The Sledgehammer – Version 2.0

October 31, 2012

A House Too Far: A Halloween Short Story (Part 2)

Filed under: Holidays, Short Stories — Tags: , — Brian Lutz @ 11:47 pm

(Note:  If you haven’t read it yet, part 1 can be found here.)

As Old Johnson watched from his perch at the top of the ridge, he could see the shadowy figures beginning to converge on the Baker House below, flashlights in hand.  From the skies above, he also saw the occasional ghost float into the window.  As the skeptics have continued to grow in number over the years, the number of ghosts attempting to drive them away has gradually declined to the point that only a few brave souls even make the attempt anymore.  Old Johnson figured that most of them would be sticking to all the old tried and true methods of haunting.  Granted, when you’ve been hanging around in incorporeal form for the last fifty years or more, your options are a little bit limited.  Most new ghosts, once they managed to get past the initial stages of unbridled rage and swearing vengeance on whatever brought them to their fate, generally learned to manipulate very small objects without too much trouble, and gradually worked up to somewhat larger ones.  A dropped candlestick here, a rattling window there, maybe even something thrown across the room if you’re motivated enough.  In most cases that and a few eerie shrieks and moans would be plenty of skills to hold down a respectable haunted house, but not the Baker House.

At least that’s the way it seemed.  Although Old Johnson hadn’t been to the Baker House before, he had heard all the stories.  It didn’t matter what you did to the skeptics, they would immediately find an excuse and write it off.  Bangs, rattles and creaks were settling.  Ominous noises were the wind.  Vague senses of dread meant you probably left the oven on at home.  There’s just nothing you could do to these guys that they wouldn’t immediately dismiss as the work of some easily explained natural phenomenon.  An unsubstantiated rumor was floating around that one particularly vengeful (and thoroughly demented) spirit even tried a full-fledged fountain of blood coming from the chandeliers many years ago, and even that was quickly chalked up to some sort of plumbing malfunction.  What was even more shocking was the sheer speed with which the skeptics could come up with these “perfectly logical” explanations.

Eventually, the crowds outside began to wend their way into the house, and it appeared that the 61st annual Halloween meeting of the Society of Skeptics would be getting underway shortly.  It was at this point that Old Johnson decided to make his entrance.  Even though he could float right through pretty much whatever he wanted, he still preferred to stick to the front door.  Completely unnecessary, but it seemed to be one of the few forces of habit that remained from his mortal existence.  Someone even conveniently left the door ajar, so with a small amount of exertion he was able to swing it wide open with a convincing slam.  One of the skeptics, sitting on a dilapidated old couch in the entry hallway, looked over, quickly made some offhand comment about the wind, and went back to his own thoughts.  Not that old Johnson expected anything else.

The entry hall opened up into a rather large foyer, where the main body of skeptics was gathering on a number of conveniently placed folding chairs.  As Old Johnson entered the room, he could see that a number of the spooks and spectres were already hard at work.  One swung slowly from a chandelier located above the  crowd (which was no easy feat for the average ghost, but given enough time it was possible to work up enough momentum to get the chandelier swinging pretty well.)  Another young lady spook was in the upper part of the room, inching a dusty old book out of its place on one of the shelves.  It was clear that she hadn’t had much experience with this, so this was likely to take her most of the evening to accomplish, and likely to be dismissed as a problem with the structural integrity of the bookshelf in seconds.  With various ghosts throughout the room straining at their various self-appointed tasks, the whole scene looked like something out of an amusement park haunted house, except for the part where none of the humans in the room could see any of it, and when the occasional physical manifestation showed up they were surprisingly quick to make up an excuse.  But in spite of his considerable talents in object manipulation, Old Johnson didn’t join in.  As he found himself a spot in a conveniently empty corner, someone came to the podium (or what passed for one, which at this point seemed to be some sort of end table with a dusty old bust with the face of some long dead tycoon on it)  and called the meeting to order.

“Gentlemen,” said an older man in a somewhat raspy voice, “We would now like to call this 61st annual Halloween meeting of the Society of Skeptics to order.  Everyone please rise.”

Everyone in the room stood up, and began some sort of nonsensical chant about how everything had a logical explanation and that there was no such thing as a haunted house.  As they stood, one ghost hastily floated across the room and tried to push one of the chairs away from its occupant, but was barely able to move it a half an inch before the chant ended, and everyone sat down.  The leader of the society rose again to speak.

“Once again, I would like to welcome everybody to the 61st annual Halloween meeting of the Society of Skeptics.  As you may know, the mission of our society is to prove irrefutably and incontrovertibly that there is no such thing as a haunted house, and that ghosts and other supernatural phenomena are nothing but figments of an overactive imagination.  As you may know-”

His speech was interrupted when a drinking glass full of water that had been placed on the table suddenly tipped over and spilled all over his suit.  Old Johnson could see that the glass had been given some assistance in this matter.

Pausing for just a second, the leader of the society continued, “Oh, I’m sorry, I suppose I must have a talk with my doctor about my hand-eye coordination.  Anyway, as I was saying…”

It was at about this time that Old Johnson tuned out the speech, which consisted mainly of shopworn claptrap about how only idiots believe in the supernatural and how skeptics would soon be the ones in charge of everything because everyone else was being too superstitious about things.  Instead, he turned his attention to the audience, looking for the most gullible person he could find.  Shockingly, this turned out to be a lot less difficult than it might seem at first, since there were clearly a lot of gullible people here trying desperately not to look gullible.  Having the advantage of being incorporeal and not having to worry about silly things like personal space or the laws of physics, Old Johnson was able to move at will through the crowd as they sat, seemingly enthralled by the drivel coming from the podium.  As he moved along, he noted that several people in the audience were reading from a small reference card of some sort.  A closer look revealed that it contained a list of some of the various symptoms of the other ghosts’ attempts at haunting, followed by an “explanation” of exactly what they “actually” were.  He didn’t have time to read the whole thing, but he did find an unattended one underneath a chair, and quietly began to “push” it underneath one of  the couches in the room to come back and read later.  One person actually noticed this, but after muttering something under his breath about how breezy it was in the room, and quickly turned his attention back to the front of the room.

Finally, after identifying 3 or 4 particularly gullible subjects within the room, he turned his attention back to the speech (or, the way it was being presented, more of a sermon really) at the front of the room.  As before, the ghosts throughout the room were busy with whatever endeavors they thought might manage to invoke a scare or two (but in reality, the whole “blood from a turnip” thing seemed more likely at this point.)  Occasionally something would rattle, fall, creak or sound ominous, but by now most people weren’t even paying attention.  As the leader droned on, Old Johnson moved over toward one of the targets he had identified earlier, moved his mouth toward the skeptic’s ear, and sat in wait as he listened to the speech from the front of the room.  Even by ghost standards this was nothing unusual; already Old Johnson had observed several other ghosts trying to make spooky noises in peoples’ ears, suggest to them that they’re getting really, really, REALLY creeped out right now and generally just trying to haunt people one at a time, but as with practically everything else going on around here, it was dismissed as something in the wind.  But Old Johnson had a different idea.

“And by now,” the leader droned on, “we should ALL know that there is NO POSSIBLE WAY for this house to be haunted!”

With this, Old Johnson spoke quietly into the skeptic’s ear, “There is no possible way for this house to be haunted.”  The voice, as perceived by the human that would be hearing it, would be very quiet, almost imperceptible.  Perhaps it would even take some time for it to register.  While this was happening, the leader continued.

“There is NO SUCH THING as a ghost!”

Old Johnson repeated into the skeptic’s ear a second later, “There is no such thing as a ghost.”  This evoked an almost imperceptible nod.

“You have NOTHING to fear in the Baker House, There is a perfectly logical explanation for EVERYTHING!”

Old Johnson continued quietly repeating the leader’s words into the ear of the skeptic.  “You have nothing to fear in the Baker House.  There is a perfectly logical explanation for everything.”  As he continued, it became clearer and clearer that he was reacting to what he was hearing.  After all, the voice in his head was telling him exactly what he wanted to hear, so why not?  He kept up the routine for several more minutes, until there was a brief lull in the leader’s speech.  Old Johnson used this lull to make his play:

“So what am I even doing here?”

The skeptic paused.  Perhaps for the first time all night, he thought for a moment.  He pulled the reference card out of his pocket and consulted it, but found nothing.  Sure, the card included the standard explanation for hearing unexplained voices, but in the skeptic’s mind, there was nothing unexplained.  The voice he heard was merely confirming to him exactly what he had already heard, and exactly what he wanted to hear.  For all intents and purpose, it was his own voice speaking to him.  Old Johnson knew that he was on to something, so he tried again.

“My bladder is starting to get full.”

With this, the skeptic began to twitch almost imperceptibly in his seat.

“I really need to go to the bathroom.”

While this was going on, the leader continued on with his incessant hectoring and lecturing, but the skeptic was distracted.  Whether or not it was actually true, he had started believing that he really needed to go.  It took Old Johnson a few more tries with this suggestion, but eventually the skeptic got up from his chair, and shuffled past several other people toward the center aisle.  Old Johnson followed close behind, but soon he realized he had a problem:  There were no fewer than six ghosts in the bathroom, just lying in wait for someone to try out their usual shopworn haunted clichés on.  Sure, the old self-unrolling toilet paper trick tended to be a hit at parties and in the right context could literally scare the pants off of someone (believe me, this actually isn’t a good thing,) but these were skeptics here, and such a party trick would likely serve only to put this man right back into skeptic mode, probably finding an explanation on that little card in his pocket.  Old Johnson knew that he would need to make his move now, and make it fast.  He quickly caught up to the skeptic, moved up to his ear, and whispered again:

“You know, this whole thing is really kind of silly.  I should really just go home.”

The skeptic stopped for a second, appearing indecisive.  Old Johnson took the opportunity to whisper again:

“Wait, I didn’t really need to go to the bathroom anyway.”

A quiet filled the air, interrupted only by the droning of the leader’s talk in the other room.  The skeptic stood motionless for a second.  Old Johnson made another suggestion:

“What am I even doing here?” 

The skeptic shifted his weight from one foot to the other and looked back.  Quietly he said, “What am I even doing here?”

“This is getting boring,” Old Johnson whispered again.

” This is getting boring,” the skeptic muttered just a second later.  He turned around again, looking toward the front door. 

“I should really just go home.”

Almost immediately, the skeptic spoke.  “I should really just go home.”

With that, he turned and headed for the front door of the Baker House, still wide open from Old Johnson’s earlier entrance.  In the other room, the other skeptics were all too busy listening to the speech, and none of them paid any attention to his departure.  A slam of the door briefly interrupted the talk coming from the other room, but naturally everyone just assumed it was the wind, as usual.

Eventually, the overly long speech came to an end, and as the skeptics milled about in the foyer and socialized, Old Johnson experimented a bit more with his methods on a couple of the other gullible people he had identified earlier.  Although he did manage to get one or two minor reactions, his results turned out to be decidedly mixed.  Eventually the night wore down to a close, and the rest of the skeptics dispersed.  None of the other haunts in the Baker House had paid much attention to Old Johnson that evening, and since the skeptic had not left the building screaming, few were inclined to treat it as anything special.  Eventually the ghosts too began to float slowly off into the distance, assuming that the skeptics had won the battle for another year.  Old Johnson quietly wandered back into the woods, made especially spooky by the ominous clouds overhead and a stiff breeze in the trees.  Perhaps he hadn’t gotten the screaming panic that ghosts everywhere seek to inflict on the Society of Skeptics, but that wasn’t what he had been aiming for.  What he had done was sow the seeds of doubt.  Perhaps if his efforts were effective enough, he could get a few more people to either leave next Halloween, or perhaps not even show up in the first place.  Then he could work on a few more people.  And then a few more.  Eventually, the numbers would dwindle, to the point that even the leaders of the Society might be left vulnerable.

Sure, it wouldn’t have the glamor of scaring the living daylights out of them, and it might take years or even decades to successfully pull this off, but that didn’t matter to Old Johnson.  After all, for better or for worse, he had all the time in the world.

A House Too Far – A Halloween Short Story (Part 1)

Filed under: Short Stories — Tags: , — Brian Lutz @ 1:59 am

From the top of a nearby hill, Old Johnson surveyed the scene.  Barely visible in the few remaining rays of twilight that managed to penetrate the dark clouds overhead was a house in the small ravine below, dimly illuminated by what appeared to be candles in the windows.  Although this particular house had been built stoutly enough to withstood nearly 200 years of the ravages of time, it clearly hadn’t been spared their effects, as even at this distance the telltale signs of wear and neglect were clearly visible on the house’s outer walls.  The decrepit state of the house by itself was enough to keep most sane people away from the place,  but even the bravest souls of Old Johnson’s acquaintance would think twice before approaching the Baker House on Halloween night.  Most saw that as a warning to stay away from the place, but there were a few particularly brave or particularly foolhardy individuals who saw the Baker House as a challenge.  Perhaps the greatest challenge of all.

Oh, there was no doubt that the Baker House was haunted.  In fact, on a particularly busy Halloween night, one could find no less than 200 ghosts lurking the halls of this old Colonial mansion.  In the Baker House, it wasn’t the ghosts you would have to worry about.  Each year on Halloween night, the Baker House was infested with something even more terrifying than ghosts, creeps, spooks, haunts or perhaps even demons.  For each of the last 83 years, Halloween night found the Baker House occupied not only by ghosts, but also by a particularly intractable group of skeptics.  And in all that time, no amount of chain-rattling, vase dropping, door slamming, tormented groaning or any other manner of haunting could get a single one of the skeptics to budge from their ironclad conviction that there was no such thing as a ghost. 

It wasn’t always this way.  The Baker House, abandoned by its owners over 150 years ago under unfortunate circumstances that are now largely lost to the winds of history, was once a respectable haunted house, with a resident population of spooks and spectres who could generally invoke a hasty retreat in the occasional visitor who entered the house on a dare or a bet with a few rattles of the chandelier or the occasional sense of impending doom.  Eventually, the house developed a reputation as being haunted among the local Human population, a reputation that the house’s occupants drew great satisfaction from.  That all changed back in 1929, when one particularly foolhardy individual by the name of William Meyer boldly made a large wager with several members of the local gentry that he could not only spend an entire Halloween night in the Baker House, but that he could prove that there was no such thing as a ghost while doing so. 

To this day, it is still disputed exactly what happened during that fateful night, but either by sheer force of will or sheer force of thick-headedness (possibly aided by the fact that his relatively meager financial reserves would in no way come anywhere near covering the amount of the bets he had made,) William Meyer managed to somehow completely ignore any attempts at haunting made by the resident ghost population on that fateful night.  As Mr. Meyer emerged from the house the following morning apparently none the wiser (and considerably richer), he made a big show out of it, loudly proclaiming to the local populace that there was no such thing as ghosts.  The following year in another show of braggadocio, he invited several others to join him in the Baker House.  These additional houseguests, perhaps aided by Mr. Meyer’s boastings and hasty excuses for whatever unexplained phenomena occurred during the night, proved just as intractable as Mr. Meyer himself, and once again, all emerged from the house boasting. 

Over the years more and more people joined in, to the point that in 1951 a number of them formed a Society of Skeptics within the town, and from that time forward, each year the Society makes a big deal out of spending Halloween night in the Baker House, where they spend the night mostly boasting to each other about  how nothing can scare them, explaining to each other just why ghosts can’t possibly exist, and generally sitting around not believing in things.  Although the resident ghost population of the Baker House departed for browner pastures many years ago, some spooks just can’t resist the challenge of trying to scare off the skeptics.  To date, none have succeeded, and not for lack of trying.  As many a ghost has learned from painful experience, about the only thing that a typical Society of Skeptics member believes is that they don’t believe anything.  Gradually many of the local spooks gave up on the Baker House, and over time the house began to develop a reputation exactly opposite from the one it once enjoyed:  An unhaunted house.  Every once in a while a particularly brave ghost would boldly pronounce that he would be the one that would finally scare away the Society of Skeptics, but inevitably each one would fail.  Now it was Old Johnson’s turn to try.

One thing was clear about Old Johnson:  He was old.  Exactly how old nobody knew, and even he didn’t really care to bother finding out.  When you’ve restlessly wandered the Earth for as long as he had, you tend to forget a lot of things, and to be honest, Old Johnson kind of liked it that way.  By now, Old Johnson had no idea how or even when he died, nor did he know why he ended up trapped between two worlds as he had, and he didn’t really care to find out either.  He fancied himself to be something of a free agent among ghosts, providing haunting services when and where they were needed.  Over the years he had seen a lot of ghosts that had chained themselves (literally and metaphorically) to various places, apparently unable to get past the unfortunate circumstances of their mortality, and he was determined not to be one of them.  So in order to keep himself busy, Old Johnson made a business (if that’s what you could call it) of acting as something of a freelance spook, going from place to place and haunting as needed.  Sure the hours could be long and the pay nonexistent (not that it really mattered anyway) but it had to be better than sitting in some decrepit old basement forever with nothing to do but rattle the doors every once in a while.

Although Old Johnson was generally content with this arrangement, he was prone to occasional bouts with extreme boredom and unease with his situation.  Sure the usual haunting kept him reasonably well occupied, but it was often mind-numbingly boring, and rarely much of a challenge.  Somewhere in Old Johnson’s heart (or whatever passes for one in a disembodied spectre,) he knew that there had to be something better for him out there.  It was on his aimless wanderings last year in search of a new haunt that he first heard of the Baker House.  Immediately he was drawn to the challenge of trying to haunt the unhauntable, but the reports were discouraging:  For years, there had been countless ghosts that had gone before him, and all had failed to raise so much as a vague sense of disquiet among the skeptics that infested the house.  At one time or another, practically everyone had tried practically everything in the book (up to and including throwing the book at someone’s head) and every time the skeptics would brush it off with one lame excuse or another.  In casual conversations with some of the ghosts that had failed in their quest to rehaunt the Baker House, many of them spoke of a belief that there had to be some way through their defenses, some weakness that would send them fleeing in panic.  But nobody had found that weakness, and by now all but the most diehard of spooks had given up on the Baker House altogether.  Many spoke of elaborately constructed and elaborately choreographed plans, some calling for an all-out assault on the collective psyche of the skeptics, others calling for a slow buildup of dread leading to a crescendo of sheer terror.  Inevitably, all of these would fall apart.  Most of them somewhere around step 1.

To be honest, Old Johnson didn’t have much of a plan either.  But he did have an idea…

(Continue to part 2)

October 24, 2012

I’m Not Going to Take This Sitting Down: Making the Case for a High-End Office Chair

Filed under: Random Stuff — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 12:08 am

As seems to happen a lot more often than I’d like, I should apologize for being somewhat slow to post here lately.  Nothing all that unusual going on here, just the usual shortage of interesting things to write about.  I will say that I’ve been watching with interest what’s been going on with all the new tablets coming out lately (with the new iPad Mini being the latest to make its debut just today) and I could quite easily get a few thousand words out of just talking about that and making a few predictions.  Unfortunately, my current employment puts me just a little bit too close to the subject right now, to the point that I’m under a non-disclosure agreement that could get me into trouble if I was to say the wrong things about this.  Therefore, as interesting as the choices we have now are, I think I should probably leave that one alone for now. 

On the other hand, one thing I can probably talk about without getting into too much trouble is chairs.  Specifically office chairs.  If you are reading this Blog, there’s a pretty good chance that you’re sitting on one of these right now.  And, if my experience is anything to go on, there’s also a good chance that your chair manages to annoy you on a regular basis.  Perhaps you just can’t ever seem to get it adjusted quite right.  Perhaps the pneumatic cylinder keeps leaking pressure, causing the chair to slowly lower itself and need to be readjusted constantly.  Perhaps the thing is just plain falling apart.  Really, none of it would surprise me, because all the various office chairs I’ve had over the years have eventually developed some annoying problem or have just plain fallen apart.  If you do use an office chair either at home or at work, for better or for worse there’s a good chance that you’re going to be using that particular chair a lot.  If you have a chair that either doesn’t fit you well or does something to annoy you, you’re going to be spending a lot of time being annoyed by that chair.

Of course, good intentions rule the day when you’re out looking for a new office chair, most likely to replace something you’ve either used up or gotten sick of.  If you walk into your friendly neighborhood office supply store, you’ll probably find at least two dozen different models being sold, most likely with floor models for each one.  This gives you a good chance to try things out, but it also reveals a couple of things about the whole process:  The overall hierarchy of office chairs seems to be based less on quality and ergonomics than it is on how important your chair makes you look.  Granted, a big leather executive chair is obviously going to be more costly to produce and to buy than a more plebian fabric task chair would be, but it’s not like the former is being produced by highly trained artisans while the latter is being stamped out by a giant machine or anything like that.  This means that the price differences seem to be disproportionate to the material costs (presumably to keep the cubicle drones from getting chairs intended for people above their level) and seems to end up being mostly arbitrary.  One thing you do start to notice about a lot of the stuff at the more expensive side of the spectrum is that most of them seem to be trying to impersonate something even more costly.  In particular, it seems like just about everyone these days is trying to make something vaguely resembling the famous (possibly for the wrong reasons) Herman Miller Aeron chair at half the cost (which is still expensive by most people’s standards,) albeit with just enough differentiation to keep the lawyers off their backs.  Others opt for more “traditional” designs that all basically look identical except for the pattern of the stitching on the seat back, and occasionally someone goes completely off the wall with something that most sane people find impossible to sit in for more than five seconds, but at least six people on the Internet swear is the most comfortable thing they’ve ever sat on.  Oh, and there’s also the actual high-end stuff that a lot of the previous examples, but that’s another story entirely, and there’s a good chance you won’t find much in the “stuff you’ve actually heard of” category at the local office store.  We’ll get to these in a bit.

Ultimately after much deliberation and trying out basically everything in the store, eventually you settle on something, bring it home, and use it until it either annoys you endlessly or it breaks, at which point the whole cycle starts all over again.  By now, I’ve lost count of how many office chairs I’ve bought and eventually had to replace over the years.  My most recent one was perhaps the most egregious example of this vicious cycle, and the one that inspired me to do something to break out of it.  Those readers with keen memories and/or nothing better to do may recall this post on this Blog, written last July back when I was getting sick of my previous chair, an IKEA model that did pretty much what was expected of it.  That is to say, it looked vaguely stylish for some indeterminate period of time while it provided a not particularly comfortable place to sit and slowly self-destructed.  In spite of this, I managed to get nearly another six months out of the thing after I wrote that Blog post before I finally got around to replacing it.  At the time, I was in the process of being spoiled by having one of the fancy $800 chairs at my desk at work, and even though it squeaked when I leaned back in it (something I believe I complained about in the above Blog post) I still liked the chair quite a bit better than any of the other chairs I had used over the years, but wasn’t ready to fork over the big bucks to buy one.  Instead, when I did finally get around to buying a new chair, I opted for something that was a somewhat close approximation of my high-end chair at work (mistake #1) and which was on closeout at Sam’s Club (mistake #2) so I got what seemed to be a pretty good price on it.  It was one of these, and it allegedly came with a five-year warranty, so what could possibly go wrong?  Anyway,  I took it home, assembled it, and it worked great… for about three days.  At that point, the plastic back started developing cracks, and within less than a month, I was already gettingthe back of the chair replaced under warranty.  The replacement back appeared to come with some additional reinforcement over the one that came in the box, and indeed it did hold up better, but within six months, it too had begun to develop the same cracking problem. 

It was at about this point that I decided I was thoroughly sick and tired of dealing with cheap junky office chairs, and suddenly that $800 office chair at my (now former) job didn’t seem quite so farfetched.  Yes, it’s true that the main problem with a high-end office chair for most people is the fact that it comes with a high-end pricetag, but think of it this way:

  • As noted above, if you work in an office environment, the chances are good that you also spend a lot of time in an office chair, probably at least 8 hours a day. 
  • I suspect that when they’re furnishing their houses, most people probably wouldn’t give a second thought to spending $1,000 or more on a sofa that they probably won’t be using for more than 1-2 hours a day, if that.
  • An office chair with bad ergonomics can lead to all sorts of long-term problems, and leave you uncomfortable while you’re getting there.
  • A lot of the high-end office chairs are built a lot better than the cheap ones at the office supply store, and will last a lot longer.  They also come with warranties to match.

Taking these factors into account, the value proposition for one of the high-end chairs starts to look a lot more attractive than it did previously.  Given my past experience with office chairs as (partially) outlined above, if I continued with my current habits I would probably find myself having to replace my chair roughly once every 12-18 months on average, and probably spending around $100 each time on the replacement (I’m just using ballpark figures here, it’s hard to say what the actual costs might be.)  The new chair I ended up buying (a Herman Miller Mirra with all the adjustment options included) ended up costing around $750 with tax from a local Herman Miller dealer that conveniently happened to be located two blocks away from my workplace, and comes with a 12 year parts and labor warranty from the factory that should ensure that I won’t need to replace my chair again for at least that long.  Going by the ballpark figures above, I could expect to be spending anywhere from $800-1200 on replacement office chairs during that same time period, which would put me somewhere between roughly even and a couple hundred dollars ahead on the pricing by going with the higher-end chair.  In addition to the cost savings, I’d also have the advantage of not having to deal with cheap junky office chairs during that time.  In other words, it’s a textbook example of the Samuel Vimes Boots Theory of Socio-Economic Unfairness (read the passage in blue) at work, as highlighted by Terry Pratchett in his Discworld books.

So to make a long story short, I have a new office chair, and I spent a whole heck of a lot more money on it than I ever expected to spend on an office chair.  With any luck, I won’t be buying another one anytime soon.  Anyway, now that I’ve got the fancy chair, all I need is a questionable business plan and some venture capital funding, and I will be well on my way to starting the next big doomed-to-fail dot-com.  Let’s see…  I wonder what the market for 24-hour door-to-door spongecake delivery looks like these days?

October 16, 2012

The Pizza Genius: Based on a (Sort Of) True Story

Filed under: Food, Short Stories — Tags: — Brian Lutz @ 12:04 am

It was about 6:30 on a rather nondescript Tuesday evening when I arrived at the pizza place.  After getting off work an hour earlier I had stopped along the way home for some grocery shopping, and at this point didn’t feel particularly inclined to cook.  This is, of course, a pretty typical situation; Being single and living alone means that I rarely find a hot dinner waiting on the table for me when I get home from work, and in the unlikely event that this does happen I’d be more likely to call the cops than to note my good fortune.  In the meantime, I was on my own for dinner as usual, and since the pizza place was basically next door to the grocery store, I figured it would be as quick as anything else.

When I walked in the door, I was the only customer there,  Nonetheless, all the employees seemed to be back in the kitchen attending to various duties, so there was nobody at the counter.  I watched from in front of the cash register for a minute or two as whatever pressing matter that was going on at the pizza oven was attended to.  As I did so, I happened to notice that one of the employees had a shirt on that proclaimed him to be a “Pizza Genius”.  This seems like a rather bold proclamation, especially in a place like this.  This particular place (name withheld, but probably not too hard to guess) doesn’t exactly have a reputation as the type of place where one would go when looking for true excellence in pizza.  If you’re looking for cheap pizza and\or you’re looking for fast pizza, this is the place for you.  But if you’re looking for good pizza…  Well, you probably want the pizzeria ten bucks up the road.  Nonetheless, whatever was going on the kitchen was either more important or more enthralling than the presence of a hungry customer waiting at the counter, and my presence continued to go unnoticed.

For several more minutes I continued to observe the goings-on in the kitchen and generally tried to look interested  in the purchase of a pizza at some point in the semi-immediate future, but the Pizza Genius and his cohorts continued to be enthralled by whatever happened to be going on in the kitchen, and I still couldn’t determine what exactly they were doing.  Perhaps they were running some sort of experiment to push the limits of pizza making and lead us into a bold new future of Mozzarella-fueled innovation.  Perhaps there was some sort of dire pizza crisis underway that mere mortals such as myself could not comprehend, and they were working feverishly on the solution to save us from the threat of a pizzaless existence.  Maybe the Genius’ pizza-making abilities had been honed to such precision that the mere act of making a large pepperoni with mushrooms and olives required split-second timing, and they couldn’t take their eyes off of it for a second lest something goes horribly wrong..,  Well actually none of that seemed very likely given the fact that this was a random take-out pizza place in a nondescript suburban strip mall and not some top-secret pizza lab in a secured bunker.  It was far more likely they were just catching up on the supply of pepperoni before the next wave of the dinner rush came in. 

And yet, for all my speculation, my presence had yet to register with anyone behind the counter in spite of several minutes of my standing there,  It was about this time that I got sick of standing at the counter, and decided to go take a seat in the waiting area until someone happened to notice I was there.  Once I was seated, several more minutes of assorted pizza geniusness happened in the kitchen, apparently oblivious to my presence.  Finally, whatever critical Olive Application Window (or whatever it was that was going on) was  approaching had apparently safely passed, and the Pizza Genius finally wandered back toward the counter.  Unfortunately, before I could react to this, the door opened and a lady came in and walked up to the counter.  I guess it was my fault that I had lost my place in line since I had sat down, but since most pizza purchasing transactions here tend to be rather quick, I just got in line behind her rather than press the issue.  Of course, anyone well versed in Murphy’s Law and its ilk can probably guess what happened next.

At this particular pizza place, the entire menu consists of about ten items, none of which should be particularly complicated to figure out.  In spite of this simplicity, this lady seemed to be determined to plumb its depths and unlock its hidden mysteries, whatever those might happen to be.  What for most people would be a simple transaction that would usually get them in and out with their pizza in less than a minute rapidly turned into a lengthy discussion of the intricacies of the menu that would probably be suitable for a scholarly dissertation if anyone could be bothered to write any of it down.  As the lady carefully considered her family’s pizza consumption needs and weighed them against the choices being offered, the Pizza Genius patiently explained things that could probably have been figured out just as easily by looking at the menu board.  I suppose this would have been quite the sight to behold if not for the fact that I was behind all this in line and just trying to get one of the pizzas that was probably already sitting in the big warming box right behind the counter.  Somewhere during this whole process, a mother with three children entered the store and took her place behind me as her kids alternately complained of being hungry and pestered her for some quarters to play the little pinball-like bouncy ball device in the corner. 

 Eventually, after several more minutes of careful consideration of the choices and more deliberation than some people put into the purchase of a new car, something resembling a pizza order emerged out of the whole process.  Given how long this whole process took, it wouldn’t have surprised me if she then tried to pay with a check.  Fortunately, the payment process was only half as painful as I had expected it to be, and the transaction was finally completed.  I had previously planned on ordering the 3-meat pizza which usually takes a bit longer than the generic cheese and pepperoni types usually kept on hand, but by this time I had already spent far more time waiting for nothing than  I had really planned on and was half-expecting to get hit up for quarters by some random six-year-old if I waited there much longer, so I just defaulted to Pepperoni, paid for my order, and went on my way.  For all I knew, the guy behind the counter was, in fact, a pizza genius.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t do a whole lot of good when the person in front of you in the line happens to be a pizza idiot.

October 8, 2012

From the Lowest Low to the Highest High

Filed under: Wanderings — Tags: , — Brian Lutz @ 1:21 am

No, I can’t see my house from here.

In spite of Autumn’s best efforts, it seems like Summer-like weather hasn’t quite given up for the year just yet.  The streak of dry weather that we’ve had here since the middle of July has managed to persist well into October (although an end appears to be in sight later this week) and the temperatures have also remained quite pleasant.  Naturally, this being the Pacific Northwest, there’s always the nagging sense that this can’t possibly last, and that eventually we’re going to end up paying for this with six straight months of rain or something ridiculous like that, so me and my friends have been taking advantage of this weather while it lasts.  We have spent the last couple of weekends going out on hikes.  This is a bit unusual for me, since I’ve never exactly been the type to do much hiking, but with five or six months of annoyingly gloomy weather penciled into the schedule soon, hiking sounds like as a good a way as any to get out and enjoy the weather.  It’s exercise, the scenery is nice, and contrary to popular belief, there usually isn’t much trying to kill you out in the woods around here.

Granted, these hikes aren’t exactly roughing it out in the middle of nowhere and hauling forty pounds of supplies up a mountain in a frame backpack.  Sure, there are some people who actually enjoy that kind of thing, but I’m pretty sure I’m not one of them (which is probably one of the main reasons I managed to flunk out of Boy Scouts back when I was growing up, but that’s a long story.)  For the time being, we’ve been sticking to well established trails and in relatively popular areas, but haven’t exactly been doing the walk-in-the-park stuff.  A couple of weekends ago, we took a trip out to North Bend, where did the Rattlesnake Ridge trail.  This one is a relatively easy (but still fairly physically demanding) trail of about 2 miles with 1,200 vertical feet of elevation gain, and judging by the number of people we encountered on the trail and at the ledge on top, it’s a pretty popular one as well. 

Given the hike that it takes to get to the ledge, it certainly isn’t unreasonable to expect a nice scenic view for your troubles, and this one doesn’t disappoint.  Looking to the North from the ledge you can see (sort of) the town of North Bend off in the distance, and to the east you can a virtually limitless supply of trees stretching as far as the eye can see, as well as a lake or two (in this case, Chester Morse lake) off in the distance for good measure.

If you look straight down from the ridge you can see the parking lot you came from as well as Rattlesnake Lake, from which the name of this mountain was derived.  I’m not quite sure exactly where the rattlesnakes figure into the whole deal, but since I try not to make a habit of getting bitten by poisonous snakes on a regular basis, I couldn’t be bothered to inquire further into this matter.  Either way, this one makes for a nice little day hike than can be done in about 2-3 hours, although you’ll definitely get a workout on this one.  On the other hand, if you’re looking for something a little (or a lot) more challenging, there’s the hike we did this past weekend.

To the south of Mount St. Helens is located a lava tube of over 2 miles in length known as the Ape Cave which my friends have been wanting to do for a while now, and once again I accompanied them for the trip.  Given the fact that this trip was roughly 160 miles in each direction, this wasn’t exactly next door, and from here it turns into fairly long day-trip as a result.  There are several options for hiking the Ape Cave:  The lower cave, which is a 1 1/2 mile round trip on relatively flat ground descending from the main entrance, or the 1 1/2 mile Upper Cave, which is considerably more challenging which leads to or from an upper entrance.  The typical route seems to be to enter the cave from the lower entrance and go up, but we did this one in the opposite direction.  Naturally since you’re in a cave you’re going to be in the dark, and you’re going to need to bring your own light sources (the recommendations suggest having at least two sources of light, and preferably at least three.)  You’re also going to want to wear good shoes, as the terrain is far from hospitable  I wore my usual Vans sneakers, and although they proved mostly adequate for the job, I think I’d prefer something a little more substantial and with more tread next time.  Note that I didn’t bother bringing any sort of camera with me on this one, since I didn’t figure I would be able to make much use of one in the pitch blackness of the cave.  Flickr has quite a few photos of the cave and its most notable features, although even there it’s hard to see a whole lot.

Based on reading prior to the trip I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect inside the caves, but once I actually got there I found it to be quite a bit more challenging than I had expected.  There are a significant number of large rockpiles within the lava tube that you need to climb over.  And by climb, they mean you’re going to need to quite physically climb over quite a few large, slippery and occasionally jagged rocks.  Perhaps the trickiest parts of the cave would be several lava falls, one of which I discovered just about the worst possible way to deal with during this particular trip.  The most notable lava fall is a sheer 8-foot drop with a relatively smooth rock face, a dangerously uneven landing below it and no obvious way to get down easily.  After surveying the situation and trying to determine the best way to deal with it, I made something of a leap of faith trying to slide down it, but ended up landing on a bad spot, which ultimately left me flat on my back and facing in the wrong direction.

Fortunately, the fall could have been a lot worse than it actually was, and I managed to get away with a few scrapes on my arm and knee, and a painful lesson of some sort.  I also gave my friends a bit of a scare in the process, but ultimately I’m grateful I didn’t do worse than that (because if I did injure myself much worse than that, it was going to be a really tough place to get much help.)  Fortunately, some other hikers came along and provided my friends with some assistance getting down the lava fall, and from there we managed to make it through the remainder of the cave with no major incidents.  All in all, I think it took us about 4 1/2 hours to complete the hike up to the upper entrance and back down through the cave. and even though it was a shorter hike overall than Rattlesnake Ridge, it was also a far more challenging one.  Eventually it just starts to seem like the whole thing is just one gigantic boulder field after another, and it starts wearing thin, especially when you have to firmly grasp sharp pointy rocks that hurt your hands to get anywhere (Note:  gloves are highly recommended, and if I ever do this one again I’ll definitely be bringing some.)  In spite of the difficulty of this one, it seems to be a rather popular place, and we encountered quite a few hikers going in both directions as we made our descent through the cave.  You’ll also want to make sure you have a good light source or two.  I actually bought a new headlamp from REI for this trip (this one) and found it worked quite well, although I found that anything less than the brightest setting wasn’t a whole lot of light in the pitch black of the cave.) 

All in all, this seems like the type of place you bring a Boy Scout troop when you’re looking for one of those good solid character-building exercises that managed to go completely over my head during that time. I suppose it isn’t too late to build character just yet, right?

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