Something Believable In The Vending Machine


I can’t be alone in being intrigued by the headline Food for thought: Vending machines to dispense novel food items from September. It’s specifically about vending machines in Singapore, where I used to have a job. I liked the city, even if it was always hot and muggy and if I’m still, nearly a decade on, coming to terms with the Tiger Balm Gardens statuary.

Anyway, the news report starts off talking about a new generation of vending machines that can serve boxes of food with bar codes on them. That’s all exciting, I suppose, for people who are on the new high-bar-code diets. And then it goes on to point out that it’ll soon be possible to buy a shampoo or hand soap or thermometer from a vending machine. They mean one where you buy it just by picking it up off a shelf, instead of the old-fashioned way you get this stuff in travel centers, by pressing the buttons 4 and G before the machine rejects it and you have to enter G and then 4 instead, even though there can’t be a semantic difference between letter-number and number-letter order.

And now I realize that a city I lived in for five years did not have the ability to buy shampoo anytime, day or night, from a vending machine, and it’s only getting that ability sometime next month. Travel never really ends; there’s always something new to learn about a place you’ve been. Or maybe the breakthrough is just being able to buy enough shampoo to actually use it, instead of buying one of those single-use bottles that’s got almost enough shampoo to overcome its own viscosity and emit a tiny bubble of shampoo that you lose in the shower. That would be a breakthrough too.

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Tourism Ends At Home


Recently my love was talking about some regular local event we’d never gotten to. Over bagels my love drew the analogy, “It’s like they say. You live in New York, but you never go to the E — ” and here tripped a little on lunch, to resume with “to the Eiffel tower.” This quite normal tongue-slipping inspired in me an oppressive series of follow-ups. Some of them include: “You know, you live in Tokyo, but do you ever see the Great Pyramid of Giza?” “You live in Paris, but how often do you go to the Golden Gate Bridge?” “Sure you’re from Boston, but do you ever visit Angor Wat?” And then there was “Yeah, you live in the 1960s, but do you ever stop in on V-E Day except when company’s visiting?” My love has accepted this in good stead and I’m working on turning that last joke into a Nebula-award-winning short story and disappointing movie starring several of Hollywood’s leading explosions.

But this does look like a real problem. It’s not an urgent one, like potholes or the disappearance of the cheap water crackers from the supermarket. Still it feels like something that needs explanation, and solution. Every place has stuff: museums, festivals, parks, novel concepts in restaurant experiences, ridiculous home-grown sporting contests. When we go anywhere by choice we spend the whole time running around them. This even though we could have done the same stuff while staying at home. You know home. It’s where we don’t have to find the cable TV channels and the bed isn’t next to a giant wedge of hotel art. What goes on here?

Don’t try saying that we can’t have these kinds of experiences at home. Every place has museums. And the details are different, sure, but every museum is still a museum. It’s a string of white-walled rooms with uncomfortable benches in the center. Each room has just enough doors that you can’t be sure which way to go. Somewhere in the distance you hear an approaching gaggle of squealing kids. There’s a couple rooms with mannequins set up to reenact a scene that maybe never happened.

Or else you’re in one of those interactive experiential museums. There every room has TV screens and garish, underlit walls. They have theremins that might not be turned on. You can’t tell. You might just not be working them right. There’s blocks on wires that you can move along to model how nerves or the phosphorous cycle or TCP/IP packets work. There you can see the kids. They’re running between you and your blocks on wires over to the Hall of Optical Illusions. There they punch one another and get yelled at to be quiet. An audio recording someone started by pressing a button finishes eighty seconds after the audience left.

We’ve all been there, in every city we might visit. It’s a fine experience. I can’t get enough of it. But the only difference going to a famous museum in some other city is you might have heard of the thing you’re trying to look at. If you have heard of it, you know about what you should see from looking at it. If you haven’t heard of it, how would you know the difference?

And you can go to any festival or fair or sporting event or whatnot and have fun. You can have actual fun yourself or keep an ironic distance from all the people you assume are there having actual fun. And somewhere in your neighborhood is a restaurant where you have to sit through an explanation of their concept. Their concept is “restaurants made hard”. You don’t have to go to Chicago, if you’re not from Chicago, for that if you want.

But we don’t want. The point of going home is being where we don’t want to do anything. Home is a place for dressing so we won’t be seen, for slouching, eating processed foods that are neither the color nor flavor of anything found in nature, and for not being wanted by anybody for anything. Going out is for emotional and intellectual engagement. When we go home, it’s to be where we don’t have to put any energy into having an experience. Home is the place where, when you go there, nobody feels bad that you’re bored.

Your home town is an extension of this. It’s the place where you don’t have to feel anything about anything but when they’re going to fix the pothole on the offramp that messes up your drive every time. And when they do, it offends you because the street repairs mess up your drive in a different way. If you did all the stuff in your home town, where would you go to get out of the house and feel bored?

And only the rubes go to V-E Day anymore. It’s too full of people trying to turn it into something marketable. If you have to visit some era, pick something that’s still home, such as a week ago Tuesday. It may not be flashy. But you know where the gaggles of screaming kids don’t go. And the tourists haven’t found it yet.

Robert Benchley: Keep A Log


In my occasional travels I have not taken the advice of Robert Benchley in this piece from My Ten Years In A Quandary And How They Grew, but I should have. Also, while this whole essay is a buffet of funny meaningless syllables, the thing Benchley reports finding at Lurding — itself a great name — is one of my favorite nonsense phrases. Made-up funny words are difficult for the writer, and harder for the reader, but Benchley shows off his deft touch from East Mipford on.

Keep A Log

In planning that automobile trip upcountry this Summer don’t forget to consult those notes you made last year when going over the same route. They’re in that combination log-book and Japanese fan that you took along for just that purpose.

These notes, most of which were jotted down en route, seem to have been made with the wrong end of the pencil. They are part lead-markings and part wood-carvings. It would be fun to dig up that pencil today, just to take a look at it and see where the lead stopped and the wood began.

To make things harder you apparently made the notes while taking part in a hill-climbing contest, when the car was at an angle of forty-five degrees. They are the work of a man in rather desperate straits to keep himself in his seat, to say nothing of indulging in the luxury of writing. You couldn’t have been as drunk as that.


The first one, jotted down with great difficulty, was made opposite the name of the town, East Mipford, fifteen miles from your starting place. It says, as nearly as you can make it out, simply “East Mipford.” This would seem rather silly. Presumably you already knew the name of the town, as it was right there in the map in plain letters. Why jot it down again in that round, boyish hand of yours? Possibly you were just practicing handwriting. God knows you needed practice!

Anyway, there is “East Mipford” and, opposite it, “East Mipford,” so East Mipford it is. It’s a good thing to know, at any rate.

The next bit of puzzle work was jabbed into the paper at Orkington. Here you saw fit to write “No sporfut.” Either this was meant as a warning that, at Orkington, one can get no “sporfut” or that it is dangerous to “sporfut” in or around, Orkington. If you had some clearer idea of what “sporfut” was you would know better how to regulate your passage through Orkington this year. The lack of “sporfut” last year must have been quite a trial to you, otherwise you wouldn’t have made a note of it. Well, better luck this time!


At Animals’ Falls you had what was designated as “lunch,” which is pretty easy to figure out. After it, however is written “Gleever House—Central Hotel—Animals’ Falls Spa.” It must have been a pretty good “lunch” to have included all three restaurants, and, as you made no designation of which was best, the only thing to do is try them all again this time.

Perhaps you will remember, after ordering at the Gleever House, that it was the Central Hotel which was the best. Perhaps you meant that all three were rotten and that you should go on to the next town before eating. The only way to find out is to try.

From then on you are confronted by such notations as “fresh cob” at Turkville (which may mean “fresh cop” or good “fresh corn on the cob”), “Emily” at North Neswick (which may be where you left Emily off), and “steening chahl” at Lurding, which obviously means nothing. You arrived at your destination, according to the log, at “27 o’clock.”


That is the value of a log-book. It makes the second trip seem so much more exciting.

The End Of The Tree


“It’s not fair,” our pet rabbit said, as he stood up on his hindpaws and rattled at the pen. To make clear how much fair it was not he grabbed the horizontal bar of the cage and shook it around, which made a little noise, but as far as showing inanimate objects who’s boss is nothing like when he shakes pieces of shredded newspaper around.

I kept taking ornaments off the Christmas tree. “Don’t worry. We’re just keeping you in reserve.”

He said, “I’m totally ready! I could finish that tree off in two minutes. Maybe eighteen, tops. Give me five minutes with it.”

The pet rabbit flops out and watches, closely, the Christmas tree, just in case it does anything that involves not getting eaten.
Our pet rabbit spent a month sitting at the edge of his pen and staring hopefully at the Christmas tree.

Continue reading “The End Of The Tree”

The Journey, By Train


4:52 am. Passengers assemble at the East Lansing Train Station. Passengers will be screened for having gotten more than three hours of fitful, oft-interrupted sleep the night before. Those which have will be assigned a 25-page term paper on the subject of late 19th Century United States presidents and their understanding of how the emerging science of thermodynamics affects railroad painting, worth forty percent of the class, no makeups.

5:18 am. Passengers board the train to East East Lansing where the train service stops and they all get aboard a bus to take them to Toledo, arriving somehow at 3:12 am that same morning, only crankier. Through the bus trip the TV screens will be playing Something, Probably A Romantic Comedy Or Something, with the lower half of the screen glitched out and the audio just loud enough to hear the helicopters and explosions but not the dialogue. Three stars.

7:30 am. Bus arrives in Toledo to transfer to the train station, but immediately gets lost because the driver attempts foolishly to follow “Route 2”, a highway of legendary and purely notional existence.

2:18 pm. The Ohio Coast Guard retrieves the bus from Lake Erie shortly before the desperately paddling passengers manage to cross the border into Ontario and thus provoke an international incident as many of them failed to bring adequate supplies of Canadian currency and someone is trying to pass off a FunZone Game Token as money.

10:40 pm. The Ohio Coast Guard finally gets the bus paddled to shore and after hiring sherpas brings the bus to the train station, whence the train zooms towards Pittsburgh, stopping only after fourteen minutes in order that a freight train with higher priority can be constructed and loaded with freight, a cargo consisting of passenger train cars headed the other direction. On-train Internet WiFi service is reduced from “sluggish” to “laughable”.

Day 2. 2:15 am. The train arrives in Pittsburgh and is immediately taken out over the Monongahela River and dangled by its couplers or whatever they have until every passenger has been subject to a review of the stuff left in the backseat of his or her car to be cleaned out “later, when it’s convenient”. The winner is the one who has the most obviously later-inconvenient item, with bonus points awarded if it is some kind of mould for the fabrication of solid metal objects.

3:20 am. The train just sits outside the Kennywood Amusement Park for a couple of hours to make everyone feel bad that they’re at an amusement park and they can’t go in, plus everything’s closed up. A conductor goes around reminding people they have 23 and a half pages to go and have barely thought about paint.

6:75 am. The train discharges its passengers that they may catch their connecting service, at the far end of the railway terminal in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, or maybe Charleston, West Virginia. Check signs for details.

8:26 am. Connecting service on the line to New York City departs wherever, with the conductor reminding people they have 22 and three-quarters pages and the font may not be larger than fourteen point. New sound-dampening cushions allow most of the ride to be soft and quiet except for the guy ranting about you’re not sure what except it’s definitely political and somehow it gets into what you do for your career and he gets that so wrong it’s hard to resist answering.

9:14 am. Thorough investigation of the train establishes that nobody is actually producing the rant. Clearly the problem is a quarrelsome ghost of annoying conversations gone by. Internet service upgrades to “pages load, but only the banner ads and that swirling dot pattern web sites started doing like two years ago in place of showing stuff”.

11:57 am. Start of a four-hour delay so we can sit by the side of a large pile of rocks. Inspires several passengers to include a section about presidential rocks, which falls apart when nobody can remember the name of Gustav … uh … Mount Rushmore Guy without the Internet.

6:12 pm. End of the four-hour delay.

8:55 pm. Train approaches Hoboken, pauses so that passengers can be dangled sideways until the blood rushes to their wrists.

10:10 pm. Arrival, Penn Station, New York City. Technically, legally part of New Jersey because of the lease NJ Transit has on that platform. We are given extensions on the paper.

Expedition Log, Day 1, Day 3: Nothing


11:58 am. Coming to question entire point of expedition. What is the point of discovery? What is the value of exploration? How can traveller’s tales of Upper Fiddled Mewes or the eastern shore of the Pompous Lakes District be relevant to the modern age? Is there a point to continuing, and at that, is there a point to pointedness when life is occupied by a string of suffering that stretches to the indefinite past and to the pointlessness of the future? The Price Is Right ended in a Double Overbid. After enough time spent staring into the void will come the balm of punching a book of Nietzsche.

Total Mileage: 0 (me), 0.001136 miles (book of Nietzsche, would have been farther but it hit the wall; may try again in a larger room).

Expedition Log, Day 1. Mileage: lower than expected


9:30 am. Readied to set out. With the car loaded up, popped back inside to announce to presumed interested public about the start of the journey. Drawn into conflict about whether this should be “Day 1” or “Day 0” away from home on the grounds that a nontrivial part of the day was spent at home. Argument proved surprisingly violent; cats hid under bed, producing discovery that there were cats around.

Total Mileage: 0.

Further From Ohio


I guess I’m wondering now, if I needed to fly from White Plains, New York, to Akron, Ohio, on some day other than January 6th, would United Airlines be enthusiastic about it? Maybe if I picked the correct day I’d see not just the online system giving me my ticket reservation, but the person who lurks behind the system — the one normally deciding when to just give you a page that’s got all the headers and footers and navigation menus and advertisements but a blank page where the search results come up — suddenly wakes up and e-mails me a note of deep gratitude that someone’s asking for the travel. Perhaps they’ve been sitting around United Airlines Secret Command, fretting that nobody’s going to take them up on the prospect of flying to Akron on, say, January 7th, and the first person who makes such a reservation will be greeted as royalty. “Here,” says the flight attendant as the flyer boards, “We brought out a warm bathrobe just for you, and you don’t even have to turn off your iPhone while we take off.” That’s how grateful they’d be on the 7th. But the 6th? Absolutely not. That’s a day where they bring out the whole flight crew to kick you in the shins. Seems only fair.

Flight To Ohio


While looking for schemes to fly around the holidays I discovered that United Airlines is willing to fly me, or possibly anyone, from White Plains, New York, to Akron, Ohio, on January 6th, leaving at 7:36 am and arriving at 3:24 pm, for only $883. Of course it’s not nonstop. For that kind of cash you’re lucky they’re landing at all instead of just circling around Akron, pointing it out to you, and laughing as they sail off to Louisville.

That’s intrigued me. United appears to believe that there are people who need to get from White Plains to Akron on the first Monday of the new year so desperately that they’ll pay nearly a thousand dollars for the privilege. Or else United really, really hates the idea of getting up in the morning, for which I can’t blame them, although they’re the ones who don’t think they could just get started two hours later and let people get into Akron in time for dinner. Maybe United is trying to insult one of the towns, but in that case, is it White Plains or Akron they’re being snarky about? I’m guessing it’s not White Plains, given how that municipality has such convenient access to Rye Playland, but beating up on Akron seems just mean-spirited. Maybe it’s January 6th that they’re trying to insult, supposing that the day has too much going for it and needs to be taken down a peg?

I wonder how many people are taking them up on the offer. Will the people who do gather in the lounge at White Plains Something Or Other Airport and swap stories about what’s in Akron that’s worth nearly a thousand dollars, eight hours of travel time, and a stop in O’Hare for. “I dunno,” I imagine their saying, “Just wasn’t hep enough for the flight from Binghamton to Moline, Illinois, I suppose.”

Another Warning From The Dream World


I know it’s an inexpensive way to get to Anchorage, Alaska, but do not take the free cable car service running from Seattle to the city — or to any of the hanging, amusement-park style cable-car destination spots on the Alaskan Peninsula or any of the Aleutian Islands. Yes, it’s even free if you want to go to Attu, and you get plenty of fresh air through the open top of the car, but they’re not heated, and you’re carried alarmingly high over the ocean surface, particularly if you need to use the bathroom, which is done by unlatching the door and crouching a little while holding on very tight. Add to that the travel time and it’s really worth the money to take a car, boat, or plane.

Missing International Rabbit Day


“I imagine you’re wondering why I’m not talking to you,” said our pet rabbit. This was the first I’d heard he wasn’t talking to me, but I’m like that. I looked thoughtful, or confused, which is about right for me any time. “You know Saturday was International Rabbit Day?”

“I do. And did.”

“And you’ve noticed that I’m a rabbit, right?”

I allowed that I had.

“And we didn’t do anything international!”

“I … talked about you online. I’m pretty sure someone from Canada heard about you.”

“And I’ve never even been to Canada! How international a rabbit can I be when I haven’t even been there?”

“You haven’t even been to Ohio, either — ”

“I’ve missed Canada and Ohio! I’ll never be a world traveller at this rate!”

“You hate travel. You spent two days sulking when we put you upstairs in the air conditioned room this summer.”

“You can’t go to other countries if you won’t even stand going upstairs.”

“You could bring other countries in here. It’s the least you could do for International Rabbit Day.”

I considered telling him he was a Flemish giant, so was already kind of International by not being in … and then I realized I couldn’t explain where the Flemish were from without getting in more trouble. So I promised to do something about it next year.

What To Pack


If you aren’t caught by surprise by your trip somewhere you’ll want to prepare, since preparation turns the stress of time spent away from home when you might discover you forgot something essential (the most commonly forgotten things are wristwatches, the ability to produce the neurotransmitter-hydrolizing serine protease acetylcholinesterase, and credit cards), into a week of worrying that you are going to forget something you need and then discovering you forgot something else while you brought enough toothpaste to crush a small army of cavities. Here’s things you need:

Outfits: 1 outfit for each day of travel, plus one just in case, plus one in case you decide to be non-nude when you set out. Add another outfit for every other day in case it turns out to be more than 20 degrees (forty Imperial meters) cooler than you expect it to be. Add one more outfit for every three days in case it turns out to e more than 25 degrees (two ha’pennies) warmer than you hoped it was going to be. Throw in another two outfits to cover the case of the weather being more average than you anticipate, and another three outfits in case you don’t see the pie fight soon enough.

Continue reading “What To Pack”

Flight Checks


From: flightnews@upperairlines.com
Subject: UPA8100 Flight updates now available.

Thank you for signing up to receive e-mail updates on any changes to your forthcoming flight UPA8100 from Salisbury, North Carolina to Plattsburgh, New York. We send our smuggest condolences to you on the occasion of whatever life choices have forced you to fly from Salisbury, North Carolina to Plattsburgh, New York, this Friday departing at 5:42 am and hope you enjoy leaning your forehead on our new comfort-rated windows just cool enough to make lifting your head feel like too much work.


From: flightnews@upperairlines.com
Subject: Flight Delay – UPA8100 departing at 5:56 am

Due to delayed crew arrivals at our Hartford, Connecticut, branch facility flight UPA8100 will now be scheduled to take off at 5:56 am. Please be at the airport before it takes off as this simplifies boarding procedures.


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