Lessons in Taxidermy

The silly humans who inhabited the Earth before us had a bad habit of using their mouths and throats for speaking, instead of for eating. All the time they would talk. Blah blah blah. Some of the more obsessed would even do it in their sleep, sharing their secret aspirations and dreams with their pillows.

—Kurt Vonnegut

Sometimes it can be like trying to type while wearing mittens.

Somewhere around second grade my mother decided that even in the summer I would have therapy for my stuttering. Lured by the location of the therapist (a cabin on a beautiful lake about a half-hour drive away), I couldn’t refuse. Once or twice a week I would be driven out to this cabin and would sit and talk with the therapist. She would talk about things I did, the things I should be doing.

We would go for walks, or take the canoe out and scare off the ducks, or just talk. There is one example of her teaching I still remember well which eloquently summarizes every theory, method, and protocol for speech therapy. I no longer participate in any therapy but I believe that it is no longer necessary for me.

It was a blistering seventy-five degrees in Willow, Alaska. Joan, the therapist, and I were lounging on her porch and she was playing a tape recording she had secretly made of us playing monopoly during our last session. I had been speaking fluently as I usually do when doing complex things with no specific purpose—in this case, playing a board game.

As we sat on the porch, she asked me why I found it easier to speak in more crucial situations rather than less important ones. I answered something about how doing difficult tasks were slower than easy ones. She then went inside for a moment without telling me why. Soon I heard her footsteps returning and turned to see her carrying two oranges in one hand. I wandered back over to the chair and she handed me an orange.

“I want you to try and peel this orange all in one piece, Ben,” she said. She began showing me how to accomplish such a feat. “You start in the middle and work the two hemispheres off in a spiral.” After she finished the peeling she held it out for me to admire and use as an example. ‘See? All in one piece, like a pelt, almost.”

I felt over the smooth and porous skin of my orange skeptically. Eventually I dug my fingernails in and haplessly tried to make a little pelt as well. I couldn’t do it, of course. I made one piece after another until it was just a decomposing pile of peels. She didn’t seem too disappointed, though—I still got to eat the orange. A few minutes later my mom showed up to take me home and the incident was forgotten for the time.

So, my life went on. Yet something from that day must have stayed with me. One day some years later, as I held an orange in my hand, the dim memory of fruit pelts came back to mind. I decided to make an effort to peel it in one piece. I began on the middle equator as I had watched Joan do so long ago and started to work the top half off slowly and carefully. Even with all my carefull dissection it ripped. I wasn’t discouraged and I liked the way this particular orange tasted, so I found another one and successfully skinned it, holding my new citrus pelt on my lap proudly.

Sometimes when I eat an orange now I try to peel it in one piece. The simple action of being calm and focused enough to skin an orange in one piece does more than any therapy has ever accomplished for me. Any physically able person who cannot, or does not have time to peel an orange pelt is too tense, nervous, or busy, even if not on the surface. Occasionally people will tell me I stutter simply because I’m nervous. I am no more nervous than they are; I wish it was that simple. They say this, of course, because it is they who are nervous being around me if I am disfluent. As to why it does happen sometimes more than others, I wish I knew. But even with people who make such accusations I will share an orange.