Stories

Stories snatched from forgetfulness (personal, R)
created: 29 May 2010; modified: 30 Sep 2017; status: finished; confidence: emotional;

When we remember, we retell a story, change it, and commit the new story to memory; this is how spaced repetition works, but in fostering retention, recall kills reliability. None of these stories may be true, but at least they may be entertaining.

Priorities

Grandma once recounted how my uncle had beautiful hair as a child which she refused to allow be cut; one day, Grandad took him to have it cut anyway while she was away. That same day, my uncle was playing in the street when a local girl ran into him with her car, hurtling him back up onto the lawn and leaving a scar on his face that one can still see as a dimple.

When she returned, she remembers that her chief concern was what had been done to his beautiful hair!

Things kids say

My aunt recounted 2 stories:

One of her elementary school colleagues was named Thomas Magwood. She asked him whether anyone had called him Maggy Maggot. (Children are great ones for alliterative nicknames.) He answered yes. She wondered which student. Magwood replied: My granddaughter. Aunt: Thomas, I was not expecting that answer.

Another student had lost her father while young, and one day was asking where he had gone. Her mother eloquently spoke of how he now lived on in their hearts and would remain in their house forever. The child acquiesced, and some time later, announced that she had remembered her father’s name. What is it, the mother asked. Quite firmly she replied: Jesus.

My parents told me another: a kindergarten acquaintance of mine apparently convinced his parents to let him start hockey, so they buy him a complete set of gear, paying hundreds of dollars and whatnot, register him, get him on a team, and he does well. He begins trailing off, though, and by a year later, he asks if he can drop hockey altogether. His mother asks him why on earth he wants to quit, when he was so enthusiastic about it initially, and he said, but when are we gonna learn how to fight?

Breakfast

My little sister Molly went to the same elementary school as the rest of us. Early on, one morning before classes began, she went to the cafeteria and got on the line for the breakfasts. Pretty much the only people who ate breakfast there were the (very) poor kids who qualified for the Federal free breakfast program. Molly, as it happens, was neither on the list nor had a card. But the lunch lady was new to the job & school, so when her turn came up, she said, I’m Molly! with such straightforwardness and assurance - as though of course that explained everything, who could not know about Molly? - that the flummoxed lady simply gave her a breakfast.

Some time later, Molly’s kindergarten teacher would approach Mom & Dad at a book fair (or something) and shock them by unexpectedly inquiring as to whether Molly qualified for the program.

On promises

When I was in elementary school, another family friend was named Patti, with sons Nick & Joe (the husband was not apparent). They were perhaps middle school aged, but we got along well, I thought. They had an interesting house. It was by the fire station, roughly in the same part of town as my old blue house. That propinquity and Patti’s Dutch heritage explain the original connection, I think. Their (rented) house had a large piece of land, and a U-shaped driveway that went through the front. In the middle was a veritable island-mountain, with a giant pine in the middle. Underneath it was a mass of boulders poking through the thick drifts of needles. I had a Swiss army knife, and delighted in scraping sparks against the stone.

Behind the small red house was an orchard in advanced desuetude. I only ever noticed grapes in its arbors. They were purple, I think, and utterly untended. They were bitter - very foxy. The previous owner had loved grapes.

Joe was older. He liked video games, I remember. At this time in the 90s, there was only Nintendo & Sega with oddball also-rans like Lynx or Neo-Geo that kids like us scoffed at. The distinction was that Sega was known for its capable hardware and more adult games, but a smaller overall game library, and Nintendo was known for its odd controllers, its 1st-party games, and a large library of games (I understand that the SNES game library would only be surpassed only in the 2000s by the PS2 with its backwards compatibility). Joe was a Sega fan, and a diehard one - he demonstrated to me that he had bought the ill-starred ’Mega-CD and also the poor Sega Saturn, though he had little to play on them but a Sonic the Hedgehog game.

One year, we took Nick & Joe with us down south to visit our grandparents & Washington D.C. with our customary visits to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and the Air & Space Museum. We stayed at our grandparents’ townhouse in Richmond, Virginia. This was a neighborhood of townhouses, with a genteel air and many pines behind the rows of nigh-identical townhouses. There was a little park not far from us. It wasn’t used much (there were few enough children in the area) and one day Joe and I had gone there - kicked out from the TV and the flat, I recall, by an adult - and were skirmishing & discussing Taekwondo in the silly boastful way kids will who watched too much Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Joe claimed to know a great deal about the martial arts, but he said he could not teach me; I and my sister were but green belts and not ready. But, he said, in a few years when I had become a brown (or, hazy memory avers, red) belt, then he would teach me.

A few years later, I had persevered (she had stopped) and reached the agreed-upon rank. But by then Patti had ceased to be a good family friend and the last I heard of Joe was in some military.

Upsides to child abuse

Once, after a meeting of the RIT anime club, I got into a heated argument with another fellow. He and I had a running series of insults and arguments (often centering on how I had a problem with his face).

At some point I asserted that there is nothing funny about child abuse!

He begged to differ.

Very well then, I said, tell me a funny child abuse joke. He craved 5 minutes, which I readily granted.

4 minutes in, he lifted his head from deep in thought and told me the following joke:

What’s more fun than beating your child with a board game?

I don’t know. What?

Beating them with anything else.

I paused, and conceded defeat.

Revealed preferences

A teacher of mine, although for the life of me I cannot remember where or whom, once told the class a story about European customs.

When he was a younger man, he said, he went to a restaurant in Amsterdam, when a fellow American walked in. She was a beautiful young woman and the teacher noticed her immediately, as did the male waiters.

She walked to one of the bistro’s tables and sat down, clearly expecting to be served. The waiters were greedily looking at her from over in their corner, but made no move.

It is the custom, the teacher explained, that in America, the waiter accosts the customer but vice versa in Europe. They were at an impasse. It was amusing, he said - one wanted to be served and the other to serve, but their mutual ignorance frustrated them.

The young lady’s impatience boiled over after a score of minutes, and she left, much to the dismay of the waiters. And all for want of a hail.

Milgram authority experiments

Professor Grim tells a story about an acquaintance of his, who had once accepted a job at Yale’s psychology department. He was driving into New Haven on his way to it, when he stopped for gas. The fellow working the station began filling up his car and they fell to chatting. (This was long ago, when such things still happened.) When he mentioned that he was going to his new job there, the attendant stiffened up, removing the gas pump, and retreated into the far side of the garage. Incensed, he followed the attendant and demanded an answer. The attendant eventually stopped the cold shoulder and quietly said that once he had participated in Milgram’s infamous authoritarian experiments, and was one of those who had gone through with it all. And, he added, I have not slept well since.

(Grim added in clarification that the entire psychology department was in opprobrium with the New Haven population.)

One lazy dog

Today I noted to my grandfather that a lot of the most local Marylanders seem to have both pick-up trucks and dogs in the cabs. He told me an anecdote about his cousin Dill’s life was saved by this habit.

One day Dill was driving down a road with his dog. For whatever reason, he goes wild into the woods and crashes and is knocked unconscious. His dog, more sensible than he, picked itself up and walked out to the road, where it then - sat down and waited.

Eventually, some friends of Dill came driving by and recognized the dog instantly. What’s Dill’s dog doing sitting there? they asked one another as they stopped and got out. This led to them going into the woods where they found Dill in his wreck.

True dreams

One curious event, that well illustrates the uncanny hold that coincidences can exert on our minds, is worth recording. One day, I had read part of Frank Herbert’s Dune and run into the word Spannungsbogen - a kind of self-discipline or restraint as Herbert described it. The word had an entry in Wiktionary but the entry lacked sources & examples, and was at risk of deletion. So I went to one of my favorite sources - The New York Times - and searched their archives, found one useful hit (later, I would not remember anything about what the hit said; just that it existed), and listed it on the talk page (since I’m not familiar with Wiktionary conventions and prefer to let the regulars integrate new references into entries).

Then I woke up.

Some time later, I remembered the dream and thought to myself that I ought to check whether I had not actually added it yesterday and was mis-remembering; I had not - the talk page was devoid of my contribution - but the entry did need work. I then thought it would be amusing to see what the NYT did have, so I went and searched - and found one useful hit. Disquieted, I edited the talk page as in my dream, and moved on.

On lying and not lying

A small gem of omission:

An old and somewhat estranged family friend abandoned 2 cats with us when she went to seek her fortune in the West (turned out her brother there was only offering her room because he hoped to get her kidney); the cats lived relatively happily with us until one day, the black one made the fatal mistake of taking a nap behind a wheel. Backing up, my mother ran him over. Yowling, he ran into the garage where we had kept them early on, and in a corner, expired of his injuries.

6 weeks later, the friend called and asked for news of that cat. My mother had previously consulted with her sister on the topic, and replied - very carefully - that We found it dead in the garage.

Customs

Our exchange students all went to St. Anthony’s Highschool, which is 45 minutes away by car and an hour more by circuitous bus, so we all have to wake up very early in the morning: 6 AM for the boys, and earlier for the girls. So when school started for Karl, he had to get up first and then my mother and everyone else wake up later at their respective times.

In the first week, he left his toothbrush on the bathroom sink which he shares with my parents, and my mother tidies it up and puts it in the medicine cabinet behind the mirror over the sink where all the dental apparatuses go. The next morning, another (different) toothbrush and another tidying up. And the next morning, again. And again.

Finally, my mother decides to talk to Karl, who has run out of all his own toothbrushes and used up our spare toothbrushes as well. He looks at her: You mean there was something behind the mirror‽ He had had no idea.

Hyper-reality

So we’re at the local gourmet candy store/chocolate supplies, talking to the Irish guy who runs it about things like chocolate, since my mother did not wish to buy full-sized bunnies, claiming that they were not entirely eaten last year.

(Turns out that they make their products with whole chocolate, not cut with additives; this makes it very difficult to prepare because a few degrees too hot or cold and then the chocolate is ruined, compared to regular melting chocolate which can be melted at a temperature anywhere in a range of dozens. But besides tasting better, whole chocolate has a side benefit of the chocolate not spoiling - the chocolate can just sit at room temperature for a few years and still be tasty. He mentioned that once while cleaning up the store, they found a bunny of a sort they hadn’t made for 2 years at that point, and he ate it, and it was tasty.)

Then we discussed visiting St. Petersburg and the Netherlands and eventually the conversation turns to our Swedish exchange student Karl and what to get him for Easter. (One of the two volunteers that Swedes eat herring with mustard sauce. I assume at Easter dinner.) We decide to get him a chocolate bunny. But she mentions his reaction to our holidays the previous Thanksgiving.

After all the cleanup was done that evening (we try to do full Thanksgivings with the roast turkey and cranberry sauce and everything on the good china, so cleanup can take a while), Karl Skyped with his mother back in Sweden.

First thing she asks him is: So, was it like it is in the movies?

He replies: Yes! It was exactly like in the movies!

Lessons

While taking a break one night, I went and had fun on the golf cart. During a hard turn, a cousin tumbled off the pickup-style bed on the rear and landed flat on his back, not moving. He couldn’t move his legs initially, and I felt sick to my stomach: there was a fork in my future, and in one set of worlds, life continued much as before - and that was good, better than I had appreciated before - and in the other, this night disappeared in a haze of red lights and ambulances and I was the reckless black sheep who had paralyzed his cousin and every time I saw him in his wheelchair I would feel sick with guilt.

Slowly he recovered and finally he wiggled his toes. The wind had been knocked out of him by a deveel of a landing.

It were well that fear & shame felt so sickening, else we should forget our lessons too quickly.

Food relativity

On a vacation in Cape Cod in New England, my aunt once went to a lobster & clam bake, heavy on the lobsters since lobsters were at that time unusually cheap & abundant. I am only familiar with eating broiled Chesapeake Bay crabs, which is a fairly gruesome process which not everyone is able to do and still eat the results (with soft-shell crabs being even more so), but I gather the lobsters are pretty whole, like the crabs.

To my aunt’s surprise, she discovered her lobster was somewhat unusual, and not like previous lobsters she had eaten. She was unsure if she should eat it, from the point of view of health and also decorum. The locals looked over at her perplexity, and said that it was lucky and that she should eat it. She hesitated, and seeing this, they starting chanting, encouraging her on:

Eat the babies! Eat the babies! Eat the babies!

Shocked, she put the lobster family aside and ate something else.

Elder tales

My uncle & aunt occasionally take visits at a small town named Clearwater or some such to visit his grandmother; he has an interest in history due to his job, and so he sometimes listens to stories or solicits oral histories. Before Christmas, he told us two stories.

The first story was told by the longest-standing member of the local parish, who had moved to the parish in the 1910s. Her father was a railroad conductor on a route running through Clearwater from a further city and Chicago. It was a long shift indeed, and being a conductor did not pay well, and neither were there railroad restaurants on his train nor were there convenient fast-food restaurants in those days. So what did he do? Well, he would pick up his dinner as they passed through Clearwater from his family: cheap fresh food. But the train didn’t stop! So how did they manage this? Her mother would send her out to the train station with his dinner in a pail at 11PM sharp, and as the train thundered through the station on its way to Chicago, the little girl would lift up the pail and he would lean out of the car and hook it up! If she didn’t lift it high enough or he failed his grab, well, it would be a hungry night for him.

The second story concerned an female relative in Iowa who had attained an impressive age. She was good acquaintances with an even older man, who was quite spritely and would drive himself over to spend time with her, even in the dead of Iowa’s winter when it was 15 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit). One night he bid her good night at 10:30PM, and pulled out into the narrow alley between the two houses there, only to find that the alleyway had frozen over with ice. He hit the brakes, which did nothing, and went straight into the powerline pole on the other side of the road. Since it was 15 below, the pole snapped, and took down the neighboring poles as well and the electricity went out. Fortunately, the phones still worked, so the man was able to call his son to come pick him up. As the two argued, the rest were able to overhear the irate son: Dammit Dad! I’m 78 years old, I shouldn’t have to pick up my 101-year-old father after he wrecks his car at night!

De gustibus non est disputandum

When strangers meet, great allowance should be made for differences of custom and training.Heretics of Dune

So my grandparents were deployed to Germany with the American Army back in the ’50s or ’60s so, when my aunt was a little girl. She had two friends, one an Army brat like her, and another was a upper-class German girl.

The brat’s favorite food in the world was cheeseburgers. She loved them and putting those prepackaged American cheese slices on them. As it happens, the German girl’s family had a dog and every time she fed the dog, she would get out a slice of American cheese and put it on top of the kibble, to encourage the dog to eat; but that was apparently all they did with that cheese. (I don’t blame her: I used to like sliced American cheese too, but eventually I realized it was pretty disgusting compared to cheddar cheese. No doubt the Germans had access to much tastier cheeses.)

One day the German girl goes over to her friend’s house, and they have dinner. Since the friend was having a guest over, of course everyone ate her favorite food! The German girl sees what she’s being served, and goes Dog food‽ You’re feeding me dog food She was completely insulted at being served dog crap, and her friend was completely insulted that her favorite food had been called dog crap.

It took a while for them to reconcile, apparently. You know how little girls are with their feuds.

This story reminds me of the old Korzybski dog biscuit anecdote, and the European horsemeat scandal - what’s wrong with horsemeat? Apparently to the British, it’s the most disgusting thing in the world.

The other side

An aunt of mine is from the Ukraine. A few years after immigrating, her homesickness acted up and she began comparing everything to how it was in Russia, to the irritation of another aunt, who rolled her eyes upon hearing her one summer say, of some delicious strawberries, In Rushsha, strawberries so much better.

Some time later, she was chatting with some farmer relatives who had gone to Russia in the late ’80s or so as part of an agricultural exchange program; she brought up the strawberry incident as an example, and the relative had to say Actually, they are better - they’re huge like golf balls! And sweet too. I think it is the really long growing days there during the summer (due to the high latitudes). Oops!

Robinson Crusoe

When I was in elementary school, I spent all my time reading, perhaps because it was difficult for me to socialize (my hearing impairment meant I was always behind in conversations, and a little difficult to understand). I read omnivorously through the school library, and was a favorite of the librarian.

At some point, I got to Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe. I don’t remember if it was an adapted version for children or not, which it might not have been because my constant reading meant I was able to read anything I wished. (I suspect it was, because when I reread it years later, I found myself impatient at the slowness and detailed inventories of Defoe’s original, suggesting I had read a streamlined version.) I had heard of Robinson Crusoe and the Swiss Family Robinson from other books, and was curious about it. (I never got around to The Swiss Family Robinson.)

I remember being disappointed: I had had the idea that Robinson Crusoe was a MacGyver of marooning, a Daedalus of desert islands, a Weland of wrecks. But instead, I discovered that in the novel, Crusoe starts with an entire ship stuffed full of tools & food, and everyone else conveniently gone. On top of that, he seemed to stumble across food wherever he went: fruits are available, he has only to hunt to find meat, his crops grow without issue, and of course the sea offers its own abundance.

This contrasted with my own life. The only (publicly-accessible) fruit-bearing plants or trees I knew of for miles around were a few mulberry trees which yielded a modest harvest in July, the largest wild beasts around were squirrels (which, while tasty as a stew, are small and hard to catch), our garden whose plants half the time never yielded anything (too little sunlight), and the sea was ~15 miles away (not that the waters around Long Island have yielded much fish or other seafood for the past half-century after being overfished).

Behind our house, just barely accessible squeezing through the fence at the corner, there was an unusual patch of land made up of several acres of light wood without any development, due apparently to a land owner who allowed it to be surrounded by houses and then discovered that it is impossible to develop or make any use of land that you cannot get into. As a kid, I loved that patch of woods. No one but me ever went into there, and its very existence was a mystery. I could travel up and down it and peek into the edging houses’ backyards. Having read Robinson Crusoe, I wondered what my own forested island held.

A census over several days indicated that my woods held a grand total of a score of wild onions and an unknown number of squirrels. Possibly they were not wild and were part of a garden gone feral and absorbed into the woods. I did not think I could survive very long on 20 onions, and I did not know how to catch squirrels.

This was discouraging. The dismal results killed much of my faith that any sort of castaway scenario could work at all like Defoe paints.

It was much later that I began realizing how fish & fowl teem in places protected from human presence, how little like the real world American suburbs are, and how little like the past the present.

Obesity rates

While eating Christmas Eve dinner with my extended family in 2013, I happened to look up at one moment and suddenly realize: of the 17 people at the table (inclusive of myself), maybe 1, or 2, could be classified as either fat or obese. I remembered how struck I was, after my trip to Europe in 2005, to return to America and there in the JFK concourse realize, as fleshy blimps sailed serenely by me: Americans are really fat. As in, no fooling fat, a genuinely valid national stereotype. But if we’re so fat, why is my family so thin?

It could be that I am being too generous and many of them were fat by any historical standard, but let’s run with the assumption there’s genuinely only 2 fat people there or 12% of us. How improbable is this?

Wikipedia, in Obesity in the United States, gives a variety of estimates for various kinds of fatness; we’ll go with overweight+obese in adults, which the 2 charts helpfully inform us encompasses 74% of adults. 74% seems a bit distant from 12%, over 17 people.

If each person has a 74% chance of being fat or a 26% chance of not being fat independent of the others, then what’s the chance of 15 or more of 17 people not being fat (so the total probability of there being 15, 16, or 17 not fat people)? If I had asked what was the odds of 2 specific people being fat, or what was the odds everyone was fat (or not fat), this would be easier to calculate, but unfortunately, I merely noticed that of the 17 people as much as 2 were fat, and it could’ve been any 2 or 1 or 0, so it’s like a birthday paradox, and involves painful combinatorial math and binomials:

• $(\binom{17}{2} \times 0.26^{15} \times 0.74^2) + (\binom{17}{1} \times 0.26^{16} \times 0.74^1) + (\binom{17}{0} \times 0.26^{17} \times 0.74^0)$
• $(\binom{17}{2} \times 0.26^{15} \times 0.74^2) + (17 \times 0.26^{16} \times 0.74) + (0.26^{17})$
• $(\binom{17}{2} \times 1.677e^{-09} \times 0.5476) + (17 \times 4.361e^{-10} \times 0.74) + (1.134e^{-10})$
• $(\binom{17}{2} \times 9.183e^{-10}) + (5.486e^{-09}) + (1.134e^{-10})$
• $(\binom{17}{2} \times 9.183e^{-10}) + 5.599e^{-09}$
• $(136 \times 9.183e^{-10}) + 5.599e^{-09}$
• $(1.249e^{-07}) + 5.599e^{-09}$
• $1.305e^{-07}$
• $0.0000001305$

or a very small number probability (multiply by 100 to turn it into a percentage does not help much).

A (much easier to run) binomial test in R suggests the same thing:

binom.test(2, 17, p=0.74)
#
#     Exact binomial test
#
# data:  2 and 17
# number of successes = 2, number of trials = 17, p-value = 1.305e-07
# alternative hypothesis: true probability of success is not equal to 0.74
# 95% confidence interval:
#  0.01458 0.36441
# sample estimates:
# probability of success
#                 0.1176

This seems a bit anomalous if the true fatness rate is close to 74%. On the other hand, 74% seems pretty high in general, and white people tend to be thinner than other groups - for example a NY health page puts white adults’ overweight+obese rate at 61%. That would make thee results less extreme.

Also, how sure am I that my 2 of 17 estimate is right? I didn’t weigh or measure the height of anyone. The standard definition of overweight seem to be defined as a BMI>25. I went and checked my own BMI and learned it was 28. So now I know my 2/17 was wrong and it must be at least $\frac{3}{17}$. Can I do better? Thinking about it a little more, I was not the heaviest person there, I’d guess at least 4 of the others were similarly built as me (excluding the 2 people I already marked as overweight). So that shifts it to $, and gives us a new test: binom.test(7, 17, p=0.61) # # Exact binomial test # # data: 7 and 17 # number of successes = 7, number of trials = 17, p-value = 0.1334 # alternative hypothesis: true probability of success is not equal to 0.61 # 95% confidence interval: # 0.1844 0.6708 # sample estimates: # probability of success # 0.4118 This is no longer so impressive; for example, it wouldn’t pass the convention of p<0.05. So I guess the thinness of my family is no longer an anomaly: it’s more likely that I misjudged what fraction of them were overweight or obese than we are really a weirdo set of outliers. Obituary See Poems. Laser bombs When I was a wee lad long ago in elementary school, still unsure if Santa Claus really existed, I learned (from a book, of course) that it was possible to own ideas, not just things like books or video games. I was astounded that pure thought, the very warp and woof of cognition, of one’s mind, could be commercialized, and I had yet to learn of the pernicious effects on research, the economy, of patent trolls, etc. So I hied me to my fortress of solitude (under the covers of my bed) to research a super invention I could patent, with visions of green backs dancing in my head. Of course, I knew that adults knew about patents too, so it wouldn’t be easy to invent something profitable that the entire world had missed. It’d take a while. I figured it would take at least an hour. (Who would pay the filing fees? I was sure my parents were good for it, and if it meant the family had to go without broccoli for a few weeks before the royalties starting coming in - that was a sacrifice I was willing to make. They might not appreciate the invention, but I could point out that being a successful inventor would be good on my college application, which I dimly sensed was of deep importance to them, and the phrase almost a cheat code.) Soon, inspiration struck! My own genius terrified me: was Mankind ready for this knowledge? Had we ascended to a state of sufficient moral perfection as to be entrusted with artifices of such subtlety and power? Saturday morning cartoons suggested the answer was no, but I was too absorbed to do the responsible thing and burn my crayon blueprints. For I had invented… the laser bomb. (I also invented the sodium bomb: hearing that sodium metal exploded in contact with water, it occurred to me that if you encased a sphere of sodium in a casing of sugar, you could flush it down a school toilet and it would explode after a timed delay. Far more elegant than a cherry bomb.) It was a weapon as simple as its consequences were far-reaching. Take your ordinary laser: the batteries run out so quickly! And if you plug it into the wall, it’s not portable, is it? Not to mention, the lasers in my Edmund Scientific catalogues might blind one, but could hardly do much else since they were not very powerful. Too bad there was no way to store up a lot of lasers and release them all at once. Or - was there? Mirrors reflect both regular light and lasers, and could deflect them at angles. And if there was another mirror where they landed? And another mirror? And another? In a circle? Why, if you had such a setup of perfect mirrors, then a laser would chase its tail forever until the mirrors were disturbed. You could pump lasers into it indefinitely, creating a maelstrom of photonic energy. And if the math of the angles didn’t quite work out to let you fire lasers in but not let them out, I had a solution already thought out: one-way mirrors. (After all, by definition, they would only let lasers in, not out.) Having created a sphere and imbued it with red malevolence, when the sphere is broken, the stored energy will lash out, devastating anything and everything, washing away civilization in a single flash of fatally beautiful monochromatic light! Worse, a laser bomb was far more democratic than atomic bombs. Any fool with a pocket laser and some mirrors could make one. With such simple prerequisites, how could this technology ever be controlled? (There are mirrors in most houses, and millions of pocket lasers out there.) And it was versatile. Anyone could carry a small laser bomb anywhere, they could handle any yield, and if one cracked the glass right, it could be aimed. And since light can push things, could it be I had also solved space travel? Simply charge up laser bombs with enormous quantities of energy, and use them as propulsion. (Somewhat like Project Orion, which I wouldn’t hear of for at least another decade.) The sky was the limit. Then the next day we went to the library and I got a new stack of books to spend the next few weeks inhaling, and I forgot about it entirely. And that is how I saved the world as a wee child. Well, I also eventually realized my laser bombs could never work for many reasons. For example, mirrors are not perfect, so each bounces would suck away a lot of energy, and the mirrors themselves would heat up and eventually break. The air inside the laser bombs would also absorb energy, which would be a problem. Also: one-way mirrors aren’t. (The vile lies adults tell!) Too bad. It would have been nice to be a kid millionaire. But if they had worked, I’m not sure I would’ve been able to live with myself for bringing back disco. Deer Season My aunt has an acquaintance we’ll call Bubba. Despite the name, he is a gentle and kind soul who would not dream of harming a fly, much less flyfishing. One day, he is driving his pickup truck through the narrow and winding roads of rural Pennsylvania to visit family… And as anyone familiar with Pennsylvania would guess just from the introduction, Bubba then hit and killed a deer. He pulled over immediately, but the deer had departed for the Great Woods beyond, where every tree has salty bark, it’s always duck season, and there are no tics. What to do? A kindly motorist stopped and enquired of Bubba if he required any assistance. No, his truck was fine, but what about the deer? Well… yah want da meat? Goodness no! So Bubba hitched a ride to the gas station (naturally one wouldn’t move a vehicle involved in a fatal accident), and asked the attendant: some ways back, his truck and a dead deer were by the side of the road. What should he do? The cashier looks at him and says, yah want da meat? No, no! Out of ideas, Bubba asks the cashier for the number of the highway department’s animal people, and rings it up. The highway people answer, and Bubba explains his predicament: he was passing through on his way to visit someone, and a deer jumped out in front of him and he hit it and it died and what should he do? Eagerly, he awaits the authoritative reply, from people with decades of experience with such problems: yah want da meat? Shinnies and Fuzzies When reading about fiction, I found one study which asked people why they reread or rewatched fiction. One answer I had not anticipated: they reread to feel the same as when they first read it, whatever the merits. Proust’s madeleine. Memories attach to the media, and the reminders stir old memories, which slowly trickle in. I remember: one of the first anime I ever watched was Pokemon. Before it was a pop culture phenomenon, it was two odd gray-scale Game Boy games and a TV show which aired early in the morning. I remember: in middle school, one of the other boys was like me. Together we found ourselves each morning waiting for the nurse to come and unlock the nurse’s office where our devices waited. I was hearing impaired and needed a pair of hearing aids and their transmitter, a blocky brown device with attached microphone that the teacher would wear. His handwriting was so bad he had special permission to use an electronic typewriter (a laptop? of course not! A laptop would have been 10x too expensive and nearly useless. This was a long time ago.) We talked. In the cafeteria at lunchtime, he played a Game Boy game named Pokemon, which looked interesting. He mentioned that there was a TV show. I remember: getting up even earlier than usual, at the appalling hour of 6AM. Nothing stirred then. The drapes were drawn. The sky was gray and could be seen through the bare trees of fall. I would pull up the TV Guide, made of grimy thin gray newsprint, and peering at the tiny print, try to locate in the grid’s eccentric description the entry for Pokemon, usually on channel 9. If I missed it, I missed it. (Watch online or download it? You must be joking. This was a long time ago.) Sometimes I missed it. Then I might watch some of the random dreck on random channels at that time, or go back to sleep. I’ve never gotten up early easily, and in sixth grade, I was still adapting to the rigor of waking up so damn early. I remember: sitting on the black couch on the brown carpet in front of the black TV, staring at the bright primary colors of the show, with countless interesting critters running about and fighting Brock - not understanding a lick of it. I had not played the game and caught all 150 Pokemon and become intimate with them. Each episode introduced new ones, with the shock of the new. Even more confusing: apparently things had happened before the episodes I watched. It was not your usual episodic animated kid’s show. Where did this Misty girl come from and that’s this about a bike? I would not see the initial episodes for a long time. In some respects, jumping in partway kept it interesting longer. It would be hard these days to remain so ignorant. (This was a long time ago.) I remember: quickly loyally getting up to watch the show, the better to discuss with Steven that day. Eventually my elder sister did as well. Of course we eventually got the games, since we already had Game Boys. She had Blue, I had Red. I still maintain Charizard is the best starter and her Blastoise was worse. We traded to complete our collections. Maybe a year passed. Then… the trading card game was released. I remember: the madness that was the CCG. If the Pokemon games were pretty popular among video-gamers like me and Steven, and the TV show began picking up popularity and promoted from its graveyard slot, the CCG was popular among what must have been at least a tenth of the middle school population. Not so much the actual card game but the collecting part tapped into OCD and avarice. Students would spend pre-class time traveling from class to class with big binders trying to make a deal. The most coveted of all cards was the Charizard, which we were shocked to reach unimaginable prices of$100+. What middle-schooler could afford that? You could try to buy booster packs of cards and get a shiny Charizard, but good luck with that - if you could find a store with any booster packs in stock. (Starter packs were always available, but no one wanted those because they came with fixed sets of cards.) And what could you trade for it? Everything else was terrible. How envied were the chosen few! Friendships were made and broken over trading cards, theft was not unheard of, and finally the school, out of desperation to restore order, issued a diktat against Pikachu. This broke the back of the frenzy, even as the larger phenomenon was reaching the limits of the speculative frenzy: Wizards of the Coast dumped more cards onto the market, sequel Game Boy games came out, the online resale market developed, and collecting-oriented people started to get a bit disgusted and replaced by people who actually wanted to play the card game. (It wasn’t that bad a card game, after all. While I never figured out how to build a deck around Mr Mime’s intriguing ability to ban powerful attacks and permit only weak ones, I understand the tournament scene remained healthy for a long time.)

I remember:

that of course, me and my sister were no exception. There was a local card/sports collectible shop down the road a ways, maybe a 10-15 minute walk, where we bought our Pokemon cards. We would walk down by ourselves on Thursdays when they restocked, chattering about the latest card gossip and whether we might get a Charizard or Blastoise this time. The most difficult part was crossing the main road: a 4-lane street with stoplights, and major traffic. It was dangerous, and people occasionally died at the intersection with our side-street. In retrospect, I’m surprised our parents let us go at all, much less by ourselves; the modern tendency seems to be to put children under house arrest.

I remember:

being left with binders full of cards I no longer cared about, nor could I sell them or give them to Steven. When Yu-Gi-Oh! hit, I was too aged and jaded to be affected. They seemed like a waste of effort and money. I think most of them were unceremoniously recycled years later.

But then, having cards or full Pokedexes had never been the point of all this, had it?