Wednesday, May 21, 2008

wherein I meet Ben Katchor and Jacob Kornbluth

By some quirk of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, Bus Line 24, I arrived a full 20 minutes early to see Josh Kornbluth interview Ben Katchor at the Jewish Community Center.

Ben Katchor live and off the page! Josh Kornbluth live and on purpose! All this, and dessert too. It's no quirk that I arrived early.

Since I was alone, I was able to secure a plum seat in the middle of the 4th row. I’m not sure why it’s important to sit close to the stage; it’s not like you’ll get a hand up to dance with Bruce Springsteen or Oprah will toss you the keys to a BRAND NEW CAR. Nope. Not going to happen. Still, there’s something exciting about being in the 4th row.

The auditorium was almost empty when I took my seat; being so early made me feel over-eager and squirrelly. I busied myself by filling out the survey the usher had handed me when I wandered in. How did you find out about this show? Ah. That’s easy. They didn’t keep it much of a secret. That’s how I found out about it. I filled in the bubble next to ‘Postcard’ with the miniature golf pencil the usher gave me. I was buzzing in anticipation of the show; it was all I could do to color inside the lines.

Ben Katchor live. How cool is that?

C110 seemed like a really good seat, a seat with a clear view of the two big chairs set up for the interviewer and the interviewee. I concentrated on the survey. How many events have you attended during the last 12 months? After some reflection, I lied. It’s embarrassing to admit how seldom I leave the house. Unless you count my trips to the market. But isn’t going to the market an event of sorts? For me it is. I exed out my original answer of less than 6 and colored in the greater than 24 bubble.

Why does my survey look so messy?

The audience began to file in. So where was that really tall guy going to sit? Keep going. Keep going. Keep going: I willed him to keep going. He sat down directly in front of me. I knew it! Not a chance that I’d be sitting behind one of the countless short wide Jewish ladies who smelled of Nivea and secured used Kleenexes up the sleeves of their cardigans. Nope. The Bill Gaines look-alike—a compact fire plug of a man—took a seat three to the left. The neurotically thin Yoga ladies who were season ticket holders? They weren’t sitting in front of me.

No, I was sitting behind the tallest man in the room, and next to a young blond spiky-haired guy who awkwardly held a skateboard to his chest. You could tell he was thinking, “What are all these old Jewish people doing here? This is about comix.” He sat nervously, as if the whole audience was going to turn around and yell at him not to skate on their sidewalk and to pick up the trash.

It was exactly the audience that he—and I—should have expected.

Then the two men, Ben Katchor and Josh Kornbluth, walked out. The audience, which was surprisingly quiet for hard-of-hearing older Jewish people, became even quieter. The man in front of me sat up even straighter. He was probably 7 or 8 feet tall and had unspeakably good posture. I shifted in my seat, trying to look around him.

I’ve seen Ben Katchor before; it was when he was touring in the wake of his MacArthur Foundation genius award (which, incidentally, is taxable). That time he was reminiscing about the golden age of museum cafeterias. It’s true: museum cafeterias have become too good. I often go to the Berkeley Art Museum’s Café Muse just to eat the sustainably grown Raw Vietnamese Mushroom Salad with Cilantro, Scallions, & Almond Vinaigrette. I don’t even look at the museum’s exhibits. I eat lunch and leave. Someday I hope to be satisfied by just reading the menu.

Ben Katchor was right.

I squirmed in my seat again, trying to get a good look at the setup on the stage. The skateboarder made his best effort to shift left and get further away from me.

I’d forgotten how much Ben Katchor looks like Mark Bernstein. He looks a lot like Mark Bernstein. Surprisingly so.

Josh Kornbluth looked even less like Ben Franklin than I’d remembered. Perhaps it was the red socks that were bunched up at his ankles; I never picture Ben Franklin wearing red socks. (I still think Josh Kornbluth looks like Jay Sherman, who might well wear red socks with failing elastic).

Using a Sharpie, I wrote on my Muni pass: perhaps JK is a BK character. That would work. Josh Kornbluth looks drawn, as if he’s jumped off of the page of one of the Weekly Strips. The one about the chiropodist, perhaps.

His experience as a talk show host has served him well: Josh Kornbluth is a fine interviewer. He asks good questions and mostly gets out of the way and lets Ben Katchor talk.

I could listen to Ben Katchor talk as long as he felt like talking. That’s how good he is.

The first piece he reads is about modern apartments, about a man who moves every year so he can live in ever more up-to-date surroundings. The same mythical Eastern European movers transport his furniture year after year. One of the movers has a hernia, but nonetheless is able to horse the man’s grandfather’s delicate antique armoire out of the back of the van into the next of the series of more improbably-modern apartments.


The man finally goes digital and no longer has belongings to move. In the final frame of the story, the irrelevant armoire is hefted into a dumpster. Done and done. Gone digital.

My feet are dangling. If the springs in a theater seat are sufficiently strong, the seat begins to fold up on me, so that I’m folded in half, as if caught mid-crunch. My mini-backpack forms an uncomfortable lump between my top half and my bottom half.

It is then—after a particularly restive series of shifts and folds, peering around the 8-feet-tall guy and fighting against the theater seat spring—that I begin hearing voices. Well, not really hearing voices like a schizophrenic person but rather, hearing voices like someone has their radio on. Yes, there is a muted voice of a radio commentator. How rude!

Who on earth is listening to the radio? Is it feedback from someone’s hearing aid?.

At some extreme point in my contortions, my ear is in close proximity to my mini-backpack. Aha! That’s the noise: it’s my own MP3 player. I must’ve pressed the ‘on’ button by accident. Those tiny tinny voices are from the Slate Political Gabfest. With great discretion, I put my hand inside my backpack and turn off the player. Ben Katchor must not discover that I’ve disrupted his reading with my $39 earPod. Shoot.

The second piece is even more arresting than the first. It is about condiment packets and how they are replacing the more human-scale shared service containers that preceded them. The sociable metal creamers have given way to personal handfuls of Mini-Moos; the mustard jar has been superseded by mustard packets with an unimaginably small amount of condiment within.

Not only are the packets an unrealistic size (how many for the average hot dog? 10?); they’re also uniformly difficult to open. One wrong move and a Mini-Moo will give you a creamy facial—a Mini-Moo money shot, if you’re in the mood for an obscene tongue twister. The ever-inventive Mr. Katchor suggests that young men will rent out their packet-opening services—they’ll accompany you into a restaurant, and will open all of the necessary condiments for you.

With such help on call, you can go wild. Five tubs of syrup cascade down your short stack! A lavish squiggle of catsup ornaments your fries!

Such a good idea. Condiments are certainly a topic I can warm to; I think about them a lot. In fact, there’s not much in our refrigerator except a wealth of condiments: Uncle Chen’s chili garlic sauce; Aztexan Habanero Supreme hot sauce; Hoisin sauce; Tiparos fish sauce; Heinz Catsup in the ultra-large bottle with the customized label; Safeway Spicy Brown Mustard; and other bottles and jars too numerous to list (although I’m very tempted to alphabetize them).

The condiment shelves are packed. Packed! A comic about condiments is very nearly perfect.

But really, I can’t object to the packets on any but aesthetic grounds: I was recently saved from impending starvation by a stray peanut butter packet that I’d stashed in my suitcase. I was in a hotel room, late at night, in a strange city, and I came upon this miracle cache of peanut butter. I scrabbled around in my briefcase until I found airplane pretzels. Pretzels and peanut butter: Is that not a complete meal? It is. Most food groups are adequately represented. It was kind of like the original Hanukah, except with peanut butter and pretzels instead of oil.

But I digress. Being in the Jewish Community Center with all these little old Jewish people (and the 9 foot tall man sitting in front of me) is clearly having an effect.

The Crumb Trap is the title of Ben Katchor’s third story. It is about the New York Department that goes from apartment to apartment (an entire building in an hour!), emptying toaster crumb traps. After a sufficient portion of the city’s small appliances had been emptied—saving residents from potential toaster-fires and cockroach invasions—the crumbs are sorted and used for different functions. Some are fine abrasives; others are Thanksgiving filler; still other crumbs are fed to the city’s songbirds.

Really his ideas are quite practical. I greatly admire them.

I wish I had ideas like that. I could’ve listened to lots more stories.

But the ‘in-conversation’ format has one unfortunate characteristic. The part where the author speaks is always too short, and the part where the audience asks questions is always too long. I’m not sure why they let the audience ask questions at all. Josh Kornbluth already asked questions, and he did fine. The audience will not do fine; they are bound and determined to ask stupid questions.

Some of the questions are like Jeopardy questions: they’re the answer in the form of a question and they’ve only been asked because the asker wants to demonstrate that he’s actually met the celebrity before. Or that the question-asker is a minor celebrity in his- or her own mind. Yuck.

Did I hear someone ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” Someone must’ve. It’s as if you could subscribe to ideas like you would the Harry & David Fruit-of-the-Month Club. In January, you get 12 Royal Riviera Pears and a half-dozen good ideas about, say, small appliances.

All too soon, it is over, and we must shuffle from the auditorium as a bovine group. Shuffle. Shuffle.

On the second floor, there is a reception and the author will be signing books. It is a Jewish Community Center. I know that a proper reception cannot be conducted on an empty stomach. And I am right. There are crudités and macaroons. Brie and celery sticks (nature’s dental floss!). Petits Fours and cheese balls. People are milling around, eating compulsively and talking volubly.

And Stacey’s has set up a table. Forgot to bring a book for the author to sign? You can buy one from the nice lady.

I find myself buying a book: Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: The Beauty Supply District. And edging my way through throngs of older Jewish men and women eating reception food (“oooh. Did you try the macaroons? I wonder where they bought the macaroons? So moist!”) until I got to Room 209. There were only a few faithful fans in line when I got there, real comix-lovers. Odd looking men and women with bulging backpacks and stacks of books. Not just one or two books that they’d purchased at the Stacey’s table, but big hulking stacks of books. As if they’d brought half their home libraries for Ben Katchor to sign. Anthologies that already have other signatures in them. Everything they could think of.

Book signings are horribly awkward. It’s like making small talk at a party if you’re not out to get laid, but just trying to make benign conversation with strangers. Just words to fill the dead air and demonstrate you’re a teeny bit smarter than the neon tetras in the aquarium you’re standing next to and a teeny bit more appealing than the decrepit old family dog that has wandered into the room. At best, you leave without the need for an apology.

When I reach the front of the line, I start out poorly, haltingly. I allude to something he’d admitted about his books, about how they were almost too much to be taken in all at once. It seems like a stupid opening line when you’re asking someone you admire to sign a just-purchased copy of their book. He frowns.

Quick! Must say something else. Must redeem the conversation. Because I do read his comics on the web, I ask him about his web site. He is momentarily pleased and says he put it together himself—and that it’s nothing. That he used to be a typesetter.

Ben Katchor is gracious; he draws me a small cartoon guy in spite of the non-conversation we are having. I console myself: this is a transient blip in his day, and even though he’s really smart, there’s no way he’ll remember his brief encounter with me.

Up close, he still looks like Mark Bernstein. In some hard-to-quantify way.

Does he know Mark Bernstein? He might know Mark Bernstein. Yeah. He could know Mark Bernstein. Mark Bernstein gets around.

I stop myself before I ask him. Phew. That was close. It is something my mother and I do, this looking for momentary cosmic alignments—shared friends, shared schools, shared towns—but many people are less crazy about that kind of coincidence.

And just like that, my turn is over. My chance to make a positive impression has evaporated. Ben Katchor has drawn a little cartoon guy for me to puzzle over; I have thanked him; and now I shuffle out of the room, back toward the food tables. The signing line has grown long while the first few of us have had our turns. I am still flustered.

Maybe it is because I am flustered that a guy with a hand held video camera, a nice one, approaches me. Now I will say something stupid and it will be immortalized. Bits that’ll come back to bite me. A sudden panic grips me; I am beyond flustered. Yet I’m drawn to the camera.

We all want to be celebrities. We can’t help ourselves.

“Hi,” he says. “I’m Jacob Kornbluth, Josh Kornbluth's brother. Is it okay if I ask you a few questions? I’m making a little documentary about Ben Katchor for Josh’s TV show.”

If I were smart, I’d realize that this is the guy who co-directed and co-wrote Haiku Tunnel. This is a professional and he’s not making a home movie. But I’m not smart. And not only have I already missed a critical cue; my mind is rapidly going blank. The microphone in my face is making it worse.

Jacob Kornbluth doesn’t look at all like Josh Kornbluth. For one thing, he’s got a disarming smile; Josh Kornbluth seems to have gotten all of the frowny angst and Jacob Kornbluth has that easy-going charm. He’s cute. For some reason, the way he introduces himself makes me think he doesn’t really do this for a living, that he’s just come along because he hasn’t got anything better to do on a Monday night in May. That he’s doing this as a favor for his brother.

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

Walk away! Walk away! Run! Dive under the macaroon table! Hide among the crudités! Camouflage yourself as a wheel of Brie! Act inert!

Jacob Kornbluth starts asking me questions about comics, and I am immediately sucked into a mammoth mental vacuum. Any problems I have remembering names when I’m on the spot are exacerbated and I give him absurd answers, answers that he won’t even have to take out of context to make me look foolish. For some reason, the only artist I can remember is R. Crumb; I can’t even remember Aline’s name, even though they draw comics together in The New Yorker, comics I read again and again. I can’t remember that Mary Fleener went to PV High and surfed at the same beaches I knew. And what about Julie Douchet? And Daniel Clowes? Why can’t I remember a single name of the artists I like? Why can't I come up with any details about their ouvre?

I can’t even come up with Art Spiegelman’s name. I once started a whole project because of a piece Art Spielgelman did about the New York Public Library’s picture collection.

The wall outside my college dorm room had an S. Clay Wilson panel that Adam Melch meticulously copied from a Zap Comix. Surely I could’ve come up with ONE two sentence anecdote about comics.

Jacob Kornbluth is asking me easy questions but I can’t answer them. Good god! Do I really have no favorites in the comics world? Do I really have no favorite Ben Katchor comic? I listen to words coming out of my mouth that even I don’t believe.

At the last minute, I remember the Ben Katchor story I like about the chiropodist, although I say “podiatrist”, which makes it less funny and makes me seem like less of a fan. It’s not my favorite either, but at least it’s something.

I flinch even now, embarrassed to recollect my performance in front of the camera.

I am so NOT ready for my closeup.

Now I wish I’d even said, “I can’t remember a darned thing. My blood sugar must be low.”

Instead I grab one of the moist macaroons and shove it in my mouth. I have clearly seen too many Twix commercials, but it works. Jacob begins chatting with the lady standing next to me and I flee.

In retrospect, I think all he was looking for a fan. Someone who would say that they were a fan. I don’t even think he was looking for a ‘good’ fan, one of the fans who memorizes whole stories and can quote ad nauseam. He was just looking for someone who’d say something admiring, something interesting and not too stupid.

I did none of the above, even though I admire Ben Katchor’s work a great deal.

I’m hoping I’ll end up on the cutting room floor.

I walk out of the San Francisco Jewish Community Center into the May night. The reading has newly sensitized me to the odd window displays and neon signs on California Street. Pregnant mannequins look less like pregnant mannequins and more like a small army of Nicole Richies shoplifting basketballs. Ben Katchor has changed what I see, just as any artist worth his or her salt should.

I get on the Number 24 Muni bus and head back across town.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

flying slugs and sloppy stucco

I shouldn’t still be thinking about our new roof.

The roofers finished replacing our old roof more than three weeks ago, not long after we wound up our fraught dealings with Wooden Window.

You'd have thought we'd have had enough homeowner trauma for the time being, that we'd be content to stare out of our new windows at the San Francisco skyline, that we could continue to ignore the paint slowly peeling off the wall in big sheets where the roof leaks during the rainy season.

It's not apt to rain again until November; why bother replacing the roof? Didn't we learn anything from our experience with the windows?

But no. We're slow learners. We ran right out and found a roofing company that would replace the roof right away. This wouldn't be nearly so disruptive as the window work; all we had to do was move a dozen or so potted plants off the lightwell (which is technically part of the roof) and that'd be it.

"Will they be coming in to use the bathroom," I asked the roofer after we'd received the final bid and were signing the contract.

"Oh, no," he said. "They're like camels."

I decided to pursue the question no further.

For a week, we lived in a drum, with camel-like roofers clattering over our heads and the acrid smell of tar in the air. Friday afternoon rolled around and they were done; they offered to help me move the potted plants back into the lightwell, but I demurred. They were anxious to leave and I was anxious to have the house back.

I was pleased with the new roof for an interval of about 4 hours. For four hours, I lived with the blissful thought that we were done with the roof. Done. Checked off the list.

√ Windows.

√ Roof.

Four hours was the length of time between the departure of roofers Carlos and Orlando and the arrival of Mark. It was an exceptionally brief bout of euphoria.

It was dark when Mark got home. He peered out the kitchen window into the lightwell.

“Did they tell you they were done?” Mark asked me.

“Yeah. They left around 4:30.”

“Oh, really. And they definitely said they were done?”

I knew trouble was brewing. I told him that—yes—they were definitely done, and that in fact they stayed longer than they thought they would have to, and were bummed to be joining Friday afternoon Bay Bridge traffic.

“They were bummed,” Mark echoed. “They. Who’s they? Who worked on the stucco?”

I told him that I didn’t know, because in truth I avoided looking out the window at the workmen, even when I was in the kitchen a few feet away from where they were spading globs of wet stucco onto the metal netting. It’s too weird watching someone through a window at that distance; it’s like you’re looking into a goldfish bowl. And the goldfish are REALLY BIG. And they’re eating sunflower seeds. And talking and laughing.

But I knew where the “who’s they” line of questioning was going, and it wasn’t good.

“I can’t believe you were standing in the kitchen and you don’t know who did the stucco.” Mark said.

I don’t want to say that he said this accusingly. But he did. He said it accusingly. And I felt appropriately chastised: guilty as charged. Even though I wasn’t sure who worked on the stucco, I was reasonably sure that the roofing guys did the stucco themselves, that the special super-duper stucco specialist had not been called in to complete the job. We had been promised the super-duper stucco guy, and like Lady Elaine Fairchild, the stucco-man had turned out to be part of the Land of Make Believe.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I knew in my heart of hearts that Carlos and Orlando did the stucco. And that “Carlos and Orlando” was not the right answer to Mark’s stucco question.

“And you don’t see anything wrong with it?”

“The stucco, you mean?”

“Yes! The stucco. What do you think I’m talking about?”

Stucco, as it turns out, is not so simple to do. Lots of people think they know how to stucco a house, to smooth it and create a texture so it blends with the rest of the wall. So that it sticks to places where it’s supposed to and doesn’t sag at the bottom or stick out at the edges.

I think it’s safe to say that stucco is an art.

It’s about as difficult to do an aesthetic stucco job as it is to get 6-pack abs.

Our stucco, unfortunately, looked flabby, out-of-shape. And its complexion didn’t look so hot either. The edges were ragged and messy. It looked bad, and although I didn’t say anything, I also knew that the only way to fix it was to knock it all out and do it again. All over again.

Stucco is an art AND a science. And as nice and careful and competent as Carlos and Orlando were, they were not stucco guys.

Indeed, when I told my colleague Michael this story, he said, “you should listen to Danette go on about stucco. She is certain that it is stucco destroying America (™), not gay marriage or flag burning...”

So Mark is not the only one; he has company. I have enormous respect for Danette. She works for NASA; I think she might even be an astronaut. And if she says that bad stucco is destroying America, I will take her at her word.

That was three weeks ago.

I think I’ve mentioned my other houseplants before. I’m sure I have. What’d I put the count at, 37? Something like that. There may even be more; I try not to maintain an accurate count.

Since the lightwell is the view out the kitchen window—and since I stare out the kitchen window while I’m doing the dishes—before we had the roof done, the lightwell was home to even more houseplants. I thought it’d be nice to stare out at the hardier of my houseplants when I looked out the window.

Those hardy houseplants were not counted as part of the 37.

Carlos and Orlando moved some of them, the giant pots of mint and horsetails and the giant fern, out to the back of the house.

I hesitate to tell you what I did with the others, the 5 pots of succulents, the 2 cymbidiums, the large, top-heavy cactus, the date palm, the sago palm, a Lyman fern, a small pot of horsetails, and a smallish pot of great spiral rushes (aka “curly grass”). They all looked pretty healthy and happy (except the ragged spots where something had evidently tried to eat them).

So… I brought them into the house. Thirteen more houseplants. Mark covered the guest room floor downstairs with a big sheet of plastic that the window guys had left behind.

Although I didn’t really have any place to put them, thirteen more houseplants didn’t exactly seem problematic. Ah, what’s a dozen or so more houseplants anyway?

I’m not sure how those slugs got up onto the roof.

How would a slug get onto the roof?

How could a slug get onto the roof? Are these special flying slugs?

There are flying squirrels. There are flying fish. There are flying cockroaches, even. Mammals, fish, hard-shelled invertebrates (inverts, as someone I know used to call them. Inverts). You see where I’m going with this. These are special, super-duper flying slugs.

I didn’t know there were slugs living in the pots until I watered them. Around a week after I brought the plants inside, they commenced to look dry. Mighty dry. If we were going to wait until the stucco was redone—and I could tell we were—there was absolutely no sense in moving the plants back out onto the lightwell. And they weren’t going to stay alive unless I watered them before I put them back out there.

So I poured a cupful of water on each of the succulents and on the palms and ferns and on the cymbidiums and on the pot of curly grass. “Drink up, guys,” I said. I convinced myself that they looked pleased and well-nourished. Beads of water sparkled where the succulents’ leaves converged into little cups. Water drained into the plastic catch-pans underneath the plants. “Lookin’ good,” I told the roomful of plants and gave them the thumbs-up as I left.

The next time I went downstairs, I realized to my horror that there was a good reason why the cactus had scars and the cymbidium flowers looked so tattered. A REALLY GOOD REASON.

“Ewwwww!” I said, perhaps louder than was necessary. “Ewwwww!” But was involuntary.

I realize that slugs don’t bite, don’t sting, and they’re a great deal smaller than I am. They’re not that menacing. I was in no particular danger. But—ewwwww—they’re gross. Snails at least have the great good sense to wear some kind of outer garments.

Should I have bought the slugs some kind of Ghillie suits? You know, just for aesthetic reasons. Kind of like the stucco—they might look better. For those of you unfamiliar with this type of outdoor wear, a Ghillie suit is an outer garment that Jon Foote alerted me to not long ago—it’s kind of like wearing bad shag carpeting or rolling in pond scum. It’s something that hunters wear to amuse their prey to death. No kidding. The forest animals literally laugh themselves to death.

If I put little Ghillie suits on the slugs, they’d at least be cuddly. They’d still be a nuisance, but they’d be more like squirrels, and less like slimy inverts.

Little furry flying slugs.

It’s an idea.

I couldn’t bear to just squish them. I’ve never been very good at squashing insects. Even when our apartment in Pasadena was overrun by giant cockroaches, I couldn’t squish ‘em. The best I could manage was to dissolve one using Dow Bathroom Cleaner with Scrubbing Bubbles. If you spray that napalm-like cleaning product on a cockroach, it turns the bug into a brown puddle, which can then be swept down the drain with a blast of water.

I know it might be inadvertently interpreted as Buddhist, but I just can’t spray chemicals on bugs any more.

So what should I do with the infestation of slugs?

Believe it or not, we’ve had an indoor slug infestation before. When we lived in Mountain View, in an apartment we lovingly referred to as “the cave”, slugs—big ones—would come in under the dishwasher during the night. You’d turn on the kitchen light, and instead of cockroaches scattering, a giant slick and slimy (fat and sassy) slug would continue its steady march across the kitchen, undeterred by the startling flood of fluorescent light (“Does this light make my complexion look bad?” I thought I heard one ask).

In the morning, we’d find fresh slug trails sparkling across the brown shag carpeting and up the back of the couch. Thank god we hid the TV remote.

That time, I dealt with the slugs with a determined course of benign neglect. That’s right: I just ignored them. Occasionally, I’d find a desiccated slug nestled in the carpeting, a victim of a bad sense of direction. But usually, they made it back out to wherever they were actually going without further notice.

This time, benign neglect made less sense.

And besides, our housecleaner just gave me a new cymbidium; its flowers were pristine and beautiful. I owed it to him to try to protect the cymbidium flowers from the mucusoid invaders.

There were a lot of slugs. Not just two or three. A lot. Every time I saw some and donned a rubber glove to bring them outside, when I came back, there’d be a few more waiting for me.

Technically, I don’t think they were actually waiting for me. They were just sliming across the giant sheet of plastic, doing important slug things. Things I really wouldn’t understand. They were on the march. Going somewhere with a great sense of purpose, slug-antennae outstretched. Were they going to the movies? Trying to find a wireless connection? Looking for 4 bars of connectivity on their slug cell phones? Doing slug aerobics?

Who knows why slugs do the things they do.

All I knew is that I didn’t want them to do those things indoors. I wanted them to fly back to the roof.

Be gone, slugs! Fly away, fly away home! Get on the Google bus and join your slug counterparts in our old apartment in Mountain View! Just forgodssakes don’t stay here.


13+37=50. Thirteen lightwell plants plus 37 indoor plants. That’d be 50 plants. 50!

Fifty plants are enough that I thought nothing of adopting Margaret’s plants last week so I could take care of them on this side of the bay while she was out-of-town. Houseplants are kind of like kittens. If you have enough of them, they’ll entertain each other; you can let your Netflix subscription lapse and they won’t even mind.

So I went to Berkeley last Sunday night and picked up about a dozen more houseplants. A miniature ficus tree. A Christmas cactus. A cluster of epiphytes, several in bloom. More cymbidiums. A philodendron-ish plant. And several rather large and healthy-looking cacti.

Note to self: Why do you wear gloves to pick up slugs and not to pick up cacti? Why?

Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.

I drove across the Bay Bridge late Sunday night, the back of my car full of plants, and the back of my hand full of tiny, painful cactus spines. Cacti with big fierce spines are almost safer than those innocent furry-looking cacti that leave you with a carpet of pain when you brush up against them. At least my mouth wasn’t full of the taboo frisson of raw pork, as it was during another recent drive across the bridge.

While I don’t have 70 houseplants yet, I’m close. What I’m thinking is I should teach them—or the slugs, or perhaps even the cat—how to stucco. I know it’s hard, but it seems like a skill that’s worthwhile cultivating. Local expertise.

Because frankly, I feel guilty about fussing to the roofer about the stucco, even though I know that we’re perfectly within our rights to do so.

The other day, our roofer—a soft-spoken guy named David—came out to talk about the job.

“So tell me exactly what you think is wrong with the stucco,” he says to me. “I can’t see it.”

Can he really not see it? I start feeling silly.

“You know, it’s where it blends with the stucco on the house. See. It sticks up.”

“Sticks up?” David says. “What do you mean?”

Is this a trick, or is he really not seeing that the new stucco is as lumpy as oatmeal where it meets the old stucco? After all, I didn’t notice the problem myself for those four pleasant hours between the workmen’s departure and Mark’s scrutiny, although I was trying not to look.

“Um. You know. It doesn’t blend. We’re afraid that when we paint it, it will look even worse.” I am bluffing, but I do now see how the edge is wrong. We had other stucco work done recently, and I know what it should look like. Besides, over the last few weeks, the stucco has cracked in several places, and has begun to look like the Wilkins ice shelf under the effects of global warming. And I have had a chance to get a good close look at the job; it is at least inelegant if not wholly unacceptable.

I’ve come around to Mark’s dissatisfaction, although not his anger.

Still I feel sheepish. I tell David, “Let’s go out there and look, okay?” I don’t know why I’ve suggested this—if it’s something you can only see up close, it certainly doesn’t argue for a re-do. I can see what there is to see from where we are standing, at the kitchen window.

Yet we crawl out the kitchen window onto the lightwell, both of us. I run my hands over the edge of the offending stucco. “See?” I ask David.

“I’m afraid I don’t,” he tells me.

I try to rationalize this. Perhaps roofers are so used to working outside of aesthetic concerns that they don’t notice anomalies in the stucco work: after all, who goes poking around up on their roof to see if it all looks nice? What you’re supposed to care about is function: does the roof keep the wet stuff (rain and flying slugs) out and dry stuff (the furniture and Toto) in? And I saw the lightwell before they re-stuccoed. It looked like a giant tar bathtub, which is just how you’d want it to look.

Does he really not see it? I think he doesn’t.

But he humors me: “I’ll have my stucco guy come out and take a look. He’ll be able to tell us for sure.”

The magic stucco guy! I’m completely mollified, although Mark is still too angry to participate.

“He doesn’t see it?” Mark rages. “He doesn’t see it? How can he not see it?” And he goes on to tell me that he thinks David might be putting me on, that he must see it. That he’s just trying to manipulate me into accepting the substandard job.

I’m convinced he doesn’t see it, Pollyanna that I am. And I’m convinced that slugs fly and that somewhere in America, people go hunting dressed up like giant moss bogs.

The stucco guy is tactful, but I can see that he’s with Danette and Mark on this one. He says to David, “No offense to your guys, but I think we’re going to have to do this over.”

David grimaces, but maintains professional cool. I almost wish Mark were out there with us; I’m sure he would applaud. But he is still hiding in the guest room, amid the jungle of houseplants, native and temporary, with the few slugs who have been successful in taking cover. Even after a several-week cooling off period, he is afraid his anger will erupt in an unseemly outburst.

I sigh in relief. Even though it means another day of noise, Mark will be happy and I will be through with these awkward explanations.

And sometime, in the far distant future, the lightwell will be re-stuccoed and repainted and I will be able to put a dozen stray houseplants out there, leftover slugs and all.

Thank god roofs last for 20 years.