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The Straight Dope 

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Out here in the northwest, it's becoming increasingly common to put gallon milk jugs half filled with water on the perimeter of your lawn. Supposedly this discourages dogs from relieving themselves and they move along to a jugless lawn. Can this possibly be true? Or is this the pink flamingo of the 90s? --Ralph Goldstein, Oregon City, Oregon

And Oregonians think people from California are flakes? This unbelievable stunt has been floating around since the late 1970s, and by now has spread all over the world. Folklorist Jan Brunvand, who tells the whole story in his latest book, Curses! Broiled Again!, says he saw plastic bottles on lawns everywhere during a trip to New Zealand, and apparently they were common in Australia, too. Where the idea started nobody knows, but numerous early instances have been reported from California. "Explanations" for it include: (1) dogs won't foul their own drinking water; (2) they get spooked seeing their reflections and/or the glitter of the water; (3) it ain't the water, it's the bottles--the water just keeps the jugs from blowing over; (4) you have to put ammonia or mothballs in the water--the smell is what repels the dogs.

With the possible exception of (4), all are unlikely. As one of Brunvand's correspondents notes: "I was not completely convinced of the efficacy of such a system [upon first hearing of it]. My skepticism proved justified when, a block later, my dog backed directly onto one of the plastic bottles and left one large turd delicately balanced on top of it." Next case.

Who in the world dreamed up the idea that there's a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? --Anonymous, Los Angeles

God knows. It's been proverbial at least since 1836, and the idea of chasing rainbows period goes back a lot earlier than that. The catch, of course, is that you can't get to the end of the rainbow, owing to the fact that it's an optical effect dependent on the relative orientation of the sun, you, and a suitable collection of airborne water droplets. If you're not directly between the droplets and the sun, no bow. If you spot a bow and try to chase it, it simply recedes before you until the angles don't line up anymore, at which point it disappears.

Rainbows are strictly in the eye of the beholder. You may see a small local bow created by the mist from a squirting garden hose, but somebody on the other side of the hose will see nothing. Not only can't you get to the end of the rainbow, you can't even sidle around it--no matter what you do, the rainbow always appears to face straight toward you. As a result, chasing rainbows has come to symbolize, depending on your degree of cynicism, either dreaming the impossible dream or pursuing a fool's errand.

GRATEFUL DEAD: NOT UNGRATEFUL AFTER ALL

As John Epler may already know, the Dead are no more efficient than they have to be. The mail answerers are rummaging through the backlog in search of the Dicrotendipes thanatogratus note. [In my June 9 column on the origin of the name "Grateful Dead," I noted Epler's complaint that he'd heard nothing after writing to tell the Dead that he'd named a newly discovered bug after them.] Your column was the first anyone had heard about it, and it's a nice flash.

For the record, naming the Dead took place at the house on High Street in Palo Alto on a November afternoon in 1965. The name was found in a regular Funk and Wagnalls dictionary, probably the 1956 edition.

Gerould's book on the "grateful dead" legends is lovely. Stith Thompson also discusses them. [Typically the hero pays a dead man's debts so his corpse can be buried. Later a stranger, who turns out to be the grateful dead man, joins the hero and offers his help, on condition that all winnings be equally divided.]

Is the grateful dead man tempting you? Are you making a moral decision? The flat hit you get from the words "grateful dead" can be enhanced by pondering what life situations the g.d. tales represent. When you listen to such tales you're living on that level of symbolic transaction. --Bill Legate, San Rafael, California

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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