Author Archive: Christopher Waldrop

Miniature World.


Aquaria have a long history dating back to a woman named Anna Thynne (1806-1866) who started a Victorian craze when she and her children went to the beach and brought home some living corals. She kept the corals alive by regularly aerating the water by hand—or having her maid do it. Then she went back to the beach and figured out that if she put together just the right combination of plants and animals she could create a miniature ecosystem that was self-sustaining, at least for a while. It became really popular and lots of people started getting home aquaria, and her discovery even led to the first fish house at the London Zoo.

I think about her whenever I see an ad for one of those “self-sustaining” enclosed biospheres. I remember when those first started popping up in catalogs with the promise that they’d live forever. I think a year later the catalogs changed that to “lives up to three to six months!” and $79.95 plus shipping was a pretty hefty price for a dead paperweight. Some still get sold with the promise that they’re “perfectly balanced” and will live forever but realistically it just ain’t happening.

But I did find this cool website,, that allows you to create a miniature virtual ecosystem. You can fill it with sand and stone and wood and water and add plants, water fleas, and fish. It cycles from day to night ever few minutes and it’s kind of cool keeping an eye on the health of it. You can leave it running in the background and check on it every once in a while.

Still no matter what I do no system is perfect. The CO2 creeps up, the fish die, the plants eventually start to rot. At least it’s not real, but I keep thinking I should get a little bowl to put on my desk and put some water and a few aquatic plants, maybe even a cheap goldfish or two in it. I’ll just have to remember to change the water regularly since I don’t have a maid to do it.

A Copy Of A Copy.

Source: The New Yorker

So I heard about an author whose upcoming book was withdrawn from publication because of plagiarism and the author offered an apology which turned out to also be partly plagiarized. I won’t go into any more details partly because the author has been dragged enough and there are a lot of articles out there already about this specific case that it would be really tempting to me to just copy and paste, but also while I don’t want to defend plagiarism I’m also kind of defending plagiarism.

This also isn’t the first time I’ve thought about plagiarism so forgive me if I repeat myself. Besides you have to figure even the first person to say “Originality is overrated” got the idea from somewhere.

In science, of course, if someone repeats your experiment and come up with the same results that’s a good thing because it means the original conclusions are probably right and it’s a major part of the scientific process called “reproducibility”. In the arts on the other hand repeating someone’s work is called “plagiarism” or “forgery” even though you’d think they’d be thrilled if you came to the same conclusions. I’d like to have someone tell me I’m right about something because I hear so rarely.

Would a truly original idea even be relatable? It’s hard to say because I can’t think of a truly original idea. Even Shakespeare lifted plots from various sources, as many scholars have pointed out. He’s also credited with inventing a few dozen new words, and why can he get away with it when I can’t? Sometimes I’ll drop an unusual word in conversation and I’ll be accused of using a “made up word”. Every word is a made up word, although some words are free-range, organic, and locally sourced.

I get that every author, composer, and artist has their own distinctive style or voice, and that’s part of what makes art great—because we’re all individuals we all bring something new to the table, but right now there are more new pieces of writing being added to our collective culture than ever before and I’m sorry for making the problem worse by adding my own thoughts right now but I can’t seem to stop. And there are constraints. For one thing to be understood, and I think in most cases we want to be understood, we all have to use the same words. There’s a finite number of words in every language and an even smaller number of combinations that make sense. I realized that when I was in grade school and a teacher told me to describe something in my own words. I said, “I don’t have any words of my own. Can I use some from the dictionary?” And the teacher said, “Oh, like I haven’t heard that one before.”

My favorite story of plagiarism, though, isn’t one that happened to me but was one a philosophy professor shared with a class I was in as a warning to us not to try plagiarizing. He had a student who was failing his class and at the end of the term the professor offered everyone a choice: they could take the final exam or they could write a paper instead. The student opted to write a paper and what he turned in started with, “Immanuel Kant transformed the hylomorphic distinction from an ontological to a noetic order.”

The professor offered him a second choice: he could explain just what that first sentence meant or he could flunk the class, and I kind of wish he’d pulled it off but he went with the second option.

In retrospect that wasn’t the best example since the student’s attempt was pretty obvious, but I didn’t think about that at a time because the story reminded me I was supposed to turn in a paper for that class and I was in the back quickly grinding out five pages of analysis of Nietzsche which, I must say, were pretty original.

Old And New.

Last week I had a doctor’s appointment at the 100 Oaks shopping center which is now mostly owned by the Vanderbilt Medical Center, but also has a few stores. Going there always brings back memories of when it was a shopping mall, the second one in Nashville, in fact. The front lobby where people now sit and hand out stickers that say “Visitor” used to have a fountain with copper lily pads and cattails. It’s long gone but the escalators are still there, and I still prefer to take the stairway that’s between them. At least one thing hasn’t changed: almost everything is on the second floor.

It seemed like a trip to 100 Oaks Mall every Friday night was a regular part of my life when I was four, before we moved to a different part of town, closer to Harding Mall, also now gone. These trips never seemed to have any purpose beyond just walking from one end of the mall to the other. Maybe my parents just wanted to get out of the house for a while, or maybe, because it was such a new experience for me, it’s been magnified. Maybe we only went a few times and I just never noticed that they were always legitimate shopping trips because of the mannequins.

I remember being fascinated and also more than a little spooked by mannequins. The ones with heads were unnerving enough with their thousand-yard stares and fixed smiles, but the headless ones that still had tall angled necks were even more frightening.

I remember going back there several times over the years, seeing the stores change, although the fountain with the copper lily pads and cattails was always there. At some point they turned off the water and let it dry up but it was still pretty.

The year before the mall closed I went to see my high school band march in with Santa.

I’m not sure why I felt such a rush of nostalgia on this particular trip to 100 Oaks. I’ve had doctor’s appointments there before, although the last one was in 2015. And this one was a little different because it was in the very back; I had to travel almost the entire mall to get to it and that made me think about how much the space has changed, and how much the world has changed.

A Sense Of Place.

Something I only thought about recently is how, when curators or even dealers are designing art exhibits, they have to be conscious of how each work is positioned. It’s even kind of funny to me to think that, among all the college art courses I either took or just saw in the catalog “How To Design An Exhibit” was never one of them, and that definitely seems like something that could be made into an entire course. At the very least some training in it would be helpful for art history majors going out into the world hoping to grab a job at a museum or gallery. Some choices seem obvious but it still seems like being able to say, “Well, I know not to put a Seurat in a hallway” would give you some edge in a job interview.

I also think about artists like Denyse Thomasos, who’s getting a bit of a revival lately, and whose paintings often dealt with the themes of of slavery and the African diaspora, and who purposely made big paintings so details would be clearly visible, as well as giving a sense of the inescapable, since she was trying to convey the experiences of people who were trapped. Placing a big painting requires careful thought. Then again so does placing a small painting. How much wall space is there? How much space should be between paintings? How high on the wall should a painting be placed?

Add to all these considerations the fact that that most exhibit spaces are designed to guide you from point A to point B–the more walls the more display space there is, and some exhibits try to tell some kind of story. Even if they don’t a good curator has to be aware that what people see first is going to influence what they see next, and it’s important to keep them moving. You don’t want to put the best work first or people will either stop or feel let down by the time they get to the end, if they don’t just leave. And it should be really obvious that you want to provide a clear view without anything in the way.


Ticks Ticks Boom.

So far this year I’ve found three ticks on me, and it’s not even summer yet even though it’s already starting to feel like summer. And while one of those ticks was on my back, because they like to go for hard-to-reach places, I found the other two in my hair, probably because it was convenient. Ticks like to hang out on low-lying branches, and just getting there must be a pretty impressive feat for a creature that’s less than a quarter of an inch long, and they seem to do it pretty quickly too. Imagine climbing to the top of Mount Everest in a matter of hours. Now imagine climbing to the top of Mount Everest from the bottom of the Mariana Trench and then having to walk west to east across Iowa in just a few hours. This is nothing like what the tick has to do because they don’t need special breathing equipment or even a backpack because all they need is tightly packed into their compact bodies which explains why they make such a satisfying popping sound when you crush them. And once they’re in position they can sense a potential host by its carbon dioxide emissions, ammonia, other chemicals, and even sweat and body heat with a special body part called Haller’s organ, and I wish whoever Haller was would take it back.

Ticks can carry diseases and their bites can cause infections and if that weren’t enough reason to hate them a tick almost ruined my first camping trip when I was eleven. I had to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and I picked what seemed like a convenient tree and apparently the tick thought it was convenient too because when I woke up the next morning there it was fastened between my legs, so of course I did what seemed most logical at the time and ignored it for the next two days hoping it would drop off and not take anything other than some of my blood with it. It probably would have eventually but by Sunday afternoon I was getting impatient and more than a little worried so I took the bull by the horns, or rather the tick by the carapace, which is actually more impressive even if it doesn’t sound as cool, and yanked it out. And everything was fine until the area where it had been swelled up and turned a horrifying shade of cerise. My mother called the doctor who advised rest and applying a towel soaked in salt water to the area, which was probably a placebo, but I got to skip school that Monday so some good came out of it.

I also have a certain respect for ticks. Although they’re not nearly as impressive as their arachnid cousins, the spiders, they are pretty remarkable in their ability to survive and locate prey. It’s also unfortunate that they sometimes latch onto humans because we’re more likely to find and destroy a tick before it can complete its meal and move on to another host. Imagine you wanted a steak and accidentally got an entire cow. Now imagine that cow was the size of the Sears Tower and that it stepped on you. This is nothing like what a tick experiences and the popping sound you’d make wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying.

Down The Path.

Last weekend I went to Radnor Lake again and, because it was crowded, I took a stroll down the Historic Valve House Trail, which, despite being historic, is both the newest trail and one of the least used and I could tell it hadn’t gotten a lot of use because there was a thorny blackberry vine growing right across the trail.

Here’s a quick history of Radnor Lake: it’s a manmade lake that was dug by railroad workers in the 1910s to provide water for cattle and steam engines at the rail yards four miles away. A few years ago I was part of the volunteer crew that helped move this piece of the original pipe to its current location along the trail:

While the lake provided water to the railroads it and the surrounding forest were also a recreation area for a few wealthy railroad magnates and their families who used it for hunting and fishing. Then, in 1973, the state and citizens raised the money to purchase the area and it became a state park. Now it’s open to everyone.

That and the bramble I had to duck under reminded me this poem by Yusef Komunyakaa, in which he goes from freedom to humiliation but, subtly, still gets the last laugh:


They left my hands like a printer’s
Or thief’s before a police blotter
& pulled me into early morning’s
Terrestrial sweetness, so thick
The damp ground was consecrated
Where they fell among a garland of thorns.

Although I could smell old lime-covered
History, at ten I’d still hold out my hands
& berries fell into them. Eating from one
& filling a half gallon with the other,
I ate the mythology & dreamt
Of pies & cobbler, almost

Needful as forgiveness. My bird dog Spot
Eyed blue jays & thrashers. The mud frogs
In rich blackness, hid from daylight.
An hour later, beside City Limits Road
I balanced a gleaming can in each hand,
Limboed between worlds, repeating one dollar.

The big blue car made me sweat.
Wintertime crawled out of the windows.
When I leaned closer I saw the boy
& girl my age, in the wide back seat
Smirking, & it was then I remembered my fingers
Burning with thorns among berries too ripe to touch.

Broken Fast.


Once when I was a kid I dumped some orange juice into a bowl of Sugar Smacks, which I ate for breakfast before they became Honey Smacks. If you’re wondering what I was thinking I can only say I wasn’t. I was, I think, four at the time and while I could say that even at that age I liked experimenting with food, trying different flavors, or that I was trying a novel way to save time by combining breakfast foods the simple fact is I don’t know why I did it. At least I was conscientious enough to eat it, and while most of the other details are fuzzy I distinctly remember that it was, well, not as bad as you might think—it was just a little orange juice so it formed sort of a tingly background note—but it wasn’t good either. It wasn’t an experiment I ever repeated, partly because I knew I’d never get the proportions exactly right ever again but mainly it just wasn’t that good. I’m also pretty sure I knew when I did it that it wouldn’t be good. Still I can retroactively apply the lesson that food is an art form and experimenting is part of every art and with experiments there are hits and there are misses.

And then there’s Tropicana Crunch. The breakfast cereal “made” to have orange juice poured over it.

Source: Wikipedia

Admittedly it’s not the weirdest thing in the history of breakfast cereal. The weirdest thing is still that Harvey Kellogg invented corn flakes because he believed a bland, vegetarian diet would prevent masturbation. Tropicana Crunch just comes in a very close second. I can only imagine that the advertising team was sitting around trying to think of something new and someone said, “You know what goes well with orange juice?” Someone else said, “Vodka,” and after several rounds of screwdrivers a third person found a bag of expired granola in the break room, put it in a bowl and poured orange juice over it, and sent the idea to the research and development team as a joke. If you’re old enough to remember when Honey Smacks were still Sugar Smacks you also remember Mikey, the Life cereal kid. And even if you’re younger you’ve probably still heard of him and, no, Pop Rocks didn’t kill him; he’s still alive and works in advertising. Mikey became famous for being the kid who hated everything. Less famous but just as noteworthy is his twin Charlie, the kid who would eat anything. Charlie was probably responsible for those Pop Rocks rumors just because of the number of times he had to have his stomach pumped after the neighborhood kids convinced him to eat actual rocks, a Coke with a rusty nail dissolved in it, acorns, fiberglass, a grasshopper, part of an old tire, a weird mushroom they found in the woods, dried latex paint, and, worst of all, Kevin’s mom’s spinach quiche. Charlie is the only human being known to have a natural immunity to salmonella because he once ate a dozen deviled eggs that had been sitting out all day. In August. In Miami. Charlie’s still alive and works in research and development. And he will still eat anything. So when he got the call to make cereal with orange juice he just shrugged and went with it.

Every party has to end sometime and when the advertising team sobered up and realized, to their horror, what Charlie had made, they did what every good advertiser does and covered up the mistake by selling it.

It’s not surprising but the website for Tropicana Crunch now says it’s no longer available. It was an experiment and like so many experiments it was not a hit and it will not be missed.

It’s Enough To Give You A Headache.

Our migraine medication is safe and non-addictive.  It’s also so effective it can prevent or treat a migraine if taken up to an hour after your first symptoms, which is at least how long it will take you to open the package.

For your convenience each pill is in its own blister pack. The term “blister pack”, by the way, doesn’t refer to the way each pill is enclosed in a miniature package. It was conceived by our testing department after they decided calling it a “slip under your fingernails and cause excruciating pain pack” or “slice your arm open when the knife that’s the only thing sharp enough to pierce it slips pack” would be too long for the standard design manual.

Because we know one of the symptoms of migraines is sensitivity to light we’ve purposely coated the entire raised side of the blister pack with a highly reflective metal foil. This will make the package easy to find at three a.m when you realize that half glass of red wine you had at dinner was a mistake. You were sure would be okay, of course, because it’s been six months and you had a really rough week, but you’ve now got the warning signs of increasing pressure behind your eyeballs and zigzags across your field of vision which look sort of like reflected light.

This will also allow you to see each individual pill pocket without, of course, being able to see the pills themselves which, we’ve only just realized, makes it hard to know exactly where the pills are. To determine the location of the pills just shake the packet.

Since another symptom of migraines is vision problems which can mean hallucinations, difficulty focusing, or partial or even total blindness we really should have stopped to think before we printed the instructions for removing the pills in tiny print on each individual packet on the opposite side which is made of white cardboard reinforced with plastic. For convenience we’ll reprint the instructions here: Apply gentle pressure to force the pill out of the packaging.

We realize that “gentle pressure” is a relative term and that between the foil that can only be cut with heavy-duty shears and the reinforced cardboard is so tough your efforts to get the pill out of the packaging will probably grind it to a powder. We do not recommend trying to take the medication in powder form. For one thing you probably won’t be able to get enough of it into your mouth to make an effective dose. For another this medication is extremely bitter which will trigger or worsen the nausea which, we’ve just remembered, is another symptom of migraines.

Sometimes the pill will pop out of the packaging with the application of pressure but will snap in half. If this happens don’t worry, unless the half that pops out skitters across the floor and is picked up by your pet or toddler. Should they ingest even a partial pill we recommend you call your local poison control center immediately and also induce them to vomit. This shouldn’t be difficult since you’ll already be vomiting yourself because you’ve got a migraine. But feel free to take the other half of the pill once you’ve managed to peel away enough of the foil/cardboard.

You may be wondering why we chose to package the migraine medication in this way and it’s because we’re all about safety. Also someone in the design department was up late one night and stumbled on the Wikipedia page for the Chicago Tylenol murders and got kind of freaked out.

It might also be that the average migraine sufferer only experiences an average of two to four attacks per month. Any more than that and you’d want to take something stronger, like one of our high level pain medications which, we admit, have been shown to be highly addictive and have even led to overdoses, but which, because we care, are conveniently packaged in the traditional amber plastic bottle with a newly redesigned easy-to-open screw-top lid.

Do not take this medication if you are allergic to it or if you are unable to open the package.

Rejected by McSweeney’s.

Car Wash.

This weekend I washed the car. It seemed like a good time since my wife said, “You really need to wash the car this weekend” three weeks ago and of course if I were a superhero I’d be The Procrastinator, but that’s another story. And technically I’ve been putting it off since, well, if I remember correctly the last time I washed the car was last July, but it hasn’t really needed it, at least until now with everything blooming and pollen everywhere which has given the car a chartreuse tinge which clashes with the dark blue finish. And for some reason this doesn’t come off with a simple spray of the hose or even a good rain. Soap and a sponge are required. There’s also the problem that I’m short and have trouble reaching the roof of the car, even with a ladder. Also there’s the fact that once I’ve finished washing the car and put away everything and the car dries that’s when the spots that I missed become glaringly obvious. At least the roof is enough above eye level that it’s not so noticeable.

What I really should have done was take it down the street to the automatic car wash place. As a kid getting to ride through a car wash was almost an adventure. I loved watching the brushes go along the windows and the giant rolling drum rumble over the front and top of the car while hot water, soap, and wax rained down. The only problem with it was that it was always over too soon. That’s a complaint I can never make about washing the car by hand.

And of course after I washed the car it rained overnight, and, while it doesn’t look bad, I know that means it needs to be washed again even though it seems completely counterintuitive that rain, which is mostly water, is a bad thing. This time I will take it down the street to the automatic car wash place. At least I will when I get around to it, which will probably be some time in July.

The Secret.

I’ve always been intrigued by closed doors and unseen places. Once when I was, I think six or seven, I was at the dentist’s office. It wasn’t time for my appointment yet so I was sitting in the waiting room and, bored out of my skull, I decided to go exploring. There was an unmarked door at the end of a hallway so I opened it. Inside was a dental assistant developing a batch of X-rays. In those days X-rays, like other photographs, had to be developed in a darkroom. Do you know what happens when you open the door of a darkroom while the X-rays are in the process of being developed? Your mom has to pay for them and you don’t get ice cream on the way home.

I’ve learned to be a bit more cautious since then so I wouldn’t have opened the door of the Secret Room even if I could figure out how to open it, no matter how much I’d really, really, really like to know what secrets it holds.

Actually that door is at the back of the Darkhorse Theater. I’ve been in the theater but the Secret Room is in the very back where I haven’t been. It’s probably just the loading area where they bring in large pieces of scenery and other props—nothing exciting, but, to me, the backstage areas of theaters are the most intriguing places of all.

It occurs to me, too, that I have a friend who’s performed in several plays there. Maybe he could let me in on the secret.

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