Mightier Than The Pen

Making The World A Bitter Place

Archive for July 2010

I Am SO Going to Burn for This

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Any city or town of significant size has its share of panhandlers. New York has more than its share, certainly, but that’s the price it pays (har!) for being the financial capital of the world. Not to worry: in a few decades New York will lose that distinction to, say, Shanghai, and we can all go back to worrying about the positively horrific filet mignon you encountered last night.

But you don’t need to visit the Big Apple to get accosted by beggars. True, in some European and Asian cities the police make sure such people stay away from the tourists, but stick around a metropolis long enough (forty minutes should do it in most places) and you can rest assured you’ll be asked for spare change, bus fare or whatever. But it never ceases to amaze me how unprofessional, or just plain incompetent, many of these panhandlers turn out to be. So as a service to anyone considering such a line of work, I hereby offer a few guidelines:

1. Tuck away all jewelry before initiating what we shall call customer interface. The image you wish to project is one of need. Visible bling, alas, conveys one of warped priorities and contempt for the customer, which, as you can probably infer on your own, constitutes a losing business strategy. So off with the gold chains, or at least conceal them in your baggy clothes (contempt, as you can see, must remain the province of this blogger).

2. Your sob story must resonate with the customer. Few beggars have successfully petitioned a passerby with a tale of stamp collecting gone awry, or of fellow Klan members failing to rescue you from the clutches of law enforcement.

3. The purpose for which you seek the funds, if stated, must bear some relationship to your surroundings. I live about as far from our city’s bus terminal as one might reasonably consider walking distance, but one day, after walking some distance up the main drag in the direction away from said terminal, a woman asked me for bus fare. And then again, the next day.

4. While the pressures of panhandling demand relief, the time for a cigarette is not while on the job. For some reason, scientists insist on accepting all of those studies showing how smokers are all irresponsible, short-sighted wastrels, as if they have some say in how you spend your hard-earned money. Unjust as that seems, this arrogance trickles down to the everyday customer, so the wisest course involves no obvious use of your revenue for tobacco, alcohol, or other escapes.

5. If you choose to affect a disability, make it convincing and consistent. If you limp, always limp on the same leg. Sunglasses in themselves do not confer blindness. By the same token, however, too much emphasis of the infirmity may prove counterproductive: if you adopt the role of amputee, keep that stump covered.

6. And finally for today, a bit of insanity goes a long way. You want to aim for that fine line between amusing eccentricity and on-the-edge world-weariness. Think Jim Carey, not Jack Nicholson.

As panhandling is a demanding career, few of you, dear readers, will end up choosing it. But many of you may pass by such people with some frequency. I urge you, then, to print out this code of conduct and present it condescendingly to the next few beggars you encounter. Then, at least, you will be able to test point number six.

Written by Thag

July 29, 2010 at 11:34 am

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You Know That’s Just LOADED with Fat, Right?

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I was going to get all altruistic and proud of myself for trying to pound out oodles of posts over the next few days so my newly invalid wife (she fell and hurt her foot) will have entertainment as she sits in front of the computer, unable to go very far. Then I realized she’d rather have me spend the time with her in the flesh instead of poking away at my keyboard one floor below. A guy can’t win.

After all, I love sitting here in front of a blank text field, waiting for inspiration to strike (I believe it was Kurt Vonnegut who said there was nothing more terrifying than a blank sheet of paper). Usually it hits me square in the jaw and makes a quick getaway. Of course, this time I was eating peanut butter straight from the container, and that softened the blow somewhat. I should make a habit of that, just as a safety measure. But next time I’ll use a spoon.

For some reason, I have to fix more typos than usual. Many of the keys are sticking. Whatever. No time to figure that out now; must play gopher upstairs…

Written by Thag

July 27, 2010 at 10:08 pm

Stop and Smell the Roses, Dammit

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Some people have an itch to travel. Me, I’m not allergic to anything.

I have nothing against tourism or tourists; I proudly engage in either end of the arrangement when appropriate. But many people seem to have a drive to visit faraway or unfamiliar (or perhaps all-too-familiar) places at every opportunity, as if it’s some seasonal migrating instinct.

I recall passing through a hotel lobby a number of years ago, on the way to meet a friend staying there. A number of (you guessed it) American tourists were lounging around, and as I passed one group ensconced in the comfortable chairs and loveseats, I overheard enough snippets to piece together the topic of conversation: where should we go next vacation?

My wife and I are homebodies. During Lamaze classes before the birth of our first, the instructor conducted an exercise that called for us to visualize being in our favorite places, to get us to relax: a tropical beach; a large green expanse; you know the drill. This didn’t quite fit with our sensibilities. After the exercise, my wife asked me, “Do I even have a favorite place?”

“Your bed,” I answered, “or maybe a bakery.” Simultaneously, we inhaled the suddenly evocative, if imaginary, aroma of baking bread, and couldn’t complete the move before laughing. Who needs Nepal when you’ve got home?

I do harbor some curiosity about a number of places and experiences: Galápagos; Prague; a cruise; the original Ben & Jerry’s in Burlington, Vermont. But the curiosity remains just that, not enough to push me to do anything concrete about it. Prior to our recent trip to the NY area we did briefly explore a fantasy that involved a long, long drive into Vermont, but we both knew better thank to think it might actually happen.

Now, we do have a nice home, falling apart though it is. But it’s not the, um, luxury that keeps us rooted. There has to be a very good reason to leave the neighborhood: a wedding; picking up loved ones at the airport; sufficient compensation. We’ve had the same car we got in 2002, and have yet to hit 55,000 kilometers (that’s about 34,175.4156 miles, for the slow among us). When every amenity lies within walking distance, driving becomes a rarity.

So back to those people at the hotel: can you imagine spending your vacation planning your next vacation? Do these people inhabit the present? I can just picture how they function in everyday life:

  • After making love: “So…how will I be?”
  • “What are tomorrow’s specials?”
  • “Mr. Palmer, where will you be on the night of the 23rd?”
  • “For the Lord, your God, plans to be a jealous god…”
  • “We intend to hold these Truths to be self evident…”
  • “I will be Spartacus!”

It’s not like we don’t go out and do stuff; we’ve already taken a couple of family camping trips, three- or four-day affairs with tents, sleeping bags, the works, and we do join family and friends for various events in random other places. But I can’t wrap my head around this need to make travel so important that it impinges on the here and now, even in the midst of other travel.

Excuse me, my wife is calling. I think I’ll go discuss with her what we want out of our next marriages.

Written by Thag

July 26, 2010 at 8:32 pm

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This Is Not a Post About Brooklyn

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We just sent our nine-year old on a three-night camping trip with a youth group, his first such stretch without us. Part of me can’t contain the excitement for him. Part of me tries to suppress the automatic worry. Part of me looks forward to having one less being over whom to watch. Part of me (this would be the back and shoulders) will miss the extra pair of hands and arms carrying the baby around and keeping his sister from killing him.

I remember my first overnight camp experience. I’d just turned seven, and insisted I could handle the eight weeks of camp away from my family just fine. My older brother would be there for the first four; what’s the big deal?

I must say, very few of my memories from that summer qualify as positive. I do remember enjoying the pool (where I first encountered the sign, “Welcome to our ool. Notice there is no P in it. Please keep it that way,” which I thought exceedingly clever, and repeated to whoever would listen, probably as nauseam, or ad whatever other threshold you prefer not to evoke, for months, if not years, afterward). I also remember some nice people, and being introduced to the game Milles Bournes while in the infirmary for a few days. And the care package I received from my parents, which I was thrilled to receive, but upon opening, was devastated to discover contained calamine lotion (which I promptly spilled, I promise accidentally), OFF! wipes and possibly other things, but certainly nothing exciting or edible. Definitely not candy. What the hell? Oh, and the two visiting days and the canteen (this was the summer I discovered Tangy Taffy and Orange Crush), and the sugar dispenser at every table in the cafeteria for unfettered addition to breakfast cereal. I think I brushed my teeth exactly once that summer, way at the beginning. The same holds true for showering, if I recall correctly. I’m afraid I do.

Other than that, I remember how terrible I was at various sports; how much I detested both the cookie and the fruit punch they distributed more or less everyday; how much time there seemed to be with no activities at all; how we were always pitted in competition against the bunk next door (that of my brother), who were, naturally, one year older and therefore more proficient at absolutely everything; how the sewage ran in semi-open ditches just outside the bunks (when there were no activities scheduled, sometimes we would remove the wooden planks that lay over said channels and call to someone inside the bunk to flush,then cackle our seven-year-old cackles as feces flowed past) (I also remember a walk that took us past the cesspool, but the context eludes me); how I learned how to call collect, and spent some time nearly every evening calling my parents from the red wooden phone booth, the only actual booth, attached to the office, the one with the phone that actually had buttons, not a dial; how I once took the time on a Saturday to poke around in the barn-like building where they stored all the campers’ trunks and clambered up and around the pile of them until I found my bright red one with my family name in masking tape on across one side, right next to my brother’s blue one – I sat there for I don’t remember how long, thinking of home. Suffice it to say, my parents knew better than to send me away again even for one four-week session until I was ten. Suffice it to say in addition that they did not send me to the same camp.

A few other events from that summer come to mind now:

– I remember an agonizingly long trip upstate on a coach bus, my first time in such vehicle, though I recall no particular details.

– I remember arriving there on the first day, in the pouring rain, and seeing the red, yellow and probably pale green bleachers (two or three rows) at the main baseball field, and not seeing the bunk buildings right near there – so when someone said, “There are the bunks – that’s where we’re gonna sleep,” I thought he meant on and underneath the bleachers.

– I remember wetting the bed (or at least discovering in the morning that I had wet the bed), and seeing a rather large dead fly in the wet spot.

– I remember my brown shoe polish – the liquid kind in a plastic bottle with the sponge on top – spilling all over some of my nice blue shirts, and wearing them that way.

– I remember wearing only one of the two pairs of sneakers I’d packed, all summer, because early on, the other one had a knot in the laces that I couldn’t undo (no, it never occurred to me to ask a counselor for help).

– I remember going on a small hike into the woods where we saw the name John Cook painted on a big rock in orange capital letters, and hearing our counselor tell us John Cook was a murderer who preyed on little kids and lived in the woods around there somewhere; a branch snapped (I do think I remember one of the counselors being away from the group at the time) and we hightailed it back out of the trail and onto the paved road that led back to the camp itself.

– I remember a trip to, of all places, a kosher winery (along the way, I had an argument with my seatmate over whether having the window open would make him lose his hat forever; he maintained that if the wind blew his hat off, the latter would blow farther into the bus, not out; I disagreed, noting that other windows behind us were also open, and it could easily fly out one of those, too; a counselor agreed with me and all but forced him to close it most of the way).

– I remember a night so cold that it might actually have snowed, and our junior counselor told us the camp custodian had been up all night shoveling.

– I remember a day that started out rainy, but once it let up, a large group of campers assembled on the camp’s main drag, underneath the branch of a very tall tree, upon which hung a tremendous beehive, and some campers thought it a good idea to chuck rocks at it; just as soon as an announcement came over the PA system warning everyone to stop it, someone’s shot hit home and split the thing  clear in half.

– I remember the soda machines right outside the canteen – a can of Pepsi cost forty-five cents.

– I remember rooftop baseball, which used a rubber ball and the pitched roof of the bunk: one player would toss the ball onto the roof, and the other had to catch it before it hit the ground; if not, the number of times it bounced before it was caught represented the number of bases advanced (years later, at my next sleepaway camp, I encountered an improved version: instead of the end-to-end arrangement of buildings that characterized my earlier experience, the later camp had them arranged in parallel. The object was to toss the ball onto the roof such that it would bounce off at a shallow angle, preferably hitting the roof of the adjacent bunk, which would count as a home run; distance determined the score, not number of bounces).

– I remember how the administrative folks would get around in golf carts, or perhaps that was only the maintenance folks.

– And I remember, if only vaguely, getting onto the bus to go back to Brooklyn where my parents would pick me up – and where they had dropped me off.

To this day, I have no interest in Brooklyn. Some of the sweetest people I ever knew came from or live in Brooklyn, but I have too many negative associations with the place for that to matter, even though those associations formed nearly three decades ago, the first one begin a hot afternoon spent traipsing around for what I recall to be no particular reason.

I’m pretty sure, though, that my son will have a blast. It’s only three days, and he’s with some great other kids from the neighborhood. And it’s not Brooklyn, so how bad can it be?

Written by Thag

July 25, 2010 at 8:51 pm

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What a Prescient Surprise

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Not too long ago, I pontificated on the prevalence of superfluous phone features. I am both relieved and alarmed to report that the new phone, with its newfangled magic, has ceased to perform the one function I need it to do: the damn thing won’t make or receive calls. So I’ve reverted to my old machine, temperamental as it is. Predictability is important (you knew I was going to say that).

The term “grim satisfaction” comes to mind. The relief stems from the fact that this collapse of yet another system in my life has had minimal impact. Along with that comes the inevitable trepidation: what’s next? Did I leave a Voodoo doll of me lying around somewhere? Have the poltergeists decided to hold their annual convention all around me? (“Hello. My Name Is Bumpen Greind”) (Shaman you for thinking that).

Come to think of it, this sort of thing goes farther back than I realized. The house we live in incorporates a number of features that were new to us when they were installed, such as toilets with no external tank – wall-mounted units with a button on the wall behind them. We asked the designer whether cracking open the wall is the only way to effect repairs. “They never need repair,” she assured us. Until one of them plumb fell off the wall. “That never happens,” said the guy who reattached it. True, it hasn’t budged in the five years since, but of course one doesn’t expect to have to make such observations about toilets (generally, the only movements we associate with toilets are not generated by the toilet itself).

We could also consider the perpetually leaky roof and skylight (where aesthetics apparently trumped functionality), but who has time for such troublesome matters? I’m busy waiting for the refrigerator repairman.

Written by Thag

July 25, 2010 at 1:10 pm

When a Gimmick Goes 2 Far

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Apple should make an intentionally ugly device and market it as the iSore. Or an insulin-administering piece of equipment called the iSlets of Langerhans. iCan’t think of more such stupidities offhand, but you’re welcome to.

Written by Thag

July 24, 2010 at 9:29 pm

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The Expurgated Version

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And it came to pass in the thirteenth year of the reign of Thag, son of Ogg, that the refrigerator did make sound and fury, but did not cool. This did displease Thag, son of Ogg, and he did make known his great displeasure to the people.

The people gave no heed to Thag, and followed the whims of their heart; they did continue to open and close the refrigerator.

On the third day, Rowlf, son of Thag, did open the refrigerator to remove milk, for that was where they kept the milk, and did pour it into his corn flakes. And the milk bore the consistency of cottage cheese. And Rowlf did cry, “The milk hath turned!”

And Thag said unto Miggtha, his wife, “Lo, the refrigerator doth make sound and fury, and doth not cool the food. Let us call a repairman who shall heal the beast.”

Miggtha said, “Yea, call shall ye call, and tell him thou that the freezer compartment doth also drip.”

And Thag said unto Miggtha, “If it be thy wish to manage the content of the conversation with the repairman, thou canst make the phone call thyself.”

And Miggtha said unto Thag, “Why dost thou evade responsibility like that?”

And Thag said, “It is not responsibility that I evade, but the three-way conversation that shall ensue. I seek but to cut out the middle man, just as thou seekest to limit my contact with thy sister.”

And Miggtha’s eyes did grow wide and then narrow, and her eyebrows did plunge, and she said with raised voice, “What dost thou mean?”

And Thag said unto Miggtha, “For it be four months now that when it be that thy sister Blogg call, thou dost snatch the receiver from my hand and prevent me from conversing with her.”

And Miggtha, daughter of Klung, did say, “For I knoweth that thou dost harbor lustful desires for Blogg, for I did hear her and thee when thou thought I lay sleeping.”

When Thag, son of Ogg, heard this, Thag wielded his finger and did extend it toward Miggtha. He did say, “‘Twas but a jape! Blogg did recount the time thou held a slumber party and did immerse the fingers of Umba, daughter of Klonk, in warm water, and she did wet the sheets; and I said unto Blogg, ‘Miggtha be far too wary to fall for that schtick.’ And Blogg did challenge me to avenge Umba, daughter of Klonk. And I did protest, and I said that thou art surely awake and would fall not for the trick; and Blogg did begin talking to me with heavy breath. I did grasp her intent, and did play along, but thou reacted not, and we ceased the jape when thou reacted not.”

Upon seeing that Thag, son of Ogg, did make clear the source of her troubles, Miggtha did whisper an apology. And Miggtha did embrace Thag. And Thag said, “So, willst thou call the repairman?”

That night, it came to pass that Thag did sleep on the couch.

Written by Thag

July 20, 2010 at 2:32 pm

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It’s (Our) Only Money

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In my last post, I mentioned in passing that recent weeks have seen more than their share of things breaking. Naturally, the time has come to elaborate, because I can hear the clamoring for details. Unless that’s just the refrigerator again.

It started quite a while ago, actually, but we didn’t notice anything awry until last month. That’s when the water softening system sprang a leak. We couldn’t get it fixed immediately, so we had no choice but to bypass it, and got a taste of the good old days, when all water tasted like dust. And let’s not forget the attractive white buildup of caked mineral matter on everything. When the service company finally deigned to do its job, we had to lay out a small fortune for a piece of proprietary plastic.

Then we noticed some dripping in one of the bathrooms. Turns out the air conditioner compressor, which lives in the ceiling above said facilities, was malfunctioning. That helped explain why, on a hot day, it seemed to be humidifying the air. With no time to attend to the matter before a trip overseas, we simply made a note to get it serviced upon our return.

The air conditioning troubles remained with us during our trip however, as I noted in a previous entry: the a/c in the behemoth of an SUV we used decided to crap out the day after we got it. Just like home, only using a higher grade of gasoline.

We got back home and noticed a shiny new water meter that the city had installed. That was nice of them, but their fiddling with the connecting pipe had caused a small leak – on our side of the meter, of course, for which, technically, we are responsible. My wife spent a frustrating half hour on the phone with them, in the process discovering that the meter’s serial number corresponds not to the one installed on our house, but one installed in a completely different part of the city last year sometime, and they have no record of our meter replacement, not since its installation in 2004. It took some forceful insistence to get the jobsworth at the other end of the line to recognize that they might want to send someone to get this situation checked out in person, considering that every other meter on the street was also replaced in the last few weeks, replacements that the city does have on record. In the meantime, we attempted to tighten the connection ourselves, and you can guess the result. Instead of crummy-tasting water, this time we were forced to get by with no water, until a friend came by with a pipe wrench and improved the situation.

I just realized I saw the meter reader go by this morning. If in fact they have no record of a meter replacement, the obscenely low reading for this month will mean they owe us money! Lots of it! Hold on while I share this revelation with my wife!

(suitable interval)

Right. They’ll more likely accuse us of tampering. This is going to be fun.

The fun, as you recall, was in full swing before our trip. But before we had a chance to call the air conditioner people (and finding ones who would answer the phone proved a trip in itself), we discovered that the unit upstairs, as well, wanted in on the fun. Drip. Drip. Drip. Dridripdripdripdripdrip…

Apparently, the water accumulates because the system has no (freon? do they still use freon?) gas left, or very little, and by whatever magic is involved, this results in lots of ice, which melts in the heat, disrupts proper functioning and drips wherever. Oh, and in checking on the other units, we discovered that the receptor for the remote control on one of them refuses to recognize any function other than “heat.”

We have an external cabinet that houses the gas balloons for our oven and stovetop (no integral gas lines in these parts), and it seems to be disconnecting from the house – or at least one part of it does, causing one door of the cabinet not to align properly with the other, and the padlock therefore can’t be inserted.

And just two days ago we discovered that the fridge barely works. We shall be forced to make milkshakes of the Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream, as it somewhat thawed and then refroze upon transfer to another freezer. ‘Twill be icy (lemons and lemonade are sooo not the right metaphor for us).

Our mantra for the last month has been, “It’s only money.” I hereby open the floor to suggestions for a new mantra when we run out of money.

Written by Thag

July 19, 2010 at 12:37 pm

Phone-y Baloney

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I have the most amazing mobile phone. You know what it does? It makes calls. It receives calls. It remembers numbers. Unfortunately, I have been dissuaded from further use of this phone. Alas, it has aged, and recently acquired a tendency to turn off at random times.

Hearing of this crisis, my loyal brother-in-law swooped in and bought not one, but two phones, with various bells and whistles of which I’d never dreamed. Ok, that’s not strictly true. I did have a dream once that involved a cellphone camera, a pair of fuzzy dice and a ukulele. Or maybe it was a vuvuzela. You’d have to ask the cows.

Anyway, this new phone does waaay more than a phone should. All you people out there surfing the web on screens no larger than a standard Hoyle playing card: GET A LIFE. Thank you. I do not need this phone’s many features, but the manufacturers seems to have conspired not to offer anything basic anymore, or they’ve redefined “basic” to mean “more advanced than Star Trek (the original; the Next Generation and Voyager models will be released in 2012 and 2015, respectively), but without the funky Vulcan ears”.

I don’t want games, no matter how awesome they might be. I don’t want a camera; it’s just another thing that can (and will, given recent weeks) malfunction. I don’t want an mp3 player; there’s enough noise in my life as it is. I don’t even want to send text messages. I waste enough time posting to my blog – why would I need to add distractions?

The only cellphone feature I find cool is on my wife’s phone: a flashlight. THAT is handy. Especially when you’re walking along the street at night and you want to avoid bumping into the idiots pecking away at their mobile devices instead of looking where they’re going.

Written by Thag

July 18, 2010 at 9:45 pm

Piece of Cake

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My paternal grandmother, may she rest in peace, did not have a reputation for following written recipes. She had a limited repertoire, of various kinds of foods, or at least that’s the way it appeared to me. But of course her creations carried with them the unmistakable flavor of Eastern Europe.

Most of all I recall her cakes:  a crusty apple cake (apparently also with plums) that I would not touch (actual fruit? Are you out of of your mind?); a fluffy, citrus-tinged sponge cake that used probably a dozen eggs; and a moist, spongy chocolate cake in a tube pan that always made my mouth water. That cake, as I recall, only appeared in her later years; I don’t think we ever had it before the 1990s. But it was really good.

Naturally, with her adherence to traditional methods, precisely measured ingredients did not feature strongly. Not that the quantities varied, because a pinch is a pinch, and her sweet tooth ensured the proper balance of flavor. She had an entire lineup of dry measure cups hanging on the wall behind her counter, but no one really knows how much use they got. One could not imagine her making cake from anything but scratch.

I learned to cook and bake mostly after I got married, while my wife came into the relationship more familiar with cooking methods, terms and sensibilities – both of her parents know a good meal when they see one, and spend a good bit of time in the kitchen. And while still living with my parents, although in general I seldom prepared anything more involved than a toasted English muffin, most often it was I who mixed up a batch or two of Duncan Hines brownies for dessert.

During our courtship and engagement period, Mr. Hines and his mixes were a recurring presence. To pot luck meals during college we would most often bring a Duncan Hines cake with Duncan Hines frosting, and when we moved overseas we took with us a bunch of boxes of his cake and brownie mixes (’twas unnecessary; we could get them here, too, but didn’t know that). On the side of one cake mix box there was a suggested alternative recipe, one that required a packet of pudding mix and a slightly different blend of other ingredients with the mix. It made a chocolate pound cake that, we were quite pleased to discover, tasted just like my grandmother’s.

At some point my wife and I confessed to my grandmother that we had discovered an easy-to-prepare mix that rivaled her chocolate pound cake, and disclosed its source. Her response: “Of course it tastes just like mine; that’s the mix I use.”

Written by Thag

July 16, 2010 at 11:14 am

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Some Like It Hot; Indeed, Some Are Morons

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Aside from granting random people inappropriate intimate access to one’s personal life, the internet allows one to accomplish some amazing things. We, for example, managed to get ourselves baked for two weeks in a car with busted air conditioning, and it couldn’t have happened quite the way it did without that omnipresent series of tubes (omnipresent except where my wireless attempts to use it).

Good fortune smiled upon us in the form of a family across the sea who wanted to exchange use of a minivan in our area for use of their large car in the vicinity of our destination, New York. The dates of our trip meshed nicely with theirs, so we clarified the terms of the deal and went for it.

It began with great promise, and the smug feeling of having scored a major coup in the trading-up department: our 2001 Hyundai Trajet, a 7-seater minivan with a 4-cylinder, 2-liter engine (you read that right: a minivan with the fearsome horsepower, acceleration and stamina of your typical stateside subcompact) for an Infiniti QX56, an SUV approximately the size of Kentucky, only with fewer empty Jim Beam bottles inside. Ironically, it didn’t fit all of us plus our luggage. I have this funny need to see through the rear windshield.

But although this thing was a monster, it treated us well. Until the air conditioner crapped out after just a few days.

So, after a brief e-mailed consultation with the owners, we hauled that thing to the dealer in the hopes that they could do something about it by the time we needed it again. In our naïvté, we figured three days would suffice, while we had decided in any case to use public transportation to get in and out of Manhattan over the intervening period.

What fools we were. Good fortune smiled upon is, it turns out, much in the way Christopher Guest smiled at Cary Elwes in The Princess Bride after receiving the response to, “How do you feel?” The necessary part, it turns out, was on “national backorder” from the Chicago distribution center, and would not be “in stock” until the day after we were scheduled to fly back home, or until Hell “froze over,” whichever was later.

Oh, did I mention that the forecast called for record highs in the ensuing days, when we planned to visit family and do touristy, car-based things an hour’s drive into New Jersey? Sorry for leaving out that tidbit.

We took to calling that monstrosity “the oven.” Whatever admixture of grudging admiration at the sheer power and comfort the thing was supposed to provide quickly gave way to disgust at conspicuous consumption compounded by what appeared to be permanent layers of sweat.

So we returned home a few days ago to similar temperatures and slightly lower humidity, and a similarly non-functional air conditioner on not one, but two levels of the house. The ones we tend to use ninety-nine percent of the time. The repair guy agreed to come on Friday. The forecast calls for much higher temperatures over the weekend. Hell hasn’t frozen over; it’s just taken up residence with me.

Written by Thag

July 14, 2010 at 10:20 pm

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Can’t Go Home Anymore

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We’re back. Tired, exhausted and drained.

This was going to be a riff on the vagaries of transatlantic travel with four kids under the age of ten, but my snark generator wants the day off. I do, however, want to talk about the trip.

A few days after our arrival, my sister called to inform me that the mother of the family next to whom we grew up had just died. We were going to be in the neighborhood the next day anyway to visit my aunt and uncle, so I set aside some time to visit the grieving family.

On the way down the Cross Island Parkway, my wife asked me whether I expected a surreal experience, seeing the house in which I grew up, but where my parents no longer live. I had to admit that it never occurred to me until she mentioned it. But in the end, it proved a jolting experience – not when I got there, but when I left.

Upon my arrival, I saw the door to the mourners’ house closed, and wasn’t sure of the propriety of knocking, especially since the funeral was not too long before, and I wasn’t 100% certain anyone was there. So I walked up and down the street in front of my old house, playing tour guide to an invisible cadre of ghosts: the rise in the curb with the crack that gave it a triangular shape always served as first base; once upon a time, before the street was repaved, a recurring pothole in the middle of the street almost opposite our driveway merited annual patches of fresh asphalt that provided us with a clear second base; third base, not exactly opposite first but close enough, was where the curb came to a point between two driveways – also, until the street was repaved; and home was the middle of the street opposite a maple tree just behind the curb. I believe the street has been repaved twice since we stopped playing there, probably in about 1989 or 90.

Over there, on another maple tree in front of our house (I couldn’t bring myself to refer to it any other way), one of the branches once housed a large beehive. My younger brother and I played catch – and my older brother, frisbee – right along that stretch of the street, and I remember accidentally hitting that branch with the ball and finding myself running as fast as my legs could carry me – out of the street, around the house to the side entrance and behind a screen door, where I discovered at least one large black insect stuck to the back of my shirt.

The four squares of pavement that connected our driveway with the street served, for a time, as the venue for a game we called boxes – a kid would go through three of the four squares, not touching the fourth, in a series of ten steps of varying complexity corresponding to that number. Step on a line between to squares and lose your turn; take the wrong number of steps or hops, same result.

We didn’t have a basketball hoop attached to our garage, but the neighbors on either side did. One was still up; the other, long gone.

Some things remained: the trees my parents planted in front of the house, and the line of bushes between our lawn and the neighbors’ driveway. The oak tree they planted near the garage when I was little – probably about seven or eight – is now twice the height of the two-story house. Some of the trash cans are obviously the same, and I could still see, over the fence to the back yard, the wooden, barn-shaped shed my father built in about 1987.

The most obvious changes to the property itself involved the gardening, or lack thereof. Where my parents had a number of large bushes that nearly obscured the front windows, the newbies had removed them to allow light to reach the below-ground windows they’d installed for the basement. And while our driveway had a grassy strip down the center, the new owners had paved over that section. As I walked by, a middle-aged woman emerged from the house clutching a briefcase (or possibly a really big purse). I couldn’t bring myself to say anything, and no emotional reaction registered in me.

So I continued walking past the house, reaching the neighbors’ driveway just as a high school classmate pulled in. The deceased was her aunt, but I hadn’t seen Janet, as far as I can recall, since 1992. Conversation was awkward, and we both acknowledged that circumstances were not exactly conducive to catching up. However, her arrival made it easier for me to enter the house without hesitation.

I was the only non-family-member present. I couldn’t stay for long, as the rest of my family was waiting for me to join them elsewhere, but very little emotion surfaced while I was there. Only as I crossed the street to return to the car did the sense of loss hit me – and it wasn’t for Judy, since, for all that we lived next door for decades, I barely knew her. I realized, with a profoundness that has only increased in the two weeks since, that nothing on the street where I grew up in any way relates to me anymore. Someone else occupies the house; all the children of the neighboring families, with whom we spent countless, seemingly endless afternoons playing sports, games and just generally hanging around, have long since moved away, not to mention the families that no longer live there at all.

None of this really bothered me until the moment I was about to leave School Street, probably for the last time (it actually brings me to tears to write that). Several days before, I mentioned to my wife that since my grandparents are now gone, and my parents now live near us, it’s weird to be back in the New York area with almost no one to see in their “original” places. Little did I realize just how potent a feeling that would turn out to be. I walked back and forth on that little portion of the street again, this time almost hoping that someone familiar would emerge from one of the houses, someone whose presence would connect me with a time for which I now find myself in mourning.

In many ways I never grew up – never had to, really – but at the same time, most of the major fixtures of my childhood have disappeared, leaving an unfamiliar sense of emptiness.

Written by Thag

July 13, 2010 at 4:31 pm

Posted in Uncategorized