Saturday, October 25, 2014

Who We Are (Updated)

Several years ago I wrote a post introducing my family. It seemed like now might be a good time to update that post.

I'm A Random Stranger, a graduate student in an economics doctoral program. I teach economics at an English-language high school in Beijing, China. I enjoy reading, writing, blogging, running, soccer, cartography, politics, economics, and travel (and, if we're being honest, I also enjoy sleeping, eating, and having sex), and so my blog tends to focus on those things. Our family is Mormon, or (more accurately) members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some of my blog posts are about Mormon items, too. (The picture of me is from a home photo shoot we had to do so my then-employer could put pictures on the company website (which never happened). I believe I was wearing pajama pants when that photo was taken.)

My wife used to have a fun blog nickname, but then it got old, so I was going to replace it, but I never got around to it. It turns out that the phrase "my wife" does the job well. I toyed with the idea of making her blog nickname be My Wife, but that seemed sort of lame.

Anyway, my wife was my high-school girlfriend. We got married about five years after graduating. She has a bachelor's degree in English teaching (like reading Billy Budd and talking about its meaning, not teaching English to people who don't know English). She likes reading, writing, blogging, photography, being hot, and crying over barely-sad movies. She homeschools our children.

Crazy Jane is our 12-year-old daughter. She loves reading, writing, and drawing, with a special emphasis in cartooning. She would love to grow up to be a cartoonist. She is excellent at math but tries her best to pretend otherwise. If she could go back in time, she'd marry Nathan Hale.

Articulate Joe is 10 years old. He used to be called Mumbly Joe because he had delayed speech, but then he learned how to talk. (That doesn't mean he likes doing it, though, and he tries his best to get through like making inflected grunts, which can be surprisingly communicative.) He likes all sports, playing with Legos, shaved ice, auto racing, architecture, and learning about machinery and public works projects. A trip out of the house is fantastic in his book if he gets to sit in the seat next to the bus driver or stare at the subway drivers through the door at the front of the train. He wants to grow up to drive a fork lift. I keep trying to get him interested instead in designing fork lifts.

Jerome Jerome the Metronome got his name because he was born with a bum heart, but his doctors did a kick-ass job and he's been a regular kid ever since. He's six years old now. Anything that interests him he can learn with no effort at all. He's been reading since he was three. Since Articulate Joe under-performs in reading and Jerome over-performs, he often reads library books that Joe abandoned. Jerome loves making lists and learning about animals, particularly African wild dogs. His crazy-ass talents extend to sports, where he quickly becomes the best kid on his team. Because of his heart, we've been prepping him his whole life that he might have to sit out some sports or stop competing when it becomes too intense. He's left-handed, and perhaps as a result, he's always loved the evil characters in books and movies. He was Darth Vader for Halloween a few years ago.

Screamapilar is two years old. He spent the first 4 months of his life screaming all the time, even in his sleep. Then he cut back to just screaming 12 hours a day. He is beginning to display some of the same delayed-speech traits Articulate Joe had, which sucks, because it means more screaming.

In August we moved to China. We've had a series of small technological issues that have messed with my blogging, but we seem to have those fixed now. Full speed ahead.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

It's Like Peeling an Onion, Except Better Because Onions Suck

I’ll tell you what I like about China: the bottle labels are so easy to peel.

Peeling water or soda bottle labels in the United States is kind of a chore. Getting the corner pulled up requires some work, and then the label almost always tears as you pull. You end up with straggling pieces of label still attached to the bottle, and when the entire process is finished, the bottle has residual glue on it, which is nice for sticking the bottle to your palm and looking like you have magical powers over gravity, but not for much else.

It turns out I peel a lot of bottle labels.

I noticed the ease of peeling Chinese bottle labels quickly, because almost everything worth drinking comes from a bottle. Since tap water is sometimes questionable (and the government doesn’t disclose when those times are), you don’t put it inside you. My school representative met us at the airport with bottles of water, and the bottles have not stopped since then. Each of my meetings is catered in snacks (really dry cookies, sesame-covered things that are sort of like pretzel sticks, giant grapes with three seeds in each one, and cut-up cantaloupe and dragon fruit) and bottles of water. And so I quickly learned that water bottle labels here peel very easily.

This is satisfying to a serial water-bottle-label peeler like me, although I guess it should be sort of troubling. One nice feature of difficult-to-peel labels is that it’s more obvious when a bottle’s been doctored. Here, I guess the bottles could have had their labels slapped on them 30 seconds before I entered the room. Who was peeing in what when I was exiting the elevator?

Oh, who am I kidding? The labels peel so nicely, I don’t really care about bottle safety. Drinking the pee of political dissidents is a small price to pay for the immense satisfaction these labels provide.

Eastward Migration, Day 2

The next morning (or later that morning, I guess) we woke up and went to spend our vouchers. My wife got some pastries at Starbucks, I got some sandwiches at Subway, and then my wife got some snacks for Screamapilar. The Houston airport is comprised of incredibly-long concourses, so it took a very long time to get to our plane. On the way, I got a nose bleed. Again we had to ask someone to move so that my wife and Screamapilar could be together. The other four of us were scattered nearby.

I think most of us slept most of that flight. We landed in Washington about three minutes behind schedule, which was important because we only had 10 minutes scheduled between landing and boarding. We rushed to our new gate, where I had to talk to the clerk because our boarding passes that had been printed for us the night before in Houston didn't have seat assignments. When I got to the counter, the clerk already had our boarding passes printed for us. We had six seats together. He also was very nice about not making us walk to the back of our boarding group and helping check our stroller. We boarded our flight and took off without issue.

We had Crazy Jane in the window seat, then Articulate Joe, then me, then the aisle, then Jerome Jerome the Metronome, my wife, and Screamapilar next to the other aisle. Our flight was 13-and-a-half hours. We watched a lot of movies. I finished reading the book we'd bought for me to read on the plane, Dad Is Fat by Jim Gaffigan. The two kids next to me and I saw the Arctic Ocean out the window. We didn't get the other three to see it because they were all asleep at the time.

When we started our descent into Beijing, I began to worry. We were not going to get past the immigration people because it wasn't clear how I was supposed to fill out our entry cards. We weren't going to get to exchange currency because I hadn't already done it and the e-mail from my school said I needed to arrive with cash. We weren't going to be able to call someone when our school contact didn't show up because we hadn't unlocked our phones or added international calling to our plan. We weren't going to be able to get more cash than what we came with because I hadn't notified our banks that we were going to be traveling internationally. We weren't going to be able to get baggage carts because we had no yuan yet. We weren't going to be allowed to stay in China because I hadn't brought my master’s degree diploma and it was locked in a fire-proof box in Ohio. We would all get panda flu and die.

We exited the plane. We had a long walk to the immigration counter. The woman answered my questions about the parts I didn't know and we moved on. The train to the baggage area was very crowded. Jerome was pushed up against a lady, which freaked him out. He kept looking at her like, "How are you not freaked out by this?" He squashed closer to me and held my hand. We got our baggage and were pleasantly surprised to find out the baggage carts were free, so we got four carts. My wife and I and the two oldest kids all pushed very loaded carts and Jerome pushed Screamapilar in the stroller. We stopped at a currency exchange window and pulled out all our cash: $495. We traded it in for yuan at an exchange rate of 5.986 (the Internet says the exchange rate that day was 6.15). The man next to me was arguing over the exchange rate, but I figured it was close enough to six to be all right. (It was 97% of a straight exchange.) The woman at the counter said I'd have to pay a commission fee of 60. I asked, "Sixty dollars or 60 yuan?" The man next to me and the woman both answered, "Sixty yuan." I was fine with that; that's like $10. So we left with something like ¥2,910.50. This was about $22 less than the straight exchange rate would get us, which was fine.

We left the secure area, passing customs as if we had nothing to declare. I had no idea if we had something to declare or not. I didn't think so, but then the customs form said we should declare if we were bringing in more than ¥20,000 worth of goods. Everything we brought was definitely worth more than that. Anyway, we said we had nothing to declare and they didn't stop us.

We got to the unsecured area and a ton of people were waiting to pick up passengers. One had a sign with my employer’s logo and my name on it. (This was my first time getting picked up at the airport by someone holding a non-ironic sign with my name on it.) He gave us water bottles and directed us to a very small elevator that was the only way for people with baggage carts to leave the airport. That was pretty poor planning on the part of their airport designers.

When we were rescheduled to a Houston-Beijing flight, we e-mailed my work to tell them to expect us at 5 AM. When we found out that our plans had changed again, we notified my school again. However, the man picking us up from the airport had gone to bed early so he would get up on time, and he silenced his phone. He got a text message containing our new travel plans about 10 minutes after he went to bed, but he didn’t read it until 3 AM when he woke up for the trip to the airport.

We got to a small bus and a driver helped load our bags and then our family got in. Jerome got a nose bleed, but it wasn’t too bad. We drove across Beijing in about an hour and a half. The last 20 minutes or so the kids were very tired and falling asleep, but we told them to wait until we got to the apartment. The man from my school had a colleague waiting at the gate to our apartment building, and they helped us take all our things to the elevator and up to the fifth floor to our new home. We were just about 24 hours later than originally planned.

Our original route had us going through San Mateo County, California, which would have been new for no one but Screamapilar. Instead, we went through Harris County, Texas, which was a new county and state for all our children. This means all four of our kids have now been to at least half the states in the country.

The orange lines are the flights we were supposed to have. The red lines are our actual flights. But I know what you really care about: Chinese counties. Even though my wife keeps telling me we are not tracking Chinese counties, she's mistaken. Of course we are. I'll share a map of them with you soon.

Eastward Migration, Day 1

My last day in America was spent getting crap customer service, buying food of terrible nutritional value, and shopping in a big-box retail store for things I didn’t really need. In other words, I lived like an American.

I took our youngest kid, Screamapilar, to Best Buy to exchange my wife’s phone. By having him with me, my wife could get more packing done. When the phone exchange didn’t work, we went to Bread Basket, an overpriced cake store that provided our wedding cake, and got some pieces for Crazy Jane to try. She’s spent her entire life hearing about this cake. My wife’s best friend Angela is a bit of a cake connoisseur (back when blogs weren’t exclusively the domain of the delusional friendless, she had a blog entitled “Angela Wants Cake”), and she says she still has dreams about our wedding cake. (Several years ago, Angela won a prize on my blog that I have yet to figure out how to deliver, but when I do it will be cake-themed and awesome.)

Back home, everyone had some cake, and it was great. Not fifty-dollars-for-four-pieces great, but great.

After we got our kids in bed, we went to Target to stock up on toiletries to take with us, and since Target has an In-N-Out in the parking lot, I had one last Double Double. That night, I was the heaviest I had been since mid-2002, when a combination of the security and indolence that comes from a well-paying office job, the happiness that comes from a new marriage, and the extra eating that comes from hanging out with a pregnant lady combined to push my weight beyond the official BMI level for obesity. But I figured my dramatic Chinese weight loss would be more amazing (and less life-threatening) if I started with a healthy (or unhealthy, actually) cushion. (For the pushin’.) (Ahhh, yeah!)

At some unbelievably late hour, we finished packing. (The time stamp on my tweets was set to Eastern time.) Just a few hours later, we were up for our trip to the airport. We woke up at 7 AM with the goal of leaving the house at 8, but getting up, getting breakfast for the kids, getting dressed, and loading the cars with all our luggage took a long time. We left home at 9.

Because we had six people and 14 bags, we caravanned. My wife’s parents drove their Honda Pilot filled with luggage, and we drove ours filled with people and carry-ons. The night before, we'd discuss with my father-in-law the best route to the airport, and we decided to take Pacific Coast Highway. We got the airport at 10:30, which had us nervous for a noon international departure. Getting our 14 pieces of checked luggage, our six carry-ons, Screamapilar's car seat, and our stroller through the airport was very difficult.

I bought our tickets from Air China on a website called CheapOAir.com. Despite the fly-by-night-sounding name, I'd had a few friends recommend it. We had two flights on our itinerary: one from Los Angeles to San Francisco, and one from San Francisco to Beijing. The first flight was supposed to last from noon to 2 PM, and the second flight was from 3 PM to 3 AM the next morning (which would be 6 PM in Beijing). So from leaving Los Angeles to arriving in Beijing was to be 15 hours.

Air China contracted with United Airlines to operate the first flight, so we were in Terminal 7, the United terminal. United's self-check process was chaos. The kiosk demanded we have an employee verify our passports and visas, but only one employee was performing that task. By the time he came to our kiosk, it had timed out. We restarted, he verified our visas, then he left, and the very next step in the process required an employee to verify our free luggage items (car seat and stroller). By the time he came back, the kiosk had timed out again. We restarted, and finally got our boarding passes. (My wife had tried to print them the night before, but United's online system waited until after a lengthy check-in process to tell us that we couldn't check in through the website because, it turned out, of the visa verification requirement.)

One thing in our favor: foreign airlines have more-forgiving luggage rules. Air China allows each passenger two pieces of free checked luggage, so we were only required to pay for two bags. Also in our favor: their system figured our 12 free bags and our two free luggage items were our 14 bags, so we weren't required to pay for the two excess bags. The car seat was used on the plane and the stroller was left at the plane door, so they didn't actually ever show up as luggage, so it was never discovered that we were not paying for our two additional bags.

I know that not telling them is stealing, but we didn't have time to tell them. It would have meant another 20 minutes for the kiosk-monitoring employee to come back, then who-knows-how-long to work the problem out. It's not like I was seeking personal gain, because the excess-baggage fees would be reimbursed to us from my employer. So really I was stealing in their behalf, and that actually makes me sound like a really good employee, right? Anyway, we turned our 14 bags over to United and headed for the security screening.

Getting through security was actually fairly easy. My wife was allowed to carry Screamapilar through the metal detector, and together they set it off. They spent five minutes in a glass box, then an agent sprayed my wife's flip-flops with GSR spray or something, and when it came up clean, they were allowed to go. However, when the metal detector sounded, she was barefoot and her flip-flops were on the x-ray conveyor belt. Security theater at its most pointless.

We got to our gate and sat down at about 11. At this point, I actually thought that most of the hard part was over.

Then they announced that our flight had moved gates. We went to our new gate and saw that our departure time had now moved from noon to 1:30. This would mean we would miss our 3 PM departure out of San Francisco. I left my family at the gate and went to the customer service desk in our terminal.

The United employee at the desk was the least-helpful person I've ever met. She gave the appearance of helpfulness while doing absolutely nothing but telling me that I wasn't going to be able to go to China. (These were her actual words.) She was very passive-aggressive, constantly interrupting me to tell me that she knows how air travel works, she does this every day.

It's going to take me a long time to stop hating her. Part of me wishes I’d written down her name-—it was one of those ethnic names that sounds like a more-traditional name that has been jazzed up a bit-—but another part of me knows I’d hate her even longer if I had a name for her.

She never apologized or explained the delay. Instead, she blamed me for buying my tickets through CheapOAir. She said that made it so that we were unable to fly on any other route. We would have to be on United's 669 to San Francisco, then Air China's 986 to Beijing. Wednesday's 986 would leave without us. Thursday's, Friday's, and Saturday's were completely full. So the earliest I would leave for China would be Sunday. United would only give us one night of a free hotel in San Francisco, so if we went that day to San Francisco, we would be stuck there at our own expense for at least three days. She repeatedly told me that it was my fault for buying that type of ticket. She told me I shouldn't have routed through San Francisco because they often get fog delays there. She told me to not get on the delayed flight, and to talk to the people at Air China's terminal desk. She would not call them. The desk was across the airport (which at LAX means outside the secure area and several blocks away), meaning we would exit security and take 22 items to Terminal 2.

We left the secure area and had our bags pulled from the plane and returned to a baggage carousel for us to retrieve them. Only 13 of the bags showed up. I called CheapOAir and they told me to call Air China. I called Air China and they told me to talk to United. The Air China woman told me to get a delay certificate from United. She said this was very important. The United woman had said nothing about the possibility of getting a delay certificate. A very helpful United employee at the baggage claim area, Carla Skeekan, helped track down our missing bag and gave me a delay certificate. Carla looked up the original problem and told me that a plane in San Francisco had had mechanical issues, so it was late leaving for Los Angeles, and that was to be our plane, and that was why we were delayed. So why did the first woman talk about San Francisco fog when she blamed me for missing my connecting flight? Probably because she was never interested in finding out if the fault was mine or United's. I took the delay certificate back upstairs to the United terminal desk while my wife and kids sat with our items in the corner of the baggage claim area. By this time it was about 1 PM.

I got admitted to a special incredibly-screwed-travelers line that moved very slowly because everyone had some complex problem that required a lot of assistance. When I finally got to the front, I got a very helpful woman to assist me. I'm pretty sure when she was on the phone she said her name was Amy, but when I asked her name because she was so helpful I wanted to write a letter to United detailing her hard work, she hesitated and then told me her name was Marilyn.

Anyway, "Marilyn" was great. She apologized and got on the phone. She called Air China's offices because, it turned out, Air China's terminal desk spends a lot of the day unstaffed, since they only operate a few flights out of Los Angeles. The first United employee had recommended I get all our possessions over to the Air China desk without bothering to find out if anyone would be there to help me when I arrived. “Marilyn” was on two phones at once for a bit, one to each ear. That looked bad-ass. She eventually got us six seats on a United flight to Houston and six seats on an Air China flight from Houston to Beijing. Our flight from Los Angeles would leave at 6 PM and arrive in Houston at 9 PM Pacific time, then we'd leave for Beijing two hours later and arrive in Beijing at 4:50 AM Beijing time (1:50 AM Pacific). This wouldn't be so bad, because we would still be there for all the Friday activities (registering with the police, going to the cell phone store, the grocery store, the bank, and the subway to buy fare cards). “Marilyn” gave me six food vouchers worth $7 each to get us something to eat once we went through security again. At about 3 PM, we had new seats on new flights.

Our family shuttled our 22 items back upstairs to again pass them through security. (My wife stayed with the bags downstairs, I took bags and two kids upstairs, left the kids to watch the bags, then I went back and forth a dozen times.) We took off the luggage tags that indicated the bags were to go through San Francisco, then tried to print new tags for them. For some reason, the United desk clerks were upset we had removed the other tags. I thought we were streamlining the process. Anyway, we got our bags checked, went through security again, then got some food with our vouchers. This was about 4:45.

Because we were late additions to this flight, we were scattered throughout the plane. I went to the gate counter to ask the United employee there if she would ask someone to move for us so our baby wouldn’t be flying LA to Houston between two strangers, and she said she couldn't do that because she had seven people waiting to fly stand-by. This was nonsense; I wasn't asking for an extra seat, I was asking her to facilitate some switching between already-ticketed passengers. She said it was up to me. I said, "In the past, I've seen workers ask if anyone would be willing to switch." She said she couldn't do that. I said, "So our two-year-old could be flying by himself?" She said yes, and told me if I didn't like that I should go back to the flight I was supposed to be on originally, as if I had chosen to switch to this flight at the last minute, as if my original flight wasn't already hours in the past.

Our plane boarded on time. My wife got someone to move so she could be next to Screamapilar. The other four of us were scattered in nearby seats. A young teenage girl volunteered to switch seats with Crazy Jane so she could sit next to Jerome. Articulate Joe and I were between strangers.

About 20 minutes later, the captain announced that one of their instruments showed a mechanical error, so they were having maintenance workers investigate it.

About 20 minutes after that, he told us the maintenance workers couldn't find why the instrument was giving an error message.

And about 20 minutes after that, he announced that we'd reached the point where the passengers had a legal right to leave the airplane.

Some of the passengers started to leave, but then they returned and said they'd heard we were moving to a different plane. We all deboarded, walked from Terminal 6 to Terminal 7, stood in line for 30 minutes, boarded a new airplane, and then sat on the tarmac for 20 minutes again for some reason. By the time we actually took off, we were so late that we were going to miss our connection. Again.

We flew to Houston and arrived there around 2:30 AM (12:30 California time). The TV service was free because of the delay, so the kids watched some shows and I watched a French soccer game. Once we got to Houston, a very nice United worker called someone and put together a new itinerary for us: we would leave Houston the next morning at 7:20 (5:20 Pacific) and fly to Dulles, then transfer to a United flight to Beijing. My wife said, "We just drove across the country for nothing." The United worker offered to get us a hotel, but since the flight started boarding at 6:45 and it was already almost 3, we decided we'd just sleep at the airport. She gave us 12 food vouchers for $7 each. The woman recommended we should sleep in the chapel. She said it would have benches and be quiet.

However, the chapel was already filled with sleepers (even though the chapel door specifically asks passengers not sleep there), so we wondered on a little more. The United worker pulled up on a cart on her way somewhere else and asked if we found the chapel. We told her it was full and asked where else she'd recommend. She told us Terminal D was quiet; we were in Terminal C at the time, and she said C would be loud because it was under construction. So we walked to Terminal D and found an empty spot. The waiting seats all had immovable arms to discourage sleeping. Jane, Joe, and Jerome all tried to curl up in a single seat. My wife and I walked Screamapilar in the stroller until he stopped crying and fell asleep. I slept on the floor with my head in the car seat. I'm not sure how my wife slept.

One final thing to note from this Day of Days. I went in the men's room once we picked our squatting location in Houston. A Middle-Eastern-looking man was at the mirror. Typically when men are at the mirror of the men's room, they have finished with the bathroom and are washing their hands, so I figured he was on his way out. I went in a stall and sat down. A few minutes later, a woman started calling hesitantly at the door. She wasn't saying English words and I thought she was an Hispanic woman on a cleaning crew calling out to see if the men's room was empty before she came in to clean. She called something and I said, "Yes?" We did this a few times. Finally I replied, "¿Sí?" Then she left. A little later, a man called something. I said, "Yes?" He said, "Your wife is looking for you." I said, "Who do you think I am?" He said, "Abdul." I said, "I'm not Abdul." He left. I finished what I was doing and left my stall. And the Middle-Eastern-looking man was still at the mirror. When I came out, he left. He had been there for my entire 10-15 minute poop, and had been silent the entire time people were calling out at the restroom door. And, what's more, he very well could have been Abdul. What was he doing, hiding from his wife?

At Only $20 Per Month, It's Actually Quite a Good Deal

In January 2013, my wife and I signed new phone contracts and got our very first smart phones. And my wife, who was very skeptical of anyone’s need for a smart phone, has finally filled that smart-phone-shaped hole in her heart. She can be heard cooing it to sleep at night, whispering, “You complete me.”

But before we knew her smart phone would be Maid of Honor when we renew our wedding vows, we just knew it would be expensive to replace. So we got insurance through Best Buy.

Now, hold on a minute. I know you’re saying, “A Random Stranger, that sounds suspiciously like an extended warranty, and I know you know that Moe Szyslak uses Homer’s receptivity to an extended warranty as evidence that Moe has sufficiently shoved the crayon into Homer’s brain to recreate his earlier stupidity.” Yes, yes that’s true. But here’s where you’re wrong: it’s not an extended warranty if there was never any warranty to begin with, smart ass. So the joke’s on, well, I guess it’s still on me.

Anyway, we have paid over $20 per month for the promise of replacement phones should our phones stop working. And my wife’s phone stopped working fairly soon after getting it. When the 4G or 3G connection was bad, the menu would open itself over and over again, so you couldn’t actually do anything because you’d go to touch the screen and end up selecting something from the just-opened menu. We went to Best Buy, where the problem wouldn’t manifest, so they said the problem didn’t exist. We went to Sprint, where the problem wouldn’t manifest, so they said the problem didn’t exist. We read online about other people with the problem, and they all said they had terrible times trying to get service, but it was basically a Samsung version of Photic Sneeze Reflex: an insufficiently-insulated connection sent signals across to a neighboring connection. This was pleasing, because I have Photic Sneeze Reflex and I like anything that increases awareness (for Photic Sneeze Reflex Month I’m going to wear a button with a picture of a nose and a sun), but it was displeasing because I hate malfunctioning technology.

I cannot even begin to describe to you just how much I hate malfunctioning technology. I hate it so much it should be its own post, but I also hate it so much that writing about it will just work me into a white-hot rage. Better to just move on with some deep breaths.

Not quite there yet. Give me a minute.

Okay, my wife had a malfunctioning phone and we were paying insurance premiums and not getting a replacement. She learned to just not use her phone when outside the house, which sounds practical. I mean, cell phones were invented to function as land-line house phones, right?

Finally, two days before we left for China, my wife’s phone more-completely died. The on-off button stopped working, so the phone would awake or slumber itself as it saw fit, and sometimes even restart itself. Surely, if insurance was made for anything, it was made for this.

I went to Best Buy. I said, “We have a broken phone and need a new phone.” And the clerk said, “We will take your phone, see if we can fix it, and if we can’t, we’ll mail a new one to an address in the United States.” So, after paying more than $200 for the promise of a replacement phone when this one breaks, this one had broken and we would receive no replacement.

Here’s what makes the story even better news for the doctor who will be performing my bypass surgery in the future: Best Buy has continued charging us for the insurance program. Since I’m obviously no longer paying for the promise of replacement phones, I must be paying for the monthly reminder of their terrible customer service. For just over $20 per month, I get an e-mail reminder to never shop at Best Buy again.

"Paint Your Palette Blue and Grey"

I like the idea of painting, but I don’t know a lot about how to do it. As with everything else in my life I don’t know, I turned to the library and YouTube. It worked for swimming, but it’s not working for painting. Maybe it’s because I haven’t made the time to really practice. Anyway, for whatever reason, I’m still not a painter yet.

I started a painting for my daughter for Christmas of 2010, I believe. It was my excuse to get myself a cool easel and some brushes and palette knives. I started the painting, but didn’t have time to finish it before Christmas. I unveiled the work-in-progress to her, but then I had no compelling reason to finish.

Until we decided we were moving to China. I didn’t want to take it with me and I didn’t want to leave it undone while we were gone, because boxing it up would be a guaranteed way of never finishing it at all. So when I accepted the job in China, I got out the painting.

And it sat on my office floor until the final week before moving, when I finally got around to working on it.

I wouldn’t say I “finished” the painting, but I did get to a point where my continued work was only making things worse, so I stopped. It could be a finished painting in someone else’s style. I could try to pass that style off as my own. But if I had more skill, I would make the painting look different, so I’m not sure I should say I finished it.

My son needed to build a picture frame for Cub Scouts, so we built a frame for this painting. Then, since oil paintings can take a year or more to cure, we hung it up in my parents’ laundry room. My parents were out of town at the time, so we left a Post-It note with explicit instructions on how to LEAVE IT THE HELL ALONE for two years.

If they treat the painting like they did my bicycle that was in their garage, they gave it to Goodwill a week after they came home.

Post title from Don McLean's "Vincent."

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Platinum Rule for the Modern World

People often talk about the Golden Rule: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is sometimes presented as “treat others as you would like to be treated.” And since platinum is like gold for hipsters, we also have the Platinum Rule: “treat others as they would like to be treated.”

The problem with the Platinum Rule is our limited ability to comprehend the views of others. We think of things our way and often can’t even understand that someone might see things differently. I once read a story about Queen Victoria’s refusal to outlaw lesbian sex; the story goes that it wasn’t due to the queen’s socially progressive stance on human sexuality, but she refused to believe that it was a real thing.

The Platinum Rule can work when we can receive guidance regarding the treatment others would like to receive, but when the views of the other are unknown, we fall back on the Golden Rule. I have to assume that you are like me and treat you how I would like to be treated.

The biggest problem with the Golden Rule is the change it has undergone. Now we have something I’d call the Looking Glass Rule: treat others how you would like them to like to be treated.

The Platinum Rule says to find out if your officemates care if you have loud personal phone calls at your desk. The Golden Rule says don’t have loud personal phone calls at your desk if you would dislike it were your officemates to have loud personal phone calls at their desks. But the Looking Glass Rule says have loud personal phone calls at your desk because you would like your officemates to be okay with you having loud personal phone calls at your desk.

This is why someone in the office can be angry about my phone calls while not comprehending my anger about his phone calls. What matters isn’t how others feel, it’s how you want them to feel. After all, how can I know their feelings, which are outside my comprehension? But I can know my feelings about their feelings, so that’s the metric I target.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Prep Your Mormon Kids for Being Gay

When a child is born, he knows nothing of human sexuality, while his parents know quite a bit. So what’s the deal with the classic “I have to tell my parents I’m gay” trope?

Your parents have known about gay since before you knew anything. They knew what gay was and how gay behaved. (I don’t mean wearing skinny jeans and calling everything “fabulous,” I mean taking an interest in the same sex in a way that straight people take an interest in the opposite sex.) For born-this-way gays, you shouldn’t have to tell your parents anything. They should be the ones telling you.

This seems especially important if your child is being raised in an environment that rank-and-file gays would say is incompatible with homosexuality, such as socially-conservative Christianity. (Note that I don’t say the environment is incompatible, only that your child is going to be indoctrinated with the idea that it is incompatible.)

So, Mormon parents, you need to be telling your gay children the ways in which Mormon doctrine allows for homosexual attraction before your kid has his big “I’m gay so that means I can’t be Mormon” moment. Your son’s attraction to the boy next door should have as little bearing on his church membership as his attraction to the girl next door would have had.

Instead, what do we see? We see nearly every gay Mormon quickly becoming a gay ex-Mormon, because they’ve heard their whole lives that you can be one or the other but you can’t be both. You can’t wait until the kid is ready to tell you he’s gay to tell him this, because his decision to tell you was a decision to quit the church. You can’t even wait until he’s found out he’s gay. You have to know before he does, and have prepared him for when he finds out.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Sins of Poverty v. Sins of Affluence

When we were in Lawrence, Kansas, we stopped by the new city library's grand opening. As we milled around, we passed a Baby Boomer lesbian couple.

I've written here before about the challenges that homosexuality brings to parenting. I don't know that my children yet need an understanding of human sexuality beyond reproduction at this point, and homosexuality is inherently non-reproductive. I just don't see any value in introducing ideas in their heads years before they are going to appear there naturally. Our oldest kids have received more information as they've neared puberty, but showing a six-year-old how to put a condom on a banana is insane.

Anyway, this couple in the library made me think of all the problems I'd have to explain to our kids if we ever returned to live in Lawrence. Which led to the thought, "What, Troy, Ohio, didn't have any sinners in town?" Of course Troy had sinners. But they were a different type.

This led me to a realization about sins that are born of poverty and sins that are born of affluence. Poverty sins are generally reactive. Because poverty is difficult, sometimes the poor respond with sinful behavior. In the words of Pulp, "You dance and drink and screw because there's nothing else to do." I feel these sins are easier to explain to children. They aren't willful wrong decisions as much as survival techniques. Hope remains that, if taught more-helpful survival techniques, the poor would stop making these poor choices.

Sins of affluence, however, are not like this at all. They are willful wrong decisions, the sins rich people commit not because life is too hard for them, but because they are insulated from the consequences of their choices, or because they can afford illicit experiences and so seek them out. The rich might claim that they are also responding to existential crises, but there's a difference between doing drugs to deaden your brain to the hopelessness of your life, and doing drugs to deaden your brain to the anxiety caused by your parents' high expectations.

If I have to raise my children around sinners, I'd rather raise them around poor sinners than rich sinners.

PS: I'm aware that this post looks like I'm referring to homosexuality as a sin. I'm not. I'll blog more about that later this week.

Artifacts of a Time When Government Wasn't Broken

As a boy interested in maps, I learned how to read California highway markers. (In the days before the Internet, that was a serious undertaking.) Each feature along a highway is marked with the name of the county and the mileage to one end of the highway, be it the highway's origin or the county line.

So driving along CA-14 on our return trip from Tehachapi, I noticed that the highway markers were promising about 20 more miles of highway than actually exists. Normally, after freeway plans are scaled back, highway signage reflects the fact. Not that the state should spend a bunch of money remarking highways for no other reason, but when the signs are replaced, you'd think they would be updated. But CA-14 has been legislatively truncated since the 1970s, and major construction projects along the corridor have resulted in shiny, brand-new signs with the old numbering.

This got me thinking about all the failed infrastructure projects of America in general and California in particular. Like the Metropolitan Bypass, or Palmdale International Airport. The killer problem for replacing LAX with Palmdale has always been transportation. Until relatively recently, CA-14 couldn't even handle the current volume of traffic generated by meth labs and off-the-grid geodetic domes. (Just kidding, Antelope Valley. I love you. Pearblossom Highway is the world's only free roller coaster.) Taking the traffic from the Westchester segment of the 405 and sending it 50 miles into the desert would make The 'Chester* nicer, but it would make flying in or out of L.A. even worse than it currently is.

The last proposal I read recognized that not only was it impossible to expand CA-14 enough to handle airport traffic, but the current route from Palmdale to downtown was about twice as long as a direct line between the two points. Other countries respond to mountains in the ways of their highways or railways by tunneling. It seems America has gone from leading the world in infrastructure to leading the world in scuttled infrastructure projects. If the local lobby and the environmental lobby don't end proposals, labor unions and bureaucracy make the projects prohibitively expensive.

Recently I've seen two articles about this. One pointed out that Berlin built an entire subway line for less money than Washington Metro will spend on one above-ground in-fill station. (You might say, "A Random Stranger, you're using the high-end estimate," to which I would counter that you know nothing of Washington-area infrastructure financing.) The other pointed out that India's mission to Mars cost about 1/10 of NASA's (and cost less than a movie set in space that was actually filmed entirely on Earth).

California is littered with highway markers remaining from a time when infrastructure wasn't shockingly expensive and government could create public works projects that actually met the needs of the public. We've already entered the post-Roman-Empire phase of national history, when we look at the infrastructure left to us by our ancestors and we marvel that they could build it. Not that we don't understand the science behind it, but that we don't understand the economics behind it. How would America go about building the Interstate Highway System today? What was built 60 years ago is now magical to us.

* = No one really calls it The 'Chester aside from my one friend who attended Loyola Marymount University.

"You'll Be Out of Tehachapi in 20 Years and You Can Come Back to Me Then"

Towards the end of The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade makes Tehachapi sound like a terrible place to spend 20 years. Well, my friends Erik and Cristin are about halfway there, and they don't seem to mind it that much. They invited us up to visit, and since our kids were itching to spend more time in a car, we bundled our crap together and headed on out.

Erik is a pilot, so he took us up in his airplane in two shifts. First was me and Jerome, and Erik's daughter.

I felt like puking, which Erik thought was hilarious. (In his defense, I can see how he was easily confused; had the situation been reversed, it actually would have been hilarious.) In the group of potential passengers was Crazy Jane, who has puked on car trips through the Appalachian Mountains. Before taking off, we made sure she had a bag and clear instructions on how to not puke on the headset. When her turn came, she was fine the entire time.

He's smiling in this picture because he hadn't yet realized he wasn't getting a ride.

Erik landed switched us out, taking up my wife and our two oldest kids. (Note: when we were little kids, my wife's name for Erik was "Erik the Prince." I gave the kids strict instructions to make sure no monkey business was going on in the front seat.) None of that group got pukey, either. Only me.

Just pretending to be nauseated. Like I was! Yeah, like I was, see?

This corkscrew thing is kind of a big deal in Tehachapi. Visitors would do well to just nod politely.

I believe this whole almost-puking thing added another item to Cristin's already-substantial "why I'm glad I married Erik and not his loser friend" list.

While everyone else was in the air get not airsick, Cristin and I took some kids to a railroad museum.

When everyone was back on the ground, we all went to lunch at a sandwich place. One wall of the restaurant was a chalkboard on which patrons could draw or leave messages. While two other children wrote inspiring messages about Jesus all over the chalkboard, my kids wrote messages about how awesome they are, and about ninjas. I felt like the last guy at the party to answer the question, "Who is your hero?" before the guy who says, "Jesus." Well, yeah, I mean, of course Jesus, if He's an option. I didn't think we were going that direction, so that's why I said Batman. Obviously, Jesus is better than Batman. Part of you is angry with the guy who always has to be "on" and couldn't just be cool for once.

Then, because my children need training for the coming apocalypse, Erik took us out in the desert to shoot guns.

That last picture would have given Thomas Jefferson an erection.

Finally, we left, but not before documenting the fact that our wives have stayed young and hot while Erik and I have not.

Early 2002, and we all look like we just came from a junior prom.

Early 2010, and it looks like Erik and I are visiting our nieces.

Mid 2014, and the wheels have come off our respective buses.

We had a great visit. Tehachapi is nowhere near as bad as Sam Spade makes it sound.