Lucille

An ant’s-eye view of the kitchen


Ant
I.

Lucille froze stock still on top of the counter. She had been running along beside the edge of a damp sponge when she had felt a vibration and at once sent out a whiff of alarm pheromone to warn the other girls.

Peering around the corner of the sponge, she waved her antennae to sense whatever was on the air and gauge the situation. Her eyes weren’t very good, but she became aware of a man in a blue apron at the far end of the counter. He was cursing loudly and squirting something from a plastic bottle at the other ants on her team.

Lucille was an apprentice forager for Queen Attina’s ants, a colony living on the property that Apron Man somehow thought of as his own. She had just received her outdoor certification a couple of weeks ago1. Before that, she had been a porter, and when the colony had been forced by rain to move from the main nest in the garden to a makeshift one just under the kitchen floor, she had spent a couple of exhausting days carrying stuff to the new lair: food stores, pupae, the winged male Alates, who were too lazy to walk, and even Queen Attina herself, who was too fat. It took a couple of dozen porters, working in shifts, to get her over there. Then they had to broaden the main tunnel to get her down to her lair. Attina had put on a few milligrams since founding the colony.

The foods that were available around the garden nest were much better than the processed snacks in this kitchen. Lucille was getting along in days, now, with a touch of irritable crop syndrome, and all the gluten this apron guy ate kept her up at night. The couple next door shopped at an organic grocery, but their kitchen was spotless, while Apron Man was a slob. Crumbs and leftovers everywhere. It was easy pickings, and so here we are, she thought. Every morning, the priests send us here.

The priests were a small group of the oldest ants. They got up early each morning and stepped outside to decide where to send the foraging teams. They liked to avoid ants from neighboring nests, so there wouldn’t be any fighting. Then, they went back inside and spent the rest of the day just lounging around. They had it easy. Lucille liked to imagine a life in the priesthood, although she knew they would never accept her. And right now, she had this human to deal with.


Apron Man hated the ants, and he’d been growing more aggressive lately. They’d been raiding his kitchen for some time and it was starting to get to him.  At first, he would just squish single ants with his finger and wash down the counter tops a few times. Then he tried barriers of coffee grounds and baby powder, but the ants kept coming. Last week he put up a framed sign with the words “No Ants”. There was an ant silhouette in a red circle with a red slash through it. But it showed a different species than Attina’s horde, so the team ignored it. Now, the guy had escalated to this spray bottle, which he held out in front with both hands like a TV cop, sighting along the bottle cap. Lucille watched as he moved slowly along the counter on the balls of his feet, looking for targets.

The ants in Lucille’s party were scattered around the counter and walls, where they had been looking for food. Most remained immobile, hoping not to be noticed. But now, Sara, who was caught out in the open, suddenly lost her nerve and made a break for the wall.  Apron Man spotted her as soon as she moved, scurrying on her six tiny legs. He squatted down a little lower and straightened his arms with the spray bottle. Lucille watched in horror as a stream of fluid shot through the air and landed on the poor ant, clogging her spiracles and drowning her. The man laughed triumphantly.

Lucille’s antennae picked up a trace of citrate. Too bad for Sara, she thought.

But now, it was Lucille’s turn to panic as the man came steadily closer. He stared intently at the counter, picking up plates and forks and looking underneath them. If he picks up this sponge I’m dead, she thought. She tried to pick a moment when the man’s gaze swung the other way and made a dash away from the sponge, ducking behind the No Ants sign.  As soon as the darkness enveloped her, she felt safe. Creeping for some distance, eventually she hunkered down in the dark, under the edge of the leaning frame, and let her mind wander as she waited for the man to leave.

II

One of Lucille’s first memories was of emerging from her pupal case in the crèche near Queen Attina’s inner chamber. A crèche worker had approached and groomed her for the first time, smearing her cuticle with a paste of hydrocarbons from the nest’s midden. All of the colony’s ants wore this scent, which they sensed with their antennae. There were other hydrocarbons, too, that might mark an ant as a stockroom worker or a laborer. They told a lot about an individual. Hydrocarbons make the ant, it was said.

Nearly all the ants in the colony were sisters, hatched from Attina’s eggs. There were a few winged males, the Alates, who just sat around waiting for the next neighborhood mating party. That was where the males and newly-hatched, winged queens from all the local colonies would get together and have sex all night. Attina had gone to one of these orgies and claimed to have made it with every Alate there, the slut. But afterward, she had established the garden nest and founded the colony, and since then she’d been laying eggs every day.

Hiding behind the framed sign, Lucille suddenly thought of Zelda, who had emerged from the pupal case next to her own. Zelda was a tough ant. Lucille had seen her pick a fight with another worker once, squirting formic acid to burn the other ant’s eyes, and then biting off her abdomen. Even before pupating, Zelda had gotten into trouble. She was caught sniffing princess pheromone with a couple of other larval delinquents, and the crèche workers had spent a whole day biting them to prevent them from developing into queens. She’d had a chip on her trochanter ever since.

These days, back at the nest, Zelda hung out with a group of toughs who loved to pick on Lucille. They made fun of her looks. The ants in the colony all shared the same mother, but they weren’t twins. They had many different fathers and their appearances varied. Lucille’s cuticle was ruddy, and Zelda’s group teased her mercilessly about it. They called her “Red” and said she looked like a Xeno.

The Xenos were a tribe of parasitic ants living under the hedge. They were known to sneak pupae into other ant colonies to avoid having to feed them. The insinuation was that Lucille was an outsider, and sometimes she felt isolated even from ants who were not part of Zelda’s circle of friends. She became withdrawn and insecure.

III

Suddenly, Lucille was bathed in light. Apron Man had pulled away the frame under which she hid. The guy must have spotted her when she’d made her run from the sponge, Lucille thought. And now, terrified, she watched as he raised the spray bottle and pointed it right at her. He squeezed the trigger.

The bottle wheezed. Nothing came out. The spray mechanism must have leaked and needed priming, Lucille thought. The man pumped it furiously while she ran like hell. She felt a few droplets splash just behind her as the pump began to work again, and, in desperation, she jumped from the edge of the counter.

Down and down she fell, through empty space, as the wall flashed dizzyingly beside her. Lucille only weighed a few milligrams, and her buoyancy in the air slowed her fall. At the bottom, she landed on her feet. Looking quickly around, she saw that she was in a corner, with walls on two sides. At the base of one of them, an incompetent contractor had left a narrow gap under the baseboard. Into this gap she now ran, out of reach of the citric spray. Thank Aeacus2 for shoddy workmanship, she thought. Apron Man sprayed at the wall for a while, but she cowered under the overhang and again waited for him to leave.

IV

Lucille’s team had found a half bag of M&Ms behind the toaster oven, and now her mission was to bring news of the find back to the nest. She had filled her crop with sample chocolate, taken from one of the blue ones, her favorite. Leaving a pheromone trail back to the find, she would feed some of the chocolate to other ants by regurgitating it down their throats, a feeding process that ants call trophyllaxis. Describing the size of the find with hydrocarbons, she would then recruit other ants to collect the rest of the M&Ms.

Sara had chosen to sample a red M&M, she recalled wistfully. Suddenly, it dawned on Lucille that she was going to have to tell Michelle about Sara’s death. Michelle had been Sara’s grooming partner. How was she going to break the news to her?

The three of them had been friends for a long time. Lucille had always liked Michelle: she had a cute little upturned clypeus and mandibles that were to die for. But, as shy and accustomed to rejection as she was, Lucille could never bring herself to make a move. She wanted to tell Michelle how she felt, but she could never find the right hydrocarbons. And so, Lucille had longed for Michelle in secret, while Sara openly courted her. Finally, the two of them had moved in together, while Lucille ended up sharing a flat in Elm Shaft with five other girls. She had to go to a public salon in the Queen’s Tunnel for grooming.

And now Sara was gone. Secretly, Lucille was ashamed to find herself wondering if this might not be an opportunity.

Now that she was a forager, she mused, she was qualified for housing on the upper levels of the nest, near the entrance. The galleries up there were modern and roomy, much nicer than her cramped apartment. Perhaps she could entice Michelle to move in with her. But, she was getting ahead of herself. First, she had to break the bad news. And those upper level places hardly ever became available, anyway.

V

After a while, Lucille emerged from under the baseboard. The man seemed to have gone. But she was lost and had to find her way back to the colony. She stood indecisively for a few seconds, not sure of what to do, then started walking along the edge of the wall, toward the light. There had been a window over the counter.

Shortly, she found her path blocked by a line of white chalk drawn across the floor. It was Miraculous Insecticide Chalk, she realized, and Apron Man must have drawn it. Unscrupulously sold as non-toxic, so-called Chinese chalk is actually laced with pesticides. Lucille figured the guy didn’t know this, though, because he had it all around his food. Maybe that’s why he acted so weird.

But the team had seen a chalk line yesterday, Lucille recalled, a little way from the place under the sink where they had gotten into the kitchen. She decided to follow it.

VI

Ever since she was a young ant, Lucille had wanted to be a forager. She would have jumped at any job, really, that allowed her to work outdoors. The inside of the nest was close and musty. It tended to get moldy despite the ants cleaning it all the time. The avenues and tunnels were narrow, the plazas were small, and even though it was crowded there were no good restaurants. They were all trophyllaxis joints, and some of the waiters gave her the creeps.

But it was hard to qualify for those outside jobs. Only older ants got certified, or those with previous outside experience.

With her reddish cuticle and the suggestion that she was somehow foreign, it was hard for Lucille to find any kind of job at all, even inside. If you looked different, there were ants who didn’t want to work with you, jobs that weren’t open. Sure, you could always find work on the fungus farms. They always needed labor. It was hot, cuticle-breaking work and most of the girls wouldn’t do it, the little formic princesses.

In the early days of the colony, Attina’s warriors had raided neighboring nests, bringing home slaves to do those jobs. Lucille reflected that, despite forcibly bringing in outsiders, the colony did not really seem to like having them around.

But Lucille didn’t want to work on the farms, either. She thought the fungus was slimy, and she was prone to yeast infections, anyway. The farms were in the hot, claustrophobic core of the nest, and she simply couldn’t stand it in there. So, Lucille found herself among the many idle worker ants hanging around at tunnel intersections waiting for day jobs. Attina’s well-established colony had an excess of workers available for foraging, maintaining, and cleaning the nest. The economy was strong, but unemployment was rampant.

VII

The chalk trail turned to the right, and Lucille continued along beside it. It seemed to follow the contours of some cabinetry. Eventually, it led to a green floor mat, and Lucille experienced a flash of recognition. They had come to this mat during yesterday’s excursion. It was made of carpeting with a Persian design, and Sara had complained that it clashed with the dish towels. But there were only a few granola crumbs on it, and they had left disappointed.

Now, however, Lucille had a good idea of where she was. They had been counting steps3, yesterday, when they came to this mat. It was about 100000 steps4 from the far edge to the crack in the wainscoting where they had emerged. And the mat formed a convenient bridge over the Chinese chalk. She began to walk, and continued musing while a part of her brain counted steps.

VIII

One day, Lucille had found work stacking seeds in one of the nest’s storage galleries. She was watching as some workers carried pizza crumbs down to a gallery in the second basement after the foragers had dropped them off near the nest entrance. One of them had rubbed hydrocarbons on her antennae to tell her they needed warehouse help. So, she applied and got hired as a stacker. After that, she worked the warehouse regularly.

Lucille was ambitious. She worked her abdomen off, stacking crumbs, and was soon promoted to porter. That allowed her to respond to hydrocarbons from incoming carriers when a new shipment arrived, and she got to go up to the entrance to pick up loads. The air was wonderfully fresh up there, near the opening. It felt cool in her spiracles. She would quickly carry her crumb or seed back down into the nest, then hurry back up to get more.

It was during one of these runs, while Lucille was near the nest entrance, that she felt the vibrations of a loud noise coming from outside. A large mower was being pushed across the lawn by an old man in dirty jeans. The catch bag on the mower was overflowing, but he didn’t seem to care. Cuttings flew all around, a number of them falling across the nest entrance and blocking the trails that the foragers used.

Outbound ants whose passage had been blocked came running back into the nest smearing hydrocarbons on everyone they met. There was an emergency call for workers to clear the way. Lucille wasn’t certified for outside work, but she received an emergency credential from the intense signaling and ended up outside, dragging grass clippings away from the opening. It was her first experience outside the nest, and she loved it.

IX

The cracked board was much as she remembered it. It was a small crack, but beneath it a patch of the wood floor, wetted repeatedly by spills from the sink above, had softened and left a depression. Lucille ducked down into this and scooted under the cabinetry into the space near the trash bags under the sink. There were often garbage spills down here, with pheromone trails left by the ants that exploited them. Lucille found a small branch trail and began to follow it back toward the nest.

The branch trail took her to a main thoroughfare that ran along the exterior wall of the house. Lucille was surprised at the number of outbound ants she found on this main path. A strong scent of trail pheromone on the ground indicated a rich source of food nearby. Lucille had hoped to start recruiting workers to go get the M&Ms from among the foragers out here on the trail, but every ant she encountered turned her down.

Their hydrocarbons confirmed that they were already on their way to a source of food. The human had dropped a plastic box full of a sugar solution a short way up the trail. Simple syrup was highly prized in the colony. The ants would fill their crops with it and return to feed it to their nest mates. This was better than Lucille’s chocolate, and closer to the nest. After a few more fruitless encounters, Lucille gave up and continued down the main trail toward home.

She thought again about Michelle, dreading having to tell her about Sara.

X

The trail led through a space between the floorboards to the crawl space under the house. There, the nest entrance lay close against the outer wall. But, when she arrived there, Lucille was shocked to find a dire situation. Mountainous piles of dead ants surrounded the main entrance, as midden workers dragged still more of them out through the opening. Lucille had to slip past the outbound traffic. Inside, more dead ants clogged the passageways. The midden workers were complaining about all the work, smearing hydrocarbons on anyone who passed by in an effort to recruit help. They were offering an outdoor credential and many of the day workers were interested, but Lucille pressed on into the nest.

She learned more from the other ants in the tunnel. A poison was circulating in the colony and killing workers. No one was sure where it came from, but it had begun at about the same time the foragers started bringing in that simple syrup. Some of the girls thought the stuff was doped with borate, a deadly poison to ants. They said the plastic box was a trap that Apron Man had bought. He had removed the label so the ants wouldn’t know what it was. The guy acts like a buffoon, but he is ruthless, Lucille reflected

The poison had almost reached Queen Attina, which would have meant the end of the colony. But Sasha, her taster, had gotten sick before the queen consumed any, and Attina was spared. Too bad for Sasha.

Lucille was surrounded by a cacophony of signals as the colony dealt with the emergency. Some ants wanted the sick ones isolated, some wanted them disinfected with formic acid. Some wanted the whole inside of the nest disinfected, while others advocated a return to the garden nest, away from the poison and the dead bodies. Competing hydrocarbons were passed back and forth. In the chaos, Lucille forgot her own message of chocolate. She continued toward her apartment, uncertain what to do.

However, the message about returning to the garden nest had begun to resonate with her. The food was so much better in the garden, after all. And if the colony did move, apartments would be assigned on a first come, first served basis among the foragers. This was her chance, Lucille reflected, to get a place near the entrance.

She hurried off to find Michelle.

 

1An ant week is 6 days long.

2Aeacus was an ancient Greek king who asked Zeus to turn ants into men (so he could have a nice army). Present day ants worship him as a god and try to appease him for fear that he might do the same to them.

3Ants calculate distance traveled by counting their steps, each of which is about 0.2mm long. They don’t usually waste pheromone to mark a trail unless food has been found.

4 This is in base 6. Having six legs, ants perform all mathematical operations in base 6, where the number 100000 is equivalent to 7,776. This is about 1.5 meters.

 

 

Dragonfly Spelling

Spelling Bees are elitist, biased, and culturally insensitive. It’s time for Dragonfly Spelling.

My friend Alexandra was complaining about the spelling bee at the elementary school her granddaughter attends. She told me that spelling bees are elitist, biased, and culturally insensitive. In her opinion, they should be replaced in the curriculum with some other spelling exercise, something that offers an equal chance of success to people of any ethnicity, gender, or sexual preference, irrespective of whether or not they know how to spell.

Alexandra argued, not unreasonably, that children from immigrant households see and hear a lot of their ancestral language, perhaps more than English. She then claimed that this put them at a disadvantage when it came to learning to spell English words.

This argument is nonsense. It ignores not only the fact that kids of Asian backgrounds regularly win these things, but also the advantages of bilingualism. I grew up in a household where everyone spoke French. And yet, I won the fifth grade English spelling bee.

At the final round, in Room 312 of Public School 2 (Alfred Zimberg Elementary) on that day, there were only three of us who had not yet been eliminated: two girls, Janet Gingold and Marion Wasserman, and me. Janet and Marion were the smartest kids in the class and they were best friends. At the Christmas party, they sang Heart of My Heart in harmony and everyone clapped their hands. I was the class clown, and not particularly diligent at schoolwork. But, I was a pretty decent speller.

Mrs Gasworth, our teacher, tapped her pencil against the notepad on her desk and read the next word out loud: “Choir”. That’s a tough one, I thought. It was Janet’s turn, but I tried to think of how I would spell it.

Janet looked uncertain: “Q-U-I-E-R”, she tried. That had been my guess, too. Thinking she’d got it right, I began to ready myself for the next word. I was shocked when Mrs Gasworth said “No, that’s incorrect”.

Good grief, how do you spell it, then? It was up to Marion now to spell the same word, and she looked panicked. She must have thought Janet was right, too. Hesitantly, she tried out “Q-U-I-R-E”.

That would have been my next guess, too, but something about it didn’t seem right.  “That is also incorrect” said Mrs Gasworth, and I was less surprised this time.

But, now it was my turn to panic. Mrs Gasworth turned to me and I searched frantically for a plausible answer.  Something with a K? Like K-W-I-E-R? No, couldn’t be. The class was waiting and I didn’t know what to say.

And in that fraction of a second, something flashed through my Franco-American brain. The previous evening, perusing TV Guide, I had come upon the word choir.  In my mind’s eye, I could see it on the page. I had wondered briefly what it meant before moving on to the next program description.

And now with the eyes of the whole class upon me, I realized that the English word choir comes from the French choeur of the same meaning. It is also the word for “heart”, as the choir is the heart of the church. The TV Guide listing must have been for a concert of some kind.

Everything fell into place. I said, clearly,  “C-H-O-I-R”.

There was a pause. Mrs Gasworth dropped her pencil onto the desk. The other kids thought I was fooling around, and some of them giggled. They were amazed when Mrs Gasworth announced that I was right. She looked a bit surprised herself.

And so, I won the English spelling prize (a chocolate bar), not despite my speaking a foreign language at home, but because of it.

I thought Alexandra’s condemnation of the spelling bee for perceived cultural bias was, at best, misguided. Cultural differences augment us by challenging us to adapt. Spelling bees are a part of the English curriculum, and a word is no more than a word. Can we be sure that the math curriculum is not culturally biased in favor of the children of accountants and engineers?

Nevertheless, I suggested an alternative classroom exercise for her to propose at the next PTA meeting. I thought of calling it Dragonfly Spelling for no particular reason (the origins of the term “bee” are uncertain, anyway). You can think of it as a spelling bee done backwards. In a spelling bee, you hear a word used in a sentence and are asked to spell it. In Dragonfly Spelling, you see a word that someone else has spelled wrong, and you are asked to use it in a sentence. There are no winners or losers, which is as unbiased as you can get.

Alexandra was enthusiastic about the proposal, so I gave her a few examples to use in her presentation. And you, dear reader, may use them to try it, as well.

  • dognuts
  • meaty oaker
  • odor colon
  • sillow wet
  • minipaws
  • dairy air
  • egotesticle

Fishing

Stealing from Seagulls

Today there was a fisherman on the beach.

I looked down on him from the bluffs as he stood there holding his long rod and facing the waves, right in the middle of Montara Beach. He was a tall, skinny character, wearing blue coveralls over a light blue sweatshirt. With red shoes and a white pail, he looked nicely coordinated. It was all topped off by a broad-brimmed canvas sunhat and punctuated by a pair of black gloves that drew my eye to his hands, even from a distance.

When he glanced up, I saw that a checkered bandana was covering his face. Only his eyes were exposed.

After standing there for some time without catching anything, the fisherman suddenly put down his rod, attempting to set his reel in his little white pail while balancing the rod on top.

He came running up the beach, waving his arms at a couple of seagulls ten or twenty yards away. Something about the way he moved his body made me think he was Chinese. He chased the gulls away from the body of a crab they had been dragging out of the ocean, and then picked the crab up himself, carrying it back to where he had left his rod.

I had expected him to put the crab in the pail, or to tear it up and use it as bait, but he did neither of those things. Instead, he just threw it into the sand where he’d been standing.

Then he spent a long time brushing sand off his reel, which had not remained balanced. After a while, he went back to the crab and buried it under a few inches of sand. Then he resumed fishing.

Later on, still having caught nothing, the fisherman decided to pack up and go home. He reeled in his line and picked up his little bucket. Then he dug up the crab. Using the same cloth he had used to clean his reel, he cleaned the sand off of it and put in in his pail.

And then he walked off, all the way to the north end of the beach.

I was glad not to be invited for dinner.

Leave No Hole Unturned

A scattered thunderstorm is possible.

As a department manager at one of America’s great corporations, I got to attend the weekly staff meetings of our unit’s Director. The staff included some of the best minds in the company, people with great leadership potential. Of course, there were also a few imposters like myself.

Most people complain about meetings, but I saw these as an opportunity to learn. Whenever I heard something interesting I would write it down. I present a few of the more interesting locutions here.

The Director

The Director was a vigorous guy in his late fifties who liked to lift weights in the morning before work. He ran extra laps before his annual physical to get better numbers on the heart monitor. This positivity led to an enthusiasm for improbable business opportunities and, in discussions of strategy, to the frequent use of sports analogies.

  1. Let’s play it one ear at a time.
  2. You can’t just bite the first bullet that comes by.
  3. You can’t just email: you have to talk to people manually.
  4. Some things really get your wheels thinking.
  5. The storm clouds don’t always clear at the end of the tunnel
  6. Keep me up to breast on that.

Admin

The Director’s admin attended the meetings to take minutes. She started things off by reading those from the previous week and to discussing corrections. She once came in and told us that the boss was not available, he was disposed of.

  1. The rest of the minutes is the same every week. It’s a lot of duplicity.
  2. He’s being Hippocratic when he says that because he does it too.
  3. Do you get the jest of what I’m saying?
  4. It always ceases to amaze me.

M&A

We had a one-man mergers group, and the Director loved to discuss his interactions with other companies. He lived in a make-believe world where the company might actually invest in one of these deals. The M&A guy was always very fervent in presenting these opportunities. He liked to talk about mission-critical objectives. The Director would say something about fourth down.

  1. If you have a gold mine, you should fly with it.
  2. Their assets are broader than first blush might offer.
  3. I’ll ask what they want in the way of retribution.
  4. A deal should be win-win for us, if not for them.
  5. By then it will be a mute point

The Marketing Department

There were always a lot of marketing guys at these meetings. Each one was responsible for a product line, and they would talk about what they were doing to sell it. The Director was an ex-salesman and he would make suggestions. The marketing guys would tell him they were good ideas and write them down. Then everyone would look happy for a minute.

  1. Always look at both ends of the coin.
  2. Don’t put the chicken before the cart.
  3. I think there’s a flaw in the ointment
  4. Sunk costs are water under the river
  5. We’ll launch an ad campaign as a peremptory strike.
  6. They’re notoriously famous for that
  7. Don’t reveal anything that might tip our hat to the competition

Product Development

Development was headed up by a succession of interchangeable engineers who wore cotton shirts and khaki pants. We always had one or two major projects under way, and they were always on schedule until they were not, at which point they were suddenly 5 months behind. This was the result of a succession of interchangeable engineers telling their bosses whatever they wanted to hear.

  1. The marketing concept has to be flushed out with more detail.
  2. It’s an estimate based on a back-of-the-pencil calculation.
  3. A modular product is compromised of subunits.
  4. This valve lets the vacuum out.
  5. This guy has a photogenic memory
  6. Project costs are calculated imperially.
  7. We use a process of trial by error.

Finance

The finance guy was an accountant who felt audacious taking off his jacket. Standing in striped shirt, tie, and pants, he would describe preparations for the next audit. He kept stashing money in various contingency accounts so that he could “find” more profits at the end of each quarter, enabling the Director to make his bonus. This maneuver earned him a hefty bonus of his own.

  1. We need to recuperate those losses
  2. We’re ready, at least superfluously
  3. Those requests are far and few between
  4. The claim was denied, and righteously so
  5. B2B means Business to Business, it’s an anachronism.
  6. We will leave no hole unturned.

Manufacturing

Every week, the factory manager reported on the number of units made for each product. He had a lot of detailed spreadsheets, and he always complained about last minute, rush orders. Then he sat down and went to sleep. He seemed to be awake, but when I sat next to him I could hear him snore.

  1. Trying to solve two birds with one stone.
  2. They have to run between two gauntlets
  3. This group is between the horns of a dilemma
  4. That’s one of our weakest vulnerabilities
  5. This is where we are at this point of juncture

Human Resources

The HR manager was the kind of person who wanted you to know that he really meant everything he said. His brow was permanently furrowed with concern that you might not fully subscribe to his veracity, and he had a habit of repeating everything twice. He had a Ph.D. in education and earnestly wanted to be a general manager. Perhaps because of this, his comments were not limited to personnel, but touched upon everything from sales to distribution.

  1. That’s not a normal situation. It’s an abrogation
  2. It’ll happen not far in the distant future
  3. Every time he does that, it just exasperates the situation
  4. He was really chasing at the bit
  5. Now we’re all in the same shoe
  6. He’ll be coming here on a periodical basis
  7. I had to pour oil over ruffled feathers
  8. He always manages to land with his feet up

Birthday!

What if they gave a war and no one came?

Today is my birthday! I am 25,934 days old. For those of you who struggle with higher math, that makes me 71.

I woke up this morning and rushed to open my email, anxious to see what birthday greetings I might have received. There was an e-card from my dentist, and BMW had even sent me a gift! It was a new ringtone, “made entirely from the iconic sounds of a BMW”! Right away, I knew this would be a great day, as I imagined all the congratulatory phone calls coming in, each one making my phone sound like the time I dropped a muffler on the freeway.

But I was disappointed to receive nothing from my insurance broker, whose e-cards usually feature a nice portrait of several people I have never met. It was still early, though: maybe I’d get something later in the day.

Since I quit Facebook earlier this year, I knew that people wouldn’t be able to overlook my birthday the way they had in the past. Now, they would have to ignore me by email or text. I had been concerned that this might confuse some of my acquaintances and was relieved to see that most of them seemed to have managed the transition quite seamlessly.

But, how to spend this very special day? Checking the weather,  I found that the air quality had improved all the way to “unhealthy”, with smoke from the fires still burning up north, the whole forest a giant birthday candle, just for me. I put on my jogging shoes and went for a walk around the living room.

I decided to smoke some birthday weed. After all, if you can’t stay stoned all day on your birthday, when can you? Just this week, I had bought the ideal cannabis strain for the occasion, something called Smarties. According to one online reviewer, “Smarties’s buzz is perfect for daytime use and presents as a calm and mellow euphoria backlit by hints of full-scale relaxation.” It was already mid-morning and it felt like euphoria was overdue, so I lit up. Or backlit up, I’m not sure.

After that, it was time for party games! I played Sudoku for an hour and won every game! Birthday luck, I’m sure, ’cause I’m not really all that good at Sudoku. Then, I moved on to Solitaire, but I got bogged down during the third game and had to give up. Still, I had won more games than anyone, so I considered myself to be the winner of the party.

Maxine Hong Kingston says the winners of the party are the ones who stay ’til the end and who get to talk about everyone else. I was the last one at my birthday party, but I found I had nothing to say.

The Apron and the Knot

A tangled tale of apronology.

Monday  afternoon

Hi Dianne — I decided to cook today (beef goulash), but I keep having trouble with my apron. It’s a blue French apron with strings that go behind my back, and every time I every time I try to tie them together back there, the knot comes loose. I fiddled with it all afternoon, until finally I managed to twist something into place that held. But it was a bulky contortion, at best.

When I got done cooking I tried to reach back there and get the knot untied, but it kept snagging, and I found that I couldn’t get the apron off. After a bit of this, I lost my temper and pulled at it real hard. Unfortunately, this just made matters worse, and now the thing is frozen into a knurl that is harder than a rock. I’m stuck in my apron. You’re out of town and Eric is in San Jose, so I have no one I can turn to. Do you think I can go next door and ask Frank for help? I don’t want to look silly.

Tuesday Morning

Hi Dianne  — I couldn’t use the hot tub last night, and I had to sleep in my apron (Frank wasn’t home). I was up all night because the knot kept digging into my back. At least I didn’t have to worry about drooling.

But Eric is coming over this afternoon, so everything should be okay. He was a Boy Scout.

PS – Will paprika stain my sheets?

Tuesday Evening

Well, Eric came over today but he wasn’t able to get the knot out of the apron. The canvas straps are stiff, and they’ve been pulled on so much since yesterday that he couldn’t get them to slip at all. He even tried prying it with a screwdriver, but the blade wouldn’t go in.

So, he called up his friend Peter. Peter works at Sam’s Crab House, and he knows a lot of people. It turns out that one of them is an apron specialist. Peter was sure he would be able to help. “Miguel knows all about aprons.”

We headed over to Sam’s.  Miguel must have been busy with other apron victims, though, because we had to sit in the waiting room for quite a while before he could see me. Apron removal specialists are in high demand, I realized. The waiting room at Sam’s is furnished with a long bar and comfortable stools, and Eric and I were sitting there patiently when Miguel’s assistant, his brother Juan, came out to collect his co-payment.

So I bought another round, and we waited a while longer. Finally, Juan ushered me into a bustling, cavernous kitchen that doubled as both an apron exam room and an OR. There, I met Miguel. A large, ill-shaven man of about fifty in flannel shirt and soiled trousers, he was wearing a black apron of his own. This gave me pause for a moment because I had been expecting the white coat of a clinical apronologist. But Miguel seemed to know what he was doing. He examined the knot with the confident air of an expert.

“Not a problem,” he announced, after some study. Then he went off to get an apron removal instrument, a “navaja” is what he called it. Figuring that this was some sort of specialized device available only to professionals, I began to relax, confident that I was in good hands.

But I grew alarmed when Miguel returned wielding something that looked like a butcher’s knife. And even more so when he raised it over his head and tried to grab at my apron. That’s when I screamed and started running around the kitchen, with Miguel chasing me and everyone else trying to get out of the way.

Juan positioned himself in front of the door, blocking my exit. “The boss gets upset when we chase patrons through the dining room,” he explained. I turned around and ran the other way.

On my third vault over the steam table, however, my toe caught on the edge and I ended up crashing to the floor. Miguel was on top of me in a flash and, with the help of Juan and several others, he held me down and performed the apronectomy.

It probably would have gone better if I had struggled less. There would have been less collateral damage. As it was, the EMTs gave me two units of blood and I’ll probably get released tomorrow. I’m wearing a hospital gown right now, but they told me the apron is in the plastic bag with my clothes.

Raccoon Redux

A raccoon is caught in flagrante delicto

One of them almost got in the other night.

This time I heard it coming, though, and although it was a close call, I was able to ward it off. Years ago, some kind of commando got in undetected, and once entrenched it was difficult to dislodge. This time, however, the attempted break-in was under the window where I sleep, and it woke me up. At about one in the morning, I heard a scraping sound. Listening more closely, there was a heavy, irregular grunt. Someone was trying to break in to the crawlspace under the house.

I had to fight to keep my pulse under control as I recalled the episode years ago, when another raccoon had managed to rip open one of the gratings. It had set up a nice little encampment under one of the bathrooms, and apparently enjoyed scratching its back on the underside of the tub, all the while issuing little cries of bliss. This interfered with my sleep, and eventually I decided I had to chase the thing out from under there.

This proved quite difficult to do. Seeking advice at Hassel’s Hardware, I was told to throw an ammonia-soaked rag into the nest. Raccoons don’t like the smell of ammonia and, although they can rip open steel gratings, they can’t figure out how to get rid of the rag. And so they leave, at least in theory.

On the strength of this, I bought a can of ammonia from Hassel, soaked a rag in it, and crawled down through the trap door leading to the space under the house. This was a dark place full of cobwebs and mud, and I didn’t like being there at all. It was unfortunate that the trap door where I crouched was located at the far end from the suspected raccoon nest, but I was unwilling to venture any further. Do your best, I thought to myself, somewhat ineffectually, and I balled up the rag in my fist and threw it as far as I could. This turned out to be about four feet, and it had no discernible effect on the raccoon population. However, I did ruin a shirt by getting ammonia on the sleeve.

After this foray into chemical warfare, I tried talking the kid next door into crawling under there with a broomstick, but he wanted too much money. Finally, I managed to get rid of the thing by applying the principles of physics: I left the trap door propped open, allowing free raccoon transit. Even with only one raccoon, the partial pressure of raccoons under the house had to be higher than the partial pressure of raccoons in the rest of the world (although not while it was sleeping, as its kinetic energy would then be zero).  By allowing the system to equilibrate, I knew that the little beggar would have to come out sooner or later (Dalton’s Law of Raccoons). After a few nights, the dogs next door alerted me that my tenant had gone out to forage, and I ran out to shut the door. The broken grating had been replaced by then, and so territorial integrity was finally restored.

Thinking back on that unfortunate episode, I realized that the present alarm had to be taken seriously. As much as I wanted to roll over and go back to sleep, I couldn’t allow this animal to break in and establish an outpost under my house. It was cold and I was warm in bed, but all good men must come to the defense of the premises (when threatened). I couldn’t just go back to sleep.

I got up and staggered down the hall in my underwear.

Somehow, I managed to find a flashlight and stepped through the patio doors out onto the back deck. I swept the yard with the beam, seeing nothing along the back wall. Then, near the shrubs, the bright glint of two eyes stared back at me. An animal with a striped tail stood motionless in the middle of the lawn, insolently sizing me up.

Unarmed men, this is a good time to point out, are not at their best confronting wild animals while clad only in their boxers. As the raccoon considered what to do, I tried to hold my ground. But I kept imagining razor-like teeth and claws, while thoughts of rabies also vied for my attention. Eventually, I said “Go away,” as forcefully as I could. I may have added, “please”. And the raccoon must have been impressed, because it turned around and disappeared into the darkness near the fence. After a while, I went back to bed.

It took a while for my heartbeat to slow down again, but finally I managed to get to sleep. Not for long, though. In a short while, the scratching resumed, as distinct as before.

Cursing, I returned to the patio door with my flashlight. This time, I caught sight of the animal slinking around the corner of the house. It was hiding in a narrow pathway bounded by high shrubs and leading to a latched gate, biding its time and hoping I’d go away. I was hesitant to corner it in this dead end, especially in my underwear, and so I needed an alternate plan. I decided to come around from the other side of the gate and try to flush it back out into the yard, hoping it would run away. I ran inside and put on a pair of pants. Then, feeling decidedly bolder, I grabbed a broomstick from the garage and headed around to the gateway.

Hoping the neighbors would forgive me for the noise, I started banging the stick on the gate. After a bit, I peeked between the boards with the flashlight, and sure enough, the raccoon had fled to the far end. It was in the main yard again and near the fence. Summoning my courage, and hitching up my pants, I opened the gate and advanced down the walk, while making a racket with the broomstick against the wall of the house.

My light caught the raccoon for an instant as it ran along the top of the fence before jumping into the neighbor’s yard. The dogs must have been sleeping, I guess, because they remained quiet. Feeling a bit disappointed by this, I stood there listening for a while. No hint of raccoon. So, I went back inside, leaving the broomstick by the patio doors, just in case this wasn’t over. And again, I tried to go back to sleep.

This time my nap lasted all of an hour. At that point, an even more raucous rasping awakened me from under the window. Once again, I cursed and jumped into my pants. Grabbing flashlight and broomstick, I threw open the patio door and stepped outside. This time the raccoon had made enough noise to rouse the dogs, and they were barking furiously next door. I decided to add to the commotion by raking the broomstick on the metal patio chairs.

In the midst of this commotion I found the raccoon with my light, near the side of the house. It froze in the beam, clutching the end of a piece of metal grating it had half torn from the wall beneath the window. From the looks of things, it had just now succeeded in making the opening large enough for a raccoon to pass through. Dalton’s Law, I realized, now favored its ducking inside.

But Dalton’s Law is based on statistics, the probable motion of a population of raccoons. It further assumes that this motion will be random, and that the raccoons will be infinitely tiny point-raccoons. Here, however, was a single instance of a raccoon poised to move in a non-random manner. Statistically anomalous outcomes were imaginable. For a moment, the animal hesitated, and I wondered as I banged on the chair. Would it climb in through the hole and try to hide, or would it panic and flee the racket I was making together with the dogs?

Finally, the commotion proved too much for it, and the raccoon turned and vanished under the ceanothus and over the fence in the corner of the yard. They have a dog over there, too, but it’s a little froufrou thing with bows that wears a sweater whenever they walk it. It’s not the kind of dog that confronts a raccoon. Not without a pair of pants.

•••

The next morning, I was out in the back replacing the torn grating. In a way, I felt bad for the poor raccoon. It had put in a whole night’s worth of hard work pulling the screen out from its metal frame, cleverly working on the weakest part of the design, only to be thwarted at the last moment.

After a while, Frank came over and said hello. Frank is my neighbor and he’s even older than I am.

“Was that you out here last night with a flashlight?” he wanted to know. “I was watching TV and I saw a light movin’ out here.” Frank is a good neighbor and a vigilant insomniac. He has a sharp eye for burglars, but not for raccoons. He might be a bit hard of hearing, as well, because he didn’t mention the banging.

“I was gonna call the cops, but I figured a burglar wouldn’t be using a flashlight,” he added.

The use of felines to repel raccoons is recounted here.

The Sea Lion

The sea lion didn’t like seagulls or photographers. It just wanted to eat fish.

The sea lion couldn’t believe his good fortune. There was a run of salmon here, just off the end of the pier. They were running so shallow he could just reach down and pick them out of the current, he didn’t even have to dive. Surrounded by the constant squawking of scavenging gulls, he was enjoying a satisfying meal.

He reached down again and grabbed another fish, jaws clenching it tightly just behind the gills. Dragging it to the surface, he shook the fish back and forth with fierce movements of his head, breaking it into pieces that flew off in all directions. Seagulls swept in for the fragments. They were careful to avoid the raging sea lion.

Sea lion feeding on salmon
Click to enlarge
Sea lion feeding on salmon

“Damn gulls,” thought the sea lion. He didn’t like the birds, resented them for eating half his kill. Parasites. They were noisy, and their fluttering wings made him nervous. In order to calm himself, he grabbed another salmon and ripped it to shreds.

Close to the pier there were dangers you had to look out for, he knew. Fishermen with their hooks in the water. Boatmen blindly running you down. He took a cautious look around. Up on the pier, he noticed a man running excitedly toward him. A photographer, he thought to himself. Another stupid photographer. The man’s large, telephoto zoom lens was extended to its maximum, so excited was he to see a sea lion eating fish.

Sea Lion feeding - shakes fish violently
Click to enlarge
Fish is shaken violently and broken into pieces

The sea lion didn’t like photographers. They were annoying, voyeuristic pests. Like the birds, they were freeloaders, although he didn’t really understand what sort of thrill this guy got  from watching him eat. There were restaurants down the pier with outdoor seating. Why didn’t he go bother the people eating there? But the sea lion consoled himself with the thought that, unlike the gulls, photographers don’t steal your fish.

Which didn’t mean that they weren’t a nuisance, the sea lion considered. Photographers made him nervous: they pointed lenses at him, produced an obnoxious clicking sound, and made him feel conspicuous with their constant gawking. Cursing, the sea lion shook another fish to pieces, making sure to splash enough water around to prevent the guy from getting a decent picture.

Sea Lion Feeding - carries fish fragment in mouth
Click to enlarge

The photographer was right up at the edge of the pier now, pointing his telephoto and clicking fervently. Maybe he’ll fall in, thought the sea lion. He turned his back on the man to frustrate him, denying him a facial shot. Then, grabbing another passing fish, he let the fragments fly in the photographer’s direction. The swooping birds will block his view, the sea lion thought to himself. The bastard’ll spend hours in Photoshop trying to get rid of them all.

Glancing back at the pier, he saw that the guy had gotten down on one knee and was leaning against a pylon to steady his camera. “What a dweeb,” thought the sea lion. “I hope he gets bird shit on his pants.” Then, he dove down beneath the surface for a few moments to see if the man would go away.

Sea Lion Feeding - Fish is shaken violently and broken into pieces
Click to enlarge
Flying fish fragments attract birds and other scavengers

But when he surfaced, the photographer was still there. He was standing up now, stamping his feet because it was cold on the pier. But as soon as he saw the sea lion, he raised the camera and pointed it at him. In the still morning air the animal could hear the irritating, repeated clicking of the shutter.

Infuriated, he slapped at the water with his tail, hiding from the camera behind the splashed cascade. Then he dove again, abruptly cutting down through the schooling salmon.

Sea Lion Feeding
Click to enlarge

Startled, the fish dispersed. In an instant they were gone. The birds, sensing immediately that the opportunity had passed, began drifting away toward the shallows.

The photographer was the last to realize that something had changed. But after a while he, too, turned around and walked back toward the foot of the pier.

Sea Lion Feeding
Click to enlarge

The Casino at the End of the Universe

Blackjack for Dummies

I have a friend who gambles. She puts money into slot machines and plays games at tables. She refers to Las Vegas as “Vegas” and seems to go there every other month.

I was amazed at this until I found out that these trips cost her nothing. To encourage gamblers to come, the casinos have programs that let you accumulate points for everything you do there, for every breathless bet. You can redeem the points for charter flights out of Oakland, for hotel rooms, meals, show tickets, all kinds of things.

Aileen has attained diamond status in one of these schemes, which means that she gets even more for her points. It also means that she has to keep going on these trips in order to maintain her status. And so it came to be that I was invited on an all-expenses paid jaunt to a casino in the middle of the desert in Laughlin, Nevada, USA.

Elite Airways

The flight was a charter out of Oakland on a Monday afternoon. In a remote corner of the airport, a tall guy with a curly mustache was yelling something about a gate change. I looked around and noticed that all the passengers for this  excursion appeared to be collecting social security. It was the midweek senior special to Harrah’s in the desert.

And so, our merry old group took off on holiday. The staff on the plane did their best to feed the festive atmosphere with free drinks and organized games. We played bag o bucks, a lottery game with twenty dollar bills. Wow, there are big spenders on this flight, I thought to myself, intimidated. I was appalled at the thought of betting twenty dollars at such odds. The other passengers looked like retirees who saved coupons and counted nickels at home, but on vacation in their comped luxury rooms they were prepared to be high rollers, it seemed.

Pretty soon, everyone was ordering a second round. The flight was starting to get raucus, laughter and conversation shouted above the engine noise. The senior citizen version of spring break in Cabo was on its way to Laughlin.

***

Across the aisle from me sat a guy named Tony, in his late fifties, basketball beer belly, black t-shirt and baggy shorts. He was loudly introducing himself to a guy two rows back while the stewardess helped him with a seatbelt extender. A large round watch with a complicated dial was on a plastic band around his wrist. He let everyone know he was a tile contractor from Marin. The quiet guy next to him was his partner, but Tony was the boss.

The guy in back was Buzz, balding with a bushy grey mustache. He was in a grey t-shirt and jeans held up by black suspenders. He had a gold watch and a drooping wife with freckles. We learned from his shouted response that he was a retired fireman from San Bruno.

Tony ordered a Jack and Coke and took charge of the conversation. He let Buzz know about his corner lot house, his SUV, his wife and dog. He tipped both stewardesses $5. When we landed, he stepped back to let us deplane first. Charming man.

Harrah’s House of Horrors

An old woman with hennaed hair was chewing gum on the bus that took us to Harrah’s from the airport. In the hotel lobby, she looked unhappily at a long line of Japanese tourists waiting to check in. But our group’s check-in had been handled by the airline and we were able to go straight to our rooms. A view of ducks swimming on the Colorado River nine flights down, and the Arizona mountains in the distance. Every day a cornucopia of brownies, cookies, and chocolate was left on the counter. Abstinence is not encouraged at Harrah’s.

Like the flight, the hotel was filled with senior citizens, and seemed to be set up to cater to them — while separating them in the friendliest way possible from any excess cash. Wide aisles facilitated the passage of walkers and wheelchairs, and Lipton tea was served at the Fresh Market Square Buffet. The ATM machines dispensed only hundred dollar bills, with a $6 fee.

Slots and Blackjack

Next to the lobby was the main casino, an enormous emporium of fifties gilt and  neon, slightly yellowed with cigarette smoke. A large, inimical room with flickering lights and  incessant  klaxons, it contained rows of noisy slot machines and quieter tables of green felt manned by friendly dealers. Baleful money men lurked in the space behind them and cameras watched from above. There were ashtrays everywhere.

Slot machine bets starSlot Machinet at thirty cents. Each machine has a slot where you insert a twenty dollar bill for credits, and another slot for your frequent-gambler points card. People carry the cards on chains, clipped to their belts or collars. Chaining themselves to the machines, they engage in Pavlovian button-pressing behavior and are rewarded with flashing lights and snatches of TV situation comedy footage.

And occasionally with money. I lost a few dollars, but Aileen made a few, so I figured we were even.

***

After that, we went to play blackjack.

We sat down at a table with a sign reading “$5 minimum bet”, the cheapest table they had. Aileen bought 20 red chips for $100 from the dealer, a young woman dressed like an usher, and made two little piles on the table.

Now, before going into this gambling thing, I had decided to set a strict limit on the amount of money I could lose. Should I reach that limit, I would immediately stop gambling and just enjoy the free drinks.

The $5 minimum was, in fact, a bit more than I had anticipated. But I knew that you have to be firm in these situations, so I decided I had to stick to my original plan. I peeled a twenty out of my wallet and handed it to the dealer. She seemed to hesitate for a moment before giving me four red chips.

My plan was to bet these one at a time, making them last as long as possible before being forced to quit. Aileen was betting two chips at a time, but she was Diamond level. I suppose it was expected of her.

Unfortunately, my stake did not last very long. I agonized over every decision to hit or stand, the dealer cheerfully encouraging me to make up my mind.  But even though Aileen was helping me with strategy and arithmetic, my chips lasted less than an hour. Much less, actually.

I realized it was time to quit, but then I looked over and saw that Aileen had now arranged her chips into a little model of the Great Wall, flanked by two big towers, with some green ones piled on the side like an outpost.  It turned out that she was doing well and was less than eager to leave.

Reluctantly, I reached for my wallet, wondering if I had another ten. But then Aileen pushed one of her towers over to me and told me I could gamble with that.

Things went better after that. I even won some hands, but the game moved fast and it was hard to keep up.

***

After a while a guy sat down on my right. His name was Bill and he was from Houston, tall guy in a plaid shirt and jeans. He was betting piles of 4 chips.

Seeing that I was a novice, Bill volunteered to give me advice. He told me that he gave Blackjack lessons back home, and I pictured an after-school program for card enthusiasts or maybe a church group. Bill was kind enough to help me through several hands.

After a while, though, he got a little frustrated at my performance. When he got up to leave, he told me, “I don’t think you’re stupid. You’re just unlucky.” I’m not really sure if he was right.

***

Despite Bill’s coaching I ended up losing half of Aileen’s tower. I was upset about this until I saw that she had managed to accumulate another one. And another green outpost.

But now one of the ceiling cameras had swiveled around toward her, and at last she looked ready to leave.

Distractions

Fortunately, we didn’t gamble all the time. There were other things to do. Things that points could be applied to.

One night, there was a concert with three country singers (a trucker and two cowboys — you could tell by the hats). Two of these minstrels carried acoustic guitars but did not play them. One of them encouraged the old people to get up and dance, and finally one couple did get up, but no one else joined them. Boy, did they look dumb.

Another day we went for a boat ride to Lake Havasu, 60 miles down the Colorado River. At the hotel dock, passengers embarked on a 60-foot speedboat powered by two nuclear reactors. We were welcomed on board by Denny, our blonde, crewcut captain, an erstwhile surfer from Modesto who had moved here to enjoy the quiet desert life, the small town charm of Laughlin and its ten casinos.

“Your life vests are under your seats. They may still be damp from the incident on Monday.” Denny was a comedian, in addition to being a captain.

But you could see that he savored the serenity of his idyllic riverine life: roaring downriver in the boat at top speed, slamming over the wakes of other vessels to give his elderly passengers a bouncing thrill.

He was particularly fond of cutting suddenly across the channel to attack groups of resting ducks. The innocent birds thrashed frantically, trying to get airborne and out of the way, but some just weren’t fast enough. Every hull-to-duck slam of mallardicide made Denny whoop with excitement, booming along downriver without pause as a red patina spread gradually across the windshield.

At Lake Havasu City we got to see the London Bridge, which was moved there brick by brick to provide an attraction for tourists who don’t like deserts or gambling. Then we had lunch in a diner and came back. It was a fun day if you weren’t a duck.London Bridge

The International Fun Place

It was 7:30 in the morning when we piled off the bus at Laughlin International Airport for the flight home. I thought about Howard Hughes, as the ramshackle aluminum terminal brought to mind the early days of commercial flight. There were four ground-level gates in one big room, and a sort of café where you could buy shrink-wrapped sandwiches from a woman whose name badge read “Kate”.

Our flight was delayed. The passengers milling about were the same group we had come out with. They seemed somewhat more subdued, this time, maybe because of the early hour. Several people carried shopping bags filled with brownies, room booty for their grandchildren. A bouffant octogenarian with a honey drawl was lobbying the other passengers to support her idea for reorganizing future trips to allow for a proper breakfast at the casino. It wasn’t clear what she wanted us to do about it.

It was true that there weren’t very many breakfast options at the café. I bought a bottle of water for $2.96. At the counter, Kate asked me if I had anything smaller than a twenty. I dug around and found a five. “You’re a nice guy,” she said to me. “I don’t care what other people tell me.” Another comedian. “Do you want your 4 pennies?” They ended up in the tip jar.

In the next half hour, she waited on a few customers at the counter, helped an old man with a walker to a table and brought him his coffee, interceded to calm a boisterous three-year-old, kept cleaning the tables and counter. After a while, I tried to buy a sandwich, but she told me the casino was sending over free lunches because of the delay. When the plane finally arrived, she stashed the tip jar under the counter, put on a reflective jacket, and ran out to help guide passengers across the tarmac.

Kate told us that the airport code for Laughlin is IFP. It stands for International Fun Place. She thought the name was ridiculous.

See more photos of Laughlin at http://www.pillarpointposter.com/p102380383

Toronto Travel Notes

Toronto is a big city in Canada, which is a foreign country. I went there and survived. This is my story.

I went to Toronto for Asha’s wedding. Asha is my grand-niece, and she married a guy in the RCAF. His military status allowed them to hold the ceremony in the officer’s mess of the Canadian Forces College. It was all very formal and British, if in some ways unconventional. Polished floors and coats of arms on the walls. There was even a sword. It was held during the ceremony by the the groom’s sister, who was the best man. The parents conducted the ceremony.

Lake Ontario

The Toronto Beaches

After that, I had a day or two to look around Toronto. Canada’s largest city manages to be both cosmopolitan and reassuringly colonial, not unlike the wedding. A freewheeling modern multiculturalism is fused with a bit of Anglican staidness. It’s a civil place where transit runs on schedule, even if some of the new trams can’t get through snow.  A place where people debate a fair price for top-quality weed, expected to be legalized shortly. A cab driver named Mohammed told me real estate is skyrocketing, and people pay for things with polymer currency , the notion of paying with plastic having become universal.

I stayed at a BnB in my niece’s neighborhood, The Beaches, near Lake Ontario. The marketing drivel you find online describes it as a “relaxed neighborhood” with a “small town vibe”. My place was on the block between the beach and a commercial strip on Queen Street (“vibrant”). So, I decided to walk a loop down Queen and back up the boardwalk that follows the beach.

Queen Street

The neighborhood on the slopes above the lake is made up of large brick houses with chimneys and small, damp yards. It is at once cramped and roomy. I walked along Queen Street’s safe, narrow sidewalks among polite seniors and past crowded coffee shops and sushi bars that alternated with old brick apartments. The apartment houses had small patches of grass by their entrances where narrow lawn sales sometimes took place. On my corner, one of these yards had accumulated a more or less permanent contingent of lawn chairs and ashtrays. I ran a gauntlet of smoke each time I passed.

Along the lake shore there is a park full of black squirrels and dogs. The two species appear to have overlapping habitats that also include the streets of the town, but only the dogs venture onto the beach and into the intertidal, where they fetch atlatl-flung sticks and leave feces. Along the boardwalk aging blondes stroll among Chinese couples and accented European professors. Piles of rocks form scenic jetties along the gravel beach. The lake waters glisten. The public restrooms are actually unlocked, and families getting out of parked cars make use of them before heading to the beach.

Something Like Graffiti

Kensington Market

Later on, I went closer to downtown and the vibe was different. The sidewalk on Spadina Avenue was busy with office girls chatting on their way to lunch. A blonde and a fat brunette with a baby stroller were leaning against a doorway smoking. At the corner of Dundas, a Chinese woman stood alone screaming at her phone. Dundas separates Chinatown from an area called Kensington Market.

Kensington is a neighborhood of turbocharged bohemian kitsch. The buildings are completely covered with an amalgamation of contrived graffiti and painted urban mural. There are several blocks of this, a massive chamber-of-commerce retailing ploy spawning a made-to-order bohemian market. “Indie shops” and “cheese shops”. Souvenirs and coffee. There are Indian textiles and incense burners, and of course there is reggae. You can’t sell souvenirs of Toronto without reggae.

Further on there is Graffiti Alley, literally just a random garage-lined back alley nearby that has been spray painted mercilessly until the camera-bearers came. Is the usurpation of urban graffiti by commercial entities to be detested as cultural appropriation? A good thought to put before the accented professors, but I was too tired for such liberal angst. It was hot. I needed food and beer, and not the gluten free nonsense they were serving around here. I headed toward the neighboring downtown area in search of something more upscale. Colonial, if you will.

Nieces

Downtown Toronto

Downtown is a forest of towers, just like every other city. Some of them face right onto the sidewalk, while others cluster behind lawns on little campuses. Out in front of the smoke-free office blocks, guys on break congregate, lighting up and talking on their cell phones. You have to go inside for fresh air. But Toronto also offers many small parks, where you can go to escape the glass walls.

Parks

I found my way to a very spacious bar where I was given a table in a shaded courtyard and a pint of ale and left alone with my thoughts. I looked around the room, saw businessmen in suits, and recalled the darker suits at the Britannically-tinged wedding. In both cases ties had been loosened once the formalities were over. At the bar, a big Bulgarian with a small head was telling stories to his long-haired friend. Above the open collar of his pink dress shirt, a small bubble of chin with a thin fringe of beard looked like graffiti on a bowling pin. I ordered the fish and chips for lunch and waited ‘til the time came to meet my niece.

Click on any image to enlarge. More photos of Toronto can be seen here