Concerning Bearded Dragons
My sister-in-law and her family went on a trip recently and asked us to care for her daughter’s bearded dragon.
This dragon, a green guy with brown eyes, is still a youth, about seven inches long from the nose to the tip of his tail, though in 18 months he’ll swell to the size of a Tyrannosaurus-rex arm, one you can take out walking with a leash.
While he stayed with us, he lived in a big glass box on our buffet cabinet in the dining room. This changed our mealtimes slightly. Eating in the presence of a reptile makes you feel a little wild. You eat faster and too much. You eat like a beast, loosening your belt as you shed your humanity, showing off for the dragon.
I am Dan, demolisher of breakfast. Subduer of lunch. I approach, and supper trembles.
My wife, son, and I didn’t remember the dragon’s name, so we set to work naming him:
I said, “What about Hank? Or Frank? No wait, Carl!” because I think all pets should be named after dads from the ’50s, names that say, “Hank loves you, he just can’t say it.” It makes me laugh:
Frank the kitten. Carl the lizard.
My wife said, “We could call him Another Mouth To Feed.”
But it was our boy, Sawyer, who won: “He should be Dr. Connors,” the name of a villain in Spider-Man, a scientist who turns into a lizard named Lizard.
We liked it.
So the little dragon became Dr. Connors.
At first, I didn’t think there was much to him. He stood on his flat rock under the glow of a heat lamp and didn’t move. It was eerie how still he could be. He didn’t seem alive until you looked closely and saw that his little spiky sides were moving in and out slowly with his breathing.
I began to respect Dr. Connors for the way he breathed. Not only was he as still as a holy man on a journey far from his body, soaring the astral plane, but he breathed as slowly and deeply as I wish I could. Once in a while, I remember to fill my lungs to full capacity and let it all out, but this is usually only when stress sends little electric centipedes crawling in the corners of my eyes. The rest of the time, I breathe shallowly, like I’m panting. A zombie in heat.
I also came to respect Dr. Connors for his merciless treatment of crickets. I too hate them. So does the world. They are so universally despised, their song has come to stand for the sound of jokes that bomb and whole audiences who cast you out. Also, there’s nothing cute about crickets. Look at them under a magnifying glass and you’ll scream. They’re all spikes and skeletal limbs and huge eyes. And they have long, horrible antennae, which wave around like the rods of fly fishermen, but instead of seeking fish, they’re hunting for ear canals to fill with their eggs.
Dr. Connors eats 10 crickets a day. When we dropped them into his laboratory, he remained stone-still, all but his head, which tipped slightly as he followed the movements of his food. Then, when a cricket drew near, the doctor’s bodily stillness would somehow fill with energy you could feel, like the silence before a thunderclap, then his lips would part slightly, you’d see the tip of his pretty pink tongue, and then BAM! Connors would become all movement, fast as teleportation, and he’d have a cricket in his mouth, crunching it to death.
My son watched the activity of the crickets, their desperate maneuvers, their hopping and screaming, and he said, “I don’t understand.”
“What?” I asked.
“Why are they trying so hard to stay alive? Crickets are empty.”
This was an important parental moment. I had to answer well. After all, I’d failed him in the past. Once, when the family was deep in a Lord Of The Rings manic period, he asked, “Are goblins real?” and I must have been tired and out of my mind, because I said,
I watched the light begin to fade from his eyes, and I quickly corrected myself, “I mean yes!”
He sighed. “No, they’re not.”
I continued: “Just not above ground. But underground? Oh yes. They’re very real.”
A little light came back into his eyes, but a small spot of dullness remained, a grim island of anti-magic that would likely spread.
All my fault.
So, about the crickets, I said, “Everything happens for a reason.”
Then I explained that crickets fight so hard to stay alive because God has a sense of humor, and he knew what would make the death of crickets hilarious:
“I love God,” my boy said.
“Me too, son. Me too.”
Dr. Connors also eats salad. We made a little dish of it, and he ate each leaf with the same ferocity used for slaying crickets.
“This Connors fellow,” I said, “he lives like me.”
“Full of anger and regret?” my wife said.
“No,” I said, “everything in extremes. Even salad.”
This way of living is my answer to the advice I’ve always hated and defied:
Balance, Dan. Everything in moderation.
Sure, when I’m dead. But first, life, and with a vengeance.
Dr. Connors snapped up the last leaf then flipped over his salad bowl like a naughty king and teleported back to his rock for digestion.
And he didn’t disappoint.
Day after day he produced poos that looked like he was giving birth to a twin brother. He laid them out on his rock, posing them, and he stood beside these piles like a statue of a hero standing over a vanquished enemy.
I respected him even more, and I dreamed of how powerful I would feel if I too could produce waste as big as my leg.
Yes, I would quit my day job to embrace fame.
As I said, at first, I didn’t think there was much to our little green friend. I thought he was as hollow as all reptiles, an empty vessel awaiting possession by the devil.
What changed my mind? Not the poo. Not the cricket killing.
Dr. Connors was obsessed with watching me and my family.
Lying on his belly, though not totally flat like a baby or a sniper (which is how he sleeps), he watched us.
“Cobra pose” is the yoga name of Dr. Connors’ favorite position. The pose looks like an upward-facing dog that has broken its back:
In perfect cobra pose, he lay on his warm rock and studied our lives. This didn’t make me feel like a cricket, like I was being hunted. Instead, it confirmed what I have always suspected:
Certain people are fascinating.
It feels good to be observed. Not by the government. Not by the head teacher of your school in a classroom observation (I hate these — they change the dynamic of the classroom so incredibly, essentially dumping nitrous oxide into the teacher’s mind motor. The students know what’s up, of course. Suddenly you love them all so much and you haven’t blinked for an hour. The cost? They realize you’re a chameleon and they despise you for weeks). What I mean is, it feels good to be observed by a lifeform that truly finds you interesting. Everything you do becomes a performance.
ME: Oh, you like how I eat my cereal?
DR. CONNORS: Look at me. What do you think? Never stop.
It didn’t matter that Dr. Connors was small and looked like an alien. It didn’t matter that his skin was falling off half the time (he patiently allowed us to help him remove it).
He was watching. That’s what mattered.
If crickets could figure out how to do this and make sure never to look at my ear canals, I would befriend them as well. I would buy little glass cases and place them all over the house, and every time I entered a room, I would say, “I have a gift for you… me,” and they would watch me seize the day, the greatest entertainment of their lives, and their happy chirping would no longer signify boredom and disgust, but adoration, worship.
I think I understand why Dr. Connors’ gaze felt so good. It has to do with something people have been talking about a lot lately:
The importance of being seen and heard, of being known.
Children are blatant when it comes to these needs. They commit flagrant personal fouls in order to be seen and heard. They want to tell you a story. They tap your hand or arm 500 times. They kick your foot. If you look away from them, they tell that part of the story again when you look back. They need you to listen. They need you to look at them.
My gut tells me this is about existence. It’s easy to forget we’re really here if someone else doesn’t prove it to us with their eyes, their ears, their attention, their affection.
This struck me the other day while I was watching Godzilla vs. Kong. If you’re going to watch that movie, this is a spoiler. I’ll fence off the area with “Spoiler,” and “Spoiler Complete.”
So Godzilla and King Kong hate each other apparently. Alpha stuff. They get in a fight, and at one point, Godzilla knocks King Kong down, steps on his chest, and then screams in his face. Godzilla keeps screaming. Kong screams back. Lots of screaming. Then, finally, Kong’s scream changes. It weakens. It becomes submissive. It’s still impressive, but the message is clear, “You’re the boss.”
Godzilla’s like, “We cool?”
“We’re cool,” says Kong. Then they move on into the rest of their afternoon.
I rolled this moment around in my head for days, until it hit me: “I’m Godzilla!”
My wife pressed pause on the news. “What?”
“Godzilla! I’m Godzilla!”
She unpaused the news.
I continued: “I think I know why I started writing. It might be why I’m still writing.”
She paused again. “Because you’re Godzilla?”
Then I explained.
“I write something. I make it as good as I can. Then I find someone and ask them to read it. But you know what it really is?”
“What?” she asked.
“It’s Godzilla fighting Kong! My reader is Kong, right? What I’ve written is my foot. I pin the person down — this is them reading — and the thing I’ve written is also me screaming in their face. Screaming.”
“It’s a scream that says, ‘I’m the boss! I’m the boss! I’m the boss!’ I want them to finish reading it and say, ‘Wow, you really are the boss.’”
“I’m not calling you the boss.”
I kept thinking about these things and realized I was partly wrong. On the surface, my writing has been an attempt to make people say, “You’re the boss,” or “You’re the best,” though I’ll never forget what an old friend said: “People are only ‘the best’ in Tom Cruise movies.”
That’s the surface. But there’s something else down deeper. Under my bossiness lies a very old need. When I write as Godzilla, what am I screaming?
“I’m here. I exist. Please say you agree. Tell me you see me, that I am known. I beg you.”
These aren’t the words of an alpha titan. They belong to a child.
I’m here. I’m alive.
Help me believe it.
Is this why I write? Is this the only reason?
The green light
I had a thought about prayer a while ago. It felt empty. I felt lonely in prayer.
Wouldn’t it be so much better, I thought, if there was a room in your house, a little room with nothing in it but a chair and a desk, and on the desk sits a little light. It’s shaped like a snow globe, but it’s completely dark.
Until you walk into the room.
You enter, then close the door and sit down. Suddenly, the light warms to life with a soft green glowing, the green of spring grass or new leaves, whatever green you like best.
The light is God: I’m here. I see you. I’m listening.
I think I would stay in that warm light for hours and hours. Sometimes praying, sometimes just being seen.
I wouldn’t even need him to speak. I would simply sit in the glow, completely believing I’m alive.
I pulled a chair up to Dr. Connors’ glass cage and brought my flute with me.
“Ready?” I said.
Dr. Connors cobra posed on his rock, watching me carefully.
I played for him. His beautiful brown eyes beamed at me.
I got into the higher, sweeter notes. He tipped his head like a dog.
I continued. Over and over, I played the few songs I know: “Concerning Hobbits,” and “Danny Boy,” and “Auld Lang Syne.”
And then, while I played my very best for him, something miraculous happened:
Dr. Connors closed his eyes.
I stood up and started shouting. I couldn’t help myself. Though I’d had a feeling, I hadn’t known for sure that Dr. Connors had a soul.
But there was no denying it now. I had played for him, and he, joyfully lost in the music, had closed his eyes.
Dr. Connors wasn’t a fan of my shouting and jumping up and down. He shot like lightning to the other side of the cage. My wife didn’t like it either. She shot like lightning into the room and said, “What’s going on?”
I yelled, “He closed his eyes! He closed his eyes! I fluted and he closed his eyes!”
“Yes,” my wife said, “they respond to music.”
“You don’t understand! It’s a miracle! He has a soul!”
My wife congratulated me then left the room, and I sat back down to continue playing for Dr. Connors.
He was back on his rock, watching.
He didn’t move. In other words, Born ready.
I played for him, my little green light of God, until he closed his eyes again, hearing me, and then he opened his eyes, seeing me, and I knew I was alive.