“You would think I was some good, old, decent Christian, would you not?” –Robert Louis Stevenson.

It all began with Opus. You know Opus, the naïve, accidentally wise penguin in Berkeley Breathed’s comic strip, Bloom County, published from 1980 to 1989.

This nonsense all began with Opus:

the family R

I loved Opus because I wanted to be as clever as he was. I didn’t understand, of course, that in order to be that clever, one had to be more innocent and at the same time much smarter than I was in the ’80s or at any time before or since. One’s mind has to be clear enough to make simple deductions from bizarre evidence.

My penguin collection began in the late ‘80s. I used to have about 100 stuffed, ceramic, wood-carved, porcelain, and glass penguins (and a T-shirt), not counting the set of 8 Christmas eggnog glasses a friend gave me or the life-size blow-up doll Emperor Penguin another friend gave me. (All of my penguins were gifts except my first. I have bought only one penguin, ever. )

I jettisoned most of them awhile back, but I still have a few, and the glasses and the blow-up doll. And the T-shirt.

Do you recognize the logo?

Do you recognize the logo?

Except for my penguins, most of what I have in my apartment I consider myself to be holding in trust for someone else. Just who those folks are, I am not sure. My grandparents, my parents, my ex-wife Ann, my partner Jerry. Well, yes. Except all of those folks are deceased. So I don’t suppose they are going to come and collect their things.

The penguins in the picture are sitting (where they always sit) in front of a set of books—the works of Robert Louis Stevenson—a nicely bound edition published in 1930. They are held in a carved set of bookends from, I would guess, about the same time. I am holding both the books and the bookends in trust for my late partner Jerry.

The other day as I was working out the syllabus for my fall classes, I noticed the Stevenson books and remembered his story, “The Body-Snatcher.” It’s a wonderfully Victorian kinky story that would, I think, fit our topic, “Writing about the Grotesque.” It would be far easier to manage than Frankenstein. Then my mind wandered to the movie, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (not the 1978 remake but the original 1956 cult classic—which I know). I thought, “What a great remake of my class; discuss the differences (or similarities) between the Victorian and 1950s understanding of the ‘grotesque.’”  I think I’ll do it. (Thank goodness it’s on DVD at Netflix so I don’t have to watch on my computer!)

My students will obviously think both the story and the movie are grotesque because they’re so old-fashioned, but that’s their problem. They will find it hard to believe that Stevenson tried to keep his story from publication because he thought it was “blood-curdling enough—and ugly enough—to chill the blood of a grenadier.” Posters advertising the magazine that finally published it were taken down by the London police because they were so ghoulish and chilling.

I remembered that not too long ago I took a picture of the penguins with the Stevenson, so I opened my folder of recent pictures, and ???????????????????????????????there it was. I may even have used it here.  I don’t remember. The position of the photo in the folder struck me as wonderfully odd. It’s between a photo of my one of my favorite places in the US—the beach at Port Orford, Oregon—and myself wearing a shirt with a logo that, if you recognize it, you are probably of great interest to the NSA.

And the position of those pictures led me to thinking about the bizarre twists and turns one’s life can take. The geographic shifts are strange enough. Scottsbluff, Nebraska, in the ‘50s. Salem, Massachusetts, in the ‘80s. Dallas, Texas, in the ‘90s. Ramallah in the Occupied Palestinian Territories in 2003. Port Orford, Oregon, in 2010.

And now, piled together, churning in my mind at—I began this writing at 4:15 AM (perhaps that’s why I so often lose the point I was after in the middle of my writing)—I have penguins, Stevenson, Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter, Frankenstein, Jerry, Ann, and Opus. I’m going to blame Opus. It all began with Opus.

Rereading Stevenson, I remembered why I like his writing so much. Of course, it’s old-fashioned. But what style! I want to be able to describe my getting old in language as clear as Stevenson gives to old Fettes in the story.

“. . . it’s the rum you see in my face–rum and sin. This man, perhaps, may have an easy conscience and a good digestion. Conscience! Hear me speak. You would think I was some good, old, decent Christian, would you not? But no, not I; I never canted. Voltaire might have canted if he’d stood in my shoes; but the brains”—with a rattling fillip on his bald head—”the brains were clear and active, and I saw and made no deductions.”

The brains were clear and active, and I saw and made no deductions. And a good, old, decent Christian I am not.

I know this is copyrighted. If the owner wants me to remove it, I will gladly do so.

I know this is copyrighted. If the owner wants me to remove it, I will gladly do so.

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