Posts filed under 'Observable Phenomena'

Salt Lake Zombies

Hanging out at the Salt Lake City airport the other night, I noticed an interesting phenomenon. My airline, like many, had assigned all passengers a “boarding group” number; in our case, we were all in groups numbering from one to four with the ones – all seated at the front of the airplane – given first boarding priority. (An aside: wouldn’t it make more sense to load the plane with passengers from back to front?) The gate agent took her time scanning the boarding passes for all of the ones. Being a four myself, this gave me quite a bit of time to observe that all of the rest of us were drawn, irresistibly and almost magnetically, to form a kind of semi-circle around the area where the privileged ones were standing in line to be scanned. It was an odd juxtaposition: the chosen few, all lined up and orderly while behind them a looming, unruly, mumbling, shuffling horde watched their every twitch and miniscule advance. The ones chatted amongst themselves, seemingly oblivious. The twos, threes and fours, however, shared a single, unified focus: all eyes fixed on the gate agent and her line of chosen people, all bodies pressing against an invisible barrier – that unmarked zone that cannot be crossed until one’s assigned number has been called. The minute the gate agent announced that the twos could joint the line, several dozen bodies, already bent forward at improbable angles, practically fell over the barrier and materialized instantly in line. It seems that the more effectively you loom, the less distance there is between you and the line, and when your number is called… you can just kind of melt across the distance.

It’s like the art of projection, or the law of attraction: if you narrow your focus completely and totally to visualizing that you are in the gate agent’s line even though you are not, you will somehow be able to travel faster than the speed of light when she calls your number – therefore securing a better position in line and the glory that entails: if you are further ahead in the boarding line, obviously, you will arrive at your destination faster.

But the looming, hulking, silent and fixated horde also reminds me of a certain cinematic genre. The next time I’m smashed up against the invisible barrier, along with three-quarters of my fellow passengers, gazing with rapt attention at the chosen few and trying not to salivate, I’m going to start moaning “braiiiiiiiins, braiiiiiiiiins!”

Under my breath, of course; but if others catch on and join in, well, maybe those ones will move a bit faster, and without being quite so smug.

Add comment January 9th, 2010

Dances With Lobsters

I first watched the film Real Genius when I was in high school – and it wouldn’t be overstating the case to say that it was formative in determining my expectations for higher education. A young Val Kilmer plays Chris Knight, the charismatic, disaffected leader of a group of undergraduate science majors – all of whom are brilliant and socially maladjusted, but deeply creative. Of course they create their own version of society where misfit is the new normal. Together, they romp through adventures that include growing hydroponic cherries bigger than human heads, freezing the dormitory hallways to better facilitate sledding, developing cutting-edge space-laser technology, then inventing even better technology that hijacks the laser and uses it to fill an evil professor’s house with popcorn.

Chris Knight had a sartorial sense that I still admire: jeans, fluffy bunny slippers, snide t-shirts (“Surf Nicaragua,” “I Love Toxic Waste,” etc.), sunglasses, and an occasional headband sporting twelve-inch antennae on springs. Sometimes, during moments of introspection and clarity, I realize that my own extended educational adventure may have been driven by a search for the Real Genius geek-family. Never mind that I was a rather unfocused humanities major, not a brilliant scientist; I feel certain that they would have taken me in.

(An aside: This clip from the film is a family classic; as my father points out, it’s a perfect representation of the life of a PhD student…)

From time to time, I’ve caught glimpses of the extended Real Genius family. Once, during finals week at my next-to-last university, I was walking down the sidewalk, lost in reverie, when an unlikely rustling in the bushes caught my eye. There, in the narrow strip of grass that separated the sidewalk from the dormitory, was a lobster. Rather far from home. But there it was, moving around in the grass, kind of shuffling along, like it was disoriented. Then I noticed that it was red… so perhaps the disorientation was a result of having just recently escaped from a pot of boiling water? But what kind of undergraduate boils lobster in a dorm room? I watched the lobster more closely, and realized that it had been partially eaten. But that didn’t slow it down – it responded to my attention by standing up on its tail and waving at me with one claw, before moving into a strange, halting little jig. Unwilling to fully believe, I kept walking, and the lobster sank back down in the grass and resumed its general, aimless rustling of the shrubbery. I continued on my way, then stopped and glanced back over my shoulder. For a split second, sunlight revealed several strands of fishing line extending from the lobster’s general area up, up, up four stories until they disappeared into a dorm room window.

A boiled, half-eaten, interactive, lobster marionette. Deployed in order to procrastinate finals-week studying. Brilliant!! The Real Geniuses are still out there…

Add comment September 22nd, 2008

Observable Phenomenon – When Fey Get Bored

When I was in my teens, I used to dress up in medieval costumes with my friends, drive to the city, and hang out with a bunch of similarly-minded folk reenacting a selectively edited version of the Middle Ages: feasting, singing, battles and chivalry were in – rats, disease, and oppression were out. But one of our favorite parts of medieval re-enactment happened before we ever even hit the road. On our way out of town we would contrive to stop at the local grocery store, where – clad in harem pants, tunics, and tabards, with goblets hanging from our belts and leather pirate boots flapping – we spoke loudly with faux-English accents and shopped for random grocery items, pretending it was business as usual, while delightedly observing the confusion and discomfiture of the grocery store staff. We referred to this activity as “freaking the mundanes,” and it was fun for years and years and years.

Lately, I’ve noticed that the fey population of Los Angeles does something similar – in the inverse. When they get bored, they freak the humans by letting their disguises slip – just a little bit. They flicker from looking like everyone else in town, to suddenly looking quite out of place – but just for a moment; then they’re gone, with no explanation. Today, for example, I noticed a girl browsing at a bookstore. A normal enough looking girl… until I realized the artwork on her t-shirt was actually alive; it wriggling and shimmered in three dimensions, hovering just above the fabric of her shirt.

At the bookstore café a few moments later, I watched a girl in a top hat and a cinch-waisted Victorian coat pick her way delicately between the tables. She carried a tiny birdcage the way someone else might carry a handbag, dangling from her forearm by a chain. Inside, a bird the size of a cherry-tomato chirped, emitting small soap bubbles that floated out between the bars of the cage, then settled to the floor like day-old helium balloons.

I might have tried to approach her, but a boy with intense blue eyes and shoulder-length red hair politely interrupted me. He asked which computer system I was running on my computer, but didn’t pay any attention to my response. And he didn’t even flinch when I noticed loooong curly-toed shoes peeking out from under the hems of his faded blue jeans. By the time I recovered from the distraction, the girl was gone. And when I thought to ask the boy if he’d seen her, I realized that he’d disappeared as well.

At the cash register, I found a place in line behind a young dreadlocked man. When the cashier called out “next,” he lifted his face to see over the tops of the other customers’ heads and the dreads shifted, falling down his back. For a second, I watched silver knot-work crawl up the rim of his ear – like high speed footage of vines growing up the side of a building. I must have stared because he looked back at me and winked before rearranging his hair and approaching the counter.

I sometimes wonder if they’re really fey…

Or if the grocery store employees from years ago have reassembled and come to LA to exact revenge.

Add comment August 8th, 2008

Word Virus

Last night I watched a movie about a profoundly inept stuntman and his dysfunctional family. It was funny – heartwarming even – within the confines of its genre. And then it got surreal. Two of the lead characters engaged in an extended battle of discursive gymnastics as they took turns contorting the phrase… “cool beans.”

Cool beans? Cool beans?? I thought some crazy kid in my very small Midwestern hometown invented “cool beans” back in 1991 and convinced the other kids it was worth saying – for about five minutes, until the novelty wore off. But there it was, last night, in a movie made in 2007, by Hollywood types who most certainly did not come from my home town. Was “cool beans” really a national phenomenon? Is it worth referencing almost 20 years later?? Really??

Oh no, it’s much worse.

Occasionally, when Sam is perplexed by something on his computer, I overhear him muttering “qu’est ce que c’est que ce beans?” Literally, this translates to “what is this bean?” But in practice, it means something closer to “what in the world is this thing?!” And he says this because he’s quoting the words of a character in a film called Les Visiteurs that came out in France in 1993. (According to, Les Visiteurs is about “a medieval nobleman and his squire [who] are accidentally transported to contemporary times by a senile sorcerer”). Now clearly, the definition changed slightly, from when “cool beans” had… well… no discernable meaning in English, to when “beans” came to mean “perplexing thing” in French. But still! This totally useless, short-lived linguistic tic traveled across the continent and around the world – even making its way into other languages – in a few short years.

Maybe some word combinations have the virus-like ability to adapt and mutate – to do whatever it takes to survive. Where will “cool beans” show up next?

Add comment August 1st, 2008


Mya is one year old. She isn’t walking yet, mostly because she has two older brothers who dote on her and bring her everything she desires; and really, who needs to walk under those circumstances? She has teeny tiny feet, chubby arms and legs, short, curly, brown hair, and hazel-green eyes. Much of the time, she entertains herself by roly-polying around on the floor, but occasionally she invents games that require other participants.

Once, for example, she surreptitiously peeled a bracelet from her mother’s wrist while she was distracted by adult conversation, and dropped it onto the floor. She leaned forward while doing the splits, picked the bracelet up with her mouth, put it on her own ankle, admired her handiwork, took it off, threw it back on the ground, and did it all over and over again - and all with no hands - for at least half an hour: bracelet, floor, splits, mouth, ankle, admire, repeat. Before long, all of the adults had forsaken their conversation in favor of Mya’s compelling gymnastics.

Another time, I was charged with feeding her a roll and, concerned that she not choke on too big of a bite, I pinched off little crumbs for her one at a time. But she ate them so voraciously and with such take-charge command, that I was slightly taken aback. If I didn’t pinch crumbs fast enough she’d get her whole mouth around the roll – as well as my hand, which was clutching the roll – before I knew what had happened. Throughout this exchange I could only see the top of her head - but at one point, just as I was starting to feel some concern that she might eat my fingers, I saw a flash of a wicked wee grin; that was when I realized we were playing a variation on tag, and I was loo-ooo-osing.

But this was my favorite game – I was sitting by the fireplace paying attention to the grownups, and Mya was sitting on the floor about three feet away. She made a sound, just a discreet baby exhortation, so I glanced at her and found she was staring right at me. She immediately stuck her arms out, like little pistons, in the universal baby-sign for “Pick. Me. Up. Now.” So of course I did. No sooner had she settled onto my hip, than she pitched her small body out at an alarming angle. I headed for the couch instinctively, knowing that if I sat down I’d correct the sudden sense of being off-kilter. Just as she’d planned, apparently. Because as soon as I settled onto the couch she started hurtling her tiny torso backwards into open space; then she stared at me pointedly, through slightly narrowed eyes, until I figured it out… Oh, I was supposed to tickle her! So I did, and she screamed and wiggled and laughed. Then she stopped and stared at me again. I lifted her back up, and she immediately pitched backwards so she was dangling upside down again… but this time she refused to oblige with a scream and a giggle until I figured out that the LEFT ribs like to be tickled, not the right ribs… and we continued.

I am completely beguiled by Mya – and by her total, wordless, command of her world. No wonder her brothers bring her everything!

Add comment July 31st, 2008

Characters – Santa Monica Weekend

Spotted on the oceanfront bike path on a sunny Sunday morning:

A man wearing a fleece suit, rollerblading, while playing a very large djembe suspended from his back by a strap.

A unicyclist, slaloming slowly and gracefully amongst the pedestrians, eyes closed, face turned up to the sun.

A woman bicyclist with waist-length blonde hair and the face of a sixty year-old atop the body of a twenty year old, wearing a bomber jacket and a thong on the outside of her see-through tights.

A gentleman rollerblader gliding along the path while holding a large dog, belly up to the world, in his arms like a baby.

A man on a bike with two twin bike baskets behind the seat, each basket filled to overflowing with a large, fluffy, unperturbed cat.

Add comment April 14th, 2008

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