Why Does My Wrist Hurt?

Not too long ago I celebrated a big birthday. Okay, it wasn’t really that big. It didn’t end in a zero or anything, but it did feel kind of significant only because once upon a time I read Douglas Adams’s funny little five book trilogy that begins with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

hitchhiker'sI even reread the first book in honor of the occasion. I’d forgotten what a trip it is. The book, which started as a BBC radio play, is unapologetically weird and wildly imaginative. If you haven’t read it, you probably should, if for no other reason than just so you can catch all of the pop culture references you’ve been missing for years. It’s a pretty quick read, and you’ll learn how useful it can be to travel with a towel, why you should have more respect for mice, and of course, the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.

It’s this last bit that convinced me to pick up the book again, because I recently turned 42, which according to Adams, is the answer to that ultimate question. There’s been a lot of speculation from fans over the years as to why Adams, who died in 2001, chose the number.

Some suggest he was paying homage to Lewis Carroll who included the number in a variety of ways in his works, including Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which in this writer’s humble opinion, should probably not be read at all.

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Good advice for 42-year-olds as well as intergalactic hitchhikers. photo credit: artnoose Don’t panic with blue envelope via photopin (license)

Others suggest that it is mathematically interesting because it’s a pronic number, an abundant number, and sphenic number, which I’m sure is super exciting to those who speak mathematics a bit more fluently than I do. Quite recently it also became the last possible number under 100 to be expressed as a sum of three cubes, a solution which much like the answer 42 in the book, was many years in the making and came about as the result of an awful lot of worldwide computing power. It also led to a fair bit of excitement for the people who get excited about such things.

If Adams had some grand and elaborate reasoning behind his choice for the number in the book, he wasn’t telling. He said he chose it because it seemed like a funny number. And that really probably is all there is to it.

Personally, I was hoping for a little wisdom from it. I mean from reaching the ripe old age of 42, not from the Douglas Adams’s book, which is most useful for the clever jokes.

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Douglas Adams, the man behind the universe’s nerdy obsession with the number 42. Michael Hughes [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D
In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the second most powerful computer that will ever be spits out the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. The problem is that no one knows the question, so the most powerful computer that will ever exist is created. Complete with a biological component, this computer is called Earth, and it gets demolished in preparation for the construction of an intergalactic highway seconds before it spits out the long-awaited question.

Now, I’ve given this a lot of thought. The series does go on to reveal that the question is “What do you get if you multiply six by nine?” which I do speak enough mathematics to realize is a pretty funny punchline. But in all my gathered wisdom from my 42 years on this supercomputer we call Earth is that the question is more likely one of the following:

Why is it now such a struggle to lose a few pounds?
Why am I tired by 8:30 every night?
Why do I cry when other people’s kids leave for college?
Why does my wrist hurt?
Why, even though I feel a little bit more rundown than I did at 15, or 25, or 37, or even 41, do I also feel a little bit wiser?

Granted I don’t know what it’s like to turn 42 on any other planet out there in the wider universe so I can’t say for sure that it’s the answer to absolutely everything, but right now, 42 feels like a pretty good age to be, and I suppose contentment is as good an answer as any to the question of life.

Dirty Man in the Snow

In 1925, Greek photographer and geologist N. A. Tombazi, while on a British Geological Expedition in Tibet, saw something kind of strange. At an altitude of about 15, 000 feet, Tombazi’s local guides pointed out an unexpected shadowy figure two to three hundred yards from camp that looked to the photographer like a lone man, casually picking at bushes and lumbering through the snow.

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Looks legit to me.

The figure was moving away and soon left the sightline of the expedition party, but Tombazi investigated the location to discover what looked to him more or less like human footprints, clearly left behind by a bipedal creature. He made the assumption that what he’d seen was in fact some sort of traveling hermit, but his guides were convinced they’d spotted the creature the press had dubbed, “The Abominable Snowman.”*

The impressively catchy name had come from an imperfect translation of a sherpa’s account in 1921 when another expedition led by Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Howard-Bury stumbled on some strange footprints in the Lhakpa La region of Mount Everest. The local guide used the creature’s Tibetan name, which more closely translates as “dirty man in the snow.” Howard-Bury attributed the prints to an orangutan (unlikely) or an overstepping wolf. Despite his local companions’ insistence, he did not believe what he’d seen was evidence of a yeti.

He might not have been too far off with his wolf assessment. The yeti has been the subject of folk tales throughout the Himalayas since well before Alexander the Great failed to see one in 326 BC. It is a fearsome creature existing only in the wildest of places, promising great misfortune for anyone unlucky enough to cross its path. It’s kind of the Big Bad Wolf of the Himalayas, scaring children and adults into making smart choices and remaining relatively safe.

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If I were a large, shy, possibly harry and ferocious bipedal creature that may or may not, in fact, be a bear, I’d want to live here. Actually, I wouldn’t. Looks cold. Mount_Everest_as_seen_from_Drukair2.jpg: shrimpo1967derivative work: Papa Lima Whiskey 2 [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
But if there’s one truth you can always count on, it’s that the press will run with a great sensational story. The press loved the Abominable Snowman and may have even created an imaginary credible witness named William Hugh Knight.

Because who doesn’t get a little excited about terror in the snow? As a survivor of a recent epic snowstorm, I can safely say no one.

Last weekend, the Midwest got hit with a lot of snow. By a lot, I mean the Greater St. Louis region received about eight to twelve inches throughout. That amount of snow doesn’t rival the great Northeastern storms that dump feet of snow on Buffalo, New York several times a year, but it’s fairly significant in an area accustomed to receiving no more than fifteen inches or so per year.

I don’t mean to make light of it, at least not entirely. Roads were certainly bad, stranding lots of people and cars for quite a while, and there were a few fatal accidents. I understand that part of the job of the media is to encourage people to prepare for the worst so that it can be avoided as much as possible. And most people did prepare, as was obvious by the lack of bread and milk on the shelves at local grocery stores.

For a time, St. Louis and its “Sno-pocalypse 2019” commanded constant coverage. The Weather Channel even sent their world-renowned severe weather expert Jim Cantore, the same guy who shows up on the scene of hurricanes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. This for a slightly above average snowfall that wasn’t accompanied by damaging winds or so much as a thin sheet of ice.

The “storm” was mostly just a picturesque weather event that happened over a weekend when the roads would typically be less traveled anyway and made everyone feel a little like they lived in a snow globe.

The coverage was pretty much hysterical, with breaking news that consisted of interviews conducted in front of scenes of ongoing snowball fights on the grounds of the St. Louis Arch with citizens saying things like, “Oh, yeah, it took me maybe an extra hour to get here. Traffic was pretty slow moving.” A good ol’ fashioned Abominable Snowman sighting definitely would’ve punched things up.

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The Abominable Snowman of the Midwestern US.

But no one has seen the Yeti for a while and experts seem to agree that most of the “evidence” of its existence can be attributed to the region’s bear population. To be fair, stumbling across a bear while wandering around the mountains can also bring pretty bad luck.

Still, the people living in the Himalayan regions generally believe and the Yeti is big tourist business. In Bhutan, there’s even a refuge called the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary that was officially formed, in part, to preserve Yeti habitat.

If one is ever caught on camera or is spotted by a credible witness, you can bet the press will pounce. The Weather Channel might even send in Jim Cantore to stand in the way of danger and give us all the scoop. That is unless St. Louis is expecting up to a foot of gently falling snow.

 

*I want to thank my eleven-year-old son for recommending this week’s blog topic, demonstrating that everyone loves a good yeti story.

Naked with Lava-tude

In 1948, former Royal Navy WWII pilot, accountant, and avid nudist Edward Craven Walker sat in a pub in Dorset County, England and noticed an inventive homemade device bubbling away on a stovetop in the pub’s kitchen. What he saw was an egg timer created by a regular customer using a cocktail shaker and two immiscible liquids, one of which danced before his eyes like some kind of alien blob.

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Tech security company Cloudflare has a wall of Lava Lamps in its San Francisco office that it uses to generate random seeds for its encryption algorithms. It also adds a pretty chill vibe to the place. photo credit: niwasan Lava lamp Gallery – colección invierno 2009-2010 via photopin (license)

Walker was entranced by the bubbly display and mulled it over for a long time after, deciding to experiment with the concept himself in hopes of finding a way to make a lamp device that worked in a similar fashion. He retreated to his mancave shed where, presumably naked, he tried different containers and liquid combinations until he found something that worked.

In 1963, he introduced the world to his Astro Lamp. Just one year later, a US Patent was filed and in 1965 the Lava Manufacturing Corporation in Chicago bought the American rights to what they would call the Lava Lite Lamp, because groovy alliteration sells. Or at least it did in the late 60s and 70s.

I mention lava lamps today, because according to several websites devoted to listing “this day in history” events, like brainyhistory.com, on-this-day.com, and some random guy on Facebook (who, admittedly comes off a little sleazy and maybe not entirely legit) insist that April 5, 1965 was the celebration of “Lava Lamp Day.”

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Groovy. And maybe that’s reason enough to celebrate.

Try as I might, I cannot determine why this particular date is important in the history of the Lava Lamp. It’s not the day the US Patent was filed. I suppose it could be the day the American rights were purchased, or even the day the lamps hit the US market, but I’m not able to verify either of those guesses. I also can’t find any reference to an actual celebration either in 1965 or beyond, that revolved around the Lava Lite Lamp. What I’m left with, then, is the assumption that it might be entirely made up and lifted and shared, as so many things on the Internet tend to be.

Still, when you come across a Lava Lamp (if you ever have then you know what I’m talking about), it’s hard to look away. And though the popularity of Walker’s psychedelic invention waned through the eighties as people became mesmerized instead by big hair and shoulder pads, it enjoyed a resurgence in the late nineties and well into today.

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The Internet is pretty quiet about how the original Lava Lamp Day was celebrated, but I imagine it looked something like this.

My son, who was not alive in sixties or seventies, even has one in his bedroom. If you felt so inclined, you could probably find your own right now at your local discount store. Or your basement. And if you’re the crafty type, you can try to make your own. There are plenty of instructions available on the Internet, most of which don’t even require nudity, but then Walker’s exact formula for perfect lava-tude is a proprietary secret. Also, as previously demonstrated, the Internet may occasionally be less than reliable.

Trendy Escapes and Impressive Cleverness

At 7:15 on the morning of June 12, 1962, the guards of Alcatraz prison made a surprising discovery. During the night, three inmates had escaped the allegedly escape-proof prison. Frank Lee Morris, John William Anglin, and Clarence Anglin made it out of their cells, onto the roof of the prison and into the San Francisco Bay without detection. The escape required teamwork, resourcefulness, and a great deal of cleverness.

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Alcatraz Island. Photo by Jon Sullivan, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And it turned out these guys were pretty clever. They drilled out the ventilation systems in their cells, work performed mostly by hand with rudimentary tools, though for a while they did attempt to use a makeshift drill run by a vacuum motor one of them managed to come by.

Using soap and toilet paper they fashioned crude paper-mache dummy heads painted with supplies from prison craft kits and topped with hair harvested from the prison barber shop. These they placed in their beds in order to avoid early detection.

With glue they stole from the prison glove factory, they joined pieces of rubber raincoats to make a raft and life vests. They may even have converted a concertina into a bellows to aid in the inflation of the raft.

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Dummy head found in Frank Morris’s cell. Not bad at all for crude paper-mache. FBI, public domain

Really, if these men had applied their ingenuity and resourcefulness to more societally accepted occupations, they probably could have done well for themselves, and spent significantly less time in prison. But it’s a fascinating story, certainly worthy of a book and a Clint Eastwood film.

I’ve had escapes on the brain lately. It’s a hot trend right now in education and entertainment. Patterns for classroom “break-out” boxes have spattered the Internet and full, themed escape rooms have been popping up across the country. They’re all pretty similar, requiring participants to gather clues and decode puzzles to solve problems, open locks, and escape the room within a time limit.

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Since the boys had access to a time machine, we figured fifteen extra minutes wasn’t really a big deal.

When my oldest son turned 13 recently, I decided to design an escape room for him and his friends, based on the quirky and beloved British sci fi show Doctor Who, which they all seem to love. If I were a different sort of blogger I would offer a step-by-step, photo-illustrated how-to guide to constructing your own Doctor Who escape room, but I’m not nearly ambitious enough to be that kind of blogger. Still, if you’re interested and want details, drop me an e-mail.

It was a big success, and so about a week and a half later when I got the opportunity to go to an escape room myself, I thought it might be nice to see someone else’s version. Along with my sister and my husband, I was “locked” into a room designed to look like an attic and tasked with opening a secure treasure box. We had an hour and no idea where to start.

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My crude paper-mache project was a Dalek piñata that the boys exterminated in less than two minutes.

Fortunately, we’re a good team of pretty resourceful people. And we’re also fairly clever. We uncovered our treasure and made it out of the room with twelve minutes to spare. The boys in the Dr. Who room were not quite as quick, but to be fair, their team consisted of six thirteen-year-old, hyperactive boys. Cleverness can only compensate for so much. They did make it out in about an hour and fifteen minutes with some occasional redirection.

Morris and the Anglins made their escape, too, becoming the only people to have ever successfully escaped from Alcatraz. Of course there was never any physical evidence that they managed to survive the cold water of the Bay and make it all the way to the freedom they wanted. Enough circumstantial evidence turned up to suggest to the FBI that the men perished in the attempt, and that became the official finding. Even so, it was an impressively clever escape.

What the Cool Kids are up to this Christmas Season

There’s a strange thing happening in my house this holiday season. The delightfully tacky, lighted, multi-colored star that has topped my Christmas tree for more than a decade has been blinking. It never used to do that.

But this year, about a week into Christmas tree season (which for us begins the day after Thanksgiving), the thing began to develop a personality. Every night we plug it in to discover what color it’s going to be. Sometimes two colors switch on, sometimes only one. Other times all the colors come on or the star blinks for a while in a seemingly random pattern.

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Today it’s orange, which is not a very Christmas-y color. I think it wants to tell us a story that would be more fitting for Halloween.

Of course I realize the star must have a short and we need to replace it before our house burns down, but I jokingly said the other day that I thought it must be possessed. And that’s when my nearly thirteen-year-old son said, “Maybe someone from another dimension is trying to tell us something.”

He was making a reference to the Netflix series, Stranger Things, that you either recently binge watched, or you’ve heard your friends talking about how they did. My husband and I fell under the spell of the series shortly after the second season dropped at the end of October this year, when all the cool kids wouldn’t stop talking about it.

In case you’re not familiar with the show, the basic premise is that something has gone wrong at a secretive government lab near a small town in 1980s Indiana, opening up a gate into another dimension. A boy goes mysteriously missing in the first episode. Trapped in the alternate dimension, the boy manages to communicate with his mother through surges in electricity and she eventually figures out that she can paint her walls with the alphabet and string Christmas lights so he can signal words to her. Oh, and the other dimension contains an insatiable, terrifying, virtually indestructible beast that likes to dimension hop and hunt.

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This could be yours. https://www.ebay.com/i/382304200890?chn=ps

I probably don’t have to tell you that it’s scary. Or that it’s not especially Christmas-y. But that hasn’t stopped Christmastime marketing geniuses from taking advantage of its popularity. Among the racks of ugly sweaters this season, you can find one that includes lights strung above crooked letters of the alphabet, with three that really light up to signal: R-U-N.

Yikes! Merry Christmas.

I suppose the concept of scary stories (and marketing genius) at Christmas aren’t particular to 2017. If you turn on the television at any given time in the month of December, I’m pretty sure you can find at least one version of A Christmas Carol to watch, filled with ghosts, and if you’re lucky, Muppets.

Charles Dickens wrote the original novella in 1843. It took him about six weeks to do it, and his publisher managed to release it December 19th. By Christmas Eve, the first run had sold out.

Dickens was already known as a writer of novels generally published in serial fashion, and with A Christmas Carol, he struck just the right cord with his audience. He rode Victorian surges in both the popularity of frightening stories and in newly imagined secular celebrations of Christmas. He captured people with his project, one that would provide him with a great deal of income through the rest of his life, and in some ways would shape the way Christmas is celebrated even in 2017.

I did (briefly) attempt to determine just how many adaptations of this Christmas ghost story have been made into movies, television specials, operas, radio plays, sitcom episodes, etc. As you can probably imagine, that’s a hard number to tally and I’m not that dedicated, so let’s just agree it’s somewhere around a whole bunch.

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Charles Dickens, penning strange holiday traditions. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

When Dickens wrote his book, it wasn’t exactly a new thing, this telling of ghost stories and scary yarns in wintertime when the nights are long and the cold wind howls through barren trees. Such tales are referenced by playwright Christopher Marlowe in the late 16th century. But it may have been Dickens who so expertly associated the frightening winter tale with the cheery celebration of Christmas.

So I am going to choose to believe that it’s not unusual at all that my son is spending time this Christmas season binge-watching Stranger Things, because all the cool kids have been talking about it, and fortunately he’s much less susceptible to nightmares than I am. But I do think I’m going to take a little time out of my busy Christmas schedule to shop for a new, less blinky and more consistent, star for the top of our tree.

Game of Allergens

On June 13, 1483, just two months after the death of his brother King Henry IV and a few weeks before his own accession to the English throne, Richard III, then Duke of Gloucester and Lord Protector of the Realm, survived an evil curse.

The curse came from Lord William Hastings, a man who had served as Lord Chamberlain to Henry IV (basically the Ned Stark to his Robert Baratheon). I’m not going to try to puzzle out the mess that was the struggle for the English throne toward the end of the Middle Ages because either 1. You, dear reader, know far more about it than I can pretend to in the space of a blog post and will just find errors that you’ll feel compelled to tell me about or 2. Like me, you just assume that whoever had dragons and a proper attitude toward an invading zombie horde eventually came out on top.

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Described by his detractors as a hunch-backed and deformed troll-ish sort of a man, Richard III was probably just a normal-ish looking guy. Unless you gave him strawberries. By Unknown, British School – Royal Collection of the United Kingdom, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But it seems that Hastings was just the sort of man to try to put the pieces together and he may have suspected that when Richard sought to declare his deceased brother’s marriage illegal and therefore his own nephew illegitimate, that Richard might have just wanted the throne for himself.

So, logically, when Hastings next arrived for a council meeting, he cursed the pretender to the throne. Shortly after the Lord Chamberlain’s arrival, Richard’s health began to suffer. His lips swelled. His face and limbs grew red and puffy. He became short of breath.

What today we might recognize as an allergic reaction to the fresh strawberries Sir Thomas More tells us Richard ate for breakfast, Richard identified as a curse. It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that casting a potentially deadly curse on the Lord Protector of the Realm might result in a beheading.

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I suspect I’m allergic to dragons. Fortunately the current dragon count is pretty low. photo credit: SnoShuu Dragon via photopin (license)

That’s exactly what became of Lord Hastings, a man who might have otherwise caused a crimp in Richard’s plans to rule. The would-be king wasn’t taking any chances. Many contemporary writers (at least the ones that didn’t seem to like Richard much) suggested he murdered his young nephews as well.

There’s some speculation that perhaps Richard knew of his own allergy to strawberries and ate them anyway so he could pretend to have been cursed by Lord Hastings and justify ordering his death. Other historians argue that given the general belief in curses and ignorance of allergens at the time, Richard, perhaps already feeling a little paranoid in the course of his plotting, probably thought he really had been cursed.

I tend to believe the second scenario is more likely because of several good reasons explained by more informed historians (of the variety that would be sure to let me know about my mistakes when discussing the fall of the House of York).

First, fruit didn’t travel much in 1483 and so it was extremely seasonal, giving strawberries a pretty narrow window of availability in the English court. Richard wouldn’t have had a lot of opportunity to observe his own symptoms. Second, food allergies can be kind of like that, showing up unannounced after years of laying low. Third, a person would have to be pretty crazy to willingly inflict an uncomfortable allergic reaction on themselves. And finally, his successor, the usurper Henry VII probably had dragons anyway.*

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No throne is worth intentionally exposing yourself to a known allergen. But maybe it’s worth a curse or two? If you have dragons.

It’s the third point I want to discuss further because over the last week or so, some of my nearest and dearest have been cursed. Here in Missouri we are experiencing some of the highest mold and ragweed pollen counts we’ve seen in some time. That means that here in my household we have been experiencing some of the itchiest eyes, scratchiest throats, sneeziest noses, and achiest sinuses that we’ve seen in some time.

Catch them at the right moment, and my nearest and dearest might even suggest that having their heads lopped off might be more comfortable than the curse these allergens have brought upon them. This is definitely not a condition they would wish upon themselves, regardless of their aspirations to any thrones. Right about now, they’re kind of hoping that winter is coming. As long as someone steps up with a couple of dragons to take on the zombie horde.

*No historians I came across actually suggested that Henry VII had dragons. Also, if you ever do stumble across a legitimate historian that references dragons, you should probably ask a few follow-up questions.

 

A Flocking Good Time

On September 4, 1979, the students of the University of Wisconsin in Madison emerged from their dorms to attend their first classes of the semester and discovered their campus had been overrun. As they’d slept, someone had filled the quad with 1008 bright pink, plastic flamingoes. The culprits were members of the Pail & Shovel Party that controlled the student government after campaigning on nonsensical promises and irresponsible fun.

The prank went down in history as one of the most delightful on campus, sparking an annual “Fill the Hill” university fundraiser and eventually inspiring Madison to adopt the pink flamingo as its official city bird in 2009.

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St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame pitcher Bruce Sutter garden gnome standing guard over the beets.

Why not? The students, after all, were simply participating in a longstanding tradition of lawn ornamentation, one that reaches back at least as far as the temple gardens of Ancient Egypt, and winds on up through the sacred groves of Ancient Greece and Rome. It includes the first manufactured garden gnomes of 19th century Germany, the inexplicable rise of Grandma’s polka dotted backside in the 1980s, and the wide variety of tchotchke in, and occasionally stolen from, my next door neighbor’s front yard, of which I am secretly super jealous. Mostly, I just want an excuse to use the word tchotchke as often as I can because it’s pretty much my favorite word of all time. Go ahead and say it (ˈchäch-kē). I bet it makes you smile.

But when someone mentions lawn ornaments, the image that springs to mind first for most of us is the classic pink flamingo, invented in 1957 by then fairly new Union Products sculptor Dan Featherstone in Leominster, Massachusetts. Featherstone’s flamingoes landed in yards throughout the United States during a time when subdivisions featuring cookie-cutter house designs were popping up at a great rate and homeowners were looking for a way to make their homes stand out.

The plastic pink flamingo joined only six species of the living bird, which gets its pinkish hue from the beta-cerotene in its food. Their population has waxed and waned in the decades since their initial introduction in 1957, but the plastic variety are the only ones you are likely to find these days in the wilds of the United States (or even in the suburbs).

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Ozzie wasn’t quite sure what to think of our visitors. Oh, and just in case you ever decide to participate in a flocking, I recommend gloves. Dogs are territorial.

And just like their more natural counterparts, the lawn ornaments tend to flock in large numbers. In fact, there is currently a flock or two living quite happily in my area, roosting each night in the yard of some “lucky” homeowner. The culprits this time are affiliated with my oldest son’s youth group, who will happily take donations in exchange for the nighttime flocking of an unsuspecting friend’s yard. They will also happily sell insurance to anyone not brave enough to host the visiting birds.

My son and I may have had something to do with a few of these migrations. And yes, we have also discovered a flock in our own yard. They’re not so bad really. The birds are quiet. They don’t eat much. And they only stick around to make your next door neighbor (who has otherwise cornered the tchotchke market in your more or less tasteful neighborhood) super jealous for 24 hours before flying off to roost elsewhere.flocked

The Pail & Shovel party would be proud I think. Of course, no matter how many yards get flocked, the official bird of the Greater St. Louis area will always be the Cardinal.