Beg, Borrow, Steal

On my social media outlets the other day, I happened to catch a link to a post on Lifehacker entitled, “Why I Stopped Pirating and Started Paying for Media”. As you can guess from the title, the author talks about their personal journey to legitimacy. In reading about their own experience, I got to thinking about my own dance with copyright, media, and the shady side of the internet.

Back in college in the late 1990’s, the big thing in the dorm computer network was the peer to peer (P2P) service Napster. It was in its heyday and I, like many of my peers, took advantage of it. I wasn’t one of those people who downloaded everything and anything they could find just for the hell of it, but I did download tracks I heard on the radio that I liked. I had a fondness for remixes and mashups which weren’t generally weren’t available on a CD so it was perfect for finding those kinds of music tracks as well. I still bought music so that I could have the liner notes and the physical CD itself, but I was able to try out different artists as well. (Those mp3s are long gone now, but I still have the CDs from that time.)

After Napster went kaput, I used KaZaa for a short period of time. The big difference between the two programs was that KaZaa offered P2P video files as well. I was still looking for mashups and remixes but I could also find videos for whatever my interest was at the time. Graphic war footage, pornography, funny video clips, you name it. The bigger issue with KaZaa was the prevalence of malicious viruses as well as purposefully mislabeled files intended to troll the viewer/listener. Hearing the virus alert go off got old very fast just as opening up a music or video file and finding something else. The luster wore off quickly and I stopped using KaZaa after a few months.

I didn’t really think much about copyright or ownership at that point in my life. I knew it was wrong, but not wrong enough to stop what I was doing. At the time, there were no digital music alternatives. iTunes had not arrived on the scene and Amazon was still selling books. The market that exists today was something that people spoke of breathlessly at conferences and industry trade shows. I never tried to justify it to myself that I was doing no harm, but that the harm I was doing was minimized since I only downloaded and never shared my files with others. (Yeah, I was that guy.)  I know that doesn’t absolve me from guilt or blame, but it was enough of a mitigation to ease my conscious at the time.

After KaZaa, I completely stopped using P2P networks. I haven’t touched anything like since the early 00’s, not even a bit torrent. In that post P2P time period, I also stopped buying music or movies for the most part except for the occasional (and exceptional) artist or movie here and there. I would say that the two events are related but I will concede that I wasn’t going to movies or listening to the radio much either. After I bought my first iPod, I did get back into purchasing music but on a limited basis. The majority of my music still dates back to the pre-iTunes era as well as my movie collection. Overall, the drawbacks outweighed the benefits.

Fast forward to the present day.

Lately I’ve been noticing a lot more anti-piracy public service announcements (PSAs). It gets my attention at first because I loathe the term “piracy” for its inherent inaccuracy, but I’ll concede that “unauthorized file sharing” isn’t as sexy a term. Although, if you called it by the latter, it would certainly be less glamorous than the people who relish in the notion of being a pirate. Not many are going to take up the title of “sharer” (sharerer?) as it doesn’t have the same mystique as pirate.

I recently saw one of these PSAs before DVD episodes of the TV series Justified that I had borrowed from my library. This giant emblem would pop up on the screen with a dire warning about how I could go to jail, be fined, lose all my friends, and die alone if I copied this disc. Ordinarily, I’ve learned to tune out the FBI warning and other emblem related television warnings. But this warning then proceeded to give me a rundown of how it was protected internationally followed by the same warning in all of the official languages of the United Nations. Worse, it’s completely unskippable so that I have find a way to amuse myself through these two unrefundable minutes of my life. Since it magically knew to do this each time I started up my DVD player, these life stealing increments added up to the point where I became very sympathetic to people who download media illegally to avoid this time theft.

I also heard announcements on commercial radio urging people to call a number or go to a website to report media piracy in their area. The announcement spends more time telling people how to contact them than compelling reasons why they should do it other than (to paraphrase) it’s bad. It didn’t mention anything about a reward so I guess they are hoping for listeners to act out of the goodness of their hearts or (more likely) revenge on people who have wronged them or spiteful frame-ups intended to give someone a hard time. Nothing quite like a little McCarthy-like “rat on your friends, family, and neighbors” strategy to endear themselves to the public, but since I guess you can’t do worse in the public relations department after suing thousands of consumers over the course of years for very little return. Even then, this is hunting goldfish rather than the internet pirate website whales.

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one to feel this way, but my overall impression of copyright, intellectual property, and swirling vortex of issues around those two issues can be summed up in one word: unsatisfactory. Personally, there isn’t much quality television out there and even less quality movies that demand to be seen on the big screen. I’m willing to wait to television series or movies to come out on DVD and either borrow them from a friend or from the library. Even for the series that I’m following closely, there is nothing pressing that I need to watch right this moment. The price point is not sufficiently low enough to tempt me to purchase it for that instant gratification. It’s not to say that I haven’t been tempted, but the temptation is very fleeting.

Professionally, it feels like dancing through a landmine field. I am trying to steer people to the legitimate track of properly authorized and compensated copies of digital media, but society and business seems to conspire against this ideal. The social acceptance of media copying have lead me to the hardly surprising conclusion that people are copying the music and movies that they check out from the library at home. Over the course of my library years, I’ve even had the unfortunate experience of intervening when people were brazenly ripping CDs onto their laptops at the library. Some honestly didn’t know that it was a copyright infraction while others picked up on the fact that they could copy those CDs but in the privacy of their own homes. When it comes to eBooks, it’s tricky to guide people away from the ease of P2P downloading when the so called “friction” of eBook lending turns the question of borrowing into a overly long complex and extremely contextual answer. In trying to respect the owners of copyright, I end up showcasing all the madness that they have brought down on themselves in order to enforce it. It does nothing to encourage compliance nor engender respect for the concept or the laws supporting it.

Some may argue that librarians are not the stewards of copyright or even “the copyright police”. If you are someone who believes that, do me a favor and keep that stupid opinion to yourself. Librarians will not get a seat at a future copyright reform table if they abandon all forms of current enforcement. While I’m not advocating roaming the streets or even the library itself to patrol for infractions, the simple act of not intervening when infringement is found surrenders our moral high ground as custodians of other people’s work. How are we going to maintain their trust if we as information professionals make it clear that we intend to look the other way? It does not bode well for a future in which intellectual property rights are becoming increasingly important to individuals as well as businesses.

There is another end to my dissatisfaction with copyright; I can’t claim that I’m still perfect in this matter. I will look for legitimate ways to get digital media, but sometimes those outlets don’t exist. Some of the music tracks I find on YouTube don’t have a means to buy them on iTunes, Amazon, or the artist’s website. I have used one of the many Youtube to MP3 conversion sites out there to obtain a music track that I could not otherwise obtain. Perhaps some might find this to be hypocrisy on my part and I’m willing to concede that. I would say that while this is an action of last resort as a mitigating factor doesn’t make it completely right, but the lack of any legitimate sources left me with either using a convertor or not listening to the music at all. It’s not an ideal tiebreaker, but I rationalize that the artist would rather that I enjoy their music than let it go unnoticed or unappreciated.

With these things in mind, I await the next round of copyright and intellectual property reform. While I look forward to it, I also fear it. History has shown how the business interests have driven the protections beyond the original intent of the Constitution as well as years beyond the lives of content creators. The balance has tipped to the point of outright interference with creativity and innovation. I hope that it can swing back towards the interests of the people while giving ample provision for creators. Copyright is heading towards that moment, but I dare not guess when that moment will happen. I can only hope that it is soon.

Mawwiage

The word “wedding” is a magical word.

When uttered, it immediately brings forth to mind a special day where a happy couple are surrounded by their family and friends. The beauty of the ceremony, the joy of the union, and the potential awesomeness and/or awkwardness that is the reception are all invoked by those who have ever accepted an invitation. Popular culture has given us stories and images of lavish affairs, loving exchanges, and the happy couple riding off into the sunset.

It is also a magical word as it acts as an event cost multiplier. Three tier cakes magically change from $150 to $500, banquet hall rentals magically shift from $900 to $1400, and simple entrees magically double in price. It’s small wonder that the average wedding cost in the United State is just north of $25,000. To put this in perspective for myself, this is about three times what I paid for my car back in 2007. (Sadly, I wouldn’t get three cars because New Jersey auto insurance rates are adjusted to stay slight below “blackmail” levels at amount that is commonly known as “completely screwed”.) As soon as the word “wedding” comes out while making appointments to visit potential venues, you can hear the faint chorus of cash registers go off in the distance.

On top of that, my fiancé and I seem to trying to do this on Hard Mode. We’d like a small wedding with roughly thirty people. That doesn’t seem too tough, right? The venues we’ve looked at so far either have a fifty person minimum or a Byzantine catering price menu that has so many options I feel like I need a guide. This seemingly innocuous dilemma is really just a frustrating “pick your poison” decision point.

As anyone who has been married before can tell you (and this is not my first rodeo, as they say), increasing the guest list can be a social tightrope act through mine laden family and friend territory. With the current list, we have the “absolutely essential people” plus an iron clad “sorry we do love/like you but we didn’t invite you” explanation. In moving beyond that list, the debate for those seats begins to loom larger as the potential for hurt feelings increases. Your wedding then becomes a focus point of short and long term grudges and (as the horror stories I have heard go) you spend more time on soothing people who weren’t invited than on decisions that will affect the people who are attending. It’s a social quagmire that we are trying to avoid.

The average banquet menu doesn’t offer much solace either. You start out with a simple price per person, but then there are the options. These multitude of a la carte items are really a nickel and diming guilt trip trap set by the caterer. Sure, you love your family and friends, but don’t you love them enough to add a champagne toast? Tiny mac ‘n cheese appetizers? Veal might be cruel, but would be crueler not to offer it? All of these tiny monetary mousetraps have costs like “$4 a person” which doesn’t seem so bad until you start doing the math. Suddenly turns your $45-a-person meals into a budgetary death spiral. And that’s before gratuity and sales tax. 

All this roams the background as the anxiety of finding a place that has dates available pushes forward. We’d like to get hitched in October of this year which apparently is going to be an issue in itself. Not because it is only seven months away, but according to one wedding vendor we’ve talked to October is “the new June”. I guess we have arrived in time to experience some sort of wedding date rebellion where one time of year has become so cliché so that people must take the opposite season. Since we are late getting into the game here (we were engaged on Valentine’s day), the choice of dates has dwindled considerably.

I do have faith that we will be able to find a place and make it work. Though the preparation and planning can be a drag at times (like right now), these are still all fun decisions to make. When the day comes, the days of stress and running around will slip away in the magic of the moment. I’m looking forward to that day, whenever and wherever it may be.

But I can’t help but think of the wedding planning advice I’ve offered couples over the years, both solicited and not. Like all advice, it seems to be something I will give to others but not practice myself. It’s a one word piece of advice and perhaps the best and least stressful thing a couple can do for their wedding:

Elope.

Why I Just Won’t Shut Up (or, Why I Blog)

I’ve been turning over Bonnie Power’s post “Why do bloggers blog?” in my head for the last two weeks. Every time my fingers have come close to touching the keyboard and writing something about it, my attention span would magically divert itself to something else like video games or social media stuff. In the past, I’ve taken that as a sign that I’m really not up for writing on a particular topic and just moved on. But, alas, her post planted a thought that simply wouldn’t die: why do I blog? In just letting it run its course, here is what I found.

Initially, it felt pretty self evident; I write because I have something to say and I want to be heard. The internet, the great digital soapbox of our time, has the capability of providing that platform for the second part of that sentiment. But “something to say” is just too neat, too tidy; I wanted to say something that would make people think. I wanted to offer something different, something new, something to push people into using their critical thinking skills. It is my desire to fill the role of a public intellectual for libraries, a position that I have not seen much in my travels around the web. It’s only been recently that I’ve found something that captured that sentiment:

An intellectual is not an expert, and a public intellectual is not an expert who condescends to speak to a wider audience about her area of expertise. An intellectual is a generalist, an autodidact, a thinker who wanders and speculates. As Jack Miles puts it in a stellar essay on the question, “It takes years of disciplined preparation to become an academic. It takes years of undisciplined preparation to become an intellectual.”

Setting aside the problems of such a label (and there are some) as well as whether my efforts are taking me there (perhaps, perhaps not), the underlying motivations have not exactly been what I expected. They seem to be rooted in a dissatisfaction with the status quo, the not-always-constructive need to argue, and a nearly unexplainable driving desire to offer differing and sometimes contrarian point of views. This is a writing arc that only seems to have me finish as a human form of Grumpy Cat, forever unhappy with anything. It’s a struggle not to end up in the gutter ball lane of internet humor, the short snarky retort written in Impact font over the picture of an animal. It’s the mantra of “try[ing] to add something worthwhile to the conversation” that keeps me on track most of the time. That ideal has killed more blogs posts than I care to imagine.

I would say that the keyword that has appeared within my own thoughts around why I blog is “challenge”. I want to challenge people to defend their beliefs so as to help make their arguments tighter or see an error in their thinking. I want to challenge people to step up to the plate, to have the courage of conviction to take on the pressing issues of the day, and to step outside their comfort zone to (as they say in the ALA Think Tank) make it happen. I want the challenge of saying something bold, something crazy, and perhaps something unexpected. I want the challenge of people telling me I’m right or wrong and assimilating what they say into either defending or evolving my own positions. I want the ultimate challenge that comes with failing; and failing grandly with an online world that never forgets, so as to take the lessons from it and move on.

I don’t want to squander my youth or my status as a still-new-to-the-field librarian in writing ‘safe’ blog posts, bland ramblings on mundane subjects that fade into the background of the online libraryland noise. I feel a duty to be reckless, impetuous, and antagonistic so as to reap the rewards of wisdom and experience that will shape my writing into my later years. This will ruffle a few tail feathers, but I consider that to be a statistical inevitability.

In the end, I’d like to imagine that I’d be writing this blog even if no one read it. But knowing that I have a following, that my blog posts are shared widely around the world, and that people are impassioned enough to take the time to offer a comment, that makes it so much more compelling to continue to write. I’d like to thank everyone who is reading these words, those who share them, and those who think they are worthy enough for discussion. I am humbled and honored by your attention in this world of distraction.

Resolution, 2013

I have to admit that the end of the year turns me into a optimist. In that brief window of time from Christmas Eve to waking up on New Year’s Day, the cynicism that has built up over the course of a year stubbornly melts away. Perhaps it is the magic and the wonder of the season, maybe it is the marking of the end of the calendar, but in that brief glorious time frame, everything seems fixable, solvable, and otherwise capable of closure. It doesn’t diminish the efforts required to reach such resolution, but it looks like an attainable goal.

I hate when that feeling slips away as the holiday makes its way down the memory hole. It’s as if the solutions that have presented themselves are somehow hitched to that feeling; they are being carried out in the same motion that the holidays are leaving. But I know, deep down, that I can’t keep prolonging the holidays in the hope of keeping the spirit. I need to find a way to continue it forward of its own accord.

In writing this out, I guess my resolution for the year is to remember that the issues in my life (personal and professional) can be solved. It seems silly to write or even say out loud, but sometimes it takes something simple to remind yourself that “crushing reality” of a situation or issue is neither crushing nor reality. It just looks that way.

I hope we can all remember that this year as we tackle those professional issues like eBooks, Big Data, and copyright. I especially hope I can remember that when I am wrestling my own personal demons (and likewise as you deal with yours). Here’s to a year better than the last.

One Two Three, One Two Three, One Two Three…

I am not a natural dancer. My girlfriend reminds me of this fact, accompanying it with one of those pats on the arm meant to cushion the blow of receiving unwelcome news. It’s not a surprise anymore after a year of learning country line dancing, both single and couples dances. I still have some trouble finding the beat and, even if I do find it, staying on it is another matter. I’ve gotten a better sense of the beat over the year and can correct myself to match up, but it’s an ongoing process.

Over the weekend while we were visiting her parents for the Thanksgiving holiday, I was invited to come to her parent’s dance club. The club has an hour lesson followed by about two hours of open dancing. Ballroom dancing, I should add, as it is another kind of dancing that I am not wholly unfamiliar with. I’ve had a single lesson for West Coast Swing, but that’s about as far as I’ve gotten outside the rigid formulas of country dancing. While you can add your own variations (“styling”, as I’m told it’s called) to country dancing, there is always a known basic formula for moving around the dance floor. With ballroom dancing, you get to decide what happens next.

This is a relatively new and somewhat foreign concept for me.

On Saturday night, we learned the basic steps of the waltz. It was during the lesson that I experienced an incredible amount of frustration. While I understood and was able to replicate the steps in practice when they were broken down into one or two sets of movements, connecting these different steps together in a continuous flow was proving to be difficult. I felt incredible frustration at an inability to connect my thoughts on what my body should be doing to my actual body movements. I knew that I had to step and move a certain way and my body didn’t seem to be receiving that same message. The steps started to jumble up together like a giant knot and I was trying to pull it apart on the fly paired with a partner.

To put it in perspective, it was the type of frustration that makes you want to run away crying and screaming in rage; sticking it through feels like every part of your brain is calling out for you to quit now. I’m proud that I stuck it through the rest of the night, but it was emotionally and psychologically draining. It left me feeling very vulnerable and in the clutches of a black mood as we drove away back to our hotel room at the end of the evening.

In thinking about this experience on the long drive back to New Jersey, I started to wonder if I had seen that kind of frustration that I experienced in some of the people who have come to my classes over the years at the library. My thoughts lead me to consider the basic computing class that I teach. It’s an excellent example as to how some concepts that are so basic to some can be so distant to others. I thought about the number of times someone expressed being nervous about typing on the keyboard, clicking on things on the screen, or even moving a program window. Had these people felt their own version of the knot, where the concepts suddenly turned into a jumble? How many people stuck it out in the classroom when all they wanted to do was leave and never turn on a computer again? How were they able to deal with their frustration?

Was I able to get them through those moments?

After the lesson and stumbling through a waltz during the open dance, I was relating this knot allegory to my girlfriend’s mother. It felt good to be able express this frustration, but the advice she gave me in return helped immensely. I’m paraphrasing since I don’t remember her exact wording and I felt like it really hit the heart of the matter.

Another couple was having trouble with a lesson that had both basic and advanced steps and it was really putting a crimp on their evening. The instructor told them that when the dance came up again to go out and just do the basic steps over and over again. Don’t worry or think about the advanced stuff, just focus on the basics. In working on holding their frame and technique, it would help them get create muscle memory and become comfortable with a series of moves they could build on and always return to.

On the basis of this advice, I have to commend my girlfriend for being very patient with me for an evening full of basic step waltzes. (I had enough technique to be able to rotate a little, so it wasn’t that routine.) But this kind of experience is a nice reminder about the difference between people who come to things naturally and those who have to work on it to excel at it. And, more importantly for me, that I need to be more alert and sensitive to those people who might be frustrated in that same way to provide them with the help and encouragement they need to unravel their own knots. Any knowledge can be broken down into “one, two, three”, but translating it into skill is a wholly different matter. The next best thing to being a natural is being someone dedicated to mastering it.

In the meantime, I had better start practicing or else we’ll be doing basic steps forever. I don’t know if she has the patience for that.

Jersey Strong

Last Friday, it was only when I was driving down the highway to my girlfriend’s house that I realized that I had hurricane news fatigue. That day I had gone into work and lost power shortly before the library was to be opened. Apparently, the electric company was trying to get a substation online that was underwater from the hurricane and it failed. After a day of no power, the night was coming on, my apartment was getting colder, and I was tired of waiting for the power to come back on.

In driving down the interstate, I saw a line of power trucks heading north and my eyes immediately misted up. I bit my lip to stop the tears as I looked at the long train heading in the other direction. The realization in the moments afterward was plain: I really needed a break from the hurricane and all its related news.

To be plain, I count myself very fortunate that was spared the worst of the storm. I lost power for about two hours on Monday night and that was the extent of it. Some parts of my town had no power for days. My friends and family were healthy and safe, albeit they had stories of flooding and power loss in and around them that they shared on Facebook and Twitter. If anything, I was experiencing the storm by immediate proxy.

The other half to the social media contingent was the news media aspect as they raced to add photos and updates about the tri-state (NJ-NY-CT) area. The pictures of cars floating in Manhattan dovetailed into the tremendous storm surge that devastated the Jersey shore region. It was to the latter that I found myself searching for images of, well, any of the beach areas that I had fond memories regarding. Anything to do with the Long Beach Island, the place where I spent many summer days from my birth to my late teens, to Atlantic City, the place just over the horizon from Stockton State College, to Seaside Heights, a place I discovered as a young adult.

What I found was just devastating: beaches gone, houses wrecked, boardwalks crumpled. The wrath of a storm had exacted its price from the land. An intense curiosity to find more along side a set of honed search skills, traits that are seen as highly desirable in librarian profession, soon became a liability. When I found more stories and images, it saddened me; when I couldn’t find something on a particular area, it provoked an anxious response and pushed me further to look harder.

Between the social media and my own searching, I was simply saturated in the hurricane news. When I wasn’t reading a friend’s update, I was scouring the New Jersey news outlets for pictures and particulars. Unthinking, I was diving too deep into the whole situation. Ultimately, it provoked a late night anxiety attack that had me reaching for the Xanax to quell.

In talking with my girlfriend about this whole series of events and coming to the eventual realization contained within this post, I had to wonder. I’ve seen some pretty nasty things online that remind me that humans are capable of real depravity. It bothered me, but not to the level that it has with the hurricane. The difference I feel is that this is personal. The other things, the wicked things people do to other living beings on this planet, is still abstract. It’s horrid, but it’s not anyplace I’ve ever been or seen. The storm damage is so very tangible as I look on at images at places I’ve been to and know. That is the difference, I think, and where my feelings have come on stronger and more intense. And so, I’m taking a bit of break and limiting how much I can search. So far, it’s been working.

I’ve been looking to pivot these feelings into action and see what I can do to help out. I may be tired of the scenes of devastation but I know that the people in those scenes are not afforded the same luxury of distance. NJLA has put together a donation fund to help out libraries and library systems that were hit by the storm. I emphatically encourage people to donate. I’m waiting to see what else I can do to help out when it comes to those libraries. In the meantime, I’m hopeful. It’s the one thing I can be.

(Note: Nancy Dowd wrote a lovely piece about her Jersey roots and the storm. It’s a good read as well as containing links to other ways to help out.)

Christmas 2011

When I came home Sunday, there was a package waiting for me at my doorstep. Delighted and pleasantly surprised upon reading the name of the sender (a good friend who will not be named but is appreciated greatly), I dropped my bags inside and set about to open the USPS box to see what goodies awaited me. Slicing off the tape with scissors, I reached through some brown packing paper and pulled out a large Ziploc bags holding two smaller holiday bags. I squinted and peered through the narrow transparent portions of the bag, trying to figure out their contents.

Cookies, I surmised, turning them over till I could see. Ah, yes, I could see the wonderful doughy edges and corners now. Excellent.

It was at this point that my nose began to tickle. A particular strong odor was now present in the room. While not unpleasant nor disgusting, it was immensely potent and not one I recognized. I opened the ziploc bag in my hand and stuck my nose in to take a whiff. No, that’s not it, I thought as I set aside the bag and reached into the box once more. Rummaging through the paper, I felt another smaller sandwich bag at the bottom of the box. It was heavier than the larger bag and much more solid to my touch. As it cleared the edge of the box, it became very apparent that it was the odor source. It too held a holiday bag, although this one had split during the course of its journey. My scientist brain kicked in.

White. Looks like granular sugar. Smell powerful but don’t know what it is. No label on the bag.

Huh.

There I stood for a few minutes, turning this bag over and over while my brain  tried to match it to anything it could in vain.

Sugar? No. Crushed peppermint? Doesn’t smell like it. Salt? Why would she send a bag of salt? To keep the cookies fresh? Really? Hey, man, I just work here. You oughta kick this one up to Analysis.

Rather than spend any more time wondering, I texted my friend.

Me: Oh, thanks for the package! Merry Christmas! Saaaaaaay, I see two of the bags are cookies. What’s in the third bag?

The next day, I get a reply that only deepened the mystery.

Friend: Not sure

I look at the phone, quietly contemplating this new development. Was there a mistake? Did she send me dishwasher powder or some other cleaning agent by accident? (That’s another theory I came up with over time.) How many packages did she mail so that she would not be able to recall what she had put in mine?

Undeterred, I texted her back.

Me: You sent it to me!

Friend: Lol it’s a surprise! Just eat it!

Huh.

Well. Ok then!

After I got home that day, I grabbed the bag off my dining room table and examined it again. Still white, still granular looking, still very strong in odor. I’d say it wasn’t like anything I’ve ever smelled before, but as a man, my smell categories are limited to “masculine”, “not masculine”, and “other”. As it was not the clearly not the first and not immediately identifying itself as the second or third, it presented a quandary. But, having been assured that it was “a surprise” and that I should “just eat it”, I opened the sandwich bag.

While I thought the smell on the outside of the bag was very strong, cracking open the bag pushed the line upwards to “universe enveloping”. It would be akin to going from the scent of second hand smoke linger beneath your nose to taking the lit cigarette and plunging it upwards into your nasal cavities. The word “omnipresent” has yet to find a better non-divine example.

Needless to say, this created many doubts as to my friend’s assurances. My quickly established inner compromise was to take a singular grain onto the tip of my finger. I sniffed it once more as if that particular dot on my finger was the problem and not the hundreds of thousands if not millions of its brethren still sitting in the bag inches away. Nothing new was gained from this and so, in one swoop, I dabbed it on the middle of my tongue.

Oh. God.

It was neither sweet nor sour nor bitter nor salty. It was vile. I made an all vowel noise that universally signifies across the multitude of human cultures that what I had tasted was a very big mistake. In making a a b-line to the sink, I spit out what was left of the grain, all remaining saliva (contaminated or otherwise), and anything not firmly attached to gums or jawbone.

Surprised? Indeed, I was.

Now I was stuck with an immediate mental aftermath full of questions. What the hell did I just try to eat? When was the last time I pissed her off? Was she trying to poison me? (Historically, women are poisoners so this was a remote yet plausible possibility.) Or was this a recipe that had gone horribly, HORRIBLY wrong?

I settled on the last one as the most likely explanation as I dumped the bag into the trash. I could still smell it, so I pushed the bag way down in the trash bag in the hopes that the decaying kitchen garbage above it would mask the smell till I took the bag out. I took the time honored vow to thank her once more and then never mention it again.

Ever.

Six hours after our text conversation, I get another message from her.

Friend: I just realized what you were asking me about. The bag?  It’s bath salts.

That all vowel noise that I made when I tasted what I now discovered was bath salts? Yes, I made it again.

We then had a lovely text conversation about what it was like to taste bath salts (“horrific”) and how incredibly sorry she was for not labeling the bags. I discovered that the odor I did not recognize was in fact lavender (to which it was properly placed in the “not masculine” category). I rescued the bath salts from the trash, put it into a new sandwich bag, and am looking forward to using the bath salts in the proper manner in the near future.

As they say, all’s well that ends well. There were two important things to learn here:

  1. Label your all Christmas goodie bags since you never know how might try to eat them.
  2. I will try to eat anything.

Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas, folks!