July 3rd 2015
I caught a lizard today at work. He was sun-bathing outside Building 4S at JSC, ribs rising and falling peacefully, lazy eyes dipping shut for long seconds at a time. I stood in the warm sun and watched him for at least two minutes, watched his eyes dim and re-open.
I’d gone outside because my new office is bitter cold and facilities management is on their third attempt at getting things under control. The room was originally designed for handling the heat loads from a Shuttle Era mainframe computer, and I guess one guy in his mid-thirties doesn’t throw off that much heat. Getting to work is like a sad version of that opening scene from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood: I take off my nice black dress shoes and slip on thick pair of wool socks, soccer length. Instead of loafers, I use thick-hide cowboy boots. Mr. Rogers gets a comfy sweater, while I get a gray hoodie from Old Navy, followed by the black blazer once kept exclusively for important meetings with upper management.
Of all the government agencies, you’d think NASA could get environmental controls right, but we’re just as bad as the next. When we build an office building, we don’t build it like a spacecraft. We build it with the short game in mind. (Or we did in the ’60s and ’80s.) While the walls are modular, the air handlers, thermostat controls, and ducting are not. Every time NASA re-orgs, the walls are reconfigured, and the thermostats creep farther and farther from the rooms they control. After twenty or thirty years, the temperature control to your office might be in the third floor ladies room (don’t ask me why), while the temperature gauge is in the second floor spacesuit lab. Spare no expense. . .
In my old office, people in the conference room next door used to come beg me to turn the temperature down. “We’re roasting,” they’d say.
I wasn’t particularly understanding. “Deal with it, suckers. It’s only for an hour.”
Payback stinks. I like my job, but (Boss are you reading this?) my new office is a bit cold. Like cold enough to freeze penguins. At least twice today my co-workers asked if they could just leave their lunches since the fridge is almost full. Very funny, Patrick, and you other guy whose name I can’t remember.
That’s why I went outside to sun myself with the lizards. Call it kinship. I suddenly understood the temptation to lie in the sun all day and blink lethargically. I watched him blink, and he ignored me because I was too cold to move. I noticed his eye pattern after a while: open for one second, close for three. The part of me that is still ten years old goads my more mature self:
Young Ben: “Bet you can’t catch that lizard when he closes his eyes.”
Old Ben: “I’m not as slow as I look.”
Young Ben: “Yes you are. You’re practically decrepit. You have to sun yourself to stay warm!”
Old Ben: “Shut up. I’ll show you.”
The next time the lizard closes its eyes, I put my right hand over him quickly and carefully, so he can’t run, and then carefully grasp him by the head with my left hand, between thumb and pointer finger. Even so, he almost gets away, and he definitely isn’t happy about getting a cold hug from my hand. He opens his mouth wide, griping about the interrupted nap and trying to look ferocious. I notice patterns of blue scaling right under his eyes, and bring him up close to my face to watch his color change from black to greenish brown.
Young Ben: “Bet you can’t poke him in the face with your tongue.”
. . .
Have you ever tried to swear with a lizard clamped to the tip of your tongue? You’re better than that? Good. ’Cause it’s pretty dang hard.
You can say whatever you want ’cause they will literally hang from your tongue for hours, grinding their tiny little jaws as you shout poorly-enunciated expletives. They. Don’t. Let. Go.
Every few seconds his legs would windmill a little bit to see if he could get traction. I gave him a good perch on my finger, but that didn’t seem to make him any more secure, so I took my finger back and gave him a little tug—not hard—but the tug only pulled my tongue out farther.
I’m nailed to the spot, trying to breathe through my nose, imagining what might happen if someone comes out the back door at that very moment. My mouth is hanging wide open and my tongue is trying to waggle the lizard loose, and he’s holding on tighter for it, tail swinging back and forth. I can’t close my mouth either because I don’t really want the flavor of lizard underbelly in my mouth, and I wouldn’t be able to close it fully anyway.
A couple of odd thoughts cross my mind: What would the pierced gentry down at Hot Topic say about this? I could try stuffing the lizard in my mouth and then approach them all casual like, “Tongue-ring? Yeah, thaths pretty cool, but beat thith!” and then unfurl my tongue-lizard with great pride.
Or even better, tell my seven-year-old to keep a straight face while I try to read her Green Eggs and Ham or Fox in Sox. Or one of my terribly serious fantasy stories.
What works in the end is a firm, steady grip on the little monster’s head and a steady pull. He doesn’t give up without a fight, but I do prevail, and we’re both happier once he’s scurried back into the bushes. Of course he probably told the story a little differently when he got home from work that day: “And that, you little lizards, is how the tiny dragon slew the giant knight!”
. . .
That’s another thing. Stories are usually better in retrospect, after a bit of self-examination, and that same reflection can give rise to interesting insights. DARTS is based on a dinner I had with some work associates after a Space Shuttle Quarterly Review. RINGS came from my wife’s comment that I had ended a late draft of DARTS wrong and my brother’s insistence that I had too much story for one story. Plague Runners (in editing) was born from seeing my then-two-year-old daughter put her tongue to the black rail of a moving walkway in an airport and watching in horror as it slid beneath her tongue for several seconds before I could yank her away. (Like father, like daughter?)
At first, these things frightened me, suggesting I was inadequate, but when I realized only my ego had been harmed, they drove me to examine more deeply and to see more clearly. Observation is the knack for seeing things right in front of you and thinking about them in a new light. “What would happen if. . .”
What’s something you’ve wondered about? Funny, strange things happen when you ask questions and look for tiny details. Things worth writing about. Try it. Stir the pot. Lick a non-venomous lizard. Tell me about it.