Wednesday, July 23, 2014

An Epic Moment in Montana

You just never know when you will have an Epic Moment. They don’t announce themselves in advance. They just arrive all of a sudden. In a rush. Life is just going on in normal fashion with normal moments, and then, here it is.

We drove up to Billings, Montana to have a quick, two-day visit with our son Dylan, a sous chef at a very fine restaurant called Walkers. We drove straight there, nearly 10 hours, and had dinner prepared by Dylan himself. Very cool.

Dylan lives in a small town 1/2 hour from Billings called Ballantine, and he had to work till 10:30, so we undertook to drive to his place, some place we had never been before, but we had his address and GPS. No sweat, we said to ourselves. No worries. Piece of cake. Slam dunk.

That would have been true if we'd had the right address. We had 1635. It was 1653, as we found out later, as in, much, much too late. Those last two digits actually matter.

So as we are driving around, wondering why the house we found didn’t seem to be the house we needed to find, some little bit of taco that I had had for lunch decided to return in a bad bad way. This turned a casual search into a desperate race against time. There’s a reason they call it “Taco Johns”. “Taco Runs” would be more accurate but less attractive to potential customers. I personally would have called it Walking Dead Zombie Tacos, because they had returned from the dead in my colon in an unfortunate way.

I went running up to 1635, knocked on the door, and was told that Dylan did not live there, and they had never heard of him.

The colon clock was ticking. The Zombie Tacos were on the move.

We drove down the road, found a little zigzag extension of the road, and saw another house with the address 1653. We weren’t sure this was it.  We guessed maybe that the numbers had been switched somehow, but it was a pure guess, and the house was pitch black.

Details are important. Dylan lives in the basement of whatever house he lives in. We were told that the front door was locked, but the side door into the basement would be open.

Dylan lives with a man and his kids. We had never met them. We’d never seen them. They’d never seen us. I wasn’t sure at all that they knew we were coming. Dylan had gotten his dates mixed up, thought we were coming the next week.

So I go up to this dark house apparently full of strangers and knock on the door.  Nobody answers. House is dark.

I go around to the side door. It’s open. I go in. I’m in a strange kitchen in a strange house that potentially has strangers in it.

It’s after 10 pm. They could be here, asleep, in bed. This is Montana. Even babies keep guns in their cribs in Montana.

The colon clock is really ticking loudly. I’m doing the dance. The dance you do when if you don’t find a bathroom RIGHT NOW, it’s going to get ugly.

I go downstairs to the basement. Fast. I’m still not sure I’m in the right house. I have no clue yet whether I’m in the right house. And the clock is ticking and I’m dancing the dance.

There’s no light switch on the stairs. Top or bottom. There’s no light switch in the room at the bottom of the stairs. There is a cat. Dylan has a cat. But lots of people have cats.

There’s another room. No light switch. It’s really dark. Find a light switch. Doesn’t work. Find another one. Doesn’t work. I’m running around the basement of a strange house with strangers in it with guns in Montana, and the dance is nearing its inevitable tragic conclusion.

There’s another room, and this one has a light switch that works. But there’s nothing in the room. So I find a fourth room. No light switch. Is this like a Montana thing - no light switches so that you can put on your night-vision goggles, get out your massive guns and blow wandering burglars and their increasingly frantic colons all over the walls? And if I’m in the wrong house and if I’m not supposed to be in this house and this is Montana where even babies in cribs keep guns, then zombie tacos are going to be the least of my problems, although of course, as they are zombie tacos, the bullets won’t kill them.

I vaguely see a light bulb in the middle of the dark room with no light switches. I feel around - there’s a chain - I pull it - the light goes on. I look around for some clue that Dylan might live there. There’s a letter. It has his name on it. Success.

And now I really really really need to find a bathroom. I had this terrible feeling that I might be a bit too late already. If you know what I mean.

There’s no bathroom in the basement. I’m running around like an idiot. There’s no bathroom.

I have no choice. I tear upstairs, stick my head out the door to tell Kam that we’re in the right place, and look around the upstairs for a bathroom.

There’s a bathroom. In a strange house with strangers sleeping in it. Right next to the bathroom. With guns. I know they have guns. I don’t care.

I go into the strange bathroom in a strange house with strangers and lock the door. As though that would stop bullets. Didn’t care.

I mostly made it.

I didn’t wake anyone up. I snuck out and told Kam that we couldn’t stay in a strange house with strangers and me potentially needing to use their bathroom at regular intervals all night long without having met them. Sooner or later, they were going to run into me in the very very short hall and either scream and die or shoot me into tiny bits.

God is good. Just down the road in this tiny tiny town (3X4 streets), there’s a gas station (Tiger Town) with a tiny tiny motel (4 rooms). So we got a room. We watched the Tour de France on a Zenith 15-inch Space Command TV set from 1970. It even had remote control, and it was color. And nobody in the room has guns.

And in unrelated news, if you hit a deer in Billings, you can win a pig.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Hell is other people on my cruise ship.

Jean Paul Sartre wrote a play once called "No Exit". In it, he included the iconic line, "Hell is other people."

He apparently spent much of his life on large cruise ships, cruising.

When you first get on a cruise ship, what you notice in all directions is that it must be very much like heaven.

Food just appears, food from all nations, endless food, food whenever you want it. Appetizers, entrees, salads, desserts oh my stars the desserts. You can get your food at the buffet line, one on each side of our ship (one side has, among many many other things, Eggs Benedict of all possible variations for breakfast; the other side has, among many many other things, Belgian waffles in even richer variety), you can dine finely in the formal dining room, you can pay extra and dine even finer in smaller, intimate restaurants, you can get pizza or a burger and fries by the pool, you can have any variation of the offerings, mixing and matching, you can have Asian or Italian or Asian and Italian, and the Asian varies from day to day as the menu roams around, well, Asia - Korea, Japan, Thailand, China. There is lobster thermidor and chocolate mousse and Gruyere cheese bites and endless scoops of ice cream with toppings galore, and it's all or mostly free free free as long as you have paid for the cruise, as of course you have. At the fancy schmancy sit-down 4-course formal dinner, you can have four courses or five or eight or sixteen. You can have all the appetizers and all the soups and salads and all the entrees, if you've a mind to, and then you can finish with all the desserts. You can have prime rib and sushi and lamb shanks and New York strip steak and you can have hamburgers and fries and pizza and Mexican food all day long and tubs of guacamole and fresh pineapple and fresh squeezed orange juice and duck and jumbo prawns and crab cakes, and then you can have it all again.

And when you are finished, or just when you are finished with the present plate of food, you just leave it and it will be ferried off by a cheerful endlessly cheerful member of the waitstaff who will be from Indonesia or Malaysia or the Philippines, and then you can start all over again. You just abandon your dirty dishes and leftovers, and they vanish. You don't have to clean up, wash up, pick up. You don't even have to notice. After awhile, you don't.

It is the same with everything. You're room is magically cleaned every day, and as magically prepared for slumber every evening, with chocolate on the pillows and clever critters made from towels of sea or jungle life - lobsters and crabs and monkeys and penguins, the whole biosphere represented in a towel or two with happy little paper eyes stuck on to complete the anthropomorphism that will make you smile and calm you enough to sleep. 

Your wet towels and washrags can be dropped to the floor, from which they will be plucked and cleaned and replaced by smiling Indonesians and Malaysians and Philippinos.  Your clothing will evaporate in the morning and reconstitute in the evening, clean and folded. Any bits of dropped food, vacuumed up. Any bits of dropped paper, swept up. The ship is clean, always clean, always being cleaned and polished and painted and rubbed and varnished so that it is always perfect. It even has stabilizers to reduce the rocking and rolling back and forth in the ocean, lest we become sea-sick, so that we are insulated from even the near reality that surrounds. us.

There is nothing for you to do but eat it, wear it, and toss it away. The world around you exists to eliminate labor of any type from your life. You are the center of the universe, and it is unfailingly happy to clean up your mess and keep you well fed, well entertained, well rested. There are shows to see (free!) and lectures to attend (free!) and bingo and trivia contests and a library full of best sellers and comfortable nooks and crannies to sit in and the latest movies to watch and there's not a damn thing that you ever ever ever have to do but get up, do it all, go to bed, rinse and repeat.

You are the center of the universe. It's all for you and you alone.


Not quite.

There are…

…other people.

And they get in the damn way.

And as time goes on and the cruise continues and you become more and more accustomed to the idea that it really is all for you, there are these … others … who increasingly get in the way.

At the buffet line. Oh sweet lordy, they get in the way. They dare to act as though they think they are the center of the universe. While you are getting Italian, they dare to cut around you in line for the Asian, as though they did not know that you wanted both Italian and Asian. They dare to reserve a lounge chair by the pool for some sad and pointless spouse when you are in dire and immediate need of that lounge chair. They swim in your pool. They sit in your hot tub. They crowd into your elevators and mob onto your staircases. They clearly have checked out the books you wanted to read. They reserve and take away your spot on the tour to the ruins of whatever that you have on your Bucket List to see, and you are old and cranky and time is short and THIS MIGHT BE YOUR LAST CHANCE.

So as time goes on and the cruise continues, some on the cruise get crankier and crankier about everyone else on the cruise, and what starts out as heaven begins to feel like hell, because hell is other people, and there is no way off the cruise because you paid for the damn thing and there is no exit.

If I were in charge of heaven and hell, that's the way I'd do it.

So we're on a cruise. There is a fragile happiness with an entitled anger that lurks like Smaug just beneath the surface of many faces. Nobody smiles except for the crew, whose smiles amazingly persist and seem genuine, despite the constant threat that Smaug will leave his lair and strike at any moment. The passengers stalk about, their entitlement ready to strike. It's my cruise. I paid for it. Get out of my way or I'll hurt you.

Sitting next to a lovely couple of older ladies at a meal, a table for six, two empty seats between us and them which they are saving for their husbands. Another couple sees the empty seats, asks if they can sit there. One of the older ladies strikes like a cobra, snarling at them that the seats are taken, sneering, after they slunk away, bloodied, that "They must be Germans. The Germans are all like that." It was an unnecessary anger that exploded instantly, instinctively, predetorally.

Sitting next to the pool (which is heated to body temperature, a pool-sized bathtub, so that we will not suffer any discomfort getting in the water), a woman tells us that we just missed a fight that nearly became physical between two older people (nearly everyone is older, retired, white), a woman and startlingly enough, a man. He asked her if she was saving the lounge chair, she said yes, and he viciously attacked her verbally. She responded in kind. It escalated in tone and volume to involve the entire pool area. He finally just threw her stuff out of the chair and took it for his own. 

I'm guest-lecturing on this cruise. After the first of 8 or 9 sessions, a number of people crowded around to ask questions. An Indian man made a move to ask a question, and a very old man on a walker lashed out at him - he had jumped ahead in some imaginary queue in some imaginary way that offended walker guy.

There is no happiness here in heaven. There is, above all else, entitlement. I'm entitled to all of the good things that cruising life has to offer because I have paid for them, and God help anyone who gets in the way. There is no grace, no mercy, no forgiveness. Heaven is the place where nobody gets in my way. Hell might be the place where people get in my way.

Most intriguingly, on a cruise, you never ever run into anyone who has needs. There are no hungry, poor, or homeless people. There are no unemployed people. No beggars.

So you never ever have to think about giving up a tiny bit of your own comfort to help someone else. Never ever.


When you happen to take a "shore excursion", you will run into hungry, poor, homeless, unemployed beggars and street people trying to sell little trinkets. You might even buy a little trinket - you'll bargain for it, of course, and talk later about the great deal you got.

But all of those poor natives are just part of the tour. Local color. They make for great photos. Exotic backgrounds to pics of you and the spousal person.

It's always good to get back on the boat. Excursions make me hungry.

I might have a little problem.

Hi ho,

Aging has its advantages. When you're young and you do weird stuff, you're just weird. Like, here's one picture of a much younger me with disastrously long hair, and another even younger me wearing really really bright sox. Or a third where I am pretending to be the exact opposite of cool in winter clothing. Or a fourth and fifth that really need no description at all. Last pic includes a suede leather jacket. Of course it does. 

OK, so that's me being normal, which, as it turns out, was sort of consistently and occasionally dramatically weird.

Now, when you get older (not old, just … older), as I have now done, one of the advantages is that what used to be weird is now much more acceptable. Like, when you're young and you walk down the street mumbling to yourself, people cross the street to get away from you and very quickly duck into toy stores with their kids. Now, when you go out to get the paper wearing boxer shorts, black knee sox, and Crocs, the neighbors don't call either the fashion police or the real police, they just chuckle and say something like, what a nice old man kids why don't you go on back into the house? (Some of you just asked yourselves, "What's a 'paper'?" That's what old people read on the toilet instead of doing Sudoku or playing Grand Theft Auto or texting.)

When you're older, being weird isn't weird; it's sort of expected, a little charming, kinda eccentric but harmless.

This is clearly leading somewhere.

OK, so, I ride my bike for exercise. I do this in Colorado, which is where we live, and Colorado is full of hills. So when you ride your bike, you're either going up a hill or down a hill. Flat is not much of an option.

I don't like hills.

So I need to distract myself while I'm riding up hills. You know, to take my mind off the pain. I could do differential equations in my head. I could compose sonnets. I could write musicals.

So. What I do is, I count rabbits.

The first time I counted rabbits was several years ago. I counted like 20 rabbits, thought that was amazing.

So I started riding a bit slower. Ride too fast, you could miss one.

Then I got to 50. 60. 70. 80. 90. Then 100 rabbits on one bike ride. What a day that was. A memorable day.

I began to dream of greater things.

So then I started riding around the neighborhood onto different streets, more streets, when the conditions were right. Oh, I forgot to tell you. There are times when there are more bunnies out than other times. Earlier in the morning. Cooler, cloudier days. Humidity helps. Riding slower really helps. Bunnies are hard to see sometimes.

There are bunny counting rules, too. Dead, roadkill bunnies don't count. Duh. Has to be a bunny. Can't be a bird or a squirrel or a plant. Duh. Can't count the same bunny twice. Duh. The rules are easy for old guys to remember. I did get to count a bunny once that was in the process of being killed by a cat. It was ugly. But it wasn't dead yet.

Then I set a record. 199 bunnies on one ride. You know I'm telling the truth because if I were lying, it would be 200 bunnies.

The next year, I hit 127. Then 197. Twice.

Today was the day. I found myself in the Bunny Zone. I was on fire. I couldn't be stopped.

I blasted past 200. And kept on going.

223 bunnies, 20 July 2013. A day that will be long remembered in bunny counting lore. The small children will hear tales around the campfire for generations about the day that 223 bunnies were counted. Monuments will be raised, flags waved, medals and trophies awarded, parades, uh, paraded.

This is where you say, what a cute little old man, charming, eccentric, kids why don't you go on back into the house?

I'm dreaming of greater things. You gotta have a vision. 


PS Thursday 22 August 2013. 232 bunnies. I'm beginning to wonder if I have a little problem.