Thursday, March 29, 2007

Can You Dig It?

A couple of years ago I was working at a charity fundraising banquet doing small magic tricks at each of the tables. At one of them, the man nearest me picked my deck of cards up from the table and fanned through them, trying to "catch" me with whatever gimmick he thought I might be using. ("Hey Sherlock, if I'm putting the cards where a poor sport like you can just grab them, you can bet the mortgage there's nothing in them for you to find.") His actions were rude and childish - this was a man I'd put in his fifties - but they show the misguided tendency we all have at one time or another to feel threatened by anything that has us mystified.

Recent news reports of Harry Houdini's grand-nephews wanting to exhume his body, and of his widow Bess' grand-nephews opposing it, reminded me of this. Harry's side wants a forensic study to determine if he was murdered by the spiritualists whose scams he'd spent a good part of his later career exposing. Bess' camp is calling it an exploitive attempt to promote sales of a recent biography that explored, among other things, the decades-old murder rumors.

So who should we listen to?

It could be argued that Harry's blood relatives ("dig him up") should be given priority over his relatives-through-marriage ("leave him where he is"). One might also ask: after someone has been dead for 81 years, are his blood-descendants really "relatives?"

Then there's the big question that no one has asked: since the forensic investigation is not going to reveal what person would have murdered Houdini, and any perpetrators would be long-dead anyway, what purpose would exhuming him serve? Certainly not justice. It's more likely another case of satisfying a curiosity, and not the scholarly kind either.

Once any forensic results - whatever they show - are known, the fascination that's endured for 81 years won't last another 81 days. We can only guess what Harry himself would want done, but we do know that while he was alive he stopped at nothing and used everything - from the complex and highly technical to the shockingly simple - to make sure people remained mystified about him at all times, and in all ways.

If exhuming Harry Houdini were really about justice I'd be all for it. And yes, I admit there is part of me that is curious and that would want to hear every detail. There's some part of all of us that always seems to want to grab the cards, expose the gimmick, and endthe mystery. The problem is that when the immediate gratification from doing that fades - and it does fade - we end up having lost something much bigger.

On a completely different subject...

It took a while but I finally figured out the difference between American Idol and the Bush administration, and it is this: on American Idol, people with approval ratings lower than Sanjaya's are gotten rid of.

Your thoughts, as always, are welcome. If you're not on aol and would like to post a comment, just send it to me by e-mail and I'll make sure it gets in.


Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Don't Look Down, Mr. President

Tonight the Associated Press report said, "A defiant President Bush warned Democrats Tuesday to accept his offer to have top aides speak about the firings of federal prosecutors only privately and not under oath, or risk a constitutional showdown from which he would not back down."

Yeah, yeah, we heard you, big guy. What else you got?

Bush talking tough to Congress at this point is reminding me of Saddam Hussein acting like he was in charge while standing on a trap door with a rope around his neck. The long fall caught him by surprise too, though everyone else in the room saw it coming.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Do Me A Flavor

It was not my intention to write a post today. Busy getting ready for friends coming over for corned beef and cabbage tonight, that sort of thing. Then my wife sent me to the convenience store to buy rye bread, and the man in front of me at the checkout was buying - so help me, I'm not making this up - a pineapple flavored cigar.

This is not about the fact that I'm not a smoker. If it were, the point would be that the man was buying a cigar. But the point is not that the man was buying a cigar. The point is the man was buying A FRIGGIN' PINEAPPLE FLAVORED CIGAR!

My curiosity was now aroused: what started someone thinking how great it would be if the taste of cigar tobacco were combined with the taste of pineapple? Was this some adult version of the bored kids at cook outs who think it would be a great idea to combine Coca-Cola and coleslaw, or was there more to it than that?

Once home, Google led me to a couple of on-line cigar community bulletin boards. On one, the pineapple smoking experience was described thus: "a dazzling mélange of artificial pineapple, burning rubber, stale urine and 11 year old Tahitian vanilla assaulted my senses and left them bruised, battered and befuddled in a clump on the floor." ( ) A posting in the other offered this: "[The cigar manufacturer] has to flavor their cigars because they use such a low grade tobacco. You're basically puffing on stems, paper, and sometimes woodchips...Why not just eat a piece of chocolate?" ( )

Reading the experts, I felt positively smug enjoying the chocolate-covered raspberry ring gels I'd bought along with the rye bread.

Added Note 1: A couple of posts ago I wrote about one of my students, the one whose creativity in overcoming cramped exam conditions left me fascinated and just a bit envious. I recently received an e-mail from her. A project she entered into a lighting design competition won her second place and $1500. How about that?

Added Note 2: Encouraged by the positive e-mails I've received from kind readers, I've added the ability topost responses and comments here. Your thoughts have always been welcome; hopefully this will make sharing them a little easier.


Monday, March 12, 2007

And Death Shall Have No Dominion

A co-worker asked me today what I thought of an e-mail she'd written to promote a St. Patrick's Day 50/50 raffle that was a company fundraiser for a charity. The e-mail included the phrase, "the luck of the Irish" and she was concerned that someone in our very-diverse office might take some politically correct offense.
Flashback about 15 years. My wife and I were getting ready to have our infant sons baptized, with a party at the church afterward. Since we're a mixed marriage - she's Presbyterian, I'm Jewish - this created a dilemma: I wanted my relatives to join the celebration, but would they turn out to be more offended if I invited them to the church than if I didn't? It was one of the too-few times I asked my father for advice, and here's what he said: all you really can do is make a good faith effort to treat people nicely and do what's right. You have no control over how they'll react. (For the record, in the case of the baptism they reacted well. We ended up having almost as many Jews as Presbyterians at the church for the service.)
I leaned in to my co-worker and told her I didn't see anything patently offensive in the e-mail, that all she could do would be to make a good faith effort to treat people nicely and do what's right, and that how they decided to react is something she couldn't control.
She smiled as if I'd given her a great treasure, apparently satisfied that it was sound advice from someone of great wisdom.
And indeed it was.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Box? What Box?

Last night was mid-term exam night in the class I teach as an adjunct to architectural students. Bright young minds all, the difference between those who succeed and those who don't has more to do with differences in maturity levels than with differences in intelligence. The seats are the typical lecture hall kind, much like movie theater seating except with those mini-desktops that fold down when you're not using them. They're configured for right-handed people, and are too small to be of any real use regardless of which hand you write with.

Anyway, students were pretty gallant last night in their efforts to use these horrible mini-desks to manage their textbooks, notebooks and calculators along with their exam papers. One student caught my eye. She'd started in the front row but a few minutes into the exam decided to sit cross-legged on the floor in front of the seat she'd been sitting in, giving her plenty of room. (This position would have someone my age wearing a heating pad for days, but at her age you can still do things like that.) Seeing her sitting on the floor made me think of that scene from Men In Black, the one where a group of applicants for the MIB job are struggling to fill out forms without anything hard to lean down on, and Will Smith just pulls over a small table that was nearby.

There's no doubt in my mind this student is going to go far. That is, as long as no jaded professor or employer succeeds in teaching this freedom of thought - which I confess to being envious of - out of her.

There are two great feelings you can get in front of a classroom. One is seeing young minds learn something from you. The other is realizing how much you can learn from them right back.