Archive for December 2005

Mini-Mart Moment

On my walk home from REI on Christmas Eve, I stopped off at a carryout on Eastlake to buy a bottle of water.  As I walked up to the counter, there was a young man ahead of me engaged with the cashier, apparently playing some kind of instant lotto game.

The clerk looked up at him and shook her head, indicating that his try had failed.  “No?”, he asked, seeming genuinely surprised, and some anxiety filled his face.  He asked for another chance, and the clerk said he didn’t have enough money left on the debit card he was using.

“Take off the gum, then, ” he said, indicating a pack of Eclipse he had intended to buy.  The clerk shook her head and said there still wasn’t enough for another play.  The guy’s anxiety multiplied.  “Is there a pay phone outside?  I need to call someone about the balance on this card.”

He ran outside, and I felt suddenly self-conscious about paying a buck and a half for water, but the long walk had made me dry enough to think it was an exceptional bargain.

As I left the store to continue my walk home, the guy was talking animatedly on the pay phone.  It struck me that the cost of the call, added to his foregone chewing gum, should have been enough for his next play.  I wondered what was so urgently driving him to be desperately playing convenience-store lotto at 5pm on Christmas Eve, and as a parent of a child his age, I felt a twinge or two in my gut.  Was it a need for the proceeds, for drink or meth or a hail-Mary Christmas gift for a girl friend or child?  Or just the reflexive twitch of a gambling habit crashing against the rocky beach of another overdraft? 

I adjusted my backpack full of my own desperate Christmas Eve enterprise and walked on, conscious of my wallet flush with crisp new cash machine $20s, wondering if I’d missed a chance for a holiday gesture by not popping him a buck for one more play, whether the extra 10 seconds of hope would have made any difference. 

The Aftermath

These guys, along with their mistress, were our Christmas dinner guests.  Since she (and the dogs - long story) are vegans, we had a sort of parallel menu that involved turkey, tofu, unstuffed stuffing and the dramatic appearance of a rutabaga.

The boys’ names are Enzo Ferrari (foreground) and Dino.  They’re well-mannered, well-dispositioned guests and provided great entertainment value for everyone except our cats, who hung out on the front porch and glowered. (click to enlarge any picture).

That’s our son, who leaves tomorrow for an extended trip to Joshua Tree National Park to do more of this:

We may join him in a couple of weeks if schedules allow.  Hope everyone’s having a low-key holiday week.


Shopping, Continued

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Well, I didn’t really go to Best Buy for my wife’s Christmas present. Instead, I took Meg’s cue and walked to REI. It’s a long walk, so I was pretty much betting the farm on them having what I needed, both for her and for my son. It worked out great - instead of the mobs I’d feared, it seemed like there were more salespeople than customers. I managed to buy my gifts and get out before I started buying stuff for myself. It wasn’t a feat of character so much as the fact that there was a limit to what I could carry the 3 or so miles back.

As often happens when I’m walking around loose in the city, I found some stuff to photograph. The church above, St. Spiridion Orthodox, is a couple of blocks from REI.

This Prius, a gas/electric hybrid, has a sticker in the window that says, “Eat My Voltage”.

This strange little moonmobile is about 3 houses away from the Prius. I think it’s being charged from house current, although it COULD be sucking the brains out of Wallingford children.

I’m not sure you could cram another ornament in this yard. They had carols playing, too.

The Accidental Shopper

The drive home last night from eastern Washington was certainly exciting.  I didn’t set out until 5 or so, when it was already pitch-dark,and it poured rain the whole way home.  There was no ice at Snoqualmie Pass, but pools of standing water lurking all along I-90 would send the car veering off in unexpected directions.  Sort of like the Space Mountain ride at Disneyland.  I arrived home with visions of wineglasses dancing in my head, but Mrs. Perils chirped, “You still have time for a workout!”  So I put my running stuff on, threw myself out into the ambient moisture and trotted down to the gym.  Glad I did it, as they have limited hours the next couple of days.

Going through my mail, I found some tidbits to share:

From the Washington Society of CPAs, a mailing that goes:

The need for young, well-trained CPAs is growing.  The Washington CPA Foundation addresses that need through its scholarship program.  As you plan your end-of-year giving, please consider a donation.  You can help keep the future bright for the accounting profession.

Right.  I’m gonna defer contributions to my retirement fund to train people to take work from me.  While I’m pursuing my new career as a Walmart greeter, they’ll be at their 20-something happy hours, day-glo drinks in hand, calling the senior partners “hairy-eared, pencil-necked geeks”.  Just like we did.

Next up is Tax Facts from the Washington Department of Revenue, communicating tax changes and enhanced services. 

  • The first thing to catch the eye: “Lower B&O tax rate for manufacturers of commercial airplanes and component parts“  Wow, does that law cast a wide net, or what?  Of course, I wouldn’t be so snide if I were one of that plucky cadre who’s building airplanes for sale in their basements.

  • The next: Fish Tax Extended to Sea Urchins and Sea Cucumbers.  Mrs. Perils is eager to see what techniques they devise to collect it.

  • Lastly, Online Videos Are Here!  A sampling:

    • Online workshop on the Lodging Industry

    • Step-by-step video guide on how to fill out a Small Harvester Forest Tax Return

OK, I’m off to Best Buy to shop for Mrs. Perils’ Christmas gift.  Wish me luck!

In Country

My client in Othello, like almost everyone east of the Cascades, is in the agribusiness business.  The land over here is sere sagebrush desert, and nothing grows without vested water rights, so you don’t just come over here with a hoe and a packet of seeds.  I think when people think of Washington state, they automatically visualize forests and snow-capped mountains and Puget Sound.  But over one-half of the state is comprised of this parched landscape.  I like driving over here, though - I find the land forms fascinating.

The social and political landscape over here is also sharply different from that of the west side - conservative, mostly Republican, “country”.  Until a couple of years ago when it became a Best Western, the motel I stay at here had signs in the rooms admonishing guests not to clean game in the sinks.

At my client’s office, they’ve been playing this country station that has, at most, 25 songs in rotation.  Music to me is usually sound and texture - I have difficulty discerning and/or remembering the words to songs because I don’t approach music as a narrative form.  After 3 days of repetition, however, the musical component of country loses its sense of wonder, and these songs became a form of infomercial for a lifestyle.  A lifestyle that seemingly can segue, without apparent irony, from “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off” directly to “Jesus, Take The Wheel”.

There’s something to admire in some of this unadorned sentiment and folk wisdom, though.  We urban types expend a torrent of words and reams of paper trying to intellectualize the courting, dating and mating process.  There’s Cosmo, GQ, Seventeen and Penthouse Letters all pantingly and pantslessly pursuing the mystery in all its nuances.  Then a country song reduces the whole thing to a six-word fail-safe recipe.  Tequila makes her clothes fall off.  Doh!

This Will Only Sting For a Second or Two…

Wednesday morning I headed east across the Cascades to a client I have in Othello, Washington.  If you turn, in your Rand McNally atlas, to the map of Nowhere and move your finger as close to the midpoint as you can reckon, you’ll have found it.  No one can tell me how it came by its name.  Everyone I ask vaguely mentions Shakespeare, and a Google search does the same, positing that it came of a local doyenne with a love of the Bard.  I’m thinking it has more to do with a Christmas Eve breach-birth of a calf with two asses and no heads and the resulting headline “Local 4-H Members Make Beast With Two Backs!”  Or not.

I’m over here to do a software upgrade, an exquisite torture that software companies annually inflict on their customers under the pretense of functional improvements, bug fixes and compliance with year-end tax form requirements.  The piteous cries of my cell phone attest to the mangled landscape of my December activities.  I’ve downloaded the Abu Ghraib ring-tone from Verizon for realistic effect.

I had planned to be over here for just a day and night and hie me back to Seattle in time to make whatever paltry Christmas preparations I could make in 48 hours but, as often happens in these enterprises, there was a Glitch.  I had finished the upgrade and data conversion and was ticking off the last few points in my checklist when my client said, “My GL doesn’t balance.”

“What do you mean, ‘it doesn’t balance’?  It balanced before the conversion.  You must have done something to it.”  When in doubt, blame the victim.

WTF.  I ran the conversion again, same result, duplicated in each of several companies in the database.  Turns out that the client’s old database was like a Superfund site that over the years had accreted a protective cap that shielded the populace from its subterranean toxins of corrupt and out-of-balance journals. The backhoe of the data conversion ripped away this beneficent layer and released the murky poison of the previous decade’s transgressions against double-entry accounting, and I’ve spent the last day and a half in my consultant’s haz-mat suit desperately trying to halt its spread.  I’ve finally concocted a couple 55-gallon drums of palliative journal entries that, while not necessarily purging the site, will restore the protective cap.  Until the next fool comes along with a backhoe and a mouthful of bright, shiny promises.

Blackberry Logic (Pretzels no longer free)

Arrived home late last night after spending a chilly week in Milwaukee.  I took my usual Friday commute on Northwest, leaving Milwaukee around 6pm for Minneapolis, then leaving Minneapolis at 9:45 to land in Seattle around 11:15.  It’s starting to be holiday travel time, but that’s one of the last flights out on Friday and the airport was pretty calm.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that I’d been upgraded at the gate in Minneapolis.  I settled into my window seat and exchanged pleasantries with my seatmate, who was returning from Indianapolis. 

He showed me his Blackberry mother-ship communicator - I’d never really paid attention to them, and I had to acknowledge that some technology has passed me by, as it performs functions that I carry 3 or 4 different devices for.  He then proceeded to tell me this joke.  Usually, jokes go in one ear, I laugh, and then they head out the other ear and I can never remember them to relate again.  But this one was pretty good, I thought:

A fellow is sitting alone at a bar with his head resting on his right hand.  The bartender notices that he’s speaking animatedly right into his palm.  The bartender sidles a little closer to overhear, just as the fellow is saying, “OK, dear, I’ll be home in an hour or so.” 

The bartender approached him and asked him whom he was talking to.  The customer said he’d been talking to his wife on his cell phone.  He said he’d lost so many cell phones that, when he saw an ad offering to implant a phone in his hand, he answered it.  The bartender arched his eyebrows and was deciding not to sell him any more drinks, but the guy said, “here, look.” and opened his right palm to reveal a dialing pad.  “Tell me your home phone number.”

The bartender gave him a number and the customer punched it into his palm.  A moment later, he put his palm up to the bartender’s ear, and the bartender heard his wife’s voice answering the phone.  Amazed, he greeted her, told her he was just testing a phone, and the customer ended the call.  The bartender apologized for his skepticism, and comped him a drink.

Later, the bartender noticed that the customer had left for the men’s room some time ago and hadn’t returned.  Concerned, he headed for the men’s room to check on him.  Opening the door, he saw the customer stark naked, standing with his hands against the far wall with a roll of toilet paper jammed up his butt.  The bartender was aghast, and asked the customer who had so abused him and offered to call the police.

The customer waved him off and said, “No, man, I’m waiting for a fax.”

Later, as we started descending for Seattle, I gazed out the window looking northward.  Night had long ago fallen, but the sky was clear and the moonlight was so intense that its reflection off the snow-covered Cascades created a twilight in which details on the ground were clearly visible, if in a ghostly chiaroscuro.  Many valleys had clouds tamped down into them, and lights from the towns below created spots of incandescence in the cottony cloud cover.

The usual approach to Seatac airport in the winter, or whenever weather is bad, is from north to south.  Sitting on the right side of the plane, I was treated to what I consider the “money shot” for landing in Seattle, flying past my house near Greenlake, over Lake Union, past the Space Needle, past the glittering downtown with the black void of Elliott Bay for a backdrop, ferries floating on seeming nothingness out into Puget Sound.

It’s good to be home.

Politicians Lie, Artists Mythologize

I had the opportunity to read through Harold Pinter’s Nobel essay the other day.  He explored his theme, truth and falsity, as it applies to art and to civic colloquy.  He posits that, in art, there is an elasticity to truth, that things “may be both true and false”, and that the artist’s task is to probe and explore reality to elucidate the truth in its infinite variations:

But the real truth is that there never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art. There are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other.

He will brook no such relativism in the hands of politicians, however, and the greater part of the lecture excoriates the United States for the Iraq war and its way of dealing with the world since WWII.

the majority of politicians, on the evidence available to us, are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance of that power. To maintain that power it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast tapestry of lies, upon which we feed.

It’s an interesting juxtaposition: playrights and artists use a set of inventions, or falsehoods, if you will, in an attempt to present truth, or the version of it that they apprehend.  Politicians attempt to use real people and events to obfuscate.

It may be an overly naive view of artists, and an overly jaundiced view of politicians.  Maybe not.  I guess I accept the need for both artists and politicians to frame reality using fact and metaphor in order to sway a target audience.  It depends, in the end, upon whom you trust with this task.  Haven’t you come away from many a play or movie saying, “Huh?”.  On the other hand, I definitely do not trust the current U.S. leadership’s representation of much of anything, even the weather.  So, the lesson may be that one must never abandon critical thinking when anyone is spinning out what Joni Mitchell long ago called “pretty lies”.

The lecture will always be remembered for its political content.  But what struck me as really radical was what Pinter put forth as his method of writing.  I have much more experience as a consumer of literature than as a manufacturer of it, I have only a vague notion of how that particular kind of sausage is made.  My presumption has always been that someone has an idea to convey, a set of situations to represent and, most important in my view because I was never very good at it, multiple characters with strong individual voices.  Whether by using a storyboard, an outline, or sleepless nights of turgid imagining, the writer then creates the sinuous linear stream of words that will be reconstituted in our brains as sound and visual image.

Pinter, on the other hand, says:

Most of the plays are engendered by a line, a word or an image. The given word is often shortly followed by the image. I shall give two examples of two lines which came right out of the blue into my head, followed by an image, followed by me.

The plays are The Homecoming and Old Times. The first line of The Homecoming is ‘What have you done with the scissors?’ The first line of Old Times is ‘Dark.’

In each case I had no further information….In each case I found myself compelled to pursue the matter. This happened visually, a very slow fade, through shadow into light.

I always start a play by calling the characters A, B and C.

If we are to believe Pinter’s “creation myth”, then, we have to accept that his plays reveal themselves to him much as they are revealed to us when we see them.  A fellow in my book group always urges us to never believe an author when he talks about his work, and I have more than a little scepticism about what Pinter has told us here, but I’m fascinated with it and am tempted to try it myself.  It’s sort of a “trust the force, Luke” idea - you essay the task unburdened by doubt or baggage, armed only with the notion that your talent will suffice.

Party-san Posting

Our Saturday Cavalcade of Parties was a lot of fun, and well worth getting only 3 hours of sleep before heading for Seatac. The party at our Nautilus club was a pleasant surprise. It was very well-attended, and I talked to many people that I’d only identified with the sweats they wear to work out, or the machine they seem to gravitate to. For instance, Stepmaster Guy turned out to be a Princeton/Wharton graduate and a possible business contact (not that you have possess such a pedigree to do business with a mongrel like me).  And I chatted amiably for the first time with a couple that has lived right around the corner from us for 20 years, one of whom is a published author.  We were surprised to find that it was hard to tear ourselves away in order to head for our second party of the night.  I find myself wondering, however, if I’ll be more self-conscious about the paltry weight I lift on each machine now that I’m better-acquainted with people who may be following me onto a machine.  It’s one thing to have Mrs. Perils follow me and discreetly add 30 - 50 pounds onto the leg press machine I’ve just vacated.  She’s already forgiven me my manifest weaknesses.  At least the ones she knows about.

The marquee event of the evening was the white elephant party given by Mrs. Perils’ climbing buddies.  It’s always a great feed, as both partners are terrific chefs.  There were sashimi tartlets, Thai shrimp, kalua pork, chocolate pot de creme and a ton of other dishes.  Then the gift process began.  Each of us was supposed to bring something naughty, or nice, or both.  We were, frankly, disappointed in the “naughty” components.  Only a couple met our standards (Mrs. Perils The Demure furnished a set of Pecker Pushpins, purchased at our neighborhood Erotic Bakery).  Below are two gifts that stood out as unique. (click to enlarge)

This one’s a live lobster pleading its case to a crowd that had just gorged on, among other things, shrimp and raw tuna.  The justices found its appeal lacked merit.  It’s unclear whether it fell into the ”naughty” or “nice” category, but it was inventive.  Interestingly, it wore the same yellow wristbands that its recipient wore.  Social consciousness probably will not buy much of a reprive from the boiling pot.

Perhaps the best (if one of the few) “naughty” present was this one.  There was a gratifying reticence among participants to make deposits.

Sticker Schlock

A couple of bumper stickers espied on a short walk today:

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