Games of Chance

As somebody with a firm grip on science and statistics, I’ve always had a weird relationship with games of chance.  Generally speaking, I’ll calculate the odds and opt out, being the opposite of a gambling man — not only is there nothing I like better than an iron-clad guarantee, but I’ll view that as somewhat dubious until I see results.

In the fifth grade, I was once motivated to try my luck by a carnival drawing where one of the prizes was a big orange kangaroo that I found compelling, for some reason.  The idea was to pay a quarter, reach one’s hand into a Tupperware cereal-keeper full of tickets, then check to see if one’s numbers matched one of the prizes.  After a few questions and some quick math, I calculated my odds of winning anything to be about one in a hundred, and my odds of winning the kangaroo about 1 in 700.  Not wonderful odds, and I’d be stupid to pay a quarter for the privilege of reading a non-winning number from a ticket, but that kangaroo somehow managed to convince my addled fifth-grade mind that if I rummaged around in there, the ticket would magically find my hand because my desire was so great.

I suspect that a lot of fiction has this same side effect on impressionable young minds, even those straining to be rational.  Intellectually, I knew this was a ridiculous notion, but I wanted it to be true so badly, I almost had myself convinced.  It was just enough so that I handed my last quarter to the lady and rooted around in the Tupperware.

When I unfurled my ticket, a healthy dose of skepticism and anticipation kept me from getting too excited, and I checked the number three times before handing it to the lady — and collecting the kangaroo I had won.  It sat on my bed for years as a loved reminder of how every now and then, long odds do pay off, and it may be worthwhile to loosen up on cold rationality every now and then.

Years later, I got the idea that I would buy a lottery ticket.  The odds of winning are calculated for you (“virtually impossible!”) so I was under no illusions that I’d win anything.  As a test of my mental resolve, I was going to play all ones — which is difficult to imagine ever coming up, but has the exact same odds as winning (“virtually impossible!”) as any other number.  In this case, I justified it to myself because I wanted to see one of the automated lottery tickets at the grocery store in operation.

I put $1 into the machine, which promptly jammed, and went out of order.  What were the odds?  I promptly gave up on the lottery.

I’ll fast forward past counting cards in Atlantic City to being at the zoo with my four-year-old daughter whose attention has been captured by a claw machine with a bin full of tightly-packed stuffed animals.  “I want the tiger!” she says, pointing to a tiger behind the glass.

It seemed like a good time for a harsh lesson on probabilities, so I lectured her at great length about how unlikely it is that we’d win it on the first try, and that those games work because the amount of people money put in trying to grab a prize is always more than the cost of the prizes, and how I didn’t want her to be too disappointed when she didn’t win.  She solemnly took the 50 cents I handed her and promised she wouldn’t beg to play again if she didn’t get the tiger.

We still have that tiger.   I suspect my lecture was instantly forgotten.

Today I decided that I’ve give the lottery another chance, partly because if I don’t win, a significant chunk of the money goes to the schools, and partly just to see what it’s about these days.  While it’s not possible to play online, it’s possible to print out a PDF that allows one to buy tickets by mail, so I figured, what the heck:  if I don’t win, I’m not out much money, and if I do, hey, free money.

My rational mind was immediately assailed by a number of roadblocks, that weirdly reminded me of the jammed lottery machine decades earlier:

  • It took several tries to get the PDF to download.  The first time I got a PDF, it was blank
  • After filling out the form, but before I was able to print, my computer crashed (which never happens.)
  • My printer jammed
  • I was going to use a credit card to pay, but I used it earlier and misplaced it within the house
  • After deciding to just write a check, my pen flakes out, ruining a check.  It takes me 20 minutes to clean and fix my pen.
  • My printer jams when printing the envelopes, which it never does — not just once, but four times, ruining a swath of envelopes and causing me to have to apply for postal refunds

Coincidence?  Gentle fate trying to save me from wasting my money, or cruel fate trying to keep me from winning millions?

I’ll let you know, assuming this letter ever makes it.


Fun with the Secretary of State

A short while ago, I was traveling through New York, and somehow managed to leave my driver’s license with the TSA. This wouldn’t have been so bad, except that I needed to fly out of Chicago the next day, and I needed to rent a car at my final destination, which probably isn’t possible without an actual driver’s license.

My strategy was to go to the Secretary of State’s office downtown (this is the Illinois equivalent of the DMV) before it opened, in what seemed like a futile effort to acquire a license before I needed to be at the airport. Fifteen minutes before it opened, there was already a crowd of fifteen people waiting for the doors to open.

After a moment, a lady with a clipboard came out, carefully locking the door behind her. She announced that she would be coming to each of us in the order that we showed up, and giving us numbers to speed things along. She came to each of us and asked why we were there and confirm that we had the required documentation. Ahead of me in line:

  • A man from Michigan wanting an Illinois driver’s license, who didn’t have his Michigan license because he lost it for driving under the influence. (Sent away)
  • A woman who wanted a state ID, but didn’t have her Social Security card, because it “got wet.” (Sent away, with the suggestion that she replace that first.)
  • A man in a suit with some kind of letter instead of one of the required documents. “They told me over the phone this would be sufficient,” he insisted. “Nobody told you that,” she said flatly, and sent him away.
  • A teenager with no paperwork whatsoever, seeking a state ID. (Sent away.)
  • A man seeking a driver’s license. After looking at his paperwork, she asked, “where do you live?” “Indiana,” he answered. She politely explained that you have to live in Illinois to get an Illinois driver’s license, and sent him away.

After a few variations on the above, she got to me last, and I showed her my paperwork, she handed me the number two. The doors opened, and $5 and 5 minutes later, I was holding a brand new driver’s license. I was utterly unprepared for this jaw-dropping display of government efficiency, which left me with plenty of time to catch my flight — time enough to go home first.

At home, the TSA from New York called, to let me know they had my driver’s license, which they offered to send me immediately. (Since I had to fly in a few hours, I would have needed a duplicate anyway, but I received my old license the next day.)

I contrast this sharply with my experience just a few years earlier at the same office of the same agency. I received in the mail a renewal notice for my license plates that had somebody else’s name on it. I tried calling first, and after an hour on hold, was informed that I’d have to go sort it out in person, and bring the physical license plates from my car.

After another hour and a half waiting in line, I explained the situation to the bored, slow-moving woman behind the counter who didn’t quite appear to be listening. “You want to change your name?”

I explained again that the name on my renewal notice was wrong, and handed her my license plates. She looked at the plates, at my renewal notice, and my driver’s license. After a few minutes of contemplation, she typed something into her computer.

“These aren’t your plates.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. “So, how do I get this corrected?”

“You have to bring in both sets of plates,” she explained.

“This is the only set I have. This is the set I was given… by you guys,” I tried to clarify further. “I only have one set.”

“Well, these are the ones you have to bring in,” she said, and gave me a plate number nothing like the ones I’d placed on the desk.

“So, you want me to find these license plates somewhere in the State of Illinois, detach them from whoever’s car they’re mounted on, and bring them in?”

“That’s right,” she beamed, apparently pleased that she had finally gotten through to me.

“So… Do you think the person whose name is on my renewal form has those plates?”

(blank stare)

“So… Can you tell me where you mailed the renewal notice for my plates?”

She looked this up on her computer, and compared it to the address on my driver’s license. “It doesn’t match your address here, so for security purposes, I can’t tell you what it is.”

“And this is the guy whose house you want me to drive to in order to retrieve the plates you sent him by mistake?”

(blank stare)

“Fine. I just want to renew these plates and correct my name.”

“You can’t do that, these aren’t your plates.”

It was my turn to stare blankly.

“You’ll get arrested if you put these on your car,” she explained slowly.

One of the two state troopers now standing immediately behind me said, “do we have a problem here?”

“If I didn’t have a problem, I don’t think I would’ve stood in line for so long,” I explained. “That’s kind of the whole point.”

Apparently deciding that I wasn’t a threat, they backed up … a little.

“Okay, look, I just want valid plates on my car that I can actually renew and that won’t get me arrested.”

She thought about this for a moment. “You can get new plates for $20 more.”

Unhappy, but with no alternatives, I handed over the money and she gave me a new set of plates.

“Just out of curiosity, are you going to tell the guy who has my plates? So he doesn’t accidentally renew them or whatever?”

“Oh, I’ve already updated the system,” she said languidly, “and there’s a warrant out for his arrest for the guy who stole your plates.”

“Wait… what? He didn’t steal my plates, you mailed them to him.”

“Yeah, but we don’t have a way to put that in the computer. I’m sure he can explain that when they pick him up.”

Epilogue: In an effort to spare some poor guy from being arrested for no particular reason, I called information and what little I knew and tried to call the guy whose name appeared on my renewal notice. The girl who answered the phone said he’d already sold the car “to some guy out of state.”


No Good Samaritan … Something Something

After witnessing several hundred seizures at the rehabilitation center where I worked, I came to recognize the early signs of a seizure.  They may be different for many people, but often there was a glassy look, a slight roll of the eyes, a twitch … some little sign that something major was about to happen.

In the days when the El actually had a conductor as well as an engineer — on a train with no seats available, and a smattering of people standing or leaning around the doors, I stood in the aisle.  In those days, it was common to see people walking between the trains, and it wasn’t unusual for people to pull the emergency cord at every stop.

An old man got in the train and made his way over to the aisle facing me as the train groaned and lurched forward.  He nodded slightly by way of greeting, then winked a little … then winked a bit more, with his eyes rolling back a bit … As he fell stiffly backwards, I took a look at where he was falling, and saw nothing but hard surfaces and metal seat supports everywhere.  I’ve seen people injure themselves with fewer hazards around during a grand mal, so I caught the old man, pulled him toward the doors where there was more room in the car, and held my hand under his head so it wouldn’t bang on the floor.

After a few minutes, the old man had stopped seizing and fallen into a deep sleep.  I checked to make sure he was breathing and stood up.  I now noticed that the train was stopped in the station, and all of the passengers had left the car.  The conductor made a nearly incomprehensible announcement over the PA system that the train would be stopped for a while.

The conductor walked over and I explained what happened.  He mentioned that he had called for paramedics and he’d appreciate it if I explained to them directly.  Within moments, they were carrying away the man on a gurney.  They didn’t ask me anything right there, but one of them said, “come with us” as they carried the gurney down the steps to the waiting ambulance.

It was a short trip to the hospital and they asked me to sit in the emergency room waiting room and they’d be back shortly to get my information.  At this point, I wasn’t entirely clear on what useful information I could provide, but thought they may have some more specific questions about anything I might have noticed that could be medically relevant.  Whatever it was, I hoped they would hurry up, since I was already pretty late for work.

After a while, a nurse came out, and said, “We have a few questions for you, if you don’t mind.”

“Finally!”  I said, “What would you like to know?”

“Well, first, what kind of insurance does your dad have?”

“What?”  I said, slightly off kilter.  “Did something happen to my dad?”  (In addition to being perfectly fine, my father was 800 miles away, so it was a nonsensical question, but it didn’t immediately occur to me why she asked.

“Your dad’s had a seizure.  Didn’t you come here with him?”

“No,” I said slowly.  “I came here with a man who had a seizure on the train, whom I do not actually know at all.  I don’t even know his name.”

At this, the nurse seemed slightly incredulous, as if I were involved in some kind of insurance scam.  “Why would you come all the way to the hospital and wait for somebody you don’t even know?”

At this moment, the paramedic who said, “come with us” walked through the waiting room.  I pointed to him and said, “because that guy asked me to.”

The paramedic gave me a sheepish grin, and explained, “uh, sorry, the conductor figured you must be related since you didn’t just leave the guy there.”

I had a heck of a time explaining why I was so late for work.


Tales of a Triumph

Triumph GT6+

Triumph GT6+

I once owned, and loved, a 1968 Triumph GT6+.  It had a beastly inline 6 cylinder engine with twin carburetors, and the drive wheels were attached with fancy little doodads called “rotoflex” connectors, which were essentially big rubber bands.  The net effect was that this car could move really well.

The car wasn’t without its problems — the gas gauge never worked all that well, it leaked from a few places, the carburetors would stick, and the electrical system was designed to work only when the stars and planets were perfectly aligned — none of which really dissuaded me from taking it out on lesser-used stretches of road and opening up the throttle.

After a few times of doing this, I agreed to let my girlfriend drive.  It was a much more harrowing experience from the passenger seat, for some reason, and when I wasn’t trying to climb under the seat I noticed that she had the speedometer well above the 140 mark.  In between flashes of my life up until that point, I wondered how good my tires really were.

On the way back from one of these forays, I saw flashing red and blue lights in my rear view window, clearly signaling for me to pull over.  I had just enough time to contemplate how often the third digit on police radar gets used when the cop approached the car.  I was poking through the tiny glove compartment for my insurance information when the cop said, “What year is this car?”

“Uh.  1968.”

“Can I look under the hood?” he said, with a sheepish enthusiasm.

“Sure!” I said, equally enthusiastic to not be getting a ticket, or worse.

Triumph GT6+

Triumph GT6+

While driving down Lakeshore Drive, the car’s temperamental electrical system shorted out and overheated, evidenced by some spectacular flames shooting up from the dashboard and in front of the windshield.   This had no discernible effect on the drivability of the car, so I decided to ignore it until I got home, about a mile away — since the alternative was to pull over on Lakeshore Drive (four lanes of crazy in each direction with no real shoulders or breakdown lanes) and try to fix it.

After a moment, a car pulled up beside me, its passenger gesturing wildly.  She then mouthed exaggeratedly, “your car is on fire!” while pointing frantically.

I’ll emphasize that the flames were right in front of my face.  I was looking through them to be able to drive the car down the road at all.  I paused a moment to consider what this good Samaritan thought I could possibly be looking at in order to miss the flames leaping up in front of my face?  Did she think I was sleep-driving?  Perhaps I thought the city was burning to the ground and didn’t realize my car was on fire?

In order not to dissuade this kind person from helping somebody truly stupid and in  need of having the obvious pointed out, I pretended to understand what she meant, gave her a thumbs-up, and a non-sarcastically exaggeratedly mouthed, “thanks!”

Perhaps the next life she saves will be somebody playfully pretending to ignore a “do not eat” label.


Craigslist Renews My Faith In Humanity

To be honest, I’m really not sure if I should be referring to that as my lack of faith in humanity, but whatever it was, Craigslist readers managed to affirm the Hell out of it.

I’ll start with the ad I posted:

For Sale: $10 firm, you pick it up
21″ HP CRT computer monitor
This is big monitor, about 45 pounds, so I’m not shipping it anywhere.
The front of the CRT is flat, but I’m not calling it a “flat screen”
to avoid confusion with LCD monitors.
The monitor is about 10 years old, but in excellent condition, with no burn in.

Pretty reasonable deal, eh?  That doesn’t stop Craiglist readers from trying to make this deal even better:

Hey, I can use a bigger monitor.  Can you deliver it to [a place about 100 miles away.]
If it works perfectly and it’s really clean (and I still need it) when you get here, I’ll give you $5 cash on the spot.

I have a pretty efficient car, but at today’s fuel prices, I estimate that the round trip to your place will cost me about $20, so that even if you paid the least bit of attention to the word “firm,” I’d be $10 behind, not to mention four hours of pointless driving.  To seal the deal, there’s the possibility I’d be driving back home with this 45 pound behemoth of a monitor, since you may have found an even better deal during the two hours it would take me to get to your house.  Presumably some hot naked chick with a brand new flat screen television willing to drive it across the country and drop it off with a few cases of free beer.

But I have to give the guy a little credit for at least understanding the listing.  I got a smattering of emails that could be answered simply by copying and pasting the listing they were responding to in the first place:

Is this a flat screen LCD or a tube-kind of monitor?

Is this for a computer or is it a television set?

How heavy is this monitor?  I’m thinking of putting it on a shelf.

Will you ship this to me?

And my personal favorite:

How big is the 21″ screen?

I’m not sure if this person is just really, really stupid or just wants me to do the conversion into centimeters or cubits or something for them. I’d like to think he smacked himself in the head immediately after hitting “send” because he realized he had asked an obvious question — because the alternative is that no conceivable reply could possibly make him understand the size of this monitor.

Other questions at least asked about things that weren’t answered in the listing, mostly because it never would have occurred to me to answer these questions, much less that anybody would ask them.

What colors does this monitor display?

Has anything been living in this monitor or died in its case?

Do you think this monitor will make my computer faster?

How much storage (MB or GB) does this monitor have?

Does this come with a computer?

Has this monitor ever been used for viewing porn?

Here again, I have a personal favorite, from somebody whom I hope misread something and really didn’t eat that big a bowl of crazy for breakfast:

Is this fully mature?  How big do you think it will grow?

Shame on me, I guess, for not mentioning that this monitor has already grown to its full size in the original ad.  I’ll remember that for next time.

It’s possible, I guess, that all these people are just pretending to be morons and lunatics in order to screw with me, but there are naturally a few whose purpose is explicitly to screw with me — or more accurately, screw me over:

I’ll bring a check for $210 for that monitor, if you’ll give me $180 in
twenties when I pick it up.  You’ll get $30 out of the deal for your trouble.

For $180 and a monitor, I’ll get a bad check in return, so I’m not entirely clear on where the $30 comes in.  Maybe he’ll mail it to me later care of my address in Gullible Idiotville.  He’s not the only person who thinks that’s where I live:

I will pay you $10 plus $100 in shipping and other fees if you will ship this to Nigeria.
I will send you cash money by FedEx but I need it right away so please ship when I give you the FedEx tracking number if this is agreeable to you we can do business.

Nigera?  FedEx?  Cash money?  What could possibly go wrong?  Oh, right, it might actually cost more than $100 to ship a 45 lb. package to Nigera using any possible method of getting it there “right away.”  Plus the odds of this guy actually shipping me an envelope full of “cash money” for my trouble seems about as likely as me suddenly being declared the Pope.

But at least these scammers  sort of paid attention to the listing.  Other scammers were more lazy:

It seems like you could use some money.  We have money to give away!
To start, send us your:
Full Name:
Full Address:
Social Security Number:
Full bank account number where we can make a deposit:
Amount you need:

Yes, it’s true, my motivation for selling a 21″ monitor for $10 is not to find it a good home instead of letting perfectly good hardware rot in a landfill, but because I need $10 to pay my mortgage.  Or something.  At any rate, I guess I can just keep the monitor, because, hey, free money.

The depressing part of that is that somebody must exist who would actually reply with this information — who still has an account with actual money in it, and despite this,  manages to believe that there’s some other idiot in existence who desperately wants to pump money into the bank account of a random moron for no conceivable reason.  Now that I think of it, Craigslist might be a good way to find such a person.


Yes, I did sell the monitor to a reasonably sane and intelligent person for $10, so at least one person who reads Craigslist isn’t a complete maniac.  I accept the fact that he could be a partial maniac, but he at least held it together long enough to complete a simple transaction, which up until now I thought was a pretty easy thing for most people to do.


The Joys of English Grammar

Up front, I’ll confess I’m a bit of a stickler for grammar.  While I fall short of correcting stranger’s obvious mistakes, people really do sound uneducated — or downright stupid — when they can’t be bothered to learn their own language properly.  I’ve certainly just thrown away resumes from job candidates who didn’t manage to get the basics correct in a document that represents them, and business communications where rules of grammar are violated make me cringe.

When I was a typesetter (back when it was done optically, if you can imagine) I was known for getting out an Exacto knife and physically repairing mismatched “who” and “whom” usage, or replacing well abused words such as “aggravate” and “moot.”  This led quickly to my promotion to copy editor, the knack of which has served me well through the years.

While on a shuttle bus near Midway airport, I sat behind two businessmen, traveling together.  One of them was telling a somewhat boring story that I barely listened to, but my ears naturally perked up when he used the phrase, “… we had so little time, we literally had to run to the baggage claim …”

At this point, his companion interrupted him.  “Literally?”

“Yes, literally,” his friend repeated, and attempted to explain, “we didn’t have much time at all.”

“Oh good,” his friend interrupted again.  “I was afraid you were using ‘run to the baggage claim’ in the metaphorical sense.”


“Well, you know, when you’re sitting at a large dinner party, and you say ‘I’ve got to run to the baggage claim’ by way of polite explanation for why you’re leaving all of a sudden.”


“Sometimes I’ll be petting the dog and say “RUN TO THE BAGGAGE CLAIM, BOY!” but of course I don’t mean it literally.  There’s no actual baggage claim within miles of my back yard, and it would be rather silly to expect my dog to make it through security by himself.”

“I’m not sure I …”

“Last time my wife and I got back from Mexico, we checked bags and I was going to pick them up while she waited on the benches.  She said ‘don’t run to the baggage claim!’  We laughed and laughed for hours.”


“We had plenty of time, of course.  It’s not like I literally had to run to the baggage claim.  But after that long flight and that airplane food, I sure had to figurativelyIf you know what I mean.  It’s not like I could ‘run to the baggage claim’ in front of all those people.  That’s what made it so funny.”

“I don’t think I …”

“Well, the problem is that it’s nearly lost its meaning.  Like when we play tennis and the ball lands on your side, I can’t just say “the ball’s in your court” without adding the word “literally” or you might think I’m speaking metaphorically.  Like yours is the next move or something.”

“I think you’re splitting hairs…”

“There’s another one!  I walk around with a sharp knife, carefully slicing the ends of these hairs, and yet when I tell somebody I’m ‘splitting hairs’ they think I’m making some sort of meaningless distinction!  All the time I’m splitting hairs in a literal sense!  That’s quite a distinction, you’ll have to agree.”

“I didn’t mean literally that way…”

“Oh, right, you must have meant ‘literally’ in the metaphorical sense.  Where it serves as a sort of vague intensifier and a way of needling people who take ‘literally,’ literally.  Well, to heck with those people, I say.  If you want to ensure that the person you’re talking to knows that you really, really, ran for the baggage claim, feel free to jam in any word you want.  I recommend ‘irregardlessly.'”

Best.  Bus ride.  Ever.


The Haunted Olive Garden

Years ago, my wife and I noticed a new Olive Garden in an area we passed by many times.  We’d been by many times and hadn’t seen it, so we reached the conclusion that we either hadn’t noticed it before, or it wasn’t there.  There were people outside and the doors were open, and it was dinnertime, so we parked out front.

A surprising number of staff were standing outside smoking, which seemed odd only because it was dinnertime, and there were at least a dozen people apparently on break.  They watched us with mild curiosity as we walked through the open doors.

Inside, a woman behind a counter was calling names into a microphone.  Despite this, there didn’t seem to be anybody actually waiting, so we walked up and asked her if it would be possible to get a table.

“You mean you want to eat?” she replied, with an odd mixture of surprise and dismay.  I could see into the dining rooms, which were full of people who were, in fact, eating.

“Yeeees,” I said slowly.  I suspected it was a trick question, but wasn’t sure how else to answer.

“Just a moment,” she said, and disappeared into the back.  She came back in a moment or two and said, “yes, we can actually do that.  Follow me.”

We were seated immediately.  Every table in the dining room seemed occupied, and dinner was decent but uneventful (as one might expect at the Olive Garden) with the exception that we had three waiters and waitresses, all of whom seemed particularly nervous.

As we were finishing our desserts, some of the diners around us were already paying for their meals.  With Monopoly money.  This struck me as weird enough that I looked carefully around the dining room.  The few people who weren’t paying with Monopoly money were paying with plastic — black cards that said “credit card” in white block letters.

“I think we’re in trouble,” I said to my wife.  “I only brought real money and credit cards.  Maybe there’s a toy store nearby, I can run out and get some money to pay with.”

We watched in fascination as other people paid and left, usually leaving Monopoly tips on the table.

In a moment, a man walked up to our table and explained:  “This is a training day in preparation for our grand opening, we don’t actually open until next week.  As our first customers, your dinner is complementary, with our thanks.”  He said this last part a bit louder, and the entire place burst into applause.

They were still applauding as we left.  As we got into the car, I looked back to where the staff had been standing earlier — they had been in front of a large sign that said “CLOSED.”


Unusually Talented Cats

When I lived and worked on a goat farm in western Massachusetts, we had two cats:  the house cat, “Pzzat”, whose role, like most cats, was to lounge around the house and exude softness and warmth.  The second cat, “Barnyardette,” or “Barny,” for short, lived in the barn and had a more useful role — to keep vermin away from the grain that  feeds the goats.  Pzzat had a bowl of food in the house.  Barney did not have a bowl of food anywhere, being entirely self sufficient.

Barny looked much like other cats, but beneath her soft fur, she was an amazingly hard mass of pure muscle.  Petting her was an experience like petting a rock on which somebody had glued a fur coat — a rock whose rumbling purr might be mistaken for a diesel engine idling nearby.

When goats were milked, the first draw from each teat is done by hand into a “strip cup,” a kind of metal mug with a screen on top.  The screen would be checked for clots or lumps (a sign of mastitis) before the milking machines were attached.  At the end of the milking cycle, Barny would be given the strip cup.

In gratitude for this treat, Barny would first offer her catches on the stoop of the milking house to see if I wanted them before she would devour the entire thing.  This usually meant an assortment of unfortunate mice, but Barny did not shy away from bigger game, either.  An occasional rat, bird, wild turkey, a skunk (which she managed to kill without any malodorous discharge on its part) and a weasel that was easily larger than she, all appeared on the stoop.  When it was clear to her that her offering had been properly displayed, a smear of blood on the stoop and the sound of crunching bones would be the only evidence remaining.

The only thing that Barny didn’t drag off and eat was a turtle she presented on the stoop with a mixture of pride and confusion — since there was no apparent way to kill and eat the turtle.  The uncooperative turtle would hide in its shell until it thought there was no longer a threat, then it would poke out its head and legs and head for the creek.  Barny, attracted by its movement from wherever she’d wandered off to, would run over and smack it on the head, whereupon the turtle would retreat to the safety of its shell, and wait for Barny to go away again.  This cycle evidently continued all through breakfast (which was after the morning milking) when I noticed that the turtle had progressed a couple of hard won feet toward the creek, and I decided to end the cruel game by carrying the turtle to the creek myself.

It was not lost on Barny that of all her food offerings, not only was it the turtle that I finally decided that I wanted, but also that instead of eating it, I wanted the turtle to stay in the creek.  Barny concluded that part of her duties should include keeping the turtles in the creek, and I saw her later patroling the creek, smacking the heads of turtles who thought to exit the creek on the barn side.

For all her care of the goats’ food, Barny was not particularly fond of goats.  They were too big to eat, and the goat personality requires that they challenge everything and everybody — no goat would be above head-butting a cat just to be certain of their social order.  When the goats came into the barn where Barny was patrolling, Barny would leap directly into the rafters ten or twelve feet above and patrol above our heads for a while.  It was such an impressive vertical leap, and Barny handled it with such grace, power, and nonchalance, that I wasn’t above waiting until Barny was patrolling the stables before letting the goats into the barn to watch this feat again.

For her part, Barny was not above insisting upon my affection and attention at the exact moment I lifted a 100 lb. bag of grain, by reaching up and digging her claws into my jeans.  She was strong enough to hang on, riding my leg as I carried the heavy bag with both hands.  Over time, she turned it into a kind of game:  while I looked carefully around for the cat, only moving bags of grain from storage to the bins when I thought she wasn’t around, her goal, of course was to come out of nowhere and ride my leg as far as possible, usually all the way to the bins.  Judging from the holes in my jeans and the claw marks on my legs, Barny won this game a lot.

I did not have a cat when I moved into a small apartment in Lansing, Michigan, and I had no plans to get one.  Therefore nobody was more surprised than I to find a cat in the middle of my kitchen, waiting expectantly, when I got home from work.

The cat seemed so smug, so comfortable, that I was nearly persuaded that I had a cat all along and had somehow forgotten all about it.  My door was locked and my windows were closed, and I had been in the apartment for nearly a month, which ruled out the possibility that it had come with the apartment somehow.  The cat left amiably enough when I opened the front door, and that seemed to be the end of that.

When I got home from work the next day, there was the cat again, as if waiting for me to return.  Again he acted as if this was his apartment and he was my cat, this time indicating that I should open the refrigerator and cupboards.  I did, just in case (nothing was there that I did not expect, nor was there any cat food, which appeared to disappoint the cat, but only mildly.)

Again, I opened the front door, and out the cat went.

When my alarm went off in the morning, I noticed that the same cat was sleeping on my feet.  I am a notoriously heavy sleeper, the cat looked so comfortable and it felt so familiar, that it’s possible that he had been sleeping in my bed for weeks.  I dubbed him Phantom, let him out the front door and went to work.

I mentioned to a coworker, Steve, that I suddenly appear to have a pet cat, one that I don’t remember ever feeding or acquiring, who simply appears in the apartment.

Steve reacted with, “oh!  I’ve heard about the ghost cat of Lansing, but I always thought it was just a legend.  He a fiercely loyal cat who was owned by a lonely old woman who loved him.  The only time they were apart was when she went to her job at the GM plant, and on the day of her retirement, when they could finally be together all day, every day, the woman was hit by a car and died.  The cat refused to eat or leave her kitchen, died of a broken heart.  Now he appears to people who are going to die soon in car crashes.”

“What?   Really?”

“No, you idiot.  The cat’s obviously getting in somehow, there must be a hole or a cat door or something.”

I had already looked, but Steve’s theory made sense, and together we searched the apartment for holes that a cat could get through.  All the windows were locked, there were no holes in the screens, no holes anywhere that we could find.

“Huh,”  said Steve, after we found nothing.  “If that cat comes back, maybe that story I made up is true!”

The next morning, and every morning for months, I’d wake up with Phantom sleeping peacefully at the foot of my bed.  Sometimes I’d let him out, sometimes I wouldn’t bother.  I bought a little box of cat food and occasionally gave him a treat, but not enough to sustain him.  He seemed healthy and clean, so I clearly wasn’t providing his primary sustenance or care, but he seemed to spend every night with me, and the occasional weekend afternoon or evening meal.

Months and months later, I discovered his secret quite by accident.  Late at night, I woke up, got a drink and sat in the dark with my glass — the closet door just off the kitchen happened to be open, and I could see the full moon through its tiny little window.

I saw Phantom in silhouette as he gently peeled back the screen from the frame, and pushed the little window forward in its frame, then wriggled through the gap between the upper and lower sash.  When he was through, the screen and window snapped back into position.  By all appearances, the window was intact, and even casually pushing on the window and screen did not reveal the fact that it could be tilted forward just far enough to admit a small, motivated mammal.

About a week before I moved out, Phantom stopped appearing on my kitchen or my bed.  I don’t know if he sensed my imminent departure or something else happened to him, but I like to think he’s haunting somebody who could use a part time cat.


Conversations with Telemarketers

I’ll preface this by mentioning that I haven’t actually had a call from a telemarketer in at least 10 years.  About that time, my wife was pregnant with our first daughter, and she told me that with all my technical background, I should be able to do something to ensure that no telemarketer ever bothers her again.  Or else.

Naturally I took this as an opportunity to outfit the house with a full blown PBX and auto-attendant, but that’s another story entirely.

When they do get through, telemarketers are a tenacious bunch, and if there’s a remote chance of making a sale, they’ll try almost anything.  I’ll admit to exploiting this trait for my own amusement.  As a case in point, I once received a call on behalf of AT&T:

“Hi!  We’re offering a certificate for $100 worth of free long distance if you sign up…”  I had been running to get the phone, and listened breathlessly to the entire speech.  At least it was delivered with a little penache, so I tried to be polite.

“I’m really not interested in switching to AT&T.”

“May I ask why?”

“Well, an AT&T van ran over my dog last year, and I still haven’t gotten over it.”

(Muffled laughter, then a long pause.)  “Oh, god, I’m sorry.”

“His name was Lucky.  I loved that dog.”

“Oh, umm…”

“I still can’t see an AT&T van without bursting into tears.”

“We don’t have to come to your house to become your long distance carrier.  You won’t have to look at an AT&T van.”

“The logo freaks me out, too.  I can’t see it without thinking of Lucky.”

“Our bill will appear on your regular statement, with your local bill.  You don’t even have to look at it if you don’t want to.”

“We had just gotten him back from the vet, too.  Poor Lucky.”

“What if we offered you $100 certificate, you know, as an apology?”

“Isn’t that the same thing you were offering a few minutes ago?”

“Well, yes, but you can use it however you want.  You can call Lucky’s friends to let them know you’re thinking of him.”

“His friends were mostly squirrels.  And I think AT&T might have gotten to them already, anyway.”

“Our service really is unparalleled in the industry.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“Oh.  Well, we do have a very large fleet of vehicles.”

“Are you making fun of me?”

“Of course not.  But accidents do happen.  I’m sure the driver didn’t mean it.”

“Did you ever see that Twilight Zone where that woman’s dead husband called her on the phone?”

“Yes, I did.  I’m pretty sure she used AT&T, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“I was wondering if I could commune with Lucky over the phone.”

“With $100 in savings, what have you got to lose?”

“Maybe it would be faster if I just stood in my driveway and you sent a van over.”

“If you sign up as our customer, I’d be happy to put in a service call for you.”
Sometimes, the tenaciousness of telemarketers borders on bizarre.  I received a call from a local newspaper, urging me to sign up for local delivery.  As usual, there was the canned diatribe that I listened patiently to, ended with the common ploy of “just tell me your address and I can sign you up right now.”

“Actually, I don’t want the paper.  I can’t read.”

“Perhaps somebody can read it to you.”

“I don’t think so.  I could just listen to news radio.”

“We’ve got pictures and comics.  You could clip them out if they interested you.”

“I don’t have any thumbs, so it’s hard for me to use scissors.”

“You could use a knife.  Or the paper tears pretty easily, you could just rip them out.”

“I’m legally blind, so I probably wouldn’t look at the pictures.”

“Do you have a dog?  You could use the paper to clean up after him.”

“I did, but he was run over by an AT&T van.”


“No, I just said that to get rid of a telemarketer.  It didn’t work, though.”

“Oh.  Have you got a cat?  It’s great for the bottom of litter boxes.”

“Seems kind of expensive to buy the paper just for that.”

“We have so many coupons every day that the paper virtually pays for itself.”

“I’m blind and I have no thumbs.  How am I going to clip coupons?”

“Well, how do you shop now?”

“I pretty much eat whatever the pixies bring by.”

“Can they read?  Maybe they can clip the coupons for you.”

“Are you serious?”

“Sure!  Perhaps they could read you the headlines, too.  There’s no better way to keep in touch with current events.”

“Well, I’d love to, but I’m moving in a week.”

“Then give us your new address!  We’ll sign you up in advance.”

“I’m moving to Bangladesh.”

“We can ship the paper anywhere in the world.  All you pay is the shipping charges.”

“I’ll be living on a mountain, miles from civilization.”

“How about weekly, instead of daily?”

“How does that help?”

“Well, our Sunday paper is an excellent source of weekly news, and you may not be interested in getting the paper every day.”

“I’m not interested in getting the paper any day.”

“What about the coupons?”

“What good are they going to do me on a mountain in the middle of nowhere?”

“Surely you’re going to need some goods and services.”

“Not for long.  I’m really going there to die.  I only have one month left to live.”

“Perfect!  Our free trial period is 30 days, so all you’ll have to pay in advance is shipping.”

“Are you suggesting that I get the paper for 30 days and not pay for it?”

“Well, if you live, I’d suggest that you pay your bill so that you can continue to receive the paper, with all it has to offer…”

“You know, I just realized, I’ve got a stack of papers by the door.  I think I already subscribe.”

“Really?  Is it our paper?”

“How can I tell?  It feels like a big stack of newspapers.  It gets bigger every day.”

“Does it feel kind of jagged along the edge, with a big fold in the middle?”

“Ummm…   Yes.  Is that good?”

“That sounds like our paper, alright.  I’d better check with our subscription department, and give you a call back.”

“I may not hear the phone, because I think I’m going deaf.”

“That’s okay, I’ll keep calling until I reach you.”

Amazingly, he did call back, but I was lucky enough to be away and only hear the messages on the answering machine:

#1: “Sir?  I checked with our subscription department and they have no record of you as a subscriber.  I forgot to ask if the stack of papers had staples in the fold.  You may want to check on that and get back to me.  And you may want to call and cancel your subscription to that other paper, if you don’t need it.  Save yourself some money.  But be sure to give me a call so we can start your subscription right away.”

#2: “Sir?  You forgot to give me your address in Bangladesh.  We can get your subscription started with just a credit card, and remember, you only pay shipping.”

#3: “It’s been almost a week, and you haven’t returned my call, so you may have left already and may not be picking up your messages.  If Pixie is still living there she may want to give me a call and discuss the best value in newspapers available for home delivery today…”

One of the biggest problem with telemarketers in general, is that they soak up an awful lot of time, and I relish the occasional opportunity to return the favor.  A telemarketer representing an investment broker afforded the perfect opportunity.  As usual, first the spiel, then the question:

“All we need is your social security number to open an account for you right now…”

“Oh, I’d love to!” I gushed, “because I just inherited a huge amount of money and have no idea what to do with it.  Hang on a minute while I find where I put that check…”

I put the phone down and made a brief show of rustling papers.  I have no idea how long she waited, because I didn’t pick the phone back up until the next day.

However, I did have to appreciate a call I received from a company hocking voice mail.  They were interested in charging me about $25 per month for a glorified answering machine, with the sole (real) advantage being that people could leave voice mail if I was on the phone.  As I listened to the spiel, it occurred to me that it sounded exactly like the local phone company’s own voice mail offering, which cost about $7 per month.  For no particular reason, I walked the telemarketer through a feature-by-feature comparison of the two voice mail systems.

I concluded with, “Well, it sounds like your voice mail system has the exact same features, but costs three times as much.”

“That’s about right.”  (“Your point being?” was implied in her tone, and the fact that she hadn’t hung up yet.)

“Well, then I’d have to be some kind of idiot to sign up with you.”

“Great!  Then we’ll sign you up right away!”


Well played, madam.  Well played.


Conversations with the Phone Company

If I were inclined to be paranoid, my delusions would start with every Phone Company’s apparent desire to screw with me on a more-or-less regular basis, ever since I’ve had a phone.  This is only made more sinister by the fact that it’s nearly impossible to get away without having a phone these days, and even now, it’s impractical if not impossible to choose a different local phone company.   The choice afforded by long distance companies has complicated things further – while rates and service have improved somewhat, this is at least partially offset by having to explain to some poor telemarketing schlub that no, you don’t want to change long distance carriers during dinner.

I first got an inkling for the evil that lurks behind the friendly facade of a monopoly with a huge advertising budget when I first moved to Chicago.  I called the local phone company to arrange a connection in service to my new apartment – long distance, as I was actually planning ahead.

“I’m sorry,” the disinterested voice told me, “we can’t connect your service until you pay an outstanding bill for $245.”

This was pretty odd.  “How can I have an outstanding bill?  I’ve never even been to Chicago.”

“Well, our records show an outstanding bill for $245 for calls made by Rita Brown.”
Even weirder.  “Who the hell is Rita Brown?”

“Our records show that you live with her.”

WHAT?”  I’m not sure what was more disturbing, the fact that I was being saddled with a phantom bill for somebody I’d never even heard of, or the fact that the phone company apparently keeps records on who is living with whom in Chicago.  So I tried reason.  “I’ve never even heard the name before.”

“Well, sir,” (you always hear at least one “sir” when you start to get peeved) “we can’t just let her get a phone under your name until she pays her bill.”

“Why would I care whether or not she pays her bill?  Since I’ve never heard of her, I’ll promise you that I won’t let her use my phone, even if she shows up at my door bleeding from a gunshot wound.  Do you want me to sign something?”

“Well, actually, if you could call her and ask her to come in and sign a paper that she doesn’t know you…”

I was afraid that if I let her continue, irreparable damage might be done to my brain.  “Wait, let me get this straight: you want me to call somebody I’ve never heard of, whose phone you’ve probably disconnected anyway for not paying her bill, and convince this woman to sign a paper that says she’s never heard of me so that I can get a phone?”

“Exactly.” she said, apparently pleased at getting her point across.  After a moment’s reflection, she added, “Maybe you should write her a letter.”

Still fearing for my tender brain, I tried to remain calm.  “How can I write a letter to somebody I’ve never even heard of before?”

“Sounds like it would be easier if you just paid the bill.”

“Look, I am not going to pay her bill.  I can’t think of any reason why I would agree to pay that woman’s phone bill just to get my own phone.”

“I thought you said you’d never heard of her.”

“What?  Of course I haven’t heard of her.  What are you talking about?”

“Well, you seem to have some bitterness toward this woman.  Was it a bad breakup?”

If I’d had a power-horn handy, I’m sure I would have held it up to the receiver and blasted it until it was completely discharged.  I don’t even own a power-horn, but I looked around just in case.  “I’m going to say this slowly.  I have never heard of this woman.  I am not going to be your collections department.  I am not going to pay a bill that isn’t mine.  I need to talk to your supervisor.”

A good four hours and five supervisors later, I finally got somebody to agree to give me a phone without having to pay somebody else’s phone bill.  Frankly, if Rita Brown ever does happen to stop by, I’d let her use the phone as much as she wanted.

Back when I still got paper bills, I would occasionally receive a beautifully worded form letter enclosed with my bill, asking for extra money.  I won’t attempt to do the skillfully crafted prose justice, but I’ll distill the main points:

  • Some people can’t afford phones
  • Everybody on Earth should have a phone
  • We don’t want to lower our rates
  • Please pay us extra so that we don’t have to lower our rates
  • With all that money, we can give phones to people who can’t afford phones

It’s not many a company with the audacity to attempt to increase their market share by soliciting donations, but aside from being just evil, this is somewhere between brilliant and awesome — unfortunately, it really works only for products that people actually need.  “Not everybody can afford a Porsche, and we’re sure as hell not making them any cheaper, so why not pledge money now so a needy family can afford one?”

One of the stranger things my local phone company did is send me their monthly bill — but this time, for over $6000.  I found this a little unusual, especially since the bulk of the charges were listed under “miscellaneous.”  Naturally, I called to complain.

“Hello, I just received a local phone bill for $6000.”

There was a long pause, presumably while the customer service representative looked up the information, but it doesn’t appear to have struck her as unusual in any way, since she returned with a prosaic,  “Yes?”

“Well, I calculated that at even at the highest rates, if I made one phone call per second, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, I couldn’t rack up a bill nearly this high.”

She seemed unclear on what I was complaining about.  “So you want a second line installed?”

“No!  I don’t want a second line installed, I want these charges taken off my bill.”

“What are the charges for?” she asked.

I wasn’t prepared for this question, mostly because it’s what I was asking.  “I have no idea.  What could possibly be worth $6000?”

“Well, you must have ordered something.”

“Like what?  Phone company massages?  A phone company grand piano?  Perhaps that phone company car I’ve always wanted?”

“Well, these charges don’t just come out of nowhere.”

“Okay, how about this: you tell me what I’m being charged for, and if you can’t, you take it off my bill.”

(Long pause.)  “It says here it’s for ‘miscellaneous.’”

“Okay, what, specifically, does that mean?”

There was a very long pause, which I took to mean that I was getting somewhere.  While I was waiting, I was treated to some elevator music punctuated by a bone-jarring voice proclaiming that “All operators are busy.  Please continue to hold.”  And what seems slightly more sarcastic each time you hear it: “Your call is very important to us.”

The music finally stopped.  “Sir?”


“Are you still there?”  (A casual observer might have deduced this from the answer to the first question, but I didn’t want to distract her.)

“Yes, I am.”

“Miscellaneous is what they list things under that don’t go into other categories.”

I’m not sure if she’d consulted a dictionary or a corporate manual, but neither was really helpful.  “Oh, good, so they haven’t invented a completely new definition for the word.  Who can tell me what, exactly, they have chosen to bill me for, and place into this category?”

“It doesn’t say.”  (Long pause.)  “I didn’t put it in there.”

At this point, I couldn’t think of anything to say, so we both stayed on the phone in uncomfortable silence.   “Okay then,” I ventured after a while, “can you kindly remove it from my bill if nobody knows what it is for?”

“I could put you on a payment plan.”

“I don’t want to be put on a payment plan.  I don’t want to pay it at all.”

She laughed.  “Wouldn’t that be nice?”

“Okay, look: I have nothing in my possession, and have received no services from the phone company, worth anywhere near $6000, and I am not going to pay a bill for something I did not get.”

“Ohhhhhh,” she said, as if something had just dawned on her.  “In that case, why don’t you tell me what you ordered, and I’ll re-enter the order, and you won’t have to pay until we can complete the order.”

“You don’t understand.  I didn’t order anything.  I don’t want to order anything.”

“You want to cancel the order?” she tried.

“What order?”

“You’ll have to tell me, or I can’t cancel it.”

If you had asked me the day before how hard it would be to get an obvious billing mistake corrected, I’d have probably replied, “not that hard,” like an idiot.  I was clearly getting nowhere.  “Okay, I’ll make this simple.  Will you take this charge off my bill?”

“I can’t do that.  It’s obviously there for a reason.”

“Okay, then let me talk to your supervisor…”

A few hours and supervisors later, I was under the mistaken impression that I had finally convinced somebody to correct my bill.  However, the next month I received notice that the first installment on my six-month payment plan was due.  Yes, that’s right, instead of correcting the $6000 charge, I’d been put on a payment plan, where I only had to pay a little over $1000 each month.

Each month, for six months, I had to call and get $1000 taken off my bill.