Incompetence as Comedy: or, American Airlines Flight 82 from Auckland

The travel industry has a bad reputation in general. It has this reputation because it deserves it. Take, for example, our recent attempt at leaving Auckland, New Zealand on a flight to Los Angeles (Flight number AA82).

You all know what it’s like to fly somewhere: wait in a line here, another line there, have your passport inspected, your face scrutinized, and if you’re lucky, you’re patted down and felt up and herded around like a bunch of sheep for a few hours before finally getting to the gate, where you’re left to sit on some of the most uncomfortable chairs you’ve ever seen. Oh, and you do all this while carrying a toddler and your bag that felt quite light the day before when you packed it, but now feels like it weighs about ten tons.

Well, we made it through all the indignities of airports without losing our dignity, and settled in to our uncomfortable seats with all our baggage strewn around us at about 1:30 pm, an hour before the plane was scheduled to board at 2:25 pm.

A portly British man wearing a bow tie (or papillon as he called it) and a large tag around his neck that loudly proclaimed “Press Pass” sat down across from us. He boasted some about his experience flying, the fact that he was flying business class, and that he’d been upgraded twice because of his press pass (the only reason he wore it as he was mainly retired).

“What language is he speaking?” he queried, pointing at JQ.

“Toddler,” I said.

Not sure where he lived all his life to never hear a toddler speaking, but he was certain he knew a lot about flying.

As the scheduled boarding time got closer, the boarding area started to fill up. People were doing exercises, taking naps, and generally preparing for a long intercontinental flight.

2:25 p.m. came and went, with no signs of boarding or of anything else happening other than the usual passenger paging over the intercom. Mr. Hoping-for-an-upgrade assured us that the airline was probably just waiting for a few important passengers or perhaps a large group, and that we would be sure to board soon.

Then, at 3:00, they finally made an announcement. “We regret to inform you that American Airlines Flight 82 has been delayed due to mechanical engineering difficulties. We will inform you of our progress in 45 minutes.” Everyone rolled their eyes; JQ demanded to be taken back to the vending machines to “Beep beep” them, and, of course, Mr. Hoping-for-an-upgrade pointed out the pilot and copilot in the cockpit. “You see,” he said, “if anything were seriously wrong with the airplane, the pilot wouldn’t be on board playing cards!”

Alas, Mr. Hoping-for-an-upgrade was wrong. Fifteen minutes later, American Airlines sent emails and text messages to all the passengers, alerting them that the flight was canceled. Of course, the people at the desk made no announcement until thirty minutes after that, just to keep everyone in suspense. Or perhaps they didn’t even know themselves!

Then the announcement came: “We regret to inform you that American Airlines flight 82 to Los Angeles has been canceled due to mechanical difficulties. Your baggage will be found at bag claim five. Please go to the arrivals area and pick up your bags, then go American Airlines check-in at departure area D to rebook a flight and be given a lodging voucher. Also, make sure to return any duty-free items you may have purchased.”

And that was it. That was all the instructions we were given for what to do now that we had no flight to go on.

So we all got up, picked up all our luggage, and began the arduous journey back through the terminal, trying to figure out how to get to arrivals from the departure area (spoiler alert: you can’t). Groups of twenty or thirty people stood around looking confused, while one man wandered around asking everyone in sight, “Do you know how to get to customs?”

After trudging nearly halfway back, we spotted an airport help desk, who pointed back where we came from and said, “Oh, arrivals is just down the stairs over that way.” Back we trudged—only to find all the stairs we knew about only went up! After a lot more back and forth, we learned that actually, passengers from the canceled flight needed to go back to their gate so they could be funneled into arrivals. So we went back yet again.

By now, it was nearly 4:30 and all we had accomplished with our lives in this time was standing in queues and walking through hallways. Surely humans were meant for greater things than this?

After some more queueing and more walking through hallways and through the arrivals area (which we saw when we first actually arrived in Auckland), we arrived at passport control. To add to the pointlessness of this entire endeavor, we had to fill out an arrivals form, to give them very important information about what it’s like to sit at the gate in their airport for a few hours. “Where are you arriving from?” the form questioned. “Have you been hiking anywhere?” “Do you have any fruits?” “How long are you planning to stay in New Zealand?” “What is your address here?” All these questions in their varying iterations put JQ right to sleep.

Untitled After passport control, where they carefully examined our faces to make sure they still matched our passports, it was off to more walking through hallways and standing in queues (now with a sleeping baby in arms) to pick up our baggage. On the bright side, we all finally found bag claim 5. And our baggage was actually on it, which seemed to be the one feat that American Airlines could pull off. The customs officer questioned us closely again: “Did you buy any fruit while you were in the departure terminal?” Apparently the departure terminal of the Auckland airport is no longer New Zealand and the fruit there will contaminate ALL THE CROPS and they will all DIE! Or maybe he just had to ask—because when we replied in the negative, he let us just walk through and not put our baggage through the x-ray machines (which would entail—you guessed it!—more standing in queues).

After all that, it was 5:00, and we finally made it to check-in counter D for American Airlines—with about four hundred other people, all in the same position we were in. More queueing entailed, and Jared used the last 16% of battery on his phone to call the number on the little ticket they gave us. So we got a flight rebooked for the next evening, which would get us to Oregon a hair’s breadth before a very important person’s wedding.

Now just remained the knotty little problem of where we would stay. If our phones had worked (mine had no data, and Jared’s no battery), we might have just sucked up the cost and called the Airbnb we had stayed at the whole week. As it was, we stayed in the queue to try to find some lodging for the night. We waited…and waited…and waited…and then JQ, who had napped about thirty minutes and was starting to get hungry, started screaming, “Mommy, go out! Mommy, I go out!” It was a lightbulb moment for the staff, who hurriedly came and escorted us up front. “Oh, you have a child! Come wait up here and we’ll be with you in just a minute.” Everyone around us looked a little jealous, and a couple people jokingly called out, “Wait, I’m his sister! I’m the auntie!” Moral of the story: definitely try to travel with a two-year-old if possible.

But! The story’s still not over. We were given the name of our hotel—which was in Hamilton, two hours away from Auckland (the hotels in Auckland were all completely booked)—and told to go out door two, where a bus would be waiting for us. So we went and waited with the bus. The bus driver had a bad back and was a little out of shape, so Jared helped him load everyone’s luggage. And then we waited some more while I fed JQ all the snacks I had packed for the airplane. We waited an hour—the bus driver said he was waiting for confirmation—but in the end his bus was full, and he decided to just go. It was a lovely little drive through New Zealand’s farmland: the sun glinted off of rivers and mountains, green fields with cows pastorally grazing, and Maori cemeteries. Untitled

When we got to Hamilton (New Zealand’s fourth largest city, apparently), a new comedy of errors began. The forty people on the bus were in about eight different hotels, all in different parts of town. The bus driver wasn’t quite sure where all of them were and kept stopping to look them up on his map.

When we finally got to our hotel—called the Quest—we were dropped off with about 8 other people, including a little old lady and gentleman (in their seventies, or so) who had three or four large suitcases. It was well after 8:00 p.m. at this time, and there was a sign on the door of the hotel saying that hotel reception closed at 7 p.m. Somehow someone opened the door and everyone crowded into the small reception area, where there were four envelopes waiting with the names of those who had reservations. Two of the envelopes had correct names and room sizes on them, but one of them had been booked and was a single room for a French couple, and the other was for a name that nobody in our group had. So out of 8 people, there were rooms for four (as two of the rooms were single rooms). We tried calling the hotel management, but they were just as confused as everyone else—except they did mention that more rooms had been booked at their branch two blocks away—Quest on Ward. So eventually Jared made the executive decision that the couple in their 70s should just take the room that was under someone else’s name, and we and the French couple set off for the next hotel—walking, of course, as our bus had long since departed.

When we got to Quest on Ward, of course their reception was also closed and the door locked. We tried their intercom to get someone to open the door for us. The first time we called, a lady answered who said she couldn’t hear at all; eventually she hung up. Then someone else answered and said the same thing: “Your connection is terrible!” After about seven tries, we gave up on the intercom and called the number given. Just as we were finally getting someone to understand what we needed, a hotel resident came by and let us in. Once in, we discovered only one room had been reserved—and with us and the French couple, we needed two. So Jared called up the manager and asked what was going on, and he said he would be by shortly. In the end—apparently the manager had his own idea of “short”—the French couple wandered off and were never heard from again!

So—six hours after we learned our flight was canceled, we finally made it to a room and were able to rest. In the morning, the manager said that American Airlines hadn’t told him how many people were coming and had just sent random people an hour and a half away without booking them any rooms. There were still other, minor problems once we were in possession of our room, like our food allowance only being usable if we charged it to the hotel, ate at a select list of restaurants, and subtracted the 10% commission the hotel wanted, even though American Airlines staff insisted the hotel wasn’t entitled to any commission!

Was it all inevitable? After all, American Airlines didn’t know their plane would encounter a mechanical error, and surely it’s better to have a day of delay and queuing than to swim with the “baby sharks” (as JQ calls them) in the big blue Pacific? Jared, who happens to have helped edit a book on emergency response (which you could read, but it’s rather boring) says absolutely not. The basic planks of emergency management, he says, are prevent, prepare, respond, and recover. The first, obviously, is about stopping something bad from happening; the second is about planning what to do when something bad happens; the third is about enacting your plan and improvising when something happens; and the fourth is about restoring capacity and rebuilding systems even better after a disaster. American Airlines, we surmise, had invested almost everything in prevention—fixing the plane, which was rumored to have been on the ground since earlier that morning—and ignored preparation (which, this being one of the weeks of Chinese Spring Festival, was extra important). The result was a botched response, with the agents even unclear about how we were supposed to get to baggage claim, and the comedy of incompetence thereafter. One would think that a major international airline would have some sort of system in place for communicating with passengers and service providers like hotels, but apparently Auckland Airport’s American Airlines didn’t think it was worth their while. The problem, it seemed to us, was not simply that the person in charge didn’t know what they were doing, but that there was nobody in charge!

Resilience means being prepared for disasters, which are statistically inevitable: bad things, no matter what, will eventually happen. And when they do, laughing is always a healthier response to yelling or crying. If you make the wedding, that is—or maybe even if you don’t!

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How Long Does it Take to Cook a Mushroom?

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We stayed last night at a beautiful caravan park with a lovely river, the loudest birds ever, and the best camp kitchen we’ve come across in our travels. Usually, “camp kitchens” will include a roof and two things Aussies call “barbecues” which resemble an actual barbecue in nothing except that they use propane gas to heat them. However, THIS kitchen had two real barbecues—the kind that will actually put char marks on your food and put out a decent amount of heat.

Yes, you read that right. I’m actually excited that something designed to cook gets hot. Does life get any better than this? While our campervan is cozy and cute and has its own sink and refrigerator and gas stovetop, the person who designed the stovetop must have been someone who never cooked, because this flame struggles to even boil a cup of water within less than twenty minutes. And forget overcrowding the pan. If you put more than four mushroom slices in a skillet over this flame, they turn into nice little bundles of mushroom boiling in water—and never get past that stage.

On top of winning the award for slowest cooking, it also has to be coddled to even stay on. It lights easily enough: just a click of the lighter will get it going. But you then have to remove your hand from the knob ever so gently, like it’s a sleeping baby you’ve just laid down. If you do it wrong or go too fast, the baby will cry—or in this case, the flame will go out—poof! And then you have to start the process all over again. When it’s being especially infuriating, it makes you hold the knob down with one hand while doing everything else you need to do with the other hand until your four mushrooms are a nice brown and it’s time to put the next four in. At least, being in a campervan, the kitchen is small enough you can grab an onion, find a knife, rummage through the fridge, and help JQ “cook piece bread” without ever letting go of the knob.

So yesterday, we used the barbecue and had some grilled hamburgers, onions, and mushrooms. And the best part was, I could even use both hands.

Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef: A Play in One Act

The setting is a boat in the Coral Ocean, about 3 hours off the coast of Cairns, Australia.

Characters:

JQ: a two-year-old boy who has blonde hair and a distinct penchant for doing everything himself. “I do” is his favorite phrase.

JARED: a determined PhD student; becomes very concerned about wasting time if he takes more than a half hour doing anything besides reading; friendly, personable, adventurous. Looks at the moment like he’s survived a year in the wilderness with a wild beard and fluffy curls down to his shoulders.

ANNIKA: A harried mother; quiet; hasn’t much of her own to contribute. Very devoted to JQ and JARED

RUBY: an Irish girl out traveling Australia before going back to the confines of university in Ireland

A HIPPIE AMERICAN COUPLE: complete with unshaven legs and armpits, long hair, and an endearing idealism

TWO DANISH GIRLS: who, despite being beach volleyball professionals, promptly become seasick and look like death; they say nothing, only uttering a few groans here and there.

THE BOAT CREW

Random SNORKELERS

SCENE I: The Edge of the Boat

Untitled JQ: I see baby dark, Mommy!

ANNIKA: Yes, let’s go see baby shark!

They make their way out of the boat to where enthusiastic snorkelers are putting on their masks and flinging themselves into the sea to look at the corals and fishes. Paddling around with their red life-jackets and colorful pool noodles, they look like a swarm of enthusiastic puppies let out for the day to see some sights.  

JQ: chatters enthusiastically I see baby dark, Mama! I swim, Mama! I see baby dark, Mama!

ANNIKA: Yes, baby, let’s get ready! Can you put your mask on?

JQ: I dit, Mama! Sitting at the edge of the boat, with their feet dangling off, they prepare to go snorkeling  

ANNIKA: Ok, JQ, let’s put your mask on.

JQ: gets clingy No mask. Pushes it away and howls

ANNIKA: Do you want to see baby shark?

JQ: No baby dark!

ANNIKA: Do you want to swim?

JQ: No swim!

BOAT CREWPERSON: to JQ Can I help you put your mask on?

JQ: No mask! Clings to ANNIKA and wails loudly.  Sighing, ANNIKA gets up and EXITS with JQ

 SCENE II: After Diving

On the boat. Random snorkelers are coming back up, finished with their outing for the day. ANNIKA and JQ are waiting, and then JARED enters. Untitled

JARED: Scuba diving was intense! That was the scariest thing I’ve ever done!

ANNIKA: What, really? But I thought you liked adventurous things

JARED: Yes! If something goes wrong, you can’t just swim back to the surface or you’ll destroy your ears. Plus, they made me go underwater like 15 minutes before everyone else was ready so I was just waiting there wondering if they’d forgotten about me.

ANNIKA: But were you able to see the coral and the fish?

RUBY (the Irish Girl), butting in: I saw, like, some huge clams. They were about the size of a dinner plate. Oh, and there were some really beautiful fish.

JARED: To be honest, I was more focused on not dying than on the fish.

ANNIKA: So, you won’t be going back?

JARED: Snorkeling is so much more fun, and you don’t feel like you’re going to die.

ANNIKA: Well, I do, but I just have to remember to breathe and then it’s not so bad.

JARED: Yes, but you’re at the top of the water already, not stuck underneath it!

SCENE III: The Way Home

Everyone is exhausted from their full day of seasickness and happy-puppy snorkeling. Sitting on the top deck of the boat, people begin to talk.

 JARED: (to EAGER HIPPIE MALE) So, where are you from?

EHM: Oh, we’re from the US.

JARED: Oh really, where?

EAGER HIPPIE FEMALE: Florida, actually. Have you heard of St. Petersburg? It’s kinda cool and artsy. Where are you all from?

ANNIKA: Well, I’m from Colorado and he’s from Oregon.

EHF: Oh, Colorado. We loved Boulder. It’s a great little town.

JARED: So what are you doing in Australia?

EHF: Well, we were getting a little tired of provincial American life and wanted to learn more about the world. So we’re taking a year to travel around and see the world.

ANNIKA: Oh, really? So what have you seen so far?

EHF: (giggles a little) Well, we’ve actually been traveling for six months already. We started in Hawaii…I know it’s still America, but it’s different enough.

EHM: And then we came to Australia. We’ve been living on this farm in Australia free of charge—we just had to do some work on the farm, y’know, and they’d let us stay.

EHF: So, when we finish in Australia, we’re going to go to Bali, and then if we have time, we want to see Cambodia, Vietnam, maybe Thailand….

EAGER HIPPIE MALE: Y’know, I just really want to help people. There’s so many people out there, like, y’know, in pain, or in need of money, or stuff, or advice. I want to help them all.

Gradually, people fall asleep or stop talking: Eager Hippies embrace, having previously snogged to their hearts’ content, and fall asleep with his head on her shoulder. The boat becomes quiet as, exhausted from their day of swimming, people wait to get home.

Seven Quick Takes

  1. We finally got wifi this month, after a month of frustrating bureaucracy, and it’s been really nice to feel somewhat connected again and be able to work. I’ve got to admit it’s also nice to be able to watch a movie without finding it in advance and downloading it too (I know, spoiled millennial here!). Netflix here has most cartoons dubbed in Chinese too so occasionally we let JQ watch one for 5-10 minutes in the hopes that he’ll pick up on some Chinese. Easy bilingualism, right? wouldn’t necessarily learn Chinese in five minutes three times a week, but kids’ brains are supposed to be porous so I’m sure he’ll get it in no time.

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    He thinks so too, and is wearing Chinese
  2. Of course, it should help that JQ has started getting babysat for three hours a day, five days a week, while I teach. We’ve asked his babysitter to speak Chinese around him so he’ll pick up on it–but it’s still a little early to tell whether it’s working yet as his go-to word is still “Maamaa” in various forms. He seems to be enjoying it (as in, not screaming the entire time), though he has been a little more clingy when he’s at home. Hopefully it won’t take him too long to adjust.
  3. It’s been interesting living in a basically bilingual country. Kids on the playground switch between English and Chinese without thinking; they study both in school and probably hear both at home. It does lead to some rather thick accents (it’s really hard to figure out what people are saying!), and their English is definitely colored by Chinese-isms (like using “lah” at the end of every sentence). It also makes for some humorous moments, like when the Singaporean man at Bible study gravely started explaining the spirit of peas (he meant peace) and how it could only be explained by the love of the cross.
  4. I haven’t taken any pictures recently because we haven’t really gone anywhere in the last few weeks, but I still have some neat pictures of downtown Singapore that I haven’t shared here.
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    This is the piano that Lang Lang played on….maybe on a visit to Singapore? I’m a bit fuzzy on the details, but it got its own exhibit. Shiny, huh?
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  5. I’m finally figuring out grocery shopping/cooking here and remembering how to cook without an oven. We got spoiled by having an oven in England! Now it’s back to stovetop and toaster oven cooking, although the previous residents of our flat left us their rice cooker, so I’ve been experimenting with one-pot meals to the tune of–chopping up ginger, garlic, and yellow ginger (turmeric), throwing in rice cooker with rice and water and any other vegetables I feel like, putting a fish on top, and cooking away. Jared loves it and it’s awfully easy, though rather uninspired. It also stains my fingers and cutting board a bright yellow so I look somewhat jaundiced on my left hand.
  6. We got our boxes yesterday! So nice to unpack all the things we packed up in England–just like sending a present to ourselves to open in six months. Untitled Now we have a couple pictures to put on our walls and more stuff to clutter up the house with, like books..and…well…more books. UntitledAnd we still have most of our books packed in boxes in the U.S. When we finally move back, I’m not sure I’ll even know how to deal with multiple (as in, ten or so) shelves full of books any more–I’m already envying my future self.
  7. Around where we live, there’s very few white people, so JQ’s hair and skin draw lots of looks and admiring comments. They’ve also prompted several old men to start conversations: “Where you from? You American?”

“Yes, we’re American,” I reply.

“What you think ’bout Trump?  How could so many Americans vote for him?”

“Well, it was a hard election,” I say, evading the question. “Neither candidate was exactly great.”

“Well, I think Bill Clinton’s wife should have won. She’s much more experienced!”

And delivering this zinger, he walked away. Many Singaporeans feel compelled to state their opinions on American politics, and they all think I should have something to do with changing them. Sorry, but democracy doesn’t actually work that way.

Linking up with This Ain’t the Lyceum!

Will There Be Stories in Heaven?

Humans love stories. And all the best stories have something in common: a conflict that’s central to the story, ending with a resolution. Whether it’s the common trope of a secret agent saving the world from the machinations of a criminal mastermind, or a person coming to terms with who they are, or a detective finding out who committed a crime, all of the best stories involve some kind of conflict that is resolved. Story is even central to Christianity—a story of sin, loss, and death culminating in the final solution: redemption and heaven.  Stories like this resonate with us, make us long for our own resolution and redemption, remind us that not all of life is in the conflict.

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And in a way, it seems that’s what life on earth is all about. Falling, fighting, failing, learning, and going on again as each new challenge is passed and redeemed. Life is not a static progression of good things continuing to happen to good people. Whether it’s a tough job, a bad marriage, a broken family, or all the other things that happen in life, we each have our own struggles.  And life is marked by these struggles. We feel stronger when we’ve resolved an issue, fought through the bad times, kept going.

Of course, things don’t always turn out well in our stories. Sometimes we keep fighting, only to see no change. Sometimes people give up and commit suicide. Sometimes our problems are irreversible, like infertility or health problems or the pain of a severed relationship. But always, always, there’s a conflict. There’s never been a person yet who’s lived a conflict-free life.

But it makes me wonder—will our stories matter in heaven? In heaven, we’re told that all our tears will be wiped away. There will be no more sorrow, no more pain. There will be only joy. Our stories will be neatly divided into a dichotomy—on one side, heaven, is the resolution and the peace and the joy, and on the other side, hell, is the conflict and the pain and the brokenness.

Will a story made up only of the good things mean anything? From my limited perspective, humanity longs to hear stories about terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days, not wonderful, amazing, fantastic, perfect days. There’s a reason fairy tales end with living happily ever after—no one wants to read about what happens when the dragons are killed and the prince and princess are married. It’s enough to know they’re happy.

In the story of Christianity, heaven is the resolution, the happily ever after. This life is short, fleeting, ephemeral. Yes, there’s conflict and pain and sorrow, but that’s not the final answer. The sun shines after the rain; joy comes in the morning. But once we have our final answer—will we remember the conflict leading up to the joy? Will our pain and struggle count for something? Will there be stories in heaven?

Customs of the Chinese Post

By far, one of the more laughable things about living in China is the postal system. People tootle around in little bicycle trucks with China Post or EMS or Amazon on the sides, delivering packages and letters to their destinations. Once they get there, they call your phone and you go collect your package. It’s really rather a smart system, for things within China. For things coming outside of China, though, they don’t do so well. The number of packages and letters that they’ve lost for us amounts to nearly half of the packages and letters that have been sent here. Maybe they like the poor Americans to feel even lonelier amid their thousands of people. Or maybe we just don’t know enough Chinese to get our address right.

The latest edition in the silliness of Chinese Customs, however, was just recently. My parents sent a small box a couple days ago (full of stuff that I’m too much of a cheapskate to buy, like clothes–seriously, everything nice here I’ve seen has cost around 600-800 RMB. No thanks!), and FedEx customs wanted to know every detail. Could I send them my passport? Done. Could I fill out a form with my name and address and passport number, signing away my rights to inspect the package? Done. Could I tell them, in minute detail, what the contents of the package were? Not really. But I tried, using my stereoscopic X-ray vision that can zoom in on a package I’ve never seen that’s somewhere in the middle of Beijing and determine what EXACTLY was put into it back in America. I’m cool like that.

Actually, I just made it up, based on my rudimentary knowledge of what I was expecting to see in the package. So Mom, you better not have stashed anything illegal in it. May I suggest, oh dearest of dear Customs people, that you think up a slightly smarter system for finding out what’s in people’s packages? Like, I don’t know, maybe asking the person who PACKED the package, instead of the recipient? Except they do that too. Maybe they like playing mind games with people.

Other than spending time obsessing over when (or if) I will get a letter or a package or some reminder that I haven’t fallen off the face of the earth and become one of your dear departed, I’ve just been up to the usual craziness. Eight classes. Midterms. Biking. And taking pictures of spring flowers, with which I will leave you:

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The Deadliest Sourdough of Them All

We called it The Smell. A creeping odor, invading corners, pipes, cupboards. Nowhere was safe from it—and where it crept, it stayed. We attempted to banish it, fumigating every hidy-hole we could find. It disappeared long enough for us to let out a sigh of relief—and then returned in force, until finally the odor was almost tangible.

It was all the sourdough’s fault, really. You’ve all heard of Paul Bunyan and his famous sourdough that made the Rocky Mountains. Well, his sourdough had nothin’ on ours—ours was that strong, but with a malignant twist to it. It was bent on taking over the world by every weapon at its disposal. The Smell was just one of them.

Healthy and happy, when my older sister remembered to feed it, the sourdough had been a noble organism. Many were the pancakes, coffee cakes, loaves of bread, and muffins that had been made with its beneficent yeasties and devoured by all of us. Then, it had seemed a helpful creature, willing to please, offering up of itself for the good of mankind.

But the day my 10-year-old brother, Slen, came running in, a shocked look on his face and arms flailing (after we had regretfully lain the sourdough to rest), I began to doubt its kind heart. “Brotherkins,” he said (that was how we always talked to each other), “Brotherkins, there’s a strange smelling mass in the backyard. . .and it’s eating up the flower bed!”

Needless to say, we all went without delay to see—my brothers coming out of the woodwork like names in a Russian novel. There it was, larger than life, causing each flower one by one to sway, creak, and slowly topple into the bubbling mass as its stem was eaten away. It was truly a horrific sight. I figure it must have eaten its way out of the two plastic sacks in which we had encased it and then eaten its way out of the trashcan.

My oldest brother, Theodore, twenty-three, spoke up first. “Friends, nobles, countrymen: lend me your ears!” Theodore is the literary one of the family—he always has his long thin nose in a book.

“Aw, cut out the Shakespeare,” I groaned. “This is a time of crisis here, and we need to act faster than a coon headin’ towards a field of just-ripened sweet corn.”

“Well, I have a plan,” he said.  “There’s a can of gas in the shed, and some matches in the house. If we pour the gas over it and then throw a lit match into the mix, there’s no way that sourdough could survive.”

Yeah, I thought, but can WE survive?  Theodore has a good head on his shoulders, but sometimes he’s a mite impractical. He needs someone close to him with good ol’ fashioned common sense—like yours truly.

So I gave him my (better) plan. “Instead of burning the house down, why don’t we just spray it with some bleach? That’ll disinfect it, get rid of The Smell, and kill whatever rogue organism is in that stuff.”

Everyone liked my plan better, so away we went—me to get the bleach, Theodore to get a shovel to clean up the remains. When we reconvened, the sourdough had eaten up at least half of the flower bed. It was time to act!

My younger brother Snah made his ponderous way to the laundry room. At fifteen, Snah was built like a prize-fighter and had the attitude of a gentle elephant. Right at the moment, however, I wished he’d hurry up. He was movin’ like a river runnin’ up a slope.

He eventually emerged, bleach in hand, and I got busy dousing the rapacious odoriferous insatiable sourdough. (Sorry ‘bout that there, folks—sometimes I get a mite carried away with my words—where was I?) We only had one bottle of bleach, so I had to use it sparingly on the ever-widening growth that had once been our flower bed, but as I poured, The Smell turned from its hideous shade of deathly brown to a light tan color. We all covered our ears and ran, since that there organism was emitting a deathly shriek—and growing even bigger!

“Well, pickle me tink!” I said.

“Would you like some milk to go with it?” asked my little brother Thor helpfully. Thor was only five, but he was nearly the greatest talker of the bunch.

“This is no time for foolery!” I told him fiercely—“If anyone’s going to be making jokes around here, it will be I—The BOSS!”

And while we sat shootin’ the breeze, The Smell had finished off the flowers and was beginning to eat the lawn.

Enter little brother Nat, thirteen years old and nearly as annoying as his namesake the gnat, careening around the lawn with an armful of something and shouting “Alert, alert—full alert!”

But just at that moment he tripped over a protruding paw of the sourdough—and his bagful of whatever it was spilled all over that creeping corpus. And without a further murmur, squeal, or scream, it gave up the ghost.

“Nat,” I said, “You’ve done it this time. You’ve saved us all from The Smell, and you didn’t even mean to.”

“Aw, shucks,” he said. “It was easy. Just put a little salt on something like that and it quietens right down. Learned it in biology the other day about slugs.”