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#225 :: 5-yen Coin

September 21, 2004

The hole is said to be lucky, the characters (identified by my good and knowledgeable friends on the WELL as spelling out the mint date (1988) and the words “go-en” which mean “5 yen” and also sound like the word “fate,” according to this guide. The sheaf of rice curves over rippling water and around the hole, itself ringed by a gear. It’s brass, and relentlessly pretty. I found it in a parking lot. People are said to keep this coin for luck, or offer it at temples for prayer. I’m not sure which route I’ll take, being non-Buddhist and non-Shinto, and only vaguely superstitious. Meanwhile, my son has spirited it away to his “box of treasures.”

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#224 :: Magnolia Pod

September 20, 2004

It’s autumn, and these plummet from the sky like alien landing craft. They lie dormant on the earth for a few weeks, benignly green and pine-coneish. But the Santa Ana winds seem to trigger a rot from within that transforms their pulp to flesh, which twists grotesquely and begins squeezing out vermillion seeds like so many alien spoor, or hatchlings oozing from the back of a Surinam toad. Whatever conditions must exist to germinate one of these screaming red seeds do not occur in our front yard, but the huge, 80-year-old tree keeps dumping pods in mute Darwinian hope.

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#223 :: Ramune bottle

September 19, 2004

Ramune soda itself is nothing remarkable – a pleasant, ineffectual carbonated citrus drink, as clear and forgettable as Sierra Mist, 7-Up and their ilk. But the bottle – a patented marvel of modernized glass-blowing – is a wonderful toy, souvenir and conversation piece. The glass marble waits seated in a rubber collar in the bottle’s thick mouth. By use of a special plastic plunger, you push the marble inside the bottle, where it rattles pleasingly while you drink the soda. The two eye-like dimples at the neck are practical – if you drink with them situated on your thumb, they catch the marble and keep it from rolling up to the lip and plugging it as you sip. You can buy this stuff for about a dollar a bottle at any good Japanese market, or for $1.29 and up online. Some time ago, they added a plastic collar around the lip – presumably to make bottling easier or more sanitary, but if you’re lucky, you can find the old-style all-glass bottle in junk shops in the right Pacific-Rim neighborhoods. The vessel is a cold, dense, weird little testament to the marvelous other-ness of Japanese industrial design.

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#222 :: Music box

September 18, 2004

Exquisite little clockwork instrument, complex of make, simple of mind: It requires no talent to play, and yet rewards with a tinkly, plinky little rendition of Brahms’ “Moonlight Sonata.” Crank it fast or slow, as is your mood, but you have no more control over its workings than over the behavior of a mousetrap. Use it, it makes but one kind of noise as the spines on its tiny drum pluck the vibrating metal tines of its tongue. This one is uncomplicated, devoid – but for the melody – of the kitsch that infects most music boxes. I’ve looked in vain for music boxes that play more challenging music, but alas they’re too expensive to contemplate, or too hard to find. Someday, someone will build one that plays Ramones tunes, and then we’ll know civilization has somehow changed for the better – or ended altogether.

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#221 :: Coconut

September 17, 2004

Proof that evolution is a stern taskmaster: Take a coastal tree species, beat it repeatedly with hurricanes, blistering heat and pounding surf, shove it repeatedly into salty, sandy soil where little else that is green can grow, and eventually you come up with this: The perfect vault for life. This coconut came from a Filipino grocery in Koreatown (Los Angeles), helpfully stripped of its gnarly, fibrous outer husk. It took me a good 10 seconds with a Makita drill and half-inch bit to penetrate the top just to reach the milk. (Poured it out for the kids, who spurned it, and my wife, who happily enjoyed it.) But it took another 10 minutes with a meat cleaver to slice it open to reveal the secrets of its inner strength: A second fibrous husk in an architecturally tough spherical shape, protecting the meat within. A band saw might have been quicker. Health, commerce and festivity all favor the world’s largest nut.

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#220 :: Future Tunnel Puzzle

September 16, 2004

Tiny black plastic cars. Color-litho futurescape, printed twice. Cut overpass from second one, fold it, glue it up protruding from the first. Seal it in a tiny, cylindrical aluminum box, lidded with clear plastic. Repeat 3,947 times. Sell to exporters, grocers, gas stations, street vendors. Return home. Enjoy laughter of children.

Sorry this entry is late – I know some were watching expectantly. The internet broke last night, so I’m posting predated.

Time to name “the Freshman”, and I have to say, I’m a wee tad torn.

Mark had a nice riff going on “Festus” – who had an elaborate legal background and probably a rich career full of frighteningly complex interspecies torts, the likes of which would make even Keith Laumer or Matt Howarth blanch.

Phill touched a heartstring, giving him the name of a dear, dead friend of mine who really *was* the freshman, deep down to his boots – quickwitted and optimistic, sharp and bold. Steve.

Then came Funder’s “Festus” suite, which tried the kitchen-sink approach, including sucking up to my mom (sorry, no points for that) snf suggesting that he needs “pimp hair” (combining both a nuevo adjective I loathe and a suggestion that he’s not a handsome little bastard au naturel). But she also provided the winning line: He has an enchantingly dorky smile. “I’m sorry,” he seems to say, “about that thing my cousin did to your butt. It was for science!”

Heavy Little Object #200 goes to Funder. (Just email me offsite with shipping instructions).

This was a blast – Thanks so much to all for posting. I’ll definitely do this again some time before too long.

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#219 :: Party Bottles

September 15, 2004

These behave with a relentless molecular certainty. Pick them up and drop them at random, as if casting bones for a fortune, and they self-group – bottles with bottles, fish with fish. Their physics is as predictable as that of soap bubbles and sand grains, oil and water. Do it over and over again. Clutch them in your fist, taking care not to crush them, then place them firmly on a surface and uncup your hand. They slither into segregation. What this behavior has to do with anything – condiments, cod, sake, friction – should be addressed in writing to the makers of Leisure Party brand party bottles, whose name appears on reverse of the cellophane package only in kanji, which I can’t read. How do you fill these things? No helpful pictograms. Just a rollicking hunch that you have to sit over a bowl of whatever – soy sauce, colored juice, Goldschläger – and dip their mouths, pinch out the air and let the thermoplastic return to its manufactured shape, sucking in the party juice.

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#218 :: Tarantula clock

September 14, 2004

My father painted this, in tribute to a short horror story my mother wrote in the 60s – about (as best I can remember, having read it once in my teens) a young tarantula with a case of tragically unrequited interspecies lust. Borne by banana boat from South America to the big city and carried into a glamorous torch singer’s boudoir in a fruit basket, he becomes passionately infatuated with her beauty, then when she misinterprets and spurns his eight-legged advances, falls victim to genetic destiny and mortally wounds her with a bite because he must. The clock never entirely worked right (my dad acquired it second-hand) but that never really mattered. The only number painted on the face is that of the cocktail hour. The glass dome under which the lovestruck arachnid lurked for years on the family mantelpiece was a repository for the fallen-out teeth of the artist’s children (until the stench of decay grew too strong), and the carcasses of bees, junebugs and cicadas that they brought to him. No doubt my mom will remind me of the title and correct me on any details I’ve flubbed (or, better yet, provide a pointer to the story online if it exists).

And on that note note – Only two days more until I pick a winner in the “name-the-freshman” contest. Jump in now and suggest a name (a name with a story is always appreciated) and he could become your own heavy little object.

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#217 :: Gunslinger

September 13, 2004

Easy indicators ping the eyes in a semaphore of popcult semiotics, a whirlwind sartorial tour of 30 or 40 raw, fertile, fucked-up years in American history (and arent’ they all) as expressed in a single Britons toy: Bandanna, waistcoat, slouch hat, Colt repeater. So many unanswered questions: Did his inside jacket pocket hold stolen mine deeds? Did he beat his horse or his women? Did he assault Chinese railwaymen or work alongside them when he was too young and dumb to shoot himself an income? Did he dip snuff? Sip laudanum? Was he a poker or a blackjack man, or did he prefer to kill time shooting bottles off rocks? Did he come out West for money, or to escape the law back east or was he mustered out of the Army when the war ended, all piss and vinegar and gun skills and nowhere to put all that rage?

Did he sing?

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#216 :: Nepalese Iron Lock

September 12, 2004

This wouldn’t keep out a crackhead with a crowbar. It’s crudely hammered iron, cold-forged (but for the hasp) and pickable with a couple of well-placed screwdrivers. But in old Kathmandu, where they paint the great Swayambanath stupa with ghee and chant to honor Buddha, it’s probably big and gnarly-looking enough to do the job. The key is inserted through a top slot and shoved into the lock, where it compresses leaf springs, letting them slip out through the hole. More hand-wrought locks here.

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#215 :: Wrist-Sized Plastic Engagment Ring

September 11, 2004

The size of a sequoia he was, with a big gleam in his large eye. He whistled that day on his way through the neck-high woods, his gentlest trudge rippling the pond, startling the fish. He fumbled in his suitcase-sized pocket, afraid he had lost it through an ill-darned hole. No, there – he clenched it in his fist until the prongs dented the ham of his hand. Deep breath. As he drew nearer her door, he began to sing. Small boulders loosened from the scree on the nearest mountainside, tumbling downward, before he found his pitch and really started belting. It was at that point that the crows bolted from the tall oak planted beside the base of her foundation and she swung the thick oaken door wide, her hubcaplike eyes a-glitter, her huge, soft upper lip trembling in anticipation.

This is for dress-up time, an ancient, scratched, rattling gift from my mother to my daughter. It says you mean business.

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#214 :: Blood cupping glass

September 10, 2004

The copper kettle had simmered 10 minutes long now. The nurse took a hook, dredged up the basket. Jaw set primly, she emptied it, steaming, onto a towel on the instrument table with a little tinkling clatter. One by one, the doctor’s tongs dipped and retrieved the hot cups, waving them expectantly in the air to cool before seating them. Plip. Plip. Plip. A flock of little glass bells, nesting on the old woman’s exposed shoulder. Thermodynamics took hold. Heat fled the cups, contracting them and sucking her blood to the surface for letting. Shplup. Shplup. Shplup. A tight-backed stork he looked, in his charcoal jacket and waistcoat, plucking them off and returning them to the wire basket. He had been caring for her this way for three days now, yet she was faltering, her condition growing steadily worse.
“Cu” page, Dorland’s Medical Dictionary
A Muslim explanation of cupping
eBay: “blood cupping glass”

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#213 :: “Chato,” the Homies Pit Bull

September 9, 2004

Homies, the fetishistic plasticizing of Latino-American gang members by some enterprising toymaker, grew only more famous and desirable once they were denounced by the Latino “establishment” for sugarcoating thug life. Legions of little Homies lurk on the shelves of L.A.’s toy stores, frontin’, representin’ and dissin’ their little resin hearts out. Chato appears to be a refugee from the “Dogpound” line, though he’s not pictured in the lineup. I have no idea what he was doing in among the Wedgewood, brandy snifters and vintage lead soldiers in my parents’ china cabinet, although my dad allowed as how the magnet – an aftermarket modification – was reminiscent of the magnetic Scottie toys you used to be able to buy in vending machines at Howard Johnson’s restaurants up and down the New York State Thruway when I was a kid. If you really need to feed your fetish, Chato can be had for about $5.99 on eBay right now. He’s less than an inch high.

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#212 :: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Water Closet Handle

September 8, 2004

At some point, Fitzgerald settled in Towson, Maryland (the years 1932 and 1933, to be precise) to rent a house called “La Paix.” At some point a couple of decades later, my folks were fun-loving college kids, and the house was being torn down. They made off with the pull-handle from his water-closet, and my father subsequently enshrined it in this ornate little inlaid-mother-of-pearl frame. It hung in our home as long as I can remember growing up, and hangs there still, beneath a venerable coating of dust. It struck me as funny at age 7 as it still does decades later. Because at some point – more likely on several hundred occasions – F. Scott Fitzgerald got up from the crapper like everyone else, and gave this thing a yank – and then unlike the rest of us resumed writing “Tender is the Night.”

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#211 :: Commemorative Meat-Pot

September 7, 2004

This is a very, very early example of mass-produced, full-color graphic design – a ceramic container for potted meat produced some time just after the mid-19th century. (From my father’s collection). Rubberstamped and then handcolored, glazed and fired, battalions of British soldiers arrive by warship and landing boat at the Crimea, to fend off Russian agression against their Turkish allies (if I’m reading this correctly). Wrapped around the ceramic jar (which stands about 4 inches high), they look crude, orthographically drawn and gallant in the sort of stiffbacked fashion that would have had them still shooting and reloading by ranks in the regimental way, only to be cut down by guerilla potshots, as if they had learned nothing in the Colonies 80 years earlier.

(UNRELATED SIDE NOTE: Only a few more days to get in on the Name the li’l alien contest … )

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#210 :: Volvo Speedo Head

September 6, 2004

I spent the better part of five or six years, and more than $6,000 trying to keep a malevolent old Volvo 142 on the road. I rebuilt the engine twice, replaced the gearbox, the seats, exhaust, carbs, steering, brakes, electrical system and stereo, had it Bondo’d and re-undercoated and painted. I kept pouring money and sweat into it, convinced that with the next round of repairs, I’d have a sound, durable car. It repaid my efforts by being an utterly unrepentant, irredeemable, worthless, cursed piece of shit. It broke down in weird towns where parts could not be bought. It quit at intersections, died in torrential downpours, failed always when I needed it most. At some point, I yanked out the speedometer head to replace it. This is the old one – a testament to the essential weirdness of 1970s Swedish engineering: The cylindrical drum would rotate slightly as speed increased, making more of the fluorescent orange wedge visible through a slit in the dashboard. The effect was of a pointed ribbon unspooling horizontally across the dash, covering the vertical white stripes of the speed indicators. I hated that fucking car. But god, it drove great in the snow.

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#209 :: Harpoon

September 5, 2004

You can take the hard route as I did, and slog through Melville’s brilliant, infuriatingly turgid and ultimately genius Moby-Dick twice, (once in college, and once during the go-go days of the dotcom era entirely in airport lounges on a PDA). Or you can understand man’s conquest and slaughter of whales by hefting this harpoon in your hand. The coating of rust adds a rasping edge to its lone great fang, undulled by time or use or neglect. The shaft and binding are gone, but the tip remains – about three and a half pounds of hard, dense iron, with a spring-metal barb meant to slip past bone, flip open and lodge until the great beast could be brought alongside. My home state was built on the blood and bones of leviathans, the craft of Yankee smiths who turned out cold, hard tools like this. Read the book. It’s worth your time to get knee-deep in blood and blubber and histrionic prose, to understand how hard people once lived.

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#207 :: Anthropomorphic Stapler

September 4, 2004

Squatting on its cast-iron haunches, its steel tail coiled with ready staples, this artifact of turn-of-the-last-century industrial design awaits a punch on the head. It is about eight inches long, and five high. Though it looks like a prop from an Edward Gorey book, its origins are a complete mystery, lost in that fathomless bog of pre-digital cultural ephemera where even Google cannot tread. My parents received it as a gift decades ago from a dear family friend, the late novelist and Pulitzer-winning historian Paul Horgan, who found it in the house he moved into in Middletown, CT. Horgan always reckoned it was American in manufacture, but nothing else is known. It works – something I determined at about age 9, almost breaking my hand and earning a good scolding in the process. The chain of bent-metal staples used to be a good inch and a half longer.

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#208 :: Contents of a Small Boy’s Pockets

September 3, 2004

So we packed light for this vacation, figuring we’ll do a load of wash at my parents’ place while visiting, to save having to lug all the extra clothes that we would otherwise wear once before repacking them. And a few minutes after moving the load to the dryer, the machine starts making this horrendous crashing clatter. My mother roots through the steaming, half-dried clothes, and pulls out this fine array of heavy little objects: small rocks, pebbles, acorns, a bottle cap, and a key. My son, clearly, has inherited one of my filthy habits. We had forgotten to empty his bulging shorts pockets before tossing his clothes in the wash. Look for future entries from him here once he develops a bit more of an eye and grows old enough to write.

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#206 :: Husk Tomatoes

September 2, 2004

When I was 6 or 8 or 10, we used to travel to Long Island to visit family friends on Shelter Island. The flat green rush of trees and fields past our car window, beneath the unending blue field of cirrus and cumulus clouds formed the tranquil reaches of my personal geography, the promise of a beach or a sunset just beyond and out of reach. At some point, we drove past a field of squat, dusky green plants, and when I asked my dad what they were, he told me, potatoes. Little pain in the ass that I was, I averred, “potatoes don’t grow on Long Island,” a phrase that was then flung back in my face every single time I offered opinions on things about which I knew nothing – which was often. Potatoes do grow on Long Island. So do husk tomatoes. Sheathed in papery, bougainvillea-like envelopes, they are about half the size of grapes, and just as sweet.
I nodded to a few rows of potatoes the other morning, en route to the little painted-plywood farm stand there a few salty miles from the ferry slip where these were bought.

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#205 :: Bronze life cast of Walt Whitman’s hand

September 1, 2004

Vacation. A return to the old family sod in Connecticut, to that magic last hour of lush August sun and before autumn’s alarming kaleidoscope of decay cools it to a brown land of mud and slush. We are staying with my parents in the big, old clapboard house where I grew up, its interior festooned with art and mirrors and a wealth of heavy little objects. I’ve captured some to show you over the next few weeks. Perhaps the heaviest, though certainly not the littlest is this bronze life-cast of Walt Whitman‘s hand. Taken on April 18, 1881, it was probably made first by covering the poet’s great right paw with plaster of Paris. The hollow impression would have been then filled with liquid wax to produce a wax positive of the hand, and then cast by one of several methods used to cast bronze, in an edition of 500 or so. My father acquired it in trade for, as he recalls, one of his paintings (though perhaps not this one) of Gertrude Stein. At just under a foot long – the outside size limit for heavy little objects – Mr. Whitman’s right hand weighs around 15 pounds. It is dense and cold, and wonderful to handle.

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#204 :: Discarded flasher lenses

August 31, 2004

The Museum of Modern Art Store is a glittering beach of industrial design where seaglass gems pile up, exquisite of design and function. A stroboscopic hazard flasher bought there just across from the museum a decade ago served a good 9 years, keeping Kenworths from eating me and my bike in the predawn murk. One drop too many, and it failed, finally. I kept the lenses. Seriously, spend some time at the store, it is the last repository of mass-produced modernist good taste in the U.S.

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#203 :: Holographic badge

August 30, 2004

The 50s-retro-chic flavor skein floating through the 80s oozed from many media. Sci-fi costume jewelry included. Television’s rabbit-eared, 1:66 Cyclopean eye follows you around the room from atop a doll’s body in an explosion of gears. The chunk of holographic plastic is filed and buffed along the edges, complementing the Googie-trapezoidal shape and aesthetic. It’s got that rainbow sheen. A gift. I have no more knowledge about it.

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#202 :: Silver bead

August 29, 2004

Tibet, Indonesia, India, Pakistan – points east. Silver is hammered, pierced, drawn and twisted, orbited with wire and augmented with tiny balls of solder to the point where – alone – it hums with the import of an alien craft. Strung together with others, it loses all significance, retaining just the dull luster of metal of minor worth. Each of these is individual, handcrafted, worthy of admiration on its own. One of a series collected in a box.

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#201 :: Chop

August 28, 2004

This is a facsimile of a thing of honor. Being not of the culture, but in the country, I had this traditional stone seal for imprinting my name made at a Hong Kong shop. The chop signifies dignity and integrity to those who use it correctly and understand its worth. For me, it was like bellying up to a foreign bar and ordering an exotic cocktail, a concrete totem that might bring me a millimetre closer to being Chinese. I’m often accused of tragic naievete. For all I know, the little carven lion imprints the word “western monkey’s ass” onto the documents I choose. So far, I’ve chosen only amateurish brush-and-ink paintings, where the sticky red ink of the chop-glyph adds contrast and a soupcon of authenticity.

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