The Weekly Essay

It’s Another Story.

The Feast Of Stephen.

My cousin Stephen had a bee in his ear.

That’s not a figure of speech, like when someone says they want to put a bug in your ear about something, an expression that always bugs me, or when someone is said to have a bee in their bonnet, an expression that’s even worse because having any kind of stinging insect trapped inside headgear sounds like a nightmare. Anyway my cousin had a literal bee in his ear, crawling around like it was looking for a lost contact lens. It didn’t sting him because as we’ve all been told since we were small a bee won’t sting you unless you annoy it, and my cousin was letting the bee go about its business. In fact he seemed completely oblivious to the bee in his ear while I was completely freaked out by it.

We were picking blueberries in a field near my uncle’s summer cabin which was perched on the edge of a lake in northern Maine, an area known for long, brutal winters and short, intense summers with long days which causes the local insect population to work overtime to grow, feed, and reproduce. It was there that I learned that the name “horse fly” is a bit of a misnomer—they’re really closer in size to a small pony, but still big enough that we’d have to run for cover when the shadow of one passed over. It was a fun place to stay and I enjoyed picking blueberries with my cousin Stephen, although I think I would have enjoyed it more if he weren’t feeding every bloodsucking insect within a five-mile radius. The bee in his ear, which he eventually prodded out with his finger, was merely passing through, or at least I think it was since I’m pretty sure there was no pollen or nectar in my cousin’s ear and bees don’t build their hives out of earwax, or if they do they get it out of their own ears. He was also surrounded by swarms of gnats and mosquitoes so he always appeared slightly out of focus and it’s a wonder he wasn’t anemic by the end of the week. The insect attention never seemed to bother him, although later that week we would have lobster which is basically a giant aquatic bug so maybe while he was tearing into a crustacean’s carapace he got some kind of revenge.

The real mystery is why the bugs were so drawn to him when they more or less ignored me and other family members. A whole group of us trooped out each morning to pick blueberries and while a few mosquitoes and gnats would go after one of us the vast majority would zero in on my cousin Stephen like he was The Pied Piper of Anopheles.

This is something I’ve noticed in other people too. My wife isn’t nearly the mosquito magnet my cousin was but if we’re outside she’ll draw the attention of ten mosquitoes for every one that lands on me. And I don’t want to complain, but still, hey mosquitoes, what am I? Chopped liver? Maybe I am since every mosquito I’ve ever met has called pate overrated, but that’s another story.

Why insects are drawn to some people and not others is a subject of serious scientific inquiry somewhere, or at least it should be. I know that in laboratories where mosquitoes are studied there’s usually a lucky grad student who gets the job of offering up an arm to feed the subjects and surely scientists have noticed that some are preferable to others. When I was a kid I was told that eating sugar makes you attractive to mosquitoes and swallowing a spoonful of vinegar will drive them away which I would think was a ploy to keep the dental bills down if vinegar weren’t at least as hard on the incisors as a popsicle.

For now, though, it remains a mystery, one that may not be fully solved until sixty-five million years in the future when humans have become a shadowy mystery, a subject of intense study and debate for the insects who dominate the planet and perform a reckless experiment, extracting DNA from an ancient ancestor trapped in amber, so they can revive the hominids who once ruled from pole to pole. I expect the clone of my cousin Stephen to be a major attraction at Cenozoic Park.

Lost And Fined.

Thank you for replying to my question with “That’s fine”. I just wanted to know where the bathroom was, but you reassured me that it wasn’t a question that violated some obscure rule of etiquette that I’m unfamiliar with. And while I’m at it let me also thank you, a completely different person who told me “That’s fine”, when I brought you your package. I didn’t think it was fine that the delivery guy left it at my office, three floors below yours, but rather than wait at least twenty-four hours to give it back to him I thought it would be easier to bring it up to your office. Maybe that’s what you meant was fine: that a stranger went out of their way to make sure your overnight package got to you on time. And also, thank you pharmacist, for assuring me “That’s fine” when I told you I wanted to pick up my prescription. I didn’t realize it might be a problem—I kind of thought it was part of your job description to fill prescriptions and dispense them–until you said that, but I’m glad it wasn’t. I’m glad it was just fine.

When did “That’s fine” replace “Okay” as a way of saying, “I am responding affirmitavely to acknowledge my understanding of what you have just said”? For that matter when did it replace “Thank you”? Or maybe I’m the only one who’s noticed this. Maybe it only happens to me. I do occasionally get a little flustered in social interactions with complete strangers and sometimes that causes me to babble out lengthy explanations of what’s usually obvious with the result that I sometimes include completely superfluous information.

“Hi, this is your package, the delivery guy left it downstairs by mistake and, uh, rather than wait and give it back to him so he could deliver it tomorrow I thought I’d come up here and drop it off with you because it’s just a short elevator ride and I needed a quick break from the spreadsheets I’ve been looking at all day and I remembered what a cool view you have from the plate glass windows up here. My cubicle doesn’t have any windows and sometimes I wish it did. I have to get up and walk to the other side of the office to see any windows and it’s amazing how the view has changed over the years and I remember when we could open the windows. They won’t let us do that anymore because they say it throws off the air conditioning, but sometimes there’s nothing like a little fresh air when you’ve been looking at spreadsheets all day, even though my office is right over the parking garage where some people go to smoke. There aren’t as many smokers as there used to be, though. It’s amazing how that’s changed, isn’t it?”

Granted most of this stays in my head but maybe people sense that I’m anxious when I’m dropping off a package or picking up a prescription although I’m not sure I want to know if, or at least how, people are sensing that I’m in need of a bathroom even before I ask. Maybe “That’s fine” is just a way of shutting me up before I start babbling away like a chipmunk on meth.

And maybe I’m getting cranky in my middle age, although I’m pretty sure I never thought “That’s fine” would be an acceptable substitute for “Thank you” at any age, but I have a problem with using “That’s fine” to replace “Okay”. Sure, it’s the same number of syllables, but it’s twice as many words, five more letters, and an apostrophe. If it weren’t a strictly spoken reply it would be typographical overkill.

“That’s fine” is a phrase used to reassure someone that something really is fine.

“Hey, I’m sorry I ate the last of the leftover pizza and then panicked and burned down the house to hide what I’d done.”

“That’s fine. I was planning to move anyway. Wait, what do you mean the pizza’s gone?”

Replying with “That’s fine” to an innocuous statement or question also seems condescending, a way of dismissing the other person’s statement or question, of haughtily telling them, “I’m in charge of deciding what’s acceptable around here.”

Although if you ask me there’s nothing wrong with being condescending or dismissive or even haughty. In fact if you do ask me I’ll just say that’s fine.

Gumming Up The Works.

So I was in the elevator pretending I was alone when the guy next to me offered me a rectangle of gum. Technically he offered me a “stick of gum”, but I think the flat rectangle that gum usually comes in stretches the definition of “stick”. I took it even though I don’t like gum because I felt guilty about having spent several seconds of the elevator ride pretending he didn’t exist. And I was pleasantly surprised to see it was an old-fashioned brand of gum, one of the ones I remember from childhood, and not one of the more recent, modern brands of gum that come in black packages and have commercials that associate gum-chewing with free-falling in interiors designed by H.R. Giger and other surreally dangerous activities. It’s strange to me to see so much gum and even candy advertising aimed at adults, treating it as something risky when everybody knows the most dangerous thing you can do with gum is fall asleep with it in your mouth causing it to become animate and crawl into your hair, second only to swallowing it because it will stay in your stomach for seven years unless removed by Donald Pleasance and Raquel Welch.

Anyway I swallowed the gum after it had lost its flavor which, with any gum, takes about thirty seconds. That’s also what I always did as a kid because I never had the foresight to save the wrapper so I could dispose of it cleanly. And it brought back a lot of memories. I’ve never liked gum but when I was a kid I always took it anyway whenever it was offered, mostly because I was polite and didn’t think I should say no to grownups, and even though I’d been warned never to take candy from strangers I wasn’t being offered candy. I was being offered gum which technically isn’t even really food. At best it’s an artist’s medium like paint or clay or dirty laundry—in other words things that you should never put in your mouth. That’s how I treated gum when I was a kid, anyway. When I didn’t swallow it, mainly because I found someone else’s gum on the ground of course I picked it up because it could be molded, stretched, and shaped. There’s a now infamous bit of family lore about the time I stretched strands and strands of gum across the back of my mother’s car because I imagined I was building spider webs and she was too busy driving to notice what I was doing.

Maybe I only remember that because the story’s been repeated so many times but I also remember that whole day building gum webs on trees and bushes and under the neighbor’s deck and in an art gallery where one sold for five figures. How I managed to find so much gum on the ground is still a mystery and maybe it’s all been exaggerated in my memory because when I was a kid time seemed to stretch out so much longer. An hour could last as much as three days. There are probably genuine psychological reasons for this. When we’re young every experience is not only new but we have so little in the way of other experiences we can relate it to so it’s a lot to take in. That flood of information can be overwhelming and make it seem like time is moving more slowly, especially to a developing brain. And I find I miss that feeling. Is there any way of getting it back, and does it require interiors designed by H.R. Giger?

The Case Of The Missing Case.

Source: Wikipedia.

Found in the private papers of Dr. John Watson, London (1855-1930), under the heading “Sherlock Holmes & The Unsolvable Case”:

Even a detective with the sagacity of my friend Sherlock Holmes must, on occasion, decline a request, but this particular instance was so extraordinary that I feel compelled to put it to paper. At the time we happened to be at our Baker Street residence, I feeling the need to see my old friend in spite of the complete marital bliss which I’d enjoyed for some time. Holmes was in a restive mood this evening and kept returning to the spirit case and gasogene he kept in the corner but libations, his cigars, cocaine, laudanum, opium, ether, mescaline, isoamyl nitrite, tincture of cannabis, a bottle of pills containing acetylsalicylic acid, as well as a handful of betel nuts that had been the gift of a client who’d returned from the Far East, held little interest for him. Turning from these dalliances he would then march across the room, arms crossed, head on his chest, his usual manner when considering a problem. But at this time, of course, the problem was the absence of a problem, one which even Holmes, with all his perspicacity, could not resolve.
I was on the point of taking my leave when Mrs. Hudson showed in a young urchin bearing a note. Holmes immediately stepped forward and took it, his dark eyes darting over the paper. Then, with no hesitation, even with an apparent lack of awareness of the rest of us in the room, he dashed down the stairs. I gave our young Hermes a penny and offered a few words to placate Mrs. Hudson’s concerns about mud on the rug before I followed.
It was only once we were in a hansom cab racing towards London’s banking district that Holmes spoke.
“The note was from Inspector Lestrade, Watson,” he said in a voice that any other might have taken for calm and measured but which I recognized as positively ebullient. “There has been a robbery of a London bank and he needs my assistance.”
A simple robbery hardly seemed to demand the genius of Sherlock Holmes, but when the Inspector showed us the scene the reason became clear.
“The walls, which are completely undamaged, are over a foot thick, comprised of large stone bricks,” he said. “As you can see the door was bolted from the outside. There is no way in from above or below, and yet the thief was able to make off with a case containing ten thousand pounds’ worth of gold bullion.” Lestrade’s sallow rat face looked very grave in the flickering gaslight. “I don’t like to admit that this case is quite beyond any of us, Holmes,” he said quietly. Then, raising his voice, he added, “Also all twenty guards are still present and their whereabouts completely accounted for. None of them are suspects.”
Holmes cleared his throat. “Yes, Inspector, and I can also tell that you’ve been here yourself at least twenty-four hours.”
“I should think that would be obvious,” Lestrade replied, “since it’s been raining nonstop almost the whole day and my clothes are completely dry.”
Holmes raised his finger and seemed about to speak then abruptly turned to the room. He walked in a full circle, examined the walls closely, and looked at both the ceiling and floor.
“Well, Inspector, this is certainly a most curious case, and I wish you the best of luck with it.”
Lestrade sputtered. “Surely you’ll assist us!” But Holmes only shook his head.
“If only I could, Inspector. However I have promised my services to the Atkinson brothers in Trincomalee, and I must make immediate arrangements to leave. There are, of course, other private inspectors in London who I’m sure could help you with this case. Perhaps my brother Mycroft, or that fellow Entwistle.”
“Holmes,” said Lestrade in an almost inaudible growl. “Isn’t Entwistle that buffoon you said once put his lips to a violin and tried to play it as though it were a trumpet?”
“This is no time to discuss music, Inspector. Come, Watson, I’ll need your assistance in my travel arrangements.” With that he turned and stepped hurriedly from the room, and I followed, throwing a meager apology to the Inspector.
An hour later we were on the other side of London in a pub below street level dining on questionable oysters and a slightly less questionable dark Irish beer. It wasn’t until Holmes had filled his pipe that I spoke.
“Holmes, are you sure you shouldn’t have taken that case?”
He drew deeply and sent an azure cloud into the air above our heads.
“A man must know his limits, Watson. Never exceeding them is a true key to success.”
An epiphany struck me.
“This is rather like that case with the King of Bohemia, eh what?”
“Don’t test my limits, Watson.”

Fixing A Hole.


Lately I’ve been seeing articles in praise of boredom. Psychologists, or maybe psychiatrists, or maybe people who aren’t really psychologists but play them on TV, have defended boredom as a useful feeling; they decry our society as overstimulated, inundated with content, too plugged-in, turned-on, wired, hyped up, and it’s turning our mental health into detrimental health and making prone to writing adjective and hyphenated-laden run-on sentences with terrible puns in them. Boredom has gotten a bad rap because it’s seen as unproductive. It even prompted managers and supervisors to come up with phrases like “If you have time to lean you have time to clean” which, by the way, is what Marie Antoinette really said that prompted the French Revolution. And I don’t want to condone violence but I have to admit that I have a little bit of sympathy for anyone who’d want to cut the head off of someone who said that seriously.

Boredom is quickly becoming the new hip thing we should all be trying. There’s even at least one academic journal devoted to the study of boredom, although it’s telling that most scholars only subscribe for the annual swimsuit issue.

Subjecting ourselves to constant stimuli, the pro-boredom argument goes, is bad because our ancient ancestors had plenty of time to be bored. I’m not so sure that’s true. Most of their time, after all, was devoted to finding food and shelter and not being killed by large animals, so it’s not really fair to say they ever had time to be bored because they didn’t spend a lot of time sitting around watching movies, and what they did have was all on Betamax. People have always had a plethora of things to focus their attention on even if now some of us are lucky enough that what we focus our attention on isn’t a matter of life and death. Basically I’m preparing myself for the inevitable anti-boredom backlash that some psychologists, psychiatrists, and assorted celebrities are going to start promoting to make things interesting. And given the way trends go some people will inevitably take it too far, setting up devices in their homes that’ll shoot poison darts at them at random intervals to make sure they never lose focus. Actually I guess Inspector Clouseau already had that very same idea, but how many of us can afford to have a karate expert hide in our home to attack us on a regular basis? And even if we could he’d still have a lot of down time and, hey, if he’s got time to lean he’s got time to clean.

Why do we call it “boredom” anyway? Why does what bores us get its own special domain, and why’d we choose the word “bore” which also means “to drill a hole”? Actually to quote the Oxford English Dictionary it’s “to pierce by means of a rotatory movement like that of an auger or gimlet”. Boring produces a hole and boredom is a kind of mental hole we fall into when we aren’t sure what to do. At least that’s how I think of boredom. I can’t remember the last time I was truly bored, although that might be because it just wasn’t interesting enough for me to make a note of it. There’s also probably a connection to dentistry because I know from experience that sitting around waiting for the dentist is both boring and stressful at the same time, especially when I know the dentist is going to come at me with a drill to bore holes in my teeth and all I really want is a gimlet made with vodka, thanks.

The point is that boredom, like all feelings, can be either useful or harmful depending on how we treat it. As Shakespeare said, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”. That line is from Hamlet and is one of the lines that makes it into almost every production even though most cut out at least a couple of hours’ worth of material from the play because, let’s face it, there’s a lot of stuff in it you could sleep through without missing anything, but that’s another story. Anyway I know this is a short conclusion, but I don’t want to risk boring you. Just in case, though, I’m going to carry on about boredom for another twelve-thousand words. Feel free to go on, though, because if you’ve got time to read you’ve got time to do something else that may or may not rhyme with “read”.



Learning To Fly.

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. I guess I should really say “pilot”. I’m not really a captain of anything. It’s not like I own this plane and I can’t order anybody to walk the plank or swab the decks. I think there’s someone that comes in and vacuums the carpets and empties the trash, and we don’t really have a plank. I guess I could make you slide down that inflatable emergency ramp or maybe walk out on the wing, but that’s a pretty long drop even when we’re on the ground. I’m not going to open the door while we’re in flight, at least not once we really get up there, because that could get really bad from what I’ve seen in movies and on TV. What I’m saying is I’m not going to throw anybody out while we’re in flight, but don’t push me because I will land this plane and drop you out no matter where we are.

I’m also going to be upfront with you and say this is my first flight. Like, ever. So I’d suggest you keep your seatbelts on the entire time. There’s supposed to be a button that makes that seatbelt light come on, but you would not believe how many buttons there are up here. Also a bunch of gauges, meters, dials, and these big levers. I thought by now they’d have some of this stuff digitized. My mother’s old Camaro had a digital display and it was from, like, the eighties, you know? I’d invite everybody to come up and take a look at this but we’re on a schedule and once the flight starts I’d feel better if everybody stayed seated. If anybody has any helpful tips on these gauges and things though just tweet me. I’ll try and check my feed once we get up there. No promises, though, because I’m going to need my phone to navigate too.

Oh, hey, I just found the button for the seatbelt sign. And there’s one for no smoking too. Are there any flights you can still smoke on or have they just not taken that out yet? I’m not sure what the rule is on vaping either. Let’s just be on the safe side and don’t do it, okay?

Our flight will also be taking a little longer than usual because we’ll be following the interstates. Sorry about that. Like I said we haven’t quite got the navigation part up and running yet. It’s still in development, but we should have it working soon. And we’re gonna be seriously blowing through some speed limits because we’ll be up in the air and you may not know this but planes move really fast. Keep an eye out the windows, though, and if you see any police planes coming up next to us tweet me or yell at one of the flight attendants. This is weird but planes don’t have rearview mirrors so if there’s anybody coming I won’t know until they almost pass us. That seems kind of weird. I hope I don’t, I don’t know, back over a flock of bald eagles or something. That would be pretty embarrassing.

Anyway in a few minutes the flight attendants will be walking you through the emergency measures, and I know how everybody is about those. Please, seriously, pay attention for once because if this thing goes down it’s going down hard, you know? Those little oxygen masks might save your life if we have a fire or something. But, and don’t tell anyone I said this, you can leave your drink tray down the entire time. You just might want to put it back up when we land to make it easier to get out.

Okay, we’re just about to take off here. According to my phone here it’s rainy and seventy-two degrees at our destination. I don’t know how far anybody has to walk once we get there but I hope you have umbrellas. Wait, lost the directions. Okay, there they are. And I just saw some of your tweets. Come on, people, let’s try to stay positive. You know what they say about how you’re safer in the air than you are on the ground. That’s probably because there’s so much less you can run into on the ground.

And thanks for trying our new flight sharing app. I hope you’re as stoked about our new startup as I am. All right, let’s make it happen, cap’n!


I’m Not The Man They Think I Am At Home.

There’s a saying you should strive to be the person your dog thinks you are. This is good advice and I think applies to cats as well since cats are excellent judges of character, as proven by the fact that if you put twenty people in a room and only one of them doesn’t like cats the cat will go right for that person, which also proves cats have a great sense of humor. This principle probably applies to other pets too, although I’m not sure what kind of person your fish or tarantula might think you are, and if you’re one of those people with a ferret as a pet you should strive to stay away from me because those things freak me out.

Anyway I do try to be the person our dogs think I am because they seem to think I’m a pretty good guy. Even our youngest and newest addition to the family thought so even before I knew his name, which is Sabik. I wasn’t familiar with that name and when I first heard it thought it might be from Star Trek, because I’m not only a huge geek but our dogs think I’m a huge geek, especially when I sing They Might Be Giants songs to them, but my wife explained that Sabik is a star in the constellation of Ophiuchus, in keeping with a stellar family tradition since his grandfather was named Sagan.

Sabik can be spotted in the evening sky even without a telescope.

And like his namesake Sagan was smart and had a quirky sense of humor. He liked to get in the bed. In fact he didn’t just like to get in the bed–he would get excited and run to the bed and fling himself onto it and then if I lay down he’d immediately curl up next to me because he could go from sixty to zero in 1.8 seconds. And then if I moved at all he’d let out a disgruntled moan that would last approximately six and a half minutes. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t really annoyed but only did that because it made me laugh, but that’s another story.

Sagan could have even hosted his own PBS show.

I don’t take it for granted that our dogs think I’m a pretty good guy and believe in taking care of them which includes preparing their food. My wife is usually the one who feeds them, but we have them on the aptly named BARF diet. That’s Bones And Raw Food, which means every few weeks I get to grind up a lot of chicken into the same kind of paste they use for making nuggets and also a lot of vegetables into the same kind of paste you might spoon into your smoothie to try and pass it off as healthy. We get the chicken from a dealer but I get the vegetables at the grocery and the purchase of mass quantities always seems to raise some eyebrows at the checkout even though I’m pretty sure they’ve seen stranger things. And sometimes my purchases raise questions, like the other day when I was buying a heap of kale and other leafy greens and assorted vegetables and a few assorted sundries the guy checking me out asked, “What are you going to do with all this?”

This seemed like an unusual question. What do most people do with food they buy? And yet I also thought it might sound goofy if I said it was going to be fed to some dogs, even if they are exceptional dogs.

“Well, this is my special superfood blend. I’m going to puree the kale and other greens with the ginger and vegetables, the sardines and skim milk are there to add protein, and the pink lemonade is just to give it all a little color and add some sweetness. Then I’ll pour the whole mixture into a hot tub and soak in it for twelve hours.”

And then I left so I have no idea what kind of person that guy thinks I am.

Moving Right Along.

Earlier this week I helped some coworkers move to new offices. I volunteered, although generally I seem to be the guy that friends call on when they need help moving, even though I don’t own a pickup truck or other vehicle with a lot of storage space and have the upper body strength of a salamander. My main qualification seems to be that when someone asks me, “Could you help me move?” I’m an agreeable guy and say “yes” and it’s usually not until I’m halfway down the stairs with a box of dishes that I think to stop and ask, “Hey, do I know you?” Whenever I help someone else move it always makes me think about how I’ve heard that wherever you are when you’re fifty is where you’re going to die. This may be one of those exaggerated claims that people pass around without any factual basis, like the claim that your hair and toenails grow after you die. They don’t—your body loses moisture after death causing your skin to shrink which makes your hair and nails appear to grow. And there’s also the claim that a lot of people were buried alive in the days before modern embalming techniques because claw marks have been found on the insides of coffins, but in fact almost anyone sealed into a coffin and buried would expire from a buildup of carbon dioxide before they could regain consciousness. There’s a comforting thought: even if your mortal coil did just get shoved in a box and covered with dirt without all your recyclables being removed first you’d be very unlikely to wake up. The claw marks on the insides of coffins are caused by the surprising amount of moving that corpses could do, even the ones that are well past fifty. Consider Jim Morrison, for instance, who’s been buried in Paris’s Pere Lachaise cemetery since 1971, and who still parties so hard the other corpses complain about it. Oscar Wilde’s corpse has even been heard to remark that the only thing worse than not being invited to Jim Morrison’s grave is being invited to Jim Morrison’s grave.

Aside from dwelling on happy thoughts about the lurking specter of the eternal footman holding my coat and snickering whenever I help someone move it makes me think about how little I’ve moved in my life. When I was four my parents moved from one part of Nashville to another part of Nashville, and luckily they thought to take me with them. Even though I went to college in another state and then, briefly, in another country, that wasn’t technically moving because I wasn’t taking up permanent residence there although my senior year I did rent a professor’s house and lived there with, depending on which time of the year it was, three, four, and approximately two-hundred and twenty-five other people. The professor had gone overseas to turn fifty but he was planning to come back just to beat the statistics. And then I came back to Nashville and moved in with my wife and got married and most days I go to work in an office that’s spitting distance from the hospital where I was born, which I can prove by the number of times they’ve asked me to stop spitting on the place, but that’s another story.

Anyway I haven’t turned fifty yet, although I am slowly moving in that direction in spite of some efforts to put the brakes on or even throw things into reverse, but the way things are going, and they’re actually going pretty well, it looks like I’ll be lucky enough to still be where I am now when I finally reach that milestone. And while that wasn’t planned it is convenient that I’m an organ donor and hope to pass on every part of me that can be used to someone else, and to make that as easy as possible the odds are when I finally go I’ll be within spitting distance of a hospital.

Bag ‘Em.

A few years ago I made a New Year’s resolution which may seem like a funny thing to bring up this late in the year, but how many of your resolutions do you remember and even if you do how many have you kept? This was my resolution: always use reusable bags when going to the grocery store. And I’ve done a pretty good job, keeping to it about a quarter, maybe as much of a third of the time and I always get a kick out of going into a grocery store with their competitors’ bags. To be clear I don’t live in one of the few areas of the United States where you now have to pay if you want to use the store’s plastic bags. In fact I’m pretty sure the people where I live will only give up plastic grocery bags when they’re pried from their cold, dead hands—which will be pretty easy given how slippery plastic bags are. Also I’m not sure how this applies to paper bags which they still have but which nobody seems to use anymore.

I also remember a time when grocery carts had numbers on the front and when you were done paying for your groceries the checkout person would write your cart’s number on the back of the receipt. You could then go out to your car, drive up to the front of the store, hold the receipt up to the window, and a couple of guys would load your groceries into your car for you. What made this even better was they once slipped up and gave us somebody else’s groceries and for a week we ate like kings, or at least like people who buy those shrimp cocktails in a jar which I thought were the epitome of haute cuisine at a time when I didn’t even know what haute, cuisine, or epitome meant. And not to sound snobbish but I’d rather have as few strangers as possible touching my groceries which is why whenever the person who bags my groceries asks if they can help me out I say “No, thanks” and when they say “Are you sure?” I have to point and yell “Is that the Hindenburg?” and then grab everything and run for the door and hopefully not have to tell my wife that I don’t know what happened to the mayonnaise, but that’s another story.

In fact whenever I can I use the self-checkout at the grocery store. Yes,  I worry it’s putting someone out of a job, although with every other item the machine stops and yells “Please wait for an attendant” possibly because it’s just not gauged to measure a single bulb of garlic, but there are times when the self-checkout is just faster and more convenient, and I don’t need some high school kid who’s just working there for the summer to drop that two-pound can of diced tomatoes on top of the eggs when I’m perfectly capable of doing it myself. And it brings back memories of when I was a kid and the grocery store we went to installed those new laser scanners and I thought those were so cool. The woman checking us out noticed me staring at it—not directly into the beam, but at the scanner itself—and she said, “Would you like to try it?” And I did and checking out groceries turned out to be even more boring than it looked.

Anyway the other day I was going through the checkout line with an actual person and as I started bagging them myself in my reusable bags she handed me a tiny little nylon bag. It was a miniature version of the reusable bags the store sells, but on the back it had printed, “Don’t forget your bags”. This as a little promotional reward they were doing for people who brought in reusable bags, although I thought they were aiming it at the wrong people. They should have given them to the people who are still using plastic bags and maybe changed the note to, “Start using reusable bags before we pry the plastic ones out of your cold, dead hands, which will be pretty easy…”

Although I do think it’s nice that they encouraged me to recycle by giving me something to throw away.

A Brief History Of Not Enough Time.

This morning during our commute my wife and I listened to a report on the psychology of time and how leisure time used to be a symbol of status but now, at least in the United States and among certain groups, mainly celebrities and the wealthy who have enough money to buy celebrity, not having enough time to do everything is considered proof they’ve made it. Having fortyleven projects running at the same time and not enough time to do them all is the ultimate sign of success now. Someone whose passion is, say, music, after having put in the ten-thousand hours needed to master their craft, paid their dues, worked their way up from the bottom, pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, broken out, broken through, and who are finally able to quit their old day job and take up several new jobs marketing their own brand of croquet equipment and designing a line of solar-powered footwear. Being successful used to mean you could take a little time to yourself and lounge on a beach somewhere, but really, who can blame celebrities for wanting to work on all kinds of projects when the other option is being chased around the beach by paparazzi? And while I’m inclined to say that “success” and “status” are nebulous concepts that should be defined by the individual and not by the society in which we live I know how society is. Any time I suggest that society gets huffy and yells, “You can’t tell me what to do!” What really interests me, though, is that it says something larger about us. Homo sapiens is a naturally multitasking species, and while multitasking is usually a way to get a lot of things done badly and in a half-assed way the truth is we’ve managed to do some pretty amazing things, mostly in a half-assed way, at least in the grand scheme of things. Compared to the entire history of the universe humans have been around such a short time that if all of time were measured as a roll of toilet paper the moment homo sapiens first appeared to the present day would barely be the last millimeter of the roll, although one of the biggest controversies in science today is whether the paper should be placed so it rolls from the top or the bottom. Sharks have been around approximately 450 million years. They’ve survived several mass extinctions, including the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, and yet haven’t even gotten close to discovering fire, although they are at a slight disadvantage being underwater most of the time. We humans have only been around approximately two-hundred thousand years. Seventy or so thousand years ago we were on the verge of extinction in central Africa then a large black box showed up and we started moving.We only began to form what we’d recognize as societies less than ten thousand years ago and written language a little over five thousand years ago. We’ve occupied every part of the planet, a feat only matched by bacteria and viruses, and only because they had a major head start but have still failed to advance beyond the discovery of energy drinks and with any luck we’ll stop using analog clocks by the end of the century because it makes no sense that the hour hand is the smaller one and the minute hand is the larger one.

At this point it’s probably pretty clear what I’m trying to say so I’ll just cut to the chase. And here’s an interesting thing about the expression “cut to the chase”: it dates back to at least 1929 and originated as a film direction to keep the story moving. The funny thing is I really thought it went back farther than that and that there was actually cutting, like with some kind of knife, but that’s another story. What I’m getting at is, we have done an enormous amount of work and there’s so much stuff I feel like I’m missing, so could everyone please just take a break for a while and stop making anything new until I can get caught up on all the books, movies, TV shows, music, and art that we’ve produced so far?

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