Saturday, March 29, 2014

Don't Slow Down

It's the Iditarod, and the sled dogs are jangly with joy. They yip and twist and yearn for the starting line. They've got a thousand proud and beautiful miles to pull.

There's no wonder Alaska is beautiful. It's tectonically rumpled and sparsely peopleated. Extremes of elevation and weather protect much of it from our schemes. The consequences of human trampling are not as evident when you have this much space. There are few enough humans here that they can boast of living on the edge of the wilderness, and not so many that the wilderness ceases to exist.

We've trampled it some. We're pulling oil out of it as fast as we can. We've threaded a big old pipeline over some geologically rambunctious landscape and right through the caribou, and that got some people upset, but proponents insisted that the thing was virtually spill-proof. Which may be as true as it is irrelevant. Some dude might dump a bucket of strychnine in our water reservoir and boast that he didn't get any on him, but we really don't care about his laundry.

The state of Alaska established a Permanent Fund made up of oil money and designed to provide for future generations once the oil runs out. They cut every citizen a check from it every year. You could dang near make a living off it if you had enough kids, and weren't particular about how well you fed them.

It's an interesting concept. It acknowledges that the resource being extracted is finite while doing nothing to slow down the extraction. The fund is an example of a certain narrow kind of prudence, but it also has the side benefit of neatly co-opting the citizenry and ensuring plenty of political will to continue the pillage. There will be no examining the prudence of that.

Alaskans do have some justification for thinking of themselves as exceptional, independent, rugged frontiersmen. This is not a group that's going to whine about an arugula shortage; this is a group standing proud, with a bear gun in one hand and a warm dividend check in the other.

Meanwhile, this year, as Alaska's winter got shipped off to Atlanta on the polar vortex, we can't help but think of the old saw about the fellow who was able to sell ice to Eskimos. It doesn't take that good a salesman anymore. The Iditarod got off to its ceremonial start in Anchorage only after quantities of snow were trucked in and parceled out in a tight lane on the city street. Spectators watched from dry pavement and people manned the intersections to shovel the snow back in place after traffic was let through.

The dogs know it's all their effort and elation that will get the sled to Nome, but as for us, we don't even use our muscles anymore and we don't remember how we're designed to work. Instead we've built ourselves a big engine and driven our sled over the mountaintop and now we're riding it straight into the sea with no brakes. We're flying behind it with every other living thing, like the tar-baby of doom. I'll be dead before we hit the ocean but I feel sorry for the kids, and the caribou.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Look Out! It's The Seat Vibration Of Doom!

When seat belts first came out, Dad was grumbly about it. He thought they were a terrible idea. They would give the driver a false sense of security and he wouldn't pay proper attention to his driving. In spite of the fact that my father had an excellent grasp of physics, he thought kids were amply protected during sudden stops by the paternal forearm to the larynx.

And it's not that he was an actual attentive driver. He was always veering off the pavement when he spotted birds or roadside mushrooms and wasn't always real wedded to his own lane. We kids rolled around the bench seats like BBs in a box.

But I found myself thinking he might have had a point when I read of the plans to introduce collision-avoidance technology in cars. Benevolent satellites will be drafted to monitor our positions and trajectories and give drivers advance warning--which is the very best kind of warning--if a collision is imminent. The driver will be alerted by a flashing light or a sound or a vibration in the seat.

This will not be helpful to me. If I'm driving in familiar territory, my mind is somewhere else entirely, and I'm easily startled. If a warning squawk were to go off, I would stand on the brakes and get hit from the rear. I'd be better off with a device that would warn me I was going to get into an accident before I left home. I'd just stay put, and all would be well.

They did a study of traffic and discovered that accidents went way down in rotaries without stop signs where drivers were expected to pay attention to each other and navigate accordingly. Intersections governed by lights or signs led people to trust that everything was under control and they no longer noticed if they were in trouble. In our neighborhood we had no stop signs on the residential streets thirty years ago. No problem. We slowed down at intersections. Then someone got worried about safety and the stop signs began to appear. Motorists promptly interpreted them as permission to gun it if you didn't see a stop sign.

It's the human element that's going to ball up the works. We're already driving while immersed in a conversation with someone miles away. It's not hard for me to imagine that if people were equipped with a car that prevented collisions, they'd never bother to look at the road at all. That kind of technology will work really well only when everyone has it, and the cars drive themselves.

I'm not a good driver anyway. The moment I open the door to get in my car is the last time I remember where I'm going. Once I get it in gear, I no longer know, because I have left it in the hands of the neuronal GPS system in my brain. There is a tiny little Murr up there in a crisp uniform and dapper hat with her tiny hands on a little tiny wheel, and she is in charge of delivering me to my destination. Sadly, there are many other wheels up there, and they're all spinning. I am writing a poem to cheer up a friend. What rhymes with colonoscopy? I am thinking, as the miles roll under my wheels. Moscow pee? That's ridiculous. Rework. I turn onto the freeway. I head west. I get off. I head east. I'm all over the place.

No need to put colonoscopy at the end of a line. What rhymes with reaming?  I take the downtown exit. I pull up to a stoplight.

Can I work the phrase "in arrears" in here somewhere? Scope/grope? Wallop/polyp? Flattery/splattery? It is not possible to gauge elapsed time while writing a colonoscopy commemoration. Sometimes my little GPS pilot suddenly fears I'm holding up traffic and directs me to go again, although the light has not turned green.

Worse, sometimes I pull up somewhere and put it in park and--although it takes a few moments of concentration to realize it--I'm not where I had originally planned to go. I thought I was going to the post office. But there I am at a brewpub.

They say that 90% of accidents occur within 25 miles of home, which is why I try to park so far away. Mostly, I just walk. It's harder to get up to ramming speed that way.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Spring Hat Party

The Slut

The invitation came handwritten on a tiny card via US Mail, as God and Benjamin Franklin intended. It was from my neighbor Gayle: bane of the medical establishment, terror of the customer service department ("I'm retired, honey. I can stay on this phone all damn day"), official neighborhood hoot, pushing seventy--behind her. She throws parties at random times of the year and invites all her girlfriends. There's always a Slut, and always a theme, and the subtext is always I'll be damned, I'm still alive. The theme this time was Wear A Spring Hat.

That was easy. I already have a Spring Hat left over from when my friends the Ms (Margaret, Margaret, Mary Ann, and Me) showed up for Margaret's wedding in pink thrift store dresses and flowered hats.  The marriage foundered, but I still have my hat. Usually if I plan to dress up for anything, the wardrobe falls apart in one way or another. I didn't get the segment of my X-chromosome devoted to shoes, so even if I have a skirt and matching blouse, I won't have proper footwear. Or if I go with long pants that will obscure my shoe choices, I don't have a coat that works. None of it matters at Gayle's parties. If you make an effort with the hat, you're golden.

Everyone looked terrific. Edith couldn't take her hat off because she was incubating robin eggs on the top of it, and Gladys couldn't get hers to stay on because her head didn't clear the back of the sofa and the petunias kept pushing against the upholstery. The Slut looked particularly fine, undressed to the nines as always.

This isn't a group of kids with cell phones and excuses. I was two minutes late and everyone was already there, on time. "I don't know how to kill him," Gloria was saying as I walked in. "I'm in a ranch house."

I can get up to speed in no time. Gloria was referring to Gayle's famous dictum: never live with a man in a house with no stairs. "Gravity is your friend," she always says. "If you're going to have an argument, make sure you have it at the top of the stairs." Gayle has handily outlived two husbands, so far.

Gloria went on. "So I don't have any stairs, and we only have the one car, and he's always driving it. If I drive, he's in it."

Allene piped up. "You can always ask him to check the headlights," she pointed out. Heads nodded. "People's feet slip on the pedals all the time." There was more general discussion. The consensus was you could expect to run through a number of men before you find one you didn't want to kill, or became too tired to care. Allene herself had racked up 42 years with just the one, and things are going pretty smoothly now. It's all a matter of adjustment. She'd had to make one not that long ago, when her husband finally got hearing aids. "Now I have to be careful what I say," she said. "I need another outlet."

It's great to catch up with people you only see a couple times a year. There's the grandchildren and son-in-law roster and the associated meth report. Bernie listened for a while and became exasperated. "Why do they have to do all that meth stuff? When there's perfectly good alcohol." Allene began to rhapsodize about lemon-drop martinis, her eyes rolling back in a parody of ecstasy, I hope. Over half the women at the party are diabetic, and some could keel over at any time if fed the wrong ingredient. It's part of the party atmosphere. Edith is lactose-intolerant but assured us all that she doesn't have a seizure or anything, she only gets diarrhea. We were cool with that.

Bernie, Gladys, and Edith
But it did serve to change the subject. I mentioned the trouble I have peeing in the woods because when I try to pull up my pants fast enough to catch the last drip, I keep getting my binoculars stuck in my underpants. None of the other women could manage to pee in the woods at all. "I have to have a seat, a seat with a hole in it," Allene said firmly. "And it has to be in my house," she added. Allene will drive  home in the middle of a shopping expedition if she has to. We briefly discussed the possibility of wearing our spring hats and marching across the alley to my house, knocking on the door, and filing in to use the bathroom, but I was a little nervous for Dave.

Gayle's son Ken made a brief appearance on his way to his quarters in the basement. Ken has always been a polite and deferential lad. These are the women he grew up with, and he's not stupid.

Allene had to go home early.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

To Con A Sewer

London: A sewage worker has become an unlikely hero after taking three weeks to defeat a toxic 15-tonne ball of congealed fat the size of a bus that came close to turning parts of the London borough of Kingston upon Thames into a cesspit.

The fatberg, that enormous mass of congealed fat and paper products that recently threatened to overwhelm London's sewer system, was not the first of its kind, nor, many say, will it be the last, or largest. As long as thirty years ago there were some that had warned about the eventuality of the fatberg. Theirs were lonely voices crying in the wilderness, but for the most part they went unheard, dismissed as cranks and worse. Only now are people beginning to pay attention; but not enough attention, some fear, and probably not in time.

"We've been predicting this," said Dr. Xavier Draneau of the Institute for Sewer Alarmism, shaking his head, "but even now, not enough people are taking this threat seriously."

Draneau, speaking at the Senate Select Subcommittee on Poop Outcomes, pointed out that the fatberg itself seemed like enough of an anomaly that it was hard to get people to put two and two together. "That's human nature. It's one thing to read about a fatberg accumulating below street level and out of sight of all but a small contingent of sewer workers, and it's quite another to imagine spontaneous geysers of poop spurting out of your own toilet for eternity. The trouble is, faced with such a dire scenario, the average person refuses to imagine it will affect him personally. And thus, politically, it's a hard sell."

"It" is the complete ban of the sale of Wet Wipes. Wet wipes and similar convenient personal hygiene enhancement products are believed by 98% of the world's sewer scientists to be the culprit in most of the serious sewer blockage. Their use has expanded exponentially from a few isolated customers with inflamed tissue issues to a much broader segment of society demanding ever higher standards of cleanliness. The sewer scientists pin the blame squarely on the powerful Wet Wipes industry and its successful advertising campaign to persuade the public of the natural wretchedness of its collective anus. The soothing nature of the product has quickly transformed it in the public eye from a luxury to an entitlement. Youngsters raised on Wet Wipes cannot imagine a world in which they never existed.

Industry spokesman Jess Crammit insisted its product was not to blame, citing, as evidence, an email purportedly leaked from a sewer scientist's private account in which he referred to Wet Wipes users in a mocking tone. Observers of Congress agree that an outright ban has little traction in the Senate, and members of the House were all seen leaving the chamber with gift bags of Wet Wipes and perforated rolls of $100 bills. A whisper campaign on the internet insists that the government has plans in place to mobilize a crack team of Wipes-Source inspectors. In the face of an impasse, sewer activist Duke Conaway says he can sense the beginnings of what he hopes is a massive movement. In lieu of action on the legislative front, he says, there must be a new education effort to advise the population of the Wet Wipes threat. House leaders have indicated no objections as long as no public monies are expended.

Sit-ins are planned.

"One of the problems," Conaway said, "is that the Wet Wipe industry has succeeded in being able to advertise their product as 'flushable.' We're very concerned about that."

Mr. Crammit countered that the product is, indeed, flushable. But "flushable," says Conaway, "is not a precise legal term. My three-year-old son thinks overcoats are flushable. That doesn't make it a good idea. Just because you can flush something doesn't mean you should flush something. There's a real disconnect in the public mind between the use of a product advertised as flushable and the catastrophic state of our sewer system. We're living in a flushable society," he went on, his voice straining higher, "where as long as something goes away where we can't see it, we don't have to worry about it. And now," he said, beginning to whine in earnest, "thanks to the proposed Wet Wipes Protection Act, we can't even get them to take 'flushable' off the label."

"Nanny nanny boo boo," explained Mr. Crammit.

Attention flicked to the side as a man lumbered up to the microphone and began to speak in a sludgy, deliberate, and yet oddly cheerful cadence. "There's still time if we just switched to single-ply," Al Gore said. Go to hell, America said, rolling all its eyes.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

My Beliefs Can Kick Your Beliefs' Asses

A Colorado baker refused to sell a couple a wedding cake because doing so would violate his religious beliefs. The engine of commerce was chugging along right up to the frosting and sugar roses but as soon as he put the little figure of the two men in tuxedos on the top he felt he would be crossing a line that God had been very clear to him about. Why, you might as well ask him to drive the tour bus to Sodom and Gomorrah.

Elsewhere, the owners of a craft store chain kicked up a fuss over providing insurance to their employees if it meant some of them could get birth control, which violated their religious beliefs. If there was any chance their benefits package might result in a sperm not fulfilling its destiny, they would have no part in it. God had been very clear about his interest in human overpopulation. It would be crossing a line.

It would be like forcing me to sell bed linens to a Klan member, who might decide to make grand wizard duds out of them. Or sell whole cloth to a fundamentalist, who might decide to make divine instructions out of it. All of our precious individual souls are at stake, and we all expect to be indulged and accommodated, even if my blood sacrifice is of your sacred cow.

It would be one thing if everyone agreed on a god to listen to, but it's pretty clear that there is a whole pantheon of them out there, each with its own bizarre bailiwick--this one in charge of what you get to eat, that one in charge of who you get to kill. You spend enough time paying attention to everything that violates someone's religious beliefs, you realize you're in the company of schizophrenics. Everyone's hearing voices.

I always wondered if my eyes could roll back in my head so far they snapped off, but I gave them a good whirl the other day, and they don't. Some woman woke up recently to discover her husband was trying to suffocate her with a bag. Once in custody, he admitted he tried to kill her because he thought she was leaving him, and he didn't think he could live without her. "And it's against my religious beliefs to kill myself," he said.

That's enough. I have strongly held beliefs too. I believe war is a shitty way to make peace. I believe this planet has been rumpling its covers for billions of years and we should not take earthquakes personally. I believe we've managed to squander so many of our limited resources that we are on the verge of making the world fit only for insects and bacteria. If I just went ahead and said God sent me all that on a tablet, could I win a court case?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

What Rhymes With "Bucket?"

Nothing is clear when you take a blow to the head big enough to knock out all your syntax, but after my thoughts started tracking again, I realized it could have been worse. Lying flat on your back on a frozen lake is actually more comfortable than you'd think. And what if the damage had been permanent?

Lying flat on your back on a frozen lake is actually more comfortable than you'd think. And what if the damage had been permanent?

As Scott recalls it, I was just on my way over to the sled to get the bucket when I flipped over. I was planning to go Bucket Sailing. The wind was strong and the friction was nonexistent and I thought I could get quite a ride if I could catch a bucketful of air. It might not have been the best plan for someone who tips over while putting on her socks. Dave's seen that. He asks me why I don't drop the sock when I feel myself tipping over, and the answer is it never occurs to me. I'm not defending this, but it's the truth. So I imagine if I'd caught enough wind in that bucket, I could have zipped over that lake like God's own puck doing twelve knots, getting farther and farther away from the boys and yelling help help help help and they would have been hollering drop...the...BUCKET! because they know it wouldn't have occurred to me. So. For some of us, brain damage is hardly noticeable.

Anyway, one thing about a visit with Scott and Kevin never changes with the scenery. Scott is a chef. He doesn't know how to not be a chef. Mid-week Dave patted his new paunch and answered the morning breakfast query with "you know, I'd be just fine with a piece of toast and peanut butter," making a little peanut-butter spreading gesture to demonstrate simplicity, and in a few minutes Scott had saddled the table with toasted home-made rolls and honey and preserves and sturgeon roe and reindeer sausage and cream cheese and a smoked salmon trio (king, sockeye, silver) and trout cheeks and moose nuggets and I think there was a little jar of peanut butter in there too, and all in less time than it takes the sun to climb over the mountainous horizon and scratch its butt.

Speaking of buckets, I didn't have much left on my Alaska bucket list. I was sort of interested in getting a really good bald eagle photo but the mooses kept getting in the way. We went for a walk in the woods near a frozen lake and came upon a nice set of mooses, and Scott took their measure and began to stalk them, just as though we weren't in the internet age and hadn't seen plenty of videos of people being stomped by mooses. But he correctly judged them to be of the benevolent and protective order, and more interested in chomping willow than in stomping us.

Meanwhile the wind had let up and the temperature had squeaked past freezing and that turned everyone in the state giddy. Scott and Kevin and their neighbors are in the habit of sitting around their fire pits and shooting the breeze nearly every summer evening, and the breath of spring was upon them all. Blazes lit up the taxiway all down the block. It was tube tops and whiskey and tall tales right down the line, while I pulled a chair up as close to the pit as I could get in my Nanook suit without bursting into flame. It was a jolly time. By the evening's end we had recruited an official Watch Neighbor with a northern window and a spot of insomnia, and prevailed upon her to bang on our window if the northern lights showed up. And sure enough, just past midnight, the window was banging and the dog was going off and the northern lights were going on, and we lurched into the night in our coats and pajamas and watched the mountains toss a green scarf across the sky.

Alaska is beautiful. Damn slippery in spots, but beautiful.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Two Dudes And An Icehole

So I don't get to have a fur hat, but I can still enjoy my Alaska vacation as long as I wear everything in my suitcase at once. It's not even that cold here, according to our friends Scott and Kevin, whose credibility on the matter is beginning to wane. This year, Alaskans have to travel to Atlanta to visit their winter. Whether you think ten degrees is warm or cold depends on which direction you're approaching it from. But it's cold enough for me. Scott and Kevin are the people we used to visit down the valley in Oregon who had emus and pigs and alpacas and trout and sturgeon and sheep and peacocks and ducks and goats and a slope of wine grapes AND the ability to put it all together in splendidly edible form, plus day jobs. All that. You never knew what they'd be up to at any given moment: rendering lard, or stripping milt from live trout, or making cheese, or knitting a tractor out of steel wool. They're right handy folk.

So we couldn't wait to see what they were doing in the new digs in Alaska. There is no garden. The house is relatively small. They've confined themselves to (1) dog and (1) cat. How were they planning to make our Alaska visit perfect?

Well, the first door past the bathroom opens to the hangar, and just past the ice cream freezer and the beer fridge there are a couple planes in it, and we got in one of them and taxied out to the runway and into the air to pop up a valley and peer at two turquoise glaciers and watch the snowy mountains pink up in the sunset, and got back in time for dinner and some of the wine they made when they still had grapes, taking care not to disturb the moose on the taxiway. There's some Alaska for you. What else?

I'd brought a bird book and binoculars. Things seemed strangely quiet in the bird department, so I consulted the internet. There are five birds wintering in the Anchorage area. They're all named Hank. Ha ha! Just kidding. They are named raven, raven, raven, bald eagle, and raven. I put my book back in the suitcase. What else?

We went up a beautiful snowy path through the mountains and watched Kevin attempt Ski-Joring, which is having your dog pull you on cross-country skis. It probably works better if your dog is not a German Shepherd bred to round up the group by dashing back and forth from one person to another, and who has not already been trained not to pull at a leash. I'm just guessing. Also, Kevin and I have an equally tepid grip on verticality. What else?

"We could go ice fishing."

Scott hadn't done that yet, himself. He's only been here a year. But he did have a virgin ice augur he wanted to try out, and a chisel, and a few sets of Carhartts that stand up by themselves in the garage and probably walk over to take a pee a couple times a night, and an easy walk to a lake. We pulled a sled of gear onto the ice. "Do you think it's really thick enough to stand on out there?" I queried, and Dave shrugged. "Either way, we'll have a good story," he said, with a gallant arm thrust forward. "Ladies first!"

It was thick enough to land a 747 on. Scott augured away in a stiff polar wind. I was in heaven. For someone with a sturdy Viking chromosome and a need for discomfort that is not of the spiritual variety (I like cold: I hate anxiety), this was the ticket. Snowy mountains reared above and the ice was cracked into partitions a foot deep. Snowball jellyfish lurked below. It was fascinating. I tip over on dry land for no reason at all. What could go wrong?


Really, I have got to quit smashing my head. I'm afraid to go to Kaiser to get my glasses adjusted again for fear they'll enter an advisory about domestic violence into my medical record. This time, the glasses were in no danger. I was flat on my back with the birdies tweeting. My Viking chromosome was splayed out with me, all uff da, his little horned helmet rolling around with a micro-clatter. Scott, who has some medical training, was trying to peer into my eyes. That's easy to do. They're small and set close together and you can take in both of them in one glance. "How do you feel?" he asked.

"Flurdo piffling blurgit imminy," I said, but he wouldn't take my word for it, and checked my pupils again. I guess that's where the brain goo leaks out, if it's going to.

I don't know how many cubes a day you're allowed to keep when you're ice fishing, but Scott and Dave had reached their limit after a few hours, and we went home with a goose egg.

I should probably put ice on it, but I don't want to.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Fur Piece

"Why would you want to go to Alaska for vacation? In the winter?"

Why not? Dave and I have never been inclined toward the tropics. There's something about being comfortable outdoors nearly naked in the wintertime that just seems wrong, somehow. Something morally corrosive about being caressed by gentle breezes, with nothing better to do than fend off parrot poop with the itty bitty umbrella in your drink. You go to Alaska in the winter and you can appreciate the warm shower and the cozy bed quilt and the two-inch view of the mountains through the peep-hole in your balaclava, and your heart is the gladder. You come home from Belize and your nice comfortable home life looks like a pile of crap.

It's probably even more fundamental than that. I have a Viking chromosome inside me somewhere that beckons me north. It's the strapping chromosome with the little horned helmet. The chromosome said harr! Head for the pole, and our more practical friends Scott and Kevin agreed and added a recommendation to pack warm gear. We received our instructions and bought gloves and hats. Snow boots. Insulated trousers. And what most people call "thermal layers" and Dave cannot be dissuaded from calling "panty liners." We were ready.

Scott picked us up at the airport and took us to downtown Anchorage. There weren't enough degrees out there to rub together and make a spark. And the wind was blowing. Dave and I looked like sleeping bags on legs. Giant walking larvae. Charitably speaking, we were penguin-shaped. Everyone else was hatless, busily peeling down their zippers and fanning their necks. I'd seen something like this in Maine one winter. Kids were coming in from playing outside and their mom said "how is it?" and they said "nice! It's above!" by which they meant it was above zero degrees Fahrenheit, which is a totally stupid temperature. Don't they know what zero degrees is? It's no degrees.

Anyway the Fur Rondy was going on. That's short for Fur Rendezvous, and there are sleds and dogs
and parades and snowshoe softball games and, everywhere, people wearing carcasses. One man had an entire wolf wrapped around his face and his companion was trailing lynx paws for ear flaps. A fox curled up on someone's head as if it were trying to get a better view. And those hats with dingleballs? Actual balls. I thought: we're not in Portland anymore. And then I thought: great thundering Thor on a toy pony, I want one.

I tried on a fox hat. It was fabulous. Its provenance via the leghold trap was invisible. I could have bought it then and there, but I could only have worn it then and there. You cannot wear slain headgear in Portland, Oregon. We have standards for earnestness. Shit: there are thresholds you can't cross in Portland unless your shoes pass the hemp detector. Nobody's packing, but if you wear a dead critter in Portland, you will be liberally sprayed with ocular bullets of shame. Nobody thinks a thing about it in Anchorage. If it hadn't been Fur Rondy, they wouldn't have had the stuff on at all: you wouldn't even think of putting on your fur until it's below. So there's that. Fur is really, really warm.

And it's really, really gorgeous, all of it, from snout to dingleballs. You can make a case that it's even more gorgeous wrapped around its original beating heart, and no one could disagree, but it's gorgeous this way, too, and unquestionably the thing to wear if you're a naked human trying to make a go of it in the Arctic. There aren't that many humans in this state (Alaska, not naked). It's even possible there are few enough that most people can get a hat and there will still be critters left too. I don't know.

I know I don't get to go home with a hat.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Credit Where Credit Is Due

My friend Linda is the credit whisperer. She has a ferret-nose for credit cards that can get her free travel, and she loves to travel. She's got all the cards stacked up in a spare room somewhere and if you visit she can fan them and ask you to pick one out and put it back and then she shuffles them again and says "is your card the Southwest Air VISA ending in 4498?" and then you're all "that's amazing." Periodically a 747 pulls up outside the street and a uniformed gentleman hops out and rings her bell and asks if she'd like to pop over to Italy for the weekend for free, and she says no thanks she's having people over for dinner, and he says well all right but please accept this complimentary tray of hors d'oeuvres, and then he bows and gets back in his plane. I've known Linda for over forty years and in all that time I've never known her to pay a finance charge on a card or spend money on an airline ticket.

I, on the other hand, have no such army of cards working for me night and day. When airlines started offering frequent flier programs I signed up for them. I had accounts with MiracleMiles and SkyStash and OpenFly and none of them would let you set your password to "oh shit," which is the only way I could remember it. You could only get points by flying but I never seemed to fly the same airline twice, and after about fifteen years I had enough points on several airlines to bump me up to an extra bag of pretzels. Once I got all the way up to free-ticket status on the Grace L. Ferguson Airline and Storm Door Company and went to cash them in, only to find out that they'd been bought out by Consolidated Amalgamated and they had a whole different program. Then I got up to the threshold 25,000 EaglePoints on Patriotic Air and went to cash them in, and the minimum had been bumped up to 35,000.

After a while, credit cards started offering rewards programs. My own credit card was generally sacked out on the sofa watching reruns so I kicked it out and got a Nordstrom credit card. It didn't offer much but at least it was something, and it seemed to make the nice fragrant lady in the store happy, and my kind of person is very intimidated by fragrant Nordstrom ladies. Every time I spent $2000 they'd send me a $20 gift certificate, redeemable only at Nordstrom. You can't actually buy anything at Nordstrom for $20, so whenever it came around I'd go give them the gift certificate plus ten bucks and come home with a pair of socks.

So I was ripe for the picking the first time a salesman at the airport wanted me to sign up for his airline's reward card. Why, I would get 10,000 points just for signing up, if I did it right then and there and didn't consult anyone. The mileage points inched up imperceptibly with my regular purchases, but I never seemed to use that airline again. I got another airline card that gave me even more points, but I kept switching back and forth because I'd already gotten a head start on the first one. My goal is to keep all my cards at an approximately equal level below redemption level. I'm sixty years old and I've never cashed in any frequent flier miles.

I make Linda visit me.