Blood Sucking Moths
In the Wyoming high country, the biting creatures were out and their impending attack made me loopy. I used to imagine that if I were ever in a situation that required grace under pressure, like if I was cornered in the dojo of a pernicious aikido master, I would address the challenge coolly, logically and maybe boldly. The threat to Lynn and me, as we hiked in Yellowstone National Park, was not grave, but it was a perfect opportunity to test my mettle. Unfortunately, my response was more than disappointing, it was—as I like to say—“darn right embarrassing.” It did crystallize for me, however, the answer to a question that I’d occasionally dwelled upon for the last decade, namely, “Why didn’t I ever date Helena Bonham Carter?”
The crucible that forged my revelation emerged about a mile into our hike, when Lynn warned that a moth on my elbow was behaving strangely. Most moths flutter away when brushed, but she noticed that when I inadvertently pulled my elbow to my side, it stayed put. I moved deliberately to brush it away, thinking that it would fly off before being touched, but instead, my gentle brush smashed it, covering my palm with blood. I looked carefully for evidence of the moth, but there was none. The moth ceased to exist. There was no mark on my elbow, no bug-like remains, only the blood on my palm.
This confused me and somehow that confusion triggered irrational thoughts. Unless I’m mistaken, science hasn’t yet discovered a vampire moth. There’s the busty woman that turns into a giant blood-thirsty moth in the Peter Cushing movie The Blood Beast Terror, but that’s a little different. As far as I was concerned at the instant when I was attacked—is that too strong a verb here?—moths were merely a minor nuisance, particularly the ones—the size of small birds—that fly into your face at San Diego Padres games. Of course, I knew that there was nothing to worry about, but I was sick of our hike and craved an excuse to stop, so I began to worry about moths anyway.
We were at the halfway point of an eight-day stay in Yellowstone, mentally and physically in need of a brisk hike; in the past two weeks, we’d seen some of America’s lushest habitats almost exclusively from our car. In our first four days at Yellowstone, for instance, we averaged about six hours in the car and about one mile of walking, always on the heavily traveled trails next to parking lots. On these trails, we strolled next to great-grandmothers walking next to five-year-olds and sidestepped morbidly obese families.
In Yellowstone our hotel was close to 7,000 feet above sea level, so we had an excuse for the first day, at least. Still, by Day Four, our sloth embarrassed us. We’d driven over 150 miles a day in the park, but during our entire road trip to that point, we’d barely hiked ten miles, not counting strolls on city streets. That’s not acceptable behavior for people who display a Sierra Club emblem on their car. What would John Muir think of this? He’d come to the same conclusion that we did: The Lewises are soft, lazy, unworthy citizens. We needed to take hikes, not little half mile loops from the parking lots, but real hikes. Ones that would require us to take a bottle of water, band aids for blisters and maybe even a map and compass.
I checked with a ranger and read several publications, hoping to find a suitable hike to break us in. The excellent Watching Yellowstone and Grand Teton Wildlife by Todd Wilkinson suggested several, including a promising one through Midway Geyser Basin. It was a summer Saturday, which meant large crowds at the park, so its description sounded great:
When we choose to escape the huge crowds with our families, we head to Midway Geyser Basin...Elk and bison are regularly seen here as well as coyotes, and occasionally grizzlies and wolves. Keep your eyes open for raptors and remember not to feed the ravens.
Large mammals, raptors, no crowds—that’s the hike for us.
As we pulled into the parking lot, we couldn’t help but notice that the views of Midway Geyser Basin were not particularly appealing, at least by Yellowstone standards. It was flat, brown and featureless—apart from a beige thermal pool that stank of sulfur. The excuses for not taking this hike began to flow. I wanted to see moose at dusk elsewhere in the park and we were getting a late start. I didn’t bring a map of the area. It was hot and we were low on water. We forgot to buy bug spray. These were feeble excuses that we rightly ignored, at least until the moth encounter.
As I mentioned earlier, I welcomed any excuse to end this hike. Can you think of a better excuse than a vampire moth bite? We kept plodding along for about five minutes after the incident, but for me there was nothing fun about it. The only animals we saw on our walk were ravens and bugs. To take my mind off the heat, bugs and smell of rotten eggs, I tried to remember the details of a Philip K. Dick short story in which intelligent, propane-torch-wielding moths stow away aboard a time machine in order to destroy mankind. Thinking of this story only made me more aware of the dive-bombing bugs, which seemed to be getting more plentiful. Thankfully, it didn’t take much to persuade Lynn to turn back because she was parched.
After the initial moth attack, I made indifferent swats at bugs that approached, similar to how I imagined a Bedouin would casually flick his camel whip at flies, but as the bugs increased, my flicks became vehement flails. Then, I began to walk very fast, like a race-walker, but with a less pronounced hip wiggle. This put me far ahead of my wife, so to avoid ditching her, I walked in a zig-zag, from one side of the path to the other. That’s vehement flails and a zig-zag race walk with a hip wiggle. I was kinetic.
Lynn’s response—after her hysterical laughter subsided—was to call me Cecil, after Cecil Vyse, the Daniel Day-Lewis character in A Room With a View. Cecil Vyse is a Victorian prig who ineffectually woos Helena Bonham Carter’s character. She prefers the virile George Emerson to the effete Cecil, who is part Niles Crane, part Pee Wee Herman, but with the humor of Sam the Eagle. A wife with a husband acting like Cecil Vyse is a wife who wants to return immediately to the car.
The Cecil comment started me thinking about Helena Bonham Carter, which brought to mind the year I spent studying at the University of Sheffield in northern England. When I set foot on English soil in 1994, I held two unrealistic, irrational convictions. I believed that, if luck were on my side, through a series of unlikely events, I would date Helena Bonham Carter—she’s so impetuous—and then later be fortuitously propelled into a career as a professional soccer player. This was not a two-part plan. I wouldn’t parlay my fame as a soccer player into a romance with Helena. They would be separate lucky circumstances. I’d been lucky of late, so, while improbable, this didn’t seem impossible. I’d stumbled upon a full-ride scholarship, had won routinely in poker games, football pools and in small bets at the track. I had a blessed life and Fate would provide, provided It overlooked my inarticulate speech around women and dearth of soccer skills.
Of the two convictions, a professional soccer career was the biggest longshot because my soccer credentials do not point to a professional career:
I played a season of youth soccer. Like almost all American youth soccer leagues, ours played packball. Eight kids on each side ran around in a cluster, chasing the ball and occasionally kicking it towards one of the goals. Each team had a couple of meek kids that stood next to their goalie and talked about either Star Wars or horses. In soccer parlance, this is called the 8-0-2 formation. I played mid-cluster.
During these years, I lived in a soccer-playing country, or more specifically, a country of fussballers. Our quaint German town had a fussball field, where round-bellied men would play five-on-five matches in the snow, with ski poles as goals.
Two German kids from across the street sometimes would come over to play fussball with us in our little yard. The oldest brother, Marcus, was a couple of years younger than me, but was nearly my size. My younger brothers would split up—one with Marcus, one with me—and we’d play two-on-two. Marcus’s little brother, Tinny, would nominally be on his team, but would spend the entire game hiding in the bushes, stalking my youngest brother, Brad. They were the same age and size and should have gotten along well, but Tinny was a psychopath. He’d wait until Brad wasn’t looking and jump out from behind a shrub and punch Brad in the ear. If there was ice on the ground, he’d sometimes mix things up and hit Brad in the face with an ice ball instead. Every time this happened, we’d stop the game, dumbfounded, and Marcus would try to punch Tinny, who’d be off like the Flash, hightailing it for home.
Later that night, my mom would explain to us that the kids were going through a difficult phase because of their parents’ recent divorce, so Brad would try to be nice to Tinny the next time we saw them. Thankfully, they moved out after about a year, but to this day, whenever I see a crime drama about a murderous, psychopathic kid, I don’t think it’s too far-fetched.
In our third year in Germany, I played on the junior varsity fussball team at my American Armed Forces high school. I learned that two-on-two fussball in a small yard with four kids and a young psychopath doesn’t necessarily translate to the eleven-a-side game, but I did get some playing time and even scored a goal in a scrimmage against the girls’ squad. I paid handsomely for the goal, though. The girls’ team was mean; we’d have cleat marks all over our thighs, calves and chest to prove it.
I developed my trademark soccer move during this time, which I call the non-header. Because I’ve always disliked getting hit in the head, I found it foolhardy to purposely stick my head in the path of the ball. I particularly loathe blows to the nose, which was usually where I connected. Even Pelé occasionally got hit in the nose, so I didn’t see the viability of an improvement in my heading technique. Rather, I decided to develop a method that would eliminate bashed noses altogether.
The trick was to make it appear like I was trying to head the ball, but instead use leverage on my opponent so that we both missed the ball. This was a neutral play that technically didn’t hurt my team, but if the ball rebounded high in the air, I sometimes had to do the non-header a second time, which looked a little fishy. I ran into additional troubles when there was no opponent nearby to lean on and the situation called for a header instead of a chest trap. These instances always earned me an extended stay on the bench.
We returned to California for my junior year and I continued my soccer career. During tryouts, I thought my pedigree (living in a country of fussballers for three years) would more than make up for the coach’s annoyance with my heading skills. I was not surprised, therefore, when I made the varsity squad.
Playing for the varsity was a great boon for a number of reasons. For one, we usually played on fields without lights, so after daylight savings time, the JV team—which had to play after the varsity—only got in about a third of a game before it was too dark to play. Also, the varsity team was filled with football players that had aggression left over from their disappointing football season so they picked fights or took cheap shots nearly every game. Because a few of them were worse than bullies, it was advisable to be on their side. Like Tinny, there was something seriously wrong with them and when we scrimmaged the JV squad, they would punch and kick the younger players. Once, when the worst perpetrator clothes-lined a freshman standing next to me, I halfheartedly challenged him in a nervous, bumbling way: “That’s not a nice thing to do.” Normally, I speak slowly in a dull baritone, but it came out pip-squeaky, so he didn’t hear me, or pretended not to. “What?”, he said, staring me down. I should have used this opportunity to devise a better opening line, but instead, I tried to John Wayne it: “That’s not a…nice…thing to do.” He stared at me a couple of beats longer and then mocked my pipsqueak delivery: “That’s not a nice thing to do!” he trilled, third-grade style, and ran off down the field. What do you say to that? (Our coach was a kind man, so I can only conclude that he wasn’t paying much attention to our scrimmages or had poor vision.)
Part-way through the season, I began to view my selection to the varsity squad differently. I noticed that I was the only junior on the team. There was one sophomore, but he was our best defender. When I reevaluated my skills, I wasn’t really any better than any of the other juniors. Other than my promising hard knuckleball kick—useful only for shots on goal, which I never took—I was unremarkable (if I knew how to harness the hard-knuckler, it would be a different story: the US would have a poor-man’s David Beckham on their hands).
I thought back to the day when the coach made the final cuts. During warm-ups, I was practicing the hard-knuckler and kicked the ball way over the goal, off the field and into a row of trees. As I started off to retrieve the ball, the coach blew his whistle to signal the start of stretches. While I’d climbed off the field into the trees, the coach announced the cuts, so that when I returned with the ball to the stretching circle, only the varsity team remained. The JV squad was off with the assistant coach on another field. My thoughts were, “Great. Made the varsity. Not surprised.”
Later, though, I pieced together another scenario: While I was in the trees, the coach told all of the non-seniors, save the one sophomore, that they didn’t make the varsity side. I had been lucky—not good—and both absent and oblivious. The coach confirmed this theory during the last fifteen minutes of the season finale, when he took out the starters and told all the bench players to “finish off your last games as seniors.” When I told him I was a junior, he looked at me blankly, unable to process this information. Finally, he said, “Well, just finish out the game.” The next year, I was back for another season of headerless soccer.
In San Diego, I developed a severe case of World Cup Fever in the summer of 1994. You may recall that the US hosted the World Cup that year and if you paid attention, you probably remember that the US had their best showing in over fifty years. For three months, between June and August, the Fever spread among my friends. Our primary symptom was a nearly maniacal drive to schedule weekly soccer games. For the past several years, I’d played in organized pick-up basketball games with these friends at least once a week and I lobbied successfully to change these to soccer games, even though half of the participants hadn’t played since the packball years.
Each week during the summer, my confidence increased. As one of the more experienced players in our games, I had my fair share of goals and I felt that at times, my no-look passes were spooky, they were so good. It was like I had a supernatural grasp of the game. Best of all, with no coach glaring from the sidelines, there was no need to head the ball. I didn’t even need my non-header.
I was a little shaken, though, when I realized that my friend Ned was better than me. He always dominated our basketball and volleyball games, but since he hadn’t played soccer since grammar school, I thought I’d have an edge. However, my confidence soared when I scored a legitimate goal in a scrimmage with a local soccer club. Granted, it was on a breakaway and—because the goalie was a loaner from our team—he was only moderately coordinated and didn’t know how to play goalie. I nearly missed the empty net, but the important thing was that I broke my eight-year drought. When I almost scored again later in the match, my confidence was boundless.
The Fever reached the breaking point when we played a pickup game on a small field adjacent to a Spanish-language game. All but a few of our players lacked skill and a couple kicked like Charlie Brown, but we made up for that through team play. Our sister game, on the other hand, was not a showcase for cooperation. Players took turns trying to dribble through the defense single handedly. Seeing this made me take pride in our humble scrimmage because everyone in our game looked to pass instead of dribble. We were practically Brazilians, the masters of the crisp pass! I felt so giddy that the Brazilian battle cry sprang from my lips: “Olé Olé Olé Olééé, Oléééé Oléééé, Olé Olé Olé Olééé, Oléééé Oléééé.” The Spanish speakers, to a man, shot me glances that I translated loosely as, “Dumbass.”
Our collective Fever subsided when the World Cup Final ended in a 0-0 draw and was decided by penalty kicks. I could only manage one lackluster “Olé” during the two hours of futility and by the end, our spirit was broken, the Fever was done, the pick-up games were no more.
Still, I had the memories of those magical passes and that one goal to reflect on. I was moving to England, winners of a World Cup, and I thought that maybe I could play on a club team over there. I know that it sounds far fetched, but if the right coach were to see me play, one that could figure out how to harness the hard-knuckler, maybe there was a place somewhere in professional soccer for a free-kick specialist who didn’t need to head the ball.
The sad truth, though, is that there was no place for me, particularly because I only played soccer two times during my year in England. Pick-up games are not a part of their culture, like in Germany or the US. Because I chose to play on the university water polo team, I didn’t play soccer at all until midway through the year, when my water polo team rented an Astroturf pitch for a knockabout. We played like water polo players, which means throwing each other to the ground, so nobody noticed my latent talent.
Near the end of the year, I finally found a pick-up game, on a hill near my hall of residence. It wasn’t what I had in mind, though: it was raining, we were playing across a five percent grade and I was wearing two layers of cotton sweats, which soaked up at least ten pounds of water. I impressed nobody, except maybe the Spaniard who looked like a Muppet. She kept trying to tackle me.
Too bad I can’t say the same thing about Helena Bonham Carter. Dating her was undeniably a long shot, but back in 1994 I’d been on that lucky streak, although not necessarily with the ladies. It seemed fairly conceivable that if I could figure out a way to have Helena Bonham Carter see me brooding, she would fall madly in love with me, partly because her characters always are falling for the brooder and partly because I have a dimply-thing in my chin when I brood, like Cary Grant, but less pronounced. She seems like the type of woman that would appreciate a subtle chin dimple. I’m not talking about a Kirk Douglas divot; that would be different.
What I needed was to be isolated with her for several hours, not in a stalker type of way, but perhaps in the ruins of an Italian cathedral after on earthquake or, even better, a beached ferry in conditions that threatened to induce hypothermia. I would be heroic and she would see past my bad glasses, sub-par small talk (“I hand wash my pants.”), and inability to pronounce her name. After the danger subsided and we were stuck waiting for rescue, we’d cozy up and talk about this and that. We’d both be very charming.
Of course, this never happened, since I doubt we were ever within a hundred miles of one another and even if we had been, there weren’t any disasters. When I’d been concocting these scenarios, I didn’t take into account the fact that E.M. Forster didn’t write much about Sheffield. I’m not bitter, though. We wouldn’t have been a good match, because I’m not an actor/director and, in reviewing her period pieces, I now realize that the “wall of hair” thing that she does is too big (anything over Julia Louis Dreyfus circa 1992 is too much). But most of all, there’s just too much Cecil in me.
Copyright Jeff Lewis, 2004