The Declarer (Floyd McWilliams' Blog)

Friday, January 02, 2004


Well that was fun. Exhausting, but fun. A week ago Sherry and I left for Scranton, Pennsylvania to visit my mom and my three sisters Mary Margaret, Faith, and Meredith and my brother-in-law Mark and my nephews Scott and Robert and Meredith's fiance Dave. We left our house at 8 a.m., planning to arrive two hours early at San Francisco Airport for our 10:35 flight like good little Level Orange Travellers -- and found the airport deserted. From the time that we were deposited in front of Delta Airlines ticketing to the time that we were sitting at our gate bored was a span of fifteen minutes. Definitely fly the day after Christmas if you can arrange it.

We changed planes in Cincinnati and had a two-hour layover. The Cincinnati airport may well be the lowest cost airport for its size in the country; it is big and sprawling, built on cheap land thirty miles south of Cincinnati proper in Kentucky, and never uses marble when sheetrock will suffice. For instance: Most large airports are faced with the problem of how to move passengers from one terminal to another, and often the solution is some boondoggle such as an underground tram, or an elevated monorail, or the weird Lunar Rovers that carry bemused passengers in Dulles. Cincinnati Airport uses buses, and why not?

Our Scranton flight was without incident, and at 9:20 we arrived at Scranton's tiny airport. My mom and Meredith were there to greet us and take us home. Were were greeted by Mary Margaret and Mark, who had driven from Anna Arbor that day. Then Sherry wrapped everyone's presents -- we were reluctant to wrap them before departing for fear that they would be dismantled by airport security -- and went to bed.

Saturday morning was a real treat for the nephews as they had a second Christmas. They got plenty of toys: books, a large helicopter that makes realistic noises and can move its blades and lower a hook, a Dora the Exporer bingo game, a stuffed lion, and a stuffed seahorse (Shelty, from Finding Nemo). The lion and the seahorse fought, but with no clear winner.

(Here's a toy that mystified me: The Leap Pad. It's a spiral-bound storybook that snaps onto a plastic tablet. The book comes with a cartridge that is inserted into the tablet. The tablet tells a story, and also responds to an an attached pen when it is pressed onto the book. So my question is: How does it work? The tablet and the pen are solid plastic, and the book is coated cardboard.)

We amused ourselves by playing various board games such as Carcassonne and the Bean Game. We also played a kind of party board game called Beyond Balderdash which was new to me. Balderdash is a classic game which works like this: Each player in turn looks up an obscure word in the dictionary that no one will know, such as "vulpine." He writes the definition on a small sheet of paper, while each other player also writes down a pretend definition. Then all the papers are collected by the player who knows the real word; he reads each one, and each other player selects a definition. If you invent a definition and someone votes for it, you get a point. If you vote for the correct definition, you get a point. And if you are the person in charge of the dictionary definition and no one votes for it, you get a point.

Beyond Balderdash applies this concept to other kinds of knowledge. When a player is in charge of the definition, he first rolls a die to see what will be defined. Possibilities include words, movies (providing a plot synopsis), abbreviations (writing out the full text), dates (an event which happened on the date), and people (explaining what they did). The movies, abbreviations, and people are often strange or obscure. For instance, I was in charge of definitions for the movie "Car Trouble." One of the plots I read was, "A man buys the car of his dreams, but his wife takes a test drive with the salesman and returns locked to him in a strange position." Obviously this sounded like someone would rather be funny than get points. But it was the correct plot that I had copied from the card!

Speaking of abbreviations: The Cincinnati airport code is CVG. Airport employees wore a little emblem that expanded those letters to Cincinnati Very Good, which sounds like dialogue from a native pimp in a Vietnam movie: "Cincinnati very good! Love you long time!"

The next day, Sunday, we ran afoul of Pennsylvania's strange laws. Mark and I decided we should get some beer. Now in a normal state -- which for purposes of this discussion includes California -- we would just go to a grocery store or liquor store and buy some. But Pennsylvania does not allow beer to be sold in grocery stores. So we drove around, but all the liquor and beer stores were closed. Apparently these stores that sell only alcohol must close on Sundays. We wound up buying a six-pack of Sam Adams at the "Convenience Mart" around the corner, for $9.50. (I also saw some "Convenient Marts" in town. Normally I would ignore this small variation in wording, but maybe it is relevant under Pennsylvania law and only Convenient Marts can sell, say, deli sandwiches.)

So on Monday we ventured forth again. We went to the liquor store, which was clearly foolishness on our part; why would a store that sold liquor and wine also sell beer? We did find a beer store, but it sold only cases. So we returned to the same convenience mart with our tails between our legs, and purchased some Beck's. Fortunately for us, the amazing offer of $9.50 a six-pack was still good.

Monday night Sherry and I went to play bridge at a game run by my mother. Because of the holiday season it was very small -- just two tables! We did the closest approximation to a Howell possible: Three nine-board teams games scored as board-a-match, with rotating teammates. We tied for first with 15 on a 27 top; we would have won if I had found a squeeze on one hand (I may blog a grumbling post about this later).

On Tuesday Sherry and I took a bus trip to New York City. We got up early, which was hellish as we had not adjusted to Eastern Time well and were sleeping in near noon on most days. The bus left at 7:30 and arrived at New York around 10:15. We scored some pot stickers and Chinese doughnuts at a hole-in-the-wall Chinese kitchen, picked up some Starbucks, and started touring. Our first stop was Times Square; then we started off for Nero Wolfe's address, 918 West 35th Street. Rex Stout made a real boner when he picked this address, as it is not a possible address in Manhattan. By the time we got near the general area where Wolfe was supposed to live -- 35th Street between Ninth and Tenth -- it was obvious that we were not going to see a neighborhood of brownstones.

We turned back, and took the subway to the World Trade Center site. I'll blog more about that when I get my pictures developed. Then we wandered through Chinatown and Little Italy, and stopped at Mott and Spring at a pizzaria called Lombardi's. Here we met The God of the Machine himself, Aaron Haspel. I had asked Aaron to select a "real New York pizza" restaurant for our luncheon meeting. He told me to meet him at Lombardi's at 2 p.m. I assumed this was because Aaron eats lunch very late, but when I arrived I realized he had been trying to beat the crowd -- unsuccessfully, as there were a dozen people waiting to get in. (There was a similar length line when we left at 4 p.m. Who stands in line to eat pizza at four in the afternoon?) The pizza was fantastic. One pie that we ate had olives and onions -- and while it was wonderful I don't know that I can recommend the topping combination. Lombardi's uses large slices of fresh black olives; most pizza establishments will give you nasty little rubbery olive slices that look like refugees from a display in Home Depot.

Aaron and Sherry and I had a great time; when it was clear that Lombardi's had had enough of our patronage, we decamped to a Starbuck's and talked there until Sherry and I left to catch our 5:45 return bus. We were home by 8:30.

New Year's Eve day was our last full day in Scranton. We did finally get some beer, as well as some champagne. We spent a good deal of the afternoon helping Mom with some repairs to her house. Then we had a relaxing New Year's Eve, playing games and cards (Meredith and Dave also play bridge). I tried to call some friends in California, but I guess their party was so loud that they didn't hear the phone ring.

Yesterday morning we bade Mary Margaret's family goodbye before they drove off, packed, and left for the airport. Once again we had a trouble-free trip, though it was a little harder on the way back; we had a three-hour layover in Cincinnati, the San Francisco flight left about half an hour late, and the flight itself was longer that the eastward journey -- a full five hours. But at seven local time we touched down, and were met by our friend Scott. We took him to a ferociously spicy dinner at Little Sichuan in San Mateo, and finally arrived home to the joy of our cats.


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