The Tipping Point

guest check

RIVERSIDE

We made the three-hour drive over to Riverside for a work meeting again today.  We always enjoy the opportunity to indulge in a good dinner, an amenity for which there is little opportunity in the remote desert outpost we call home.

We ended up at a well-known chain restaurant.  When we sat down with the menu, we were surprised to find the prices to be several dollars higher than they are at locations of this restaurant in the Coachella Valley, Arizona and Nevada.

What annoyed me most of all is that the higher prices meant that we are expected to tip more.  Now, we are good tippers who seldom leave less than 20% for the server.  We understand that restaurant servers are woefully underpaid but still have bills to pay and families to support.  But it galls me that just because a restaurant decides to jack up its prices, we are expected to leave more of a tip to hit that 20% mark.  Customers have the pleasure of taking it on the chin twice:  Once to pay more to the restaurant and again to pay more to the server.

At the risk of being mean and insensitive, I have to ask:  Do higher prices mean that the servers are more deserving?  Does the restaurant’s price increase mean that the financial needs of the staff increase proportionately?  Silly question, but I realize that it’s possible that the answer is “yes.”  Perhaps the restaurant’s increased prices are a result of inflation that also affects the servers’ abilities to support themselves.  As my understanding of economics is relatively weak, I just don’t know.

The website www.stainedapron.com provides a place for restaurant servers to rant about the bad behavior of customers and how the restaurant staff gets back at them.  One article mentions that poor tippers are likely to have their food spat on, thrown on the floor and placed back on the plate, and worse.  Although I am not among the poor tipper brigade, I believe that a reasonable person must accept these things as risks of dining out.  After all, you don’t really know what you’re getting.  While I like to think my good tipping exempts me from these exploits most of the time, I am forced to hark back to advice my grandfather gave me:  What you don’t know can’t hurt you.  As long as I don’t know what you did to my food, I will shut up and eat it.  Should I end up with a case of Montezuma’s revenge or worse, chances are I will think that it’s the flu that’s going around or just another wacky side effect of my medication.  Most of the time, I will be right.  Many people automatically blame any real or imagined physical discomfort on the restaurant meal they ate the night before, but the truth is that the blame is probably misplaced.

The editors at Stained Apron suggest that the subminimum wage laws that apply to servers require customers to tip and that those who object to tipping should “take a real stand.  Stop eating out.  Lobby the government.  Don’t penalize the poor student or single mother making slave wages to serve you.”

The first part of this suggestion makes no sense whatever.  It is true that I should probably stop eating out; both my corporeal and financial health would improve immensely.  If many of us take this advice, however, the effect will be that fewer servers will be needed and fewer will be hired.  What of the poor student or single mother when she or he is unable to find a job at all?  Perhaps the website’s authors believe that refusing to eat out would force restaurateurs to capitulate and raise the wages of their employees.  Would that this were true.  It is, however, a pipe dream.  When the customers leave, the restaurant closes.  Exhibit A is Robert Irvine’s show “Restaurant Impossible” on TV’s Food Network.

By contrast, the second part of Stained Apron’s suggestion does make sense.  Lobbying the government is indeed the answer.  The logic used by state legislatures that permit eating establishments to pay their servers subminimum wages is that these wages are “supplemented” by tips.  In other words, our lawmakers are in cahoots with restaurant owners at the expense of the public.  Our legislators can get away with exempting restaurant owners from the minimum wage laws by which other employers must abide because there is no need for restaurants to pay their employees when the gullible public will do it for them.

So yes, if you object to the special treatment accorded to restaurant owners, do write or email your senator, your congressman and your state legislators to tell them that the laws must be changed.  If results are not forthcoming, speak your mind with your vote.

As for the servers, it is they and not the customers who should abandon the food service industry.  Remember, restaurants are not going to pay their servers more when they can get away with paying less.  That is economics simple enough for even me to understand.

The only way that restaurants will pay their servers what they deserve is if they can’t get any employees otherwise.  And if that means that the price of a restaurant meal increases even more than it has already, I, for one, will be more than willing to pay it.

Truth be told, I am already paying it in the form of tips.  And yes, we did provide our server with our usual 20% tip today despite the restaurant’s jacked-up prices.

 

Fat.

fat

You don’t know me.

You may think you do, but you don’t.  You say you want to get to know me?  Fine.  Here are some things you need to do for starters:

  • Be six years old.  Fall in love with Hershey bars, ice cream sandwiches, orange soda.  Anything containing sugar.
  • Be much slower than your little sisters due to weighing three times as much as they do.  Have your father instruct them to run circles around you then knock you down and sit on you.  Have him film this and play the Super 8 movie back for years to come.  Later, tell him that he was mean.  Have him respond that he wanted a funny home movie instead of just boring kid pictures.
  • Be eight years old.  Have parents who force you to step on the bathroom scale.  Watch the look of horror on their faces when they see that you weigh twice as much as you should.  Listen to the vile phrases that come out of their mouths.  Learn to hate your body.
  • Be ten years old.  Overhear your grandparents having a fight with your parents.  Understand that the argument is about you and why you are not “under a doctor’s care” and taking weight reduction drugs.
  • Participate in a school poetry contest on the theme of not wasting food.  Ask your father for help and have him suggest the phrase “get fat like a barrel and roll down the street.”  The next year, have him help you write a poem titled “I Love to Eat, Obviously.”  Be sure his nickname for you is “fat, fat, the water rat.”
  • Wince when your mother yells “I’m gonna put you on a starvation diet!”  Hide cookies under your bed.  Sneak into the kitchen in the middle of the night to steal ice cream, donuts, cupcakes.
  • Have kids make fun of your weight on the school bus.  Make sure they come up with clever rhymes for your first name.  Have them ask you whether you will pop if they stick a pin in you.  Cry to your father and listen to him tell you that “sticks and stones will break your bones but names will never harm you.”
  • As a teenager, have a grandfather who asks you why you can’t do somersaults and hang upside down from the swing set like your sisters.  Ask him for a double chocolate ice cream cone from Friendly’s.
  • Have your mother hiss at you about embarrassed she is that you are a boy with “titties.”
  • Go clothes shopping with your father.  Find nothing in your size.  Have him tell you that you need to visit Omar the Tent Maker for a custom made outfit.

Once you have done these things, you may begin to know me a little better.  To really understand me, however, you will also need to struggle with your weight and an obsession with food all your life, then develop diabetes, high blood pressure and heart problems in middle age.  Force yourself to ride a stationary bike.  Hate every minute of it.  Have fights with your mother about this, as if you are eight years old again.  Apply for jobs, then watch the disgust register in the employer’s eyes when you show up for the interview.  Don’t get hired.  Notice that your peers don’t sing cruel songs about you on the school bus anymore, they just whisper about you behind your back now.  Pretend you don’t hear them.

And if you truly want to know what it is like to be me, you will boycott Southwest Airlines, Samoa Air and Abercrombie and Fitch.

Why these three?  Because they don’t want the business of fat people.  They are already so successful that they can take a discriminatory stand against us and pass up our money.  To them, we are lepers, untouchables, with whom they do not wish to be associated.

Southwest Airlines, well known for its cheap flights, is also known for requiring fat people to purchase two seats, and more recently, for having kicked a member of the fat community off one of its flights and for claiming that the obese are “too fat to fly.”  Southwest even has a name for us.  We are “customers of size.”  I hate flying, but when I do next buy a plane ticket, I will gladly pay extra to shun Southwest in favor of another airline that is less hateful to the overweight.

As for Samoa Air, their fares vary greatly from passenger to passenger these days.  You see, they have a “pay as you weigh” or “pay by the kilogram” policy.

And then we come to Abercrombie and Fitch.  They have announced that they are taking a stand against obesity by refusing to carry clothes larger than size ten.  Like Southwest Airlines, they apparently don’t need our money.  Plus size women just aren’t cool enough for them.

Fortunately, something is being done about Abercrombie and Fitch’s despicable weight discrimination.  Watch this video to learn about the movement to donate Abercrombie clothes to some of the most needy among us, thus making Abercrombie and Fitch the premier clothier of the homeless.  Not only is this a good cause, but it might make the company think about which would be the most detrimental association, plus size women with money or the inhabitants of Los Angeles’ Skid Row.

And if you’ve really gotten to know me now, you’ll tell Abercrombie to go fitch themselves.

 

Adios, Phoenix

Phoenix

PHOENIX AZ

The only thing stranger than being in a place for the very last time, knowing you will never see it again, is being somewhere that you will likely never visit again, but who knows.  In the former category is my last day at any of my former jobs, drawing in bittersweet memories as I look forward to the new challenges that await me on the other side of the front door.  I shall have one of those moments just a few months down the road when my current place of employment closes.

But today I am faced with the latter type of goodbye, as I soak up the final hours of what is likely to be my last of many visits to Phoenix, Arizona.

Our first visit to the Valley of the Sun took place almost exactly a decade ago.  My wife and I were living in California’s Central Valley, both working for the phone company, when I changed positions and found myself with a boss whose office was in Arizona.  Then I got to know her boss, who worked in Iowa.  Then a company in India put in a bid for the purchase of our division and I was asked about my salary in rupees.  But that is another story.

I communicated with the Arizona Boss Lady via phone, instant message and email for eleven months before she finally visited my location and I got to meet her in person.  Not too long after, she decided to convene a meeting of all of her direct subordinates on her home turf in suburban Phoenix.  Most of us got on a plane, but I am a white-knuckle flyer and we therefore jumped in our car instead.

My biggest fears about Phoenix were that it would be about a thousand degrees and that I would have a close encounter with a snake.  Did I mention that snakes engender greater panic in me than even jetliners?

It was a 13-hour drive, and we did it all in one day.  The company provided us with a lovely suite in an extended stay hotel for the week.  I worked all day, so we didn’t have very much time to explore other than looking for interesting places for dinner.  And I am happy to say that I did not set eyes on a single snake, nor was it a thousand degrees (only about ninety).

We subsequently passed through Phoenix on the interstate on the way to my sister’s in Texas a couple of times, but I did not visit again until about four years later, when I drove down with a friend to compete in a regional Scrabble tournament.  Not only were my days fully occupied, but I had a horrible case of bronchitis.  I had neither the time nor the energy to venture out of our hotel (unless you count lying in the sun by the pool and coughing).

So when we moved to California’s low desert three years ago, we rejoiced that Phoenix would be only 140 miles away, close enough to get on more familiar terms with the city.  Along with Laughlin NV and Yuma AZ, Phoenix became one of our regular weekend getaways.  After all, there wasn’t much in our little town.  Without a movie theater or an Italian restaurant, and with the nearest Wal-Mart almost an hour away, every month or two we would bop out of town on Saturday morning in the hope of reacquainting ourselves with the amenities that civilization has to offer.

We could be in Phoenix in about 2½ hours, and our trips usually went something like this:  Grab some fast food and drinks for the road, cruise into Phoenix, get the shopping done, check into the hotel, catch a nap, go out for dinner, see a movie, sleep late, go out to lunch, gas up and drive back to California.

We seldom varied from this routine by much.  So now that we are a few months away from relocating to another part of California that is too far away for a weekend drive to Phoenix, I am forced to face the reality that I have never visited the art museum, never perused the impressive library at Arizona State, never attended a Diamondbacks game and never visited Harrah’s Ak-Chin casino.

Okay, alright, I never really wanted to do any of these things anyway (except maybe the library).  We were always perfectly content to enjoy a few good restaurant meals, shop without California taxes and the annoying CRV on soda bottles, catch a flick at the cheapies up I-17.

So I guess it really is adíos, Phoenix.  You’ve served us well during our years in the desert, and for that, we thank you.

Hasta luego.

 

A Forgotten Festival

Shavuot

This week we celebrate the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks.  As one of the shalosh regalim, the Three Festivals, it is one of the most important holidays of the year.  So I don’t understand why, in many quarters, the occasion passes by with barely a notice.

Shavuot is also known in English as Pentecost because it occurs fifty days after the start of Passover.  It is traditional to engage in the Counting of the Omer, in which each night is numbered and counted, starting on the night of the second Passover Seder.

Shavuot commemorates the Lord’s giving of the Law (matan Torah) on Mount Sinai in the wilderness.  Passover is the festival of freedom, at which time we remember how God, with miraculous acts, freed the Jews from slavery at the hands of the cruel Pharaohs of Egypt.  The Lord emancipated us so that we could become His chosen people, taking His law into our hearts to be an example to all the nations.

But first we had to learn God’s law.  As if the Ten Plagues in Egypt and the splitting of the Red Sea weren’t enough evidence of God’s love for us, He further demonstrated His love by presenting the gift of the Law to us personally.  The Book of Exodus tells us that the Lord appeared in a thick cloud above Mount Sinai, amidst thunder, lightning, loud Shofar (trumpet) blasts and the mountain smoking.  All the Jewish nation gathered for the occasion, but the people were warned to keep their distance from the foot of the mountain lest they die.  We didn’t have to be told twice; with the earth quaking and the mountain on fire, we were understandably very frightened.

Finally, Moses was permitted to go up the mountain and bring back the Ten Commandments to the people.

Receiving the Law has often been singled out as the defining moment of our nationhood.  We were ex-slaves, wanderers in the desert, who only then acquired the unity and dignity required of a nation.  Our commitment to living a godly life is the glue that has held us together from Sinai to the present day.

With the acceptance of the Ten Commandments as the culmination of our history to that time (some would say ever), it is no wonder that the event occasions great anticipation that takes the form of counting the days from Passover.

Between the excitement leading up to the event and the awesome demonstration of the Lord’s power at the moment of the law giving, it is surprising to me that Shavuot is not a more widely celebrated holiday.  Among Orthodox Jews in the United States, the festival consists of two days of prayer in the synagogue, abstinence from work and enjoyment of wonderful holiday meals.  In Israel, Shavuot is a known and recognized holiday.  But among the Conservative, Reformed and other Jewish movements in America, Shavuot seems to be almost a forgotten holiday, not widely marked in the course of our workaday lives.  Each year, I have to look up the date of the holiday just to mark the occasion.

I think part of the answer to this enigma is that, as dramatic an occasion as the law giving was, today Shavuot lacks the pageantry of Passover, the High Holidays or even Sukkot.  Unlike Passover, we don’t clean our homes like crazy for weeks, then hold two Seders steeped in age-old ritual and accented with unusual foods.  Shavuot is not a fast day like Yom Kippur, nor do we blow the Shofar as we do on Rosh Hashannah.  We don’t decorate the Sukkah booth and shake the lulav and esrog.  In fact, other than reading the Book of Ruth and eating dairy foods, there aren’t a lot of special traditions associated with Shavuot that would make the holiday stand out.

If Shavuot is the ugly duckling of festivals, perhaps it is time that we bring it back to its rightful place of glory.  Perhaps we need to develop a new tradition, a standout minhag, that would appeal to children and adults alike.  As special an event as Shavuot is, we ought to figure out a way to show just how important it is to the history and future of our people.

Then again, perhaps the momentousness of the occasion is enough to make Shavuot stand out on its own.  Anything more would be gilding the lily.

 

 

The Merry, Merry Month of May

daffodils

How did the month of May get its name?

I’ve always been fascinated by etymology, so I couldn’t resist checking the dictionary on this one.  It turns out that May is named for Maia, an ancient Roman fertility goddess.

This makes sense, as May is the heart of springtime in the Northern Hemisphere, the season when the increasingly direct rays of the sun finally overcome winter’s icy grip and the tulips and daffodils in a riot of colors once again add cheer to our lives.

Here in the desert, we have more cacti than tulips or daffodils, but it’s the thought that counts.

When I was a kid, May was the time of year I could start collecting insects and rocks.  It was almost the end of the school year, with the tantalizing languor of the lengthy summer vacation just over the horizon.

Although the start of the month is a time for recognizing labor in some nations, I hold romantic visions of children dancing around the may pole with colorful streamers.

In the United States, the three-day Memorial Day weekend comes at the end of May, a holiday on which we remember the soldiers who have died, in wars extending back decades and centuries, to assure the security of our nation for future generations.  I’ve discovered that Memorial Day was not officially named by the U.S. federal government in 1967, which explains why my parents always referred to the holiday as Decoration Day during my childhood (a reference to the decoration of graves with flowers).

As we begin the summer season, we also celebrate our families, with Mothers’ Day this month and Fathers’ Day next.

I’ve always thought of May as a celebration of possibilities.  With the limitations of the winter behind us, we look forward to outdoor activities, family gatherings, road trips.  If New Year’s is a time for resolutions to make difficult self-improvements, May is the time to plan for whatever your idea of fun may be.  Whether you look forward to vacations, sports, gardening, weekends at the lake or beach, or just shucking off the coat and going for a walk, May is the time for making plans for what we really want to do, not what we ought to do.

In a sense, May is the month to celebrate our personal freedom.  It is the time of year when we give ourselves permission to engage in the activities that we really enjoy, when we finally give in and tell ourselves “yes.”

Perhaps that’s the real reason this month is named May.

 

My Crazy, Addicted Scrabble Tournament Life

Let's Play

My parents owned a Scrabble set since the 1950s, but I cannot recall ever seeing them play the game.  The three of us knew that it was stored in the big bottom drawer of the hutch in the dining room, with the cancelled checks, newspaper clippings and the pieces of my mother’s old Monopoly set.

Occasionally, my sisters and I would ask permission to pull out the Scrabble box.  We had some fairly imaginative ideas of what could be done with it.  We didn’t play Scrabble; we played with the Scrabble set.

We’d display one of the racks on the living room carpet, lay a candle in its cradle and refer to it as Candlewood Lake (a place I had seen on a map).  We would set out the tiles in curving lines to represent a path, not unlike the slate path just outside the front door of our house.  We’d set the mauve board in an upside down V to represent a roof or a house or a tent.  We would make up fanciful stories to go with our Scrabble props.  This was a lot more fun than spelling dumb old words!

During my college days, I played many dozens of games of Monopoly and backgammon, but never Scrabble.  I had forgotten about the game.

In fact, twenty years went by before I rediscovered Scrabble.  After Donna and I, two certified Internet addicts, were married, we began playing Upwords and Tangleword online.  We bought another computer and a few games on CD.  Among them was Hasbro’s Scrabble for Windows.  After that, there was no turning back.

For our first Christmas, one of the gifts I bought for Donna was a tiny ring box that looked like a folded Scrabble board, colored squares and all.  Inside was a tiny Scrabble rack holding itty bitty tiles.

Not too long after that, Hasbro updated its electronic Scrabble game, much for the worse in our opinion.  The formerly snazzy board now sported an ugly dark border and the speed of the game slowed down to a snail’s pace.  When I complained to Hasbro, they indicated that we could return the CD with its jewel case to the place of purchase for a full refund.  We did so.

That’s when Donna discovered the Internet Scrabble Club (www.isc.ro), then as now the best place to play realtime Scrabble online.  I was instantly hooked.  I was able to choose my level of competition — not too easy, not too hard.  And I was able to play with opponents from all over the world.  Once we offered up $20 for a paid membership, I was even able to play against “the bots,” ISC’s artificial intelligence that guaranteed that I would have a worthy opponent any time of the day or night.  When I worked the swing shift and returned home well after midnight, I knew I could still get in a couple of games.

I kept hearing online that there were people who got together IRL to play Scrabble.  I kept signing up for a theoretical local Scrabble group on a site called Meet Up.  Only problem was that the meets always were canceled due to lack of sufficient interest.

Many of my coworkers were book nerds like myself, and I frequently asked what they were reading.  One night, I saw one of them had a book with an unusual cover; square cut-outs revealed Scrabble tiles beneath.  The book was Stefan Fatsis’ Word Freak, and I immediately ordered a copy.

This fascinating book introduced me to the world of Scrabble clubs and tournaments.  I just wished I lived in area where such things were available.  Before long, I switched jobs, we moved, and I found myself in a city with a weekly Scrabble club that met at a local pizza joint.  After joining this group, its members regaled me with stories of distant Scrabble tournaments they had attended.  Just like in the book!  I knew this was something I had to do.

I started by attending a Sunday afternoon Scrabble tournament in California’s Bay Area, about a five-hour round trip.  Several of us from the club would pack into a car and cruise down the highway studying Scrabble words densely printed on index cards.  The idea was to identify the “bingo,” the seven-letter, rack-clearing word that netted players a 50-point bonus.

“AEINSTZ!” the reader in the front passenger seat would call out.

“ZANIEST, ZEATINS!” would come the response from the back seat.

I was amazed at how on earth they managed to accomplish this feat of mental gymnastics.  Soon, I learned the secret.  It was a matter of studying, I was told.

Studying what?  Studying endless, lengthy lists of words.  It turns out there are particular letter combinations that occur over and over, are likely to be drawn out of the tile bag, and hence are worthy of the time to memorize.

I bought a study book and started with the most basic combination, TISANE.  These six letters combine with nearly every letter of the alphabet to create multiple bingos.  Initially, the list seemed mind-boggling, but in a few months, I was able to recite “TISANE + A: ENTASIA, TAENIAS.  TISANE + B: BANTIES, BASINET.  TISANE + C: ACETINS, CINEAST.  TISANE + D:  DESTAIN, DETAINS, INSTEAD, NIDATES, SAINTED, STAINED.

It took me about six months to memorize just the first word list (and there are hundreds of them), but I learned that, with enough repetition, I could do it!  More than that, I found that I had become “one of them.”

I had turned into one of those crazy Scrabble addicts that Stefan Fatsis had written about.  I was still losing most of my games, but I also won a few.  I realized it wasn’t about winning or losing, however.  It was about the love of the game.

As a bookish nerd, it didn’t take much for me to fit right into the Scrabble culture.  And a culture it is.  Spending hundreds of dollars and driving hundreds of miles to reach one Scrabble tournament, I could hardly wait for the next one.  And at every tournament, we, the far-flung competitors, greeted each other as the best of friends before competing fiercely against one another across the board.

We might be in Reno or Phoenix or Portland or San José.  We might be in a hotel ballroom below the crystal chandeliers or in a pizzeria, picking pepperoni off the board.  The location didn’t really matter, however, as we were together doing the thing we loved.

We were home.

 

The Fickle Finger of Fate

fate

Lately, I’ve been reminded of the saying “If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans.”

With so much uncertainty on the employment front (I may or may not be transferred to another city), it is difficult to make a decent decision on any matter, large or small, leaving me feeling as wishy-washy as Charlie Brown.

We awoke to a hot Saturday morning and felt the urge to get out of town for a couple of days.  There is just not a lot to do in this remote desert town.  Without a movie theatre or a shopping mall for a hundred miles, about the only public place to get out of the heat and into the air conditioning is a restaurant.  And we only have a few of those, mostly overpriced, visited by us over and over for the past three years.

We thought about heading to Phoenix to see a movie, maybe do some shopping (we have some things to return to Wal-Mart), have a good dinner, stay overnight and drive back after breakfast on Sunday.

We have been through this routine dozens of times.  Sometimes it’s Phoenix, sometimes it’s Yuma, or it could be Nevada or over to the Coachella Valley.  Anywhere but here, our sizzling, baking, boring town.

My wife urged me to hurry up, and I jumped in the shower.  By the time I was ready, we had decided that despite the fun of this sort of spontaneity, it might not be such a great financial idea.  When you figure on three meals out, a hotel room, movie tickets, shopping, two tanks of gasoline and incidentals, this little jaunt would likely run us a couple hundred bucks at least.  We wisely decided to stay home and crank the air conditioning.  My wonderful wife roasted some vegetables for me and I went out to Starbucks to bring her home her favorite iced tea.

Now we’re trying to figure out how we’re going to handle our upcoming vacation.  Although I haven’t yet discussed it on this blog (fear not, I will), I am a crazy Scrabble addict who loves nothing better than wandering all over the West playing in Scrabble tournaments.  There’s a big one coming up in the Bay Area, about eight hours drive from here.  Now that we may have to move, however, we are seriously debating the wisdom of spending the large sum of money that this little venture would require.  Not only that, but we have my niece’s high school graduation to attend right after that, and I’m not so sure it would be a good idea to take so much time off of work when change is in the air.  My vacation time has already been approved, mind you, but the thought of being away from the office for two weeks right now leaves me queasy.

Sometimes you just have to sit on it, stay put, preserve the status quo and see what happens.  So now it’s Sunday, we’ve been spending the weekend at home doing a whole lot of nothing, and we wake up and decide to go out to breakfast.  This sounds like a great idea, particularly since a coupon for a free Everyday Slam printed out with our receipt on our last visit to Denny’s.  I start salivating at the thought of fried potatoes, grits and eggs.

It was only 11:00 a.m., but the mercury had already risen to 106°F out here in the desert.  We jumped into old Holly, blasted the A/C and drove down to the end of town where Denny’s sits next to the freeway entrance.

As we turned into the parking lot, we noticed that all the parking spaces near the door were taken.  Driving around the lot, we quickly figured out that there were no spaces available at all.  A vehicle occupied every single parking space.  As we drove past the entrance, we noticed a line of customers standing inside the door and sitting on the banquettes, all waiting for tables.

Oh, that’s right, it’s Mother’s Day!  Our mothers both live hundreds of miles away, so we weren’t going to be seeing them today.  We had already sent out cards and we would call them later.  But just try to get into a restaurant for brunch.

We drove down the street to the Sizzler, only to find the same scene we had just experienced at Denny’s.  While it used to be that Dad made breakfast for Mom on Mother’s Day, or else the kids brought Mom breakfast in bed, it seens that these days the way of the world is to take Mom out to eat.  Even if it means standing in line for an hour.

If you’re not a mother, and you’re not visiting your mother, you’re just plumb out of luck.  And so, like our spur-of-the-moment weekend plans and our Scrabble tournament vacation plans, our Sunday brunch plans evaporated before our very eyes.

It doesn’t matter if you plan for months or make a spontaneous decision.  Either way, fate gets the last laugh.

 

The Magnificent Seven

scale 1

So my employer has decided to up the ante on its wellness program by holding an eleven-week weight loss contest this summer.

Now, when I hear the term “weight loss,” I generally run the other way.  Well, maybe not run.  I am far too out of shape for that.  Turn my back and shamble away would be more like it.

I am what the doctors refer to as “morbidly obese,” as well as a couch potato and more than a bit of a food snob.  So a weight loss contest is way out of my league, to say the least.

I think about all the food programs my mother tried to put me on when I was growing up.  “I’m gonna put you on a starvation diet!” my mother would yell when we returned home from an appointment with the pediatrician, appalled and embarrassed at the numbers that appeared on the scale.  He had handed us a printed diet that included caloric values for foods with strange sounding names like kale and kohlrabi.  The sole item listed under “desserts” was 5-calorie gelatin.

I thought “diet” was merely a variant of the word “die” and that “exercise” was a dirtier word than the things my classmates scratched into the stall walls in the boys’ bathroom.  I wanted nothing to do with physical activity; I wanted to curl up in a corner with a book.  Nevertheless, I would be sent outside with a handball to bat against the garage doors.  Then there was the time with the punching bag and the time with the set of barbells and dumbells and the time my mother browbeat my father into hitting tennis balls with me.

My religious elementary school sent us out to play but really didn’t care whether I ran the baseball diamond or just sat under the apple tree.  Guess which one I did?  Junior high and high school phys ed was pure misery that I’d prefer not to relive by detailed description.  Being forced to assist my father with the yardwork was one of the low points of my life.  I got good at hiding and devised all types of devious methods of sneaking ice cream and cookies.  I blush to admit that at least one of those involved outright stealing.  Sigh.

Perhaps I can convey a bit of the idea of how prominent a role food played in my early life by pointing out that the gift I most begged my parents for at the age of six was a soda machine.

Considering the above, it should be no surprise to anyone that I’ve been massively overweight from toddlerhood until today, as I stand on the brink of senior citizenship.  Now, everyone knows how dangerous extra weight is to one’s health.  Obesity brings on a litany of diseases and drugs, most of which have come a-callin’ and then decided to take up residence like so many houseguests of questionable character who I cannot bear to throw out into the street despite the fact they have long since overstayed their welcomes.

Just take this weight-loss contest as an opportunity and a blessing, I tell myself, while in my heart I convinced that the whole thing is nothing more than an insufferable pain in the ass.

The Human Resources Department is calling the contest “The Biggest Loser,” named after the TV show.  Although we must have weekly weigh-ins like on the show (hopefully without the corny beep-beep-beep sound effects), I am happy to say that there are no five-mile jogs, treadmills or stationary bicycles involved.

Interested employees are to form teams of three to ten.  Success is judged not by the number of pounds lost, but by the percentage of body weight lost.  This means that I will need to lose somewhere between ten and twenty pounds for every pound that some of my already skinny coworkers lose.  Just when I curse the unfairness of it all, I am reminded that it will probably be more difficult for them to lose one pound than it will be for me to lose twenty.  Okay, point taken.

My employer has more than a dozen locations, so there are bound to be a lot of teams.  This means there will be a lot of competition.  I started asking around as to which of my nine team members wish to participate.  Seven of them said yes.  Seven!  Well, six plus me.  The rules say that now we have to come up with a team name.  I vote that we dub ourselves The Magnificent Seven.

I got the group together informally on Friday afternoon and promised them that I would not let them down.  I gave them the rah-rah talk about how we’re already good at teamwork and how this going to be a piece of cake.  Er, a celery stick and a carrot, I mean.  We might have to compete with ten or twenty other teams, but with a little determination, I think we have a very good shot at beating them all.

I still can’t believe I agreed to do this.  The easy way out would have been to just ignore this contest and smile weakly when I walk by coworkers’ desks and hear them regaling each other with stories of their successes.

There is something about being a supervisor, however.  You can’t just say “you do your thing, I’ll do mine.”  You have to be a leader, even (especially) when it’s not too convenient to do so.

And who knows?  Maybe this time I’ll finally keep the weight off and turn my life around.

 

A Farewell to Old Friends

bookshelf

I have to get rid of some books.

This is not just a matter of spring cleaning, a ritual from which I have long ago declared books to be exempt.  This is more serious:  We may have to move.

Let me start by saying that moving hundreds of miles from one end of the state to the other is not exactly one of life’s lovely moments.  In fact, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

So this time we are planning ahead.   We are taking action tinged with regret, but necessary nonetheless.  Doing things like cleaning out closets and selling stuff on eBay.  And yes, culling the book collection.

It would not be too much exaggeration to say that my library is my prized possession.  It is something like an extended family in which individual volumes are brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles, each with his or her unique internal and external stories.  Internal as in the pages and words between the covers, external as in memories of when and where I read them, not to mention my particular stage of life at the time and how they affected me emotionally and changed the way I think about things.  Even recalling how I acquired each book is a story in itself.  Some of those stories are pretty boring (Barnes & Noble), others are lost to the sands of time, while still others are never-to-be-forgotten moments involving library book sales, incredible finds in dusty piles and books borrowed and never returned.

Some people say their books are their children.  I won’t go that far.  I don’t make enough money to support several hundred children.

The hard part of this little exercise is determining which books stay and which go.  I’ve been approaching this problem by means of triage.  I have favorites that I would never think of setting loose, while there are others that I must admit were obtained in ill-considered moments of weakness and (sotto voce) were never actually read.  (Gulp!)  I feel like a bad person even making this admission.  At any rate, the former will stay and the latter will go.

In between these two categories are books that I enjoyed years ago.  Perhaps I still smile when I notice them sitting on the shelf.  But I know deep in my heart that I will never reread them.  These are the hard decisions.  The pleasant memories associated with these books will remain with me whether or not I continue to own them.  For I will always own them; they have been incorporated into who I am in a way that cannot be deleted merely because a copy no longer sits in a bookcase in my house.

Some of these middle category books will be sold, given to friends or donated to the thrift shop along with the aforementioned ill-conceived purchases.  Others will find their way into packing boxes sealed with tape and labeled in black marker, alphabetically by author.  They will be loaded into a truck, transported to another city and unpacked in the next place we call home.

I know I will keep the literary greats — Mark Twain, Flaubert, Shakespeare, Steinbeck — along with many obscure books that I have come to love for quirky reasons that I cannot always elucidate.  Our collections of novels by Carol Shields, John Grisham and Anne Tyler will follow us wherever we go.  My fat reference books that weigh many pounds, of course.

But what of Garrison Keillor, John Irving and Barbara Ehrenreich?  No.  Enjoyed at one time, I have moved on and will free them to be enjoyed again by others.  What about Bill Bryson and Stephen Jay Gould?  I’m still not sure.  As much as I love the former’s travel writing and the latter’s explanations of the mysteries of the natural world, I know I could do without them.  Nevertheless, I have a sneaky suspicion that they will be coming with.

I will probably relieve myself of a number of books about computers and the Internet, although I will undoubtedly keep a few.  These are subjects that ought to be updated daily, and I know I will acquire more recent works as time goes on.

Novels are more difficult to decide between.  I will never get rid of my Salingers, but what of Lorrie Moore, Barbara Kingsolver and Ann Hood?  I’d love to keep them, but I have to get rid of something.  I just don’t know whether it will be the works of these particular authors.

Have you ever heard of a collection of short stories titled Plan B for the Middle Class by Ron Carlson?  How about The Fruit Cocktail Diaries by Carmody and Hayduk?  Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan?  Microserfs by Douglas Coupland?  These relatively obscure titles are favorites that I do not plan to part with, not only because I have already hauled them across a continent, but also because I love them.

Many will be appalled at the titanic titles and authoritative authors that I will dismiss with a pat on the binding and a last wistful look.  How could I bear to part with these defining novels when I am keeping such dreck?

For me, selecting books to cull from my collection will always be a bit of a Sophie’s Choice.  In the immortal words of Simon and Garfunkel, any way you look at it you lose.  But when the pressure of moving day approaches, choose I must.  And as I bid goodbye to forgotten volumes covered in dust as well as some old favorites, I am comforted by one thought that remains in the back of my mind.

I can always go online and find another copy.

 

On the Road Again (and again, and again, and again…)

We have put a lot of miles on old Holly lately.  In fact, one could say that we have done the grand tour of the tri-state area.  In the last three or four weeks, we have been to Banning CA, Riverside CA (three times), Yuma AZ and Laughlin NV.  Whether it’s work, pleasure or just a trip to Wal-Mart, it means jumping in Holly and zooming at least 100 miles down the freeway.

It looks as if lots more travel will be on tap for the month of May.  Enjoy the photos and thanks for riding along with us!

 

Windmills 1Windmills 2

Windmills in the San Gorgonio Pass along Interstate 10, between Palm Springs CA and Cabazon CA (about 80 miles east of Los Angeles). You can’t tell from the photo, but it was a windy day through the pass and the windmills were turning furiously.

Arizona sunset

Arizona sunset, Bullhead City AZ

River Palms

River Palms Resort, Laughlin NV. This is one of our favorite weekend getaways out in the desert.

Breakfast at Daniel's

Breakfast at Daniel’s Restaurant in the Regency Casino along the Strip in Laughlin NV. Omelette Florentine with breakfast potatoes and rye toast. This place is a hole in the wall that has excellent food. We also had dinner there Friday for their all-you-can-eat fish fry. The cod is fresh and flavorful with a light breading. The quality has been consistent since we discovered this place a couple of years ago.

Regency cow

Regency Casino’s bovine mascot. Daniel’s Restaurant was once known as the Tropical Cow; the outdoor sign continues to display the old name.

Splinters

Sign on the Regency’s beefy mascot stating “Do not touch or sit on cow (splinters).”

D'Angelo's

D’Angelo’s Restaurant, Bullhead City AZ. This is our favorite spot for Italian food in the desert. It is a locals hangout, favored by retirees living along the Colorado River. This place is difficult to find if you don’t know where you’re going. From northbound AZ Hwy 95, take a left at Riverview (just past Wal-Mart). All the way at the end of Riverview, take a right, a left and another right. It is located just off the river by the marina.

D'Angelo's salad bar

D’Angelo’s salad bar. Any salad bar that contains pickled beets, chick peas, Chinese corn cobs and pineapple gets my stamp of approval!

Eggplant

Eggplant parmagiana and spaghetti at D’Angelo’s. The fresh marinara sauce was delicious! Served with garlic bread and all-you-can-eat soup and salad bar. The price? $11.00. Donna had her favorite, the “butcher’s” calzone, which has an all-meat stuffing and is served with marinara or meat sauce on the side. This place is a hidden gem and I can’t praise it enough.

Colorado River

Colorado River from the Nevada side, looking across to Arizona. Who needs Hawaii?

Vidal Jct ag station

The agriculture inspection station at Vidal Junction CA.

Vidal Jct chickenVidal Junction CA at the intersection of U.S. 95 and California Hwy 62, about 21 miles west of the Colorado River crossing to Lake Havasu City, Arizona. You can still see the chicken icon on the roof of a building that was once a restaurant, apparently years ago.

Vidal Jct store

The little convenience store at Vidal Junction CA. As this place is in the middle of nowhere, the management is able to get away with charging visitors for using the rest room unless they make a purchase. We made a purchase. Two small bags of chips and two small bottles of soda. Over seven dollars. Whew!