Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

I finished off the last of the books I’ve been reading this month:

Of A Fire On The Moon

I’ve never read anything by Norman Mailer before. This is one hell of a way to start.

I’ve picked up Of A Fire On The Moon at least twice, once when I was in high school and again when I was in college, but I wasn’t ready for Norman Mailer then; I’m not sure I was ready this time, but his novelization of the Apollo 11 moon landing has become part of the canon of moon landing lore, so it became a part of my permanent collection. When I got to feeling as though I needed another infusion of moon lore, I cast my eye on my books to be read, thinking, I need something that puts a different slant on the story this time, and man, I got it.

Mailer inserted himself into the story, called himself Aquarius, and tried to write about it as if he could somehow render it more dramatic than it already was. The astronauts and the technicians at Nasa bugged the hell out of him with their teamwork mentality and their inability to speak in anything but dry, clipped technospeak, but they were engineers, all of them, and so focused on their goal that most of them slept, when they slept at all, on cots in their offices and breakfasted on coffee and cigarettes. Of course their words were dry and clipped.

Mailer wanted them to be poets or, at least, a bit more lyrical. More like him, I would guess. If men were going to all the trouble to walk on the moon, he wanted them to be able to bring that experience back to the people they kept insisting they were doing it all for, the People of Earth, not at all an unreasonable request, but not possible in that day and age when they had to cobble together a lander that was so technologically complicated it had to be flown by not one, but two total engineering geeks. Poetry was not their strong suit.

I didn’t care much to read the details of Mailer’s life, inserted into the frame of the story, and the age of Aquarius stuff didn’t do much for me in setting the tumultuous stage the rest of the nation was playing on. It was distracting and seemed dated: When he’s not describing the moon landing, Mailer’s descriptions of his mayoral race or his partying seems to drag on like the babble of a self-absorbed beatnik, banging on bongo drums in a run-down coffee house.

Still and all, it was indeed a fresh perspective on one of the grandest stories of our country.

Pattern Recognition

I’ve been reading the stories of William Gibson ever since I read, then re-read, then re-re-read Johnny Mnemonic in the pages of Omni Magazine back in 1981 (I still have the issue, deeply buried somewhere in the archives here at Drivel HQ). His style reminded me of Michael Herr’s Dispatches, a tattered copy of which I kept in a jacket pocket and read snatches from as compulsively as you’d pick at a scab, (I meant that to be a compliment. I hope he’d take it that way) and did the same with Gibson, too, after I discovered him.

Gibson’s prose combines stream of thought with a relentless hyperawareness of his surroundings, but with an artist’s control so that his observations don’t come tumbling out like the cataracts of a class five whitewater river. The result is a body of work that describes the world around his characters with the same attention he gives to their thoughts, motives and appearance. Everything in Gibson’s stories comes alive.

The Greatest Show On Earth

Richard Dawkins has a way of explaining things that seems to piss a lot of people off. Although I’m not in that camp of people, I can see why. He writes out most thoughts with such finality that they sound almost as if he’s issuing decrees from on high. That may be his purpose, now that I think of it, to put him in the same league with the anti-evolutionists he argues against.

For quite a while I avoided books like this, thinking, What’s the point? It doesn’t change the mind of anyone who doesn’t believe in evolution. But that doesn’t appear to be the point of this book. It’s more to the point of filling in the gaps in my own knowledge of evolution, and strengthening knowledge is never a bad thing, whether you’re for or against a topic as contentious as this one.

Books! | 10:12 am CDT
Category: books, entertainment, hobby, play, space geekery
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Saturday, August 7th, 2010

image of book shelves

I don’t know how many books we have. I wouldn’t be able to give you even a ball park figure. Could be hundreds, could be thousands, I have no way of knowing, because most of them are doubled up in the garage-sale book shelves we’ve collected over the years, and a significant number are still crammed into boxes, waiting for the day of liberation when we have enough shelf space to bring them out in the open air. It could happen. Not sure when; I’m a little vague on the details of that, too.

Although I planned to knock together a proper book case to stash some of the books in, I got to thinking, as I was looking over the lumber on sale at the local do-it-yourself store, that I could rig up something more like a multi-media organization and display center than a piddling book case. Besides needing a place to set our books, I also need shelf space for my ever-growing neato typewriter collection, as well as a rack to hold the stereo components I’ve cobbled together and a nearby shelf for the LP phono albums I keep finding at the thrift store. Aaron Copeland’s Grand Canyon Suite for a buck! Nat King Cole’s Greatest hits for a buck and a quarter! I couldn’t leave them there, could I?

Obviously all these considerations called for a shelving system, nay, a structure that would be a bit more suitable to the various needs of each different tenant. Connecting all the wires of the stereo components in a typical book case, for instance, sucks. You can’t get at the back of the components, which are all in the dark, unless you give each component a quarter-turn that leaves half of it hanging over the edge of the shelf, so you have to nervously hang on to it while you’re plugging things in. Then you have to try to quarter-turn it back while simultaneously tucking all those wires in. And that’s if you’re lucky enough to be able to fit all the components into a single shelf. When you have to poke holes through the back of the book case and run wires from one shelf to another, you might as well do a couple shots before you even begin and just keep drinking to dull the pain.

A mere book case, being just eight to ten inches deep, won’t hold a typewriter, either. I’d need a shelf at least sixteen inches deep, and made of wood stout enough to bear the thirty-pound weight of a 1929 Underwood upright. Particle board doesn’t cut it for a job like that.

With all these considerations running through my head, I selected a car load of lumber that might have given the impression I was remodeling a closet rather than building a place to keep our books and record collection: a heap of three-quarter inch plywood and two by four studs that came to a grand total of forty-six bucks, much less than the eighty or so I would have needed to build a proper book case. I was well chuffed about that.

Assembly took all freaking day. It wasn’t hard, it’s just that I wanted to take my time and make sure it got done right the first time. After clamping all the two by fours together I carefully measured out the grooves that would hold the shelves, then cut them out with a router, one-quarter inch on each pass. Took two hours, much longer than I thought it would, but that’s largely because I don’t use a router much so the widest blade I have is a quarter-incher. When I go shopping for more lumber next week I’m going to see if there isn’t a router blade that will hack out a three-quarter inch dado on one pass. There has to be, right? If there isn’t, don’t tell me.

Hacking the plywood into shelf-sized pieces took only twenty minutes or so because I have a table saw and it’s awesome. I’m literally awed by it, and maybe just a little scared yet. I still count my fingers after each pass, for instance, but that doesn’t make any less awesome.

Then came assembly. I hadn’t quite worked out how I was going to do this. Most of it ended up coming together on a wing and a prayer.

The first set of uprights, on the far left, was easy: Using a beam level I made sure they were straight up and down, and then I fixed them in place.

The second set of uprights, in the middle, was a little harder. In theory I knew exactly how far they should have been from the first uprights and should have been able to place them using a tape measure and a plumb bob. I don’t have a plumb bob, so I cobbled it together by sticking the top shelf and the bottom shelf into the slots on the first uprights, slapping the second pair of uprights against them, and screwing things together to see if that would work. For some reason that I’m not completely aware of, it did. The rest of the shelves slid into place deceptively easy and I was inordinately pleased with myself. That was the calm before the storm.

I tried to put the third pair of uprights, on the right-hand side, in place using the same method. The moment I stepped back to it up, everything fell apart. I tried again and got a little further along, but it fell apart again. When I finally got the top and bottom shelf fixed in place between the uprights, I could clearly see they were leaning forward further than a drunk taking a leak at a urinal. I took everything apart, lined it up again and, while I was fitting the bottom shelf into place, the top shelf fell out and tried to give me a concussion.

Eventually I worked out a sequence that would let me put all the shelves in the slots except one. I tried every way I could think of to get that sucker in there, even shaved the edge down a bit with a chisel, and it came really close to sliding into place where it should have gone … right before everything fell apart again.

At that point I should have started drinking vodka from a beer bong, but I had to shower and pick up My Darling B from work.

After supper it all went together rather easily. I don’t know what I did differently. I guess because I’d had that chance to walk away and not think about it for a while, my head was clear enough to get through the sequence without making mistakes. Not that I recall making mistakes before that, I just seemed to be having rotten luck lining everything up. It all went so much more smoothly after supper, though, that it was almost magical.

If I can find the time to put a few more of these together I’ll not only have a place to put all the books, we may also finally know the answer to the question Just how many books do we have in our possession?

Shelf-Improvement | 9:20 pm CDT
Category: books, entertainment, music, Our Humble O'Bode, play | Tags: , ,
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Friday, July 2nd, 2010

Let the four-day weekend begin!

Oh, wait … I’m unemployed, so it’s really more like an indefinite weekend.

Well, whatever.

I applied for unemployment first thing yesterday morning … or rather, it was first thing after doinking around on the internet for an hour, because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it until after nine o’clock, which is a really stupid reason for waiting until nine o’clock when you factor in that I applied on-line. You can do anything on the internet these days!

So at nine-thirty promptly …

What? Okay, so I doinked around a little longer than I said I would. It’s the internet! It’s not my fault! The internet forces us all to think non-linearly! Our minds are being scrambled by the internet! I couldn’t help it! You know it’s true! Just look it up! On the internet!

Besides, there was this killer John Stewart video I had to watch before I did anything else, such as provide for my family.

Anyway, after a quick google search and a couple of mouse clicks, my application for unemployment benefits was complete. Took me all of five minutes. Easy-peasy.

What did I do with the rest of my day? Oh, not much. It being my first officially unemployed day, I decided to celebrate with brunch at Lazy Jane’s, so I tucked a book into my backpack, jumped on my trusty Trek bicycle and rode into town. It’s about four or five miles from Our Humble O’Bode to our favorite Willy Street restaurant, so I worked up just enough of an appetite to want their half-sandwich and soup special.

That and a bottomless cup of coffee made me want to hang around just long enough to read through a couple of chapters of A Woman In Berlin, the book that’s on the arm of my easy chair this week. It’s a cheery little tale about the Russian liberation of Berlin in the final days of World War Two, as recorded in the diary of a journalist who was gang-raped by just about every Russian soldier who marched through her neighborhood. I’d have to recommend it because it’s so well-written, but I’d also have to include the warning that it’ll make you want to drink yourself unconscious. Enjoy!

image of shadow box

After a few good, deep burps loud enough to rattle the windows of passing cars, and a long, leisurely ride home (can’t exactly sprint on a full stomach), I spent the rest of the afternoon piddling around in our basement work shop trying to put my shadow box back together. I didn’t get a gold watch when I retired, but they did give me a going-away ceremony and a shadow box filled with medals (yes, mine) and a folded flag. Pretty nice, but they mounted all the little bits of bling with some kind of goop that wasn’t quite sticky enough to hold everything in place for very long. Five years later, all the medals and collar brass were lying in a sticky pile at the bottom of the box. (Senco members, take note.)

I made a few changes. Not that I didn’t like the original shadow box, but I wanted to include some of the patches I kept as mementos of the places I was stationed. I also wanted to arrange the ribbons, badges and name tag the way they usually appear over the pocket of a blue uniform jacket, and I wanted to hang my dog tags in there, too. So I pretty much changed it completely, okay, that’s true, but it was a great shadow box in the first place, honestly. I loved it and wouldn’t have changed it at all if it hadn’t fallen apart.

I made just one other teeny-weeny little change and that was changing the fabric on the backboard. It used to be a single piece of blue felt. I thought the patches and the dog tags would look a little out of place against that background, so I split it in half. On the left, I used a panel of woodland camouflage fabric I cut out of the back of an old BDU shirt I still had hanging in the closet. On the right, I replaced the blue felt with a panel of Air Force blue fabric cut from an old polyester Class-A jacket that I would never ever wear again in a million years, not because I’m anti-support-our-troops but because the polyester jacket sucked great big unlubricated bowling balls. I’ve still got my poly-wool jacket with all the ribbons and bling attached, so if I had to suit up again, I could wear that. Heaven help us all if Uncle Sam is ever desperate enough to ask me to suit up again.

To make sure the little bits and bobs didn’t fall off the backboard again, I hot-glued the shit out of every single thing in there. Hot glue two things together and they stay together. Gravity as a force is lame-o compared to hot glue. I hot-glued the fabric to the backboard, then I hot-glued the patches and ribbons, badges and other bling to the fabric. Hurricane Katrina could not tear this thing apart now.

The only thing left is to figure out where to mount it. There’s precious little wall space in my basement lair, at least for right now. I want to re-arrange things down there anyway, so maybe this is the time. See, this is how little things, like fixing up a busted shadow box, turn into big things, like rearranging my basement lair. I’ll probably still be feeling the aftershocks of this project twelve months from now.

The rest of the evening was pretty typical: Pick up My Darling B from work, sit down to a pleasant dinner, then hit the floorboards for a dance lesson that I had a hard time absorbing for some reason, probably because I didn’t do much all day and was almost too relaxed.

Let The Unemployment Begin! | 9:32 am CDT
Category: adventures in unemployment, bicycling, books, coffee, daily drivel, dance, entertainment, food & drink, hobby, My Darling B, My Glorious Air Force Career, O'Folks, play, restaurants, work | Tags: ,
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Friday, June 25th, 2010

image of Martian tripod

I finally finished The Great Influenza, a history of the Spanish influenza pandemic. Very cheery book. Millions died, nobody quite got the hang of a vaccination, and the message throughout the book was “The next pandemic is on the way!” You should read it.

Back home, I found a copy of The Right Stuff while I was fishing The Great Influenza out of my backpack. I’d been reading The Right Stuff up until I found The Great Influenza at the thrift store and made the mistake of opening it up to read the first few pages, see if it was any good. It was, so The Right Stuff got put aside, the last ten chapters unread.

Until yesterday. What a great book. Finished it off over my lunch hour. So for right now I’m between books and poking through the thickest volumes on our shelves for the next tome to attack. But I needed something light and fun before bedtime last night, so I picked up H.G. Wells’s The War Of The Worlds and got stuck on the first page, reading the opening paragraphs over and over. It’s like poetry:

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same.

Ex Libris | 8:05 pm CDT
Category: Big Book of Quotations, books, daily drivel, entertainment, hobby, play
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Saturday, April 24th, 2010

On this misty, crappy, cold day we declined to make the usual weekly circuit of the farmer’s market, so instead My Darling B offered to take me to Plaka Taverna for brunch.

Plaka used to be Cleveland’s Diner, one of our favorite places to get breakfast on a Sunday, and they still serve what they call “the traditional Cleveland’s Diner breakfast,” so I took her up on it without thinking twice.

My favorite breakfast is The Deuce: two scrambled eggs, bacon, and a couple buttermilk pancakes. B’s favorite is the sausage and egg sandwich.

We still made our customary stop on Willy Street on the way home, B to shop at the co-op and me to check out the book store at Saint Vinnie’s where I found a copy of Asimov’s Foundation trilogy and Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us, a cracking good thought experiment.

Then it was home to … yard work! Even though everything outside was wet, I still trooped into the front yard to salvage as much as I could from the cedar tree I cut down last month. I piled the branches up and the curb and had hopes that I would be able to run it all through the chipper by now, but no luck there. Instead, I cut off all the branches I thought I could grind into useful mulch and stacked them in the back yard where the city crew wouldn’t haul them away next week.

While I was peeling back the layers of cedar boughs I found one of the bunnies that had been nesting in our planter. Curled up in a tight little furry ball, he seemed more than a little scared and not sure what to do after I exposed him to the elements, so I took a break to give him time to find a new hidey hole, which he must have done because he wasn’t there when I went back to work a half-hour later.

The only other thing I did that counts as getting anything done was a couple loads of laundry, and replace the outdoor electrical outlet in the back yard, which was a plain old socket. I’d been worrying about that ever since I read an article in a handyman magazine that said it really should be a GFCI outlet, giving me nightmares of My Darling B electrocuted by her electric tiller. Maybe I’ll get some sleep now.

that was the day that was | 5:49 pm CDT
Category: books, daily drivel, entertainment, farmer's market, food & drink, My Darling B, O'Folks, Our Humble O'Bode, play, restaurants, yard work | Tags:
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Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

If you like to read fiction but you’ve never read science fiction because of the geek factor, or you’ve tried but you found it too technical or fantastic, you ought to give Ursula Le Guin’s work a try before you give up on the genre entirely. She doesn’t write just science fiction; she’s well-known for her work of fantasy A Wizard of Earthsea, but in the science fiction genre her story-telling ability is exceeded only by her success in bringing memorable characters to life.

You could dive into one of her full-length novels, but a short story would probably be the best way to start, I think. Pick up a copy of The Compass Rose and thumb through the stories until a title or a phrase catches your eye, or start at the beginning and plow your way through to the end in one sitting, as my oldest son did when he found it on the bookshelf. My favorite, “The Pathways of Desire,” traces the origins of the universe back to the desires everyone shares. This is not conventional science fiction.

My favorite novel — not asserting that it’s her best, just my favorite — would have to be The Left Hand of Darkness, a story I read again and again not for the science or the fantasy aspects but because the friendship between the two main characters, a love story, really, rises up off the pages and grabs me by the heart. When Ai and Harth meet they are hardly friendly, a coolness that grows into active dislike, but they have a common interest that brings them to trust one another, and from that trust their friendship grows. It’s a story I think anyone could relate to.

Although I used to re-read her books regularly, I haven’t picked one up in years until I read an interview in The Oregonian via their web site, OregonLive.com in which she candidly admits, with a catch in her voice, she doesn’t seem to have any more stories to tell. Her last book, Lavinia, was released in late 2008 and Le Guin says her muse has not brought her a story since then. A story like that should set off alarm bells, but no. What she’s brought us is quite a treasure, and maybe her muse is only napping after all.

LeGuin | 8:20 am CDT
Category: books, entertainment, play
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Friday, January 29th, 2010

I’ve been listening to misty-eyed Salinger fans sobbing about what an All-American Novel Catcher In The Rye was and feeling more than awkward about my guilty little secret: It’s not my favorite Salinger novel.

It’s good and all, but honestly I thought Salinger was a much better short-story writer than a novelist. And the only reason I say that is not that I have some kind of cutting insight or I hold the all-seeing knowledge of what makes a good short-story writer versus a novelist. It’s simply that I like his short stories better. I don’t think I’ve ever read a more delightful story than A Young Girl in 1941 With No Waist At All.

And that’s as may be, but as for his novels (although probably it should be considered a novela) I just love Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenters. I read a review of it in The New York Times today, because everyone’s venting their opinions about Salinger this week, that was none too kind, and I had to wonder how closely he’d read it. Or how many times. I don’t think you can appreciate Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenters until you’ve read it at least a half-dozen times, and you shouldn’t be writing a review of it for any newspaper, and especially not The New York Times, until you’ve taught a class on it. Or maybe I’ve just gone over the line. Yes, I see I have.

Obviously I haven’t taught a class on it or I would be able to pin down just why I like it so much. I love it mostly for Buddy Glass, the person I most wanted to grow up to be, a hermetic writer living in the woods with no phone, penning novels using a fountain pen and occasionally emerging to teach humanities at a local university.

And I loved it for the rest of the characters, too. Outrageous caricatures that they were, I just loved them. As much as everyone mentions the tiny top-hatted man, I have no idea what he’s supposed to be in the story. I love him but he’s a mystery to me. My favorite character, after Buddy, is the loud-mouthed Matron who dominates the dialog. Every time I meet someone like that, and goodness there are an awful lot of people like her, aren’t there, my imagination sucks me into a limousine with no air conditioning stuck in traffic on a New York street, and I blank out on everything else but the hell of what it would be like to spend an afternoon trapped like that.

Oh, I can see I’ll be up half the night reading it now. But that’s all right, it’s Friday. I can take a break from my must-finish book and re-read a little Salinger tonight.

Salinger | 8:47 am CDT
Category: books, entertainment, play
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Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

Our regular Saturday stop at St Vincent de Paul’s thrift store yielded only a few treasures this week. My Darling B didn’t find one old platter or kitchen gadget that caught her fancy. I, on the other hand, found a little treasure called The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Space.

I’ve got so many books about manned space exploration at this point that B makes fun of me whenever we go to the thrift store. If I’ve got an armload of books and one or more is about the space program she acts shocked, as if she didn’t expect that, and if none of them were written by or about astronauts, well, she acts shocked again. I can’t win for losing.

I had to take this one home because it’s big and thick as a tombstone and packed with iconic photos of spaceflight through the years. It was the photos I was after most of all.

But what always gets me about this book and others like it is that they never answer the one question that everyone asks sooner or later, the one that the congressional intern blurted to Tom Hanks in the movie Apollo 13: How do you go to the bathroom in space? Looking through this and other so-called encyclopedias, you would think they didn’t. There isn’t a toilet to be seen anywhere.

And that’s because, until the space shuttle, there weren’t any. The first astronauts were in space for such a short time (Alan Shepard went suborbital, lobbed like a cannonball for a trip of just fifteen minutes, and John Glenn was in orbit just a few hours) that they just peed in their suits if they had to go. Later, when they were in orbit for days, there wasn’t enough room in the spacecraft to sneeze, much less take care of hygiene, so they wore absorbent underpants – diapers, essentially – in case they really had to go. Most of the astronauts tried their damndest not to use them, for obvious reasons.

It takes three days to travel to the moon, though, even when you’re hustling along at a speed faster than a rifle bullet. Armstrong and Aldrin were on the surface just eleven hours, but later missions lingered on the moon for days, so they had to finally give some consideration to The Big Question. And the makers of Apollo 13 half-answered it: The Apollo capsule had a “relief tube” that would vacuum liquid waste away with the flick of a valve. One of the details they omitted, though was that they had to be very careful when they opened the valve, lest delicate equipment get sucked away, too. The vacuum of space is relentlessly brutal.

But not even Ron Howard wanted to hint at the answer, How do you go Number Two? Because it’s kind of funny and it’s kind of … not. There’s no way to poop in a pot because, as the astronauts loved to demonstrate, everything floats in space. Who hasn’t seen them squirting food around and snatching it out of the air with their mouths? Well, what goes in must come out, and it still floats then, too, and obviously nobody wants to go chasing that around the cockpit.

What they came up with was a plastic baggie that had a brim around the opening, so it sort of looked like an old man’s hat. The brim had an adhesive strip to stick the thing to their butts and keep it from floating away while they were doing dookie, which probably sounded like a great idea to the guys who designed it. They obviously didn’t have hairy butts. Using one of these, and then trying to clean up after, was such a miserable experience that, again, astronauts tried as hard as they could not to use them.

Most people know that the space shuttle has a toilet. Finally, space travel had the answer to The Big Question. What a lot of people don’t know is that astronauts are specially trained to use it because it’s critically important that they sit with their cheeks snug against the seat, and that they sit in the middle of the seat.

The first part is not so difficult: The toilet has a couple padded swing arms to hold down a pooping astronaut. His butt has to be firmly kissing the seat because the toilet sucks air down past the astronaut’s thighs to keep doo-doo moving in a southerly direction, and a snug fit ensures a brisk flow of air.

To make sure the Merry Little Breezes will carry away every little turdlette, though, an astronaut must sit squarely in the middle of the seat. This is critically important: The point of emission must be centered pretty much exactly in the middle of the opening of the toilet.

Not too many people know when their exhaust pipe is centered precisely over the toilet bowl, because they don’t have to, but astronauts do. To make sure they do (I really love this part), Nasa built a training toilet. It has a video camera pointing up from the bottom at the underside of the seat. I’ll give you a moment to let that sink in.

In toilet training, the astronaut drops trou, plants his fundament on the seat and then, watching the image of his bare bupkis on a monitor, his very own hairy butthole, he walks his cheeks around on the seat until he manages to center his anus on the crosshairs that Nasa paid a technician to tape across the screen.

I don’t know how many times they practice this or if they’re graded, and I’ve never heard of anyone washing out of the astronaut corps for failing toilet training. If I had to guess, I’d say they run through it once, maybe twice at the very most. A guy can be expected to endure only so much of that kind of indignity.

To my knowledge, the toilet on the shuttle does not have a camera.

the final frontier | 2:02 pm CDT
Category: books, entertainment, play, random idiocy
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