Odds and Ends

“Have you vertigo?”

Oh, the crystals in your ears can have you leaning on the wall.
The only way you can get out of your bedroom is to crawl.
It’s like an awful morning after, but you had no wine at all,
And it’s all because of the crystals in your ears.

It’s a pain to call the doctor, as upon the floor you sprawl.
And when you finally see her, she’s not much help at all.
“You will have to wait till the pangs abate—and try not to fall.
This is just a glitch with the crystals in your ears.”

You can let it overcome you and just sit right down and bawl,
Or try to see the humor though you cannot stand up tall.
Have you vertigo?” “No, I don’t think so, it’s just down the hall.
It just seems too far with these crystals in my ears.”

Oh, your friends may laugh and tease you if upon their help you call.
As they joke about your weakness they might have a ball.
But the heartless crowd that is laughing now will be left in tears
When their balance fails from the crystals in their ears.

With apologies to songwriter Ted Harris, all the musicians who have recorded “Crystal Chandeliers,” and anyone who has experienced benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, which while it lasts is not the least bit amusing.

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Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet

I blew up the planet today. Twice, actually.

Oh, wait—maybe I’m not supposed to say things like that on the Internet? Let me clarify.

For the past couple of years the shower curtain in our main bathroom has been a world map. It’s been quite useful for things like finding Madagascar, checking the spelling of Namibia, or looking up answers to crossword puzzle clues like “the capital of Eritrea.” But it has its limitations.

For one thing, it’s flat, which means the sizes of land masses near the top and bottom are distorted. I don’t mind Canada or Greenland seeming bigger than they really are, but I’m not sure the wide expanse of Russia needs to loom any larger than it is in reality. And if Antarctica is really the size the shower curtain seems to think it is, I’m not sure why we need to be concerned about global warming.

Besides, the printing on the shower curtain isn’t precisely aligned, which can be disorienting. I do know that the U.S. state labeled “Kansas” is really Oklahoma, but I’m a little confused to see that Cape Town appears to be located out in the ocean about half an inch southwest of the coast of Africa.

What I really wanted was a globe. But not, cool as it might be, a traditional classroom type spin-with-your-finger globe on a stand. It would take up too much space, for one thing. And it would be too permanent. Stuff happens: nations rename themselves, divided countries reunite, united countries separate, national borders change. For someone who ignored geography in school because it was so boring, I’m already confused enough without relying on an out-of-date globe.

The solution, found after a quick online search, was a relatively cheap, readily replaceable, and reliably spherical inflatable globe. Sixteen inches in diameter—big enough to be readable but small enough not to need its own room. I ordered several. Pre-inflation, they would be easy to mail to distant grandkids who might be more geographically curious than I was at their ages.

The trouble with an inflatable globe, of course, is that you have to inflate it. Here are some of the things one can learn in that process.

1. Read the directions carefully. Otherwise you might not know to “blow into valve with mouth only.”

2. There’s nothing quite like the smell of a freshly-unpackaged plastic object. Except the taste of a freshly-unpackaged plastic object.

3. If, theoretically speaking, you’re blowing into the valve of a big plastic ball and you happen to lose your grip on the stem, a partially inflated globe jet-propelled by escaping air might shoot around the room in an erratic frenzy until it collapses. This is not necessarily to be taken as a commentary on the current state of world affairs.

4. When, after industrious effort, you hold the world in both hands, with your left thumb on California and your right thumb on Zambia, you realize it’s smaller than you expected and looks to be in need of respectful handling.

Fortunately, this globe came with instructions for proper care and maintenance. Such as: Avoid contact with hot or sharp objects. Do not attempt to remove every wrinkle. And be aware that, with too much hot air, it “can become defect.”

Not bad advice for a small and fragile planet.

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Lighting Up the Neighborhood

Christmas lights, for me, are like beautifully wrapped gifts or elaborate holiday cookies and meals: I’m not up for doing them myself, but I’m happy to enjoy the results of other people’s labors. After all, somebody has to be the appreciative audience.

The lights on some houses in our neighborhood are familiar year after year. There’s the one with a waterfall of tiny white lights along the eaves, the one with a little train that appears to be moving, and the one with several lighted reindeer who often provide a glowing backdrop to evening meals for their living cousins.

One nearby house on a major street used to get more elaborate every year, highlighting every horizontal or vertical line on their house, draping lights over every tree and shrub, stringing lights and ribbon the length of the fence, and filling the large yard with lighted reindeer and artificial trees. Then one fall the yard was decorated with a “For Sale” sign, and now the new owners merely put one line of lights along the roof. My theory is that the previous owners decided to sell because they just couldn’t keep up with their own Christmas-lighting reputation. I imagine them now, having sold all their decorations at a garage sale, living happily on a dark, inconspicuous dead-end street.

One yard features a small light-draped bush and a slender sapling with lights wrapped around its trunk and several large flashing snowflakes in its dainty branches. This is quite attractive from one direction. If you approach from the other side, though, an unfortunate alignment of shrubbery means you see what appears to be a lighted reindeer whose head, no doubt whirling with the pressure of getting all around the globe in one night, is about to explode.

My favorite light display, however, isn’t the most spectacular or elaborate, but the one that makes me chuckle every year. Two thick bushes in the yard are simply decorated with strings of colored lights—arranged horizontally in precise, perfectly spaced, perfectly straight rows. I always imagine the homeowners out there doing their decorating with the help of a couple of rulers and a level. My inner perfectionist approves of the symmetry; my inner anarchist wants to sneak over there and impose some randomness.

And my inner underachiever is just grateful that our house isn’t very visible from the street, so we have a perfect excuse not to put up Christmas lights at all.

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Too Much Reality for Reality TV

What might happen if a TV reality show followed you around for a few weeks and filmed everything you did? Could your life compete for viewers with the lives of celebrities like the Kardashians?

If a reality show camera crew visited our house, here is what I imagine they might report back to the producer:

Do we have to follow her every day when she takes a walk? How come a woman with 17 grandchildren walks so fast? Easy for her to go marching along like she has a drill instructor inside her head—she doesn’t have to carry a camera. It’s a lot of work to lug this thing back and forth to get different shots. Not that there’s anything much different to film—once you’ve seen one deer or one flock of turkeys, you’ve pretty much seen them all.

And why do these people get up so early? He’s supposed to be retired, and she works at home, which as far as I can see means she sits in front of her computer and writes a few words now and then, in between playing solitaire and checking Facebook. It’s not like they have to beat rush hour traffic and get to work by 8:00 a.m. But there they are, all bright-eyed at 5:30 in the flipping morning. Today, I kid you not, they were lying in bed at 6:00 a.m. talking about what Shakespeare sounds like in the original Klingon! I mean, you can’t make this stuff up.

And the way they spend their evenings. Boooring. Mostly, he sits in his chair with his book and she sits on the couch with hers. Once in a while he reads bits out loud about people nobody’s ever heard of, like some old general named Marshall, I think it was. So that gives us five minutes of sound, at least. Otherwise, whoop-di-do. We’ve had to resort to close-ups of how fast her eyeballs move back and forth across the pages—I’ve never seen anybody read that fast. Sometimes they play some domino game called Mexican Train. But nobody cheats, nobody argues, nobody throws dominos when they lose. Where’s the conflict? Where’s the drama? Where’s the viewer interest?

When a couple of the grandkids came over, we thought we might have a chance for some conflict and maybe a temper tantrum or two. Not so much. Where’s the drama when she never tells them no? And let’s face it—little kids are cute, but you can only use so many shots of the expression on a one-year-old’s face when he eats a dill pickle. Besides pickles right out of the jar, she fed them peanut butter by the spoonful, so that at least gave us a little bit of “yuck factor” footage. But aren’t grandmas supposed to bake cookies? And if I have to listen to Hop on Pop one more time, I swear I’m going to throw this camera through the nearest window.

Last week they took a road trip. Hallelujah, we thought—finally, something to see. Fat chance. You know what passes for scenery across the whole western half of South Dakota? (We’re in South Dakota, right, not North Dakota?) Anyway, the “scenery” is prairie. All the way to the horizon. With pretty much nothing on it but cows. There’s a tree every mile or so, and you have to drive for miles and miles before you see what they call a “town.” What if you had car trouble out there? Who would you call? Ghost Town Busters?

But today was the last straw. She was actually cooking for a change, but at the same time she was dancing in the kitchen to Johnny Cash, twirling around and waving a sharp knife in time to the music. I think she was doing a polka. The Kardashians never did anything that embarrassing.

This is way too much reality to ever attract any viewers. Let’s go with Plan B. Have you heard back yet from that woman who trains boa constrictors as service animals?

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Toasted Dust and Toasty Toes

There’s nothing quite like the cozy pleasure of turning on the furnace for the first time in the fall. Oh, you can postpone it for a while, even when the mornings are getting cool enough so you wake up and are tempted to pull the covers up to your neck and stay tucked in for another few minutes. You know that during this “shoulder season,” you might need to put on a jacket to go out and get the morning paper, but it’s still likely to get up to 80 degrees before lunch time.

But eventually comes that first genuinely cold morning when you know the time has come. You get out of bed, reach for your short summer bathrobe, and realize your goosebumps are telling you it’s time to scurry over to the closet and get the heavy winter robe instead. You put it on, then perch on tiptoe to minimize the contact between your bare feet and the cold floor while you rummage through the clutter in the bottom of the closet for your slippers.

Wrapped up but still shivering, you go down the hallway and nudge the thermostat up from 50 to 70. Almost immediately the furnace, which has been hibernating since the middle of May, comes to life with a soft rumble. Warm air begins flowing out of the vent in the bathroom, bringing with it that distinctive autumn aroma of toasted dust.

When you go out to the kitchen to make coffee, you linger at the counter while it brews, your toes stretching in the delicious warmth coming out of the vent below the cupboard. You curl up in your chair under an afghan, cold fingers wrapped around your first cup of steaming coffee, contemplating the cold-weather pleasures of soups and sweaters and bread baking in the oven. The house begins to surround you with comfort.

And you didn’t have to do anything but adjust the thermostat. No chopping wood, no carrying coal, no building fires. It’s practically a miracle. All you’ve had to do is wave your magic wand—er, pen—over your checkbook and pay the gas bill.

*By the way, it’s much easier to celebrate the joys of crisp fall mornings on a late-October day when the predicted high is 70 degrees.

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King Midas and P. T. Barnum Walk Into a Museum . . .

I so hoped this was a hoax. It sounds like a hoax; it looks like a hoax; for all I know, it even smells like a hoax. Apparently, though, it isn’t one. There really is a new art exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum which is a toilet: functional, flushable, and open to the public (no, not that kind of open; it’s in a private bathroom). Oh, and it’s made entirely of gold.

This is not merely plumbing, ladies and gentlemen; this is Art.

According to the Guggenheim’s website, the installation provides “an experience of unprecedented intimacy with a work of art.” True enough, I suppose. Visitors to art museums aren’t usually allowed to even touch the exhibits, much less encouraged to drop their drawers and plop themselves down on top of one.

This particular bit of plumbing-dressed-as-art was created by an Italian artist named Maurizio Cattelan. Its title, “America,” seems a bit rude to me, though the Guggenheim explains that the exhibit “evokes the American dream of opportunity for all.”

The gold was provided by an anonymous donor, whose taste may be debatable but whose wealth must not be. Though the actual cost of the raw material has not been made public, one estimate cited in Fortune magazine put it in a range of around 1.4 million to 2.5 million dollars. I suppose it would be crass to point out the many other ways that this amount of money might more effectively evoke “the American dream of opportunity for all.” Founding a company or two to create jobs, say, or funding college scholarships, or supporting addiction treatment programs. But, of course, nothing so mundane can compare to the uplifting and sublime opportunity to have an “intimate, private experience with a work of art.”

A guard (now, there’s a dream job for you) is stationed outside the door of the bathroom. Since there isn’t much danger of someone pulling up a heavy gold toilet and running off with it, maybe the guard is there mostly to make sure no one jumps the line of waiting users or settles down in the bathroom with a book. But what if someone, safely inside with the door locked, takes out a pocket knife or a fingernail file and starts scraping bits of gold from the inside of the rim? Is the guard supposed to check it after every use? And what about flash photography? Are selfies allowed?

Or maybe, like most museum guards, this one’s primary function is to respond to the most common question visitors ask: “Where is the bathroom?” Which might be necessary, since apparently the door to the restroom art is simply and tastefully labeled with only the name of the exhibit.

P. T. Barnum might have done something a bit more creative. To keep visitors to his American Museum from lingering too long, he put up signs saying, “This Way to the Egress.” People who didn’t know “egress” was just another word for “exit” would follow the signs in search of this strange creature, only to find themselves outside the door. Maybe, when the first flush of interest has worn off and people are no longer willing to wait in line for a couple of hours to see a gold toilet, the Guggenheim can renew the public’s interest with signs like “This Way to the Excretorium” or “See the Golden Throne.”

Or maybe—one can always hope—this particular bit of Art will not turn out to be a classic masterpiece. Maybe the Guggenheim will chose not to make it a permanent exhibit. After all, even King Midas found that turning everyday objects into solid gold wasn’t quite the good idea he thought it would be.

In the meantime, wherever he is, P. T. Barnum is probably chuckling. Even he probably couldn’t say just who is the butt of this particular joke. But as he well knew, the best possible source of solid gold is a gullible public looking for novelty.

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Just Wondering . . .

Just in case you need some things to wonder about the next time you are out for a walk, stuck in traffic, or having trouble sleeping:

Why are they called “buildings” instead of “builts”?

Why do we have cool names like Triton and Europa and Ganymede for all the other planets’ moons, but ours is just “the moon”?

Why don’t school buses have seat belts?

Why is corn served as a vegetable instead of a grain?

Why does your hair always look its best on days when you are either in some remote solitary corner at work, or you have no plans to even leave the house?

Why do a “fat chance” and a “slim chance” mean the same thing?

Why are people who ride bicycles called “cyclists,” while people who ride motorcycles are called “bikers”? And should the increasing numbers of the latter who are switching to three-wheelers be called “trikers” or “tricylists”?

Why do the shoes that seem to fit perfectly in the shoe store hurt your feet when you put them on at home? Do they shrink in the car?

I agree with Jonathan Swift’s assertion that, “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.” But who was the first brave soul who not only ate rhubarb in its natural state (as in, not sweetened and in a pie), but proclaimed it good and fed it to her children?

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Time to Put the Top Down

It’s a damp, chilly day here in the Black Hills, a gentle reminder that, even though tomorrow is supposed to be in the 80s, fall will be here any minute now. Time to hurry up and finish those summer projects like staining the deck and spraying the thistles. Time to consider closing the windows, and think about putting another blanket on the bed, and wonder if it’s too early to stash your sandals in the back of the closet.

Time, if you happen to own one, to put the top up on your convertible.

Of course, if I ever owned a convertible, I would leave the top up all the time. I’ve never seen the advantages of driving down the highway with the sun blazing down on the top of your head (which is bare because the wind blew your fashionable sun hat away several miles back), and the wind tangling your hair into snarls and whipping tears out of your eyes, not to mention the occasional contact lens.

However, since I try to be a nonjudgmental and open-minded person, at least when people are watching, I thought it only fair to focus on some of the advantages of driving a convertible. Such as:

Convertible owners contribute more to the local economy. Oh, not just through the money spent directly on the car, but in collateral ways. Like replacing contact lenses more frequently than drivers of conventional cars. Seeing the dermatologist more often. Buying more moisturizer, sunscreen, and eye makeup. Replacing hats and scarves regularly. More frequent visits to the hair salon. Even if you decide the best solution to the problem of “convertible hair” is to keep it short—say, about one inch long all over—you’re going to need a trim every couple of weeks.

If convertible owners lock their keys inside the car, they can just climb over the door.

Convertible owners don’t need protein supplements, thanks to all those bugs they inadvertently swallow.

A convertible is a mobile karaoke station. Want to share your musical talent with the world? No problem. If you’re singing along to the radio as you drive, everyone else at the stop signs will hear you loud and clear.

If you take a convertible through the self-serve car wash, and it’s a beautiful day, and you just happen to be thinking of more important things than remembering to put the top up—you can wash the inside of the car, your hair, your new leather sandals, the important papers in the glove compartment, and your emergency stash of chocolate all at the same time.

Of course, all these advantages pale beside the most important reason for wanting a convertible: the coolness factor. When you’re in a car that cool, people notice. Plus driving a convertible is great fun, or at least so I am told. Especially on those perfect days when the weather is just right for driving with the top down—not too cold, too hot, too wet, or too windy.

Here in western South Dakota, times like that occur from 5:00 a.m. to 6:30 a.m. on summer mornings from about June 31 through mid-September. Not only will driving a convertible at that hour be a lovely experience, but the two dog walkers, five serious joggers, and three sleepy newspaper carriers who are out on the streets are sure to be impressed.

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The World As Seen By . . .

Not everyone sees the world the same way I do. By now this no longer surprises me, though it sometimes leaves me bemused, baffled, or bewildered. I do understand, really I do, that having a perspective different from my own does not make people “wrong.” Of course, bless their hearts, it doesn’t necessarily make them right, either.

We are told that the best way to understand someone else’s perspective is to walk a mile in their shoes. Or at least to walk a few steps, if those shoes happen to be three-inch heels with pointy toes. So in the interest of broadening my perspective, here is how I imagine the world must look to some of the people whose point of view is different from mine.

Celebrity chefs: We all have plenty of time to cook and ample funds to buy only the finest organic ingredients. We all have convenient access to lavishly stocked grocery stores and markets selling local produce. Our kitchens all have generous pantry space fully stocked with exotic ingredients that are never past their expiration dates. We have a complete and well-organized array of cookware and utensils. Our knives are always sharp. We have no picky children who will only eat peanut butter and jelly on white bread with the crusts cut off. We know and appreciate the difference between quinoa and spelt, and none of our family members or close friends think kale is a NASCAR driver.

Fitness instructors: Everyone looks better in Spandex. We all have time to work out every day. And we all want to.

Anonymous online commenters: All politicians are corrupt power-grabbers. All public employees are incompetent and overpaid. All rich people are greedy, selfish crooks. All poor people are either (a), hard-working, downtrodden victims, or (b), lazy, addicted, cheating parasites. Everyone who disagrees with the commenter is stupid. The world is not only headed for hell in a handbasket; it’s hovering just above the flames and going down fast.

Home/decor/lifestyle magazine publishers: Our living spaces are creatively enhanced with art objects, old stuff repurposed into quirky new stuff, pops of fashionable color, and artfully placed heirlooms. We redecorate beautifully for every season and holiday. Our children’s toys are so cleverly sorted and stored that they are always neatly put away. Our closets are optimized and organized. Our socks all match.

And best of all, our homes have no clutter. No boxes of stuff stacked in the garage, no plastic bins bulging with Christmas lights that may or may not work, no guest rooms with under-the-bed stashes, no closets that are dangerous to open. The materials for all our creative ornamentation magically store themselves . . . somewhere.

Twitter users: Every opinion, philosophy, bit of life wisdom, or clever thought can be expressed in 140 characters—and should be.

Two-year-olds: Other people? Who cares how they see anything? It’s all mine!

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The Cold, Hard Realities of April

It’s spring in the Black Hills. The trees are budding, the daffodils and dandelions are blooming, and some rhubarb stalks are almost big enough for at least a quick tart, if not for a whole pie. And on this mid-April morning they’re all shaking their heads under a covering of cold white stuff and wondering, “What the hell happened?”

Snow, of course. Nothing to be surprised about. Perfectly normal and seasonal weather. Yet somehow, it still manages to catch us by surprise every spring. As in the following overheard conversations:

One robin to another, as they huddle together under a tree branch: “That’s the last time we use that lousy discount travel agent! Next year, I swear, we’ll go online and check the weather all the way to Canada before we even think about leaving Texas.”

Yearling deer, ditched by their very pregnant mothers, pawing through a couple of inches of snow: “Mom told me, ‘You’ll be fine; there’s new green grass everywhere you look.’ She never said I’d have to dig for it.” “Yeah, and why didn’t they warn us about eating ice-cold tulips? I’m getting a brain freeze.”

Mr. Finch to Mrs. Finch: “Hah! Guess you can quit fussing now about my watching baseball instead of spring cleaning the birdhouse. I told you it was too early.”

The back end of an earthworm to the front end: “Dig a little faster! I’m freezing our behind off up here!”

An unambitious amateur gardener: “I knew it wasn’t time to clean out the flower beds yet. But don’t those dry stalks look pretty in the snow?”

It’s a perfect spring day for things like baking, making soup, or curling up with a good book. Or, if you happen to be a procrastinating taxpayer, for getting down to the cold, harsh realities of Form 1040.

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