Saturday, April 28, 2012

Grasshopper from the Future

When I was in fifth grade, my friends and I believed in everything. We had absolutely no doubt concerning the existence of ghosts, aliens, big foot, or anything else that was marvelous and strange. (One or two of us still believed in Santa Claus, but I won't mention any names.) We were encouraged in our beliefs by our fifth grade teacher, Mr. Harmon, the Fox Mulder of his generation. "Nothing is impossible," he told us. And why not? It was the space age. In just a few years, America would put a man on the moon.

One of our most cherished beliefs was the notion of time travel. We were all huge fans of the Irwin Allen TV series, The Time Tunnel, in which two scientists traveled back and forth in time each week, meeting famous people in history like Davy Crockett, and trying unsuccessfully to prevent such disasters as the sinking of the Titanic. (I'm talking about two separate episodes, by the way. I don't mean to imply that Davy Crockett was a passenger on the Titanic, although that would have certainly made an interesting story.)

We even built our own time tunnel, using a coffee can, several feet of wire, and a six-volt lantern battery. When we showed it to Mr. Harmon, he was impressed. "How are you going to test it?" he asked. We hadn't thought of that. Obviously, none of us would fit inside a coffee can. One of us could put a hand or finger in there, but that might be risky. We had to find a test subject—a small test subject.

A couple of us had pet mice or hamsters, and we considering using one of them. In the end, however, we decided to go with a grasshopper. There were plenty of them around. And there was no danger of forming an attachment to a grasshopper; if it did disappear into the space-time continuum, it would be no great loss. We captured the largest one we could find and put it into the coffee can.

There must have been a moment of hesitation before Thomas Edison flipped the switch to send current to the first light bulb, or before Alexander Graham Bell spoke the first words into a telephone. So must there be a moment when all great inventors pause at the brink of destiny, posing the fundamental question: “Will my invention work, or will it fail?” This was such a moment.

What if it worked? What if our grasshopper disappeared, and somewhere—some when—reappeared out of nowhere? “Wow!” people would say. “A grasshopper from the future!” (Or “past”—we weren’t really sure which direction he would be traveling.)

We connected the battery, and...

Nothing happened.

As I recall, we weren’t very disappointed. It was a long shot at best. But I have to say I am a little disappointed now. Nearly fifty years have gone by, and we still haven’t solved the mysteries of time and space.

On the other hand, there are plenty of grasshoppers around. Who’s to say one of them wasn’t sent back in time by some kids in the future?

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Three Guys Walk Into Heaven...

The recent series of celebrity deaths in the news reminded me of the old superstition that deaths—particularly celebrity deaths—come in threes. My aunts firmly believed this. When two celebrities died in close proximity, they would immediately begin speculation as to who would be the third.

I tried to convince them how arbitrary and irrational this was. What if the third death had already occurred and had been mistakenly assigned to the previous group? How closely do the deaths have to follow each other? Days? Weeks? Months? Do the celebrities all have to be in the same field, or can, for example, an actor, a musician, and a sports figure qualify for the same group? How famous do they have to be? Do local celebrities count?

We humans are constantly seeing patterns that aren't there. There's a word for this: "Apophenia." The number three seems to be especially subject to apophenia, and there's also a word for that: "Triaphilia." I googled superstitions involving the number three and came up with quite a few, including the following:
  • Unlucky events always happens in threes. (This would certainly include death.)
  • It's bad luck to see three butterflies on a leaf.
  • It's unlucky to light three cigarettes from the same match.
  • If an owl hoots three times, there will be misfortune.
  • If a cat washes its ears three times, you can expect a visitor.
  • A three-legged dog brings good luck. (Although presumably not to the dog.)

Humor also tends to favor the number three—think of all of the jokes that begin, "Three guys walk into a bar..."—which leads me to the following. (Sorry, but you knew this was coming, right?)
Dick Clark arrives at the pearly gates, and Saint Peter says, "I'm sorry, but I can't let you in until your party of three is complete." So Dick has a seat, picks up the latest issue of "Good Heavenkeeping" magazine, and waits.

A day later, Levon Helm arrives. Saint Peter says, "I'm sorry, but I can't let you in until your party of three is complete." Levon says, "No problem," and sits down. He and Dick have a lot to talk about because, you know, they're both in the music business.

A little while later, they spot another guy hanging around the gates. "Who's that?" Dick asks Saint Peter. "Some actor," says Peter. "Been here since Friday."

So Dick goes over to the guy and says, "Excuse me, but are you a celebrity?"

"Why, yes," says the guy. "As a matter of fact, I am. I'm Jonathan Frid."

"Who?" says Dick.

"Jonathan Frid. You know—Dark Shadows?"

"That new Johnny Depp movie?"

"No, no—the 1960's soap opera.


"I was pretty famous back in the day."

"Of course."

"Did quite a bit of stage work, too. Perhaps you saw one of my one-man shows—Fools and Fiends or Fridiculousness?"

"I don't think so."

"If you'd like, I could give you a sample..."

"Maybe later."

At this point, much to Dick's relief, Saint Peter interrupts. "Will the gentleman be joining your party? If so, I can let you in now."

Dick and Levon look at each other, and Dick says, "Well...if it's all the same to you, maybe we'll just wait for Robin Gibb."

(I apologize—especially to Jonathan Frid fans. I was actually a big fan of Dark Shadows and Frid. One of my biggest thrills as a kid was seeing "Barnabas" in person when he came to Fort Wayne in 1969 to serve as Grand Marshal of the first Three Rivers Festival Parade. Rest in peace, Jonathan, Dick, and Levon!)

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Would the person who took my pancakes kindly return them?

Wednesday morning I awoke from a vivid, terrible dream. For some reason, I had spent the night at work. I had brought with me bags containing a change of clothes and my breakfast. I knew I had to get dressed and eat breakfast before starting my work day, but before I could do so, my co-workers began to arrive. Soon the room was full of people and cluttered with their stuff—purses, lunch bags, brief cases, and so forth. It became increasingly difficult to search for my clothes and breakfast, but I eventually found a plate of pancakes. I put the pancakes aside and resumed looking for my clothes. A few people were trying to help me, but most were just getting in my way. Someone managed to find me a shirt, but there was still no sign of my pants. I decided to eat the pancakes, but when I returned to where I had left them, someone had taken them. When I woke up, it took me several minutes to shake off the feelings of frustration and betrayal.

Just your average, run-of-the-mill anxiety dream, right? Everyone has them—usually about work or school. You're late, you can't find your locker or remember your combination, or you're unprepared for an important test or presentation. My anxiety dreams usually have to do with theatre: I'm about to go on stage and I don't know my lines or even what play I'm in. Either that, or I'm backstage looking for my pants.

I imagine that being pantsless is fairly common in anxiety dreams. But pancakes? To the best of my knowledge, I've never dreamed of pancakes before. I looked up the meaning of pancakes in dreams and found the following:
To make or eat pancakes in your dream represents gratification and pleasure in your current situation. It may also mean that you take pleasure and comfort in your work.
So if someone I work with steals my pancakes, maybe it means that someone I work with is taking the pleasure and comfort out of my job.

Or it could just mean that I was hungry.

In any case, from now on I am going to keep an eye on my co-workers. And on my pancakes.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Poetry, Cruelty and April

April is National Poetry Month. I enjoy reading poetry year-round (I get a poem in my inbox every day, thanks to, but this time of year I especially enjoy revisiting some of my favorites. One that comes to mind every April is T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. It famously begins...
APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
From there, it goes on for another 430 lines, plus several pages of footnotes. I have read it many times. Once, years ago, I thought I understood it. Now, I'm not so sure. I get confused by all of the characters. Is the archduke's cousin Marie the same as the hyacinth girl? Is she also the woman who "smoothes her hair with automatic hand, And puts a record on the gramophone?" And what about Madame Sosostris, Albert and Lil, Mrs. Porter and her daughter...?

Whether I understand it or not, I still enjoy reading The Waste Land. It reminds me of the first time I read it, years ago in Professor Novak's modern poetry class. If Professor Novak ever explained its meaning, I don't remember it. Come to think of it, I don't remember Professor Novak ever explaining the meaning of a poem. "A poem should not mean but be," he would often say, quoting Archibald MacLeish.

Professor Novak's method of teaching poetry was to read a poem aloud or have a student read it, give it a few moments to sink in, then start asking lots of "why" questions, like, "Why is April the cruelest month?" (I had no idea. As someone who grew up experiencing northern Indiana winters, I would have gone with January or February—maybe March.)
O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag—
It’s so elegant
So intelligent
"Why 'Shakespeherian'?" Novak asked. None of us had an answer. Then he sang the words in a jazzy, syncopated rhythm. Suddenly, "Shakespeherian" made sense. The lines were meant to parody a popular song of the era. By making us look at the lines in a slightly different way—as a song—Professor Novak helped us better understand them.

I guess poems like The Waste Land are the reason that some people don't like poetry. They find it too difficult. That's unfortunate. Poetry is like life. ("Life distilled," Gwendolyn Brooks called it.) Like life, poetry can be difficult. It can also be beautiful, challenging, enlightening, and sometimes—like April—it can be cruel.

Sometimes, it can even seem meaningless.

But there is meaning. Try looking at it in a slightly different way, and maybe—just maybe—it will make sense.
O the moon shone bright on Mrs. Porter
And on her daughter
They wash their feet in soda water
 Happy National Poetry Month!