Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

November, 2015:

Samples from the Box of No Return

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I’m packing my office closet, and realized that The Box of No Return was overflowing. So in order to exercise my tesselation superpower on it, I had to upend it on my office floor and repack it from scratch.

I hadn’t done that in a very long time.

You may have a Box of No Return. It’s downstairs from the Midwestern Junk Drawer, hidden behind the Jar of Loose Change. It’s for stuff you know damned well you’ll never use again, but simply can’t bring yourself to throw away. A lot of it may be mementos. Some of it is just cool. Most of it could be dumped if you were a braver (and less sentimental) man than I.

I took some representative samples and laid them out rectilinearly on the carpet for a quick photo. Behold my 1970s Xerox photo ID, 3,000 yen of Japanese folding money, a Wizard of Speed and Time button, a tooth from a cow–and a couple of dead crowns of my very own. Name badges from obsolete callsigns, Comdex buttons, a 2708 EPROM without the quartz plate over the chip, a packet of real gold leaf, a sealing wax candle from my early correspondence with Carol, ROTC insignia, and two of the weird little HP thingamabobs that I still haven’t identified. (Scroll down to the February 9 entry.) There’s a shell case from the 21-gun salute the VFW fired at my father’s funeral in 1978, Carol’s GT membership badge (mine has been lost) and lots of keys for locks long forgotten. (I did find the keys for my Kennedy toolchest in the garage, so I guess it’s The Box That Asymptotically Converges on No Return.) There’s a Space Shuttle rubber stamp and my Iguanacon badge, to stand in for the 20-odd con badges in the box. The red cylinder is a medium-format film can, into which the Fox Patrol crammed a reasonable first aid kit in 1965, and won the prize for best first aid kit.

I tossed a couple of things, like my SFWA membership badge. SFWA wanted to get rid of me for years for not publishing often enough; I saved them the trouble. Rot in irrelevancy, you dorks; I’m an indie now, and making significant money. Some promo buttons were for products I couldn’t even recall, and they went in the cause of making room. But most of it will go back in the (small) box, and it will all fit, with room to spare for artifacts not yet imagined, much less acquired.

If you have a Box of No Return, dump it out on the floor every few years. (I haven’t been through mine since the mid-90s.) You may be surprised what’s in there. I was.


Before we left our Phoenix house in September, we arranged for a great deal of work to be done, and spent these past ten days down there making sure it all got done. And it did. Paint throughout, cabinet work, drywall work, and a new air conditioner in the single-bay garage (which will be my mad scientist’s workshop until I build a better one) among many other, smaller things. While we were there we had all the trees on the property trimmed to civilized proportions, had the AC vents cleaned, and had an interesting business called Seal Out Scorpions come out and, well, seal out scorpions by filling cracks and running matte-finish transparent silicone around the edges of all the wall plates. Those guys are into scorpions on a total lifestyle basis, and I learned a great deal about the little bastards just listening to scorpion guru Mike Golleher walk us through the seal-out process. They glow under UV, but I’m sure most of you knew that. (Didn’t you?)

Tourist shops around here sell lollipops with real scorpions in them. You probably didn’t know that.

The real mission was to make sure the house was ready to receive the Big Truck of Stuff, which is scheduled to arrive there on or about December 15. So we vacuumed and mopped and stacked spare floor tiles in the slump-block shed, collapsing into bed a little after nine every night. Oh, in truth we collapsed after spending half an hour in our hot tub, which made the collapsing all the more pleasant…especially on the night we knew Chicago was getting 16 inches of snow. I drew the outlines of my several workbenches in blue painter’s tape on the floor of the small garage. We figured out how to use the washer and dryer. We did not figure out–entirely–how to use the Nest thermostats, but they’re impressive in one slightly unnerving way: When you walk past one, even a couple of feet away, it wakes up the display. When this happened at 6 AM in a dark house, I jumped.

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As aerobic as the trip was, we lucked out in a major way not once but twice. I had selected Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 as the successor to our increasingly cranky 2011-era Droid X2 phones some time back, but by the time I did, the inferior Note 5 was out and carrier shops around here no longer sold Note 4s. While shopping the Scottsdale Costco, I spotted a Note 4 on display at the smartphone kiosk. Assuming it was just display leftovers, I asked one of the kiosk guys if they still sold Note 4s. He looked up inventory, and sure enough, there were six of them on the shelves. Sold! said Jeff. We walked out with what amounted to a pair of unlocked phones on the Verizon network, which I’ve seen named as having the best coverage in the Phoenix metro area. At any time we can pay off the balance on the phones and take them elsewhere. I’m not used to that kind of deal in the smartphone world; perhaps the universe is now unfolding as it should.

The display is gorgeous, and although the upgrade to Lollipop (no scorpions!) ate up a spectacular amount of data, we’re very pleased with the phones. I’ll have more to say about them here once I’ve had a little more spare time to poke at them. Such time has been scarce; patience, patience.

Our second bit of luck was even stranger. Carol was going to supper with her friend Jan, and on the way to their favorite Paradise Bakery, they passed Oasis Waterbeds up near Scottsdale Road and Mayo Boulevard. Out of the corner of her eye Carol saw what looked disturbingly like a “Going Out of Business” sign in the front window.

Whoops. We shopped there in August, and had decided to order a waterbed as soon as we got down there for the winter. Carol and Jan took a quick detour and confirmed that the store was half-empty, with inventory going fast. Carol cranked up her Note 4, buzzed me, and told me to get my hindquarters up there Right Damned Now.

A bit of backstory: Carol and I had a waterbed all the 13 years and change we lived in Scottsdale, and when we sold the house, the buyer asked if we’d sell him the bed. We decided to try the new Sleep Number technology when we got up to Colorado, and have been using that ever since. Sleep Number works well, but on balance, we both prefer the old waterbed. With growing alarm, we realized that there were only a handful of beds left in stock, and just a couple in Cal King. Had we waited until mid-December, there might have been none at all. So we bought one on the spot, for delivery December 17.

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Getting the rest of our Colorado house into boxes by December 9 is going to take everything we’ve got, so I expect to be scarce here, as much as there is to say. In closing, I must show you the Einstein Brothers coffee cup I got the morning we had breakfast there, at 64th and Greenway. Evidently Einstein’s has signed The Crawling Eye to be their holiday mascot for 2015. This would be a problem, if anybody but me remembered The Crawling Eye. (Hint: It was Forrest Tucker’s big film debut. Then again, since nobody but me probably remembers Forrest Tucker, that won’t help much.)

Kick Ass. Just Don’t Miss.

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I haven’t posted much lately. Hey, how many more times do you want to hear “I threw another metric shitload of stuff into boxes”? That’s been my life, more or less, for several weeks.

Well, today, I was packing books and other things in my office into boxes (yet again) and happened upon the little box of things that came to me from my father: his gas company tie tack, a Lane Tech prom favor, his Holy Name Society lapel pin, one of my grandfather’s medals from WWI, his WWII service medal, his Ruptured Duck, his corporal’s stripes, and finally–by then I had to reach for a Kleenex–his WWII dog tags.

My father signed up for the Army the day after Pearl Harbor. He was 19. He wanted to be in the infantry, but he had a crooked leg and a limp and didn’t qualify. The Army told him to finish his freshman year of college at Northwestern, and told him there’d be a spot at radio operator school waiting for him in June. There was some grumbling, especially since he hated the accounting curriculum his father had browbeaten him into taking, but so it was. That June he went to Scott Field in southern Illinois, and became one helluva radio operator. He was in the AACS, and could copy Morse in his head at 30+ WPM and hammer it out on a beat-up Olivetti mill all night long. He had a job and threw himself into it with everything he had–it was his way–but what he really wanted to do was shoot Germans.

This always puzzled me, and it had nothing to do with my ancestry–or his. It took me decades to figure it out, and I had to dig for clues in a lot of odd places. He told a lot of stories, and I heard a few more from my mother and Aunt Kathleen, his sister. Once I was in my forties and had put a little distance between myself and my father’s long, agonizing death, I could deal with the troubling reality: My father was a wiseass, a snot, a fighter, a dare-taker. He was suspended several times from high school for fighting (and once beat the crap out of a much taller kid after the kid had stabbed him in the stomach in wood shop) and took a fifth year to finish. Limp or no limp, he had at age 45 broken up a fight in Edison Park single-handed, while my little sister watched in astonishment. He was literally throwing teenaged boys in every direction until they quit beating on a smaller boy at the bottom of the pile. Limp or no limp, he dove into deep water once and hauled a drowning man back to shore under one arm. (He was all muscle, and swam like a shark.) I used to think of him as brave, but no: He was fearless, and that is not the same thing.

To be brave is to do what you know you have to do in spite of your fear. To be fearless is to just wade in and kick ass, damn the consequences. There were consequences, like six stitches in his stomach and being held back a year in school. I hate to think what might have happened if he had made the infantry. I might have ended up being some other man’s son.

He knew this, of course, and as I grew into my teens I think he was trying to guide me away from fearlessness and toward bravery, not that I had ever shown the least measure of fearlessness. (One of his weirdest failings as a parent was this unshakable assumption that I would grow up to be exactly like him.) He had a saying for it: “Kick ass. Just don’t miss.” The lesson was not to let fear paralyze you, but instead let it calibrate you. Fear can turn down the volume on your enthusiasm and force you to take stock of your resources and your limitations. I got that, and have done as well as I have by balancing enthusiasm with discernment. Only one other piece of advice from my father (“If you’re lucky and smart you’ll marry your best friend”) has ever served me better.

As I’ve mentioned here a number of times, our house is positioned on the slopes of Cheyenne Mountain such that we can hear the bugle calls (and cannon!) from Fort Carson, two miles downslope. We hear taps most nights, and I realize (now that most of the house is at last in boxes) that I won’t be hearing it a great many more times, and almost certainly not again on Veterans’ Day. Tonight I will go out on the deck again and salute both the brave and the fearless, my father and countless others who have kicked ass in the service of their countries. Some missed, many didn’t, and the lucky ones came home to tell their stories and raise their (sometimes peculiar) sons.

I am by no means fearless, and I sincerely hope that I never have to be truly brave. However, if I ever have to kick ass, I will. And thanks to a man who knew the difference between bravery and fearlessness, when that time comes, I will not miss.

Halloween and Entropy

So another Halloween is now history. It was an absolutely gorgeous Saturday in Colorado Springs, sunny and in the low 70s all afternoon and early evening. I kept a mental tally of how many groups of kids came to the door. Care to guess?


Ahh, well. Nothing new there. Like entropy, Halloween is not what it used to be, and knowing what we now know about sugar, that may be for the best.

You don’t buy nine candy bars at a time, so Carol and I ate far too much chocolate for dessert this evening–and not great chocolate either. It was the Great Big Bag of Mega-Mass-Produced Miniature Candy Bars ‘n Things. I picked the bag clean of Rolos and Nestle’s Crunch. Carol grabbed the Reese’s peanut butter cups. Tomorrow the rest of the bag goes to the big candy bowl over at Canine Solutions. Every year it’s more or less the same: I remember how much I like Rolos, I eat a few too many of them, and then I won’t have them again until next Halloween.

Man, that’s a familiar routine.

This year’s Halloween brought to mind one of my favorite years: 1964. I was 12. It was the last full year before puberty’s hormone storms began washing over my gunwales, though I could already hear its distant thunder. I had discovered electronics–and the Beatles. My father was healthy. We had a summer place, on a lake. Better still, Halloween was on a Saturday…and it was warm! I could run around as a Barbary pirate without three sweaters under my costume.

I got together with a couple of my friends and we ranged all over the neighborhood, going blocks and blocks afield, and I ended up with a pretty fat bag of sugar. Diversity was the order of the day. There were lots more species of candy in the Halloween ecosphere back in ’64. Most of it was good. Some items I liked more than others. A few I wouldn’t touch, like the almost inexplicable Chicken Bones. I would have traded them to my friends for Smarties (which, alas, now give me headaches) except that they didn’t want them either. Ditto Mary Janes–wouldn’t touch ’em, though I remember getting a Turkish Taffy from my friend Art as swap for a handful. Individually wrapped Charms were about, if not common, though more common than the peculiar but compelling Choward’s Violets. And Snaps! Loved those, more for the not-quite-spicy coating than for the underlying licorice. The small red Snaps boxes all had “2c” printed in very big letters. Small boxes of Atomic Fireballs and Good’n’Plenty could be had here and there. I remember one house handing out very stale conversation hearts, from the previous February or possibly earlier. There used to be individually wrapped Chuckles, which I haven’t seen in a lot of years, as well as short rolls of Necco Wafers. I broke a tooth on a Necco wafer when I was in high school, and haven’t done them much since.

Every so often somebody would be passing out pennies. Meh–I got whole dimes rescuing returnable soda bottles tossed into empty lots. There was a house down on Hortense that was giving out flyers about Lutheranism along with Tootsie Pops. The nuns at our school were very hard on Luther, who was painted as the chief Protestant supervillain, though he got off easy compared to Arius, who according to Catholic legend was eaten alive by worms. And hey, nobody hands out fliers about Arianism, with or without Tootsie Pops.

I think you get the idea. We didn’t throw rolls of toilet paper into trees or anything like that, because it was a bad use of our time. We were in it for the sugar, and we all knew that Halloween on a Saturday was something we would not see again for seven years, and with summery weather, well, in Chicago probably never.

My sugar buzz is now almost gone, and it’s pretty much time to go to bed. I don’t eat a lot of sugar, and you’ve all seen my rants about how sugar is making us all fat. It’s not me being inconsistent. It’s about the notion of celebration, and how if we celebrate something for too long, that which we celebrate becomes ordinary, and loses its magic. If I ate Rolos all the time I’d get tired of them, and fat to boot. So I eat them once a year. Halloween is as good a time as any, and allows me to remember the buzz of being not-quite-grown at a time when kids could tear around for an afternoon without adult supervision, and no one would freak out. Like warm Halloweens on Chicago Saturdays, such will not be seen again for a long time, if ever.