The Infamous Lyrics of P. Nutt

I don’t know what it is about Americana that makes us decide a driving vacation is a good vacation.  Maybe it comes from the 50s, when a car was a sign of proper middle class prestige, and everyone had one.  Maybe it’s from further back, from the days when visiting the neighbors took the whole weekend and courtship consisted of rides in carriages and buggies.  Regardless, there’s this family car trip/outing idea we still have that was never a good one.  Personally the only experience with my family that I found was more scary are those egg-things you ride up in to get to the top of the Gateway Arch (Hint: If you don’t know, it’s in Saint Louis).  And the only reason that was more scary is because the enclosed space is even smaller, and it moves in an erratic jerk in multiple dimensions.

So renewed ‘local’ vacation options awake within me a certain dread.  Sure, now I’m confined to an enclosed space with road partners I’ve chosen for myself.  Friends, even.  But somehow these trips can really bring out an ugly streak in certain people.  And the conflagrations we get into about proper directions!  As a side note, I always know where I’m going.  i may not always know where I am, but I ALWAYS know where I’m going.

Back to the story at hand.  To pass the time and keep us sisters from bruising each other too badly on long drives, we had the inevitable games.  We’d do the alphabet game where people always cheated about q and I got stuck at z every time I was ahead and always lost in the end.  We played various I-Spy games and used those little Interstate bingo boards.  Finally, when we were all hot and tired and miserable, the sing-along began.  I can’t remember what the name was of our particular song book was.  I’m pretty sure it involved the work ‘family’, and possibly the word ‘best’.  I may not have had the word ‘car’ in it, but I think in some other way referred to its all-American nature.  It was a great book, but had one slight misfortune – a lack of actual music.  Sure, the WORDS to every known verse of some really popular songs were there.  But if you didn’t already know the tune, it’s only so many letters on a page.

Take the case of ‘Frankie and Johnnie’.  For most of my childhood, I knew she was her man and she done ‘im wrong, but that was about as far as it went.  Without music, the song devolves into rural whining rather than poetry.  Or the case of ‘Goober Peas’.  For the longest time, I couldn’t even get someone to tell me wheat goober peas were.  They weren’t in our encyclopedia or unabridged dictionary.  Even my grandfather couldn’t give that much of a lead – he said goobers were peanuts, so that could be what goober peas are.  So not only did I have no idea what the tune was like, but even the lyrics themselves didn’t make sense.

After a careful search with all the latest technology (i.e., Wikipedia), my long and careful quest is over.  Goober peas are, in fact, boiled peanuts – a waste of a nut if I ever saw one.  And since the song is a confederate one from near the END of the war, certain of the lyrics make much more sense.  Sure, in my white-bread upbringing I probably didn’t think much about Confederate soldiers on more and more meager rations (less and less adequate?) or any of the realities of war.  But at the same time, I probably also wouldn’t have gotten jokes about the relishing joys of bad food when you’re hungry.

Plus, this particular song is just chock-full-o-nut.  First of all, there’s the reference to the whole ‘here’s your mule’ joke (which I also now understand only with the aid of the Wiki).  Evidently some soldiers somewhere stole a trader’s mule and led him on a Blindman’s Bluff chase around the camp by yelling ‘here’s your mule’ from one corner and then another.  It’s better than stone soup!  And then there’s the funnies committed on the oldest extant sheet music, which labels P. Nutt as the composer.  Ha!  For you more snobbery types, the lyricist is listed as A. Pindar (the best known of nine Greek lyric poets who are recognised as ‘in the canon’, though he is perhaps best known because his work is the most well-preserved).

Finally and at long last, I can also listen to the tune (in MIDI format).  Thank you, Gods of Wikipedia, for blessing me with understanding.  Now the only thing I have to complain about is that I’m not as cool as this girl.

Fix everything, even broken hearts.

It seems my life revolves neverendingly around children’s stories.  The one I was reminded of today was called either “Mr. Fix-it” or “Mr. Fix-it’s Shop”.  Sisters, I’m sure you can help me here.  Regardless, the story focuses on a nice old man who keeps a shop for mending things – radios, violins, bureaus, tennis rackets – even the kitchen sink.  His sign proclaims that he can fix everything except broken hearts.  There’s a little girl in the neighborhood who comes in after school and helps out a bit and watches him work.  One day her doll falls apart, and she’s heartbroken, and Mr. Fix-it goes to work – replacing an eye here, making a new wooden arm out of an old baseball bat there.  Eventually the doll is as good as new, or better.  The little girl demands that Mr. Fix-it changes his sign, because when he fixed her doll he fixed her heart too.  It’s a nice story.

What reminded me of it, however, is a little less poignant.  MIT has new research out about using a biodegradable ‘scaffold’ to hold heart tissue.  The tissue plus scaffold could be implanted to fix congenital defects or as replacement tissue after a heart attack.  Eventually the scaffolding would be absorbed by the body, hopefully leaving the heart ‘complete’. Of course, even this newer version of scaffolding can’t do everything we want it to – we’ve made progress, but they’re still working on it.

I’m all for improving the health of our hearts.  The idea that in the future this technology will firmly be in place to the benefit of those I love and myself is reassuring.  Still, the technology needs to be coupled with an ounce of prevention.  Shouldn’t we be protecting our hearts just a little better instead of fixing them after they’re broken?

Both the articles about the new, better, strong scaffolding and the story about Mr. Fix-it are delightful reads.  But both give us a message as well.  The latter tells us of the power to heal we each have in our kindnesses and in our actions for the sake of others.  The former tells us that though science is a powerful tool, it is only a tool.  It can adapt to future problems we may have, but will never be a complete solution.  Only rarely will it fix a broken heart.

It’s Bucky!

Buckypaper is now on its way to becoming a reality for consumer products, according to the Florida State University.  Personally the idea of super strong carbon paper is only somewhat interesting.  While the name makes sense, B. Fuller’s name still just gives me the giggles.  It’s just that funny – I can’t take the nickname ‘bucky’ seriously.  But who says science can’t be full of play?

The whole thing brings back childhood memories.  My aunt and uncle had a variety of toys from various grandchildren and other relatives.  One particular favorite at a young age was a white horse with wheels and a blue mane.  Its red saddle had a secret compartment for storing ‘things’, and it would rise in the middle as you scooted across the floor on its back.  The name of this plastic horse, of course, was Bucky.

You might wonder what a plastic horse and a Utopian idealist have in common.  But really it is the idea of what they inspire, that sense of wonder and fun and joy that I find remarkable.  True, Bucky the plastic horse is not an adult toy.  True, Fuller did not have the lasting impact on a variety of fields that he had intended.  But both represent something worth saving for the future, whether as a joy for future childhoods or as an example of the things we all should be thinking about – namely, how our own individual lives will impact the world for good.

The Fourth

I love the Fourth of July.  Not because of the fireworks, or the barbecues, or because one of my good friends has a birthday then.  Certainly not because of the crowds and traffic and drunk people.  Not even because I’m a true patriot glorying in American independence.  But all of these things are unquestionably part of the holiday.

It has more to do with memory that I can’t escape.  I can remember sitting and waiting in endless boredom for the world to grow dark enough.  I can still see the afterimage of sparklers circling and spelling my name, and the occasional prick of a sparkle that comes too close to flesh.  I can remember setting off fountains in the driveway, the short catch of my breath anticipating the first spark.  I can remember blankets and food enough for an army spread to watch the explosions shot from the tallest deck of the highest skyscraper in Indianapolis.  I can remember the shivering intensity of waiting for the next big bang, my nerves as thick with crackle as in a thunderstorm.  I certainly can remember leaving early, before the crowds, looking back with longing at every next flash.  For all these memories  there must be a certain excitement surrounding the Fourth of July.

Last night I didn’t bring a camera to the rooftop barbecue I attended with friends.  I knew it would be dark and crowded and full of faces I have countless good pictures of – why waste the effort?  But at that moment of wonder when the fireworks started going off, I wanted to capture everything: The sense of joy and wonder and focus in everyone around me.  The colors burned into your eyes by thousands of tiny explosions.  The music of the Pops blaring as loudly as  possible through a 1980s clock radio that had seen better days. The scent of grill and citronella.  The sound of aimless voices singing along to patriotic songs they hear only once  a year, trying to recall childhood words.  The clapping and oohs for the ‘good’ ones.

The results are less than extraordinary:

Still, the feeling remains with me, and I am grateful enough for that.

Beaver Brook and Brown County

When I was still in school and under the responsibility of my parents, ever Spring Break we took the same trip – to Brown County, Indiana, to the state park there.  I’m not sure exactly when we started doing it, or why.  I know that when I was very young, my parents and my Aunt Nancy and Uncle Herb shared a smaller cabin with them there once.

Regardless of how it originally came about, it was the pattern of our time as a family for many years.  I would go out into the coldness of spring with my sisters or alone, and rush down to the stream below our cabin in an attempt to warm myself.  Once there, we would explore the various tiny ravines and streams, and the viny brambles of various swampy and flat-spreading waters.  There were various projects to complete – the inevitable lean-tos of rotting limbs, the faulty attempts to dam the stream, and at least one game of Pooh Sticks over a bridge somewhere.  My youngest sister and I would build little rooms and platforms for the fairies.  Whatever the project, our noses would run and our fingers go stiff and numb with the chill of the stream water.

Back inside, or at evening when the sky became too unbearably cold, we would light a fire in the pot-bellied stove and play games or watch movies we’d brought.  The warmth we created there was something physical, but also an opposition to everything else – to the cold outside, and to the world outside of the family.  It is part of what makes me very, very close to my sisters and parents still.  I value it, but at times it can also be dangerous, if it hinders me from extending that same warmth to those outside that well-nestled community.

Another piece of time at Brown County was the puzzles.  There was always at least one going on a corner table, 1000 pieces or more.  Not that we as a family are puzzle fanatics – we enjoy a challenge, or a good question, but are not always searching for them.  But Brown County seemed to encourage a different way of seeing.  We could go about our daily activities, and then look over to find a key piece once and awhile.  Our eyes, rested and perhaps a little blurred in the relaxed atmosphere, tended to see general colors in place of the rigidity of edges.  It is through this hazy vision, the soft focus of the yogis, that I think we saw each other a little more clearly as well.  Without the distractions of work, school, friends, and outside experiences, we grated on each other’s nerves in those small cabins.  But it was an honest grating, a roughness about all of our edges that needed to be sanded down a little.

Today I visited a similar, though much smaller, reserve not far from my apartment, called Beaver Brook.  Though Mike and I did not stop to build anything or attempt to dam the stream, it was a relief to walk there.  It was a relief to hop across little streams in the chill, to pick out rocks and bits of wood that might be good for the fish tank, to take delicate pictures of nothing that are some of the natural games of adults.  We may not have been hidden away from the world in an isolation that would help to crystallize our relationship, but it was a start.  I can still smell that damp winy richness of the black earth below rotting leaves.  I hope it will sustain me through the coming week, through the tensions of job and everyday life, until I can go back for another breath.

Singing in the Brain

Ok – I totally stole the title for this post from MIT – but it was so ridiculously, ideally cheesy that I couldn’t resist.  While the article itself does present some interesting research about development, babble, and different areas of the brain, I must confess I was more amused by the title.  Everyone should take a look though, for the knowledge, and especially for the funny little songbird clips.

So.  Singing in the brain.  We’ve all done it – some wonderful, or completely annoying song or jingle will get stuck in our head, and there’s no getting it out.  You’ll be going through your day, and suddenly an old snatch of song or phrase (Bob Loblaw) will jump into your awareness.  How does this happen?  Just what are these little hiccoughs of memory and experience?  Why one song instead of another?  Why any song at all?

Though there is division about whether or not music (in particular, one type of music) aids memory, I am more interested in the particulars of spontaneous recall of a song.  Does the pattern of the rain remind me of some subtle rhythm?  Is it a particular phrase that reminds me of half-forgotten lyrics, springing full against my mind?  Does some sharp smell trigger an emotional or even visceral response that calls the past back to life?  Is it movement, the gentle touch of a hand, or the swift shifting between people in a crowd, that triggers the inner mind to sing?  Is it all of these, and something more besides?  Is it some subtle connection of inner vision, emotional and hormonal response of the body, and endless looping sparks of the memory that collide to yank a song from its memory space?

It’s an intriguing thought to me, the way all these triggers could interact.  I hope we don’t come up with a complete answer anytime soon.  It would take some joy out of the pondering, and take some delight out of the song.

Today sucks

Typically I get into work, sit down, and take about an hour or two to get settled and into the swing of things.  Then I start blogging away to occupy my time, meaning I usually have a post by 9:45 or 10:30 at the latest.  Today, I am writing this at 11:55 am, which means it’s the first day of one of the busiest weeks of my year.  It’s going t be generally disagreeable here until about next Thursday, when I can quit worrying about other people not doing their jobs, and get back to the business of having nothing much to do.  For most people, having to work until noon but getting paid for work until 5 would not be a bad thing.  For me, it’s not really a bad thing either.  I enjoy occasionally having things that need to get done.  What I hate is that I go from trying to occupy my time with something, a dull 2% on the stress meter, all the way up to a 95-96% on days like this.  Everything was supposed to be done yesterday, and I’m helping 20 people on 50 tasks that they are all freaking out about.  Admin. Assists. should not get ulcers!  No that I have one.  Yet.

The world seems to agree with me.  Headlines range across major accidents (train crash in China, wildfire engulfing a wedding party, earthquakes in Mexico) to pure human wretchedness (a man locking up his daughter and fathering children on her, a student beating another student to critical condition).  Life today, as well as every day in our mixed-up and confusing lives, is full of strife.  I listened to a provocative hotel recording about five times this morning, greeting me with a sexy “well, hello there”, and guaranteeing me whatever I want, whenever I want it, and assuring me that a hotel representative would be with me shortly to ‘provide for your every desire’.  It was creepy.  And how did we get to this state?

We may look back at the past and want to say it was better then.  Look at the 50s – all that boom of an economy, people first learning how to buy lots of household stuff, appliances made to last.  But then you have to take into account the rampant prejudices that led to the revolts of the 60s, and the stultifying conformism of the times.  Then what about something earlier, the time of the Revolution and the birth of our country?  It was a time of war and privation, yes, but also of fighting for a just cause.  But truly, should ‘our’ rights have prevailed?  Were not all Europeans invaders?  Well then, what about a more primitive time, the agriculture or hunter-gatherer lifestyles of the Native Americans?  Was that not a better time?  Shorter lifespans, less nutrition, more infant mortality – I suppose you could say it was better.  I would rather say that we have a nostalgic longing for the past, as if it were childhood.

When I was growing up, there was a show on Nickelodeon called “Today’s Special”.  The meanings of the phrase could be various, and currently I’m perplexed as to what it had to do with the show itself.  The show was live action and puppets, involving a mannequin (male) that turned alive at night and interacted with the night watchman and other people in the store when it was closed.  Was the ‘special’ a sale on goods at the store the next day?  Was it a product only carried for a limited time?  Was it some new clothing item the mannequin always wore in order to promote it?  When i was a child, there was no such doubt in my mind.  ‘Today’ was not possessive – it was part of a contraction.  It was obvious – I knew today is special.

Lego my childhood.

Legos were an important part of my childhood – you may even say they were a building block for my future self (har, har).  On the one hand there was the creativity implicit in the more general forms of Legos.  On the other was my continued nit-picky ability to follow a pattern exactly.  I might say that Legos developed some of my skills – attention to detail, fine motor skills, and spatial perception.  I might also say that Legos helped to expand upon interests I already had – castle building, secret passages, and minute partially obscured doors.  As a formerly embarrassed product of the short-lived G/T or TAG program in elementary schools, I also was ‘required’ to learn about engineering through several Lego build projects.  But for all this, Legos were more about spending time with myself than learning or growing.

As the oldest of three, I was constantly on the lookout for things I could do by myself.  I still remembered fondly those early days when I was not in competition for my parent’s affection, where everything seemed to go my way and familial decisions were based solely on me.  Also, my sisters in their current form were annoying.  A project like building with Legos, where i could claim they were ‘messing things up’ or that I needed certain pieces to  complete whatever I was building.  Still, if a sister persisted in ‘helping’ me, they often quickly became bored with the rules I set for playing with my Legos.

Today Legos are not quite as popular as they once were, being subsumed into non-physical technology.  Why be limited by ordinary blocks that you can’t modify, or where a crucial part may go missing?  Why not just build your own whatever online?   Who needs something you can actually put your hands on?  And with this continued era of extended movie marketing, why not expand themed sets?  Who needs castle and pirate sets when you can get Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Batman, Spongebob, Harry Potter, Bob the Builder, and Thomas the Tank Engine?  Who still buys the basic set?

When my dad was a kid, he had Erector sets and lower tech toys, and he went on to become an engineer.  When I was little, I had tons of castle Legos and went on to study architecture in college.  What are my children going to go into?  Film?  Television?  Will they have degrees in media studies?  While I must admit I am still enjoying and intrigued by the Lego website and all the wonderful little perks it has (check out my bluebird of coolness below), I wonder if we’re losing something by giving kids too many structured forms to play with, rather than the plain blocks and world around them that previous generations had.  Are we giving them enough space to dream, enough space to really play?


Books on Tape.

I regularly attend a book club for women in my neighborhood.  By ‘regularly attend’, I mean we meet once a month.  By ‘book club for women’ I mean excuse for all of us to get together, gossip with quasi-familiar females, perhaps discuss a book we probably didn’t finish for about 20 minutes of our extended evening, and eat a LOT.  It’s great.  Not only do I get an opportunity to eat others homemade baked goods, I have the chance to complain about whatever’s been getting my goat for the past month with an entirely new group of people.

The past few months, for various reasons, I hadn’t gone to book club.  I hosted in October, we didn’t have one in December, and the the one this week was really pushed back from  February.  I don’t relaly know what happened in November/January, but I was excited to go to this book club.  So excited, that when the library didn’t have a copy of the book we were reading, I checked out the books on tape version.  So excited, that I checked my local bookstore so I could even purchase the thing.  So excited, that when I couldn’t find a copy for sale or lease and couldn’t find my old Walkman either, I bought a new one so I could listen to the audio book on the train.

Yes it’s true.  I am the proud owner of a brand new dictation cassette player from the MIT COOP Campus Bookstore, purchased for waaaay too much money.   I mean, shouldn’t these little Walkman things be free by now?  Shouldn’t we be giving them away like key chains?  Ok, so I probably wouldn’t have accepted a free Walkman as I have no use for it, but still.  People have needs, and mine, for a moment, was a Walkman (how did they even come up with that name, Walkman?  Why not Runman?  Or MusicMover?  Why am I not a professional brander?).

But, the entire fiasco brought back days of my youth.  Days spent with my loving sister, Shelly (who will probably never read this, the bum.  She never randomly calls me, either), on the way to high school.  Days of driving too fast, not crashing the car, only slightly injuring my own empty boots by running them over.   Days of listening to the voice of Roslyn Alexander reading The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley.  Days of yore.

I miss days like that.  Now that book club was over, I don’t think I’ll finish my current book on tape though.  I might, however, pull McKinley down off the shelf.

Don’t use your fingers.

All of you who are reading this have one unfortunate thing in common.  You have parents.  They may no longer be alive or just no longer part of your daily life, but you have them nonetheless.  At one time or another, they probably made your life completely unbearable – multiple times if you were highly unfortunate.  And some of the really mean ones might have told you not to use your fingers when eating.

In my family, that’s the way it was.  I loved food – I still do.  And no matter what I did, I could never get that last delicious morsel off of my plate – without using my fingers, of course.  Inevitably a parent would catch me doing it, and then I’d be made to wash my hands and then go back to my seat.  Because not only were my hands ‘dirty’ when I’d touched the food I was actually going to eat, contaminating it, but the act of actually touching food made them more dirty.

Looking back now, it makes less and less sense.  Sure, I get the basic ‘manners’  concept, that touching food is ‘rude’, but beyond that, there’s not much reason not to touch your food.  I can even understand that others might be grossed out by food touching, giving the possible reason behind that politeness.  But still, why did I have to wash my hands?  If they’re physically messy, isn’t a napkin enough?

For those of you who fear to become your parents, dictators of hand-washing and food manners, there is another option, which I discovered here.  Who knows what wonders of eating I could have accomplished with the bulldozer food ‘pusher’?

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