Rise of the Machines

robotsMy dad and I were having lunch at Chili’s. Amid the dozen or so menus on the table (for appeteasers, milk shakes, burgers, cocktails, pizzas, fajita, etc) there was a computer consul. It stood near the edge of the table and its screen constantly displayed dizzying and colorful advertisements. I thought they were for games and stuff, but I didn’t look more closely at it.

Our waitress was Janice. She was friendly, refilled our iced-teas with haste, brought me extra pickles. She didn’t dawdle at the table or tell us about her personal problems. AKA: everything one can want in a lunch waitress. At the end of the meal I asked Janice if I could pay.

“Cash or card?” she asked.


“OK.” She pointed to the computer consul. “Have you paid on the computer before?”

“Um. No.”

Janice walked me through the payment process. She stood next to me and told me each step. I finished, tipped her (I think, unless the computer gets a cut) and then got pressed (by the computer) into filling in feedback. I finally gave up after 6 or 7 questions, since I wanted to get home by dinner time. Janice had already left and gone to chat with her robot manager. I left the receipt on the table.

Later in the day, when an ATM machine kept hold of my debit card, I got a little panicky. The same panicky anyone gets when their entire fundage is being held captive by a thing that can’t enact reason and hand it back to you. I went in to the bank and informed the teller, who sent out the manager. The manager came out and gave a shrug that conveyed impotence.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” she said.

What I said: “Um…”

What I wished I had said: “If this ATM’s name is HAL, I am fucking out of here.”

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Box Me Up

woodsIt’s not hard to think about death while visiting my parents. My dad brings death into every conversation on any topic. Now, Teddy Ruxpin was developed by a guy who was beaten to death by a tribe of aboriginal tribesmen near Camden. Or he punctuates sentences with death. John Smith, he was killed in 1993, used to sell Hallmark cards to orphans. They are also dead. 

In my early forties, I seem to be well on the way to this. I find myself having the middle-aged conversation more and more. Pain. Changing times. Active notification of the fact that time flies. My back hurts. I remember when this was a rollerskating rink. Wow, was that twenty years ago? What’s your retirement plan? 

It’s really only a matter of time before I start having the old person’s conversations, which will (I have observed) involve parts of my body that are falling apart and dead people. Part of this will be my deliverance to the next world, or, at the very least, my reassignment as worm food.

If asked about their post-death plans, many might suggest cremation or traditional burial. Some might, before you slowly back away, tell you that they are going to be carried away on a space ship. There’s always donating one’s body to science, but the thought of medical students poking at my giblets and making fun of my pancreas for a decade is distasteful. I’ve always been sensitive about my pancreas.

Depending on one’s culture, one might be put in a stone tower to be eaten by vultures. Or they might be put on a boat with their armor and belongings, sent out to sea, and set afire. If they are Hunter S. Thompson they might be fired from a cannon.

While those might seem a bit odd, we are at a time in human development and culture in which outside-the-box thinking is enormously celebrated. (I mean, I’ve have recently seen a dead cat made into a drone). This thinking, along with creativity, and desires to preserve the environment and cash in on the fashionable art of death, has already led to several more options for leaving this world than our grandparents had.

If you want a modern version of the Viking sea burial, there is the option of firing a shot (.25 oz) of your ashes out into space for $3000 or so. In that limited amount of space, you won’t be able to bring your shield and armor. Also, if you’d want to be like the A-Space Crowd, you can pay a little more ($10,000) and go to the moon or to deep space. Boldly going, evidently, where no shot of ashes has gone before.

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The Old Man’s European Tour

We had been planning our trip to Paris and London for about four months. And when I say “we” I mean my dad and my sister, for whom outlining a schedule and researching excursions are essentially heaven. I reaped the benefits of this and was able to sit back and get briefed on exactly what each day of our holiday was going to look like. For four months. I drank a lot.

So when my dad had a health issue a few days before our departure and it became clear that he wouldn’t be able to go on this trip he’d been planning and excited about for so long, we were all devastated. It was a real kick in the shins.

But, the outside-the-box thinkers we are (read: weird), we decided to figure out a way to have Dad on the trip. So instead of wallowing in sadness, we brought a picture of him along and made sure to enjoy all of the things that Dad would have done on the trip. Just to make things a bit more realistic, we also occasionally obsessed, talked, griped, and joked about things that he most certainly would have touched on.

Here are some snaps of the Old Man’s European Tour

Dad 1

Dad’s Traditional “My flight landed” Drink

First and foremost, Dad arrived safely in London and had his traditional “Holy shit, the plane landed safely” drinks in the hotel. This was accompanied by his oft-mentioned thoughts on landing: “Once you’re up in the air, there are several ways you can reach the ground again and my favorite option is landing.”

For prosperity’s sake, I have removed the “fuck” the “motherfucking” and the floating “Shit” that usually accompanies this observation.

Dad 2

Meeting of the Minds

Right at the end of Bond Street we bumped into two of my dad’s heroes – Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. So we would be remiss not to let him sit in on a bench meeting with the two old dudes.

He did. And he filled them in on his feelings about Donald Trump. Also, we’re pretty sure that Sir Winston copped a feel.


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New Old Habits Die Hard

Two Men Using the Neighbor Voice

Two Men Using the Neighbor Voice

I am walking in a nice mile and a half loop around the neighborhood. It’s 5:48 pm. I need 1,920 steps to 10,000 on my fitbit. It’s a bit tricky. I am in the United States but my Fitbit watch is still set to European time, which means  according to my Fitbit it’s 11:48 pm. Which means I have 12 minutes to get almost two thousand steps. If I don’t all manner of bad things will happen in my head.

Additionally, I need to work off my breakfast and lunch. Also my dinner. And the three snacks I had in between those. One of the problems with being in the United States is that it seems that my body wants to gain weight here. Now, I fully admit that my love of cheesesteaks and the ease with which breaded meats find their way to my gullet helps this addition of lard to my exoskeleton. Not to mention that the fact that I make a list of foods to eat here and none of them is on a recommended food pyramid.

This is a bit odd for me, as I typically eat a reasonable and healthy daily diet. But time in the U.S. allows us to break rules in terms of that. The logic being that there are foods we can’t not eat. So while my U.S. diet is somewhat unhealthy, I have kept up my daily exercise and sworn to do my 10,000 steps. This has come after two weeks of taking cars to places.

The neighborhood is middle class, its cars and lawns and houses tell anyone that. It’s well after 5, so lots of people are just home from work and doing just home from work things: watering the lawn, cleaning out the car, bringing out the trash. I am at 9,329 when things start happening.

A good-looking middle-aged man in a white button down and black pants is rolling two trashcans down his driveway when he says: “Hey, how you doing?”

I freeze. A frog in the back of my throat lets out a little croak. But he has already turned around and walked away. I keep moving then step aside onto the grass to let an older couple walking a Dachshund pass by. They say hello and the man asks if it’s hot enough for me.

“Yeah. Big hot. Bad.”

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Nothing Happens

Monsters in Natural Habitat

Monsters in Natural Habitat

My mother casually asks what I am doing on a Friday morning and I, on holiday, can’t come up with anything other than “workout and then write” and then add after a moment “Oh, also, I think I’ll read on the porch for a while.” I should know something is afoot. Additionally, when she asks what I want for dinner that evening, adding that I am the guest of honor, I really should understand that I am in for a big one.

But, being a relatively dumb man, I walk into the traps and it’s only when my sister comes in a short while later and asks Mom “Well, is he going to watch the kids?” and my mom’s subsequent wince and the embarrassed look on my sister’s face and then a full explanation (see dumb man above) but I finally figure it out.

“We need you to watch the kids for about 30 minutes.”

“30 minutes?”

“An hour tops.”

“One hour,” I confirm.

“Yes. Maybe. OK, look, I’m bringing Amanda to the airport.”

“The one in Philadelphia?”


“So we’re talking two hours.” Then, remembering that my sister possesses the Galeone Gene, which does not allow her to arrive any later than two hours early for anything, I recalculate. “Three hours.”

“I will make you a steak.”

“What about Da—” I try to throw my father under the bus, but stop when I remember that I have been reading E.B White. No, I do not want to watch two kids – ages 5 and 7. No, I do not want to give up my serene vacation morning of coffee, cereal, exercise, writing, and reading on a rocking chair on the porch. I don’t. But I know that if I spend three, maybe four hours (tops) watching them, I can make people laugh at the outcome. Assuming nobody has to visit a hospital, and even then I’ll get two blog posts out of it. Additionally, if my dad watches the kids there is a solid chance I’ll be not-so-trickily coerced into doing the brunt of the active watching, and in this case I get steak.

Sold. I agree.

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Insider Knowledge

Verb Monkey with Wine

Verb Monkey with Wine

We are sitting outside at a café in Paris’ Latin Quarter. I am pinned between our table and the wall, so I am watching people walk by. We’ve been seated exceptionally close to two young men who smoke cigarettes while they eat. They speak in French. An English copy of The Grapes of Wrath is on the table.

The waitress gives us menus and my sister orders water and white wine in French. Her French sounds great to me, but the waitress makes a few faces during their exchange which would suggest that she was either judgmental of my sister’s French or had a pregnant black widow in her panties.

She leaves. My sister and I are enthusiastic and happy, but we are also nervous. For the first time in a very long time, I feel intimidated. The waitress doesn’t seem to suffer fools, and I am certain I have made a fool of myself thus far and this lunch is not nearly over. It has been a long time since I have had absolutely no idea of what was being said. I speak pretty good Czech. I understand German. In other places they engaged me in English.

Not in Paris. I said “Merci” when the waitress said “Bonjour.” I have since smiled at her idiotically while begging her not to engage me in any sort of conversation. I look at the menu and understand nothing. I scan for familiar foods. Eggs. Salmon. Salad. Cognac. That’s about it. I need help and so I politely ask my sister.

“Translate, Verb Monkey!”

The look I get is one I have not seen since I tied a pillowcase around her neck and encouraged her to jump off the top step. I make up my mind to order the first thing I see that has no mushrooms and is cheaper than 20 Euro.

“Is that mushrooms?” I point.

She looks. “No.”

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The Hornet

hornetI am on the phone with my aunt. She’s talking about work. Since I can never stay still while talking on the phone and my parents’ house is roughly the temperature of Mercury, I leave the house to pace our driveway.

It’s as I near the garage that I hear the most dreaded onamonapia a person in the country can hear. Buzz. Right next to my ear. Loudly. Again, buzz. Now it lingers in the near distance. Buzz.

There’s a specific reaction one has to a buzz. First, there’s panic. Manly, manly panic, coupled with an ever more masculine high-pitched wail of terror. Second, there’s a duel hand wave/flap around the head area to ensure that the vespine invader is not an immediate threat. The third step is to run away. Often this is done while still enacting the second step, so that if one’s neighbors were to see him at this time, they’d think he was reenacting a scene out of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

My neighbors are gifted this vision at this moment, if any of them has the good fortune to be watching. My aunt asks if everything is OK. I lie and say yes. My heart is palpitating. I stand on the porch fifteen feet away and scan the sky as if I were a gunner on the Akagi during the Battle of Midway.

I see it. It’s big and it’s flying in aggressive swoops near the front of the garage. It’s not a bee, it’s not a wasp, it’s a hornet.

I tell my aunt I love her and I have to hang up. And I go in the house to hide.

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Untrue Romance

Untrue Romantic

Untrue Romantic

It’s brunch at the Royal Albert Hall. We’re in Verdi’s kitchen, a well-lit, high-ceilinged yet cozy café, where a jazz quartet plays in the corner of the room. Like many, we are sipping coffee and becoming mesmerized into mellow by the music. Rain is falling; the mood is warm and pleasant, as if cuddling inside of a half-cooked pizza bagel.

I look around the room, mostly couples, some families. One guy in the corner is trying to talk over the music and I schedule a late afternoon rant against him. The others are holding hands, looking into each others’ eyes and getting carried away by the quartet’s blend of Brazilian jazz and Czech classical music.

The room is oozing romance.

There is nothing about this that isn’t romantic: cozy environment, Black-tied wait staff, rain, music, the Royal Albert Hall. It is the perfect atmosphere for romance to bloom. And I would gladly let it bloom were it not for my companion. My sister.

I remember I wanted to tell her something. I lean in. “I have stool softeners if you get backed up.”

Yes. Romance blooms.

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My Fellow Passengers

seatAs I look forward to another day of travel tomorrow – Prague to Philadelphia – I again wonder who I’ll be sitting next to.

Anyone who has ever traveled knows the extreme difference one’s neighbors en route can make to their journey. This is why people eye up babies in the airport – is it on my plane, my row, the row in front? The departure lounge has one casting glances around at others – is that goddess sitting next to me? Oh please be 29B! Or is that guy who’s sweating audibly (me) next to me? Please don’t be 29B!

Perhaps we are most conscious of this on airplanes, but one’s next door passengers on ground transport can also make or break your journey. This can be on buses, trains, or chunnels.

I have been reflecting on this since returning from a journey to London, Paris, and Lyon, and had the opportunity to consider my fellow passengers, as well as their opinions of me.


…was a nice young woman with two children who drove those in front of them insane by kicking the back of their seats. The flight was a quickie from Prague to London. She caught my attention by being very attractive and reading an article I’d written in a Czech newspaper. Did I care that her kids continued to kick their front riders while I flirted with their mom and showed off my knowledge of Czech culture.





Gatwick Express

I have no idea what their seat numbers were, since I was too busy sweating through my glasses, but the three gentlemen I sat next to on the trip from the airport to London were Ukrainians who clearly didn’t think anyone near them spoke a Slavic language.

These guys ironically made me miss Prague in tourist season, when Americans ride transport and speak in such a manner and at such volumes that is clear they think nobody around them speaks English.

I didn’t pick up everything they said, but if others had understood the vulgarity-laced discussion they were having, they’d have stared at them in horror and not, well, hatred.


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The Accidental Photobomber

Photobombed by Ben

Photobombed by Ben

I’m standing in front of Big Ben. The clock in London, not the football player in Pittsburgh. My sister Julia is taking pictures of Ben and I am standing in a flock of tourists who are all taking pictures.

I am not one of them, having relegated all of the photographic duties to my sister. The camera and I have never, ever gotten along. I am as photogenic as a “before” picture, never having understood what to do when a camera is pointed at me. I smile too much or too self-consciously, don’t know what to do with my hands, and always end up looking as though I am either constipated or on angel dust.

Moreover, I am the single worst photographer in the history of shutter and exposure. I am never able to capture the scene I want. My pictures always turn out to look like postmodernist interpretations of random body parts or a sideways road view of an accidental pocket shot. Architecture is my active foe.

Despite all of this, I have somehow always had a talent for accidentally ending up in strangers’ pictures. I am the accidental photobomber. And I am magnificent. I surely grace dozens, hundreds of strangers’ photos in the background scratching my crotch, picking my nose, doing the post-bite of pizza mouth cool down, or laughing like a hyena. Complete strangers have given me Polaroid snaps that I have unwittingly ruined by somehow becoming its central focal point.

Accidental photobombing is my weird talent.

In fact, while checking my watch against Ben, I notice that I am standing directly in front of a woman who has a phone in her outstretched hand, obviously snapping a picture. A picture that will no doubt include me if I don’t move. I do the embarrassed “I’m in your picture” shuffle that I have done 20,000 times – hands up, apologetic smile/wince, dance out of her line of sight.

She looks from the screen up at me and gives me a look which mixes confusion and irritation. Then she brushes her hair back a little, puckers her lips, makes a sexy face, and looks back into her screen.

Julia grabs me and she aims the camera at our faces. Big Ben is in the background.


It dawns on me.

They’re taking selfies.

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