Archive for the ‘life’ 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?

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Oatmeal Cookies

March 16, 2012

You know how there are times when a craving hits you with such force that it’s futile to resist? I was hit with just such a craving yesterday — for oatmeal cookies. My mother makes really good oatmeal cookies, and if she lived next door, I would have walked fifty feet and nonchalantly asked her, like Ray Romano would have, and within a couple hours there would be a plate of oatmeal cookies in front of me.

But that is not the case, since my mother lives 3000 miles away.

So I went online and found a recipe for ‘chewy oatmeal cookies,’ because chewy is the operative word and the singular requirement. None of those crunchy, thin, crumbly dry ones for me. No, they must be huge and thick and chewy.

My wife is wedded, so to speak, to recipes. She must follow them to the letter. If we do not have the right kind of vinegar — and none of the eight other kinds of vinegar we do have in stock will suffice — then my job is to drop everything and go get her the kind she wants. If the recipe calls for a dozen exotic spices, and we have only eleven, then cooking screeches to halt, and she exits stage right waving her arms about.

The thing that gets me is that even if it is a new recipe, and she has no idea what the finished dish is supposed to taste like, the fact is that if she does not have the exact set of ingredients called for, the system breaks down. I do not understand this, as my approach would be that one of the eight vinegars on hand would do a fine job of substituting, and that the eleven spices on the shelf would be great; we would be none the wiser as to the omission of that pesky twelfth.

I mean really, if you hear a concert for the first time, and there are supposed to be 18 violins in the orchestra, but one guy doesn’t make it, will your evening be ruined? If the recipe calls for 1 1/2 cups of peas, and you are one or two peas short, will the sun explode and kill us all? Um, no.

I have always looked at recipes as initial blueprints, prototypes that can be reinterpreted and improved. A pasta dish might generate more pleasure units if it had a little more cheese, or more garlic, or that roast pork tenderloin might hit more buttons if one used cherries and plums instead of apricots and apples. Cooking is play time, the pantry a chemistry set for grownups.

So when I looked at the recipe for the ‘chewy’ oatmeal cookies, I saw an opportunity for improvement. It recommended a half teaspoon of cinnamon; I used about half that and about the same of ground cloves. Cloves is my catnip, and every time I pass down the spices aisle of a grocery store, I grab the cloves and give it a good sniff, since the aroma passes through the container just enough.

The cookie recipe said that chopped walnuts were optional, so I added more than called for, since I love walnuts, along with a handful of coconut, my other secret cookie ingredient. I didn’t want to overwhelm the other ingredients — we want a nice balance — so the amount of coconut was less than the raisins and walnuts.

Something interesting about the recipe, and by ‘interesting’ I mean ‘disappointing,’ is that it gave no yield. The preliminary notes said that it was a “half recipe,” which I suppose could mean that it gave only half the instructions necessary, but I took it to mean instead that the original recipe called for twice as much of everything. But it didn’t say how many cookies it was supposed to make, which meant that it did not give an indication as to how big the cookies ought to be.

(Yes, it’s true, cooking can involve math, the thumbtack on the comfortable chair of life. If the recipe says that it makes 12 cookies, then you can start with a rough plan to make each ball approximately 1/12 of the mix in the bowl, and then adjust at the end if the numbers don’t come out right.)

So in terms of size, that meant that I was at liberty to make the things as big as I damn well pleased. Cookies as big as a catcher’s mitt might be a trifle too big, and cookies as small as a silver dollar would be too small; they had to be just right — the Goldilocks conundrum.

So when it was time to scoop up blobs of cookie dough and plop them onto the baking sheet, I had to conceive how big they ought to be. I chose a ball somewhere between a tennis ball and a golf ball, pretty close to a billiard ball. After I was done, the bowl of cookie mix had produced ten oatmeal cookie blobs.

As insider information, the author of the recipe surrendered one last tip to enhance chewiness and thickness: chill the cookies before you actually bake them. The baker qua cookie monster has two options: 1) leave the cookie mix in the bowl and throw it in the fridge, where it will keep for about a week, allowing the cookie lover to take out as much as is desired when desired and baking the cookies then; or 2) divvy up the mix into the cookie balls on a cookie sheet, and throw that into the fridge. I chose the latter, and allowed the sheet of cookies to chill for a few hours, saving the culinary rush for the dessert hour.

At about 8:30 pm I told the oven to preheat to 350 degrees, and it complied, since it knew who was boss. Soon it dinged, and I took the sheet of cookie blobs directly from the fridge and shoved it into the oven. At that point, the cookie balls were just that, spheres of uncooked cookie dough. They did not yet have the shape or appearance of cookies. I had no idea if they would eventually flatten out just right, as cookies tend to do, or if I was supposed to first flatten them a bit with a spatula. The very nature of cooking is that of experimentation, the essence of the laboratory.

The recipe said to give them 10-12 minutes, so I set the timer for ten minutes, with the intention of checking on them at that time, and then deciding if they needed a bit more cooking time. The author said to bake them up to the point “… when golden at the edges but still a little undercooked-looking on top.” At ten minutes the cookie balls were still cookie balls, albeit hotter. Concluding they needed more baking time, I popped them back in. At twelve minutes they still looked ball-like, but they had sagged a bit, which gave them more of an impression that they intended to evolve into cookies.

Do baked goods believe in evolution? If they did, that might give them a slight edge over the Christian right. Perhaps they are existentialists, prefering to think that there is nothingness, which is what my stomach felt like it contained when I first started craving oatmeal cookies.

Thinking that they needed a little assistance, I grabbed the spatula and pressed them down ever so slightly, like a guy grilling burgers might. After one more minute, the edges had that “golden at the edges” look, and indeed they looked slightly underdone on top. I pulled them out and set the tray on top of the stove. Man oh man they smelled good, the mostly classic aroma of oatmeal cookies, plus the intoxicating fragrances of cloves and coconut. Oh, yeah.

Using up more will-power than I am known for, I waited an hour or so for them to cool. And then I dove in.

They were still warm, and were thick and soft and chewy, and heavenly. (Sorry, Mom — they were better than yours.) Couldn’t eat just one, so I ate three as slowly as I could, washed down with cold white cow juice. The ten cookies didn’t last long. Guess I should make a “full recipe” next time, which might be as soon as tomorrow.

The Nightmare Chair

February 22, 2012

In anticipation of a small gathering held recently at our new flat, Michelle and I decided to add one relatively nice chair to the living room inventory, so that the adults in attendance would not have to sit on the floor.

It goes without saying that when a certain age is reached – and many if not most of my friends are that age – sitting on a floor can be a one-way journey, one which does not come with a guarantee that the traveler can get back up.

We had chosen a chair and footstool from IKEA, and imagined a simple and straightforward trip. Instead it turned into an ordeal, a test of stamina and grit.

If I had been riding a snowboard, whooshing down an icy hill while balancing a hungry bear on my shoulders, in the dark blinded by sleet, approaching a cliff and being shot at by Daleks, it could not have been worse.

With any luck, it will be the last time for a while that we’ll be visiting the blue and yellow box store where, like Ft Knox, the nation’s supply of Swedish meatballs is stored.

If you had carefully measured the living room’s dimensions like I had, you knew that a chair with a small footprint was all that would fit. That was a good thing, since we don’t have one of those obscenely big SUV’s. I fully understand the paradox presented by the fact that one would have been handy in this case, but we all know that most of the time, these beastly behemoths carry a cargo consisting of nothing more than the driver. My own sensible sedan, an Audi, is currently under the weather, so the vehicle at our disposal for the task was my wife’s Honda Accord Coupe. This is an excellent and eminently reliable conveyance, but it is not made for carrying living room furniture.

Still, armed with our considerable experience with the assemble-it-yourself mantra of IKEA, we felt confident that the small, flat box it was certain to come it would fit in the car when the seats were folded just so. Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha.

The evening of the caper, we trusted our instincts and sped through the labyrinth of the store, ignoring the ubiquitous containers of handy crap begging to be bought. Soon we were face to face with the chair, a Björnibumme. (Most if not all the products are given unpronounceable Swedish names.) Legend has it that the chair was originally designed for an average, cross-country-ski-loving Swede with a tiny butt, measuring precisely one SSBW (Standard Swedish Butt Width). However, to better fit the American market, the chair’s butt width had to be expanded. This reporter will not reveal his own personal butt width, although Google probably knows it already.

We examined the chair, and determined that the box which the chair must come in would fit into the car. So we jotted down the sector, region, quadrant, aisle, shelf, zone and area numbers from the handy tag, as well as the product code, the color code, the description code, the country code, the demarcation code, the pricing code, the taxation code and the desperation code, and made our way to the pick-up area. There, using GPS technology, a bloodhound, a bat and a divining rod, we located the chair AND the accompanying footstool. We were in shopper heaven.

The chair was hiding inside a large box; not the flat accommodation we expected. Was the chair really in there? Was it actually in parts that would more easily fit into our car? Was it in fact the body of Harriet Vanger? Rather than waste time trying to find an IKEA employee to open the box, I whipped out my tool – relax, it was a Swiss Army Knife – and opened the box. Long ago I adopted the ethical stance that usually it’s more expedient to ask for forgiveness than permission. Instead of flattish parts, the chair was wrapped in an impressively voluminous cocoon of paper. It was time to get help.

I found a helpful young man who told me that the legs of that particular chair were indeed detached, and in a plastic bag inside the box. But he also said that the rest of the chair was already assembled into one large thing. Hmm.

Michelle and I studied the amorphous shape heavily wrapped in paper, and calculated that it would fit into the car. With the young man supplying most of the horsepower, Team Douglass loaded the chair and footstool onto our cart, and we headed towards the cashier.

The cashier section of IKEA is much like the Fire Swamp in “The Princess Bride”. To safely navigate it (nearly inconceivable) means you have to pass the equivalents of exploding fireballs coming out of the ground; rodents of unusual size; and lightning sand, or “snow sand” as it’s called in the book. When you exit you feel like you’ve really accomplished something.

Michelle stayed by the cart at the loading zone, while I braved the rain as I walked the thousand yards back to the car. Once the car was in the official loading position, we unwrapped the chair from the paper, and our hearts sank; it looked too big. But we were troopers, and tried turning it this way and that way, moving car seats and folding down interior sections, and having zero luck. I squinted into the middle distance, and saw what appeared to be an IKEA employee. Using a Blästeflär, an emergency flare I saw in a bin next to the Swedish meatballs, I flagged him down.

Julio sized up the situation, grabbed the chair like a toy, and then wrestled it into every position we had already tried. It wouldn’t go into the car. Finally, in heavily accented English, he said that we should “purchaso uno tarpo mucho grande.” I had no idea what this meant. He pointed to a door, and used International Gesture Association hand signs suggesting I go in. There I explained my predicament, and the fellow said, “Oh! Julio was saying that you need a tarp, which you can buy for $5. He must have meant that then you could transport the chair on top of the car.”

Great.

So I bought a tarp, and brought it back to the loading zone. There, Julio seized the chair, which was already protected to some degree by a plastic covering, and in moments he had used the tarp to encapsulate the chair like a cupcake with a New York Times. It looked perfectly shielded and protected, and I applauded his diligence. Now the chair needed to be protected from me.

IKEA supplies limitless string for tying down purchases, and I must have used several miles. To my credit, I engineered a combination of techniques, taking the best from sailing and Christmas present wrapping, along with some Uruguayan basket weaving blended with spider web management, and after a while the chair was secured to the top of Michelle’s Honda. We took off into the night.

The Victorian novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton began his epic 1830 novel with the trenchant line, “It was a dark and stormy night…” Bulwer-Lytton was not with us that night, but if he were, he would have agreed that the night was indeed dark and stormy. And as I mentioned before, rainy. It was awful, not the kind of driving conditions one wants when transporting a large, non-aerodynamic object tied to the top of a car. No way was I going to drive as fast as the speed limit; prudence lifted my foot from the accelerator, and we slowed down to the same velocity that a pregnant sheep can waddle. Lots of friends honked their approval behind us.

At one point, Michelle shrieked, my stomach vaulted, and I pulled over. She could see through the sunroof that the chair had shifted. This was not good. We did not wish to litter the highway with a living room chair. I got out of the car and, avoiding the cars and trucks that roared by several inches away, I examined the load. It had indeed shifted, the result of a poor tying job made worse by physics. I tried to tighten the cords and move the chair back into a more secure location. Somewhat satisfied, we took off.

Soon after that Michelle heard something, and was worried that maybe we had a flat tire. We’ve all had flat tires, and the feel is unmistakable. Her Honda is, of course, front-wheel drive, and so I thought the feel would be even more pronounced, but it didn’t strike me as a flat. In addition, I couldn’t hear that troublesome sound. Just to be sure, I pulled over anyway for a look. As Bulwer-Lytton noted previously, it was very dark and raining, and even with my little utility flashlight I couldn’t get a good look at the tires. So I dodged a few more cars and trucks, and got back in. At that point I had to take a minute to wipe my glasses and hands, since it had been coming down in buckets. I was pretty damn scared, and even though I’ve faced my fair share of danger – heck, quite a bit more than my fair share – my pulse was racing. I just wanted to get us home safe and put the damned chair in the living room.

My grip on the steering wheel tightened, my blood pressure went up up up, and I went from Nervous Wreck Class 4 to Nervous Wreck Class 5, the highest one. The rain made it hard to see; there was a surprising amount of traffic, and not only were the other cars, trucks and monster SUV’s going too fast, they were also too close to the vehicles in front of them; and thumping away at the back of my mind was the possibility that we really did have a flat tire.

Sensing that I was still going too fast, I slowed down even more, generating another chorus of honks behind us. Tough.

We kept on rolling. After an eternity of nerve-wracking driving on I-5, we took our exit, and soon after we were driving through downtown Seattle, the most direct route to our flat in Magnolia. In the reflection from a building’s large glass windows, I could see that the chair was still up there. Bless my soul.

A few minutes later we pulled up our street. Michelle suggested that instead of going into the basement parking lot where the car is kept, it might be better to park the car on the street, since the car with the chair on top might not fit under the automatic garage door. She’s from Boston, and she’s a wicked smaht girl.

We parked on the street, and hurried inside, carrying the other stuff we bought; cleverly, we had forgotten to buy the large bags available, since IKEA – inexplicably – does not supply them. From the junk drawer I grabbed a boxcutter, since my pocket-sized Swiss Army penknife was not up to the task of cutting so much heavy twine. Soon I had freed the chair from its bonds on top of the weary but unbroken Honda, and carried it to the building’s entrance.

There was no elevator to help us get it up three floors, so I chose the moment to develop a long and carefully constructed stream of curses directed at Mother Nature, IKEA, chairs in general, small cars, large SUV’s, diets lacking in fiber, and the Bush Administration. When I came back inside, I was astonished to discover that Michelle must have come back downstairs, found the chair, and carried it up all by herself. She is amazing, and one day I’ll tell you about the time we moved into a flat together in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Minutes later we had a fully functioning chair and footstool, and a fully functioning glass of single malt scotch, and my blood pressure began at last to decline.

But we’re not done yet.

It had taken only a few minutes to assemble the chair, plop it into place, and begin the admiration phase. Only it was too big. You gotta be kidding – we go to all this trouble, and I mean all this trouble, and the bloody chair turned out to be too big for where we wanted it. It looked crowded and wrong, and when your wife is an art history major, you learn that things have to look right.

We were exhausted, and while we agreed we liked the chair – we both got to test drive it – by far the best part of the chair-buying experience was the smoky, peaty 12-year old Bowmore, the reward for getting home alive with the chair.

That next morning, I got up late after sleeping horribly. My shoulders ached from the highly agitated drive home. I had had all sorts of bad dreams about snowboards and hungry bears riding on me piggy-back, and scary Daleks bearing down on me shouting “Exterminate! Exterminate!” By the time I zombied my way out to the kitchen to make some life-giving coffee, Michelle had already left for work. While preparing the brown juice I naturally glanced over into the living room. Holy cow. Was I in the wrong home?

The living room furniture had been completely rearranged. The couch and chairs, the Thai coffee table that looks like it’s running away, the end tables; everything was all herumgekehrt. (I’ve got to use my German now and then or I’ll lose it.) But when I walked in and gave it a closer look, and thought about it, I saw that it was much better. The spatial geometry was improved, it was more conducive to group conversations, and there was lots more space; it worked.

Michelle had made an executive decision, and before leaving for work, had cast a magic spell on the living room furniture.

Later that day, the plan was for me to pick up Michelle after work, and then we were going to do our Friday grocery shopping. About fifteen minutes before she got off work, I headed out the apartment and down to the parking garage. I started the car, backed out, and then headed towards the exit. But something was wrong. In the echo chamber of the basement garage, sounds are amplified, and as I crawled towards the garage door, I could hear the distinctive blart blart blart of a flat tire. I stopped the car and got out, and sure enough, the right front tire was flat. A chill flooded its way through all my warm parts, which are pretty much the only kind of parts I have.

Not only had I white-knuckled my way from IKEA back home in awful conditions, sick with worry about losing the chair or worse, we had made the perilous journey with a flat tire. A flat front tire, the more important of the two kinds of tires. Och.

As for an anticlimax, I took off the offending tire, which had a large broken snow chain link embedded in it, put on the donut spare, and took Michelle grocery shopping. The next day I drove to Les Schwab, where I waited in a long line, but they earned considerable customer loyalty because they repaired the flat for free. At last I went home, sat down comfortably in the new chair, and didn’t care a bit what my butt width was.

A Wall of Cheesecloth

February 16, 2012

The other day Michelle and I were at the Pike Place Market shopping for dinner stuff. We were going to try a Jamie Oliver fish dish, so we bought some very fresh snapper from one of the fishmongers, and leeks and fennel from a greengrocer. Then we needed some cheesecloth, so we headed to the kitchen supply shop.

I love to cook, and there’s always fun stuff to see there, the high-end pots and pans, gorgeous knives and all sorts of creative kitchen gadgetry — but it’s always crowded. And the aisles are only just wide enough for a Pekingese, one who has been dieting for the Westminster dog show. Doing anything there takes far longer than it should, precisely because the place is good and it’s popular.

(I am reminded of the Yogi Berra-ism, about a place that got so crowded nobody went there anymore.)

Before we reached the kitchen store, we had been steam-rolling our way through the market, finding what we needed and getting things done. And since we had a bus to catch, we were constantly looking at our watches. There was no time to waste, so instead of wandering around the store, getting lost in nooks and crannies and becoming distracted by all the cool stuff, I tackled a clerk like he was Tom Brady and asked where the cheesecloth was. By the time I found the right region, and then located another clerk to help zoom in, he told me that he had just helped someone else find cheesecloth.

“A little blonde?” I asked. He nodded yes, and I knew that Michelle had somehow beaten me to it, and was already taking her prize to the cashier. That’s where we hit the wall.

It was a wall of corporate policy, and this can often be a kind of wall you can’t go over, around or through.

While the little package had the bar code stuff on it, the item did not compute in the store’s cash register inventory system. The clerk asked for help, noting that the SKU number (stock-keeping unit) wasn’t coming up. We waited. But no help was forthcoming. So there we stood, money in hand, and neither the corporate software nor the company policy would let us buy it.

Or rather, the clerk wouldn’t let us buy it. He said it was about four or five dollars, and that was fine with us. Take our money and let’s go. But no such luck.

We had reached one of those situations where an employee, a relatively low-level employee, could not simply decide to enter a retail item as “miscellaneous” and proceed. He had to follow company protocol, which stipulated more or less that “all items have to have a valid SKU and be processed correctly, or the employee will be shot.”

At this point I started to get a little grouchy, and pointed out that now and then there will be things that are not in the system, and that the store has to have a way to deal with them. There has to be a way so that the item can be sold to a customer, and the transaction completed.

Why are retail employees brain-washed to follow this instruction so religiously? Part of it is because managers want reports, to know how things are going. What were the monthly sales from the pots and pans division? Was the big advertising campaign on gourmet knives successful? How did cheesecloth sales compare to last year? Designing product code categories and sub-categories allows managers to answer questions, and the better questions they can ask, the better chance they have to run the business successfully.

But now and then it’s going to happen, a customer is going to bring up something they want to buy, and it won’t have a price or an ID tag on it. (This drives me crazy; if I find something on a shelf with no price, I feel that it ought to be free.) I mean, c’mon! If you place a retail item in play, but don’t take the trouble to slap a price on it, how well are you doing your job? How is the company supposed to make money? And what about the inconvenience to the customer?

What then?

Maybe 99.9% of all items will be properly accounted for, and then along comes a phantom that shouldn’t exist. How much out of whack do you think this will knock the company’s accounting? Virtually zero. So why get all bent out of shape when it happens? What is more important: the happiness of the customer or the accountant?

(I know my answer.)

Allow the clerk, encourage the employee, to make a decision — estimate the price and hit the ‘Misc’ button — and let the customer get out of there. You owe it to the customer, and you build loyalty that way. And then I won’t get grouchy.

Someone eventually did help the clerk with a product code, but we had to wait a long time to pay for a $3.95 item. Jamie Oliver’s fish dish was delicious, but a Seattle retail clerk nearly found himself strained through a cheesecloth.

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!

Shedding Tears and Dissidents

November 1, 2011

Can tears be put to work? Are they a plentiful and renewable resource? This intrepid reporter has uncovered a startling new plan by the Chinese government to harvest large volumes of tears. But to what end?

A recent New York Times article reveals that China wants to become a global leader in desalination, the process of removing salt from water. Supplying fresh water to the world would surely be a hugely profitable venture, placing the producers in what James Thurber would call the catbird seat.

Fresh water is required by each of the planet’s 7 billion souls, and the quantity of fresh water needed will keep increasing. How many farm animals and non-farm animals are there in the world, and how much water do they need? What about farms that grow crops? Stop and think of how much fresh water could be sold to vast and arid nations such as Egypt and Australia, or nations bordering salt water lakes and oceans; it becomes more staggering.  China, with roughly 1/5 of the world’s population, soon will need more than any other country. People, animals, crops, and many sorts of heavy industries need water. Hey, all this talk is making me thirsty!

The Communist Party has given Code Brue status to achieving technological superiority in producing fresh water cheaply. This is partly to satisfy Chinese needs, and partly to export.

China’s water demands are most dire in its western provinces, far from sources of both fresh and salt water. In recent months, however, a source has presented itself.

All across China, dissension and protest have risen due the public’s disfavor with government corruption and many other contentious issues. The Internet-fueled civil resistance of the Arab Spring scares the daylights out of the Central Committee, who fear that it might spread to China. The attempted cover-up of the fatal high-speed train wreck in eastern China was promulgated with lightning speed by Internet-based social media, a new force in China. Forced evacuation no longer applies to just the lowly and powerless, but has spread to the well-to-do, helping to spread the feeling that corrupt government officials hoping to profit from increased land values are behind it.

The Chinese food industry is in disarray from nationwide food scandals, and ordinary citizens are frightened about food safety. A hugely popular TV show has been cancelled, for the only plausible reason that TV viewers chose the winner, and this smacked too much of democracy. Recently, the tenth Tibetan monk set himself on fire to protest the forced occupation — is any occupation unforced? — of Tibet by Chinese nationals.

Prior to all this, the Communist Party has been ominously expert in quashing any and all protests, calling such outbursts threats to “harmony and stability.” Recently the government has begun cracking down even more severely on those dissident netizens who spread potentially embarrassing “false rumors” and “wrong information” suggesting that the government is fallible or corrupt.

The paranoid old men who run China are scared to death of anything that might lessen their absolute grip on power. This is why so many bold and critical Chinese are whisked away at night and not seen or heard from again. There are costs, however, to separating Chinese citizens from their freedom: China is suffering from a shortage of prisons.

Since it would cost too much to build prisons in remote areas, the Chinese government plans to “construct” prisons made from prisoners. Not made “by” prisoners; made “from” prisoners. These new prisons are to be called Harmonious Bamboo Gardens.

Detailed plans smuggled out of Ganzi in the alimentary canal of a goat show that prisoners will stand close together, mimicking the bars of a jail cell. The incarcerated must use the honor system and stay within the confines of their cells, or they will face severe punishment. Likewise any prison bar personnel will be cruelly punished if they “bend” and allow the escape of a prisoner.

Those who are given the duty of standing in place for excruciatingly long periods of time, and playing the role of a steel bar, are to be called “vertebrates.” Those who are imprisoned in the flesh and blood jail cells are referred to as “the guilty.”

Since their plight is expected to be awful, government authorities predict that both the vertebrates and the guilty will spend most of their time crying. Their tears will be collected by drains in the flooring, leading to a clever piping system and pumped to desalination plants close by. In an irony of Chinese marketing, the bottled water is to be called Freedom Water.

It is not known if any of the Freedom Water will be used to extinguish the flames of the Tibetan monks who set themselves on fire.

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.

 

 

Occupy a Dictionary

October 17, 2011

I love to read. There are few pleasures that can surpass that of sitting quietly in a comfortable chair, and imbibing one good sentence after another from a good book. Or a good magazine like the New Yorker, the Atlantic or the Economist. Reading is one of the purest forms of thinking, and I believe that thinking is fun.

Life is short, and we all deserve more fun.

When one has devoured a fair number of books — there are still so many left! — one starts to read more carefully. The more one reads, the more clearly one sees the differences between good writing and the rest. Something that is well written is a pleasure to be around, like a good conversationalist. Really good writing is so much more than just proper grammar and correct spelling. You know what I’m talking about: someone you enjoy hearing speak probably has a nice voice and a sense of humor, tells compelling stories, and uses interesting and imaginative language; you want them to keep talking. On the other hand, someone who speaks only of himself or herself, has a monotonic voice, and uses bad grammar and dull language will not be able to hold an audience for very long.

So it is with writing: combine the on-paper attributes of a good speaker (has a sense of humor, tells a compelling story, and uses interesting language) with correct spelling and proper grammar and punctuation, and it’s hard to put down. But sprinkle the piece you are reading with poor spelling and wretched grammar — like wrong notes in a symphony or ill-matched parts of a piece of furniture — and the quality and enjoyment plummets. Flaws like bad spelling and grammar can damage the story and break the magic spell. Low quality writing grates on the careful reader, which means that he or she might not wish to claw their way to the end.

One of my teachers used to say that the aim of a writer was to engage the reader so that he or she wants to continue turning the pages.

When confronted with flawed writing, a tiny growling sound begins to form in the base of my throat, and the need to point out the error to the author is nearly overwhelming. Is it out of a need for punishment or vengeance? Is it to feel superior? I don’t think so; I see it as more of a desire to help the author to improve.

Our country is populated by adults who ostensibly went to high school, and maybe even college, yet a quick review of the writing skills of some of them often suggests otherwise. These adults often post things in Facebook, where they find new and inventive ways to mangle the English language. (Here I must remind my readers that my wife is dyslexic, and that I am keenly aware of and sensitive to their impairments; my comments are directed at those who do not suffer from that sort of reading disorder and therefore may not use that excuse when defending their writing.) The profusion of errors seems to prove that either the writer missed quite a lot of English classes, or else their teachers were incompetent or indifferent to their students’ mastery of elementary skills, or some combination of all of those. In addition, I believe that many people do not read much; one who does not read is not likely to become a very good writer.

Do these Facebook perpetrators want their audiences to enjoy what they have written? Or are they narcissistic and clueless like many of the “Occupiers”? Don’t writers want to be liked and respected? Or do they not mind being mistaken for a small child or perhaps a Chinese writer of English-language instruction manuals?

Like many other devoted readers, I have a small handful of pet peeves about spelling. Is it really so hard to tell which version of “your” or “you’re” is correct? What about there/their/they’re? Maddeningly, it seems as if people flip coins when it comes to choosing between enormously complicated words like to/two/too or “its” versus “it’s”. (And by the way, [its’] is not a word.) There is this wonderful invention called the “dictionary” and there might even be one on your shelf. It is a tool that can help you if you are not sure.  I often use it, because nobody can remember how to spell every word, and to me it’s worth the time to look up words and get them right.

Over the course of twenty years I have tried to inculcate in my students a respect for language and for getting things right. Let’s assume for a moment that one of them graduated and got hired. If that student were to write memos filled with errors, with all sorts of sloppy grammar and misspellings, their boss would begin to question their credibility, and to doubt their ability to perform their job properly. Employees are representatives of their companies, and their work, and their writing, reflects upon the company. From a business customer’s point of view, if a contact person at a vendor’s company could not do something as simple as spelling a short word correctly — perhaps the name of a product — could they be counted on to correctly fill a customer’s order? To send the right number of the right items? Little things matter, and as a very wise friend from Texas likes to say, “The devil’s in the details.”

Write poorly, misspell things, and people will think less of you. (Isn’t it similar to not being able to do the simplest math? If someone cannot do a very simple calculation, like make correct change from a cash register, don’t you think somewhat less of them?) If someone points out a mistake you made, like a misspelled word or a grammatical error, don’t assume that the person is trying to punish you or make fun of you; maybe that person is trying to help you out so that you’ll get it right next time, and maybe avoid worse treatment by others.

Next time we will test a new 3-D graphics interface, and evaluate how well you throw virtual tomatoes at me.