Dec 112009

One of my earliest memories of my father was of him showing me a rope trick. It wasn’t much of a trick, but I was only about four, so it was pretty impressive. He laid out a length of rope on the floor and sent a traveling sine wave down the line.

When I was about five, I graduated to tying knots with my father. He had a book about knots that we would use as a guide. Before he went into law, he worked in the copper mines in Butte, Montana, and so had hands-on knot experience. He even showed me a knot that wasn’t in the book, a way of terminating a line with a double loop. This was a rescue sort of knot, to be lowered to a person below from someone above. The person below would put their legs through the loops and grab onto the standing part of the line with both hands, then be pulled up.

There was one knot that seemed to flummox us both; the Monkey’s Fist. Years later, I figured out how to tie it, and I don’t really understand why it seemed so difficult in the first place. But as a child in the late 1960’s my knowledge of male role models besides my father was limited. I remember gently goading my father about his inability to tie this knot; “I’ll bet Mannix could tie a Monkey’s Fist.”

I still remember that book, as it was something that my father and I enjoyed together. I remember playing some sort of made-up game by myself in which I filled a cloth or burlap bag full of things and took them into the back yard. I left the bag outside and of course it rained and the book became water damaged.

Years later my father showed me a trick he called “throwing half-hitches” which is sending a loop down a line which is secured at the other end. The idea is that if one is about to haul a timber or something heavy, the extra hitches help hold the line to the load.

By the time I got to high school I was fascinated with Houdini. The whole fascination with rope and knots was re-awakened, but by this time was superseded by my interest in locks and lock picking.

When I moved to Seattle and became a pharmacist I had enough income to indulge in bibliophilia. By and large, I would buy really unusual books, but I was also intrigued by the notion of “overstock” or discounted books which you often see at large chain bookstores. I went through a phase where I bought several books on knots. Not that I really had a genuine need for such books, just that the whole subject seemed sort of topologically esoteric. Eventually I realized that there was ONE book which really covered the subject: The Ashley Book of Knots, by Clifford Ashley. Once I had that, there was really no more need to buy any other book on the subject! Yet I would often come across other books on knots, usually at a discounted price, and it got me wondering. Why was it that there were so many books on knots?

I also played chess, mostly in high school, but it was something that I never kept up with. I began to notice the same pattern; there were lots of books on chess moves out there! Again it began to puzzle me, it seemed like these were subjects which were relatively esoteric, like knots and chess moves, in which the supply of books on the subject probably exceeded the demand.

It took me many years into adulthood to come up with a theory of why this is. My theory is simple; knots and chess moves cannot be copyrighted or trademarked! As long as you don’t directly plagiarize the text or the artwork, the fundamental content is already out there. Yes, I acknowledge that chess is vastly more complex than knot tying, but still, a great body of information has already been published, usually broken down into simple components.

For many years television had a fascination with WWII. It finally dawned on me that most of the archival footage was in the public domain, and thus the production costs of the program could be kept that much lower.

Sometimes the public domain nature of certain kinds of information is even made explicit. I remember reading the introduction to a book of ghost stories; the author had to plead with his readers not to re-sell or re-tell the stories as their own!

The Internet has changed everything, of course, and we are only seeing the beginning of what is clearly a revolution in information technology. But as far as books go, there sure are a lot of books on knots and chess moves out there…

 Posted by on 12/11/2009 Opinion Comments Off on The Monkey’s Fist and the Sicilian Defence
Dec 102009

Years ago, I went with my friend Kim Thayil down to the Showbox to catch a performance by Leif Garrett. I think Kim mostly wanted to join up with Krist Novoselic, who I think was going to be there. Kim and I ended up being late, and it seemed to me that the show also ended early.

This would have been in the mid to late 90’s, and I think Leif Garrett was involved in some sort of musical comeback at the time. Kim, Krist, Krist’s girlfriend Darbry, and Leif Garrett all roll down to a bar nearby after his show ended. I think Jeff Gilbert was there as well. Jeff ended up co-owning Seattle’s fabulous Feedback Lounge. I mostly ended up talking to Darbry, as I was impressed with how smart she was. But of course I was fascinated with meeting Leif Garrett; how could a guy like that possibly match what his public image was in the 1970’s? I hardly remember what we talked about, except his retelling of some sort of Hunter S. Thompson anecdote involving drugs; cocaine I think.

But it all got sort of weird and memorable when the subject of conversation turned to cell phones and microwaves. Seemingly out of nowhere, Garrett tells me what sounds like a landmark urban legend; that if one places two Nokia brand cell phones together when both are broadcasting, that enough heat will be generated to melt the phones. “Dude, they run on microwaves, it’s like a microwave oven” was his technical explanation.

I countered that a microwave oven produces on the order of a thousand watts, whereas a cell phone transmits in milliwatts, a MILLION fold difference in power. Now I must admit, These days I’d probably do some fact checking if I was to seriously assert something like this. But given the circumstances, I would probably say the same thing again.

I can’t remember his response, and knowing me I probably argued with him about it for a while. I never met up with Leif Garrett again, so my memory of him has this strange twist associated with it. Later, I saw an episode of Behind the Music about him and learned of his drug-crazed history. He seems to have hit a rock bottom some time back which was chronicled here.

I wonder what brand of cell phone he uses…


 Posted by on 12/10/2009 Personal History Comments Off on Microwaves, Leif Garrett, and Nokia Phones
Dec 082009

It’s cold outside. So cold in fact, that it reminds me of the time I got frostbite.

I grew up in Missoula, which doesn’t get as cold as some of the other cities in Montana, like Butte. My father was from Butte, and he would regale me with stories of how cold it would get. I think he told me it was -64 Fahrenheit on his birthday once when he was a child. The all time record cold temperature in the contiguous United States is -70 Fahrenheit set at Rogers Pass, MT on January 20, 1954. But the coldest I ever remember Missoula getting was a relatively balmy -20 Fahrenheit.

When I was in high school I used to ice skate. I followed my father’s lead and chose to use speed skates rather than the hockey skates that all the other boys used. Back in the 1970’s, the primary “rink” was a pond at McCormick Park. The pond was fed by an irrigation ditch that was itself fed by the Clark Fork River. This led to a bit of a problem in that the flow from the ditch would change over the course of the winter, and would cause the pond’s surface level to change. Huge cracks would develop in the ice. The parks department was utterly clueless on how to take care of an ice rink, and would only flood the surface of the rink once or twice a season, if that. They would NEVER scrape the ice shavings off the surface. When they would flood the rink, it was with a fire hose, not a garden hose, which resulted in huge wave-like ripples on the surface. When you were out skating you would have to do your best to avoid the huge cracks, simply by memorizing where they were and try to avoid them.

But to their credit, the parks department had erected floodlights, so people could skate at night. They put in a big loudspeaker and played the radio.

“Blinded by the light
Racked up like a douche
You know a runner in the light
Some silico-sister with a manager, mister
Told me I got what it takes…”

There was usually an adult attendant in the warming house. I remember one time going out to skate on a Friday or Saturday night. As I came inside to change into my skates this college-aged attendant asked me: “Why aren’t you out on a date?”. Yeah, way to go guy, thanks for making me feel even worse about never having been on a date with a girl…

The speed skates had no insulation. They were simply one layer of leather. I assumed that keeping my feet warm was my own problem. I tried all sorts of combinations of materials. I remember getting some silk socks which were very thin and formed the first layer. Then it was usually ordinary socks, then wool. I remember getting some “space age” type socks which I believe were basically aluminized Mylar woven into some other fabric. The whole “space blanket” thing was very popular back in the 1970’s, and I think these were some sort of funky byproduct. They didn’t keep my feet warm worth a damn.

I had heard that you could put powdered chili pepper in your socks and it would keep your feet warm. One night I tried it, putting the powder in my socks before I took off for the rink. My parents allowed me to drive the family car, a wretched French Renault 12. When I got to the rink I found it was closed! Well, my parents didn’t expect me back for a while, so I decided to visit my friend JC, and older guy who drove a cab. He lived out at the Shady Grove Autel, a collection of rental bungalows in a dodgier part of town. By the time I got to JC’s my feet were burning, as they hadn’t been exposed to the cold. I don’t remember that he was home, either! I never tried the hot chili powder trick again…

Eventually I came to expect a pattern; I’d get out on the ice, my feet would get painfully cold, then they would stop hurting because they would go numb. Then it would be OK. I’d skate for an hour or two. When I’d finish skating, I’d change back into my shoes, and the feeling in my feet would come back.

One time I went skating and everything went as it normally did; my feet got painfully cold, then numb, then I kept on skating. But this time it was different. I changed back into my shoes and got into the car. Driving back home I began to grow concerned; the feeling in my feet still hadn’t come back. By the time I got in the house I was quite frightened.

Not knowing any better, I filled my sink with hot water and alternately put each foot into the basin. That still didn’t work. I went upstairs into the study where my father was reading. I told him what was going on. He didn’t seem particularly agitated, but suggested I had frostbite. He said what I needed to do was put my feet into a tub of COLD water, then very slowly raise the temperature. But of course my mother had to get in on the action. She became rather frantic and called a friend of hers who was a nurse. The nurse said to put my feet into LUKEWARM water. Now my father knew this was bullshit, but our family dynamic was all fucked up, and only rarely did my father ever put his foot down to stop my mother’s irrationality.

So into a tub of lukewarm water my feet go. Soon enough sensation in my feet started to come back. But not in a nice way. So here I take full responsibility for my own actions; because I had initially exposed my flesh to HOT water, my nerves were screaming out in pain. I kid you not; this was arguably the most intense physical pain that I’ve ever experienced in my life. Worse than breaking my arm falling off a wall in LA. Worse being hit in the eye with a rock thrown by that drunk asshole in front of Charlie B’s in Missoula. Worse than any skateboard fall. Worse than Sheli Story’s right hook to my eye.

The pain was so bad that I called my friend Elliott who worked at the Trail Head sporting goods store. I thought he might have some magical cure my father didn’t know about for the excruciating pain. He kind of laughed it off, and suggested whiskey, which was not an option for me at that time and that place.

Frostbite is no joke. If you feel your hands or feet start to go numb because of the cold take warm shelter as soon as possible! If your extremities have been numb for more than a few minutes, and the feeling isn’t coming back, put them in COLD water. VERY SLOWLY warm them back up. If you plan on spending significant amounts of time exposed to the cold, investigate frostbite and hypothermia and be prepared.

The last time I was in Missoula there was no more ice skating allowed at McCormick Park. What do Missoula kids do in the winter these days? Probably just play video games…

 Posted by on 12/08/2009 Growing Up In Montana Comments Off on Frostbite