Monday, September 21, 2009

Possums and marbles

The thing most people don't know about possums is that they're hoarders. Worse than pack rats. Worse than magpies. Your magpie will go for shiny things—gum wrappers, engagement rings, what have you. Your pack rat likes soft, fuzzy things, along with seeds and objects with handles.

The world's record pack rat, found in a den in Texas, had a burrow full of suitcases. Valises. Gladstone bags. Steamer trunks. They had no idea how the rat got all that baggage into the burrow, because the opening was only rat sized. But the pack rat is well known to be the most determined of the rodents. Like the expression, you know: "He'll stick to that problem like a pack rat."

There's a paper that finally explained it. Measured the string-theory vibrations of pack rats in eleven dimensions. It's a lot of math and graphs, but you can really sum it up by saying pack rats can push things through walls. Shuffle the spaces between the atoms like riffling a pack of cards together, and the suitcase comes out the other side. Atomic interlacing, they call it.

Possums, now, possums like to collect round things. Baseballs, eggs, croquet balls, and ball bearings.

Al had a truck that he parked over by the laurel bushes. Took it out on the freeway one day, and all four wheels fell off at the same time. The truck skidded along on its belly, tossing up a rooster tail of sparks, until it finally stopped in the middle of the left lane.

It turned out a family of possums that lived in the bushes had stolen all his wheel bearings. He found them when he went to trim the bushes, piled up in one of those pyramids they pile up cannonballs in. Shiny, bright, with all the grease licked off them. Which also explained why he could never catch the possums. They were too fast with all that bearing grease inside them. You know the expression: "Faster than a greased possum."

Possums always look surprised, with those big, white circles around their eyes. "Yikes!" they say. "Look at all those ball bearings! So smooth and round. Gonna take those home and put them in the bearing pile." They pack their little possum pouches full of bearings and waddle home, dragging their lumpy bellies on the ground.

Possums like marbles, too. They don't really care what they look like, as long as they're round. Not like little boys, who have a marble hierarchy. Or at least I did.

Bottom of the list—and this is what's attractive to a second-grader, which is where my marble-appreciation sense is frozen—were the solid ones. Sure, they have interesting swirls and things. You might appreciate them now, but back then they just weren't cool.

Then the cat's eyes. More interesting. Colored patterns inside clear glass.

"You know where they get those?" said Rick.

"No," I said.

"From cats. All the cats at the pound, all those cats in the labs. They take one eye from each. Can't take both. They'd be blind."

"That's not true at all," I said. "That's gross."

"Okay, I was just pulling your leg. They make them for cats. Glass eyes. Cats lose eyes all the time in those fights you hear in the middle of the night. You take them to the vet, and they pop one of those marbles in. Sometimes they don't have a match. That's when you see one of those cats with two different-colored eyes."

Next in the hierarchy: clearies. Glass all the way through. Best were the clear clearies, just glass-colored.

Then the very most valuable marbles: steelies. Now I know they were just ball bearings, and they're not so interesting.

Eric had one of those Newton's Cradle toys. Five steel balls hanging from Vs of fishing line. It's a momentum transfer toy. You pull one ball back, let it go, and it knocks one off the other end. Makes the click-click marble pendulum noise I can hear right now, writing this. Pull two back, let them go, and two pop off the other side. And so on.

It's a toy that's interesting for maybe ten minutes, then you're done with it. Forever. Sort of like those magnetic Wheel-O toys. And the spinning, fly-apart metal Christmas trees with the Santa in the middle.

Anyway, one day Eric dropped the Newton's Cradle on the floor, and one of the metal balls popped out of its plastic retaining ring. It bounced and rolled across the floor. Eric chased it down.

"Hey!" he said. "That's a steelie!" He got a screwdriver and pried the other four steelies out of the Newton's Cradle. That was five more steelies than I ever had.

But then one day, crawling around in the laurel bushes, I found a whole pile of them. Stacked up in a little pyramid like the ones cannonballs get piled up in. Gleaming steelies, all licked clean by possum tongues. Almost better than the time I found the waterlogged Playboy. But at least I could take the steelies home.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Museum of Curiosities

Today I'd like to welcome you to the Museum of Curiosities. It used to be a Cabinet of Curiosities, then a Closet of Curiosities, but the collection kept growing and growing.

Here we have the original closet. It smells a bit musty inside, I know. Of old wool suits worn too long and never washed. You can't, you know. Not without shrinking them. Which is okay if you have midgets or children around the house.

Here we have the costume collection. We specialize in fur coats.

This one's my grandmother's. It's made of weasels. Not pelts. That would be cruel. The weasels themselves, each carefully trained to hold onto the weasel next to it with its paws. Bite the tail of the weasel in front, below. As you can see, they all hang head down. It's a nice, warm coat, but it does smell a bit weasely. And it tends to writhe.

Here we have the Moebius Scarf, endless loop with only one side. You stick your head through it, and it comes out somewhere else. I think it's China. Hard to tell, because it's crowded, and all you see is people's feet. I'm not sure what they see. Maybe just your head sticking up out of the sidewalk. Best not to wear this one, lest you be mistaken for a soccer ball.

What's that, Ma'am? Yes, the costumes do get worn. Once a year at our Grand Fundraising Ball. There's information about it on our Web site. But there's a years-long waiting list for the weasel coat.

This is the most valuable item in the original Closet of Curiosities. A coat made entirely of hummingbird feathers. Originally belonged to the Aztec emperor Moctezuma. That's right, the one with the revenge.

The coat uses only the third primary feather from the left wing of a single species of hummingbird. The artisans caught thousands of the little buggers. Yanked out the single feather. Even a tiny modification like that messed up their ability to fly, so they could only fly around in counterclockwise circles. This single coat made the species extinct.

Notice how shimmery and blue it is. If you put your ear close—just there—you can hear it humming. They say the coat got its revenge on Moctezuma when Cort├ęs and his Spaniards arrived. Things went badly for the Aztecs. Moctezuma—they don't tell you this in the history books—Moctezuma was trying to escape by hiding inside an empty planter. The Spaniards were just walking by, ready to move on in their search, when the hummingbird coat started humming. The note was just right, just matched the resonant frequency of the inside of the planter, so the whole thing sounded like a foghorn. Moctezuma was discovered and captured, and you know the rest.

We'll move on now to the first room. This is our rotating exhibit hall. It does rotate. The crank is over there. But we also bring in a new exhibit every month.

Please don't touch that, Sir. You're right, it is crooked. Nevertheless.

That's really the secret of this exhibit. It's not an exhibit of paintings, it's an exhibit of the people looking at the paintings. The audience observes them from the other side of the two-way mirror along the wall, there.

Each and every painting in the exhibit is hung just a little bit crookedly. And another secret—even if we let you straighten them, you wouldn't be able to. Not a single picture, not a single frame is made of right angles. They're all non-equilateral rhombuses.

So we sit in the observation room and watch all the people fidget and twitch. Like that guy there—he keeps half-reaching out, arms starting up from his sides, fingers twitching. He's had to stuff his hands in his pockets, and he's dancing around as if he needs to take a pee.

Next week we're going to change this one out for an exhibit of Dutch Maters. They'll all be hung three feet off the floor, so you have to crouch down to look at them.

Now, if you'll follow me, please…

This is the Hall of Bears. Bears of all sorts, as you can see. No, Ma'am, they're not stuffed. We hire these bears to stand around in poses. They're quite good at it.

Here, as you can see, is our grizzly bear, posing as a rug in front of the fireplace. He has practiced for years to perfect the ability of flattening himself out like that. Mind your feet, please. Sometimes he snaps.

At five o'clock the bears help us clear visitors out of the museum. You don't want to be slow when we give the closing announcement.

Now if you'll follow me…

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Swine flue

The swine flue is the most important part of your pig furnace. You have to have the damper open just the right amount to vent off the lighter pigs while retaining the larger ones in the pork tank.

Let's take a look here at Diagram One. Note call-out A. The pig damper. It's hard to remember whether the damn thing is open or closed. Do you pull it forward to open it, or is that closed? You could stick your head in there and look, but by the time your remember to check, you've usually got a nice, crackling fire going, and looking would roast your head.

You'll know soon enough. If the damper's closed, pretty soon a bunch of hydrogen-filled piglets comes pouring out of the front of the furnace, collecting up near the ceiling, running around upside-down, squealing. One little spark from their hooves on a light fixture, and kablam! It's raining bacon. That's not a bad thing, but it needs to happen in a controlled space. And the little piglets are cute. Nobody likes to see them get blown up.

If you get the swine flue adjusted correctly, the stream of piglets flies up the chimney and out into the wind. The larger swine come out the vents at the bottom, the swine heatelator, and you have to let them out the door.

If you'd burn something other than those acorns, you wouldn't have to worry about all those pigs. It's the combustion product. You combine acorns and oxygen in the presence of heat, and you get pigs, water, hydrogen, and extra heat. That's just the chemistry of it.