Ashes to Ashes (A Progressive Wake)

Today is my 59th birthday. Happy Birthday to me. Last Saturday, I attended a funeral. It’s getting a little close to home.

The only way for me to deal with death is to laugh. I hate death. I hate sadness. I don’t like crying. I don’t like being in a room with lots of sad people. So, I want to prevent that at my funeral.

Now, some may say it’s unlikely there will be much sadness at my funeral, but I’m trying to be optimistic.

I don’t want a preacher with a couple of readings and a generic homily with my name stuck in a few places.

I don’t want a “Celebration of Life” since that just means “boring-ass funeral.”

So, I want my services to be fun (or at least different.)

One of the interesting (or bizarre) aspects of cremation is that the ashes don’t have to end up in only one container. More than one of the bereaved can receive a portion of the deceased as a memento (“souvenir” seemed crass.) For an extra fee, you can have ashes sealed in a locket, so you can match your relatives to your outfit.

This has been discussed twice now, coincidentally at two different Italian funerals. This is why so many Churches in Italy have so many pieces of so many Saints. Divide and conquer.

I am planning to be cremated when my time comes, and hopefully not before. Since I am not a small person, there may be an excess of ashes. So, this is my last request, which my wife predictably refuses to honor.

Wait for my wife to be acquitted of my murder on grounds of temporary (or permanent) insanity.

Cremate me. First, put some microwave popcorn in my pockets so I have a snack while crossing the River Styx, then cremate me.

Divide my ashes into ten urns. There aren’t ten people who care enough to want a piece of me – again, see the Italians: “You wanna piece of me?” – but they’re not for people, they’re for pubs. They’re the stops on my progressive wake. A progressive wake is a pub crawl to the Hereafter.

Mark the urns:

  1. Trinity Hall
  2. Dubliner
  3. The Ginger Man
  4. The Old Monk
  5. Adair’s Saloon
  6. Lakewood Landing
  7. Meddlesome Moth
  8. Hillside Tavern
  9. The Londoner
  10. Flying Saucer

Deliver each urn to the appropriate pub. (I didn’t choose any outside the Metroplex or on a cruise ship, so this should be doable on an afternoon.) The delivery person might want to wrap the urn in a box and address to me, with a good tip to the bartender and a promise that it will be picked up quickly. This would probably be more acceptable than to ask, “Can we leave a small jar of dead guy here for a few hours?”

Now, you (my mourners) are ready to hold the progressive wake.

At my memorial service, hand each of the five or six people that show up a map with all the pubs marked. You could also show them the map at the bottom of this discussion, or give them a link to this page.

Call an Uber or two for the participants (don’t drink and drive!)

  • Visit a listed pub.
  • Bonus points for calling “Bring out your dead!” as you enter.
  • Drink the suggested drink (see the map) – or whatever, it’s not like I’m there to judge. (Well, part of me is there, but I won’t judge.)
  • Tell an amusing story about me. After a few drinks, just make something up.
  • Collect the urn.
  • Tip the bartender.
  • Repeat.

Once all the pubs are visited and all the urns collected, return to the memorial service. Apologize to the hosts from the funeral home for the slight delay.

Record any eulogies that are given. If the participants followed the spirit(s) of the Progressive Wake, they may be good blackmail material or at least they will be funny.

Dump all the little urns into one big-ass urn. Have someone with allergies do this, so there will be some tears at the service, after all.

Bury me none on the lone prairie.

Progressive Wake

A Short Story

This is the story of a bonsai plant, so by definition, it is a short story.

Monday, May 7, 2018

My Mom and I have had our differences over the years, but last week was Mother’s Day, and she’s still my mother, so I decided my wife and I should send her a small gift. I dislike flowers, partly because of the markup, partly because it’s so predictable, but mostly because of their short shelf life. So, I decided a plant would be a more lasting gift.

Since everything in the universe is online these days, I just pointed my browser at 1-800-Flowers and looked for their Mother’s Day plant suggestions.

Mom’s in a condo, so there’s not a lot of extra space for gardening, and one of the suggestions was a bonsai azalea. That sounded a bit exotic, nice and small, still very pretty, and within my price range. So, I ordered that for Mom, a doggie bouquet for my wife (from our Chihuahua) and called it done.

I was proud of myself – even with the Mother’s Day rush in full tilt, I had gotten the order placed in time enough where my wife’s gift would arrive Thursday, Mom’s on Friday, both before Mother’s Day with room for error and minimal excess delivery charges. Yea, me!

Thursday, May 10, 2018

A flower bouquet arrived at our door. The enclosed card said it was for my wife from our Chihuahua, Rocky, and specifically said it was only from him and not our other dogs. Quite funny, even though that’s the third time I’ve put that on a card. Everybody in my house is happy.

Friday, May 11, 2018

I got a note on a different subject from Mom, replied to her, and in her reply to my reply, she thanked us for the beautiful plant. So, both gifts are delivered, Mother’s Day is coming up, everything is done. Yea, me!

For a normal person, this would be the end of the blog post. Sigh.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Mother’s Day. My brother was taking Mom out to brunch with some of his friends and their Moms, so we had lunch with my in-laws. Everybody’s covered. Life is good.

After I got home, I received an apology email with a $20 credit from 1-800-Flowers for letting me down. Hmm. As far as I knew, everything was delivered. I actually saw one gift arrive and got a thank you note for the other. So, I figured it was a systems error from the insanity of Mother’s Day at a nationwide florist, and forgot about it.

Monday, May 14, 2018

I got an email notice that my Mom’s gift would be delivered on Tuesday. So, that explains the apology note, since they had completely missed Mother’s Day. Wait. Why did I get a thank you note on Friday? There are a number of medical conditions running in my family, but clairvoyance is not one of them.

Maybe they just sent a placeholder bouquet until the real gift arrived, but they never mentioned that in the note.

I was confused. This is not the first time I have been confused about gifts.

Maybe I should ask my Mom. I sent her a quick, “Hey, I got a really strange email” note.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

(Happy Birthday, Ellie!)

Mom replied to my note. In fact, we had a stream of notes that day. I will attempt to summarize.

She had received a box on Friday with a tray, some pebbles for drainage, care instructions and a six-inch azalea in full bloom. However, there was no bonsai plant.

I started having flashbacks to my first long train ride with my son, when he was six or so. By the time we were an hour out of San Antonio, he had gone through everything I had brought along (snacks, books, coloring books) for the twelve-hour trip. So, I said, “Why not just look out the window at the scenery for a while?” He said, “There isn’t any scenery, just rocks and cows.”

There is no bonsai, just a small flower bush.

So, Mom had called 1-800-Flowers. (Mom and my wife call people. I use chat and email. My wife and I have a long-running debate about which is more effective.)

After a discussion with the (probably off-shore) customer support line, the 1-800-Flowers representative had agreed to send another plant for delivery on Saturday.

Hmm. That would explain the $20 credit.

The plant did not arrive Saturday, so Mom called back – and amazingly got the same customer sales representative (thank you, Evelyn, for helping Mom). They were becoming close. The delivery was assured for Sunday.

Nothing arrived Sunday, so Mom called back. Same customer service representative, who now recognized my Mom’s voice. (You would think they would have CallerID so they could swap repeat customers.) Monday, for sure.

That explained the delivery notice for Monday that I received for a gift that had been delivered Friday.

I was beginning to have visions of a bonsai forest on my Mom’s balcony.

So, I emailed Mom the picture of the bonsai azalea from the website, to show what I had chosen. Surely, that will clear everything up.

To her credit, she only called in the first place because she wanted to receive what I had selected. It never occurred to her that I would actually select a bonsai azalea. I’m not really sure what that says about what she thinks about my taste.

To her further credit, she does not consider a miniature azalea to be a bonsai plant. I checked Wikipedia a while ago, and it says that bonsai is a cultivation method, which means (I believe) that technically any full-size plant could be raised as a bonsai plant, given the time and patience. Speaking of patience, I’m not sure I have the energy to explain to Mom how to update the Wikipedia page to her definition. Maybe she can call Evelyn to have it corrected.

So, Mom now has two bonsai azaleas, whether they are bonsai or not. I have a good name for my next band (“Ladies and gentlemen …. Bonsai Azaleas!”)

I received another apology with another $20 credit from 1-800-Flowers.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Popcorn Factory sent me an email that said they were having a sale on popcorn tins. My grandkids love popcorn. It’s a sale. I like cheap popcorn. So, I was about to hit the order button, when I realized that 1-800-Flowers owns The Popcorn Factory. So, I used one of the apology credits to send my grandkids some really cheap popcorn.

Win-win.

Aftermath

As in, the math after it’s all over. So, I spent $39.99 on a bonsai azalea to attempt to make my Mom happy. Instead, Mom got two bonsai azaleas, a personal quest that kept her busy over the lulls in Mother’s Day weekend, and a new friend in the Philippines. I got $40 in credits. The kids got popcorn. My wife got a flower arrangement from a Chihuahua. I got a really strange blog post, even for me.

I never saw Mother’s Day as an investment opportunity, but so it goes.

I may have to use the other $20 to get my Mom some miniature tools so she can keep her azaleas small. There is nothing more embarrassing than a large bonsai azalea.

Next year, I will just toss a small plant at her and say it is a kamikaze azalea.

Mom-in-law 1, Instant Pot 0

My mother-in-law defeated my Instant Pot from the Great Beyond last night. She’s been gone almost ten years, but I’ve always been pretty sure she’s still watching us, and now I have proof.

My wife still has her right arm immobilized, so I’m still the chef of the house. Yesterday afternoon, the patient requested chili, so I got some ground beef from the freezer, and a couple hours later, when I started assembling ingredients, I discovered that was pretty much the only chili ingredient I had. Oops.

Plan B was goulash, but we were also missing ingredients for that.

My goal while I’m running the kitchen is to prove people can eat before 8pm and survive, so this was not looking good.

Finally, my wife said, “Make sauce.”

This is where my Mom-in-law comes in.

“Sauce” when I was growing up came in a jar, and it was called spaghetti sauce. My in-laws are New York Italians and sauce is a not in a jar. It is in a number of cans and cloves and shakers that have their contents combined in a large stockpot. It takes all day to make. All damn day. Also, it’s not “spaghetti sauce” because it’s not just for spaghetti – you use the same sauce for all kinds of pasta, on entrees, on bread for a snack, as a substitute for plasma in blood transfusions…

As an aside, for some people from the frozen North, sauce is called “gravy.” I grew up in Texas, where there is cream gravy for chicken-fried steak, enchilada gravy for enchiladas and brown gravy for everything else.

My mom-in-law lived with us for six years before she passed away, and the most upset she ever got was when Rachael Ray made sauce as part of a thirty-minute meal, adding beef stock to get that “all-day flavor”. She was more upset about half-hour sauce than she was the day one of the dogs peed on her walker. Twice. Pee? Slightly Annoyed. Sauce in a half-hour? Ballistic.

So, making sauce “quickly” put me on shaky ground, but I figured, I’m Irish, she should expect me not to know better, and it’s not like she’s haunting us or anything.

For the record, my mom-in-law’s sauce must cook for at least four hours, or it tastes “raw.” To me, sauce tastes like tomato and uncooked sauce also tastes like tomato, but I learned early on to not argue with her about cooking.

So, I was going to make sauce quickly (which is different than “quick sauce”), and my Instant Pot had never let me down in the two times I had used it. Plus, I was cooking for an invalid.

So, first step, brown the garlic. Then, brown the ground beef. Add the tomato sauce, crushed tomatoes, tomato paste. Stir it all up. Seal the pot.

Wait for the pot to come up to pressure, wait a half-hour, make some pasta, dinner is served.

“Beep!”

I had never heard a “beep” that just sounded unhappy.

The display said, “Burn.”

This is apparently a well-known issue, “the infamous Burn message.”

It means something is sticking to the bottom of the inner pot. (Thanks, Google.)

So, I opened the pot, stirred everything around, resealed and started again.

“Beep.” Burn.

Uh, Google?

So, something may be stuck. Check. There may not be enough “thin” liquid in the pot. Don’t stir in “heavy” liquids (like tomato paste.) Oops.

This was also when my wife mentioned she usually adds a can of water (28oz!) to her sauce. Hmm.. Water would be a very thin liquid. That would have been a helpful reminder a half-hour ago.

Let’s try this again. Scrape the bottom, add the water (note how close we are to the Maximum Fill line), stir all the heavy stuff to the top (consider that logic), seal and pray.

“Beep.” Burn.

I really should have learned to say, “Dammit” in Italian.

I admitted defeat. I moved all the raw sauce into a stockpot on the stove. Four hours later (after we had BBQ delivered), dinner was ready. For tomorrow.

So, “Burn” is apparently just short for “You will burn in Hell for trying to make sauce quickly.

I miss my mom-in-law. I might have had a bruise today, but she would have stopped the madness much sooner.

Annus Horribilis

In the Caribbean, this has been a horrible year. I know, because I’m scheduled to go there at Christmas. My wife and I have our annual cruise scheduled, in spite of the fact I’m still looking for a job, because we just need to get out of town for the holidays.

This year, there was a particularly nice cruise available on the Norwegian Jade, a ship we have sailed before and enjoyed. It’s ten days, so a good length of time away. It wasn’t that expensive, compared to other years. It was also calling on a number of ports that we had never visited before. So, with all the stresses of not working, I was looking forward to a cruise.

Then Irma. Then Maria.

Here’s our cruise plan, as of the original booking. All the red ports are currently closed. We should know in a couple of weeks where we’re actually going to sail, but as all the cruise lines have the same problem, and all of them will have a multitude of ships in Florida for the winter, it’s going to get interesting. The scheduling of multiple ships of multiple sizes (which limits which ports can be visited) with random cruise lengths to the same area of the sea will be challenging, to say the least.

This is not a complaint letter about our cruise being changed, although you can find plenty of those around. Our itinerary will change, we know that, whatever. It’s hardly Norwegian’s fault that two of the worst storms in history tracked almost exactly over their planned Christmas cruise.

That said, we learned a couple of bizarre things while watching Mother Nature destroy our vacation plans. One, many people care more about their vacations than other people. When Norwegian announced all their Eastern Caribbean cruises were suddenly sailing Western Caribbean routes until at least the end of November, people complained. Complained.

There are people living in the islands who depend on tourism who now won’t get tourists because the port has been destroyed, and by the way, their house is gone, and you’re whining that your vacation was ruined? Get a grip, people.

It was particularly painful for us, because we’ve been to some of the islands and we know some of the people. I fed birds in St Thomas. I haven’t heard how the resort made out. We made our own perfume at Tijon in Saint Martin. The store remains, the owner’s house is gone.

We support a dog rescue on Saint Martin. We donated what we could to their campaign to build a shelter last year. The shelter is gone now. It took a couple of days for someone to locate the founder of the organization because the power was out, nobody could get to her house, and she had refused to leave the dogs. Even though we haven’t met in person, it was freaking us out that nobody knew if she was OK.

So, having to go to the Western Caribbean instead of the Eastern Caribbean is not really a problem. Trust me.

I was very pleased to see multiple cruise lines donate ships, crew and time to get supplies to the islands and get stranded people off of them. I was horrified by some of the comments of passengers diverted by a hurricane to Cozumel. (“It’s humid here!”) Honestly, I would be freaking out if I was working (and paying a dog sitter) and suddenly had my vacation extended by an unknown amount of time, but I would like to think I could handle it more gracefully. It’s a freaking hurricane. It’s not really under the cruise line’s control. Have a margarita. Chill out.

We also learned that the islands don’t seem to exist in much of the US media’s eyes. At best, they’re flyover country – a large number of independent entities that are all just lumped together. Storms generate in the Atlantic, pass over the Lesser Antilles and then go towards Miami. There are over thirty islands. It’s not one clump. Some were hit, some were grazed, some were missed. The distinctions are important and it is newsworthy for each individual island. The Weather Channel seems to dwell mostly on what might or will happen instead of what has just happened.  CNN did a better job of reporting results, but if you’re all about weather, why aren’t you covering where the weather just occurred? Personally, I don’t really care right now if Miami is going to get hit in four days if someone I care about is getting hit at the moment.

(I also learned that you can find information, you just need to find the official channels or newspapers on the web. However, when their power goes out, the news gets spotty.)

Also, the US Virgin Islands are part of the US. The name should be a major clue. Newspeople don’t seem to know this. These people are your fellow citizens. (Here’s where to donate.) The same applies for Puerto Rico. I’m really appalled by the lack of coverage or concern because everyone was looking down the calendar at Florida.

I’m actually appalled by the media not covering more of the islands at all, even the ones not directly tied to the US. The Caribbean is a major tourist destination. There are expats living all over them. There are cruise ships steaming towards them, filled with drunk Americans. There are people spending their vacation money, planning to visit in the next few months. It does matter.

The Caribbean should be more important to us.

The islands will rebuild. They always do. However, a lot of what they need is imported (expensive), so it will take time. Months. Maybe years. Support them. If the ports aren’t open, I’m pretty sure you can still transfer funds. Donate, people.

I personally don’t mind visiting an island that’s half recovered, just to spend some money there and help the recovery by having some fun. I hope more people think that way. From what I’ve seen online, there are some who agree with me.

“It’s not like at home” is one of the great reasons to travel. I hope we all remember that.

Oh, and if you’ve been thinking about adopting a dog, I can help set you up. You just have to wait until they can arrange the flights, assuming the airport is open.

Genealogy From Spit

This is My DNA Profile that I received today. It’s not the most exciting set of results.

I’ve been working on my family tree off and on for years. I don’t really need to do a lot of work as my Mom’s Mom’s family seems to have an unofficial historian and there are lots of notes out there. My Dad’s family is not well-documented – I think I first discovered my grandad had a brother when I was in my forties. (Dad didn’t talk about his family much, and when I asked him once what “Gilhooly” meant, he said, “The bastard down by the stream.” He may have just been stressed that evening.)

My wife has done some work on her family tree, but some of the branches seem more interested in their own specific branch than where the entire tree goes. I think it’s pretty much you go as far back as the people you saw at Sunday dinner at Grandma’s, and call it good. That, and she’s Brooklyn Italian, so a quarter of the branches in her family tree end up in the East River.

When I found out about the AncestryDNA kits, it sounded like an interesting idea, but a bit far-fetched. I wasn’t sure want bodily fluid was required to extract your DNA (it’s saliva, so calm down), but it sounded scientific and mysterious.

Why trace people’s names when you could find out you were part Gypsy just by spitting in a tube?

The test is interesting – you actually do spit into a tube (up to the fill line), seal it with another tube that has preservative in it, shake it, drop it in a post-paid envelope, and wait for the results.

I may be the first guy who was looking forward to a DNA test coming back.

They tell you it takes six to eight weeks to get your results, but I was pretty sure that was setting expectations low. I was correct. I mailed off my spit in a tube at the beginning of the month, and my AncestryDNA test results arrived today. Actually, I got an email that said they were available on the web site.

There is nothing earth-shaking in them, which is good and bad. Good, because it means nobody has been lying to me about my origins, and bad, because it means I actually am descended from these whack-jobs.

My wife and I sent out samples in the same day, and mine are back, and hers aren’t, which just shows alcohol is easier to process than tomato sauce.

It did occur to me that genealogy would be a wonderful subject in high school, when everyone is desperately trying to prove they’re not descended from the tyrants at home.

I’m pretty sure my wife’s family will now buy kits for each other, since they all criticize each others’ cooking and eating habits, and the greatest insult is “You can’t possibly be Italian.” Well, let’s see, shall we?

My key results:

56% Ireland, which would be my Dad’s contribution, as his family is from a small town in northern Ireland – which is not to be confused with Northern Ireland. We’ve visited there, it’s beautiful countryside, and small farms. If you go far enough north in the beautiful countryside, you will meet British soldiers with tanks and automatic weapons. That would be Northern Ireland.

24% from Europe West, which must be mostly Mom’s donations – her family emigrated to Texas from Germany (probably technically Prussia) in the late 1850s, and my maternal grandfather’s family was from Alsace, which is either German or French, depending on who won the last war. Mom’s family left Germany since all of the sons would very likely be forced to go into the Kaiser’s army, but ironically got to Texas just in time for some of them to fight in the Civil War for the South. Ouch. Luckily, I don’t think any of them saw active duty, they just wandered around the State, not fighting Yankees, since they’re weren’t any in Texas. Yet.

6% Scandinavia, which I have no idea, but it explains why I like lingonberries. If it’s ancient DNA, then it’s just the invaders who went to Ireland to rape and pillage, and found beautiful countryside and small farms. Either that, or the invaders who went to Germany for Oktoberfest.

6% Italy/Greece which is probably just from the gallons of tomato sauce that Virginia has fed me over the last 16 years – some of it is bound to be in my blood. Either that, or it’s from my ancestors who left France to teach the Italians how to cook and make wine, or the ones who left Germany to teach the Italians how to make sausage, or the ones who left Ireland to teach the Italians how to make love.

4% Great Britain which is probably some of my Irish relatives getting lost going home from the pub. “Sean! It must have rained while we were havin’ a pint. I don’t remember having to swim across the street when we left the house.

There are traces of random other stuff, but I’m not an African Prince, so don’t email me money, no matter how much I ask.

This is a wee bit more specific than “Irish and German” which is what I’ve been told all my life.

The results can’t say I’m German (it’s Europe West), since I think when my family left for Texas, they were Prussians. When my family left Ireland, they were technically British, but they were not happy about it.

I really didn’t think that I would ever pay a company $99 to process a vial of my spit for two weeks, but my cousin had done her DNA test a while ago, and we were discussing her results last month. Her results showed a lot of Great Britain in her DNA, which is  interesting since her Mom (my Aunt and my Mom’s sister) and Dad are from the same small town in Texas and have roughly similar family trees. (My Mom’s home town had five or six founding families who all tended to marry each other.)

The DNA results did predict that my cousin and I were cousins, so that part of the test works.

There’s a part of me that was really hoping to find out I was descended from gypsies or pirates, but so it goes.

Now that I have my results, I have to get the dogs checked. Rocky cannot be all Chihuahua.

Survivor

My wife loves Survivor. She loves it so much she tells people we love Survivor. This particular usage must be the Royal We, because I do not love Survivor. I will watch it with her, but I actually prefer the Amazing Race, where contestants have some control over their own destiny. Survivor actually distresses me, although I couldn’t really articulate why.

Last night was the conclusion of another riveting season. Actually, all the players were returning contestants, so it was better than most seasons. Some guy who had been in the back most of the time managed to build a large enough alliance to get into the final three, pleaded that he was there to win for his family, and won a million dollars. He won one challenge.

I was incensed that he won, as he had minimal accomplishments. I thought the whole “for my family” speech was pandering to the jury. My wife was very pleased he won, since she liked him.

It’s today’s Corporate America in a nutshell, and that’s my problem with Survivor – it’s just too close to my work life to be enjoyable.

I’m hoping the producers originally envisioned a true contest of strength and endurance, where the cream would rise to the top, and the most powerful would be rewarded with riches. Assuming that a TV producer had ever read Darwin (a leap of faith on my part), the strong would survive, by natural selection. This is a good theory.

Here’s what actually happens each season on Survivor:

A bunch of random people are placed in a relatively high-stress situation somewhere in a remote location. They are not truly random, since the producers choose them ahead of time, and there always seem to be patterns. It’s almost like there were quotas to fill. There will be a big tough guy, an pretty boy,  a nerd, a slightly crazy woman, a proud ethnic woman, an overly-sensitive guy, an old guy, a Mother Earth woman, someone with a secret, and a few others. The “random” people are placed on teams.

After a couple of days of assessing each other, some of the rather weak performers start to band together and methodically wipe out the stronger performers, simply because that’s the only way they will remain in the game. They swear loyalty to each other, but will switch allegiances whenever necessary, just to stay alive. If their friends are sacrificed, so be it. There are always one or two incompetents who manage to stick around week after week, just because they are no threat to anyone, even if they are an incredible annoyance to the people who actually know what is going on. Someone thinks he is in charge, but everyone is actually working behind his back to destroy him.

The truly weak are kept around because at the end, in theory, the best player of the few left will be crowned the winner. So, rather than surrounding yourself with strong players, you select weak players, since that makes you look stronger.

Each week, all of the contestants are required to complete a task which has no apparent actual value other than it was the task assigned. One of the teams will get rewarded based on how quickly they can do the task. It doesn’t really matter if you don’t master the task (except for losing the reward), since you will never have to do the task again. If you win, you get a reward and the other team gets told “I got nothin’ for you.”

After that, there is another random task, but this time, if your team loses, your team has to send someone home. There are hidden trinkets that you can find that can prevent you from going home, but only if you display the trinket at the proper time. In the end, some of the last ones who were vanquished are allowed to pick the winner out of the losers that are left.

It’s natural selection on acid.

It is also, my friends, the past thirty or so years of my life, except that on Survivor, nobody has to do annual performance reviews, mainly because they’re not out there that long. I’m constantly amazed I’m still here. I guess I’m just not a threat to anyone.

These are not my peers

So, I had jury duty this week. I had postponed it once, but when I tried to postpone it this time, the automated system said there were no more dates available (wow! that many people want to go to jury duty?), so off to the courthouse I went.

I tend to take anything involving the law fairly seriously, given that I couldn’t talk my way out of any number of traffic tickets over any number of years, so if I get a form letter from a judge that says I need to be somewhere at 8:30am, I will be there. In fact, I will be early.

Monday

I arrived at the courthouse at about 7:45am, because I got an early train, because I left my house too early. I was afraid of over-sleeping, so I couldn’t really sleep that well.

Yes, I really get paranoid when the law is involved.

8:30am. After finally signing in, I just read books on my iPad until the introductory film was shown. Wow. Local TV news anchors explaining why jury duty was a good thing to do. We’re here, don’t try to sugar-coat it for us.

In a way, it’s like the seat belt film on airplanes – you really should know all this stuff by now, but somebody in the back isn’t going to know that a jury decides the facts in a case, so everybody watches the film.

9:15am. I am juror 109 on my summons. The first group called was forty-something to 180-something. Off to the courtroom we go.

We found the courtroom, but it was closed. Well, occupied. Eventually, the bailiff came out and explained we were going to be in a temporary courtroom down the hall. So, we all moved down the hall. And waited. And waited. Luckily, there were sixty of us and seats for about forty. The bailiff gave us placards to identify us. I was number 35. Since there were twelve jurors in a district court, that seemed pretty far down the line.

I love the placards. It helps the attorneys call on you without mispronouncing your name or having to say, “Excuse me, the old black guy in row three” or “The chubby woman in the a Grateful Dead t-shirt.” “Hey, number 35!” is much better. (“Hey 19” is a Steely Dan song.)

11:00am. Finally, we entered the courtroom, and sat down. Everybody stands when the jury enters the room. We’re important! We’re also two hours behind and we haven’t done anything yet.

I looked around. There were six attorneys in front of the judge. Three per side. This is not a good sign. Teams of lawyers mean somebody thinks there is a large amount of money at stake.

The attorneys introduced themselves. The plaintiff’s side had a jury selection specialist, as well. Ruh-roh. How big a case is this? How long a case is this?

The judge said the attorneys had designed a questionnaire to help speed up the voir dire process. Voir Dire is a French term that means “pry into your private life to see if you will vote against us.”

Then, the judge said it would probably be about a two-week case. Panic filled the air.

Now, my job is pretty flexible on time and space and my boss looks at results instead of hours – I work at home, I get my email on my phone, I can work 24×7 from just about anywhere, but there were some people in there who were not looking forward to a two-week enforced vacation in a courthouse. A couple of self-employed people mentioned the $40 per day wasn’t enough. I was just trying to figure out if it was going to interfere with my business trip to Vegas at the end of the month. Sometimes, it’s good to be a white-collar dude.

The judge said he would adjourn so we could fill in the forms, and after we did that, if anyone had a reason they couldn’t be on the jury, he would meet with them “after lunch.” His idea of “after lunch” was 2:30pm. It was 11:20am. He said if we didn’t have a reason we couldn’t serve, we were done for the day. Be back at 9am tomorrow. So, my first day of jury duty ended before noon.

Tuesday
I gave myself an extra half-hour of sleep, since I had been so early on Monday. I even stopped at 7-Eleven for coffee on the way to the train station. I still managed to get to the courthouse by 8:15am, so there was time to kill. Again. I should have gone downstairs for more coffee.

9:00am. Time to start. The bailiff said five people had been dismissed yesterday, so we had 55 people left in the panel. At 9:30am, we were still missing people.

Now, as I was walking over from the train station, I noticed a lot of traffic. Then, I remembered they were filming yet another JFK miniseries, so the roads were all blocked. Now, I’m sure as a photographer, I would want to shoot in early light, but early light in downtown is called “rush hour” and people are bitchy.

I wondered how many people didn’t know about the miniseries.

The answer? At least ten.

9:30am We’re still missing people. Now, they’re making a judge and attorneys wait, and a guy with a gun is in charge of finding them. This is when I realized these are not my peers. My peers would have been here at 8:15am, fully caffeinated and ready to go, and wondering if they weren’t possibly guilty of whatever the case was.

The bailiff walked through with Juror badges, for those who forgot theirs. I had mine.

Seriously? How many people can’t follow directions? Be here at 9:00am. Wear your Juror badge. We’re on the sixth floor. (Ironic, with the JFK filming. I just realized that.)

9:54am Still missing two people. WTF? We’re now waiting just to get started waiting.

10:24am The last one staggers in. Apparently, the traffic is bad. Did no one else know they were filming in downtown?

10:33am Lining up with our placards. The bailiff says, “If you need a restroom break in there, just signal me, and I will let the judge know.” Six women signal him immediately. We’re not even in the courtroom yet! We have been waiting for an hour and a half to get started, and now you want a pee break? What have you been doing for the past ninety minutes, other than filing your bladders?

After all the ladies (and the three gentlemen who bowed to peer pressure) returned, we finally enter the courtroom. Now, the day can begin.

The plaintiff’s attorney questions the group and specific people until ten after one. No lunch break. One potty break. There is an insane amount of questioning. How do you feel about mental anguish? (Many say there’s no such thing, it’s just life. This has the potential to be a “put your big girl panties on and get over it” jury, which would be great for the defense.) How about loss of consortium? I tried not to laugh, because if these people don’t think mental anguish is a problem, loss of income and a bit of nookie is not going to be an issue for them, either. It wasn’t, even after consortium was explained. Actually, everyone was just thinking sex until somebody mentioned loss of wages if the injured party couldn’t work. How about punitive damages? A few were against them, because they went to the person, not the State. Wow.

I’m getting worried. I’m surrounded by people giving honest, truthful answers that are going to get them tossed, and I don’t really have an issue with any of the questions, because the prefix to every question (as in every voir dire question) is “Will you follow the judge’s instructions as to the law?”)

I’m actually impressed that they’re going to get tossed by being honest and not because they’re trying to get tossed. I was thinking of all the answers to give that would put me on the “bad” list, but I just can’t do it. Besides, the case was beginning to sound interesting.

So, these are not my peers. I will follow the judge’s instructions. I will be open-minded. I’m not making a bunch of pre-judgements. I would grant a mental anguish award if I thought the case was proven. I could understand a loss of consortium claim and I had actually heard the term before. I understood the concept of punitive damages. Unlike one rather loud woman in the back of the room, I do not watch Judge Judy “because she is so wise.”

1:10pm. Lunch break – we need to be back at 2:20pm so we can get started with the defense questioning. There’s a Greek diner in the basement of the courthouse that is really good. I was back by the courtroom by 2:00pm, and I was concerned about being late. Naturally, we get started at 2:45pm. Oy vey, people, there are clocks everywhere in here.

2:45pm. The defense asks similar questions, but from a more defensive position. Obviously. The same people who said “No, I can’t” now say, “I can.” Both sides of attorneys are taking notes furiously.

I’m wondering how I’m going to like getting to the courthouse at 9am every day for two weeks. I’m wondering if the case will be done before I have to leave for Vegas.

4:45pm. The defense is done asking questions and receiving assurances. We’re all sent outside so the grownups can chat. (It’s like all the game shows where you have to go slightly off-stage so the judges can decide who to send home. Actually, that’s exactly what it’s like.)

Waiting some more.

This may be an interesting time to point out for those who aren’t following closely – this is day two of jury duty and the case hasn’t started yet.

5:30pm. The bailiff comes out. Are we done? Are we picked? No, of course not! However, if you parked in the garage or any of the local surface lots, those attendants go home at six o’clock, so if you want your car to drive home, maybe you should go move it to the street and come right back.

I’m wondering how long this will take.

We’ve outlasted the parking lot. I am so glad I rode DART. I have until 2am or so, before the trains stop running.

It’s almost ten to six, we’re all back, and we’re lead into the courtroom one last time.

The bailiff had said earlier in the afternoon the jurors with low numbers go first, unless they were struck, so if you have a high number, you’re probably safe. Each side has six peremptory strikes, so that’s only twelve people dropped, right?

They need twelve people. I’m number thirty-five. Can I just go home? There’s a train in six minutes.

First juror called was number four. Then, number six or seven. Hmm. How many other strikes are there?

Wow. They’re leaving a lot bigger gaps in the panel that I would have thought. Twelve, you say?

I realize the woman next to me was one of the ones who was honest. Ruh-roh. I wonder if she was too honest.

The twelfth juror called? Number thirty-four. I thought juror thirty-six was going to collapse into my arms, sobbing. She was sweating bullets.

Spending two weeks at work has never looked so good.

Good luck to the twelve. I’m with you in spirit.

Peace & Quiet

I’m beginning to think you can determine someone’s age by what noise level they consider “loud.” While I’m not out on my front porch, yelling at the neighbors’ kids to “turn that crap down” – yet – I have noticed that my world is pretty noisy, and I would like that changed. Now, I love concerts and live performance, and I can usually tolerate the performance art that is a good meeting at work, but there doesn’t seem to be a quiet place to escape any more.

It started with restaurants – now, we have been dining with my Mom and her hearing aids (or lack thereof some evenings) for a while, so maybe that’s when I started getting sensitized to it. Restaurants are loud. Many have live music every night of the week, which I’ve addressed before. Well, actually, I ranted about it before. Still, even places without music can be very noisy, and yes, I know many are actually designed that way so you get a sense of energy. However, if you’re trying to talk to someone who is hard of hearing, it makes conversation difficult, if not impossible. Of course, as a side benefit, you can be rude about them, and they will never know. Not that I would. Just sayin’.

So, we spend many nights going down the list of restaurants before we call Mom, so we can find a relatively quiet one. The reality is that there are none around us, even at Mom’s rather more extravagant price point. Even the pricey places tend to be crowded (probably full of people looking for quiet) and so, they are pretty noisy.

When we were on our Christmas cruise, I realized there is no such thing as a quiet bar on a ship. This was a revelation to me, I’m not sure why – I had just never noticed it before. Every bar has some sort of entertainment – a piano player, sing-alongs, games, something. It’s interesting to me that on a ship with eleven bars (and the larger ships have many more), there is not one bar that is a real traditional Irish (or British, in a pinch) pub – with small tables, quiet conversations, a decent pint. No loud music, no dueling pianos, no bingo. Maybe it’s just me. There really is no place other than your balcony to just sit quietly and reflect on how everything is going to be so much better when you return from vacation. Maybe the noise is designed to keep you from having those thoughts – since you are going to be disappointed when you return.

Sometimes, I do think it’s the crowd. I know on the ship, if you have a musician who will interact with the crowd, they are going to interact back. Much like a puppy barking until you pick him up, people are going to babble until he plays their request – even though they probably didn’t hear him play it the first time, because they were babbling. If I were as funny as some of those people think they are (after a couple of drinks), you would enjoy reading this blog a lot more.

The crowd also tends to make the music louder because they are trying to talk over the music. Perhaps, I’m not the only one looking for a place to have a conversation. However, then it’s an arms race – some talking over the music, then others talking over the people shushing you for talking over the music, and then the music itself. Just remember – the musician has a piano and a microphone. Either is a nuclear option in a noise race, and he’s trained to use both together. You’re not going to win. Go talk somewhere else.

Don’t get me wrong. I like music. I prefer music to hearing other people talking, unless it’s an interesting subject like divorce or bad relationships. I like most entertainment. I even like dining with my family, most of the time. I just would like a chance now and then to just have a drink and dinner with a quiet conversation. I’m still looking for the right place.

That must mean I’m getting old.

Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure there wasn’t any music in the restaurant in the retirement community that we visited with Mom. There may be a lesson there, somewhere.

Annoying People

Why are people so annoying? Seriously, what has happened to us? Where are our morals?

Annoying is actually not a strong enough word. Both of these items that really annoyed me involve petty theft. Why do we have people who think stealing someone else’s resources is a reasonable thing to do?

Spam Users
I created a new website called Cruiseaholics – my wife and I are addicted to cruises (Latitudes Platinum on Norwegian), so I thought it was a cute name. I’d like to have people join and discuss their cruise preferences and experiences. Now, I’m not planning to be CruiseCritic (although some of their restrictions are just annoying and some of their users tend to be very argumentative), but I thought it would be a nice alternative for what I assumed would be a very limited group.

This morning, I had over 200 users registered for my site. 200! Wow! You know what they all had in common? They were all spam users. Not a valid one in the bunch. While this should not surprise me (I’ve had web sites since the dawn of the World Wide Web), it still pisses me off. Why are you wasting time registering fake accounts on somebody’s website? I suppose the only hope is that the default user limit is set to “contributor”, so they can try to sell shoes or Viagra or whatever.

I turned off user registration on the site this morning. So, I’m not building a community any longer. If somebody wants an account, they will have to email me. It’s sad, but I just don’t have the time to weed out all the real users from the crap. If it were a money-making site, then, perhaps, but for a hobby, it’s just not worth the time.

Warnings That Shouldn’t Be
I learned about a self-service library system this weekend from a neighbor. It’s called Little Free Library. Basically, you have a large bird house (go look at their site – it’s the first thing that came to mind) full of books on your front lawn, and anyone can take a book or leave a book. I see this as a way to build community – if I had one in my lawn, most of the books would come from neighbors on the cul-de-sac. Also, I don’t think people would drive to one, so you will have foot traffic, which means people are walking in the neighborhood.

Here’s the issue – the first thing someone mentioned was preventing people from clearing out the library and going to Half-Price Books for some quick cash. (Having sold an obsolete record collection and then an obsolete VCR tape collection, I can tell any potential thief that it’s barely worth the time.)

It distresses me that something that should share the joy of reading and build community would have to protect itself against theft. I know there are bad people everywhere, but this also pisses me off.

Both of these cases involve community and how easily that community can be broken by someone taking advantage of openness. Seriously, can’t we just have good in the world without having to worry about someone taking advantage of us?

How to build a community

A lot of companies spend lots of money trying to get people to join their online community. To some, a community is a Facebook page (“Like us!”), or a Twitter feed (“Follow us!”) or an Instagram account (“Look at us!”)

When I moved demobox.org (an old domain I’ve had forever) off my Domino server at home and onto GoDaddy’s hosting, I put WordPress up so I could play with it. (I love wordpress.com but it’s not like you are in charge.)

I have four members.

WTF?

I’m still trying to determine how a backwater site with no apparent value or content has managed to get four members. So far.

I can’t wait to see if they try to post.

Maybe I should change my title to “Marketing Consultant.”

Sad Update (9 August 2014)

Well, it’s very easy to get multiple members, apparently. They’re all spam members. So, I’ve turned membership off on all my WordPress sites until I can get better protection from idiots. This may be impossible.