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Heavy Metal.


I’m not a jewelry guy so maybe this isn’t that strange but I overheard a jewelry store commercial and was thrown to hear that they had rings made of tantalum. Even if you’re into jewelry that may sound weird to you—maybe even if you’re into metallurgy or alchemy. Actually if you’re into alchemy tantalum probably isn’t your thing because it wasn’t discovered until 1802. Anyway most jewelry is made from silver or gold, occasionally platinum, or brass or pewter if it’s costume jewelry. Tantalum is a weird choice for jewelry. How often do you even hear about tantalum?

Well, odds are you have some. If you have a cell phone it probably has tantalum in it. In fact tantalum has a pretty bloody history—and that history is recent. The genocide in Rwanda was fueled in part by a skyrocketing market for tantalum and another element, niobium—also used in jewelry. They’re frequently found together in an ore call coltan that is so abundant in some places anyone with a shovel can dig it out of the ground, and the high prices it can get make scooping up coltan a lot more attractive than, say, farming, even though you can’t eat cell phones.

That’s pretty dark, and now most of the world’s tantalum comes from Australia. I’m pretty sure Anders Ekeberg, the scientist who first isolated tantalum, didn’t have a clue it would be so valuable or cause so much suffering but then he did choose to name it after Tantalus, a mythological figure who murdered and cooked his own son and was condemned to Tartarus where he’d stand in water he couldn’t drink, under fruit he couldn’t eat, eternally thirsty and hungry, which you might think about the next time you describe something as tantalizing. And the name choice wasn’t just a coincidence. Because tantalum is found with niobium Ekeberg knew Tantalus was the father of Niobe, another tragic Greek figure: her children are murdered by Apollo and Artemis and she’s transformed into a weeping rock, and, seriously, ancient Greek myth writers, isn’t real life bad enough?

To get back what started me down this morbid path in the first place, tantalum jewelry does seem like a good idea if you’re looking to wear something that’s tough and made to last. Consider this: the melting point of gold is 1064 Celsius, the melting point of silver is 962 Celsius, and the melting point of platinum is 2041 Celsius.  Tantalum only melts at 3017 Celsius. Even though it’s not found in its pure state in nature it’s incredibly non-reactive: its nemesis is hydrofluoric acid which can also dissolve glass and, oh, it will kill you if it gets on your skin. So, yeah, it’s got a nice ring to it.


Pie In The Sky.

“Pizza Is a Healthier Breakfast Than Cereal, According to a Nutritionist”–

Welcome to another episode of Mouth Of America! This week we’ll be enjoying some of the different styles of cereal around the country. First we’ll head to New York, best known for its thin style of serving up Raisin Bran, usually on plates instead of bowls. Paper plates are great and can conveniently be folded in half for easy carrying when you’re strolling around the five boroughs, although they don’t hold milk too well.

Next we’re off to Chicago for their famous deep bowl cereal style, often served up with heavy cream and requiring an extra large spoon. Few things go better with a Bears game than a big bowl of shredded wheat topped with a hot, gooey layer of melted sugar.

As long as we’re in the Midwest let’s also stop to take in Detroit style cereal. The legacy of John Harvey Kellogg, inventor of corn flakes, still reigns here with his traditional cereal  served up in square or rectangular bowls, and for some reason they also put butter on it.

Right next door of course is Wisconsin, America’s dairyland, which explains why corn flakes are also popular here and also why instead of milk they use cottage cheese. That’s…interesting. Let’s move on.

Down South cereals lean more toward the dried fruit and whole nut end of the aisle with puffed rice also a popular choice. South Carolina style cereal is especially well known for its vinegar and mustard based toppings and seriously what is wrong with people?

Now we head back to the middle of the country for some of the famous St. Louis cereal and molasses I can understand but why for the love of all that is holy are they putting tomato sauce on it.

Just a little to the north is Iowa where the most popular cereal is corn. Just corn. Raw corn on the cob. In a bowl.

Let’s move on. You don’t have to jet across the Pacific to enjoy Hawaiian style cereal which has become popular across the country. Adding pineapple to your cereal doesn’t sound so bad. Oh, please tell me you didn’t just put ham in a bowl of Cocoa Puffs. I think I’m going to be sick.

Finally it’s off to California for, oh, no, wait, we’re going to the Pacific Northwest for Seattle-style and, yep, I was afraid of that, they’re putting fish on it.

Well, that’s all for our tour of the cereal styles of America, and I’m only going to say because I’m contractually obligated to read the script that cereal is good food no matter how you slice it.

Lucky 2021.

This is one of my annual traditions although this year’s class will be held via Zoom.

In recent years St. Patrick’s Day has become controversial because of a maligned and often caricatured minority. I’m referring, of course, to leprechauns. Reviled, mistreated, and still all too frequently portrayed as happy little figures sitting on toadstools smoking pipes even though increasingly they’re switching to e-cigarettes the leprechaun is still the object of prejudice and misconceptions. Many of us, in fact, have passed by or even worked alongside leprechauns, often without realizing it. In the interests of time I’ll just be addressing a few of the most common misconceptions here.

The first is the ancient belief that leprechauns are mischievous, even dangerous creatures. Stories of leprechauns luring travelers into bogs or inflicting injuries on those passing through wooded areas go back as far as the 8th century, but sociologists now agree that such behavior is not characteristic of leprechauns, and is, in fact, quite rare. While there may be some basis in truth for these stories it’s widely accepted that destructive behavior was the act of a minority among leprechauns who, feeling marginalized from the culture as a whole, acted out in anti-social ways. Unfortunately this misconception has been perpetuated and reinforced by stories that are still told to children, as well as in movies, such as the 1993 film Leprechaun, its many sequels including 2000’s Leprechaun in the Hood, and, of course, the 1980 Al Pacino movie Cruising.

There is also a less common misconception of leprechauns as helpful. There are stories of leprechauns discreetly doing farm work, including harvesting, milking cows, and repairing small machinery. Again there may be some basis for these stories, but not all leprechauns enjoy the outdoors or are suited for farm work. Many prefer to work in offices, or seek employment in fields such as shoemaking. This is, of course, not to say that all leprechauns are adept at working with footwear, but many did find this to be an accepted trade. It’s believed this originated from leprechauns making shoes for fairies who, being generally more accepted, would be asked by more common folk where they got such amazing stilettoes. Working as cobblers proved to be profitable even when leprechauns were subject to such fierce discrimination that they were kept out of most cities and towns and had to form their own exclusive villages, commonly known as leprechaulonies.

Stories of farmers rewarding helpful leprechauns with suits of clothes, only to find that the leprechauns considered this an insult and would disappear, may also have some basis in truth, mainly because you can’t expect a leprechaun to wear that coat with those pants, especially after Labor Day.

Finally we come to the most common and persistent belief about leprechauns: that they are hoarders of massive quantities of gold which they keep in pots at the end of rainbows. This belief has been so pervasive that attempts have been made to lure leprechauns with artificial rainbows by everyone from Sir Isaac Newton to the manager of the band Pink Floyd. As a belief it was understandable at a time when people regarded meteorological phenomena as magical, unlike now when it’s understood that rainbows are caused by the refraction of sunlight through water droplets suspended in centaur farts. Because rainbows rarely have ends that reach the ground it’s still not understood how exactly leprechauns could have kept their alleged pots of gold at the ends of rainbows, in spite of several theories advanced by folklorists and experiments attempting to hang pots of gold from rainbows using balloons. A frequently repeated tale is that a leprechaun, when caught, may be forced to give up the location of his pot of gold, but only if the person who caught him keeps his eyes fixed on the leprechaun. In stories of this type the leprechaun often escapes capture by telling the person who caught him that there’s a fierce beast or the Chrysler building just over his shoulder. Folklorists believe that there is some truth in this, but only to the extent that leprechauns seem to have invented the “made you look” joke. Also it’s now known that leprechauns are not inherently wealthy. While there are some who have enjoyed success—the heir to the Lucky Charms fortune, for instance, or Mickey Rooney—leprechauns are no more likely to be wealthy than the general population.That concludes the lecture for today. In preparation for next week read pages 126-153, when we will be discussing genetic mutation and its potential for altering reality. Our lab work will involve real four-leaf clovers, but I’d better not catch any of you wishing for a better grade.

Soda, So Good.

So I an errand that took me by where I used to catch the bus, not far from the historic Elliston Place neighborhood, and I couldn’t resist getting out and walking around to see how the area was faring. And I was a little sad to see that the old Elliston Place Soda Shop was closed. I know it’s been a hard time for restaurants and other venues that depend on people actually coming in—Exit/In, another historic place, which is just up the street, has been struggling to stay open too.

Except the Elliston Place Soda Shop isn’t exactly closing. It’s moving. To the building next door.

That may seem a little odd, but then it’s been in the same building since 1939, and that building has been around since it first opened as a pharmacy in 1912. It’s a place that’s seen some history, including two world wars, large and small economic downturns, and fifteen presidents. Still the old building is kind of cramped and narrow, so it makes sense that, even before COVID-19, they were planning to expand so they could serve more people at a time. And it’s now got this newfangled drive-thru window!  

I have my own history with the Elliston Place Soda Shop. The first time I went in there I was an adult. It may seem strange that I grew up in Nashville but never went there as a kid but, well, it was just not a place we ever went. It was a little before three in the afternoon, too late for lunch, too early for dinner. I sat down at the old-fashioned chrome counter. An older waitress with her hair up in a bun and wearing old-fashioned cat eye glasses studded with rhinestones smiled at me and said, “Well, what can I get ya, hon? How about a cheeseburger?”

“I think I’d just like a milkshake, please,” I said.

“Fine,” she snapped, glaring at me and snatching the menu out of my hands. I’m still not sure what I did wrong, but the milkshake was really good—one of the best I’ve ever had, but I didn’t go back for a long time. I’d been out to dinner with a friend and we decided we’d go to the soda shop for dessert. When we stepped in there was a guy in a white apron shaking a broom at us.

“Get out! Get out!” he yelled. “We’re closing in five minutes!”

Well excuse me for not knowing the hours. If they were closing up he should have locked the door.

One day not too long after that when I went to catch the bus I saw they were shooting a music video at the soda shop, only they’d covered up the signs and turned it into a place called Awful House. Well that’s fitting, I thought.

Maybe now that they’ve expanded their service will be a little more expansive, and eventually I will go back. I loved that milkshake and I’d really like to have another one, although I’ll get it to go.

And All The Devils Are Here.

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Hey DJ!

Source: Thursday Review

So I was driving around running a few small errands and listening to a local DJ and marveling that there’s still such a thing as local DJs. We don’t have satellite radio—my wife listens to a lot of audiobooks—and there is at least one “local” station that doesn’t have DJs and even prides itself on not taking requests, but there are at least a couple where you can call in and talk to an actual person which always gives me flashbacks to my high school days when I finally got out of the misery of riding the bus and rode home with friends who had cars and we’d listen to the radio, and then once we got home we’d go in and turn on the radio in the house—running if there was a song we really liked on. Sometimes we’d call up the DJs. It always amazed me that my friends could get into long conversations with DJs, sometimes ten or fifteen minutes. One local station had a promo where they’d play the call of the Tookie bird from George Of The Jungle and if you were the first caller you won something. One time my friend was on the phone with the DJ for about fifteen minutes and he heard it in the background and said, “Hey, I’m the first caller, right?” And the DJ laughed and sent my friend a couple of movie tickets. Every time I called the DJs always cut me off for some reason. Maybe it was my song choices.

“Could you play Hourglass by Squeeze?”

“Yeah, we don’t have that anymore.” Click.

“Could you play Bohemian Rhapsody?”

“We played that earlier this week. It’s too weird to play more than that.” Click.

“Hey, could you play—”

“Sorry, kid, we’re not taking requests right now.” Click.

In college I had a couple of friends who were DJs for the campus radio station. One even put me on the air, briefly, one night. I only announced one song and did a Casey Kasem impersonation. It was pretty good but not good enough. The next day I got a call from the student manager who told me I had to go through training and orientation before I’d be allowed on the air again, so that was the end of my radio career.

Riding the bus home from work I mostly had an iPod then my phone loaded up with songs and podcasts, but for just driving around I still like regular old-fashioned radio. I like the surprise of not really knowing what song is coming up next, even if—sometimes especially if—it’s not a song I’d pick.

Between songs the DJ chattered away and finally I pulled over into a parking lot and called. There was one ring, then two, and then somebody picked up. It didn’t sound like the DJ—maybe they use a different on-air voice—but I just asked if he’d play a song I wanted to hear.

“Okay, maybe, I’ll see if I can find that, it’s a little out there, hey, thanks for calling.” Click.

Well, it was a bit perfunctory but a few minutes later the song I asked for came on.


Behind It All.

It’s been, well, about a year since I was last in an art gallery. The office where I worked before the lockdown is right across the street from the Vanderbilt University campus and sometimes when I needed a break I’d walk up to the Sarratt Gallery and see what was on display. In fact I had a short-lived job writing art criticism and wrote about two exhibits at Sarratt before the magazine folded. Something I’ve never thought about in any art gallery or museum, though, is the walls behind the paintings or other artworks on display. Well, who does? Curators, I guess, but, really, have you ever been in a museum and turned your attention away from the paintings and looked at the walls? And it’s not something I would have thought about if I hadn’t read about New York City’s Frick Collection being temporarily moved from the opulent mansion, built in 1912, where it’s normally housed to a 1966 office building that’s an example of the aptly named Brutalist architecture.

Here’s a good example of the difference, first paintings in the Frick Mansion:

Source: New York Times

And here are some of the same works in their current digs:

Source: New York Times

I guess whenever I looked at paintings I was always on some level conscious of where I was—I mean, I did once get lost in the Cleveland Museum of Art because it’s huge, and when I went to the Louvre, where I also got lost because it’s even huger, but that’s another story, I looked around and thought, yeah, I could believe Napoleon rode horses through these hallways. I still knew what building I was in. I just never really stopped to think about how the surroundings, even the color of the walls, affected how I was seeing the paintings on those walls. And I know curators and even some artists are very particular about painting placement and even lighting. I just didn’t give it that much thought.

It’ll still be a while before I go back to an art museum or gallery. I know I’ll be getting a COVID-19 shot sometime soon, but “soon” is still pretty vague. When I’m finally back out and about, though, it seems fitting that I just won’t be thinking about what I’m seeing but where.

March Pride.

March comes in like a lion.

Specifically it comes in like the lion in the old joke who goes marching around the veldt and when he finds a giraffe he roars at it, “Who is the greatest animal in all of Africa?” And the giraffe trembles and says, “You are!” The lion nods and moves on. Then he comes upon a cheetah and roars at it, “Who is the greatest animal in all of Africa?” And the cheetah trembles and says, “You are!” The lion nods and moves on. Then he comes upon an elephant and roars at it, “Who is the greatest animal in all of Africa?” The elephant picks the lion up with his trunk, swings him around, and slams him against a tree.

The lion, dazed, picks himself up off the ground and says, “Fine, sure, whatever, you don’t have to get upset just because you don’t know the answer!”

Or maybe it’s like the one in the old joke about the two photographers taking pictures of a sleeping lion. The lion wakes up, stretches, and starts to move toward them. One of the photographers reaches down and puts on a pair of running shoes. The other one says, “You don’t think you’re going to outrun a lion, do you?” The first one says, “Forget the lion. I just need to outrun you.”

Or it’s like the one about an aquarium owner who calls in her assistant and says, “We’ve got a serious problem. We’ve got a bunch of preschoolers coming today and the dolphins have picked now to start mating. They won’t stop going at it. The only thing that acts as an anti-aphrodisiac to dolphins is the cheeping of baby seagulls. I need you to run down to the beach and get a couple.”

The assistant starts to go but the owner stops him. “Wait! There’s a problem! A lion escaped from the zoo next door. They hit it with a tranquilizer dart but it’s still out there somewhere so be careful.”

 The assistant runs down to the beach and grabs a couple of baby seagulls. On his way back he finds his path blocked by the lion. The lion is sound asleep so he steps over it very carefully. But just as he does so a policeman steps out and arrests him.

“But officer, what’s the charge?”

“Transporting young gulls across a sedate lion for immoral porpoises.”

Or it’s like the one about a priest traveling alone through the African bush. One day a lion jumped out at him and immediately put its paws together and began to pray.

“I’m saved!” shouted the priest. “It’s a miracle!”

“Shut up,” said the lion, “I’m saying grace here.”

Or it’s like the one about a couple of lions walking around Broadway. One says to the other, “Weird. There don’t seem to be a lot of people around.”

March goes out like a lamb.

There aren’t any jokes about lambs. That must be why April starts with fools.

Please Tip Your Waiter.

Over the past year my wife and I have gotten a lot of takeout from local restaurants. It’s our way of doing what little we can to help, and, fortunately, most of our favorite places are still around while too many others have gone out of business. And I do all the picking up rather than using one of the numerous delivery services. I haven’t crunched the numbers but I think more money goes to the restaurant, which is also kind of a family tradition. I had a great uncle who, when his father had a heart attack, called the undertaker. When people asked him why he didn’t call the doctor he said, “I could have but I got a bigger inheritance by cutting out the middleman,” but that’s another story.

I know it’s tough for restaurants even now but there’s one thing I absolutely can’t stand: when I get home and find that something’s been left out of our order. With most things I’m pretty easygoing but finding that something’s missing from a takeout order sends me into a boiling rage, and the worst part is I can’t really do anything about it. I’m not going back to the restaurant because by the time I’ve driven there, picked up the order, and driven home I’m usually cold and hungry and tired, and also they might not believe me when I tell them something was missing. And in fairness to the restaurants I get that. I have a brother-in-law who used to be a general manager at a restaurant that served prime rib on weekends. One Wednesday night someone called in to complain that they’d picked up a to-go order and their prime rib was missing. He said, “Maybe that’s because we’re not serving prime rib tonight.” The caller hung up.

I also get that mistakes can happen although repeated mistakes turn me off a place no matter how good it is. Several years ago my wife and I got sushi from a favorite local place—it was where we had one of our first dates, in fact, and even after it changed hands the food was still good but their takeout service took a nosedive. Our orders were always short and always took longer than they said. If they told me the order would be ready in half an hour it would take at least an hour, and I’d spend most of the extra time standing there in the restaurant like a schmuck. Finally I complained to the manager who said he understood and that they’d gotten a lot of complaints and said the next time our order would be free. The next time there was a different manager on duty who said he’d never heard of any problems but that if I were willing to come in he’d be happy to discuss it. I knew I was getting cold fish and it wasn’t sushi.

Anyway one night I got takeout from a nearby Chinese restaurant and started pulling everything out and was surprised to find things I didn’t order in the bag: egg rolls and extra dumplings. I couldn’t figure it out. It was all in one bag and the receipt with my name and number was stapled to the outside so it wasn’t as though I’d picked up someone else’s order along with mine. I hoped they hadn’t made a mistake and I felt bad about some poor schmuck getting home and not finding his egg rolls. Then I checked the receipt again and written at the bottom was, “Extra dumplings/egg rolls-FREE” right above “THANK YOU!”

Yeah, with that sort of service I will go back—again and again.

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