We’re Down to Our Last Roll – 14

Shelter-in-place observations. An ongoing chronicle of the plague.

Temper. Confinement is not doing my temper a lot of good. This morning I blew a gasket. It didn’t help that I’d had a stomach ache for over a week, dealing with some kind of a bug. It didn’t help that the air is full of pollen with allergies in full bloom. But what finally set me off were my hands.

I had just gotten up, had a cup of tea, and was standing in the kitchen preparing a bowl of granola. I had cut up some strawberries, added them to the bowl. But when I tried to pick it up, my arthritic fingers failed me, I dropped the bowl, and I ended up with strawberry slices all over the kitchen sink, halfway down the drain. This sent me into a rage. The sink itself is none too clean, I have to admit, and I knew I wasn’t going to try rescuing the berries. So I was fucked out of half my breakfast. But, there was more to it than that.

I’ve been increasingly afflicted with the dropsies recently, and it always pisses me off. The stress of being confined having pushed me closer to the edge, I ended up screaming curses at the ceiling, picking up the bowl and slamming it down into the sink again, trying to break it for vengeance. But nothing broke. There were a couple of glasses in the sink, one of them a Reidel, so I was lucky.

Furious, I shouted and stamped around for a while, then took a second shot at putting breakfast together. Calculating that, if I used more strawberries, it would mean an earlier trip to the grocery store, I went without them. Then I played Sudoku for a while to calm down and took a shower. Afterwards, I took my blood pressure and was surprised to find it only a little higher than usual. I had expected a spike, but maybe my body has grown used to these outbursts.

And then, I was hungry again, because breakfast had been slighter than usual. I found half a container of yogurt in the fridge and thought I’d have more granola. Taking the yogurt from the shelf, I turned around to deposit it on the counter, when it slipped from my fingers and spilled all over the floor.

You reach a point where you can’t react anymore. You just stand there and keep taking the punches,  like Cool Hand Luke.

*

Frequent Fliers. An email I received today helped me to appreciate Congess’s efforts to help the poor, small businessman with tax breaks amid the coronavirus crisis:

Hello Friends & Fliers,

The Covid 19 crisis has led to an unbelievable increase in the number of people inquiring about private aviation.
We want to help give access to everyone and to that end we are introducing our Tax-Free* 10 Hour Jet Card Programs:  

Light Jet: $49,360 all-in 
Mid-Size Jet: $60,550 all-in
Super Mid-Size Jet: $70,900 all-in
Heavy Jet: $100,800 all-in

No Federal Excise Taxes (Waived Through December 31st)

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.

crown

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.

Bidet Be Damned

A brief history of the bidet.

The sudden popularity of the bidet toilet is not without irony. Bidets were scorned by our virtuous forebears who associated them with pastimes more prurient than pristine. They were more comfortable with real dirt than with the libidinous kind. But amid the toilet paper shortage, I am fortunate that I had a so-called Japanese style toilet installed last summer. It was something I had coveted since the first time I saw one in a Tokyo hotel.

The classic bidet is actually a French invention. It dates back to the XVII century and has long been a common fixture in Europe, where it was discovered by American servicemen during WWII. Since these guys saw only the barracks (no bidet) and the whorehouse (bidet), the device came to have a salacious connotation in their minds. It didn’t help that their partners often used it immediately after intercourse in the belief that they could avoid pregnancy. To these guys, it was not the kind of thing a nice girl sat on.

This kind of bidet is simply a basin that you sit on to wash your crotch. But even in the 1600s, some clever soul found a way to fit one with an elevated reservoir and tubing to deliver a jet of water. The medieval washlet was born.

I have to admit that I didn’t appreciate them when I first ran into them in European hotels. What were they for? There was no seat, the porcelain was cold to sit on. It was too low for washing your hands. We kept beer and ice in them, sometimes. But the Tokyo model, with its spray of warm water, brought me to an apotheosis. I had found my true bidet.

Although the present day washlet, a spray-nozzle marriage of bidet and toilet seat, is often associated with Japan, it is an American invention, one that dates back to the sixties. A New Yorker named Arnold Cohen came up with it, but he got nowhere trying to sell it in the US. However, a Japanese company, Toto Toilets, was interested. Very quickly, the Cohen toilet seat became the norm in Japan.

They were still pretty rare in the US until this year’s toilet paper shortage. Now, there’s a whole range to choose from. You can get one for well under a hundred bucks. It just hooks up to your plumbing and squirts cold water at you. You still need to dry your ass. For somewhat more than that, the Brandel model I have heats the water and has a blow-dry function. It requires an electric outlet. It gets you dry enough that I haven’t had to use toilet paper for a long time.

There are other models that spray perfume or add soap to the water, that play background music or white noise, that open their own lid when you walk into the room. There’s a turbo wash feature, not for the faint of heart.

And, last but not least, boys and girls, the toilet seat is going online. Dr Toto the Toilet Seat is learning to perform medical tests, reporting to your MD over the internet. Toto has a model that measures urine volume and flow rate. There are also tests for metabolic factors like blood glucose and blood pressure.

Can a Covid 19 test be far behind?

Read more about toilets here and here. Read more about clinical tests here.

We’re Down to Our Last Roll – 12

Shelter-in-place observations. An ongoing chronicle of the plague.

An Old Fisherman. I took a long walk down to the harbor this morning. Highway 1 was completely bare of traffic in broad daylight, something I don’t remember having seen before.

On Johnson Pier, I ran into Cary and his dog, Boda. We greeted each other from 6 feet. Cary is an old fisherman who lives on his boat, makes a living working the trawlers that put out from Princeton in the mornings. He has a long beard with little braids in it, which he twirls together. He was blonde, once.

He must have really weird working hours, usually seems to be done for the day if I come around at 9 or 10AM. He hangs around the outside tables next to Princeton Seafood, before the place opens, drinking coffee with a half dozen other guys who look just like him. Cary keeps an ancient Mercedes in the harbor lot, uses it to bring in food. And coffee, sometimes.

I watched as he and Boda climbed up the ramp from the docks to the pier. They both struggled to make the climb, Cary bent over, encouraging the dog. I thought to myself, these two will die within days of one another. Such thoughts are not uncommon, lately.

*

Feeling the Heat in Japan. Here, we have a shortage of masks. In Japan, where the government is sending masks to every household, there is a shortage of thermometers. With fevers being checked at home and at work, the manufacturers can’t keep up with demand. There’s a call for any unused thermometers people might have at home. If they don’t work, they probably just need new batteries.

Japan must be a really tough place for foreign workers right now. Most of them have only a rudimentary understanding of the language, can’t follow the news. And Japanese apartments can be tiny. You think you feel isolated?

The NHK news service ran an article about a government outreach for these people. It was a headline piece, illustrated with the following stunningly bad photo. I present it here without crop or edit:

Is this the worst news photograph ever? No heads or faces, we have no idea what they’re doing. But, they do seem to be workers of some kind, foreign or not: they have tool belts and all that. The photo was clearly taken with a cell phone by the story reporter, suggesting that all the photographers in Japan have disappeared, probably plague victims. Are we photographers a high risk group for severe infection, like seniors and people with asthma? Stranger things have happened.

We’re Down to Our Last Roll – 11

Shelter in place observations. An ongoing chronicle of the plague.

Passover. Passover has begun, and for the first time since Raye died four years ago, I did not wonder if anyone would invite me to a seder. Nobody did, of course, but this year it never even crossed my mind. The coronavirus is even less popular than I am.

We are taught that god, pissed off at the Egyptians, sent a plague to slaughter all their first born babies, but that it passed over the Jewish kids. Looks like someone else’s god is running this one.

It’s not the catholic one, though. People are dropping like flies in catholic Italy. The other day the pope came out and suggested that the pandemic is nature’s response to global warming. I will make no attempt to find any logic behind this statement, but I was struck by the fact that he pointed to “nature” rather than “god”. Everyone’s trying to shift the blame.

*

Congregation. When I first read that Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, had asserted that religious services are “essential businesses” under the covid 19 response, my first thought was, well, we have marijuana. And then I thought, rather more self-righteously, that we can get weed delivered, we don’t have to gather in contagious crowds.

Not that weed is the same as religion, to be sure. But, it serves more or less the same purpose.

Anyway, I was wrong about Texas. It turns out that their worship, while essential, must still conform to the broad tenets of our fuzzy national pandemic response. And it turns out that religion is the same as weed, at least in that you can get it delivered.

Gov. Abbott’s order calls for congregants to maintain social distancing during in-person worship. Everyone gets their own pew, staggered seating, please. Where the faithful are numerous, this may require adding shifts. Will the pastor demand more pay? Will the sermons be shorter? Where to spread the choir? How to chew the wafer?

The phrase “in-person” had me asking myself what other kinds of worship might be available. Perhaps the process had been automated, like setting up payments for your car. But, it turns out that absolution is absolutely available online, through church websites and by other means. Not only is social distancing maintained, online worship has the further advantage that each congregant can pray at his or her own pace.

In addition to the many online benedictions there are also drive-through options, where you can repent from the insulated comfort of your own car. You just have to roll down your window to interact with a small loudspeaker (robotically sanitized with fragranced bleach after every worshiper). I imagine the sermons are short to keep the lines down, because congregants are asked to remain one car length apart. Not recommended for Harleys.

Finally, can we even call it a “congregation” any more? In the era of remote worship, wouldn’t “segregation” be a better term?


	

We’re Down to Our Last Roll – 10

Shelter in place observations. An ongoing chronicle of the plague.

Groceries. I read in the news this morning that our leaders are telling us to forego grocery shopping for the next two weeks, until the pandemic is past its peak.

Leaving aside the question of which tea leaves have been consulted to assure us that the disease will be on the wane in a fortnight, I do think that this novel anti-Coronavirus strategy is likely to have some success. It stands to reason that people who have died can no longer be infected by the pathogen. The virus will die out when it finds no one new to infect, and having people starve will accelerate that process without adding to the demand for ventilators. Before you know it, no more coronavirus.

Someone is thinking outside the box. I wonder if it’s the same one who suggested nuking hurricanes.

*

Rain. It’s been raining for three days, a heavy rain with dark clouds filling the skies. I turn on the lights in the house to ward off the mid-day darkness, to make things a little less bleak. But the rain is welcome, and not just because it’s been a dry winter and the moisture is needed.

The rain makes it seem that these days of confinement are less wasted, less of a loss than they would otherwise be. We’d be cooped up anyway, even if it rained without the virus. So, it’s like killing two birds with one stone. Maybe it will rain for the whole month of April, and we will all emerge to a well-washed world, scrubbed clean of the plague.

Rain also serves to make the barren streets seem more normal. Rather than  staying cooped up all day, I took a morning walk down the highway and across to the harbor. Everything was empty, but that’s how it always is when it’s pouring. So it looked normal, in a way.

*

Pandas. There’s a bright side to everything, and some positive news about the lockdown comes from a zoo in Hong Kong, where two giant pandas have mated for the first time in a decade. The gawking crowds have been forced to stay at home, and the bears finally have some privacy. 

The pandas are described as middle aged, and I guess that’s why they were shy about doing it in public. It’s understandable. The male, whose name is Ying Ying (why not Ying Yang? I don’t know, but they missed an opportunity) has probably grown a paunch, and I’m sure Le Le, the female, doesn’t have the cute butt she once did.

We’re Down to Our Last Roll – 9

Shelter-in-place observations. An ongoing chronicle of the plague.

Toilet Paper. So, it turns out that we’re not hoarding it after all. The shelves have been stripped bare, and weeks into the crisis they remain so. The New York Times and the Boston Globe have published articles scolding us for panic buying. They imagine people with rooms full, garages full of the stuff, waiting for the shit to hit the fan, so to speak,

But, it turns out that the so-called “paper of record” and its less opulent neighbor to the north have not actually bothered to look into the matter. People are not shitting at work, they’re shitting at home. Therefore, of course, they’re using more toilet paper in that location.

Why can’t the suppliers just divert the paper they would normally send to office buildings, restaurants, etc? Because it’s different paper. Thinner, packaged differently, often by different manufacturers who use different distributors.

A guy named Will Oremus actually did the research (1). Maybe the grey lady should try to hire him.

(1) https://marker.medium.com/what-everyones-getting-wrong-about-the-toilet-paper-shortage-c812e1358fe0

*

Baseball. We learn today in the news that two MLB pitchers, Noah Syndegaard of the Mets and Chris Sale of the Red Sox, have undergone elbow reconstruction surgery (aka Tommy John surgery) in the past week. This happened while every surgical mask, gown, and glove is precious, while OR nurses are wearing plastic garbage bags. (Not their OR nurses.)

The men responsible for these teams tell us that these elective surgeries were justified because, while these players’s lives were not at risk, their livelihoods were.

Really? Their livelihoods?

According to Baseball Reference, Chris Sale has made just under $90 million through 2019, salaries only, not counting endorsements. The number for Syndegaard is over $10 million.

I’d hate to see these guys collecting food stamps.

The real reason, of course, is that recovery from TJ surgery takes over a year. Owners Fred Wilpon and John W. Henry are still paying these guys big bucks and want them ready to go as early as possible for the 2021 season. If that costs some nurses their lives, fuck ’em.

The working classes will continue to breed.

*

Teeth. A by-product of the shelter-in-place experience is that no one is going to the dentist anymore, at least for routine care. The DDS community is sitting in empty offices, waiting for clientele. A friend who has kept a practice going for over  forty years had to file for unemployment insurance.

But toothaches and emergencies still occur. Apparently, some dentists are trying to serve their patients online.

And so, I received a text message with a picture of the teeth of someone named Scott, whom I do not know. It wasn’t actually meant for me. Wrong number. A brief accompanying note indicated it was meant for his dentist, a Dr Hoffman.

Dental Image
Scott’s Teeth

This guy has pretty big front teeth, made to look even more so by the cell phone lens. Reminds me of a gopher.

Close inspection revealed that the fellow had chipped his upper right front tooth, the incisor, which dental insiders may know as the number eight.

I did the same thing to my #8 once, years back. Chipped it taking a swig from a bottle of Chianti. I was far from any dentist and text messages didn’t exist. The damned thing hurt for a day or two, and then it stopped bothering me.

I texted back and told Scott to take two aspirin.

 

We’re Down to Our Last Roll – 1.

Shelter-in-place observations, an ongoing chronicle of the plague.

3/18. At the grocery there was no hamburger and they were all out of filet mignon. The in-between stuff, the pork chops and sirloins, were plentiful. I guess that says something about our local population, but I’m not sure what. Also, it seems the local chickens have fallen ill, because there are no eggs. I bought two New York steaks that will last me 5 or 6 days, because I’m a light eater.

The woman at the cash register said I had to bag my own groceries if I wanted to use my reusable bags, she wasn’t supposed to touch them. She wasn’t wearing a mask. I reflected that she probably had one of the most dangerous jobs in town, at this point, and she was making maybe fifteen bucks an hour.

As I bagged my purchases, an old woman behind me in line stepped inside my 6-foot social-distancing perimeter. I pulled out a can of pepper spray and she backed off. You can’t be too careful.

I’ve started wiping down all my groceries as soon as I bring them home, the bags, packages, everything. I unpack them onto a plastic tray, wipe them down with alcohol, put them away. Then I wash the plastic tray down with soap and water, and of course I wash my hands. Tonight I had a pork chop that had been washed with alcohol, but it tasted kind of funny. The one I bleached was worse, though.

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