Guests in the House

Just one week until our annual pageant of turkey, trimmings and trying to get along with the relatives. I consider Thanksgiving to be the least compromised national holiday, staying closest to its original intent – gratitude – probably because it uses a timeless vehicle of expression – food. No matter what you might try to add to the festivities, it all comes back to a common table and an attitude of thankfulness. Even “Black Friday” pales by comparison.

It's Not Personal.

Now might be a good time to take a nice, long walk with your turkey to explain the beauty and cruelty of the circle of life. This is still one of my favorite pictures in the whole blogging photo album – two friends take a stroll through the woods to commiserate about some impending bad news.

Of course, it’s guests that make Thanksgiving a time for sharing, so during the lead-up to the big day, I’ll be welcoming guest bloggers to Trail Baboon. Madislandgirl, Renee, Joanne, Jim, Sherrilee and tim have agreed to attend this time and they are each bringing a special dish. I won’t give it away completely, but expect lettuce, steak, bird a la grease, a chunk of old barn and one live elk. Mmm!

As always please be kind to our guests. After all, the only difference between you and them is that they volunteered this time. Next time the “cake catastrophe” (Joanne’s) could be on another foot – yours!

And speaking of being a guest writer, I’m making my first post-MPR appearance in another online venue this week with an article in The Line. If you sign up to receive this free, weekly online magazine, they will be forced to conclude that I am a genius. Just put your e-mail address next to the gray box halfway down the right side of the opening page. Simple.

Where are you happiest, as a guest?

Who Dropped the Banana Peel?

As humans, we are surprisingly adept at not noticing things. But just to prove it, researchers occasionally get the funding to conduct wonderfully entertaining studies that prove just how oblivious we can be. One involved getting people half drunk – just enough to miss seeing a stranger in a bear suit, but not quite drunk enough to definitely see Joe Biden in an elephant costume. That’s a fine distinction that’s not easy to duplicate in the lab.

The idea of doing a can-you-see-the-dude-in-an-animal-suit study goes back to a famous trial in 1999, where subjects were asked to count the number of times the people wearing white passed the basketball. Here’s the video:

Half the participants in the study didn’t see the simian. The conclusion drawn from this is that people misjudge their own ability to notice significant, unexpected events while they are are concentrating on a task. It’s called “Inattentional Blindness”.

As far as I can figure, this type of blindness is inattentional, unintentional, and surprisingly conventional. No matter how you re-arrange that sentence, it’s fun to say, although most people will totally miss it if you try to make it a punch line.

A couple of weeks ago, I took my wife’s Toyota to the priciest, slickest car wash in our part of town – the closest thing we have to a spa for automobiles. I signed the vehicle up for an exterior / interior makeover. On the outside it got a nice thorough cleaning and a thick coat of wax. On the inside, it was given the brisk but professional attention of a swarm of guys with vacuums and polishing cloths. It’s not as indulgent as sending the thing off to a luxury retreat in the Sonoran Desert for a crude oil bath and new-car-smell aromatherapy, but if I were a 2009 coupe, I would feel rejuvenated.

Of course, if I were an automobile that incorporated even a few of my human personality traits, I would be the subject of a very expensive lawsuit right now.

When I walked out into the drying-off area to re-claim the vehicle, I noticed the emergency flashers had been turned on. “Nice touch”, I thought. “They’re concerned about safety.” Plus, it gave the impression to everyone nearby that something significant had just happened. When I slid behind the wheel I couldn’t immediately see how to turn the flashers off and more cars were coming out of the wash line behind me, so I drove out to the street and parked, blinking all the way.

It's in this area ... somewhere.

Looking over the dashboard, I checked the area around the radio, near the temperature controls, all the way down the console to the gearshift. Nothing. I tried the stalks on either side of the steering column. One controlled the lights, the other the windshield washers. Nope. I looked around the cruise control buttons, the instrument cluster, overhead where the sunroof switches are located. No emergency flasher button. Weird. By its very nature of being a necessary feature in times of stress, the emergency button should be easy to find. I looked at all the places again and again with the same result each time. I pulled out the owners manual and found no listing under “Emergency” or “Warning”. I looked through the “lights” section. I checked out the dashboard illustration. Why weren’t they telling me anything about the dang flashers?

Time was running out. The car was due back at home ten minutes ago, but I didn’t want to drive it with my blinkers going, so I swallowed my pride and walked back up to the car wash exit where the same platoon of guys were busily polishing and drying off the next and the next in an endless stream of vehicles.

“You guys turned on my emergency flashers,” I yelled to a manger-type over the sound of the mechanical drying equipment, “and I know I should be able to find the switch, but I can’t.”

He didn’t roll his eyes, but I could tell he wanted to.

Hidden in Plain Sight

We walked out to the car. He opened the door, reached in, and without looking, tapped a HUGE button in the middle of the dashboard. The button bore a mammoth red triangle large enough to post as a warning sign on the back of an Amish mega-bus.

I laughed out loud at the absurdity of it all, and thanked him. He said nothing, and just walked away, shaking his head. “Jerk,” I thought. “I just gave you a great story about a numbskull with inattentional blindness, and for this I get no gratitude.”

Now that I think back on it, he might have been wearing a gorilla suit.

When have you suffered from Inattentional Blindness?

Boom! Uh-Oh!

Here’s the latest bit of rambling thought-rain from perennial sophomore Bubby Spamden.

Hey Mr. C.,

I think I already told you that I’m under a lot of pressure to make some decisions about my life from here on out. People are making a big deal out of me picking a career and getting ready to live a life outside Wendell Wilkie High School. As if that’s something worth doing!

Anyway, I’m wondering if you know anybody in the Blowing Up Buildings Industry. I’ve been watching all these cool videos on You Tube and it looks like there’s a never-ending supply of buildings and stuff that need to get exploded. It would be really neat to have a BUBI job, since my name is Bubby and it would seem like I was born to do it.

And I really have a knack for this kind of work.

I first started thinking about it last week when I saw that cool/scary video of the smokestack in Ohio that fell the wrong way and came way too close to whipping people with live power lines. Good thing nobody was hurt! Here’s the video of you haven’t seen it yet.

And here’s the thing that really hooked me – a fond look back at some of the greatest explosions of 2002.

I could watch that all day! The Blowing Up Buildings Industry is a place where I think I could be happy! There are a couple of conditions any job would have to meet before I would consider taking a specific offer.

1) I wouldn’t want to work on any projects that go wrong like that because it would be a really crummy feeling to be accountable for bad stuff happening. That’s a very stressful place to be, mentally. So any job I get would have to be with the absolute best company in the entire worldwide BUBI, and I would have to always be free of any real responsibility for what happens once gravity takes over.

2) I don’t really like explosives too much because they’re so … y’know. Violent. So no direct handling of dynamite and stuff for me.

3) And dealing with smoke and dust and stuff is really a drag. A lot of times I feel short of breath, especially when Heather walks by, and that’s just too unsettling and scary. So I’d have to make sure my BUBI job was always upwind from the debris cloud.

4) And I’m not really into math or science, so you can count me out of any jobs that ask for a lot of figuring and head scratching. Besides, getting the math right connects you directly to responsibility. (see item 1).

Mostly I’d like to watch things fall down from a safe upwind distance. Maybe some kind of PR job is right for me? What do you think? If I list you as a reference, will you put in a good word for me?

Your friend,

I told Bubby that given his list of conditions, I couldn’t really get on board with the idea of endorsing him as a valuable worker anywhere in the worldwide BUBI. And besides, it looks like the one thing he’s best at blowing up is any chance he has of ever being hired by anybody.

His best opportunity might come in the interstellar version of the same business. “Watching things fall down from a safe upwind distance” is exactly what astronomers are doing with regard to Supernova 1979C, an implosion project that happened 50 million years ago.

Have you ever watched something being demolished?

Ask Dr. Babooner

Dear Dr. Babooner,

Recently I accepted a co-worker’s invitation to go to a lunch buffet that she had raved about, but when I went down the line of offerings I didn’t see anything even remotely appetizing.

The restaurant featured the cuisine of a foreign country, so I didn’t want to appear disrespectful. I took a few of the less threatening items, but other delicacies looked absolutely prehistoric, like a paleontologist’s research project rather than a main dish.

My friend is enthusiastic about sharing her passions and seems unable to comprehend the possibility that others don’t feel the same way about it, so when she saw that I wasn’t selecting very much, she began spooning random servings onto my plate over my polite, but (to me) intense objections.

In “Weirdfoodistan”, she said brightly, “this is their custom! A good and generous hostess makes sure her guest gets the best and most of everything!”

Sitting at the table in front of this mountain of horrifying food that I was expected to eat, I committed an act of desperation – I faked an illness and pretended to pass out.

An ambulance was called and I was taken to the hospital and examined. They couldn’t find anything wrong with me, which complicated the matter and forced the hospital to keep me overnight. I missed work for two days, sympathy cards appeared on my desk the following week and I was charged $500 through my health insurance for the emergency services and some x-rays. I know that more bills are on the way.

Now this co-worker jokes about the incident and has asked me to go back there again to “finish the lunch we started”. But at these prices, I know I can’t afford it. Ever. How can I say ‘no’ in a way that is respectful and permanent?

Mystery Meat Mortifies Me

I told MMMM one should never pretend to have a specific illness. Why? Real illness is always too close for comfort, and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” is a famous story for a good reason. While good-hearted people have an infinite supply of sympathy for those who are suffering, it is possible to use up your personal portion if you appear to be greedy.

Also, actually having an illness is the thing that makes you an expert on all its symptoms and treatments. If you are pretending, it will only take a few questions to expose your deceit. That’s why, when faced with frighteningly exotic food, I claim I am on a “special diet”. Here’s the key – say as little as possible about it.

“I can only eat tortilla chips and cashew nuts. Sorry. I’d rather not talk about it. It’s between me and my doctor.”

The lack of specifics will immunize you against the accusation that you are a liar, and you’ll earn bonus points for discretion.

But that’s just one person’s advice. What do YOU think, Dr.Babooner?

Things Left Under The Snow

Thanks for the robust conversation yesterday. Obviously a snow day is good for at least one indoor activity – reading and posting comments on blogs!

Barbara in Robbinsdale sent this picture yesterday. It combines two recent themes – ladders and snow. (A terribly dangerous combination, Bathtub Safety Officer Rafferty would say.) It took this recent sequence of posts to open tim’s eyes to how rich he is in ladderage. Yesterday he reported owning two 8 foot ladders, a 16 footer, two 24 footers, a 36, and a 46. That’s 138 feet of ladders, or 46 yards, stretching about halfway down a football field, if you laid them end-to-end. But it would be crazy to do that. They’d be covered up with snow, and the football players would trip over them.

I found myself wishing I had put up Christmas lights and taken down birdbaths and the sundial while I watched the flakes swirl. The Twin Cities forecast includes temperatures above freezing every day for the next week, so there will be melting and a second chance to bring stuff inside.

What treasures did you leave under the snow?

Welcome to Sleeturday

So here it is, the first measurable amount of snow in the Twin Cities this season. Other areas around Minnesota are also getting some accumulation. Those who live outside the major storm track may have to make do with freezing rain this time around. Don’t worry. It’s only mid-November. Your storm is coming.

So it goes as our planet spins around the sun, changing it’s angles and plunging us into that uncomfortable place where, for at least 5 minutes and in some cases all day or all season, people cannot remember how to travel safely. If I could have 100 dollars for every fender bender in Minneapolis and St. Paul this weekend, I could open my own auto body shop. But it still wouldn’t be worth it. Let the finger pointing begin!

A major benefit of the first significant snow this year is that it arrives on the weekend. For those with Monday-Friday jobs and food in the cupboard, it means they can look out the window with smug satisfaction, thinking – there’s absolutely nothing to be gained by going out there. By taking most of the comfortable outdoor options off the table, nature invites the non-hardy among us to engage with the environment close at hand. Namely, all the inside tasks and pleasures we ignored while taking advantage of an unusually mild October and early November.

That game is up. For the cold-shy, the useable world just got smaller.

I plan to do some dusting and filing. Yipee!

How will the weather effect your weekend?

Chore Boy After Dark

The reason for my fixation with ladders and gravity yesterday – one of the jobs on my list was to wash the outsides of the southward-facing upstairs windows before the weather turns. Yesterday that meant “do it right away”. But much of the day was bright and clear at my house, and direct sun does not help when you’re trying to do a decent job of cleaning glass.

So I waited. This is a practiced skill – putting off the beginning of the work until later. Much later.

When the sun finally started to disappear behind the hills, I grabbed my bucket and ladder and I discovered that doing this sort of work at night just amplifies the feeling of second-story dread. And I also found it possible, while wrestling with a 12 foot ladder, to write another one of those dreadful sing-song poems about falling.

Today the sun described its arc
It shone on home and nearby park.
Now in its fading westward spark
I’m washing windows in the dark.

Coyote, in a Looney Toon
That Acme Anvil toting goon
While missing rungs, he writes his ruin
Up off the ground beneath the moon

The neighbors to their dinners dash.
While serving up potato mash
They might not hear a distant crash
My ladder sliding off the sash

But in the quickly fading light
I’m making sounds that canines might
discern. A high pitched, screeching blight.
My sqeaking squeegee in the night.

A sound the local dogs abhor.
Their puzzled masters, they’ll implore
Don’t be like the baboon next door
Climb nighttime ladders? Nevermore!

What crazy risks have you taken to finish the job?

Safety First!

Amid all our talk about missiles and sinking ships, Bathtub Safety Officer Rafferty came by the house yesterday for a seasonal check-up and was alarmed to discover that I had the ladder out. We had a brief, but intense discussion.

BSOR: I hope you’re not planning to use this.

Me: I AM planning to use it. I’m going to wash the second floor windows.

BSOR: Ladders are dangerous. A terrible hazard.

Me: I think you’re confused. Gravity is dangerous. Carelessness is a hazard. But ladders can be useful.

BSOR: Ladders should be outlawed, or at least fixed with graphic warnings.

Me: Graphic like the proposed new cigarette labels?

BSOR: Yes, with big, gruesome images of broken bones and severe head wounds – anything to make you think twice. Especially at this time of year when a lot of amateur aerialists go high off the ground to scoop wet, slippery leaves out of gutters. That combination of excessive altitude and loss of friction – it’s horrifying. Like watching a clown walk a tightrope made from banana peels.

Me: I don’t have gutters. I’m just doing windows. I’ll be careful.

BSOR: Everyone who goes up on a ladder thinks they’re being careful. But they’re forgetting one thing. The universe is perverse, and it has a twisted sense of humor. Remember the Tarzan movies?

Me: Of course. With Johnny Weismuller!

BSOR: And in those films he had a son.

Me: Named “Boy”!

BSOR: I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, the actor who played “Boy” just passed away. He fell off a ladder. Imagine it! You’re famous for being a Jungle Boy, swinging through the trees, and this is how it ends? The universe goes out of its way to mock us!

Me: That’s very sad.

BSOR: And that’s why I don’t want to get out of bed in the morning. Until I realize the bed could catch on fire or a spring inside the mattress could break its moorings and suddenly, violently extend, piercing my heart. So I get up.

Me: I appreciate your concern. But I’m going to use the ladder.

BSOR: I’ll need to see your LOL.

Me: Beg your pardon?

BSOR: Your Ladder Operator’s License.

Me: There’s no such thing. Is there?

BSOR: In my perfect world, there would be. And you’d have to go through training to get one. They’d teach you about basic stability, extension dynamics, power line awareness, footwear security, tool belt management and the habits of bees.

Me: I think the political environment just shifted away from favoring more regulation. I’m going to go up there.

BSOR: Sudden shifts of any kind are also very, very dangerous. People don’t recognize the value of balance. Balance in all things!

And then he issued me a Safety Police Officer’s Ticket (SPOT) for planning an Above Grade Gravity Rule Altitude Violation And Totally Ignoring Offical No! (AGGRAVATION).

I protested, saying I hadn’t done anything wrong. He agreed, and said that’s the best time to “catch” me, before the fact and not when I’m actually tumbling off the ladder.
But then BSOR has always loved acronyms and pre-enforcement of rules that don’t exist.

What is your policy towards ladders?

Inspector Goatlock’s Casebook

I was invited to Inspector Goatlock’s house the other day and was surprised to find dozens of wadded up sheets of paper scattered around the study. Some of them were soggy and appeared to have been chewed. The great detective made no reference to this messy scene, but it was obvious he had decided to re-open some old files. I quietly tucked a damp wad of paper into my pocket and unraveled it at home. Here’s what it said:

A breathless TV news anchor burst into my office and said “There’s a mysterious missile in the sky just off the coastline! Something is going on and I want YOU to figure it out. We go on the air with a live report in 7 minutes!”

I walked to the window for a look. A glowing, jagged line pierced the sky. It looked like the edge of an extremely vertical, quite rugged mountain. I suppressed a deep-seated urge to scale it and calmly returned to my desk.

“What do the authorities say?” I asked.

“They can’t tell me what it is!” he replied in even, measured tones tinged with a hint of pants wetting panic. “They say they didn’t launch a missile and they shrug, thinking somehow that will calm me down. But that makes the story even scarier, because it means someone else launched a missile! Someone whose identity is a mystery!”

I returned to the window and watched the telltale line of high altitude vapor as it slowly dissipated into nothingness.

“Go get ready for your live report,” I told him, “while I make some calls.”

I phoned two friends of mine – one dining in a pasture 40 miles north of the scene, and another pal climbing a mountain 40 miles to the south.

When I got off the phone I strolled out to the TV station’s remote truck just as the anchor went live with his hysterical report.

“We’re at the office of the famed solver of mysteries, Inspector Goatlock. Inspector, clearly we are under attack. Is it domestic enemies, North Korea or space aliens?”

“Ignorance is the real enemy,” I told him. “That was no missile. What you saw was the contrail of an ordinary jet flying toward you at a level, but very high altitude.”

“Nonsense,” he shot back. “This is a vast cover up and you’re part of the conspiracy!”

“That’s an easy and exciting explanation,” I said, calmly. “ But I insist this is an unremarkable jet trail, dramatized by the setting sun, warped by unusual elements of perspective and magnified by the relentless demands of the 24 hour news cycle.”

When he accused me of being a foreign spy, I admit, I bit the microphone.

How did Inspector Goatlock know the truth?

Make Mine Mimas

Yesterday the Cassini mission released this photograph of Saturn’s closest moon, Mimas – an image taken less than a month ago, on October 16th. It has a wonderfully spooky vibe. I can only guess that while flying past Mimas you would get the impression that its singular gaze is following you.
Just about every modern moviegoer who sees this crater-pocked sphere thinks it bears an uncanny resemblance to a famous fictitious space object.

This is apparently a coincidence. Mimas was merely a dot in space for a very long time after William Herschel first spotted it in 1789. The first close-up photos revealing its Cyclopean flair came from the Voyager missions in 1980. The first (fourth) Star Wars movie was already in (and out of) the theaters by then, debuting in 1977.

If travel to Saturn’s moons ever becomes a common thing, one wonders if humans will call this object “The Death Star”. I have to believe it’s possible for a cultural reference to last long after it fades from common knowledge. After all, we’re calling it Mimas right now, and how many people know who Mimas is? But the currents of memory are hard to predict. Future movie loving space travelers might also re-name this moon Wazowski.

Perhaps it will be left to the moon’s colonizers to determine if they want to be thought of as Mimanteans, Imperial Storm Troopers or Wazowskers. Of course, given the pockmarked terrain, you can tell they have a local weather problem with intermittent boulder rain. Anyone looking to live on Mimas might just as well be called a dang fool.

Place names are important, though. Bali Ha’i, Shangri-la and El Dorado all sound like very nice places to go, but would you really want to live there?

If you had to live in a fictional place, where would you settle?

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