Every night when I’m putting on my CPAP mask I think of Dennis Hopper as Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. This rather defeats the mask’s purpose of helping me sleep.

  • [NB*: GPOY is shorthand for “gratuitous picture of yourself.” It’s Tumblr-speak.]
  • *NB is an abbreviation for the Latin† nota bene, or “note well.”
  • †People who insert Latin into stupid photo posts are unbearably pretentious. As are people who resort to using dagger symbols to explain it.

Cultural crabs

My first Maryland crab experience.
I’ve lived in Maryland for almost three years, and never had crab boil. (In fact, I don’t even know if that’s what it’s called, but let’s pretend.) Last night at a corporate dinner we were served a couple of bushels of steamed crabs and given wooden hammers — carefully branded with the Hyatt logo — and told to have at it.

In truth, I wasn’t impressed. Not that I didn’t like the taste, because they were good. I just prefer not to have to work quite so hard for my dinner. But if was fun to see my frustrated coworkers taking hammers and beating the ever-lovin’ hell out of some coincidentally-named crustaceans.

Oh, and I’ve been told that crabs are only good when eaten out of a paper sack with friends, while drinking beer. So I may yet give them another try.

Feed your Robot Brain

skull-profile---plainSome of you may have noticed an uptick in the number of posts coming out of Hidden City. I’ve started an experiment to help me keep track of topics of interest to me, some of which may also be of interest to you. I use several services to collect and share information online. Two of the main tools are If This Then That (, and Pocket ( IFTTT excels at taking information from one of my feeds — Instagram, for instance — and saving them somewhere else — like Hidden City. I constantly come across links that look interesting on Google+, Facebook, Twitter, mail lists, Hangouts, et cetera. Since I have not yet found someone who is willing to pay me to read nonsense on the web, I need a place to save them for later. And oddly enough, you may share some of my peculiar interests. To this end I’ve created a new section on Hidden City: Brainfeed. You can subscribe to it with whatever program you like, or just visit the page. It”ll be a sporadically published highly eclectic stream of stories about weird science, gadgets, interesting photos, human interest, and anything else striking the rather large target of my fancy. These posts will not appear in the regular Hidden City feed, which I am trying to keep focused on the more personal essays and stories which have formed its heart for the past decade. For the moment, anyway, the Brainfeed items will show up in Facebook:  Hidden City and Tumblr’s Curio City (and the Hidden City Twitter feed, if anyone is following it any longer). If you find this useful, let me know, and if you have suggestions for ways to feed my brain, so much the better.


Church at twilight with invisible fireflies.A few weeks ago I met a friend for an after-work drink and a burger in Friendship Heights. We had a nice time; Jake’s is a good place, and the conversation was lively, with lots of laughter.

Around twilight I walked her back to her nearby home. The sidewalk was canopied by trees that blocked the first few drops of a light rain, emphasizing the sparkles of a scattering of fireflies in the shadows, and across the lawn of the church.

Under the trees, several fireflies drifted into my path, occasionally even hovering in front of me. While we stopped to look at them, I held out my hand, palm down. One of them flew toward me, alighting on my hand. It extended its wings a few times, then settled down. As we resumed walking, it stayed in place, randomly flaring into yellow-green light. We were both amazed that it was so comfortable riding along with me.

We left the canopy of trees, and I blew gently across my hand, sending him flashing back to join his friends in the night. The rain picked up a bit as we approached her house, so I said goodnight and turned back the way I came.

My spirits were high as I strolled along the sidewalk, pausing under the leafy canopy to watch the rain. I knew it was going to rain harder, but I didn’t want to hurry. A little rain wasn’t going to hurt me, and it was too pleasant an evening to ruin by dashing across rain-slick streets. I drew a few odd looks from couples huddled under their rainbow umbrellas, but I didn’t care.

Most of the fireflies moved out of the drizzle and back under the trees. It felt good to see their lights, reminding me of my childhood and evenings spent chasing lightning bugs across my grandparents’ yard. A Miracle Whip jar waited on the porch, holes considerately punched in the lid with a screwdriver, furnished with a handful of grass to provide them with the comforts of home. Before morning, of course, any captives would have vanished; I have always suspected my grandmother was complicit in their daring escapes.

As my thoughts drifted along the years, I held out my hand again, checking to see if the friendly insect wanted to accompany me on my return stroll. I was a bit surprised when one landed, but even more surprised when another soon joined the first. I raised my right hand, and soon there were five, blinking intermittently on the backs of my hands, advertising my presence.

I was afraid to move — almost afraid to breathe, lest I break the oddly tranquil spell. The analytic portion of my mind wondered what might be on my skin that would prove irresistible to fireflies; the mystic portion considered sympathetic magic and wondered if my reflective mood was drawing fireflies from my past. I watched them crawl across my skin for several minutes, thinking.

The weather stepped up from evening shower to minor rainstorm, and the trees stopped providing any shelter. At the same time I remembered a need for a grocery visit on the way home, and decided that I didn’t want to wander through the frozen food aisle soaked to the skin. I lifted my arms, and watched the fireflies lift off, flying into the foliage overhead.

A couple of nights ago I saw a scattering of lightning bugs in my yard. I thought of Kentucky, and mayo jars, and long-past mercies. I also thought about a twilight moment under the trees in front of a church in DC. There’s magic in our childhood memories, of course, but there’s also magic in our everyday lives.

Age of Miracles

Touching the moon.

Sometimes, when the events swirling around me threaten to become overwhelming, I force myself to take a moment to clear my head, to pause, to reflect. In spite of the complexities of the world and the naked aggression of modern culture, we live in an age of wonders.

For less than $10 I can take the train downtown to the National Mall, and walk a couple of blocks to the National Air and Space Museum. It’s a huge building, as you’d expect for a space filled with planes and rockets and capsules and stuff. But my favorite place is right at the entrance: a narrow metal pillar with an opening on each side at about waist level. There’s never any line here, with most people being overawed by the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo capsules arrayed in the room.

Inside the pillar, embedded in a circle of white plastic, is a smooth triangle of black basalt. You can reach inside and slide your fingers over the cool surface of the stone. It is not intrinsically remarkable. Without the sign, you’d never know you were touching a piece of the Moon.

A piece of the Moon, of the damned Moon — no, a piece of the fucking Moon! Sitting in the entrance to a museum, open for all visitors to touch, and largely ignored in favor of the shiny missiles and worn down capsules and IMAX movies and gift shops and other marvels created by the hands of Man.

I stood in front of the pillar, my left hand under the protective Plexiglas, my fingers lightly stroking a piece of another world. A middle-aged Japanese couple approached from the other side, and looked puzzled by the item on display. The gentleman looked at me quizzically, and asked where the rock had gone. I explained to him that the unremarkable black stone I was touching was a piece of the Moon. He turned to his wife and said something to her, and her eyes lit up. I withdrew my hand, and she tentatively slid her own into the opening. As her fingers gingerly touched the glassy basalt, her face broke into a huge smile. She excitedly said something in Japanese, grabbed her husband’s hand, and pulled it in with hers. Together, they rested their hands on the surface of the Moon.

Whether we know it or not, we live in an age of miracles.

(Among others, for Kim Boekbinder.)