Adventures in Bell’s Palsy (June 2015)


This may or may not brighten your day.  We’ll see how things “come out” in the end.  Try reading this in Paul Harvey’s voice.

I am the substitute song leader at Bible Baptist Church.  This is not because I sing particularly well or possess any other unique qualifications for doing this. I am actually the substitute for…well…almost everything.  If I were a fictional character, my name would be Justin Case.  But this is no fiction, and I like this arrangement, as I am not permanently attached to particular functions. Rather, I help out as needed.

This morning I had to lead singing, which I don’t mind doing as long as my wife can transpose the songs down a couple steps so that I, with my limited range, can hit most of the notes.  But this morning was especially trying, not least of which because I am currently suffering from Bell’s palsy, a temporary paralysis of one side of the face.

Now, leading singing requires several things.  Confidence is one of them.  While you are leading, you must remain confident in your mind; you must be relaxed in your face and throat; you must be forceful in your mid-section; etc.  All of the moving parts have their different levels of control and coordination, and having palsy really messes with that, as I will explain.

For starters, it kills my confidence.  No matter how many people tell me that they don’t even notice it, I feel self-conscious that my every expression only takes place on half of my face and it is unnerving to say the least.  (Perhaps I need more time to get used to it.)  Beyond that, my affected eye won’t close when I want it to close, and my other eye, having been overcompensating for the last week, won’t stay open or even focus this particular morning.  This has the curious effect of seeing the words double-tracked on top of each other for long stretches.  Every word I am trying to enunciate is only done with half of my lips and I am made painfully aware of the important relationship between facial expression and vocal expression.

So what softball composition is lobbed at me in my state of duress?  It’s Memorial Day! So, we are singing the Star Spangled Banner, one of the most dynamically challenging compositions ever devised by mankind.  Perfect.  So there I am, bleary-eyed, cross-eyed, temporarily glossophobic, a nervous wreck, trying to sing with half of my mouth, in front of EVERYONE…but that’s not what make it funny.  Here’s what make it funny: it turns out that I was also at that moment experiencing really bad gas.

Now here’s a physiological fact to which anyone who has ever accidently tooted while laughing can attest: as it turns out, the group of muscles that can, in potential, cause one to expel wind with clear and commanding force, is also the same group of muscles used for singing with clear and commanding force…or laughing…or coughing…or telling other people about their driving.  You get the picture.  (This is going to be one of those curious questions I’ll have when I get to heaven.)  And of all the places you would never want to accidently float an air biscuit, can we agree that church is the one location you wouldn’t want that to happen?  And of all the locations within a church, the most mortifying crime scene you can imagine would be the pulpit area, when and where everyone is paying attention to you!

O the humanity!  While I’m singing, “And the rockets’ red glare,” I’m thinking in my head, “O please let me not blare!”  Later, when we’re singing, “God shed His grace on thee,” unbeknownst to anyone else I’m pleading, “Don’t let me cut the cheese!”  Save me from the cusp of this calamity, in Your all-wise mercy!  PLEASE don’t let me make an utter fool of myself!

Well, I survived, and all were none the wiser.  But now you know THE REST OF THE STORY.

Crown of Excellence


Equality. Temperance. Excellence.

           Arvin Pelmo sat in an oaken armchair, feeling its ancient polished wood under his palms. He pronounced in his mind the Three Virtues arching over the tall figure of Dean Magda, as she stood silently in front of the room’s massive window, looking over the meticulously manicured lawns of Culver House.  Framed in filtered sunlight, she wore her official black robe, usually reserved for ceremonies and banquets.

            Finally she turned, her face both regal and impassive.

“Do you know why you are here?” she asked.

            “No, Dean Magda.  I was hoping you would tell me the reason for this meeting.”

            Indeed, he was.  The whole semester had passed without so much as a demerit, a warning, or reprimand.  He studied her face, but still saw no hint of her mood or disposition.

            “Mr. Pelmo, we would like to offer you an opportunity.  But first, we need to clear a few things up.”

            Sweat began to form on Arvin’s neck.  He wondered if he could refuse such an offer.

            Dean Magda stepped over to her desk and opened a white plastic box, from which she drew a silver helmet.  Arvin recognized this conglomeration of wire and electrodes and  circuitry.  It was even fitted, ironically, with mock jewels and fleurs-de-lis.

            “You know what this is,” she stated.

            “The dummy hat,” he answered.

            “The Champion’s Crown,” she corrected sternly.

            Yeah, right, he thought to himself.  He had watched different students wear the device from week to week and come to his own conclusions.

            “Mr. Pelmo, the Champion’s Crown was designed by our engineers to help students who have trouble in their studies,” she explained. “Every week, the lowest achieving students are assigned to wear the Crown, to bring them more in line with Culver House’s foundational virtues.”

            This is a lie, Arvin thought.  He had formed his suspicions from the beginning, but Leila confirmed them.

            Leila with her silver hair and wide green eyes, her skin so pale he could see every vein. Her hypnotic, heartbreaking smile.  Besides being the most alluring creature Arvin had ever seen, she was easily one of the smartest students at the academy.  Everything about her exuded wit and savvy.  She was a razor knife in a shed already full of sharp things.

            Several weeks earlier he had found her sitting beside the Horse Fountain in the main courtyard at night, alone and weeping.  She wore the Crown.

            “I don’t understand,” she sobbed. “I’m sure I didn’t miss any questions on any of the exams.  I did my best.  How can I be stuck wearing this thing?”

            She was right.  It didn’t make a bit of sense, unless the Crown is something entirely different than what the school staff is claiming.

            “I can’t stand it,” she lamented. “It feels like a tiny beehive is deep inside my head.”

            “Did they tell you what you missed?” he had asked her.

            “No,” she said. “They didn’t explain anything.”

            No, he thought.  They never do.  Leila wore the crown for two more weeks after that night.  And now…Leila was different.  She just wasn’t Leila anymore.

            “You don’t believe me,” Dean Magda declared.


            “Mr. Pelmo, the reason you were summoned here is twofold.  First, you are a slacker.  A sandbagger.  I took a great chance on you, letting you come to this school, considering your previous…shall we call them…brushes with authority.  But you had limitless potential.  Since then, however, you have never once achieved top score in any class.”

            “Is that a crime?” Arvin asked.

            “Not necessarily.  But I will tell you this. It is statistically unlikely.  So much so that my staff have confirmed it is virtually impossible to have occurred, given your entrance scores.  You are doing this on purpose.  You have guessed the real purpose of the Crown.”

            Arvin couldn’t deny it.  Still, he said nothing.

            “Mr. Pelmo, we look for students with exceptional intuition.  It’s something that cannot be taught.  We do value raw intelligence, but not too much intelligence, if you follow me.”

            Arvin nodded.

            “Equality.  Temperance.  We cannot develop these fully in students who exhibit too much intelligence.  They will never have the self-control to be truly temperate.”

            “You mean obedient,” Arvin said.

            She ignored the comment.

            “They will never truly fit in with the Academy’s goal of preparing young people for life in the Frontier Colonies, to integrate into a way of life that demands a loyalty to the greater good,” she continued.

            “You mean having their own ideas, their own identities,” Arvin countered.

            Dean Magda stared at him for what seemed like a very long while.

            “You’re very bright, Arvin.”  She was smiling now. “You see things.  That’s why I am making you this offer, a chance to latch on to the greater vision we have here at Culver House. An opportunity to make a real difference.”

            Arvin waited.

            “We are offering you a junior position on our training staff.  You will no longer attend classes.  You will be one of us, Arvin, and help administer the curriculum.  I will only ask you one time.  I need your answer at once.”         

            There was no question in Arvin’s mind what this offer meant.  He thought about his previous life in the Terran slums, the poverty and uncertainty.  He thought about the future he had imagined out among the stars.  He thought about Leila.  Would he do that to her?

            “Dean Magda, I must refuse.  Thank you for your consideration.”


“I thought so,” she answered, her smile fading.

            Suddenly Arvin felt steely hands grip his shoulders, pinning him to the chair.  When had they entered the room?  He thought he was alone with the Dean.  Now he sensed he truly was alone, unable to move.

            Dean Magda glided slowly over to him and placed the Crown on his head.  Immediately he heard a faint buzzing all around him.

            “Excellent,” she pronounced.

The Green Menagerie


Of all the ramshackle, makeshift “lounges” I’ve ever spent time in during my decades of crisscrossing every dive and hotel in this dusty land, this was the worst. And the smelliest. I should have braced myself when I noticed underneath the flickering neon “Max’s Comedy Castle” sign, one could still read in ghostly bleed-through letters, “Timmons Truckstop & Taxidermy.” I guess an economy class magician in his sunset years can expect no better:  I took what I could get.

When I first entered the room, my nose was assaulted by the unnatural mixture of smoke, must, urine and cinnamon. I set down in a beaten green velvet wing back and started in on a watered-down cherry soda. The sweetness of the drink didn’t help the odor.

“You’re on in forty-five,” Max informed me. “They’re gonna love ya, Tim. We ain’t had a magic man since before the fire.”

He left immediately, I presumed to tend to the early patrons.


I looked around at no less than fifty stuffed creatures in various poses and stages of completion, some on the wall, some on pedestals strewn about the place. Predator and prey were displayed, even a Capuchin monkey. Although the space seemed long and fairly wide, it was crowded and poorly lit by three electric chandeliers.


I heard it, but didn’t know from which direction the sound had come.

“Excuse me?” I queried. “Is someone else here?”

Max hadn’t mentioned the possibility of anyone else.

I remembered the time in Reno I was relaxing with a perfect martini in my hand when two dwarfs dressed as cowboys, complete with tiny shooting irons, crawled out from under a coffee table. Scared the daylights out of me! Eddie and Vito; they claimed they were brothers. I forgave them for making me spill my martini, and they forgave me for pulling a knife on them. They still send me postcards at Christmas sometimes.

No answer.

I stood up and stepped around a massive, but tattered, grizzly bear, ample enough to be hiding three dwarfs.


Did the sound come from behind me that time?

“I say. Who’s there? Is this some kind of joke?” I challenged.

Annoyance was creeping over me.

I tip-toed past a couple of jaguars, ducked under an elk head, sidled past two battling rams, and waited.

Just because Max didn’t mention anyone else didn’t mean there wasn’t anyone else. And what was the idea of sneaking around anyway? I might expect a prank or two at a comedy club, but a lunatic?


“Who’s there? What, are you gonna sing me ‘Happy Birthday’, pal?”

See, one time I heard someone whistling “Happy Birthday” as I was unlocking my apartment door back home in Fresno. I froze! It felt like a bad slasher flick. I could already see the headline in the paper: “The Birthday Killer Strikes Again!” But I wasn’t in any mortal danger. Turned out to be some bum crashed out in the bushes nearby. He high-tailed it when he saw the Gerber in my hand.

This time I had definitely heard it on the other side of the room. This sucker was moving around. Why did this always happen to me?

I crept slowly across the room, needling my way around foxes and beavers and a jackalope.

I drew my trusty blade from my pocket. Had to be prepared, after all.


Blast it! It came from off to the right. Against that dark paneled wall was the front half of a Texas longhorn. I felt trapped in its glassy stare.

He reminded me of the time in Rio Rancho when some crazy chute boss thought it would be funny to let a bull loose in the middle of my act at the Hot Tamale Rodeo. Got a lifetime ban after I jabbed that beast in the nose with four inches of steel. But you could hardly have blamed me, right?

Surely he didn’t just psst me! This wasn’t Narnia. Someone was playing me for a fool.

“Alright! That’s enough of this, buddy!”

I advanced toward the bull, staring it down, brandishing the Gerber, certain that my tormentor would leap out from somewhere nearby.


“Come out from there!”

I charged toward the bull, my eyes darting left and right, waiting for the prankster to surrender with arms thrown high, apologizing and pleading for mercy.

Nothing. I waited. I could feel my teeth sweat. Dozens of cold hard stares eagerly anticipated what would unfold.


Then I saw it, nestled below and to the right of the bull. A Glade automatic air freshener. Apple Cinnamon.

Aw, nuts. I ran it through all the same.