The Vault

Drop The Pink Hippo.

This is big ball of string is one of many items that decorate my office.

This big ball of string is from my days working in the mailroom. Packages would arrive tied up with string. I saved it because you never know when you might need string.

Revelations that boredom can be beneficial always remind me of a piece I wrote back in 1996 about the time I dangled a pink hippo out of a 7th floor window. Looking back at that piece I realize there were so many interesting details I left out, so it’s worth revisiting.

hippopink

This is a ridiculously inaccurate recreation of the original hippo which is long gone with the coworker who owned it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why was the hippo pink? It was a furry stuffed animal and supposedly the fur had been treated with cobalt chloride. The coworker who owned it said it would turn blue if rain was imminent and pink on clear days. Actually she had it backwards—dry cobalt chloride is blue and wet cobalt chloride is pink. That explains why we never could get it to turn blue, even though I put it under a running tap and also licked it. Maybe if we’d put it in the oven it would have changed color.

I finally got it to turn blue!

I finally got it to turn blue!

Still it was the belief that it would turn blue that first prompted me to dangle it out the window. Wanting to see whether my big ball of string would reach the ground from the 7th floor was secondary. It was while unrolling my big ball of string, of course, that I discovered I’d failed to tie the first three feet or so to the rest of the ball. The hippo plummeted into the bushes below.

After the hippo took a dive I switched to using a pen as a weight because I didn’t want to risk my coworker’s toy hippo. The pen was also slightly heavier, and I thought this would provide a more accurate reading. It had gone at least seven or eight feet when someone on the 6th floor reached out and grabbed it. When I pulled back they started yelling, “Hello! Hello! Who’s up there?”

I should have explained previously that the 6th floor of the building is a parking garage. It’s where people went to smoke, unless you were the mailman, and then you smoked in the 7th floor hallway next to the mailroom where only delivery people went. That way you could crush your cigarettes into the linoleum floor, but that’s another story.

I have nothing against smokers, but in retrospect I feel I was being unfairly judged by the person who grabbed the pen. I assume they assumed they had the moral high ground. They were attempting to stop someone engaged in something more foolish and unproductive than sitting in a parking garage smoking. This is because they sounded angry. What was the problem? Maybe they were one of the people who worked for the Jack Daniel’s distributor on the 10th floor. They were always kind of standoffish and snappish even though they had tons of whiskey in their office. I know this because they regularly gave free bottles of it to delivery people who in turn would pass it on to me. Before the distributor moved to another building I had enough Jack Daniel’s to last months years.

The final element that makes this story worth revisiting is something I couldn’t provide at the time I first wrote it: illustrations. Now you can see where it all went down.

hippobuilding

Way Out, Way In.

physalia12At first it looked like a plastic bag tinged blue. As I got closer I could see a mass of blue-green strands gathered up underneath it like wet yarn. One thread, faintly dotted, stretched over the sand. It was a Portuguese man-o-war stranded by the outgoing tide. Up and down the beach there were more of them, some as big as six or seven inches, others tiny enough that I might have stepped on them if I hadn’t been looking. I’ve read that people sometimes do step on the “sails”, the air-filled sacs that keep the Portuguese man-o-war afloat, to hear them pop. You have to be careful, though. Even when they’re dead the tentacles can still sting for several days. It’s an automatic reaction. Put your foot in the physalia10wrong place and you’ll be in excruciating pain and have red welts. You can also get a fever, go into shock, and have trouble breathing and heart problems. And, by the way, being urinated on is not an effective treatment, although I’d be tempted to urinate on someone stupid enough to go stomping on an animal on the beach.

physalia2I’m not sure why they’re called a Portuguese man-o-war. Supposedly they look like that particular type of ship, but I wonder if the name isn’t also a joke suggesting that the Portuguese were terrible sailors and could only float where the wind took them. Then again if it were a joke I think Belgian man-o-war would have been a better name. Maybe it’s a compliment to the Portuguese, since a Portuguese man-o-war can still sting you long after the animal itself has died. It’s a purely autonomic response. Maybe Portuguese sailors were just as deadly on land as they were on water. The Portuguese man-o-war’s scientific name is Physalia physalis, so for the rest of this piece I’m going to call them physalians, which I think is a strange and attractive name for a strange and attractive animal. It comes from the Greek word for “bubble”.physalia7

As I looked at them the phrase Life will find a way came to mind. Physalians are a weird form of life. Everything’s relative, and I’m sure we look weird to them, but physalians are part of an evolutionary branch that’s weird compared to most other life forms on Earth. They’re part of the group of animals called siphonophores that started a huge fight among 19th century scientists. Are they single animals or are they colonies? Every major organ system of a siphonophore starts as an individual animal. They then cluster together. Every tentacle of a physalian was originally a distinct creature. It gave up its independence to be part of something larger. It was a bit of Solomonic wisdom that siphonophores don’t fit into one category or the other. Life will find a way, and they represent one of the many ways life has found.

manowarIt was sad to see dozens of them stretched out over the beach, baking in the late afternoon sun. As I watched one it curled a pointed tip of its sail away from the wind. At sea they can deflate to sink under the waves, then fill up with air again to rise. The man-o-war is a ship that can only sail. The physalian can be both ship and submarine.

Most had their tentacles curled up under them, but a few had one or two tentacles stretched out over the sand. I touched an extended tentacle with a stick and it withdrew. They were dying in the air and the heat, but there was still life there. The shore birds and crabs left them alone, but some were attracting clouds of tiny flies. One death would give way to another life.

Anywhere there’s life there will be death, a fact that, for me, seems so much starker at the water’s edge where two worlds meet. In the ocean and on land are countless organisms that reproduce in huge numbers. Corals spawn freely, starfish, crabs, oysters, conchs and others will each produce thousands of young. For octopuses laying and caring for long strands of eggs will be the last thing they do. Sea turtles come ashore to lay, on average, more than a hundred eggs. For all of them fecundity is their way of stacking the deck because the odds are against life. Only a small fraction will survive to have offspring of their own.

As the sun set I sat and watched a physalian directly in front of the deck. A wave came up, lifted it, and carried it closer to the water. Another wave that followed pushed it farther up onto the shore. The succession of waves that followed didn’t come close. It lay there as it got darker. Soon I could only hear the waves, and it was time to go in for the night.

The next morning it was gone. Life had found a way.

physaliansNote: All this happened on Dauphin Island, off the coast of Alabama. Here’s a video I made after our 2014 trip there.

 

Live And Let Live

January 14, 2005

"Gassing the woodchucks didn’t turn out right. The knockout bomb from the Feed and Grain Exchange was featured as merciful, quick at the bone and the case we had against them was airtight, both exits shoehorned shut with puddingstone, but they had a sub-sub-basement out of range."

– Maxine Kumin, "Woodchucks"

I have a contract with the squirrels. It’s understood by both of us that they’re supposed to stay out of my attic and not come in to make nests in the insulation and chew the cables. Since I can’t retaliate by moving into their nests in the trees I reserve the right to set traps in the attic. A few years ago I woke up to squirrels or mice or used car salesmen or some other kind of vermin scrabbling around in the ceiling over my head. I set traps in the attic and whatever it was avoided the traps and went away. I like to think it or they saw the traps and said, "Holy mackerel, let’s move to some place safer like a nuclear reactor!" This is the way it should work. In December, though, a few dumb squirrels moved in and were holding cocktail parties well past midnight. I announced the terms of our agreement very loudly as I set out traps smeared with peanut butter. I didn’t really want to set the traps, primarily because that meant going up in the attic, which meant climbing that rickety wooden ladder. The ladder has two warnings on it. One, in huge print, says, "Failure to use ladder correctly could result in damage to the ladder!" As far as I can tell "failure to use ladder correctly" means dousing it with gasoline and setting it on fire. The other warning, in fine print, says, "Oh yeah, you might also hurt yourself, so please take off those stupid slippers and put on some real shoes."

But the real problem is I don’t like heights, or, to be more specific, landing at the bottom of them. I get the shakes when I stand on a chair. Once in the attic I’m fine because I’m on solid ground again, or at least solid plywood over that insulation that looks like cotton candy but tastes much better. It’s the climbing part that gets to me, especially since I have to use at least one hand to carry the traps. I use the spring bar traps, the kind that are sold under the slogan, "Build a better mouse trap and the world will beat a path to your door," except I use the larger ones. The slogan for the large ones is: "These will cut your fingers off." I could pride myself on being able to set these traps and position them with the steady hands of a neurosurgeon or bomb defuser, but there’s nothing good about any part of the job. Maxine Kumin’s poem about killing woodchucks in her garden ends with her saying there’s one woodchuck who eludes her gun, and she concludes, "If only they’d all consented to die unseen/gassed underground the quiet Nazi way." It’s not a perfect metaphor, although if it were it wouldn’t be a metaphor.

The only perfect metaphor that I know of in English literature is, "A rose is a rose is a rose." The Jews didn’t do anything to the Nazis. There was no justification for the concentration camps. The woodchucks, on the other hand, threatened Kumin’s food supply, or at least her rhubarb and brussels sprouts. And the squirrels in my attic could chew through an electric cord and burn the house down, which would mean we’d all be out of a place to live. I thought about all this the night I found a squirrel wounded but still alive in one of the traps. I knew I couldn’t let it go. Even if it survived its injury, even if it avoided being run over by a car, even if it escaped neighborhood dogs, stray cats, coyotes, foxes, owls, hawks, werewolves, and pangolins it would just get back into the house. I knew all this, but I wasn’t looking forward to what I knew I had to do either. I put the trap with the squirrel still in it into a white plastic garbage bag and took it out to the driveway. I got a shovel out of the basement. The squirrel struggled a little in the bag, which I appreciated because it told me exactly where to hit. I wanted to to make this as quick and merciful as possible for both of us, although I nearly lost my nerve at the last minute. My wife had suggested I use a hatchet, but I didn’t want to do that because I’d actually have to look at the squirrel. A history teacher once told me that Mary Queen of Scots, as she approached the chopping block, turned to her executioner and said, "Be mercifully quick." Her request apparently made him lose his nerve; it took him three tries to finish the job. After the clang of the shovel faded, I heard someone a few houses away in their backyard practicing "Jingle Bells" on a flute. For some reason this song always makes me think of people and woodland animals sharing the sleigh ride together, a sort of Eden with snow and blinking lights. The sun had just set, and in the stillness I realized that in some houses and places of worship the first candle of the menorah had either been lit or was about to be lit. Hanukkah is a holiday that celebrates hope and perseverance. It’s about a miracle of light and life coming to people who have just been through darkness and death. I didn’t feel compelled to think about all these things as I emptied the trap. I was glad for what seemed like a conspiracy by the universe to make me feel bad about what I’d done. I deserved it. I can rationalize out the wazoo. I can say that even though one-fourth of all mammal species are presently in danger of extinction squirrels aren’t one of them. I can tell myself that rodents are the cockroaches of the mammal family. I can say that at least I’m not actually harming another person, and that through history people have done terrible things to other people with less justification than I have for killing the squirrels in the attic. Nothing I can say changes the fact that, hokey as it sounds, I don’t want to be directly responsible for the deaths of squirrels. As long as the traps were killing them I could shirk responsibility. I was just a caretaker; the traps were doing the work. When the trap failed, I had to face my own role in squirrelicide. I realized I’d have to take the ladder outside, quit my whining about my fear of heights, find where the squirrels were getting in, and seal it up. It was up to me to keep them out, because ultimately that was the only way to prevent more deaths. I’m pretty sure that, somewhere in the contract, it says that I’m responsible for this because I’m the one with a memory, a conscience, and, for that matter, a big warm attic full of nesting material. It must be in the fine print.

Don’t ask me…

February 7, 1997

Every once in a while something makes me stop dead in my tracks and say, "Why is that?" Unfortunately most of these things aren’t enough to make a whole edition by themselves, but going through my notebook, I realized I had enough of these things to choke a horse. So, without further ado, I present my Why Is That? List: Most, if not all, of the people who use the expression "enough to choke a horse" have absolutely no idea exactly how much that is. Why is that? Hamburger buns and bagels always come pre-cut so that one half will fit perfectly into a regular toaster and the other half will not. Waiters who work the least expect the biggest tips. Fast food places can be run by trained chimpanzees–but instead they hire teenagers. Why is that? Whether I stop at the local gas station at noon or at midnight, or any time in between, the same guy is always there. Some of the video store’s New Releases were made before I was born. Video tapes can record up to six hours, but movies longer than two hours are put on two tapes. Why is that? A single beer in any bar costs as much as a six-pack does at the grocery. Trucks with those "How’s My Driving?" stickers are driven by courteous, cautious people. Trucks without them are driven by extras from "Mad Max". People in sitcoms have luxurious, multi-bedroom apartments, eat every meal in restaurants, and have no jobs. Why is that? Everybody lives in the city that has the world’s worst drivers. Vending machines will reject freshly minted bills at least three times before taking them. As soon as someone asks you to define a word you’ve used all your life, you realize you haven’t got a clue what it means… You and I probably both know why most, if not all, of these are true, but let’s face it: sometimes being able to ask why is more important than knowing the answer. If nothing else, it’s less stressful.


This is the transcript of a radio conversation between a U.S. naval ship and Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland in October 1995. Released by the Chief of Naval Operations, 10.10.1995.

U.S.: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a collision.

Canada: Recommend you divert YOUR course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.

U.S.: This is the Captain of a U.S. Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.

Canada: No. I say again, you divert YOUR course.

U.S.: THIS IS THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER U.S.S. _MISSOURI_, AND WE ARE A LARGE WARSHIP OF THE U.S. NAVY. DIVERT YOUR COURSE NOW!

Canada: We are a lighthouse. Your call.

Sometimes, it seems like some people are just plain *doomed*. If you don’t believe it, consider these weird deaths:

* A fierce gust of wind blew 45-year-old Vittorio Luise’s car into a river near Naples, Italy, in 1983. He managed to break a window, climb out and swim to shore — where a tree blew over and killed him.

* Mike Stewart, 31, of Dallas was filming a movie in 1983 on the dangers of low-level bridges when the truck he was standing on passed under a low-level bridge — killing him.

* Walter Hallas, a 26-year-old store clerk in Leeds, England, was so afraid of dentists that in 1979 he asked a fellow worker to try to cure his toothache by punching him in the jaw. The punch caused Hallas to fall down, hitting his head, and he died of a fractured skull.

* George Schwartz, owner of a factory in Providence, R.I., narrowly escaped death when a 1983 blast flattened his factory except for one wall. After treatment for minor injuries, he returned to the scene to search for files. The remaining wall then collapsed on him, killing him.

* Depressed since he could not find a job, 42-year-old Romolo Ribolla sat in his kitchen near Pisa, Italy, with a gun in his hand threatening to kill himself in 1981. His wife pleaded for him not to do it, and after about an hour he burst into tears and threw the gun to the floor. It went off and killed his wife.

* A man hit by a car in New York in 1977 got up uninjured, but lay back down in front of the car when a bystander told him to pretend he was hurt so he could collect insurance money. The car rolled forward and crushed him to death.

* Surprised while burgling a house in Antwerp, Belgium, a thief fled out the back door, clambered over a nine-foot wall, dropped down and found himself in the city prison.

* In 1976 a twenty-two-year-old Irishman, Bob Finnegan, was crossing the busy Falls Road in Belfast, when he was struck by a taxi and flung over its roof. The taxi drove away and, as Finnegan lay stunned in the road, another car ran into him, rolling him into the gutter. It too drove on. As a knot of gawkers gathered to examine the magnetic Irishman, a delivery van plowed through the crowd, leaving in its wake three injured bystanders and an even more battered Bob Finnegan. When a fourth vehicle came along, the crowd wisely scattered and only one person was hit — Bob Finnegan. In the space of two minutes Finnegan suffered a fractured skull, broken pelvis, broken leg, and other assorted injuries. Hospital officials said he would recover.

* While motorcycling through the Hungarian countryside, Cristo Falatti came up to a railway line just as the crossing gates were coming down. While he sat idling, he was joined by a farmer with a goat, which the farmer tethered to the crossing gate. A few moments later a horse and cart drew up behind Falatti, followed in short order by a man in a sportscar. When the train roared through the crossing, the horse startled and bit Falatti on the arm. Not a man to be trifled with, Falatti responded by punching the horse in the head. In consequence the horse’s owner jumped down from his cart and began scuffling with the motorcyclist. The horse, which was not up to this sort of excitement, backed away briskly, smashing the cart into the sportscar. At this, the sportscar driver leaped out of his car and joined the fray. The farmer came forward to try to pacify the three flailing men. As he did so, the crossing gates rose and his goat was strangled. At last report, the insurance companies were still trying to sort out the claims.

* Two West German motorists had an all-too-literal head-on collision in heavy fog near the small town of Guetersloh. Each was guiding his car at a snail’s pace near the center of the road. At the moment of impact their heads were both out of the windows when they smacked together. Both men were hospitalized with severe head injuries. Their cars weren’t scratched.

* In a classic case of one thing leading to another, seven men aged eighteen to twenty-nine received jail sentences of three to four years in Kingston-on-Thames, England, in 1979 after a fight that started when one of the men threw a french fry at another while they stood waiting for a train.

* Hitting on the novel idea that he could end his wife’s incessant nagging by giving her a good scare, Hungarian Jake Fen built an elaborate harness to make it look as if he had hanged himself. When his wife came home and saw him she fainted. Hearing a disturbance a neighbor came over and, finding what she thought were two corpses, seized the opportunity to loot the place. As she was leaving the room, her arms laden, the outraged and suspended Mr. Fen kicked her stoutly in the backside. This so surprised the lady that she dropped dead of a heart attack. Happily, Mr. Fen was acquitted of manslaughter and he and his wife were reconciled.

* An unidentified English woman, according to the London Sunday Express was climbing into the bathtub one afternoon when she remembered she had left some muffins in the oven. Naked, she dashed downstairs and was removing the muffins when she heard a noise at the door. Thinking it was the baker, and knowing he would come in and leave a loaf of bread on the kitchen table if she didn’t answer his knock, the woman darted into the broom cupboard. A few moments later she heard the back door open and, to her eternal mortification, the sound of footsteps coming toward the cupboard. It was the man from the gas company, come to read the meter. "Oh," stammered the woman, "I was expecting the baker." The gas man blinked, excused himself and departed.

It’s not the end of the world…

January 31, 1997

So I get home late and decide I’ll be chivalric and make dinner. There was a time when I used to consider myself something of a cook, and even now I like to imagine I’m one of those chefs with their own show that make a complete meal in half an hour–minus the three hours their assistants spend baking that twenty-pound roast, chopping all the ingredients, and pretty much preparing everything that can’t be done in thirty seconds or less. Spaghetti was on the menu–simple enough. A trained chimp can make spaghetti, and I should have gotten one rather than trying to do it myself. I was in such a hurry that I kept missing steps along the way, and for every step I missed, I had to add another pot to the stove. At one point, I had seven pots on the stove at once. Two not on burners, three on burners with various spaghetti parts in them, and one full of boiling water. The pot with boiling water had another pot in it with burned-on meat that I was trying to soften up before I went at it with the steel wool. A note to all you guys out there: cooking something on "High" will not make it cook faster. Even if you’re one of those guys who believes there are varying degrees of well-done, you have to admit that "charcoal" is not one of them. Finally, after narrowing my number of pots down to just two (one for sauce and one for what had been spaghetti before it over-boiled into mush) I managed to serve up a complete, tasty meal. The best part is I did it in less than half an hour–minus the three hours it took me to decide to order pizza.


When the end of the world arrives, how will the media report it?

USA Today:
WE’RE DEAD

The Wall Street Journal:
DOW JONES PLUMMETS AS WORLD ENDS

National Enquirer:
O.J. AND NICOLE, TOGETHER AGAIN

Playboy:
GIRLS OF THE APOCALYPSE

Microsoft Systems Journal:
APPLE LOSES MARKET SHARE

Victoria’s Secret Catalog:
OUR FINAL SALE

Sports Illustrated:
GAME OVER

Wired:
THE LAST NEW THING

Rolling Stone:
THE GRATEFUL DEAD REUNION TOUR

Readers Digest:
‘BYE

Discover Magazine:
HOW WILL THE EXTINCTION OF ALL LIFE AS WE KNOW IT
AFFECT THE WAY WE VIEW THE COSMOS?

TV Guide:
DEATH AND DAMNATION: NIELSON RATINGS SOAR!

Lady’s Home Journal:
LOSE 10 LBS BY JUDGEMENT DAY WITH OUR NEW
"ARMAGEDDON" DIET!

America Online:
SYSTEM TEMPORARILY DOWN. TRY CALLING BACK IN 15 MINUTES.

Inc. magazine:
TEN WAYS YOU CAN PROFIT FROM THE APOCALYPSE

Microsoft’s Web Site:
IF YOU DIDN’T EXPERIENCE THE RAPTURE,
DOWNLOAD SOFTWARE PATCH RAPT777.EXE.

Sun:
ARMAGEDDON TOLERANT SOFTWARE NOW AVAILABLE!

%d bloggers like this: