Archive for the ‘health’ Category

Thank You, Mr Carrier

July 31, 2012

It got a little warm today, so I slunk into my favorite coffee shop, where the
manager, Phil, prefers having the air conditioning on. He’s my kind of guy.

Much of the rest of the country swelters in 90-100+ heat and humidity, while here in green Seattle it doesn’t get quite that hot; that doesn’t mean that it never gets uncomfortable. The average temperature in Seattle in July and August is in the mid- 70’s, but remember that Mother Nature throws her dice now and then, just to make it interesting. In summer of 2009, Michelle and I came to Seattle from Boston for a vacation, and it hit 104, making my promises of mild climate pretty untrustworthy.

Like many locals, we wanted desperately to find a nice, cool air-conditioned hotel room, since our hosts did not have it. We found out that only something like 16% of Seattle homes have a/c, simply because it does not get that hot very often.

But what about those places that regularly do get hot?

I was born and raised in the Washington DC area, and a/c is not a luxury — it’s a necessity. In summer you lead an air-conditioned life, going from home to car to office building; at the end of the day you reverse the order. Even brief exposure to the elements brings on perspiration galore, and then you get that weird combination of a damp chill when the a/c finally hits you and your icky, damp clothes.

Air conditioning takes up lots of electricity, and when the electricity is not flowing, there is no air conditioning, which makes for a lot of sweaty, unhappy people. I feel sorry for those hundreds of millions of people in India who are without power recently.

There are over 1.2 billion people in India, the world’s second most populous country after China, and those people need electricity. Maybe such luminaries as Edison and Tesla ought to take a posthumous bow for their crucial contributions to our welfare and comfort today. The power grid in India, however, is not as advanced or as reliable as in other countries. Massive power outages have caused cars to jam in a morass of molasses due to dead traffic lights; have stilled the overcrowded trains; and have led to outrageous heat in workplaces and homes.

Earlier this month, the 17th, was the 110th anniversary of the birth of modern air conditioning. We all know the Carrier brand of a/c, but what most do not know is that it was Willis Haviland Carrier (1876-1950), who brought us that air-chilling appliance we all love today. He was a mechanical engineer, and he solved the most important parts of the riddles concerning the temperature, humidity and cleansing of air.

To Willis Carrier, I would like to lift a toast, of a glass of very cold iced tea. I wonder how much I could get for it in India?

Where There’s Smoke

November 26, 2011

There has been much activity in the international press and the Chinese social media lately regarding the deteriorating quality of air in Dragonland. Chinese citizens are upset that they are forced to breathe very dirty air. On one day recently the official government body in charge of monitoring the air quality in Beijing classified it as “Not too bad, really.”  But according to an air quality measurement device mounted on top of the US Embassy in that ancient city, it was “Wow! This air sucks! I mean, run inside right now and find some oxygen as quick as you can!”

(Please see the footnote below for further clarification of these highly technical appraisals.)

Obviously, the two assessments do not agree. Part of this is due to the way the air quality is measured.

The Chinese air quality measurement device was made in North Korea, which has a special trade relationship with China; North Korea imports 99% of its food and all of its handcuffs from China, while North Korea exports to China kazoos and air quality measurement devices. This device, the SmogMaster5000, appears to be a whistle attached to a red balloon and a speedometer from a ’64 Chevy Impala. The SmogMaster5000 is available online for $1.98, plus $1,000 shipping fees, plus another $300 in unspecified handling and transaction-smoothing costs.

The Americans, in contrast, use a Swiss device of unsurpassed precision, the ZauberLuft1000, which is assembled by highly trained technicians in a clean room kept as taint free and pure as the air was in a Swiss meadow one thousand years ago. The ZL-1000 is very expensive, and if you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it.

The other main difference in air quality readings is that the Chinese results do not include particulates smaller than 2.5 micrometers, while the Americans do include them. (Many health professionals believe that the American measurement presents a fuller and more accurate picture of the air quality in China.) As far as these units of pollution badness go, the extra-fine, teeny-tiny bits can be inhaled and travel down into the lungs, where they can cause serious respiratory symptoms, heart disease, childhood illnesses and terminal halitosis. It’s like being born and raised in a coal mine.

Because Chinese authorities wish to avoid even the slightest appearance of trouble and embarrassment, and because they hope that ordinary citizens are really dumb, they have suggested new designations and guidelines for air pollution particles. NH-1 particles are too big to enter your nose or mouth, and so are considered “safe”; NH-2 particles are small enough to enter the nostrils but are big enough to be captured by nose hairs; and the NH-3 particles are so small as to evade nose hairs and pass all the way down into the lungs, where they can do great damage.  X-ray photographs of these beastly little NH-3 particles reveal them to be so awful, so horrific, that it would be irresponsible to publish them here; if you saw them they would make you sick and give you nightmares.

In another example of special privilege for China’s elite, expensive air purification equipment has been installed in offices, conference rooms and private homes used by the cream of the Communist Party crop, since they don’t want to breathe the dirty air, either. Currently one of the best jobs in Beijing is limo driver, since the highest-ranking officials are not only ferried to and fro in limousines, but they carry their own clean air in mobile air supply packs supplied by North Korea.

The limo drivers get to breathe residual clean air during the trip, and then retain as much as possible by keeping the windows up.

In a rare display of sensitivity to popular discontent, Hua Lei, vice director of Beijing’s environmental monitoring center, has announced that common citizens will be allowed to tour the monitoring facilities. (Among the party elite, common citizens are called “filters,” since they breathe in and absorb the dirty air.) There has not been any indication that the measuring standards or monitoring equipment will change, but Mr Hua is confident that allowing people to see the offices for themselves will “allay their fears”. Um, I don’t really believe that providing tours will do very much to mitigate fears regarding air pollution, especially if no changes are to be made either to measuring procedures or equipment, but I guess this is the way that Chinese bureaucrats think.

Part of the excessive air pollution is caused by the unregulated factories that belch and spew great gobs of airborne gunk into the environs. The lion’s share, or rather, the dragon’s share of factories relies upon coal to provide power, and coal burning technology in China is notoriously out-of-date and dirty. Coal is used to heat homes all across China, and even powers such common kitchen appliances as coffee pots, blenders and rice cookers, which have been modified to suit the Chinese market by using a few lumps of coal to make them function. (Three out of five Chinese now concede that they prefer their rice with a slightly smoky taste.)

But analysis suggests that in recent years the greatest contribution comes from the profusion of newly imported cars and trucks. China has emerged as the juiciest new market in the world for cars, and every manufacturer from Germany, France and Italy to the US and Japan is bringing home record profits by selling record numbers of vehicles there.

Contrary to long-standing norms of American car branding identity — Buicks are for really old guys, Corvettes for mature guys who want to look younger, Volvos for the granola-eating Birkenstock set, VW’s the choice of hip, young hot-rodders and so forth — Chinese consumers have taken foreign and domestic car brands and stamped their own set of stereotypes on them. Dairy executives who mix Melamine with milk powder prefer the Chinese-made Chery; thugs who beat up journalists and other supporters when they try to visit dissident Chen Guangcheng drive a BYD; and plain clothes police who drag protesters away from Tiananmen Square like the locally produced Geely.

But there’s a new source of air pollution in China, although the Communist Party doesn’t like to talk about it. International scientists have determined that much of the smoggy, unhealthy air in China is due to all the protesters lighting themselves on fire.  Human beings are not considered a green energy source, and the amount of smoke and toxic particulate matter they produce is considerable.

International journalists in China are convinced that the rampant corruption from the highest levels of the Communist Party down to its lowest strata prevents not only truthful assessments, but also any chances for ameliorating the air pollution problems. I was informed of an anti-corruption convention to be held in Beijing recently – was even hoping to attend — but found that the organizers were bribed to cancel it. Witnesses say they saw a man wearing a mask hand over a briefcase and then disappear into the smog.

Are You a DUMBASS?

November 11, 2011

Public bathroom etiquette is one of those tricky subjects. It looks simple at first, but then after living on the planet for a little while and gaining some experience, you realize that it is actually complex, no matter which gender you belong to. Which open urinal do you take? Which open stall? When is it appropriate to lock the door? Should toilet lids be left up or down? When and where in the men’s room is it OK to undo trousers so as to tuck in a wayward shirt-tail? If there is a line (or a “queue” if you’re British) to use the facilities, how close should one stand to the next person? Should one make eye contact? Talk about sports?

In the last few years a new flaw in behavior has become commonplace. I refer of course to the use, by men, of a toilet stall when performing a #1, rather than available urinals. Toilet stalls are for #2’s; urinals are for #1’s. Everyone should know this.

Anthropologists are using a highly technical term for the young men who are guilty of this egregious behavior: delinquent use of men’s bathrooms from arrogant and spurious shyness,” or DUMBASS.

Not long ago, i.e. just after the Eisenhower Administration, a guy who errantly used a toilet stall for a #1 would be taken outside and beaten with his own comb; often the perpetrator would be left completely covered in Brylcreem.

This is because of economic reasons, and as we all know, economics is involved with the management of scarce resources. There are almost always more urinals than stalls, since the likelihood of a #1 is higher than a #2. So if a young fellow chooses to take over a stall, that removes a scarce resource from use, and if someone comes in who genuinely needs a #2, that poor guy should be able to access it pronto.

The idiot who occupies a stall is a urinating usurper, and the error of his ways needs to be pointed out.

Since the beginning of time, men have treated public toilets in a laudably democratic manner. It was always first come, first served. You waited patiently for your turn, and then when you were done, you quickly washed your hands and moved out of the way. In large venues such as sports stadiums or bars, one often found long troughs in the place of individual urinals; one must use what one finds. Just as with a urinal, one took one’s place at the trough, unzipped, and went about one’s business with little fanfare.

There was always the suspicion of perverse deviance when a urinator claimed a stall when the other mainstream options were present. As mentioned previously, there used to be swift and decisive punishment for those who broke the rules of the group. It’s just like when a pack of hyenas crowds around a carcass to feed, it’s considered fair to settle in and start chewing what’s in front of you. Occasionally, a rogue hyena decides to break the rules, and snatch up the tastiest bits for himself; that hyena gets torn to pieces by the rest.

After the criminal hyena has been killed and eaten, the remaining pack members would go back to finishing off the rest of the original carcass. Then they would wash their paws and leave.

Interesting that very few DUMBASS’s wash their hands after going to the bathroom. These boys – they are not yet men – are cowards. They are afraid that someone is going to catch a fleeting glance of their fledgling manhood while using a urinal (oh NO!), and then, instead of washing their hands, they flee in great haste and great fear so that no one will see them engaging in what they see as effeminate behavior. Real men use urinals, and real men wash their hands.

Look at how clean mine are!

The Fire Down Below

October 27, 2011

Recently I enjoyed a successful episode with a fireplace, and it reminded me of a less happy confrontation a number of years ago. In 1978, when I moved to the Pacific Northwest, I was lucky enough to rent a small house on Lake Samish, just south of Bellingham. It was the first time I had ever had my very own fireplace, and I was determined to get a fire going as soon as possible.

Having grown up in the Washington DC suburbs, to look out a window and see a beautiful lake was a completely new and wonderful sensation. Every room had a window that either looked out on the lake or had a view of trees — it was a gorgeous setting. The fireplace was icing on the cake.

There were logs in the basement, provided by the generous landlord, and I brought up an armload. I was excited at the prospect of sitting by a roaring fire, watching the flames dance and listening to the music of wood popping and crackling. I located a box of matches and inspected the pile of logs, brown cylinders laden with potential thermal energy. Starting to get a little nervous, I grabbed a hefty log and layed it onto the grate.

Then I pulled out a match and lit it.

Many matches later, the log still sat there, looking at me indifferently. What was I doing wrong? Tom, the landlord, had shown me how to open the chimney flue damper, so I had taken care of that. (If you didn’t open the damper, the room would fill with smoke, and a room filled with smoke is looked down upon in House and Garden.) Unfortunately, I had no Boy Scout badges in fire-building, because I had never been a Boy Scout. The suburban homes where I grew up had furnaces instead of fireplaces, so I was out in the cold as far as flammable skills were concerned.

Then it hit me: newspaper!

That was the missing link — I needed newspaper. Now, news print was what I had in abundance, due to my addiction to newspapers. There was a big stack of papers in the corner, filled with articles I had not yet read. I grabbed a New York Times and began to crumple the front page into a ball. C’mon, fire!

After a while there was a pile of burnt up newspaper ashes below the log, which was still sitting quite contendedly on the grate. Wisely I changed tactics, and began to construct twisted configurations of newspaper, since clearly a spherical shape was not conducive to thermodynamic success.

That didn’t work either. After a while I had gone through most of the matches, and the pile of newspaper ash had grown, but still there was a paucity of fire. This was becoming a contest.

About that time, Scott Sandsberry showed up for a visit and took one look at the fireplace. To my chagrin he dissolved into laughter, forming a sort of lumpy, reddish rug as he rolled on the floor. It’s pretty embarrassing when your oldest friend laughs at you.

“You moron! First of all you need to split the logs, and second of all you need to use kindling!”

This reminded me of the time I had tried to make macaroni and cheese from scratch. The first line of the recipe was, “Start with a roux.” What the hell’s a “roux”?

What the hell is kindling?

Scott explained patiently that kindling is little sticks. To build a fire you need a small pile of sticks in a rough approximation of a teepee, over a core of balled up newspaper. Then as the kindling takes and the nascent fire begins to grow, you add more fuel in the form of bigger and bigger pieces of wood. The logs needed to be split in order for the interior to be exposed, since that inner surface would catch fire sooner than the outer layer of protective bark. OK, let’s get this puppy going.

Soon we had a proper fire, and Scott consented to joining me for a celebratory steak dinner, which we ate in front of the fireplace.

Not only did I learn that a good fire needs the proper preparation, but a fire is even better when shared with old friends.

Mixed Up Doubles

October 22, 2011

(With apologies to and warmest regards for P.G. Wodehouse.)

It was a cool September morning as Mr Burns sat in his favorite chair, from which he could see a sweeping portion of the golf course. He saw the “Steam Train”, a well-known regular foursome, working its way up the ninth hole. Mr Burns shook his head in disgust and turned his gaze elsewhere, noting that Ms Lowery and Mr MacDonald were walking down the sixth fairway. This made him smile, not only at the thought that he had played Cupid for the romantic twosome, but also at the fact that both were excellent golfers.

Ian MacDonald had practiced bachelorhood for some forty years, and was now for the first time contemplating marriage. Alana Lowery was divorced, and until recently had given up all hope of remarrying. Instead of bonding with a man she had instead chosen to lower her handicap to single digits. Mr Burns’ crinkly face beamed at the sight of the couple, holding hands as they pulled their carts together.

It hadn’t been so long ago that Mr Burns, known to all as The Old Fart (TOF), would not have welcomed women players at the club. He and others like him believed women brought undesirable influences onto a golf course, slowed down play, and altered the masculine flavor of the golfing experience.

A round of golf, they said, used to be a therapeutic affair, providing not only fresh air and exercise but also sorely needed distance from women. Men are strange animals, in that most of their young lives are spent in pursuit of women, while a lion’s share of their later years is occupied by attempts at avoidance. Perhaps anthropologists and psychologists will in some century yet to come provide plausible explanations. But now women are often seen on golf courses, and not only is the civility they bring welcomed, but many of the younger women players can beat the men. Interesting how things change.

Such lofty themes occupied The Old Fart’s mind as he sat in his chair, a sight as predictable and soothing as Abraham Lincoln in his Memorial. But the morning calm was shattered as Bob Stilton, an 18 handicapper with a horrible slice, appeared out of nowhere and shouted at TOF from point blank range.

“Come quick, Mr Burns, hurry! There’s a big fight in the clubhouse!”

“What? A fight? Who’s fighting?”

“Mr Roberts and Miss Jameson! Only you can stop it!”

There was some truth to that, since not only had TOF on occasion changed their diapers, but had also showed them how to hold a cut down five iron. Many of the younger members at Burnt Tree Country Club boasted similar intimacy with TOF, who had been an integral part of the club longer than anyone could remember.

Reluctantly he rose from his beloved Adirondack chair, put his lemonade on the side table, and followed Mr Stilton to the combat zone. As he approached the clubhouse he remembered fondly the way James Roberts, since the age of ten, could hit a niblick bump and run dead to the pin, and Emily Jameson, who by her twelfth birthday could hit a drive as far as most fifteen-year-old boys.

They had become engaged in August, and he looked forward to the happy day when the young golfers would be united in fairway matrimony. Universally liked and respected, their happy marriage and likely domination of future mixed doubles tournaments would have been TOF’s crowning matchmaker achievement. At this point a three-pack of Titleist ProVI’s (90 compression) whizzed by TOF’s crown at high speed and broke a mirror behind him. Emily’s throwing arm was strong rather than accurate, as James Roberts was some twelve feet to the left.

“Now see what you’ve done!” cried Mr Roberts, “I’ve told you a thousand times about controlling your temper!”

“A thousand times!?” Coinciding with the ‘t’ in “times” a lady’s golf shoe ($149 Footjoy, size 6 ½) left her hand at 250 feet per second, this time crashing into the signed photo of Bobby Jones teeing off at Burnt Tree.

“You exaggerated as much when you claimed that four-foot putts were automatic for you! I want to win the mixed doubles!”

Risking great injury – he bruised like a peach – TOF stepped in between the warring parties.

“See here you two! What’s all this then?”

“It’s all his fault!” blurted Miss Jameson. “He keeps telling me how he admires the way Alana Lowery’s derrière sways when she waggles.”

“But she,” indicating Miss Jameson, “can’t stop carrying on about Mr MacDonald’s hands, and the way they hold a club like a Stradivarius.”

Now deep lines showed in TOF’s chin and brow as these words fell upon his very hairy ears. Jealousy had sprouted just before nuptials were to take place. This was inopportune timing indeed.

Moments later peace once again reigned over the clubhouse, since Emily and James had stormed out of opposite exits, leaving an eerie calm.

“That was close,” said Alex, the club manager. “I thought for a moment they’d start heaving fireplace pokers at one another.”

This was little consolation for TOF, since his latest matchmaking triumph was crashing to earth instead of soaring to new heights. Soon things would get worse.

A few weeks later came the annual mixed doubles scramble, and when the teams were announced there was general astonishment. Members could not believe their eyes when they read the schedule and saw that the foursome teeing off at 8:24 am consisted of two teams, Ian MacDonald and Emily Jameson, and James Roberts teamed with Alana Lowery. After the “Explosion”, as the imbroglio in the clubhouse was now called, some amorous reversals had taken place, much like the recoupling machinations from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.

Emily Jameson, in an attempt to make James Roberts seethe with envy, had applied her considerable flirting and driving skills in winning Ian MacDonald’s attention. (Alana wasn’t nearly as long off the tee.) Likewise James Roberts, who was unequalled with the lob wedge, had stolen the affections of Alana Lowery, whose strength was her deft putting. In anticipation of a close and perhaps emotional round, dozens of members had canceled important business meetings in the city in order to attend. On this day the busy cogs of industry would risk coming to a halt.

At precisely 8:15 am on the day of the tournament, TOF stood erect at the 1st tee, a wizened rulebook in one pocket, and a flask in the other. As was his custom he would officiate, walking the round with the foursome featuring the two teams most likely to win. Several dark clouds in the distance echoed the feeling of dread; this was supposed to be a golf tournament, not World War III.

Another fight had taken place earlier that morning. The Steam Train had wanted to tee off early that morning, but the pro had refused, preferring to allow tournament players an agreeable pace. The constituents of the Train, wealthy retirees all, combined to form a doomsday machine so ponderous, so methodically slow and plodding that most local golfers opted to play chess or several rubbers of bridge while waiting for the group to get far enough ahead. The Steam Train never let anyone play through. The pro, Jimmy Belizzi, proved no match for the pure bullying power wielded by the Steam Train.

There was Wayne the Waggler, who stood over his ball for a full five minutes before actually hitting it, completing a never varying performance that included precisely 75 waggles. Peter the Piston raised his club vertically from the ball, and then brought it straight down in a vain hope that somehow the ball would fly forward. When he actually did hit the ball it only moved ten yards at the most, with the club itself deeply embedded in the ground. The course superintendent was currently resting, enjoying a heavily medicated vacation from repairing Peter’s efforts.

The third member of the Steam Train was Fenton the Firebox, a very short and very thick man with red hair and a volcanic temper. Possessing an extremely fast back swing and even more vicious downswing, he produced such violent force it was a pity he rarely hit the ball out of his own diminutive shadow. On such shots, well, on all shots really, he exploded in anger and showered the environs with expletives. Few knew he had been a Catholic priest in his working days. Bringing up the rear, literally, was Carl the Caboose. Carl carried a set of buttocks so huge his trousers were custom made, and it was said an entire annual crop of Georgia cotton was required for his wardrobe. His butt knocked over small cars. On the rare occasion that his drive exceeded 80 yards his cohorts would applaud and shout, “Way to slap cheeks, Carl!”

You should keep the Steam Train in mind, since I think they are probably going to figure in sometime later in the story.

So where was I? Oh yes, Ian and Emily were conferring animatedly on one side of the tee, and had turned their backs on James and Alana, who were performing various exotic stretching exercises and exuding a calm serenity. TOF stepped forward to make an announcement.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the annual Burnt Tree mixed doubles tournament is about to begin. I’d like to remind members that USGA rules are to be strictly observed, and your golf etiquette and silence during players’ shots are much appreciated.“

A coin was tossed and the MacDonald/Jameson team was to tee off first. Emily hit a 230-yard drive down the middle, and flashed a smirk at Alana, who would need a drive and a seven iron (the “spade mashie niblick”) to match it. Ian hit his past Emily’s, but in the rough. No matter, since Ian’s iron play was the envy of every golfer for miles around.

Alana stepped to the tee, and after a few moments pause for restlessness in the gallery, hit a very nice drive about 185 down the left side of the fairway, in perfect position for the approach. She smiled sweetly at James as he stood on the tee. James Roberts could hit booming tee shots, but never knew where they were going. He hit a high shot that went well past Alana but into a deep fairway bunker.

The crowd applauded politely, the tournament was underway, and TOF ducked behind a tree to take a long pull from his flask. The dark clouds took on a more menacing look and seemed to frown directly at Burnt Tree CC.

For those golfing neophytes unfamiliar with the scramble format, I’ll sketch out a few guiding principles. All members of the team – whether two, three or four – tee off. The best drive is selected and then all players of the team hit from that spot. Then the best shot is chosen and all hit from there until the ball is holed. Very simple really, except for the one requirement that each team player must supply a minimum number of drives, usually between three and six, depending on the size of the team.

This means that the golfer who hits it long and straight every time can’t use his (or her) drive on every hole. This places a premium on strategic timing, since the team has to decide when to take whose drive. A great deal of pressure can affect a golfer’s confidence if the team desperately needs a good drive, whether from a great or mediocre player.  The noblest game is humbling.

Ian’s six-iron approach stopped ten feet from the pin, causing a wild eruption of applause from the knowledgeable entourage. James’ five-iron finished on the fringe about forty feet from the flag. Both teams parred, after Ian’s birdie putt lipped out, and James chipped to three feet and Alana sank the par putt. There was electricity in the air. Some of it came from the crowd, while the rest came from those dark clouds I mentioned earlier.

The next few holes were virtual repeats of the first holes, with the longer drivers hitting — what else? — longer drives, the approach specialists hitting crisp, accurate irons, and the short game wizards hitting surgical chips and putts. After nine holes the match was all square.

On number ten Roberts hit his first drive to find the fairway, a mammoth 295-yard tee shot that soared past a pair of eagles engaged in the long distance scrutiny of lunch. The Roberts/Lowery supporters howled with approval, while the MacDonald/Jameson contingent stood in hushed awe.

“I knew I could do it!” crowed James, while Alana beamed her appreciation. There is nothing like the look a woman gives a man when he has done something she admires.

On the other hand, the look that greeted Ian, who had just hit a perfectly respectable 240-yard drive into the fairway, was downright emasculating. It was as if a beach bully had kicked sand in Ian’s face, and he could only whimper. Clearly, Emily had higher hopes.

“You’re not using your legs enough,” she snapped at Ian.

The Old Fart, quietly recording the scores, firmly believed he was watching the dam’s first cracks forming. While all four players were alike in that they were attractive and fit, with TV commercial-grade hair and teeth, in character they were quite different. As stated earlier, TOF had a unique perspective in that he had seen them grow up.

Since their childhood James and Emily had been athletic, big boned and strong. They excelled at all sports, especially the ones where speed and brute force were required. They were also gregarious and jocular. Ian and Alana, on the other hand, were both smaller and fine boned, and more inclined to read than the other couple. These, thought TOF, were the key reasons that the pairs had formed the way they had.

The reversal, as evidenced by the new doubles teams, spelled trouble. Oil and water, Frenchmen and Germans, peanut butter and carp; some combinations do not mix. The dark clouds drew closer.

Over the next few holes Team Roberts/Lowery took a modest lead, but congratulatory tones were replaced by caustic scorn and short tempers. Alana, clearly feeling the tension, missed a short putt, and James barked at her in rebuke. Emily, becoming impatient and frustrated with Ian’s lack of length off the tee, began calling him “Little Man”.

On #17 James’ drive, prodigious once again, flew into the wrong zip code, opening the door. Ian, steady and unfazed, hit a three wood 220 yards to a perfect spot in the fairway, then a gorgeous seven iron to six feet. Emily’s putt went four feet past, and only those on the green, including TOF, heard Ian mutter, “Alana would have sunk it.” His own putt did a classic “toilet bowl”, rolling 360 degrees around the cup before falling. The match was again all even.

As they reached the 18th tee the first flash of lightning and concomitant rumble of thunder was the two-part ka-chunk of a pump action shotgun: it meant trouble.

Trouble also took the form of the Steam Train, who had just left the 18th tee. TOF surveyed the scene with a cool eye but an uneasy stomach. One golfer was some thirty yards from the tee in the deep rough on the left. Another was fishing his ball out of the pond on the right, some forty yards from the tee. A third was in the woods and the fourth had miraculously hit the fairway, a sixty-yard top that he would brag about later in the bar.  (We golfers call the bar the 19th hole.)

The Train never let anyone play through, that much was sure. The tournament players might as well resign themselves to wait. Suddenly Burns envisioned a match lighting a fuse.

“I thought you were supposed to be a great putter…” James nearly shouted at Alana, almost in tears.

“How can I concentrate with you yelling at me?!” she retorted. “Ian never treated me that way!”

“This time,” Emily said, jabbing a finger into Ian’s smallish chest, “I want to see you hit a drive further than my mother!”

Very uncharacteristically, Ian slammed down his driver (a Blammo 5000 with strontium inserts) and drew himself up to his full height, which put him chin-to-chin with the jousting Jameson.

“So you’d rather be in the next county than the fairway?” he sputtered.

“Well, I’d like to be a little closer to the green like I’m used to when James is on my team.”

“If memory serves he is not on your team; I am.”

“And maybe that’s the problem. I like having James as my partner. He’s not afraid to swing hard like a man!”

“And I miss having Ian on my side,” piped up the quiet Alana. “He never criticizes me or makes fun of me.”

“Oh, Alana, darling, I miss you so!” said Ian, who stepped over and folded her in his arms.

Emily looked down at the ground, and then walked over to James. Slowly they placed their hands on each other’s shoulders, their more gladiatorial way of embracing.

At this point rain began to fall, which the Steam Train took no notice of. They continued to hack and plod, hack and plod. Emily and James, sensible types, walked off the course, heading for the bar. Ian and Alana, more attuned to the songs of romance, hugged and kissed, oblivious to the rain. TOF concluded rightly that the tournament ended in a draw, and finished off his flask with one good long drink.

Two weeks later a double wedding was held on the 18th tee, in the closest approximation of a happy ending this story can offer. Mr Burns gave away both the brides, and gave a very moving speech extolling the virtues of couples that play golf. I don’t remember all the details, but it did include some well-chosen words on the importance of the slow, short back swing, the steady head and the full follow through.



Beware of Peanut Butter Boy

September 10, 2011

As you know from a previous post, I can be experimentative in the kitchen. Sometimes it’s because I get bored, but sometimes it’s to keep costs down. If I don’t have a full complement of costly ingredients, or can’t afford them, I make do with the cheap stuff already in stock. One inexpensive and necessary ingredient in my kitchen is peanut butter, which has often played a key rôle in my cooking, but it is not the only character actor in this theatre.

The other day I brought home some nice cod. At least, I thought it was nice; I have no idea what its mother thought. I wanted to cook it in a different style from the last time, but I hadn’t yet decided how. The previous hunk of fish that landed in the pan got treated to the classic theme of olive oil, garlic and lemon, with a frisson of white wine.  I don’t know if frissons are legal in Washington State, but so far not a single police officer has been to my door. A plan of attack had not yet formed in my culinary cranium, so I looked around. (My wife thinks that when in the kitchen, I should never be allowed to look around.) There was the leftover jar of peanut butter. Hmm, that’s a start.

There was also a fat nectarine sitting in the fruit bowl, minding its own business. And some balsamic vinegar sat on a shelf, looking forlorn. So I whipped out the sauté pan and started cooking the cod very gently. Then I took a big scoop of peanut butter and added it to the pan, where it slowly turned into a melty goo; it looked like Mississippi mud, but it smelled like Mom’s peanut butter cookies in the oven.

While the peanut butter was changing shape, I drizzled a tiny amount of balsamic vinegar into the mud, and sniffed: it was the olfactory equivalent of cellos and French horns; some harmony as well as some contrast. Not too bad so far. Overtones of Thai food were swirling overhead, but I didn’t have any hot chili peppers or limes. I did however have a nectarine and Tabasco, so the first item I sliced up thin and threw in, along with a few drops of the second, stirring in an anti-clockwise direction. A sharper editor might have insisted I stick with the music metaphor, but that wasn’t working, so I dropped my baton like a hot potato, and instead grabbed a fork…

No, dear reader, I did not die – didn’t even suffer food poisoning.  It was pretty good, actually.

You know how when you’re a kid, and you try doing something on the edge of naughtiness and you get away with it, how you want to try it again? That’s what I did.

After I returned from the grocery store the next day, my kitchen’s  food ingredient manifest boasted some new items: ground beef and ground pork. The question was, what to do with them?

In the old days, on Monday nights, a bunch of us used to get together at a friend’s house, and we’d barbecue. It was the classic intersection of men, meat and fire. This old friend has a big, beautiful house in the trees with an enormous deck, an ideal place for a carnivorous gathering, and every Monday felt special. On some of those nights we would all bring our own main course, so the top of the capacious grill might play host to a meaty mélange of burgers, steak, salmon, chicken, pork chops or who knows what. On these occasions our benefactor would provide side dishes and maybe a dessert, and the rest of us would bring beer, wine, or copious cocktail ingredients. Other times, one guy would volunteer to assume the rôle of head chef, and cook the main course for the whole assembly, which meant that the rest of us would then bring side dishes, salad, dessert, bread, and of course lots of wine. We were men who didn’t like to suffer thirst.

Once in a while my old friend Doug would assume the responsibility, and bring a special entrée with him, concocted from a herd of cows and a pride of pigs. He called his offering Uncle Fred Burgers, and they were a sight to behold.  They were a mix of ground beef, ground pork, Italian sausage, hamster, badger, and god knows what else. Each one was two fingers thick and bigger than a catcher’s mitt, bigger than the biggest dinner plate, so we learned to use garbage can lids for plates.

They were great. You always wanted to eat two, but … well, it just wasn’t possible. Except for Big Chuck, and that’s another story.

So, on this occasion in my modest Seattle kitchen, Doug’s Uncle Fred burgers were an inspiration. I rolled up my sleeves and mixed the ground beef and ground pork, adding fistfuls of garlic, and allowing a few drops of sweat to substitute for herbs and spices. But I wasn’t in the mood for a burger; no, I felt like a pasta dish.

So I put on a pot of water to boil, stared at the pan with the browning meat, and, you guessed, looked around the kitchen. There was that trusty jar of peanut butter.  But wait, I don’t want to get ahead of myself.

In the fridge was a leftover half of a large Walla Walla sweet onion, so I started to chop. Now, a sensible person should try to avoid getting into a lengthy discussion about Walla Walla sweet onions. Or, for that matter, the cellist Yo Yo Ma, or the former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. The repetition will drive your listeners crazy. The repetition will drive your listeners crazy. There are some species, commonly found in Massachusetts, for whom repetition is in their DNA.  They will say the same thing six times in a span of 25 minutes.  This kills brain cells, but repeaters don’t seem to notice.

Anyway, the other day I overhead two people talking about Walla Walla sweet onions. In the duration of the conversation, they each said “Walla” 1,024 times, an even number, of course. Naturally, this had me looking for a weapon, which I never found. Why did it never occur to them to use a nickname, an acronym, a substitute, or anything besides saying “Walla Walla” over and over?  They could have said – once – “Walla”. Or they could have mutually agreed to say “onion” or even “Ralph” or some other word. But no, they each continued to say “Walla Walla” again and again, shortening my life span by accelerating my blood pressure.

OK, I’ve had a Manhattan, and I feel much better now. So where were we? Oh right, we were chopping Ralph.

After I had drained the browned beef and pork, I set the meat aside and sautéed the onions, coaxing them into that wonderful, translucent golden color when they are sweet and delicious. Finally, into one big pan I combined the pasta, browned meat, onions, peanut butter goo and garlic, and watched as it all seemed to coalesce together into something quite different from horrible. Again, I did not die; and I did not suffer any tummy-badness symptoms from food poisoning. Indeed, I did not even suffer from that nauseating condition when one assumes that some things simply shouldn’t be mixed with certain other things.

At this point, my wife would probably say, “Don’t applaud.  Don’t even smile. Please don’t encourage him.”

Tonight, I feel like pasta, and I will pair it with my old friend, canned mushroom soup. Oh, and I think there’s some peanut butter left.

Tune in next time, when we discuss the mathematics of determining precisely how much cheese should go on a cracker or piece of crusty bread.

A Dragon in the Toilet

August 14, 2011

The Chinese want to dominate the toilet industry of the future, just as they hope to dominate electric cars and the batteries that will power them, high speed trains, computers, dental floss and everything else that can be sold. The Central Committee reasons that if they can build the kinds of toilets needed to satisfy the demands of its 1.4 billion people, they will be able to control the market for the rest of the world. They wish to hold, so to speak, a royal flush.

The Peoples Republic of China is a vast and motley nation of approximately 3.7 million square miles, of which less than 3% is covered by water, although nearly 5% is covered by soy sauce, mostly in small ponds. In contrast, the United States has an area of about 3.8 million square miles, of which about 7% is water, although that does not include the many large swimming pools found in Los Angeles. Much like the US, China’s landmass is geographically diverse: they have mountains and deserts and plains, but a big difference is that over there, there is hardly a portable toilet in sight.

Because much of the area outside urban regions is comprised of undeveloped terrain (duh), it is quite a challenge to populate those parts of China with toilets. A high proportion of the land belonging to the 22 provinces is similar to lands in many underdeveloped countries in Africa and other parts of Asia, in that they lack adequate supplies of water and the infrastructure required for a modern large-scale toilet system.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, always awash with cash, recently inaugurated a program to Reinvent the Toilet, and seeded the effort with $3 million. The program is taking the form of a contest, involving universities ranging from Cal Tech and Harvard to the Cleveland Institute of Bowling, where many believe that the school motto — “We’re Up Your Alley” — gives them a psychological advantage. Many regions throughout the world lack the complex and costly water infrastructure and well-paid plumbers necessary to enable the ubiquitous flushing toilets that we are so familiar with in the western world. And stop for a moment to consider that this water and plumbing infrastructure requires large quantities of water to make it work. Many lesser developed countries cannot boast of such quantities of clean water, since the dictators keep all the water for themselves for their 50,000 gallon bathtubs.

The Chinese government is watching the Reinvent the Toilet competition closely to get ideas for their own toilet manufacturing industry. Ka Ka Jhon, of the Peoples Ministry of White Rosebud Potties, has visited Stanford, MIT, and Piscataway to observe the best and the brightest as they re-imagine the toilet. The Gates Foundation hopes to help develop a low cost toilet that does not need to be connected to a sewer line, or even a water line or electricity. Fling Dhung, of the Ministry of Well-Intentioned Propaganda, has other ideas, and says that China will not take this situation sitting down.

Recent Chinese micro-blogging activity suggests that the new sewer system, to be the world’s largest, is to be designed and built by the same companies responsible for the high speed train network throughout China. Top level thinkers from Beijing University have constructed the world’s biggest flow chart, to assist analysis and to compare their vast railway line system to that of the pipes and valves of a water infrastructure. Insiders say that the country’s best medical minds are taking part, testifying that blood flowing through the vessels of a body is much like sewage flowing through a hydraulic waste system, only more red than brown.

Obsession with having the world’s biggest seems to be a uniquely Chinese phenomenon: they have the world’s biggest high speed rail system with about 5200 miles of track; the world’s biggest dam; they had the world’s biggest airport terminal building (recently eclipsed by Dubai); and the world’s biggest set of chopsticks, which is actually a very cool tourist stop along the Silk Road, although it can’t compare to the world’s biggest ball of string, which is right here in the good ‘ol USA. And now they want to build the world’s biggest toilet system. This weird fixation on size is an egotistical thing, machismo with a  Chinese flavor. At a business where I used to work, we used to refer to what we called the “small man syndrome.” Someone with this affliction thinks that he has to make up in one area for what he was short-changed in another. We theorized that the guy who pulled up to our door with the enormous pick-up truck — the driver was usually diminutive in stature — probably had a pretty small part of a man that makes use of a toilet. It is ironic that the largest society in the world sounds like it feels, in the locker room way, outnumbered.

This toilet system will depend upon the world’s biggest sewage and piping system, which of course will need huge amounts of water. The Chinese plan to capture the part of the Sulzberger Ice Shelf that recently broke away from the Antarctic, and tow it back to the mainland, where it will be melted by the world’s biggest hairdryer. The world’s biggest shovel will be used to dig up the vast tracts of land required to install the piping systems, and the world’s biggest apartment buildings will be constructed on top of the turf after the dirt has been replaced.

These enormous residential buildings will be needed to house the zillions of displaced Chinese citizens who will lose their homes and farms, since they didn’t have enough clout to find other options.

Rumors abound regarding large-scale testing of prototypes of this enormous toilet system, and the results have not been encouraging. Some of the new Serene Chrysanthemum toilets were found to be made of, instead of high grade porcelain, recycled cardboard tubes like those found in most rolls of toilet paper. That did not seem, to this reporter, a very good idea, and indeed it was found that shortly after installation the toilets lost their structural integrity, and became like soggy corn flakes.

As mentioned earlier, the project, which has “borrowed” as its logo the Nike swoosh, is being built and managed by the same group of firms responsible for the nation’s high speed railway that has been in the news lately. Early tests demonstrated the system’s ability to move large amounts of raw sewage at very high velocity through miles of pipe. But there have been less than desirable consequences, featuring toilets that are violently propelled up off the floor, and crash into walls and ceilings. Safety inspectors called to the disaster scenes describe the discovery of terrified citizens cowering in demolished bathrooms, covered in you know what.

Official state media has censored full and truthful accounts, permitting only brief stories hinting that the tests are going “swimmingly,” although some citizens experienced “minor inconveniences” because they flushed twice, when they should have flushed only once.

It sounds like they had better get their sh*t together.

The Empirical Method

August 6, 2011

Did you have a chemistry set when you were a kid? I did. It was an important step in my science education. Educational toys, building toys like the Erector set, science toys — these were vital parts of my upbringing. My father was an electrical engineer, and part of the DNA he passed along to me was an interest in science and empiricism, and a curiosity about how the world works.

Since the early Enlightenment days of Hooke, Wilkins, Boyle, and particularly, Bacon, people performed experiments to learn about the natural laws that govern the behavior of matter and living things. These men helped to develop the foundations of chemistry, physics, anatomy, botany and so very much more. I like to think that those chemistry sets and science kits linked me to those inquisitive minds, those great contributors of the Royal Society.

Recently in Sweden, a do-it-yourselfer decided it would be cool to learn about radioactivity. He performed a variety of experiments in the kitchen, presumably to see if he could develop brownies that glowed in the dark, which would make them easier to find. The Swedish police found that he bought a science kit over the Internet from Radioactive Products Inc, a Pakistani firm that specializes in selling dangerous scientific toys to India.

The 31-year old Richard Handl should be given credit, since he tried to do what usually takes years and zillions of dollars to accomplish. The results of his work (in the photo at the top) looks amazingly like the results of most of my chemistry set experiments: burnt, brown sludge that my mother made me throw out right away. Maybe I should have grown up in Sweden where such endeavors are more graciously welcomed.

Among the goodies Mr Handl bought for his table-top reactor were radium, uranium and americium-241, which he said he bought at a farmer’s market from a man wearing a hoodie. That he was arrested by Swedish authorities is not important; what is important is that he was experimenting to find out what worked and what did not. Some people forget that finding out that something does not work is still a contribution to knowledge.

Important scientific work is being done in Texas right now, and soon they will learn that prayer does not do a darn thing.

Other important experimental work is being done in China. In rural and urban regions across that large and populous country, citizens have conducted experiments in democracy. These attempts to shed light on darkness have resulted in mostly predictable outcomes, ranging from being harrassed by uniformed and plain-clothes police, to being placed in “protective custody” to being thrown in prison.

One punishment becoming more frequent in China is having small children apprehended or brutally kidnapped by members of the Harmonious Relocation of Potentially Wayward Children Ministry. This relatively new arm of the Peoples Bullying Party was formed, ostensibly, to uphold China’s One Child And That’s It policy, and to punish those horrible, evil, unspeakably vile parents who want more than one child. Plausible social media originating in China strongly suggest that local government officials steal infants and then sell them on the very black market to “adoption agencies” who in turn provide them — at a high mark-up — to western parents who believe they are adopting orphans.

This heinous and arbitrary punishment is being meted out to more categories of crimes, as more and more behaviors — those considered a threat to the “harmony” of the Communist Party’s grip on power — are being labelled as crimes.

Sources in China reveal that an increasing number of brave amateur scientists are purchasing “Freedom Kits” and “Democracy Sets” from the United States, the UK, and other advanced western countries. These social science kits contain such documents as copies of the Magna Carta and the US Constitution, and other materials used in the experiments. Deluxe kits also contain censorship-free Internet servers, allowing the owner unfettered access to information, without fear of the Chinese Communist Party slamming shut the doors to independent thought and expression.

Rather like our Swedish amateur scientist trying to build a miniature reactor in the kitchen to see how it worked, some Chinese homes have tried to concoct miniature democratic organizations based on law and democratic principles, to see how they work. But then, just as the results of these ground-breaking experiments start to become tangible and observable, the authorities get wind of it, and bundle the perpetrators off in the middle of the night in unmarked government vans. Transcripts of hacked mobile phone conversations provided by News of the World reveal that many Communist Party members take classes to hone their ability to detect the faintest whiff of disharmony.

Perhaps in a later column, this crack investigative reporter will be able to compile substantiated evidence to prove a growing rumor correct. Susurrous murmurs suggest that an international conspiracy is forming to adopt illegally procured Chinese infants, and then to inculcate in them a love of democracy. Then, like little black-haired time bombs, they will be replanted clandestinely in Chinese society. The results of this audacious experiment? Stay tuned.

It Takes a Licking

July 5, 2011

As the leaving date closes in on me, there had to be time for some old fashioned ice cream. Tewksbury is an old fashioned American town, and it only makes sense that cow by-products are involved. Like most real Americans, I wouldn’t have it any udder way.

One night, relatively late, I hankered after some cold dessert, and so I went into search mode. The grocery store was closed, so I moved on. A gas station was open, but had no ice cream. Then I drove by Mac’s, but it looked dark. Then I noticed the ‘Open’ sign lit up with new, low-wattage light bulbs, the kind powered by a hamster on a treadmill. Then I noticed a couple cars in the parking lot. So I pulled in.

Welcome to Mac’s Dairy Farm, which is of course on Main Street, because this is America.

High school kids work there, little skinny ones, big ones with broad shoulders on the football team, and girls who take your order through a window. There are dozens of flavors, and they hand pack it in containers or on cones. I bought some vanilla, butter pecan, chocolate mint chip, and for the piece de resistance, German chocolate cake.

My family comes from Scotland, but somehow they got lost and wound up in West Virginia. Go ahead and belt out the John Denver song, if you wish. It really is a beautiful place, and you should see it for yourself. Anyway, in Clarksburg, West Virginia, I had an Aunt Tillie, a redoutable character in curlers and a cigarette dangling from her lip. Aunt Tillie made my first German chocolate cake, and to this day the best I ever ate. The Mac’s ice cream version was amazing.

My dad’s favorite ice cream is butter pecan, and he would love the one they make at Mac’s, a rich and buttery bowl of outrageous flavor with lots of nuts. If my dad and I ever intersect in Tewksbury I’m going to buy him a cone the size of his head. Dad grew up poor, and loved his ice cream, which used to be a rare treat. In his better years, as an electrical engineer making good money, he would sit on the porch, watching a baseball game and doing some serious damage to a half gallon of ice cream, armed only with a spoon.

Mac’s was open pretty late on the 4th of July, and did a brisk business. Kind of nice to see that in this age of the mega corporation, a small, local firm can still compete and make customers happy. And you can bet that there will be no artificial ingredients, weird chemicals or melamine powder, like some Chinese dairy manufacturers use.

I finished off the pint of chocolate mint chip last night, which will be my way of saying goodbye to Tewksbury, where I’ve been staying with my in-laws while the tumblers fell into place. The car transport truck will be here tomorrow morning, to whisk my Audi to its new home in Seattle. Tomorrow there are a few last minute errands to run, and then very early Thursday I fly out of Boston, headed for a green, new future in the Pacific Northwest. Almost heaven.

Packing It In

May 30, 2011

Here at the Fountain, we are currently over-run with boxes. We are packing for the big move to the Pacific Northwest, which should take place later this summer. We have given up on Boston, or rather, it has given up on us, and when things aren’t going well, at some point you have to take the bull by the horns, scramble those eggs, and mix up every metaphor you can.

We will rent our condo and move in very briefly with in-laws here in Massachusetts. Then I will fly to Seattle and grovel for gainful employment at the biggest and best companies found in the Emerald City. This will make the third time — in about 32 years — that I have moved to Washington State without a firm offer waiting for me. What does bring a bit of cheerfulness is that on each previous occasion, I had a job within two weeks.

What brings even more cheerfulness is that I have dozens of great friends there and in California, and I am old enough (or is it young enough?) to know how important one’s friends are. My happiness index goes way up when I am around them, and the East Coast is entirely too far away from them.

Another item on my ‘Why I Am Moving’ list is the weather. Look at this table. It shows you that the average high temperature in Seattle, in July and August, is 75 degrees. The average high temperature in Seattle, in December and January, is 47 degrees. It is mild, neither too hot nor too cold. Now, if you have spent any time at all on the East Coast — and I spent the first half of my life there — you know that it gets brutally hot and humid in summer, pushing 100 degrees regularly; and in winter, well, let’s just say that this past winter in Boston we received enough snow, sometimes twice a week, to fill the Grand Canyon and have enough left over to cover Islamabad.

Today an unusual map appeared, showing how hot it was going to be for Memorial Day. Instead of displaying the forecast, it showed the “departure from normal,” the differences between the average temperature and what was expected for the day. If you construct a somewhat diagonal line from Lake Superior to New Mexico, you see that the eastern part will experience temperatures as high as 18 degrees above average, with Boston at seventeen degrees. On the other hand, the western part shows slight decreases, with the Seattle forecast for about four degrees lower than average.

My DNA comes from Northern Europe, where it’s cool and pleasant, not from the Equator, where it’s hot hot hot and awful. My father’s side comes from Scotland, and my mother’s side comes from Switzerland, so I am most comfortable where it’s cooler, and there are opportunities for drinking good malt whisky and then yodeling. Besides, watching the sun set over the Puget Sound is nicer than watching the sun come up over the park across the street, where Hispanic men loiter, drink and urinate all day, so the Left Coast wins again.

At the moment there are 30 boxes (12x12x16 inches) of books. That’s 40 cubic feet of just books, with quite a few more downstairs in storage. This morning my mother asked, “How much do you need to keep those books?” and I told her, enough to pack them and to take them with us. Others have counselled that we should buy a Kindle, and maybe that will happen one day, but viewing the value and pleasure of books through the lens of utility does not do them justice.

There is so much pleasure, harmony, comfort, well-being, mental stimulation and more in a book, so much to please the senses from the feel and smell of the leather, turning the pages, reading and adding marginalia, and appreciating the art and craft that went into not just the writing  but the making of the book. Books are precious. If Michelle and I own the last library on Earth, then we will be there, wizened bibliophiles, in our chairs reading books.

There are another 15 or so boxes, some of a larger size, containing everything but books. Ready to accept content are yet another dozen boxes, their flaps open like so many hungry rectangular creatures. Tackling the storage room in the basement frightens me, since I have the sneaking impression that everything down there will expand after it sees the light of day. If all goes well, the pod that will land here on Friday will have room enough for it all, our lives compressed into so many objects.

There is much left to pack and to do, a frightening and daunting list of tasks on paper and in 3D. The Fountain will spout only sporadically for the next week or so, so please be patient with us.

There will be lots more to tell in the coming weeks and months, of life, love, the pursuit of happiness and more.