Passing the Squonk

The Dream

In the dream only the exact name of the term was unclear. There were equations, but the equality was in question. Did that term, whatever it is called, really cancel out? Situation followed upon situation with no logical relationship. Always, though, there was the missing term. What was it called? Was it really ever there at all?

As I emerged into semi-wakefulness the question remained, more urgent than ever. What is it? Why does it disappear? I lay quietly, trying not to breathe, not to think of anything else, to remain open to wherever I had been.

Johnny Jellybean

In the 1960's I worked at a television station as a studio assistant, the station's euphemism for stagehand. A local actor/comedian/magician had pitched them a solo show called Lunchtime Little Theatre. In those days television was black and white, and low budget was live to air with no camera men or sound men. Low budget was me and a video switcher and Johnny Jellybean. Johnny and I would set up and aim the three vidicon cameras. We would go live and Johnny would act his heart out, mostly improvising I'm sure because he never had any script or notes; the switcher would dance around between cameras, and Johnny would sometimes ride one of the vidicon dollies, pushing it around the ten by twelve studio space with one foot and grinning into the lens as the switcher focused alternately on Johnny and the moving background. It was a lot of fun. Then it would be over and I would strike the set.

Johnny was the first thing that came into my head as I lay there after the dream. I thought, my God, that's fifty years ago, where did that come from? Then I began thinking about dogs.


They greet you like no one else does. They take pleasure in the day, sticking their heads out of the car window. When the wind comes up they delight in it – they get a gale in the tail, as Grandpa used to say.

They shed. Their farts are silent but deadly. They eat grass and puke. They drink from the toilet.

It's a package. Sure, kennels advertise expensive Labradoodles, guaranteed hypo-allergenic, but really you've still got a dog. A dog is a dog, as somebody said.

The Squawk Box

By now I was awake. Dogs and Johnny Jellybean stayed with me, wandering around, trying to be relevant. And the term, too: squank? squonk? Wait – Johnny had the Squawk Box! It was like a little wooden bird house hanging from a rope, except that there was no perch or hole. Was there a grille? Sure – it was like those speakers high on the wall aboard navy ships. Now hear this!

My memory is fuzzy. What did the squawk box squawk? Was it random tapes the switcher chose? Was it stuff Johnny had prerecorded? But I do remember the progression.

At first the box would squawk perhaps twice during a show, interrupting whatever Johnny was doing. He would mime anger, grab his wooden mallet, and hit the box. The squawk would stop. That was then. But as the months (and years, I think) went on the play got more sophisticated. It became a game between Johnny and the switcher. The box would squawk again after Johnny turned away. Or Johnny would turn away and then turn back, raising his mallet, daring it to start up again. The play would go on, keeping us high-school students, home for lunch, in stitches.

But in high school I wasn't working at the TV station yet. Maybe in those days Johnny still had cameramen. That's when he rode the dollies. The cameramen pushed him around, changing focus. The vidicons had tripods, not dollies. Could the switcher even change the focus of the vidicons? Did they have zoom?

After the Dream

Still I tried to stay in the space, keeping dogs and Johnny in mind, trying to follow the scent. Even on those rare occasions where dreams stay close, that's hard. It is like flying at night, looking for traffic, when you have to scan the sky not looking at anything because if you look it will disappear into to the cone-rich fovea. Just so I stayed aware of the space without looking.

I began reliving the dream in consciousness. Scene after scene played in my head, and indeed they are still doing so today, weeks later. As in the dream each scene is seemingly unrelated but has a common term, the term we want to make disappear.

Our Human Nature

Memory of pain fades. We are natural optimists. Sometimes a little naiveté makes the day go more smoothly.

And why not? Should we be perpetually conscious of all the evil in the world? Should we feel pain all the time? Of course not. We would become cynics, insensible to the beauty around us. That's no way to live.

But neither do we, as independent thinkers, really want someone or something else to pull the wool over our eyes, and that's where it gets tricky. We are vulnerable, you see, to those who would for their own reasons present us with a pretty picture.


The Scenarios

There are many, limited only by the extent of human creativity and cunning.

Pension funds, desperate for the 8% returns of yore, snap up fancy financial products composed of slices of sub-par mortgages, themselves issued fraudulently. No risk! Eight percent return!

Hedge funds return 20% by trading illegally.

The football industry gives fans what they want – tough, violent conflict – and sweeps the bodies under the rug.

Airline industry management gives travelers what they want – cheap tickets – while gutting the pioneering companies and pocketing their shareholders' savings.

Too big to fail banks trade for their own accounts, seeing their mission as making money rather than as lending money to entrepreneurs.

What is the missing term?


CDO's are rated AA or AAA. Hedge funds will take your money if you have enough. You don't have to know how they make your 20% return. Football gives you spectacle. You can luxuriate in the vicious hit as the players relish their salaries and fame. Neither of you needs to watch the dementia and death that follows. Flying is safer than driving a car. Airplanes land themselves. The inherent risk of flying and crashes and death are irrelevant. You just bought a cheap ticket. And of course you own shares in MegaBank. It's nothing to you if they are not meeting their primary obligation or if the taxpayers have to bail them out. Or is it? Do you pay taxes?

The Pretty Picture, Bad News, and Drool

Dogs drool. Some breeds are olympic-caliber droolers. Chances are if you own one of these dogs you have come to terms with drool. It makes you laugh. After all, you've got the whole dog. Same with your life. You laugh, you cry. It's all there.

Near the end of the run of Lunchtime Little Theatre, the Squawk Box antics began to merge toward the manic. Increasingly, the box just would not shut up, and Johnny mimed more madness. One day the whole thing came to an end. As Johnny hit the box, it got louder. More and more voices emanated from the box as he hammered it with his mallet. He didn't stop. He beat the shit out of it. Beat it to a pulp. Beat it to splinters.