Sellers Jr.  Yet for reasons I began to regret almost immediately, or at least strongly reconsider, he and I recently formulated a plan to set off on a three-day trip—the longest stretch of time we would spend alone together since 1986, when we drove straight through a blizzard from Michigan to Washington, D.C., and instead of performing standard-issue fatherly tasks like playing the license plate game or lecturing me about the importance of choosing the right lawnmower, he did unpredictable, borderline-insane things, such as yelling over a Don Henley song, “Semis!  Goddamn semis!  Aieeee!

This wasn’t going to be just any old road trip with my dad into the swamps of southern Michigan, either.  I would be heading with my dad into the swamps of southern Michigan to catch snakes.