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…

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The Dreams of Old Men

Bay Bridge

The elegant lines of the Bay Bridge, crossing from San Francisco to Oakland.

SAN FRANCISCO

As I have visited the famed City by the Bay only a handful of times over the years, it always seems new to me.  It’s a case of what Joseph Heller referred to as jamais vu — it’s as if I’ve never seen the place before.

I first encountered San Francisco in the 1980s, during a visit with my sister, who had recently married and moved across the country to Silicon Valley.  Guidebook in hand, I boarded a northbound Caltrain in San José, determined to hoof it around the city to all the famed tourist spots.  I visited Golden Gate Park and the Exploratorium, took a cab ride down twisting Lombard Street, communed with the ghosts of poets at City Lights Bookstore and tasted the culinary delights of Chinatown.  I got on the plane back to New York with an avocado sandwich in my carry-on, singing “California Dreamin'” and vowing to return.

Two months later, I flew west again, this time with my parents.  I rode the cable cars (standing up and hanging on for dear life, trying my hardest not to lose my Fisherman’s Wharf lunch), stuffed myself into a chocolate coma at Ghirardelli’s and drove across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito with my father.  Dad, a lifelong student of infamous American mobsters, could not pass up the excursion to Alcatraz.  I stayed behind, as I don’t much care for the turbulence of boat rides.

Ten years later, I moved to California.  And yet, I hadn’t been back to San Francisco since, unless you count passing through on the freeway or flying into SFO airport.  But this week, I found myself back in downtown SF, conducting two days of training classes.  To have seen me gawk, you’d think I’d never been there before.  Sunrise over the bay, the incredible geometry of the Bay Bridge, the late afternoon fog slowly rolling in from the ocean to slide a shroud over the high-rise buildings in the business district.

But before we headed up the peninsula to the Golden Gate, we spent the weekend with my parents down in California’s Central Valley.  We went out to dinner with my Mom and Dad twice, drove them down to our niece’s birthday party in the South Valley, and had some interesting (and mildly uncomfortable) conversations about the fact that they’re getting older and how they’ll handle their house and property.

The one conversation that moved me the most, however, occurred at sunset on Saturday night, while we were sitting on folding chairs, just the two of us, out in the driveway catching the evening breeze.  The sun slowly sunk behind the house across the street, but Dad, in his poetic way, informed me that the sun was setting over the ocean.  We watched the stars come out, and he pointed out the planet Venus, then the Big Dipper, Orion the hunter, and the W of Cassiopeia.  We were wowed by a shooting star that screamed across the sky.  I noted several light planes crawl across the heavens, red lights blinking.  “They’re very far away,” Dad told me, “at least five miles.”

And then he reminded me that he, too, once flew such planes.  He told me it’s been 40 years since he’s taken the pilot’s seat.  Flashback:  I am about 14 or 15 years old, summertime, out for a day with Dad.  We played handball on the courts at the school where he was a driver education teacher, got haircuts, and had lunch before he took me out to the airport and showed me a Cessna up close.  He wanted me to get in and go for a spin, but I was petrified and refused.  He was disgusted.  My mother had forbidden me to ever go up with my father, for fear we’d both be killed.  She was unhappy with his hobby and, eventually, forbid him from going up either.  I still remember how upset he was.  Unfortunately, it was not the only time that he agreed to give up dreams to satisfy her.

I thought this was all in the distant past.  Until Saturday night, when Dad confessed that he’d been surfing the web to look at planes for some time now, and that he’d like to purchase one.  He reminded me that pilot licenses never expire.  He might have to go up with an instructor once to show he still knows how to do it, he suggested.  And then he really got into it, explaining that planes, like cars, have fancy electronics now that didn’t exist back when he flew.  “GPS was science fiction,” he told me.  You had to plot out your route and map it out with a pencil on the chart.

My father is correct that many things have changed in 40 years, with technology not the least of it.  But one thing that undoubtedly has not changed is my mother’s attitude.  I was too cowardly to ask how he intends to get over that particular obstacle.  Could it be that he’s finally reached an age at which he’s daring enough to defy her fiery will?

“They say young men have dreams and old men have memories,” he said.  “I’ve got news for you.  Old men have dreams, too.”

Dip a wing when you fly over our house, Dad.  Just like you did when I was a kid.

I’ll be watching for you.

SF Bay Sunrise

Sunrise over San Francisco Bay

Triple Jeopardy

There are times when your dream doesn’t seem to be coming true no matter how much you work toward it and how hard you wish for it.  You can pray about it, and sometimes the answer is not a resounding rejection, but simply a “not now.”  It may not be the right time yet.  And everyone knows that good things are worth waiting for.

However, I find it much harder to deal with an answer to prayer that appears to be “too late.”  It’s  one thing to have to wait for years to achieve your goal, but it’s quite another to realize that your time has passed.  “Could have beens” are rather sad, which likely accounts for the popularity of YOLO and “no regrets.”  Indeed, it can be difficult to watch someone slogging away at something that might have been achieved years ago but no longer has any reasonable chance of coming to fruition.  Most painful of all is when the person whom you’re watching struggle in vain is none other than yourself.

Then there are those of us whose motto seems to be “never say die.”  Fool that I am, I count myself among them.

Thus, a couple of weeks ago I went merrily off to register to take a test to become a contestant on the TV quiz show Jeopardy!  Um, for the third time.  I told you, some people just don’t know when to quit.

A famous saying posits that taking the same unsuccessful action time and again and expecting a different result is indicative of insanity.  So call me crazy.  I am one of those suckers who appears undeterred by the statistical unlikelihood of winning the Power Ball, video poker in Reno and a place as a contestant on a well-known quiz show.

The first time that I took the Jeopardy! test was years ago, in person, at a road show event held at a giant car dealership in Placer County (coincidentally, the same place I recently went to deal with a recall on my car).  This was back when we lived in California’s Central Valley, involving a fairly lengthy drive on freeways with which I was then quite unfamiliar.  For my trouble, I had the privilege of standing on a long, snaking line in the hot sun until I reached a tent where I could sit at a picnic table and complete the test.  Fifty questions on an orange sheet of legal-sized paper, both sides.  I turned it in to one of the judges, whom I could tell had graded these papers a few thousand times.  The smirk on his face showed me that he knew perfectly well that I hadn’t a chance.  He went down the page with a pencil, making marks at each of my errors.  He shook his head as he handed me back the page.  Dejected, I began the long drive home.  I didn’t even come close.

I didn’t bother trying again for another decade or so.  By then, personal computers had become ubiquitous and I learned that the Jeopardy! test was given online each January.  I knew a few of the answers, but I remember calling out a number of the questions to my wife for assistance.  Between the two of us, we got nowhere.

At least when I took the test in person, I learned that I had failed immediately.  When one takes the test online, it’s a case of “don’t call us, we’ll call you.”  Of course, they don’t call you (because you did so poorly).  Months go by and you forget about it.  Until, after a few more years go by, you hear that it’s time for the online test again.  Except now it’s being offered at the end of May instead of in January.

What makes me think that I will do any better this time than I did last time?  I have no idea, other than to say that hope springs eternal and that there will always be fools like me.  Just call us “live bait,” as Frank Gilbreth did a century ago.  Or, in the immortal words of P.T. Barnum (even longer ago), “there’s a sucker born every minute.”

I actually think I improved a bit this time.  Not by much, and certainly not enough to make a difference, but a little.  So is it “third time’s a charm” or “three strikes, you’re out?”

Decidedly, the latter.  The problem, I soon realized, is that I am not as quick on the trigger as I once was (not that I ever was).  As much as I admire octogenarian and nonagenarian marathoners and ironmen, the fact remains that most of us eligible for the senior discount are a bit slower now than we were in days of yore.  Then there are some like myself who have always lagged a step or two behind.  Although I have amassed a great deal of knowledge in the course of my lifetime, I have never been accused of being the sharpest tool in the shed.  And now that I’ve strayed into AARP territory, I find myself playing the part a little too well by forgetting words at inconvenient times and wracking my brain to recall a name or fact that I know I know.  Dictionaries, both the online variety and the thick bound ones on my shelf, are my best friend.  Take it from me, the “senior moment” is a real thing.  So I suppose it’s kind of crazy for me to think that I’d have any chance at all in such a fast-paced competitive environment as Jeopardy!  Never mind trying to come with the questions to their answers, but how would I even press the signaling device fast enough?

Taking a trip down memory lane brings me back to my days as a senior in high school, when I competed against other schools as a member of our quiz bowl team.  Even at the tender age of 16, I was more of a liability than an asset.  As much as I was into trivia, I rarely knew the answer to the question asked.  And if I did, someone else would beat me to the buzzer almost every time.

You’d think I’d give it up by now, wouldn’t you?  Oh, no.  Knowledge of my limitations in no way dissuaded me from taking the test a third time.  I should probably pay attention to Alex Trebek himself, who (when not hawking life insurance) admits that, even after years of working with endless streams of facts, he’d have no chance against a sharp, young competitor.  I believe his words were “he would clean my clock.”

So as I log into the Jeopardy! test website after work on a Thursday evening, I remain hopeful even as I know quite well that I am on a fool’s errand.  I would estimate that I knew about half the answers, more or less guessed at another quarter, and came up entirely emptyhanded on the final quarter.  Inevitably, there were questions that I was sure I knew the answer to, but couldn’t come up with on short notice.  The senior moment again.

For example, the northern extension of the Appalachian Mountains in Pennsylvania.  Ah, geography, my strongest area!  A map of the Keystone State pops into my head.  Pittsburgh?  Altoona?  Uh, the Monongahela? Bloop!  The question disappears from the screen.  Time’s up!  Oh, well.

That night, I woke up suddenly from a dead sleep.  The Alleghenies!  Of course!  Duhhhh . . .

And then it happened again.  The next morning, in the shower.  I simply could not come up with the name of the director known for his work on Titanic.  But, sure enough, while shampooing my hair, it struck me like a lightning bolt.  “James Cameron!” I yelled.

The next day, of course, I again was unable to remember his name.  I had to Google it.  (Uncle Guacamole takes the walk of shame.)

Let’s put it this way:  I am not expecting a call from Sony any time soon.  Uh, or ever.

Clearly, I don’t know when to give up the things of younger people.  If I were truly committed to competing on Jeopardy!, shouldn’t I have done it years ago?  So why can’t I say “too late,” admit that my time has passed, and move on?

I guess I just can’t take no for an answer.

So what do you say, shall we go for number four?

 

Cilia Than You Can Imagine

BERKELEY

It’s amazing the things that stick with you from your schooldays.  I remember seventh grade science as a horror for many reasons.  Among them were the fact that my mother was teaching more or less the same curriculum in another school a few miles away, the fact that my mother had worked with my teacher and knew him quite well, the fact that my teacher was a mean old so-and-so, the fact that I came close to having a nervous breakdown that year, and the fact that I had no interest at all in the subject matter and never bothered studying for the class.  Science just wasn’t my thing.  In that regard, I favored my father, the English major, far more than my mother, the biologist.

Accordingly, I am shocked that I still remember the unicellular microorganisms that we learned about in that class, more than 45 years ago.  There was the amoeba, pretty much the basic model, just a blob with a nucleus.  Never mind that drinking the water in Mexico could introduce a few million of those critters into your system, resulting in the ghastliest case of Montezuma’s revenge imaginable.

Then there was the euglena, which has a whiplike tail called a flagellum that it uses for locomotion.  And finally, there was the paramecium that contained all kinds of anatomical structures that I never could remember.  The only ones that have stuck with me are the vacuole and the weird hairlike structures, the cilia, that surround the organism on all sides.

I found myself thinking back to seventh grade science class while attending a Scrabble tournament in the Bay Area this past weekend.  Allow me to start by saying that Leesa is truly the hostess with the mostess.  This was the fourth tournament that I have attended at her home in Berkeley in 2017.  Most of the tournaments that she hosts are one-day events on Sundays.  For the Memorial Day holiday, however, she held a two-day event followed by a “late bird” on Monday.  Although I did not attend the extra Monday session, I learned quite a bit over the weekend.

By the way, “vacuole” is a seven-letter word, a rack-clearing “bingo” that nets the player an additional 50 points.  But it was those paramecium hairs that have gotten me into some interesting spots during games lately.  Keep in mind that “cilia” is a valuable “vowel dump” in that it allows a player to clear two Is and an A off his or her rack.

So last weekend, I played in a one-day tournament in San José (a six-hour round-trip, thanks to traffic on Interstate 680), where I was paired with host John Karris for the final game.  The guy is good.  He grabbed a blank out of the bag late and bingoed out with “ciliates.”  I assume those are critters that, like our hairy friend the paramecium, are blessed with cilia.  Then, in Berkeley this past weekend, I had plunked down “cilia,” whereupon my esteemed opponent attempted to bingo by hooking an S to my play.  Challenge!  Off the board it went.

I guess it pays to know your Latin.  “Cilia” is already a plural and, hence, does not take an S.  The singular, in case you’re interested in such trivia, is “cilium.”  After I won that challenge, my opponent sheepishly admitted that she had erred, that “cilia” actually takes an E hook (“ciliae”).  No!  It doesn’t!  Granted, adding an E to the end of certain nouns is a way to make them plural in Latin.  And while “ciliae” has a certain ring to it, it comes back down to the concept that one cannot pluralize a word that is already a plural.

I was not so lucky when it came to other plays.  One of my opponents started our game right off with a bingo, “beetier.”  I thought it plausible, so accepted it and struggled to make headway against my opponent’s 72-point lead.  Just call me stupid right now, shall we?  Let’s just say that there are a lot of words with “-ier” suffixes that are permissible in Scrabble.  Among my favorites (although not a bingo) is “eelier,” which gets rid of three Es and and I.

If a particular comestible tasting of grapes can be “grapy,” “grapier” or “grapiest,” why can’t a food tasting of beets be “beety,” “beetier” or “beetiest?”  To make things worse, some veggies and fruits only take you half the way.  Does that taste like onions to you?  The Scrabble dictionary says it’s definitely “oniony,” but cannot be “onionier” or “onioniest.”  Oh, you think that’s bad?  Well, what’s good for the goose apparently is not good for the gander, at least when it comes to garlic.  Forget the onions and grab yourself a K, as the Scrabble dictionary allows “garlicky,” “garlickier” and “garlickiest.”

These things seem more than a little arbitrary, don’t you think?  When it comes to citrus fruits, for example, you’re in the clear when it comes to the superlatives of “orange,” “lemon” or “lime.”  My favorite grapefruit is feeling left out of the citrus pantheon.

But that’s quite okay.  I’d probably have to tear my hair out if one of my opponents were to try to extend the word “grapefruit” into the 14-letter phony “grapefruitiest.”

 

The Dumb Side

Our Thanksgiving with family has involved a roller coaster of emotions for me, which is something I am still processing.  While I figure out how to write about the experience in a coherent matter, let’s lighten up and do something a bit more fun today.

Over the weekend, I saw an article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer entitled “19 Signs You’re Intelligent — Even If It Doesn’t Feel Like It.”  I usually don’t lend much credence to such lists, but if this one is at all accurate, there’s only one conclusion:  I’m dumb.

I didn’t flunk every one of the signs listed, but enough of them describe my opposite that, at the very least, I come out squarely on the dumb side.

And so, without further ado, let’s review how these signs of intelligence (don’t) apply to Uncle Guac:

1. You took music lessons. As a kid?  Nope.  I recall playing a recorder and a pink toy piano with colored keys for a while, mostly with one finger.  I wanted a real piano, which was unreasonable in light of my parents’ finances.  They offered to buy a portable electric keyboard or a guitar, but I declined.  Not the same as a piano.  My sister took violin in school, but the rented instrument mostly sat under her bed collecting dust until it was returned to Alto Music on Route 59.  My mother still says that, if I were such a musician, I would have hauled it out and learned how to play.  Hmm.  Does taking one flute class in college count?  How about taking two flute lessons as an adult before quitting?  I’ve long since sold the flute. Does it count that I can sing?  La la la LA!  Oh, shut up, dogs!

2. You’re the oldest. Admittedly, this is a qualification to which I can lay claim. Rumor has it that this is one of the few things in my life that I can honestly say was completely outside my own stupidity.

3. You’re thin. Hahahaha!! Morbidly obese since birth.  I told you.  Dumb!

4. You have a cat. Not! Oh, man, where do I start?  I could list the little apartments in which we’ve lived that came with “no pets” as a cardinal rule rivaling only “rent paid after the fifth of the month will be subject to a late fee.”  Also, my wife appears to be allergic to cats (and hates them with a passion in any event).

5. You were breastfed. Not a chance. The bottle (heated in a pot of water on the stove of our cockroach-filled Bronx apartment and temperature-tested on the inside of the wrist) was something of a religion in our family.

6. You’ve used recreational drugs. I have done many stupid things in my life, but I am proud to state that this was not one of them. That is actually saying something significant, considering that I attended college in the 1970s.  I retain very unpleasant recollections of dodging a haze of pot smoke and worse until I gave up and ran away to a decrepit single occupancy room hotel downtown for the remainder of my undergraduate experience.  Case in point:  I once attended a student newspaper party held in a three-story townhouse rented by a few of my fellow budding journalists.  Upon entry, attendees were greeted by a sign indicating that alcohol was at ground level, marijuana on the second story and hard drugs in the penthouse.  I turned right around and walked out the door and into the night.  If that makes me dumb, I’d rather be dumb.

7. You’re lefthanded. Struck out again! Not a southpaw.

8. You’re tall. The article states that taller individuals score higher on IQ tests. I’m short, fat and, apparently, just dumb.

9. You drink alcohol regularly. It appears that all those Saturday night keggers at college that I so despised were actually attended by smart people! Turns out sobriety is for dummies!  Who knew?  Being fat, I have developed liver problems that are similar to those experienced by alcoholics.  I guess being a lifelong teetotaler and missing out on all the fun just makes me… dumb.

10. You learned to read early. Ahhh, finally an indicator of intelligence that I can own. I was reading at the age of three, devoured the public library as if it were a chocolate cake and continue to enjoy a good book until this day.  By the way, this is one of the few indicators of intelligence on this list that actually makes sense.

11. You worry a lot. Unfortunately, this is one vice with which I continue to struggle. Although I am a natural born worrier, I like to think I am not quite as intense as I was in my younger days.  I do try to “give it to God” and to allow He who is in control to make things as they should be.  Still, my tendency to worry is not easily quelled.  I’ll have to call this one “neutral.”

12. You’re funny. Nope! My wife is the funny one.  She is quite the wit, and I admire her sense of humor greatly.  As I cringe at the thought of labeling myself as “dour” or “humorless,” perhaps I will just settle on “dumb.”

13. You’re curious. Umm. Ouch!  While I have a diverse set of interests, I’m not one of those people who have to know how everything works.  I grew up on such platitudes as “curiosity killed the cat” and “MYOB.”  My existentialist side will justify my lack of curiosity by asking “who can really know anything anyway?”  Oh, I’m just dumb, you say?  Yep.

14. You’re messy. Winner! See?  Being messy doesn’t make you a pig; it just means you’re smart!  If messiness were the primary mark of intelligence, I’d be right up there with the geniuses.  I am an unapologetic slob.  Not only do I hate cleaning, I believe that I have better things to do.  While it may be unfair for me to leave the cleanup to others, my true feeling is that I don’t care if it gets cleaned or not.  Just go away and leave me to my mess, please.  Reference:  My cubicle at work.  Yeah, I’m one of those.

15. You didn’t have sex until after high school. Winner again! In a very big way, I might add.  I’ll leave it at that.

16. You’re a night owl. Yes! Three in a row!  I have fond recollections of my years working the graveyard shift.  I only wish my work schedule permitted me to stay up all night and sleep during the day.  My circadian rhythm is decidedly not normal.  I love the deep, dark hours of the night, as that’s when my creativity seems to be at its best.  Reference:  I frequently wake up in the middle of the night and begin scribbling notes on my phone.

17. You don’t always have to try hard. And now, my friends, we travel back to the dumb side of Uncle Guacamole. I have to try hard to obtain any measure of success.  Unfortunately, I have a lazy streak a mile wide and often prefer not to try very hard even if it means failure.  Reference:  My checkered college days.  Guess I’m just dumb.

18. You don’t constantly need to be around people. This one falls in my favor. While I do generally prefer to be around people, being alone is just fine as well.  I keep busy, so a lot of the time I barely notice when I’m alone.  That said, I absolutely love being married.  I wouldn’t go back to my single days for a million bucks.

19. You live in a walkable city. Nope. I reside in a rural area where the roosters crow all day and night, the sheep baa across the road and that “thunk” you just heard was a wild peacock jumping off our roof.  I lived in New York City until the age of six when my parents purchased a house in the suburbs.  Eventually, I moved to California, car culture capital of the world.

If I am counting correctly (which, at this point, I am not sure I am smart enough to do), I have satisfied five of the above 19 indicators of intelligence.

Fortunately, being dumb isn’t the end of the world.  If nothing else, I am in good company.  After all, there are a lot of us out here.

Uncle Guacamole’s Fantasy Lunch Counter

When I was ten years old, my family took the short ride into Manhattan to visit my Dad’s aunt.  A lifelong spinster, she was an accountant who lived high in an apartment building that shot its way up into the sky at 435 West 57th Street.  I was highly impressed with everything:  The midtown location, the doorman, the soft music in the elevator, the tiny, compact living quarters, my aunt’s adding machine with the smooth, green buttons and the frou-frou lunch we enjoyed across the street at the Holiday Inn.

The fancy items on the one-page luncheon menu included such delicacies as blueberries with cream.  My meal consisted of a cream cheese and green olive sandwich, with the crusts cut off the bread, of course.  Now, I had eaten a cream cheese and walnut sandwich with my father at Chock Full O’ Nuts, but this was my first experience with an olive sandwich.  My mother rarely purchased olives on the grounds that they were salty and “not good for you.”

After that visit, I begged my parents for olives on a regular basis, and sometimes they relented.  These delicacies were a beautiful thing to behold as I speared and wrestled them out of their narrow briny prison — first the bright red pimiento, followed by the luscious green orb.  I made Philadelphia cream cheese and olive sandwiches on whatever we happened to have on hand — soft white bread from Waldbaum’s, chewy onion rye from Barnett’s Bakery, a Lender’s frozen bagel, Ritz crackers, matzo.  As my sisters and I, bored on the long, hot, suburban days of summer vacation, pulled chairs out onto the shady patio and attempted to devise methods of self-amusement (long before the advent of video games and the internet), I proposed that we pretend to start a ritzy restaurant like the one at the Holiday Inn on 57th Street.

My first task, I knew, was to develop a menu.  Of course, I included blueberries and cream along with cream cheese and olive sandwiches, as I strained to remember the other items printed on that page in midtown Manhattan.  Now that decades have gone by, one thing remains unchanged:  I still cherish cream cheese and olive sandwiches.  As an adult, I now have the privilege of eating them almost daily.  Even as a vegan (voluntary) following a gluten-free diet (forced by health issues), I enjoy soy cream cheese and olive sandwiches on gluten-free rice bread.

But there is another thing that has remained unchanged as the years go by.  I still dream of starting a little restaurant that serves all the dishes that I wish were on the menu when I visit a restaurant.  A vegan, gluten-free lunch spot where I can walk through the door knowing that I can eat anything on the menu without asking a million questions of disgusted staff.  And just like back in that summer when, at age ten, I tried to develop a menu out on our patio, I still think of what my fantasy luncheonette would serve.  I have developed a no-nonsense menu, based on vegan, gluten-free dishes that I have actually have eaten, prepared either by a restaurant, myself or my wife.  In time, as more gluten-free, vegan items become available on the market and as customers make suggestions for dishes they’d like to eat, I am sure that the menu would be further developed and augmented.  And so, without further ado, I present you with my modest gustatory proposition.

UNCLE GUACAMOLE’S FANTASY LUNCH COUNTER

where everything we serve is vegan and gluten-free

 

Sandwiches served on gluten-free rice bread (add $1 for gluten-free tortilla wrap)

soy cream cheese and olive

soy cream cheese and tomato

PBJ (grape jam, strawberry preserves or orange marmalade)

triple decker (vegan cream cheese, peanut butter, choice of jam)

Tweedledee (melted vegan provolone)

Tweedledum (melted vegan gouda)

California (fresh veggies and avocado – optional: onions, dill pickles, pepperoncini)

Lebanese (hummus, tomato, cucumber)

 

Salad Bowl

protein bowl (tofu, garbanzos, tomatoes, cucumbers)

garden greens (red leaf and iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, green olives,

raisins, sunflower nuts, served with balsamic vinegar)

fresh fruit salad with coconut milk yogurt

 

Spuds, Inc.

baked potato with your choice of toppings (Earth Balance vegan margarine, Tofutti vegan sour topping, Daiya vegan cheese shreds, broccoli, onions, salsa, jalapeños)

 

Hot Stuff

vegan chili (add $1 for loaded:  onions, Daiya vegan cheese shreds, Tofutti sour topping)

vegan “beef” (Tofurky brand) over rice

bunless burger (Dr. Praeger’s GF vegan) with fries and salad

sautéed tofu, mushrooms, onions over rice

nachos (vegan cheese, onions, Tofutti vegan sour cream, guacamole)

eggplant parmigiana (prepared with vegan soy cheese)

macaroni and cheese (gluten-free pasta, vegan soy cheese)

fried potato and tofu tacos (corn tortillas)

loaded fries (vegan soy cheese, Tofutti sour topping, onions)  (chili or guacamole $1)

gluten-free pizza (vegan soy cheese)  (toppings $1 each:  mushrooms, onions, peppers, olives, broccoli, artichokes, tofu, pineapple)

 

Sides

choice of hot veggies:  carrots, broccoli, spinach, corn, zucchini in tomato sauce, vegan “cheesy” broccoli or cauliflower

“ants on a log” (celery, raisins, your choice of peanut butter or vegan cream cheese)

white rice

French fries

chips and salsa

guacamole

beans and vegan cheese

 

Dessert

frozen coconut milk “ice cream” (chocolate, vanilla, cherry chip)

Sugar Plum Bakery whoopie pies

 

Beverages

fresh brewed iced tea, iced coffee, Pepsi products, seltzer (orange, berry or plain), orange juice, apple juice

 

So, what do you think?  Would anyone actually want to eat lunch at such a weird place?  Anyone out there want to raise some capital for this venture?  Has Uncle Guac finally lost his mind?  Talk to me in the comments.

 

Commatose

Commas are a bit like farts:  They usually stink and they can be quite funny.

If you are on excellent terms with the comma, I salute you.  If you’re not, however, you are in good company.  And if you have any doubt that commas stink, just ask the opinion of a third grader, or for that matter, of a college student struggling through the ordeal that is freshman English.

Should you wince at the mention of the comma, finding nothing funny about it at all, I direct you to the panda that is the subject of the famous “eats shoots and leaves” joke (and also to Lynne Truss’s grammar book by that title, comma added after the first word).  And if that’s not enough to free your inner belly laugh, I refer you to some of my experiences as a proofreader with a major pharmaceutical company, some 35 years ago.

Now, you may argue that proofreading is about the deadliest dull occupation in existence.  Like anything else in life, however, it is what you make of it.

One of my fellow proofreaders was seriously mismatched for the position (she had previously been a printing press operator for the company and, well, we had a labor union).  English was not her first language, she was very poor at spelling and she had no interest whatever in grammar or punctuation.  I am not proud to say that I joined the other proofreader in making some rather cruel jokes at this poor woman’s expense, particularly after one of her written instructions to the typesetters indicated a missing coma.  You have to work for a drug company to truly appreciate that one.

After that incident, we proceeded to make horrible comma jokes at every opportunity.  I’m talking about everything from “Can you comma over here for a minute?” to bad karaoke attempts at singing James Taylor’s “Handy Man” (click on the link and listen to the end of the song if you don’t get the reference).  From there, we moved on to mangling other forms of punctuation in the name of medical proofreading humor (correcting an improperly punctuated sentence might involve a “semicolonoscopy”).

I thought about those long ago days while I was standing in the checkout line at the supermarket this morning.  I noticed a sign regarding the use of plastic bags.  Let’s just say that this topic has become something of a big deal in our fair county since a local environmental ordinance, passed by the Board of Supervisors earlier this year, requires supermarkets and box stores to charge ten cents per plastic bag.  Many of my neighbors drive across the county line to Roseville to do our shopping, where no such ban is in place.  But even the “avoiders” may be out of luck come November, when an initiative to extend the measure statewide will be on the ballot.

The sign in question read:  “Say so long to single use plastic bags.  Bring Your Own Sac.”

Whoa, Nellie!  Sac?  Seriously?

My Webster’s defines the word as “a pouch within a plant or animal, often containing a fluid.”  I also checked one of the online dictionaries, which added the note “can be confused with sack.”

No kidding.  Just when I was processing images of shoppers bringing cow stomachs and goat bladders to the supermarket, I realized that that the issue was not one of spelling, but one of punctuation.  To understand this, it helps to be aware that, locally, “Sacramento” is often shortened to “Sac.”  Apparently, the statement in question was intended as an instruction to county residents.  “Bring your own, Sac,” has quite a different meaning than the same sentence without a comma.

It’s been a while since I’ve discussed grammar or punctuation in this space, so let me know if you’d like me to do so again (or conversely, feel free to lob rotten tomatoes at me).  In other words, please leave me a comma.