The God of Rain

By Thursday even I was tired of the rain. The storm continued its assault on the Maryland for the fifth day in a row; by Wednesday torrents of water formed rapids out of what were once community roadways. Old Ellicott City several miles away had nearly been washed clean, houses and all. The Murphey household suffered a few nights without any internet, crippling many of the kids’ online assignments. Katie swelled with anxiety at the lost of her Facebook, while Ryan scooped an extra pint of ice cream and flipped on a few Errol Flynn swashbucklers I had tucked away in the basement.

Typically, the sound of the rain pelting the roof, a cup of warm coffee and a few dozen books negated any impending disasters, but as flood water cascaded through the trees from neighboring plots flooding our small pond and plugging our sewage pump, I began to worry. Newly christened 4×4’s, stacked carefully some weeks prior near the barn, floated off into the mounting surge, never to be seen or heard from again.

If only the chicken coop would have made a similar escape, I thought to myself, pressing a handkerchief to my nose. God, I can smell them here! Actually, the stench from the sewage tank had already engulfed most of the basement and threatened to ruin lunch, when my cousin Paul woke from his mid-morning nap. While finding a new job, babysitting has become my new occupation of choice, and I agreed to watch Paul while his mother did some errands.

After an intense session of PB&J, we sat in an alcove in the family’s “Man Room” – our new addition that because of its beautiful wood flooring and dark mahogany cabinets was absconded by the house’s females, who replaced the sport’s memorabilia with baskets and ‘antique’ washboards (That’s right! You can make something too good!) – and watched the brown waters cascade down our neighbors hills. One of our boats slid from fence into the flood; skeletal tree limbs emerged from the depths of the pond scratched the boat’s hull like drowned corpses; the dog left its shelter and barked as the craft disappeared into the woods. Continue reading

Of Fiends and Fountain Drinks

conquer3In these times of financial difficulties (i.e. “Hey! Where’d all my money go?”), lifestyle changes are expected.  Many of my cousins upon graduating high school have shied away from out-of-state education, investing in used cars, gas stations and morning commutes from home; others have ignored the traditional college altogether, seeking apprenticeships in trade schools, community colleges, or donning their suits or aprons in the work force.  In the Murphey house, with several of the siblings already in college, expenses have been tight: fewer meals outside the house, more carpooling, and no unauthorized visits to the bookstore . . . unless somehow linked to another far-more-necessary errand such as picking up the kids from practice or restocking our dwindling supply of breath mints.  You know . . . essential stuff.

Yet even my weekly rations of manga and short-story anthologies must be curbed.  Barnes and Nobel employees find me staring longingly at the latest Bestsellers like a twelve-year old at a pet store.  No one seems to mind me petting the spines, but when I start chatting up the authors many of whom have been dead for centuries, someone typically comes and asks me to leave.  This never halts my conversations but out in the parking lot, people seem to mind less.

As with most problems, money is the issue.  Therefore, in order to satisfy my bibliomania I’ve curtailed other less-necessary addictions like eating (half-portions), gaming (goodbye WoW), and education (graduated . . . finally).  One final expense remains: raspberry iced tea.

No force on earth, save its total destruction (thus rendering this whole argument moot), can sate my hourly need for half-way decent tea.  Other men have their Starbucks and Bud Light; I have my Lipton.  I cannot change this.  What I can do is try to cut down on the cost of my caffeine, thus saving capital for more pressing addictions: books and comics.

Thus I put my college math to work for me.  Borders like many cafés offers refills on a few of their beverages for a discounted price (50 cents or so, not including tax). Therefore my $2.40 iced tea with a refill actually decreases to about a buck and half.  As the number of refills gradually increases – assuming of course the serendipitous occasion of finding myself at the bookstore all day – the average cost per cup will decrease to about fifty cents.  My costly obsession with caffeinated beverages might actually provide a useful everyday application to my high school calculus and save me money in the process.  A rare treat indeed!

After all, apart from simple arithmetic and remembering how to spell ‘cat,’ how often can we honestly admit using those high school factoids oh so necessary for our mid-terms and pre-lunch pop quizzes?  Without the aid of Wikipedia, the name of the 30th president, conversion of meters to inches, and forty or so state capitals are long forgotten, buried under years of academic trivia, for use only during reruns of Jeopardy or boring parties.  Thus, it’s a real pleasure when I can apply these archaic mental-nuggets for use in my daily life.

Back to the calculus.  Stopping at a red light I formulated the following equation:

(2.40 + x(.50)) / (1+x)                                      x = being the # of refills consumed

Cost of Iced Tea per Refill at Borders

Cost of Iced Tea per Refill at Borders

Naturally the more I drink, the less spent per cup, offering more capital to invest in novels, Japanese comics, and the like.

Last Tuesday gave me the chance to test my theory.  The boys’ graduation practice ran a little longer and so I found myself with another hour at Borders to snoop through the shelves and tempt myself to some new fiction.  I managed to refill my cup three times, and as you can see from the graph, decreased the cost of my drink to nearly a buck.  With each delicious sip, I managed to steal the wealth of corporate America through some legal loophole.  I felt empowered, heroic like that weary young man, who upon returning from war and torture abroad built his keep among the trees, thieving spoils from the wealthy and distributing it to the destitute.  The Robin Hood of book buyers.

Yet all great ideas have their flaws.  Mine revealed itself half-way through my third cup while gazing at a polar bear peeking from the cover of a travel anthology.  My body twitched.  My breathing faltered.  I tried desperately not to think of flowing water, but row after row displayed rushing rapids, majestic waterfalls, and winding Amazonian rivers.  Instinctively my feet rushed me to the bathroom until my brain kicked in, reminding me of my half-filled cup, my sole source for more tea and economic superiority.

Alone without a Wingman, my options were limited.  Cutting my losses did not seem feasible; I had at least two more cups of tea left in me and another half-hour before I needed to don my chauffeur’s cap again. Carrying the cup inside the restroom likewise proved unsavory.  Most bathrooms – public or otherwise – possess an unsanitary aura, a gastronomic No Man’s Land, at least for items which you might like to stick into your mouth minutes afterwards.  Crossing the lavatory threshold drink in hand to me is akin to washing the cup with toilet water.

The Robin Hood of book buyers.

The Robin Hood of book buyers.

Few other choices remained.  Relinquishing my plastic chalice on the small table set aside for unpaid merchandise, I went about my business quickly, aware that some conscientious employee might toss my cup. Or worse, defilement.  Literary souls inevitably breed oddity; it’s what makes us so interesting . . .  and dangerous. Immediately I checked the remaining dredges of iced tea for tampering: any unnoticed fingerprint marks, lipstick, or powdery residue – I imagine passing out among the audiobooks only to wake hours later in tub of ice with only one kidney.  Finding no traces, I returned to my browsing and another refill.

An hour and a half later, my cup full once again with tea, three books in hand, I strode to the counter for check out, confident that I had saved myself ten dollars at least of valuable income.  In celebration I added another ten-dollar manga volume to my arm.

Arriving at the counter, I smiled at the cashier, dropping my pile before her, half-wondering if she would be interested in the results of my little science project.

“Hey Miss, did you know that I reduced the cost of six iced teas to nearly fifty-cents per glass.  Whatcha think about that?”  Her eyes glisten.  Her cheeks blush.  Her hands grab hold of my shirt.  As our bodies disappear beneath the counter, the remaining customers shout in unison, “Get a room!”

Or not.

I set the books too close to the sub-counter magnet, which triggered several loud beeps somewhere near the register; the cashier stepped on something near the floor silencing the alarm. Several armed guards and German shepherds shuffle away, disappointed.  Meanwhile she stared at my pile and counted.

“You know,” she said, “if you pick up one more book you can get one of these free.”

“Huh?  What?”

“Buy four get the fifth free,” she said pointing to the various cardboard signs stapled to the shelves around the store.

“Really?!”

I affected some surprise at this, having spent nearly two hours at the bookstore without noticing the words ‘free’ and ‘books’ together.  Then with a quick look at the clock, I took off again towards the children’s lit.  Ten minutes.  If I grab another eight dollar book (the price of my less-expensive purchase), I’ll have essentially just robbed the store.  When people think of me, the word ‘badass’ rarely comes to mind.  Nonetheless, I felt like buying a belt-chain and not recycling my old Snapple bottles.  That’s right, tossing ‘em in with the plastic bags and used iTunes gift cards.  Hardcore . . .   Desperate times, they can bring out the worst in all of us.

Systems Analysis

The instructions on the assignment bore into my brain like a drill. Look through Flickr. After finding three photos, derive your own tags for the photos and then compare them with others’ tags and the metadata provided by the Library of Congress.

Gah . . . every word tightens my nerves like another turn at the medieval rack. My sinews stress, my jaw clenches, I yearn to visit Florida and sip pina coladas with Michelle, my masseuse, professional model, and online guild leader. I read another sentence of instructions and feel my stomach clench.

Summarize the main points of the following articles. More PDFs which discuss adapting information retrieval tools to the digital age flash onto the screen, now rendered dull and soporific with words like “utilize,” “protocol,” and “incremental process.” I wonder how many authors collapsed writing these sentences, whether the end of each paragraph was toasted with a long draught of cooking sherry, followed by a primal scream atop a high balcony, a fleeting desire for sun-baked beaches and lengthy breezes before turning back to the laptop for another page.

Slowly I begin to type my own summary.

You see, I am a big fan of universality. Two thousand years from now Shakespeare will still remain a genius, two plus two will still add to four, and unless the moon jumps from its orbit to collide with earth, a feather and a brick if dropped will still accelerate at the same rate – minus air resistance.

Yet a mere five years from now, the tagging and metadata methodologies of today will not exist. These systems will not matter. The conventions, abbreviations, and technology that I use, memorize, and ultimately reiterate using my own words today will cease to matter then. I have a big problem with that. Mom and Katie simply tell me to act like a man and suck it up.

“These are simply the hoops everyone has to jump through in order to get that diploma, honey. I know it’s a pain, but it has to be done.”

Yeah, but once again the professor is asking me to memorize facts for the sake of a test and then jettison the material afterwards, a strategy I have tried long and hard to abandon since grade school: learn for the sake of a grade then forget everything. If I follow Mom’s advice, I will have spent nearly fifty-thousand dollars for a piece of non-recyclable paper and tabula rasa.

I suppose that even a semi-blank mind supersedes abandoning amino acid tables, Shakespearean sonnets, and those few memorized lines from Casablanca. Nonetheless, the assignment makes me cringe like the sound of an anxious cat thrown against a chalkboard. In the end, you are left irritated and slightly befuddled, questioning the sense of it all.

“Hold on,” you ask. “What purpose did hurling the cat serve?”

“It’s part of the curriculum,” they respond.

“Why not then hurl her at something softer, less irritating, like a mattress or at least mildly interesting like a flock of geese or a pool of Jello?”

“Who knows?” they respond again. “Just be sure to fill in the circles completely with a No. 2 pencil. You have five minutes remaining.”

Sigh. Well, no one said education was going to be easy.

I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.

— Rick

Sigh. Yeah, someday maybe I will too . . .

Willy willy pumpkin-nilly

I was working late one afternoon at the lab years ago, when this poem popped into my head. The day had grown long; five hours can drag waiting to harvest protein. Boredom, acetone, and smell of fresh bacterial broth can have a strange effect on the mind, particularly one driven to childish rhyme. Like a true Seuss-stanza, dislodging the simple echoed rhythm from my ears proved nigh near impossible. Drugs, flames, liquid nitrogen all proved futile. Thus rather than ignore more safety restrictions, I decided to write the poem down and share it with others instead . . .

Willy willy pumpkin-nilly
What a great fool you are
Willy willy pumpkin-nilly
What a total fool you are

You dance on your hands
And eat with your feet
You bray just like a dog
And mew for your treat.

Willy willy pumpkin-nilly
What an honest fool you are

You bathe in the sink
Throwin’ money away
Like a child, a wee child
Sleeping, smiling, at play.

Willy willy pumpkin-nilly
What a good fool you are.

You mix with the sick
And converse with the cursed
Always wishin’ on stars
Always putting others first.

Willy willy pumpkin-nilly
What a good man you are.

You never speak rude
Foolish simpleton I see.
Yet kind, loyal and true
Knowing just who you can be

Willy willy pumpkin-nilly
What a great man you are.

Winter Wizardry

I used to work as a scientist, did you know that?  Arguably I still am.  A few years ago – or so it feels – my life revolved around biochemistry specifically the structure of proteins.  There are details, but I doubt anyone would care to hear much about the science.  My explanations probably would only add to the confusion anyway.  Needless to say, the work was good and interesting, but fraught with politics.  Progressing projects halted half-way to fruition, shifting to the latest or newest research and then changing again within months.  Structural biology experiments under ideal conditions take months to complete; some researchers never got around to finishing or publishing any research.   

Choosing an appropriate journal was also a touchy subject.  While some researchers would seek publication from any respectable journal; others usually lab heads would only be satisfied with high-ranking journals.  An article chosen in Nature or Science certainly would be a feather in your cap, but the time needed to perform the necessary experiments required for acceptance was often underrated.  Thus, your work would sit gathering dust until your boss condescended to a more “mediocre” journal (which was not likely) or these publishing titans felt that you had jumped through enough hoops to garner their pages (which again took many months).  

In the end, drawn by my bibliophilia, the advice of my co-workers (“When you win the lotto, then and only then come back to science.  This is a rich man’s game.”), and a mounting indifference, I left.  Like the portrayal of war in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, I had grown tired of the business and institute of science than the craft itself.  

“History did not demand Yossarian’s premature demise, justice could be satisfied without it, progress did not hinge upon it, victory did not depend on it. That men would die was a matter of necessity; which men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance, and Yossarian was willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance. But that was war.” (Catch-22. chap 8, pg 78) 

“. . . that’s the way things go when you elevate mediocre people to positions of authority.” (chap 29, p 335)

Thus, my path to the Nobel Prize was sundered (ha!), and as Robert Frost said “it has made all the difference.”  Yet both writing and science share a mutual respect for the world and its numerous observations.  After all you do not always need a microscope or a beaker full of bacteria, to uncover wonders and make discoveries.  The world brims with secrets that lie undiscovered the more we ignore them, bypassing the unusual or wonderful in favor of the marketable.   

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The world truly is an extraordinary place.  Walking through the parking lot at Walmart earlier today, I spied shards of ice forming in a muddy sunken puddle.  The tire of a parked Forerunner rose from the center like black obelisk, unaware of the harmless miniature knives weaving frozen nets around it.  Above the tattered clouds strove with glittering spears of light, while torrents of red and violet shone on the horizon like great bonfires.  Still the gluttonous clouds marched forward swallowing the calm of blue and gold in its wake.  Sun-spears break, retreating to the upper stratosphere; sun fades and blue sky blanches.  We wait for the white curtain to peel and flake to earth.  I walk to my car, fumbling with my keys, which of course are in the other pocket.  My car engine roars, and my packages and I drive home.   

Winter mornings always welcome the scientist or artist with something extraordinary.  Perhaps amidst all the cold weather, dying leaves, and skeletal fingers of tree limbs, my eyes dilate like a cat’s at midnight, sensitive to the unnoticed yet luminous morsels of life in the world.  The flicker of a small candle stretches far in a dark world, they say.  Evidence of life in the barren winter has that same effect, like the tangible air of magic in the throes of a cynical world.