November 2021

We enter the rainy season in November.  November has always struck me as a grey and quiet month, a winding down month, more a time to look back over the past year than to look forward.  And yes, certainly a time for thanksgiving too, for blessings present and past.

Rain Song 

(Melody and mood—Paul Simon’s “Kathy’s Song”)

I hear the patter of the rain,

With memories of you it falls–

Leaves drops upon my window panes,

Those happy days with you recalled.

My thoughts keep circling back again,

Through all our times, now gone away.

They’re of you as I go asleep, 

And bless you when I start each day.

The murmur of the wind and rain,

Faint echo of our love’s refrain.

Where once two voices intertwined,

Now just a solo one remains.

I watch the rain fall from the sky,

Flow down the gutters by the curb.

I could have fallen like the rain,  

There—but for your love—go I 

I would have fallen like the rain, 

There—but for your love—go I.

October, 2021

The Siren

It was nearing closing, the lounge was emptying out.  

“Look,” said the bartender, “I can’t pour you another one.  You don’t look like you’re in any shape to drive.  You want me to call you Uber?’

He reached into his right hip pocket, extracted his wallet and fumbling a little, pulled a fifty from it and slapped it onto the dark wood of the counter, drawing a quick sideways glance from the only other man seated at the bar.  “That’s for one for the road,” he said, glaring at the bartender, and challenging him to pick it up.

The bartender looked at the bill laying in front of him, shrugged his shoulders, pocketed the bill, and poured out another shot of scotch.  “But that’s it,” he said.

“Thanks,” he grunted.  Who elected you to be my keeper?   As bad as the bitch.   Well the hell with her.  To hell with all of them.  “Walking out on me,” he mumbled. “Shit!” more loudly.

“What’d you say?”  asked the bartender.

No reply.  He drained his shot, got up from the stool, tossed another fifty on the counter and turned to go.

“Let me call Uber for you,” the bartender said.  “And some advice.  For you own good, don’t keep flashing those big ones.  You never know who’s watching.”

He kept walking.  The bartender watched his back briefly, thinking okay—hope you make it home,  before turning his attention back to wiping down the bar.

He waited a bit unsteadily as the valet got his car, a black Porsche.  “Nice set of wheels, the valet said, holding the door open for him.  He handed the kid another fifty and headed down the short inclined driveway, into Kalakaua.  Steady as a rock behind the wheel, he thought.

On an impulse he decided to head home to Lanikai driving the long way around past Koko Head and Sandy Beach.  The moon was full and there was little traffic at this hour and it was a beautiful night.  Less chance to run into a police roadblock too, he thought.  He opened the roof to let the cool night breeze clear his head a little.  Around Diamond Head and then through Kahala, roaring around and passing the hotel shuttle that flashed its high beams after him in his rear view mirror.  Screw you buddy.  Screw her too.  Walking out on me.  Me!  Bitch!  

He left the Kahala neighborhood of ultra-pricey mansions and joined the six lane divided highway that linked all the small suburban communities making up East Oahu. The highway speed limit was thirty-five, but almost no one complied, and he drove along comfortably with the few other cars at forty-five plus.  

As he neared the Aina Haina fire station, he saw, far back in his rearview mirror, the flashing red light of an ambulance, still too far away to hear the siren.  No problem to keep ahead of it till it turned off at wherever it was headed.  He picked up speed, and the Porsche responded effortlessly.  Still, the flashing red drew closer and now he could hear the faint wail of the siren.  Okay, goose it a little more, up it to fifty plus.  Stay in front of it.  

By now Hawaii Kai was coming up ahead.  The light at Hawaii Kai Drive was just turning red when he flashed through at sixty. The ambulance followed.  Damn, where’s it going?  He quickly came up to the last set of traffic lights in Hawaii Kai.  Damn ambulance has got to turn off here.  The lights were just turning from yellow to red as he sped through.  The ambulance followed, lights flashing, siren wailing.  Can’t be a beach accident at this hour.  Must be a traffic accident.  Probably all backed up and I’ll be stuck.  Should have gone home by the Pali. 

Up the long uphill at sixty-five and still the ambulance paced him.  Then down, through two sharp turns, first left then right, tires squealing.  And still the red light and siren wail followed, closer.  Got a Porsche—but damn, that ambulance driver’s good.  A section of winding road above sea cliffs, and the ambulance followed, just three car lengths behind now, pushing him, the siren filling his ears.  Past Halona Blow Hole with a long straight stretch of road ahead.

Slow white pickup truck ahead and an oncoming car.  He gunned it and squeezed through at seventy, hearing the horns blare, fading behind him.  Hah!  That’ll slow up that bastard.  He checked his rear view mirror just in time to see the ambulance pass right through the pickup truck.  What!?  The cold sweat of fear began to trickle down from his arm pits.  And now the ambulance was right on his rear end.  Got to get away!  

He downshifted and floored it, blasting uphill towards Makapuu.  The siren shriek drowned out the roar of the motor, filled his ears, reverberated inside his skull, jamming his mind.  Red light flooded the cabin—flash-flash-flash-flash—blinding his eyes.  Going flat out to the top of the hill—and straight out into the void over the cliff at Makapuu.  Damn bitch he screamed in triumph as the Porsche began its arcing fall.

The siren wails for thee.

September, 2021

September Unsung

Sing no nostalgic songs of September,

When knees and calendar declare it’s December.

The leaves of autumn—long blown away,

Trees in the evening—barren and grey.

Long, dark nights are here to stay.

And what became of October, November?

The tide of time swept them swiftly away.

Yes, the Bird of Time is on the wing,

Bird, open your beak while you can and sing

For the hunter lurks, his aim is steady,

His oven waits, the roasting pan ready.

The bucket of lists, rusted through and through, 

Spilling places to visit and things to do. 

More important now than that itinerary,

Are the people and places so dear in memory,

For these days remaining are precious and few.

Buds in springtime, the flowers of summer,

Tanned hands and faces, so well remembered.

Fields of barley and dark starlit nights,

The memories of these, so vivid and bright.

And the young love, the true love, who came from the sea?

Though time took its toll, you are still here for me.

August 2021

tic toc

My grandfather’s clock was too large for the shelf 

So it stood ninety years on the floor.

I’m not ninety, he thought, but from what doc said, it sounds like my heart might as well be.

  What had been ordered as a routine treadmill could not be completed when the tech had to stop it because he had nearly passed out.  He was immediately admitted and scheduled for an angiogram to look at his coronary arteries.  

It must be bad, if doc thought I couldn’t even go home before the angiogram.  That he wanted me where they could watch me.  He didn’t say it, but he must have been worried that I’d have a heart attack and die at home.  This is so unfair.  I exercise regularly, I jog, I watch what I eat, I quit smoking long ago.    What good was all of that?  Laurie and I just started to travel after retiring five years ago.  Now maybe she’ll be going alone if I can’t travel anymore–or if I’m gone.  Doc said not to worry since he won’t know till after the tests.  That’s what he told Laurie and me.  I told Laurie not to worry too, that she should go home and get some sleep and we’ll see tomorrow.  How many tomorrows do I have left?  ‘Don’t worry.  Try to get some sleep.’  Easy for him to say.  I asked him what he thought I’d need done.  Told me again, ‘don’t worry, we’ll cross that river when we come to it.’  What if I can’t swim I replied.   He laughed and said ‘glad you have a sense of humor.  If you can’t swim I guess we’ll have to build you a bridge.’  Humor—yeah, gallows humor.  I’m monitored too—at least the nurses won’t keep coming in all night and waking me to check my vital signs.  Laurie went home after my dinner—clear liquids for me—for my morning angiogram.

It was bought on the morn of the day that he was born—

Weird—who buys a grandfather clock for a baby present?  Better skip the next lines, not that I’m superstitious or anything.  Better try to sleep, rest up for tomorrow.

Sleep?  Who gets to sleep on a busy hospital floor?  All the unfamiliar sounds, magnified and compounding anxiety.  The comings and goings; the beeps and chimes of monitors, iv pumps, and whatever else; the nurses and aides talking in the hall; the pages for the code team; gurneys wheeling patients in or moving them elsewhere; the patient who’s raving up the hall.  Bits and flashes of memory between snatches of sleep—of good times and the should have and could have times.  But the grey morning sky shows at last outside the window after a restless night.

Ninety years without slumbering, tic toc, tic toc.

His life seconds numbering, tic toc, tic toc,

———————-—-

And the gurney is here to take me to my test and some answers, maybe.  Ask not for whom the gurney comes, the gurney comes for thee.  Doc seems bright and cheerful this morning.  How did I sleep he asks?  Does it matter?  Hope he had a good night’s sleep—steady hands.  I’m starved.  Hope I can eat afterwards.

————————

Laurie’s already waiting in my room.  ‘You came early, honey.  No, I feel alright.  How was the drive in with the morning traffic?  Did you get some rest?  Yeah, me too.  Doc was able to do it quickly.  No I don’t know what it showed.  Doc said he’d talk to both of us a little later after he studies it some more.  Did you have breakfast?  You can go to the cafeteria.  They said they’d bring me something to eat soon.’

——————————-

So.  It’s got to be surgery.  Can’t use stents in my case.  And the sooner the better.  ‘But doc, I’ve been jogging, playing tennis, cutting down on fats.  How could this happen to me?’  ‘Remember Jim Fixx, the running guru?’ he said.  ‘Dropped dead at 52.  Fit and trim except for his heart.  The way your coronaries look, you’re lucky you’ve been okay up till now.’  Right, lucky—up till now.

His life seconds numbering, tic toc, tic toc,

But it stopped short, never to go again when the old man died.

Glad I didn’t cancel the insurance policy.  And the house is almost paid off.  Laurie is strong and level-headed.  She’ll do fine if……yeah, she’ll do fine.  Didn’t tell anyone else.  It’s all happening so fast.  

There’ll be time enough afterwards, however things go.  Doc said that the success rate is over 95%.  Focus on that, not the 5%.  Laurie’s palm is wet, mine too.  And the gurney has come for me.  ‘Laurie honey, I’ll see you after this is over, okay?  I love you.’   

Rolling along through the halls to the OR.  Going so fast — tic toc, tic toc, tic, toc, tic toc — We’re there.  Shift to the table.  Anesthesia now — tic toc,  tic   toc     tic       toc          tic

“Waking up, Mr. John?  Welcome back to Recovery.  All done.  You did really well and we’ll let Mrs. John in soon.”  She sounds so cheerful.  I made it!  I’m alive!  I made it. 

—toc, tic toc, tic toc, tic toc, tic toc—

To Life!  To Love!

July 2021

Windfall Fallout

It had been over a year since James C.T. Wong last saw his only niece Su Lin, turn her back on him, as she disappeared down the stairs of a New York subway station after he had testified in the inheritance suit she had brought against her two half brothers, Nathan and Paul.  Her case had been thrown out by Judge Black in part because of his statements.  He had tried to contact her afterwards by phone, email, and letters but there was no response.

“Give it up Jimmy,” Ruth his wife counseled.  “You’ll never be able to change Su Lin’s mind.  Our friends in New York say that she’s been complaining bitterly to anyone who’ll listen that you took the side of Nathan and Paul and sunk her case.”

“But I had to testify.  I was subpoenaed,” Jimmy protested.  “I only said what I knew to be true.  I couldn’t lie under oath even if I wanted to.”  

Poor Su Lin, he thought.  She has always felt like she was getting a raw deal.  She has a victim complex.  It probably started when she was young, and my brother left her and her mother behind in Shanghai when he went with the government to Chungking during the war.  There was no way to communicate and he didn’t know if they were alive or dead.  He fell in love with Er Mei there and he took her as his second wife.  All legal at the time, though Su Lin doesn’t see it that way.  And then after the Revolution, a further dislocation with the move to America.

“You know my brother C.L., when he was very sick, asked me to keep an eye on his children since we didn’t have any of our own,” said Jimmy.  “And even after we moved out west, Su Lin and I always spoke at least once a month.  Now she’s ignoring me.”

“Su Lin has a long memory for slights both real and imagined,” Ruth said.  “She’s in her sixties now and won’t change.  I think she became more sour and bitter when her husband discarded her for that younger trophy wife seven years ago.  So there are some real reasons that she’s the way she is.”

“I owe it to my brother and to Su Lin to keep trying,” Jimmy said.  “She’s only got her son, who she doesn’t see that often since he’s overseas, and Nathan and Paul as family.  When she gets older, it’ll be terrible to be all alone just nursing her resentment and anger.”  

And after the war, C.L. came back to Shanghai with Er Mei and baby Nathan, Jimmy thought, and found Su Lin and Zhu Li alive and they all moved back to the family home.  Er Mei always treated Zhu Li with the respect that she was due as C.L.’s first wife, and Zhu Li accepted Er Mei since that was the norm.  But Su Lin always felt that she and her mother were shunted aside, now that a son was born.  When they moved to America, with no servants, Zhu Li welcomed Er Mei’s help, and the wives seemed to get along.   And then Paul was born while she was in grad school.

“You’re an honorable man to keep trying, Jimmy,” Ruth said.  “I just hope you won’t be terribly disappointed if all your efforts are wasted.”

“We’re retired and she’s my only niece, what else is there to do?”

Finally after another nearly six months, Jimmy found a reply to one of his emails:  Uncle stop trying to contact me since you sabotaged me.

At last a reply.  It’s a start, thought Jimmy.  At least she called me uncle which means she still thinks of me as a relative.  He thought long and carefully about how to reply.  Email, phone, letter?  He decided on email as the least provocative:  Su Lin. You’re my only niece, the daughter of my elder brother.  If you decide you want to talk anytime, I’m here to listen.  He sent it off with his fingers crossed.

“Congratulations Jimmy,” Ruth said, “you got Su Lin to reply at last.  Do you think she’ll actually phone you?  You’re inviting her to blast you over the phone.”

“That is my hope,” said Jimmy.  “To give her a chance to pour out her anger.  Maybe afterwards she’ll be calm enough to just talk things over.”

“Well, if she does call I hope you’ll be able to take the heat.  If it gets to be too much you can always turn off your hearing aid.”

For what seemed to be a long time, there was no reply.  I wonder if it’s because she’s thinking of how to tell me off, he thought.

It was.

“Uncle, I asked you not to take sides, but you chose to help them and hurt me,” she said without a preamble.  

“Hello Su Lin,” Jimmy said in a neutral tone and waited.    

“Discovering that stock was a windfall.  Father bought long before the war, long before he met Er Mei and probably just after he met Mommy.  So they had no claim to it.  It should have all been mine.  But you had to meddle and testify.”

Jimmy held his tongue and did not reply.

“It was unfair from the start, the way father set up his will to divide his estate evenly three ways.  I was his first child born of his Number One wife and I should have had more.  At least half.  And the stock discovery would have been a small way to correct his mistake.  But you had to take Nathan and Paul’s side.”

Oh Su Lin, thought Jimmy.  If my brother had done it the old traditional way, everything would have gone to Nathan as his first-born son.  You don’t see how lucky you are that my brother was westernized enough to do what he did.  But he held his tongue.

“Right after the war when father came back with Er Mei and Nathan in tow, Mommy and I were pushed aside because he had a son.  It was so unfair to Mommy.”

Jimmy had to speak in defense of C.L.  “Your father always took your mother to all social functions as was her due as his Number One wife.  Never Er Mei.  He always was very careful to honor your mother.”

“Then why didn’t he do the same for me?”

Jimmy sighed but said nothing.

“You think I’m being greedy about the money.  It’s about more than the money.  Mommy and I had to go through the war in Japanese occupied Shanghai.  Thrown out of our home so that it could be used by Japanese officers, and put into dingy, cramped housing.  And then father comes back with a new wife and son and everything is supposed to be all right?  It wasn’t all right.”

Jimmy thought about what C.L. experienced in Chungking, the frequent bombings, the constant worry that the war was not going well, the meager rations, the stress of not knowing how his wife and daughter were doing.  And then he met Er Mei, so much his junior, but such a comfort, and he married her rather than taking her as a concubine.

“It was a different time and different circumstances,” Jimmy said.

“You’re making excuses for my father.”

“Su Lin,” Jimmy said carefully.  “If it’s about more than the money, please tell me what it is that you want.”

“It’s about being treated fairly,” Su Lin said.  “It’s about poor Mommy being confronted suddenly with a second wife.  It’s about father treating me as second best because I wasn’t a son.”

Second best?  thought Jimmy.  He paid for your education at Vassar and told everyone how proud he was that you did so well.  

He waited.

Su Lin continued, bringing up every small detail through the years where she felt she had been slighted by her father in favor of his second wife’s family.  She has a fantastic memory for injuries, thought Jimmy, that she’s been storing for all these years.  I never realized she felt so much this way and C.L. certainly didn’t.  And then when her husband divorced her it must have just recalled her feelings of when her father returned after the war with a second wife and child.  She needs to let it go somehow and get past this.  It’s not healthy to have so much bitterness and anger inside.

He waited till she paused and then said quietly, “Su Lin, I just never knew you felt so hurt.  I’m sorry that you’ve felt so much pain.”

“No one knew and no one cared.”

Jimmy refrained from saying ‘well I care.’  “What happened, happened,” he said.  “There’s no going back to change the past.  But you and I are living in the present.  Can’t we focus on that to make it the best that we can?”

“Easy for you to say, uncle.”

“I’m not saying to forget all that happened to you, because you can’t, you shouldn’t.  What I hope you will be able to do someday is to change your reaction to the past.  To be able to become more happy in the present.”

“Huh!”

He waited for her to say something and when she didn’t, he carefully continued.  “Think of Nelson Mandela.  If anyone ever had a reason for exacting justice or revenge, he did.  But instead he was able to bring about reconciliation and peace not by hiding the past but by acknowledging it and then moving past it with his former enemies.  He didn’t insist on his pound of flesh.”  He waited.

Su Lin continued to be silent.

“I’ve missed our past talks, Su Lin,” he said at last.  “I’ve been worried about how you are.  I’d like to hear your voice again.”  He  waited for her.  Finally he cautiously said, “Perhaps we can talk again  from time to time?”  And waited.

Finally Su Lin said, “I’ll call you when I’m ready, Uncle Jimmy.”

“Thank you, Su Lin.  I’ll be here.”  ‘Uncle Jimmy,’ he thought.  Well, maybe that’s a start.

June 2021

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s—a Weather balloon?

“So what do you make of the Department of Defense report to Congress, Al?  It doesn’t say that there are alien UFO’s but it doesn’t say that there aren’t either.  It just says, ‘we don’t know what we’re seeing.’”

“Well Lin, it’s a start.  After all the years of denial, at least there’s an official statement now that there are things in the skies that cannot be explained as natural phenomena or of human manufacture.  Help yourself to a cold one and the chips.”

“Thanks, I will.  You always thought that UFO’s existed and that they were aliens and that the government knew more than it was letting on.  Sounds like you might have been right.  But why is all of this coming out now?”

“Maybe there was such an accumulation of credible witnesses and images that it had to come out—that further denial would be laughable.”

“Or do you think that this is the government’s way of priming us, so that there’ll be less shock and panic when a more definitive report comes out in the future saying that the aliens are here?”

“Now you’re beginning to sound like me with the conspiracy theories, Lin.”

“No, really.  I mean I don’t believe all that Area 51 or alien abduction stuff, but it’s clear now that there’s been an effort to hide information.”

“Since you’re going down the government coverup path Lin, think about why the government, if it did have physical evidence of alien craft, would continue to keep it at Area 51 where all the attention of UFOlogists are focused?  Wouldn’t it make sense to use Area 51 as a decoy while the actual material and studies are going on at some other site?”

“Interesting thought, Al.  Makes sense.  Where do you think?”

“I think if there were such a site, it could be almost anywhere except in a big city.  But not so remote that comings and goings would stand out and be noticed.”

“It’s a big country.  Lots of possibilities.”

“Yes.  Your guess is as good as mine.”

“Okay, Al.  Another question.  If there are aliens who have been watching us for what—at least seventy years—maybe more—why are they doing it?”

“Because we’re so damn interesting.  We’re like their ant farm.” 

“No. Seriously Al.”

“Well, I don’t think that they’re here to take over Earth or to steal our resources like some people worry.  If they have the science to travel between stars and maybe galaxies, they don’t need our planet for its natural resources.  And if they were going to invade us, why are they waiting to do so?”

“You still haven’t answered me.”

“Okay, Lin.  Maybe not exactly like their ant farm, but I think they are watching to keep track of our scientific progress.”

“Then why don’t they do a better job of staying concealed?”

“Perhaps they want us to know that they are here, watching, and that our technology doesn’t come close to doing anything about it.  I wonder if that’s why they engage our newest aircraft, to show that our best fighter jets can’t compare.”

“But why?”

“There was that part of the report that said that when the navy installed a new radar system on their jets there was a flurry of UFO activity where this happened.  Pilots were reporting radar contacts but couldn’t see anything visually.  Perhaps the UFOs were checking out the new technology that made them more detectable.”

“You think that they show enough of themselves so that our leaders realize we’re not alone, but not so much that everyone on earth believes it?”

“Something like that, Lin.  Like not hovering saucers over cities and towns all over the world.  That if it were that obvious that far-advanced aliens were here, it might destroy any motivation we humans have to make progress.”  

“Okay, so if they aren’t here to harm us, do you think they’re here to help—to keep us from wiping ourselves out or destroying the planet?  That if things go really bad, they’ll step in?   Or are they strictly observers?”

“Who knows, Lin.  Have another cold one and hope that the former’s the case.”

Deep under the ocean at their base, undetectable by human technology, two observers are communicating with each other.

“You’ve been here longer than I.  Do you ever feel disheartened by the humans?” asked ##&%.

“Sometimes.  But they seem to be making progress, albeit slowly.  No recent continents-wide conflicts as by the group called the Mongols or the ones called the Romans.  It is true that they have had two bloody so-called world wars with bursts of technology, but none for the past seventy-five of their years,” answered #&#%@.

“Their aggressive nature seems innate.  Even humans subjugated by ruling groups find other humans that they can in turn, dominate,” said ##&%

“We are bound by our code to never intervene in the societies that we encounter.  To nether help nor harm.  They no longer do ritual sacrifices of fellow humans although they still have executions and murders.  They hold some strange beliefs.  They make slow progress, but progress,” #&#%@ repeated.

“The ones—their leaders and scientists—who know of our presence, must surely have surmised that in order for us to visit their world, we have the means to travel between stars and galaxies beyond their understanding of physics and space-time,” stated ##&% 

“As you know, that is why we are here, ##&%,” said #&#%@.  “They are one of the more inventive and adventuresome peoples we have encountered and they are rapidly developing artificial intelligence and more advanced computation devices.  There is concern that if a prodigious savant such as the one who defined gravity or the one who gave them a theory of relativity—incomplete though it is—were to arrive and ask the right questions with a future far-advanced computation device, then that person could find the secret of piecing the fabric of space-time as we do, to travel among the stars and galaxies.  And given their present level of aggressiveness, we would have to intervene.  To have them running loose in the galaxy with their current mindset would be very troubling.”

“It’s disturbing that when their entertainment depicts alien contacts it always, with a very few exceptions, results in violence,”  said ##&%.

“I also find it strange—a blind spot in their thinking—that even scientists who are talking of traveling to the stars to find other worlds to colonize don’t ever say that such a world would most likely have beings living on it already.  Attempted colonization would repeat the colonization history of this planet where more aggressive and technologically advanced groups took the land of the peoples already living there,” replied #&#%@.  “Therefor until humans demonstrate that they have evolved into a more peaceful and collaborative race, we will monitor them to prevent them from acquiring the means to travel beyond their solar system.  If they do evolve, then we would welcome them and share our knowledge.”

“We might be watching them for a long time,” said ##&%.

May, 2021

Last Times

When was the last time– 

I had a malted milk?

I used to love them as a child–why did I stop?

Or a hot fudge sundae with lots of sauce?

Too many calories–or was I too cheap to buy?

The last time–

I told the kids or anyone that I loved them?

It’s sad that I can’t remember.

 Or made love with a full and passionate heart?

That, I will always remember.

The last time–

 I spoke with a friend,

To joke and remember times past?

When we shared beers and tales,

After the last ball was struck.

The last time–

I had a good rare steak with fries?

I should have ordered ribeye and not the sirloin.

And real Peking duck?

Oh–back in Beijing, so long ago.

The last time–

That I’ll take a breath—

 And have the last of a lifetime of heart beats?

The when and how is a question mark,

The present is still here to live in.

April 2020 — 2

The April “Squidzilla” posting was a mistake, intended for the serial story, “Squidzilla”, in pages. Here is the April story.

The Ant Tsar

Ronald could never have been mistaken for an extrovert, so when the order came to work from home he was more than happy to comply.  No more coffee break chatter or being interrupted when someone stopped by his desk?  No problem.  He would not miss the casual everyday interactions of a large busy office with the workers’ cubicles lined up row on row.  He didn’t have many personal friends anyway, at work or at play.  Nor would he miss the standing room only jostling, careful not to bump-into-anybody, crowded subway rides that started and ended his work day.  Especially now that the pandemic was burning through the city.  Every day there were counts of new infections and more bodies on the news and conflicting advice about what to do.  Ronald kept distanced, cleaned surfaces, used disposable gloves when he did go out, and though there was no directive to wear a mask, he did so anyway.  Later, when it was decided that wearing a mask was of critical importance, he felt a satisfying sense of having been right all along.

He settled easily into the new on-line work culture with an extra sixty minutes of free time each day, as he didn’t have to travel to the office.  Since he was at a lower management level, he had fewer zoom conferences than his supervisor did and that suited him fine.  The work came in and the work went out.  Day after day.  It wasn’t hard, especially since there were no side distractions as there were at the office.  There had been layoffs, but only a few in his department, and so he was careful to quickly handle the work that came to him and to actively take part in zoom conferences, politely of course.

Ronald’s parents lived half a continent away, and he established a regular weekly zoom hour with them. His brother Raymond was only 200 miles north, but with the travel restrictions it might as well have been two thousand miles.  They spoke less regularly but checked in on one another.  Unless there was an extraordinary change in the course of the pandemic, there’d be no whole family getaway in northern Michigan this summer.  Social contacts outside of the family were much more sporadic.  As noted, he did not have many acquaintances outside of work and when one or another of them did call, there wasn’t much to talk about now that wasn’t depressing.  Tastes in entertainment differed, politics was too hot a topic, there were no sports, and personal life was at a standstill.

He went out for food and supplies only once a week if he could help it and he was getting tired of frozen meals and his own cooking.   Meeting another apartment owner in the hallway resulted in a stilted acknowledgement and a crablike edging around each other.  The process of entering an elevator remained awkward.

Weeks passed into months, and what had once been a welcome and novel way to work was turning into an anchor dragging down his spirits.  He felt like a prisoner, confined by the pandemic that lurked outside waiting for him to make a slip.

“You really sound down,” said his brother Raymond on FaceTime.  “And you don’t look so hot either.”

“Tell me this isn’t getting to you too,” Ronald replied defensively.  “I’ve heard you vent about  Joannie and the kids.”

“Yeah, I’ve got Joannie and the kids and though we can grate on each other, especially since the kids are schooling from home now, we also lean on each other.   That’s a whole lot different from going through this alone like you are.”

“I never thought I’d miss the BS around the coffee urn,” Ronald said.  “I’m tired of binge watching shows.  I know the dialogue from ‘The Office’ by heart.”

They stared numbly at each other until Raymond asked at last.  “Have you ever considered getting a pet?”

  “God no.”

“Listen.  Maybe having something to care for, that cares for you too, would lift your mood.  A dog or a cat maybe.”

“No.  I couldn’t see walking it twice a day outside, under these circumstances?  Or taking care of a cat’s litter box?”

“How about a bird then?”

“No, Birds don’t appeal to me.  I hate pigeons.”

“Still, it’s something to think about.  Oh,oh, Joannie just signaled that dinner’s ready.  I better go.

But think about it, okay?”

“Yeah, I will.  See you next time.”

A pet, Ronald thought.  That’s all I need.  But the thought lingered.  Fish?  Messy tank cleaning and fin rot?  Memories of burying dead fish in the garden as a child.  Maybe not.  White rat?  City’s overrun with rats.  A pet one would be-—well—-weird.  Snake, Iguana?  He looked up care and food requirements.  Too exotic for me.  

Wait—he’d had an ant farm for a science project in fourth grade.  That was kind of fun, watching them so earnestly busy.  Minimal upkeep.  Pretty cheap.  And the ants did well until he forgot about them after school let out and they all died or disappeared.  He went on line.  Holy Smoke, they’re not so cheap anymore.  Formicarium?  Fancy name to justify a fancy price.  He thought about it some more.  Well, why not.  I don’t spend on anything fun right now, so why not a small indulgence.  Let’s see, I’ll need a farm that comes with ants.  A queen and her subjects.

The plastic ‘farm’ was delivered first and he impatiently awaited the separate arrival of the ants.

They looked lively enough.  He introduced them to their ‘farm’ and watched as they proceed to make it their new home.  Ronald thought about how he would answer if anyone ever asked if he had a pet. “Well I do keep a formicarium.”  Got to spring that on Raymond.  

He was diligent about following instructions, neither over nor under-feeding or watering them and the colony prospered as the queen produced more workers.  He had to admit that watching the ants, so busy and so task-focused, was fascinating.  They don’t seem to need to rest their tiny bodies.  If I could only have that much energy and strength.  The time Ronald spent binge-watching TV went down as did his survey of social media.  His job became a necessary interruption.  Observing how the ants disposed of their dead was much more interesting than listening to the daily mortality figures for the city and country.  Raymond finally told him, “Enough about the ants already!”   

He took to messing with them just to see what they would do.  Blocking a tunnel entrance with a small piece of gravel or, more destructively, collapsing a part of a tunnel.  The ants always solve the problem.  They don’t even know I’m here, he thought, or wonder why their tunnel collapsed.  It’s almost like I’m this unknowable force that alters their lives.  Do they see me or wonder how or why?  They’re totally dependent on me for their food, their water.  If I stop providing, they die.  The power of life and death.  Like I’m their god!  That’s too blasphemous—he recalled his Sunday School lessons.  More like their king.  They have their ant queen.  I’m their king.  No.  More than just a mere king—a Tsar with total power like those Russian Tsars of old.  Ronald the Great.  Life or death or the whim of a little sugary treat when I feel like giving it to them.  They continue to exist only because I permit it.  A puff of Raid, and they’d be annihilated.  Gone.

One day he found two worker ants on the outside of the enclosure, wandering and almost reaching the tabletop.  How’d they get out?  Trying to get away after all I do for you, he thought with anger and he squashed them against the hard plastic.  That’ll teach you.  Ronald checked the lid but it was still fit snugly.  Well if those two got out—I don’t know how—I’d better put in an extra barrier.  He read that a smear of vaseline around the base of the formicarium would turn back any wanderers and he did that.  Okay, if I have to be penned in, so do you. 

He took good care of the ants and the colony grew.  It’s getting a little crowded in there.  Wonder what they’ll do with overpopulation?  Kind of like what we’ll be facing if we don’t change.  Maybe the queen will just shut down production.  Ant birth control.  Every so often he’d find another ant outside but he saw that the barrier of vaseline worked and he didn’t get upset as he did the first time and he saw that the ants found their way back in except for a few that became stuck in the vaseline.  Like a mini-LaBrea tar pit.  Serves you right.  He never did find how they were getting out.

Perhaps it was the population pressure that was the stimulus.  One night after he’d turned off the lights, a line of ants made their way out to the outer surface of their enclosure, each carrying a grain of dirt that they began to lay across the vaseline.  They continued, carrying, depositing, and returning to pick up another grain until they had bridged the vaseline.

The next morning, Ronald found the formicarium devoid of ants and the bridge of dirt that they had laid across the vaseline to obtain their freedom.  He raged against their ingratitude even as he admired their ingenuity.  Ingrates.  You never had it so good.  Now you’ve spoiled it.  But they got out, he thought sadly, and I’m still locked down and locked in.

squidzilla 31. April 20, 2021.

Squidzilla 31

Cecie Chao-Turner

“Michel, I can’t thank you enough for running and rerunning the squid videos,” said Cecie.

“With the computer, it’s not a problem,” Michel said.  “It’s not complicated to use it to look for reoccurring light patterns, select them out, and enumerate their frequency.  Take a look at this.  I did the same thing with the page of a short story by Poe, and you can see the word distribution pattern.  See the general similarity to the squid pattern?  Granted the story has more complexity than what you see with the squids’ lights.  But it looks like your idea about the squids communicating is a real possibility.”

“This is just great!  I’ve got to show this to Carlos and to my advisor,” Cecie said.  “You really ran with my idea.  If it ever comes to publication, you’ll be coauthor.” 

“Yeah.  Too bad there’s no squid Rosetta Stone,” Michel said. 

Cecie met with her advisor after showing the work to Jessie and Carlos who had both responded enthusiastically.

“So what do you think, Dr. Manta,” Cecie asked.

“Cecie, that’s fascinating.  I think you and your friend—what’s his name?—may really be on to something.,” said Dr. Manta.

“Michel.”

“French?”

“I think his father is.”

“You’ll need to find a key to what they may be signaling, and that’s going to be hard,” Dr. Manta said.

“Yeah, that’s what Michel said too,” Cecie said.  “If only there was a way to show them pictures of things in their world and see what the light signals for them were.”

“That would require a squid to be intelligent enough and curious enough to figure out what you were trying to do,” Doctor Manta replied.

“Still, I’d like to try to do it as my research project.”

“Ah the confidence and enthusiasm of youth,” Dr. Manta said.  “You are going straight for a Mars shot.”

“But you’ll still be my advisor, right?”

“Of course.  But you’ll need to generate grant money once you formulate your idea of how you’re going to approach this.  When the time comes, I’ll work with you on a grant proposal.”

BlueSeas Coalition Board Minutes

Rosen reported that the count of migrating Grey and humpback whales has been stable for the past three years even though predation by giant squids (“Squidzillas”) had continued to occur on both legs of the migrations.

Several members (Wong, Levine, Souza, and Drew) opined that though that might be the case, they would favor an active reduction of squids to allow the whale population to increase rather than just  remain status quo.t

Tata pointed out that squids had attacked the ships that had attacked them in the past.  She wondered if the consequences of action against squids had been considered?  Furthermore, the squids had learned to nullify the armed drones previously used by the Coalition by severing the control wire.

Costello then stated that he and a friend who works at Macrodata Industries had developed a self-guided aquatic drone with no control wires, largely using off-the-shelf components.  They had been running trials using other drones as targets. Although the effective range was only 600 yards, it had accurately homed in on its target 85 percent of the time.  

He was asked if it could carry a war head.  He answered probably.  He was asked about cost and Costello said that building it was actually cheaper than buying  the wire-guided drones.

After further discussion, a vote was taken to explore the use of Costello’s drone to attack squids that were targeting whales.  The result was fourteen yeas and one abstention. 

Clearance by the Coast Guard will be the next step.  

Cecie Chao-Turner

Cecie, Jessica, and Carlos celebrated the completion of Cecie’s first year at Stanford at The Balboan, a theater restaurant.  As they took their seats, the menu appeared in the table top before them with descriptions of how each entree was to be prepared, and its nutritional content.  After each person made their choice, the origin of each selection was supplied, wine pairings suggested, along with an estimated time of arrival at their table. 

“I thought given the way the menu was presented, we might be served by robots,” whispered Cecie to Jessica after their waiters left.

“That would certainly solve the question of tipping,” Jessica replied.

“I wonder if we could take a look into their kitchen and see who or what the chefs are.”

“The write-up I saw posted for this restaurant said that human chefs were assisted by robots,” said Carlos.

“Perhaps that’s why they don’t have an open kitchen,” said Jessie.  “Some guests might be turned off by the sight of machines doing the actual cooking.”

“Well, I’m looking forward to the after dinner show,” Carlos said.  The Tasty Quarks was my favorite band in high school during the rock revival, and I was so depressed after their fatal autocopter crash.  So to see them perform again after twenty-six years if only as holograms will be very special.”

“I’ve heard of them—sort of,” said Cecie.  “Don’t you play them?  Do you know how they got their funny name?”

“The story goes that they were four drop-out would-be physics majors who preferred making music,” Carlos said.  “Ah, the house lights are dimming.  Here’s the MC.  Now is he also a hologram?”

After the last clap and whoop had died away at show’s end, Cecie said, ”They were unbelievably real.  You could even see the sweat fly off them as they really got into it.”

“And they haven’t aged a day,” said Jessie, “While we have.  Oh to be a hologram.”

“I wonder,” said Cecie “Could holography work underwater?”

March 2021

Ah, Retirement

It’s been four months since I retired, he thought, as he watched his wife Ella get ready to go to work.  She’s got another two plus years to go and then maybe we can travel more.  Hope I last that long.

“It’s too bad your usual foursome isn’t available,” Ella said.  “Why don’t you go out by yourself? Get in some practice.”

“Not so much fun playing alone, especially in the rain,” he replied,  “And I doubt that I’m going to improve much even if I played everyday.”  Yeah, he thought, Tom’s sick with something, Dick’s gone to Vegas, and Harry’s still working—six years younger and he outdrives us by forty yards.”

“Well, I hope you don’t get bored.  Maybe you can go shopping.  Just don’t buy a whole new set of clubs.”

“You know what I think of shopping,” he said.

“Yes, I know,” she laughed.  “Well, I should be home the usual time. If you’re still planning to cook dinner, please don’t leave the kitchen a mess.”

He got up from his cereal and walked with her to the door to the garage, arm around her waist.  Too bad you have to go to work, he thought.  She turned to kiss him and he pulled her tight to him.

“Now stop that,” she said.  “We’ll see about tonight if you’re not all worn out by retirement, tiger.  And if you are going out you’d better wipe off that lipstick first.”

“Grrrrr,” he said and gave her one final squeeze, then watched her get into the car, back down the driveway, pause to check for traffic and head off with windshield wipers beating.  

No rush, no where to go.  Oh yeah, still have to shop for dinner fixings.  Later when the rain lets up.  Might as well have second cup of coffee.  It was lukewarm.  Microwave.  Check the news and the market.  It’s been crazy erratic lately.  Sit tight, that’s what Tom advised.  Don’t even think of day trading.    He walked into the living room, picked up the remote, and switched on the news and then the market report.  Politicians flaying each other.  Playing ‘gotcha.’  Hey—what about doing the people’s business for a change?  Market—up a couple hundred one day and down more the next.  Why?  He became bored with the churning and commentary—like weather forecasters—all over the place and they have short memories about what they said the week before.  Bahhh.

‘Nuff of that; let’s see what’s on the cooking channel.  He’d discovered the cooking channel during his first month at home and it had unearthed a previously buried desire to cook that surprised Ella and him.  It inspired him to Google recipes that he kept in a binder in his office space.  And tonight he was going to try out a new one—orange glazed pork roast with cranberries.   But first I’ll check out what the food pros are doing today.

There were no new inspirations and so he decided to stick with his original plan and he began to draw up a list of what he needed, first checking through the cabinets to see what they already had and what he needed to buy.  Because he was not familiar with how Ella had set up her kitchen and pantry, it took him a while to do.  It’s so disorganized, he thought.  Not sensibly laid out.  Why is sugar stored on a different shelf from honey?  Now curious, he looked more analytically at how the dishes and cookware were stored.  No logic either.  They could be stored by frequency or type of use or by size and weight or by meal.  Now they’re kind of random.

Oh well, fix myself some lunch first and then a little rest.  Might as well enjoy the perks of retirement.  And then to the market.

Lunch was leftover meatloaf in a sandwich.  Ella makes a great meatloaf.  Guess I’ll leave that to her to do.  Don’t try to compete with what’s done so well.  He made another pot of coffee to go with the sandwich.  Almost out of mustard.  Add to the list.

A short nap, to the sound of the rain dripping off the eaves.  I was going to put up gutters he thought before he fell asleep.  When he woke, it was still raining.  He decided not to wait but to shop anyway.  Armed with his list he set off.

Later that afternoon, he carefully laid out the cookware he would need, and then the ingredients for the glaze.  He washed and prepped the salad, covered the bowl with plastic wrap and stored it in the fridge.  One down.  The potatoes would go in before the pork, so he washed them and set them aside.  

Okay, I’ve got some time before I need to heat up the oven.  Let’s see if I can store the cookware in a more useful way.  Put all the frying pans together.  The heavy pots should go on the bottom shelf.  Aluminum and stainless steel?  Material doesn’t matter—store them by use.  Accompanied by a lot of clanging, he rearranged the shelves, happy with the thought that he was making things easier for Ella and himself by establishing a system.

He began to set the table and concluded that the dishes too needed a better storage system.  I can do that while the pork is roasting.  His timing was impeccable and he finished the job just before the roast and potatoes were due to come out.  All those dishes are heavy he thought; back’s a little sore.  But wait till Ella sees what I’ve done for her.  I won’t tell her, I’ll let it be  a surprise.

He heard the car tires squish up the driveway in the rain and went to open the door to the garage, greeting Ella with a hug and a long kiss.  “Dinners almost ready.  You’re just in time to wash up and eat.”

“That smells really good.  I am really hungry,” Ella said.  “And you didn’t left the sink area a mess!”

“Well I do try to remember what you tell me,” he said.

Ella came back after washing up and changing.  “Oh, wine too.  And not our box wine.  You have gone all out, Tommy.”

“Got to take good care of the breadwinner.”

“This is really delicious.  Roasted just right, tender with a little bit of pink.  Did you get the recipe from the cooking show?  You’ll have to do this again when we have friends over.”

“Sorry no dessert except for coffee and cookies.”

“That was so good.  You are definitely not worn out by retirement.  As you wash the pots and pans, I’ll dry and put them away

“You sure you don’t want to just rest?”

“No, you made dinner, I’ll help clean up.”

He waited for her reaction when she opened the cabinet.  She’ll be so surprised he thought happily as she pulled the door open.  

Silence.

“Surprise!” he said.  I arranged everything so that it’ll work better for you.” 

Silence.

“Well, what do you think?” he prompted.

“Thomas, I am counting from one to ten.  I don’t know whether to scream or cry or laugh. “

“You mean don’t like it?”

“Tommy, how could you do this without asking me?”

“It just came to me today as I was getting ready to do dinner.  I thought it would streamline your work.”

“Oh Tommy.  I guess you meant well, but you forgot to do what you did when you were working.  To always survey the consumers first to see what they really want.  That’s me!”

“I’m sorry.”

Ella began to smile and then laugh at how crestfallen he looked and sounded and the absurdity of it all, “Come on, I’ll clear the table and you load the dishwasher.  Then I’ll show you where to put things back to where I’m used to finding them.  You did fix a really nice dinner.  I’ll give you a hand.  Don’t want to wear you out, tiger.”