09/10/2012 12:38 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2012

Finding Reverse

Dear Waldo,

I know this is not the kind of question you usually answer, but I am the mother of three boys and I have a compost pile in my yard. Lots of times fat and slow-moving porcupines come foraging in it. My 12-year-old has scared the wits out of his younger brothers by telling them that porcupines can shoot their quills the length of a football field, and if you see a porcupine you better hit the dirt fast unless you want to get a blow-dart in your forehead. Now the little ones won't even go outside. So I told them porcupine quills could not be shot out at all because that would take some kind of explosives under their skin which no animal could possibly have. But yesterday the kids came running out because they saw me on the ground and I told them I had tripped over the compost bucket. What really happened is I saw a porcupine and good lord if I didn't drop to the grass like a paratrooper because I'm not a hundred percent sure if they can blast out their quills or not. Would you happen to have any information on this, concerning porcupines?

Edna from Vermont

Dear Edna,

To answer your question in a long-winded, round-about way, let me tell you about a date I had years ago with a Famous Beautiful Woman. I won't burden you with the details that led to this highly improbable shame-fest. Just let me say that when the Famous Beautiful Woman climbed into my Jeep and went to fasten her seatbelt, I knew that the time had come for me to back out of my parking space. I had owned my Jeep for several years, and so I was surprised to feel a twinge of insecurity at the prospect of finding reverse. Just to review, I glanced at the shifting diagram on top of the floor-shift knob to confirm my suspicions about what you were supposed to do when you wanted your car to go backwards. That the instruction diagram appeared to me as hieroglyphs sent a heart-jolting squirt of all-purpose fight-or-flight juice into my bloodstream before I realized the knob had been twisted and I was seeing it upside down. I made an instant decision to rely on instinct, threw the baby into reverse, and went forward.

After that we headed for the ocean and stopped to get something to eat at Wendy's -- her choice. We sat in a little booth, and I asked her questions about her childhood, and while she answered in complete sentences I was like a person sinking to the bottom of the sea who is now resigned to drowning and so is able to devote his entire focus upon the small details of how death arrives, except the details of this particular event were these: Don't I usually have much more saliva? Is it ketchup I like or is it mustard? Do I or do I not usually show my teeth when I smile? Could I be smelling my own feet? Where again is reverse?

And then we went to the beach where we sat on the sand and she told me about her plans to deliver a speech at the White House on the subject of something doing something bad to something else, but I was unable to distinguish nouns from verbs and then I must have driven her back to wherever back was.

All I know is that, on a very basic level, I am fond of the fellow I am, but on that particular occasion everything that I consider to be special about myself I shit into the universe the moment the Famous Beautiful Woman got into my car, and I continued to shit in great thunderous explosions until the Famous Beautiful Woman got out.


Because of my wonderful, advanced Big Brain. My sophisticated, dynamic brain that affords me the opportunity, if I allow it, to place inordinate importance upon blithering non-essentials such as Fame and Status and Wealth and Beauty. I am sufficiently brilliant to manufacture the notion of Better and Worse. She was famous and beautiful and wealthy and therefore she was better than me and her life was better than mine and she could see this all clearly and now look, I can't even find reverse.

Porcupines, on the other hand Edna, thanks to their beautifully simple and efficient design, have not had to rely on evolved intelligence to survive, as you and I have. They will come waddling up to your compost heap, snack until they are full, and waddle off, too blissfully un-evolved to acknowledge the beauty of how complete they are, or even to notice you over there in the yard lying on her belly with her hands over her head. No thought to Better. No thought to Worse. Free from the hard work of reading a gear-shift knob.

They don't shoot their quills, Edna, because they don't have to. They're absolutely fine exactly as they are. Why screw up a good thing?

Us, on the other hand, are we fine exactly as we are? Why could I not perform the simple task of finding reverse? Why could I not throw back my head and laugh like normal people laugh? Could it be that our Big Brains might actually be capable of being The Enemy? And if so, what is the human equivalent of porcupine quills? What is our survival trick? What is our ace in the hole? The answer has to be, doesn't it, this:

Our Big Brains?


I'm sorry to end on Uh-oh Edna, but nonetheless: Uh-oh.

Your Fan,

Waldo Mellon