Stick It In Your Ears

Penny: So, how many people listen?
Wil Wheaton: Most people download it later, but usually a few thousand people listen live.
Penny: What? A few thousand people listen to you talk about nerd stuff?
Wil Wheaton: Again, right in the ears, straight to the feelings.

The Big Bang Theory, “The Fortification Implementation” (4/9/15)


Note: This post is cross-posted from my podcast’s website, How Good It Is, with a few edits so it makes a little sense. 

A few people have asked me about the what sort of stuff I go through when I put my podcast together, so I figured it would be fun(-ish) for me to take a closer look at the entire process and share it with you.

PART I—THE HISTORY

Image result for wbau -site:pinterest.comI’ve long had an interest in radio. When I was in college in the early 80s I spent inordinate amounts of time at WBAU, the radio station that was run by students at Adelphi University. (WBAU went dark in 1995, and that’s a whole other story). I thought I would go into broadcasting, but a few things, rather ridiculous ones in retrospect, got in the way and frankly I floundered for a few years. But I never lost the bug. And most people agree that you never do.

The other thing I’ve always been pretty good at is telling stories. I’m not prolific about it but I also have a personal blog called Baltimore Diary, where I occasionally bang out pretty much whatever is on my mind. (You know…the one you’re reading now?) The problem with a blog like that is that it doesn’t have a lot of focus, so the audience will always be small. Not that I’m writing for the popularity or the glory, but you like to think that someone other than your immediate circle of friends is paying attention. (I’m going to cross-post this over there, so if you click on the link you’ll just wind up reading this again unless you scroll down.)

So, finding a way of combining the two has been a little bit of a conundrum for me. I’ve been listening to podcasts for several years now. Marc Maron’s WTF was one of the first, and coincidentally I was one of his first listeners, because I started searching for my first podcasts to listen to only a few weeks after he started his podcast. (The Maron thing is a little bit of an aside and I’ll come back to it in a bit.) One of the other podcasts I adopted early on was Cerphe Colwell’s progressive show, which was a couple of hours of music that was pretty much in my wheelhouse. That show moved over to a different platform and I was still using an iPod, so unfortunately we had to break up. But Cerphe’s show was the first inkling I had that I could do a music program, and do it on my own terms. There was another one I listened to pretty much from the beginning, but it got kind of stale and, while it’s still running, that’s largely because it’s got a band of rabid fans that are, frankly, living in the past and haven’t figured out that the show has refused to evolve.

PART II—THE BEGINNING

Life got in the way for a couple of years, what with relatives getting sick and dying, so nearly everything went by the wayside. But a few months ago I started thinking about it again. And it was around this time that I started looking a little more closely at other podcasts to see what they were doing, and how they were doing it, and how they sounded, and a number of other things. I wanted to do something that had a specific focus (unlike the blog), and had a topic about which I could talk knowledgeably. I came up with a few ideas and crowd-sourced it a little bit, and the one that I liked best, AND had the advantage of not being like a lot of others, was this one.

Image result for musicradio 77 -site:pinterest.comI also crowd-sourced the title of the show, which I’d lifted from something I’d seen on Allan Sniffen’s website, and despite this, he was nice to me in my first couple of weeks. A few people came up with alternative names, but what they had was either already taken, or I couldn’t get the domain name. Plus it was growing on me day-by-day.

Image result for doug miles media -site:pinterest.comI also need to give a shout-out to my fellow WBAU alumnus Doug Miles, who DID make the cross over into professional broadcasting. He’s got the Book Talk podcast, and he covers the Orioles Spring Training season down in Sarasota, and he’s got a bunch of other stuff going on pretty much all the time. He took the time to give me a bunch of pointers on getting the thing up and running. Eternal thanks to him for his encouragement.

Some people have suggested that it’s a lot like Song Exploder, and in a way I agree in the sense that Hrishikesh Hirway also concentrates on a single track for each podcast, but he’s got a different format, and he sticks to more recent tracks, whereas I’m reaching back for the older stuff. So, we’ve each got our little corner of the genre staked out.

I did a LOT of planning ahead on this, including mapping out something like the first ten episodes, because if I couldn’t sustain that much, then what was the point? To be honest, I lost the list and had to re-do the advance planning, but being able to do it again, and with largely different stuff, meant that I was probably onto something with the longer-term prospects of the show. I got a format together, I figured out what I wanted it to sound like, and I started shopping for equipment.

PART III—THE NUTS AND BOLTS

The first couple of shows were recorded in my dining room, on summer days when Wife was out of the house and the dogs were outside. I’d have to stop recording every time the air conditioners came on, or shut them off and put up with the heat. I decided, however, that there was still too much ambient noise in the area because my house has a semi-open floorplan to it, and I still sounded kind of “live”.  Plus, I had to assemble everything and then take it apart again after each recording session, and I could see where that would get a little taxing on my cables and such. So I moved the entire setup into my basement, where I could put it together and leave it there.

 

Image result for behringer q1202usb 12-channel mixerMy first purchase was the Behringer Xenyx Q1202 12-channel mixer. It’s probably more than I need, input-wise, but I’ve also got the flexibility I’ll need to implement some ideas I have for future shows. And at about a hundred bucks, it wasn’t breaking the bank. I’d also purchased a couple of Behringer Image result for shure sm7 -site:pinterest.comUltravoice XM1800S microphones, but in the end I didn’t like the way they sounded. (They’re going to come in handy for a future project or two.) Until now I’ve been working with Wee One’s Shure SM-7 microphone. I DO like the way it sounds, but after all it’s not my mic. So this week I ordered one of my own, and I decided to take a step up. Come next week, How Good It Is will be recorded using an Electrovoice RE-20 microphone, which is my favorite of all time. I also Image result for re20 microphone in shockmount -site:pinterest.compurchased a shock mount to go with it, because I’m not going to be in a basement forever, Mom.

I have two other elements that I use. One is to help improve the sound and the other is to keep the production going smoothly.

The first is acoustic foam panels. Wee One got me a bunch of them as a Christmas present, which I mounted to doubled corrugated cardboard, and I purchased a second set and mounted those as well. So I record, surrounded by these two-foot-by-six-foot cardboard panels with acoustic foam on them, to help cut down the ambient noises.

And the other is a pair of laptops. One contains all of my sound elements: the theme music and the audio clips that I use during the show, and that’s jacked into my mixer. The other one does the actual recording, and is connected to the mixer’s output through a USB port. Software-wise, I use a program called Soundboard to store the audio clips so I can fire them at will. The only drawback to the version of Soundboard I’m using is that the clips have to be in WAV format, so I wind up converting some files  before I can use them. I use Audacity to record end edit the show. I’ve learned the hard way that you shouldn’t have other stuff running while you’re recording with Audacity because it can interfere with the recording buffer, creating a “skip” in the final playback product. (My professional tip for you today.)

I’d take a picture of the entire setup, but one of the laptops isn’t attached to the studio permanently; in fact it’s the one I’m typing on now (back in the dining room, am I). So next week I’ll take a photo and post it for the curious.

PART IV—POST-PRODUCTION

The show is very produced compared to other podcasts; I like to have some kind of stuff going on most of the time, which is a holdover from my radio style. That also means that the show is rather heavily scripted, because in many cases I’m timing things tightly. So editing the show usually takes a little while, but Soundboard has cut down on that and lately I’m just stitching together my beginning, middle and end. Once in awhile I’ll screw up and either re-do the entire segment I’m recording or, if I can find a decent point to edit, I’ll go back to that point and start over. I’m kind of proud of the fact that most of my edits are pretty invisible. I was good with physically cutting tape back in the day, and I’ve got a good ear for doing it digitally as well.

Image result for auphonic -site:pinterest.comOnce the show is edited, I upload it to a website called Auphonic for audio. Because the show is short, I can do all of my processing for free. But if it were longer, I’d pay for it because it’s made a huge difference in the show’s sound.

Image result for podomatic -site:pinterest.comFrom there, I upload it to this site, and to Podomatic, where the show is hosted, and it’s from there that your podcatcher gets it. I write up the post for this site and publish it, and after waiting a little while I publicize it on Facebook. The reason for the delay is that I’ve discovered, if I try to post on FB right away, Facebook can’t find the images. And sometimes it can’t even find the post! So I give everyone a little time to figure it out.

And now we get to the part where you come in!

PART V—WHERE YOU COME IN

You, my faithful listener/reader (and you’ve GOTTA be pretty faithful if you’ve gotten through nearly 2000 words and you’re still with me), will either read my Facebook post and come here directly, or you have iTunes or Spotify or some other pod organizing software, and it gets (usually) automatically downloaded to your device.

At this point I still don’t have a huge number of listeners, but that’s OK because the feedback I’ve gotten has been almost overwhelmingly positive. My strongest critic is my brother, who listens to a few at a time and then calls me to tell me what sounds crappy, and more often than not I agree with his assessments and have made adjustments.

So how do I decide what songs to cover?

There are a few songs where I know there’s an interesting backstory, and those come pretty easily. Other times, I’ll hear a song and just wonder if they have a story to them, and then the research begins. Occasionally I’ll hit a dead end (that is, there isn’t really much to tell), but that leads me into another story. Once in awhile I hear a bit of trivia on a radio show and that encourages me to dig a little deeper. (“Get Together“, Episode 4, is a good example of this.) And every now and again I look at what I’ve covered and see if I need to go in a different direction for awhile, e.g. have I done too many songs from the 60s and ignored the 50s? Have I concentrated on male artists too much? Rock vs. ballads vs. doo-wop vs. some other genre?

A couple of people have made suggestions, and one of them has already been turned into a show (H/T to Kevin), and another has given me an idea for something I want to do later, in the springtime (another H/T to Jerry).  For what it’s worth, I’m always open to new ideas, whether it’s about the sound, the content or some other detail (should I do more trivia questions?). I’m always happy to see comments and suggestions, whether it’s here or on the Facebook page.

Finally: a couple of people have asked me about monetizing the podcast somehow. That’s not my immediate plan; unless the show grows immensely in popularity, it’ll be a relatively inexpensive hobby for me. If I have to start paying for additional bandwidth and such because there are so many downloads, then I will have to think about doing something like that, but I’ll try to do it as unobtrusively as possible. The aim would be sustaining rather than profit.

One of the big takeaways I’ve gotten from this whole project is that it’s good to have something else to look forward to, that’s vastly different from everything else you do. And the other thing is something I’ve learned from several years of listening to Marc Maron (see, I told you I’d come back to him). His show was born out of the ashes of his previous job. At that point he was a mid-level standup comic and radio host, who lost the radio gig when his entire network, Air America, took a huge financial crash and went belly-up. But from those pieces he managed to rebuild—indeed, vastly improve—his career and, it seems, repair his personal life right in front of his audience. I’m not in that level of dire straits, thanks, but it taught me that there are always second acts, that there’s always redemption and a positive future, if you make the reach for it.

This post has been an incredible exercise in procrastination (hey, it was either this, or I start writing next week’s show), but it was also kind of fun for me to put together. Thanks again for all your amazing support, and for letting me into your head every week.

Ahead of the Curve

Ida: I didn’t know, nobody told me that it cost money to get old. I just figured that was one thing you got for free. But it isn’t: the retirement home costs money, the doctors cost money, medicine costs money. I always thought it was so sad I’d outlived my whole family; but I didn’t know that it was going to be a punishment.

The Golden Girls, “Brother, Can You Spare That Jacket?” (12/3/88)


I have two brothers: one of them is about a year and a half younger than I am, and the other one is about six years younger. This story is going to be about the older of the two.

So when he was in his late 20s, he met and married a woman who is a few years older than he is. She had had a daughter when she was sixteen, who in turn had a daughter when she was sixteen years old. This basically made my brother a grandfather at the age of 28.

That daughter had two other children, one of whom is now in her early 20s and recently became a parent herself. So now my brother, at the age of 53, is a great-grandfather.

A few years ago, a series of incidents took place which ended with my brother’s insurance company paying off his mortgage. So in his late 40s, he was able to stop making mortgage payments.

If this had happened, he wouldn't have broken his damn pelvis. A few weeks ago, my brother was at work. He was on a ladder, about five feet up, when he lost his balance and fell. Being only about five feet in the air, ordinarily this wouldn’t be too big of a deal, but in this case it was a little more of a convoluted situation and he went down hard, breaking his hip and pelvis in a few places. Now he’s doing rehab and getting around with a walker (though healing nicely so far).

So…grandfather at 28, house paid off in his 40s, great-grandfather at 53, now breaking a hip? It seems to me that he’s reaching most of his life milestones about 20 years too early.

On the bright side, he’s never He's been known to do this. especially worried about kids being on his lawn.

Somewhere Out There

Eric: Okay, guys. Road trip checklist…Car? Check. Okay. We’re good.

That 70s Show, “Canadian Road Trip” (5/8/01)

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A Facebook friend of mine recently posted a link to an article about someone who did a road trip around the entire United States.

The teaser for the article noted that the trip hit all the major landmarks, and was accompanied by this map:No stopover in Boise?

As far as the article was concerned, well, that was a big failure. The map wasn’t interactive, there wasn’t anything about the points that had been “pinned”, and it was pretty clear that the route described on it did NOT hit all the major landmarks of the USA. For instance, it clearly ignores the St. Louis Arch, Graceland, the Grand Canyon, and the Statue of Liberty, just to name a few off the top of my head. So I did a little digging and discovered that the map in question actually traces the path of a time-lapse video made by a guy who did, in fact, drive in a 12,000-plus-mile loop around the United States, starting in upstate New York (see the green pin? there) and heading south to Georgia, then west and so on. If you’re interested, you can see the video here. It’s kind of cool.

This got me to thinking about my own desire to take such a trip—except without the time-lapse video. I love road trips, I really do. And since 9/11, flying anywhere is a pretty miserable experience. Over the past couple of years, I’ve made close to a dozen trips to Florida, most of them by car. And I’ve occasionally taken a different route just to see what else is out there on the road. When you live in Baltimore, it’s pretty much I-95 until you get to Jacksonville, Florida, after which it’s either I-10 to I-75 and another couple hundred miles south, or jump off I-10 in Baldwin and ride US-301 for awhile until you can meet up with I-75 in Ocala. One time last year, on the way down I jumped off I-95 in South Carolina and headed west about 25 miles to a little town called Orangeburg, where I spent the night. As it happens, US-301 passes through Orangeburg, and I was hard-pressed to come up with a reason why I shouldn’t take 301 all the way down through South Carolina and Georgia until crossing into Florida, and staying there until I reached Ocala. On the way up from that same trip, I stopped in Orangeburg again, and the next morning I headed WEST to I-26 and then I-77, unfortunately hitting Charlotte NC during rush hour. I ultimately made my way to Danville, Virginia and spent another night in a hotel. All about the journey, not the destination. It’s a great way to decompress.

116--May 1953Anyway, THAT got me thinking about my great-grandmother. Mamie Devine Shine (“Nana” to pretty much everyone) was born in 1898. During the eighty-four years of her life, she had thirteen kids, eight of which made it to adulthood (only one survives today), and she saw enormous changes in the way the world operated—and that was before the Internet was an everyday thing. She went from horse-and-buggy to the Concorde; from gaslight to electric everything; she lived in the era of sixteen Presidents of the US (two of whom were assassinated). She lived through two world wars and innumerable other such actions. She had thirteen children, five of whom survived to adulthood (child mortality was still pretty common in the 1920s), and all of those made it at least into their 60s. By that time, of course, they were scattered all over the country. My grandmother and one of her sisters was in Florida (albeit many miles apart), one son was in California, another in Nevada, and a third who was on Long Island near us for awhile before moving out to Nevada and finally to Virginia. So in the early 1970s, my great-grandmother took it upon herself to visit her family continuously. She used my grandmother’s house in New Port Richey, Florida as a kind of home base (that is, her mail went there), and she’d work her way around the country, driving in her mid-1960s model Plymouth Valiant from place to place. She had a bedroom in New Port Richey, but I’ll bet I spent more time sleeping in that bed than she ever did. When my brothers and I went to visit during the summer, she was rarely there so one of us got her room while the other two slept on couches.

Nana was a gregarious type, and she managed to make friends wherever she went. She was a straight shooter with her opinion, and while she had a great sense of humor, she also struck you as the kind of person you did NOT want to anger, because you were pretty sure that she was capable of killing you. Take a look at the photo to the left: that was her in 1953, with my mom and my uncle. She was tough as nails, boy. When my brothers and I were kids, she’d give us ten bucks and send us down to the deli to buy her some beer. It was about a half-mile walk, and we were allowed to get something for ourselves. I have no idea why the deli sold the beer to a couple of kids; maybe they figured that anyone who came in with “it’s for my great-grandmother” HAD to be telling the truth, maybe it was because we were buying candy or some such alongside it. Maybe she called ahead, but I don’t really think so. Now that I think about it, it’s possible that they didn’t really care one way or the other.

So Nana would come to our place, and she’d stay for a few weeks, and there’d be the beer runs and her telling stories about people who’d gotten on her nerves, and she’d call my grandmother to find out if there was any mail that she had to handle personally, and then just like that, she’d get back in the blue Valiant and off to another relative. She’d drive in the general direction of that relative, but stop wherever she pleased and manage to find a friend and spend a night or more with them. And she’d reach the next relative and spend a couple of weeks with them, around and around the country. We saw her three, maybe four times a year as she made her rounds. When she was coming our way, we’d be ready but we wouldn’t really know when specifically she was going to arrive.

When I was in college, in my sophomore year, in 1983, I was on the phone with my brother when he said to me “Did you hear? Nana passed away.” This caught me by surprise because I’d had no idea. My brother was living in Florida at that point and I got more information regarding what was happening on Long Island than I ever did when I called my mother at home. So his being the information clearinghouse wasn’t unusual. But getting information like that certainly was. I called home. My mother told me that Nana was out in California visiting her son Bob, and Bob’s wife was brushing Nana’s hair when she noticed that the hair was coming out in clumps. The wife, being no slouch, deduced that this was a Bad Sign, and took Nana to a doctor, who essentially told her that Nana was pretty deep into Stage IV Cancer. Nana apparently had no idea she was sick. She was dead and buried out in California, all within a few weeks.

Now, as far as I’m concerned this all happened over
the phone and I have no real connection to it the way I do the loss of my own mother and grandmother. So it’s entirely possible that I misunderstood the whole thing and she’s not, in fact, dead. It’s entirely possible that she’s still tooling around the nation in her little blue mid-1960s model Valiant, at the age of 117, and sending ten-year-old kids out to get her beer. And she’ll turn up on my doorstep, looking to visit for a couple of weeks. And, of course, she’d be welcome to stay.

Or, it’s possible that she’s not, that her journey across America has, indeed, come to an end. In which case, that’s a torch I’d like to pick up someday. I don’t have relatives all over the country, and I’m not nearly as friendly and outgoing as she was, but I could easily take up her Road Warrior legacy and see what this country has to show me. Who’s with me?

Shell Answer Man Got Nothing On Me

Maggie O'Keefe: Command of trivia is one of the things that attracted me to Cliff. That and his manners.

Cheers, “Ma’s Little Maggie” (10/17/91)

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Holy cats! It’s time once again for Mister Answer Guy, who takes the hardest of questions and provides answers that sound almost like he knows what he might be talking about. Let’s dive into the mailbag.

The difference between pea soup and roast beef? Anyone can roast beef...Q: Every time I’m about to vomit, I start to drool, a LOT. What’s that about? I’m pretty sure I’m not salivating because I’m thinking about all the food I’m about to see. So what’s the deal?

A: Really? We’re going to start with this? Okay. Vomiting isn’t the most pleasant thing in the world, but it does have a purpose. Usually the most immediate point of it is to force suspected toxins out of your body, whether it’s bad food or too much alcohol, or perhaps you just realized you’ve paid perfectly good money to see a movie with Kristen Stewart in it. Another reason is that you may have a foreign object in your esophagus, so maybe giving it the old Hydraulic Boost will set it free. The problem is, the contents of your stomach are highly acidic, enough to do some damage to your esophagus, your mouth and the enamel on your teeth. So when you’re about to boot, you start producing a lot of saliva, which is weakly basic (as in “opposite of acidic”) and can help dilute and neutralize some of that acidy badness.

But check this out: I have kind of a weak gag reflex, but I’m pretty diligent about my oral hygiene. So I brush my teeth regularly but I also brush my tongue, the way I’m recommended to by my dentist. Once in awhile I brush my tongue a little too vigorously, and I accidentally set off my gag reflex. I know it right away because, of course, I’ve suddenly got a mouthful of saliva. I find that I can actually prevent vomiting by not swallowing the saliva. I’ve done some research that says others do the same thing, with the same result. Some people spit it out into the sink or toilet; but I’ve found it easier to just breathe through my mouth and face downward over the sink, letting the saliva just drain out of my mouth. Before the feeling has passed, I’m usually drooling in a continuous stream for about a minute. Pleasant? Not really, but it beats vomiting, especially for no reason.

Q: We haven’t added any states to the Union since Alaska and Hawaii, back in 1959. Given that we added states all the time before that, why aren’t there any new ones?

Meh. A: It’s true, we’re in the longest statehood drought since the 37-year gap between Arizona (1912) and Alaska (1959). I’m pretty sure we had to add Hawaii because otherwise the flag would look really stupid with 49 stars on it. While I’m on that gap thing, do you realize that this makes Barack Obama the ONLY President of the United States for whom the number of states has never changed in his lifetime? It’s not significant, nor is it necessarily his fault, but I just thought that was kind of cool.

In that interim, though, there have been a few possibilities for 51st statehood. Perhaps the one that’s brought up most frequently is Puerto Rico, and as it turns out they’ve inched much closer to that condition in the last couple of years. In 2012 the Puerto Rican legislature resolved to request that Congress begin the process of admitting Puerto Rico as our next state.  A year later, funding was approved for the territory to hold a referendum. In the event of a positive outcome, the President would then have to draft legislation to have Puerto Rico admitted as a state. That money was approved in early 2014, but the funds don’t expire. Whether such a referendum is in the near future, I don’t know.

Once in awhile, Washington DC gets nominated as a possible statehood candidate, but that hasn’t been seriously considered in about thirty years. This sucks for the locals, because they’re essentially residents of no particular state, which explains the “Taxation Without Representation” license plates so many of the cars have. One suggestion has been that Maryland take back its portion of the city (Virginia already did this years ago), and leave only the National Mall, the White House and the Capitol as a much smaller District. This way the people who live in the city get the benefit of being state residents and a new state isn’t created.

There are a few other territories out there, such as the Virgin Islands, Samoa and Guam, but the discussion has never really gotten serious. The Philippines went through a movement to become a US State awhile back, but again there’s been no real activity in that area. Any other suggestions for statehood usually involve the division of existing states. For instance, New York could easily be broken into a lower state (New York City and Long Island) and an upper state (everything else). California and Texas are huge and could be broken up—in fact, when Texas was admitted into the Union, part of the deal was that that state could, if they so desired, break into five separate states. Western Maryland is politically quite different from the central part of the state. No kidding: this state is friggen HUGE!However, the eastern portions of Maryland are quite similar to the western ones, politically. It’s about the only thing that keeps politics interesting around here. At any rate, while it comes up once in awhile it’s never a serious discussion.

Q: Got any more good stuff on Alaska?

A: I do, thanks for asking. In addition to being our largest state by far, Alaska is interesting geographically because it’s our Northernmost state. It’s also our Westernmost state. But did you know that, because it crosses 180 degrees West Longitude, it’s also the Easternmost state? And—AND! It’s also our only state that crosses into the Eastern Hemisphere.

Q: Is it true that women couldn’t show their belly buttons on TV in the 60s?

Larry Hagman looks like he's already figured out that he's losing a fortune by not getting residuals in his contract. A: Generally, yes. As scantily-clad as Barbara Eden was in I Dream of Jeannie, her costume was designed so that it wouldn’t show. There are a couple of occasions during the course of the program where her outfit would slip a little and let it show, and either nobody noticed or cared enough, but for the most part it didn’t happen. On Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, there were often shots of girls in bikinis dancing, but the body paint they wore usually provided camouflage.

NBC had some weird standards at that time. David Gerrold (the writer of “The Trouble With Tribbles” episode of Trek) once noted that when it came to women’s breasts, you could show pretty much everything as far as the top of the breast was concerned—except for the nipple, of course. However, showing the UNDERSIDE of the breasts was absolutely verboten. “Sideboob” wasn’t really a thing at that time, at least it didn’t have a name.

Incidentally, because of the belly-button rule, there was an episode of Star Trek where Mariette Hartley had to keep her belly button covered. A few years later, the standards had relaxed a little, and Gene Roddenberry the creator of that show, cast Hartley in his science fiction movie/TV pilot Genesis II. They needed an easy, but not always visible way to show that someone was a mutant, so they put a second belly button on the mutants. including Hartley. Roddenberry later joked that because NBC took away his ability to show her belly button on Star Trek, they owed him one.

Q: Why does marijuana give you the munchies?

I would not be surprised if they named it this hoping that some stoner would just identify with the packaging. A: Me? It doesn’t. It mostly gives me headaches. However, I do get the intent of the question. For a long time, nobody really knew. It was theorized that THC, the chemical in marijuana that gets you high, had a strong effect on your blood sugar, thus making you hungry. However, a lot of research (and presumably a LOT of joints) went into research that discovered that THC really doesn’t have much effect on blood sugar. So, the simplest explanation turned out to be the wrong one.

As it happens, some new research has just come out—as in, just this week. Your brain already produces some cannabinoids naturally, which repress the release of some neurotransmitters in the brain. Cannabinoids help to control emotions, memory, your sensitivity to pain, and (ah-HA!) your appetite. Because THC, as a cannabinoid, can fit into those same receptors in the brain, it basically alters your brain’s function dramatically.

Have you ever gone into a room that smells kind of weird, but after a little while you stop smelling it? It’s called olfactory fatigue, or olfactory habituation, and it’s your body’s response to a strong odor to prevent overloading of the nervous system. If olfactory fatigue didn’t happen, you might not smell something different when it happens. So imagine yourself, say, in the perfume department of your local Macy’s. If your body didn’t stop responding to the perfume, you might not notice that the sweaters in the next aisle have caught fire.

What THC does is to delay olfactory fatigue, allowing you to smell a food for much longer than you ordinarily would. So when you break into that bag of Doritos, your ability to smell those chips goes on for much longer than it would otherwise, which means that you respond to the smell for longer, and you, in turn, eat more of them. Science, boy.

ANY excuse to run this picture. Q: Last time you did this you talked about how popular your Hawaii Five-O post is. Is it still popular? Have any other posts proven to be especially popular?

A: In, fact, yes! For those who don’t remember, or aren’t inclined to click through, the Hawaii Five-O post was my deconstruction of the opening credits of the original program, which ran from 1968 until 1980 and barely changed in that entire time. I’d planned to do the same thing with the modern-day edition of the show, but while the basic structure never changes, the individual shots within that structure change every season. (I will point out that the zoom-in on Alex O’Loughlin is a direct homage to the one involving Jack Lord, even to the point of having O’Loughlin standing on the SAME hotel balcony.)

While the Hawaii Five-O post is still ridiculously popular and has even generated emails from people—the only post of mine to do so—there’s another post that rivals it in popularity. It’s a study of the phrase “Jockomo-feena-nay”, as in the phrase sung in the song “Iko Iko” and many others. I haven’t run the numbers specifically, but I’d be willing to bet that “Jockomo” has “Five-O” edged by just a little bit. According to StatCounter, the “Jockomo feena nay” post is the Number One result for several different search terms. “Hawaii Five-O” is more in the realm of 10th—14th, depending on the specific search term.

And that’s it for this time around! As usual, feel free to submit any questions you’d like me to research! Not that you will, but feel free!

My Social Experiment

Leslie Knope: By Swanson standards, we're close. I know when your birthday is.

Ron Swanson: So does Baskin-Robbins.

Parks and Recreation, “Ron and Diane” (12/6/12)

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Back in 2011…

(This is the part where your screen gets all wavy and out of focus temporarily.)

…I was perusing Facebook, and it so happened that, according to Facebook, something like five of my friends all had the same birthday, and maybe I should write something on their timelines. Being the kind of guy I am, I didn’t want to just write “Happy Birthday” on each one and move along; I wanted to personalize it just a little bit. But when I got to the first friend’s timeline, I saw that something like 200 people had already posted some sort of greeting. I thought, is this person really going to wade through all these greetings? And, if Facebook hadn’t reminded them of the date, would all of these people have sent some sort of greeting? I pretty much thought, “Not.” At present, I have 306 friends on Facebook, and I know the birthdays of precisely nine of them, six of whom because I’m related to them (and one of THOSE because we share a birthday).

That’s probably on the low side of average, because I have almost no memory whatsoever of these things, whereas other people I know have that stuff nailed down, or have a good working system for keeping track. My sister-in-law keeps a calendar with all kinds of memorial dates on it: birthdays of people both living and dead, anniversaries of weddings, events, parties, funerals, especially good desserts she’s had…it absolutely exhausts me to look at that thing. But I figured that a lot of people were in the same boat I was: they’re only wishing each other a Happy Birthday because Facebook said that it was their birthday.

So I decided to conduct an experiment, to see A) whether my theory was correct, and B) how many people actually paid attention to this sort of thing. And hey: maybe I’d get a blog post out of it.

I went to my Facebook profile and edited it, changing my birthday from February, to April 5. It was late March by then, so I figured that was ahead of the timeline just enough that the date wouldn’t suddenly appear on people’s pages. By April 3, the greetings started coming in: “Hey, wishing you an early Happy Birthday since I won’t be around.” Late in the day on April 4, they started to pour in, most of them in the realm of “Have a great day tomorrow!” And, of course, on the 5th I got something like 75 greetings. I acknowledged them with a single post, thanking everyone for their good wishes.

A few days later, I went back into my profile and moved my birthday to June 5. Now, I have to admit that this one was a little bit of a time bomb. I set the date and pretty much forgot about it…until the greetings started coming in. And again I got something in the area of about 70-80 greetings. No kidding? Okay. A few days after the 5th I changed it again, to August 5.

This is where the experiment went to hell, in a couple of ways and for different reasons.

In early July, a guy named David Plotz got the same idea. However, he was on deadline and I wasn’t, so he sped up the process and celebrated his Facebook birthday on July 11, 25th and 28th. (Click the link for the story.) The story ran on August 2nd, only a couple of days before my fourth birthday of the year. My blog post had gone from Cool, Original Idea to a “Me-Too” re-hash of someone else’s project. Even though I started first and was taking my time about it, he got his story live before I did. It was also around this point that a couple of my Facebook friends were starting to catch on. Some of them had gone from “Have a great day!” to “How many birthdays do you have, anyway?” That part I was actually fine with, because that would have been the tipping point of the story: with the August birthday, I could end the project because finally people had figured out what I was up to.

Also, Facebook itself was getting kind of tired of me moving my birthday around, and offered up some suggestion that if I change it again, I’m not going to get any more opportunities to change my birthday. So I re-set it back into February and tanked the whole project. So that aspect of the Summer of 2011 was a little disappointing, in that I’d done all this but felt as though I couldn’t write about it, not without looking weird or bad or something.

(Temporarily wavy screen again.)

So why have I chosen to write about this whole thing now? I’m glad you asked.

As I noted above, my birthday falls this month; in fact it falls this week. And once again I’m inundated with the birthday greetings. Nowadays I take pains to reply to as many of them as I can. There’s over a hundred nowadays, and I feel bad when I find myself resorting to canned phrases when I acknowledge them. At least I have four or five of them to rotate through, and now and again I can break the chain by relating something a little more personal. (“Hope your chlamydia cleared up!”)

But among that hundred-plus posts, there remain about 10 percent of them who are doubters. They see it’s my birthday, and their greeting to me is “Happy Birthday! (assuming it’s really your birthday)”, or they’ll piggyback onto other people’s posts, including the greeting from Wife: “If Wife says it’s your birthday, then I can believe it. Have a great day!”

All’s I’m saying now is that it’s been four years, and I’m still in the virtual doghouse with some people. It’s kind of fun that they remember that prank from a few years back; I hope they still get a chuckle themselves out of it.

The Hooker, The Grifters, and Me

Leon Tao: It's not technically a crime to scam a scammer!

Person of Interest, “All In” (3/20/13)

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This has happened to me at least three times while traveling along the I-95 corridor:

I’m in a rest area, usually on my way to or from the rest room, when someone approaches me. Not Pictured: The guy's actual tank gauge. He (it’s always a guy, so far) tells me a story about getting a job up north (usually Pennsylvania is the culprit), and the job didn’t work out, and now he’s on his way back home to Florida/South Carolina/Georgia (it’s always the next state south—even the time I was approached while northbound), and of course they’re short on cash and the car is Running On Fumes (every single one of these cars is Running On Fumes), and could I spare a couple of bucks for gas money?

And because their story is always the same, my response is also always the same: “Well, I don’t carry any cash on me, but if you want to follow me to the next exit, I’m happy to put a few bucks worth of gas into your car.”

Now, the first time this happened, we were in the Georgia Welcome Center headed south. The guy actually said to me, “OK, well ya know, I could do that but I’m afraid that the car’s going to run out of gas before we get there.”

I told him, “If that’s the case then giving you money isn’t going to do you any good, because there’s no gas pump in this rest area. Either way you’re taking that chance, right?” He muttered some noncommital reply and so I said “OK, I guess I can’t help you, then.”

The next time around was in South Carolina, so the guy needed to get to Georgia. It was late at night and I was kind of tired, so I wasn’t really concentrating on what he had to say to me. I do remember that in this variation he was with his wife “in the car way over at the other end.” I gave him the same response and again ended with “Can’t help you, I suppose.” Because there were only a few vehicles in the rest area, I was able to see which car he moved to next, so I pointed him out to an attendant who was passing by: “Hey, you know there’s a guy over there trying to scam money out of people?”

“Oh, he is, is he?” said the attendant. Guy took it pretty personally and headed right over there. I didn’t stick around to find out what happened next because I had to pee (I was in the rest area for a reason, duh).

The third time around was in the Maryland Welcome Center, which, curiously enough, is 36 miles deep into the state. I guess you really have to commit before you’re welcomed in. Night had just fallen, and I was returning to my car from the rest room/vending zone. And the guy came up and gave me essentially the same story with the job, and the returning home, and needing money, and I gave him my stock response. However, this time around he clearly hadn’t encountered that kind of answer before, because he just stood there, looking stupid and stammering for a reply. “Er…ah, um…” I stopped him and, perhaps to help him save face a little bit, said, “You know what? That’s what everybody says when I give them that answer.” He just shrugged and walked away.

So flash-forward to the present, or the near-past, anyway: this past Friday, the weather was supposed to be bad, so nearly everyone in the school left only a few minutes after the students did. As a result, I was one of the last people to leave the building, but not THE last (for a change).

There’s a back door to my school that opens out to the parking lot, and this was the door I used to exit the building. The building has a bit of an L shape to it, and my car was around the bend, so I couldn’t see it. What I could see, though, was a large white pickup truck. And standing next to the truck was a skinny African-American woman, looking at herself in the mirror.

My path out of the building made it look at first as though I was headed for the truck, and she suddenly jumped, telling me that she was just getting a look at herself. She started to walk toward the stairs up to the sidewalk, which was the general area where my car, and a couple of others, were parked.

Kia didn't look as good as this. She told me her name was Nita, and she was going to come into some money in the next couple of weeks, but “in the meantime I do all kinds of odd jobs, you know, clean houses, I paint, I date…anyway, I have to get to [I forget where] down on Patapsco Avenue and I’m a little short on the bus fare, can you spare any change?”

Now, I did catch the code word in that sentence, “date”, which means she’s a prostitute. I’d accidentally picked up a prostitute once before (I thought I’d told that story in this space but I can’t find the relevant post), but that was 13 years ago and I’ve picked up on some of the nuances in that time. So, just for a lark I said to her, “You’re going to Patapsco? I’m headed that way; I’m happy to give you a ride.” (A lie, but I knew where this was going.)

Nita seemed delighted by this, but as we got closer to my car she asked me, “Do you date?” I smiled and shook my head. “Noooo,” I said. “That’s not really my style.”

Go figure; that’s the point where her tune changed. She “suddenly” realized that she had to go up the block to collect her mail; could I wait until she got back? “You mean US Mail? Postal mail?” I asked. She replied in the affirmative, and I told her that I was sorry, but I was already running late and if she wanted the ride we had to leave right away. She thanked me and headed up the steps and on her way.

In retrospect, here’s the weird thing: I actually respect Nita a little bit more than the out-of-gas guys in the rest area. At least she was offering up some kind of service in exchange for the money/ride. The rest area guys had nothing for me.

The Bear Facts

Lily Marcigan: Smokey Bear says, "Only you can prevent forest fires."
Phyllis Nefler: Well, Smokey Bear isn’t going through a horribly messy divorce.

Troop Beverly Hills (1989)

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Back in the summer of 1942, the US Forestry Service recognized that getting citizens to help them prevent forest fires was a patriotic thing that ordinary citizens could do to help prevent Hitler from taking over our campsites and such. While it was true that forest fires could help enemy aircraft find solid land at night, the other fact is that most of the Service’s best people had been sent to war, so the ones that remained behind weren’t always equal to the task of putting out those West Coast wildfires. So, they reasoned, why not educate the public on preventing the fires in the first place?

Don't even ask how much money Flower got for his work. It was around that time that the film Bambi first came out. As you may recall, the climax of the film involves a wildfire that Bambi narrowly manages to escape. If you light a match, the Axis wins. As a result of this, it was thought that Bambi would be a pretty good mascot for the US Forestry Service campaign, and posters were made up which used the Disney characters. However, Disney only licensed the characters out for one year, so another mascot for the program had to be located. It was probably around this time that they started to use their fallback “Let’s be racist” position for the posters.  (It likely didn’t help matters that the Japanese actually tried a couple of times to start wildfires on the West Coast, with only minor success.)

At any rate, after about a year, the Forestry Service came up with a mascot—a bear. His name was inspired by New York City Fire Fighter “Smokey” Joe Martin, who had suffered some burns and blindness in a fire some 20 years earlier. That they still wanted to name anything after this guy that much later on, says to me that he must have been one bad-ass fire fighter. Martin died in October 1941, so his memory was still pretty fresh in people’s minds when it came time to name the bear.

His balls were too large to fit in this photo. A digression: because I got curious, I looked him up, and he was, indeed, a master of badassery. This guy was a fire fighter for 46 years, and he’d been in so many dangerous situations that the ambulance corps started giving him Frequent Flyer miles. No kidding, he was hauled away to the hospital nearly two dozen times. Once, in 1898, he went in to a building to rescue a guy who was on a floor that they already knew probably wouldn’t hold him. Sure enough, it didn’t, and neither did the ones below. Joe Martin fell  through 65 feet of burning debris, from the fourth floor to the basement, and when he regained consciousness the next day, he asked “When can I go back to work?” The answer turned out to be four months later. When fighting his last fire in April 1930, he was stopped only by the fact that he was wearing winter clothes and the heat gave him a heart attack.

Anyway, Smokey Bear was pretty much a fully-realized character when they rolled him out in 1944. He was already wearing the jeans and the Ranger hat in his debut poster, and while his face would evolve a little bit over the years (e.g. his snout shortened a little bit to give him more of a friendly, “teddy” look), the “then” picture isn’t remarkably different from the “now” picture. It was in 1947 that the catchphrase was coined: “Remember…only YOU can prevent forest fires.” In 2001 this was amended to the more-inclusive “wildfires”, as a reminder that other areas are capable of burning, too.

But here’s where it gets a little bit real.

In 1950, a fire broke out in Lincoln National Forest, in New Mexico, in a place called Capitan Gap. Capitan Gap is about 17,000 acres of forest; we’re talking on the order of 26 square miles. BIG fire. It was notable for two different events. First, a 24-man crew was out digging firebreaks in the ground. A “firebreak” is essentially a strip of cleared ground which—it is hoped—will stop the spread of a fire by denying it some fuel. At any rate, the fire managed to jump the break, and the men, who were now pretty much surrounded by fire, buried themselves in the dirt from a recent landslide and managed to survive the fire. The other big event is that a small bear cub was spotted running in and out of the fire, trying to get away, until finally he climbed a tree and hung to it on the windward side of the tree. He, too, survived the fire with some singes and other, survivable burn injuries on his paws and hind legs. The bear was flown to Santa Fe for veterinary treatment and nursed back to health. There are conflicting reports with regard to who did the nursing, but it appears to be a ranger named Ray Bell who, with his wife and three children, got most of the credit for it.  Somewhere along the line, the bear’s name changed from “Hotfoot Teddy” to “Smokey Bear”, after the mascot. The story was picked up by Life Magazine and the national news services, and suddenly Smokey was a celebrity.

After his recovery, Smokey was flown in a Piper Cub (heh) to the National Zoo in Washington, DC, including a stopover in St. Louis, Missouri where he spent the night in a specially-prepared zoo enclosure while the plane was serviced and refueled. And, of course, on his arrival in Washington, he received a hero’s welcome. And, of course, he became part of the popular culture. This expanded to the point where songwriters Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins, in 1952, wrote a song about him called “Smokey the Bear”. Now, until this point he was just “Smokey Bear”, but Nelson and Rollins needed that “the” in order to maintain the song’s beat, so the song was written that way, and it was sung by a few of the popular artists of the time, including Eddy Arnold, who’s totally in the real woods with those kids, and never mind that he’s casting a shadow on the lake:

If you’ve actually taken the time to see the video, you’ll note that the credits point out that the film is a public service announcement from
the USDA, Forestry Service. Therefore the bear’s name should now be “Smokey the Bear” rather than just “Smokey Bear”. However, that same year, because he was attracting commercial interest, an act of Congress took the character out of the public domain and put him in the hands of the Secretary of Agriculture. That act was called the Smokey Bear Act, and it forever cements his official name as “Smokey Bear” without the “the”.

Incidentally, while the Eddy Arnold version of the song isn’t bad, this is my favorite, and the one I hear in my head when I think of the song:

Smokey Bear lived to the ripe old age (for a bear) of 26; after he died his remains were returned to New Mexico for burial. And do you know WHY his remains were sent back? Because Congress voted on a resolution related to it two years earlier.

Stamp issued in 1984. One more thing: if you want, you can still write to Smokey Bear (the mascot, not the late bear). He even has his own ZIP Code in Washington DC so your letter will find him quickly: it’s 20252.

Affirmations in My Food

Jules: Do you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in France?
Brett: No.
Jules: Tell him, Vincent.
Vincent: Royale with Cheese.
Jules: Royale with Cheese! Do you know why they call it a Royale with Cheese?
Brett: [pauses]…Because of the metric system?
Jules: [impressed] Check out the big brain on Brett!

—Pulp Fiction (1994)

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Not Pictured: Le Big MacSo the other night I was more or less on my own with regard to dinner. I was in one of those “eh…I could eat” moods, which means that I wasn’t really craving anything in particular. My time was growing short, so I defaulted to a local McDonald’s.

(I was going to tell you which McDonald’s it was, but on the off-chance that someone could get in trouble for this, I’m not gonna snitch.)

Typically, when I go to McDonald’s I get some version of a chicken sandwich. Not because it’s any healthier than the other menu options (because, let’s face it), but I’ve got myself into a place where I’m thinking it’s somehow less unhealthy. How’s that for convoluted logic? Be that as it may, I decided that while I wasn’t in the mood for anything in particular, I was definitely not in the mood for a chicken sandwich. So I went with a burger, specifically a Quarter Pounder with Cheese.

McDonald’s has a two-for-one thing going on lately with those burgers; I’ve found that if you order the Value Meal, it’s a crapshoot with regard to whether you’re going to get one sandwich or two. Some places give you the BOGO only if you buy a la carte. This appears to be one of those places. At any rate, I got my sandwich, picked up my condiments, filled my soda cup and headed over to a table.

Like most of America, I usually open the burger box, then dump the fries into the lid to help contain them a little bit. However, I didn’t do that this time and this is why: when I opened up the box, I discovered a message on the inside of the lid.

It's like Hidden Pictures from Highlights Magazine.

Dear whoever receives this

message: Learn to Love

yourself! For you are your

Future!! Have a Great

Day! (smiley face)

 

Well. How can I dump my fries on that?

I actually spent a decent portion of my meal pondering this message. There’s nothing new about it, especially if you’ve been to any graduation ceremonies in the last few weeks; most of them sound just like this. And you don’t even get a cheeseburger to help you ruminate on what you’ve just seen.

I decided that it’s just kind of cool that some employee in the back of a McDonald’s somewhere in Maryland took the time to send an affirmative message to someone they’ve never met. And I think, in the future, I’ll be looking a little harder for the messages that are in front of me but haven’t made themselves fully obvious yet.

Rage Against the Thing

Kelly Scott: Could you be a little more condescending? ‘Cause I’m not real great with subtlety.

Lake Placid (1999)

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I haven’t been getting along with some technology lately. Here are two examples:

Look at that smug son of a bitch. 1) There’s a snack machine I’ve been known to use from time to time. The machine takes both bills and change, and it has that little display window above the cash acceptor that tells you how much you’ve put in, when it’s vending, what selection you’re making and so on. When it’s not doing any of those things, it defaults to a generic message that’s too long to fit in the window, so you have to wait for it to scroll through if you want to see the whole thing.

That message is: ENJOY SOME CANDY NOW

That’s it. No subtlety, no lower case, no punctuation. It’s actually kind of pushy, especially coming from a machine. What if I don’t want candy? Maybe I came in for the little bag of Fritos. Maybe I’m actually looking to use the soda machine NEXT to the candy machine. Maybe I’m just in there because I needed five minutes of peace. I don’t know why but that message really irritates me.

2) When I moved into my new office back in September, I picked up a few appliances for the office for my convenience: a small refrigerator (one of those dorm-type cubes), a microwave oven and a coffee maker, which I use to make a pot of tea every morning. Now, the microwave oven is a typical jobbie, 900 watts with a bunch of pre-set buttons for my convenience, even if everything I do involving them seems to set the oven to three minutes at full power. There’s also a convenient 30 second key, which is nice for those times when I’m pouring myself more tea at 10:30 and I realize that the coffee maker shut itself off a half-hour earlier.

You know what you did. Every once in awhile, when heating my lunch or if I need more time on the tea or something, I’ll punch in an amount of time directly. At home I’ve gotten into a habit that saves fractional seconds of time, but I do it anyway no matter how dumb it sounds. If I’m cooking something in my microwave for a minute and a quarter, I’ll punch in “:75” rather than “1:15”. A lot of times if I need a minute and a half I’ll put in “:88” because it’s just quicker than “:90”. And so on. The home microwave has no problem at all with this. The work microwave?

Let me ask you something. Have you ever done a search on the web, and you accidentally misspell something, so when the results come back the search engine asks you if you meant something else?

“Did you mean Nut Allergies?” There’s something grating about the way it does that. It’s sort of like when you go to a Renaissance Faire, and some of the people there are taking it waaaay too seriously, and they refuse to talk to you unless you say stuff archaically. “Prithee do repeat thyself, milord: what is this ‘Porta-Potty’ of which thee speaks?” Shut up, in a couple of hours you’re going to get in your busted-ass 1999 Ford Probe and drive home; you’re not riding out on a horse, ya fecking peasant.

Anyway, it’s like that with the work microwave. If I punch in “:88” and then hit Start, it changes to “1:28” and begins its countdown. “Did you mean ‘1:28’?”

Shut up, work microwave. At least the home microwave knows the difference between AM and PM.

Mug Protocols

Captain Stemkowski: Don’t drink my coffee from my cup, Jilette!

No Mercy (1986)

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I just got back from a whirlwind trip to Florida. My uncle died last week, and his memorial service was scheduled for this past Saturday, so Wife and I made our plans, got in the car and headed south on Thursday evening. We left Baltimore at about 6:30 and stopped in Manning, South Carolina at about 3:00 AM Friday, where we crashed in a motel for about six hours, then had breakfast and hit the road again. There was a pretty bad accident on I-95 that stopped traffic somewhere in the realm of Ridgeland. We were maybe a hundred yards back from the accident so it was pretty easy for us to see the helicopter land on the highway and then fly right out again. They don’t waste time when that bird is on the ground, I guess. At any rate, we managed to get to my mother’s place in Port Richey by 6:30, almost exactly twenty-four hours after we left home.

I got re-acquainted with my cousins, one of whom I hadn’t seen in literally years, and introduced my wife to them, and the tone was as merry that night as it was somber the next day. I’m starting to turn into a go-to guy when it comes to saying stuff at funerals, so I prepared something on Saturday morning and—because my brother’s printer didn’t have any ink in it—I saved it to Microsoft One Note and read it off my tablet instead.

But I’m not going to tell you anything about my uncle, or his memorial service, or anything else I might have done in Florida (which wasn’t much, really). I’m here to vent about the Mug Protocols.

You don't see these much anymore. My ex wife had a wooden one and nearly burned up the kitchen when she left it in front of the oven vent during a self-cleaning cycle. This actually started…oh my gosh, about twenty years ago. I was staying at my grandmother’s house, and we’d just returned from a restaurant. Everyone was in the mood for some coffee, but I’m a tea drinker. So I put the kettle on for tea and started up the coffee maker. The hot water was ready first, so I grabbed a mug from the little mug tree that my grandmother had on the counter, put the tea bag into it and poured the hot water in.

A minute later there was some murmuring over what I’d done. Apparently I’d grabbed the “wrong” mug. I looked at it again: it was just some mug, the first one I saw on the mug tree. It was a giveaway from Duval Federal Credit Union, and it read “Duval Federal, You’re Incredible!” on one side. It’s possible that they think this phrase has an internal rhyme to it; I don’t really know. What I do know is that I’d inadvertently taken my stepfather’s traditional coffee mug and soiled it with my tea. After some questioning I discovered that everyone in the house had a mug that was “theirs”. Most of them didn’t even live there, but that was no matter. So every time I made a cup of tea, I’d check with everyone to ensure that I was using an unclaimed mug. This was the beginning of the Mug Protocols.

XmasMugs_1At some point, while I was down there (back then), I was in a dollar store and I spotted a Christmas-themed latte mug. I wanted a Christmas mug for school, so I picked it up and took it back to my grandmother’s, fully intending to take it home at the end of the visit. As frequently happens to me, I neglected to bring it home with me, so my grandmother just put it away in the cabinet. The next time I came down, everyone made a point of noting that “my” mug was in the cabinet on the top shelf. By this time I’d completely forgotten about the mug, so I had no idea what they were talking about until I opened the cabinet and saw the Christmas mug up there. At the end of that trip I left the mug behind again, and again I forgot about it until my next visit. In the interim, though, they’d all got it totally ingrained into their heads that this was MY mug and nobody else was to use it. Once I left, my grandmother stashed it away until I came back.

Several years later, my grandmother decided that she was getting too old to live on her own, so she moved in with my mother. In order to do this, she had to divest herself of nearly everything in the house—furniture, bed linens, glassware, cookware, you name it. Whatever wasn’t getting sold or given away was going to go either into my grandmother’s bedroom in my mom’s house, or it was going into a storage locker. And those lockers fill up fast.

countertopI actually managed to get a couple of things from this purge, but my one regret is that I didn’t get my grandmother’s cutting board. It wasn’t a genuine cutting board; it was actually a cut-out from a Formica countertop where they removed the piece of counter so they could put the sink in. It was a deep red (red countertop!), and was a rectangle with curved corners and a hole drilled through it, and then a cut from the hole to the edge. See, they’d drill the hole, and from there they’d use a jigsaw to cut the main hole in the counter. The picture at left is for an oval sink, but I think you get the idea. Either my grandfather or my uncle had rescued it from a construction site about a million years ago, and my grandmother took it and used it for a cutting board for years and years. And even all those years later, despite the abuse from thousands of knife cuts, the countertop/cutting board still looked pretty good. But I spoke up too late, and it was gone.

So the first Christmas after my grandmother moves in with my mom, and I’m there for dinner, and after dinner we’re going to have some kind of dessert and, of course, hot beverages, and I reach into the cabinet to pull out a mug for my tea. Of course, without even looking and the first mug I grab is Duval Federal. Nope, can’t use that one but I’ll leave it out for my stepfather. “How about this one? Can I use this one?” Yes, that one’s fine. Then my stepfather pipes up, “You know, your mug is in the other cabinet.”

“Oh, yeah!” my mother exclaims. “Look in that cabinet over there, on the top shelf.” The cabinet in question is actually on the opposite side of the kitchen. I open it up and there, on the top shelf, is “my” Christmas mug. They were all very pleased with themselves for saving that mug when they were getting rid of all my grandmother’s other stuff, and for holding it aside for my use.

But here’s the kicker: when I went down
this past week to attend the memorial service, after Friday’s dinner I start pulling mugs out of the cabinet and I start asking “Is it OK to use this one? How about this one? After all, I don’t want to violate the Mug Protocols. Is there one designated as mine?” My brother says “Yeah, I’ve got your mug,” and shows me a souvenir Baltimore, Maryland mug that my mother bought about ten years ago when she was visiting. “You want it?”

“No, Brother, I really don’t care. I just don’t want to upset anyone with this mug business.” And that’s when it somehow turned into MY quirk, that I just had to have a certain mug or things could get ugly for everyone.

“You know,” my mother said, “your tall mug is still in the cabinet up there, if you want it.”

“No, Ma,” I said. “I’m not drinking out of a Christmas mug. I really don’t care what I drink out of, so long as it holds my tea. It’s you guys who get all up in arms if I use the wrong mug.”

They’re not hearing me, I think. I’m just going to have to continue to observe the Mug Protocols. Either that or quit drinking hot beverages when I’m in Florida.