Being the Random Yarns of Emily Cotton, Merry Scrivener of Fact & Fiction Historical, Animal, & Minimal to Amuse, Inform, & Enlighten.


O Christmissed tree

I just put up our tree. It was a nice little commercially farmed grand fir (whatever kind of tree that is) and it put me in mind of an old Christmas tradition from when our kids were small.
It started because we had spent the first few days of Christmas visiting relatives. We came home on Christmas eve, and I for some reason assumed that I could pick up some leftover tree from the tree lots, really cheap.
But alas, when we got home, it turned out that all the lots were closed. All the remaining trees locked up behind yards of temporary chain-link fence. Our three kid’s faces looked so woe-begone, my husband and I decided to get creative.
In our front yard towered a forty-foot Deodar cedar. The kids and I had often imagined how fun it would be to decorate the thing from top to bottom as an outside decoration, using beach-ball-sized ornaments. Well, in a crisis, that deodar was going to have to serve the purpose. But not on that scale!
Jay went out to the back yard and found a waterlogged, broken –off fence-post in the woodpile. He got out his trusty drill, plugged it in (this was back in the last century when all drills had cords) and proceeded to make that old post into Swiss cheese with three or four sizes of drill bits, while the kids and I and two sets of tree-clippers went at the lower branches of the deodar.
By the time Jay had his holey post mounted on a homemade stand, we were ready. The kids and I chose branches of about the right diameter and stuffed them into the holes. An especially large frond was jammed into the big hole on the top of the post, and viola! Our tree.
It was a beautiful tree, absolutely fresh and piney-smelling, without a gap or bare spot, and best of all, every branch was solid enough to support the assortment of gaudy toys that passed for ornaments – even the rather heavy one of Captain Kirk sitting on his bridge seat, kirk ornament
–which our youngest thought was a toilet.
From that point on, that was our tree tradition. There was no tree for sale that ever could compare to our ‘artificial’ tree. Whenever visitors admires our lovely fresh tree, my kids used to slyly ask, “What kind of tree do you think it is?”
“Scotch pine?”
“Guess again.”
“Noble fir?”
After several repetitions, they would burst out, “We MADE it!”
And then the whole process would be explained.
At some point, termites finished consuming the post, and I succumbed to the ease of just buying a tree. But the memories linger.

On the Importance of Telling the Truth to Your Spouse

Howard and Doris went on a senior cruise. Of the many activities, the one they enjoyed most was a toastmaster’s club that met in the evenings. Everybody would put a topic on a slip of paper, fold it, and drop it into a hat. Then people would be chosen at random to speak. Each would have to take one of the topics from the hat, and speak on that topic for five minutes.

Four days into the cruise, the ocean got choppy, and Doris felt seasick and retired to their cabin, Howard was going to stay with her, but she urged him to go to the toastmaster’s club without her. So, since watching somebody throw up is not the pleasantest thing, he gave her a Dramamine and went.

Wouldn’t you know it, that evening he was chosen to be a speaker. And the topic he pulled from the hat was ‘sex’. Howie held forth in fine form, perhaps the better because his mate was not present.

When he got back to their cabin, the sea had settled down and so had Doris’ stomach.

“Did you enjoy yourself, dear?” she asked.

“It was okay,” said Howie. “Um—I got picked to speak.”

“Really? What topic did you get stuck with?”

Howie thought of the uproarious laughs he got on some of his cruder points, and was struck with belated embarrassment. “Boating,” he said. “I had to speak on boating.”

The next day, some members of the toastmasters approach Doris and Howie at breakfast. They told Doris that Howie had been the best speaker of the night. This pattern repeated itself throughout the day—everybody complimenting him again on how funny and witty Howie’s presentation was.

Doris became more and more puzzled. “I just don’t understand how Howie could have filled five minutes on that subject,” she said to the admiring group. “After all, he’s only done it twice. The first time, he got sick; and the second time, his hat blew off!”

Boys’ Versus Girls’ Trick-or-Treat Habits (continued)

The first experimental subject (unbeknownst to him) to arrive at my door was Darth Vader. On being offered the choice of a package or a big candy bar, he hesitated long enough for two other groups to pack up behind him. Then he picked the package. So did Tinkerbelle, a Space Man, and a small tiger with a painted face. The latter gave me my first statistical problem of the evening: was it a boy or a girl?

I guessed ‘boy’. But so far, EVERYONE had picked the package. What was I to make of this? The alternative was a big bar, a sure thing.

Lesson one: they had a bag full of candy. Regardless of the size, the bar was just more of the same. The package, however, represented a novelty, and was therefore more desirable – at least on this candy-crammed night.

Which is why my toothbrushes were received with great joy this Halloween, as I knew they would be.

But back to my study, which was beginning to show serious flaws besides the fact that gender is not always discernible when a child is in costume.

The next group was not so surprised to see the two baskets. Almost all the girls went for the packages. But half of the boys (I think they were boys) chose the candy bars. This trend intensified throughout the evening. by the time the last few items were gone, my chart was showing boys always choosing the sure thing, and girls always taking the risky package.

What was going on here?

So I threw scientific protocol to the wind and asked the next group. It seemed that the word was out all up and down the street that the big blue house was giving out something unusual. You see, the kids didn’t wait until they got home to open their packages—they tore them open as they walked, and everybody got to see. And then, if they didn’t like what they had, they tried to swap with somebody else.

What was skewing my results were all those girly items—particularly the makeup samples. The boy’s items were perfectly acceptable to a girl, but not so the reverse! And they couldn’t always be traded. So the boys quickly perceived it as a very risky choice – literally choosing between a sure – if overabundant – thing in the candy bar, or the 50-50 likelihood of getting the equivalent of a lump of coal in the stocking: the dreaded mascara sample! While the girls would get something unusual and fun, either way.

I can’t even remember what grade I got on my project, although I do remember it being the case-in-point for the Professor to discuss using controls and double-blind setups. But I did learn to think very hard about the context of a thing before coming to a conclusion on cause and effect.

Tricks versus Treats

Last Tuesday’s sugar orgy is often decried as the triumph of the evil candy industry over parental common sense. But consider the other side of the coin: all-saint’s day, the first of November, and the days that follow. I think we should celebrate ‘all-satiation day’ – the beginning of a week’s worth of learning opportunity which is a blessed part of childhood in our culture.

 I speak of the perils of too much of a good thing.

 When the dear little trick-or-treaters came to my door this past Tuesday, I gave out toothbrushes. Now some people, on hearing this plan, thought that the children would feel tricked. I knew better, thanks to a class I took back in the stone ages of Experimental Psychology.

 We were studying statistical ranges in groups of people (doesn’t that sound boring? It was.) and every student was supposed to design some study or survey involving 30+ individuals and then crunch the numbers to wring some sort of meaning — and hopefully a good grade– out of them.

 Most students opted to design a questionnaire to be given to some other class. This was too dull for my taste, but where would I find a statistically sufficient number of individuals for my term project?

 Then the Great Pumpkin lit a candle in my gourd. Was it not the Fall quarter? I bethought myself of all the little experimental subjects who would be knocking at my door on the 31st of October. All I had to do was think of some experiment that would involve no parental ire.

 I decided to measure risk-taking between males and females. To prepare for my experiment, the month before I haunted dime stores and thrift stores, snapping up all kinds of small trinkets and toys like pencil sharpeners, bubble-blowers, rubber snakes, plastic pearls, jacks, koosh balls, and the like. Plus my friend, who sold Avon, gave me a large supply of makeup, lipstick and mascara samples. I figured I had the items evenly split between male and female interests. Once I had a hundred, I wrapped each one in enough newspaper to disguise its shape and tied the package with twine.

 Then I got a hundred candy bars – not the mini-bars that are usually given out on Halloween, but the full-size ones. The candy bars went in one basket, and the paper-wrapped objects in another. The kids would have to choose between the sure thing—a full-sized candy bar—and the risky anonymous newspaper package.

 I readied my chart, listing boys on one column and girls on the other, and waited for the fateful night.

From Pallor to Post

I confess: I have been a neglectful blogger. This is not news to anybody who reads my blog regularly. So my apologies to all four of you.

As everyone who knows me is well aware, I am always good for a story if anyone has a minute. Get me started, and I have a mental file of anecdotes hours long. As long as you keep laughing, I’ll keep going. But my preference is oral storytelling: I like to have my victim(s) pinned down where I can see their eyes, the better to gauge whether I am amusing them. With practice I have even become sensitive to that glazed-over look people get when I have gone on too long, or the shifting side-to-side glances of a trapped animal desperate to escape. Moreover, in person I am able to gesture to illustrate points (I have nearly put out an eye or two doing this at the dinner table with a utensil in hand), lower my voice to a whisper as needed by the moment, and then blast unsuspecting listeners with a rise in volume. This is fun.

Writing is fun too, but prose is so much more permanent. Posting on the web is akin to getting a tattoo on the abdomen: It’s going to be there forever. If you chose the subject carefully and it was executed well, it looks pretty and for a while you are proud of the result. But eventually you are going to get tired of the thing, the ink will fade and—oh horrors—you might change sizes and the memory of where you were remains indelibly imprinted across your belly in sagging or stretched ugliness.

And you can’t hide a blog post with a T-shirt.

Which is why I go pale with terror at the idea of how permanently I can wedge my foot in my mouth online. Nevertheless, I fully intend to gird up my loins (has anybody ever done that? Well, now that I have worn renaissance-era kirtles, I have) and commit myself to posterity. I resolve to put something up every Friday, come Hell or high water.

There. Now it’s all over the internet. The four of you can hold me to it.


of flexible saddles and filthy socks

Today I was at Tap Plastics, a local company that retails all kinds of plastic materials. And as usual, I found myself telling stories to the young clerk. You see, she didn’t remember Bob Whitehead, the deceased owner of Tap Plastics, and there were some memories about Bob that were worth sharing.

I spent over a week getting to know Bob very well, in the way that you get to know others in your party in the wilderness. Bob was one of a group that approached me to provide pack llamas for their four-stage expedition down the John Muir Trail.

Up until then, we had never really taken people out in a commercial sense. We’d just packed a lot so we could sell pack-trained llamas. Of course, we usually took some of the kid’s friends, or our friends, or people to whom we had sold a pack llama. But we’d toyed with the idea of outfitting. Then this group asked if we could field enough llamas to take twelve people on an eight-day trip from Tuolumne Meadows to Devil’s Postpile. And due to the season, Yosemite National Park (where we would be for the first three days) required us to pack feed for the animals as well as the people.

I added it up and came to needing 12 animals. Which we had, if we added in all the two-year-olds (with lighter loads due to their age). The problem was, we didn’t have 12 packsaddles. We had exactly 4.

I had always wanted to try a flexible, weatherproof saddle made of polycarbonate plastic. So I came up with a design featuring a pair of curved strips bolted together in a kind of wishbone shape, two sets connected by lightweight aluminum bars, front and back like the traditional mule sawbuck. Every point where anything connected to anything else, we added a D-ring to the bolt. I was weary of packsaddles with no decent lash-points.

The saddle worked. The top of the wishbone kept the load off the llamas’ prominent vertebrae, and it fitted all size animals snugly because it flexed, but was still stiff enough to stay in place without sliding around under their bellies. But oh my, what we didn’t know about working with plastics. Our saddle corners were sharp enough to cut yourself on; the polycarbonate had heat bubbles where we bent it, the places where we drilled holes for the bolts were all developing ‘star fractures’, and we needed to work with a lighter gauge. Kind providence sent Bob Whitehead, the man who knew more about the stuff than anyone else, to watch our prototype in use for eight solid days and tell us how to better construct the design. What are the odds of that?

Thanks to Bob, our next version of those saddles lasted us 12 years.

But that wasn’t what I was telling this young lady about. My story of Bob Whitehead is one of kindness and consideration.

You see, in Yosemite and other popular backcountry trails much plagued with bears, hikers are supposed to pack their food in these bear-proof plastic canisters. And one of our company had the brilliant idea that he could make his own using 4” diameter PVC pipe and screw-on caps. At the trailhead he proudly produced a bunch of these things to be packed onto the llamas.

The problem was, they wouldn’t pack. For three days, the slippery things worked their way out from under every possible strapping arrangement to go bounding down the hill for somebody to retrieve. Then a pair of panniers became empty (the group ate 40 pounds of supplies every day), so we used them to carry the miserable ‘cylinders of doom’ (as we took to calling them when the inventor could not hear).

The failure of his clever plan began to wear on the pipe-bearer. Bob was an encourager by nature, and he set out to find some use for those sections so that bringing them would not be a complete waste of time. On a layover day at Thousand Island Lake (where we saw a bear-proof canister lying in ten feet of crystal-clear water, but that’s another story) Bob finally found something they were good for: washing socks.

To discover this for yourself, all you need is an 18” section of 4” pipe, a pipe cap for the bottom, some detergent, and some really dirty heavy socks. fill the pipe half-way with water, add the soap, and plunge each sock up and down several times, and wring out the water. Repeat once for each day the socks have been worn. Rinse in the same fashion. Lay out on rocks to dry in the sun.

Bob washed all the socks for all twelve of us. At the time, it was something we joked about, because Bob made it so funny we couldn’t help it.

I have my useful, functional saddles to remember Bob Whitehead by. But when I think of him, the first picture that springs to mind is Bob—who was probably the wealthiest person on that trip—on his knees above Thousand-Island Lake, following his master’s example and caring for his friends’ filthy feet.

Worst flight ever, part 2.

So there I was on an old military jet, my civilian maternity garb in bright contrast to the row of dress uniforms perched on the uncomfortable canvas seats along the walls. Across from me, the cadets whose companion I had bumped from the flight kept glaring at me and shouting comments into each other’s ears, which fortunately I could not hear over the roar of the engines and the plugs in my own.  My son was doing gymnastic flips, alternating right and left, top and bottom. (Before I was pregnant, I only knew of that area as ‘guts’. But childbearing acquainted me with my interior spaces: Liver above the uterus on the right side, spleen on the left. Bladder below, but that I already knew about.)

I had brought a book—Watership Down, as I recall—and determinedly set myself to read by the light from the window. The desperate peril of rabbit-Hazel and his literary companions distracted me from the discomfort from Washington to Kansas, more or less, interrupted by frequent trips to the head (that’s ship-talk for bathroom).

The head nearest me was to the front of the plane, up three steps, with the door opening outward. Bad design, I thought, every time I opened the thing and had to go down one step to keep my belly free of the swing. The throne occupied pretty much the whole space, set broadside to the door. However, it was considerably more comfortable than the saggy sling-seat, so every time I went (which was often, given the advanced state of my pregnancy) I stayed as long as I could, reading.

Three hours into the flight, it became too dark to read in the seats. It seemed that the regular lights didn’t work, and the emergency strips were not bright enough. Fortunately, the light in the head did work, and my book and I made ever more frequent trips down the echoing center of the plane. Now the plane was entirely dark, except for the flash of me opening and closing the door on the head.

I was ensconced on the throne, absorbed in the literary troubles of Hazel and his friends, as we crossed the Mississippi. And hit turbulence. It wasn’t the worst turbulence I’ve been in. It wasn’t even all that bad. But it was not only the seats on that plane that had seen better days—the latches were tired, too. And at that moment, the door-latch to the loo broke, and the door flew open. And shut. And open. Exposing me, seated broadside on the can, frantically grabbing for the handle that flapped just out of reach.

Imagine the scene: forty soldiers sitting, bored, in the dark, with no conversation due to the roar of the engines, and nothing to look at except green emergency lights—until now: there, elevated at the front, the only lit spot on the plane, is the lone woman, her maternity smock barely covering such as can be seen of her butt, with the turbulence turning the scene into a strobe of stop-motion glimpses of female mortification.

After several minutes, I decided to bare all, popped off the can and grabbed the door. Held it shut with one hand while pulling up my –elastic-waist maternity pants with the other. Then sat down again and stayed there, holding the door, until the second-in-command pounded on the door and bellowed that it was time to land. I marched back to my seat, face burning, eyes front as though on parade, determinedly refusing to meet any glances from the lines of uniformed passengers hunched against the walls.

But I knew they were grinning one and all.