I'm no numismatist, but I do like coins. Of all the humble, ordinary objects that are a part of our everyday existence, they are among my favorites. I enjoy the jangle of change in my pocket, the durable thinness of a dime, the palpable heft of a quarter, the smooth circumference of a nickel, the tiny visage of Lincoln's statue within its memorial on the reverse of a penny. I take comfort in their familiar ubiquity, their inevitable presence scattered along the tops of dressers, loitering within desk drawers, and accumulating in every tray and compartment between the driver and passenger seat. The jaded among us cast spare change aside as though its monetary worth were its only value, but small children, unhampered by experience, will treasure a penny as a highly desirable object. There is a primal satisfaction in the possession of these virtually indestructible metal tokens with their perfectly circular shapes and curious iconography.
As I said, I'm no numismatist, but I have collected coins. If the uniformity of our solid currency has ever appealed to you, then you might also have found yourself attracted to that shelf in the hobby store with the assortment of deep blue Official Whitman Coin Folders. Each trifold portfolio of sturdy cardboard contains a matrix of paper-backed holes labeled by date, mint initial, and the number of millions that were produced. Unlike other historical chronologies, the Whitman Coin Folder is unencumbered by interpretation or nuance. It is truly nonpartisan. Everything has its own little place, and that's that. And well before the popular preoccupation with video games and their motivating multilevels, these collector's folders hooked the anal retentive with visions of completeness. The rows and rows of holes are just begging to be filled with their corresponding coins.
Priceless proof in the absence of memory.
My paternal grandfather died at the age of 86 when I was twelve years old. Given the fact that he lived just around the next block during the entire time I knew him, it seems only natural that I would have many memories of our brief time together. Yet, sadly, I cannot recall any specific moments that we shared. I only remember what it was like to sit quietly in his tiny living room when Dad and I would stop by for a visit. The two of them would drone on about topics that did not interest me at all, and I would pass the time by rocking in a swivel chair and scanning the latest National Enquirer that had been left on the end table. Sometimes there would be something interesting on the TV, but most often not.
I can only remember Grandpa as a mysterious and taciturn widower, Grandma having died when I was six. He did not live alone, though, as he had a faithful dachshund named Gidget for companionship. A highlight of visiting Grandpa, one might think. But as much as I found my grandfather to be remote, his little dog was completely unapproachable. Apparently she had once suffered abuse at the hands of youngsters, rendering her hostile toward anyone who happened to be in the same peer group as her former tormentors. Between Grandpa's perpetual frown and his vicious wiener dog, I didn't care to linger when we visited.
The forlorn, former home of Cans 'n' Stuff
The street on which I was raised runs nearly three quarters of a mile, a straight line along its entire length. We lived almost dead center, whence I could pedal my bike a satisfying distance in either direction. On the west end of the avenue lived Big Ed and Little Ed, a father and son whose nicknames reflected their seniority but not their relative size. Big Ed, as I recall, was a quiet, gray-haired man of small stature. Little Ed, however, was bigger in every way, from his large frame to his frizzy, black hair, which framed a happy-go-lucky countenance. They would have been an odd couple under any circumstances, but for a brief period of time they were business partners. They ran their unique venture from a tiny and disheveled storefront at the eastern terminus of our street.
Cans 'n' Stuff was surely one of the stranger establishments to have emerged in my hometown. Its eclectic stock was an outgrowth of its proprietors' respective hobbies. Big Ed collected beer cans, a fad of rising popularity in the seventies. Little Ed collected record albums, singles and related memorabilia. Naturally, they opened a shop that sold used records and beer cans. It was, perhaps, one of the greatest moments in the history of entrepreneurial zeal executed without so much as a shred of market research. What, after all, was the target demographic of Cans 'n' Stuff? Whom did Big Ed and Little Ed envision as their customers?
For years, Brian and I had little to say to each other due to the icy chasm of our eight years difference in age. We had few common interests, after all. Not until I reached adolescence did our cold war start to thaw, a more or less civil diplomacy emerging in the unlikeliest of venues: on the virtual football fields, baseball diamonds and tennis courts of pioneering Intellivision video games. It was my older brother, who followed sports and occasionally actually played them, versus his nonathletic and sports-illiterate sibling in highly competitive contests of manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination. Countless battles unfolded on the color screen of our wood-paneled console television as we stretched out on the living room floor and blindly manipulated the controllers, keeping our wide eyes locked on the action.
Sometimes we were woefully mismatched, as when we faced off in football. Clearly Brian had the far better grasp of strategy. I had only one effective weapon in my pitiful strategic arsenal, a potentially devastating play that I called The 9929 Twenty-Yard Fadeback. Named for the four-digit code one entered into the controller to call a play that included a receiver going long, the scheme exploited a curious anomaly of Intellivision Football: its quarterbacks never threw too short nor tossed the ball out of bounds, instead firing off passes that would spiral all the way off the scrolling screen if they were not caught. By some strange compromise of gameplay design, those golden arms could accurately throw the length of the football field.
Kneeling at the altar where one day their children would be served tater tots.
A big cafeteria. That's what you need if you're planning on running an institution that teaches children from first through eighth grade. St. Gerard, my elementary and middle school alma mater, met that requirement with room to spare. As a little kid, our cafeteria seemed like a cavernous space, an immense and spare rectangular room so large that its flat and featureless ceiling was supported by more than half a dozen pillars. If the prospect of attending a school that included students twice your height and age didn't already make you feel small, being herded into the cafeteria for the first time erased any vestiges of pride.
For a hall that admitted plenty of sun through great windows along its length, the St. Gerard cafeteria was run with chilling efficiency. To this day, if I were to walk through its far entrance, I could show you the exact path that we were expected to follow as we wound along the perimeter in single file toward the serving area. There we would pick up the molded plastic trays upon which a small group of cafeteria ladies - some nice, others indifferent, and a few downright intimidating - would deposit the various components of the day's meal. We picked up our milk last, dutifully inserting the half-pint carton into its designated tray compartment, and proceeded toward the seating area.
Why learn to balance on two wheels when you don't have to?
I don't remember exactly when I learned to ride a bicycle, but I'm pretty sure I was the last of my peers to acquire the skill. I have a vague notion that it wasn't even necessarily my idea. Somehow we ended up borrowing an old and rusted girls' bike with training wheels, a literal vehicle for shame and embarrassment. I knew that the whole world was watching me as I wobbled up and down the sidewalk. Ha, ha! Look at that kid who hasn't learned how to ride a bike yet! I kept my head down, tried to keep my balance, and wondered how I had unwittingly fallen behind the rest of the pack. Like every childhood drama, it seemed terribly important at the time.
My first experience with self-propelled vehicles was the classic tricycle, which by all accounts I heartily enjoyed. It was the standard, all-metal model with a runner between the back wheels. I am told that it was stolen from our front yard one night, a heartless thievery that I do not recall, yet I am willing to cast blame upon the anonymous robber for activating latent neuroses. If ever I am called to plead my case before a jury, I'm blaming whatever I did on the tricycle thief.
I imagine that Dick Ireland, were he alive today, would be surprised to learn that a former student fondly and frequently recalls his old geometry and physics teacher nearly thirty years later. Once our mortarboards arced through an overcast spring sky and clattered onto the asphalt parking lot, I never returned. Nor did I bother to contact any of the instructors who were an integral part of my life all those years ago. Somehow the thought of keeping in touch with my alma mater and its faculty seemed like moving backward instead of forward. Yet in a minor irony that I never foresaw as a teenager, I eventually became a teacher myself.
Like most educators, I wonder about the lasting impact of my instruction and guidance. I hope that when I sign off on my last report card, I will have made a net positive difference in the lives of my students. But I'll never really know. Students move on, just as I did. It took me years to truly appreciate what the best of my teachers had given me, just as I had to reach a certain level of maturity to understand how and why the worst of my teachers had shortchanged me. Good or bad, my lasting impressions of them have little to do with the content they labored to teach me.
Thank you, Marshall Brodien...
Illusionist Penn Jillette recently revealed to Tuscon Weekly that his estimation of magic was changed by James "The Amazing" Randi, who taught him that it is an honorable profession provided that audiences are fully aware they are being deceived. I suppose the vast majority of those who bothered to tune in to The Rock 'n' Fun Magic Show, a gaudy spectacle featuring Bill Cosby, Doug Henning and the Hudson Brothers that aired in the fall of 1975, were cognizant that they were being exposed to illusions rather than manifestations of the supernatural, Henning's wide-eyed proclamations that "anything is possible" notwithstanding. I, however, was only seven years old, an age at which I accepted almost everything at face value. Even though I understood that all magic was some sort of a trick, I totally bought into the false drama that Henning employed to heighten the effect of his most dramatic stunt.
"Not only is this the first time this escape has been attempted since Houdini did it, it's the first time it's ever been tried on television," intoned a sober host as he stood before a glass tank filled to the brim with water. "And remember, it's being done live at this very moment. If this looks dangerous to you, believe me, it is." Henning then emerged from the wings, striding purposefully in a rust-colored robe with the confident air of Christ on his way to give what-for to the temple desecrators. Stripped down to a pair of orange trunks, he was hoisted by his padlocked ankles and dangled over the tank. "And now, Doug is going to take four deep breaths - and hold the last one."
Look, Ma - no graph paper!
My father-in-law was an engineer for General Tire, not long retired when we first met. His natural flair for design and problem solving demanded expression whether or not it was earning him a living, and thus he filled his leisure hours with an assortment of engaging projects, from fashioning his own golf clubs to creating custom stained glass windows for his front door. He wrote with a precise block printing style suitable for labeling blueprints or lettering comics. And always, there was graph paper handy to work out the next challenge.
Having mastered his profession before the dawn of personal computers, Dick's first impulse when contemplating a task was to grab a pencil and a scrap of graph paper. Sometimes the printed grid was necessary, sometimes not. I remember the draftsman's zeal with which he tackled the chore of assigning seats to guests at our wedding reception. Out came the graph paper, upon which he sketched a scale blueprint of the reception hall and began to maneuver cutout banquet tables until he determined the optimal arrangement. When he was finished, we had a little map featuring the thoughtful arrangement of each guest according to his or her familial and social affiliations. He might have achieved virtually the same end without having applied such methodical precision, but I think the process of working it all out was what he truly enjoyed. His was a world of pencil-and-paper solutions.
You've been through this before. There is a valuable object that you must physically attain, but it's going to take a little bit of bureaucratic interaction to make it happen. An indeterminate amount of waiting may be involved. In this case, the treasured item is a West Campus parking pass for The Ohio State University, a necessity that your daughter ordered online. Armed with a day off, you are charged with the task of picking up the pass in the morning so that she may use it to attend her first college class that evening. You take the precaution of calling ahead to confirm that you are permitted to retrieve the pass on your daughter's behalf. You look over a map of West Campus and find the small visitor lot where you've parked before, the one that is a short stroll from the Traffic and Parking offices. You double-check to make sure that you have your daughter's university ID card and a printed receipt for the parking pass. Then, satisfied that you have taken all reasonable preparatory measures, you embark on your journey.
Your destination is a popular one on this first day of Winter Quarter, but several spaces open up after you circle the visitor lot once. There is a "Pay and Display" system in place that requires the purchase of a timed pass from an automated machine. You approach it and fish out the coins you brought along for this purpose, depositing three quarters and three dimes. It's 9:00. There are more coins in your pocket, but the machine says that you have just bought 42 minutes of parking time, which seems more than adequate for the purpose of picking up a previously purchased parking pass. You chastise yourself for the wasteful habit of padding parking meters with unnecessary time simply due to an irrational aversion to the unlikely prospect of purchased time elapsing. Next time, you think, you'll spend a little less instead of fattening the coffers of Traffic and Parking.