Archives for category: Modern Society

GOING ORGANIC

As both a new arrival to North Carolina and a recent refugee from a law career, I was seeking a new and interesting experience. An organic farming class offered at Central Carolina Community College fit the bill. Not only would I learn new gardening techniques and pest control measures, but for three hours a week I could sample the life of a working farmer.
Little did I suspect that organic farming consists of only one part gardening to nine parts chemistry and soil analysis. For a former literature major like myself, there were intolerably massive doses of incomprehensible terms like “Ph”.
The first class, held at a real farm in Pittsboro, began with the customary introduction of the participants. Several were already professional farmers in search of knowledge in the “organic” realm. Several others were considering career changes into full-time farming, though they had degrees or experience in such related fields as botany or forestry. One classmate had just inherited twenty-seven acres and craved direction and inspiration — organic farm or housing development? A contingent were women intent upon establishing a lesbian commune. And then there was me, in over my head, a retired lawyer who grows a backyard vegetable garden.
The farmer/professor was Doug Jones, whose past was intriguing. Doug graduated from Harvard circa 1975 and somehow missed the memo about investment banking. His was the stringy body of a man who has done backbreaking, painstaking physical labor for nearly forty years. Just as stringy was the grey ponytail down the middle of his back.
Certainly, Doug’s jeans, boots and flannel shirts started out clean each day; however, by the five p.m. start of our weekly class, they were always caked in strata of North Carolina soil that Doug could analyze in intense, fascinated detail, for several hours. To me, they looked muddy.
And THAT summarizes the course for me. Yes, I learned to place a tomato plant sideways in its hole. I learned to squeeze a seedling with proper tenderness when transplanting. I learned to construct a raised bed and to make a temporary greenhouse. I learned one should not refer to the class as “orgasmic” gardening in front of classmates who do not consider it a laughing matter.
But I also learned being a farmer is extraordinarily hard work. There are challenges wrought by bugs and bacteria made exponentially harder by the organic element. And, organic or not, there are battles with heat, drought, floods and hail. Yes, hail in North Carolina! And there are vagaries of produce prices and supply shortages, etc.
Farming is a seven-day-a-week, 365-day-a-year pursuit, and if the farmer is LUCKY, there is a small profit in the end. While I am happy to apply the lessons I learned to my humble garden at home, there is no new career in it for me. Ultimately, what I learned is not to complain about the price of organic produce at the market.


FEAR OF FLYING FRONTIER

Friends and family scoffed when I booked a recent flight to Philadelphia via the Frontier Airlines “hub” at the Trenton-Mercer County Airport in New Jersey.
“What kind of an airport is that?” asked one.
“I’ve never heard of that airline,” said another. “Do you need to flap your arms?”
“I hope Chris Christie doesn’t come over to shut the runway,” said a third.
“Well, I might get a story out of it,” I said, truthfully. “If nothing else, I’ll be $200 ahead.”
Yes, this was one of the few times I have chosen an activity in anticipation of a story. It didn’t hurt that the famous Frontier trip from Raleigh to Trenton costs only $39 versus the holiday-season-inflated $239 being charged by “real” airlines to fly to Philadelphia’s “real” airport.
“I guess it’ll be a little prop plane,” said my wife, Katie. She could not join me due to work obligations, but she supported my choice of airline; in fact, she’s the one who found it on-line.
“You haven’t taken out a life insurance policy on me lately, have you?” I asked, at the time.
“No,” she replied, smiling. “But maybe I should.”
Trying to ignore the image in my mind of a World-War II-era propeller plane, I moved on to additional logistical concerns: “How will I get from Trenton to my mother’s?” I said. “It wouldn’t be fair to have someone drive all the way to Trenton to pick me up.”
Instant research revealed the existence of a taxi that runs from the airport to a commuter train station in West Trenton, from which I could take a local train to downtown Philadelphia. From there, I could take another commuter line to Overbrook, a short walk from my mother’s condominium in the western suburbs. My personal version of Planes, Trains and Automobiles was set.
A number of prejudices had to be overcome in order for me to fly Frontier. There are certain aspects of life in which I accept generic or store-brand products, such as: aspirin, pasta, tee-shirts and copy paper. There are also areas in life that simply cannot be compromised, in my opinion, and require “name brands.” Principle among these are raisins, ketchup, tuna fish and tennis balls.
The above lists are neither comprehensive nor, necessarily, rational, but have developed over the years, and I am devoted to them. Airlines are a realm that have never been definitively on one side or the other; I’ve had tolerably tedious, as well as miserable experiences, on a variety of “major” airlines. Few non-“major” choices have arisen and, frankly, I’ve been comfortable with that. Thinking about Frontier, after all, sparked an anxiety-provoking recollection of a long-ago flight from Detroit to Muskegon on a six-seater that resembled a seventy-five minute roller coaster ride.
Still, for a story and $200, I was game.
The first thing I noticed about Frontier’s presence at Raleigh was that it was almost non-existent. The airport designated a skinny wooden lectern, nearly invisible between a newsstand and a restroom, as their “gate.” In numerous visits to Raleigh’s airport, I had never noticed it. Expecting only ten or twelve fellow travelers, I was shocked to see a crush of humanity wedged into the area around the lectern like sardines.
When I looked out the airport window, I was relieved to see a “real” airplane waiting, festooned with pictures of grizzly bears on the tail. “Before their last bankruptcy, they were based in Montana,” a man behind me explained to his friend.
Right on time, a young Frontier employee behind the lectern attempted to announce the boarding process. After several tries, it was apparent her microphone wouldn’t work. So she cheerfully displayed her North Carolina roots by shouting: “Y’all can start gettin’ on the plane.”
“Everyone at once?” asked the man beside me.
“Yep,” she said. “Ain’t no first class on Frontier.”
“Okay,” I thought. “We’ll ALL be second class passengers.”
And so it went. One hundred and fifty people piled onto the Airbus 318 and took their assigned seats in twenty-five six-seat rows. Surprising to me, every seat was taken. Boarding was random and chaotic, and we took off twenty minutes late, but so much extra time was built into the schedule that we arrived in Trenton ten minutes “early” after an uneventful fifty-nine minute flight.
The only anomaly was that a passenger across the aisle had a small dog in her lap. The flight attendant said: “The dog has to stay in its box.” But when the owner/parent replied: “She gets nervous in there,” the attendant thought for a moment, shrugged, and said: “I guess it doesn’t really matter.” Thus, the puppy remained out and eventually found its way to every lap in our row amidst much laughter. It yipped occasionally, but made less noise than numerous humans I’ve flown beside. Somehow, I can’t see that happening on United.


CONCERT-GOING

I found myself at Memorial Hall on the UNC campus last night for a concert by the Israel Philharmonic. They are touring the United States this spring and fit in a date at our local university on their way from NY to Miami. What a thrill it turned out to be!
First, the people. Though I was born when Eisenhower was president, a symphony concert is still a place where I am, relatively-speaking, in the flush of youth. Much of the crowd appeared to have been bused in from retirement and assisted living facilities. Only a tiny contingent, perhaps three percent, were college students. And, judging by the amount of time they spent furtively playing video games and checking e-mail and Facebook during the concert, I suspect most of them were in attendance in order to score bonus points from their Music 101 professors.
My first glance at the program was concerning. There was a piece by Faure, followed by two by Ravel, and finally, Berlioz. While I like classical music, I admit to being somewhat of a meat and potatoes fan, with large doses of the big guys, Beethoven, Brahms and Bach. I prefer discernible melodies and rhythms. I know Ravel, in particular, to be full of atmospherics; his is the sort of music where you aren’t sure when to applaud.
My concern was somewhat confirmed when I noted the orchestra to contain not one, but two harps. More than one harp is rarely a good sign for fans of un-subtle symphonic music.
This being the Israel Philharmonic, in order to access the hall, I had to walk through a gauntlet of demonstrators. These misguided souls are under the impression, apparently, that violinists have a role in setting government policy. They are aggrieved that cultural exchanges are occurring between our country and Israel and feel that Muslim culture is short-changed.
Two things came to mind. First, a troupe of Muslim performers were at UNC last fall, called the Manganyar Seduction. I found their performance to be fabulous and interesting and none of the demonstrators outside were even aware that performance had taken place, much less attended it. Second, as I assured them, if Palestine or Iraq or even Abu Dhabi sent over a world class orchestra, I would be delighted to hear them. In fact, if the Gazans could manage a first-rate string quartet, I’d be willing to listen. In my opinion, to demonstrate against the appearance of the IPO was simply lunatic.
Back to the music: The Faure piece, Pelleas et Melisande, turned out to be familiar. The performance was splendid, subtle but beautiful. It was not dynamic enough to turn the students away from their mobile devices, however. The Ravel selections proved as atmospheric as feared, but still had lovely moments and some surprising risings and swellings of sound. Unfortunately, both pieces were divided into six or seven portions. After each section there was a pause. And during each pause, the audience felt compelled to let loose with a spasm of coughing, sneezing and throat-clearing that made me think I was at a nineteenth-century tuberculosis sanitarium, or in my usual situation on an airplane.
Listening to Ravel afforded me the chance to contemplate. I thought about the experience of attending a concert in Chapel Hill versus my previous home in the suburbs of New York. There, world class performances were always available. Unfortunately, accessing Lincoln Center from Ramsey, NJ sometimes required the logistics of the Normandy invasion, particularly if it was on a weeknight evening. Also, the cost was astronomical, and the crowd seemed jaded and unimpressed.
In Chapel Hill, we attend concerts for twenty percent of the cost, five percent of the hassle, and everyone is excited to be there, except for some of the students. When we go to hear the sixty-piece North Carolina Symphony we never fail to conclude: “Wow, they are really, really good. They are only 90-95 percent as polished as the New York Philharmonic, but for the price and convenience, it’s a worthwhile trade-off.”
But “really, really good” is not the same as phenomenal. Once in a while, it is necessary to be reminded of true greatness, of a full-throated ensemble of 105 off-the-charts-amazing musicians, working together as one to deliver a timeless performance. The second half of last night’s concert, featuring Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” was such an event.
From the first notes, the performance held the hall in rapt attention. The coughers were suddenly cured, the few students who had not escaped at intermission looked up from their smartphones. The music rolled, like waves, from section to section of the orchestra. Bells tolled, drums boomed, strings flowed in unison.
The familiar piece, so well-known as to seem dull to me on the radio, was thrilling to see in person. Who knew there was a timpani quartet in the middle of the final movement or that an improbably bearded, yalmulke-wearing orthodox percussionist could play a snare drum with such aplomb? When the last blasts from the brass section sounded like cannons it was as though we were transported to another dimension, where sound-waves vibrated every wall, every seat, right through to the bones.
When the final chords subsided, there was a pause before the audience realized they were still on this earth, at a concert, and it was time to applaud. The sound welled up quickly, with people shouting “bravo” and rising as one to provide the deserved standing ovation. The crowd refused to stop cheering until the conductor returned and led an encore.
“Wow, these people are starved for culture,” I imagine some of the musicians were thinking. But, no, Chapel Hill has a laudable amount of culture. We have many very, very good performances to enjoy. We just don’t often have a world class orchestra in front of us. And we didn’t want to let them go.


CLIMATE OF DISBELIEF

I have a dear friend who I know is more politically conservative than I. However, I respect his intelligence and have always been impressed by his sharp humor, his professional success and his love of family. In short, he is a “mensch” and, accordingly, I try not to allow honest disagreements over things like tax policy and foreign affairs to interfere with our friendship.
My friend often forwards e-mail attachments containing jokes or links to interesting or touching stories. Rarely does he venture into politics and, when he does, the subjects are largely non-controversial. In face-to-face discussions, we have found common ground on such subjects as crime, American intervention in foreign wars and baseball (both our preferred teams stink). I was surprised, therefore, when he recently sent me a link to a purported “finding” that global warming is a hoax.
Several earlier posts touting solar power reveal my lack of objectivity on this subject. I am a believer that there is no more important issue in the world than the environment. Polls show me to be among only 2% of respondents who feel that way. I understand that most of the other 98% feel there are other priorities, but I’d never thought I would encounter a person in my milieu, who is an actual “denier.” Those people are lumped in my mind with the lunatic fringe, along with folks who deny the Holocaust, evolution, the dangers of smoking, and who agree with Sarah Palin on any subject.
“You’re kidding, right?” I wrote back.
“No, I’m really interested to see how you would debate this,” he responded.
“I won’t waste my time ‘debating’ something that is beyond debate,” I wrote. “This is settled science.”
I hoped the subject was forgotten when another e-mail arrived the next day attaching an alleged study conducted by three PhD’s. “You’ve gotta admit it’s just possible you’re wrong.” he tweaked. “This paper is convincing. The planet is actually cooling.”
Unhappily, I spent an hour wading through the turgid prose of the three professors. Most of their arguments consisted of picking apart the methodology of various climate studies, the format of their statistics, and offering alternative interpretations of data. For instance, if one examines several particular five year periods in the last century, one can find what appears to be a cooling trend. Most of what I felt, however, was confusion. It was as though a shotgun of arguments was being indiscriminately fired at the solid wall of climate research in the expectation that several pellets would find an opening. As intended by the authors, I imagined, when I finished reading, I felt confused.
“If real PhD’s see so many holes in the argument,” I thought to myself, “perhaps it has been a little hyped. Heaven knows, Al Gore is not above self-promotion.”
I decided to check out the three professors on the internet. The first turned out to be a marketing professor at a college in Australia. Her research was funded by the mining industry. The second was a business professor in Pennsylvania. He was a paid spokesperson for the coal industry and supplemented his income by lobbying in favor of the construction of coal-powered electricity plants. The third author was a medical doctor, also unrelated in any way to climate science, who has been reliant upon Exxon and/or the Petroleum Institute since at least 1994. Whenever there was a conference or debate regarding climate science, he was paid to appear on behalf of industry and present their talking points.
“The authors are charlatans,” I wrote to my friend. “You should check their credentials before sending me this garbage. They are not even remotely scientists. One must ‘consider the source’ when viewing papers that happen to support the interests of rich and powerful industries.”
I was certain my friend would regret having misled me. I expected him to thank me for setting him straight, for introducing to him a minimal level of skepticism. I could not imagine he would lend credence to Donald Trump with regards to someone’s birthplace, for instance.
“Okay,” he responded. “Check out this one.”
A link was attached to a 2009 study indicating that thousands of scientists have been organized to oppose the ‘consensus’ on global warming by a “noted physicist, Frederick Seitz, a recipient of the National Science Award.”
With no small degree of trepidation, I researched Dr. Seitz. On the face of it, he was a significant thinker. For forty years, starting in 1939, Dr. Seitz was a brilliant innovator and academician. Late in his career as a physicist, however, he became aligned with cigarette manufacturers and used his status as a noted “scientist” for their benefit. It is not clear what, but something happened in his life that made him go over to “the dark side.” Some have speculated he needed money. Others suggest he felt marginalized in mainstream science by the 1970’s and was looking for a way to “fight back.”
Dr. Seitz was not merely a skeptic that nicotine was addictive and harmful; he was the leader of the pack. He organized a campaign that churned out a blizzard of “pseudo-scientific” doubt about nicotine addiction. He reaped massive monetary rewards for his efforts. Partially as a result, it took over twenty years from the time of the Surgeon General’s 1964 report on its dangers for meaningful efforts to curb smoking to be implemented. In the meantime, how many additional millions of people suffered the effects of addiction? How many billions of dollars were earned by the cigarette industry?
As older readers may recall, and younger readers may be surprised to learn, Richard Nixon was the president who established the EPA and signed the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts of 1969. Protection of the environment was a bipartisan concern. After all, Democrats and Republicans breathe the same air and drink the same water. How did Fred Seitz come to be connected to the climate issue? To make a story that is the subject of entire books extremely short, (See “Merchants of Doubt” by Oreskes and Conway, 2010, if you want the LONG version) it happened like this:
Led by Exxon, the oil industry perceived their long-term profitability could be threatened if carbon-based industries were limited. In the early 1980’s, they turned to the same “scientists” who obfuscated the tobacco issue for so long – not just FIGURATIVELY the same, but LITERALLY. Fred Seitz had done so well on behalf of cigarette manufacturers he was enlisted to plant seeds of doubt regarding climate change, to contest the uncontestable, to poison the well, so to speak. He reassembled his “dream team” of obfuscators, once again, to run roughshod over consensus scientific conclusions and plant their writings in sympathetic journals. In a stroke of evil genius, he recognized that the issue could be couched as part of “The Liberal Agenda.” Thus, news outlets (everyone knows which ones) that reflexively make light of issues supported by progressives became free, twenty-four hour-a-day doubt-sowing machines. The urgency to combat the problem of carbon-fuels addiction has been effectively muted by the resistance of half our political representatives in the thrall of industry contributions.
“How could I make my friend see the light?” I wondered. He seems disinclined to read even the simplest background material on the authors he recommends. He would dismiss such information, apparently, as products of the “lame-stream media.” I was feeling despair when I recalled something about my friend: one of the coolest things about him, and one of the things that made me admire him originally, was that the chain of pharmacies he owned did not sell cigarettes. He sacrificed profit for principle.
“I’ll remind him,” I thought, and dutifully asked him if he recalled taking such a position. For good measure, I mentioned once again Dr. Seitz’s more-than-coincidental connection to both tobacco and climate change, thinking my friend’s having pierced one veil of denial would lead to his piercing of another.
He wrote back almost immediately: “My idea was very simple, how could we sell cigs in the front of the store and meds in the back? Seemed very hypocritical to me. Nothing to do with the environment or green movement.”
I was dumbstruck. Again. Where I see clarity, rationality and obvious connection, this man, whose IQ I know to be significantly higher than average, (not only is he great at business, he’s a tough out in Words with Friends) sees only a left-wing conspiracy. My only hope is his revulsion at hypocrisy. I’m sure I could point out instances of hypocrisy on his side of the argument but, realistically, he’ll just tout the glacier in Norway that’s gotten bigger or the ninety-five-year-old smoker who didn’t get cancer. There’s an anecdote for everything!
Life is too short. When I perceive a “man of science” to have blind faith in the gospel according to Palin and Trump, I’m afraid he is irretrievable. The famous motto of the United Negro College Fund seems apt: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” I lack the energy to continue fighting this battle; maybe I’ll look for a good cartoon to send him, or a kitten video.


ICE CREAM

Among the major food groups in my diet is ice cream. I have come by this naturally, having been raised in a family that considered a trip for ice cream the “go-to” activity for those occasional Sunday afternoons when my father was willing to indulge. In his seven-day-a-week work schedule, Sunday afternoon was his leisure time.
The childhood ice cream routine, circa 1963, doubtless shaped my later ability to negotiate as a lawyer, parent and husband. My mother was co-conspirator in prevailing upon my father, and she taught me to over-ask initially, while being prepared to accept an inevitable counter-offer. For instance, if she suggested we go to the Guernsey Cow, a massive ice cream and confectionary emporium an hour away, my father would typically offer to drive to Miller’s, a less-august shop thirty minutes away. If she suggested Miller’s, we would be prepared to accept a visit to Leof’s, a drug-store with an ice cream counter just three minutes away by car, or a ten-minute walk.
If my father were resistant even to Leof’s, my mother and I would resort to the freezer where there was a likely a half-gallon of Breyer’s ice cream. In those days a half-gallon was really a half-gallon, before manufacturers figured out they could make sleek packaging that SEEMS to be a half-gallon but is tapered to actually contain significantly less.
There was also a Baskin-Robbins shop near our home, but it never entered the negotiations. B-R was our ice cream target of opportunity, when passing by. Such a treat could occur on any day of the week and did not usually involve my father. The essential flavor at Baskin-Robbins, though thirty-one were touted, was mint chocolate chip. Some of the other flavors were doubtless delicious but, as far as my mother and I were concerned, there was only one flavor.
When my father occasionally surprised us by agreeing to go to the Guernsey Cow, it was actually a Pyrrhic victory for me. Truthfully, I did not particularly like their ice cream. There was no compelling flavor and, in order to make the long ride worthwhile, we usually ordered banana splits. Now, I realize there are people who love banana splits, just as there are people who love jelly in cookies or chocolate, but I have never enjoyed fruit with my ice cream or jelly with my cookies or chocolate.
The other specialty at the Guernsey Cow was homemade butterscotch taffy. Though I have a weakness for most sweets, I was not a fan. I feared that taffy, like Sugar Daddies, Tootsie-Rolls, and their ilk, would pull out my fillings. I do not recall this calamity actually occurring, but my fear of dentists was enough to sour me on taffy. Alas, my fear was apparently not compelling enough to make me brush my teeth thoroughly and consistently enough to avoid having fillings in the first place.
Later in life, my own family lived in Ramsey, NJ, a community where Baskin-Robbins franchises grew like trees. Stopping for ice cream was a staple of the post-soccer practice routine for all three of my children, but particularly for my daughter, Sarah. The health benefits of the soccer may have been outweighed by the diet shortfalls of the ice cream, but the psychological benefits to both of us made the trade-off worthwhile; anyone familiar with adolescents knows that a cheerful and cooperative 11-14-year-old daughter is priceless.
Scientific tests have not been undertaken, to my knowledge, but I believe preferences in ice cream flavor are inherited. From birth, Sarah never deviated from mint chocolate chip as her flavor. And it had to be from Baskin-Robbins. Imitations by other manufacturers, often labeled “chocolate mint chip” were specifically NOT acceptable. Along with subtle taste distinctions in the mint ice cream, the key to B-R MCC (as it was sometimes called in our efficiency-minded household) was, and continues to be, its tiny, melt-in-the-mouth dark chocolate flakes. Other brands, with their white ice cream and/or large chunks of chocolate, or imitation chocolate, were simply unacceptable.
I take pride in my daughter’s perhaps-excessive devotion to B-R mint chocolate chip. While I may have fallen for the occasional pralines and cream, vanilla or chocolate, Sarah’s devotion is PURE. When she went to college, I mailed her coupons for Baskin-Robbins. Among the advantages of the off-campus apartment where she lived in Wilmington, NC, was its proximity to a Baskin-Robbins.
So it was not entirely a surprise, last week, when Sarah, who moved last spring to nearby Raleigh, had a specific request for her birthday which falls on Halloween.
“I want a Baskin-Robbins mint chocolate chip ice cream cake,” she said on the phone, a few days ahead of the event.
My initial response was flat-footed: “There isn’t a Baskin-Robbins in Chapel Hill. Would Ben & Jerry’s or Cold Stone Creamery be acceptable?”
The silence on the other end of the line was deafening. It occurred to me I should appreciate how amazing it was for me and my wife, Katie, to have the exclusive opportunity to share her twenty-fourth birthday. As a Halloween baby, Sarah’s youthful celebrations were always dominated by the hubbub of trick-or-treating and parties. Now that she is a young adult, and given her tendency to be involved with a boyfriend, her unattached status this year may prove to be a one-time event.
“I’ll find a Baskin-Robbins,” I recovered to say.
“Good,” she said, fully aware of her advantage over her defenseless father.
After I hung up, Katie said, “We drive past Ben & Jerry’s every other day, but I don’t know of any Baskin-Robbins around here.”
“There has to be one,” I said, confidently, though I was aware that the concentration in North Carolina does not nearly match that of New Jersey.
I Googled Baskin-Robbins locations and, sure enough, there was a shop in Durham, only thirty-five minutes away.
“That was easy,” I declared, recalling the busy shops in Ramsey with their freezers full of ice cream cakes from floor-to-ceiling. “I’ll go pick up a mint chocolate chip cake.”
“You’d better call first,” said Katie, wiser than I in the ways of local businesses. After all, she’s dealt with the “authorized appliance repairmen” who consult the manual, and the plumbers who put spigots in backwards.
“You don’t think they’ll have a mint chocolate chip cake available?” I asked.
Sure enough, they did not.
“We can order one,” said the girl on the phone. “It’ll take a week, though.”
“Her birthday is in two days,” I said.
“Sorry,” said the Durham Baskin-Robbins.
I located one other shop in the semi-vicinity, in Apex, a fifty-minute drive, and called.
“Do you have a mint chocolate chip cake available, for Halloween?” I asked, with trepidation.
“We don’t,” said the girl on the telephone, “but let me see if we can get one.”
I waited in suspense. A different voice came on the line.
“Hi, I’m the manager. We can custom-make a cake for you,” she said. “You can pick it up on Halloween after one o’clock.”
“Thank you,” I said, with relief. “Do you want the details?”
“No, we’ll have the designer call you for those,” said the manager.
“Designer?” I said.
“Yes sir,” she said, with pride. “We have an off-site specialist come in to make our cakes.”
“Wow,” I said.
After I hung up, I related the discussion to Katie. I concluded, with amazement: “It’ll be a small cake. There’re only three of us. What kind of training is involved to become an ice cream cake specialist?”
The next day the phone rang.
“Hi,” said a pleasant voice with a soft, southern accent. “I’m Carly, the cake designer for the Apex store. Tell me what you have in mind.”
I explained the relatively small size of the cake, Sarah’s devotion to mint chocolate chip, and her preference for chocolate crust over graham.
“Okay Mr. Sanders,” said Carly. “Tell me more about your daughter. What does she love? What are her passions?”
“You mean besides mint chocolate chip ice cream?” I asked.
“Yes, I want to know about her as a person,” said Carly.
I took a moment to contemplate how this discussion could be taking place with a stranger in regard to an ice cream cake. I wondered for a moment if I were the butt of a practical joke. I wondered what this cake was going to cost. But I couldn’t cheap out on this; I’d already come too far.
“Um, Sarah loves her dog,” I said. “That’s probably her main passion right now.”
“What kind of dog?” asked Carly.
“A cocker spaniel,” I said. “Her name is Stella, and she’s brown, with caramel-colored eyebrows,” I added, trying to anticipate her next questions.
“Great,” said Carly. “I’ll start working on it.”
“By the way, not that it matters,” I started to say, also anticipating Katie’s next question. “How much….”
Carly had already hung up.
After lunch, on Halloween, we drove to Apex. When we arrived at the store, in the corner of a small shopping center, we noted that the property looked new. The shop was bustling with three young women behind the counter.
“I’m here to pick up an ice cream cake for Sanders,” I said.
“Oh, yes,” said the manager, a tiny Chinese woman, smiling. “Carly made a very special cake for you.”
She reached up to the top shelf of the freezer behind the counter and brought down a box, twice as high as it was wide, perhaps eight inches across.
“Look,” she said, pointing through the cellophane top.
I peered into the package and beheld a work of art, a square cake topped with brown icing and orange trim, including a doghouse and a dog that looked remarkably like Stella, floppy icing ears and all, holding a banner from her mouth that read “Happy Birthday, Sarah.” I was truly impressed.
“It’s perfect,” I said, brandishing my credit card.
“Carly will be so pleased,” said the manager. “She takes great pride in her work.”
“That’s clear,” I said.
The manager accepted my card. “Fifteen dollars,” she said.
I couldn’t believe it. “This was a custom-made cake,” I said. “How can it only be fifteen dollars?”
“That’s what it is,” said the manager.
I felt a strange sensation, that of enjoying a job extraordinarily well-done, for significantly less than expected. I felt embarrassed to be paying such a small sum with a credit card. I grabbed two additional pre-packed quarts of mint chocolate chip from the freezer to bump up the total.
“Can I leave a tip for Carly?” I asked.
“No,” said the manager, “but you can fill out the on-line survey and say something nice about her.”
“Absolutely,” I said. We completed a tribute to Carly as soon as we returned to the car.
If he were alive, my father would probably not find much that is familiar in modern-day North Carolina. However, he would certainly relate to the 1963-like price of an ice cream cake from the Apex Baskin-Robbins. In fact, there is a small, delicious piece of cake in the freezer that Sarah accidentally left behind. I think it has my name on it.


THE POWER OF IGNORANCE

Andrew Nudge was a classic name for a car salesman, effectively evoking modernity and Dickens in just two words. He presided over the front desk when I entered Prestige Nissan in April of 2007, intent upon being the first to purchase a hybrid Altima. I’d read about the car in the morning paper, and it kindled dual desires to obtain a new car and do something for the environment.
When I arrived moments later at the dealership on southbound Route 17, I was pleased to see the car parked prominently on a grassy knoll adjacent to the showroom. “Hybrid” said a balloon attached to the rear-view mirror. “Check it out!” said a cardboard sign leaning against the front fender. How wonderful, I thought, that Nissan was promoting this new technological wonder. Though I assumed there would be a selection of colors to choose from, the featured car was an appealing shade of grey, doubtless dubbed “titanium graphite,” or a similar indicator of jet-age razzmatazz. My excitement soared.
I realized an Altima was not to be confused with a Ferrari, or a BMW. Some would have said it should not be confused with a Honda Accord. My goal, however, was to obtain a hybrid, with its gaudy miles per gallon, without resorting to a Prius. While I lauded Prius drivers from day one and have also admired the design improvements Toyota has made in the intervening years, my sense of the pre-2007 Prius was that it rendered its driver, whoever he or she might actually be, with all the cachet of a retired librarian. With apologies to retired librarians everywhere, that was not an image I wanted to project. The Altima looked like a regular car.
“Good morning,” I said to the aforementioned Nudge, identified by his nametag.
“Hello,” he responded with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, his bald pate reflecting more light than his limpid eyes. As he emerged from behind the desk, I noted he was wearing a pale blue sports jacket over a plaid pair of pants. His shoes were scuffed, and he personified an air of non-success.
Perhaps, I thought, he is beaten down by the vast majority of customers who cross the threshold, the “tire-kickers” and “just-lookers.” Clearly, he did not think I was a serious buyer. “He’s going to be one surprised and lucky car salesman,” I said to myself.
“I’m interested in the hybrid,” I said, indicating the car just outside the door.
“Are you?” he asked, skeptically. “Why?”
“Um, I saw it in the paper this morning and I’ve been waiting for a car to compete with the Prius?” I said, his question causing me to doubt my own motive.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” he said.
“The Altima?” I asked.
“No, the hybrid,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You’ll pay $4,000 more than for the non-hybrid, and you’ll never get that money back,” he said.
“But the paper said there’s a $2,300 tax credit,” I responded. “At 38 miles per gallon, I’ll make back the difference in two years.”
“There’s a tax credit?” he said, downcast. “I didn’t know that.”
“Yes. May I please test-drive the car?” I asked.
Nudge shrugged reluctantly. It was as though a line of eager customers brandishing wads of cash were waiting in the background when, in fact, I was the only one present.
“I’ll get the key,” he said, finally, convinced I would not be dissuaded. He disappeared behind a partition. I wondered if I could switch to another salesperson. I knew my wife would have requested the manager by now. I glanced around at the options sitting at their desks or surrounding the coffee machine. There were several who appeared to have started their careers selling Studebakers; several others appeared too young to have drivers’ licenses. A middle-aged man daubed at a coffee stain on his stomach that also served as a shelf. I decided to stay the course with Andrew.
When he re-emerged, Nudge looked like a prisoner heading to the guillotine.
“Are there other colors?” I asked.
“No. That’s the only one,” he said, opening the dealership door and passing through ahead of me.
“Good thing I like it,” I said to his back. I shuddered to think of my late-father’s appalled reaction if he would have heard me: “Never tell the good-for-nothing you’re satisfied,” he would have scolded.
We only had to walk a few steps to the Altima. Nudge held a plastic oval that did not sport a traditional key.
“I hate these fobs,” he sputtered. He hesitated at the door handle. Then he pulled on it. Nothing happened. He pressed several buttons on the fob. A beep was heard. He tried the door again; it opened.
He climbed into the driver’s seat. “I’ll back it onto the pavement,” he said.
I saw him hesitate. He was looking for a keyhole on the dashboard. There was none. I tapped on the window. Slowly, he realized he could not open the window. He finally opened the door.
“What?” he asked, red-faced.
“It’s a push starter,” I said, recalling the newspaper story. I pointed to a circular button.
He pushed the button. Some lights appeared on the dashboard. He pushed it again and they went dark. He pushed it again and the lights appeared. Flustered, he pushed the button again.
“It won’t start,” he declared.
“It’s supposed to be silent,” I said. “It’s electric.”
Nudge rolled his eyes and shook his head. He punched the button once more, with anger, and conceded: “It’s on.”
We took the car for a test drive in near-total silence. While I wanted to focus on the performance of the exciting (to me) hybrid technology, I could not avoid contemplating how it was possible that a salesman was not aware of the selling points of his own inventory. At a minimum, how was it possible he did not even know how to start the car or that there was a tax credit available? Didn’t they have seminars or instruction pamphlets? What do salespeople do during those long hours of waiting for a live customer to appear?
The car drove quietly and effectively. I was delighted, but elicited neither enlightenment nor enthusiasm from my salesman. Sensing his discomfort and misery, I almost began to feel sympathy for him. But then I concluded he had no one else to blame. In spite of himself, Andrew Nudge was destined to make a sale that day.
“I’ll take it for twenty-four,” I said, referencing the list price, when we returned to the dealership.
“But then we won’t have a hybrid to show other customers,” he said.
“Are you saying you don’t wish to sell me the car?” I asked, exasperated.
“No, I guess I can sell it,” he said, “if you really want it.”
It occurred to me that Andrew might be “negotiating.” Perhaps, he was trying to make the car harder to get, more exclusive, so that I would pay more. After a wordless pause, he pulled out a sales slip and slowly completed it. Seeing him in action, I couldn’t wait to get home with my new car and look up “ignorance” on the internet. Indeed, there were hundreds of applicable quotes. A tiny sampling follows:
“Real knowledge is to know the extent of our ignorance.” Confucius
“The highest form of ignorance is when you reject something you don’t know anything about.” Wayne Dyer
“Nothing is more terrible than to see ignorance in action.” Goethe
“Ignorance is always afraid of change.” Nehru
I think I understood where Andrew Nudge was coming from.


MIDWIFE CRISIS

Though our new vacation condominium in Costa Rica is well built and beautiful, there were still plenty of entries for the builder’s punch-list.  We fussed, as follows:

“The exhaust fan in the second bathroom is weak,” I noted.

“Write down there’s a cracked tile in the kitchen,” said my wife, Katie.

“We also need aluminum foil and toilet paper,” I said.

“Laundry detergent, sun visor and extra keys,” added Katie.

After the list making, we proceeded to the logistics of finding the items.

“Let’s see, we need the hardware store, supermarket, and condo office.  Also, we have to stop at the ice cream place,” I said.

“How did that get on the list?” asked Katie.

“Sort of as a reward,” I said.

She shook her head but did not veto the ice cream stop.

Over the first several days of our visit, we enjoyed fresh seafood, walked on the beach, observed a selection of stunning sunsets, played tennis and generally enjoyed our delightful situation.  However, the “List” was never far from our thoughts.  As each item was obtained or corrected, we found another project or two or three, such as: a light missing in the exterior hallway (tell the management office); Wi-Fi connection is weak (visit the computer store and seek guidance, preferably in English); propane tank needs filling (hardware store); trash bins must be located; and, finally (for now) the non-functioning dishwasher handle requires repair.

When the dishwasher (now full) revealed its hidden problem, I reached an attitude approximating exasperation.

“How is this possible?” I asked no one in particular.

“This is how it is,” responded my world-weary wife.

“Didn’t anyone check the handle when it was installed?” I asked.

Upon reflection, it was difficult to complain about a circumstance as cushy as ours.  It is self-evident that hanging out in one’s own tropical getaway is not like being marooned on a desert island.

“Be happy,” I urged myself, aloud.

“That’s right,” said Katie.  “People could have it a lot worse.”

“Hard to imagine,” I grunted, not totally seriously, but with some degree of grumpiness.

Just at that moment, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a man outside in the gardens managing two large dogs on leashes.  Since we thought we were the only residents in our building, so far, we went out to greet him.

“I’m John,” he said, holding back what appeared to be two small ponies but which actually were the results of mating a Great Dane with a black lab.

We introduced ourselves and learned about John’s situation.  He is in his early forties and chose to abandon a decades-long career in hotels and hospitality to try his luck in real estate in Costa Rica.  So far, not a remarkable decision, since many of the North Americans living full-time in Costa Rica are trying their hand in some aspect of the real estate industry, whether as realtors, designers, builders, managers, etc.

John’s explanation took a turn for the unusual when he explained the circumstances of his arrival the previous evening at his new condominium, just three doors from ours, from Calgary, Alberta in Canada.   He was accompanied not only by the two large dogs in front of us, but also by two other dogs.   Topping it off, his wife, Gina, is in her thirty-fifth week of pregnancy with their first child.

“I’m no obstetrician,” I said, “but isn’t that pretty close to full term?”

“Yes,” he replied.  “We think we have a doctor lined up in San Jose.”

“That’s a four or five hour drive,” noted Katie.

“Yes,” said John.  “I hope our car arrives soon.”

“You don’t have a car?” I said, fending off the larger dog’s determined examination of my anatomy.

“It’s with our furniture,” said John.

“You don’t have furniture?” said Katie.

“It’s been shipped,” said John.  “It’s supposed to arrive in a few days.”

“What are you sleeping on?” I asked.

“We have a couple of pads on the floor,” he said.

At that moment, Gina emerged from their unit.  Or, more accurately, I should say, a broadly smiling, blonde-haired, freckle-faced woman waddled over, holding an ample belly.

“Hi,” she said, with cheerfulness all out of proportion to her predicament.

“Delighted to meet you,” said Katie.  “John has been telling us about your adventure.  How do you feel?”

“Not bad,” she said, smiling, “except for the kicking.  And I think the baby’s ripped a muscle in my stomach.  And our air conditioner isn’t working.”

“It’s ninety degrees,” I noted.

“Yes,” said John.  “They said they’d fix it in the next couple of days.”

Gina winced with pain.

“Can I do something for you?” asked Katie.  “Anything?”

“No, I’m fine,” said Gina, all evidence to the contrary.  “I’d love to stay and chat but I’m just really exhausted.  It was a long day of flying yesterday, from Calgary to Los Angeles, to here.  I’d better go back in.  Perhaps we can talk more in the morning.  Great to meet you guys.”

We looked wide-eyed at each other.  This woman was suffering and was determined to decline offers of assistance.  “Good night,” said John, as he held the dogs’ leashes in one hand and Gina’s arm with the other and walked her back inside their hot, empty, dog filled, supposedly luxurious condominium.

We went back inside and tried to wrap our minds around their situation:  four dogs, no air conditioning, no furniture, no car, Gina nine-months pregnant, and clearly in discomfort.

“She should sleep in our place,” said Katie.

“Definitely,” I agreed.

“And we can give them some chairs, at least, and offer to do their food shopping,” said Katie.

“And assure them we’ll be on stand-by if they need to borrow our rental car,” I said.

“You know,” Katie said, “just because they were promised their stuff would arrive in a few days, doesn’t mean it will.”

“Do you doubt the timeliness of a shipment wending its way from Canada through Costa Rican customs?” I asked, rhetorically.

“It could be weeks,” said Katie.

“Months,” I said.

“I’ll go talk to them,” said Katie, determined.

She returned after just a couple minutes, a look of disbelief on her face..

“They don’t want any chairs,” she reported.  “They agreed to knock on the door if they need the car, but they think they’ll be comfortable enough in the evening sitting in the common area.  There are fans there.  And they insist the pads are soft enough for sleeping.”

“They’re lying on the floor?” I said.  “They must raise ‘em tough in Northern Alberta.”

Katie shook her head.  “Gina admitted her mother isn’t thrilled.”

For the next couple of days, whenever we walked past the common area between our units, John and/or Gina and several dogs were encamped.   The dogs, used to life in Canada, looked more uncomfortable than the humans in their new, tropical home.  With no furniture in sight, and a non-responsive shipping agent tracking it, they finally accepted several of our chairs.  Their air conditioner was “fixed” by the condominium, though it still was having difficulty keeping up.  (A future story will deal with repair methods in Costa Rica, probably entitled “Trial and Error.”)

On the next to last day of our visit, Gina accompanied us on a lunch outing.

“It’ll be good for you to get out,” said Katie.

“Yes,” agreed Gina, finally.

While enjoying fresh-caught fish, we learned that John’s job was not starting yet, and it would be months before he passed the licensing exam.  To our surprise, we also learned that neither of them spoke Spanish.

“John’s really good at languages,” Gina assured us, in the face of our gaping expressions.  “He’ll learn fast.”

We lobbied successfully for Gina to consult a closer doctor in Liberia, just twenty minutes away.  “And Mike, one of the guys at the real estate office, agreed to be on stand-by if we need a ride to the hospital,” she said.

It was gratifying to hear that John and Gina had taken some modest initiative to make their lives easier.

We said good-bye to John and Gina on our last day and had them pledge to inform us of developments, furniture-wise and, more importantly, baby-wise.  With their situation in mind, I readily agreed not to complain about any of the minor inconveniences of life, a pledge that I was able to maintain for nearly an entire day.  Unfortunately, upon arrival at Raleigh, it took nearly twenty minutes for my suitcase to arrive at baggage claim.

“How can this be?” I asked, the lesson not yet fully integrated into my thinking.


Dear Reader:

I am not sure how to follow up a story with tantric sex, so I’ve stepped back to a little effort at pure fiction.  The story below is part two of a story called “Roommate Issues”  the first installment of which was posted on this site on October 23, 2012.  It concerns the not-uncommon situation nowadays, where a basic suburban American kid at a middling college ends up with a foreign exchange student as a roommate.  Thanks for reading.

ROOMMATE ISSUES – PART TWO

Me and Nathan have almost finished the freshman year.  He’s acing science courses while I struggle with sociology, which is kind of embarrassing.  He hasn’t exactly helped my personal sociology, either, if you know what I mean.  I can’t bring a girl back to the room ‘cause he just hangs out and wants to talk about molecules or something.

I said to him one night:  “You gotta get out of the room sometimes.”

“Where should I go?” he asked.

“What if you went to the gym?  Do a little working out.  Add some muscle.”

He just looked at me kinda disappointed, and said:  “I’m not sure I’d know what to do.”

I wasn’t planning to be a saint or anything, but before I could even think about how it would go down, I said:  “How ‘bout if I take you the first time and show you the ropes.”

He grinned.  “Thank you so much.  I would like to see ropes.  Maybe I can take you to the chemistry lab with me sometime and I will show you what to do.”

“That’s okay, Nathan,” I said.  “No obligations.”

So, last month I took him to the gym.  Some of the guys looked at me a little funny when we walked in together but they can’t talk crap to me.  Not to brag too much, but I’m pretty much a regular there, and it shows.  Nathan, on the other hand, is a little lacking in the muscle department.  He hasn’t lifted anything heavier than a chemistry book his whole life.  I showed him what machines to try and wrote him up a little routine.  He took it real serious.

After that, much to my surprise, Nathan seemed to like the gym.  He even went on his own like every day last week.  The other night, he came back to the room all proud and announced:  “I’m growing bigger breasts.”

“Chest, Nathan,” I said.  “A man gets a bigger chest.”

He looked confused, so I pointed to the Kardashian poster on the wall.

“Women have breasts, I explained.  “Men have a chest.”

“Oh,” he said.  “Thank you for fixing me.”

I laughed at that one.

“Dogs get fixed, Nathan.  I’m just helping you.”

“Dogs?” he said, confused.

“Never mind,” I said.  I wasn’t sure how I’d explain that one.”

Overall, living with Nathan hasn’t been so bad.  He’s quiet and clean and always has things I can borrow when I run out, like toothpaste and shampoo.  I was even starting to think about asking where he’s rooming next year – maybe we’d stay together or something, when, get this, I come home from dinner last night and find him with a girl.  Yep, there he is sitting on his bed, dressed, next to a skinny girl whose glasses are larger than the rest of her head.

“I want you to meet Jhin,” he says, looking proud.

“Shin?” I try to repeat.

“Jhin,” he says.

She looks up at me and I get the whole picture.  She is probably the least attractive Asian girl I have ever seen.  She’s got zits and a gap between her teeth and eyes like saucers behind thick lenses.  She’s in a Mickey Mouse tee shirt and a pair of pants that look like my mom’s living room curtains.  She doesn’t say anything.  She just smiles up at me and I see they are holding hands.

“Oh my God,” I think.  “Nathan’s got a girlfriend.”

This is something I never expected.  Me and Nathan discuss a lot of stuff: food, music, sports and he tells me ninety-nine percent more about chemistry than I understand, but we never talk about girls.  Anyway, I guess it’s cool.  Why not?

“I meet Jhin at the gym,” he says.

“Aha,” I think to myself.  “That’s why he’s been going so much.”

“Do you work out?” I ask her.

“I work desk,” she says in a squeaky voice like a cartoon character.

Now I remember seeing her.  She checks i.d.’s and hands out towels.  So, like this is really awkward.  Am I supposed to stay and act like I’m studying, or is she going to leave, or what?  I walk over to my desk and turn on the computer.  I’m acting like I’m reading stuff but I’m really wondering if they are gonna leave, or if she’s gonna leave, or, God forbid, they’re gonna make out.  They whisper something to each other and Nathan says to me:

“Going to library now.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean to make you leave,” I say, though I’m, like, really relieved.

When they get off the bed, I see Jhin looking up at him like he’s some sort of god.

“Wow,” I think, “this girl’s in love.”

“See you later,” says Nathan.  “Jhin has to do research on human connection to other spices.”

“Like cinnamon or pepper?” I ask.

“No,” says Jhin.  “Humans compared to monkeys or dolphins.”

“That’s ‘species,’” I say, trying not to laugh.  Man, Nathan cracks me up sometimes.


LUNCHTIME PATTER

I sit at lunch at a long table in a Yale College cafeteria, and half-listen to small talk between two male fellow participants at a writing conference, when a six-foot-tall, dark-skinned woman, with notably high cheekbones, sits down across from me and says “hello.”

I am mildly flattered to have a woman greet me and turn my attention from the man recounting his life story as a national sales manager blah, blah, blah, who has always felt there is a novel in him.

“What do you write?” I ask my new lunch mate, hoping it is not another tale of vampires, dystopic end-of-the-world struggle or daddy/boyfriend/you-name-it beats me misery.

“I write about sex,” she says, matter-of-factly.

“Really?” I ask.

“Yes, it’s a memoir,” she says.

“Wow! That’s, ah, different,” I manage to say, despite my surprise.

“I’m trying,” she explains, with what might be a blush, “to convince myself to read aloud to my group this evening.  The subject is quite personal.”

“It should be,” I say, blushing myself.

“You see,” she explains, “I write sex advice for a national magazine, and I thought I’d compile my columns into a book.”

“That’s a great idea,” I say.

“So I had a friend who’s a literary agent read the draft, and he said it would be better if it’s personalized.”

“No doubt,” I say with authority, as though I have some.

“But I’m not sure I can read it aloud in front of strangers,” she says.

Unsure what else to say, I quote the climactic advice from the morning’s keynote speaker, an eighty-seven-year-old novelist: “Be bold.”

“That’s right,” she says.  “I really must overcome my shyness.”

Not thinking she is shy at all, I mostly listen while she discusses human sexuality in unusually explicit terms. I try to focus on all the remarkable details about routine topics (to her), such as: nipple hardness, female wetness, and male genitalia, while remaining outwardly nonchalant. Inwardly, I was unsure if I was astounded or embarrassed or both, when I hear her say her present passion, when she’s not writing, is leading tantric workshops.

I gulp.

“How do those work?” I ask. I also take a second to wonder if this discussion is really occurring or if this is a daydream.  I conclude I am fully awake. I decide to delay going to the dessert buffet.

“We usually have six to eight participants of each gender,” she explains.  “We position the participants in two semi-circles – the women sit on the floor in front of the men.  The men move in front of the women, one at a time, and each man looks deeply into the eyes of each woman, and tells them he is sorry for anything negative any man has ever done to her.”

Ever”? I say.

“Yes,” she says.  “Next, they honor the femininity of the women by stroking them, gently, on non-erotic zones, as they proceed around the semi-circle.  Gradually, the touch becomes more intimate.”

I imagine these activities take place in the nude, but I do not wish to ask hopelessly naïve questions.  I also try to imagine how the men are containing indications of excitement.  I don’t have to wonder for long, because she fills in the missing information:  “Throughout the process, the participants, of course, are naked.”

“Of course,” I agree.

“The instructor imparts gentle suggestions about touch to enhance the experience,” she continues. “The men are, by this time, almost certainly revealing interest in sex.  However, it is crucial that they harness this interest, since the stroking activity should last at least three hours before consummation.”

“Three hours?” I say in disbelief.  “If this were a Cialis ad, they’d have to call a doctor, haha.”

She betrays no amusement.   During an awkward pause, I run through a plethora of thoughts, namely: I am happily married; this is not a pick-up bar; I am happily married; she is considerably more than I could handle if I were NOT happily married; I am happily married.

“How do these, um, workshops end?”  I ask.

“The couples pair off for individual implementation of the tantric techniques they have learned.  Each woman chooses a man from around the semi-circle as her partner.”

I concentrate to envision the tantric experience and also sustain the conversation amidst the hubbub of a college cafeteria.

“So, is it like picking teams at recess?  Do the best-looking guys get picked first?” I ask.

“Tantric is a spiritual experience,” she says, “and, it is hoped, all the men are deemed equally attractive.”

“What if a man doesn’t get chosen?” I ask.

“That happens.  Sometimes, it’s perceived that men are there for the wrong reason,” she explains.

“I guess I could see that happening,” I say, possibly with excessive sincerity.

By this time, I realize the other men at our table have stopped talking.  I don’t know how long they’ve been listening, but it now feels as though our conversation is broadcast to hundreds.  We fall silent.

With my next session beginning in several minutes, I gather my plate and utensils.  “It’s been most interesting talking with you,” I say. “Good luck with your reading.  I’m getting a piece of fruit and heading to the lecture hall.”

She offers a luxurious smile, and says:  “The bananas are excellent.”

“Thanks,” I say, backing away, thinking:  “What did she mean by that?  Did she mean anything?”


SIMPLE LIKE THAT

A moment’s research discloses that effective tour guides should possess the following characteristics: patience, courtesy, diplomacy, selflessness, tact, organization, caring and sensitivity.  Indeed, in separate tours to Costa Rica and Panama, we enjoyed Anita and Miguel, respectively, who embodied all of those facets.  Imagine our surprise at the initial group meeting in Madrid, ahead of a three-week tour, when the guide, a short, intense man dressed in jeans and wearing a cap, introduced himself, as follows:

“I am Jiao.  I am to take you through Spain though I was expecting to be in my favorite country, Portugal, this week.  But, well, the company told me I have to be here.  So, well, what can I do?  Here I am.”

A woman raised her hand.

“Not now,” said Jaio, thrusting his chin ahead of his face like a bantam rooster and tugging on his suspenders. “I am speaking.”

The assembled thirty or so travelers looked taken aback.  Most probably concluded, as I initially did, that Jiao was simply nervous and a little overwhelmed by logistical and paperwork concerns, hence his abruptness.  He continued:

“You must be on time to the bus each day, well, in fact, be ten minutes early.  Jiao does not want to wait for you.  And, just so you understand, if you are late, you can take a taxi to the next town, because the bus will be gone.  Simple like that.”

Several of us tittered nervously.

“I am serious,” said Jiao.

“Are you going to hand out name tags?” asked a man in the front row.

“Why should you need name tags?” asked Jiao.

“We usually get them to help know everyone,” responded the man’s wife.

“Let me explain to you,” said Jaio, scanning the entire group.  “This is not going to be like every other tour.  Jiao runs his tour in a, well, special way.  The only name you need to know is Jiao.  But, well, I am sure you will learn each other’s names in good time.  Simple like that.”

With that, Jiao handed a pile of papers to one of the guests and indicated with a waving motion of his hand that they were to be distributed, then strode out of the room.

“On the bus by 7:50 tomorrow,” he said over his shoulder, as he disappeared.

Our group appeared to be stunned into silence by our introduction to Jiao.  Most whispered to their spouses or seatmates.  A few introduced themselves to neighbors, but most attendees, many of whom had arrived from far-off places like Australia and Asia, were beset by jet lag.  Concerned about waking up on time, they dispersed towards their hotel rooms.

“That was interesting,” I said to the couple beside us, the only people under forty in the group.

“Is that normal?” asked the husband, in a lilting accent of India.  “We have never taken a tour before.”

“Not in our experience,” said my wife.  “I hope he will relax.”

Alas, her optimism was not rewarded.  Jiao’s behavior remained churlish.  The following morning, as we were to depart for Valencia, he sat unapproachable in a far corner of the breakfast room.  He did not respond when guests said “Good morning.”  His only value at the hotel appeared to be brusque but efficient-looking management of the group’s luggage.  He flicked ashes from a cigarette as he supervised the bellman and the driver wrestling our bags into the belly of the bus.

“Jaio has never lost a bag,” he boasted to no one in particular.  “This group will not ruin my record.”

As we drove, Jiao occasionally activated the loudspeaker from his position in the front seat.  He read facts and figures, in a monotone, from a large binder.  Some of the information was relevant to the passing scenery, such as a town’s population and history; other information seemed random and improvised.  Often, he would compare something about Spain to his preferred country, as in:  “You see the apartment buildings on the left.  Well, they are not much to look at.  In Portugal, they really know how to design.  Simple like that.”

Jiao generally spoke only with the bus driver, in Spanish.  Occasionally, however, he would favor the travelers in the front of the bus with disjointed bits of personal philosophy and history.  “My third wife is waiting for me now, well, at home.  We have been together eight years, since I left the seminary.”

“You were studying for the priesthood?” asked a surprised guest.

“Why not?” said Jiao, defensive.  “I am a man of spirituality.”

“But priests can’t marry,” said another guest.

“Ah, you think you know so much,” Jiao responded.

Another theme of Jiao’s was the purity of his body.  At rest stops, he ostentatiously retreated away from the crowd to the far end of the parking lot with a yoga mat.  One day, while we re-boarded the bus, I could not resist noting the dichotomy of what he referred to as “refreshing his temple” with the cigarettes he invariably consumed immediately afterwards.

“But I am a European man,” he replied, as though that explained everything.

By the end of the first week almost everyone was imitating Jiao.  “Well” was included in every second sentence and declarative sentences were punctuated with “simple like that.”  As we approached each of the ten cities on the tour, Jiao emphasized that “this is my most favorite city in all of Spain.”  Positive statements from Jiao were welcome after several hours of dour monotone or disinterested silence, but his impossible use of the superlative for every town called into question any hint of sincerity.

Soon enough, my fellow travelers exhibited accent-imitating skills as we referred to each passing church as “my most favorite cathedral in all of Spain” and pointed out the window at “my most favorite olive tree” and “my most favorite stop light.”  Boisterous laughter accompanied Jiao’s explanation of Spinoza’s philosophy as seeking “the porpoise of life.”

“Are we going to an aquarium then, mate?” blurted an Australian.  Alert to any perceived lack of respect, Jiao castigated us like an angry seventh grade homeroom teacher:  “You make fun of me.  Well, that is it.  Today I will not speak.  If you want to switch tour guides, just call the company.  Simple like that.  I will give you the phone number.”

Several of the guests called the number and learned that we would have to wait several days for a replacement tour guide.  Meanwhile, Jiao would act on a lame-duck basis.  Even more awkward, he would continue to travel with the tour for several additional days, until we arrived at a town with a train line back to Madrid.

“Is it worth it?” asked a guest over dinner.

“He’ll be even more miserable for four or five days,” said another traveler.

“We are enjoying the sights in spite of him,” I noted.

“And he is good with the bags – that’s important with so many loadings and un-loadings,” said a woman from Malaysia.

Simultaneously, several of us blurted:  “Well, I have never lost a bag, simple like that.”  We laughed.  Jiao’s defects were helping us come together as a group.  We decided to stick it out with Jiao.

At the mid-way point of the trip, as fate would have it, we arrived with several other guests in the lobby of our small hotel one morning to overhear Jiao shouting maniacally at the staff.  One of our group’s suitcases was apparently loaded by a bell-hop onto a different tour bus already headed north to San Sebastian.  That day, we were headed south to Seville.  Jiao slammed his fist on the front desk.  We admired his passion and truly felt a tug of sympathy for Jiao.  After all, besides his belief that Portugal is a better country to visit than Spain, there was nothing he was so proud of as his perfect luggage record.  We wondered which of the thirty of us was to be without a suitcase.

Still red-faced and muttering, Jiao studied his check-list and approached the knot of us gaping from the other side of the lobby.

“Uh-oh,” I said to my wife.  “He’s looking at us.”

“Mrs. Sanders,” he said.  “I am sorry to say that your bag has been, well, misplaced.”

“Well,” I said, unable to catch myself.  “Can’t we just call the other bus and get it back.”

“It is a different company,” said Jiao, “and I do not have their phone number.”

“Can’t the hotel reach them?” asked my wife.

“That is what I was just asking these, how do you say, idiotes,” said Jiao, indicating the front desk.  “They do not have the information.”

During the ensuing days, we received daily updates from Jiao on what came to be known in the group as “luggage-gate.”  First, he told us it would be delivered in one day, “simple like that.”  Next, he said that would not be possible because that would cost 500 Euros (about $650).  Next, he told us to buy new toothpaste and hairbrushes, etc. since it might take another day.  By the third day, he told my wife to buy herself a new outfit “on him.”

“Jiao,” I said.  “You should not have to pay out of your own pocket,” I said.  “Wasn’t it the hotel’s fault?”

“They deny it,” he said.  “They are not honorable like Jiao.”

“Has the bag definitely been located?”

“Yes, for sure!” he said.  “I think so.”

Finally, on the fourth day without luggage, we arrived at a hotel to find my wife’s bag waiting for us.  Jaio’s persistent hourly calling throughout the previous two days had finally paid off.  He reached into his pocket and promptly reimbursed us 100 Euros we had spent on clothes and toiletries.  We were relieved and appreciative for a moment until Jiao blew the good feeling all at once, announcing to everyone:  “Well, my amazing effort has returned my record to perfection.  I hope you will all remember the struggles I suffered when you think about the gratuity at the end of the trip.  Simple like that.”

The final days of the trip passed quickly.  The group had become more cohesive and enjoyed taking in the sights together.  Jiao was less of a factor, speaking infrequently to avoid derision and staying aloof at all the stops.  He made a final embarrassing appeal as we arrived back at Madrid:  “My friends,” he began.  “This tour had some, well, good things and some bad.  But I hope you enjoyed the beauty of Spain and know that you are the most favorite group I have ever led.  I invite you all to become my Facebook friends so that Jiao and you can continue to travel through life together.”

“If this is his most favorite group,” the man across the aisle said, “his others must have all ended in fist fights.”

Upon arrival at the final hotel, we were handed surveys to complete.  Nearly everyone stated their intention to savage Jiao, to make sure he never led another tour.  We left a generous tip for the driver but almost nothing for Jiao.  I agreed that a self-centered, narcissistic, egotistical, insincere and hypocritical person should not be a tour guide, and my numerical ratings reflected that; however, I could not resist noting truthfully in the “comments” section that Jiao was “unique.”

At breakfast the next morning, before heading to the airport, I was shocked to see Jiao approaching my table.   He appeared distressed, with tears running down his face.  My adrenaline spiked as I feared he would attack and I raised my arms in defense. I imagined that my review had cost him his job.  Instead of hitting me, Jiao grabbed me in a bear hug.

“What’s happening?” I blurted.

“You wrote the nicest thing anyone has ever written about me,” said Jiao.  “I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

“You read the reviews?” I asked.  “Aren’t they sent confidentially to the company?”

“I always read my reviews,” said Jiao, still regarding me with affection.  “No one ever acknowledged that I am unique.  You are now a friend for life, simple like that.  I will always stay in touch.”

I gradually extracted myself from Jiao’s arms. I did not know what to say, but I was happy to have given him an expired e-mail address.

“Best of luck,” I said.

“You, too, my friend,” said Jiao, worshipful.