A boy and his dog, part 4: Omaha to Rawlins

This entry is part 4 of 7 in the series A boy and his dog

(Continued from yesterday.)

The drive from Omaha to Rawlins, Wyoming, was the longest leg of my trip. It was grueling, for me and Alex both. I would have preferred to stop sooner, in Cheyenne or Laramie (home town of Penny Priddy!), but as I discovered the previous night placing calls from my Omaha hotel room, finding a dog-friendly hotel in Wyoming on the weekend (this day, fifteen years ago, was a Saturday) on one day’s notice was not so easily done, at least not in 1992.

The featurelessness of this leg was the worst part. I am not the first to remark on the fact that the Great Plains, while beautiful, are boring. From the interstate they’re worse still, nothing but “gray highway and… endless billboards,” as my friend Vicky knows all too well. It made for some horrible video.

Before leaving Pittsburgh I hit upon the idea of videotaping the entire drive. My friend Steve — the same one who, a few years earlier, regularly loaned me his car — loaned me his videocamera, which had a poor-man’s time-lapse feature: it would shoot one second of video, at normal speed, every 30 seconds. It seemed weird to have such a setting. My best guess is that it was meant to be used as a security camera.

At any rate, my plan was to rig it somehow so that I could aim it through the windshield while I drove, without it blocking my view and without it getting in Alex’s way. In the weeks leading up to my departure from Pittsburgh I frequented supply stores of various kinds, devising one harness or mount after another. None of them quite worked. For instance, I thought I’d hit upon a solution when I suspended it over my shoulder from a canvas strap that wrapped around the top of the car and came in through the windows (closed or open). But even with the strap pulled taut, at highway speeds the wind caught it at its resonant frequency and suddenly it sounded like Gregory Hines was dancing on top of my car. While firing a machine gun. At helicopter blades.

The camera-rig project was made trickier by the need to quickly disassemble and reassemble it. I couldn’t leave my friend’s expensive camera unattended in motel parking lots overnight! I ended up with the aforementioned complicated web of “suction cups, S-hooks, turnbuckles, and twine.” Having to hide the camera all the time, combined with my determination to ensure Alex’s safety with the doggie seatbelt, turned the simple acts of getting in and out of the car into a lengthy operation of stowing or unstowing, hooking, unhooking, tightening, loosening, checking, and more.

My camera harness did the job, but my faux-time-lapse movie came out awful. It runs for over an hour, and for all of that hour the picture is dominated by the pavement directly ahead. What interesting scenery there is — the odd city or landmark flashing by, comprising about 0.003% of the total running time — is relegated to the very edges of the screen. More often than not, the same tractor-trailer can be seen just ahead for minutes at a time, jumping slightly forward or backward each second. Most of the rest of the time, the only thing to see are the cloud patterns, slowly changing, slowly sliding off the top of the screen. And the splattered insect guts on the windshield. Plus, filming one ordinary second out of every thirty is a very poor approximation to true time-lapse photography.

Fortunately, someone with a better budget, a better car, and a better sense of filmmaking had the same idea recently, and you can watch brilliant director Michel Gondry‘s time-lapse video of a cross-country drive online. (And then you can watch him solve a Rubik’s cube with his feet. Really!)

At least by the time we got to Rawlins, the terrain was finally starting to get interesting. There were hills. Small mountains, even. Curves in the road. Brush. Clay. The Midwest was over.

(…to be continued…)

A boy and his dog, part 3: Davenport to Omaha

This entry is part 3 of 7 in the series A boy and his dog

(Continued from yesterday.)

When it’s hog-calling time in Nebraska
When it’s hog-calling time in Nebraska
When it’s hog-calling time in Nebraska
Then it’s hog-calling time in Nebraska

That silly campfire song, sung to the tune of “Red River Valley,” is well known to Boy Scouts. In ninth grade, my Eagle-Scout friend Chuck suggested performing it for the school talent show. But rather than merely sing it, we (Chuck and I and five other friends) developed some supporting schtick: we all got bad haircuts and plaid flannel shirts and presented ourselves as “The Epiphany County Choir,” freshly arrived in New York City from rural Nebraska. We sang three heartfelt refrains of the song with fish-out-of-water expressions plastered to our faces. The audience — our classmates — laughed and cheered. We won the talent show. (I’ve never quite gotten over the guilt of beating another contestant, my classmate Stephen, who demonstrated actual talent with a virtuoso violin solo.)

“The Epiphany County Choir” went on to make a brief appearance on a local cable TV show, and gave another, much longer performance to our school the following year. The cable appearance is best forgotten — perhaps I’ll tell the story some other time. But the longer performance at our school was a comedy triumph.

So it was with some excitement that I set out with Alex this morning fifteen years ago for Omaha, Nebraska. But as before, the drive itself lacked any hint of poetry or romance, and the only thing to distinguish the city of Omaha during my brief stay was a plate of especially terrible pasta.

I was racing across the country, not taking the time properly to enjoy or appreciate it, mainly because of the urgency in Dan Heller‘s voice. Two months earlier I had visited Northern California on a job-hunting trip. Apple Computer had paid for my airfare and my room at the Cupertino Inn and I interviewed with them. I managed to stretch my stay on their dime to include interviews at one or two other computer companies in Silicon Valley too, plus a visit with my friend Bruce, who’d left Pittsburgh for California a couple of years earlier. On my last day in the region I drove up to San Francisco for an interview with a computer magazine there. (They were looking for an editor. They administered a written exam to me during the interview, and I was the first applicant in their history to complete all the questions in the time allotted. And I answered them all correctly! They hounded me for weeks afterward trying to get me to agree to accept a job offer.) Finally, late in the day, I headed way, way up to Marin County for an interview at Z-Code, a tiny e-mail software startup whose founder, Dan Heller, began calling me a couple of weeks later asking how soon I could start. They needed me “yesterday.”

(I almost didn’t bother visiting Z-Code. Marin County was far out of the way, and I was all interviewed out. But I knew that Marin was also the home of George Lucas’s filmmaking empire, and I was such a Star Wars nerd that that tipped the balance. It didn’t seem such a momentous decision at the time…)

I was still in the comfortable cocoon of academia. Nathaniel Borenstein had hired me as an intern to work on Andrew, the innovative campus computing environment for CMU. When I graduated I became a full-time staff member. It was my first job out of college. But by 1992 the Andrew system was essentially complete and the department was in decline, casting about for new projects to work on, trying to stay relevant. Nathaniel himself had left a couple of years earlier. At the time it seemed hard to leave the nest and relocate across the country, but in hindsight the time couldn’t have been more right.

I accepted the Z-Code job. I wrapped up my affairs in Pittsburgh. I arranged for my things to be shipped to Dan’s house, where the guest room was ready and waiting for me and Alex. I told Dan, “I can be there in six days.”

(…to be continued…)

A boy and his dog, part 2: Bloomington to Davenport

This entry is part 2 of 7 in the series A boy and his dog

(Continued from yesterday.)

I began the morning of April 9th, 1992, in pretty bad shape. I had barely slept. Although Alex had endured no fewer than four changes of address with me and Andrea without complaint in her short time on Earth, this had been her first night in a motel. She had jerked awake at every unfamiliar sound — so, so did I, knowing after the first two or three instances that, without my soothing intervention (or even occasionally with it), a barking fit was likely to follow. I fully expected to be asked to leave the motel in the middle of the night. Instead I merely had an extremely hard night.

I showered and dressed, walked Alex, loaded her and my things back into my car, checked out of the motel, and finally met Tall Steve. We spent an enjoyable morning together during which he showed off the offices of The Bloomington Voice, a free alternative weekly that he founded and edited where he was the founding art director/production manager (correction from Tall Steve — but he has founded or owned other Bloomington institutions). The Voice, which achieved significant local renown, was a natural outgrowth of his numerous extracurricular deeds at CMU and was only the beginning of his deep involvement in Bloomington civic life. (That, too, was prefigured by his activities in Pittsburgh, where he was constitutionally incapable of remaining uninvolved with improving student society — which may be what lent such weight to his “Accomplish something, dammit” admonition.)

We concluded our morning together with a picnic lunch on the Indiana University campus (the site of two things — coincidentally both from 1979 — that changed my life: the movie Breaking Away and Douglas Hofstadter’s book Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid). I’d tethered Alex nearby with a special corkscrew-shaped dog stake attached to her leash. But in her excitement she pulled it clean out of the ground and began to bolt across the lawn, pointy-corkscrew-stake bouncing along dangerously behind her. (In those days she was much less well-behaved than she eventually became.) I had to simultaneously eat, hold Alex, and keep her away from our food.

Soon afterward, Alex and I were back on the road, headed for our next stop: Davenport, Iowa (Captain Kirk’s home state!), just across the mighty Mississippi River, where we would join Interstate 80 and ride it the entire rest of the way to California.

In 1954, at age 18, my dad and his friend undertook an epic almost-penniless hitchhiking journey from New York to California. I had grown up on his stories from that adventure, not to mention countless road-trip movies, TV shows (reruns of Route 66 were required viewing in college), songs, and the granddaddy of the genre, Kerouac’s On the Road (the famous original scroll of which, in another weird coincidence, was recently housed for a while at… Indiana University). They glamorized the idea of hitting the open road and traveling this great country, the better to “find yourself” — sort of an American version of walkabout.

On this score my trip was shaping up to be pretty disappointing. We drove straight to Davenport. On the bridge into town I glanced down at the Mississippi. It wasn’t so mighty. We checked into the motel, watched some TV, and went to sleep. Not only did the interstate isolate me from all possible interactions with gorgeous co-stars in each town I passed through like Tod and Buz, but having Alex along cramped my style even further.

Only now do I understand that the “open road” in those works, with its twists and turns, sometimes giving you choices, sometimes taking you you-know-not-where, bringing you into contact with as many different people, places, and situations as your own intrepidity will allow, is a metaphor for life itself, and I’ve been on it all along. At long last I’ve finally begun to find myself.

(…to be continued…)

A boy and his dog, part 1: Pittsburgh to Bloomington

This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series A boy and his dog

Fifteen years ago today, I got into my car, the Uffish Thought, a gold 1984 Toyota Corolla. Beside me was Alex the dog, barely three and a half years old, strapped securely into the passenger seat like Chewbacca to my Han Solo. Behind me, wedged into the hatchback and backseat, was a substantial fraction of my worldly belongings. In front of me, rigged to the center of the windshield and aimed through it via a complicated system of suction cups, S-hooks, turnbuckles, and twine, was a big 1992 videocamera borrowed from my friend Steve. We were two hours behind schedule. It was late in the afternoon. With a final kiss and a wave goodbye to Andrea, we pulled away from the curb on Beacon Street in Pittsburgh and began driving to our new home in California, six days distant.

I’ll be blogging about each leg of the trip, one per day.

Our first destination was Bloomington, Indiana. It seemed slightly out of the way in my Rand McNally Road Atlas, but it was the right distance for a day’s drive and it contained my college friend “Tall” Steve Volan, whom I hadn’t seen since he belatedly finished his CMU education and left Pittsburgh for his home state.

(Tall Steve was especially dear to me for his gift, on one occasion, of the book The Eudaemonic Pie. The book was moderately interesting; it’s the true story of a team of MIT nerds in Las Vegas, using microelectronics to beat the house at roulette, back in the 70’s when that took big brains [pushing the edge of the technology envelope] and big balls [thumbing noses at the Mob]. But it was Tall Steve’s inscription inside the front cover that earned it a place in gift-giving history: Accomplish something, dammit. It is now possible to report that the inscription unquestionably has had the desired effect.)

I had called ahead to a motel in my AAA Tour Book and confirmed that they allow pets. The plan was for me to arrive in Bloomington some time in the early evening, give Tall Steve a call, and meet him to hang out somewhere.

After just a couple of hours on the road, night began to fall, and it was clear I would not be arriving by “early evening,” though when I stopped to call Tall Steve from a pay phone (and walk Alex) I had no idea just how late I would finally get there — around 10:30, as it turned out.

Not Alex

Alex was strapped into her seat with a doggie seatbelt, but was accustomed to napping in the backseat on long car rides while Andrea and I sat up front. Somewhere just past Columbus she decided to turn and leap between the bucket seats into the back, and was brought up short by the harness. She was trapped awkwardly in a tangle of straps, unable to move, and I was doing sixty on the interstate. I couldn’t stop or pull over or even do much more than glance Alex’s way, but with just a few moments of fumbling and Alex whining, I freed her by releasing her seat belt — and then just a few moments more and I belted her back into her seat, all without taking my eyes off the road. It was a tricky maneuver but I got good at it over the next few days.

When we finally arrived at the motel in Bloomington I called Tall Steve to convey my regrets. He tried to persuade me (and Alex) to come out anyway despite the late hour, but Alex was extremely excited to be in a new place and in my exhausted state I dreaded the thought of having to restrain her in any of the places we were likely to visit so late at night. I begged off and we planned to meet the next morning instead.

I set out Alex’s food and water bowls and got ready for bed. I flipped through the AAA book to find a likely next stop and a dog-friendly motel. And then I fell right to sleep… for the first of about a dozen times that night.

(…to be continued…)

What brings you here?

Herewith, a selection of search-engine queries that resulted in hits on this blog, according to my server logs.

watch neighbor undress; exploratorium; fizzies pulled; thailand’s greatest hits; what happened to fizzies tablets; what are the three kinds of mammals; violet incredible pez; watching neighbor undress; “new rabbi”; Rosh Hashanah; “the federation trading post”; persian candy floss recipes; “citric acid” science pop candy; supine lady; lesbian sex; ursula.sex; how to explain the theory of crystallization to third graders; evil cats; i feel like crying; Comcast Removes West Coast Feeds; boycott disney & abc path to 911; raiders-of-the-lost-ark Pirates-of-the-caribbean; “name the moon” greg; Reality an space-time; “francis heaney”; “smut shack”; squeamish cure; doggie style sex; webby awards; amy linker; cynthia nixon; quarks tangles; “mill valley pediatrics”; “dildo with suction”; proposition moveon endorsements; hypothermia kim; steve elliot bdsm; “instant soda”; trish gee wordpress; song meanings splashdown; “yours yours yours”; fligth to mars; “lesbian vampire fiction”; “needed a diaper”; disney fingerprints; fizzie drink discs; ben kenobi obgyn; linux backup s3; melissa kaplan sings; “adam stoller”; splashdown catalogue; “santa claus ain’t”; vote to boycott abc disney path to 911; joe costanzo; doggie style sex positions illustrated; Fizzies drink tablet recipe; “jack mccoy”; charteris; tune out, turn off; incremental jungledisk; “no fireflies” long island 2006; vampire lesbian; Thai Pilot; boisterous laugh audios; simpsons ulysses; sephardic pirates kritzler; backup osx hardlink incremental; karma slave karaoke; voyager pale blue dot send back the image; comcast digital artifacts; Con Edison; What year did the sitcom premiere I dream of jeannie; Recently got digital cable still receiving all premium channels; joseph costanzo, jr.; Superman reversing time; three kinds of meat; video koyaanisqatsi koyaanisqatsi; chabad palo alto; 9/11 personal; “Calculatrivia”; viscera at&t.

Call your brother!

Today’s my anniversary, both of the day that Andrea and I got married (seven years ago) and of the day we started dating (eleven years before that). This morning I got a congratulatory e-mail from my sister Suzanne that read in part:

Subject: Happy anniversary

…of the day you nearly gave me a heart attack.

The story:

Having been together for almost eleven years when we finally decided to get married (in a domino effect beginning with our friends John and Linda and then Scott and Patrice), Andrea and I dreaded planning a big wedding full of guests all of whom would say to us, “What took you so long?” So we eloped to Disneyworld. We were married in a small ceremony (witnessed by those same friends Scott and Patrice) beneath a palm tree on a grassy hill between Disney’s Polynesian Resort and the adjacent lagoon, with views of Cinderella’s Castle and Space Mountain in the distance. It was very memorable.

Coincidentally, Suzanne had a European vacation planned for the same period of time. Our wedding package included a limo ride around Orlando after the ceremony, and one of the things we planned to do during that ride was to call our families and surprise them with our happy news; but I had no way to contact Suzanne, whose European itinerary was fluid at best. However, I did know she’d be checking her Hotmail account from time to time. So before leaving for Florida, I programmed my computer to send her this e-mail message at 3pm on our wedding day:

Subject: Call your brother!

Hi Suze! Please call me ASAP on Andrea’s cell phone.

Poor Suzanne saw the message within two hours but had no way of calling for several hours more, during which time she was sure something terrible had happened! In my excitement before leaving for Florida it never occurred to me that my message could be taken that way. When I did finally speak to her, she tried to be glad about my news but was pretty annoyed at having worried all day for nothing.

Her annoyance was not improved by my laughter at her expense.

Andrea: Happy anniversary, I love you! Suzanne: Sorry again! I love you too.

Trip report: Legoland

We took a last-minute trip to San Diego this weekend to spend a day at Legoland. Our hotel in Carlsbad, the Grand Pacific Palisades Resort, was beautiful, the kids had a blast at Legoland, etc., etc. I’m not here to show you slides from my vacation.

No, the blogworthy item from this trip was when we first arrived in our hotel room. Before we’d even made a complete circuit of the spacious suite, Jonah found the TV remote control, figured out how to use it, switched on the TV and planted himself on the couch in front of it.

At home, Andrea and I maintain total control over the TV, so having operational access was a major novelty for Jonah. But even more novel was the experience of watching TV with channels and commercials. Ever since dropping off the pop-culture grid all we’ve seen are carefully selected movies and other child-friendly programming (such as The Electric Company) on DVD. Even before canceling cable, we watched cable shows on TiVo with commercials assiduously skipped.

Thus Jonah’s comment when I explained how to change channels with the remote: “But where is the disc?” And the dumbfounded look on both kids’ faces when, every so often after a few minutes of a coherent story, they would suddenly be assaulted with an unrelated barrage of sights and sounds. As Archer would have said (if he hadn’t been in a mute ecstasy of audiovisual overstimulation at the time), “What’s the heck of that?!”

Greatest hits: Thailand scam

[Reproduced and edited from e-mail.]

In 2001, Andrea and I went to Thailand, our last travel hurrah before starting a family. While we were in Bangkok, we were roped into the famous Thai “gem scam.” The funny thing is that we had been warned repeatedly about this scam and others, both by friends who’d been to Thailand and by the Lonely Planet guidebook, which we read faithfully before arriving. It described the exact scam, but we still didn’t recognize it when it happened.

We arrived in Bangkok late at night and went right to sleep. The next morning we opened our guidebook and decided to take a walking tour in the vicinity of the Grand Palace and Wát Pho. From our fancy, sheltered Western-style business hotel we rode the water taxi up the Chao Phraya to the correct stop, got off the boat, and stepped into the streets of the most foreign and exotic place we’d ever been. We oriented ourselves and found a bank where I exchanged some currency. Then, trying to decide in which direction to start off, a friendly Thai gentleman with excellent English offered us help. We were mindful of the “don’t let anyone change your plans” rule, but that was no reason to be impolite; we struck up a conversation together. When we mentioned that we planned to see Wát Pho, he gestured to it across the street and said, “It’s closed until 2pm today,” saying something about a monthly Buddhist observance. Sure enough, the gates were closed and chained. “But there is much else to do until then,” he offered, and said his friend the tuk-tuk driver would take us to several sites for the next few hours for only 40 baht, waiting for us at each stop. Circling points of interest on our map, the gentleman suggested we see the Golden Mount, Wát Traimit, and one or two other things before returning to Wát Pho, by which time it will have reopened. “You should also see the Export Center,” he said, “where they sell gems and other goods at a huge discount. It’s not where the tourists go, it’s where the pros go, and furthermore today is the last day of an annual nationwide two-week sale.” The Export Center was conveniently located between two of the attractions on the map.

We were wary at first but the friendly gentleman was persistent and finally we agreed to his plan. Off we went in the tuk-tuk into Bangkok traffic — a harrowing, smelly, exhilarating thrill-ride! We loved each of the attractions we saw.

At Wát Saket, we ran into another friendly Thai gentleman who welcomed us to his country and offered to give us some of the history of the wát, which is where he did his monastic training many years ago, and where his family has an affiliation. For the next twenty minutes or so he was our tour guide, giving us the history of Thai Buddhism, interpreting the temple’s murals, explaining proper respectful behavior, and so on. (The image at left was taken by him.) As we were taking our leave to go back to the tuk-tuk driver, he asked what our plans were for the rest of the day. We mentioned the remaining stops on our tuk-tuk ride, and when we said Export Center, he seemed surprised. “How did you know about that? That’s not a place that tourists usually go.” Then he told us how lucky we were to know about that, because of this sale that’s going on and because of the excellent prospects for buying good gems at cheap Thai prices and selling them back in the U.S. at enough of a profit to pay for our whole vacation. “Look for this symbol,” he said, showing us a majestic spread-winged bird on his Thai Airlines business card, “it denotes government-approved gemsellers. And ask for stones with triple-A ratings.”

We thanked him and continued on our way. When we came to the Export Center, we were surprised to see that it wasn’t the bustling center of commerce that its name suggests. It was a little storefront down a side street with no customers. Inside, we got bottled water and some much-needed air conditioning, and a high-pressure sales pitch, during which the salesman showed a certificate bearing the spread-winged bird and mentioned “triple-A rating” several times. Fortunately our sales resistance was high. Meanwhile, we wandered into an adjacent tailor shop and had some beautiful silk clothing tailored!

We finished our tuk-tuk drive, having returned to Wát Pho and made friends with our driver, who struggled with English while we struggled with Thai. That’s when we discovered that the gates to Wát Pho are always chained closed on that side of the street. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until much later, back at the hotel, that it slowly dawned on me that the whole thing was exactly the gem scam that I’d been repeatedly warned about: the friendly Thai gentleman; the bogus claim of a closed tourist attraction; the dramatically underpriced tuk-tuk ride; the friendly stranger who happens to confirm the first gentleman’s information; the one-day-only sale; the promise of big profits from carrying Thai gems back to the U.S. I’d read all those details in the Lonely Planet guides twice in the previous week!

They say forewarned is forearmed, but it wasn’t this time. Reading this now, it’s probably hard to imagine how we could have been fooled and still consider ourselves reasonably intelligent people. Chalk it up to the bewilderment of being in such a strange place for the first time, and the light touch of a good con artist, who can make you feel as if everything was your idea in the first place. (Note how it was we who mentioned the Export Center to the second con man, not the other way around.) A good con artist can sometimes even leave you completely unaware that you were fleeced at all.

Fortunately, most cons rely on greed, to which I’m pleased to say we did not succumb. And in the meantime, we got a much more thorough introduction to Bangkok than we otherwise would have; an informative guided tour of a Buddhist temple; a very welcome air-conditioning break; a tailored silk suit for me, which I’d always wanted but could never afford at Western prices, and a tailored silk dress for Andrea; and all for a dollar paid to the tuk-tuk driver. So who conned whom?

After sending the above story to some friends who had been to Thailand a few years earlier (and who had warned us about scams), I learned that they’d fallen for the same scam when they were there! Many details from their experience were identical to ours. I wrote some more about the experience in a reply to them, which follows.

I wonder why the claim of employment by Thai Airlines seems to be part of the scam. Is it simply that it’s one of the few respectable Thai businesses that westerners are likely to have heard of? Or is it to back up the claim of frequent trips abroad to sell Thai gems at a profit?

Our guy claimed to be a pilot with Thai Airlines, and showed us his business card, which said his name was Somchai. I said, “Oh, I’m also a pilot.” Later he mentioned having family members in Jamaica, Queens, who pay for their visits to Thailand by transporting and selling gems. I said, “Hey, I’m from Queens!”

Now, if I’m a con man, and my patter includes having a somewhat exotic profession and family members in a city on the other side of the world, and my mark says “me too” to both of those claims, I’d be sweating bullets! But Somchai kept his cool.

On our last day in Bangkok, we had only a couple of hours to see the Grand Palace and Jim Thompson’s House, both of which we’d skipped on the first leg of our trip. We found a cab driver to take us both places (at breakneck speed — there was lots of traffic and very little time before those attractions closed) and then back to the hotel. During the ride, we became friendly with the driver, as we did with nearly everyone we met in Thailand. On the way back to the hotel, he asked our permission to stop at his “sponsor,” a gem store where he gets a coupon for free gasoline whenever he brings in tourists. (I imagine he also gets a commission for any sales that result.)

This helped us to understand the gem scam a little better. Of course we agreed. We were under no obligation except to spend ten minutes or so in the store, and the driver was both friendly and up-front about the kickback scheme. After having experienced the scam firsthand, we appreciated his candor. And unlike the “Export Center,” this sponsor was a real hub of commerce. It was a giant retail store taking up much of a block on a main street, with customers streaming in and out and lines of taxi and tuk-tuk drivers outside waiting for their passengers. A line of pretty Thai hostesses greeted us at the entrance. As we approached, the one on the end peeled off and escorted us inside to a counter where we got complimentary soft drinks. There, a matronly lady with perfect English took us on a tour of the jewellers’ lab, where a few dozen men labored meticulously shaping settings, polishing stones, and so on. In the next room were rows and rows and rows of display cases full of obviously-much-higher-quality jewelry than at the “Export Center.” Scrolling LED displays prominently placed throughout the store proudly boasted, “ISO 9001 Certified.”

They didn’t have any platinum settings. If they had, I just might have sprung for the sapphire ring Andrea’d been bugging me for.

I have a book recommendation for you: The Big Con, by David Maurer. It’s from 1940 or so and is a legendary classic among documentary books about real live con games. You’ll recognize that most of the plot of The Sting, plus some character names, come from this book. (If you haven’t seen The Sting, see it before reading the book!)

That I read this book only a few months ago and still didn’t recognize the scam while it was happening boggles my mind. I understand a little better the truism that I read elsewhere once: con men, apparently, are the easiest marks.

Pointless in Seattle

Next stop, Seattle, where Danger is sending me for a one-day seminar at Microsoft on some new API with which we need to interoperate. I do not expect to get much information from attending the seminar that I can’t get from Microsoft’s printed documentation, but if it makes Microsoft feel better when their third-party developers show up to drink the Kool-Aid, fine.

The weird thing is, this is the third company I’ve worked for that has sent me on a business trip to Seattle — and I’ve never been sent on any other business trips.

I like Seattle a lot. Andrea and I almost moved there in 2000. The seminar will probably be a yawn, but at least I’ll get to see my good friends Kurt and Eva, Bay Area expatriates newly relocated to Seattle.

New York recap

There are no fireflies in New York. I never saw any in New York while growing up, but I grew up in Queens, which is part of the city proper, and I thought we might get lucky at my dad’s house which is farther out on Long Island, since I knew that there are fireflies not too far away, in Pennsylvania. But no.

No thunderstorms, but you already knew that.

Warm ocean water: check. I’d forgotten just how big a difference there is between New York beaches and California beaches. The sand in New York was soft, fine, and well-groomed — no doubt the effect of charging admission to the beach — whereas in California, where most beaches are public-access, it’s coarse and filthy. In Northern California the Pacific is freezing and the waves daunting; only crazy die-hard surfers in wetsuits spend any time in the ocean. In New York, entire families spend hours bobbing in the warm, gentle swells.

Dino-Walk was kinda lame, but the town of Riverhead is nice in a Norman Rockwell way, even if their church bells won’t shut up.

At Dylan’s Candy Bar, I allowed Jonah and Archer to fill up one bag of candy apiece, and I got a few things for myself, my sister, Suzanne (who accompanied us there), and Andrea. Guess how much I spent? $91. When the cashier rang up the total I let out an involuntary “Holy shit!” He smiled the smile of someone who’s gotten that reaction before.

The Long Island Children’s Museum is the greatest place in the whole wide world. We also visited the New York Hall of Science, and even though it was greatly expanded from when I was a kid (when its chief attraction was [what passed in the 1970’s for] a multimedia presentation about the wonders of nuclear power, brought to you by Con Edison), it couldn’t hold a candle to LICM. And next to the LICM, the Exploratorium is a total crapfest.

If there was a theme to this trip, it was Italian ices. We had Italian ices on Queens Boulevard, we had Italian ices from my mom’s freezer, but best of all we had Italian ices twice from The Lemon Ice King of Corona and scored this trophy photo: three generations of Glickstein men, and Peter Benfaremo, the Lemon Ice King himself.