Friday, April 15, 2011

From 2500 Years Ago

The greatest evil: wanting more. The worst luck: discontent.
Greed's the curse of life.

To know enough's enough

is enough to know.

-- Ursula Le Guin's translation

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Domino Maze

One of the best toys we had as children was two big tubs of mosaic tiles, the exact size and thickness of dominoes, and with it we'd build mazes all over the house. One, almost finished, was knocked down, much to our dismay, by the wanderings of one of our pet turtles, who was not fazed in the least. A turtle takes the long view.

I've still got some downstairs. If we had wood or tile floors I'd probably make one last maze...after putting the cats in the basement. What made me remember this old homemade toy was a story I heard today:

I ran into a lady in town as she was opening up her arts shop, to whom I've been trying to give our previous hot water heater. Having moved into her parents' old house, she really needs it, but neither one of us has a way to transport it; I needed to tell her we no longer had our landline telephone number. She handed me a little book, of the type with a nature photo on one page and some musings on the opposite one. A local photographer had put it out by herself, like musicians and writers are doing today rather than wasting their time tangling with the publishing or music industries. The author had been preoccupied when bringing the books in a few days earlier, because her parents had lost their home and the electricity to her studio was about to be shut off. The parents had kindly turned their landscaping business over to a younger generation, who had run it into the ground (as it were) and into debt. Due to legal entanglements, the parents were left holding the bag and had to sell their expansive country home, leaving it for a 650-square-foot cabin. In the turmoil, the photographer's mother had forgotten to pay her daughter's utility bills, which she had done while running the accounting end of the landscaping business.

The next day, eight of the eleven books sold, and the photographer had almost enough to pay the bill (wrangling with PP&L Electric about accepting partial payment, of course). And someone had left a $20 bill in her door for a past service -- just enough, in total, to pay it in full.

I thought that life is like a domino maze, and we only see the next one each day -- never the whole scheme. We don't know when some stealthy turtle of fate will knock the whole thing down; we don't see the "Y" fork in the path coming up. It may even be a circle and we'll get hit in the backside soon enough.

But sometimes, you get just what you need.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Things You Don't Need to Know

Malibu of the Midwest

For those who have never worn hard shoes, more commonly known as surfers:

If your waves are too salty and not cold enough, or bratwurst isn't available at the beach taco stand, head to Sheboygan, Wisconsin on the shore of Lake Michigan for the biggest freshwater surfing scene in the world. Low pressure systems create favorable winds, rather than tides doing the job, to form swells and waves which get better, unfortunately, as the season advances into winter. There's a surf club sponsored by Blatz Brewery, which is so Wisconsin. When you hit the beach, ask for Doc -- he's been the resident guru since 1976.

For the Graphically Challenged

Two nations, Romania and Chad, have identical national flags. If the coat of arms in the center were removed, tiny Andorra has the same banner also. Someone should have been checking on these things.

Chardonnay, Comrade?

What do Yalta, Crimea, Ukraine and Santa Barbara, California, USofA, have in common? A lot.

Both are tourist destinations, with similar size populations, nestled between sea and mountains. Both enjoy that prince of climates, the Mediterranean, with the attendant vineyards and orchards. The stretch of beach to the northeast of Yalta is even called Santa Barbara, which must sound interesting in the middle of a Russian sentence; this probably stems from their relationship as sister cities since 1987. The geography of their shorelines is a mirror image, and the cities physically resemble each other. If you traveled 6,715 miles from one to the other, you'd still feel right at home.

Monday, April 11, 2011


"A house is a pile of stuff with a cover on it." -- George Carlin

No wonder we're so rudderless, so deprived of any intelligent leadership: George is gone. He'll be missed especially because he won't ever be replaced -- his hammer hit the nail squarely on the head. Our heads, rather.

No other generation than ours has had so much disposable wealth to waste, or acquired more stuff, than ours. A blessing with a big curse hidden inside it. Now that we're seeing these old people in the mirror, we come upon the time in life when we must downsize or be hideously inconsiderate and leave the next generations to move it or get rid of it.

Here at Chez Rice, we're trying our level best, but sometimes it's like dipping out the ocean with a 1-cup measure. I've torn into the basement several times, and there's barely one or two more square feet of space freed up. The garage defies me; even with our small car, you have to be oh so careful opening the doors to avoid hitting the treasures and necessities lining three walls. If I could stack stuff against the door and still use it, I probably would. The only thing that redeems the situation is that some people will never get the car into the garage again; when you get to that point, your stuff owns your butt forever.

Because of our numbers and the mountains of stuff we have, selling or giving away some of this loot is becoming harder, according to recent news reports. Even the charity agencies are swamped. A good indicator is that we now see stuff of a quality that never appeared there before. What a conundrum: you can get expensive barely used stuff for very little -- and you don't want more! If the energy and financial crises swamp us, at least we have an awful lot of things already. The trouble is they have little value for barter or sale. Antiques and collectibles are down 40 - 50%; with the internet making things available worldwide that would have taken decades to find previously, the values drop even more precipitously.

Books and studies have been written about how we got into this mess, notably Clive Hamilton's Affluenza -- which I highly recommend. You will be brought up short when you see how people are so easily manipulated by advertising/public relations. If anyone does it right, it's the Italians, who have a concept of bella figura -- cutting a dashing figure; an Old World concept to be sure. The French prescription for affordable style is: a great haircut, a sweater or jacket of very good material, black pants (go with anything) and good shoes. Not a lot of stuff, for every place, time and season; just a look that goes from student to dinner party. We couldn't carry that off, I don't think.

We may lose the war, but we won a battle recently, even though it took 20 years: Nancy and I worked together to clean out, clean and organize the bedroom closet. Hundreds of hangers were extracted; shoes from the 70s went. Needless to say, I found stuff that I'd been missing forever. How Cliff did a whole house cleanout by himself, I don't know. I do know we needed a drink after.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Tyrant or Tool?

Calendars are one of those valuable things you can get for free, like water at fountains, pens, newspapers at airports, or sunshine. OK, I think the airport newspapers are treasures because without them, staring out the window watching the luggage being loaded will drive you crazy by the middle of your second layover.

When you or your offspring are in school, the calendar is a merciless tyrant which pretty much runs your life. I, like you, couldn't wait to get beyond that, and it takes a long time. Afterwards, it's a mix of good and bad: holidays are sprinkled, sparsely, among the months, but if you're employed you likely have to schedule your puny vacation well in advance, and will pine away waiting for it to arrive and miss it for another year after it all-too-swiftly passes by.

We're happy to be in the third stage now, where we're in charge and slipping from the control of institutional powers. Other than setting some appointments with medical professionals to be poked, jabbed or drilled, I now can scan the days of each month with an eye for possibilities rather than duties. Nancy has been with her benevolent employer long enough to have quite the stock of vacation days and no longer gets grief about using them. They say one of the three drivers of happiness is something to look forward to, and the time ahead, clearly represented by neat boxes on the calendar, can be filled with dreams and plans -- and should be.

If we can't find anything new to do, we go back to favorite places and enjoy them from a new angle. The next time we go to the Caribbean, I'd like to try a couples resort, for example. You have to visit a place the first time to learn how to visit it; the next is usually better as you're not spending half the week figuring things out, and you know where the harder-to-find good stuff is.

Just recently, Nancy got a trip to a conference in Las Vegas approved (the previous attempt to attend one in Orlando was shot down at the last minute) and I decided not to waste it like last time: no more joining the roiling masses on the Strip sidewalks and getting lost in the interior shopping mazes for hours after my feet gave out. This time I was going to get out earlier when the crowds were thin and seek out some fun stuff.

So while Nancy dutifully attended her sessions in the far reaches of the Sands conference center (three floors high, a mile long -- nothing's done small in Vegas), I had (monkey) business to attend to.

The weather that week was exceptionally good for March: warmer, sunnier and less windy than usual. That alone, after another northeastern winter that did not have the good grace to leave and make way for Spring, would make a long walk a real pleasure. I headed north to see the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop, featured on the television show Pawn Stars, about 3 miles each way. At the aging end of the Strip, I detoured through the Sahara to see how an older casino hotel was doing, and it was pretty deflated. A few decades of life is all that is allotted in this fast-paced, quick profit, scheme in the desert -- and judging from their faces, that applies to the people as well as the buildings. After that, the blocks looked like Cleveland with scrawny palm trees. Appropriate setting for a pawn shop, come to think of it.

The place doesn't look much like it does on TV; I guess wide-angle lenses are used to good effect to make things look larger and shinier than they are. There was quite a line to get in, so I just scoped it out. The door and windows were covered (one with a black plastic trash bag), and the warehouse in back had a garage door and no windows. A small pickup truck in the side parking lot had a "Chumlee for President" bumper sticker. We could do worse (and might).

The next day I headed off for the light industrial district which parallels the Strip, separated from it by railroad tracks, walls and fences. After a walk about four times longer than I had expected, I found Discount Firearms and Ammo, where I was to meet my little friend, a H&K MP5 9mm submachine gun. The instructor at the indoor range was a former policeman, who showed me the proper stance for automatic fire, after which I let loose. Judging from the results on the target, I have a future in illegal or paramilitary endeavors. You can't do that in New Cumberland!

That night we went just across the street to Gilley's Texas bar and grille, where the food was predictable (but smelled great), then moseyed back to the bar where the cowgirls wore bikinis and chaps (also not doable in New Cumberland), and the bull ride was providing great entertainment as it threw cowgirls and tipsy customers off with equal abandon. Several people used the excellent karaoke setup and did a fine job of it. A very large stage is almost built and will host bands on weekends. All in all, the place was a hoot and was looking to be even better when complete.

The highlight of the week was entry into the hotel's (the Venetian) celebrity nightclub, Tao. It doesn't normally open until 10 PM, but our conference group and two others had it from 7:30 til then. The dark, mysterious Asian bistro/club was packed; it's (along with Mandalay Bay's Rain club) close to the best Vegas has to offer those of us not in the millionaires' sphere. One of the people we sat next to while pillaging the hors d'oeuvre trays that passed by (Kobe beef sliders - oh my) came back from exploring and said we should go to the dance floor. She was right (although we had to leave the Kobe behind): the DJ, the sound system and the lights grabbed all your senses immediately and completely. There were visitors and club professional dancers lined up on top of the low walls which formed a sunken dance area. Did everyone form the letters to "YMCA?" Did strobe lights delight everyone just like in the 60s? Did everyone bust moves they didn't even know they had? You betcha.

So far in this year's calendar, so good. Got all the remodeling projects done before this trip, as planned, and have other events both at home and abroad lined up. Right now, just waiting for Spring...