Odds and Ends

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.

Categories: Odds and Ends | Tags: | 2 Comments

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?

Categories: Odds and Ends | Tags: , | 1 Comment

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.

Categories: Odds and Ends, Travel | Leave a comment

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!

Categories: Living Consciously, Odds and Ends | Leave a comment

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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Billboards I Would Rather Never See

“I think that I shall never see a billboard lovely as a tree.
Perhaps, unless the billboards fall, I’ll never see a tree at all.”
Ogden Nash

While I agree with my favorite poet on the relative esthetic merits of billboards and trees, I must point out that Mr. Nash never drove across western South Dakota on I-90. You do see many more billboards than trees there, not because the former are so plentiful but because the latter are so scarce. As a result, anyone making this drive regularly—even someone who appreciates the sweeping beauty of the prairies as much as I do—can’t help but develop a certain appreciation for billboards. By now I’m practically an expert on the finer points of billboard advertising. Such as:

For heaven’s sake, use a readable font in colors that contrast with the background.

Those signs printed on fabric-like vinyl and attached to a frame (technically, I suppose, they aren’t “billboards”) are probably much cheaper and easier to create than old-fashioned painted signs on boards. But western South Dakota may not be the ideal environment for them. Your brilliant advertising message is hard to read when it’s streaming in wind-shredded tatters from the bottom of the sign.

Entertaining humor is a great marketing tool. Just ask the people at Reptile Gardens and Wall Drug.

Tacky humor, however, is just, well, tacky. Two cases in point:

A relatively new restaurant in Rapid City has several new signs. As a frequent traveler, I appreciate the variation in the scenery, especially since the “Q” in the restaurant’s name is handy for the alphabet game. But I wince every time I pass their sign that announces, “We’re like a cult with better Kool-Aid.”

Really? Never mind the minor detail of whether the nice people from Kraft Foods are okay with the use of their trademarked brand name on someone else’s billboard. I realize that, since the 1978 Jonestown tragedy, “drinking the Kool-Aid” has become a particularly tasteless way to describe someone’s blind adherence to an idea. But I wonder whether the marketing person who came up with the line for this billboard really knew where it came from. “Hey, let’s link our restaurant to a deranged cult leader named Jim Jones who led a murder-suicide of over 900 of his followers. What a great way to inspire people to come in for a pleasant meal!”

Then there’s the brewery/restaurant whose marketing people, apparently inspired by the old Burma Shave signs from the 1930’s and 40’s, have put up billboards with line-by-line limericks. However, I’m not sure the modern ones quite compare with the classics. Here’s one of the originals:

“If harmony
is what
you crave,
then get
a tuba
Burma Shave.”

Now here is the brewery’s attempt:

“There once was a farmer named Leer
Who owned a cow who gave beer.
Reds, stouts and others
Poured out of her udders . . .”

And the last line’s too tacky to quote here.

I’ll just say that it involves potty humor of a type to make five-year-olds giggle and adults with any taste at all cringe. And as if tacky and tasteless aren’t enough, the last word of the fourth line (I so wish I were making this up, but I’m not) is spelled “utters.”

Next time I drive across I-90, I really need to take along a good audio book and keep my eyes on the road.

Categories: Odds and Ends, Travel, Words for Nerds | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

How Dry I’m Not

It’s fast. It’s loud. It starts at the wave of a hand and stops in an instant. It goes by names like “The Xelerator.”

This is not a sports car, a motorized skateboard, a video game, or a stomach-dropping carnival ride. It’s the latest generation of an invention that for decades now has gladdened the hearts of janitors and annoyed many of the rest of us: the public restroom electric hand dryer.

The basic idea is simple enough: dry your hands with a gust of warm air instead of a paper towel. Neater, more convenient, and maybe even cheaper. The originals have been around long enough that everyone knows the routine: Push “on” button. Rub hands together under warm air. Turn hands to dry front and back. Become impatient with how long this is taking. Wipe hands on jeans. (Preferably your own; using someone else’s is poor restroom etiquette and can lead to unfortunate misunderstandings.) Leave restroom with the dryer still running and your hands still damp.

The whole process is so last century. Hence, enter the modern super-dryer: sleeker, faster, and presumably more effective. I wouldn’t know, personally, because I’ve never been able to allow one to finish drying my hands. The old ones were merely annoying. The new ones are terrifying.

First, there’s the noise. The second you get your hands close enough to turn the dryer on, it starts to scream like a jet engine revving up for takeoff. The normal instinctive reaction is to clap your hands over your ears. This stops the screaming—well, the machine’s screaming, at least—though it leaves you somewhat wet behind the ears. On the brighter side, wiping your hands on your hair does help to dry them.

If you are brave enough to leave your hands under the dryer in spite of the noise, you encounter something even more frightening. The gust of hurricane-force warm air actually makes your skin ripple. The skin on the back of your hand slides away from the blast as if it isn’t quite attached to your flesh. It looks like something out of a third-rate horror movie: “Restroom Zombies,” maybe, or “The Creature from the Black Loo.”

If you are eight years old, you may think this is the coolest thing since Grandma accidentally stuck her fingers together with superglue. If you are a few decades older than that, you may have already noticed places where your skin seems to be getting too loose for you. Having this peculiar phenomenon dramatically called to your attention by a screaming machine full of hot air is neither flattering nor appreciated.

I have to say, though, that the new hand dryers probably do conserve a great deal of energy. Oh, not because they are so efficiently designed, or so much faster, or shut off automatically. Because, after trying them once or twice, countless numbers of us will choose one of two alternative energy-saving solutions.

One: Wash hands. Dry them on jeans. Make a wide circle around hand dryer as you leave the restroom.

Two: Don’t wash hands at all. It’s a small sacrifice, after all, to save the planet. Not to mention your hearing and your serenity.

Categories: Just For Fun, Odds and Ends | Tags: | Leave a comment

Cleaning Off the Fridge

Have you refreshed your refrigerator lately? Me neither.

I don’t mean tossing outdated stuff, like that barbecue sauce with an expiration date of 1991, or the jar of strawberry jam with only one lonely dried-up fragment of fruit clinging to the bottom. Or cautiously lifting the lids of small plastic containers in case the new life forms that have colonized the leftovers inside might be hostile.

No, I’m talking about updating the outside of the fridge. Standing in the kitchen this morning waiting for the coffee to brew, my unfocused gaze rested idly on the pictures covering the top half of our refrigerator. Even in my precaffeinated state, I realized something. Those pictures are embarrassingly out of date.

Here’s part of what is frozen in time on the front of our fridge: A young father and his toddler son, open mouths aiming for the same bite of ice cream. A newborn snuggled into his mother’s arms. A six-month-old, dressed up in an oversized cowboy hat for an old-time photo, with a grin that makes him the happiest little desperado you’ve ever seen. A smiling family group, with two cute middle-school boys, two little girls with missing front teeth, and a toddler.

The ice cream-eating dad now has to compete for his chocolate-peanut butter swirl with three kids instead of one. The newborn has become a big brother who knows all his colors, can count to 20 with only a slight vagueness in the teens, and is much too busy for snuggling. The miniature desperado is now an amazing athlete who plays baseball with the focus of a future pro and does things on a skateboard that make my knees cringe just to watch. The family group has increased by two, one of whom is already in kindergarten. The little girls are now lovely young women with all their front teeth, and the two oldest boys loom over the rest of us and have astonishing deep voices.

It isn’t just the photos that are out of date, either. There’s a yellowed newspaper clipping that has decorated this fridge for close to two decades. One of the magnets is from a workplace I left in 1989. Another is from a plumber who has long since retired and ridden his Harley off into the sunset. There are two battered ones—not worth keeping for neither sentimental nor ornamental value—that I believe to be older than any of my children. A red and yellow magnet—definitely a keeper—was made by a sixth-grader who is now the mother of the two deep-voiced boys.

Yep; it’s definitely time for an update. Maybe, when I finish refreshing the outside of the fridge, I’ll even get around to checking the expiration dates on all those bottles of salad dressing and barbecue sauce.

Or maybe not. After all, those are safely hidden inside the door. It’s the outdated outside of the fridge that’s so embarrassing.

Categories: Family, Odds and Ends | 1 Comment

Second-Hand Good Judgment

Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment. Anyone over the age of, say, two and a half knows this saying to be true. Some of us with a few decades more maturity might even be willing to admit it

But it’s also true that, once in a while, good judgment grows out of someone else’s bad judgment. Humans, being wise and adaptable creatures, can sometimes learn valuable lessons from watching what happens to those around us.

Here are a few second-hand pieces of good judgment I have learned:

1. Before I walk on the treadmill, I always tie my shoes in double knots. I learned this from the experience of a friend whose shoelace came untied, caught in the roller of the treadmill, and pulled her to her knees for several very painful minutes until she could loosen her shoe enough to escape. But that’s not all—while I walk on the treadmill, I always use the safety cord. The magnet on one end must be attached to the treadmill in order for it to operate. The idea is to clip the other end to your clothes, so in case you slip or trip or are the victim of your own loose shoelace, the treadmill will stop instantly when your falling body pulls the magnet loose. Any time I’m tempted to not bother with the clip, I remember what my friend’s legs looked like. You generally only see scabs that impressive on the knees of novice nine-year-old roller skaters.

2. If I need to hang a picture, change a light bulb, or reach something on a high shelf, I take time to go to downstairs and get the stepstool. Or at least I go to the dining room and get a sturdy wooden chair. Because I learned the following from one of the members of my family: even if you’re in a hurry, and you’re just going to do one quick little thing, and the only chair in the room happens to be one on wheels, it’s really, really not a good idea to stand on that chair. True, you might save a minute or two by not taking time to go get something less mobile to stand on. But that isn’t much of a benefit when you balance it against spending several hours in the emergency room waiting for the doctor to set your broken wrist.

3. If I have my cell phone in the back pocket of my jeans, and I need to answer a call of nature, I first park the phone somewhere safe like the bathroom counter. I formed this habit after another member of my family had her phone slip out of her pocket and land with an embarrassing splash in the toilet. I also learned from her experience that one possible way to dry out a phone is to seal it into a bag of uncooked rice for a day. It may or may not work but is worth a try. If nothing else, the pain of being out of communication with the wider world for 24 hours serves as a reminder to be more careful in the future.

Careful, the way I am, with my phone-protecting behavior. Okay, there was that one time. Yes, I left the phone on the counter in someone else’s house. Yes, I was traveling at the time and had to drive some 50 miles out of my way the next day to retrieve it. But at least it was dry when I got there.

Really, the whole incident was so trivial I don’t even know why I mentioned it. But if you gain any good judgment from my humbling—er, humble experience, you’re more than welcome.

Categories: Living Consciously, Odds and Ends | 1 Comment

I can do it myself, but I don’t have to like it.

I am not exactly a technophobe. I used to assemble computers. I was installing and configuring software when Windows 10—heck, Windows XP—was only a gleam in Bill Gates’s eye. I had a cell phone before it was obligatory. I have a smart phone now, as well as a car smart enough to answer calls on my smart phone. (I’ve never caught them at it, but I have occasionally wondered if my car and my phone have private conversations when I’m not around.)

But I still hate learning new technology. Maybe it’s my reluctance to read directions. Maybe it’s the fact that there are so many more interesting things to occupy my brain. Or maybe—don’t tell anyone, but I think this is the real reason—I’m just lazy.

And one piece of new technology I especially dislike is the self-checkout terminals at the grocery store.

There is a pattern here, I guess. I am old enough—just barely—to remember when gas stations switched to self-service pumps. I didn’t like them at first, either. I even remember, as a newlywed college student, how intimidating it was the first time I drove our battered little 1962 Nash Rambler station wagon up to the gas pump and filled it myself. It wasn’t the mechanical challenge of dealing with the nozzle or starting the pump. It was the spatial challenge: getting close enough to the pump for the nozzle to reach but staying far enough away that I didn’t hit anything.

That was a valid fear, too, given what I did to our 1969 Plymouth Satellite a decade or so later. By then filling the gas tank had long since become routine. But one day, leaving the station, I turned too short and managed to jam the side of the car against a concrete post. Presumably it was there to protect the gas pumps from drivers like me with good intentions but bad depth perception; I guess it worked. The crunched back door on the passenger’s side was an embarrassing reminder of my ineptitude until I sold the car several years later.

That little mishap aside, over the years I’ve filled gas tanks in various cars, pumped diesel fuel into pickups so big I had to balance on the running board in order to wash the middle of the windshield, and learned to appreciate the convenience of swipe-your-card-and-go fuel pumps.

Oh, and that warning about not leaving the pump while your tank is filling? There’s a reason for that. One below-zero day, waiting in the car instead of outside in the bitter wind, I didn’t notice that the frigid nozzle had failed to shut off until it had poured a couple of gallons of 87-octane down the size of my car and onto the icy concrete. Good thing I hadn’t left the car running. I guess there’s a reason they warn you about that, too.

By comparison, I suppose the potential drawbacks of scanning my own eggs and weighing my own produce at the grocery store are relatively minor. I know I’ll become nonchalant about it eventually. I might even stop muttering inappropriate words under my breath while I try to figure out whether I have “Avocados, Large” or “Avocados, Medium,” or whether to find snow peas under “S” or “P.”

Though I do think I might like the self checkout terminal better if it didn’t talk to me. The voice is pleasant enough, but by the third time she tells me, “please place your items in the bagging area,” after I’ve already done it, I just want her to leave me alone. I’ve even been tempted to run over her with my cart in order to shut her up.

She doesn’t know how lucky she is that there isn’t room in the checkout lane for a 1969 Plymouth.

Categories: Odds and Ends | Tags: | 3 Comments

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