looking over my shoulder

Everyone has their private rituals of relaxation: a glass of wine, a cup of cocoa, a walk in the woods, a frivolous novel, a spree at the shoe store, a mountain hike.

My private relaxation ritual is… different.

After a long stretch of hard work, my brain simply locks up; hours after turning in a big project (or, as it happened this week, two big projects), I’m a dazed and blinking fool.

In the aftermath, I don’t need comfort. I need catharsis. There’s nothing quite as effective for me as getting safely scared silly. This might mean turning out all the lights and watching a stack of David Cronenberg films, or reading Lovecraft, or waiting until night and reading everything on wikipedia that makes me curiously aware that the bedroom door just… behind… me… is… open. And creaking.

For whatever reason, there’s a particular category of stuff*, an upsetting intersection of medical and mythical, that I find particularly unnerving. And by “particularly unnerving,” I mean it makes all the little vellus hairs on my body stand on end.

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In an email some months ago, Jagosaurus pointed me toward Stuffee… and I still haven’t forgotten it. Nope.

What’s Stuffee, you ask? Oh, joy:

Stuffee is a one-of-a-kind ambassador for health. He is a super-sized doll with a zipper down the middle of his chest and abdomen. When the zipper is opened you will find all of a human body’s internal organs.

Wuh? But! But! Why?

Well, for a good reason, actually:

Stuffee is used to teach about the human body and how it functions. In addition to learning about organ and tissue donation and the human body, children in pre-kindergarten through grade 4 can also listen to Stuffee’s heartbeat, take his pulse, and hold soft sculpture reproductions of the heart, lungs, intestine, stomach and other organs.

Look. Um.

I’m in favor of organ donation. I’m an organ donor. I support organ donation awareness. To sum up, “Yay, organ donation!”

But for days after first laying eyes on Stuffee, I had nightmares about a small child unzipping his outsized torso, from just below his blank embroidered smile all the way down to his featureless crotch, and watching glistening meaty innards tumble out onto a nameless museum’s playroom floor.

But that’s not quite as bad as the other nightmares, the ones in which a pigtailed girl crawled into Stuffee’s hollow gut and somehow zipped herself up inside. In the dark. The dark inside Stuffee.


ice cream chocolate chip son-of-a-&!%*#wich

ice cream sandwich
curse-inspiring cookies
Once in a great while, you have a bite of food that so transports you, that so delights your tastebuds, that (not to put too fine a point on it) tastes so #^@%ing good you just have to swear. When faced with perfection, the imperfect human resorts instinctively to rage.

These cookies may trigger that atavistic urge to rage. They have no business tasting this good, and I’m both angered and thrilled that they do.

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Finally, our long transnational nightmare comes to an end: researchers at Leeds University have perfected the bacon butty.

Scientists have created a mathematical formula of how to make the perfect bacon butty. […]
Four researchers at the Department of Food Science spent more than 1,000 hours testing 700 variations on the traditional bacon sandwich. […]
The formula is: N = C + {fb (cm) . fb (tc)} + fb (Ts) + fc . ta, where N=force in Newtons required to break the cooked bacon, fb=function of the bacon type, fc=function of the condiment/filling effect, Ts=serving temperature, tc=cooking time, ta=time or duration of application of condiment/filling, cm=cooking method, C=Newtons required to break uncooked bacon.

Just a little something to get you revved up for this weekend’s Sandwich Party.

the lilac tree

I vividly remember my sanctuary in the lilac tree. It grew in the corner yard of our old house, the house we left shortly after my seventh birthday. Low on the tree where the many branches met there was a small hollow, a recess just the size of a tiny child. I would curl up there warm in the wooden heart of the lilac. The canopy of leaves screened me from view and the fat bumblebees droned and looped around me.

From my little haven, I could peep out sleepily on all the ruckus of our street, the kids whizzing by on their bikes, the high-schoolers jostling past, all elbows and bookbags. The scent of the buds dropped over me like a sweet blanket, and I would drowse and muse for hours, snug in the tree’s embrace.

Memory is so slippery, such a greased weasel soapy little runt, squealing and skittering out of grasp glossy and chimerical beastie, that to ponder it too long invites madness… or philosophy, madness’s respectable cousin. But childhood memories are particularly complicated constructs, deserving of special meditation. Most children find the distinction between the fantastic and the concrete blurry at best, and are already scrambling frantically to make rough sense of most of the realities that cascade around them, much less of the phantasms that flit through their pliant and voracious minds.

But my lilac tree…

A few years ago, I mentioned this peaceful retreat to my oldest sister, and she replied, puzzled, that it couldn’t be so. I can’t remember now: did the lilac tree have no such hollow, or was it simpler still — that there was no lilac tree in that yard? Either way, in a moment I came to realize that one of my fondest memories (and one of the only secrets I had in that big, busy house) was perfectly and flatly untrue, a childhood fantasy.

The second oddest thing about this memory: the instant I told my sister about the lilac hollow, before she even had time to crinkle an eyebrow, I found myself thinking how unlikely it sounded. A hollow in the tree trunk just my size? I crawled into it with no fear of worms or centipedes or bees? No one ever saw me there, or found traces of bark or dirt, or scrapes on my tender little legs? I slept there for hours, and no one looked for me?

The very oddest thing: even as my sweet, fragrant memory disintegrated in the telling, its sweetness remains undiminished. I remember the heady scent, the rough kiss of the bark on my shins, the green of the heart-shaped leaves swimming around me, the dozy bees dipping and humming. I remember the deep peace I felt, cradled there between the branches. It wasn’t real, but it was real.

related: Are my childhood memories real? at Ask Metafilter; when I grow up; the ontology and epistemology of childhood; I, robot.
I am participating in NaBloPoMo.

For the ages

The Grim Reaper age estimator consistently assesses me as ten years younger. I could pretend that student life keeps me fresh and hip, but we all know it’s the hopping, the hopping, the incessant hopping that makes me look like a goofy kid.

Can you guess a stranger’s age? I’m woefully inaccurate, unless I perceive the stranger to be objectionably dressed or groomed, in which case my ability spikes eerily. Odd.

Are you a sweet widdle baby on Jupiter?

The graphic representing the sudden and astonishing popularity of my first name (which, N.B., is not Elsa) will crush you all!* See how popular your name has been over the decades, at The Baby Name Wizard.

*When I was 17 and working in retail, I was routinely assaulted by chastizing maternal voices scolding me. “[Elsa], put that down!” Each time, I would spin around, startled by the vehemence of her order, only to find it was yet another mother speaking (of course) to her five-year-old daughter.

A couple of years ago in a college classroom, I was musing over the popularity of the same name for the 18-year-olds sitting around me; it was not uncommon to have three or four of us in a 50-person class. Then I was truck by a jolting realization: these 18-year-olds were the same generation as the five-year-olds. I’m the one who’s fifteen years late.

The ontology and epistemology of childhood

As children, we have so little concrete information about the world, and such a random collection of experience-based learning, that we construct oddly poetic worldviews and beliefs.

Some of these misconstructions of knowledge have their origin in semantic misunderstandings. Having been told repeatedly by our parents that we could be anything when we grew up, I decided at about age 4 that I would be the Pope. (We weren’t a Catholic family, and I had not the faintest idea of the Pope’s role; I just liked the hat.) Given the same sort of encouragement, my sister N. eagerly looked forward to becoming a circus bear.

Other childhood misconstructions are simple mechanisms for coping with common fears. Like many children, I believed a) that the night was filled with horrors, looming unseen in the dark, hungry for my innocent self; b) that keeping my head under the blankets protected me from these monsters. As an extension of this logic, and based on I-know-not what previous evidence, I further hypothesized that c) if I kept my head under the covers and held my breath for exactly sixty seconds, I was safe uncovered for the rest of the night. Although I cannot claim that my hypothesis was proven, it surely gained credibility as, night after night, no monsters attacked.

Ah, childhood beliefs. Some are just plain silly, some are quite touching, and some have the strangely comforting Lynchian quality that pervaded my own childhood.

I had a strange fear that if I closed my eyes in the bathtub, William Shakespeare would come up through the drain and kill me. I knew his name, but I had no idea who he was, so I just naturally assumed he was some sort of bathtub vampire. —– Dan