Maintaining A Squirrel-Like Calm

You normally don’t associate squirrels with a calm demeanor. To the contrary, squirrels seem to be some of the most skittish, hyper alert members of the animal kingdom. They are always nervously chewing up a nut while on the lookout for a dog and ready to run like crazy.

So this squirrel, perched on one of the concrete stanchions along the St. Mary fence line, was displaying decidedly unsquirrelly behavior. It gazed into the far distance with a placid expression and attitude, oblivious to the world around him, perhaps thinking deep squirrel thoughts. It was only when I approached that the squirrel ended its reverie, turned my way as if wondering why I was disturbing his solitude, and scampered off into the shrubbery where it undoubtedly resumed its zen like meditation..

On The Wild Burro Trail

The Wild Burro Trail is one of the primary trails in the Dove Mountain network of trails, and is also one of the longest. It’s the trail that you find at the trailhead, and it stretches for 6.5 miles and links up with many of the other trails.

The trail begins flat, and winds through and around some of the dry washes on the floor of the canyon between the mountains. It’s an easy hike, and it was not hard to imagine herds of braying wild burros trotting down the canyon and kicking up a cloud of dust as they followed the trail.

Once you reach the ruins of a stone house (shown above) about a mile into the hike, however, the trail becomes a lot more challenging, and heads up the hillside at a pretty good incline.

The trail even goes between two giant Saguaros that look a bit like praying hands as it progresses up the hillside. It’s a narrow trail that has a steep drop-off to one side, which is common on the trails here. I took my hike in the afternoon heat, when only a lunatic would be out on the trails, so I didn’t see another soul and had the trails completely to myself. As a result, I didn’t have to share the narrow passes with anyone.

As you gain in altitude you see some interesting desert plant life, like the furry plants shown below. I also saw eagles, lizards, jack rabbits, chipmunk-like creatures, and a number of birds. There were no large critters, though.

The Wild Burro Trail heads straight up and out of the canyon and intersects with other long and challenging trails. I didn’t have the time for a real lengthy hike, so when I reached the ridge line on one of the hills I stopped and turned around to head back. You have commanding views up there, but you need to be careful where you put your feet lest you go careening down the hillside. Selfie takers, take note!

Pictures from the heights really don’t convey the view. You are far above the canyon floor, but it is hard to give a good sense of the drop to the wash far below.

You also need to be careful about where you place you feet heading down. Stumbles could be disastrous. And Midwesterners like me need to remember that you have to watch what you touch to brace yourself on the way down. Rocks are okay, obviously, but you’ve got to remember that those objects that seem like telephone poles as you pass by have thorns, and so do many of the other plants.

By the time I reached the canyon floor and the dry wash, the sun was starting to sink, and it backlit the Saguaros on the rocky hillsides as I headed home. These Saguaros almost looked like they were trying to spell something. “It’s too hot to hike,” perhaps?

COVID Travel

We took a commercial airline flight a few days ago, and the pandemic continues to change the way we travel. Here are a few things I noticed:

* In the three airports we used on our trip, many of the stores, including food and snack options, were closed, and the ones that were open had very long lines. In Phoenix, for example, the line for a Wendy’s had about 30 people in it, which means you’ve got a pretty long wait for your Frosty. Next time we travel by air we’ll pack a lunch or a snack.

* The months of social conditioning about social distancing have had an impact. If you get to your gate early, people are spaced far apart, but as departure time nears the gaps fill in and people get noticeably antsy when people sit in the adjoining seat—and that’s even with everyone masked up.

* Here’s a positive: masked travelers make fewer annoying and intrusive phone calls. The gate areas are a lot quieter.

* The airline magazine on our flight, shown above, has supposedly been treated with some process to make it safe to handle. Nevertheless, it looked like it hadn’t been touched, and I didn’t flip through it, either. I bet readership is way down, and wonder whether this is the death knell for such magazines. For now, though, travelers can expect pristine in-flight magazines and untouched crossword puzzles., even if they are flying mid-month.

* The pre-flight lecture has gotten longer, with a COVID-19 specific section at the end. We were told that federal law now mandates a two-layer mask, and scarves, gaiters, and bandannas do not make the cut. And, keeping with the airline tendency to say even the most obvious stuff—like how to work the seat belt—we’re now being told that if the oxygen masks drop, it’s okay to remove your COVID masks before donning your oxygen mask.

Cereal Advances

With great advances being made in space flight technology, rocketry, electric cars, and communications devices, it’s nice to see that the cereal companies are keeping up their end of the bargain.

Kellogg’s has introduced Peeps cereal, which looks like it consists of Froot Loop-type rings and small marshmallow chicks and bunnies—just in time for Easter. It seems as though that combination would be sweet enough to curl your teeth, but perhaps that’s the point. And judging from the number of boxes that were absent, it looks like Peeps will be a hit.

When will the cereal companies finally drop the pretense and just start putting chocolate bunnies and malted milk eggs into cereal boxes?

Tread Lightly, Pranksters!

On this April Fool’s Day, here is some heartfelt advice for those who are scheming about practical jokes: tread lightly today.

Any capable prankster has to consider the setting, the nature of the prank, and the prankee. Any kid old enough to attempt an April Fool’s Day gag during his formative years intuitively understood this. You might try the “put salt in the sugar bowl” trick on your brother, but you were risking an explosion if you pulled it on your Dad as he was taking his first, wake-up sip of morning coffee. And doing anything permanently destructive, like sawing through the legs of a chair so your sister would crash to the ground when she sat down for her cereal, was clearly out of bounds.

This year, any practical jokers need to understand their audience and some reasonable boundaries, too. We’ve been pretty battered by the past year, and we’re more brittle than normal. So slipping somebody one of those dripping cups, or putting an obscene hat on the statue in Schiller Park, or sticking a “kick me” sign on Captain Kirk’s back might be funny, but nobody’s going to get much of a belly laugh out of a COVID-oriented gag. Let’s not mess around with vaccination needles, for example, or cut up vaccination cards. And I’m not sure how those who have been involuntarily housebound for more than a year now would react to a flaming bag on their doorstep, either.

The best April Fool’s Day jokes have a certain silly, timeless quality, anyway–like the 1957 BBC broadcast that convinced some gullible Brits that pasta was harvested from trees in Switzerland. If you’re interested in reading about legendary pranks of the past, take a look here and here. But if you’re going to actually try a prank, please–go easy on us!

Upper Arm Display

The combination of COVID-19 vaccination sweeping the nation and social media being a primary form of communication in modern America has produced an unusual situation. We’re seeing a lot more of people’s bared upper arms these days–either displaying the Band-Aid signifying that they’ve got their shot or actually getting stuck by a needle.

This is unusual because the upper arm is a part of the body that normally is blissfully covered by clothing. In pre-COVID times, it would be rare indeed to encounter a friend and have them expose their upper arm in greeting you. There’s a reason for this. Unless you’re a bodybuilder who is working on getting ready for next year’s Arnold Classic, you’re not really paying much attention to that triceps area.

Oh, you may have noticed, with a sad realization of the regrettable realities of aging, that as you’ve gotten older that upper arm area has become saggy, with a flap of loose skin and jelly-like flab that hangs down and sways in the breeze when you hold your arm out. But you thought that, in the priority list of body parts that demand attention in your personal fitness regimen, the upper arms fall well below, say, the waistline, because they are simply not as visible and obvious to the casual observer. That is, they weren’t as visible and obvious until posting vaccination photos suddenly became de rigueur.

We weren’t prepared for this new reality, which is just another way in which COVID-19 has upset our well-ordered, pre-pandemic world. And now I wonder: will the increased visibility of the upper arm cause a surge in people hitting the gym and performing push-ups or other exercises designed specifically to tone those triceps areas, to make for more attractive vaccination photos when the COVID booster shots inevitably hit the market in the future?

In the meantime, we can all be grateful that vaccination shots are given in the upper arm, and not in the belly.

Looking For Lamination (In All The Wrong Places)

We got the second part of our two-part vaccination a few days ago, and we’re pretty happy about it. Now, we are not only fully vaccinated, we are also the proud owners of completed, bar-coded, scannable CDC COVID-19 vaccination cards.

The folks who gave us our shots recommended that the treat those vaccination cards like other super-important documents in our lives, such as passports and birth certificates. This advice makes sense, because we don’t know exactly what the post-pandemic world is going to look like. It may well be that we will need to show a completed vaccination card to get on an airplane flight or attend a football game or for some other purpose, so we’ll have to get into the habit of carrying those cards around as a matter of course. And although the vaccination cards are made of light cardboard, we all know that such objects can easily become bent, creased, and dog-eared. So if we want our vaccination cards to have long-term functionality, the solution is clear: get them laminated while they are still in their pristine, newborn state, before pockets and purses and interaction with keychains, coins, pens, and clumsy fingers have a go at them.

Lamination isn’t a service that I’ve ever had to look for before. The only thing I’ve had to have laminated in recent memory is my driver’s license, and in Ohio the BMV does that automatically when you get a new one. There’s no nearby lamination store, to my knowledge. And, surprisingly to me, a Google search reveals that “lamination” is used to describe a variety of services, including industrial lamination, laminated flooring, and eyebrow lamination. Which of those providers would be best suited to take care of our vaccination cards?

Fortunately, we learned that two of the office supply chains in our area–Staples and Office Depot–are offering to laminate COVID vaccination cards for free, so that’s where we’re going. That’s a smart move by those businesses that is bound to establish some loyalty on the part of grateful vaccinated people like us, and we’ll remember their generosity the next time we need lamination or office supplies. It also, fortunately, will keep me from going into a flooring contractor or eyebrow salon to ask if their lamination services can be repurposed.

Ducks On The Run

This is the time of year when the ducks in Schiller Park are out and about. Instead of hanging out at the pond, as they typically do, at this time of year they clearly feel a certain wanderlust and could be anywhere–crossing the street, emerging from underneath bushes, or strolling across the lawns.

It can be a bit unnerving as you walk in the pre-dawn darkness. You’ll suddenly detect movement near your feet in the gloom and feel a surge of adrenalin in response to the unknown, and the next thing you know there are a pair of ducks waddling past, murmuring in apparent indignation at your presence. With the DuckShock over, you breathe a sigh of relief and continue on your way.

The roaming ducks always seem to be in female and male pairs, which makes me think the wandering is intended to secure a little privacy, away from the rest of the flock at the pond, for some springtime mating. I always feel a little bad for interrupting the roving of my waterfowl chums–whatever they are doing.

Weeds

Most of the TV shows and movies I write about get positive reviews. When I watch a show and like it, I enjoy working through exactly why I have that reaction and then writing about it. This has caused some faithful readers to wonder whether I’m so shallow and accepting of TV fare that I like all TV shows I watch.

I don’t. Take Weeds, the show that was broadcast for a number of years on Showtime. We read an on-line review that noted that the Weeds run on Netflix was coming to an end on March 31 and recommended the show as some bingeworthy viewing, so we gave it a chance. In fact, we gave it more than a chance — we watched all of season 1, and halfway through season 2, before we just gave up and decided life was too short to waste it watching Weeds.

Why did we say “Weeds begone”? Because there basically wasn’t a single character on the show that we liked, or frankly even found mildly interesting. In fact, the contrary was true: we thought Weeds featured some of the most cliched, poorly drawn, and intensely annoying characters we’d ever seen on television. From the wide-eyed, coquettish lead character and would-be dope lord Nancy Botwin, played by Mary-Louise Parker, to her weird and unlikeable kids, to her irritating loser brother-in-law, to the other brainless and self-absorbed characters populating the vapid town of Agrestic, California, we disliked pretty much everyone. Not surprisingly, it’s hard to like a TV show when you have no connection to the characters and hate seeing them on screen.

And there wasn’t much that was original in the show’s plotting or the writing. Although Weeds is described as a “comedy-drama,” we didn’t find much of either. I’m not sure I ever actually laughed out loud at anything that happened in the show, and I certainly didn’t find it very dramatic, either. Good comedy involves creativity and an element of surprise, both of which were sorely lacking in Weeds. And drama requires some characters you actually care about, which Weeds didn’t have, either. The only character who even came close to that standard was Isabelle, the poor daughter of Nancy’s appalling friend Celia Hodes, who we hoped could get away from her ridiculous, domineering, body-shaming mother. But our passing interest in that minor plot line couldn’t carry the day in the face of the onslaught of other irksome characters and groan-provoking plot devices.

It amazes us that Weeds ran for multiple seasons, which just shows you that one man’s trash can be another man’s treasure. In our view, though, there are a lot of good TV shows out there to watch–and Weeds isn’t one of them. We think Netflix did the right thing in pulling Weeds.

Monty Python’s Almost The Truth

Netflix offers an awesome array of content — including documentaries. If, like me, you are a fan of Monty Python, I recommend tuning in to Monty Python’s Almost The Truth, a six-part documentary about the troupe that really bent the comedy arc.

Good documentaries answer your questions. In the case of Monty Python, there are lots of those questions. How did these guys get together in the first place? What caused them to develop such a hilarious, zany, irreverent, subversive view of the world? How did a lone American break into this supremely British group? Who came up with ideas like the fabled Parrot Sketch or the “bring out your dead” scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail? Why did animation feature so prominently in what they did? Who came up with the great songs, like the ditty about Brave Sir Robin? And how and why did the group spin apart?

This documentary answers those questions. Made in 2009, it featured interviews with the then-surviving Pythoners, as well as comments from other people who were involved and well-known fans of the group talking about what it was like to watch their work. (I recommend fast forwarding through the comments by Russell Brand, who comes across as supremely self-absorbed and irritating.) I particularly enjoyed learning about the early days of the members of the group — including the important role now-forgotten figures like David Frost inadvertently played in the group coming together — as well as the TV and radio shows that influenced them. Later episodes drill down into the Flying Circus years, their battles with BBC censors, their creative process and some of the tensions that drove it, their legendary live performances at the Hollywood Bowl, the making of their films, and ultimately the untimely, early death of member Graham Chapman.

Influential social figures that touched the lives of millions and forever changed the way we think about their idiom — like the Beatles, or Monty Python, or the first cast of Saturday Night Live — deserve this kind of look back after years have passed and their true impact can be assessed with the perspective that only time can bring. Monty Python’s Almost The Truth gives you some of that perspective and a peek behind the curtain. It’s fascinating stuff.

“Advanced Toast Technology”

Yesterday morning our old toaster gave up the ghost. It had been a good toaster, faithfully performing every toasting service we required of it for years and delivering delightfully golden brown slices at our command, but yesterday morning the heating elements failed. I tried banging it around and plugging it into different electrical connections–in short, the standard actions of someone who has no earthly idea how to repair a toaster but figures it’s worth a shot–but neither of those pointless exercises had the desired effect. As a result, it was clear that we needed a new toaster.

This had a thrilling benefit: it gave us a reasonable excuse to get out of the house and buy a new toaster. Sure, we could have ordered one from Amazon and had it delivered to our doorstep within minutes, but as the shutdown period nears its one-year anniversary we’re looking for any reason to get out and about. So, we seized the opportunity presented by the dead toaster development to don our masks and head to the local Target and support the brick-and-mortar merchants who provide local jobs.

When we arrived at the Target, we were surprised to find an extensive toaster selection, shown below. Target not only featured the expected two-slice and four-slice options, but also toasters that offered significant and unexpected complexity in exchange for added cost. After careful deliberation befitting the significance of the decision, we grabbed the cheapest two-slice toaster–which even so promised “Advanced Toast Technology.”

The promise of “Advanced Toast Technology” concerned me, frankly. If you think about it, toasters have been a rock of reassuring stability in an ever-changing changing sea of technological advancements that has affected even the straightforward world of kitchen appliances. The toasters of the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s would perform perfectly well in a modern kitchen. Decades later, toasters still feature slots for the toast, heating coils, and a knob to be depressed to start the toasting process. No one needs a instruction manual to operate a toaster.

So when I opened our toaster and saw that it had a multi-page manual, it sent a chill down my spine. What unnecessary complexity has been injected into the tried-and-true toaster design? What new parts or elements have been added that might break down and interfere with the core toasting function? Fortunately, “advanced toast technology” turns out to be pretty basic stuff, befitting the timeless toaster functions: extra wide slots “to accommodate a variety of foods,” a removable crumb tray, “bagel & frozen options,” and seven (7!) toasting settings. I was grateful to find that there were no “smart appliance” features that require you to give your detailed personal information to toast a slice of bread. And our new toaster does a pretty good job of toasting, too.

All hail the timeless toaster, ever-immune to the confusing tides of pointless technological advancement!

Toothpaste Dilemmas

We’re coming to the end of one tube of toothpaste, and we’ve got another one in queue. So this morning, as I prepared to brush my teeth, I faced a difficult decision: should I go for Colgate “sparkling white” with “mint zing” flavor, which promises to whiten and help protect teeth from stains, or for Colgate “optic white stain fighter” with “fresh mint gel,” which purports to remove “6x more surface stains” with “micropolishing action”?

After careful deliberation and consideration about whether I should simply protect my teeth from stains, or actively fight them, I decided that, even though I wasn’t feeling particularly “sparkling” at the moment, I could use some “mint zing” in my life and I may as well use up the old tube of toothpaste before going all “optic” on my teeth. I brushed and flossed but, alas, my teeth — having sustained the onslaught of countless cups of coffee over the course of decades — did not reach the “sparkling white” level, and instead remained firmly stuck in the “dingy” zone.

I don’t think going with the “optic white stain fighter” would have made a difference, either. You’d need a product that removes “600x more surface stains” — basically, toothpaste akin to forced sandblasting — and offers awesome “macropolishing action,” rather than wussy “micropolishing action,” to make a discernible difference in the drab color of my aged choppers. In reality, I’m mostly just grateful that they all are still firmly rooted in my gums.

Nevertheless, I appreciate the aspirational element of toothpaste whitening options. Whether it’s “sparkling,” or “optic,” or “3D,” or “radiant,” they set a lofty goal–and also remind us of the importance of adjectives.

Schrodinger’s Menagerie

In the bizarre world of quantum physics, “Schrodinger’s cat” is the stuff of legend.

In the 1930s, as concepts of quantum mechanics were being developed and articulated, physicist Erwin Schrodinger devised a thought experiment to illustrate issues related to the quantum concept of superpositioning, in which quantum particles maintain multiple states at the same time and only collapse to a final state upon interaction with other particles. In Schrodinger’s thought experiment, a cat is placed in a sealed box with a small radioactive substance, a Geiger counter, and some poison sufficient to kill the cat. If the radioactive substance decays, it triggers the Geiger counter that releases the poison and kills the cat. The decay of the radioactive substance is governed by quantum mechanics, which means the atoms are simultaneously in the states of “going to decay” and “not going to decay” — and which means that, as a matter of quantum physics, after a while the cat is simultaneously both alive and dead. Add in the concept of an observer opening the box to determine the cat’s status, and the notion of whether the actions of the observer can affect the cat’s status, and you’ve got a classic quantum mechanics mindbender.

Trying to get your head wrapped around quantum mechanics in the morning is tough sledding, but the key point here is that people found the concept of Schrodinger’s cat being both alive and dead at the same time extremely intriguing. His thought experiment not only took the world of physics by storm, it ultimately expanded outside the world of the white lab coats into the world at large — where the idea that something can be two things at the same time has been found to be a very useful concept.

Now we’ve got “Schrodinger’s smiley” — :): — to be used by someone who is both happy and sad at the same time. And there’s “Schrodinger’s douchebag,” defined as a guy who says offensive things and then decides whether he was joking based on the reaction of people around him. And why stop there? “Schrodinger’s politician” would be a politician who varies his position on the issues depending on the inclination of the group the politician happens to be speaking to at the time. “Schrodinger’s dog” would be that dog that comes charging up at you ready to either bite your hand or wag its tail. And “Schrodinger’s referee” would be the football official who decides whether to throw a flag based on crowd reaction and the acting job of the player seeking a penalty.

The possibilities are virtually endless, and the limits of Schrodinger’s menagerie are defined only by the limits of the human imagination and human experience. And to think that it all started with a simple living and dead cat in a sealed box.

The Why Of Spillage

Every morning, my first task is to make a pot of fresh coffee. And on the vast majority of mornings, after I fill the pot with water from the faucet, as I am pouring the water from the pot into the coffee maker some water drips from the spout and runs down the side of the pot to the counter. There might be a rare day, once in a great while, when my combination of morning alertness and careful pouring technique prevents any spillage, but 99.9% of the time I’ll need a dish towel to mop up the water.

What causes this annoying event? Your sixth-grade science teacher would tell you it is the so-called “capillary effect” of water, which involves elements of cohesion, adhesion, and surface tension. Basically, water molecules like to stick together, and like to stick to almost anything — including the sides of coffee pots. Once the first water molecule decides to tumble over the spout of the coffee pot and stick to the side — rather than obediently falling into the coffee maker, like a good water molecule should — other water molecules will follow.

This is a common problem, and you’ll see all kinds of tips about how to address it. As for me, I think the best approach is to try to pour the water into the coffee maker very slowly, so there is no chance that the first rogue water molecule will make its break for freedom over the spout and down the side of the pot. But normally the urge to drink some hot coffee is too strong, the pour passes the tipping point, the first bad boy molecule leads the way, more inevitably follow, and it’s time to get the dish towel off the rack again.

This can be annoying, to be sure, but as the U.S. Department of Interior “water science school” website teaches us, capillary action is essential to the health of trees, shrubs, flowers, and other plants — because capillary action is a big part of how they get water from their roots up to their branches, leaves, and flowers. Capillary action also has been a real boon for paper towel makers, because that’s why water creeps up a paper towel that touches a water spill, thereby ensuring that Rosie the lunch counter lady can demonstrate that Bounty is the quicker picker-upper.

So that’s the capillary effect for you — helping trees and Rosie, while adding an inevitable extra step to the morning coffee making process. The morning spill might be irritating, but if that’s the price to pay for flowers and green leaves, I’ll gladly pay it.

The Pleasures Of Paper

Earlier this week I went to the office. I was working on comparing and organizing and incorporating the contents of two different documents, and I decided that would be easier and more efficient if I would print them out, bring them home, and do the comparison and organization work on paper, where I could lay the documents out side by side.

It’s the first time I’ve actually worked with paper in months, rather than editing and moving things around and cutting and pasting from one document to another on my laptop. When I was working from the office before the shutdown occurred, I was paper-oriented, although I was trying mightily to become more electronic, so as to minimize the need for paper files and storage boxes. But when the shutdown occurred, working on paper really was not an option, so I went full electronic of necessity.

Working with physical documents made me realize that I miss paper. Creating and editing documents on a computer is fine, of course, but there is a tactile element involved in working with paper that you just don’t get with a computer. Writing on the paper, drawing brackets and arrows to shuffle content around, crossing out duplicative sections with a definitive flourish, using an actual highlighter with that unique freshly opened highlighter smell, and then crumpling up and discarding the paper with a set shot at the recycling container when the work is done — each act has its own little satisfactions. If I had a spindle, I’m sure I would enjoy folding, spindling, and mutilating, too.

I suppose that, at heart, I’m a Dunder-Mifflin guy.

My return to paper was enjoyable, but it will be brief. The reality is that paper, for all of its pleasures, is just too bulky for remote work, and it’s easier, cheaper, less wasteful, and more environmentally friendly to do everything on the computer screen. But I did enjoy my brief return to the paper days.