Skip the B.S.
By Skip Eisiminger
“I realize that I have fallen far short of Thomas Edison, who exploited every visitor to his laboratory: guests had to push mightily through a turnstile to enter the grounds and, as they pushed, they pumped eight gallons of water from a well into a cistern on the roof. Other heroes include the man who made trousers with asbestos pockets so he could carry his lighted pipe without his wife seeing it, the Inuit woman who carved off a piece of her thigh to catch a fish for her starving child, and the GI who figured out how to spot Iraqi trip wires by spraying a suspicious room with Silly String.” Skip Eisiminger
“Skill and confidence are an unconquered army.”—George Herbert, c. 1630
“Of the 40 countries analyzed, the US came in dead last [in improving its innovative capacity between 1999 and 2009].”—Fareed Zakaria, 2011
CLEMSON South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—7/8/2013—Ever since some nameless Cro-Magnon “rounded” the triangular wheel into a square and declared that innovation progress, humans have honored the resourcefulness of their creative fellows. While Neanderthals had used the same crude tools for 100,000 years, Cro-Magnons took one look at a ten-pound grain crusher and said, “We can make that better looking in half the weight.” The reduction did little for their triceps definition, but at least the ascendants of Daedalus didn’t fall into bed every night too tired for sex. The population soared accordingly, and we, who have not ground grain by hand for centuries, are some of the benefactors.
I recall my grandfather, who raised enough food for a family of seven, telling an incontinent grandson that peeing in one’s pants would not keep him warm for long. We were horseback riding and a long, cold ride from a bathroom. But then he confessed, “On the other hand, if you don’t want to wake your wife, just stick one leg in the john and pee down your leg . . . . Now don’t go spoiling my little secret.” I’ve never understood why he didn’t tell his wife of his pre-dawn courtesy because she appreciated the resourceful as much as he. Indeed, she canned most of the food her husband and his sharecropper grew.
My grandmother loved telling about her British friend Frieda who was invited to her sister’s fiftieth wedding anniversary long before 9/11. Knowing how her sister admired Tiffany lamps, she bought a Japanese knock-off and wrapped it with great care. The airline clerk, however, told her she’d have to check her box, for an eighteen-inch cube would not fit under or over the seat. Momentarily thwarted, Frieda retired to the lady’s room, unpacked her treasure, placed it upon her head, and returned to the ticket counter. Without the trace of a smile, she wore the multi-colored glass “hat” on and off the plane with such composure, no one questioned her.
Unfortunately, Frieda’s little ruse is the exception. What makes people so modest about taking credit for what’s clearly a virtue? The Salvation Army recently ran an appeal in The Wall Street Journal for donations under the picture of a town flattened by a tornado. The headline read: “Combatting Natural Disasters with Acts of God.” In other words, when a Salvation Army soldier hands a bowl of soup to a person whose home has been blown away, that’s an “act of God.” I recall when “acts of God” were repaired by acts of human kindness.
I also recall reading of a bowler who, on the brink of rolling a perfect game, watched helplessly as lightning killed the power. He waited several hours before gathering some volunteers and directing each to illuminate his alley with a flashlight, several cellphones, and a lighter. A few seconds after throwing his twelfth strike in succession, the lights came on. Said the bowler, “This was a case of divine intervention—He had to be watching.” I’m sorry, but if God turned the lights out, humans fixed the fried circuits, and humans deserve most of the credit.
Fortunately, our family has few qualms about owning up to its resourcefulness. If my Aunt Clarice had to drive at night, she’d put her hair up in pigtails. Then, she’d hold the left braid out of the window while she rolled it up. That way, if she nodded off, the yank on her scalp would wake her. If she were riding shotgun, she was known to pee off the running board if her mother wouldn’t stop.
In high school, my father built a “car” from an old Chevy frame and a Model-A engine. My German father-in-law did him one better. While serving as a POW in France, he built a wooden frame from scratch for a pre-war engine his captors had found in a barn.When he finally escaped, his wife unraveled the filthy “PW” sweater he came home in, and reknit two smaller ones for the children.
Many years later, our sure-footed daughter poured a large Coke on her best friend’s shorts. I should explain that the friends were returning to a camp for physically-challenged children where the girls were counselors. Marie, the driver, spun the car around on a dirt road when she missed a turn and began laughing so hard, she wet herself. Afraid to show up in front of 50 campers, many of whom were bedwetters, our daughter just poured the rest of her drink on her friend’s pants, and they concocted a story about a pothole.
And then there’s me. I have designed and built much of the furniture in our house, cleaned the toilets with Alka-Seltzer tablets, built the prototype “Gutter Declutterer,” and a folding bar extension. Moreover, in the army, I was known to pee on a frozen carburetor. I’ve also jerry-rigged my glasses with paper clips, stapled a ripped-out cuff, and hidden a sock hole with shoe polish on my ankle. My proudest discovery, however, was figuring out that I could lick the upper right-hand corner of an envelope instead of Uncle Sam’s mucilage. However, before word of my innovation had spread, the post office introduced no-lick stamps.
I realize that I have fallen far short of Thomas Edison, who exploited every visitor to his laboratory: guests had to push mightily through a turnstile to enter the grounds and, as they pushed, they pumped eight gallons of water from a well into a cistern on the roof. Other heroes include the man who made trousers with asbestos pockets so he could carry his lighted pipe without his wife seeing it, the Inuit woman who carved off a piece of her thigh to catch a fish for her starving child, and the GI who figured out how to spot Iraqi trip wires by spraying a suspicious room with Silly String.
Humans are not alone in their ingenuity: some wasps lay their eggs in ladybugs that incubate them. Ribbon worms have been known to eat their “extraneous parts” to avoid starvation. And when Burmese elephants seek to help themselves to bananas from an orchard, they slather their ankle bells with mud to silence them.
Studies of the animal kingdom bring us to the distinction between discovery and invention. Isaac Newton reportedly sought a patent for gravity but was dissuaded by someone who pointed out that he had not invented anything. About a century later, Ben Franklin discovered lightning was the same stuff that came off his battery contacts. To his credit, he sought no patent for his discovery of something that had been around for billions of years. On the other hand, Franklin was entitled to patent his lightning rod, but he turned down the opportunity because, as he said, humanity needed his invention more than he needed the money.
While a team of lawyers from Boeing has won a patent for the moon’s gravity, in 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that no one can patent a gene they have merely identified and analyzed. In layman’s terms, finding your dirty jeans is not enough; you’ll have to distress them in an original way if you want a patent.
Note: The image used to illustrate this column, Zeus, the Greek god of lightning, facing off against Ben Franklin, and his lightning-rodding-kite, was created by Jason Heuser, and may be accessed at http://wellthatsjustgreat.tumblr.com/post/13524641388/swreiterbenzeus.