Grand Canyon

Duck on a rock

An odd geologic formation known as “Duck on a Rock” at the Grand Canyon.

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, ARIZONA

We were arguing over the meaning of the word oe.

It was the last day of the Scrabble tournament.  I did fairly well on Friday and Saturday, and now it’s down to the final three games on Sunday morning.

I’m fueled up, having had my Cheerios, banana and almond milk in our hotel room.  Water? Check.  Long rack?  Check.  Pens?  Check.  Score sheets?  Check.

After sitting atop the leader board in my division for part of the day yesterday, I dropped down to second place late.  I have to win all three games today to finish in first.  No pressure.  Hey, I tell myself, I’ll be “in the money” even if I lose them all.  After all, there are cash prizes down to sixth place.

I lose the first game to an old lady from Israel.  By a lot.  I wreck my spread by leaving an open S on the board at the end, allowing my opponent to bingo out.  She chastises me for failing to engage in defensive blocking.  Not wishing to be thrown out of the tournament right before the end, I do not utter any of the Scrabble-acceptable words that I feel would be appropriate in that situation.  I square the tiles, mumble “good luck” and quickly leave the room.  What I really want to do is scream.

Trounced by the blue hairs again.  “Trounced” isn’t even the right word.  Crumpled up like a used candy wrapper is more like it.  Hemingway was right about grace under pressure.  I start burping up Cheerios.

Next, I have to play the woman who’s been sitting in the number one position for the last few games. That is, since I’ve been unceremoniously knocked off my throne.  Okay, I figure, I must be in third now.  But I’ll probably lose to her, go down to fourth, and then finish up in either third or fifth.  That depends on with whom I am paired for the final “king of the hill” round.

I return from the rest room and find myself standing in the aisle at my opponent’s table. Her previous opponent is conducting a “post mortem” (commenting on what went wrong and right during the game), marking up her tally sheet, slowly gathering her belongings before she finally moves on and I get to sit down.

I ask my opponent where she’s from. (It’s polite to be friendly to your opponent, even though you want to place a curse on her rack, her tiles, and her mother’s teapot.  Easy there, cowboy. She wants the same for you, don’t you know.)

Florida, she tells me, near Fort Lauderdale.  I tell her about my grandparents, my aunt and my wife’s friend, all who hail from the area.  We figure out who goes first and shake the tile bag.  That’s when she asks if I would mind if she runs to the rest room.

“Of course, go right ahead,” I say.  Some things you don’t mess with, regardless of the fate you might wish on your opponent.  You don’t want anyone peeing in their pants. Not to mention that such a thing would be horrible karma.  Next time it will be me who is doing the pee-pee dance and begging pardon of someone sitting across the table.

“I might be a little while,” she warns me.

“That’s fine,” I reply. “Take your time.”  What do I care?  More time to relax.  If I’m just going to lose to this shark, there’s no point in rushing it.

I close my eyes for a minute and remember yesterday, when I, too, had to use the rest room between rounds and took a bit longer than might be expected.  As I exited the rest room, here comes the director.  “Your opponent was worried about you,” he said.  Can you believe that the director was actually headed to the men’s room to track me down in a stall?  I had to bite my tongue to avoid blurting out “my opponent doesn’t give a shit about me!”  (Shit being the operative word when you have the kind of GI problems that I do.). On second thought, I should have said, “Oh, sorry, director, I was busy jacking off!”  Grrrr!

I open my eyes and the chair across the table from me remains empty.  All around me, I hear tile bags being shaken and word scores being announced.  Here comes the director.

“Who’s your opponent?”  I tell him.  Then I fill him in on the details.  “She went to the rest room. She said she might be a little bit.”

The director starts my opponent’s clock and tells me to neutralize it when she shows up.  About a minute later, she does.  Here comes the director.

It’s not like she should have been surprised.  The rule about starting your clock if you’re late was posted in the tournament flyer.  “Didn’t you tell him I was in the rest room?” asks my opponent accusingly the moment Mr. Director leaves the table.  I tell her I did.  “Why didn’t you tell him I’d be a while?”  Now she’s just sounding whiny.  I assure her that I relayed the message and that, as far as I’m concerned, she can take as long a rest room break as she likes.  I don’t tell her that I’ve been there.

Phoenix, about 7 or 8 years ago.  Same director.  I was having a particularly bad GI day and ended up stuck in the rest room between games.  The director started the clock in my absence; upon my return, I found myself left with just ten minutes to play a 25-minute game.  I was so angry that I rushed through the game on pure adrenaline, practically throwing my tiles onto the board the moment my opponent hit the clock.  I won, too, to the surprise of the elderly gentleman from L.A. sitting across the table from me.

I thought of this recently while watching World Cup speed skating from Stavanger, Norway on TV.  The announcer described the demeanor of one of the Dutch competitors as one of “barely suppressed rage.”  Uh-huh, I thought.  I get it.  The secret I know is that its application is not limited to physical pursuits.  I’ve seen how it works with mental ones, too.

But here, at the Grand Canyon, I know that losing just one minute off the clock would have little effect on my first-place opponent.  What did not occur to me until later is that having the director start your clock in your absence presents a psychological disadvantage.  It may not have been a serious psych-out in this case, but I do think my opponent’s nerves were rattled.  I kept the major bingo lanes shut down and generally played in a more defensive style, having been schooled in spades in the previous game.  My opponent is behind and begins grasping at straws.  She plunks down the phony OUTWRINGS, which I promptly challenge off.  I managed to pull off a win.

I head back to the rest room while waiting for the pairings for the final match of the tournament to be posted.  The loo is disgusting, as always.  A lot of these guys seem to have chosen Scrabble over archery as their chosen pastime simply because they can’t shoot straight.  I step my shoes into a puddle of sticky pee as I approach the urinal.  I see guys turn around and walk out as soon as they finish their business.  “Wash your hands, pig!” is what I’m thinking.  Some of my fellow Scrabblers don’t appear to be fully socialized.  I wonder if they have mama issues.

In the playing room, there is a hubbub of conversation as we wait.  There is talk of flights and airports and shuttles.  I mention that we drove all the way from northern California and had a tire blow out on Interstate 40 in the middle of the desert.  “You’re hardcore!” opines one of my fellow players.  I roll my eyes, but I guess I am.  A lot of us move heaven and earth and spend thousands of dollars per year just to play this silly game.

Someone alludes to “the incident.”  The word the director used in telling us about it during the pre-games announcement that morning.

If you’ve never been to the Grand Canyon, you may not appreciate just how remote a location it is.  This place is truly in the middle of nowhere.  I suppose that helps to preserve its natural beauty.  But for those of us who have no interest in camping and who generally prefer to experience the great outdoors through works of spectacular photography, the nine-building Maswik Lodge is just a bit out of our comfort zones.  My wife’s attitude has understandably deteriorated from mildly annoyed to frustrated to truly pissed off in the last three days.  She can work from wherever we are (have laptop, will travel), but depends upon having a reliable internet connection at all times.  Unfortunately, the connectivity up here is a joke.  Uploads and downloads proceed at a snail’s pace.  Email sent first thing in the morning doesn’t arrive until evening.  My wife’s work is backed up as it is, and she is about ready to tear her hair out.  “If you come to a tournament here again, you’re going by yourself!” she informs me.

It doesn’t help that the food here, well, just plain sucks.  Served cafeteria style, you take a tray and walk around to the various food stations.  As a vegan, I have the privilege of standing in one line for a baked potato, in another for some black beans, and in a third for a Tepa burger on a gluten-free bun.  By the time you make it to the cashier’s station, most of your food is cold.  Visitors get to pay premium prices for the privilege of queuing up like cattle for cold food.  And then they don’t even get your order right.  “This is the weirdest looking veggie burger I have ever seen,” is my first thought upon applying mustard to a grey-looking patty that strikes me as what airline food must look like in a Communist country.  I take one bite and spit it out.  Let’s just say that the taste of dead animal flesh is unmistakable.  I get up and look for a manager, who is already fumbling his way through an apology to another dissatisfied customer.  When it’s my turn, he explains that he’s been having a lot of problems with his interns from Thailand.  Apparently, they don’t know the difference between a Tepa burger and a turkey burger.  Then the manager is summoned to the table next to mine to take a complaint from one of my fellow Scrabble players.  She had ordered a Cuban and was served a Reuben.  Not that there’s a language barrier or anything.

And then there is the cold.  And the dark.  At around 7,000 feet in elevation, it gets bloody cold here in the November night.  Granted, it’s not exactly sunny and 75 in northern California this time of year, but temps down in the 20s are a bit out of our league.  The slightest breeze carries a bitter bite that chills you right through.  As for the darkness, the dozens of miles between the park and the nearest city lights render the nights pitch black.  Walking down the road from the main building to one’s accommodations, you can barely see the hand in front of your face.   We use the flashlight function on our iPhones to see where to step.  Others, however, are not so lucky.  I suppose disaster was inevitable.  Two Scrabblers, walking back to their rooms in the thick blackness.  One woman misses the curb and falls.  Her face gets pretty scraped up.  Her companion bends down to help her, and she falls, too.  Breaks her collar bone.  Has to be airlifted out to a hospital in Flagstaff.  The director tells us he will visit our unfortunate colleague in the hospital on his way home to Phoenix.

Back at my table, the discussion turns to the pluralization of “vowel twos” (2-letter words consisting solely of vowels) — which words take an S and which don’t.  Ae?  No, it’s an interjection, an exclamation.  Ai?  Yes, it’s a three-toed sloth.  Oi?  No, another interjection (although I know from playing online that ois is perfectly acceptable in the Collins dictionary, used by Scrabble players in most of the world outside the U.S. and Canada).  What about oe?  Does it take an S?  “Yes,” I immediately chime in.  “It’s a bird.”  I detect a dirty look shot in my direction.  “From New Zealand,” I add, authoritatively.  A fellow player seems pleased, declaring that she will henceforth think of a bird whene’er she sees the word oe plunked on the board, and will know that it can be pluralized.

“No!” cries the player seated next to me.  “It’s a wind!”  She jumps up and runs to her travel bag in the corner to rummage for her Scrabble dictionary.  Bird or wind, we’ve already established that it takes an S.  But her mission is to prove that she’s right and I’m wrong.

She plops back down beside me and riffles the pages, seeking the letter O listings.  Oe, she shows me, “a Faeroese whirlwind.”  That smug look of victory.

“I stand corrected,” I mumble sheepishly, wondering where on earth I got the idea that an oe is a Kiwi ornithological species.

The final game gets underway and I am desperate to win.  I must be in second place after winning the last game, I figure.  A victory here could put me in first place and net me a $500 prize.  I play defensively again, hoping it pans out just like before.  Between the two of us, we manage to block most of the bingo lanes and effectively shut down the board.  Neither of us is able to get off a bingo in this low-scoring game.  But my opponent is able to lay down QUITS for 61 points, handing her the win.

I am sorely disappointed, my first-place dreams dashed.  I try to console myself by thinking that I can probably still take third.  Someone had borrowed my clock, and I track it down after the score slip is turned in.  I pack up my stuff and walk out into the vestibule to take a look at the leader board.  Games are still going on, so I know that what is posted represents the state of the tournament after the penultimate game, not the final.  The director has drawn a line across the chart below the sixth-place player, to indicate that the money winners lie above that line.  My name appears below that line.  In estimating my standing, I didn’t take into account the predation done to my spread in the first game of the day.

I am totally disgusted.  I buttonhole the director to thank him for a great tournament and beg off the award ceremony, pleading a very long drive home ahead of me.  I grab the handle on my heavy Scrabble bag and pull it through the lobby and out to the curb, where I lean against a wall.  I take in the bracing air as I text my wife to tell her I’m done.  She tells me she’s in the cafeteria having a sandwich and asks me to join her.  But I don’t want to go back in there.  No way.  When I am upset, I cry.  So I ask my wife to come on out whenever she’s done.  A few minutes later, she shows up with half a sandwich and fries in a Styrofoam take-out container.  We walk to the car and then head south, out of the park, stopping in Tusayan, the first town, for me to stuff my face with baked potatoes, care of the drive-through at Wendy’s.

After a 12-hour drive home, the next day I look up oe in each of the dictionaries in my collection.  It takes me a while to find it.

First, I consult my trusty Webster’s New Collegiate with the red cover, a sentimental favorite of mine despite its age.  My parents gave it to me around the time I started high school, and today it has a place of honor on my desk at work.  Nothing.  I then check my employer’s standard, the American Heritage.  Still nothing.  I suppose oe was deemed a sufficiently esoteric word that it didn’t make the cut in the editing process.

I check my gigantic Random House Webster’s Unabridged, where I do find oe listed — as an interjection meaning “oy.”  Well, that’s surely not going to take an S!  Next, I go to my Chambers, my British dictionary.  OE is listed as an abbreviation for Old English, but that’s it.  What am I to make of this phantom word that has somehow made its way into the Scrabble dictionary?  It’s a bird!  It’s a wind!  It’s Superman!  Uh, it doesn’t exist?

Finally, I reach for the last dictionary on my bookshelf, Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed., 1997).  And lo and behold, there it is, oe in all its glory.  It is indeed a Faeroese whirlwind.

I feel stupid, but not as stupid as I do the following day when the tournament results are posted online.  Apparently, I ended up in seventh place, just out of the money.  However, the woman in sixth place won a $200 cash prize for finishing highest above seed.  Due to a rule that players can’t win more than one cash prize, the sixth place award went to the seventh place finisher, yours truly.

And then I feel stupider still when, two days later, my winnings arrive in the mail in the form of a check for $150.  The attached note states that it is for “highest place finisher in the lower half.”  The director asks that I email him to let him know that the check arrived.

I do so.  I don’t mention that I didn’t finish in the lower half.

Elk

We were surprised to encounter an elk at the side of the road at Desert View, near the east entrance to Grand Canyon National Park.

Regret

I am standing on a sidewalk in Albany, New York with my father.  It is the late 1970s and I am, loosely speaking, a college student (I spend more time working on the college newspaper than in going to class, reading, writing papers or any of that boring stuff).  My father visits me often, for which I am eternally grateful.  Not only does he remind me of that other world, outside of college, but he takes me out to dinner (Yes!  No dining hall goop for me tonight!  Red Lobster, here I come!), buys me milk and orange juice for my tiny refrigerator, and leaves me with a twenty to stuff into my perpetually empty wallet.

I do not drive.  Driving might be a useful skill to have at this point, considering that the dorms are stuffed full with tripled-up students and I am forced to live five miles from campus on the tenth floor of a downtown single room occupancy firetrap hotel.  This means that there is a particular ordeal involved in getting back and forth to campus or getting anywhere else I might want to go:  I ride the bus.

There are the long green college buses, which are free to use with a college ID card, although the drivers almost never ask for it.  However, if I wanted to go anywhere other than up Washington Avenue to campus or back down Western Avenue in the opposite direction, there was the Capital District Transportation Authority, which went by many names.  The CDTA, the city bus, the shame train.  Back then, the fare was forty cents for a ride.  Most of the time, I didn’t have the forty cents.  But when I did (such as right after one of my father’s visits), I knew that if I were standing on the street corner when it was, say, ten below zero with a stiff wind blowing, it was exactly 30 minutes before the start of my first class of the day, and there was no Green Machine in sight, a glimpse of the #12 chugging up State Street hill would be an answer to prayer.  I gained more than a passing familiarity with the city bus schedule.

A bus blows past us and, staring at its tail lights, I remark to my father that I don’t know which bus it is because it has no number displayed in its rear window.

“Why would you want to know that?  To know which bus you just missed?”  My father laughs.  His son is weird.

Well, yes, Dad.  Actually, knowing what bus you just missed is pretty important.  After all, you wouldn’t want to wait out in the cold for a bus that had already come and gone, thinking that it was running late today.  It was important to know that you missed the bus, dummy, now you’re going to miss your European politics class again.

Seeing that “12” in the rear window of the city bus when you’re still about half a block away would occasion nothing but regret.  Regret that I didn’t wake up earlier, regret that I wasn’t able to walk faster, regret that I was forced to live so far from campus, regret that I was even taking this dumb class.  On particularly bad days (sleet and freezing rain come to mind), I would regret attending college in a city with such ungodly weather or I would regret going to college at all.  I knew I would never survive another 2½ years of this (somehow, I did).

Regret is a tough road to go down.  The older you get, the more the regrets accumulate, piling up like snowflakes in an Albany winter.  To get from one day to the next, you lull yourself into complacency by saying that, all in all, you made the right decisions and that, given the chance, you’d do it all again.  You start singing Sinatra.  “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.”

But then it hits you over the head suddenly.  Or it comes stealing over you as a foreboding sense of dread in the middle of the night.  Those two words.  What if.

You never know what will be the trigger for these head games.  It could be a remark overheard from two cubicles down the hall at work.  It could be a story on the six o’clock news.  Or for one such as myself who daily gorges upon the smorgasbörd that is the internet, it could be lurking stealthily behind any URL or hyperlink.

This week, the regret monster hit me not once, but twice.

First, I read the story of fiftysomething Dan Lyons, who, after being laid off from his editorial job at Newsweek (just like me, when I was laid off from the state court system!), braved the culture shock of joining a startup firm full of 21 year olds with their bean bag chairs, foosball table, free beer and workspace décor “like a cross between a kindergarten and a frat house.”  Damn, I want to do that!  The place was presided over by a charismatic leader pushing platitudes that evoke both Orwell and Communist Russia.  I keep hearing that, in the tech sector at least, this is the face of corporate culture today.  It fascinates me, and I wish I were a part of it.  This is the reason that, for the last couple of years, I’ve had a vague fantasy love affair with the idea of working for Zappo’s in Las Vegas.  (I unsubscribed from their emails some time ago in order not to be repeatedly reminded of what I’m missing out on in my gray, government bureaucratic job.)

As if that weren’t bad enough, I then ran across an article about people who make a living (get this) writing dictionaries! Kory Stamper’s new book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, tells the story of what it’s like to be a lexicographer with Merriam-Webster.  For one who is a word nerd and who has loved the intricacies of the English language since childhood, this seems like the ultimate dream job.  I recall reading Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything, about the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary, when it was published almost 15 years ago.  Not long after, at a job interview, I was asked what would be my ideal job if I could do anything in the world.  The interviewer told me his was “rock star.”  I didn’t hesitate when I told him that I wanted to be the editor of the OED.  Need I say that I didn’t get the job?

Alas, nothing is ever as good as it sounds.  Decades ago, I read (mostly while standing in the aisle of a bookstore in Paramus, New Jersey, as I couldn’t afford to actually buy the book) Scott Turow’s memoir of his first year at Harvard Law School.  One L mesmerized me and was certainly one of the factors that influenced me to eventually attend law school.  Yet as much as Turow waxed poetic over “learning to love the law,” I never managed to quite pull off that particular flavor of amour.  I wonder if I’d be similarly disappointed if I were, like Stamper, “falling in love with words.”  The irony that Merriam-Webster is located in Springfield, Massachusetts, the same fading industrial city in which I attended law school, is not lost on me.

Regret returns with a vengeance to bite me in the ass again!  As a third-rate student at a second-rate law school, I suppose that I shouldn’t have been surprised upon graduating from the big U to the little u (unemployment).  The only employer willing to hire me was Wendy’s (yes, that one, home of the Frosty), and even they were concerned about whether they could find a uniform large enough to fit me.  I ended up going back home to New York to work for a temp agency until I finally found a low-paying job as a typesetter with a weekly newspaper.  I would lay awake at night regretting having wasted three years and untold thousands of dollars, and thinking about burning my law diploma, or tearing it to bits and putting it out with the trash, or perhaps using it as toilet paper and flushing it down the loo (no telling what that would have done to the wonky septic system in my parents’ house).  And all of that when look what I could have done!  I could have just driven my aging Pontiac down to Federal Street and asked for an application to work as a lexicographer!  If only I had known.  How dumb was I not to know what was available right in the very city in which I lived?

I must confess:  After reading the review of Stamper’s book and staring a bit too wistfully at the MW dictionary with the red cover that I’ve owned since junior high and that now graces my desk at work, I couldn’t resist taking a peek at Merriam-Webster’s website to see if there were any jobs posted.  My labor was all in vain.  While the link to “Join MWU” was tantalizing, it was not about joining the staff but about paying $29.95 annually to join an email subscription to definitions to “over 250,000 words that aren’t in our free dictionary.”  There was a “contact” link on the website, but none of the categories on the drop-down menu had anything at all to do with career opportunities.

The fog soon cleared and it all started to make sense.  Stamper herself admits that when she first tells others that she works writing dictionaries, “one of the first things they ask is if we’re hiring.”  Well, it wasn’t long before I came across another article citing that, with the popularity of free dictionaries online, Merriam-Webster, which didn’t have a large staff to begin with, recently laid off seventy employees.

All of which teaches me that you can’t go home again.  Even Dan Lyons soon left the startup for greener pastures.  Scott Turow became a novelist.  And Kay Stamper, while still a lexicographer, no longer occupies an office in the brick building on Federal Street, but now telecommutes from her home near Philadelphia.

Life goes on, but I know that, sooner or later, I will read or hear or see something that will once again have me craning my neck to make out the number of the bus that has passed me by.  As my wife often reminds me, I need to learn to be content, to count my blessings.  To tell that bus “later, gator.”

And it’s true.  Life’s been good, so there’s no need to constantly ruminate about the road not taken.  Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention…

Three Visits With My Parents

Mahzor

Have prayer book, will travel . . .

Among the effects of having one’s children early is that when you’re old and would like your kids to take care of you, they’ll be old, too.  Granted, they won’t be as old as you are, but old nevertheless.  As in you’ll be able to go out to eat together and both of you will get the senior discount.  Both of you will be getting Social Security checks in the mail.  I mean, think about it.  When you’re 85, they’ll be 65.

I visited my parents three times during the month of September.  That’s a total of 18 hours of driving.  The first time was a birthday party for my wife’s little niece.  Then came Rosh Hashannah.  And finally, Yom Kippur.

My parents are 83 years old and they don’t go to synagogue anymore.  My father never went to synagogue to begin with (being somewhere on the agnostic/atheist spectrum) and my mother has had some type of falling out with the synagogue she had been attending.  There are three synagogues in her area, and she finds them all to be money-grubbing.  I am inclined to agree.  I appreciate the need of a synagogue to pay the light bill and the expenses of keeping up the building, not to mention the cost of running its programs, but the strong-arm tactics that they use to squeeze money out of attendees are a bit much.  These days, many synagogues have financial directors who want to see your tax returns to determine how much you earn and to calculate how much you should be paying toward support of the congregation.  It has become fairly standard in the United States for synagogues to charge non-members hefty fees for attending High Holy Day services.  And even organizations like Chabad that claim never to require payment of participants hold an endless round of dinners and speakers before or after services, requesting that attendees pay hefty fees for attendance.  Disclosure:  I do support one of our local Chabad congregations and, frankly, I’m getting sick of their constant emails begging for money.

In my mother’s case, the discomfort engendered by this situation is exacerbated by the fact that she drags my reluctant father with her every time she attends synagogue.  This is mostly because my mother doesn’t drive anymore (she’s perfectly capable, but has chosen to have my car-loving father do all the driving for the past 20 years or so), but also because she won’t go anywhere alone.  She says it makes her feel like a widow.  (In some respects, she is.  My father won’t admit that he’s lost a large part of his hearing, which has already resulted in some dangerous situations in which he could not hear my mother calling him.  Also, they sit in separate rooms and do their own things most of the time.)

At age 83, my parents seem to feel that they are at the stage of life when they can pretty much say whatever they want without consequences.  This has borne some interesting results.  It has caused a number of ugly moments between Mom and my wife, for example.  And when it comes to synagogue, my father, a nonbeliever, feels compelled to comment on the rabbi’s teachings or even challenge them outright.  The rabbi’s young son doesn’t help the situation by running out of the sanctuary to loudly announce to his mother “He’s at it again!”

Patio

On the patio at Mom and Dad’s.  Notice the hummingbird at the feeder.

My mother says she’s tired of “getting it from both ends” (the rabbi and my father).  Under the circumstances, I don’t blame her for passing on synagogue attendance.  For both Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur, I made the trip down to the Central Valley, mahzor (prayer book) in hand and held my own little service for Mom’s benefit.  On Rosh Hashannah, we did this at the kitchen table (with my uninterested father sitting out on the patio), and on Yom Kippur, outdoors.  The weather was fine (unlike the freezing cold temperatures that we remember from High Holidays of yore on the east coast) and we got to watch the hummingbirds at the feeder and the sheep next door while we atoned for our sins and prayed for forgiveness.  It was a kick to get my cantorial singing voice on and, all told, it was a rather moving experience to spend this time with Mom.  I can’t help but wonder how many more opportunities I will have to do this.

Sheep

Mom had a large container full of salad that was past its prime, so I got to feed the sheep next door.  There were only three rams and the entire flock of ewes was pregnant.  Baaaa!

The weekend after Rosh Hashannah, still hanging out at my parents’ house, Mom decided to lay a heavy on me by providing instructions for her burial.  This is not as simple as it sounds.  She wants to be laid to rest with her parents at the family plot in New York City.  My wife and I visited the graves of my grandparents there both this year and last during two trips to the eastern seaboard.  Two plots occupied, six more vacant.  It was hard not to think of a time when two more plots will be occupied.  I now know that my mother wishes to be buried directly in front of her mother.  I also know which funeral home to use, as well as a little about what must be done to fly a body from Fresno to LaGuardia.  Uh, um, I guess I wasn’t really ready for this.  But guess what, it looks like the time has arrived for me to grow up and face the facts.  My parents aren’t going to be around forever.

Perhaps the most intriguing factor in this little drama is the uncertainty involved.  Will Dad go first?  He keeps pointing out that, statistically, the husband usually dies before the wife.  My mind fills with pictures of supporting a grief-stricken Mom on a cross-country flight, preceded by taking a screamer down the 99 in the middle of the night when we get the news.  How fast can we throw a week’s worth of clothes in a suitcase?  Yikes.  And then, what would become of Mom?  She doesn’t want to live all alone in that big house way out where the cattle graze on the rangeland.  There is no room for her to live with us in our rented tiny house, where my wife and I are barely able to keep from tripping over one another.  She could always go live with one of my sisters (either the one in the Bay Area or the one in Boston), which I know would not be a particularly pleasant experience for her.  She wants me to retire so my wife and I can come live in her house and take care of her.  Let’s just say that this is unlikely.  There are too many reasons to count.

But what if Mom went first and Dad were left all alone?  He is a loner by nature and probably wouldn’t mind being in that house by himself.  But he doesn’t cook and, despite everything, I suspect that he’d be horribly lonely.  My wife and I were discussing this recently and we agreed that he probably wouldn’t live long if Mom went first.

Let us not forget that there is, at least from my perspective, a third scenario.  As I started off this post my mentioning, when you have children early, they get old right along with you.  I am no spring chicken myself.  Nor am I in the best of health.  What if I shuffle off this mortal coil before my parents do?  My wife knows that I am adamant about being buried here in California rather than having my dead body dragged across the country to a final resting place in (ick) Queens.  (My sisters don’t want to be buried there either, with the likely result that the remaining four plots will remain unoccupied for the next hundred years or so.)  But what of my parents then?  My father, who has long since informed me that if I die he will never forgive me (?), might not last long due to grief.  Perhaps the same is true of Mom.  I certainly hope not, but there it is.  I suppose my sisters will be particularly angry with me for dying when they realize that they now have to deal with Mom and Dad.  I giggle thinking of this.

Sigh.  The whole situation brings on a feeling not unlike that of an impending train wreck that cannot be avoided.  We are clearly heading down that track and all I can do is close my eyes and hold on tight.  I keep telling my parents that, considering their relatively good health, there is no reason that they should not live to 100.  I seriously hope they do.  I figure that things will eventually fall into place, one way or another.

In the meantime, my parents solicited my assistance in planning a celebration in honor of their 65th wedding anniversary.  Sixty-five years of fussin’ and fightin’.  Sixty-five years of bickering and cussin’.  (Mom is bewildered that Dad goes around muttering “Shit!” and “Pain in the ass!” under his breath all day, failing to realize that he is referring to, um, her.)  Their anniversary date is Christmas Eve, just 78 days from this evening.  My sister and her husband are expected to be in California for other reasons around that time, so we’re hoping to arrange for all of us to be together.  We are planning to split the festivities into two parts.  One part will be with my sisters and some of the grandkids near my parents’ home in the Central Valley.  The other part will be with my wife’s family near our home in Sacramento (most of them live 40 to 80 miles north of here).  They are thinking of having a dinner at a Golden Corral, a family buffet place just down the street from us.  They want streamers and balloons.  And invitations.  Thoughts of printing costs and hand calligraphy flashed through my pea brain before I broke the news to Mom about a little thing called Facebook Events.  She knows we do most things electronically these days, but doesn’t want to know about it.  Fine, whatever works, she says.

By the way, I have been trying to convince my parents to purchase iPhones.  They have pre-paid cell phones, although they don’t know how to use most of the features (neither do I).  I think I made my best pitch yet when we were discussing the anniversary party.  Mom says she doesn’t know when it will be held exactly, as she doesn’t know when the school at which my sister teaches will be on vacation.  It’s a Jewish school, so she thought that Sis might be off during Hanukkah rather than around Christmas.  My sister recently moved from Dallas to Boston, so I am not aware of her current employer.  “What school is that?” I asked Mom.  She didn’t know either.  So I whipped out my phone, Googled Jewish day schools in Boston, and checked out a couple of links before Sis’ pic popped up on her school’s website.  Then it was just a matter of clicking around a bit to find the school calendar.  You’re in luck, Mom, she’s off between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

My parents were appropriately impressed by what can be done with a smart phone — at least enough to allow me to show them the simple icons and the ease of accessing features.  “We’d never use most of that stuff,” my mother protested.

Guess what you’re getting for your anniversary, Mom and Dad!

 

Water Signs

La Jolla Sunset

Sunset over Pacific Beach, La Jolla CA

I spent part of this week on a business trip to the southern end of our great state, training staff down in San Diego.  The ocean’s moderating influence on air temperature makes the California coast particularly appealing for inlanders like myself this time of year.  So I was surprised to learn, while watching live video feeds of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey, that San Diego was under an “extreme heat advisory.”  The temperature?  85°F.  What I thought to be pleasant is apparently dangerously hot by San Diego standards.  I suppose it’s all a matter of what one is used to.

Meanwhile, back home in Sacramento, we continue to experience day after scorching day of 100° plus temperatures, as one of the hottest summers on record marches on into September.  Driving north from San Diego, we stopped for lunch in Santa Clarita before chugging over the Grapevine into the Central Valley.  The thermometer in our car displayed an outdoor temperature of 112°F.  It felt like a flashback to our three years of living out in the Mojave Desert.  Our holiday weekend promises more of the same, with the Saturday temperature forecast to hit 111° here in California’s capital.  We hide out in our tiny house and blast the A/C.  150 miles to our south, my octogenarian parents (who rarely turn on the central air in their large home) have been paying $400 per month in electricity bills just to keep the house cool enough to avoid heat stroke.

During the monotonous 1,000 mile plus round trip to and from San Diego, it was hard not to notice the roadside signs and billboards up and down the Central Valley along Interstate 5 and Highway 99.  I am a bit too young to remember the whimsical Burma Shave signs of yesteryear, but old enough to recall the goofy South of the Border signs that dot Interstate 95 through North Carolina as one approaches that tourist trap in Dillon, S.C.  Anyone remember the upside down sign emblazoned with the legend “Pedro Feex Later?”  It sounds more than a bit racist now, but as a child in the 1970s, I didn’t know any better and thought it was hilarious.  This from a New York Jewish white boy who had never met a Mexican-American and didn’t know what a tortilla is until the age of 35.

Here in California, the signs planted in the fields along the vast empty expanse of freeway cutting through Fresno, Kings and Kern Counties shy away from cheesy advertising in favor of pleas for water.  Yes, water.  You have to live here to appreciate the never-ending political and financial battles over obtaining more water for agricultural purposes.  Now, I don’t pretend to know a thing about California water politics, but I am aware of the constant shrieking and hand-wringing over the relative merits of building tunnels in the Bay Area and high-speed rail service between San Francisco and Los Angeles as opposed to making greater efforts to satisfy the seemingly insatiable thirst of our farmers.  I also hear a lot about diversion of Sierra Nevada snow melt runoff away from the Central Valley to satisfy the water needs of southern California cities.  Amidst allegations of the south stealing the north’s water, I am reminded of the nation’s bitter division during the Civil War.  Indeed, there are perennial proposals for everything from California’s secession from the Union to dividing our sprawling state into two, four, six or eight states of more manageable size with greater local control.  If you don’t believe me, check out hashtag #calexit on Twitter or this recent article from the Sacramento Bee or this one from the Los Angeles Times.  In California, land of the ballot proposition, anything (no matter how outrageous) can be put to a vote.

With water being the essence of life, it is difficult for anyone to argue against it.  However, the signs along the freeway have a tendency to pander to base instincts at the expense of rational thought.  One is led to believe that providing more water to California’s agricultural interests is a “no brainer.”  But is it, really?  And so, without further ado, I present for your entertainment two of my favorite roadside signs that I have seen in multiple locations with a number of minor variations.

“Is growing food wasting water?”  The most recent version of this sign features a photo of a young boy with a puzzled expression scratching his head.  Um, well, for starters, define your terms, please.  What exactly do you mean by “growing food?”  Perhaps you are referring to California’s famous fields of lettuce, onions and tomatoes, our orange groves and almond orchards, our world-renowned vineyards.  Or perhaps what you really mean are the vast hay and alfalfa fields that suck up water to feed, not our people, but the animals that power the state’s beef cattle, dairy and poultry industries.  This type of “growing food” leaves us with a legacy of methane gas that contributes mightily to global warming (I told you it was hot) and waterways polluted with millions of tons of animal feces.  If you should happen to think I’m being overly dramatic, by all means take a ride down I-5 past Coalinga and catch a whiff as you whizz by Harris Ranch.  The hubris of that operation in posting billboards advertising its restaurant boggles my mind.  How would you like your shit today, sir?  Rare, medium or well done?

Is growing food wasting water, you ask?  I’m surprised that the state’s agricultural industry has the nerve to bring this up.  It sure is wasting water when used to sustain hungry and thirsty livestock just long enough to kill the poor beasts and turn them into hamburgers, steaks and Chicken McNuggets.  If raising animals for meat and dairy were banned from the state, we’d have more than enough water to grow the plants needed to feed our own people and export to neighboring states and to the world.  But agricultural interests don’t want you to know that.  They must think we’re ignorant, stupid or both.

“No water for valley farms = No jobs!”  Oh, goodness, you’ve got to love this one.  Again, define your terms, please.  No jobs doing what??  No jobs picking grapes, strawberries and citrus?  Check out this article in today’s paper, suggesting that a significant reduction in the number of undocumented Mexicans crossing into the United States to perform backbreaking labor in the fields at low wages has resulted in increased automation and fewer jobs.  This has nothing to do with water.

Then, of course, one must consider the folly of the paradigm that is California’s agriculture industry.  The PR people will tell you that we are “the nation’s salad bowl” and that we feed the world.  Excuse me, but why?  Anyone who thinks about our climate for even a minute would have to at least ask.  The climate of California’s Central Valley is Mediterranean, just one tick shy of desert.  We are a very dry place.  It doesn’t rain at all here for most of the year.  Our water supply depends largely on how much snow the state’s northern and eastern mountains get in the wintertime.  The phrase “seven years of drought” is bandied about regularly.  Yes, we have year-round sunshine and suitable land, but who in their right mind would plan extensive agriculture in a desert climate with little water?  All of us need a steady, reliable water supply for our homes and families.  I say people before agriculture.

Our state’s agricultural industry is largely dependent on irrigation.  That means bringing in water from elsewhere because we don’t have much here naturally.  Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to concentrate our nation’s plant-growing operations in areas that God has blessed with plenty of water instead of in the desert?  The Pacific Northwest and New England come to mind.  Why deprive the people of our cities of their water supply in order to run the Rain Birds and sprinklers that prop up the state’s agriculture?

When the sign says that no water means no jobs, what it really means is that no water means no agricultural jobs.  The state’s big agricultural interests would have us believe that we’ll all be out of work unless we kowtow to their demands to commandeer our scarce water supplies so they can keep making money.  This is a lie, pure and simple.

I have to laugh when I hear the wry suggestion that the entire valley be paved over to bring all the call centers here from India and the Philippines.  I do get it, though.  We have evolved into a post-agricultural, post-industrial economy that focuses on the information industry.  Concentrating our state’s economic efforts in that direction instead of wasting them on irrigation not only fits with the realities of climate change but would also create plenty of jobs and bring renewed prosperity to California.

 

Uncle Guac’s Stupid Sign of the Day

(Hand-written on green construction paper and taped to a telephone pole.  I wish I could have taken a photo of it, but I was driving.)

I will buy your house for ca$h!  Call Larry.

Oooh, Larry, now aren’t you a stud?  Put that dollar bill away, you big spender, you.  Actually, I’m not looking for ca$h.  I was kind of hoping you would pay me in chicken eggs.  Bawk!

Jury Duty Fake-Out

About a month ago, when we drove down to the main drag to pick up our mail, I plucked a surprise out of our post office box.  In large red letters, the envelope announced JURY SUMMONS.

My first thought was “oh, what a pain.”  I am so busy at work and this will interfere with my travels to southern California to conduct the training classes that I’ve been planning for months.  My second though was “it will be fun and interesting to serve on a jury again.”

What did not go through my mind was the thought that everyone else seems to have in such situations:  “How can I get out of it?”  My wife tells stories of how her late father wouldn’t vote for fear of being added to county lists of potential jurors.  Apparently, he was not alone.  These days, I hear they use DMV lists for this purpose.  Lots of people don’t vote but, at least in California, almost everyone drives.

I believe there is a reason it’s called “jury duty.”  Serving when called is a civic duty, not unlike the obligation to pay taxes.  In both cases, failure to fulfill one’s obligation to society can land you behind bars.

I remember the first time I was called for jury duty.  This was back in New York.  I was in my twenties and hadn’t much of a clue about the process.  Then, as now, summoned jurors were expected to call the day before and listen to a recording to hear whether the group number on the summons was called to report.  Sure enough, my number was up right away.  I reported to the courthouse, sat in the jury assembly room for a couple of hours and was eventually called to voir dire in a civil case.  The twelve jurors were selected, and I was up for one of the two alternate spots.  Now, I had no intention of sitting through a trial just to be sent home without the opportunity to sit in deliberation with the other jurors.  Being young and foolish, I viewed this as a waste of time instead of the integral part of the process that it is.  Fortunately for me, I knew one of the people on the witness list and hoped that mentioning this fact would get me excused.  When one of the attorneys asked if there was any reason I would be unable to serve as a fair and impartial juror, I got out exactly one word of my answer.  “Well,” I began, and was immediately cut off by the judge who asked me not to say anything further.  Excused!  I suppose they were concerned that I would say something that would prejudice the other jurors.

Years later, I finally did serve when I lived down in the Central Valley.  It was a criminal trial involving lots of drug charges and a group of people who had a nice little business running a meth lab out in the sticks.  I was so glad when we were able to convict those miscreants.

Last weekend, I dialed the number on the jury summons to see if my group had been called.  The message said to call back after five on Monday.  When I did so, my group number was up for Tuesday.  I texted my boss to let her know that duty called.

My wife dropped me off at the courthouse downtown, an impressive six-story edifice reached from the street by means of two flights of stairs and walking across a plaza.  For those of us who have mobility issues but are not in wheelchairs, this can be daunting.  As it is, the traffic was bad downtown and we had a heck of a time navigating the maze of one-way streets leading to the courthouse.  I was already late and we were not about to drive around some more looking for the correct one-way street that might lead to a side of the courthouse that would have a handicapped ramp.  Gripping the railings,  I slowly pulled myself up all those steps, carrying my little Whole Foods bag packed with enough food and water for the duration.

After being scanned through the metal detector, I headed for the elevator up to the jury assembly room.  Riding up with several others, one of my fellow occupants of the lift remarked that she smelled popcorn.  Another said that all we needed now was a movie.  A third assured us that we would indeed see a movie shortly.  I rolled my eyes.  Probably a little five-minute flag-waving video about the important part that jurors play in the judicial system and the democratic process generally.  I had no idea of what was to come.

Exiting the elevator, I was confronted with a mass of humanity.  A large open mezzanine with what seemed like hundreds of seats was completely full.  I learned where the start of the line was and was shocked.  The line snaked around and around the mezzanine, eventually turning into a hallway and then into the jury assembly room, where it again snaked around several corners.  I could not begin to estimate how many people were present.

Fortunately, the courthouse was a cool respite from the 100 degree plus heat outside.  However, I questioned whether I would be able to stand on my feet long enough to reach the end of the line.  I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly the line moved along.  In less than 15 minutes, I was able to collect my badge holder and show my summons to the clerk behind the window.  I was told to take a seat.

Um, where?  I did not see a single seat that was vacant.  I peeked into an adjoining room.  Also full.  I walked up and down the aisles until I found a seat that was occupied not by a person but by a cell phone and a bag.  “Is anyone sitting here?” I asked.  I figured that the owner of those belongings had probably run to the rest room and would be right back.  Luckily, I was wrong.  The occupant of the adjacent seat picked up the items and I was able to sit down.  Whew!

By then, I was the one who needed to use the rest room.  I was reluctant to abandon my seat, however, for fear that I would not find another.  I noticed that several people were standing, leaning against the walls.

The jury clerk welcomed us over a microphone that could be heard both in the jury assembly room and out in the mezzanine, where the snaking line continued to deliver more potential jurors to the window.  “We’re going to have a party!” the cheerful clerk announced.  Oh, brother.

The assistant presiding judge came in, took the mike and thanked us for participating in the judicial process.  There were 580 of us today, he announced.  He could just as well have said 5,080 and I would have believed.  Men, women, young ones, old ones, guys in T-shirts, guys in suits, women in jeans, women dressed to the nines.  People working on the jigsaw puzzles set out at four stations.  People talking on cell phones, reading the newspaper, texting, playing games on iPads, doing homework while balancing laptops and textbooks.  People staring off into space.  People chatting with each other.  People ignoring their neighbors.  People with their eyes closed, seemingly asleep.

I texted work, checked email and then put my phone away for fear that I’d run out of charge.  No outlets in which to plug a charging cord were in evidence.  The clerk announced that the courthouse plaza was being used in the evenings as a homeless encampment and that the court could not vouch for the cleanliness of the picnic tables and benches outside.  Then she told us she’d put on some movies, but that they were all rated PG.  Sounds about right for a courthouse.

There were two flat screen TVs in the jury assembly room, on which a steady stream of Blu-Ray movies were shown all day.  I wondered whether they showed the same movies over and over, day in and day out, and whether the clerks ever got bored with them.

The first movie was a kids’ flick with Billy Crystal and Bette Midler, Parental Guidance.  The premise involved a washed-up baseball announcer and his wife taking care of their spoiled rotten grandkids for a week.  I actually watched most of this unfunny comedy, at least until it became to stupid to bear.  Then came Zookeeper, which I think was supposed to be a romantic comedy, featuring a talking lion, giraffe, gorilla, monkey and other assorted members of a loquacious menagerie.  Appropriately, I suppose, Adam Sandler was the voice of the monkey.  I guess I made it through about half the film before I couldn’t take the stupidity.  That was followed by You Again and several others, by which time I had totally zoned out and stopped paying attention.

Every so often, the clerk would pause the movie to read off a list of names of those who were to report to a particular courtroom for jury selection.  She urged us to say “Here!” nice and loudly when our names were called so that she, or her counterpart with the hundreds out in the mezzanine, could be checked off the list.  She began to read the list.  With each name, I heard the cry of “Here!” either close by or faintly off in the distance.  As to the unseen masses sitting out in the mezzanine, we’d here a loud “Chirp!” to announce that the person called had acknowledged his or her presence out in the other room.  I assume that the chirp was issued by a handheld device used by the clerk working the mezzanine.

Three panels were called, but my name was not.  Then an hour and a half break for lunch.  Most of the crowd left, but I stayed tight and pulled out my sandwich, carrots, grapes and bottles of water.

Thanks to the lovely medications I take, I had to use the rest room several times throughout the day.  The first time, I waited as long as I possibly could until finally making a mad dash for the men’s room before my bladder burst.  Upon my return, to my surprise, my seat was still vacant.  Well, what do you know!  And I didn’t even have to yell “spot back!”

The second time I wasn’t so lucky, but managed to find a seat closer to the door and farther away from the squawking Blu-Ray movies.

After lunch, two more panels were called, but still my name was not heard.  Finally, about 3 pm, the clerk announced that the courtrooms had confirmed that no more jurors would be needed that day.  Those of us remaining would be excused in groups.  When our group number was called, we were to report to the window, turn in our badge holders and receive a slip acknowledging our service.  Under California’s “one day/one trial” rule, we were reassured that we would not be called again for at least 18 months.

I texted my wife to come retrieve me and went out to sit just inside the front door of the courthouse.  It was 105 degrees outside and I did not relish the thought of sitting on a step in the broiling sun while my wife navigated the downtown traffic.

I was a bit disappointed that I was not called to sit on a trial, but also a little relieved.  Now I could return to work to prepare for my upcoming trip down south.

But if summoned again in 2019 to do my civic duty, I plan to answer the call and once again show up at the courthouse to sit all day with masses of my fellow Sacramentans.  After all, I do appreciate the freedoms that we Americans enjoy, including the guarantee of a trial by a jury of our peers.  So, as I see it, it’s the least I can do.

 

Nine Days, or Wound Care for the Clueless

scrabble-cat

Sumi, my first Scrabble partner at last week’s tournament.  I think his name is supposed to sound Japanese, although to me it just sounds litigious.

Monday

It rained most of last night and it’s still raining.  The Cosumnes River is expected to overflow (again) by Wednesday if this keeps up.  The weather people say this will go on all week.

My second day out of work.  I am missing a big conference that I organized.  Tomorrow, I am supposed to train staff over in the Napa Valley, but I have sent a subordinate in my place.  I try not to think about work too much, instead concentrating on what I can do to help my wife.

It’s a lot easier not having to apply those bandages every couple of hours.  The disposable Depends are very convenient and I thank God for them.  Unfortunately, my wife’s feet are starting to swell.  I send an email to her doctor but receive no response.

My wife’s cousin comes to visit, bringing along larger pairs of Crocs and some slippers that make it more comfortable for my wife to walk around.  More importantly, however, she is going to help my wife learn to inject insulin.  At the hospital, they found that her diabetes is out of control and that this was the likely cause of her infection.  We’ve both been on oral blood sugar lowering medication for some time, but we had no idea it had gotten this bad.  I just had my own A1C read a few days ago and was still within a reasonable range.

Typically, my wife checks her blood sugar only once in a while.  I don’t do it at all.  Sharps of any kind freak me out.  I have had nightmares about syringes and needles since childhood.  So now we have two types of insulin on hand for my wife, slow acting for bedtime and fast acting for before meals.  Now she gets to check her blood sugar and inject insulin throughout the day.  I pinch myself but am unable to wake up from my nightmare.

While my wife is getting an injection lesson, I head out to do the errands.  Gas up the car, visit two supermarkets, pick up mail from the post office, return a large load of items to Walmart.  My nieces had gone shopping to pick up some supplies for my wife on the day she was discharged from the hospital.  Unfortunately, most of what they bought turned out to be unneeded or didn’t work for us.

The rain continues to fall and we wonder if the power will go out when the winds pick up.  Insulin, I have learned, must be refrigerated.

I drive around town with the wipers going, getting wet at every stop.  My wife usually does most of the driving, which suits me fine.  I have never enjoyed driving and have never been very good at it.  For decades, this was an embarrassment to my father, who had a long career as a driver education teacher.  My reluctance to drive was something of a family joke in my younger years.  Eventually, I got over it to some extent, even driving across country by myself on one occasion.  But when I think of the number of auto accidents I have had over the years, and the fact that my wife (who has been driving longer than I have) has never had an accident, I am glad that she does most of the driving.  So to head out in the rain, among drivers who are not used to inclement weather and are hydroplaning speed demons, is right on the very edge of my comfort zone.  My limited driving experience in the area inevitably results in a wrong turn that finds me in a part of town with which I am unfamiliar.  I turn around, stop and map every stop on my phone after that.

But I am in luck today.  My niece has called me for help in applying for a job online.  Cantaloupes are on sale for a dollar each at Sprouts.  I find a handicapped spot directly in front of the Walmart entrance, along with a conveniently located shopping cart to haul in all the returns.  I lean against the cart in the lobby, my jacket dripping, while the clerk takes forever to remove each item from the cart and then from their bags, scanning everything individually and issuing red stickers from his handheld point of sale device.  Then, of course, I still have to stand in line at the customer service counter and then wait while the clerk examines each item yet again.

Then it’s back out in the rain.

 

Sunday

8:30 am.  We wake up to the phone ringing.  It’s my wife’s doctor, calling a bit early.  We relate our woes, letting her know that we have only one bandage left, enough for one wound dressing change.  She suggests that we come into the clinic, open until 12:30 pm, no appointment necessary.  The nurse will check the incisions for signs of infection and will supply us with bandages.

Up and at ‘em.  Shower, clean and dry the incisions, apply the last bandage.  Out the door and head across town.  We’ve been to the clinic several times, as this is where I typically have my blood drawn.  We park in our usual place and start searching around for the clinic.  Most of the departments that we pass are dark and empty, befitting a Sunday morning.  We walk and walk, quite slowly, with my poor wife holding onto the wall.  We had no idea that we had parked at the wrong end of the complex.

We stop to rest on a bench, get a drink of water.  Elevator up to the third floor.  Walk some more.  We arrive at the clinic, check in, sit and wait.  Eventually, we are called, only to be told that we were supposed to have an appointment (despite what the doctor told us), that they have no supplies at that location and that there was no one to check the incisions.  Go to the emergency room, they tell us.

Understandably, my wife is angry.  We hoof it all the way back to the car.  We have a folded bedsheet in the car’s hatchback that we use as a liner.  I pull it out so that my wife has something soft to sit on.  I drive to the hospital.  Another car zips into the last available parking space in the emergency room lot.  A man relaxes in the car, cigarette dangling out of his month.  We wait for someone to leave so that we can park.  We spy a Staxi abandoned in the parking lot.  I grab it and give my wife a push across the lot and into the emergency room.  We wait in one line, then another line, then sit and wait to be called.  We contemplate a second emergency room copay in a week.

A nurse takes us in back, checks my wife’s blood pressure and send us back out to the waiting room until an exam room becomes available.  When we are finally called, I try not to be rattled by the moans and groans of the occupants of the other bays.  One woman yells out in pain every few minutes.  We are visited by a doctor, a nurse, a patient care technician.  They agree to hunt around for the bandage size we need.  Their initial search turns up empty, and they agree to check the fourth floor.  A few minutes later and, voilà, a tech shows up with a grand total of four bandages.  We could just purchase them online, we realize, at a price of $83 for eight bandages.  One such package would last us a day or so.

The nurse recounts how his wife had a similar incision and drainage due to an infection.  She used large size Depends rather than expensive bandages, he tells us.  Another alternative, he suggests, would be to use sterile gauze pads.  He asks me to glove up and try it out.  The first set of disposable gloves doesn’t begin to fit my distended hands.  He then exchanges them for a larger size that I am just barely able to pull on.  I soon realize that this exercise is for naught, as the nurse intends to apply the gauze himself.  To do so, he uses a large quantity of medical tape, crisscrossing the gauze in every direction.  This is going to be a doozy to remove later, I think, and I am right.  I found myself trying to release her from all that tape quickly when she needed to hit the toilet.  It was a painful experience for her, and I amazed that I managed to avoid pulling her skin off with the tape.

Next stop is Walgreen’s for a box of Depends.

 

Saturday night

9:30 on a Saturday night.  I’m calling around to the few pharmacies that are still open to try to find sterile bandages that are the right size to cover my wife’s surgical wound.  No one has heard of this type of bandage.  No one has another brand in this size.

At discharge this afternoon, the hospital gave my wife seven bandages to take home.  They did not tell us that this supply would not even get us through the night, never mind for the next couple of weeks.

Nor did they show me how to apply said bandages to my wife, nor did they explain how to clean the incisions.  I get to figure this out by myself.  Yay!

I call Kaiser for help, listen to inane recordings (I can now tell you quite a bit about their women’s hot flash and menopause clinic, as well as about their weight loss meal replacement program) and get transferred to three different people before I finally get disconnected while on hold.  I think:  Is this what socialized medicine is like in the rest of the world?

Kaiser calls back, apologizes for the disconnection.  Can we talk to your wife to make sure that we have permission to talk to you?  HIPAA (or “HIPAApotamus,” as one of the hospital nurses put it yesterday) has got to be one of the most annoying laws ever passed by Congress.  The nurse attempts to troubleshoot, seemingly aghast that, in all her years of service, she has never been asked such a question.  She suggests we return to the hospital floor from which my wife was discharged to ask for more.  (They had told us that we were given all the bandages they had.)  She suggests checking a medical supply store.  (On a Saturday night?)  We settle on a telephone appointment with a doctor in the morning.  By happy serendipity, it’s my wife’s regular doctor.

My wife points out that we have nothing to complain about, reminding me that we just talked to a health care professional on a Saturday night and will have a consultation with her doctor on a Sunday morning.  I step down from my high horse.

 

Thursday

My wife has been in the hospital all week.  I have been attending mandatory offsite training all week.  This turns out to be quite a combination.

I arrive at the training site across town an hour early to avoid traffic.  I dump my grits packets into my bowl and head to the break room to apply boiling hot water.  Then back to the training classroom, where I have some Earth Balance vegan margarine stashed in my bag for application to said grits.

I text a good morning to my wife.  She has had a bad night in the hospital, vomiting due to medication being pushed on her when she hadn’t eaten anything.  I can’t say that I blame her.  The so-called food there looks and smells positively disgusting.

When the trainer sends us on a break at 10:30, I check my phone and find that my wife has texted.  She has to have surgery tonight.  I try not to panic.  What kind of surgery??  She does not respond.

Lunchtime, I text my mother-in-law.  “Mom, are you coming???”  Yes, she says, along with my sister-in-law and my niece.  When class lets out at 4, I inform the trainer that I will not be present tomorrow for the last day of training due to my wife’s surgery.  She tells me I can make it up later.  I head straight for the hospital, where I learn the nature of the surgery and the plans to do it between 6 and 7 pm.  My wife’s family shows up, but when 8:00 arrives and still no surgery, they are ready to leave.  They have a 90-minute drive home and have to work tomorrow.  They disappear.  High-ho, the merry-o, the cheese stands alone.

The surgeon has been delayed, we are informed.  The previous procedure has taken much longer than expected.  The surgeon has to rest a little before performing the next one.

At 10 pm, orderlies arrive with a gurney to take my wife off to pre-op, all the way across in the other hospital building.  They walk fast and I can’t keep up with them.  It’s okay; I have a general idea of where I am going.  Turn right, turn left, turn right.  I am used to this part now.  Head outside.  Cross a bridge, then a roadway, then back inside near the emergency room.  Turn right, walk through a long ward, turn left, turn right.  Now I am lost and at the mercy of signs directing me to the appropriate elevator.  I make it to the surgical waiting room.  There is one other person there.  High overhead, near the ceiling, the TV is on.  I am unable to locate a remote to shut off the noise.

I check my phone periodically, but leave it off as much as possible, as it is quickly running out of charge.  I do not want to have a dead phone if I have to contact someone fast.  I should have had the forethought to take my niece’s phone charger, left back in the other hospital building, plugged into my wife’s IV pole.

Midnight.  I don’t know what to do with myself.  I have been up since 5:00 this morning and try not to fall asleep.  I try to ignore the idiotic drivel on the TV.  I walk down the hall, walk back.  I flip through the magazines.  TimeNational Geographic.  Most of them about a year old.

There is a cart full of books and I peruse the titles.  Mostly Reader’s Digest condensed novels (which I refuse to read as a matter of principle) and paperback romances.  I settle for one of the few other items, a legal thriller by Brad Meltzer, The First Counsel.  I move to the other side of the room and read the first couple of chapters.  Some guy is dating the president’s daughter and they go tearing up D.C. on a Saturday night in an ultimately successful effort to shake the Secret Service detail.  A lot of reckless (but not wreckless) driving is involved.  Also a visit to a gay bar and a drop-off of a big stack of cash in a manila envelope out in a remote area.  Poorly written and boring, I think.  I set the book aside.

About the time that Jimmy Kimmel appears on the tube, the phone rings at the deserted information desk in the corner of the surgery waiting room.  My sole companion rushes to pick it up.  He listens for a moment, then starts yelling.  Something about that he should have been informed earlier that they were going to transfer his wife elsewhere.  He slams down the receiver and storms off toward the elevators.

Now I am alone.  Just me and the year-old mags and the romance novels and Jimmy.  At one in the morning, I get the bright idea to use the info desk phone to call the recovery room and see if I can find out anything about what’s become of my wife.  After all, the phone number is right there, laminated for all to see.  Sure enough, they tell me my wife is in recovery and that I can come down.  They give me directions, which are either lamentably poor, or perhaps I am just a dunderhead who can’t follow directions.  I try several wrong doors and hallways before I find the right place and knock on the big double doors.  A staff member comes out to get me.  I ask why they hadn’t called the surgical waiting room and I am told that my wife just came out of surgery a few minutes before.  She looks pretty good for just having been cut, I think.  The anesthesia has not made her sick.  A doctor comes by and gives me the rundown.  My wife asks for water, and it is a while before I can get anyone to bring some.  We are told that she can be wheeled back to her hospital room in about half an hour.  It is now two in the morning and I have been up for 21 hours.  My wife tells me to go home and get some sleep.

I head back out the surgery area and down the elevator, only to realize that I am in an unfamiliar location, likely way on the opposite side of the hospital from where I am parked.  I find a hospital map that appears to confirm my suspicions.  I sit down on a bench for a few minutes before I begin my hike.

After navigating a number of corridors, I regain my bearings.  I sit down by a deserted Starbucks coffee station and call my parents.  Mom said to call and let her know how the surgery went, regardless of the hour.  I tell her all about it.  I confess that I hope I can keep my eyes open long enough to get home.

When I arrive at the final door out to the parking lot, it will not open.  “Oh, come on,” I mutter to myself.  This is supposed to be an automatic door.  Who am I going to be able to find to help me at 2 a.m.?  I notice a sign:  “In emergency, push to open.”  Oh, man, I don’t want to do that, I think.  Alarms and crap are going to go off.

But they cooperate.  I am shocked when the doors fly apart and I am outside in the damp, night air, just a few feet from my waiting vehicle.

 

Wednesday

This is my wife’s second hospital stay of our married life.  Last time was nine years ago, when we lived in Fresno and she landed at St. Agnes Hospital (referred to locally as “St. Agony” or “St. Anguish”) after contracting a virulent strain of flu.  They stuck her in the quarantine ward, fearing that it was the dreaded H1N1, which it turned out not to be.  I’m hoping that the script is more or less the same this time, complete with a prompt discharge, some pills to take home and a rapid recovery.  But I know that this time is different.  I can feel it.

The quarantine ward at Saint A’s was annoying for visitors, who were required to don a gown, hat and gloves (an outfit you can really sweat in).  For the patient, however, it was nice and quiet.  The 1 West building at Kaiser Hospital in Sacramento could be described as the diametric opposite.  Daytime and nighttime blend into a haze of 24-hour alarms, beeping IVs, patients yelling, nurses and patient care technicians coming and going.  Always someone talking and some machine going off, demanding attention.

Across the hall, a homeless man with apparent mental issues is giving every staff member a hard time.  He raises his voice, argues with everyone, complains about everything and uses the F-word in place of every comma and period.  Tonight, he is griping vociferously that the staff had promised to put a second dinner tray, cornbread chicken, aside for him.  Now he’s hungry again and he wants it.  Unfortunately, the staff can’t seem to locate it.  He makes his anger known repeatedly and loudly.  It is past dinnertime and the staff attempt to placate him by offering whatever leftover trays they can find.  No chicken, but he can have fish.  Oh, but he doesn’t want fish.  After ten minutes of arguing, he tells them to just bring him everything they have.  When his food arrives, he wants salt.  He’s not supposed to have salt.  He starts yelling, finally accepts some Mrs. Dash.  My wife informs me that, earlier in the day, he had become violent, throwing an applesauce so hard that it caromed across the corridor and into her room.

Days later, after my wife comes home and I find myself struggling to clean the incisions and apply bandages, she asks me if I’d rather that she return to the hospital.  I stutter, not knowing how to respond.  No, I do not want you to still be in that hellhole where it’s impossible to get a moment’s peace and quiet, not to mention a few hours of sleep.  Yes, I want you to go back to the hospital where there are people who know what the hell they are doing.  I am so afraid of the incisions getting infected due to my incompetence.  Maybe I’m selfish because I’m lonely here without you and I’m so glad you’re home.  Maybe I’m selfish because this is so much work and I’d rather someone else do it.  Either way, I’m a terrible husband.

Eventually, hospital staff and the home health nurse tell me I’m doing a fine job.  Talk about dumb luck.

Tuesday

The trainer starts today’s class with an ice breaker.  Everyone is supposed to stand up and tell one thing that’s happened within the past 24 hours for which he or she is grateful.  We hear stories of good news at work, good grades reported by grandchildren, sports victories.  When it’s my turn, I say “I don’t usually drive, so I’m grateful that I was able to find this place today with only one wrong turn.”

I expected that my wife was going to give me a ride all week.  I did not expect that she would end up sick in the hospital.

I leave the house at a quarter after six, having mapped the location on my phone.  I try to remember my landmarks.  Go past the 80 freeway, past Grand Avenue and turn left on Arcade.  Get on the Capitol City Expressway and stay in the far right lane.  Get off at the 160 freeway and then off again at Canterbury.  Turn right on Leisure Lane, right on Slobe, left on Commercial, right on Lathrop.  Yes, I am grateful for having found this place without getting lost.

After class, I head back to the hospital.  I have mapped it, but I find myself in the wrong lane by the mall and have to find a place to turn around.  I won’t make that mistake again, I think.

I know from yesterday’s experience that there is no place to park anywhere near the out building where my wife’s hospital bed is located.  I also know that I don’t want to have to do that big outdoor walk over the bridge again.  So I park near the medical office building, which is connected to the main hospital, but not to the building where my wife is.  It’s got to be the better part of a mile walk over there, I think.  I’ll just have to walk slowly and do the best I can.  Follow the signs.  Too bad Google Maps won’t help me with the inside of hospitals.

And then:  Just as I get out of my car, I hear my name called.  It’s the husband of my wife’s cousin.  Cousin is visiting and hubby decided to take a walk and figure out whether there’s a faster way to get from the car to my wife’s hospital room.  I tell him I need to try to walk inside as much as possible and that I was hoping to find a staff member who would give me a push over there in one of the hospital’s personal transport chairs, known as a Staxi.  “I’ll push you,” he immediately tells me.  “God is good,” I mumble.  We walk to the information desk, he installs me in a Staxi, and in five minutes he has pushed me all the way over to my wife’s room on the other side of the complex.

Late at night, when I leave my wife’s side, I am not so lucky.  There is no cousin’s husband and no staff member to help me.  I get to hoof it solo, slow and steady like the tortoise.

 

Monday

It’s my first day of a pain-in-the-neck weeklong mandatory training class.  You’re supposed to take this class as soon as you’re promoted to manager.  After two years as a manager here (and a couple of decades elsewhere), someone finally figured out that I hadn’t had the class yet.  Busted.

Actually, this is only the first half of a two-week training class.  I am scheduled for the other half at the end of the month.  To make matters worse, we have a statewide conference on the very day that I return to work.  Fortunately, I have set it all up in advance.  Then there are deadlines that I must meet and training trips that I have to take.  The timing is very bad indeed.

I don’t do much driving around town and have no idea how to get to the out-of-the-way neighborhood where the training center is located.  My wife has not been feeling too well, but she is familiar with the lay of the land (having grown up here) and drives me over.  She seemed to be feeling a bit better on Saturday, when we had a big family gathering at a restaurant in honor of my birthday.  Yesterday, she seemed tired, although she woke up with me and cooked some food for me to take to the Scrabble tournament in Berkeley.  This morning, she was upset that I had not woken up early enough and that I might be late to my first day of training due to the traffic.  We just make it in time.

Since my wife was upset with me, I paid attention to how she zigzagged from one side road and freeway to the next to get to the training center.  You know, just in case she were to decide she didn’t want to drive me anymore.  I had no idea how important this would end up being.  I had no idea that she’d be in the hospital for the next week.

When the trainer sends us on our first break of the day, my wife texts to let me know that she was able to schedule an 11 a.m. appointment with her doctor.  Same-day appointments are hard to come by, and even more so with one’s own doctor.  She asks me whether she should go.  Yes, please go, I tell her.  I’ve been telling her that the boil that’s come up on her skin looks infected and needs to be checked.

At lunch, I call her.  She tells me she vomited in the exam room and the doctor said she had a fever and needed to go to the emergency room.  She was on her way there.  I wonder to myself whether she’ll be admitted.

When I don’t hear from her for the rest of the day and she doesn’t show to pick me up, I know what has happened.  I call the hospital, endure the inevitable transfers from person to person, and eventually reach someone in the emergency room who informs me that she is still there.  “She’s on the sicker side,” I’m told, and will be admitted.  Problem:  I am in a distant part of the city with no transportation.  As bad as I am with anything technological, I manage to figure out how to download Uber on my phone.  Soon, a ride to the hospital is headed in my direction.

The driver is very kind, driving around the emergency room parking lot until I find our car.  He even helps me load my belongings into the trunk.  I give him a tip out of the few dollars in cash that I have on me.

I check in with security, receive a stick-on badge and am pointed in the direction of the bay where I find my wife.  Due to the fever and infection, she has been admitted.  They are just about to wheel her over to a hospital room in another building.  “We’re going outside,” the orderly tells her.  “Are you going to be warm enough, or do you need another blanket?”  Outside??!!  You mean these buildings are not connected?  What the heck do they do when it’s pouring down rain?  “This is California,” I’m told when I ask.  “We love the fresh air.”

“Idiots,” I think.  “This would never happen back in New York.”

I can’t keep up with the gurney, despite the fact that the orderly stops several times when I fall way behind.  This is quite a walk.  Head outside.  Down a little path, across a bridge, then into another building to wind around more corridors.  About 30 minutes later, my mother-in-law shows up with her daughter, granddaughter and little great-granddaughter.  My wife is hooked up to an IV, on heavy-duty antibiotics, fluids, insulin.  The family tells me to go home and sleep, they have it under control.

Sleep sounds good to me, but it means that I have to find my way back to the car.  I hadn’t the forethought to leave a trail of bread crumbs, Hansel and Gretl style.  I’m told that I have to go outside and walk over a big bridge to reach the emergency room parking lot where our car is.  Now, I don’t do well walking outdoors.  If there is the slightest bit of wind, I can’t breathe.  My agoraphobia kicks in and I panic.  How the heck am I going to do this???

You have to do it, kid, I tell myself.  You need to be an adult and take care of your sick wife, not make a scene.  “What’s the worst that can happen?” I think.  After all, I’m at a hospital.

I head up over the tall bridge, trying not to hyperventilate.  There’s barely a hint of a breeze, which is very much in my favor.  On the other side, I see the emergency room entrance and a large parking lot.  I wonder whether this is where the Uber driver dropped me off.  And I wonder whether I should go sit in the emergency room for a while to fortify myself for the remainder of this outdoor walk.  No, I tell myself, I must be almost there.  I see the edge of a building, and as I come around the corner, there’s the car.  I made it.

 

Sunday

Berkeley is about 80 miles west of Sacramento via Interstate 80.  Eighty on 80.  This will be my second Scrabble tournament there, my first having been just recently, on New Year’s Day.  I performed very poorly on that occasion, having lost every game.  But I’m a glutton for punishment and I’m back for more.

To me, competitive Scrabble is a lot like playing the video poker machines in Reno, another pastime I enjoy.  It’s not about winning or losing.  It’s about playing the game.

Although I’m not a very good driver and am not good with directions, this is one trip even I can pull off successfully.  The tournament is at the director’s house.  Our homes are each about a mile from the freeway.  Only the long stretch of I-80 stands between me and a good fight over a Scrabble board.

Last time, I had to lug two heavy bags up the host’s steep stairway.  One bag carries my Scrabble board and equipment, the other my food.  There is always plenty of food at a house tournament.  When you’re vegan, however (and gluten-free to boot), you know to bring your own.  I had a hard time pulling those bags up, one at a time, step by step.

I didn’t really know what to expect.  I found out about the New Year’s tournament from a bare mention in an email sent out by another director.  It was our host’s first time directing, and she didn’t publish the particulars in advance.

Now, however, she’s learned by experience.  An email went out to participants with all the details.  Last time, there were an odd number of competitors, and most of us had to have a “bye” (sit out a round).  During my bye, I made the mistake of sitting on my host’s sofa in her living room.  I sunk in and couldn’t get up.  Fortunately, our host is a personal trainer who is strong and extremely physically fit.  She grabbed my arm and pulled with all her might.  She nearly fell over backward, but she got me up.

This time, as soon as I entered, our host informed me that she had set up a playing room downstairs in addition to the upstairs tables.  Would I perhaps like to stay downstairs?  Hmm, and avoid lugging everything up that flight of stairs?  Oh, yes!

The host had warned attendees in advance that she has cats, but that they stay downstairs.  One of her feline friends, an amiable orange tabby, took a liking to me as soon as I sat down and set up my Scrabble board.  After the obligatory scratch of the belly and behind the ears, he decided that I’d do just fine as a Scrabble partner.

And so I started off the tournament with a smile, and even managed to win one game this time around.  I enjoyed munching on the soy meat and potatoes that my wife had prepared that morning.  Happy birthday to me!

I had no idea that I’d spend the rest of the week going back and forth to the hospital.

 

Breakfast of Road Warriors

riverside-marriott-lobby

Lobby of the Marriott Convention Center, Riverside, California

RIVERSIDE

Vegan on the Road

A perpetual concern of travelers everywhere is what to do for breakfast.  Lack of planning on the part of the traveler is common, and the quality of the traveler’s experience is thus largely in the hands of one’s innkeeper.  Unless you’re staying at a “bed and breakfast,” chances are better than average that you will be in for something inadequate, disgusting or, if you’re particularly unfortunate, both.

About the time you open your eyes and realize that you are not at home in the comfort of your own bed, but in a hotel room in a strange city, you will hear your stomach rumbling and you will begin to wonder where sustenance is to be had.  If, at check-in, you spied a sign at the front desk indicating “morning coffee available in lobby,” you know you are at the mercy of what’s available nearby.  This is when one’s stomach expresses the fervent wish that the local amenities extend beyond microwaving a pre-packaged burrito from 7-11.

We road warriors are dedicated to the truth that there is much work to be done and that such work must be fueled by some form of morning sustenance beyond mere caffeine.

My employer has informed me that I am not permitted to seek reimbursement for the cost of my morning meal if breakfast comes free with the room, even if it is a “continental breakfast” consisting of coffee and donuts.  The fact that I am unable to partake of either of the aforementioned delicacies does not appear to sway company policy in my direction.  Thus, I am better off staying the night in accommodations that blithely ignore their guests’ need for food in the A.M.

One way to assure morning prandial satisfaction is to bring one’s own food.  This is an attractive option for those with special needs, such as my fellow vegan and gluten-free eaters.  The success of such plan, however, is largely dependent on the presence of a refrigerator and microwave in one’s hotel room.  While such amenities are common these days (at least in North America), they are by no means universal.  In fact, may I suggest that the likelihood of finding food storage and preparation facilities located in one’s guest room is inversely proportional to the quality of the hotel?  One is more likely to find a micro and fridge in Room 108 at Motel 6 than in a 20th floor suite at the Hilton.  Then again, who wants to bring one’s own food when local culinary delights await?

Lesson learned:  When making reservations for business travel, be sure to order a refrigerator and microwave rather than waiting until check-in and hoping for the best.  That is, unless you want to end up like me, with a bagful of hard potatoes that you can’t cook.

I do have certain gluten-free vegan coping mechanisms that I use on the road.  Everywhere I go, I search for Thai restaurants.  This is not because I’m crazy about Asian food, but because most Thai restaurants offer at least a few dishes that can be prepared both vegan and gluten-free.  Pad se ew, please.  No meat, just tofu, no egg, no fish sauce, no soy sauce.  Those are real, gluten-free rice noodles, right?  Not so hot that I turn into a fire-breathing dragon, please.

As it is not my habit to eat Thai food for breakfast, however (even if there were any Thai restaurants open at that hour), I generally look for a place where I can find some fruit.  Now, my habitual breakfast at home is either coconut milk yogurt with banana and raisins or a “protein bowl” (garbanzos and tofu).  But I challenge you to find an American restaurant serving such delights at seven in the morning.  I frequently end up throwing a banana, a slice of gluten-free millet bread and a bottle of water into a bag as I hurry out the hotel door to an early meeting.  I hope to cadge a cup of tea at the meeting venue, but I am seldom so lucky in this coffee-devoted nation of ours.

As a case in point, a few days ago I was in Los Angeles.  After a night in a motel in a seedy area of town marked by the repetitive wailing of car alarms and sirens, I walked into a meeting and was surprised by a breakfast spread just waiting for the participants to dig in.  The viands consisted of turkey, ham, cheeses and rolls to make sandwiches, assorted muffins and, of course, coffee.  (Query:  Who the heck eats such crap at eight o’clock in the blessed morning?  When I asked this of my mother, she replied: “A farmer.”). Honestly, it’s such a ray of sunshine to be presented with all the lovely comestibles that a gluten-free vegan would be delighted to encounter.  And, of course, not a cup of tea in sight.  I sighed and dug in my bag for my banana and millet bread.

Here at the Marriott Convention Center in Riverside, California, one evening I wistfully reviewed the room service breakfast menu and its checkboxes and found the usual variety of egg dishes, meat and cereal.  When completed and hung on the door knob, a hot breakfast would appear, as if by magic, during the 15-minute interval of the guest’s choice (6 to 11 am).  And, just as magically, $15 to $18 per person would be added to the guest’s hotel bill.  Perhaps, I wondered, if I closed my eyes, recited an incantation and wished upon a star, the menu would magically be altered to include berries with almond milk or a breakfast sandwich of soy cheese and grilled tomatoes on rice bread.  Sigh.  In some alternate universe, perhaps.

Then a funny thing happened. While I leafed through the hotel’s amenities brochure and noticed the availability of a breakfast buffet in the lobby restaurant for the princely price of $19 per person, my wife attempted in vain to get the flat screen TV to work.  Not being wealthy, I couldn’t imagine spending nearly $40 (plus tip) for my wife and I to have breakfast.  After all, my employer allows me to expense the grand sum of seven dollars for my morning meal.  Perhaps I do inhabit an alternate universe after all.

I phoned the front desk to report that the telly was on the fritz.  The staff member on duty apologized and sent up a technician.  He messed around with the thing but had no more success than we did.  After he went off to contact the hotel’s internet service provider, my wife called the front desk again to ask about checkout time.  The same chirpy staff lady asked whether our TV had been repaired.  When we assured her that it had not been, she offered to have us change rooms.  No need, said my wife.  We were heading off to sleep anyway.  Apologizing once more, the desk clerk offered us two free breakfast buffets for our trouble.  Hallelujah!  Perhaps my awkward abracadabras worked the right spell after all.

Visiting Riverside is always a slightly strange experience for me, tinged with more than a bit of déjà vu.  My former employer was based in Riverside and, even though my work location was a three-hour drive east, out in the desert, I had to come into town two or three times each year for meetings.  Ironically, now that I work in northern California, I find myself still doing the same (although it’s a six-hour drive each way from Sacramento).

My former employer always put me up a few blocks away at the Mission Inn, deemed by many to be a premiere accommodation due to its historic setting and the ghosts of the past that some say continue to inhabit its walkways and guest rooms.  Personally, I never cared for it, finding the atmosphere dark, drafty and just a wee bit pretentious, as might be expected of some English countryside manor with a 17th or 18th century pedigree.

While the quaintness, antiques and Spanish architecture of Mission Inn appeal to many, I much prefer the modern amenities offered by the Marriott.  While the venue levies separate charges for most of these, those in the know are able to take advantage of the broad leeway given staff to satisfy guests.  In other words, many of the fees can be waived if you just ask (particularly if you mention that you’ve stayed with them before and that your employer has certain expectations in regard to costs).  Not only did we have $25 in wifi connection charges waived (“we still have to work, you know”), we also obtained free parking and an upgrade that allowed us access to the 12th floor concierge lounge (where we watched the Cubs and Indians duke it out on a big screen TV back in September).  Oh, and about that concierge lounge:  They serve juice and pastries in the morning and appetizers in the evening.  Appetizers?  Try sushi, curry, salad and desserts.  Who needs dinner?  As a vegan GFer, I could chow down on raw veggies, hummus and fresh fruit.

Riverside Buffet.JPG

Breakfast buffet at the Riverside Marriott

Which brings me to the $40 breakfast buffet for two that we were comped.  Although it was a weekday, a cook was preparing omelettes to order.  There were scrambled eggs, boiled brown eggs and several of my wife’s favorite breakfast items, including bacon, sausage, yogurt and bread and English muffins for toasting.  GF vegan?  I chowed down on oatmeal with raisins, potatoes and fresh fruit (cantaloupe, honeydew, pineapple and watermelon).  They even had almond milk on hand for my tea, a rarity on the road.  The staff was so accommodating that I wonder whether they would have sent out to Whole Foods or Sprouts had I asked for gluten-free millet bread.

My fellow breakfasters ranged from men discussing football and billion-dollar deals to an older couple traveling with a squirming three year old who was Face Timing the folks back home.  “Behave,” I heard her mom warn from halfway across the room (and, likely as not, from halfway across the country). “Don’t cause Grandma any trouble.”