Man, what a strange weekend.
I went to a University of Iowa alumni meeting at a local bar, because the beer was free, and I know a few UI grads in town. I figured it'd be a pretty good time to just hang out, even if I only hung out with my friends the whole time and didn't really do any networking or anything.
When I got there, none of my friends were there yet, so I just sort of hung out at the bar and stared at the televisions, periodically looking around for people I knew. A whole bunch of strangers, but down at the other end of the bar, nursing a beer and looking lonely, was Ryan Gosling, just hanging out by himself. I was baffled. What was he doing there? Why wasn't he being mobbed by people?
Well, I was a couple free beers in, so I wandered down to the other end of the bar and sat down next to him. "Hey, man," I said. "University of Iowa? Class of '02."
"'14," he said. "Ph.D. in Otiotics."
"No shit," I said. "I only went there for undergrad."
None of my asshole friends were showing up, so we just kept chatting. I'd had no idea he was a UI Alum, but apparently he did his time in earnest, even wrote a whole dissertation. And because he's Ryan Gosling, some commercial publishers were asking him to rewrite it in non-academic language to publish as a mainstream book. Fascinating, right?
"Man, you're actually interested in my dry-ass academic writing? It's pretty niche."
"Hell yeah, I am. It sounds super weird."
"Well hold up, I've got a copy in my car." He left and then came back, handing me a weird book with vellum pages and leather binding-- like, actual leather. I guess Ryan Gosling can afford to have his books printed and bound in a pretty fancy way, and not just slapdash jobs at the local University bookstore. I flipped through it, and each page had something completely strange on it-- spot-varnish embossed Hebrew characters, or lacquered characters in Arabic, only visible at certain angles.
"What's with the weird spot-varnish foreign language stuff?" I asked.
"Oh man, no one's noticed that before," he said. "Don't worry about it." He seemed kind of upset, so I didn't follow up.
I kept reading, though. The first third of the dissertation was a collection of lab experiments, but they were all written in a variety of different styles. Some were a lot more literary than they were strictly academic / scientific. I was totally digging it.
The title of the dissertation was "Geographical Origination Identification Via Borborygmatic Emission Descriptors," which meant nothing to me. When I asked him to summarize, he kind of smirked. "It's all about how I can tell where someone's from based exclusively on the way they describe the sound of a fart."
"You're crazy, Ryan Gosling," I said.
Anyway, a few beers later, we headed down to the Salt Lick for some delicious barbecue. When we got there, the place was closed for a private event, but I guess being with Ryan Gosling has some benefits, because they let us in anyway. We stood out horrendously, because everyone else was wearing black dress clothes-- it turns out that the private event was a wake. In the middle of the courtyard, there was a huge temporary-construction aboveground pool, and floating in the pool was an open old-timey wooden casket with a dead woman inside.
The barbecue was incredible.
Once there was a woman with a husband and a baby, and they were all happy. One day, the husband became very ill and died, and after he was gone, the woman lived in a dark place. She found that she no longer enjoyed spending time with her friends. She did not enjoy the taste of food or drink. And she found that she could no longer love her daughter.
The woman went to her therapist and described her symptoms. The therapist tried many things, medicines and rituals, but nothing the therapist tried did any good. Finally, the therapist sat down and sighed. "It is beyond my abilities to help you with this," she said to the woman. "However, all is not lost. There is something I can recommend, but it is a bit unorthodox."
"I'll do anything," said the woman.
"Return to your home," said the therapist. "Retrieve your phone book, and find the listing for Grandmother Spider."
When the therapist said this, the woman gasped, for she knew what this meant and was afraid. But she went home and did as she was told. She scheduled an appointment with Grandmother Spider, who said, "Bring me a thermos of hot black tea, because I love that stuff." The woman was excited and worried, and she found it very hard to sleep.
The next day, she went to the address listed in the phone book, but saw nothing. She kept looking, and finally saw a small hole in the ground.
"Hey, down here," said Grandmother Spider from inside the hole. "Come on in."
"I am much too large," said the woman. "How will I get inside such a small space?"
"No problem," said Grandmother Spider. "Wedge your foot in the hole and jiggle it around a little."
The woman was frightened, but she put her foot in the hole. As soon as she did, the small hole grew very large-- or the woman grew very small-- and she stepped inside. Grandmother Spider took the thermos of hot black tea from her and took a long drink. "Ahh, that's the good stuff, all right. Thanks for the tea. Now, what can I do for you?"
The woman sat and explained her situation. Grandmother Spider sat silently, sipping the hot black tea. Finally, when the woman's story was done, Grandmother Spider said "I think I know what you need to do. I have something I am going to make for you and give to you, and instructions for you to follow. Do you agree?"
The woman nodded.
"Don't look at what I am doing," said Grandmother Spider.
The woman closed her eyes, and shortly she heard a frenzied clicking sound. After several minutes, the clicking grew louder, and eventually the woman could not withhold her curiosity. She opened her eyes, and saw Grandmother Spider hurriedly weaving an intricate net. "Whatever is that for, Grandmother?" she asked. As the words left her mouth, the net crumbled to dust.
"Oh, goddammit, you looked," said Grandmother Spider. "I told you not to look. Now I have to start over. Close your eyes, for real this time."
This time, the woman closed her eyes and kept them squeezed shut, even though the clicking was louder (and joined by metallic clanking), until she was told to open them. When she did open her eyes, she saw that Grandmother Spider had woven a beautiful and strong butterfly net, with an opening two feet in diameter, and a strong woven handle three feet long.
"When your husband was dying," said Grandmother Spider, "you poured all your love into him. He was a selfish jerk and kept it all when he died, leaving you nothing to give your daughter. Take this butterfly net, and go to the cemetery where your husband is buried. As his body returns to the earth, love will come out of his mouth in a big weird colored cloud. Catch the love in the butterfly net and eat it, and then you can give it to your daughter."
"Yes, Grandmother," said the woman.
"Also, hey, take this back," said Grandmother Spider, presenting the thermos to the woman. "I filled it with a magic liquid. Before you go in the cemetery, smear it all over your eyes. If you don't, you won't be able to see the big weird cloud so's you can catch it."
As soon as the woman left Grandmother Spider's house, it shrunk-- or she enlarged-- and she was back on the sidewalk. She quickly drove to the cemetery as the sun began to set behind the trees. In her Volvo, she poured some of the magic liquid from the thermos into her hand, and she smeared it across her eyes. As soon as this was done, she noticed many clouds floating in the cemetery. She quickly got out of her vehicle and ran towards her husband's grave.
Along the way, the woman saw a bright blue cloud come out of the grave of a stranger. It darted back and forth in the air above the headstone. "It would perhaps be wise to get some practice before I need to capture my own cloud," the woman said to herself. She planted her feet, squared her shoulders, and as the bright blue cloud hovered toward her, she swung the butterfly net. The cloud passed completely through, not even wavering in the breeze of the passing air. "Oh, dear," said the woman to herself, but she thought about the magical liquid smeared on her eyes, and about the bright and shining black eyes of Grandmother Spider, and she continued to her husband's gravesite.
As soon as the woman stepped onto the foot of the grave, a billowing pink and red cloud, filled with dozens of little sparking firelights, poured forth from the grass at the head, as if being exhaled. The woman took a halting step forward and held out the net, worried that she wouldn't be fast enough, but the cloud slowly moved by itself straight into the net, where it sat and sparkled. The woman slumped down and sat with her back against the headstone, overwhelmed, and just gazed into the netted cloud, which seemed to gaze back. Eventually, she reached in, pulled out a bit of the cloud, which felt a bit like warm damp gauze, and put it into her mouth.
It tasted like slightly salty cotton candy, and melted in her mouth.
Immediately, she felt love for her daughter well into her heart, like blood from a pricked fingertip; she rapidly scarfed down the rest of the cloud, and wept.
Grandmother Spider drawn by Rob Eagleton.