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#300 :: Pool Hall Clock

December 4, 2004

Smoky night. Junior was taggin’ and baggin’ ’em, one pigeon after another. He chainsmoked, fiddled with the chalk, had this wild, irritating laugh that cut through all the chatter, the clack of balls, the jukebox blare, the chatter of the barflies and the dull, beer-sodden roar of league play in the bowling alley outside the billiard room. Junior was an asshole. No one took him seriously. Even when they lost. He’d play the hophead klutz: scratch on break, sink the 8-ball, drop the stick a split-second after the pigeon shot – some little gimmick every couple of losing games or so, then rope the guy in with a sudden streak of luck and write it off with that giggle that could etch glass as he nervously eyed the loser and offered – all embarrassed – to let him have that game because of some technicality. Then he’d take the money. He’d rattle on about how he needed to go get his knob polished or get a massage or some lowlife patter, and they’d take him for some idiot horndog who got lucky, and he’d take them for their paychecks, five or 10 bucks at a time. Fresh greenbacks straight from the mint to the defense plant cashier’s office to the guy’s wallet to Junior’s bony, bunched fist in his sweaty pocket before it ever got spent. Junior never punched in. Philly got this slick new Calculagraph timeclock – solid nickel face where you’d slip the card in, two big Bakelite pull handles you’d yank down to punch your times in and out so Jennifer the freshman from the technical college down the road could charge you the right amount at the end of the night. Junior never touched the card she handed him. Just bullshitted her and sweet-talked and told knock-knock jokes and bought her Shirley Temples, then talked shit about her with the guys at the table, sotto voce so they’d ogle her, which always made her blush, and he’d come over and tell her all the horrible things they were saying, and promise to defend her honor if any of them got too snakey, and she’d just wave his card at him (on the sly so Philly couldn’t see) and say, “No charge, sweetie.” That was, until one of Junior’s marks – an ex-Marine who saw action at Midway – dragged him out back by the collar and dented his skull a few times against his Pontiac’s running board. The jarhead then strode back in and told her exactly what Junior had been muttering about her all night. Every word. She contemplated pulling the clock down from the wall, lugging it out back and dropping it on Junior’s head – it weighed a good 15 pounds, she had to help Philly unpack and hang it. But she just quit that night – got work at an ice cream joint nearer to campus, and Junior never saw her again when he got out of the hospital. He quit laughing so loud, too. Just this weak little heh-heh-heh. He quit hustling. Philly let him take her job out of pity. He’s still working there until about 1973. Just keeled over right there at the cash register, clutched at something as he went down, and the clock yanked the molly bolt right out of the cinderblock, and fell on his face. They had to have a closed casket.

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#298 :: Styrofoam “Peanuts”

December 3, 2004

Picture this: At the core of a package rides the cargo – an art project that’s unimportant to this exercise: as they are unloading the second runner-up’s 200-pound piece – all brass wire and ceramic and animal bones – they lose hold of it at the top of an extremely long hill in San Francisco. Barreling downhill in a stout wood crate on wheels the cosseted thing goes, galumphing airborne at the cross streets, and slamming to the pavement again. It hurtles toward the bay. Around it thousands of fragile, near-weightless bits of lab-cooked polystyrene jostle, hold back the blows of the street, the cars it sideswipes, the lampposts and newsboxes that leap up to trip it. The crate has caster wheels on all six sides, so no matter which way it tips or tumbles, it continues to roll. It gains speed, and the thing inside bounces a little harder, and more eratically. The jouncing tumble carries it cartwheeling across Commonwealth Avenue and it smashes against a bollard and explodes. The payload tumbles unharmed off the wharf’s edge and into the bay. The peanuts, borne aloft by the chill winter wind, coalesce in breeze pockets between buildings, dancing merrily in little vortexes of pink and white. Before long, they are blown into a storm drain if not directly into the ocean. They surf the Pacific current cycle for a year, visiting the upper coast, the south Arctic Sea, lazing in surface-borne schools across the shipping lanes of the pacific rim. Here they entwine with a kelp mat for a year. There, an army of children materializes, committed to cleaning up the beach in high winds, and they send more aloft than they bag. And on they blow, impervious to rain or bacteria – a perfect solid pollutant.

Styrofoam peanuts are a good concept, a horrific reality. Strength in numbers, goes the principle. Fragile, near weightless alone, they shelter delicate, breakable goods from home, they are easy to lose hold of, hard to corral, difficult to get rid of properly and essentially impossible to recycle. Newer peanuts – made of cornstarch – are meant to be biodegradable. Pop one in your mouth for a cocktail party stunt. They taste something like cheeseless Cheet-Os.

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#299 :: Mom

December 2, 2004

This is Mom. (Ed: A mom, not mine). She picks this outfit when she’s not sure what to expect, but is told, “wear something casual, but nice.” Is it the mechanic today? The vicar? The PTA president? Jury duty? She has to be ready for anything. A home room visit? A bake sale? A sit-down with her daughter’s probation officer? She has honed this smile over many years, so many hundreds of sit-downs and face-to-face and heart-to-hearts. Her nostrils flare, her eyes open a little wider – she’s learned to tamp down her natural nervousness, breathe a little more evenly. You never know what they’ll say, you try to be prepared. “Mrs. ________? I have some news about your son?” Easy, easy. The conversation could veer any direction now, like a dodgem car that loses a wheel. “I think you should know …” Wait for it. The other kids look up to him. He’s being awarded a special honor, a jacket patch for good citizenship. He’s had a little fall in the gym, nothing serious, tapped his head a bit, but he was never unconscious, no, he’s fine, fine.” She invites them in. Offers tea. Roots around in the cupboard for the box of dark-chocolate Lu cookies that she’s been snacking on oh God I hope there are at least half a box’s worth left don’t panic don’t panic. “Why, what a surprise to see you here. One lump or two? ” She worries that she’s too casual, not casual enough. It’s her most versatile outfit. The silver tongs are proof against tragedy it’s all right you’re being silly, the two of them are fine, just a little scared. Was there something in their lunch box that caused trouble? Something in their lockers? She likes wearing the outfit to the eldest one’s soccer games, the youngest’s dance recitals. Only sometimes does she wish she could wear something more daring – the suede pants, the photographer’s vest, the sweet little French beret. She smiles, just a little wider now, and listens – ready, at least, to listen.

She’s about six inches high, hinged just at the hips and shoulders, with a completely rigid neck. They’ve done her no favors, rendering her pelvis and legs in two different colors – bad manufacture, not bad wardrobe choice, Lord knows.

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#297 :: Spiked Flicker Ball

December 1, 2004

The madness of the “Christmas season.” drapes over sanity throughout December like a perfumed scarf on the only good lamp in the room. People behave like apes, focus like hummingbirds, drive like children. There are years when I loathe my fellow man from Dec. 1 to 20. It’s getting worse.

A bit of perspective:

Just watched A 1920s cartoon: Happy big-band soundtrack. Exterior, night. Snowy road. A cheery, bearded old potbellied man pulls up to the orphanage. The boat propeller on his handmade snowmobile churns through the powder. At the pull of a lever, the vehicle spits out an anchor and chain and slews to a stop. He hops out with a sack of junk and peers through the window to see dozens of miserable orphans, some trudging sockless across the bare floor, others howlingly hungry. The old fellow leaps through the open window, sheds his overcoat and boots, and dumps his cargo on the floor, a jumble of dented saucepans, busted chairs and household tools that have seen better days. He sets to work, flipping over a washboard, straightening the hooks on two stout wooden coat hangers and jamming them into its bottom for a frame, and slapping a pair of barrel staves onto them. He gobbles a handful of nails, and spits them into place, nailing the staves to the frame – voila – a sled. Before long, the kids are playing happily – one orphan’s riding an old rocking chair with a hobby-horse head. Three more are playing with an electric trainset made of crockery – the steam engine a coffee percolator chugging along on saucer wheels with bent-fork cowcatcher. The old man slips on a Santa costume. He shoves 10 closed umbrellas together, the tip of one into the handle of the next, and opens them all at once – instant Christmas tree, and he twirls it on its bottom handle and flings decorations onto it, then lights. Here the cartoon tree changes to photography of a real tree superimposed into a roomful of cheering cartoon orphans. The lights go out, the tree glows, the music swells. Iris to black.

Time was, Christmas was this magical 8- or 10-day period of parties and caroling and log fires and spiced cider. Time was, it was still the birthday of an important, humanitarian prophet whom many believed divine.

Time was, fun could be had just by having fun. Time was, we spent hours preparing forts and ammo for 10-minute snowball fights instead of staring into a glowing box with another box in our hands while slumped in a chair. Twitching. Alone.

Time was toys were anything you could have fun with.

Here’s a product of its times: A ball (easy enough, but wait …) A ball made of hi-bounce rubber. Hi-bounce, acid-green rubber. Translucent hi-bounce acid-green rubber. Molded around a sealed core that contains batteries, LEDs, printed circuitry and a motion-trigger. With nipples (much like this). And blue strobes that blink when you bounce it (much like this). It’s as instantly fascinating as this, and will last thousands of times longer.

I could have fun with either one. But I’ve been conditioned to enjoy twitching.

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#295 :: Sweetgum Seed Pod

November 30, 2004

A grand architecture in miniature defines the way generations of the sweetgum tree last into the future. Nature designs the perfect time-travel vessel for every environmental niche – this one is spiked, to deter predators from its cargo; hollow, to float; hard to withstand crushing and plentiful – coming in great clumps to ensure survival. It is related – if not in toughness then in strangeness – to the wild walnut, the magnolia pod, the coconut. These craft fall by the hundreds at the children’s playground, looking green and ripe until the California air starts to dry them seconds later, and they begin to split and brown in the sun, gaps between their spikes widening from pinhole fissures to gaping wounds, from which seeds spill like thick, tan grains of sand.

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#294 :: Tiny food

November 29, 2004

Had the tiny humans survived, their cuisine would have evolved beyond pygmy mammoths and Komodo dragons. Had they met us, they might have expressed their size as a cultural fetish, serving giant guests near-microscopic portions of undersized food, meticulously prepared. They could have crafted miniature ceramic tableware for the preparation of itty-bitty delicacies – fairy shrimp over dwarf rice with petite scallions, and midget crabs served with a thimbleful of dipping sauce. But they didn’t. A Japanese novelty company took up that torch, creating mouthwateringly faithful plastic reproductions of meals. This is just one in a series of shrunken faux fare. Every day, someone sits down at a bench with fine sable-hair brushes and sharp little scissors and manufactures the half-inch-wide crab or the bratwurst-n-beer-stein, the steak-and-kidney pie-let or the smallified Happy Meal for packaging and sale to lovers of small things. Though each meal could serve as props for dollhouse dinner-table dramas, they’re sold not as such, but as what they are: tiny food, a toy, a schoolgirl’s desk decoration – an artifact made and sold for the perfectly purposeless joy of holding something ever-so-small that’s usually about 400 times bigger.

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#293 :: Pokemon Toy

November 28, 2004

My complete ignorance of Kanji leaves me mystified about the purpose and “function” of this toy in Pokemon mythology. Its plastic clamshell houses a little plastic maze with a tiny steel ball. Its structural genes and coloration sprang from the loins of the Star Trek communicator and the waterproof Walkman. But what does it do in the feverish world of Pokemon? A quick buzz through the website yielded no clues, and the only English words on the box it came in were “Not for sale outside Japan” and the ingredients and nutritional data for the little fizzy candy tablet inside. Maybe it’s a navigational device, a microcosm monster-battle controller, a talisman against the boredom of spare time between Pokematches. Flip it open, squint at the maze, move the metal ball around and around and around. It’s just a toy.

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#292 :: Gold

November 27, 2004

This is “the stuff dreams are made of.” This is spilled blood, spoiled relationships, bad business. This is the Incas’ fetish, and their doom. This is number 79 on the periodic table, with an atomic weight 196.96655 (2). This is the inspiration for good movies and bad. This is malleable, ductile, unaffected by air, water and most reagents, and guaranteed to incite strange behavior. This is what you get for $2.98 at the science museum gift shop: a tiny glass vial full of glycerine, in which float florid, glittering flakes of something that sets your rods and cones abuzz and triggers a fluid click in the base of your skull, as if some deeply embedded animal circuitry were suddenly switched on. Look, it murmurs. Touch. Need. Acquire.

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#291 :: Flickering Postcard

November 26, 2004

Eadweard Muybridge began his landmark “Animal Locomotion” studies to settle a bet: Railroad baron (and namesake university founder) Leland Stanford hired him to prove that a galloping horse lifts all four hooves off the ground at once. What unfolded from there was a 3-year-period of scientific and artistic fertility that would prove to be a visual wellspring for anatomists, photographers, cinematographers, animators, lovers of the moving image and countless art students who believed anything looked cooler if you put it on a grid. You can find Muybridges in multiple media; in the Smithsonian, collections of animated gifs, digital flip books and flickering postcards. This one is by OuterAspect.com, which apparently can translate any animation into a lenticular postcard, the sort that used to be reserved for visions of Jesus and Mickey Mouse. The inscription on this mounted rider says: Cantering – (from the Attitudes of Animals in Motion album) 1878-81.” Here’s how the lenticular thing works.

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#290 :: Fly Reel Tape Measure

November 25, 2004

This looks like kitsch incarnate, but for two things: It would be useful for law-abiding fishermen; and it is exquisitely made, of machined brass and printed vinyl tape. Pull it out to its full 40 inches to measure … whatever. Turn the tiny crank and it reels back in, its internal ratchet clicking softly. A hell of a bargain for $5 from Restoration Hardware, but it seems to be available only in the stores, not online.

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#289 :: Test Tube

November 24, 2004

A little capsule of glass,corked, filled with potential: The half-made bioweapon. The specimen of pandemic infection. The designer euphoric with a chemical structure not yet illegalized. The drug-tainted urine. Imbalanced blood, malignant cells, or radioactive evidence that suddenly alters the course of your life. Life itself. The cultured stem cell. The plain glass test tube is the crucible of good science and bad, a pivot-point for stories of experimentation and conspiracy and dope deals turned sour. They cost about 18 cents apiece.

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#288 :: Cap Bomb

November 23, 2004

There was a time when the immorality of toy weapons didn’t seem so plain. I remember cradling a “tommy gun,” pulling the trigger and watching the orange plug in the barrel pump in and out like muzzle fire, rat-tat-tat-tat-tattattat. Suction cup arrows. Pocketknives. Slingshots. Wrist Rocket, surely the wickedest commercial hot-rodding of an “innocent” toy. Daisy BB guns (was it Phil, or me who squinted down the sights and shattered a window half a block away, then hid for half an hour before forgetting all about it?) I had a wartime childhood, too, but never made the connection, never saw napalm or Nixon carpet-bombing the jungle while I slipped a roll of red-paper caps into the plunger of this little aluminum facsimile. I just tossed it up in a little parabola with delight, watched it plunge to the concrete and – if the cap (or caps for double-bang) was loaded right – it would explode with a * CRACK *.

Now, no toy guns in our house. The kids are forbidden to say “killed” when fantasizing about robot wars or watching “Star Wars.” “No, no, Darth Vader defeated Obi-Wan. No, you defeated your sister with that plastic light-saber.” Will the draft still be on in 13 years? Will I have to give in to Selective Service blackmail to get federal student aid or job training, to help my son duck five years in prison and a $25,000 fine? Do I get a set of dented dogtags and a beaten footlocker, a visit from a grim man in a crisp uniform 14 years from now? A folded flag, a salute and the gratitude of my country? Loathsome fucking toy.

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#287 :: Turtle Shell

November 22, 2004

A haunted house. A Victorian mansion, perfectly preserved, entry is forbidden to the living, and the dead are barred there too. Just a peek is allowed ‘neath its vault of complex plates, varnished up for the curio shop‘s $7 pricetag. I’m not zoologist enough to identify this species, but it reminds me of mortality, of the fact that these pixels won’t be around much longer in the realm of realm of 10,000-year clocks, and that I was a 5-year-old not too too long ago:

My folks spotted a box turtle in the road – it looked like a rock amid the roiling surf of fallen orange maple leaves – and brought it home. We parked it in a makeshift cage in the back yard, where my dad had wrapped the bottom two feet of our geodesic half-dome climber in chicken wire, and fed it water and lettuce and carrots. It ran away within the week – something that mystified me, since I had always thought turtles were slow and somebody would have seen the direction in which it fled.

This is possibly the only whole bone structure one can find that is more gorgeous than a skull, the only one that tells so complete a tale about its former owner.

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#286 :: Classroom Microscope

November 21, 2004

I have this mind’s-eye view of myself, nine or 10 years old, sitting on Phil Helfer’s basement floor watching “The Incredible Shrinking Man” on “Creature Feature.” Grant Williams has just fought off the cat and the tarantula with little more than a sewing needle. He sags against a window screen, his rag-clothes hanging about him like drapery, fastened with a rope of sewing thread. He’s soliloquizing about infinity, the mesh grown so huge that the wires look like iron bars on a ballooning portcullis now, to the point where the holes are as big as he is.

Then, he steps through.

Peering through a microscope takes me back there – not to Phil’s basement, but to that 4th-grader’s sense of wonder – to the shattering knowledge that salt has facets, that my hair is transparent, that pond water teems with tiny monsters.

For a gear freak, nothing thrills me quite like buying a high-quality piece of optical equipment for 5 bucks at a flea market. It’s just a no-brand, Japanese-made microscope (“precision opt. co.!”) and the three-way objective head swivels loosely in the barrel, requiring constant tightening, but it works.

We have a couple of slides kicking around from a lesser-quality TASCO microscope-projector we found at another garage sale ($5, too, I think): With this rig, the stained pollen sample looks like day-glo naval land-mines, and the mosquito’s head like the skull of a gorgon, all hairs and fangs and complex plate structures. I need to get the lenses apart to clean them – there’s a good 30 years worth of mildew spots in all the objectives. But it lives in a fitted wooden box and runs on mirror-fed sunlight. It is a pure evolution of Robert Hooke‘s early device, which found the flea “adorn’d with a curiously polish’d suite of sable Armour, neatly jointed …

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#285 :: Scrabble Tile

November 20, 2004

Depression-born, as iconographic and American, yet universal a pastime as baseball or chess, Scrabble began as hand-stamped wooden tiles. The name means “to grope frantically.” It was patented in 1948. Some history:

During the Great Depression, an out-of-work architect named Alfred Mosher Butts decided to invent a board game. He did some market research and concluded that games fall into three categories: number games, such as dice and bingo; move games, such as chess and checkers; and word games, such as anagrams.

Butts wanted to create a game that combined the vocabulary skills of crossword puzzles and anagrams, with the additional element of chance. The game was originally named Lexico, but Butts eventually decided to call the game “Criss-Cross Words.”

How did he do it?

Butts studied the front page of The New York Times to calculate how often each of the 26 letters of the English language was used. He discovered that vowels appear far more often than consonants, with E being the most frequently used vowel. After figuring out frequency of use, Butts assigned different point values to each letter and decided how many of each letter would be included in the game. The letter S posed a problem. While it’s frequently used, Butts decided to include only four S’s in the game, hoping to limit the use of plurals. After all, he didn’t want the game to be too easy!

Butts got it just right. His basic cryptographic analysis of our language and his original tile distribution have remained valid for almost three generations and for billions of games played.

This delicious icon – a humble single-letter score, the first letter of the alphabet, a versatile vowel – is a welcome draw at any point in the game, a pivot point, upon which your rack, your turn, the game, the universe of lexicography can swing, as if it were a locomotive balanced upon a single jeweled bearing.

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#284 :: Betel Nut Box

November 19, 2004

The cleric waits amiably, hands stuffed into his cassock pockets. His animal face hints at bear, monkey, dog. Tiny buttons of ivory dot his breast, and two more primly anchor the folds at the small of his back, the entirety of which hinges open at his shoulder line to reveal a compartment just big enough for a few almonds or something more exotic. He was carved in the 19th century in Spain. He found his way, intact, to Arthur Collins Antiques in Cobalt, Connecticut. There my father found him and brought him home. I asked for a bit of lore that might explain his origins. My father writes (I added links):

no lore: given to me by my 95-year-old friend at church, whom I later called at the hospital and she said I am at death’s door and I said of course you aren’t and she said Look, I ought to know when I am at death’s door, I am at death’s door, and she died in about two hours. I think it’s a betel nut box, chewed (and tooth-blackening) in Hawaiian Islands, Phillipines, New Guinea.

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#283 :: X-Men “Cyclops” Patch

November 18, 2004

Marvel pope Jack Kirby was all brute kinetics. His lines surged and pulsed, matter and antimatter collided with hellish force behind burly, godlike (small g) figures, who hurled themselves into explosions, shattered concrete with fists, blasted unholy bolts of energy from their faces. Raw comics mythology flowed from his pen with such vigor as to pump his iconography into all of pop culture’s visual pipelines – print, TV, film, lunchboxes, clothing. I acquired this some time in the new-wave 80s, when 50s- and 60s-era nostalgia was a design motif for ironic hipsters. Though it’s yellowed with age, I still haven’t found the right jacket for it. I doubt it will be the same one that holds this patch, which couldn’t withstand the competition.

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#282 :: Surviving Domino Half

November 17, 2004

It has a story to tell. Maybe 20. Data points from a hidden history pop through the scars – the cement park table where the old men slapped it down every Saturday morning, thousands of times. The years it spent in a gravel parking lot, which saw it split in two, soaked in piss, gouged, marred. Ruined and made more interesting, at once. Maybe, rather, it was broken in rage, in frustration, in curiosity at the hands of a bored cholo. Maybe a car shattered it, leaving for dead the deep sockets of its six paint-dotted eyes. Its brother-half gone – smashed to bits of green Bakelite resin amid the busted safety glass and cigarette butts – it briefly held a 9-year-old’s rapt attention, then lost it to Saturday morning cartoons and Sunday afternoon X-Box spasms. Flung outside. Onward. Someone else found it. Someone gave it a new story to tell: It sits on a stainless steel desktop, on a black cloth, under a hot light. It reflects light into a camera, and its light is splintered into pixels, focused, framed, reassembled into a ghost on a server somewhere for as long as the server fees are paid. It demands to be picked up and understood. It demands someone write.

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#281 :: Nut

November 16, 2004

This nut cheats death. Hard, bitterly hard, it blunts teeth, turns a blade, endures boring by insect and bird. Wild it grows, among the manzanita and chaparral, in a land regularly scoured by wildfire. It is a survival pod for its species, a wild walnut tree that dots Southern California’s scrublands. Like the coconut it takes its form from the abuse of nature. Wild animals and civilized humans can strip off the papery black husk that develops after heavy rains pit and rot its skin. But only the human can break the rocky shell with a rock or split it with a good knife, to reveal the heart-shaped nut meat within. Of all the natural tortures it endures, only fire has a lasting effect. The seed pod is designed to split open in the roaring flames, and germinate in the inevitable rainy-season mudslides of ash-fertilized soil that follow. It takes root, and its genetic line stretches on, unmolested.

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#280 :: Dreidel

November 15, 2004

I choose this object today not because the holiday season looms like a cinnamon-scented thug, ready to bash us all into shambling, paranoid shopping-mad drones. I choose it in near-ignorance of its purpose. I choose it because inserting anyone’s name into my family’s cover version of the happy dreidel-spinning song is instant milk/nose/snort time: Daddy Daddy Daddy, I made him out of clay, Daddy Daddy Daddy, I wish he’d go away. I choose it because it is cast in bright yellow plastic, covered with (to me) cryptic markings and endowed with all the spin dynamics of a brick. I choose it because it is ugly and bright, and fun to twirl and quick to fall with a little clatter to show its one-character message – whether you can read Hebrew or not. Unlike any other religious or cultural artifact – with the possible exception of the yo-yo – it is a unique and whole thing.

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#279 :: Camera Lens Mechanism

November 14, 2004

Fossil from an ancient era, the 20th century, when mass production gave birth to millions of mechanical devices for capturing light. This might as well be the marvelously preserved ocular bone process of a roving sextuped from a clockwork planet – so foreign is it to the modern world of CCD camera sensors, USB ports and digital red-eye reduction. It’s also a relic of a simpler time in my life, when I tore apart broken machinery as a kid, to see what made it work. My favorite part of any camera lens was always the leaf-iris – a lever-actuated blossoming rose of sharp, fragile metal that permitted light and life to enter and forbade it to leave. In another life, I’d have time to scavenge garage sales and flea markets for cast off Argoses and Kodaks, field-strip them with knife and screwdrivers and construct the alien watch-beast of my dreams. In another life, I built countless plastic car and airplane models, and later, rebuilt car engines. The process of reading hundreds of diagrams – cut-this-glue-this-pin-to-this-socket-insert-assembly-and-glue – left a subroutine looping in my hindbrain. The sight of any old-fashioned machine explodes in my mind’s eye, rendered into a cloud of ordered parts that hovers in space, numbers incandescing on little red indicator tags, ready for assembly.

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#278 :: Pocket Tombstone for a Dead Car

November 13, 2004

I’ve owned only a few cars in my life. First was the ’75 Vega, already rotten at the rocker panels and sucking a quart of oil per tankful by the time I made it mine in ’80. It had three on the floor, and weighed about 900 pounds, which made it great for high-speed spinouts on slick surfaces -intentional and unintentional. I remember bringing my sister home one day, the two of us apple-cheeked and grinning until she sauntered into the kitchen and announced to mom, “Mackie took me over to the parking lot and we were doing donuts on the ice! It was cool! It was an excretious powder-orange color, but I loved it with the deep irrationality of a college junior. The next car – the curse – was the once-proud owner of this B-20 grille badge: A 1970 Volvo 142 that carried not a B20, but the anemic B18 engine. Had I known at the time what a soul-sucking, wallet-emptying piece of shit it would become – that it would rob me of $6,000 and, periodically, my sanity, I would never have bought it. Here are some thoughts I posted a while back at the WELL.

’70 Volvo 142 with what turned out to be a several-times-rebuilt ’68 B18 engine (the smallest made, and thus horrifically underpowered).

I poured about $1,500 of body, head and upholstery work into it. It looked great. Ran okay.

The fiberglass timing gears (!) dropped a tooth in Fayetteville, NC, en route to Florida, throwing the timing out so that a valve was opening on the upstroke and the cylinder was whacking it out of true. It quit in Ocala, about 300 miles short of my destination. Had it fixed.

While in Florida, it:
– overheated and seized. Bottom-end bearings needed replacing.
– blew a head gasket. Replaced it.
– suffered an electrical system meltdown. Replaced everything, from battery and coil to alternator and a buncha expensive little black boxes.

About 40k miles later (by now, a glutton for punishment, but convinced I would have a tremendously solid ride if I just fixed this *one more thing*) I rebuilt the entire engine, planning to install a salvaged electric-overdrive gearbox.

Sewed it all up, and it barely turned over. Once I got it running, the bearings chewed themselves to pieces because the input shaft was rusty, and it wouldn’t mate closely enough with the engine, it shoved the entire crank forward by about 3/1000ths of an inch – enough to ruin the bearings.

To top it off, the mechanic who effected the gearbox swap and was lending me shop space put my old rattletrap of a gearbox into my parents’ 144, where it promptly failed, and then he refused to make ood on any kind of warranty, saying that since I had provided it, they should eat it. Oh, wait, insult to injury: The electric overdrive fucking leaked, which meant it smelled weird and constantly dropped out of OD at high speed.

Rebuilt the engine again.

Wrestled constantly with calibrating not one, but TWO of the dreaded SU carburetors, which were yoked together on the single four-banger head (what genius thought *that* up?)

More electrical trouble. Countless popstarts and jumper-cable burns.

After about 150,000 miles of this abuse (I was a newspaper reporter and drove a *lot*) it finally died in Phildadelphia, where I got $300 from some guy who needed parts.

And that was the *un-tragic* and *un-funny* version of the story, which unspooled in my early 20s like a bad soap opera.

$6,000 later, the epitaph for that POS was already on the car when it left – something I’d stuck on the dash with Dymo labels in a particularly sardonic moment – the words Hazel Motes utters in “Wise Blood” outside the used-car lot where his car’s ass has just fallen off –
“A MAN WITH A GOOD CAR DON’T *NEED* NO JUSTIFICATION.”

God, I hated that fucking thing …

But it was a ballsy little *demon* in the snow. Point and go.

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#277 :: Coin-silver Cross – Africa

November 12, 2004

My sick affinity for pop culture trivia takes up a frightening amount of already very-limited brain power. The fact that Eddie Deezen plays the geeky kid with a deer rifle holed up at the top of a ferris wheel on guard duty against Japanese invasion in 1941 has completely crowded out more useful information like – the kids have dentist’s appointment this week, or I’d better fill up the gas tank now. I could be writing the great American novel, or teaching my daughter Spanish, but instead I can sing Exene’s entire harmony line from “The World’s a Mess It’s In My Kiss.” And the space for trivia is shrinking, taken up by questions about trivia that I used to possess. What were the Oscar nominees last spring, anyhow? Damn it. So much useless beauty. I once read a card in the little glass case where this cross was displayed with others when I bought it more than 10 years ago. The card was hand-lettered by the two young hippies who ran the bead-import store where the casse sat. Their business and marriage began probably with a first flush of love, and blossomed into a shared love of travel, of wild, free explorations of Istanbul and Kathmandu and the inspired spark to start a business importing cheap exotica at high markups for bored stateside yuppies. But last time we were in the store, they seemed to be going through the motions of a relationship, and running a business – he sulking in the back over cold tofu after a few sharp words with her – from which she emerged grimly to return to the sales floor and handhold some flighty rich girl at the counter who just couldn’t decide which three $5 handmade Afghani silver beads to buy to go with the little string of lapis … Trivia. Factoids. Bits of information – pretty things, but with no purpose and little role beyond amusement and diversion. This cross was hand-hammered of coin silver somewhere – I think – in Africa. I’ll be damned if I can remember for sure – or where. I’m too busy thinking warplane silhouettes from the WWII Commemorative Spotter Cards I got last year on a trip to the Smithsonian.

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#276 :: Mess Kit

November 11, 2004

You’ve been here before: your back to the bricks, outnumbered, outgunned, the truck with your name on it barrelling out of the blackness a split-second from impact, insert your clich&eacute here: A low growl rumbles from the bush. You scrabble in the dark tent for your pants, a flashlight, and one more thing – a weapon. A hard object. A big stick. Anything that will keep the growl at arm’s length long enough for you to figure out a way to survive. A tool. Because God and/or Darwin gave you no claws nor fangs, you can’t leap for shit and your pallid looks and half-shaven face wouldn’t scare anything that eats its prey on a daily basis. You lack quill or poison, or camouflage or even speed and agility. You understand tools. That’s all you get.

In desperate times, a solid tool’s as good as a third arm. You could excavate a deadfall trap with the stout, hard spoon. Beech-log canoes have been dug out with poorer tools than the fork. And the knife would find multiple lives as a skinning knife, wood saw, can opener, carving implement and defensive weapon. Locked together at the factory with a split key-ring (something I’ll yank just as soon as I figure out a better system) they live in a ballistic nylon pouch – the whole thing cost less than 6 bucks at the Army/Navy surplus store. Can’t get more poetic or utilitarian than that: clean, tough, cheap.

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#275 :: Volcanic ash

November 10, 2004

You probably think yourself old. “I’m ancient,” you moan, pulling at wrinkles to flatten them, running fingers through your thinning hair. “I’m *so* OLD.” There are parrots older than you. Hell, there are cameras and cigarette lighters older than many of you. Seconds of your lives tick by – “I’m wasting time!” you shriek, and scurry off to get lost in addictions and duties and obsessions and distractions, lest you waste any more. Relax. Even the gorgeous, preposterous Clock of the Long Now cannot entirely fathom the vast scale of time upon which the ground beneath your feet was created, the billions of years this planet spent as a superheated blob of spinning metallic elements and vapor, before it began to cool to the point where it could sustain life. Earth is still cooling, as it so often seems to enjoy reminding us. In 1991, a previously dormant volcano on the western end of Luzon in the Philippine Islands, exploded, hurling tons of ash and sulfur dioxide 21 miles into the air. The gas readjusted the world’s climate:

The cloud over the earth reduced global temperatures. In 1992 and 1993, the average temperature in the Northern Hemisphere was reduced 0.5 to 0.6°ńC and the entire planet was cooled 0.4 to 0.5°ńC. The maximum reduction in global temperature occurred in August 1992 with a reduction of 0.73°ńC. The eruption is believed to have influenced such events as 1993 floods along the Mississippi river and the drought in the Sahel region of Africa. The United States experienced its third coldest and third wettest summer in 77 years during 1992.

and the ash poured down on nearby hillside villages, mixing with torrentional seasonal rainstorms to form deadly lahars or ash-flows that swept homes and families to oblivion. We visited my wife’s relatives there the following year – rains had washed the ash away from Manila, but people still kept jars of Mt. Pinatubo ash around with a typically Filipino mingling of respect and dark humor. It’s abrasive, colorless, with a metallic tang to it. Hold a magnet near the stuff, and out of it leap dark, magnetic particles of iron, finer than grains of sand.

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