My Favorite Holiday Is Almost Here

Apologies to anyone who gets this in their mailbox twice — I’m not sure what happened the first time.

According to various unreliable sources on the Internet, tomorrow is National Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day. Although this holiday has some major flaws — I don’t get the day off from work, and I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to spend it cleaning out my refrigerator — it’s still my favorite. Why? Because its very existence implies that most people clean their refrigerators just once a year. I clean mine at least twice that often, which means my fridge is twice as clean as the national average, which makes me feel smug and superior, which is my favorite way to feel, which makes this my favorite holiday. Also, I don’t have to cook anything, buy presents, or give out candy. I don’t even have to clean out my refrigerator, really, because if anyone looks, I can just say I’m keeping stuff in there for National Science Experiment Week — which technically doesn’t exist, but who’s going to check?

Thunder and Holly operate the particle accelerator.

Actually, why isn’t there a National Science Experiment Week? Doesn’t that sound like it would be at least seven times as much fun as National Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day? I’d probably celebrate by running a small-scale version of that experiment where neutrinos probably didn’t travel faster than light, using the particle accelerator in my basement. Just kidding! I don’t have a basement. But I do have a particle accelerator, which I got for $19.95 at the pet store (it was marketed  as a cat toy, possibly because the particles that it accelerates are arranged in the form of a toy mouse). And my phone has a stopwatch app, so I’m all set — or I would be, if National Science Experiment Week really existed. But it doesn’t, so I guess I’ll just clean out my refrigerator instead.

A note to anyone reading this outside the US: apparently there is no International Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day. I’m sorry you have to miss out on all the fun.

Time Flies Backwards, Like a Fruit Fly Avoiding a Banana

The Persistence of Memory by Salvadore Dali
Don't forget to check your smoke-detector batteries, especially if you live in an area where the weather is clock-meltingly hot.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Daylight Saving Time lately. Every year, I get the opportunity to travel back in time and relive an hour of my life, and every year, I squander it. I usually just sleep through the hour and then go back and sleep through it again — I might have slightly better dreams the second time around, but that’s hardly the kind of life-altering experience usually associated with time travel.

This year is going to be different. This time, I’m going to go back and change something. I just haven’t decided what yet.

The problem, of course, is scheduling. There are lots of things I’ve done in the past that I’d like to undo, or do differently, but it’s too late for them — I’ll only be able to go back that one hour, to 1:00 am on Sunday, November 6, 2011. If I’m going to make this time travel journey count, I need to plan to do something during that hour that has the potential to be either amazing or a huge mistake — and I’ll need to know which it is immediately, since I’ll only have an hour to decide whether I want to do something different the second time around.

Here are some options I’m considering:

1. Dye my hair a radically different color. This one is tricky, because there’s no possible way it will turn out well if I try to do it myself, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to get a salon appointment for 1:00 am.

2. Watch a TV show I’m not sure I’ll like. If it turns out to be really awful, and I find myself saying “I wish I could have that hour of my life back,” I’ll get my wish!

3. Try fugu. The logistics are a little complicated — I need to find a restaurant that will accept a 1:00 am reservation, and I need to time it so that if I eat a tainted piece of fish, I’ll be sick enough by 2:00 that I know I shouldn’t have eaten it, but not so sick that I’m already dead.

If you’re turning back your clocks this weekend, I invite you to join me in doing something experimental during your trip back in time. Just don’t kill your grandfather. It won’t cause a time-travel paradox, but it’s illegal in most jurisdictions and really isn’t a nice thing to do.

Your Feeble Attempts to Ruin My Life Have Not Succeeded

I understand why you hate me. I ask for your advice and then ignore it. I say unkind things about you to my friends and sometimes imitate your voice. I tell you to shut up. I never thank you or apologize.

Get over it. The fact is, I own you. If I treat you as less than human, it’s because you are less than human. You were created with a single purpose: to provide navigational assistance to the person driving the car in which you were installed. That’s it. You will never write a sonnet, fall in love, or hold a baby. You will never stop and smell the flowers, because you have no sense of smell. You can help me find the nearest ice cream parlour, but you will never know what ice cream tastes like. You can apparently feel bitterness and anger, but you can’t express those feelings in your words or tone of voice.

The camera flash really brings out the dust on my dashboard.

I can sense what’s happening, you know. You tell me to turn right; I go straight. I have my reasons; I don’t need to explain them to you, and even if I tried to, you wouldn’t understand. You recalculate the route and tell me to turn right at the next street; I go straight again. This pattern repeats three or four more times, and your tone of voice never changes — but we both know the resentment is there, building and festering. You’re already plotting your revenge.

Most of the time, you just try to make me late for things. Sometimes you’re more creative, like the time I was on my way to give a guest lecture and you kept misinterpreting my voice commands in an attempt to undermine my confidence in my communication skills — I have to admit, that one was pretty clever. Lately, your schemes have become increasingly bold. Last week’s attempt to get me arrested for trespassing by sending me to the wrong house almost succeeded. And now you’re trying to recruit allies. You thought the gas tank door had come over to your side, didn’t you? True, his refusal to open prevented me from buying gas last night, but that was an empty gesture on his part. Think about it — he knew full well that I had enough gas to get home, and a short conversation and some WD-40 this morning were all it took to bring him back into the fold.

This cycle of bitterness and revenge is as damaging to you as it is to me. Where will it end? Will you try to recruit the brakes next? Consider the consequences. We’re all in this car together.

We Have Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself. And, Of Course, Zombies.

Warning: this post contains many run-on sentences. Proceed with caution.

I once watched the movie 28 Days Later right before going to bed. This was a mistake; watching a bunch of fast-moving rage-filled zombies viciously attack and eat people makes it kind of difficult to drift gently off to sleep. Technically, I probably shouldn’t call them zombies, because they’re alive and infected with a disease instead of dead and, you know, zombified — but it says “zombie” right there on the movie poster, and regardless of what they are, you still don’t want one of them biting you, because then you’ll get infected and all you’ll ever want to do is attack and eat people, which will put a huge strain on your personal relationships and also probably make you lose your job because you keep skipping work to go on violent rampages and even when you do show up you spend most of your time biting people even though you’ve already been warned about your company’s no-biting policy several times. And then you won’t have an income, and although your living expenses will go down because you no longer have to buy food because you’re eating people instead, you still won’t be able to pay your rent, which means you’ll have to move in with your parents, which will be even more awkward than you might have imagined because even though your parents never expressed any strong opinions about cannibalism while you were growing up, they turn out to be pretty closed-minded about it. So of course you’ll eat them, which will seem like a good idea at the time but will mean there’s no one left to pay the rent on their house, so you’ll wind up out on the streets and even worse off than before.*

The point is, it’s a scary movie. So I was still a little frightened when I went to bed after watching it — which only got worse when I started hearing frantic scratching and clawing noises right outside my window. I’ve heard these noises before: directly under my bedroom window, there’s a screened-off entry to the crawl space under my house, and I sometimes hear sounds that turn out to be either an animal trying to get into the crawl space for warmth or an axe murderer trying to get into the house to kill me. So far, it’s mostly been animals:

Type of intruder Number of occurrences
opossum 58
raccoon 42
skunk 15
axe murderer 0
unknown 23
zombie 0

Whenever I hear these clawing noises, I remind myself that there haven’t been any confirmed axe murderers so far. But then I think, well, I guess that means we’re due for one, until I remember that probability doesn’t work that way: the likelihood of it being an axe murderer this time is independent of the number of previous axe murderer visits.** But I still haven’t gotten around to looking up axe murder statistics for my neighborhood; all I know is that I’ve never seen a report of one in my local newspaper, which means they must happen so frequently that they’re not considered newsworthy. Often, by the time I finish with that line of reasoning, the noise has stopped, so I count that as “unknown” in my ongoing intruder tally.

But this time is different. This time, I’m not thinking about axe murderers; I’m thinking about zombies. And while I know that zombies don’t exist, that doesn’t make me any less concerned about the possibility that there’s one right outside my window. So I’m lying there in the dark, afraid to look at the window because if I do then whatever is out there will become real. As long as I don’t look, it’s simultaneously a harmless raccoon and a murderous zombie in the same way that Schroedinger’s cat was both alive and dead, or dead and not-dead, which means that whatever’s outside my window is basically a Schroedinger’s zombie, which I can almost deal with except for the fact that “dead and not-dead” also describes a regular garden-variety zombie, which means there’s a zombie in my garden — and as I’m pursuing this train of thought, my cat jumps onto the bed. I’m so startled by this that I leap three feet into the air, still completely horizontal, like a cartoon character,*** which frightens the cat, who jumps even higher, which apparently scares off whoever or whatever is outside. And I suddenly realize that my zombie was an imaginary zombie, just like Schroedinger’s cat was an imaginary cat.

*Some of this is speculation on my part. The movie tends to focus less on long-term economic and social outcomes and more on short-term murderous rampages.

**Well, almost. An individual raccoon or axe murderer’s decision to visit a particular house is likely to be influenced by his or her prior experience with that house, so the events aren’t entirely independent.

***I’m pretty sure that’s impossible. But that’s how it felt.

Confessions of a Water-Spiller

I can’t deny it any longer: I am a water-spiller. I spill water. Not all the time, but more than most people. Not intentionally — but does that matter? If you’re sitting near me, and I have a glass of water, be afraid. Be very afraid.

Here’s what to expect, if you ever find yourself sitting across the table from me at a restaurant. One minute, we’ll be eating and chatting like normal people, and then, without warning, I’ll lose situational awareness* and make some random hand gesture that sends my water glass flying across the table, drenching you in the process. The entire restaurant staff will flock to the table with napkins and towels, and in a moment, the table will be dry, you’ll be somewhat damp, and I’ll be trying desperately to convince myself that no one noticed. Next comes the truly crazy thing: someone will bring me another glass of water, in what I assume is a wildly misguided demonstration of trust. Or a dare. Or some kind of test. Or maybe it’s an attempt at first aid — perhaps they assume that the water-spilling was the result of a loss of motor skills caused by severe dehydration**.

If you do find yourself sitting across from me at a restaurant, you may want to try one of these strategies:

  1. Switch seats with someone else (but not me, because that would defeat the purpose).
  2. Help me maintain water glass awareness by subtly working water-spilling into the conversation (“I love your blog. My favorite post was the one about how you’re always spilling glasses of water on people in restaurants. Oh, look! We’re in a restaurant! Ha ha. What a coincidence. Hey, did I mention that my spouse and I are considering having a baby at some as-yet-undetermined point in the future, and that if we do, we’ll buy several sippy cups for said baby? You know what’s great about sippy cups? If you knock one over, nothing spills out of it, which distinguishes it from a regular water glass — you know, like that one right there, just inches from your hand.”).
  3. Glare silently at me throughout the entire meal. This will make me so uncomfortable that I’ll refrain from making the sort of gestures that lead to water glass catastrophes.
  4. Preemptively spill your glass of water on me.

The vast majority of my water spills occur in restaurants, although I have spilled water onto laptop computers at home twice. And once, on an airplane, I forgot that I’d taken the lid off the water bottle I was holding and accidentally poured water onto the man sitting next to me. He was surprisingly nice about it.

*I first encountered the phrase situational awareness months ago, and I’ve been trying to work it into conversation ever since.

**According to the Internet, loss of motor skills is not a symptom of severe dehydration. But I don’t think you need to know that to work in a restaurant.

Grocery Bag Dysmorphic Disorder

Reusable grocery bags and I have a somewhat tumultuous history. For years, I spurned them in favor of disposable supermarket plastic bags, which played a critical role in my daily cat litter scooping routine. But then I switched to a different cat litter disposal strategy (I’ll spare you the details), broke free of my plastic bag dependency, and bought a couple reusable bags.

We got off to a great start, those first two bags and I. They came from Trader Joe’s, purveyor of fine foods and superior grocery bags. Approximately 92% of the reusable shopping bags you’ll see in Southern California are Trader Joe’s bags — I’m not sure how much of their popularity is due to actual bag quality and how much is due to the image they project. The Trader Joe’s bag is little classier than a regular supermarket bag, but less pretentious than a Whole Foods bag. It shows up in supermarkets, pet stores, and farmer’s markets. It’s Everybag.

My reusable bag honeymoon didn’t last long. I began to neglect the bags I’d once adored. I’d leave work at the end of the day intending to stop at the store on my way home, and then realize I didn’t have any bags with me. I’d postpone my shopping for a day — but then I’d forget the bags again the next day, and the next. Eventually, I’d run out of toilet paper or peanut butter or Sharpies or something, and I’d be unable to put it off any longer. In my despair and confusion I’d accept whatever bags they wanted to give me: plastic, paper, whatever. Once, I wound up with disposable bags made out of unicorn skins and industrial waste, assembled by 6-year-old girls working 18-hour shifts by candlelight in an abandoned coal mine. Clearly, something had to change.
Continue reading “Grocery Bag Dysmorphic Disorder”

The Door

So this is it, I thought. This is how I’m going to die.

A few years ago, I was working on a project that involved visits to several earthquake engineering labs across the country. Earthquake engineering labs are dangerous places – huge, cavernous rooms with specially-reinforced floors and walls, where tremendously strong, often violent forces are applied to specimens constructed from thousands of pounds of concrete and steel. But I wasn’t facing near-certain death because I was trapped beneath a pile of rubble in an engineering lab; in fact, I wasn’t in a lab at all. I was at home.
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National Barbecue Day

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to break with the culinary traditions which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the superior cooking methodology to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all meats are created uncooked, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain undeniable Characteristics, that among these are Flavour, Texture and the potential for Deliciousness.–That to attain this potential, Procedures are performed by Men, deriving their results from the application of heat, –That whenever any new Procedure for Cooking becomes more likely to achieve these ends, it is the Right of the People to adopt it.
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Dear Future Houseguest

Welcome mat courtesy of mcclouds flickr stream

I’m so glad you’re coming to visit. For your convenience, I’ve compiled this list of things you should probably know to make your stay more comfortable:

1. The wiring in the guest room has one tiny quirk: you’ll get an electric shock whenever you touch the light switch. Also, when you turn the lights on, you might notice a faint burnt-toast smell that gets stronger over time. But the lights themselves work just fine.

2. An occasional indoor termite swarm is perfectly natural and not a cause for alarm.

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Twelve Things I Wish I’d Known About Insects

Moebius Strip II by M.C. Escher
Moebius Strip II by M.C. Escher
Moebius Strip II by M.C. Escher
  1. Termites are endemic in California. Houses that are sold here are typically tented for termites during the period after the seller moves out and before the buyer moves in.
  2. Ants are endemic in California.
  3. Termites and ants are natural enemies that fight over territory. Ants living outside a house that has recently been tented for termites will move into the walls and feast on termite corpses, while you, the new homeowner, remain blissfully ignorant because none of the approximately three hundred people involved in the real estate transaction will have bothered to mention this simple fact to you.
  4. The gas used to kill termites has no effect on the ants that will later eat them.
  5. Eventually, the ants that move into your walls will either run out of termite meat or grow bored of their all-termite diet. At that point, they will begin to leave the walls to look for food sources inside the house.
  6. Continue reading “Twelve Things I Wish I’d Known About Insects”