Sunday, July 30, 2006

Just a stone’s throw

The most important thing I learned during my six years as a Boy Scout, besides how to look awesome in a kerchief, is that you should always set up your tent as far away from Mr. Coe as possible. Mr. Coe was a fine man with a good heart and poor hearing, and his favorite activity was clanking pots and pans at 5:30 in the morning as he cooked up what must have been a ten-course breakfast. Why he couldn’t just eat Slim Jims and Fruit Roll-ups for breakfast like the rest of us, I have no idea. But if you had the misfortune of setting up camp anywhere in his vicinity, you’d jolt awake at daybreak, convinced that someone was filming a Braveheart battle scene outside of your tent.

I thought of Mr. Coe recently as I browsed homemade videos on the website YouTube is a horrible, hypnotic waste of time. Most of the videos that people post there are poorly recorded, utterly pointless and otherwise have little redeeming quality, which makes the hours that evaporate away while you’re watching them all the more inexplicable.

One of the videos, titled “Skipping Record,” showed a middle-aged man, looking like a skinnier version of Jerry Garcia, step up to a river bank and wing a flat stone out across the water. The man stands and watches as the stone pitter-patters on top of the water until it is so far out that all you can see are the tiny little splashes and the barely-perceptible wake that the stone has left behind. The man turns, pumps his fist once and walks off camera. This was the Guiness World Record-breaking stone skip, thrown by Kurt Steiner of Emporium, PA. If you’d like to try to beat it, you’ll have to skip a stone forty-one times. And if your personal record is closer to ten like mine is, you’ll probably need to talk to your local major-league ballplayer about performance enhancement.

Mr. Coe’s son Andy wasn’t too big on stone-skipping, but he was the best overall rock-thrower I’ve ever seen. When you’re on a week-long canoeing trip and the fish aren’t biting, there’s not much else to do at the end of the day but to stand on the river bank and chuck rocks, which we all did enthusiastically. There’s the old legend that George Washington threw a silver dollar across the Potomac River, which might well be true, especially if George enlisted the aid of a cannon, but I’ve personally witnessed Andy Coe easily clearing the Upper Delaware River when most of the other kids were doing good to plunk their rocks halfway across.

One day, we pulled under a bridge near Narrowsburg, PA to eat lunch. Mr. Coe walked up the bank and out onto the bridge, which was a considerable height up from where the rest of us sat.
“Hey Andy, bet you can’t throw a rock all the way up here!” he yelled down, as he turned and shook his behind to taunt his son.

Andy stared at his father for a moment, picked up a walnut-sized rock, tossed it to himself just to get the feel of it, then hurled it up towards the bridge. Too late, Mr. Coe tried to jig out of the way, and he howled as the rock careened off of his shin.

That throw made Andy the Pecos Bill of our scout troop. Every year, the bridge got higher, the rock got bigger and Mr. Coe’s howling became more profane.

I picked up the paper yesterday and saw that Andy just got called up to pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals. OK, I made that part up, but if this story ever gets made into a movie, that’s how it should end.

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Update: In case anyone gives a hooey enough to check it out, here's the world-record stone skip. This is a different angle than the one I described above, but you can see it better here:

Did you see all forty skips? I might have missed a couple of 'em. But if this guy's nickname isn't the Skipper, something is seriously wrong.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Something offal

While we were at breakfast with my parents at a diner near their house recently, my wife Kara pointed to the side order section of the menu and asked, “What’s scrapple?”

A hush fell over the table as my family tried to think of the most delicate way to describe the local delicacy. Kara grew up in New York State, so she’s unfamiliar with some of the things that make Southeastern PA so special, such as Tastykakes and scrapple, two Philadelphia favorites that have somehow managed to stay mutually exclusive all these years, at least until somebody works out a palatable recipe for Scrapple-Filled Krimpets or Honey-Glazed Scrapple Buns.

We happened to be in town because we were visiting my parents for the weekend on our return trip from a beach vacation with Kara’s side of the family. My folks graciously agreed to ferret-sit while we were away. The varmint loves visiting Grandma and Grandpa, and as soon as we open his cage, he wastes no time burrowing into their couches and making his own little forts out of them. I’m sure Mom and Dad were sad to hand him back over to us.

Now that we’ve burned our shoulders as well as our vacation allotment for the year, Kara and I have several months of frolicking about the hallways at work to look forward to, basking under the light tubes and soaking in the fluorescence. Honestly, it’s a bit of a relief that beach season has ended for us. I have a difficult time foreseeing any potential situation over the next nine months that may require having to take my shirt off in public, assuming that I continue my several-year streak of not catching on fire or being apprehended on the show COPS. Without the Specter of the Swimsuit hanging overhead, ordering French toast, bacon and eggs for breakfast, and slathering all three in syrup, is much more enjoyable.

“Scrapple is a pork kind of thing,” I said. “It’s like sausage. They only make it around here because it’s so good that nobody will share the recipe. You should order some. You’d like it.”

“Oh no. Scrapple’s nasty,” Mom said, “It’s the stuff they won’t even put in hot dogs.”
Kara scrunched up her face. Getting rejected from a hot dog for being too gross is like getting kicked out of Hooters for not being dressed tastefully enough.

“When they’re making scrapple, they use everything but the squeal,” Dad offered, in case the point had not yet been made.

Perhaps the most persuasive argument I can muster for not eating scrapple is this: I’ve never seen my dad eat it. This is the man who, when we were on Boy Scout camping trips many years ago, used to roll open packets of raw, oily sardines and place the little fish on Ritz crackers.

“Ew, Dad, what are you going to do with that? It reeks like cat food,” I’d say, watching with horror. He’d just smile serenely and pop the whole shebang into his mouth as I ran off to get the other kids to come over and watch, like a little carnival barker: “Step right up, kids! Come see the Incredible Sardine-Eating Man… He doesn’t even care that they are obviously not meant for human consumption!”

Believe it or not, when the waitress came back to take our orders, Kara passed on the scrapple. But the experience piqued her curiosity enough that she looked up more information about scrapple on the internet when we got home.

“Scrapple is typically made of hog offal,” she read.

“What’s offal?” I asked.

As she continued to read, her face lost all of the color it had gained at the beach.

“Oh, that’s just awful,” she said.

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Sunday, July 16, 2006

Something annoying in the air

If anybody deserves a raise, it’s the person who invented stadium seating in movie theaters. Next in line would be the person who decided to put Cranium on airplanes. Last week, the short flight that my wife Kara and I took from Philadelphia to Charlotte featured a silent slideshow of trivia questions from the popular board game, which kept me so entertained that I completely forgot to defend my turf by bracing my knees against the seat in front of me after take-off, allowing the lady in front to recline her seat until her Aqua Netted hair was tickling my nostrils.

I hardly noticed, though. Trivia is the supreme outlet for a lifetime’s worth of useless information, and there’s no better time for it than when you’re a captive audience, strapped to a tiny chair with a screen directly in front of your face, the only thing separating you from the guy in Clockwork Orange being a lack of eyeball clips, and maybe a tiny bag of pretzels. Two bags if you’re a charmer.

Kara entirely failed to appreciate the genius of this perfect time-killing diversion. She was too busy reading a novel with half-naked (a pessimist would call them half-clothed) people on the cover striking suggestive poses, the suggestion being that the other half of the clothing would be removed by page three.

Tapping her on the shoulder, I said, “Hey, did you know that Massachusetts is bigger than New Jersey? I would’ve thought it was the other way around.”

“Really? That’s interesting,” she said, without looking up. A few minutes passed quietly.

I said, “The Skipper from Gilligan’s Island name on the show was Jonas Grumby. Did you know that? They only said his name in the first episode. I got that one wrong. Do you think the Professor had a real name too?”

“Uh huh,” she said. How could she not get excited to learn the Skipper’s real name? She has no appreciation for the fine arts. A couple of years ago, we saw Mark Linn-Baker, the guy who played Cousin Larry in the sitcom Perfect Strangers, at the grocery store, and she didn’t even care. I was like, “Cousin Larry’s over there by the bagel bins! Let’s go do the Dance of Joy!”

And all she could say was, “Who’s Cousin Larry?”

Who’s Cousin Larry, indeed. Don’t be ree-diculose.

A few moments later, I turned to Kara and said, “Did you know that the wingspan of a 747 is about one hundred feet longer than the Wright Brother’s first flight? That’s just crazy.”

“Baby, I’m in the middle of my book,” she replied.

“Sorry. Are people making out in it right now? I didn’t mean to interrupt them,” I said. I’m allowed to make fun of her trashy romance novels about once a month. After that, I’ve spent all my tokens, and any comments about barrel-chested men and almost-ready-to-love-again maidens must be kept to myself.

All of a sudden, Kara said, “Oh, the flight attendant’s coming with the trash bag. Quick, drink the rest of my cranberry juice or I’ll be stuck with the cup until we land. Chug it. Chug it!”
I downed the cranberry juice, and as I dropped the cup into the trash bag, I looked up and saw a question about Greek mythology pop onto the screen, a subject that Kara took a few classes on in college.

As I started to point up at the screen, she said, “It’s Bacchus,” while fiddling with her tray table. She had already seen the question, and she wasn’t even going to say that she knew the answer. What’s the point of knowing a trivia answer if you aren’t going to let everyone around you know that you know it? Modesty has no place in the trivial pursuits.

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Sunday, July 09, 2006

On physics and sausage

As my wife Kara and I were driving down I-95 recently, she pointed to a billboard and said, “Ooh, look! It’s only $89 to fly to the Bahamas!”

The number 89 had an asterisk next to it, of course. An asterisk is a symbol commonly used in advertising to tell the reader: “all of the words preceding this symbol are not true.” Sure enough, as we cruised past at seventy miles an hour, I caught the small print at the bottom of the billboard that said “each way.”

So while it was true that it cost only $89 to fly to the Bahamas, it also cost $89 to fly FROM the Bahamas. That’s still not a bad deal, but unless your game plan is to fly to the Bahamas to start a new life with only one checked bag, one carry-on and one personal item to your name, the price of your ticket will be much higher than the number on the billboard, which was tall enough to win a fight with the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.

Most airline fares are advertised one-way now, often with the condition that the one-way price is only offered when purchased as part of a round-trip ticket. This makes perfect sense, especially if the airlines are so concerned about our nation’s declining math skills that they’re making us multiply everything by two to help keep us sharp. While I appreciate the gesture, I don’t have the spare mental cycles to spend practicing my times tables while I’m driving. I’m too busy wondering about things like why my head feels like it’s going to implode when only one window is cracked open.

A few years ago, I started noticing that driving around with one window cracked open exactly replicated the feeling in my ears of being twelve feet underwater. I slept and drooled through most of my college physics classes, but I’m pretty sure that the effect has something to do with momentum, air pressure and hypochondria. I’ve never heard anyone else complain about this phenomenon, but I’m still pretty sure it’s real, like Global warming and the guy whose job it is to make sure that the Wizard of Id is never funny.

So while I’m not inclined to work out the math in my head, I do agree that only advertising half the price sure does make things look cheaper. Maybe the world would sell more stuff if everyone started doing that. Here’s how it would work at the veterinarian’s office:

“That will be $120 dollars, Mr. Johnson.”

“$120? But the sign out front says that you’d neuter my cat for $60.”

“Ah, yes. Did you see the asterisk?”

Anyway, my favorite sign along I-95, besides the South of the Border billboard with the giant hot dog on it that says, “You never sausage a place! You’re always a weiner with Pedro,” is the one between Philly and Baltimore that informs you of the Decoy Museum coming up at the next exit. What exactly should one expect to find at a Decoy Museum?

I picture a big empty parking lot with a wooden museum at one end. When you walk up to the front of the building, you see that the door is not a door at all, but a painting of a door. So you walk around the side of the building, where you find that the front of the museum is just a huge painted sheet of plywood propped up by 2x4’s. That’s when the rope snaps tight around your leg and flings you upside down, hanging you by the ankle from a nearby tree and shaking all the money out of your pockets.

Or maybe it’s just a museum full of wooden ducks. Either way, I’m not going there.

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Monday, July 03, 2006

Driving the Mrs. crazy

Yesterday at work, I hit myself in the eyeball with a drinking straw. It was a souvenir Mickey Mouse bendy straw that a co-worker brought back from Obligatory Appeasement of the Children World, so it was a good deal beefier than your average disposable straw. I was bending the straw backwards and then releasing it, so that it would go “twaaaaannnng” like a miniature diving board. I greatly underestimated the kickback that Mickey was packing. He should really come with a warning label: “Don’t be an idiot around this drinking straw.”

Luckily, it was the soft curve of Mickey’s ear that bounced off my cornea, so there was no need to alert any medical professionals, which worked out well because I doubt there would have been an applicable check box on the worker’s comp form to describe what I had just done to myself.

Also, while I was mowing the lawn recently, a wood chip hit me right in the eye before I even had time to flinch. The frequency of things bouncing off my bare eyeballs is becoming somewhat alarming. A complete lack of reflexes in middle school might have done me some good, back in the Two for Flinching days. But now I’m worried that my eyelids’ slow response time is somehow age-related. I’m not twenty-five anymore, like I was three years ago.

Maybe I’m feeling sensitive about getting older because something very disturbing happened last weekend. My wife Kara and I went to a high school graduation party because we’re friends with – the horror, the horror! – the parents. We’re parents’ friends now. That’s going to take some getting used to. Seems like just a few days ago, we were the ones graduating from high school, so much smarter than we are now.

Regardless, I was fiddling with the Mickey straw yesterday because Kara wouldn’t let me leave work, and my enthusiasm for being productive had long ago expired. Kara and I carpool together in the mornings, so if one of us gets stuck at work in the evening, the other is held hostage as well. Fortunately, instant messaging technology lets the aggrieved party harass the productive person on the very computer screen upon which she is trying to get some work done.

I saved the chat we had yesterday around quitting time. Here’s how it went:

Me: You ‘bout ready to head home?

Kara: hey... doubt it... my job is crazy right now. I’ll get back to you in a few.

[Ten minutes pass.]

Me: Dude, it’s late! I have to be in early tomorrow. Should we just sleep here tonight?

Me: I gather from your silence that you do not share my desire to depart. I guess I’ll start making a blanket out of Post-it notes.

[Fifteen minutes pass.]

Me: I just injured my eyeball with a Mickey Mouse straw. Do we have any goggles lying around? I’m thinking of going with a James Worthy goggle kind of thing. Would be safer that way.

[Ten minutes pass.]

Me: I can’t remember what our house looks like. Do you think we’ll be able to find it?

[Ten minutes pass.]


Kara: OK OK! We can go now. Jeez.

Me: Hang on. I’m working on something -- be ready in an hour or so.

Kara puts up with the aggravation of carpooling with me for the same reason that rich people put up with having chauffeurs in their cars: I drive, and I don’t complain while the boss is around. We used to split the driving 50/50, but after we got married, whenever I tried to hand her the car keys, she acted like I was offering her a dead squirrel.

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