Somewhere Out There

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

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


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)


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)


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.

What’s Up My Butt? Nothing, Guaranteed.

Colonel Wortman: [on the phone] Colonel Wortman here, General Kelly’s aide. Now listen carefully, this is an order. Take the General’s body, put it in a Jeep, and drive it up to G sector.

‘Radar’ O’Reilly: Uh, sir, there’s no fighting there, just diarrhea.

Colonel Wortman: [covers phone] I’ll provide the fighting.

M*A*S*H, “Iron Guts Kelly” (10/1/74)


This isn't mine. Sorry to disappoint.

WARNING: I tried to be light-hearted about it, but the bottom line (heh) is that there’s gross clinical stuff ahead. Read at your own risk.

I’ve had to disappoint the folks at the Red Cross Blood Donation centers for the past several months, on doctor’s orders.

Whenever I go to see my doctor, she usually orders bloodwork for me before the visit, so she can check on my cholesterol and blood sugar levels. I have a family history of high cholesterol, and my A1C, which is a number that represents your average blood sugar levels over a certain period of time, has historically been high, but not high enough to put me in the diabetic range. So she likes to keep her eyes on that stuff, and while we’re siphoning off my arm, let’s check a few dozen other things.

On my last few visits, however, she saw something that concerned her, specifically that my blood counts were a little low. Not low enough to be considered anemic, but still kind of mysterious. She had a few suggestions for my diet, and for some vitamins I could be taking, but the numbers weren’t really budging (much like my A1C—no matter what I do, it doesn’t go up or down by any significant amount). They did one of those basic quick tests for occult blood but came up with nothing. So finally my doctor decided that it was time for me to get both an endoscopy and a colonoscopy and see if that reveals anything. Since I crossed that Big Five-Oh a couple of years back, she’s been kind of hot for me to get the colonoscopy done anyway as a kind of Thing To Do When You’re Fifty-Plus.

Off to the gastroenterologist I went, where they set me up with a “consultation”. That basically means meeting the guy who’s going to do the procedure and being handed a bunch of forms to complete and bring back on the day of the procedure. Among those forms is the preparation procedure for these things. Let me share the highlights with you:

There’s actually a timeline written down for this stuff. First thing is, the day before the test, you’re basically not eating any solid food at all. The closest you get to solid food is plain gelatin or popsicles, and everything you consume can’t be red or purple. So, no cherry Jello if you’re going to have Jello. Lemon is fine. You can have coffee or tea, but no milk or nondairy creamer. Everything else is broth, juice, water, or Gatorade.

First up on the timeline is the laxatives. They used to give you a prescription for some high-powered laxative, but now it’s all over-the-counter stuff. So you go out and you buy some laxative tablets, plus some powdery stuff. And at around noon you take the tablets along with plenty of liquid. It’s also at this time that you’re supposed to mix the powder with a quart of Gatorade. I cheated and used Powerade because I don’t like Gatorade. In the long run, it doesn’t appear to have made much difference. You don’t drink the Gatorade mixture just yet; you just “refridgerate” it. (That’s what the instructions say.) At 1:30 you drink 8 ounces of the Gatorade stuff, and repeat every hour till it’s gone. So the 32 ounces of the Powerade, plus the powdered stuff, makes a beverage close to 44 ounces altogether, so you’re doing this about a half-dozen times.

It's not quite like this, but close. Now, you kind of expect horrible things to happen, like you’re going to have horrific cramps and then explode and spend the entire rest of the day in the bathroom. What’s more, you kind of feel like a ticking time bomb that’s going to go off at any moment, but it’s not really like that. On the other hand, you’re definitely inducing diarrhea, so there’s that. And—AND! Don’t count on going anywhere once you’ve taken those pills. In between the Gatorade drinks, you’re supposed to keep taking on fluids so you don’t dehydrate yourself. I was actually drinking enough that I had to pee a lot, too. It also made drinking the Gatorade stuff a bit of a chore, because you’re filling up on other drinks in-between the Gatorade stints. I was glad to be done with that stuff so that I could relax and drink the un-treated Powerade and Crystal Lite lemonade.

(Full Disclosure: the prep sheet told me to use specific brands of laxatives; I was in a supermarket and bought the store-brand knockoff equivalents. Same drugs, same dosage, same effects, MUCH less money. I also bought the store brand version of Crystal Lite, I think because I was on a roll at that point with the generics. And, as I mentioned, I used Powerade instead of Gatorade, but it wasn’t because of the cost although Powerade happened to be on sale; I just like it better than Gatorade.)

The first few times you’re in the bathroom it’s pretty much what you expect. In my case there weren’t the attendant cramps that usually come with it, so from that standpoint it’s not so bad. And you’re not so incontinent that you have to run to the bathroom at top speed, but you don’t get a lot of warning. Also: if you think you have to pass gas, DON’T. It’s a trap. Fortunately this occurred to me before I learned the hard way, if you know what I mean.

When you get to the end of the evening, the urgency goes away but you often still feel the need to go now and then. By that point, however, you’re expelling very little, and it’s mostly clear or pale yellow, with maybe a few flakes of fecal matter that managed to hang around. Early on, I was worried that I might be doing this all night and that I wouldn’t get any sleep, but the fact is that it’s all pretty much done by then.

The next morning (procedure day), I woke up and my abdominal muscles were a little sore, largely (I think) because when you get to those last couple of times, you’re actually pushing a little bit. You’re also a little bit sore down below, but that’s to be expected; it’s been practically traumatized.

So just as a lark, I weighed myself before and after. Right before taking the tablets, I weighed myself, and then again after waking up. Without getting into specifics, I’ll share that I lost 2-1/2 pounds. I was going to do an hour-by-hour, but I realized that the numbers would get goofy because of all the fluids I was taking in. Also, I don’t really get along well with our scale; it’s digital and a pain in the neck to turn on. But it occurred to me after that weighing that that’s not nearly as much of a difference as I thought there’d be, I don’t know why. I guess I thought that feces weigh more than they actually do. Which sort of leads me into wondering why people with eating disorders will resort to laxatives; there’s not a lot of return for all that misery. You’d think they would figure that out early on.


Wife took me to the doctor’s and they looked over the paperwork I’d completed. The paperwork included:

  • A list of All The Bad Things That Could Happen and Why We’re Just Sending You To the Hospital if
    Anything Goes Wrong
  • Information about Advanced Care Directives and how those don’t really apply to them
  • Information about Living Wills and how those don’t apply either
  • Acknowledgment that I’d received HIPAA privacy information (I hadn’t, but signed anyway; I know the drill)
  • A page asking me about any allergies I had
  • A page asking me about medications I take regularly.

It's milky-looking stuff. They took me into the Procedure Room and had me take off everything but my socks and put on a hospital gown. “Don’t bother tying up the ties, because we have to connect all the leads and stuff to you, still. Just sit up on the edge of the bed and you can cover yourself with this blanket.” The blankets in this place, incidentally, are nice and toasty-warm. Before long, I’m being swarmed by several different people. One person is connecting all the telemetry, another is putting in an I.V. line, and the third is the anesthesiologist, who is reviewing the medications and allergies with me. She tells me that she’ll be giving me Propofol, which is the stuff that took out Michael Jackson. The difference between this and typical anesthesia, she says, is that it’s a genuine sleep, with dreaming and everything, because it hits the brain’s sleep center. If you’ve ever had general anesthesia, you know that you pretty much lose the time: you’re in one room and then suddenly you’re in another. With Propofol, you don’t remember feeling sleepy, but you DO dream. The other thing is, when it wears off, you wake up pretty quickly; you’re not eleven kinds of groggy and stuff. Once you’ve been up for a couple of minutes, you can walk right out. So they had me lie on my left side, and kinda-sorta posed me with my left arm out in front of me and my right resting on my hip. Someone put a Bite Block in my mouth (so I don’t bite down on the endoscope), then they shot me up with the Propofol. I was warned that there might be a bit of a burning feeling in my arm, and for me it wasn’t a burn but more like an electrical tingle, and in retrospect that’s pretty much the last thing I remember thinking about before I was awakened.

So I can’t tell you anything about the procedure itself, other than it doesn’t go very long at all, maybe an hour altogether, counting the pre-game stuff. I’d walked in shortly before 10 AM and walked out just after 11 AM. The doctor said that everything looked good, although he’d removed a few small polyps, and he’d send everything along to my internist. “So there was nothing that would explain the anemia?” I asked.

He corrected me: “You have some low blood counts, not anemia. But no, there wasn’t anything that would explain it.” So from the blood standpoint I’m kind of wondering if I’ve just got A New Normal going on for myself.

Let me sum all this up for the uninitiated: colonoscopy sounds pretty scary and embarrassing and such, and maybe it’s scary because it’s often used to look for scary stuff. And while you’ve got the Necessary Evil of the preparation process, the whole thing really isn’t so bad. I’m not saying it’s great, or it’s something I’d want to do every weekend, but I don’t think I’ll be going in with the same level of trepidation should I have to go another time.

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)


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.

What’s Opera, Doc?

Josh Lyman: I'm just sayin' if you were in an accident, I wouldn't stop for a beer.

Donna Moss: If you were in an accident, I wouldn't stop for red lights.

The West Wing, “17 People” (4/4/01)


Nobody was buying that Butterfly was fifteen years old. Last weekend, the Lyric Opera House here in Baltimore staged a production of the opera Madama Butterfly, by Giacomo Puccini. Students from our school were invited to attend one of the dress rehearsals on Wednesday, so I decided to go, taking Wee One with me since they had the space and I knew that she’d be interested.

Despite it being a dress rehearsal, the streets surrounding the Lyric were pretty full, so we had to park in a nearby garage. Naturally, the garage was charging the “event” rate rather than the hourly rate, and they were cash-only, but they were happy to hold onto my ID (and my car, of course) until I went to an ATM and came back with the money.

So the show itself was pretty cool. Instead of taking the assigned seats that were set up high enough for us to pack oxygen tanks. we opted to grab some vacant seats on one of the side balconies. We had a great view of the actors and the pit orchestra, which was (naturally) more casually dressed than one would usually see. This also put us in the position of being able to show the students the monitors mounted just below the balcony to each side of the stage, so the actors could see the conductor no matter which way they were facing. The students ran at about a 50% rate with regard to whether, in the end, the whole experience was interesting, but I look at it as an “exposure” type of event. In the end I think maybe we could have prepared them just a little bit better for the whole thing.

Wee One, on the other hand, had apparently taken some initiative and looked up the story on her own, so she had a better idea of what was going on. And, of course, she was all kinds of impressed with the actors, what with all the breath control and other dynamics. So after the show, while I circled the block looking for the ATM, we bumped into a couple of the actors and she got the opportunity to go all Fangirl over them.

In the car and on the way home. We’re headed north on Harford Road when we approach 25th Street, which is a busy intersection for that road. As it happens, we have the green light as we approach the intersection, but I also see a police cruiser coming into the intersection, with lights on and siren wailing. I braked hard, hard enough that you could feel the antilock brakes do that shuddering thing, but we stopped partway into the crosswalk.

The bad news is, the car behind us didn’t get the memo. We were stopped for a good second or so when suddenly: BANG. And now we’re all the way into the crosswalk. We’d been rear-ended.

It’s kind of weird when you get into this sort of accident, being hit from behind. You really need a moment to comprehend what’s happened. Wee One even asked me, “What happened?” and I told her that someone had hit us. I asked her if she was OK and she said she was. I told her to stay in the car and got out.

When these things happen, you also have a moment of thinking, “This isn’t going to be so bad.” Then you look at the car and you say something like “Jesus H. Christ on a Pogo Stick! Look at THAT mess!”

I snapped this just as the cop arrived.

I got out of the car and the other driver, a young lady about 25 years old, was already out of her car. She was apologetic and said that she’d hydroplaned (it was raining) and couldn’t stop her Jeep Liberty. By definition, “hydroplaning” is not what was going on here, but whatever. My car was clearly a mess and it was clearly her fault. I called 911 and they told me they’d dispatch an officer.

I got back into the car to start fishing the insurance and registration information out of the glove box. When I got out again, the officer had just arrived. Efficient! I greeted him with a cheerful “Whassup!” In retrospect, it’s kind of amazing that he didn’t ask me to blow up a balloon right there. He started asking us about what had happened, and actually seemed kind of surprised that the other cruiser—the one I’d stopped for with the lights and the siren—hadn’t stopped what they were doing and turned their attention to us. Meanwhile, there were two people on the corner, who had been waiting for a bus, and offering to testify on my behalf. “Do you got a baby in that car? I seen everything! She was tailgating you, she was going too fast.” I let the officer know that we had some witnesses, but he didn’t really care since the girl had already admitted it was all on her. After a few minutes he concluded that there really wasn’t any point in leaving the cars where they were in the middle of Harford Road, and we moved the vehicles over into the parking lot of the check-cashing place on the southeast corner. I had to make two trips, since my bumper was in the middle of the road. So one was on foot, moving the bumper, and the other was moving the car itself. Miraculously, the car was capable of moving on its own. 

So while I’m in the parking lot and awaiting the paperwork, I called Wife and told her to come get the Wee One. She showed up and was suitably impressed by the damage to my car. She told me she’d take Wee One home and then come back for me, since I was still waiting for the policeman’s paperwork.

By the time she got back to the house, Wee One started complaining that her head hurt, and it was possible that she’d hit her head against the door when we were hit. Wife wanted to take her to the hospital after getting me home. I told her that I was starting to feel it too, and maybe we’d both go get looked at. When she got back to me, the police had left, the other driver had left (her car had remarkably little damage, and I’m dumbfounded that her air bags didn’t deploy. By now I’d also taken the bumper and put it into the car, in the fully-reclined passenger seat. Wife wanted me to have the car towed; I knew that it was actually drive-able (if not totally aesthetic) and she should just follow me in case it turns out not to be able to make it all the way home.

We did manage to make it home, and off we went to GBMC, where we were poked and X-Rayed and such, and both given clean bills of health and a few pain pills. In the cold light of morning...well, it doesn't look any better. Wee One’s headaches persisted for another few days but further testing showed no permanent damage. We got home around 4AM and fell directly into bed. I don’t often fall asleep that quickly.

The next day, I spent on the phone fielding phone calls to and from the insurance companies. Let me tell you something: insurance companies get a bad rap, and I’m sure some of it is deserved, but the folks I dealt with at both companies were all GREAT. Everything moved efficiently, and when I told them that they needed me to walk through the mechanics of some of the procedures, they were kind enough to simplify it for me. The biggest delays came from the fact that there was a National Holiday in the middle of all this, which delayed some of the mail involved, but that was it: the time from accident, to inspection, to the car being declared a total loss, to receiving my check was two weeks flat.

So here’s the rundown on the damage: both quarter panels were crushed. Both light assemblies had damage to them; in fact Wife told me that I had working tail lights, but the brake lights didn’t come on when I stepped on the pedal. The third, center brake light came on but you can’t see it anymore because the trunk lid is crunched upward. That trunk lid, incidentally, was there to stay. It’s moving neither up nor down from the position you see here. The bumper was knocked off (you can kind of see it through the window, to the right), and the whole assembly behind the bumper was bent downward. The rear window was smashed completely. Some of the contents of the trunk were pinched in between the floor of the trunk and the lid. In order to get what stuff I could out of the trunk, I had to flip down the back seat and reach through.

Oh, here’s a saving grace: when the car was struck, it had very little fuel left in the tank; I was going to stop and put gas in the car before I got home.

So it’s a couple of years earlier than I expected, but I now have a new (to me) car in the form of a 2013 Hyundai Sentra Hybrid. I’m still getting used to it, of course, but I’m rather liking this car. And in the meantime, it’s Goodbye, Old Paint.

Physics Lessons

Freebie: Hi, Fred. We got a little accident. Could you send a tow truck, please, to 618 Elm Street? Hold it. It’s the, uh, third floor, apartment 304.

Freebie and the Bean (1974)


…And the hits just keep on coming.

In Our Last Episode, I’d noted that, for the first time ever in my adult life, I’d actually made it onto a jury. The judge tried to get everything done today so we wouldn’t have to come back tomorrow, but no such luck. What that meant, was a lot of hassle at my school.

The reason it’s a hassle for school is because I’d scheduled IEP meetings for several of the students on my caseload. If I’m not there, then there’s nobody to keep things running and such, and the data entry is going to be less-than-awesome, and a few other headaches. So after they let us go for the day, around 4:15PM, I decided to head over to my school, let my principal know what was up, and do some advance prep to make it easier for the team to get stuff done, or at least into a decent place for me to finish it all off.

My school is typically a 10 minute drive from the courthouse area, but we’re talking A) downtown Baltimore, B) close to rush hour, C) within an hour of the Orioles starting a playoff game. It took me 40 minutes, no exaggeration, to cover that one-mile course. Maybe longer; it was after 5 by the time I got into the school. The principal wasn’t happy to hear the news (of course), but she was glad I’d come in to help set things up.

Around 8:00, I finally left the building and headed home. My plan was to take I-95 part of the way, adhering to the speed limit because, after all, I was still on the donut spare.

Here’s where we have to go to the map:

It's possible that when I pulled over, I considered jumping onto Russell Street.

See that road running through the middle of the picture? That’s I-395, the spur that runs between the Downtown area and I-95. The red arrow is where I hit the pothole, or more accurately, the shoddily-filled series of potholes. The orange arrow (because, Orioles) is where I stopped the car. Those arrows are no more than a couple of hundred feet apart.

So I called the Triple-A guys via an app on my phone, and they called me back in a couple of minutes. It took a little explaining to get them to understand exactly where I was, but finally he got it and said he’d be right over. Sure enough, he was there within a few minutes. That was the guy with the AAA Service vehicle; there wasn’t a lot he was going to be able to do for me; this car needed a tow. So he got the tow truck dispatched.

In the meantime, I’m working my phone to see if a friend of mine, who used to work in a garage not far from my school, would contact said garage and let them know I’m bringing my car over. No problem, he says. Then a second call to Wife, to let her know where she’s picking me up. Tow truck shows up, car gets taken to the garage without extra fees (being on that on-ramp kind of complicated the distance, so AAA showed a little mercy in that respect: as the crow flies, it was no more than a mile to the garage. Because the tow truck couldn’t just do a U-turn, it was maybe a six-mile circle we were driving in). Total time from breakdown to Wife picking me up: about an hour. All is reasonably well. Except for the whole Nearly Dying Last Night thing combined with two flats within a 25-hour span.

OK, so here’s the Physics Lesson:

If you look at that orange arrow, you’ll see that my car was situated almost exactly between Orioles Park at Camden Yards (at the top of the picture) and M&T Bank Stadium, where the Ravens play. I’m also on an elevated highway, maybe 30-40 feet up over Russell Street. The Orioles were playing the Detroit Tigers tonight in the first game of the Division series, and the Orioles were doing quite the fine job this evening (final score: 12—3). So while I was waiting for the AAA guy, I turned on the car’s radio and tuned in the game. Then, just for the giggles, I opened my car window to see if I could hear the sounds from the stadium. Turns out I could, but I was hearing the stadium AFTER I heard it on the radio! The ball would get hit, the crowd would roar on the radio, and right after that I’d hear their hollering through the car window. How could this wizardry be?

Here’s how:

I estimate the distance between the stadium and my car to be roughly 400 feet. That means it takes, at 1,122 feet/second, about 1/3-second for a sound from the stadium to reach the car. However, when the sound hits the announcer’s microphone, it’s speed-of-light almost the rest of the way. Into the mic, through the wire, to the transmitter (five miles away), out through the radio waves and into my car’s radio (five miles back), where it’s converted back to sound for the last two feet. But it’s all happening at 186,282 MILES/second.

It’s the same reason you see the fireworks before you hear them. Physics, boy.


I had me a very exciting adventure last night.

I’d gotten a late departure from work because of a project I was working on involving mailing letters to all the parents on my caseload. The letters wound up not being in the same order as the mailing labels, I ran out of pre-glued envelopes and wound up doing a lot of licking…it wasn’t pretty. So I got out of work a little after 6, and managed not to find myself locked in again.

As it happened, Wife and Wee One were running late, as well. Wee One had a mandatory meeting for students and parents at her school, so they were dealing with that. We’ve not been eating well for a few nights in a row, so I figured that, even if it was late, a decent dinner would be a nice change of pace. So on the way home I stopped in at the Giant on Belair Road, just outside the Beltway. Did a little shopping, waited almost patiently for the old guy in the self-checkout to figure out what the hell he was doing, and headed out.

The old guy, as it turns out, was the beginning of my downfall.

JoanLundenPeopleWhile I’m standing there waiting for him to figure out the relationship between the self-checkout scanner and the credit card reader, I busied myself with reading the tabloid headlines and such. For those not in the know, Robin Williams is dead and Joan Lunden is bald nowadays. And, of course, opposite the scandal sheets is the candy rack. It being late, and because I hadn’t eaten all day, I was a little puckish, but I didn’t really want to eat anything that filled me up, or was too cloying. And that’s why I opted for a package of Twizzlers.

In the car and munching on a Twizzler, I made the right out of the parking lot and onto Belair Road. Now, in that area, the right lane turns almost immediately into the off-ramp for the Outer Loop of the Beltway, therefore someone who wants to continue on Belair Road needs to get out of the lane pretty quickly. Even at 7PM, this isn’t always easy. I’m cruising slowly with my left turn signal on, trying to get over. The problem was, most of the people in that left lane, while interested in getting into my lane, were insisting on doing it by passing me first and then jumping over. And the last guy in that line just plain cut me off to get into the exit lane. But this left me free to move left.

And that’s when it happened. I started to choke on the Twizzler.

Frankly, I’m not even sure what happened in the next few seconds. My vision blurred, my head started swimming, I must have been shaking pretty hard because my glasses fell off (maybe that was the blurred vision). Somehow the offending bit of strawberry licorice dislodged itself and everything started to clear again.

It’s a scary thing to return to full consciousness and realize that you’re at the wheel of a moving vehicle. No kidding, that car essentially had no driver for several seconds. I was still a little disoriented, though, but I was dimly aware of a weird grinding sound. I realized that the car had drifted to the left and was now running along the concrete divider between the north and south lanes. I still couldn’t see clearly (I hadn’t yet realized my glasses had flown off), but I adjusted the car to the right and, since I was approaching a left turn lane, got into it and onto the side street. The sound coming from that left front wheel was not encouraging.

It turns out that I was right to be discouraged; the car hadn’t merely drifted over to the left; it had gone over pretty hard and really whacked that divider. The front wheel was just plain ruined. This isn’t a “fix the wheel” thing, it’s more like “you need to find a guy who will sell you another rim.” The plastic cowling just behind the wheel was pretty well abraded all the way through. Other than that, the car—and I—were miraculously okay.

Getting my wheel fixed is pretty much my main focus for the next couple of days. Given that I work in an office in a school, that gives me a little more flexibility to find a place, give them a call, get some ballpark estimates, and so forth. However, the next day (today) was Jury Duty Day for me. And, since I like to use my laptop, that means I’m hanging out in the Quiet Room, where the tables are located. The bad news is that the Quiet Room is also a little deeper into the courthouse than the regular, generally overcrowded, spaces are, so there’s no signal for my mobile hotspot, nor for my phone so that I could use THAT as a hotspot. (The courthouse here used to have pay-as-you-go internet access; I don’t see a signal for that today.)

So as I write this I’m sitting in the Quiet Jury Room, typing into Microsoft Word and waiting for the lunch break to be called so I can go get me some connectivity.

UPDATE: I'm on the lunch break. Guess who's going to hear a trial in less than an hour? 

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)


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.

Good To Know

Stan: We buried you. There was a coffin, a gravestone…the whole thing.
Chuck Noland: I had a coffin?
[Stan nods]
Chuck Noland: Well, what was in it?

Castaway (2000)


When you’re dealing with closing out the various business bits of someone who’s died, you start to run across a few weird details.

For example: my grandmother had a habit of paying “bills” that didn’t need to be paid, so my brother and I were constantly depositing checks that were based on refunds of checks she’d sent out to settle debts that didn’t exist. So for instance, she’d go to the doctor and pay the co-pay, then an “Explanation of Benefits” statement would come from Empire Blue Cross/Blue Shield, spelling out the total costs and how much was paid by Medicaid, how much by Empire and how much was the patient’s responsibility. She’d see that bottom line and send a check to Empire, which would promptly issue a refund. So one of the projects we’ve been involved with this past month was figuring out just how much money my grandmother genuinely owed to people. It makes for a lot of interesting phone calls, let me tell you.

Yesterday I got a piece of mail from the funeral home that took care of my grandmother. I thought it was the copies of her death certificate, since they haven’t arrived yet and the envelope was a little bit on the thick side, but it turned out not to be the case. Inside was another envelope, marked LIMITED WARRANTY CERTIFICATE.

Now, because the funeral home is on the same property as the cemetery, it crossed my mind that perhaps this is the warranty for the little brass plate that goes on the grave marker. Most of the marker was already in place, since my grandparents had adjoining plots going on, but there was still a space that needed to be bolted on for my grandmother’s year of death. On the other hand, I’d received no such warranty for the plate on my mother’s grave, which is in the same cemetery. Hey, here’s an idea! Why not open the folder and see what it’s about?

In Your Choice of Attractive ColorsTurns out that what I have is the Limited Warranty Certificate for a Batesville NGS Steel Casket. It warranties, among other things, that “this Casket is free from defects in material and workmanship” and that “Batesville will, within ten days of receipt of this notice to it, replace this Casket with one of equal or greater value if, at any time prior to the placement of this Casket in an initial place of interment, it is found to be defective in materials or workmanship…” (emphasis is mine).

So…more than ten days after my grandmother is buried, I get the reassurance that if I discover a problem with the casket—pardon me, Casket—prior to her burial, then I can get a replacement? Thanks, Batesville!

Now, am I covered for spraining my eyeballs because I’ve rolled them so hard?