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A cluttered mind: Vuvuzelas, Russian spies and places that don’t exist

Sure, as a concept it’s a great idea to clear out clutter; but that’s simply not realistic. Who would throw away an old map of Minnesota that includes a number of places that don’t exist?

A cluttered mind: Vuvuzelas, Russian spies and places that don't exist

Uncle Al had assumed, incorrectly, that when Spain beat the Netherlands in the World Cup in South Africa, that would be the last we would hear about the vuvuzela — at least until the next World Cup.

So he was dismayed to see in the paper last weekend a photo of a young person attending the Schwan’s USA Cup in Blaine, tooting one of the instruments in question. He is assured, by acquaintances who pay attention to the world of sports, that this second vuvuzela-accompanied affair has run its course as well, so he can begin to relax.

It is not the mere presence of the vuvuzela that disturbs Uncle Al, although it is quite an unsettling device. Rather, he is afraid that at some point one of the apparently millions of people playing vuvuzelas at soccer games will suddenly get it into his (or her) head to use a vuvuzela to play the Macarena. The rest of the crowd will immediately snatch up the haunting rhythm, and seconds later, given the instant-communication magic of Facebook, YouTube and slogans displayed on T-shirts on “The Price Is Right,” every vuvuzela in the world will be blatting out the Macarena.

And then the universe will end.

In the meantime, Uncle Al is led to believe, soccer is retreating from the world stage, so he can unclench his jaw and return to the subjects that normally occupy what, after three years of retirement, he still likes to call his mind.

Lately there have been two such focuses of Uncle Al’s interest: that group of fabulously unuseful Russian spies, and the partial deaccessioning of the incredible Sicherman Collection (of stuff in his basement).

Down to the basement
Let’s start with the basement. Uncomfortable as it is for Uncle Al to contemplate, he has come to realize that very few things in the Sicherman Heap have become more fascinating in the 15 or more years since he last examined them.

So he has lately begun moving them out: He is setting some easily reusable stuff out in bags for those drive-by charity collectors; he’s flogging on eBay a few gizmos and thingies that he thought were neat when he was still way over on the other side of the hill; and he is (gasp!) throwing some stuff away!

There is, of course, a fourth category, easily the largest one: Stuff he is keeping.

Sure, as a concept it’s a great idea to clear out all the clutter; but that’s simply not realistic, and Uncle Al knows that any attempt to actually do that would fall apart immediately as he stared in sheer panic at the box of enthralling office memos from 1974. As Confucius would have put it, if he had thought about it, “Disposal of a thousand boxes begins with a single old magazine.”

A perfect example of something Uncle Al is keeping for now is an old Minnesota wall map he acquired many years ago, probably at some flea market. In many ways it’s a perfectly ordinary (though very large) state map, but it is odd in one respect: It includes a number of places that don’t exist.

It hung in his kids’ bedroom for a few years, during which Uncle Al looked at it pretty often and finally decided that such places in the Twin Cities metropolitan area as Ditter, Teutonia and Warwick might be railroad junctions rather than municipalities.

He mused in writing about a similar collection of odd place names some years ago, when Atwood, Augusta, Argonne and many more, started showing up on one TV station as Minnesota places in the path of possible violently dreary weather. That turned out to be because the station had recently acquired (and hadn’t yet refined) a database called the Geographical Names Information System, that apparently included anything anybody had ever called anyplace.

So a person who didn’t know any better — like one of those Russian spies — might conclude that those were real places. And a showdown like that at the climax of “Stalag 17” — “Where do the Cubs play?” “A cub is a baby bear!” — could be the unmasking of a spy who claimed his parents lived “over in Atwood.”

Problems with local names
In fact, even if someone like Anna Chapman (you might have known her in Russia as Anna Kushchenko) picked a better place to say she was born — say, Prestigious West Bloomington — there are other ways she could wind up giving herself away. Such as mispronouncing local names.

The most obvious ones, of course, are saying “Nic-o-LAY” instead of “NICK-l-it,” “EDD-ih-na” or “Edd-EE-na” instead of “Ee-DIE-na,” and almost anything instead of “MAH-toe-MEE-die.” Two other favorites could be tripped over only by older spies: Claiming to have met someone at the “LEE-ming-ton” (instead of “LEMM-ing-ton”) Hotel, and claiming to be a personal friend of John “CAH-wuls” (not “Coalz”).

Equally open to deep suspicion is offering to take a person from Minneapolis (or St. Paul) to dinner in St. Paul (or Minneapolis).

 …Where was Uncle Al?

Oh, yes! So he’s not getting rid of the map showing the Twin Cities localities of Ditter, Teutonia, Warwick, Shoreham and Warrendale. You never know when they could be in the path of a tornado. Or something that sounds like one, like a freight train. Or a million vuvuzelas.