The Hunger Games Redux

It was Dear Leader’s birthday and he was throwing a party. You were nobody if you didn’t go.

The clouds over the Coliseum threatened rain, but it was still holding back as the crowds poured in through the gates. Today was Dear Leader’s birthday, and he had promised a great celebration with a contest pitting the four Regions of the Empire against one another. The people had come despite their fears of the virus that plagued the land, for Dear Leader had told them to come, and he had promised to hold the sickness at bay.

Quinine tincture poster

They streamed in through the gates, past the vendors selling amulets and charms who lined the main concourse. The longest lines were at large stands with Dear Leader’s image on the signs in front. These were his quinine tincture concessions. The placards promised protection from contagion, at a price that was discounted to honor his birthday.

Cassie, one of the flower girls, ran quickly to take her seat. She had been one of the children chosen to strew rose petals in front of Dear Leader as he walked down the causeway, and now she got to sit in the glass-encased viewing box, with Dear Leader and all the Palace staff. Cassie knew she’d been selected because Daddy worked in the Palace, but she didn’t understand why they’d had to prick her finger this morning. She could have just told them that she wasn’t sick.

One of the Jesters began speaking into a microphone, and Cassie looked out at the scene below. A great expanse of grass was surrounded by thousands of tiered seats where the crowd clamored raucously. Some wore face masks, many decorated with the national flag. Everyone seemed to carry a flask of the tincture. At one end of the grass field stood the great gate from which the contestants would emerge. The events were being projected onto a large screen at the opposite end, so everyone could watch. The Jester’s image could be seen there now.

He welcomed the crowd and then invited them to give three cheers for Dear Leader’s birthday. There was a great roar, but he urged them to get louder, and then louder still. When he had the crowd sufficiently worked up, Dear Leader himself stepped up to the microphone.

Cassie was too young to understand a lot of what he said. She got that the virus was something horrible from the Middle Kingdom. That the Rebels were responsible for bringing it here. (Dear Leader hated the Rebels. He told Daddy that they were always making up stories about him and whispering them to the town criers.) But he promised the crowd that the tincture would protect them, and he urged them to buy more.

“If you do get sick,” he said, “it’ll just be a mild case.” Cassie heard his voice over the hiss of air coming through the HEPA filter in the ceiling above her.

Then Dear Leader described the contest. Each Region of the Empire, East, West, North, and South, had prepared a birthday tribute for him, and they were going to present them now. He would choose the one he liked the best, and that Region would win. The prize was a full month’s output from National Slaughterhouse 11, the Empire’s only remaining meat processor. The others had all closed because of the plague. The crowd gasped. Most of them were ravenous for protein, with meat so hard to find. It was a fabulous prize, even if it had to feed a whole Region.


The Jester took back the microphone and introduced the first contestants, the team from the North. The great gate rolled open and the team, a group of high school students from the farmlands, drove a phalanx of tractors to pull their offering out on a huge float.

The North’s gift was a giant ice statue depicting Dear Leader as a great hero in the act of slaying the virus with an AR15. Dear Leader liked the idea of a statue of himself. “Statues are culture,” he told the Jester, approvingly. The statue towered above the tractors, its blue ice covered with condensation despite the refrigeration coils hidden inside. When Cassie saw it, she felt a thrill of pride. Someday, she thought, she would be a warrior like that. Or else marry one.

But Dear Leader did not seem pleased. “Why is it fat?”, she heard him say.

“That’s not fat, sir. It’s an ammo belt.,” the Jester countered.

 “It looks fat. Putin don’t look like that on his horse.”

The tractors pulled the statue around the field with the crowd cheering, but Dear Leader said he thought the students should be fired.

“They’re students,” said the Jester. “I don’t know if they can be fired.”

“The thing’s melting,” Dear Leader complained. And he started to play with his phone.


The next contestants were from the Eastern Region. After the Jester’s introduction, the gates opened again, and a procession of black Cadillacs emerged. They came to a halt forming a semicircle in front of Dear Leader’s glass box, and from each car there emerged three chorus girls and a banker. The girls wore very short skirts and did a little dance in front of Dear Leader before forming two rows. Then the bankers, in dark Brooks Brothers suits, strode between the rows and approached Dear Leader.

Now, Cassie could see that one of them carried the East’s birthday gift. It was a beautiful crown! The Jester read from a card that it was  made of platinum, filigreed with gold, and encrusted with blood-red jewels of rare painite. Cassie thought it was beautiful. She formed a mental image of herself grown up, wearing a crown or a tiara. A tiara wouldn’t be so heavy.


Dear Leader had also formed a mental image of himself. He was wearing the crown and a purple robe and holding a scepter. He was quite pleased at first, but something in the Jester’s description had bothered him. “What do you mean gold filigree? How come it’s not solid gold?” he asked the Jester.

“Sir, it’s platinum. More valuable than gold.”

“It looks like the brushed nickel in my bathroom. And how come no diamonds?”

“Painite is rarer than diamonds, sir. It’s even more valuable,” the Jester said.

“Who the hell ever heard of it? Fire the guy that did this!” Dear Leader shouted.

“But, the Governor of the East is elected, sir. He can’t be fired.”

“Don’t send them any hand sanitizer, then.”


The Southern Region’s gift, read the Jester, was to be a passion play celebrating Dear Leader’s victory over his predecessor, the evil Ogre. When the gate opened, a brigade of uniformed teenaged boys marched out in formation, each one holding a staff over his right shoulder. They were members of the Young Leaders, and behind them marched an equal number of girls, the Young Leaders Auxiliary. The girls wore bandannas and held little wands, with sparklers going off at the ends. And behind them, a 1967 Chevy Impala convertible was pulling a wagon that bore a large stuffed effigy of the Ogre. The papier mache creature was propped against a gantry on the wagon, its arms tied behind its back. When it stopped in front of Dear Leader, a winch in the gantry hoisted it up by means of a rope that had been conveniently placed around its neck. It swung back and forth, dangling just above the group of boys.

At this point the girls stepped forward, and each one used her bandanna to blindfold one of the boys, then guided him toward the suspended Ogre. The boys used their staffs to blindly attack the effigy which was, in effect, a piñata. As they rent its sides, its hidden treasures began to spill from the openings: sirloin steaks and pork chops, chicken wings and packages of ground round. Red meat juices flowed.

Photo of lynching

The girls rushed forward to grab their prizes, sometimes fighting among themselves over a particularly fine ribeye. Cassie, too, found it exciting. She wanted to have a boy hit the Ogre for her. She wanted to grab some meat.

She saw that Dear Leader was clearly enjoying the spectacle. He was laughing and pounding his fist on the arm of his chair. But then, he noticed that the top of the effigy’s head was an orange color, and he asked the Jester about it. “Isn’t that the color of my hair?” he said.

“No, Sir,” said the Jester. “That’s just a stain from the blood coming out of the meat.” But Dear Leader hadn’t heard anything after “No.” He never listened to anything that followed a “No.”

“This is some kind of trick by the Rebels,” he said. “To make it look like people are bashing a piñata of me!” His voice was rising, and he was still pounding his fist, but differently than before, Cassie thought, as she watched him turn blue.

Finally, the Jester managed to calm him down. But, the mood had changed. “Bring on the next one,” Dear Leader said sullenly. “And fire someone.”


Unfortunately, it turned out that the team from the West had been unable to come. That region was still under lockdown because of the virus, and there were no flights going in or out. Nevertheless, they had managed to send a video of their offering, and it had arrived just in time. The Jester made the announcement as his assistant prepared the projector.

The image of Dear Leader’s favorite rapper, Kay-Y, appeared on the giant screen. The crowd cheered. It turned out that the Western Region’s gift to Dear Leader was a series of glowing video testimonials from porn stars he had met through the years, and Kay-Y would act as master of ceremonies.

Cassie didn’t know what a porn star was, but she figured it had something to do with making movies, since Kay-Y was involved. He introduced a woman named Fernanda Foxx, who spoke in rapturous tones about a time when she had met Dear Leader in a stairwell. She was followed by Andrea Angel and then by Lacey Love. Although she wasn’t quite sure what it meant, Cassie also wanted a man who could perform like a stallion and make her see the blue lights of ecstasy, again and again, all night long. It sounded like fun, although last year, when she had seen the Lipizzaner horses, she’d gotten bored after an hour.

Dear Leader was really enjoying this, Cassie could see. He kept pumping his fist in the air, looking around at everyone and beaming.

“Samantha Sweets,” said Kay-Y, and another woman took her place on the screen.

“Penny Pussy…”

“And finally, this one’ll really blow your mind, a testimonial to Dear Leader’s versatility,” said Kay-Y. “Last, but certainly not least, Lance Long!” The image of a tall blonde man began to form on the screen.

“WHAAT!! WHO THE HELL LET THAT GET IN THERE?” Dear Leader screamed. No longer beaming, he stared in horror at the enormous screen. The Jester quickly cut off the video as Dear Leader grabbed the microphone. “That was a trick, everybody,” he shouted to the crowd. “It was planted by the Rebels, it’s a fake! I never met that guy. Don’t believe it!”

And then, to the Jester, “Get the town criers out of here. Somebody’s gonna lose their job over this…”

With that, Dear Leader stood up and put his cellphone in his pocket, preparing to leave.  

“Don’t you want to announce the winner?” the Jester asked him. “Which gift did you like the best?”

“Nah, they were all chintzy gifts,” Dear Leader replied. “I didn’t like any of them.”

“What about the prize?”

“We can use it for the Palace. And make sure you send some to the Southern Palace, as well. I’m gonna be there this weekend.” And with that, he walked out, talking to someone on the phone about the day’s sales of tincture.

In the end the Jester left, too, and no one told the crowd anything. After a while the rain started, and they began to drift out of the Coliseum. They were still angry at the Rebels.

Of Masks And Men

Because even a home-made mask is better than nothing.

We are now being advised to wear some kind of protective mask whenever we venture outdoors. Even home-made ones are said to be better than nothing, and there are quite a few imaginative designs out there, tributes to American ingenuity. Nevertheless, Dear Leader will not be setting the example by wearing one himself. He feels it’s not presidential. “I just can’t see it,” he said, in a moment of uncharacteristic humility.

In contrast, I have complied ardently with this directive. I wore my precious N95 to the grocery store and to the ATM. I wore it when I put out the garbage and when I brought in the mail. But I was afraid that, if I wore it out back to the spa, it would get wet. I was sure that wetting it would ruin it, so I had to come up with some alternative masking arrangement, a waterproof one.

Something made of cloth seemed like an obvious choice, but when I looked into it further, I found that cloth masks have serious drawbacks when they get wet. Virus particles normally travel through the air on droplets of spittle that my loving neighbors have coughed, sneezed, or otherwise excreted into the air. These droplets may get caught on a cloth mask before reaching my face, at least slowing their viral passengers’s attempt to reach my lungs. That is the theory.

But if the mask is wet, things work differently. Wet cloth clings to your face, and capillary action draws the virus particles directly down to your skin. I needed something else.

The internet seemed to offer all sorts of possible solutions. I found instructions for making masks out of flags and jock straps. I found ads for welding shields and for virus-resistant face creams. But the welder’s masks were all on back order, and I was sure the face creams would irritate my skin.

Rummaging through the garage, I came across my old snorkeling gear. At first, I was certain this would be perfect, but I soon ran into a few complications. First, the mask covered only my nose, not my mouth. I solved this problem by using the snorkel, stuffing tissues into it to act as a filter for the virus, and sucking as hard as I could in order to breathe. This effort made me perspire, however, and that caused the mask to fog, blinding me as I tried to grope my way out of the tub and back inside. I fell and hurt my knee when one of my fins caught on the edge of the deck. There had to be another way.

After discarding a few ideas involving flower pots¹, I hit upon the notion of using gallon freezer storage bags. They are cheap and disposable, transparent, and easily affixed to the ears by cutting a two-inch slit just under the reinforced slider. I added a bit of tape to keep the slit from spreading. My first prototype was a little flimsy, but I bolstered it with a bungee strap around my forehead, and it stayed in place well enough.

I was left with the problem of getting a virus-proof closure around the edges. A video about the right way to put on a surgical mask stressed the importance of a good seal. Let me point out that this can be difficult if you have a full beard.

But there are tricks. One, that I learned when I took snorkeling lessons, is to use vaseline. So, after shaving a clean line under my chin at the neckline, I smeared gobs of the stuff all around my head and neck, working the bag into place. I put it on extra thick at the top of my head, because that’s where the bag’s corner was, and my hair, although thin, kept getting in the way. I had to use another bungee.

I should stress that this was a prototype. I realized that I would run out of air. Had it worked, I would have punched another hole in the bag and run a piece of rubber tubing through the kitchen window, bringing virus-free air from indoors. But as things worked out, I got vaseline on everything until I couldn’t see through the bag, and I slipped three times trying to get out of the tub. It was getting to be dinner time, so I finally gave up.

Washing off the vaseline proved to be another problem. I got it all over the bathroom walls as I tried to shower it off, but it seemed that no amount of soap and hot water would break its grip on my hair. Despite all my scrubbing, I still felt its tackiness.

I needed a solvent that would effectively dissolve the stuff. Fortunately, a very large jug of alcohol, used for decontamination, was sitting in the kitchen. Even with that, it was difficult to get that stuff out of my hair. But after using half a gallon, at last I felt pretty clean. A little dizzy from breathing the fumes, but finally able to go make dinner. After a quick rinse, I headed for the kitchen. By now, I was famished.

Dinner was to be some leftover stew that only needed to be heated on the stove. My eyes were watering, I was still woozy from the fumes, and something — I thought it was water — was dripping onto my shoulders as I poured the stuff into a pan. I twisted the knob on the stove and heard the igniter click a few times before the gas caught, but the flash of combustion seemed a lot more vigorous than usual. The last thing I remember was a loud Whoosh.

There is a magic trick that involves burning alcohol in your hand. Actually, it is the vapors above the alcohol that burn, leaving your hand unscathed. This wasn’t quite like that. As the fumes ignited, they took most of my remaining hair with them. I tried to take some consolation from the fact that I did need a haircut, but I was really upset. While I was passed out, the EMTs had eaten my stew, and one of them had the nerve to say it had too much garlic.

¹As a diving bell


An ant’s-eye view of the kitchen


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.

Virtual Emoji

Improve your social media presence with the latest development in emoji technology

Hey can you do me a favor? I need some bagels and I can’t actually move around much right now. Could you pick some up when you come over? [smiling face emoji}

You need bagels? Sure 👍, how many and what kind?

Get me eight. Four garlic and four onion. Thanks!
[person bowing deeply emoji]

Ok, no problem 
 Though your emoji game is seriously lacking 😀

That just shows how little you know. My emoji game, as you call it, is far more sophisticated than yours. You are an emoji novice [smirking face emoji], barely above the emoticon level.

What are you talking about?

You are using simple pictographic emojis. Primitive. I, on the other hand, know how to incorporate the more nuanced virtual emojis into my writing. It’s easier and more expressive [fingernail-contemplating smugness emoji].

WTF is a virtual emoji?😕

It is a tacit emoji that simply refers to the little picture thingie without actually having to look it up.

Don't you have regular emojis? 😘

I have them, but there are so many that they bewilder me. You have to hover the cursor forever to find out what each one means, and then it never turns out to be the one you want. I find it easier simply to type the desired meaning in brackets. The bracketed words then refer to the emoji, which in turn refers to the emotion in need of expression. The actual emoji is merely implied, never really used. Think of it as para-semiotic writing.

Ok now I understand. You got a nap and I didn't.

Virtual emojis work just as well as the real ones, and you save yourself a lot of trouble by not having to search for them every time [flustered man looking through open file cabinet emoji].

That emoji doesn't exist! I'm not sure about the fingernail one, either.

That’s an additional advantage of the technique. You can use brackets to refer to emojis that haven’t been invented yet. No need to wait [time waiting for no man emoji]. Virtual emojis just bypass the need for a picture entirely. They let you express emotions that are too subtle or that might be difficult to represent with pictographs. For example [schadenfreude emoji] or [penis envy emoji].

You know, you might actually be onto something.

You can combine virtual emojis with pictographic ones or with each other to make compound emojis. Then you can express ideas that are even more complex! [you 🛏 me emoji]

Are you coming on to me?😚


I think virtual emojis are even better than the real ones. There’s actually no need to use the silly pictures anymore. We could just string virtual emojis together like words in a sentence and communicate that way.

That's an incredible idea! It could revolutionize the way people use Facebook!🙄

It isn’t really my idea. It dates back to the cavemen.

Cavemen invented virtual emojis?

Sure. They invented words so they wouldn’t have to draw pictures of everything in the dirt [man with stick scratching picture of attacking tiger in sand emoji].

I see.

But seriously thanks for picking up the bagels [man eating lox with onions and cream cheese on toasted garlic bagel emoji].

No problem. So, how come you can't get out of the house?

[mouse in shower 😱 slip ♿️ emoji].


Shopping in the nude.

Three of eldest son’s high school friends once got busted for indecent exposure. The whole town was surprised, for these were good boys — athletes and straight-A students. Everyone looked up to them. But one should never underestimate the nefarious potential of the adolescent mind.

It turned out that the lads were taking an elective course in video production, and they had to do a project. Brainstorming one evening, they came up with the concept of filming themselves at Safeway, shopping in the nude. Other customers would react with astonishment and shock, and they would capture this on video. Sitting in one of their bedrooms and planning this escapade, they were beside themselves with admiration for the originality of the idea.

Deciding it would be best to do this at night, they drove to Safeway at two o’clock in the morning and tumbled from someone’s car. Two of them were naked and the third, with his clothes on, held the camera. An accessory to the crime, his job was to record the event and to provide moral support, if that is the correct term. They grabbed a shopping cart from out in front, and one of the nudists climbed in. The other pushed him into the store and wheeled him rapidly through the aisles, looking for the few other customers.

Half Moon Bay is a worldly littleCarrots community, used to multiply-pierced bodies and ostentatious lesbians down from the City for the weekend. A couple of naked boys are not all that big a deal. And the people who shop at Safeway at 2 AM, it turns out, react to naked teenagers the way they react to drunks approaching them on the street: they act like they don’t see them. Behind the blank faces and wry smiles, men may have been indignant and housewives may have been appraising, but no one was showing it. The boys were not getting the reaction they had hoped for.

So they decided to buy a few things, figuring they had to elicit some outrage at the checkout counter. After all, the clerk would be obliged to interact with them, and the clerks they encountered during the day at this market were all diminutive Portuguese women with very Catholic backgrounds. They would be shocked. The boys grabbed a box of donuts and headed for the single open checkout.

The clerk they encountered there may have been Portuguese, but she was definitely not diminutive. A dark-haired woman in her 50s, she stood at the register like a ship’s captain at the bridge, powerful forearms crossed over her Safeway apron. She had four sons at home, some older than these, and a couple of daughters. These boys were not showing her anything she hadn’t seen before, and she knew how to deal with upstarts. She looked the foremost nudist in the eye.

“Paper or plastic?”

The boy in the cart brought his knees up a little closer to his chin. “Err, ah, I seem to have forgotten my wallet. In my pants,” he said, choking back a nervous giggle. His friend moved a little further behind the cart. The cashier just looked at them, her arms still folded. The one in the cart looked back at his friends, until the cameraman reached into his pocket, producing a crisp ten. They paid for the donuts. The clerk handed the change to the boy in the cart. “Thank you for shopping at Safeway,” she said.Artichokes

The kids scrambled out of the market and into their car, their laughter tinged with a bit of uncertainty. Still needing of a shot of someone reacting in shock to their nudity, they decided to head for the 7-11 store in the next strip mall, and to try it again there. This seemed like a sound plan: 7-11 is a conservative company, the kind likely to take umbrage at public displays of nudity. However, the boys found when they arrived that the corporate mores had not filtered down to the local level. The clerk on night shift was an old Mexican working his second job. If Anglo kids wanted to run around naked in the middle of the night, that was all the same to him. Glancing at them, he only noticed that they didn’t have any pockets, so they were unlikely to shoplift. He went back to reading the paper. He didn’t even blink when they came up to the counter to pay for a Slim Jim. The boys were starting to feel a bit confused as they headed back out to their car.

Unfortunately for them, the parking lot was now occupied by a police cruiser in which were seated two deputies from the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department. They were removing the lids from cups of coffee they had just purchased at the all-night drive-through coffee shop next door. Men who spend their lives ticketing people for minor traffic violations cannot be expected to ignore naked teenagers so far from the appropriately designated beaches. And so the boys found themselves under arrest.

They were charged with public indecency. The courts, at least, had the good sense not to incarcerate them. In fact, they got off easy: a few weekends of community service. I understand that they were made to sort donated clothing for one of the local charities. And someone told them to take some for themselves.

Roasted Chicken

Dating Websites for Seniors

The last game of musical chairs

Recently, I told a friend that I wanted to find someone to go hear live music with, and he suggested that I look into dating websites. I was skeptical about this, at first, since I think of myself as too old for online dating. But I found many websites that do serve the older age brackets, and even some that specialize in that market. Here’s a look at what some of them have to offer, the kinds of people you meet, and some of the advanced techniques I’ve used to pick up chicks. Well, okay. Hens.

Senior Dating Websites

The Websites

Many websites specialize in helping people find one another in matches suitable for romance, travel, or friendship . They maintain a database of each subscriber’s descriptive profile, a mechanism for matching people, and some kind of chat system for interaction. There’s usually free access to a limited feature set, and you pay a subscription fee if you want the whole shebang.

I found that every site is the biggest site. All claim to dominate their market segment.  Every site is the world’s largest, is number one in my area, is the top local senior dating service, is the premiere site for tattooed, overweight graduates of Monroe High School. Size matters, because the more game, the more meat, so users have reason to flock to the dominant player. That’s where the average male is most likely to find a date.

Judging my attractiveness to be somewhat less than average, I decided to sign up for a half dozen sites to increase my odds.

The Features


The first step at each site was to fill out a profile, describing myself with a brief paragraph and by answering some questions. Most of the women’s profiles that I looked at overflowed with banality. Like to laugh. Love my family. Take walks on the beach. Kind and loving. I can only assume that the male profiles are similar but more boastful. Ghostwriters are available, and since women seeking men don’t see the profiles of other women, they have no idea that they’re all the same. Sweet racket. No one can read this stuff for long without going numb, anyway.

In contrast, I approached this autodepiction with great earnestness. How best to describe myself? Cougars and dirty old men might be tempted to lie about their age, but I am a man of honor and will stoop to no such subterfuge. Bent on cold honesty, I bluntly described my carnivorous personality, laying bare that I might be a bit of an acquired taste. Truth in advertising.

Next, there was usually a place to describe what you were looking for in a match. Every woman wanted a man who was honest and kind, and it surprised me how many specified “makes me laugh”. And “romantic”. Made me laugh. I left this part blank for fear of excluding anyone.

I had to use sushi
I had to use sushi

Then I uploaded some pictures of myself. People upload all sorts of pictures, images of their families, their dog, their last vacation, multiple copies of the same shot. One woman told me that some men pose with a large fish, damp emblem of their endowment. I wanted to do the same, but I couldn’t find a whole fish, so I had to settle for sushi.

Another woman’s pictures were all taken with a purple hat in front of a mirror. She wasn’t smiling in any of them, just scowling at the camera like she hated the hat. I figured I’d take it off her hands:

Dear TRFeldman
I wonder if you would consider selling your hat. The purple color and large flower on the side are quite fetching, especially in photo number 21 of 25. Your stern stare above the granny glasses reminds me of Ms Cole, the school librarian who once smacked my ass with a ruler. If you are willing to sell the hat let me know how much and if you have Paypal.

A week later she hadn’t answered, so I figured I’d try again:

If you won’t sell the hat, how about letting me take a better picture? They have these 3D printers now that let you make a real duplicate, and I can make myself a hat, too. Not sure how it works, actually, maybe you end up with a hat made of ink. It’d maybe run all over my hair, but hey, lots of old ladies have purple hair, why not an old guy? Better fey than grey.


The next step was to search through the profiles to find potential matches. You could do this yourself or let the site’s algorithm do it for you.  I searched the profile databases with criteria for age and for location. Some sites wouldn’t let me set the minimum age above 45. I guess they don’t realize there are age brackets for shuffleboard.

Then I played matching games that let you Like pictures of women from a series that they present you with. If my Like was reciprocated, I would be notified and invited to contact my reciprocal Likee. Sometimes there was a picture but the profile was blank. Meat market. Sometimes the pictures were not so recent. Buyer beware.

Most sites automate this, matching data sets by psychological profiling (or possibly astrology or random selection) to identify smaller sets of potential match-ups. A daily batch o’matches is then sent out. However the matches are made, marketing will trademark a name and sell it as artificial intelligence to their pining customers. For better or worse, Zoosk’s  Behavioral Matchmaking™ system (“powerful”), Match’s Synapse (“intelligent matching technology”), eHarmony’s 29 Dimensions of Compatibility (as observed by site founder Dr. Neil Clerk Warren), and EliteSingles’ Big 5 personality test now held the key to my future happiness.


Armed with my latest matches, I was ready to hit on some babes, or at least message some matrons. There were systems for sending email and chatrooms to let me accost these ready women. Transcripts of everything are saved, so I would be able to keep all my paramours sorted out. There are also various encouragements for the shy and reticent: suggested questions to ask; alerts telling when someone is online. Flirt or Fave buttons, for those too meek to type, send a message that basically says “why don’t you hit on me”.

The People You Meet

Reading the profiles is like people-watching on a screen. You sit around looking at pictures of women, and if you want, you can find out a little about them by reading the profile. You don’t even have to hit on them, it’s fun just doing that.

I wanted to concentrate on women who do some of the same things I do, like breathing and pining for sex, but sometimes I had trouble understanding what they had written. People described themselves as  ENTP and GGG and I didn’t know wtf. For seniors, in particular, the jargon may lead to misunderstandings. For example, many women specify “no hookups”, but when I met one I learned that didn’t refer to oxygen.


One woman wrote that she was obsessed with dining out. She knew about all the famous chefs and wanted to eat in their restaurants. If a new place opened she wanted to try it, check out the whole menu over several visits. This lady ate out all the time. Then I looked where you answer the questions and she had put that she really liked to cook. So I couldn’t figure that out. If you eat out all the time, when the hell do you cook?

I contacted her and we chatted a few times until finally, I realized what was going on. The woman really did like to cook, and she put a lot of effort into it. She’d start in the morning with marinades, mother sauces, clarified butters. The afternoon was spent dicing vegetables and baking cakes. But when the roast came out each evening and she sat down to it, she realized that, as good a cook as she was, she was no match for the professionals. And so she had to go out.

This was expensive, of course, what with all the food wasted, and that’s where the online dating came in. Every night a different guy would show up and ask where she wanted to go. No vegetarians, had to be guys who were seriously into food. I was honored when she asked if I wanted Mondays, but I still said no. Monday is my bowling night.


Many divorcees have had a bad experience with an unfaithful man. Their twelve-year-old photos often accompany text describing a desire for honesty and fidelity in a match.

dear fogmother
I noticed in your profile that you want a loyal man. Then I saw the picture of you cuddling your black and white Abyssinian pomapoo. Since dogs are so loyal, I thought you might want to meet a man who shares other traits with your pup.

• For large ears, look for Basque men. They have very long lobes.
• For a prominent nose, the obvious recommendations are Jews and Italians, but check out Indian men, too.
• Your chosen color scheme will be difficult to match, but right now if you head to Burning Man you can probably find a  white guy who is, like, really dirty and it’ll be almost the same.
• I can’t tell from the picture, is the dog’s tail long or short?

As for the long tongue, I’ll let you do your own research. Good luck!

The same woman came up again in my daily matches about two weeks later. So I wrote to her once more.

You have come up once again in the daily matches sent me by the artificial so-called intelligence that produces these pairings. Since you were chosen twice out of fifteen 10-person samples taken (with replacement) from a larger population of people our age, it’s possible to estimate the size of that parent population. I won’t depress you with the result of that calculation, since you might conclude from it that you are destined to run into me again. I know you would prefer a Basque.

Another woman described herself as a sapiosexual, which is someone who is aroused by a partner’s intellect. In other words, someone who wants to fuck your brains out. This lady got in touch with me because my profile had no spelling errors, which put me in the top two percent of subscribers. I immediately wrote back.

Dear Jan
When you got in touch, I was happy to meet a sapiosexual. Then, looking through your pictures, I noticed one of you in a lab coat and suddenly realized that you are a scientist and not likely to be asapient, either. This excited me, as I, too, am sapiosexual, and particularly attracted to women who look smart by wearing glasses (opticosapiosexual). Also, I like your smile (risiopticosapiosexual).
I must confess to a puerile fantasy of meeting you, sapiotropism leading to sapiosexuaggregation. At first, we enjoyed some good, old-fashioned socratisapiosexuconfabulation. Then, our sapiocredibility established, we engaged in reciprocal tonolingual salivary osculostimulation and sapiosexuophagy leading to the inevitable secretory sapiostasis.

How to Pick Up OWILFs

Compared to bars, I find the biggest advantage of websites is that, when I first approach a woman, I can get out more than just a sentence or two before she decides to ignore me. I usually try to write a few lines, cite part of her profile, and point out something we have in common, some way in which we could interact. It’s good to include questions. Here are some of the more successful come-ons that I’ve used.

Dear CoolJosie8
I understand you like camping. Me too.  I like being out in the wilderness because no one stares at me. I like campfires, and chopping wood with an axe, but the best part is setting up the tent when you pound on the little pegs with a mallet. Wham! Let’s meet somewhere and plan a backpacking trip. Wouldn’t it be fun to be alone in the woods together?
Dear tar sands
Hello. You have come up in my matches of the day. I looked at your profile but you didn’t fill in the section describing your desired match. From this I surmise that you’ll take pretty much anything. Since I’m routinely snubbed and occasionally reported by the women on this site who do have standards, I thought I’d take a run at you. Why not drop me a line and say hello?
Dear GoodCookGal11
Your profile says you’re very proficient in the kitchen. Please help me. I have been recently rendered a bachelor and am struggling to feed myself.
I bought a microwave because the girl at Safeway said it’s the easiest way to cook. I also have a frying pan but the kitchen’s a mess and I don’t think I can find the stove anymore. I had to set up the microwave on the chair, but I figure I can eat standing up. Can you tell me how to make chicken livers and pesto? I’m desperate.
Dear nbl1745
I see that you used to be a teacher. I wanted to tell you that I like kids and have some experience teaching, as well. Last year, I taught the kid next door how to use a slingshot and now he keeps the cats out of my backyard. We started out shooting 5 mm ball bearings. The cats would squeal and run like hell if you hit one. Now he wants to try an 8 mm ball, see if he can kill one. Kids nowadays, so precocious. Aren’t you glad you retired?