Offtheshelf's blog

Cleaning out the junk drawer

This past Sunday morning arrived with the hint of autumn in the air ... and the promise of Patriots football later in the afternoon. But what to do until then? Don't want to get into any heavy duty project. Hmmm. I know, clean out the junk drawer!

Every kitchen has one. It's the drawer that accumulates everything. Every odd item that doesn't quite belong somewhere else ends up in there. And once a year it's time to clean it out. So, I made a pot of coffee, poured myself a large cup, opened the wooden blinds on the window nearby to throw some light on the situation, and then pried open the overstuffed drawer.

First it's important to come up with a plan of attack. I decided to remove everything from the drawer and then place the items on the stovetop, arranged in some sort of order (making sure, of course, that the stove was off). Paper clips, rubber bands, expired pizza coupons, chinese food menus, unsharpened pencils, scissors, quarters, dimes, nickels, keys, more scissors ... so this is where all the scissors disappeared to! ... missing checker pieces, more keys to unknown locks, pennies (drat, no wheat cents), long forgotten notes, a broken piece of something that may have been one of the kids' toys at some point (it's hard to tell), an old cell phone,  pens that no longer work, old health insurance cards, a screwdriver, shoe laces, various screws and bolts (hence the screwdriver, I guess), a thing that looks like it belongs on some piece of plumbing (or possibly the space shuttle), a couple of photos, fingernail clippers, a ruler, an empty scotch tape dispenser, and yet another pair of scissors! Anyway, you get the picture. A half hour and another cup of coffee later the drawer is neatly arranged, opening and closing without much effort, and I'm thirty minutes closer to kickoff.

And what is the moral of this story? Well, there really isn't one ... it's just a simple slice of life piece (a rather lukewarm one at that) that works its way around to remind you that after you've finished cleaning out your junk drawer, you might want to read a good book. Might I suggest anything by HP Lovecraft ... you'll just have to trust me on that one (creepy stuff - I doubt Lovecraft ever cleaned out his junk drawer).

Until next time I just have one question ... has anyone seen my scissors?

Jack Sheedy

Waiting on the Pleiades

Out of doors tonight I watch the Big Dipper off to the north, scooping up the cosmic void. To the east rides a waning gibbous moon, its right limb hidden in shadow. Somewhere to the northeast rises the Pleiades, lost behind trees, seven "new stars" enveloped in the misty cloud of their birth. It all happens as it should. Month after month. Season after season. Year after year. In an uncertain world there is something calming about the familiar constellations and the silent phasing of the moon.

Tomorrow marks the fifth anniversary. Five years. Five long years. Back then, the Big Dipper was scooping, and the Pleiades was rising, and the moon was phasing as it is tonight, yet our minds were on more earthly things.

As we remember the victims of 9/11, let us also remember the victims of 2/26 (the first World Trade Center bombing on Feb 26, 1993 in which six were killed and 1,000 injured), and the victims of 12/21 (Pan Am 103 bombing on Dec 21, 1988 over Lockerbie, Scotland - 270 dead), and the 17 victims of the USS Cole on Oct 12, 2000, and the US embassy bombings on Aug 7, 1998 . And, certainly, let us remember those American troops who have been killed and wounded.

Someday, the Pleiades will rise over a peaceful world. Until then, we'll keep waiting.

Jack Sheedy   

More Kelp, Please

Over the Labor Day weekend I reached my mid-40s. With one sleepy sunrise I suddenly found myself, let's say, beyond my younger years. Fifty is now looming in my rear view mirror, the gas tank is half empty, and my tires are low on air. Oh, and the left tail light is out.

With the achievement of age one starts to ponder what rests ahead. This is what I'd like to see happen over the second half of my life:

NASA - Let's get going to Mars! Heck, 40 years ago we were racing for the moon and now we're having trouble launching a space shuttle into orbit. Sure it's going to cost trillions and trillions of dollars to get there, but think of all the "space age technology" we'll reap along the way. Let's not forget that the cordless drill, modern athletic sneakers, and freeze-dried foods all came out of the Apollo program!

Hubble Telescope - Charge the batteries! How can we let this wonder of technology go dark? The thing can just about see clear back to the Big Bang -- the very beginning of the Universe! I'd personally pay as high as $20 for a ticket to see that.

Middle East - Let's relocate the whole Middle East to a cooler climate. I really think the heat and humidity has something to do with all the crankiness and bickering.

Greenhouse Gases - I vote that we reduce them. I also vote that we combine the two Dakotas into one state, move Hawaii closer to the mainland, and allow Texas to become its own country.

Washington & Lincoln - I say we give them back their own separate holidays (let's face it, they earned it). And on Calvin Coolidge's birthday we should all get to go home from work one hour early.

Major League Baseball - The game needs to be sped up. I propose we change the song to "one, two strikes you're out at the old ball game."

Kelp - We all need to start eating more kelp - after all, it's rich in iodine and alkali. There are vast quantities of this "sea lettuce" growing in the ocean depths. Of course, that means we'll all need to grow gills and flippers.

Jack Sheedy

Nothing Funny About the Laffer Curve

Out on the mail route today I noticed a front door mat that read "Bach Later ... Offenbach Sooner" and which was adorned with images of musical notes. It made me chuckle, mightily ... well as mightily as a postal carrier is allowed to chuckle while out on the route. Of course, to understand the joke, you have to know of German composer J.S. Bach (1685-1750) and French composer J. Offenbach (1819-1880) and then surmise that the owner of the dwelling is a listener of classical music.

It reminded me of a funny situation years ago. I was working at a Cape bank during the late 1980s and one day I found myself helping a coworker named Franz package up mortgage loans for sale on the secondary market. Franz had a list of all the mortgage loan folders we were expected to locate. At some point I asked, "Has anybody seen Franz's list?" to which a sharp person nearby answered, "I think he's been dead for the past hundred years." Of course, to get the joke you have to be familiar with Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (1811-1886).

Getting the joke is a big part of life. And sometimes to get the joke you have to know your German and Hungarian composers. At times we laugh when we don't get the joke  - just to be polite. And at other times we don't laugh even when we get the joke - just because we may have a stomach ache. It's all very complicated.

So, what does all this have to do with the Laffer Curve. Nothing at all, really. Sometimes things aren't supposed to make sense. In fact, there really isn't too much funny about the Laffer Curve. I first heard of it back in the early 1980s in a college economics class. It's a bell curve named for an economist named Arthur Laffer which explains the optimal tax rate a government can charge its citizens before the tax collected begins to drop off. According to economic folklore, Laffer drew the curve on a napkin over lunch with other economists (apparently Dick Cheney was also present at this historic luncheon). It is not known what Laffer had for lunch that day, whether it was the turkey club, or the soup and salad special, although some believe it was a tuna sandwich.  Cheney had pastrami, although he didn't touch his coleslaw ... to which Laffer asked, "Are you going to eat that?".

Let's face it, economics is not a funny topic. It's the science of supply and demand, which may make the world go round, and thus dictate domestic and foreign policies, but it's painfully dull. Thankfully God created economists to deal with all this stuff so the rest of us can kick back and listen to Bach and Liszt in peace. 

There really isn't anything funny about the Laffer Curve. Bach later ... Offenbach sooner ... Now that's a gas!!

Jack Sheedy - Head Economist

A Tale of Two Worlds

Ever woken up one day to find that the universe as you once knew it has changed? The day before it looked one way, and now it looks entirely different.

Such is the case with Pluto.  Discovered back in 1930, she became the 9th planet and that's how she remained until just a few days ago when she was demoted from what astronomers are now calling the "classical planets" (Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, etc) to what they now refer to as a "dwarf planet." Which makes me question, in the wonderful world of Walt Disney, if Pluto is a dwarf does that mean that Snow White now has Eight Dwarfs? Which leads me to question, can you name the Eight Dwarfs? (Answer below)

So what makes a planet a planet? I know it has something to do with its size, shape, and orbit. For instance, in terms of size Pluto is smaller than a number of our solar system's moons, including Io, Titan, Europa, and our own moon, Luna. Also, Pluto's shape is not quite round, due to it small mass, and its orbit is oblong, which of course is a great embarrassment to any decent celestial body.

But what else makes a planet a planet? Well, let's look at our own planet earth. Here on earth we have about 6 billion people, seven continents, four major oceans, the Olympics every four years, motion pictures, DVDs, iPods, laptop computers, fast food restaurants, traffic jams, major league baseball, mail delivery, prepackaged applesauce, air conditioning, an electoral college, hurricanes, global warming, and Labor Day weekend.

Pluto has none of these, but its days are 6.4 earth days long and its year is equal to 248 earth years. Man, the work week on Pluto must seem to go on forever! By the time Thursday rolls around you must be ready to go out of your mind!

On earth we have NASCAR, the Big Dig, the Mass Pike, Mars bars, Milky Way bars, Chunky bars, Snoopy, Garfield, Big Bird, Congress, the Supreme Court, hanging chads, hanging ten, ten pin, candlepin, pin the tail on the donkey, Democrat, Republican, Independent, undecided. Pluto, of course, has none of these, but it has three moons - Charon, Hydra, and Nix - and is located 39.5 Astronomical Units (AU) from the sun ... that's 39 1/2 times further away from the sun than earth, or 3.7 billion miles!

On earth we have the Weather Channel, HGTV, CNN, ABC, CBS, local news, world news, terrorism, and war.  Pluto, on the other hand, has an icy surface, an average surface temperature of -380 degrees F, and an atmosphere of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, and methane. This last bit points to the possibilty that Pluto has organic material, in which case some millions of years from now a race of Plutonians could rise up and take over the solar system. Of course, most of us living today won't be around when this happens.

As for the eight dwarfs, they are: Sneezy, Sleepy, Grumpy, Dopey, Happy, Bashful, Pluto, ... oh, and Doc.

Jack Sheedy

Recalling St. Elmo's Fire

Back in the Summer of 1981, when I was 18 years old, I was headed home from a beach party late at night (or, rather, early in the morning) - motoring my way north from Dennisport up Main Street into South Dennis village. At the time I was driving a temperamental '67 Mustang, windows down, radio going, as I passed the Town Offices and rambled over the old railroad tracks that crossed the road there in those days ...the tracks have since been removed. Anyway, it was late and the sky foretold of an approaching electrical storm. It was a magical night - earlier there had been a lunar eclipse, or at least, that's how I remember the sequence of events now 25 years removed from that memorable evening.

Just as I crossed the tracks I hit the brakes and glided to a crawl and then a dead stop. Looking up ahead I saw the most remarkable thing in the sky. Then I realized that it wasn't in the sky, but rather hovering atop a nearby telephone pole. It was a light - sort of blue-green in color - just sitting atop the pole. I turned off the radio - there was no sound, except the very distant, faint kettle drums of thunder. Staring for a few moments, alone on Main Street of the sleeping village, not another car in sight, I realized that what I was seeing ahead of me was St. Elmo's Fire. I had never seen it before ... and have not seen it since.

At the time, my awareness of St. Elmo's Fire came from Moby Dick, when Captain Ahab appears to conjure up the light while sailing aboard the Pequod in a storm. It is strange that I should witness this odd light while in such an old sea captains' village as South Dennis - a light her former resident mariners no doubt saw upon their many briny travels. The light's relationship to things nautical is well documented and, in fact, the "fire" is named for an Italian bishop named Elmo, or Erasmus, who is considered the patron saint of mariners. Its presence was considered good luck, as if St. Elmo himself was watching out over the voyage.

Webster defines St. Elmo's Fire as "a flaming phenomenon sometimes seen in stormy weather at prominent points on an airplane or ship and on land that is of the nature of a brush discharge of electricity." For more information on St. Elmo's Fire, inquire at the reference desk of your local library ... reference librarians live to research just this sort of stuff! It'll really make their day!

Incidentally, Webster defines the word temperamental as follows: "marked by excessive sensitivity and impulsive changes of mood: High-strung, Unpredictable" which perfectly describes my old Mustang, which seemed to spend more time in the local garage than on the road!

Jack Sheedy

Pluto or not Pluto?

To be a planet or not to be a planet? That is the big question circling the sun these days. Suddenly the Pluto debate is back on the astronomical front burner ... and all us veteran cosmic rockers down here on the 'good planet earth' can do is sit by and wait for the outcome.

Today's big news is that not only will Pluto remain a planet, but that Pluto's moon Charon might also be categorized a planet, as might the asteroid Ceras (located somewhere between Mars and Jupiter) and the odd little celestial body 2003 UB313 (nicknamed Xena - I guess after the female warrior) out beyond the orbits of Pluto and Charon. What a wacky solar system in which we live. Instead of losing a planet, the new heavenly scheme would add three new ones. Gustav Holst better get busy composing!

I, for one, am glad that Pluto will most likely remain a planet. I don't like people messing around with my concept of the heavens. Life is tough enough without people telling me that what I once thought was a planet is now just some celestial rock! Next they'll be telling me that the universe just sort of happened one day out of some sort of big bang!

But enough about Pluto. Let's talk about Mars. Mars - the red planet, our cosmic twin, darting about across our night sky and occasionally going retrograde on us. But can we trust her? After all, she's often been associated with "war" and evil doings. Even Holst's "The Planets" refers to Mars as "The Bringer of War"! Perhaps that's the source of our earthly problems right now - too much Mars and not enough Jupiter and Venus.

Yet, Mars isn't all bad. She gets a bad reputation because she hangs out in a bad neighborhood of the solar system near the asteroid belt. Why not visit Mars for a spell and decide for yourself. Stop by your local library and check out one of these classic books (among my favorites): H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds," C.S. Lewis' "Out of the Silent Planet," and Ray Bradbury's "The Martian Chronicles." Wells wrote of Mars during the late 19th century, while Lewis and Bradbury wrote during the mid-20th century. Their take on the red planet is quite different, from Wells' warriors in tripods to Lewis' peaceful Malacandrians. And with Bradbury you'll be surprised to discover who is revealed as the "Martians" as reflected in the waters of a martian canal.

And while you're reading, cue up Holst's "The Planets" on your CD player. "The Planets": Mercury - the winged messenger; Jupiter - the bringer of Jollity; Saturn - the bringer of old age; Uranus - the magician; Neptune - the mystic; Mars - the bringer of war; and Venus - the bringer of peace. What would one compose about the planet called Earth? Perhaps all of the above ... and then some.

Jack Sheedy

Speaking of Tuna Fish

In reference to my earlier posting about the hot weather of last week, my son informed me the other day that temperatures on the sun can get as high as 15 million degrees. He read that factoid off a Snapple bottle cap, so it must be true.

Since we're talking of celestial things, in case you haven't had a chance to look up into the night sky lately, the moon is full and the Perseids meteor shower is scheduled for this weekend (weather permitting - rain date is September 5th). To learn more, check out the Earth & Sky website at www.earthsky.org (Skywatching Center)

There's a rumor going around that Mars is going to appear as large as the moon in the night sky. Also, there's a related rumor that aliens have taken over the bodies of news anchors on all the major TV networks. I know for certain that the first rumor is false. (Again, see Earth & Sky)

Speaking of tuna fish, an old friend popped down for a visit Sunday just before noontime, so we broke into the supply of tuna cans we've been hoarding downstairs in the cellar (back a few months ago when the bird flu was poised to wipe out half the population on the earth we were all warned to stock up on tuna, water, and toliet paper ... in that order). We feasted on those tuna fish sandwiches like there was no tomorrow. Hmmm, maybe we should buy some more tuna, just in case....

Jack Sheedy

 

On the Road - Part 4

Cape Cod has Cape Cod Potato Chips, Fort Wayne has Edy's Ice Cream.

Friday - Indiana. Headed out at noon along Route 69 north, then briefly onto the toll road toward the Ohio line. Lots of billboards for fireworks and cigarettes. Paid the toll and entered Ohio. Along Route 90 viewed cornfield after cornfield after cornfield. Red barns with gray grain silos. White barns with old, rusted silos. Gray weathered barns with boards missing here and there. The scene conjured up music of Aaron Copland - Simple Gifts, Shaker Theme - which I began to whistle as I peered across the fields toward the distant horizon. A small family plot at the corner of one cornfield told of generations that worked those particular acres over decades, perhaps over the course of a century or more. It makes one think ... Eyes back on the road! 900 miles to go!

Ohio gasoline prices ranged from $2.77 to $2.92. As we paused briefly at some exit to use the facilities I noticed a sign along the road announcing that nearby was the birthplace of President James Garfield. I recalled a story that one of his last official acts before his assassination was to issue the go-ahead to relight Bass River Light at West Dennis.

Made our may through Cleveland - home of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame - and continued on toward the state line. Just before entering PA we noticed an amazing sight. A rig heading westbound was hauling a flatbed carrying some sort of long, metallic item, perhaps 50 feet or more in length, seemingly aerodynamic in design, twisting slightly like a cruller, and tapering somewhat to a pointed end. What was it? I thought. Then we saw another rig with a similar flatbed carrying yet another 50-foot metallic cruller. My mind quickly processed the images I was seeing and my eyes quickly scanned ahead to see if there was a triplet coming, for I believe they do indeed come in threes. As the two disappeared beyond the range of my rear view mirror (a third never made its appearance) I gathered that what we had seen were two large propeller blades of a wind turbine.

 Saturday - A horrible day for driving. After leaving Buffalo with coffee in our cup holders (and our trusty Pop Tarts) we hit torrential rains that did not let up for some three hundred miles ... until we had reached Springfield, MA. It was like driving through the Portland Gale! Gas prices steadily increased as we made our way eastward, reaching $3.00/gallon, then $3.02, $3.04, and $3.06 along the Mass Pike. By the way, what's the deal with the 9/10 tacked on to the price of gasoline? Like $3 something isn't enough to pay, we also have to deal with the 9/10! By the time we came down on the other side of the Bourne Bridge, the price is up to $3.07, but we were all happy to be back on good old Cape Cod.

One final fact, Fort Wayne is 960 miles away from Cape Cod ... and vice versa.

Jack Sheedy

On the Road - Part 3

Wednesday - Fort Wayne, Indiana. Morning. A little reading (CS Lewis) and a little writing (about a futuristic police state that controls its population through propaganda and misinformation - it's a love story). In the afternoon visited a bookstore where I found Edward Gorey's book Ascending Peculiarity on the bargain shelf at 60% off! The woman behind the counter seemed genuinely interested when I mentioned that I used to see Gorey back in the 1990's eating lunch at Jack's Outback in Yarmouth Port. He would eat there every day, alone, in silence, normally while reading a book. It was understood that you were never to speak to Mr. Gorey, although once, and only once, he actually nodded a sort of  "hello" to me. I was tempted to say something like, "Hello, Mr. Gorey," but instead merely followed his lead and nodded back. Thus was my brief encounter with the great Edward Gorey (1925-2000).

Thursday - I watched the Weather Channel, feeling helpless, 960 miles away, as a tropical storm bears down on good old Cape Cod. The feeling reminds me of two books I read years ago - Douglas Adams' Hitchhicker's Guide to the Galaxy and Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles - in which characters are far away from their home planet and experience a deep longing to return. After a little writing, and a large lunch, head out with family to the Allen County Fair. Lots of cows, horses, llama, swine, goats, rabbits, etc, etc. It's a real old fashioned county fair - heavy on livestock and agriculture and light on rides and games. Perfect for the rural environment in which I presently find myself. I enjoy the 4-H displays, and find myself impressed with these country folk - young and old. Family, community, and religion form the foundation of their lives. Back at the ranch, we prepare for our final night, packing up, there's even talk of a card game. Two days of travel ahead, with Cape Cod on the other end, cast out into the mighty Atlantic.

Cape Cod / Fort Wayne facts: Cape Cod has fiberglass whales on its streets, Fort Wayne has fiberglass mastodons (one was discovered excavating the campus of IPFW); the Cape has/had the Cape Cod Coliseum, Fort Wayne has the War Memorial Coliseum; Massachusetts has hurricanes (and tropical storms), Indiana has tornadoes; Boston is home to "Cheers," Fort Wayne is home to Shelly Long (the actress who played Diane on Cheers).

Jack Sheedy

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