Always Look for a Better Way

Leonard Pickel was my college roommate a long time ago, and a childhood friend before that. I'm pretty sure he would win a contest for the person I know with the most interesting job.

There are two morals to this story--a small one and a large one. The small one is: When you go off to college, live in the oldest and shabbiest dorm available. Leonard and I did this, unwillingly to begin with but by choice in successive years. The oldest dorms had the largest rooms (with wonderful high ceilings). Sure, we had to go down the hall to use the shower, but that also meant others were paid to clean it. And since the dorm we lived in was always on the verge of being condemned, we had a lot of license to paint our rooms any color we wanted and generally abuse the premises. (That's a photo of our dorm below.)

At Halloween, we made use of this freedom to put on a little haunted house. At 50 cents a head, we made enough to have a nice little pizza party. This being the late seventies, we furnished our haunted house with items such as a Star Wars cantina. The creep down the hall who was into martial arts put on his leather suit and a gorilla mask. While he stood perfectly still everyone was sure he was a mannequin, until--Hah! Got you! And one of Leonard's inspirations was a corridor with multiple doors that characters could run in and out of (ideal for a dormitory setting, and in retrospect probably inspired by Yellow Submarine).

After graduation, Leonard and I went our separate ways. Leonard, with an architecture degree, went to work for an architectural firm doing, you know, architecture stuff. But he still put on a haunted house now and again on Halloween. And then, after some years, he decided to chuck it all and do haunted houses full-time. As his dad said, his working capital was a trailer full of 2x4's.

Now here comes the second large moral. Leonard didn't just put on haunted houses; he thought about what he was doing. He kept looking for a better way. How do you keep people from bunching up so you can maximize the number of customers you can put through in an hour? How do you protect your actors from the obnoxious lout looking for an excuse to punch someone in the nose?

Now Leonard is not just a haunted-house guy--he's a leading authority in the independent haunted-attraction business. People in the field talk about the "Pickel theory" of haunted-house design, which encompasses both practical considerations and an aesthetic philosophy: Leonard cares little for blood and guts, preferring instead to rely on good old-fashioned startles.

Thanks to Leonard I have a window onto a fascinating little industry I would otherwise know nothing about. Some years ago my family and I visited the attraction Leonard was operating in Myrtle Beach and got a behind-the-scenes tour. We were also Leonard's guests at a haunted-attraction convention where I was fascinated by the seminar he gave.

Leonard's website: Here's one of his designs:

P.S. Leonard, I always thought "Pepper's Ghost" would make a good title for a short story with some kind of ironic twist at the end.

Comforting Lie of the Day

Photo by Faeryan

From TIME magazine:

Ah, yes. We'd all like to believe this, wouldn't we? So Michael Phelps ingests 12,000 calories a day and yet doesn't get fat because of--just dumb luck? Some obvious issues with the article:

1. "Weight" is probably not the metric that most people are really interested in. Dropping fat and adding muscle in some cases leads to an increase in body weight while the individual slims down. Body measurements or percentage of body fat might be more meaningful.

2. Even the most strenuous exercise group in the study worked out for less than 30 minutes a day. Puh-leeze. It takes me longer than that just to drive to the gym.

My own theory is that a major factor in the success (or lack thereof) of an exercise program is mindset. If you're going to spend 20 minutes on the Stairmaster while flipping through a magazine and then whine about how much willpower you've used up, it's probably not going to happen for you. (Willpower is required for this type of exercise program, because it's just so damn boring.) On the other hand, if you're really interested in finding out what your body is capable of, and pursue the goal intelligently, it will be far more enjoyable and effective at the same time.